Chapter 42: Paradigm Shift
"You told him we were all inside the TV?! What the hell were you thinking?!"
"Hey, I didn't know for sure, alright?" Kanji huffed defensively. "It's not like I was going to bring him inside, anyway."
"That's not the point!" Yosuke yelled. "You can't just go around telling people these things, especially your cop chaperone! No one in their right mind would believe it!"
"Why wouldn't they? It's the truth, isn't it? And we all saw it just now."
Yosuke gave up. He groaned angrily and slammed his head against the coffee table before gripping his head in both hands; one to tear out a fistful of hair, another to turn the volume up on his headphones. Whichever worked better to blank out his mind.
Naoto didn't look any more composed himself. Arms crossed, eyes forced shut, and enough all-around tense body language that one could see a vein pulse on his head. The girls of the Investigation Team gauged him with a mix of worry and fear. For that reason, they sat farther away from him on the big leather couch just across from the kotatsu, which the other boys sat around at.
Meanwhile, Shirou was by the phone finishing up an important call. "Yeah, she's fine now. Resting in my bed actually."
"And you waited until now to tell me this because…?"
Shirou felt sheepish, as if somehow he was being sternly glared at from the other end of the phone. "…I know I should have called sooner, but I didn't know where else to go. It's not like I could go and put her back in her apartment."
"That's what hospitals are for, Shirou."
"It's just a concussion, there's no need to take her to the hospital."
A heavy sigh was heard from the other end. "Look, I'm glad you're all safe. But it's crazy recklessness that had your guardian second-guess you here in the first place. We'll have to question Taiga later if she knows anything about the recent homicide. But for now, we're busy with our investigation so this will take a few all-nighters. Until then, try to keep a low profile."
Yeah, there was no way he was going to keep that promise. Sorry, Doji-nii.
"I know, I understand. My friends and I are just going to hang out here until she wakes up. I'll keep an eye on her tonight. And Nanako too, of course."
"Thanks. Stay safe, Shirou."
"You too, Doji-nii. Bye."
After setting down the phone on the receiver, he let out an exhausted breath of relief. That was one less hurdle to worry about for now; Taiga was safe, and he convinced his skeptic cop uncle that she was not a victim at the moment. And that he found her by coincidence, that was a big point of contention too.
Now to deal with the other elephant in the room, patiently waiting by the kotatsu. Setting up an appropriate meeting place would have been a simple matter of meeting at the food court, but Fuji-nee needed to rest first. There was a bit of pushback from Naoto demanding to set her to the hospital or the police, hopefully to get answers in the process. The Investigation Team wanted privacy and comfort, seemingly making a compromise impossible.
But luckily one was made. With Nanako out at a friend's house and Doji-nii busy with work, their house was the perfect place to talk.
Shirou walked over and sat at the end of the kotatsu opposite to Naoto and Kanji. The boys regarded him with attentive focus, with the former glaring with such intensity that he looked ready to demand answers.
"So, how do you want to do this?" Shirou asked Naoto. "It's a pretty long story if I go it over from the beginning—"
"I require more pressing questions answered first before I trust whatever you have to say," Naoto quickly interrupted. "To start with: who are you? Really?"
Well, that was definitely a loaded question. The detective probably knew all the obvious answers, such as his name and place of birth. What would satisfy Naoto's question? It wasn't as if his late stepfather had told him how to go about this in case secrecy wasn't an option at all.
Then again, he did have the inspiration on what to do. He probably shouldn't answer it like this, but… he always wanted to do it since Kiritsugu adopted him.
"Well, to tell the truth," he said slowly. "I'm a Sorcerer."
He hoped it would be a moment of gravitas. Kanji was wide-eyed and staring at him with awe. Yosuke and the girls were impressed by his delivery, but also confused as he knew he always insisted on being called a "magus". He might have to explain things later.
However, Naoto's scowl turned from angry to annoyed. "Yes, and I'm a level ten Kobold Ranger with max Search, Listening, and Reasoning skills. Given by my lack of reaction, I say you fumbled your Charisma check."
Shirou blinked, confused. Naoto rolled his eyes before reaching down to his bag set in front of him on the floor. In a flourish, the detective prince pulled out a clipboard, with a DnD character sheet filled out in neat writing.
"Oh," he said numbly, realizing what he meant. "You uh, want to join our campaign?"
