And Worship the Trousers That Cling to Him [Persona 4]
"Dude, are you all right?"
There seemed, from Yosuke's perspective, to be no good way to answer that question. Of course, Yosuke's perspective was ass-up, with his legs splayed and one of his arms trapped under his own half-twisted torso, and not very much seemed good from there anyway. He groaned and tried to right himself, wincing as he leaned a little too hard on the strained shoulder.
Rise's exasperated sigh came through their shared consciousness loud and clear, a humiliating commentary on his predicament. "Will someone please pick him up so we can keep moving? My grandmother wants me home for dinner tonight. She's been getting real weird about me being out late."
Kanji, who had asked the question in the first place, reached down and grabbed Yosuke's more available hand, hoisting him up just enough to flip him over before plopping him back down on his back. It was undignified, sure, but at least it hurt less. At least his glasses had had the common decency to stay on his face. "Anybody get the plate on that truck?" Yosuke asked, grunting himself into a sitting position.
"You need any help?" asked Yukiko, who, bless her, was kind enough to look more concerned than amused. She tapped her closed fan against the side of her jaw the way she did when she was thinking, ready to call on her Persona at a moment's notice.
"I'm all right." Yosuke pulled himself to his feet with a little jump, one he regretted as soon as he came back down and felt his brains joggle. The loud, thumping bass of the strip club didn't help either, and he found himself considering the merits of taking off said classes just long enough to rid his field of vision of the eye-bleeding magenta. If a migrane headache could also be a building, this would be it. "You know, if I never had to see this place again, I think it'd be too soon."
"We're done," said Souji, picking up an object from the dusty grey puddle the Shadow had left behind. "We've got what we came for." Yosuke didn't have long enough to see what it was before Souji handed it to Teddie who, disturbingly enough, unzipped himself and popped it inside. Yosuke had tried to explain to them both on several occasions that just because Teddie could do that sort of thing didn't in any way mean he should, but neither their leader nor their bear seemed to understand why that might seem disturbing, damn their weird eyes.
Naoto nodded, and Yosuke would have sworn nothing short of pure relief was hiding behind that stony face of hers. She'd looked a little pale when Souji had suggested making a return trip, and Yosuke had tried to think of how he'd looked when he'd first seen the place, only to try and stop thinking about it shortly afterward. "I think I'm ... less fond of this place than I have been of some other places we've been," she observed, folding her arms across her chest and giving the walls a wary glare.
"Tell me about it!" chirped Rise, who was probably the most relieved of all of them to get the hell out of there. "Everybody out? Hold on to your hats!"
As the world around them began to mist at the edges, then completely fogged over, Yosuke found himself too concerned with holding down his lunch during the always-nauseating extraction to really stop and wonder what it had been that had clobbered him so badly, or why he felt woozy above and beyond the force of Rise's quick exit strategy. It wasn't much different from the way he'd often felt after too long in the TV world, anyway, and that wasn't anything a good night's sleep couldn't cure.
When he woke up the next morning, he felt ... funny. His head still hadn't quite cleared up, and there was a bear on him.
"You have the most beautiful eyes!" sighed Teddie -- who, mercifully, had decided to take off the eighty-ton bear suit, and was stretched out down the length of Yosuke's body in only his pajamas.
Teddie's light body weight came in handy as Yosuke pitched him off, tossing him easily halfway across the room. A pile of dirty laundry caught Teddie's fall, and Teddie himself seemed undaunted by the setback, smiling at Yosuke with that same dreamy expression as before. Yosuke didn't even want to think about what television show he'd learned that one from.
"You are so weird." Yosuke shook his head, grabbing his washcloth and heading for the bathroom.
The downstairs part of his house was empty by the time he tore through it, snatching his uniform jacket off the back of a kitchen chair and tossing his book bag over his shoulder. It was really starting to fray at the ends of the strap, he noticed as he climbed on his bike, and it probably wouldn't be long before the fabric started to wear straight through. Sure, he could get another one easily, they had about five billion in stock at Junes and another five billion styles available from the company headquarters, but he liked this bag. Maybe if he asked really nicely, Kanji might do it for him. Of course, asking Kanji for repair help ran the risk of getting it back with little field mice or daisies or something else equally girly embroidered all up and down the sides. Tough call.
He was so tied up in his book bag thoughts that he barely noticed a familiar red sweater at the corner ahead of him -- Yukiko, clutching her own satchel between her hands, smiling sweetly. He braked the bike to a halt in front of her and smiled. "Morning!"
"Good morning, Yosuke," she waved back, and maybe it was Yosuke's imagination, but it looked like she was ... blushing? Maybe she was a little flushed because she'd been running -- after all, the way he took to school wasn't the same way she did. Maybe she'd run to come get him because they couldn't reach him otherwise. Maybe something awful had happened. Maybe it was all his fault. "Such a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Well, even Yukiko wasn't one to keep on about the weather when something was really wrong. "Uh, yeah! Yeah, it's nice! Brisk. Nice." He glanced at his watch, blinking as he saw the late hour. If she walked from here, there'd be no way she'd make it into Kashiwagi's class before first bell. "...Say, uh, do you want a ride?"
Her eyes brightened. "Oh, you're such a gentleman!" she beamed. She presented him with her satchel, which he hung up over the handlebars in a way that he hoped wouldn't completely destroy the balance of the bike -- falling over and pitching himself into a trashcan was one thing, but he had the feeling that if he did the same to Yukiko, Chie'd never let him hear the end of it -- and braced his foot against the curb as she climbed on the back half of the seat. She was such a slight and demure thing that he'd just assumed she'd find some way to ride side-saddle, or even to stand, and thus was completely gobsmacked when he felt her knees press against the outside curves of both of his thighs. Two slender, red-clad arms wrapped themselves around his waist, and she pressed her cheek against the middle of his back. "Ready when you are, my good knight."
She might have been ready, but he could barely manage to push the first pedal, and his palms were sweating so hard he was fairly certain that he'd lose grip at any moment, only to send them both crashing to their messy roadkill deaths. Sure, it all could just have been friendly -- after all, they'd all become such a close-knit group over the past few months that they were less like friends anymore and well on their collective way to just plain family -- but his brain kept doing the math and insisting that there was something more to it. After all, she had to have made that trip all the way out of her way for a reason, it wasn't like she accidentally could've gotten lost on a trip she'd done six times a week for nearly a year and a half and somehow coincidentally landed in his path in just enough time for him to get them both to school ... was it? He wasn't even sure any more.
His deliberations were put to a halt as he pulled the bike up near the racks at the front of the school, wheeling to a careful stop. He was well aware of the looks he was getting, but he decided to play it cool -- after all, it wasn't every day a guy rode into school with Yukiko Amagi on the back of his bike, and he was going to take every cool point he could get. He waited to let her get off the bike first, and she gave him one last squeeze around his waist before disembarking in her short uniform skirt, and oh, he knew he'd get himself into trouble if he let his mind think on that one too long. As soon as she was clear, he hopped off and dug the chain from out of his bag, then fastened the front wheel to the rack.
When he turned, he nearly fell down to see how close Yukiko was standing. He supposed he'd expected her to hang around, maybe walk with him to their shared classroom, but he'd been planning to have it happen at least at arm's length. "I think Souji's working at that daycare center after school today," she smiled, lowering her eyes bashfully.
Oh, so this was all about Souji. Right. He got it now. If he could have made a bargain with some supernatural force to get the ground to swallow him up at that precise moment, he would have done it. "Uh, yeah, he likes to go on Mondays." Yosuke stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged, kicking at a pebble on the ground.
"So," Yukiko continued, "that means we won't be going into the TV."
Yosuke blinked, trying to figure out where she was going with this. "Not unless you want to play substitute leader!" He laughed, but it was a nervous sound, and he scratched absently at the back of his neck.
She giggled, bringing her fingertips up to cover her mouth, and placed her other hand lightly on his forearm. "You're so funny, Yosuke!" she said, and for the first time in his life he heard that phrase said to him in a way that wasn't meant to belittle him. "So I was thinking, if we're not going into the TV, we could go get something at Aiya. My treat."
"Your--" Yosuke squinted at her, as though he might somehow be able to see whether or not she was kidding, but if she was joking, she gave no indication. "No! I mean, yes! But, your treat? It doesn't have to be--"
"Yosuke," she said, her voice barely audible amidst the noise of the courtyard, "you do so much for all of us, and you don't even ask for anything in return. This is the least I can do to show my -- I mean our -- appreciation." And with a wink, she sauntered off in the direction of the classroom, her skirt swinging around her legs with every step, leaving Yosuke caught in the wasteland between terror and delight, standing in the courtyard holding both his book bag and hers, wondering what the hell had happened to upset the cosmic balance enough that Yukiko Amagi had just asked him out and praying that it never righted itself enough to reverse the trend.
"Can't go?!" Yosuke heard Chie's voice from all the way out in the hall, rising dismayed over the general clatter of the crowd. "But Yukiko, the sale ends this afternoon!"
Whatever Yukiko might have said in response was lost to Yosuke's ears as he walked into a classroom full of moving chairs and rustling papers. His brain was still working, though, and it spun on through his distracted haze, processing Chie's comment and coming to the distressing conclusion that he was probably the reason that Yukiko couldn't make whatever sale Chie was talking about. He said a quick prayer that Yukiko would be discrete enough not to mention that little fact; he had grown fond of not feeling excruciating pain from his genitals every time he took a step.
Souji was already at his desk, head down over one text or another, but he turned when Yosuke slipped into the seat behind him. "Hey," he said, giving a little wave. "How's it going?"
