Souji knew they had time to train and plan and psyche themselves before confronting Adachi, but he wasn't sure how much. This uncertainty made him push the team harder than usual, but none of them protested when he sent out a message and gathered them up at Junes for the fourth day in a row.
Souji hated the bedroom that contained Adachi's portal. Worse than the bad lighting, the noose swinging gently from the ceiling, and the bloodied pictures with scratched out faces, was the heavy feeling in the air, the knowledge that something terrible had happened here and the unsettling feeling that someone was lurking behind him. Still, as bad as it was and terrible as he knew Magatsu Inaba to be, he was almost glad to be out of the real world. The TV world had been strange for as long as he'd known about it. The real world had been normal once and that difference made the presence of the fog and the melancholy had that settled over town almost too much to handle.
"I'm going in," Souji said.
Yosuke grimaced and adjusted his headphones. "I hate this place," he said, but set his shoulders, ready to follow wherever Souji led. "Ready when you are."
"Ah, no." Souji double-checked the contents of his pockets, more as a way to avoid meeting Yosuke's eye than to make sure he had enough Goho-Ms and Vanish Balls. "I'm not taking you with me."
He could feel Yosuke's stare on the side of his face and the silence that followed his statement seemed to make the air in the room even heavier. Souji always took Yosuke with him; he'd never once left him out the group, and Yosuke had never refused to go with him, even if he'd end up sore and tired the next day.
Souji knew he shouldn't do it, that he should rotate every member of the group out on occasion. But he and Yosuke worked so well together and he enjoyed his company so much, too much, that he allowed himself to be selfish.
Even saying the words felt wrong.
"Well…" Yosuke looked like he'd tripped over something he didn't see and just managed to catch himself. "Then who's going with you?"
Souji kept his eyes on the floor. "No one. I'm going alone."
The entire group protested, of course, as he would have done had anyone else said the same thing. But there was a difference: he was the leader. He could bend the rules like this.
"What the hell, Senpai?"
"A-are you serious?"
Naoto didn't say anything at all, just frowned at him in a way that made words unnecessary.
Yosuke was the loudest and bristled like Souji'd insulted him. Maybe he had. "No way! We made a promise: no one goes in alone."
"We said that no one goes into the TV alone. I haven't; you're all with me. Going into another part of the TV is—"
"—but allowed," he finished.
Rise bit her lip, looking worried enough that he felt a stab of guilt. "Senpai, this is a bad idea. What if something happens?"
"I'm not going to be alone," he said. "You'll be watching me."
"And if Adachi tries something?" Yosuke asked.
"He won't." Souji tried to sound sure about this, although recent events showed that he hadn't known the man at all and was probably the least qualified person in the room to guess his actions. Still, he was loaded with Persona, with items to get away, and he'd decided one thing about Adachi: the man was a coward. Souji counted on this trait to keep him away.
"We can't be sure about that," Chie said.
"I won't be going in far," Souji said, "not any deeper than we've already been. I just…" He couldn't put it into words, all the doubt and guilt that weighed him down as surely as the fog. "Just trust me."
"It's not a matter of trust," Yukiko said. "One wrong move and you'll be in there without any backup."
"I'll be fine," he said and his tone put an end to it.
No one looked happy with him and while he understood their worry, it wasn't as though he were going in to take on Adachi by himself.
Yosuke stepped close, caught his eye. "Take me with you."
"I can't." He took the harsh edge of his voice and dropped it, turning so that only Yosuke could hear him. "I need to do this by myself, alright?"
Yosuke didn't look convinced. He reached for Souji's hand and Souji flinched away, hating himself for it. He tried to turn the movement into a step back towards the portal but one look told him it hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Yosuke's leader while I'm gone," he said and added, "Don't abuse your newfound power while I'm away," but the joke fell flat. Yosuke watched him, anger and frustration written all over his face, and Souji hesitated, almost gave in and told Yosuke to come with him. If anyone would listen to his problems and help him work himself out, it'd be Yosuke. He wanted it to be Yosuke.
But he'd just gotten his own tangled emotions figured out. He didn't need Souij's problems to start weighing him down again.
"I'll be back before you know it," he said, and went through the portal without a backwards glance.
Magatsu Inaba was bad enough in a group. Alone, it was much worse.