"I am not interested in your Dungeons and Dragons code. I know it's a front, and I'm not here for games. I want you to take this seriously and answer my questions."
"Okay, but… I wasn't lying about the sorcerer thing," Shirou explained weakly. Naoto's eye twitched, subtly telling him it was the wrong answer.
After a few tense moments of staring, Shirou sighed. "I guess it would be better to show you then."
"Show me what?" Naoto asked, still regarding him warily.
"My magecraft." He held his hand out, already imaging a kunai knife he had seen Daidara create once through Shadow materials. Suddenly concerned and worried, Yosuke reached over to his side and stopped him by pushing down his wrist. It was a simple matter as he sat perpendicular to him and the detective, almost like a mediator.
"Dude, are you nuts?" he said. "You told us once you couldn't show off your hidden talents like that."
"Naoto already saw us jump out of a TV screen. I don't have the means or the heart to rectify that mistake, and he looks like he's not going to believe me on words alone."
"Well, I believe ya." Everyone turned to Kanji, surprised by his easy show of faith. "You saved my bacon, after all. No way you could be the killer guy the cops are looking for."
"I wouldn't trust them so readily, Kanji," said Naoto. "Not until they've disclosed everything they know about the case."
"Come on, Naoto, I told you everything that happened. The weird bathhouse, my Shadow, the Senpai fighting, Emiya-senpai's… arm…" He trailed off upon realizing that the last part wasn't privy to be shared, judging by the team's glares at him. "He got better!"
Maybe I can just show him the scar? Shirou thought. No, Naoto didn't look like he cared about such details. He wanted proof of what was happening and although he didn't insinuate anything yet, was banking on the fact that he and his team were responsible for what was happening. If only there was a way to prove that just because they could enter the TV they weren't the suspects for every kidnapping and murder in Inaba.
Then it hit him. "Naoto, put your hand on the TV."
"You want to know what happened at Junes? Then just put your hand on the screen. Trust me, this will explain everything."
"This better not be some sort of joke," Naoto warned, but complied. He rose up from his seat and stood directly by the TV set in the room. He placed his hand on the screen, and aside from the cold touch and faint dust line, he felt nothing.
"Now Kanji," Shirou said, pointing to the TV. "It's your turn."
"Put your hand on the TV next to Naoto."
"Wh-Whaa?!" Kanji flustered, looking between him and the TV. "B-But isn't that being a little too… close?!"
Shirou thought it over. He wanted to say it would only be a moment, but he knew personally how tricky it can be to pry your hand back out of the TV. "Well, if you don't want to do it, I guess I could ask Yosuke-"
"I didn't say I wasn't gonna!" Kanji snapped quickly. "Just… it'd be kinda weird, you know?!"
The others stared at him with baffled expressions. Kanji's face was bright red in humiliation, and before he could stammer another word, he marched over to the TV next to Naoto. He took a wide step to the side away from him though and leaned in from the other side just intending to touch the glass for a second before pulling away.
To his surprise, his hand seeped into the screen like it was water, while Naoto's side remained hard as ice. The ripple effect shattered this quickly as the whole TV was flashing monochrome ripples, forcing Naoto's hand into the portal too.
Both teens were stupefied, staring into the white void without realizing their arms were sinking in further. Shirou and Yosuke quickly pried both of them away before the duo was thrown into another part of Teddie's world. They stared at the screen even as they were safely pulled away, and it returned to its normal dim black color.
Their reactions were expected. "Wh-wha… wh-wh-wha-?" "WHAT THE HELL?!"
It took a few minutes for them to calm down and digest the rest of the explanation of the case as the team could tell them. Shirou worried that the shock might have numbed them from their surroundings, much less the talking, but they occasionally asked for a clarification on certain terms ("Mage-what?") and paid close attention throughout.
At the end of it, Kanji tried to contextualize the thoughts for the both of them. Or at least for him. "So, let me get this straight. This serial murder guy who's been on the run for months now, he's killing people with a TV? What, does he whack them with a flatscreen or something?"
Yosuke hissed with annoyance. "Not with a TV, through the TV!"
"Oooh, I get it now. He hits them with a flatscreen so hard their heads break through it."
Yosuke facepalmed. Shirou immediately followed suit as the girls joined in via their own chorus. Kanji didn't know why, but he felt his intelligence was being mocked by this shared gesture and he pouted.