Yosuke opened his mouth to say something along the lines of, it's going odd, buddy, but he got barely so far as parting his lips before Chie slammed her hand down on his desk, causing everyone in a twenty-foot radius to jump and drop any held objects. "What do you mean you're going to Aiwa after school with Yukiko?" she growled, looming over him with a menacing gaze.
"Well, she--" Yosuke sputtered, suddenly terrified about exactly how much trouble he had managed to work himself into. "I mean, we were just--" It wasn't like everyone didn't know already that Yukiko and Chie were weird about one another, though the school's rumor mill could never quite agree on how weird that weird was. But Yosuke would swear on any number of ancestors' graves that he'd heard Chie on more than one occasion harass Yukiko about getting a boyfriend. Was this not what she was talking about? Did she somehow think he wasn't good enough for Yukiko? Was his junk in peril?
Chie flipped a flyer down on his desk, upside-down, and so he had to turn his head a little to see the bold-printed clearly: MARTIAL ARTS DVD SALE, one day only, Okina Station Videopalooza. Below it was a badly photocopied of Bruce Lee putting an elbow into some poor stuntman's face. "You have to come with me to the sale!" she demanded, slamming her hand down again.
Oh, shit, was she still upset about her copy of Trial of the Dragon? A normal person would probably have given up by now, or at least acknowledged that the million or so beef-related meals he'd bought for her since then counted as some kind of penance, but with Chie and grudges, there was no way of telling. "I can order another copy from--"
"Martial arts movies are so childish," Yukiko sighed from her desk, flipping her long hair over her shoulder.
"Childish?!" Chie shrieked, and things might have turned violent right then and there had Kashiwagi not chosen that very moment to make her dramatic entrance, her breasts bouncing with each step she took. Yosuke had learned early on in his career that women generally didn't like it if you stared at their breasts, but Kashiwagi's were just so ... there. And anyway, from the way she acted, it seemed like she would've considered it more of a crime not to look.
Regardless of her endowments, Kashiwagi's presence shut down the debate, at least for the time being. As Chie huffed off back to her seat, Souji frowned at her, then shot Yosuke a questioning look over his shoulder. Yosuke, wide-eyed, shrugged honestly and shook his head. Sometimes there was just no telling.
Halfway through his biology reading, a small piece of paper, expertly thrown, landed on Yosuke's open book, startling him out of a rather complicated daydream he'd entered into, one which featured prominently the off chance that Yukiko might, at the end of their Aiya meal, allow him to walk her home. She could be strange girl, and he'd seen some pretty dodgy sides of her, like the whole thing with the moustache glasses, which Yosuke still wasn't sure he quite got. ...But she was also sweet and funny and definitely pretty, and he'd thought she was pretty from the day he'd shown up last year, so ... that was all right to have for a girlfriend, wasn't it?
Being that he was a perpetual worrier, the daydream had also taken off on a long technical tangent about what precisely would have to pass before the words 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend' could start to enter the equation; he didn't want to rush things and scare her off, but he didn't want to screw up by waiting too long either, and he definitely didn't want to run the risk of waiting so long she changed her mind. That, in a word, would suck.
The paper was a sufficient distraction from those thoughts, though, and he unfolded it as quietly as he could, trying not to attract attention during the class' silent reading time. The handwriting was unmistakably Chie's, all blocky and careless: It'll be fun! And a good chance to spend some time just the two of us! Instead of signing it, she'd drawn a heart, and then a series of other small hearts that followed like lemmings up the side of the paper, disappearing off the top edge.
Yosuke folded the paper back together and stuck it between pages near the front of the book. For all he'd spent his time pondering lightly the concepts of Yukiko Amagi and romance in the same thought, he'd never thought about Chie that way. That was, she was a girl, and she had lots of nice girl features, and he definitely liked looking at those girl features when she wore a swimsuit, but ... that was as far as he'd ever let that train of thought go before. The possibility of an afterschool dinner date with Yukiko had crossed his mind before, but a heart-encrusted note from Chie was previously unfathomed territory.
As he bent back over his book, trying desperately to concentrate on material they'd all been warned would be on the test, another thought struck him: Were they just fucking with him? Was this all some big, weird practical joke, or maybe even a diabolical revenge scheme for one thing or another he'd done? He wouldn't put it past them -- girls were wily.
Whatever it was, though, Souji obviously wasn't in on it -- he'd looked just as confused as Yosuke, if not more so, and besides, this didn't seem like the kind of thing he'd approve of. He was such a straight-up guy, good for the occasional dry remark, but on the whole not one to want to cause extra distress or misery to anyone. Hell, he was so straightforward, he hadn't even had a Shadow, and that had to count for something. Besides, he was always helping out people even when he didn't need to, running their errands and getting them stuff, even to the point of retracing their steps in the TV world to get--
A lightbulb went on in Yosuke's head.
It wasn't likely, of course, and he didn't know if it was even possible, but right now, it was the only theory he had, and by golly, he was going to test it. Across the row and a few chairs back sat Miyuki, a pretty girl known almost as famously as Yukiko for her cold-hearted rejection of any boy foolish enough to ask her out. Yosuke looked back at her, waiting for her to look up, and as she finally did, looking at the page numbers written on the front board, he waved his hand and caught her eye. When she turned her eyes toward him, her attention caught, he gave her his best ladykiller smile, made perfect by hours of arduous practice in front of the bathroom mirror, and threw in a wink for good measure.
The TV world was full of things he knew he'd never understand, and his crazy bear housemate meant that nothing from there really surprised him anymore. So it made sense, once he thought about it -- after all, he'd been in a strip club, of all places, hit by a headless dancing couple so hard they all went spinning, hard enough maybe to rub off some of whatever made that magenta nightmare tick. Like how he'd sometimes gone to shows back in the big city, and walked out of the places smelling like smoke for hours afterward without having picked up a cigarette himself.
And thus, instead of pretending she simply hadn't seen him, like most girls would have done, or actively expressing disgust, as she had been known to do, Miyuki actually blushed and dipped her head a little before offering back a shy little wave. Next to her, her best friend, the equally frigid Hitomi, caught sight of what was taking place, and dissolved into muffled, jealous giggles. Whatever the place had done -- and what, precisely, it had done didn't seem that important -- it had apparently made him a hit with all the ladies.
This was going to be the best thing ever.
"...So basically, I'm irresistible!" Yosuke folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the tile wall, looking pleased with himself.
Souji, who had proper handwashing technique practically down to an art form, seemed less convinced of the inherent goodness of this development. "I don't know," he said, frowning as he scrubbed under his nails. "Are you sure they're not just ... making fun of you?"
"I thought that too!" Yosuke's voice rang off all the hard bathroom surfaces, and he dialed it down a notch, not really wanting to attract more attention than was strictly necessary. He'd pulled Souji in here during a quick break between subjects, figuring that no matter how cranky Yukiko and Chie got, they were unlikely to take their grievances all the way into the men's restroom. "But then Miyuki and Hitomi were flirting back!"
With a contemplative nod, Souji pulled a paper towel from the dispenser, then used it to turn off the taps. "Chie does wish death on them a lot," he nodded, conceding the point that conspiracies usually involved at least some communication between the participants, and it was hard to imagine a practical joke Chie wanted bad enough to consider talking to those two. "All right, the forecast was for scattered showers today, so they probably don't even need me at the day care; we'll go back into the TV after school and see if we can find something to fix it."
Yosuke blinked at Souji, trying to make sure that his ears hadn't lied to him. "Wait, you think I want to get rid of this?"
"It seems dangerous." Souji shrugged, running his fingers through his hair and eyeing the results in the mirror. Yosuke had thought on more than one occasion that the truest indicator of what a special person Souji was, was how no other human being could have pulled off that haircut so well. Well, Yosuke amended, maybe a very young John Lennon, but he had been a special person too, so it probably didn't count.
"Are you kidding? Look, it's not like I'm going to become some sort of gigolo or anything." Yosuke folded his arms a little tighter across his chest. "It's just ... I know girls don't always notice me -- especially not when I'm around you -- and if I can just get them to notice me, then the hard part's over! And my naturally charming personality can take over! Right?"
With a slight frown, Souji shrugged. "I'm just saying, it seems dangerous."
"You're just jealous," said Yosuke, which was possibly the most untrue statement ever made in the history of the world.
Souji gave a quick glance around the otherwise empty bathroom. "Then why are we hiding in here?"
"We're not hiding." Bolstered by Souji's example, Yosuke leaned closer to the mirror, raking his fingers through his own hair. Unlike Souji's, it refused taming, choosing instead to fall back exactly where it had been in the first place, as though he'd done nothing at all. "It's just ... quieter."
"Quieter," Souji echoed, and there was more than a hint of disbelief in his voice. With one last glance toward the mirror, he started for the door. "Well, come on, Mr. Irresistible. Your adoring public awaits."
He'd never had a lot of luck with the guitar or the bass, and his attempts at singing only embarrassed himself and alienated anyone in earshot, so he'd given up dreams of a musical career much earlier in his adolescence -- and yet, by the time he left the classroom for lunch, Yosuke was pretty sure he knew what it felt like to be a rock star.
Class had re-convened mercifully close enough to his return that he hadn't been forced to give an answer to either Yukiko or Chie about the afternoon's plans. Event-wise, the decision was easy -- maybe if it'd been a sale on imported CDs or something like that, maybe he would've been swayed, but when faced with the choice of eating meat or purchasing martial arts movies, he had to go with the meat, every time. Besides, Yukiko had asked him first, and fair was fair.