Souji'd learned the first day they entered the portal in search of Adachi not to look at the sky, to ignore the stripes of black and red rotating slowly. He'd learned too that the things he saw moving out of the corner of his eye weren't there – not always – and that the air pressing down on him and stealing his breath away made the sounds carry wrong so that a Shadow down the way might sound right on top of him and some creak in the distance meant he was going to be ambushed.
He didn't want to be here. He didn't like being here, even with his friends watching his back. It made him nervous and put him on edge in a way no other part of the TV world had ever managed.
But here he could think. It was impossible to do that at home, where everything reminded him of the family that wasn't there and his own failure. The silence was too loud; there should have been a TV running downstairs, the sound of Nanako answering the quiz show, her excited shout welcoming Dojima home from a long day of work like it did for Souji when he stepped through the door. Instead there was only the hum of empty refrigerator and the ticking of his clock, reminding him of how little time he had to try and put things right.
He forced himself take a good look around, taking in the police tape strung every which way and the twisted sign posts, details he'd tried to ignore on their other visits. There was a red tinge over his vision as though he were viewing the world with blood in his eyes. Down the pathway, a Shadow dragged itself in circles, unaware of his presence.
The feeling of someone standing behind was worse here. He glanced over his shoulder and bit his tongue when he saw there was nothing to be worried about, annoyed and frustrated his own skittishness. He was trembling. He tried to stop and couldn’t quite manage it.
"Senpai?" The concern in Rise's voice was so at odds with his surroundings that it made him uncomfortable. "Are you okay? You haven't moved yet."
"I'm fine." He gazed at the skyline, a hint that this wrong version of town stretched on much longer than it actually did. Or maybe he was wrong. Maybe Adachi's hold over this part of the TV world was strong enough that he'd replicated all of Inaba for his amusement and somewhere there was a sad version of the Dojima residence that would never be occupied. "I'm just thinking."
"Alright." She sounded doubtful. "If you say so."
Staring at the sky too long hurt his eyes and made him dizzy. He looked instead to the pitch blackness that surrounded the pathway and swallowed hard to settle his stomach. He needed something to fight. He tracked down the Shadow he'd seen earlier.
Souji was in mid-swing when the voice sounded in his head, curious and a little amused. His sword went wide and almost slipped from his grasp, and he barely dodged the Shadow's return blow.
"All by yourself, Souji-kun?"
But, no, this was good. He moved again, blasting the Shadow before it could react and finishing it off. Adachi was another thing he had to deal with, something he couldn't run away from. Better now than later.
"Why are you here? Did you finally get tired of those friends of yours? Decided to ditch them and come after me yourself? I don’t think that's such a good idea."
Something croaked in his ear and he spun around but there was nothing to fight. The Shadow making the sound was barely visible in the distance, its dark form blending into the shadows around it.
"I know you're mad at me, but that's no reason to get stupid. I didn't mean for that to happen to Nanako-chan, it's just the way things turned out."
There was regret in Adachi's voice but Souji knew better than to believe it. He didn't care whether Adachi had meant it to happen or not – he'd had to, the warning note was too specific for anything else – because in the end Souji knew it was his own fault Nanako was in the hospital.
He should have known she was in danger the instant her figure appeared on the Midnight Channel. He'd lived with her for months, he considered himself the big brother she'd never had. How could he have not recognized her? The warning letter should have tipped him off and when Dojima dragged him to the police station, he shouldn't have been content with trying to explain everything. He should have shoved his arm through the TV in the corner and made Dojima believe him.
But he'd missed his chance, just like he'd missed a lot of things.
He'd missed the possibility that there could be more than one person doing this, missed Adachi's real intent every time he'd been close to him. Adachi, sitting at their table and exclaiming over fatty tuna; Adachi, bringing a drunk Dojima home; Adachi, smiling guilelessly at him and laughing to himself over this stupid kid, this dumbass who thought he'd figured everything out.
Because of that, he'd failed everyone – the town, Dojima, Nanako, and the team, and they must have known this although they'd never admit it. Souji hated failing, hated being wrong, and more than anything hated admitting he'd been either. It made him sick to his stomach, but he forced himself to face the fact – I messed up, he fooled me, I should have done better – even though he burned with embarrassment and shame.
He wouldn't make another mistake. There would be no more misunderstandings or false leads, no other chances for Adachi to escape.
He wished a Shadow would show up; he wanted to hit something, hard. He wanted Adachi to start talking again so he could turn his anger on him, but Adachi didn't say anything.
He hadn't been for a while actually. Souji just hadn't noticed.