"I believe what they mean to say," Naoto began slowly. "Is that the previous victims – as well as you, Kanji – were brought into another world that can accessed by a TV."
"Yes! Thank you!" Yosuke exclaimed, gesturing to the young detective. "Is it that hard to understand?"
"Actually, I'm struggling to even accept the insanity of it all," the detective dryly complained. "A secret occult of spellcasters is one thing, but apparently anyone can enter this TV world as long as they have a… Persona, you call it?"
"Yep!" Rise smiled and winked. "Pretty cool, huh?"
"Not the word I would use," Naoto said. "Moreover, you said that Emiya-san was able to enter the TV before any of you?"
Naoto turned his gaze fully back on Shirou. He had a feeling what was on the young detective's mind. "You claim to be trying to stop the murders, but it could all be an elaborate ploy to enact something more heinous. There could be another culprit going around pushing people in, or you could be the one responsible."
For a moment, no one said anything. Some were disbelieving of the words they heard. Even Kanji glanced at his ward with disbelief.
Chie bolted upright from her seat, furious. "That's bullshit! Emiya-kun doesn't have a deceitful bone in his body!"
"Keeping a secret of the occult says otherwise, as does the nature of his… Social Links? Could be mind control for all we know."
"Trust me, I've had concerns about that already," Shirou calmly reasoned. "But I feel I was given this power – the power to enter TVs – to stop what was happening to begin with. At least that's how I discerned what my benefactors had told me; they refused to elaborate further."
"A convenient excuse," Naoto said. "But that is still no proof that you aren't the one the police are looking for."
"How about the fact that he has an alibi?"
Everyone turned towards the front door. Standing just by the corner of where the door and stairway met was Taiga, barely supporting herself with her hand on a wall. She was covered in light bandages over her scalp and wrists, and there was a slight limp in her step. And yet she looked focused and undeterred in walking over to the living room.
It still gave Shirou conflicting feelings of surprise and worry seeing her up and about. "Fuji-nee, you should stay in bed!"
She ignored him, still locking gazes with the diminutive detective. "The day Ms. Yamano went missing was the same day Shirou was on a train bound for Inaba. It wasn't until the late afternoon until he arrived, and he was busy getting settled in Dojima-san's house – THIS house – until dark."
"Yes, and other prime suspects have alibis too," Naoto argued back. "Taro Namatame, the man who cheated with her, was busy with his family's delivery business and has been guilt-ridden since her death. But if magic is really at play here, then Emiya-san has no limits to how he could pull a caper. He could have… could have jumped into a TV on the train, found Ms. Yamano in her hotel room and then killed her there!"
"Okay, now you're just reaching," Taiga deadpanned. "Shirou told me already how this has been going down; a person is pushed into a TV world full of monsters and are left there to be mauled to death. This usually happens on a rainy night. When the rain lifts, their corpse reappears on a power line by morning."
"That is the story they are going with, yes."
"And let's say, hypothetically, that Shirou is the one behind this murder mystery." A few of his friends bristled at the implication, but otherwise held it in. "Never mind all the convoluted reasoning as to why he goes to rescue the kids that get sucked in in the first place, but his only crime would be pushing someone into a lion's den with no way out. No prints, no clues, nothing but word of mouth testimonies that would be written as crazy talk. Not to mention that if you did convince too many people that this secret TV world is real, the occultists will probably wipe your memory of the whole thing, or worse…"
Taiga then smiled, akin to a smug cat. "We may not be able to prove he didn't do it, but you sure can't prove that he did, either."
Naoto's frown couldn't get any lower even if he tried, and he looked torn between staying grumpy or giving up in defeat. It didn't help that the others stared at him with some vindication that there couldn't be a case made against one of their own. It was enough to make him turn away from the stares and hide away under the brim of his hat.
A thought occurred to Kanji though, as he absently scratched his scalp. "So, wait, if there's another magic guy running around doing the murders, then wouldn't it be hard to accuse him too?"
Most of the Investigation Team's faces fell right away. "Aw shit, haven't thought about that," Yosuke muttered aloud.
"The important thing is to stop the culprit first," Shirou said. "From there, they'll either proceed with the court laws of the town or be taken to the Clocktower for a Sealing Designation."
"A what now?"
