Yosuke had known something was up. Lying about it now was pointless, and, besides, he would only be lying to himself. Yosuke stepped carefully around a puddle on the pavement, trying in vain not to notice the way the red splashes turned into rotten green pitch under the false moonlight.
He had, though. He had known. Maybe he had not recognized what was going on for what it was, but something had been off with his best friend for weeks, perhaps longer, and he had turned a blind eye.
A slimy, knotted feeling churned in his gut and, recognizing it for the guilt it was, Yosuke internally rebelled. This wasn't his fault, damn it. What the hell was he supposed to have done?
Souji had been acting off, he supposed, but it was not in some bold, 'worry about me' sort of way. It was little things, weird little things here and there, and it was only in retrospect that Yosuke started to see some semblance of order, some common thread to them all.
If he had pinpoint the first time he noticed, Yosuke would say that it started with the C60's. A lot of things about Souji impressed him. Hell, sometimes his partner struck him into a state of abject awe, and Yosuke would be left feeling embarrassed and foolish around the other boy for days afterwards. So, yes, Souji Seta was a pretty impressive guy, but his music knowledge was just terrible.
It wasn't even that the guy had a bad ear. That was what made it such a crime, Yosuke thought. Souji got music when it was presented to him, got it in the same way Yosuke did, but he did not have the background to make it stick. In order to correct this horrible oversight, Yosuke had set out of be his friend's guide through all of the different genres that music had to offer.
If for once being smarter and more in-control than Souji made him feel way better than it should, Yosuke chose to ignore it.
He had been a little overenthusiastic to begin with, but he quickly realized that most of his personal favorites took some getting used to. Yosuke had changed his strategy, instead leading Souji along in baby steps, slowly but surely guiding him through an explanation of how good music could be.
His friend had come a long way, he really had, but Yosuke knew that they had barely scratched the surface of the harder stuff. So, when Yosuke had one day offhandedly muttered about the C60's and the release of their new CD, Souji should not have been able to respond with a reflexive, "I haven't really liked their sound since their second album."
Even at the time, Yosuke had stilled in confusion. The weird thing was, Souji was right. Triple Helix, the C60's response to their shaky debut album, had been freaking awesome. It was so classy and refined, but at the same time off-the-wall crazy, and Yosuke remembered not listening to anything else for weeks after it was first released. It was also true that the band simply had not been the same since that whirlwind record came out.
So, Souji had been right, and Yosuke knew it, but he had watched, fascinated, as Souji's face contorted, changing from his initial confidence in his answer to an odd, vaguely skittish look as he appeared to think over what he'd just said. His friend's face had finally settled into a sort of hesitant pride, and, though Yosuke knew it was weird, it was also way too awesome to question.
Souji was finally taking to all of their music lessons. Was he supposed to flip out and panic just because his partner had shown interest and, apparently, initiative? He hadnlet it slide, instead jumping into an excited discussion about his favorite songs from Triple Helix, and was pleased to note that Souji's comment had not been uninformed. The man knew his stuff.
Yosuke wondered why that actually surprised him. Souji was never anything less than genuine.
That event had passed without being remarked upon, but looking back, Yosuke saw that it was the first time he'd been sure something strange was going on, and it had not stopped there. Souji did things and knew things, and Yosuke could not figure out why. At first, Yosuke had thought that these were merely personal quirks that Souji had been hiding from the group and was now letting slip since he felt more comfortable. Sometimes, though, that just did not fit. How was knowing the name, style and relative success of execution of each of the moves in Chie's martial arts movies something to be ashamed of? A little odd, maybe, but Yosuke thought it was pretty damn cool when it all came down to it.
Then there was that one time while they were fighting in the TV when Souji had been disarmed by a particularly nasty red shadow they had found while making their way through Naoto's secret lab. Souji had lunged forwards, testing the shadow to see whether it had a physical weakness or not, and had been repelled violently. Souji had hit the ground, hard, and his sword had gone skidding to the other side of the room. Without pausing, Souji had pulled back to where Chie and Teddie were guarding Rise, and grabbed a pair of Teddie's gauntlets. He then strode back into battle, cool as could be, and pummeled the living daylights out of the shadow until nothing but black ooze remained. Then, gauntlets returned and sword back in hand, Souji had continued into the rest of the dungeon like he had been fighting shadows with his fists his whole life.
Shit. Yosuke looked down to find his white sneakers coated in red ooze and, after a few seconds of stunned revulsion, jumped forward out of the puddle he had blindly walked through. Brought forcibly back to his surroundings, he stilled, falling to the back of the pack as he watched his friends move quietly through the phantom streets this particular shadow had conjured up. This area was so unlike all of the others scattered throughout the TV world. Usually they would stumble through yellow fog until it would break, dissipating all at once to reveal a small clearing that led to the first floor of whatever crazy labyrinth awaited them. This, though… this was different and so much huger than anything they had seen.