Missing things again. He dug his nails into his palm. Pay attention, dammit. Hadn't that been his problem, not paying close enough attention?
"Senpai!" Rise's worried voice crashed down on him, so loud that he threw a hand up to clutch his head and stumbled in shock. "Are you okay? I couldn't get hold of you."
"I'm fine," he said, recovering and looking around to make sure nothing was sneaking up on him. "It's nothing."
"What happened? I didn't—I'm asking, Yosuke-senpai, calm down!"
He couldn't help but smile. It was too easy to picture Yosuke angry and waving his arms, demanding answers before they could be given. He made up his mind immediately not to mention Adachi. That'd just bring the group rushing to help him and he was determined to get by without their help today. How often did he rely on one of them to take a hit he didn't see coming? That had to stop. "It was nothing," he repeated. "A bad area. It won't happen again."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm positive. Don't worry, I'm fine."
He needed action to set his mind right. Admitting his faults had been one thing but dwelling on them wouldn't do any good. Fighting – forcing himself to think and act without relying on his friends for backup – would get results, and he threw himself into battle with renewed vigor, calling forth his Persona and unleashing everything in their arsenal. When he cleared the floor, he went to the next and started the process all over again. He didn't let anything go.
After a particularly close battle where he'd almost resorted to using a Vanish Ball, he watched Mada fade away with tired eyes. His hands were cramped from holding his sword and a slow burn was building up in his arms and legs. Mada'd been created from Souji's bond with Yosuke.
"You think I'm an idiot, huh?" Souji looked around reflexively but Adachi's voice was in his head again. It sounded different this time, more towards the back, and Souji realized with discomfort that he could still hear Rise commenting on the last Shadow's resistance. "I know what you're doing, trying to lure me out so your friends can get the drop on me. It's a bold move, I'll give you that. Dojima-san would be proud. But it's stupid, too obvious. You're not a good enough prize, Souji-kun. So let's see how much longer you can keep this up before you wear yourself out. Maybe you'll slip up and get killed by the Shadows. That'd be a nice end to your little plan."
Tempt Adachi out by using himself as bait? Souji'd never considered that and he knew the rest of the group would never let it fly if he had.
"Senpai, aren't you done now? You're looking a little tired and everyone's on edge."
"One more floor," he assured her. He leaned against a sign post and lowered his voice, although he knew it was useless. Only Rise could hear him. "What's Yosuke doing?"
"Don't let him know we're talking about him."
"Oh, okay." She lowered her voice. "He's pacing. He's really not happy with you, Senpai."
"I wouldn't think so." Souji stared at the newspaper on the ground, almost too weathered to be read. He could make out what he thought was Saki-senpai's name. "Tell him…"
Souji wasn't sure. I'm sorry, maybe, or I'll be right there or Come and join me. Whatever he wanted to say, it'd be better to do it directly instead of going through Rise. "Nothing, don't say anything to him. One more floor and I'll be back."
"I'm holding you to that."
Why couldn't he just say it and ask Yosuke to join him? It wasn't as though he didn't want him there. He always wanted Yosuke around; he wanted Yosuke beside him while he fought, wanted him for company during lunch on the roof, in his room to study and in his room for things that had nothing to do with studying. But Yosuke had Junes and school to keep him busy and Teddie to take care of, and Souji had no idea how he'd react to the knowledge that his best friend was rapidly falling in love with him.
Which is why he hadn't invited Yosuke over to his house, though having someone else around would have made staying there more bearable. Alone with him, he'd do something stupid: tell Yosuke I'm worried, I'm scared, I'm lonely when as the leader he wasn't supposed to be any of those things, and if Yosuke tried to be friendly and comfort him he'd do something stupid and scare Yosuke away, ruin the friendship that Souji had come to value so highly.
He intended to say something after they dealt with Adachi. He had to eventually; keeping those feeling bottled up would drive him crazy and the last they needed was for him to suddenly manifest a Shadow. Not that he had any idea of how he'd go about admitting it. He'd always planned to figure that out later.
But hadn't he come here to figure things out?
He pushed his glasses aside and rubbed his eyes. He was getting tired, mentally as well as physically, and confusing himself. He couldn't have Yosuke join him right now. If he did, he might let something slip and now wasn't the time for confessions, especially not in a place like this.
Something rustled behind him and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He turned, sword at the ready, but as expected there was nothing to see, the noise and discomfort just a result of the area playing tricks on his senses.
