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30 Days, 30 Ficlets Challenge

Chapter Text

In the end, it's Dojima who makes the call. He's made this call a small handful of times before, but it's never been like this. He's never had to keep his voice steady and neutral while he recites practiced words to his own nephew, never while he was still hurt and angry himself over--a lot of things, if he's being honest with himself. But if he doesn't make this call then who will?

"Souji," he begins, "When is the last time you heard from your parents?"

That he isn't certain disturbs Souji more than he is prepared to admit. "I'm not sure. Two and a half months, maybe three?" He doesn't need to ask why. The question hangs unspoken between them for a matter of seconds, and Dojima is grateful for the opportunity to collect himself one last time. It doesn't particularly help.

"No one told you," are the words that come out, against his better judgment. They're not particularly anything--not hurt, not angry, not disbelieving. If they're anything at all, they're the truth, plain and simple. "Souji, your mother-- my sister..."

Souji almost laughs. Catches himself early, while it's only a twist at the corner of his lips. The first thing he thinks to say is that it's really not a very funny prank, second that it's impossible, third to a thousand that you're lying, but when he opens his mouth to say any of these things, none of them are what makes it past his lips. "When?" is what he asks.

"Almost three weeks ago."

In another world entirely, he might have noticed when his back hit the wall behind him or that he was holding the phone too tightly or that his other hand had begun to grope for anything at all that might hold him upright just a little while longer. Here and now, none of those things feel particularly important.

That's-- impossible. Impossible. Impossible.

Dojima's not surprised when the call cuts out and he's greeted with the dial tone. It's not the first time that's happened, either.


[ ... ... ... ]


--sorry I can't answer the phone right now. If you're making a business-related call, you can page me at the following number...

"Your brother has poor taste in jokes," he tells the recording. Two minutes later, he calls back to add: "Call me back, okay?"

One minute: "Do you remember how you always used to tell me that if there was ever anything important, you'd call me back right away? And there never was, so I never asked you to? I knew you were busy... it just never seemed right to call you if it was something I could handle myself."

Thirty seconds: "Hey, it's-- it's important this time, okay?"

Immediately after the display on his cell finishes informing him that the call has ended, he calls the same number a fifth time just to hear: Hello, you've reached Seta Sōko; I'm sorry I can't answer the phone right now. If you're making a business-related call, you can page me at the following number...

He sits silently through the recording and waits until the phone disconnects automatically, leaving an empty message.

Then he calls again.

Again.

Again.


[ ... ... ... ]


"Where the hell are you, Hanamura?"

Of all the people he's come to expect hearing those words from, getting a call from Dojima during work hours for them has never been particularly high on the theoretical list. Yosuke frowns, confused, and looks around. He's still standing in the middle of the produce section at the local Junes, same as he was when his phone had begun to ring. Same Junes, same customers, same Tokyo. "Um... work?"

"Not anymore you're not; you need to get home immediately."

Yosuke can't help but laugh at that, if a little nervously. He's never been particularly good at talking with Souji's uncle, but they're usually on the same page in that regard and make their best attempts at stilted conversation when and where it is required of them. "You know, much as I'd really appreciate an early night, I don't think--"

"Now, Hanamura."

There's an edge to his tone that Yosuke recognizes, from a time long past. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, it's a lot like standing out in the street on a cold November night, listening to a man with nowhere left to turn entrust his only family to a group of teenagers that he thought of as anything but trustworthy. He's halfway out the door before he hears himself ask, "What happened?"

When Dojima is met with the dial tone for the second time in as many hours, he only sighs and scrubs a heavy hand over tired eyes. For better or worse, it's out of his hands--and he's left these sorts of things to far less reliable people in the past.

Yosuke hisses a curse when he only gets a busy signal at Souji's number. He's already got one hand on the handlebars of his motorbike when he thinks to try a different one.

Four rings, and then: "Hanamura-kun, good afternoon. I wasn't expecting to hear from you today."

Of course not; it was too much to hope for to think this number might be busy too. He sits back astride his bike in the parking lot, eyes closed as he breathes deep. "Please, Seta-san. Please tell me that you've spoken to Souji already."

He can feel the hesitation like a physical blow, draws in another slow breath through his teeth to try and keep himself under control.

"I'm sorry; is there something--"

That illusion of control doesn't just slip--it buckles and collapses under the weight. "Fucking-- seriously!? Son of a bitch, are you fucking kidding me?" he shouts into the phone, disgusted. He's too angry to find any pleasure in the stunned silence on the other end.

"...Hanamura-kun, try to understand--"

"I'll tell you what I understand: I don't even have words for how fucking low that is. He's your own son. When exactly did you intend on telling him? In another couple of months? A goddamn year, maybe?" He doesn't wait for a reply to that; hopes it stings as much to hear as it does to say. Hopes it hits just a little too close to home, rings a little too true to someone besides himself. He roughly jams his cell phone into a pocket and kicks his motorbike into gear, focused entirely on priority number one. The rest will have to wait.


[ ... ... ... ]


For the briefest of moments, he can almost fool himself into believing that maybe it's not as bad as it looks. That false hope doesn't last very long, however. It only takes a matter of seconds to realize that it's much, much worse.

"Hey, come on," he soothes softly, extracting the phone from Souji's fingers, which are cold and shaking and refuse to yield at first. "I'm here, talk to me."

He's the very picture of calm, save for the trembling in his hands and the heavily guarded look in grey eyes. Yosuke might not have noticed either if he hadn't had so many years of experience behind him in reading the other. He's been here once or twice before, at different times for different reasons. The trembling is fine; something he knows how to deal with. The abject shut-down, however, he does not. He's forced to settle for the only thing he can think to do, taking the other into his arms and holding him close, waiting out the silence.

Souji doesn't appear to be in any hurry to disturb it, however. He leans a little heavier into Yosuke's shoulder than he might have otherwise, but says nothing. If not for how desperately eerie and tense the silence feels, it might as well have been any other day.

It doesn't take long for Yosuke to begin to understand, when the following day he catches Souji by the wrist on his way out the door and demands to know where he's going. "Work," Souji tells him, as if he doesn't quite understand the question.

"Are you-- seriously? You're sure?"

Souji smiles in response to that, but it doesn't reach his eyes. Nothing has. "Pretty sure that's where I was going, yeah."

In the end, Yosuke lets him go. He wonders how out of place it would be to call out of work himself before deciding that he doesn't particularly care, and does it anyway.

It's another week before Souji finally breaks. Yosuke returns home to find him tucked against one corner of the couch, feet pulled up onto the cushions, with his cell phone against one ear. He looks up at the disturbance, carefully guarded expression still in place (the same as it has been since that first day, much to the other's distress) and lowers the phone gingerly onto his lap. There's a flicker of something, hidden somewhere deep beneath the surface, that pulls Yosuke to his side, kneeling in front of the couch to wrap his arms around his partner's shoulders.

And when at last the wall begins to crumble under the full force of everything coming down upon him all at once, Yosuke's close enough to hear the words as they filter through the tinny cell phone speaker: --disconnected, or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.

Chapter Text

The first time they head out into the fog with the intention of looking for a fight, Souji doesn't question it when Yosuke pulls his headphones up over his ears. He closes his eyes for a short moment, nodding almost imperceptibly in time to a rhythm that only he can hear, and tosses one of his wrenches lightly into the air, opening his eyes once more to watch it fall. He catches it, smiles to himself, and in that moment something changes.

It's small; too difficult to pinpoint, but when Souji catches his gaze and finds himself met with an almost startling confidence, he knows for sure it's there. He gives a short nod of his own and tilts his head in the direction of a hall. Yosuke follows him down it without hesitation.

There's a door at the end of the hall, and Souji holds his hand out before they come to it. His companion turns on his heel without stopping to ask questions, and watches the fog behind them for Shadows while Souji pushes open the door, casting the room a quick glance and finding it empty. When he starts to move again, Yosuke falls into step behind him like it's the most natural thing in the world.

In a lot of ways, oddly enough, it almost is.

Months later, not much has changed. Whenever they encounter a group of Shadows, numerous things tend to happen all at once. Souji turns full-on tactician and leader, falling into a level of concentration that no one particularly envies, watching as he sorts through and calls upon his various Persona--of which no one's quite sure the number of, there seems to be a new one present for almost every expedition--at a moment's notice. Rise's voice takes on an unusually serious edge as she projects vital information to all of them, though she breaks character from time to time to give them her earnest and heart-felt encouragement. Yukiko's attention seems to be everywhere all at once, her gentle healing touch a comfort in its quickness and reliability. They're all focused, each in their own ways, and each of them keeps one eye on Souji for his instruction. Each of them, above all else, is listening for his guidance.

Yosuke turns the volume to his MP3 player up, shifts his headphones up over his ears, and taps his foot to a rhythm that only he can hear--but two of them can feel. Souji's never seen the other more alert or acutely aware than in these moments; reading every movement as though it's as pronounced to his senses as the music in his ears.

Souji's words are quick and concise, his instructions clear and resolute, but no one acts as quickly on them as the only one of their number who can't hear the words at all. A glance, a motion so indiscernible that it might not have happened at all, is all it takes. Yosuke's eyes reflect clear and infallible understanding of every unspoken word, until he isn't following orders at all so much as he is the other's lead.

When the last enemy falls and he pulls his headphones back to their resting place around his neck with a satisfied laugh, Souji offers him a smile that the other returns with a sheepish grin of his own, and he thinks to himself how amazing--how frightening--a bond of trust and loyalty so deep truly is.

Chapter Text

It is never a pleasant sight or sound to watch as one of their own takes a hit that knocks them off balance or sends them sprawling to the floor. They pick up and carry on regardless, reluctant to linger on the topic of close calls, determined to stand strong in the presence of their leader. With experience, the missteps come fewer and farther between--Souji's word carries them swift and sure; his orders absolute. It's difficult not to grow confident, despite his own humble warnings before and after each foray into the blinding fog.

It's easy to believe that they're capable of anything, so long as he is at the wheel. Souji never had to face a Shadow to gain his power, can utilize countless Persona with seemingly no effort, keeping all of their abilities and strengths at the forefront of his mind and switching between them at a moment's notice, always in control of the tide of battle. He is strong and sure and fast, and more than any of them can ever hope to be.

The first time that things go horribly, irrevocably wrong, it feels a lot like the earth has shattered underneath them.

"Senpai, no!" Rise's panicked voice projects directly into the core of each of their thoughts, drawing their already undivided attention, and Yosuke's torn his headphones from his ears before he's had time to think why that seems important; he throws himself directly between the Shadow and its target, staggering under its heavy blow before desperately willing Susano-O to his aid. He only has a split second to decide between lashing out or drawing back to try and make use of his own meager healing abilities, but Susano-O reacts on a level of visceral impulse that runs far deeper than any deliberate command--hesitation at this juncture marks the misstep that would kill all of them, and he throws his strength into an attack that causes the Shadow to falter, if only momentarily. A moment is all they need; the force of Kanji's retaliating attack is equal to that of an oncoming train, and Yukiko is already kneeling at their leader's side with Amaterasu at her back, bathing both of them in its healing light.

Yosuke is vaguely aware that he can hear his knuckles crack when he loosens the grip that his fingers have around his kunai, dropping both his arms and the blades to his sides as he turns. The warm light fades away, Amaterasu lingering for an instant longer as though surveying its work until sufficiently satisfied with the results. Yukiko lets out a soft breath she'd been holding, her hand lingering over the torn fabric of Souji's uniform jacket, underneath which his shirt is dyed a harrowing red. She can heal their injuries and mend their broken bodies, but there is nothing she can do for the stains they leave behind. On any of them--on all of them.

He lets out a short sigh of his own when Yukiko turns her gaze to him, unsettled and wary but not overtly distressed, which means things are fine, even though they're really not. He realizes belatedly that she's not the only one with their attention turned on him, the terms partner and second-in-command suddenly gaining meaning that he'd never really considered before as he watches their leader's shallow and stuttered breathing and is struck with the knowledge that they are waiting on him to step up and find some way to bring their shattered perception of reality back into order.

"We're..." he starts, his voice sounding weak and strained to his own ears. He swallows and tries again; "We're done here for today."

They filter out in pairs, reluctant to go on ahead with things as they are, but there's no way for them to feasibly drag Souji out of Junes in his current state without attracting unwanted attention toward themselves. Yosuke stays behind as the only one of them with the ability to sneak out after-hours, his back against the stack of televisions in the center of the back lot and the other's head cradled in his lap--breathing shallow and eyes closed--hair bloodied and matted when he absently runs his fingers through it.

"You know what...?" He speaks softly, in part to break the heavy silence that's fallen over them since the rest of the team dispersed, "This is going to sound really stupid, but I just realized something. This-- this is dangerous." He's not sure if Souji's still awake, or if he can hear his voice even if he is. He's not sure he wants him to hear.

"We could die in here."

After what feels like an oppressively long stretch of time, during which he almost thinks--fears, hopes?--that maybe the other hasn't heard him after all, Souji reaches up to somewhat clumsily pat the front of his shirt in some weird imitation of a reassuring gesture. Grey eyes are still dim and unfocused as he offers his best, most sincere smile, nigh imperceptible though it may be.

"I know."

Chapter Text

It takes all of her remaining strength just to be able to feel Amaterasu at the far reaches of her fatigued and enervated mind, the Persona's restlessness her own as she races through the situation and her available options for the thousandth time in the space of seconds. Ameno-sagiri's thick and oppressive cloud of fog shields it from them as it builds its own relentless power, preparing for another devastating attack that will no doubt crush them underfoot. It emits a thunderous, ominous, metal sort of creaking as it collects and focuses its energy, and for a breathless instant--time that Yukiko is well aware they do not have to waste in such a fashion--she fights herself once more in search of a solution that might end a different way.

She only has one chance. The faint and weary contact that she has with her Persona will be impossible to establish again, like this. She's too exhausted to draw the strength she needs to push them through another hit like the last; no matter how desperately she tries, Amaterasu won't answer her pleas. She must make a choice: divide her overtaxed abilities among them all, hope against all hope that what little strength she can lend them will pull any of their flagging team back onto their feet long enough to make a difference, or... 

She turns, searching for an answer.

Chie's on her knees, struggling to stand; struggling to breathe. She's broken more than a couple ribs, her ankle bends at an angle it shouldn't, and it's watching her claw her way through the pain only to stumble and fall under her own weight that Yukiko knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are going to die.

We're already dead, are the words Chie doesn't speak when she turns defiant, tear-stained eyes her way. Don't waste this.

Yosuke's only barely on his feet. His headphones are still secured over his ears in a pale imitation of the energetic nonchalance that he's approached all of their battles with thus far, but the cord hangs loose--severed or snapped at some point earlier, when things had only just begun to turn. He reaches up to swipe the end of his sleeve over one eye, gritting his teeth and wincing as he does, but the motion only serves to smear the stream of blood obscuring his vision across his cheek. He curses bitterly and tries again before glancing in her direction and blinking through the haze of red and fog, a pointed What are you waiting for? visible in his unclouded eye. She doesn't hold his attention for long, but she's come to understand that things rarely do in times of peril unless they're near and dear to the heart.

She follows his gaze until she comes to face option number two:

Souji stands ever strong and defiant, though his left hand is clasped tightly over the opposite limp and bloodied arm, katana dragging uselessly along the barren ground beneath them. When he turns, she can see that the far lens in his glasses has been completely shattered. Even he won't last much longer, with or without them. A second wind might only serve to prolong the inevitable end that awaits the rest of them, with the added weight of being forced into enduring that end alone.

He shoots her a sharp, steely look that all but pleads--

Yukiko--

"Yukiko...!"

"YUKIKO!"

She closes her eyes tightly as she reaches desperately for Amaterasu's familiar presence at the far corner of her consciousness, and prays that she'll ever forgive herself.

Chapter Text

Hope, Emptiness, and Despair-- so persists the full spectrum of human emotion, so far as she is concerned. 

She follows each of her chosen few with watchful eyes, each of them a blank slate with the potential for any of these three and each gifted with a spark of power that could change the course of the world. With each, in turn, she is continually disappointed.

The first-- Hope? Emptiness? Despair? Time will tell. --uses his power for personal gain, reveling in his new-found ability like a madman. It takes only the softest push, but before long the demure and awkward young man with calculating eyes is twisting others to his selfish will. She sits back and observes as he lashes out against opposition, crushing it underfoot. But he is clever and retains a strong sense of conceit, smiles and stumbles his way out of scrutiny and steps away unscathed.

Is this mankind's wish? she wonders, as she sends the second on his way.

He is a weak and foolish man, one who cowers when the first directs his attention upon him. He sees the potential for trouble in his own future, stepping down and away from his tantalizing power-- but not before shrewdly leaving the second in his place. Sweet lies are his tools of choice, and the second greedily devours them like a man starved for sustenance.

Emptiness, she decides. 

He is drawn to lies like a moth to flame, and as time goes on only seems to sink deeper and deeper into the endless fog. The first leads the way with a smile and open arms, so comfortable in the shroud of lies that it is impossible to place whether or not he had ever made a place for himself outside of them or not.

Between the two of them--and all of the rest as they wander through the dark, content to accept the lies they are fed as truth without question--she is very nearly convinced all too early of mankind's decision.

Or she would have been, if it were not for the third.

She had not yet placed the first two, upon their meeting, but when she'd seen the guarded, weary eyes and tired smile already at home on such a young boy, she had immediately shunted him into one of the lesser categories, her own smile taking on a bitter edge as she grasped his hand. This was, in every essence, mortal man's hope for the future: a child with very little to spare.

In him she'd found little of interest, having already witnessed mankind's future entrenched deeper in the fog than its predecessors, cursed to wander ever aimlessly toward false truths.

What a pleasant surprise, then, she thinks to herself; watching as those weary eyes slowly sharpen, until the boy stands fast and sure above the others, trudging through the fog with purpose and conviction as he reaches out for the faint whispers of truth.

Human folly, she scoffs. The others have proven over and again mankind's wish. Humans exist in a state of Despair-- long for Emptiness, and shirk away from Hope. Content to swim in the sea of endless fog, mindless of the hardships that await them on the path toward truth, mankind's wish is to be forever blind.

And yet Hope persists. 

It is an amusing oversight, at first, but she quickly tires of his struggle. So few cannot oppose the will of so many, no matter how they strive. In all of her infinite generosity she presents him with the opportunity to delay mankind's judgment and allow them all another chance, which he reaches for effortlessly and without question, steadfast in his chosen path.

Never had she dreamed that this might not be enough.

So it is that as he stands before her, she feels slighted-- a mere mortal, whose powers were a gift, who has fought against the wishes of his fellow man in a thankless, tireless, selfish effort...

"I... am Izanami," she informs him, watching coldly as fear and recognition flash through his eyes.

If Hope is so foolish as to strive for a truth beyond reckoning, then; "You must come prepared to follow through in your futile resistance... I'll be waiting for you."

Chapter Text

"Now," Nanako looked at him expectantly, smile still in place, "It's your turn to talk!"

Souji's own smile faltered in response. "M-me?"

"Yeah!"

He shifted uncomfortably, glanced toward the clock. It was getting late, close to Nanako's bed-time, but he'd never used that as an excuse to cut any of their conversations short before. The last time she'd asked anything of the sort he'd changed the subject, but this time... Her own smile faded as she watched him, and he hummed guiltily at his own awkwardness. "I don't really know what to talk about..."

Nanako looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well... hmm." She followed his gaze toward the clock, frowning softly at the time. He worried at first that she might think he was only stalling, until she glanced back at him with a look that was entirely too familiar. Despite everything they'd talked about tonight and so many nights previous, it was never any easier on her when his uncle didn't return home before she'd long been sent to bed.

"...You've never met your aunt, have you?" He observed suddenly, the words tumbling from his mouth before he'd had time to think where he was going with them. He blinked at himself, surprised-- but the quizzical look he was given reminded him that if there was anyone capable of slipping past his guard, it was the little girl in front of him. "My mother is your dad's older sister," he clarified, watching as she drew her brows together and thought about that particular piece of information.

