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Naked Truth Lies (Only If You Realize)

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You know, somebody would probably say that “you should’ve seen this coming” and hell, they’d be right. But when life gets in your way and you don’t have time to process everything, so you just might miss some clues. Like, you really don’t have time to reminisce your time before Inaba when you’re neck deep in Shadows. Ignorance is a bliss or something like that. But when you’re part of a murder investigation it’s too easy to just… forget.

 

But then Teddie started opening up about his problems today at Junes and my mind just went blank because…

 

And now you’re probably asking me “Yosuke, what on Earth are you babbling about?” And you know what, I’m kinda asking the same question. Because I’m not too sure about anything anymore myself either. Nothing makes sense and I feel like I’m going crazy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be all in my head. This isn’t a dream, that I’m sure of. And for an elaborate prank this would be just way too big and crazy. So here I am, lying on my bed, not being able to sleep. Maybe I’m really going crazy. Like, here I am, talking to myself. Because there there really isn’t a fourth wall to break in real life.

 

But I’m rambling. Let me start from the beginning.

 

I had been enjoying my customary after work steak and TaP, when Teddie had joined me, exhausted from work. I don’t understand how he manages to work in that suit. It’s early in September, so it’s still pretty hot outside. It can’t be easy walking around the shopping mall, entertaining customers and generally making an ass of himself in that costume all day. But then again, all that has really become like second nature to Teddie. Good for him, I guess. But Ted’s costume is not what’s important here.

 

From the day we met, the bear had been puzzled about his past. And after the battle with his Shadow, he’s been even more concerned about his lost memories. The Shadow really had troubled the bear with it’s babble about truths and shits. While I had started to complain about work and school, Teddie rambled on about the same things he always does: how he wished he knew what he was or where he came from. And then, Teddie had asked the big question.

 

“How does it feel to have memories?”

 

I’d answered something stupid, like “It’s cool. Memories make you who you are” which obviously had made the bear even more uncomfortable. Ugh, that’s why he should’ve already learned to ask from somebody else the hard questions.

 

But...

 

Teddie’s words had made me think, but my mind was blank. I tried to remember my friends in the city, the life I used to have, my old school, my old home, my old room and… Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And not just because my sucks at remembering stuff, no. I just couldn’t remember anything before April. Almost like I haven’t had any life before my sophomore year.

 

Me and the then silent Teddie had gone home after I finished my meal, and I ended up asking from my parents what they could remember of our life before Inaba. They told me the same things I knew: we’ve moved here because of my Dad’s work last autumn from the city, leaving our past life behind us. But when I asked them to describe our old home, they couldn’t do it. They had reasoned that we must’ve lived somewhere in the city, but just couldn’t remember the house anymore, that it was natural for the memories of the past to fade away.

 

At night, after Teddie had fallen asleep, I had called Souji. If there was someone in this world with answers, it would be him. Souji Seta, our fearless leader, everyone’s official tutor, the best big bro ever and my partner in… Crime? Battle? Life… No, I don’t mean it like that, no no no no… Right? It’s complicated. Anyway, yeah, I called him. It’d probably been way too late and he would’ve most likely be already in bed, and I know, I should’ve waited till the next day, but it was important. And I had known that he would’ve understood. He’d just let out that small laugh and tell me not to worry, that stuff that’s important to me is important to him. And my cheeks would flush bright red but luckily he wouldn’t be able to see it.

 

“H-Hey, partner, sorry to call you this late,” and yeah, I know, I’d been rambling. But you should try to find a way to smoothly ask from your best friend if they think our world is real and it’s not for a philosophy assignment.

 

“Ah, don’t worry. I wasn’t actually asleep yet, just reading.” It had been an obvious lie, his voice had been heavy with tiredness. But that’s just how Souji is, always so considerate, even when I really don’t deserve it.

 

“So, what is it? Something happened?” Souji had asked with a quiet laugh but there’d been worry in his voice. It had not rained tonight, the whole day had actually been beautiful so he knew this wouldn’t be about the Midnight Channel. I’d tried to form coherent lines in my head but ended up just swallowing loudly. On the other end of the call I could hear Souji’s light breathing. It had been oddly comforting in my inner panic and I’d found myself drowning into the even sound of every breath. But of course Souji had to break my comfortable mental nest that I’d made.

 

“Or did you just call me to hear my voice? Because if that’s it you could just ask and I would record some erot-”

 

“No!” And yes, I have to admit, it came out a little too harsh. Even though it was true, yes, but still, a little too harsh. I hope I could just reset and do a do-over. I hope I could do this whole day over, but I guess I’m not the player in this story… And no, I don’t know why I get so worked up when Souji teases me like this. Because I too tease quite often. And all of my friends tease me all the time, but when it’s Souji and he says stuff like that I can’t help but become all flustered like a schoolgirl having crush… No! Not crush! You know, just a normal schoolgirl. … No, I don’t know…

 

And Souji had just had stayed quiet. Dude doesn’t even realize when he says awkward stuff like that in his deadpan style. In his little head he probably thinks shit like that is normal, and yeah, it would be different if we were a guy and a girl, but a guy and a guy… But okay okay, I guess it’s unusual to a guy to tell his best friend (who is a guy, duh) that he’s special and all that but… Buuuuuuuuut… I’m rambling again, back to the phone call.

 

“I-I mean… What do you remember of your life before Inaba?” I’d decided to go with the same question I had asked my parents.  

 

“Yosuke… You know how my life was before Inaba, we’ve talked about it a million times. I lived with my parents, they had to go work abroad and I came to Inaba. You know the story.”

 

“Yeah, I know that but I mean like… Tell me about your old friends. Better yet, describe your old room for me! I bet your room was as bland as you,” I had asked with smirk on my face. Because I’d been so sure that Souji could remember, that guy never forgot anything. That’s why he also knew everything.

 

But for some reason the line had stayed quiet. Maybe it’d been just Souji trying to remember, it had been like what, five six months since he’d moved. And I’d thought, maybe that little brain of Souji’s wasn’t as great as we all had come to believe.

 

“Um, you still there, Souji? Was your room really that bland?”

 

“Hm, what? Of course I am, and n-no...” And with that he had trailed off again and I’d decided to let him gather his thoughts.

 

“I can’t remember,” he’d finally whispered over the line and even now while remembering this phone call I get shivers down my spine. And no, not that kind of shivers, totally not…

 

“Can’t remember? Dude, if you’re screwing with me, I swear...”

 

“Yosuke, you know I’d never lie to you! Screw on the other hand...”

 

“Souji, no! This is serious!” Again, it came out a little harsh, I know, but I was nervous. It was more a reflex than anything.

 

“I know, I’m sorry. I blame you, that horrible sense of humor of yours has rubbed on me,” and he’d laughed at that, and I couldn’t help but laugh too. “Plus, it’s midnight and I’m tired. But if you think this - whatever it is - is important enough to call me in the middle of the night then I shall listen. So tell me, what is serious?”

 

And so I told him. How I wasn’t able to remember my life in the city, how my parents weren’t able to describe our old home and how now Souji himself couldn’t recall things from his past life. And Souji had just listened with patience. That’s how he always is. After I had finished my rambling, Souji just let out a deep sigh.

 

“Yosuke…”

 

“I know this is probably stupid and most likely there’s a perfectly sane explanation to all this, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something very wrong here,” and then it had been my time to sigh. I had no idea what any of this meant, I still don’t, but I knew that with Souji, anything was possible.

 

“... I was about to say the same. There’s definitely something weird going on here. But let’s discuss this later. Like I said, it’s already way past midnight and we both should try to get some sleep. Gather our thoughts. And tomorrow we’ll come up with an answer. Together.”

 

I had felt the warm smile in Souji’s voice and couldn’t help but feel reassured. Like yeah, everything’s gonna allright, as long as we got each other. Partners in life, too, I guess.

 

“Yeah, you’re right, partner. Sorry for worrying you for nothing,” I had said and awkwardly scratched the back of my head. Souji must’ve had sensed the awkwardness in my voice because he had let out huff.

 

“You apologize too much. This wasn’t nothing. You’re not ‘nothing.’”

 

I’d tried to laugh it off, but it had been more of a sad attempt to hide the effects Souji’s words had on me.

 

“I didn’t… I’m sor-”

 

I had decided to stay silent. I hope that was the right decision.

 

“Goodnight, Yosuke.”

 

“‘Night, partner.”

 

But of course I couldn’t sleep.

 


 

So here I am. Lying in my bed, scanning my room in the darkness. Like this everything feels pretty surreal. As if in one blink of an eye, this all could just vanish, be swallowed up by something greater. Like finally I’m able to see how fake everything is, how nothing is actually real.

 

Hours pass and I still seem to be unable to sleep. Trying to reason this all, trying to come up with an answer. But I guess my Dad’s right, I’m just not that smart. All I can do is lie here and talk to myself. Compared to this, figuring out the murders seems like a piece of cake.

 

It’s 5.30 am. In an hour Mom and Dad will wake up, and everything will be like always, just a perfectly normal Monday. School had started just last week and on Thursday we’d all be on our way on a school trip to Port Island.

 

I give up on the idea of sleep and decide to do some research on my computer. And yes, by research I mean finding new cat memes to send to Souji.

 

Chapter Text

Finally at lunch I got my chance to speak with Souji. Or I would’ve if  he suddenly hadn’t walked up to Chie with his boxed lunches and invited her up to the rooftop. And not that there was anything unusual with that, just last week he had invited Yukiko with him.

 

Weirdly, I’ve got invited like what, one time? Yeah, the first time Souji had brought his own lunch. Did I… Did I say something wrong and thus have never since been invited?

 

My second chance to talk with Souji goes a little better. I see him walking down the stairs (and no, I totally wasn’t waiting slash stalking around, I totally just happened to be… chilling around the staircase heading up to the rooftop. Yeah, let’s go with that.) right behind Chie. She gives me a small wave and quickly disappears to the second floor. Oh yeah, class is about to start.

 

“Yo, Souji, about the thing we talked about… If you’d like to talk about it after school, we could go to Aiyas. My treat,” I say, flashing an awkward smile at him. Goddamn, am I blushing too? No no no, I’m not supposed to be some kouhai talking to their senpai. Trying to hide this all I start laughing weakly and scratching my back which is probably even more awkward. And Souji is just standing there, all silent and staring at me with that soul bearing gaze.

 

“So yeah, I’ll see you in class,” and with that I was off. And this is why I’ll never be as cool and suave as Souji. Even when he says weird shit like me, he never gets flustered and escapes the scene. Or gets kicked in the groin. I don’t know what it is. Is it his stupidly handsome bland face with that look that can see right through you. And is it the fact that he says stupid shit (stupid shit being shit that if it was me saying it, all I would get is a critical hit to the nads) with that handsome deadpan face which makes him seem kinda badass. Handsomely badass. Did I say handsome? I meant dork. 100% dork. And cat freak.

 

Just when I’m about to enter the classroom I look back and see Souji talking with Riset- I mean - with Rise. Wow, still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I actually spend the summer hanging out with the Rise. Damn, how can Souji always be so cool and collected when talking to her?

 

Souji enters the classroom just before Kashiwagi pushes the door open and swiftly sits down in his seat in front of me without saying a word. As Kashiwagi begins her lecture, I turn my focus on my notebook. I’ve pretty much spend the whole day writing up the facts and possible scenarios of our… Situation. The most logical answer would probably be that the Midnight Channel is somehow messing with our mind, but why would it affect my parents too… Another possible scenario is that there is some MIB action happening in Inaba but… Oh yeah, I wrote that during math so that explains the… Obscurity. Other than that, I really don’t know. Some kind of sickness? Hypnosis? This all being a dream? Nothing seems to fit and…

 

“Hanamura-kun! Could you please give an answer?” Shit. Kashiwagi is looking straight at me from behind that desk of hers.

 

“A-answer. O-oh yeah, I know,” I stutter and look around the room as is trying to find the answer on the faces of  my classmates. There’s no help from them, but then I hear a whisper in front of me. I can just barely hear what Souji is trying to tell me.

 

“Euphoria..?” I half state half ask. I just hope I heard it right. And if the creepy smile on Kashiwagi’s face tells me anything, it is that I heard correctly.

 

“Yes, Hanamura-kun. The feeling I described is euphoria. So next time when you young boys and girls fall in love, you know what to call that feeling of pure joy. And the hormones! Oh, the hormones...” Kashiwagi gets back to her lecture and I lean forward, just a couple of inches too close to Souji’s neck.

 

“Thanks partner, you’re a lifesaver!”

 

And Souji just smiles at me. Like he always does. No backtalk, no judgement. Not like my other friends...

 

“He wouldn’t need to save you all the time if you just listened, damsel,” Chie moans next to Souji.

 

“Oh, look who’s talking!” I bite back. Luckily we’re in class so I won’t be getting any critical hits to the nads. I just need to hope she won’t postpone the idea… Aw man, I need to learn to keep my mouth shut!

 


 

After school I’m waiting for Souji at my usual place, by the library. I greet the shy girl peeking through the library door and she updates me on her current situation with her senpai. She asks me if I’ve come to see someone special in the library.

 

“Nah, I’m actually waiting for someone.“

 

“Someone special?”

 

At that I can’t help but blush. She seems to notice that and cheers up a little bit.

 

“Aw, Hanamura-kun, you’re all red!”

 

Oh, thanks for pointing that out! I really don’t need this. Not right now. What the hell is even taking so long with Souji?

 

“W-well...” I get to begin my sentence, but then I spot Souji. Going… downstairs. And somehow, with that, my words just die down. I wave goodbye to the shy girl (I probably know her name, just can’t remember it) and run towards the stairs.

 

“Y-yo, Souji!” I yell but he’s nowhere to be seen. I run downstairs and to the shoe lockers. His shoes are still here, so where is he?

 

And then I see him. Talking with Rise. Laughing with her. Smiling his stupid, handsome smile with her. Letting her touch her…

 

And now there’s all these emotions, that I don’t want to name, taking over me. Overwhelming me. Drowning me. A sensation as intense as going up against the most powerful Shadows, if not even more. This like the total opposite of euphoria, or whatever it was that Kashiwagi was lecturing about. I’m frozen still as the two of them approach me. Or more correctly, approach the shoe lockers.

 

“We’re gonna have sooo much fun, Senpai! Oh, Yosuke-senpai! We’ll see you tomorrow!” Rise’s voice tells me that she probably didn’t have time to read my face, because if she had, she would’ve asked if I was alright. Maybe it’s her Persona, but she’s very insightful when it comes to other people. But no, with those words, they were out, leaving me here, frozen still by the lockers. But Kanji’s powerful slap on my back breaks the spell.

 

“You going home, Yosuke-senpai? Or are you just stalking around Senpai’s shoe locker?”

 

And that made this day the worst day in ages. The only thing Kanji gets for an answer is some grumble and mumble and with that I’m off. Didn’t even wait for Kanji to aswer. I know, I’m such an asshole, I’ll apologize to him later. I’m just not feeling well. I need to get home, or to anywhere, just not here.

 

I find myself at the Samegawa riverbed. Besides the Shopping District, the riverbed has always been my and Souji’s favorite place to hang out. This place holds such memories, great many things has happened here. Damn, I’m really starting to sound like Teddie! But I remember Souji once saying he thinks that Teddie’s cute, so I guess that’s okay.

 

As I lie there, listening to the wild cats meow in the distance, I can’t help the need to analyze today’s behaviour of Souji’s. Because last when we talked on the phone, he seemed very eager to investigate, well, whatever there is to investigate. But today at school he didn’t say a word to me, (okay, he helped me during biology, so there’s that, I guess) and barely even glanced at me. Of course, he’s normally like this, keeping to himself at school, because he’s the one trying to concentrate on his studies. But if there’s something important going on, like right now, he wouldn’t just ignore me. I know that he likes to do things by taking his own time, and if that means talking to the whole school before asking me if I’m free after school, that’s okay with me. But to ignore me, after I specifically ask him so meet me after school… That’s so not like him.


Does… Does this all have to do with the thing of us not remembering anything of our lives before April? Is that thing now somehow controlling Souji? This all is starting to sound so crazy, even compare to the shit that we’ve been through these past months. Goddamn Souji, why aren’t you here with me? How am I supposed to figure this out without you? Or maybe this is just Souji’s way to show me, that he’s not interested solving this mystery and thinks that I’m just crazy. Maybe I’m just… ‘nothing’ to you.

Chapter Text

You might be asking, if I tried to contact Souji and ask about his today’s behavior, and the answer is no. It was Souji that texted me.

 

Souji: I’m so so so sorry! I don’t know what went into me, I totally was going to hang out with you, but… I don’t know, I just ended up with Rise. I promise, we’ll hang out tomorrow, and you can yell at me then.

 

Yosuke: nvm, its okay. 2mrrw no gud, gonna b @ junes.

 

Souji: Oh, well. Wednesday?

 

Yosuke: junes

 

Souji: Well, maybe we’ll hang out later. You’re obviously being busy, so I’ll leave you be. See you tomorrow!

 

Yosuke: c ya

 

Damn right I’m busy! Busy talking to myself trying to make sense of all this and failing. Luckily it’s dinner time so I won’t have to ponder on these thing for too long.

 

Dad’s still at work, late again. Mom’s face tells me that she hates having dinner like, but ever since Teddie moved in, the frown on her face isn’t that deep anymore. The little bear has totally found his place in Mom’s heart, like a long lost second son. I know I probably should be jealous, and maybe I am, a little bit, but seeing my Mom so happy with Teddie…

 

“Ooooh!~ You spoil me with this delicious curry!” And with just those words, Teddie manages to make Mom beam with delight. Shaking my head, I sit down.

 

Yeah, I guess the bear is okay. He can stay.

 

“Haha, Teddie, it’s you who spoils me with such kind words. It’s just curry,” Mom says a bright smile on her face and sits down opposite of me.

 

“Such a magnificent meal as this deserves all the praise, m’lady,” and Teddie bows deep and sits next to me.

 

“Okay, okay, Casanova, you can leave the act at work,” I smirk at Teddie who tries to act wounded.

 

“But yeah, the food looks delicious, Mom.”

And with that, the three of us enjoyed our dinner, and I could just forget everything. At least for the rest of the evening.

 


 

Breaking news: school trips suck. Betcha didn’t know that, right? I guess I should’ve already learned my lesson with last school trip. Mystery Food X, awkward tent times and swimming in King Moron’s… Brr, I don’t even want to think about it.

 

And this time, we have love hotels. I should’ve expected this from Kashiwagi, let’s be honest. What I didn’t expect was Teddie. Or now that i think about it, Teddie had been asking a lot about the trip and snooped around my stuff, so… Yeah, should’ve expected this.

 

And I’d be lying if I said I’m not happy to have the whole gang on this pathetic excuse of a school trip, but… I dunno, I guess I was excited to spend some time alone with Souji, as best friends should. And you know, talk about what happened.

 

“I’ve been waiting for this day! Sharing a bed with my dear Sensei!” Teddie dances around the dim-lit purple room, a room with the tackiest decoration I’ve ever seen. Even Souji seems a little uncomfortable. Teddie doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he makes a sharp turn to face me and Souji, still in his bear suit.

 

“This room reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen in Yosuke’s magazines,” Teddie chimes cheerfully, and I let out a groan. From beside I can hear a restrained laugh, Souji obviously trying to hide his amusement.

 

“Okay, okay, laugh it up. But we’ll see who gets the last laugh when I tell about your secrets,” I smirk at Souji, while he starts to unpack his bag.

 

“You wouldn’t give away my secrets, would you?” he asks with laugh. It’s funny, Souji seems much happier now days, since we captured Kubo and solved the case. Getting his mind off things… It suits him. I like him in this more relaxed state.

 

“My innocent and pure Sensei has secrets he hasn’t told me yet?” Teddie gapes at me. I glance at the unpacking Souji, trying his best to concentrate on his task, and walk up to the bed to lay down my own bag.

 

“You have no idea,” I whisper to Teddie, and the bear can’t help but squee in delight.

 

“And no, you’re not sleeping in the bed, freeloader,” and I point at the loveseat, “the sofa will be enough for you.”

 

“Nooo, Yosuke, you can’t keep me away from Sensei!” Teddie flails and jumps on the bed. Facepalm.

 

“This is my and Souji’s room, and that means the bed is ours. You weren’t supposed to come, but I’ll talk about that with Mom and Dad...”

 

“You know, I could just take the sofa...” Souji awkwardly tries to join the conversation.

 

“No! This is about principle!” I shut him off, because now is not the time for diplomacy.

 

“Oh, I understand! Yosuke wants to sleep with Souji!~” Teddie sings, hopping on the waterbed. Don’t break it, you dumb bea-

 

What did he just say? I want to sleep with Souj- My face turns red and I can feel Souji’s eyes on me. I’m fine, partner, no need to worry about me. Things like that doesn't bother me that much anymore. I laugh it off, rubbing my head. I’m glad Souji’s the only one seeing this circus, Kanji being with the other first-year-students, and girls staying on the other side of the hotel.

 

“I give up, I give up. You can sleep on the bed with Souji, I’ll take the sofa,” I say dragging my bag to the purple loveseat. Heart pillows, really?

 

I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to face Souji.

 

“You’re turning out to be quite the big brother,” he whispers with a warm smile on his face. I rub my head and glance at the bear singing on the bed.

 

“I’ll leave the job of best big bro to you. I’ll stick to the bossy big brother.”

 

“Even I didn’t become the best big bro in one night. Give it some time, it’ll take some work from the both of you, but that’s why it’s call team work. In the meantime, give yourself some credit. You’re doing your best, you both are,” Souji says squeezing my shoulder.

 

Am I truly doing my best?

 

You be the judge! Did I fail? Based on tonight’s behavior, I’d say yeah. But I’ll get better, because... Souji believes in me. I can’t let him down!

 

“Thanks, partner,” and with a wide smile on my face I give a small clap on Souji’s back. He only gives me a small nod as an answer, but that’s all he needs to do to reassure me.

 

… My back’s going to be so hurt after a night on that sofa. Tomorrow it’ll definitely be Teddie’s turn to take the loveseat. And not because I want to sleep with Souji. ...It just makes most sense that way.

 

And it appears, that during our best friend bonding time, Teddie fell asleep at the foot of the bed, still in his suit. I guess he’s afraid of getting caught by some teacher. Me and Souji both take our turns in the small bathroom, getting ready for bed. And just when I’m about lay down on the way too small sofa (seriously, Teddie is the smallest, that’s why he should sleep on the sofa!) I hear a small whisper coming from the bed.

 

“There’s really no need for you to break your back on the sofa. Just… I’m sure we all three will fit on this giant bed.”

 

Souji… Of course he’s right, logical as always. Looking after his friends, nothing more. So why can feel my cheeks redden?

 

Without a word I sneak to the hideous purple mess of a bed (at least it’s not shaped like a heart), lay down beside Souji, Teddie by my feet (why does waterbeds have to feel so weird?), and after an affirmative sigh from Souji, I turn to face away from my friends, trying to hide my blush, having no I idea why I feel so warm inside.

 


 

Let’s not talk about the King’s Game.

 

Let’s just say that I’m surprised that Naoto guy is even talking to us after last night. I mean, after seeing Teddie and Kanji make out, Rise and Yukiko acting drunk, the former pining over Souji, and my piggyback ride on Souji’s shoulders, well… It’s a miracle he agreed to hang out with us today. Lucky for Kanji, even though it seems he’s quite not over the fact that his crush saw him make out with another dude last night. I… probably shouldn’t tease him over any smooches.

 

And what we definitely should not talk about is what happened after King’s Game. Because nothing happened. We walked back to the hotel, dragging Rise, Yukiko and Teddie with us, Teddie asking for smooches from every passing stranger and demanding a do-over of my and Souji’s piggyback ride, because he and Kanji missed it. Other than that the way back went just peachy.

 

After arriving back to our room, Teddie fell a sleep on the floor. Didn’t even put on his bear suit, so I had to drag him behind the bed, just in case a teacher would come and check the room (nobody came by, but I guess it's the thought that matters).

 

The waterbed still felt weird, or was it me who felt weird, I’m not sure. I was saved from flushed cheeks, but there was still something gripping me from inside. Like I could feel someone holding my heart, but it wasn’t painful. It was more like soft touch, that made my heart swell and flutter, like in the lyrics of some ballads, and… I still don’t know what to make of it. If someone has an answer, please don’t send them to me. I can only guess what you’d tell me.

 

Souji had fallen asleep fast, so I was alone with my thoughts. I turned to examine his face, so calm, so… fragile. His was breath even, like the other day on the phone. But unlike that night, last night it didn’t distract my thoughts for long.

 

Why does it sometimes feel like there’s more than one Souji? Like not in the way that he has a stash of clones lying around somewhere (even though that would explain some things), but more like he has more than one person inside of him.

 

“Wake up,” I whispered, but there was no answer. With a sigh I turned, my back facing Souji, shutting my eyes and tried to force myself to sleep. For some reason I could feel a sturdy gaze on my back, but didn’t pay much mind to it.

 

So yeah, like I said. Nothing happened.

 

But let me just say, that I might hate school trips a little less after Port Island.

 

Chapter Text

The next few days went by fairly quickly, with me spending most of days working at Junes. Dad seems happier with me working, he even went as far as telling me how proud he was that I was finally taking responsibility. I was surprised I didn’t get a talk about great power and all that, but Dad doesn’t know about the TV world, so…

 

Trying to distract myself with work was easy. The murder investigation at an halt, I really didn’t have anything taking up that much time. Even my own investigation was going nowhere. Searching on the internet can only get you that far.

 

I also had given up on the idea of getting Souji to help me. The whole world seems to be against the idea of my and Souji’s co-operation. And after seeing Souji so relaxed and… happy at Port Island, I really just can add to his burden. He deserves a breather. There's a storm coming, I can feel it.

 

So here I am, working my ass off. At least I’m making money. Or at least that was excuse I gave to Teddie when he asked why I’ve been working almost every day since school started. He told me that he’d been beary worried about me and… Man, now he’s gotten me doing bear puns. You know just, imagine me pinching the bridge of my nose and groaning.

 

“-ke? Yosuke?”

 

A familiar voice pulls me out of my thoughts.

 

“Big bro, was peach seed that you were looking for?”

 

“Ah, yes, Nanako. Thank you,” Souji smiles at Nanako and turns to wave at me. Before I even have time to greet the two I can hear Teddie from behind me, jumping and singing the Junes jingle. He knows Nanako loves that tune.

 

“Nana-chan~!”

 

And with that I’m left alone with Souji, while Teddie’s off to show the new Featherman merchandise to Nanako.

 

“I was wondering if you’re out of vanilla extract. Or at least I couldn’t find any,” Souji asks going through his groceries list.

 

“Oh, you’re making your famous pudding with Nanako? Damn, I almost feel like ditching work and following you to your place,” I laugh, then with a loud cough and a mock professional voice I continue, “And Sir, the vanilla extract you are looking for has been moved to isle six. Please, let me show you.”

 

With an amused grin Souji followed me.

 

“Are you missing something else? I could help you get them so you and Nanako can get home as soon as possible. Less time spent here, the more time you have for cooking,” I smile while giving a small shove to Souji. I’m sure he’ll impress some girl with those skills.

 

“I won’t decline your help, but you know both me and Nanako love shopping here, so we really don’t mind spending time here,” Souji tells me with such a heartfelt laugh, and I get the weird feeling again, like little butterflies fluttering in my stomach, tickling my heart.

 

“By the way, if you want, I can leave some leftovers for you, for tomorrow’s lunch,” Souji offers.  

 

“I can’t steal of Nanako’s dessert. But promise me, next time invite me.”

 

“I’ll count you in! And now that we have everything I need for tonight’s dinner, I need to find Nanako. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

And with a small wave he was gone. A few minutes later I could hear Teddie’s cries when he had to say his goodbyes to “his Nana-chan.”

 

Still a few hours left of my shift I returned to my stacking. Suddenly my Monday became pretty boring again. But at least the mechanical work of stacking cans got my brain thinking.

 

And I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before! If there’s something that needs to be investigated, why not go to a detective! And incidentally, the one they call The Detective Prince just started at Yasogami High. Seriously, this is such a perfect coincidence. Almost too perfect, like some sort of plot convenience…

 


 

Hours pass, and finally my shift is over. I might spend my time working now more than I ever did, but it doesn’t mean I enjoy it any more. At least working enables my music hobby. That reminds me, there’s that one Nickelback song that has been stuck in my head this whole day and I really need to listen to it, and man, I really need to that motorcycle, and Teddie, what is taking you so long, like seriously, and why is there a grey cat sitting by my bike? A grey cat with grey eyes. Somehow it reminds me of someone.

 

Souji.

 

Ah, yes, Souji! I need to take a picture of it for Souji!

 

When I get near the little kitty, I see the yellow collar around its neck. It’s not a stray cat, it’s a runaway cat. I guess that means I should catch it and get it back to its owner. A beautiful cat such as that probably has a family that misses it.

 

But when I get close the cat just jumps up and sprints for a few feet and then stops, only to turn around and taunt me. No, it seems like it wants me to… follow it. Without a second thought I jump on my bike and start following the little grey cat, wherever it ends up taking me. And no, don’t ask why I’m doing all this, because I really don’t know. This all seems kinda crazy and stupid to me, but as weird it seems, it feels like the cat is trying to tell me something. And it’ll just take a minute. I’ll be back before anyone notices. I’m sure nobody minds if I...

 

I… I don’t remember there being a factory building on the edge of the town, but here it stands. And from a small ground window the cat sneaks inside the building. Damn, I forgot to take a picture of it.

 

The building seems like a plain factory, like those you could see around the city, but in Inaba it seems kinda out of place. Maybe that’s why it’s here right in the middle of nowhere. And I know I should leave, that Teddie’s probably worried sick, Mom and Dad too, but I can’t help but feel drawn to find out what’s behind that big metal door. So I careful steps, I get closer to the building, checking the perimeter. I know there won’t be any Shadows jumping in on me, but you can never be too careful.

 

The front door opens with ease. Weird, you’d think people would lock their door-

 

Upon sneaking in, a static white noise overloads my mind, and I feel like I can barely breathe. My feet buckle and I fall on my knees. I try to take the scenery in, but there’s not much I can register before my eyesight goes white. All I can remember is a yellow door.

 

I shut my eyes and force myself to get a grip, to get up, to get some of my vision back so that I can escape this hellhole. I steady myself against the metal door, and blink a few times, which seems to help. The headache on the other hand doesn’t seem to let out. The pain is overwhelming me, gripping my insides and ripping them apart. If I stay here a little longer, my brain just might explode and then where would we be? In a world without Yosuke Hanamura, and I’m sure no one wants to live in a world like that. Okay, bad example, and I seriously should not be making jokes right now.

 

Lucky me, I didn’t accidentally lock myself in this awful building. The metal door opens up just as easily as last time, and I stumble out of the factory and land hard on the ground. Forget the cat, I just want to get home, take a long hot shower and get some sleep. Probably take some painkillers.


My phone vibrates violently in my pocket. A message. Probably from Teddie. I was supposed to wait for him and Dad. I fish out my phone to check the time. it’s almost ten o’clock. And like I said, three messages from Dad and twelve from Teddie. Teddie has also called me seven times. There’s also a message from… Souji? That dumb bear must’ve alarmed Souji, he probably thought I had run off to enjoy Souji’s pudding. Hah, if only. But I don’t have time for messages right now. I stand up to close the giant metal door, hopefully locking it for forever. Or maybe I should tell about this all to the detective kid? Or maybe I should just forget this ever happened. While closing the door, I notice small sign on the inside of it. A small yellow sign, with black letters that reads ‘The Game’.

Chapter Text

I decided to try to forget what happened on Monday, which ended up being quite easy. That night, I got home just in time to catch the rerun of Naoto’s interview, but I didn’t have time to register any of that before my whole family jumped to my throat, which I deserved, I know. Fortunately for me, I missed most of their rants, me being so tired I couldn’t even remember how I got home. All I wanted was to get to bed as soon as possible.

 

And ever since that everything pretty much spiraled to hell with the return of The Midnight Channel and the kidnapping of Naoto. Yeah, it’s been that kinda week.

