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Forewarned

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March 18

Afternoon

It's raining on the day that Nanako gets into the car with her dad, and rides with him down to the train station to pick up their house guest for the year. She'd forgotten her umbrella, too, and the rain is hard enough to make her shiver.

"I'm sorry, Nanako," he says, which is how he starts most of the things he says to her these days. "I didn't think it would be raining so hard."

"It's okay, Dad," Nanako says, which is how she always answers her apologies. It's always okay, because he's always so busy and worried that she doesn't want to make things worse for him. 

They stop at a stop sign, and he turns for a second to look at her, his eyebrows raised. "Nanako," he says.  "Are you sure? You sound--"

"I was just thinking," she says, all in a sudden rush. "He's really coming to stay with us for a whole year?"

"You know he is," her dad says, as he starts driving forward again. 

Nanako does know this. They'd spent a week getting the guest bedroom cleaned out and dusted (Nanako had done most of the dusting, because her dad had been too busy to help, but he'd moved all the heavy furniture, and taken out the junk they haven't touched in years). She knows that they wouldn't have bothered to do that unless their house guest was going to be there for a good long time.

She'd kind of hoped it wasn't too late to change their minds, though. She's kind of nervous about having a stranger in the room next door for a whole entire year.

"This is going to be good for you, you know," her dad says. "It'll be good for you to have someone else around the house."

Nanako thinks that this is probably the only reason he'd agreed to this in the first place, which makes her feel guilty. Has she been complaining too much? Asking for him to come home early from work too often? Is it her fault that there's going to be a stranger in the house, now?

"Are you sure he has some come home with us?" she asks.

Her dad smiles. Nanako does not. She's never met him before, and she's nervous that he's going to be like the boys at Kindergarten last year, who tease her because she doesn't have a mom to come walk her home anymore, because she has bento boxes from the store because her dad doesn't know how to cook. 

"It's only for a year," he tells her, and pulls the car into the train station parking lot. "Who knows? Maybe you'll even like him."

Nanako doesn't think she'll like sharing a house with an older boy who is also a stranger. What if she's mean? Or thinks she's just a dumb kid?

What if her dad likes him better than her? It's not like he spends that much time with her the way things are now, this might make things even worse.

But he keeps telling her things like that. Just give him a chance, try and be friends with him, maybe you'll like him more than you think...

She hops out of the car, sticking close behind her dad, head ducked low both out of shyness and because the rain is still coming down. It's even harder now than when they'd left the house, and Nanako really wishes she'd brought an umbrella.

"Come on, Nanako," her dad says, and she she dutifully follows him toward the small station. "We're running a little bit late, I'm sure he's waiting for us already."

They speed up a little, and soon the small, covered overhang next to the tracks comes into sight. Nanako peeks out from behind her dad and sees their guest, a huddled lump sitting on top of a suitcase almost as big as he is. He looks up when he hears their footsteps coming close, and his dark hair falls in front of his face. 

"Akira, isn't it?" Nanako's dad says, when they come close.

The boy--who Nanako knows from being told is five years older than her, but doesn't quite look like he's eleven--nods. He stands up, looking nervous, and that actually makes Nanako relax a little bit. After all, if he's that nervous, then they have something in common, right? "Yes, sir," he says.

"No need for that," Nanako's dad says with a little chuckle. "We're going to all be living together for the next year, right? I'm Ryotaro Dojima, this is my daughter Nanako." He reaches back to put his hands on Nanako's shoulders, and gently steers her out to stand in front of him. 

"Hello," Nanako says, barely whispering the word.

"Hello," he says, trying to smile. Then he looks back up at her dad. "What... should I call you, then?"

"Ah--" He obviously hasn't thought this through. "Dojima is fine, I guess."

Akira nods, and says, "Thank you very much for letting me stay with you this year."

"Well..." he waves the comment away, trying to seem casual. "Everything's all set up for you. Let's just get your things thrown in the back of the car."

He does most of the heavy lifting himself, with Akira trying to help and then being sent back to stand under the station awning with Nanako.

They look at each other for a second, and then away again. Akira seems as awkward about all this as Nanako, which for a second time makes her feel better about the whole thing. She also feels like it's probably a little bit her job to make him feel better. He is going to be their guest for the year, after all.

"Why did you want to come here?" she asks.

"I..." He doesn't meet her gaze. "I heard about the school program, and... it seemed like a good idea."

"Dad says no one else signed up," Nanako tells him. "And everyone at school says there's no one that wants to come to Inaba." She's never been more than half an hour away from Inaba herself, so she doesn't know what's so great about the rest of the world that everyone else wants to stay away. But apparently they do, which is why Inaba's government and a few other small towns in the area had set up a kind of scholarship and exchange program, where students could sign up to come spend a year in a small town, to learn about it and hopefully get younger people moving into town instead of out.

A lot of the adults seem to think this is a doomed idea. Since Akira is the only person that Nanako has heard of that actually signed up, she thinks they're probably right. It makes her wonder why Akira had wanted to come.

Akira flushes and stumbles over an answer, but doesn't actually manage to get a real answer out. It's like it's a secret, for some reason.

When he has half mumbled something that's too quiet for Nanako to hear, he changes the subject. "What about you?" he asks. "Or your dad, I guess. Why did he volunteer to host me?"

Nanako has to stop and think about this, and it distracts her for the moment from wondering why Akira had come. She doesn't know exactly why her dad, who usually doesn't usually make friends easily and hasn't talked to almost anyone since her mom died, had suddenly decided to just let someone new in. She tries to guess anyway.

"Well," she says. "He keeps telling me that he hopes we can be friends. He..." She scuffs her shoe against the curb. "I think... he thinks I'm lonely."

"Are you lonely?" Akira asks.

"Sometimes," Nanako admits. "My mom died. It's really hard to not have a mom."

Akira gives a quick little intake of breath, but before he can say anything at all, Nanako's dad comes back, without Akira's suitcase.

"Is that it?" he asks. "You don't have any other stuff?"

"That's it," Akira says.

"Are your parents sending the rest of it later, then?" 

Akira hesitates, and the silence between the group stretches out so awkwardly that even though Nanako doesn't understand it, she feels it. "Can we go home now, Dad?" she asks.

"Yes," he says, snapping out of the awkward way he'd been studying Akira. "Come on. It's not a long drive."

-//-

March 18

Evening

The tiny town of Inaba is pretty much exactly the way Akira had pictured it since the first time he saw the description on the application website. Dojima had said it wouldn't be a long drive back to the house, but from what Akira sees of the town as it flashes past the car window, it doesn't feel like it would take very long to drive anywhere at all. A lot of the shops they pass are closed, and plenty of houses are dark and empty. When they finally get to the neighborhood where it turns out the Dojima house is, Akira is relieved to find out that it's not as half empty and sad as some other parts of Inaba that they'd driven through. There are no vacant houses, like some of the other areas they'd driven through on the way here. There are a few middle aged women on the far end of the street chatting over a garden plot, and a small group of kids playing what looks like tag in one of the yards.

"This is it," Dojima says, pulling the car into the driveway by an unremarkable looking house in the middle of the street. "Home sweet home."

"Home sweet home," Akira echoes, a little more quietly. Dojima shoots a look in his direction, and Akira very quickly straightens up and wipes the glum expression off his face. He's been here for less than half an hour--the last thing he wants is to start making his new host suspicious already.

He follows Dojima into the house (this time hauling his own suitcase--it's not that heavy, and he's brought it this far already, he can manage a little farther), and up a short flight of stairs to a small landing, with three doors leading off it.

"This one's Nanako's room," Dojima says, rapping a knuckle against the door to the left. "Bathroom's straight ahead, and you're on the right." He squeezes past Akira to open the door on the right, letting him see a glimpse of a small room holding a futon, a couch, a low table and a small TV. "My room's right underneath you on the ground floor. If you start making trouble up here, I will hear it."

"I'm not planning to make trouble," Akira assures him quickly. He tries not to look guilty as he says it. He hasn't actually done anything wrong. Or at least... he hasn't done anything worse than lying. Not really wrong, just... a little bit of lying, that's all.

Dojima doesn't seem to pick up on any of that, so apparently Akira is doing a pretty good job of keeping what he's thinking off his face. He nods, and says. "Then this year should go pretty smoothly." He steps back, and gestures Akira toward the room. "You can rest or get unpacked or whatever you need to do. I have to head back to work for a while--"

"Dad!" Nanako whines. "Do you have to?"

"Just for a while," he says, and by the way he doesn't quite look at her, Akira thinks this must be an argument they've had plenty of times before. "I'll be back before dinner, and you'll have Akira here with you." He points at Akira.

Akira thinks about what Nanako had told him at the train station. He wonders if maybe Dojima had been more interested in getting a live in babysitter for Nanako than making her a friend.

"But--"

"Just a few hours," Dojima says again, already heading down the stairs.

"Dad!"

"I'll be back for dinner, Nanako!" he repeats, half shouting it over his shoulder.

Nanako stares down after him, looks up at Akira for a bare second, then runs into her room and closes the door behind her.

That leaves Akira alone on the landing, suitcase in one hand, trying not to listen to the soft sounds of crying coming out from behind the thin walls leading to Nanako's room. He considers knocking on Nanako's door and trying to say something to her, but then doesn't. He doesn't know her, and doesn't know what she'd actually want to hear. Instead, he goes into the room that will be his for the next year, and starts to unpack his single suitcase.

At first he's listening hard for any sound of movement from outside his room, waiting for Nanako to come out or Dojima to get back from work. Neither happens immediately, and soon enough Akira is distracted by the contents of his suitcase, and forgets to keep listening. Every item he pulls out is a memory, and Akira... right now, he doesn't have a lot of memories he particularly wants to revisit.

It all started six months ago, when his parents died.

They've always traveled a lot, for work, and when Akira was younger, before he started school, they'd usually taken him with them. After he got old enough for school, that had changed. Sometimes one would stay behind with him while the other went travelling, sometimes they'd uproot and take him with them to a new neighborhood and a new school. 

Then, last year, when work took them away somewhere up north, they'd put him into boarding school for the year. Akira had still been there when they died. 

He found out when he saw it on the news. Just a short segment about a car accident, a pileup that put several people in the hospital. He'd looked it up online, and seen his parents' name in a news story.

He kept expecting someone to tell him, officially. He kept waiting for someone to tell him what to do, and what's going to happen to him now--but no one ever had. When Akira thinks about it, he wonders if there had been anyone that could even tell the police that he existed. He doesn't have any other relatives, they move so much that they don't have any close friends or neighbors that might have mentioned it. He's at a boarding school with his tuition paid all the way through the end of the year...

No one ever comes to tell him anything, which leaves Akira with two choices. Going to his teachers and telling them everything, or trying to figure out a way to keep going on his own.

That's why he's here, in Inaba. He's not particularly interested in learning about small town life, but it's a whole year with his school expenses covered by the exchange program, with somewhere to live and something to eat, and all he'd had to do is submit an online application and fake his parents' signatures a couple of times.

...he hadn't really expected it to work. 

But it had, and here he is, pretending that everything is fine and normal and he's not just one giant fake for being here at all.

Akira shakes his head furiously and tries to drive away the guilt. He's here now. Time to unpack. 

Half of his suitcase is filled with clothes, most of them a little big on him, but he'll grow into them. Clothes for summer and winter, two pairs of shoes, a jacket that will hopefully be warm enough for whatever winters are like around here, and a set of pajamas. The rest of the suitcase has the things he hadn't wanted to leave behind.

A handful of pictures of his parents and his friends from back home. A couple of souvenirs his parents had brought back for him after unusually lengthy trips. The stuffed cat he's had since he was a baby, because he is eleven and that's too old for toys but maybe not too old for every toy, especially this one that his parents had given him.

He holds it for a second, before setting it on top of the couch where he can see it no matter where he is in the room.

And then that's it. Akira is completely unpacked and done moving in.

This is home until the end of the year.

He loses track of time then, looking around the room, thinking hard, and when he suddenly blinks and comes back out of his thoughts and into the real world, it's dark out. Akira switches on a lamp that's been left against the wall, and leaves the bedroom at last. His cautious exploration of the rest of the house turns up no sign of Dojima, but Nanako is in the kitchen pulling ingredients out with a determined expression on her face.

"I thought your dad said he would be back before dinner," he points out.

"He said that," Nanako answers.

Akira glances at the clock on one of the walls, and realizes it's later than he'd thought. Definitely past dinner by now. "But... he's not back," he finishes for her.

There's a pause, then Nanako says, "It's okay. His work is very important."

This is going to be a very awkward year, if the two of them are going to argue the whole time. Akira wonders if he'd be better off trying to do something about it, or just sticking to the shadows and trying to stay out of their way.

Nanako is currently trying to reach someone on a shelf six inches too high for her.

"Do you need any help with the food?" he asks, because changing the subject seems like the best choice for right now, and because at least getting dinner ready seems like a pretty safe topic.

Nanako glances at him, then admits, "Yes, please."

He stands on his toes, and because he's older and taller than Nanako is, he manages to reach her out of reach shelf. The two of them put together microwave noodles, and eat them in front of the TV, watching the news and the weather in silence.

Akira is back upstairs and drifting off to sleep when he hears Dojima coming home.

-//-

April 8

After School

A month passes, and Akira gradually settles into life in Inaba. School starts, and while he doesn't make any friends, no one bothers him much. The coursework is pretty much the same as what he'd been doing at his old school, except that the textbooks are older and the coursework is a little behind. There's the same gossip about different classmates, and the same rumors about different teachers. Akira has noticed, as he goes from school to school, that the names and the details change, but there's always a kid that's a little too weird, and there's always a teacher that everyone hates, and that's as true in Inaba as anywhere else. Right now, the thing that everyone's talking about is something called the Midnight Channel--a haunted TV show or something that's supposed to show you who your true love is if you watch at midnight on a rainy night.

Of course, since they're in sixth grade and not very interested in romance yet, most of the gossip is focused on whose older siblings are currently obsessed with it. Since Akira just has Nanako at home, and since neither of them has any interest in stuff like that, he doesn't pay much attention.

He splits his time after school between the Dojima house and lengthy wanderings around town. Inaba is small enough that he can walk anywhere he wants to without worrying about getting a bus or a train, and it doesn't take very long to reach the town's outer limits, and beyond that there's nothing but farmland, mountains, and a half hour drive to the next town over.

He likes Nanako, once she starts to warm up to him and let her guard down a little. She's obviously excited to have someone else in the house, and since Akira had spent a lot of time saying goodbye to his parents when he was her age, he can understand how she's feeling. He doesn't mind spending time with her, even when she insists that they trek up to the big department store, Junes, twice during his first month in Inaba, and even if she sings their jingle so often that he ends up with all the words memorized himself. 

By the time the first month comes to a close, and the two of them are walking together to school every morning, Nanako's nervousness around him has vanished completely. Akira has gotten used to having her around all the time, sometimes just working on her homework or watching TV, sometimes driving him crazy, but--in a way that he doesn't actually mind.

He's never had siblings, or even cousins, anything like that. It's kind of nice to have someone else around all the time.

Dojima is a little harder to get along with, and he sometimes makes Akira a little bit nervous. When he signed up for the exchange program, he hadn't thought that he would be staying with a police detective, and if Dojima gets suspicious, Akira doesn't know what will happen to him. He doesn't know how much trouble he'll be in if anyone finds our his parents are gone.

Probably a lot. 

So Dojima makes him nervous, and Akira tries his best to stay on his best behavior around him, and out of his sight as much as possible. It's usually not too hard, because Dojima's work sends him out of the house early in the morning and doesn't let him come back until late at night, usually. On the rare occasions where he is home, Akira heads out to wander Inaba instead of risking any awkward conversations inside.

It's on one such day, when Akira had walked home from school to find Dojima's car waiting in the house's driveway, that he finds himself walking along Inaba's small shopping district. 

He doesn't usually spend much time here, because he doesn't have money to spend and also because half the shops are empty, and the ones that are still open kind of bore him. Today though he lingers, because there's nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, and it's when he's wandered nearly all the way down to the bus stop at the end of the street, that he sees a flash of blue out of the corner of his eye. He turns, curious, and--there's nothing. Akira frowns at the empty space next to the bookstore, wondering if he'd imagined it. He doesn't think so. The color had been weird and distinctive, kind of shimmering and almost but not quite transparent. He turns his head, slowly, and manages to catch another glimpse of the blue shine out of the corner of his eye. It takes a few more minutes of effort and experimentation to kind of squint and focus so that he can see it when he faces it straight on, and finally get a good view of it.

It's a door. A blue, glowing door that isn't attached to any of the buildings nearby, and doesn't seem to actually be made out of anything. It's just there, floating gently, so pale that Akira can see through it to the other side, and absolutely more interesting than anything he's seen since getting to Inaba. He's crossed the street by this point and is standing right in front of the door, eyes half crossed as he struggles to keep the door in sight. He hesitates, then reaches a hand out to touch the door.

"Hey, kid."

He jumps and turns around, to find that a woman in a gas station attendant's uniform is watching him.

"Uh," Akira says, which is probably not the most intelligent answer he could have offered.

The woman certainly doesn't seem all that impressed. "What are you doing?" she asks.

"I was just looking at..." He turns back to where he knows the door is, but now that he's been distracted, and let his attention wander, the door has flickered out of being visible again. Akira sighs and feels his shoulders slump slightly. "Never mind," he says. "I... wasn't looking at anything."

"Are you sure?" she asks, and for some reason the question seems... heavy. It feels like the answer means more than it should.

"I just thought I saw..." He looks up at her, not sure how to answer. It would probably sound crazy to admit that there's a door here that he can't exactly see, and isn't exactly sure is real.

The woman smiles. Apparently, for whatever reason, this is the correct answer. "You're new around town, aren't you?" she asks. "I haven't seen you before." She jerks her head back toward the gas station. "And trust me, I spent a lot of time standing around with nothing much to look at. I've seen pretty much everything there is to see on this street."

Akira wonders if this includes magic blue doors.

"I'm new," he agrees, which is the safer part of the question to answer.

"Well," she says, holding out a hand. "Welcome to Inaba, kid."

Akira shakes her hand, feeling a little weird about it. "I should... probably start heading home."

"And I should be at work," the woman says. "Nice meeting you, kid."

She lets go of Akira's hand retreats back across the street to the gas station. Akira watches her go, vaguely confused by the whole interaction. For several seconds he just kind of stands there, trying to figure out whether he's crazy or she is, and then a wave of unexpected nausea passes over him. He sighs, feeling drained and tired, and decides to head back to the Dojima house after all. Maybe he can avoid a conversation with Dojima by heading straight up to bed.

Unfortunately, this plan is foiled when Akira gets back to the house and finds Dojima sitting at the kitchen table, a thoughtful expression on his face, and a mug of coffee cooling on the table in front of him. Akira takes a quick, instinctive glance at the clock, but it's still half an hour before he's been told he needs to be back in the house. He's not going to get in trouble for skipping out on curfew or anything, at least.

"Akira," Dojima says, beckoning him over to the table. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Akira stares at him like a deer in headlights, and Dojima actually laughs at the expression. "You're not in any trouble," he says. "Just come over here."

He does as he's told, padding across the floor in his socks, and settling himself in the chair opposite Dojima. "Did something happen?" he asks, mentally running through a list of things he's done recently that Dojima might not be happy about. He's behaved himself at school. He's doing well in classes. Outside of school, he hasn't gotten into any fights, hasn't broken any of Dojima's ground rules... he hasn't done anything wrong.

Please don't let it be about his parents. It's only been a month, it cannot possibly be about his parents. Not already.

"You could say that something happened, I guess," Dojima agrees. "I got a call from my sister this morning."

"Your...?" He's not sure what that has to do with him.

"My sister," Dojima says. "Yea." He runs a hand through his hair, and his voice takes on a slightly more irritated tone. "She's always been one to do things a little last minute. She forgets to tell people that she's made plans, and then by the time she does think to mention it, it's too late to say no."

Akira continues to feel confused.

"What I'm trying to say," Dojima says. "Is that apparently my nephew is coming to stay for the year while my sister and her husband are travelling internationally."

"O-oh," Akira says. Now he understands why Dojima had wanted to talk to him about this. After all, if he has a relative coming to stay for the year, he's not exactly going to want Akira here too, taking up even more space.

"So unfortunately for you," Dojima says, and Akira braces himself for the bad news. "I'm going to have to put him up in the room with you. He's in high school, so it might be a little cramped in there for the two of you, but--"

"Wait," Akira interrupts, suddenly jerking forward and putting his hands on the table. "You mean you're not kicking me out?"

"What?" Dojima stares at him like this was not even a consideration. "No. This isn't ideal, but I'm not sure how I would even go about getting you assigned to a different host family for the year." Under his breath, in a tone that Akira is not entirely sure he was meant to hear, he adds, "It would involve a ton of paperwork, I'm sure."

Akira feels lighter, suddenly--saved by the threat of paperwork. "When is he coming?" he asks.

"Monday," Dojima says. "So that gives us a couple days. I know you don't have much stuff upstairs, but I need you to just make sure there's enough room for Yu when he gets here."

"No problem," says Akira. He could probably fit everything he owns in one corner of that bedroom. He half stands, waiting to see if he's going to be allowed to leave. "I can go work on that now, if that's okay."

Dojima waves him away, and Akira is halfway to the stairs when he hears Dojima calling his name.

"Yea?" Akira says, turning back to look at him.

"I don't have a problem with you staying," Dojima tells him. "But I'd understand if you want to leave."

"I'm okay," Akira says.

"You're okay?"

"I'm okay," Akira repeats. After all, he doesn't have anywhere else to go.

"Well," Dojima says, voice slightly gruffer than usual. "I appreciate it anyway."

Akira nods and hurries the rest of the way upstairs. Now that the immediate danger of being kicked out to make room for Dojima's nephew is gone, he's free to worry about what it's going to be like sharing a room with him for the year. He doesn't know anything about this kid, whether he'll be older or younger or nice or a jerk or anything. This year, which so far has looked like it's going to shape up to be pretty quiet, suddenly has a chance of getting a lot more chaotic.

He finds Nanako in his room when he gets there, sitting on the couch with her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms wrapped around them. She shoots Akira a slightly guilty look when he pauses in the doorway, and then says, "Did Dad tell you my cousin is coming to stay?"

"Yes," Akira says.

"Do you think..." Nanako squeezes her knees a little tighter. "Do you think he'll be nice?"

Akira sighs. He really, really wishes he had a definite answer to give her, because he really, really wishes he had a definite answer for himself. "I hope so, Nanako," he says, moving over to sit on the opposite end of the couch. "I really do."

-//-

April 8

Evening

Dojima sits at the table for a few minutes after sending Akira upstairs, stewing to himself and considering whether or not to call his sister and go back to the shouting match they'd been having before the kids got home. It's probably a bad idea. It's only going to scare Nanako, and she doesn't need that right now. She'd been upset enough when she got home from school to the news that she was going to be sharing the house with another stranger in a few days.

It's just so--it's just absolutely typical of her. She'd booked the kid's train, gotten him enrolled at Yasogami High, made all of her plans--

And then three days before, remembered that she hadn't actually asked if it was okay for Yu to come and stay. And of course by that point, what is he supposed to do? Punish the kid for having a mother that never stopped to consider what other people were thinking? Tell him he couldn't come, force him to scramble to find somewhere else to stay, or apply to a different high school a week after the academic year had started? The kid's still family, even if Dojima hasn't seen him since he was practically a baby. He'd had to say yes, when it came to it.

He grunts to himself and stands, thinking vaguely that he should go upstairs and check on Nanako. She'd run up to her room when Dojima had told her there would be another newcomer in the house in a couple of days, and Dojima had decided to give her some time to cool down before following her. She should have had enough time by now.

Halfway up the stairs, he hears voices and pauses to listen.

"...if he doesn't like me?" Nanako is saying, voice so quiet that Dojima can barely hear her even when he strains.

"He'll like you," Akira says. "You're his cousin, and you're nice, and I'm sure he'll like you."

Nanako pauses before answering. "Really?"

"Yea," Akira says. "I mean, he might not be too happy about sharing a room with me, but he'll like you."

"He'll like you too!" Nanako says, voice rising in protest. "He'll like both of us, okay? I decided."

"I don't think that's how it wor--"

"I decided!" Nanako says again, and Akira laughs. It's not a sound Dojima has heard too much from the kid over the past couple weeks. He never seems to let his guard down enough for that.

"Okay!" Akira says. "Okay, okay, I guess you decided, so it's official."

Dojima hears footsteps then, and retreats back down the stairs before either of them can see him standing there listening to them. Maybe, he thinks, this isn't going to go as badly as he expects. After all, these two have started to make friends already--he's sure Yu will fit right in when he gets here.

Everything, he tries to convince himself, will be fine. A little crowded maybe, and he's sure there will be some arguments, but everything will be fine.

As soon as everyone's settled, things will get back to normal. It'll be a quiet year.

He settles himself back at the table with the day's newspaper, still feeling slightly out of sorts, but... less so now. He's about halfway through the paper when he hears a creaking on the stairs, and looks up to see Akira coming down.

"Everything okay?" Dojima asks. 

"Fine," Akira says. 

Dojima waits. Akira says nothing, just shifts awkwardly as he stands at the bottom of the stairs. Eventually, Dojima asks, "Was there something you wanted to say?"

"I... had a question," Akira says. "It's..." 

"About Yu coming?"Dojima asks.

"No," Akira says. "It's... something stupid that I thought I saw in town today, and I just wondered... if..." Again, he fidgets. "In the shopping district, is there anything there that's supposed to be... I don't know. Haunted, or anything?"

"Haunted?" Dojima echoes.

Akira nods. "When I was there earlier today, I saw... I thought I saw a door. It was blue, and glowing."

Dojima stares at him for a second, then smiles and turns back to his paper. "You should try to get to bed earlier tonight," he says. "I know you're older than Nanako, and it's fine if you're staying up later than her, but if you're seeing haunted doors in town, you probably need to get more sleep."

He watches, amused now and smiling a little, as Akira turns red and goes back upstairs. They're all just kids, after all. Nanako and Akira and even Yu, when he gets here. Sixteen is still a kid, in Dojima's opinion.

They'll make it work. The year will pass. Things will calm down, and settle into a new normal. 

It'll be a quiet year. He's sure of it.

-//-

April 11

After School

It's sunny on the day that Nanako gets into the car with her dad, and rides with him down to the train station to pick up their second house guest for the year. She'd wanted Akira to come too, but her dad had gotten the train times mixed up, and Akira is still in class, so they'd had to leave without him.

"I'm sorry, Nanako," he says, which is how he starts most of the things he says to her these days. "I thought Yu's train was coming in a couple hours later."

"It's okay, Dad," Nanako says, even though it's not sure if it really is. She would have felt better meeting her cousin if she had Akira and her dad with her. That way, if Yu is mean, or if he doesn't like her, she'll have someone to hide behind.

They stop at a stop sign, and her dad turns for a second to look at her, his eyebrows raised. "Nanako," he says. "Are you sure? You sound--"

"I was just thinking," she says, all in a sudden rush. "He's really coming to stay with us for a whole year?"

"You know he is," her dad says, as he starts driving forward again.

"Well," Nanako says. "Yea, but..."

"You didn't want to have Akira around at first either," her dad points out. "And two weeks later, you're already upset that he couldn't come with us to the train station. I'm sure you'll like Yu just as much."

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Nanako starts worrying again, thoughts going around and around in familiar circles.

"Are you sure he has some come home with us?" she asks at last.

Her dad smiles. Nanako does not. She's just worried. She can't help it.

"It's only for a year," he reminds her, and pulls the car into the train station parking lot.

Nanako hops out of the car, sticking close behind her dad, looking around curiously for a glimpse of her cousin, even though she doesn't know what he'll look like. There's no one in sight right now, and she instinctively looks toward the same area where she'd first seen Akira, waiting for them in the rain.

Sure enough, as they walk closer, Nanako sees an older boy, a teenager, standing with his phone out, the other hand in his pocket.

"Yu Narukami," Nanako's dad calls as they get closer. "Right?"

He looks up at the sound of his name, and half smiles. "Right," he says. "That's me."

Nanako watches her dad step forward, and shake her cousin's hand. "Welcome to Inaba, Yu," he says. 

It's going to be a really weird year, Nanako decides, as their second year long house guest gets into the car. Really weird.

Chapter Text

April 11

Evening

Sometime around when his uncle stops the car at Inaba's gas station (the only gas station, according to his cousin), Yu starts to get the idea that they hadn't exactly been expecting to have him come stay for the year. By the time the car pulls up at an unremarkable house on an unremarkable residential street, Yu is sure of it. He was definitely not expected to be here.

"I'm sorry for all the trouble," he says, as he's getting out of the car. "My mom forgot to tell you I was coming, didn't she?"

The look on his uncle's face answers the question clearly. 

Yu sighs. He loves his parents. He really does. But this isn't the first time he's had to apologize for his mom's chronic absentmindedness, and Yu is sure it won't be the last. 

"I know how my sister is," his uncle answers. "Don't worry, I know it's not your fault."

Still. They've been planning this for months, ever since Yu's parents found out they'd be out of the country for the year. Someone should have thought to actually say something.

"There's actually something I should probably tell you, too," his uncle says, leading the way into the house. "Before your mother called and told me that you'd be staying for the year, we already had an exchange student staying here. So, since I wasn't going to just kick him out..."

"So there's someone else staying here?" Yu asks, looking up at the house as if expecting to see someone standing behind a window, watching them.

"Yea," his uncle says. "His name's Akira--he's eleven, so I guess that puts him about halfway between you and Nanako. And you'll be sharing a room for the year."

"Oh," Yu says. "Yea, sure." He hadn't exactly been expecting to spend his year in Inaba sharing a room with an unknown sixth grader, but he also doesn't feel like he has any room to complain. 

"Akira's nice," Nanako reports. "You'll like him." She runs through the open front door then, calling for the unknown Akira.

Yu hesitates, looking at his uncle, who shrugs in response. 

Inside, Yu is directed up the stairs, and told that his room is the one on the right. He dutifully follows these instructions, and comes into a bedroom, sparsely furnished with a futon, couch, desk, table, and a small television. Nanako is standing on her toes and leaning against the desk, whispering to a skinny looking kid that Yu assumes must be Akira. They're whispering together fiercely, but stop when Yu comes in.

"Hey," Yu says. "You're Akira, right?"

Akira stands up from the desk an turns around so he's leaning with his back against it instead. "I--yea. That's me."

"My uncle says we're going to be sharing a room for the year," Yu says. 

"Yea," Akira says "Sorry."

He looks so nervous about the whole idea that Yu instantly feels bad for him despite himself. "There's no reason to be sorry," he says. "We can make this work." He takes a couple steps into the room and looks around, taking in the space. There's not much to it, really. Akira either hasn't spent much time moving in, or hadn't brought much with him in the first place. "Neither of us has very much stuff, it looks like," Yu says. His own boxes, the ones his dad will be shipping out after him in a couple of days, probably doesn't have much more in it than the few things of Akira's he can see here on the shelves. 

"Yea," Akira says. "I didn't bring a lot."

"Okay," Yu says. "Great." He gestures to the metal shelf against the wall. "I'll take the top, you get the bottom?" It's an easy question, a softball to start with, because Akira has all his stuff set up on the bottom shelf already.

As expected, Akira nods. "Yea," he says. "Okay, that seems fair."

"Okay," Yu says. "How about the drawers, do you use those?"

"Just the one on the left," Akira says. "You can have the one on the right." Then, unprompted, he says, "I can sleep on the sofa. I think you're probably too tall for it anyway, so you need the futon."

"Great," Yu says, relieved that Akira has said something unprompted. This is going to be a much longer year if Akira and Nanako are too nervous to talk to him. "Thank you."

"And we can share the desk and the table," Akira says, picking up steam. "I use them for homework, but not all the time." He shrugs. "And you can have the TV. I don't really watch it much."

"I don't watch much TV either," Yu admits.

"I do!" Nanako says, suddenly excited. "Sometimes there are commercials for Junes!"

"The... department store?" Yu asks.

"She really likes it," Akira mutters, turning slightly red as Yu turns to look at him.

"I'm going to teach him the song," Nanako says. 

"The commercial jingle," Akira interprets.

"I can sing it better than anyone else in my class!"

Yu looks automatically in Akira's direction, and the other boy shrugs. "It's... a really small town. Junes kind of is the only interesting thing around here. And it's not even all that interesting."

"Yes it is!" Nanako insists.

"Is not!"

"Is so!"

"Is not!"

"Is so!" Nanako insists, stamping her foot a little. "Yu!"

"What?"

"Tell him Junes is great!"

A little nonplussed at suddenly being invited into the argument, Yu shrugs and says, "It's okay, I guess?"

"See!" Nanako says, whirling back to face Akira.

"He said 'I guess,' " Akira says. "That doesn't mean he agrees!"

"It does!"

The bickering continues, full volume but not at all actually angry, and in a few moment it seems like the two of them have completely forgotten about him. Nanako is singing the Junes jingle at full volume, while Akira makes a point of covering his ears and pulling faces. Smiling slightly, Yu backs out of the room and leaves them to it.

Downstairs, he finds his uncle looking contemplatively up at the ceiling. He stirs himself when he sees Yu, and gives an apologetic shrug with one shoulder. "I'm sure this isn't exactly what you were expecting," he says, and Yu shakes his head. 

"Mom said..." he starts, and then stops when he realizes that basically nothing his mother ever told him about her hometown or her brother that he wants to repeat.

"I know," his uncle says, apparently catching Yu's expression. "My sister couldn't wait to get out of here. As soon as she turned eighteen she went running off to Tokyo."

"She made it sound like it would be boring here," Yu admits.

Overhead, there's a thump and then giggling from Nanako. Both of them turn to look up at the sound, and then Dojima shakes his head. "Somehow I don't think this year will be boring at all," he says. His eyes snap back to Yu. "Listen," he says. "I know this isn't fair on you, but I wasn't expecting to have so many of you here this year, and... well, you're the oldest. If you could help me out by just keeping an eye on those two..."

He trails off, and Yu shrugs. "Sure," he says, because after all he's the one Dojima hadn't expected to be playing host to this year. And how much trouble can two kids really get into? "Why not?"

-//-

April 12

Morning

The day after Yu comes to stay with them, Akira is sitting at his desk waiting for class to start when one of his classmates sits down on the desk facing him. "Hey," he says. "Kurusu!"

Akira can't remember this boy's name--he sits on the opposite side of the room, makes dumb jokes with his friends during lunch, and has never even looked at Akira before today.

Akira's a little suspicious about the fact that he's come over here now. "Yea?" He says.

"Why'd you come to Inaba?"

Akira shrugs. He's used to telling adults that he'd wanted to see somewhere different to see what it was like, which usually gets them talking about "broadening his mind" and "embracing new opportunities," and stops them from asking any more questions. He doesn't think someone his age would really care. "My parents are traveling this year," he lies instead, because Yu had come here for that exact reason, and it's the first thing that comes to mind.

"So they just didn't want you around?"

"No," Akira says. "That's not--"

"Then why are you here when they're not?"

Akira flinches back, the question hitting harder than his classmate had probably expected. But why he's still here, still alive, when his parents are never going to be anywhere ever again, is a question he asks himself... kind of all the time. It's not what the other boy had meant, but it's what Akira hears, and he feels himself freeze up.

The boy sees the flinch, and his smile gets bigger. "Yea," he says. "I bet--"

The door opens just then, and Akira hears the click of their homeroom teacher's high heeled shoes on the floor. The boy jumps off the desk next to Akira's, and scrambles back to his own spot. 

Its not quite the end, though. Akira can feel eyes on him all morning, and at lunch the boy and his friends take turns whispering nasty comments about Akira and his parents, obviously delighted by the reaction they're getting. Akira spends the afternoon staring at his desk, pretending he can't feel tears gathering behind his eyes.

When classes finally end, Akira is the first to head out. He doesn't know if anyone's planning to say anything else about his parents, but he'd really rather not find out.

Sometimes it just hurts. Knowing they're not coming back, and hes the only one that knows, or cares. Akira doesn't want to deal with teasing from people that don't really know what they're saying. 

An announcement plays over the intercom as he's changing his shoes to head outside, and Akira glances up, confusion momentarily breaking him out of his distracted fog. Whoever's making the announcement--one of the teachers, it sounds like--seems stressed and harried as she announces that all after school activities have been canceled, and students are to head home immediately.

Going back to the Dojima house, though, would mean taking the path through the Samegawa Flood Plain, along with most of the rest of the students heading home. Akira decides not to risk it.

So instead of going straight back, he wanders through the streets, turning left or right at random, exploring the same way he has on so many days already. It's different today, though. No matter where he goes, everything he sees just reminds him that everyone and everything in Inaba has been here forever, and he's the only outsider. It's like what happened at lunch had stirred up everything Akira has been trying not to feel since he got here, and now he can't make himself stop feeling it.

He ends up back in the shopping district, in front of that blue door, and for several minutes just stands there and stares. It's the only thing here, other than him, that doesn't fit. It stands there, defiantly unreal, half see through and not solid enough to touch when he reaches out to try. He wishes he knew what it was for.

He wishes he could make it open. 

"Hey Kurusu!" 

It's the same boy from lunch, Akira knows before he has even turned around. The one that had started all this by blaming Akira for getting the best score on the kanji assignment. 

"What?" he asks, turning his back on the door. It's not just the one kid standing there, but a group of five of them. Three are from Akira's class, but the other two must be from other classes. They're all bigger than him.

"You sure left school fast," the same boy says. He's accompanied by two other boys that Akira doesn't recognize--they must be from another class. "You know we're all supposed to be going straight back home. The teachers said so."

"You didn't go home either," Akira points out.

The boy points up the street. "We live up that way," he says. "I guess you were headed for the train station? Since you're not even from here?"

"Oh wait," the boy says. "Nevermind. I forgot your parents hate you."

Again, something inside Akira wavers. He tries to sound strong anyway, but he can hear in his own voice that it's not very convincing. "I'm staying," he says. "I'm--I'm not going anywhere."

"You should!" the boy says. "You're not from here, why don't you just leave?"

Because he doesn't have anywhere else to go, his parents are dead, and Inaba is a last, desperate plan to keep anyone from finding out. He doesn't know what he's going to do when the year is over but he knows that he can't just leave in the middle.

"Look at his face!" one of the other boys says. "He knows he doesn't belong here."

"I--"

"I bet nobody wants him," a second boy says. "Why else would his parents send him out here? They must not want him at home."

"Shut up!" he shouts, and his voice sounds high to his own ears. He doesn't want them to keep saying it. The boys laugh.

The ringleader steps forward so that he's right in Akira's face. Akira opens his mouth to shout again, fear and anger fighting inside him, but the boy grabs his arm and twists, holding him still. Akira freezes, almost (almost) feeling the blue door at his back, and wishing he could disappear through it. 

"I don't like you," the boy announces. "Nobody likes you. Not even your parents like you."

His first collides with the side of Akira's face in a burst of pain, and Akira twists instinctively away, straining to get out of reach. The grip on his arm is too strong though, and all he can do is hang limply in the other boys grip.

He hears laughter, and the scuffing of footsteps as the other boys run at him, and he braces for more pain. 

"Akira!"

His heart almost stops from sheer relief when he hears Yu's voice. The other boys drop him and scramble away, disappearing before Akira had managed to refocus his swimming vision (he's not crying, he's not) on the high schooler running over from the other side of the street.

"Akira," Yu says again, dropping down to one knee at his side. "What was that about?"

"Nothing," Akira says, half out of pure instinct and half just embarrassment. "No big deal." He wipes a hand against his face and looks around, hoping no one else is around to see. Luckily the street seems deserted.

"Definitely not nothing," Yu says.

"They just...." He hesitates, but... Yu is even newer than he is. "They don't like that I'm not from around here."

Yu's face tightens, maybe in understanding, maybe just disapproval, but he doesn't say anything about it. "Come on," he says instead. "We need to get back."

"But--" He doesn't know if he's ready to go back and come up with an excuse for what definitely feels like it's going to turn into a black eye.

"No," Yu says. "Seriously, we have to get back." He stands, and holds a hand out to help Akira up. "Something happened."

"What?" Akira asks. "What happened?" Standing now, he looks around again at the street. A second ago he'd been relieved that no one was around to see him being pushed around, but now it strikes him how weird it is to have a street full of shops mostly empty. There should be people working there, if nothing else."

Yu looks away.

"What happened?" Akira asks, a little louder this time. 

Yu gestures him to start walking, and after a second of hesitation, Akira does. "Someone was found dead," Yu says. "Didn't they say something at your school?"

"They said... something," Akira admits. He'd been so caught up thinking about himself that he hadn't even noticed.

"I saw Dojima when I walked past the crime scene," Yu says, and his voice sounds a little shaky too. "He told me to head home, but when I saw you weren't back yet..."

He trails off. "I'm sorry you had to worry about me," Akira says. 

"It's okay," Yu says. "Let's just get home."

Compared to someone showing up dead, Akira's problems suddenly feel really small. He walks next to Yu in silence for a couple of blocks, and then asks, "The person that died... how did it happen?"

"I don't really know," Yu hedges. Something about his tone, and the way he's not looking at Akira, makes him think the older boy knows more than he's saying. He must have seen something at the crime scene, after all.

"Where did they find her?" Akira asks.

"She was... strung up on a power line."

Akira shivers. Yu notices. For the rest of the walk back, he refuses to say anything else about the death, and when they pass by what's obviously the crime scene (they don't get close, but from a block away Akira can see the gathered crowd), it's suddenly obvious why the shops had all been empty. Everyone in the area seems like they've gathered around to stare.

"Come on," Yu says again, quiet, and Akira sticks close to him for the rest of the walk back.

When they're outside the house, Akira says, "You won't... tell Dojima about...?" He touches his eye, and winces when it hurts. 

Yu hesitates. "He's going to notice," he says. 

"I'll tell him I fell."

"He's a police detective, Akira," Yu says. "He's not going to buy that."

"This has never happened before," Akira says. "And it's not going to happen again." Now that he knows it's coming, he can be careful--he can make sure he stays close to the teachers at school, he can run after school. He can keep his eyes open and his head up and not let himself get caught alone like he had today.

"Akira--"

"You can't tell him," Akira says. "Please, Yu, you can't." If Yu tells Dojima, Dojima will try to get in touch with his parents, and that's--that's not going to work. "Please, Yu," he says, and it feels hopeless. He's known Yu for all of twenty four hours, and Yu has no reason to trust him or help him.

Yu looks sideways and down at him, and after thinking for a second, says, "Will you come tell me if anything like this happens again?"

"It's not going to--"

"Akira, please." He stops walking and crosses his arms. "I'll help you with my uncle today, but if they ever hurt you again, I want you to come to me right away, okay?"

Akira wavers, but then nods. "Okay," he says.

They walk the rest of the way home in silence.

By the time Dojima gets home from his investigation, it's almost 10:30 and Akira is already in his and Yu's room getting ready for bed. The black eye isn't even noticed, and Yu doesn't say a word.

-//-

April 12

Evening

Yu doesn't sleep well that night. 

Akira goes to bed earlier than he does, huddled in a lump on the sofa with his face pressed into the sofa back and a blanket pulled up almost over his face. Yu watches him from the desk for a while, and worries. He doesn't know if keeping Akira's fight from his uncle is a good idea, but on the other hand he doesn't want Akira hiding it from everyone if it happens again. Maybe this way at least he'll come to Yu, even if he won't tell an adult.

Or maybe not. Yu doesn't know Akira well enough yet to know if he can believe him when he says he's going to say something next time.

Akira mumbles something in his sleep, and Yu turns away so that he won't be caught watching if Akira wakes up. His gaze snags on the old TV set up in front of the sofa, and his mind snaps instantly to the woman that had been found dead and strung up on the power lines. Her name was Mayumi Yamano, he now knows from the news report they'd seen during dinner, and she'd been a reporter on a local television station. She'd been having an affair with a politician, and now she's dead.

His mom had said a year in Inaba would be boring. She'd apologized for sending him out here to stay with his uncle while her work took her and Yu's dad to Australia for the year. It's just before midnight on his second day in town, and he hasn't been bored once. There's a murderer running around somewhere hanging people up on telephone poles, and one of the kids he's supposed to be looking out for is getting beat up in the middle of the street.

Not to mention the dreams he's been having, of a long nosed man in a blue limousine...

It's close to three in the morning before Yu's mind finally settles enough for him to sleep.

-//-

April 13

Evening

"Have you heard about this Midnight Channel thing?" Yu asks, over dinner. It's just the three of them again, Dojima is working late, and Akira can't help feeling grateful about that. His black eye hasn't faded at all overnight, and while his teachers had been willing to overlook it, he's not sure if Dojima would.

Nanako giggles at the question. "At school they say you can find out who your true love is," she says.

Akira makes a face, which just gets Nanako laughing harder. "Who cares about that stuff?" he mutters, turning slightly red. "Girls are gross." Nanako pouts, and he quickly amends, "Except for you, Nanako."

"So I guess they're talking about it at your school too?" Yu asks.

"My friend's brother said he watched it and saw his soulmate," Nanako reports. "And she was really pretty."

Akira doesn't think stuff like that is even real, but doesn't bother to argue. Nanako obviously thinks it's cool. "Are you gonna try it?" he asks Yu instead.

"Yea!" Nanako says. "You should try it for sure!"

Yu smiles. "Yea," he says. "A couple of us at school said we'd all try it tonight."

Akira glances out the window, where he can see that the rain that started earlier is still coming down. The Midnight Channel is supposed to show you who your soulmate is if you look into a TV at midnight on a rainy night. 

Thunder rumbles outside, and Akira shivers. "Are you going to do it in our room?" he asks, looking back at Yu.

"Yea," Yu says with a shrug. "I mean... honestly I know it won't really do anything, so I figured it wouldn't bother you. You're okay with that, right?"

"Y-yea," Akira says. "Sure. As long as nothing actually happens."

Before Yu can say anything, the door opens and Dojima comes in, looking damp and tired and miserable.

"Dad!" Nanako cries, jumping up and running right for him. "You're home!"

"It's not that late," Dojima says, then glances at the clock and sighs. "Or maybe it is. This case has us all running around." He drops down onto the couch and looks to Yu. "Did you kids all eat?"

"We just finished," Yu says. "But there's leftovers, if you want them."

Dojima waves the offer away. "In a minute," he says. "Is that the news you're watching?"

The TV has been playing a news program quietly in the background while they talked about the Midnight Channel, but none of them had really been watching it. "I guess so," Yu says. "Did you want it off?"

"Turn it up," Dojima says. "I want to see if they're saying anything about the case."

"Sure," Yu says, reaching for the remote.

"Thanks," Dojima says. "Akira, what happened to your eye?"

"Fell," Akira mutters, suddenly razor focused on the TV so he'll have an excuse not to look at Dojima. 

"It was down by the shopping district yesterday," Yu says, and Akira feels a burst of surprised gratitude when he realizes Yu actually is going to cover for him. "We put some ice on it yesterday."

Dojima makes a little grunt of acknowledgment, and tells Akira to let him know if it doesn't get better. Akira nods, then mouths thank you at Yu when Dojima isn't looking. Yu nods back.

The news cycles through a couple more stories--a delay in repairs to a local train line, a report that government funding for the area is being cut again this year--before circling back around to the murder. The reporter summarizes Ms. Yamano's career and the circumstances of her death, then shows a clip of an interview with the high school student that found the body, and wraps up the report by announcing that there are no suspects.

"This is boring," Nanako announces, reaching for the remote. "Dad, can we change the channel?"

Yu laughs, and stands up to start clearing the table. "I think he's okay, Nanako."

Akira turns and sees that Dojima has fallen asleep on the couch. 

"Oh," Nanako says. "Well... okay. Maybe he'll wake up later."

Yu gives her a kind of sad looking smile as he takes the dishes to the kitchen.  They stay quiet, voices at a whisper, as Akira and Nanako help Yu with getting the dishes washed and put away. There's not much to do--as usual, most of the food is from a convenience store. After that Nanako gets ready for bed, while Akira and Yu work on homework in their room. The rain continues, and even though Akira keeps looking out the window to check if it looks like it'll stop before midnight, it never does. 

"You okay?" Yu asks once, when he notices Akira staring out the window.

"Yea," Akira says, because he's eleven and why would he be scared of the Midnight Channel, which isn't even real, and which even Nanako who is six isn't scared of. It's just that it's so dark and rainy outside. "Of course I am."

Yu nods and goes back to his homework, and not long after that Akira gives up on his and goes to bed. If Yu is going to do this Midnight Channel thing, at least Akira can try and sleep through it. He bundles up under his blankets, shuts his eyes determinedly, and in a surprisingly short time is asleep.

He wakes up to the sound of a loud thump, so close that it's practically on top of him. Akira jerks up, disoriented but fully awake, and scrubs the sleep out of his half closed eyes. The room is pitch black, but as Akira squints and adjusts, he sees Yu on the floor, panting like he's just run a mile, and looking completely freaked out.

"What happened?" Akira demands, throwing his blankets off and half falls off the sofa. "Was it the Midnight Channel? Did something actually happen?" 

Yu doesn't answer, and he's still kind of staring at the TV like it's tried to take a bite out of him. Akira glances at it, and even though he doesn't see anything strange he sort of side steps around the sofa to put some more space between it and himself. 

By this point, Yu is starting to collect himself. He stands, shaking his head, and does his best to give Akira a reassuring smile.

Akira does not feel reassured.

"It's fine," Yu says. "I think I just... kind of dozed off waiting for midnight."

Akira also does not feel convinced.

"What was that thump?" 

"I guess I fell over."

"Like I 'fell'?" Akira asks, raising his eyebrows and pointing to his black eye. Yu had seemed like a good liar when he was backing Akira up with Dojima about the fight, but now he seems too upset or freaked out to come up with a convincing story.

"No," Yu says. "Really fell."

There's a timid knock on the bedroom door, and Nanako asks, "Is everything okay?"

The boys look at each other. Yu's face is a question.

"Yea," Akira says, caving in. After all, Yu had backed him up earlier. "Everything's.... fine." 

"Go back to bed, Nanako," Yu adds. "I'm sorry for waking you up."

"Okay," she says. "Goodnight..." Akira hears her shuffling back across the hall.

"Really, though," Akira asks, when he hears her door close. "What happened?"

"I really just dozed off and fell over," Yu says. Lies. "It's fine. And you should go back to sleep too."

He seems a little calmer now, and a little more confident. Akira eyes him, and then the TV, and... really, even if the rain outside and the darkness in the room is still creeping him out a little, everything seems fine. He allows himself to be prodded back onto the couch, and closes his eyes when he's told to. He hears Yu unfolding the futon, and then a few minutes later his side of the room goes quiet.

Tomorrow, Akira decides. When the rain stops and the sun is out, he's going to check out the TV and just... just make sure everything really is fine.

Chapter Text

April 14

After School

School drags the next day for Akira. Between his second straight night of not getting enough sleep, the now constant comments and whispering from his classmates, and the weird incident with Yu last night, Akira has never been so desperate to get out of school. When they're finally dismissed, he's the first one out of the classroom, running out of the school before his classmates can think to follow him.

He heads straight home, letting himself in with the key when he tries the door and finds it locked. Yu is probably still in school, and Nanako sometimes goes home with a friend when her class lets out for the day. Dojima, of course, will be working until late.

Perfect.

Akira runs upstairs, where all the fear of the night before has gone cold in the light of day. It's still raining outside, but it's not quite as hard as it had been last night, and there's some sun trying to peek through the grey clouds. Akira switches on the light in the bedroom, and the TV looks like just a TV. Nothing scary about it at all.

(Nothing, he tells himself. Definitely nothing scary, and if there's maybe a tiny part of him that wavers as he steps up close to the small TV, it's easy to ignore)

He turns the TV on, and flips through a few channels. The weather report plays first (rain and ran and rain all week long, it looks like), and then a news report (the murdered TV announcer again), and then an old drama playing in black and white. Akira makes a face and turns the TV off again. It crackles slightly as the picture fades, and Akira goes over to study the TV up close, holding his hand in front of the screen so that the electricity on the old CRT monitor makes the tiny hairs on the back of his fingers stand on end. 

And then he reaches forward, touching the screen, bracing for a shock from the built up static.

Instead, his hand passes right through the screen.

For a second Akira just stands there, eyes wide open, too shocked to do anything. Then he tries to pull himself back out but it's like the TV has a tight grip on his hand. No matter how hard he pulls, it's not coming out. Instead, after a few terrifying seconds of being frozen in place, Akira feels something like a pull on his hand. Instead of his hand coming out, it's tugging the rest of him in.

And there's nothing he can do to stop it. It's a slow, inexorable tug that Akira isn't able to fight. If he'd been stronger maybe he would have been able to pull himself out, if he'd been older maybe he would have been too big to fit through--but as it is, Akira is a scrawny eleven year old, just small enough to be sucked into the screen of an old CRT TV.

He screams as he falls, but the sound is snatched away practically before he can hear his own voice, and when he finally lands he is--unbelievably--unharmed. Shaken but not hurting, Akira lies prone for a second on the ground of wherever it is he's fallen, breathing hard and trying to think straight. Is this what had happened to Yu last night? Or--no, he definitely would have noticed if Yu got sucked into a TV. Maybe he'd been almost sucked in, but was too big? 

In that moment, Akira hates being eleven.

Gradually, his breathing slows down, and he peels himself off the floor and squints around. The whole area is covered by a thick fog, and Akira can barely see ten feet out in front of him. The whole atmosphere is oppressive and creepy and just... bad news.

He takes a few experimental steps forward, bare feet curling against the harsh metal of the floor. Akira wraps his arms around himself and tries to pretend that he's still not scared. There's no way out that he can see, but then again the fog is so thick that he could be practically within arm's reach of an exit and not be able to see it. Hesitantly, and because he doesn't know what else to do, he takes a few steps forward, and then another few--

And then he almost walks into someone.

She's a girl, maybe a little older than Akira, with blonde hair pulled back in a blue headband with a butterfly on each side.

"Uh," Akira says. This girl, with her bright blue dress and her fierce, almost golden eyes, is the last kind of person he would have expected to find in a place like this.

"Trickster," the girl says. Her voice is soft, sort of melodic, but there's iron behind it.

"Wha--"

"You should not be here," the girl says. "It is not your time. Not yet."

Akira realizes he's been staring at her, mouth half open, and closes it. He relaxes his arms out of the straightjacket hold he has on his own shoulders. "What are you doing here?"

"You have fallen into a place that you cannot climb out of on your own," the girl says. "I came to bring you home."

"You can do that?" Akira asks.

"Yes."

"You know where we are?"

She nods. "But it is not yet time for you to know."

Akira looks around. The looming yellow fog is as intimidating as ever, but now that he's not alone, Akira is a little less afraid. A little less desperate to get out of here immediately. He's not going to feel safe until he's back in his bedroom at Dojima's house, but he has a feeling that if he walks out of here now he's never going to get answers to all the questions that this girl suddenly raises. "What does that mean?" he asks, looking back at the girl. "And who are you, anyway?"

She gives him a look that implies he's skating on thin ice. Nevertheless, she answers. "My name is Lavenza," she says.

Akira has never met anyone with a name like that. He's never met anyone that looks like Lavenza, or acts like Lavenza, someone that walks out of the fog in a world inside a TV like it's nothing. This barely feels real.

"Lavenza," he repeats. 

"And you really should be getting home, Trickster. You--" 

"Why do you keep calling me that?" Akira asks. 

She blinks at him like she hadn't expected the question. She hesitates, like she doesn't know if she should answer. 

"Why do you call me Trickster?" he asks again. "My name's Akira."

"But what you are," Lavenza says. "Is the Trickster."

There's a pause.

"I really don't understand," Akira says, and Lavenza sighs.

"You should not understand," she says. "And I should not be tempting you with this." She holds out her hand, an invitation. "Come with me. It's time to go home."

Akira reaches for her hand but before he can touch it, a new voice makes him freeze in place.

"Home?" the voice asks. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't listen," Lavenza says at once, but it's too late. Akira has already heard (and more importantly recognized) the voice. He spins around to see there is someone coming toward them through the thick fog, His features are indistinguishable at first, visible only as a vague shadow in the mist, vaguely sinister in a floor length coat, hands thrust into his pockets, head tilted at an angle that screams of cocky self assurance.

Akira stands stock still, hands pressed into fists at his side, Lavenza's outstretched hand completely forgotten as the figure comes into focus, as first a mask and then the face underneath it become visible.

It's him. The person coming toward him is a strange, mirror version of Akira himself, strangely dressed but instantly recognizable as the person he sees in the mirror every morning.

"What..." They're exactly the same, but somehow Akira feels small standing in front of him. "What do you mean?"

"You think that place is home?" the other Akira asks. "You shouldn't even be there. You lied to get there, you don't deserve it."

"That's--" He shivers and squirms uncomfortably under the weight of what he knows deep down is the truth. 

"You aren't telling anyone the truth," the other Akira continues. "You're a liar and a thief, and you're too much of a coward to ever be anything else." He gives Akira a cocky, almost smug smile that makes the real Akira want to shrivel up and die inside. "Unwanted," he mocks. "Unloved. If they knew the truth about you, no one here would want you around. They'd want you gone, just like your parents wanted you gone." Behind his mask, he arches an eyebrow. "Do you think they'd be happy? Knowing they had to die and you're still alive? Don't you think they'd change places with you if they could? Don't you think they'd rather it had been you that died, while they lived?"

"That's not true!" Akira shouts. There's blood pounding in his ears, he's pretty sure that Lavenza is saying something too but he can't even hear her now. All he knows is that this is digging in deep the way that even the bullying of the kids at school could never manage. Coming from this other version of him, it's impossible for Akira to deny that it's the truth, that these are the secret worries he can't keep himself from thinking about, late at night when he can't sleep.

He is unwanted. There is no one in the world that cares what happens to him. No one had come after his parents died to make sure he was taken care of. No one will care what happens to him, no matter how bad it is--he could disappear into this TV right now, and there's just... no one that will care. And he doesn't deserve to be here, in this town he's lied his way into. 

Most of all, he doesn't deserve to be alive while his parents are dead.

"You can lie to everyone else," the other Akira says, with obvious satisfaction. "You can lie to the people in this town, the people that have taken you in and think they know what kind of person you are. But you can't lie to me. After all, I am you."

It's like being hit in the face all over again, only this time something in Akira snaps. He hadn't dared to fight back against the the other boys when they were holding him down and hitting him, but he can't stand to hear these things coming out of his own mouth. 

It's too real. It's too true. It's all the things he tries not to believe about himself, unavoidable and undeniable.

It's something that he can never, ever let anyone else see.

"It's not true!" he shouts, tears starting in his eyes now, streaming down his cheeks, and his scream of protest tears at his throat like claws. Lavenza's hand is tight around his forearm, pulling with more strength than should be possible for someone her size. He ignores it, stamping a foot and balling his fists at the other Akira. "You don't know anything! You're not me!"

"Akira!" Lavenza cries, and some tiny, still functioning part of his brain notes that this is the first time she's actually said his name instead of calling him Trickster.

And then it happens. She hauls him backward, pulling him away just as the other Akira bursts. Dark, shadowy tendrils emerge from somewhere inside him, he's growing upward into something barely recognizable, a dark figure in a mask with glowing, yellow eyes.

"Why did you have to say that?" Lavenza demands, pulling Akira along with him. She sounds annoyed.

Akira doesn't answer. He's too busy shaking all over. He doesn't understand. 

They're still running, and even if Lavenza doesn't seem to be slowed down by the fog, Akira is. He stumbles and trips over his own feet, and finally Lavenza gets fed up over his slow pace. 

"Alright," she says. "Stay back."

"What are you going to do?" Akira asks.

"Like it or not," Lavenza says. "You can't deny the parts of of yourself that your Shadow shows you. They are a part of you."

She levels him with a disapproving, disappointed look, and then lets go of him, stepping determinedly between Akira and the now monstrous version of himself. "When you try to deny yourself," she says, with all the calm self possession of a teacher lecturing a class. "It turns ugly and wrong." She glances back over her shoulder, and in the bare moments before the monster claws itself toward them, she says softly, "There is nothing wrong with the things you have had to do," she says. "If there is a part of you that lies, then that simply is a part of you." She smiles. "And if you are a thief, then that is simply destiny."

And then the monster is on top of her. Akira braces, expecting it to destroy her right away, but it doesn't. There is a flash of blue, a glimpse of butterfly wings, and then the fight begins in earnest. 

Akira tries at first to follow it, to try and track who is winning, but the lights and sounds, the flying colors and attacks, all of them unfamiliar to him, are just too much to track. In the end, Akira backs another step or two away, and focuses on staying out of range of any stray attacks. And, in the absence of anything else to do, with fear and confusion slowly draining the sheer anger out of him, he lets himself stew on what Lavenza had told him.

He has lied to be here. He has lied, constantly, and to everyone he meets, since the moment he learned that his parents had died. He's been running and running, he's been scared, he's been pretending to be happy and normal and whole when he's not.

But it's true. Everything that other version of him--the Shadow, according to Lavenza--everything he'd said is true. 

But maybe, also.... 

He screws up his courage, and watches the fight. He watches Lavenza defend him, after everything she'd just heard, watches her fight hard even knowing all those bad things about him. 

Those things are true, he knows deep down that they are. They wouldn't have hurt if they weren't true, would they? They're just... they're awful things, things that he wants to push as far away from himself as he can, things he doesn't want to look at and things he definitely doesn't want to show to other people.

But here is a complete stranger, fighting for him. Fighting for him even though she'd heard all that, and even though Akira is pretty sure that she knows as well as he does that every word had been true.

Lavenza wins the fight, in the end. With a last burst of power she tears the monster apart, banishes the shadows and leaves only the masked, mirror version of Akira on his hands and knees on the floor in front of her. She looks back at Akira, as if expecting something from him.

Akira nods, and steps toward them. He knows what he has to do.

There's no other sound in the muffling fog as Akira walks toward them, and eventually kneels next to the other version of himself. He glances up at Lavenza, who nods at him. Then he looks back down, into the mask. "Sometimes I don't think I deserve to be here," he says. "Or anywhere. Sometimes I think I'm just the worst person alive because I am alive, and they're not." He breaks eye contact as his vision wavers and his eyes water, then forces himself to go on. "But I do." Lavenza had fought for him. She'd seen the worst of him, and fought for him, and if there's someone that will do that, then maybe these bad parts of himself aren't as bad as he thinks they are. Maybe they're something he can grow past. "Someday I'll be able to tell the truth to the people around me, but right now I'm just doing what I have to do. I still deserve to be here, and... and so do you. I mean... you are me, aren't you?"

It's like the words are some kind of magic spell. The other Akira... smiles. Relieved, maybe. And then he dissolves into shining, shimmering motes of dust, out of which rises a new figure, one who doesn't say a word but who Akira knows. At the same moment, something heavy and smooth settles across the top of his face, and when he touches it with the pads of his fingers he can tell it's the same mask the other Akira had been wearing. As soon as it settles across his eyes, he can see perfectly, as if the fog didn't exist at all.

He looks up at the new figure, and shouts, "Arsene!" at the top of his lungs.

When Arsene responds, he feels, for the first time in a long time, whole.

The light show fades. Arsene disappears from view too, but Akira is still aware of him, like a comforting weight in his mind. At his side, Lavenza sighs. "I didn't want any of this to happen at all," she says, sounding genuinely disappointed. "But I suppose it can't be helped."

Akira touches his mask again, and doesn't answer. He's still shocked, and trying to process everything that's happened. 

"I am sorry," Lavenza says.

Akira looks up at her and shakes his head. "I'm not," he says.

She gives him a considering look that makes her seem suddenly older. Then she says, "I will take you back now."

It's not a question, and Akira doesn't argue this time. There's a sharp light in Lavenza's eyes that makes him think that arguing would be useless. She grabs hold of his hand, and almost drags him back the way he'd come from. Akira keeps looking around as they do so--now that he's wearing the mask and can see clearly, he can see that the place looks like some kind of enormous television set. Metal beams reach skyward, supporting floodlights and other technical looking parts that Akira can't identify. Paths leading off apparently at random lead toward what looks like other sets, and Akira can vaguely make out dark shapes moving around. Lavenza leads him around these, and when Akira asks about them, she doesn't answer.

"Here," she says at last. "This is where you came in."

"Are you sure?" he asks. Even though that he can see where he's going, everything looks kind of the same to him.

"I am certain," Lavenza says, and he believes her. He's just watched her fight that shadow monster for him, there's no reason not to believe her. "This is where you came in, and this is where you need to return. And you must not come back to this place." She studies him carefully, eyes locked on his. "Do you understand, Trickster?"

"Not at all," Akira says honestly. "Why can't I come back?"

"Do you want to?"

The question catches him off guard, but only for a second. This place is obviously dangerous, but Akira just isn't afraid of it in the same way that he had been when he first fell through. Maybe it's not being alone, or finally being able to see where he's going. Maybe it's Arsene, in his head. He just feels... different.

"Yea," he says. "I don't want to just walk away from whatever this is. I'd wonder about it forever."

"You will get answers eventually," Lavenza says. "But this is not your time."

This answer, if anything, only makes Akira less willing to walk away from this without answers. Whatever this place is, her vague assurances make Akira feel like he is, somehow, tied to it. Like he's supposed to be here, even if he's not supposed to be here yet, like she keeps saying. "Will you still be here if I come back?" he asks.

Her mouth narrows, and she shoots him a look. "Don't, Trickster," she says. "You'll only make trouble for yourself."

"But will you be here?" he asks.

She sighs. "Yes," she says. "I do not want to see you trapped. If you come back, I will be here."

Akira grins at her.

"But don't come back," she says.

His only answer is to keep smiling.

-//-

April 15

Early Morning

 

Lavenza's method of getting Akira home, it turns out, is to summon a TV apparently out of thin air, and shove him through it. He guesses he probably deserves that, since he'd annoyed her so much with his questions. When he's fallen back out of the TV (almost hitting the low table in front of it in the process), a sudden wave of exhaustion sweeps over him like a tidal wave, and even though he tries to stay awake, it doesn't work. By the time Yu gets home from whatever he'd been doing after school, Akira is fast asleep on the sofa.

When he wakes up, it's the next day. He's still in the clothes he'd worn to school yesterday, his mouth tastes like an unwashed sock because he hadn't brushed his teeth before going to bed, and somehow he's still tired. In his groggy state, it takes him a second to realize that the thing that had woken him up is Yu shaking his shoulder.

"Hey," Yu says. "You're going to be late for school."

"Oh, no," Akira mumbles, unable to make himself sound even slightly upset about it.

Yu laughs and lets go of his shoulder. "I know," he says. "But you still have to go."

But Akira still doesn't move for a second or two. He stares up at Yu instead, looking for... he doesn't know what. Some sign that Yu had seen what he'd seen, two nights ago when he stayed up to watch the Midnight Channel. He desperately wants to ask, but if the answer is no, if Yu hadn't been pulled through the TV, then he's going to think Akira is crazy. And how would he have gotten back out, anyway? Lavenza hadn't mentioned seeing anyone else, and there doesn't seem to be any other quick way out of that TV world.

Akira doesn't say anything at all.

"You guys are gonna be late!" Nanako shouts from downstairs, and Akira groans before forcing himself out of bed as Yu shouts back that they're coming. By the time Akira has changed his clothes and gathered his homework (which he hadn't even started after everything that happened yesterday), Yu is already downstairs with Nanako. 

"Ready?" Yu asks.

Akira's stomach grumbles. He hasn't eaten since his school lunch yesterday, but they're already ten minutes late and he's not going to make the others wait for him. "Ready," he agrees, going for his shoes. "Where's Dojima?"

"Dad had to go to work already," Nanako says. "They called him while we were eating breakfast, and he said he had to go right away."

They step outside, and right on cue Akira hears the sound of sirens in the distance. 

"I guess that's Dad's work," Nanako says, looking in the direction of the wailing sirens. Akira glances at Yu, who is looking in the same direction as Nanako, looking worried. He's starting to wonder if there's anything normal at all about this apparently quiet town.

They set off to school, and before long they're walking side by side with a small crowd of other students heading for the school complex. Elementary, middle, and high school students mix together on the path along the flood plain, and today it seems like every single one of them are talking about a body.

Not the body of the TV announcer that had been killed only a couple days ago, although that's what Akira assumes the first few times he hears the whispers. It's not until they're practically at school that he manages to gather enough to figure out that there's been another body, killed the same way as the first person, and hung up on the wires. Akira hears a dozen rumors about who it is before reaching the front door of the school--it's another TV announcer, it's a high school student, it's the killer from the first murder.

Nanako sticks close to his side, and only reluctantly leaves him after Akira walks her all the way to her classroom door.

He's only managed to get as far as the door to the classroom next to hers when Nanako shouts his name, and he has to double back.

"Do you think Dad's okay?" she asks him, fidgeting nervously.

Because there are two dead bodies now, and his job is to find out who did it. Akira doesn't have any idea if it's dangerous or not. He doesn't know if someone killing two people means they're going to do it again. He doesn't know why anyone would want to kill someone in the first place. 

But he does know the right answer to give her. "Yea," he says, with the best smile he can manage. "Your dad'll be fine."

"But what if the murderer finds him?" Nanako asks, voice dropping into a whisper. 

If she's trying to stop anyone from hearing the conversation, it's not really working. Most of the first graders in the hall are looking at the two of them now, and so are a few of the older students walking past on the way to their own classes. 

"I don't think that'll happen," he tells Nanako. "I think your dad's too tough for that."

She thinks about that for a second, looks almost convinced, and then dashes forward to hug him. Akira freezes for a second, not really upset by the hug but suddenly hit by the realization that if anything does happen to Dojima, Nanako's going to be in exactly the same position he is.

Although, probably, she won't be dumb enough to dig herself into a hold by lying to everyone about her parents still being alive.

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. His parents were traveling when they died. There were no close friends and no other family to tell the authorities that yes, actually, there's someone they left behind. And when Akira found out by himself, he... hadn't been ready to face it. Pretending everything was still fine was the only thing he'd been able to do.

But it means that he doesn't get to really feel it. He has no idea how it would feel to mourn his parents, but he thinks that it would hurt. He thinks that he doesn't want Nanako to ever have to feel like that. 

"What happens," she says. "If...?"

Akira hugs her back. "Then you'll still have family," he points out. "Yu will be around. And me, too." It's probably an empty promise, because Akira doesn't have any real control over what happens to him. But it's an instinctive reaction to her being so upset, and he doesn't regret saying it. 

She hugs him a little tighter.

-//-

April 15

After School

Akira decides not to try jumping back into the TV that afternoon. He keeps expecting Yu to come back, and he doesn't want to be caught coming back out of the TV. Maybe he should look around and see if there's anywhere else in town with a TV he could try and use. 

He files this away for later.

In the end, though, it turns out that he was worrying for nothing. Yu does not come back for hours, and when he does he looks almost as exhausted as Akira had felt yesterday. He's also carrying a golf club for some reason, and gives Akira a sheepish smile when he realizes he's noticed.

"It's, uh... it's a long story."

"Are there even golf courses around here?" Akira asks, already knowing the answer is no. He's spent enough time wandering Inaba by now that he's sure he wouldn't have missed something that big.

"A really long story, Akira."

Yu props the golf club against the wall next to the desk, and drops his school bag down next to it. 

"Where's Nanako?" Yu asks. 

"In her room," Akira says. "Dojima called about half an hour ago, he said he's picking up dinner and then coming home."

"Good," Yu says. "Thanks, Akira." He pauses, then asks, "Did they say anything about the murder at your school?"

Akira shakes his head. "A lot of the teachers were talking about it, I think." He'd noticed them standing in little huddles through most of the day, between classes and during lunch. They always stopped talking whenever any of the students got too close. "My classmates were talking about it, but no one really knew what was going on."

One of them, a friend of the boy that had hit Akira earlier in the week, had loudly pointed out that whoever it was that was killing people, it was probably someone new, not someone from Inaba. He hadn't actually accused Akira of being a murderer, but class had been pretty tense for him after that anyway.

"Why?" he asks Yu. "Do you know what happened?"

Yu nods. "We had an assembly this morning instead of homeroom," he says. "It was a third year girl that died. Saki Konishi."

"Oh," Akira says. He doesn't know the name, but it still feels funny to think of the dead person as a real... well, person. Not just something for people at school to whisper about. "That's really sad."

"Yea," Yu agrees. "It is."

The two of them sit in silence for another couple of minutes, both lost in their own thoughts. Yu breaks the quiet first. "My dad's going to be really worried when he hears about this," he says, almost to himself.

"Not your mom?" Akira asks.

Yu gives him a crooked smile. "Mom will probably just tell me I'm lucky there's anything going on here at all. She doesn't hate anything as much as she hates being bored."

Akira can practically feel the weight of the TV behind him. "I don't think it's boring here," he says. 

"Yea," Yu agrees. "Neither do I." He sighs, and seems to shake himself out of whatever his thoughts are. "What about you?" he asks, in a slightly more normal tone. "Are your parents going to be okay with you staying here now that two people have died?"

"They don't have a problem with it," Akira says honestly. 

"You talked to them already?"

Akira nods. Less honest, this time. Not honest at all. "They just... told me to stay safe," he says. 

"Do you think they'd want to talk to Dojima about it?" Yu asks.

"I'm sure they'll call if they want to talk to him," Akira says, and changes the subject. "Nanako's worried about her dad, though," he says. "She almost cried before school."

From outside the bedroom, Nanako calls, "I did not!"

Akira and Yu look at each other, then Yu crosses the room to let Nanako in. "Were you listening?" he asks her.

"No," Nanako says. "I just came to tell you I saw Dad's car coming, and then I heard you talking about me, and I wasn't crying, Akira." She sits down on the couch, legs tucked under her so she looks even smaller than normal. "I was just worried about Dad."

Yu sits down next to her on the other side of the sofa. "It would be okay if you were, though," he says. "That just shows how much you care about your dad, and that you're worried about him."

Nanako twists her fingers together. "I don't want the bad guy to find him," she says. "I don't want him to be... like Mommy."

"Nothing's going to happen to him," Yu says, and he sounds so confident that even Akira wants to believe him. "Everything's going to be okay, Nanako."

Nanako nods, but doesn't exactly look convinced. "Akira said, that if anything happened to Dad--"

"Nothing's going to happen," Yu says, giving Akira a why would you say that look. Akira stares at his feet and doesn't explain that sometimes things like that really do happen.

"Akira said that if anything happened," Nanako presses on. "I would still have both of you."

Yu, who had been about to say something, stops with his mouth half open, and looks first at Akira and then at Nanako. His expression goes firm, and he nods with new determination. "That's right," he agrees. "We're with you."

Nanako grins, and jumps across the sofa to wrap her arms around his neck and hug him. 

"Don't strangle Yu!" Akira calls, which makes Nanako stick out her tongue at him. He grins and leans back in his cross legged position, and as he moves he happens to catch a glimpse of Dojima out of the corner of his eye. The man is standing in the doorway that Nanako had left open, eyeing the scene thoughtfully. Right, Akira remembers--Nanako had mentioned she'd seen his car coming up the road. He must have gotten in while they were distracted with Nanako.

When he notices that Akira has noticed him, he stands a little straighter and clears his throat. "Is everyone ready for dinner?" he asks. "I have the food set up downstairs."

"Yea," Akira says, scrambling off the table before he can be lectured about sitting on the furniture, and before Dojima can say anything awkward about the conversation he might have just overheard. "I'm starving."

He's the first to run downstairs, and is relieved when everyone spends the rest of the evening talking about more normal subjects. there's no talk about the murder, and Dojima doesn't mention work once. Instead they talk about school, about whether the convenience store bento is any good, about whether any of them would be able to cook anything that might be better. Yu is the only one who (tentatively) offers to try making something, and Dojima tells a story about a time when he and Yu's mom had been kids, and burned something in the kitchen so badly that they were banned from the kitchen for almost a year.

"Yea," Yu admits. "That sounds like Mom."

Akira does not talk about how his dad had always been the cook in their family, how he'd made something special for every birthday, as long as he wasn't travelling. He almost does. He really thinks about saying something, but in the end he just doesn't, because then what if they ask more questions, what if it gets Dojima thinking about his parents, what if it ruins everything...

It's kind of funny. He'd spent most of the last school year pretending that everything was fine, and it had been easy. Three weeks here, and he keeps catching himself wanting to share things. He likes being here, and he likes this little family he's invaded. It would have been nice to be able to be more honest with them.

On their way upstairs after dinner, Yu says, "Can I ask why you said that to Nanako? About both of us being there for her if anything ever happened?"

"Oh," Akira says. "I, uh..." Nanako is already safely in her room with Dojima, who she has dragged upstairs to read her a story. "I don't know. I guess I just didn't want her to feel like she'd be alone." His face feels hot, but Yu just gives him an approving nod and a little smile, and Akira feels like he's passed some kind of test.

-//-

April 15

Evening

At about a quarter to eleven, much to Yu's relief, Akira abandons the book he'd been reading and goes to bed. He drops off almost immediately, and doesn't even stir when Akira turns on the TV, letting the weather report drone softly in the background. Yu doesn't want to wake either him or Nanako, so he keeps the volume low as he waits for midnight. 

Today has been... today has been quite a day. After finding a route into the world inside the TV yesterday through the big flat screens at Junes, he'd gone back with a pair of classmates today to investigate further, and then everything after that...

Yu glances at the golf club still propped up on the wall where he'd left it, and winces. Sure, it had been effective enough in fighting shadows, but if he and Yosuke hadn't been able to unlock the power of persona, he doesn't even want to imagine what would have happened. They might not have made it back out. He and Yosuke already suspect that the two recent murder victims had been killed by being thrown into the TV world, Yu's pretty sure that the same thing can happen to them. 

But only if they're not careful. Only if they don't fight together, and with the power of their persona. They'll have to be smart and quick and united if they want to survive any more trips into the TV world, and they will be going back, because Yu doesn't believe for a second that the murderer is going to stop at two victims. He's gotten away with two already, and in less than a week.

He'll try again. 

This time, there's going to be someone there to stop him. 

Midnight hits, and the weather report ends with a sign off from the tv announcer, and then flips immediately to a blurry shot of what looks like someone wearing a kimono. 

Yu stares hard at her, trying to make out any identifying details, but he can't make anything out. He thinks about trying to stick his hand through, to see if he can replicate what had happened the other night, and maybe even reach right through to wherever she is. Then Akira makes a soft, sleepy noise from the sofa, and Yu reconsiders. He doesn't want to risk getting stuck again and having to pull himself out a second time. Akira had barely seemed to believe him before when Yu said he'd fallen, and he's not going to believe it if it happens again. 

The TV goes dark, and Yu realizes he's been holding his breath. He lets it out with a little sigh, and shakes his head. So there is someone else, already. He's never been so upset at being proved right. 

His phone rings, loud in the silent bedroom, and Yu grabs for it before the noise can wake Akira. 

"Did you see that?" comes Yosuke's voice in his ear. "Were you watching?"

"Yea," Yu whispers, turning quickly to stand on the other side of the room, so he can put as much space as possible between himself and Akira. "But I couldn't make out enough to tell who it is, could you?"

"No," Yosuke admits. "Why are you whispering?"

"I don't want to wake Akira up," Yu says, still in the same quiet voice. 

"Oh, right," Yosuke says, and drops his own voice. "I forgot you said you were sharing your room. Your brother, right?"

"Just... someone staying with my uncle for the year," Yu says. "Anyway, I really don't want him to hear anything about the Midnight Channel or what we're doing. Can we talk about it at school tomorrow?"

"Yea," Yosuke says. "No problem. I'll see you then."

He hangs up and Yu stands for a second with his phone held limply in his hand, checking to make sure Akira is still asleep. He is. The rain outside seems to have helped to drown out the sound of the conversation, at least a little. 

Yu rubs at his eyes and puts his phone down on the desk. School tomorrow, and then probably back into the TV world, and that'll definitely take up all his energy. He should really get some sleep while he can.

Except that as soon as he lies down and shuts his eyes, he's dreaming. And in his dream, he's back in that strange blue limousine, with the long nosed Igor sitting on a seat across from him. 

Yu takes a breath. Tries to fight off the disorienting feeling of being awake and asleep at the same time.

"Welcome," Igor says. "Back to the Velvet Room." 

He talks, and his assistant, Margaret, talks, and Yu hangs off every word with rapt attention. As cryptic and inexplicable as the Velvet Room residents can seem, they're also the only ones that know anything about what's going on. Yu will take all the help he can get.

They talk about the bonds he can forge with others, and the way those bonds will strengthen the persona he can use. Yu wants to ask for more information about why he can use more than one persona when Yosuke seems like he can only use one. He's not sure that he'll get a straight answer, though, and he'd rather not frustrate both himself and Igor for asking for answers to questions when he knows he won't receive them. Instead he just listens, and nods, and sucks in every piece of information he can possibly get.

Finally, the old man winds down. Margaret adds a last few cryptic words of warning of her own, and then just when Yu thinks he's about to be dismissed, when he can feel the subtle balance between sleep and this waking dream start to tilt toward sleep, he sees Margaret turn toward Igor.

"Do you think," she says quietly. "That it would be fair to warn him of the existence of the Trickster?"

Igor shakes his head, looking unruffled by the question, even as Margaret looks more worried than Yu has seen her before. "So long as the Trickster does not involve himself in events that are about to unfold, they should not become... complicated."

Margaret, who looks like she doesn't usually dare argue with Igor, bites her lip for a moment, then continues to do exactly that. "But if he does, then everything will change--"

"I believe," Igor says. "That our guest will prove himself up to the task."

He gives Yu a significant look from behind his unnervingly long nose, and that's the last thing Yu knows before sleep wins, and his awareness of the Velvet Room fades into dreams. And when he wakes again in the morning, the first thought he has--before even the TV world, and what it had shown him last night--is to wonder what exactly a Trickster is supposed to be, and how exactly they're supposed to complicate things. Something dangerous, probably. Something that's really going to make things harder for him and his friends while they try to investigate the TV world. Yu doesn't really think that Igor or even Margaret will give him any more information, so he makes a mental note to keep an eye out for whatever this new threat might be.

A loud thump from the other end of the room startles Yu into opening his eyes, and when he looks over he sees that a tired, bleary eyed Akira has missed the door and walked into a wall.

Yu shakes his head, banishes all thoughts of the TV world and the Velvet Room and Tricksters, and refocuses on Akira instead.

"...walked into the wall," Akira mumbles, rubbing his eyes. 

"I see that," Yu says. "Yea."

"...can I go back to bed?"

Yu hides a smile., and goes to help. Right now, in the light of day and the reassurance of the total normalcy of getting himself and the younger kids ready for school.

Whoever or whatever this Trickster is, they can wait until later.

Chapter Text

April 16 

After School

On Saturdays, when school only goes half the day, Akira's class is released at the same time as Nanako's, and he finds her waiting at the front doors so they can walk home together. 

"Do you think we could go to the high school and walk home with Yu?" Nanako asks. "The high school does half days on Saturdays too, right?"

"I think Yu probably wants to go somewhere with his friends," Akira says, because that's what's happened over the past few days. 

Nanako shrugs, and seems happy enough to have just Akira to walk home with. She tells him all about her day at school, which had obviously been better than Akira's own day--he hasn't been hit again since that first day in the shopping district (part of him hopes that having a high schooler come to bail him out had scared them off), but he's pretty much lost any chance of making friends. The black eye, which has only just started to fade, has turned out to be a kind of badge of shame. Ever since he showed up to school looking a little bit like a panda, the other students have avoided him and even the teachers keep looking at him like he's the one that's done something wrong.

A student that comes to school with a black eye is the kind of student that spends his free times getting into fights. A student that likes to fight is a delinquent that doesn't get along well with others and therefore not a good influence on the rest of the class.

At least Nanako and Yu still like him. 

"...and then our teacher gave us worksheets to finish for homework," Nanako says, her tone announcing that she's come to the end of her story. "Are you good at addition, Akira?"

Akira shifts, slightly guilty that he'd been only half listening to Nanako's story of her school day, nods at her. "Yea," he says. "Do you need help?"

"Maybe just a little," Nanako says. "But I want to try it by myself first!"

Akira hides a smile, but it fades as he remembers that he actually has plans for after school today. "How about you try it by yourself," he agrees. "And then if you don't have it figured out after dinner, I'll help you? There's something I wanted to take care of first."

"Okay," Nanako says, and luckily doesn't ask any questions. Since Akira's after school plans are to go back into the TV and try to get more answers out of Lavenza, he doesn't know what he would have said if she'd asked any questions.

They split up when they get into the house, Nanako going to the table downstairs to work on her addition, and Akira heading upstairs to his and Yu's room. He checks to make sure that Yu's not actually home, and since he doesn't see any sign of either him or his bag, decides he's probably safe.

The golf club is missing too, Akira can't help noticing. He wonders if Yu had taken it to school with him, and can't think of a single reason he would have done that.

With a shrug, Akira stops thinking about Yu, and drops his own school bag on the floor next to the shelf where the rest of his stuff is. Then he turns his attention to the TV.

He's been thinking about this for two straight days, and even though he knows he should be nervous (what if he has to fight something like the other Akira that had showed up last time? What if Lavenza's not there, or doesn't help him to get back out?). But he's not nervous. For a second, Akira raises a hand and lets his fingers rest gingerly on his black eye, and lets himself imagine the mark being covered by a mask.

He smiles.

Then he thrusts an arm forward, letting his fingers pass through the screen. It tugs him in like a suction, and Akira goes tumbling down in a freefall that does not scare him at all, this time.

When he lands--on his feet, mask forming from nothing in a puff of blue smoke--Lavenza is already standing there, arms crossed, expression resigned. "I remember asking you not to come back," he says.

"Well," Akira admits. "Yea, but you knew I was going to, right?"

Lavenza sighs. "This place is dangerous," she says. "It really is, and you are not ready to face it."

"I believe you," Akira says. "But that's why I think you should teach me."

"Absolutely not," Lavenza says. "You need to go home."

"I'll come back," Akira insists.

Lavenza makes a frustrated noise, and throws up her arms. "Why?" she demands. "Why do you want to be here so badly?"

"Because!"

"That's not a good enough reason!"

"Because--because I've felt like there's something wrong with me for a while." Akira balls his hands into fists, so tight he can feel the nails digging into his palms. "And when this happened, when Arsense..." The weight of him in the back of Akira's head is a comforting presence, more noticeable now than it had been back in the real world, where it's still noticeable but... less so, somehow. "I don't feel like that anymore," Akira says. He doesn't think he would have ever said this to anyone else, but after Lavenza had heard what the other Akira had said to him (and what Akira had said in response), he just doesn't feel like there's any point trying to hide things from her.

She knows him. She doesn't seem to care, or to find fault in anything he's done, other than coming into the TV world in the first place. Whatever he says to her, it's probably going to be fine.

"Trickster," Lavenza says. "You--"

"Plus," he goes on. "I'm not exactly popular at school."

"That's not a good enough reason--"

"There's Yu and Nanako at home," Akira says, refusing to back down. "They're really good. But I don't..." He looks at her, open and honest because there's no need to lie anymore. "I'm hoping we can be friends."

Whatever Lavenza had been about to say dies in her throat, unspoken. Her eyes and her mouth are both open too wide, and she stares at him for several seconds before managing to say anything at all. "That's really why you came back?" she asks.

"It's one of the reasons," Akira says. "Also, this place seems really cool and like I told you last time, I'm not just going to walk away."

They stare at each other for several seconds. Akira does his best to keep his expression fixed and determined, because he senses that if he wavers or shows any hesitation at all, Lavenza's not going to give in. She looks at him, serious, and then nods.

"Okay," she says. "If you're going to insist on coming back here, then I'll help you learn enough to survive."

"You'll teach me to fight?"

"As long as you promise not to take too many risks," she says. "If I say something is too dangerous for you, then it's too dangerous, and we leave."

"Okay," Akira says. "So where do we start?"

Where they start, it turns out, is a tour. They wander down metal walkways and over stages that all look pretty much the same to Akira. Lavenza insists she knows where they're going, and as they walk she tells Akira bits and pieces of what's going on with TV world. 

She explains that this place is an echo of human subconscious, an idea that Akira pretends to understand better than he actually does. Lavenza maybe notices the confused look in his eyes when he nods along, or maybe she doesn't, but either way she starts using smaller words, which Akira appreciates.

"The way people think affects the way things look here," she says. "Like your Shadow. It's a reflection of you, and the way you see yourself."

"Is that what it's called?" Akira asks. "A Shadow?"

Lavenza nods. "Until you accepted it, and it became your persona. Most Shadows aren't like that, though. They're not as powerful, and they're not so... specific. They're people's hopes, dreams, fears... their hearts made solid."

She's starting to lose him again. Akira nods like he's still totally following this.

"Most of the time," Lavenza says. "The Shadows around here aren't too violent. But there have been..." She stops her explanation suddenly, as if chewing on how much to tell him. "Things have been happening."

"What kind of--"

"Things, Trickster."

Akira rolls his eyes. She knows his name. 

"They've been getting more aggressive," Lavenza says. "In some places more than others, but--"

"But everything is dangerous," Akira says. "I know, really. I'll stay with you."

He's gotten a little ahead of her in his excitement, but he draws back so that they're walking side by side.

"Always pay attention to the fog," Lavenza says. "It's the same here as it is in your world."

"After the rain the other day," Akira says. "When they found... there was a body. I remember it was really foggy, and kind of... yellow and gross looking." She's right, actually, about it looking the same as the fog in here, the fog that had kept him from seeing more than ten feet in front of him until he accepted his Shadow--Persona--and took its mask. 

"When the fog clears here," she says. "It gets worse there. That's when the Shadows are really dangerous." She stops in her tracks, and levels a serious look at Akira, who follows her example, and stops in his tracks as well. "Trickster, promise me that you will never come here when the fog reaches your world."

Akira doesn't really like the fog. He thinks back on the body again, and how everyone had said they'd found it strung up on the wires over the town, and... he doesn't understand what's going on, but it's a promise that feels easy to make. He'll stay out of it, whatever it is. "Deal."

Lavenza nods, and starts walking again, but this time before she can start to explain anything else, Akira asks, "You keep calling it my world, does that mean you're from here?"

"No," Lavenza says. 

"So... you're from the real world too?"

"No," she says again.

"So you're from somewhere else?"

This question she doesn't answer, but when Lavenza looks sideways at her, she's wearing a smile that's almost a smirk, eyes bright, apparently enjoying his confusion.

"Lavenza," Akira says, in a mock serious tone. "That's not fair."

"I'm sorry," she says, not looking sorry at all. If anything, her smile has grown. "But there are some things I just won't tell you."

"Can't, or won't?"

She only shakes her head, still smiling, and then ignores all further questions about how she'd gotten here, how she knows so much, and why she doesn't just leave. She just smiles and distracts him by pointing out a passing Shadow.

