"Wait! So that means Caleb is going to be at the club when I'm there?!" Danni giggled as she slammed the car door, making Alec gasp in alarm.
"Hey! Easy on the car," He hissed, putting his hand on the hood and rubbing it tenderly, sticking out his bottom lip. "It's okay, baby. I won't let her hurt you anymore."
"You're so lame," Danni murmured, grabbing her fencing bag.
They walked up the steps and pulled on the insanely heavy door. As it opened, air rushed into Danni's face, making her braids flutter backwards. Alec noticed her eyes widen as she saw Caleb walking out of the locker room, his mask tucked under his arm and his sabre in hand. He seemed to be in a deep conversation with the Asian man that was yelling at him at the tournament. He glanced up from their discussion and waved at Alec and his sister. The hazel-eyed boy smiled warmly and waved back, Danni in too much of a daze to respond. Her brother smirked and grabbed Danni by the arm, dragging her toward the fencing sensation.
"W- What are you doing?!" Danni stuttered, stumbling behind her brother.
"We're going to say hi," Alec grinned, looking back at the blonde. "What else would we do?"
"Well, you could let me go so I can go warm up."
"You don't want to see the hot and dreamy fencing star?" Alec gasped, dramatically.
"Shut up," Danni mumbled, grouchily. Before she could get out of her brother's tight grip, they had reached Caleb and the irritated looking man.
"Hey, Caleb," Alec smiled, a starry look in his eyes.
"Oh hey, Alec! Hey, Danni! Instructor Delacruz, can you give us a moment?"
The brunette's instructor glared at him for a second and then nodded, walking away, briskly.
"So Alec, are you staying the whole time to watch Danni fence?"
"Yeah!" Alec said, enthusiastically.
"Whoa, really?" She turned her head to look at her brother in astonishment.
"Yeah, I think fencing's interesting."
"Since the tournament. It was entertaining to watch."
Alec looked away innocently as Danni glared at him with suspicion.
"Riiight," She squinted her eyes and picked up her bag. "Well I'm going to change. See ya!"
Alec watched as his little sister ran to the locker room, disappearing around the corner. He looked up at Caleb who was staring at him with a raised eyebrow.
"What?!" Alec snapped, his face flushing.
"Nothing," The brown-eyed teen replied, putting his hands up innocently. "It's just, heh, never mind. I gotta go warm up. I'll talk to you later."
"Ok, I won't hold you up."
Caleb smiled, shyly, and hesitantly walked onto the strips to begin his practice. Alec watched as he ran up and down the strip, occasionally performing high knees, side steps, frankensteins, and other different leg warm ups, his body relaxed despite his intense speed. He stopped and began stretching just as Danni's class began. For some reason, no matter how much Alec wanted to, he couldn't keep his eyes off Caleb. He sat there, mesmerized, as he watched Caleb go through the different exercises.
"Leader Follower." Delacruz said, walking onto the strip as Caleb drank from his water bottle. He nodded and grabbed his mask and Sabre, stepping onto the strip across from the instructor and mirroring his position. Alec watched as Delacruz stepped forward and Caleb retreated backwards, the space between them remaining consistent as they moved simultaneously up and down the strip. Their feet flew until Delacruz lunged forward his blade missing Caleb's chest by millimeters as he jumped backwards and lunged back at him while Delacruz recovered into his ready position.
"Good, now let's get serious," Delacruz ordered through his mask. Caleb nodded and they resumed their game, traveling the strip, their feet blurs and their blades clanging. The brunette's head turned slightly towards Alec as he took a step forward, his sole dragging too low to the ground, causing him to stumble headfirst, toward Delacruz's blade. He fell to the ground as his instructor's sabre came in contact with his shoulder, easily hitting his target.
"You need to focus," The Asian instructor demanded, crossing his arms. "Twenty push-ups."
Caleb exhaled with aggravation, sitting up as he ripped off his mask, his eyes shooting daggers at Danni's class full of students watching him. They quickly resumed their practice. Alec stared at him with wide eyes. He'd never seen Caleb so angry. The prodigy got back onto his knees and straightened his legs, his arms bending, lowering his body to the ground. As he pushed himself back up, sweat dripped from his face into a puddle on the floor, his breathing heavy and irregular. Alec's cheeks were burning as Caleb's biceps bulged with every push-up. After doing what his instructor ordered, he picked himself up off the floor and put his mask back on, continuing his lesson. His eyes stayed trained on Delacruz now, not making another mistake for the rest of the 45 minutes.
Alec looked up as the door to the club opened and his mom walked in, running a hand through her windswept hair. She sat beside him in the spectator's area, conversing about random stuff as they waited for Danni to shower and change. The hazel-eyed boy looked up when he noticed Caleb and his sister come around the corner together, his sister's face bright with excitement.
"Mom!" She ran up to the blonde woman, dragging Caleb behind her by the sleeve. "Mom, this is Caleb Muran. The fencer I was telling you about!"
"Oh, really?" She grinned, glancing over at Alec, who was mesmerized by Caleb's still-damp hair that was dripping onto his clean, yet wrinkled t-shirt. "I'm Elaine Valencia. But you can just call me Mom..."
He stared at her awkwardly.
"Say, Caleb," Elaine said, her face lighting up as she exchanged glances with Danni. "What do you say to coming over for dinner tonight?"
Caleb stared at Alec's mother for a moment, as if taken aback by the offer. He smiled nervously, rubbing the back of his head.
"I- I don't know," he stuttered, looking away, his cheeks flushed. "I don't usually get invited places like friend's houses. But I'll call home and ask."
Caleb backed up uncomfortably and walked out the door, pulling a cellphone out of his back pocket. Once he was out of sight, Alec turned to his mom, his breathing suddenly rapid and his eyes wide and pleading.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Alec squealed, lifting his hands up in misperception. His mother laughed inwardly, her eyebrows creasing in amusement.
"Doing what a mother does best," She giggled. "Embarrassing her single, gay son."
"You're so mean," He whined as Danni and Elaine began laughing up a storm. "You know, don't you?"
"What, that you like the kid? Of course. It's pretty obvious " her voice dropped slightly and her eyes shifted to the side. "And your sister told me," She muttered, returning her attention to Alec with an innocent smile.
"Why must my sister share your evil personality?" He asked, grimly.
The Valencia's looked up as Caleb walked back into the room, stuffing his phone back into his pocket.
"I can go," He chuckled a bit, smiling slightly.
"Ok! We drove separately," Elaine said. "So you have the choice to ride with the amazing me and the gorgeous Danni Valencia. Or you can ride with that loser, Alec."
She laughed and jokingly elbowed Alec in the side, the golden-haired boy shooting hazel daggers at his mom.
"I'll go with Alec," He laughed quietly, keeping his eyes on the floor.
"Then it's settled!" Elaine snorted, grabbing Danni by the wrist and dragging her out the door.
Alec and Caleb walked into the parking lot, Alec opening the passenger's side door for Caleb as the brunette admired the mundane vehicle. He sat in the seat, his back rigid and his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Alec glanced at him from the corner of his eye, his slouched position and habit of driving with only one hand on the wheel feeling improper and lazy compared to Caleb. He shifted uncomfortably, his eyes focusing on the road.
"So " He muttered his head tilted away from Caleb's turned gaze, "Why'd you come in my car?" Caleb stared at him a moment as if he was trying to come up with a plausible answer.
"The rest of your family uh that I've met at least " he muttered looking away, his face flustered, "scares me " He shuddered slightly.
Alec stared at him then burst out laughing. Caleb looked at him, astonished. "I know right!" He gasped for air. "They're horrifying!" He struggled to keep driving straight as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Caleb laughed along with him, doubled over in his seat.
"I can't believe you agreed with me!" Caleb blurted between giggles.
"Are you kidding? Everyone thinks that about their families," Alec stated without thinking.
"I don't. My parents are very admirable and work hard day and night. I don't see them enough to have much of a say on their personality."
"Seriously? You don't know what your parents are like?"
"They're always busy with work, just like I am with fencing. We don't see each other unless it's some important event."
"Well then who takes care of you?"
"Oh, my butler. But I usually fend for myself. I don't like to demand things from the staff."
Alec smirked and kept his eyes on the road.
"Butler? Staff? What are you, rich or something?"
Caleb looked over at Alec, shrugging a bit.
"I- I guess you don't have those things?"
"Pfff I wish."
Caleb looked down, his eyebrows furrowing and his cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
"Oh," He whispered, weakly. "Sorry."
The golden-haired boy smiled warmly.
"Don't be sorry," he chuckled.
He's so cute, Alec thought to himself, his cheeks reddening.
After a few moments, Alec pulled into the driveway of his house, putting the car in park and removing the keys. He climbed out and guided Caleb to the front of his home, the bright red door standing out against the pale body of the structure. Alec walked into the building, getting a whiff of meat and vegetables being cooked.
"Steak and 'taters for dinner!" Alec's mom yelled from the kitchen. Caleb's eyes widened as he entered the house, a wide grin stretching over his face.
"Aww," He giggled, putting a hand over one of Alec's baby pictures hanging on the wall. "This house is so quaint and homey."
Looking up from her book, Danni announced, "We have to go to Dick's Sporting Goods tomorrow."
Alec exhaled, slowly, his shoulders slumping.
"Whyyyyyy?" He complained. "Can't mom take you?"
"No, she has to work and I need new sports bras."
"Fine," He sighed, dropping onto the couch next to Danni.
Caleb stood awkwardly in the doorway, his hands behind his back as he let his eyes wander.
"You know you can sit down," Danni told Caleb, staring at him with a raised eyebrow. "It's not like we're the King of England's family."
Caleb smiled a bit before hearing the door swing open, a man striding in, his black, messy hair and wrinkled clothes covered in grease.
"That smells amazing, Lainer, is that steak?" Alec's dad froze, mid-sentence, his eyes landing on Caleb.
"Hello, Sir," The tall brunette put his hand out for him to shake. "My name is Caleb Muran."
"I'm Bryan. You don't need to call me, Sir or Mr. Valencia for that matter. Makes me feel older than I already am."
Caleb smiled, his awkwardness slowly fading away and dropped his hand.
"Ok, Brryyann," He said, slowly, as if testing out the name, making everyone in the room burst out laughing.
Alec stood up and walked over to a set of black, spiral stairs, motioning for Caleb to follow, the metal of the steps resonating as they climbed them, reaching the top where a loft was. On the left was a queen sized bed with a flat screen TV across from it, sitting inside an armoire. Caleb followed Alec straight ahead, coming up to a closet as Alec pushed the door open.
Caleb hesitated a moment as he watched Alec walk into the closet, disappearing behind hangars of clothes.
"You coming?" Alec asked, his voice drifting from inside the space despite the fact that he had vanished from sight. Caleb walked into the closet, behind the hangars and came out into a small area. He ducked, his shoulders hunched over as he walked over to Alec sitting on the ground, his back against the wall.
"Why are we in here?" Caleb asked, his eyebrows creased in wonder.
"The hiding spot."
"It's where I come when I want to get away from everything. When my parents and Danni are driving me up the wall, I escape to the hiding spot. It's my bat cave!"
Caleb snorted, taking a seat next to the shorter boy.
"So why are you showing me?"
Alec laughed a bit, shrugging his shoulders.
"I dunno," He mumbled, a crooked smile on his lips. "Just 'cause."
"Well that makes me feel happy," Caleb said, fiddling with his fingers. "I'm glad "
Without warning Caleb's arms wrapped around the golden-haired boy's shoulders, his face smothering Alec's shirt.
"W- Wha?" Alec gasped slightly, his hands gracelessly in the air. He sighed and wrapped his arms around the brunette's waist, a small smile forming his lips.
"That's what friends do right?" Caleb lifted his head to whisper in Alec's ear.
"What do you mean?"
"I- I don't have many friends," He murmured, not releasing the golden-haired teen and resting his chin on Alec's shoulder. "You're my first actually."
"Really?" Alec pushed Caleb back to stare into his dark eyes. "You're serious?"
"Y- Yeah. I don't go to public schools and I am so busy with fencing that I don't have the time to make friends. So yeah, you're my first."
Alec gawked at Caleb.
"Aw," He pouted, slowly bringing his hand up to caress the prodigy's face, his eyelids lowering. His face moved closer to Caleb as he closed his eyes, his lips parting slightly.
"A- Alec," Caleb stuttered, causing the hazel-eyed boy to freeze.
Shit, Alec quickly leaned back, dropping his hand to the side. What am I doing?
He looked up at Caleb, the boy motionless, his eyes wide and his cheeks a deep crimson in the dim light.
"Sorry," Alec chuckled, raising his eyebrows in bemusement. "I was just messing with you."
Caleb laughed and punched Alec's shoulder, playfully, shifting his position on the floor.
"Boys?" Elaine called from the bottom of the staircase. "Dinner's ready!"
Alec and Caleb emerged from the closet, laughing and jostling each other as they raced down the stairs, taking a seat next to each other at the dinner table. After everyone had sat down and had filled their plates with food, the room was submerged in an awkward silence.
"So... Caleb," Alec's mom said, breaking the quiet and staring at the boy in wonder. "Are you gay? Alec is."
Alec dropped his fork inches from his mouth, the loud din of the metal crashing onto the ceramic plate making everyone wince.
"Mom!" He yelled across the table at her, between clenched teeth.
"What? I was just wondering," She pouted, sticking out her bottom lip.
Caleb smiled a bit and leaned forward.
"No, um " He glanced over at Alec. "I have a girlfriend."
<thefluffyshrimp> ~MemoiresDuneFille asks "Loish, what inspired you to become an artist?"
<loish> I can't say that anything specific really inspired me. It was more a natural progression. I have been drawing since I was very young and honestly do not remember when I even started doing it, but I do remember always enjoying it and seeing it as my 'talent' throughout elementary and middle school. By the time I had to make a career choice in high school, I decided to do pursue it professionally because I just couldn't stand dividing my time between schoolwork and making my personal drawings. It was torture! So I felt I had to do it in order to stay sane :] That's pretty much how it went!
<thefluffyshrimp> *merry-zazoue asks "You're doing both animation and illustration, how can you manage to have a good level in both? I'm an animation student and I love illustration too, do you have any advices? Aside working like crazy of course! I'm already doing it ^^"
<loish> I think the main reason I do both is because I started out as a digital illustrator, and decided to pursue animation afterwards as a way to enhance and supplement my illustration skills. Making pretty pictures is pretty fundamental to what I do, art-wise, and I could never let it go. However, I never felt that my illustration skills were strong enough to be my only career choice, so I felt compelled to pursue something that challenged me on many different levels. As a result of studying animation and always having made illustrations, I identify myself as both! As for how I manage to have a good level in both... It is a question of taking everything you learn from animation and integrating it into your illustration work, and vice-versa. Since these two areas overlap quite a lot, you can learn so much from both of them. I have learned almost everything I know about palette and textures from digital art, and a lot about adding movement and shapes to my drawings from animation. It's important to stay on top of everything you learn and keep it well integrated in everything you make :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~k-telyn asks "Loish, did you ever get discouraged when you first started publishing your artwork online?"