 

Lucky me, it’s Sunday. My first free Sunday in weeks. And I’m actually free, after Souji decided to that the whole team needed a day off. I know it sounds ridiculous, we needing a day off after one day of dungeon crawling, but we really were out of touch and quite poor shape. But I guess it understandable, there really has been no reason to go to the other side since Kubo, other than to take out a strong Shadow, and nothing more. Maybe Souji was trying to tell us to get in shape? Maybe I should go on a run? Or… something. Am I truly doing my best if I get tired after one day? Yeah, I’m going on a run.

 

It’s actually a nice day, sunny and not a single cloud on the sky. One would say it’s a perfect day for a run. But I’m not really the running type, so this is all quite new to me. But I got my sneakers on, so I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

 

I take my first step and… get tackled by Teddie.

 

“Where are you going without me? It’s our day off!”

 

I brush him off annoyed. This run was supposed to give me my fifteen minutes alone, but I don’t have the heart to tell Teddie to leave me alone.

 

“Just going on a run. You can join me if you want.”

 

“Run? Why would I run if there’s no Shadows to chase me?”

 

“That’s… a good point. But at the same time not the point.”

 

“Then what’s the point?”

 

“I… I don’t know.”

 

Suffice to say, we didn’t go for a run, no. We ended up playing video games. And Teddie started asking questions.

 

“Yosuke, why have you been acting so weird lately?”

 

“Me? Weird? Look who’s talking!”

 

“Me being weird is normal, but what happened at Monday was...”

 

“Sorry Ted, but I really don’t want to talk about that,” I say avoiding, and I know that will only peak Teddie’s interest, but I guess he’s learned something about social cues and doesn’t pry further. He changes the subject.

 

“It was odd being there again.”

 

“What? Where?”

 

“On the other side. The TV world. My home.”

 

“Dummy, this is your home.”

 

I don’t get an answer, just a starry-eyed look from Teddie, who’s on the brink of crying.

 

“Oh, please! Don’t give me that!” I give a small shove.

 

“Such kind words, Yosuke! I’m starting to see why Sensei likes you so much.”

 

“Don’t know about that...”

 

“You always say that, but it’s true. Just ask the others.”

 

“I… What are you talking about?”

 

Suddenly Teddie goes quiet. An awkward pause.

 

“I’ll be going on my run and forget this conversation ever happened,” I say putting down the controller and get up.

 


 

This was a bad idea, so let me hear all the ‘I told you so’s. And why do I always end up at the riverbank? I decide to lay down on the grass and take a breather. Taking in the scenery with every breath I close my eyes.

 

This week has been crazy, but now it’s time to concentrate on saving Naoto. Without us, the guy will die, and he took a giant bullet for us, making himself the target. “This is not a game for me either.” A game…

 

I feel a poke on my shoulder, a soft touch that lingers.

 

“Wha-!”

 

I try to open my eyes, but the sun blinds me. I raise my hand to shield my eyes, brushing strands of hair off my forehead.

 

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

I’d recognize that voice anywhere.

 

“Partner! What are you doing here?” I sit up, my eyes finally getting used to the sunshine, “Don’t say you’re here for the cats.”

 

The other boy beside me falls silent, trying to hide his embarrassment. He should let his guard down more often. Makes him seem more… human.

 

“Uh, you know me. I guess I’m just drawn to this place. And the cats, of course,” Souji laughs, leaning back and lying down, “but what are you doing here?”

 

I lie down beside him, shrugging.

 

“You know, I guess I’m just drawn to this place.”

 

A silence falls between us, but it’s not awkward or unpleasant. Instead I just relax and let my eyes fall shut again. I hear Souji next to me humming in contemplation.

 

“It’s been one helluva week. I mean, the whole deal with Naoto, Midnight Channel… It’s all coming back, huh, partner.”

 

“Yeah. It’s just… I was ready to put this all in the past. To move on. I’ll be gone soon and I don’t want to leave things… undone. But now we’re being pulled back in. I should’ve seen this coming, I had my doubts when it came to the case, but it was just easier to forget, to ignore. But here we are. Someone’s life is at risk, again, because I was careless. And I don’t get the luxury to be careless. You deserve more.”

 

I turn my head to gaze at Souji, at loss of words. His eyes are closed, brows knitted together, worry on his lip. He lets out a deep sigh and pinches the bridge of his nose.

 

“I… don’t know what to say, partner. Other than wow, I’ve never heard you talk that much at once.”

 

That line rewards me with a gentle punch to my shoulder. I respond with a poke to his ribs. I end up headlocked and he ruffles my hair.I manage to squirm out of his grip and fall on my back, laughing so hard my stomach hurts.

 

“That’s such a lie, and you know it. We’ve had many long talks, many of them right here!” Souji laughs.

 

“Dude, I’m the one who usually does the talking. So often you’re weirdly quiet. And now days… we don’t really hang out like we did, you know?”

 

“Well, I’m not the only one who’s been busy lately. And when you’re not at Junes, and I try to talk to you, you suggest we fight it out.”

 

“I guess that’s why you ignore me on the first opportunity.”

 

“Yosuke, I...”

 

We both fall silent, me staring at my shoes. Oh man, I shouldn’t have said anything. I really need to learn how to keep my mouth shut. I… I…

 

“I’m sorry,” I  whisper, head hanging low. I don’t know what else to say.

 

“No, don’t. You… You’re right. I’m the one who should be apologizing. And I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be your best friend, but I guess I really haven’t been doing my job.”

 

“I could say the same. I’ve been so absorbed in my own problems, I...”

 

“Is this about what happened on Monday?”

 

Yes, it’s about that but… I can’t tell you. I don’t want you to worry over this. You have enough to worry about as it is. I don’t want to be a part of your burden. I’m your second-in-command, I’m supposed to share your load, not add to it.

 

“Ah, no. Monday was a misunderstanding. It was because of a cat. It just reminded me of you, so I just followed it. I know it’s stupid, but...”

 

“It’s okay. Your intent was noble, and I appreciate the thought. I was just worried about you. Teddie too,” Souji says giving me a small smile, and I can’t help but smile myself. After a few seconds of silent staring, Souji gets up.

 

“It was good I bumped into you. It was great we got to talk. I promise when this all is finished, we’ll hang out more often like this, like best friends,” Souji smiles and reaches out to help me up.

 

“Oh, that’s what you say to everybody,” I get up and laugh. And I’m not sure if I should note how Souji’s hands lingers a little longer than it probably should, or how I don’t mind that it does.

 

“No, just you,” he says with his signature deadpan style, leaving me stammering.

 

“O-okay, I...”

 

“Are you walking home? You want to walk with me?”

 

“Yeah, why not.”

 

The way home Souji mostly told me all about the cats he tried to make friends with before seeing me. For a moment it was nice to pretend that everything was normal, no murders, no life threatening situations, just… us. And when it was time to part our way, I stopped him on his tracks. There was something I needed to tell him, something he needed to hear.

 

“Partner, let me tell you something. Don’t blame yourself so much. We’re all in this together. You might be our leader, but you can lean on us. Trust us. Trust me. I’m your best friend. We’ll save Naoto, and we’ll solve this whole case.Together.”

 

“Promise?”

 

“I promise. But please, no pinky promises.”

 

On that Souji holds out his hand and I take it. And somehow I feel like everything’s possible. And when this is all over, I can tell you everything.

 

Chapter Text

You’d think that all this saving people, running around in the TV World would already be something like a second nature, but I guess I was right. We’re terribly out of shape. Like, it’s not unusual for let’s say Teddie to start complaining how exhausted he is after a couple of floors, and for Rise and Yukiko to join him in a choir of complains. Seriously, they can complain more than customers at Junes. Usually Chie’s the one trying to fire everyone up, with Kanji getting all beefed up and Souji just nodding from the sidelines, while I roll my eyes, because how on Earth did I find myself surrounded by total idiots.

Idiots I would totally die for.

But like I said, this is how it usually goes, but today something is off. We’re all beat . And I’m not sure if it’s Naoto’s dungeon and the fact that this place makes us go up and down floors just looking after some damn keycard. I’m not sure if it’s the looming pressure of the fact that Naoto is actually being held here, as a prisoner of his own Shadow, and the feeling that we failed him. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that maybe these Shadows are actually more than we can take, that we haven’t been training enough and we’ll all fall because of that. I’m not su-

“Wake the hell up, Yosuke-senpai!”

A sharp yell and a punch to my shoulder drags me out of the depths of my mind. A frustrated Kanji stands in front of me, an equally pissed off Chie next to him.

“He’s an idiot, what can you do, but could you try not to sleep during regrouping?” Chie asks me wagging her finger.

“No, you guys are the i-” I begin, but something in Chie’s eyes tells me to shut up right now . At least if I want to keep my balls attached to my body. Which is the way I prefer of things, thank you very much.

I hear a small cough behind me and I turn around to face Souji. Oh yeah, we did stop to regroup. Down and up, up and down between the floors made me lose the track of time, but I can vaguely remember meeting up with Chie, Yukiko and the Fox on one of the basement level and Souji saying something about us boys needing a break and changing up the rescue party, with Teddie agreeing in a heartbeat and even Kanji mumbling that it was a good idea.

And here we are, Rise scanning the area for Shadows, Chie and Yukiko sharing a water battle, because Chie forgot her own, Teddie letting Kanji pet his fur to help the boy calm down, and… Souji staring at me, his brows knitted together. I avert his eyes, deciding that yes, the metallic flooring is suuuper interesting. Is that blood that I can see?

“Ah, sorry about Kanji and Chie. We’re all a little bit on edge right now,” Souji says while sliding next to me. I let out a small apologetic laugh.

“Nah, it should be me saying sorry, getting distracted during your speech, whatever they call them in movies.”

“I believe they’re called debriefings. And please, don’t call them that, makes this all sound like a military operation.”

“Yeah, I guess we’re more like clueless teenagers way out of their depth.”

Souji let’s out a heartfelt laugh at that, and I can feel a warm something deep inside me, such heat…

“Truer words have never been spoken. And if we have you falling asleep during what you called a speech, I need to learn how to be more intriguing,” Souji smiles and… Is he blushing? And why am I blushing? And before I can stop myself, words just… fall out of my mouth.

“You’re plenty intriguing to me.”

And if I wasn’t blushing before, I’m sure my face flushed full on red right about now.  And why isn’t Souji saying anything? Just staring at me, his own blush deepening on a rapid pace, red now reaching his ears. Is it weird to think that he looks really good like this?

Oh man, who turned up the heat? I don’t remember us ending up in the sauna.

“Did I say that out loud? I don’t remember saying anything out loud. Just ignore anything I said, it’s just the exhaustion talking, I’m so so sorry, dude, I-”

But Souji cuts me off, putting a hand on my shoulder and seemingly forcing the red on his face to retreat. I let my gaze flicker on Souji’s now calmed face before firmly nailing it to the floor.

“Yosuke, please, don’t apo-”

Something cuts Souji off and his hand disappears off my shoulder. Feeling a pang of something , I close my eyes for a second, let out a deep breath, gathering myself. I raise my head to meet Souji’s grey eyes and-

He’s not there anymore.

He’s off talking to the girls, Rise gripping to his arm, Souji talking to Chie and Yukiko, encouraging them, praising them, and Chie and Yukiko smiling and trying to hide their blush but failing.

And who wouldn’t react like that after getting praised by Souji The King Of Inaba Seta? Even Teddie and Kanji join them, Ted beaming and jumping around Souji, singing about “his sensei”, and Kanji smacking Souji on the back, saying that he’s ready to continue if “senpai’s ready.”

All this happening as if I wasn’t even here.

“Partner, I’m beat,” I breath out, obviously lying, but too upset to care. Chie gives me a weird face, but I ignore it, staring down at Souji.

“Okay, I’ll change you up with Chie and we can continue,” Souji deadpans, pointing between me and Chie. Chie seems surprised by this, but only nods. I glance around me trying to take in everyone else's reaction, but all I see is flashes of surprise, soon buried under stoic faces.

Is this Shadows messing up with my head, because it almost seems like Souji’s way more distant than he was just a couple of minutes ago. In fact, everyone seems like miles away. Like their talking, but there’s no soul behind it, like this conversation is on rails.

Has it always been like this?

I need an emergency stop.

 


 

I end up getting left behind with Yukiko and the Fox. Not that I should be complaining, I did say I was tired and I can’t expect Souji to decide that we need to head back home and leave just because of me. In fact, I really don’t know what my plan was to begin with, I guess I just wanted some kind of reaction out of him.

And the alarming thing is, that I didn’t get any reaction.

Did our previous conversation ever happen? Was it all in my head? Did the hazy heat make me imagine the whole thing? Maybe I didn’t blunder any of those embarrassing words and didn’t blush like a girl.

But no, that did happen. I can still feel the warmth on my cheekbones, as faint as it might be now, just a lingering ghost, reminding me, anchoring me.

“Don’t worry, Yosuke-kun, we’ll find him soon.”

Yukiko speaks somewhere from behind me, but that’s not why her words seem so distant.

“What?”

“We must be near.”

“Yukiko..?”

“And when we find, we’ll save him.”

“S-stop...”

A moment of silence. Another. Third.

“Yosuke-kun, did you say something?”

Yukiko? Is this you?

“Uh, I don’t think so?”

Yukiko gives me a polite smile.

“You’re too funny, Yosuke-kun.”

“Thanks?”

“See! No wonder Souji totally understood when I told him how I love the way Chie makes me laugh. He feels the same with you,” Yukiko smiles, leaving me speechless.

“Oh, speaking of Chie, have you already bought her a new copy of Trial Of The Dragon?” she asks me suddenly.

“Um, I guess?”

“You guess?”

“Yes, I guess! I don’t remember!”

“You don’t remember?”

“Yes, I don’t - Okay, you’re doing this on purpose, now.”

“Yes, I am!” she snickers, trying to hide her laugh. Oh why, oh why do these girls hate me so much?

“But you really don’t remember?” she asks after she’d calmed down, a curious frown on her face.

“Yes, really, seriously, I don’t remember,” I scoff, rolling my eyes.

And that’s not even the only thing I can’t remember. I think about telling her how I can’t remember anything of my life pre-April, just vague facts that I’ve told myself and other. Like that was an all different life. Which - to be honest - it was. My life before and after Souji seem like two completely different things, it makes sense for that life to seem so foreign, but not being able to remember it at all, that’s… bizarre. But then again, my life after Souji has nothing but bizarre. Maybe my mind has problems catching up.   

 


 

The next day I don’t even ask Souji if we’re going in TV World. Something has been on my mind, distracting me, so much that even the others have noticed it.

That weird building on the edges of Inaba, in the middle of nowhere.

I let my fall to the ground, hitting hard, but I don’t have time to care. Besides, the bike’s already half dead, so…

It’s still fairly hot, even though the sun is hiding behind a thick cloud wall. I check my cell, no messages from Mom or Dad, or anyone for that matter. It’s not even too late, only 6 pm.

The door is seems heavier than I remembered, I can barely get it open, but it’s still unlocked. Has anybody visited this place since I was here? I manage to squeeze in, the door closing with a loud thud.

And the second I’m inside, I get hit with white noise inside my head and sharp pain deep in my bones. But I can’t just leave, or the mystery of this place will haunt me forever. Gritting my teeth I force myself to continue on, deeper into this empty factory building. My feet slide on the cold cement floor, too tired to rise more than an inch above the floor. Every noise I make echo throughout the whole building. I lean against a cold metallic pillar, gathering myself, trying to take in my surroundings.

The building has three storeys, the two upper ones clearly visible from the ground floor because of the balconydesing of the floors. Who ever designed this place wanted the floors to be connected, but for what purpose? I just need to find stairs to be able to get up there… On the second floor there’s five rooms, and on the third floor there’s four, and is that… fog coming through the cracks of the doors? But not through every room. Every room on the second floor is leaking fog, but only one room on the third floor. Just… Need… To Get… Up there…

Ha, a staircase!

And I decide to try something out. I fish out my glasses from my bag, put them on and suddenly… The pain is just gone. All gone, like it was never even there.

How the hell - No! Nope! No time to think! I’ll figure out the logic behind this all on a later date! Now, I just run across the ground floor, my heartbeats echoing louder than my footsteps, almost fly up the stairs and only stop when I’m facing the first of five door. The fog envelops my feet and through the door I can hear some faint… music?

Okay, deep breaths, deep breaths, Hanamura, get a hold of yourself! You came this far. Now, all you need to do is just… I dunno, take a peek and then just left. Mystery solved! This place won’t haunt my mind anymore. And I can just concentrate on solving the murders and figuring out what the hell’s wrong with my memory. With the help of the Detective Prince (once we save him, of course) all of this will be a cakewalk.

So why is my hand trembling so much? Why can’t I just open the door? What am I afraid of?

Just… Just do it!

I shove the unlocked door open (seriously, this place has a problem with doors), and for a brief flash, that can’t last more than seconds, I see…

Saki’s family’s liquor store. Me, Souji and Teddie. My Shadow wearing my face. “You’re not me! You’re nothing like me!” Evil laughter. My Shadow harnessing it’s power. It’s true form. “I am a Shadow... The true self...” Battle. Souji’s… protecting me. Even after this was all my fault. Always protecting me. Always. No matter how badly I screw up. Always there for me. Helping me up when I fall. He didn’t even know me back then! I was just some loser trying to play hero, when he was an actual hero. Saving me. He should’ve left me there to rot.

Loud white. Then silent darkness.

 

.

.

.

 

You find yourself in a dark room. The only way is forward, toward even more darkness. There’s no going back.

 

What will you do?

>>> Continue forward

>>> Stay where you are

 

You decide to stay put. A fog starts to envelop you. The only way is forward. There is no going back.

 

What will you do?

>>> Continue forward

>>> Stay where you are

 

You continue forward. There is only darkness. The fog seems to be following you. There’s no escape. You will die here.

 

What will you do?

>>> Continue forward

>>> Stay where you are

>>> Give up

 

Continue forwa-youwilldie-rd. There is no-justdiealready-thing but darkness. The fog is cat-justgiveup-ching up with you.

 

What will you do?

>>> Give

>>> Up

 

Error.

>>> Just

>>> Give

>>> Up

 

Do you want to give up?

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

Are you sure?

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

But it would be all over.

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

You want it all to be over.

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

You want it all to be over.

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

You want it all to be over.

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

You are dead.

 

Do you want to overwrite saved data?

>>> Yes

>>> No

 

Reloading data… Respawning… In 3… 2… 1…

 

.

.

.

 

Where the fuck am I? What the fuck just happened? The liquor store. Us. My Shadow. It was almost like I was inside a... I… I…

I’m at home. In my own bed.

I still got my cell on me, so I check it and… What!? It’s almost 1.30 am!? I’ve got dozens of messages and missed calls, from Mom and Dad, Chie and Yukiko, Teddie and Kanji, and… Souji. He’s called and messaged me by far the most, his most recent one just a couple minutes ago.

I… should probably call him.

“Yosuke, you’re… you’re… Where the hell have you been!? I’ve been calling you for hours! Everyone’s looking for you! Are you- Are you okay?”

Souji’s clearly distressed, panic seeping through his voice so clearly, his voice weak. Oh god, what have done? Hearing Souji like this, knowing this is all my fault… I can’t, I…

“Partner, are you there? Please, just answer me, just let me hear your voice, let me know you’re okay, just-”

“I’m okay,” I breath. I can hear Souji’s own sharp breath and rustling through the phone. Did he just fall on his knees?

“Yosuke, you’re - it’s really you! You have no idea how happy I am to hear your voice! Where… Where are you?”

“I-I’m at home. Was asleep. Sorry. I mean, I’m sorry I worried you guys. I should probably message everyone, let my parents and Teddie know that I’m fine, y’know.”

“Can I come and see you?”

Souji’s voice is so small I can barely hear him. Pang, my heart hurts. But at the same time, yes, I want you to come, I need to see you, more than I’ve ever needed anything, I need to see you, to feel you, to know that I’m real, that any of this is real .

“Nah, I’m kinda tired, I should probably just get some sleep.”

“But I need to see you...”

It’s only a whisper, so I probably heard it all wrong. Souji never begs, never has to. He has the magical power to make everyone agree with him, to see his way of things. He would never have to beg.

An exhale on the other side of the line. “I understand,” he says. Pang, my heart hurts. He continues, “I’ll message the others, so you can sleep. I’ll see you… I’ll see you.”

The call ends. I get up, go downstairs. Mom and Dad see me, and Mom jumps up and runs to hug me. She’s been crying. Even Dad joins the hug. Soon Teddie runs through the front door and tackles me to the ground. I let him. He’s still crying, rambling, but I can’t hear a word he says. I tell them I’ll go to sleep. They just nod, letting me go. I don’t even change my clothes, don’t go to the bathroom.

Sleep. I need to sleep. But I can’t.

I hear Teddie entering the closet, climbing in his bed. I hear him snoring, shifting in his bed.

And I’m still awake.

 


 

 

It’s past 2 am. I can’t sleep. My gaze, fixed on my ceiling.

What happened?

What happened?

What hap-

My cell vibrates, once, twice. It doesn’t stop. It’s a call. I fumble with the pockets of my school uniform, taking the phone out. I answer without checking the caller.

“Uh-hm?”

“Yosuke?”

“Souji? Why’re you calling me? I’m fine.”

“I know, I know, it’s just… I’m outside. Can you… Can you just come and see me, just for a second?”

Silence. I can’t sleep.

“Uh, okay, but just for a second.”

“Of course.”

I end the call. I get up. I get down. I walk to the front door. I open the door.

And there he is. Souji.

“I just really needed to see you.”

He steps inside, closing the door behind him. His eyes are puffy and red, because of me. I’m so sorry, so so sorry I made you go through that, made you feel like shit. I’m sorry.

“I’m -” but before I can continue, Souji wraps his arms around me, one hand around my neck, other falling on my lower back. It’s intimate, way too intimate, and my heart skips at least a couple beats before starting to race faster than my mind can keep up with. But I don’t move away. No, I wrap my hands around Souji and close my eyes.

Silence. I can sleep.  

Chapter Text

 

I wake up only a couple hours later, in my own bed. I’m way too tired to open up my eyes, but I know it’s still dark. I can hear the snoring of Teddie, which is just as annoying as ever, but so comfortable after the day I had. Everything seems just like normal, until I feel my mattress shift, but not under my weight. My eyes still closed, I reach out to touch anything that’s in my bed.

Did something follow me through..?

But of course not. I touch the way too familiar hand, and I don’t even need to open my eyes to confirm that it’s Souji sleeping next to me. That weird warm feeling fills my heart, my bones, my whole body, and I flush bright red, flailing away from Souji. I stifle out a yelp, because right now, I’m wide awake and really don’t want to wake up Teddie. I would never heart the end of those questions.

So Souji came by and… I fell asleep in his arms. Oh, way to go, Hanamura! Way to seem like a total loser in front of your best friend, who’s pretty much the embodiment of cool. Way. To. Go.  Please don't tell me he actually... carried me to bed?   I groan quietly, and take out my cell. 4.30. Soon, the whole house will be wake, and I really don’t want them to find Souji sleeping in my bed. Would it be rude to wake him up and just throw him out? He looks like he’s in such deep sleep, and after what I made him go through, I dunno. Forcing him leave would be awful.

So I let him sleep.

Slowly I get up. I need to go to the bathroom, take a long bath, washing yesterday’s stink off my skin. Then maybe, I can pretend that none of happened, and continue with my life just like normal. Sounds like plan!

For a second I fear that I’ve woken up Souji, with him mumbling under his breath and turning to face me, almost grabbing a hold of me, but he’s still fast asleep. His silver hair a ruffling mess, the complete opposite of his usual tidy and perfect dork hairstyle.

Not that I’m any sort of hairstyle expert, I say, as I comb my hand through my stylized dyed hair. That everyone else thinks is just me trying to show how much better I am compared to anyone else, being a city boy, coming from a successful family and -

No, I’m not going there right now. Now’s not the time to beat myself up. I get out of bed, sneak through my room and hallway.

The bathwater feels warm against my cold skin. I let my limbs get limp, lean my head back and just stay there for what feel like an eternity, emptying my mind, not feeling a thing, letting myself slip away, to drown…

As my head dips under water, I pull myself out of my trance, and jump out of the now cold bath. I dry body and frizzy hair and even put on my pajamas, even though school will start in a couple of hours. I return to my room and -

He’s not there.

Souji’s not in my bed.

He’s nowhere to be seen.

My heart sinks, but I no. This is good. Now I don’t have to make him leave or face Teddie’s neverending teasing and questions. This is good. How it’s supposed to be. Like, he probably just woke up and went home. Hell, just imagine if Nanako would have to wake without her big bro. This is how it should go.

I lie down on my mattress, carefully, as if trying not to mess with Souji’s spot. But wait, what? His spot? This is my bed! There’s no such things as Souji’s spot! And still… At the same time, having him here felt too… normal. Right.

Ugh, Souji, stop being confusing! Best friends are not supposed to be confusing! With best friends everything’s supposed to make sense, make every puzzle piece fit perfectly, and… And… Y’know, how it goes in stories. Best friends, partners, against one big bad, saving the day with the power of friendship, all that cliché stuff. Or maybe I’ve been watching way too much anime. I blame Junes and all that new Featherman R crap that I had to spend an entire weekend stocking.

Oh yeah, I have to work after school. Would Dad let me take a day off after yesterday? No, probably not. He would force me to do shift if not for anything else but to keep an eye on me. It’s okay. Better to have something to keep my mind on.

 


 

 

At school I had braced myself to get an earful from Chie, about how awful and terrible I am for making her and the others sick of worry and how she’ll never forgive me and how I owe her six portions of steak and a DVD of her choice.

And I get nothing. Not a single rant from Chie or a side glance from Yukiko. I didn’t even see Kanji or Rise.

And Souji. He just sits in front of me, never mentioning what happened last night. Doesn’t even look at me.

Why does that make me feel like shit?

At work everything’s just as usual. Me and Teddie working at the groceries department, me trying to keep an eye on Teddie, trying to keep him from flirting with everything that moves. Forcing myself to smile at every customer, like a true salesman. Dad would be so proud if he was here to see this. But just like always, he stays in his office, going through numbers and sales figures, all that adult shit. Adult shit he expects me to do in the future. No thank you!

At home Teddie doesn’t disturb me, letting me half-ass my homework. Afterwards we play video games, watch TV. I hope we can save you soon, Naoto. Even though you used yourself willingly as a bait, no one deserves to be stuck in a place like that.

The next day we have a day off for the equinox, and I spend most of the day at Junes working. On Saturday I doze off during Mrs. Nakayama’s lecture about her marital problems.

On Sunday we saved Naoto.

And the biggest twist of the day wasn’t even the fact that the Detective Prince just so happens to be a Detective Princess , but the fact that…

Huh, this’ll be hard to describe without sounding totally insane, and believe me, these few days have made me question my sanity more than I can count (yes, I can hear all the oh so funny jokes about my math skills, thank you very much), but I’ll try. I’ll try, because I need to make sense of this all. This needs to make sense.

At first I didn’t really notice anything, but I can assure you, when you’re going face-to-face with a Shadow, you don’t have time to think about trivialities. We beat the Shadow, slowly but surely, Naoto got her own Persona, yada-yada-yada. At that point, for the first time, I started to think about how many times we’ve done this all, hitting the same… story beats, I guess? Like in all those monster-of-the-week stories. But at that point I just went with it, because isn’t normal life kinda like that, monotonous, repetitive, full of routines. So I ignored it, that’s what I’m best at.

But after we got out of the TV and back to Junes’ electronics department, and I tried to sneak in a question about… whatever you’d call my situation, because if I didn’t ask now, I’d have to wait until she gets better, it’s not like I know where she lives or would even be welcome to her house or anything, and… I couldn’t. I tried to open my mouth, but all I could do was stand there and watch it all happen. Inside my head I was screaming while my body was frozen in place. I only got the control of my body back after the girls had left with Naoto, helping her home. I tried to get a read on Kanji, because Teddie was still wearing his mascot suit, and even though that suit seems to somehow be able to emote, most of the time the face of the suit’s face is plastered with a smile, and Souji’s bland face… Well, you tell me what he’s thinking! The only time the guy actually shows any emotion seems to be when we’re alone, just the two of us, which only lends credibility to my theory that there’s more than one Souji. But Kanji’s not that hard to read. It’s almost admirable how honest he can be with his feelings. I… I wish I could be just as honest, maybe then I could actually make some sense of this all. But in that moment Kanji seemed more just worried and… confused? Man, Kanji, way to prove that I don’t know shit! Suffice to say, none of that was very helpful.

And after that… Well, everyone just leaves, leaving me standing there, baffled.

Okay, so that just happened.

That. Just. Happened.

Are we gonna talk about this or just…

Okay, yeah, we’re ignoring this, letting it go.

No, I need to tell someone about this! They need to know that I’m… going crazy? Way too sane? The only one sane? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…

Costumeless Teddie taps me on the back. When did he return?

“Silly Yosuke, I thought you were following me! Come on, let’s go home! We don’t have to work today!”

I need to tell him, maybe he’ll understand what I’m going through, maybe he’d know what to do, just tell him, tell him, tell him.

Tell him!

“S-sorry, Ted. I guess I was just… too deep in my thoughts.”

“Aha, the woes of youth, such weights you have to bear!~”

“Oh, shut up, you! You’re younger than me!”

“That’s what you think! But are you done thinking? A day spent in TV World makes Teddie a hungry bear!”

“Stupid bear, you used to live in that place!”

“Maybe that explains why I’ve been so hungry all the time since I got out...”

“Ugh, we don’t need you pondering over the fallibility of your stomach.”

“No, my tummy is quite sure that it’s hungry. So let’s go home, Yosuke!~”

“Okay, okay… And I’ll buy us snacks before we leave.”

“You’re the best, Yosuke!” Teddie beams all starry-eyed, and I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t melt just a bit.

“You’re still a stupid bear,” I groan, showing him towards the snack section.

I’ll… I’ll tell them later.

 


 

It’s hard not to feel awesome after saving Naoto. Riding on that high for two days is easy, but then on Wednesday everything comes crashing down.

And not because I’d be dozing off or just not concentrating or anything like that in class. Actually I’m totally on point for the whole day, listening and taking notes.

No, the crash comes in a form of a question.

“Say, that reminds me. What figure of speech am I using when I say I haven't eaten in ten years?

…Yosuke! Take a wild guess!” Mr. Kondo asks me. And I actually know the answer. It’s hyperbole. But…

“Huh!? A g-guess…? How'd he get to this from breakfast? Hey, Souji… Do you know?”

I lean forward to hear his answer, but not because I want to.

“Hyperbole,” he whispers, just like so many times before. And just like so many times before, I repeat the answer, without thinking.

“Good guess, Yosuke! Hyperbole is just a gross exaggeration. We use it all the time when we're not even thinking about it to emphasize what we're saying. I don't even want to imagine having to go ten years without eating…” and with that Mr. Kondo’s voice trails off.

“Thanks Souji, you’re awesome!” I beam at Souji, and while yes, that’s totally true, but those are not my words.

Not. My. Words.

I stare at Souji’s back, his pure white uniform blouse, not a single wrinkle in it, collars finely folded. I stare at his stylized hair, that stupid bowl cut that could only work on him, and think back to that night I saw a new side of this… perfection. Or did I imagine it all? Did any of that really happen? Am I… Am I…

I…

I…

I need to get out.

I need to get away.

And…

And…

And my body doesn’t move.

I’m screaming, but I have no mouth. No control.

I…

I…

I stay. I stay. I stay.

The day drags on, pulling me with it, whether I want it not.

And I stare at Souji, trying to reach him, to touch him, to make him face me, to acknowledge that I am here.

But my hand doesn’t move.

And I stay.

 


 

I’m still here.

I want to run, but I’m still here.

Beside me two girls are standing, but not talking. Two other guys by the windows, just standing. I’m here, just standing.

Souji approaches, the only one moving.

Talk to me! I need you to talk to me!

Please…

“If you have some free time...wanna fight again? Just kidding! We don't have to do that anymore. You're still my best friend.”

Not my words.

Not my mouth.

He leaves.

And I’m still here.

Still standing.

I’m crumbling.