It works extremely well. So far, she's steered them around every passing Shadow, keeping to what seem to be safer paths. Now that they're close enough to see one of them for himself, Akira realizes he's staring. All thoughts of where Lavenza had come from and what she's doing here fly completely out of his head. "That's gross," he announces, staring at the Shadow. It looks like a blob of tar oozing its way across the open space ahead of them, stubby tar hands flailing pointlessly in the air in front of it. 

"Are you still sure you wish to fight?" Lavenza asks. 

"I'm positive," Akira says.

Lavenza nods at the Shadow. "Then this is your chance," she says. "To try."

Akira hesitates. "What," he says. "By myself?"

"My role in this is not to fight with you," Lavenza says. "Or for you."

"You did before," Akira points out.

"Because you would have died," Lavenza says. "It was a battle you were not equipped to handle. This one you will face on your own."

Akira isn't sure that he's equipped to handle anything on his own. Of the last two fights he'd been involved in, one had been the one here, with Lavenza against his Shadow, and the other had been the one where he'd gotten a black eye. Winning fights is apparently not something he does.

"Go on," Lavenza says, and gives him a little nudge. "If you really get into trouble I'll do something, but you should be fine."

Akira goes. He comes at the Shadow from behind, because common sense says it's a better idea to try and hit it before it can see him and hit back. He doesn't have a weapon (he'd even take Yu's golf club, at this point), so he kind of jumps up and gives the Shadow an awkward (but enthusiastic) kick up the backside.

He's not sure it does any serious damage, but it definitely gets the Shadow's attention. With a gross bursting sound it explodes outward in a surge of tar, transforming into a kind of floating sphere with a tongue almost as tall as Akira is. There's a half a heartbeat where Akira's reaction wavers somewhere between oh shit and ew gross with a side of this is awesome, before settling somewhere between the last two. He settles into his best guess at what a fighting stance is supposed to be, and--acting purely on instinct--shouts for his Persona.

What happens next is awesome. Although Lavenza warns him after the fact that this particular Shadow is one of the weakest he could face here, Akira never quite forgets how it feels to fight his first Shadow. The magic (it has to be magic, doesn't it?) that his Persona can cast to attack feels like it's coming from somewhere deep inside him, somewhere close to the weight where Arsene seems to live when Akira's not here and fighting. It's like his will alone is enough to drive the Shadows away.

"I think it's probably time for you to be getting home," Lavenza tells him, after Akira has finished off that first Shadow, and then two more of the same, together in the same fight this time.

"Already?" Akira asks, but it's more for show than anything else. It's tiring to keep casting spells, and he'd taken a couple hits himself. He doesn't know if there's any kind of healing magic here, but if there is, then Arsene doesn't seem to know it.

"Yes, already," Lavenza says, giving him a look like she knows exactly how tired he is. Then she hesitates, and adds, "Next time, we'll try something a little tougher."

Akira grins, but does not comment on the fact that this time she'd been the one to bring up next time. Instead, he says, "I don't think I can come back for a couple of days." Tomorrow is Sunday, and even if Yu seems like he mostly wants to spend his time after school with friends, Akira doesn't know what he'll do with the day off.

"Good," Lavenza says. 

"But you should come visit me," Akira says.

Her expression twists up in an expression Akira can't quite name. Not quite surprise, not quite interest. "I... cannot," she says, slowly.

"You can't leave here?" he asks.

"I could," Lavenza says, like she's picking her words carefully. "But I... I am not supposed to be here at all. Here in this world, or there in yours. If I go there, I am much more likely to be found out."

She looks worried. 

"Would you get in a lot of trouble if you're caught?" he asks.

"I might," Lavenza says. "Or I might not." Her eyes look far away. "He is... difficult to predict sometimes. Even for us."

Akira bites down on the urge to ask who else is us. He doesn't think he's talking about the two of them, but herself and some other group Akira doesn't know anything about. He also doesn't think for a second that Lavenza will tell him if he does ask.

"Do you want me to stop coming?" he asks. His voice is as slow as hers now, because he doesn't really want her to say yes. On the other hand, if this is going to get her into some kind of serious trouble, he doesn't want her to keep risking that for him.

She considers this, and Akira is pretty sure she's going to say no. After all, she hadn't wanted him to come in the first place, so now that he's actually asking--

"You should come back," she says, just as Akira's convinced himself that she's going to say exactly the opposite. "I... would like to see what it means to have a friend."

Akira's smile is so big it hurts. "It's really good," he says. "And I'll be careful. Whoever you're hiding from, they won't ever know we're here."

"I hope not," Lavenza sighs, and Akira can't quite get a read on how she's feeling. "Now go home, Trickster."

He goes.

-//-

April 17

Morning

Akira is downstairs with Nanako, watching entirely normal, non-haunted, non-magic TV, when Dojima comes out of his own room, expression stormy, pulling on his jacket. His expression is so intimidating that Akira freezes in place for a second, then looks over at Nanako. She's looking back at him, eyes wide, and they share a look for a second that means what is going on? 

"Daddy?" Nanako asks, muting the TV and looking up at him. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," he says, sounding not fine at all. "I just need to go bail your cousin out of jail."

Akira and Nanako share another look, somehow even more surprised and worried. "What did Yu do?" Akira asks, scrambling to his feet. It's only been a week, but Akira has a hard time imagining Yu getting into the kind of trouble that would get him actually arrested.

"Him and his friend were waving weapons around in public," Dojima growls. "Idiots." And without any further explanation, he stomps out of the house.

"Oh no," Nanako says, her hands over her mouth. "Akira, he's going to get into so much trouble..."

It sounds to Akira like he's already in a lot of trouble.

He doesn't know what to say to make Nanako feel better, especially when he's worried too. They spend the rest of the day together, working slowly through their homework, and talking about everything other than Yu getting arrested. When Dojima finally comes home, both of them look up at him immediately, staring so intently that he's shaking his head before he even has his shoes off.

"What happened?" Nanako asks. "Is Yu going to be in jail forever?"

Dojima shrugs off his jacket and shakes his head. He looks to be in a slightly better mood than he had been earlier when he went storming out. "No," he says. "I got that taken care of, and Yu and his friend were released."

"So he's okay?" Akira asks eagerly.

"He's okay," Dojima assures both of them. "A little bit stupid, maybe, but he's also sixteen." He shakes his head again, and takes his usual place at the table next to the folded up newspaper he'd abandoned after this morning's phone call. "I just can't figure out why they were waving weapons around at the Junes food court in the first place."

"He was at Junes?" Nanako asks, because obviously that's the most important part of that story.

Akira beats a hasty retreat upstairs before she can start singing the jingle.

-//-

It's been a day.

Just being brought down to the police station would have been bad enough. Not that he can really blame people for being freaked out when he and Yosuke had brought actual weapons in. And it's not like it's all Yosuke's fault, either. They do need better weapons if they're going to get through the Shadows guarding Yukiko and rescue her before the fog clears in the TV world. 

They just... maybe also need to be a little bit better about hiding them.

The trip to the police station, followed by a trip to an actual smith in town, and then what must have been hours fighting through Yukiko's castle, has exhausted Yu. And he still has at least three hours of homework to look forward to, and probably an argument with his uncle on top of it.

He gets home a little before dinner, and finds Dojima alone in the kitchen, with the two younger kids nowhere in sight. Yu hovers awkwardly at the base of the stairs, not sure if he should say something or just try to get up to his room. Dojima looks absorbed in doing something with his coffee maker, but Yu waits a few seconds, and then a few seconds longer, giving his uncle time to acknowledge him if he wants to.

Eventually, he does. Turning, wiping coffee grinds off his hands, Dojima gives him a hard look that makes Yu squirm.

There are no words. Maybe Dojima thinks he's said everything he needs to already, down at the police station. Or maybe he can just tell by the look on Yu's face that he already knows he's been stupid. Either way, the moment ends with a terse nod of dismissal from Dojima, and Yu almost-but-not-quite running up the stairs, swearing to himself that he will never, ever do anything to get on Dojima's bad side again.

He finds Akira in their room, sitting in front of the low table with his back leaning against the sofa, reading a manga with such single minded intensity that he doesn't even notice Yu come in at first. Several seconds later he looks up, does a double take, then jumps to his feet, manga forgotten. "Yu!" he says. "Are you okay?"

"Yea," Yu says, trying to pretend that he hadn't just run up here to hide from his uncle. "Yea, everything's fine."

Akira is a smart kid, Yu has figured out already, and because Akira is a smart kid, he doesn't buy that for a second.

"Dojima said you got arrested."

"I got brought down to the police station and then got bailed out," Yu corrects. 

"Sounds pretty much the same," Akira says.

"It..." had kind of felt the same, honestly. Yu makes a face. "Never get arrested, Akira."

"I wasn't planning on it," Akira says. "Why were you waving a sword around?"

Yu's mind flies instantly to the katana hidden under his uniform. "It's a long story."

"You keep saying that," Akira complains. "You said that about the golf club before."

His first makeshift weapon, which he'd sold off today to help fund new weapons for their excursion today. Yu isn't exactly about to explain that, either. He doesn't exactly like keeping secrets, but he's determined to keep anyone else from finding out about the TV world. It's partly because he doesn't want some adult to find out about what thy're doing, and try to stop them. Maybe the adults will be well meaning, and assume that just because they're older, that they'll be able to deal with the things inside the TV better. And Yu doesn't agree with that. He and Yosuke and Chie and even Teddie--they're the ones with the Persona. He really doesn't think that anyone else is going to be able to fight off the Shadows the way that they can.

"Yu?" Akira says. He's still looking up at him, still waiting for an answer.

And Yu doesn't have one to give him. Because on top of his (very valid) reasons for keeping the TV world a secret from everyone else, he doesn't want to tell Akira or Nanako because he has a feeling they'll think it's cool. They'll want to try it too, and Yu had promised to help look after them. 

Leading them into a world of monsters does not count as helping to look after them. "It's a project for school," he says. "We're... researching historical weapons, and Yosuke--that's my friend that was brought down to the police station with me--he had a couple of replicas that he brought to Junes. We just got a little too enthusiastic with them."

"Really?" Akira asks, looking unconvinced.

"Really," Yu assures him.

Akira appears to think this over for a couple seconds, then says, "Where do you even go to get weapons, anyway?"

"You're not getting a weapon," Yu tells him.

"But it would help--" Akira almost visibly bites his tongue to stop himself from finishing whatever he'd been about to say, but Yu can pretty much guess.

"With the bullies at school?" he asks. "Akira, you can't just stab your classmates. Besides, I thought you promised you were going to tell me if they started to bully you again."

"They haven't," Akira insists.

"Oh yea?" His eyes sweep over Akira, passing across the familiar black eye and landing on a bruise under his chin. "You're looking a little more beat up."

"I'm okay," Akira says. "It's not other kids at school."

"Really?"

"Really."

Yu's starting to wonder how much of their relationship over the next year is just going to be a series of lies to each other--him trying to protect Akira by keeping the TV world a secret, and Akira lying about how bad things are at school.

The thought depresses him. They're going to be living together for months, he likes the kid, and there's no reason that they shouldn't be able to get along. He wants to offer something up as a kind of peace offering, but draws a blank. 

"Nanako was worried about you," Akira says softly. Yu's gaze--which had been wandering away as he tries to think of what to tell Akira--snaps back to him. "When Dojima ran out of here to go get you, we--she wouldn't stop worrying about you all day."

Yu does not miss the little slip of the tongue that tells him Akira had been as worried as Nanako. He caves a little bit. "Hey, Akira," he says. "Do you want to come hang out with me and my friends after school tomorrow?"

"Seriously?" Akria asks, and Yu is sort of flattered by how enthusiastic he sounds. He doesn't think that anyone has ever thought of him as cool before. 

"Yea," Yu says. Sure, it'll delay their search for Yukiko, but hadn't Igor just told him about how bonds with others will help him with his Persona? And taking a day off will give them a chance to rest (after a few hours in the TV world, all of them are about as bruised and battered as Akira). That will help too. "You get out of school a little earlier than us, so why don't you head to the shopping district and we'll meet up there?"

"Sure," Akira says, doing a not fantastic job of looking casual about this. Yu wonders if Akira's managed to make any friends at all since coming to Inaba, and feels bad for him all over again. Well... hopefully this will help. He's pretty sure Chie and Yosuke will be okay with it, and... well, he'll just have to make sure that no one mentions anything about the TV world, or suggests a stop at Daidara Metalworks for new weapons.

He has no idea what Akira wants a sword for, but figures he should probably try and keep him away from them.

"You don't have any other plans?" Yu asks.

"I mean... I had some plans, but not really... not for a specific day. I can go on Tuesday or something."

"Cool," Yu says. "Then I'll look for you after school on Monday."

That might have been the end of it, except that as he turns away to think about maybe starting the homework he hasn't even looked at yet, Akira says, "I'm not... I mean, I'm not going to get in the way?"

Yu looks back, and smiles at him. "You'll be fine," he says. "We're not that cool, Akira."

Akira mutters something that sounds suspiciously like I think you're cool, which Yu in turn pretends not to hear.

Peace in their shared bedroom is restored, at least for the rest of the night.

-//-

April 18

After School

Akira heads for Central Street after school, and paces up and down it a couple of times while keeping a wary eye open for any of his classmates that might be thinking about bothering him. On each pass, his eyes stray toward the mysterious blue door on the South end of the street, and as he returns from his second trip up and down the shopping district, Akira finally slows to a stop in front of it.

Just like he had on the day when his classmates had followed him out here and given him the black eye, he reaches out and tries to touch the door. For a second, he almost thinks he can feel it turn solid under his hand... and then the illusion is gone, and Akira is left holding his hand out over apparently empty air.

He's just thinking about how much the color of the door reminds him of Lavenza and her dress, when he hears someone calling his name.

And it's not Yu.

"I can't believe you actually came back here," the voice says, and Akira turns around to see that the boy that had given him the black eye is crossing the street toward him. He doesn't bother checking for cars, which makes sense, since there are never any cars around on this street. Somehow, it still makes for an intimidating image. Akira looks around for inspiration or distraction or even any sign of Yu coming down the street so save him again. There's a little huddle of high schoolers further up the street, but  none of them are Yu.

And then there's a kind of... shift, in his head. In the place where Arsene sleeps, waiting to be summoned. It's not as powerful as when he's in the TV world, just a little nudge against his subconscious. It's a reminder.

Akira stands up a little straighter, and is not afraid. He's fought Shadows, after all. He's faced his own Shadow, and made it into a Persona, he is not afraid of his own classmate. He takes a second look at the other boy (whose name he does actually know, now--he's been paying more attention in class, and has learned that his friends call him Daiki). He takes in the fact that even though he's bigger, it's not by much. And even if his face is meaner and tougher, the expression makes it look ugly and small. He's probably not even worth being afraid of.

"You didn't think I was ever going to come back to the shopping district?" Akira asks. 

Daiki flushes, and Akira can tell that his casual tone is confusing him. Obviously it's not something that's part of the script.

(And, a part of Akira wonders, how many other people has this boy beat up, to get used to the way it's supposed to sound?)

"I told you," Daiki says, and he sounds almost petulant. "I live around here. You shouldn't have come back."

"Why not?" Akira asks.

"I'll--I'll hit you again!"

"I don't think you will," Akira says. "Last time you got away with it because everyone was out looking at the body." It's still kind of hard to say body without letting his voice waver just a little bit, but Akira makes the effort to not sound scared in front of this guy. "That's not going to happen again, so if you start hitting me, and people hear it, they're going to come out and see what's going on." He looks pointedly at the open front of the bookshop next to them, and the metalworks shop on the other side. There are people out today too, mostly older people meandering down the street and doing their shopping. 

No one has ever looked at Akira with quite as much anger as Daiki is looking at him now. Probably, Akira thinks, all he's done here today is to make himself a real enemy. Probably, he's going to have to start being really careful about walking around town alone. But at least he's shown this guy that he's not going to be afraid of him.

Probably, that's only going to make him meaner.

For right now, though, Akira takes advantage of the sheer surprise that he's caused just by not being afraid. "I'm going to meet some friends," Akira says, and walks right past him, up toward the north end of the shopping district, hoping that Daiki will stop following him before he realizes Akira is just walking in that direction at random, and that Yu probably isn't even here yet.

Daiki doesn't try to follow him at all, which made Akira want to celebrate right then and there when he realizes. He doesn't. He keeps walking away, trying to look as cool as he possibly can, and only stops when he's up the hill a little and can tuck himself out of sight behind the corner of a building. 

He stands there for a few minutes, eyes closed, thinking hard about what kind of trouble he's probably going to get into now that he's annoyed Daiki even more. Probably another black eye, and best case scenario, Dojima notices (or Yu notices, and tells him), and then Dojima tries to call his parents.

And then fails to call his parents, because the phone number Akira had put on his application for the exchange program is technically correct, because it had been his mother's, but it's been disconnected for close to a year now.

He doesn't want to have to answer the questions Dojima will ask then.

He's going to have to make really sure that Daiki never gets a chance to give him a second black eye. Maybe he can use what he's learning in the TV world to fight back? But no, because (first of all) he isn't really fighting, it's mostly his Persona doing the work, and (second) because he doesn't want to give Daiki a reason to go to his parents or the school and say that Akira had been bullying him. He--

"Are you Akira, maybe?" a voice asks, and Akira starts and opens his eyes to see an older boy, one of the high schoolers that he'd noticed hanging around before, now standing in front of him. He's wearing an oversized pair of orange headphones, and looks pretty friendly.

Akira answers warily anyway. All the dwelling on Daiki and what was going to happen if things got worse has left him just a little bit paranoid. "Yea?" he says.

"We're Yu's friends," a second voice says, and Akira realizes there's a second, shorter person standing behind the boy with the headphones. She gives Akira a big smile that makes Akira relax a little bit. He's being weird about this. Yu's not going to make friends with people that are going to go around bullying people, is he? 

"I thought Yu would be with you guys," he says, looking around as if expecting Yu to pop out of hiding somewhere. It doesn't happen, obviously, so Akira looks back at the two people that are standing in front of him.

"He said he had to take care of something first," the girl says. "I thought he'd be done by now, though, that was a while ago." 

"Guess we'll just keep waiting," the boy says. "Akira, this is Chie--" he points to the girl. "I'm Yosuke,"

"I guess you already know who I am," Akira says. 

"Yea," Chie says. "Yu's talked about you."

Akira is weirdly happy to hear that. He tells himself that it's just because this afternoon would be really awkward to spend time with Yu's friends if they didn't know anything about him, and that it has nothing to do with the fact that he apparently cares what Yu thinks about him.

They end up sitting in front of a shop Akira hasn't been to before, which turns out to sell steaks that Chie is very enthusiastic about. She and Yosuke bicker about school and who owes money to whom and who should have paid for the steak. 

Akira, who had been given a plate with the other two without even asking, is just happy to have been included. He doesn't actually have money of his own (too young to work, and his parents aren't exactly sending him an allowance), so after thanking the two older students he just enjoys what he has.

"So how are you liking inaba?" Chie asks Akira, once she's won the argument and Yosuke has grudgingly agreed to pay for food next time (he'd paid this time too, Akira can't help noticing). 

Akira takes his time to answer, covering the pause with another bite. "I've only been here about a month," he says.

Yosuke flashes him a completely genuine smile. "I totally get it," he says. "I've only been here about a year, too. It takes a little getting used to."

"Yosuke!" Chie scolds.

"It does!" Yosuke insists. "There's not as much to do as there is in other places, it just... takes some getting used to."

Now that Yosuke's gone ahead and said that, Akira feels a little more comfortable giving his opinion. "It's different," he says. "Not bad. It's a lot quieter than the place I was living before this, but--" But the last place he'd lived hadn't had a secret world inside the TV. Or maybe it had? It's not like Akira had ever actually tried to stick his hand into a TV before getting here. But people would know, wouldn't they?

He realizes he's stopped talking, and the pause in the conversation is getting a little weird. "But I was at a boarding school before this," he says. "So it's kind of nice to be in a house with people again. And I like Yu and Nanako."

"Yu's living with his uncle, right?" Chie says. "What's he like?"

Akira hesitates, then admits, "A little scary sometimes."

"No kidding," Yosuke mutters.

"He's fine," Chie says.

"You wouldn't be saying that if you'd been the one arrested with Yu," Yosuke says. Akira takes another bite of his food and watches with interest. So this is the friend that Yu had gotten arrested with? Somewhere in the back of his mind he'd been picturing someone less... friendly than Yosuke. He really wants to hear what was actually going on.

Chie leans forward over the table and taps her finger authoritatively next to Yosuke's food. "I didn't get arrested because I wasn't waving my weapons around in the middle of Junes," she says smugly.

"Your weapons are shoes!" Yosuke says. 

"So?" Chie asks.

"So," Yosuke says. "There's nothing to wave!"

"Who are you fighting with shoes?" Akira asks, and both of them instantly go quiet.

"No one," Chie says, after a pause. "I just... like practicing kung fu moves from movies."

Akira hasn't quite finished giving them a seriously look, when Chie says (with obvious relief) that Yu's coming.

Distracted, Akira turns around in his seat to follow her pointing finger. Sure enough there's Yu, coming up the hill from the South side of the Shopping District. For some reason he's walking with a girl, whose expression is distinctly unhappy as she trails a step or two behind him. "Who's that?" Akira asks.

"Huh," Chie says. "I don't know, I've never seen her around."

"She doesn't go to our school, does she?" Yosuke asks.

"Nope," Chie says. "I wonder where he found her?" Then she raises her voice, waving and calling for Yu to come join them.

"You guys found Akira," Yu says. 

"Sure did," Yosuke says. "We've just been hanging out." There's not even a hint of accusation in his tone, and Yosuke doesn't really seem upset about waiting, so Akira doesn't point out that it's been a while either. He's really curious about what had held Yu up for so long and where he'd found the girl that had followed him here (and is now standing several feet behind him, arms crossed nervously over her chest). He has to bite his tongue to stay quiet.

"Yea," Yu says, and maybe he can feel Akira's eyes burning the question into him, or maybe he just knows he's been gone longer than he should have been, because he says, "Sorry. I know I kept you all waiting. I... something came up."

He glances back at the girl, who doesn't say anything for a beat too long, and then kind of raises her hand in a half wave. "Hi," she says.

"This is Marie," Yu says. "She's a friend of mine."

Marie looks at her when he says friend, like she doesn't expect to hear him say that, or maybe like she doesn't even know what the word means. 

Akira wonders where Marie had come from, if Yu's friend is saying she's never seen her before, and it's not like there's a whole lot of public transportation in Inaba. Maybe she'd gotten a bus here? Akira knows there's a bus stop down at the end of the road, so maybe--

"You guys want something to eat?" Chie asks, her voice pulling Akira out of his thoughts. "Yosuke's paying."

"What? Chie!"

The bickering about whose turn it is to pay picks right back up, this time joined by Yu, who seems to have heard this argument already. Akira doesn't really say anything, distracted by trying not to be caught staring at her without being caught. There's something about her that Akira can't quite put his finger on, something almost familiar. 

He's surprised when Marie uncrosses her arms just a little bit, and says to him, "You're a lot like Yu."

Akira, caught off guard by the realization that she's been staring at him while he's been staring at her, answers with, "Huh?"

Weirdly, Marie seems okay with it, unfolding her posture a little bit more. Part of Akira wonders if maybe she's relieved to not be the only one at this table feeling awkward.

"I don't know," she says. "There's just something about you that makes me think of him."

Akira shrugs. "I just met him a week ago," he says. Then, in a sudden burst of inspiration, he realizes what it is about Marie that seems familiar. It's the color, of her clothes, her bag, her hat--it's exactly the same color as Lavenza's dress. Not that it's normally something he'd care about, he doesn't really spend a lot of time thinking about girls' clothes, but there's something about this that just seems...

Important.

"You remind me of someone too," he blurts, and her eyes go wide.

"Really?"

"Yea."

"Who?"

Akira pauses, remembering how worried Lavenza had been about getting in trouble. "Just someone," he says. "A friend." 

Marie gives him a curious look that Akira can only manage a shrug in answer to.

Yu makes an effort after that to pull both of them into the conversation, and Akira doesn't have any more time to think about whether it's important that he keeps feeling like there's something important about the way she makes him think about Lavenza.

When the group finally splits up and everyone starts heading home, Akira sticks by Yu, assuming they're going to walk back together. 

"I just have to take Marie back home," Yu says. "It'll just take a couple of minutes."

"She lives close?" Akira asks.

"It'll only take a few minutes," Yu says, which isn't really an answer, but Akira isn't sure how to push without being weird about it. So instead he just follows Yu and Marie back down the street to the South end of the shopping district, kind of by where the invisible blue door is. Akira glances around, doing a check for Daiki just in case his classmate decides to show up and start causing trouble again. 

When they're almost at the end of the street, level with the bookshop and the mystery blue door, Akira takes another careful look around--and when he looks back, Marie is just gone.

Akira stops in place, looking around again, this time for Marie instead of for Daiki. It's only been a couple of seconds, she can't possibly have gone that far. "Where--" he starts to say.

"Come on," Yu says, like nothing is wrong.

"Where did she go?" Akira insists.

"I told you," Yu says. "Back home."

"But where--"

"Let's just go home," Yu says. "I don't want to be too late getting back today."

Okay, Akira decides, as he begrudgingly traipses after him. Yu is definitely keeping secrets.

But so is he. So maybe it's not the best idea for him to start asking questions.

-//-

April 18

???

When Yu returns Marie to the Velvet Room--leaving her at the door and letting her duck back inside before Akira can see it happen--she's surprised (and a little bit annoyed) that her usual seat has been filled by someone she's never seen before. A girl maybe about the same age as Yu's brother-but-not-really-a-brother, who sits with her hands folded in her lap, expression frozen into a mask of no-expression.

"Are you replacing me, Nose?" Marie asks, flopping down on the seat that Yu usually takes when he comes to visit them. She doesn't know how she feels about the idea of him replacing her--on the one hand, sometimes she thinks she'll go crazy stuck in this tiny room all the time, with no freedom and no memories and nothing but her poetry (that she will never, ever tell anyone about, ever) to keep her company. And today, now that she's had a chance to get out and see Yu's town and the kinds of other things there are in the world, the Velvet Room seems even smaller.

On the other hand, if she isn't here, where would she go? She doesn't belong anywhere.

The realization sets her expression firmly into a scowl, something that Margaret obviously notices because she shoots Marie a behave, please look. Marie recognizes it instantly, due to the fact that she's on the receiving end of it at least five or ten times a day.

She elects not to behave, please, rolling her eyes and adopting a slouchy, less than polite posture. "Nose?" she says again. "Did something happen?"

There's not going to be an explanation, she knows. The Nose doesn't tell her anything, and Margaret isn't going to say anything after the aforementioned lack of behaving, please.

The new girl surprises Marie by offering up an explanation for her own presence. "My name is Lavenza," she says. "I am an attendant of a Velvet Room as well, just... not this one."

"An attendant, like Margaret is?" Marie asks.

A nod from Lavenza.

"But for someone else? Not for Yu?"

Another nod.

Marie has not spent every waking moment in this room for nothing, and she's picked up a thing or two during her time here. "Hang on," she says. "I thought the Velvet Rooms were custom made for each guest. I thought 'nothing happens in this room without a reason.'"

The Nose speaks then, offering up a rare explanation. "This is not the only Velvet Room," he says.

"Obviously," Marie mutters under her breath. Or else why would they be talking about Lavenza belonging to another Room?

"The guest of the room to which Lavenza here will one day belong has strayed too close to events here," the Nose says. "It is creating... disruptions." His eyes slide over the long expanse of his nose, looking from Marie to Lavenza. 

"Who is it?" Marie asks.

"He is not someone that should become involved with events taking place here," Margaret explains, in that tone of voice she uses when she's not planning to give Marie any more information. It's a tone that Marie has gotten very used to hearing, and very used to not liking. 

"That doesn't mean you can't tell me," she says.

But Margaret continues (unsurprisingly) to not tell her. She turns to Lavenza instead, since the younger girl has at least given her some information. "Does this mean that you're going to be sticking around for a while?" she asks.

"I don't expect I will," Lavenza says, and Marie is surprised to see the ghost of a smile around the corners of the girl's mouth. It isn't the polite-but-shut-up smile that Margaret sometimes gives her, or the definitely-plotting-something smile that seems to be the only one Igor can usually manage. Lavenza's smile is more genuine. Marie doesn't know the words to describe the feeling behind it, but she thinks she likes it. "My guest is a Trickster, and more inquisitive than most, but once he loses interest in the Velvet Room I suspect things here will go back to normal."

"So it's just because he's close to here that you're in here?" Marie asks, her mind jumping back to the street outside the Velvet Room that she'd seen while Yu walked her back. There weren't a lot of options to choose from, and she couldn't help sizing up who seemed the most likely.

"Yes," Lavenza says.

Marie's still running through options and trying to decide how close is close enough, when she suddenly blinks and Lavenza is just gone. Marie is still trying to get used to the Velvet Room and all its rules (which she sometimes thinks are just entirely made up, or at least created entirely for her confusion), so Lavenza's disappearance takes her by surprise more than it does the Nose or Margaret. Both of them seem entirely comfortable with the fact that Lavenza had been there a second ago, and that now she's simply gone.

"So where does she go while she's waiting?" Marie asks, pointing at her empty seat. "If she's not supposed to be around until... whenever, where is she now?"

"Not here," Margaret says firmly. "And hopefully, not somewhere that she'll be able to make any trouble while she's waiting."

The Nose doesn't say anything, but as Marie gets up and shuffles across the cramped length of the Velvet Room to her usual seat, she sees him smiling. It's a hard smile to read, an expression she doesn't have the experiences to try and guess a meaning for. 

(Later, after an interminable amount of time spent with nothing to do but think and maybe try to write some top secret for her eyes only poetry), she decides that she does have a guess about what that smile means.

Trouble. It means that there's going to be some kind of trouble, and that Igor knows full well--knows better than any of them, probably even better than Lavenza herself, what trouble she's going to be getting into.

Marie resolves to keep a close eye on whatever happens next, because she's pretty sure that whatever it is, it's going to be a lot more interesting than more time sitting around in here with nothing to do.

Trickster, Lavenza had called this unknown future guest of the Velvet Room. Marie resolves to keep an eye out for someone that seems to match that description.

Chapter Text

April 25

Morning

Akira wakes up to the sound of Yu trying very, very hard not to make any noise. It's a going into the TV day today, which means that Akira had gone to bed early the night before to get a good night's sleep. He's been in three times now (four, counting that first day when he hadn't done any fighting, and had just let Lavenza deal with his Shadow for him. He still feels bad about that). By now he knows that fighting Shadows in the TV world makes him tired like nothing else can.

He's never been so good about getting to bed early, and eating all his vegetables at meals. 

But now he's awake, and it's early, and Yu is making just enough noise that Akira can't actually ignore it and go back to sleep.

"...time is it?" he mutters, and Yu pauses in his rummaging. 

"Still half an hour before you have to be up," he says. "Go back to sleep, Akira."

Akira, because he is bad at doing what he's told, rubs his face and sits up on his elbows instead. "Why are you awake?" he asks.

"I'm just getting some stuff ready for school," Yu says. "I didn't mean to wake you up."

Akira stares at him for another few seconds, processing things slowly. Yu watches him, too, and after a second Akira realizes that Yu's not going to do anything until Akira's not looking at him any more. He lowers himself back down onto the sofa, pulls the blanket up, and dutifully shuts his eyes. He listens hard until he hears Yu go back to whatever he'd been doing before, then slides his eyes open without moving any of the rest of him.

Yu's packing a bag. He puts in about half a vending machine worth of soda cans, some junk food, and then--when he happens to turn and catch Akira with his eyes open--a few more hasty additions that Akira can't see.

"Are you having a party?" he asks, as Yu shifts so that he's crouched between his bag and Akira.

"What?"

"That's a lot of junk food," Akira says. "It's not all for you, right?"

"It's... yea. I'm hanging out with some friends after school."

"Yosuke and Chie?" Akira asks. There's no point in pretending he's sleeping now, so he sits up and starts looking around for his school clothes. "And Marie?"

"Probably not Marie," Yu says. "But Yosuke and Chie. And... hopefully Chie's friend Yukiko."

"Someone at school was talking about a Yukiko," Akira says, and thinks hard as he tries to remember what he'd overheard. It hadn't been something someone had said to him, just something he'd happened to hear while he was being ignored by his classmates during lunch. 

"You might have heard she's missing," Yu says. "She hasn't been home for a while, but... I think she might make it back soon." For some reason, he looks very serious and a little bit nervous as he says this. 

Akira frowns. He doesn't think that is where he heard the name Yukiko, actually, and he thinks it over while he gets up, dresses, brushes his teeth, and helps Yu and Nanako make breakfast. He's still mulling it over as they make breakfast small talk, and then when the three of them leave the house, suddenly his eyes go wide. "Yu!" he says. "Yu, I just remembered where I heard about Yukiko!"

Yu and Nanako are in the middle of a very serious conversation about an anime Nanako likes, and both of them break off and look at Akira when he bursts out with this announcement.

"Chie's friend Yukiko," Akira explains. "You said I probably heard her name because she's been missing, but that wasn't it! These kids at school were talking about the midnight channel, and they said they were watching, and they saw someone named Yukiko dressed up like a princess in a castle, and--"

He stops. Yu is giving him a look that pretty obviously means to stop talking.

"What?" Akira asks. "I didn't see it, I just heard people talking about it at school."

"Just... probably stay away from the Midnight Channel," Yu says. "Trust me on this one, okay?"

"I don't watch it," Nanako says.

"Neither do I!" Akira protests.

"It's just an urban legend, anyway," Yu says firmly. "Don't worry about it."

"Okay," Akira says. "Sure. It's probably not connected anyway. it's not like Yukiko is a weird name or anything. Plenty of people are named Yukiko."

Yu relaxes a little bit. "Yea," he says. "Definitely not related."

They don't talk about it again on the way to school, and when Akira and Nanako turn off on the road to the elementary school while Yu keeps walking to the high school, he's almost stopped thinking about it altogether.

"I think princesses are pretty cool," Nanako says, when Yu is out of earshot. Akira is startled for a second, then gives Nanako a small smile. "I don't think Yu was mad or anything," he says. "He's just weird about the Midnight Channel."

"Maybe he thinks it really is haunted," Nanako says. She doesn't really look convinced.

Akira doesn't think that's it either. "No way," Akira says. "Not Yu." Yu wouldn't believe in something that dumb, even if... well, even if he does spend a lot of time staring at the TV in their room in the middle of the night. 

Maybe he really is just that bored. Maybe messing around with the Midnight Channel is the most fun thing Yu's been able to find in Inaba.

If only he knew, Akira thinks to himself as he waves goodbye to Nanako and heads for his own classroom. If only he knew the cool stuff that's really in the TV. Fighting Shadows in the TV world is way better than all these Midnight Channel rumors.

The classroom is half full when Akira gets there, and Daiki and his friends start whispering to each other as soon as they see Akira. He ignores this, because it's gotten to be normal, and sidles past them to his desk on the far end of the room.

His desk has been gratified, either after school or earlier this morning. Akira wipes at it experimentally, and then decides it must have been done earlier this morning. The words are rubbing off to easily to have been there overnight. 

By the time their homeroom teacher comes in, Akira's desk is clean and he is sitting there ready to learn. He's pretty sure that it bothers the bullies when he doesn't react to whatever new ways they keep coming up with to bother him, but he's not going to pretend to be upset when he's not.

He has a secret, and superpowers, and most importantly he has a friend that they can't take away from him or scare off. Lavenza has fought Shadows, she's not going to be scared by a bunch of kids. And today, after school when normally he'd just be sitting around with his homework or wandering aimlessly around town, he's going to be exploring inside the TV instead.

Compared to that, lessons and bullies just don't bother him.

He reaches for the familiar presence of Arsene, and is comforted when he finds him there, as ready for the afternoon's adventure as Akira himself is. He doesn't understand how Persona actually work, but on some level he understands that Aresene is a part of him, good parts of him that hadn't been able to come out to the forefront of his mind thanks to his time in the TV world. 

He sits up tall at his desk, and answers the teacher's questions correctly, and the way he's ignored at lunch doesn't bother him at all, really, and then finally the after school cleaning is finished, he bolts away from the classroom and heads straight home without stopping for anything. Yu has his plans with his friends after school, which means that Akira has plenty of time to get up to their room and into the TV without being caught.

Sure enough, there's no one else home when Akira gets there. Yu is probably with his friends, Dojima is at work, and Nanako--as usual--had planned to walk home with a friend after the first graders were dismissed, so she could stay at the friend's house instead of her own home, alone. Akira figures he has at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, before he'll have to get back out.

Plenty of time.

He makes the usual trip through the TV screen, falling through nothing in a tumble that's a lot more fun than scary after doing it a few times. 

Lavenza is already there when Akira lands, leaning against a metal girder and apparently lost in thought as she stares out at something that happens to be behind Akira. He turns, curious, and through the fog--just barely visible from behind the mask--sees the distant, towering shape of an unknown building. "What's that?" he asks, and Lavenza's gaze snaps onto him. "Nothing," she says.

"It looks pretty big to be a nothing," Akira points out. "Can we go look at it?"

"No."

"Please?"

Lavenza gives him a look. Stern. Disapproving. Already cracking under the weight of Akira's pleading expression. 

"You're not very good at taking no for an answer, Trickster," she says.

"I'm stubborn," he says. "My... parents always said that."

"They were right," Lavenza tells him. There's a pause, then she asks, "Why are you so determined to... to see everything, and try everything, and see everything. There are plenty of people that wouldn't ever have wanted to come back here after what happened to you, and if they did come back, they wouldn't be always throwing themselves into fights, or off into random castles--"

"That's a castle?" Akira demands, spinning around to face the looming building again. From this distance and with nothing around to compare it to, he can't really tell what it is--but he believes Lavenza when she calls it a castle. "We definitely have to go, Lavenza, that's cool."

"You didn't answer my question, though," Lavenza says, and Akira forces himself to think about that instead of about the castle.

"I guess I don't really have a reason not to," he says. "And it feels... special, being here." He thinks about what it had been like in school today, knowing that the teasing doesn't mean anything compared to this, and he says, "This feels like somewhere that I... I don't know. Matter."

Lavenza's expression softens a little. "Trickster," she says. "You matter."

He turns his face away so she won't see him flush, and does a nervous, dancing shuffle away from her. "So let's go check it out?" he suggests, and Lavenza allows him to lead the way.

As they walk, she warns him several times to be careful within the castle, explaining that the Shadows there will be stronger and more aggressive than the stragglers Akira has been training against. 

"So we'll be sneaky," Akira says. "The Shadows will never see us." 

"And if they do?" Lavenza asks.

"Then I'll fight them," Akira says. 

"This seems like it's going to go terribly," Lavenza says with a little sigh.

 Akira turns to her (without stopping or slowing down, because that will only give her an excuse to change her mind), and says, "Why do you keep doing this?" he asks. "You asked me why I keep coming here, but why do you...?" 

He trails off, and she doesn't answer.

Akira tries again.

"I know you said you don't want me to get stuck here because--I don't know, I guess something's going to happen at some point? But you don't have to keep helping me."

"Are you complaining?"

"No," Akira says. "I'm just wondering."

She doesn't answer again for a long moment, and then she says, "I told you before that I could get into a lot of trouble for letting you get so close to--well, other things that are happening. But you are the most interesting thing that has happened to me. And when you come here, I... have fun."

She says this almost grudgingly, but the words send a warm flush of relief all the way through Akira. So far, she's done nothing but help him, and he hasn't been able to do anything to help her in return. Hearing that she isn't actually as annoyed as she always acts somehow makes Akira feel more confident about being here.

"We're friends," he says. "Aren't we?"

"We're friends," Lavenza says.

They reach the castle.

-//-

 April 25

After School

It's taken them several days to climb up to the top floor of Yukiko's castle to reach her, but Yu is convinced--Yu is determined--that this will be the last day. They're not going home again without her, no matter what it takes to make sure that happens. 

"There's not very much of the castle left," he tells the group as they huddle in an out of the way room that they've already checked thoroughly for Shadows or traps. They hadn't found any, but still they keep their voices down and their words quick, like they're racing to finish before the Shadows can track them down. "Yukiko has to be close, and we have to be ready for whatever we're going to find there." He looks at Teddie, the only one of the group that really knows anything about the TV world. Sure, he looks like some kind of walking, talking mascot suit, but he's also the only reason they have any idea of what they're doing. "Do you think we're going to be able to just take her when we get there?" he asks. 

Teddie's weirdly huge eyes are wider than usual. He looks surprised and nervous, which is fair because all of them are pretty nervous about this. They'd stocked up on healing items and bought new weapons, on the kind of paranoid assumption that this is going to get worse before it gets better. The only question is how much worse.

"I think there's some kind of a powerful presence up ahead!" Teddie says. "But I don't know how powerful."

"You don't have any idea?" Yosuke asks, tapping a foot against the ground, hand nervously grasping the handle of his weapon. The way he asks the question might have seemed rude, except that Yu can tell that Yosuke is scared. 

Sure, why not? Yu is scared too. The regular Shadows they've faced on the way up here have been bad enough, but Teddie's describing this one as powerful. 

"We're still gonna go in there though, right?" Chie demands. "We can't give up now!"

She's been worried about her friend. Yu can't blame her, especially after seeing her own Persona awaken--she obviously cares about Yukiko a lot, and more than anyone else she's been pushing to get through the castle to wherever Yukiko is. She's practically a ball of nervous energy now, hopping from foot to foot like they're already in battle.

"We're not giving up," Yu promises. "We're going on as soon as we've had a chance to rest up."

"I'm rested," Chie says. "I'm ready!"

Yea, she's definitely ready. Yu turns to Yosuke and kind of raises his eyebrows, and Yosuke sort of shrugs like yea he's good to go too, and Yu nods back. "Okay," he tells Chie. "Let's go, then."

It's funny, kind of. The closer they get to the top of the castle, the more he's kind of gone from unofficially calling the shots in battle (because he's the one with extra Persona and sometimes being able to switch tactics like that in the middle of battle does make the difference between winning and losing) to just... being the leader. Now that they're at the very top, moving down the hall and up one final staircase and into a room where Teddie warns he can sense something powerful, Yu is very aware of the fact that he is leading is friends into battle.

He's very aware, too, that if they fail to rescue Yukiko here, or if Yosuke or Chie don't make it out, that it's going to be his fault.

His fault. His fault. The thought pounds in his head all the way through an unexpected fight with Yukiko's Shadow (but maybe he should have expected it? He's seen it with Yosuke and Chie by now). It pounds in his head as the fight ends, and they go running to make sure Yukiko's okay. It's still there, but starting to fade ever so slightly, as she accepts her Shadow as herself, and gains a Persona of her own.

It's not quite over yet. They still have to get out of the castle, back to the stage where the exit to the real world is, then somehow out through Junes without someone going hey that's that girl that got kidnapped, and all the way to Yukiko's place--

His brain is running five steps ahead of where they are right now, he realizes, and forces himself to stop. One step at a time. 

"I think Yukiko's going to be okay," Chie announces, as Yu shakes himself out of his distraction.

"Good," he says. 

"She's out cold," Yosuke says, after a pause in which he crouches down next to Chie and Yukiko. "But I think we can carry her out. You have the Goho-M, right?"

"Got it," Yu says. "Everyone ready to get out of here?" 

"Super ready," Chie says.

"Everything hurts," Yosuke says.

"So... yes?" Teddie asks.

"Yes!" Yosuke says, and Chie snickers. It lightens the mood just a little, and as Yu fishes the Goho-M out of his bag (a lot lighter, now that they've used most of their healing items), he's not thinking of the next six problems they're going to have to fix to get Yukiko home, he's just thinking that they did it.

And then the Goho-M kicks in, and the five of them are whisked away from the top floor and brought instantly back to the entrance. Yu is standing at the back of the group with Teddie, while Chie and Yosuke kind of balance Yukiko awkwardly between them to help carry her out. They're fully focused on not dropping her, and Teddie has his attention fixed on cheering them on, but something makes Yu pause and look back over his shoulder.

There's someone there. 

-//-

Akira and Lavenza make it... maybe five minutes into the castle. They're still in the main hallway when Akira's first fight with a Shadow (definitely harder than any of the ones he'd fought wandering around outside) when it does something he's never seen before, and starts to talk to him.

This freaks Akira out so much that he immediately calls his Persona and casts eiha and then the Shadow is gone.

"What... was that?" he asks Lavenza.

She's watching, as usual. After that first fight with his Shadow-that-had-become-Arsene, she's never jumped in to help him with combat. It's not going to help anything if she does all his fighting for him, so mostly she just gives advice instead.

Akira could really use some advice on why Shadows are talking to him now, and what he's supposed to do about it."

"You could always try talking back to them," she says.

"But they've never done it before!" Akira says. He keeps his voice quiet even as he freaks out, because he's not freaking enough to forget that there are still other Shadows around, and he doesn't want to get swarmed by them.

Lavenza looks at him, then a little smile creeps over her face. 

"It's not funny!" Akira hisses. "I don't know why the Shadow did that!"

"I haven't seen you freak out like that since the first day we met," she says. 

Akira is torn between protesting that he'd had a really good reason to freak out on the first day they'd met, or protesting that he's not freaking out now. He says, "Aren't the Shadows like... evil? If they're talking to me, doesn't that make me like them?"

Lavenza's smile fades, and she shakes her head. "That's not--no. Shadows aren't all evil, Akira. They're... humanity."

"They're people?"

"No," Lavenza says. "That's--no. They're parts of the way humanity thinks. That's all."

Akira doesn't understand what that means, at least not all of it. "You're... sure they're not evil?" he asks.

"Do you think Arsene is evil?"

"That's different," Akira says. "He's my Persona. Other Shadows aren't going to be like that."

Her smile comes back, and she gives him a pat on the shoulder. "Talk to the next one that tries to talk to you," she says.

"You're sure--"

"Trust me?"

He still doesn't understand her, doesn't know where she'd come from or why she cares so much about what happens to him, or even why she's so good at fighting Shadows. But yea. The one thing he does know is that he trusts her.

So they keep creeping around the first floor of the castle--one brief trip up to the second floor tells Akira that he's definitely not ready to face the harder Shadows up there yet--and finally he comes across another Shadow that wants to talk. It's back by the entrance, maybe a hundred feet away down a long, straight hallway that's just barely in sight of the big doorway, and when the Shadow is low on health and almost dead, it does what that Shadow earlier had done, and tries to talk to him.

"Go on," Lavenza murmurs, and Akira swallows down his nerves.

"Spare me," the Shadow says, and Akira doesn't know exactly what he would have imagined a Shadow's voice should sound like, but it turns out that it just kind of sounds... normal. 

"Wh-what?" he says.

"Spare me!" the Shadow says again, a creeping note of desperation in its voice now. "And I can lend you my power!"

"What does that actually mean, though?" Akira asks cautiously.

"Please!"

"Okay, okay! But what--"

He doesn't get to finish the question, though, because as soon as he says okay, the Shadow sort of dissipates and lunges at him, so abruptly that Akira gasps and scrambles back, falling onto his butt as the Shadow absorbs itself into his mask, and into him, too. Akira can feel it settling close to where Arsene lives inside his mind. 

Woah. 

-//-

Yu takes a couple of uncertain steps toward the figure on the ground, squinting to try and get a better view of the little cluster of people at the far end of the hallway. It's something new, something he hasn't seen so far inside the TV world. Does this mean there's someone else in here too? Someone other than his friends? 

He's only made it a few steps when he sees that whoever it is, they're actually talking to the Shadow.

Weird. Not good. And what happens next is--well, what happens next is that the Shadow surges upward and merges with the crouched figure, rushing right at his face and becoming a part of him. 

It's almost (almost) like what Yu can sometimes do after battles, when he collects new Shadows. Only it's not quite that... invasive when he takes a new Shadow into himself. It's different, and somehow...

Somehow, Yu doesn't like it. Somehow, he doesn't trust it. 

He takes another step forward, still uncertain. 

Out of nowhere, he remembers Margaret in the Velvet Room talking about a Trickster. This might be it. He might actually be face to face with whoever the Trickster is, and Yu isn't sure if this is the best time to deal with it. After all, they'd just finished fighting Yukiko's Shadow, they're all worn out--

"Hey!" Yosuke calls from outside the castle gate. "You coming, Yu?"

But what if he never sees the Trickster again? He doesn't want to risk letting this opportunity pass, so he takes several decisive steps down the hallway, toward the trickster.

"Give me a minute," he calls back over his shoulder. "I just want to check something out really quick."

-//-

Akira blinks a couple of times, adjusting to the sudden invasion of a new Persona into his mind, then looks at Lavenza. "You could have warned me!" he says.

"Yes," she agrees. "But that wouldn't have been as much fun."

Akira stares at her for another few seconds, as a grin spreads over her face, then he smiles too and bounces up to his feet. "I didn't know I could do that," he says. "How can I do that? Why can I do that? Can I do that again?"

She chooses to answer only the last question. "Yes," she says. "You can do it again."

"Cool," Akira says. "Let's--" He pauses, taking a mental inventory. He doesn't feel tired the same way he had when he got Arsene, so he could keep going... but on the other hand, he's been at this longer than usual already, and he's a little bit beat up. "Let's do it again," he says, slightly more calmly. "But... next time."

He expects her to be happy that he's not trying to push his limits, and pulling out of the TV world early. Instead, she makes a kind of distracted humming noise, and looks past him toward the castle's exit. Akira turns to look, but she pulls him back before he has a chance to see whoever it is. "Upstairs," she says. "Trickster, upstairs, now."

"What? But the Shadows up there are too tough for me to--"

"Then I will help you," Lavenza says. "But you cannot stay here."

"Is something dangerous coming?" Akira asks, pulling against her hand (she is surprisingly strong, it turns out), and straining to look behind him.

"Just... something you shouldn't be involving yourself with," Lavenza says. "Now come, please."

It's the please that gets through to Akira, and convinces him to stop trying to get away from her. He hasn't known Lavenza for very long, but he's quickly learning that there are times he can get away with pushing his luck, and times when it's obviously more serious and he shouldn't be arguing. He stops fighting her, and turns to follow her.

They go running up the stairs to the second floor, and then to Akira's surprise they keep going, down one hallway and around a corner into another. They stick to the edges of the hall, out of sight as much as possible, relying on stealth to get them past the Shadows. They finally stop at a big open room, where Lavenza gives him an apologetic look. "Thank you for not arguing back there," she said.

"It seemed like it was a pretty big deal," Akira says. "I mean, you could always tell me about whatever it was now that we got away from whatever it is." He shoots her a hopeful smile, which she does not return.

"I'm sorry," she says. "But there are things going on here that you should not involve yourself with."

"Is it because it's dangerous?" Akira asks.

"Not exactly."

"Then why did we have to run all the way up here?" Akira asks.

Lavenza only sighs, and doesn't look at Akira. "Don't take this the wrong way, Trickster," she says. "But I simply cannot tell you. Will you... trust me?"

And because she's never steered him wrong yet, Akira does.

-//-

Five steps into the hall, Yu realizes that he's not going to catch the Trickster. Not unless he wants to risk being caught alone in a fight. He watches the pair he'd seen go running up the stairs to the second floor of the castle, and wishes he's maybe tried to come at it a little more stealthily.

"Yu!" Yosuke calls, and this time he can hear Chie and Teddie calling too. He thinks he even hears Yukiko calling, and he's distracted from thoughts of the Trickster by the idea that she might have actually woken up. He turns and walks quickly back to the entrance, where Yukiko actually has woken up, although she looks pretty groggy. 

"What took you so long?" Yosuke asks. 

"Nothing," Yu says. "It doesn't matter, I thought I saw something."

"Saw what?" Chie asks.

Yu almost brushes the question off, but then he looks around at his friends, and sees that none of them are going to take no for an answer. They're close enough by now--the bonds and social links that Margaret had told him about have gotten strong enough--that he can read that in their determined expressions.

"Okay," he said. "So, I heard from someone--" He still hasn't explained the Velvet Room, and doesn't want to dive into that now, of all times. "About this... I don't know. Person, I guess? Someone active in the TV world, at least. He's called the Trickster, and apparently he's some kind of trouble. I've been kind of keeping an eye out for him and I thought I saw someone back there."

"Trickster," Teddie echoes, looking thoughtful.

"Have you heard about anything like that?" he asks, but the bear just shakes his head.

"Sorry," he says. "It sounds beary strange, though!"

"I wonder what someone called Trickster would be like," Chie muses. "Dangerous?"

"Definitely trouble," Yu says. "And pretty much everything else we've seen in here has been dangerous--"

"Except Teddie," Yosuke points out.

"Hey!" Teddie puffs himself out even more than usual. "I can be dangerous!"

"Yea," Yosuke says. "Right. Anyway, I guess you have a point. We should probably keep an eye out for this Trickster guy, whoever it is."

"Yea," Yu says. "And..."

"And?" Yukiko prompts. Yu shoots her an apologetic look (because he had not meant for this to be her first introduction to the TV world), then nods.

"And when I was in there, I saw the Trickster--assuming this is the Trickster--sort of take a Shadow into himself."

"Ew," Chie says. "What did he do, eat it?"

"No," Yu says. "It kind of flew at him and merged with him, it was... strange."

"Well that definitely sounds suspicious," Chie says. "Weird."

Nods all around, and then Yu sighs. "But anyway," he says. "We should probably get out of here. We need to get Yukiko home, and we could all probably use some rest."

"Any idea how we're going to get Yukiko back without anyone spotting her?" Yosuke asks under his breath, when they're all walking back in a huddle.

"I--actually, I do." He'd been worrying about it earlier, but an idea has just popped into his head, fully formed. "We want someone else to find her, someone that's going to have... an alibi, I guess? Someone that hasn't been busy jumping into the TV for the past few days."

"Yea, but how are we going to make sure it's someone that'll go along with it, and not ask any questions?" Yosuke asks.

"I figured I could call Akira when we get out of here," Yu says. 

"And he won't ask questions?"

Yu shifts a little uncomfortably. "I think... he's kind of getting used to not getting a full explanation from me about things," he admits. "He's seen me with the Midnight Channel a couple times, and I woke him up the day I got my hand stuck in there, so... he's just getting used to it."

And Yu feels bad about that, but... not bad enough to keep him from calling Akira when he gets back to the real world. The rest of the group will join him after Akira gets there to 'discover' Yukiko.

He calls the Dojima's home phone, which rings through to voicemail.

Yu frowns. He hasn't considered what to do if Akira isn't at home. With no other ideas, he calls again.

This time, Akira picks up on the third ring.

"Hello?" he asks, sounding younger than usual through the phone's speaker. He also sounds out of breath.

"It's me," Yu says. "Yu."

"Oh," Akira says. "H-hi, Yu." He's definitely panting, and Yu frowns.

"You okay?" he asks.

"Yea," Akira says. "I was just running up--I ran down from the bedroom."

It sounds like he's been doing more than that, but Yu decides not to push it. He really doesn't need to start squabbling with Akira right before asking for a favor. "Hey," he says. "If you're not busy..." Please don't be busy. "Can you maybe do me a favor?"

"What kind of favor?" Akira asks.

"I just need you to come up to Junes," Yu says. "By the electronics section. Where the, uh... the big TVs are."

There's silence and static from the other end of the line, and then Akira says, "Why...?"

"Please?" Yu says. "It's a really long story, but I'd really appreciate it if you could come out here."

"I... okay. Sure, Yu. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Thank you," Yu says quietly, and hangs up the phone. When he sees Akira at the elevators, looking uncertainly around the large electronics section, clearly searching out the TVs, Yu sticks his head back into the big TV and calls for the rest of them to come back out. 

By the time Akira gets there, everyone is out of the TV, and Yukiko has been left alone to be discovered. Yu, Yosuke, and Chie stand just out of sight behind a tall shelf in the aisle next to the TVs, and listen to the sounds of Akira seeing Yukiko, gasping as he recognizing her as the missing girl, and running toward her to anxiously ask if she's okay.

-//-

April 25

Evening

Akira doesn't know why Yu had asked him to come out to Junes, or what his favor had been. Instead, before he can even find Yu to meet up with him, he almost literally trips over a girl leaning against one of the big screen TVs, looking exhausted. He did a double take when he recognized her as the missing girl Yukiko, from the missing posters the police had started to put up around town.

"Hey," Akira says, dropping to his knees in front of her. He's reminded forcibly of how he'd taken this exact posture with a Shadow barely half an hour ago, right before Lavenza had him run up a flight of stairs and then kicked him out of the TV world. "You're Yukiko, right?" he asks. "Are you okay?"

She smiles at him, but she's clearly exhausted. "Yes," she says. "I'm alright. I just... want to go home."

Akira doesn't have a cell phone to call anyone for help. He helps Yukiko stand up, then walks with her to the counter where a sympathetic older woman recognizes Yukiko and calls both her parents and the police station before taking the two of them into a back room to wait. 

Akira has never been in the back room of a store before, and he can't help looking around curiously at everything. This is obviously some kind of storage room for the electronics department, and Akira shoots a longing glance at the giant TVs. It would be so much easier to jump into the TV world with something this size...

Yukiko's mother is the first one there, and when she's led to the back room she hugs Yukiko tightly and cries in relief. Akira, watching her, feels something jealous tighten in his gut.

He's still trying to push it down when he feels a hand on his shoulder and looks up to see Dojima has arrived with his nervous looking partner. 

"So you were the one that found her?" Dojima asks. 

"Yea," Akira says. "I was going to meet Yu, but I found her instead."

Dojima makes a thoughtful sound, and gives Akira a pat on the shoulder. "Well," he says. "Good job."

The jealousy is suddenly a little bit easier to ignore.

Dojima questions Yukiko about where she's been and how she got to Junes, while the nervous partner asks Akira how he'd found her. Since Akira's only answers are different ways of saying he doesn't know anything, the partner (his name turns out to be Adachi) runs out of questions pretty fast. 

"Pretty weird," Adachi says eventually. "Her just showing up here, huh?"

They both listen to Yukiko's interview for a couple seconds. Akira knows he's being nosy, but he cant help being curious about where Yukiko's been. She seems kind of confused and a little bit lost--her answers are somehow even more vague than Akira's had been.

"Yea," Akira agrees. "Do you think she ran away? Or maybe someone kidnapped her! Maybe they had her drugged, and that's why she doesn't remember anything! Do you thi--"

"Hey, kid, hey." Adachi says with a nervous kind of chuckle. "You have a good imagination, but I don't know if any of that's true."

"But it's your job to figure it out, right?"

"We will," Adachi says. "And if we run out of crazy ideas, we will ask you." 

Akira's not sure whether to be insulted or pleased, but it's been a long day and he decides that the best choice would just be to not say anything. He keeps quiet until Dojima tells him he can go, and then runs off. It's a surprise, but maybe it shouldn't be, when he runs into Yu right outside. His friends from before, the ones Akira had met a few days ago, are hovering a little behind him.

"Uh," Akira says. "Hey, Yu. Sorry I didn't get to meet up with you earlier, I was headed for the TV section like you said, and I ran into that missing girl, the one from all the posters? So--"

"Is she okay?" Chie asks. "Did she get home okay?"

"She was with her mom when I left," Akira says, looking between the three of them. "D'you know her?"

"She's a really good friend of mine," Chie says. "Yea."  

"Oh," Akira says, grinning. "Good! I'm glad she's okay then."

Yu snorts a laugh, and rubs Akira's hair until he ducks out of the way and sticks out his tongue. 

"Yu! Hey!"

For some reason, they all seem relieved and kind of goofy, like they've just taken a hard exam or finished running a marathon. Akira kind of squints at them, confused, then shrugs.

"Come on," Yu says. "You ready to get back home?"

"I guess?" Akira says. "Why are you guys all acting weird?"

More laughter, which makes Akira huff and cross his arms over his chest.

"Come on," Yu says. "It's really no big deal."

And no matter how many times Akira asks on the walk back to the Dojima house, he refuses to explain anything at all. By the time they're home, Akira has pretty much given up asking.

He and Yu both head up to bed almost right after dinner, and before midnight they're both pretty much asleep. Akira's always tired after spending time in the TV world (and today's trip had been more exhausting than usual), but he doesn't know what Yu's excuse is. This morning he'd talked about having a party (and hadn't that been for Yukiko? So... had he known Yukiko had been about to be rescued?). Maybe that's why he's so tired?

"Hey, Yu?" he says.

In the darkness of their shared bedroom, he can hear Yu shifting around on the futon before he asks, "Yea?"

"Do you know what happened to Yukiko?"

There's a long pause, so long that Akira is worried Yu might have fallen asleep. Then the older boy says, "There's... some stuff going on," Yu says.

"Stuff?" Akira asks.

"...Stuff," Yu agrees. 

Akira's brief excitement fades as he realizes. "You're not going to tell me, are you?" he asks.

"It's just a little too dangerous for you to be involved in, Akira," Yu says. "But it's all going to be okay. I promise."

"But..." Akira is ready to argue, and then doesn't. He relaxes a little on the sofa, and gives in. "Okay," he says. "I trust you, Yu."

And then not long after that, he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

May 17

After School

Akira's life changes when he realizes that the Shadows he defeats in the TV world drop money.

The first time it happens--or the first time he notices it happening, anyway, Akira gathers up the scattered yen and looks up at Lavenza with wide eyes. "Why do Shadows have money?"

"All the things you've seen here," she says. "And this is the one you choose to question."

This doesn't seem exactly fair, since Akira has been asking questions about everything else he's seen in the TV world too, but his imagination is too on fire with possibilities to argue in that moment.

"Can I take the yen back with me?" he asks.

"You certainly can't spend any money here," Lavenza points out. "Yes, you can bring it back."

And Akira could almost cry. He hasn't been able to buy things since his parents passed, which has really made it more difficult to pretend that everything is fine, that he's just a normal kid with normal, supportive, alive parents.

He thinks for a second about all the things he can buy with the money he earns from Shadow fighting. A change of clothes. Supplies for the TV world so he can fight better and stay healthy longer. School things.

Holding the loose bills in his fist, Akira looks up at Lavenza and says, "I know you're not really comfortable coming out of the TV, but if you ever do, can I..." He fumbles a little for the right words. "Can I buy you dinner or something?"

Right away, he can tell that this isn't what she expected to hear. It's not very easy to surprise Lavenza, but this did it.

"That's what you want to spend your money on?" she asked.

"You taught me everything about how to fight and how to survive here," Akira says. "And you saved my butt from my Shadow, and--I don't know how else to say thank you."

He watches as surprise morphs into a more genuine smile. "Thank you, Akira. I will... yes."

It's his turn to be surprised. "You'll actually come visit me?" he asks.

"Yes."

"Oh." He chews on this, and then smiles. "I'll have to think of something really cool for us to do!" He bounces forward, reaching for Arsene as another Shadow comes into view. "And also beat some more Shadows up for money."

Lavenza laughs, but her only argument is, "Remember that you're supposed to be learning to sneak past the shadows, not beating up every one you see for its lunch money."

"I'm not!" Akira says, eyes fixed over her shoulder, on a Shadow he can see moving down the hallway.

"Trickster."

"I'm not fighting all of them," he mutters, and to prove his point he lets the Shadow move past them, unmolested. "Anyway, I don't need to practice being sneaky, I'm good at it."

"You're getting cocky," Lavenza says.

Akira turns slightly red under his mask. He does actually feel more confident here in the TV World than he ever does in the real one, but he doesn't think that makes him cocky (does it?). He thinks he's doing pretty good at fighting, especially since he's doing it on his own.

But, because he doesn't like being thought of as cocky, he goes back to their usual routine of creeping through the castle, fighting only when he's too slow and gets caught by the Shadows, and filling the rest of the time trying to get answers to questions about the TV World.

"If this is a castle," he says today. "Does that mean the person that lives here is King of the TV World?"

Lavenza doesn't answer.

"Does anyone actually live here at all?" he asks, thinking it through a little more. He hasn't seen anything that looks like it would be an actual room in an actual castle. Just endless halls that lead to other halls, and sometimes to big empty rooms that don't have anything in them at all. "No one lives here, do they?" he asks, rephrasing the question more confidently. Sometimes Lavenza is more willing to give him information if he figures it out himself.

"No," Lavenza agrees. "It's not that kind of castle, Trickster. Focus, please."

"Focus on wha--aaah!"

On the Shadow that has just turned around the corner Akira is about to go down, bringing them face to face. For a second the Shadow seems just as surprised as Akira is, both of them jerking back a little, eyes locking across the (too small) space between them. This Shadow is bright red and bigger than most--while a full grown adult would have still been bigger than the Shadow, Akira is a weedy eleven year old who hasn't hit his growth spurt yet.

He really, really hates these big Shadows.

The Shadow recovers first, and knocks Akira flat on his back as the Shadow morphs into a group of table things that Akira had actually thought were kind of funny before finding out how hard they could hit. He groans and braces himself, knowing that by the time he's gotten up, the tables will have already had time to attack.

"Lavenza?"

"I told you to focus," she calls back, unsympathetically.

Weirdly, this lack of sympathy actually makes Akira feel better. If these Shadows were actually strong enough to kill him, she'd be a lot more upset and he thinks probably trying to help him.

He jumps to his feet, managing to dodge all the attacks (yes!) except for one (ow...), which could have gone worse, and after that first round of attacks when they have the advantage, he starts getting attacks in, and things level off a little bit. It still takes a while to finally get rid of the Shadow, but when it's done, Akira is the one left standing.

"Okay!" he says to Lavenza, grabbing her hand and tugging her back in the direction they'd come from. "Okay, okay, okay! Let's go back where we came from, and be really sneaky so that nothing else can find us before we get out."

"Trickster--"

"Oh, no, wait!" He pauses just long enough to sweep off the money the Shadow had left behind, which had been what started this whole thing in the first place. Then he just keeps going

He's limping and he's tired and he's pretty sure that he couldn't summon his Persona even one more time today.

When they finally make it back out of the castle, Akira leans down with his hands on his knees and starts panting. "You know--you know what would make this a lot easier?" he asks. "If I had a weapon or something, so I didn't have to make every single attack through my Persona."

"What put that thought in your head?"

"I keep getting tired out when I'm fighting Shadows," Akira says. "And there's no reason I couldn't just stab it, right? Or are Shadows--can you not stab Shadows?"

"You can stab Shadows," Lavenza agrees.

"So then I just need to find something I can stab with," Akira says, miming cutting motions with a pair of invisible daggers. "And..." He droops a little. "I guess I need to find someone that will sell weapons to me."

"You don't think people would sell daggers to an eleven year old?" Lavenza asks in mock surprise. "No..."

"You're no help," he tells her. 

"Sure. I only help you figure out how to fight Shadows, get out of the TV World--"

Akira sticks out his tongue, forcing Lavenza to laugh, interrupting herself. 

"I'll figure it out," Akira says. "Watch, next time I'm here I'll have the best weapons, and I'll be able to take out so many more Shadows--"

"You're still supposed to be sneaking past them, Trickster," Lavenza reminds him.

Akira makes a point of sighing, dramatically.

-//-

May 17

After School

Akira doesn't have very much money in his pockets (but enough, hopefully?) when he goes to Junes the next day after class. He remembers someone mentioning once that Yu's friend Yosuke works at the department store, and that he's there almost all the time because his dad manages it. It's his best chance of finding Yosuke by himself, and since Yosuke apparently knows where to get weapons, that means that Akira really, really wants to talk to him.

Hopefully without Yu there. Akira isn't sure that Yu will tell Dojima if he suddenly starts trying to buy weapons, but he also isn't sure that he won't.

But what if he goes to Yosuke, and Yosuke tells Yu, and then Yu tells Dojima anyway?

Akira tries not to think about that.

And in the end, it turns out that it doesn't even matter, because after hanging around Junes for way too long with no sign of Yosuke anywhere, Akira finds a bored high school part timer who tells him Yosuke has the day off, and isn't working again until Saturday.

So much for that, then. Dejected now, Akira weighs his options between going home and trying to find Yosuke somewhere else. He doesn't actually think there's a good chance of stumbling onto Yosuke by just rambling around the town, but on the other hand it's better than going home and just sitting around with his homework.

With that decided, off he goes to wander around town, occasionally glancing up at a sky that looks like it's about to start raining. He's never lived anywhere as rainy or foggy as Inaba, and he doesn't want to be stuck outside without an umbrella. Because of course he didn't bring an umbrella, why would he have thought to bring an umbrella? He can almost hear Lavenza's voice in the back of his head, scolding him to focus more on his surroundings.

He grins at the thought. He's really hoping she'll make it out here soon to visit, now that she's told him she'll try to get up to Inaba.

But for right now--here he is, no Lavenza, with a mission to find Yosuke and hopefully get some advice about where to buy weapons for the TV World and hopefully getting back to the house before it starts raining.

He makes it to the shopping district, walking carefully because Daiki hasn't bothered him again since Akira told him what he thought about him, a month ago now, but he still doesn't want to take any risks. He's being ignored at school, even if he's not being hit or made fun of, and he's not sure how much it would take to tip the balance back toward being punched.

He does not want to find out, and so he is going to be very, very careful not to run into Daiki outside of school. The central shopping district always makes Akira nervous, because he knows that Daiki lives around there, and walking practically right up to his front door is just tempting fate.

On the other hand, this is one of the most interesting places in town to be, which means that Akira has spent a good amount of time skulking around the area. He lingers in doorways, behind bushes, under overhangs--

And it's while doing exactly this that Akira literally runs into both Yosuke and Chie. He bounces off Yosuke, hits the ground, and looks up at the pair of them for a second, wincing and rubbing a sore elbow.

"Akira!" Chie says. "I'm sorry, we didn't see you there!"

"It's okay," Akira says, letting her grab his hand (not the one attached to his sore elbow) and haul him to his feet. "I wasn't looking where I was going."

"You looked distracted," Chie says, and Akira shrugs uncomfortably. He's pretty sure that, because Daiki's been quiet and nonviolent, that Yu thinks Akira has stopped worrying about him. He doesn't want to bring all that back up by telling Yu's friends he's still hiding.

Actually, that makes him wonder why Yosuke and Chie had been hiding. "What about you two?" he asks. "You looked pretty distracted too."

They share a look that makes Akira suddenly and sharply curious. He hadn't thought that they would actually be hiding something.

"Are you getting into trouble?" he asks, a little b it of hopefulness in his voice.

"No," Chie says, grinning and giving him a pat on the head. Akira makes a face and ducks to protect his hair. He doesn't like the reminder that he's still really short for his age. "We're not getting into any trouble, sorry!"

"Then why are you hiding?"

"We were just..."

"There's this kid at school--"

They both try to answer at the same time, and Akira frowns as he looks between them. They're definitely doing something, and they're doing a bad job of hiding it.

Akira is still trying to figure out what's even going on, when there's a sudden shout behind him that makes him half jump out of his skin, and he turns (stumbling ungracefully and almost falling on top of Yosuke until the older boy catches his shoulder and steadies him). 

"What do you guys think you're doing here, huh?" 

It's the same voice that had yelled before, only now Akira is turned around and facing the right direction to see who's doing the shouting. The high schooler--maybe the same age as Yosuke and Chie, or maybe a little younger--is wearing clothes that make him look like some kind of biker or something, and a scowl harsh enough to scare Akira a little bit.

And he really shouldn't be scared. He fights Shadows, after all.

"Kanji!" Chie says, sounding startled and also a little... guilty, maybe? Weird. As Akira turns his head to look up at her, Chie adds quickly, "We weren't following you, or anything."

...yea, sure. Akira has no idea what's going on here, but even he doesn't believe her. The other boy, Kanji, looks like he believes her even less. 

"Just get out of here already," he says, and raises a fist like he's going to start punching someone.

"Got it!" Yosuke says, and actually lifts Akira a few inches off the ground as he backs up, grip on Akira's shoulder tightening. "Already gone."

"Hey!" Akria protests. "Ow...!"

Yosuke looks down at him, then does a double take. "Sorry," he says, letting go of Akira's shoulder. "Didn't realize I was holding you so tight." He pushes instead, which at least hurts less even if it does still leave Akira confused about why they're all hurrying so quickly away from that Kanji kid.

"Who was that, anyway?" Akira asks, twisting his whole body around to try and get a better look. Too late, though--Kanji's already well out of sight.

"A kid from school," Yosuke says.

"He's... kind of got a reputation," Chie adds. Not a nice one, Akira assumes. And they obviously don't want him to ask about it.

"What kind of reputation?" he says at once.

"He's kind of a delinquent," Yosuke says vaguely. "He doesn't come to school a lot."

"He didn't seem that bad to me," Akira says, and Yosuke answers with an incredulous look.

"He didn't," Akira insists. There's something about Daiki, for example, that makes Akira's classmate seem like a lot more of a threat than Kanji had. Something mean in his eyes, maybe. 

Whatever it is, Daiki has it and Kanji doesn't, and Akira can't find it in himself to be scared of Kanji even if Yosuke and Chie are. "So if he has such a bad reputation, why were you following him around?" he asks.

The two of them exchange a look over the top of his head, and then Yosuke says, "We weren't following him."

"Yea right," Akira says. "I saw you guys sneaking around. And he seemed pretty upset that you were there, so what else could you have been doing?"

"That's..."

"We were just checking in on him," Chie says. "One of his teachers at school asked us to."

That feels like a lie, and it actually kind of hurts. These aren't really Akira's friends, and it's probably none of his business, but they'd been pretty nice to him before. 

The fact that they're lying now, and badly, makes Akira want to immediately dig in his heels and refuse to let the subject drop. "Then why did you run away as soon as he saw you?" he asks. 

"Did you see how angry he looked?" Yosuke mutters. "The guy's scary."

Akira opens his mouth to immediately rebutt this,  but before he has a chance, he spots Yu coming toward them, Yukiko walking next to him. Crap. And he'd totally forgotten to even ask Yosuke about where he gets those weapons Yu had brought home. 

"Did you two have any luck?" Yu asks, and then his gaze lands on Akira, standing half hidden behind Yoskue. Immediately his serious expression flips to surprise and then kind of softens. "What are you doing here?"

"I saw Yosuke and Chie being really suspicious while I was walking around," Akira says. 

"Not really suspicious," Chie says. 

"But Kanji did spot us," Yosuke adds. "So I guess probably more suspicious than we should have been. Did you two learn anything?"

"Anything about what?" Akira insists, and all four of them look down at him like they'd managed to already forget he was there. 

"...nothing," Yu says, and by now Akira is so used to him lying that all he does is roll his eyes. Dramatically. 

"I'm going home," he announces, and refuses to listen when he hears Yu calling him back, voice apologetic. 

He makes a point of going a little out of his way though, so he can pass the place where Kanji had shouted at them before. Just to make a point, even if it's only to himself, because no one else is paying attention. 

Kanji is still on the street when Akira gets back to where he'd been before, squinting down the bend of the road and frowning. 

"Hey," he calls at Akira. 

"Hey," Akira calls back. Kanji still sounds loud, but a lot less angry, so he drifts over to the other side of the street to talk to him. 

"They your friends?" Kanji asks. "Those other kids you were with?"

"Kind of, I guess," Akira says. They're mostly Yu's friends, but he doesn't think Kanji would really care about the details of Chie and Yosuke being friends with the guy Akira is sharing a room with while they're both visiting Inaba from out of tow  for the year. 

"Well, did they tell you why they were followin' me around?" Kanji asks. 

"No," Akira says. "Why are they following you around?"

"Beats me," Kanji says. "Long as they're not doing anything to hassle my mom, I don't really care."

"Huh," Akira says, because that's not really what he would have expected. They both stare down the end of the road for a few seconds, then Kanji shakes his head. "Well, whatever," he says. "Next time you see them, you tell them to back off, okay?"

Akira shrugs. Then, as Kanji turns away, an idea jolts through him and he calls, "Hey, wait!"

Kanji turns around, obviously surprised at the shout. "What?"

"Do you know where to buy weapons?" Akira asks. Because maybe it's a longshot, but he doesn't really feel like asking Yosuke anymore, and maybe a kid with a 'bad reputation' would know.

"What're you asking me for?" Kanji demands. 

Akira bites his lip, trying to think of a polite way of saying it as he takes in Kanji's died hair and punk outfit. 

Maybe his staring is still a little too obvious, actually, because Kanji snorts and waves a hand at him. "Yea, yea, alright. I get it. Maybe try the metal works down on the South end of the shopping district. Dude has all kinds of weird stuff in there."

"Thanks!" Akira says, and as he brightens, Kanji suddenly frowns. 

"What's a kid like you need a weapon for anyway?" he demands. 

"Nothing," Akira lies at once.

"None of my business," Kanji says. "But don't go messing anyone up with whatever you buy, okay?"

"I won't," Akira says, honestly, because Shadows definitely don't count. 

"You better not," Kanji says, pointing a finger at him now. "You get a reputation for being trouble, and it never comes out. Doesn't matter what your reasons are, you got it?"

"Got it," Akira says, and beats a hasty retreat. 

The guy at the metal works shop doesn't take very much convincing to let Akira buy something, especially when it turns out that Akira only has enough money to buy a pair of disappointingly small daggers, barely sharper than butter knives. The fact that Akira is unapologetically enthusiastic about everything he sees probably helps too, and the man has softened a little by the time he's heading back out onto the now rainy street, even calling a gruff come again after him. 

There's a spring in Akira's step as he hurries home, even as he bows his head to keep the rain out of his hair, and tucks his bookbag with the daggers inside protectively against his chest. He'd gotten his daggers, paid for them all by himself with the money he'd made fighting Shadows, and even if Yu and his friends had lied about whatever was going on, he's sort of actually getting used to that from Yu, and so it's fine. It's fine, right?

He walks a little faster through the rain and tries not to think about it.

Dojima's car isn't parked outside when he gets home, and Nanako's shoes are the only ones by the door. Akira calls out that he's home, and is surprised to hear Nanako's shouted answer come from upstairs. She usually stays in front of the TV when she's the first one home.

"Welcome home!" she shouts, voice muffled by the ceiling between them. "We're upstairs!"

We?

Maybe she'd brought a friend home. Akira slips out of his own shoes and heads upstairs, ducking his head through Nanako's open door and then freezing at what he sees inside.

"Hello," Lavenza says, giving him an almost smug smile that makes Akira's own slack jawed surprise seem even stupider than it is. "I stopped by to see you, but you weren't home yet."

Akira's brain and his tongue haven't reconnected yet.

"Your friend's really nice," Nanako reports, and Lavenza's smile shifts a few degrees, from not-quite-insultingly smug, to more genuinely fond.

"All I did was sit and listen for a while," she says.

"That's nice!" Nanako protests.

Akira comes a few steps farther into the room and sits on the floor--Lavenza is already sitting on Nanako's bed, and Nanako is on the bright pink chair in front of her small desk. "I really didn't think you were going to come by," he says.

"I'm full of surprises," Lavenza says, which is so completely true that Akira has to bite his tongue to stop himself from laughing out loud. He would have said something else, but before he has a chance, Nanako pipes up with a story about school, which leads into her asking for help with her homework. 

So, in what has to be the weirdest twist of the day, even weirder than running into Yosuke and Chie skulking around in the shopping district, or having a conversation with 'kind of a bad reputation' Kanji, Akira spends the rest of his afternoon with Lavenza, helping Nanako with her math homework. 

It's so strange, seeing her outside the TV World. Some of the mystery that clings to her like the TV's fog seems to have vanished now that she's here, in the Dojima's utterly normal house, patiently explaining a concept to Nanako that she and Akira have been trying to help her with for the last half hour. She isn't normal, she'll never be normal. And that's a good thing.

But she and normal are a lot closer right now than they usually are.

A little before dark, Lavenza looks out the window and announces suddenly that she needs to leave.

"I'll walk you out," Akira says at once, although he has no idea where she's going to go. Where does she even live? Or is she going back to the TV? He jumps to his feet, eager to find out and to maybe get a couple seconds to talk to her without Nanako overhearing.

"You actually came," he says, voice dropping to a whisper.

"I said that I would," Lavenza answers, and then before Akira can answer she just changes subjects completely. "Your sister is nice?"

"She's not my sister," Akirs says with a little wince. "It's a whole story, but I'm just staying with them for the year. Then I'll be... I don't know, somewhere else I guess."

"Hmm," Lavenza says. "Of course. My mistake." She dips her head slightly and adds, "I should go."

"You--wait!" 

But she slips outside while Akira is still scrambling for his shoes to go after her. He has one on, and the other in his hand, when the door opens again and Yu comes in and almost collides with him in the doorway.

"I'm home," Yu says, with a slightly self conscious smile. "Are you going out somewhere?"

"Welcome home," Akira says automatically. "I..." He looks at the shoe in his hand, and then the one on his foot. "Did you see someone out there?"

"Just the lady next door that's always trying to sell us seeds when we walk to school," Yu says, twisting around to look out at the dark, rainy street outside. "Why?"

Then where had Lavenza gone? There are still streetlights. It's not like it's that dark--Yu should have seen her. "No reason," he lies.

"Uh huh," Yu says, giving the shoe in Akira's hand a significant look. "Sure."

Akira drops the shoe, tries not to look suspiciously unbalanced as he stands with one shoe off and one shoe on, and gives Yu the most innocent looking smile he can manage. 

Yu laughs and rolls his eyes.

-//-

May 17

Evening

-//-

"So Nanako says one of your friends came over today?" Yu says to Akira, when the two of them are alone in their room.

Akira (who has his back to Yu, sorting some of his laundry into the drawer he uses for his small amount of clothing) pauses, hesitates, and seems to be considering before he nods. 

It would have been a relief, Yu thinks, if Akira hadn't seemed so uncertain about agreeing. It would have been nice to see that Akira's moving on from the bullying, and actually managing to make a friend. Yu just isn't sure what to make of Akira's half hearted nod, though. That maybe he just doesn't feel close enough to this person to call them a friend. Or maybe they're one of his bullies, actually coming by the house to bother him. Or maybe--a spark of inspiration, triggered by suddenly remembering that Nanako had said Akira's friend is a girl. 

"Is she your girlfriend?" Yu asks.

Akira shuts the clothing drawer so abruptly that he catches his finger and yelps in surprised pain. "What?" he demands. "You mean--me and her? No way."

His face is beet red, and Yu smiles at him. Akira is in his last year of elementary school, which is definitely old enough to think he has a girlfriend, even if all they're doing is holding hands and playing after school. 

"It's okay," Yu says, giving Akira a grin that only seems to make the younger boy more flustered. "Nanako said she was very nice."

Akira groans and covers his face with his hands. "Yu..."

"Are you going to bring her home to meet the family?"

"Yu, stop it!"

"Well, have you at least met hers?"

Akirs flops sideways onto the sofa and rolls over so his face is burrowed into the cushions. Yu thinks he hears him say something like stop teasing me, but it's hard to tell. 

After a few seconds, when Akira has stopped flopping around like a caught fish, he tilts his head up to look at Yu. "She's definitely not my girlfriend," he says, so solemnly that Yu is instantly convinced that she is.

"Sure," Yu says, and just barely stops himself from winking. Akira groans again. "So what's her name?"

Akira hesitates.

"I'm not going to tease her or anyting," Yu promises, sitting in the desk chair. "I promise."

"You save that just for me?" Akira grumbles.

Yu nods very seriously. "Oh yes," he says. "I don't have any siblings, but I understand that teasing is in the job description for the oldest."

"Not fair!" Akira objects, pulling himself up from his sprawled out pose and into a sitting position. "You'll always be the older one!"

"Yes," Yu agrees.

They stare at each other, and then Yu sticks his tongue out. 

"So," Yu prompts. "What's her name?"

"I'm not telling," Akira says.

There's footsteps outside their door then, and Nanako pokes her head in through the doorway. "That was Akira's girlfriend?" she demands, eyes sparkling with excitement. 

"No!" Akira objects.

"Yes," Yu says. He gestures for Nanako to come join them, and she bounces her way over to sit next to Yu, squished in together at the desk. "But Akira won't tell me her name."

"Lavenza," Nanako says at once, leading to another objection from Akira, and a moment of genuine surprise from Yu. That is not the name of anyone that was born and raised in Inaba, which brings of the question of where she'd come from. It's an almost European sounding name, which makes no sense in a part of the country where most people grow up and grow old within walking distance of the place where they were born. 

"Can we just stop talking about this?" Akira begs.

"No!" Nanako says. "I want to know more about your girlfriend."

"You already met her!" Akira says. "And also, she's not--"

"Do you go on dates?" Nanako asks. "Where did you meet?"

Akira rolls his eyes, and mutters, "In a TV."

"What?" Yu asks, sharply. 

"I, uh..." Akira winces and runs at the back of his neck. "I said... we don't really go on dates, but we just hang out and watch TV."

And that must have been what he'd said, Yu decides, because there's no way Akira could know anything about the TV world, and obviously Yu himself has just been too hyper focused on it himself, lately. With their current theories about why people are being taken into the TV, and their shadowing of Kanji to see if anything suspicious happens, maybe it's no surprise that he's imagining he hears it everywhere. 

That actually reminds him, though. "Sorry you had to run into us like that in the shopping district today. It must have looked pretty weird."

"Oh yea," Akira says. He looks so relieved to have an excuse to stop talking about his girlfriend that Akira decides to let the subject drop for the moment. "What was all that about, anyway?"

"A teacher asked us to check up on him," Yu says, repeating the same lie Chie and Yosuke had told him they'd used earlier. 

Akira waves it away. "Yea," he says. "But what was really going on?"

They look at each other, and Yu feels again the gulf of a lie stretching between himself and Akira. Sure, there are other people he lies to. Almost everyone, because they don't want the TV world to become common knowledge. But with Akira it's different, because Akira so often lies right back to him, and because neither of them ever really seem to believe the other's stories. It's a strange way to build a relationship, but somehow it seems to be working. 

"Really," Yu says. "That's it."

"Okay," Akira mutters, and drops back onto the sofa. "Let's go with that, then."

Dojima calls for Nanako from downstairs, and she waves goodbye to the two boys before running out. Yu looks at Akira now that they're alone, and a disappointing flash of... nothing passes between them. 

With anyone else, this is where Yu would have felt the little burst of energy from a Social Link. Yu doesn't entirely understand the mechanics behind how these strengthening bonds with the people around him can somehow translate into more powerful Persona. But it does, and he might not know how it works but he's starting to recognize that it does. And more importantly, he's starting to recognize the little moments and conversations that make those Social Links stronger. With Dojima, Nanako, even his friends at school, he keeps feeling these little bursts. 

Never with Akira, though. With Akira, who Yu would have thought he'd have a strong Social Link with after sharing a bedroom for a month and a half, there is no Social Link at all. Even though Akira is someone that Yu feels close to, as they tease each other and argue over space, there is no kind of actual link between them.

It's... kind of weird. Yu keeps forgetting to ask Margaret about it when he visits the Velvet Room, but he really needs to get around to it one of these days. There might be something wrong with some of his Persona, if Akira isn't linking up with him the way he should be. Or maybe there's something wrong with Akira.

Yu banishes the thought immediately, because no. No, he is not going to start doubting Akira like that. He'll question the Velvet Room before he questions the kid he's really starting to like looking out for.

"You okay, Yu?" Akira asks, and Yu realizes the silence between them has stretched out long enough to get awkward.

"Yea," he says. "Sorry, just thinking." And he quickly pulls out his homework, to look like he's doing something while he keeps mulling over the problem of Akira and his missing Social Link.

-//-

May 17

Midnight

It's very late at night when Akira half stirs from sleep to find Yu standing in front of the TV again. He's in his pajamas by now, standing very straight and very still, and even from behind and in the dim light of their bedroom, Akria can tell that Yu is watching whatever's on TV with absolute seriousness.

"What're you watching?" Akira asks, yawning and sitting up. 

From whatever program Yu had been watching on the TV, Akira hears, "...time for bad, bad, bathouse...

"Nothing!" Yu says, jumping and turning around.

Akira's interest is instantly piqued, and he leans over to try and see around Yu to the TV screen. "Is that Kanji?" 

"No!"

But it definitely looks like the guy Akira had met in town today. "Are you sure?" he asks, leaning farther as Yu tries to simultaneously bat him away and cover the TV screen with his other hand. "It sounds like him, too."

"It's not!"

"What are you watching, then?"

He's on the ground by this point in his efforts to get a good look, laughing as Yu contorts himself and trips over the table. They both end up on the ground, Yu flustered and Akira absolutely adding this to a mental list of things he's not going to let Yu live down.

By the time they both clamber back to their feet, and Yu has more or less hoved Akira back onto his sofa, the TV screen has gone black. 

"See?" Yu says. "It's over. We never have to mention this again."

Akira is already making plans to drop bathhouses into every conversation they have for the next week. If it's the oldest kid's job to tease the younger ones, then it's definitely Akira's role to tease Yu mercilessly when he finds something that bothers him this much.

Chapter Text

May 18

Afternoon

-//-

It's just after lunch when Daiki corners Akira. "I saw you hanging out with Kanji Tatsumi yesterday," he says, like this is some kind of accusation.

"I... talked to him?" Akira says, torn between surprise that Daiki cares, and slight confusion because he hadn't actually known Kanji's family name. "I don't really know him," he says, when he's pieced it together, and decided this is probably the safest way to answer. "I was just talking to him."

"Sure," Daiki says. "You were just talking to that Kanji Tatsumi."

"Is there another one?" Akira asks, and Daiki looks at him like he's the biggest idiot ever. 

The teacher for their next class walks in just after that, luckily, so no one has a chance to say anything else. Akira can feel eyes on him all the way through class, though, and after school while he takes his turn with the chores, no one really seems to want his help with the cleaning. Akira helps anyway, because it is his turn and also because he's much too stubborn for his own good and he's going to stay as long as anybody else, whether they want him to or not. Then, and only then, when the whole room is sparkling clean and Akira has watched three or four of his classmates walk out of the room (Daiki and one of his friends among them, bolting out with their bags and laughing about... something), does he leave himself.

He makes it all the way to the shoe lockers by the school's front doors before he realizes that actually maybe letting Daiki leave before him hasn't been such a good idea. 

The cubby where he keeps his regular outside shoes is crammed full of a bunch of things that are not his shoes. A handful of notes with rude words scrawled on them, and a bare few with longer and more thought out insults. 

Go home already! 

No one wants you here--or anywhere else!

Akira reads every one, feeling weirdly separate from it all. He gathers every nasty note, every scrawled trouble and future drop out, and wonders if this is because of Kanji. The bullying had been dropping off since he told Daiki off, but maybe seeing him with an older kid that has such a 'bad reputation' has given them the courage to start up again. 

It's going to hurt later, Akira thinks. Right now, aware of whispers and giggling all around him as his classmates watch him for a reaction, he focuses all his will on keeping it together. No tears, no fear, no anger, no reaction. He pools it all up within himself, and feels the Persona inside him reaching out to embrace the rampaging emotions. After all, they're a part of his humanity too, aren't they? The Persona and the emotions, two sides of the same idea. Akira has learned plenty about... feeling, about himself, and even if he's too young and too inexperienced to put it all I to words, at least it's helping him to keep his reaction to himself. For now. For just long enough, he hopes, to get away from school. 