He wasn't expecting the arm around his neck.
"I lied," Adachi whispered. "This was just too good a chance to pass up."
Souji's hand flew up, trying to pull the arm away from his throat, and he stabbed behind himself. The angle was bad, though, and he only managed to graze Adachi, the man twisting to the side like he'd gone boneless.
Adachi chuckled in his ear, pressed his gun against Souji's back, and pulled the trigger.
Pain ripped through him, lances of fire digging into his brain, worse than anything he'd ever felt. He thought his bones might have shattered and been blown away, lodging into places they'd never been meant to go. When he opened his mouth to scream, Adachi covered it so hard he struggled for breath.
"Come on, none of that," he said calmly. "Aren't you cooler than this? Take it like a man."
The card started to form in his hand. Adachi pulled the trigger again. Souji's hand clenched but it was a mindless reaction to the agony and the card crumbled uselessly into dust.
"Nah, let's not use that." He dragged Souji back a few steps, closer to the edge of the path. Souji's legs wanted to fold but Adachi wouldn't let him fall. "You know, you're not a bad kid. Nosy as hell, sure, but you could be worse. I mean, you're not that Junes kid and that's something. I can see why you lead the group."
Souji tried to focus. Something made its way up his throat, and he couldn't tell if it was blood or bile. It might have been both. Swallowing didn't clear it, just forced it down lower where it sat thick and heavy somewhere over his heart.
"Hmm, how should I do this? You see, I was thinking: you cut off the head and the rest of the snake dies, right? So I kill you – you're the head, obviously – and your little friends won't know what to do. And with you wandering around by yourself…that turned out to be too good a chance to pass up. Even if it is a trap, I figure if I'm fast enough then the joke will be on you guys."
Rise! His voice echoed in his skull, the link established by her Persona somehow severed by Adachi's presence. He wanted to try calling his own again – to heal himself, to attack Adachi – but the gun was still turned on him and he knew the slightest shine of his card would result in another shot. His sword was out of reach. Think, think…
"The problem is, how should I do it?" Adachi genuinely conflicted, like a person who had two equally appealing choices of what to have for dinner. He pressed the gun into one of the bullet holes, and Souji groaned against his hand, sure this time that there was blood in his mouth. "Do I off you here, nice and quick, or do I throw you to the Shadows so your friends can find your body all torn up? That's better, I think, but there's always the chance you might survive."
Keep talking. If he could reach it, would a Goho-M do any good or would it just bring Adachi down on his unsuspecting friends? No chancing it. He had to come up with something, but he couldn't manage it.
What had Yosuke said so long ago? He was the ideas man.
"You know what? I bet if I tossed you off here, your body would end up hanging from a pole tomorrow. Yeah." Out of the corner of his eye, Souji could see the smile spread over Adachi's face and it turned his blood to ice. "I think that'll work. Your friends will love that. I wonder how long you'll fall—Shit!"
Adachi tossed him aside. Souji didn't have time for panic; he slammed into the ground and the relief of not being thrown off the edge was accompanied by a new wave of pain. He rolled onto his good side, glasses askew, and looked up. Susano-o's circular blade was embedded in the rock surrounding the portal. Adachi stood beside it, eyes wide, and a bloody tear on his shoulder. He met Souji's eye and his shock disappeared, transformed into quick action. He raised his gun again.
"You son of a bitch!"
With an ear-splitting screech, the blade tore itself free from the rock and hurled at Adachi. His shot went wide, embedding itself into the ground somewhere near Souji's head, and he dove back through the portal.
His laugh sounded breathlessly in Souji's head – "What I tell you? You're not worth it, kid." – but Souji barely heard it. His attention was on Yosuke, skidding to a stop in front of him and falling to his knees.
"Fuck, he shot you. Fuck!" Yosuke pressed his hands hard against the wounds – that mixture climbed higher up Souji's throat – and glared at the portal like he wanted to give chase. "I told you this was going to happen. You should have taken me with you!"
"Y-yeah." Souji turned his head, blood and bile dripping out of his mouth.
"Rise couldn't find you, said something about there being a bad area—"
"Senpai!" As if she'd heard them, her voice cracked through the air. "Don't move, we're coming!"
"He can't move," Yosuke said. "Adachi shot him, get Yukiko up here. Where is everyone, what's taking them so long?!"