 


 

 

It’s all a daze, the whole bike ride. As soon as I regained control, I rush out, get my bike and just pedal away.

All the way to the edge of town. I can’t really tell what made me come here, other than answers . And to prove myself that I’m wrong and that everythings fine. That I’m… I’m...

I leave my bike behind, continuing on the road by foot. Not a car insight. Alone. I continue alone.

Step by step, little by little.

What am I even doing? Why am I here?

I’m crumbling, falling apart, to pieces.

But I continue.

Step by step, little by little.

Until.

Stop.

I am in control, and I bump into something with a loud bang. Can’t go on. There’s something in my way. My hands bang against something .

An invisible wall.

Like in a…

No.

No no no no no.

No no no no no no no no.

No.

I’m real. This is all real. This is all in my head.

I’m not…

This is not…

This wasn’t supposed to be just a game.

I crumble. I fall apart, to pieces.

But can anything that doesn’t exist actually be broken?



Chapter Text

Days go by in a haze, and my mind is blank, my brains are mush. And every now and then a voice inside my head:

I’m not real.

 


 

 

Naoto gets better. It’s a good thing, whether or not any of this is really happening, she’ll be an asset. With a brain like that you’d think she’d be able to figure out this mystery in a blink of an eye. And she really is quite clever; comes up with the idea of taking Teddie to a doctor to see if they can find out what he is, and have the whole team examined, just in case.

But then you realize that all of this is just a part of the story… Is Naoto as clever and mature because that’s who she is, or because that’s what the story needs her to be? Is Teddie a big mystery to us so that we can slowly learn more about the TV World, or because we needed a convenient character who’s experienced with the Shadow world? And… am I really Souji’s best friend and partner, or here just to be… the comic relief to make him look good?

Oh man, I really shouldn’t be thinking about these things, this all makes my head spin. So I do what I do best: ignore everything .

It doesn’t go well.

The doctors don’t find anything wrong with us, but they don’t find out anything about Teddie either, so the question is, did we learn anything new? No, no we didn’t.

“Ooooh… First place in the "shortest legs division" is… Huh, who woulda guessed!?”

“I-It's not me, is it!? Hey, what kinda things did they examine, anyway!? Look… If you're gonna blab it all… You might as well tell us the girls' measurements!”

But no one seems too bothered with that, and just start talking about the girls and their measurements, which okay..? Didn’t we just find out that Teddie can mysteriously distort all this medical equipment, but nooo , let’s talk about legs and boobs, whate-

Wait.

Did I just say that?

“WHAT!? Are you a complete and utter moron!?” Chie smacks me on the back of my head and crosses her arms staring at me with fire in her eyes. Ow, how is it possible that the element of Tomoe is ice? I give her an apologetic look, but she turns her back to me, ignoring me and facing the flustered Yukiko.

Ugh, I totally deserved that, even though that wasn’t even me saying that.

This was all pointless, and we leave the hospital and split up everyone heading to their homes.

“You stayed behind with Souji, what was all that about?” I ask Teddie once it’s just the two of us. He goes uncharacteristically quiet and looks up to the cloudy sky with a sigh.

“I was just disappointed that we didn’t find out anything about me,” he smiles sadly. It’s weird to see someone like Teddie like this, all solemn and uncertain. Not really sure what to say or do, I just pat him on the back and smile.

“We’ll find out together,” I tell him, attempting with all my might to make him feel at least a little better. And I guess I did something right, because Teddie starts laughing and hopping around like little kid. I don’t have the heart to make him stop.

“Sensei said the same thing!”

“Huh?”

“Sensei told me that we’ll find out. Together!” Teddie beams hopping around.

“He did?”

“Yosuke, were you not listening? I just told you!” Teddie whines exaggeratedly. I scoff scratching my head and give the kid a light push.

“You know what I mean, stupid bear. And no one likes a smartass!”

“Well, you’d know...” Teddie smirks and okay, that’s it.

“Why you little - When we get home, the first thing I do is to make gloves out of your fur!”

“Not if I get home first and hide my fur away!” Teddie laughs and sprints away. A deep sigh leaves my lips, but I can’t help but smile.

Even if this all might not be real, when it comes to moments like these, I really don’t care. Even without tangible memories, moments like these make me feel human. Even moments like these, when I’m just bickering with a friend, makes me question how any of this couldn’t be real?

 


 

 

Even when one is questioning their own existence, you still have to study. Also, no matter how much I try to ignore them, midterms are still coming up this week.

… But if none of this is real, is my fate in the midterms already set in stone? Like, no matter how much I might study I’ll never be able to do any better than what the story demands? I could study my pretty ass of and still fail?

Or am I just coming up with excuses so I don’t have to study?

Nah, I’m pretty sure it’s the first one.

But when Chie tells me about a possible study group after school, I agree without even thinking. Is that because that’s what I wanted to say or because that’s what I had to say? Ugh, all this philosophy mumbo jumbo is making my head hurt! Maybe I should just try to go with the flow? Just let the show go on? Ignore everything?

No, I really need to talk to someone. Someone, someone, someone…

And my gaze wanders on Souji’s neck, his shoulders, his silver hair.

You need to tell him! I know, I know… No, you need to tell him everything. Everything? What?

No, I’m not making myself blush!

I bury my face in my arms, laying my head down on my desk. Shut up, brain, I’m not listening. What is Ms. Sofue lecturing about? French Dynasty. Yeah, I’ll much rather listen to that than my own brain right now.

 


 

“Tell me, what is the earliest memory you can call to mind?” Naoto asks Teddie after we all pretty much give up on studying. She obviously sees Teddie as this big interesting mystery, you can see her brows arching up and knitting together in the rhythm of her thoughts, her train of thought clearly visible, even though I can’t even start to understand what goes on under that hat of hers.

And at the same time, I totally recognize her thought process, that face, because it used to be me making that face. It used to me with that frown, hand under chin, every thought visible on my face. And I’m not saying I’m not thankful for her presence, she’s awesome in my books, like that overly cool little sister you just want to tease, to see her for once let her guard down, to see that humanity that she tries to hide under a mask.

“It's from a while ago. I've always lived there, as far as I could tell. Then it started to get noisy, so when I happened to bump into Sensei and Yosuke, I asked them to do something about it…” Teddie answers Naoto after a moment of pause. And she nods to herself, closing her eyes, clearly deep in thought.

Okay, so she’s definitely better at this than me.

“I see… If you've always been on that side, you'd have no sense of time or days…”

But with Nanako there, staring at us all in total confusion, Naoto never gets to finish her thought, before Teddie convinces Nanako that he’s a king of a faraway land, and we decide that it’s better if we take a break to get some drinks.

But with the previous conversation still looming on everyone’s mind, you can see that no one can truly concentrate. And so, one by one, we all give up on studying: first Kanji, then Chie and me. Even Souji closes his books, which surprises everyone, but I’m even more surprised to see how Souji’s face has gone totally white, like he’s seen a ghost or one of those giant Shadows. And no one else seems to notice.

“You okay, partner?”

“Partner?”

"... Souji..?"

...

And the story continues.

And after an hour of everyone trying to pretend to study, we decided that enough is enough, and if we fail at least we fail… Well, not together because let’s face it, some of us will pass the midterms no matter what, not naming any names, while the rest of us have to struggle.

After everyone else have left and just me, Teddie, Nanako and Souji still linger, and Souji’s still so clearly not himself, I nudge Teddie to get his attention.

“Ted, you should take Nanako-chan home, okay? I’ll need to talk with Souji.”

Souji turns to face me, shocked, but slowly a small smile forms on his thin lips. Nanako just beams, skipping and dancing with Teddie.

“Can I go with Teddie, big bro?” she asks a huge smile on her face, and not even the sun can compete with a face like that.

But Souji just sighs.

“I’m sorry, but I’m feeling really tired and I would love to just get home.”

“But… I really need to talk to you,” I say, and my voice is small and I’m not sure how to react. Souji doesn’t usually tell me no.

“I’m really sorry, but it’s late and me and Nanako should get home,” Souji answers, and I can see that he’s clearly tired. I should… I should let him go.

“Let’s go Nanako,” he tells her, and you can see Nanako’s smile slowly vanish but she doesn’t say anything.

“Bye, Yosuke! Bye, king Teddie!” Nanako waves at us, making her way to the elevators.

“I'll see you later,” Souji smiles, but it’s a weary smile, and I… I…

I grab Souji’s wrist before he has time to leave, pulling him back, pulling him closer . And for a moment, only one thought in my mind, no other, a moment of levity, of purpose:

“Are you okay, partner?”

And his mouth falls open, not sure if to answer or because he doesn’t know what to say. Maybe a little bit of both. That’s how I’m feeling right about now. What the hell am I doing?

No, I know what I’m doing. I’m being the best goddamned best friend, like I’m meant to be.

“I’m… I’m fine,” Souji answer, and even though he’s usually so hard to read, it’s pretty obvious that he’s lying. And… I’m supposed to be your best friend. What does it say about me, if Souji doesn’t feel safe to tell me something? Did I… Did I screw something up by going through the door? By pursuing the truth? Tell me, partner, what did I do?

I feel Souji pulling his hand away from me.

I feel him leaving, I hear the elevator doors closing.

Teddie’s hand is heavy on my shoulder.

I don’t know what to say, and neither does Teddie. So we just stand there for a while, in complete silence, letting all those other people just pass us by.

When did I close my eyes?

 


 

Today has been hard. I’m still stuck on what happened yesterday, not being able to process it all, feeling like there’s too many thoughts in my head at the same time.

After classes have ended I decide to stop by the library, getting a book that Yukiko recommended I would try to study for English, because she thinks listening to Nickelback isn’t enough (I beg to differ!). I bump into the shy student (does she even have a name!?) and ask how she’s doing. She smiles, hiding her face in her hands, and tells about how she’s gathering her courage to go and talk to her senpai.

“We’ve talked before, but I still feel nervous every time. Almost like my head is telling me I’m not worthy to be talking with them. And it makes me question if we’re even really friends and...” she blushes, trying to hide behind her hair, “I-I’m sorry Yosuke-kun. You probably don’t want to hear me babbling on and on about my problems.”

“Nah, it’s okay. If talking these things through helps you, be my guest,” I assure her and she straightens her posture, looking all the more confident already.

“And if you’re conflicted about you guys’ status, you just got to talk these things through. Especially if… Well, especially if this senpai of yours is, y’know, special to you,” I tell her with an encouraging smile on my face. And she perks up, looking at me straight to my eyes, and did I say something wrong?

“Thank you, Yosuke-kun,” she smiles, bows politely and gives me a small laugh and continues, “You really know what you’re talking about. She’s a very lucky girl.”

“Yeah...” and my mind goes blank. Girl? I really wasn’t thinking about any particular girl … No, I was thinking of…

And that’s when I see Souji exiting our classroom, looking even more dead than yesterday. The hell of it, I need to make him talk and tell me what is wrong with him! I know it’s only been one day, but ever since I went through the door, I’ve got the feeling that this story we’re living in is coming to an end very soon, we’re so close, we can catch the culprit, we can make an end of this, so that no one else has to die like Saki-senpai… Real or not, the end is near.

I wave my goodbyes to the shy student, making a mental note that I’ll remember to get the book later, and… I’m faced with a invisible wall.

No! I won’t let an invisible wall keep me from my partner! Last time I might’ve been too distraught to do anything, I was breaking down, falling apart, but this time, right now, I’ve got determination, a purpose. This is my decision, and the word better comply with me, bend to my will, because I’m going through no matter what, these walls won’t keep me anymore, this world can’t imprison me, because I’m breaking free.

And I run after Souji, crashing through walls that only I could feel, white noise blowing through my head, trying to force me to stop, to fall on my knees, to break. And I ignore it all, because Souji needs me, and I was meant to be - born to be - his best friend, his partner, and this world will not keep me from my duty.

So I run and run, the walls slowing me down with every impact, and no one seems to notice.

So I run and run, through the halls and through the door, and there he is.

Souji.

So I run and run, I grab his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks, he turns to face me, surprise visible on his pale face, dark circles surrounding his grey eyes, his brows high, hiding behind his bangs, his mouth opening as if to say something.

And I bring him into a hug, a soft embrace, my arms wrapping around his torso, clinging to his jacket, and I won’t let go until you hug me back, you idiot!

And Souji lets out a soft gasp, barely audible if his mouth wasn’t right next to my ear, because I buried my face against his shoulder, and I breath him in and hold my breath, not wanting to break the moment.

One.

Two.

Three.

And I can feel Souji’s trembling hands gripping the back of my jacket, lowering his head so that his face rests against my neck, his whole body shaking, and… is he crying?

I tighten my hands around him, so there’s no space between us and just hold him. Hold him, hold him, hold him for what feels like years, and I’m okay with that. Souji’s always been there for me. Now it’s my turn to be here for him.

This is where I’m supposed to be.

No.

This is where I want to be.

Minutes go by, and I don’t know if there’s people staring at us and I don’t care. Slowly but steadily Souji calms down, he’s no longer shaking like an autumn leaf. And even after he’s calmed down, he stays there for a couple more moments, just breathing.

“Thank you,” Souji whispers against my collarbones, sending shivers down my spine, rising a blush on my cheeks, but I try not to think about it, because this is about Souji and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need me feeling all these confusing feelings right now. Souji slides his hands down my back, letting them fall beside him, and I unwrap my hands, letting Souji gain his posture, straightening his school uniform. He does that hair flip that makes all the girls knees go weak (I’m not commenting on the accuracy of that claim) and turns his gaze to me and nods, “Thank you.”

I shrug, trying to seem all cool, but Souji probably sees right through me.

“You’re very welcome, partner.”

It seems like no one has noticed what just went down, which first of all, is weird, because we’re in the middle of school yard, but maybe they just ignored it all… But that’s when I notice it. The world had stopped, like somebody just pushed the pause button and freezed time, and now everyone starts to come back to life.

Did… Did they stop because of Souji..?

It seems like Souji’s noticed too the students coming back to life, based on the distraught on his face, something like… fear? … visible in his eyes.

My hand on his shoulder, I fix my gaze on Souji, forcing him to look at me, ignoring the other students.

“We need to talk,” I say, gripping onto his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze, trying to signal Souji that everything’s fine. I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince more: Souji or myself. Souji answers with a small nod and follows me, leaving the school behind us.

 


 

 

Somehow we always end up at the riverbank and it's overlook. Maybe it’s because Inaba is such a small town that there really is no other place to hang out, maybe it’s because this place has special meaning to us as friends. So much has gone down right here.

The place is deserted, so we sit down on the grass, because it’s been sunny these past few days and the ground is still warm and dry, even in October. While I pick the grass, trying to come up with the words to start trying to explain this all, Souji sits still next to me, his eyes glued up on the sky. I bite my lower lip, but my mind is blank, no trace of the white noise, no other weird voices in my head, just silence and -

Souji’s silhouette looks so perfect against the backdrop of Inaba.

“So… You wanted to talk?”

Crap, how long have I been staring? I avert Souji’s gaze, focusing my eyes on my shoes. And no, I’m definitely not blushing! Don’t know where you would get that idea...

“Ah, yes, I...”

I don’t know where to start. This whole time I only had one question on my mind.

“Are you okay?” I ask, bravely facing Souji. And he seems quite taken aback by the question, as if he didn’t know that was all I had on my mind. Well, beside the fact that Souji looks -

No, not right now.

“I’m… I’m fi-”

“And don’t even try to tell me that you’re fine. I might not be as insightful as you, but I know when you’re not fine.”

“How can you be so sure?” Souji asks and there’s defiance in his voice, confrontation, like he needs to hear me backing up my claims, like really needs to hear, needs to know  how .

“I’m not blind and you’re not that hard to read. And I can feel it. Feel it right in my bones.”

“Feel it?”

“Y’know, the way you feel when you know that something’s wrong.”

“No, I don’t know.”

And now it’s my time feel taken aback. There’s desperation in Souji’s voice that hasn’t been there before, ever.

And Souji’s shaking again, and I don’t know what to say or do. So I just grab his hand, and just hold it. Souji almost looks like he’s about to pull his hand back, but relaxes to the touch and laces his fingers with mine.

I… I wasn’t quite ready for that , but as I cough to hide the forming blush and trying to gather my thoughts, even while my brain is turning into jello.

“No, but I know that you’re not fine. And… I hope you know you can tell me anything. Anything ,” I sigh. Why’s my words turning into mush right now, of all times? Now when Souji clearly requires encouragement with whatever he’s going through, needs to know that everything will get better.

Souji lets go of my hand, raising his knees under his chin and wrapping his arms around his legs.

“I’m… not sure if I’m really me .”

“Huh?”

Souji’s words take me by surprise. … How long has he felt like this? An why didn't I realize?

“I-I know it sound crazy and like something to do with Shadows and maybe it does, but it feels like it doesn’t, and I’m not even quite sure what I mean by that but… but… I just something’s not right with me. I’m not right.”

I’ve never seen him like that. Souji, our level-headed fearless leader, with a strategy against any Shadow, who keeps his cool in any situation, with an answer to any question or problem. Was that the real Souji or something else..?

“No no, I... I actually know exactly what you’re talking about. Because I feel the same.”

Souji’s eyes go wide, his mouth dropping open, not sure what to say. So I continue:

“I guess it all started when Teddie mentioned that he has amnesia, and I realized that -”

“You couldn’t remember anything before April?”

“Yes!”

We both go quiet. What can you really say? Other than…

“And there’s more,” I start, and Souji turns his piercing eyes to me, and his gaze doesn’t let go. I cough once, twice, trying to come up with words trying to explain this all.

“One evening I followed a cat -”

“You followed a cat?”

“Well, yeah, I wanted to take a picture of it, y’know, for you.”

(A small smile on Souji’s face.)

“Either way, I followed it and ended up in the middle of nowhere, except it wasn’t really in the middle of nowhere, because there was this building, like factory building. And I went inside, but was overcame with a headache so I had to leave. But later, I returned. And the building was full of rooms, and through their doors was leaking fog. And when I put my glasses on, they worked as well as on the other side. And so I explored, went to the doors and... ”

“You stepped in?”

I nod, because there really is no words how to describe it all.

“This happened when you seemed to disappear? When we looked after you?”

I nod again, all those emotions from that night coming back, something forming in my throat, keeping me from talking.

“I was so scared that something had happened to you. And I was right.”

I keep nodding, shame shutting my mouth.

“And for a second I thought I’d lost you.”

“I’m sorry,” I try to tell Souji, but my voice is hoarse and barely legible, so I end up just swallowing nervously.

“You better be,” and after that I can’t face Souji anymore. This might not be the end, but it sure as hell feels like one. End of an era. “Telling me to just open up and pour out all my problems and feelings, when you keep something this huge from me.”

“I didn’t know how to tell you all this. I - Even I’m not quite sure what this all means. And...”

“And?”

“That’s not all. When I went through, something… Something awoke inside me. Or opened my eyes. Like I could see this world for what it really is.”

“Really is?”

“Yeah, um. This, um, this all. It might not be real.”

Souji blinks twice, his face turning even more pale than yesterday.

“I’m… not real?”

“Tha-that’s just my theory. And I-I’m probably all wrong, y’know, not the sharpest tool and so on and so forth...”

“No. You’re… You’re right. I’m not real. That’s why I don’t feel right. Because I’m nothing.”

Souji’s words make me wince. Don’t say that. You’re not nothing to me.

“I’m… not me.”

And for a second I fear that a terrible Shadow version of Souji is going to appear, but nothing happens. Because that wouldn’t be part of the story.

“I...” Souji continues, “I tried to contact my parents yesterday, but couldn’t because I had no recollection of them, other than I have parents. And then I tried to remember where I’m from, but all that came to my mind was "from a city." And the more I tried to bring back memories… Yosuke, all I could remember was sitting on a train, on my way to Inaba. Like that’s where my existence begins, and everything else is just things that I know but… have no real connection to.”

There’s… There’s really nothing you can say to that. So I stay silent.

“One evening Nanako asked me, if I had any siblings. And I didn’t know how to answer, but… It was like a voice in my head made that decision for me. And now I don’t have any siblings. No family.”

“You have Nanako-chan and Dojima-san.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. Because I think… I think we’re all here for you.

Silence. Then:

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that this is all a story and you’re the main character.”

And Souji’s piercing silver eyes go dead, his face goes blank, and for a second I fear that I did something wrong, that Souji will cease to exist or something, that he’ll just disappear on me and it’ll truly be the end.

But it makes too much sense for Souji to be the main protagonist of this… story, movie, game, whatever. Would explain his feelings of not feeling like himself, explain how it feels like there’s more than one Souji. Because maybe there is. There’s the Souji who’s the main character, the protagonist, the saviour and the leader of this story, who’s whatever and anything he needs to be, the avatar for anyone to see themselves in, to feel like they’re in Souji’s shoes. And then there’s this Souji. This fragile and human boy with the weight of the story - the world - on his shoulders, who’s not sure of his own autonomy, questioning if any of his actions or feelings were truly his or someone else’s, having to deal with the reality of that for the rest of however far this story will take us.

All because of me.

I did this. I did this to him. This is why I didn’t want to tell you. Did you hear? This is why I didn’t want to tell you! I wasn’t ready to see your face go cold, cool, emotionless, dead. I wanted you to stay as you were for a moment longer, to keep you like that. Because I know what truth does to you: it breaks you, kills you slowly.

“That’s why I’m a blank page.”

“Huh?”

“A blank page. A vessel for anyone to identify with, to put themselves in my place.”

“Huh?”

A sad smile forms on Souji’s face.

“If everyone’s here for me, then I’m here for them .”

“To who?”

“Whoever’s watching, playing, reading. I’m their point of view, I’m whatever they want me to be.”

And I get what Souji means. Yes, my functions might be to be Souji’s best friend, team lieutenant, comic relief and the group annoyance, (which let’s face it, is all true, right?) but Souji. Souji’s theirs . He will never be fully himself. Because his only function is to be them.

Suddenly, tears forming and running down my face.

This is all my fault. I should've just ignored this all, because ignorance is a bliss and truth will only hurt. Could I… Could I just go back in time, reload a previous save and never enter that cursed building, start from the beginning, get everything right this time.

Suddenly, a hand on mine. I dry my tears in the sleeve of my uniform jacket.

“Thank you, Yosuke. For telling me. For letting me speak. And I apologize for blowing you off yesterday and my previous hasty words, I… I let my emotions overtake me.”

I try to blink, to focus on the setting sun behind us, but Souji has his eyes on mine and I don’t want to look away, never miss a thing.

“Partner, you’re always telling me I apologize too much, so let me tell you: I kinda deserved that. I shouldn’t have kept this from you, but I just didn’t know how to tell you. This all doesn’t still make a whole lot of sense to me, but it feels good to have this all in the open now,” I shrug, my hand still in Souji’s.

Is… Is this the real Souji?

“That’s what I want to apologize, because I get it. I can’t even begin to imagine what it felt like to go through all that.”

“Horrible? Terrifying? Something I wouldn’t wish even on my greatest enemies?”

Worry overtakes Souji and he squeezes my hand gently, so I hurriedly add: “But I survived, didn’t I? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that, right?”

“I just wish I could’ve helped.”

“You did. The night when you came to make sure I was alright,” I smile reassuringly and Souji sighs happily and nods, letting go of my hand. My hand still warm, I bring it up to rub my neck. “By the way, ever since that night… I dunno, I’ve just been wondering… Where did you vanish?”

Please don’t see how nervous I am, please don’t see how nervous I am, please don’t see how nervous I am…

“I… don’t remember. I came to see you, you fell asleep in my arms,” (oh, you just had to remind me) “I carried you to your own bed," (oh fucking hell, let the world swallow me right now) "and… I don’t know what went through my mind, but I guess I felt like making sure that you were really there and all fine, I…" (guess I'm not the only one awkward as hell in here) "I decided to stay the night. And then I just woke up in my own bed. I have no memory of going back home or anything like that, I just ended up there.”

“... Kinda like after I went through, I ended up in my own bed...”

“You did? Then maybe our beds act like some kind of anchor? Like if we end up outbounds, or somewhere we shouldn’t, we’re forced to return home? Back in our beds?”

“As a punishment?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s more like respawning in those games we play, snapping us back to our tracks?”

“Because story demands you sleep in your own bed and not mine?” I ask before even registering what the hell I’m even asking. Curse my foot-in-mouth disease! “N-not that you shouldn’t sleep in your own bed, of course!”

But Souji doesn’t laugh, just smiles, and… am I not the only one blushing furiously?

“I know what you mean, Yosuke. And I think you’re on the right track. There’s so much we still don’t know and it’s not guaranteed that we’ll ever be able to truly understand what’s going on, but I’m willing to try, if you’re with me.”

Can’t help but laugh at that, shrugging all nonchalantly.

“Was that in question? Of course I’m with you! ‘Till the end!”

We fist bump, ending it with an explosion and laughter. It’s way too late to be sitting outside, the red sky trying to tell us to get home. I check my phone; dozens of calls from Dad, even a couple texts from Mom.

“We should probably get home,” I exhale with a deep sigh, getting on my feet. Really not feeling like going home, to be honest.

“You’re right,” Souji nods, and I help him up, like so many times before in the TV World during battle. But Souji’s gaze seems fixed on the view of Inaba. “Do you remember when you brought me here? When you told you we’re starting to understand what it means to be special to someone?”

“Hah, of course I remember, but why are you bringing up something so embarrassing?” I laugh nervously. Seriously, after the long talk we just had, I don’t think my head - or heart - can take anything more.

“Why was it embarrassing?”

“We-well, because we’re guys, and blabbing about feelings is embarrassing to us.”

“Oh. Then nothing.”

“No, no, just say what’s on your mind.”

And Souji turns to face me, the widest smile I’ve ever seen on his face.

“I couldn’t tell you then, I could only agree with you, but I just want you to know, that you’re special. To me.”

And my heart doesn’t just skip a beat, no, it probably stops altogether, wipes my mind, turns my knees weak. I can feel the words die in my throat, being swallowed, never to be heard.

“Thanks,” I manage to answer, clearing my throat, looking for more to say, but finding nothing.

“Hey, I’ll walk you home,” Souji smiles and he’s already halfway down the small hill when I finally get a grip of myself.

One day I’m going to make sense of these emotions, but for now… For now I can just find solace in the happiest smile I’ve ever seen grace anyone’s face.

No, it’s me who’s lucky.

 

Chapter Text

 

Later the same evening Souji calls me. At first it’s kinda weird, it’s usually - well, always - me who calls him on rainy nights, and now it’s neither rainy or midnight.

“Yo, what’s up?” I answer the call, sitting down on my bed. I had been in the middle of packing my things for tomorrow’s school day (don’t forget to go and get the book from the library, I still have time to, I don’t know, glance it through?) and waiting for Teddie to get out of the bathroom (I swear, he spends more time in front of a mirror than me or anyone I know!) but this is more important.

“Hey,” Souji breathes, his voice making my brows knit in concern, forming a frown on my face. And he breathes in, a deep breath, probably trying to clear his thoughts, figuring out what to say. It’s hard to tell, with the whole not seeing his face or what not. Even though not seeing one’s face can make some things easier (like asking either Chie or Yukiko is Souji’s type, and after a long silence you said neither, like are you crazy or what!?), right now I find myself wishing I’d be right there with you.

“What do we do now?” Souji finally asks.

Ain’t that the ten million yen question?

He had walked me all the way home in total silence, and after all that had happened, after everything we’d talked about, I’d let him walk in peace, obviously so deep in his own thoughts, gathering them, trying to make sense of something I’m not sure can be made sense of. But that’s who he is .

Or maybe the question had been on his mind ever since our conversation, during our walk, when he waved his goodbyes to me, only now managing to gather his courage to finally ask the question out-loud. Because saying it out-loud means you acknowledge this all, all this craziness, making it real, something you might not be able to reason. And everyone knows Souji is all about reason. But the question, which must be plaguing Souji’s mind too, is whether it’s the real Souji who’s like that or… if it’s them .

For the longest while I don’t answer Souji. I have only one answer to give him, and I know he won’t like it, but… Aww, hell, I’m tired of lying.

“I don’t know.”

It’s not the answer Souji wants to hear, I know, but it’s the only answer I’ve got. Things like these are usually Souji’s expertise.

“We have midterms coming up and later the Culture Festival. Story-wise I’d say we’re on the clear for now but...” and for a moment Souji sounds like the perfect leader he is, confidence in his voice, seeing the evidence in front of him, putting it all together, deducing what’s going on, but it soon trails away, gets trembled under doubt. He’s so used to getting the last word, having all the answers. This situation must feel just as foreign to him as to me.

Uh, no. No. It must be even worse for him. I - I can’t even begin to think how Souji must be feeling.

Crap.

But before I have time to fall into despair, Souji interrupts my train of thought.

“I want to know if there’s anything we can do.”

“Do what?”

Anything .”

There’s desperation in his voice I’ve never heard. Emotion. He so clearly craves for answer - and hell, so do I - but…

Why am I not with you right now!?

“I want to know I’ve tried my all. I… I don’t know what it it I feel I must do, but… I need to know if I can make myself - us - real.”

“... Like waking up from a simulation?”

A breathy laugh.

“We know this isn’t quite a simulation, now is it?”

A small pause. Inhale.

“You said it yourself: we’re nothing but characters in a story.”

Pang , my heart hurts.

“So… I know it might be foolish to wish oneself to be real...”

A fool? You? Never.

“But if there’s even a chance, a one percent chance that my wish upon a star could become true, I… I want to, I need to know I did my all.”

“You wished upon a star?”

And Souji laughs again, this time with a full belly laugh. I can’t stop the smile that creeps on my face, the slight blush that makes its way up to my ears.

“Figure of speech, but I guess something like that.”

Silence falls between us yet again, but it’s a less desperate silence and more calm. Because hearing the resolve in Souji’s voice… It fills me with determination . I rest my cell against my shoulder, leaning against my bedroom wall.

“We should explore this mysterious building. It might hold some answers,” Souji says, and I can hear him fidgeting with his phone, a rustle of papers, a pen scribbling down something.

“I agree, but...” and I almost leave it at that, not wanting to finish my sentence, the thought that’s creeping in the depths of my mind, but I told myself, no more lying, “Could you do it? Like, is it possible for you?”

“You mean if I can bring myself to actually go there? Or enter the building?” Souji asks with a deep sigh.

Crap, I shouldn’t have said anything.

“I don’t know but I’m willing to try. It seems that during the evening I’m… I feel more free, more in control right now. I am calling you, aren’t I?” and Souji lets out a small, sad laugh, and I can feel my heart clutch in pain.

“How - how are you holding up, partner?”

“Didn’t you already ask me that? Just a few hours ago?” and this time his laugh is a lot more heartfelt. Good.

“Ow, stop calling me out like that! I don’t deserve that!” I scoff.

“Well, I don’t deserve you.”

Um.

Uh.

Huh?

“It’s weird. Am I like those generic harem protagonist who everyone feels drawn to because they’re - I’m - the main character?”

I…

“Let’s not talk about this right now.”

“Sorry. Am I making you uncomfortable?”

And before I have time to think about my answer, my mouth moves on its own.

“No, it’s just… I’m not there to make you feel better.”

A loud bang and a sharp breath at the other side of the phone line.

“Whoa, dude, what happened?”

“I - I just hit my foot. I’m sitting on my couch and hit my table.”

“Ouch!”

“Nothing to worry about, but maybe it’s a sign that I should go. I need to get some ice.”

“Yeah, oh sure, you go do that. We’ll see tomorrow. Take care of yourself!”

“I’ll see you tomorrow! And Yosuke… Believe me, you’re truly helping.”

“I am?”

“Yes. Never question that.”

And I answer with such a small whisper, that Souji probably can’t even hear me: “Thank you.”

The bathroom door opens and closes down the hall, Teddie must be ready. Steps going downstairs. A few words exchanged. Had Mom and Dad been here when I came home?

“But yeah, you go and get some ice, would hate to be the reason why you broke your toe,” I smirk, but I’m not sure if that can be heard in my voice.

“Oh, as if a table could break my bones if no Shadow has managed to do that yet.”

“Oh I dunno, maybe your table happens to be one of those table whatever Shadows that followed you in it’s quest to break you down .”