"Oh yeah..." She looked thoughtful for a moment longer, as though trying to imagine her father co-existing with an older sibling the way she'd grown comfortable in Souji's own presence over the last number of months. "I sort of forgot," she admitted shyly, embarrassed. He smiled at her until she returned the gesture, albeit somewhat hesitantly. "I don't think I have, no..."

Souji nodded, knowingly. If he hadn't seen his uncle since-- he stumbled on that thought, wondering exactly how old he'd been the last time he'd seen his uncle. Too young to remember having met him at all before earlier that same year, at any rate. It was unlikely that his uncle and his mother had made time for one another since.

The thought was appropriately disheartening.

"Seta Sōko," he said softly, finding it strange how he'd probably spoken her full name in formal conversation more than he'd ever had the opportunity to call her 'Mom' with the same liberty that Nanako spoke of her own father to him. That thought spurred him on as he continued, "My mother. She's... very much like her little brother."

Nanako giggled softly, leaning forward in interest, "Really?"

"Definitely," He assured her, unable to stop himself from returning her smile with a subdued version of his own, "If you saw her, you'd know right away that they were related. They could probably even pass as the same person, if they tried. Maybe even without trying at all."

"What does she do?" Nanako prodded curiously, and he straightened a little in response. It was difficult to think of a way he could explain that she might be able to understand.

"Well... she's a lawyer, of some description. My dad's the president of a big company, and she manages a lot of legal stuff for him." It was hard to keep himself from chuckling at his younger cousin's frown. "Accounts and share values and... stuff. I've never really tried to keep track of it, myself."

When he met her gaze again, he was surprised to see the serious expression she'd taken on.

"Both your parents work?"

He nodded. "That's why I'm here, remember? They've both gone overseas for work, so I..." The look she gave him stopped him cold.

"For an entire year," she recalled. "Big bro... aren't you lonely?"

Souji caught himself before he could hesitate, doing his best to smile for her. She didn't look overly convinced, but then he supposed it was difficult to fool someone who knew without having to ask in the first place what it was that you were feeling. "I have you," he told her instead.

It put a smile back on her face, if nothing else.

"My mother's a lot like your dad," he repeated his earlier assessment, "She always has been. When I was your age, it was the same... It's still the same, I guess. Both of my parents have jobs that keep them very busy."

"Even though you have both of them, it's the same?" Nanako's smile threatened to disappear once more, and he reached out to gently pat her head. "What do you do, when they're away?"

"Sometimes I'd go with them, when I was really young. Or I'd get sent to stay with some extended family somewhere, or a close friend of one of theirs, when I was closer to your age." Nanako was looking at him strangely again. "I moved around a lot. Then when I was old enough, I mostly took care of myself."

"Big bro..."

"They're just busy," he assured her in as kind and gentle a tone as he could manage, the same tone he'd heard dozens of people use when he'd still been young and couldn't possibly have understood. "Like how your dad is busy. That doesn't mean he loves you any less; he'd be home more often if he could."

She nodded slowly. "Yeah, but... he's never sent me somewhere else to live."

It was almost funny, how much it hurt to hear things spelled out so simply. Evaluated in the clean and clear-cut way that he'd long since barred himself from ever thinking about.

"Your dad doesn't have to travel," he told her.

She frowned up at him, as though that explanation weren't enough. "Still, though..."

"It's fine," he interrupted gently, shaking his head. "Like I said before, I've got you now. So I'm--"

He paused, watching the soft spark of surprise that had lit up her eyes, feeling the same emotion ripple somewhere from within himself. It took an instant to realize that the words had been so easy to stumble upon because they were--for once--the full, unfiltered truth. Once the thought had been acknowledged, though, it arrested his attention entirely, refusing to be held back any longer:

"...I'm not lonely anymore."

Chapter Text

Yosuke slammed the classroom door shut behind himself, leaving the girls and Kanji (and Teddie, but he was temporarily categorizing the bear as one of the girls entirely out of spite) to their own devices while he worked to gather up the pieces of his shattered pride. Souji sat a few feet into the room on top of a desk--still fully dressed in skirt and stockings and long, braided wig--legs crossed at the knees and hands folded in his lap.

"Honestly? You look like you're enjoying that way too much, partner," the brunet groaned, tugging his hair free from the strawberry hair tie that he'd been burdened with and raking a hand through it messily. He shook his head afterward for good measure before promptly setting about to figuring out where he'd left his normal clothes, Souji watching mildly from his perch.

"I kind of am," he said lightly, tossing one of his braids over a shoulder and straightening his posture a little, "It's not every day you get an excuse to dress up and have a little fun."

Yosuke fought back a derisive and entirely unsympathetic snort in response. "Oh, don't you start," he snapped, scrubbing his face with the inside of his shirt in a mostly futile attempt to rid himself of the makeup Chie had all but drowned him in, "In no way was any part of this anything that even remotely--" He glanced up as he spoke in time to see the other stand, watching as he pulled the wig from his head and set it aside. The shorter grey hair underneath was only slightly matted and unruly, but what drew his attention first and foremost were the small pink clips that had been fastened in Souji's bangs to keep them up and out of the way; two on the left and one on the right. He stood and stared, his voice dying somewhere in his throat at the sight.

When the other looked up at him questioningly, he knew immediately that he was a lost cause: a short breath of air escaped him in some estranged cross between a scoff and a chuckle, and from there the laughter he hadn't realized was lurking just beneath the surface bubbled up and over the edge in only a matter of seconds.

He fell into the nearest desk chair, doubling over and clutching his stomach with both arms, tears in his eyes as the laughter grew in volume and intensity. When he chanced another glance up, Souji's expression--torn between confusion, mild concern, and amusement--sent him straight into another round of helpless giggles, gasping for breath all the while.

"Dude-- you look," he shook his head, reaching up to wipe his eyes with one hand, still laughing breathlessly, "Oh my God, we both look absolutely ridiculous, don't we? What the hell were we thinking?"

Souji let out a brief, quiet chuckle of his own, reaching up to retrieve Nanako's borrowed hair clips as he did, "I believe it was something along the lines of 'If we have to do this, we may as well go all the way'?"

That earned him another bout of laughter, albeit shorter than the last. "Never again, I swear," Yosuke sighed, leaning back in the desk and staring at the ceiling for a long moment. He offered a lopsided grin when the other leaned over him, which quickly degraded into an amused and mostly failed attempt at a scowl as the strawberry hair tie from his own hair was systematically replaced with tiny pink hair clips, "Hey, quit that-- get off!"

He bat the other teen away with his hands, pushing him at the shoulder until he had the space to bring his foot between them and use that as extra leverage, holding him far from reach. When Souji paused, looking him over appraisingly, he let his foot slip back to the floor as he tried to place the expression on his friend's face.

Souji tended to be soft-spoken even at the worst of times, almost infuriatingly mild in all outlets-- but his soft smile and almost imperceptible laugh were the rarest and quietest of all. This, by comparison...

He'd opened his mouth as if to say something when a short breath of air escaped his lips instead; he quickly moved to stifle the sound that accompanied it with one hand, but it flowed through him and past his fingers like the Samegawa itself, a quiet burst of giggles quickly and effortlessly giving way to a loud and earnest laugh. His shoulders shook with the effort and he leaned back against a desk to keep himself from losing his balance entirely as he leaned forward, pulling his hand away when it became overbearingly apparent that it was of little use. He was still laughing when Yosuke threw his uniform jacket at him and informed him that they were going to miss the girls' event if he didn't pull himself together, but the gesture was half-hearted at best, considering that his hair was still done up in little pink clips and he was laughing right along.

Chapter Text

Hanamura Yosuke falls in love at the age of thirty-two, on the clock at a Junes food court in downtown Tokyo.

She's twenty-two, an attractive young woman with a quiet smile, and a perfect stranger when she takes the seat across from him. Her smile turns positively radiant when he responds to her inquiry on the status of said seat that it's hers now regardless of whoever else may or may not have been there previously (which had, in fact, been no one at all-- but that doesn't seem particularly important to add).

When he moves to stand with a light comment about how he should probably get back to work, she orders for two and promptly sits him down again. She smiles and laughs and asks him all sorts of things that no one's ever been interested in before, and he thinks he might have been completely smitten before she'd even left the tip.

She returns the following day, greets him with a smile and a wave, and again insists that he join her for lunch. This quickly becomes a trend; he begins to notice her around Junes in the aisles and the check out counters-- whichever shift he's working, whatever department he's in, he stumbles into her time and time again.

"We've really got to stop meeting like this," he laughs when he turns from stocking shelves just to nearly step right into her. She only smiles at him in return.

"I like meeting like this," she says, and leaves him standing in the wake of her cheerful disposition and a playful flip of her long brown hair, only mildly dumbstruck.

And then, just as suddenly as she first appeared, she's gone.

"I met this girl," he recounts over the phone to his best friend, who indulges him with the same quiet understanding that he has all the girls he's loved and lost over the past number of years, "and you wouldn't believe it if you saw her; she's amazing."

"What's her name?" Souji asks, and all at once his heart plummets with the realization that he doesn't know, he'd never bothered to get her number, and-- it doesn't matter, because I'll never see her again.

One month, two; his shifts are longer than they've ever felt, leaving him drained and bone-weary. He's slumped over one of the tables in the food court, trying to drown out the piped-in music in his mind without resorting to his MP3 player. He's not on the clock, exactly, but it looks bad in front of his supervisors and he's not exactly hurting for more reasons to be stuck at the bottom rung of the thankless retail ladder forever.

It's with this in mind that he straightens and adopts his best employee's smile when a customer wanders in to find the stalls abandoned, this close to closing hours: "Hey, sorry, what can I do for you?"

And when she turns to catch his eye, his heart nearly skips a beat-- the put-on smile quickly falls from his lips, giving way to something soft and subtle and real. She returns the expression easily, more beautiful than he'd remembered, as she moves to join him. "Are you always this helpful when you're not on duty?"

He glances down at his lack of uniform, laughing as he folds his arms across the table top; "Nah, only for you."

The sound of her laughter eases away the tension from the past few months as effortlessly as the smile that graces her lips-- and if he hadn't fallen already, here would be the point of no return.

She stays with him well after closing, talking and catching up until the sun's been lost behind the city skyline somewhere and the stars are all but at their peak beyond the light pollution that hides them from view. When she finally notes the time with some reluctance, he acts upon his first impulse and offers to walk her home.

"You're serious about this customer service stuff, aren't you?" she replies in a tone that isn't no, and he laughs easily in return.

"Hey, you know how it goes at Junes: 'Every day is Customer Appreciation Day!' and all of that noise. You do remember the jingle, don't you?"

"Of course," she smiles mischievously as she nods, leaning in close: "Every day's great at your Junes~" she recites in a sing-song voice that in an instant lances a sudden icy realization through his heart, and then she's kissing him.

Holy shit-- his mind reels, spinning madly in search of traction, for anything besides-- oh crap oh crap oh shit; Nanako-chan--!

After what for all the world seems to be a lifetime and a half she finally pulls away, and he knows he's gaping stupidly, eyes wide with fear and realization and dammit, Souji's going to fucking kill me-- by the way she frowns softly at him, gentle brown eyes filled with a hesitant, crestfallen look. Just when she begins to glance away, a hair's breadth from apologizing, that's when his tongue manages to dislodge itself from somewhere in the back of his throat;

"I... N-- Nanako-chan...?"

She snaps her attention back to him in an instant, a brief flash of comprehension in her expression before it's quickly buried under one closer to mild discouragement; "You... you didn't recognize me at all, did you?" She clears her throat before adding softly, "Yosuke-nii."

Oh fuck-- "I'm... holy crap, Nanako-chan, I-- I mean, you..." he fumbles, as though every word he's ever known has suddenly vanished, language a strange and foreign concept to his ragged nerves. "I didn't realize you were... I'm so sorry, Nanako-chan, I didn't mean--"

Her expression turns suddenly unreadable, a trait she must have picked up from Souji because he recognizes it immediately, and that's when her words really, truly hit him: "You... you knew," he forces himself to speak, only barely audible. It doesn't come in the form of a question. "...this whole time."

"I'm sorry," she replies stiffly, standing as she speaks, and he can feel the panic rising in his chest as she does. "...I should go."

He's on his feet and grabbing her hand before he's had time to think things through, but above all else he's overwhelmingly aware of the abject terror in his heart at the prospect of letting her walk away.

For a moment--standing in the middle of a city he'd dreamed for years of escaping to, and then only of escaping, under the light of the washed-out stars and streetlights--it's a lot like the rest of the world has fallen off the map. Here and now, her hand in his as his only desperate link to anything of value, anything sure or true or real, not much else seems important enough to hold on to.

"Please--" is the word he speaks, but when she turns to look, there are about a hundred others written in the gentle but determined reflection of his eyes.

And when he slowly, hesitantly, draws her forward to close the space between them a second time--pulling him deeper into the warmth of a growing flame that he couldn't have escaped from if he'd tried--he thinks it might just be the most perfect feeling in the world.

Hanamura Yosuke falls in love at the age of thirty-two with his best friend's younger sister-- a girl that he remembers thinking of as his own younger cousin in a lot of ways, when she'd been only seven and lived just down the road. At the age of twenty-two she's an attractive young woman with a quiet smile and gentle eyes, and when she seats herself upon his lap to wrap her arms around his neck, gifting him with the sweetest kiss, it's easy to forget that anything else could have ever mattered in the least.

Chapter Text

When the television flickers to life one night in late September, Souji bolts upright from his previous state of half asleep and is hunched over the sickly glow with his hands clasped tightly over the frame of the accursed thing before he's had much time to think about what this means.

The fog never left Inaba.

It crawled steadily upward and outward until it had swallowed the entire town, thick and muggy and oppressive. It never left, but they'd done all they could, and they'd put an end to the real source of danger that had lurked beneath the cover of that terrible veil.

So why--?

Outside, thunder crashes. A heavy storm had rolled into Tokyo during the evening, and as much sense as it made in some far off corner of his mind that had grown accustomed to watching for this pale flickering glow to the backdrop of rain, they'd finished this.

And on the television appears the silhouette of a young woman. She fades into startling clarity and all at once Souji realizes that he recognizes her, had seen her time and again in and around the shopping district back in Inaba, and gripped with a horrified sort of fascination, he brings a trembling hand toward the television screen.

His fingers come to rest firmly against the glass.

A heartbeat is all it takes-- rain pours, the screen buzzes with static, his cell phone begins to ring from somewhere in the room, and Souji brings his opposite hand to rest against the screen.

Solid.

He watches, eyes wide with alarm and a growing sense of fluttering apprehension that he can't yet acknowledge, as his fingertips clink against the glass. He brings back one hand, thumping it uselessly against the television, and then the other to repeat the motion. Both at once-- he claws desperately at the screen in fear, in realization--

The phone's stopped ringing. He beats a fist against the unyielding television screen, hard enough to bruise his knuckles.

At the very least we can be sure that a tragedy like this will never happen again!

He tries again, with similar results. The phone begins to ring again, and he leans into the TV with all of his weight, pressing a palm against the glass while the woman behind it screams and thrashes about and the picture becomes increasingly distorted, but still the screen remains disdainfully sturdy.

I don't want anybody else to suffer like we did, ever again!

The static from the television grows louder, drowning out the woman's shrieks, the ringing from his cell phone, the rain from outside, the crash of thunder, and his own miserable, anguished cry as he throws a fist into the screen, splitting his knuckles in the process. He lets his forehead come to rest against his fist, fingers red and raw and bleeding, when the Midnight Channel finally fades to black. The buzzing doesn't stop for another couple of minutes, ringing loudly in his ears, but that's only the phone, and he can't bring himself to--

But if we let him go free and he claims another victim, is that right!?

--hear the words just yet. To listen to a mostly rushed and broken apology, to hear that note of self-loathing that is growing full and strong in his own chest, to realize what this truly means, what it is they've done, and to have to acknowledge the fact that--

What I do know is if we let it happen again, that'll be too late!

--they were wrong.

Chapter Text

It's not that he particularly hates the quaint rural town (except that he does sometimes, a little bit; holds a grudge over the fact that he was never given a choice), it just isn't home.

It's suffocating. Everyone knows everyone else, and it doesn't take long at all for the novelty to wear thin when it becomes apparent that everyone means everyone, and he's not the transfer student or the city boy for very long. He's known only as 'the Junes kid' by the end of approximately one week. It's almost amusing, at first.

That novelty runs thin pretty quickly, too. The moment that the first shop goes under, being associated with Junes isn't something to be particularly proud of anymore. Not that it ever was, but the attention had at least been pleasant--it had been something to talk about that everyone seemed to be interested in.

They're still interested in talking about Junes, and the Junes kid too, of course. There's nothing else in Inaba to speak of, anyway. The only difference is that now they speak in hushed whispers and turn scornful eyes toward him when he dares approach the subject. Their world's been turned upside down, and it's the store's fault, his family's fault, his fault, because all of those things are too closely intermingled to possibly be distinguished from one another in such a small town. Yosuke makes a habit of keeping his headphones on his person at all times, from then on. His music has always been a comfort-- never an escape.

But then, a lot of things have changed.



Home is a relative term. It always has been, for as long as he can remember. The city's no better, regardless of the fact that it's where he always comes back to. Tokyo is the center of his universe, the beginning and end of every road--or maybe only a pit-stop that manages to find its way between everywhere else.

It's suffocating. The anonymity of a faceless crowd, full of people who will never acknowledge each other's existence and wouldn't know even if they were to ever see one another again, is lonely in a way that nothing else in the world quite compares to. Even the brief stints in other, smaller cities (and in one moderately noteworthy occasion, another country entirely), as he's strung along the life presented to him by the nature of his parents' work, are painfully isolated. He's been forced to grow well beyond his years, which comes accompanied by the knowledge that with each and every greeting comes an equally abrupt farewell.

He can't remember half the people he's met, and it's strange to think that anyone could ever keep track of something like that. Every so often he'll be re-introduced to someone whose smile is a little too friendly, a little too forced, and asked the inevitable; Remember?

No
, he wants to say. And you probably don't either.

It's a road well-traveled, familiar in all too many ways, but that does little to make it any easier. When they ship him off to stay with his uncle for the year, it doesn't occur to Souji that this might be any different. He's been around the world and back again, he thinks to himself as the miles roll past his window, and everywhere is the same.

Chapter Text

Inaba wasn't particularly known for having much in the way of severe weather, but the occasional tropical storm was far from unheard of. That one might catch them by surprise one summer evening was really only a matter of timing and luck.

"Okay, there is no way that I'm walking home in that," Yosuke declared, Nanako having brought their attention to the downpour that was beginning outside. Souji glanced up at the darkening sky, resolutely closing the door before the rainwater could blow in onto the floor when a strong gust of wind tore down the street.

"I don't blame you," he replied, going down a mental checklist of the house windows and noting that he would need to close the one in his room. "Nanako, is the laundry--?"

She shook her head, looking up from the TV; "I brought it in earlier."

"Alright. That just leaves--"

"I'll call my mom and tell her I'm staying here," Yosuke finished for him, reaching for his cell phone as he spoke, "She'd have some kind of nervous breakdown if I walked home and got there soaked, anyway."

Satisfied, Souji gave a short nod before retreating up the stairs to close his window and search out some extra blankets from the closet.

All told it was fairly standard procedure, impromptu rain or not. It was hardly the sort of thing that bore paying any mind at all, and the two of them companionably enjoyed the rest of the evening as though it had been planned that way all along.

It was nearing eleven o'clock when the storm's intensity suddenly grew, thunder and lightning steadily and seamlessly cutting into the rain. From where he'd taken up residence for the night on the couch in Souji's room, Yosuke sat with his shoulders drawn in upon himself, a blanket held loose around his shoulders. They'd been talking about nothing in particular, bored and unable to sleep, when the sounds from outside had intervened, the brunet becoming increasingly distracted as time wore on.

After a point, he would go entirely silent for long stretches of time, often in the middle of his sentences. This type of behavior, Souji was more than confident, was hardly normal.

"Yosuke," he began, tentatively. "You're not... I mean, do thunder storms--?"

