Despite the issue of her ostracism on hand, Akihiko couldn’t help but allow a boyish smile to grace his usual strained features. The smirk quickly dissolved into a complacent acceptance. Using his gloved fingers, he grazed his chin as though in deep thought. As his thumb brushed against the faint bristle of his facial hair, the boxer suddenly inaudibly mumbled to himself, “How did I bring myself into this position again?”
It was the exact term Mitsuru mentioned just after she approached him to join SEES all those years ago. With her confidently quirked upper lip, Mitsuru elegantly replied, “This is like deja vu, oui?” During his adolescent days, he wasn’t quite brushed up on his French (truthfully, much to Mitsuru’s disappointment he could hardly formulate a sentence in the language), and the phrase meant nothing to him. It was different now.
Something about her made him instantly return to a time where he still wore a bandage on his left temple, sitting on the right hand side of Shinji at Hagakure Ramen. The humid atmosphere from the steaming broth and the lingering stench of Shinji’s last cigarette were associated with his memories of Shinji’s gruff monosyllabic responses every time Akihiko urged him to return to SEES. Shinji’s lone demeanor was something the boxer had grown accustomed to since childhood. Seeing Shinji’s reclusive personality reflected in the Detective Prince took him by surprise. But even Shinji with all of his lonesome facade had an incredible warmth and sense of fatherly responsibility. As much as he refused to participate in Iori’s so called “manly challenges”, he was always present, keeping a watchful yet distant eye on Amada and there were times where Akihiko would catch a candid smile on Shinji’s lips.
Akihiko distinctly recalled when he began clearing out the few trinkets Shinji left behind, that the first thing Naoto pulled out of her modest bag was a simple photo. He recognized the look on her face as she carefully set the photo on top of her desk. Despite his usual matter of course for ignoring the details, it arrested him how she gingerly placed the small folded corner in between her fingers, as though she were trying to mend an injury with the precision and care of a surgeon. There was no doubt that she had what SEES used to have back in Inaba. The look of stifled joy mixed with maudlin acceptance she had while looking at the photo was the exact replica of his expression whenever he visited Shinji’s grave.
“Don’t worry,” he finally spoke after realizing his prolonged silence, “They’ll come around in a matter of time.” He looked pointedly at the pink cloth covering their table. Takeba and Mitsuru were cases he didn’t have much confidence to speak for. They were the ones who suffered the most after the final battle. The team had been broken for awhile, and even though the new onslaught of Shadows was an ordeal he never wished to revisit, it was admittedly healing the team. There was an initial restlessness. With the rise of Shadows came the ambiguous question of Minato’s current state, but the underlying emotions of stress and uncertainty there was a rekindling liveliness in the eyes of the team. Akihiko could attest to that himself. It wasn’t long ago that he was lifelessly solving petty crimes in Iwatodai. Naoto’s arrival to the dorms launched a refreshing sense of purpose. Her sharp intuition kept the team on their toes, and maintained a steady pace for their investigation of the Shadow’s revival (at least until just recently). But most importantly, she somehow shifted from being a coworker to being someone he wanted to protect. Although he always kept up with his daily regimen during his time at Kurosawa’s office, there was a noticeable shift in his motivation. He knew from the moment he lost Miki, Shinji, and then Minato that he was always the best fighter when he had something to fight for. The desire to protect thrilled his dormant fighter.
Akihiko simply shrugged when Naoto replied that their table wasn’t the cause of the girls’ disturbance. Honestly, he didn’t even notice the girls were there until she brought it up. The boxer silently took a bite of his pancakes in an attempt to find the right words to say. They ate in silence momentarily, and luckily the nostalgic warmth of his guilty pleasure dessert made him subconsciously smile. He chuckled lowly when she unconvincingly approved of their impromptu dessert. Their was an inexplicable charm whenever she made an effort to step out of her usual composed demeanor—and this time she was doing it for him. He rationalized the emotions were familial—that it was probably because Miki used to act in a similar way. However, when Miki feigned nonchalance when she truly wanted a doll, he felt an immeasurable amount of guilt and resentment. With Naoto, it leaned toward amusement, and a stirring warmth flowed from the sincerity of her actions.
“No,” he replied with a hint of disappointment. Although he brought her here with an intention that even slipped his own reasoning, his main focus was the investigation. The dessert cafe proved fruitless. There was a crowd here, that much he was able to correctly anticipate. But with all of the mindless chatter, he was unable to pick up on anyone talking about the victims or anything that could connect the dots to how or when the victims disappeared in the Tower of Demise. The last thing he wanted was for their awkward interaction to prove fruitless. He apparently already had the attention of the girls behind him it was the obvious move to ask them. “Maybe those girls might know something.”
He shifted in his chair until he was facing the two girls. Fortunately, they wore the Gekkoukan High uniform. “Excuse me,” he was interrupted by yet another shriek and looks of utter joy (and surprise that he was noticing them). The boxer uncomfortably cleared his throat, “I was wondering if you knew anything about the recent missing cases at your school.” Not wanting to waste any more precious time, he fished out his badge from his back pocket. The presence of his badge immediately sobered up the girls making the interrogation much smoother. Their answers were brief, and the over-exaggerated excitement the girls displayed before, dispersed when he made it clear their interaction was for solely business purposes.