<loish> When I first started drawing digitally and maintaining a website with my art, I basically felt discouraged every time I stumbled across artwork that I found so awesome and inspiring that I doubted whether I could ever reach their skill level. I felt motivated to improve but it seemed impossible and was happening too slowly for me. I would just draw and draw, but be frustrated with everything I made! I recently found some old painter files with angry scribbles all over them, haha. At the same time I've always been a part of art communities that had many encouraging and kind people participating as well. Their feedback always gave me a glimmer of hope during that time :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~sekeedil asks "What is the best advice you can give to a growing artist? :3"
<loish> Based on my own experience, I think the best advice I could give is to maintain an online presence and share your work with others.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Kiason asks "Was it hard for you to find a job in your field?" and ~Andrei-Sitari asks "What is your internet marketing strategy? And what is your advice on how to present your work better to the world ?"
<loish> Getting feedback from people really encouraged me, as well as helped me to gain a following. By showcasing your work you learn how to present it in an appealing way, take part in communities that will help you learn, and keep you motivated! As for whether it was hard to find a job in my field, It hasn't been that difficult yet, but this is because I work in a few overlapping fields. I make concept art and character designs, I've worked on larger animation projects as well as smaller ones, I do personal commissions, etc etc. As a freelancer with a distinct style and experience with creating art for different projects, there's always been something interesting for me to work on, fortunately. I have to point out that being a freelancer in the Netherlands is quite easy. It's not difficult to get the paperwork done and it is very common to approach an artist to do freelance work. This probably contributes quite a lot to the fact that I've had enough work since graduating.
<loish> As for the question about my internet marketing strategy, I guess I could describe it as participating in community websites as well as maintaining a portfolio website. I want to be able to present my portfolio as a whole through my site but make sure to stay active on sites such as tumblr and deviantart. Not only do I really enjoy that but it also generates interest in my work and gets people to spread the word about it. (note that this was never a conscious decision I made, but something that developed organically from having been active on these kinds of sites from a very early point.) I also put a lot of time into making web designs and graphics so that I have a certain 'identity' on the internet. Of course, at the end of the day, I have always been pretty internet addicted and now I have a good excuse to sit behind a computer all day because it's such an important part of my job :b
<thefluffyshrimp> ~teepott asks "What do you think started your career as a professional working artist?" and ~Falceto-Rekuri asks "What made you choose this career?"
<loish> My career as a professional working artist officially started when I graduated, I guess! At that point I really had no choice but to work, haha. But it actually sort of started before that, by doing lots of commissions and a few freelance jobs during school in which I learned a lot about what making art for someone else is like. As for what made me choose this career, as I mentioned before, it had a lot to do with searching for a line of work that would cover many bases commercially. I was worried about not being able to make a living off of just illustration work, so I searched for a line of work that would allow me to do many different things. Besides already having an interest in animation, I chose it because as an animator, you can sketch, make storyboards, come up with concepts, draw background art, design characters, etc etc. I felt like this was the 'safe choice' to make.
<thefluffyshrimp> *Topicality asks "What is a typical day as Lois van Baarle like?"
<loish> A typical day as Lois van Baarle is pretty boring actually, haha. I usually get up slightly too late, go jogging, bike halfway across town to my office, and sit down behind my cintiq for a good 8 hours or so. Then I go home! I try to do most of my drawing within work hours on weekdays now, just to maintain my sanity and give myself time to take care of other things as well. I learned to do this the hard way - I spent my first 1,5 years as a freelancer glued to my computer, usually throughout the whole night, in the midst of an enormously messy house, eating pizza for dinner and neglecting my fitness entirely :b This is not the way to go! At least not for me. :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~ReignOfTheWolf asks "Do you often have an idea in your head of what you're about to digitally paint before you begin, or do you just start painting and see what comes out of it?"
<loish> I usually have an idea in my head, but it is never a very specific idea. It's usually something like "I want to draw something with yellow and blue." or "something with an anxious mood." Most of the time I'm not very attached to this idea and if it's not working, I just change it entirely.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~frameadvance asks "I'm always impressed with your color choices. What is your method when it comes to color?"
<loish> My process with colors is pretty intuitive, or at least it feels that way to me, so it's always very hard for me to describe how I really do it. Colors are a really huge priority to me and often my starting point for a picture, as I mentioned in the previous answer, which means I really need to get the colors down properly and have a good feeling about them before I feel like the picture is heading anywhere. I tend to keep things very messy and rough and go crazy with "color balance," "replace color," "selective color" and "hue/saturation" tools until I am getting the effect that I want. I notice that adding red/yellow tints works quite often to pull things together. I also like to have a lot of neutral/reddish hues with bright color accents that 'pop'.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~JammyJen asks "What is your favorite medium, and how often do you use it?" and `anako-art asks "How would you rate your workflow after buying a Cintiq? Did it speed up your drawing process? Would you recommend it for other artists?"
<loish> My favorite medium is Photoshop! Actually I don't think that officially qualifies as a medium, but this is absolutely my favorite way to work. I use it almost every single day! Combined with the cintiq, it feels like the most natural way to draw to me. Outside of digital media, my favorite tool for drawing is a mechanical pencil. Always nice n' sharp :]
<loish> I am not sure if the Cintiq sped up my workflow. I spend equally long on a picture but take it to a greater level of detail now. So I guess you could say that it did speed things up and gave me more room to focus on details than before! I would definitely recommend it for any artist that draws digitally. Lineart, sketching and painting details are a completely different and entirely more enjoyable experience with a cintiq. It is really the best investment I've ever made!!
<thefluffyshrimp> ~HybridBird asks "What did your parents think of you following an art related career?"
<loish> My parents never had a problem with me following an art related career. I think they always trusted that I was a hard worker and very motivated to succeed, so things would work out. I also got good grades in other classes in high school, so they probably felt like, if things didn't work out in art, I would find something else to do. They definitely gave me the freedom to choose a career myself and supported me in anything I wanted to do :] And they continue to do so to this day! I'm so happy for that.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Kozysolanos asks "Was there any time you thought that your art was really bad and you just wanted to quit? Ever felt doubt of becoming an illustrator/animator?"
<loish> I definitely had times that I was not pleased with my own skill level and felt like improvement was impossible. I actually still feel that way all the time, especially when I have to step outside of my comfort zone and draw things I normally wouldn't. I have absolutely never wanted to quit, though. I always feel that, even though I feel like I have a long way to go, I am still able to enjoy what I do and able to make a living. I also have way too many kind, generous and encouraging fans to ever want to quit! I'm very lucky :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~ithuling asks "How did you find the transition from simple illustration to animation? You'd have to draw each frame, but as you've done it, have you found any tricks along the way to make it less frustration?
<loish> There are definitely a lot of tricks to make the animation process easier, like duplicating frames/modifying them, copy/pasting various elements, etc. At the end of the day, animation is just a very frustrating activity and you need to be really motivated and excited about your end result to keep doing it, haha. A tip that helps make it less frustrating for me is to put on a good movie/documentary in the background to keep me entertained while drawing. :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~PunkBunker asks "Hi Loish! How did you develop your artistic style?"
<loish> I developed it by mixing my different influences together. My first digital illustrations were very heavily manga influenced, and I slowly started integrating more Disney-inspired styles and discovered the work of Aurore Blackcat (*auroreblackcat) and bara-chan (~bara-chan) which influenced my art enormously. I also drew very often, making about three illustrations a day, which helped me develop my own way of working and approach to digital painting. The final result was my own style!
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Roespls asks "Why do you use aquatic life/themes in a good amount of your artworks?"
<loish> I just love the surreal effect it creates. The weightlessness of water and the pretty-but-weird appeal of aquatic creatures make for a really nice atmosphere! Also I love the color blue and things that are flowy and semi-weightless. I just have a natural preference for aquatic/underwater themes, basically :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Sheemple asks "Loish, your digital paintings are always so dynamic and full of life. Do you have any tips on poses or gesture drawings?"
<loish> Thank you! It really helps to draw your initial sketch very rough and loose. The looser you sketch, the more you'll come up with interesting and dynamic poses. In these loose sketches, try not to focus on anatomical precision - add that later as you start to refine and tone down your sketch a bit. Adding some details like bouncy hair or having the character stand in mid-step help bring the drawing to life.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Fisharto asks "What keeps you motivated to create art?"
<loish> On one hand, the main thing that keeps me motivated is the fact that I really have no other choice. I have to work to pay my rent, basically, and I need to keep moving forward in my career. It's pretty uninspiring, but true. On the other hand, I have occasional bursts of creativity in which I discover something new and inspiring and suddenly feel immensely motivated to improve and grow. Right now, for example, I'm really inspired by vintage Disney background art and really want to improve my skills in drawing more detailed settings.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~BO0Radley asks "How do you handle taking on art projects as your career, without letting it impede your creative spirit? As an art student, I sometimes find myself being bummed because I hate people forcing me to do things I don't like." and ~Kojireru asks "Has doing art as a career ever negatively effected your artistic passion?"
<loish> Personally, I've always found that a balance between freelance work and personal artwork works best for me. When I finish doing a project for a client, I'm usually bursting with ideas and energy for my own personal art. But after a while I start to crave the structure and challenge of paid work, in which I usually am asked to draw or do things I wouldn't normally think of myself. I need a bit of both to keep growing as an artist. Taking on varied projects and trying different things really help to prevent the paid work from impeding my creative spirit. I also try not to take on projects that are very long-term, so that I can get back to my own stuff within a reasonable time frame.
<loish> Doing art as a career hasn't negatively effected my artistic passion, but it has changed my way of working. I used to draw all the time, every day. I would draw all night and, the moment I woke up the next afternoon, get right back to it. I don't do this anymore, and I don't improve at the same rate I used to, but at the same time I don't think such an approach to drawing is sustainable, especially not for a lifetime career. Eventually you'll get a burn-out or an art block that will just cripple your inspiration. I work in a more structured and regular way now, which is perhaps slightly less passionate than before but probably the safer choice.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Pepper-Dragon asks "Are there any artists on DA that you really admire?" and ~Ca-roline asks "If you could work with some famous (the one you don't know and feel too small to ever talk to) illustrator, animator or even musician (eg to make the soundtrack for your animation) Who would that be?"
<loish> There are many artists on dA that I admire. I'll keep this answer short and say - check out my deviantart favorites! My absolute favorite artwork on this site can be found there. I'm very picky about what I add! Wow, who would I work with, out of anyone? The idea scares me! But I would love to work with a musician that I really love, to make a CD cover or music video or something like that. Right now I'm a huge Matthew Dear fan, collaborating with a musician like that would really make my life feel complete! Haha.
<thefluffyshrimp> *Papierpilot asks "Are you shy having your work watched while in progress or do you not mind someone looking over your shoulder?"
<loish> If I had a choice, I'd rather not have anyone looking over my shoulder :] I feel very self-conscious when someone's watching me draw and have a hard time working intuitively. But I have been forced to draw with someone watching the process quite a few times, and I have to admit that it is a better, more efficient way of working, especially if you're working in a team of people and you need to communicate often and quickly. It still feels very unnatural to me though!
<thefluffyshrimp> ~SuziemyPuma asks "I find your art very elegant and fun to look at. However do you ever do work that is Hard edge and rough?"
<loish> Thanks! I don't often draw art that is a bit rougher or darker in terms of subject matter. When I do, I really enjoy it and I notice in the feedback that people enjoy the variety from what I usually make! Also, much of the work I admire is more edgy and more roughly drawn, such as Sergey Kolesov's work which I recently discovered. It's definitely a goal of mine to try this sort of stuff more in the future!
<thefluffyshrimp> =BuggyCashew asks "Do you have any little quirk that you do when you draw? Like for me, I have to drink tea."
<loish> I always have to have something entertaining on in the background, because when I draw, I become very aware of what is around me and my mind sort of clears. I listen to every sound I hear. For that reason I often have either the radio or a documentary/movie/TV show on while drawing. I just can't draw in silence! Also, the more coffee, the better. :]
<thefluffyshrimp> ~humphreycat asks "What would be your dream personal project you would love to work on in the near future? For example, visual novel orÍ?"
<loish> Right now, my dream personal project to work on would be something along the lines of what Patrick Hanenberger and Christian Schellewald did for the book Kolonie: The Forgotten Empire. They came up with a concept for a futuristic universe, and then created all sorts of concept art for it, including character designs, vehicle designs, scenes and settings, etc. I would love to spend a few months just coming up with concept art for a universe that I might never actually make into anything finished - without worrying about limitations of any kind, just with a mind to create great and interesting artwork.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~lishenets asks "How important is it to network in person with other artists or with people involved in art?
<loish> I think it's really important to have a network of artists and people who work in the creative industry around you, because often, a client who needs an artist will ask around whether anyone knows a good artist who is available. They might ask someone that you knew from school or somehow stumble upon your work through the network that you have. If someone knows you in person they are more likely to recommend you. However, I found that having a network evolved very naturally from going to art school and keeping in touch with classmates and teachers that you met there. I don't actively introduce myself to anyone purely for the purpose of expanding my network - it is something that just happens when you spend enough time studying and working in a certain industry, at least in my experience. Then again, Holland is a small country and most of the animators here all know each other :] It could be different in a bigger country.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Sciience asks "What influences your subject matter?"
<loish> I'd say that Disney and art nouveau are my biggest influences in terms of subject matter. I love female pin-ups that have a decorative quality and have a soft, feminine feel. I also love artwork with a slightly surreal touch, such as Eric Fortune's drawings, which influence me a lot.
<thefluffyshrimp> ~Gnuchi asks "Do you have any practical advice for someone wanting to be a freelance artist, such as finding clients?"
<loish> Definitely promote yourself online and try to get your work out there. Many clients browse the web for something they like, and it's good to make sure your work is likely to be stumbled upon! Make a facebook page or blog next to a good portfolio site. And stay in touch with any artists you meet in real life and online who are in the same line of work as you - make yourself known to the world, basically!
<thefluffyshrimp> *simplychen asks "If you were allowed to travel back in time and change one thing in the past about yourself, what would it be?"
<loish> Wow. That is a very personal question actually. I spent a lot of time and energy on someone who was very bad for me in my early 20's, I would probably go back in time and make sure I never got to know that person at all :] It was definitely a huge waste of many months of my life. I do think that all of the bad things I went through helped me to grow and learn, I can't imagine what I would be like without all of the mistakes I've made :] So I find that a very hard question! This is the only way I can answer it, I guess :]
<thefluffyshrimp> *HeroGear asks "Do you find that there's a difference between commission & freelance work between individuals and studios? What channels do you find most useful when pursuing either?"
<loish> I do think there is a huge difference, yes. Usually studios/larger companies are more practical and have a better understanding of how to get things done. Individuals are much more specific in what they want and usually have more feedback. The commissions I do are strictly non-commercial, though, so the experiences I have with them are extremely varied. I find that deviantart is the best place to announce commissions, I have many watchers here and slots fill up fast :] Having a lot of exposure for my work on the web has been the most successful method for me to find clients for commercial work.