"No!" Yosuke snapped, interrupting. "Jeez, it's not like I'm... eight," he finished lamely, pulling the blanket tightly around his shoulders as he glared pointedly at his feet. It wasn't a very convincing argument even in his own mind, in no small part due to the fact that Nanako hadn't seemed bothered by the storm at all--and she was only six. He scuffed a foot against the floor with a short huff.

Souji turned on his side, propping his head up with one hand and searching him out in the darkened room, "You're sure acting like they bother you."

Outside, a sharp clap of thunder split the air, continuing to roll loudly for some time afterward. A flash of lightning lit up the room well enough for Souji to catch the other teen's flinch.

"Fine," Yosuke groaned defeatedly, drawing his legs up onto the couch as he did. "They do bother me, alright? I'm not scared of them, though, I haven't been since--" He cut himself off in response to the soft chuckle from across the room. "Shut up already!"

"Sorry."

"No you're not," he retorted, folding in on himself a little more with the next thunderclap. "Ugh. I never liked storms, but they weren't this bad. It's like..." He paused, as though considering whether or not the following thought was too stupid to bother going on to try and explain. "It's Jiraiya, I think."

From across the room, Souji let himself fall back onto his futon, staring thoughtfully up into the dark.

"I don't know," Yosuke continued, "It's kind of the same feeling, anyway. It's like he's really on edge, or something. I can't settle down."

Silence reigned for a moment or two, interrupted only by the sound of rolling thunder.

"...it's stupid. Forget it."

"No," Souji said quietly, setting his jaw and thinking it over once more before finally rolling over and pushing himself back up onto his elbow, looking over toward where the other was curled against one corner of his cramped couch, "Actually, that makes a lot of sense."

"Seriously?" Yosuke laughed awkwardly, raking a hand through his hair before another flash of lightning caused him to yank it back against his chest, clutching his blanket tightly once more. "...what are you talking about?"

"Jiraiya's weak to electricity, right? Maybe you're right, thunderstorms probably just make him nervous or something."

Another round of silence, during which Souji could only assume that the other teen was contemplating this theory.

"Partner," Yosuke finally spoke, "That is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

"Stupider than when Chie told us about the Midnight Channel?"

He might not have been able to see it, but he was sure that he could feel the glare that was thrown at him in response to that remark.

A particularly loud crash of thunder suddenly rang through the air, lightning splitting the sky and illuminating the room with an almost dizzying brightness, Yosuke pulling the borrowed blanket over his head as he doubled over with a frustrated shout that was only partially muffled by his knees.

"Damn it," he ground through his teeth after a beat. "I hate this storm."

Watching from his spot on the futon, Souji briefly considered the situation before settling on the solution that came easiest; he lifted the covers with his free arm, waiting quietly to see if such a simple invitation would be enough. In the dark it was difficult to tell, but he thought if he looked hard enough he could see the flurry of emotions that passed through the other's eyes, ranging from confusion to embarrassment. He didn't speak, though, choosing instead to pull himself from the small sofa and shuffle over to the futon without a word.

Souji scooted aside to give him room, waiting until he'd mostly settled before throwing the cover back over the both of them and resting against his pillow with a sigh.

"...didn't have to do that," Yosuke mumbled after a few minutes.

Souji allowed himself a brief smile, eyes already closed; "No, I didn't. But I wanted to." He didn't have to look to envision the blush that sentiment had most likely earned him; it would probably have been too dark to see, anyway. "And besides," he continued, as an afterthought, "Izanagi's not bothered by electricity. He'll protect you."

There was a scoff at his side, equal parts derisive and amused. "You're an idiot. You know that, right?"

Souji hummed in acknowledgment, rolled over, and went to sleep.

It was nearing three in the morning when he awoke with a start to a terrible howling sort of noise, unlike anything that his sleep-addled brain could fathom an explanation for. He blinked into the dark, glancing around to try and identify the source of the sound. Yosuke was fast asleep only a few inches away, back turned to him. The sound picked up, suddenly, before dropping off once more into little more than a quiet rush of air outside the window.

The wind, Souji realized abruptly, turning his attention toward the offending window. Even secured closed as it was, the strong gusts of wind outside whistled through every crevice of the house. It was oddly loud, oppressive and rattling in a way that he wouldn't normally have associated with something so harmless.

It's only the wind.

Somewhere in his mind, he felt the buzz at the corner of consciousness that he'd come to associate with his Personas--a white noise that had been strangely easy to tune out once he'd become accustomed to it being there. Occasionally he could feel their gentle pull, reaching for his attention for one reason or another, but generally it was he who initiated contact when it was necessary.

He closed his eyes, concentrating on the feeling and trying to bring it into focus. Another gust of wind broke that concentration all too easily, sending a shiver through him that seemed to run too deep. Only vaguely aware of how tense he was quickly becoming, he tried in vain to seek out the source of the static in his brain so that he might soothe it back into silence.

The wind picked up once more into a wailing sort of noise, and he brought both his hands to his ears as the white noise jumped in intensity to match. Izanagi, he identified, recognizing the familiar presence at once. There were others, yes, but Izanagi was kept closest to the forefront of his mind and seemed to hold the most weight when it came to the mental bonds that he maintained with his various other selves.

Beside him, Yosuke shifted in his sleep, turning on his side and blinking sluggishly into awareness in response to some unconscious prompt. He frowned, scrubbing the back of one hand across his eyes and looking up toward the other.

"What're you--?" he asked drowsily, the wind choosing that moment to kick up once again, howling outside the window. For an instant he suddenly looked very much aware before a slow, lazy grin spread across his features. "...oh."

Souji glanced over at him, dropping his hands into his lap. "What?"

"Nothing," Yosuke replied, looking entirely too comfortable with the arrangement as a whole. He reached up with one arm to gently tug the other teen back down into the relative warmth of the futon, pulling the cover around them both and deciding that moving his arm from where it had ended up across Souji's chest in the process would simply take too much effort.

"...Tell him to chill," he murmured after a moment, sounding as though he might drift back off to sleep at any time, "Jiraiya's got this one."

For an instant Souji almost considered some snide but well-natured quip to match the one he'd gotten only hours before, stopped by the odd sensation of Izanagi's quiet approval as his restlessness seemed to settle. When the next burst of wind tore against the house from outside, the level unease from his Persona had gone back to little more than a quiet grumble at the edge of his awareness, negligible at best.

He blinked into the darkened room, surprised by this development, before turning to face Yosuke a little better, finding that he'd already fallen back asleep. Lulled by the wind, no doubt, he mused as he shifted as close to the other as he dared. Warm and comfortable as he was in his friend's presence--perhaps more literally sheltered from the storm than he'd thought when he'd made that claim himself--Souji entertained one last thought on the nature of one's weakness being their greatest strength before finally allowing himself to be reclaimed by sleep as well.

Chapter Text

"Wow," comes the voice once again, unidentifiable in its origin and no less patronizing than it's been since they started, "I'm surprised you made it this far."

Each of them tenses, Souji readjusting his grip on the handle of his katana before using it to cut away the thick barrier of police tape that stands in their way. He hasn't been listening to what Adachi's had to say, and he doesn't intend on starting now.

"As your reward, I'll fight you!" the disembodied voice laughs as he steps ahead, and that's where everything falls apart.

Literally.

The ground shifts violently under his feet, and he's only just got time to register that he needs to move-- before the cracked pavement buckles and collapses out from under him all at once.

He hears their shouts almost as loudly as the voice that permeates the air, taunting: "I'm lying, of course. Like I'd ever do something like that."

...

He can't remember hitting the ground. That's probably a good thing, given the awkward angle of his limbs and the dull, throbbing pain that seems to come from everywhere, but such information does very little in the way of putting him at ease. He grunts as he pulls himself up onto unsteady feet, blindly searching for his sword in the rubble that surrounds him and glancing out into the surrounding fog.

It's thicker than usual, here. Darker, too-- it blots out the already ominous red-black sky like a heavy storm cloud, an endless churning ocean of black mist. It eats away at everything, pieces of the surrounding landscape blurring and fading into obscure shapes that hardly qualify as landmarks. Souji reaches up to double-check, finding his glasses intact. He takes them off, experimentally, and finds his vision equally distorted.

"What's the matter?"

He whips around to face the source of the voice, gritting his teeth against the pain that spikes up his leg in response to the sudden movement, eyes scanning the darkness for any sign of life.

Adachi laughs as he steps out of the fog with a derisive smile and a lazy saunter; "Rules of the game change on you, all of a sudden?"

He's unperturbed by the way Souji's hands reflexively tighten around the hilt of his sword, entire body tensing as though he intends to stand alone and fight. Maybe he does; he hasn't yet thought that far ahead. His head's still reeling from the fall and the fog is thick and oppressive in a way that makes it impossibly difficult to focus on much of anything beyond standing his ground.

"This isn't a game," his own words reach his ears as though through a filter, and Souji realizes belatedly that he could probably think of a thousand better things to say. He's not entirely convinced that the mist around the corners of his vision can be blamed completely on the fog anymore; he'd almost certainly hit something on the way down.

Adachi's eyes take on a predatory look. He has the gall to laugh.

"Have you even thought about the 'truth' you all want so bad? Who really wants it, huh? Isn't it just you guys? What good is the 'truth' if you're the only ones satisfied by it?"

Souji tells himself it's the fog (or the fall, or the concussion he's probably suffered as a result) that causes his head to swim and the rest of him to sway on his feet. He can't afford to question their motives now. It wouldn't do them any good anyway-- there's nothing to question.

Adachi's lazily examining his pistol, swapping it between hands and giving the appearance of considering his own words for a moment before he continues; "See, you just want to satisfy yourselves..."

"It's not just us," Souji argues, readjusting his hold on his katana. It's flagging now, blade resting against the cracked cement underfoot, and he has to force himself not to lean upon it for support. His limbs feel too heavy, his thoughts slow. "The murder victims... everyone. They all have a right to know the truth."

Adachi pauses, letting his gun come to rest in one hand and polishing it with his sleeve.

"Namatame is the serial killer," he declares, the words as sure and steady as Souji realizes he himself and everyone else had been that night in the hospital, when any other possibility had seemed ludicrous. "That's what society accepts as truth. Everyone's fiercely latching onto it. Let's say you guys catch me, and that 'truth' is proven false... What do you think will happen then?"

He's not given time to formulate a response to that. A splintering crack fills the air, and it takes a moment for Souji to reorient himself, sluggishly going through the paces of figuring out how he ended up on the floor. Adachi stands over him, running the fingers of his opposite hand over the barrel of his pistol, one side of which is stained red with blood.

When he reaches up to press a hand against the stinging pain at the side of his temple, it comes away slick and red, causing his vision to swim and dip into darkness before he can take a steadying breath.

"You don't get it?" Adachi drawls, watching with complete disinterest as the other struggles to pull himself up from the ground once again. "It's simple. They'll simply latch on to that instead. Nothing about them or the world will change." He levels his gun--expression twisting into a sadistic grin when his prey's eyes widen in instinctive fear--before opting for a solid kick to the stomach, instead.

He tilts his head thoughtfully as he waits out the string of wet, gasping coughs that follow.

"That's the 'truth' you're looking for."

Souji looks up in time to watch as Adachi once again reaches out with the hand that holds his pistol, pressing the barrel of the gun cool and firm directly between his eyes. The man's lips twitch upward, his eyes alight with something the other wouldn't begin to know how to describe-- but which lances a terror unlike any other through his heart when Adachi's finger squeezes the trigger.

It clicks harmlessly, the figure before him fading away into the mist and leaving behind a clear view of the others as they race toward him through the veil of fog.

Adachi's voice lingers tauntingly, even as vertigo finally sends him spiraling into darkness: "The only thing you deserve is to fight against Shadows."

Chapter Text

The first time is little more than a simple miscommunication, a single missed call and one undelivered message, the sort of thing that happens hundreds of times to thousands of people every day. An accident; nothing more and nothing less.

But Souji is only five years old when he finds himself alone in an empty house with no explanation, no context and not enough experience to put the situation into perspective. He checks every room twice before the thought occurs to him that there's no one to find and reality finally begins to sink in.

It's not the first time that his parents have disappeared, of course--that had been too long ago to remember--but it is the first time they've gone without leaving anyone behind or taking him to stay with someone that they know. It's the first time that they've both been gone at once without so much as a warning, let alone a goodbye.

The first time that Souji is left completely to his own devices he sits in the corner of his room with a blanket around his shoulders, a pillow tucked against his chest, and waits.

Maybe they're gone for real this time, a tiny voice in the back of his mind suggests. But they'd have said something if that were the case. They always tell him when they're going away and for how long. At least, they always have before.

That thought gets him wondering, though, what he'd be expected to do if they were to tell him that. If his father were to sit beside him, put a hand upon his shoulder, and say in the same tone of voice he always used in situations that weren't that big of a deal: "We're going now, Sou-chan, and we won't be back."

He hugs his pillow tightly and wonders what he would say. He wonders if he'd say anything at all, or if he'd stare at his feet and nod to acknowledge that he'd heard, maybe scrunch his nose a little and try to lean away when his father turned to ruffle his hair and kiss his head the way he always did after saying he'd be on a trip for a while.

He wonders if his mother were to say it, instead. She'd tell him in the middle of something else: he'd be eating dinner in front of the TV or sitting on the floor with a picture book or in the bath, and she'd say "Oh Souji, honey, I almost forgot; we won't see you anymore, but do be good alright?"

If he was lucky, she'd finish whatever else she needed to do before she left and pay him another visit for a hug and a kiss, but that happened probably about as often as it didn't. It really just depended on how much other work there was to do and whether or not she had the time.

Souji pulls his blanket over his head, settling back against the corner a little more securely, and thinks to himself that even though he's not sure what he would have said, he'd still probably rather they have told him if they were just going to leave. At least then he would know.

It wouldn't change anything, but knowing made him feel a little more at ease. Unanswered questions just led to possibilities, and too many of those could be overwhelming when left unchecked.

Which is the only reason that he pulls himself away from the wall when the phone begins to ring, some hours later. He isn't sure that he's allowed to answer it if he's home alone (he knows that he isn't supposed to answer the door and the concept seems similar enough) but if there's a chance that it might hold some explanation, he's more than willing to take it.

"Hello...?"

"Oh, sweetie!" the sound of his mother's faint laughter brings a small smile to his face, "You should be polite when you answer the phone and let whoever's calling know who it is that's speaking."

"Okay," he replies obediently, filing that piece of information away for later.

She hums her approval before continuing, "Could you put your father on the phone, please?" and Souji freezes, glancing around the empty house once more with wide eyes, as though he's only just realized how desperately alone he really is.

"...I can't."

That gives her pause, if only for an instant. "Why not?"

"Nobody's home."

"Nobody's--?" she cuts herself off, and he can hear some kind of commotion on the other end of the line, interrupted by a beep he recognizes with relative ease as her call waiting, "--just a moment."

For once, the familiar beep doesn't mark the end of their conversation. She returns in less than a minute to exclaim, "Oh Souji, honey, I didn't realize! Sit tight, I'll be home as soon as I can, alright?"

It's only when he opens his mouth to tell her that it's okay if she's busy and that he can take care of himself and the words refuse to come out that he realizes he's crying, torn between relief and an almost irrational level of fear that if he does say those words then he really will be alone for good.

"Okay," he says instead, and somehow manages not to sniffle until after she's hung up, balling both of his fists into his shirt sleeves and rubbing his face with them to try and hide his tears before she gets home.

It's of little use, considering that he starts up again the moment she finds him waiting on the couch and hugs him close, but at least now he knows for sure what he'd do if either of them were ever to leave him for real.

Chapter Text

Ten days, Yosuke told himself for what was probably the thousandth time. It was only ten days. A little more than one week, but not quite two. Closer to seven days than to fourteen. Just ten days.

He'd gone much longer than ten days before, of course, but not since college. Not since moving back to Inaba, at the behest of his then-roommate. Still roommate. Whatever the word for it was, anyway, he'd called Souji 'partner' for too long for much of anything else to make any sense, no matter how their relationship had evolved since then.

Which was only a pleasant distraction to think about for as long as it didn't loop straight back around into the fact that they hadn't been apart for so long in years, and now here he was at the food court moping about it like a girl.

He groaned, irritated at himself, and roughly threw the broom he'd been leaning on into a corner to deal with later. He'd volunteered himself for overtime in an attempt to keep his mind off of the other's absence for the rest of the week, but so far spending so much time at Junes proved to be doing the exact opposite. He really should have thought about how many things there were at Junes to remind him of Souji; it wasn't as though he hadn't gone his entire third year of high school being reminded of exactly the same thing every time he set foot into the store.

He was about three seconds from reaching for his phone to call the other--or text, maybe if he just sent a text it wouldn't seem as desperate. Would it? He'd already sent three without having heard back, but Souji was probably just busy or in the middle of whatever it was people did at a teacher's conference or... whatever it was he'd called it, he'd said 'ten days' and the rest of the conversation could have been television static for all Yosuke could remember of it--stopping himself by way of rather roughly pinching the back of his hand before it could reach his pocket and mentally kicking himself for being so pathetic. He could wait another hour for the shifts to change before he made a show of standing around staring at his phone and not doing any work.

In the meantime, he was perfectly content to go take a seat (facing away from what had been their table, another reminder he didn't need) and rest his head in folded arms over the tabletop while not doing any work. And maybe to focus a little too hard on trying to think whether or not he'd be able to hear his phone over the piped-in music if it were to go off. Maybe he should check, just to be--

"There you are, Yosuke! Sheesh..."

He startled at the sound of his name, straightening to glance over his shoulder. "Jeez, don't scare me like that. I thought you were one of the supervisors or something," he replied, resting his chin in one hand. "Not that it matters, I guess. You're just going to make me get back to work, anyway."

Chie rolled her eyes and kicked the chair opposite of him away from the table in order to fall into it listlessly, immediately lowering her head against the tabletop with a dull thump.

"God," she groaned, "this is the longest week ever."

Yosuke scoffed in response, glancing around the empty food court. He could have picked a better week to use Junes as a distraction, that much was certain. Classes would start up again in two weeks, which meant that every school-age resident of Inaba was either locked away in their rooms desperately trying to finish their summer homework or out of town trying to forget that it still hadn't been done. Work was slow without them no matter where you were, he supposed.

"Tell me about it," he sighed, unable to keep the amused smirk from his face as she continued to grumble into the table, "What's eating you, anyway?"

"Nothing," she grumbled, thumping a fist onto the tabletop. Neither her tone nor the action carried much weight, though, and she righted herself with a sigh not long afterward. "Why? And more importantly, what're you doing here anyway? You made that big dramatic speech about never pulling double overtime ever again after the last time--" He made to interrupt and she kicked him under the table; a warning shot, but a dirty tactic nevertheless, "Don't you pretend like you didn't! I had to sit through that, you know."

"Easy, come on," Yosuke placated, raising his hands into a defensive position, "If it's any of your business, I haven't got anything better to do." He let them fall back onto the table, leaning heavily onto his elbows. "Unless you'd rather I sit around an empty house whining at you over the phone, or something."

"You mean like you're doing in person right now?" Chie said with a smile. Yosuke bristled irritably, and she laughed, resting her chin in one palm, "I forgot, Souji's gone on that... school thing."

She frowned thoughtfully at her own inability to clarify, but Yosuke only leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, staring up at nothing in particular. "Ten days," he reiterated his earlier thoughts. "Seems so stupid, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it kinda does."

She couldn't help but grin at him when that comment brought the legs of his chair back to the ground and his attention back on her, visibly stung by the implications.

"Try fourteen," she continued before he could be too offended.

The flicker from confusion to comprehension took only a second, Chie raising her eyebrows at her friend when he laughed sheepishly and raked a hand through his hair. Of course, how could he have forgotten that he wasn't the only one whose best-friend-gone-roommate had taken an abrupt leave of absence? Being the new head of the Amagi aristocracy that Yosuke himself had never pretended to be privileged enough to understand meant that Yukiko had been unceremoniously shepherded into taking part in some private matter of importance or another (he didn't pretend to understand any of that, either) which had, surprisingly enough, given her the first real opportunity she'd ever had to leave town in good conscience.