So he gathers up the notes, folds them carefully, deliberately, and puts them into his backpack. Then he pulls his backpack over his shoulders, takes a quick second look at the shoe locker to make sure his outside shoes really aren't there (they're not, whoever had stuffed them full of mean notes has taken the shoes out to make room, and Akira can't guess where they are now). Then he leaves, barefoot but proud. 

He keeps his chin up as he walks, pretending he can feel his TV world mask over his eyes, letting it hide him even if it's only pretend. 

He's so focused on this that he doesn't notice the person in front of him until it's too late to turn and avoid him. One ungraceful prat fall later, and Akira is on his back, sprawled ungracefully with one shoeless foot slowly soaking through from a puddle left from last night's rain, staring up at the person he'd walked into.

"Sorry about that," they say, and hold out a hand to pull Akira to his feet. He accepts it, face a little warm from embarrassment, and takes in the person he'd smacked into. Older than him, but maybe a little bit younger than Yu. He's not wearing a school uniform so Akira can't tell if he's in his last year of middle school or maybe his first year of high school, but definitely somewhere in that area. Although, why would someone in middle or high school be walking around now? Akira's school has let out for the day, sure, but the older students will still have class.

"It's okay," he mumbles. "I wasn't looking where I was going." He starts to shuffle sideways past him, but the older boy stops him before he can get anywhere. 

"You're Akira Kurusu, right?" he says. "I was actually looking for you." He bows, slightly, leaving Akira feeling disoriented by the formality of an older boy caring about him. "My name is Naoto Shirogane."

"I... nice to meet you?" It comes out as a question, and maybe sounding slightly impolite. Akira can't help himself, though. He's standing here with no shoes, trying to get away from school before anything else horrible happens, and suddenly this guy's here looking for him? It's just not how he expected his afternoon to go.

"I'm a detective," Naoto adds, making Akira's afternoon suddenly even worse. It can't be about his parents, right?

And then (after the first gut reaction of no no no no no, and an involuntary couple steps back as he feels his eyes go wide), Akira's common sense kicks in. "You're not old enough to be a detective," he says, crossing his arms defensively over his chest. 

"I'm... assisting," Naoto says.

"With what?"

He doesn't answer directly. Instead he says, "You were seen talking to Kanji Tatsumi recently, is that correct?"

Akira wants to throw his hands up in the air, because seriously, he hadn't even seemed like that bad of a guy! Why is everyone treating him like a casual conversation with him about where to buy weapons would be the end of the world?

(Alright, so rationally he can understand why talking to Kanji about buying weapons might be suspicious, but since no one's mentioned that part, Akira feels justified in assuming no one knows about it, and therefore his righteous outrage is also justified)

"I only talked to him once," Akira says. "I don't know anything about... whatever you're detectiveing."

"I'm just trying to find him," Naoto says. "He seems to have disappeared. I understand that you may not know him well, but nobody else will admit to knowing him well either."

Akira makes a frustrated noise, because how is he supposed to help with that? "I don't even know where to find my shoes," he tells him, and then walks off in the short stretch of time where Naoto is still looking down at his stocking feet and trying to piece together a reply.

-//-

May 18

Evening

-//-

Nanako watches Akira dance nervously around the kitchen for most of the evening. Both her dad and Yu are running late, so it's just the two of them at home, and Akira keeps not telling her why he's so nervous whenever Nanako asks.

"It's fine," he tells her, after she's given up asking and just started peeking at him over her homework when it looks like he's not looking at her.

"I didn't say anything," Nanako says.

"No, but..." She's sitting by the table, facing the TV and half listening to a cartoon while she tries to work on her homework. Now Akira sits down across from her. "You looked like you wanted to ask," Akira admits. "I know I'm--sorry."

"You're acting really weird," Nanako says.

"I'm not acting that weird," Akira protests.

"You are! And when you came home, you weren't wearing any shoes." He'd tried to hide it, but Nanako had noticed anyway. It was hard not to, with the faces he made as he peeled his wet, dirty socks off his feet. 

She doesn't think Akira is going to actually answer, which annoys her because why won't he just say why he hadn't had shoes on when he came home, but suddenly they both hear a car out on the front drive. Akria says, obviously relieved, "That must be your dad." 

Momentarily distracted from whatever Akira's not telling her, Nanako scrambles to her feet and is ready to greet her dad the second he walks in the door. He's in a good mood today, it turns out, even joking and laughing as she hovers next to his elbow while he settles himself in his usual chair at the kitchen table. It must have been a good day for him at work, Nanako decides--he's home only a little bit late.

"Is Yu home yet?" he asks, looking around as if expecting Yu to pop out of the walls.

"I think he's out with his friends," Akira says. 

"Well, you're only young once," Nanako's dad says, pulling a newspaper out of his work bag. "What about the two of you? How was your day?"

"Fine," Akira says.

"Akira lost his shoes," Nanako adds.

The newspaper is lowered, and Nanako meets her dad's eyes for a second before he looks over at Akira.

"You... lost your shoes?" he says.

"It's no big deal," Akria says. "I think someone just..." There's a pause that's a little bit too long, Nanako thinks, before he says, "I think someone just accidentally took my shoes home instead of theirs."

There's an even longer pause before Nanako's dad says. "That's what you think happened?"

"I... yea, probably," Akira mutters. The nervousness Nanako had noticed all afternoon is back suddenly, and he says slowly, "I was going to... I actually wanted to ask..." He fidgets a little, then says, "I don't have any money for new shoes."

The newspaper is folded and put down on the table, as Nanako's dad suddenly gives Akira his full attention. Akira ducks his head under the pressure, and is suddenly so still he looks like a statue. 

"Your parents haven't been sending anything, I notice," Dojima says, after a few moments of consideration. 

"They... I got a little bit of money. But I didn't know someone was going to... accidentally... take my shoes. Obviously. So I didn't save it for that."

"This money came from your parents?" Nanako's dad asks.

"I..."

"Because I don't think I've seen any letters coming from them," Nanako's dad goes on.

"They don't have a lot to send to me right now," he mumbles. "Things are just--they're tight."

"Is that why they haven't called much?"

A pause, then, "Yes?"

Nanako feels bad for him, feels bad that his parents are busy and  Akira doesn't ever get to talk to them. At least she still lives with her dad, even if he does have to work late most of the time.

"Akira," her dad says. "I don't want you to feel like you can't tell me about things like this, alright?"

"It's not really... you don't have to do anything about it," Akira says. "I'm just a guest here for the year, I don't want to make things harder for you."

"If you start walking around with no shoes after school, it's going to be my problem eventually," Nanako's dad tells him. He stands up and says, "Run upstairs and see if you can find a spare pair of Yu's shoes to borrow for now. We're going to go see if we can get you a new pair of your own before the stores close."

"Junes is still open," Nanako says, jumping to her feet. "The commercials say they're open late! Dad, can we go to Junes?"

"I think it would be our best bet at this point," he says, checking his watch. Nanako cheers, and he adds quickly, "But this is just going to be a quick trip, Nanako, alright? We're getting shoes for Akira and then we're coming straight back home."

She's so excited that this doesn't really process, of course. Junes is sort of the most exciting thing to happen in Inaba in her whole life. "I'm going to go help look for extra shoes upstairs," she announces, and runs up to the boys' room without waiting for an answer. 

It takes a little while to find the shoes (Yu has a lot of really weird stuff--why does he need so many cans of soda?), and when she comes back downstairs, Akira and her dad are having what looks like a very serious conversation. 

"Thank you," Akira says. "You really don't have to--I mean..."

"It's no trouble, Akira," her dad says, and kind of pats his shoulder. "It really isn't. You're part of the family this year, right?"

For a second, Akira actually looks almost as happy about this as Nanako feels about going to Junes. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, and then smiles and closes it again, just smiling and smiling. 

They drive to Junes, and Akira with his borrowed shoes sits in the back with Nanako, and she sticks close to him when they head up to the shoe department.

She's starting to think that Akira's really not all that different from Yu. They're both basically strangers that had come out of nowhere to live with them for the year. One is her cousin and one is a stranger, but they're both just kind of... there? They both help her with her homework, they're both there in the evenings even when her dad isn't, they both argue over whose turn it is to help with the laundry and why there's never enough drawer space in their room.

"Akira?" Nanako says,  when they're in the shoe department. "I was thinking about how Yu is my big bro, right?"

He has one foot in a new pair of shoes, trying it on. Nanako's dad is a couple sections away, buying something for the house while they're looking at shoes. 

Akira finishes tugging on the laces and looks up at her. "Yes?" he says.

"But he's not really my brother," Nanako goes on.

"I know?" Akira says. He sounds like he's getting more confused.

"I think you could be like a big bro too while you're staying here," Nanako says. "Right?"

He looks shocked and then panicked and then very, very embarrassed. Nanako doesn't really understand why--it's the same thing as Yu, right?

"He's your cousin," Akira mumbles, focusing in on his search for shoes. "So it's okay with him."

"I think it's okay with you, too," Nanako says.

"I'll leave at the end of the school year and we'll never see each other again," Akira says.

That's probably true, because Nanako's dad is too busy to even come home on time, so there's no way he'd have time to take her to visit Akira after he leaves Inaba. "Well there's still phones," she reminds him. "And we're learning to write letters at school."

He doesn't say anything to answer these very good arguments.

"Okay," Nanako huffs, sitting down next to him and crossing her arms. "So you don't have to be a big bro if you don't think we're ever going to see each other again. But you're still part of our family this year."

"It's not that simple," Akira says.

"Sure it is," Nanako says, and grins at him.

-//-

May 22

Morning

-//-

By Sunday, Akira is pretty sure that no one's going to mention to Yu that his someone at school stole his shoes. There's no reason they would, probably, but Akira had been worried about it anyway. He'd promised to tell Yu if any more bullying happened, and even though he was pretty sure they both knew he'd been lying, he doesn't want to know what Yu would have done if he found out Akira's been keeping it quiet.

But no one says anything, and Akira starts keeping his shoes in his school bag during class, and by Yu is so busy with whatever he and his friends are doing that he doesn't get home until after Dojima most nights that week.

Akira might have teased him about stalking Kanji some more, except that he'd heard some adults in the shopping district talking about how no one's seen Kanji for days. So maybe it's not the best time to be joking about that. Instead, whenever Yu is home, they talk about normal things (what are becoming normal things, because being in this house is becoming more and more normal, being with these people is becoming more and more normal). They talk about school, and Yu helps Akira with his homework, and Akira helps Nanako with her homework. Akira complains whenever Nanako sings along with the Junes jingle, and Nanako shout/sings it even louder while Yu looks on and laughs.

This morning, when all three of them are crowded into the kitchen, trying to figure out what they can do for breakfast, Nanako says, "We're growing vegetables at school."

"Oh yea?" Yu asks. He's the only one tall enough to reach the highest cabinets, so he's on his toes digging around for anything promising. "You know, I think I remember doing that too, when I was a kid."

"Yea!" Nanako says. "It's really fun!"

"We grew vegetables when I was in first grade," Akira says. He sticks his head into the fridge, stares at something called 'Chilled Gulping Melon Cream Soda,' and tries to decide if he has the guts to try it. He gives it a cautious sniff, decides he does not, and slams the fridge door shut. "All of my plants died, though."

"What?" Nanako asks. "Oh no!" She looks and sounds genuinely upset by this. "Yu!" she says, turning on her cousin.

"What did I do?" he asks.

"We have to teach Akira how to grow vegetables!" Nanako says.

"I'm really okay with not--" Akira starts to say, but it's too late. Nanako will not be stopped once she has a new idea to grab onto and run away with, and apparently today is one of those days, and vegetables are one of those ideas that she is just not going to let drop.

"We can use the flowerbed outside!"  Nanako says. "I'm going to run and tell Daddy"

"He's probably sleeping i--okay, then," Yu says. Nanako has already dashed into her dad's room to get permission to use the flowerbed for her imporomptu vegetable lessons. Akira can't hear his answer, but a little while later Nanako runs back out to them, beaming, and Akira assumes the answer is probably yes.

"Oh good," he says. "It looks like we're going to have to do some gardening."

"You're so weird, Akira!" Nanako says, as she runs past him, grabbing his hand and pulling without stopping. "Come on, come on!"

Akira gives in to the pressure on his hand, and follows Nanako outside. He stays barefoot (because his shoes are brand new and a gift, and he's not going to ruin them in the dirt gardening), and soon enough the two of them are kneeling at the edge of the gardening plot.

Yu follows them out a few minutes later, carrying a bright blue bucket pulled from somewhere or other and a few tools in one hand, and Nanako's leftover seeds in a packet in the other. "You guys forgot all the stuff," he calls, holding everything up for them to see. "How are you going to do any gardening without your tools?"

"Oh yea!" Nanako says, and runs back to get the bucket and seeds from him. She brings them back, and spends the next half hour showing Akira exactly what to do with the leftover seeds, while Yu watches in amusement and sometimes offers helpful (and also, sometimes, unhelpful) comments. Akira doesn't really like gardening much (he hadn't been kidding about killing the bean plants he'd been trying to grow for school when he was younger), but Nanako is enthusiastic and it's not that hard to pretend for half an hour or so.

"We'll have to keep taking care of them," Nanako says when she finally stands up and brushes the dirt off her hands. Akira stands up too, relieved to be done. "We can do it every day after dinner!"

"I don't--every day?" Akira asks, and this time he's not completely able to keep the dread out of his voice. 

"Well, sure, Akira," Yu says. "If you don't keep an eye on your plants, that's how they die."

Akira narrows his eyes. Yu is definitely teasing him now.

"You too, Yu!" Nanako says. "We can all garden together, right? And maybe Dad will help--he said he would, when I asked him if we could make a garden here! We can do it all together like a family!"

Akira pauses. There it is, again. He opens his mouth, wondering if he should bother to argue, and then decides that arguing will only make things awkward. He doesn't want things to be awkward, honestly. "I guess if we have to," he says instead.

"I'll see if I can get some more seeds," Yu offers. "There's that one woman that lives up the street who's always talking about her gardening. She might know where to get some."

"Oh!" Nanako says. "Yea, let's do that! We can have the best garden ever!"

Akira has the feeling that somehow this is going to end up being a more time consuming thing than he'd expected.

When he's upstairs with Yu later, the older boy turns to him and says, "If you really don't want to keep gardening with Nanako, I can come up with some excuse for her about why you're busy. I'm sure she'll be happy to do it with just me and her dad."

"No," Akira says. "It's fine. What else do I have to do after school, right?" Apart from going back into the TV (something he's only had time to do once this week, frustratingly enough), and trying to convince Lavenza to come back to Inaba and hang out again.

"Still no friends at school?" Yu asks.

Akira gives a complicated little shrug that he hopes will make Yu decide to stop asking questions.

He should have known better. Yu is relentless. 

"How's the bullying been?"

"Fine," Akira says.

"So it's stopped?"

"I can deal with it."

He doesn't know, exactly, why he says that. He could have just said that yes, it's stopped, everything's fine. The only thing is, he doesn't think it would do anything--he's pretty sure that Yu would just keep asking questions until he got a real answer.

"Akira..."

"I guess a couple of people in my class saw me talking to Kanji that day I ran into you and your friends," Akira says, eyebrows drawing together in confusion. "And I guess everyone thinks that's really bad, for some reason?"

Yu opens his mouth, and then closes it again, then shakes his head. "Kanji's... not that bad," he says. "I think his reputation's just--"

"Yea," Akira says. "Yea, I noticed he has a bad reputation." Which is apparently contagious. "I'm fine though. Really."

And Yu just shakes his head and for some reason buys it, which is lucky because Akira's not entirely sure that he buys it himself.

-//-

May 25

After School

-//-

Akira has plans to head straight home after school and meet Lavenza in the TV World, but scraps those plans immediately when he sees her standing outside the school gates, waiting for him to come out.

For a second, Akira brightens at the sight of her, a little spring in his step, but then he falters again. When he gets to the gate where Lavenza is standing (and getting some weird looks from the rest of the students heading home for the day), he walks right past her, and keeps walking.

Less than a minute later, he hears footsteps running after him, and there she is at his side, looking more than a little upset. "I thought," she says, with all the dignity in the world. "That you wanted me to come visit you."

He does. "I do," Akira says. "But maybe not here?"

He turns a corner, heading toward a neighborhood instead of onto the path across the Samegawa Flood Plain. The roads here are less crowded, since most of the other students will be taking the path. 

They walk together in awkward silence for a few blocks, and then Lavenza says, "I don't think I understand your reaction."

And she actually sounds hurt, which is what makes Akira slow down and explain. "Look," he says. "The last time someone from school saw me talking to someone--" Kanji. "They didn't like it, and I got into a lot of trouble for it." Nothing as bad as when they'd stolen his shoes, but that's because he's started carrying his stuff around with him as much as possible, and never letting it out of his sight on school grounds. 

"So you think that if they see you talking to me, your classmates will judge you for it?" Again, her voice is disapproving.

"No! I think that if they see you talking to me, they'll want to start bothering you!"

She stops in place, expression surprised, and then amused, and then finally calm again. "Are you trying to protect me, Trickster?"

Akira's own face heats up. "Well," he mutters, kicking at a stone as he passes it. "You're my friend, aren't you?"

"Yes," she says. "Somehow, it seems to have turned out that way."

"You don't have to make it sound like such a bad thing," he grumbles.

"It's unexpected," Lavenza says. "I only ever planned to send you away from the metaverse. Instead, we meet there frequently, and I realize that you're becoming my friend." She nods her head. "I don't think this is what is supposed to happen," she says. "But since it has happened, we may as well see what comes of it." She sighs, and shakes her head. "You are a bad influence on me, Trickster," she says.

"I'm a great influence," Akira declares, and then changes the subject before she can decide to argue this. "Anyway, why'd you decide to come meet me at school all of a sudden? You've never done that before."

"And never will again, if today's reaction is what I have to look forward to," Lavenza says, but Akira thinks her frosty tone is an act. "And I came because you cannot go into the metaverse today."

"Why not?"

"For reasons I do not plan to share with you."

He sticks out his tongue at her. "You could have just asked me not to come," he said.

"I considered it," Lavenza says. "But I think it would have just made you more likely to do it, specifically because you had been asked not to."

This is probably true. Akira has to admit that being told 'Don't come here and I won't tell you why' is already making him very desperate to know what's going on. 

"Is something going to happen there today?" he asks.

"Possibly," Lavenza says.

"But it hasn't been raining or foggy here," Akira says. "You said that's when everything gets dangerous, right?"

"I'm not going to tell you," Lavenza says. "No matter how much you ask."

And she doesn't. No matter how many times he asks. By the time they wander up North to where Junes, and agreed that they might as well walk around in there for a while because there's nothing else to do out here, Akira has pretty much given up on asking. Junes turns out to be a pretty good decision, too, because Lavenza knows a lot about what goes on inside TVs, but there are a lot of perfectly normal things that she knows absolutely nothing about. They wander slowly through the department store, talking about literally everything. Time flies, and pretty soon Akira is thinking about saying goodbye to Lavenza and heading home so that Nanako won't have to eat dinner alone.  He's about to say something, when he turns a corner and sees Yu and his friends walking the other way.

He might not have thought too much about it, except that Lavenza lets out a little hiss at his side. "No," she says, quietly enough that Akira doesn't think he's supposed to hear it. "This is exactly what I didn't want to have happen."

Now fully interested, Akira's gaze snaps to Yu and his friends, even while he makes a quick turn to hide behind a shelf. They all look tired, which isn't that weird. Yu sometimes comes home from hanging out with his friends so tired he practically looks like a zombie, so Akira figures that whatever they're doing together is probably something that involves a lot of running around, or something. But Kanji is with them, which is even weirder, because the last time Akira had seen them all together, they'd all been skulking around hiding from Kanji, and also isn't Kanji supposed to be missing or something?

He looks around, and realizes that Lavenza has simply vanished. And then when he looks back, Yu is kind of looking in his direction, so Akira quickly drops to one knee and pretends to be fully engrossed in looking at something on a lower shelf. 

-//-

May 25

After School

-//-

Kanji's rescue comes very close to going extremely wrong, but they pull through in the end, and they all get out alive and in one piece. A little beat up, definitely, and Yu is going to have to spend some serious money on restocking their supply of healing items, but that's a problem for later. Right now, he doesn't have to worry about anything other than getting back to the real world and then sleeping for at least a week.

"Are you going to call Akira again?" Yosuke asks, when they're all gathered in their regular staging area and getting ready to head back home. "To come and 'find' Kanji, like he did with Yukiko?"

He makes air quotes as he says 'find.'

Yu shakes his head. "I don't think so," he says. "The whole point of doing that was to keep people from thinking we had anything to do with it--if he finds Kanji right after finding Yukiko, people are going to start thinking he has something to do with it."

"It's no big deal," Kanji says. "I'll just tell everyone I ran off, they'll all believe it." 

Which is probably true, Yu reflects, thinking of how just being seen with him had apparently kickstarted Akira's bullying again. For right now though, at least, it works out pretty well for them. Yu is much too tired to think up some believable way for Kanji to have been rescued that doesn't involve jumping into TVs. If he can get away with just showing up again and telling people he'd run off for a while, they'll roll with it.

They make it back to Junes without any problem, and as the familiar jingle plays vaguely through the store's intercom, Yu finally starts to relax. The rest of the group is chattering away, tired but relieved, and he finds himself lagging to the back with Yosuke.

"Hey," Yosuke says. "Hey, Yu--remember when we rescued Yukiko, and you told us about that Trickster that's supposed to be running around the TV World somewhere?"

Yu nods.

"You didn't see anything like that this time, did you?" Yosuke asks. "I just figured, maybe it's something that shows up because we were fighting stronger Shadows, like Yukiko's, or Kanji's?"

Yu's definitely had that thought too, but he'd stayed on guard the entire time they were in the TV world, and this time hadn't seen anything suspicious. Whatever or whoever the Trickster is, it seems like it hadn't been around today. "No," he says. "No, I was keeping an eye out and I didn't see..."

And then out of the corner of his eye, he sees something that for a second makes him freeze in place. 

The day they'd rescued Yukiko, he'd seen the Trickster (what he believes is the Trickster) at the end of a long hallway, kneeling down and reaching out to a Shadow to consume it. What he sees now, off to one side at the end of a shelf several feet away, is someone kneeling down in almost exactly the same position, reaching out to grab...

And then Yu's panic fades. It had been a trick of the light, that's all. A trick of the light, and the fact that Yosuke had just mentioned the Trickster, and made him think about it. It's not the Trickster, it's just Akira leaning down to look at something on a lower shelf.

"You okay?" Yosuke asks, and Yu shakes himself out of his thoughts.

"Yea," Yu says. "Fine, sorry." He raises his voice and calls, "Akira!" Then he watches the younger boy jump and then look up at him.

"Hi, Yu," he says. "What are you doing here?"

"Nothing much," Yu says, hiding a smile. He sometimes thinks that out of all the people in his life that don't know about the TV World, Akira is probably the one he'd most like to tell. He'd probably think it was awesome.

(He'd probably want to help, which is why Yu hasn't told him, yet. He's not going to put Akira in danger)

"We were just about to split up," he says. "Are you heading home soon?" When Akira nods, he asks, "Do you want to walk back together?"

"Sure," Akira says, and Yu calls a goodbye to his friends as they head off together. 

"Is that Kanji?" Akira asks. "I thought he was missing or something."

"He just ran off for a while," Yu says, the lie coming off smoothly. "But he's back now. It's fine."

"And you guys are all friends after all?" Akira asks. "I thought you were spying on him or something."

Yu hesitates. But honestly, after seeing Kanji awaken his Persona, he doesn't think that he or any of his friends  are going to let Kanji get away with not being part of the Investigation Team. "Yea," he says. "We're friends."

Chapter Text

June 21

After School

-//-

In June, Akira has a growth spurt.

It's a growth spurt that's been building for a while, really, but the end of June is when he takes a long, hard look at himself in the mirror, and decides that it's not a problem he can just keep ignoring.

He's getting too tall for his clothes, which is a little awkward, but it's not like adding that to the list of things the other kids at school don't like him for is going to make a difference. And he's getting too tall to sleep stretched out on the sofa, which is uncomfortable, but at least he can curl up and it's pretty much fine. Those are both things he can live with, but the real problem is that he's getting too big to fit in the TV. After a few close calls where Akira finds himself almost getting stuck, he decides that he's going to need to find some other way into the TV World.

Not going back to the TV World is not an option. He's just going to need to find a bigger TV to use as a door, and the obvious choice is to go to Junes. There's a big electronics section with a bunch of TVs there, and whenever Akira's been near it, it's seemed pretty empty. Most people, Akira assumes, have TVs like the one in the Dojima house. Old CRTVs  instead of the big flat screens that Junes sells. It should be pretty safe to get in and out without anyone seeing it happen.

He plans it out carefully, because he realizes that trips into the TV World are going to be a lot trickier now that he can't just jump in and out from his own bedroom. The biggest problem he has is figuring out how he's going to get all his stuff there without anyone saying anything. By this point, he practically needs a whole backpack just devoted to stuff he wants to take with him into the TV world. 

There's his weapons of course, and that would be the worst thing to be caught with because he really doesn't have a good explanation for why he's carrying them around. Then there's the vegetables from the garden, which it turns out (for some reason) have actual uses inside the TV World. There's all the random stuff he's picked up from Shadows, healing items and keys for treasure chests and some stuff that looks like blank playing cards he doesn't know what to do with, but keeps just in case. There's... armor, kind of, which doesn't really look like armor, it looks like kind of goofy clothes, but Lavenza had insisted it would make him harder to hit and it does so it's fine.

In the end, he realizes that there's basically a zero percent chance that he can take all that stuff to school and go straight to Junes without being noticed. Especially since he's still hauling all his normal, non-TV World stuff around in the classroom to make sure no one's going to steal it again--adding all his equipment is going to stick out, and then Daiki or one of the other kids in his class will want to know what he has, and then he'll probably get suspended for bringing weapons to school.

Not happening. He's just going to have to run home after school and then head out to Junes from there. It's the only option he has, which doesn't make him any less annoying, which is why it takes him a while to realize that there's something different about the tone of the conversations happening around him. Usually on the walk home, he overhears snatches of his classmates talking about what they're going to do after school, or about something that happened in class. Today, everyone on the path around him is buzzing about someone called Risette.

Akira has never heard of someone called Risette living in Inaba, and the only person he knows with a name like that is some idol he's seen a few times on TV. Curious, and sort of distracted from his own problems, he walks a little closer to a knot of kids in the year under him that are talking excitedly, and eavesdrops.

It takes a couple minutes to realize that yes, actually, they are talking about Risette, the actual idol, like the one that's actually famous and on TV all the time, and who is coming to live here, in Inaba. 

The rumor sounds crazy enough that at first Akira just doesn't believe it. There's pretty much no reason that someone famous like that (or anyone famous at all, period) would want to come live in Inaba. It's much more likely to be some random rumor that got picked up by someone and blown out of proportion. Maybe Risette is staying somewhere close to Inaba on a vacation or something. Maybe someone had seen someone that looked like her near here?

And then Akira listens a little longer, and hears that Risette is coming to stay with her grandparents, who own that tofu shop in the Shopping District that no one ever really goes to, and that since she's coming soon, everyone wants to go by there and visit. With the extra details, the rumor actually... kind of sounds a little more reasonable? Weird.

But whether Risette is coming to live in Inaba or not, it doesn't really matter. The actually important thing is that it sounds like a lot of people are going to go down to the Shopping District to check things out, which means that Junes is going to be less crowded than usual, which means Akira has a way better chance of getting into the TV without being seen.

He practically runs home, dumps his schoolbag out on the sofa, pulls out his TV World stuff from where he'd hidden it behind the dresser, and then walks (not runs, because his TV World stuff is way heavier than his school stuff) to Junes.

He's nervous. He can't help himself. What is he going to say if anyone walks in on him trying to climb into a TV? And what if it doesn't work? He's gotten used to doing it from his regular TV, but there's not a lot of danger of something bad happening if he screws it up in his own room. If he manages to smack into one of those big flat screens hard enough to break it, he's going to be in a lot of trouble.

But he has to try. Going into the TV World has become something that he needs. It's an adventure, it's something exciting in a life that mostly bounces between the day to day monotony of small town life, and the knife edge of terror that someone is going to find out that he's only pretending to be okay. It's only because of the TV World that Akira feels confident anymore--the rest of his life, with the bullies at school and the lying to everyone he cares about, certainly doesn't make him feel very good about himself.

In the TV World, fighting Shadows, wearing masks, and taking on new Personas, is the only place that Akira feels like he can be fully himself.

That's the thought that carries him through the entrance to Junes (half empty without the bored students looking for somewhere to kill time after school), and up to the electronics section. He pauses for a second, gathering his courage and placing a hand on the nearest TV screen just to test it. Sure enough, his hand passes through as easily as if the screen had been made of water. So it still works.

He pauses, looking first right and then left, making sure that no one's around to see him. Then he stands on his toes, and steps carefully through the TV.

The rush of falling hits him all at once, that familiar, uncontrollable free fall that he's been through so many times in his own room by now. Akira's expression stretches into a grin, and he can feel his mask forming out of smoke and nothingness onto his face, covering eyes that have gone bright with the excitement of his plan working.

He lands, less hard than he should have after falling so far, and gets to his feet to look around. The area he's fallen into looks pretty much the same as the fake-TV-soundstage place he usually lands when he jumps into his TV at home, but there are a few differences that have him feeling really curious. The first is a blue door, apparently identical to the one in the Shopping District that has never opened for Akira before. The second is a stack of TVs that Akira guesses are supposed to be for... someone to get back out of the TV. And the third is a figure off in the distance, a kind of... lumpy figure, weirdly round, and too far away for Akira to see clearly.

There's no sign of Lavenza, but then again Akira hadn't told her that he was planning to jump in from somewhere else. He's pretty sure she'll make her way over here eventually. She always seems to know when he's here, after all. So, with her temporarily gone, he has time to investigate the place he's fallen into.

He wanders over to the stack of TVs, but doesn't touch them because he's not ready to leave the TV World yet. There's nothing too interesting about them, though, so he leaves them and backtracks to the blue door, studying it with his head cocked slightly to one side.

There's a slightly more solid look to the door here than the one in the Shopping District. Akira walks around it a couple of times, studying it intently now that he has the chance. People always give him a weird look when he stares at the other door, so this is the first chance he's had to really give it a good look. Not that it really tells him anything, and not that it helps him get the door open when he puts his hand out to try. Looks like he's locked out of this one, too.

He's still studying it though (and just starting to wonder what's taking Lavenza so long), when a voice from about two inches behind his ear says, "What are you doing here?"

Akira yells and jumps backward, skidding to a stop several feet away and reaching instinctively for both daggers. The owner of the voice yells too, bouncing away in the other direction. Akira stares at him (it?), wide eyed.

He has never seen anything like the thing standing in front of him before, and he's not sure how he's supposed to respond. Is this something he should be fighting? Is it a Shadow? He's never seen a Shadow that looks like a giant red teddy bear, but he has seen Shadows that look like tables and giant tongues and all kinds of weird things, so who even knows?

"What are you?" Akira asks, staying poised and wary and ready to fight if he needs to. Juse in case. The bear had really startled him.

"Teddie!" the bear says.

"That..." doesn't tell him anything. "I mean--you--" The teddie keeps staring at him, stubby arms clasped behind his back, looking guilelessly at Akira like that answer should have somehow explained everything, instead of basically nothing. Akira's brow furrows. "...what?"

"Do you know sensei?" the teddie asks.

"Is that... someone like you?" Akira asks, easing up a little on the fighting pose. It's kind of awkward, and anyway the teddie isn't really acting all that dangerous. He doesn't let go of the daggers, though. Not yet.

"Sensei comes with his friends and fights Shadows," the teddie says. "Are you friends?"

"Er..." He does not even know how to answer that. The obvious, truthful answer would be no, because the only other person he knows that can get in here is Lavenza, but he has a hard time imagining her being friends with this guy and not even mentioning him. She keeps secrets, sure, but... is one of them really this guy?

On the other hand, even if the answer is no, does he want to say it and risk this guy deciding he's an enemy? Akira hasn't fully let go of his nervousness that the teddie might turn out to be dangerous somehow. Everything else here is, after all.

Before he has a chance to make up his mind, he hears sudden running footsteps coming toward him, and suddenly Lavenza is at his side, pulling at his arm to get his attention. "Trickster," she says, voice barely above a hiss. "You shouldn't--we need to get out of here, now."

"Trickster?" the teddie says, and is Akira stands torn and surprised and not moving as fast as she wants him to, he sees the teddie's weirdly big face suddenly turn down into a frown. "Hey! You're not supposed to be here!"

"Come on!" Lavenza insists, and this time Akria lets her pull him away. As the two of them start running, and the teddie starts chasing them, it feels like there's an invisible change to the whole area. The atmosphere is sort of--heavier, and Akira has the distinct feeling that for some reason, he is not welcome here any more. As he and Lavenza run, their shoes clanging loudly against the metal of the floor, he can feel himself changing in response to that unwelcoming atmosphere.

He's gotten used to his mask appearing out of nowhere whenever he jumps into the TV World. It just kind of puffs into existence when he gets there, letting him see through the fog that would otherwise make it impossible to actually see anything in the TV World. And, because it's useful, Akira has never really questioned why it happens, or why a mask in the first place. 

But now it's not just the mask--his clothes are changing too, into some kind of long black coat that flaps around his ankles as he runs. Akira almost trips over it in his surprise, but manages to right himself before he can actually get hurt.

Lavenza only lets go of her death grip on his arm after they've been running for several minutes, and have almost definitely left the teddie behind.

They finally reach the castle, and Akira leans back against the wall, panting hard for breath.

"What did you think you were doing?" Lavenza demands, turning to face him with her hands on her hips.

"Wh--what?" Akira asks, looking up at her in confusion.

“Why did you come in this way?" Lavenza demands. She looks so angry that for a moment Akira can’t think of anything to say. Then he rallies.

"Why shouldn't I have?” he asks. "What's here that's so different from where the TV back home went?” But he's thinking while he asks the question, and there's only one answer. "The teddie?" he asks. "Is it really that dangerous?"

"Dangerous?" Lavenza asks. "No."

"So what is it?”

"None of your business," she tells him flatly, and Akira resists the urge to pout. That's really not going to help him here.

"What do you want me to do, then?” he asks. "Because there's no other way I can get in any more. If I try to go in the same way I used to, I’m going to get stuck.”

Lavenza gives him a pointed, meaningful look, and Akira adds quickly, “If I stop now, I'll--Well, I guess I don't know what I’d do. But I wouldn't have Shadows to fight and I’d hardly ever see you anymore, so abandoning the TV World isn't an option.”

“Yes," Lavenza says." It's the only option. “Trickster, you are inches away from wandering into something that doesn’t concern you. And once you stumble into it, I’m afraid that you aren’t the only one that will get hurt."

So tell me how to avoid it," Akira says. "Show me how to be careful, the way you taught me to be careful around Shadows!" He gotten really good at it, too--all the sneaking around. It's been a long time since any Shadows have been able to sneak up on him. “I can be--no, please Lavenza, don't shake your head like that--I can be careful. Whatever you're afraid of, I won't get

myself involved.”

"No," Lavenza insists. "Trickster, do you know what this means?" And she points to his newly transformed clothes.

Akira looks down at himself. They're clothes, what does he know? "No," he says, looking back up at Lavenza. "And what does that have to do with anything?"

"Think of it as a kind of defense," Lavenza says. "But not in the same way as your armor. It is a--disguise. Like your mask. And the fact that you wear it now shows that this place sees you as an intruder."

"Because I talked to the teddie?" Akira asks, incredulously.

Lavenza nods solemnly. "Because he is from here, and he sees you as a threat, and apparently that's enough." She takes a deep breath. "I know that you don't want to hear this, but you must leave. And you can't come back."

"Lavenza!" he protests.

"You should never have been here in the first place!" she says, and the words cut him more sharply than any Shadow attack. "I shouldn't have helped you, I should have--"

"But this is important!" Akira says desperately. It's not just about not being able to get back into the TV World. He can use the Junes TVs, whatever she says, and then use that stack of TVs in here (he's pretty sure) to get out again. But the idea of coming back here and fighting alone, without Lavenza, just isn't the same. She's his friend, and she's telling him to leave.

"This is too important," Lavenza tells him. "You have to leave, Trickster. Now."

Her eyes as she looks at him are so serious and so sad, that Akira suddenly can't even find the words to argue, even as it feels like his whole world is slipping away.

-//-

June 21

Evening

-//-

When Yu gets home that evening, he sees Nanako sitting in front of the TV with her homework, and Dojima in the kitchen with his newspaper, and no sign whatsoever of Akira. He assumes that the younger boy is out somewhere--he knows Akira spends a lot of his afternoons wandering aimlessly around Inaba, apparently amusing himself somehow--and doesn't think much about it.

But Akira doesn't come back by the time everyone sits down for a late dinner, and a couple hours later when Yu finally heads upstairs to their room, he's surprised to see that Akira is there, huddled up in a ball on the sofa, making the kind of quietly heartbreaking noises that come after a very long time of crying.

Yu watches for a second, then retreats halfway down the staircase and comes up again, this time walking loudly enough for Akira to hear him and compose himself if he wants to before Yu comes into the room. It apparently works, because this time he finds Akira sitting up, one leg up on the couch, knee pulled against his chest, face red.

"Have you been up here all along?" Yu asks, putting his bag down and closing the door so no one else will come in and interrupt them. He's never seen Akira this upset, not even after getting a black eye from his classmates. It's worrying him.

"I came home a while ago," Akira says. His voice is tired and quiet and strained. "But I came straight up here."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Yu asks.

If anything, Akira only looks more miserable. "Yes," he admits. "But I can't."

Yu walks past him, pulls the chair out from the desk, and moves it so he can sit facing Akira. "Is it the bullies at school again?"

"No," Akira says.

Yu waits. Akira fidgets.

"I just had a fight with someone," Akira mutters at last, breaking under the pressure of the silence as it stretches on. 

"A fight?" Yu asks, more sharply than he'd intended.

Akira winces. "An argument," he corrects. "With Lavenza."

"Your friend?" Yu asks, and Akira screws up his face like he's trying hard not to start crying all over again.

"I do--I don't think she still wants to be friends with me," he says. "And there's--other stuff. It's a long story, I--" He gulps for air and Yu (teetering back and forth between pressing for details and letting it drop) decides not to ask what else he's upset about, and what they'd argued over. Whatever it is, it's obviously hurting Akira badly. This probably isn't the time to ask him to rehash it if he isn't ready. 

Instead, Yu gets up from the chair, shifts over to the couch, and--after a pause to make sure Akira isn't going to freak out--puts his arm around Akira's shoulders. "Hey," he says. "If you're really friends, then one argument isn't going to be enough to--"

Akira interrupts him by burying his face in his shoulder and sobbing. Yu stops, surprised and not really sure what to do, and then pulls Akira tighter and just lets him keep crying. 

Okay. Sure. Maybe talking just isn't going to do as much good as this is. 

Yu lets him cry until finally Akira pulls back, tired and visibly embarrassed by his breakdown. 

"I'm sorry," Akira says. "I..."

"It's okay," Yu says. By this point it's dark, and neither of them has gotten up to turn on the lights in the room. Yu had heard Nanako go up to bed a little while ago, and Dojima is probably in his room for the night as well (although probably working more, and not sleeping). It's very quiet, now that Akira has stopped crying. "Listen, Akira... if you want to talk--"

"I can't talk about this," Akira insists. "It's complicated, but... I just can't."

What, Yu wonders, has Akira managed to get himself mixed up in? "Alright," he says. "Then I won't push."

Akira gives him a wet smile, and then pushes himself up. "I'm going to go..." he mimes washing his face, then jerks his head toward the bathroom. "I'll be... yea."

When he's gone, Yu slumps back on the sofa and runs his hands over his own face. He feels burned out after , and all he wants to do is go to bed and sleep for ten or twelve hours.

But it's raining, and that means that he should really stay up to check out the Midnight Channel. On the other hand, it's close to midnight now, and Yu is pretty sure Akira won't be asleep by the time it comes on. 

The last thing he wants, on top of everything else, is a repeat of what had happened when Kanji had been on the Midnight Channel. He's pretty sure Akira has no idea what that had been, apart from maybe a vague idea that he shouldn't have been watching it, which is probably why he's mentioned it four or five times after that, always with an intentionally innocent expression that Yu doesn't trust for a second.

He pulls out his phone and texts Yosuke instead.

Yosuke

Hey

Yosuke?

What's up?

Are you planning to watch the Midnight Channel tonight?

Yea

Why?

Akira's still up, and I think he's seen me watching the Midnight Channel a few too many times

And also last time there was a bathouse

And there were some awkward conversations after

He won't stop bringing it up

Ouch.

Okay, yea. I'll watch here and call as soon as I see anything. Or don't see anything

Reassured by this, Yu slips his phone back into his pocket as Akira comes back into the room. "Feeling any better?" he asks.

"Yea," Akira says. "Thanks. I think I'm just going to go to bed now."

Yu gets off the sofa, and lets Akira settle in. "Let me know if you need anything," he says, before taking his chair and retreating back to the desk. "Are you going to be able to sleep if I stay up and work on homework?"

"I'll be okay," Akira says.

For a while, the room is quiet except for the sound of Yu's pencil against his paper, and Akira turning restlessly on the sofa. Yu keeps one eye on his phone and the other eye on the clock, and a minute or two after midnight, his phone lights up with Yosuke's name.

Yu is just reaching for it to see what had happened with the Midnight Channel when Akira says suddenly, "Hey Yu?"

He pauses, hand an inch or two away from the phone. "Yea?"

"Thanks," Akira says, very quietly.

Yu smiles, just for a second. "Any time," he says, and picks up the phone.

He's got three messages, all from Yosuke, and he scans them quickly. Sure enough, it looks like they'll be going back into the TV World soon.

-//-

June 24

After School

-//-

Three days after the appearance of a new person on the Midnight Channel, after days of staking out the Marukyu Tofu Shop for Rise, the Investigation Team heads to the TV in Junes to see if they can track her inside the TV. As they land inside the familiar entrance area, thudding to the ground one at a time and still chatting about what their best course of action would be, Teddie shouts out and runs toward them.

"Sensei!" he howls, with absolutely top-level-Teddie dramatics. "Senseeeeeei!"

Yu steps back just as Teddie gets to them (he can't help it--he wasn't expecting to be charged by an over enthusiastic Teddie first thing after landing), and Teddie falls face first onto the ground.

"Is... he okay?" Chie asks.

"You okay, Ted?" Kanji asks, joining with the rest of them as they all clump around where Teddie is flailing on the ground like a turtle on its back. He leans down to pull Teddie up, revealing the bear's always-wide eyes looking even wider than usual.

"Where have you all been?" Teddie demands. "I have something beary important to tell you!"

"Someone else got dragged in here," Yosuke says. "Right? Is it about that?"

"It must be," Yukiko says, watching Teddie thoughtfully.

But Teddie shakes his head. "No!" he says. "No! Sensei, I met the Trickster!"

Everyone goes absolutely silent. After a few seconds, Yu repeats, "You met him?"

Somehow, the Trickster has become a kind of phantom boogeyman in the group--apart from that one look Yu had gotten back at Yukiko's castle, they haven't seen any solid signs of the Trickster, whoever he is.

Teddie nods emphatically. "Yes!" he says. "He came from outside, like you all do! I thought he was with you at first, but he wasn't! Then I thought he was going to attack me! He had knives, kind of like Yosuke's, and he was waving them around." Teddie waves his own arms around in emphasis. "He asked about all of you--"

"Oh, great," Yosuke says. "And I'm sure you told him."

"I didn't know who he was!" Teddie protests. "But then someone else came, and she called him Trickster and they both ran off!" He stops, apparently waiting for them all to be impressed.

Yu is much more worried than he is impressed. The Trickster is here, and apparently has friends, and now he knows about them. "What did he look like?" he asks.

"He was definitely human," Teddie says, and stops.

"Can you be a little more specific?" Yosuke asks. "Maybe narrow it down to... I don't know, less than seven billion people?"

"About three and a half billion," Yukiko points out. "Teddie called him a he."

"He was... shorter than you guys?" Teddie says. "And he had dark hair..." he trails off, and as the rest of them start to realize that Teddie is not going to be able to give a good description, they groan.

"Thanks a lot, Ted," Kanji mutters.

Teddie pouts. "I don't get to see a lot of humans," he protests. "And he was wearing a mask!"

"What kind of a mask?" Yu asks.

"It covered his eyes," Teddie says. "And it made him look really scary!"

"What about his friend?" Chie asks. "The one that called him Trickster?"

"Oh," Teddie says. "I didn't really pay much attention to her--I think she was short too? And wearing a lot of blue."

"Where did they go?" Kanji asks. "We gotta get after them, see if they're still here!"

"Oh yea!" Teddie says, perking up. "They definitely didn't come back out this way!" He points, in the direction of Yukiko's castle. "They ran over there, and never came back."

"What do you think?" Yosuke asks, looking at Yu. "Should we go investigate?"

Yu hesitates. The idea that the Trickster could be somewhere around here, maybe even somewhere close, is one that makes him nervous. What if he ambushes them? Or what if he comes back for Teddie after the rest of them are back in the real world? On the other hand, they'd come here to find Rise. They might be able to find the Trickster, but they definitely need to help her.

"How long ago was this?" he asks Teddie.

Teddie thinks about it. "A few days ago?" he says.

"Then they're probably too far away by now," Yu says, hoping he's right. "We... don't have time to run off chasing them. Teddie, we came because there's someone else trapped in here--a girl called Rise. We need to find and rescue her before the fog comes back."

"Hmm," Teddie says. "I... I think there's someone here, but I might need some more information..."

As Yukiko, Chie, and Kanji all jump at once to explain Rise and what's been happening out in the real world, Yosuke pulls Yu a little way off to one side. "Do you really think it's okay to just leave the Trickster out there?" he asks.

"I don't think it makes a difference," Yu admits. "I'm sure he's not stupid enough to still be hanging out around here after several days, and we already knew that he was out there somewhere. Now he's still out there, and we still don't have any way to track him." He frowns. "Do you think Teddie might be able to...?"

"After how much trouble he's had with Kanji and Rise?" Yosuke asks. They both look over at the rest of the group,--a dejected looking Teddie, and the other three trying to figure out what they can learn about Rise to help him. "Nah, probably not." 

Yu makes a face. It is true that Teddie's been having a harder time tracking people inside the TV world lately, and it's obviously been bothering him. "Yea," he says, lowering his voice even more. "I won't mention it then." No point in making their friend feel bad about himself. "We'll just have to be really careful going forward, I guess. And at least we have... kind of a description, now?" He frowns. "And Teddie will be with us, so if he sees the Trickster or his friend again, at least he can point them out."

"And if he does?" Yosuke asks. "What do we do?"

"I guess we fight," Yu says, grimly.

Chapter Text

June 28

After School

-//-

Akira lasts three days stuck in the real world before deciding that he has to go back into the TV World. 

There are a lot of reasons for this. First, he wants to go back. He wants to go back to summoning his Persona and fighting Shadows. He's worried about whether he's going to have money for future emergencies (especially after his problem-causing growth spurt has made all his clothes too small). He wants to know what the teddie had been. 

And probably most importantly, he wants to see Lavenza again. He's not going to let their friendship end with an argument. He's going to see her again, and he's going to stay calm, and whatever happens next, he's going to deal with it. He'll be able to deal with it, as long as they stay friends. 

After making up his mind to go back, he tries his best to be very, very careful about how he gets there. Getting himself caught by the teddie again isn't going to win him any points with Lavenza, and it's probably only going to make her dig her heels in more.

He goes back on a Wednesday (he almost considers skipping school to go to Junes when it's less crowded, but decides it would only make him stick out more if he's the only school aged kid in the store in the middle of the day). He heads home, empties his school stuff out of his bag and refills it with TV World stuff, and heads to Junes.

He walks up to the electronics section, and comes face to face with Yu walking in the other direction.

"Akira," Yu says. "What are you doing here?"

"I was just..." he winces. "Looking?" It's probably one of the thinnest lies he's ever told to Yu, because why would he possibly want to be looking at TVs? He has a grand total of ¥417 left from his last round of fighting Shadows, which would probably buy him, like... half of a remote for one of these TV. 

"At TVs?"

Obviously not. He just wants to jump into one, fight some Shadow monsters, and save a friendship. "What are you doing here?" Akira asks. He means it as a distraction so that Yu will stop asking him what he's doing, but then it occurs to him that actually, he kind of wants to know the answer. After all, Yu is in high school, which means he has no more business dragging a TV home than Akira  does. 

"I was--" for some reason Yu's whole posture goes shifty. "I.."

"Hey!" someone calls, interrupting whatever Yu had been about to say, and completely distracting Akira. "Hey, Yu!"

He turns and sees Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko and Kanji walking up the tightly spaced shelves nearby, and toward the two of them.

"There you guys are," Yu says, sounding relived. Relieved that he doesn't have to answer the question, maybe? If Akira wasn't so wholly focused on getting past them and to the TV, he really would have had a lot more questions for Yu.

"Hey, Akira," Chie says, waving at him.

"Hi Chie," Akira says. "And everyone." It hits him that Yu has been here even less time than he has (only a few weeks, but still), and he's got this whole, like, army of friends. It just makes him more determined to get back to Lavenza and figure out how to make everything okay again.

"Great," Yu says. "So now that everyone's here, we can just..." He kind of looks at Akira, and then says in a tentative voice. "...head out?"

But he makes no move to leave. And neither does Akira. They all just kind of stand in front of the TVs, looking at each other. 

The standoff lasts for an awkwardly long time, until Akira sort of coughs and says, "Yea, I... have somewhere to go too, I guess?"

"Yea," Yu says. The relief is back. "Yea, okay. I'll see you at home tonight."

"Yea," Akira says, and makes a point of walking to the end of the big TV display and turning a corner, before creeping back around the next display over (a shelf stacked with boxes of DVD players), and comes back around from the other side, after giving Yu and his friends hopefully enough time to head out to wherever they're going.

They're still there when he comes back around the corner, and again they all kind of stare awkwardly at each other.

"Weren't you leaving?" Akira asks.

"We were just... yea," Yu says. "We were just about to head out. Weren't you going to go, too?"

"I thought I dropped something over here," Akira says. He makes a show of scanning the floor. "Guess not."

And then they're back to all just staring at each other, and Akira can feel his frustration mounting. What the heck do they all want to look at TVs so bad for? He has an actual adventure to go on, and a friend he really needs to apologize to! They're just window shopping!

"Why don't we all get something to eat at the food court?" Yosuke suggests after about thirty more awkward seconds. 

"But--" Yukiko says, and then stops.

"It'll be fine," Yosuke says, and starts shepherding them all out away from the TVs. Akira goes with them, reluctant but not able to think of any way to get away from them without being super awkward and suspicious about it. 

"Are you sure this is okay, man?" Kanji asks. He asks it quietly, like Akira isn't supposed to hear, but he strains his ears and picks up on both Kanji's words and Yu's answer.

"It'll be fine," Yu says. "It's not even raining yet. We have time." His words are even quieter than Kani's had been, and Akira is concentrating so hard on listening that he almost walks into a shelf. Yukiko gently grabs his shoulders and redirects him at the last second.

"Thanks," Akira says.

She smiles at him in answer.

And then they spend the afternoon in the food court, and while Akira can grudgingly admit that it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon (Yu's friends are all really nice, and they don't seem to mind hanging out with him, even though he's five years younger than they are, and they definitely should).

But it's not helping him feel any better about not getting to see Lavenza.

The real low point of the afternoon comes when Chie nudges him and nods across the food court. "Do you know those kids?" she asks. "They keep looking over here."

He follows her gaze, and sees Daiki of all people, with a couple of his friends from school, and a man that looks so much like him that he must be his dad.

"Uh," Akira says, wishing he could duck out of sight under the table. "Yea, that's... that's Daiki."

"That wouldn't be the kid that punched you in the face a while ago," Yu asks, narrowing his eyes as he watches Akira's reaction. "Would it?"

"Daiki?" Kanji asks, twisting around in his seat. "I know that little punk, he lives down the street from me." He gives Daiki a glare that sends him running around to the other side of the table to hide behind his dad. Kanji snorts and turns back around to look at Akira. "He's always been sort of a bully. He giving you trouble, Akira?"

"He..." Kanji looks so indignant at this that Akira finds himself nodding. If it's a choice between Kanji the supposed delinquent and Daiki who beats him up and steals his shoes, then Akira will pick Kanji every single time. "He doesn't like me," he tells the older boy. "And he made pretty much the whole class scared of me because... well, because he saw me talking to you."

Kanji's frown deepens. "If he keeps saying crap like that," he tells Akira. "You come tell me about it."

"What are you gonna do?" Akira asks, fascinated.

"I'm gonna set him straight," Kanji says.

"Kanji!" Chie says. "You can't go around threatening twelve year olds!" 

"He's eleven," Akira corrects. 

Chie and Yukiko share a look that reads as well, that's even worse

"I'm just gonna talk to him," Kanji says. He looks at Akira. "But seriously. If he keeps buggin' you, you tell me."

Akira decides that he likes Kanji. 

He's not going to let him solve his problems for him, but it's a nice thought. 

Briefly, as the conversation moves on and everyone else starts ribbing Kanji, he lets himself wish that he was a few years older. If he'd come to Inaba in high school, he might have been an actual part of this group, and not just the kid that's tolerated because he lives with Yu.

"You okay, Akira?" Yukiko asks. "You went kind of quiet."

"Sorry," he says. "Just thinking." He gives her a half hearted smile, and spends the rest of the afternoon planning attempt number two to get back into the TV tomorrow. 

-//-

July 3

Morning

-//-

Every single time over that the next few days that the Investigation Team tries to get into the TV at Junes, Akira is there. Every single day after school, there he is. And Yu feels bad for him, he does, because Akira has exactly one friend, and they're apparently in the middle of a massive fight. 

But they're trying to save Rise from being destroyed by Shadows the next time the fog clears within the TV World, and there's nothing Akira can do to help with that. The forecast looks worrying. They're running out of time, and because Akira's been haunting the Junes electronics section so thoroughly, they haven't even been able to make a start. 

So on Sunday over breakfast, as all four of them are gathered together for Yu's best attempt at a home cooked meal (he's trying, he really is, because there's only so much takeout he can eat before starting to feel sick), Yu starts in on his plan.

"Hey Akira," he says, casually. "Are you the one that's been helping Nanako with the garden?"

"Uh," Akira says, coloring slightly and hunching over his breakfast. "Yea, I--it's not so bad actually."

"You've been helping too!" Nanako reminds him, and Yu grins at her. It's a smile colored by guilt, though, because he's only actually been home in the evenings to help once or twice since Rise was taken. 

"I've been helping a little," he says. "But the garden looks really nice. You two must have been working hard on it."

Dojima chuckles. "They've been out there every night," he says. "I don't think Akira here hates gardening as much as he pretends that he does."

"Mmm..." Akira makes a little mumbling noise, and tries to hide his face.

"I don't know why you're pretending you don't like it," Nanako tells him, putting down her chopsticks and pointing at him in accusation. "You're doing really good at not killing any of the plants!"

The embarrassment turns into slightly more pleased embarrassment. 

"The plants look like they're ready for harvesting, though," Dojima says. "You two should try to bring those in today."

It's exactly what Yu has been planning to suggest himself, and part of him is sort of glad that Dojima had brought it up before he had a chance to. It seems more natural that way, and less like he's trying to get rid of Akira for a day so the rest of them can jump into the TV World without being seen. 

He doesn't exactly blame Akira for trying to follow them around, and he doesn't exactly mind it, either. He keeps telling himself that once Rise is safe, he'll make sure they make more time for Akira. Nanako too, for that matter. Both of the younger kids are alone too much.

"Yea!" Nanako says, in answer to her father's suggestion. "Akira, we can get all the veggies picked today!"

"But..." He chews on his lip a little. "I was... there's something I need to do that I haven't... I haven't had a chance to do yet." He shoots a kind of sideways look at Yu, who can't help wondering why Akira's just been hanging around Junes, if he has this big important thing he needs to do.

"Please?" Nanako says.

Yu holds his breath, waiting while Akira weights up his options. Then he shrugs and nods. "I guess she can wait another day," he says.

Which means, to Yu, that everything is going to work out okay for today. Pushing aside a twinge of guilt that the she Akira is talking about is probably his friend, which means that his plans had probably involved trying to make up with her, Yu makes some quick excuses and practically runs out of the house.

Akira will be busy with Nanako and the vegetables for at least the next few hours. That'll give them more than enough of a head start to get into the TV World. If they're lucky, they might even be able to rescue Rise and get out all in one day, and not have to worry about coming up with another way to avoid Akira.

One day for the entire dungeon. Sure. No problem. They can do this, right?

When he's halfway to Junes, school bag bouncing on his back and weighing him down with enough assorted supplies to leave bruises on his shoulders under the straps, he pulls out his phone and calls Yosuke.

"Did it work?" Yosuke asks at once. 

"Worked perfectly," Yu says, trying to feel not guilty about pushing Akira off on Nanako for the day. It's not like spending time gardening with her is some kind of punishment, after all.

Yosuke cheers from the other side of the phone, and that helps to shake off a little bit of the lingering guilt. "That's great!" he says. "I'll start calling everyone else, and we can meet up in the food court?"

"Sounds perfect," Yu says. "We have at least a few hours to get in there, but I want to get started as early as possible. Rise's waited long enough, you know?"

"I know," Yosuke says, suddenly serious. "But we'll get it done today, right?"

Something in Yu feels warm. He really couldn't have asked for a better team--or better friends, for that matter. "I know," he says. "If there's anyone that can do it, it's us."

"Since we're the only ones with Persona, that's probably a good thing."

Yu sort of snorts out a laugh, and then regrets it when he starts to get a stitch in his side. He's practically running full out while having this conversation, he's that eager to get to Junes and get their rescue of Rise started. "I'll see you in a little while, alright?"

"Right," Yosuke says. "See you then, Yu."

So there they are. Ready to go into the TV, finally, and rescue Rise. Yu forces himself to push the thoughts of home and Akira and Nanako out of his mind for now--there will be plenty of time to figure them out later.

For now, they have someone to save.

-//-

July 3

Afternoon

-//-

Akira is gradually learning that gardening is a lot of work. 

He is also learning (although he will never, ever admit it to Yu, or to anyone other than Nanako probably) that he kind of likes it. There's something kind of fun about spending evenings poking around in the dirt, and it's really satisfying to watch tiny seeds turn into actual plants. 

He'd sort of been hoping that he could experiment with taking some of the vegetables into the TV World and see if they're any good for healing (the accidental discovery that different kinds of food had more effects in the TV world than in the real one had led to Akira buying so many weird sodas and snacks that he'd gotten sick of them and actually wants to eat vegetables instead). But... well, that's apparently not going to matter anymore.

"Do you think we could plant more?" Nanako asks, as the two of them are carefully working their way up the row of vegetables, trying to figure out the best way to get them up.

"Probably," Akira says. "We could get some more seeds from that lady that's always hanging out on the street talking about her garden, maybe?"

"Oh yea!" Nanako says. She grins at him. "And... you're okay with that?"

"Yea," Akira admits, smiling back. "I guess it's more fun when the plants don't all die."

She sticks her tongue out at him, then giggles and reaches up and over to smear a streak of dirt across his face.

"Hey!" Akira protests. "Nanako!"

"I told you it would be fun!" she says, almost dancing as she backs up out of range of potential retaliation. "I tooooold you, Akira!"

He flicks dirt at her anyway--it lands way short, but she shrieks and runs backward anyway, still laughing. 

"How are you going to help me with the gardening if you're all the way over there?" Akira calls, pointing a trowel at her.

"You're going to get me dirty!" she calls back.

"Duh!"

"Akira!"

"You started it!"

She keeps backing up, shaking her head and laughing, so that by now she's practically in the neighbor's driveway, and the two of them are shouting back and forth at each other at close to full volume. The ever-present gardening lady (Akira still doesn't know her name, but she's either in her yard with her own garden or out on the street talking to the neighbors about theirs basically all the time) had peeked her head up over the fence at one point to frown in disapproval at all the noise, only to shake her head indulgently when she saw what they're arguing about.

"I thought you wanted to keep growing more plants!" Akira calls. "How are you going to do that from all the way over there?"

"I don't know yet!" Nanako says. 

"Well maybe you should have thought of that before--"

"Trickster."

His words die unspoken, his heart almost stops in surprise, and he turns around immediately to see Lavenza standing on the street just in front of the house, looking tentative and uncertain.

It's never even occurred to him--in all the time he's spent trying to get back to the TVs in Junes, and being frustrated by Yu and his friends just hanging out there for no good reason--that she might actually come to see him. "Lavenza?" he says.

"Hi!" Nanako calls, waving and apparently forgetting the earlier bickering immediately as she skips over to join them. "Did you come to play with Akira again?"

"Hello," Lavenza says, giving Nanako a brief smile before turning back to Akira. "We... should talk."

"Yea," Akira says. "Sure. I..." He looks down at himself. Apart from the smear of dirt Nanako had left on his face, his pants and feet are covered in dirt that he knows Dojima won't want tracked into the house. "We can talk out here, if that's okay?"

Lavenza hesitates, glancing sideways at Nanako.

After a second, Nanako says, "Oh!" and her smile gets bigger. "I'll go get the hose and some towels," she says, and almost skips off. Akira watches her go, confused, but decides not to dwell on it for the moment. They probably only have a few minutes before she comes back.

"I didn't expect you to come here," he says, turning back to Lavenza. "I thought... well, I thought you were mad at me."

"I was," she admitted. "But then I thought about it. And you don't know anything that's been going on. There's no way you could have known what you were stepping into, or how dangerous it might be."

"I can take care of myself," Akira insists.

Lavenza shakes her head. "Not for you," she says. "For--everything."

Akira hesitates. The feeling crawling through his gut is the one he gets when he walks up a flight of stairs without paying attention, and expects it to be one step taller than it actually is. "Are you going to tell me about it?" he asks.

Lavenza nods. "Not everything," she says. "But I think you should know more, if only so that you know enough to know what not to do."

"I'll take it," Akira says. "Let me just get cleaned up a little?"

A smile flickers for a moment across her face as she studies him. "You are a mess," she agrees.

He makes a face at her, feeling lighter already, and follows Nanako around the back of the house.

"So she's really your girlfriend," Nanako says a few minutes later, when the two of them are wet but mostly free of mud. "Right?"

Akira colors at once. "What?" he demands. "No."

This only seems to make Nanako more convinced that she's right. "You have a girlfriend!"

"I do not!" Akira protests. "Don't say that when she's listening, Nanako, please." Lavenza would absolutely never, ever let him live it down. "She's not... she's not a girl like that."

"What does that mean?" Nanako asks.

And Akira has to admit that he's not exactly sure. It's just that there's something... alien and different about Lavenza that makes the idea of her being anyone's girlfriend (much less his) almost funny, if it hadn't been so overwhelmingly weird. "Just don't tell her?" he asks. "Please?"

And Nanako is an overwhelmingly nice person, which is probably why she finally (if reluctantly) agrees. He doesn't think for a second that she's going to stop teasing him, but as long as she doesn't say anything to Lavenza, he can live with that. "Are you okay with finishing the garden stuff tonight?" he asks. "Maybe when Yu gets back from Junes?"

"Why's he at Junes?" Nanako asks.

Akira shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "But he's there all the time. Him and his friends wander around by the TVs a lot." Which is really inconvenient, not that Nanako needs to know that. "So are you okay with waiting?"

"Yea," she says. "It's more fun with three people anyway." She gives him a sideways look. "And you need to go talk to your girlfriend anyway, right?"

Akira reaches down to where some of the water they were using to clean themselves off has sloshed into the dirt, picks up a handful of mud, and paints a line of it across her chin.

Nanako shrieks and runs for the house. 

"You started it!" he calls after her, which gets him an indignant look in response.

Ten minutes later, still slightly damp and muddy, Akira pulls on his shoes and goes back out front to rejoin Lavenza. "Let's just walk," he says. "I don't really have anywhere in mind we can go."

"Alright," Lavenza agrees, and the two of them start walking. 

They must look very strange together, Akira catches himself thinking, with him all grubby and her in her dress. They wouldn't look like two people with anything at all in common, much less anything as strange as Shadows. 

Lavenza doesn't say anything until they're out at the Samegawa Flood Plain, which is mostly empty, as usual. Finally, she says, "You should know that you are not the only one that can use a Persona."

"There's more people like you?" he asks.

She shakes her head no. "There are more people here, in Inaba, that have learned to do the same thing," she says. "One of them is a Wild Card--"

"A what?" Akira interrupts.

"I am telling you, Trickster," Lavenza says, and Akira makes a face and goes quiet. "One of them," she starts again. "Is a Wild Card. Like you." 

This does nothing to explain, but Akira bites his tongue and waits, hoping that she'll give him more. 

"That's what lets you use more than one Persona," Lavenza says. "Most people can't."

"What's different about me?" Akira asks. "And the other Wild Card? Is it like... genetic or something?"

"I really don't know," Lavenza says thoughtfully. "But because you are a Wild Card, you will one day be approached with a contract. I do not know what the terms will be, or what circumstances will lead to the contract being offered. But it will come, and it will be because something is wrong."

"So why was it okay when I was using the TV at home?" he asks. "If it's this whole... big deal?"

"The place the new TV leads to is the same place where these others meet," Lavenza says, with apparently deliberate vagueness. "And I don't know what would happen if you were to involve yourself in what they're doing. Going to that place, through that TV, is too dangerous."

Her voice is serious, and sends a shiver down Akira's spine. "I remember, when we first met," he says. "You told me I wasn't supposed to be there, because... it wasn't my turn, or something. Is this what you meant?"

"It is," she agrees. "There is something wrong here, but it's not your place to fix it. Whatever you are going to be asked to do will come later. When you're older. It was bad luck that you happened to be here at the same time as another Wild Card, and that you happened to find your way into the metaverse and awaken your Persona."

"It doesn't feel like bad luck," Akira says.

"I'm sure it doesn't, to you," Lavenza says. "But there are people in this town that are trying very hard to fix something very important. And if you involve yourself too deeply in their mission, it may not succeed." She frowns. "I don't think this has happened before, and when you first stumbled into it all, I... did not know what to do. I worry about what will happen if your presence interferes with everything that is going on here. I worry about what will happen if you are hurt, and unable to fill your contract when it is offered to you."

They walk for a while longer in silence. Akira says, after a while, "I still don't think I really get it."

"I'm still no telling you everything," Lavenza says.

He kind of laughs at that. "I guess I didn't really think you would," he says, which makes her smile too. "But I guess what it all comes down to is... something big and bad is going on here, and I need to stay clear of it because I might get in the way of the people that are trying to stop it?"

"Yes," Lavenza says, sounding relieved. "Exactly."

"You could have told me that earlier," Akira says. "I really like fighting Shadows. It's like... being there, and using my Persona, makes me feel..." He trails off, not sure what to say, exactly. But Lavenza is smiling like she doesn't need to hear it.

"Yes," she says. "I know. But you'll have a chance to do it again, someday."

"Is that a promise?" Akira asks, half teasing, half serious.

"It is," she says. "It's a deal, Trickster." 

She holds out her hand, and Akira--feeling a little awkward--takes it.

There's a feeling between their fingers, something like the fluttering of wings, and Lavenza says, quietly, "I am thou, thou art I." 

Her voice is very strong, although her lips aren't moving, Akira hears the words all they same. Not with his ears, exactly, but with something deeper, that tugs at the place where his collection of Persona lives. 

Lavenza is still talking, and Akira finds himself frozen in place, listening.

"It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Strength Persona, you have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..." 

And then it's over, and Akira lets go of Lavenza's hand. "What...?" He swallows. "What was that?"

"Something that I hope will help you," Lavenza says, starting to walk again, and looking for all the world like there's nothing strange about what just happened. "Although maybe not yet."

In the nebulous, future time when he's supposed to be fighting Shadows, Akira assumes she means. "But what was--"

"Your bonds with others are as important to your strength as the Persona you collect from Shadows," Lavenza says. "Remember that, Trickster."

He groans, and buries his head in his hands for a second, just to be dramatic. "Lavenza," he says. "I'm starting to wish you weren't trying to explain things. I think I'm getting more confused."

When he looks back up at her, she's smirking.

"You'll still come hang out, right?" Akira asks. "We don't have to just fight Shadows together." He doesn't quite meet her eyes. "I missed you when we weren't talking. You're still my only friend."

"Trickster..." Lavenza sighs, and then starts over. "Akira, I... did not expect to be your friend."

"Too bad," he says stubbornly. "It's too late to go back now."

"Yes," she says. "But at some point, probably before the end of the year, the Shadows here will be gone. And I'll have to leave as well. Not forever, but it won't be like this again."

"But... until then?"

"Until then," she says. "I will visit. And after, we will still be friends."

He thinks of the strange moment between them, the bond, and he believes her. Whatever it is, and whatever unknown purpose it might serve in the future, it does not feel like something that would break easily.

-//-

July 10

Afternoon

-//-

Akira has pretty much stopped hanging out at Junes since his talk with Lavenza. There's no point, now that he's pretty much banned from fighting Shadows. It's... a hard thing to lose, but at least Lavenza's been keeping her promise about coming to see him. She's been by two or three times since the day she finally came to tell him (part of) the secrets she's been keeping all this time. They've been all over Inaba, apart from down to the Central Shopping District where the blue door is. Lavenza seems to be trying to avoid it, and from her tone and attitude when she talks about it, Akica thinks it might be her home, or… something like it. He hasn’t pushed too hard,but he 100% plans to poke around more later.

He hasn't told Lavenza this.

He's pretty sure she knows anyway. She keeps giving him a don’t you dare look whenever the door comes up, which Akira has been working very hard to pretend he hasn’t noticed.

But today there's no Lavenza to keep him occupied, and... and someone had found a dead body this morning. One of the teachers at the high school, someone had said. Akira doesn't know him, or his name, even, but he'd thought...

It's been months since the last murder. Akira had kind of thought all that was over. Since it’s not, and since Dojima will be working overtime because of it, and because Akira had discovered (when he stopped home briefly and found a message on the answering machine) that Nanako is with a friend for the afternoon, that leaves Akira home alone until everyone gets back.

Or, he could go skulk around Junes for a while. Not to get into the TV World again or anything, he just... doesn't want to be alone. His nervous, jumpy fear of stumbling onto a murderer is deep enough to make him willing to lurk pathetically around in Yu's vicinity, even if Yu doesn't know he's there

To his surprise, he does not find Yu and his friends in the electronics section by the TVs. After a bit of aimless wandering, he comes out to the food court and sees them all gathered together. Yu and Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko and Kanji, all the friends that Akira has met in the past. But there's a fox there too for some reason? Just sitting up on a bench with the rest of

them like he's people. Akira thinks he's seen the fox around the shrine before, which does nothing to explain why the fox is here now.

Worse than the fox, though.

Is.

The teddie.

Just standing there with everyone else, talking at full volume and gesticulating wildly as everyone else (except for the fox) tries desperately to calm him down. They're so fully absorbed in this that none of them even notices Akira standing, frozen, across the mostly empty food court and staring.

There are just so many questions in his brain that Akira doesn't even know where to start. How had the Teddie gotten here? What is he so excited about, and does he actually know Yu and his friends?

And seriously, what even is a Teddie, anyway?

After a way too long stretched out moment where Akira does not move a single muscle, he suddenly snaps out of his funk, takes a deep breath, and shakes his head. Whatever's going on here, Akira absolutely, definitely wants to know what it is. And Lavenza's not around to stop him, so...

So, spying it is.

Akira takes a deep breath and ducks down behind a table, wishing for the ten millionth time that he hadn't gotten his poorly timed growth spurt. It would have made it a lot easier to hide if he wasn't so awkwardly tall. On the other hand, he's had months of practice at creeping around in the TV World by now, learning to sneak up on Shadows because they'd kick his butt if he tried to fight them head on, by himself. Actually, creeping around a food court in the real world where no one even has any weapons is a lot easier than that.

And it's kind of fun, too. If Akira isn't going to be able to get into the TV World, at least this is kind of fun. He feels Arsene buzzing in his mind, and he keeps reaching a hand up to his face, instinctively feeling for the mask that isn't going to just magically appear while he's in the real world. 

He manages to get around to the other side of the food court without being spotted by Yu and his friends, or by anyone else, and takes up a position in an out of the way corner where he can keep an eye on everything without being seen himself. He crouches, ready to bolt if anyone notices him, leaning against a low wall, and watches, and listens, as hard as he possibly can. 

So he sees the Teddie shouting about getting out of the TV World. He hears the rest of the group talking to him like an old friend, and realizes with a shock that they definitely know him. He sees Teddie (not the teddie, apparently, like some kind of species, but just Teddie, like a name) pull his whole entire head off and reveal a second and more normal looking body body inside of it.

(Everyone is very surprised to see this)

(And it sounds like he'd just been an empty costume before?)

(Seriously, what even is Teddie?)

Akira watches, and listens, and as the conversation goes on he realizes that he has been very, very stupid for a very long time. When he met Teddie in the TV World, he'd mentioned something about a Sensei that came from the real world and fought Shadows. And just a few days ago, Lavenza had said...

Akira waits until Yu and his friends have left the food court, then runs home as fast as he can. He's not thinking about a murderer being on the loose anymore, he's thinking about the fact that--that...

There's still no one home when Akira gets there, so he pounds up the stairs to his and Yu's bedroom, and starts a careful, thorough examination of Yu's things. 

And he finds weapons, and armor, and all the strange things Akira's been buying over the past few months that work like potions in the TV World. All this time while he was hiding his Shadow fighting from everyone, Yu's been doing exactly the same thing. That day, back when Yu first moved in, when he'd woken Akira up by apparently getting stuck in the TV? He had. All those days Yu and his friends had blocked Akira from getting into the TV at Junes? They'd been trying to do the exact same thing.

Akira sits back on his heels, thinking as hard as he possibly can about what he's supposed to do next. Lavenza had been pretty clear about the fact that he's not supposed to get involved in any of this. That she doesn't know what would happen, but that it just might mess everything up for everyone.

He's still sitting there, dazed and utterly lost, when the door opens and Yu comes in.

"Akira," Yu says, apparently surprised to find him squatting on the floor staring off into space. Well, sure? Why wouldn't he be? Akira is kind of freaking out, and he is not hiding it very well. "Is everything...?"

"Everything's fine," Akira blurts out, standing up. 

"You're sure?" Yu asks.

Nope. Not fine. Nothing is fine, because Akira is burning to just spill everything he knows and everything he's been through, and hear what Yu knows. And if he didn't trust Lavenza so much--if she hadn't done so much already to try and help him, even saving his life when his Shadow-Persona attacked all the way back at the beginning of this whole mess--he would have laid all his cards on the table, right then and there.

"I just heard people talking," Akira says haltingly. "When I went out this morning. About... another murder? It kind of freaked me out."

Yu's expression relaxes a little. "Oh," he says. "Yea, well... I don't blame you. It's pretty awful."

"Yea," Akira says, looking at his bare feet on the floor, watching his toes curl up in an involuntary, nervous movement. "Awful..."

"It's okay, though." Yu takes him by the shoulder and steers him toward the sofa. "They're going to catch whoever did it, and Inaba will be safe again." His voice is sure and determined, and Akira can't make himself doubt him. "Listen, do you want to come hang out with us today? We're just going to be stopping by to see a few friends. There's, uh... there's this new guy in town that we're going to show around."

Teddie, he means. And Teddie had definitely seen Akira's face (most of it, behind the mask) in the TV World, which means that it's probably a good idea to stay away from him. "No thanks," Akira says, pulling away a little. "I'll be fine."

"You're sure?" Yu says. "You still look a little freaked out."

Akira forces a smile so big and obviously faked that Yu laughs and holds up his hands. "Alright, alright," he says. "I get it, you're fine on your own."

Akira mumbles something in answer, and watches as Yu grabs a few things, then waves and heads out again, leaving Akira by himself in the shared bedroom.

Fine on his own.

Sure.

Yea.

And Akira feels very alone, right at this moment. He's not at all sure that he's okay with it.

-//-

July 11

After School

-//-

Akira waits after school until almost everyone is gone before leaving the building. He walks down the empty hallways, avoiding a teacher that gives him a smile and a friendly goodbye before changing his shoes and slowly heading out the doors.

Lavenza's waiting at the gate for him. He'd hoped she would be. 

"What's wrong?" she asks, when he stops next to her at last. He hadn't slept much last night, and it obviously shows on his face.

"Did you know that Yu and his friends are the ones that are going into the TV?" he asks. "Or did you just know it was someone?"

Surprise flickers across her face for a second. Then her expression settles. "I knew," she says. "How did you find out?"

"I saw them with Teddie," Akira says, as they start to walk together. "So I sneaked up on them and listened. They really weren't being that careful."

"Trickster," Lavenza says, exasperated.

He gets a little defensive. "I didn't go into a TV!" he protests. "I just wanted to know what was going on. And now I know that I have to be really careful around all of them." He frowns. "It's... now that I know, all I want to do is talk to Yu about it."

"I know, Trickster," Lavenza says. "This isn't fair to you."

He heaves a sigh. "But it's important, right?"

"I think so," she says. "It hasn't happened before, but... I really think it is important."

"Then I won't say anything," Akira says. "I trust you, Lavenza."

And he feels their bond grow a little bit tighter.

Chapter Text

July 25

Morning

-//-

The day that the test results are posted, Yu takes a look at the list, sees his name in the top ten of the results, and relaxes for the first time in more than a week.

"You did really well, Yu," Yukiko says, studying the list intently and then turning to him with a genuine smile. "Good job."

"Thanks," Yu says. "I have no idea how I managed that with all the fighting we've been doing lately." 

Yukiko winces in agreement. "Yes," she says. "I think we probably could have picked a better time to go searching for the Trickster."

They've been trying to find him for close to two weeks, now. Ever since Rise officially joined the team with her powerful navigational abilities, they've been focusing on going into the TV World as much as possible and searching as much of it as they can get to, with Rise using her Persona to scan all the time. 

So far, they haven't had any luck at all.

"We should take a few days off now that finals are over," he says.

"We should find something fun to do when summer break starts," Yukiko says."We could take a trip or something."

"Teddie's been been dropping hints about the beach," Yu says.

Yukiko narrows her eyes. "Teddie wants to look at girls in swimsuits," she says flatly, which is probably true. Before Yu can say anything, though, she snaps her  fingers, eyes going wide. "Speaking of summer break," she says. "I forgot I was going to ask you--do you know what Akira's doing for his break?"

"More of the same, I think," Yu says. "Gardening with me and Nanako, wandering around." He sighs. "Probably avoiding whatever bullies he still won't ask me for help with."

"Do you think he might be willing to help out with something?" Yukiko asks.

Yu hesitates. The truth is, Akira seems to have been avoiding them lately. He's still the same old Akira at home, but he's been going out of his way to not spend any time with them as a group. Yu's not sure why, but thinking that maybe Akira just needs space, he hasn't pushed. "What did you want his help with?"

It's getting crowded around the exam score postings, so they start walking slowly back to their classroom. "There's this guest that just arrived at the Inn last night," she explains. "Some kind of poet, I think? Something artistic, anyway. I guess he's here to rest and gather inspiration, or something like that." She shrugs. "But he has this boy with him that looks like he's about Akira's age. I think he's a... son, or a pupil, or something?" She shrugs, but her expression is troubled and her words are careful. "And I thought they might both appreciate having someone to spend their break with."

"Akira probably would," Yu admits. "If the other kid's interested, I'll see if he can stop by."

"Please?" Yukiko asks. "I checked them in last night, and the artist sounded like he was a lot more interested in the hot springs than what his kid is doing. I feel bad that he's going to be here all summer with nothing to do, so I said I knew someone his age that might be able to show him around Inaba. I think they were both kind of relieved to have something for him to do."

Yu shrugs. "I'll talk to Akira tonight and see if he wants to stop by in the morning?" he says.

"I'll tell the staff," Yukiko says. "So they know to watch out for him." 

"Got it," Yu says. 

They're back in the classroom by this point, and Yosuke flags them down to talk about something TV World related--the conversation shifts quickly to that subject, and Yu doesn't think any more about Yukiko's favor for the rest of the day.

-//-

July 26

Morning

-//-

Akira and Nanako start summer break a day earlier than Yu's high school lets out, which would have been great except that Akira wakes up anyway when Yu starts moving around their room.

"Mmf," Akira mumbles, pulling his blanket up over his face. "It's too early. It's summer."

"For you, maybe," Yu says. "I still have a day left. You can go back to sleep if you want."

It's too late though, and Akira's brain is starting to wake up whether he wants it to or not (he does not). He sits up, still kind of slumped over, and rubs a hand against one tired eye. "You should have just skipped," he complains, half heartedly.

Yu laughs, and shakes his head. "No," he says, and Akira sticks out his tongue. Of course Yu wouldn't skip school. Yu does everything right and gets good grades and also gets to run around fighting Shadows.

He's not jealous, he reminds himself. Not jealous at all.

"Oh," Yu says. "Akira, I almost forgot to tell you--Yukiko asked if I could see if you'd do her a favor over break."

"What kind of a favor?" Akira asks, sitting up and trying to focus on being more awake. He's been avoiding Yu's friends (and specifically Teddie) as much as possible over the past couple weeks, and he doesn't want to walk into something that's going to get him found out.

"Apparently there's someone staying at the Inn over break," Yu says. "He's about your age, and Yukiko wanted to see if you would want to show him around town while he's here."

"I guess," Akira says. "It's something to do that's not homework, right?" And maybe something to take his mind off all the Shadow fighting he can't do right now. 

"Thanks," Yu says, then sighs. "Anyway, I have to get to school."

"I'm going back to sleep," Akira says, and makes a show of it when he gets an annoyed face from Yu in response.

As soon as the older boy is out of the room, though, Akira sits up and starts hunting around for clean clothes. If he's going to go meet this boy at the Amagi Inn--and he might as well--he'd rather do it now when Yu and his friends are all going to be at school. 

So out he goes, waiting just long enough for Yu to leave the house and disappear around a corner at the end of the street, before walking in the general direction of the Inn. He keeps half an eye out for Lavenza as he walks (he still doesn't know where she comes from or where she disappears to, but if she wants to find him she will, and there's nothing he can do about it one way or the other), but doesn't see her around.

She'll show up when she wants to. Akira keeps walking.

The Amagi Inn is in an older part of town that Akira doesn't come to very often. All of Inaba is pretty old, obviously, but this area has a settled permanence to it that makes him think vaguely of the shrine in the Shopping District. It's easy to believe that the Inn's been in Yukiko's family forever.

He walks in, and a middle aged woman that looks a lot like Yukiko asks if she can help him.

"Uh... yea." Akira shuffles over to her, trying not to feel awkward and out of place in his tank top and flip flops. "My name's Akira. My..." He still doesn't know what to call Yu. Roommate sounds weird. Friend doesn't really explain anything. How's he supposed to explain the chain of events that brought him here? "I heard, uh--"

Luckily, the woman's expression brightens when she hears his name. "Yukiko mentioned you would be coming by."

"Oh!" Akira says, a little of the awkwardness fading. "Good."

"It's very nice of you to agree to show him around town," the woman (who Akira is pretty sure must be Yukiko's mom) says, beckoning for him to follow her further into the building. He does, looking around curiously at everything as he passes. He's been past here plenty of times, but he's never been inside. "I'm pretty sure I saw his guardian out in the hot springs earlier, so he should be..." She pauses, knocking at one of the doors.

There's a pause, during which Akira catches himself having sudden, last second doubts. What if this is a stupid idea? He'd had friends back at his last school, but since coming to Inaba he's... pretty much gotten used to being shunned or bullied by everyone he meets. There's no reason to think this boy will be like that, but what if he is? 

Akira realizes he's backed all the way up to the opposite side of the hallway only when he actually hits the wall with his back. 

Then the door opens, and a thin boy maybe an inch or two shorter than Akira looks out at them. His expression is slightly vague, and there's a smear of blue paint over his eyebrow.

"Akira," Yukiko's mom says. "This is Yusuke. Yusuke, this is Akira."

Akira peels himself off the wall, feeling kind of ridiculous. There's absolutely nothing intimidating about someone with paint smeared all over them. "Hi," Akira says.

"Akira's brother is friends with my daughter," Yukiko's mom says. Akira opens his mouth to correct her, but she's already moving on. "Since it's so nice out, we thought it might be nice for you to have someone show you around the town. I'm sure your guardian won't mind."

She gives him a generous smile, and Yusuke shakes his head no. "Sensei won't mind," he says, then looks past her at Akira. His expression seems doubtful, and Akira feels like he should probably say... something.

"I don't know what you like to do," he says. "But we can walk around I guess. That's what I usually do."

Doubt turns to determination, and Yusuke says with absolute certainty, "I need to paint something beautiful."

"O...kay?" Akira says. He looks up at Yukiko's mom for some kind of guidance, but she only gives Yusuke a slightly confused look before telling them to have fun and bustling back to the front of the Inn.

Left alone, the two boys eye each other. "Do you want to get going, then?" Akira asks. "Your..." she'd said guardian, right? Not parents? "Whoever you're with, they won't care?"

"Sensei is here for a very important rest session after his last show," Yusuke says. "I'm just supposed to not bother him while he recovers."

He disappears into the room for a second, and when he comes back he's holding a school bag. Akira gets a glimpse of cluttered sketchpads and pencils and paintbrushes, plus a few other things he doesn't recognize, before Yusuke closes the bag and hoists it up onto his shoulders. "We can go now," he says, and Akira realizes he's just been kind of making a weird and confused face at Yusuke. 

"Yea," he says. "I guess we'll get going?" He isn't exactly sure what he'd been expecting from the person Yu had mentioned this morning, but 'paint flecked' and 'super intense' are surprises. They head out of the Inn and off in a random direction. Yusuke is quiet, and seems lost and thought. It's a little weird, Akira thinks, that he'd said he wants to paint something and now he's not even looking around at where they're going.

"So..." Akira looks around desperately for some kind of inspiration for a conversation starter. "Where are you guys from?"

"Tokyo," Yusuke says.

"Really?" Akira blurts. "That's a--" He looks around again, and says, "That's really different from here."

Yusuke looks around too, as if seeing Inaba for the first time. "I guess so," he says, and then goes back to his thoughts.

Akira forges onward. "You said your, uh, your Sensei? He had some kind of show?"

"He shows his paintings," Yusuke explains. "He's very good."

"Cool," Akira says. He doesn't really know anything about art, but he's willing to take Yusuke's word for it that his sensei is good at it. "You said you paint too, right? And you have paint all over your--" He gestures to his eyebrow, and Yusuke's hand flies upward to touch the smear of paint across his face. Then he seems to decide it doesn't really matter, and drops his hand.

"I'm trying," he says. "I'm not very good."

"I bet you're better than me," Akira says encouragingly. "But also, the six year old I live with is better than me. So." 

Yusuke shrugs. He seems to have barely heard any of that.

Akira bites his lip, frowning. He's not actually sure what else to say here, but he's pretty sure that turning around and taking Yusuke back to the Inn immediately isn't an option.

"Sensei works very hard," Yusuke says abruptly. It doesn't seem to be connected to anything in particular. "So he wanted to come here and relax for a while. But he couldn't leave me home alone, so he had to take me with him."

"You didn't want to come?" Akira asks. "I know it's a lot quieter here than it is in Tokyo--" he has never been to Tokyo, but he's seen it on TV. "But it's not so bad. I like being here." In saying it, he realizes with surprise that it's true. He's going to miss Inaba at the end of the school year, even if he never gets back into the TV World.

Yusuke shrugs. "I just don't want Sensei to have to worry about me," he says flumly. "Usually there are other students at the Atelier, but not right now. So Sensei has to take care of me, even on his rest break." Yusuke heaves a big sigh, and mutters, "I'm just... a lot of trouble to him."

Akira's not exactly sure how to answer this comment coming from someone he's known for about forty five minutes, so instead he points down a side street and says, "Why don't we go that way? There's a little park up at the top of a hill that no one ever really goes to."

Yusuke obviously doesn't care so Akira just decides that yes, that's where they're going to go, and leads the way. When they've climbed up the low hill to the little patch of grass that qualifies as the park, he sits down and Yusuke flops onto his stomach a few feet away. There's a decent (not great, but decent) view of the town from here, which is why Akira had thought of it in the first place. And sure enough, after a few minutes of sighing and frowning, Yusuke sits up and pulls his bag off his back to start sketching.

Akira watches him. He really doesn't know if it's good or bad, but suddenly Yusuke's movements have a confidence that he hadn't shown while they were walking up here.

Yusuke, Akira is starting to realize, is weird. But he doesn't mind weird, and he thinks that Yusuke is also really and genuinely upset.

"You couldn't stay with your parents in the city while your sensei's down here?" he asks.

"My mother died when I was a baby," Yusuke says, without looking up from his sketching. His fingers slow though, just a little. "Sensei took me in."

"I..." Akira winces and then sighs. "You're lucky that you had someone that was willing to do that." He's not sure what he would have done if there had been anyone that wanted to take care of him after his parents died. He'd known immediately that he hadn't wanted to go to strangers, which is why he hasn't told anyone after he found out his parents had died. If there had been someone else, though? 

"I know," Yusuke says. "That's why I really want to live up to his expectations!" He presses harder on the sketchpad, leaving darker lines under his pencil. "I don't want to make more work for him. I want to learn everything, and be someone he can be proud of!" The movements that had slowed down a moment earlier are quicker now, almost frenzied. "Sensei is a great man and a great teacher. People come from all over Japan to learn from him, and he picked me to take in!"

The tip of Yusuke's pencil snaps suddenly, leaving a broken, ugly smear of lead down the middle of his sketch. Yusuke freezes, staring down at it with wide eyes, then seems to deflate. "But... I'm not any good yet," he finishes, much more quietly. "So I'm just... a lot of trouble for him."

Akira scoots closer, looking down at the now ruined sketch. A view of Inaba, all dark lines and heavy corners from the pressure Yusuke had put on them, split jaggedly in two because of the broken pencil. It occurs to Akira that even if he'd had someone like Yusuke's sensei around when his parents died, he might not have wanted someone like that to take care of him, after all. 

"Don't you like it?" he asks. "Or do you only want to learn so that you can make your sensei happy?"

Yusuke looks up at him, more miserable than before, if anything. "I love art," he says, completely serious and utterly honest. "I love it."