"Shot, how—She's coming as fast as she can, Senpai, don't worry. And Yosuke-senpai, I told you not to run off like that, you left everyone behind."
"It's a good thing I did." Yosuke tried to watch every direction at once as though expecting Adachi to jump out of the shadows. "I can't believe you did this… Why…" His shoulders slumped, anger temporarily pushed aside as hurt took its place. "Why'd you leave me behind?"
"Had to think." Breathing was agony, but talking managed to be something worse. Souji gave his reply through gritted teeth, hands clutching at his shirt in a futile attempt to lessen the pain.
"And I couldn't help?"
"Didn't want to bother—"
"Bother me? What the hell? What…" He stopped, changed whatever he had been going to say. "I'm your partner. We're supposed to be equals. That means I tell you all my shit and you tell me yours. You wouldn't be bothering me."
"I've been all messed up lately, I—I can't think." He had to stop talking and swallowed hard, did it again when it didn't help. He didn't want to vomit; he worried if he started then he wouldn't be able to stop, that he might bring up something important.
"Don't worry about thinking." Yosuke leaned closer. "I'll do that for you."
"I'm here!" Yukiko knelt behind Souji, pushing Yosuke's hands away. So much of Souji hurt that he barely noticed the pressure of her fingers touching him.
"Don't you have to take the bullets out of him or something?" Yosuke continued to hover until Yukiko pushed him away impatiently to get a better look. "I mean, if you heal him won't they stay in? Are they in?"
"I assume Yukiko-senpai's healing will force them out, although if they're visible I think it's best to try and remove them." Naoto strode into view, walking faster than usual, and when she caught sight of him her mouth tightened. Behind her came Kanji and Teddie, Chie and even Rise, who immediately knelt down next to him and smoothed his hair away from his head.
"Senpai…" Her face was pale and her eyes watered, but she gave him a weak, reassuring smile. "Don't worry, it'll be fine."
"What happened?" Chie couldn't meet his gaze, eyes locked on the bloody mess that had Yukiko's attention.
"Adachi," Yosuke answered. He fumbled with one of Souj's hand, prying his fingers loose and slipping his own hand into the grip. "Here, squeeze when it hurts."
Souji closed his eyes and concentrated on trying not to break Yosuke's fingers. He was shaking but he couldn't stop no matter how hard he tried, like some part of his brain was no longer under his control.
"Sensei." There was a squeak and then Teddie was clutching at his legs, grip made clumsy by the claw over one hand.
"Naoto-kun, can you come here?" Yukiko touched the back of his neck. "Sorry, Souji-kun, this is going to hurt."
He thought one of them was digging around in the wound, looking for the bullets. He didn't know and at this point he didn't care. He coughed once, hard, spit and blood and bile coming up, and he wasn't sure what would happen first, whether he'd shake himself apart or bring up pieces of his kidney.
He knew he was holding Yosuke's hand too hard but Yosuke didn’t complain. "Come on, you two, what's taking so long?"
"He's right," Naoto said. "Any longer and I worry Souji-senpai will face permanent damage. There doesn't appear to be anything left inside anyway."
"I'll trust Amaterasu." Being healed was always odd and, when the injuries were severe, painful. Souji's legs kicked out as his flesh knit itself back together, skin and muscle and bone reforming impossibly, and he curled in on himself, pressing his face into the gravel and trying to get away from the pain. It was like being shot all over again; fire raced through his veins and his mind went blank.
When he came to, he was panting and sweating, the group still gathered protectively around him. Yosuke's face a silent mask of pain and Souji realized he was twisting his hand. He let it go and opened his mouth to apologize but everything he'd been holding back rushed forward. He barely managed to pick his head up off the ground before he was vomiting hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, the bile burning his nose and throat, the tender, newly healed skin pulled tight as his stomach heaved.
He moaned miserably, exhausted and shivering, and only Kanji's arm around his waist prevented him from falling face first into his own mess as his arms gave out.
"I got you, Senpai, it's alright."
Kanji pulled him up and swung his arm over his shoulder. Yosuke mirrored the movement on the other side and reached into his pocket for a Goho-M. The warp back to the entrance threw Souji off-balance and he heaved again, ruining the floor of the back lot and his friends' shoes.
"Ugh, shit." Talking still hurt, his throat sore from being sick. "Sorry."
"Not a big deal, partner." Yosuke helped him straighten back up. "Kanji, I’m going to need your help taking him back home."