Sure enough, she'd grabbed it with both hands. He'd never faulted her for wanting to leave Inaba, having felt much the same when he'd first been shackled to the quaint and humble town, and by much the same token could appreciate the certainty with which he could ascertain that this glimpse into the outside world would be all she'd need. She'd said as much in passing, a number of times; Inaba was a lot of things, good and bad, but above all else it was home. There was something to be said for that.

"Hey, two weeks isn't half bad when you think about how long the two of you have known each other," he tried. The look he got in return was far from sympathetic.

"That's hardly the point."

"I know that already, jeez!" Yosuke snapped, resting his head in his hands and letting his elbows hit the table with a dull thump. "What the hell do you want from me? You don't have to tell me how much it sucks being apart from somebody you--"

He caught himself when she began to snicker at his near-slip, clenching his fingers in the fringe of his bangs and attempting to hide his reddening face behind his palms. "Shut up, you know what I mean," he grumbled.

Chie hummed her agreement. "Yeah, we're both pathetic, lovelorn little girls. I get it," she said matter-of-factly, returning his scowl with an amused smile.

"Well, when you put it like that..." Yosuke sighed, grimacing slightly at both the thought and just how accurate it seemed to sound, regardless of his friend's choice of words. "This is depressing. What are we supposed to do now, cry about going home to an empty house and not having dinner ready when we get there?"

He glanced up when Chie had nothing to say in response to that, realizing at once the reason for her moderately baffled expression: "You have dinner waiting for you when you get home?"

"Um. Most of the time?" he thought back, realizing that it had become an increasingly rare occurance for meals to run late, and Souji had given up on trying to encourage his help in preparing them not long into their first year of college together. He'd been tasked with dishes for years, an arrangement that both of them were more than happy to abide by.

Chie kicked at him from under the table (lightly, though he still made a show of pushing his chair away from the table in order to escape the brunt of the gesture). "Lucky," she told him, "I think I might be single-handedly keeping Souzai Daigaku afloat, these days."

This brought about a brief lull in the conversation, Yosuke still relatively uneasy with the discussion of how what remained of the shopping district had held up over the years. Everything that couldn't manage under the looming shadow of Junes had, for the most part, already been boarded up, sold, or converted into something else, but a few stragglers still remained. "Man. When's the last time I had a steak skewer, anyway...?"

He trailed off under the other's scrutinizing gaze, blanching upon the realization that he'd voiced that thought aloud. "Oh no. No, Chie, come on. You can't be--" but she was already on her feet, grabbing him by the arm and calling an abrupt end to his work day

"It'll be fun!" she decided for him with a grin, "After all, why spend such a nice evening moping around by ourselves when we could do dinner and have ourselves a good old fashioned all-night movie marathon?"

Yosuke stumbled after her, perking up considerably at the sound of her additional plans given that he'd been banned from the majority of her DVD collection since the unfortunate fate of Trial of the Dragon.

"You're buying drinks," he bartered in a last-ditch attempt to spare his wallet, Chie only laughing as she pulled him along.

 


 

Three days prior to his original estimated time of arrival, having found his business cut short and making the effort to catch an early train, Souji returned home in the early hours of the morning to find himself greeted by an unexpected sight.

A stack of DVDs in various states of disarray (forming three or four less than entirely distinct piles that he could only assume were supposed to resemble some sort of rudimentary filing system) sat in front of the still-flickering television, which was looping the title menu of an old kung-fu action movie and casting a soft glow over both the still-darkened living room and the sleeping figures that had taken up residence on his living room sofa.

At one end, with an arm slung over the back cushion and one leg having fallen to the floor, Yosuke lay with a pillow held comfortably against his chest by his other arm, his head lolling partway between the arm of the couch and his own shoulder. At the other, Chie lay curled on her side, one hand grazing the floor and her feet resting on top of both the other's chest and the pillow he'd fallen asleep with, her own propped against the arm rest on her side. One or the other--or both, Souji mused, a private smile making itself at home on his lips--was snoring lightly in their sleep.

Yukiko awoke to the sound of her cellphone, pulling the covers over her head and trying to remember how to function long enough to fumble for the offending device where it lay beside her bed. She dragged it under the blankets and blinked wearily at the dimly lit LCD screen for a moment or two while her groggy thoughts slowly gained clarity.

It wasn't long before she was giggling to herself in response to the photo that had been attached to Souji's text message:

I believe one of these is yours.

Chapter Text

Risette's fan mail had slowed to a trickle during the course of her break from the spotlight, but it never quite came to a complete stop. Predictably enough, the day after the announcement that she planned to return came the first wave of fresh fan letters, all containing various degrees of excitement and lavished praise.

With the release of her first new single came more, the letters swinging hard between fans who loved the new direction, (ex?) fans who were up in arms about the change, and the smattering who couldn't tell the difference.

And, for the first time, Rise got a letter too:

Risette,
(Jeez, feels weird now to call you that.)


--so it began. She paused, picking up the envelope she had originally discarded without thought to examine the return address. Inaba, of course; that hardly came as a surprise. Whoever had sent it had neglected to include a name with their return address, but then there were really only so many people to whom the awkward scrawl that filled the page in her hands could be attributed to.

Rise shook her head as she returned to the same harried handwriting she had witnessed personally on at least a few accounts, the rare occasions that Naoto or Yukiko had managed to rally a study session that encompassed the majority of their 'inner circle'. If any of them would have thought to send a letter through her fan mail, of course it would be Yosuke.

That should have been strange. It should have been unsettling in some way, she realized, but the further she read the more it only struck her as honest in a way she'd grown to appreciate too much to mind.

It's probably weird to get fan mail from somebody you know, huh? I should have thought of that before I started. --and yet, she hid a smile behind one hand, he could be surprisingly perceptive when he felt so inclined.

The rest of his letter only served to prove that point in a way that was both surprising and entirely too appropriate: she hadn't yet advertised the fact that she had returned to the stage with the intention of taking control over the direction of her music, which meant only a select handful of people should have been privy to that information. But somehow, out of all the mail Risette had received on the subject, Yosuke seemed the most aware of the change. He wrote about the heart that had always been present in her work, and how much more honest it seemed now. He wrote about things she had only barely acknowledged to herself, about her lyrics and how powerful their underlying message truly was.

He wrote about how he'd always liked her music before, but how what she was doing now was really something special.

Rise laughed, astonished by the contrast between her senpai's rushed handwriting and surprisingly articulate thoughts. She should have suspected as much, she supposed, from someone whose MP3 player was practically an extension of their own body. Reaching the end, she was met with yet another oddity.

Yosuke signed his letter only;
-Me

All at once the familiarity of the letter's tone struck home in an entirely different fashion. She had never spoken so casually with the other about anything, much less something so personal to either of them as this particular subject seemed to be, and yet everything about the letter had been so open, so at ease, it was as though she'd received a letter from someone she'd known for years...

She tore through a small selection of fan mail that had accompanied her throughout her journey of teenage stardom-- the letters that had spoken to her on a personal level, the ones that had made her feel good about her career and herself, carrying her through the times that she had been most at odds with the image that had been carefully crafted to sell her albums and her name.

Among them, making up the majority of the letters she had felt inclined to keep, she found numerous signed "me".

Rise stared at them--taking in the same rushed handwriting they'd been scrawled in, the same appreciative tone, the same simple understanding on a fundamental level of the one thing she'd thrown her very being into for so many years--and, surrounded by the kind words of an old friend, reached for her cell phone.

"Hi from me!" she announced, and couldn't help but smile to herself when Yosuke asked to what occasion he owed the call. "I wanted to," she decided after a moment, smoothing a hand over her small collection of letters, "...just because."

Chapter Text

He'd never asked for them to be willing to throw their lives away for him. He'd never wanted that at all and made a point of telling them as much after every incident where he found himself pushed aside, a hit misdirected.

Each in turn had argued with him about it, so far as anyone was willing to call it an argument at all. In private again and again he would hear the same explanations and excuses; talk of being leader and what it would mean for the investigation if they were to lose him.

He'd never asked for that title, either, but with each of them turning a steady gaze toward him, he'd reluctantly conceded. He used it as leverage, where he could, to convince them of saving that kind of loyalty for when it truly mattered. In all but one case, his words were enough--but he and Yosuke had never communicated by way of words when it came to the things that were most important. He would simply have to find another way.

He was relieved and grateful for the times that they listened, and for all his own discomfort when they deemed it necessary to ignore his requests, he was still quietly appreciative of their support. It was good to have a crutch to lean on, he found himself thinking on more than one occasion.

It was better to be able to trust and rely on one's friends.

All things said and done, however, he could never have been prepared for the sacrifice Izanami would call for. None of them could have, which is what makes the incident so striking in his mind. The first time-- the first time cuts the deepest, leaves the rawest ache, because he recognizes as well as the rest of them the difference between acting on gut feeling and raw instinct versus being encouraged and empowered by witnessing an act of sacrifice.

When the ground had opened up, black and oily with tendrils of clawing, grabbing hands that sought to drag him under, into oblivion, it had been Yosuke who was first to move, quickest to act, and most ready to throw his own life away.

Try as he might, he can't forgive him for that. It pulls at him from the inside, reminding him at every available opportunity of just how deep their unspoken bond goes. He traces the string in his mind, twisted and tied up in knots, looping around his ankles and binding him tightly to a fate he can't escape. He's never tried, and he never will, but the weight of that knowledge sits heavy in his mind nevertheless.

He wouldn't dare to loosen the knots, to snap the thread that cuts into his flesh with every breath he takes, but it serves as a constant reminder of that selfless dedication, and his own inability to see it in himself. He'd never asked to play the role of leader, hated seeing them endure scars that were meant for him alone, but most of all he was simply afraid.

Afraid of losing them, and afraid of not being able to do anything about it.

That Yosuke might be the first to realize this fear was only right, he supposed. It only made sense. But it did nothing to ease those fears--if anything, served only to intensify them.

He was weak. Souji would be the first to admit that, if only to himself.

It was a secret he kept well-hidden, nestled safely in the furthest reaches of his heart with all the rest of his fears and insecurities. His own Shadow was as dark and dense as any other, if tamed into a quiet acquiesce, a burden that he shouldered graciously. That he had never asked for their kindness or deserved their trust was one thing, but that he could not return the unthinking selflessness that Yosuke had shown him was another entirely.

He was weak and afraid, terrified by the prospect of having to pick up and carry on alone.

Maybe...

Maybe that was always the case, he thinks in a startling burst of clarity. Maybe he'd missed the point entirely. Maybe for the rest of them he'd gradually come to understand, but he and Yosuke had never communicated by way of words when it came to the things that were most important.

Yosuke's voice is little more than a shuddering breath into his matted and bloodied hair, but his hold is firm and steady and warm, cradling him against his chest as he speaks. They're halfway off the pavement and the words are difficult to hear over the sudden flurry of activity all along the street, but he clings to them as his only weapon against the looming darkness.

It's all meaningless noise, sounds with no form or shape to guide them--or maybe he's just lost the ability to distinguish them--but Yosuke settles on one that's more important than the rest to repeat over and again, so he's got time to try and piece his senses back together until it fits.

They've always reached understanding through action and reaction, driven by impulse and instinct.

That it would take a bus and a foggy evening in downtown Tokyo--streets slick with the afternoon's rain and reflecting the city lights with all the intensity of Inaba's stars back home--to finally see eye-to-eye is little more than circumstance.

Chapter Text

"So," begins the conversation over dinner, and Souji finds that he isn't surprised in the least by how awkward and stilted it sounds. His uncle is trying, though, and if he's come to understand anything from his short time in the Dojima household thus far, it's when to meet in the middle and when to wait patiently for whatever may follow.

"How were exams?" Dojima asks.

Souji pauses, chewing his food thoughtfully while he schools the hopeful part of himself back under the surface. He glances down at his plate as he swallows, sitting his chopsticks aside and clearing his throat softly as he remembers the dozens of conversations he's had on this subject with his parents over the years.

"They were good," he decides, looking up to gauge his uncle's reaction. Dojima nods in acknowledgment and leaves it at that, perhaps assuming another dead-end conversation from his typically quiet nephew.

"I got--" Souji begins, and stops when Dojima meets his gaze. Nanako's watching the entire exchange with a puzzled frown, which only serves to make him feel more ridiculous for speaking up. "The, um. I got the top score."

Silence. He wrings his hands together in his lap, staring down at them.

"...in my class," he clarifies quietly, suddenly embarrassed for having brought it up at all. His parents had always brushed off his academic accomplishments with the same nonchalance that any other 'How was your day?' generally received, but the tiny glimmer of anticipation that someone actively taking the time to ask has instilled in him is difficult to squash.

The sound of his uncle's quiet chuckle startles him back into awareness, snapping his gaze back up in order to stare. Dojima only shakes his head and offers his congratulations, which in and of itself might have been enough to put him on top of the world for days. When the next day his uncle calls him over to hand him a reasonable amount of spending money and a pat on the shoulder, he's too overwhelmed to do anything but stand awkwardly for a moment before a shy smile makes itself at home on his face and he mumbles his profuse thanks.

Nanako watches this exchange as well, a curious look upon her face, though she smiles brightly at the sight of his own expression when their eyes meet.

When the next set of exams approach and Souji once again retreats for long hours into his room to entertain the company of his textbooks, Nanako sometimes joins him, seating herself comfortably at the low table in the center of the room while he pores over his notes at his desk. She proves to be as far from a distraction as he could have ever dreamed, appearing likewise studious over the small collection of colorful origami paper she's come to his room to borrow, and so he's grateful for her companionship.

When at last she takes her mystery project elsewhere, it's difficult not to be disappointed by the loss.

"So," Dojima begins one evening after allowing sufficient time for grades to have been posted, drawing Souji's attention away from the quiz show he and Nanako have been watching together. He tries not to look hopeful, but his uncle chuckles at him and he knows he's failed. "How'd your exams go?"

"Alright," he replies, looking away so he won't have to see the flicker of pride. It's embarrassing enough to talk about, as though he's expecting some praise or reward. In reality he'd be just as pleased to announce that he'd placed somewhere just above passing, so long as there was someone to ask in the first place.

Nanako glances over at him curiously, shifting her gaze toward her father when a short laugh escapes him. "Just alright, huh?" he prods.

Souji wrings the palm of one hand across his opposite knuckles before he looks up; "I placed highest in my class again."

Dojima waves a hand at him dismissively with an added, "Eh, I knew you would," but there's a smile to his words and the following morning Souji finds another respectable amount of spending money on the kitchen table, paper-clipped to a note with his name and the words 'good job' scribbled in pen.

He's halfway out the door when Nanako stops him with a tug at his sleeve.

"Um... I made this for you!" She announces, holding out a bracelet made from various strips of colorful origami paper, folded together into neat, overlapping squares. It's certainly eye-catching, but the handiwork is what impresses him most. "As a present," she adds after a moment.

"A present?"

"Yeah!" Nanako grins when he holds out his wrist, fitting it over his hand as she explains, "For doing good in school. I wanted you to know that I'm proud of you too, big bro."

He's not sure how to react to that, at first, but she seems to settle for a tight hug, laughing and taking his hand as they walk together down the road to the floodplain.

When his friends catch an eyeful of his ridiculous new accessory, laughing at just how starkly it stands out in comparison to the rest of his all-too conventional wardrobe, he only smiles.

Chapter Text

Living life in such a small town comes with its share of complications. She's grown accustomed to them over time, but rationale and a level head only go so far when it comes to quelling the fire she's been tending for years.

She's not the only one, of course. It would be ridiculous to make such grand presumptions, but she carries with her the stigma of one who's tried to make their escape and failed.

But Saki isn't one to let setbacks hold her back forever. She faces her mistakes head on, takes their lessons gracefully, and moves ever onward. She's learned a thing or two about life and its severities--the importance of being independent and of seeking out her own future in her own time, as well as how to most easily sidestep the obstacles in her way--and she intends to use that knowledge to its fullest extent.

She's learned a thing or two about the nature of the world, but most importantly she's come to understand that lying is an art.

Sometimes it's the only way to get by-- the only way to look past the hurt and carry on.

At first she thinks maybe she's found someone who understands: shackled to a business he doesn't care about, stuck in a town that will never be home. Junes is little more than another stepping stone along the road to escape, the most convenient means of securing her next attempt, and judging by the way he treads so lightly around the subject in so little time since his arrival surely he must see it, too.

She reaches out without giving it much thought; an effort to salve her own wounds and perhaps find an outlet for honesty in the same motion.

Parents are parents, she decides, and if it's only a reflection of a situation she's familiar with, at least it's the closest she'll ever come to speaking the truth, You're you.


Two steps forward, one step back:

She hadn't expected things to slip into a routine she has so little direction over, but she smiles and she talks and she listens all the same.

She's kind and understanding, and in her company Yosuke is quick to fall into a role of offering a customary grin at every opportunity, making jokes and overall adjusting to the general upheaval of the life he'd known before Inaba.

He hasn't quite yet figured out how to escape from underneath the shadow of Junes in the eyes of the public, but he takes that in stride much like everything else. There are days it seems like the easiest thing in the world.

--one step forward, two steps back.


It's not all bad, he says, and judging by the way she smiles it must be the most convincing lie he's ever told.

It's always been more of a lifestyle, for him. He's never stopped to think of it that way, but there's really no other explanation for the all-too-familiar phenomenon of what he likes to call the retail worker's smile.

Laughing things off has always come easy, as has shelving reality in favor of an outward appearance that's more likely to get through the day unscathed.

He likes to think she might understand, but she's lived in this town her entire life and it's not as though she could ever really know what it was like to have all your decisions made for you.

That's alright, though. Given enough time he thinks maybe he could learn a thing or two about letting that be enough.

Chapter Text

When he'd mentioned, once, that the thought had occurred to him after the hellish incident that was the cross-dressing pageant that his friend probably could have passed as a girl if he'd actually tried, Yosuke had never really expected Souji to take that observation to heart.

That wasn't really the weirdest part of it all, though. If he was being entirely honest, the weird part was simply that he'd been right.

He wasn't sure what to think about that, or if there was anything that would be entirely appropriate to think about that at all, but it was too late to worry about any of that now. Souji had even gone as far as letting Rise dye his hair ("Jeez, Yosuke-senpai, it's only temporary. It'll wash out in less than a week," she'd sighed in exasperation at his initial knee-jerk reaction to that, Souji having been too busy drawing his fingers through his newly-colored bangs--seemingly captivated by the change--to notice). It was still light, a dirty blonde at best, but Rise had raised objections to allowing him anywhere near the shade of black he'd earnestly described his hair having been before the pigments had prematurely abandoned him.

The more he thought about it, the more he was glad that she had been so adamant. It was enough of a change to be a shock already, without taking things so far. He could at least be grateful for the absence of anything like the braided wig Souji had worn at the pageant--he'd grown his hair out significantly since the last they'd spoken of the idea, but for the most part it was still his own. If he were to take a comb to the light tease Rise had administered to it, it would have been difficult to notice the added length at all.

Here was about where Souji ended and 'Sou-chan' began, however.

'She' wore a pink, hooded cardigan over a grey shirt and a short dark blue skirt that swished against the thin material of Souji's pantyhose (and if that wasn't a thought that had made him blanch at first sight, surely they were taking this just a little too far--but Rise had waved him off and Souji had pointed out that he'd worn them before for the pageant and it was utterly hopeless trying to argue anymore considering that Rise was already busying herself with his makeup) but it was difficult to focus on much of any of that when all he seemed capable of thinking about was that they were walking hand-in-hand, square in the center of Okina City.

And yet, no one seemed to notice. No one at all cast them a second glance, no odd looks, no whispers, nothing. They might as well have been invisible; it was downright incredible.

Souji lightly swung his arm, offering a soft smile when the action caught Yosuke's attention, drawing him away from his surprised and suspicious glances at everyone they passed. Surely once they were just out of sight--surely someone had to notice. He blinked at his partner's expression before doing his best to return the gesture, though it came off as looking more embarrassed than anything. He sighed and raked his free hand through his hair, scratching the back of his neck before he bothered to speak.