However, realizing that his new attractiveness extended beyond just the realm of his lady teammates put the situation into a new and exciting perspective. He liked Yukiko, definitely, and now that he'd had the chance to turn the possibility over in his mind, dating Chie was actually starting to seem like an okay idea, in a weirdly appealing sort of way. But this wasn't an either/or proposition anymore -- this was the precipice of an entirely new realm of possibilities. As nice as the girls were, by now he knew them a little too well. Like he'd said to Souji that one time on the phone, there was really only so much of someone's true self you could see before the whole thing got kind of weird.
And it wasn't like they were the only fish in that pond, anyway. His presence stopped the hallways cold, and all the girls who hung around out there, the ones who probably either didn't know he existed or hated him as of only yesterday, turned to smile and wave at him, breaking into little groups as he passed and giggling contageously. He appreciated Souji's concern, he really did, but this was the thing he had been hoping for pretty much all his adolescent life -- just to have girls notice him, and not write him off as annoying, or pushy, or the new Inaba-specific epithet, that Junes kid. If he could just get them to talk to him, they'd see what a great guy he was. And apparently, judging by how even the first- and third-year girls had congregated to the middle floor just to get a chance to say hello to him, whatever had happened to him in the strip club made it so they did.
In fact, the attention from the girls was so distracting that he nearly missed seeing the group of athletes that clustered at the end of the hall turning in unison and giving him very, very positive grins. A good solid eye rake from Kou Ichijo, however, was not only the kind of thing you couldn't miss, it was the kind of thing you could nearly feel. Yosuke's mouth went a little dry.
He was saved from having to think about that, however, by a pair of strong arms that clamped into a death lock around his elbow, and a pair of bouncing ponytails that accompanied them. "Yosuke-senpai!" chirped Rise, now apparently gone back into full idol mode. "I've got a special lunch picked all out, just for you!"
"Rise-chan!" Startled, Yosuke took a step back, and was surprised when her death grip was so strong that she came right along with him. "Oh, I've just got some instant noodles in my locker--"
"Don't be silly!" she laughed, batting playfully at his shoulder. "I've got your lunch right here!" She picked up a paper bag ink-stamped with Marukyu's name and shook it, and from inside came the fairly distinctive smell of freshly made ganmodoki.
"Hey!" One of the bigger third-year girls, one whose name Yosuke had never learned, stepped forward and put her hands on her hips, and Yosuke was a little disturbed to see that a crowd of young ladies -- and more than a few young men, he'd started to notice -- had gathered around them, none of them looking pleased by Rise's declaration. "He didn't say he was going to eat lunch with you."
"Back off, bitch!" said Rise, just as sweetly and energetically as she said anything when she'd fallen into high gear Risette. The weird contrast seemed to confuse the crowd enough, and as they all took a step back, Rise tugged him toward the stairs upward. "I think we'll have lunch on the roof today! And if anyone," she turned a sharp eye toward the students around them, and Yosuke nearly swore that he saw her bare fangs, "decides to interrupt us, well, they'll just have to answer to little ol' me!"
"I'll, uh, see you all later?" Yosuke said over his shoulder as he was pulled upwards faster than he honestly thought Rise's little legs could go. Behind and below them, he saw a sea of disappointed faces, all rooted in place as per Rise's instructions, and amidst them one pair of worried, leaderly grey eyes.
The weather was nice up on the roof, though Yosuke could see in the distance the storm clouds that Souji had mentioned earlier. They were still a long way off, however, and despite the autumn chill in the air, the sun felt good. Rise growled at a couple of the roof's regular loiterers, until they too got the message that maybe the best place to be would be somewhere downstairs, and so by the time Yosuke sat down along the concrete rise that housed the air ducts, he and Rise had the place to themselves.
Sitting demurely only a foot or so from him, Rise began to rustle around in the paper bag. "Just a minute, senpai! I want everything to be super-de-duper-perfect just for you!" From the bag emerged a little gingham plastic tablecloth, which she spread along the roof surface between them. After that came a lacquered plate, and a pair of nice enamel chopsticks.
He'd thought about kissing Rise, of course -- he was willing to admit that, mostly since he didn't think there was anyone in the school who hadn't thought about it at least a little, boys or girls or teachers -- and every comment she'd made about her bust size or her thighs or her backside had of course drawn Yosuke's attention to the appropriate area of her body, something which she seemed utterly not to mind. But he hadn't really thought about dating her, not really, since she'd mostly seemed to have her guns aimed at Souji, and Souji, in his infinite laid-backness, had seemed to accept her declarations of their dating with no real resistance. But they'd never made it official, had they? He'd never heard either one refer to the other as 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend', and they went and did things together apart from the rest of the team, but didn't they all sometimes do that with Souji? It wasn't like all the times Yosuke had hung out with Souji meant they were dating, or anything.
His train of worry about whether or not he was going to have to apologize to Souji for this abruptly derailed as Rise reached into the bag and brought forth three steaming ganmodoki. "Wow," said Yosuke, "they look really good!"
"Do you think so?" Rise gave a perky smile, and though she wasn't quite capable of generating the same uncanny special effects that Teddie could, if she could've sparkled right then, she would've. "I know they're hot, but they're so delicious, so I want you to take a great big bite for me!"
There really wasn't much a man could be expected to do in the face of an offer like that. Giving Rise his best charming smile -- which, he was pleased to see, apparently set her off on another delighted giggle fit -- Yosuke picked up the ganmo delicately between his chopsticks. It wobbled a little, but that was to be expected, especially with the kind of high-quality tofu Rise's grandmother used to make all her culinary delights. Feeling on top of the world, he took a bite.
The instant the ganmo broke between his teeth, Yosuke knew something was wrong. Terribly wrong, in fact. Not wrong like Mystery Food X, which had been its own box of horrors, but wrong like the kind of food an emperor's food tester would have rejected and had the cook killed for because it tasted like an attempt on the emperor's life. All the ingredients were there, but they were all ... wrong. Like the tofu had gone bad, perhaps, or the eggs had somehow spoiled in the time between purchase and use, or like someone had just thrown subtlety to the wind and dropped an entire box of drain cleaner into the mix. "Do you like it?" Rise smiled. "I made them myself!"
They were going to need a long, very specific conversation starting with the sentiment that's the kind of thing you need to say before someone takes the first bite, but Yosuke's mouth was full of death, and that needed to be attended to. Thinking fast, he grabbed one of the paper napkins Rise had carefully spread out beside the plate and spat the bite of evil ganmo into it.
Rise's face fell, and huge tears welled up in her eyes. "Did you ... not like ... what I made for you, senpai?"
"Oh!" Yosuke froze like a deer caught in headlights. "No, it ... was just hot! Very hot! Too hot to eat! We're just going to have to let those cool down." He swallowed and eyed the remaining ganmo. "Maybe for a long time."
The insult to her cooking erased, Rise brightened again, and she reached across the space between them, putting her hand on Yosuke's arm. "You know, you're very sophisticated. I was worried when I came here from the big city that I wasn't going to meet anyone sophisticated. But then ... here you were! And we don't get a chance to talk, just ... the two of us." She leaned closer. "I'd like to ... get to know you."
Yosuke swallowed. The key factor he'd forgotten to consider when thinking earlier about dating Rise was that Rise was terrifying, and he wasn't sure how that was supposed to work in a relationship, just being scared all the damn time. "Well, um, where do you want to start?" he stammered, rubbing his suddenly sweaty hands on his uniform pants.
"How about," said Rise, and she stood, brushing off her skirt -- and then she came straight for him, climbing into his lap with neither hesitation nor warning, straddling his thighs and setting her bottom down on his knees, "you tell me what you like in a girl." Her voice was still bright and bubbly, but the careless innocence had evaporated, leaving a darker tone to her words. She tapped one perfectly manicured finger against his bottom lip. "And I'll tell you what I like in me."
Red alert klaxons went off so loud in Yosuke's brain that he was fairly sure they could hear them in the next prefecture, if not pick them up from space. "I'm thirsty!" he announced suddenly, and thanked his brain for the prompt response. "I mean," he continued, nudging her off his lap as gently as he could without setting off the waterworks again, "if we're going to talk -- I like talking, talking is great, we definitely can do a lot of it -- but you know, we talk, we talk a lot, we share all our intimate secrets, our throats get dry, we can't talk anymore, and I never learn all I want to know about you! And that's terrible. So I think a couple of cans of coffee would be just the thing to keep us," he swallowed, keeping his eyes far, far above Rise's waist, "moist. While we, um. Talk."
He'd worried for a moment that the hesitation would seem transparent, but Rise apparently bought it. "Of course! How could I have forgotten? I'll go get some right away--"
"No!" He grabbed her hands and eased her very gently off his lap. "No, you stay here with the ... food, and I'll be right back. It's the gentlemanly thing to do," he added, trying to look purposeful while he backed across the roof and toward the door. His brain quickly tabulated the pros and cons of their encounter as he went: she could talk inside his mind, she cooked like some people made compost, and she might have raped him right there on the roof if he hadn't distracted her quickly enough. Dating Rise was definitely, definitely out of the question.
He didn't know what he'd imagined to find behind the door -- perhaps his adoring crowds from earlier, pressed up against the fire door, just waiting for Rise to let go long enough to give someone else a chance -- but the stairwell leading back down to the third floor was nearly empty. Only Kanji stood there, his hands jammed in his pockets, leaning patiently against a wall. "'Sup, senpai?" he nodded.
Yosuke made sure the door was shut firmly behind him before he relaxed, slumping against the cool concrete stairwell wall. "That girl is terrifying."
"Yeah, Souji-senpai told me about your ... thing." Kanji shrugged, looking a little skittish, but when wasn't the big guy a ball of nervous energy, anyway? "There were also a lot of girls here, but they kind of left when I showed up."