Akira stares back at him, at first perplexed, and then cautiously understanding. He doesn't know Yusuke and doesn't understand art. But Yusuke's expressions are easy to read. His face is open, and Akira can see the excitement there.

The only thing that's ever made him feel like that is creeping through the TV World and fighting Shadows. 

His Persona shifts slightly within him, as if in response to the thought, and Akira thinks that he sort of understands. What it's like to love something, and to have to step back from loving it. For him it's because Yu and his friends are doing something that's apparently too important for him to get dragged into, and for Yusuke it's because he can't enjoy his art when he needs to use it to prove to his sensei that he's good enough for him. But here they are, both of them, sitting on this hill. Leftovers.

Akira says, "I didn't have anywhere to go when my parents died."

He's not sure what makes him say it, exactly? Except that he thinks Yusuke might understand, maybe. And that even if he doesn't, he'll be gone in a few weeks, back to Tokyo, and Akira will never see him again. It's as safe a place to share his secret as anywhere else in the world, probably. With a stranger (a stranger that might just understand), who will never come back to Inaba after summer vacation. 

"So I came here," Akira says. He watches Yusuke, scared of the reaction. 

Yusuke tilts his head very slightly sideways, studying him. "You don't have anyone, then?" he asks.

"I'm on a kind of exchange program," Akira says. "It's--sort of a whole long story." He digs a little hole in the dirt next to Yusuke's sketchpad with his fingers. "And... and I wouldn't say I don't have anyone." Because for the rest of the school year, at least, he has Dojima and Yu and Nanako, and they're as good a fake family as he could have found anywhere. After that... he doesn't know what's going to happen after that. As usual, he shoves the thought away as hard as he can. It's impossible to make plans for next year when he doesn't really want to leave Inaba. "But I was just thinking... it seems like you feel like you owe your sensei a lot for taking you in?" 

He pauses. Yusuke nods, just a little.

"I don't think you owe him something you love that much," Akira says. He's careful as he says it, because he doesn't want to offend Yusuke or the sensei he looks up to. "I think... I don't know. But you just don't really seem happy." He shrugs, just with one shoulder, feeling a little awkward. "I don't know," he says again. 

He realizes he's staring at the ground, embarrassed. 

"How did they die?" Yusuke asks.

"In an accident," Akira says. "A truck driver lost control and hit about seven or eight other cars. Some of them caught fire. It was in the news a lot for a couple days." He'd seen it at school, on TV in the dorms. His roommate had been trying to find the new episode of some show he liked on the TV in the common room, and when he'd flipped past a news station, Akira had seen his parents' car, up in flames. Just a couple of seconds, while the other boy paused to comment on the fire in the background ("That's so cool, look at that!") before moving on. 

When Akira was six, he'd gotten a book of stickers for a birthday present, and enthusiastically gone around the house sticking them onto every open surface he could find. His mom had patiently taken them all out, lecturing him and reminding him not to do it again, which Akira would promptly forget as soon as he was out of earshot. He only stopped when he finally stuck one of them onto the door of his dad's brand new car, which had gotten him grounded for two days that turned into a week when it turned out that the sticker was not coming off.

It had still been there four and a half years later when Akira saw the car smashed up and broken on TV.

He'd looked the accident up later, lingering in the school's computer lab after class, carefully using the lessons they'd learned about finding news articles to learn more about the accident. 

After that, he kept waiting and waiting for someone to come and tell him what would happen next, but no one ever had. And who would, really? They don't have family. All the moving around they did meant there were no close friends. There was no one to step in and see hey what about Akira? Don't you know he's not going to see his parents again?

"Last year," Akira says. "A little more than a year. What about you?"

"My mother died when I was a baby," Yusuke says. He says nothing about his dad. "Sensei knew her before she died, so that's why..." He trails off, fingers running lightly over the dark shapes in his sketchbook. "I just wish sometimes he wasn't... so important. I don't think I deserve to be here."

The two of them sit in silence for a few minutes, and then Akira sniffs. His eyes are wet.

He had not been expecting today to turn out like this. 

After a while, he looks up at Yusuke and says, "Don't... tell anyone about my parents? I think I'd get in a lot of trouble if anyone found out."

Yusuke nods. "I won't tell, if you don't tell Sensei what I said about him."

"Deal," Akira says. "We can both just be sad orphans and together and never tell anyone."

Yusuke laughs, kind of, then starts to pick up his things. "Do you think we can go somewhere else?" he asks. 

Akira is only half listening, though. There's a... voice, half audible, and he strains his ears to hear. 

I am thou... Thou art I... 

He recognizes the words with a shock as the same ones Lavenza had spoken to him once before, when she talked about bonds.

Thou hast acquired a new vow.

It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity.

With the birth of the Emperor Persona, you have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lied to freedom and new power...

The voice fades to nothing, with no sign of Lavenza anywhere around. It had definitely been her voice though, hadn't it? 

"Are you ready to go?" Yusuke asks. 

"Did you hear that?" Akira says, looking back at him.

"No?" Yusuke says. He raises his eyebrows, making the blue mark jump across his forehead. "What was it?"

He doesn't think this is the time or the place to explain Lavenza. If he even can. "Nevermind," he says. "I guess I imagined it." He shrugs, and starts walking down the hill. Yusuke follows right behind him. "So what kind of stuff do you want to see?"

"I don't know," Yusuke says. "Something to draw."

"Like what?" Akira asks. 

Yusuke shrugs expressively but unhelpfully. 

Well, Akira thinks, as he starts heading off again in a random direction. At least he seems a little less upset than he had this morning, even if Akira thinks he still looks sort of sad. But that's... well, he's kind of still a little sad himself. But he's not sad all by himself anymore, and that's something, right?

He starts talking, mouth going pretty much on autopilot about all the things they can see in town (it's not much, but Yusuke listens in rapt attention anyway) while his mind races, thinking about something entirely different. 

He wonders if Lavenza could tell him more about these bonds.

-//-

July 26

Afternoon

-//-

Yusuke had been ashamed and upset when Sensei came to him a week and a half ago and announced that, since there are currently no students staying in the Atelier, Yusuke will have to accompany him on his yearly rest retreat to the countryside. 

He is not happy when he says this, and Yusuke knows that's because of him. Sensei works very hard, all year long. He is an artist--he makes art. Yusuke is just barely twelve, but he is old enough to understand that art is not easy to make and it is not fast to make, which is why Sensei spends so much time locked up in his own private studio, working on his masterpieces. And then, in addition to that, he spends the rest of the time with the many students that come to learn from him, and taking care of Yusuke on top of it.

Yusuke has always understood that Sensei needs these retreats, to rest up alone and away from the pressures of his responsibilities and his fame, so that he can come back and keep making his art. 

How is he supposed to relax if he'll still be taking care of Yusuke? He always comes back complaining how the town is so backwater and provincial (words Yusuke had grown up knowing meant 'bad' because that's the tone Sensei always uses when he says them), but it is his solemn duty to suffer for his art and his inspiration, to withdraw from society and grapple with his muse.

So that's another reason Yusuke hadn't wanted to come to Inaba with Sensei this year--it has always sounded so boring.

And it turns out that it's not. He knows that he is still a burden on Sensei while he's here (but when is he not?), but at least it's turning out more interesting than Yusuke had assumed.

Inaba is fascinating to him--he's never been more than a few miles outside of Tokyo, and then it's only been to help Sensei and his older students set up for shows. Crisp, white rooms with sharply dressed adults, most of them looking at him sideways as if he's going to ruin the paintings. He's not. He knows that art deserves more respect than that. But the adults mostly don't trust him, which means that mostly Yusuke ends up in a corner somewhere, bored and waiting for the show to end.

This isn't like that. 

Inaba sort of reminds him of home, actually. The Atelier is old fashioned and sometimes a little falling apart. Inaba is kind of like that too, although when Yusuke blurts this out, Akira gets a slightly hurt and defensive look on his face, and Yusuke has to quickly explain that this is in fact a good thing.

"Sure," Akira says, still looking uncertain. Yusuke makes a point of going out of his way after that to point out everything he sees that he likes, which slows them down a bit, but also helps Yusuke notice a lot of things that he likes the look of. He keeps stopping to pull out his sketchbook, which usually makes Akira start talking about something or other, random topics of conversation, everything from the weather to the people walking by to the local gossip and rumors. Apparently there's some kind of story about staring at TVs at midnight when it rains? 

Normally Yusuke doesn't like when people try to talk to him while he's drawing or painting, but on the other hand, those people are usually adults that want to tell him what he's doing wrong. Akira says pretty much nothing about Yusuke's art, except to ask why he wants to draw things like stop signs and random litter. When Yusuke explains that he just likes the way they look, Akira just shrugs and accepts it.

That's kind of nice. Yusuke finds that he doesn't even mind chatting back with Akira while he works. 

He doesn't have a lot of friends at school. He just has a hard time finding things to talk about when he's with other people his age--and for some reason, most of the people he meets outside the Atelier and Sensei's exhibits just don't seem to care about art the same way. The difference with Akira--who doesn't seem to particularly care about art either--is that he doesn't mind that Yusuke wants to talk about nothing else. 

So now he has a friend.

What a strange summer vacation this is turning out to be.

Partway through the afternoon, Akira takes him to the (very small) street where most of Inaba's shops are. "There's a big department store kind of North of here," Akira says, waving a vague arm. "Junes. But pretty much everything else is down here."

"It's not very much," Yusuke points out, sitting down with his back against someone's wall, and starting to sketch what he sees without really thinking about it. He's drawn the outline of the bookshop on the end of the street before he's even really stopped to think about it. 

"I guess not," Akira agrees, sitting down too. "I guess it used to be busier before Junes got here, but that was a while ago, so I never saw it then." He shrugs. "Anyway, a lot of the people that still do have shops here are really nice." He points to the bookstore Yusuke is drawing. "Like over there, they don't have a lot of books, but if you go in and talk to the guy that owns it, he knows everything about all the books he does have. And if you really want something, he'll always get it for you." He points again. "Down there is the metalworker, there's really awesome stuff in there, and--" he starts to point again, but falters suddenly. 

Yusuke looks up, brushing his hair impatiently away from where it's hanging in front of his face, and sees that a boy about their age heading straight for them.

"Hey!" he shouts. "Kurusu!"

"Who's that?" Yusuke asks.

"His name's Daiki," Akira mutters. "He's in my class at school."

"He's very big," Yusuke observes. Still a kid like them, obviously, but kind of bulky and muscly. 

"Yea," Akira says. "We should go."

He stands up and starts to help Yusuke get his scattered art supplies picked up from the ground around him. Yusuke is a little slower, though, and by the time he's on his feet, it's pretty much too late to avoid Daiki.

"We were just leaving," Akira says, stepping up between Yusuke and Daiki. His voice is quiet and almost nervous, but his posture is coiled and tense and ready to spring into movement. It doesn't exactly look like he wants to fight, but Yusuke is surprised to think that it looks like maybe he could, if it came to it.

"Is this crap all yours?" Daiki asks, and to Yusuke's intense disapproval, he reaches for where Yusuke's sketchbook is on the ground next to Akira's foot. 

"That's mine, actually--" he starts to say, and then stops when Akira half steps backward and onto his foot. It feels very much like shut up and stop talking, so Yusuke does, confused.

"Can we just take his stuff and leave?" Akira asks. 

Daiki makes a show of thinking about it, and Yusuke decides that he very definitely does not like this boy. He's just about to ignore the pressure of Akira's foot on his and start arguing that he wants his things back.

And then Daiki says, "No," and tears a fistful of paper out of the book. Yusuke cries out and lunges forward, only to be stopped short when Akira's arm shoots out like an iron bar to stop him. 

"Akira!" Yusuke hisses, in protest. 

"Just... don't make a big deal out of it," Akira whispers back. His voice is strained like maybe he wants to make a big deal out of it too, but he doesn't move. "Just..."

"It's all a bunch of crappy drawings, anyway," Daiki says loudly, and takes another generous fistful of pages and tears them away. They come out ragged and uneven, and Yusuke feels like the other boy is tearing chunks out of him with the sketches. He's worked hard on those. Some of them, Sensei had helped him with, and some of them he'd even praised.

Now they're ruined.

"Come on, Daiki," Akira says, taking a step forward. "Just give it back--"

Daiki grins at him, and in a single movement brings the sketchbook up and smacks Akira across the face with it. He gasps and stumbles back, almost knocking Yusuke over. There's a trickle of blood running down the side of his face from where a corner of the stiff cover had hit him, and Yusuke panics a little. That's the only reason why he whirls around to face Daiki and shouts at him.

"Stop!" he says. "Just--"

Daiki scoffs and shoves him backward. It's not even a real hit, but Yusuke has never been in a fight before and it catches him off balance. He spins, and falls, and lands on top of his bag. Something (probably paint) breaks inside, and he rolls off, feeling like garbage, feeling like he wants to cry.

He's still trying to get back up to his feet when he hears more shouting, and then heavy feet running toward them. When he looks up, he sees a really angry looking teenager running at them. "Hey you little punk!" he shouts, and Daiki looks up at him, turns a funny color, and bolts away in the opposite direction.

Akira, who is on the ground next to Yusuke, gasps and scrambles backward. Yusuke whips around to follow the movement, but Akira has already managed (somehow) to vanish out of sight. 

"That's right!" the teenager shouts, skidding to a stop only a few feet away from Yusuke. "You better run!"

"Kanji!" someone else calls, and Yusuke is suddenly surrounded by teenagers in the same school uniform. One of them he recognizes as the daughter of the Inn's manager, who he'd met last night. The rest of them he does not recognize at all.

"Are you alright?" Yukiko asks, bending down next to him.

"F--" He swallows hard. "Fine. Thank you." He starts to stand up, and gathers his scattered things, using that as an excuse to not look at any of them. His face is warm in patches all over, and he feels like crawling underneath something and hiding forever. 

A quick check of his bag shows that blue paint is all over everything, and when he looks down, the blue is staining the sidewalk too.

One of the teenagers--a taller one with silvery white hair--leans down and picks up a loose paper that Yusuke had missed. He looks at it thoughtfully for a second before handing it back to Yusuke. He looks at it too. It's the sketch he'd been doing right before Daiki showed up, of the line of shops along the other side of the road. There's a smear of his blue paint between the bookshop and the metalworks where there is no blue in reality, so that's ruined too.

"Isn't Akira supposed to be with you?" Yukiko asks.

"He was," Yusuke says. "I guess..." There's still no sign of him. "I don't know, I guess he left?"

"Don't blame him," the guy called Kanji mutters, frowning in the direction Daiki had run off in. "That kid's been bothering him for ages."

"Who was he?" one of the other boys asks. "What a jerk!"

"Yea, Tedd," one of his friends mutters. "Some people are."

"I'm..." Yusuke has all his stuff awkwardly bundled in his hands by now, and he really just wants to make a quick escape. "Thank you for scaring him off, but I... just really want to get back now."

"Do you need me to walk you?" Yukiko offers.

Yusuke shakes his head. "No," he lies. "I know how to get back."

He turns and flees then before anyone has a chance to stop him, feet almost flying over the roads as he rushes to get away.

Akira joins him two blocks on, and because he looks as miserable as Yusuke feels, Yusuke doesn't mind him being around as much as he minded the group of teenagers. "Sorry for running off," he says. "I... there's someone I'm trying really hard to avoid."

"More than Daiki?" Yusuke asks skeptically. He gives the dried trickle of blood on the side of Akira's face a pointed look, and Akira sort of ducks his head and turns so that the blood's out of Yusuke's line of sight. 

"Yea," he mumbles. "It's a long story." He heaves a sigh, and Yusuke wonders which one of the high schoolers he'd been so eager to hide from. None of them had looked mean. Even Kanji, who had come in yelling at the top of his lungs, had been on their side. "I'm really sorry I dragged you into that," Akira says.

"You didn't push me," Yusuke says. It hasn't even occurred to him that he should maybe be upset with Akira. "And you got hit from trying to help me."

"I probably would have gotten hit anyway," Akira says. "He gave me a black eye a while ago. And he stole my shoes." He makes a face. "And no one at school wants to talk to me after he started telling stories about me."

"Akira," Yusuke says somberly. "He is a jerk."

Akira cracks a smile at that. "Yea," he agrees. "He definitely is. Anyway, do you want me to just take you back to your sensei? Or else I guess you could come back with me. It might not be a good idea to stay around here right now."

"In case Daiki comes back?" Yusuke asks.

"Yea," Akira says. "Exactly."

Yusuke looks down at the mess in his arms. "I... think I would rather get all this cleaned up before going back to Sensei," he admits.

"Sure," Akira says. "Nanako will probably still be at the house, but everyone likes Nanako. She's the daughter of the man that's hosting me for the year."

Yusuke shrugs, and Akira makes a turn to head up to wherever the house is where he's staying. They don't talk much on the way, and luckily the walk doesn't turn out to be that far. Akira lets them in with his key, and calls out a greeting to the girl sitting in front of the TV near the door. 

"Hey Nanako," he says. "This is Yusuke, he's staying in town for summer break."

Yusuke sort of waves. Nanako ignores him and stares at Akira with wide eyes. "You're bleeding," she tells Akira.

"I--oh yea. I forgot." He touches the side of his face and winces. "Okay, ow."

"Akira!"

"I'll go wash it off in a minute," he says. "But Yusuke's stuff's all kind of messed up, and there's a bunch of paint everywhere, do you think you could help us clean it up?"

She still looks mostly focused on the blood, which seems... probably fair. Yusuke might want to cry over his broken paints and ruined sketches, but head wounds are, probably, worse. As she continues to not say anything, Akira winces and heads up the stairs. "Alright, I'll go clean it up now," he says. "I'll be right back, Yusuke, okay?"

And without waiting for an answer, he's gone. Yusuke watches him go, then turns back to Nanako.

She seems to shake herself out of her distraction, and stands up to help him with his bag. "I can help you," she says. "I help with the cleaning and the laundry all the time."

"Okay," Yusuke says, mostly because there is now dried paint all the way down his arm from where it's dripped out of the bag, and it's getting surprisingly itchy. Nanako runs off to get towels, and when she comes back, the two of them start spreading his paint-stained things out on top of them. Yusuke takes all of the torn up papers for himself, though, keeping them face down in a still empty patch of carpet in front of the TV. He's feeling... really self conscious about them right now.

Just a bunch of crappy drawings, Daiki had said. 

It shouldn't matter what he says.

Somehow it does.

(He'd torn them all up. All of them.)

"You got paint all over everything," Nanako says, sounding more impressed than anything else as she tiptoes carefully between the towels so she won't step on any of his stuff. 

"I... have a lot of paint," Yusuke says.

"Yea," Nanako says, looking at the shattered remains of his paints. "You must really like it." She chatters on about the painting she's gotten to do at school, and after a few minutes Akira comes back down to help them. The blood's all washed off, but there's a bandaid that he hasn't quite managed to hide under his hair.

"Oh wow," he says, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to look at everything.

"Don't step on any of it!" Nanako cries, springing to her feet and holding a hand out in a stop gesture.

"I won't, I won't," Akira says, but he has to hop over a few of Yusuke's spread out things as he comes over to join them. It's a little cramped in the small space between the table and the TV where Yusuke and Nanako are already standing, but it's kind of the only place where there's room to stand. Nanako had been very enthusiastic in her helping, almost covering the floor in towels and laying Yusuke's things out on top of them, one paint-smeared item per towel. It... probably takes up more space than it needs to, but maybe it'll make it easier to get everything cleared off.

"Maybe we can combine some of this stuff?" Akira asks. "So all your stuff is less all over the place. Or--"

And that's when he trips on Yusuke's backpack, and falls forward hard. Yusuke jumps back on instinct to avoid him, hitting the TV behind him as he gropes out with one hand for something to grab onto and steady himself.

And then, he falls through it.

Chapter Text

July 26

Afternoon

-//-

Akira's first, stupid thought is, I could have just used this TV. It's bigger than the one upstairs, and then I wouldn't have had to go all the way out to Junes.

And then Nanako screams and starts to cry, and Akira's pulse jumps into sudden panic mode. After a last terrified look at the TV, he hops back over the piles of Yusuke's stuff littered all over the ground, and on sheer instinct pulls Nanako into a hug. She wraps her arms around him and cries for a couple minutes without saying a word, just obviously terrified. Akira doesn't blame her, because he actually knows what's going on and he's still scared for Yusuke, but... he really doesn't have time to wait for her to calm all the way down. 

He needs to get in after Yusuke and get him back out.

But he's specifically not supposed to go back in there anymore.

Except if he doesn't go in, what's he supposed to do? Go to Yu and tell him what happened, and wait for him to do something about it?

Something in Akira balks at that idea. No way is he going to go running to someone else for help when that's his friend stuck in the TV and probably being ganged up on by Shadows. No way, no way.

"Nanako," Akira says, when the scared tears have kind of slowed down a little bit. "I..." What is he going to tell Nanako

"Akira," Nanako says. "He went into the TV!"

"I know," Akira says. He tries to sound confident instead of freaking out, and in a weird way it kind of helps. If he's trying to help her calm down, he can't let himself be freaked out too. "I'm going to go get him back out."

Nanako looks up at him, shocked and disbelieving. 

"But I need your help," he says. "Nanako--okay? Please?"

"I don't want to go in the TV," Nanako whispers.

"No," Akira says quickly, before she can panic again. "But Yu's probably going to be home soon, and we need to get all of Yusuke's stuff out of here first, so he doesn't start asking where he is, okay? And Nanako, please, please you can't tell anyone about this." It's way later than it usually is when Akira goes into the TV World. Usually, he tries to go in as soon as possible after school, so that he can be in and out before anyone else gets home. He has a feeling that's not going to be an option this time.

"I don't like lying," Nanako says, in a voice that's barely a whisper.

"It's... not lying," Akira lies. 

Nanako gives him a look.

"It's just... keeping a secret," Akira says. "Okay? I really need your help so I can focus on getting Yusuke out safely. And then when he's back, I'll... I'll tell you everything, okay?" 

He's not sure if he'll be able to tell her anything at all. He needs time to think, and to figure things out... but Yusuke needs to come first. 

"Nanako?" he prompts.

"Okay," she says. "I'll get all his stuff outside by the garden, and... and I can wash it all off so it's clean when you guys get back."

"That will really help a lot," Akira tells her encouragingly, and Nanako stands up a little straighter. 

"Is it... dangerous inside the TV?" she asks.

"Sometimes," Akira says.

She shivers, and he feels bad for a second for leaving her alone. But what is he supposed to do? "But it's okay. I promise I know what I'm doing."

He has no idea what he's doing, but luckily Nanako buys it. As she starts to gather Yusuke's stuff and bring it outside, Akira runs upstairs to grab his Shadow fighting equipment. It feels like it's been ages since he went into the TV, and all his stuff is thrown into a corner of the room. The daggers are still good, and he has his armor, but his healing items, all that food and stuff has been turned into snacks by now.

Yu's not home, though, and Akira already knows where he keeps his stuff. Since the day when Akira had first figured it out, and found all of Yu's Shadow fighting equipment hidden in their room, he's been... really, really nosy about keeping track of Yu's stuff. 

And it's not really stealing if he's going to give it back, right? And if he needs it for something really important?

He raids Yu's stuff a little bit, throws what he needs into his bag, and goes running back downstairs. Nanako is still working on getting Yusuke's stuff outside, but she's stops and stands in the doorway now, watching him.

"You're... really going to be okay?" she asks.

"Yea," he says. "I'll be fine."

"Are you going to be able to get back out?" she asks.

"Y--" And then he hesitates. Yes they can get out, but what if Dojima or Yu are back by then? "Nanako, do you think you can try to keep your dad and Yu away from here if they come home before we're back?"

"Because you'll get in trouble if they see?"

He nods. Nanako doesn't look happy about it, but she agrees, reluctantly, and so Akira heads into the TV feeling... not exactly confident, but kind of close, maybe. He hears Nanako gasp from behind him, but then he's fully in the TV and in free fall. He feels his mask and costume forming around him, and despite everything, his mouth stretches into a wide smile. 

Then he lands, and he finds himself alone, in an unfamiliar part of the TV World. There's no sign of Yusuke. 

Lavenza is there, though. Just like she always is when Akira comes here, waiting for him and looking disapproving. "Trickster," she says. "We talked about this. You--"

"Something happened," Akira says, and tells her all in a rush. About being asked to make friends with Yusuke while he's here for summer vacation, and then getting into a fight, and bringing Yusuke back to get cleaned up, and then... 

"He fell in," Akira finishes. "I didn't even... I wasn't even thinking about any of this, I was just trying to figure out how to get everything cleaned up before everyone gets home, but he's here now and I know there's Shadows and he doesn't have a Persona, right? I wasn't going to just leave him in here."

"You are not supposed to be here!" Lavenza says. 

"Well then neither is Yusuke!" Akira says, and this time he's not backing down, he's not going to just let Yusuke wander around in here and eventually get eaten by Shadows. "I'm bringing him out, isn't that a good thing?"

"Trickster--"

"And what else am I supposed to do?" Akira asks. "I could just leave him here, which no way, or I could tell Yu and ask him to get him out, but then I'd have to tell him how I know what he's doing."

Lavenza still looks torn, wavering just on the edge of agreeing to help, but still worried about what might happen.

"I'm not leaving him," Akira insists, and she finally nods.

"No," she says. "That's not the person you are, is it?"

"No," Akira says.

"I think," Lavenza says as she starts walking. "That you're a bad influence on me. The more time I spend with you, the more I want to help you, regardless of the consequences."

"Then I think I'm a good influence on you," he says.

She doesn't answer, but looks thoughtful.

Akira looks around, and sees no sign anywhere of where Yusuke might have gone when he landed. "So," he says. "...any idea where he might have gone?"

She half laughs, and shakes her head, and they just... start walking.

They take a while to find Yusuke.

Akira's getting kind of a good feel for the parts of the TV World that he visits regularly (the castle stands out particularly), but that doesn't mean he's any good at finding new things, and as far as he knows the TV World goes on forever. Lavenza doesn't know exactly where he is either, and eventually it's spotting a few traces of paint on one of the paths leading away from where Akira had landed that leads them in the right direction.

"Paint?" Lavenza asks.

"He's learning to be some kind of artist," Akira says. "And also we got into a fight, kind of? So some of his paints broke."

Her glance flickers sideways to the bandage on the side of his head, and she asks, "Are you alright?"

He touches it and winces as it sends a spike of pain radiating down the side of his face. "It's fine," he says. "It's just that guy from school. He's been bothering me since we met, pretty much."

"You've mentioned him," Lavenza says, watching him closely.

"Yea," Akira says, letting his eyes slide away from her, scanning the area in front of them for any sign of Yusuke instead. "And I'd rather not talk about him right now, if that's okay."

She nods, and they fall into silence, both of them searching for Yusuke. Lavenza finds him first, pointing ahead of them with a little cry of discovery. Akira squints, and sees two figures off in the distance.

Two?

"There's someone else there?" he asks, and then--as they pick up speed and get close enough to make out enough details--he adds, "There's two of him?"

"Oh no," Lavenza says.

Akira starts to ask another question, then says "Oh no," too. He doesn't think much about the day he'd had to fight his Shadow to awaken his Persona, because as much as it had turned out to be a good thing, it had also been intensely painful at the time. "That's a Shadow, right?"

"Yes," Lavenza says, and they both start running.

"So that's going to be a big fight," Akira says. "Right? Like when you fought my Shadow?"

"Yes," she says, grimly.

Akira looks sideways at her. "You're going to help," he says. "Right?" Normally she doesn't, so that he can learn to do it on his own, but then normally the Shadows he fights aren't really that strong. 

"If you need it," Lavenza says, with a sideways look at him. "And I don't think you will."

Akira grits his teeth and frowns as he keeps running. Sure. Great. Her confidence in him feels nice, but he's not sure he's actually ready for this. They're practically on top of the Yusuke and Shadow confrontation now, and it doesn't look like it's going well. "Yusuke!" he shouts, as if it's going to do anything. "Yusuke, no!"

-//-

July 26

Afternoon

-//-

Yusuke stands, breathing hard, hands pressed into fists, and feeling vaguely sick. He does not know what this place is, or how he got here, or what's going on, but he knows that he has never wanted to get away from somewhere more than he does right now.

There's another Yusuke here, and every word he says feels like it's tearing him apart.

"You're so good at pretending you belong, but you don't do you?  Not anywhere. You're unwanted--you need to earn your place and you haven't."

He shakes his head, momentarily speechless at the sound of his own bad thoughts (the ones that keep him up at night worrying, the ones that have him endlessly comparing himself and his art to Sensei's older students. The ones that worked hard to be there, to study under Sensei, while Yusuke had done... nothing to earn where he is).

"You'll never do anything worthy of the place you've been given. You'll never learn anything if you can't take art seriously."

"Shut up," Yusuke says. "You don't know--" He shakes his head, even though the words so perfectly echo his own doubts that they sound like thoughts that could have come from his own head. He just... loves art, drawing and painting and anything else he can try his hand at. But there's this guilt that comes with it--the older students never seem to be having that much fun. They come to the Atelier to work hard, not because it's fun, which has to mean he's doing it wrong, doesn't it? It has to mean that if he actually wants to be any good, and deserve to stay with Sensei, he's going to have to stop loving it.

He doesn't want to. 

"You don't know anything!" he says, and his voice sounds high.

"I know everything," his double says, suddenly clear and decisive and so close that Yusuke flinches away. "I am you."

"Yusuke!" someone yells, but he feels dazed--he barely hears it. "Yusuke, no!"

"You're not me!" he shouts, and his double pretty much just explodes.

Yusuke cries out and stumbles back as something enormous surges upward, some kind of horrible, twisted fox-man with too many tails and old, traditional dress.

He's still staring at it when suddenly Akira is down on one knee right in front of him, breathing hard from running, holding a dagger in one hand. He's dressed very strangely, in a mask and some kind of long coat.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"No," Yusuke says, emphatically.

Akira hesitates a second. "Okay," he acknowledges. "Yea, that's fair."

"Trickster!" someone else--a girl, Yusuke thinks--shouts, and Akira whips around. 

"Coming!" he shouts. Then he looks back at Yusuke. "Just stay back," he says. "Okay? We're gonna make sure you're safe."

Yusuke nods, a little bit numb, and scoots backward along the foggy ground as Akira and his friend head for the monster thing that had been his double. It's--

Actually, it's not as horrifying as it should be. It is, but it's also not? Even while there's a part of Yusuke that's chanting that no this isn't happening, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO, there's another part of him that's awed by the visuals of the unreal fight playing out in front of him. And gradually, as Akira (who's doing most of the fighting, his friend staying back to give advice) wears down the monster in front of him, Yusuke finds himself calming.

It's the second time today that Akira's stepped between him and something that's trying to hurt him. He remembers thinking, when Daiki had cornered them and started tearing Yusuke's things apart, that Akira had looked just about ready to jump into a fight. Now that he is fighting, it's with the kind of confidence that comes from practice. He almost, Yusuke thinks, looks cocky.

And then, with a last shout of effort, Akira sends a bolt of energy or magic or... something at the fox-man, and it crumbles before them, deflating back into the mirror version of Yusuke that it had been before. Yusuke gets to his feet, slowly, as Akira lets out a whoop and punches the air. 

"I--we did it!" he crows, looking at his friend. "I can't believe it! That was--" 

"You did it on your own, mostly," she says, smiling at him. "I knew that you could." Then she nudges him slightly, pointing toward Yusuke, and Akira quickly gets serious.

"Oh yea," he says. "Yusuke--" He runs back over, smile gone now. "You're okay, right?"

"I'm... not hurt," Yusuke says carefully. "Did you... hear what it... he was saying?"

"Parts of it," Akira says. 

"It... wasn't true," Yusuke says, staring very hard down at the ground.

"It's okay if it is, though," Akira says. He sounds way too casual, Yusuke thinks. 

"It's not," Yusuke mutters.

"My Shadow said some pretty nasty stuff about me when I was here first," Akira says. "And I didn't want it to be true, and Lavenza had to save me from it." He points backwards at the girl. "And... I don't know. I didn't like the things I heard, but they were true, and they were me, and pretending they weren't true wasn't making me happy."

Yusuke opens his mouth, and then closes it again. "They were true," he admits, looking past Akira at where his double is. "And..." he kind of drifts sideways, toward the double, which is looking up at him with strange yellow eyes. "Maybe I haven't worked as hard as the older students, but they're older. I'm going to work hard too. And maybe I'm not as serious as they are, but I like that I like making art." He cocks his head slightly sideways, and says. "I guess you are me."

His double, strangely, smiles at him.

And then dissolves, vanishing completely, and leaving Yusuke with a strange feeling in the forefront of his mind--an odd weight that feels like it belongs there. He feels something on his face and reaches up to pull it off. It's smooth and heavy. A mask, he realizes, even as he pulls it away and shouts (without knowing why (yet))--

"Persona!"

Akira is almost dancing with excitement. "It's great!" he says. "Isn't it?"

"It's only going to make things more complicated," Lavenza says, her voice resigned and not as unhappy as she seems to be trying to look. 

"It'll be fine," Akira says. "We're not going to get into any trouble."

Lavenza gives him a disbelieving look. Akira grins and clearly does not intend to avoid any kind of trouble.

Yusuke raises a hand. "Can someone please explain any of what just happens?" he asks weakly. Now that it's over, he's feeling like maybe he'd like to fall over or sleep for a week, thank you.

Luckily they both take pity on him, and Akira comes around to the other side to help hold him up, all the while chattering away as he dives into the story of Persona and Shadows and this world inside the TV. Lavenza interrupts only occasionally, and seems to be reluctant to give out more information than what Akira already has.

"Are we coming back here again?" Yusuke asks, as they slow and stop in what seems like an area with nothing in particular different about it compared to what they've already walked through.

"Do you want to?" Lavenza asks.

He has never in his life been anywhere, or seen anything, like this. And he doesn't want to think that he'll never be back again, when there's so much to see still. "Yes," he says. "So are we?"

"I don't know," Akira says, looking pointedly at Lavenza. "We're supposed to be keeping this secret. Although..." With a pointed, dramatic look, he says, "Since I know Yu and his friends are the ones that are coming into the TV World that we're supposed to be avoiding, I could just make sure we only come here when they're all doing other things." Another dramatic sigh. "I do live with Yu, so it wouldn't be that hard."

They both look at Lavenza, and she shakes her head with what looks like a smile. "This is going to be trouble," she says.

"I think that means yes," Akira says, leaning over to stage whisper to Yusuke.

Lavenza sticks her tongue out at him, and he almost falls over laughing. 

Akira looks much brighter after that, and as Lavenza helps the two of them leave (she doesn't seem to intend to come with them herself), Yusuke realizes that he feels pretty happy himself. Worn out, too, but actually happy for the first time in a long time.

Having a friend, and having this Persona thing too, is already making him feel so much better than he could have imagined this morning.

He thinks that maybe he kind of can't wait to come back here.

-//-

July 26

Night

-//-

The only reason that this is not the worst night of Nanako's life is that she still remembers the day she'd learned that her mom died.

It is the second worst night of her life, though. She'd watched someone fall through a TV right in front of her, and she's pretty sure it's her fault? Because maybe he wouldn't have fallen if she hadn't made such a mess in the living room? And then Akira had gone in after him, and Nanako had been left with the apparently very important jobs of hiding all of Yusuke's stuff and keeping everyone else out of the room

And it's been hours, it's midnight, and neither of them has come back. Yukiko had called Yu a while ago to say that Yusuke hadn't gotten back to the Inn, so everyone's assuming they're together, but Nanako's the only one that knows they're both inside the TV in the living room.

It's just Nanako and Yu at home now, because her dad had gone back out to look for Akira and Yusuke. Nanako hadn't told anyone that Yusuke had been at the house, because Akira had asked her not to and he seemed to know what was going on, but she wants to. Everyone is so worried, and Nanako doesn't like telling lies and keeping secrets. If it hadn't been Akira asking (who walks to school with her every morning, and plays in the garden with her, and helps with her homework, and is like family no matter what he says), she wouldn't have done it.

But it's still really hard!

She's doing her best to keep everyone away from the TV where Yusuke and Akira had disappeared, which had gotten easier after her dad went out looking for them, and she'd been left alone in the house with Yu. They're up in her room now, because she'd told him she was so worried she couldn't sleep.

She is worried, but mostly she'd wanted to get him to come upstairs and away from the TV.

"Hey," Yu says, after a little stretch of quiet. "Nanako."

Her fingers, which have been picking nervously at her blanket, go still as she looks up at him. The only other sound in the house, apart from their hushed voices, is the rain outside beating against the windows. "Yea?"

"You know that they're going to be okay, right?" he asks. "Your dad's out looking for them, and they'll be home soon."

"Y-yea," Nanako says. She knows her dad won't find them, though, which means they have to come home by themselves. Only what if they can't? What if they got hurt and no one can ever find them because no one ever thinks to look inside a TV? What if they die in there, and it'll be her fault for not telling someone that could help? 

She looks up at her cousin. "Hey Yu?" she says. 

"Yea?" he says.

If she just tells Yu, that would be okay, wouldn't it? "Earlier," she says. "I saw--"

Yu's phone rings just then, and he glances at the screen, winces, and stands. "Sorry, Nanako," he says. "I'll be right back?"

"No!" she blurts, sitting bolt upright in bed. "Where are you going?"

She's worried he's going to go downstairs, but he obviously thinks she's worried about being left alone. "I'll just be right out on the landing," he says. "I'll keep the door open so you can see me."

If he's right out on the landing, he'll be able to see down the stairs to where the TV is. Nanako bites her lip, though, and just listens hard as Yu answers the phone. She's not really trying to eavesdrop, she just wants to know if he sees anything weird going on downstairs.

"Hey, Yosuke," he says. "Did you... were they on the Midnight Channel?"

Silence, for several seconds. Nanako makes a confused face, even though there's no one else in her room to see it. Isn't the Midnight Channel where you're supposed to see your true love? If you look into a TV on a rainy night at midnight, that's what everyone at school says. 

She wonders if she actually could see Akira and Yusuke on the TV, since they're inside it.

Then Yu says, "There was only one person? Do you think it was one of them?"

Another pause, then a sigh, and Yu says, "No, I know it's good that it's not either of them. I don't want either of them in there, but... at least we could have done something to help if they had been pushed in there. I'll let you know if Akira comes back or anything changes."

He comes back into the room then, and Nanako does her best to look like she hadn't been listening. He's thinking hard though, flipping his phone over and over in his hand in a kind of nervous gesture. He looks really worried, and Nanako starts gearing up again to tell him what she knows.

"Yu?" she says, looking up at her cousin. "I... wanted to tell you something."

"Hmm?" he says, and does his best to look at her, even though he's obviously only half paying attention, still thinking hard.

Nanako wavers in the face of his distraction. She doesn't know what to do. "Never mind," she says. Maybe if no one finds them in another hour... or maybe by morning?

Yu nods, and there's more silence. Nanako has never felt so worried in her whole life.

And then after what feels like forever, there's a thump from downstairs. It doesn't sound like the door opening, and Nanako's heart jumps up with excitement. Yu's obviously heard the noise too, because he stands up and looks downstairs, frowning. 

"Maybe it's Akira coming home," Nanako says, bolting out of bed and past him out the room. "I'll check!"

"I didn't hear the door," Yu says. "It's probably just--"

But she's already gone, running down the stairs as fast as she can, to where Akira and Yusuke are both on the floor in front of the TV, Yusuke rubbing at his knee where he's banged it on something coming out. They're both still alive, and they look tired but ok!

"Akira!" Nanako shrieks, and he looks up at her with a smile. 

"Told you we'd make it back," he says, standing up.

Yusuke does not stand up. Instead he rolls over on the ground, flat on his back, and announces that he wants to sleep forever.

Nanako makes sure to not step on him as she runs to hug Akira. "Everyone's been really worried," she says. "Dad's out looking for you, and everyone at the Inn's worried about Yusuke--" They're calling every hour, and apparently his dad or whatever he is has been getting really mad about it. "I didn't tell anyone what happened," she adds in a whisper, deciding not to mention that she'd been thinking about telling Yu.

"Thank you," he says, whispering too because Yu is running down the stairs now. He glances up nervously, then pulls his backpack off and sort of kicks it out of sight behind the TV. "I'll... explain later when there's not so many people around."

Nanako nods and steps back. Now that everyone's back safe, she suddenly feels very tired. All the worry of what she should do if Akira and Yusuke don't come back is gone now that they're here and safe, and without the worry to keep her awake, she's so, so ready to go to bed. 

"Akira!" Yu calls, and steps quickly past Nanako to give him a hug, too. Nanako thinks that obviously she isn't the only one that had been worried about him. "You're okay?" His eyes look Akira up and down, looking for any injuries. "You're okay?"

"Yea," Akira says, with a bright but tired smile. "Fine."

"Where were you?"

"Uh..." Akira looks down at Yusuke, who has closed his eyes. Nanako's not sure but she thinks he might have fallen asleep right then and there. "You saw me and Yusuke get in that fight when we were in town." He points to the bandage on the side of his head. "So... after that, we went to walk around. I know it got really late, but... Yusuke had some stuff he had to work through."

"It's after midnight," Yu says. He sounds amazed.

"It is?" Akira asks. He looks out the window at the dark street outside, and winces. "Sorry. I guess we lost track of time while we were out there."

"And it's raining," Yu says.

Akira and Yusuke are both completely dry. Obviously they are, Nanako thinks. It probably never rains inside the TV. 

"I just lost my umbrella as we were coming in," Akira says, convincingly enough that Nanako probably would have believed him if she hadn't known the truth. "I was getting really tired, and the wind caught it."

She's not sure if Yu buys it, though, because he gives Akira a skeptical look. "Really?" he asks. "You've been walking around town this whole time?"

"Kind of a little outside town," Akira says. "I think I actually got a little bit lost for a while. But yea, that's what we were doing." He shrugs. "Where else would we have been doing?"

That seems to convince Yu. After all, they know he hasn't been in the house, that had been the first place they'd looked. Nanako's just glad no one had given the garden more than a quick look, since there's obviously nowhere there to hide, and so no one had found Yusuke's stuff hidden under their gardening buckets and supplies.

"Just... don't do it again," Yu says, sounding too relieved to be actually angry. "I'm going to go ahead and call Dojima now and tell him to come back."

As he heads to the phone and Akira sinks down on the couch, Nanako decides that she can ask him all her questions tomorrow. He's not going to say anything while Yu's around anyway, so for now...

She just goes to bed.

-//-

July 27

Early Morning

-//-

Dojima is still out scouring the town when Yu calls him on his cell phone to tell him that the two missing boys had come back to the house, all on their own. 

"And they're okay?" Dojima asks, gruff and tired and trying hard to hide the overwhelming relief he feels at hearing they're back safely. After the recent murder case, he's spent the past several hours imagining the worst. "Both in one piece?"

"Yea," Yu says. "Tired, but pretty much okay."

"Good," Dojima says. "I'll be home in a few minutes."

He gets back to his car, but does actually make one quick stop at Inaba's only all night convenience store. Then he drives the few miles back to the house, where he does in fact find a boy he's never seen before passed out on the floor, and Akira sitting on the couch with Yu. Judging by the expressions on both of their faces, he immediately assumes that Yu has either been grilling Akira or lecturing him about his disappearance.

"Nanako's in bed?" he asks.

"Yea," Yu says. "She went up after Akira got back, and I just checked in on her a few minutes ago. Fast asleep."

Good. "You can get up to bed too, Yu," Dojima says, as soon as he's gotten his shoes off and taken in the scene inside his living room. "I want to have a talk with Akira alone."

Akira looks up at him, with the kind of nervous and guilty expression that Dojima usually likes to see in suspects he's interviewing. It's not necessarily something he wants to see from one of the kids in his house, especially not after a day long disappearance.

"Okay," Yu says, standing. "Sure, yea. I'll see you both in the morning." He heads up past Akira, putting his hand on the younger boy's shoulder for just a second, maybe in reassurance or maybe in apology for whatever scene Dojima had interrupted. Then he's upstairs, and Dojima waits until he hears the sound of the bedroom door closing before pointing Akira over to the kitchen table.

"I need to call your friend's guardian," he says, and then hesitates. "Did he just fall asleep there?"

"Yea," Akira says. "I tried to wake him up, but he just kind of mumbled and went back to sleep?" He sounds uncertain. "And me and Yu couldn't get him to move, so we just left him there."

Dojima takes a look at the sleeping boy on the ground, then lifts him up onto the couch instead. It'll do for now, and Akira's right--the boy doesn't even stir as he's moved. With that taken care of, he goes to the phone.

He's gotten several phone calls from the man (an apparent artist called Madarame, who had been very offended when Dojima hadn't recognized his name, and has managed to imply in every one of his phone calls that Dojima, the local police department, and for that matter all of Inaba are uncultured swine for that oversight). He's not looking forward to the conversation, and it does in fact turn out to be fairly unpleasant.

Madarame spends several minutes complaining about how much time it had taken to find Yusuke ("And you didn't even find him, did you? It sounds like he just wandered back!"), before Dojima eventually manages to inform him tersely that Yusuke is passed out on his couch, and that they'll bring him back at a more reasonable hour in the morning.

"Try not to take all day about it," Madarame snaps. "And I expect a full apology from your boy when you bring Yusuke back."

He hangs up the phone before Dojima can even begin to protest. Akira does probably owe a few apologies for keeping his friend out all night, but Dojima doesn't like the tone of Madarame's demand for one.

It obviously shows on his face, because by the time he's sat down at his usual place at the kitchen table, Akira has pushed himself all the way to the back corner of the chair. He sits there, looking nervous and fidgety, waiting to hear what Dojima is going to say to him.

Dojima doesn't say anything right away though. Instead he sits, and takes a few seconds to just study the boy on the other end of the table. He's been... concerned about Akira for a while, if he's honest. Although Akira usually seems happy whenever Dojima sees him at home, and he's fit in well with Nanako and Yu, there are obviously some problems that he's not talking about. Dojima has watched him grow out of the few clothes he'd come with at the beginning of the school year. He's seen Yu make an entire gaggle of friends, while Akira seems to have no one at all that he's close to at school. And most worryingly of all, whenever Dojima has tried to get in contact with Akira's parents to talk about these things, he's gotten messages about disconnected phone lines, or letters returned as undeliverable.

Dojima is becoming increasingly aware that he's gotten himself into more than he'd expected by taking Akira in for the year. He's a guest, but he's also a twelve year old child that needs adult guidance in his life. 

He's been ignoring that responsibility for a while, because he has no idea how to handle it, but it's come to a head here. There's no more avoiding it.

"So what happened today?" Dojima asks. He folds his arms and waits in stony silence as Akira squirms and fidgets. "The truth, Akira," he says, voice as stern as if he'd been interrogating a suspect at work. "You were out with your friend the entire afternoon, and nobody knew where you were. This is not the time or the place for excuses."

It works, apparently, because what comes out has the uncomfortable ring of truth to it. "There's a boy in my class," Akira says. He goes very still, hands clenched on the edges of his chair seat, and stares at his knees. "He's been... kind of bullying me for a while."

"How long is a while?" Dojima asks.

"Since... the first week of school?" Akira says. He doesn't meet Dojima's eyes as he says it. "It's usually not a big deal. He just tells stories about me to the other kids and gives me a hard time after class. But he gave me a black eye a few months ago, and... I'm pretty sure that he's the one that stole my shoes."

"You never told me about any of this," Dojima says.

Akira shrugs with one shoulder. "I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. And I didn't want to get in trouble."

Dojima has not noticed this, among all the things he'd observed about Akira during the year. Yes, he had realized Akira wasn't making friends, but he'd thought that just meant he had a hard time connecting with his classmates. He hadn't thought there was anything behind it.

"You need to tell me about things like that," he says.

"I told Yu," Akira says.

Dojima makes a mental note to talk to Yu in the morning. This is absolutely not something that the two of them should be keeping from him. For now, though, he just says, "Go on."

"So we got in a fight," Akira says. "He hit me, and pushed Yusuke, and then Yu's friend Kanji came running in and scared him off. After that, Yusuke and me were upset so we went walking around and got a little bit lost and didn't keep track of time."

"You lost track of time," Dojima repeats. 

"We were talking a lot."

"It's after midnight, Akira."

He goes back to staring at his knees. "I really didn't think it was that late," he says, and looks pleadingly up at Dojima. "I was just trying to help my friend."

His expression is so earnest that Dojima can't help but believe him. On the other hand, disappearing for most of a day and a night is absolutely unacceptable, and it is not going to happen again. 

"I'm sorry for worrying everyone," Akira says. "I really am."

But not sorry, Dojima notices, for doing it in the first place. "Here's what's going to happen," he says. "First, in the morning, we're going to take Yusuke back to his guardian, and you're going to apologize to him." As aggravating as the artist is, he probably does deserve an apology. 

Akira nods. 

"Second," Dojima continues. "I am going to get in contact with your parents."

Akira flinches, noticeably. Dojima notices but doesn't comment, yet. Just files it away for later. "They travel a lot," he mumbles. "They use a different number when they're out of the country."

"There must be a way to get in contact with them," Dojima says. "I've talked to some of the teachers at your last school."

"You have?" Akira asks.

Of course he has. Akira has been here for months, and Dojima has not been able to get in contact with his parents even once. "It doesn't seem like anyone there ever had any trouble getting in touch with your parents, even when they were away." They also hadn't been able to help him much, unfortunately. The only numbers they'd had on record for Akira's parents are the same ones Dojima had been given, which are the ones that he's been calling, and are apparently disconnected. "Do you have any way of getting in contact with them, Akira?"

He shakes his head no. "I honestly don't," he says. 

Dojima frowns. He's going to have to do what he's been ignoring for months now, and do some investigating into Akira and his family. He's too busy to take the time for it, really, but it's about time he stopped using that as an excuse. "Alright," he acknowledges. "Then for right now, I'll hold off on calling your parents."

He watches carefully for Akira's reaction, and sure enough the boy relaxes slightly. Whatever's going on there, it's probably too complicated to deal with right now, at close to one in the morning. 

"Third," Dojima says. "You're grounded for two weeks. There's no school, so I don't want you out of the house without me or Yu with you."

Akira nods, squirming guiltily again.

"And last--" Dojima pauses and reaches into the bag he'd gotten from the all night convenience store. "This is a pay as you go cell phone," he says, sliding the bag across the table to Akira. "You're going to put my number and Yu's number in there, and you're going to keep it on you at all times. I do not want to not be able to get in contact with you again. Understood?"

"Understood," Akira says, reaching for the phone. He looks completely nonplussed at having received it. "Thank you?"

Dojima sighs as Akira starts to turn the phone over in his hands and poke at it. He's not... entirely sure that this discussion has gone the way he wanted it to. He hasn't gotten any actual information about Akira's parents, but he'll have to worry about that later, and at least Akira seems to feel suitably bad about running off for so long. "Get up to bed now, alright? I'll need to drive your friend back before I leave for work."

"Okay," Akira says, sliding off the chair.

He's almost at the stairs when something makes Dojima call his name.

"Yea?" Akria asks. He already has one foot on the stairs, and kind of turns around awkwardly, with a nervous expression on his face.

"We were all worried about you," Dojima says. His voice is gruff and he doesn't quite look at Akira. "Alright?"

What he means--but does not have the words to say without implying that he's alright with what Akira had done--is that he is beyond relieved to find out that Akira had made his way back.

Maybe Akira gets it a little bit, though, because he nods before running up the stairs and heading for his and Yu's bedroom.

Dojima gets absolutely no sleep that night.

-//-

July 27

Morning

-//-

Yu's sitting up on his bed when Akira gets up there, and he looks up as Akira enters. "Did it go okay?" he asks.

Akira shrugs. He's really not sure, actually--on the one hand, Dojima is asking questions about his parents, and wants him to stay in contact from now on, which will be hard if he goes back into the TV World (and he is absolutely going to try it, especially with Yusuke around with a brand new Persona) where he assumes cell phones don't get signal. On the other hand, he thinks Dojima had been more worried than angry, and is genuinely happy to have him back. That gives him a weird kind of feeling of belonging, sort of. It's something Akira hasn't felt very often since his parents died.

"How much trouble are you in?" Yu asks.

"I'm a little bit grounded," Akira admits. "And I have to apologize to Yusuke's sensei tomorrow."

"That could have been worse," Yu says.

"Yea," Akira says. He puts his phone on the table in front of his sofa, and sits down. "Are you mad at me, Yu?" He knows Dojima is upset and disappointed, which isn't really a surprise. It's kind of his job to make sure everyone's doing what they're supposed to, and Akira has no excuse he can give. He's okay with it. He knows that rescuing Yusuke had been worth a little bit of trouble, even if he can't tell anyone about it.

Which reminds him, actually, that he's going to need to figure out how much to tell Nanako at some point. She's being really patient in waiting until things quiet down before asking for answers, but there's no way that's going to last.

He's lucky she hadn't told Dojima. And luckier that she hadn't told Yu.

"I'm not mad," Yu says. "But Akira, we were all worried."

"Yea," Akira says. "I know. But it was... important." He wishes that he could tell Yu. If anyone was ever going to understand, it would have to be Yu. He knows about the TV World, he fights Shadows! But according to Lavenza, he's the one person Akira can never, ever tell.

"Akira?" Yu says. 

"Yea?" Akira asks, looking up at Yu with a little start. 

Yu looks at him for a second, and then his expression softens. Akira's kind of surprised at how relieved he is to see that, and by how much he wants Yu to approve of what he'd done to save Yusuke, just like he wants Dojima to not be mad at him. He wants to fit in here, with this family he's kind of borrowed for the year. 

"You should get some sleep," Yu says. "Yusuke seems exhausted, and if you've been walking around with him all day, then you must be tired, too.

Akira nods. He'd managed to defeat Yusuke's Shadow (and all on his own! After a break where he hadn't gone into the TV at all!), but it had actually been a pretty close thing, and he feels completely drained. "Yea," he says. "I'm going to get to bed."

So he changes out of the clothes he's been running around in all day, puts on pajamas, and settles himself on the couch, curled up like a lump under his blankets. He has a few seconds of awareness--Yu walking past him to the light switch, then the room going dark around them--and then he's out like a light, sleeping the deep sleep that comes with satisfaction of a job well done.

He'd done a good thing, even if he can't tell anyone. 

It's a little harder to remember that four hours later, when he's being shaken awake by an impatient Dojima. Akira looks fuzzily up at him through barely opened eyes, and immediately wants to whine about how unfair it is when he hasn't done anything except help! But he doesn't say anything, and just drags himself out of bed, dresses, and goes downstairs to wait for Dojima to finish getting ready for work so he can drive them over to the Inn to bring Yusuke back.

Yusuke is up too, looking generally unkempt after spending the night on the floor and the couch. The two of them sit together on the steps, quiet because they're so tired, and wait. After a while Akira asks, "So is your sensei gonna be really upset?"

"I don't know," Yusuke says. "I've never been out all night before."

"Yea," Akira admits. "Me neither."

"Are you in a lot of trouble?" Yusuke asks.

"Kind of," Akira says. "I'm grounded for two weeks. And he wants to talk to my parents, which... isn't going to work."

"Because he doesn't know they're dead," Yusuke says solemnly. 

Dojima's in the room next door, but Akira shushes him anyway. "I really want him to keep not knowing," he points out. "But yea. Because of that. So I guess how much trouble I'm in depends on how hard he tries to get in touch with them."

"Why don't you just tell him, then?" Yusuke asks.

Akira gives him a side look. "Because they'd take me away and put me in foster care or something. I wouldn't get to stay here. Someone else would just... decide what to do with me." It's not the same answer he would have given a few months ago, but after being here in Inaba, he knows that it's true. "I like it here," Akira says. "I like... being in this house, with these people. It's only until the end of the school year, but... I don't want it to end."

"You don't think they'd keep you?" Yusuke asks.

Akira snorts. "They're looking for someone to stay for one year," he says. "Because the exchange program is paying for a lot of school stuff and I think a little more to help out. That doesn't mean they'd just want some random stranger staying forever." 

He remembers that Yusuke has spent his whole life living with his sensei, who had apparently just decided to take some random stranger in, so maybe that's just how he thinks things work. 

Sure enough, Yusuke just shrugs and gives him a skeptical look. Akira decides not to try and explain right now why it doesn't work like that, for most people. He's not sure he'd be able to explain it all before Dojima comes back into the room.

So they sit in silence again for a while, yawning once in a while. Yusuke puts his head in his hand and starts to doze off, eyes half closed. They're sitting like that when Dojima finally does come back in, takes a look at both of them sitting there looking bedraggled and tired, and turns away very quickly (not quite quickly enough to hide his laugh at the sight of them--a good sign, maybe?). "Alright," he says. "Ready to go?"

"Yea," Akira says, springing up to his feet. Yusuke gets up right behind him, a little more slowly. 

They get into the back of the car, and the ride is a lot shorter than their walking yesterday had been. Akira does most of his traveling around Inaba on foot, actually, so it's almost weird to be seeing it out the window of a car. 

He thinks about that all the way to the Inn, which is probably why it takes him a little bit by surprise when the car pulls up outside the Inn, and the absolute crankiest looking man Akira has ever seen in his life is just standing there frowning as hard as he can.

"That's your sensei, I guess?" he mutters to Yusuke.

Yusuke slides down in the backseat so he's barely even visible through the window.

"Yep," he says. "And I think that he is definitely mad."

Akira remembers suddenly that he's supposed to be apologizing to Yusuke's sensei this morning--and now that he's seen the man, he really, really doesn't want to do it. He doesn't look like the kind of person that's going to appreciate an apology. He's probably going to be a real jerk about it.

"Everybody out," Dojima says, as both of them continue to make no movement to get out of the car. Akira shares a slightly panicked look with Yusuke.

"Out," Dojima says again, and this time Akira moves reluctantly toward the door. 

"Yusuke," the man says, unfolding a very, very small amount. "What on Earth were you thinking, running off all night?"

"I'm sorry, Sensei," Yusuke says. "I made a friend and we..." He gestures expressively but unhelpfully. It's probably good, Akira figures, because he hasn't had time to tell Yusuke the cover story they're going with.

"Yes," Yusuke's sensei says, turning a cold look on Akira. It kind of makes him shiver--there's just absolutely no doubt in his mind, after seeing that look, that this man is not nice. "I can see that."

He steps forward (Akira plants himself in place, like he's fighting a Shadow, to avoid the temptation to back up) and frowns down at Akira. He's actually kind of really intimidating, and Akira stares at him with his mind totally blank for a second, until Dojima nudges him and he remembers abruptly.

Apology. Right.

"I'm very sorry that I kept Yusuke out so late last night," he says, bowing in apology. "And I'm sorry that you were worried."

"And what kind of poor influence have you been on my charge?" the man asks.

Akira's mind flashes unavoidably back to the TV World, and running desperately to chase him down and rescue him before the Shadows decided to take an interest. "I... don't think I was a bad influence," he says. 

The man snorts, obviously not believing him, and Akira has the unsettling feeling that he's back in class with everyone looking at him like there's something wrong with him. He's never really thought that maybe adults can be bullies too, but if they can be, then Yusuke's sensei is. "I suppose that remains to be seen," he says. "Come, Yusuke--it's time to come back to the room and get yourself washed up."

Yusuke nods, but hangs back a step or two as his sensei heads back inside.

"You said you're grounded for two weeks?" he asks Akira, whispering so that neither of the nearby adults will hear.

"Yea," Akira says.

"We're here until school starts again in August," Yusuke says. "After your grounding is over, we need to--"

"Go back," Akira says. "Yea."

They share a look that only people that share a secret can have, and then Yusuke's sensei barks another order at him, and Yusuke waves and scrambles after him. Akira turns back to Dojima, not sure what's going to happen now. He knows that Dojima has to get to work, but he also knows that he's supposed to be grounded.

Dojima is running at his nose with his thumb and forefinger, looking absolutely irritated. He looks up at Akira and shakes his head. "That's enough of him," he says, and Akira tries hard not to grin as he realizes Dojima is as irritated by Yusuke's sensei as he is. "I'll drop you back at the house before I head into work." He turns and heads back to the car, adding as he goes, "And try not to get into any more trouble? For a couple of days, at least?"

Akira ducks his head and puts his hand over his mouth to hide his smile. 

He wonders what Dojima would say if he ever found out that Lavenza's name for him is Trickster. 

Kind of a funny name for her to pick, actually. He's not that much trouble, is he?

Chapter Text

July 27

Afternoon

-//-

To her credit, Nanako waits most of the day before finally cornering Akira to ask for the explanation he'd promised her. Since he's not allowed to go anywhere else right now (and he's not really interested in testing that one day into his sentence), Akira spends the morning and the early afternoon holed up in his room and thinking about what he's going to tell her.

The good thing is that Nanako is probably the most responsible six year old he's ever met, and if he can convince her it's worth keep quiet about, he thinks he can trust that she will. The problem is how to convince her that it's worth keeping quiet about, when as far as she knows, jumping into the TV is dangerous and maybe the kind of thing she'd want to run and immediately tell her dad about.

So that means he has to convince her that the TV World isn't really that dangerous? Maybe he shouldn't tell her about Shadows? But then what if she decides it sounds cool, and wants to try it for herself? It's probably not very likely, because she'd been really scared yesterday when she saw Yusuke fall in, but what if? Akira really doesn't want Nanako to get trapped in the TV World or hurt there.

He's still kind of worrying about it when she knocks on the bedroom door. Akira answers, and she looks up at him, waiting.

"So..." It's just the two of them alone in the house by now, so Akira really doesn't have an excuse to have her wait. "I guess you wanted to know more about... everything that happened yesterday?"

"Mmm hmm," Nanako says, nodding vigorously. "Akira, did you go inside the TV before?"

He doesn't answer right away, deciding to wait until they're both in the bedroom and sitting down, just as an excuse to have like thirty more seconds to think about what he's going to say. Unsurprisingly, he hasn't thought of any brilliant ideas by the time they're settled.

"Yea," he says slowly. "I've been jumping into the TV for a few months now. I did it on accident for the first time right after Yu got here, and then I kept doing it." He points at the small TV against the wall. "I used to use that one, but then I grew, and now I can't fit."

Nanako giggles.

"Yea..." Akira rubs nervously at the back of his neck. "It's kind of funny, I guess, but I haven't been able to go back in as much since then. It's more dangerous to use other TVs, because I don't want anyone to see me coming in or out."

"Did Yusuke fall in because you pushed him, then?" Nanako asks. 

Akira shrugs. "I don't think so," he says. "As far as I know, anyone can do it?" 

Nanako looks at him skeptically. "I don't think so," she says. "If anyone could do it, then everyone would know about it! So there's probably something special about Yu, and you made Yusuke go in because you pushed him."

Akira opens his mouth to answer, then stops with his mouth still open. In all this time, he genuinely hasn't even thought to ask Lavenza how falling into TVs works. One day, and Nanako's already put more thought into it than he has. "I guess maybe?" he says. "I haven't tested it." And he's absolutely not going to, because the only way to do that would be to find someone that's never been in the TV World and go hey, do you want to go see if you can stick your head into the TV, and just see if it works.

"What's on the other side of the TV?" Nanako asks.

"It kind of looks like a big TV station, I guess," Akira says. It's kind of funny that all this time he's been worrying about what to tell her, and now that the conversation's actually happening, it seems like she's pretty much leading things. It's actually kind of a relief that all he's going to have to do is think about whether or not he wants to answer, and then how much to say. And if she doesn't ask about the things he doesn't want to tell her (Yu and his friends being able to get into the TV springs immediately to mind), then... at least he has an excuse.

"A TV station?" 

He describes the way the metal girders are laid out, with the lights and things hanging down from them, and the walkways connecting one area to another. Nanako seems fascinated.

"It's like they want to make TV shows from inside the TV," she says. "Why would they do that?"

"I don't think anyone's really filming anything there," Akira says. "I've never seen anyone working or anything, it's all just kind of there? Like... I don't think anyone put that stuff there. I think it just appeared."

"Like magic," Nanako says.

"Yea," Akira says. "I think it probably is like magic." As far as he knows, anyway. The idea that someone had actually gone into the TV World and put all those things in there kind of freaks him out more for some reason. Then he thinks about how big of a TV you'd need to get all that equipment through it (like... a movie theater probably, and who would ever even think of trying to jump through a movie theater screen?), and feels reassured. Yea. All that stuff definitely just got there by magic.

"Is it scary?" Nanako asks.

"Um..." He leans back and thinks about it. This kind of seems like the perfect time to tell her about Persona, if he wants to.

He decides that he does.

"It's not really scary," he says. "There's these monsters, called Shadows, but I can fight them."

"Can you really?" Nanako asks. Akira can't tell whether she sounds excited or just skeptical-but-polite, and decides that he really hopes it's the first one. "Didn't you lose a fight yesterday?" she points out. "With someone from your class?"

Okay, definitely skeptical-but-polite. "Yea," Akira says. "But that was in the real world, not the TV World."

"What's different about the TV World?" Nanako asks.

And so Akira tells her all about Persona. At first, he only really plans to give her the bare outline, but then it just all comes rushing out. After all, he never really gets to tell anyone how cool it feels to have a Persona, to have that in his head, all the time, even when he's just walking around in the real world. He tells her about the other Persona he's picked up from Shadows, and how weird it is to have those in his head with Arsene--how they feel like they're part of him but separate all at the same time, and how they're good to fight with but they don't always feel like a part of him.

Nanako listens with all of her attention, completely focused on him and his story, all the way through even as he rambles his way through it. He doesn't think she totally gets it, because she looks a little confused as he struggles to explain the feelings of a Persona, but she seems like she's getting the gist of it at least. When he's done, she asks, "So do you keep going back because you like your Persona?"

"Because... I mean, yea. And because fighting Shadows makes me feel like a superhero or something. And I just feel like... I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing when I'm there."

"You sound happy," Nanako says. "Even though it's dangerous."

"Yea," Akira agrees.

"So you're going to keep doing it?"

"Yep."

"Yusuke too?"

"I think so," Akira says. "He sounded like he wanted to go back, although I guess it's going to have to wait until I'm not grounded anymore."

"Are you going to tell Dad?"

This time, Akira hesitates. He doesn't want to tell her no, but... the answer is absolutely, definitely no.

She seems to get it from his silence anyway. "I guess he's probably stop you," she says.

"I think so," Akira agrees. 

"What about Yu?"

The problem here is that Yu is the one person Akira knows he can't tell, and there's no really god reason he can give her for why not. He trusts Lavenza, but Lavenza is his friend and not hers. 

And right then, when he's trying frantically to think of a good excuse, is when he gets lucky.

"Can we just keep it a secret with us?" Nanako says. "And--Yusuke knows too, obviously, but when he goes back home, it'll just be our secret."

She looks up at him, with the same kind of look she has when they're gardening, or doing homework together, or just... any other time she doesn't want to be left alone.

Instantly, Akira stops worrying about what he's going to say, and just starts feeling bad for her. "Lavenza knows too," he tells her. 

"Your girlfriend?"

"Nanako!"

She grins at him and laughs at the color he's turning. 

"She's not my girlfriend!"

"But you told her about your top secret TV adventures," Nanako argues.

Akira... decides not to argue that. It's not exactly true, but he knows he can't explain Lavenza when he doesn't even understand her himself. "Are you okay with it being just a secret for the four of us, though?" he asks. "You, me, Yusuke, and Lavenza?"

"Yea," Nanako says. "You guys can all fight Shadows in the TV, and I'll stay out here and make sure no one figures it out." She jumps to her feet, clearly delighted by this. "I can help too!"

Akira's just thought of something that's going to even make her more happy. "Actually," he says. "You know what else you can do?"

"What?"

"So, different foods have different effects in the TV World," Akira says. "And I took some of the vegetables from the garden in when I went to get Yusuke." He hadn't had any other choice, because all his saved up snacks had been eaten before then. "And they were really helpful, so we're going to have to do a lot more gardening."

Unsurprisingly, Nanako's reaction is sheer delight.

-//-

August 2

Morning

-//-

The thing about being grounded for two weeks is that it gives Akira plenty of time to think about things.

He spends those two weeks making plans, mostly holed up in the bedroom while Yu is out with his friends, scribbling out ideas for what he's going to do when he's free again.

Step one--lots of gardening. 

That part's already started, actually, because the garden out in the yard still counts as  being in the house for purposes of his grounding. Two weeks in, they're already getting a good rhythm going, with two or three different vegetables growing at the same time, at staggered times so that they're never waiting too long for the next crop of vegetables to come in. Dojima and Yu are a little confused by the single minded determination, but neither one complains. And Akira makes a point of setting some of the vegetables aside for Yu, so he can take them into the TV World if he wants to. He says they're just so Yu can bring them to school on the days he cooks his own lunches, but he's absolutely sure that Yu is taking them into the TV World.

Which brings him to step two--spying.

It starts because he'd promised Lavenza that he wasn't going to go into the TV World anymore on the days when Yu and his friends are there. He doesn't think it'll be too hard to figure out, but he does need to get a lot more information about how they work. What days do they go into the TV, and what days do they stay home? 

He spends a lot of time creeping around the house, watching Yu and learning as much as he possibly can. He gets a lot of information from his spying. More than he's expecting, honestly, because while Akira has Lavenza and Yusuke and Nanako that know about his trips into the TV World, Yu apparently has a lot of people to coordinate with. Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Kanji, Risette--Rise--and Teddie, fully twice as many people as Akira has to worry about. He can't even imagine what it would be like to go through the TV World with that many people.

But the point is that Yu has to spend a lot of time wrangling this group of people so that they're all in the same place at the same time, and all on the same page, and all fully equipped and supplied. He spends enough time excusing himself up to the bedroom to talk to his friends, or running outside to talk to his friends, that Akira is kind of a little embarrassed that he hadn't ever noticed before. 

He's noticing now, though, and he's paying attention. He listens from around corners, and when Yu thinks he's asleep at night, and every other chance he gets. Sometimes he feels bad about it, but never (quite) bad enough to stop. This is information he needs, and gradually he starts to get a feel for Yu's TV World schedule. 

(And on top of that, he's picking up snatches of other things--the person that's grabbing people and kidnapping them into TVs, who might actually be inside a TV himself now, who Yu and his friends are trying to stop. Akira makes a very, very definite mental note to stay away from what they call Void Quest)

So that's  been informative.

Step three of putting together his plans for what he's doing after the grounding--the best, and most important step--is to teach Yusuke how to fight with his Persona. Akira is unbelievably excited about this. After months of Akira being the student and Lavenza the teacher when it comes to anything TV World related, he's really looking forward to being the one to teach Yusuke how it works. He can't wait to show Yusuke what he knows, and find out what kind of attacks his Persona has, and see how much the two of them together can handle.

What Akira has started doing while he waits (he's been... pretty bored so far while he's stuck spending so much time in the house) is to start making a big file of all the Shadows he's fought so far. Yusuke (who has started calling him on the landline pretty much every day while his sensei soaks in the hot springs and finds things to complain about) had listened to several of Akira's excited descriptions of Shadows, then declared himself a visual learner, and asked for pictures. 

Nanako had walked in on his attempts at drawing one afternoon, and started asking questions about what they were called, and what they did, and (usually), why they look so gross. 

Sometimes the answer is that the Shadow just happens to look gross, and sometimes the answer is that Akira is just that bad at drawing.

Today--just shy of one week into the two weeks of grounding--Akira and Nanako are sitting together at the table in front of the TV that had started all the trouble in the first place, working on the information for the last few Shadows.

"Is that one..." Nanako leans over her side of the table, pointing at the drawing Akira is currently working on. "Is that a beetle?"

"It--yea, actually!" He is not used to her being able to figure out what he's drawing. "It's this beetle that has, like... a crown on its back, and then the mask up here--" he points at a part of his drawing, then adds another couple of lines that really don't make it look that much more like a mask, and hands it over to her while he starts in on the next one.

"What attacks does it do?" Nanako asks, reaching for her pencil. 

"Uh..." He closes his eyes and thinks back. "It just hits. And if it's with another Shadow, it can make the other Shadow hit harder."

Nanako very carefully notes this down, tongue sticking out of her mouth slightly. Akira glances away from his drawing attempts and over at what she's writing so he can check her spelling, but it looks good. And her handwriting's gotten better since they started this project, so maybe there's some kind of educational value here? He keeps telling himself that, anyway.

He hadn't really expected Nanako to be all that interested, at the beginning. But one week in, here she is, insisting that he keep his notes organized, and maybe Akira shouldn't have been surprised. After all, she's six years old and already doing the laundry and doing everything she's physically capable of to keep the house clean. She's probably more responsible than all the rest of them put together.

"Are you done with that one?" Nanako asks, pointing at his last drawing.

"Uh--" he's been so distracted that he's barely made any progress on the drawing. "Not yet."

"What's it supposed to be?" Nanako asks.

"A kind of... skeleton in a cloak with a lantern in its stomach and one eye."

Nanako is too nice to say anything, but her expression pretty much says it all. 

Akira sighs, and writes 'Skeleton in a cloak with a lantern in its stomach and one eye' next to the drawing he'd started to make. Yusuke is going to have to just live with the fact that he is an artist, and Akira is not. "This one does garu and mudo, and it can make my attacks weaker, or stop me from casting spells," he tells her.

Nanako dutifully copies this down, then adds it to the pile of already completed Shadow papers. "How are you going to get them to Yusuke?" she asks. "Are you just going to wait until you're done being grounded?"

"So," he says. "I was thinking..." He keeps his eyes on her reaction while trying to sound casual. "I know I'm still grounded, but I need to get Yusuke's stuff back to him anyway. And now I need to get this stuff to him too, so... one of these days when Yu's busy and your dad's at work, I might just... sneak out and bring him that stuff."

Nanako's expression is disapproving. "You're supposed to stay in the house," she says reproachfully.

"I know, I know," he says quickly. "But it's just once. And then I'll come right back." He grins at her. "And no one will ever know but me, you, and Yusuke, right?"

"You're gonna get in more trouble," Nanako says.

"Yea," Akira says. But he's getting fidgety and bored at home all day, every day. "But only if I get caught."

-//-

August 2

Evening

-//-

There are a lot of things Yu likes about the TV World. He likes fighting Shadows, and the thrill of victory that comes from coming out of a rough fight with all of them in one piece. He likes how it feels to gain new Persona, and fuse them into something strong enough (or with just the right attacks) to get past whatever Shadow's giving them trouble. He likes being able to lead his friends, and help them do their best to fight, too.

What he does not like are nonsense levels of the TV World where every intersection turns them around, and not even Rise's navigation can help them get to the end of the maze. After wandering around for what felt like several hours, Yu had called a halt for the day. They aren't making any progress, and they'll be better off coming back fresh tomorrow.

But even though he'd put on a brave face for his team when they went their separate ways after the TV World, Yu is feeling pretty discouraged when he gets home and finds his uncle sitting alone in the kitchen with a thin file folder on the table in front of him.

"Yu," Dojima says, as Yu starts to head for the stairs. "Can you come over here for a minute?"

Yu retreats back down the few steps he'd managed to climb up, leaves his bag on the floor next to the stairs, and heads for the kitchen. He's had enough evening talks with his uncle, usually after Akira and Nanako are in bed for the night, to recognize the tone of voice as meaning that they're about to have one of those talks. The deep ones, where Dojima shares things about himself and Nanako and her late mother that always leave Yu with a lingering sense of sadness.

He composes himself, and tries to focus on the conversation instead of the frustrating session inside the TV earlier. "Did something happen?" he asks, as Dojima gestures him into the chair opposite him. Normally, Yu has to coax these conversations out of his uncle. It's definitely out of the ordinary for Dojima to be the one to start the conversation about something serious.

"No," Dojima says. Then--"Yes. But not recently. I made a discovery lately, and I need to ask you to keep an eye on something. On Akira, specifically."

"Is this about the night he and his friend wandered off?" Yu asks, taking the seat he's being pointed into.

To his surprise, Dojima shakes his head. "No," he says. "Not directly, anyway. I started doing some digging into Akira when I couldn't get any information about how to contact his parents."

Yu looks up at him, interested but not daring to say more and interrupt Dojima's rare effort at unprompted story telling. 

"It might be easier if you just see for yourself," Dojima says, and passes the folder he'd been looking at across the table for Yu to take a look at. He does, paging slowly though what seems like some kind of an accident report from a police department in a town he's never heard of. He skims through a few pages of details that mean nothing to him, before his eyes snag on something close to the bottom of page three.

There had been several cars involved in the accident, and about a dozen people had been injured or killed. Halfway down the list are two names with deceased printed next to them in firm, blocky type. The names belong to a man and a woman, both with the family name Kurusu.

Yu's not sure what to make of that, but he hesitates over it long enough for Dojima to notice. 

"Saw it, did you?" he asks, leaning forward to take the file back. "The names match the ones on Akira's application." He gestures laconically at the folder. "And the timeline would explain why his school last year said his parents were in contact with them and as involved as they could be while traveling. I haven't spoken to them once this year."

"But... there's no way Akira would just be left to fend for himself if his parents are..." He'd walked past Akira on his way in, so he knows he's outside with Nanako and their meticulously organized garden. Yu finds himself lowering his voice anyway. "If they're dead?"

"I was able to get a copy of the estate proceedings," Dojima says, and the way he doesn't quite look at Yu when he says it makes Yu wonder if maybe his uncle hadn't been supposed to look at that paperwork. "The entire file was three pieces of paper--two death certificates and a paper stating that no heirs could be found, and that the estate would be given to the state. Some junior politician signed off on the paperwork, and judging by how little of it there is, I don't think he put more than an afternoon's worth of work into it."

Yu is quiet for a few seconds, taking this in. All thoughts of the stress and exhaustion from the TV World have faded away, and Yu feels absolutely numb with what he's hearing. He's not sure whether he's supposed to be feeling shocked, or if he should be feeling pity for Akira, or if maybe those emotions aren't big enough for this.

"You're sure that these are his parents?" Yu asks. "Whoever it was that handled the estate would have had to have done something for Akira, right? They would have had to... I don't know, put him in foster care or something, if there's no other relatives?" He doesn't know. He's never had to think about anything like that.

Dojima crosses his arms and leans back slightly in his chair. "They're definitely his parents," he says. "I've done my research. and everything matches up exactly. I talked to Akira's previous school, and they told me that his parents worked jobs that involved a lot of travel. They didn't have a permanent home. His mother did some kind of consulting, and his father was a freelance photographer. Neither of them worked with a company, neither of them had living family. If the estate administrator didn't bother pulling the family record, I can believe that Akira might have slipped through the cracks."

"But then," Yu says. "Akira..." He trails off. It's obvious that Dojima has done his investigating already. "He's... never said anything about that. He just... came here, and pretended everything's fine?"

His uncle shakes his head. "I don't know how much Akira knows," he says. "Or how much he's figured out on his own. I don't know what he's thinking, or why he applied to this program."

"He applied after they died?" Yu asks.

"About a month after the accident," Dojima tells him.

Yu shakes his head. He doesn't know what to think about this. "What are you going to do?"

The sigh that greets this question is equal parts aggravated and tired and sad. "I'm going to have to figure out who needs to be put in charge of him," he says. "There are people out there that handle situations like this. There's a system for people that don't have anywhere else to go, and Akira needs to be put into that system."

"But..."

Yu's objection is interrupted by the sound of shrieks from outside. Both of them look out the window, and see that Akira and Nanako have abandoned the garden for the moment, and are fighting over the hose. Both of them are wet all the way through, shouting and laughing and just...

Yu looks back at Dojima. He's thinking about the word system, and how cold it sounds, and how unfair that is on Akira. On the other hand, he also can't blame his uncle for reporting this. It's--Akira is a kid with no parents, and he needs adult help.

It's just hard to imagine that this is actually going to help.

"Are you going to talk to him first?" Yu asks. "Before you tell... whoever it is that you tell when you find out something like this?"

"I will," Dojima says. "But as long as there's no more trouble like there was last week with that artist boy, I don't think--" Uncharacteristically, he hesitates. "I don't think there's any reason to confront him about it before the end of the school year. He's already here, and it will give me time to figure out who to report this to, and..."

He trails off and Yu, watching his expression, thinks that there's a little bit more to it than Dojima is saying. He wonders if it has something to do with the way the aunt Yu had never met had died. That had been an accident too, hadn't it? She'd been hit on her way to pick Nanako up from preschool. And the fact that it is now August, that Yu has been here for almost four months and had only recently learned what happened to her, shows exactly how reluctant this family is to face that death. The undoubtedly messy confrontation with Akira about what had happened to his parents is only going to bring those feelings back up.

"Why are you telling me about it now, then?" Yu asks.

"Because I think you've shown you're responsible enough for me to trust you with keeping it to yourself," Dojima says. "And because if he does keep up the kind of behavior that he's shown recently, I may not be able to wait to confront him. He's a good kid, generally, but if he's going to keep on this path of acting like a delinquent, then I will need to do something."

"So I should keep an eye on him," Yu says.

"If you could," Dojima says. 

The way he says it sort of makes Yu wonder whether Dojima is asking for his help keeping Akira in line, so he won't have to confront him before the end of the year, or if he's asking Yu to report anything Akira does wrong.

Whatever Dojima is trying to ask, Yu absolutely intends to do the first. He likes Akira. He feels terrible about what he's apparently been going through all on his own, and he wants to help him to stay here for the rest of the year, if he can. 

Before he can say anything, the door opens and Akira and Nanako tumble in, chattering excitedly and dripping over the floor.

"We're going to get towels, Dad!" Nanako calls. "I'll clean it up!" She gives Akira a poke, and adds, "He's helping!"

More laughing and dripping as the two of them continue on their quest for towels. Yu feels a ball in the pit of his stomach from watching them--but it isn't like this could last forever, right? It was always going to end at the end of the school year, because the exchange program Akira's on only goes that long. The only difference now from yesterday is that yesterday, Yu had assumed that Akira would be heading home to his parents next spring, and now he knows that he'll be going into some kind of foster care. It's... probably the best thing for him. 

It just doesn't feel right.

-//-

August 3

Morning

-//-

Akira wakes up early, too excited about the planned trip to the Amagi Inn to sleep past sunrise. Is it a bad idea? Yes. Is it probably going to get him into more trouble? If he's caught, definitely. But Akira is bored and he really does need to get Yusuke's stuff back to him before someone notices it where it's been moved to Nanako's room.

He lies on the sofa and maps it all out in his head. As soon as Dojima is at work and Yu is on his way to Junes, he'll call Yusuke and let him know he's on the way. Going actually into the Inn would be dangerous (Yukiko will be with Yu, but her mother will probably remember him from his last visit). On the other hand, he knows where Yu and his sensei are staying, and it's a first floor room looking out over the back of the hotel. It won't be hard to meet Yusuke there and hand off his stuff and the Shadow info through the window. And then boom, he'll be back home before anyone other than Nanako even knows he's left.

It'll be fine! It'll be fine.

The worst part is that even though he's very aware of all the ways that this can go wrong, Akira is excited. And if he's being honest, he thinks that it's the fact that things could possibly go wrong that's making him so excited about his planned mini-heist.

He lies awake, watching the early morning sunlight coming in through the window, and wondering if that means there's something wrong with him. Then he decides that he pretty much doesn't care.

After a while, Yu starts to stir and Akira decides he should probably get up too. The two of them get dressed and ready for the day without saying much to each other--Akira is thinking about his heist, and he assumes Yu is thinking about the plans for the TV World. He manages to get in a casual mention of the vegetables he'd set aside from gardening with Nanako yesterday, and hopes that Yu will take them with him into the TV.

He's congratulating himself on how smooth that had been, and heading downstairs for breakfast, when Yu calls him back at the door.

"Hey Akira," he says. "There's... something I kind of wanted to talk to you about, if you have a minute."

"Sure," Akira says, turning around again and plopping back down on the sofa. "It's not like I have any plans for today." The lie sounds pretty smooth coming out, and he mentally congratulates himself when Yu doesn't even bat an eyelid.

"So," Yu says. He leans back against the dresser with the TV on it and looks everywhere except for directly at Akira. "You... last week, with Yusuke."

"Yea?" Akira says.

Yu seems to be struggling with how much to say, or how to phrase it, or something. Akira waits, patient and a little bit curious, to find out what Yu is trying to get at. They haven't really talked much about The Incident With Yusuke since it happened, because Yu is awesome and doesn't really like to keep bringing up Akira's mistakes just to rub them in.

Finally, Yu says, "You kind of got yourself into a lot of trouble with it."

"Yea," Akira says. "I know. The grounding's almost over now, though." Halfway over, anyway. And after agonizing through the first week, Akira has figured out two things--one, that the second week is probably going to feel just as long as the first week, or maybe even longer, and two, that he's not going to make it if he doesn't get to leave at some point.

It's kind of funny, actually. For his whole life, Akira's been happy to just live the way he's been told to. When he was younger, and his parents would move from place to place, Akira would go with them because that was what he'd been told to do. When they decided that coming with them was disrupting his education and limiting the jobs they could take, and sent him away to boarding school, he'd gone with only the minimum of protests, because it's what he'd been told to do.

He'd never been the kid that acted out. He'd never wanted to be the rebel or the delinquent. A year ago, his reaction to someone calling him Trickster would have been baffled disbelief. Now he's kind of on his own, and there's no one else to make decisions for him or be responsible for him, and Akira's finding that the person he's becoming isn't at all the person he would have expected.

Apparently, he's the kind of person now that gets antsy without some kind of rule to break.

"Akira," Yu says.

"Hmm?" He looks up, startled out of his own thoughts, and realizes that Yu is looking at with an unusually serious look on his face.

"I just mean... I know you were only trying to help your friend when you guys wandered off last week, but maybe you want to try and just... keep your head down and follow the rules for the rest of the year."

"Why?" Akira asks, and then adds after a beat, "I mean, obviously we're supposed to follow the rules, that's what they're there for, but why bring this up all of a sudden?" If it was just because of Yusuke, Yu could have said something a week ago, when Akira was first grounded.

"No particular reason," Yu says. "Just... trust me? Things are going to go a lot smoother for you if you do follow the rules than if you don't."

He's so earnest that it's impossible to think that he's doing anything other than genuinely trying to look out for Akira's best interests. Because of that earnestness, Akira nods. "Yea," he says. "Yea, I'll do my best!"

He gives Yu a big, not entirely faked grin, and then waits until the older boy has left the room to let it drop.

"Or else I'll do my best to not get caught," he mutters under his breath. Because whatever reason Yu has to tell him he should be keeping his head down, Akira doesn't really think it's worth losing out on all the things he can do if he doesn't keep his nose clean and follow the rules.

He waits fifteen minutes after Yu leaves the house (which seems to take forever--it's a little after ten by the time Yu's gone) before heading downstairs, where he conspires for a few minutes with Nanako before calling Yusuke to tell him the plan.

"Aren't you going to get in trouble for coming out here?" Yusuke asks. He sounds much more curious than disapproving.

"Only if I get caught," Akira says. "And everyone here is out for the day, so I'm not going to get caught. Your sensei's not going to be around, right?"

"He usually isn't in the room much during the day," Yusuke agrees.

"It'll probably be like an hour before I can get out there," Akira says. "I don't want to take the quickest way out there because that would take me through some of the more crowded parts of town." If there actually is any part of Inaba that could be described as crowded. Less deserted, anyway.

"Okay," Yusuke says. He sounds absolutely cheerful about it, so Akira assumes that he's been feeling kind of cooped up himself. "See you soon."

They hang up, and Akira grabs his bag and his stuff.

"Do you have everything?" Nanako asks.

"Yep," Akira says. "I have Yusuke's things that he left here, I have the Shadow pamphlet, and..." He checks one more time. "I have my cell phone in case anything happens and you need to call me."

"Okay," Nanako says. "Be careful, okay? You shouldn't get into any more trouble."

"Everyone keeps telling me that," Akira says, pulling his backpack onto his shoulders.

"Well maybe you should listen!" Nanako says, and Akira grins in response.

"Nah," he says. "I'll be fine."

And with only a casual wave to say goodbye, he heads out the front door and starts walking. It's a beautiful day out--sunny and warm, with just a hint of breeze to keep the air from feeling too muggy and heavy. Akira takes his time, sticking to the back streets and dawdling more than he would have normally so that he can just... enjoy being outside and away from the house for the first time in the past week.

He reaches the Inn eventually, and spends a few minutes hiding out back, trying to map out the inside layout and match the room where Yusuke is staying to the windows he can see. He counts off the number several times before dashing up to knock on the window he's pretty sure is the right one.

He gets lucky. Or maybe he's more observant than he thought, but whatever the case might be, Yusuke slides the window open almost as soon as Akira has knocked on it.

"You made it," Yusuke observes.

"I told you I would," Akira says with a grin. The window is close enough to the ground that they can talk through it as easily as if they were standing in the same place. "Here, I brought your stuff." He pulls off his backpack and starts handing Yusuke's things in through the window to him. "Nanako and I tried to get it as cleaned up as we could, but I wanted to get everything out of the house before Dojima starts asking questions. He notices things sometimes, and I'm sure he would have noticed that you didn't really have anything with you when we came out of the TV."

"And Sensei was starting to ask where my things went," Yusuke says solemnly, half dangling out of the window as Akira is just a little too slow at handing his things back. "I appreciate you risking a longer grounding to come over here,"

"Careful," Akira says. "You'll fall."

"I will not," Yusuke says. He pulls himself back in, carefully.

"You said your sensei was asking questions," Akira says. "Are you in trouble for not having all this stuff?"

"I will be okay," Yusuke assures him. "I know the paints broke, so we did have to go to Junes to replace them--and Sensei hates department stores, but other than him complaining about that, everything's been okay."

He really does sound okay, so Akira decides not to push it. He'd be annoyed if anyone was doing the same thing to him, so he just doesn't ask Yusuke any more questions.

"What's all this?" Yusuke asks, holding up the papers with Akira's less than awesome drawings of Shadows. "Those weren't in my bag, I use a different kind of paper."

Of course he'd have noticed the difference in paper. Akira has started to realize that Yusuke looks at the world in a way that's very different from the way most people do, and that his world view is mostly focused around art. "They're mine," Akira admits. "Since we're going to be jumping right back into the TV so you can get a feel for fighting Shadows before you have to go back to Tokyo, I thought it might help to see the information written down ahead of time."

Yusuke nods, and withdraws back into the room for a second to put his stuff and the Shadow information away somewhere inside. 

As Akira is waiting for him to come back out, his phone starts ringing. It's the Dojima home number, and Akira's stomach flips over. He'd told Nanako to call if anything went wrong, but he hadn't actually expected anything to go wrong!

"Akira!" she says, as soon as he's picked up the phone. "Are you on your way back yet?"

"No," Akira says. She sounds freaked out, so he does his best to stay calm. "I just got to the Inn, why?"

"Dad called," Nanako says. "He left something at home, so he's coming back on his lunch break."

Akira pulls the phone back from his face for a second, just enough so that he can see the time. It's close to 11:30 now.

"Did he say exactly when?" he asks, holding the phone back up again.