He turned to face Naoto again with a pensive look. “Did you overhear?”Just as expected they didn’t have much information and everything he had just heard were based on endless high school gossip which tended to sieve out important details in favor of a better story. The one thing he got out of it was that a girl was missing for over two weeks. Although he had stressed to Naoto prior to their coming here that caution was necessary when they had no information about the second coming of Tartarus, it was clear in the concern of the girls’ voices that they had been too complacent with the new threat. Two weeks didn’t seem like a long time when it was spent with constant research. The disappointment was evident in his stressed features. Minato’s death was supposed to accelerate their desire to live and protect, not make them into cowards while others suffered.
“Let’s go back to the dorms,” he spoke up suddenly, “You were right, before. We need to prepare to go into Tartarus,” Akihiko briefly paused, “Tonight. Mitsuru won’t agree to it, but I’ll let Fuuka know beforehand so she can monitor our every move.”
“Are you ready?”
Smiling wasn’t something Akihiko did very often, Naoto noticed, though maybe it was because she was usually around him during high-stress situations. Like when they met up in the dorm for painstakingly cautious deliberation with the rest of the group, or when they arrived at the police station and found a fresh pile of new cases — many of them eluding to the renewed threat stemming from Tartarus — waiting on the desk for them. He didn’t seem like the type of person to smile a lot anyway, not that it bothered her. He was refreshing staid to a detective who had to live on the same floor, in the same corridor, as Junpei.
His smile faded, and she couldn’t help but notice the way his mouth moved like he was talking under his breath. She wondered if he hadn’t been smiling out of friendliness, but rather it had been an awkward, acknowledging smile and she hadn’t noticed. That was enough to invite obsessive thinking to the table and she considered her previous words carefully, concerned that she had somehow overstepped the boundaries of coworker exchange by telling him she was having trouble branching out to the other members. Complaints were not only inappropriate but it made her seem especially immature, like she was unable to do things as simple as get along with other people. Naoto prodded at her dessert with her spoon, determined to preoccupy herself with anything else other than her very fragile reputation as a detective.
She looked up when he spoke, placing her spoon down and giving him a nod of recognition in return. Akihiko was right. The Investigation Team hadn’t been particularly friendly to her when she first began her investigation in Inaba. It was strange to think that her closest allies had been the most resistant, hostile group of people towards her mere months before. SEES was comparably friendlier and if Akihiko, as intimidating as he was, was able to warm up to her enough to take her to a place as casual as a sweets shop in such a short time, then the rest were sure to follow.
The girls continued to watch Akihiko like hawks from their seats, occasionally making distractingly high-pitched noises that gave Naoto empathetic throat pain just from hearing it. She pointed out their presence to her oblivious partner, who brushed it off and continued to eat pancakes like he wasn’t bothered by them. Maybe he wasn’t as blissfully unaware as she assumed he was — judging by his subdued response, he was probably just very good at ignoring girls. Despite all jarring attempts to grab his attention, Akihiko didn’t turn around until their failed eavesdropping garnered enough desperation between them to warrant it. Naoto watched him turn away, nearly rising from her seat to join the interrogation and hopefully emphasize how serious the situation was to the squealing girls, but decided against it when Akihiko pulled out his badge and the crowd quieted. She leaned into the back of her chair and flipped through the file in her lap as the girls discussed what they knew. They were loud enough that Naoto picked up on several details, including the rumor of a missing girl.
Akihiko turned back to her and she felt her stomach twist with apprehension. She wasn’t knowledgable in how time worked in Tartarus, but she knew two weeks trapped in a tower filled with Shadows was more than enough time for something to go wrong. “Yes, I heard.” It seemed like all of her impatience suddenly had tangible reason and that what little evidence they had would be enough of a push to get SEES to act on this threat. It was enough for Akihiko, at least, but he seemed to already know that Mitsuru would disapprove of his reckless decision to enter Tartarus without any planning beforehand. The more Naoto thought about it, the more she understood why. The detective had no experience inside Tartarus, which made her a very vulnerable part of the group. If she and Akihiko went in with only Fuuka’s surveillance, they were bound to run into trouble.
But at the same time, rescuing the missing girl outweighed any sense of self-preservation Naoto had left. After all, it was her job to put her life on the line to protect civilians. “I’m ready.” Naoto stood, collecting the files in her arms, and breezed past him towards the door. She pushed it open slightly, hesitating in the doorway before turning back to him. “Sanada-san—” the detective almost told him not to go to Tartarus with her because she wasn’t sure how she would handle the situation if he happened to get injured under her care. He was an indispensable member of the group, someone they couldn’t afford to lose. She didn’t attempt to finish her sentence, she didn’t have to to know he wouldn’t heed any warnings from her and charge in anyway. “We need to hurry.”