"I'm not gonna lie, partner, this is... really weird."

Souji chuckled softly in response, giving his hand a squeeze before letting go in order to take his arm instead, leaning against the brunet as they walked. He didn't have to look in order to know that there was a dark flush across Yosuke's cheeks, the way his shoulders tensed and he looked stubbornly in the opposite direction told him as much.

"It's kind of nice," he decided, smiling politely at an older woman who gave them a half charmed, half amused look as she passed.

Yosuke made a soft sound of either acknowledgment or mild disapproval. "It's weird," he reiterated.

He caught himself mid-step when Souji stopped, still attached to his arm, before he could knock either of them off-balance, glancing over his shoulder questioningly and suddenly irrationally worried that he shouldn't have said anything. It had been his idea, after all, if only in a round-about way; he'd never seriously expected Souji to go for it, but--

Souji reached out with his free hand to grab him by the coat--lightly, more fingers than fist--and pull him close. Then he kissed him soundly on the lips, quickly and innocently as though something in their conversation had warranted the attention, before offering him a demure smile and a slight tilt of the head. Yosuke went from pale to beet red in the span of mere milliseconds, eyes darting in the direction of the closest of the crowd that made up the busy streets around them only to find that no one had even noticed.

"D-don't do that, man," he hissed, scrubbing a hand across his face and willing the heat away from his cheeks. "Somebody's going to--"

"Wasn't that the point?" Souji interrupted quietly, his smile fading and face falling into one of the faintest disappointment. And maybe he was just losing his mind due to stress and embarrassment, but Yosuke had a sneaking suspicion that the expression was only as readable for what it was because the other was still keeping in character. He'd learned to read his best friend pretty well, he liked to think, but Souji had never been the type to wear his feelings on his sleeve. It felt wrong somehow to see them on display like this. "Even if they do see, nobody's going to care."

Yosuke just looked at him for a long moment, until finally even Souji could do nothing but fold under his gaze. He stared at his shoes, shifting his weight uneasily and letting his hands drop to his sides. From this angle it was impossible to tell if the color that dusted across his face was from the makeup Rise had applied or only accentuated by it; either way it was difficult not to notice.

A sigh and a quiet, frustrated sound were all the warning he got before the brunet reached out to put an arm around his waist, other hand brushing against the side of his face and tilting his head back up so that Yosuke could briefly close the distance between them--still awkward and hesitant, but they hadn't quite moved beyond that stage even when they weren't completely out in the open, anyway.

He didn't move away once the kiss had come to an end, resting their foreheads together and simply trying to appreciate the fact that he could. The action hadn't earned him a single comment from anyone, shouted or whispered or otherwise, and while he did notice someone across the street who appeared to be irritated at the sight of them, it was easy enough to recognize the same petulant expression that crossed his own face every time he wandered into some couple getting too comfortable with each other in the hallways of Yasogami High.

From this close Yosuke could rely on the usual tells he'd grown accustomed to in order to judge the reaction of his friend--boyfriend? They hadn't bothered to talk about what it was supposed to be called. They'd hardly talked about it at all, really. Partner, he decided, that had always sounded right anyway. The particular look he got in his eyes when he'd been caught without the time to think something through, how he'd gently click his teeth together so that they didn't quite line up the way they did naturally, that in turn leaving his lips parted only just enough to notice if you knew to look. Yosuke allowed himself a brief, nervous chuckle before leaning back and moving his arm to Souji's shoulder, pulling him against himself and back into a walk.

"Alright," he said, offering a wink and a grin that was only partly for show, "You win. I could get used to being able to do that whenever I wanted."

Souji tried to elbow him, biting back the small smile that was threatening to make itself at home on his face. Despite the attempted abuse, though, he replied only with the assessment that he wouldn't particularly mind making it a regular occurrence.

Yosuke nearly tripped over a dip in the pavement and looked pointedly away once more to hide the blush that accompanied the implication of those words. Souji was a lot of things, but he had to be out of his mind if he thought that word wouldn't get out eventually if they made this sort of thing common practice between them. It wasn't a charade that could be kept up forever, after all. Before he could say as much, however, Souji turned on his heel to walk backwards as he pulled him along by both hands, offering a shy smile that was two parts Sou-chan and only one part himself.

He tried not to let it bother him.

But for every instant that Yosuke managed to push the thought away or remind himself that it was a necessary part (perhaps even the most important part) of the other's disguise, the entire population of Okina seemed dead set on bringing him back around to this single point of conflict simply by virtue of doing nothing at all.

It was strange on a level that he hadn't ever really stepped back to think about before, the way in which people would simply take what they saw for what it was and move on. While the concept itself was one that he had become intimately acquainted with over the past number of months, to see it on display in such a literal fashion was nothing short of jarring. That anyone could possibly be fooled seemed absolutely ludicrous--but then, that had been the point, as Souji had already pointed out.

He was still trying to decide his feelings on this observation when he came to the abrupt realization that he was alone, faltering mid-step and glancing warily up and down the street. Souji hadn't wandered far; he'd stopped a few feet back, Yosuke too caught up in his own thoughts to notice. He turned around, about to ask what the problem was when he noticed where exactly the other had stopped.

Souji had developed some kind of bizarre fascination with flowers since coming to Inaba, one that caused him to suddenly forget that he was supposed to be going somewhere whenever he passed a patch of wildflowers at the riverbank or to slow his steps whenever there was a particularly obscene display of them set up in Junes. Yosuke had long since given up trying to understand this particular oddity--his friend had enough of them that they would have been impossible to keep track of if he'd tried anyway. As it was, he only shook his head at the ridiculousness of Souji having quite literally stopped to smell the roses set out in front of a little flower shop on the corner of the block. After all, it would only take a moment for him to pull himself back together and catch up, maybe deciding to throw out some useless trivia about whichever type of flower had caught his attention that Yosuke neither knew nor cared anything about (but enjoyed listening to him talk about anyway).

Except... He felt a weird little tug in his chest and suddenly he was having trouble remembering what he'd just been thinking about, because Souji hadn't simply slowed to take in the sight before hurrying to catch up again, he'd stopped and some guy was saying something to him that Yosuke couldn't hear. He jammed his hands into his pockets both to give himself something to do and to dry the sweat from his palms, retracing his steps as he cycled through the countless number of things that could have given them away, absolutely convinced that this was the only feasible explanation for--

The man (young; college-age, maybe, not that much older than either of them) wore a green apron, presumably an attendant of the shop, and much to Yosuke's mixed surprise--equal parts 'what the hell, seriously?' and 'oh thank God'--he was smiling as he spoke. That relief didn't last for very long.

"A pretty flower for a pretty lady," he was saying, "Here, have a pink one to match your cardigan." He reached out to place the flower he'd selected gingerly behind Souji's ear, pale pink petals standing out vividly in contrast to his hair. "...ah," the man laughed, "and your face now, too!"

From where he stood, watching this exchange, Yosuke bristled. Irritation coiled thick and low in his stomach, causing him to dig his hands deeper into his pockets and hunch his shoulders against an invisible chill. Souji waved to the man with a smile that was--unfamiliar--too accessible, too straightforward, and turned on his heel with a movement that had just enough of a flourish to be completely unrecognizable as the bottomless well of calm and collected that Souji had never failed to be.

When that same smile was directed toward him, Yosuke found that he could only stare in bewilderment.

"Did you see that?" Souji asked, taking his arm with a laugh--too loud, too obvious--and pulling him back into their interrupted walk with little more than a cursory glance over his shoulder to offer the man at the flower stall another quick, gracious look. He reached up with his free hand to gently readjust the flower behind his ear, "I never would have thought it, but this was a great idea."

Yosuke mumbled his agreement as he watched the other teen fiddle with the flower in his hair from the corner of his eye and tried to decide how much of the action was Sou-chan. The more that Souji settled into his role, the more she seemed to take over. Again he tried to push the thought from his mind, scolding himself for picking apart the differences in what was essentially the same as the outfit he was wearing: a disguise, and nothing more. There was nothing inherently different about him.

Except that there was.

Having noticed this phenomenon relatively early on, it was becoming increasingly difficult not to pinpoint it in every instance that followed. It was overwhelmingly present in the way that Souji sat with his legs crossed at the knee, smoothing his skirt before folding his hands in his lap when they decided to stop at an outdoor café. He sat further back in his chair than he ever typically had at the food court, arms tucked in close to his person as though he were trying to appear smaller than he really was. It was part of the act, making him look shy and sweet and maybe a little insecure, like a girl who was excited and embarrassed to be out on a date and trying not to let either of those things seem too obvious in case anyone were to notice.

Souji had always been quiet, but he took to talking into the table or behind his hand or directed at the ground each time that he was forced to interact with the waitress who came to tend to them, avoiding eye contact and curling the fingers of one hand to press against his lips in a picture perfect image of bashful amusement when the woman left them with an offhand comment about being a cute couple. If the other teen had thought him good at role-playing back during the ridiculous failure that had been their class's Culture Festival project, that performance was nothing short of amateur compared to this.

Yosuke set his jaw, glancing to both sides and finding once again that no one anywhere seemed to pay them any mind. This is insane, he realized, the thought hitting him before he could properly reason out why. Once that fact had been established, though, the rest came easy: everything that Souji said or did like this screamed at some part of him deep down that something was horribly, irrefutably wrong. Even just sitting across from him the way he was doing now, giving him a look that clearly said he knew something was up and simply hadn't yet determined whether it was something he should ask about or wait for Yosuke to volunteer his thoughts on...

How was it even possible? How could anyone not see through this whole ridiculous charade?

He brought his elbows into contact with the table, leaning heavily on them and folding his hands in order to rest his head against his thumbs with an irritated sigh.

"Souji--" he glanced up, cutting himself off in response to the look of surprise that briefly flashed through the other's eyes. He only hesitated long enough to watch Souji neatly tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ear, breaking eye contact in the process. Yosuke bit his lip, suddenly filled with an irrational need to recapture his partner's attention that made itself known in the form of him letting his hands fall to hit the table a little louder than he might have otherwise, standing up so that his chair scraped loudly against the pavement.

"Souji," he repeated, "Partner. Come on, man, don't make me say it. I'm not going to. It's dumb. This is dumb." He gestured vaguely, trying to communicate what 'this' was supposed to encompass with the motion.

For the first time that day, people were beginning to stare. At least he'd managed to get Souji's attention back on him, too.

"...what is?"

"Everything," he replied. "All of it. I don't--" he raked a hand through his hair, well aware that he was beginning to get ahead of himself, opening his mouth before he could think what it was that he was trying to say, "--if I wanted this, what you're doing right now, I wouldn't have..."

Souji uncrossed his legs, resting an elbow against the tabletop and leaning forward so that his chin was supported by his thumb, index finger pressed against his upper lip and expression mostly unreadable. It was the most like Souji he'd looked all day.

That in and of itself gave Yosuke the courage that he needed to continue.

"I just... this isn't you alright?" he tried to explain, desperately ignoring the sinking feeling that he was attracting more attention to himself the longer this went on. "I wanted to be able to do these things with you, not... I don't even know whoever it is you're supposed to be, right now. They're not the person I--," he faltered, the words tripping over themselves in his realization that they were closer to a confession than anything the two of them had ever actually said to one another had been.

After a long moment of hesitation he finally groaned and sank back into his seat, deflating at his own inability to be articulate when it mattered.

"Partner... I like you because you're you," he muttered uselessly. "You're important to me, okay? You. Not anybody else. Even if it's you pretending to be someone else."

He didn't dare risk a glance up to see what Souji's reaction to any of that might have been. He didn't care to even guess, content for now to wallow in every agonizing second of silence.

Which was precisely why it came as a surprise when his chair began to move, Souji pulling it around closer to his own so that he could rest an arm along the back of it, a comfortable weight along his shoulders.

"Sorry," he said quietly, surprising the other for the second time in as many minutes. His smile now was soft and subtle and nigh imperceptible, his gaze sharp but understanding. It fell away after an instant, not in hesitation or an imitation of shyness, but in mild self-consciousness--the same expression he'd always worn whenever he made a mistake fighting Shadows in the other world, no matter how small the fault and whether or not it was even his own.

"H-hey," Yosuke spoke up, "It's not... I mean, it was my idea in the first place, you don't have to be--"

He paused when Souji met his gaze again, leaning forward to quiet him with a light brush of lips against his own. He was getting suspiciously good at that.

When he pulled away, it was to reach for the flower in his hair with his free hand, pulling it out and smiling softly at it before threading it through a button hole in Yosuke's coat. He pat it gently once it was secured, ignoring the look of confusion he got in return, only then content to continue their conversation.

"I didn't even think about that," he explained, punctuating with a soft exhale that stopped just short of a chuckle. It was as close as he typically got, under normal circumstances. "Too focused on being able to do things like that without anyone caring, I guess," he admitted quietly. "So, yeah, I am sorry."

He waited a beat before pulling his arm away, stretching both over his head and settling into his chair more comfortably. This involved sliding down to lounge a little more than sit, letting his legs situate the way they usually did--an uncanny transformation, really, because for as much as he still looked the part, it was harder than ever to see anything but Souji in him.

"Better?"

Yosuke scoffed, giving him a solid shove. "At least try to be decent, would you?"

"No promises," Souji replied evenly, slinging an arm around his shoulders once again--and if it looked a little strange, at least it felt right.

From that point on, the day as it had been more or less fell apart. It was awkward, sure, and more than a little embarrassing when Souji had decided that it was as good a time as any to grab him by the collar and pull him into a kiss just as the waitress had turned back to them for--something, what the hell did it matter anymore?

But for whatever it was worth, such a well-crafted plan had never fallen apart more gracefully.

Souji's demeanor fell seamlessly back into his own brand of quiet, subtle and sure and confident (except maybe for when Yosuke had started cracking lewd jokes and elbowing him whenever someone started paying them a little too much attention--he'd never been particularly quick at coming up with anything to say in response that didn't involve a lot of turning red and trying to get in a good pinch or slap to shut his friend up before he could think of anything worse to add), and between the two of them, an arcade, and a couple of hours, it felt a lot like any other day out might have before.

That thought was the one that seemed to stick, on the bus ride home. Yosuke mulled it over while Souji sat across from him, his legs outstretched so that his feet rested comfortably in the brunet's lap. Every time Yosuke tried to push them off, he'd just start poking him in the leg with his toes, so in the end it was easier to just let them stay. It seemed like a fitting metaphor, somehow, but Souji had always been better at figuring out that sort of thing and he was too busy being an ass for it to be worth bringing up. Yosuke stretched a leg out to try and push the other's skirt up, getting a slap across his ankle in response.

And if they'd given anyone anything to talk about--in Okina, on the bus, or back home--well, at least they'd given themselves plenty of reasons not to care.

Chapter Text

The first time that anyone goes out of their way to do something entirely spontaneous for Yukiko, devoid of thought for appearances or proper etiquette, she memorizes the feeling and locks it away somewhere deep inside for fear of never experiencing anything like it again.

Chie makes a habit of surprising her, though, over the days and weeks that follow their first meeting on the flood plain.

She's never had anyone at her doorstep on the weekend to ask if she can play, and Chie even brings the dog she's adopted in Yukiko's stead ("Until your mom changes her mind, then you can have him back," which Yukiko only agrees to because she isn't given time to explain why that won't ever happen) just to be extra sure that she can't possibly say no.

The next time Chie comes around Yukiko has chores to do, but the dog gets loose as she's trying to explain and hours later all three of them are covered in dirt and Chie doesn't seem to have any trouble at all holding on to the leash.

Years later, that's the detail Yukiko remembers with the greatest clarity.

She wonders just how many times Chie managed to get away with making split-second decisions like that without anyone noticing. How many of her bruises and broken bones, worn like trophies, were the direct result of an impulse the other girl had acted upon entirely without thought, content treat life and its decisions like a head-on collision at every turning point.

She'd wondered the same thing when she'd spent weeks upon months trying to talk herself into getting on a bus going anywhere just to see where she ended up, only to end up no further than the bus stop every time. The longer she mediated her escape from Inaba, the more she realized that acting on impulse was something she wasn't sure she'd ever really begin to understand.

It's no different now, either. All of her decisions--including the one to stay--have been the end result of meticulous planning and consideration for all viable outcomes.

Which is precisely why she feels so unprepared every time that life sees fit to throw a curve ball and she's forced to react before time for proper preparations can be made.

It's been nearly twenty years when Chie shows up at her doorstep for the last time with what has become their dog. He's grown fat and weary in old age, so Chie carries him, but even then Yukiko can tell without having to ask that he hasn't got much time left.

Chie's come to her-- to ask for help, or guidance, or healing she doesn't know how to give in this world; or maybe just because she doesn't know what else to do.

Spontaneity has never been a strong point for her, but Yukiko takes a deep breath and tries her best: she grabs her sweater without a word and walks out the door to face the world as it comes. She walks the two of them to the flood plain and takes a seat, and the dog sniffs the air before settling down into Chie's arms, and Chie leans into Yukiko's shoulder and runs a hand through his fur until she's absolutely sure that he's gone.

"I'm really glad you let me take care of him all this time," Chie finally speaks after a moment of silence.

Yukiko looks up and watches as twenty years fade into obscurity, met with the same hopeful, happy, peaceful expression she'd been faced with so long ago, and recognizes the feeling she'd locked away back then as it blossoms into something full and brilliant and indisputable, putting that former glimmer to shame.

And as she dries her tears with the corner of her sleeve and tries her best to smile back, all she can think to say in response to that or anything else is; "I am, too."

Chapter Text

It's just the little things, at first.

They'll be sitting on the school rooftop eating lunch and Yosuke will pause in the midst of conversation or his meal in order to pull his MP3 player from his pocket and fiddle with it for a bit before pulling his headphones from his neck and holding them out for Souji to take.

Here, you've got to listen to this--

Souji's never quite sure what he's listening for, but he brings his hands up to hold the headphones in place over his own ears and listens intently anyway. It's always something different, some refrain or swell of music that's compelled his friend to share. Sometimes the lyrics are in English, and Souji takes the opportunity to practice putting meaning behind unfamiliar words as the music plays. Alone and devoid of context, though, he's usually left with little more than a handful of prose he's not sure the exact translation of.

Just because he can't feel the music the way Yosuke does doesn't make him unappreciative of the gesture, though. He'll return the headphones once he's fairly certain that he's heard whichever part of the song it was the other had wanted him to hear with a comment on the tone or the rhythm, privately grateful that Yosuke sees these moments fit to share, and Yosuke will grin and go on to talk about the song or the band or whichever section of the music he'd wanted him to listen to, never shy about the details of exactly what the music says to him.

It isn't long before he's doing this outside of school as well, leaning across the table at Junes or stretching across the sofa in Souji's room to prod him in the shoulder with the headphones while he's sitting at his desk.

"Powerful, isn't it?" Yosuke asks him one afternoon after having him listen to a man pour his heart and soul into a studio microphone, the music building into a dizzying cacophony of noise before reaching a breaking point and dropping off into slow rivulets of bass and reverb.

He's practically thrumming with the same echoes of intensity that are still fading from the headphone speakers, leaning forward expectantly with a spark in his eyes that Souji recognizes by now as evidence that the song is both newly discovered and one that resonates in a way he can't possibly hope to appreciate for himself. He's tried (and, more importantly, he understands), but the music just doesn't speak to him in quite the same way.

It takes him a moment to collect himself, trying to think up a suitable response.

"The lyrics are in English," he observes, when no other words come to him.

Yosuke just blinks at him, surprised, as though the thought had honestly never occurred to him before.

"So?" he asks after a beat. "It doesn't really matter, does it? Vocals are just another instrument, layered on top. You don't have to know what they're saying to understand, not when you can feel it."

Souji's brows pull together in an expression of thought as he lifts the headphones back to his ears. He understands, sure, but he's not sure that he gets it. Not yet, anyway. He's still trying.

"I can burn you a CD, if you want," Yosuke offers when they part ways later that day.

Souji returns a smile and replies, "I'd like that."