The fog had cleared slowly, revealing the hulking city in increments. At first it looked fairly normal, as normal as an empty city can look, but then the moon had broken through the fog, and they had all been stunned to stillness. The moon sat low in the sky, its massive weight sitting hugely on the tops of the buildings. The whole effect was strangely threatening, like if the moon snapped through those buildings, nothing else would be left to hold it up, and it would fall upon them, crushing anything in its path. The rest of the city was no better. The streetlights were dark, but there was no absence of light. Everything glowed yellow and green, and the light from the moon bounced back off of the strange red puddles of ooze that pooled on the tarmac.
Then there were the figures. Yosuke could not pinpoint just what they were, but they definitely were figures, tall, black things that could be people or maybe coffins. He would turn, trying to get a better look, but by the time they had moved beyond his periphery, they were gone, vanishing into the mist like a bad memory.
'This world's freaking odd,' Yosuke thought, forcing himself to move again and pick up speed so that he could catch up with the rest of the group. Souji was leading, his shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. Yosuke frowned. Their leader's posture was usually so perfect. Yosuke shook his head, adding that moment to his growing list of Souji's character mishaps.
He jogged up to stand beside his friend, dancing around puddles in an effort to keep his shoes from further damage. When Yosuke slowed besides him, Souji glanced up, the hard look that had set into his features melting a bit before he straightened.
"Where exactly are we headed to," Yosuke asked as nonchalantly as he could. Souji seemed to have a plan, and that was all right with him, but he just had to know. Souji looked back at him again, bemused.
"I don't know, Yosuke. Maybe the big damn tower that we've been walking towards for the last half hour."
Yosuke frowned and looked back at the skyline. 'What tower…?'
And then it was there, and for the life of him, Yosuke couldn't decide whether it had been there the whole time or not.
"Oh, yeah," he muttered. "Make's sense."
Souji shook his head, hunched back down, and picked up his pace until Yosuke was looking at his back.
"We're almost there, guys," Souji said, loud enough so that the whole group could hear.
"The question of course being, where exactly there is? This whole area looks so familiar," said Naoto.
Souji stopped, and when he turned back towards the group, his expression had gone from bemused to outright incredulous.
"We're on Tatsumi Port Island. We were here just a few weeks ago," he trailed off.
And Yosuke saw that it was, indeed, Port Island. They weren't on some abstract street. They path they walked was familiar. They had trekked up and down the street every day during their school trip. Now that he looked back, all of the vague lines of the city resolved themselves in his mind, and he realized that they must have emerged from the fog somewhere around the train station. That meant that they were walking towards…
"The school? The tower is where the school should be, isn't it?"
"What tower," Kanji said with a soft grunt before he hissed, noticing the distorted building for the first time.
Souji seemed not to notice that Kanji had said anything.
"It looks that way," Souji replied.
'Port Island,' Yosuke thought, bitterly. He had been trying, rather successfully, to forget about their school trip. Not that he wanted to block the whole thing out. The ramen place they had visited had been wonderful, and Souji had looked so content and at home there that it was impossible not to feel happy along with him. The club had been fun, too, in a dysfunctional sort of way, but Yosuke tried to fight the flush of anger that rose within him as he thought of how Souji had disappeared afterwards in order to go get a coffee at the mall's café. He tried not to think about the quick text he'd gotten and hour after he had left, 'something came up. I'll be late, so don't wait up' or how he had waited up, despite Souji's cautioning. He didn't want to think about how, around five the next morning, Souji had come creeping into their shared hotel room, collapsed on the bed and groaned, sitting back up and heading to take a shower instead, because damn it, Souji was better than that. He wasn't the kind of guy that snuck out in unfamiliar cities and ditched his best friend. Souji had, though, and something in Yosuke's stomach snarled at the thought.
Yosuke looked up at Souji's back. That's just how his friend was, lately. Not bad, just different, and afterwards Souji would always act like he was surprised by his own behavior. He was never shocked, just hazy on his own motives, and Yosuke wondered now how he could have ever believed things were normal.
The group turned a corner, and thoughts of Souji were pushed clean out of Yosuke's mind.
The tower, if it could really be called that, hulked out behind the school gates, and Yosuke's head tipped back comically so that he could take the whole sight in. Neither physics nor logic governed the structure. It grew with wild abandon, wings splintering off every which way until the whole building looked something like an extremely tall artichoke. A soft chuckle ripped its way out of Yosuke's stunned throat. The comparison was utterly inappropriate, but facing the daunting majesty of the tower all at once was too much for him at the moment.
Kanji whistled. "Shit, man, will you look at that."
There was a chorus of grunts in general agreement.
Chie was the first to move. A delighted, nervous kind of chuckle bubbled up from her chest, and she took off down the flat stretch of road leading to the great tower. She trotted, dancing from foot to foot as she called back, "Come on, guys! We gonna do this thing or aren't we?"
Tension seeped from the group, and they all followed Chie's lead. They stopped at the gates, and Souji turned towards Rise with questioning eyes.
"Rise, can you tell us anything about this place? It would help to know how many floors there are."
Rise shook her head. "I can't tell how many floors there are. Part of me says hundreds, but that's impossible, right? But I can tell you one thing!"
"It's name. This place is called Tatarus."
Souji nodded, and Yosuke thought he saw a pained look flash across his partner's face, like Souji had hoped he was wrong about something, and Rise had shattered any chance of that being the case.