"You do kind of have that effect on people," said Yosuke, who straightened up immediately when he saw a hurt little wrinkle cross Kanji's forehead. "Not that it's a bad thing! Honestly? ...I'm kind of grateful to have it quiet for a minute. Don't get me wrong, the attention is great, but it can get a little loud too."
"Oh, I'll keep 'em away if you want." Kanji shrugged, glancing back down the stairs. "I mean, we could just stay up here through lunch. ...You and me."
By now, Yosuke's eyes had adjusted fully from being out in the midday sun, and the dim stairwell had brightened in his vision to reveal Kanji's expression more clearly. His eyes were downcast in that way he sometimes got when he was being thoughtful, and he'd caught his lower lip between his teeth. "Is everything all right?" asked Yosuke, not entirely willing to believe that this turn of events was actually happening.
With a clumsy flourish, Kanji pulled out a long, complicated knit object about the same red as the spheres of Yosuke's headphones. "It works like this," he said, grabbing the ends and letting the rest droop down between his hands; it was a scarf, almost, but it had cables and pockets at various places throughout. "You put your headphones here," he grabbed a place about a third of the way from the left end, "and they fit inside so your whole head can stay warm, but you can run the cord down through here," his fingers traced a long cable down the scarf's edge, "so it doesn't get all tangled up in the cold. Or snow on it, or whatever."
Yosuke quite literally didn't know what to say. Leaning closer, wide-eyed, he could only gape at the intricate workings and the amount of planning that had obviously gone into this scarf-like object's creation. "...Did you make it all this morning?" he finally managed.
"Math was slow," Kanji shrugged. "Oh, and there's," he flipped one of the scarf's tassled ends over to reveal intricate green embroidery along the edge, "a couple frogs too. See, they're fighting. But just friendly fighting. Friendly frog fight. ...And those two that look like they're kissing, they totally aren't. ...Really."
Under any other circumstances, Yosuke reflected calmly as he took the scarf from Kanji's outstretched hands, this would have been cause for some alarm, maybe even more than some, he wasn't always proud of his gut reactions but sometimes there was only so much a man could do. It was a testament to how deeply weird the day had gotten that he not only took the gift without comment, but draped it once around his neck, giving the whole thing an appraising nod. If he could just focus on the crafstmanship, maybe he could get through this in one piece. "This is ... really impressive," Yosuke nodded, inching his way toward the stairs.
Kanji laughed, scratching at the back of his neck, and though he turned his face away quickly, Yosuke could see a bright pink flush take over his cheeks. "I just wanted to do something nice for you, senpai." With a sheepish little shrug, he cleared his throat. "...So, uh, you maybe want to come over to my place later, and we can have some ... private craft lessons?"
The back of Yosuke's heel hit the ridge of the top step, and he felt a cold wave of relief wash over him. "You know, can I take a rain check on that?" he said, and he was proud of the way his voice didn't crack at all until the very last word. Before Kanji could mount an answer, Yosuke was practically tumbling down the stairs, praying that he didn't miss one and break his damn neck -- though at least a broken neck would save him from his growing certainty that he would in the very near future be forced to admit that Souji, like always, was right.
The custodial closet, mercifully, was nice and quiet. At home amidst the cleaning supplies, with his silent headphones securely fastened over his ears, Yosuke hugged his knees tight to his chest and tried to sort out his brain.
He wanted to think that if he'd had more to say about the circumstances surrounding his acquision of his new charm, he would have asked for something a little more specific and a little less wide-reaching -- maybe just for girls (and he would've specified girls, to be sure, Kanji he already knew about, but seeing all the other guys like that was freaking him the hell out) to find him easier to talk to, or for them to be slightly more interested in him, just enough to push them over the chain link fence of his personality that seemed to be a depressingly effective deterrant to all potential romantic interests. Except he knew, deep down, that if he'd been presented with the simply worded 'Do you want everyone at your school to have a crush on you?', he would have said 'yes' in a moment. After all, less than thirty minutes ago, it had seemed like a great idea.
The fine print, as always, was the killer. Going out with Yukiko had also seemed like a great idea, in isolation, but now Chie and Yukiko were fighting, not just bickering as they sometimes did over unimportant details, but actually fighting -- and over him, no less! Not to mention that regardless of what she and Souji might have or have not cemented about their relationship, Rise had definitely had eyes only for their leader ever since her arrival, and making lunch -- even horrible, horrible lunch -- for a maybe-boyfriend's best friend was not the way to push a maybe-boyfriend to the next level. In just a few short hours, he'd gone from being the team's perpetual third wheel to being a bona-fide homewrecker.
And Kanji ... truth be told, he didn't know what to make of what had happened with Kanji, except that he could have gone through a lot more of his life without having that particular suspicion confirmed. Beneath the dim bare bulb that swung over his head, Yosuke took a look at the be-frogged end of the scarf. Two of those frogs were totally kissing. He was in a world of trouble.
At least Souji seemed unaffected by the whole mess, he thought in order to console himself -- then stopped thinking when he realized that, for some reason, that thought didn't make him feel any better.
He froze as the door to the closet cracked open, and didn't unfreeze as its opener slipped inside, pulling it shut behind her and slipping the deadbolt. Giving the lock one last wary glance, Ai sighed her relief. "Hiding out?" she asked, sounding a little sheepish.
"Yeah," Yosuke nodded, slipping his headphones down around his neck. Being in a locked room with anyone seemed suddenly very dangerous, but at least she wasn't throwing herself at him. Maybe she had some sort of special bitch immunity that protected her from magical love spells.
Ai gave him a little smile and sat down on a box of cleaning supplies against the opposite wall. "I hide out here a lot too," she admitted, which suddenly made Yosuke feel soul-crushingly guilty that he'd thought the word 'bitch' about her. "Sometimes it's hard, you know, having to deal with a bunch of people and what they expect you to be."
"Harder today than most," said Yosuke under his breath, and when Ai frowned at him, as though to have him repeat what he'd said, he shook his head. "Sorry, I really didn't think anyone else would come along."
With a shrug, Ai pointed to the gap where the door didn't quite touch against the linoleum. "I saw the light was on and figured I might find you here."
As though the walls had crushed another foot inward, Yosuke was hit with a sudden crush of claustrophobia -- he'd made the critical mistake of taking a position as far from the door as possible, hoping his distance from the entrance would dissuade anyone else from coming in. The error, he was beginning to realize, was not leaving himself a better way out.
Ai crossed her legs one over the other, and the hem of her skirt fell scandalously close to where her thigh met her hip, revealing to Yosuke -- in a sight he didn't know he hadn't ever wanted to see -- a flash of her bright pink panties, as pink as the ribbon she wore around her neck. Humming thoughtfully, she rummaged through her purse until her expression brightened and she pulled out an exquisitely gift-wrapped box. "Open it!" she commanded, thrusting it toward him with a gesture that didn't expect to be refused. Damn it, why were all the girls he knew scary?
With trembling hands, Yosuke took the box from her and untied the bow. The crisp paper folded around it fell away, revealing a box of designer men's cologne in a bottle the shape of a opaque, dismembered, and generally anatomically correct male torso. Perfume designers these days sure had weird ideas about design. "It's by Jean Paul Gaultier," she told him, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "It's a very masculine scent."
From the looks of things, either she could pull off a trip to Okina Station and back on a lunch break, or she simply kept boxes of hundred-dollar cologne stashed in her locker just in case the need arose, and at this point Yosuke would not have put either possibility past her. Curiosity got the better of him, and he lifted the bottle from its box by the hard angles of the torso's shoulders, trying desperately to keep his hands from exploring the rest of its anatomy. "This is...." He lifted the spray pump to his nose and sniffed, and even knowing nothing about cologne, he could tell that it had a particularly nice smell -- not precisely what he'd call 'masculine', maybe, since he detected no aromas of farts or gym socks, but very nice indeed. "This is so nice of you, but it's really too much--"
"Oh, don't be silly." Ai swatted a hand in his general direction and re-crossed her legs, this time with a slow deliberateness that destroyed the idea that the previous moment of exhibition had been accidental. "I want my man to smell good."
"Y-your man?" Yosuke's palms began to sweat, and the paper wrinkled where he gripped it.
Ai rolled her eyes and sighed, giving him a very indulgent smile. "Now," she continued, pulling a piece of notebook paper out of her purse and handing it to him, "I've made a list of important dates and events, for easy reference -- look at next Sepetember, I don't know if we can get the restaurant that night so we may have to get married the next weekend, the woman at the reservations desk said she'd have to check with the manager and get back to me."
He nearly fell off the crate he was sitting on. "M-married?"
"Unless you'd rather elope to Bermuda, in which case, I should start working on my tan soon. The last thing I want is to look pale in all the pictures." Ai looked at her bare forearms, apparently dissatisfied with their pallor, then flipped the page over. "You can propose to me officially on the eighteenth, after you meet my parents tomorrow night."
"Parents?" asked Yosuke weakly.
"And if my father doesn't approve of you," Ai continued, as though Yosuke hadn't said anything, "there's still the elopement option. Do you prefer Bermuda or Paris? Bermuda of course has the better weather, but Paris is so glamorous, especially at night."
Yosuke swallowed hard. "I ... really have to pee." He stood suddenly, moving toward the door as quickly as he could. "Hold that thought, I'll be right back." Before she could even open her mouth to reply, he slipped out the door, closing it hard behind him.
The corridors were empty, meaning that class had probably started up again, but he didn't feel like going back into that classroom anytime soon -- there were just too many things there worth avoiding, even if Yukiko's conning him into a bike ride and Chie's note-passing seemed almost harmless compared to his more recent encounters. The only problem was, Souji was in there too, and Yosuke wasn't about to give up his only ally in this mess. If he could just somehow find a way to hide and wait for Souji until break, maybe he could figure out some way to get them both out of there. This place was getting way too dangerous.
