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Saturday, July 9

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Monday

You have to get a head start this time. It doesn’t matter if there are places you’d rather be.

Yosuke stretches. “Man, I’m so glad we’re not going into the TV today.”

You press your lips together and give him a look that sets him squirming immediately.

“Hey, don’t gimme that,” he whines. “I want to save Risette just as much as you.”

“But you wouldn’t mind a peepshow first.”

“That’s not it at all! I...” Yosuke sighs and rubs at his face as if he could scrub the annoyed flush right off. “I hate that place.”

Yukiko’s soft voice behind you says, “Yosuke-kun, are you feeling okay?” and you stumble out of pace for just a beat.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “I just hate this place.”

Chie spins around in front of you to run backwards. “Seriously. It’s really creepy here, huh?”

You turn from the half-assembled model in front of you to glance at Yosuke’s prone form on your couch. “You hate what place? The TV?”

“The striptease! It’s just... wrong.” He winces, or you think he does; your eyes are caught on the sway of his knees, instinctively drawing together. “Not as wrong as the bathhouse, but still wrong.”

You feign sudden, intense interest in the ankle joint you were putting together, and say with complete nonchalance, “What’s wrong with the bathhouse?”

“You’re kidding me.”

“The steam?”

He gapes at you. “Dude. You know.”

Smiling innocently, you stare right back.

“I... I guess...” he starts, fidgeting so nervously you have to fight the urge to drop the subject and just go back to your pleasant, lazy afternoon, “I guess it could be worse, but it’s pretty awkward if you’re... you know... not like that.”

At that, you break your gaze. You pick up the glue bottle with your fingertips, consciously dainty, and in your periphery, you can see him squirm. “Like what?”

It takes him a moment to spit it out, but he does finally blurt, “I don’t like guys!”

“Really?” You chuckle. “And here I thought you liked hanging out with me.”

“You’re my best friend!” he chokes out. “It’s not like that!”

The startled (and slightly hurt) look you flash him is only partially an act.

“It’s... not. Right? It’s...” And he draws his legs in towards himself before he says, slowly, cautious, wavering, “Are you?”

Without a twitch, you ask, “Am I what?”

“Like... um.” He laughs and his voice sounds dry. You ought to be a good host and get him a glass of water. You don’t. You wait. “Like Kanji,” he finishes.

“Maybe,” you say firmly, so there’s no mishearing it, and before he can say anything else, you waggle the half-finished leg of your model at him and ask, “Could you help me with this? I don’t have enough hands to hold both halves and glue it at once.”

If Yosuke notices it’s a lie (you both know you could put this one together in your sleep), he doesn’t point it out. “O-oh. Yeah... sure.”

“Yeah,” Yosuke says, half-laughing, half-cringing. “Buuuuut, I guess it’s not the bathhouse, at least.”

You chuckle under your breath. “What’s wrong with the bathhouse?”

“Seriously, dude?” Yosuke laughs out loud at that. “Where do I start?”

“Yeah, senpai, where DO you start?” Kanji hollers, and you suck in a breath so hard it hurts.

“Uh, n-nowhere!” Yosuke stammers.

“Nothing to say, huh?”

“Nothing at all!”

You could still salvage this, you think. You could corner Yosuke later on and bring it up again. You don’t, though; you don’t get a chance. The shadows come thick and fast, almost as if they know how much a moment of rest would mean to you, and when the team breaks apart for the night, Yosuke looks so tired, so drained, that you can’t find it in yourself to do that to him. No matter how much you want it. No matter how potentially great the outcome.

You don’t know that he’d take it the same way this time around, anyway.

--------

”Hey, partner?”

You look up from the shoe you’d been kicking into place. Yosuke has both of his outdoor shoes on already and is standing, one hand sunk into his pocket, the other fisting at the bottom hem of his shirt.

You swallow. “Yes?”

He doesn’t meet your eyes, but he continues, “Did you... mean it?”

You can’t help it; you swallow again. “Yes.”

Then he’s out the door, tugging his headphones over his ears as he almost-runs down the street. He doesn’t look back.

--------

Tuesday

You hear him shout out, “Not a chance!” right as he slams into your side. It doesn’t take much to wipe out the shadow after that – with a flick of Yukiko’s fan, it disappears in a wash of cinders – and you steal a breath, laying one hand on Yosuke’s shoulder, and say, “Thanks.”

He doesn’t say anything; just shrugs you off and turns away, but you still catch a glimpse of anxious red popping into life across his cheeks.

“Of course!” he says with a grin, clapping your shoulder. “I’m not about to let some stupid shadow take you out like that.”