"No," Nanako says. "And I didn't want to ask, in case he got suspicious..."

"That's good," Akira encourages. "I'm going to..." His mind races, and there's pretty much only one idea he can think of. "I guess I'm going to run back and hope I make it in time?"

"You're not going to make it!" Nanako says.

"I will, I will!" he insists. "I'll see you in--as soon as I can get there."

He hangs up and turns back to the window. "Yusuke!" he calls, sticking his head into the window. "Yusuke, hey!"

His friend hurries back toward the window from the other side of the room. "Yea?"

"I have to--Dojima's stopping home on his lunch break, so I have to run, like, now." A little bit of the panic he hadn't let Nanako hear when she called is creeping into his voice now.

"Okay," Yusuke says, eyes wide. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yea! Yea, I'll be--" Another glance at his phone shows that it's 11:32 now. "I'll be fine, bye!"

And he takes off running as fast as he possibly can, his now empty backpack bouncing against his back with every step. In his head, he's planning out the best possible route back--there's no way he'll get there if he takes the same back roads he'd taken on the way here, but if he goes too far into town, then there's a risk of actually being seen by Dojima while he drives aback. So one way, he risks being caught on the way back, and the other way he risks just not getting back in time.

He picks up the pace, running so quickly that one or two people actually stop to stare at him. Akira doesn't recognize any of them though, so hopefully they'll just think he's some weird kid out for a run and not some (alright, admittedly a little weird) kid running to get home before he's caught out when he's supposed to be grounded.

Every part of Akira aches by the time he gets back to the Dojimas' neighborhood, exhausted from the run that had apparently not been quite fast enough. As he comes of the house from behind (will the shortcut be enough ? It's a little faster, sure, but not much) and hops the fence, Akira is panting and red. Even if he somehow beats Dojima inside, it's going to be instantly obvious that he's been running.

The garden catches his attention as he pauses. More importantly, he spots a pile of mulch on the far corner of the yard. He and Nanako had asked for it just before the incident with Yusuke, after reading in a book that it was supposed to do something to help the plants. Dojima had agreed to bring it home, and ever since the mulch bags have sat on the edge of the yard while Akira and Nanako tried to figure out what to do with them.

By the time Dojima pulls into the driveway and gets out of the car. Akira is struggling pointedly with one of the heavy bags.

"Are you doing alright there, Akira?” Dojima asks. When Akira looks up (pretending of course, to notice him for the first time), Dojima is looking at him and fighting back a smile. It brings a rush of relief to Akira--he’d bought it.

"I'm, oh--" he lets the heavy sack drop. "Yea, it's just heavier than it looks."

"I'll help you move them when I get in tonight," Dojima says. " Now come on, get inside. You look like you're about ready to pass out."

Akira doesn't complain about heading back into the air conditioned building. He trails a little behind Dojima, and flashes a thumbs up to an anxious looking Nanako, who is hovering just inside the door. She grins in surprised relief, and maybe a little bit of excitement.

Akira spares a sound to wonder if maybe he's being a bad influence on her.

Then he goes to the kitchen to drink about five cups of water, Dojima grabs whatever he’d forgotten in the first place, and in almost no time at all, he's gone again. Akira sprawls

out on the couch, while Nanako sits nearby, TV on softly behind her.

"You're okay," she says. "Right?"

"I probably won't be able to feel my legs in a couple hours," Akira says. “But yea, I’m pretty much okay.”

"Did you really run all the way home? Nanako asks.

"Yep."

And you made it?" Nanako asks.

"Just barely," Akira says. And it had been awesome. “I came around the back while your dad was pulling in the front.” He looks at her still slightly worried expression. “But… I’m sorry for cutting it so close. I don’t want you to have to lie to your dad.”

“Me neither,” Nanako says, and for a second looks even more worried, before suddenly brightening. “But I didn’t have to, because you made it back in time.”

He’s almost definitely being a bad influence on her.

The rest of the day is a lot less dramatic than the beginning had been. They play a card game while Akira's legs slowly start to complain about the sprint across town, and then watch TV for awhile. It's a local news program of some kind, interviewing people about the local murders. Akira recognizes one of them (the boy he’d met the day Daiki stole his shoes), who is apparently some kind of detective prodigy working on the case.

Akira is watching this, half interested, half too tired to do anything other than lie on the couch and be in pain, when Nanako says suddenly, "Did you know that Yu and his friends can go into the TV World too?”

Akira tenses immediately. This is bad, because he doesn’t want her to think it’s okay to talk to Yu about what he’s doing, but… on the other hand, he’d just almost gotten her into trouble with her dad. And since she knows already, he's not going to lie. "Yes," he says. Carefully.

"I thought so," Nanako says. "I met some of his friends a few days ago, and I guess they weren't being very careful around me.Probably because they think I don't know anything about it, so I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. But they were definitely talking about the TV World.” She pauses, then says, " I figured if I could notice after a couple of days, you could definitely figure it out."

"It took me a lot more than a few days," Akira admits. "Months, actually." Nanako, he thinks, is a lot smarter than most six year olds. "You're not going to tell him that you know, are you?" He’s hoping not, because if she’d figured it out a few days ago, and hasn’t said anything so far, she probably isn’t going to.

Nanako looks genuinely surprised by this question, like it hasn’t even occurred to her. "No,"she says. " He already has all his friends, right? " She grins at him, triumphant. "You just have me and Lavenza and Yusuke. You need all the help you can get, Akira."

He laughs at that which makes Nanako laugh too. But behind the laughter is a surge of gratitude. He's liking the little team they're putting together. He likes that he has people around him that he can trust, even with his secrets. "You're right," he tells her. "I do.”

-//-

August 4

Morning

-//-

Akira gets a call from Yusuke on Thursday morning, the day after the wild run across town, so early that Yu hasn't actually left the house yet, and Akira has to pick up the call and pretend it's a wrong number. 

He's starting to feel like he's living up to his Trickster title, with all the secret running around he's been doing since Yusuke got here.

After Yu heads out (today, Akira knows from his eavesdropping, they're heading into the TV), Akira calls Yusuke back.

Yusuke picks up on the second ring, and says (very seriously), "I am sorry for asking you to draw the Shadows for me," he says. "It would have been better for everyone involved if you did not try."

Akira sighs and rests his forehead against the wall. Next to him, Nanako has noticed his posture and is giggling.

"I appreciate the effort," Yusuke says. "But when I see the Shadows for myself, I will be correcting all of them."

"Thanks, Yusuke," Akira mutters.

"Of course," Yusuke says, as the sarcasm sails right over his head. "I will see you in one more week, Akira."

And then he hangs up.

"What was that?" Nanako asks.

"Yusuke doesn't like my Shadow pictures," Akira tells the wall.

"Mmm," Nanako says, "That makes sense."

"You're both mean," Akira says, and Nanako giggles.

Chapter Text

August 12

Evening

-//-

Two important things happen on on August the 12th. The first is that Yu wakes up early,and leaves the house without saying anything to anyone. Akira has learned enough from his listening by now to understand that he and his friends have a deadline, and that if they miss it someone might end up--well. Dead.

The second is that the news (which has been covering basically nothing except the murders, lately) starts showing a new round of interviews with some locals. One of them, to Akira's annoyance, is Daiki. He hadn't thought about the bully in days, so hearing his voice (his face is just off screen, of course) makes him more than a little cranky.

(And, just to add insult to injury, when the camera pans down to hide his face, Akira sees that Daiki is wearing his shoes.)

But of course, he doesn't understand why this is important until later.

It's while he's thinking moodily back over the day that he remembers something he’d overheard Yu say once. It had been (as usual) when he didn't know Akira was listening, that he'd been talking to someone on the phone about how there's a connection between people that show up on the TV, on the news, and people that show up in the TV, needing to be rescued.

But lots of people are on the news, right? And most of them are okay.

Akira spends the whole night, as it rains and rains outside, awake and worrying. He thinks about the deadline that Yu and his friends almost hadn't met, and he wonders what he would feel like if Daiki actually had been taken.

-//-

August 15

Morning

-//-

It happens three days later.

By this point, with the grounding over and Yu done with his TV World mission, Akira and Yusuke have gotten into the habit of meeting at Junes, going into the TV, and meeting with Lavenza to teach Yusuke to use his Persona. They're shown Yusuke the castle full of Shadows, then struck off to explore and found a kind of bath house with slightly stronger Shadows. The plan for Monday, August 15, is to do exactly this.

Except that as Akira heads into town, he passes through the Shopping District (planning to get a new weapon for poor Yusuke, who is useless with Akira's daggers but has mentioned wanting something longer). He's just coming out of the metalworks with a blade he hopes will be good for Yusuke, when he spots a police car down the road a little way.

By Daiki's house.

Akira checks the time on his phone, realizes he's going to be late whether he investigates or not, and decides that he might as well just check it out.

The policeman in the car isn't Dojima, which is good because Akira doesn't know what he'd even say if it had been. He recognizes him as Dojima's partner though, Adachi, and kind of waves at him to get his attention. They haven't really spoken one on one before, but Akira at least recognizes him.

It looks like Adachi recognizes him too, because he returns Akira's wave with a half hearted one of his own.

"You're one of Dojima's kids," he says, when Akira's reached him. "Right?"

"Not exactly," Akira hedges. 

Adachi shrugs like it doesn't really matter. 

"What happened?" Akira asks. 

"The couple that lives here called us last night and said that their son hadn't come home," Adachi says. 

"Daiki," Akira says. "Right?"

"Yea," Adachi says. "That's his name. Why, you know him?"

"Uh--" Yea. Way too well. "He's in my class at school."

"Well, I wouldn't worry," Adachi says. "There's been a lot of cases of kids running off this year, for whatever reason. They always make it back okay."

He's talking, Akira realizes, about Yu's friends. Yukiko and Kanji and Rise, who had all gone missing and then come back. But they'd come back because they had someone to rescue them, right? 

"Yea," Akira says, feeling numb. "Yea, I'm... sure that'll happen." 

He can't actually figure out how to feel about this. He'd imagined it, a few nights ago when he saw Daiki on the local news and stayed up trying to convince himself that it wouldn't happen. 

But he still doesn't know how to feel about the idea of his school bully stuck in the TV World and needing to be rescued.

"Alright kid," Adachi says. "I've probably said too much already."

It's a clear dismissal, and Akira is happy to take it, running off down the street in the direction of Junes.

Yusuke is on the street outside the department store, sitting on the curb and drawing with the single minded intensity he always has when he gets a sketchbook in his hands, and doesn't look up right away when Akira runs up and blurts out that he has something important to share.

"Just a second," Yusuke says.

"Yusuke," Akira says. "Seriously!" And without waiting for Yusuke to acknowledge him, he launches into an explanation of what he'd just found out about Daiki being missing. "And I think he has to be inside the TV," he finishes. "Because he was on the news the other day."

"So what are we going to do?" Yusuke asks. He's finally closed the sketchbook, and has transferred his expression of extreme focus from whatever he was working on to Akira's story. "Do we have to figure out a way to tell Yu, or can we just rescue him ourselves?"

Akira is slightly embarrassed to realize that he's been so focused on trying to figure out how to feel about Daiki being taken, that he hasn't even stopped to think about what they're going to do.

But now that Yusuke asks the question, the answer seems obvious. 

"We're going to rescue him," he says. "Yu's helping Yosuke out by working the rest of the week--even if I could think of a way to tell him that Daiki's been taken, it'd be at least a week before he'd be able to go in after him."

"And I'm leaving at the end of the week," Yusuke says.

Akira stares at him. "What?"

Yusuke nods. "Saturday," he says. "We're going back to Tokyo before school starts again."

Akira continues to stare blankly at him, because although he'd known somewhere in the back of his head that Yusuke wouldn't be staying forever, it hasn't felt imminent until just now. Then he shakes his head. "Well then I guess we're going to have one really good adventure before you go," he says. "Come on--we should get into the TV and tell Lavenza the bad news."

It's a little harder than usual to get into the TV today than it has been for the past few days. Akira knows that Yu had been asked by Yosuke to help out at Junes for the rest of the week, which means ducking around both of them and (as it turns out) Teddie too, every time they want to get to the TV.

"Why is he working here?" Akira grumbles. " And right by the TVs, too..."

The two of them are kneeling on the other side of a nearby shelf, watching Teddie chatting up a couple of customers. And, because it’s Teddie (of all people), Akira doesn’t even dare duck out of cover. At least if it had been Yu or Yosuke he just would have had to come up with some excuse for hanging around here. With Teddie, he has to worry about being recognized from the TV World.

Yusuke's tone is skeptical as he says, He's really some kind of bear?"

"Yea," Akira says. " If you ever see him in his mascat costume, you'd see. It's way too realistic. It talks and everything."

Yusuke looks interested now. "Why don't I go distract him, then? He's never seen me before, so I can lure him away white you get into the TV?"

"He's seen you." Akira says. "Remember when Kanji scared Daiki away? Teddie was there too."

"I meant he's never seen me in the TV World " Yusuke says. " And anyway, he--uh--helped?" He considers the verb. "He attempted to help me and Sensei when we came to replace my paints. He didn't recognize me at all.

Akira chews this over ,but then shakes his head. "No," he says. " If you distract him so I can get into the TV, how will you get in?"

"Oh yea," Yusuke says. "Good point."

So they sit and watch and wait, and after what feels like forever, Teddie moves on to another

department. The two boys look at each other, then run together to the nearest TV. Akira just spares a second to look around and make sure no one else is in sight before jumping in after Yusuke.

He feels safer when he and Yusuke land--costumed and masked--on the metal girdlers of the TV world. They can talk a little more openly here, at least, and focus on figuring out what to do for their rescue mission. As soon as he has his balance back, Akira turns to Yusuke and says. "He has to be in here somewhere, right?" he says.

Yusuke nods. "Yes," he says. " But how do we find him? This place is enormous."

"We need..." Akira looks around, and sure enough there's Lavenza, eyebrows raised as she listens. That’s who they need. She knows more about the TV world than anyone else, and she'll have to know where they can go to find Daiki. "Lavenza!"

“Trickster," she says, guarded. Clearly she’s expecting trouble. "What happened?"

Quickly, Akira and Yusuke tell her everything about Daiki going missing, as her frown slowly grows. "You shouldn't involve yourselves in this," she says.

" Because Yu can be the one to help him? " Akira asks. " But he's busy this week, and even if we tell him, he'll want to know how we found out about all of this."

Lavenza groans.

"I'm serious," Akira says earnestly. " If we tell Yu, all it's going to do is-"

"No," Lavenza says. " I know, I know. You're right, I just don't like it." She sighs again. " Alright," she says. "We can find him and get him back . The difficult part will be the first step."

"This place is enormous," Yusuke agrees.

"But you can find him, right? " Akira asks. " You always find me." But even as he says it, he's remembering that she hadn't been able to just know where Yusuke had been when he first wandered in. They'd had to use the paint on his shoes to figure out which direction he'd gone.

"That's only because it's you," she says, without elaborating. "We will need someone that can trace people on this side of the TV, if we are going to find your bully."

Akira fidgets uncomfortably. He can't get over the fact that they're going to save Daiki. It... obviously it's the right thing to do, but there’s just something about it that doesn't feel... it somehow just doesn't feel heroic. Maybe it's because he already knows deep down that Daiki wouldn't even be grateful to be rescued, but Akira's stomach feels his gut clench in nervousness about whatever's about to happen.

Which doesn't mean he doesn't want to rescue Daiki. It's too personal to leave to anyone else, even if that was an option. It's just all--weird.

"What kind of person can track people in here? Yusuke asks.

"Well," Lavenza says. Her tone is... reluctant, to put it mildly. “There's only one that I know of for sure." She meets Akira's gaze head on. "But it's Teddie."

"Oh." Yusuke seys.

"Oh no," Akira adds. Then he takes a deep breath and thinks hard about how they’re going to have to do this.

"That's as bad as telling Yu about Daiki," Yusuke says glumly.

"No, it's not," Akira says. He's still thinking, but he knows this can work, he can almost see a way for this to work, he's almost there...

"He's right, Trickster," Lavenza says. " This is as dangerous as going to the other wildcard for help would be."

Trickster. Something in his mind clicks, and the whole plan comes together in that moment. "It's not the same," Akira says. "Because Yu knows who me and Yusuke are. If we went to him, he'dl have all kinds of questions. But all Teddie knows is that I can get into the TV World, so he won't be surprised by that. And I've been really careful not to let him see me in the real world, so he

can't connect me to Yu or anything like that. And he doesn't remember Yusuke at all!” He grins. "All we have to do is get him on his own and convince him to help us!"

"Well-" Lavenza looks flustered. "I suppose so? But that would still be incredibly risky."

Akira waves that away. "Well," he says. "We have to do something, right?"

“Well, yes," Lavenza says. " But..." She stops whatever she'd been about to say, and changes direction. "Alright," she says. "If that's the plan, then I'll stay here and wait for you to bring him

back. Having too many people around will only complicate things."

"Probably," Akira agrees. After all the emphasis she'd put on him keeping secrets, he's kind of pleased that she would trust him not to screw things up now.

"Come on," he says to Yusuke, even while he gives Lavenza the most sincere ‘thank you’ look that he can muster. "We only have five days, we should get started."

Lavenza looks up sharply. "Five days? Why?"

“Yusuke is leaving at the end of the week," Akira explains. "So we need to rescue Daiki before

then."

"That's...not a lot of time," Lavenza says.

Akira has watched Yu and his friends struggling to meet their deadline for weeks. He knows that five days is not going to give them much room to work with. But it's all they have, and after Yusuke is gone, they’ll half their fighting power. Unless Lavenza decides to join in,and Akira has a feeling she won't unless there's no other choice. So far, apart from that first time Akira had stumbled into the TV world with no weapons, no Persona and no clue, she's never fought.

“Five days,” she says, looking thoughtful and troubled.

-//-

August 15

Morning

-//-

Akira and Yusuke get lucky after getting out of the TV, because when they find Teddie a few minutes after that, he's up on the food court, either on break or hiding from work. The two of them have a hasty consultation, then Akira goes in first, leaving Yusuke as a kind of guard in case someone else wanders in to interrupt the conversation.

So Akira walks across the food court alone, slides into the seat across the table from Teddie, and says, "Hello."

Teddie's reaction is to jump half out of his seat with a yelp so loud that it almost makes Akira jump too. "Ah!" he shrieks. "Trickster!"

Akira stares at him for a second, fully confused, before he remembers that oh yea, he must have heard Lavenza call him that while they were running away from him that one time in the TV World. "Oh," he says. "Yea, that's me."

"What are you doing here?" Teddie asks. 

Akira stares at him in genuine confusion. He's not sure why Teddie seems like he's afraid of him--he hadn't even done anything last time except for have a brief conversation and then run away from him. "I came to ask for your help," he says.

"Why do you need my help?" Teddie demands.

"Because I hear that you can find people inside the TV World," Akira says.

"But there's no one in there right now," Teddie protests.

"Yes there is," Akira says. "Just from this morning, we think, but yes there is. His name's Daiki, and he's... a student at the local elementary school here. You can ask the police or anything, his parents have reported him missing."

Teddie looks actually surprised. Then suspicious. "And you want to rescue him?"

"Yes," Akira says, oversimplifying his complicated emotions enormously. Generally, yes, he would rather see Daiki rescued than to know that he'll be trapped in the TV forever. And if anyone's going to fish the bully out of the TV, Akira wants it to be him. And Yusuke and Lavenza. 

Teddie continues to look skeptical.

"Come on," Akira says, starting to feel just a tiny bit impatient from this reaction. "What else could I want him for, if I wasn't trying to rescue him?"

"Well I don't know!" Teddie says, with a kind of wild gesticulation. "But you're the Trickster!"

"Yea," Akira says. "And...?"

Teddie just continues to stare at him, and Akira starts to get the uncomfortable feeling that maybe he's missing something here. "Look, all we want is help finding him."

After a long second of suspicious staring, Teddie suddenly brightens. "Alright!" he says. "But I want something too."

"What?"

"I want to know what you're planning!" Teddie says smugly. "If you tell me what you're planning, I'll help you find him!"

Akira isn't planning anything, except in a vaguely general kind of way--he usually has some kind of plans for sneaking around behind Dojima and Yu, but it doesn't seem like that's what Teddie's talking about.

"You don't want to help just because it's the right thing to do?" he asks, and Teddie is visibly flustered.

"I mean--I do, but--" He points a finger at Akira accusingly. "Don't change the subject!"

"I was just asking a question!" Akira says. Then he sighs. "Fine, I agree, but you have to help us find him first." Because when they finish, and Akira says with complete honesty that he doesn't have any big plans, at least it's going to be too late for Teddie to back out on his end of the deal.

"Really?" Teddie asks.

"Yea," Akira says. "But--" A sudden flurry of movement from Yusuke on the other end of the food court catches his attention. Apparently someone's coming. "But I need to go now." He's up on his feet already, trying not to be too obvious about how he keeps standing on his toes to try and get a better look at Yusuke. "You're on your break, right?"

"Well," Teddie says. "Technically..."

"Okay," Akira says. "But you're pretending to be on break?"

"Well--yes."

"Okay great," Akira says. "Come on then."

"We're going now?" Teddie asks.

"Yes!"

"Okay, okay!" Teddie says, and scrambles after Akira as he hurries out. They almost collide with Yusuke at the door, and Akira says, quietly, "Who's coming?"

"What?" Yusuke asks.

"You were waving around like a crazy person," Akira says, as the three of them gather themselves from the near collision and pick up speed again.

"Oh," Yusuke says, looking at his arms like they've betrayed him. "Sorry, I was just wondering how it was going."

Akira shakes his head, fights off the sudden urge to laugh, and starts scanning the aisles ahead of them for any sign of Yu or his other friends, the same way he would if he was looking for Shadows in the TV World. Luckily he knows the area around the TVs pretty well by now, and it's easy to check for blind spots and make sure that no one else is around. 

For the second time that day, and joined by Teddie this time, Akira and Yusuke jump inside.

"You actually got him here," Lavenza says, while Akira's still steadying himself after the fall.

"Well," Akira says. "Yea." 

She grins, and he gets the feeling that even though she's teasing him, she hadn't actually doubted. 

"There's three of you," Teddie says. 

Akira does a double take when he looks up and realizes that Teddie is all of a sudden back in bear mode. 

"Huh," Yusuke says, also looking Teddie up and down.

Akira gives him an I told you look, then decides to try and get Teddie to be a little bit less on edge. He's still looking at Akira like he's expecting him to bite. It's actually maybe a little bit worse now that they're here.

"Thank you for coming to help us," he says, getting Teddie's attention.

The bear nods, and gives a very good impression of someone that definitely has things under control. "We have a deal," he reminds Akira. "So... who are all your friends, exactly?"

"What deal?" Yusuke whispers.

"It's fine," Akira whispers back. More loudly, he says to Teddie, "So you know me already, this is--" Not his real name, that's a terrible idea. He glances at Yusuke, sees his mask, and says, "...Fox."

"Are we doing code names?" Yusuke asks.

"Yes," Akira says firmly. 

"I don't get to know your real names?" Teddie asks.

"No." He looks at Lavenza who is not wearing a mask, but has a decorative headband that makes him say, "Butterfly."

"It's nice to meet you," Yusuke says politely, as if they were just meeting on the street instead of inside a hidden world behind a TV. It's a little bit surreal. 

Maybe Teddie's feeling the same way, because he looks between the three of them and says, "You all aren't really what I expected."

Akira makes a face. "I didn't think I made that bad of an impression," he mutters. 

Teddie frowns. "But everyone talks about you like--" he suddenly stops.

"Who's talking about me?" Akira asks, surprised.

"...no one."

For some reason, it hadn't really occurred to Akira to wonder how much Teddie had told about their first meeting. It sort of makes sense, though--why wouldn't Teddie have gone to his friends and told them about the person he'd met in the TV? 

He'll probably do the same thing after they find Daiki, so Aira reminds himself sternly to be really, really sure he doesn't give too much away. 

He's never come this close to being found out, and he isn't sure what would happen then, but he knows it's not going to help them find Daiki. "Okay," he says. "Never mind that for now. Can you help us find Daiki now?"

Teddie shuffles his feet and doesn't exactly look at any of them. "Actually," he says. "I can't."

The only reason that Akira doesn't immediately freak out is that he can't exactly live up to his half of the bargain either. He doesn't have any big plans to share with Teddie, and Teddie can't actually find Daiki for them. Great. They're back at square one, but with a pretty good chance that Teddie's going to run and tell Yu everything he'd seen. 

"Are you... are you sure?" he asks. 

"L--" He swallows back Lavenza's name just in time. "Butterfly said that you would be able to help us."

"Yea," Akira says quickly. "And she's usually right about stuff like that." She knows more about the TV World than anyone else, as far as he's concerned, and if she says that Teddie can tell them where to find Daiki, then there has to be a way for him to do it. "Please? There has to be a way for you to help! You can't tell where he is at all?"

"I can tell that there's someone here," Teddie says, which isn't that helpful because they already know that Daiki's here. "But if you tell me more about him, that could help me track him down. That usually works."

"Okay," Akira says. "Sure, I know plenty about him." It's not like they're friends or anything, obviously, but Akira knows enough about him (hopefully enough) that Teddie will be able to figure it out? "What kind of stuff do you need to know?"

"What kind of stuff can you tell me?" Teddie asks.

"Well," Akira says. "He's a student at the elementary school here. He's-" The sudden tightening of his hands into fists is something he's not really aware of until suddenly his hands hurt, and he has to force himself to stop, and to loosen them. "He's a bully," he says, tone so carefully level that Lavenza looks at him, expression worried. Yusuke looks at him sideways, and even Teddie's expression seems a tiny bit taken aback. It's kind of hard to read his expression as a bear, but his big eyes get a little bit wider. 

The atmosphere is getting a little bit tense. 

"And he might be wearing my shoes," Akira mutters, looking away.

"Why is he wearing your shoes?" Teddie asks. 

"Because he stole them," Akira says. "It's a long story, never mind. I just know he was wearing them when he was on the news the other day, so he might have also been wearing them when he was pushed into the TV."

"Hmm," Teddie says. "Well, that might help! Give me a minute to see what I can do!"

He leans forward, and seems to be studying Akira intently for several seconds. Then he gives him a lengthy sniff.

"Uh," Akira says.

"He's wearing your shoes, right?" Teddie asks. "That's how I'll find him!" He gives a little spin and a hop, and screws his eyes up in concentration. He almost seems to be smelling the air in front of him. 

"Are we sure he can help?" Yusuke mutters, sidling up to Akira and Lavenza.

"He'll do it," Lavenza says. "Just be patient." 

"I got it!" Teddie says suddenly. "He's this way!" And without even waiting for the rest of them to get ready, he starts off immediately in what seems to Akira like a totally random direction. The rest of them scramble to follow him--even Lavenza seems caught off guard, and she's hardly ever surprised by anything--and for at least a few seconds there's no time to worry about anything else.

Luckily, Teddie turns out to be pretty slow, so it only takes a few seconds to catch up to him. 

"How do you know where he is?" Akira asks, after a while of walking. A little bit of the urgency seems to have leeched out of the mission now that they're at least moving in the right direction. "Do you smell him?"

"Of course he doesn't smell him," Yusuke interrupts. "He doesn't have a nose."

"He has a nose!" Akira says. "It's just--small."

"You could both stop arguing about it and let him actually answer your question," Lavenza says, amused.

Both boys immediately swivel to look at Teddie, who seems nonplussed at the argument. 

"So did you smell him out?" Akira asks, after a beat.

Teddie puffs himself up self importantly. "My nose is beary good," he says smugly. It doesn't exactly answer the question, but Akira figures it's probably as close to an answer as they're going to get.

Another few minutes after that, Yusuke says suddenly, "Oh, beary. Because you're a bear."

Akira snorts in laughter, but only for a second because right after that, up ahead of them, they see a new shape coming up out of the fog in front of them. "Is that where Daiki is?" he asks.

"Yep," Teddie says. "That's it."

Now that they're close, the little group goes quiet again. Akira catches himself squinting in the direction of the building, trying to figure out what it's supposed to be. It doesn't look like the castle or the bathhouse that he's been to before. This is something new, and suddenly he's wondering how they're going to get through it.

"Listen," Teddie says abruptly. "Are the three of you really going to go in there all by yourselves?"

"Yea," Akira says.

"There's a lot of Shadows in there," Teddie says. "Are you sure you'll be okay with only three fighters?"

"Two fighters," Akira corrects. "Butterfly won't fight unless we're really overwhelmed and about to lose," he says. Like when he'd fought his Shadow.

"You'll never learn for yourself if you don't fight on your own now," Lavenza says.

"Yea," Akira says. "Sure. I just think you like bossing us around while we do all the fighting."

"I don't boss," Lavenza says, with a tiny sniff. "I offer advice."

Normally he would have had more fun with teasing Lavenza, but right now he's too nervous. Lavenza seems to understand, because she gives him a steely look and a nod that actually makes him feel a tiny bit better. After taking a deep breath, Akira turns to face the building as they approach it at last. 

It's big, Akira thinks. It's his first comprehensive thought on looking at it up close, and it lingers even as he forces himself to think of something else. 

"I can sense a whole lot of Shadows in there," Teddie says.

"Okay," Akira says, and keeps moving. 

"No!" Teddie says. "I mean, I can sense a lot of powerful Shadows! You can't just go in! There's only three of you!"

"Two," Akira says, again. 

"That's even worse!" Teddie objects.

"Well we won't win by staying out here," Akira points out. He looks at Lavenza and Yusuke. "You're still coming, right?"

"It's a much less foolish idea to come with you than to let you go in alone," Lavenza says, with a hint of a smile."

"Of course," Yusuke says. "But why does it look like a Coliseum?"

Because Daiki solves all his problems with violence, Akira thinks. Because he wants to be the best, and he'll fight down anyone that gets in his way. Because he puts on a show, hurting other people in front of everyone else. Because he is mean. "No idea," he says out loud. "Come o--"

"No!" Teddie says, and even though he's still a bear, and about as round and weirdly fluffy as it's possible to be, be somehow managed to stick his chin out in a pointed, determined way.

"No?" Akira says.

"I can't let you go alone with only two of you to fight all these Shadows! And I don't even know what you're going to do when you find him! What if this is all part of your secret plan?"

"You have a secret plan?" Yusuke asks.

Akira sighs, but Teddie's gotten them here. He can't exactly put off his end of the deal. "I don't have any big plans," he says, looking right at Teddie. "I guess something made you think I do? But I really don't. Right now I just want to find Daiki and get him out of here."

Teddie looks absolutely flabbergasted by this. "But... you-you're the Trickster," he says.

"Yea," Akira says. "I know."

Teddie does not look like this has helped him at all. Unexpectedly, Akira feels a pang of hurt. Is this what all of Yu's friends think of him? Teddie had seen him that one time in the TV World, and now they think he's some kind of bad guy? Like he's a Shadow or something they have to fight? Maybe that's why Lavenza is so sure he has to keep himself a secret from Yu. Maybe it's to protect him, and not just to keep secrets.

"Believe whatever you want," he says, slightly grumpy and letting it leak into his tone. "Go back and tell your friends you met the evil Trickster or something. Just don't do it until Saturday."

"Why should I make any more deals with you?" Teddie asks. "You already lied to me once!" 

"I didn't lie," Akira says. "I told you my big plan, which is that I don't have a big plan. And don't tell anyone until Saturday because that's all the time we have to save Daiki. After that... we won't be able to. And you probably should tell everyone else, so they can come in and take over." The idea kind of leaves a sour taste in his mouth, though. Daiki definitely doesn't deserve to be ripped apart by Shadows, so if Akira and Yusuke and Lavenza can't help him, someone else should. 

But this is personal, and complicated, and he wants to see it all the way through eve if it does make him feel kind of weird.

They start walking, Akira in front, Lavenza and Fox following. They only make it a few feet before Teddie is shouting at them again, this time to wait.

"I won't tell anyone," he says. "But! You have to let me come with you to help."

"Done," Akira says, after just a second to process his surprise. After all, if Teddie is with them, he can't be back at Junes telling Yu everything. Not until the end of the week, anyway. 

"I can keep an eye on you," Teddie says, like he's trying to justify it. "In case you do try anything funny."

"Okay," Akira says. "Sure."

"And... maybe you all have a better chance of not dying if there's three Persona users," Teddie adds, a little quieter and for the first time looking almost a little embarrased. "Don't want you to all die, right? No matter what you might be planning!"

And there it is. He just can't not think the worst of Akira, apparently. "Come on then," he says. "But you have to be quiet, okay?"

"Quiet?" Teddie says, much too loudly. "Why!"

"Because," Akira says. "We're going to fight as few Shadows as we possibly can."

Teddie looks doubtful. Then, apparently distracted, brightens again. "Oh!" he says, at normal volume. 

All three of them shush him at once, and he lowers his voice very slightly. "What about glasses?" he asks. 

"Glasses?" Akira repeats.

"Yea!"

"Shh!"

"I made them for everyone else," Teddie says, and holds up something in one hand. Yusuke, who is closest, takes them and looks at them with interest. "They're joke glasses," he says, passing them to Akira. 

He looks at them. 

A fake nose and mustache attached to a pair of glasses with swirls for lenses looks back at him. 

"Uh," he says. "Why?"

"So they can see in the fog," Teddie says. "Well, that's the pair nobody wanted, actually. The other ones don't have the nose. Don't you guys need something like that?" 

"No," Akira says. "That's what the masks are for." He gestures between himself and Yusuke. 

"Huh," Teddie says. Then he looks at Lavenza. "What about you, Butterfly?" he says. "Do you need glasses?"

She only smiles at him and says, "No."

"Oh," Teddie says. "Well..." He's visibly confused by this, but tries to hide it. "Well, I guess we can go, then!" he says, and bounces off.

Yusuke and Lavenza dart after him, whispering for him to be just a little quieter, and to maybe not run straight toward the Shadows, but Akira hangs back a second, looking at the glasses he's still holding. 

Then he sticks them in his backpack, just in case.

-//-

August 15

Evening

-//-

Yu comes home late after a long shift at Junes (he's already regretting that he'd let Yosuke talk him into helping for the week--not that he'd ever tell his friend that) and finds Akira, Yusuke, and Nanako with their heads together over the kitchen table, papers spread out across it, whispering intently. Akira seems to be doing most of the talking, gesturing with his hands while Nanako painstakingly makes notes on one of the papers. 

"Summer homework?" Yu guesses, and all three of them startle. For a second, they look insanely guilty. 

Nanako recovers first. "Big bro!" she says, hopping off her chair and running toward him. "Welcome home! Akira said you're working at Junes this week!"

Her excitement is so genuine that it startles a laugh out of Yu. Not at her, just... he'd spent all day running around stocking shelves, and it's kind of refreshing to see her genuine enthusiasm. "Yea," he agrees. "Yosuke roped me into helping."

"Can you bring something home?" Nanako asks. 

"I could bring dinner home tomorrow," Yu offers, because honestly he's working an evening shift, and doesn't expect Dojima to be home tomorrow until after he is. He glances over her shoulder at Akira and Yusuke, who have already picked up all the paper from the table and pushed it somewhere out of sight. "Any requests?"

"Uh..." Akira shrugs, and (Yu thinks) looks tired. "Whatever you guys want. I'm not picky."

"Okay," Yu says with a shrug. "I'll pick something that looks good." He heads for the stairs, and says to the two of them, "I just want to go get changed into something more comfortable, okay? I'll be back down in a minute."

They chorus an okay, and before Yu is even at the top of the stairs, they have their heads together again, and have gone back to their whispering. 

His phone goes off when he's halfway through getting changed, and he picks up after seeing Yosuke on the caller ID. 

"So guess who finally waltzed in ten minutes before the end of his shift," Yosuke says. 

"Teddie?" Yu guesses. After ducking in and out of his assigned tasks for most of the early morning, Teddie had actually vanished a few hours into the day.

"Yes!" Yosuke says. "And when I asked where he'd been, he just said he was tired. Tired, Yu!"

The outrage in Yosuke's voice gets Yu laughing, and after a few seconds of pause, Yosuke lets out a sigh like he's deflating, or letting out all his pent up frustration. 

"Yea," he says. "Yea, I know. But he just drives me crazy sometimes. I mean, we're short staffed this week--you know I wouldn't have asked you to help if we weren't really low on people, right?"

"Yea, I know," Yu agrees. "But I mean... I don't know. Did you try talking to Teddie about it?"

"Ever since we got home," Yosuke says.

"It... doesn't sound like it went well," Yu says, hazarding a guess.

"He asked for the week off."

"Oh wow," Yu says.

"I don't understand why," Yosuke says. "I mean, it's not like he has anywhere else to go, right? He has work at Junes, and then he comes home with me. He doesn't go anywhere else."

"Maybe he has a girlfriend," Yu jokes.

"I hope not," Yosuke says. "I wouldn't trust him within ten feet of a girl without one of us around to reign him in."

Harsh, but probably fair. Teddie has apparently no concept whatsoever of how to not come off as vaguely creepy toward girls. Yu's inclined to chalk it up to the fact that Teddie's lived his entire life inside the TV World with only Shadows for company (at least until the rest of the Investigation Team came along). He's generally a pretty decent guy that genuinely tries to do the right thing, so Yu has some hope that he'll get past the creepy phase.

It just hasn't happened yet.

"So I'm guessing you said no?" he asks.

There's a brief pause, and then Yosuke admits, "I said yes." 

Yu hides a grin, even though he knows Yosuke can't see him.. 

"He just looked like he really wanted it. And it's not like he does that much work even when he's there."

"True," Yu says. "And you'll probably have more time to do your job if you're not running around trying to find him."

"Yea," Yosuke agrees. "You know what, you're probably right."

"Anyway," Yu says. "I need to get back downstairs, I think Akira and Nanako are plotting something with Yusuke."

"Nanako?" Yosuke says. "Plotting?"

"Well they're definitely whispering about something downstairs," Yu says. And he can't help remembering the way Akira had pushed the papers aside and out of sight when he walked in.

"Nah," Yosuke says. "I can't picture either of them doing any actual plotting."

And that is because he doesn't know that Akira at least is lying about pretty much everything. "I should go check on them anyway," he says. "I'll see you tomorrow at Junes."

"Sure," Yosuke says. "See you." And he hangs up.

When Yu gets back downstairs, something makes him pause when he gets to the bottom of the stairs. He doesn't really think that they're planning something, so maybe he's just being nosy and a little bit curious when he pauses to listen to what they're talking about.

"...so he's at the very top, apparently," Akira is saying. "We just have to get there before Friday."

"But isn't it really big?" Nanako asks. "You said it was really big."

"It is," Yusuke says solemnly. "Really, really big."

"How are you going to get there in time?"

"We're going to try and skip past as much of it as we can," Akira says. "We can be pretty sneaky, and if they don't see us, they can't do anything to us."

"But what if you can't be sneaky enough?" Nanako asks. 

Yusuke looks more worried than Akira does. "We do have to worry about--" he makes a vague gesture as if outlining something round, which both Akira and Nanako seem to understand.

"He wasn't... that bad today," Akira says. "Once we convinced him to keep quiet. And if he gets really loud, we can always just have him stay back a little bit with Lavenza?"

He looks up then, and finally notices Yu standing at the bottom of the stairs. Yu quickly pretends that he's just now coming down. He has absolutely no idea what they'd just been talking about, but judging by the fact that all three of them had just gone quiet, he doesn't think he's going to get an answer by asking. He really hopes this isn't about Akira and Yusuke getting bullied again. "So," he says, trying to act like everything's normal. "I'm bringing something home from Junes tomorrow, but what are we going to do tonight?"

What follows is about an hour of all four of them crowded into the kitchen, trying and pretty much failing to figure out how cooking works.

And all the while, Yu is wondering whether they might actually be plotting something after all.

-//-

August 19

Afternoon

-//-

To Akira's relief, Teddie does not turn out to be as horribly bad at creeping around as he'd expected. He has to be reminded to be quiet a lot, but after a while he gets so used to being reminded that he's being too loud that all it takes is a pointed glare from one of the others to make him stop talking. Akira had been worried that just the fact that he's bigger and rounder than the rest of them would draw their attention, but they've gotten around that pretty well by making sure that someone else takes point (usually Akira, although Yusuke has caught on to the sneaking around pretty quickly). 

The eight floors of the Coliseum pass by at a blistering pace. Usually, Akira and Yusuke will go on ahead while Lavenza stays back with Teddie, and they'll find what seems like the safest way possible to go forward. If they can, they'll either avoid the Shadows or sometimes run full sprint past them, or if all else fails, they'll fight.

And it's different fighting in a group like this than it had been fighting all on his own. For one thing, both Yusuke and Teddie have Persona with ice attacks. Yusuke also has some physical attacks, and Teddie has some healing, which means that Akira can worry less about keeping Persona with those three things always with him--there are only so many Shadows he can convince to join him as Persona at any one time, so not needing to worry about having every element equipped, always, clears some space inside him for other things. 

On top of that, it's easier to strategize when he has other people to set up attacks with. He and Yusuke have figured out a way to follow up attacks when one of them hits a Shadow's weakness, which is really helpful, and on top of that, Teddie's shown them how Yu and his friends do an all out attack when all the Shadows they're fighting are down. There are just a lot more options now, and Akira's really grateful for it.

What he doesn't like quite as much is that he's somehow ended up in charge of the battle strategy. 

It's just that, with Lavenza not fighting, and with both of the other two using mostly ice attacks, Akira is the only one that really has any variation in how he can attack. And so it sort of makes the most sense for him to be the one to call out attacks and coordinate so they get hit as little as possible. Teddie doesn't like listening to him at first (which is fair, because Akira feels really weird about telling him what to do), but the first time they all almost go down, he changes his mind.

He insists he's only doing it because he doesn't want to die fighting Shadows here, and since Akira also doesn't want to die, he is okay with that.

So they fight and creep their way up through the Coliseum, and finally on Friday afternoon they reach the top floor.

By unspoken consent, they stop for a breath. Ahead of them, the tight stone corridors they've been running through open up into a wider space. 

By this point, after facing a couple of stronger Shadows in spaces that look just like this on the lower floors, Akira is not just going to go stepping into this one without giving everyone a chance to rest up. 

He plops himself onto the floor and stretches his legs out, keeping an eye out for Shadows as he does so. "Anyone need anything?" he asks, pulling his backpack toward him. "Snacks? This... snuff soul stuff?" He pulls out one of them, which he'd gotten after picking the lock on an earlier treasure chest. "Not sure what it's supposed to be, but..." He shrugs and offers it to Teddie.

The bear hesitates.

"You have all the healing moves," Akira says, holding it out to him a little more insistently. "And I wouldn't know how to poison one of these even if I wanted to, if that's what you're worried about."

Maybe it is, because that's what makes him take the snuff soul.

"I will take snacks," Yusuke says, holding a hand up. 

Akira shuffles through the bag, finds some snacks, and tosses them in Yusuke's direction. "Are you doing okay?" he asks. "We've been doing a lot of running today." And Yusuke, who's told Akira that he spends most of his time in Tokyo inside, either at school or at home with his sensei, is not exactly a long distance runner.

"I'm fine," Yusuke insists. "That last fight was just a little..." He makes a face.

Akira winces. "Yea," he says. "Sorry about that. I forgot they did mostly fire attacks." He rummages through his bag again and pulls out some snacks for himself too. "I wish we had, uh--" a quick glance at Teddie shows that he's still paying attention. "Our other friend." Nanako has never even been into the TV World, and she still has all the Shadow's moves memorized. 

"You have more people that know about Shadows?" Teddie asks. 

"Just one," Akira says. 

"And we're not talking about her," Lavenza says firmly. "She's not involved in the fighting for a reason."

"What's the reason?" Teddie asks.

None of them answers him, and the silence stretches out. Akira is reminded for the ten billionth time since they started fighting their way up in the Coliseum that Teddie isn't really on their side. He's on Yu's side, and for whatever reason, Yu and his friends have decided that the Trickster is someone that they don't trust.

"Look," he says. "Butterfly's right--we can't tell you about our other friend. But she's definitely not a threat to you guys, okay? You don't have to worry about her."

"Well does she have a code name, at least?" Teddie asks.

Akira's pretty sure he's fishing for more information to take back to his group. "No," he says. "She'd probably like one, though." Maybe he could ask her about it, when they're done rescuing Daiki. She probably would think it was fun to have a codename of her own.

"Small Child," Yusuke says solemnly.

Everyone turns to look at him, and again there's silence for a second--but this time it's surprised.

Then Akira laughs. Even Teddie smiles. "Fox," he says. "That's a terrible codename."

"It's accurate though," Yusuke says, apparently unbothered by the laughter. 

"So she's younger than you guys?" Teddie asks, and with a wrenching feeling, Akira realizes that they might have already said too much. He's okay with Nanako helping them to keep their homemade records of all the Shadows they've run into, because she likes helping and because it doesn't get her anywhere near a TV, but he doesn't really want Teddie figuring out who she is. She's six. She doesn't need to get dragged into all of this.

(He and Yusuke on the other hand are going to be in middle school next year, they're practically teenagers and definitely old enough to be involved)

"We can talk to her about what codename she actually wants when we're done with this," he says lightly, getting back to his feet. "Everyone ready to get going?"

Everyone choruses that they're ready, and Teddie--after a second of looking like he wants to push the issue--says, "I think we're going to meet Daiki in a minute. I think we're really close."

"I hope so," Akira says. "We're almost out of time."

He leads the way as they start walking, their footsteps almost silent on the sandy floor. He doesn't have any kind of Shadow sensing or people tracking abilities like Teddie does, but even he can feel that things are a little bit different here. There's a heaviness in the air that e hadn't felt on the lower floors, and with every step he feels himself getting a little bit more nervous. His hand strays again and again to his daggers, and he sees Yusuke fidgeting with his sword out of the corner of his eye. 

It's almost over, Akira reminds himself as he takes a deep breath. Whatever happens next, it's almost over.

It's just that they're about to come face to face with Daiki, and what if he sees Akira, and what if he's just like he is at school? Akira isn't scared that Daiki's going to hit him, because this isn't the real world, and Akira has Arsense and a whole bunch of other Persona to back him up. He doesn't think that Daiki could actually touch him here, doesn't believe that he could actually hurt him, not really. 

But what if he... what if he looks at him, and what if it's just like it was before? There's no one else in Inaba--no one else anywhere, really--that can make Akira feel as powerless and worthless as Daiki can. And the TV World is where he comes to feel like he's not worthless, and not powerless, like he can do more than people think he can, and maybe he'll be okay in the real world too, if he can be okay here.

"Fox," Lavenza says, when they're about halfway down the long hall between the stairs and the open space at the opposite end of the level. "Why don't you lead the way for a minute? I need to talk to my trickster."

Yusuke looks surprised for a second, then shrugs and keeps going, giving Teddie a tug to bring him along too when the bear looks for a second like he's not going to follow.

Akira stops and looks at Lavenza, and after the other two have walked on out of earshot, he says, "What's wrong?"

"This is the boy that hurts you," Lavenza says. "He's the reason that you asked me not to come to your school, and why you didn't want to be seen with me."

"Yea," Akira admits, after hesitating for a second. "He is."

"Is that why you look so nervous now?" Lavenza asks. "You're afraid to face him here?"

"I'm not afraid," Akira insists.

"You look it," she tells him, and Akira feels himself flush under the mask.

"Alright," he admits. "I'm afraid that I'm going to see him, and he's going to say--or do... something. And I'm just going to be... I..." He screws his face up, frustrated and worried and completely unable to find the words to explain.

Lavenza rests her hand on his arm for a second. "Trickster," she says, voice low but traveling the space between them with perfect clarity. "Akira. Whatever this boy thinks of you, it does not make you any lesser than you are. You've done a very difficult, very dangerous thing to rescue someone that has made your life miserable."

"But--"

She shakes her head and he stops.

"Whatever he thinks of you," she says. "It does not matter. You are the same person no matter what his opinion is, and the truth is that you are stronger than he is." Her eyes search his face, unusually open, as if trying to make him understand. "Whether you're in this world or that one, you are stronger and better than someone that does the things that he has done to you."

Akira takes a shaky breath, then nods. Hearing her say things like that out loud is--a little embarrassing, actually, but it also makes him feel way less conflicted about everything they're doing to rescue Daiki. They're going to find him, and they're going to bring him home, no matter what Daiki thinks of him. "Thanks," he says. "I... thank you."

There's a sudden shout from the far end of the hall, and they both look up to see Yusuke in the distance, half running back to them and calling. "We found him!" Yusuke shouts. "But something's happening!"

Akira looks at Lavenza, and without either of them needing to say a word, they turn and both bolt toward the end of the hallway. 

"He rejected his Shadow!" Teddie shouts.

"Oh," Akira says, because by this point he knows what that means. With both him and Yusuke, their Shadows had only turned violent when they tried to push them away. And when they did turn violent, they were bigger and stronger than any other Shadows Akira has had to fight.

He puts on another little burst of speed, and gets to the end of the hall several steps ahead of Lavenza, and just in time to see an enormous Shadow, like some kind of bare chested, bull headed monster with thick chains on his wrists and ankles. 

"Okay," Akira says, as he slots himself into place between Yusuke and Teddie. "So... that's big and also gross."

He's curious what kind of things Daiki's Shadow had said to him to get him to reject him, and his eyes roam over the battlefield for a second, until they land on Daiki himself, crumpled up in a heap on the far side of the open space.

"His Shadow hit him while it was growing," Teddie says, And Akira winces. 

"Butterfly?" He looks over his shoulder, making eye contact with her as she comes into earshot. "Since you're not going to fight, can you go check on Daiki and make sure he's not...?"

Of course he's not dead. That's just--no way. They've come all this way, trying to save him, and there's no way they could have just failed now, at the last possible minute.

"I'll make sure he's alright," Lavenza promises, and skirts around the fight to the far side, where Daiki is lying.

Akira doesn't have any time to dwell on that, not with the Shadow itself to worry about, so he forces his attention back to the looming shape of the Shadow as it roars and reels back for a hit.

There's no time to duck, so instead Akira just braces himself as the Shadow's heavy fist comes down on top of him, and sends him flying back almost far enough to hit a wall.

For a second he just lies there, and then he shakes his head, and clambers back up to his feet. "Right," he mutters. "Daiki, you might be bigger and stronger than me in the real world, but I am going to hit your Shadow back."

And he charges back into the fight, calling out attacks as he runs. 

There's no way he ever could have finished this fight on his own. If he hadn't met Yusuke, or if Teddie hadn't decided to keep coming back to help, this fight would have ended very quickly, and very badly. But with extra attack power, and all the practice they've had at fighting their way up here, it does not go as badly as it would have if Akira was on his own.

Still pretty bad, of course. Yusuke goes down three times and Teddie once, and the only reason Akira doesn't is that he eventually thinks to switch to a Persona that absorbs physical attacks. They stagger through the fight, and when they come out the other side of it, they're all in pretty rough shape.

"How's he--how's he doing?" Akira calls, wincing at the effort of shouting all the way across the arena. 

"He's pretty groggy," Lavenza calls back. "But I think he's going to be okay." 

Akira limps across the arena, past the defeated Shadow. It's back to looking like a yellow eyed twin of Daiki now, and Akira turns his head to watch it as he passes. They make eye contact for a second, and then the Shadow just--vanishes.

"I guess that means he's not going to get a Persona," Teddie says from just behind Akira's shoulder.

Akira jumps a little bit. He hadn't realized that Teddie was following him. "Yea," he says. "I guess not?" Because if rejecting the Shadows is what brings out their scary monster forms, accepting that they show a part of them that's true even if it isn't great is how they turn into Persona. "I guess he's not really conscious enough to accept his Persona, even if he wanted to," he says.

"I guess not," Teddie says. "So are we going to bring him right back?"

Akira thinks about it. Obviously they need to get Daiki back to the real world, and probably to a doctor as soon as possible so that he can get looked at by a doctor. But he just wants to do something first.

"Give me a second," he says. "I want to say something to him."

"Say something?" Teddie says. "What do you want to say to him?"

It's  a crazy kind of half baked idea that Akira's just come up with, and he doesn't know if it's going to help, or if it just might make things worse. But he might as well try.

Lavenza is still sitting next to Daiki, whose eyes are open but pretty unfocused as Akira crouches down next to him in pretty much the same pose he uses when he negotiates with Shadows. "So," he says. "I don't know what your Shadow said to you to make you reject it, but I figure it must have been something you didn't like very much."

Daiki just sort of stares at him, apparently too out of it to recognize him. Akira's not even sure if he's hearing him.

"So if you can't accept that," Akira goes on. "If you... didn't have a chance to accept that, then you have to change, and try to be better."

He doesn't know if he can convince Daiki to change just like that. He doesn't know if he's going to be as stubborn and aggressive here as he is in the real world. But hey, it's worth a try, right?

He glances sideways at Lavenza, who is watching Daiki intently, and says nothing.

"So..." Akira says. "That's pretty much it." He looks right at Daiki. We saved you, and you're kind of--" His mouth turns down in an entirely involuntary frown. "You're not a nice person."

There. He's said it now, and whatever Daiki does after this... honestly, Akira is too tired to even think about it. 

He looks around at all four of them (none of whom look like they could carry Daiki to the end of the hallway, much less all the way back to Junes) and says, "So...does anyone have any idea how to get him out of here?"

-//-

August 19

Evening

-//-

A little before 5:00, an announcement over the Junes PA system requests that all employees and customers please stay away from the electronics department until further notice.

Yu, who is tidying his area before the end of his shift, looks up and meets Yosuke's eyes from halfway across the grocery department. He knows that they must both be having the same exact thought, which is something along the lines of electronics->TVs->oh no. Yosuke hurries away, and does not return for several minutes.

When he comes back, he looks very definitely confused, and pulls Yu into an empty section of the employees only area. "They found a kid unconscious by the TVs," he says, quietly even though there's no one else around to hear.

"A kid?" Yu repeats, and instantly his thoughts jump to Akira and Nanako. "Who was it?"

"You remember that kid that was giving Akira and his friend a hard time at the beginning of summer break?" Yosuke asks.

"Yea," Yu says. "It was him?"

Yosuke nods. "Apparently he's been missing a few days--I heard my dad talking to the police when they showed up."

"Missing for a few...? You don't think he was in the TV World, do you?"

Yosuke shrugs helplessly. "We wouldn't know if he was," he points out. "It hasn't been raining at night, so we couldn't check the Midnight Channel. And--how would he have gotten out without us?"

"That's a good point," Yu admits. "We should still see if we can talk to him when he wakes up and see if he remembers anything."

"Yea," Yosuke says. "They were calling an ambulance when I left, but... I guess when he gets out, pecan try and talk to him."

Yu nods, and--with nothing else to do for now--they both get back to work. Yu is only a few minutes away from the end of his shift, and is about to clock out, when he hears familiar voices and turns to see a bedraggled looking Akira and Yusuke bickering over some premade cakes.

He glances at the clock, decides that there's nothing more productive he could be doing with his last few minutes, and waves at them before heading over. "You two look tired," he says.

"We've been running around all day," Akira says, making a face. "Yusuke's going back to Tokyo tomorrow so we wanted to... do everything we needed to before he goes."

"Now we're having a celebration party," Yusuke says.

"A goodbye party," Akira says.

"Only," Yusuke says. "Akira has poor taste in cakes."

"I do not!"

The bickering starts up again.

"You're getting an entire cake for just the two of you?" Yu asks.

"And Nanako," Akira says. "And Lavenza, if she comes by, but she said she had to go do something first." He grins suddenly, and adds, "And you can have some too! You can be the tiebreaker." He points to two of the cakes. "Which one's better?"

Yu just stares for a second, trying to shift gears from worrying about the TV World and Akira's unconscious classmate to this much more normal conversation. "Uh," he says, pointing to one. "That one looks pretty good."

Yusuke groans. "You knew he'd agree with you!" he protests.

"I live with him," Akira says. "I know what cake he's going to like."

Yu thinks that he should probably point out that it's Yusuke's goodbye party, and he should probably be the one to choose the cake, but bites his tongue. Akira's doing a pretty good job of having a friend, now that he's made one. He doesn't need Yu butting in on them. "I'm about to clock out," he says instead. "If you want to wait around a few minutes, I'll see if I can weasel an employee discount out of Yosuke."

The boys chorus their thank yous, and when Yu comes back a couple minutes later, apron off and ready to head home, they're still standing there waiting for him. They buy the cake (Yosuke does give them the employee discount, and tells Yusuke to have a safe trip back to Tokyo), and then all three of them head home together.

There's almost no secretive whispering when they get there, although Yu had been expecting plenty of it based on the last week or so. Instead, Akira pulls Nanako aside when they first get home, whispers something that makes her squeal and hug both him and Yusuke, and then they just get on with Yusuke's goodbye party.

They've almost finished the entire cake, along with a mix of other snacks that Akira pulls out of his backpack (all of them would have been good healing items in the TV World, and Yu can't help feeling a tiny bit wasteful eating them here), when the doorbell rings.

"Who's that?" Nanako asks, looking up at the door.

"Delivery, maybe?" Yu says, and gets up to go investigate.

It's not a delivery, it turns out. It's Teddie, looking thoughtful and unusually serious.

"What are you doing here, Teddie?" Yu asks.

From somewhere behind him, he hears a second of whispering, and then there's the sudden sound of stampeding footsteps. He half turns to see what's going on, but Teddie says, "I really need to talk to you about something," and Yu gives him his full attention instead. Teddie's definitely been acting strange this week, after all.

"Sure," he says. "Do you want to come in?"

"Thanks," Teddie says, and Yu steps aside to let him in.

Akira and Yusuke are gone, and when Yu looks at Nanako, she just shrugs.

"Akira wanted to... show us something upstairs," she says. "Hi, Teddie!"

"Hi, Nana-chan," he says, but he still has that same distracted tone in his voice.

"Are you okay?" Nanako asks. "You sound sad."

Teddie hesitates, and Yu takes pity on him.

"Teddie came by because he wanted to talk to me about something," he tells Nanako. "Do you mind going upstairs with Akira and Yusuke for a few minutes?" He'd have taken Teddie upstairs to his room, but if the kids are up there, this is probably more private.

"Okay," Nanako says. She lingers for a second, looking like she wants to say something else, but in the end she just says, "I hope you feel better, Teddie. Everything's okay now, right?"

Yu doesn't know what she means by saying that everything's okay now, when as far as he knows nothing had been wrong before, but that's probably not what he needs to be focusing on right now. Nanako goes upstairs, and when Yu hears the door close, he sits down with Teddie, and waits for him to explain what's going on.

It doesn't take long. After only a few seconds, Teddie blurts out, "I met the Trickster again on Monday."

"What?" Yu demands, stiffening immediately. "You met him? In the TV World?"

"No!" Teddie says. "At Junes!"

"In the real world?" Yu says. "At Junes?"

And he'd been right there, and hadn't even seen him. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"

"Well," Teddie says slowly. "That's... kind of a long story."

Yu can only imagine. It's Friday now, and this had happened on Monday, five days ago.

"He found me at Junes," Teddie says. "And asked me to help him find someone in the TV World."

It's not hard to make that connection. Yu's mind jumps immediately to the unconscious boy that had been found outside the TV, and he bites back a sudden feeling of panic. So there had been someone inside the TV World that none of them had known about, and because they hadn't known about him, the Trickster had gotten a week to do whatever he wanted.

"Why didn't you tell any of us?" Yu asks, for a second time. "We should have gone right in after him, we should have..." He runs a hand over his face. "I don't know, but we should have done something. And you could have been hurt, Teddie."

Teddie shakes his head. He still looks confused. "I... the Trickster asked me not to say anything until today," he says.

"And you just agreed?" Yu asks.

"They were trying to rescue someone," Teddie says. "His name was Daiki, and--"

"Yea," Yu says. "They found him outside the TVs at Junes today, I heard about that part. Who's 'they'? The trickster and the friend you saw before?"

"And another friend," Teddie says. "They all had codenames--I guess Trickster is his, and the other two are Butterfly and Fox." He frowns. "And they had another friend, but apparently she doesn't come into the TV, and I never found out anything about her except that she's younger than the rest of them."

"So there's four of them now," Yu says. "Great." He looks at Teddie. "So he really just asked you not to tell anyone and you didn't? For a whole week?"

"He really seemed like he wanted to help!" Teddie says. "They all did, so I... said that I would come with and help them. Plus, that way I could keep an eye on him. And they really did rescue Daiki!"

"He's at the hospital now," Yu says. "That's not exactly helping." None of the people they've rescued have needed to be hospitalized, not like Daiki was.

"Well, yea," Teddie says. "He rejected his Shadow and it transformed into this really nasty bull thing. It hit him pretty hard, and that's the only reason he got hurt."

"So it wasn't the Trickster?"

Teddie shakes his head no, and Yu just stares at him. "I... really don't understand," he says. "I don't know how that helps whatever his plan is."

"He says he doesn't have any plans," Teddie says.

"I don't believe that," Yu says. "He's doing something with the Shadows, remember? I saw him talking to one after we rescued Yukiko."

Teddie shrugs. "I didn't see him do anything like that while I was with them," he says.

Yu frowns, and thinks about this.

"He kind of reminded me of you," Teddie says, after the silence has started to stretch.

"Why?" Yu asks. He has to admit that even with Teddie telling him that he'd spent a week with the Trickster, trying to rescue someone, and had obviously walked away perfectly okay, he still doesn't like being compared to him.

"I don't really know," Teddie says. He looks thoughtful. "Maybe because he has a lot of Persona, like you do."

"He does?"

Teddie nods. "Not as many as you," Teddie says. "And not as powerful, either. Actually, I don't think that the Trickster and his friends are as strong as we are. They try to avoid fighting as much as possible, and there's not as many of them."

"You think we could take them, if it came to it?" Yu asks.

"Probably?" Teddie says. "I'm just not sure that it would be... right to fight them. I didn't see them doing anything wrong."

Yu sighs. It would be a good thing, obviously, if the Trickster turns out to be less dangerous than they've all been thinking this whole time. But it just seems... too simple, somehow. "Thanks for letting me know," he says. "I wish you'd come and said something on Monday instead of waiting five days..." He pauses. Teddie looks repentant.

"I know," he says. "I'm sorry. But they were trying to rescue someone, and I wanted to help with that."

And it's hard to fault him for that, since he's only been trying to help. After all, whatever else the Trickster and his friends might have been trying to do, they had gotten a kid safely out of the TV World. "Just tell us about it next time," Yu says. "If anything like this ever happens again."

Teddie nods. "I don't like keeping secrets from everyone," he says, standing up. "That's why I wanted to come tell you now."

Yu reassures him a couple of times that he understands, and then walks Teddie to the door.

When he's alone again, Yu leans back against the wall for a second, closes his eyes, and just breathes.

He can't believe that there had been someone trapped in the TV World that they hadn't even known about. He can't believe that rescuing him had been left up to the Trickster and his friends. He can't believe that they'd recruited Teddie to help them out, and none of the rest of them had even realized.

They have to find out who this Trickster is. Whatever else is going on, they need more information, they need to be informed so that they can decide what they're supposed to do.

The sound of thumps upstairs reminds him that there's still a bunch of kids upstairs, and he has to at least pretend things are normal, for their sake. 

He just... needs a second first. To figure out how to process this. 

-//-

August 19

Evening

-//-

Lavenza has never before entered the Velvet Room the way she does now--through the door, from the real world, like a guest. She does so now because she needs to speak to someone about Akira, and the poor job she's done so far at keeping him away from the world of Persona and Shadows. Things have escalated. Her Trickster has been determined from the start to involve himself as much as possible in the world he shouldn't know anything about yet. 

It's getting to the point where every time he comes into the TV World, there's some new complication that he's charging face first toward. Every time she sees him, Lavenza watches him get more confident and more experienced with the TV World and his Persona. 

And he is not supposed to know anything at all yet.

As she enters the Velvet Room, there is a brief raising of heads as the others in the crowded Velvet Room look up at her, and then Igor speaks. "An unusual visitor indeed, today," he says. "It is the Trickster that brings you here, is it not?"

Lavenza nods, mouth suddenly dry. Igor always makes her feel nervous, and today is worse than usual. Today, she is worried that she might be bringing him bad news.

She's also worried that he might already know. Standing here now, with his judgmental, knowing eyes focused on her, Lavenza can't help but wonder if all their secret keeping has been useless after all, if he's known all along what they're doing. She wonders if he disapproves.

She wonders what would happen to her if he did.

"It is," she says, voice small. She finds her gaze straying toward Margaret, who watches her with the sympathetic understanding of someone else that would not want Igor to disapprove of her.

He responds by spreading one hand out in a what can you do gesture, long fingers unfurling with the movement. "I suppose it was too much to hope for that he would have kept himself out of trouble," he says. "A Trickster is a dangerous creature, left to its own devices, without guidance."

"I don't get it," Marie says, and Lavenza (who had almost forgotten she is there) turns toward her. "What's the big deal about this Trickster thing? Yu talks about him all the time." She adds emphasis to this by rolling her eyes. "It's that kid, right? The one that lives with him?"

After a moment of silence, Lavenza nods. "Akira," she says.

"Yea," Marie says. "That's his name. What's so dangerous about him?"

"You haven't told Yu this," Margaret says sharply. "Have you?"

"No," Marie says, wrinkling her nose. "Everyone's being all weird and secretive about it. I don't want to get stuck in the middle of that."

Igor returns his hand to its upright, steepled position, and surveys the ceiling as he answers Marie's question. "There have been a great many guests of the Velvet Room over the ages," he says. "But Tricksters are always the most trouble." He gives the ceiling a smile that seems to conceal more than merely amusement. "It will be interesting to see what this one brings, when it comes time for his own contract."

"He's brought enough trouble already," Margaret says, with just a hint of disapproval in her voice. "He shouldn't be here. It's an interference."

Lavenza holds her breath. This is the part she's been worried about, and the part that's gotten... complicated enough that she no longer thinks she can keep going the way they are without having this discussion.

Whatever she might have said, she had not held any doubts during this week that her trickster would be able to rescue the boy that had fallen into the TV. He's too stubborn, in her opinion, to possibly do anything other than succeed. But now that it's over, she can't help but wonder if it should have been Yu that did that. If it should have been him that took the responsibility for this rescue, as he has the others. If, by allowing this interference, Lavenza is depriving Yu of experience he will need before his story is over.

"I don't see any reason why he would  be an interference," Igor says. "An interesting complication, perhaps." There's a spark in his eyes as he says, "It has been some time since I have seen the potential of what two fools can do together."

He looks, just for a moment, at Lavenza. And she sees him smile. For all that he is often distant, unapproachable, and nearly impossible to understand, in this moment there is something in his face that seems... kind. 

He knows, Lavenza decides. He had absolutely known the entire time.

-//-

August 20

Morning

-//-

Akira goes by the Amagi Inn early in the morning to see Yusuke off, but doesn't stay long. For one thing, Yusuke's sensei gives him disapproving looks the entire time he's there, and for another, he has somewhere else he needs to be before Dojima or Yu decide to come looking for him.

"You wrote my number down?" he asks Yusuke as he's leaving. "Right?"

Yusuke nods. "I can call you when we get back home."

"Good," Akira says. He has no intention of losing the only friend he's made this year, even if it's going to be harder to stay in contact when Yusuke is in Tokyo. 

"And maybe you can come visit us next time," Yusuke says thoughtfully. "When we have winter break, maybe?"

"I don't think your sensei would be okay with that," Akira says. 

"Oh," Yusuke says, looking disappointed. "Well--probably not."

For the third or fourth time since Akira had stopped by, Yusuke's sensei mutters something under his breath from the other side of the room about bad influences.

"If you ever do come to Tokyo, though," Yusuke says. "You should still come visit."

Akira has no idea how that would ever happen. He'd made it to Inaba on his own, but that's really different from going all the way to Tokyo. "Yea," he says anyway. "We'll see."

And then after a few more goodbyes, and a (whispered, so they won't be overheard) promise to tell Yusuke everything that happens in the TV World, Akira leaves.

And heads to the bus stop.

There's one at the end of the street at the shopping district, and Akira heads there. He waits for half an hour, catches a bus, and rides it to the hospital where Daiki had been taken after the police found him at Junes yesterday. It would be smarter, probably, to wait until Daiki is out of the hospital. 

But he wants to know two things. He wants to know if Daiki's okay, and also what he remembers from when he was inside the TV. If he remembers Akira and Yusuke rescuing him, it could be bad.

It was still the right thing to do, Akira just wants to know if he should start worrying about coming up with some kind of alibi.

He finds a nurse that seems sympathetic, and explains very truthfully that he is a classmate of Daiki's, and just wants to know how he's doing. The nurse points him in the right direction and tells him not to stay too long.

So Akira walks into Daiki's hospital room, where he finds the other boy sitting up in bed, wearing hospital pajamas and a few wires hooked up to some beeping machines, and looking bored and tired. 

He sees Akira, and does a double take. "What are you doing here?" he demands.

"I heard you got hurt," Akira says. He's standing just inside the door, and makes no movement to walk toward Daiki in the bed. He'd been nervous all the way out here, but now he feels suddenly very calm. Always before this, the thought of running into Daiki has filled him with a nervous kind of dread. It's gone now. Akira is not afraid. 

Whatever he thinks of you, it does not matter.

Daiki snorts and crosses his arms. "Come to laugh at me?" he asks, looking fixedly at the wall on the other side of the room from Akira.

"No," Akira says. 

"Yea," Daiki says. "Sure."

"I just...." Akira studies Daiki, trying to figure out what he's thinking. He doesn't think this is how Daiki would be acting if he remembered? He'd be scared or angry or confused, he'd be shouting about the TV World or saying something about seeing Akira there. Instead, he seems almost... ashamed?

"I heard you were missing for a couple days," Akira says, pressing his luck.

"Yea," Daiki mutters. "I don't really remember what happened."

"Oh," Akira says. "Okay, yea." Good. "I guess I'll just... the nurse said you shouldn't have visitors for too long, so I'll just..."

He's turned around and put his hand on the door before Daiki calls his name.

"Hey," he says. "Kurusu."

Akira turns back. "Yea?" he says.

Daiki's face is screwed up in an expression of extreme confusion and concentration. "When I was.... wherever," he mutters. "I really don't remember a lot of it. Just... fog, everywhere. And I sort of remember... a voice that said things about me that..."

His Shadow, Akira thinks. He wonders what Daiki's Shadow had told him, to make Daiki reject it. Judging by the look on the other boy's face (confused and scared and still ashamed) it must have been something that really bothered Daiki. "It's made me do some thinking and stuff," Daiki mutters. "And someone... I don't know how it was. But someone told me that I should try and be better than that. So I wanted to say--I--" He fidgets. "Sorry I hit you," he says. "And sorry I took your shoes. And.... and all that."

It's not the apology, exactly, that makes Akira feel suddenly so much lighter, although that's part of it. After months of looking over his shoulder and thinking three steps ahead to make sure there's nothing Daiki can do to hurt him, it's a relief to hear that apology. But more than that, it's knowing that Daiki really doesn't remember what had happened in the TV World. Not clearly, anyway. Not enough for Akira and Yusuke to be in any danger. Maybe it's because of how long he'd been there, alone in the fog, without a Persona. Maybe it's because he'd gotten smacked clear across a room by his Shadow. Maybe it's something else, or a little bit of all of it, but it's definitely a relief. 

And some of what his Shadow said had gotten through to him. 

And so had some of what Akira said. 

"It's okay," Akira says, because Daiki had apologized, after all, and he should probably say something. 

"Mmm," Daiki mumbles, and then doesn't say anything else. He's obviously done, so Akira slips away with a smile on his face.

He's still smiling when he gets to the bus stop outside the hospital, and finds Lavenza sitting on the bench next to the sign, clearly waiting for him. 

"Hi," Akira says, sitting down next to her. "I guess you got busy last night?"

"I did," she says. "But I hope the rest of you had a good time without me."

Akira remembers the little flash of fear when Teddie had come to talk to Yu, and the way they'd all huddled together in Nanako's room, completely silent and listening as hard as they could. 

"Pretty much," he says, and then explains Teddie's visit. 

Lavenza listens in silence, and then says, "That's actually a little connected to what I came here to talk to you about."

"What was that?" Akira asks.

"Yu," Lavenza says. "All this time, I... I thought that letting Yu know about you would cause problems. I thought that we would all be in trouble, if that happened. But today I went and talked to... it doesn't matter. The point is that I was wrong." She looks right at him. "And I'm sorry about that. But this doesn't need to be a secret."

Akira has about a dozen questions about that (he really wants to know who she'd gone and talked to, for starters), but that's not the most important thing right now. "I'm not going to tell Yu," he says firmly. "He hates me."

"He doesn't hate you," Lavenza says.

"He doesn't hate Akira," Akira says. "But he hates the Trickster. Did you hear the way Teddie talked about me this whole week? They all think I'm evil. And they probably think you and Yusuke are evil too, now that Teddie's told them about how we all work together. I'm not going to say anything to him." He sighs. "It's not... just about getting in trouble. It's about--I don't want Yu to hate me. Okay? I'm only going to stay here for a year. It's less than a year now, and then I'm never going to see anyone here again. And I like these people, so..." He looks down at his hands in his lap. "So they can't know."

Lavenza sighs. "I'm sorry if this is because of me," she says.

It's the second apology he's gotten today, but this one makes Akira feel much more uncomfortable than Daiki's had. He doesn't want Lavenza to feel bad.

"It's not because of you," he says. "It's just--how things worked out. But it's okay, right? I can still get along with Yu in the real world, and when we're in the TV World, we'll just keep staying out of his way. It'll be okay." He smiles to show her that he's not worried. "Everything's going to be fine."

Chapter Text

September 15

Morning

-//-

Akira wakes up on September the 15th, opens his eyes, remembers the date, and decides that he wants nothing whatsoever to do with it.

"Come on, Akira," Yu says, nudging him on his way past him to the door. "Time to get up."

"I'm sick," Akira says, turning over, scrunching his legs up so he'll fit better on the sofa, and pulling his blanket up over his head. "I don't want to go to school..."

"You're not sick," Yu says. "What's wrong?"

"I am so sick," Akira says.

"Is someone bothering you at school again?" Yu asks. "Is that why you don't want to go?"

"No," Akira mumbles, which is true. Daiki has actually left him alone since summer vacation ended, and the rest of the class has pretty much followed his example. School's been getting better--he still doesn't have any close friends there, but he's not being bullied or ignored.

It's just that it's September the 15th, and he's not getting up.

Yu gives him a funny look, and for a funny second, Akira thinks he's going to force the issue. Instead, he turns around and leaves the room.

Grateful, but almost positive that the issue isn't over, Akira squeezes his eyes tight shut and burrows in as deep as he can.

-//-

September 15

Morning

-//-

Dojima is helping Nanako lift her breakfast down from the top shelf of the kitchen when Yu comes down the stairs, looking vaguely confused. "Akira says he's sick," he reports. "But he doesn't look sick."

"Then tell him to come down," Dojima says, handing Nanako the breakfast. 

"What's wrong with him?" Nanako asks.

"I did," Yu says, to Dojima. "But he says he won't."

His words are reluctant, and Dojima has a feeling his nephew is worried this minor act of early morning rebellion is going to be what gets Akira reported to child services early. It's not--he doesn't have time for that, over something so small--but that realization does make Dojima pause in his morning routine for a second. Thinking about his conversation with Yu about Akira's circumstances is only making him remember something else. 

"What day is it?" he asks.

"Thursday," Nanako responds at once.

"The 15th," Yu adds.

The 15th of September. Yea, he's seen that date before.

"Yu," he says. "Can you walk Nanako to school this morning?"

"What about Akira?" Nanako protests. Usually, the two of them walk together to the elementary school, while Yu leaves them halfway there to go to Yasogami. 

"I'm going to have a talk with him," Dojima says, and sees Yu stiffen immediately. "It'll be fine," he tells his nephew. "We just need to talk. Are you okay with walking Nanako?"

Yu nods reluctantly, and Dojima gives a little grunt of approval before going into the other room to call and apologize to Adachi for the fact that he's going to be in a little late. As expected, his partner is unhappy with this, but Dojima doesn't give him much of a chance to complain before hanging up on him. Honestly, it will probably do the rookie detective some good to hold things down on his own for an hour or so.

He waits until Yu and Nanako have left before climbing the stairs and pausing, just a few moments too long, outside the boys' bedroom door.

He never comes in here anymore. Before, when everything had been different and fine, when the family was himself and his wife and Nanako instead of himself, Nanako, his nephew, and an orphan, this room had been planned for something else. Once, when they'd talked about having another child (a boy this time, maybe, or another girl--either would have been fine, either would have been someone they would have loved), this house, with its extra bedroom, had been optimistically chosen to leave space for the family to grow.

And then Dojima had gotten the call that Nanako was alone at her preschool because no one had come to pick her up. He had learned that something as simple as a speeding car had taken his wife away forever.

There had been no need of the extra bedroom, then, not until Akira and Yu came to stay.

It's ironic in a way that another accident had brought Akira into the room.

Another accident, which according to the paperwork, had take place on Seotember 15, 2010.

Dojima sighs and raps a knuckle against the doorframe before walking into the room. "Akira," he says, trying to sound stern but knowing it's not working entirely as well as he would like. It's difficult to be upset with Akira for not wanting to get out of bed today of all days, when Dojima knows exactly how that feels.

The boy is a lump under his blanket, a huddled ball with a stray limb sticking out here and there where he's grown too tall to really fit himself comfortably in his chosen burrow.

Dojima makes an absent note that Akira will be too tall soon to even sleep on the sofa, and that he'll need to look for some better solution. 

Then he remembers that Akira will be gone in a few months, and that there's no point in spending the money on something that will probably never be used again.

After a few seconds of rapid movement from under the blanket (Dojima imagines Akira hastily wiping his eyes and composing his face), Akira emerges, hair tousled and face every bit as red as Dojima had expected. He looks like he's been crying, or trying hard not to cry, since Yu came downstairs and left him alone.

"Yu tells me you're not feeling well this morning," Dojima says.

"Yea," Akira says, not meeting Dojima's gaze. "I'll be better tomorrow. I think I just need to stay home and rest today instead of trying to go to school."

Dojima wants to give the kid a shake. What's the point of lying to everyone about what had happened to his family? What's so much better about pretending he's fine when he's not, and lying his way into Inaba of all places than being in foster care? At least that way he'd have resources. Someone to take care of him, instead of needing to do it all on his own?

"You're sure that's all it is?" Dojima asks. "Just a bug?"

"Yea," Akira says, and although Dojima isn't exactly surprised by the lie, he finds himself impatient. Why won't Akira just tell--

And then he takes another look at Akira's red, puffy eyes, and the way he's huddled under his blanket like he never wants to move again. The thing is that he understands what it is to lose someone, and not want to talk about it with anyone. Akira wants to spend the anniversary of his parents' death holed up in his room, and Dojima can't bring himself to go into the room that could have belonged to their growing family.

"I'll be okay tomorrow," Akira says. "I just need to stay home today."

Dojima looks away. When he speaks, his voice is gruff. "Well," he says. "I suppose it's a little late for you to try and make it to school today."

Akira looks absolutely relieved, and Dojima watches him for a moment, trying to think of something to say. He's less worried, right at this moment, about how he's going to deal with Akira's guardianship issues at the end of the year than he is with what to say to help him deal with what he's going through on this particularly difficult day.

He feels like there should be something. He feels like he should have been able to think of that something, whatever it it.

He has no idea how to deal with his own grief, much less someone else's. "If you think you'll need to take tomorrow off too, just let me know next time, instead of just telling Yu," he says. "And if you need anything--I'll be leaving for work in a few minutes, but you have my number there, and my cell phone number."

Akira nods. 

"And I'll try to make it home not too late tonight," Dojima adds. He takes a quick look at his watch, and sees that it's later than he'd expected. He stops a grimace before it can spread across his face, because that's not going to help Akira right now. On the other hand, if he doesn't get moving soon, he's never going to get to work in time to make it back at a reasonable hour. 

"I'll see you tonight," Dojima says. "There's food in the fridge, and if you need anything..." He trails off, aware that he's already said this. 

"Thank you," Akira says, unexpectedly. He's sitting up a little straighter now, and his eyes are slightly clearer. 

"For letting you stay home?" Dojima says. "You're obviously not feeling well."

"No," Akira says. "For letting me stay here. I know you weren't expecting to have Yu come here for the year when you agreed to let me stay, and you could have kicked me back out again when you found out he was coming, but you didn't, and it really means..." He takes a deep breath. "I just really like being here. I know Inaba's kind of in the middle of nowhere, but... I really like being here."

He's surprisingly earnest about it, too. Dojima has the impression that he really means what he's saying--that he's not just grateful for the fact that he's been able to hide out here, and pretend that he's not orphaned. He really does seem to like that out of all the places he could have gone to hide out in, he's specifically glad to be here.

There are not a lot of people, even natives of Inaba, who are that genuinely happy to be in Inaba. While Dojima is still wondering what it is about Inaba that Akira likes so much, Akira pipes up to actually answer the question. 

"I really like being able to stay with you guys," Akira says, turning his face away not quite quickly enough to hide the fact that he's flushing hard. "I didn't always feel... safe, when I was away at boarding school. I feel safe now."

Later, even after Dojima has left the house, those words echo through his mind like an accusation. It feels dishonest. Whatever he's been doing, it's apparently been enough to make Akira feel like this is home. And meanwhile, here he is, planning to report him to family services at the end of the year.

But that's what's best for him, of course. And it's inevitable that if Dojima hadn't figured it out, then someone else would have. 

Maybe it's just that he's not being honest with Akira about his plans to report him at the end of the school year. Would it be better for him to tell Akira that he knows now?

He considers this for a moment, but then decides that it really wouldn't be. Not today, anyway, when Akira is obviously already having a hard time with his parents' deaths. This is a day to be sympathetic, not to make things worse.

Maybe on a later day. Maybe in a few days, if that's enough time. Or if not, then maybe in a few weeks, or a month or so. 

He tells himself that this should reassure him. After all, he has a plan. Instead of sitting on this knowledge for the rest of the school year, while Akira goes on thinking that he and his secret are safe.

Somehow it doesn't. Somehow, Akira's earnest face as he tells Dojima that he feels safe in Inaba stays with him for the rest of the day.

-//-

September 17

Afternoon

-//-

Akira is fine the day after his faked sickness, which relieves Yu until his uncle takes him aside and points out what maybe Yu should have thought of. After all, he's seen those records too. He should have remembered the date of the anniversary of Akira's parents' deaths.

So when Dojima asks him to spend a couple days keeping an eye on Akira, Yu is on board with the idea.

What he's less on board with is the timing.

Someone else has gone missing. Naoto Shirogane, the so-called Detective Prince. There's a dozen things Yu knows he should be doing to help his friends find him, but he also feels like he should be helping Akira. Wants to help him, really, so he does his best to push his guilt to one side and focus on Akira. They still need to gather information on Naoto, after all, and the others can go around asking questions just as well as he can. It doesn't take half a dozen people to ask a few questions--he can afford to take a day or two to be with Akira when he needs him.

What's kind of annoying is that it doesn't seem like Akira really wants him around.

"Isn't there other stuff you should be doing?" Akira asks, for what has to be at least the tenth time. The two of them are in the shopping district, loitering in the bookstore while Akira mopes and occasionally shoots Yu weird looks. "I mean--more important stuff than just hanging out with me?"

"What's that supposed to mean, Akira?" Yu asks. He knows he's starting to sound a little bit annoyed, but he's answered this question more than once already.

"I dunno," Akira mutters, averting his gaze and pretending to be fully interested in a stack of manga near the door. "I know you do other stuff that's more important than hanging out with me, so you should just go do that instead."

Yu has to admit that he has been keeping plenty of secrets from Akira. Especially now, since he's been so focused on how to track down Naoto over the past few days. How many times has he had to run out of the room so that he can take a call from one of his friends? And how much stuff does he have stashed in their room where he's hoping Akira will never find it?

(Although, if he's being honest, he's pretty sure that Akira has found that out, at least. He's just lucky that so far he hasn't gotten any questions about the weapons behind the desk, or the even weirder things he's gotten from Shadows and buried at the bottom of his sock drawer)

There's been a lot of secrets, is the point. Just this morning, he'd been on the phone with Chie for ten full minutes before realizing that Akira was standing in the doorway, trying to look unobtrusive. They'd just been talking about tracking down information about Naoto, so Yu isn't worried that Akira would be able to figure out what's going on, with no other context and just half of a conversation to go on, but Akira's definitely smart enough to realize that something's being kept from him.

"Listen," Yu says. "I know you probably feel like you're being ignored, but--"

"But there's other stuff you should be doing, I know," Akira says. "I'm saying that you should go do it, you don't have to sit around babysitting me."

"I'm not babysitting--"

"Then why are we hanging out?"

That actually kind of hurts, and Yu doesn't know how to answer for a minute. He gets that Akira's hurting right now, and tries to remind himself of that as he answers. "Maybe it's something we should do more often," he says, managing to sound casual, somehow. "I didn't want you to feel like you're being ignored."

"I don't feel like you're ignoring me," Akira says. "We hang out at home all the time."

Which is true, but it makes Yu suddenly realize that it actually has been a really long time since they spent any time together anywhere other than the Dojima house. It feels like it must have been months, at least--he knows that Akira's met Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko, but he's never met Rise or Teddie. 

Again, Yu feels a pang of guilt.

"Yea, but I mean--you're basically part of the family by this point," Yu says. "We could do things like this more often." Maybe if they would, it would finally explain why he still has no social link with AKira the way he does with everyone else important in his life. "It wouldn't be a big deal to make more time to hang out."

Akira hesitates, and says in a carefully polite voice, "I'm really not trying to be rude or blow you off, or anything," he says. "I just--seriously, there's stuff you should be doing other than hanging out with me, right?"

Yu sighs. Yes there is, but he can't exactly ditch Akira to go information gathering right now. It feels like it would raise too many questions, and he doesn't know how he'd answer any of them.

"I'm not going to ditch you," he says. "Whatever else I have to do, it can wait until tomorrow."

"You're sure?" Akira asks. "It won't be--I mean... whatever you have to do, it's okay to waste a whole day on me instead of focusing on it?"

Yu's not sure what Akira thinks he's doing, but at least he can answer this question honestly. "Yea," he says. "One day's not going to hurt anything."

Akira's eyes search his face, and then, surprisingly, he relaxes a little. Apparently the answer's convincing enough to finally get through to him. "Okay," he says. "Then... thank you."

"Good," Yu says. "Are you going to get anything?"

"Yea," Akira says, looking down at the manga again. "Me and Yusuke have both been trying to keep up with this series, so we have more stuff to talk about when he calls."

"I didn't think Yusuke would be that into manga," Yu says. 

Akira shrugs. "He's pretty surprising sometimes."

They spend a few minutes talking about that--Akira tries to explain the plot of the manga, and Yu tries to keep up with what seems like an overly convoluted plot (something or other about a gang of supernatural thieves that Akira at least seems really excited about), then ducks out of the shop while Akira goes to make his purchase. 

"I'll just be a minute," he tells Akira. "I need to take care of something."

Akira half nods, and keeps talking to the shopkeeper.

With that taken care of, Yu does a quick look around to make sure that no one happens to be looking in his direction, and then goes straight to the Velvet Room. With Naoto needing to be rescued, he really needs to take a few minutes talking to Margaret and getting his Persona organized before their next trip into the TV World, and that's just easier to do here when he doesn't have to worry about sucking up valuable TV World exploration time. He's pretty sure he knows which fusions he wants already, which means that he can probably wrap things up pretty quickly, and hopefully get out before Akira's even done with the typically chatty bookstore clerk.

He's halfway through his list of fusions when Igor speaks up unexpectedly.

"I hear you have been spending your time of late tracing the Trickster," he says.

It's such an unexpected comment that Yu almost doesn't know how to answer it. He'd first learned to be wary of the Trickster because of something he'd overheard here, but he's never had Igor come right out and talk about it to him.

"We've been... trying to find him," Yu says. "But we haven't had much luck so far." The week that Teddie had spent with him doesn't count, because he hadn't gotten any more helpful information that might have helped them find the Trickster or his friends in the real world. Apparently the masks they were wearing had done their job, and Teddie had seemed genuinely unable to give them any more information about what the Trickster looked like, and his vague descriptions of the other two hadn't helped much either.

"And with him so close to you," Igor says, almost thoughtfully.

"Close to me?" Yu repeats blankly. "What does that mean?" He doesn't know who the Trickster is, but does the Trickster know who he is? Is he watching? 

"Very close," Igor says. "I encourage you to keep your eyes, and your mind, open."

Yu feels somehow even more confused. The more he learns about the Trickster, the less he likes the thought of him being out there somewhere. He's distracted by that thought during the rest of his time in the Velvet Room, and is feeling pretty discouraged by the time he steps back out into the real world. 

Akira's sitting on the sidewalk outside the bookstore, already several pages deep into his manga. He looks up at Yu though, and starts to stand up. "Where were you?" he asks. "I was looking all over for you."

"I just had to do something," Yu says. "Just an errand, no big deal." He waits next to the Velvet Room as Akira shoves his manga into his bag, and then heads over to join him. 

"Well, my errand's done," Akira says. "And..." 

He stops, just short of the Velvet Room door, so that the two of them are standing on either side of it, gently lit by its unnatural glow. For a second, just the two of them standing there actually makes Yu kind of sad. Akira would get such a kick out of just knowing that the Velvet Room exists, never mind all the rest of it. It would have been something nice to be able to share with him. If things were different, if Akira was a little older, if Yu didn't have to protect him.

"And what?" he asks.

"And... I'm sorry for being so mopey," Akira says, scuffing a shoe against the sidewalk. "I just didn't want you to... ignore anything important, or not be able to help anyone, just because you were wasting an afternoon hanging out with me."

"It's not a waste," Yu says. He pauses, then says, "I... figure you've probably noticed I'm working on some stuff with my friends, right? You might have... heard a few weird phone calls, and things.

Akira gives him a lopsided smile, like this is old news. "Yea," he says. "I noticed."

"Well," Yu says. "There's something important we're working on. But that doesn't mean I don't want to spend time with you and Nanako. There's... all kinds of important things."

Akira looks surprised for a second. Then he grins. "Thanks."

There's a little voice in the back of Yu's head, pointing out that if this was anyone else, they'd have a social link by now. With Akira, there's just a moment where Akira fidgets and seems like he's trying to figure out how to react to that. Finally, he says, "Some important things are more... time sensitive, though. Right?"

Well, yea. But they have time. Some time.

They'll get to Naoto in time, even if he stops to spend one afternoon with Akira, a couple days after the anniversary of when his parents had died.

"Don't worry about it," he tells Akira. "It'll all be fine."

-//-

October 7

After School

-//-

And everything does, eventually, turn out fine for Naoto. It takes them all the way to the end of the deadline to get to her. But they manage it. By the time the fog rolls into Inaba again, Naoto is back in the real world and safe.