"I don't quite understand it myself, Kiritsugu only mentioned in passing. It's called a great honor on paper but it's considered so dangerous that no magus ever wants to get one."
"To a magus, studying their craft is everything. A Sealing Designation preserves a craft for prosperity, but it's like being embalmed and preserved in wrapping like a mummy… while you're still alive."
A long silence filled the room, the only sound being Yosuke's low whistle. That did sound like a karmic punishment to have.
"I suppose there's a small comfort that the magi do have some semblance of justice," Naoto said finally. "And while I have many, many more questions about them, the more pressing matter is this case itself."
Shirou nodded. "And we'll need to work together on this. Can I trust you to keep this to yourself?"
"For now." Naoto extended his hand out. Shirou accepted it with a firm shake, much to the relief of his teammates.
"Well, now that we're all on the same page now," Yosuke began. "We just need to figure out who killed our 'dearly departed' homeroom teacher."
"A vampire did it."
Everyone turned and stared at Taiga. She mentioned it casually, yet with certainty.
Yosuke blinked. He had to have misheard it. "What."
"A vampire did it," she said again. "I saw it happen… what day is it?"
"July 10th." "Sunday."
"Ah, good. It happened last night, then."
Kanji gulped, and awkwardly gripped his neck while looking over his shoulder. "Uh, when you say vampire, you mean those scary gothic freaks that bite our necks for blood, right?"
"Are there any other kind of vampires?" Taiga asked rhetorically.
"Not unless we want to get into specifics." Shirou uttered this almost to himself, but it was just loud enough for everyone to hear in the room and fill them with dread.
Then suddenly, Yukiko burst into laughing. She recoiled in her seat, slapped her legs, and shook so much that her sides hurt. "BWAHAHAHAHAHA! A vampire? Haha, oh, that's a good one! Next you're going to tell us they sparkle in the sun like in that ridiculous American novel! Ahahahaha!"
"Teehee! Relax, Chie! It's just a joke! A joke that I'm sure Fujimura-san and Emiya-kun are in on! I mean, it's so out there that soon they're going to be… not laughing too."
Yukiko's voice fell when she looked between Shirou and Taiga. From what little she knew about the Homurahara teacher, she was eccentric and energetic, easily knowing how to liven up the mood. Even her ward had some moments of levity, and the very least knew when to humor her.
But they treated this moment with the upmost severity that it was becoming less likely they were going to drop the act.
"Fuji-nee… are you certain?"
"Your homeroom teacher was a mouthy jerk with an overbite and purple monkey suit, right?"
"Well, that's a broad generalization yes, but—"
"Then yes, I'm certain. She bit down on his neck and everything."
Kanji flinched and paled considerably whiter. "Wait, it was a girl vampire?!"
Naoto took a deep long breath. Magic cults, TV portals, and now vampires? All these urban fantasy beats were really grating on his nerves. None of them made sense or felt orderly at all. "I was barely able to get a copy of Mr. Morooka's autopsy report, and he had puncture holes on his neck from someone biting on him. The killing blow, however, was from a stab wound at his abdomen."
"That was from her accomplice. Not sure if he was a vampire too, maybe a zombie servant or something-"
"A ghoul," Shirou corrected.
"Yeah, that. Anyway, I was just walking out of Shiroku's when it happened. Passed the guy who had a lot to drink himself. I was going to go home and try to forget seeing him when I heard him ranting at some kid further down the street."
Taiga sighed bitterly, taking the time to sit next to Shirou by the table. Everyone else huddled or leaned in closer to listen. "I don't know what I was thinking at the time since I was still tipsy, but the next thing I knew, some girl I've never seen before ghosts him from behind, bites him, and then eggs on the boy to stab him. Poor bastard was dead in seconds.
"They started talking about hanging the body up on a telephone pole like the others, and I knew they had to be involved in the murder shenanigans. My phone was dead so I couldn't call the authorities right away, so I hurried back to my apartment to call there. Barely a minute after I closed the door, it bursts open from a single kick by that vampire.
"I guess she realized right away I was watching and wanted to cut off loose ends. I was shocked sober and fighting on adrenaline, but I think she was just playing with me while trying to get her ghoul to deal the killing blow. So I gathered my strength for one last push and tackled them to the wall! Next thing I knew, I was in a weird castle and they weren't anywhere around, so I took my cue to exit. Then I found some pig on wheels and then you guys."