“Maybe I should tell it then, that it will never break me. Maybe I’ll kill it with kindness.”

“Well, I’ll leave you hanging around with your new best friend and go to sleep myself.”

“You’re not jealous, are you?”

“Oh please, after actually fighting you? You wish!”

“Good thing that I now have my new best friend, Table-kun keeping me company, maybe I’ll be able to kick it’s butt.”

“With that broken toe? Probably. You can tell me more tomorrow. See ya, partner!”

“Goodnight, Yosuke.”

And just a few seconds after I shove my cell under my pillow, Teddie crashes through the door, still full of energy.

“Waah, who’re you talking with, Yosuke? You’re not keeping any juicy secrets from me?”

“Oh, shut up, you stupid bear, and go to bed!”

“Yosukeee-e, for once it should be you sleeping in the closet!”

“Yeah, no! You’re the guest in this house, and I’ll sleep in my own bed. Okay?”

Teddie pouts at me, but I stay stern, and soon he crawls up to his own bed.

“Goodnight, Ted,” I tell him as I leave the room, shutting the lights behind me. And I can’t help but chuckle a little bit.

 


 

 

The first days of the midterms pass by in what feels like an blink of an eye. Sunday is our day off, but of course we’ll spend that day studying. (And let’s not mention the fact that this was supposedly my idea.)

Chie and Yukiko are already here when I show up, Souji in tow, who I had bumped into at the elevators. I sit down on the still empty bench, sliding to the other end, letting my bag down, shutting off my music player.

“Hey-o, guys! How’re you feeling?” Chie chirps, rising her gaze from Yukiko’s notes (of course she’s stealing the best notes, or okay, second best, after Souji’s).

“Dead? Ready to give up on my academic career?” I answer as I flop on the table. Maybe I should get something to drink..?

“Thank you for your such positive contribution, I wasn’t feeling bad enough already. How about you?” Chie asks Souji, after pointedly sticking her tongue at me.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Souji says politely, sitting next to Yukiko and...right in front of me. And weirdly having Souji as a constant fixture in my horizon makes me ease up and relax.  Like maybe for a second things are really don’t seem that bad, like the exams are just non existent or somewhere far away. One can always hope.

“Souji-kun, what did you answer in the third question?”

“Yukiko, nooo! I won’t think about biology or any other subject we’ve already had our exams on today, on our day off, which someone thought was a good idea to spend on studying. I was supposed to go to Okina with Yukiko!” Chie cries, giving me and Souji the stink eye.

“Hey, it was his idea,” Souji chuckles while pointing at me.

“Way to throw me under the bus, partner.”

“I’m sorry Yosuke, but you know I can’t handle Chie’s wrath!”

“And I can?”

“Well, you have more experience of it.”

“Well well, doesn't us being partners mean that we’re supposed to share our load?”

“I guess you have a point,” Souji smiles and turns to Chie and Yukiko, “It was still totally Yosuke’s idea.”

“Oh, why do I even -”

And our whole table bursts into laughter. Into loud and wholesome laughter. The kind of laughter you love to share with your friends. The kind of laughter that forces you to close your eyes, lean your head back and hold your belly.

But I can feel eyes on me, and so I straighten myself, trying to calm down.

Because Souji’s looking at me, still laughing, his eyes so kind, but so piercing. He inhales deep, his eyes never leaving mine and parts his lips as if trying to figure out what to say next. And without thinking I lick my lower lip, letting my gaze flicker on Souji’s lips and…

Rise and Naoto arrive and sit down by our table, Rise letting out a groan.

“I didn’t even remember how horrible midterms could be!”

“Only midterms?” Naoto asks her, raising her left eyebrow.

“Anything to do with school usually, but right now? Midterms,” she sighs, lying down on the table, “But you guys seem to be having fun. Aren’t we supposed to be studying?”

Risette , are you implying that studying can be fun?” I ask her mock-shocked, and she only answers me with a deadpan stare. Naoto grabs her bag and takes out a stack of books and notes.

“Me and Rise-san might be one year behind you, but I’m sure we can still be of some use.”

“And at least we have you guys helping us out, right Senpai?” Rise chimes, hearts in her eyes while eyeing Souji.

Pang.

“I’m not sure how hopeful Yosuke will be, but I’m sure Souji and I will be able to help you in case you need any.”

Pang.

“Um, Yukiko, did you forget me for a second?”

Pang.

“Of course not, Chie! I just didn’t want to imply… anything.”

Is that what Souji meant? How everybody seems so drawn to him? Is it the same with Rise? Or does she genuinely like him? Same with the rest of the girls. Are they just here to… offer themselves as possible girlfriends to Souji? Just waiting for them to make their decision?

A tap on my hand.

“Are you okay?”

It’s Souji, but is is truly Souji ? Right now, right here, do I have you or just some extension, some self-insert of whoever?

“Uh yeah, totally fine. Just, deep in thought.”

“Oh, that’s always dangerous. Don’t forget to come up for air.”

And maybe it’s truly him, right now. Maybe this is my Souji. So I smile.

“Screw you, partner.”

“Not in public, but thank you,” Souji smirks, and I fake a groan, trying to hide my laugh, and Souji extends his hand to shake mine, “And Yosuke… No hard feelings. About throwing you under the bus.”

I grab his hand, shaking it firmly and matching his smirk.

“For now, but mark my words: I will get my revenge and it’ll be sweet.”

“Can’t wait for that!”

“Okay okay, time break up this bonding moment, we have studying to do!” Rise jumps up out of her seat pointing between Souji and me.

And so things settle down, everyone concentrating on their notes, occasional sighs and groans as the only noises leaving the table.

But then, my mouth’s moving on it’s own, yet again, like some many times before. But now it never stops being disconcerting.

“It's getting to be a custom for us to meet up like this.”

And it’s just downhill from there: Rise suggesting that me and Chie would make a good couple, which, first of all no thank you . Nothing against Chie, she’s a good friend, more like a sister to me, which is why I can’t really see her in a romantic way. Yes, she’s cute, but so are all the girls in our group of friends. But this makes me think that maybe this is something this story is trying to push on us? Y’know, those friends who can get on each others nerves like no one else, aren’t they usually supposed to end up together? Like maybe all that animosity was only them trying to suppress their feeling for each other? That in the end the things that pushes the others buttons, are the things they love about the other? And that they end up oh so in love, because guess that’s how the story is supposed to go.

But that’s not what I want.

And let’s face it, it’s probably not something what Chie wants either, based on how she looks at Souji when she thinks no one can see, just like every other girls in Inaba.

How do I know every other girl stares at Souji with heart-eyes when they think no one can see? Well, because nine out of ten times it happens when Souji’s talking with me .

Ever the third wheel.

“Hey, Senpai… Wouldn't Kanji and Naoto make a good couple?” Rise asks Souji, despite blushing Naoto’s desperate attempts to stop her. After a seconds of deliberation Souji answers:

“Yeah.”

“Come now, Souji-senpai,” Naoto sighs, trying to hide her face behind her book. And again, my mouth moves on it’s own.

“That's enough, guys… Let's get back to studying!” and I couldn’t agree more.

It promises to be an entertaining day, even though we probably won’t be getting real studying done.

 


 

The rest of the midterms pass by just as quickly as the first days, in a haze. But I suddenly wake up from that daze when during homeroom Souji tells me, Chie and Yukiko that he needs to see everybody during lunch. Kashiwagi has not yet arrived, so the four of us are still hanging around Souji’s desk, even though Chie and Yukiko seem more interested in gossiping and planning what they’re going to do after school.

I turn to face Souji, trying to get his attention without having all of our classmates notice. I raise my eyebrows, did something happen? and Souji’s mouth forms a thin line and he nods, we’ll talk about it later .

Kashiwagi enters the room and sits on her desk. Quickly taking my place behind Souji, I try to listen to Kashiwagi, but it’s hard to concentrate. Something’s definitely up.

During lunch we all follow Souji up to the roof. Kanji, Rise and Naoto are already waiting for us, Chie had texted them and told about our meeting. We take our usual place at the roof, forming our protective circle, making sure that no one’s eavesdropping on us. Souji seems more distressed than usual, so we’re all a little on the edge.

With good reason.

dont rescue anymore

After our meeting ends and it’s time for us to return to class, before Souji has time slip back inside, I tap him on the shoulder, pointing back to the roof with my thumb.

“This’ll take just a minute.”

And Souji nods, turns around and follows me.

“You were right. We need to check the factory, it might hold some clues,” I tell him, my voice firm.

“You think it might tell us who the killer is? Before we should even be able to find out?”

“I don’t know, partner, but it should tell us something, right? It’s gotta be the biggest puzzle piece in this mystery.”

“Or just a dead end,” Souji sighs, letting his posture falter. But I give him a slight bump on his shoulder.

“Hey, we didn’t pick you as our leader because of your pessimism!”

“Can’t really see any other reason. Or maybe because I'm an amazing strategist?”

“Nah, we have Rise now analyzing our enemies, no need for you.”

“Then maybe there really was no reason to pick me as our leader.”

And… this is not how pictured this conversation would go.

“I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought that up...”

“No, it’s okay, Yosuke, it’s just… Coming to terms with it is hard and… most of the time I don’t know what to do with the knowledge that… I’m not real,” and for a second Souji goes totally silent and still and then, “but we should go back to class.”

“Yeah,” I exhale.

Seriously, mental note: try to stop bringing this shit up, it’s obviously still hard for Souji, and you don’t want to be the reason Souji feels like shit, right, Yosuke? Of course not, and stop talking to and about yourself in the third person, thank you very much.

So I follow Souji back inside and down the stairs. Halfway through Souji stops, and informs me that he needs to use the toilet and that if anyone asks, I’m to tell them that he’ll be right back.

“Yeah, no problem, dude.”

A few minutes later, a clearly disheveled Souji enters the classroom, and it takes all my restraint not to jump at him, asking if he’s okay, if there’s anything I can do for him. But there’s always later, after school. But after classes are over, he vanishes with Rise.

I send him a couple texts, asking if everything’s okay, with all this craziness happening, but he doesn’t answer. I try to call, but nothing.

This… This feels scarily familiar. This has happened before. What feels like a whole lifetime ago.

Later that evening, I get a text.

Souji: Tomorrow evening. Okay?

He must be talking about checking out the mystery building. Yeah, of course. Yeah, that must be it.

And for a second I’m so close to calling him, demanding some sort of answer for what the hell happened today, like holy shit, don’t go giving me a heart attack, but. But but but. After a long internal debate, I decide not to do anything foolish and lash out. Because whatever Souji’s clearly going through right now, he’ll open up about it when he’s ready. And when that time comes, it’s my turn to shut the hell up and just listen, like Souji’s done with me so many times before.

Yosuke: yea OK. im w/ u

It’s all I answer and Souji doesn’t send anything back. And that’s fine. He knows that I’m here, and that’s enough for now.

 


 

Sooo… I guess group date café is a thing now? Supposedly it was all my idea, but I can’t remember ever coming up with something like that. Not that I didn’t actually vote for that, my idea or not, because… Well… Hey, real or not, I would like to have at least one date under my belt! Maybe I’ll upgrade myself from the loser comic relief best friend to just comic relief best friend. Also, all the other options were way too boring, this’ll spice things up! Hey, even Yukiko voted for it and she’s a smart girl.

But right now my brain is too distracted to think about the Culture Festival, because according to a knowable student by the window, Souji was seen hugging Rise yesterday after school, and they’re apparently… dating?

Pang.

“Quit pulling my leg!”

Pang.

“I’m not! I swear, my friend saw them! At the shopping district!”

Pang.

“An idol and the golden boy of Inaba. Too predictable.”

Pang. Pang. Pang.

I stand up and rush out of the classroom, straight to the boy’s bathrooms. I enter the stall on the far side of the bathrooms and lock the door behind me, sitting down on the toilet and lifting my feet on the toilet lid.

And I know I’m probably overreacting and that it was all gossip and that I should probably confirm things with Souji or Rise and that even if it’s all true I should be happy for my friends and yes it’s true that they’re pretty much perfect for each other and them being together makes so much sense and holy shit they both deserve to be happy and I’m Souji’s best friend and of course I’ll always have his back and I will forever support him no matter what and I hope you guys will be happy and and and and and…

And my heart feels like it’s bursting, but not of happiness, oh no no no. And I know what this feeling is, this ugly feeling that’s festering inside me, seeding, growing, making my face go green. It’s not an unusual feeling, I’ve felt this before, but but but but…

I confronted these feelings. Because I felt that something I needed to do to become stronger. And I did. I became so much stronger. It’s how I acquired Susa-no-O, my flaming Persona of powerful winds and storms. Susa-no-O, a true superhero, who took all that ugliness in me and made it something good, something worthwhile, making me something . Still figuring out what that something is, but…

But that doesn’t matter, not anymore, I know the truth, but what I mean is that I’ve dealt with this feeling before. This disease that’s spreading through me, making me feel things. But last time it was easy. It was something I could talk through, we talked things through.

And I guess you’d think we should be able to talk things through this time too, but it’s a little bit hard when I can’t even seem begin to understand all of this .

My breath’s trembling and my head’s spinning a million miles per hour. Last time I felt like this I was forced to face my own Shadow or when I couldn’t leave the classroom, glued to place. And back then, both times, I had wished I would never feel that way again.

And no matter how many times I tell myself I’m overreacting and being foolish, because is there a reason why I’m feeling like this? Nope, right? Right? Right?

Why are you not agreeing with me, me? Because I’ve noticed the thoughts you’ve tried to fill my head with, and no no no , don’t even go there. I’ve given so much crap to Kanji over things like that, and even though now I really regret all my hasty and hateful words, or I should as hell regret them, right, right? And I’m not sure if I’m ready to be an awful hypocrite. Also, that could never be my role in this story, right?

Don’t even go there, brain, that will never happen, especially now. So for now, I’ll take a deep breath, calm the hell down, swallow down all these feelings and thoughts and continue with my day like none of this ever happened. That’s easy.

What won’t be easy, is that I’m supposed to see Souji tonight.

 


 

Souji: Come by my place at 8 pm.

I was so close of texting him about the gossip of him and Rise, but I decided against it and replied only with an OK.

It’s now 8 pm, and I’m waiting for Souji to sneak outside. It had started raining a couple hours ago, but because I’m cycling, (and last time I tried the combination of bicycle and umbrella it didn’t go that well) I left my umbrella at home. So yeah, I’m soaking wet.

The front door creaks open and Souji steps through. Good thing he has his umbrella with him.

“Are you trying to kill me yet again with that death trap?” Souji chuckles when he sees my bike.

“Well, you know the saying: if you fail once, you must try and try and try again. Besides, it’s raining and I thought this’ll let us be swift and quick.”

“Huh, good thinking!”

Souji hops on behind me, shielding us both with his umbrella, wrapping his arm around my waist, and NO BRAIN, NOT DEALING WITH YOUR SHIT!

That begs the question… Should I try to confirm these rumors or no? Probably not, I really don’t want us to end up in a ditch or trash can.

We end up spending the whole way in silence. Souji’s most likely trying to predict what waits him, and me… I’m just really trying to keep myself from blabbing. Also, with Souji so close it’s… a little hard to concentrate, even when I’m trying to suppress all these crazy thoughts my brain still keeps feeding me.

So yeah, it’s just easier to stay quiet.

“We’re here,” I announce after almost a half hour of pedaling. The building is right in front of us, and my legs are on fire. Souji hops off, leaving my body cold in this darn rain, and runs off to the metal door.

“This is it?” he asks, carefully touching the door, as if making sure that it’s real. I lay my bike down and join Souji.

“Yeah, this is it.”

“It looks so… inconspicuous.”

“Maybe that’s the point?” I shrug, and Souji nods. With a sharp inhale and a determined face, Souji opens the door.

“You ready?” I ask, patting him on the shoulder.

“It’s now or never,” he sighs. I let him enter by himself, giving him the space he needs, letting all this to sink in.

But the door smashes shut a little too abruptly after him.

“Yo, dude, you okay?”

No answer.

“Um, partner?”

Silence.

“Souji!?”

My cell beeps. I ignore it. It starts ringing. I ignore it. It continues to ring. I ignore it. And it rings, it rings, it rings.

“A little busy right now,” I breath angrily through the phone.

“I - You were right. I couldn’t do it.”

And Souji’s voice is so small on the other side.

“Whe-where are you?”

“I… I woke up on my futon. At Dojima’s.”

“Just like me...”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t even enter the building.”

“I know...”

I really have nothing to say. I wish… I wish…

“I wish I was there with you.”

Souji stays silent. I can only hear his breathing through the phone.

“Want me to come over?”

Yes .”

“But?”

“But I should probably think over all this . I hope you understand.”

“Yeah, totally. Don’t worry about it,” I smile, and I mean it. I know he’ll talk to me when he’s ready to open up, “Guess we’ll see later.”

“Yes. I’ll see you later. Bye,” Souji says, ending the call. I pocket my phone and jump on my bike. It’ll be a long way home in this awful rain.

 


 

“You better have a damn good explanation for this!”

Chie’s right in my face, fierce flames in her brown eyes.

“F-for what?” my mouth moves on it’s own, even though I have a growing suspicion what she means. When I saw the names on the beauty pageant contestants list and got that sinking feeling… I just knew .

Of course it was all me.

“The beauty pageant! You wrote down our names without telling us, didn't you!?”

“N-No! It wasn't me!” and yes, listen to me, it wasn’t me, this isn’t me, not really, oh please, don’t let this be the real me, but my mouth keeps moving, “Why do you automatically blame me!? I-I mean, if you don't wanna do it, you just say no, right? Like it was just a joke.”

Shut up, shut up, shut up, SHUT UP .

“We wouldn't be so pissed if we could do that! With Kashiwagi planning this year's event, even those who got entered by other people can't back out!”

First of all, that’s such a stupid rule, really contrived, sloppy storytelling.

Oh. Yeah .

“Seriously? Must've been something in the fine print I overlooked…”

“So it was you!”

Deep in my throat, the words I’m supposed to say are taking form, making their way up, choking me from within.

Oh crap..!

But I won’t give up.

Won’t surrender.

I’ve had enough!

It wasn’t me.

It wasn’t me.

“It wasn’t me!”

It wasn’t me…

And for a second everything seems to freeze around me, like that time I ran after Souji, the fire in Chie’s eyes quenched, whole team as still as the ocean after a storm.

But.

I said it.

Those were my words.

Mine.

No one else’s.

“Hey… Do you want us to take part in the beauty pageant?” Rise asks me after a half a minute of silence, as if nothing had happened.

And… maybe none of that truly happened. Why did I think anything I ever did could change anything?

Just… I just give up. I don’t even care anymore.

I tune out for the rest of the conversation. What else is there for me to do?

 


 

Okay, so the Culture Festival happens. Less said about that, the better. And what I really don’t want to talk about is what went down tonight. I’ll never get over that, I’m forever traumatized. So yeah, I’m just going to pretend that none of this ever happened and go on with my life.

The lights are out, only the dim moonlight coming through the large windows lighting the room ever so slightly. Everyone else have already fallen asleep, their heavy snores filling the otherwise silent room, sounds of breath echoing against the walls. And I just lie still. Teddie on my left and Souji on my right. Or more accurately, it’s just me and Souji, because Teddie seems to have tangled his limbs around Kanji in his sleep, claiming almost half of Kanji’s bedroll.

And so, without even really thinking it, I turn to face Souji, and just lie there, finding myself examining his face yet again, how he looks so calm for the first time in ages. I can’t even begin to understand what must be going through his head on a daily basis since our talk. Every time I see that deep frown on his face, I regret ever telling him. Or telling him before I had any real knowledge, any answer to give him about our situation. Because even if we might know the truth, we really don’t know know.

But right now? He looks like someone who doesn’t hold the world of pain inside him. I wish this was all my doing. But I’m happy that at least in your sleep, you can be at peace.

“Can’t sleep either?” Souji smiles, his eyes still closed. Oh crap, busted!

“Uh, no, can’t,” I mumble, a language I’ve become quite fluent at, and Souji just chuckles, opening his eyes. Please don’t notice how red my face is, please don’t notice how red my face is, please -

“It’s been a wild ride,” Souji sighs and sits up, fixing his yukata.

“Yeah… These few days have been kinda rough,” I groan, sitting up as well.

“But also fun, right?” he asks, his voice so earnest I’d be hard-pressed not to admit that these couple of days hadn’t been totally awful.

“Easy for you to say, you managed to look badass even as a girl!” I smile and laugh under my breath, careful not to wake up Kanji and Teddie.

“What, do you mean that if I was a girl I couldn’t be badass?” Souji asks, trying to feint shock.

“Oh no no, I’m not going there, I plan to keep all my parts, thank you very much.”

“I understand. I would, too, like for you to keep all your parts,” Souji laughs a little too loudly, trying to muffle himself against his pillow.

And crap, he looks so beautiful in the moonlight, the sticking silver in his hair clashing with the soft ray’s of the moon, his face slightly flushed from laughing, his grey eyes fluttering, trying to focus in the dimly lit room.

And suddenly I have way too much on my mind, way too many questions, way too much to say.

“You - you wanna go and get some fresh air?” I mutter under my breath, trying my all not to gaze at my friend, because Souji, when I look at you - looking like that - you leave me a little breathless. And suddenly the weird thoughts that keep popping up in my mind make way too much sense.

And that scares me shitless.

“Yeah, I’m in,” Souji smiles, getting up and extending his hand to me, to help me up. And no matter how much it try not to, I can’t help but smile back at him and take his hand.

The October night is crisp and cool, the air cold on my skin, the slight wind getting through the yukata. Should’ve packed my jacket with me. Guess Souji can feel the cold too, giving us a good reason to huddle up a little too close than necessary.

“Hrr, it’s really starting to get quite cold,” Souji says, shaking next to me, “November and winter are truly coming.”

“I hear you. Sorry I don’t have a jacket to offer to you.”

“Aww, and I was just starting to hope you could conjure up a warm winter jacket for me to wear.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not magic.”

“Oh, believe me, you’re more magical than you think.”

I don’t inquire what Souji means by that, because this is all just small talk. I had actual questions to ask, things to talk about, we were supposed to have an actual conversation. So why does talking to Souji feel like an impossible mission right now, an insurmountable task.

“But you look like you have something on your mind,” Souji pulls me out of my own thoughts, and my mind goes blank. Uh yeah, I totally had something to say, like a lot, but there it goes, my train of thought, all those things I wanted to say, gone with the October wind.

“Uh yes. These, um, couple of days have been crazy and weird and terrible and great, and I don’t even know how to feel about everything that’s happened, what to think about any of this, and I’ve found out about things that made confused, even more confused than I normally am, but at the same time not at all confused, because I know exactly how I’m feeling, but I’m just scared to even think about what it all means, because even though this feeling is familiar, it’s so different from the last time I felt like this, and I know the implications, I’m not stupid and that’s what makes it scary. And and, I’m not sure what I’m trying to tell you, because even I’m not quite sure what I’m saying right now, and I know I’m rambling, sorry about that, but I don’t care. But like I said, this feeling, this I recognize, because it’s way too familiar, but why I’m feeling like this I cannot explain, or maybe I can, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to go there just yet, but yes, yes, I need to come clean because I don’t want any of that Shadow business come haunting back, so here it goes: Yes, I’m jealous.

Awkward silence. Oh god, oh crap, oh fuck, please, just say something .

“... Are we talking about Table-kun here?” Souji asks, his eyes wide and eyebrows raised, and… What!?

“Huh!? Wha - No! I’m talking about you! You… dating Rise.”

“Me and Rise?”

“Yeah. And I just want you to know, that no matter how I might feel, I’m still happy for you guys and support you hundred percent.”

Souji stays silent for a while, clearly thinking, his mind spinning around under that mop of hair. Should’ve kept my mouth shut, do I ever learn? But I let him gather his thoughts and wait for his reply.

“Where did you hear about this?”

“Uh, at school? People have been talking about it for days.”

The awkward silence continues. DO I EVER LEARN!?

“Oh, sorry if this’s all a little awkward, I… I meant to ask you earlier, but couldn’t really find the time and place, with everything being so crazy and all -”

“No no, I understand. It’s just...”

“Super strange?”

“Yeah.”

And I pause, because this is the question I’ve been dreading to ask. Because no matter what Souji replies, I won’t know how to react, “Is it true?”

There’s a pause and Souji turns to face me, his eyes full of underlying sadness. But why would he be sad, no matter what?

“I guess it is?”

You - you guess ? What’s that supposed to mean? How - how am I supposed to react to that? And Souji lets out a deep sigh, looking up to the dark blue sky.

“Yes, it’s true.”

Oh. Oooh. That’s fine. I’m fine. What do mean did my heart just stop? Or skip a beat? Don’t know what you’re talking about. I said I’m fine with it and I meant it.

“Do- do you like her? Like, like like her?”

“I… I’m...”

“Or is it them ?”

Souji lowers his gaze from the stars and turns back to face me, his face unreadable. He bites his lower lip, trying to find the right words, but maybe the October wind stole what ever Souji was going to say, too.

“It’s… complicated. More complicated than that. More complicated than even I can understand. But for me, there really is no them and me, there really is no contention, no real difference, it’s all the same. What I mean, is that for the longest time I tried to separate myself from them, but much like with you guys, I needed to face the fact that me and them, we’re all me.”

“Is… this why you don’t have a Shadow?”

“Probably not, the Shadows are just part of the story, for their entertainment, something for them to attach themselves to, a way to see themselves and their problems dealt within a story.”

And when Souji puts it like that… I wasn’t aware it was possible for me to think even less about myself, but he’s right. I’m… We’re nothing but tools for other people to use. To hell with how we feel, what we want is not the point of this story.

“For the longest time I tried to fight against it, trying to keep some of my autonomy, to tell myself that I am me and no one else, but… Much like with your Shadows, you can fight all you like, but in the end you’ve got to face the facts, face yourself, and admit that they are you.”

“But what about now? Is this now you or them?”

“Both, I guess. Like I said it’s not like a switch that goes on and off. It’s not even like drowning, only sometimes coming up for air. It’s… more the bindings of this story that keep me chained down.”

“I get what you mean by bindings. And for me it feels like drowning.”

“I’m… I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t even begin to understand how it must feel.”

“Well, the feeling’s mutual, like I can’t even begin to understand how you’re still standing, partner.”

“Barely, let me tell you. If these days have been crazy to you… Let’s just say I’m happy to leave October behind me.”

“Oh...”

“And I’m sorry that I’ve been distant, it’s just… You know how I am, too deep in my own for my own good.”

“You’re opening up now. I just hope I’m any help for you.”

Souji smiles, like whoa, a really wide smile, bumping his whole body against me. His arms have been wrapped around his legs this whole time, but now he lets his legs fall, and when not sure what to do with his arms, he lets them rest between us, lets them touch mine, and holy shit , did my face just turn burning red?

“You just being here already helps a lot. You letting me ramble on and on, truly invaluable.”

“Oh, shut the hell up, if it’s anyone who’s rambling, it’s me!” I shrug nonchalantly, trying to keep my cool, but day by day it’s getting harder and harder to keep my cool around Souji. Maybe it’ll get easier now. Those thoughts, they were always silly, not anything to hope for, because as if any of that could ever be possible. And now Souji is with Rise, and I really don’t want to complicate things. I won’t do that to Souji. He has enough on his plate.

But seeing Souji like this, his perfect figure surrounded by all the stars of the sky, his beautiful smile gracing his face, how close he is, closer than needed, but I don’t care , because this is where I want to be. Maybe I don’t belong here, but screw that. I know what I want, and I want

But based on what Souji told me, maybe he doesn’t want any of this. Or that he wants something different, someone different. And that’s… That’s okay. Just peachy. I understand. It’s fine. I’m fine .

Pang. Pang. Pang.

What I do, is that I learn from this. Learn never to get my hopes up.

And as if Souji can sense my plight, he opens his mouth: “I’m freezing.”

“You want to get back inside?”

Souji lets out a small chuckle, and… I can quite understand why.

“Not really. Because right here, right now, it kind of feels like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. That we’re somehow outside the realms of this story, without the chains that bind us to whatever we’re supposed to be. Me or them, don’t care. I feel free .”

“Sooo… You want to stay here? But you said you’re freezing.”

“I won’t be if I do this,” Souji replies, and wraps his arm around me, staring my eyes intently, but asking for permission. And I should decline him, tell him how this is all ridiculous, and that we should just get back inside and forget any of this ever happened, but I can’t . I don’t want to.

So I just nod, and Souji turns his whole body towards me, wrapping his arms around me. And I really don’t want to think about what this all means, what Souji means, even though my brain keeps filling with these thoughts , but I won’t think about any of that right now, and I just cling to Souji’s yukata, burying my face against his neck, because what else can I do?

Because it’s true what Souji said. Even I feel free, right here and right now. But in the back of my mind, I can still sense the bindings, trying to keep my back, telling me I can’t have this . And they’re probably right, this’ll never be truly something I can have, I know I know I know

But for this moment, this tiny little moment, let me be free to want.

Just let me hold him for a minute longer.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“You need to tell the others.”

It’s the first things whispered between us in what feels like forever. We returned back to our room an hour ago, but I haven’t been able to sleep. Thought that maybe Souji had already fallen asleep. Guess I was wrong.

But yeah, Souji’s right. This is something that has been on my mind for a while now.

“Yeah, I agree, we need to tell them. Might be able to make sense of all this crap.”

“Yes, but I mean what I said: you need to tell the others.”

Me!?

“M-me?” I stutter under my breath, trying to keep my voice low. Teddie and Kanji are still sleeping just on the other side of the room. Souji nods, silent, his brows furrowed.

“We - I can’t trust myself to be able to do it,” Souji sighs deep and then, the warmest smile forms on his face, “You’re the only one I can trust.”

He… He says it so casually, with such confidence (In himself? In me ?) and… and… It’s true, he’s totally right (of course he’s right, this is Souji we’re talking about), so… Why do my cheeks flare red when he says it?

I try to hide my blush by burying my head in my pillow.

“Are you okay? Did I say something wrong?” Souji asks with a small laugh, trying read my hidden face. So I throw the pillow at him, totally missing.

“No-no! I’m just making a game plan in my head,” I hiss under my breath, trying my best to avoid Souji’s gaze, but it’s just way to hard to look away from him.

“Ah, good. Plan. Sounds like a good idea,” Souji nods, but his voice trails away in a way that betrays his words.

“Hah hah, you’re doubting me, aren’t you? Join the club!” I smile, rubbing my neck. But Souji shakes his head, a small smile on his lips.

“No, nothing like that. It’s just… You’re truly coming to your own. Some might say it’s because of whatever happened to you in that building, because of your awakening, but I think you had in yourself all along.”

“Thank you,” I murmur, and I wish I hadn’t thrown my pillow away. As if reading my mind, Souji hands back the pillow with a knowing smile, but I decide not to hide.

And for a second I feel brave. That maybe I’m not alone with these confusing feelings. That maybe he…

“Did you mean what you said?”

“Just now? Yeah, every word.”

“Uh, no, I meant...”

“Hmm, in that case you have to be a little more specific,” his voice is hoarse and he yawns deep. He’s obviously close to falling asleep.

“Um,” but something swallows my words before I can get them out of my mouth, “Forget it.”

“You know I’ll never be able to fall asleep if you leave me hanging now,” Souji whines, giving my shoulder a small shove. And dude, I know you’re lying, you’re barely awake right now.

A few seconds of silence. The room grows darker, the clouds must be swarming over the moon. I try my all not to look at his face right now, but the hand that just gave me a friendly shove lands back on my shoulder, this time staying there.

“Just ask, whatever it it,” and Souji’s smile is so earnest and beautiful, though barely visible in the darkness, with how the shadows fall on his face.

And you know, while I might not be as brave as I would like to be or as needed to be, I’m still able to find the words, able to form my question.

“During the group-date, did you mean what you said?”

And yes, I know, it might sound like a stupid question, like who cares about anything that went down during the festival, the event was a bust, and we all should just forget any of that happened, but… Humor me, please. This… It’s important for me to know, to believe, that maybe I’m not the only one who…

And Souji looks at me like he knows, is aware of the weight of his words, his face going stern, lips forming a line. But after only seconds of deliberation, a wide smile graces his lips, lighting his whole face - hell, the whole room.

