Souji’s not a hard taskmaster in the other world. He’s focused and driven and he always wants to save people as quickly as possible, but they’re all like that, and he understands their limits. Nobody wants to be the one to say Can’t they wait another day? My legs are starting to cramp and I’m really goddamn hungry, so they shut up and keep going until Souji tells them it’s time to go home. He knows how much they can take, and if he sees them seriously flagging to the point where it’s starting to interfere with battle, he’ll call it quits. Better to start again tomorrow, refreshed, than to waste their energy getting nowhere. That’s usually how it goes, anyway.
Things are different in November.
They’re all tired, pushing past the point of exhaustion when it almost costs them everything. Souji trips up, takes a hit he should have dodged, and a minute later they’re all panic-stricken and huddled around his bloody, battered body as Yukiko works the last of her healing to bring him back from the very brink of an edge they can’t follow him over. That’s when they know it’s time to leave.
“Don’t push so hard,” Yosuke tells him on their way home. “You’re no good to Nanako-chan if you’re a smear on the floor in there.”
Souji doesn’t say anything. He’s a mess. His clothes are torn, his hair dishevelled and still a little bloody, but nothing compared to what he looked like before Yukiko had saved him. They walk in silence until they have to part ways, and then Yosuke says goodbye to him, tells him to rest and eat something so he won’t look so pale-faced and stricken. Souji promises to do just that. Yosuke walks about ten minutes in the opposite direction before he decides that he doesn’t believe him, and doubles back. Just to make sure.
The Dojima house is dark and quiet, but he could see the bathroom light on from outside so he knows he’s home. He lets himself in, toes off his shoes, and pads softly up the stairs to the bathroom door.
He knows Souji’s in there; even through the door, he can distinctly hear the trickling and splashing of water being disturbed. Yosuke slides the door open just a little (and takes care not to peek inside), just enough so Souji can hear his voice this time when he says, “Hey, partner. You in there?”
The water goes still. He can hear breathing now, in the silence that follows. “Yes,” says Souji, but the word is strange. Tight, and strained, like someone’s choking it out of his throat. Is he –? No way. Yosuke feels warmth flash in his cheeks. Figures – the one time he drops by unannounced and he catches Souji doing that. Brain cleanup, aisle three.
“I-is everything all right? You sound…” Yosuke licks his lips. His tongue sticks to them. “Um…”
“Fine,” says Souji, the word accompanied by a quiet, shuddering breath and another splash of water that makes Yosuke feel a little dizzy. “I’m fine, I’ll – I’ll be out in…”
Hey, man, don’t stop on my account, are the words that make it as far as the tip of Yosuke’s tongue, but they don’t get any further. He raises his eyes, thinking that it’s okay to look as far as the door itself – it’s not like he can see anything, not like he’s trying to peek at Souji jerking off in the bath, jeez – and his joke withers and dies before he can voice it. There’s a sink and a mirror and some small hand towels in the first section of the bathroom, and he can see them all easily from this angle.
There’s blood on everything.
Yosuke freezes, eyes wide, heart suddenly pounding like a jackhammer against his ribcage as the afternoon’s events come rushing back to him. Oh god, he’s still hurt, he’s still— He grips the door hard and throws it open, startling Souji, who looks up at him with wide, reddened eyes, his hands halfway to his face.
He’s sitting in a tub full of red bathwater, fully clothed. His white dress shirt is stained pink up to the collar.
“Oh my god,” Yosuke breathes, hand clasped over his mouth.
“I’m fine,” Souji says again, but his body is betraying him: he’s shaking his head. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m – please, just…”
“Holy fuck, Souji, is that – are you—?!“ No, no – Souji’s hands are still raised out of the water; no marks on his wrists. Yosuke almost deflates in relief, but he can’t, because even if he’s not currently bleeding to death, he’s still sitting in bloodstained water. Still not okay. “What are you doing?”