And, basically immediately, thinking.

They catch her up on everything that had happened before she joined them, and she takes an immediate interest in the Trickster.

"No one really seems to know anything about him," she says. "Whoever it is that's pulling people into TVs, we can get an idea of who he is, even if we don't know his name. But we can deduce certain things about the way he operates, such as how he always takes people that have been interviewed on TV. Teddie has actually seen the Trickster, on the other hand, and somehow we still don't know anything about why he's doing what he's doing. Or even what it is that he's doing."

"Do you think it might just be the same person?" Chie asks. 

The whole group--minus Teddie, who is waiting for them at Junes--are walking from school to the department store, moving slowly as they talk. 

Naoto shakes her head decisively. "I could be wrong, of course," she says. "But Teddie described a group of children, and it's hard to imagine anyone that young having the resources or physical strength to kidnap so many people."

Yu listens quietly. After all this time, they're still at a loss for how to find the Trickster, and they could really use the help of an actual detective while they're trying to track him down.

"So I assume that they're two different people," Naoto says. And then she hesitates.

"What?" Yu asks. "Did you think of something?"

"I might have," Naoto says. "But I want to double check a few things with Teddie before I say anything."

And no matter how much the rest of them press, she won't say anything else. When they get to Junes and meet up with Teddie, Naoto pulls him aside and asks several questions about his meetings with the Trickster. Some of them make sense, but Yu feels like she's dwelling a little too much on his shoes.

"From what you've all said about the boy that went missing," she says. "Daiki--he was a bit of a bully."

"Always has been," Kanji confirms.

"And he had the Trickster's shoes," Naoto says.

Teddie nods. "Yep!" he says. "That's how I could sniff him out!"

Naoto nods. "Which means one of two things. Either Daiki and the Trickster are friends--"

"It didn't seem like they were," Teddie says.

"Or," Naoto continues. "Daiki, the established bully, stole them."

There's a brief pause, in which she looks lost in thought, and everyone else just looks confused.

"I don't get it," Rise says. "How are you going to track someone by shoes he doesn't even have anymore?"

There's a beat of silence, and then Naoto says, "Normally it wouldn't. But I  happened to run into a boy with no shoes once. And it's a longshot, but..." She shakes her head, then looks at Teddie. "I want to test the theory, but I'd need someone that's seen the Trickster before to confirm."

"Do you want the rest of us to come with you?" Yu asks.

"No need," Naoto says, to Yu's disappointment. Longshot or not, he wants to go along. "It's so unlikely that I don't want to waste everyone's time if I'm wrong." She gets a little shifty at that, and Yu has the idea that maybe she also doesn't want everyone to see if she's wrong.

"Alright," he says, relenting. "Just let us know if you find out anything, alright?"

"Of course," Naoto says. 

"Hmm," says Teddie, looking more thoughtful than is typical. "Well... yes."

-//-

October 8

After School

-//-

Akira knows that Yu and his friends have just finished another rescue mission in the TV World, which means that he probably has at least a few days to go in himself while they're resting up.

He's lost in his thoughts, thinking wistfully about how much more ground they'd be able to cover if Yusuke was still in town, when he realizes there's someone standing right in front of him, and stops.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Naoto Shirogane says. "Do you remember me?"

Yea, he knows plenty about him (her? He's pretty sure Naoto is a her, unless he's been really mishearing some of Yu's conversations) because he's been spying on what Yu and his friends have been doing to rescue Naoto for the past few weeks. He has a feeling that's not what he's talking about, though. "Sure," he says, adjusting the grip on the strap of his backpack. "You asked me some questions about Kanji, like... months ago."

"On the day you came out of school with no shoes," Naoto says.

Akira gives her a funny look, and then his gaze brightens. "Oh yea," he says. "I didn't have shoes." He'd completely forgotten that was the day Daiki had taken his street shoes out of his locker. "Yea, that was... yea." He shuffles, feeling more uneasy now. There's no good reason for Naoto to be here talking to him, and he's not sure where this is going. Naoto's still standing in front of him, not quite physically stopping him from moving, but heavily implying with her body language that Akira should stay where he is. "You didn't come here to talk about that, though, did you?"

"In a roundabout way," Naoto says, and then turns to look at something on the side of the road. "Teddie?" she calls, and Akria feels his heart jump into his throat.

As if in slow motion, he turns to look in the direction Naoto is calling, and yea, there's Teddie. No bear suit, but a familiar look of suspicion stamped onto his face.

There's no point in pretending that they don't all know why they'd come here. Slowly, Akira lets his hand drop off his backpack strap, and tries to at least not look nervous.

(He's so nervous, though. They've found him in the real world, and it's going to get back to Yu, and Yu is going to hate him)

"Is it him?" Naoto asks. She sounds more curious than anything else. "Teddie, is he the Trickster?"

Teddie nods.

"I'm right here," Akira says. "I can answer for myself." He swallows, then says, "And... yea. I am." He wants to sound confident. He wants to add so what if it's true, but he's worried his voice will give away how nervous he is if he says anything else.

Naoto gives a small nod, and seems to think for a moment. Akira's thinking too, his mind racing--there's no point in trying to lie his way out of this--Teddie's obviously rescued him even without the mask, and all he can do now is try and put the best face on it that he can.

He decides that he's not going to apologize, and he's not going to beg. He hasn't done anything wrong.

Well, he's lied a lot, but they lie too. They lie about the exact same things. Akira hasn't hurt anyone except Shadows. He'd even rescued Daiki, which is a good thing. Stubborn, Akira braces himself like he's getting ready for a fight.

"Your name's Kurusu, if I remember right," Naoto says. "Akira Kurusu, I think."

Akira gives a tight nod. She'd known his name when she cornered him before, so it shouldn't be a surprise to hear it now. And maybe surprise is really the wrong word, anyway. It's more like... an unmasking. He feels naked, standing here in front of the two of them, withbhis secrets tumbling away from him. This isn't like the time he'd stumbled on Teddie in the TV World, where he'd run before he had a chance to give away anything about his real world life, and it's different from when he'd gone to Teddie on his own to ask for help, because that had been his plan, and the risk had made it exciting.

This is different. Akira feels cornered and caught off guard, and he can't believe he let himself just walk into this.

"You live with Yu," Naoto continues. "Right?"

This time, Akira doesn't get a chance to answer before Teddie cuts in. "What?" he demands.

Akira winces. "Can we at least keep this quiet?" he asks, side stepping the question. "And maybe go somewhere less full of people?" He gestures vaguely at the crowd of students heading home, many of whom are giving them all strange looks.

"But how can you live with Yu?" Teddie demands. "I never saw you before, except in the--"

"Shh!" Both Akira and Naoto say, in almost perfect unison.

"In the TV World," Teddie finishes, slightly more quietly. Naoto takes in the people still milling around, and starts hustling them down a less used road.

"I wasn't exactly going to let you see me here after I ran into you there," Akira says, when Teddie doesn't stop looking at him like he's still waiting for an answer.

"You've been avoiding me?" Teddie asks.

"Well," Akira says. "Yea." He points to Naoto. "I didn't want this to happen."

"And how did you know he lives with Yu?" Teddie asks, this time turning his accusatory expression on Naoto.

She shrugs. "I knew Akira's name from when I was investigating Kanji, months ago."

When she'd talked to him at school, Akira remembers. That had been when everyone was bugging him about that one conversation he'd had with Kanji.

"And of course Yu's mentioned him," Naoto continues. "It's one of the reasons I didn't want him coming with us today. In case I was right."

Akira gives her a confused look, and is vaguely aware of Teddie doing the same thing. "You're not going to tell him?" he asks.

"I was interested from the beginning in the fact that Teddie's description of you was extraordinarily vague," Naoto says. "I asked myself whether it was more likely that he could have fought with you for a week and not been able to provide a description that would have already led everyone to you, or that he was withholding specifics for some reason."

"They were wearing masks!" Teddie says defensively.

"Nevertheless," Naoto says. "It seemed like you should have been able to describe him more accurately. I wondered why, and came to a conclusion."

"What conclusion?" Akira asks.

"Yu doesn't like you," Naoto says, and then on seeing Akira's expression, adds quickly, "As the Trickster, I mean. Something has convinced him that you're dangerous." She turns to Teddie. "The only conclusion I could come up with for why you wouldn't try to help find the Trickster," she says. "Is that you thought he was worth protecting from whatever Yu's reaction would be. Which meant that I wanted to see him for myself before deciding what to do."

"So... you still might tell him," Akira says.

"I still might," Naoto says, studying him now. "Yu generally strikes me as a good person, a strong judge of character, and most importantly, one of the people I owe my life to."

Akira nods. "I know," he says. "Everyone was working really hard to get to you."

"I'm curious," she says. "How much do you know about what we're doing?"

This time, he shrugs. "Enough," he says.

"I would appreciate it if you could be more specific," Naoto says. "I'm still trying to decide what to tell Yu about all this."

"Yea," Akira mutters. "Right." But he doesn't say anything else for a few more moments.

"Akira," Naoto prompts.

"I'm... trying to figure out where to start," he says. "And--I'm not going to tell you anything about anyone else. You found me fast enough, you can track them down if you really want to." Probably not Lavenza. Akira still doesn't know where to find her unless she comes looking for him first. "And I won't just sell them out." And what would she do if she knew about Nanako? Would that make her more or less likely to tell Yu?

"That's reasonable," Naoto allows. "And it's good that you're loyal to your friends."

"Of course," Akira insists. He's almost positive that she could figure out Nanako and Yusuke without even trying, now that she knows who he is. But that doesn't mean he's going to make it easy. He casts around for something to change the subject to, but is still struggling to figure out how to start and what to say, when Teddie pipes up.

"How'd you get a Persona?" he asks.

"The same way anyone does, I guess?" Akira says. "My Shadow said some nasty things to me that I didn't want to believe. After I accepted him, I had a Persona."

"Teddie says you have a lot of Persona," Naoto says.

"Not a lot," Akira says. "A few at a time. But that's more than one, so I guess it's a lot?" He shrugs. "I don't know why that works, but I just talk to them--to Shadows--and sometimes I can help them... I guess remember that they're more than that? And then they come fight with me for a while."

"See?" Teddie says to Naoto. "It's like what Yu does!"

"He doesn't talk to the Shadows to do it, though," Naoto says. "He collects cards."

"How does that work?" Akira asks, honestly confused. Naoto responds by giving him a look that's clearly meant to remind him he's the one being interrogated here. "Sorry," he says. "I just pick up everything kind of second hand. I'm not used to being able to ask questions."

But it's obvious that he's not going to be allowed to ask questions now, either.

"What do you do while you're there?" Naoto asks.

"In the TV World?" Akira asks. "We just kind of... wander around and fight Shadows."

"That's you and your two friends," Naoto says. "Teddie said you call them Butterfly and Fox?"

"Yea," Akira says. "The only time we ever really did anything else was when we rescued Daiki. And the time Fox fell in, and I fought his Shadow. Luckily it wasn't that tough, not like Daiki's, because it was just me that time."

"So what is it that makes Yu think you're so dangerous?" Naoto asks.

Akira gives a heartfelt shrug. "I have no idea," he says.

"How did you find out about Yu?" Teddie asks. "Did he tell you?"

"No," Akira says. "I saw Teddie in the TV World, and then I saw Teddie with Yu and everyone at Junes, and I kind of just connected the dots."

"Whoops," Teddie mutters, suddenly trying to look very innocent.

Akira ignores him and keeps talking. "Then I... sort of went through Yu's stuff, and he had all the same stuff I have for going into the TV. Like weapons and healing items and things."

"So you figured out that he's been going into the TV, but he doesn't even suspect you," Naoto says.

"I mean," Akira says. "To be fair, I've been a lot more careful since I found out about him. He talks about a lot of the things you guys do in ways that he thinks I don't understand, because he thinks I don't know anything about anything."

Naoto gives him a look, and Akira feels forced to add, "And also I do a lot of listening from around corners and pretending I'm asleep if he stays up to watch the Midnight Channel."

Naoto gives a not entirely convincing cough, turning away just a little too slowly to hide what looks like a laugh.

"I'm really not trying to cause trouble," Akira says, pressing the advantage while she seems a little less stern. "It just always seems to happen. I don't know. Maybe it's a Trickster thing."

"Where did the name come from?" Naoto asks. "Was it your idea?"

"Butterfly calls me that," Akira says. "I don't know why, exactly."

"You really don't?"

He shakes his head emphatically. "I told Teddie when he helped us to find Daiki. I really don't have any big evil plans."

"Then why haven't you just talked to Yu about all this?" Naoto asks. "You could get everything cleared up, and you wouldn't have to hide as much."

"Because he hates me," Akira says. "Not me, me, just Trickster me--it's like you said earlier." He makes an annoyed noise at his own struggle to figure out how to say it. "And I don't want him to hate regular me, too."

By the time he's finished saying this, he's staring at the ground. At his new shoes, that Dojima had bought for him to replace the ones Daiki stole. If only Daiki hadn't done that, he realizes, and if only Naoto hadn't stumbled on him that same day--if only he hadn't just blurted out that he had no shoes, then he wouldn't be standing here now, found out.

"So are you going to tell him?" he asks. "I answered all your questions." And if he hasn't really told her anything about Lavenza, or her weird hints about his future, and contracts, and all that, she also hasn't asked about any of that. "He's going to be mad, and I mean... we live in the same house. We share the same room. I don't know what I'm going to do if he ever finds out."

"But you could be lying about all of this," Naoto points out. Her voice sounds thoughtful, as if she's considering the possibility more than accusing him. "Teddie?"

"Huh?" Teddie says.

"What do you think?"

Akira risks a glance up, and sees Teddie's expression furrowed in genuine thought.

"I don't like lying to Yu," he says. "But I don't want to cause a fight..."

Akira waits, holding his breath. He gets it, he does, because if things were the other way around, and Yu was asking Yusuke or Lavenza or even Nanako to lie to him, he'd feel crushed if he ever found out. He's asking Naoto and Teddie to do the same thing for him, and even if Teddie's apparently already been kind of doing that on his own, Akira still feels bad.

"Well," Naoto says at last. "I won't tell him."

Akira jerks his head up to look at her, hope springing up unexpectedly.

It dies a moment later, with her next words.

"You will," Naoto says, and then puts up a hand to stop Akira's immediate protests. "I know you have concerns about that, but Yu's a good person. He's really, genuinely good."

Teddie nods emphatically, and Akira knows they're right--but even good people aren't perfect. Even good people can be wrong.

"I think he'll be more understanding than you expect," Naoto says. "I haven't known him for as long as you have, but what I do know is what he'll do to help people. You say that you're not doing anything to hurt anyone else--so if that's true, you don't have any reason to be afraid of him."

"Yu doesn't have any reason to hate me, either," Akira says. "But he still does."

Naoto chooses to ignore this. "I'll give you a month from today," she says. "But if you haven't told him by November 8th, then I will step in and explain everything."

"A month," Akira repeats, numbly.

"To figure out how to do it," Naoto says. 

"Or..."

"Or I will tell him," Naoto agrees. "Yes."

"Oh," Akira says. He can't think of anything else to say. The hope is gone, as suddenly as it had appeared, and he's left with the daunting prospect of having to tell Yu everything, and seeing his reaction. 

As soon as Naoto and Teddie have left him, he pulls out his phone and calls Yusuke. He tries not to do that, because the phone is supposed to be for emergencies and he's pretty sure Dojima's watching his minutes, but he really needs to talk right now.

Yusuke, who knows Akira never calls on his emergency cell phone, picks up with an, "Is something wrong?"

And Akira nods, even though he knows Yusuke can't see him. "Yea," he says, and launches into the explanation.

Chapter Text

November 3

Afternoon

-//-

"Akira," Nanako whispers. "Why do we have to watch this?"

"Shh," he whispers back. "Aren't you supposed to be with your class?"

She shrugs. "No one else is sitting with their class!"

Which is true. The entire elementary school is sitting in the cafeteria, listening to the most boring speech Akira has ever heard. Because all this had been put together at the last minute, everything's a little bit cramped and haphazard--the classes are all mixed up and out of order.

"Fine," Akira whispers, and Nanako settles in next to him.

The politician continues to drone on. People are fidgeting and whispering, and no one really seems to be listening at all. Akira definitely isn't. He's less than a week out from the deadline for the ultimatum Naoto had given him, and (as usual), as soon as he tunes out what he's supposed to be listening to, he starts turning the problem over and over in his head.

He has to tell Yu, or else Naoto will. But maybe it would be better to just let her do it? At least that way he won't have to see Yu's reaction. But then on the other hand, if he tells him, maybe he can try to kind of... soften the blow, a little? Or at least if Yu gets really mad, Akira can try and run, or something. Only that would be pretty stupid, because where's he going to go? 

"Akira," Nanako says. "Who is this guy, anyway?"

"Some politician," Akira says. "He's going to give an award to someone for..." He makes a vague gesture. "I don't know. For being... photogenic enough help him with his election campaign."

"He's going to give it to someone in my class," Nanako says. "Either me or one of the other girls, my teacher said." She frowns and drops her voice to a whisper. "Are you thinking about how to tell Yu again?"

"No," Akira whispers back.

"Yes you are."

"Okay," he admits. "I am."

"You should just tell him," Nanako says, as she's been saying all month.

"I don't think it'll be that easy," Akira says carefully. He's always kind of danced around telling Nanako what Yu thinks of him as the Trickster, because he knows she loves her cousin, and he doesn't want her to worry too much. "He might be mad."

"You can tell him I already know about you," Nanako says. "And I'll stick up for you."

Someone whisper-calls her name then, and Nanako scurries away to go talk to the teacher that had called her name. Akira half expects her to be scolded for leaving the section where her class is supposed to be sitting, and feels bad about that, but instead she's apparently been picked to receive the reward.

Akira zones out again, despite his best efforts (he knows Nanako is going to want to talk about this later), and goes back to worrying about what he's going to do with Yu in five days.

(Nanako does, incidentally, bring this up several times over the next couple days, but since lots of other people--including the local news--are talking about it too, it's not as annoying as it could have been)

-//-

November 5

Evening

-//-

So there's three more days left until Akira is out of time to decide how to talk to Yu, and he's just... not sleeping. It doesn't help that Yu had stayed up last night to watch the Midnight Channel, which had gotten Akira thinking about it all over again, which had kept him up basically all night with his worries.

He's talked it to death by this point with everyone he can talk to. Nanako thinks he should just tell Yu everything. Yusuke hems and haws, and in the end had just told Akira he'd support whatever decision he made, which is supportive, but unhelpful. Lavenza just gets thoughtful and gives cryptic advice.

He's falling asleep over the table now, as Nanako and Yu make dinner in the kitchen a few feet away. Technically, Akira is supposed to be helping, but his eyes feel like they're practically glued shut, and the other two have given up trying to drag him over to help.

It's only when the front door opens, and Dojima comes in, calling that he's home, that Akira jerks out of his doze to mumble a welcome home.

"Someone left a letter for you, Yu," he says, handing him an envelope.

"A letter?" Yu repeats. "That's weird--" He glances over at Akira. "You usually get the mail on your way in from school, right? Did you get it today?"

"Yea," Akira says. "It was pretty much just bills and advertisements."

"This was sitting on the front step," Dojima says, and Akira frowns as he realizes that Dojima sounds more serious than he should over a simple letter. "There's no return address."

"So someone just left it here?" Yu asks. He opens the letter, reads for about ten seconds, and then seems to go pale.

Akira feels fully awake now, watching Yu read the letter. There's a creeping feeling of wrongness about all this that he just doesn't like. "What's it say?"

"Nothing," Yu says. At his side, Nanako lifts herself slightly on her toes. Unnoticed by anyone but Akira, she tilts her head slightly to read the paper Yu's still holding.

"What does it say?" Dojima asks, his voice raised, and Akira and Nanako both jump a little. She scurries away from the suddenly tense confrontation, to where Akira is sitting. He scoots over so there's room for her to sit next to him.

"Did you see?" Akira whispers to her, as Yu and Dojima start actually fighting. "Could you read it?"

"I... think I might have read it wrong," Nanako says doubtfully.

"Why?" Akira asks. "What did you think it said?

"It... I think it said, 'if you don't stop this time, someone close will be put in and killed'."

They look at each other as the shouting gets louder. Dojima is accusing Yu of being involved with the murder cases. Yu is defending himself. Both are gesticulating a lot at the letter.

"It's talking about the TV," Nanako says in a tiny voice. "Isn't it?"

Akira puts his arm around her. He knows that she'd been scared when Yusuke fell in over the summer, and that even if she's happy to help them keep track of Shadows, she'd never really wanted to go in herself. That she's probably still scared of what's on the other side.

"It's gonna be okay," he promises her.

"Akira!" Dojima calls suddenly, still basically shouting. Akira snaps his gaze up to him.

"Y-yea?"

Okay, so maybe he's a tiny bit nervous with all this shouting in the room.

"Watch Nanako for a couple hours," Dojima says. "I'm taking Yu down to the station."

"The police station?" Nanako cries, jumping to her feet.

"Why?" Akira demands.

"Is he in trouble?" Nanako asks. She looks and sounds like she's ready to cry.

"No," Dojima says, and Akira is convinced at once that he's lying. He's really barely even trying--he's too angry to really try to be convincing.

Yu is a little bit better when he says, "You two should try to head to bed and get some sleep. We'll probably be talking for a while."

"Yea," Dojima grunts. "Don't wait up for us to come back."

Akira shares a glance with Nanako.

As Dojima is distracted with his shoes and coat, Yu gestures fiercely to Akira, pulling him aside. "Listen," he says, dropping his voice. "I don't know who left that note here, but you have to be careful, okay? You and Nanako. Remember how we talked about... about the important stuff my friends and I are doing? This is probably connected to it, and it... I don't know exactly, but it might be dangerous."

"Yu--"

"I need you to tell me that you're going to be careful," Yu says.

Akira looks up at him, and in that moment the problem he's been struggling with all month seems unbearably simple. For the first time, he wants to tell Yu everything. He wants to risk trusting that the person he's lived with for six months, and who is so intent on keeping him and Nanako safe, wouldn't really hate him, even if he knew the truth.

But Dojima is calling impatiently for Yu to get out to the car, and Akira doesn't have a chance to get a word out before Yu is gone.

He and Nanako are alone in the house.

"So," Akira says. "Yu just... got a threatening letter about someone close to him being put into a TV and killed, so they left the two of us home alone...?" If this was the TV World, at least he'd be able to protect himself and Nanako, but in the real world? Well, he still has his knives. Maybe he could stab someone?

He should really not stab anyone.

Unless they try to stab him first.

No. No stabbing. It's a bad idea, he's just... feeling a little freaked out about this.

He shivers a little, suddenly feeling paranoid. In this world, they're both just kids, alone in a house that's just had a threatening letter delivered to it. It seems like... maybe a responsible person would have made sure an adult is here, too? Even if Dojima doesn't know anything about what's going on, he should have been able to tell that something was going on. They'd gotten a threatening letter! Why is he leaving a couple kids home alone?

"Hey," he calls. "Nanako?"

He has to call her name twice before she snaps out of her thoughts and looks up at him. "Yea?"

"So I was thinking," Akira says, trying to sound not freaked out, because that will help her to not freak out. "Whatever that letter Yu got was about, it probably has something to do with the TV World, right?"

Nanako nods. "R-right," she says. "Because it talked about pushing people in."

"And whoever's pushing people in has already done it to a bunch of people," Akira says. "Pretty much all of Yu's friends. And we don't want them to be able to do that here, right?"

This time she just nods, eyes wide.

"So I think we should agree that we're going to stay here," Akira says. "Probably away from the TVs, just to be safe. And... I'm going to see if I can find phone numbers for any of Yu's friends, and call them and tell them what's going on."

"Naoto and Teddie?" Nanako asks.

"Anyone I can get a number for," Akira says.

Surprise breaks through her nervousness. "You're really going to tell them?" she asks.

He nods. "I think... if someone's sending threatening notes to the house, it's probably more important to stay safe than to worry about keeping secrets."

If he's trying to calm her down, though, it doesn't work. She only seems more nervous that after dragging his feet for a month, he's suddenly ready to just tell all of Yu's friends. "It must be really bad then," she says, in a small voice.

"I just want to be careful," Akira says. "I'm going to go see if I can find anyone's numbers in our room or something. You stay down here, okay? And don't go by the TV, and don't answer the door or anything."

"What if it's Yu and Dad?" she asks.

"I mean, don't answer the door if it's a stranger," he corrects, and hurries up the stairs.

A quick search of the room doesn't turn up any phone numbers, which doesn't really surprise Akira. Probably Yu just has all of his friends' numbers saved on his phone, which is probably with him at the police station right now. He stops to think, trying to figure out where else to get a phone number.

A lot of Yu's friends have family that own businesses, right? Yukiko's family has her inn, and Kanji lives with his mom who runs the textile shop. Everyone knows that Risette is living with her grandparents who own the tofu place, right? So if he can find the numbers for those...

He's pretty sure he has a flier for the Amagi Inn somewhere in his backpack from when Yusuke was staying there, so Akira grabs it and starts rooting through it for any sign of the the crumpled up flier. He still has a bunch of TV World stuff in there, and his math homework, so it's pretty hard to find anything. He's just thinking about dumping it out when he hears a knock on the front door.

"Don't open it!" he calls down to Nanako.

"It's just the delivery man!" she calls back.

"Oh," Akira says, and goes back to his searching.

And then a second later there's a noise from downstairs, a half choked scream that's cut off almost immediately. Akira's whole body goes stiff, just for an instant, and then without any input from his brain, his feet are taking him running down the stairs at full speed, storming down them in an ungainly half-fall. He's still clutching his backpack by one strap, too fully fixated on getting downstairs that he hasn't even thought to drop it, and when he swings himself around the corner of the stairs into the little hall by the door, he has a perfect sight of Nanako being forced into a van.

"HEY!" he shouts, voice breaking as he tries to put all the volume he has into it. "Hey, stop it!"

He's not even processing the fact that he definitely knows the face of the man that turns around now to face him. He's brought deliveries to the house plenty of times before. He's not thinking how or why or anything like that, he just needs what is happening to stop being a thing that is happening.

The man jumps like a startled rabbit, clearly surprised to see Akira there. Maybe he'd thought Nanako would be there alone, or maybe he's just surprised that Akira, who is a foot shorter than him, is charging straight at him.

(Akira is a little bit surprised by this too)

Nanako doesn't seem to see him--her head lolls like she's unconscious, which only freaks Akira out more. And then it gets worse, as he gets close enough to the delivery van to see what's sitting there, nestled in the back.

It's a TV.

"Don't you dare!" Akira yells, and the delivery man (to Akira's absolute horror and then anger) responds to this by climbing up into the van, and--

"No!"

And just like that, Nanako is gone.

Akira hits him from behind and they both kind of stumble into the back of the van. The man curses as he slams into the hard metal from the sheer force of Akira's full force charge, and Akira shouts in outrage.

"Shh!" the man hisses. "Stop yelling!"

"You took her!" Akira says, very much not stopping. "She's six years old and you're trying to kill her!"

"I'm trying to help her!"

Akira makes a choked noise that means I don't believe you and how dare you and you're hurting her all at once. Nanako is scared of the TV World. From the first moment she'd seen Yusuke fall in, she's been scared of it, and now she's stuck in there all by herself, and it's his fault because he'd said don't open the door for anyone you don't know and hadn't thought for a second that it would be someone they knew coming to hurt them.

He takes a second. He looks between the delivery man who had taken Nanako, and the TV where he'd thrown her. And he thinks for just a fraction of a moment about what he can do to actually help.

And then he scrambles up into the van and goes diving through the TV. He doesn't know where it leads or how he'll get out again, but he's not leaving Nanako there by herself.

"Kid!" the delivery man calls, and grabs for Akira, managing to get an arm around Akira's leg, throwing him off as he jumps, sending him crashing into the TV frame, smacking his head so hard that he blacks out.

The last thing he feels is the man losing his grip on his ankle, and then a freefall tumble through the TV as he slides sideways through it.

-//-

November 5

Midnight

-//-

It's been several hours since the awkward drive with Dojima to the police station, which has given Yu more than enough time to think back on all the things he could have done differently to avoid this. Maybe he should have said something earlier--told his uncle the truth. But he'd tried that today, and it hadn't worked out very well. In fact, Dojima hadn't believed him at all.

After several hours of very watching the second hand on the clock hanging on the wall crawl forward, Yu turns to look at the TV on the other side of the room. It's raining out, and it is almost midnight. They'd seen someone on the TV last night, and Yu wants to know if the image will be clear enough tonight to let him see who it is.

He gets out of his chair and heads over to the TV, waiting for the last few seconds as the clock ticks on to midnight.

Just as the second hand hits 12, the TV switches on, and Yu watches in horror as the unmistakable image of Nanako appears on the screen.

He closes his eyes and wishes he was anywhere but here.

It feels like hours later (the clock on the wall says it's been under thirty minutes) when Yu hears raised voices from outside the room he's been locked in, and recognizes them as belonging to his friends. He represses a fierce little smile--of course they would have been watching the Midnight Channel. Of course they would have recognized Nanako, and of course they would have run straight here.

Yosuke is the first one to burst through the door--apparently locked only from one side--and as he pants and tries to catch his breath enough to speak, Yu points to the TV he'd been watching the Midnight Channel on. "I saw," he says, but there's no time to say anything else before Dojima comes in as well, the rest of the Investigation Team just behind him.

"You can't all be in here!" he says.

Immediately, all of them start trying to explain at once. It feels strange to just be shouting it out like this, when for so long they've been trying to keep what they're doing a secret, but now Nanako is in danger and none of it matters.

But it's only when Naoto calls from the house, to report that she'd found the door open and the house empty, that he starts listening. Yu can actually see the moment when he switches from just frustrated anger at what he sees as a packet of lies to a horrified fear that something is wrong. Maybe he believes them about Persona and Shadows and the TV World, or maybe he doesn't, but at the very least, Nanako being missing gets through to him.

He's gone almost immediately, going after her himself, leaving an obviously confused Adachi to deal with Yu and his crowd of friends. Teddie finds the phone Dojima had confiscated, and hands it back. Yu looks down at the missed calls from the rest of his friends while he tried to reach , and can't help noticing that there are none from Akira's cell phone, or from the landline. Whatever had happened, he has a feeling they would have tried to call him. It must have been fast.

"What happened?" he asks, although he's not really expecting that any of them will be able to give him a complete answer. They've been a step or two behind the criminal all year, and this is exactly the same. "Do we know anything?" he adds, slightly more desperately.

"We know that Nanako showed up on the Midnight Channel," Yosuke says.

"But just Nanako," Yukiko says. Her expression furrows in confusion. "Why wasn't Akira on the Midnight Channel too?"

"Maybe it can only show one person at a time," Chie suggests.

"Or maybe it was because of that politician that came to the elementary school," Yu says. "For that photo op, remember? She was the one they picked to actually hand the award to, and everyone's been talking about it. But Akira wasn't involved in that, so he might not be able to show up on the Midnight Channel?"

Teddie starts to say something, and then cuts himself off.

"Dude might not be in the TV World at all," Kanji says. "He mighta seen Nanako get taken and run off scared."

"He would have tried to get in contact with us," Yu says. "With Dojima at least."

"Might not have his phone with him," Kanji says.

Yu catches himself hoping that's true. Wherever else Akira might be, it has to be safer than inside the TV. It's bad if just Nanako is in there, but it's worse if both of them are in danger. "If he's out somewhere in Inaba," he says, after thinking about it for a minute. "I... think he'll be fine. He's run off on his own before--that time with Yusuke, remember? If that's what happened, he'll come home again. But Nanako's definitely in the TV, and we're the only ones that can do anything to help her. We--"

Naoto comes running in then, late because she'd stopped by the Dojima house first to check on Nanako. Her normal composure has slipped, and she's panting slightly--she must have ridden her bike, or run, all the way here. Yu stops when he sees her, and says, with some trepidation, "How did everything look at home? I know you told Dojima they're both gone, but..." He trails off, half wanting to ask if there were any signs of a struggle, and half not wanting to know the answer.

"The door was open," Naoto says. "And I spoke to a few of the neighbors, just to see if we might have gotten lucky with any witnesses this time."

"And?" Yosuke asks.

"One of the people I talked to had heard shouting," Naoto says. "She thought it was one of the boys in the neighborhood playing, and agreed it might have been Akira."

"She didn't hear Nanako?" Yu asks.

"The rest of us were drugged before we were kidnapped," Naoto says. "I assume that's what happened in this case as well--the kidnapper saw Nanako on TV, went to your house to take her, and was surprised by Akira jumping in. He may not have had enough on hand to drug him as well." She hesitates, just for a second, then says, "I might know..." And then pauses again. "Actually, no. We need to figure out who this is first, and then we can talk about other issues."

What other issues, Yu wonders, but doesn't say. The conversation has already moved on, with everyone calling out their opinions about who it might have been and how they managed to get to Nanako. And maybe it's because they're all worried about Nanako (because it's not just Yu that cares about her--they all know her, and they all like her), but it's not long before they're able to come up with an idea of who might be behind this.

Someone that would be able to come right up to the house and not be noticed. Someone Nanako would have recognized, and opened the door for. Someone that could have a TV with him, and therefore someone with a large enough vehicle to hold it. A delivery truck. 

When a very confused Adachi confirms that the husband of the woman killed in Inaba's very first murder case has become a driver for a local delivery company, it feels like absolute confirmation. They're about to run off to investigate, when Yu suddenly pauses, looking back at Adachi. He's still technically being held by the police--not really under arrest, but definitely not allowed to run out in the middle of the night to investigate. 

Adachi hesitates, then says, "I... should probably pass this lead on right away," he says, although his expression says he's still really doubtful about this 'lead.' "And if anything happens while I'm not here... I guess I didn't see anything." He turns away pointedly, and Yu feels a rush of gratitude before running off with the rest of his friends.

It's barely five minutes later when they spot smoke rising in the distance, and find the mangled aftermath of an accident. Dojima, bleeding in his own car, and no sign of their suspect Namatame in the delivery van with the TV in the back.

No sign of either Nanako or Akira, either.

Naoto calls for help, and when she hangs up and turns back to Yu, her face is grim. "An ambulance is on its way for your uncle," she says. "And there's nothing we can do for Nanako until we get into Junes in the morning. But I propose that we should all go back to your house to talk. Teddie and I found something out that will be a factor in this rescue. The rest of you should know now."

"You're really going to tell?" Teddie asks, sounding surprised.

"I gave Akira a month to explain everything on his own," Naoto says. "And he hasn't. It also hasn't been a month yet, but these are extenuating circumstances."

"A month to tell...?" Yu trails off. He's wondering if Naoto and Teddie might have somehow found out about Akira's parents, but can't imagine that being relevant. "What is it?"

But the ambulance comes screaming up then, and (since it's obvious they're just getting in the way), and they agree to regroup at Yu's house before finishing the conversation. 

The whole way there, Yu is wondering what Naoto and Teddie (Teddie, of all people) could have found out about Akira that he doesn't already know. He's wondering how it could possibly be connected to Nanako's kidnapping, too, and by the time they get to the house and are more or less worried, Yu isn't just wondering, he's worried.

"It's so weird," Yukiko says, looking around the house. "I know I haven't been here very often, but it feels... empty, just knowing that everyone's gone."

"Yea," Yu agrees. With Dojima in the hospital and the kids taken, the house feels suddenly empty, even with so many of his friends crowded into it. 

"Dojima's going to be fine, though," Chie says, firmly. "Right? And we're going to get Nanako and Akira out of the TV."

"If they're both there," Yosuke reminds her. "Like Kanji was saying, Akira might've gotten scared and run."

For the second time that evening, Teddie makes his strangled noise like he half wants to interrupt.

It's Naoto who actually speaks, though. "About Akira," she says.

"Oh, right," Chie says. "You said you knew something about him."

"Yes," Naoto says. "Akira is the Trickster."

There's a beat of absolute silence, and then Yu shakes his head. "No," he says.

"He is," Naoto says, unperturbed. "I had Teddie confirm that he was the same person he met in the TV World."

"He really is," Teddie says.

"But--" Yu stares at both of them. "He..." And then it hits him. He already knows that Akira had lied to get here, and there hadn't really seemed to be a reason. But isn't this enough of one? If Akira has really been the Trickster all along, then wouldn't whatever he's doing in the TV World be enough motivation to lie his way into Inaba?

"I gave him a month to tell you himself," Naoto says. "Obviously he hasn't done that yet, but I felt that now that he has most likely been taken by the murderer, everyone does need to know."

"So Nanako's in the TV World with the murderer and the Trickster?" Rise says.

"And she has no idea," Yu says. If anything, she'd probably be counting on Akira for protection, not suspecting that he was a threat too.

But again, Naoto shakes his head. "I think Nanako knows about a lot of this already," she says. "We know from Teddie that when he rescued the other boy from the TV World with the Trickster, they were with two other people, a boy and a girl. The girl I admit I haven't been able to track down yet, but I assume the boy would be Yusuke Kitagawa. He's the only person close to Akira's age that I've been able to learn of that he's friends with. And--"

"Oh!" Teddie says suddenly. "The girl they talked about, who they said didn't fight but knew about everything--is that Nana-chan?"

"Probably," Naoto says. "I can't think of anyone else it would be."

Yu sits in stunned silence as the rest of them start asking questions of Naoto and Teddie. He can't believe any of this. He can't believe that Akira (who walks into walls in the morning when he's tired, who gets bullied at school and who Yu had trusted) is the Trickster. He can't believe that Nanako knows.

Eventually, it's a question from Yukiko that shakes him out of his own thoughts.

"So I guess," she says. "The Trickster isn't as bad as we thought?"

"Or," Yu says. "Akira's not what we thought."

"Yu..." Yukiko says, but her objection is soft and not entirely certain.

"The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle," Naoto says. "Not as nefarious as expected of the Trickster, judging by his actions when he was with Teddie, but also not as naive as expected of your average elementary school student." 

"Maybe," Yu says. "But we don't know." He stands up, thinking hard. Everyone is silent again, this time waiting for him to say something, and he realizes that they're all waiting for him to make a decision. Whatever he says here, they're all going to follow.

God. Akira. All this time.

"We should... hear from him," Yu says at last. "He should get a chance to defend himself. But we should also try and get to them as fast as possible, just in case he's going to do anything to Nanako while they're there alone."

"He wouldn't do that," Rise says. "Would he?"

"I don't know," Yu says. "Suddenly I feel like I don't know him at all."

They split up after that. Most of them end up camping in the living room, or up in Nanako's room, because it's half past two in the morning by now and explaining to various parents would be harder than just staying the night. Yu goes up to his room alone, though, and starts going through Akira's things. A part of him feels bad, but...

He needs to know.

Now that he's looking, he finds evidence. A careful stockpile of snacks and sodas, with the ones that Yu knows replenish stamina labeled 'EMERGENCIES ONLY!!!' on a well worn post-it-note. There's some clothes that would look weird in any other circumstance, but which Yu knows work as armor in the metaverse. Bandages. 

And then, shoved under one of the cushions on Akira's sofa, he finds the book of Shadows.

It's about two dozen pages, stapled together, with additional pages stapled onto the back where new entries have obviously been added at a later date. Each one has a rough scribble of a Shadow on one side, with a brief description in Akira's handwriting of all the details he wasn't able to get down in his art. On the other side is a better drawing--Yu wonders where those had come from, for a second, before he notices the edge of an envelope sticking out from under the sofa, and pulls out a letter from Yusuke with a couple more Shadow drawings inside. He's vaguely aware that Akira and Yusuke have been penpals since Yusuke went back to Tokyo, but hadn't known they'd been working on this.

On every drawing, in Nanako's careful, childish handwriting, is a list of Shadow strengths, weaknesses, and attacks.

So she really had known.

He's about to drop everything back onto the sofa when he realizes there's more than just the Shadow drawings in the envelope. There's a letter too, and he feels hardly any guilt about taking it out and reading it. 

Akira--

First of all, your descriptions of the new Shadows are getting much better, it's a lot easier to draw them when I have a good idea of what they're supposed to look like. 

Everything is fine here. Sensei has taken in a new student, so I am supposed to be on my best behavior until he settles in. I don't think it's going very well, though. They've already argued twice about how much Sensei is taking and putting his own name on before shows. I know other students have complained about that before, but I always thought that was how it was supposed to work. I'm not so sure anymore. Or Goemon isn't sure, maybe. Do you ever feel like your Persona is right there with you, even when you're in the real world? Showing you when things aren't right?

I don't know what I would do if Sensei wants to put his name on my paintings when I'm older. I know I'm not good enough yet, so he hasn't asked, but he might eventually. I think before this summer I wouldn't have minded. Now I don't know. It doesn't feel right.

About your question from your last letter--this might not get to you before you run out of time on Naoto's deadline, and I don't have any good advice anyway. Yu is going to find out whether you tell him or Naoto does. If he gets very angry when he finds out, it might be better for Naoto to tell him, but on the other hand he might be more angry if she tells him that you wouldn't do it yourself. Maybe just do it and get it over with, and then you can stop worrying.

The rest of the letter doesn't interest Yu much. Yusuke makes a few comments about things Akira had apparently written about things going on in Inaba, then talks about his school and some paintings he's working on. At the end, he tells Akira to say hi to Nanako, and signs off.

Yu sits on the sofa, and turns the letter over in his hands, and thinks about everything that's happened today. He'd almost been arrested. He'd told Dojima about the TV World and Persona. Nanako and Akira had been kidnapped into the TV. Akira is the Trickster. 

He maybe nods off a little, because suddenly there's someone knocking on the bedroom door, the sun is coming in through the window, and Yu is stiff all over from sleeping sitting up. 

"Are you awake?" Naoto asks. "I thought we should talk."

"Yea," Yu says. "I'm awake." He stretches out his stiff limbs, and Naoto comes in. She stands next to the door, arms crossed in a slightly defensive posture. 

"I wanted you to know," she says abruptly. "And if we'd gotten to the end of the deadline without him saying anything, I would have told you. But I thought he deserved a chance to say something first. After hearing Teddie's story, and talking to Akira myself, I wasn't sure he deserved the reputation he had."

"I'm not angry," Yu says. Then he adds, "Well... not at you."

"At Akira, then?"

"He should have said something."

"You should know," Naoto says quietly. "That when I confronted him about being the Trickster, Akira was afraid."

"Because a detective had just figured out his secret," Yu says.

"Because he knew how much you hate the Trickster," Naoto corrects. "And didn't want you to hate him."

"Hate is... that's a strong word, Naoto."

"But it's what Akira believes. Yu, can you tell me where you learned about the Trickster in the first place?"

"It's... complicated." He'd have to explain the Velvet Room and Igor. 

"Hmm." She frowns. "Can you at least be certain the information was complete and trustworthy?"

Yu considers this. On the one hand, Igor has never steered him wrong. On the other hand, he is impossible to read, inhuman in sometimes surprising ways, and he has never fully explained anything. "I think I could stand to ask more questions," he admits. 

Naoto nods in satisfaction. "Do you think you could manage to fit those questions in before we go into the TV World?"

Yu nods. "I'll need to stock up on supplies before we go in anyway," he says. "And I'll need to stop by the Shopping District for both of those things."

Naoto raises her eyebrows, but Yu doesn't elaborate. He's back to thinking, hard, about Akira. "I guess you want me to be okay with this. And with him. It sounds like you think he's... okay. Like he's not that bad, even if he is the Trickster."

Naoto shrugs. "I'm still new to this," she says. "I have a more open mind because I haven't been involved for as long as the rest of you. But I wanted you to talk to him. I wanted you to see what he had to say, and make up your mind for yourself whether you believed him or not."

Yu nods along with this. "I think I would have liked the chance to do that," he says.

"When we rescue them both," Naoto says. "You'll have it."

Chapter Text

???

-//-

Akira wakes with a pounding in his head and his gut churning, stretched out flat on something hard, with a weight pressed against him and the feeling of a mask on his face. He opens his eyes, gets a blurry view of yellow fog and some kind of flowery grass, and immediately throws up.

"Akira!"

The weight against his side speaks in Nanako's voice, and then she throws her arms around him in a desperate hug. Akira (who still feels disoriented and nauseated) might have resented it, except for the way he can feel her arms shaking. "Nanako," he says, trying to get his brain working again. "What...?"

"You didn't wake up for a really long time," she says. "I was scared."

He tries hard. Eventually, a blurry memory of the back of a van and smashing his head hard on a TV come back to him, and Akira stiffens a little bit. That's really, really not good.

"I didn't want to be alone with him," Nanako says, and glances over her shoulder. Akira looks too, and sees the delivery man that had kidnapped her in the first place, sitting several feet away in the open space where they all are. It's a weirdly nice seeming space, actually. Kind of like a flower garden, with rainbows.

"Did he try to hurt you?" Akira asks, instinctively moving so that he is between her and the delivery man.

She shakes her head. "He's just staying over there and kind of muttering to himself."

Akira gives the man a wary eye anyway, but when he doesn't even look at the two of them, he decides that maybe a human isn't as much of a threat as the fact that they're in the TV World, with no idea where, exactly, and therefore no idea how to get out. "Is my backpack around here anywhere?" he asks Nanako, and she nods and scurries a few steps away to grab it and bring it back.

"I looked at it a little bit," she admits. "Is that all your... your stuff you use to fight Shadows?"

"Not all of it," Akira says. "But some." He doesn't have any armor, and a lot of his good healing items are still in his room at home. But he has his daggers, and some lesser healing, and a few lockpicks. And one more thing that makes him grin as he reaches for it. "Hey Nanako," he says. "I have something for you."

"What is it?"

"I... got these from Teddie," Akira says, pulling out the joke glasses he'd sort of 'forgotten' to give back to Teddie when they were rescuing Daiki. "I didn't test it, but they're supposed to help you see through the fog." He hands them to her, adding, "Sorry they're kind of goofy. I didn't think we'd ever actually need them for anything."

She puts them on--they're too big for her too, and slide down unless she holds them on--and giggles. "I can see better!"

"Good," Akira says, relieved not only that she can see, but also that she's feeling good enough to laugh.

"But don't you need them?" Nanako asks.

"I have a mask," Akira says, and only then realizes that he's only wearing the mask, and not the rest of his usual costume. Lavenza had told him once, right after the first time he stumbled on Teddie and his clothes changed, that it was because he was seen as a threat. Maybe that means he's not seen as a threat here, for some reason? Or maybe because he's still too woozy after hitting his head that he genuinely isn't a threat.

Lavenza. He wonders why she hadn't shown up.

Nanako nods like this makes all the sense in the world, and Akira knows he's talked to her enough about the TV World that it probably does. "So what are we going to do?" she asks. "Can we get home?"

There's a little waver of fear in her voice as she asks the question, and it's obvious that even though she's trying her best to be brave, she's scared.

"Honestly," Akira says. "I don't know."

Her lip starts to tremble slightly. He goes on quickly, hoping that he can at least explain in a way that will make this easier. "You remember how we told you about how we had to get Daiki out of a Coliseum thing? And how we did a lot of practice in the castle?"

"Yes," Nanako says.

"So I think this is somewhere like that," Akira says. After all, everything else in the TV World just looks like a giant studio, and this is definitely different. "But I don't know how deep we are inside it, or how strong the Shadows are, or anything. And even if we get out, I don't know how far we are from a TV we can use to get back out."

"So we're stuck?" Nanako asks.

Akira hesitates. The one thing he's definitely not going to do is drag Nanako around the TV World, where she could get hurt. He hasn't seen any Shadows since he woke up, so wherever they are, it seems relatively safe. Once they leave and start exploring, that might not be true anymore.

"Akira?"

"I could... go exploring a little," he says. "Just to get a feel for what the Shadows are like. But I don't want to leave you alone with that guy." He pokes a finger at the delivery man. "He forced you in here, and he fought me when I tried to go after you. I don't know what else he might do."

She takes a look at the delivery man, then squeezes her small hands into fists, and juts out her chin a little. "Then you should go and I'll stay here," she says. "I'll be okay."

"But--"

"I want to get out!" Nanako says, a little more loudly now, tears in the corners of her eyes. "So you should do it!"

"I know," Akira says quickly, putting his hands on her shoulders and trying to calm her. "I know, Nanako. But--" Oh. Duh. "Yu and his friends will come," he points out. "I'm sure they're watching the Midnight Channel, and rescuing people is exactly what they do."

"But Yu's in jail!" Nanako says. "They won't be able to come!"

Oh. Well... yea. They kind of are on their own.

"I'll be really careful," Nanako says. "I promise. You should go figure out if we can get out of here."

"You're sure?" he asks.

Nanako nods vigorously.

Well, Akira's not sure, but there's nothing else he can think of to do. He casts a last look at the delivery man, who seems to be muttering to himself, then promises Nanako he'll be back as soon as he can, and slips out of the room.

It feels strange to be running through the hallways without his usual TV World outfit, even though it really hasn't been that long since he got those clothes in the first place. It's started to feel more natural to wear that than his street clothes.

At least he still has his mask. He would have felt naked without it.

He covers the first floor with extreme care, especially after the first Shadow he comes across almost beats him. Akira runs through most of the health replenishing items he has on him, and after that is too wary to risk getting into another fight. There are a few treasure chests, which he (carefully, because sometimes there are Shadows inside the treasure chests) opens and pokes through. There's nothing too helpful in any of them, though, and the only thing Akira feels he's really gotten out of the whole trip is a better idea of how in over his head he is.

Nanako, to his relief, is still in one piece when he gets back. She looks tired and worried, but still in one piece.

"Okay," he says, sliding down to sit next to her. "So I definitely can't fight through all these Shadows by myself. If Yusuke or Lavenza were here, then maybe, but they're just really powerful for one person to fight alone."

"So we're stuck?"

Akira pauses. Because the truth is that he's been thinking about it all the way back here, and the only plan he can come up with is one that he really doesn't like. "Well..." he says, and then stops.

"Well what?"

"Well... I can't fight all those Shadows," Akira says, slowly. "But I think I could sneak past them. I just... don't think I could do it if I had an extra person with me." Especially not someone that hasn't practiced sneaking around Shadows, and who couldn't fight back if they screwed up and got spotted.

"Oh," Nanako says.

"Yea," Akira agrees. "Oh."

"So I'd have to be here alone."

"Yea."

"Oh." Both of them turn and look at the delivery man, and his mumblings. He barely seems aware of where he is or what's going on. Like just being here has overwhelmed him.

Seeing that makes Akira really not want to leave Nanako alone here with him. "I don't remember how he got here," he tells Nanako. "Has he just been doing that the whole time?"

"Um..." Nanako thinks about it. "Well... he fell in before you woke up. And he freaked out a lot at first, then kind of just started mumbling. Like he's doing now."

"Do you know how long that's been, by the way?" Akira asks. "Like, how long was I unconscious for?"

"I don't know," Nanako says. "It feels like kind of a long time."

That had been kind of an unfair question, probably. It's not like there's any clocks down here, and since even the light doesn't change, it's really hard to guess how much time has passed while they're in the TV World. Usually Akira depends on Lavenza, who has a surprisingly great sense of time, to tell him how long it's been and when they really need to get back home.

He sighs. "Look," he says. "I don't know if he's going to just decide to jump up and start..." Hurting her. He's worried that he's going to decide it's time to finish the job with Nanako, and just...

Nope.

"I'm not going to leave you alone here," Akira says. "Unless something happens, I'm not going to leave."

"But then how will we get out of here?" Nanako asks.

"We're going to have to count on Yu coming to help us," Akira says, praying that Yu is really going to notices something's wrong, and that he's really going to follow them in, and be able to find them once he's there.

"Okay," Akira relents. "If we're waiting for a while and he doesn't show up, I'll think of something then." Maybe if it really did take Yu a while to get there, he'd do something. Or if something happened here that changed things, he might risk it. Right now, he's not going to abandon Nanako.

"But Akira..."

He sits down, and gestures for Nanako to sit too. She does, leaning against him.

Akira tries hard not to think about how long they're going to have to wait for Yu, or for one of his friends, to come get them. Or come get Nanako, anyway. Akira's pretty sure that Naoto and Teddie would have told the rest of them who he is, which means that they're probably not rushing into the TV to come rescue him. They'll rush for Nanako, though. He's sure they will.

-//-

November 6

Morning

-//-

Lavenza sits very still in the Velvet Room, and does not look at Igor as she says, "I don't understand why you asked me to stay here."

"Because," Igor says. "I do not believe that your assistance will be helpful in the upcoming battle."

Lavenza can hear her own breathing. It is very quiet in the Velvet Room. Even Marie, who is usually making some kind of noise--mumbling under her breath as she writes poetry, or thumping her feet against her seat in boredom--is still. "You're asking me not to interfere with whatever's going to happen with Akira," she says.

"With the Trickster," Igor corrects, not unkindly, although it feels like a slap. Lavenza straightens up.

"Yes," she says. "With the Trickster. I know he is in the metaverse right now. I know that he has been there since last night. I know that he would not have been there so long and so late unless something was wrong. I need to--"

"You need to stand back," Margaret says, and Lavenza thinks it's really not fair for both of them to team up against her. "It isn't exactly customary for a Velvet Room attendant to accompany her charge into the metaverse every time."

"It's also not customary for him to have found his way there so early," Lavenza points out. "He needs the additional help."

"Perhaps he did once," Igor says. "But between your help, the bonds he has begun to make along the way, and the hard work of his own, he is ready to stand on his own two feet."

Lavenza watches her hands on her lap. Carefully, she says, "He's been in there for too long. If he was able to get out on his own, he would have done so already."

"There is another Wild Card here," Igor says. "And as has been pointed out to me, the two Wild Cards have yet to truly interact." He leans forward, almost challenging. "And I am interested in what will happen then."

Lavenza has no doubt about that, because the last time she was in here, he'd mentioned the same thing--that he wanted to see the two Wild Cards together, to see what would happen in such an unusual circumstance. But this is her trickster that is possibly in danger. A few months ago, when she first met him, all she wanted was to send him back to the real world, and hope that he forgot all about it until the time came for him to find out.

And now, after all this time, he does not know her as a Velvet Room attendant. He does not even know the Velvet Room. He knows almost nothing of the future waiting for him, or what he will be asked to do in service to that future. All he knows is that Lavenza is a friend to him, and that she has never given him a reason to doubt that she will be there when he needs her.

"I understand your reasoning," she says. "But I don't agree with it." She looks up from her hands in her lap and meets his eyes. She tries not to feel afraid as, for the first time, she argues with him. "I have a friend that needs my help. I understand that you have certain expectations for Yu." She looks at Margaret, who is of course as responsible for Yu as Lavenza is for Akira. "But I just want Akira to be safe."

And she absolutely means it. She had not expected him to be a friend, but it's happened.

"Well," Igor says into the silence. "I suppose this is also an interesting development."

Lavenza is not sure that it's a good thing for Igor to suddenly declare that she is interesting. Actually, it's probably not.

"With the single condition," Igor says. "That if you feel you must help him, that you still do not fight his battles for him."

"So that means he does have battles to fight," Lavenza says. She'd known it, because he has no reason to stay in the metaverse for an entire night just for fun. But this is confirmation.

She is gone before anyone has any time to tell her not to try. Before anyone can ask her why she wants to try in the first place. She goes to her Trickster, and finds him looking none the worse for wear, apart from looking like he hasn't slept. Nanako is with him, along with a man Lavenza doesn't know, who she can tell after only a few moments of observation won't be a threat. Not as long as he's here. The metaverse--especially in this incarnation, filled with that fog that seems to make humans so sick.

"Lavenza!" Akira says, and she wonders for a second why he's whispering. Then she spots Nanako tucked against his side, looking asleep or at least out of it.

She's wearing fake glasses with a nose almost half as big as her face, and it's so unexpected that Lavenza smiles for a second despite herself. Then she refocuses on the situation at hand instead. "Tell me what happened," she says.

"Where were you?" he shoots back. He doesn't sound angry though, just relieved, and Lavenza thinks for a second that she would have taken anger over that relief in a second. Relief means that he had needed her, and she hadn't been around, the way he's come to count on her.

"I'm here now," she says. "So tell me what happened."

He tells her in careful sentences, explaining exactly what had happened. By the end, Lavenza is sitting next time him, on the other side of him from Nanako, checking the back of his head for swelling. "You hit your head on the TV," she says, as he makes a face and tries to squirm away. "I want to make sure you don't have--"

"Ow!"

"A concussion."

"Do you know what a concussion looks like?"

She doesn't. She has almost no experience with human injuries not inflicted by Shadows. If Dia won't heal it, Lavenza isn't actually sure what will. "Blood is probably bad," she hedges. "Or swelling."

"I'm fine," he says, pulling the word out into a whine. Lavenza tsks and pulls back. "It hurt when I woke up, and I threw up a little bit, but I'm pretty much okay now. I'm just sitting with Nanako because..." He hesitates. "I don't want to leave her alone here. With him."

Both of them look at the other man nearby, who has only looked at Lavenza once or twice since she got here.

"He hasn't really done much since I got here," Akira says. "I dunno why he'd go to all this trouble to push Nanako in here, and then fight me about it, and then jump in himself--" He pauses for emphasis. "And then just do nothing once he gets here!"

She considers how to answer this. "Did you ever consider what all the other people that were kidnapped into the TV did during the days they spent waiting for rescues?"

"I guess they must have been trying to escape?" Akira says. "I don't really know."

"This place isn't very conducive to people that don't have Persona," Lavenza says. "The fog makes them lethargic and slow to act. Some it affects faster than others, but it seems to have affected your kidnapper very quickly."

"He's not my kidnapper," he points out. "He's Nanako's kidnapper--I just jumped in here after her."

"Yes," Lavenza says dryly. "Good point. You did jump into a TV and knock yourself unconscious of your own free will."

Her trickster flushes and ducks his head.

The movement seems to remind him of Nanako leaning against him, and he looks back up again almost immediately. "If the fog really does affect people like that, does that mean Nanako is going to get sick too?"

"It might take a while," Lavenza hedges. After all, neither Akira nor Yusuke had been too badly affected by the fog before they had a chance to awaken their Persona. "And she will be fine, of course, when she gets out of here." Although she is young. Is there a chance that she might be more strongly affected...?

Lavenza pushes the thought away. Of course not. And even if it were true, there's nothing they can do about it other than to get her out of here as quickly as possible. Worrying Akira certainly won't help anything.

"Akira," she says, and he focuses on her immediately, surprised to hear her call him by his name, instead of Trickster. "You need to leave this place., and you need to go to Yu, and get help."

He shakes his head immediately. "I can't."

"You don't think you're capable of escape on your own?" she asks. "You're not at the same level as the Shadows here, and trying to fight them alone would be suicidal. But you can get past them without being seen."

"No," Akira says. "That's not why I'm saying I can't do it--I just mean that it would mean leaving Nanako. And the whole reason I jumped in here in the first place was to keep her safe. I'm not leaving her."

Lavenza has expected this argument. It's the same part of him that had gone charging in to rescue Yusuke when he fell into the TV. For all that he is, deep down to his bones, trouble, Akira is also loyal. He isn't going to leave a friend he feels responsible for.

Which is where she comes in. "These places," she says. "Like this heaven, or the castle where we spent so much time practicing--they're not exactly..."

Akira watches her, listening, a little tired behind the effort he's making to pay attention. Lavenza is reminded of the fact that he's been here all night, and decides to cut right to the end of her explanation. "What I mean is that I can't give you a portal back to the real world from in here," she says. "But I can place one for you outside. You need to go there if you want to leave and get help, which you need to do if you want to do any good at all for Nanako!"

She feels instantly guilty when she hears the way her own voice rising. It's not anger, even though it sounds like anger. It's just frustration, at her own restriction against helping Akira fight.

But she can offer this. "I will stay with her," she says.

And Akira, after an internal struggle that shows in every inch of him, nods. "I would have stayed with her," he says, a little defensively. " I would have. If you hadn't come."

"I know," Lavenza says, and waits while Akira stands, waking Nanako in the process. He explains to her what's going on, and Nanako is visibly nervous but after only a little bit of persuasion from Akira, she agrees to stay behind with Lavenza. "You would have stayed with her, and you would have protected her, but right now, you need to get out. The portal will take you to a place where you can get help, but you need to actually go."

Akira still hovers by the exit instead of leaving. "You promise you'll keep her safe?" he asks.

He's obviously talking to Lavenza, but Nanako looks at him and says, "I promise!"

Her answer startles a laugh out of Akira, and--to Lavenza's relief--he relaxes enough to actually turn around and leave.

When he's gone, Lavenza looks up at her. "Are we really going to be okay here without him?"

"Of course," Lavenza says, because if anything, she's more worried about Akira all alone than she is about the two of them. He's the one that's going to have to face however many Shadows there are between here and the exit.

"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" Nanako asks.

Lavenza gives that some consideration. The way out she has in mind for Akira is not the most direct route to getting help--it will not take him through any TV he's been to before, and will in fact take him farther from the help he can get from Yu and his friends.

But Lavenza justifies this to herself. From everything that she's heard, Akira is going to face a tough battle trying to convince the other Persona users to help, or to let him help them. 

He's going to need someone on his side.

-//-

November 6

Afternoon

-//-

It takes Akira some time to navigate his way back to the regular part of the TV World that he's used to dealing with. Working his way backwards through the area at least means that he's getting the strongest Shadows at the beginning, and that they only get easier as he goes down, but even the Shadows closest to the entrance are stronger than what Akira is used to fighting. There's absolutely no margin for error as he creeps his way past Shadow after Shadow, praying he's going the right way every time he makes a random turn, and feeling a kind of panic every time he comes to a dead end. 

He has no real way of telling how long it's taken, or what time it is when he finally gets back to the entrance. It feels like a long time, though, and normally Akira would be looking forward to going straight home and sleeping off the exhaustion. Instead, he only has a horrible confrontation with Yu to look forward to. 

Lavenza's right. He knows that she's right, that he can't get Nanako past all these Shadows alone, and that having Yu and his friends on his side would make everything much easier. 

But he's so scared of going to Yu right now.

When he comes to the way out that she has obviously made for him, Akira hesitates for longer than he really should. He's trying to psych himself up, and in the end it's only by reminding himself that he can't just live here and wait for Yu to come rescue him and Nanako.

So out he goes, through the TV portal, falling and falling in a way that's almost comforting because it's so familiar.

But when he finally falls out into the real world again, it's onto an unfamiliar floor, in an unfamiliar room, with unfamiliar sounds filtering in through unfamiliar walls and an unfamiliar window.

"Akira?"

He turns, disoriented but trying desperately to take in his surroundings, and he sees Yusuke sitting on the floor on the other side of an old fashioned looking room, in the middle of drawing something on a sketchbook larger than his lap. 

"What are you doing here?" Yusuke asks. 

"I..." He hesitates. Lavenza had said her portal would take him to somewhere he could find help, and he'd assumed that meant to Junes, to track down Yu and his friends--instead it had taken him to Yusuke. "It's a long story."

Yusuke's face indicates that he's ready and eager to hear the story, no matter how long it is. 

There's no time for that, though. Akira feels a lot better with Yusuke on his side, but the truth is that even the two of them together probably wouldn't be able to fight their way back through the Shadows to get Nanako out. They still need Yu's help. And Yusuke's, for that matter. Anyone's help, probably, anyone that can possibly do anything.

"How... do you feel about... kind of running away for a few days?" he asks. "I can explain on the way, and I know that's not a great explanation, but I could use your help, and--"

"Let's go," Yusuke says.

Chapter Text

November 6

Afternoon

-//-

"Do you have time to explain what happened before we leave?" Yusuke asks. "Sensei is guest lecturing at a university this afternoon, and the other students don't care what I do, so they won't bother us." He starts to pack his art supplies away, and Akira does his best to emulate how calm his friend is. The problem is that he does not feel calm at all. He's worried about Nanako, and about Yu, and about getting home--getting back to Inaba in the first place.

"Did you tell Yu?" Yusuke asks. "And he was upset?"

"No," Akira says. "I have to do that when we get there, actually."

"Did something go very wrong?" Yusuke asks.

"Yes," Akira says.

Yusuke nods like this is nothing less than he had expected. Akira cracks a smile. It doesn't last very long, but it's there for a second before it vanishes.

"So what actually happened?" Yusuke asks. "Can you tell me while I pack?"

Akira gives him the short version while Yusuke packs his art supplies away. "So maybe you won't want to come back with me after all," he finishes. "Yu might just... I don't know. He might do anything. He might shout at me, or... or turn me in, or--I don't know."

That's probably the worst part of it. He doesn't know what he's afraid of, exactly. The Yu he knows is quiet and understanding, and hard to really rile up. But from what he's heard from other people about how Yu is when he's fighting in the TV World, he's a different kind of person there. More of a fighter, and Akira doesn't know what that's going to mean if Yu decides that he's an enemy.

Would Yu actually attack him? Or would he just try and get Akira kicked out of Inaba in the real world?

"He might not be that angry," Yusuke says.

"He definitely will be!" Akira says. "He hates me. Everyone keeps telling me he does."

"Well, he doesn't know that you're you," Yusuke says. "Maybe when he does, he'll realize that he was wrong about you all along."

"Let's just focus on getting back to Inaba," Akira says, after a short pause. Yu's trying to cheer him up, which is really nice of him, but is actually just making Akira worry about it more. "Okay?"

Yusuke nods. "Do you have any money on you?" he asks. "We'll have to take a train."

"Some," Akira says. He'd fought some Shadows before Lavenza showed up, when he was trying to get a feel for how out of his depth he was, and he'd gotten some money out of that. "I don't know if it'll be enough."

It takes some time, actually, to figure out whether it will be. Yusuke pulls out a train schedule from somewhere, and Akira spreads his money out on the table, and they puzzle their way through the trains they'll have to take--first the local Tokyo system, which Yusuke kind of knows but Akira definitely doesn't, and then the line changes they'll have to make to get all the way back to Inaba.

"I think we can do it," Akira says at last, after double checking their work three times. "But..." He looks out the window, where the setting sun tells him that it's already getting late. "We won't get there until tomorrow morning." Which probably meant they'd have to find somewhere to stay the night, too--the trains they needed wouldn't run overnight. They could wait until the morning to leave, but then they wouldn't be able to avoid Yusuke's sensei coming back and definitely trying to stop them. "Are you still sure you want...?"

"Oh," Yusuke says. "Yes, of course. Are you ready to go?"

Yusuke is a good friend.

"Yea," Akira says. "Ready."

What it turns out that he is not ready for, though, is the sight that greets him when they step out the door. The atelier, where Yusuke lives with his sensei, is the kind of vaguely old fashioned looking place that wouldn't have looked that out of place next to somewhere like the Amagi Inn.

And then right outside is Tokyo.

There's a disorienting feeling of being not where he's supposed to be anymore, almost the same as the first time he'd fallen into the TV World. Earlier today (is it today? Or is it yesterday by now? Akira has completely lost track of time), when he jumped into the TV after Nanako, he'd been in the familiar surroundings of the Dojima house in Inaba.

Tokyo doesn't seem like it could possibly exist in the same world as Inaba, and even in these circumstances, Akira finds himself looking around at everything as they pass. He's lived in places more populated than Inaba, but there's something more and more overwhelming about Tokyo the more he sees of it.

There's just so much.

In basically any other circumstances, Akira thinks, he would have been completely focused on looking around and taking in the sights. Right now, all he can think is that there are probably hundreds or thousands of people here, and no one cares--no one even knows about Nanako, stuck in the TV World. There are all these people, crowds everywhere, and Akira and Yusuke are the only ones that can do anything about it.

The whole thing just makes Akira more determined to get out and get home and do whatever it takes to help her.

Because no one else can, and Akira... honestly isn't sure how many people would, if they could.

How many of them would do what the delivery man had done to Nanako? How many other really bad people are there in the world that would try to hurt instead of help?

"Akira?" Yusuke says. "You look angry."

Akira realizes he's tensing up, and that one of his hands is clenched into a fist, and he makes an effort to calm down and relax. "I think I am angry," he admits.

"Why?" Yusuke asks.

"Because--" He pauses to sum it up in his own head before answering. "Because there's someone in the world that wanted to hurt Nanako, and lots of other people, and I don't even know if he had a reason. I think that maybe he just wanted to hurt them, and that... makes me really mad."

So far in his life, he's always trusted the adults around him to pretty much want to do the right thing, and to be good people. He doesn't think that he ever would have been brave enough to try and bluff his way through pretending his parents are alive and fine if he didn't think that deep down, adults were pretty much good people.

It turns out that maybe they're not.

"It's okay," Yusuke says. "We're going to stop him, remember? We're going to take a bad thing and make it better."

"If we can convince Yu I'm not evil," Akira says. "And that he should let us help, and if we can get past all the Shadows. And--"

"Akira!"

Yusuke has stopped on the sidewalk next to Akira and is now staring at him in confusion. "You can't say things like that."

It's getting late. Akira had started the day by waking up in the TV World with a bump on his head, and now he's in Tokyo, hoping that he and Yusuke had read the train maps correctly. He's not feeling all that good about their chances of any of this actually working out.

But he's not alone, either. He has Yusuke with him, and Nanako and Lavenza on his side from inside the TV, and he thinks that maybe if he's lucky, Teddie and Naoto will be sympathetic, too.

Besides, he's... he's stronger than this. He's fought Shadows in the TV World, and in this one, he's made it this far on his own, without adults to help him. This is something that he can handle. It's something he can figure out, and once Nanako is safe and back at home, he can figure out whatever's going to come next.

"Akira," Yusuke says.

"Hmm?" 

"You're going the wrong way."

Akira blinks and looks around, then sighs when he realizes there's basically no point in trying to figure out where he is. Everything looks completely unfamiliar. "I... don't understand Tokyo at all," he admits, and changes direction so he's following Yusuke instead. 

-//-

November 7

Afternoon

-//-

It feels strange to wake up and go to school on Monday like Dojima is not in the hospital, Nanako is not trapped in the TV World, and Akira is not the Trickster. But the rest of his friends have parents that would object pretty strongly to their kids skipping school for however long it takes to get through that part of the TV World.

So since everyone else has to be there anyway, Yu goes too.

He does go late, calling Yosuke before class and asking if he can make some excuses to the teachers. Word is already starting to spread about Dojima's accident and Nanako and Akira's kidnapping, so he doesn't think anyone will protest too much.

He goes to the Shopping District before school, partly for supplies, and party for the Velvet Room. The supplies are easy--a trip to the metalworks to make sure there's nothing new and better than what his team has now, and then a second stop to pick up some healing items. A quick raid of every energy restoring drink in the vending machine. Easy. By now, even the sight of him carefully loading half a dozen sodas into his backpack barely raises an eyebrow--Inaba is a small town, and even the gossips have gotten used to the sight of him loaded down with soda cans.

So that part of the trip is easy.

What's harder is the Velvet Room.

Yu wrestles with whether or not to go in for a while. He'd told Naoto that he would, to try and get more information about Akira-who-is-apparently-the-Trickster, but somehow now that he's here, he's nervous. He doesn't know what Igor's going to say, but whatever it is, it will be cryptic and vague and hard to understand, and it might just make everything worse.

He's not sure if he can handle worse right now.

Marie is loitering outside the Velvet Room door, as she sometimes does, and she gives him a series of increasingly annoyed looks as he walks back, and forth, and does not go in.

"Hey!" she shouts at last. "Yu!"

He gives in, and crosses the street to talk to her. "Hi, Marie," he says.

"Hi," she says. "Why are you ignoring me?"

"I'm not," he says, and when she responds with a particularly articulate eyebrow raise, he adds, "I just... wanted to ask Igor some things, but I'm not sure I want to hear the answers. I was trying to make up my mind."

"Oh," Marie says. "Yea. The Nose almost never makes sense when he answers my questions either." She makes a face. "Or doesn't answer them, usually. What were you going to ask him?"

Yu sighs. "You know Akira?" he asks.

"Oh," Marie says. Just that. Oh. From her tone, it's like it's something she's been expecting Yu to come and ask about eventually, and that oh says it all.

"You already knew," Yu says.

"I mean..." Marie rolls her eyes. "I know everyone's kind of making a big deal out of him. But I don't really think there's anything to make a big deal about, you know?"

"No," Yu says. "The way everyone keeps talking about it, it seems like a pretty big deal to me."

Marie shrugs. "I don't know," she says. "Maybe if you go in there and talk to the Nose, he'd be able to tell you. I don't know if he actually would, though."

He probably wouldn't, Yu thinks. And maybe that's just an excuse to avoid what would definitely be an awkward conversation, but he just doesn't think that he can face Igor right now. There are too many other things going on. He just... can't.

"Thanks, Marie," he says.

"Sure," Marie says. "You should talk to him, though. I can't blame you for not wanting to talk to the Nose, but there's no reason you can't talk to Akira. He's probably have better answers for you."

"Yea," Yu says. If only Akira wasn't missing at the moment. "Yea, I bet he would."

But talking to Akira isn't possible, so Yu goes to school instead.

At lunch, when he passes Naoto on the stairs and she asks him if he's had a chance to get any answers, he is evasive and hurries away before she can say anything else.

Back to class.

He's a little surprised by how reassuring it is to have something normal in his life. Classes pass in a blur of distracted attention, and Yu's not sure how much he's actually retaining, but being here has to count for something, he figures.

It's keeping him from sitting at home and worrying, so a least that's something.

There's no question about what they're going to do after school, though. As soon as the last class of the day is over, the whole group--minus Teddie, who isn't a student at Yasogami--meets up outside the school gates. They walk together to Junes, without even discussing the fact that of course they'll need to go into the TV for Nanako.

And for Akira too, Yu knows. He's not sure what he's going to do when he comes face to face with Akira as the Trickster, but he knows at least that it's a confrontation that needs to happen. He just... needs to rescue the two of them before that can happen.

They're headed up to the food court, talking about supplies and weapons and how long they might have to travel, when Rise suddenly stops. "Oh!" she says. "Senpai, look--there's someone at our table."

There's two someones actually, Yu sees when he looks. And he knows both of them.

One of them is supposed to be inside the TV World.

"How did he get out?" Yosuke asks.

"I guess we'll have to go talk to him and find out," Yu says, without taking his eyes off Akira. He's not sure how he feels about this. Sometimes he feels incredibly angry that Akira had kept this a secret for so long, after he knew that Yu knew about the TV world too. Sometimes he feels a little bit afraid, that this boy he's been sharing a room with for months is the same person that's been haunting them in the TV World, and he's not sure which face is the true one.

He puts a hand out, a gesture for the others to stop. "Actually," he says. "I think I'm going to talk to him myself."

"Are you sure?" Kanji asks. "You don't want backup?"

"I want him to tell me the truth," Yu says, and he can admit that it's a little bit selfish--to want Akira to finally tell him the truth, when he's been holding back for so long. "Can you guys head into the TV and wait for me there?"

"If that's what you want," Yosuke says. "But are you sure?"

Naoto shakes her head at him, and is the first to start walking toward the stairs. "He'll be fine," she says, and after a few uncertain seconds, the rest of the group follows.

Only Teddie lingers, looking worried. "He really isn't... what we thought," he says, looking worried.

"Maybe," Yu says. "Or maybe he's just a really good liar."

Teddie makes an uncertain noise. The kind of noise a person makes when they don't agree, but don't want to come right out and say it.

Yu sighs. The problem is that he knows Akira is a good liar. It makes it very hard to trust him now. "I'm just going to talk to him," he tells Teddie, which is true enough. He's not sure what kinds of things are going to be said during that talk, but it's not like they're going to fight, or anything.

There's a reason Yu doesn't want to have this conversation in the TV World.

"Go on," he tells Teddie, and after a few more seconds, Teddie does so, uncertain and glancing over his shoulder a few times.

When he's finally out gone and out of sight around a corner, Yu takes a deep breath and walks the rest of the way across the food court to where Akira and Yusuke sit on opposite sides of the Investigation Team's usual table. They're spread out across from each other, both looking tired and a little worn, and neither of them notices Yu until he's practically on top of them.

Then Yusuke suddenly looks up and spots him, jerking upright so quickly it's he's been hit by an electric shock, and kicking Akira so hard under the table that Yu can hear the thump.

"Ow," Akira mutters, but then he follows Yusuke's frantic head jerking motions, and turns around to see Yu.

His eyes go wide, and he tries to jump to his feet so quickly that he trips on the table and crashes back down in an ungainly display that has several people around the food court looking at the three of them.

"Sorry," Akira says, when he's free of the table and actually on his feet. He stands in front of Yu, eyes fixed on the ground, face slightly red from the fall and being suddenly the center of attention, and for a second Yu genuinely can't believe that this really is the Trickster.

He sighs, then looks to where Yusuke is standing up less dramatically. "I want to talk to Akira alone for a minute," he says. "You know where the TVs are, right?"

He doesn't think that Yusuke is as potentially dangerous as Akira, and hoping that his friends will be able to handle things if he's wrong. And he really needs to talk to Akira first.

"Yes," Yusuke says. "But--"

"The rest of my friends are headed down there," Yu says. "Can you go wait with them?"

"You should go, Yusuke," Akira says. "It'll be okay."

"Are you sure?" Yusuke asks. "You worried about this all the way out here."

Akira shakes his head vigorously. "It'll be fine," he says, so emphatically that Yu knows he's lying. But Yusuke goes, and the two of them are left alone.

"Come on," Yu says, settling into his usual spot at the table. "You can sit back down, everyone's staring at us."

"Yea," Akira says. "Okay." He sits across from Yu, and waits. Yu realizes that he's going to have to be the one to start the conversation. He does so with a single word.

"Nanako?" he asks.

"She's still in the TV," Akira says. "I couldn't get her out by myself. The Shadows were way too strong for me."

"So how did you get out?" Yu asked.

"By not fighting," Akira says. "But I couldn't do that with her. She's not used to sneaking around, and she doesn't have a Persona so I don't know if the fog would make it harder for her, and if I messed up and got us caught, she could get really, really hurt."

"So you just left her there?" Yu asks. His voice is more of an accusation than he means it to be, but this is Nanako they're talking about, after all.

Under the table, Akira grips his knees tightly. It's barely visible from where Yu is sitting, but he can see the way Akira's shoulders go tense with the nervous intensity of the gesture. "I didn't want to," he says. "But I needed to get help, and she does have Lavenza with her."

"Lavenza?" Yu asks. "She--" Of course he should have assumed that if one of Akira's friends is part of this, the other would be too. "So she's the one that Teddie calls Butterfly."

Akira nods.

"She's a Persona user?" Yu asks.

"She's... yes? She's a lot of things. And she's complicated. But she's powerful, and I trust her absolutely."

Which would have meant a lot more, if Yu had been certain that he can trust Akira. "Fine," he says. "So you left Nanako behind, and you say she's safe for now." Either way, safe or not, they'll still have to rescue her. Yu reminds himself that even if Akira is lying, Nanako isn't in any more dangerous than anyone else had been, and they'd all been rescued. "Now I want to talk about you."

"Yea," Akira says. He takes a deep breath, and makes an obvious effort to pull himself together and meet Yu's eyes. "What did you want to know?"

So many things. "Let's start at the beginning," Yu says. "You are the Trickster, right?"

"Yea," Akira says.

Yu had known this already, of course, but hearing Akira say it makes it somehow so much more real. "And what exactly does that mean?" he asks.

Akira shrugs. "Dunno," he says. "Lavenza just called me that when we first met. I guess it means something to her, but..." he trails off with another shrug. "I don't know. It's just a name she calls me, I guess." He looks down at his hands on his knees, stares at them like he's forcing himself to relax, and then puts his hands on the table, palms up.

"That's really it?" Yu asks skeptically.

"I mean, it feels pretty accurate," Akira says. "It seems like I'm always in some kind of trouble."

"Maybe that's because you're always lying," Yu says. "And when you're in the TV World you're creeping around and talking to Shadows, you're--"

"No," Akira says. "Yu--"

"You kept hiding, even after you knew that I knew--"

"Yu!"

"You're definitely causing some kind of trouble or you wouldn't be--"

"I'm not trying to do anything wrong!" Akira objects, springing suddenly to life to defend himself. "Yu, I know you hate me but I swear I haven't done anything! I fight Shadows just like you do. And I'm not trying to be sneaky, I just can't fight all the Shadows all by myself!" He's passionate and energetic, but still aware enough of their surroundings to keep from shouting. "I talk to Shadows because that's how I can convince them to help me, and if I couldn't summon more than one, I'd barely be able to fight at all." He takes a deep breath. "I'm not doing anything wrong. When I started it was just... messing around with fighting Shadows, because I couldn't make friends and I didn't have anything else to do. Then it was helping Yusuke after he fell in and got his Persona, and then rescuing Daiki because--because it felt like the right thing to do. I've never hurt anyone, and all I want to do now is rescue Nanako."

He finishes this, and then there is silence.

Yu is quiet, trying to process the flood of explanation that has poured suddenly out from Akira. It feels like something that has been bottled up for a very long time, finally poured out. There's so much there to follow up on and question that Yu doesn't even know where to start.

Finally, he says, "I don't--hate you." It's more complicated than that. Everything about this is more complicated than any single emotion.

Akira shakes his head. "Maybe not me, Akira," he says. "But definitely the Trickster me. And that's all of me. It's not like I'm someone different when I'm in the TV World. I'm still me, just... with a mask and a Persona."

"The mask," Yu says. "Why...?"

"It's how I summon my Persona," Akira says. "Teddie says you guys all differently, but Yusuke's the same as me, so..." He shrugs, and watches Yu for a reaction.

A reaction that Yu isn't sure how to give, yet. The things that Akira is saying do make sense. It would make sense that Akira is just a kid that had stumbled into the TV World, just like Yu had, who had figured out how to fight Shadows, and had stayed to help where he could. It makes sense and it fits with what he knows of Akria.

But what he knows of Akira isn't all there is to know. And Yu doesn't know the Trickster at all.

He'd thought he did. It had been stressful but easy to put the Trickster in a category with the Shadows or the kind of person that would shove people into a TV. It's easy to put a stranger in a category like that, but when it's someone he's lived with for months, it's harder and different. The Trickster is an actual person now, not just some faceless phantom.

He makes a decision. "You're coming in with us," he says. "To the TV World."

"You want me in with you?" Akira demands.

Yu can't exactly blame him for being surprised, because it's  an incredibly dangerous idea to just let Akira come into the TV World with them. Here. he's an essentially harmless twelve year old. In there, he'd have Persona and be able to fight back. 

"You want to rescue Nanako, don't you?" Yu asks. He's sure he knows the answer before Akira gives it--and then he wonders why he's so sure. Akira and Nanako have been close for months, but.... there's no way to be absolutely positive that's not an act. 

"I do," Akira says. "Yu, she's.... she's really scared of the TV World." He leans forward, expression serious and pleading, and Yu feels his stomach lurch. "I didn't have a choice about leaving her behind, but I want to go back in and rescue her, because I know she must be scared right now, and it's my fault that..."

He trails off. Yu is left torn between whether he should comfort him or stay wary, and compromises with both. "Did you push her in?" he asks. 

"No!"

"Then it's not your fault. But Akira, I don't know if I can trust you. All this time I thought I knew who you were, but there was this whole Trickster thing all along that you kept to yourself. And I don't know who the Trickster is, Akira, but there's a lot of whispers that maybe he--maybe you--are bad news."

"But..."

"But," Yu says, without letting Akira finish the sentence. "I'm willing to give you a chance to show me who you are. I want to give you that chance." And although he wouldn't admit it to Akira... Yu really wants to find out that he's been wrong about the Trickster all this time after all. He wants Akira to be worth taking a risk for.

Akira lights up and scrambles away from the table. "Thank you!" he says. "I was so afraid that--" But he doesn't finish the thought, just shaking his head and saying instead, "Can we go now?"

"Yea," Yu says. He doesn't want to leave Nanako waiting any longer than he has to. "Is that your stuff?" he asks, pointing at Akira's backpack. 

"Some of it," Akira says. "Also some homework and a map of the Tokyo subways."

Yu pauses at this last one, raising his eyebrows.

"They're very confusing," Akira mutters, which doesn't actually answer any of the questions Yu wants to ask about how and why. On the other hand, he knows that Yusuke lives in the city, so if Akira had come back with him, then maybe...?"

"Come on!" Akira calls, and Yu shakes his head and follows him. Questions can wait.

Instead he walks after Akira, watching him move confidently toward the electronics section, and the way he circles the TVs a couple times, checking to make sure that absolutely no one is around before stopping in front of the big flat screen display. 

Yu stands next to him. He feels weirdly reluctant to go in first, and Akira seems to be feeling the same way. 

"You have weapons and armor?" he asks. "I saw some of your stuff back in our room earlier, so I thought--"

"I didn't have it with me when I went after Nanako," Akira says.

"But you use daggers," Yu says. "Right?"

"Yea," Akira says. "Yusuke uses a sword though."

"I think I have some stuff he can borrow," Yu says. "And Yosuke uses daggers, if you want to use his."

"Thanks," Akira says. He turns away from the TV, to look right at Yu. "I really just want to help Nanako, Yu. I promise."

He looks so earnest that again Yu catches himself wanting to believe him. It's just... hard. After being lied to for so long. He needs to give it some time. To let Akira prove himself. "Come on," he says, and leads the way into the TV.

At the end of the usual long fall, when Yu has landed, he turns to see--

It's Akira, he reminds himself sternly, as everything in him tenses at the sight of the Trickster.

His street clothes are gone, replaced by a dark shirt, pants, and coat. The only color on the outside comes from the flash of bright, blood red on his hands, and the white mask covering the upper half of his face. The overall effect is that Akira seeks somehow taller here, older and more in control. 

Then Akira looks up at him and Yu realizes it's not just the costume. He's never seen Akira look like this, confident and competent and ready to fight.

"Huh," he says, trying to regain control of the situation. "So why exactly does that happen?"

"Um," Akira says, and Yu is almost surprised to hear that his voice is the same as ever. "I'm sure it's not a big deal."

Yu raises his eyebrows. 

"Lavenza says it's because this place recognizes us as a threat," Akira admits. Yu almost asks who 'us' is, but then spots Yusuke in some kind of white fox mask heading over to stand at Akira's side, and that answers that question. 

"Just as long as you're not a threat to Nanako," he says. 

"I'm not," Akira says. "I promise."

Yu nods. "Then lets go get her." He turns to Rise. "Do you think you'll be able to find where he is?"

"It should be easy!" Teddie pipes up. "Akira was in the same place she is, he has the smell all over him!"

"He's right," Rise agrees. "I can use my Persona to track her by where he's been."

"Perfect," Yu says, as she summons her Persona and starts scanning. At least in this one way, having Akira around has helped already. 

-//-

November 7

After School

-//-

It's a long walk to the place where Nanako is being held, and it feels even longer to Akira as he walks with Yusuke at the back of the group. He can feel eyes on him all the time, as Yu's friends keep looking back at the two of them, and it makes him feel jumpy and unfocused. He's used to stealth inside the TV World, so being the center of attention makes him want to bolt off in another direction.

"So how was it?" Yusuke asks after a while. 

"Huh?" Akira asks.

"Talking to Yu," Yusuke says. "How did it go?"

How had it gone? Akira is still trying to process everything--after all this time, Yu knows, and he's mad but he hadn't attacked him or even shouted. He'd just been disappointed, and maybe almost...

Afraid?

Akira does not want Yu to be afraid of him.

"Well," he says. "We're here. That has to mean he's not as mad as I thought he'd be, right?"

"I think so," Yusuke says.

Someone breaks off from the rest of the group then, dropping to the back to walk with Akira and Yusuke. Naoto.

"I'm sorry that I had to tell him before the end of the time that I gave you to do it yourself," she says. "But I wasn't expecting events to turn out like this."

"It's okay," Akira assures her, because honestly... yea, it would have been a lot to expect her to keep it to herself after all this. "I... was ready. When that letter came today, I realized that everything was getting serious. I didn't want to have to keep it a secret from Yu."

"Possibly a realization you should have had earlier," Naoto says.

Akira shrugs and looks away. "Everyone was saying it was a bad idea," he says. "I think because I'm not supposed to be here."

"Not supposed to be here?" Chie asks, and Akira bites his lip. Obviously with everyone turning around to stare at him every five seconds, he should have expected that his conversation would get overheard. "What does that mean?"

"It's... kind of hard to explain," Akira says. He doesn't even know all of it, after all. Just the pieces Lavenza has given him, and those don't always make sense. 

"You could try," Naoto says.

"Um," Akira says. "So I think what it is, is there are these people called Wild Cards, who can summon more than one Persona, and I think see that purple door." He looks at Yu, who of course is turned toward him to listen. 

While everyone else seems confused by this reference, Yu says, "So you can see those?"

"I can't open it," Akira says. "But I can see it. I think Lavenza belongs there, and--"

"Hang on," Yu interrupts. "I've never actually met her, but is she about this tall--" He gestures. "Hair a little past her shoulders, always wears blue?"

Akira nods. He'd forgotten that Lavenza always seemed to be somewhere else when Yu was around. 

"Then I guess I have met her," he says. "In the Velvet--uh, on the other side of the door. She was where I heard about you first. I heard her talking to... you wouldn't have met them, I guess. But to some other people, who were worried about how it wasn't right that you were here."

"Because I guess I'm not supposed to be doing this yet," Akira tells him. "From what Lavenza told me, I wasn't supposed to have a Persona until I was older. She talked about how someday I'd have to sign a contract, and I shouldn't know anything about Persona and Shadows until that happens."

"So you being trouble here never had anything to do with anything you were doing?" Naoto says.

Akira thinks about all the sneaking around and lying he's done to get into the TV World, and how upset Madarame had been when Yusuke went missing because he fell in. "Well," he admits. "Maybe I've caused some trouble. But I didn't mean to."

"Don't you think it would have still been better to talk to us about it?" Yukiko asks. "After you met Teddie, you could have said told us all this."

"It's..." He trails off and shrugs. It's complicated. He doesn't think he wants to explain all that--he already feels out of place here, too young and supposedly the bad guy. It'd be weird to start talking about everything that made him not want to tell Yu in the first place.

"We know now," Naoto says firmly. "So we can all focus on getting Naoto home."

"That's right," Yukiko says. "She's counting on us."

"And Dojima too," Yosuke says.

"Wait," Akira says. "Dojima? Did you tell him about this?"

"He doesn't know about you," Yu says. "Because I didn't know about you before the accident, and he's been in the hospital since then, so... Akira?"

Akira realizes he's stopped walking. There's a strong feeling of foreboding in his gut, like he's fallen off a cliff and his brain just hasn't caught up yet. "Accident?" he asks.

"He tried to catch Nanako's kidnapper," Naoto explains. "But he crashed."

Not again, Akira thinks. It's not just the shock of finding out that Dojima--who had seemed too solid to ever be hurt by anything--is in the hospital. It's that hearing that it had been an accident, a car crash, of all things, brings him right back to that moment last year when he'd heard on TV that his parents were dead.