“Yes.”

It’s all he says. And it’s more than enough. It’s so like him to know when few words are enough, realizing the gravity of his actions, his words. He could’ve answered that he doesn’t know, that all of this is so confusing, and maybe that is how he really feels, but… At least for a moment I can pretend that these feelings are a little bit less confusing and weird.

A moment of clarity.

And I wish my mouth would work. I wish my words weren’t mush. I wish my mind wasn’t drawing a blank. Just so I could say… So I could tell you…

I like you.

But… I can’t.

And I tell myself it’s because our situation is complicated enough as it is, how Souji’s situation is complicated, not quite sure where they end and he himself begins or if it’s even that clean cut, that maybe he does have feelings for Rise and if so, I don’t want to get between them.

That’s what I tell myself, as if I’m acting out of selflessness, that I want to be better.

But that’s a lie.

No.

I’m just a coward. Too afraid to say anything in fear of Souji’s rejection. Because I’m not strong enough to hear him say “no.” And it’s not like I fear he would hate me or anything, no, Souji’s too kind-hearted for that, but… Things would change. We’d still be friends, but there would be a crack that would have the potential to create a wide rift between us and that’s the last thing I want. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d screw this all up.

So yeah, I’m selfish as hell, sue me.

I’m selfish and afraid, so I’m more than willing to play my part as Souji’s loser best friend. Because that’s what I’m here for, to make him look good.

The silver rays of the moon start to fill up the room again, exposing all the dust in this cursed room. Yeah, these couple of days might have been awful, but this… this was good.

“Thank you,” I whisper, but Souji’s already heavily asleep, has been for quite a while. I chuckle and fight the need to reach out and tuck Souji better under the sheets.

Yeah, these past few days might have been crap, but at least they’re behind us now. It can’t get much worse than this, can it?

 


 

“Since we are all finally here, we can begin!”

It was a pain in my ass to get everyone together like this. You’d think it would be easy, considering, that when Souji calls upon us when it’s time to go inside the TV, our schedules seemed all cleared - no work, no socializing, nothing.

But when I’m trying to get the gang together, even if it’s just for a meeting? Takes for me two days of texting back and forth with everyone to finally agree to meet on Wednesday at Junes food court.

“Wha-!? Not everyone’s here! Where’s Souji?” Chie shrieks, jumping up from the bench, pointing at the vacant seat next to me.

“Yeah, we can’t start without Senpai,” Kanji grunts next to Chie.

“Huh? No, Souji won’t be joining us today,” I answer, not quite understanding why everyone seems so upset.

“He won’t? Then I came here all for nothing? I even wore my nicer earrings...” Rise groans at the end of the table and lies down, pouting. No offence, Rise, but I’m pretty sure those are the same earrings you always wear. (But let’s face it, what do I know about earrings?)

“No no no, I asked to meet you all because - Hey, we hang out without Souji all the time, right?” I laugh, nudging Teddie. But all I get is long stares and awkward silence. Chie’s the first one to open her mouth.

“I don’t know. Maybe me and Yukiko, but all of us together? Nah.”

“Chie’s right. We never go out as a group without Souji-kun,” Yukiko chimes in. Chie gives her a small pat on her shoulder, nodding.

“Yes! Senpai’s like the glue that keeps us together! … No matter how silent he might be,” Rise beams.

Yeah… There’s a reason for that. But I guess I can’t just blurt out that this is all just a game in which Souji just happens to be the main character and expect for them to believe - No, wait! Isn’t that exactly what I’m supposed to do here? Well, okay, maybe I’ll try to be little more eloquent than that .

“We-well now’s our chance to start hanging out without him,” I stutter, nervously rubbing my neck. Crap, crap, crap! This is not going like I planned…

Um, did I even really plan anything?

“Yosukee-ee! Don’t remind me that Sensei will be moving back to the city soon!” Teddie cries. Chie kicks me under table. Even Rise reaches behind Teddie to punch my arm.

Ow! Retreat! Retreat! I need a plan for retreat!

“I-I didn’t mean to do that, I...” and I’m even more nervous, looking at Naoto pleadingly. She had stayed mostly quiet during this whole farce, but she must feel my plight. And she takes the cue.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but didn’t you, Yosuke-senpai, say you had something to tell us?”

“Ah, yes! Thank you, Naoto-kun!”

She’s a true lifesaver!

“But if you have something to tell us, shouldn’t Souji-kun be here?” Yukiko asks.

“Or… is this about him?” Chie adds.

“Oh no! Did something happen to Sensei?” Teddie grabs my arm, trying to force an answer out of me.

“Is he in trouble?” Rise and Kanji ask in chorus, both jumping up from their seats.

“No, no, no and no . This has something to do with all of us.”

And hearing the seriousness in my voice, the team falls silent. The whole ambiance around us gets weighty, all sounds surrounding us mute down, and… What is that background music I can hear? And did it just change?

Whatever, I’ve got something to say.

“Okay, so just as a warning, what I’m about to tell will be hard to believe - oh, I know - but just… try . Just try to believe.”

Everyone’s eyes are upon me, and suddenly I forget how to talk. Goddammit, am I really able to do this alone? Are they even going to believe a word I say? I sure as hell wouldn’t!

But…

I take a few seconds for myself and just breath .

Inhale.

Breath out.

Channel my inner Souji.

I can do this!

Susa-! Oh, we’re not doing that right now.

“This is all a game.”

Silence drags. Rise raises her hand.

“Haven’t we already talked this through?”

“No no, this time I mean it literally. This is all a game, part of some story.”

Okay, so in my defense, now it’s at least all out in the open. Maybe a little bit too strong of an opening, maybe ditching the whole eloquent approach was the wrong way to go, but it’s an opening statement. So now, chill and just start from the beginning. Tell them everything I told Souji and just breathe !

 


 

They all look at me like I’d just lost my mind. And like I said, I can’t really blame them. What I just told them seems something so impossible to wrap your head around.

But just please, for the love of whatever that is holy or anything

Please believe me!

It’s Kanji who finally breaks the silence:

“Yosuke-senpai, did you hit your head on your way here?”

“Yeah, I was just about to ask the same. You almost gave me a heart attack!” Chie groans, trying to kick me under the table, but this time I manage to dodge the attack.

“Ugh, I didn’t hit my head nor am I trying to kid you guys. I’m telling the truth!”

“Well excuse me for having some trust issues after what happened last week!”

“Hey, I thought we had put all that behind us.”

“Not after five meat skewers, I won’t!”

“Fine, I’ll see what I can - No, you know, no , you won’t drag me into this and distract me!”

“Damn, I was so close,” Chie mutters under her breath, and next to her Yukiko fails to hide her snicker.

“I’m sorry to interrupt yet again, but I would like to see this mysterious building you told us about, Yosuke-senpai,” Naoto states calmly, hiding her eyes under the brim of her hat. Thanks Naoto, always pulling us right back on track!

“Are you sure you want to? I can tell you from experience, it wasn’t the most safe and pleasant thing I’ve ever done.”

Naoto gives me a small smile. “You do know who you’re talking to? The Detective Prince who let themselves to be kidnapped.”

I swallow my objections of “it was mandated by the story” because I know it would be in vain. I recognize that look. She’s really not interested in my protests. Looking around our group of friends, Naoto continues:

“If you are correct and that place truly awakened something in you, I think it’s worth any risk to explore it. If it holds any answers, we need to find them.”

Rise jumps up from her seat, pumped. “I’m willing to take the risk, too!”

“Hell yeah, same here!” Kanji laughs, throwing his fist in the air.

“Teddie is beary for anything!” Ted beams next to me, stars in his eyes. Even Yukiko gives me a confident nod.

“Yes, I’m ready too.”

We all turn our gazes towards Chie, who’s still obviously disbelieving, and seems quite uncomfortable. Fully empathizing with those feelings, truly. Even if it’s Chie. But Yukiko takes her hand and gives her an encouraging nod. Chie lets out a deep sigh and turns to face me.

“I’m coming with you guys. If anything but to keep Yukiko safe,” Chie tells the team, dipping her head low.

“So everyone’s coming?” I ask, disbelief now filling my voice in turn.

“Yes, sheesh, everyone’s in. Let’s just go and be done with it. And if this turns out to be a prank, Yosuke, I swear I will have my revenge,” Chie mumbles under her breath, throwing icicles at me with her stare.

Yeah, I guess it would’ve been too easy if they all just believed my on face value.

 


 

“I can’t believe you were actually telling the truth!” Chie breathes. We had just entered the building, glasses on, ready for anything.

“Of course I was telling the truth!”

“So you were right about the mystery building, but don’t expect me to believe we’re all part of some elaborate story. You’re going to need more than words and an empty building to convince me,” and Chie is pointing at me across the room. She hasn’t left Yukiko’s side for a second since we arrived. Wonder if it’s truly because she wants to protect Yukiko or is Chie perhaps more scared than she lets on.

“Are those the rooms you were talking about?” Naoto steps between us, pointing at the upper floor. The doors are there, six of them still leaking fog. But is there a seventh door leaking fog too..? What could that mean?

But Yukiko’s question drags me out of my head:

“Why is there nine doors? Where do they lead?”

“That’ll be… kinda hard to explain, but… To our beds, I guess?”

“Our beds ?” Rise exclaims.

“Well, that’s where you end up but… Crap, I said it’s hard to explain!”

“Shouldn’t we then just go through?” Ted asks, fully ready to go.

“I agree with Teddie. Based on your story, going through the door triggered your awakening,” Naoto states, her gaze firmly on all the doors. Next to her Kanji nods, following her line of sight.

“But what, do we just pick a door and jump in?” he asks.

“I don’t know if it truly matters, but… There door I went through was somehow connected to… Saki-senpai and where she ended up in the TV World, the family liquor store that formed. Where Souji… fought my Shadow,” I whisper, barely audible.

My friends fall silent. Not sure if it’s because of anything I just said or maybe they’re all just deep in thought. From the corner of my eye I can see Rise hiding her face in her sleeve, and Chie grabbing Yukiko’s hand.

“We all have our own door,” Naoto hypothesizes, mostly muttering to herself.

“What do you mean?” Kanji asks, the rest of us failing to form any coherent words.

“Six doors are leaking fog. That corresponds with the amount of dungeons we’ve discovered in the TV World and fought our Shadows. And well, where you fought Kubo-san. But without any sufficient data, I can’t judge if it really matters which door we enter,” Naoto answers.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter, but can hurt either,” Kanji shrugs, taking the first steps towards the stairs. After a moment of hesitation, the rest of us follow him.

Everyone takes their place in front of their door: Chie and Yukiko standing together, Kanji next to them, then Rise and Teddie, and on the third floor me and Naoto.

“Yosuke-senpai, your door isn’t here,” she remarks.

“Naoto, I already went through once, I really don’t want to do that again. Plus, no one should be forced to do this alone.”

“Yosuke-kun, we’re right here. We can see you through the grate,” Yukiko snickers from below us.

“Yeah, at least wait until we are gone before you start hitting on poor Naoto-kun!” Chie yells, sticking out her tongue.

“Naoto’s not interested in Yosuke-senpai!” both Kanji and Rise exclaim, before they end up flushing pure red.

“Thank you for your encouragement. This is what I get when I try to be friendly,” I groan. Naoto gives me a polite smile which obviously reads as not interested. The feeling's mutual, believe me, but I’m still starting to regret my choice of friends. Or friends that the story brought together.

“No scoring for Yosuke!” Teddie sings, and dude, you’re like five seconds too late. Didn’t we just deal with this?

“Ugh, just step through the door. I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I sigh and watch my friends enter through the doors.

 


 

As soon as I exit the building, I text Souji.

Yosuke: i did it.

I’m not expecting him to answer right away and begin my journey home, but my walk is interrupted by a phone call.

“I knew you could do it,” and I can hear the smile in Souji’s voice. And if someone’s trying to claim that his voice made me instantly blush… Well, they’re not entirely lying.

“Hah, I wasn’t as confident in myself as you, but somehow I pulled it through. Or at least I hope I did. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”

“And not a moment too soon; it’ll rain later this week.”

“Yeah. Do you think something will happen?”

“I think this is far from over. We should… We should prepare for the worst.”

And so, it’s out there. The thought had been clawing inside my brain, working its way through my subconscious, shadowing my every thought.

It’s far from over.

“Are you already home?” Souji asks after a few seconds, like reading my mind. Yes please, let’s change the subject.

“Nah, just left the building. The other went through the doors. They’re probably back in their own beds now.”

“Would make sense. I’m sure Teddie’s more than willing to tell you everything after you get home,” Souji laughs.

“Thanks for reminding, partner. I better take the long road home.”

“You’re not scared he’ll go blab to your parents?”

“Dad’s at work and Mom’s seeing a friend, so he’s alone. He’ll survive.”

“Good. I trust you to keep our team mascot safe.”

“Couldn’t we have him as a mascot who we can pass along? Like maybe you could take him in for a few days?”

“Oh, I’m sure Nanako would love that idea, but I’m pretty sure Dojima would throw him out of the house right after Teddie opens his mouth.”

“Yeah, his ramblings about scoring would only land him a one-way ticket out of the Dojima residence,” I groan, but can’t help but laugh at the image of Dojima throwing Ted out of the house the minute the bear steps in, “By the way, have you - Have you talked to Rise?”

“You mean before I called you?”

“Yeah. Or did she call you?”

“No. I’ll… I’ll try to see her tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Congratulations, Hanamura! Even on the phone you manage to make things awkward. Adding to my mental list: do not mention or talk about Rise with Souji. Not because I’m jealous (which I am, not afraid to admit it), nor because I suddenly hate Rise (because I don’t, she’s awesome in my books), but because it’s clearly hard for Souji to talk about her. Why it’s hard I can’t even begin to guess (well, of course somewhere deep inside my brain I have my hopes, but I usually ignore that part of my brain), but whatever it is, I need to respect that reason.

“I’m… I’m actually about to go fishing, so if you want to join me, you’re welcome. You know, to avoid having to go straight home,” and Souji’s voice is small and heartening, and I just know I can’t decline, no matter how much I dislike fish.

“If you don’t come with me, I might have to bring you a fresh fish to school,” Souji teases, making me laugh.

“To avoid that possibility, I guess I might have to join you.”

“I really had to twist your arm, didn’t I?”

“You know, you always need to play coy. I have to seem at least a little bit hard to get.”

“Why start now?” and you can hear the smirk dripping from Souji’s lips.

“Dude, you could’ve at least played along!” I chuckle, “It will take me some time to get to the riverbank, but just wait for me, I’ll be there.”

“I’ll hold onto that, you know, so if you end up standing me up, you’ll never live it down.”

“In that case I’ll have to run!”

“Hah hah, don’t worry, I won’t start without you. I’ll see you soon,” and so Souji ends the call.

Yeah, no matter what we will have to face in these up coming days, at least we have this. These quiet moments before the storm.

Oh, nineteen new text messages, one from Yukiko, Kanji, Rise and Naoto, respectively, the rest of them from Chie and Teddie. I let out a deep sigh, deciding that it’s totally okay for me to ignore them at least for a couple of hours.

There’s fish in the river with Souji’s name on them.

Chapter Text

It’s weird. The more sharper my mind becomes, the hazier everything else gets. Days keep passing by, almost as if this - story? game? - is trying to drive us towards something. A goal? An end? And I, we , have no idea what it all means.

Trying to talk about this all with everybody else has been hard. Maybe because none of us really know what to say. Seriously, it there really anything else to say other than just… scream. At least that’s what I’d like to do most of the times.

But worst part is seeing what knowing the truth did to my friends. And I should’ve known this would happen, hell, I knew . I went through all that crap. And I still thought it would be a good idea. Big news: Yosuke Hanamura is an idiot! Thinking truth would set his friends free, what an incredibly stupid thought! He should’ve known that would never happen, just look how he himself dealt and still deals with the situation: with a mental breakdown! Failing to reason with the situation! Thinking he can do something about it! Developing feelings for his best friend -

What, no! Stupid brain, none of that is right! Well, okay, maybe the mental breakdown part is right, but none of the others! … And maybe the thing about doing something about it, and and and… Well, maybe some of it is right, but... I’m doing my best when it comes to trying to reason with this whole thing. Hell, if you just found out your whole existence is fictional, what would you do? Just roll over and be fine with it? Not really my style, I’m sorry to say. And trying to do anything? Trying to come up with a solution to this? Whatever that might be? Like I said, I can’t help it. Hell, maybe I was programmed and written to be proactive and that’s what I’m going to do. So thank you, whoever created me: I’m your worst nightmare.

And. And. And.

And.

This… whatever this whole thing with Souji is… It has nothing to do with the situation. It’s something that has been there…

“Are you going to finish that, Yosuke?”

Mom’s voice cuts off my train of thought, making me flinch. Staring at my plate, I nod without thinking. I haven’t even touched my food. I glance at Teddie’s plate, and it seems he’s really not that hungry either.

I’m so sorry I did this to you.

 


 

I’m trying to sleep, knowing that tomorrow it will rain, but a questions keeps me awake.

“Do you blame me?”

My closet stays quiet. Phew, Teddie must be asleep. He had been so silent, so I thought he might’ve been still awake (he usually snores loudly, the biggest reason why he sleeps in my closet), and I guess I just wanted to hear it from him. That maybe this isn’t all my fault. That he doesn’t hate me. And if Teddie doesn’t hate me, maybe that means the others don’t hate me either.

But hey, if he’s already asleep, I guess I can just forget I ever-

“No.”

Huh? Did you say something, Teddie?

“I don’t blame you.”

Wha- What do you mean?

“I don’t hate you, and neither do the others.”

...

... 

It doesn't sound like the Teddie I know, seriously, I’ve never heard him being as serious as he has been these couple of days, and saying this really kills me, but… I miss the old Ted. But hearing him say that… makes me almost believe him.

Thank you.

But still…

I’m sorry.

 


 

Well, this morning truly has been the shittiest. My bike tried to kill me again this morning (Seriously, is it that hard to give me a motorcycle? Or even a bike that won’t try to kill me every other morning? Ugh, maybe in a another life. One can wish…) and I forgot my books at home, and I just answered the question wrong (what the hell Souji, aren’t you supposed to know everything?) I’m really not looking forward to this day… Could we just take it from the begi-

Ahhh, shut up, alarm clock! It’s way too early!

“Yosukeee~, tell that machine that I’m trying to sleep!” Teddie cries behind the closet door. Huh, he seems to be back to normal now. Or as normal as Teddie can ever be.

“Yeah yeah, I know I know, idiot ,” I hit the alarm shut, forcing myself to open up my eyes, “But aren’t you supposed to go to work?”

“Maybe, but Mrs. Hanamura usually let’s me sleep a little bit longer. Mr. Hanamura doesn’t seem to like it though...”

“I wonder why,” I groan. Usual Dad, but in this case I might have to agree with him.

I get up and get myself ready for school. What did we have today? Hosoi? Ugh, contemporary writing. Seriously, who needs that? After saying my goodbyes to Teddie, I drag myself outside and hop on my bike. Crap, I’m five minutes late! Okay, let’s get this party startin’ and hurry the fuck up! … I would say, if I didn’t almost just crash into a telephone pole, dodging it barely. Sighing happily that I managed to avoid the fate I suffered last spring, I decide to take it easy. Hosoi will surely understand.

He didn’t.

But hey, at least I made it to school with my butt intact. Take your victories where you can.

I slump down in my seat and begin my routine of staring Souji’s back. As usual, he’s immersed in the lecture, listening intently and taking notes. Can’t wait for our study session, where you actually teach me what the hell’s going on right now, partner! Without my friends my test scores would be plummeting even more than they already are.

I’m going to take my comfort in knowing, that my grades are probably hard-coded. Nothing I can do!

With the rain hitting the classroom windows, it’s so easy to lull oneself into oblivion, letting your mind wander. It’s raining today so I’m sure all of the team is pondering on what on Earth is going to happen tonight. Because of Naoto, we know that this is far from over but… Have we really seen anyone becoming famous on TV these past few days? Like all I can remember is that news report on the fog where some politician came here to interview some elementary school kids. But that was a couple days ago and you’d think a politician would’ve already traveled back to the city, right? Other than that, nothing. Or at least nothing I can come up with. The team really hasn’t had a moment to meet up and go through the case all together, but I’m sure Naoto’s come up with some sort of a theory. At the same time, I’m kinda dreading meeting everyone. Yeah, I see the team pretty much daily at school, hell, Chie and Yukiko are sitting just in front of me, but… It has been odd. None of then have really opened up about their feelings over this shitshow. They were obviously distraught in their texts for after going through the door, but after that nothing . Did something go wrong or do they just not feel comfortable talking about this all to me? Maybe they’ve all opened up to each other and Souji, which I’m totally fine with, it’s not like I can be everyone’s best friend, and I have work, and I guess if the girls would open up to me it would feel kinda weird and creepy, but not with Souji, because Souji is Souji , and and hey, I’m really not that great with words, not like Souji, well okay, Souji isn’t great with words, but he’s an amazing listener, and the whole team really appreciates that in him and that’s probably why they would feel compelled to pour out their soul to him, duh , he is the protagonist with the mysterious and compelling aura. It all makes sense.

“Did you know that facial hair plays an important role for your body? Hana-chan!”

(That nickname still kills you, doesn't it.)

I stumble to straighten in my seat.

“Huh…? Wh-What? Facial hair…?” I lean closer to Souji and whisper, “My bad, Souji. I wasn't paying attention…”

Important role for a body? Something like they prevent frostbite? Yeah, that must be it!

Wait. Haven’t I been here before?

“It excretes toxins,” Souji whispers in front of me. Ah, not frostbite, but toxins. Yeah, I guess it makes sense. I repeat Souji’s answer to Hosoi. Seems like he didn’t catch Souji telling me right answer.

“Yup, you're right! I knew you'd get it, Hana-chan!” Hosoi says, the puppet mimicking his lip movements. Ugh, he probably targeted me solely because I was late. Huh,  guess I deserved that. But hey, at least the teacher seems happy. He takes his mustache seriously.

“I think this is the most energetic I've ever seen this guy… …Anyway, thanks,” I mumble under my breath, giving Souji a thumbs up. This guy seriously knows everything. Souji doesn’t turn around to answer me, but that’s pretty usual for him, already absorbed back in the lecture. Yeah, everything’s back to normal.

But why is Chie staring between me and Souji?

 


 

Since it’s raining, the whole team heads up home after school. Well, all but Chie. She even told Yukiko to walk to the bus stop by herself, and she never tells her that. As long as I’ve known the girls, they always walk together whenever they can. So when Yukiko hesitantly leaves the classroom, Chie stays there alone.

“Um, you coming, Chie?” I ask as I’m leaving the classroom, making her startle violently.

“Ah, ye-yeah, sure,” she stammers nervously, avoiding my gaze, shoving her textbooks into her bag and jumping up from her chair, “Gosh, Yosuke, learn not to sneak on girls, that’s creepy.”

Ugh, why do I even try? … But I try to ignore Chie’s words, because something’s clearly wrong with her. She wasn’t like this during lunch, so did something happen? Okay Yosuke, so how do we handle this situation with grace?

“Is something wrong? Did something happen?”

Zero points to Hanamura.

I don’t know if it’s my questions or what that makes Chie freeze, but she pauses and turns to face me.

“It’s probably nothing. All in my head. You know, Chie’s brain just went overboard and came up with something crazy. No biggie!”

“But you’re usually right when that happens.”

Chie tries to hide the gasp that escapes from her mouth by clutching her bag and putting on a brave face, giving me a wide smile.

“Haha, sorry but not today!”

But I can tell something is definitely wrong with her, so should I try to prod for more information?

“I know I’m not Souji, but you can always come talk to me if something is wrong,” I tell her, giving her the most reassuring smile I can pull of. I turn to leave the classroom, making all the way back to my bike until I can hear footsteps behind me.

“Was it like this for you too?”

Chie’s standing there under her umbrella, head hung low, staring at her shoes. I continue unlocking my bike, giving myself an excuse to gather my thoughts.

“Feeling like you’re going crazy? That your head won’t stop spinning? Your feelings going haywire?”

I turn to face Chie as she lifts her head to nod.

“Yeah, it was like that. Pretty awful, I’d say.”

We both fall silent for a while, those thoughts from yesterday coming back to me. I swallow hard and take a step towards Chie.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter, staring up to the rain clouds, letting rain wash over my face. Yeah, I should grab my umbrella.

“Apology accepted. But there’s really nothing to apologize. I’m sure we would’ve been more angry if you would have kept this from us, you know. But… It sucks. It really does suck.”

“Understatement of the century,” I laugh weakly. Chie answers in kind.

“Yeah. It’s just… confusing, if anything. Having so many voices in your head, not sure which one is truly yours,” she sighs pointing at her head, shaking it.

“I’m sorry to tell you, that I have nothing that would help with that. It’s the same with me every day. Seeing the walls that imprison you, feeling the chains binding you, it’s maddening.”

“Yeah, makes you go crazy. And because it makes you go crazy, you begin to doubt your every feeling, even those that you are sure are your own.”

“Hah, that’s the worst! Especially if those feelings go against the will of this story. It’s like the story is trying to tell you’re wrong, making you second guess everything, making you feel like it’s not possible that it could ever happen, because why would they feel -”

“... The same?”

“Would the story even let them and - Hey! Wha-what do you mean? I didn’t mean anything! I was just rambling. Nothing important! Just… Just ignore everything I said! I… I...”

“I know what you mean. It’s the worst. Like, I know how I feel, but I’m not able to do anything about it,” Chie says, gazing out to the distance a sad smile on her lips.

She… She…

“Yeah,” I sigh, hopping on my bike, while still trying to hold on on my umbrella, and continue, “Did today have something to do with those feelings?”

“Huh? Nah! Today I guess had something to do with coming to terms with this world. Like I have tried to ignore everything this past few days, but I don’t know. Maybe today it all just came back to haunt me, hahaha!” she laugh, putting on a brave face.

“Happens,” I answer with a smile and turn to leave.

“Um, Yosuke?” Chie calls after me, making me to put on the breaks.

“Thanks,” she smiles under her umbrella, giving the peace sign, “It’s good to hear you talk about these things. I guess it’s because for once in your life you actually know what you’re talking about.”

Oh, of course. Thanks Chie, you almost made me feel useful! And she even dares to stick out her tongue. Ugh, this is who I have to work with…

“Thank you, Chie, always ready to shatter my confidence.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she laughs and starts to walk towards me. She stops next to me, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“Seriously, thanks. I wasn’t quite sure how to talk about these things with Souji, so it’s good to know his second banana is ready to listen,” she smiles and gives me a hard poke. Deciding not to comment on the second banana thing (Oh god, did I really say that?), I ask:

“What about Yukiko?”

For some reason the question makes Chie flare full red. They’re best friends, so you’d think my question wouldn’t be odd or anything like that, unless it’s anything like me with -

Huh?

Is that Yukiko? Standing behind the school gate? Did she wait for Chie?

“Su-sure, we have talked about it! A little! Of course! We’re best friends!” Chie stammers, panic in her voice, flailing her hands and umbrella.

“Good, because someone’s waiting for you, Obviously wanting to talk to you,” I say, pointing towards Yukiko, who know notices that I’ve noticed her and awkwardly waves while still trying to conceal the fact that she’s there in the first place by hiding behind the school gate.

“Yukiko...” Chie whispers, just the sight of her best friend making her calm down, but the blush stays, now just accompanied my a smile, “I gotta go. See you tomorrow, Yosuke!”

“Yeah yeah. Just don’t forget: Midnight Channel tonight!”

“Yes, Souji . See ya!”

I stay there for a while longer, giving the girls a head start. They have a lot to talk about, I’m sure.

 


 

I don’t want to hang up.

I don’t want to hang up.

I don’t want to hang up.

Please, don’t make me hang up!

“Just remember to keep your schedule open tomorrow after sch- Souji!”

I manage to shock even myself with my shout.

“So-sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Souji stays quiet with a while. Longer than a while.

“... You still there?”

...

"Partner?"

A few seconds go by, and Souji finally answers.

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

I sigh in relief. For a second there I thought he… glitched on me or something.

“I feel like I shouldn’t be here, but I am.”

Something’s turning inside my stomach, something I’m definitely going to ignore for now.

“Sorry. If you have somewhere to be, I’m sure we can speak later.”

“No no, it’s just… One moment everything went black and the next I’m hearing your voice and it’s dragging me back to consciousness. It was some sort of a… severe dissociative moment.”

Oh.

Crap.

“I don’t know why, but it seemed like it was your voice that brought me back, so to say.”

Oh.

Crap.

“I know that sounds rather dramatic, but I really don’t know how else to describe it.”

“Oh crap.”

“Oh crap what? A good crap or a bad crap?”

I can’t help but chuckle a little bit at that, “You’re such a dork, you know that right?”

“What? I’m asking in earnest!” but I can hear the mock-shock in Souji’s voice. He’s enjoying this way too much. And I hate it how much I like him like this.

“I hate you so much.”

I can hear Souji laughing, probably a shit-eating grin on his face, I’d bet money on that.

“Sorry, sorry! But since you felt like screaming my name in the middle of the night, I guess you have something to tell me.”

Oh yeah, I did. I wanted to tell him about my conversation with Chie, or at least that was my excuse. More than anything I just wanted to hear his voice.

Wow, Yosuke, way to sound creepy. Let’s not tell Souji that.

“Nothing much. Just wanted to tell you about a discussion I had with Chie today. It was very… enlightening, you could say.”

I swear I can hear Souji’s brain churning.

“That’s great.”

“Yeah, great. What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said. It’s great that the others feel like they can confide in you. That means they trust you. And that’s great because you guys really are in a situation that only you guys can understand.”

“But you’re in the same boat as us, aren’t you?”

Souji falls silent for a long while.

“Yes and no. While you adhere to a script, you are still distinctly you . While I’m never really just me . On the contrary, I’m supposed to be them ,” Souji sighs, “Or I don’t know. Thinking about any of this makes my head spin. Most of the days I just want to forget any of this is happening.”

“I hear you.”

“So I’m happy that at least you are capable of helping our friends,” Souji says, his voice trailing off.

“About time I became useful, am I right?” I chuckle nervously. Souji doesn’t answer. I know why, “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.”

“And I can’t help but tell you every time how wrong you are.”

… Thanks, partner.

“I hope we’ll get some clue into all of this,” I groan, scratching my neck. I’m getting tired and we’ll have school tomorrow. Correction: today.

“I can’t promise it’ll happen today or tomorrow, but I got a feeling, that something big will happen soon.”

“I fear that too. Do you think we’ll be ready?”

“Ready for anything.”

 


 

 

 

“Then we might have to wait one more night and see…” Rise sighs. In sync, everyone’s gaze is glued on the table, but obviously the table has no answers to us. Useless table! Throwing my head back with a groan I moan:

“Yeah, I guess so…”

One.

The music goes on.

Two.

My body has frozen.

Three.

Even moving my eyes feels almost impossible.

Four.

My insides are shaking.

Five.

I’m going to throw up.

“That was a rather unpleasant,” Naoto states matter-of-factually, bringing her hand to her chin.

“No shit,” Kanji mutters, clearly disturbed and trying to hide his panic. At the end of the table Rise slumps down in her seat, trembling slightly.

“I hate this,” she whispers. Yukiko pats Rise on the back softly.

“A-are we supposed to just leave now?” Chie asks, keeping her gaze on the table.

“Yes. I’m sure if things still were going according to the script, we all would’ve just stood up and left without saying a word,” Naoto deduces, turning her head towards me, “Right, Yosuke-senpai?”

She catches me off-guard for a second there. I’m not really used to Naoto referring to me when she needs help.

“Y-Yeah. It pretty much happens without you realizing.”

Suddenly Souji, who had stayed oddly quiet, stands up to leave.

“Senpai?” Rise cries out, jumping up and grabbing Souji’s hand.

A painful reminder. Something that I’ve desperately tried to forget. I can feel my heart sink to my stomach. If I was about to throw up a moment ago, now I’m definitely going to.

(Hanamura, you are being an idiot. Let your friends be happy. Our lives suck right now, they deserve that.)