For the first time, Souji was grateful for the fog. There were few people to see them as they walked through Junes and down the street and those that did shied away, sure he'd gotten sick and unwilling to risk catching it. Before long he was being settled on his couch, where he wiped his mouth and lay down, too tired to keep his eyes open.
"I'll be back in a few, Yosuke-senpai, I just got to go tell Ma first."
"Alright." The front door closed and then Yosuke was moving around the house, looking for something. "Hey, Souji, I'm going to use the bathroom and then get you a change of clothes, okay?"
Souji made a noise to let him know he'd heard him and curled up.
He woke to the sounds of the TV running too loudly, of dishes clattering in the kitchen and voices arguing.
"Chie, no, get out of kitchen!"
"Back off, Yosuke, I know what I'm doing. My mom makes this all the time. Something like this, anyway."
"Whatever she makes, there is no way she adds that much hot sauce."
Souji cracked his eyes open. Someone had removed his glasses. Teddie was sitting in front of the television set and watching some historical drama, attention captured by the elaborate customs and over-the-top acting. Steam rolled out of the kitchen and the smell of something good cooking made his mouth water and stomach twist, suddenly very aware that it'd been a while since he'd last eaten.
"Commercial! I get to help now!" Teddie jumped up and ran towards the kitchen. Yosuke grabbed his arm and steered him back to the TV.
"No, Ted, stay over there, please. And didn't I tell you to turn this down, you're going to wake Souji up." He glanced over. "Ah, too late."
"Sensei!" Teddie broke free from Yosuke's grip and knelt down next to the couch, searching Souji's face for signs of illness. "How are you feeling?"
"Better." His body still ached, arms and legs too heavy. He stretched out and the blanket that had been put over him slipped, letting in a rush of cooler air. He tugged it back up self-consciously. "…Where'd my shirt go?"
"Sorry, partner, I took it off. Figured you be more comfortable that way." Yosuke came to stand next to him. "I threw it in the wash but, I don’t know, it's probably ruined."
"Yeah." It'd be hard to patch up the holes in it. He had a spare anyway.
"Oh, Senpai's up?" Rise pushed Yosuke aside and smiled as she leaned over Souji. "We're making you dinner, something extra special. You like spicy food, right?"
"Don't worry," Yosuke said, seeing the look on his face, "Kanji's doing the bulk of the cooking and I'm making sure the girls don’t sneak anything in."
Rise puffed her cheeks out. "Don't worry, Senpai, I'm going to make you dessert all by myself."
Behind her, Yosuke shook his head.
The front door slid open and Naoto entered, carrying a bag she placed by the growing pile of shoes. "I've gotten permission to stay the night."
"Oh yeah," Yosuke said, "we're all crashing here. Hope you don't mind. What have you got, Naoto?"
"Unlike the rest of you, I thought to bring a change of clothes."
"I figured I'd just sleep in this," Yosuke said, "or wear some of Souji's stuff. Uh, if you don’t mind, partner."
"Oh, wearing Senpai's sleep clothes?" Rise's smile took on a teasing edge. "I'll just do the same."
"Me too, me too!" Teddie looked ecstatic at the idea.
"Come on, we're not all messing with his stuff," Yosuke said. "You sleep alright, Souji? You were out by the time I came back downstairs."
"It was fine." Souji sat up, yawning and stretching, aware that most of the room was watching him but unable to care. He pulled the blanket back up to try and cover himself. Rise pouted. "I feel better already. Tomorrow'll be no problem."
"Yeah, about tomorrow," Yosuke said. "We're not spending it in the TV."
"Can wait one day, Senapi." Rise helped him rearrange his blanket. "Don't worry about it, we've got it all figured out."
"Chie-senpai, I got this, I'm serious," Kanji said, exasperated. "Just…go help Yukiko lay out the plates. That's an important job. Has to be done just so, you know?"
"Well, if you say so…" She and Yukiko started placing the dinnerware on the living room table. She handed Souji's plate to him with a quick grin. "You can eat up here."
"Thanks." He looked back at Yosuke. "What's this about waiting?"
"Later," Kanji said, walking over with a frying pan in hand. "Everyone sit down, dinner's ready."
He doled out the food, and Souji's mouth actually hurt when he took the first bite, unprepared for the rush of flavor. Kanji caught his wince. "Something wrong with it, Senpai?"
"No," he said, "it's really good. Great job, Kanji."