Usual hiding places, however, were out of the question. Ai had the closet under siege, and Rise was probably still staking out the roof -- assuming, of course, that she hadn't decided to come down and look for Yosuke, which struck fear into his heart just to think of. All the classrooms would be full, and even the club rooms weren't guaranteed to be safe at this hour. He considered the bathroom, but hiding out there just seemed like asking for trouble.
Sports teams, however, wouldn't meet until after school hours, which meant that the gym locker rooms might provide adequate shelter, at least for a little while. Taking advantage of the break in the crowds he saw before him, he made a beeline toward the sports fields, darting inside the men's locker room and slamming the door shut behind him.
His heart pounding, he leaned against the chain-linked equipment cage, trying to catch his breath. All he had to do was wait and try not to draw attention to himself. He could do that.
"So, handsome," said a voice Yosuke took a moment to identify as Kou's, coming from inside the cage behind him as fingers crept through the gaps in the chain to brush his bare neck just above the collar of his uniform jacket, "have you ever tried teabagging?"
With a startled shriek that was not nearly so masculine as the torso-bottled fragrance, Yosuke bolted from the locker room.
He moved in such a blindly panicked run that he didn't look where he was going, which proved to be his downfall as he rounded one corner a little too sharply and collided headlong with Kashiwagi. Fortunately, he thought as the impact pushed them both apart again, her breasts broke his fall. Her gaze curdled as it fell on him, like dropping a lemon into milk, and she reached out lightning-fast, taking the lobe of his ear in a vise-like grip between her well-manicured fingernails. "Hanamura," she spat, fixing him with an evil glare. "Cutting class, are we?"
Yosuke's eyes felt wider than dinner plates, and his ear was starting to burn. "Please, Kashiwagi-sensei, it's not what you think--"
"Oh," she smirked, tugging him in the direction of the faculty lounge, and where his poor tormented ear went, he was somewhat obligated to follow, "I think it's precisely what I think. Young men like you just think they can get away with doing anything you want. Cutting classes, causing trouble, breaking young girls' hearts--"
"It's really not what you think," Yosuke protested, knowing even as he did that there was no way to explain any of this.
Kashiwagi threw open the door to the empty lounge with such startling force that Yosuke was surprised it didn't fall completely out of its frame, then tossed him in and shut it behind her. He staggered back and landed in a desk chair, cluching at his ear, as she staggered forward and placed one high-heeled shoe on the seat of the chair right between his legs, setting its toe lightly over his crotch. He could feel his testicles retract into his body. "Young men like you need to be disciplined."
"Sensei, please, I am so sorry, it'll never happen again, it was -- a friend! I have a friend! And he was cutting class! And ... and smoking!" Yosuke's capacity for innovation in times of great stress had always been above par, but it was really being tested today. "And doing drugs! And thinking about selling those drugs to elementary-school kids! While smoking! And listening to that horrible noise us kids today call music!" He swallowed, his throat gone bone-dry. "It was an intervention!"
"Is that a fact," purred Kashiwagi, leaning closer; the toe of her shoe ground lightly into his crotch, which he supposed might have been arousing under some very different circumstances, but right now made him vaguely afraid that his junk might shrivel up and fall off entirely out of sheer self-defense. "Are you sure you weren't just being naughty?"
"No, ma'am," said Yosuke, and his voice cracked on the last word. "Everything's perfectly above board. I've learned my lesson. I'm ready to return to class and be a productive, well-behaved student whose performance on tests reflects well on his teachers."
Kashiwagi's brightly painted lips curled up in a devilish smile. "Oh, I think there's still a lesson about performance to be learned here."
Hoping that there was still some shred of teacherly propriety left in her brain -- though, really, the whole scene was playing out uncomfortably like he imagined it might even under normal circumstances, given recent incidents -- Yosuke put on his most innocent, trusting face. "Kashiwagi-sensei--"
"I think you should call me 'mistress'." She leaned closer, and Yosuke found that, with minimal effort, he could see all the way up to her underwear -- which, his mind had time to register in the brief moment before he thought better about what the hell his eyes were doing, were lilac and lacy and why the hell would someone wear those to teach high school, seriously, what was wrong with this woman?
Yosuke tried to inch the chair away, but it was the kind without wheels, and he didn't budge. His heart was pounding in his throat, and despite the temperature of the stuffy, poorly ventilated room, he felt himself break into a chilled sweat. "I'll clean all the chalkboards and floors, I'll clean the whole building, I swear, just--"
"I think I've got a better way to put that young, strong body of yours to work." Kashiwagi took her foot away, which lulled Yosuke into a moment of false relief, one that was shattered abruptly as she grabbed his hand and shoved it down the front of her shirt. Mortified and desperately trying not to make things any worse, Yosuke froze, his stone-still fingers trapped between the lace of her bra and the soft curve of her breast; he could feel the hard rise of what he assumed was her nipple under his fingertips. She leaned forward, pressing into his appropriated palm, and he was distracted from the idea of touching her nipple by the strangely dense press of the flesh behind it; he had no experience with women's breasts, but couldn't imagine they came with that texture naturally. Never before in his life had he imagined that he might manage to get all the way to second base with a woman while completely bypassing first.
It was therefore perhaps the greatest relief he had ever felt in his life when a foul-smelling rag covered his face and he lost consciousness.
When Yosuke came to, the first thing we noticed was that his hands were tied behind his back. He was still seated, but the chair felt different from the one he'd been confined to in the faculty lounge, and when he tried to move his legs, he found his ankles bound to the legs of the chair. He squinted past a thrumming headache to see what he could make out, but the room appeared dark, except for the single bright bulb that blazed on above his head, burning his eyes until everything beyond the circle of its glow became visually meaningless. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but he found his lips encumbered by what felt -- and tasted -- like a leather belt. ...But on the bright side, Kashiwagi was nowhere to be found.
From the darkness, he heard motion off to his left and jerked his head in that direction, but saw nothing. He tried to ask if anyone was there, but the belt reduced all his attempts at speech to incoherent mumbles, and anyway, the more he talked, the less he could hear. Cautiously, he gave another tug at the ropes around his wrists, hoping that maybe his shock upon waking had meant he'd missed some flaw in their construction, but they were tied sailor-tight. Whoever had done this to him definitely knew knots.
Another sound caught his attention again, and this time, at the edge of the light, he saw a pair of smart men's shoes. Sadly, the clue did little for him, as he didn't know anyone into bondage, male or female. Then again, today had already been an experiment in learning all sorts of new things about people, and his capacity for surprise had been nearly worn out, so it could just as easily have been anyone. The shoes took a step closer, and Yosuke was so busy racking his brains, trying to think of just who could possibly have done this to him, that it took a long moment for him to realize that the shoes were ... tiny.
"Senpai," said a dusty contralto voice, and the world came to a complete halt as Naoto stepped into the light.
That was it; he was dead. He was dead in every way that he could possibly be dead. Either Naoto would kill him, or she wouldn't and Kanji would, or she'd somehow turn him over to Kanji and they'd both be the death of him, or something else awful that he was sure would come to pass if the situation were given enough time. The eventual cause of his death didn't even really matter. In that moment, seeing her there, Yosuke knew he was just plain doomed.
She was still wearing her uniform trousers, but as he followed their tailored creases up from her shoes, he noticed that they were somewhat unusually baggy, and by the time his eyes met her hips, he knew why -- the belt he had in his mouth was hers, and without it, her pants hung scandalously low on her hips, revealing the waistband of a pair of white men's underwear beneath. Her shirt was gone, and the flat plane of her belly led straight up to where an elaborate construction of bandages and what looked like plastic cling wrap circled her torso. Her tie, completely undone, hung loose from her neck, and somehow in the whole process her customary hat had gone missing. It was hard to look that fantastic and also be a portent of someone's eventual demise, but she pulled it off well.
"Senpai," she repeated, coming closer. Her hips had a real slink to them as she walked, completely unlike the boyish stride she usually affected. The corner of her mouth turned up in a completely un-Naoto-like smile, making instead of smirk that reminded him more of Kashiwagi's horrifying attempts at seduction, and she grabbed the top edge of one of the rounds of plastic wrap. "I'm glad we can finally talk alone."
Robbed even of the capacity to point out that talking was a privilege reserved for only one of them at this moment, Yosuke sat, terrified and uncomfortably aroused, as Naoto slowly encroached on his personal space. Today was also apparently an experiment in learning all sorts of new things about himself, though truth be told, he felt like he could have gone the rest of his life without knowing he had a latent fondness for androgyny and being tied up. Fortunately for his predicament, the rest of his life wasn't looking to be much longer.
"You don't know how hard it is," she said, using the voice she used when she was a boy, deep and in her throat, "trying so hard to be something you're not."
Actually, Yosuke wanted to point out, he knew exactly how hard it was, and if she'd met his Shadow, she'd know he knew -- but again, the belt proved an insurmountable obstacle. He thought about yelling for help, but what would that accomplish? The situation was already far too dire for a simple rescue to solve, and really, as embarrassing as his own predicament was, he didn't want anyone else seeing Naoto like this.
Slowly, she unwound the plastic, tearing at the places where it caught, and slowly, what appeared to be a pair of truly spectacular breasts began to make their shapes known. He didn't know how she managed to keep those under wraps, as it were, but he could only imagine that the process was less than comfortable. "If I untied you, would you be a good boy?"