(What have you ever done to deserve such happiness?)

(You’re nothing but a pain in the ass.)

“Ma-maybe we should let him go?”

Chie’s question brings me back to the ongoing situation. I just… decide that my hands are super important right now. What I would give to be able to hold your hand right now .

“You’d think he wouldn’t be trying to leave without a good reason,” Naoto ponders.

“But didn’t you just say that leaving is something we are supposed to do, and since Souji didn’t go through, he just can’t resist like the rest of us can?” Yukiko asks, her eyes darting between Naoto and Rise, still holding Souji’s hand.

“There’s gotta be a way to wake up Senpai!” slamming his fists to the table Kanji gets up all fired up, getting ready to challenge Naoto. She sighs annoyed, more frustrated at our situation than Kanji.

“Kanji-san, you need to realize, unlike us, Senpai is far more tied into this game’s story. Without him the whole story will fall apart.”

Naoto’s right. A game without it’s playable character would be pretty broken.

“And also, yes, since Souji is incapable of going through or even entering the building, he can’t resist his programming,” Naoto finishes, giving Rise a meaningful look. And Rise nods and lets go of Souji’s hand.

“Hold on.”

Everyone turns to face me. Even Souji.

“Souji is capable to resist. Aren’t you, partner?”

They look at me as if I just lost my mind. All but Souji. Who’s watching me with a smile forming on his lips.

I can’t help but blush a little.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Souji laughs and that smile turns into a smirk as everyone turns to stare at Souji.

“Senpai!” Rise cries and jumps to hug Souji.

Ignore.

Everyone else gets up too, surrounding Souji with excited laughter.

“Ah, I shouldn’t have doubted you, Senpai,” Naoto smiles.

“Yeah, Sensei’s the best!” Teddie cheers, jumping up and down next to Souji, still in his bear suit.

“Hell yeah!” Kanji yells, giving Souji a rough fistbump on his back.

“Haha, guys guys, there’s no reason to cheer for me, you should be thanking -”

But I manage to cut off Souji with a firm stare.

Please, just let them be happy for you .

Ignore me.

 


 

We did end up letting Souji go, deciding it was probably best for the plot. Letting Rise walk with Souji, I ended up staying a little longer at Junes. Teddie didn’t want to let me be alone, so he stayed too.

“You can take off that ridiculous costume now, you know.”

“Maybe, but what if some beautiful lady ends up shopping at Junes right now, and would be, oh, so disappointed, if the friendly neighborhood bear Teddie wasn’t there to greet her?”

“We’re out in the food court and it’s raining. I’m pretty sure all the ladies you’re waiting for are inside. So hop along.”

“That’s what you just want, Yosuke, you big meanie! You just want to get rid of me so you can sulk all alone!”

The bear is now wobbling and flailing his hands like a madman, and I’m sure if Teddie continues that, he’s going to end up falling on his back. If and when that happens, I’m leaving him.

“I’m not sulking. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you are~! Did you think I stayed silent just to make you happy?”

“Stayed silent when?”

“After we were done talking about the Midnight Channel. And no, I wasn’t.”

Ugh, I don’t really need this right now, least of all from Ted.

“Whatever it was that made you decide to keep your mouth shut, I don’t care. Just. Shut. Up.”

I hadn’t moved from my seat since I sat down over an hour ago, but now I stand up to leave. Across the table Teddie stand in shock.

Oh shit, foot-in-mouth-syndrome strikes again.

“Shit, Ted, I’m sorry!”

But before I have even time to finish my sentence, Teddie has run up to the elevators.

Shit shit shit.

I…

I let him go.

 


 

Well, this evening turns out to be awkward as hell. Apparently Teddie had bumped into Dad on his way home, and in his usual style, Dad had told Teddie that me and him will have to pinch in with stocking duty. All because Teddie has been slacking off.

Of course.

But after what happened with Teddie earlier, I guess I deserve this.

We stay silent until to the late evening. And we don’t start talking according to our own will. We talk so casually, as if nothing had happened, hell, I even end up giving Teddie a cell phone I don’t remember ever buying - like was I supposed to go phone shopping at some point or what? - and we end up calling Souji, just so I can demonstrate to Teddie how to use a cell phone. This doesn’t really feel integral to the story, like why did Teddie had to get his own phone? Even though now that I think about it how come I didn’t think about this before? Now I don’t have to constantly keep guessing where Teddie is when he’s supposed to be working, I can just call him and -

Souji’s not picking up.

“He's not picking up…”

Weird, he usually picks up after a few rings.

“It's raining right now, so I was gonna remind him about the Midnight Channel… Does he not hear it because he's out?”

But why would he still be out?

Unless he’s still with…

“I wanna go to Nana-chan's place! I promised to play with her lots!”

“We're not going. And go put those snacks back. It's already dinnertime, so save 'em for your next visit.”

Poor Nanako. She’s still so young and probably all alone at home right now.

“Oh, I get you… If he’s out, that means Nanako-chan might be home alone.”

“I feel bad to think of her staying home all alone! We could go take her some dinner! Please please please please!”

“Okay okay, I hear you! Geez…”

Nanako. So little, like the figure on Midnight Channel.

“So we can go!? Sweet! You're so mature, Yosuke! My heart just skipped a beat because of your thoughtfulness.”

“Hang on a sec, I'll try calling again.”

No answer.

“He's still not picking up…”

Are you still with her…?

“Oh, duh. I forgot to try his home line…”

Please, pick up. Please, pick up. Please. Just. Pick. Up .

There’s a click. I sigh of relief.

“Hello…?”

But it’s Nanako.

“Hey, Nanako-chan.Um, is your brother home?”

Please be home, please be home, please be -

“No. He got a weird letter, and Dad saw it and got angry… He took big bro to the police station…”

What?

What?

“W-Wait, what!? He got taken to the police station!?”

Teddie starts jumping up and down beside me, almost dropping the basket full of produce.

“Stop blabbering and let me talk too!”

He grabs the cell from my hand and I let him, too shocked to do much else. Teddie blabs something to Nanako, but my mind is too occupied to listen.

“Weird letter…?”

Oh crap.

Oh shit.

Oh fuck.

Don’t tell me…

“Wait, was it another warning letter!? Did he get a second one!?”

Teddie turns to look at me and I can see the panic rising in his eyes.

“And Dojima-san saw that, so… he took him to the station?”

This is bad. Real bad. Like the worst shit we’ve ever been in.

“Teddie, gimme the phone back! I need to call the others!”

Souji!

 


 

I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep ever again, but tonight? No.

While Souji and Naoto went with the ambulance to make sure Dojima-san arrives safely to the hospital, the rest of us stayed with Adachi-san and the wreck. Adachi-san tried to tell us a dozen times to go home and get some sleep, but with a silent agreement, we had decided to stay until the crime scene investigators were there.

In the usual Inaba way that took almost an hour.

“Okay okay, the rest of the police are here now, it’s time for kids to go to sleep. Good job tonight. Now it’s our job to catch Namatame.”

Yeah, good luck with that, Adachi-san.

At least we know what to do.

As the rain doesn’t seem to let off, the team diverges each in different direction: Rise and Kanji go home, Chie walks Yukiko to the bus stop, and I fall behind Teddie’s steps.

“You should have let us go through,” I mutter under my breath.

Teddie doesn’t answer me. Not that I’m really expecting one. I know I’m being unfair and an idiot, but above all else, frustrated. And angry.

Other than talking when the story demanded it, Teddie had stayed oddly quiet the whole evening, most likely still pissed off over what happened at the food court. It’s just… very not Teddie-like to hold a grudge. Especially this long.  

Ugh.

Ughhh.

Time for me to be the older, but none the wiser.

“I’m sorry for what happened at the food court.”

Stopping in his tracks, Teddie sighs.

“Apology accepted. I’m pretty used to you acting like a jerk.”

“Way to ruin a moment, Ted,” I groan, catching up with Teddie and giving the little guy a soft shove. He laughs, but clearly is trying to avoid my eyes.

“Dude, everything okay?”

“You would tell me if something was going on, right?”

“What? Yeah, totally.”

“Then tell me what’s going on between you and Souji.”

“Nothing.”

And I’m not even lying. It’s just… all in my head.

Without a word, Teddie continues walking, speeding up way ahead of me.

“It’s the truth!”

… He’s not slowing down. Okay okay okay, silent treatment. I see what you did there. You just go on ahead, I’ll… I’ll just stay here.

Suddenly I can feel my cell phone going crazy in my pocket. He must’ve heard it, because Teddie stops and turns to stare at me.

“It’s -” I wave the phone, but Teddie interrupts me.

“Souji.”

“Um, yeah?”

And with that Teddie turns weird, getting a way too satisfied smile on his face and giving me a thumbs up, “I’ll see you later. And tomorrow we’ll save Nana-chan!”

… Yes. Yes, we will.

Okay, breathe.

“How are you holding up, partner? How’s Dojima-san?”

“Could you come by my house?”

Souji sounds agitated, and it sounds like he’s still walking home. I can hear his feet hitting the asphalt.

“Where are you?”

“At the shopping district. I… I almost missed the last bus.”

He didn’t want to leave Dojima. He was afraid to be home alone.

“Yeah. Okay. I’m almost home but I can roll by your place, but...”

I shouldn’t say anything.

I should just keep my mouth shut.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be with Rise right now?”

Shit shit shit.

“I need you, partner.”

Fuck .

I’ve fallen so so so so so so so very hard.

 


 

Sitting on the stairs at the Dojima residence, I wait for Souji, as an army of cats stare at me a few feet away. I had never realized how much work Souji brings home. Though Souji likely doesn’t see taking care of cats as work. Says a lot about his character, how readily he takes in all these furballs in need.

But please, there’s no need to stare at me like that, I’ve got no food with me. I don’t fish.

“Thanks for coming.”

And now, here you are.

You look so weary, like you haven’t slept for a week, so sad, as if you lost the only family you knew all in one night.

Don’t worry, you haven’t lost them yet. And the team will always be there for you.

I’ll be there for you.

“I’m sorry to just… call you all of a sudden in the middle of the night. I just...”

… Didn’t want to be alone.

“No problem, partner. I totally get it. This...”

… Has been a rough night.

Souji nods and steps around me to open the door. Holding out his hand, I reach out to grab it, and Souji helps me on my feet. Following him inside, I try to ignore my heart that just jumped in my throat.

Keys hitting the kitchen counter, Souji turns around, looking lost, eyes scanning the house. I know what he’s looking for.

Answers.

Believe me, I’m looking for those too. But it seems truth deludes us yet again. I hate this. When Souji told  me that things would get worse before they get good, I knew he was probably right, but this?

Not this.

“She really isn’t here,” Souji mutters under his breath, probably thinking that I couldn’t him, so I don’t say anything. Trying to shake off all the fears that were building inside him, Souji opens up the fridge absent-mindedly.

“You haven’t eaten? You should eat. What do you want? I’ll cook.”

“Souji...”

“We don’t have much because we were supposed to go shopping today, but -”

“Souji.”

“But I’m sure I can scramble something. An omelet? … No, not an omelet...”

I grab Souji’s hand, forcing him to close the fridge.

“It’s like 2 am, partner. You really should try to get some sleep.”

“I’m not sure I would be even able to fall asleep.”

“Neither am I, but we gotta try. For Nanako-chan.”

Souji sighs in agreement and leans against fridge, “I lied. I feel like could sleep for a year.”

My hand still holding his, I give Souji’s hand a gentle squeeze, “Then let’s get you to bed.”

“Could you… stay for a little longer?”

 


 

Lying down on Souji’s couch in his well-worn sweatpants and shirt, I can confirm that there’s no way I’ll be able to sleep. Souji’s already in deep sleep, though his breathing is uneven and eyes are fluttering. He’s clearly distressed. It kills me that I have no idea how to help him.

An hour passes by and I get up to use the bathroom. That couch is totally killing my back, but I’ll endure.

Cold water hitting my face I manage to calm down a little. Need to keep my head in the game, if we’re supposed to be of any help for Nanako. We’re done this many times before, this isn’t any different. It’s not like this game would ever kill Nanako, right? She’s a sweet little girl - who deserves nothing but happiness - who just got tangled in our mess. We’ll go and save her, kick Namatame in the face as we do, and all of this will be over. The end.

And after the end… I have no idea. Will… it all just be over? Story done? What… What does that mean for us? Will we just continue on or… just cease to exist?

I won’t go there now. No, I need to concentrate on helping Souji to save Nanako. Until she’s safe, nothing else matters.

Sneaking back to Souji’s room, trying so hard not to wake him up, hearing crying from the room makes me pause, my hand freezing on the handle.

Souji...

What can do to ease your pain?

I carefully open the door and with steady steps I make my way to Souji’s futon where he now sits, blanket forgotten on the floor. Even with his eyes closed he can feel the dip on his futon and Souji turns away to dry his eyes.

“S-sorry, I thought you already left so I just -”

But Souji doesn’t get the chance to finish his sentence, before I wrap my arms around him. For a moment Souji tries to swallow his tears, but eventually he lets go. Souji turns to lay his head on my shoulder, desperately clutching to his shirt I’m wearing shirt, and breaks down in tears. And without words of hesitation, I bring my hand to stroke Souji’s silver hair. He leans in to touch, nuzzling his face into my neck, breathing deeply. And I stay there, holding my best friend who’s afraid to loose his family, scared to be alone in this big house with nothing but reminders of what has been lost.

“You haven’t lost them yet,” I whisper to his ear, barely audible. I didn’t say it before but I’ll say it now, and I’ll say again and again and again, to remind my partner that all is not lost.

Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere, not for a while.

I’ll stay right here as long as I can.

 


 

I must have fallen asleep, because Teddie wakes me up on Sunday morning.

“Time to rescue Nana-chan!” he declares while almost pushing me out of my bed. I get up and realize that back in my own clothes. Truly a reset. Clearly noticing that I’m still wearing yesterday’s clothes, Teddie doesn’t say anything, just gives a long look before handing me a glass of orange juice, “Drink this. You can eat while we walk. We gotta hurry up and meet with the others!”

With a groan I grab the glass and empty it with one swing.

I’m ready.

Souji, I hope you are too.

Chapter Text

 

“Our princess is in another castle, dude.”

Can’t even be bothered to hide my disdain. But as Souji who’s clearly not Souji right now adds me to the party, I can’t do anything but to agree. Not that I would ever say no to Souji, even this… other Souji. If anything would ever happen to him and I hadn’t been there to protect him…

I… would prefer not to think about that.

Going through our equipment, his eyes glazed - empty - staying completely silent the whole time, Souji hands me and Naoto new weapons. Oh yeah, today’s Naoto’s first time fighting with us in the TV World. Naoto’s fingers go straight for the gun’s safety and testing it, then getting a general feel of the gun. Seeing her handling her weapon with such proficiency, I can’t help but do the same, lowering my gaze to my new katanas. But unfortunately my knowledge of weapons comes from anime and manga. I’ve been too busy to study the blade.

“Is that a real gun?” Rise whispers to me as if I had any clue, but since of course I don’t, like what do I know of guns, and it’s not like I hang out at Daidara, ask Chie, she oughta know, so I just end up shrugging.

Fake or not, she looks freaking bad ass with it. A true professional.

Souji finishes up by putting on a new bracelet and then gives us the signal to move on.

“The hell with this! Nanako’s somewhere in here alone with that creep, and we’re just supposed to chill here and wait until you guys are done killing some random strong Shadow,” Kanji grits through his teeth and taking a few steps towards Souji.

“Kanji-san, I understand you’re frustrated, but this is really not the time,” Naoto sighs, stepping between Kanji and the obvious Souji “He’s very much not in control right now.”

“But he broke the damn control before, didn’t he? He can do it again!”

“Were it even possible, it would be inadvisable.The fact that we’re even having this conversation is a miracle. If we were now somehow to awaken Souji, the consequences of that could shake the core of this world. I’m not sure we are prepared for that.”

“But -”

But before Kanji can finish his sentence, Chie steps up, pointing at Souji.

“Um, sorry to interrupt, but is he supposed to do that ?”

We all turn to stare at Souji, who’s… just standing there at the entrance of the dungeon, shaking, his eyes dead and is that… blood running from his nose?

Oh shit shit shit shit shit!

They got full control over Souji right now, and it seems that us not playing along isn’t doing any good to him.

“What’s wrong with you, Sensei?” Teddie yelps, the bear taking a leap towards Souji, but I grab and stop him. Because it’s not just Souji going haywire.

The whole entrance area is beginning to warp. To glitch .

This didn’t happen the last time we were here, no way it did.

The pixel trees keep flickering in and out, the text hovering over us distorts itself, becoming full-on gibberish. And soon, the floor under us starts to crumble.

The sight of it all makes Teddie fall on his back.

Shit .

What used to happen when we were about to enter a dungeon? God, why is it so hard to remember!?

They gather the party, the rest stay here as backup, and and and…

Rise.

“They’re waiting on us, we gotta move!” I yell and turn to point at Rise, “Rise-san, ask him if he’s ready to leave. Just like any other time!”

“I-I used to do that?”

“Yes, you did, and he needs you to do so again. Or otherwise, we’ll be falling through this world and I’m not willing to find out how it feels to fall for an eternity.”

Rise gives me a  determined nod.

She truly cares about us. About him .

“Y-you ready to head on in, Senpai?” Rise asks, her voice unsure and trembling.

Souji freezes.

“Yes.”

In a sharp snap, like whiplash, the world turns back to normal. Almost like nothing had happened.

“You need to go. Now,” Rise commands, looking at me, Naoto and Yukiko. Today’s party. The three of us give Rise a small nod and head towards the entrance.

“We know where she is, we’ve been there...” I can hear Kanji mumble under his breath.

“I know. Poor Nana-chan,” Teddie sighs, only now his legs having the strength to help him stand up.

“I’m totally with you, guys, but now’s not the time to get stupid, okay?” and Chie’s voice is that last I hear before stepping through the spiraling portal and starting a new quest.

 


 

We beat the gundam-looking shadow easily. Gaia Sword in hand and hopefully things calming down in here from now on, Souji uses a Goho-M and the four of us appear at the entrance.

No one but Rise greets us as we arrive. She asks Souji if we should return back. Hell yeah, let’s get out of here and back to Heaven! We’ve got Nanako-chan to save!

And we end up going back. Just not back to get Nanako. But back to Inaba.

What the hell are they thinking!?

The others are also pretty upset over the turn of these events. Our jaws clenched, we watch Souji walk away without saying a word.

Of course it’s Kanji that breaks the silence by slamming his fist to the table.

“To hell with this!”

“I agree with Kanji,” Yukiko breaths deeply, joining Kanji over the table, “There must me something we can do.”

Silence falling between us, we all take a seat around our usual table.

I can imagine what’s going on through the heads of my friends. Because it’s probably the same that’s going through mine: is there a way for us to help Nanako, despite them not playing along. Would that even be possible without Souji? Could we enter the TV World without Souji?

“Could we enter the TV World without Souji?” Rise asks, her voice resolute.

Ah, thank you for voicing my exact thoughts, Rise. She truly is such an attuned person. No wonder everyone likes her. Why they like her, I assume.

“Ain’t gonna find out if we don’t try!” Kanji shoots up from his seat, turning his gaze to Naoto, looking for confrontation or confirmation, I don’t know. She sighs rather frustrated. I can understand how she’s feeling. Kanji’s been at her throat this whole day. I should ask what’s up with him, but there be time for that later. Seriously, what the hell, dude?

“Dude, leave her alone,” I tell Kanji, trying to muster up my best second-in-command impression. It doesn’t quite work, there’s still fire in his eyes, but at least he sits back down.

“Thank you, Yosuke-senpai, but in this case I must agree with him,” Naoto says with a small smile on her lips, “Though I wouldn’t have put it quite like that...”

She seems to be brushing off the attitude Kanji’s giving her. I get it, given the situation, but she really shouldn’t just have to take it with a smile. Okay, after we’re done here, I’ll be a true second-in-command and talk some sense into that thick skull of yours, Kanji.

“Sooo, should we go and check?” Chie asks, obviously eager to get the ball rolling. Beats just sitting here.

“Yeah, we should,” I say as I stand up. Damn, my limbs hurt. I had almost forgot that we already spent the afternoon inside the TV.

 


 

No matter how many times I try to shove my hand through the TV, it won’t go through.

“What about Teddie? He’s from the other side,” Yukiko suggest. Teddie steps next to me and touched the TV screen. But still nothing happens.

“Awww, I was really hoping there was something we could do,” Chie bemoans while tapping the screen. One by one the rest of the team tries to get through but no avail. Should’ve known this would happen. I hate myself for getting my hopes up.

“So what now? Are we supposed just to go home?” Rise asks.

“Sadly, yes,” Naoto says from under the brim of her hat, “If we have no means to enter the TV World by ourselves, there really is nothing we can do but to wait until who or whatever is controlling Senpai decides to take us to Nanako-chan.”

None of us really has nothing else to add. It’s true. All we gotta do is wait.

And we all hate waiting.

 


 

I tell Teddie I have something to talk about with Kanji, and that I’ll be home later. After everyone has gone their own way, I catch up with Kanji.

“Oh, hi senpai. Thought you were going home.”

“Yeah, but… Um, could we talk?”

Kanji get weird and awkward.

“This isn’t gonna be shit ‘bout my Shadow, is it?” he grits through his teeth. Okay okay, I get where he’s coming from, I totally do. But that wasn’t me that gave him all those stupid and nasty comments, about which way he swings and all that, right? Right?

“I get it, you’re pissed about something I said, I get it , but dude, I wasn’t in control back then, now was I?”

“Well, dude , you haven’t made the effort to say you’re sorry or anything, so sorry if I’m being skeptical.”

Okay, so yeah. I deserved that. 100%. But I didn’t come here to talk about my behavior.

“Hey, you can give me shit some other day, but today I want to talk about you giving shit to Naoto-kun.”

Hearing her name always manages to make Kanji blush. Yeah, like I said, let’s not concentrate on all the stupid shit I’ve said, okay?

I’ve given myself enough shit every time I think back to all the stupid ass things I told Kanji.

And I deserve every bit of that and even more.

I was such an idiot.

And now, a big damn hypocrite.

Wait, what? A hypocrite? Why would I ever call myself a hypocrite? In this context? What? No. No no no no no.

Just an idiot. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Man, I really shouldn’t be the one having this conversation with Kanji. He’d totally have the right to just punch me in the face right now and never talk to ever again. And hate me. The feeling would be pretty mutual.

I hate myself too.

“Wha-what about her?” Kanji mutters, trying to hide his blush by turning away. Ugh, he’s being so obvious it’s adorable.

“If there’s something wrong between the two of you, like… I don’t know. Let me know if there’s something me or the others can do to help,” I shrug.

“No-nothing like that, man! Just...”

I sigh. I know what Kanji means.

“It’s just… In times like these we really need to work as a team, y’know?”

Kanji stays quiet for quite some time. Did say something wrong? Did I say something right?

Why is so hard to talk to this guy?

“Yeah, I get it man,” Kanji says while avoiding any kind of eye-contact.

Man, this probably wouldn’t be this hard if I hadn’t let things between us get this… hostile.

No matter how much I try to justify all the crap I’ve said to Kanji by telling myself I wasn’t truly in control back then… But it has become such a weak excuse.

Because back then, all those months ago, knowing me… I might’ve just as well meant every word.

“So if we’re done here Yosuke-senpai, I should get back home. Promised Ma to help out with the shop,” Kanji tells me. He seems rather anxious and ready to leave.

I should let him leave, but against my better judgement, I open up my mouth.

“I’m sorry.”

My words obviously catch Kanji off-guard. He actually turns to face me.

“Huh?”

“You heard me. I said I’m sorry.”

Crap! Didn’t mean to sound so harsh. I’m just really not very good at all with these things.

Okay, so let’s just breath in and out and take it from the beginning.

“Sorry, that came out the wrong way,” I laugh nervously, my hand finding the back of my neck. Yeah, the best way to distract myself: rubbing my neck, “But I mean what I said. I’m sorry. About all the stupid crap I’ve said.”

Kanji still seems rather uncomfortable. His eyes are wandering off to stare at something behind me. Should I keep going or what?

“Yeah, it was a long time ago but I felt like I should say something.”

Okay, now this is just getting awkward. Kanji’s eyes are now fixated on the ground.

“Um yeah, senpai, no problem. You weren’t even in control back then,” Kanji replies, trying his best to avert my gaze.

“That’s just an excuse. And it’s about time I own up to my words and apologize. This is something I should've done a long time ago,” I try to catch Kanji’s attention, giving him a friendly smile, “And dude, I totally get if you still want to punch me and continue to hate me for the rest of your life. You really don’t own me anything. Guess I just wanted to clean up the air, you know?”

Finally Kanji faces me and… Is he actually smiling ?

“Dude, I never hated you,” he gives my shoulder a light punch, “Pissed as hell? Yeah. But never hated. Because I kinda know how it is, trying to keep people away with harsh words. And… I dunno, trying to ignore your true feelings?”

Whoa. Haven’t really heard this kind of mature wisdom coming from Kanji.

“Damn, speaking like a true adult, Kanji!”

“Nah, it’s all Souji-senpai. He’s really helped me coming to terms with my… true self, I guess? Still gotta lotsa way to go,” at this, Kanji falls silent for a second, obviously in deep thought, “But I’m getting better. At least I try to do better.”

I… I don’t know what to say. I never would’ve thought that something Kanji could tell me had the potential to shake me so fully to the core.

Because holy shit is he ever right.

“I guess we’re more alike than we ever could’ve realized,” I chuckle, but to be honest, it’s a rather nervous chuckle than anything else. Because now Kanji has me thinking. And me thinking is never a good thing.

“Yeah, guess you’re right,” Kanji smiles. He then falls silent again and fishes his cell from the depths of this pockets, “I gotta send a text, but… This was good. We should talk like this again sometime, Yosuke-senpai.”

“Sure thing.”

“And we’ll save Nanako-chan, right? No matter what the ones controlling Senpai do?”

“I’m sure eventually even they will realize that we have to save her. And then Namatame will pray he’d never laid his hands on Nanako-chan. And then Chie will kick him in the face like 42 times.”

We say our goodbyes and after Kanji has walked off, I take my cell from my jacket’s pocket. Souji left in such a hurry after we came back from the other side, so I should be a good friend and make sure he’s okay.

Or as okay as one can be in this situation.

Yosuke: hey, partner. how r u feelin?

I’m not in such a hurry that I can’t just… stay and stand here while waiting for a reply, right?

Luckily for me, it only takes a minute to Souji to reply.

Souji: I’m fine.

Ah. He’s fine. He’s fine. It’s fine. He’s fine. Totally fine. Fine. Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine .

Yosuke: ok. I guess well see tomorrow?

Souji: Yes.

Yeah. He’s totally fine.

I… I should just head home.

 


 

Guess we’re not going to save Nanako today either.

Ain’t. That. Just. Great.

And I’m not the only one who’s feeling anxious over the fact that Souji is leading us towards Naoto’s secret facility.

Killing another greater Shadow today, it seems.

Not like we have a great asshole to catch or anything.

But unlike yesterday, we all seems rather compliant today. Nobody complained when Souji asked Naoto to lead us to her dungeon. And here we are, right outside the facility, and everybody’s still just playing along. Probably because by now we’ve all realized how useless it is to try to stop any of this from happening.

Well, while we are here, I’m ready to hit the facility. So Souji come at me, partner.

Come at me.

Just walk over here.

I’m right here.

Riiiiiiight here.

But Souji walks right by me and straight to Chie.

Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s fine. It’s been a while since I’ve fought beside Chie. This is gonna be good!

So how about it, Souji? Come and get me! I’m all yours!

Ah, he’s going to get Naoto. Yeah, understandable. She’s new to the team and new to fighting in here so it makes sense to let her get her bearings. Sure, dwelling into a facility that you know is the doing of your own psyche must be kinda awkward… Even though what do I know? I didn’t go through anything that awful.

Okay, so what Souji now needs is like a healer, right? Well, I can heal! I’ll keep you safe. Y’know, you as in the whole team. Yeah. Yeahhhhhh .

Just… Please, Souji. I’m right here.

But Souji walks up to Teddie, and with that the party’s full.

Okay. Okay okay okay okay. Nice nice nice nice nice.

It’s fine.

I’m fine.

We’re partners, but that doesn’t mean we have to always be together or anything. We’re… all independent and stuff. So I’ll stay here and keep up the morale. You go and be amazing. Again, you as in you all. The team. The party. You.

Wha- Why am I getting all worked up over this? Like, this has happened before, right. Used to happen a lot, right? Right? So why am I freaking out like this?

Oh, they’re getting ready to leave. Or at least Rise’s asking if Souji’s ready. Go and kick the Shadow’s ass, guys!

But Souji just stands there.

...

Um, go and kick the Shadows butt?

...

Yeah, this is officially getting weird.

“Is something wrong?” Rise asks Souji, but not daring moving an inch closer to him. Actually, we’re all frozen in place. Like we’re too afraid to do or say anything after what happened last time.

But this isn’t like last time. We have all played along!

“What the hell man?”

I have to agree with Kanji, what the hell? We play by the rules and this is what we get.

“But we didn’t do anything wrong, did we?” Yukiko asks.

“No, we didn’t! Geesh, no matter what we do things fall apart!” Chie cries, frustrated and angry.

But…

“But things are not falling apart.”

No one dares to move or turn to look at me but they all clearly heard me, their bodies twitching in attention.

“Crap, you’re right,” Chie mutters under her breath.

“But we can’t just stand here,” Yukiko exclaims, trying her best not to move.

“Maybe we won’t have to. Look!” and that’s when Naoto breaks form to point at Souji.

Whose nose is bleeding. Whose silver eyes got their signature fire back. Who’s trembling and trying his best to make his legs move. Who’s clutching to his chest in what must be pain. Who’s trying to utter words that his every being is telling him he should not .

“Yos… …ke,” but Souji can barely get a word out, just syllables, but I heard it. I heard it! He said my name. He called for me!

He’s fighting back.

He is fighting back against them .

Before I can truly progress it, my legs are moving. I’m running. And for a while everything around me slows down and becomes muted. There’s just the two of us.

Just Souji.

And as my hand clasps his, I can hear Souji whisper my name in a hoarse voice.

“You ready to get this show on the roll, partner?” I ask and can’t help but let out a small chuckle.

Things are getting crazy, and I don’t quite get what just happened, but if it means that I get my Souji back for even just a second… I’d do it all over again.

Souji lets out a tired laugh and leans his head on my shoulder, sending shivers down my spine and something warm rising up from my stomach. My whole face flares up, red as the blood that’s going crazy inside my veins and I feel lightheaded. Let’s try and not to faint right now, body. I… don’t want this moment to end abruptly.

“Yes,” Souji whispers and lifts his head to meet my eyes, giving me brightest smile I have ever seen.

(You say that about his every smile.)

He’s so beautiful.

(He is too good for you.)

He broke their control and came for me.

(He already has someone else.)

I want to kiss him.

(He will never think of you that way.)

I want to kiss you, Souji.

And then everything just gets back to… normal? Like someone just pushed a reset button. Souji straightens up and lets his hand go limp and fall next to him, forcing me to reluctantly to let go. His eyes has gone back being glazed and the smile has been wiped off, being replaced by a blank face, a blank stare. He walks back to the entrance door of the facility and still really confused but on top of her duty, Rise asks if he’s ready to go.

And without hesitation he answers yes.

Snapping back to reality, I shake my head and… Did that all just happen or was it all just in my head?

No. Holy shit, that did happen! Souji calling for me, me leaping to the rescue and wanting to kiss -

Fuck.

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfcukfuckingfuck .

Just strike me down already and lay my to the endless sleep of death.

Because in that moment I really wanted nothing more but to kiss him.

And fucking hell, I still do. With every fiber of my body. I want to wrap my hands around him, lean my body against his, head to toe, and just kiss him. Feel him.

And I...

I… I… I need to get my head back in the game.

Ye-yeah. Just take a deep breath, in and out. You can do this, Hanamura. Keep yourself together.

But…

I might be falling, but I’m not falling apart.