He spends most of his free time the following week trying to get through a song in its entirety without being distracted from whatever else he was trying to do at the time. When he's just listening, dedicating his focus toward that one thing alone, he thinks he could learn to really appreciate Yosuke's taste in music. It's a little loud and a bit all over the place, but that really only makes sense the more he thinks about it.

The only problem is that it demands his attention, frequently wrestling his thoughts away from folding envelopes or the model he's been trying to finish building or anything else, really, and it's downright impossible to concentrate on anything that requires him to process actual words. Homework is out of the question.

It's a lot like having Yosuke there, he muses, but eventually concedes defeat and simply turns the music off.



Not a few days later Yosuke's nudging him in the back with a pencil during class, while they're waiting for the last few minutes of the school day to wind down. He turns in his chair so that Yosuke can present him with a new CD, tapping him on the shoulder with it and grinning when he reaches out to take it.

"Another one?" Souji asks, and instantly hates how ungrateful it sounds.

Yosuke doesn't seem to notice.

"Yeah, the whole album wouldn't fit on the last one, but I didn't want to have to waste a disc," he explains, twiddling his pencil restlessly between his fingers. "So I figured hey, why not grab some other stuff to put on there, too? I made sure to get that one with the bass solo you said sounded cool."

Actually, Yosuke had said that; Souji had only agreed because he couldn't think of another word to describe the metallic screech of feedback that completely overpowered whatever he was supposed to be hearing.

He nods anyway, tucking the CD into the front of one of his notebooks for safekeeping.

"Thanks."

"Any time," Yosuke answers with a customary wink, and then the bell rings and he's gone--off to Junes to try and make up for the days of work he's had to skip for training lately, 'taking responsibility' before his father can notice and force him to at a less opportune time.

Souji watches him leave, and only once he's sure the other is gone does he open his notebook to examine the CD. There's a piece of paper tucked into the flimsy plastic sleeve, which he takes out and unfolds to find a handwritten track list: track number, artist, song title, and running time all included.

He shakes his head as he re-folds the piece of paper and puts both it and the disc into his school bag, assuring himself that he'll take the time to listen as soon as possible.

Attempting to fit this into his already hectic schedule proves difficult, however, and by the end of the week the CD is still sitting innocuously atop the stereo in his room, unplayed. He's running out of excuses (not that he's trying to make them in the first place, he tells himself, he just has yet to find the time) and there are only so many days that he can pretend not to notice the look of anticipation Yosuke sends his way each morning before class, anxiously awaiting some type of feedback.

With this in mind Souji tries once again to let the music serve as background noise, hopeful that his previous difficulties were the fault of the album itself and not necessarily music as a general concept. Considering the importance of the subject matter and the effort his friend has put into this one inoffensive gesture--the accompanying slip of paper had been evidence enough of that fact, after all--it's really the least that he can do to try.

The selection of music has far more variety than the last disc, but much to Souji's frustration the problem of being entirely too distracting remains. The sound is still only a disquieting buzz, a constant mental block that makes it impossible to concentrate.

When at last something finally stirs a spark in him, he only notices because his first thought is that the CD has come to a stop. He's been staring at the same paragraph in the book he's trying to read for the better part of half an hour, until the music fades out and he finds himself able to focus once again. After a matter of minutes, though, a clash of sound brings him back, and he jerks his head up to stare at the offending stereo system. He puts his book aside, going to investigate, and turns the CD back two tracks.

At first there's only quiet, but before long he's met with the soft strumming of a guitar lead in, followed shortly thereafter by a man's voice as he begins to vocalize, harmonizing easily with the instrument. Souji stands perfectly still as he listens, realizing belatedly that the lyrics are--once again--in English. But for once he's pleasantly surprised to find that he doesn't feel compelled to attempt translating in order to try and gain some better appreciation of the song.

He turns the track back again and listens once more from the beginning as he returns to his book before finally turning the stereo off for the night.



"Sorry?" Yosuke asks in class the following day, dropping his headphones from the ear he's been holding one side of them to.

Souji makes to flick his pencil at him, halting the motion only after it's convincing enough to cause his friend to flinch and hold his arms up in some mockery of a defensive position. "You wouldn't notice if a meteor landed right outside the window, would you?"

Yosuke scoffs, kicking the back of the other teen's chair. It's hardly a compelling argument.

"Anyway," Souji continues, unfazed, "I was saying that I liked the acoustic song you put on that CD for me."

The look that crosses the brunet's face is impossible to place, though if he had to hazard a guess he'd call it strikingly similar to the one of triumph that followed a particularly successful encounter against a group of Shadows in the other world. In all fairness, Souji rationalizes, it's the first time he's been the one to initiate a conversation on the subject. It only makes sense that Yosuke would be interested in any possible evidence that it might prove something they could hold on common ground.

"Really?" He asks, and his tone belies something here as well. "I mean, yeah-- I put the regular version on there too, right?"

Souji doesn't even attempt to bluff an answer to that question; he's never been more confident in his complete inability to know one way or the other. He should have thought to bring the track listing with him, for reference. It doesn't matter anyway; Yosuke chuckles nervously and rubs the back of his neck with one hand as he continues, not waiting for a response, "They're both pretty good, though. It's like... even though it's the same song, sometimes it just-- it feels more honest that way, you know?"

Souji's pretty sure he hasn't the slightest idea. He nods anyway.

"It's easier to listen to," he says instead, and smiles when Yosuke just shakes his head and laughs.

Monday morning finds a new CD waiting for him on his desk the moment he walks into the classroom. He doesn't waste any time retrieving the slip of paper from the protective sleeve to glance over the track titles and running times. The song names are... distinctive, to say the least. The running times are less uniform than he remembers the other two CDs having been, as well.

"I threw together a bunch of indie stuff I had on my hard drive," Yosuke interrupts when he turns to ask, as though that should somehow explain everything. Maybe it should.

Souji glances back down at the list as his classmate continues; "You'll like it, it's mostly acoustic. A couple garage band type deals, but those are pretty light, too. Some of the sound quality's a little rough, though."

"I'm sure it's fine," Souji replies, and pretends not to notice the way Yosuke smiles at his desk, twiddling a pencil between his fingers. The expression looks off somehow, in a way he can't quite place. He'll figure it out later, he tells himself, and deposits the CD into his school bag.

It only takes a day for him to get around to the stereo in his room, this time. He's anxious to see if this music will hold up to his description of the last acoustic song, accessible enough for him to listen to while he goes about the rest of his business. He's pleasantly surprised to find that it does, and even the songs with additional instruments that sound like they were recorded into a tin can are only distracting from his books.

The only things he finds himself unable to concentrate on, no matter how hard he tries or how soft the music in the background, are his homework and the translation work he's recently picked up. Getting through the disc in its entirety is slow work, considering, and he keeps forgetting to turn the stereo back on once he's moved on to an activity that it wouldn't distract from, but he reaches the final track before the end of the week.

At least, he'd thought he had. He looks up from the work table where he's been folding paper cranes when the final song comes to an end, reaching for the track listing to make a mental note of what the song had been called so as to ask Yosuke later whether or not he had anything else by the same artist, when the stereo goes on to the next track.

There shouldn't be a next track.

Souji can only just make out the sound of a guitar being readjusted, at first, but before long there are a couple of notes and a brief strummed chord (some kind of warm up, he figures, a few of the other tracks have had something similar) and then silence. He double checks the slip of paper that Yosuke included with the disc, but there's nothing written below the last song.

A few notes play, the last fading off into nothing before the same refrain plays again, an additional melody tacked onto the end. These notes too fade into silence before the music suddenly picks up and the song begins in full. It's short--a little over a minute even with the beginning stretch of silence--and entirely instrumental.

He sets it to repeat until well after Dojima's gotten sick enough of hearing it through the door to tell him to knock it off.



"You forgot to label one of the tracks," Souji speaks up over lunch, the following day. "On the last CD," he clarifies, if only because it feels like an abrupt change of subject otherwise.

"Huh?" Yosuke glances over at him, tapping a chopstick against his knee and furrowing his brow in thought.

"The last one. No lyrics, just guitar."

He watches as Yosuke stills his hand after a particularly forceful tap, recognition dawning on his face before he glances away. "Oh. Uh... no, I didn't forget. That was just some garbage I had on my hard drive from--"

"I thought it was really good."

Yosuke starts to laugh, only to catch himself when looks up to see that his friend is serious. "You... what?"

"I really liked it," Souji reiterates. "I was going to ask if you had any more like that."

Color darkens the brunet's cheeks as he rakes the hand that hasn't been abusing his knee with a set of chopsticks through his hair, pulling at the ends.

"Um. Yeah, I-- I mean, sure. If you want. I can..." He laughs nervously, quickly putting on a practiced retail worker's smile to cover for himself, "I can probably find something, no problem."

Souji doesn't have time to question his odd behavior before Yosuke's launched into a conversation about something else entirely, and it takes until he gets home that evening to realize that he'd forgotten to ask who the artist was or what the song was called, if anything.

When at first a week passes with no new CD he doesn't think much of it. Halfway through the second he means to ask, but developments in their collective investigation draw his attention back toward more important matters.

It's been nearly a month when Yosuke reaches across his desk one morning in order to prod him in the side with the tip of his pencil. He glances over his shoulder only to feel another poke at his opposite side. He doesn't bother turning the other direction, instead reaching over to grab the offending pencil and pry it out of the other teen's grasp, tucking it behind his own ear once that's accomplished. Yosuke returns into his field of vision to scowl at him, unimpressed.

Souji offers a smile over his shoulder before moving to return to his notebook, the other reaching up to steal his pencil back and trading it between hands in order to poke him directly between the shoulder blades with something substantially more angled than a pencil eraser. When Souji turns around again he finds Yosuke flashing a small rectangular case at him, urging him to take it.

It's a cassette tape. Souji spares it a glance before directing a puzzled frown toward his friend.

"Who still uses these?"

Yosuke rolls his eyes, making a short sound of exasperation; "Jeez, partner, I didn't realize you were the audio format police." He folds his arms over his desk when Souji only raises an eyebrow at him in response. "It's the best I can do, man. I used to get somebody I knew to transfer things off cassettes and onto the computer, but I don't have any of the stuff I'd need in order to do that anymore."

"I'm... honestly not sure that the stereo in my room even has a tape deck."

The look he gets in return for that observation is nothing short of offended. Souji finds himself in the electronics department of Junes after school that afternoon for an entirely different reason than he's used to, listening with no short supply of amusement as Yosuke explains in detail the merits of analog audio recording.

When Yosuke rings up their purchase, he puts his own money in the register.

"It's yours, okay?" He decides as he hands off the desktop cassette recorder, forcing it into Souji's hands, "Just take it. The tape, too, you can have that. I mean-- if you like it, I mean, it's not very..." He trails off, looking embarrassed with himself. "Ugh, crap, you know what I mean. Just let me know what you think."

"What about you?" Souji asks, thinking back to that morning and the reason why a tape player is a necessity in the first place. "Do you have a backup or something?"

Yosuke just slings an arm around his shoulder as they make their way out of the store, fishing his MP3 player out of his pocket with the opposite hand, "I've moved on to bigger and better things, my friend. If I wanted to listen to that stuff I'd still be carrying a Walkman. You can have it."

It's not a commercial tape anyway, Souji discovers that evening. It's the same brand of blank tape that he'd seen among others in Junes just a few hours before. He flips the cassette over and again in his hands, but there's no label and no distinctive markings. The case itself is blank, as well.

Unusual, considering the effort Yosuke had put into meticulously labeling the CDs he'd put together. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't worth going through the trouble when there was no easy way to tell which track you were on where a cassette was concerned, anyway.

Or maybe because there were no discernible breaking points between tracks in the first place.

For the first time, Souji listens to the entire selection of music he's been given in a single night: the cassette is one long, continuous stretch of solo acoustic guitar. A brief warm up of strummed notes and chords leads almost seamlessly into a rendition of a song Souji recognizes from the previous CD, though without the vocals and with perhaps a few more stumbles between measures. This continues for a while, one song bleeding into the next without much thought, until an interlude that should have picked up into something else goes on distractedly for a while, as though waiting for the next set of notes to come meet it somewhere in between.

They never come, and the tune of wayward notes instead climbs and builds and eases back apart mindlessly. It's hardly a melody of any kind, in and of itself, but it's strangely fascinating to listen to and Souji finds it more peaceful than any of the rest of what's been recorded to the tape. He's oddly disappointed when the notes finally come to an abrupt stop, the last sound a sudden sharp chord that's muted almost immediately by the player's palm.

He falls asleep with that last stretch of notes still drifting through his mind, convinced that he's heard pure and unadulterated thought for the first time, if only he could find a way to piece together meaning from the sound.



Yosuke seems almost disproportionally pleased when Souji reports back the following day that the tape was, in no uncertain terms, his favorite of the lot so far.

It takes another two weeks for him to produce another, as though drudging up some long lost piece of history that had taken no short supply of effort to find. This cassette is as unlabeled as the last, so Souji takes it upon himself to add the number two to its surface in thin, precise marker strokes before swapping it into the tape player that's made itself at home on his desk. He's treated with more of the same solo acoustic guitar that was on the previous cassette, albeit with longer stretches of wandering notes between pieces of music. Toward the end of the tape this same meandering occurs yet again, even more pronounced than before.

He listens and rewinds and listens again, trying to decipher the thoughts that must have guided hands and fingers lightly along guitar strings, using the interludes between songs as a reference point. Deciding what to play, which pitch to use, where to start, thinking better of it and launching into something else entirely at the last moment-- he's convinced that he can read these easily enough, given that they're mostly consistent.

Toward the end, however, as the notes drift and weave between this thought and the next, he loses the ability to follow.

He's still mulling over this as he watches Yosuke move to a beat that only he can hear, walking home after a long and decidedly rare (more so these days, now that every encounter seemed stronger than the last) day of hazard-free Shadow-busting in the other world. The brunet's headphones are around his neck, but he's still got the rhythm of whatever his playlist for these outings must be coursing through his veins, carrying his steps with an energy that rolls off of his entire being in tangible waves.

Souji's thoughts drift after a moment, brought back by the sudden thumping intensity of white-hot noise pulsing through his core, wrenching away as Yosuke laughs and pulls his headphones back toward his own person.

"Holy--" Souji sputters, cupping a hand over one still-ringing ear, "How do you function with that going on in your head all the time?"

"It gets your blood pumping, doesn't it?" Yosuke replies easily, settling the headphones back around his neck and rocking on his heels as he walks, every movement in tune to the music, "Keeps your thoughts sharp. Focused."

Something about that strikes a chord that isn't easily dismissed.

"...what do you suppose thoughts would sound like if they weren't focused?" Souji asks.

When Yosuke just looks at him, he clarifies, "If someone was writing a song, but they just... let it come to them however it wanted. Like they weren't really paying attention."

"I don't know. Floaty?" Yosuke laughs, using his pent up energy to kick a pebble from the street into the grass, "Bad, probably. If you tried to write a song without thinking you'd just end up with a bunch of disjointed nonsense that didn't say anything."

Souji falls back into silence as they walk, considering this. He's not sure how to argue his point when he's not entirely sure what point he's trying to make in the first place.

The pieces of music on the cassettes that aren't truly songs are most assuredly disjointed, but in the odd sort of way that natural thought processes had a tendency to be anyway. Surely they said something. It was just a matter of figuring out how the pieces fit together. He'd witnessed firsthand the way that music could tell powerful stories, carry emotion raw and strong, and more importantly how those messages could be lost upon a listener who wasn't sure how to parse the information.

Surely that's what this was. Surely there was something hidden in the slow tumble of notes, the steady way they would climb and twist and fall apart, fading gradually into nothing only to jump back and collide into one another before getting whisked away into a completely different arrangement.

He listens to both of the tapes once more that night, lying under the cover of his futon and staring at the ceiling through the darkness as he tries desperately to understand. He knows it's there, somewhere just beyond his reach. It has to be.



The answer comes, at last, one weekend when Yosuke invites him over to waste away a sweltering summer afternoon playing video games. It's too hot to do anything else and too early to worry about summer homework just yet, and Souji eventually agrees just to get back indoors where he can sit in front of a fan.

"You play guitar," is the first observation he thinks to make when Yosuke returns to his room with a glass of ice water in either hand. It's less of a question than it ought to be, considering the way that the instrument has been haphazardly abandoned in one corner of the room.

Yosuke only spares the instrument a passing glance, kicking the door shut behind himself. "It's just a hobby," he says, holding out a glass for Souji to take. He presses his own against his forehead, taking in the brief repose from the heat of the day for as long as it lasts, "I'm not very good."

"Can I hear you play?"

He gets an odd look in response, Yosuke chuckling nervously and glancing away after it becomes clear that he's not going to relent easily on this one. "I told you already, I'm not any good."

"You say that like I'd know the difference," Souji replies, drumming his fingers against the side of his glass. His fingernails make a soft clacking sort of noise against it as he sits and waits patiently for Yosuke to chance another look, stilling them and raising his eyebrows expectantly once he does. "I promise to act impressed either way," he adds.

"Fine," Yosuke concedes with a heavy sigh, drawing a hand through red-brown hair. "Jeez. If you insist. I'm warning you, though..."

He trails off when Souji smiles, stricken by the gesture for a moment or two before he shakes his head and mutters to himself, sitting his own glass aside to grab his guitar from the corner and fall back into the chair at his desk.

He strums distractedly for a moment or two before settling on tuning the instrument (which he does by ear, and Souji's already impressed), this eventually bleeding directly into an easy rhythm without much preamble in between. Not two bars in he hits a sour note-- or what would have been one if he hadn't used it as a spring board to launch into a different tune altogether. It's loose and the tempo uneven, notes climbing and twisting as he knits his brow in concentration, before finally smoothing out into another proper melody.

Souji stares, feeling the pieces begin to fall into place.

Perhaps it's the heat, or nerves, or the fact that he can feel Souji's eyes on him, but Yosuke's fingers stumble over another note before long, then don't quite peg the strings down to a fret right and the instrument makes a muted noise that trips him up beyond recovery. He swears and lets go, swiping his thumb across six open strings as he looks up.

"Told you I was crap," he chuckles, glancing away almost immediately. The hand at the neck of the guitar finds the frets again, fingers strumming absently; "Never bothered with lessons or anything, and dad always thought it was a waste of time anyway. Just sort of had to pick it up as I went along..."

He trails off, fingers still plucking at the strings. Wayward notes climb and build and ease apart mindlessly--thoughts elsewhere--and then Yosuke glances down and seems to realize what he's doing, playing a last sour, irritated chord before slapping his palm across the strings.

Souji blinks, startled by the sudden silence.

Erratic, energetic notes that would twist and climb and fold, settling for a moment on something like maybe it was important before flitting on again to something new, light and distracted; an irritated progression that would knot together before breaking under its own weight and petering out into nothing-- he can picture it, now.

"You--" he starts, and isn't sure how to finish that thought. Yosuke sending him a questioning look doesn't help. That same look turning into one of thinly veiled panic when he moves to stand does no one any favors, either.

He can see it in the tense line of the other teen's shoulders, the way his fingers itch restlessly, sitting still across the strings.

"W-what?"

In the way his attention would be suddenly drawn to a point by some stray thought, interrupting the flow of conversation to offer his headphones; the way he was filled to the brim with a nervous energy that found its way into various outlets with no particular order, tapping his pencil against the back of Souji's chair in class or kicking pebbles out of the road as they walked home or just moving, constantly in motion, an unsteady rhythm that could pick up into a flurry of momentum all at once or ease apart into something slow and somber and--

And how had he never noticed before?

"Dude, you're... kinda freaking me out."

"You made those tapes," Souji declares, before the thought's even fully occurred to him. Amidst the other realizations (pure thought and raw emotion on display, and suddenly he's in possession of the key to what it means), the specifics hardly seem important-- until he's said it out loud and the realization that he's right makes it the most important piece of all.

Yosuke pales.

"It was you all along, this whole time-- why didn't you say anything?" Souji continues, and Yosuke presses himself into the back of his chair like he's trying to escape through the cracks like a cornered mouse.