<thefluffyshrimp> *joshuaotero asks "Usually how long does it take you to do a really complex piece? And do you collapse all of your layers when doing so or keep them up?"
<loish> A really complex piece takes me about 5 or so days to make. These days are usually quite long as I can get pretty motivated when I'm working on a personal piece, so let's say each day consists of a good 10 or so hours. I collapse the layers constantly as I go along - sometimes I start something on a separate layer, for example if I want to change the face but am not sure if my approach is going to work out. If it doesn't work, I just delete the layer; once it starts working, I merge it all together. Too many layers feel cluttered to me so I try to keep it at a minimum!
<thefluffyshrimp> Alright everyone! It's been 2 hours, and the official interview with `loish is now complete! I want to thank you all for joining us today and for supporting the ASKtheARTIST project.
<thefluffyshrimp> Thank you again, for the privilege to interview you today, and for your patience and dedication in answering a record number of fan questions for our ASKtheARTIST event!
<thefluffyshrimp> To be notified of when the recorded interview is posted, AND to be informed of all upcoming interviews, please watch us at #ASKtheARTIST, or follow us through Tumblr/Twitter (username: askartists) and our Facebook page --> [link]
<thefluffyshrimp> We also will be interviewing the following artists soon: . Watch our group for the notifications and times!
<thefluffyshrimp> And a special thanks goes out to tonight's moderators who record the interviews for us, ~Melancholy-Minds, *Slinkers, and ~Surprised-Nightmare!
<thefluffyshrimp> Thank you all again for supporting the ASKtheARTIST project! Let your friends know about us! And if you have any recommendations for more artist interviews (other artists that you would like to see us interview here), please note us!
a transcript of my interview with #AskTheArtist for those who missed it! it was a live chat interview and a lot of people showed up, as always i am very flattered and thankful for the interest you guys have in my work and what i do!! seriously.
be sure to follow #AskTheArtist for future interviews, they have some great artists lined up and it's a wonderful opportunity to get in touch with artists here on deviantart.
Persona 4 FYL (Five Years Later) Chapter Ten: Kanji
The group trudged on toward the dark, gaping Rift through the desolate landscape, the chill wind seeming to howl through the barren, dusty plain. The black clouds above rumbled ominously as though attempting desperately to unleash a downpour upon the thirsty, broken ground.
Souji held tightly onto Naoto, covering her shivering body with his jacket as she leaned closer to him for warmth. Turning slightly, he looked around at the rest of the group to see how they were dealing with the sudden drop in temperature. Yosuke and Chie huddled together with Yukiko in the middle, all three protecting each other with their body heat. Rise snuggled close to Teddie, who seemed all too happy for the closeness. But Kanji seemed stubbornly oblivious to the efforts of everyone else to huddle together, the only one among them who stood alone against the icy gusts that plagued their progress.
"Come on over here, Kanji-kun..." said Rise, beckoning him over. "You shouldn't be out there alone like that..."
"I-I'm f-fine..." said Kanji, his teeth chattering slightly. "Ya don't-t haveta worr-ry about m-me... I'm a m-man. I c-can take it..."
"No you can't..." Rise pouted. "Look at you. You're turning blue!"
"I-I am not-t!" Kanji's voice rose slightly. "I said don't worry about it, Rise-chan!"
"Kanji-kun, if you'd just let me-"
"I said I'm FINE, dammit!!" Kanji roared, causing every head to turn. Naoto jumped slightly out of Souji's arms, having been engrossed in her own thoughts. Chie, Yosuke, and Yukiko glared reproachfully at Kanji, and Teddie seemed at a loss at what else to do other than pat Rise gently on her back. But Kanji hadn't noticed, he was too busy focusing on Rise, who seemed almost ready to burst into tears.
"...I... I was just..." Rise stuttered horribly, trying not to break down into sobs again. Teddie looked up at her with an expression of pity.
Kanji's face became stony as he looked down at the dusty, barren earth. That's just what makes me so pissed... whiny, weepy little girls who can't control themselves... Why can't they be tougher?
Souji's intuition surged into overdrive. "Get ready," he said to Yosuke, who nodded firmly and began whispering to the girls.
"...Get ready?" repeated Naoto in a whisper. "You mean..."
Souji nodded. "I'll probably be somewhere else around here again in a few seconds."
Naoto nodded slowly, forcing a smile. "Will you tell me what's going on then?"
"I will," said Souji, "if you do the same for me."
Naoto hesitated, but before she could answer, she was swallowed by the bleak grayness. Souji winced at the anxiety on her face, but he forced himself to look away; there were more pressing matters to deal with.
Kanji, deeply embroiled in his thoughts, didn't notice the fading brown color at first, the grays replacing the shattered landscape as a red light flashed for that brief second. However, Kanji jumped at the clap of thunder that boomed within their ears, glancing around in a panic as everything movable had become frozen and still. Rise had stopped exactly where she stood, her eyes filled with tears as Teddie's paw floated in mid-pat.
"Wha-what the hell is this?!" Kanji tried to sound intimidating, yet his voice broke. He turned to Souji and the others that could still move, and blinked in amazement. "Is... is THIS what was happenin' when you guys-"
"....I can see...."
"W-Wha..? S-s-see..??" Kanji felt a penetrating chill that had nothing to do with the cold. The others looked behind him just in time to see the cloaked apparition materialize into being.
"...I can see your fear..."
"Shouldn't we help him?" asked Yukiko, her voice filled with worry.
"...I think he kinda NEEDS this, though," said Yosuke sagely. "We all needed ours, right? A wake-up call."
"It doesn't make it any easier to WATCH, though..." remarked Chie with a slight shiver as the featureless black face transformed into a more rugged appearance, dark hair-like growths sprouting slowly from the smooth skull. A long scar sank into the specter's right temple as it's nose elongated, a black ornament forming where Kanji's actual piercing was located. Its mouth parted in a maniacal grin, displaying once again the sharp, pointed teeth common to the doppelganger.
Kanji, unlike the others, couldn't scream. His fear had become so paramount in his mind that he couldn't articulate a single sound within his throat.
"What'cha afraid of, big man?!" grinned the dark Kanji with derision, the deep voice echoing with the shrill whisper of the apparition. "I ain't gonna go effeminate on ya, if that's what you're thinkin'!"
"...What the hell..." Kanji croaked the words as his voice returned. His entire body shook uncontrollably, hands clenched into tight fists around his plate.
"What the hell's right, pal!" The doppelganger began to descend, the cloak wrapping around its form and morphing into a black replica of Kanji's own clothes. "Turned into a whimpering, cowering sack of shit, huh? Yeah, you're a REAL man now! Damned if you do, damned if you don't! Emotion makes you look weak and stupid, and being tough just pushes you into a corner! You're pathetic no matter what ya do!"
"S..Shut up.." Kanji's voice continued to falter. He wanted desperately to rush the bastard, to punch that face in, and yet... he couldn't move a muscle.
"Oooooh, I'm sooo scaaared!" mocked the other Kanji, laughing almost hysterically. "Tried to put on that tough-guy face with Mina too, huh? Tried to make sure you didn't seem weak or vulnerable? That you could stand up to anything? You remember what happened there, right?! RIGHT?!"
"No! Don't-!" All Kanji seemed to be able to do was cringe. It sickened him.
Souji began approaching the scene quietly, looking at his friends and raising a finger to his lips. They nodded apprehensively, though Souji caught their universal look of concern.
"You pushed her away! Left her out in the cold! By bein' a MAN!" The black Kanji continued to laugh, showing off its sharp, pointed teeth. "Like I said! Damned if you do, damned if you don't! You can't do NOTHIN' right! Just face it!" It leaned in, its red eyes penetrating into Kanji's soul. "You ain't changed at all, have ya?!"
"...I HAVE, dammit!" screamed Kanji in rage, punching the ground with his fist. "I DID!!"
Souji stood behind his friend now, but ignored the false Kanji. He placed his hand on the real Kanji's shoulder as he raised his sword, pointing it toward the wraith as he looked down at his friend, smiling gently. "I'm here, Kanji. You don't have to deal with this alone."
"Senpai..." Kanji turned to stare at Souji, his eyes teeming respect and admiration. "I... I don't deserve..."
"HAH! What a total loser!" sneered the dark Kanji, its eyes glowing with malice. "Can't defend yourself on your own, so you gotta let THIS pansy babysit ya! Not that he could beat ME, the stupid jackass!"
"...Oh, that's IT!" snarled Kanji, turning back to glare at the gaunt apparition. "No one, NO ONE disrespects Senpai and gets away with it on MY watch!"
"Ya think you can take me, tough guy?!" laughed the doppelganger as it hefted a cold-iron plate carved with intricate red runes. "I'd LOVE to see you try!"
"You asked for it, shithead!" Kanji's grip tightened around his own plate, and he stood up and charged forward with a roar as he raised the heavy metal above his head. The mimic swung its own thick slab at an opposite angle just as Kanji brought his own down upon it, and the two weapons emitted a loud gong that vibrated throughout the battlefield.
"Let's go!" yelled Chie, but a hand caught her by the shoulder, making her turn around. "H-huh? Souji-kun?"
"Wait until he asks for help." Souji's gaze was solid and stern as he looked toward the two Kanji's battling it out.
"What? But..." Yukiko appeared torn. "He needs us."
"He wouldn't forgive us if we interfered now," agreed Yosuke, although he appeared worried. "He'll let us know when he does need our help... though we do know how stubborn he can be."
"We have to trust him to know his limits," said Souji firmly. "He knows we're here if he needs us."
Another gong rang out as the two plates collided once again. Kanji's plate was jarred into the ground, forcing him to duck as the ghoulish specter swung its own weapon at his head.
"I think I'm gonna need some backup, guys!" hollered Kanji as he pulled his weapon from the dusty earth. "This thing's more of a pain in the ass than I-- GAH!!" Kanji stumbled backward as the doppelganger kicked some loose dirt into his face. "T-the hell?!"
"Now!" Souji and Yosuke yelled together as they charged forward. Chie and Yukiko summoned their Personas together and sent a tempest of fire and ice at the dark Kanji, forcing it to lose ground as Yosuke slashed at it furiously with his knives. Souji stood in front of Kanji in a defensive stance.
"You alright?" asked Souji calmly, looking concerned as Kanji blinked the dust from his eyes.
"Yeah, I got it." Kanji rose to his feet and hefted his plate up again. "Thanks, Senpai."
"URGH!" Yosuke dodged a particularly violent strike from the specter, but its plate slammed into the ground with a tremendous force that sent him flying. He hit the ground hard and rolled several feet, wincing as he regained his senses.
"Yosuke!" Chie started forward, but Yukiko summoned Amaterasu and quickly healed their fallen companion.
"Thanks, Yukiko-san," said Yosuke, looking frustrated as he stood up again.
"C'mon, you wimps! You guys hit as hard as that bleach-haired baby over there!" hollered the doppelganger, rushing forward and aiming a blow at Souji, who raised his sword to block the strike. The blade was jarred from his hand, and he ducked a return blow from the dark Kanji as he attempted to retrieve his Blade.
"You know," smirked Yosuke, "I think what he REALLY meant was, "Man, I REALLY wish you would beat my ass, Kanji!"!"
"Wish granted!" snarled Kanji as he charged forward yet again and swung the plate with as much force as he could muster. The attack took his clone off guard, too focused on Souji to react. Kanji's plate slammed hard into his opponent's skull, forcing the doppelganger into a long, barreling spiral that sent it into the dusty ground with a loud crash. The fallen specter attempted to claw it's way back up, but all it could do was quake in shock as the mortal blow overtook it.
"F.fff....feeeeearrr..." The dark Kanji whispered in the grating hiss, all traces of Kanji's voice lost. It stopped moving abruptly as its body crumbled and evaporated like the other clones, disappearing as rapidly as it had emerged and leaving the gray, lifeless battlefield in silence once more.
"Damn... I think I would have been better off not knowing." Kanji dropped the heavy plate to the barren ground, a small cloud of dust emerging from beneath.
"You okay?" asked Souji as he finally retrieved his sword.
"Yeah... I dunno what would have happened if you guys weren't around. You saved my ass again... Thanks, Senpai." The two clasped their hands and pulled each other into an embrace, patting each other on the back.
"You don't have to give me one of those," said Yosuke warily as he brushed the dirt from his pants. "Really, don't worry about-"
"Oh, don't be such a baby, Yosuke!" Chie rolled her eyes as she approached and embraced Yosuke from behind. "And would you be more careful? Geez, you had me worried there for a second..."
"Are you okay, Kanji-kun?" Yukiko placed a soft hand on Kanji's shoulder, looking concernedly up at him.
"I... I don't really know." Kanji looked worriedly at Souji. "Do we have time to sort things out, maybe? I know we gotta keep going, but..."
"While things are like this, there should be time enough." Souji gave his good friend a confident smile.
"Just start from the beginning, Kanji-kun." Yukiko smiled, as well, and Kanji seemed to take comfort in the support that was shown.
"Alright... Well, after you left, Senpai, I started teaching those classes and met Mina, like I said before. My dolls got nationwide recognition thanks to Ma's advertising, and I actually... started doing a whole lot better in school, and even graduated! Ma was real proud of me... I couldn't remember her being so happy. I felt like I was doing something right for a change..."
Kanji appeared puzzled. "I just... dunno what happened..."
"Perhaps I might be of assistance?"
"Hotei-kun!" Yukiko smiled brightly as the elderly gentleman approached. "Welcome back!"
Hotei chuckled as he returned the smile, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Thank you very much, Amagi-san. You're far too kind."
"Wait..." Kanji stared at Hotei with a dazed look. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
Hotei pondered the question for a moment. "Now that you mention it, I have indeed traveled to Inaba on numerous occasions. However, that is of no consequence at the moment."
"He's right," said Yosuke, unable to keep from smiling as he felt Chie's arms around him. "This is about you, Kanji."
"O-okay..." Kanji was nonplussed by all of the eyes focused on him, but he attempted to recall past events within his mind. "Well, about a year after graduation, everyone just... stopped talking to each other. I thought it was just a phase or something, myself, so I decided to just tough it out like I always did, you know? Just... ride out the storm... But Mina didn't like that. I didn't want her to worry about me, so I just took the punches as they came. She said she needed someone who would be able to talk to her about their problems, to share the burden... So she left."
"Oh, Kanji-kun..." Yukiko shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm so sorry..."
"I... toughed that out, too, though." Kanji shook his head, running a nervous hand through his bleached hair. "I thought it was what everyone expected of me, you know?"
"Tatsumi-san," said Hotei in inspiration, "that is an interesting trinket you wear around your neck.. Might I see it for a moment?"
"Huh?" Kanji glanced down at the chain, and took it off hesitantly. "Sure.. I guess you can, though I dunno how it fits in with everything. It's just a... hollow bullet, that's all."
Hotei turned the trinket in his hands, his eyes sparkling from behind his glasses as he spoke. "This is very interesting... Perhaps your attempts at endurance have made you like this bullet: empty, hollow, a mere ornament. A tough, steely skin, yet lacking in substance."