"Wait," Shirou blinked, mentally backpedaling. "You pushed them into the TV?"
"I did?" Taiga asked back. "Oh right, you mentioned something about TV portals before. I thought it was just a magus thing only you and the culprit could do. That would explain how I got there then."
That… was a concerning reversal, but not an unwelcome one. Taiga pushing the duo into the TV world must have thrown a wrench into their plans. They must have created the new castle and decided to hide out there for the time being.
Still, why would the culprit decide now to change tactics? Did they really realize that sending us to the TV wasn't working anymore and have gone for the kill directly? But King M-erm, Morooka-sensei doesn't fit the pattern at all, and they missed Fuji-nee months ago…
"Sounds like you got really lucky back there, Fujimura-san," said Rise.
"I know, right?!" Taiga started to tear up, as if the reality of the situation had set in. "I really thought I was gonna die! That I'd wouldn't marry or wouldn't be able to eat any more of Shirou's cooking!"
"You've got to be kidding me," Yosuke groaned. As he was closing his eyes and pinching his nose, he didn't notice the heated glares he got from the girls. They could argue that their leader's cooking was, in fact, a big deal.
As for Shirou, he felt relieved. The fight she had engaged in explained the ruined apartment. And there was no doubt that a vampire of any class would have the strength to overpower a kendoka of Fuji-nee's caliber. There was still one question that bothered him. "Fuji-nee, how long has it been since you awakened your Persona?"
"Persona? Oh, you mean Kaihime!" Taiga's eyes brightened almost immediately with recognition. "It was such an amazing rush calling her out for the first time! That never happened before! I mean, I knew she was there ever since Golden Week, but—"
"Since Golden Week? How?!"
"Well, I was chasing you after you bolted at the park! I ended up getting lost, found some butterfly and then dealt with a kendoka-armored me trying to kill me."
Shirou's worries only grew from there. His guardian was in danger the whole time and he didn't notice? But, she had a Persona now, so that meant she had help accepting it, right? "Then, who rescued you? It wasn't Kotomine, was it?"
"The priest? Hell no!" Taiga's face scowled at the very thought of him helping her. He'd probably act all smug about it too, lambasting her questionable life choices and nitpicking every other thing her Shadow said. "I saved myself from my own Shadow, thank you very much!"
"Huh?" "What?" "Seriously?!" The group all gawked and cried out in shock and disbelief. Surely she had to be lying.
"What's so surprising about it?" Taiga asked back. "It's just the negative you that's stressed out and hiding. Psychology 101. I couldn't beat myself, so we talked it out and accepted that I needed some growing up to do. That's how it worked with you guys, right?"
Suddenly no one wanted to look at her, and they tried distracting themselves with whistling and barely mumbled omissions. There was quite a bit of embarrassment realizing that she accepted her Shadow without being killed.
Chie coughed awkwardly before steering the topic to relative territory. "S-So, uh, a vampire? Seriously? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme to be the one responsible?"
"No, I think this makes sense." Shirou said, much to the team's surprise and fear. "A vampire would be the plausible culprit to the Inaba murders since spring."
"I thought we were looking for another magus, though," Yosuke argued.
"It's rare, but still possible, for a magus to resort to vampirism to extend their lifespan. We call these kinds of vampires 'Dead Apostles'."
"That's ridiculous!" Rise exclaimed. "Wouldn't we recognize who this vampire, or apostle-whatever person is? I know I was manhandled by a big man, not a girl!"
"Dead Apostles are known to have the power of hypnotism through eye contact. All three of you experienced your memories blur between answering the door and waking up in Teddie's world, so maybe you were hypnotized to forget who abducted you."
"But wouldn't it be, like, impossible for a vampire to move around?" Kanji said, slightly unsure himself. "Like, garlic and mirrors? Or the fact that they turn to ash in direct sunlight. No way they'd avoid that all spring."
"I can't say how accurate all the myths of vampires are, although the sunlight still counts." The team released a collective sigh of relief. "However, I've been warned that strong Dead Apostles can overcome that weakness with barely a hindrance."
Chie gulped down the anxious lump in her throat. "So you're saying if we're fighting a strong vampire, we're screwed?!"
"At the very least, this vampire is crafty," Shirou said. "From what we've seen from the weather forecasts, we've seen sunny days, rainy days, and foggy days. If she played her cards right, the vampire would be active on non-sunny days, scope the town, then throw a victim into the TV near the dead of night."