All at once he's on his feet and trying to disentangle himself from his guitar, speaking over the other a mile a minute; "I didn't-- I mean, I just... I was going to, but it was just a-- you weren't supposed to like that first one, I only put it there because it was old and there was space and I'd just found it on my hard drive and maybe you'd ask and we could joke about it and it would be something to talk about but you--"

He's gone from pale to bright red, snapping his jaw shut with an audible click of teeth when Souji manages to catch his eyes.

"B-but..." he glances away, fiddling with a tuning peg. "You had to go and say all that stuff and I thought maybe I could... I just wanted to-- ugh, dammit. It's weird, right? Should've just--" he's muttering as he moves to put the instrument back in its corner, ears burning with humiliation, and all Souji can think is that it makes so much damn sense.

Those same notes he's been dwelling on for weeks and Yosuke-- the way he way he walks, the way he talks, the way he thinks-- it's all the same.

Yosuke startles when he turns around again to find him suddenly very close, but Souji just grabs him and pulls him into a tight hug, laughing quietly when the other makes an indignant sort of noise in response.

"Thank you," he says, and Yosuke stops struggling long enough for him to pull back just enough to offer a smile.

"For... for what?"

"I finally get it," Souji replies, and leans forward to rest their foreheads together, hands dropping from the other's shoulders to rest more comfortably around his waist. "What it all meant... Why I liked it so much."

"What are you talking about?"

"It reminded me of you."

He wouldn't have thought it possible, but Yosuke's face burns an even deeper shade of red as he tries to punch his shoulder. He doesn't pull away, though, and that's what's most important.






His fingers move along the strings more out of habit than conscious will, notes soft and disjointed in a way that tells he's lost in thought. Souji's sitting at the other end of the cramped sofa, his feet pulled up onto the cushions so that they only just barely touch Yosuke's thigh, staring at the same line in the book he's only been pretending to read for the last half hour.

Instead, he's listening-- trying to decipher a melody that isn't quite a melody at all, a tapestry of notes that bob and weave and climb and fall apart.

Sometimes he'll ask. More often, he's content to settle for the general mood, because the thoughts themselves move too quickly for each individual thing to matter all that much in the end anyway.

Today: Pensive. Thoughtful. Remembering...

Remembering what?

"You remember that first song you gave me, as a joke?"

"Wasn't a joke," Yosuke replies without looking up, shifting octaves. "Just didn't expect you to think it was any good."

"Do you remember what you were thinking about when you first recorded that?"

The next chord comes out wrong, Yosuke's hand poised over the instrument, halted in mid-strum. He laughs.

"...song I wrote for a girl in Yokohama."

"Did she like it?"

"She never heard it," he answers as his fingers begin to move. A few notes, fading off into nothing before the same refrain begins again. These too fade off into silence before starting over, a new melody strung onto the end-- and then the song begins in full.

Souji smiles. This one's easy; soft and strong, gentle and steadfast. Yearning, adoration.

"She never had any taste in music, anyway."

Chapter Text

It comes as something of a revelation: Even Souji makes mistakes.

Yosuke only stares as he's given a lecture on popular misconceptions and the importance of paying more attention to detail, because the lecture isn't truly meant for him at all. His lecture is to pay attention to begin with and to perhaps use his notebooks for an activity that might resemble actual note-taking; the words are directed at him, certainly, but who they're for is Souji.

Souji, who bows his head and covers his mouth with one hand, and who actually writes him a proper note for the first time since the beginning of the year: 'Sorry.'

He looks at the note, hastily written on a torn bit of notebook paper rather than the neat penmanship that normally greets him in return to his own notes once he's figured out how to unfold whichever overly elaborate design is left at the edge of his desk after class, and pockets it with smile. That makes two for two, he supposes, because Souji never passes notes in class either, so maybe that should count for just as much.

Either way he shoves the feeling aside and resolves to deal with it later, walking it off and trying to pretend that there isn't the slightest extra spring in his step, a sense of satisfaction curled deep and low inside his chest.

Instead it only sits and festers, a dark cloud that lingers over every accomplishment. Souji doesn't make mistakes often, he realizes. More accurately: nowhere near often enough.

That thought startles him, blinking up from where he's been staring into the table where they're seated at the food court to watch as Souji listens to the rest of their group speak, deep in thought as he mulls over every possibility. Yosuke watches the subtle flicker in his friend's eyes of a thought registering as important, comprehension or suspicion setting in that hasn't yet been deemed important enough to voice aloud.

Souji glances up, at that, to meet his gaze. He's no mind reader, of course, so he only offers a look of quiet confidence that assumes Yosuke's considering the same possibilities.

In truth, he's adding another black mark to the mental playbook, wondering if it counts. Partial credit, he decides, and smiles back.

For as dark as this near-obsession has become, it's never been malicious. He's never wanted to see Souji get hurt, of course; the very possibility is unnerving in ways he hasn't quite yet come to terms with.

Which is precisely why that's what it takes for him to notice what's happened between them over the past month or so: that ugly twist of gratification in his gut is the first thing to hit him when Souji hits the ground and his katana falls away from his grasp with a clatter, followed shortly thereafter by a fear inspired by the sound of Rise's panicked voice that's overshadowed only by his own guilt and self-disgust.

Souji's bruised and winded and embarrassed, as it turns out, but ultimately fine.

It was only a mistake. Chie chastises him, Teddie resolves to work harder for him, and Yosuke can't look him in the eye. He doesn't move to assist in pulling the other from the floor, or offer any words of encouragement or understanding, or anything at all. He sets his sights on the next Shadow they encounter and purposefully overpowers it in an effort to concentrate his internal aggression toward something other than himself.

It works, for a while.

The more he thinks about it, though, the angrier he gets and the more the feeling he'd first pushed away comes to light for what it really is: jealousy. Dark and bitter and growing stronger by the day, and for all the things he's ever hated about himself, this revelation is the worst. Souji is his best friend-- strong and sure and confident, cool and level-headed and sometimes infuriatingly perfect, but the truth of the matter is that he's only human. He should be proud of his friend's strengths, glad that they fall through so seldom.

Not jealous. Not...

"I want you to hit me."

Grey eyes widen in surprise when at last Yosuke steels his resolve; some part of him wants to think it's almost worth it for that small victory alone, but that's as stupid as the rest of what he's come here to rid himself of. That's what this is really about. Not about winning or losing, or about anyone being better than anyone else.

Grim determination sets in and Yosuke poises himself for battle on an unfamiliar field, mind decided: It's about being equals. And if the only way to do that is to forcefully remove himself from his self-made perch, then--

Well, so be it.

Chapter Text

In the months leading up to the end of the year, she had grown so accustomed to his frequent company that she felt a strange sense of loss when the silver-haired boy's visits became increasingly rare. The new year brought with it many things, including hope for a new future that even she could understand; he had come to shrine of his own volition to give his help, and she had gone to him of her own to return the favor where and how she could, and things were good-- but as she sat on the steps leading to the offertory box, the fox who called the shrine her home couldn't help the feeling of having a lost a sense of purpose.

This was her priority, of course. To watch over the shrine was not a burden shouldered lightly, but she enjoyed her work and the opportunities it gave her in turn to watch over the town where she'd been born and raised and had lived her entire life.

It had been nice, though, to involve herself in someone's life more directly. To be able to recognize a familiar face among the many visitors she had seen come and go in all her years. She'd had very few others who made a habit of returning so regularly, and so the loss of even one was a difficult thing to face.

When at last the boy visited again she'd almost run to meet him, hesitating only upon realizing that he had brought a guest. The fox instead made off into the shadows to watch and see what would happen. She recognized the young girl as one the boy and the others had once gone to that strange place in search of, and whom she would sometimes see tagging along when the boy went to what had been their other meeting place, of sorts.

The girl was family, the fox realized as she settled into a comfortable hiding place, crossing her paws and wrapping her tail around her body. Family to the boy, and so as good as the same in her own eyes.

The two of them stayed for some time, sitting on the steps where she had been waiting, talking between themselves. At last the girl moved to stand, and the fox's ears stood at attention when the boy did not do the same. In time it became apparent that the girl had gone to get an ema from the shrine, the boy getting up when she'd finished to help her hang the wooden plaque.

He'd paused upon seeing it, an expression quite unlike any the fox had ever seen crossing his face for a moment before he turned back to the girl and it was hidden away once more. He pat her head as he spoke in a kind, gentle voice, and took her hand when she smiled back, turning down the path to leave.

The fox stood, waiting until the boy had given the shrine one last glance over, as if looking for something, and turned to leave as well before she finally ventured out from where she'd hidden.

She looked at the new ema curiously, scrawled in childish handwriting, and tilted her head in thought.

The boy visited again only a few days later, alone as he typically was when he came to see her. The fox sat and waited for him on the steps, watching attentively as he offered a smile before taking his seat next to her and reaching out to gently run a hand over her fur. She closed her eyes and leaned into the touch, tucking her tail around herself in a show of modesty, lest the truth of her sadness in seeing him so infrequently come to light in the form of a tail as happy for the visit as the rest of her.

He sat and spoke in his usual quiet, gentle way, both fondness and a strange hint of sadness in his tone. She nudged his hand with her nose and put a paw on his leg until he smiled for her, and with a short bark jumped up to fetch what she was sure would help.

A sense of purpose, as had been her guiding light. As he had given her, as she had given him; she returned with a wooden ema, sitting before him and swishing her tail as she awaited his approval of the task set before him. For the first time, though, rather than the softest hint of determination to accompany his nod, the boy's color seemed to fade as he saw the wish that she had brought him:

I wish me and big bro could play together all the time.

He read it aloud for her before gently setting it aside and reaching out to stroke the fur along the side of her neck.

When the boy finally spoke again, with a final pat to her head, the words carried with them a sense of loss that echoed her own.

She whined when he stood, waiting on the step next to the abandoned ema for him to turn back around. When he didn't, she understood for the first time why the visits had become so sparse, and what it was that her friend had come to talk about today.

The fox sat and watched until he'd gone, and thought; Goodbye.

Chapter Text

"What's going to happen," Souji begins after an almost endless stretch of silence, speaking so quietly that Yosuke's not sure he's said anything at all, at first, "if we don't make it in time?"

Sitting at the riverbank just after midnight, the fog so dense that he can hear the river better than he can see it, Yosuke crosses his arms against the cold and wonders if his friend was really so sadistic as to call him out here for so morbid a discussion.

"What are you talking about?" He throws over his shoulder, having to search through the fog in order to see the other teen where he's laying stretched out along the grass. "Of course we're going to make it in time. We didn't come this far just to let that bastard get away, did we?"

Souji doesn't answer for a long time, instead bringing a hand up and reaching toward the sky like Yosuke's seen him do a couple of times before, when they had been out late enough to see the stars. There aren't any stars to see, now. Thick, heavy fog sits so oppressive over Inaba that it's hard not to sympathize with the rapidly increasing number of people who've started raving about it being poisonous to breathe. It feels poisonous, sometimes. Suffocating and unnatural, otherworldly in a way that none of them has been able to ignore since discovering that it and the fog inside the television were one and the same.

"What if it doesn't matter?" comes the next question, Souji's tone even softer than before. "Say we make it; we find him and we drag him back and we make him pay for what he's done. Does that... do you think that means this is going to stop?"

"Partner--"

"What if we do all of that and it doesn't matter, in the end? We go through the motions and come Christmas this place is..."

Souji suddenly lets his hand drop to the ground beside himself, completely silent once more. Eventually he turns his head to look for the other teen through the thick cloud of fog, an expression unlike any that Yosuke's ever seen crossing his features as he does. It is deep and troubled in a way that he's never seen anyone before, let alone someone as calm and collected as their leader typically is, and being shrouded in fog as it is does surprisingly little to hide its intensity.

"We're going to do it," Yosuke answers. "It doesn't matter what comes next. Especially because nothing like that is going to happen."

"You don't know that."

"So what?" he replies, uncrossing his arms in order to lean back, supporting himself on his hands, "You don't know that it will, either. So why worry about it?"

Souji takes a deep breath, turning his gaze back toward the night sky. Or where it would be, if either of them could see it.

"What if the world ended right now?"

He doesn't move when Yosuke stares over at him, equal parts surprised and repulsed. "What, this very second? Just... wa-pow, and then nothing?" When the other doesn't respond, he continues, "If there wasn't anything we could do about it, why bother worrying about that either? We did our best, didn't we?"

"Would you be happy with the way things turned out?"

"I don't think I'd be very happy to be dead, honestly," Yosuke laughs, looking for an excuse to lighten his friend's uncharacteristically gloomy mood. It doesn't seem to help. "I... I don't know. I guess so," he tries next. "I figured out a lot of things over this past year, you know? About myself, mostly, but other people and the world in general a little bit, too. At least I'd be able to say that I learned something important before the end."

Silence.

"Jeez, look what you did. Why'd you drag me into this? Come on, man, quit being all moody on me, would you? We're going to beat this thing just like we've done everything else. The fog's going to go back to where it came from, everything's going to be fine, and if it doesn't then you and me and everyone else will be there at the end of the world to make it that way."

He startles when Souji begins to laugh, turning on his side in the process.

"How?" he asks, the fog masking an expression too subtle to make out.

"Somehow," Yosuke decides. The details don't seem all that important, anyway. Souji pushes himself back onto his feet, offering a hand to help him do the same.

"Okay."

Chapter Text

"Partner."

That's what does it. Something snaps, something important, something vital--

It's the first time he's ever said it back, Yosuke's mind supplies thickly, like somehow that's the only thing that matters. It isn't fair.

It just isn't fair.

"Look at me."

He can't. He can't, so the hand around his throat reaches instead for a fistful of hair and yanks his head back, forcing him to-- and he's suddenly hysterically glad, to the point of fitful, choking, crying laughter, if he could only find the breath to start, that his vision's gone too dark around the edges by now for it to matter anyway.

After everything they've done, everything they've been through, every truth they've sought; this he can't bring himself to face. He can't look. He can't see clear, steel grey eyes where there should be only piercing yellow; alert and aware and very much in control as he drives one of Yosuke's own blades deep beneath the sternum, angled upward, and twists--

Chapter Text

It was perfectly normal. Even before he'd known--really known, even before then--he knew. Everyone had that little voice in the back of their mind, that nagging feeling that didn't always articulate itself. When it did, it was scathing. It was sharp and unyielding, harsh where pleasantries were brittle.

It was the voice that drove one to do better; to try harder. It was the rough edge of bitter disappointment in one's own failures. It was only that, some fine line between conscious and unconscious that would twist itself between thoughts and lash out viciously at those that didn't satisfy it. It was dark and oily and impossible to place, rattled in his brain from time to time when he lost his footing, but it was a thing that everyone lived with.

Everyone-- everyone, he knows that. Knew it before, but now especially, having stood before Shadows in a more literal, physical sense. That feeling--skin crawling, bile rising, boiling thick and low in the bottom of his throat--was one of piercing yellow eyes, sharp and confident and wholly in control. The Shadow was the Self, one and the same, and it knew everything.

Whether it existed on the physical plane or not, it existed in everyone. It was always there, always lingering under the surface and waiting-- waiting-- that sharp gaze and mocking voice, as real as it was there in the other world.

He's drifting off, more frequently. No one's noticed, yet. He's always like that. Staring off into space while-- it traces blunted nails up his spine, a soft whisper in his ear; I art thou, thou art I.

While...

Someone sits beside him, waves a hand in front of his face, and snaps him back to the present. He wonders briefly if any of them still hear their Shadow, on occasion. What does it say? Has it gone back to the quiet rumblings it had been before it was all yellow eyes and bared teeth, or has their Persona taken its place? Do they take over, then, murmuring anxieties and disapproval, but soft and warm and safe where the Shadow before it was only bottomless black tar?

It sticks, everywhere it touches. He can feel it up his spine; pulling at his ankles. He opens his mouth to ask and feels it tighten around his throat, weighting him down. It's hard to breathe, hard to swallow, and even after the pressure is gone, the presence lingers.

Slippery black oil that won't wash off--

He swallows thickly, feeling sick. His eyes won't focus. Haven't for a few days, now; things are starting to go fuzzy around the edges. His mind feels the same way, sometimes. Clouded in-- thick, horrible, yellow fog. Nothing helps, and he can feel it against his back, wrapping its arms around him from behind and holding tighter with every exhale, so the air can't get back in, until he can't--

going to--


Thoughts wander, drifting aimlessly and twisting in upon themselves, tangled into horrible knots that won't come undone and he wakes from these stupors feeling breathless and disoriented. Like he's not getting enough oxygen, or he's-- being choked, every breath is thick, rolling fog, oil and black tar--

The wind-- a quiet breath, tinged with laughter, slow and soft-- brushes his hair against the back of his neck and he shivers with the effort not to...

To...?

"Are you alright, dude? You look sick."

He feels sick. His skin is cold and clammy, but he's boiling alive. His hair's matted down with sweat and-- fog, oil, tar, weighing him down-- he can't remember how he got here, sitting on the riverbank with his feet in the Samegawa. He's not even sure what day it is.

"Forgot to take off my shoes," he mutters, and lifts a foot to wrench one off. His pant leg's soaked through, and the combined weight feels too heavy, like-- fingers, unyielding, pulling-- like he's going to lose his balance and-- fall, going to fall and never stop--

He slumps over onto Yosuke's shoulder, instead. Feels a hand against his back that's soothing for once, hears words he can't make sense of. He thinks they might be teasing at first, but the hand moves to brush through his hair and something slips out from under the tone so that it falls away into something akin to...

Worry? ...Fear?

His mind's sluggish, thick with fog and black oil. Thoughts won't stick.

Most of them, anyway. I art thou, rolls through his head and fills everything, until he's drowning in the words as they echo and reverb thick and slow against every ounce of his awareness.

I know that. I know...

He can feel the smile against the hollow of his throat and the shiver down his spine like lightning, acutely aware of the presence, real in a way that nothing else has felt for quite some time. He can hear the whispers better than Yosuke's muted shouts-- crisp and clear where the other is radio static.

White noise.

Why don't you fight? the whisper asks, an arm around his middle, hand around his throat, chin resting on his shoulder. He tries to swallow and fingers close in tighter around his airway with the motion. The other hand's under his shirt, long fingers splayed wide across his lower stomach. They drift upward, blunt nails pushed into his flesh as the hand slowly pulls back down.

Breath against his ear as he-- shivers. Whimpers? It hardly matters, everything's so thick with fog that...

I art thou
, he thinks. Or speaks. You're me... and I'm...?

The hold around his throat tightens, laughter slow and soft against his cheek.

I'm you and you're me, it whispers, nails sharp against his skin. Mocking. Bitter. It knows-- knows better than he knows himself, probably. Knows... Then why are you still resisting?

Because--

That wasn't how this worked. Knowing that, admitting it, taking that first step was supposed to... supposed to...? It's supposed to be two pieces of one whole, but he feels like he's drowning, dragged beneath the surface where there's only fog and tar and oil and it stings, choking him, refusing to stay down--

Because--

Two pieces of one whole, but that's not what's going to happen if he--

You're not...

You have to mean it.


If he--

You're not...!

Try harder.


--lets the darkness close in.








No one asks any questions.

Nanako looks at him strangely, like she can tell something's wrong. She's young. She'll forget what 'right' used to look like. It won't take long.


Yosuke was there. He'd seen the worst of it, so of course he's skeptical that Souji would be feeling better so soon.

It's okay.


Souji was always good at faking smiles, at figuring out just what to say; he'd hated that most about himself.


Which is what makes it so easy to do.

Chapter Text

I.

Souji had never paid any special attention to relationships as a whole. Even at the age of nine he'd come to realize that hellos were only goodbyes waiting to happen, and the concept of love remained more or less over his head. He loved his parents because they never wandered too far away for very long, but outside of that immediate circle were only people that he would never see again.

The thought had never particularly bothered him, until he'd met her.

In his third grade class there was a girl with bright green eyes who wore her long blonde hair in a braided ponytail that reached her waist, and out of all his classmates he desperately wanted to be friends with her more than anything. She was smart and popular and her name was Hannah, which was familiar and easy to pronounce, and he might have liked that about her best of all.