Chie blinked. "Wow, so Kanji's toughness was his wall?"
Everyone turned to Chie in astonishment except Hotei, who grinned more broadly. "I'm impressed, Sato-san. You're beginning to see one of the many connections."
"So, wait." Yosuke's face contorted painfully as he struggled to get his thoughts in order. "Each of us put up a wall? And that wall was... forced on us two years ago? But what happened back then that made us do such a thing?"
"I don't know..." said Yukiko thoughtfully, "but some of us had more pain to face than others..." She put an arm around Kanji's shoulders and smiled sympathetically.
Kanji appeared thoughtful. "I... thought toughing stuff out was what it meant to be a real man." He looked up at Hotei, curiosity flooding his face. "You've been around. What does it mean to be a man?"
Hotei smiled wider, his hand rising to stroke his beard as he spoke. "That remains a topic of serious debate, my boy. However, in my experience, I've found that being a true 'man' simply involves having the courage to do what must be done for the sake of love, compassion, and protection of others. Communication, honesty, and integrity are essential to this principle, which are far more potent than silence. In other words, it's the pursuit of being a true human, and not merely based on gender alone."
"So.. did I change back to the way I was? Did I really fail?" Kanji winced in pain at the thought.
"You didn't fail, Kanji-kun." Yukiko turned Kanji's face toward hers and gave him a stern, yet compassionate, look. "You proved only moments ago that you are a true man... You protected us and communicated effectively when you needed help. You've become a much better man than you were before... I truly believe that."
"Yukiko-senpai..." Kanji blushed slightly at the praise. "So.. I know what I have to do now... I just need to stand tall and keep going."
"Indeed, Tatsumi-kun." Hotei grinned wider as he removed his glasses, cleaning them with a white handkerchief. "It is important that you commit to what you truly wish to be, and hold your head high without regret."
"Right. I guess I just need to turn my head around, huh? Being tough is one thing, but using it to block out pain and avoid actually dealing with it is something else. And I promise I won't fall back into that trap, either! Not when I have friends like you guys keeping me in line!"
Kanji stumbled back as a glowing blue card materialized in front of him. He reached out and grasped it in his strong hand, shattering it easily, trails of flame rising into the air to form the massive shape of a Persona.
"Rokuten Maoh!" Kanji beamed, unable to conceal his excitement.
"The chains have been severed," said the Persona in a deep whisper. "Your heart has once more been opened to the truth."
"Huh? Wait a sec." Kanji appeared taken aback at the Persona's words, turning around to face the group as it faded in a cloud of blue flame. "I thought we already found the truth."
"Perceptions have been forcibly altered," said Hotei, his smile fading into a more serious expression, "and so the truth is once again obscured from your sight."
"But... you said we placed the chains around our Personas ourselves." Chie shook her head in disbelief.
"Maybe someone or something gave us the chains to begin with?" suggested Yukiko. "We hid the truth from our own eyes, even though we knew it was there."
"Indeed." Hotei grinned again, thoroughly impressed. "The truth is always there. It is unchangeable, immutable, though human beings differ regarding how the truth is seen and reached. And while it was obscured in fog five years ago, truth is now threatened to be engulfed by infinite darkness."
"Darkness?" Yosuke rubbed the back of his head in annoyance. "Geez, what did we get into this time?"
"We can't worry about that now, Yosuke-senpai." Kanji looked down at the pendant in his hand, his eyes dulling slightly as he reminisced. "I guess I should let this go, huh?"
"If you believe that what it means holds you back, then perhaps you should." Hotei's eyes twinkled, and Souji seemed to catch a hint of silver in the blue irises.
"It's kinda funny," said Kanji to himself as he turned the bullet around in his fingers. "I got this when pop died, thinking it might help me look tougher. Ever since then, I've always worn it... But I think it's time to face my problems head on now."
And without a word, Kanji tossed the pendant behind him, the chain jingling in the silent air.
The grayness disappeared, replaced by the pale brown of the dusty earth and the dark, shadowed clouds above. Kanji turned to a startled Rise, who had peered around when time began again.
"I'm, uh... sorry for yelling at you, Rise." said Kanji awkwardly, a slight hint of pink flooding his cheeks. "You didn't deserve that..."
Rise blinked a few times in astonishment, but suddenly waved her hands and gave her most winning smile. "Aw, hey! Don't worry about it, Kanji-kun! We're all a little stressed right now, so I won't hold it against you! Just don't expect any autographs for a while, kay?"
Souji gazed at Rise nervously. He knew that high-pitched tone of voice, as well as the dull look in her eyes. She's faking it... she's still hurting, but she doesn't want us to worry..
"We should stop and rest," said Souji as he looked everyone over. "We need to keep our strength up if we plan to make it to the Rift without any worse problems."
"But where could we go?" asked Chie worriedly. "And this wind is murderous! If we rest out in the open, we'll freeze to death!"
"We could go to my hideout." Teddie waved his blue-furred paw, his large eyes sparkling with pleasure at finally being able to do something constructive. "Yep! I have a cave not too far from here! It could shelter us from the wind, and we could even build a fire to keep us warm!"
"We'll have to gather firewood on the way," said Naoto. "I have a lighter, but I doubt it will be enough to ignite the tinder. Perhaps Yukiko-san's Persona would be more suited to that particular task."
"Alright! Lets get to it, then!" Yosuke picked up some nearby sticks and gave Teddie a nod. "Lead the way, Ted."
Teddie took point this time, his squeaky footsteps clashing horribly with the morbid landscape around them. Everyone took time to gather dried pieces of wood, but Kanji carried the largest amount on his large plate.
"Kanji-kun!" Yukiko ran up to him as she carried her own branches. "I, uh.. just wanted to tell you something..."
"What is it, Yukiko-senpai?" Kanji blinked, not really prepared for her approach.
"Well..." Yukiko blushed slightly. "First of all, you don't need to call me 'senpai' anymore, Kanji-kun. Just Yukiko is fine. And... second..." Her blush deepened as she looked away. "You... were really brave back there... I was honest when I said I believe you've become a better man."
"I, uh..." Kanji looked the other way, his own cheeks regaining a pinkish hue. "...Thanks, Yukiko-sen-- Uh... Yukiko."
"You're... very welcome, Kanji-kun..." Yukiko laughed nervously, and the two of them didn't talk throughout the rest of their walk, although they seemed very happy with each other's company.
Chie and Yosuke smiled as they watched Yukiko and Kanji from the back of the line. They clasped each other's hand tightly as they carried their firewood under their other arms.
Naoto stood apart from Souji and carried her own wood in silence, grateful that she hadn't agreed to anything and prevented the resurfacing of the issue. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up... They'll find out soon enough. However... I can't talk about it to anyone... Not even Souji-kun...
Souji noticed Naoto's separation... and his fear increased dramatically. She's getting worse... How deeply is she connected to this whole thing, Hotei...? And how can we even save her? ...What do we have to do...?
The only choice loomed right in front of them, a black, ugly scar on the once-beautiful landscape of the TV world.
The Rift held all the answers. For good or for ill.
Naoto Shirogane sat herself down on one of the horizontal ventilation shafts that littered the roof, crossing her arms and trying desperately not to lose control of her emotions. Even though the day was beautiful, the sun was shining, and the temperatures were beginning to become warmer with the approach of spring, Naoto was having the worst day ever. She slowly began to take deep breaths and let them out in succession, her normal method of calming herself down.
I should not allow myself to feel this way... Naoto thought to herself with a scowl, unable to stop herself from letting her temper get the better of her. And yet how can I possibly stave off such frustration? This occurs every single--
Naoto blinked as she looked down at her left wrist, noticing the green text on the face of the watch. "Distance: 4 meters"
"Souji-kun?" She looked up, her eyes widening as she beheld her silver-haired boyfriend standing in front of her. "Why are you here?" She felt perplexed at the sudden appearance, and yet she was soothed by the knowledge that Souji had found her, that he was near her on what could possibly be considered the absolute worst day of the year.
"I thought you might want to have lunch with me today." Souji smiled as he sat down to Naoto's left, placing a bento on the ground. "I hope you don't mind."
"O-oh!" Naoto blushed slightly, taken aback at the sincerity of the gesture. "Not.. not at all, Souji-kun. I'd be thrilled to..." ...as long as we aren't interrupted, she added in her mind, her eyes glaring at the door to the stairwell.
"You seem distracted," said Souji, smiling over at Naoto with his usual tranquil demeanor.
"Is it that obvious?" Naoto laughed nervously. He's been able to read me like a book for so long... it's comforting, but quite frightening, as well...
"You're clenching your hands." Souji grinned as Naoto looked down at the balled fists at her knees. "You always do that when you're angry."
"I'm not... angry. Honestly. It's simply that... today has been a very depressing day. That's all." Naoto sighed, but she couldn't help but laugh spitefully inside her head at her predicament. Depressing... Yes, depressing, frustrating, annoying, insane... Just fill in the blank.
"Would you care to talk about-" Souji began, but Naoto had leaped from her seat and leaped back behind the air duct with the grace and reflexes of a cat.
"I'm not here," she said shortly as she pulled out a Swiss Army Knife from one of her pockets.
"I'm not here, Souji-kun! Please! I--"
"Hello, Souji-san!" Souji turned to see a group of studentsmostly girlsrunning toward him, waving happily in greeting. A black-haired girl with even darker eyes led them to where he was still seated. It was she who had addressed him, and Souji recognized her as a student in his own class named Haruka. "Have you seen Naoto-kun anywhere today?"
Souji's brain worked frantically, trying to process everything that had seemed to happen all at once. It didn't take him long to understand what was going on, however, as he noticed packets of sheet music clutched in the hands of each student.
"...No, I haven't seen her all day." Souji kept his face and voice passive, almost curious, trying his best not to seem suspicious... or to look behind him to see where Naoto had disappeared to. If she had still been there, they'd have noticed her. "Why do you ask?"
"Aww..." Some of the female students appeared disappointed by Souji's news, but Haruka waved at them to quiet down. "Well, Kashiwagi-sensei had the brilliant idea of having groups of students serenade other students--"
"and teachers," interrupted another student.
"...And teachers," Haruka corrected herself, the entire group giving a mass shudder, "for Valentine's Day. Thankfully, it kind of backfired on her because she won't be given anything until White Day."
"...if she gets anything at all."
"Ruki-chan, don't be mean!" scolded Haruka, though many of the others snickered behind their hands. "Anyway, Souji-san, if you do see Naoto-kun at all, please let her know that we've been assigned four songs, and that they're all for her."
"Four?" Souji blinked. "That many? But who would..." They're serious? No wonder Naoto wanted to hide.
"We can't say who requested them because of confidentiality reasons." She shuffled her feet, her face displaying a look of honest guilt. "Sorry, Souji-san... I know she's your girlfriend, but please don't blame us. We're just doing what we were told."
"I'll... let you all know if I see her." Souji smiled politely, though he was firmly committed to protect Naoto from such an embarrassing ensemble at all costs. No one should have to deal with this... Kashiwagi went too far this time.
"Thanks, Souji-san! Have a good lunch!" The group waved as they headed back across the rooftop and back into the school. Once again, Souji was alone.
"Naoto... they're gone." He blinked as a vent grate fell with a clatter to the cement, and he looked behind him to find Naoto crawling out of the duct, her face beet red and her eyes blazing with shock and fury.
"...F-f-four?! They want to sing four songs?! To me?!" Naoto was aghast, outrage dripping from every pore of her being as she climbed back over the duct and sat beside Souji once again.
"Maybe they sing well?" suggested Souji, but he knew the answer before Naoto spoke; she had given him "the look".
"...Souji-kun, they're from the symphonic band. They perform on instruments because they are incapable of singing. Trust me. I overheard one of their 'performances', and I do believe they are akin to what Yosuke-san would call... 'Nails on a chalkboard'." She shook her head as though trying to banish the sounds from her mind. "However, the serenades are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg."
"You mean your shoe box?"
Naoto nodded, her arms shaking slightly from the tightness of her clenched fists. "Not only is it overflowing to excess with a massive influx of love notes, but I've also taken the liberty of procuring an extra pair of shoes from home."
"You think your shoes will become stuck from all of the notes?" Souji asked in slight shock.
"That... and the melted honmei-choko that will completely ruin the pair in the box." Naoto turned to Souji and gave him a grim nod. "It has... happened before."
"Wait, honmei-choko?" Souji shook his head, amazed by the fervor of the other students. Honmei-choko was only supposed to be given to a loved one. Otherwise, tomo-choko was given, the type meant for friends.
"Exclusively. It makes no sense at all."
Souji moved closer to Naoto, looking concerned. "...How can you stand it all the time?"
"Stand it?! I can't stand it! It's... unbelievably frustrating!!" Naoto shouted the last word, unable to hold herself back. "How could I ever appreciate a day which stresses the pursuit of selfish infatuation through the presentation of meaningless gifts and the endurance of horrible caterwauling?!" She slammed her fist on the metal air-duct, a ringing gong sounding from the impact. She had lost control of her temper, but she didn't care. Souji wouldn't judge her for it. Souji wouldn't tell her she was being a child or immature or anything like that. Souji would listen, and that's what she needed at that very moment: a friendly, understanding ear.
"It... depresses me! Every year, it's the same routine! It's bad enough that I have to endure such things during the year, but massive escalation occurs throughout the day! This day! I wish there would be one year, just one, where I can actually accept a gift from someone who truly cares about me, who truly understands what..."
She couldn't finish her sentence. Souji had taken that opportunity to hold out his bento to her, and it interrupted her train of thought. "Is... isn't that your lunch?"
"Your lunch, Naoto." Souji smiled kindly, placing the bento on her lap.
"Wait... You... What-- That lunch is... for.." Once again she was taken aback. He always does that... Always. When I least expect it, he always calms me down... makes everything better...
"...I thought you might feel like this today, so I thought this would cheer you up." Souji wrapped his arm around Naoto's shoulders, causing her to blush... but she didn't complain. She was far more comfortable with him now than she had been before Christmas Eve.
"Souji-kun... you... didn't have to do that... I mean, I--" Naoto shook her head slowly as she opened the lid of the bento. She knew what Souji had made; he always made the same thing to cheer her up. But when she looked down into the open box, her eyes widened and her pulse quickened.
It wasn't what she had expected at all.
The bento contained sliced California Roll, as she had deduced. However, not only was there a single compartment instead of the multiple divisions of a normal boxed lunch, but the slices of prepared sushi were set around in a heart-shaped pattern. The area in the middle of the bento was empty except for a collection of words printed in the middle of the heart, and Naoto found herself unable to look away as she read them aloud to herself:
Valentine's Day is more than just a celebration of love. It's a day to give thanks to the people who are most important to you in your life. Naoto, you're the most important person to me, and no matter what day it is, I hope you know that I love you with all my heart, and that I always will. ~Souji</u>
"...Oh..." Naoto squeaked, gently setting the box back down on the ground... and then without warning, she leapt into Souji's lap and kissed him on the lips. Her arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him closer as she drank deeply from his very being, only increasing in enthusiasm as she felt Souji return her embrace and affection. That... that was so...