He nodded enthusiastically. He'd be a great boy. He'd bolt for the door and save them both the humiliation of having this go beyond where it was now, and once things were back to normal, they'd both thank him for his quick, clear action. But at the moment, Naoto seemed unconvinced. "I want you to stay," she said, unfastening the metal hook that held the last wrap of the ace bandage in place. "I want you to make a woman out of me."
Just as he was certain his life was truly over, Yosuke heard the sound of a door's bursting open from behind him, and turned to see Souji's very distinct silhouette in the doorway. "Good work, Naoto!" he said breathlessly, stalking his way into the room. "That was definitely a challenge. Now, turn him over to me, and I'll hide him, and you can use your detective skills to find him!"
Trapped mid-unwrap and unable to let go for fear of exposing herself to both boys now, Naoto took a step backward, holding the last round of bandages across her breasts. "Of -- of course," she sputtered as her cheeks went pink. "You'll leave me clues, yes?"
Souji went first to work on the ropes around Yosuke's hands. "I'll leave you tremendously difficult clues. Ones only a great detective could solve."
"Well ... all right," she agreed, still sounding uncertain. "But this time, when I find him, I'll get to keep him?"
"He'll be all yours." With a few quick tugs, Souji also freed Yosuke's ankles, as Yosuke himself pulled the belt from his own mouth. "Won't you, Yosuke?"
Yosuke blinked at Souji, then turned to Naoto. "Oh, yeah. All yours. But you've got to give us time to ... leave all the clues."
Naoto frowned, looking crushed. "How long?"
"Want to say," Souji glanced at his watch, "...six o'clock? That's how long it should take to set up a good mystery."
"Well ... all right." Naoto sat down on the chair Yosuke had vacated, crossing her legs under her. "I'll wait here until six. And then, the hunt begins!"
"You got it," grinned Souji before grabbing Yosuke by his wrist and hauling him bodily up out of Naoto's basement.
"How'd you know I was down there?" asked Yosuke after they were safely out of sight of the house where Naoto was staying. He rubbed his wrists, which still had the faintest of rope burns around them.
Souji shrugged, glancing down the street before giving Yosuke the all-clear nod. "Nobody'd seen Naoto, and everyone was upset that you were gone. Plus, I know she keeps an interrogation room in her basement."
Yosuke stopped in his tracks. "How do you know that?"
"I know lots of things." Souji reached for Yosuke's wrist and yanked him forward again, hurrying down the street as fast as they could without attracting undue attention. Yosuke wished they'd both had a chance to change out of their school uniforms, since that would have been a lot less conspicuous, but he was already beginning to suspect that he couldn't have been more conspicuous if he'd paraded down the street accompanied by a marching band and a battalion of crying babies. "I also know that if this happened to you in the TV world, then the answer's probably in the TV world."
For the first time since they'd starting moving away from Naoto's place, Yosuke gave more than a cursory glance to their surroundings and saw that they were headed in the general direction of Junes. "Are you sure this is going to be a good idea? There's a lot of bored housewives there on a Monday afternoon."
"You have a better one?" Souji asked, and Yosuke was forced to admit that, no, he did not. In fact, he was completely fresh out of ideas, and more than happy to turn the reins of this dilemma over the team's customary leader. Despite the funny way it still sometimes made him feel to consider how Souji alone remained unaffected, all things considered, if Yosuke could've picked one person in the whole world to keep a level head through all this, it would've been Souji.
The best thing about being the owner of the store was that Yosuke had a key to the delivery entrance, which tended to be empty around the mid-afternoon; deliveries were usually scheduled around the early morning or late evening, and as luck would have it, the loading dock was deserted. "Come on," said Yosuke, rifling through his pockets for his keyring, which he was pleased to see none of his admirers had pickpocketed. He unlocked the bare steel door and gestured Souji inside.
In every store his father had managed -- and there'd been a lot, by now, progressively larger Junes branches in various parts of the country -- there had always been a storage room like this, full of shelves and boxes and things that generally were not often needed. He always liked those rooms, and usually slipped away to hide there during breaks, where he could listen to music and curl up behind some huge refrigerator box and be assured that no one would know where to find him for the full fifteen minutes he deserved. Those times, though, he'd only been hiding from his father, or maybe some middle manager. It was different having to hide from everyone.
"There's a service elevator up to electronics," said Yosuke, walking over to a pair of key-locked doors and rummaging through all the keys on his keyring for the correct one. "It's how they get all the big items up there. If the floor's clear up there like it usually is, nobody will notice us."
"Good thinking," Souji nodded, and he gave Yosuke a pat on the shoulder that made Yosuke feel really happy for the first time since he'd realized that bad things were occuring. Yeah, give him one ally to have in the whole world, and he'd pick Souji, every time.
As they got off the floor, Souji motioned that Yosuke should stay in the employee area, then stepped forward himself onto the electronics floor, checking bravely to see if the coast was clear. Yosuke pressed his ear to the crack between the doors, listening for the all-clear sign that would let him know that it was safe to come out -- and feeling his heart sink into his stomach when he heard Souji's bright, over-loud greeting: "Ladies! What are you all doing here?"
"Have you seen Yosuke?" asked Chie's voice, and the tone suggested she wasn't inclined to take 'no' for an answer. "You always know where he is."
"You can't keep him from us," added Yukiko, and there was a chorus of agreement from behind her that made Yosuke wonder exactly how many Souji's greeting had been intended to indicate. To Yosuke's frantic brain, it sounded like there could have been a thousand.
"You know, I was looking for him myself," said Souji, with an indulgent edge to his voice that the girls might have caught under other circumstances. Fortunately -- well, for Yosuke, at least -- one of the side effects of being magically stupid in love with him seemed to be a loss of function in the area of one's brain that detected when someone was just egregiously lying to you.
All the girls sighed, and at least one sounded like she shouted out his name in great despair, which was kind of unnerving. "Someone had the bright idea of staking out his dad's store," said a voice that had definitely not been included in the original 'ladies' and it was all Yosuke could do to prevent his brain from correctly identifying the speaker, because the thought that Daisuke Nagase might be among his throng of crazed admirers was just plain too weird to think about.
"He'll be here!" chirped Rise, who had apparently come down off the roof, so it was good to know at least some of her common sense was still intact. "He always comes here! He knows I'll be waiting for him!" Her declaration of affection seemed to raise the ire of the crowd, and an angry murmur crept all the way to Yosuke's ears.
"Hey!" called Souji, much to everyone's surprise -- including Yosuke's -- and the unseen mass of people shut up. "You know, he probably will come here, but just in case, why don't you all stay here and I'll go look?"
"But then what will you do with him?" moaned another voice that definitely belonged to one of his teachers, and Yosuke wanted to clap his hands over his ears to keep from hearing anything more identifying about it.
"I'll bring him back here, of course," said Souji. "Just ... sit tight."
There was a murmur of agreement, and a few seconds later, walking just slow enough not to qualify as a run, Souji burst through the doors and pushed them shut behind him, throwing the deadbolt for good measure. Yosuke stuck his hands nervously in his pockets. "So, uh, sounds like that way's out."
"You think?" With one last baleful glance toward the direction from which he'd so recently escaped, Souji walked back to the elevator doors. "All right, time for Plan B."
With a turn of a key, Yosuke called the elevator back to them. "What's Plan B?"
"I will let you know when I think of it," said Souji, folding his arms across his chest and looking thoughtful. He leaned back against the far wall of the elevator and sighed. "Well, we can't stay here; the team's got the TV pretty well staked out, but everyone else seems restless. They'll probably split up to explore soon, and that's no good. ...Is anyone home at your place right now?"
Yosuke brightened. "No, Mom and Dad are at work, and Teddie's on food court duty."
Souji nodded. "Then we'll go there," he said, and as the doors of the elevator opened, he stepped out first into the storeroom, giving it a quick once-over first to determine its emptiness before motioning Yosuke out. Sticking close to Souji as though his life depended on it -- and, he was certain, it probably did -- Yosuke followed out the store and across the street to his mercifully nearby house.
His crazed admirers had apparently been so focused on the idea of catching Yosuke at his job that they hadn't bothered to stake out his home, which was fine by Yosuke. Just to be safe, however, they took they back way around, slipping in through the garage door instead of going up the front walk, in case they'd missed some lovesick stalker who'd decided to hide in the bushes. Inside, Yosuke quickly went around to all the doors, turning every lock they had, while Souji pulled the shades over all the windows.
That done, Yosuke collapsed on the futon in his living room and draped his forearm over his eyes. "I take it all back, all of it, you were right, and you can remind me of this if I ever question your judgment again, okay?"
Souji, bless him, had the common decency not to rub salt in that wound, choosing instead to sit on the far end of the futon, near Yosuke's feet, and give his shin a comforting pat. "We could go through this TV, I guess," he said, nodding toward the Hanamura family set -- which, though definitely smaller than the one at Junes, would probably fit them each through if they squeezed. "I'm just worried that I don't know where it'd put us out."
"Well, we've found other people thrown in through other TVs before," Yosuke pointed out. "If we took, maybe, water and weapons, we could camp out for a while, until everyone came for us."
"I'm not worried about their finding us; I'm worried about what their finding you." Drumming his fingers on the futon frame, Souji hummed thoughtfully. "I don't really want to take the chance that this might not just wear off."
Yosuke opened his mouth to agree, but was startled into silence as a huge crack of lightning made them both jump, bringing in its wake a rush of water against the roof and windows. Those thunderclouds that had been looming in the distance had aparently arrived, bringing with them one hell of a late-year storm. Following close on the heels of the lightning came a roll of thunder, so loud and bone-rattling that it nearly drowned out the subsequent horrified shriek that came from upstairs. Mostly working on reflex, Yosuke and Souji both jumped to their feet and headed up the stairs, concern for whatever person might be in distress overriding the concerns of their current predicament. What heroes they'd all become in such a short time, especially when it rained.