“That’s right,” Yukiko adds, smiling gently from behind her open fan. “You can count on us.”

Chie and Kanji shout out their agreement, and even Teddie wails along. Your laughter in response is genuine. It really is nice to know they all care about you.

Even if...

No. It’s nice. That’s all. You can’t let yourself get distracted.

The battling goes reasonably well for a while, though you can’t help but feel that yesterday didn’t make as much of a dent as you’d hoped. You’re pausing thoughtfully at a dead end, trying to remember which way the exit was last time (last week, this week) you were here, when Yosuke nudges you.

“Hey, partner?” he says, just like always. “I found an item.”

He gets as far as “Hey, part...” before he stops short.

You duck your head to try to meet his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“The ‘partner’ thing. I just realized how that... um... nevermind.” Again, he’s turning his head away from you, and again, he’s not quite fast enough to hide his reddening face completely. “A-anyways, I found an item. Thought it might be useful.”

When he hands it to you, you let your fingers touch his. He jerks back as if burned. You respond by grabbing his hand tightly, palms pressed together, knuckles rough and rubbing, and you delve your fingers between his.

“Thought it might be useful.” He shrugs and tosses it towards you. You catch it in one upturned palm.

Yosuke says weakly, “Cut it out.”

You’re about to tell him you’re not joking around, and you’re frantically trying to piece together what to say, what to do after that, when Teddie squeaks towards the room, and you both fly apart.

“Sensei, sensei!” Teddie’s bouncing with excitement, like what he has to say is so huge it’s inflated his suit up like a balloon. “Chie-chan says she spotted some stairs!”

”Let’s go,” you say calmly, and you walk just slow enough that you can hear Yosuke’s uneven steps after you.

“Great!” Yosuke flashes you a wink and shouts, “C’mon, let’s go!” before he takes off at a sprint, leaving you to trail him.

--------

Wednesday

You can’t spend every day fighting. Logically, you know this. And yet, as you listen to Yosuke laugh about how he’s going to spend his shift today sleeping in the breakroom, you want nothing more than to order everyone into the TV again.

“Work,” Yosuke says with a half-apologetic, half-relieved smile. “Sorry.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

His cheek hollows out, and you know he’s chewing the inside of it. He does that a lot when he’s nervous. “Dude, why do you want me to come over so much?”

You muster up your best blank face, turn stony eyes to him, and say, “I like you.”

“W-what?!” he sputters.

“You’re his best friend, doofus,” Chie sighs, rolling her eyes. “Can’t say I understand why.” Next to her, Yukiko stifles a giggle.

“Oh. Y-yeah. Yeah, sure,” Yosuke says through forced laughter. “Tomorrow. Sure, sounds good.”

You make lunch that night. It has to be perfect. You’re laying the groundwork.

You make lunch that night. It has to be perfect. You’re making up for lost time.

--------

Thursday

“Hey.”

“Hey, partner! Ooo, is that lunch?” Yosuke goes to snatch the lunchbox from your hands, and you lift it above your head without flinching. “Not for me, I guess,” he sighs.

“It is, if you want,” you say, “but I’m not going to let you eat the whole thing before we even get to the roof.”

“Of course, of course,” he babbles, but he’s already grappling the box away from you and cracking the lid open.

“Hey,” Yosuke replies. He stops, sucks in a deep breath, and after casting a quick glance around at your oblivious classmates scattered about the perimeter of the room, he whispers quickly, “Look, I’m really sorry about how weird I’ve been around you lately. It’s just... what you said on Monday...”

You press your lunchbox into his chest and smile when his hands fly up reflexively to grasp it. “Let’s talk over lunch. The roof?”

Yosuke’s still for just long enough that you begin to worry you might have pushed this too far too fast, but then his shoulders slide into a relaxed hunch and he smiles like there’s nothing else he can possibly think of to do. “Yeah, okay.”

Chie and Yukiko intercept you on your way up the stairs to suggest picking up ramen together, but Yosuke waves them off. “Guys’ lunch,” he grins, “No girls allowed.”

“That’s so stupid,” Chie huffs.

Yosuke purses his lips in mock sympathy and says, “Sorry, I don’t make the rules,” before he continues up the stairs, lunchbox in hand.

You shrug at them and follow Yosuke up.

You’re about to start up the stairs when Chie bounds up to you, waving and bright-cheeked. “Hey, Yukiko and I were thinking of running by Junes to grab some ramen, and oh man, what is that great smell?”

“My lunch, courtesy of the master chef here.” Yosuke pops open the lid a tiny bit more and wafts some steam towards his face with an exaggerated sweep of his hand. “Mmm, this is gonna be good.”