Naoto released the kiss rather reluctantly, staring deeply into Souji's gray eyes with her own silver-blue orbs. She suddenly felt a twinge of regret, and her face contorted in sorrow. "I... I'm so sorry, I... didn't.. get you any honmei-choko... Souji-kun, I--"
"Do you think that matters to me?" Souji smiled brightly, kissing Naoto's forehead and making her cheeks turn deeper crimson.
"N.. no, but.. I... I wish I..." Naoto shivered as she stumbled over her own tongue, the words hesitant to pass between her lips as she thought frantically for something, anything, that she could do. And then an idea struck her, and she smiled affectionately at her boyfriend. "S-Souji-kun...?"
"Yes, Naoto?" Souji's hand rose to gently caress her cheek, and the gesture bolstered the detective's confidence.
"...Would you... eat the lunch... with me...?"
Souji frowned, and it was his turn to be taken aback. "But it's your lunch, Naoto..."
"But... you're important to me, too..." She leaned forward, resting her head on Souji's chest.
"...Okay." Souji smiled, knowing better than to argue with Naoto once she had made up her mind.
"...Thank you so much, Souji-kun..."
"For what...? I didn't-" His protest was halted by a soft finger that was placed on his lips.
"You did... Just... trust me." Naoto grinned as she removed the finger, replacing it with a soft, sensual kiss.
Rise Kujikawa could easily tell that Naoto Shirogane was breaking. She could see it in the bluenette's face. It was subtle, and the detective prince barely ever allowed herself to falter in public, but Rise knew what was happening behind that facade of intellect and cold attitude the 16-year-old girl had developed at an early age. All of the pressure, all of the pain, all of the stress that comes with life, and topping it all off with Souji dying in a train accident on his way home...Naoto was falling to pieces before Rise's very eyes. It only got worse when she was let off her job for failing a recent murder case, and that was because she was still badly affected both mentally and emotionally by learning that her boyfriend had been killed only mere hours after she last saw him. No one, not Yosuke, not Chie, not Yukiko, not even Kanji, her closest male friend next to Souji, saw how badly Naoto was truly hurting inside. They knew she was suffering from depression, but it was growing dangerously close to suicide. Yet, none of them knew this. Not one of those so-called "friends" of hers. Except for Rise. She felt like she was the only one who actually cared about Naoto now.
When Rise had gone to Naoto's large mansion estate to speak with her privately, the redhead didn't even seem to recognize the bluenette at first. Naoto's skin had lost its lively color, now a deathly pale. There were black circles around her eyes and she looked like she hadn't eaten in days. She was breaking down into a mere shell of the strong young woman she had once been. It made Rise's heart ache to see her dear friend in such a pitiful state. She was beginning to realize that her worst fears were coming true; if she allowed this to continue on, Naoto might end up hurting herself.
Naoto asked if Rise wanted to come in.
Rise nodded, and said yes.
As they headed upstairs to Naoto's room, Rise kept her eyes glued to Naoto's back. She had to think of a way to help Naoto escape this pit she was falling into, to keep her from making a drastic decision that could possibly take her own life in the process. She was willing to do anything in her power to save Naoto. It was much more than enough to have lost someone like Souji Seta; she didn't want to lose another dear friend, especially not Naoto. When they entered Naoto's bedroom, Rise immediately looked to the counter. There was a pistol lying there, with an unopened packet of bullets next to it. Rise could feel the fear for her friend's life swelling up in her chest.
Naoto sat down on the edge of her bed, and offered Rise if she would like a drink or a snack or something of the like.
Rise shook her head.
Naoto then asked Rise what it was that she wanted exactly. For some reason, her voice sounded rather shaky.
Rise took in a deep breath before she began to speak. She told Naoto that she knew how she was deeply depressed over everything that happened, and she was worried for Naoto's state of mind. She avoided directly stating anything concerning suicide, since she didn't want to come off as possibly judging the bluenette's emotional strength too quickly. Rise finished it off by saying she would do anything she possibly could to help her friend get through this tough time in her life. There was silence, and then Naoto sighed heavily in response. A moment later, she began to cry. She was screaming and crying, flinging her arms around like a child throwing a tantrum.
Rise ran to the girl's side, and planning to hug her, when instead it was Naoto herself who grasped tightly around the redhead's waist. For a moment, Rise was afraid that Naoto was going to kill her. She was almost ready to burst out screaming herself. However, Naoto began to speak. She spoke of many things, like how she and Souji would go on walks around the city together, and how her father used to take her out for ice cream when she was a little girl. She spoke of so many things, all of them unconnected in any way. Then she began to focus on what Rise had told her, on how the redhead had told her that she was going 'insane'.
Naoto stared directly into Rise's eyes as she whispered with a maniacal grin and tearing eyes about how she wasn't crazy, she wasn't going crazy or anything silly like that, all she really wanted was some love, just something warm and real to make her feel alive again, something like what Souji had given her back on that cold winter night on Christmas Eve. That was all she needed, she wanted to be loved by someone again. Rise immediately understood, and without even a hint of hesitation, she slammed her lips against Naoto's. Naoto groaned as she slid one hand down Rise's skirt and the other up her shirt. Rise fell forward, taking Naoto down with her as their lips remained connected in a passionate embrace...
Not once during that long night did Naoto ever say Rise's name. All she cried out was 'Souji, Souji, Souji' over and over in eternal despair...her howls echoing in the starry darkness...
In the twilight of the morning, a loud bang was heard radiating from within the mansion's walls, and then there was silence...a scream followed close behind.
Persona 4 FYL (Five Years Later) Chapter Thirteen: Unexpected
"It's so dark in there..." whispered Rise, unable to tear her gaze from the wide, vertical Rift.
Souji faintly registered the fact that none of his friends could look away from the massive crack in the TV World, and he was forced to exert considerable effort in diverting his own eyes from it.
"Should we... even be here?" asked Chie to no one in particular.
"What are you talking about?" said Yosuke, looking confused.
"Well, I meant that it makes me feel weird. Just standing right next to it... I don't know how to describe it. It's almost familiar somehow."
"I know what you mean," agreed Yukiko. "It's like I'm tired. Almost drained."
Everyone turned to look at Souji as though he had only just arrived.
"You kiddin', man?" said Kanji a bit weakly. "We don't even know where this thing'll take us, ya know?"
"Would you rather stay here?" Souji replied calmly, and silence answered his question for him.
"But shouldn't we come up with a plan or something?" said Chie, looking worried.
"If you think you can, then be my guest." Souji folded his arms over his chest, looking thoughtful. "There isn't much else we can do at this point. For all we know, this could be the only way out of the TV World."
"But... there could be another way out."
"Huh?" Souji blinked, surprised to hear Naoto speak so meekly. "What are you talking about?"
"I-I mean..." Naoto looked away as all eyes fell upon her. "W-we could search for another television and leave that way, couldn't we?"
"But that's too risky! You know that!" said Yosuke firmly. "We have no idea where we'd come out! For all we know, we could end up in America, or Siberia! Take your pick!"
"I don't know where any of the other TVs come out! Remember?" said the bear in a regretful tone.
"Now that I think about it," muttered Kanji, more to himself than anyone else, "we can't go nowhere now, even if he could."
Souji turned around, shocked to find that the earth around them was crumbling away into the chasm they had crossed only moments ago. If they didn't go through the Rift, they would be forced to plummet into the chasm against their will.
"...The Rift is our only option," declared the silverette with finality.
"Then I'll just stay here," replied Naoto with equal stubbornness.
"No," said Souji firmly.
"I'll be fine." Naoto looked away from Souji, unwilling to face him. "I--"
"You're staying with us."
The detective let out a strangled yelp as Souji raised his voice, composing herself by taking a sudden interest in her shoes.
"I've had enough of your dodging," said Souji, walking up to Naoto's side. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Nothing is wrong," muttered Naoto without hesitation.
Naoto winced at his observation. "It doesn't matter."
"You're scared of something. What exactly are you afraid of?"
"I'm not--" Naoto stuttered, shivering to herself. "I-- Ah--"
"You are. I can see it in your eyes."
"You don't know anything, Souji Seta," said Naoto darkly, still not looking at him. "None of you could possibly know."
"Then why don't you tell us?"
The silverette's continued stoicism proved abrasive to the young sleuth, and her temper began to rise. "I said it doesn't matter!"
"You matter to me. I've told you a thousand times..."
Naoto winced again, turning around so that she could stare into the bottomless chasm. "It's nothing. Seriously, I--"
"If it's nothing, then lets go inside," said Souji adamantly.
"I..." The detective shivered, her eyes shutting tightly.
Naoto-kun, Rise said softly, her eyes full of concern for her friend, there's nothing to worry about! We're right here with you! It's not like you're alone or anything, you know?
I know, I know! cried Naoto, her temper flaring. It's just that... I don't know! She stomped on the dusty ground, covering her face with her hands. It's all so confusing!!
It's just like the old man said, whispered Yosuke to Souji, his eyes full of concern.
What do we do? said Chie, her whispered voice almost squeaking with worry. Naoto-kun can't fight like this! And we don't have any idea what might be through the Rift!
There are too many unknowns, agreed Yukiko. But we don't have any other choices left.
Does anyone really know what the future holds, though? said Souji, loud enough for Naoto to hear him.
You're talking about fear of the unknown, right Senpai? said Kanji.
So it's like a test of courage? suggested Teddie. Like the 'Mystery Food X' thing Yosuke kept talking about?
Hey! That was five years ago! yelled Chie, blushing furiously. Give it a rest, would you?!
There's no more time, growled Souji, silencing everyone instantly. He extended his hand to Naoto, his eyes focused on her silver-blue irises. Take my hand, Naoto.
No, I'm staying, insisted Naoto. It's f--
It's NOT fine! yelled Souji, losing his temper completely. Naoto gasped again, looking the silverette right in the eye. Look at yourself, Naoto! You braved being kidnapped, faced your true self, and stood up against two gods five years ago! What's so different now?!
I... I'm... Naoto's eyes welled up with tears. I'm scared, okay?! I'm scared to death!! Are you happy now?! Are you happy I admitted that I'm not perfect?!
No. Souji placed both hands on Naoto's shoulders, and the detective shivered at his closeness to her. I'm not happy. Now that you've admitted to your fear, you have to conquer it. Everyone else has, and-- The silverette blinked, the realization hitting him hard. ...This is your test.
Huh? Naoto shook her head, disbelieving. My... test?
Yes. Your test to overcome your fear.
Naoto shivered in Souji's grip, her hat sliding down over her face as tears trailed down her dust-blotched cheeks. S-stay... stay with me... please...
Souji smiled. For as long as you need me. She still hasn't given me a straight answer... but I have a feeling I already know. I just need one piece of information... something that pulls everything together.
A loud crack sounded nearby, and a large chunk of clay separated next to where Naoto had stomped the ground, tumbling into the ravine of swirling black mist. The sleuth practically leaped into Souji's arms, clinging to him in terror as she watched the boulder fall into the darkness. For a brief instant, she wondered why she had been so frightened of the Rift to begin with.
I... think it's time to go, Souji-kun! squeaked Naoto, and Souji's smile widened a little, earning him the look from the shivering detective.
I feel sort of stupid asking this, sighed Chie, but how should we go into this thing?
Souji turned to Yosuke, looking thoughtful. You have any suggestions, Ideas Man?
Yosuke pondered the situation for a brief moment, then snapped his fingers in inspiration. Let's hold hands.
Chie looked as though she'd like nothing better than to smack the brunette. This isn't the time for flirting, Yosuke!!
Oh! gasped Yukiko, catching on. If we hold hands, it means we'll all stick together if something happens! Good idea, Yosuke-kun!
Rise suddenly removed her sweater, cutting strips from the fabric with one of her chakrams. If we tie our wrists together, it should give us some extra help, too!
Naoto watched everyone in silence, her eyes moving to Kanji as he assisted Rise with cutting the fabric, Yukiko removing her own sweater to add to the pool of fabric. She noticed Chie looking disappointed, and deduced that her jacket would have been ideal for such a precaution. Teddie moved swiftly to give Chie a quick hug, and the girl smiled and returned it with equal affection, glad that someone noticed her. For the first time in years, Naoto felt the pain of her loneliness... and leaned closer to Souji, who kissed her cheek, causing her to flush hotly.
We're all here, Naoto, said Souji reassuringly. We won't let anything happen to you.
I know, Souji-kun. It's just that I... Naoto hesitated again, unable to continue with what she wanted to say... what she needed to say.
You don't have to do everything alone. Okay?
Naoto only nodded silently as she felt Souji's hands tie her wrist to his, her other wrist taken in Rise's gentle hands. Souji's other hand was quickly fastened to Teddie's wrist, and soon everyone was together in a straight line, Kanji and Yosuke on the ends, the only ones without two hands to hold.
Okay, everyone, said Yosuke firmly. Jump into it on three!
Uh... Teddie said, looking confused. One-two-three? Or one-two-three-go?
Yosuke smacked his forehead with his free hand. On. Three. Stupid bear...
Okay, okay! said Teddie impatiently. Geez, you don't have to maul me about it!
Yosuke mauling a bear? Yukiko considered, doing her best to hold in a stray giggle.
One! called Souji, forcing everyone back into seriousness.
Two! yelled Chie, poised to jump into the Rift.
Three! finished Yosuke, and the group leaped into the shadowy blackness of the Rift. They felt their hands, firmly clasped together, begin to be pulled roughly apart, but their pre-planning proved effective, the darkness swallowing them whole.
Souji winced as he rose to his feet, the ground beneath him quite stable. Unfastening the ties upon his wrists, the silverette looked around their new location. There was no evidence of how they had arrived within the room they currently occupied, but he could tell that the house was quite old. The wooden walls were lined with paintings and assorted antiques, and shelves of books filled the rest of the gaps. A desk sat in the corner, dusty and untouched.
Where are we? asked Kanji in curiosity as he stood, his eyes wide. It looks like a museum or somethin'.
A study, deduced Souji out loud as everyone else stood up, checking themselves for injuries.
It's so dark, Chie remarked, scratching her head. Even outside, too.
I found a light switch, called Yosuke near the door to the room. Huh? Damn, the power's out... or this isn't a place that gets electricity.
This place is so creepy... said Yukiko nervously. Maybe we should find a way out of here.
...It's this way.
Souji turned to Naoto, worry creeping into his heart. Her voice sounded dead, almost numb. What's wrong?
Wow, Nao-chan! Teddie said, smiling brightly. It's like you know this pl--
Shut up! Just SHUT UP! Naoto screamed abruptly, causing the bear to step back in shock and alarm. Don't call me that! Don't you EVER call me that again!! Do you hear me?!
Teddie whimpered, his blue eyes shining with tears. ...Huh? Wha... what did I say?
Naoto-kun! How could you?! berated Rise, giving Teddie a firm hug of comfort.
Naoto's face was stony as she opened the door, walking slowly into the hallway. ...This way.
Hey! Rise cried, offended. Don't ignore me like that!