Souji’s still shaking his head, shoulders hunched, arms now tucked across his chest defensively. His uniform jacket, torn in the attack that almost killed him, is on the floor in the washing area, blocking the drain, soaking in a puddle of pink water half an inch deep from where Souji must have tried to rinse himself unsuccessfully. Yosuke gets it now: the stains weren’t visible on his black uniform earlier, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. He moves as close as he can without stepping in the water, but Souji doesn’t look at him.
He doesn’t know what to do or what to say. His feet want him to run the hell out of there, go back downstairs and wait for Souji to pull himself together and – and then what? Study? Play games for the rest of the night, pretending that he never saw any of this? He can’t. He can’t, dammit, he can’t. He can’t leave Souji here by himself in a state like this.
“Souji, you… you have to come out,” Yosuke says, and even though he’s sure he’s only speaking at a whisper, the acoustics in the bathroom make his voice sound so much louder. “Look, you’re – you’re getting the water dirty…”
Souji puts his head down so far Yosuke thinks he’s about to plunge it into the water (open his mouth, breathe deep, and oh god, please don’t—) and he regrets saying it immediately. What does it matter if the goddamn water is dirty? Dojima and Nanako aren’t here, haven’t been here for a week. Who’s going to use it after him?
“I’m sorry.” Souji’s apology is whispered to the water; it ripples under his breath. His bangs are getting wet. They’ll be dyed pink too, if he doesn’t lift his head up in a second (c’mon, Souji, head up, head up, please—). “I just… I got home and I was going to wash my clothes, but… I opened the washer, and…”
He shakes his head again, and doesn’t finish, but Yosuke doesn’t need him to. He thinks he can see it pretty clearly in his mind’s eye: Souji trudging across the empty house, stripping off his tattered jacket, opening the door to the laundry room and then preparing to deposit his bloody clothing in the washing machine, and there’s a load of Nanako’s clothes already sitting inside. He hasn’t done laundry since it happened, after all. He slams the door shut and goes upstairs. His clothes are dirty. He’s dirty. Why not clean everything at once.
It’s the kind of thing that makes a lot of sense, if you haven’t slept in a week.
Yosuke gives up trying to think of something to say. There’s nothing. He can’t drag Souji out, and he can’t leave him here. So he does the only thing he can think to do, the only thing he can do.
Souji looks up as Yosuke sets his bag down, watches blankly as he pulls his socks off (absurdly, like it even matters), and makes a small noise in his throat as Yosuke steps over the side of the tub and sinks up to his knees in the hot water. His uniform slacks cling to his legs like they do when it rains, and it’s gross and he hates the feeling more than anything. He needs to be completely soaked or completely dry, not somewhere in between. All or nothing. So he sits down.
There’s only enough room for both of them if Yosuke presses up close to Souji’s back, so he does, knees spread apart and jutting out above the surface. His mass displaces some water and it splashes up and over the side of the tub in a pink waterfall.
“You don’t… have to…”
“It’s okay, man,” Yosuke murmurs to his back. There’s dried blood on the collar of his ruined dress shirt, and on the nape of his neck. He raises a hand out of the water, hesitates, listens to the droplets trickling off his fingers and sleeve and down his wrist into the tub. His hand jerks forward, and back again, like he’s conducting a goddamn symphony. God, he’s so— it’s not a big deal, Yosuke, just— “You can’t have it together all the time, y’know? It’s okay to be…”
He trails off, unsure of how to finish, of which unfamiliar adjective he’s supposed to attach to him right now (normal; imperfect; human). He’s had this image of Souji in his head ever since the start of everything, and those words don’t fit that image at all.
But neither does this.