"So uh… we can't just drag her out in broad daylight, can we?"
"You can try, but there's a reason why the Clocktower treats hunting vampires and Dead Apostles so seriously. I honestly doubt we can handle one as we are now."
Shirou stated it as fact, almost casually without worry or care. But the gravitas of the moment was distinctly grim. If they barely got out alive by the skin of their teeth with every Shadow encounter thus far, a final bout might be beyond them.
Even Taiga looked calm and thoughtful. "'As you are now', huh?"
"We should all get some rest for tomorrow," she said as she stood back up. "We're going to need the energy for training."
Training? Shirou was about to ask her what she meant when he heard her quickly mutter, "I'm just glad I had the foresight to bring my shinai on furlough."
Shirou started to perspire, already realizing what the ominous statement could mean. "F-Fuji-nee, I really don't think-"
"You had your chance, Shirou. Let your Fuji-nee have her turn." Her tone left no room for discussion. Just mixed signals. A cheery tone, a heartfelt smile… and a barely contained lust for battle.
"Uh, Shirou?" Yosuke asked slowly after she left back upstairs. "What does she mean by that?"
"Remember when I told you she was a fifth-dan in kendo? I think she's going to show us exactly how she earned it."
"That samurai sport?" Kanji smirked. "I fought a few enthusiast punks like that. Can't be that bad."
"Trust me, it can." And that was all Shirou said on the matter. Before long, the Investigation Team (plus Naoto and Kanji) decided to rendezvous in the TV world after school tomorrow, and hopefully learn more about the other missing persons from the rumor mill.
July 11th, TV World, Teddie's Hub Space
Teddie was anxious. He couldn't sleep a wink all night (day? Afternoon?) since the gang left, as he counted the minutes down until they went back to the gothic castle. If I weren't so weak, I'd go there myself, he thought more than once.
He was so excited when they came back the next day as promised. But… he was surprised by the new guests as Shirou-sensei introduced them to each other. Kanji he could understand, he was most likely their newest member considering the pattern since Yuki-chan. Taiga-chan was a bit more surprising but she was a proven Persona user. She carried herself with the confidence to match Shirou-sensei and then some!
But who was this new weird-smelling guy in the hat?
In any case, they all looked at him with mirrored expressions of surprise. The hat guy, "Naoto", seemed to be numbly muttering softly, glancing between Teddie and the world around them. Taiga leaned forward, scrutinizing him with a glare for some reason. And Kanji, well… he just stared in shock.
"So, what's the zipper for?" Taiga asked.
"It's to keep my head in place, what else?" Teddie answered. It seemed obvious to him, like why water was wet or why the fog lifts.
"You mean your face mask," Naoto offered.
"No, I mean my head. See it moving and talking?" For emphasis, he moves his eyes and wiggled his ears.
"Then what's inside?"
"Nothing," Chie said confidently. "Literally nothing, and he somehow moves on his own. Trust me, you don't want to see it."
"I kinda do," Yukiko whined.
Naoto glared at Chie before sighing bitterly, as if a dark scribble cloud loomed overhead. "I've just got to accept the fact that nothing makes sense anymore, don't I?"
"That would be for the best, yes," Shirou consoled.
Kanji's arm shook, and his face started to flush. His hand reached out, stuck in a gesture between reaching and pointing. "C-Can I touch your fur?"
"Uh, no." Teddie refuted awkwardly. He took a squeaky step away for good measure.
"J-just for a sec?" he tried again. "I just want to compare how authentic your fur is to other furs."
The bear huffed defiantly at the thug-like teen. "No means no!" Kanji frowned but relented.
"Well, now that we've gotten to know each other," Taiga began. "I gotta ask, what's with the glasses?"
"Oh, Teddie made these," Shirou said. He walked over to pat the bear's head, who beamed at the affectionate praise. "It's because of him we were able to see through the fog."
"Interesting. Do you have any more for us?"
"Oh, I can make them right now! Just give me a-!"
"Wait, Teddie!" Yukiko cried out. She rushed to his side and then knelt over his ear to whisper something. The bear's eyes grew wide as he listened to her plan.
"Woah… are you sure, Yuki-chan?"