It's okay, Rise-chan, said Teddie softly, looking at Naoto as she moved behind the wall. She... changed when she saw this place. It's connected to her somehow.
Yeah, let it go, agreed Souji, moving to follow Naoto out. She didn't mean anything by it, but keep an eye on her all the same.
This really bothers me, said Yukiko, truly worried. How does Naoto-kun know the way?
I have a hunch, murmured Souji as he exited the room. His suspicions were becoming more solid by the minute.
Everyone hurried down the hallway and out the large front door, and the group blinked in confusion as they noticed that the outside was just as dark as the inside. No moon, no street lamps, no vehicle lights, no interior house lights glowed anywhere. Souji became increasingly uneasy as he realized that they had arrived in a small town... a very familiar small town.
There was only one last thing Souji needed to confirm their present location. He moved wordlessly to the mailbox near the gateway in the fence.
Naoto, I need your pen-light.
H-huh? Naoto blinked dully, but complied, fumbling for the tool with numb fingertips.
Souji grasped it and pushed the top, turning the lamp on and shining the bright light against the side of the mailbox, reading the Japanese characters etched upon it.
...Shirogane Estate, Souji read aloud, frowning as he turned off the pen-light and slipped it into his pocket. I knew it.
Dude, no way! yelled Yosuke, running over to confirm the information. This has gotta be a joke, right?!
Yeah! agreed Chie, shaking her head in denial. Why would the Rift lead to Naoto-kun's house?! She gasped as an idea struck her. Oh! Maybe we're still in the TV World?
I dunno, said Kanji doubtfully. This place feels different.
What do you mean, Kanji-kun? asked Yukiko, genuinely interested.
It's too familiar to me, explained Kanji. Like... too real, you know what I'm sayin'?
But I can still summon Himiko! cried Rise, looking as confused as everyone else. Our Personas still work, so this has to be the TV World, right?
Souji leaped in surprise as he heard a familiar beep go off in his pants pocket. Reaching inside, he withdrew his cellphone, feeling his stomach churn as his eyes fells on counts of thirty-eight missed calls and twenty-two new voicemails. Discreetly returning the device to his pocket, Souji turned to Teddie, who was sniffing the air, the bear's usual response to the need of finding one's way when lost.
This isn't your home, is it, Teddie? said Souji, already knowing the answer.
Not at all, Sensei, replied Teddie, looking grim. But it doesn't smell like your world, either. Something's not ri--
Hey! Where the hell have you all been?!
Everyone whirled around toward the fence, and Chie shrieked in panic as she recognized the voice, and face, of Detective Ryotaro Dojima, the stern man standing at the front gate and throwing it open in his anger.
What's the big idea, Satonaka?! yelled Dojima, glaring at her fiercely. No word at all from any of you for two whole days! Do you know how worried your parents have been?! How worried Nanako and I have been?!
What?! Two days?! Yukiko cried in shock. But we weren't even away that long! It had to have been five or six hours at the most!
I'm so sorry, Dojima-san! said Chie, bowing low. Something came up, and we had to--
It doesn't matter now, growled Dojima, looking down the road. We have more important things to worry about at the moment, and we need every able person we can get.
Souji followed his uncle's gaze, and his eyes widened in panic as he noticed a familiar tear in the sky that crackled with purple energy that split apart a very familiar-looking hill.
Dammit! Kanji cursed loudly, his fist hitting the stone fence. I thought we left that freakin' Rift behind us!
That's where Yasogami High School should be! interjected Yosuke, staring at the new Rift with a stupefied expression. What the hell's going on here?!
That's what I'd like to know! hollered Dojima, forcing the others into an uncomfortable silence. You all know something, and one of you had better start talking, or so help me, I'll--
Oh, NO!! Sensei, they're coming! A lot of them! There's too many for us to--
Calm down, Teddie! yelled Souji, running up to the bear and holding onto his shoulders. What's-- .No! You're kidding!
Shadows, Sensei! Shadows!!
They were on top of them before they knew what happened. Winged raven-like Shadows carrying flaming lanterns flew over the roof of the Shirogane Estate and dive-bombed the group, forcing them to fall prone onto the ground. Dojima leaped to the side, shock and horror on his face at the appearance of the strange creatures.
Dammit! cursed Yosuke, looking up at the flock of Shadows in frustration. There's a lot more than twenty! We can't beat them all, and if we used our Personas, we'd be the perfect targets!
D-daddy?! Big bro?!
Souji felt time stop as he recognized the voice that rang in his ears. Looking out across the street over the fence, he saw Nanako staring at him in pained horror.
But the Shadows heard her too.
The flock switched their focus to the defenseless twelve-year-old girl, moving in a large mass toward her.
No! Nanako, run! yelled Souji, forgetting everything else. Fear consumed him, and he knew he'd never summon Izanagi in time to save her. Get out of here! Run away now!!
Nanako didn't move. Her face remained slightly surprised by the huge oncoming group of Shadows flying right at her.
Souji heard the muffled yells of the others, even his uncle screaming Nanako's name.
It was too late.
Then Nanako smiled, her hair falling down over her eyes.
Souji felt his heart skip a beat. It can't be---!!
The girl's grin widened into an almost demented leer, her hand extended to grasp a glowing blue card that had materialized out of thin air. The piece of paper burst into bright blue flames, illuminating the cityscape around them, and a shining woman emerged from nothingness behind Nanako. She was dressed in a flowing kimono of pinks and crimsons, and carried a regal quality about her. A long golden staff rested in her hands, and her solid blue eyes flashed with the energy of the Justice Arcana.
Lifting the staff, an explosive energy radiated from it, and the deep, womanly voice of the Persona carried so that all present could hear it.
I am thou... and thou art I. I am Tatsuhime, the ancestral Guardian Spirit of Inaba.
Just like the Shrine, thought Souji to himself as the thick gathering of Shadows disintegrated by a tremendous blast of Almighty energy, a shimmering cloud of blue sparks the only trace left of them. The royal Persona gave a respectful bow to all present, and vanished as quickly as she had appeared.
...Nanako? Dojima said, his eyes wide in complete shock. What... what did you do..?
Nanako rushed over to her father, dropping next to him and wrapping her arms around his neck in a tight hug. Daddy, I'm sorry! I... I followed you because I was worried, and... when I saw those things going after you, I... She sniffled, trying to hold back tears. I wanted to protect you, Daddy! I didn't know what to do, but... then it called to me. My Persona called to me, so I... I answered.
Persona? Dojima blinked, confused, but visibly relieved. It... Hell, what am I saying? He held Nanako tightly, returning her embrace. Thank you, Nanako. You really saved my life just now. I.. don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't been here.
Nanako giggled, looking quite pleased with herself.
I definitely didn't see that coming, grinned Yosuke as he rose to his feet, proceeding to help Chie to hers.
I don't think any of us did, Yosuke-kun, said Rise seriously. But now what do we do? If we stay here, more Shadows will come after us.
And where'd they all come from, anyway? asked Kanji, rubbing his shoulder. He had hit the stone fence awkwardly when he had dived. I don't think they all just popped up outta thin air.
Dojima-san, said Chie, moving next to her superior and helping him up along with Nanako, maybe you and Nanako-chan should go back home. We can take care of things here, and Nanako-chan can protect you from the Shadows if they come after you.
Daddy, didn't everyone evacuate to Junes? said Nanako. I want to go guard the entrance and protect them!
That's... a very good idea, Nanako, said Dojima, gazing proudly down at his daughter. We can go gather up any stragglers while we're at it.
Leave it to me, Chie-chan! said Nanako reassuringly. You all be careful, too. Especially you, Big Bro. Naoto-kun would never forgive you if-- She blinked, looking around in worry. Hey, where is Naoto-kun?
...I'm here, said the sleuth, leaning against one of the trees, her eyes averted. I'm... fine. Just fine.
Souji kept his gaze on Naoto as he turned, and he saw her blank face turn pained and stricken. Turning back to Nanako as though he had noticed nothing, he moved forward and gave her a strong hug. I'll be fine. I promise.
Nanako grinned, and Dojima patted Souji firmly on the back.
Hey... in case something happens to us, I want you to know I've always been proud of you. He turned to the rest of the group, his eyes lingering on Naoto for a few second. All of you. Heh, even you, Satonaka.
I'll take that as a complement! grinned Chie, and Dojima smiled back.
Oh, one last thing... Dojima reached into his pocket and handed Souji a folded newspaper page. My detective's intuition went wild before I left the house, and I... took this with me. Something tells me you need to see this... The detective's gaze moved back to Naoto, and pity flooded his eyes. And from the looks of things, it seems I was right.
Thanks, uncle. See you two soon.
Souji watched his uncle and cousin move quickly down the hill toward Junes for a few moments, and then looked down at the folded article, his curiosity growing by the second. Uncle's instincts are usually spot-on. I wonder what he...
The silverette retrieved the penlight from his pocket and turned it on, shining the light upon the newspaper scrap. Almost instantly, he felt a numbness spread through his entire body as he read short portions of the article, the sentences barely registering in his brain.
'...a kind and virtuous man, skilled in his craft...'
Okay, I think we need to regroup here. I--... Partner? Souji heard Yosuke speaking, yet didn't. What's up, Souji?
'...admired by all, a true genius of the profession. Money did not matter as long as he was able to help those in need with his prowess...'
Hey, Senpai! Souji thought he felt Kanji move closer to him. Whatcha lookin' at? Is it somethin' impor--
'...killed during his last case. The Inaba community will miss him dearly, and our deepest condolences are extended to his next of kin, his granddaughter Naoto.'
Oh, God! Souji thought he heard Rise shout. No! NO!!
You mean... he's... Yukiko may have choked on her words, unable to speak.
This... this isn't right! Souji could have heard pain in Chie's voice, but just barely. It's.. not true, is it?!
Souji couldn't feel the tears falling down his cheeks, his eyes misting enough that all he could see with any clarity was the title of the article and the colored picture of a kind, gentle old man wearing spectacles. Even his eyes were clear through the haze, looking back at the silverette with a very familiar shade of silver-blue.
Why...? Why didn't you...
'Misanori Shirogane: Born March 16th, 1934. Died October 6th, 2014'
'All That Shall Remain is Love.'
Everything clicked into place.
Naoto... Souji turned, staring at the detective with silver eyes filled with tears he could not feel. Why didn't you tell me...?
Naoto Shirogane stared at Souji and her friends, all of whom were looking at her in shock and horror, as though she were a cornered animal. Her back pressed against the tree she had been leaning on mere moments ago, and her mouth moved silently, trying desperately to provide an explanation that could not, and would not, come.
Persona 4 FYL (Five Years Later) Chapter Eight: Yukiko
"I'm gonna go ask her."
Yosuke blinked as Chie whispered next to him as the group continued to march toward the Rift. "What? Now? But Chie... What if Yukiko doesn't wanna talk?"
"She won't have a choice," Chie insisted, folding her arms over her chest. "I'll slap her silly if she gives me that bull about her problems not being important again!"
Yosuke appeared anxious, but nodded. "Alright. I guess I'll keep my eyes open for the big ugly, then."
"You do that." Chie grinned. "But don't be a daredevil, okay?"
"Hey, that's my line!" Yosuke winked.
"I know." Chie winked back as she moved toward Yukiko in the line, bounding between Teddie and Rise, who were busy looking for the penguin in their animal cracker boxes.
"Hey, Rise-chan? What's a penguin?" asked Teddie, genuinely curious.
"Oh!" Rise blinked, unprepared for the question. "Well, um... It's a bird that... swims?"
"Ohhhh..." Teddie nodded. "What does it do to dry it's feathers off?"
Rise giggled softly. "They don't HAVE feathers, silly!"
"Then how come it's a bird? Birds are supposed to fly, right?" Teddie scratched his head, confused.
"Not all birds do, Teddie!" Rise replied. "Ostriches don't fly! They walk, even though they DO have feathers."
"I bet ostriches still want to fly, though..."
Chie blinked as Yukiko spoke, her insides lurching. I knew it... Souji-kun, I hope you're listening to this... "What do you mean, Yukiko?" she asked slowly, wary of provoking her friend too early.
"I mean," said Yukiko, turning to Chie and gazing at her sourly, "that ostriches are probably jealous of other birds."
"..Jealous?" said Teddie, his curiosity piqued even further.
"Jealous of the fact that others can fly, while they're stuck on the ground without any means of escape." Yukiko's eyes were piercing her best friend to the core, and Chie felt vulnerable under the steady, unwavering gaze.
Everyone stopped to turn toward the two women, and Souji cursed under his breath as he realized what had happened. He nodded to Yosuke, who nodded back, and their hands drifted toward their weapons instinctively.
"Wait... me?" Chie shook her head, perplexed. "I'm not... Yukiko, what's WRONG with you?!" She couldn't hold back her frustration any longer, and the question had fled her lips before she could catch herself.
The red light flashed, followed by the clap of thunder. Yosuke cursed vehemently to the graying landscape as he realized what had happened, but Chie and Yukiko stood facing each other, the black-haired beauty yelling at her over the rush of sound.
"What's wrong?! I'll tell you what's wrong, Chie! I'm SICK and TIRED of being stuck working at the Inn, day in and day out! I'm sick to DEATH of having NO time to myself, of having to wait hand and foot on people who are smart enough to help themselves!"
"Whaa??" Chie stammered, clearly at a loss. "Yukiko, I-"
"Shut up, Chie!" Yukiko shot back at her, her temper rising. "Just shut up! What do YOU know about how I feel? Just go back to getting cozy with Yosuke, and leave me alone!"
"Is THAT it?!" cried Chie, positively dumbfounded. "You're jealous of-"
"YES, that's it!" snarled Yukiko, causing Chie to take a step back. "You're FREE, Chie! Free to have those moments of happiness! Free to enjoy the simple things in life! I'm STUCK, Chie! I have NO freedom! AT ALL!" She stomped her foot, a small cloud of dust rising from the gesture, her eyes glistening with newly-formed tears. "So just go back to Yosuke, and have all the fun you can possibly-"
".....I can see....."
Chie squealed in shock as the indistinct, rasping voice thundered over Yukiko's, stumbling back further as the black-cloaked horror seemed to materialize in a cloud of black vapor. Yosuke caught her before she fell completely, trying his best to steady her. Souji made his way around the other side of the line as Yukiko's eyes widened, her pupils dilating, her body forced to turn toward the faceless specter as it began to shift and morph... The hair was long and flowing, yet ragged and unkempt, held in place by a hairband across the top of the scalp. The round face became hollow and thin, the eyes sunken and nonexistent, the piercing beads of red light flaring to life.
Yukiko screamed as she beheld her ghoulish copy, compelled to do so against her will, unable to look away from the grisly, black Yukiko that grinned at her with an air of superiority.
"Poor, poor Yukiko..." sneered the double, its sharp teeth bared as Yukiko's beautiful voice was mangled by the rasping undertone, forcing it to resemble the wail of a banshee. "Stuck in a downward spiral with no way out. How pitiful can you get?"
"...Are you... me...?" Yukiko felt cold sweat against her skin, her entire body shivering from the surge of emotion within her.