Another lightning-and-thunder duet sounded, and another shriek followed it, this time more clearly from the direction of Yosuke's bedroom. Yosuke, who was closer, set off down the short hall at a dead run, shuffling through his mind the whole time all the possible causes of disaster -- up to and including the sudden breakthrough of Shadows into the real world, which would have made their situation worse by an order of magnitude. With Souji at his heels, he turned the knob and burst into his room.
He desperately wanted to unsee what was before him, but there was no way. Teddie, apparently having taken a cue from Kanji's Shadow, had covered the room -- literally covered, Yosuke could barely see an inch of space beneath -- with rose petals. Quiet music warbled from Yosuke's stereo, barely audible over the rain but sounding like some sappy Enka ballad. Stretched out across his bed, without a stitch of clothing on him and only a single large blossom covering certain indecent parts, Teddie perked up at their arrival. "Oh, Yosuke!" he gasped, bringing a hand (mercifully keeping the one holding the censoring rose in place) to his lips. "I'm so beary scared of lightning!"
With all due haste, Yosuke slammed the door. There, in the mostly darkened hallway, he and Souji looked at one another with equal looks of shell-shocked horror. A third bolt of lightning and subsequent roll of thunder intruded on their silence, but there was no response from Teddie; apparently all he'd wanted was to get their attention, and now that he had it, was no longer quite so terrified by the weather. Yosuke only worried that once Teddie realized the object of his new obsession wasn't going to open that door again, there was no telling what kind of further appalling ridiculousness he might commit. The house was no longer safe; they had to get out.
And then, after a moment, Souji's mouth began to twitch at the corner, the unmistakable -- and on him, uncharacteristic -- look of a man trying to keep a straight face and failing. Yosuke's eyes narrowed. "What in the world is possibly funny about that?"
Wrestling his lips unsuccessfully back from a laugh, Souji nodded toward the door. "He was ... bear naked."
"...No." Yosuke shook his head and turned, stalking resolutely back off down the hall.
The downpour was actually a blessing; they huddled together under one of Yosuke's father's golf umbrellas, letting its massive bell-shaped cover disguise them from prying eyes. Souji led, poking his head out every so often to make sure the coast was clear, and every time he ducked back under, a new set of raindrops had added a layer of dampness to his hair and shoulders. They passed several city blocks without Yosuke's being able to see anything except the road directly under his feet, and it wasn't until they started across the footbridge that crossed the Samegawa that Yosuke realized they were probably headed toward Souji's house.
A few minutes later, Yosuke's limited worldview from beneath the umbrella suddenly included the red post box with DOJIMA printed on the side, and they turned together off the street. Souji pushed open the front doors, hurrying Yosuke in before him. "I'm home," he called out, not at a volume to attract attention, but more as a courtesy to anyone in easy earshot.
Yosuke hadn't really expected to hear a response, but sure enough, a little rumble of feet approached, and down the stairs came Nanako. "Welcome home!" she chirped, beaming at Souji before she looked to see which of her adopted big brother's friends had come home with him this time -- and her attention fixed there, falling on Yosuke with a lovesick look he'd become all too familiar with in the past few hours. Her cheeks flushed a bright pink, and she clapsed her hands behind her back. "...Um, hi."
Souji stopped in the middle of taking off his wet shoes to look from Nanako to Yosuke and then back to Nanako again, shaking his head with an amused little smile. "Nanako-chan, can you be a good host to Yosuke while I go put on a dry shirt?"
Nanako nodded and waited politely until Yosuke had put on a pair of house slippers, then grabbed his hand and dragged him into the rest of the house. "Do you want to watch TV?" she asked bashfully, leading him over to the futon.
Yosuke shot Souji a quick look to confirm that this was all right, but Souji had already set off upstairs -- which, Yosuke supposed, was fair enough, since he'd gotten himself soaked doing watch duty on Yosuke's behalf. "Um, sure," he said, allowing himself to be seated, and then allowing his arm to be co-opted as Nanako snuggled up at his side and posed him into a half-hug. "What do you want to watch?"
"Can we get married?" asked Nanako instead, looking up at him with bright, dreamy eyes and a hopeful smile.
By contrast to all the other catastrophes that had befallen him that day, Nanako's innocent offer came nearly as a relief. "Sure," sighed Yosuke, patting her head. "We'll set a date ten years from now."
"Hell of a proposal," said a man's deep voice, and Yosuke would have sworn he actually felt his heart stop.
Nanako turned her head at the sound of her father's words. "We're going to get married," she announced, kicking her little blue-socked feet as they hung several inches off the floor.
Dojima looked entirely skeptical, right down to the way he kept his cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth. "Is that a fact." He ran a hand through his short, greying hair, shaking loose a few drops; he must have arrived home only minutes before Yosuke and Souji got there. "I think it's time for you to get ready for your bath."
"Dad!" she sighed, and in that since word Yosuke could hear the teenager she'd become one day. But for now, she was still young enough to submit, and so she hopped off the couch and headed toward the stairs, stomping all the way, so that every footfall signalled her displeasure.
Yosuke stood, swallowing hard. "Dojima-san, I'm -- we were just playing, I didn't mean--"
"She's just a kid," smiled Dojima, giving a fond look in the direction of Nanako's noisy retreat. He ashed his cigarette in the ashtray by the telephone, then stepped closer to Yosuke, first conversationally close, then uncomfortably close. "She's got good taste, though, I'll give her that. You're a nice-looking young man."
Every time he thought this whole thing just couldn't get any weirder, the universe seemed to delight in proving him wrong. "I'm just waiting for Souji," Yosuke stammered, stuffing his hands in his pockets before they could begin to shake. "We're going soon. Real soon. In fact, I'm gone right now. You just haven't noticed."
"Stay for dinner." Smoke slipped from between Dojima's lips as he made the offer, and Yosuke tried to back away, but the backs of his calves hit the seat of the futon, and there was nowhere else to run. "Hell, stay after. You can have my half of the bed." He reached over and brushed a damp lock of hair from Yosuke's forehead, letting the touch trail down Yosuke's cheek and curling a knuckle beneath his jaw.
Yosuke found himself wishing that he could borrow Rise's Persona, just long enough to send Souji one word: hurry! "Oh, I -- well, that's very flattering of -- that is -- I mean I wouldn't want to -- you've got your own -- I haven't -- where would you sleep?"
"The other half." Dojima grinned and tugged Yosuke closer, and Yosuke, helpless, followed, until they were nearly chest-to-chest and he found himself looking upwards over the few inches of advantage Dojima's height afforded him. His voice dropped low, barely above a whisper. "I can teach you a lot of things you won't learn anywhere else. I can make you beg for more." Yosuke's heart began to pound, and he felt a little weak-kneed from the proximity; he could smell Dojima's skin beneath the cloud of cigarette smoke, sharp and dark, and oh, speaking of things he'd never wanted to know about himself. "I've got handcuffs."
As though on cue -- or, arguably, a little late -- Souji came thundering down the stairs. "Yosuke, Nanako told me that woah--" He nearly tripped over the last few steps as the scene in the living room came into his view, and barely managed to stay upright through some less-than-graceful flailing. The second his feet hit steady on the floor, though, he was bounding across the living room, and Dojima, startled by his nephew's sudden appearance, took a step back from Yosuke. It was all the opening Souji needed. "We'll be back later!" he announced, grabbing Yosuke's poor bruised wrists and hauling him toward the door. Yosuke barely had time to grab his shoes before they were gone again, outside and unprotected into the driving rain.
"Where are we going?" Yosuke shouted over the deluge, spitting water out of his mouth. They'd found a slight gap between two houses where the roofs nearly touched, and had huddled there out of the rain long enough for Yosuke to get his shoes back on. His socks were soaked through and filthy already, but at least he wouldn't have to feel the sharp pebbles along the road stab at his feet anymore.
"I have no idea!" Souji called back, raking his bangs from his eyes. He had changed into a different top, a long-sleeved grey henley shirt that Yosuke thought he might have left there the last time he and Teddie had slept over, but he might as well have stayed in his uniform, for all they were both soaked straight through now. "We're out of safe houses, and out of TVs."
Yosuke's sodden feet felt gross inside his shoes, and he cringed at the awful way they squished. "Junes closes in a few hours," he pointed out. "Maybe if we hide out in the storeroom until then..."
Souji shook his head. "Not with our team. They'll either convince your parents to let them stay or just jump into the TV world themselves and wait for us."
Hearing that, Yosuke slumped back against the house's plaster wall, closing his eyes. The idea that Rise and company might actually be staking out the TV world hadn't occured to him before, and now that he thought about it, he felt more trapped than ever. How had he ever thought this might end well? Oh, right, because he was stupid. "You know," he said with a bitter little smile, plastering his wet hair back across his head, "I can't believe you, of all people, would end up being the one guy who manages to dodge this."
"Figured it had something to do with this," said Souji, sounding perfectly calm as he pulled a chain out from beneath his shirt. At the end hung a pendant no larger than Yosuke's thumbnail, shaped in the image of a Buddha posed in full lotus, with a beatific smile curling at its silver features. He must have had it on before the whole mess began.
"Oh," said Yosuke, who recognized it from a design at Daidara's shop, where it hung above a sign that promised great mental clarity and freedom from confusing influences for its wearer. It was nice to know those things worked in the real world too. "Oh." A weird, giddy relief passed over him, and he clutched at his stomach, shaking with silent laughter.
Souji tucked the pendant back in his shirt and gave Yosuke a funny look. "Wait, what do you mean, me of all people?"