He liked other things about her, too. He liked her smile and the way that she would use three hair ties in her ponytail, always making sure that all three were the same color. He liked that she had never said a word to him about his accent, and when his hair had begun to come in peppered grey and the other kids had made fun of him until he'd cried, she had been one of very few not to join in.

He might have loved her, as well as he'd been capable of grasping the concept at the time.

Having decided this, he spent an entire week teaching himself how to fold a complicated origami flower; Hannah sounded like hana, after all, and he knew she would like that as much as he did, once he explained. His attempts were far from perfect, but he'd worked as hard as he could and he was proud of what he'd managed to accomplish on his own when he finally had something was nearly right.

It was beautiful like she was beautiful; the very first thing he did when he got to class the following morning was go to her desk to give it to her.

She stared at it, and then at him.

For as self-conscious as Souji was about his English, he knew she'd understand. But as soon as he began to explain--

"Leave me alone," she interrupted, "I don't want to talk to you."

He didn't react at first, stunned into silence. A friend of hers eventually asked him if he'd heard, and she'd turned her back on him to answer that he was from China or somewhere and didn't understand English.

"Japan," he corrected softly.

She whirled on him angrily to shout; "Nobody asked you!"

After class he retrieved the flower he'd made from where she'd knocked it to the floor dismissively, and took it home. It wasn't perfect, but it was his. His to tear into pieces and to throw away, and to eventually forget about.

So he did.


II.

He's known for a while that his preferences have changed significantly since elementary school. Or maybe they haven't changed at all; perhaps he's just grown enough to make sense of his feelings in a way that makes a little more sense than the concept had at the time.

Whatever the case, he stumbles headfirst into the here and now quite by accident.

Late nights and extra assignments means that he finds himself at the campus library almost as often as anywhere else, and it's searching the shelves for a book that's disappeared on him the last three times he's checked that Keisuke steps into his life.

"Looking for this?" he hears over his shoulder, and turns to find the book that keeps getting checked out from under his nose hovering just inches away from his face. He takes it, examining the cover for a moment before turning his attention toward the tall young man with shoulder-length hair whose hand is still outstretched.

He takes it, hoisting himself from the floor, and beyond pleasantries doesn't think much of the meeting or its importance over any other.

When little more than a month and a half later finds him walking down the street in the steady evening rain--still half-tipsy and never more satisfied to have spent the past number of hours out and about doing nothing of importance in someone's company--it's both exhilarating and terrifying when one second to the next finds Keisuke's hands at the collar of his jacket, pulling him into a deep and earnest kiss in response to some prompt Souji can't think straight enough to remember having said.

Days into weeks, and he thinks he could get used to this. Weeks into months, and he's sure he could be happy if it weren't for the slow burn of guilt and unease that eats at him from the inside, a constant reminder of the what ifs and maybes that he's never pursued.

Keisuke gives him a flower one evening.

It's bright and beautiful and flawless in its own right, but it can never last. He watches it wilt over the next several days, searching for the words to either make this endure or end it before it falls apart.


III.

The allure of what if and the fear of lost opportunity will win out, eventually.

He'll come to understand that this is a concept not unfamiliar to him by now: to be satisfied with the end of a journey before the end of the journey is an unkind thought, after all. How many times will he have stopped to realize the number of mistakes nearly made in light of simply hesitating to move forward before the dawning realization that it is in fact a repeatable transgression even now?

The road he'll travel is far from easy; he'll stumble, as he has before and will again, but there is comfort in the knowledge that there are those on whom he can depend to pull him back onto his feet in these times of need. Theirs is a bond that cannot be broken, no matter how deep into the veil of fog and uncertainty his chosen path may lead-- as before, as now, and again for however many times it may take.

"Partners, right?" Yosuke will assure him with the same confidence he's always kept on hand for him alone, and secure in the knowledge that above all else this one truth will never tarnish, never fade, he will know beyond all reasonable doubt that however the path may wander or stray, the destination is the same:

"Always."

Chapter Text

Sometimes he thought she did these things on purpose, just to call him out on the fact that nine times out of ten he still incontrovertibly saw her as his best friend's kid sister.

"Come on." She was tugging him by the wrist, completely ignoring the fact that even if he were to agree, he was still half-dressed, "It'll be fun, it'll save on water, and I'll let you wash my hair the way big bro did once when I was--"

Definitely on purpose.

"How is that supposed to help!?"

Nanako sighed, turning in order to grab him by the front of his shirt and pulling him down into a forceful kiss. He made a surprised, indignant sort of sound and lifted his hands as if to push her away, but by the time they reached her shoulders he opted to let them sit there instead.

"You need to stop doing this," she reprimanded once she'd pulled away, exasperated by the whole ordeal. "I'm not eight. Or ten. Or fifteen. Or twenty, for that matter. I'm an adult and I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions."

"Now you're making me feel old--"

"Yosuke."

That always seemed to do it. Something in the way she said his name, emphasizing her right to call him by it, dropping any familial connotations.

He didn't have to say a word from there; a defeated sigh would do. A smile graced her lips as she took him by the wrist and pulled him the rest of the way down the hall and into the bathroom where the bath she'd drawn was waiting, allowing him a moment to attempt to pull himself together before his mind could realize the number of things there were about this situation worthy of hitting the panic button over.

The short list comprised of:

1. Nanako-chan
2. undressing in front of Nanako-chan
3. being naked in the same room as Nanako-chan, let alone together in the--


His mind sputtered and died at the thought, unwilling to fathom the possibility. Nanako-chan, she hated that; he really needed to figure out how to separate the girl he'd known from the woman he'd later fallen head over heels for, but she simply refused to make that easy on him, constantly forcing him over the lines he'd drawn--

Her hands had settled at his waist--jolting him into awareness and the realization that he was standing in the center of the bathroom, clouded with steam--dwelling there for a moment before sliding down and tugging at his jeans ("H-hey, wait--! Don't--") ignoring the myriad of protests and leaning forward to press a kiss against his hip where his boxers had been pulled down partway with the effort. She straightened with the motion of taking off her own shirt, which meant that by the time she was looking him in the face again, he'd gone bright red.

She turned with a smile to slip off the rest of her clothing, saving him at least some illusion of modesty, and stepped into the tub, filled with warm, soapy water. Yosuke felt himself flush even darker, noting that the bubbles were probably meant to be for his own benefit, and tried to imagine what he might have done if it had been any other girl.

That wasn't particularly difficult to imagine: nothing. If it were anyone else, it would have had to be some sort of bizarre fever-induced dream. Somehow fate had seen fit to give him Nanako, and if in thirty-odd years he'd never come closer to something right, he wasn't sure another hundred would have helped.

"As much as I enjoy watching you stand around in your underwear," her voice broke him from his reverie, "The water's going to get cold if you take too long."

He made a long-suffering noise and scrubbed his palms across his face ("Just give me a second..."), turning his back toward her and kicking off his boxer shorts before he could think better of the action, attempting to retain what shreds of decency still remained-- but again she was no help, reaching up out of the tub in order to trace a wet finger down his lower back, causing him to yelp.

She was laughing when he turned again, arms crossed along the lip of the tub so that she was settled low under the curtain of bubbles that floated along the surface of the water, eyes closed as she waited for him to join her. After he'd settled, face still tinged pink with embarrassment and shame, she took a handful of bubbles to press against his ear, distracting him long enough for her to turn and lean back into his chest.

"W-what are--?"

Nanako hummed, finding his arms and tracing her fingers up until she reached his hands, pulling them around her middle. Suddenly the soft crackling of bubbles popping in his ear was drowned out by the sound of his own pulse, very much aware of her body against his own.

Her fingers traced over the back of his hands, gently moving them down to trace the curve of her hips, settling along her thighs; he couldn't see her hidden under the soapy surface of the water, but she seemed intent on making sure he was painfully aware of every detail.

"Not going to be able to wash your back if you sit there," he tried after a moment, hating the way his voice came out rough around the edges.

For God's sake, Yosuke, his mind bit at him, petulantly, you're thirty-three years old. Both adults.

And in a bubble bath with my best friend's sister(!)
he argued back, shifting gears from one mental hurdle to the other. Hardly an improvement, but at least this one she might have been less offended by.

He tried to shift his weight nervously, but with his hands held securely against Nanako's upper thighs, doing so meant-- he went either very pale or very red, or both, and schooled himself still. She only leaned heavier into him when she felt him tense, however, letting her hands drift up his arms once again.

"Yosuke..." she began, tilting her head back as her arms loosely wound around his neck as best as she could from this position. He didn't like the weight her tone seemed to carry, or how deliberately slow she'd run her fingers along his skin, or the movement she'd been prompted by in the first place. Or the movement she was initiating now, a slow roll of her hips as she went on to ask, "Don't you ever think about--?"

"N-no!" he interrupted, taking this opportunity to retrieve his hands and realizing too late that there weren't a lot of other places to put them. He settled for looping them around her middle, pressing his forehead against her shoulder and willing her still, "Of-- of course not..."

Never. Maybe once. Twice, actually; first on the night they'd 'met', before he'd known it was her, second on the night he found out, and he'd felt disgusted with himself.

She eyed him skeptically as well as she could, finding his hair with one hand and running her fingers through it distractedly. Some of the tension in his body seemed to ease with the motion, and she smiled to herself as she continued.

"Maybe," he admitted after a number of minutes spent in this fashion, lifting his head to rest his chin against her shoulder. "But then I remember how dead I'm going to be when Souji and your dad find out, and suddenly the thought's not so appealing."

Nanako scoffed at the thought, a soft puff of amusement and exasperation, shaking her head; "What's a little murder between families?"

"H-hey, I don't think you're paying attention, here. If it were just Souji, that would be murder. It's gonna be like..." he sought out an appropriate representation, "Like an atomic bomb that targets specifically me. That's how dead I'll be."

She giggled in response, which Yosuke figured meant she wasn't taking his imminent death very seriously. He tilted his head to inform her of that, speaking the words against her neck so that she tried to squirm away, pulling his arms around her tighter as she did.

"I'll make them sign a no-boyfriend-killing agreement," she laughed, taking a handful of soapy water and pressing it into his hair, trying to push him away.

"Then they'll think you're seeing someone horrible."

"They'll be pleasantly surprised instead of mortified when they find out, then," she retorted, grabbing for Yosuke's hands. He let her this time, chuckling against her neck and pressing soft kisses to the smooth skin while she took a bar of soap from the edge of the tub and ran his hands over her stomach, washing as if they were her own.

She hummed happily as she did this, allowing him a moment to close his eyes and soak in the pleasant warmth of the water and of having someone so close, running soapy hands over slick, smooth skin and curves, settling over soft breasts--

His eyes shot open in alarm, but Nanako refused to relent her hold of his hands, pressing them firm against her bosom and rubbing slow circles, relaxed against his chest as she washed herself.

"N-Nanako..."

He got a contented little hum in response, which in turn caused him to lose his footing on what exactly he'd meant to say. His entire train of thought had derailed rather suddenly, leaving him with only: Well, I'm certainly thinking about it now. You do these things on purpose, don't you?

The only thing that made it past his lips, however, was a soft groan that he had to stifle against the length of her neck, retaking control of his hands only to move them more purposefully against her, squeezing the pliable flesh in his palms and rubbing his thumbs against pert nipples. She made another contented sound that was most certainly not a hum, tilting her head to give him better access when he began to place kisses along her collar that were becoming increasingly less innocent with every passing second.

Yosuke had just about reached the point of not caring if he was seeing the Emperor's sister when the warbling of his phone's ring tone made it to his ears. He made a non-commital sound and pressed his face into the crook of his girlfriend's neck, the warmth of the water and her body against his too comfortable to give up. She twisted in his arms to press a heated kiss against his lips, supple curves flush against his skin-- before leaning over to rake his discarded jeans closer to the tub, drying her hand against the material and digging through his pocket for his phone.

"What are you...?" his hands found her hips, gently tugging her back toward himself as he attempted to balance the amusement and growing apprehension in his tone, "Let it go to voice-mail, it can't be--"

She flipped his cell phone open after briefly examining the caller ID, answering with a smile; "Hi, Dad!"

Yosuke balked, feeling every ounce of anything that even remotely resembled calm abandon him at once. "W-what!?" he hissed, suddenly very aware of their proximity-- Fuck, why would he be calling my number!? He knows, he's got to, he's gonna kill me-- shit, you can probably hear the water over the phone or the bathroom echo or-- crap, he's probably got psychic detective father powers or something anyway, I'm dead, I'm so--

"It's for you," Nanako announced, interrupting the meltdown that was presently going on in his mind and blatantly ignoring the wide-eyed look of panic and betrayal that crossed his face in response.

Why would you do this to me? he whimpered inwardly, taking the phone.

"D... Dojima-san?"

An irritated huff met him from the other end of the line; "No, it's your father. Look, I don't appreciate being left in the dark days after you told me you'd call me back about those shipping quotes--"

The rest was just noise; Yosuke very deliberately had to hang his hand over the lip of the tub so as not to drop the phone into the water when he let his head hit the wall with a dull thump, the relief that poured over him downright palpable.

Nanako giggled, groping for the abandoned soap and carefully washing the other's feet as he attempted to return his attention toward the phone, mostly babbling excuses and looking for any plausible excuse to ("--have this conversation later, please?")


> ......


"Not fair!" Nanako complained some number of minutes later, damp hair tickling his neck as she sprawled along the length of the couch, straddling his waist. "You're not allowed to hold a grudge over that! I had you, that time!"

Yosuke didn't lift his hand from where it had settled over his face, feeling the heat that rolled off of his cheeks and willing himself to stay strong, just this once: "Nanako... you have to understand. I never, ever dreamed I would have to say this to a girl, but: Please. Please put your clothes on."

She pinched him on the arm, to get it away from his face, and pressed a kiss to his nose.

Next time, then. She had boyfriend-protection contracts to write.

Chapter Text

He's not sure if it's the sudden, stark revelation or his own ability to work it into the form of a question that surprises himself more, but either way it's largely irrelevant in light of how the other's guarded expression surprises him most.

Souji has long perfected the art of maintaining a calm exterior in the face of adversity, but to see him actively on guard is somewhat terrifying.

"Is that the first time they've called?"

(And for a brief, blissful, horrifying moment, he hates them--)

"...since April?" Yosuke continues, over his stricken silence, "Seriously?"

There are already cracks in the mask, hairline fractures that lie in wait to shatter at the slightest ease of pressure; he can feel them buckle when he attempts to meet the other's gaze and lets his own fall away after only an instant.

"Busy," he mumbles, wondering just how many times he's repeated the words like a mantra, a prayer, over the better part of seventeen years, "...they're just busy."

Yosuke falls silent for a moment afterward, considering that feeble explanation and weighing the situation as a whole before pressing further, albeit just as quietly, "Too busy to call for an entire year?"

He's met with the full brunt of on guard in the next instant, before Souji's gaze falls away to some nondescript point in the distance again. There's no response beyond that, and finally Yosuke turns away as well.

"Jeez, partner-- I don't mean to... I just can't believe it, I guess. It seems so..." he fumbles on his search for a word, grasping aimlessly for a second or two, "--Damn it. I'm not helping, am I?"

That, at least, earns him a flicker of a smile. "Not really, no."

A thick, oppressive silence fills the air between them, Yosuke sitting on one end of the small sofa in the center of the room while Souji leans back against the door to-- (a sudden flash of realization hits him like a fucking train; Dojima-san's guest room). He doesn't look up as he reaches out, a gesture of his hand accompanying the words; "Come here."

He waits. Eventually the weight on the sofa cushion shifts, Souji taking a seat beside him and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, fingers laced together and thumbs pressed against the space between his eyes. Yosuke hesitates before letting his hand rest on his friend's shoulder, holding it there for a moment before giving it a pat and letting his hand settle again.

"I didn't want this," the words are hardly audible when they come; Yosuke suspects he wasn't meant to hear them in the first place. It's that thought which keeps him from urging the other on or asking for clarification until long after the point where doing so would only be awkward. Silence weighs heavy between them yet again, Souji evidently content with keeping the rest of that thought to himself, until--

"...wasn't supposed to let it happen."

There's a break, the softest hitch in the breath that carries his voice, and when Yosuke glances over at him in response, he's covered his face in his hands. He's paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of his next decision, not acting at all until the other leans more heavily into his hands, shoulders hunched in a superficial effort of self-preservation that Yosuke recognizes too easily-- he slides his hand from its resting place around to the opposite shoulder, moving into a firm, steady hold. Souji tenses into it, at first, falling silent again before slowly folding the fingers of one hand to peer to his right, where the other is sitting.

Yosuke forces a smile to the best of his ability, left wondering if he'd failed as spectacularly as he felt when Souji only closed his visible eye and leaned a little more bonelessly into the half-embrace.

"Do you remember what we talked about... at that outlook over town, up on the hill?" He searches his memory, comes back with a number of instances on that hill, digs through them for relevance. Souji doesn't wait for him to respond, though. "About Inaba, and all the things you'd found to make you like this place?"

It's an embarrassing memory, if a fond one, "Yeah."

"I think--" Souji starts, hesitates, sighs. Leans even heavier into Yosuke's side, hands dropping into his lap. "I think the same thing happened to me."

And he wishes that he couldn't see the correlation, wishes that it felt like a non sequitur, but he understands completely. Inaba, for what it's worth, is home. Souji leaves in a little under a month; going 'home', going somewhere in the city, to a house that's hardly lived in, to stay with people who can't afford the few minutes it would take to call more than once a year--

He pulls his arm a little tighter around the other, reaches up with his free hand to loop his fingers loosely around the wrist of his opposite, and closes his eyes. "I wish you weren't going, either."

They sit together like this for some time, taking in one another's presence, memorizing the familiarity found therein. There's nothing more to say.

Chapter Text

Transfer student, new kid, on some rare, notable occasions even foreigner-- all his life Souji had never been able to escape the shadow of these things. Even 'home' was little more than 'somewhere else' with a fancy name to call it by.

Years of this had made him complacent, living day to day as the past faded into obscurity behind him.

Memories of old homes, old schools, old friends all in turn washed out into only the vaguest recollections, cast aside and forgotten. The people he'd met, the places he'd been, the things he'd done...

Souji watched the scenery fly by as the train took him from the latest collection of memories to be added to this list of yesterdays, and felt for the first time something that resembled loss. He'd never held on to much of anything in the nomadic life he'd lived thus far, knowing better than to carry the weight of those memories with him lest he get caught up in them and lose the ability to move forward.

Inaba-- somehow Inaba was different.

He closed his eyes, blotting out the scenery before him and allowing himself to believe the train he was on could be headed anywhere. Forward, backward, standing still; Inaba was different, special, and the thought of leaving it and the people who inhabited it behind was painful in a way that very little else had ever been before it.

This time, he thought, resolve building by the second, with every added mile, this time...

This time would be different.

Inaba and its inhabitants, the friends and family he'd found so unexpectedly, the peace and comfort at the center of the very travesty that had pulled them together so closely-- Inaba deserved that much from him. To be held near and dear to his heart, the memory kept safe and clear and vivid.

The small country town had become more of a home to him than anywhere he'd been in all his years before it; no small feat, all things considered. His friends--his family--the two were nearly interchangeable, the bonds he'd forged in those few short months were unlike any he'd ever tried or failed to salvage for all his best efforts anywhere else, and he had no intention of letting any of them go without a fight.

He smiled to himself, opening his eyes to retrieve the photograph they'd taken (something to remember us by, someone had said, and he'd nearly wanted to laugh outright at the absolute ridiculousness of the very thought that he might forget...) looking over it fondly.

The miles--the days--could pass as quickly or as many as they wished; for once Souji didn't watch them as they fell behind.

He'd spent a lifetime of goodbyes letting yesterdays slip by into obscurity, but starting from that moment, something changed. He held the memories of yesterday closer than he'd ever dreamed, pushing them toward tomorrow with all his will. Inaba was something different--something special: far from a place he'd come to only to leave, Inaba was a place he left only to dream of returning to.

However long it took, whatever came before or after, of that much he was certain.