Kanji bowed his head and went red. "It's nothing. I had to go to Junes to get most of the ingredients. You didn't have anything inside your fridge except that frozen pre-cooked crap. That's not good for you, you know."
"I…haven't been in the mood to cook lately."
"Well," Yosuke said in an effort to lighten the mood again, "everyone gets lazy once in a while. Souji can't be an amazing chef twenty-four-seven—Chie, it does not need more hot sauce!"
"Hey, you pay attention to your own plate and let me do what I want to mine." She took a large bite, staring at him defiantly, and almost immediately her expression went sour. "Urgh, maybe that was a bad idea…"
"You have to eat it," Kanji said, joining them at the crowded table. "That's all there is."
"Yukiko, share with me, please? I think I ruined mine."
"You can share with me, Chie-chan."
"Aw, thanks, Teddie."
"I can feed myself!"
The food was good but Souji's stomach was still tender and so he spent more time watching his friends and enjoying their company than actually eating. When they were more or less done, Naoto turned to Souji with a look on her face that made his mouth twist.
"Now that we've all eaten, I believe we should deal with the issue at hand. Senpai, why exactly did you insist so heavily upon going by yourself this afternoon?"
The conversation stopped. "Way to ruin the mood," Yosuke said, but he put his fork down and looked at Souji for the answer.
"I had to think." That wasn't a fair answer, not to his friends who'd worried about him dying. "About a lot of stuff. Nanako and Dojima and Adachi and… I couldn’t do it here, it…" It was hard to explain how the house felt when he had it to himself, but he tried, struggling to find the right words. "It's dark and empty, and I keep thinking if I had done something sooner, thought about it harder, I could have…"
Telling it to others was infinitely harder than just admitting it to himself. His faced burned and he stared at his lap.
"Oh, Souji-kun, don't…" His face grew warmer at the concern in Chie's voice. "You know you could have talked to us about it."
"I didn't… You've all got your own things to worry about."
"Sorry, Senpai, but that's a pretty shitty excuse." Kanji scowled at him. "You're busy too but you never turned one of us down when we needed a shoulder to lean on. What makes you think we wouldn't do the same?"
"I didn't think you'd turn me away or anything, and that's the problem. I'm supposed to—to keep it together, I like being—" In control, the person who had everything together, the one the others could look to for a calm voice of reason. He couldn't think of a word to describe this, though; everything that came to mind made it sound as if he wanted to be better than them and that wasn't it.
"We didn't make you leader so because we thought you were some invincible know-it-all," Yosuke said, gesturing violently. "If something's wrong, you tell us and we work it out together. That's how this works."
"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." He ran a hand across his face, rubbed at his eyes. His head hurt and there was a pressure like he might start to cry. "It won't happen again."
"Do you want something, Souji-kun?" Yukiko asked. "Something to drink maybe?"
"What about dessert?" Rise asked. "I can still whip something up."
"Maybe I should help you with that, Rise," Kanji said. "We don't need Senpai getting sick."
Souji wiped at his eyes. "I need a shirt."
"Here." Yosuke shrugged one of his off and handed it over. "I've got two anyway."
"Oh," Rise said as he put it on, "I thought you wouldn't notice that, I was enjoying the view."
He chuckled and finished doing up the buttons. "I'm going to lie down again. I've got a headache."
"Next time," he promised and hoped Kanji did the bulk of the cooking. "But about not going tomorrow—"
"We figured it'd be better to rest up," Chie said. "We've all been pushing ourselves pretty hard and a day to relax will help us when we finally face Adachi."
"I was leader while you were gone," Yosuke reminded him. "So I pulled rank and went over your head."
"While I was unconscious?"
"Figured it applied then too. Emergency situation and all that."
Souji curled back up again and laughed. "Sounds good."
Nothing specific woke up Souji the second time. One moment he was dreaming about Dojima chasing him and the next he was staring into the darkness and trying to recall when exactly he had fallen asleep.
He hadn't thought about where his friends would sleep and a glance showed them all scattered about around the room. Someone had brought his futon down and Yukiko and Chie shared it, one of Chie's arms thrown over Yukiko's back. Kanji and Naoto were on one side of the kotatsu, and Rise and Teddie on the other. Yosuke's back rested against the couch and his head was at an awkward angle, rolled towards Souji with his hanging mouth open and headphones pressing into his cheek.
Souji held his breath for a moment and listened but he could barely make out the clock or the refrigerator, the sounds of his friends' breathing and sleepy mumbles drowning them out.