The question put a quick end to Yosuke's feelings of relief. "It's just...." He swallowed and turned from Souji's rain-dampened face, wrestling with a new knowledge that was slowly beginning to take shape. If he made it out of this alive, he vowed never to learn anything about himself ever again. "Well, I guess I thought, if he's just really friendly around me when I've got a super-duper love spell on ... how much must he actually hate me when the spell's not there?"
A long moment passed as Souji said nothing, and the moment stretched out so long that Yosuke finally overcame his fear of what the response might be and looked up to meet Souji's gaze. There, he saw that all his fears were utterly unfounded -- Souji was looking at him with the same kind, patient smile he always gave when Yosuke was being particularly dense. "You're an idiot," he said, placing a hand on Yosuke's shoulder. "But you're my idiot. And my best friend." With a slightly self-conscious laugh, he slipped a finger again beneath the chain around his neck and gave it a quick tug. "If I took this off? No one else would even get a chance at you."
Surely it was just friendly talk, the kind of things friends said to one another, and Souji was just trying to express how great his friendly love was for Yosuke by saying that if the level of friendly love somehow magically correlated to the level of romantic love, Souji would have a definite advantage over all others. Surely that was all he meant. But that didn't mean hearing it didn't turn Yosuke's knees to water. "That's," he tried to speak, tried to laugh off the tension, but he couldn't seem to stop the train of thought his brain was taking. "I mean, thanks, partner."
"Don't mention it." Souji gave him another squeeze on the shoulder, and this time let his hand linger there. "Anybody ever told you that you worry too much?"
"Only all the time. But today, I think I'm justified." Yosuke sighed and shut his eyes, and when he found himself leaning into Souji's touch, he didn't pull away. "You know, I wish I'd been a little more prepared, I might have taken the opportunity just to kiss someone before everything all went horrible."
Souji cleared his throat. "Somehow, I was under the impression that that's all you'd been doing today."
"Oh, no. Tied to a chair, check. Fed evil ganmodoki, check." Yosuke ticked the offenses off on his fingers. "Showered with gifts, check. Offered the chance to get intimate with another guy's testicles, check. Forced to grope a teacher's fake breasts, check. Visually assaulted by a naked bear, check. Scheduled for marriage -- twice -- check. Propositioned for bondage play by your uncle," he thought he saw Souji cringe a little at that one, "check. But no, like, hand-holding or just kissing or anything like that. This spell or whatever it is, it seems to push people right past the simple stuff and straight on into rape territory, and ... I think all I want right now is the simple stuff. That's all I think I'm ready for. Just ... that."
It may have been Yosuke's imagination, or the play of everything visual in the dim wet light of the nearby streetlamp, but Yosuke would have sworn he saw Souji lean in a little closer. "I guess that's not how it happens at a strip club," he shrugged, giving Yosuke a comforting smile.
"Especially not an evil strip club," Yosuke laughed, but his laugh died quickly as he realized how close he was to Souji, how really close, and how they'd been talking about kissing just a few moments ago, and how Souji's lips looked when he smiled, and how Souji always looked when he smiled just for Yosuke, and how all he'd really need to do to close the gap between them was just to lean-- "Why are you so gung-ho about getting into the TV, anyway?"
Souji blinked, surprised. "I ... don't know. It seemed like a good idea. After all, that's where this happened, and maybe if we can find what specifically caused it, we can use that to figure out the cure."
Yosuke shook his head, pushing away from the wall and peering out from behind the house. The rain had let up slightly, but the street was still deserted, which was just the way he needed it to be. "I don't think we need it," he said, reaching down and grabbing Souji's hand, determined to put his new plan into action or die trying. "Come on." He set off at a dead run down the street, his shoes splashing with every fall on the wet ground, and Souji followed close behind him, never letting go.
The shrine was just as empty as the streets had been, and Yosuke slowed down so quickly as they ducked inside the gates that Souji ran smack into him, and they both staggered forward a few more feet. "How do you call the fox?" Yosuke asked, gasping for breath.
"I don't know!" Souji pushed his hair away from his face again; neither of them really had a good hairstyle for being out in the driving rain. "He's just here when I get here!"
Yosuke stepped toward the main shrine building, looking around for any sign of movement that wasn't weather-related. "Hey, fox!" he called, then thought better of such a rude greeting for an animal whose help he needed. "Excuse me, I'm sorry for the intrusion, but can I talk to you for a minute, please? It's very urgent!"
He didn't know precisely what he expected from the encounter, but it wasn't the pair of ears that suddenly appeared at the top of the shrine building. Moments later, the fox landed on the ground, then circled Yosuke's legs once before diving for shelter and taking up a perch on top of the offeratory box. Encouraged by this, Yosuke approached until he was under the very edge of the roof, and thus out of the rain. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice," Yosuke began; he wasn't sure how much human language the fox understood, but he was willing to err on the side of its competence. "You see, I've got a ... a condition, and I'd really appreciate it if you could patch me up, like you do inside the TV."
The fox cocked its head to one side, and Yosuke nodded. "I know, this isn't your usual thing, but please, I've got nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. Everyone else in the world has gone crazy, and he," Yosuke nodded to Souji, "is the only friend I have left making any sense. So please. Please. Do ... anything."
With a quiet bark, the fox sat up straight, pressing its paws together in front of it and leaning its face toward Yosuke. After a moment's consideration, Yosuke began patting his pockets. "Oh, geez, I ... you see, there was this girl, only she's not really that much of a girl to begin with, and anyway, she sort of tied me to a chair and took things out of my pockets, and, well, that's the kind of thing I've been dealing with today, and I know you usually charge for this, but I really, honestly don't even have a 50-yen piece on me, just a couple keys, so ... can we just do this on credit?" He gave the fox a hopeful smile.
But the fox appeared unmoved by Yosuke's plight, answering only by straightening its spine and leaning even closer, lifting its nose into the air. From behind him, he heard Souji hum thoughtfully. "I don't think it wants money."
"Well, what does it want?" sighed Yosuke, holding out his hands in despair.
Souji chuckled quietly. "What has everyone else today wanted?"
It was a good thing the end was in sight, because Yosuke didn't know how much stranger the world could get and still expect him to deal with it. "All right," he said, leaning down closer so he could look the fox in the eye, "you are a very pretty fox, and you have a lovely house that you keep up very well, I really like what you've done with the gold and the detailing on the lanterns, and I would very much like it if you would go out on a date with me so I can get to know you better. And then you can be my ... foxfriend." Just for good measure, he took a deep breath, then leaned forward and planted a huge, noisy kiss on the fox's proffered nose.
Yosuke didn't know if foxes could blush, but he would've sworn this one did as it bent its head down and rummaged beneath its bib, pulling out a bright magenta leaf. Without warning, it jumped at Yosuke's face, pressing the leaf to Yosuke's forehead, and Yosuke closed his eyes as the world went white again.
When he came to moments later, he was mercifully still on his feet, though he felt a pair of strong arms supporting him from behind and knew the only reason he wasn't on the ground was Souji. Speaking of heroes. "Did it work?" Souji asked, sounding concerned.
The fox, who had taken its place atop the offeratory box, stared at him for a moment longer -- then blinked, puzzled, as though the world had suddenly been pulled out from beneath its feet. With a yip that even Yosuke could tell was completely un-smitten, it bounded away, disappearing into the rafters of the shrine. With a groan, Yosuke steadied himself. "I think that's a yes."
"One way to find out," said Souji, and he reached beneath his shirt; with a tug, he pulled the Buddha pendant from around his neck and dropped it in the offeratory box. Souji took a deep, thoughtful breath, then shrugged. "No, I still like you exactly as much as I did a few seconds ago."
"Well, that's a relief," said Yosuke, who was too delighted at the thought of not having throngs of crazy admirers anymore to really examine the truth of that statement. Instead, he rubbed his forehead at the place where the leaf had made contact; his fingers came away tinted the same magenta as the leaf had been, but it was only powder, and that would wash off in the rain. "I'd like to say I've learned my lesson, but ... this wasn't really my fault in the first place, so I guess I haven't."
"How about a lesson where you trust your leader when he says something seems dangerous?" asked Souji, stepping out from under the shrine roof, back into the rain.
With a sigh, Yosuke followed, and together they walked up the path back to the gate, turning at the street toward Souji's house and the promise of dry clothes, a thought that pleased Yosuke's chilled skin. "All right, but just that one. I refuse to learn anything else from this experience. All right?"
"It'll do," Souji nodded. "Of course, this could be awkward around school for a few days."
"Hey, awkward is my middle name." Yosuke shrugged, sticking his hands in his wet, mostly empty pockets. He wanted to thank Naoto for saving his personal belongings from the deluge, but didn't quite know how she'd take that gratitude, all things considered. He hoped returning things to normal might mean that everyone affected just simply forgot what had happened, then hoped that it didn't, because in that case, explaining to her how she came to be in possession of his music player might be awkward. "Anyway, thanks."
Souji stopped at the corner, caught beneath the streetlight's damp glow. He was so effortlessly handsome, always quiet and confident and brave, and the finishing touch was that he had no idea how amazing he was. Staring at him, Yosuke couldn't remember how he had ever thought the artificial affections of a million other people could ever compare to that one honest smile. "For what?"
"For ... being you." Yosuke laughed self-consciously, aware of how lame it sounded, but it was the truth. "That's all. Just for always being you."
"Thank the Buddha," Souji joked, and he reached out his hand through the rain. Maybe the day hadn't been an entire loss after all. Without hesitation, Yosuke took it and twined their fingers together, holding to Souji like a lifeline as they walked together silently all the way home and dry.
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