"Nope. Sorry!" The Fear Yukiko laughed. "Not that easy this time! Poor little bird's still stuck in the cage, and no Prince is going to come and save you this time! And even if one DID, he wouldn't be able to break the chains holding you to the Inn!"
"Ch-chains?!" squeaked Yukiko feebly.
"Chains!" Her dark self repeated again, clearly enjoying itself. "Never participating, doomed to be an observer for ever and ever! All those happy couples who come into the Inn, all those tourists on vacation! When was the last time YOU enjoyed a vacation, Yukiko??"
"...I... not..." Yukiko couldn't speak, her heart heavy with anguish.
"Even CHIE'S got more freedom than you! Face it, Yukiko! Your efforts to become independent have FAILED!!" The cloak shrunk once more as the specter landed on the ground, transforming into a black dress of morbid elegance. "All those certifications, all that practice with cooking, for what?! To be TRAPPED at the Inn like the caged bird you're doomed to be! Doomed to REMAIN!!"
"NO!!" Yukiko screamed the word, hugging herself tightly as she fell to her knees onto the frozen gray grass.
"Just accept it!" the black-clothed doppelganger insisted. "You haven't changed!!"
"....I... I have...." Yukiko wept bitterly, staring up at her wasted self pleadingly. "...I did..!!"
"Shut the HELL up!" shouted Chie as she rushed forward and stood between the two Yukikos, her arms outstretched. "Leave her alone!"
"Ch-Chie...?" Yukiko stared at Chie's back in disbelief. "..Even.. even after I..."
"Ahhh... the prince comes at last, huh Yukiko?" the black-cloaked menace taunted, her laughter almost a screech now. "This it exactly what I meant! Undeniable proof that NOTHING has changed at all! So go on, then! Let your bitch-prince protect you while you hide behind her like a-"
Yukiko forced the words from the tightness of her throat, her hand drifting to the closed fan at her side. "What... gives you the right... to degrade my best friend like that...?" She glared at her shadowy mimic with grim determination. "She doesn't deserve such treatment! Not from me, not from you, not from anybody!"
"Then come at me, Yukiko!" grinned the ghoul, withdrawing a wicked looking black fan with Mudo runes carved upon its angular, metallic surface. "Come be HER prince for a change, even though you'll undoubtedly FAIL!"
"Failure's not an option I'm willing to consider!" shouted Yukiko as she threw her fan at her monstrous self. It bent backward, somersaulting to evade the attack as the fan returned to its owner. Yukiko jumped to her feet and charged after her opponent, determined not to lose.
"Let us handle it this time, guys!" said Chie to Souji and Yosuke, who had come up behind her. "We should be able to handle-"
"No way!" said Yosuke firmly. "You two aren't the only ones who wanna change!"
"And besides," added Souji with a smile, "what kind of friends would we be if we just stood and watched?"
Chie couldn't suppress a smile.
As the three ran forward to help, Yukiko and her vile mimic were at a stalemate. For every attack Yukiko threw at it, the doppelganger managed to dance and swerve around the blows like a demonic ballerina, arching its back and bending its limbs in ways that resembled a contortionist's performance. The impasse was broken, however, when Yukiko's guard was overextended and her opponent sliced at her with the metallic fan, ripping a long gash into the sleeve of her red sweater.
"No! Yukiko!" Chie approached from the side, her left leg thrusting outward. The dark Yukiko dodged it, but Chie persisted with rapid combinations of front, round and heel kicks, pushing her backward even though nothing landed successfully.
"Are you alright?!" yelled Yosuke, reaching to examine Yukiko's sleeve.
"I'm fine..!" gasped Yukiko, holding a stitch in her side. "It didn't draw blood!"
Chie snarled, frustrated that her attacks wouldn't connect. Calling forth the tarot card, she smashed it with a well-placed spinkick and called Suzuka Gongen into being, who lashed out with its naginata. The specter parried one of the blows, but was knocked off-balance by a second strike, forcing it to flip backwards out of range of the Persona's strikes. Yosuke summoned Susano-O, who threw a massive Garudyne attack in an attempt to capitalize on the situation, but the gaunt creature waved it's fan confidently and deflected the surge of air into the skies above.
"What's WITH this thing?!" shouted Yosuke in irritation.
"Were those PERSONAS?!" cried Yukiko in disbelief. "How did you two get them back?!"
"We'll explain later!" shouted Souji as he rushed forward and thrust his sword at the metal fan in the doppelganger's hands, trying to disarm it. But the dark Yukiko twisted around again, leaping into the air and throwing the fan down at Souji, who was forced to dive out of harm's way. Landing on his back, he summoned Izanagi and directed it to surge a Megidolaon spell toward the airborne enemy. The shimmering energy exploded around the banshee, causing her to plummet to the ground and land hard in a cloud of smoke and sparks.
"This one's mine!" shouted Chie, who rushed forward without thinking. "I'll stomp its face in and end it now!"
"No, wait!" shouted Yosuke in alarm. "Yukiko needs to-"
But as Chie brought her sandaled heel down at the dark Yukiko's exposed face, it caught the attack in her clawed hands and twisted, causing Chie to lose her balance as she spun rapidly around, falling to the ground with a yelp.
The ghoul stood quickly, raising it's fan high in the air as it prepared to bear down upon the stunned Chie. "Good night, sweet prince!" it cackled shrilly.
But it screamed as something clung to its hair and spun it around on the spot. Yukiko had come up behind it, and she glared at it with the most intense look she could muster. And without a word, she slammed her clenched fist into the doppelganger's stunned and confused face, her closed fan clenched tightly between her fingers. She followed it up by yanking down hard on the hair in her hands, pulling her dark copy's head with it. At the same time, she quickly raised her knee, slamming her opponent's head into it with a loud crack.
Covering it's face in it's gnarled hands, the creature began to deteriorate as it stumbled blindly away from the battle, wisps of black smoke rising from it as it fell to it's knees. Yukiko's voice was gargling harshly from within it's throat, fading quickly as it raised a clawed hand to the gray heavens, leaving behind the harsh, rattling voice it had started out with.
".....fff....fffffeeeearrr...." It fell forward and exploded in a cloud of black vapor, the bulk of it's body melting into the grassy soil beneath with a loud hiss, vanishing without trace. The stillness returned, broken only by Yukiko's heavy breathing.
"..What a.. ham..." said Yukiko softly, causing herself to giggle at her own joke. She fell to her knees next to Chie with a heavy sigh.
"Yukiko... That was awesome...!"
Yukiko turned around to see Chie lying on the ground and staring up at her in awe.
"You.. really think so?" blinked Yukiko, blushing slightly. "I... I only did what I thought you would have done, Chie.."
Yosuke and Souji moved over to the girls and knelt beside them, Yosuke by Chie, and Souji next to Yukiko.
"Are you hurt?" asked Yosuke as he helped Chie sit up.
"No, I was just... winded, that's all.." Chie hugged Yosuke tightly, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. "Thanks, though..."
"How about you?" said Souji, resting his hand gently upon Yukiko's shoulder. "How do you feel?"
"I... I'm not sure..." mumbled Yukiko, who embraced her friend and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for being there for me, Souji-kun..." The two friends released each other, and Yukiko turned to Chie with an expression of deepest regret. "I.. said some awful things to you, Chie... I'm so sorry..."
"Oh, Yukiko...!" Chie crawled forward and threw her arms around her best friend, who returned the hug with equal measure. "How can I be mad at you when you just saved my life..? I mean, I should have protected YOU.. but it was the other way around! I failed-"
"You DIDN'T fail!" Yukiko pushed Chie back far enough so that she could look into her eyes. "Chie, you DID protect me! You protected me by making me realize I needed to make a CHOICE... And.. I chose to protect YOU for a change!"
"I.." Chie sniffled as she embraced her dear friend again. "I'm glad... I can count on you to be MY prince, too!"
"But you already HAVE a prince, Chie..." Yukiko looked away with a sigh. "You can't have two princes, you know."
"But.. I love both! One as my best friend, and the other... Well.." Chie turned and gave Yosuke wink. "One who'll buy me steak!"
"Yeah, I'm REALLY looking forward to THAT," muttered Yosuke, causing both girls to giggle. He winked at Souji conspiratorially, however.
"Are you in the mood to talk, Yukiko?" asked Souji as he got more comfortable where he sat. "I'm sure you have a lot you need to sort out..."
"If... if that's okay..." Yukiko looked nervously around at her three friends. "I.. didn't want to be a burden."
"You're not a burden!" exclaimed Chie, holding her friend's hand. "Come on, start from the beginning. We'll sort this out in no time."
"A-alright..." Yukiko sighed, closing her eyes and gathering her thoughts. "Well... as you all know, I was thrilled to take over the Inn once I was finished with high school... I honestly WANTED to do it, because... well, I loved the people, and I loved the experience.." She ran her hand through her long hair, her face becoming pained. "It was... even FUN at first... I never felt so fulfilled in my life!"
She shook her head, looking at Chie in utter confusion. "But.. what happened to me?"
"Only you can answer that, Amagi-san."
Yukiko let out a yelp as she looked up to see Hotei standing nearby. Chie and Yosuke both beamed at him, glad that he was there with them again.
"Uhh... m-may I ask your name, sir?" Yukiko said hesitantly, trying to sound polite.
"You may indeed," smiled the old man. "My name is Hotei."
"Hotei...?" Yukiko blinked. "The god of happiness and contentment..?"
"Oh, no, my dear!" Hotei chuckled softly, his eyes twinkling. "I am by no means a god by any stretch of the imagination. I was named after the deity, however, because my parents hoped that it might grant me good fortune, and a full, joyous life."
"Did it?" asked Yosuke, genuinely interested.
"Well, my boy, I daresay it did!" grinned Hotei. "But this moment isn't about me - it's about Amagi-san."
"Oh! You... came to help me?" Yukiko cocked her head to the side slightly.
"Sure he did!" Chie smiled broadly. "He's helped us all so far! And now it's your turn!"
"Go on, my dear," encouraged the elderly gentleman in a gentle voice. "Continue with your reflection."
"Mmm..." Yukiko closed her eyes, looking within her memories. "We all lost touch with each other two years ago, as we've discussed... But.. I guess it was harder for me to cope with than I expected... Everyone was busy living their own lives... You too, Chie.. The police department kept you busy so much that we could only leave voice messages on our cellphones..." She hugged herself, her eyes shutting more tightly. "I... was lonely, and... work dulled the pain... so I immersed myself in it... I guess I went so far as to drown myself in my job..."
"Wait..." Yosuke snapped his fingers as a thought entered his mind. "My music... and Chie's training... and your job? We all set up walls to block out the pain?"
"...It seems that way." Yukiko sighed deeply as she bowed her head. "But.. that's no excuse... We should have been able to talk about our pain.. We should have been close enough to not have to resort to putting up walls..."
"Forgive me, Amagi-san," piped up Hotei as he moved closer to Yukiko. "Did you always wear your hair in a bun?"
"Huh?" Yukiko gasped, startled. "N-no... I only started it after I took over the Inn... It's easier to manage this way, and it doesn't get in the way."
"Would it be too much trouble for me to examine your hairband?" Hotei asked softly.
"I'd... rather you didn't," said Yukiko softly. "It's... difficult to put it back up once I remove the band..."
"Ahhh, I see..." Hotei's eyes twinkled. "Well... maybe it's high time you 'chose' to let your hair down, hm?"
"No, that's not..." Yukiko began, but stopped for a moment, considering. "...Wait... 'chose'...?" She spoke more to herself than to anyone else, her hand rising to touch the tight bun on the back of her head. "I can... choose... Of course.. I should have known..."
"There are very few times in our lives where we cannot choose which direction we can walk," said Hotei gently. "If we allow ourselves to ride the rising and falling waves of Fortune, then we do nothing to better ourselves or those we care about. Actions always speak louder than words or intentions."
"Actions..." murmured Yukiko, her eyes shining with understanding. "I didn't choose to act.. so I was at the mercy of things I could have controlled..."
"Yosuke and I were the same way, Yukiko..." whispered Chie. "We had the ability to choose, but we never did..."
"Yet choice is only one step on the path," continued Hotei. "You must commit yourself to walking that path, and move forward with your head held high."
"Then that's what I'll do." Yukiko smiled brightly, looking at everyone in turn. "I'm needed here right now... The inn can get along without me for a little while. And then, once everything's settled down... I think I'll go on a vacation!"
"Good for you, Yukiko!" said Chie happily. "I'll help, if you want!"
"Me too," grinned Yosuke. "Although this really isn't the season for a decent local vacation."
"It doesn't have to be exotic," said Yukiko with a slight giggle. "Just... time away from work with my friends will be more than enough..." She looked up at Hotei and smiled, and he returned it easily. "I always had a choice, even when I believed I really didn't... I depended on the others to make the first move when I should have taken the initiative. We all share the same pain, it seems. But that's all the more reason for us to cope with that pain, and cope together as a group." She nodded firmly, looking at Souji with affection. "I chose to go back to the way I was without realizing it... But now I choose to move forward instead, and keep my mind focused on the here and now."
Yukiko's face was suddenly illuminated with a soft blue light as a tarot card began to materialize in front of her. She gasped at it, unable to look away as she reached out her hand to touch it... It shattered, the mystical flame rising into the air and forming into a being of pure light that radiated warmth down upon the entire group, easing the tiredness and fatigue from their bodies.
"Amaterasu..." whispered an awestruck Yukiko.
"The chains have been severed," said the Persona in a gentle whisper. "Your heart has once more been opened to the truth."
"...The truth..." repeated Yukiko in amazement as Amaterasu vanished in a blaze of blue flame.
"Pardon me for asking," said Souji to a beaming Hotei, "But do you know why the enemy's going after us in this particular order?"
"You mean the order in which your group obtained their Personas?" grinned the old man.
"How-" began Yukiko, but Yosuke interrupted her.
"You see?" he laughed. "I told you he knows way too much!"
"I would rather say I know enough, Hana-san." Hotei's eyes shimmered vibrantly as though lit by their own inner light. "But I should correct myself. The enemy is attacking your friends in the order which you forged your hearts' connections."
"Then I was right..." said Souji coolly. "It's trying to sever our bond with each other."
"But I do believe it has underestimated you," said Hotei seriously. "Your own heart is strong, Seta-san, and so it cannot truly combat your friends at its full strength. Their connection with you remains palpable, even if the others within the circle have been partially sealed."
"Then we need to make sure the others are protected, too!" said Yukiko firmly. "We'll help them repair their connections! Right?"
"You got it," said Yosuke with a nod. "We can't let them deal with their problems alone."
"But we need to get out of here first!" said Chie as she turned back to Yukiko. "C'mon! Throw your limits away!"
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Yukiko shook her head, confused.
"She means you need to throw away the item you have on that symbolizes your personal limitations," sighed Yosuke. "You could have explained it better, you know, Chie."
"You have no room to talk, buster!" retorted Chie, fuming slightly.
"My limits..." Yukiko reached up to touch the red hairband that held her bun in place. "...I had this since high school... I always wore it that year. Remember, Souji-kun?"