"Akira?" Yusuke says, and then gets it, because of course he's the only one here that knows. "Oh."

"'m fine," Akira says. There's a rushing in his ears so loud he can barely hear what's going on around him, and then suddenly Yu is there in front of him, looking concerned. "We're only a few minutes away," he says, turning to look at Rise. "Right?"

"Right," she says. "Maybe... five more minutes in this direction."

"You guys go ahead then," Yu says. "We'll catch up."

"I'm fine," Akira says, with a little bit more energy this time. 

"You don't look fine," Yu tells him.

He's getting there, but this on top of everything else is just--a lot. It's blindsided him the same way the anniversary of his parents' deaths had. "We can keep going," he says.

"Take a minute," Yu says, and because he's standing in the way--and because Akira actually does feel a little shaky--he listens. He actually sits down, taking deep breaths. He hugs his knees, and tries not to freak out completely, not here and not now, not in front of Yu who doesn't have any reason to give him sympathy right now.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to just... panic like that."

"It's okay," Yu says.

Akira glances away, and then comes to a decision all at once. Yu doesn't trust him because he hadn't told him the truth about being in the TV World. Maybe it's time to stop keeping a few more secrets. "There's something I need to tell you," he says.

-//-

November 7

After School

-//-

If anything was going to convince Yu that he's been wrong about the Trickster the whole time, it'd be this. 

He should have thought of this. He should have expected that Akira, who hadn't been able to get out of bed on the anniversary of his parents' deaths in a car accident, would struggle now hearing that Dojima had been hurt the same way. But he hadn't thought of it, because the Trickster is not, in his mind, someone that can be hurt like this.

Akira is, though, and as awful as Yu feels for not seeing this coming, at least he is sure, now, that he knows who it is sitting on the ground in front of him. The Trickster, sure, but underneath the mask, it's Akira. It's always been Akira, and maybe he fights Shadows and lies, maybe he is capable of way more than Yu had thought a week ago, but he is still Akira.

"There's something I need to tell you," Akira says, and Yu shakes his head.

"You don't have--"

"I do," Akira says, interrupting before Yu can tell him that he already knows, and has actually known for months. "Because I want you to know."

"I..." Yu stops, and nods, and sits down on the ground in front of Akira. If Akira wants to actually tell him something, why not let him? And it's not like he doesn't have questions, actually. There's only so much he can learn from Dojima's borrowed report. "Okay," he says. "Tell me."

Akira takes a deep breath, then lets it all out in a sigh that seems to leave him smaller than he had been before. "My parents are dead," he says. "They died a little over a year ago, in a car accident."

Yu nods. This much he knows. "You didn't tell anyone when you came here," he says.

"I haven't told anyone except Lavenza and Yusuke," Akira says. 

"Why not?"

"Because..." Akira rubs at his face around his mask, and Yu wonders if he's crying. It's a little hard to tell. "I guess I kept waiting, at school last year. I saw it on the news that they were dead--there was a report about this big accident, and I saw their car, and I looked it up for myself after. There was a website that had released the names of all the adults that were killed, and they were there."

Yu tries to imagine what that would be like, and can't.

"I kept waiting for someone to say something," Akira goes on. "And no one ever did?" There's a note of confusion in his voice. "No one ever said anything, and sometimes I wondered if... if it was all just a mistake, or if they didn't know I existed, or... or if I was supposed to be figuring it out myself? I didn't know what I was supposed to do, and I didn't... I didn't really want to talk to anyone about it. I was thinking about it all the time, and it was kind of nice to pretend."

"So you just...?"

"I heard about this exchange program somewhere, and it seemed easy to sign up, so I thought... I would just try. And I did. And it worked." He shakes his head. "It was kind of stupid, I think. But I wasn't really thinking clearly at the time, and... and I was happy being here. I'd stay if I could, I think, and..." He shudders. "And all that is pretty much why I freaked out when you said that Dojima... that he's..."

"He's not dead," Yu says firmly. "He was injured and taken to the hospital, but he's not dead."

Akira's eyes slide away, and Yu can see clearly written on his face that Akira's mind has added another word to the end of that sentence--yet. Dojima is not dead yet.

"They know what they're doing there," Yu says. "If anyone can help him, it'll be them. And when he gets out... I think you should tell him all of this too."

"He'll send me away," Akira says.

He was going to do that anyway, Yu thinks but does not say, because that would not help. "You should tell him anyway," he says instead. 

Akira sets his face. Even with the mask, Yu recognizes the stubborn expression, and hides a smile.

"You should," he insists. "I know that you came here because it was convenient, and it was somewhere you could go where no one would know who you were or what happened to your parents, but you can't pretend that Inaba is just a place where you live."

"I guess," Akira says.

"Tell Dojima,"  Yu tells him. "You'll feel better."

"I'll..." Akira sighs, and stands up. "I'll tell him when everything calms down and it feels right. But... you won't tell him, will you?"

Since Dojima had been the one to tell Yu in the first place, there's no chance of that happening. And Akira should probably be the one to tell him, anyway. "I won't," he says, and stands up. "Now come on. I know everyone's waiting for us."

Akira lingers on the ground a moment longer though. "Do you... are you still mad at me?" he asks. "Yu, I really didn't mean for everything to get this out of control."

"I'm not mad," Yu says, and means it in a way he couldn't have in the Junes cafeteria an hour ago. "Now come on."

This time, Akira does come, and they walk on to where Nanako is together.

Everyone's quiet when they get there, which maybe isn't too surprising considering everything that's going on right now. 

"So how are we doing this?" Yosuke asks, looking at Yu. "There's way too many of us to all go through together."

It's true, actually. Not counting Rise, who doesn't fight, there are nine of them now, and trying to fight with any more than four at a time just gets chaotic, and puts them in danger of hitting each other. On the other hand, there's actually enough people here to split into two teams, and even have someone sit out until needed. It's sort of ideal, actually, and Yu runs his eyes up the group thoughtfully as he considers how to split them up.

"You can get past Shadows without fighting them," he says to Akira. "Right?"

Akira, who had sat down next to Yusuke, looks up at this question. "Yea," he says. "Or without fighting most of them, anyway. But if I do get caught, the Shadows here are way more powerful than what I'm used to."

Yu nods. Putting him with a couple of his quieter friends (maybe someone that could heal, if Akira wasn't used to this level of Shadows) would probably be best. So Akira and Yusuke together--he considered adding Teddie to the group as well, but even if they had worked together before, Teddie could not be called quiet by any stretch of the imagination. "Yukiko, Naoto," he says. "Can you two go with Akira and Yusuke? I think that if we have one team going in as normal, and a second team--" He points to Akira. "Scouting ahead, we should be able to make faster progress than normal."

"Of course," Yukiko says, as Naoto nods agreement.

"So the rest of us are with you?" Yosuke asks.

"Rotating out as people get tired or hurt," Yu agrees. "Unless anyone has a problem with that setup?"

But nobody does, so that's what they do. Yu pools resources with what Akira has in his bag, and then divides it up again more evenly. He makes a note of the equipment Akira and Yusuke are using too (it is actually several steps below what everyone else has) and makes a mental note to stop by the metalworks tomorrow, if they need more than one day here. But there's enough here for now to get them through, and soon enough he's watching Akira, Yusuke, Yukiko, and Naoto head in ahead of them.

"So you guys worked everything out back there?" Yosuke asks.

"Pretty much," Yu says.

"Good," Yosuke says. "We don't need any more enemies right now."

Chapter Text

November 7

Evening

-//-

They  manage the first three levels of Heaven that day. Split between two groups, with Akira, Yusuke, Naoto, and Yukiko scouting ahead, they do make decent progress. Yukiko and Naoto are both able to pick up on what Lavenza has taught Akira fairly quickly.

Faster than Teddie had, anyway, so it could have been worse.

They get into a system. On each floor, Akira takes his group down the different hallways, checking for Shadows and treasure as they go. Yusuke has paints with him, because he is Yusuke, and they start marking the doors and hallways as they go. Red paint for routes with too many Shadows, blue paint for safer paths, and yellow paint for treasure. When they find the stairs they sit there and wait, giving Yukiko a chance to heal everyone up while they wait for the other group to come after them, having fought their way through the less guarded paths, and picked up any treasures that were too heavily guarded for Akira's group.

Then they start all over again on the next level.

When they meet up on the stairs to level four, all nine of them together, Yu takes a look around at the group and announces that they're done for the day.

"We can keep going," Akira says immediately. He's pretty sure that if Yu is worried about anyone, it would be him and Yusuke (the few fights they've had have made it very clear that they're much less powerful than Yu's friends).

"Ow," Yusuke says from next to him, where he's laid out flat on the floor.

Akira relents a little, shooting his friend an apologetic look. "Or maybe not," he admits.

"It's not that," Yu says. "We had a late start today, and we have to be getting back before anyone starts getting worried."

It hits Akira, with a sick little lurch, that there's no one to worry about him or Yu tonight. Nanako's here and Dojima's in the hospital. But everyone else has parents they need to get home to, so they use a Goho-M to get back to the entrance, then walk to the same place they'd fallen in so that they can get back out. They go in waves, a few at a time, so that Junes's electronics section won't be suddenly flooded with all of them coming out, and in the end Akira finds himself alone with Yu and Yusuke.

"So where are you staying?" Yu asks, looking at Yusuke, and Akira realizes that this is something they have not thought about yet.

"Uh," he says. "We... didn't think that far ahead."

Yu looks between the two of them, then says, to Akira, "You didn't tell his guardian that you were bringing him here, did you?"

"I had to come," Yusuke says.

"But yea," Akira admits. "He's going to be upset."

"This is important," Yusuke insists, which is reassuring in the face of Yu's torn expression.

"Don't tell him?" Akira asks. "Not until we get Nanako back?"

"More secrets?" Yu asks.

"Hey," Akira says. "You keep secrets too. About the TV World and the metaverse, right? Because some things are important and this is one of them."

They need as many people as possible so they can get to Nanako. Yusuke is helping. And it's not fair to ask him to leave now.

Luckily, Yu seems to agree. Or at least he doesn't say anything about it, which is just as good for right now. "Come on," he says instead. "There's no one at home, Yusuke, you can stay with us."

"Thank you," Yusuke says, and all three of them leave Junes together.

The walk home seems longer than usual, but maybe that's just because Akira has so much to think about. He hasn't been home since Nanako was kidnapped and he followed her in, and that seems like weeks ago now, not days. When they finally make it back to the house, it finally feels like he's back in the real world, in a way that Tokyo in all its noise never could.

Akira relaxes.

At least until he gets upstairs, and sees the mess there.

"So... you went through all my stuff?" he asks, as he cautiously starts to pick up the metaverse equipment that had still been hidden around the room when he left. 

"I wanted proof," Yu says quietly. Akira turns, and sees him standing in the door, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed.

Akira struggles to be upset, but can't really dredge it up. After all, it's what he'd done too. "I did the same thing when I found out," he says. 

Yu walks farther into the room, and joins Akira in putting his things away. "There's no real reason to keep all this stuff hidden anymore," he says, as Akira kneels down and starts packing things away in the back of the bottom drawer on the chest of drawers. "We both know."

Akira stops, balancing on his ankles, and looks up at him. "And I told Nanako," he says. "And you told Dojima."

"It's kind of crazy," Yu says. "That we've been living in the same room this whole time, and keeping the same secret, and it took us this long to actually talk about it."

"I guess it was easier for both of us to just keep lying," Akira says. He gets up and goes to sit on his couch, and a few seconds later, Yu crosses the room to sit at the desk--they sit, and they talk, the same way they have a hundred times before. "Did you ever think about telling me...?"

"I thought about it," Yu says. "But then I thought you wouldn't be able to handle it. I thought you were too young."

"I'm not," Akira says.

Yu grins. "Obviously," he says. "I know that now. But I thought keeping it a secret would protect you."

"Well I mean, there was a dangerous Trickster running around the TV World," Akira says. "I can see why you'd want to keep me away from that."

Yu gives him a look, which Akira returns with a grin. It fades quickly though, as  Yu says, "I'm sorry for lying to you. It seems like... if either of us had been more honest from the beginning, this all would have been a lot easier."

"We both lied," Akira says, although it actually feels kind of good to have Yu acknowledge that Akira isn't the only one that's been keeping secrets here. "So... so now it's okay, right?"

"Yea," Yu says. "It's okay." He stands suddenly, and says, "I just thought of something. Do you think Yusuke would be alright on his own here for about an hour?"

"Probably," Akira says. "I can go down and check with him. Why?"

"There's something I want to try," Yu says.

-//-

November 7

Evening

-//-

There's no one in the shopping district this evening. It's only half past six, but in November that means it's already dark and cold, and the only signs of life on the street are the lights on in the few open shops that they pass.

"Where are we going?" Akira asks (several times) on their way there, but Yu refuses to tell him. He's not even sure if it's going to work, but Akira is the only other person he knows that can even see the Velvet Room, the only other person that can use more than one Persona, and if his explanation of what Lavenza has told him is right, then he has as much right to be here as Yu does.

Or at least, it might be helpful to find out what happens if they try.

"I want to see if you can come in with me," Yu says, when they finally get to the Velvet Room. No sign of Marie hanging around outside today, so there's really no one around to hear them.

"You think it'll work?" Akira asks. He'd been dragging a little on the way over, obviously tired after everything he's been through in the past couple days, but his eyes light up in obvious curiosity now. "I really want to see what's in there."

"I figured," Yu says. "I also want to see if they'll let you fuse Persona while we're there." Yu hasn't been able to see Akira fight, since they're not in the same group, but from what Naoto and Yukiko told him when they touched base between floors, Akira's Persona are limited enough to be holding him back. And since he and Yusuke are not as experienced as the rest of the group, they need all the help they can get.

"Do what to Persona?" Akira asks.

"Uh--" He's not going to do as thorough a job of explaining this as Margaret had done when explaining it to him, but on the other hand, his explanation might be clearer and less muddled by metaphor. "Combining two Persona into a new and stronger one," he says. 

"But doesn't that feel...?"

Akira trails off, but Yu nods anyway. Because yes, it does feel indescribably strange to feel Persona that he's taken into himself being fused into something new. But those new Persona are a part of him too. "You get used to it," he says.

Akira's expression remains skeptical.

"You'll see," Yu says. "Maybe. Come on, stay close."

And as he has a hundred times over the past few months, Yu steps through the Velvet Room door. There's the same disorienting feeling there is when he jumps into a TV, of being torn for a second between reality and the whatever the TV World is, and then he's in the Velvet Room, facing an Igor that's smiling knowingly from behind his long fingers.

"Ah?" Akira says, a noise caught somewhere between surprise and confusion. Yu hides a laugh with a cough, and then turns to take in Akira sitting, tense, on the seat next to him. He really hadn't known if it would work.

"You know," Margaret says, her voice carrying just a hint of disapproval. "You are not supposed to do that."

Yu launches immediately into an explanation of who Akira is and why Yu's brought him, but Margaret only shakes her head. She's always a little hard to read, but right now, it's pretty easy to pick up on the fact that she's not happy about Akira being here. Yu stops talking immediately.

"We all know who he is," Margaret says. "It's a question of whether or not it's appropriate to be here." She turns slightly sideways and looks at Igor, who just continues to watch Akira, who is now squirming slightly in his seat. Yu can't blame him--if he was the one being studying with that much intensity, he'd feel pretty uncomfortable too.

"The Nose isn't saying anything," Marie says from her place on Igor's other side.  Sure enough, Igor is quiet, now sitting with one one hand under his chin, and the playing with a small stack of fusion cards on the table in front of him. "I'm sure it's fine."

Margaret doesn't look exactly convinced, but she does give Igor an uncertain look as he continues to watch Akira. "Why exactly did you bring him here?" she asks Yu.

"He has a lot of Persona," Yu says. "Like I do. I wanted to see if it would be possible for him to fuse them." And, he has to admit, he's just curious. He wants to know if he'll get more answers if he has Akira here with him, but so far the answer seems to be no. Igor is keeping quiet, Marie doesn't seem to know any more than he does, and Margaret is too busy being quietly disapproving to give him any new information. 

"No," Margaret says.

"Why not?" Akira asks. He sounds more curious than anything.

"Because it's not your time yet,"  Margaret says. 

"But--"

"Lavenza has told you that you will forge a contract one day to enter this room," Margaret says, and maybe it's Yu's imagination, but she seems to have softened a little.

"I mean... yea," Akira says. "But--"

Again she interrupts him. "When that happens, you will be able to return."

Akira stands--he's still just short enough that he only has to crouch a little in the car, even if he is pressed right up against the table where Igor sits--and since no one else is standing, it makes him look a little less like a kid in over his head. The look on his face, which he's keeping carefully turned away from Margaret, is one so absolutely stubborn that Yu knows is going to be trouble.

Yu makes another try to advocate for Akira to have access to fusions anyway. "He's here already," he says. "Why make him wait when he's here and we all have Shadows to fight?"

"Because that is not the way that this works," Margaret says, giving Yu a long, pointed look. It's a little uncomfortable, actually--Akira glances away, to where Marie is watching with interest that she's not even bothering to hide. Next to her, Igor and Akira seem to be having some kind of stare off, with Akira's head tilted slightly to one side in curiosity.

And then, as Yu is looking right at him--possibly by his own choice, or possibly not--Akira just vanishes, leaving the Velvet Room.

It's only then that Igor speaks up, raising his long fingered hands to rest on the empty table. "Perhaps," he says, not exactly unkindly. "There will be a time when the two of you can share space in a Velvet Room together. But that time has not come yet, and it will not be in this Velvet Room."

"Why not?" Yu asks.

"The Trickster child will one day be a guest of the Velvet Room," Igor says. "And when that time comes, he will be granted the same boons that you have been. He is not ready."

"He's been fighting Shadows with Persona for months," Yu says. 

"But fighting is not what makes him ready," Igor says. "When the circumstances arise, he will be given what he needs. Then he will be ready." 

"More than ready," Yu says. "I doubted him--for a long time, because I thought he was just the Trickster. But he's still... Akira." And Akira is someone that he knows. He just... knows him better now.

"Good," Igor says, with an odd twinkle in his eye. "Perhaps he will find that readiness an advantage, when his turn comes." He spreads his hands, long fingers splayed. "He is a Trickster. Trouble is sure to follow, wherever he goes."

Yu watches him for a second, trying to figure out what exactly Igor is getting at. As usual, Igor seems to--no, as usual, Igor definitely does--know more than he's telling. And, also as usual, he seems to be enjoying it.

"I hope it's not a problem that Akira's going to keep fighting with us, at least," he says. "Because I couldn't stop him if I wanted to. And I don't."

"No," Igor says. "By all means."

He seems more open now than he had when Akira was here as well, and Yu decides to interpret this as an invitation to push his luck a little, and ask another question. "I was wondering," he says. "About Akira--he's the only person I've gotten close to this year that I don't have a solid bond with. And I don't understand why."

"Two wildcards," Igor muses, and Yu watches as he starts to lay out cards on the table again. "Two Fools--there is no other link but the Fool to describe the relationship between the two of you. And that is a bond that is already represented for you." He flips over a last card, showing Yu the now familiar image of the Fool arcana. "And I would hope that you would know the strength of that bond without a card to tell you."

And that seems to be everything Igor intends to say. Yu hesitates another few seconds, and then leaves, with the feeling of Igor's eyes lingering on him long after he's moved back to the real world.

Akira is there, leaning against the side of a building and playing with something between his fingers.

"What's that?" Yu asks, and then raises his eyebrows as Akira holds up a blue card.

"This is what you use to summon Persona," he says. "Right?"

"It is," Yu says cautiously. He takes the card from Akira, noticing he does so that it's not the only one Akira has. He's holding a small stack of them in his other palm, and Yu glances at them for a second before taking the one Akira had been playing with, and examining it more closely. It's a Persona he recognizes, but not one he's used for a while, having fused it into something stronger months ago, over the summer. But it's a step or two above the Persona Akira has, and actually it would have been easy to fuse it out of the Persona he has with him now.

"Can I see the rest of them?" he asks, and Yu hands over the other cards he's holding. There's a couple of blank cards and cards with skills in them, but most of them are Persona. And those Persona are all at about that same level. "Where did you get these from?" he asks, looking back up at Akira.

He mumbles something.

"Akira."

"I took them," Akira says. "From the Velvet Room, when I stood up, they were just there on the table, and..."

"You stole Persona cards from Igor," Yu says.

Akira's expression is extremely unapologetic. "I don't know if it technically counts as stealing. I think maybe he was okay with it. He was kind of looking at me like he was."

Yu sighs. He's not exactly going to go back and return the cards now, and... there is something almost too convenient about the way that they seem perfectly tailored for Akira. It's hard to imagine that Igor would have been distracted enough to let Akira take something that Igor meant for him to take. It almost feels like a way around Akira not being allowed to fuse Persona in the Velvet Room--he's being told to wait until some time in the future, when it will finally be open to him, but here are the Persona ready and waiting for him.

...except that Akira can't use any of them.

"You don't think you could summon Persona from these," he says. "Do you?"

"I don't think so," Akira says. "I don't even know how I would try."

"That's too bad," Yu says. "They would have--"

"So I was thinking you could summon them," Akira says, matter of factly. "And then I can talk to them."

"You think that would work?" Yu asks.

"It can't hurt to try," Akira says. "Right?"

It really can't. "Okay," Yu says. He has to admit that he's kind of curious what exactly Akira says to the Shadows to get them on his side. "We'll try it when we go into the TV World tomorrow." He pockets the cards, then points at Akira. "But we really have to talk about this stealing thing at some point."

"Sure," Akira says.

"I'm serious," Yu says. "You can't just go around stealing things."

"I don't usually," Akira says. "It was a special circumstance."

"Yes," Yu says. "An especially bad circumstance to decide to take up thievery."

Akira only grins, and Yu shakes his head. Maybe being a Trickster doesn't make Akira evil, but it does definitely make him trouble.

-//-

November 8

Morning

-//-

"Seriously?" Akira says. "School?"

"Yes," Yu tells him. "You have to go to school today."

"We have to rescue Nanako," Akira says. He can't believe that with that hanging over all their heads, Yu cares about going to school.

"We will," Yu says. "After class."

"But--"

"Think about it this way," Yu says. He's already half dressed, while Akira has stubbornly refused to get out of bed yet. "If we all skip school on the same day, people are going to want to know why. It would attract attention. So we have to act like everything's normal, go to school and everything, and then go into the TV World after. It's not like we'd be able to spend all day fighting Shadows anyway, it'd be exhausting."

Akira sighs and allows himself to be persuaded by this, if only because Yu looks stressed enough without needing to argue with him about it. "Did you tell the school anything yesterday?" he asks. "About why me and Nanako missed class?"

"I did," Yu says. "I called before school started, but they'd already heard some rumors about Dojima being in the hospital, and some kidnappings, so they didn't really ask for any extra details."

"Wait," Akira says. "So if they think I was kidnapped, do I still have to--"

"If you wanted to pretend you're kidnapped, you shouldn't have walked into Junes yesterday where anyone could have seen you," Yu points out, and Akira makes a face because he's right

"I can say I saw Nanako get taken and freaked out and ran off," he says. "It's what I said when Yusuke fell into the TV over the summer and I went in after him, so no one will think it's that weird for me to do that." Oh yea, actually. Yusuke. "I guess we're just leaving Yusuke here today?"

Yu nods, then sighs. "I know that it helps to have every Persona user we can get, but I'm not looking forward to his guardian finding out where he is."

"Yea..." Akira isn't either. Yusuke's sensei is... well, he's a very good artist, apparently. Yusuke always talks about him like he knows everything there is to know about art and the art world, so Akira will take his word for it. But...

But he'd kind of seemed like a jerk. And he really doesn't like Akira. "As long as he doesn't figure it out until we get Nanako back," he says. "And then I'll tell him it was all my fault or something, so Yusuke won't have to get in trouble." He pauses as he starts packing up his schoolbag, then says, "Do you want to go to Junes right after school? Or should I leave my stuff here and come back to get it?"

"You get out before we do," Yu says. "And you'll have to come get Yusuke anyway. You should come back here after class, get everything you need, and meet us at Junes."

It's so surreal to be making plans to go into the TV World with Yu. 

"Will you bring the cards?" he asks, as they head downstairs.

Yu nods. "I kind of want to see if it'll work," he says. 

"I hope so," Akira says. "That'd be cool."

The TV World and Persona talk continues throughout breakfast, joined by Yusuke after the sound of their talking wakes him up. They're in the middle of an argument about whether hama and mudo are worth the energy cost when they miss so incredibly often (Akira is adamant that they are not, while Yu insists they're at least worth trying on stronger enemies) when Akira looks up at the clock and realizes they're going to be very late for school. He and Yu scramble to grab their things, while Yusuke waves goodbye and continues to poke at his breakfast.

By the time Akira gets to the elementary school, it's twenty minutes past the start of the first class, and when he walks in, everyone stares.

It doesn't exactly bother him, not even when a few people whisper rude things as he makes his apology to the teacher and sidles through the rows of desks to his seat. It's the same feeling he'd gotten when he first found out about the TV World and Persona and everything that came with them--weirdly separate. Like the way his classmates thought of him didn't really matter. Only last time, it had been because he knew he had a secret that none of them knew about. This time, it's because he knows there are people that actually do care about him, no matter how much his classmates whisper.

The morning crawls by, with Akira struggling and often failing to stay focused on learning. How does Yu do this, he wonders? Every single time he goes in to rescue someone from the TV World, he has to sit at school for hours and hours and hours before he can leave and go to the TV. Akira can barely make it through one morning before he's squirming in his seat with impatience.

At lunch, he sits alone at his desk and wonders if he's going to be able to convince the Persona Yu summons to come help him instead.

(He spends most of the afternoon doing that, actually, and completely misses when he's called on to answer a question in math)

(He's not so distracted that he doesn't notice the laughing, though)

At the end of the day he bolts. He just shoves his outside shoes on and goes running, away from the school, back toward home. He runs, away from his normal, everyday school life, and back toward the TV World, where he knows he'll fit in just fine. Better than school. 

When he gets to the house, he finds that Yusuke has made himself comfortable in front of the TV, and is deeply focused on something he's drawing.

Akira has to say his name three times before Yusuke notices he's come home, but finally he does look up and wave at Akira.

"What are you working on?" Akira asks, dropping his schoolbag and sitting down across from Yusuke. "Is that...?" But he trails off before he can finish the question, because he can see for himself that what Yusuke is drawing on is one of the cards he'd stolen from the Velvet Room last night. "It's one of the blank ones, right?"

"Of course," Yusuke says. "There's no room on the other ones." 

Well, Akira decides, if they're blank then there's probably nothing actually wrong with Yusuke drawing on them. It's too bad he can't actually add things to the cards by drawing them, actually. It would be way easier to get Persona if they could just be drawn on. "Just don't tell Yu," he suggests. "I don't think he'd be too happy about it."

Yusuke nods, and when Yu gets home about an hour later, he slips the drawn on cards away where Yu won't see.

Okay, so they'd said no more secrets, but this isn't going to hurt anyone.

They pack their things. Akira makes a dash out to the garden to get the last few vegetables ready to be harvested from when he and Nanako had last been there. Yu asks if Akira thinks that maybe there are less cards than there had been this morning, and Akira says that no of course not, where would the extra cards have gone, and Yu seems to accept that. Then they all head out to Junes, and Akira goes with Yu into the TV while Yusuke volunteers to stay behind in the food court with a supposed-to-be-working Teddie, and wait for everyone else.

Akira's sort of grateful for that. He doesn't know if what he and Yu are going to try will actually work, but there's something about the whole idea that makes him not want anyone else around just in case it doesn't.

He jumps in first, and just has enough time to clear the landing area before Yu lands, exactly in the same spot that Akira had a second ago. "Okay," Akira says. "So do we want to do it here?"

"We might as well," Yu says, and pulls out the first card. Akira waits, watching with interest as Yu holds the card out in front of him, and calls the Persona's name.

The Persona--a friendly looking snowman called Jack Frost--flashes into being between the two of them. Akira looks past it at Yu, who steps back a couple feet, away from his summoned Persona, leaving Akira with plenty of space to get close. 

"Hi," he says, easing into a cross legged position in front of Jack Frost, almost tense with how hard he's concentrating. It can be hard to get a read on Shadow personalities, but he knows he has to do it fast, or risk the Shadow getting bored or angry and getting away. 

The Persona bounces from one foot to the other, and gives him a wave. Good sign, probably? At least this one's not just angry at him. "Are you supposed to be a new friend?"

"Yea!" Akira says, trying to match the Persona's upbeat tone with his own. That's an important part of winning Shadows over--acting in a way they understand and relate to, until they agree to join and help him out. "I'm looking for more friends to come and hang out with me. Do you think you'd want to?"

Jack Frost doesn't answer right away, just keeps up his hopping from one foot to the other. He seems to be thinking about it, for longer than Shadows usually do after fights. Akira wonders if maybe it's because there hadn't been a fight that now there doesn't seem to be any urgency, either. Finally, Jack Frost says stops bouncing, and says, "It sounds like fun!"

"Great!" Akira says, and the little snowman shimmers and disintegrates into a mask.

Behind him, Yu shudders. "That feels weird," he says.

"You okay?" Akira asks.

"Fine," Yu assures him. "Just weird."

"Do you want to stop there?" Akira asks. "Or keep going, or...?"

"We can keep going," Yu says. "There's only a few more."

And he pulls out another card.

-//-

November 8

After School

-//-

Yu never quite gets used to the feeling of having a Persona torn away from him with each one Akira recruits to be one of his masks. It's not exactly painful, and Yu always has the sense that if he really didn't want the Persona to be taken, he could have stopped it, but it is still, every time, weird

And on top of the weirdness of having the Persona taken from him, it's incredibly strange watching the way Akira convinces them to come to him. The conversations are never very long or deep, but with each individual Persona, Akira seems to take on a slightly different aspect of his personality, getting excited or sarcastic or even angry to match each one of them. 

There's only one that Akira doesn't manage to win over, a grumpy Persona that tells a dirty joke while Akira just stares at it blankly. When he doesn't say anything, the Persona vanishes back into Yu's card, and they don't try that one again 

("I can never get the ones that say stuff like that," Akira admits to Yu after it's gone. "I... don't really get what they're talking about?")

(Since Akira is, after all, twelve, Yu assures him that this is perfectly fine and he shouldn't worry about it, and definitely should not look up any of those words on the internet)

But apart from that minor hiccup, Akira manages to take on every other Persona from the cards that he had stolen from Igor. 

"Hey," Akira says. "Yu?"

Yu is looking vaguely upward, wondering when everyone else will whow up, but he refocuses on Akira. "Yea?"

"Thanks," Akira says. "For... you know. Sharing your Persona with me."

Technically, none of the Persona that Yu has just summoned so that Akira can steal them are Persona that he still wants. They're old news to him, and he has better and more powerful ones now. So letting Akira have them isn't exactly a sacrifice.

But Yu knows what he means. No matter how temporarily, or for what reason, those had still been Persona that were a part of him. Now they're a part of Akira, and that's... pretty weird, actually. "It's okay," he says. "You need them. I don't." 

He finally hears a sound from overhead, and pulls Akira to one side as the rest of the group falls from the TV above.

"So did you guys get your Persona thing figured out?" Yosuke asks.

"Yep," Yu says. "Everything's good here." Which means that it's time to go back to worrying about rescuing Nanako. "Everyone ready to go? Same groups as yesterday?"

There's general agreement, and everyone starts splitting themselves into those two groups. Yu watches as Akira takes his scouting group in ahead, and he feels better than he had when they did this same thing yesterday. He feels better because they have a routine down now, because nothing had gone wrong the first time they tried this, and because he knows now that Akira has Persona that are a little bit better equipped to handle the Shadow fights they'll run into eventually.

He gives it about fifteen or twenty minutes, then takes his group in too.

Chapter Text

November 9

After School

-//-

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Yu has been wondering if they're going to need to fight Nanako's Shadow before they can get her out of here. It's not a crazy thing to think--after all, they've never once before gotten through one of these... distortions of the TV World without having to fight the Shadow of whichever person had caused it. From what he's heard in the past few days, Akira and Yusuke had both been through the same thing. Why not Nanako?

Only, what kinds of things could Nanako have been hiding? She's six years old and she's Nanako, and it's hard to believe she could have enough hurt inside her to form a Shadow.

On the other hand, he never would have guessed that she could have been hiding that she knows about the TV World, and Akira's already confirmed that he'd told her about it over the summer. So maybe there's more about her that he doesn't know after all.

Not that it makes any difference in how he feels about wanting to rescue her. It's just that the idea of her being in danger from her own Shadow makes Yu more determined than ever to protect her.

It takes them two more tries to get to the top level of Heaven. The first day they get very nearly to the top--only about a level and a half away, it turns out--before Yu insists that they stop for the day. It's that thought of maybe having to fight a Shadow at the end that makes him reluctant to push all the way through to the top when everyone is so obviously running low on energy, and nobody argues too much.

The next day--the third day of their rescue mission--is when they finally reach the top floor.

When Yu gets there with his group, he finds Akira already on his feet and visibly tense.

"This is definitely where I was before," he says. "Nanako's on this floor."

"You know how to get to her, then?" he asks.

"The Shadows usually stick to the same areas," Akira says. "I mean, they do in the other places I've been? So I guess they'll probably be grouped in the same places they were when I was here at first."

"So," Yu says. "That means yes?" He's really hoping it means yes. This close to Nanako, he doesn't want any risks.

"Yes," Akira agrees.

"Good," Yu says. "In that case, I want everyone to go together. Just in case we need to fight."

"Could we even all fight together?" Yosuke asks. "I mean, that's a lot of people for one fight. We might just be getting in each other's way."

"Maybe," Yu says. "But at least I want everyone ready to tag in if it turns out to be a bad fight."

Yusuke pipes up then. "Do you think we will have to fight?" he asks. "Or... do you think maybe we could get Nanako out without that...?"

He sounds worried.

"There probably will be," Yu says, doing his best to reassure him. "But you and Akira will definitely be out of the fight, if one does happ--"

"Hey!" Akira interrupts. "I'm going to help!"

"You have been helping," Yu says, which is true. The system of Akira showing the second group how to sneak past Shadows, and scouting out the best routes for the second group to take, so that they have the least Shadows to fight on the way through, is working. Akira really has been helping.

But not here. Every person's Shadow that they run into is stronger than the ones they've fought before. Fighting Naoto's had been harder than fighting Rise's, which had been harder than fighting Kanji's, and on and on. Whatever they face at the top of Heaven, it's going to be incredibly dangerous, and Yu does not think that Akira and Yusuke are ready to face it.

"Akira," Yu says, trying to be as firm as he possibly can. "No. You've helped us get here, and you've helped us get up through Heaven faster than we would have otherwise. But even with the extra Persona, you can't hit as hard as the rest of us, and you can't take as many hits." He's doing his best to sound stern, but maybe it works a little too well, because Akira flushes angrily and turns away.

They're going to have to talk about this later. Right now, Yu is just relieved that Akira seems willing to listen

Following Akira's (slightly surly) directions, they make it quickly through the last floor to where Nanako is.

There are three people there, just as Akira had said there should be. Nanako, obviously, and Yu is relieved to see that she looks mostly unharmed. She seems like she's either asleep or unconscious, but she hasn't been touched. Sitting next to her is the girl Yu has only ever seen before in the Velvet Room. Lavenza. She looks right at Akira, her expression too complicated for Yu to read all in one moment.

And on the far side is Namatame, looking overwhelmed and hunched over and generally not good.

Yu watches him carefully as he signals for his friends to stay back, and sidles up closer to Nanako. It still seems like Lavenza is the only one that's even seen them, but Namatame is the one that's been kidnapping people and pulling them into the TV World. Yu is not willing to let his guard down around him.

He's so focused on watching Namatame that he stops paying enough attention to where he's putting his feet, and he trips over a step. Just a little stumble, and he catches himself immediately, but it's too late. The sound makes Namatame turn toward him, and when he sees the group, it seems to shake him out of whatever fog he'd been in.

"What are you doing here?" he demands, getting shakily to his feet.

Lavenza mimics the movement, standing as well and keeping herself between Namatame and Nanako. Yu's reassured by this, although he is a little worried that Nanako doesn't stir when Lavenza stands.

He forces himself to focus on Namatame instead. "We came to rescue Nanako!" he calls, and his hand moves as if on its own (coming face to face with this man who had kidnapped not only Nanako but most of his friends, he is suddenly angry) to his sword grip.

"Rescue--" The man, if anything, looks horrified. "She has already been rescued! She's here! She's safe!" His wide eyes seem to take in the rest of the group standing behind Yu. "All of them!" he says. "I tried--so hard to rescue them, and all this time you were... you were coming and taking them back!" He gestures firmly to himself. "But I am saving them!" he almost shouts. "I am a hero!"

Behind him, vaguely, Yu sees thin wisps of darkness. Something like a Shadow.

No, he does not want to fight any Shadow belonging to Namatame. He wants to take Nanako and go home. But if this is going to come to a fight--he's ready.

-//-

November 9

After School

-//-

Staying out of the fight that comes after Namatame merges with the Shadows swirling around him is one of the hardest things Akira has ever done.

But he and Yusuke are not at the same level as Yu and his friends. Akira spends about the first third of the fight coming up with every justification he can think of for why he's not as ready for this as he should be. He's been fighting alone for most of the year, while they've had a whole, expanding team to take on tougher Shadows with. They've had the motivation of going on rescue mission after rescue mission to get Namatame's kidnapped victims back to the real world as soon as they possibly could. They fight every Shadow they run into, while Akira has become an expert in creeping around them and avoiding combat whenever possible.

But after he's run through every excuse he can come up with, he's left with the fact that he and Yusuke are just... not at all ready for this fight. They stay well out of the way, and watch a fight they are not able to join, and Akira wishes with all his heart that they could.

Namatame is not a nice person. Namatame is an adult who had tried to hurt Nanako, who is six. And Nanako is... she's someone Akira has more or less assumed into his team ever since she saw Yusuke fall through the TV. He'd never imagined that he'd have to protect her from a human like this. Shadows, sure, but some random adult that shouldn't have been hurting her in the first place?

He wants to help. He hates feeling powerless, he hates that all he can do is stand here and--

The last third of the fight comes with a new wave of violence, as the Shadow/Namatame creature lashes out in the desperation of knowing that he's going to lose. At this point, not even Akira's natural stubbornness is enough to make him think that he could possibly have stood a chance in this fight.

What it does make him sure of is that he needs to work harder. if he wants to be ready for anything like this that could happen in the future (which he does), he is going to need to practice (so he will). Akira stands next to Yusuke, out of the way of the fight like... like just a couple of kids, and he promises that he's not going to let anyone he cares about be hurt like this again. Not without being able to do something about it himself.

For right now, he's just going to have to be happy with how they'd been able to help get here in the first place, and with the fact that after the fight is over, while everyone else is still recovering, he's the first one to get to Nanako and Lavenza.

"Are you guys okay?" he asks. He's more than sure that Lavenza can take care of herself, but after that fight, he still wants to double check. And of course there's Nanako, who doesn't even have a Persona, and is the most at risk of any of them.

"The sooner you get her out of here, the better," Lavenza says grimly, not quite answering the question directly. "She's not hurt, but she lost consciousness a little while ago. I think this place is getting to her."

Akira reaches out to touch Nanako's skin, and it's colder than it should be.

"Yu!" he shouts, calling over his shoulder. "Yu!"

They take Nanako out of the TV World, and they do it fast. Yu spends a Goho-M to get all of them out of Heaven fast, and then Kanji (who can hold Nanako and still keep up with the rest of them) carries her the rest of the way back to the Junes entrance. Lavenza slips away just before they get there, whispering a promise to Akira that she'll visit soon, and then they're back in the real world.

Namatame follows them out as well, apparently so thoroughly defeated that he doesn't have the strength to resist, or even to walk on his own--Yu and Yosuke help him most of the way, although their expressions show that they would really rather not be anywhere close to him. Naoto takes charge of him immediately, and... actually, Akira's not sure what she does with him after that. Nanako still isn't waking up, so he and Yu take her immediately off to the hospital, while the rest of the group stays behind to deal with any explanations, and also take temporary charge of Yusuke.

"We did everything we could," Akira says, when they're in the hospital waiting room. Nanako has already been taken away by a nurse to be examined, so the two of them are left with just a clipboard full of incomprehensible paperwork to try and figure out.

Akira's not sure if he's trying to reassure himself or Yu, but saying it out loud does actually make him feel a little better. They had done everything they could, they had moved as fast as possible. Akira wishes he could have helped more in the final fight, definitely, but adding one or two more people to that fight... really wouldn't have made that much of a different.

They'd done the best they could.

"She'll be okay, right?" he asks. "I mean... Daiki was in the hospital for a little while too, and he was fine."

"I'm sure she will be," Yu murmurs, but he looks distracted and not all the way convinced.

"Your friends," Akira says. "None of them ended up in the hospital after...? I mean, did they?"

"No," Yu says. "A couple days off school, but none of them went to the hospital. I guess.... Nanako and Daiki, they're both younger. Maybe there's less tolerance for the... the atmosphere over here."

"Me and Yusuke never had to go to the hospital," Akira says. "And we've been over there loads of times."

"You also have Persona," Yu reminds him. "That makes a difference."

"I guess," Akira says. "But... Nanako..." He squirms. "Why did she have to be the one to get hurt?"

Yu looks tired and sad and he says, "Sometimes life just... isn't fair."

Akira scowls Yea, well... maybe he should have been able to figure that out himself. Sometimes the people you care about get hurt. Sometimes there are bad people in the world, people like Namatame that hurt people you care about just because they can. Sometimes those people you care about are people you're supposed to be able to protect, but you can't. And sometimes they're people that die even though you still need them, and that's not fair, and Akira should have known it already.

"Come on," Yu says, putting his hand on Akira's shoulder and sort of levers him up and onto his feet. His expression understands. "It's been a long few days," Yu continues. "The doctors will call when Nanako wakes up, but we should get home and get some rest."

Akira looks up at him, uncertain at first, and thinks...

Sometimes, life is unfair because you don't deserve the people around you. Sometimes, you go from being all on your own to having people around you that care more than you have any right to expect.

Akira gets up, sort of leaning on Yu because Yu still has his hand on his shoulder, and the two of them head home. 

-//-

November 11

Morning

-//-

Akira, Yu, and Yusuke manage to keep themselves fed and more or less put together for the next two days. Akira barely pays attention to his classes, and he doesn't think that Yu is doing any better with his schoolwork (and Akira knows this because Yu's friends keep coming by with notes and homework). Nanako hasn't woken up, and Dojima is still unconscious after his car accident. Akira mostly walks around in a daze, trying not to think too hard about all the things that could possibly go wrong. They don't go back to the TV World, but Akira sees Lavenza, once, and she assures him that she's fine. 

Yusuke stubbornly refuses to leave, insisting that he'll stay as long as he's needed, to help. Akira appreciates the sentiment, and gives absolutely no thought at all to when they're going to bring Yusuke back.

At least, he doesn't think about it at all until Yusuke's Sensei shows up at their front door looking angrier than Akira has ever seen him.

"Oh," he says, suddenly wishing he hadn't answered the door at all.

"Where," the man says, giving Akira a glare that makes him feel about two inches tall. "Is Yusuke?"

A whole host of options flash through Akira's mind. He can lie, and say that Yusuke isn't here and he has no idea where he is. He can call Yu and hope he'll be able to take care of this. Or--

"I know he must be here," Madarame says, wrenching the decision out of Akira's hands by forcing himself past the door and inside. "There's nowhere else he would have gone. Yusuke!"

The sound of his shouting makes Yusuke--who Akira had left rummaging in the kitchen--freeze in place, like a deer caught in headlights. It also summons Yu down from the bedroom upstairs, and so all three of them are there as Madarame actually grabs Yusuke (who looks tiny in his sensei's hand) and informs him in a cold voice that they are going home.

Akira watches Madarame grab Yusuke, and some part of him is watching Namatame grab Nanako instead. He hadn't been able to stop Nanako from being taken, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that he won't be able to stop Madarame from taking Yusuke away either. This is Yusuke's Sensei and his legal guardian, but Akira is at least very much not okay with the way Madarame is holding his friend.

"Stop it," he says, and the words drop exactly at the right moment, in a pause where Madarame has stopped his lecture to Yusuke to take a breath. It probably doesn't hurt that he's still standing in the way of the door. Akira tries to convince himself that this isn't any harder than facing down a Shadow in the TV World. Madarame isn't about to attack him or anything--the worst he can do is shout at him (right?).

"What did you say to me?" Madarame asks.

Akira looks at Yusuke, not at Madarame, and realizes that he's not afraid. There's exactly one thing he can do to help Yusuke now, so he does it.

"This is my fault," he says. "I convinced Yusuke to come out here. It wasn't his idea or anything, and if anyone should get in trouble for this, it should just be me."

"Yes," Madarame says. "It should be." His eyes snap to Yu. "You," he says. "You're his brother?"

Akira already has his mouth open to say that actually no, and also that Yu hadn't been involved in dragging Yusuke here either, when Yu says, "Yes."

Akira stares at him. Yusuke stares at him.

Madarame doesn't seem to notice anything important has just happened. "Make sure you keep a better eye on him in the future," he says, now jabbing a finger at Yu. "If I ever see him around Yusuke again, I will be getting the police involved."

And with that final threat, he loosens his grip on Yusuke and gestures imperiously for him to follow.

Yusuke lingers, though. "Thanks," he says to Akira.

"Yusuke!"

"You won't get in too much trouble?" Akira asks anxiously. "Will you?"

"I think he'll just rant about you for a while," Yusuke says, glancing back over his shoulder. "That's what he did last time."

"Yusuke!"

"You probably should get going," Yu tells him. 

"Probably," Yusuke admits, and runs off after his sensei.

When the two of them are gone, Akira looks up at Yu, silently asking. 

"It's just easier," Yu says. "I mean, people keep assuming. And after everything--after you did just as much to help save Nanako as anyone else--I mean, you're practically family."

Akira still doesn't say anything, and Yu shifts uncomfortably. "But if it made you uncomfortable, I won't say it again."

"It's not that," Akira says, finally finding his voice. "It's just that... I really like being here." He feels like he fits. Really fits, in a way he hadn't at the boarding school where he'd lived before this, or even in the places he'd lived with his parents while they constantly moved from town to town for their work. Inaba feels like the kind of place that he could look back on, in the future, and miss. "Yu," he says. "I don't want to leave."

Yu sits down at the kitchen table, and Akira sits across from him. They've sat like this before, of course. A hundred times, maybe. More. Breakfasts before school, or to talk. Like so many other things in Inaba, it feels familiar and comfortable. "You should talk to my uncle," Yu says. "You know that, right? If you don't want to leave, you should be honest with him about why you came here in the first place."

"I don't... want him to know that I lied," Akira says. 

"So you'd rather just leave at the end of the school year?" Yu asks. "Without him ever knowing?" 

"Do you think he could actually do anything to help?" Akira asks.

"I think he'd try," Yu says. 

And Akira thinks... well, why not? He's spent months hiding from Yu, convinced that as soon as he found out that Akira is the Trickster, he'd hate him forever. Instead, they'd saved Nanako together, and now instead of sneaking around all the time, Akira shares a home with someone else that gets it. 

He'd needed Yu, to get back to Nanako. He can admit to himself now that he'd never have been able to do that on his own. Maybe it's time to admit that he needs some help in the real world, too.

-//-

November 21

Morning

-//-

"Akira! Akira!We are going to miss the bus!"

"I'm coming!"

"You said that five minutes ago!"

"I'm coming!" And this time, Akira shouts it as he comes running down the stairs, jumping the last three and almost crash landing against Yu at the bottom. Yu lets out an oof of surprise, and Akira backs off, flushing. "Sorry," he says. "I was grabbing some stuff."

He watches Yu's eyes go to his overstuffed backpack, and then Yu shakes his head. "You look like you packed enough stuff for a trip to the TV World," he says, even as he shoos Akira toward the door. "We're just going to the hospital."

"I know," Akira says. "But Nanako's finally awake. I thought she might like some stuff from home."

They'd gotten the call late last night, just after midnight, when the two of them sat up together to watch the Midnight Channel, to make sure that no one's there. It had been kind of weird, to sit on the couch next to Yu, staring at the static on the TV screen, knowing and hoping that no one would be there, but... but somehow not being completely sure. Not until the static faded, and Yu let out a sigh of relief so heavy that it takes some of the worry off Akira, too.

"That's it," Yu had said, and then his phone rang.

Dojima. It had been Dojima calling to tell them that Nanako had finally woken up.

"You're going to tell him, right?" Yu asks now.

"Y-yea," Akira says. That's the deal they'd made together after Akira agreed to tell Dojima everything. He'd do it after Nanako woke up, after they all had one less thing to worry about. Even Yu had admitted that Dojima didn't need to be thinking about Akira's problems while the doctors were still trying to figure out what's wrong with Nanako. Now that she's at least awake...

Part of the reason Akira has taken so long getting ready today is that he's trying to find things that will help Nanako feel better. Things that will maybe make him feel a little bit less guilty for not being able to help her in the first place. The rest of the reason is that he's more scared than he'll admit to Yu about telling Dojima the whole truth. If he's mad enough about Akira lying to him, then this could be his last day ever in Inaba.

"It'll be fine," Yu assures him, and almost pushes Akira out the door. "Trust me, you're worrying too much."

"I think I'm worrying the right amount," Akira says, but lets the subject drop. They don't talk much on the bus trip--it's half full of other people, and there's almost nothing they can talk about that doesn't lead back eventually to one of the many weird things they're keeping secret. It gives Akira plenty of time to think, and worry, and when the bus finally stops two blocks away from the hospital, he's so nervous that he can feel his hands shaking. He grips the straps on his backpack tightly to hide it, and follows Yu in silence.

They haven't been back here since Nanako was first admitted, and there hadn't been time to give Dojima the full story then. They hadn't even gotten to Dojima's room on that trip, so they check in at the nurse's desk and then follow directions to where his room is.

"Kind of expected he'd be in with Nanako," Akira says, trailing several steps behind Yu as they finally get to the right room. He can see a light on in there though, which means that Dojima is probably not camped out with Nanako.

"I kind of did too," Yu admits, opening the door and gesturing Akira through. 

"I was," Dojima says, and Akira realizes they'd been talking loudly enough for him to overhear. "But they're doing tests now and apparently I'm in the way."

Yu laughs. Akira is too nervous. He stays quiet and fidgets and tunes out the conversation until he realizes everyone's staring at him. "Sorry," he says. "What?"

"I was just saying we should tell him about how we got Nanako back," Yu says, and the two of them sit down and start telling the story. 

Dojima already knows about Yu and the TV World, and apparently something Yu had said the night he was arrested, and had to explain everything to him in the police station had been convincing. When Akira admits--hesitantly, because he is way too used to secrets--that he's been doing the same thing all year, Dojima's only reaction is to raise his eyes heavenward and say, "Of course you were."

"Sorry," Akira says. "I mean..." he takes a deep breath. "I'm not sorry about going into the TV World or anything." He doesn't want to apologize for that. It's the thing in his life that feels the most... right. "But... I am sorry that I lied to you."

Dojima looks right at him, and Akira fights hard not to look away. "Yu's already explained some of this to me," he says.

Akira nods. 

"So I understand that if both of you hadn't been able to do what you do, Nanako might not have come home. But you--both of you could have been more honest." He raises his eyes to look at Yu, too.

Yu squirms a little, which makes Akira feel better about how he wants to start squirming too."

"Um," Akira says. He clears his throat. "Um, there's... there's actually something else I should have, um... told you. A long time ago."

Yu stands up. He puts a hand on Akira's shoulder, rests it there for a second, and then walks out to give the two of them some privacy.

When he hears the door close behind him, Akira looks at Dojima and says, "My parents are dead."

Dojima nods, and his eyes are sad. "I know."

"You know?" Akira asks, jumping to his feet. "You--did Yu tell you?"

"When you and Yusuke disappeared for the day, I tried to get in contact with them." Dojima frowns, pointedly. "Obviously, that didn't work. So I did some more research. I found..."

"I know what you found," Akira says. He loses the fight to maintain eye contact, and finds himself staring at his shoes. They're scuffed and starting to show signs of wear, for all the effort he's put into keeping them clean. They're the ones Dojima had bought them for him, months ago now, after Daiki stole his old pair. "You didn't say anything to me. I thought you were going to have me kicked out as soon as you knew." 

"Maybe I should have," Dojima says, and Akira fights back a flinch. 

"Why didn't you?" Akira asks.

"A whole series of reasons," Dojima says. "I needed time to figure out the best way to handle it. Which agency needed to know about it."

"Oh."

"And then I hoped you'd say something," Dojima says. "Yu argued that you should have a chance to do that."

"So Yu knew? Since then?" He wants to laugh, almost. No wonder Yu had pushed so hard for him to come here and tell Dojima. Whether Akira said anything or not, Dojima already knew. 

And maybe it's about time this house stops keeping secrets. Him and Yu and the TV World. His parents. Yu and Dojima knowing about his parents. 

"Since then," Dojima agrees. 

"I feel kind of stupid for not realizing," Akira says.

"Akira," Dojima says. "You fooled everyone else into thinking your parents are fine, and that you're supposed to be here. You're not stupid. Trouble, yes. Not stupid."

"So... what happens now?" Akira asks.

"Right now," Dojima says. "Nothing."

"You're not just going to tell... whoever you were going to tell?" Akira asks.

"I've been doing a lot of research," Dojima says. "I've been asking a lot of questions, and talking to some police contacts in Okina that work with minors and child services."

"Yea," Akira says quietly. "Yea, that... makes sense."

"And there are a lot of wrong ways to do this," Dojima says. 

Another nod. Akira doesn't have people to talk to, and he doesn't have police contacts. He doesn't really need to, to know that there are a lot of problems with the foster system, and a lot of people in it that aren't doing... great

It's something Akira's gotten a lot more aware of, since he came here, and it started to sink in what would happen if anyone found out. 

"You haven't hurt anyone," Dojima says. "And I guess I've gotten used to having you around. When the year's over, I want to make sure you're going somewhere safe." 

The tone is a lot softer than the words themselves, and Dojima smiles as he says it. Akira smiles too, a little uncertainly. He knows his time in Inaba isn't going to last forever. He was always going to have to leave after the end of the school year, and honestly, he has no idea what he's going to do. He'd gotten lucky this year. Lightning isn't going to strike twice. 

"Thanks," he says. "Does... that mean I can still stay until the end of the year?"

"Well," Dojima says. "I'm still looking into the best way to handle this. And like I said. I've gotten used to having you around."

Akira laughs, and Dojima smiles and shakes his head. Akira is halfway out of the room when Dojima calls his name, and he stops.

"Thank you for helping Nanako," he says.

"Of course," Akira says. "Nanako's--" He pauses, and remembers what Yu had called him when Madarame came to drag Yusuke back to Tokyo. "She's kind of like a sister," he says. "Me and Yu weren't going to let anything happen to her."

And then, because he's thinking about Yu and Madarame, he adds, "Also, Yusuke's Sensei might call and yell about me. Um. Just so you know."

"He has tried several times already," Dojima informs him. 

"Oh."

"I assume Yusuke was with the rest of you?" Dojima asks. "Helping?"

Akira thinks about it, and decides that honesty does not include telling Yusuke's secrets, too. He stays quiet, and Dojima points his eyes at the ceiling again. "Of course he is," he says.

"I didn't say anything!" Akira protests.

"You didn't say no," Dojima says. Then, "Go on, Akira. Nanako's doctor is supposed to be done with her tests around now. I'm sure Yu's in there with her already."

"Thanks," Akira says.

"Get out of here," Dojima says, in a good approximation of his best gruff, complaining voice. Akira can still hear too much of a smile behind it to take it seriously, though. "Trouble."

"It's Trickster, actually," he says, as he half runs out the door.

It takes some time for him to find Nanako's room, but when he gets there he sees she's already back in bed, with Yu sitting in one of the chairs next to her. Akira slides into the other one, and Nanako's eyes light up.

"Akira!" she says. "Yu doesn't want to tell me about the Shadows you guys had to fight to rescue me."

"I just thought you might not want to know," Yu says. 

"Nanako's the one that keeps track of all the Shadows for us," Akira says. 

"Oh yea," Yu says. "I think I saw your notes."

"I'm helping," Nanako tells him. "And I want to know about all those Shadows."

Akira looks at her. He looks at her face, which is a little too pale, and her hand, which is holding onto the blanket a little too tightly. And he knows that she's been afraid of the TV World ever since she first saw Yusuke fall in. He knows she's being brave by wanting to know every detail.

"Akira," Nanako says. "You'll tell me, right?"

"Of course," he says. "We can't leave you out, Nanako. You're part of the team too."

So he and Yu tell her about the Shadows. The same things Akira has always told Nanako, in absolute, meticulous detail. What they look like. How they fight. What they're weak to, and what they're strong against. Some of them, the ones Akira had stealthed his way past instead of fighting, Yu jumps in to help with.

And Nanako, as she hears more and more, relaxes. Akira's not sure why, but he does know that she likes keeping track of Shadows, and keeping those records. It helps her to be less afraid.

It helps her now.

So by the time Dojima (and a frazzled nurse that looks like she's been trying to talk him out of it) come into the room, all three of them are smiling.

The four of them stay there for hours, until visiting hours end. Dojima goes back to his own room, and Yu takes Akira home.

"You told him?" Yu asks, when they're sitting on the bus and on the way back home.

"I told him," Akira says. "He told me I can still stay until the end of the school year. And he'll help me with wherever I go next. To make sure I don't get into too much trouble, I think."

"Good," Yu says.

"He said you knew already," Akira says.

"Yea," Yu admits. "Yea, he told me when he found out. He asked me not to tell you right away."

"And you get mad at me for keeping secrets," Akira says.

"Okay," Yu admits. "It might be a little hypocritical."

"A little," Akira says.

"Anyway," Yu says. "The point is--Akira, look. The point is that I know my uncle's going to do everything he can to make sure you're okay after you leave Inaba. And I want you to know that no matter where you end up, after we're both out of Inaba, I'll be there for you."

"Yea," Akira says. "I know." He rubs his hands over his face, and realizes there's a smile under his fingers. "I can't believe I didn't tell you earlier."

"I can't believe I wasted so much time thinking you were evil."

Akira lowers his hands and sticks his tongue out.

When they get home, they argue over whose turn it is to do the dishes, and when they're going back to the TV World.

Chapter Text

November 21

Before  School

-//-

As usual, Yu wakes up before Akira. By the time he manages to get himself dressed and downstairs, he finds Yu staring out the window, a frown on his face.

"What's wrong?" Akira asks.

"Nothing," Yu says. "I think nothing, anyway. It's just--kind of foggy this morning, that's all."

-//-

December 3

Lunch

-//-

And the fog doesn't fade. Instead it settles, coming to rest across the whole of Inaba like a heavy coat. It weighs the town down, and the people too. Everyone notices, sort of without noticing, and Akira hates it. The whole town seems depressed, or half asleep, or something, and he starts spending all of his free time with Yu and his friends. It's not just that now there's no more secrets, although that definitely helps, but also it's that they're the only ones that don't seem to have been hit by the same strange depression as everyone else. They visit the TV World a lot, going back through old areas (old to them, but mostly new to Akira), to help him get stronger.

He's getting there. His first instinct is still to hide, not to fight, and he's not as strong as they are after months and months of them all fighting together, but it's just... nice to be supported. Sometimes Lavenza joins them (or sometimes, he and Lavenza sneak away from the group and just explore on their own). Sometimes he calls Yusuke after, and if his sensei isn't around they'll have long conversations about everything that's happening. Always, Akira and Yu will write down what they've seen, to tell to Nanako when she gets out of the hospital.

But apart from the TV World, and all of its distractions, everything else in Akira's life is plagued by the fog.

Every day he walks to school (with Yu, now, just with Yu, because Nanako isn't out of the hospital yet), and the people around them are drooped and dejected. Every morning, his teachers shuffle through classes, lecturing almost without caring. Every day at lunch, his classmates pick through lunches without talking. Or if they do talk, it's things that Akira hates hearing. They talk about what it would be like if they just weren't there any more, if they just let the fog swallow them up, if they just let themselves... not exist.

It makes Akira feel cold and kind of shriveled up inside. He doesn't like to hear his classmates talking like that, it's the stuff of actual nightmares (and he knows, because he's having actual nightmares). He's started pushing himself into the corner at lunch, eating with his back to everyone else and a book open in front of him so that he can ignore as much of those horrible whispers as he can.

It's on one of these lunches when someone steps abruptly into Akira's little bubble of isolation, grabs his desk, physically turns it so that it's facing another one, and then sits down in that second desk.

Akira shoots an arm out to grab his lunch and stop it from falling, then looks up and freezes. "Daiki," he says. "What are you doing here?"

It's been months since Daiki tried to mess with him, and here he is all of a sudden, back again. 

Daiki doesn't answer right away. Instead he takes a big bite of his own lunch, and spends his time chewing it. When he finishes that, and actually answers, his expression and his tone are both reluctant. "Everyone else has been all messed up lately," he mutters. "And I'm sick of it, and you seem fine, so I figured I'd come over here."

"Messed up?" Akira echoes. He's still not entirely sure this isn't a trick of some kind, and he eyes Daiki warily as he adds, "Because of the fog?"

"Is that what's doing it?" Daiki asks.

"Um," Akira says. "I think so, yea." Actually, now that he thinks about it, Daiki hasn't been the same level of depressed as everyone else. He's still... well, Daiki. Kind of too loud and too... abrupt, like he had been just now when he came over and shoved Akira's desk around. But he hasn't been weighed down by that fog.

"Figures," Daiki mutters. "That stuff's creepy. It's like that stuff from--" He stops, stares at Akira, visibly changes his mind. Daiki has a big face, with big expressions that are easy to read. "Never mind," he says now. 

"Like what?" Akira asks.

"Like none of your business," Daiki says.

"Like it gets in town when it rains?" he asks.

"No," Daiki says. "It's--fine, it's this thing that happened over the summer, okay? This whole... gladiator thing." He gives Akira a look like he's waiting for him to laugh, but of course Akira knows exactly what he's talking about, he'd been there too.

There is fog in the TV World, of course, and Daiki probably would have seen it when he was there. Akira's been wearing a mask in the TV World for such a long time that of course he doesn't even notice it anymore. The only time recently he's even thought about it was when he gave Teddie's glasses to Nanako to protect her from it, but... it had been kind of gross and yellow like this, right?

"But it's not the same thing as that," Daiki says. "Because that place was, uh... I don't know what that place was, but it for sure wasn't here."

"But it could be the same fog," Akira says. "It could be the same fog leaking over to Inaba." 

He doesn't know why he's said it out loud, exactly. Maybe he's just finally getting used to not keeping secrets, or maybe it's the excitement of what if it really is the same fog what if this is from the TV World what if that explains everything because all the Persona users are okay. 

Only Daiki's not a Persona user, right? But he had been there, so maybe there's some kind of resistance? And even if he hadn't accepted his Shadow and awakened a Persona, he has had a change of heart. He has been getting better and maybe, on some level, that... counts.

"You know what I'm talking about?" Daiki asks, and Akira winces. Yea. He's definitely gotten too used to not keeping secrets.

"Um," he says. 

"You gotta tell me if you know something," Daiki says.

"I don't," Akira insists.

"Come on!" Daiki says, raising his voice a little. Akira shushes him and looks around, expecting people to be staring--but of course they're not, because everyone's too busy being depressed and upset about the fog.

"Fine," Daiki mutters. "So don't tell me, then. You think it's gonna be better, at least?"

Akira bites his lip. Then he admits, "I think... maybe you gave me an idea of how it might get better, maybe."

The old Daiki would have already started hitting him, or shouting rude things for his friends to laugh at, or something. This one... doesn't. Akira has kind of stopped paying attention to him, after getting him out of the TV World and seeing that he wasn't being so much of a bully. They haven't said two words to each other since Akira went to visit him in the hospital, actually, and now it turns out that Daiki really has changed. He doesn't even push for more information, just changes the subject.

"Hey," he says. "You like baseball?"

"Not really," Akira says. "Why?"

"None of my friends want to play anymore," Daiki says. "How about TV, you watch any good shows?"

"Sometimes," Akira says. When Nanako wasn't camped in front of the TV. Or when he wasn't in a TV.

"Cool," Daiki says. "Hey, did you see that new one that was on last night? With the mechs? Because that was awesome."

He's doing this, Akira realizes. He's having lunch with Daiki, and having a perfectly normal conversation about the giant mecha anime that had apparenlty been on last night. 

But since Daiki is the only other one here that's not being weighed down by the fog, who's acting normal...

(and because maybe, just maybe, he really has been getting better in the months since being rescued from the TV World)

Maybe it's really not that bad?

Weird.

-//-

December 3

After School

-//-

Yu has stopped being surprised when he finds Akira waiting outside the high school for the rest of them to get out of class. He's told him that it'd be better to go wait at Junes, or at the house (because it's December, and it's freezing, and there's snow on the ground more often than not), but Akira is not good at doing as he's told. Since he insists on being stubborn, Yu reasons that he hasn't frozen to death yet, and lets Akira wait for them where he wants.

"You okay?" he asks today, when he meets Akira at the gates. 

"I had lunch with Daiki today," Akira says. He looks and sounds very confused by this.

"Your bully," Yu says, raising his eyebrows. "Really? How did that go?"

"He hasn't done anything to me since we got him out of the TV World," Akira says. "And we just talked about anime, and then he lectured me about baseball statistics."

"I guess helping him with his Shadow really paid off, then," Yu says.

"Yea," Akira says. Then he sort of jumps. "But I forgot the weirdest part."

"What's that?" Yu asks. 

By now, most of the rest of the group has caught up to them, and they're starting to huddle together and drift in their little mass down the road toward Junes. There are a couple of other conversations going on--Kanji complaining about an assignment, Yukiko wondering if she should head home to help at the Inn--but they all stop when Akira says, "I think he figured out what's causing the fog."

He lets the story tumble out of him all at once, excited and nervous at the same time. "Could that happen?" he finishes, wide eyed. "The fog from the TV World coming here and... and hurting people?"

"That's what happens after it rains," Yosuke says, looking at Yu. "Right? That's why we always have to rush and rescue people before the rain comes. Because when the fog comes here, it clears in the TV World."

"It's a good working theory," Naoto says. "But if it's true, then the glasses Teddie made for us should confirm it. They'd let us see more clearly here, right?"

Yu has his TV World glasses on him--all of them do, and there's a sudden rummaging in pockets and bags to get to them. Yu puts his on, blinking at a world that suddenly looks a lot clearer than it had a few seconds ago.

"Did it work?" Akira asks anxiously.

"You really don't have glasses?" Yu asks.

"I have a mask," Akira says. "But it just exists over there, I can't force it while I'm in the real world." He hesitates, then adds. "And technically I have a pair of joke glasses I stole from Teddie--"

"Akira," Yu sighs.

"But I gave those to Nanako when we got kidnapped and I think she still had them when she went to the hospital."

"We'll see if he wants to make you another pair," Yu says. "After you apologize for stealing the other one."

"He'll probably just be happy someone finally used them," Chie says. "He's been trying to pawn those off on someone since we first met him."

"Which still doesn't mean they're okay to steal," Yu adds pointedly. Akira makes a face, and Yu lets the subject drop. He is... probably going to have to sit down with Akira at some point and talk about how people are going to think he's some kind of thief if he keeps taking cards from Igor, or glasses from Teddie. But now doesn't seem like the best moment, so he lets it go. "Since the glasses work on the fog here, that has to mean that this is the same fog as in the TV World, and that means..." he trails off. He doesn't know what that means. You can't fight a fog. 

"That means something bad is going on," Akira says.

"We need to investigate," Naoto says. "We can talk to Teddie when we get to Junes, see if he's noticed anything changing in the TV World. He's more connected to that place than any of us are, he might have noticed something that none of us saw."

"And I can talk to Lavenza the next time I see her," Akira volunteers. "She always seems like she knows... pretty much everything. And she usually tells me eventually."

"Okay," Yu says. It's not much to go on, but anything is better than nothing, isn't it? "So we'll start by talking to the two of them, and maybe looking around the TV World a little, and..." He hesitates, looking down at Akira.

"What?" Akira asks.

It must have been his imagination. Must have been. "You... don't wear a mask outside the TV World, do you?" Because when he sort of squints and looks at Akira through the fog, he can almost swear he sees the edges of his mask forming there.

Akira's hands fly to his face and in the place where his fingers rest, there's just an impression of solidity, a flash of white. "That's weird," he says.

"Looks weird," Kanji agrees.

Akira's still kind of fidgeting with the half-solid mask when Yu's phone rings. Adachi's name shows up on the caller ID, which is kind of weird, because he's never called Yu before--Dojima had given him the number months ago, in case of an emergency, but an emergency had never come up.

Well, an emergency that would have been helped by calling the police had never come up, anyway. Plenty of other emergencies had.

"Hello?" he says. 

"Yu?" Adachi asks. 

"Yea," Yu says. "Did... something happen with my uncle?"

This gets the attention of about the half group. The half that's closest, mostly--a few of the others are clustered over by Akira, and Yu's at least grateful that he has a little bit of space to have this conversation (if it really is about his uncle) in semi-privacy before figuring out what to pass on to the others.

"No," Adachi says. "No, your... your uncle's fine."

"Oh," Akira says. A brief flash of relief, followed by a creeping worry. "Then why are you the one calling?"

"Well..." Adachi pauses. He kind of clears his throat, and then says, "It's Nanako. She's taken a turn for the worse, and the doctors are saying that.... you might want to get down here as soon as you can. Dojima's in with her already, that's why he asked me to call..." 

He trails off, and Yu doesn't ask any follow up questions. "We'll be right down," he says, and hangs up.

"It's Nanako," he tells the group at large. "She... it doesn't sound good."

-//-

December 3

After School

-//-

They all make the trip down to the hospital together. Yosuke calls Teddie while they're all standing and shivering in the foggy chill by the bus stop, and he manages to run and make it just in time, so that they're all there to crowd together onto the bus. At this time of the day, and with half the town lethargic and depressed from the fog, they pretty much have the bus to themselves. Akira wedges himself into a seat at the back, a little apart from everyone else because he's planning to zone out and worry all the way there.

This is his fault.

Nanako's sick because she was in the TV World for so long. If he'd gotten her out right away, if he'd been strong enough or... or smart enough to figure out a way to bring her with him, she'd be fine. Maybe she wouldn't even have needed to go to the hospital, maybe she'd be home with them, waiting for Dojima's injuries from the accident to get better, maybe...

Akira squeezes his eyes tight shut and tries not to cry. Maybe if he'd been able to help more in Heaven. If he'd fought instead of sneaking around, if he'd been able to do anything other than stand in the back and watch at the end, when everyone else...

She'd been getting better!

At the hospital, Akira only manages to stay in Nanako's room for about five minutes. One look at her pale face tells him that it's true, that she has taken a turn for the worse. A nervous, guilty look at Dojima as he sits next to her, holding her hand, tells him how much worse she is. After that he can't make himself stay. Instead he slips outside, leaning against the wall and squeezing his hands into fists so tight his nails leave indents on the palms of his hands.

And eventually it happens. He knows, because there's a sudden flurry of sound from the room, shouting and cries and the chilling notes of an automated hospital announcement paging a doctor, for an emergency resuscitation attempt... 

He slips away before any of the doctors can even get to Nanako's room. He can't... stay. He just can't.

He goes, and doesn't think about where to.

-//-

December 4

Midnight

-//-

It's been a day, a long one, and Yu is numb and tired and too hollowed out to really feel anything at all. 

Nanako had died. Not for long, thanks to fast acting doctors that had rushed to her room to administer emergency live saving procedures, but it had been enough to shake Yu. Dojima, too, had been so angry that he'd reopened several stitches trying to get to Namatame, for... 

Yu doesn't want to think about what he'd been going there for. 

They'd confronted Namatame, him and his friends, and come away feeling much less sure that they have the full story, so that's a mystery that they'll have to work on solving.

But later. After the shock of Nanako's death and the miracle of her recovery have both faded a little. After Yu gets some sleep.

After they find both Akira and Teddie, both of whom had gone missing from the hospital. Yu's not... as worried about either of them vanishing as he might have been if it had been someone else. Teddie is Teddie, and Yu is mostly just hoping he hasn't stumbled into something he doesn't know anything about, and gotten into any trouble. Akira, on the other hand, is almost definitely in trouble, but that has an air of crushing inevitability about it--he seems to attract trouble like some kind of magnet, and (while he's this tired, anyway) Yu can't help feeling like it's more a question of when he'd find trouble than whether he'd find trouble.

Both Akira and Teddie need to be found, obviously, but... maybe they can wait until after he's had some sleep, and feels a little less like death warmed over himself. Teddie can take care of himself, or at least it's hard to imagine anything ever actually happening to him. And Akira has gone missing before, and as much as it's definitely going to worry  him in the morning, Yu has to admit that Akira has always managed to handle himself before. And right now, Yu can barely think--by the time the drama at the hospital had died down it was late, and then after waiting for the last bus of the night, and riding it together back to Inaba, it's just past midnight.

Just a few hours, he tells himself. Just enough that he'll be able to think straight when he starts looking.

He lets himself into the dark Dojima house, thinks about all the things he should be doing before bed, and decides not to do any of them. Instead he heads upstairs, drops his bag just inside the door, switches on the light--

And finds Akira, safe and sound, huddled into a tight ball on the sofa.

He stirs at the sudden light, meaning that he's not asleep, and his tear stained face squints up at Yu.

"Hey," Yu says. "You okay?"

It's definitely a dumb question. He can tell just by looking that no, Akira is not okay.

With some effort, Akira forces himself to sit up, drawing his knees in tight to his chest and hugging them. "It's my fault that Nanako's dead," he says, like it's a confession, looking at his knees and trembling slightly.

There are probably a whole lot of ways that Yu could have answered that. He could point out that it's not Akira's fault, that he'd done everything (they'd all done everything) he could to help her while they were in the TV World. He could say that he knows Akira would never hurt Nanako. He could be comforting, if he had an ounce of anything other than numb exhaustion left in him.

Instead, what Yu says is, "She's not dead."

Which, blunt as it is, is probably the only thing he needs to say, and the only thing that could help. Yu wracks his tired brain, trying to remember the last time he'd seen Akira hanging around. It's been so hectic that it's hard to remember for sure, but he's almost positive that he can't remember seeing Akira after the doctors managed to get her breathing again.

Akira's looking at him, expectant but almost afraid--he clearly doesn't know what to make of this. 

"She's alive," Yu says again, and this time sits down next to Akira, half to comfort him, and half because he just doesn't think that he can stay on his feet for another second. "Okay, Akira? The doctors were able to help her in time."

"But I heard--"

"She did... die," Yu says, finding it difficult to get his mouth around the words. "But only for a few minutes. Okay? You know about... CPR, and things like that?" He doesn't actually know exactly what the doctors had done to help Nanako. He doesn't want to know, he doesn't want to think about it, he just wants to focus on the fact that she's okay now.

Akira lets out a long, shaky breath, and Yu leans over so he can put his arm around the younger boy. Neither of them says anything else for a long time. It's been... too long of a day for words, and Yu has the bone deep weariness that comes from knowing that tomorrow, and plenty of days after that, will be even worse. They have to figure out what they're missing about Namatame... how to stop the fog, how to find Teddie...

"Yu?"

"Mm?"

Another long pause. Yu almost dozes off right then and there.

"Never mind," Akira says, quietly, and not long after that, Yu actually does fall asleep. Both of them do, although by the time Akira lets his eyes drift shut, Yu is already out like a light. The two of them sleep like that through the night, squished together on the couch that's barely large enough for Akira by himself anymore, alone in the quiet and the darkness of the Dojima house.

-//-

December 4

Early Morning

-//-

Lavenza finds Teddie sitting alone in the gradually thinning fog of the TV World, looking more despondent than she thinks she has ever seen him. And it's not her place to be here, but...

But.

"You look upset," she says quietly, sitting in front of him.

"I'm thinking," he informs her, so Lavenza stays quiet and lets him think. She's not sure how long it is that they sit there, but she's also not in any real rush to press Teddie for answers. 

He gives them eventually. Or at least, he starts to speak, and Lavenza listens.

"I remembered who I am," Teddie says. "Or... what I am."

"A Shadow," Lavenza says, and he shoots her a deeply scandalized look that makes her almost regret her casual tone.

"You knew?" he asked.

"Only a guess," she admits. "But it fit." She skates around the admission that he could never have been human, that humans simply do not behave or indeed function the way Teddie does. "It bothers you a lot," she says."

"Of course it does!" Teddie says. "I don't want to be just a... a..."

"You're not just anything," Lavenza says. "Are you worried that you're not as good, because you're not human?" She fixes him with a stern expression, and places a hand to her own chest. "Because I'm not human either, and I object to that."

"But you're not a Shadow either," Teddie says, refusing to be riled by her tone. "Are you?"

No, she's not. But she's different, and he is different, and that is why she had come here looking for him in the first place. 

It hadn't been her intention, when she went to find Akira today, placed him at the hospital, and then found both him and Teddie missing. She should have gone after her Trickster, after that, and she still intends to, later. After. But she had come here first, because where else would Teddie run to other than the TV World? And who else is going to risk coming after him, when Teddie's the one that usually makes sure they have a safe way back out of the TV World?

Besides. She has not spent time with many people. Teddie, Shadow or not, is one of them. He had helped Akira when he decided--in typical, too-stubborn-for-his-own-good fashion--to fight his way through the TV World to a school bully. Lavenza knows why she had been there, and she can understand why Yusuke stayed as well. Teddie is the odd one out, the one who had every right to go running to Yu as soon as he saw the Trickster's face. Instead he'd helped, and that counts for a lot, as far as Lavenza is concerned.

"You're putting too much weight on what you are and where you come from," Lavenza tells the still discouraged Teddie. "And I'm sure that if you sat, and thought, and puzzled it out for long enough, you would come to that conclusion on your own. But I'm more sure that if you stop hiding here, and go find your friends back in the real world, they'll tell you the same thing."

"I'm..." Teddie heaves a serious sigh. "I'm just a disappointment. Just a Shadow, who couldn't even remember that until now! What am I supposed to do now?"

"Go back?" Lavenza suggests. "Find your friends, go see Nanako."

Teddie flinches.

"She'll need friends around her while she recovers," Lavenza muses. "More so than before today, I assume."

"Recovers?" Teddie asks. "But--but she died."

"She's still alive," Lavenza tells him, and wonders if Nanako's death had been what pushed him over the edge into remembering. She supposes it's possible--and judging by the sudden animation in his expression, she'd guess that he cares deeply about what happens to his friends in the real world. 

Well. She should have known already that he's the type that cares.

"They'll all need you," she tells him, before standing, and leaving him to the fog, to think. "Just as much as you need them."

And then she's gone, stepping sideways in the way Igor had once taught her, passing in a blur from one world to another. Hopefully Teddie can find some comfort in their conversation, but it's past time she went to find Akira.

She has no trouble finding him. She never does, and in this case isn't surprised to find him at the Dojima residence. Relieved, a little--he'd disappeared from the hospital yesterday, and she knows him well enough to know that there are many worse and more dangerous places that he could have run to. Instead, it seems that he'd done the same thing Teddie had, and run home.

Yu answers the door, looking disheveled and tired as he greets her. "I guess you're looking for Akira?" he says, then without waiting for Lavenza to reply, he adds, "He's upstairs."

"Thank you," Lavenza says, stepping past him. "Teddie is in the TV World. I just came from speaking to him there."

"Did something happen?" Yu asks, suddenly looking a lot more alert. 

"I think he would appreciate it if he had the chance to tell you himself," Lavenza says honestly. 

"But he's okay?" Yu asks.

"He is uninjured," Lavenza says, which does not seem to reassure Yu at all. She gives him a polite smile, and then hurries upstairs to find Akira. When she finds him, sitting in the room he shares with Yu and looking even more tired than the older boy, she has to call for him twice before he answers.

Then he looks up, and smiles when he sees her. "Lavenza?"

"Good morning," Lavenza says, coming into the room and sitting at the empty seat by the desk. "I heard you ran off from the hospital yesterday."

The smile fades, and he won't look at her. "I... don't know if anyone told you," he says. "But Nanako died for a little while yesterday. I guess they managed to resuscitate her, but..."

"I heard," Lavenza says, when it becomes obvious that he's either not willing or not ale to finish the thought. "I was there for a little while last night, and heard that she was doing better again."

"Yea," Akira says, but doesn't sound quite as happy as he should. "I just... I..." He swallows hard. "Lavenza, can I ask you something?"

"Of course," she says, and in answering, she's struck by her own words. A year ago--less than a year, really, mere months ago, she would have refused. In the weeks after they first met, she'd had no goal in mind except to keep him away from the metaverse, away from his Persona, away from all the things he is not supposed to be experiencing yet. And then gradually...

He'd won her over. It's hard, these days, to remember they have roles to play. That one day she will be asked to attend the Velvet Room, while Akira is given a task that she does not know anything about yet, but which will certainly be both difficult and dangerous. She is supposed to help him, yes, but not like this. She is not supposed to give him information, fight beside him, be his friend.

But here they are.

"Is Nanako sick because she was in the TV World for so long?" Akira asks. "Without a Persona, and everything? If I'd been able to take her with me, instead of leaving you two there, would she have been in the hospital? Would she have--" He swallows. "Lavenza, is it my fault she died?"

Lavenza is already shaking her head before he finishes asking the question.

"No?" he asks, voice a little sharp because of what Lavenza can only assume is guilt and pain. "Are you sure? because it's the TV World and the fog that made her sick in the first place, isn't it? And then she got worse, and then she..."

"That world is not well suited for humans without Persona," Lavenza says. "It is undoubtedly what made her sick in the first place."

"So it's why she died," Akira says. "So she did die because of m--"

"No," Lavenza says. "Trickster, you are acting as if you had more options in that situation than you truly did. You know that you did everything that you could to get her out, and you know that you did it as quickly as you could."

"But--"

"With the tools you had, and the Persona you had with you, there is absolutely nothing you could have done that would have gotten both of you back to the real world before Nanako got sick," Lavenza tells him. "I promise, Akira. You did what you had to. And you did it well."

He hesitates, caught on the cusp between believing her and spiraling back down into blaming himself.

Lavenza looks up and past him as she hears a sound, and realizes that Yu is standing in the doorway listening to the conversation. Akira sees her expression and flushes deeply as he sees Yu too.

"She's right," Yu says. "Sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I heard a little of what you were saying. And Akira, honestly, she's right. If you want to blame anyone for what happened, blame Namatame. He's the one that forced her--forced both of you, actually--into the TV World. You're the one that helped get her back out."

Akira stares at the two of them for a second, almost testing them, waiting to see if Lavenza or Yu are about to take it all back and tell him that yes it is his fault after all. When neither of them does, the tension on his face fades into relief, and then melts back to gratitude.

Yu joins them in the room, putting his hand on Akira's shoulder for a second as he passes. "She'll be fine," he murmurs as he passes, and Akira nods. "Have some faith in her too."

"Yea," Akira says, softly.

"Now that's out of the way," Yu says, tone matter of fact and back at normal volume. "Wasn't there something you were going to ask Lavenza about, Akira?"

"What?" Akira asks, and then his eyes go wide. "Oh!" he says. "Right, the fog! I forgot--" And he looks almost like his normal self (a slightly more teary eyed and puffy faced version of his normal self) as he turns back to Lavenza. "We think that the fog from the TV World is leaking into the real world," he says. "Do you know anything about that?"

And for once, she really has no idea. Yes, the fog itself has been impossible not to notice while passing through Inaba, but Lavenza doesn't have any firsthand knowledge of how or why. Margaret might. Igor, she is sure, certainly does. She does not.

But her Trickster is looking excited and enthusiastic again, and so instead of giving him a simple no, Lavenza tells him, "I'm sure we can figure it out."

"Yea," Akira says. "Yea, we'll get it."

Lavenza has absolutely no doubt that they will.

Chapter Text

December 5

After School

-//-

"Ta da!" Teddie announces, and with a flourish, he pulls a pair of glasses out from Akira-doesn't-see-where, and presents them to you. "I heard you were looking for one of these?"

"Thank you," Akira says. He stands on his toes and leans across the overcrowded table--there are ten of them now, with Yu and all of his friends, and Lavenza. Actually there's eleven, if you count the fox that has followed them from the shrine in the shopping district all the way to Junes. 

"You're beary welcome!" Teddie says, as Akira sits back down and looks at the glasses in his hands. They look completely ordinary, just two round lenses with a simple frame connecting them. Over the past few days, Akira has noticed his TV World mask half-materializing more and more while he's just walking around in Inaba. It doesn't seem to be something he has any control over, or at least not very much. Once he's noticed it starting, Akira can kind of focus hard on wishing it away, and that works okay, but it's still pretty obvious to anyone that happens to be looking at him. It takes just as much effort to force it into being, too, which is also inconvenient because there are times when he'd really like to be able to see through the fog, thanks.

"Ted," Yosuke groans. "I thought we talked about the bear puns."

"We did!" Teddie says, with so much enthusiasm that Akira looks up from his study of the glasses and laughs. Teddie had come back this morning, apparently, and gotten in touch with Yu and then Yosuke to let them know he was back. His over the top enthusiasm (over the top even for him) either means that he's happy to be back, or he's trying too hard to make it seem like everything's normal.

Akira hopes it's the first one. He's hoping that Teddie's happy to be back in Inaba.

"And I thought we agreed to no more on the bear puns," Yosuke insists.

"You said no more on the bear puns," Teddie says. "Senpai, what do you think?"

"They're unbearable," Yu says dryly. Teddie and Yosuke both freeze, Teddie with his mouth slightly open, Yosuke squinting suspiciously in Yu's direction, both of them apparently trying to decide whether making a bear pun about how bad bear puns are means he's on Teddie's side or Yosuke's. Yu takes advantage of the lack of arguing to change the subject. "Anyway," he says. "Akira. The glasses are working for you?"

He quickly slips them on, blinking in surprise at how clear the world suddenly looks. Apart from those times when his TV World mask decides to start showing up, he's gotten almost used to squinting at a fuzzy yellow world hidden in fog. This just feels like everything's gone back to normal. "Definitely work," he confirms. And as a nice bonus, they're sort of the same weight as his mask--he can feel himself half hiding behind them already, a little bit of confidence the confidence he feels in the TV World trickling in.

"Yea," he says. "Thanks, again."

Teddie gives him a big, beaming smile, bear pun confusion apparently forgotten, then suddenly his expression gets more serious. "There's something I want to tell all of you," he says, and there's some raising of eyebrows and some significant looks across the table. Akira doesn't think Teddie's told anyone why he left or why it took him so long to come back, and everyone's been waiting for an explanation.

"I'm sorry for disappearing on everyone," Teddie says, almost wilting as he says it. "But I remembered what I am while I was gone. And I wanted to let you all know."

Akira, looking around at the rest of the table, notices Lavenza sitting ramrod straight and nodding at Teddie. Apparently she already knows, but since she knows pretty much everything about everything, it's hard to feel too surprised by that. Akira looks back at Teddie instead, waiting for him to actually explain.

"I'm a Shadow," Teddie says. 

There's a moment where everyone's silent. Then:

"Cool," says Akira, who talks to Shadows. 

"Wha--cool?" Teddie looks almost deflated that his dramatic revelation hasn't had more of an impact. He looks around at the rest of the group, but apart from maybe a little bit of surprise, no one's really reacting all that much. "You guys... you really don't care?"

"You're still you," Rise says. 

"We're all a little strange, Teddie," Yukiko tells him. "It doesn't mean you're any less our friend."

Teddie starts to tear up, sniffing noisily, and the conversation moves on. 

"Next step," Yu announces. "We're pretty sure that there's more going on with Namatame than we thought. We need to get back in to talk to him."

"He's under police guard at the hospital, though," Naoto says. "I might be able to get in, and I could probably get one more person in with me. But there's no acceptable reason for all of us to talk to him together, and every reason for the police to be careful about who has access to him until he's discharged."

"And we definitely don't want to wait that long," Chie says. "We don't know how bad things are going to get with the fog, or how long it's going to take."

"And after he's discharged," Naoto adds. "He's likely to be charged with Nanako's kidnapping at the very least, and moved to a detention center where he'll be under even more stringent watch. The hospital is our best chance at getting to him, we just need to figure out a way to do it."

"So maybe we could distract the cops and get 'em away from Namatame's room," Kanji says. "Right? Wouldn't give us much time, but at least we'd get in."

"So that means we just need someone to cause enough of a distraction elsewhere in the hospital," Naoto says. 

Akira grins and raises his hand as volunteer.

-//-

December 5

Evening

-//-

Once they have a plan, they decide not to waste any time in putting it into motion. The rest of the group troops upstairs to Namatame's room, while Akira loiters around the lobby with Lavenza.

"What are you going to do?" Lavenza asks.

"I don't actually have a plan," Akira admits. "I'm kind of counting on coming up with something when we get there." It's not that he hasn't been trying to think of any ideas, it's just that it's hard to come up with something that will be distracting enough to get the attention of Namatame's guard, without actually getting in the way of the patients here.

He's kind of hoping that he'll just be able to improvise, kind of spur of the moment. It seems like he's always in some kind of trouble, so why not not try and use that?

Lavenza seems surprised. "You really don't have any idea what you're going to d--"

"Hey!" someone calls, and both Akira and Lavenza jump and turn around to see a tall man wearing a hospital ID badge bearing down on them. "You kids shouldn't be loitering around here, this is a hospital!"

They haven't been doing anything wrong, they've just been standing around not even getting in anyone's way, but the sight of the disapproving man bearing down on them, and other people around the lobby starting at them, and Akira realizes that okay, apparently this is the trouble he's been looking for.

"Lavenza?" he says quietly.

"Yea?" she asks, tone just wary enough to tell Akira that she knows he's about to try something.

He grins and grabs her hand. "Run!"

And so they run, down the hospital halls, with the angry administrator shouting after them every step of the way. It definitely draws attention, which is good, because that's exactly what a good distraction should be.

"This is it?" Lavenza asks. "This is the whole plan?"

"What plan?" he laughs, and runs faster. He sort of vaguely knows where Namatame's room is, and cuts across a hallway to get to an area near it, close enough that when the administrator calls for help, he can be fairly sure that it'll be Namatame's guard that responds. Sure enough, as they fly down a hall and bounce around a corner (Lavenza with slightly more grace than Akira), he hears shouts for the guard to come and stop those delinquent kids already! 

They're pretty much full out sprinting by this point, and Akira's not sure how much longer either of them can keep going. He doesn't think they'll get into a lot of trouble if they're caught, probably just a lecture and maybe a ban from the hospital, but it's still something he'd rather avoid if he possibly can.