“Yeah,” Chie scoffs as she plants her heel into the tongue of his tennis shoe. It’s child’s play for her to snatch the lunch away while he recoils. “This IS gonna be good.”

“Um, Chie?” Yukiko says delicately from next to you – right next to you, and somehow you have no clue when she got that close – “Maybe we shouldn’t interrupt their lunch. Souji-kun must’ve worked hard on it, and-”

“And he’ll have as much as he wants!” With a decisive nod, Chie snaps the lid shut. “I’m only taking from Yosuke’s portion.”

The object of abuse manages to moan, “Why?”

“Oh, let’s see... Trial of the Dragon, eating my ramen, forcing us like a total creep to wear swimsuits...” Chie pauses to pop the lunchbox open again. “Is this daigaku-imo? Yukiko, you should have some too!”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Yukiko says, but she looks up at you anxiously and continues, “Unless... I... I’d hate to be a bother, Souji-kun...”

As different as you had hoped this lunch might go, it has been a while since you’ve all just relaxed together. You say, “It’s no bother,” and you mean it.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Yosuke says around a mouthful of sweet potato. “A lot, actually. I’m...” He swallows and his chopsticks droop to rest on the lip of the lunchbox. “I think I’m okay with it. You being that way.”

You let your eyes close and your lips arc and your breath say, “I’m glad. Your opinion means a lot to me.”

“Hey, of course,” he says as he nudges your shoulder with his. “Chie’s right – we’re best friends. No matter what, I’m there for you.”

You take a bite and watch him do the same. He chews quickly. He does everything quickly. You’ve never been one to do things on the spur of the moment, but these past few months, you’ve come to realize that while slow and steady may be a good strategy a lot of the time, sometimes you just have to move. It’s all about balance.

You notice that even though he eats much faster than you, he talks much more as well. Your halves of the lunch are disappearing at the same rate.

“No matter what?”

“Mmmph?” Yosuke grimaces as he gulps down his food way too soon so he can ask, “What was that?”

Your hand has closed around his chopsticks, gently tugging them away, before you’re even aware that you’re moving. “You’ll be there for me, no matter what?

“Yeah.” He watches, frozen, as you shuffle away all the pieces of lunch. His hand is still poised to hold chopsticks, still hovering over where the lunchbox had been. “What are you getting at?”

“Even if I want to have a boyfriend?”

“I... It’d be kinda weird, but I-”

“Even if the boyfriend I want is someone you already know?”

He exhales a nervous laugh. “This is Inaba. There aren’t that many choices.”

“I wasn’t joking around,” you press on, “when I grabbed your hand in the striptease.”

“You weren’t jo...” Yosuke clenches his jaw offset for a moment before his mouth drops open and he turns owlish eyes to you. “W-wait, are you saying-”

You finish that thought for him by laying your hands on his shoulders and pressing your lips against his.

“Damn, that’s good,” Yosuke says, muffled by the monster bite wedged into his mouth.

“No kidding!” Chie just about moans. “How’d you get it this crispy?”

“I deep-fried it.”

Chie and Yosuke whine in unison when you pull the lunchbox away. Yukiko’s chopsticks dive in next to yours and snag a small piece, which promptly cause her entire face to light up red when it hits her tongue. “O-oh, this is delicious! I could never make something so good.”

“I could teach you sometime, if you’d like,” you say with a genuine smile. “You two, as well.”

“No thanks,” Yosuke smirks as he steals the lunchbox back. “I’ll just stick to eating whatever you make.”

“And I’ll stick to eating whatever you make for Yosuke,” Chie chirps.

And then they’re off, chopsticks crossed in declaration of war. Yukiko giggles so softly you can’t hear it over your own chuckles – you only know she’s laughing from the way her hair sways in the corner of your vision. This is how it’s supposed to be, you think. Four friends having lunch, having fun, not thinking about shadows or murders (or love). Just normal friends.

That pang you feel when Yosuke scoots closer to snatch up one of the few remaining bites could just be lingering hunger. You did split a meal for two four-ways.

It’s a chaste kiss and it ends far too soon for your liking, but Yosuke doesn’t pull all the way back. Instead, he presses his forehead against yours and says, “I’m not sure I...”

You slide one hand up to cup the side of his face. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. I just want you to know how I feel.”

With a slight grimace, he eases away from your touch and sits back. “Okay. I... know. Let me think?”

“Of course.”

He visibly relaxes, chuckles, “I think the most important thing here is that we finish lunch,” and just like that, the conversation drifts back to normalcy. No awkward pauses, no hitches, no regretful glances.

You smile.

--------

“Man, is it just me, or do classes get longer by the end of the day?”