"Trust me, it'll be great." The smile on her face was practically shining, and Teddie just couldn't say no.
"Then here we go! Three specially designed glasses for our new members!"
He clapped his hands twice, and the new specs appeared in his paws. The trio leaned over expectantly… and looked confused. "Uh…" "Wha?" "Huh?"
"Go ahead! Put them on!" Teddie urged. Behind him, Yukiko nodded with a grin breaking out, and Shirou had a resigned expression on his face.
"But… don't these look different from the ones you guys are wearing?" Kanji asked. He took it anyway, as did Taiga and Naoto, and they put them on. They noticed the changes right away, with the fog filtered away from the lens.
They also noticed how animated the others' faces were looking at them. Because they were wearing ridiculous joke glasses with attachable nose and 'stache.
"Teehee. Perfect… just, pffm-perfect! Bwahahahahaha!" Yukiko erupted into laughter almost right away.
"Hahaha, man, those look great on you!" Rise added. How genuine she was being was hard to tell from her guffaws.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Taiga huffed. She was annoyed, but she couldn't deny a good prank when she saw one. Even when she was the victim. "Well played, bear."
"'Well played', my ass!" Kanji snapped, throwing his gag glasses off into the horizon. "This shit ain't funny!"
"D-don't take it out on me!" Teddie flinched. Kanji was big, and could easily overpower the bear if he wanted to. He was already placating the wrathful teen with a new pair he conjured in his cupped hands. Kanji swiped the glasses right away, putting them on his face…
Only to meet more laughter. He was wearing another set of gag glasses, what were the odds? Rise and Yukiko were the loudest, and Taiga had a sly smile on her face.
"You picked up my spare! You must really like my glasses, Kanji!" Teddie said jovially.
"Haha, sucks to be you, man!" Yosuke chortled. The fox next to him chuckled in a tone similar to an old American cartoon dog.
Chie was doubled over, holding her stomach. "Ahahahaha! Oh my sides, oh my sides!"
Even Shirou couldn't resist a chuckle. He thought the joke was a little crude at first… but the fake-out was just too funny.
BANG BANG BANG!
The laughs turned to screams as gunfire went off. Naoto had a revolver gun in hand, pointed down to a pair of gag glasses thrown down to the ground. His face was contorted in an expression of pure, utter fury. Realizing what he had just done, he quickly holstered the gun back before any other lapse of judgment could be made.
"I've had it with all these distractions and antics," he seethed. "If we are all done behaving like children, can we please move on?!"
No one moved. They regarded Naoto with a degree of fear and disbelief. He stomped forward and snarled, "That means give us real glasses NOW!"
Teddie never clapped so fast in his life. He practically bowed and offered his hands out in apology, daring not to look up. Naoto snatched a pair with blue frames and oval lenses before slipping them on. He huffed once before walking away, deliberately stepping on the damaged glasses underfoot. "Now can we please hurry and find this gothic castle you mentioned yesterday?"
On the one hand, Shirou could understand where Naoto was coming from. His nerves were likely frayed from yesterday, and he was barely holding it in. A moment of levity was the absolute last thing he wanted, and he didn't appreciate the others treating this case as a joke.
But he took it quite too far back there. Shirou could tell it was a fake air gun (probably too young to own a real one, regardless of license) but it still left a crushing impact. Kanji looked awfully guilty as if he had said those words, and just mumbled an apology to Teddie before picking up a pair of black sunglasses. Yosuke looked back to his phone, as he had been all day, worried about Satsuki's confirmed disappearance and what it could mean. Yukiko was close to tears despite Rise and Chie's support and comforting words.
The only reason Naoto was really here was to satisfy his curiosity, but maybe that was a mistake. We are in no hurry to face Naoto's Shadow at any rate.
Taiga didn't take that lying down, though. After appraising her designated pair of glasses (brownish, leopard-skin framed sunglasses with large lenses), she approached the sulking detective with a pout of her own. "You know, you should appreciate your youth more often."
Naoto turned to her with a scowl. "I'm trying to solve a case that endangers the youth of this town."
"So is everyone else. They've been at this longer than either of us have realized, and I'd say they've handled things just fine for some meddling kids and a bear." Taiga glanced over her shoulder really quick. "And a fox."
"Do you have friends, Naoto-kun?"