Souji nodded, remembering the hairband's constant presence on Yukiko's head throughout his hectic year as a transfer student. "A lot of memories tied to it, huh?"
"But... that's your favorite one, too..." sighed Chie. "I got that for you because it was red, and it looked good on you!"
"I remember!" giggled Yukiko brightly. "But I have others like this one, too. And besides... I need to make some new memories, anyway."
Yukiko pulled the band from its place around the bun, allowing her hair to tumble down her back in an ebony cascade. She stared down at the accessory for a few moments, and then tossed it over her shoulder with a soft smile.
Yukiko, Chie, and Yosuke became as gray as the others in the group, leaving Souji and Hotei alone in the frozen world.
"I apologize, Seta-san," said Hotei gravely, "But I needed to speak to you a moment in private."
"Is it about the next trial?" asked Souji, and Hotei nodded affirmatively.
"It is not a test that is centered around one of your friends, however. The enemy is beginning to realize the danger you represent to its mission, and it is sending an aspect of itself specifically for more direct combat."
"Which aspect is it?" said Souji, concerned.
"It is the aspect of Anger," said Hotei. "You must pit your current strength against it and defeat it without fail. It may very well turn your own friends against each other, but you must remain vigilant and find the connection that will bring about it's end."
"A connection? With us?"
"Indeed. All of you are deeply connected to this entire ordeal, as I'm certain you've deduced by now."
"And how deep is this connection with Naoto?" Souji couldn't refrain from asking. He had to see how much the old man knew.
He didn't expect Hotei's face to soften, or his voice to falter, and yet they did. "...She is at the heart of the matter. A great pain has infected the very core of her being, a pain that she foolishly desires to carry alone." Hotei stared firmly at Souji, his eyes unusually serious... and somehow familiar... "Only you can set her free, Souji."
"I understand," said Souji, rising to his feet.
"Very well, then..." Hotei smiled again. "I wish you luck, my dear boy... Godspeed."
And Hotei was gone once more, color flooding the TV world yet again as time returned to its normal state.
"H-hey!" said Kanji in alarm. "How did you all get over there?!"
"Yeah!" exclaimed Rise. "You were in front of me and Teddie a second ago! Then you just popped up over there!"
"What's going on?" said Naoto crossly. "What are you all doing that's causing this to occur?"
"Nothing!" said Yosuke. "It's that.. fear-thing! It's... stopping time or something!"
"...Stopping time?" said Teddie. "...Hm. Interesting."
"Wait! You believe them?!" said Kanji, his temper rising.
"...Well... they wouldn't lie to their friends," said Teddie simply. He turned to Souji and smiled. "Right, Sensei?"
"Right," said Souji with a smile. "But I think we need to-"
"We NEED to talk about what's happening!" said Rise irritatedly. "Don't just blow us off, Souji-kun!"
"Damn straight." Kanji walked forward toward Souji, his face reddening as his anger began to peak. "You're gonna tell us RIGHT now what the HELL else has been going on!"
"I have to admit, I'm curious about this, as well," said Naoto calmly. "We can stop here for a moment while you explain, Seta-san."
"...Seta-san?" said Souji, dumbstruck. He hadn't heard Naoto call him by his last name in a long time, and it shook him further to see Naoto look away, seeming to realize the same thing herself. But he felt that something else was wrong now... something that made his entire body feel uncomfortably warm... almost TOO warm...
"Uhhh.... guys?" Teddie's voice was nervous. "I... think we need to-"
"Shut up, Teddie!" yelled Kanji, a vein pulsing in his temple. "We're gonna get to the bottom of this right no-"
"...It's too late!" cried Teddie. "Run for it!"
Souji looked up, his attention drawn to what appeared to be a fiery meteorite that was plummeting straight toward the group's position. Instinctively, he grabbed Kanji around the arm and pulled him along with him as the ball of red-hot flame swerved at the last possible moment, arcing back upward into the sky, a tail of flame trailing along behind it.
"What IS that thing?!" cried Yukiko as she moved closer to Chie, who stared grimly up at the fiery comet.
Souji placed his hand on his sword and tightened his grip. "This... is our first REAL test."
Considering the fact that Chapter Seven was mostly exposition, it was difficult for me to transition into this chapter at the beginning. I'm not sure what I could have written to help smooth that over at the first part of the story, so any suggestions would be helpful.
More connections, and more plot-twists! Yay! Things are getting heated, too! *cough*
As usual, please comment! Well-rounded critiques are always appreciated!
You've gone too far this time Rise!!!! No you've gone too far by calling me a no figure bimbo!!! Rise it was your falut that all of your grandmother's dishes fell! Well maybe if you hadn't stacked up all of those dishes up one after another! I have a strong figure and my grandma worked her butt off buying those dishes! OK I'm sorry but release me from the chains and get me out of here! Huh!? W-W-Why am I wearing a woman's school uniform!? Ooh your tomboy uniform wasn't showing the sweet spots. Sweet spots? Yeah Naoto, Rise said slowly lifting up Naoto's shirt exposing her bellybotton.
You know the question Teddie asked you at the beautie contest at the last festival week? Uuh yeah he asked if I was ticklish, Naoto was slowing down on saying ticklish with a surpised revalation look on her face. W-W-Wait you don't mean-- Tickling you?, yes Naoto I do beilive so, Rise slowly in an erotic fashion take of both of Naoto's shoes exposing her delicate black long sock covered feet. Ooh Naoto I can see that the socks you wear show your toes prefectly, Rise stroke her two fingers upward on Naoto's foot. AHHH
Oooooo so you are ticklish I see! N-No I'm not y-you just s-surprised me that's all, Naoto said in a tone that clearly shows the opposite of her intended explanation. Your such a horrible liar Naoto...... tickle,nickle,pickle! Rise tickles up,down,left, and right on Naoto's ribs so fast that Rise's arms look more like cartoonish blurs!
AHAAHAAHAHAAHAHHHAHAHAH AAAAAHHHHHHHH AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH RISE I'LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!, AAAAAANYTHING JUST STOP TICKLING MEEEEEEEE PLEEEEAAAASSSSSEEEEEEE!!!!! No can do but I might go a little easier on you if you do, Rise told Naoto with idea popping in her head that would definently annoy Naoto! OOOOKAAAAAAY I-IT'S A DEEEEEAAAAAL HAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA JUST SLOW DOWN PLEASE! *sniff* *sniff* What's that smell? I-It's nothing Rise, Naoto stammered with embarrassment. I-It smell like your socks! Naoto's face has gone pinkish blush in to a bright red color of embarrassment.GAAH AHAHAAHAAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHAAHAHA NOOOOOOOOO Your socks feel so moist from all the sweating, Rise stated while she slowly to quickly tickling her feet. Don't worry I won't tell though........I like the smell of sweaty female feet, Rise blused bright red but had a somewhat satisfied look on her face knowing that she was able to tell her secret of having a female foot fetish. *giggle *giggle* Naoto was giggling alot when Rise pokes her sweaty feet. A-a-are you going to stop now? Why so you can tell my secert!? N-No I'm willing to keep your fetish a secret for free, Naoto promised knowing that Rise has a strong trust in her.
Rise was humming a jaunty tune while she was unrolling one of Naoto's socks. W-What are you doing!?, Naoto was getting nervouse at the stituation she was in. PFFT GAAAAH AHAHAHAAHAHAAHAAHA Rise was poking at Naoto's soles and as soon tickling them. AHAHAAHAHAHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH STOP PLEASSE STOP I BEG OF YOOOOOUUUUU STOOOOOOOOOP Hmmmmmmm ohhhh Naoto felt that her toes were sticky but it felt relaxing! Naoto got a glimp's of Rise licking her feet! USE ANOTHER GIRL'S FEET AS A WAY TO RELIEVE YOURSELF! Rise had woken up from her fantasy land and was mad at Naoto from waking her up. You should've have let me worship your nice tasting feet! Rise walked up toward Naoto's bellybotton and did a raspberry right on her naval! AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH NOT THE NAVAL, NOT THE TUM TUM AAANYWHERE BUT MY POOR LITTLE TUM TUM!!!!!! Awww so you called your belly Tum Tum ehh? Naoto face was red than the red before knowing that whlie she was a baby her grandfarther used to play her and shooth her stomach when it ached and she always refered to her stomach as Tum Tum the way her grandfarther used to refer her stomach aswell while she was just a little baby.
Please d-d-don't tell anyone. I won't but in one condition. What is that? You call me master! I-I refesue to call you master! Naoto didn't want to call a foot licking tickle torturer master after the stuff she had did to her! Ether way I'm gonna have to keep my promise!, Rise said with glee! GAAAH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH AHAHAHAAHAHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH Rise was tickling Naoto's armpits mercilessly! Say master! NO GAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA The torture became so intense for Naoto she gave in and screamed continuously! YES MASTER, YES MASTER, YES MASTER, YES MAAAAAASTER!
After the few hours of tickle torture Naoto was released from her imprisionment. *pant* *pant* Weeeel see ya!, Rise ran as fast as she could out Naoto's soundproof attic.
You've just unleased a force you can't handel you hear!? You've better be prepared for whats in store for you the next time were alone!, Naoto's eyes shined with the passion and determination of making Rise pay and suffer;and soon after that quote she fainted without getting up resting from the torture she had indured.
"...Naoto-chan, I think you should stop," Rise Kujikawa mumbled quietly, wincing as she watched her blunette friend stuff yet another forkful of cake into her gaping mouth. All of the dirty plates were really beginning to pile up.
Naoto let out a tiny unladylike burp; she didn't even bother to say 'excuse me'. "Why should I...?"
Rise pointed down at Naoto's stomach, which was already starting to peek out from underneath her shirt. "You're getting kinda big..."
"Hmph," Naoto placed the now-cleaned plate aside and snatched up her tenth piece of vanilla cake, "I'll eat as much as I want, Rise-chan..."
Rise sighed. Ever since their last venture into the TV world, Naoto had been afflicted with a new status effect known as 'Extreme Hunger'. How to cure it and just how long it lasts was still being studied up upon by Souji, Yosuke and the others; Rise was left behind to make sure that Naoto was kept full and happy until they found the antidote. So, Rise had ordered three large wedding cakes to be brought over to her house for Naoto to feast on. Of course, Rise hadn't expected Naoto to actually finish them all, and yet, as she watched Naoto's gut swell and swell, she was beginning to think otherwise.
Naoto reached down and patted her belly. "Mmm...this cake is very delicious, Rise-chan. Where did you get it...?"
Rise shrugged and replied, "I dunno...from that little bakery two blocks down from here..."
"Ah, I see! Well, if you ever happen to go there again, please give my compliments to the chef!" Naoto smiled widely; her face looked a bit rounder, and her cheeks were becoming puffy.
"...Okay..." Rise sighed again.
Taking another piece of cake, Naoto gave up on using her fork and simply shoved the whole thing into her mouth. Rise's mouth fell open as she watched Naoto greedily stuff herself like this. It was so incredibly awkward, seeing her usually serious and sophisticated friend act in such an undignified manner. Suddenly, there was a loud snap, and Naoto glanced down. Two of the bottom buttons of her shirt had snapped off, allowing a swollen flab of pudge to pour out onto her lap. Both Naoto and Rise gasped in unison.
"Oh dear...this isn't good..." Naoto remarked, pressing her slightly chubby hand against her slightly chubby face, "These school uniforms are expensive..."
"Hmm," Rise scratched her chin, "Maybe it'll be best if you stop eating for now, don't you think?"
Naoto scoffed. "Hah! Oh, Rise-chan, don't be so ridiculous! I'll just take my shirt off so it won't be damaged any further!" Rise smacked her palm against her face. 'Ugh...'
Naoto unbuttoned what remained of her shirt, and tossed it over her shoulder, leaving her wearing only rather tight bandage wrappings from the waist up. Rise could actually see Naoto's huge breasts begin to pour out over the sides of the wrappings as they grew fatter and fatter from all of her eating. When the first cake was more than halfway done, Naotos pants began to tear, so she removed them as well. Now, the blunette was busy stuffing herself with cake while sitting in her rapidly-shrinking underwear. Her panties could barely be seen, hidden within the flab of both her gut and her widening thunder thighs. Her belly now looked like she had swallowed a soccer ball; large, round and swollen. Once all the fat began to spread out, however, it would surely take on a more flabby form.
'Hmm...but that'll take at least until tomorrow, won't it?' Rise figured. Then, just as she had thought that, Naoto's body began to fatten all over. What was really freaky about it was that Rise could actually see the fat spreading out within Naoto, causing every inch of her body to grow larger. Naoto was completely unaware as she continued to eat. She lowered a chubby hand and scratched her belly, which jiggled slightly at her touch. Her bloated butt cheeks were pushing into the handles of the chair, and her breast wrappings were already near the breaking point. Naoto belched again, this time much louder. Her cheeks were really puffy now, and a double chin was becoming visible.
'Oh my god...does this 'Extreme Hunger' effect quicken the speed of fat spreading within the body, as well?'
This continued on late into the night, and Rise was eventually forced to knock Naoto out with a frying pan to keep the fattening girl from eating herself to death. Souji and the others had still yet to return with any good news, and while Naoto was lying unconscious, her body still swelling with fat, Rise decided to just try a little bit of the cake. However, little did she realize that because she was using the same fork as Naoto, she would get any status effects that the blunette had possessed...including the 'Extreme Hunger' effect...
Staring over Naoto's shoulder, Yukiko watched in awe as the bluenette unsheathed what resembled a small, thin brown stick from her pocket, and promptly stuck one end in between her lips.
"...I didn't know you liked pocky..." Yukiko remarked.
Naoto shrugged. "It's alright, I suppose. Kanji-kun bought me some yesterday, and it wasn't half bad. Do you want to try it, Amagi-san?"
Yukiko smiled. "I can have a taste? Really? You don't mind?"
"Sure...I don't see a problem with it..."
Smirking, Yukiko leaned over, and gently bit down on the other end of Naoto's pocky stick. Naoto's eyes widened, and her face flushed bright crimson. From this position, she could see the raven-haired girl's tongue running along the edge of the pocky stick, and that only made her cheeks become even redder. Yukiko brushed back her hair to keep it from flowing over her shoulders.
Snapping off a tiny chunk of the pocky stick with her teeth, Yukiko continued to smirk cockily like the seductress she secretly was. "Mmm...it DOES tastes good..."
Naoto turned her face away, feeling terribly embarrassed. "That, uh...wasn't really what I meant when I said you could have a taste. I wonder if that counts as some sort of indirect kiss between us...? I really hope it was..." Naoto mumbled.
"It only is if you eat the whole pocky stick..." Yukiko told her, and Naoto gasped.
Naoto quickly finished off the rest of the pocky stick, which was now dripping with Yukiko's saliva.
'...Hmm...her saliva tastes good...' Naoto thought with a slight nod of approval.
Sitting down next to Naoto now, Yukiko leaned so closely that their noses almost touched, and whispered, "How about...we try that again...but without the pocky this time?"