You toe off your shoes with a smirk. “Sorry. That’s me. I make time go slower.”

Yosuke tsks. “Shoulda known. Hey, where’s Nanako-chan?”

“In her room, probably. She’s been mad at me the past few days.”

“Nanako-chan mad at YOU? What the hell did you do?”

“I kind of ate her pudding out of the fridge the other night.

Yosuke gapes at you like you just said you’d kicked a duckling.

“Look,” you sigh, “I’ll go check on her; you can go ahead upstairs.”

When you get upstairs, Yosuke’s sitting cross-legged on your couch, a math book open in his lap. “This,” he declares with a fist tangled up in his hair, “is the end of Yosuke Hanamura.”

“Relax. It’s not that bad.”

“Not that b... dude, have you SEEN the homework?! You’d have to be a super-genius to figure this out!”

“Luckily, I happen to be a super-genius.” You casually sink down next to him, sliding your arm slowly over his to gesture at a figure in the book. “And I like you, so I’ll help you out. You see this plot?”

“You really do like me, huh?”

You pause long enough to press a brief kiss next to his eye, and the shy, startled smile that tugs at his face afterwards makes it hard to turn your focus back to the textbook. “Enough to tutor you in math,” you sniff. “I’d say that’s a lot.”

“Thanks... hey wait, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Do you want my help or not?”

“... So. About that plot.”

When you get upstairs, Yosuke’s slumped over on the couch, snoring lightly. You stalk over there, ready to shake him awake, but as you pick up his math book (flopped open and upside down from a tumble to the floor), you finally notice the deep darkness under his eyes.

Maybe pushing the team so hard on Monday wasn’t the best idea. You’re not sure what else to do, though. You can’t go through this week again; it’s selfish, and the group would probably be better off if you tried it one more time with a little better planning and little less attention paid to... other plans... but...

Yosuke’s mouth is open asymmetrically, gravity pulling his lower lip off to one side. You can barely glimpse the edge of wet teeth, and behind that, a shine of tongue.

You can’t do this week again. This has to be it.

You tuck a blanket around Yosuke and settle down on the floor to do your math homework.

--------

Friday

“That was rough. The shadows don’t typically get that many hits in on us. I thought for sure Nanako-chan was gonna spot this thing.” Yosuke rubs at the burgeoning dark splotch on his cheek and you wince along with him.

“She probably did,” you murmur. “She’s just too polite to say anything.”

“A-are you serious?” Yosuke says in a rough whisper, eyes pulling open so wide the whites shine, pale rings in the light of your room. “Stupid shadow... is it turning black?”

“Let me see.” The way his shoulders stiffen when you step close makes your stomach clench, but you ignore it and examine his face. The pores on his cheek are angry red, and sure enough, deep purple dots are growing, forming one heavy bruise almost from cheekbone to chin. You try to look him in the eye and find his gaze fixed on your mouth, hanging carelessly open just a wisp. You snap your jaw shut and hold there for a moment, then say, “Sorry. It does look pretty awful. I’ll get some ice, and y-”

And he’s kissing you, and it’s your turn to cope with a rigid spine and rapidly freezing joints. “Yosuke, wait,” you try to say, but he plants his hands on the back of your head, pulling you in deeper. You know you should be the responsible one here and make sure he’s not doing anything he’ll regret, but... but...

You grab his waist and kiss him back with all you have.

“Sorry I crashed on your couch yesterday,” Yosuke says through a yawn, gingerly fingering the fresh bruise on his forearm. “I don’t know; I’ve been so freaking tired lately.”

“It’s the time in the TV,” you say quietly. He sighs.

“I know. It sucks, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right? The price of being the hero.”

“The price of being the hero,” you parrot.

”Yosuke,” you say against his mouth, and you’re trying so hard, failing to not pant, “are you sure?”

His lips coast across yours as he shakes his head. “No. I’m not, but I think... I think I want to try.”

His eyes connect with yours, painfully insecure and unsteady, but there’s a want there that pushes you to drape your arms over his neck, drawing him in softly, slowly, and kiss him again.

“So...” Yosuke says, “math?”

“So...” Yosuke says, “what happens now?”

You blink at him, eyebrows lost far up under your bangs. “What do you mean?”

“I-I mean, if we’re a... you know... what do we... DO together?”

“The same things we’ve always done,” you say with the smoldering start of a smirk pulling at your cheek. “Watch TV, read manga, play video games. We just sit closer to each other while we do them.”

Yosuke narrows his eyes at you, and you flat out laugh.

“That’s it.” He stalks over to your dresser and starts flinging open the drawers. “Where’s the N64? You’re about to get your ass kicked at MarioKart.”

