They were all gathered on the train platform. The Investigation Team, Dojima and Nanako, and the departing Souji. They'd taken turns giving their hugs and saying their goodbyes (some more tearful than others), and now it was just Souji and Yosuke, facing each other on the platform.
"So. Uh." Yosuke reached one hand behind his head, rubbing at his hair. Souji could see it sticking up as he mussed it. "I'm...we're gonna miss you, partner."
"Yeah." Souji's eyes dropped from Yosuke's head to his own feet. "I mean, it won't be forever."
"Of course not." Yosuke's response was sharp and quick. "It's just, y'know. It's still gonna be a while. Not knowing what's going on with you. It's gonna be weird, after spending basically every day together." The last was almost a mumble, directed at his sneakers.
"We'll do it again." In the far distance, Souji could hear the steady rhythm of an approaching train. Yosuke could hear it too, apparently, from the way his eyes cut sharply to the side.
"Be safe," he said quickly. "You gotta come back in one piece. F-for Nanako. And us. And you gotta call."
The others could hear the train now, evidenced by Nanako and Rise tearing up all over again.
"I will," Souji said. There was so much else he wanted to say. I couldn't have made it through this without you.
I don't know what I'm going to do on my own.
I don't want to leave you.
But the train was approaching, louder and louder, the vibrations rumbling up through his feet to rattle his spine. Panic filled his chest and when he tried to force words through his lips he found his hand moving instead.
He grabbed the front of Yosuke's shirt and tugged him to a height more even with his own. In front of his family, their friends, God, and everyone, he kissed Yosuke full on the mouth.
The train doors opened. Souji pulled away from Yosuke, hand still fisted in his shirt. Yosuke's eyes were wide and uncomprehending. Souji could feel his heartbeat in his ears. At the very corner of his vision, he could see the blurry outline of Rise, hands clapped to her mouth.
The train doors opened. Souji released Yosuke's shirt and he stumbled backwards a few steps, gaze never leaving Souji’s face.
They froze like that for a few more moments, and then Souji's panic caught up with the rest of him and he darted onto the train. The last thing he saw - Yosuke's face, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape - burned into his memory, even as he collapsed into an aisle seat and buried his face in his hands.
Souji started back to school soon after his return to the city - not home, not anymore - sliding back into the familiar routines easily enough. The people he'd left behind, however, were harder to reconnect with. They didn't know what he knew now. Didn't know the truth. About themselves, or anything else. He felt a little pretentious thinking that way, but he figured he'd earned it a little, after everything.
He picked up his phone about a dozen times in the first few weeks, scrolling to his text chain with Yosuke, and then closing back out. That lessened, as time went on, though he still kept in touch with the others. The most he heard of Yosuke was from Nanako, telling him he'd helped her and Dojima set up video calls, and that he still brought Teddie over sometimes.
He even stopped thinking about The Thing, as he was calling it in his mind. (The word "kiss" was forbidden, banished from his vocabulary until the heat death of the universe.) At least, he stopped thinking about it all the time. It went from occupying his every thought to just blindsiding him occasionally, usually at night as he was falling asleep. He wasn't sure which was worse.
Sometimes the memory resurfaced in his dreams. There it changed, morphed into things that definitely had not happened. Yosuke definitely had not wrapped a hand around the back of his neck, turning his head to deepen the kiss. Souji definitely had not pulled Yosuke even closer than before, feeling the heat trapped between their bodies.
And more than anything, Yosuke definitely had not pulled away, touching his forehead to Souji's, and said what Souji heard him say in his dream. That, even more than the kiss, was beyond the impossible.
There were other dreams, of things that definitely did not happen earlier in the year, but those were familiar by now. Those had happened about twice a week in Inaba, and at the time had been a welcome reprieve from the nightmares. Now they were just reminders of a friendship - a partnership - he was pretty sure he'd ruined forever.
There was one long weekend, around mid-April, where Rise came to visit. She called Souji from the train station, and he scrambled to make the house presentable before she arrived. (His parents, as usual, weren't home. He often wondered, with no small amount of bitterness, why they'd insisted he come back.)
He opened the door to a squeal of "Senpai!" and a tight hug around the neck. Souji was startled at first, then wrapped his arms around her in return. She'd brought Inaba with her, in the scent of her clothes - and the Aiya bag at her feet.
"This stuff travels surprisingly well," she said when he pointed it out. "I figured you'd want something from home."
She said it very firmly, like she was prepared to shout him down if he disagreed. He didn't, and wouldn't in a million years.
"So," she said, as he leaned back from the table feeling entirely too full and immensely satisfied. "Have you heard from Yosuke?"
He opened one eye to look at her. She was leaning on the table, chin resting in one hand, watching him patiently.
"No," he said simply, sitting back up.
"Didn't think so. Every time we start talking about you he goes all quiet and sulky until we change she subject." She sighed, an annoyed little huff of air. "Boys."
"Sorry." He leaned forward again, resting his forehead on the table between two empty bowls. After a moment, he felt Rise's fingers in his hair.
"Don't be. Confessions are never easy, and rarely go the way you want them to." The fingers still. "There were still about fifty ways you could have done that better."
"I know," Souji groaned. Rise's fingers went back to combing through his hair. "I've thought about most of them three million times since I left."
"He misses you," she said quietly. "He won't admit it, because he's confused and I think a little upset still, but he misses you. A little more than the rest of us."
Souji turned his head to look at her. "Even more than you?"
She flushed a little. "Yeah. More than me."
"...sorry," he said, sitting up. "About...that."
She shook her head. "The heart wants what it wants," she said simply, then frowned. "Which is a really stupid platitude, and I hate it, but it's just so fucking accurate most of the time."
Souji laughed a little, leaning one elbow on the table and looking out the living room's small window. "I miss him too," he said quietly. "I miss all of you, obviously, but at least you're talking to me."
"While we're indulging in platitudes," Rise said after a moment's hesitation. "That's a two-way street, Senpai."
He looked over at her. She was smiling, softly and a little sadly, and he gave a weary sigh.
"You're right," he responded. "You're always right."
"I know," she said, voice and smile turning chipper, and Souji couldn't help but laugh.
They spent the rest of the day out together, and Souji saw her off at the train station, feeling his heart sink as she took Inaba back with her.
Then he sat on a bench, staring at his phone where he'd pulled up his text chain with Yosuke for the five millionth time. With a deep breath, he started typing.
Sorry about the train station.
No, that wasn't right. The time for non-awkward apologies had long since past, and anyway he wasn't sure there was a non-awkward way to even reference that day.
I miss you.
Nope. Even though it was the truth, it was too familiar, too...intimate.
He stared at the text. That seemed right. Neutral greeting. Reference to their mutual nickname - their friendship. A reset button. Nothing had changed.
Taking a deep breath and squeezing his eyes shut, he hit send. Then he stood, shoved his phone in his pocket, and started walking back to his apartment. At least walking home wasn't pacing around his living room, though most of his attention was still focused on the smooth weight of his phone in his pocket.