As were about to leave, I give Chie my apologies by mouthing a quick I’m sorry and begging that she won’t kick me in the groin. That running joke will never be funny, if you ask me. She gives me her answer by the way of sticking her tongue out. Well, I’m sorry! It’s not my fault that Souji decided to switch you out. But then Chie chuckles and waves her hand, indicating that everything's okay, I guess. Phew! You can never be too certain with her but she seems at ease. As the party follows Souji inside, from the corner of my eye I can see Chie walking up to Yukiko, whispering something in her ear and then intertwining their fingers and leaning against her.

Oh.

Ohhh .

As I step inside the facility, I can feel someone staring at me, but when I turn around, we’ve already appeared inside the secret base.

Must’ve been my imagination.

Oh well, time to show these Shadows who’s boss!

 


 

 

The ceiling looks really… ceiling-ly tonight? Very white and and and the texture…

Okay, so maybe let’s not try to distract ourselves by concentrating on the ceiling. Pretty sure it’s only making things worse. I flip on my stomach, burying my face in my pillow. But lying like this… There’s just a little bit too much… um, friction . Like any amount of friction is too much friction. And right now I’m really trying to just… ignore all of those feelings.

Kanji, you win this round. You truly are the bigger man.

And today’s feelings aren’t even about me going into perpetual meltdown mode - not that I’m a stranger to the concept, oh, not at all - but about a text. A text that I got soon after I got home after getting back from the other side.

Rise: After we save Nanako-chan, I need to talk to you.

Fuck.

Haven’t even answered her yet. Just writing “okay” seems like an impossible task. Because she’s not blind. No, she really is the most emotionally aware person I know, especially when it comes to other people. I've always thought she's too perspective for her own good.

And I’m not naive.

So I know perfectly well what she wants to talk about. And to be honest, I’m not ready to have that conversation with her.

But maybe this time it’s not just about me.

Maybe this time Kanji is right.

Time for growth, huh? If only it wasn’t that hard. Shit, didn’t I already go through with this with Souji? With the whole LEVEL UP! Jiraiya transforming into Susano-O? Will it ever get easier?

No, it probably won’t. But it won’t help if I keep covering, shutting my eyes. Or showing my face against a pillow, I guess.

I’ll text Rise back tomorrow. I promise.

I shift in my bed, dragging my lower body against the mattress. Now the... other thoughts I tried to distract myself from are coming back. Making me feel hot all over. Like my blood is boiling. And most of that heat is going straight to my groin. 

The lips. Those lips.

Fuckfuckfuck.

Seriously, this friction is not helping me after what happened today.

It’s not helping, because it’s not enough.

My hand dips beneath the waistline of my pajama pants and I lift my body until I’m kneeling but still my head buried in my pillow to… muffle any potential sounds. Feeling myself through the thin cotton of my briefs… I’m already half hard. And okay okay. This is just like any other time - even though like to do my business while showering - so just… Think of the hot nurse on that one video and just… The slender fingers making their way down my body while I’m grabbing the short grey hair, steel-grey eyes struggling to stay open because of waves of pleasure, and the lips… Those lips. A tongue darting out, licking the lips, as if trying to tell me to go for them.

I want to kiss you.

I want to kiss you, Souji.

And as that thought hits me like a truck, he’s all I can see. My mind just filled images of Souji, how he would look lying beneath me, his hands on my chest, his delicate fingers working through every muscle of my body, exploring, on a journey down under, all the while his eyes can barely stay open to drink in  the sight.

And me… And me tangling my fingers in his hair, careful not to tug too hard, while my other hand rests on his cheek, caressing that perfect jawline, my thumb slipping to feel his lips. And Souji sticking out his tongue, lucking my thumb and sending shivers through my whole body.

I let out a audible moan, trying my best to muffle it against the pillow but probably failing miserably. Managing to cover the second moan, I continue to work on myself, my hand feeling the whole length of my cock as I try to pick up the pace.

But Souji… Maybe he would like me being loud? Maybe he wouldn’t mind? Maybe he would look pleased, happy that he has such and effect on me and my body. Maybe he would bring his hand to grab the back of my neck, tenderly stroking my hair and finally lifting his head so his lips could meet mine.

As I come I have to bite in to my pillow to hide any possible sounds but some still manage to escape. Panting heavily I look down my body, between my exposed legs and yeahhh… I won’t be able to sleep in these sheets tonight.

I should've taken that long shower.

 

Chapter Text

“So, last night I jerked off while thinking about you.”

No, I actually didn’t tell Souji that. But I did almost spill the beans when he wished me a good morning during homeroom. And during lunch. And as we were leaving school. Does that mean I’ve been cured of my foot-to-mouth syndrome? Probably not. But I’m sure even my subconscious must realize how bad of an idea it would be to be brutally honest in this situation. “Hey, I know you’re constantly fighting against an enormous, ominous and unfathomable presence controlling you, desperately clinging to a sense of self that might not even exist, and even if it does, knowing that you’re never truly in control, not fully, not all the time and yeah, did I mention that your uncle is in a hospital and your niece is stuck in another world with a creepy kidnapper/killer, and they are the only family you know, but I totally think you’re hot so let’s bang okay?”

If I meant to make myself feel as horrible as possible, well… mission completed.

Shit.

But it’s all true, ain’t it? Oh god, and now I just feel… dirty . And that’s a terrible feeling to have, because… I’ve felt dirty before. Every single time time I… I… I felt those feelings towards Souji.

No! That’s not good enough! If I’m ever going to work on these toxic self-hating feelings that I’ve got, I need to be brave enough to talk about these things, even if it’s all inside my own head.

For the longest time there was this underlying feeling of… there being something wrong with me, every time I thought about how much I… I…

I…

like Souji.

Me being afraid to ever admit those feelings, ignoring them at every turn, telling myself that I’m stupid and it’s wrong and… hating myself because of it. Hating myself because of how I felt about him.

Feel about Souji.

Admitting it... Saying it out loud... Getting all this out of the open… It feels good . Damn, does it feel amazing. I feel like I’ve been freed from shackles that bound me for so so long. Like I’ve been reborn! That doesn’t mean I don’t have any issues to work through when it comes to my feelings, but I feel like I’m making good progress. I’m still insecure as hell about pretty much everything else, but I’m pretty sure about my own feelings. Just don’t asks me to put a label on them or force me to name them, because I’ve always been bad with words, compensating that fact by being able to ramble endlessly. But as long as I understand how I feel myself, it’s enough for me. At least for now. And maybe one day I’ll be able to do something with all these… feelings?

But I still shouldn’t go spilling the beans to Souji. Not right now. We’ve got more important shit to do.

 


 

We ended up not going to the TV World at all today, so I volunteered to filling in for an employee who had called in sick. Teddie was still at work, as much as you can call him chilling in his bear suit and handing kids balloons work. I end up spending my shift at the electronics department, so I can’t even keep an eye on Teddie, though based on what I’ve heard he has been working rather diligently. Maybe I should cut him some slack.

The evening is long with me just standing here, waiting for someone to need my help and pretending to take stock.

This is such a bore.

I flip my phone open to check the time. It’s still only like 7 pm. Still hours to go.

I really want to text Souji, but I don’t know if I should. He was acting kinda weird today, somewhat distant, so maybe he’s got something important on his plate, but it still made me worry if he’s doing fine. Though he has been rather few worded lately in his text, right? And hey, he’s most likely hanging out with someone, but maybe not? … Just on text.  

Yosuke: hey, u doin ok?

He might be home already, because it doesn’t take long for him to reply.

Souji: Yes.

Damn. Just like last time. And this time I can’t even come up with anything to say, so I don’t answer. And feel awful for not doing so.

 


 

And on Thursday we didn’t enter the TV World. Not even on Friday. And on Friday it rained the whole day, and for a second I thought that we were too late to save Nanako, but today the weather has cleared. Hell, tonight the sunset is beautiful. But days of not doing anything makes me and I’m sure everyone else anxious. And every day I’d text him, asking if everything was fine. And every time he’d answer with “I’m okay” or “I’m fine.” And every time I’d get a sinking feeling of that there was something very wrong.

It must have been me. I must’ve said something stupid. Did I accidentally spill the beans? I’d remember if I did, right? Crap crap crap, what if I spilled the beans and some sort of weird glitch made me forget? Did the game wipe my memory? Is the game tightening its grip around my neck because I’ve been acting up too much? Punishing for going against my programming?

Shit.

I can feel myself gasping for air, trying to get to the surface but something keeps dragging me under the water.

Deep breath.

...

Okay, so even if I didn’t spill the beans, Souji’s obviously been avoiding me and I have no idea why. Okay, I have many ideas, but all of them ideas are born from anxiety and paranoia, so I’m trying my best to ignore them. It’s not easy, these thoughts forcefully pushing themselves through my subconscious, invading my mind.  But if he’s truly avoiding me, and if I’m going to be half of the best friend Souji deserves, I should give him the space he requires. With him being trapped inside his own mind and body… And Souji has always given me the space needed, has always been ready to listen when needed. And maybe that has been because of the game and it’s a part of his programming, but dammit, it felt real! To me our friendship has never felt fake!

But.

But maybe that just doesn’t hold true to Souji anymore. Maybe in that moment of clarity inside the TV World Souji realized that he doesn’t really care about me and I’m just one face in the crowd and all this time he felt like he was forced to be my best friend and if he could choose I wouldn’t be his partner. And that he doesn’t like me like that.

Hah.

Hah hah haa…

I-I’m laughing so why is there tears in my eyes? I… I-I’m totally laughing so why am I crying!?

Ha… Ha… I always knew this was the case and would happen sooner or later. So why do I feel like I’ve been swallowed whole by the eternal darkness? I find myself physically gasping for air. And that’s when I remember that I’m in a broom closet at Junes, supposed to be working.

“Oh for god’s sake,” I mutter under my breath as I wipe away my tears and try to force myself to calm down. And failing miserably.

I… I need to get the hell out of here. Yeah, doesn't that sound like a plan? Get up and get the hell out of here! Emerging from the closet - yes brain, hardie harr, but I ain’t got time for your shitty ass jokes - I ambush the closes employee and tell her that I’m not feeling well and I’ve got to go. She tells me to get an a-okay from my dad first, but I really couldn’t care less of what dad thinks or has to say right now. Of course I’m not going to tell her that, no, I promise to go and talk to him right away.

Talk to him my ass.

No, what I need is to get out of here right now . Because now all I can feel is the walls crashing down.

I pedal on and on on my bicycle, headphones on and music blasting in my ears.The road in front of me is getting blurry, because all I really want to do is to keep moving as fast as possible. And because of the tears in my eyes. Let’s ignore that for now and just keep moving .

Moving forward, going anywhere.

Or that’s what I’m telling myself, even though I obviously have a place to go on mind. Or rather someone . Someone who’s always been there for me. But didn’t we just talk about how should be giving him some space? And hell, even if I went to see him, what makes me think I wouldn’t just run away at first sight of him because I’m not ready to face the truth? Because I want to at least try to cling to some kind of hope?

I really suck at this, don’t I?

But here I am now, at the Dojima residence.

Putting my brakes on I jump off my bike. The cats that have flocked around the house are staring at me attentively, like they’re waiting for my move. Huh? What do want me to do, ring the doorbell uninvited?

I… I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t know what I was doing, letting me come here. I know this is such a bad idea.

But while I’m here, guess I might as well see how Souji’s doing, right? Right? Right.

I’m really no good at this acting nonchalant business.

Propping my bike against the fence, I try to take peek through the windows, but the drapes have been drawn in front of the windows. Hm, that’s unusual.

But here we are, at the door. At the door. What are we humans supposed to with a door? Oh, ring the bell or maybe knock? Yeah, sounds about right. So yeah, I’m gonna do that. Just about to do that. Gonna raise my hand to push the button. Or you know, maybe I should just go home. I’m sure Souji must be busy. Maybe he doesn’t want to see me. He might not even be at home, right. But hey, if he is home perhaps we could hang out? It’s been a while. But we’ve seen each other every day at school so maybe we shouldn’t need to. But this week has been hard. Shit, a week ago I did spend the night here. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then. But things have really changed since our latest trip to TV World. Like in the moment it really did feel like he was fighting back because of me. To get to me . And for a second everything felt so right . But ever since then there really has been nothing but doubt. Did something horrible go wrong? Did they take control of him? Is he on some kind of auto-pilot? And whatever has happened to him, is it all my fault?

Or maybe I was right all along, and he really doesn’t want to see me.

I should just go.

“Some might think a guy standing outside their door is a bit creepy. I still haven’t made up my mind,” Souji chuckles, walking towards me. When did he appear around the corner?

“Ah crap,” I mumble under my breath then awkwardly turn to Souji, nervously rubbing my neck, “Uh, y’know how it is, Souji. I was just passing through and thought to come by and say hello.”

“We saw each other today at school,” he states matter-of-factly, waving his hand and letting it fall on his hips. Man, that’s such a default pose for him. Why am I noticing all this insignificant stuff right now? But he really looks so cool like that.

“Ye-yeah, you’re totally right. I really should get going,” I laugh nervously.

“Sorry, I apologize. That came out wrong,” Souji says, his bangs falling to hide his eyes, “I’m not doing anything so stay if you’d like.”

If I’d like. Dude, as if you’d have to ask! But what I’m not that sure about is that if Souji really wants me to stay. He is avoiding to look at me and while his pose might seem confident, the rest of his body language seems rather uncomfortable.

“I should just go,” I tell him, forcing my hand to stay put because everyone knows that when Yosuke Hanamura is rubbing his neck something is up. So instead I turn to walk up to my bike.

“No! Wait!” Souji shouts after me and leaps to grab my arm. A warm feeling fills my chest, but Souji’s face lets me know that this really isn’t the moment to get all giddy.

“Stay,” he whispers, his gaze locked on me and his face serious.

And without hesitation, I answer “Okay.”

 


 

I followed Souji to the backyard where I sat down on the small terrace but Souji stayed standing up, his eyes closed. And since then Souji had stayed really quiet, probably trying to gather all his thoughts, trying to find the right words. Or maybe he just didn’t have anything to say. I’m fine with either, really. I’ll wait until you’re ready to talk, Souji. I’m in no hurry, so I won’t be going anywhere Instead I turn my gaze to the sky. Damn, it’s beautiful today. And with the sunset and all… Breathtaking.

A sight I’m so happy to share with you, Souji.

“I want to save her,” Souji finally whispers, “More than anything. I need to save Nanako.”

“I know. Me too,” is all I can say. I know the feeling. I had someone I wanted to save, too.

Souji turns around and gives me the faintest of smiles, hiding his eyes behind his bangs, “Thank you.”

“I’m sure even they have to realize that sooner or later we gotta save Nanako-chan!” I tell him with a bright and encouraging smile on my face.

“Hopefully sooner,” Souji sighs, “I apologize. I guess I’m just not sharing your confidence.”

I would do anything to help you to carry your load.

Please, let me help!

“Is there anything I can do?”

My question obviously surprises Souji. He’s staring at my determined face dazed. But I’m not fazed. I meant it.

“You, uh, yo-you...” Souji stammers. And are his legs trembling slightly..? “So-sorry, I’m not really used to people asking me something like that.”

“Guess I’m just full of surprises,” I chuckle slightly, trying to dupe some confidence. Luckily Souji is too shocked to notice I’m totally faking. Finally, managing to look cool in front of partner! … If only the occasion was way better.

“I appreciate you asking, but I don’t know if there’s anything you can do to help,” Souji tells me, his face back being serious. But only for a second, because suddenly he’s looking at me with that warm smile of his, “Other than just being here. So thank you.”

The air between us is getting less tense, calming even. A genuine smile creeps on my face as I give Souji a reassuring nod. He finally sits down next to me and everything feels right in the world. At least as long as you ignore all the things that are going wrong. Shove them in the background. Somewhere over there. Far away from here. Making them easy to ignore. Or maybe it’s just my selfish brain that’s getting rather distracted because of Souji’s words. Dude, I’ll never be worthy of your praise. I give him a soft push on his shoulder.

“You and your cheesy words.”

“I know you love it,” Souji smirks and shoves me back.

You know I do.

“So, why did you really come over?” he finally asks, knitting his brows together and his voice low.

Okay, let’s come up with the best excuse. What did we get for homework today? Tooootally missed it! Nah, he’d just tell me that I could’ve texted and wouldn’t actually come by just because of that. Hey, about this new gear you got me? Tell me more! Yeah, probably wouldn’t work, we usually talk about gear as we’re getting ready to hit a dungeon. Dating advice? Got this hot date with a girl and - Okay, let’s not even go there, how about that?

“I don’t know?” I try but my nervous laughter betrays me, so Souji fixes me with a friendly stare, obviously trying to encourage me to tell the truth.

Yeah, why did I come here? I explicitly told myself not to come. How it would be a bad idea. Because Souji would talk to me when he’s ready. But no, Hanamura had to selfish and do as he pleases. Because he’s a shitty friend like that.

Thanks, brain, for the daily dose of self-love and positivity!

And yeah, that was sarcasm, brain.

Crap, what was I saying? I was supposed to tell something to Souji, right? Oh yeah! Why did come here!

Why did I…

“Guess I just wanted to see you?”

Aww man, way to sound needy! Or maybe creepy? Both? Both.

And am I… blushing!?

Yes, I definitely am. And now that I know the reason I’m blushing, realizing that I am, makes me go even redder.

And Souji is sitting next to me… Was he always sitting this close? Holy shit, his shoulder is almost touching mine, his whole body radiating warmth and his hand resting next to mine, close enough to touch and pretend it was by accident. Or just to grab his arm and pull him close to get a taste of those lips that have been on my mind this whole goddamn week.

And as if Souji could sense all these thoughts that keep popping up and filling my mind, he shifts away from me.

Of course.

I knew it.

Fool’s hope.

“Wanted to see me? Well, here I am!” Souji smirks and spreads his hands and points at himself, “But I must inform you that I’m quite ordinary and boring. Sorry to disappoint.”

“You could never disappoint.”

Shit! Did I say that out loud!?

Even Souji falls silent for a beat.

Okay okay okay, I can still save this. I can come up with something and smooth things over. I can -

“I could say the same about you,” Souji whispers. His eyes had been glued to the ground, but now he raises eyes to meet mine.

Ho-ly shitfuckcrapohmygod .

I’m sure my heart stops for a full minute. Based on how often that has been happening, I’m shocked I’m not actually dead.

Oh wait, yeah, not actually alive, just a piece of programming. But no no no, I really don’t need that crap right now. Not when Souji is sitting right next to me, looking at me with such intense eyes, making it really hard to breath.

Yeah, I‘ve totally stopped breathing.

Did my mind just play some real sick trick on me or did Souji just say that? Because at this point my anxiety is going haywire whenever Souji says pretty much anything positive to me, because why on earth would he? He must know who he’s talking to.

Souji lays his hand on my shoulder and gives it a gentle and comforting squeeze, almost as if he can hear all the doubts that keep invading my head. His touch instantly calms my mind, like a tidal wave that washes through my mind, clearing all my insecurities. At least for a while.

Thanks, partner .

And Souji doesn’t let go, just lets out a deep sigh.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so distant these couple of days,” he mutters and breathes in deeply and then breaths out, “So yes, I apologize.”

“Nah, it’s fine. I figured you’d talk to me when you’re ready.”

“So that’s why you appeared behind my door unannounced?”

Damn.

Not that he’s wrong, now is he?

“Sorry, that came out wrong. Again,” Souji groans, his hand now letting go of my shoulder, fingers lingering and bringing them to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“No no no, you’re absolutely right! I… I actually told myself that I shouldn’t come here, but I just...”

After the day I’ve had I just really needed to see my best friend.

“... ended up here, I guess. Or found myself being drawn here, y’know?”

“Oh,” Souji replies and falls silent, deep in thought. Is this a good or a bad sign?

“But the story obviously didn’t mandate you to come here. So why did it bring you here?”

Um… Didn’t think he’d go there .

“It’s not like there’s anything going on here, right?”

Okay, he’s going full-blown protagonist. Thinking about this way too deeply.

“Or maybe that means something’s about to happen?”

I... should probably explain.

“Could it be something bad? But… how could it get even wor-”

“Sorry cut off your train of thought going 100 miles per hour, but it’s about to hit a wall, so I’ll save you.”

“You’re making bad jokes. That means you’re nervous.”

“But you love my bad jokes!”

“Oh, I didn’t realize that’s what I was implying, Yosuke! I thought I was making a point about you being nervous,” Souji laughs and bumps his shoulder against mine.

“Okay okay, you got me. But you were going kinda overboard.”

But it was you who told me you just ended up here?”

Buuut I didn’t say I literally ended up here. Y’know I meant it more...”

“Figuratively?”

“Ending each other's sentences? Cute.”

“No need to mock me.”

“Since when is cute mockery?”

“Okay, now you’re just trying to distract me and it’s almost working. You were about to tell me how you ended up here in a totally non game-related way or something like that?”

“Yeah, okay. Uh, it’s like I said. I needed to see you.”

“... And?”

And what?”

“Sorry. It’s just usually there’s a reason why one would need to see somebody.”

Oh. Of course.

“I...”

I need to know how you feel about me. Tell me I’m your friend. Tell me I’m your partner. Tell me I’m special to you. Tell me… Tell me that you don’t hate me.

Let’s not go with that.

“Uh, I just had the worst day at work so I guess I just needed to vent to someone?”

Yeah, way better.

“Oh. I get it,” Souji answers but does he sound kinda… disappointed? Nah, I must be imagining it, “So tell me all about it, partner!”

“Yeah, of course,” I mumble, trying to find my words as I talk. Stall! Stall! Stall! I get up and kick the ground. That’s what frustrated people do! And and and… Clench my fist! Yeah yeah, I’m doing great! What’s next? Groan? Yell?

“Angry customer? Frustrated salesperson? Oh, did your father catch you slacking off?”

What?

“What?”

“Sorry, thought we were playing charades.”

“U-uh, no. I was being frustrated?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! But you’re acting weird, so maybe just… sit back down and tell me what’s wrong?”

Damn! Why does he have to know me so well?

A gust of wind blows past us, making me shiver and the hair at the back of my neck stand. Totally forgot how late it actually was. You really shouldn’t stay outside this late or you’ll spend the next week in bed.

“It’s getting cold. Let’s continue this inside,” Souji says as if he read my mind and points at the door. My head is telling me to leave… But since when have I’ve been any good at listening to my head?

“Dude, up to you.”

Souji gets up and slides the glass doors open. I follow him inside, toe off my shoes and bring them to the entrance. Meanwhile Souji sits down on the couch and puts on the TV.

“Every day’s great at your Junes,” is the first thing I hear as I emerge back in the living room. Great! Just what I need.

“Bad timing,” Souji mutters and gives me an apologetic smile.

“It’s not like TV station could’ve known I’ve had a shitty day work today. Or every day.”

“Don’t worry, I’m only going to check the weather.”

“Take your time,” I tell him as I sit next to him on the couch.

“No no, you were in the middle of something so I’ll be quick. I’m not going to be the one derailing you. You seem to be able to do that pretty well yourself.”

“Sorry. But I did come here uninvited.”

“And I know why,” Souji sighs and shuts off the TV, “I said it once and I’ll say it again. I’m sorry for being so distant this past week. It must have made you feel like you couldn’t talk to, other than by literally appearing behind my door. It’s just… These few days have been... ”

He falls silent, eyes glued on the floor.

Is he… going to finish that sentence or..?

“I understand. With everything that’s going on with Nanako-chan and Dojima-san...”

Souji whispers something that I can’t quite make out. Something something about more than something something or other? I don’t know.

“Huh?”

“U-uh, nothing. Besides, we were talking about you, weren’t we?”

I breath in deep. Time to stop running.

I need to say something .

Anything.

“We’re still partners, right?”

Souji turns to look at me dumbfounded. Finally he bursts out laughing. But when he realizes I’m not laughing, his face turns earnest and he smiles.

Still didn’t really tell Souji the reason I came, but the question does manage to distract Souji. And also I really need to know the answer.

“Of course we are,” he reassures me, patting me on my knee and… letting it rest there. It’s when I remember that I forgot to breath out. Suddenly the whole concept of breathing seems wild. People really do that? How? Why?

Really, how am I still alive?

“Yeah. Okay. Cool,” I mumble while trying to keep the blushing at a minimum, because it’s not like Souji knows how his touch makes me… feel . So how about if we laugh nervously to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re totally crushing on our best friend? And why am I talking about myself in plural?

“That’s all I needed to hear,” I finally breathe out. Souji pats my knee again and lets it slide off, his hand finding its place between our bodies. I don’t even realize I’m letting my hands slide off my lap and next to me, until I feel my pinky brushing Souji’s hand. And I let it rest there. And I can feel the blood rushing through my body, making me feel all kindsa warm. It feels like my skin is on fire.

“May I ask what sparked this question?”

Hahaha, sparked .

Okay, not the time for shitty puns.

“It’s just… After what happened in the TV World... I was afraid that I broke something.”

Silence.

But not awkward silence. No, this silence has some underlying sorrow in it.

This is worse.

“If you don’t want to get into it, I understand.”

Souji nods. And I take it as such that that’s it, conversation closed. Maybe I should just… leave? Yeah, that would be for the best.

I wasn’t even supposed to come here.

“So… I guess I’ll see later?”

I get up and wave my goodbyes to Souji.

“I remember that… I just couldn’t do it.”

I didn’t even have time to turn around to leave.

“That I couldn’t go on without my partner.”

He smiles, but tries to hide it.

“Couldn’t go on without you.”

His voice is husky. I don’t know how to feel about it. But I sit back down. And he lays his hand on my shoulder.

“And when you grabbed my hand and wrapped your arms around me...”

He breathes in deep. He lets out a long sigh. He tries to hold back, but can’t help but chuckle.

“For a moment I felt so alive .”

And he beams and beams and beams and his face is so bright it’s almost blinding.

Maybe I didn’t screw it up. Maybe I made it right.

But then his hand goes limp and his fingers trembling down my arm until it hits the couch and his face turns sorrowful. And I understand why. I didn’t make it right. I made it worse .

“After that...”

His voice is hollow. Almost as if they are taking control of him.

“After that I can’t quite remember what happened. I know that we entered the secret base and beat the Shadow. But it’s more than a little hazy.”

I have no idea what else to do but to listen to him talk. Because I’m still not used to hear him talk this much. He usually never talks, unless he has to.

But that Souji really isn’t the real Souji.

And… that’s something I still have difficulties to wrap my head around.

But it must be even harder for Souji himself.

He told me that before that he couldn’t really feel a difference, the two aspects emerging together, forming the entity that Souji could call self. And now… after what happened in the TV World… I ripped a chasm deep into Souji’s psyche and made the rift between him and them impossible to ignore.

“It was… distressing to be so violently yanked out of your consciousness. I once told you how hard it could be to discern them from myself but in that moment I truly felt like me .”

There’s tears forming in his eyes. He doesn’t even try to hide them. Not that he should, no. It’s just… This really isn’t the same Souji I met last spring? But then again, I’m really not the same person either. But in moments like these it just feels like everything’s moving way too fast, even though we have been going through this shit for months now.

Fuck, I am so useless, aren’t I?

My best friend is here pouring his heart out and I can’t do anything but to sit silently because I’m too busy freaking out and don’t know what to say. How did we end up like this? I was supposed to be the one good at talking! Maybe not good with words, but at least I should be able to talk and ramble, to distract Souji from this pain.

“But you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

A pointed question from Souji forces me to get my head out of my ass.

“Yeah,” I answer in a haze.

Souji laughs and pats me on the back, “Good to see you’re still with me. I was afraid I had talked you to sleep.”

“Oh, you wish,” I smirk mockingly and give Souji a playful shove. He seems to have calmed down, obviously looking for an excuse to distract himself. And if that’s what he needs, I’ll provide, “Probably would have slept better than in ages, if you did.”

Souji knits his brows together in concern, “You’re not sleeping well?”

“Uh... ”

Oookay, so not that kinda excuse. I don’t want to tell Souji that it’s him who’s been keeping up these past few nights. Because I’ve been worried about him, of course! Not because those lips have been keeping me awake. Those lips that are now drawn in a troubled line.

Crap.

“I understand. It’s because of me? I really haven’t been a great friend this week,” Souji sighs and slouches down in his seat, “It just has been… I’ve been...

“Seriously, don’t sweat it! As someone who’s gone through it, I get it, I totally get it!” I try to tell Souji, cutting him off and fretting and rubbing my neck.

“No! Yosuke, I appreciate you trying to comfort me, but I was wrong,” Souji exclaims, gets up and turns to face me, “And I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I’ve just been so...

And Souji falls silent, his whole body stiffening, clenching his hands.

“I’ve… I’ve been... ”

I’ve never seen Souji this upset. I’ve seen him getting emotional during these past few months, but genuinely this panicky and upset? Never .

And it’s breaking my heart to see him like this.

I reach out to grab Souji’s hand, entwining our fingers. You said it made you feel more like you last time, maybe it’ll help this time too. Please let me make you feel better!

It takes a split second for Souji to notice I’ve grabbed his hand, his eyes flicker to our linked hands and then back to me, his face surprised.

“Y-y-you said it, y’know, h-helped you last time so... I-I just had to try, yeah?” I stutter, and maybe I should just let go of his hand, this was such a stupid idea to begin with, you can do it, Hanamura, just let go .

That’s when Souji squeezes my hand. His thumb is doing circles against my skin. It sends shivers from my hand through my whole body.

“Thanks, partner,” he smiles.

Partner… That word that I call Souji by constantly, but coming from him… They have never called me partner. Only Souji himself.

Only when he’s truly himself.

Souji visibly relaxes and takes a step towards me, still holding my hand, still doing that with his thumb. He must be doing it unconsciously, I’m sure of it.

“This past week I’ve been trying to rationalize this all. Come up with a logical explanation. Because what happened shouldn’t be possible in any way. I mean, being able to gain control after a scene is done? When absolute control is no longer needed? Sure! But in the middle of action? When I’m under direct control?”

“Impossible?”

“Highly. And most surely dangerous. For the whole build of the game.”

“I know what you mean.”

Souji lets go of my hand and raises his eyebrow quizzingly. Oh yeah, he probably doesn’t remember that either.

“I’ve seen it happen, this world breaking down. How fragile it can be when things don’t go according to...”

“... The script.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

A silent beat passes between us. Souji takes a few steps, pacing in front of me, bringing his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose or maybe trying to straighten glasses that are not there.

“What made you go with it?” Souji suddenly asks and steps in front of me.

“Huh?”

“The script. What made you go with the script?”

“You.”

“Me?”

I nod, “You and the whole world breaking around us, y’know?”

Souji turns away from me, his shoulders tensing.

“Oh,” he murmurs, “Of course. If the game collapsed, there’s no way to know what would happen to us.”

“Yeah,” I nod again. Souji stays put, his back to me, making it impossible to me to read his face to get a clue what’s on his mind.

“When I broke free… Did something similar happen?”

“I’m not sure. It all happened so fast… Maybe this time the world didn’t have time to, I don’t know, react?”

I can hear Souji sigh. His shoulders are still tense, “That must be it. Thank you, Yosuke.”

He sounds absent-minded and still keeps his distance. And I know why.

So why do insist on talking about the things that hurt him the most? Why do I keep bringing up all these things that remind him that he’s a prisoner in his own body? Why do I do this to him? Just to hear him talk? To make him need me?

I really am that selfish.

When did it get so dark outside? How long have I been here?

“It’s getting late,” I murmur as I get up, “I should head home.”

Souji doesn’t turn around or answer me. I take that as a sign to leave immediately. I’m already in the hallway, putting on my shoes, when a question interrupts me:

“You never gave me a straight answer to why you came here, now did you?”

I turn to face Souji.

Hah, straight! Good one!

“Ain’t no straight answer to that.”

…………….

“What did you say?”

Um, yeah. What did I just say?

What in the actual fuck did I just say!?

I turn as quickly as I can away from Souji, hiding my bright red face.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!

“Uh, u-um, I said crap, dad has called me dozens of times because I left work early without telling him and that I’m sure he’ll be forcing me to do a double shift tomorrow so I probably won’t be able to go to the TV World, but hey, I’m sure you’ll be able manage without me.”

“Quite the mouthful. I’m surprised you managed to say all that in a half a dozen words.”