That’s pretty much what happens, too. He does manage to beat you on just about every track. You eke out a win on Rainbow Road (which irks him to no end), though. Turns out kissing your boyfriend just before the race starts is a great way to throw off his game.

You settle down next to Yosuke on the couch, sitting so close that you’re not sure how he hasn’t noticed and shifted away from you yet, and open your textbook.

--------

Saturday

You’re halfway back to your house when Yosuke finally breaks.

“We have to go back,” he gasps. “Kanji was right – we can’t just give up like this.”

“It’s not giving up,” you say, and even to your own ears your voice sounds flat. Lifeless.

“How is it not giving up?!” Yosuke says so loud and shrill it’s nearly a scream.

“If we could do it and we didn’t, we’d be giving up.”

“Exactly! We have to-”

He doesn’t know it, because it’s been erased – it never happened for him now – but you do. You can remember trying. You can remember watching your allies fall one by one under the shadow’s perfectly selected attacks. You can remember staggering into the next battle, the next mocking doppelganger, the next round of damage. You can remember laying half-aware on the floor and looking to the side only to see Yosuke’s eyes going glassy and dull, his hand stretched out towards you. “We can’t.”

“Do you think we can do this?”

You touch the bulge of money in your wallet and nod. “There’s enough to pay the fox here. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be.”

Yosuke looks like he wants to object again loudly, maybe even to punch you and try to knock some sense back into your head, but from the way his face suddenly goes slack, he must see something in your expression that stops him. “We...” he says quietly. “I think we could...”

“We’re out, Yosuke,” you say in one rushed, forced inhale.

“The fox...”

“Requires money.” Your eyes clench tight shut in unison with your fists. You try to will them open, but you can’t. The energy for it just doesn’t exist. “We don’t have it. There’s no way around that.”

He’s silent the rest of the way back to your house (and you didn’t even ask him over, but he’s following like he knows you need it. He’s right.). It’s not until you’re upstairs with the door safely shut that he speaks again.

“M-maybe the fog won’t come tonight.” He sounds so desperate you both cringe. He tries again. “The forecast could be wrong. We might have another day.”

“Yeah,” you say hollowly, tolling like a bell.

“We definitely will,” he says with a nod. There’s a waver to his voice and his lip that you know so well it physically hurts your chest. “We’ll go in first thing tomorrow and save her. Maybe we could even skip school, and-”

You fist your hands in the front of his shirt and sink your face into his shoulder.

“H-hey.” His hands are hovering shakily over your back, you can feel it in the shift of his shoulder muscles against your forehead, and they finally come to rest at the base of your neck and the back of your head. “Partner... Souji... I...”

He doesn’t say anything else. His neck cants away from you as his head drops back, and in the hitch of his breath and the bobbing of his throat, you know he’s crying.

You could take advantage of it. Tonight doesn’t really exist, after all. There’s nothing stopping you from pushing him down onto your futon and biting his neck until it bruises. You could pull the neck of his shirt until it tears and suck your way down his body. You could take him in your mouth so far you can’t breathe and work your tongue until he cries in a completely different way. You could fish out one of the condoms hiding in your desk, the ones your father awkwardly tucked into your suitcase when he thought you weren’t looking before he and your mother walked out of your life for another year. You could hold Yosuke down by the head, one hand covering his endlessly noisy mouth, as you roll it down over him. You could straddle his hips and push yourself down and relish every second of the pressure, the pain, the horrible friction that you’d only be feeling because you were finally doing it, finally having Yosuke like you want him, and you could kiss him with tongue and tell him you love him as his eyes crinkle closed and his ragged fingernails press crescents into your shoulder blades and you could fumble yourself to completion and see your mark on him, your own cum on his ribs, and you could feel it sticky on your damp skin as you haul him up to kiss him again and again and again. You could.

He’s warm against you, and you could, in some reality you could, but here and now, you don’t.

“Stay with me,” you hiccup. “We can do whatever you want. Just... don’t...”

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay. Of course.”

You end up flipping through magazines with your backs against each other until your cell phone rings, and when the world goes yellow and thick, Yosuke catches you as you fall and yells with shiny eyes while reality blinks out of existence.

You adjust your grip on your sword until the balance feels just right and pause with one hand on the door to look back at your team.

“Alright,” Kanji laughs. “Let’s show that shadow who’s boss!”

“Yeah!” Chie and Yukiko say in unison.

Teddie’s lingering behind, silent and oddly gloomy, but you don’t question him. You know what’s coming.

Yosuke grins at you. Just like he did when you first met him. Just like always.

“Okay,” you say, and you open the door.