He reached forward and pushed the hair away from Yosuke's face, amused at how uncomfortable he looked. It reminded Souji of the campout and having to squeeze together in the tent, how flustered Yosuke had been at having to sleep so close to him. His hand continued down, brushing over Yosuke's cheek and curling up over his neck, where he could faintly feel Yosuke's pulse under the back of his hand.
Yosuke woke with a shift that dropped Souji's hand to his collarbone and looked at Souji with bleary eyes. "Hey."
"Hey." Souji was careful to whisper, unwilling to disturb the rest of his friends. "You're not wearing my shirt."
"What? Oh, I changed my mind about that. Figured if I did then Rise and Teddie would want to and before long all of your clothes would be dirty."
"Hmmm, thanks for saving them."
"No problem." With hands clumsy from sleep, Yosuke pulled his headphones off and pushed them under the couch, and twisted so he wasn't straining his neck. He threw an arm over Souji's side to get comfortable, fingers coming to rest on top of his shirt. "You okay?"
"You guys keep asking me that. I'm fine."
"Even with telling us what was in your head? Your face was pretty red earlier."
"I'm okay. Really." Souji was glad he hadn't given into tears earlier. He was always a mess when he cried, red-faced and sobbing and he always ended up with a headache. The embarrassment might have killed him.
"Alright, I believe you." His fingers moved a little, tracing the collar of Souji's borrowed shirt. "You know," he said slowly, "I was thinking earlier. Maybe you don't get this whole partner thing."
Souji tensed, narrowing his eyes to try and see Yosuke's face better. "I'm just as invested in this partnership as you are."
"Maybe?" His fingers were distracting. They pressed closer, so that when they moved across the cloth they also ghosted against the back of Souji's neck. The feeling went to every point of his body. "I think you want to be but… You're not quite. You have to be willing to share stuff with me, Souji."
"I do, I am. That," he added when Yosuke opened his mouth, "earlier was a mistake. I won't do it again."
"You better not." He leaned forward, resting his chin on the couch, face closer than Souji thought he'd dare if the lights were on and their friends awake. Closer than he needed to be, even whispering, and something about his voice sounded different than a moment ago, a little scratchy and pitched low.
Souji moved his legs restlessly, wishing Yosuke's fingers would still and hoping they didn't.
"I was pissed after I saw you earlier; I wanted to punch you for not taking me. And then when you told us you had all this crap on your mind and you weren't telling me any of it, I wanted to hit you all over again." Some hint of his earlier anger crept into Yosuke's voice. "We're partners. You're supposed to be able to tell me anything, even the stupid stuff, the things you think aren't worth mentioning."
"What about the weird stuff?"
"What about…the really weird stuff?" Souji stared at Yosuke hard enough that his eyes began to hurt. "The stuff you might not like?"
"All of it. Who knows, maybe…" He chuckled and looked away. His fingers had gone still but they were still warm and heavy on Souji's skin. "Maybe there's something in your head I've been wanting to hear."
Souji's mouth was dry. "Yosuke—"
"But not now, not..." Someone moved in the dark, let out a muffled groan.
"When we're alone," Souji promised. He was glad Yosuke stopped him; he wasn't sure what he had been going to say. Yosuke could have meant a lot of things. There was no reason to jump to conclusions. "After…after Adachi, I'll tell you everything. You'll get sick of hearing me talk."
"Ha." Yosuke smiled sleepily. "I'm looking forward to it, partner."
"Alright, let's do this." They were in the bedroom again, ready to tackle the last floor that prevented them from reaching Adachi. Souji ran his eyes across the group, everyone keyed up and eager to get this over with. "Teddie and Kanji, you're in today."
Yosuke rocked on his heels, cast him a glance that was a little anxious. "What about me?"
"Goes without saying, right, partner?"
Yosuke grinned and knocked shoulders with him. Souji leaned against him too hard and for too long, but Yosuke returned the pressure, catching his eye and angling his head so that only Souji could see the new tilt to his smile. It was shy and hesitant, and it might not have meant anything, but it made Souji go a little weak. He returned it and hoped his face wasn't turning red.
Kanji gave him a hard pat on the back. "Ready when you are, Senpai."
"Right." Souji didn't shake when they went through the portal this time. He had Yosuke at his side, his friends at his back, and he felt better than he had in weeks.
He could do this.
And for the first time in a while, Souji actually believed himself.