Okay, time to panic, high alert, Defcon one, abort mission!

Seriously, one day my cursed mouth will be the death of me. But it seems that before that happens, I am to suffer a fate worse than death.

Holy shit, I’m turning into Teddie, with these wild sayings and blooming metaphors!

“One would think that by now you’d have realized I’m not going to fight Shadows without you. I’m sure our last visit made it quite clear.”

I laugh weakly. No… Don’t bring it up...

(Here you are again, Hanamura. Making him talk about it all. Making sure that he will always need you.)

Souji pokes me on my shoulder. I turn around slowly, trying to force my cheeks to calm the fuck down. Souji gives me an encouraging smile and hand me something.

“Your cell. It must’ve dropped from your pocket. It was on the couch.”

Oh .

(When will you understand that he doesn’t want you like that. That he doesn’t care about you like that.)

“Thanks,” I tell him and snatch the phone back. Well, my cover was blown right from the start.

(Wake up, Hanamura! You don’t deserve him! If he really knew how you felt about him, if he could see behind that mask, there would be nothing but contempt in his heart for you!)

Sticking the phone back into my pocket, I firmly grab the doorknob. And I’ll turn it. And I’ll turn it. And I’ll turn. And I’ll -

Why is my hand shaking?

Why am I shaking?

(Why don’t you just leave!?)

There’s touch on my neck and my breath hitches. The touch trails down my back and I let go of the doorknob. Two arms wrap around me and I lean into the embrace. And there’s a whisper in my ear: “I understand.”

No. No, Souji, you don’t understand. The only way you could understand is if you were -

“I’m just as confused as you.”

Silver stands land on my shoulder as Souji buries his face against my back. And I can’t move and I can’t move and I can’t move and I can’t move.

“Souji...” I let out as a desperate plea and it almost comes out as a moan.

He breathes in deep, his fingers digging into my sides. Yes, please. My eyes flutter, trying desperately to stay open and my tongue flickers to lick my lips. And he raises his head until I can feel his breath on the nape of my neck, his lips ghosting the bare skin there. Yes, more .

“Souji,” and that definitely comes out as a moan and my hand goes to grab Souji’s hand that’s been digging into my left side. I turn my head, exposing my neck in hopes that those lips would touch it and leave a trail that would lead to my own parted lips.

I let out a loud gasp that makes my whole body shiver.

And that’s when Souji jolts, almost stumbling as he backs away from me.

“I-I’m so sorry, Yosuke, I… I don’t know what got to me… I shouldn’t have… Y-you were a-and I just...  But no, it was wrong and...”

Wrong .

(That’s what he thinks of the feelings you harbor for him. Feelings that make you pine after him.)

“I see,” I breath, but it’s hollow. Like some just kicked me to the chest.

“Yosuke, please forgive me! I never meant to betray your trust like this! I-it’s… It just has been so confusing and complicated and bewildering, but that’s no excuse to… And god, with everything that’s been going on… It was wrong and I never should’ve done any of this.”

Wrong.

(You heard him, Hanamura! Those feelings are repulsive, abhorrent and disgusting! They are wrong!)

“It’s okay, I -” I whisper weakly, but Souji cuts me off.

“No, it was not okay! I crossed the line and it was wrong wrong wrong. If… If anyone ever did that to me, I would feel disgusted and used and betrayed and violated and and and -”

What I feel is wrong .

(He doesn’t love you! When will you see!?)

I swallow hard and bite the insides of my cheeks to keep the tears at bay. Then I finally turn to face Souji.

“I’m fine. I forgive you,” I tell him, clenching my jaw. And I hope he doesn’t notice I’m barely holding myself together.

Souji doesn’t calm down, not at all, but he gives me a weak nod while taking even more steps back, trying to get himself as far away from me as possible. Yeah, message received. And I open the door and step into the cold, dark night, the darkness enveloping me. And as I close the door behind me, I can finally let loose and crumble.

This is how it feels to fall apart.

 


 

On Sunday I pretend to be sick.

Teddie tries to ask if something is wrong, but I don’t answer.

Wrong.

I’m the one who’s wrong.

Inside and out, infected wholly.

And there is no cure.

 


 

Monday is finally the day we enter the TV World intending to save Nanako. And yeah, after what went through last weekend I’m anxious as hell to even be in the same room as Souji. Luckily I’m a freaking expert at pushing all these thoughts way back in my brain in the deepest and darkest hole and pretend that everything's a-okay. Because I really don’t want to drag my friends into this shit.

So when Rise recaps this week’s weather for the team I have no problems staring past her, trying to ignore Souji who’s sitting right next to her. And it seems that he’s not having any problems ignoring me. Or letting things get awkward. And that’s of course because this isn’t the Souji from Saturday. This isn’t the real Souji. Or you know what, since he is the protagonist of this story, maybe this is the real Souji and -

Brain, I was supposed to ignore him, wasn’t I? So going on weird existential tangents isn’t really helping.

I’m starting to realize that maybe my and everyone else’s lives would’ve been so much easier if we never found out the truth. Yeah, I know it seems kinda, I don’t know, hypocritical so say that, knowing that searching for the truth is our explicit reason of being, but this… In hindsight I could’ve closed my eyes from this.

Okay, I’m lying. No matter how much I might regret ever going through and opening up my eyes to the realities of this world every now and then, that regret gets pretty much forgotten when I see my friends. How they - despite everything - still seem happier than I’ve ever seen. And I never quite registered the fact that we really didn’t hang out together without Souji before. Not that I wouldn’t want to hang out with Souji - even after last weekend - but it’s been good to see the others starting to hang out with each other even when the protagonist isn’t there. It has really brought some of them really closer together. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve seen Chie and Yukiko spend this much time together, just the two of them, like ever. Damn, if I was Souji I might be a little jealous!

Oh man, brain, seriously, are we done with the tangents? When I said that I’m good at pushing away inconvenient feelings, I didn’t mean I’m really good at going on multiple rambles inside my own mind just to ignore the fact that my best friend and I had an… awkward encounter a few days ago and I have feelings towards him and how this whole situation is way more complicated than my mind can take and I’m pretty sure it me who’s making it all so confusing. With my feels .

I’m so sorry, brain, that I got you all tangled up in this mess. Believe me, I hope there were some easy answers, but I’m starting to think that this whole story demands that I suffer.

Yeah. That’s the regret settling in.

Chie slams the palm of her hand on the table and jumps up. Didn’t even hear what she just said, but since everyone is getting up that must mean we’re moving. In that case I should get a hold of myself. We’re on an important mission. Can’t afford to get distracted. Or to get ahead of the game.

 


 

Okay, last stop by the mysterious fox that keeps following us to the other side. I’m starting to think it’s actually a Shadow that just got lost and found itself in our world. Kinda like with Teddie. Because if that creature is supposed to be just a regular fox… Why? Like I don’t understand what kind of use money - actual money, as in yens - could have to a fox? It doesn’t even talk. So how come it seems to have very in depth understanding of capitalistic economy? Does it by dog treats online? And come to think of it, why do Shadows drop money?

Okay okay okay, I’m going to stop myself now. I bury my face in my hand, hoping that no one notices how much I’m faking that everything is alright. Smile? Yeah, that oughta chill everyone’s minds. Everything’s cool here! Look at me, being all cool and stuff. Yeah. Cool.

Kanji hands me my bunch of the mysterious leaves. Don’t ask me how it works but I instantly feel reinvigorated. Ready to take on the world! … Or just Namatame for now and save Nanako!

Don’t worry, your big bro will save you!

… Finally .

 


 

Finally, we’re here. Me, Souji, Kanji and Yukiko are facing Shadow Namatame - or whatever the hell that’s supposed to be - while the rest of the team watches over Nanako. Keep her safe, guys, we’ve got an ass to kick!

It’s starts out pretty normal, this giant robed creature throwing around random spells at us and we manage to deal with that pretty well. It keeps mumbling about saving Nanako, but luckily I can just ramp up the volume of my headphones and disregard everything it says. Later it moves to power up random spells and that’s still pretty easy to deal with. Souji keeps giving instructions to us, and crap. He might be under their influence right now but his eyes are blazing.

But then things get bad.

The creature seems to emit some kind of signal, almost like when Rise is trying to locate someone with her Persona, and… suddenly Yukiko runs and takes her place next to the monster.

Did it just..?

“Yukiko!” Chie lets out a heartbreaking cry and tries to leap in the middle of the battle, but Naoto catches her before she does.

“It’s only a part of the battle,” Naoto states to the obviously upset Chie, actually managing to somewhat calm her down. Chie nods, but doesn’t join the rest of the team sitting by Nanako. She stays behind us as the second line of defense. Even Naoto stays by her side, readying her gun.

Lucky for us, Yukiko only keeps attacking us with her fans and not fire. But we’re missing our healer, so it makes the creature before us even more dangerous. After a few rounds of me trying to keep my friends alive, Yukiko returns back to us. She takes her place next to Kanji and takes her battle stance, but you can clearly see her hands trembling.

Kanji’s next on the creatures list, and I must say, I’m not looking forward to taking a beating from him. He’s our best physical fighter, hell, he can take care of Shadows all by himself. Just give him a large object like a chair or a desk and he’ll crush anything that gets in his way. And it seems I’m the one in his way right now and take a hit from a big ass shield. Who thought giving Kanji a big shield to hit people was a good idea? Guess it’s usually Shadows that the shield hits… Luckily I manage to dodge Kanji’s rush-attack.

Soon after the monster starts to mumble something again. Hoping that it is on its last legs, I can’t also help but to think that I’m lucky it didn’t take control of me.

But that’s when I can feel the creature’s signal inside my mind, compelling me to move. And it’s not just me but Kanji and Yukiko, too.

Shit shit shit shit, this is bad.

The three of us run and join the creature and ready our weapons. And now Souji stands alone as the first line of defense. Chie makes a move to join him, but a glance from Naoto makes her freeze. Probably for the best.

I really hope this is the finale of this fight and that it’ll be over soon. Really not keen on fighting Souji, but I know it’s no use trying to defy the game. Either it ignores the smallest acts of rebellion and continues as if none of it happened, or you try to break the rules and the game crumbles and destroys everything. Not a big fan of either of those options.

I calm down and tell myself it’s just a stupid gimmick. Even though, I’m sure if losing control wasn’t already a regular occurrence for us, the concept of being controlled and made to fight your friends against your will would be really traumatic.

Shit, it kinda makes me feel awful.

Realizing how numb I’ve become to the feeling of losing control.

Okay, so we will hack and slash Souji a couple of times and he’ll take it, because he’s the best fighter, he’s got the best equipment, he’s our leader and he’s the goddamn hero of this story, and then he’ll probably say something sappy to break the control of this creature. Power of friendship saves the day! Isn’t that how it always goes in stories like this?

I let my body do what the game wants it to do and I rush to hit Souji with my kunais, there really is no use trying to fight against the will of the game. Everyone of us attack Souji with our weapons. Even the creature switches to physical attacks, so Souji changes his Persona to Thor. Good thinking, partner! Minimum damage from physical! Mighty attacks! Afterwards he grabs some ointment to heal himself. I’m not sure if he’s stalling to find out if the creature has some other tricks up its huge sleeves, or if he isn’t attacking in fear of hurting one of us. But because it’s them who’s in charge right now, I’m pretty sure it’s the former. Can’t see why they would be worried about us.

It’s my turn to attack. I’ll probably just rush at Souji again, attack him and be done with it. A few rounds of this and it must be the end. Yeah. Yeah…

“Persona.”

Um, body, why would I need Susano-O if I’m just going to…

No.

No!

And that’s when my body jumps in the to slash through the card that just manifested in front of me with my kunai, summoning Susano-O. And it attacks Souji with a Garudyne. And it lands, sending Souji flying in the air, hitting the ground hard. He sits up, but doesn’t have the strength to stand on his feet. And I know what that means. I know what the game wants me to do.

NO!

But before I can even try and stop my body, it has already leap to attack the defenseless Souji, who’s desperately trying to get up, leaning against his sword, trying to prop his body up. But my body doesn’t care, closing the gap between us quickly and attacking fiercely. Both of my kunais hit in two bloodless slashes, and Souji falls on his knees.

There’s no battle damage to be seen on him, his school uniform looking pristine, his hair looking stylish and his skin looking as perfect as ever. No signs of the fact that he just got attacked with wind magic and knives. But his eyes… There’s pain in his eyes. Pain that turns into eyes-widening in shock. His sword falls to the ground with a sharp clang as his fingers waver. And Souji raises his head and our eyes meet, his gaze pleading and panicked and pained and my body won’t move, just stays there, frozen.

This is our Souji. I don’t know how or why, but he is our Souji right now. He’s here. And he’s hurting real bad.

Diarama. Just use Diarama!

But my body won’t comply.

Souji reaches out to me, his arm is weak and barely holds up, but his reaches out to me. He winces, shutting his eyes is pain.

No no no no no no no.

Don’t do this to him.

You forced me to do this. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t in control. I… I… I…

“Yosk-” Souji whispers before his body fails him and he tumbles down. And there he lies. Unmoving.

I… I killed him.

This is my fault.

My friends are screaming for Souji around me, but I find myself not caring enough to listen. Because I did this. With my own hands. There might be no visible blood on them, but I can feel it. I can feel it my bones, corrupting my whole being.

I finally gain the control of my body and with a shocked jolt the kunais fall from my hands, my body falling on its knees next to Souji’s cold body. My mind goes blank, nothing but the sight of Souji’s dying face on my mind.

I killed him. I killed Souji.

This… This can’t be the end! Souji is the hero of this story! It can’t end like this! We were supposed to save Nanako and catch the killer! I was supposed to avenge Saki!

Saki… She spent her last moments is this world. This world and the one who forced her in killed her.

I won’t let that happen to Souji!

There must be something we can do! Balm of Life. We need Balm of Life!

But suddenly everything goes white and -

Beyond this door are Nanako and Namatame, the killer. Oh, it’s time for a showdown!

We push through the door and run to the base of some stairs, and there at the top stands Namatame, holding the terrified Nanako as a hostage. That damn bastard! Nanako calls for Souji, and Namatame tightens his grip around her.

“Are you Namatame?” Souji asks, his voice calm. Of course he would be calm even in a situation like this.

“You… know me?” the man holding Nanako asks, his mannerisms rather meek. Wouldn’t have imagine the killer to be so nervous.

“Taro Namatame… It's definitely him! Then he did come in here…” Naoto exclaims, pointing at Namatame.

“So you're the killer…” I mumble. They might be words I am meant to say, but I must agree with them.

“Let go of her!” Yukiko yells, her usually cool and collected demeanor breaking. Can’t really blame her, this creep tried to kill her.

“Ah… Haha, you're the ones I saved… Don't worry… I'll save this girl too…” Namatame mutters, and now his previous composition is starting to break, too.

But what was that? Saved..? But he didn’t save anybody, did he?

Kanji barks something at Namatame but I totally miss it. Namatame tightens his grip around Nanako again, and it’s pretty clear that this yelling isn’t really helping Nanako.

“Calm down, Kanji-kun! We can't predict his behavior! We have to keep him talking. If we can discern his intentions, perhaps we can somehow deal with him,” Naoto states and turns to look at Souji.

“Why are you doing this?” he asks Namatame.

“To save them…” Namatame answers, his voice beat.

To save them.

Why would he say that? What could he possibly mean? Who could he be saving by throwing them into this world? You’d think he’d know how dangerous it is in here! It already took the lives of two! One of them was the woman he loved! But he kept going! Throwing people in here, again and again!’

“They all… want to be saved…”

Did Saki ask to be “saved?” Did she ask to be thrown in here, to die in here? And did my friends ask to be forced to go through the worst nightmares of their lives?

“If I hadn't put you in the TV… How would you have ended up…?”

Ended up? How about not dead!?

“You kidnapped them… Yes or no?” I ask, my voice full of venom. I ask even though I already know the answer.

“Yes...” the defeated Namatame whispers.

“Why did you target local residents who became known through the media? Why do these people appear on the Midnight Channel?”Naoto asks him.

“On rainy nights… on TV… they signal me… to save them…” Namatame mumbles, his grip around Nanako loosening.

“You keep saying save this and save that… Are you saying murdering people is your idea of saving them!?” I scream at Namatame, losing control, while playing completely by the book. I just happen to totally agree with the script. To hell with this bastard!

“Murder…? No, I'm saving them…”

“How's that different, huh!? All you're doing is killing people!”

He keeps going on and on about how he’s saving people and just… How fucked up does one have to be to believe that throwing people into their nightmares can be any way saving them? Has he totally lost his grasp on reality?

Or maybe..?

No!

There’s no way he’s -

“You asshole… You're not gonna get away with this!” Kanji roars at Namatame, and snaps be back in action.

“Shut the hell up!” Namatame yells back at him and suddenly he’s surrounded by darkness. Namatame’s eyes turn yellow.

Holy shit, was this Namatame a Shadow all along or what the hell is going on? Unfortunately there really isn’t time to think about that because Namatame’s grip around Nanako gets tighter than ever, and she can barely breath. And Namatame continues to ramble on and on about heroes and saviours, but no, I’m not listening, not when Nanako is in such pain. I turn to face Kanji, who’s just as agitated as me, and clue him in in my plan to rush and knock down Namatame while he keeps monologuing like the villain he is. Then Souji can be the true hero of this story and save his lil sis.

“…Let's do this,” I nod at Kanji and we run and push Namatame away from Nanako.

“Now, Senpai!” Naoto yells, and Souji leaps after us and grabs the weak Nanako in his arms.

And that’s when Namatame goes totally berserk and starts screaming. And I don’t know what the hell is happening to him, but he seems to be attracting tons of Shadows and he somehow just… absorbs them, getting bigger and stronger every second.

“Look at him! He's merging with the Shadows!” Rise yelps, and when it’s Rise making a statement like that, you know it’s true.

Fuck.

And at last, from the darkness emerges a great creature with small angel wings, wearing pure white robes and the weirdest halo I’ve ever seen.

Is this how Namatame sees himself?

“Dammit! We've come this far. We're not losing now!” I yell, and take my battle stance next to Souji, who lays Nanako down and signals Rise to take care of her. Then he gives me, Kanji and Yukiko a determined nod, and we step into the arena to face Namatame.

(Your kunais slashing Souji.)

Wha- What was that?

A sharp white pain goes through my head and suddenly the kunais in my hands feel heavy.

(You killed him, Yosuke Hanamura.)

What? No! That can’t be -

I keep seeing these flashes of Souji, lying on the ground, his body not moving and and and…

(That’s what happens to them. To everyone you love.)

My body is trembling and I can barely hold my kunais in my hands. Shit shit shit, what the fuck is happening!?

(They die!)

No… No…

Yes.

I remember. It happened. I did it. I killed him. I killed Souji .

“Yosuke, defend!”

Wha-

Oh yeah, we’re in the middle of a battle.

This…

This has happened before. This isn’t our first time facing this monstrosity. And last time this didn’t end well.

The game must have reloaded or something. Started anew. Take two. And Souji is alive. That’s all that matters.

Then why can I still feel the blood on my hands, like a disease coursing through my veins?

 


 

Seeing that savior-complex monstrosity of a Shadow crumble made me so ecstatic, it kinda scared me at first, but seeing that asshole Namatame taken into police custody made me even more satisfied.

Behind the bars, where he belongs.

The paramedics arrive just a minute later to get Nanako, who still haven’t opened her eyes. After we saved her from Namatame’s grasp she has stayed unconscious. But she’s back in the real world now, so she’s totally going to be okay, right?

She has to.

I turn my gaze to Souji. Even when the paramedics are lifting Nanako on the stretcher, he’s still holding her hand, refusing to let go. Naoto is the one who’s answering any questions that the paramedics might have, telling how we found Nanako and Namatame on the roof of Junes, both unconscious. The whole team follows Nanako to the ambulance that’s waiting by the main entrance, Souji still holding her hand, and the rest of us are trying to keep a brave face. But seeing Nanako like this…

There must have been more we could’ve done.

Souji follows the medics and hops in the ambulance. When the rest of us are about to follow, a black haired paramedic stops us. It’s the weirdest. I recognize her, she comes to Junes almost every day to help her grandma with groceries. This really is such a small town.

And now is totally not the time to recall random faces!

“Only the next of kin may come with us,” she states.

Yeah, of course. That is how it usually goes. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel like shit, the thought of letting Souji be alone for even a moment during a time like this. Shit might’ve gone down between us just days ago, but hell if I’m going to be petty right now.

But Souji gives us a small nod and a tired smile, “It’s okay. You can take the bus. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

He’s back.

And I can’t help but smile and nod back at him, “Yeah, see you there. Take good care of Nanako-chan, partner.”

I need to trust my partner. If he says he’s going to be okay, I really shouldn’t push. I get it. After a day like this… I’m sure all of us could use some alone time to collect ourselves. Or at least try.

I could use a cold shower.

But before that, let’s get to the hospital. We watch the ambulance leave in total silence. Even while walking to the bus stop, everyone stays totally quiet. And if Souji was back being himself, I’m sure the rest of my friends are too. And I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t deal well with any kind of silence in a social situation, awkward, sad or whatever. What would Souji say in a situation like this? Reassure that everything’s going to be okay? Try to change the subject completely? Continue with the silence?

Let’s face it, if it was their Souji we’re talking about, he would stay quiet. When in them that’s controlling him, Souji tends to stay silent, letting us debate endlessly, providing mostly a course of action. But that’s already decided, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

 


 

The bus arrives on time and it really shouldn’t take that long for us to get to the hospital. It’s not like we need to be worry about traffic jam in Inaba. Chie and Yukiko take their seats next to each other, staying at the front of the bus, and Rise joins then, sitting behind them. Naoto and Kanji sit right by the girls, on the other side of the bus, and Teddie scuffles after them, sitting behind them. I stay behind, buying a ticket to both me and Teddie. The old man hands over our tickets and steps on the gas, making the bus jerk violently, almost sending me flying. I stumble and take my place next to Teddie.

And all I can do is to count the minutes until we will arrive at the hospital. Suddenly my cell phone vibrates inside my pocket. I pick it up and flip it open.

Souji: They took her in. Running some test right now. I’ll be waiting for you at the entrance.

They’ve arrived. Good, good.

It’s all I can really interpretative from the text. But then again, no offense to myself, I’ve been quite awful at trying to get a read on Souji lately, haven’t I? I know I’ve been trying to avoid this whole topic, but shit, what the hell got into me? Souji hugs me after a heavy conversation and suddenly I get all hot and bothered? No wonder Souji reacted so badly! It was me who made it all way too weird. I got needy. I got handsy. With these hands that killed him today. These blood-soaked hands. And Souji probably doesn’t even remember any of that. I’m not sure if anybody remembers. And shit, I’m secretly hoping they don’t, aren’t I?

I am truly the worst.

“Did you get a text from Senpai?” Rise asks, pointing at my phone. I blink at her a few times, gathering my thoughts. Oh yeah, I did. Probably should tell the rest of the team.

“Yeah. He’s waiting for us.”

“What about Nana-chan? Did Sensei say anything about Nana-chan?” Teddie asks, his voice small.

“The doctors are running some test on her,” I answer him. Won’t probably comfort him, but that’s all I know.

I should answer Souji, too.

Yosuke: well be right there. mayb 20 mins?

He’s most likely already shut off his phone, but in the case he has not, maybe hearing from us will calm his mind.

Souji answers almost instantly.

Souji: Good. Just… Get here as soon as possible.

And believe me, it took all my willpower not to jump up from my seat and pay the bus driver to drive as fast as possible.

Lucky for us, there was no one else who needed a bus ride tonight, so we were able to drive without any unnecessary stops and arrived at the hospital a few minutes early. And just as he had said in his text, Souji meets us at the main doors.

“The doctors are still running tests and won’t let anybody to see her,” Souji tells us, his demeanor calm, but his voice cracking that facade. He sounds exhausted and desperate. What could have been going through his head all this time? I shouldn’t have let him go alone.

“We should still check up on her. Maybe there’s a doctor who can tell us something?” I propose, “And we will decide what to do after that?”

Everyone turns to face Souji, looking for guidance from their leader. Souji nods and leads us inside.

We’ve done everything we can. All we can now, is to the doctors to do their job.

 


 

“Yosuke-senpai, wait!” Rise yells after me and catches up with me and Teddie. Teddie, who just got done saying his goodbyes to Chie, Yukiko and Naoto - while totally ignoring Kanji - turns to look at me quizzingly. Yeah, I haven’t told him what’s going on. Like I said. Don’t want to drag my friends into this shit.

“You go on ahead. If the bus arrives before me, just head home,” I tell him, shoving some money in his hand, “This should be enough to get you home. Don’t buy any candy with it!”

“This won’t take that long,” Rise says, giving me a small smile. But that smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Teddie peeks behind me and Rise, his eyes widening in… surprise? … but my body has frozen in place, because oh no no no, I know what Rise wants us to talk about.

“Well, just in case, Yosuke. I’ll see you at home.”

Hey, I said I might make it! And Rise said this won't take long! Why wouldn’t I make it to the bus in time..?

“What about you, Rise?” Teddie asks her.

“I’ve got a ride,” she informs us, then turns to look at me. Teddie waves us his goodbyes, and I’m left alone with Rise.

Well, this is just weird and awkward. I know what she wants to talk about and she knows that I know but neither of us wants to actually talk about it. Didn’t really think that when she said after Nanako has been rescued, she’d mean we should talk right now. But since we’re here already… I guess we should get right to the point. Rock-papers-scissors to decide who has to go first?

“Don’t worry, I’m not about to cause a scene right here, right now,” Rise sighs, but nervously starts to backtrack her words, “N-not that I would cause a scene any way! But you know what I mean.”

“Wouldn’t blame you for causing a scene, to be honest,” I mutter under my breath, rubbing my neck, “I just want to say… I’m sorry.”

Rise looks at me, sadness in her eyes, but I can’t figure out the meaning behind that look. She must know what I’m talking about, right? Or should I, I don’t know, explain?

“I’m sorry about me and Sou-”

But Rise cuts me off, bringing her finger to her lips, motioning me to shut my mouth.

“You’ve got nothing to apologize, Yosuke-senpai,” she smiles, and this time it reaches her eyes, “I’d like to talk with you about… all this at a better date, but for now… Just know that I support you guys.”

A wave of emotions rushes over me, overwhelming me. I have to bite down my lip just to keep myself from tearing up. I don’t deserve this. What have I done to deserve her blessing? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And…

And…

“Thanks, but there really is no us .”

But Rise chuckles lightly, but it isn’t mocking, it’s more like the laugh she lets out when she thinks people are being silly and blind to the world around them. Y’know, the laugh usually aimed at Kanji?

“Not yet,” I winks and turns to leave, “Oh, there’s someone who seems to want to talk to you.”

She stops in her tracks and points behind me. And still by the elevators, Souji is leaning against the wall, pretending that he isn’t trying to follow our conversation.

“Please, take care of our leader. Tell him to get some sleep,” Rise smiles, but I can tell she’s concerned. Makes two of us.

“I promise,” I tell her, and Rise nods and turns to leave.

Thank you.

I walk up to Souji, who’s trying to seems as nonchalant as possible.

“Didn’t want to disturb you guys so I stayed here and waited,” Souji laughs rather awkwardly.

“Such a gentleman.”

“You know me.”

We gaze at each other silently, smiles on both of our faces.

“Did you talk to Dojima-san?”

“Yes. Nobody could tell him much, but they promised they’re doing their all.”

“That’s all we can ask.”

“Yeah. I just hate feeling so useless.”

“Useless? Are we talking about the same person? Souji Seta, useless? Dude, you’re the reason we could save Nanako-chan! With your leadership we managed to catch Namatame. Without you all of our friends would be dead. Me included.”

Souji smiles weakly, his gaze falling to the laminated floor, “That’s not the whole truth, now is it?”

Huh?

“What do you mean?”

“In the very beginning you were the one who decided to return to the TV World. You were the one with a cause.”

Saki…

“Yeah, and we know how that all ended. What a true hero I ended up being,” I groan. Let’s not talk about my Shadow. Talking about wanting to be a hero just to kill the boredom.

“But without you, we would’ve never went back to the other side. So you really ended up being a hero. A true hero. Because if you haven’t been there to push me… I would’ve been fine with just ignoring all that.”

Oh.

Has my most important role in this story always been pushing Souji forward? To support him on this journey?

“Yosuke, without you there really wouldn’t be a story.”

“Dude, you say these mushy and cheesy things all the time. You really like making me blush, partner?”

“Always.”

Thank you.

“But enough about me. How’re you holding up?”

And now Souji goes silent. Dude really doesn’t like talking about himself.

“I’m… holding up.”

“Heading home?”

He goes silent again.

Souji, don’t tell you intend to spend the night here?

“I should stay here. With them.”

I get it. I totally get it. It’s killing him, spending time in that empty and quiet house, sleeping alone, knowing that your family is fighting for their lives. But they are both here now, getting the best care they could. I’m pretty sure the story wouldn’t even let you help them, even if you could.  So now it’s important to take care of yourself, partner.

“Go home, Souji. Get some sleep.”

Souji doesn’t answer, his gaze glued to the floor.

“You’ve done everything you can for them.”

“I appreciate the thought, and I know you’re only think for my best but… I need to stay here. To stay here with them as long as I can.”

Because when sun rises, he’ll wake up in his own bed, and he will be theirs yet again. He wants to stay here. It’s his own choice.

“Well, we better then find a comfy sofa to try and sleep on. And if I fall asleep during class, it’s your fault.”

We?

Souji lifts his gaze from the floor to stare down at me, shocked. I can feel the heat rising in my cheeks, but ignore it for now.

“You think I’m going to leave you here alone? Besides, everyone knows the sofas here are abysmal to sleep on, so you’ll need a reliable back to lean on.”

Souji’s shock turns into smile and his whole body visibly relaxes. This whole time he had been leaning against the wall his body tense and stiff, but now he stands up on his feet, he body at ease.

“Can’t argue with that,” he laughs and points at the map by the elevators, “Here, the recreational area is on the second floor. It’s usually for employees only, but I work here part-time, so I’m sure I can get you in. I hear the sofas there are the best in this entire hospital.”

“Then what are we waiting for?”

 


 

Souji is sleeping so calmly, especially compared to how he was little over a week ago. And even I feel a lot better than I have in days. We did it! We saved Nanako! And caught the killer! Still haven’t really wrapped my head around all this. We did it! All we can do now is wait.

Also, the fact that Souji is resting his head on my shoulder… might be making me feel all kinds of things. But I manage to keep my cool, concentrating to get some sleep, too. But it really is easier said than done.

He fell asleep so easily. Makes me think with how little sleep he has been getting these past days. Because based on the times that we’ve slept together - no, not like that - he really has not been one to fall asleep that easily, preferring to just lie silently, probably deep in his thoughts. But now it only took him a few minutes, before I heard his breathing evening out and felt his whole body going limp against mine.

And as minutes pass by, even my eyelids start to feel heavier and heavier.

Suddenly, Souji rolls in his sleep and shitshitshitshitshitshitfuck .

His head falls in my lap.

Head in a lap!

No no no no, I was just about to fall asleep, so I really don’t need this kind of stimulation!

… But I don’t have the heart to wake him up.

So I let him lay there.

Why do we keep ending up like this? How come we always seem to find each other? What did I do to deserve you in my life?

I…

I…

I bring my hand up to stroke Souji's hair, to let him know he’ll never be alone, that I will always be with him and everything’s going to be alright, when -

(Those hands killed him, didn’t they?)

A sharp pain shoots through my head, making my whole body wince. Souji mumbles something in his sleep but doesn’t actually wake up. Phew, good. I clench my fist. Because it’s true. I did it. It was me. If I hadn’t been so weak I could’ve stopped myself. I could’ve fought back but I didn’t. Because I was afraid to break the rules. Because if you break the rules, you break the game. I let the game take priority over Souji. I could’ve broken free, but I was too weak and pathetic.

I killed him.

(He will never love you.)

I lay my clenched fist next to me, fighting with all my might against the urge to touch Souji’s hair.

I’ve never done anything to deserve you.

But god, do I want to be worthy of you.

But no, I never will be.

Because I am wrong .