His hand makes contact with Souji’s neck. He feels his pulse beating warm and slow under nervous fingertips, before the low slope of Souji’s shoulders hitches up rigidly at the gentle touch. Before he can chicken out Yosuke wipes the blood clean with firm, sure strokes of his thumb, and after a tense moment, Souji relaxes and tilts his head down to give him better access. Yosuke dips his hand into the water, cupping some in his palm, and brings it back up to his neck to wash away the smear left by his thumb. The excess water goes down Souji’s shirt. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’m sorry,” Souji whispers again. Yosuke wishes he would stop apologizing when he doesn’t even know why he’s doing it. There’s still a smattering of blood in his hair, too, so Yosuke starts washing that next. “You were right. I know we – we need to rest and if we don’t it’ll be someone else next time who gets hurt. But I can’t help it. Every second I’m not in there I…”
Yosuke rests his palm against Souji’s back. His stained shirt is thin – he can feel tense, knotted muscle beneath his hand, and he sort of rubs it, absently, in a comforting kind of gesture. Souji exhales a hard, ragged breath.
“You’re doing fine,” he assures him. “And… I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re worried about her. We’ll go tomorrow. We’ll get her back.”
“I can’t… I couldn’t…”
There’s a desperate edge to his voice that gives Yosuke resolve – because he can’t listen to this. He can’t see Souji this way. He knows he should, knows it makes him a shitty person after everything that Souji has done for him, but he can’t. Souji is such a pillar of his own strength that he can’t bear to watch him crumble. He’s not that strong yet.
“I brought this on her,” Souji rasps. “It’s my fault, my fault, all my—“
He leans forward, hides his face in the crook of Souji’s neck and winds his arms around his chest. Souji stops talking, holds his breath; pressed this close together, it’s noticeable when his lungs stop heaving. Later, years later, when he’s holding him just like this in their bed, he’ll remember how comfortably Souji fit into his arms when he did it; right now, he’s just glad it dams the swell of Souji’s self-loathing.
“You can do it,” Yosuke tells him, forehead pressed against the damp fabric of his shirt. “You can.”
“Yes, you can. Souji, you have… never, ever given up on anyone or anything since you got here. I know it’s hard. I know. But you’re not going to give up. I’m not going to let you.”
Mercifully, Souji says nothing. Yosuke tightens his grip.
“You’re our leader,” he continues, “but I’m your second. When you can’t go any further, I’ll do what I can. I’ll carry you. I’ll drag you, goddammit, kicking and screaming if I have to. Just… please…”
The silence stretches out. They’re so still that even the water remains mostly quiet and undisturbed. Then, after what seems like a few hundred years, Souji begins to shake.
Yosuke grimaces, and shuts his eyes. Great. Just great. As if finding him fully-clothed in a bathtub wasn’t horrible enough, now he’s gone and made him cry. Good job, Yosuke. Some friend you are. “Sorry, partner,” he mumbles. “God, I’m sorry. I don’t know…”
“Don’t be…” says Souji, and the words make Yosuke’s eyes fly open and his head snap up. Souji’s laughing, not crying – although judging by the thickness of his voice and the way he turns his face further away from Yosuke’s, he’s probably doing both. “I… thanks.”
Yosuke slumps against his back, relieved to hear him sounding a little more like – like the other Souji. Not more like himself, because this weakness is a part of him, too, like a Shadow. But more like the Souji he’s more familiar with, anyway. “Hey, don’t worry. I’ve got your back. When I say ’partners’, I mean it. Okay?”
“Apparently. You didn’t have to climb in here just to prove we’re equal, you know. I would have believed you.”
Yosuke thumps him on the chest. “Ass.”
They share a moment of halting laughter; now that the tension’s been broken, sitting in the bath with all their clothes on feels more and more ridiculous with each passing second. When they stop, Yosuke doesn’t let go, and Souji doesn’t try to shove him off.
“You’re… really something,” Souji says. And even though Yosuke’s the one who said it first, months ago on the floodplain, heat creeps up his neck and settles into his cheeks in a way that probably has nothing to do with the hot bathwater, and everything to do with the quiet, almost shy way he says it.
“You, too,” he mumbles. “…Don’t know anyone else who could pull off a pink uniform shirt, dude.”
Souji laughs again and pinches the skin on the back of his hand. It’s punishment, but that’s okay. It also lets him know the whole thing – breakdown and bathwater and Souji’s warm, solid back – isn’t a dream.