He's not nearly as good at getting out of trouble as he is at getting into it in the first place.

So it's a stroke of luck when they barrel down another hallway and Akira recognizes where they are. "Come on," he says. Both he and Lavenza are short of breath by now. "Come on--in here."

"What?" Lavenza asks, but Akira has already skidded to a stop in front of one of the hospital rooms. He glances over his shoulder, and is relieved to see that the guard isn't in sight yet. He opens the door and pulls Lavenza inside with him.

"I heard a lot of shouting outside, Akira," Dojima says from his hospital bed. 

"Um," Akira says.

Dojima raises his eyebrows, managing to look relatively intimidating even in his hospital gown. 

"I promise we're not doing anything wrong," Akira says.

The raised eyebrows go higher.

"I promise we're doing it for the right reasons," Akira amends.

He's not sure if Dojima is going to buy this or not, until Lavenza steps forward. "Your nephew and his friends are trying to get information from the man that kidnapped Nanako," she says. "Akira tells me that you've been told the story behind that, so you must understand why they need to be the ones to find more information from him."

"We had to kind of get the guard away from there," Akira admits. 

Dojima gives a long suffering sigh, but his eyes are worried, not angry. "I don't like any of you being involved in all this," he says.

Akira nods.

"I don't like that any of it's happening at all," Dojima adds, with an air of talking half to himself. 

"I know," Akira says quietly.

"But it is," Dojima says. "And here we are. Now at least introduce me to your friend." 

Relieved that he's not going to get into any trouble, Akira sits down and nods. He can see a kind of angry hurt on Dojima's face, and he might have thought it was aimed at him except that he kind of recognizes it. It's a complicated expression, and a year ago Akira would have thought it was too adult and foreign for him to understand. But that was a year ago, and this is now, and Akira has spent months and months learning to recognize feelings and attitudes in Shadows, and Shadows are just all the unconscious things that make up people

Which is why he recognizes that Dojima is as angry and upset as Akira himself is that neither of them had been able to do enough to help Nanako. No wonder he's being so surprisingly okay with hiding Akira and Lavenza in here, so that Yu and his friends can question Namatame.

Dojima is still waiting for Akira to say something, so he gestures to Lavenza and starts the introduction. "This is Lavenza," he says. "She's, um... it's kind of complicated." 

"Am I going to get angry calls from her parents about you kidnapping her from Tokyo?" Dojima asks.

"You will not," Lavenza assures him, and Akira hides a smile at how definitely true that is.

"Then I guess this is a step in the right direction," Dojima says, with resignation.

Akira shrugs, a little sheepishly.

-//-

December 5

Evening

-//-

Several minutes earlier,  Yu and the rest of the Investigation Team stand behind a corner and watch the guard in front of Namatame's door. It's been a few minutes since they left Akira and Lavenza in the lobby, and the tension of waiting for whatever his distraction is going to be is starting to sizzle uncomfortably. Yu's not sure whether he's more worried that Akira won't be able to manage to distract the guard, or that he'll put together too much of a distraction and get into trouble. Either way, though, he's worried.

A few more minutes pass, and suddenly there's a rush of running feet and shouting, and Yu assumes that Akira is somehow involved. Sure enough, a harried looking nurse dashes past them a moment later, clutching a clipboard against her chest. "Excuse me!" she calls to the guard. "Excuse me, can you come help us? There's a--there's this..."

The guard (who has been standing by the door, looking bored by his assignment, for as long as Yu has been standing there watching him) has already walked halfway down the hall to meet her, looking curious and excited to have something interesting finally happening.

Perfect, Yu thinks, and gestures for the rest of the group to follow him into Namatame's room.

They talk. And they raise questions. And about halfway through the conversation, an uncomfortable feeling starts to rise up in Yu that they're missing something obvious.

Namatame's story makes sense. He talks about seeing the two murder victims on the TV, and being desperate enough to try and help any way he can that he'd thrown people in to try and rescue him.

He says he hadn't known that people would die if they were still in the TV World when the fog came in, and he's so earnest about it that Yu finds himself believing it.

But that means there's someone else. Someone else who had been trying to kill people by throwing them into the TV, intentionally trying, not accidentally trying the way Namatame has been doing.

So someone else. Someone with a connection to the two murder victims, someone who knows about the TV World, someone that knows enough about what they're doing to leave a threatening note for Yu at the house, someone...

Yu's phone rings as they're stepping out of Namatame's room, questions answered but no real progress made toward the truth, and he answers it when he sees his uncle's name on the caller ID.

"If you're missing someone," Dojima says, with no preamble. "They're hiding in my hospital room."

"Akira?" Yu guesses. 

"And his friend," Dojima says. There's a pause, then he says. "They say you're trying to find out more about the man who took Nanako."

"We talked to him," Yu admits. He half can't believe he's having this conversation about sneaking around the police with his uncle, the police detective.

"Good," Dojima says. "Come down here and tell us what you've learned." He adds gruffly, "And you may need to help them out of here without being seen, later. It sounded like they caused a lot of trouble out there earlier."

"Akira is good at that," Yu says, and his uncle snorts then hangs up. "Akira's with my uncle," he announces. "Sounds like he and Lavenza are okay."

"Good," Yukiko says.

"And my uncle wants to talk to us," Yu adds.

"We in trouble?" Kanji asks.

"I don't... think so," Yu says. "But I guess we'll find out."

They troupe down to Dojima's room without running into any problems. They'd managed to get in and out of Namatame's room without anyone spotting them, so the people they pass don't spare the group more than a passing glance.

It's a tight fit to get all of them into Dojima's room, but they manage it, crowding in around the bed, leaning against the few falls that don't have medical equipment or monitors on them. 

"Did you find anything?" Akira asks. 

"Possibly," Yu tells him, and explains everything they've learned. He can feel himself squirming, once or twice, when he gets to a particularly detailed part of his explanation and his uncle raises a skeptical pair of eyebrows. But he's clearly making an effort to listen and to follow along, and when Yu's done with everything he has to say, he puts forth a summary.

"So Namatame has been... forcing people into this other world," Dojima says. "But he claims he was doing it to protect potential victims from someone that was actively trying to kill them. This was the person that was responsible for the two murders early in the year."

"Yes," Naoto agrees. "And we can probably deduce a few other things about who this person is. Or at least, the qualities they must have."

"You think you can figure out who it was?" Akira asks. 

"I think we can at least put together a list of traits and descriptors that could help us narrow down who it might be," Naoto says. 

Akira shrugs. "I guess if anyone could do it, it'd be you," he says, and Yu half manages to hide a smile. Maybe his high opinion of her makes sense, considering she'd found Akira out as the Tricksters in about an hour. "So what kind of stuff do we know about this guy?"

So they put their list together. They talk about the connections the killer must have had with the first two victims. About how they must have known about the TV World enough to figure out that it would kill the people left inside. It would have to be someone that had figured out Yu was leading the group that kept rescuing people from the TV World, and left him a threatening letter telling him to stop. Someone that wouldn't stick out in the relative insularity of Inaba. Someone that could slip past the higher than normal amount of police dispatched to the scenes of the crimes.

It doesn't take them long--especially with Dojima's half willing, half grudging assistance, and his more intimate knowledge of the police investigations--to put the pieces together. To remember odd scraps of conversation, and realize that two and two make four, and that in this case, four is Tohru Adachi. 

Yu's the one that says the name, hardly daring to look at his uncle as he says it. After all that's his partner that Yu is basically accusing of being a murderer, but they've all talked it through, and there's... there's really only one person that fits.

"He should be allowed to say something to defend himself," Dojima says, into the mostly silent room, filled as it is with people that seem to be trying very hard not to look at him or say anything else. "I'm going to talk to him before doing anything else."

Yu wonders what exactly they can do, and feels a second of swooping despair. The crimes Adachi has committed can't be tried in a normal court of law, can they? Even if they somehow got him to confess, the whole story is so crazy that no one will ever believe him. No one will ever believe him, will they?

But he doesn't say that out loud. He pushes past the moment of doubt, reminds himself that catching the murderer has been their goal since the very beginning, and they just need to keep faith that everything will work out in the end. 

"I'll call him," Dojima goes on. "And ask him to come down here." He looks around at the rest of the group. "I know I can't convince you all to leave, and you know a lot more about how all this works than I do." He seems obviously unhappy about admitting this. "But I'm going to ask at least most of you to leave before we have this conversation." His expression is a little harder now. Not harsh, just... professional. "A cornered criminal can lash out in all kinds of ways, and I don't want all of you in danger."

No one outright argues, but no one volunteers to leave, either. Looking around at the determined expressions on his teammates' faces, Yu can't help but feel a warm rush of appreciation for all of them, for being willing to stick with this until the absolute end. 

"Akira," Dojima says. "I want you to take your friend home now."

"What?" Akira demands. "Why us?"

"Because you're kids," Dojima says bluntly, and Akira frowns, half turning away. His new TV World glasses flash slightly, hiding his expression as thoroughly as any mask. Yu's pretty sure they're not doing him any good inside, where the fog hasn't permeated yet (none of the rest of them are wearing glasses), but if he likes them then there's no reason he shouldn't have them on.

"Fine," Akira says, which kind of surprises Yu--he'd half suspected an argument. Maybe Akira doesn't dare fight with Dojima about this, right here and right now. He gives Lavenza a look which seems to communicate something Yu can't quite read, and then the two of them are gone.

As soon as the door closes behind them, a much more lengthy negotiation starts, as everyone has their own reason for why they should all be there. In the end, though, it's just Yu, Naoto, and Dojima that are left behind in the small hospital room. 

Yu sits in one of the two chairs, next to Naoto, and waits while his uncle calls Adachi. He's only half listening to the conversation until suddenly Dojima's voice sharpened. "You're in the hospital already?" he asks. "Why?"

A moment of silence, presumably while Adachi answers the question. Yu glances sideways at Naoto, and catches her looking back at him with the same confused expression.

"Who authorized Namatame's transfer?" Dojima asks, and Yu frowns. "There could be more information that he has to give us."

Which might be exactly why Adachi wants him moved, Yu thinks. It's a good thing that they'd already asked him all their questions.

"Already gone," Dojima mutters, then raises his voice back to normal volume. "Just come and see me before you leave the hospital," he tells Adachi. "There's some things I need to talk to you about."

He hangs up, looking pissed, and they wait for Adachi's arrival.

-//-

December 5

Evening

-//-

Adachi's questioning, Akira soon realizes, is not going well.

Instead of heading home when he'd been told to leave, he'd instead peeked into the room next to Dojima's, found to his excitement that it's between patients, and immediately hidden inside to listen to the conversation happening on the other side of the thin hospital wall. 

At Lavenza's pointed insistence ("it's the right thing to do, Akira, you know they're a part of this.") he heads out into the hall to stop Yu's friends from leaving. They end up crowded into the room next door, listening as hard as they can to the sound of Dojima and Adachi arguing in the room next door. Occasionally this is interrupted by a comment from Yu or a matter of fact question from Naoto, and every time this happens, Adachi sounds a little more frantic and panicked.

"We shoulda been in there too," Kanji says, and half a dozen voice his shh! at him all at the same time.

Akira swallows down hard on the urge to laugh at how weird this whole situation is.

"I think he's about to confess," Chie whispers. She has both hands on the wall and her head turned to press her ear flat against the white plaster. "They pretty much have him backed into a corner."

Everyone goes silent again to listen, and sure enough--

There's a sharp curse from Dojima, and then a shout of surprise from Yu, and the bang of the door to the room next door being thrown open.

Akira wriggles out of the crowd of people against the wall as he hears frantic footsteps going running down the hall. "Come on!" he says. "He's running!"

And what exactly they're going to do if they catch him, he has no idea. But everyone else seems to be on the same page, because no one argues as they all go running out the door and down the hall after the fleeing Adachi. For the second time that day, Akira finds himself running in the general direction of Namatame's room. Only this time, he's not trying to make as much noise and distraction as possible, and just trying to keep Adachi in sight.

He's already starting to slip behind a little--he's smaller than everyone else except Lavenza, and they're pulling ahead--when Chie gasps. 

"He's headed for Namatame's room!" she says.

"But Namatame's already gone, right?" Kanji demands. "What's he going there for?"

Akira doesn't hear if anyone actually comes up with an answer, because as hard as he tries to keep up, that's the point where he finally falls far enough behind to lose track of the conversation. 

Great.

But at least he's heard enough to know that Adachi is heading for Namatame's room, so he heads there. Everyone else is already grouped around in the hallway, looking glum.

"We lost track of him," Yukiko says, and Akira groans.

"He must have gone into the TV, though, right?" Rise asks. "I mean--there's nowhere else in here for him to have run to."

"There's a TV here?" Akira asks.

"A big one in Namatame's room," she agrees.

"Oh," Akira says. 

Before he has a chance to say anything else, Yu and Naoto come running up the hall toward them. Apparently they hadn't been as quick to jump up and run after Adachi.

"I thought you were going home," Yu says, pausing to look at Akira.

Akira mumbles something and looks everywhere other than at Yu.

"Never mind that now," Yosuke says. "Yu--we chased Adachi down this way, but then lost him."

"He's probably in the TV in Namatame's room," Chie adds. "We didn't see him, but... I mean. Where else would hae have gone?"

"Well--" There's a pause, as Yu takes in all this information. He looks... disappointed, Akira thinks. Then again, why wouldn't he be? After coming this close to getting the murderer to confess, and then losing him, of course he's disappointed. "Great," Yu mutters. He shakes his head, then looks back over his shoulder. "I guess we know our next mission, then."

"Getting Adachi out of the TV," Yukiko says.

"It'll be harder than anything else we've done," Naoto says. "If he knows enough about the TV World to use it to kill people, he must have some idea how it works. He may even has a Persona of his own."

Nobody seems to like that idea very much.

"Let's... just leave for now," Yu says. "We can regroup at Junes and go after him from there." He takes a quick look down the hall, over his shoulder. "Naoto and I heard them calling security while we were on our way over here, and I don't think this is the safest place for us to be jumping in from right now."

"But he's so close," Chie protests.

"I know," Yu says, obviously upset but doing his best to hide it. "And we'll get him, just... we'll do it our way. We don't even have equipment on us, and we need to be ready when we go in after him. Naoto's right, we don't know what Adachi's going to have ready for us."

More grumbling, but nothing too serious, and by the time they start to hear voices looking for a bunch of kids, even Akira's ready to admit that they need to get out of the hospital. They beat as hasty and subtle a retreat as they can, creeping through the hospital like they're already in the TV World, and trying to avoid Shadows that are too strong for them to fight. No one spots them, and they regroup at the bus stop without (somehow) getting into any more trouble.

Akira sits with them on the bench, watching the road, lost in his own thoughts. Lavenza vanishes at some point before the bus arrives, slipping away when no one's paying attention to her, and leaving Akira pretty much alone with his thoughts. 

"Akira," Yu says, and Akira jerks a little and looks up at him, startled back into the real world.

"Yea?" he asks. Everyone else is caught up in their own conversations, so for right now the two of them have at least some privacy.

"Are you still doing okay?" Yu asks.

Akira makes a face. "You don't have to worry about me," he says. "Just because I'm younger--"

"Yes I do," Yu says. "I want to."

Akira doesn't exactly know what to say to that.

"So are you okay?" Yu insists.

Akira turns back to the road, watching as the bus turns a corner several blocks away, and heads toward them. "Yea," he says. "I'm just thinking that... it's kind of weird, but I'm starting to feel like I'm part of the group. I like it." Maybe things hadn't gone perfectly today. Adachi had gotten away, after all, and now they're going to have to dive back into the TV World for probably the most dangerous mission ever. But Akira feels like maybe he'd been able to help, some. He feels like maybe he's making a difference, and that comes with a weird, warm feeling that reminds him of how it feels to fight Shadows with Yusuke and Lavenza.

He likes being part of a group.

And then the bus pulls up to the stop with a squeal of brakes, and Akira dodges through the group and away from Yu, before Yu has a chance to answer.

-//-

December 24

Afternoon

-//-

It takes them a very long time to find Adachi within the TV World.

And then it takes them an even longer time to fight their way through to him.

The Shadows in Magatsu Inaba, where Adachi's hiding, are tough. They're tough enough that the first time Akira messes up his stealth and gets into a fight with one, it hits him so hard that Yukiko has to cast recarm to get him back on his feet.

It's the first time he's ever been hit with a recarm, and he does not enjoy it. By the time he's back up, Naoto's at half health herself, and Yukiko spends the rest of the fight spamming healing without getting a chance to do any actual damage herself. After that, Yu insists that everyone stick together instead of splitting into two groups like they had in Heaven. 

Akira wants to complain, but for once he doesn't think this is because he's twelve and they're sixteen, or because he's had more practice sneaking than he has fighting. It's because the Shadows here aren't just violent, they're angry. Maybe it has something to do with this place belonging to Adachi, the murderer, but they're just... they're vicious. Akira can't even talk to them, the way he's usually able to with other Shadows. 

After two days of fighting through Magatsu Inaba without being able to recruit a single new Shadow as a Persona, Akira has to go to Yu and ask him to summon more Persona for Akira to recruit. They go into the TV at Junes on a Sunday when everyone else has the day off, and spend the whole morning just getting Akira more powerful Persona.

When they're halfway through, Akira blurts out, "I'm sorry that you have to do this."

"Do what?" Yu asks, pausing as he reaches for another Persona card.

"Babysit me," Akira says. 

The card vanishes, back to wherever they are when Yu's not using them. Akira has never seen them sitting around their room, or in Yu's bag with the rest of his TV World supplies. He thinks that maybe they're only half real, the way the Velvet Room only seems like it's half real, or Akira's mask only exists when he needs it. It probably doesn't matter. They're real for Yu, which is what matters. "I'm not babysitting you," Yu says.

"Sure," says Akira. "Except that I'm five years younger than the rest of you, my Persona are way weaker, and I'm holding the rest of you back."

"You're only four years younger than Kanji and Rise," Yu says. "And Naoto."

"Great," Akira mutters.

"And Teddie's probably less than six months old," Yu says. "So, you know. You've got him beat."

"Ha ha," Akira mutters. "You know what I mean."

"Yea," Yu says. He sits down, and after a second of pulling faces, Akira does too. "Listen. If having you with us was just babysitting, I would have asked you to stay home while we go after Adachi. This is too important to bring anyone with us that isn't helping. You're the only one other than me that can recruit more than one Persona. You're the only one period that can reliably get past a floor full of Shadows without getting into a single fight."

"I mess it up sometimes," Akira says.

"Not that often," Yu says. "Now come on, there's two more Persona I wanted to give you."

So they go back to that, with Yu summoning his Persona and Akira talking them around to his side. The pep talk Yu had given him helps Akira feel a little bit better, but it's those last two Persona that really help him get that oh wait, everything Yu just said is something he means. There's always a little part of Yu, in the Persona Akira gets from him. And right now what he's getting is support.

Akira's less upset about the distance between himself and everyone else, after that. He'll get there eventually.

But after that Sunday, there's still the rest of Magatsu Inaba to fight through. Adachi is tricky and it shows in every step they take through the TV World while they hunt him. Everything they see is a maze, designed to confuse them as much as it possibly can--there's a whole floor they have to pass through without fighting a single Shadow. They make it down one hallway before walking smack into a Shadow and being sent back to the start, and then Yu announces that Akira's going to be leading for the rest of the floor.

He doesn't feel useless after that. He does feel stressed and panicky because he has to get a whole group including Kanji and Teddie and Rise get through an entire floor without being spotted once by a Shadow. It still takes them two more tries, but by the end Akira doesn't feel useless anymore.

They make progress. Slow, but steady progress. And finally, two days before Christmas, they get to a new floor, and Rise announces that they're practically right on top of Adachi.

"Great," Yu says. "Perfect. We'll come back right after school tomorrow and confront him."

"We're not doing it now?" Yosuke asks.

"We've been at it for almost two hours," Yu says. "We're all drained, we're tired, and we're not facing Adachi like that."

And no one argues, so on December 23rd they walk away from Magatsu Inaba and back to the real Inaba. On December 24th, they wake up to a town so swamped by fog, it looks like it's about to be swallowed up.

Akira finds Yu downstairs, watching the sea of yellow outside with a far away look. He's used to that expression by now, Yu's been keeping a really close eye on the fog, and it's not until he looks out the window and sees for himself how bad it's gotten that he feels his own expression go slack in surprise.

"Oh," he says, walking over to join Yu by the window. "I've never seen it that bad except..."

"Except in the TV World," Yu says. "Yea."

They look at each other with the same worry on their faces. Akira can feel his mask flickering on his face, appearing and disappearing and finally solidifying across his eyes. Akira makes a face and raises a hand to grip the edge (wonders, for a second, what would happen if he tore it away--Aresene is buzzing at the back of his mind, and Akira can almost believe that if he tried, he could summon his Persona into the real world). With effort, he forces it away. He has school to get through today, he can't afford to walk in looking like he's on his way to a masquerade.

"Akira," Yu says, back to looking out the window. "I... want to ask you something. A favor. And it's kind of a big favor."

"What?" Akira asks.

"When we go to the TV World today," Yu says. "I... don't want you to come with us."

Everything in Akira goes cold, and he's almost more surprised in this moment than he had been when he looked out the window and saw how bad the fog has gotten. They're going to face Adachi today. They've made it all the way there and now he's being asked not to see it through to the end. "But you said--"

"I'm not asking you to stay back because I don't think you can keep up," Yu says. "I'm asking you to stay back because... because of this." He gestures out at the fog. "We know that the fog from the TV World is leaking into reality, but we don't know what that means. If it gets bad enough--if we fail, or if we're wrong about stopping the fog by stopping Adachi, then I'm..." He hesitates. "I'm scared that things are going to get worse here. I'm scared that the fog will get worse, and that we're going to start to see Shadows here, in Inaba."

"Do you think that could really happen?" Akira asks.

"I don't think that anything's impossible anymore," Yu says. "I hope it's impossible, but I'm not sure."

"Oh," Akira says.

"If that happens," Yu says. "Then I think... honestly, Akira, you're the only one that might be able to do anything."

Akira gives him a skeptical look. 

"I'm serious," Yu says. "You learned how to fight Shadows without a team. You're a Wild Card, so you can be flexible if you have to. If it comes to that." He shakes his head. "And you're too stubborn to stop fighting no matter how bad it gets. You're too much trouble, Trickster."

There's a flicker of a smile on his face as he says it, and Akira lets himself smile too, even through his his sudden nerves, even though he has no idea how he's going to handle this if what Yu's afraid of actually happens.

"At least Dojima and Nanako are still at the hospital," he says, trying to change the subject. "They're out of it." The hospital is outside Inaba's borders, technically. The fog isn't as bad there. Maybe they'll be safe.

"Yea," Yu says. "Luckily."

Which is exactly when the front door opens. Both of them turn around, to find a triumphant Dojima carrying Nanako inside. "Guess who's recovered enough to be allowed to come spend a few days at home?" Dojima asks.

Nanako thrusts her hand up triumphantly, beaming so wide it almost splits her face in two. 

Akira does his best to smile back. 

His mask flickers back onto his face.

Chapter Text

December 24

Lunchtime

-//-

"Hey, Kurusu."

Akira should have gotten used to Daiki ambushing him at lunch by this point, but somehow it still surprises him every single time. He keeps expecting Daiki to turn around and laugh in his face and then maybe punch him for good measure. It hasn't happened yet, somehow. Instead, they've just had a series of rambling conversations about anime, baseball, school, and Inaba.

Most times, it's not actually that bad. Daiki can still be kind of a jerk, once in a while, but Akira gets the impression he's not doing it on purpose. He's just still learning how to be nice. Today, though, Akira doesn't think he can stand to think about anything other than fog and Shadows and Yu risking his life to fight Adachi in another reality.

"Hey," Akira says. "I'm actually not feeling up to talking toda--"

"What's that on your face?" Daiki asks, and Akira (after a second of his mind going absolutely blank) says a word he's only ever heard Kanji say when he's getting hit hard by a Shadow. Yu has asked Akira not to say it, but Akira decides this is a special circumstance.

Daiki laughs, and Akira kind of hunches over his desk and focuses hard on getting his mask to go away.

And then Daiki says--"Hang on," and his voice is strange.

It's enough to startle Akira into actually looking up at him, even with his mask solid across the top half of his face. Daiki is staring at him, and for a second there's nothing but silence between them. Then Daiki hisses (not angry, just.. what, surprised? With a hint of triumph, maybe?) and says, "It was you!"

"What?"

"You know," Daiki says. "When you came to the hospital and visited me I thought it was weird."

Okay, Akira had even known at the time it was weird for him to show up, but he'd needed to know that it had worked, and that Daiki was okay, and that maybe he'd even made things better and not worse.

And maybe he'd also thought that Daiki had been too out of it and too, uh... unobservant, to make the connection.

"I remember that mask," Daiki says, and Akira doesn't know how to answer.He feels like he's forgotten how to say anything at all. He's had people find out, had people figure him out, before now. None of those people had been Daiki, though.

"Um," Akira says, because it's the first word that manages to filter up through his mind and out of his mouth.

"Cool," Daiki says.

"Um," Akira says, again. He really doesn't want to have to deal with this today, out of all days.

"So why'd you do it?" Daiki asks.

"Do what?"

"Help me," Daiki says.

They're staring at each other again, Akira realizes after several seconds of silence. He's going to have to say something if he wants this awkward silence to stop, ever. "Because..." he clears his throat. "Because somebody had to do it." It's not the whole truth. It's actually not even the truth at all, because Yu and his friends could have done it. Naoto hadn't even been part of their group back then, Akira definitely could have figured out a way to tell them what was going on without being caught. Or maybe he could have tried, and gotten caught, and found out months earlier that he matters more to Yu than the Trickster does.

But it's enough of an explanation for Daiki, and for right now.

"So why are you wearing it now?" Daiki asks.

"Because it's foggy," Akira says, and is rewarded with a confused look from Daiki. Fair. That's not really a comment that actually makes sense. He fiddles with his glasses where they're resting on his desk--with his mask coming in and out of existence, it's getting kind of uncomfortable to wear them, too--and wishes he was out of this conversation entirely. 

"You have to tell me something," Daiki insists, but luckily that's the exact moment the lunch period ends, and the classroom is suddenly full of the sound of shifting desks and people moving around, and Akira is able to keep out of the way of Daiki until their teacher calls for them to be quiet, and starts lecturing about math. 

Daiki spends the whole afternoon trying to get Akira's attention, and Akira pretends to ignore him so hard that he actually ends up accidentally paying attention to the classes, just because he knows Daiki can't do anything without being super obvious.

He's not paying so much attention, though, that he doesn't have time to worry about what's going to happen after school is over. He's close enough to the classroom's window that he can see the fog, and every time he glances in that direction, his stomach churns a little. Yu's... probably just being paranoid, right? There haven't been any Shadows in the real world before, ever, so why would they be there be now? 

What is he going to do if they are?

After school, Akira jumps out of his seat and pretty much runs from the classroom while his fog dulled classmates are still shuffling to their feet. He's got somewhere to be, and he doesn't actually know where that is, yet, but he's going to figure it out.

Lavenza's waiting for him by the school's front gate, which is a relief. Whatever's going to happen, it'll go better with her there. "Hey," Akira says, slowing to a stop in front of her. "The fog--it's gotten really bad."

She nods, expression very grim. "Yes," she agrees. "There's not much time left, before so much of the fog will have leaked over to this world that it will be..." The end of the sentence hangs, lingering in the heavy air as she chooses her words. "Consumed."

Akira wishes she'd chosen a different word.

"Yu says he's worried about Shadows coming into this world," he says, and his eyes are fixed on her face as he says it. If something like that's possible, she'd know, and Akira has never wanted someone to laugh in his face and tell him he's wrong as much as he wants Lavenza to right now. She doesn't laugh, though. Instead, she purses her lips a little and says, "He's probably right to be worried."

"They're all going into the TV World today," Akira says. "But Yu asked me to stay here, and... and protect things. Just in case. I just... don't know where to start." 

"Hey, Kurusu!"

Lavenza half stands on her toes and looks over Akira's shoulder. "That's Daiki," she says. "Isn't it?"

"He... uh.... yea." Akira starts walking, Lavenza following half a step behind him. "He's the only one at school other than me that isn't being affected by the fog, so he's the one that kind of noticed the mask, and everything. Now he has questions and I don't know if I even want to answer them or just keep hoping that he'll get bored and stop asking. 

Lavenza makes a soft, thoughtful noise, but then they're down the street and around the corner, avoiding the wide open space of the Samegawa Flood Plain, where it's much too easy to be spotted, and walking toward home on the narrower and more open streets. Akira doesn't know exactly why she's headed for home, because he doesn't know where he could be that would actually help, but it's somewhere to go and something to do.

They're just turning onto the street with the Dojima house when Akira sees--

A Shadow.

"Oh!" Lavenza says, her voice almost unrecognizable in surprise (Akira hardly ever hears her surprised). 

Akira looks past her, at the Shadow. It's halfway down the street, close to the house, almost invisible behind the fog, just a lumbering sludge that the few other people walking past don't seem to notice. For a second Akira stares, feeling crushed by the fact that he's going to have to deal with all this on his own, while everyone else focuses on getting into the TV World and facing Adachi.

Then Lavenza steps past him, toward the Shadow, and Akira realizes this is it. He has to move.

And so he does. With sudden purpose, he moves. Takes a step, and then another, walking down the street with calm assurance. This is Inaba, not the TV World, and the stakes for failing are high. But Akira knows what he's doing, he knows how to fight Shadows, and he is absolutely not going to let anyone down. 

The Shadow is in the garden by the Dojima house, leaving dragging tracks in the dirt.  Akira reaches for Arsene within his mind and feels a kind of flash. The mask he's been fighting off for weeks now slides into place across his eyes, glasses vanishing in the same moment. His long coat unfurls as he moves, TV World costume appearing all at once. Probably a bad sign, if the real world has gotten close enough to the TV World to let him wear that.

He'll worry about that later, Akira decides, and springs forward to ambush the Shadow in the garden.

-//-

December 24

Afternoon

-//-

Nanako naps (reluctantly) just after lunch, because her dad and the hospital doctors insist that she still needs plenty of rest to recover from the TV World.

None of them actually says TV World, of course. The doctors don't know what happened to her so they just talk about her 'still undiagnosed illness.' And her dad clearly doesn't like any of it, so he just calls it 'that weird thing Yu and Akira stuck their noses into.'

But whatever all those grownups want to call it, they all insist that she definitely needs plenty of rests and plenty of naps. Nanako thinks she's fine, she's getting a lot better, but no one listens to her when she argues so she decides to just nap while Yu and Akira are at school. That way she'll be up to see them when they get home, and she won't miss getting to see them while she's still home. The doctors at the hospital want her to come back for more observation after New Year's, which means she's not going to have as much time with them as she wants.

So Nanako naps after lunch, and then spends some time trying to work on the homework her teachers at school gave her, and then just starts watching the clock impatiently.

Her dad is at the kitchen table with some kind of paperwork, and eventually he notices her looking at the time, and sort of laughs as he checks the time himself. "Akira should probably be home soon," he says. 

"I know," Nanako says, just a little defensively. Her dad chuckles again and looks back down at his papers. There's maybe two or three minutes of silence, and then the sound of something loud just outside.

"What on Earth...?" Her dad stands up, a little slowly because he's still recovering from his accident. "Stay here, Nanako, I'm going to check out whatever that was."

"Mmhmm!" Nanako says, and then waits thirty seconds after he's out the door to follow him.

(Yu would have told her to stay inside, if he was here. Akira, she's pretty sure, would be running outside with her)

Right away, as soon as Nanako is out of the front door, she sees what's been making the noise. It's a Shadow, like the ones she'd caught only glimpses of in Heaven, like the ones that Akira and Yusuke have told her about and drawn for her since summer.

It's in their garden, knocking over all the equipment they'd stacked up carefully against the side of the plot when the weather started to turn cold. Nanako stares, eyes wide. She's never been this close to a Shadow before. They'd stayed away in Heaven, but they're right here, right next to the house, and Nanako's stomach flips over and over like she's falling off a cliff. There's no Lavenza here now, no Yu or Akira, and she's not sure how you fight a Shadow off without a Persona.

Her dad seems determined to try anyway, and Nanako opens her mouth to warn him. No sound comes out, though, she doesn't even know what to say. He pulls his gun anyway, the one he has from work, and fires twice at the Shadow. It flinches and then seems to shake it off, hurt but not very much.

And then suddenly there's a person running toward them out of the yellow fog that's been everywhere Nanako looks since she got out of the hospital. While she's just standing there, and her dad is trying to figure out what to do, the newcomer dashes onto the scene. He slides as he comes up to the garden and turns, neatly, a flash of something shiny in his hand. A knife, Nanako realizes, just as her dad hisses something too low for her to hear, and then adds, "Akira."

It is, and Nanako's eyes go wide. In the fog, in his TV World costume, she hadn't even recognized him, but there he is. He hits the Shadow hard, before it even sees him, then darting back and reaching a hand up for his mask. Nanako's eyes go wide and she leans forward with her whole body, too afraid of missing something to even blink. She'd seen Akira in costume in Heaven, but by the time the actual fighting had happened, she'd been too sick to really pay attention. So this is new.

"Persona!" Akira shouts, and even though Nanako recognizes his voice, it's different somehow now.

The Persona flares upward from behind Akira in a flash of blue blame, as the oozy black Shadow bursts into some kind of monster thing. Nanako gasps and her dad looks back and sees her for the first time. "Nanako," he says. "Get back in the house."

But Nanako doesn't. She's not sure her feet would move right now even if she wanted them to, and she definitely does not want to. Instead she watches, totally ignoring everything else as Akira fights the Shadow off. Nanako is so enthralled that for the first few attacks, she does nothing but stare dumbly.

Then she realizes that she knows that Shadow. She does, she definitely does! It's one of the ones Akira's told her about, and Yusuke had drawn. For the first time, she feels like she can actually move, so she does--she takes a couple steps forward, ducking under the arm her dad stretches out to hold her back, and cups her hands around her mouth so she'll be heard over the sounds of the fight. "Akira!" she calls. "Stop hitting it with fire, it's not gonna work!"

He looks away just for a second, hopping back and out of reach of the Shadow, and gives Nanako a sheepish look. Nanako smiles back, just happy to help. After all, he fights a Shadow and that's it, he doesn't have to remember all the weaknesses after he comes home and tells her about it. She's the one that studies the Shadow notes more than her homework. 

"Nanako!" her dad says, and she shuffles a few steps back to stay out of the way of the fight. 

But she doesn't blink until it's over, and Akira's the only one left standing. His Persona, which had just sent a final burst of bright blue ice at the Shadow, vanishes.

"Uh," Akira says. "Hi." 

Nanako hears footsteps, and then Lavenza comes running at them from out of the fog. 

"You could have waited," she says.

"You could have been faster," he says, but he's smiling and Lavenza rolls her eyes hard, and neither of them looks mad. Nanako wonders if this is how they are in the TV World. They make it look so easy that she almost feels bad for being so scared of the Shadows. 

Then she remembers what it had been like to see the Shadows fighting only a few feet away from her, and doesn't feel bad anymore.

"Akira," Nanako's dad says, very seriously.

"Oh yea," he says. "So um... Yu and his friends went to fight in the TV World because we finally found Adachi yesterday, but the fog's getting so bad that Yu thought we might actually get Shadows here and asked me to stay behind and it turns out he was right." He takes a deep breath. "So I just I just have to figure out how to, um... hold off however many Shadows get through until Yu and everyone get back, because he and his friends are probably going to have to fight something really, really bad when they get to Adachi and they can't spare anyone else to help yet."

"No," Dojima says. "Absolutely not." He's staring at the place where the Shadow had been, like he still can't really believe what he saw there. He shakes his head, which seems to snap himself out of his distraction. "Akira, these things are dangerous."

"I know," Akira says. "I've been fighting them, I know they're dangerous. But who else is going to do it?"

"Dad," Nanako says, sliding up toward him. "Dad, you couldn't hurt it." 

"When they're in the TV world, they don't usually bother people without Persona," Akira says. "But I don't know if the rules are going to be the same here, and I don't want anyone to get hurt, so I'm... I'm going to go find some more Shadows and make sure they don't start attacking. Even if you don't think it's safe for me to do, I'm still going to do it."

Nanako bites her lip and fights the urge to fidget from where she's standing behind her dad. Lavenza, who is standing next to Akira, is the only one to notice her worried expression and gives her a reassuring smile. It actually makes Nanako feel a little better, and she stops her fidgeting.

"Please," Akira adds quietly, when the silence has gone on so long that it looks like it's never going to stop. "I'm going to do this, because someone has to and no one else can, and because--because Yu trusted me, but..." This time, he's the one fidgeting instead of Nanako. "It would be really nice if... if you were okay with it."

-//-

December 24

Afternoon

-//-

Dojima looks down at Akira, at the determined set of his expression, of his eyes behind the mask. How, he asks himself, have the kids turned out like this? There's a twelve year old child living under his roof who has taught himself to fight for his life against horrifying monster-things. His nephew is apparently somewhere in another dimension, except even more dangerous. And Nanako, if her shouting advice (as matter of fact as if she was sharing facts about their gardening), knows just as much as the two of them.

How has he not noticed? How could he not have seen that all this was going on under his nose?

And now Akira is standing there, asking for permission to go out and risk his life to fight all over again. No, not permission, because everything in his expression, everything that's not hidden by a mask, is screaming that he's going to do this anyway, good idea or bad, with permission or without. He's asking for approval. He's going to do this anyway, but he wants to be told that it's okay. 

It's not okay. It is dangerous, and probably insane.

Except that somehow, it's much less dangerous for Akira, who can fight back, than for anyone using more conventional weapons. His own weapon had barely even made an impact on that Shadow monster. Akira, and his Persona, had torn into it.

"Dad," Nanako says, and Dojima turns back to her. "Dad, you have to let him go, or people will get hurt. Isn't that your whole job, to make sure people don't get hurt?"

"That includes Akira," Dojima says, then turns to look at Nanako. For a second, he's frozen at the sight of her expression. It's a mirror image of Akira's, every bit as stubborn and determined. 

How has he not noticed?

"Dad," Nanako says, again. "He knows how to fight them!"

Which is when they hear the scream, and the decision changes. This isn't just an argument about whether Akira and Nanako can be kept safe. There actually are other people here that are going to be hurt if they can't stop these things, and Dojima can't. Not as well as these kids with their Persona."

"You're not doing this alone," Dojima informs Akira as he squints in the direction of the scream. He holsters his gun, frowns, and gives Akira his best serious eyed look. "I'm coming with you. You might be able to fight those..."

"Shadows," Nanako, Akira, and the girl, Lavenza, all say at once. 

"You can fight those Shadows," Dojima says. "And I understand that you do, in this other world. But this is the real world, and I can help you here, so I will.  Understood?"

"I understand," Akira says.

"Good. Now--"

"And Nanako's coming too, right?" Akira asks.

"Absolutely not," Dojima says, after a second of surprise. "No."

"She will be safer with us," Lavenza says. "Safer than she would be here alone."

If the Shadows come back...

"She knows more about the Shadows than I do," Akira adds. "She just saved me by reminding me what that Shadow's weaknesses are."

"And I want to," Nanako adds. "Dad, I can help!"

Another scream interrupts the conversation, limiting the amount of time Dojima has to think. In the end, what makes the decision, the real deciding factor, is what Lavenza had said. That Nanako would be safer with people that could fight than she would be if she was left alone.

And, a voice in the back of his mind points out, he'd left her alone once, and she'd been kidnapped. There's no way he's letting that happen again.

"Okay," he says. "But Nanako, you listen to everything I tell you to do, alright?"

"I will!"

Fighting the churning nervousness in his gut that tells Dojima this is a bad idea, he reaches down for her hand and holds it tight. He's not letting Nanako get hurt. He's not. 

"Screaming came from that way," Akira says, and starts running. 

"This is insane," Dojima says, before he can stop himself. 

He's not expecting Lavenza to look away from where she's intensely focusing on Akira's retreating back, and give him a sympathetic smile. "A house of two Fools," she says. "I'm sorry to say that you never had a chance."

Dojima gives a little snort of laughter. He's not exactly sure what that means, or why she'd call her friend a fool. But there's something about her tone of fond resignation that makes Dojima think Akira's upended more than just his way of looking at the world. 

"Alright," he says. "We'd better get moving before he forgets he's supposed to be working with us and gets into some kind of trouble."

"I'm sorry to say it," Lavenza tells him, not looking sorry at all. "But that's not going to be something we can avoid."

-//-

December 24 

Evening

-//-

The screaming turns out to be coming from Daiki, who insists that he'd been shouting, not screaming, and then insists on going right back to throwing rocks at Shadows until Akira and Lavenza physically drag him away. 

"I can do it!" he insists. "Did you see those dumb things?"

"The Shadows?" Akira demands.

"I guess, yea!" Daiki says. "Just walking around like they belong here, messing with people that don't even care--"

"Okay," Akira says. "Yea, they're... bad, yea." And he really can't argue that the way the other people of Inaba don't even seem to see the Shadows, just walking around them in the street like there's nothing wrong with it. "But you can't just throw rocks at them."

"I definitely can!" Daiki insists, and in the end it takes a (probably not real? Akira doesn't think it's real) threat from Dojima that he's going to actually arrest him before Daiki eventually promises to get home and stay there.

Then there are more Shadows to fight. They're everywhere, and mostly not very strong, and (luckily) mostly not all that interested in people. Akira is used to being able to pick his fights, mostly--slipping past Shadows that are too strong for him, or the ones that aren't directly in the way of where he wants to go. He'd love to go after every single Shadow in Inaba, but he's the only Persona user here, and he only has so much energy.

Yu and his friends are all fighting Adachi, and Yusuke--the only other Persona user Akira knows--is all the way in Tokyo, where it would take hours to get to Inaba by train. Going through the TV World to get here would just be stupid right now. So it's Akira, all by himself, against as many Shadows as he can take on. 

He picks the ones that are trying to hurt people, and leaves the rest. It helps that he has a fresh bunch of Persona given to him from Yu, and it helps that he has Lavenza and Nanako and even Dojima (and his gun) backing him up. It just... doesn't help enough. Not to be able to get every single Shadow that they see. Lavenza, who has (apparently and unhelpfully) been banned from giving him more than support, has a twitchy look to her that makes Akira think she's seriously considering ignoring that order. She hasn't yet, though, and Akira isn't pushing. If it's because of that Igor guy, Akira doesn't think he'd want to go against him either.

He would, if he had to. Probably. He'd just... be kind of scared. So he doesn't press Lavenza to help in the fighting, and just hopes that they'll keep being lucky enough to run into Shadows he can face on his own.

They clear the shopping district and move on. 

Daiki's not the last person they see that seems to be able to see the Shadows. Here and there, they see other people--some high school students that Akira doesn't know. A middle schooler he vaguely remembers Yu tutoring a couple of times. A woman with a boy younger than Nanako, an old woman dressed all in black, a woman Akira recognizes as a nurse from the hospital. 

Most of them at least are being smarter about the Shadows than Daiki had been, because none of them are standing around throwing rocks at them. But they're helping to get people away from the path of the Shadows. They're keeping themselves safe. 

None of them really seems to know what's going on. A lot of them are scared, and so the little group always stops for at least a few minutes of explanation. The monsters are called Shadows. They're from another world, and it takes something special to be able to fight them. There's a whole bunch of people in that other world right now, trying to stop the fog that's slowly consuming it. They explain, they answer questions, and then they exchange cell phone numbers. This last part is important--it had been Dojima's idea, to make sure the people they're running into have some way to call for help. As they go on, however, texts and calls from these people, saying hey there's someone that needs help or I found a whole bunch of Shadows here, and the warnings make it so much easier to figure out where to go next.

The people they're talking to always look at Dojima for answers--he's the only adult there and a police officer, so it probably seems natural to them that he'd know the most about what's going on. By the time they've gone through the routine four or five times, Dojima's actually absorbed enough of what's going on to answer the questions they keep asking (with some help from Nanako, who knows more than he does), which gives Akira a much needed chance to sit down and catch his breath.

"Here," Lavenza says, as she joins him on the curb with a handful of snacks. "This might help."

"I don't know whether I want it to or not," Akira admits, but he takes them anyway. When they'd first left the Dojima house, the only healing they'd had was diarama from his Persona. The items he usually uses in the TV World, the real world, regular food items, hadn't been working when this first started. The worse the fog gets, the more effective they start to be. So on the one hand, while Akira would have been really happy to get some health back, he doesn't want to know that the real world has gotten so badly fogged up that a cup of rancid gravy is going to make him feel better.

Also, rancid gravy is gross and he'd really rather not eat it if he doesn't have to. 

He takes the cup anyway, dips a finger into it, and makes a face when it actually does make him feel better. Without a word, Lavenza hands him a spoon, and Akira sets to the unpleasant task of eating all of the (really, really, really) rancid gravy. To distract himself, he starts up a conversation. 

"So all these people we keep finding," he says. "The ones that aren't just... okay with the Shadows."

"Yes?" Lavenza says.

"Why exactly aren't they okay with it?" Akira asks. "Everyone else is, so... what makes them different?" He stabs at the gravy with his spoon. "I mean, I get me and you. I have a Persona and a mask. You're--" He doesn't know exactly how to finish the sentence or describe Lavenza, but she smiles a mysterious little smile and seems to understand exactly what he means. "You're you. I guess Nanako and Lavenza know about everything already, so maybe they're okay too, but what about everyone else? Why just those few people?"

"Well," Lavenza says. "I wouldn't want to say I know for sure."

"Okay," he says. "So that means you can guess, right?"

"Yes," she agrees. "Bonds. The connections between people that strengthen and inspire them. In this case, Yu's bonds with the people he's met this year."

Akira tilts his head sideways, considering this. He knows that Yu has met a lot of people this year. All of Akira's eavesdropping to find out about Yu's trips into the TV World have also taught him about the friends he helps at school, the tutoring, the part time job... all the people, he guesses, that have turned into bonds now.

"When you seek the truth with as much dedication as Yu does," Lavenza says. "It shows. It's clear to the people around you. It opens your eyes, and helps you see the truth too."

"That's kind of nice," Akira admits. "I bet you'd like that, if he knew."

Lavenza nudges him with her shoulder. "You can tell him all about it when it's over," she says.

"You think it will be?" he asks. "You think we'll make it?"

"I have faith in you," Lavenza says, and--speaking of bonds--he knows that his bond with her is as tight as it could be.

"Thanks," he says, and takes one last spoonful of gravy. Lavenza stands up, and Akira follows her. Then he says, "Wait--what about Daiki? I think Yu's talked to him like... once, maybe?"

"Oh, that." Lavenza smiles. "He has been to the TV World before, you know. Sometimes things stick."

"But it's not like he got a Persona out of it or anything," Akira says.

"Well," she says. "Maybe changing his heart was enough."

"Changing his heart?" Akira asks, and makes a face like he's just swallowed something even more gross than rancid gravy. "You make it sound like we're dating or something."

"I'll call it something else next time," she says, hiding a smile.

"Akira!" Nanako calls. "These guys say there's a whole bunch of Shadows by the floodplain."

"And time to go," Akira says. "I really hope Yu and everyone are doing better."

Lavenza gives the fog a dubious look. "If they don't hurry up," she says. "And the worlds get any closer, we might get to see for ourselves."

Right. Because the TV World is consuming theirs.

"Please, please, please," he whispers. "Please hurry up, Yu."

-//-

December 24

After School

-//-

By the time Yu brings his friends into the TV World, the fog has gotten so thick that he's half afraid it's too late. He actually lingers in the rooftop food court where they always meet, looking out at Inaba, at what would have been just one thick, yellow fog bank if he hadn't put on his glasses first. And he worries. Because this hadn't been his town a year ago. Up until April, Inaba had just been the backwards, rural town his parents sometimes joked about, where his mom had grown up and then run from at the first opportunity.

Now it feels more like home than anywhere else he's ever been. The idea of Shadows being here and hurting it is thoroughly, deeply upsetting in a way Yu can't exactly explain.

His friends live here. His uncle and his cousin. Akira. 

"Hey," Yosuke calls softly. "Hey, uh... Rise just got here."

"Oh," Yu says, turning away from the view of the town below them. Rise had skipped her shift on classroom cleaning a few too many times for TV World responsibilities, and she hadn't been able to get out of it this time. She's the last one they'd been waiting on, so now they'll be clear to get into the TV World. "Great, let's go."

"It's... well I mean, it's not exactly great," Yosuke says. "She has some, uh, news."

"Yea?"

"She saw Shadows on the way here," Yosuke says, voice low. "Just one or two, but... I mean, we didn't see any when we were on the way over from school, so we don't know how bad it's going to get."

"Yea," Yu says. "I was kind of worried about that this morning."

"You thought this might happen?" Yosuke asks.

"I mean, I thought it was extremely unlikely," Yu says. "But I asked Akira to stay behind just in case the fog got bad enough for Shadows to actually start showing up."

"I thought you said at school that you wanted him here so he wouldn't be in danger when we went after Adachi," Yosuke says.

"It was a little of both," Yu admits. "I wanted a backup plan just in case anything happened here, and I thought there was a much smaller chance of anything dangerous happening here than in the TV World." He still thinks that it's going to be less dangerous here--that if Adachi is really behind everything that's happened this year, and maybe even the fog that's invading Inaba now, he'll be much more of a threat than run of the mill Shadows that Akira already knows how to fight. 

But now that those Shadows are actually starting to ooze their way into Inaba, Yu's not sure that leaving Akira here alone actually is the best option. What if he needs help? What if there are too many Shadows for one person to handle alone? And Akira is smart and sneaky and versatile, but he's also less powerful than Yu and his friends. 

He just... can't spare anyone. He can't. Getting to Adachi had been bad enough, and Yu can only imagine how much worse it's going to be when they try to actually take him back to Inaba. For better or for worse... Akira's going to have to do this alone. 

"Let's go," he says, and Yosuke gives him an encouraging smile as the two of them head back to where the rest of their friends are waiting. And from there, it's on to the TV World.

...where they find that things have gotten worse overnight. The whole place has a nausea inducing, half-real, half-floating feeling that Yu really doesn't like. 

They fight through it anyway. They fight all the way to Adachi, past Shadows that suddenly seem much stronger than they had been the day before, and finally to the place where they'd left off yesterday.

"Adachi is definitely on the other side of that door," Rise says, as they stand there and look at it. Apart from her voice, everything is silent. They've fought through all the Shadows in the area to get here, and the sound of them oozing and groaning is conspicuously absent. There's no wind. It's just... still and silent. "Is everyone ready?"

The response to this is so cheerfully enthusiastic that Yu knows at once that they're all feeling as unprepared for this as he is, but they move forward anyway. There really isn't any other choice, and there are Shadows in Inaba. They're running out of time. 

And so they fight Adachi. 

He's somehow both worse and exactly as bad as Yu had been afraid he would be. Dangerous, yes. The whole group almost goes down twice, and Yu's heart almost stops both times. But this is what Yu had expected. They have Persona to fight this. They have weapons to fight this. They are ready and able to fight, and they do.

But what makes the fight worse are all the things Adachi says as the fight goes on. He talks about all kinds of horrible things. He talks about the things that people really want, and about how those things are apparently to live their lives as Shadows. 

It's inhuman. It's horrifying. For months now, Adachi has been Dojima's quietly complaining partner. Now he's standing in the middle of a decaying Shadow Inaba, ranting about how people would be better off if they weren't people at all, just... Shadows.

It's hard to focus on fighting when Yu keeps looking away from Adachi to give his friends are you seriously hearing the same things I'm hearing? looks.

But they manage it. Eventually. They bring Adachi to his knees, and take a deep breath, and let themselves celebrate a little bit. Yukiko laughs a little behind her hand.

And then Adachi rises his face toward the sky, and he laughs too. It's utterly without humor, and sends chills down Yu's spine. "Too late," he says. "Too late--the world will be nothing but Shadows, soon."

And then the view around them starts to change, flickering between the TV World and Inaba, actual, real world Inaba.

And then Adachi isn't Adachi anymore, but something dark and formless simmering just below the skin, and Yu realizes with a sick lurch that their fight isn't over yet.

-//-

December 24

Evening

-//-

Akira lowers his daggers, shaking slightly, as another Shadow goes down. He's tired all the way through to his bones, and he's not sure how much longer he's going to be able to keep fighting.

An unexpected hand comes down suddenly on his shoulder, and Akira looks up to see Dojima looking back down at him. "You're doing a good job," he says, and Akira smiles through his exhaustion. 

"Th-thanks," he says. "But I don't really know how much longer..." How much longer he could keep fighting, keep protecting Inaba, keep living up to the responsibility Yu had left him with. 

Dojima is not a naturally comforting person, but Akira can tell he's trying. As Akira struggles to find words to admit that he's at the absolute end of what he can do. The man's eyes go tight and worried, but the hand on Akira's shoulder only tightens in a way that is comforting and forgiving and accepting.

It's just that there are so many Shadows left.

The moment ends when Nanako shrieks, and both of them spin around to see what's come to attack her. 

It's more than an attack, though. It's Magatsu Inaba, half there but still only half. "It's the TV World," Akira says, stepping away from Dojima's hand and looking around at all of them. "This is..." He has to concentrate hard to place exactly where they are. "It's... not too far from where we were yesterday." Which means it's not too far from where Adachi is hiding, which means it can't be too far from where Yu and his friends will be fighting them.

"This isn't doing enough," Akira says, looking around at all of them, at the sudden uncertainty on every face. Is this... is this it? Were they too slow, have they lost? "Lavenza, can you stay here, with them? Just in case?" He meets her eyes, and he can see her understand what he's asking. Would she go against Igor's order to protect these people, if it comes to that.

"Yes," Lavenza says, looking unblinkingly at him.

"I have to get to Yu," Akira says, and takes off running.

"Akira!" Nanako shouts after him. "Akira, wait!"

Akira does not wait. The real world and TV World are coming together, and there's nothing he can do anymore to keep the Shadows away from people. This isn't just a few Shadows coming out of the fog, this is a world of Shadows, and at this point, the best thing he can do is help everyone else to cut it off at the source.

Unless this merging of worlds means it's already too late, that Yu and his friends have failed and that they're--

They're not dead they're not dead they can't be dead.

It's hard to move like this, to navigate two worlds at once, following the roads at the same time as the halls of Magatsu Inaba. More than once, Akira has to double back or try a different way. He doesn't give up, though, just grits his teeth and keeps going.

And, eventually, he gets to the end. To where something that is not Adachi (but looks like him, kind of) speaks in a dark parody of his voice, threatening the exhausted Investigation Team (exhausted, but not dead! Not dead, Akira is relieved to see) with all kinds of horrible things.

Akira takes a shaking couple of steps forward, too tired to really move fast, too busy trying to listen and catch up on what's going on to draw attention to himself by talking. He listens for a minute or two, as the thing in Adachi's skin talks about how this is what humanity craves, how they want to forget everything, to be 'become Shadows and live on in the darkness of the fog, oblivious of their reality...'

This is the part that finally makes Akira so angry that he can't keep quiet any longer. "You're wrong!" he shouts, sheer emotion making his voice crack and rise. "You--you're wrong, that's not what people want!"

Everyone turns to look at him. Every, for a second, is surprised into silence.

Yu is the first one to recover. "Akira," he says. "Akira, what are you doing here?"

"Everything's merging together," Akira says, and watches everyone's expressions crumble a little bit. This is what they didn't want to have happen. This is what he's pretty sure they've all been afraid of, ever since the TV World's fog started to filter in and didn't leave. Akira's too angry to get upset, though, so he takes another couple of steps toward the Adachi-thing. "You're wrong," he tells it again. "That's not what people want at all!"

"Foolish child," the thing says. "You think that you know better than m--"

"Yea!" Akria says. "I do! Because I'm the one that's been running around in Inaba trying to help all the people that the Shadows are attacking. And you know what?" He's still shouting, but doesn't care enough to try and lower his voice. "They don't want to be part of this world, they don't want to be Shadows! They want to keep being themselves. They want to keep living!

"You don't know what you're talking about," the thing hisses, and Akira opens his mouth to shout again (although he's not sure what he's going to say--he's still too mad to really be able to think of anything smart) when someone else pipes up.

"He knows more than you do!" Nanako says. "Because the Shadows are bad. They're hurting people!"

"Nanako," Akira says urgently. A lot of his anger is draining out of him, now that she's come running up out of the fog. She's still getting better from the last time she'd been to the TV World, she's going to get sick again. "You shouldn't be here, it's not safe for you..."

"Nowhere is safe right now," Nanako says, and Akira looks at her, tired from following him through the fighting for hours, her dress dirty, but her eyes bright. "Not until you're gone!"

Akira is so distracted looking at Nanako that he doesn't even realize anyone else is there until he hears that ragged cheer go up at her words. Nanako turns slightly pink at the attention, and Akira looks back to see Dojima, and the people they've been helping, and even Daiki. Expressions range from angry to confused to excited, but there's something they all have in common, something Akira can't quite put his finger on until they start calling out. 

"Mess that thing up!"

"Don't let it win!"

"Just go away, please!"

They're all alive. And none of them is okay with letting this Adachi thing do whatever it wants.

"What are you waiting for?" Akira calls to Yu, and with all these people standing behind them, he realizes that he's smiling. It's not a happy smile, because he's not happy, exactly. He just doesn't have any doubt, anymore, that they're going to win. "Fight that thing already!"

He's absolutely drained, himself. He doesn't think he could summon his Persona for even one more attack, doesn't think he could lift his daggers long enough to scratch them. But he doesn't feel upset. He feels like... like he's done everything he can, like he's done his part, and he can trust Yu and his friends now to take care of the rest.

Yu meets his eyes, and nods at him. Then he turns back to his team, and the fight begins.

Akira watches, unblinking, as the fight unfolds before them, as the others work together as one unified, tight-knit team. The last time he'd done this, watching Yu and his friends fight to rescue Nanako, Akira had felt nothing but frustration at not being able to help. Now, standing with all these other people, knowing he's fought hard and done is best all day, with the weight of Dojima's approval, of Nanako's support, of Lavenza's friendship all resting comfortably on his shoulders, all he feels is a sense of... rightness.

He shouldn't. Not with this monster trying to consume all of Inaba and its people. But Yu and his friends are going to win. They just... are.

And when they finally do, when everything is over, finally and really over, Akira is the first one to recover. While everyone else is still standing there, shocked, Akira lets out a laugh and runs over to hug Yu. "You did it," he says.

"Yea," Yu says, with a shaky little laugh. "We did it."

They've done it.

Nanako comes crashing in to join the hug, and Yu (whose arms are shaking slightly, Akira can feel now, who's breathing just a little too fast in the aftermath of the fight and the fear), doesn't let go until they hear a sudden click.

Akira pulls back and looks around, and finds Dojima standing over the fallen enemy, who is Adachi again.

"Well," Dojima says, looking down at his partner. "You're under arrest."

And the world snaps with the sudden force of separation, so sharply and finally that Akira's vision gets slightly blurry for a second. When he blinks the distortion away, they're back in the normal, real, unfogged streets of Inaba. His mask and costume are gone, and chill, December wind tugs at his school clothes.

It's over.

Chapter Text

December 25

Early Morning

-//-

Akira isn't exactly sure how he gets all the way from the shopping district back to the Dojima house. As soon as they get back, and the fog lifts, the exhaustion of everything he's done and fought through that afternoon seems to hit him like a heavy weight. He's vaguely aware of voices, of people celebrating something that most of them don't even fully understand, but he's too tired to really listen to them. At some point he's led away, he thinks by Yu, but it might have been just about anyone really. It feels like he's seeing the world in a series of long, slow blinks--here they are in the shopping district, standing by the door to the Velvet Room, with Lavenza smiling at him from just outside--now here they are on the road outside the Dojima's house, streetlights shining clear and bright for the first time in a long time, without the fog to block them--now here they are in the living room, Yu carrying an already sleeping Nanako back to her bedroom--and here he is, at last, lying on the sofa in front of the TV and feeling so tired that he's not sure he can even muster the energy to close his eyes.

Yu's lying on the futon on the other end of the room. He's not visible from where Akira's lying, but his presence is too strong and distinct and familiar to be anyone else. Once in a while he'll shift on the bedding, reassuring Akira that he's not alone.

After a while of staring upward at the dark ceiling, half formed thoughts and feelings swirling through him, Akira manages to catch hold of one. "Yu?" he says, voice quiet.

"Mmm?" Yu asks.

He sounds tired. Akira is tired. They've done something impossible today.

"I'm really glad I came to Inaba," Akira says. "And that you came too."

"Mmm," Yu says again. "Me too." Then--"Get some sleep, Akira."

Feeling warm and welcome, he closes his eyes and does exactly that.

-//-

December 25

Early Morning

-//-

Dojima does not sleep that night. Something about the fog, or about those Shadows, or the sheer, supernatural strangeness he's been through in the past twenty four hours pulls at his muscles, threatening to send him straight to sleep, but he doesn't dare give in. He hadn't been doing most of the fighting, and if those kids could keep going after everything he'd seen them do, then so can he. 

Besides, their job is done, and his is only just starting.

As soon as they're back in the real world, Dojima's thoughts switch focus from what he needs to do to make sure everyone gets home alive, to what needs to be done with Adachi. Because a crime has absolutely been committed. Between what he's seen for himself, and what he's been told by Yu and Akira (and Nanako), there's a clear trail of intentional harm to others that deserves prosecution and imprisonment, at the very least.

Except that his worst crimes haven't broken any real world laws in any provable ways. Except that standing up and telling the world what Adachi had done will only get him labelled insane, and Dojima doesn't know how to prove any of it.

He arrests Adachi anyway, and--when he's made sure that Yu at least has enough energy left to get Nanako and Akira home and into bed--takes him immediately to the police station, and into a holding cell.

He's been trying to be better about not working late, for Nanako's sake. She's always so disappointed when he's not home at a time that he should be. In this case, though, he's pretty sure she'll understand.

Dojima takes his partner (his ex-partner) through the routine process of arrest. Forms need to be filled out, then filed, the prisoner given his basic rights and access to an attorney if he wants one. But after that he finds himself at a loss, and at some point close to two in the morning he stands in front of Adachi's cell, watching the younger man sitting on a long bench, hands clasped in front of him, head bowed. Is it remorse, Dojima wonders. Or just disappointment at having been caught and dragged back here? Or maybe something else. Something related to that strange form he had taken (or that had taken over him) during the end of that battle. 

Whatever it is, remorse or disappointment or feelings older and deeper, in the end they're enough to make Adachi raise his head, look up at Dojima, and say, "I want to confess."

They look at each other, and Dojima finds himself trying to understand. He wants to ask why. He wants to ask where all this had started, how Adachi had found out about the TV World in the first place, and why he'd used it to hurt people. He wants to ask why a team of high schoolers, a talking bear costume, a middle schooler, and a first grader can have so much more moral fiber than someone that's supposed to uphold the law.

But instead he only nods, because a confession will go a long way to making up for the evidence they don't have, and because in some way, maybe (or is this too much to hope for?) this is how Adachi is going to try to make up for what he's done. "I'll take your statement," he says instead.

That statement is the last time he ever speaks to Adachi. A pair of detectives from Okina City come to take charge of the case, stating that for obvious reasons he shouldn't be allowed to remain in charge of the case against his own partner. Dojima understands and agrees, and is not entirely unhappy to have Adachi out of his life and the kids' lives for good.

-//-

December 25

Early Morning

-//-

Lavenza sits in the Velvet Room, knees pressed tightly together, hands on her lap, fingers clenched together so tightly that she can see them turning white, and still can't force herself to loosen them.

She's not entirely sure what form the Velvet Room has taken, just at the moment. Sometimes it seems to be the long, endlessly traveling limousine that had shaped itself from Yu's heart. At other times it seems to be something else, a blue tinted prison cell filled with iron bars that do not open. It's the end of a story, she supposes. This place, which has been many things in the past and will be many more in the future, is getting ready to write itself into a new story.

But this one, this story, isn't completely over yet. Lavenza hasn't yet been told what her own ending will be, and whether there will be consequences for inserting herself so insistently and dramatically into it.

"I suppose you known that we will have to leave this place soon," Igor says, after considering Lavenza for a very long time.

She nods. "Of course I do," she assures him. "Things are... ended, here. The terms of the contract have been filled."

"Not quite filled," Igor corrects her. "And not quite ended." He turns, a slow and careful movement, and fixes his gaze on the cloudy nothingness outside the windows of the limousine. Lavenza wonders what he sees there. "We will stay in this place for a little while longer. Until spring, I think. Until our guest leaves." 

Yu will be here until the end of the school year, Lavenza knows, and her heart leaps suddenly and unexpectedly in her chest. She hadn't realized until just this second how worried she was about leaving without getting a chance to say goodbye to Akira. 

It must make a sound, that relief and joy and sudden lightening of her heart, because Margaret looks across the space between them and smiles. It's not quite understanding, but it's close, with sadness lining her eyes. Lavenza can only meet her gaze for a few seconds before she has to look away.

"You know of course," Igor says. "That the Trickster will be our guest in this room one day."

"Yes," Lavenza says. "Of course."

"And do you think that this time you have spent here, strengthening your bonds, will help you when that time comes?"

Lavenza doesn't have to think about it. She has no idea what will happen to call Akira to the Velvet Room and a contract one day. She can assume that it will be because something horrible is happening, something that would take the power of the Wild Card to undo. But the details of what will happen at that time, or exactly what support he'll need? She has no idea.

That doesn't make her answer to Igor any more difficult to figure out.

"Of course it will," she tells him.

He turns back from the window, looks at her, and smiles.

-//-

December 25

Morning

-//-

Nanako spends her morning tiptoeing through the house, watching TV without really seeing anything, and fidgeting while she waits for Yu and Akira to wake up. Her dad had come home a little while after Nanako woke up, told her not to bother the boys while they're sleeping, and then gone to bed himself.

Which is... it's fine, but Nanako wants them to wake up now! All kinds of things had happened last night, and she wants to talk about all of them. 

She'd helped! Not by fighting, but she'd helped anyway, by keeping track of the Shadows and remembering what to attack them with.

And she hadn't been scared at all, not after the first few fights. Even when they went into the TV World, she just... hadn't been scared. She should have been, probably, but she knew that Yu and Akira weren't going to let any of them get hurt.

The house phone rings, and Nanako goes to see who it is. She's not supposed to answer the phone for strangers, but she recognizes this number because she sees it at least once a week.

"Hi, Yusuke," she says when she picks up the phone. "Akira can't come to the phone right now, he's asleep."

"Still?" Yusuke asks, sounding startled.

Nanako looks at the clock. It is almost time for lunch. "The TV World tried to come into the human world last night."

"Oh," Yusuke says, managing to pack a whole lot of surprise and confusion into just that one word. "Ah...?"

Nanako can't help but giggle at his his worried tone. "It's okay," she tells him. "We stopped it." She tells him the whole story, stopping only two times. Once when Yusuke suddenly can't keep his questions in any longer, and bursts out with a whole stream of them that she has to stop and answer, and then once when Yu comes downstairs, yawning and rubbing at his eyes.

"Sorry," Nanako says, pulling the phone back from her mouth a little bit. "Did I wake you up from talking too loudly?"

"No," Yu says. "Don't worry, I was waking up anyway. Who's that on the phone?"

"Yusuke."

Yu nods and heads for the kitchen. "Tell him hello."

"Yu says hello," Nanako reports to Yusuke, pulling the phone close again. Then she goes right back into telling her story. She kind of has to slow down when she gets to the end, when she's explaining what Adachi (or not Adachi?) had looked like when he'd fought Yu and his friends. Nanako can hear the sounds of a pencil moving fanatically over paper, and thinks that probably they're going to get a drawing of Adachi in the mail. 

When Akira eventually stumbles downstairs, Nanako is trying to answer Yusuke's really specific questions about colors, with some help from Yu (who it turns out is not much better at describing colors in a way that Yusuke likes than Nanako is).

"Is that Yusuke?" Akira asks, looking at Yu.

"What color is Vermillion?" Nanako asks both of them.

"Definitely Yusuke," Akira says. "Can I talk to him, Nanako?"

Nanako is a little bit relieved to hand the phone over to Akira, who answers a few more questions about colors before promising Yusuke that everyone's okay.

"I think he got a bunch of art books out of the library at school," Nanako tells Yu. "When Yusuke went back to Tokyo, so he'd understand what Yusuke's talking about when he gets going on art."

"It's like a second language," Yu says, and Nanako laughs.

"Well he draws all the Shadows for us," she says. "It's important! And he likes to get things right."

Yu smiles, but doesn't say anything. Instead he tilts his head toward Akira, and listens to the conversation. Nanako listens too.

"...yea," Akira's saying. "We're definitely all fine. And the fog's gone, so I think we're going to stay fine." There's a pause, then he grins. "Yea, I promise. I'll definitely tell you next time something happens."

"The next time something happens," Yu says. "I really hope that all this is over."

Nanako shrugs. If anything does, she knows they'll just have to stop it again.

Akira hangs up the phone and joins her and Yu in the kitchen. He's still wearing the sweatpants and T-shirt he sleeps in, and his hair sticks up in every direction.

"Look," Nanako says, reaching out to pat him on the head. "You're growing a bush."

Akira sticks out his tongue and ducks away. "I just woke up," he says.

"So did Yu," Nanako says. "But he got dressed."

"Yu is the responsible one," Akira says. "He's the oldest."

"Nanako's much more responsible than you," Yu says. "And she's the youngest."

Akira makes a face but doesn't argue.

"Hey," Yu says, looking more sharply at Akira suddenly. "Are you still wearing the glasses Teddie made for you?"

"Uh--" Akira reaches a hand up self consciously to adjust the glasses he is actually still wearing. "Yea."

"The fog's gone," Yu says. "You don't need to keep them on anymore."

"I know," Akira says, just a little defensively. "But... I don't know. I kind of like them. 

"I think they look good on you," Nanako says loyally, and Yu grins and holds his hands up like he's surrendering.

"If you like them," he says. "No big deal. I'm sure Teddie will be thrilled, anyway."

And the conversation keeps going, and it's just like Nanako imagines it would be if she was at home hanging out with her two big brothers. She feels like she's known them her whole life, not just a few months. 

She tries to say that, a few times. Opens her mouth, looks for the words, and then closes it again when she just can't find them. 

And maybe, she thinks, they already know. Maybe they feel the same way, and maybe that's more important than being able to figure out what the right words would be to say.

This isn't going to last forever. Nanako already knows that both of them are going to have to leave at the end of the school year, but it's just... hard to believe that right now. It's not fair that Yu's going to have to go back to his parents and never come back except for visits, and it's not fair that she might not ever see Akira again.

But that's still months away, and Nanako decides that even if it's not fair, she won't let it ruin the rest of the time she does have with them. So she refuses to think about either of them leaving, and just has fun with them instead.

And time moves on.

-//-

February 12

Morning

-//-

Akira had not been expecting to do anything out of the ordinary with the Foundation Day Holiday--it's a day off school, which is always good, but it's also not a particularly special holiday, so there's nothing he really wants to do with it. Yu and his friends are away on some ski trip, but Akira's thinking that maybe he'll spend the day with Lavenza, if she's around. 

It turns out that Dojima has other plans.

Early in morning, before Akira has really started to seriously think through his plans for the day, Dojima comes upstairs and knocks on the bedroom door. "Hey," he calls, and there's something just slightly off in his tone. "Akira, you still in there?"

"Yea!" Akira calls, and Dojima comes inside. He looks a little off too, and Akira gives him a weird look back. "Is everything okay?" he asks.

"Everything's fine," Dojima assures him. "I just wanted to--well. I wanted to take you and Nanako somewhere today."

"Where?" Akira asks. "Why?"

"Well that's--that's a little bit difficult to explain." Dojima won't look at him, and Akira feels himself tensing up a little bit. Whatever this is, it's obviously important. It's not going to be some fun trip to celebrate a day off.

"Okay," he says with a shrug. "I trust you."

"Thanks," Dojima says. "I know this is probably hard for you, but... I think it's somewhere you need to be."

"Me?" Akira asks. "Why me specifically?"

"Just--" Dojima sighs. "I'm sorry. I'm not good at things like this."

It's not much of an explanation, but Akira really does trust Dojima, so he doesn't complain too much with being given so little. If it's important, he'll go. He has a short conversation with an also very confused Nanako, and just like that they're packing into the car and heading out of town. 

A couple of Yu's classmates wave to them on the way out of town, and Akira recognizes them from Christmas Eve. One of Yu's friends that had helped them fight the Shadows. Yu had made the rounds the week before New Years, explaining what he needed to, and that had been that.

(Well, except that Akira had been the one who had to go explain to Daiki, who is his classmate and not Yu's. He'd expected that would be the end of it, that Daiki would go back to his friends now that the fog's gone, but instead Daiki has just kept eating lunch with him and sometimes even hanging out after school. Apparently he's going to teach Akira how to play baseball when it gets warm)

(It's weird, but Akira has to admit it's nice to have someone to talk to at school)

Most of the people from Christmas Eve seem to think that what they'd seen is something weird but passing, and haven't thought about it much since then. Mostly they just wave to each other in the streets, or trade knowing looks. It kind of helps Akira feel like he fits in a little better in Inaba. More like a local, less like an outsider just visiting for the year. He's not sure how many of them had known him well enough at the time to recognize him under the mask--for all he knows, most of them just assume he's in on it because Dojima and Yu and Nanako are--but he doesn't really mind that.

But anyway. Today they drive right past the high school boys and out of town. Dojima is tense and Akira is thinking, but Nanako chatters enough for all three of them. Eventually, though, she picks up on the mood of the car, and starts to go quiet too.

It's not a very long time before they're pulling into a poorly tended parking lot outside of a cemetery.

Akira's gut has figured out what's happening already, even if has brain hasn't quite figured it out. It feels like there's a lead ball curled up in his stomach, weighing him down so heavily he almost can't move.

"Akira." Dojima clears his throat and turns around so that he's facing Akira in the backseat.

"Yea?" Akira says quietly.

"When a person... dies, in this country, if they die without family, or without someone to take care of their business, they're cremated at the expense of the state and their ashes are left to be claimed."

Akira is twelve and has no idea how cremations and funerals work. He'd missed his parents', and--

His parents.

"My parents?" he asks, voice cracking a little bit.

Dojima nods, not quite meeting his eyes. "I couldn't afford much, but I tracked down where their ashes were being held pending claim, and... well, it's not much."

Akira looks out the window at the cemetery, and then back at Dojima, not completely sure he believes this. "That must have been so expensive," he says at last. "You didn't have to--"

"It was worth it," Dojima says. "You've done incredible things this year, Akira. You and Yu both have, but..." He hesitates, then says. "You needed this, and he didn't."

Akira wants to protest. He wants to say something, anything, about how he doesn't deserve this or it's not right or... or something. But what he actually says is just, "Thank you."

He'd said it wasn't much, but it is. 

"Go on ahead," Dojima says. "You should have some time alone."

So Akira leaves the car, and walks on legs he can't even feel toward the cemetery. 

He knows there's one in Inaba proper, but it's too small to serve the whole town, and as Akira's eyes range over the family stones he walks past, he recognizes some family names of people that have been in the town forever. There's a crumbling stone that looks like it might belong to some of Yukiko's ancestors, and a little farther on, one that has the name of Dojima's wife and Nanako's mother.

Akira pauses by this one for a second, thinking about the fact that his parents had been brought here, to be buried in the same place where Dojima had buried his own wife. 

Then he moves on, searching until he finds what looks like the newest marker. It's in an out of the way corner, in a part of the cemetery that doesn't look like it gets visitors, but it's there, and he's pulled toward it like it's a magnet.

His eyes are watering by now, and his vision is so blurred that he can't read the names on the stone until he's right on top of it.

Kurusu, it says, and Akira chokes out a sob before he can stop himself. He lowers himself gently to his knees, then reaches out to touch the stone. It's the closest he's been to his parents in two years, and for several minutes all he can do is cry.

It's allowed, he tells himself firmly. It's allowed because these are his parents and he never thought he'd get this.

The cry helps, but eventually the tears pass. Eventually, Akira is left on his knees in front of the stone, face wet, fumbling for the right thing to do. He's never visited a cemetery himself, and he finds himself scrambling to remember what he's seen people do on TV or in the movies. But those are movies. Stories. They're full of people swearing revenge or mourning with textbook perfect piety, and Akira doesn't think either of those things fit him. 

With no idea what else to do, he repositions himself into a more comfortable position, and starts to talk.

"Hi," he says to his parents. "It's me. It's Akira. I... Um. I know it's been a while. But things were... they got complicated after you guys..." He closes his eyes again, feeling them start to water. But he's already done that, and he wants to get through all the things he has to tell them. "I don't think I handled things the way you would have wanted me to. I think you probably would have wanted me to go to the teachers at school, and let them talk to the police, and tell me what to do. And I, um..." He kind of laughs, around the tears. "I really didn't do that. I was scared and... and I don't know."

He fidgets a little on the hard ground. "But it worked out. I found a lot of good people. I made..." What does Lavenza call them?  "Bonds. Bonds with people that you'd--I think you'd be really happy, if you got to meet them. They're really great people. All of them." Thinking about the Dojimas, about Yu, about Lavenza and Yusuke, he lets himself smile. "The guy that's been taking care of me, he's the one that brought you here. I think..." He hears footsteps behind him, and turns to see Dojima and Nanako picking their way across the cemetery toward him. They stop for a few minutes at the grave of Dojima's wife, and Akira turns back to his parents'. "I think you guys would like him," he finishes, quietly.

He smiles.

A little while later, Dojima and Nanako join him in front of the grave. Akira watches carefully to see what Dojima does, noticing what he does and how he does it, and promising himself and his parents he'll do the right things the next time he comes to visit. 

Nanako holds his hand while Dojima goes through the motions, and when he looks over her eyes are wet too, from visiting her mother's grave. Akira squeezes her hand, and she squeezes back. They sit there in silence, sharing their mourning, until finally Dojima looks back at the two of them.

"Akira," he says. His voice is quiet, because of where they are, but they're the only ones there, and his words are clear. "I hope you won't think I was assuming too much bringing their ashes to Inaba."

Akira shakes his head. "No," he says. "We never really lived anywhere for very long. I don't have other family, I don't know where my grandparents are buried, and..." He looks up, at the clear blue sky. There's snow on the ground, but up there it's unseasonably bright and blue. "And I love Inaba," he finishes. "I don't know where I'll be after this year, but now I'll always have something that ties me here. I'll have a reason to come back."

"About that," Dojima says. "That's the reason I wanted to bring you out here today--the reason I went ahead and brought their ashes here, actually."

Akira waits, confused but patient.

Dojima continues. "I've been doing more research into the foster care system," he says. "To figure out the best way to get you somewhere safe for next year."

"I remember," Akira says. "We talked about it when you were in the hospital." He hates thinking about it, and the lead weight in his stomach gets heavier.

"Well," Dojima says. "I've finished my research. I've looked into everything, and I've come to a conclusion."

Akira tries to ask what it is, but has no voice.

"There's no one and nowhere in this country that I would trust to take care of you after you leave Inaba," Dojima says. "There are too many broken foster systems, and too many broken pieces of the government. There are too many gaps for kids to slip through, and too many consequences for kids that cause trouble." He offered Akira a small smile. "And you would cause trouble."

"Yea," Akira admits. No point hiding it.

"And after everything you've done this year," Dojima says. "After you risked your life to save Nanako, after you fighting the way that you did for Inaba, I would like you to stay with us. If you wa--"

"Yes," Akira says. "Yes."

Nanako shrieks ("Nanako," Dojima scolds. "Remember where we are.") and jumps over to hug Akira. "You're staying!" she says, in a hissed whisper that's so excited that it's still almost as loud as a shout. "You're staying!"

He hugs her back, then looks at Dojima, speechless again but for good reasons this time.

"Now," Dojima says. "There are complications, because of... well, honestly because of the way you came here. I'm..." His eyes flicker past Akira, to Nanako. "Concerned that there could be consequences for all of us if anyone finds out that you... that we, really, have been hiding the fact that you're an orphan." 

Akira thinks, and for the first time in a long time, the question of what to do with his future is easy. "I can reapply to the same exchange program I'm in now," he says. "I can come back next year."

"I know it's less than you deserve," Dojima says. "But--"

"No," Akira says, laughing. "It--kind of fits." Because of course everything in his life is going to be trouble.

He doesn't even mind, anymore.

He doesn't think he'd want it any other way, honestly.

"Do you mind if I take a couple more minutes here?" he asks. "Before we head home?"

Home. Actually home. Not just the Dojima's house. Home.

"Take all the time you need," Dojima says, and then takes Nanako back out of the cemetery.

Akira waits until they're gone, then looks back down at the grave. Now he thinks he understands why it's in the cemetery outside Inaba proper, in an outside corner, against a wall where no one will ever be likely to see it. Because it needs to be a secret. Because he needs to be a secret.

Well, he's been a secret before, and Akira feels a Trickster's smile on his face as he leaps to his feet and starts to talk again. This time there are no tears, no hesitation, just--excitement. "I want you guys to know about Persona," he says. "And the TV World, and the Shadows, and--and all the other things I've been doing that you probably wouldn't approve of, all the trouble, all the--" He has a home again, he's come home. "Let me tell you about Tricksters," he says, and he tells them about trouble until he's run out of stories and there's nothing left to say.

And then finally he walks out of the cemetery, back to Dojima and Nanako, and they all go home.

-//-

February 13

Evening

-//-

Akira helps Yu bring his bags in when he gets back from his ski trip, talking a mile a minute about their visit to the cemetery yesterday and the news Dojima had broken. Yu is surprised and happy for him, and Dojima is quietly approving from his usual place reading the newspaper at the kitchen table.

It's not until Akira and Yu are back up in their room, Yu unpacking his stuff and Akira pretending to help but not really doing much, that he thinks to ask Yu how the ski trip had been.

"Oh," Yu says. "Well--you remember Marie, right? From the Velvet Room?"

"The one that went missing?" Akira asks.

"Yea. Well, turns out she absorbed all the fog that leaked over here from the TV World, and had shut herself away inside this place called the Hollow Forest in a TV so that she could kill herself without any of it escaping, and we had to do some fighting to get her back to reality without the fog."

"You--what?"

"Things got complicated very quickly," Yu admits.

"You could have told me!" Akira says.

"I didn't know it was going to happen!"

"I could have helped!"

"I thought we were just going skiing!"

"Hey!"

Both boys look around at Dojima standing in the open doorway, frowning at them. "What are you shouting about?"

Both of them try to explain, at the same time, and get about thirty seconds into their simultaneous justifications before Dojima holds a hand up, looking tired. "Okay, okay," he says. "Akira, Yu didn't know before he left, so don't give him a hard time about it."

"Fine," Akira mutters, trying not to sulk.

"And Yu, the next time..." He trails off, rubs the bridge of his nose in a distinctly this is my life now movement. "The next time you jump into another dimension inside a TV to help save a friend, at least try to let Akira know, okay?"

Then he goes downstairs, shaking his head slightly and mumbling to himself about trouble.

"Sorry," Yu says.

"Yea." Akira nods. "Me too. Um... So is that everything that happened? The whole story?"

"She... might also be able to control Inaba's weather. Because of the fog thing."

"Yu!"

-//-

March 19

Evening

-//-

Yu stops halfway through packing his school uniform into a box, leans back on his heels, and says, "I'm not going to stay just because you keep putting my stuff back in the drawers."

Akira freezes with his hand inside the drawer, and slowly pulls it back out. "That's... not what I'm doing," he says. 

"Yes," Yu says patiently. "It is."

Akira sighs, and sits down on the couch. He looks as dejected as Yu has ever seen him. "Bit I mean, you don't actually want to leave, do you?" he blurts out. "You don't want to go back to--to Tokyo, right?" His mouth twists on the word, like he can't imagine anywhere worse to be. 

"Yusuke lives there," he reminds Akira.

"Yea," Akira mutters. "With his sensei who hates me."

"Yusuke's sensei doesn't..." Yu hesitates, then switches course. "Don't judge the whole city by one person."

Akira snorts, and crosses his arms. "I'm staying," he said. "It's not fair that you have to leave."

"I know," Yu admits. It's something he's been thinking about more and more over the past couple of months, as the day of his trip home comes closer. Now that it's the day after tomorrow, he's thinking about it almost all the time. "But... I have a life back there, too. I have..." His reasoning doesn't even sound convincing to him. "My parents, my school... friends."

But nothing like what he has here.

"You should try and convince them to let you stay," Akira says stubbornly. "You could say you don't want to switch schools two years in a row. You could say--"

It's too late, Akira," Yu says. "Okay? I'm leaving in two days, and I'm going to miss you and everyone else here but sometimes that's just life."

"Life isn't fair," Akira says.

"No it's not," Yu agrees. "But we're not going to let this be the end of us being friends. This isn't going to be my last time in Inaba." And he means it, absolutely. He's going back to Tokyo to finish high school. He might even stay there for college, if he can get into a good one.

But then he's thinking about coming back. Ever since the fog cleared, Inaba has been a brighter place. A really, honestly brighter place. It's coming alive again. The people of Inaba are starting to see the town in a new way. The way Yu and Akira see it, coming in as outsiders and finding something special to call home.

This is a good place to live. Yu thinks it can be even better, and he wants to come back someday and help it be better.

His mom will probably have a heart attack to hear that he's planning to come back to the place she'd run from, but she'd made her decision and Yu's making his. Inaba's more home than anywhere else has ever been.

"I'll visit," Yu promises. "And someday, I'll come back."

"Well," Akira says. "I'll be here. I'm staying here."

"Yea," Yu says. "I know." 

He goes to the drawers and pulls out what Akira had been putting away to repack it. 

Yea. Leaving Inaba is going to be the most painful thing he's ever had to do.

-//-

March 20

Morning

-//-

The day before Yu's due to leave, Akira finds himself full of pent up energy, and knows instinctively that he's not going to be doing anything but getting in the way if he stays in the house. So he leaves early, and goes down to the central shopping district for something to do. There's a shop opening up on the North side of the district, and the street's a little busier than usual with people coming by to take a look and do some shopping.

Still, when Akira gets down to the South end of the shopping district, he finds that the area around the Velvet Room door is still pretty empty.

Lavenza's there, though, leaning against the wall of the bookstore with her face tilted up toward the bright, blue sky.

"Hello, Trickster," she says.

"Hi, Lavenza," he says. "You look... thoughtful?"

"I'm thinking," she says with a smile. "So that makes sense." The smile fades as she looks at him, and she says, "The Velvet Room will be gone after Yu leaves. I won't be here after tomorrow."

She's hinted toward this before, so it doesn't hit Akira as hard as it might have otherwise. But it still hits hard, and Akira leans himself up against the wall next to her. For a little while, both of them are... thoughtful. Which in this case, means that both of them are sad, and far away, and not saying very much. Akira's shoulder touches Lavenza's, and she doesn't move away. They just stand there, together, knowing each other and trusting each other, until finally Lavenza breaks the silence.

"Someday," she says. "You are going to sign a contract."

"Like Yu did," Akira says. They've had this talk before, but not for a while.

"Like Yu did," Lavenza agrees. "And I don't know what the circumstances will be behind that contract, but I do know that they will be serious. They always are." She looks at him, right in the eyes. "You are going to have to be brave, and smart, and--" Her eyes sparkle. "And just a little bit of trouble, if you want to get through it."

"And you'll be there," Akira says. "Right?"

"I'll be there," Lavenza says.

"Then I'll get through it," Akira says.

They talk a little while after that. About Persona and the TV World, and the Velvet Room. About the end of the school year, and Akira's nervousness about starting middle school in a couple weeks, and about how weird it's going to be to have the bedroom back home all to himself.

"It'll be different," Akira says. "Without Yu here. And without you. But I'll be okay."

"No," Lavenza says. "What you will be is 'in trouble' all the time without either of us around to keep an eye on you."

Akira laughs, and he's still laughing when he sees Yu across the street, looking serious as he almost runs toward the two of them. "Akira!" he calls. "Hey, Akira!"

"Yea?" Akira asks.

"I need to check something," Yu says. "With--something that happened to you."

"What do you mean?" Akira asks. 

"When you first got to town," Yu says. "Before you could go into TVs. Did you ever talk to a gas station attendant?"

"Uh," Akira says. "No...?" He frowns. "It's not like I drive. There's no reason for me to ever go to..." And then his eyes go wide, and he pushes himself sharply away from the wall. "No!" he says. "I did, I remember! It was weird, actually. It was the first time I saw the Velvet Room door, before I knew what it was. She asked if I was new in town, and I said yes, and then she made this big deal about welcoming me to Inaba. Shook my hand and everything."

Yu's eyes light up. "Yes!" he says. "Then it has to be her--it's the only thing that makes sense."

"What has to be her?" Akira asks.

"I'll tell you in a minute," Yu says. "I just have to check something. I'll be right back, okay?"

"Yu!" Akira calls, but Yu's already gone walking--almost running--to the gas station at the end of the block. Akira watches in utter confusion as Yu has an animated conversation with the gas station attendant.

"What is that all about?" he asks.

Lavenza doesn't answer, which either means that she doesn't know and doesn't want to admit it, or doesn't want to be the one to tell him whatever it is. But in another minute it doesn't matter, because suddenly Yu is running back toward them. "Akira!" he calls.

"Yea?" Akira calls back. A couple people glance in their direction, and Yu lowers his voice and waits until he's closer before saying anything else. "Come on," he says. "Do you have any of your TV World stuff with you?"

"Some of it," Akira says. He never clears his backpack out, he has all kind of TV World stuff in there. "I left my daggers at home. Why?"

"Because the gas station attendant is the one that give us the power to go into the TV and tried to turn everyone in Inaba into Shadows," Yu says. "We have to go take her down." He pauses, then adds, "Also, she's not really a gas station attendant, I thinks she thinks she's some kind of goddess."

"A-ah?" Akira says, more of a noise than a sound because he really has no idea how to react to that. Excitement is probably the wrong choice, but it's the one he's having, like it or not--a surge of adrenaline rushes through him, and he grins, pushing his glasses further up his nose and thinking how good it's going to be to trade them in for a mask again.

"Yea," Yu agrees. "So we're going to go take her down."

"You're leaving tomorrow," Akira protests. "How are we going to do this by tomorrow?"

"Very, very quickly," Yu says. "Come on." He starts to move again, fast and getting faster. Akira follows, and Lavenza follows him. "We'll meet the others at Junes--Yosuke has some daggers he can lend you, we'll make it work."

Akira looks up at Yu as the two of them break into a run. The smile on his face--the unmistakable smile of someone charging straight into trouble--is enough to rival a Trickster's. 

"One day," Akira says, half to himself.

"One last chance to fight together," Yu says. "Come on. Let's go."

And they do. They run, down the street, toward Junes, and into the TV together one more time.