Taiga's question came so out of left field to the detective, and not just in the timing. "Why would you—" he started to ask, voice crackling slightly. Then he cleared his throat and spoke again, more firmly. "I-I mean, I have no need for friends."
"Not even Kanji-kun?"
"I'm his chaperone. Nothing more. I don't want friends."
"Don't want or can't find?"
Naoto glared. "What's the difference?"
"Whether you gave up or not," Taiga coolly answered, turning away. "Take it from me, an adult that wished she had more time in the prime of her youth; don't go rushing headfirst into growing up. The years will catch up before you know it."
After everyone got the chance to calm down, Teddie guided the whole party back to Moon Voidania. Tensions were still high for many reasons, and no one said a word the whole trip. The gate was still blown open from the outside following Taiga's escape, and they crossed the blocky bridge to the bigger, wooden gate in the castle proper.
Inside was a large foyer of purple brick coloring, spread out large and far. Two chandeliers hung upon the ceiling with dimly lit candlesticks illuminating the room. There were three doors excluding the gate they just walked through. Two small doors at the left and right walls of the room, and a larger door at the top of the elevated spiral staircase, likely to the next floor.
"So, Teddie, Shirou," Taiga asked suddenly, looking all over the room. "The Shadows you guys fight don't pop up right at the front door, right?"
"Not to my knowledge," Shirou answered. Teddie confirmed it with a shaking "no" motion.
"And the big Shadows that pop up at the end of these dungeons, they don't actively try to fight us, right?"
"Nope," Teddie confirmed. "They actually try to run away from us."
"Perfect. We'll train here then."
"'Train'?!" Shirou balked. "Fuji-nee, please reconsider-"
"You need this, Shirou," she said solemnly. "You can't keep fumbling with these Persona powers you barely understand when your bodies can't handle the heat."
"So… training from hell?" Yosuke guessed. "This is gonna suck, right?"
"That's putting it mildly," Shirou warned him. It was enough to give his teammates a wince. Rarely anything got under his skin like this.
"Is it even safe to train here?" Rise asked. "I mean, right in the culprit's lair?"
"Of course; it'll psyche the vamp-pair out knowing we're here and getting ready to kick their asses. Obviously we can't go any further because Naoto's a non-combatant. But frankly, none of you are ready for what's beyond this door. Maybe a little beyond to at least fight the Shadows, but only on this floor."
"We've handled Shadows before," Chie argued. "Can't we just fight them until you're satisfied?"
"You can beat up as many Shadows as you want for exercise, and you can handle them on auto-pilot. It's the tough guys you need training for, because they'll not just out-muscle you, but take advantage of your lack of tactics."
No one had a proper argument to that. She may not have fought monsters before, but she had years of practical expertise under her belt. One look from her and she could see how unrefined everyone was in skill.
They needed every skill, hack, trick, and technique combined with practice that they could wring out to handle a real damn vampire.
"Well, no time like the present!" Taiga grinned wide. "The first lesson of the Tiger Dojo is… DODGE!"
Shirou expected this development as he had heightened senses since first awakening to his Persona, and fighting Shadows with killing intent. And yet his guardian, his undefeated master, managed to close the distance between them so fast that he didn't have time to guard. And then in the same breath, hit him so hard with her trademark shinai that he got a concussion.
The last thing he heard before he blanked out were seven words that he wished Cu Sith didn't say at all.
"She is definitely a keeper, Cu Shirou."
A/N: slowly but surely working on my stories. I actually expected this to be longer but decided to cut back to try and not overwhelm myself on so much content all the time. Not sure if this strategy will pan out but some writers just have very sporadic writing times. Just another bad habit to work on, I guess.
And now for a bonus, because some guests with no actual names kept asking and asking and asking me to consider their ideas to write up. Namely on making Shirou super strong through "mystical and spiritual enlightenment". This is what I came up with, and how much I care to do any more with it. If you don't like it, then write it yourself.
Shirou got a weird idea from a dream. He tried to ignore it, but it kept coming back in vivid detail.
"Reach Enlightenment. Awaken your true self."
One day he went to Tama's shrine and prayed. His prayers were answered, and his powers accumulated, refined and tempered.
All day Shirou meditated and felt his power grow. He could do anything, he realized. There was no limit.
Except realizing that this path would mean giving up his ideals. And even his friends.
The same day he achieved enlightenment, he threw it away. He liked being an ally of justice better.