The fifth and longest of the theme-challenges so far. I must stop to thank Senpai, Fiyerna, who collaborated this story with me (I'm sure there are a few of you pleased to hear that). The story started with an idea I had a long time ago then asked him to help me develop and from there it was fitted into one of the themes. This fairly more dramatic then the others, yet it shows the strong connection between Souji and Naoto that I hope you all see and enjoy.

The long unending beep echoed in the otherwise silent hospital room. A pair of silver orbs widened in terror as he watch the dull brown ones below him slowly flickered shut. The weak grip on his hand died slowly as the frail hand fell from his, landing on the white mattress with a soft thump.

"…Seta-san?" Souji jumped and tore his gaze away from the now still figure of his cousin, staring up at the doctor, eyes still wide. "…I'm sorry, Seta-san." The doctor muttered softly. "Are you—"

"…Excuse me." The silverette muttered, stepping away from the bed, shaking his head slowly.

"Seta-san, are you alright? I think that---"

"Excuse me." Souji repeated, brushing past the doctor as he stumbled across the room, his face pale. He fumbled with the doorknob, nearly falling on his face when he finally managed to push the door open and slip out into the hall.

"W-whoa! Partner, you okay? What happened? You look sick…" Souji glanced up, blinking slowly as he heard Yosuke's voice, but didn't register his words, the voices following his coming in a mixed blur, unable to tell who was speaking.

"Souji-kun? Are you alright?"

"H-hey! Are you okay? Souji?"

"Hey, Senpai! You okay man? You're all pale and shaky… What happened in there?"

"S-Sensei? What's wrong? What's wrong with Nana-chan?"

"Senpai? Why… why d-do you look ready to cry? What happened? Senpai!"

"Senpai…" A soft hand fell on his shoulder, pulling him sharply from his gaze. He glanced down, blinking rapidly to fight back the stinging sensation in his eyes. Naoto… "Senpai? Are you alright? Look at me… What happened?" Her voice was soft and gentle. Concern wasn't in her tone, but it was visible in her bright eyes as she looked up at him, waiting silently for him to respond.

"...She's..." Souji couldn't concentrate. His voice was quiet, almost hesitant. It wasn't like him at all. "...Nanako, she's..." He couldn't say it. He wouldn't. To admit it would make it real, absolute. He wasn't going to dare speak what he knew to be incontrovertible.

Yet, everyone else could see. They knew. And Souji heard their reactions even as he pushed past them and plodded down the hall.

"D...dammit... DAMMIT!!"

"No... NO! It's not true!"

"Why!? Why did she have to...?"


"It... it can't be! I-I don't..."


Souji didn't know where he was going... he just knew he needed to walk, to get away, to deal with his grief. And yet...

"Holy crap! Dojima-san!"

Souji looked up without knowing where he was, how far he had walked or how long he had been wandering aimlessly. Adachi ran out of a hallway, and Dojima was being carried by two other police officers. Souji blinked stupidly as he noticed the unmarked door at the end, quickly realizing who was kept inside. He needed to talk to him. He wasn't angry, but he did need the truth... He needed to understand. Approaching the door, he raised his hand, numbly seeking the door handle.


He heard many footsteps echo dully from behind him, but the crash from within came much more loudly. The dullness of his mind was momentarily lifted, and he threw the door open and rushed inside, followed by the people the footsteps had belonged to. He saw Namatame on the ground near an open window, shaking in abject terror.

"..What are you doing?" asked Souji, not entirely certain what he was saying. The pain in his heart was still too great.

"I... I was scared..." said Namatame, looking very much like Souji felt. "So... I..."

Souji heard Yosuke's voice rise in anger. Everyone around him was in a towering temper. And then... the Midnight Channel. Namatame, or someone who appeared to be his Shadow. Still, Souji noticed something. Namatame, the man in front of him, was even more terrified because of it. He covered his ears, his shoulders wracked with sobs.

This isn't the reaction of a cold-hearted killer. He didn't intend to kill Nanako. So then why did he…?

"...I want to hear what you think."

Souji blinked, not entirely certain why everyone was suddenly looking at him. He could feel the murderous intent in everyone's hearts. Even Naoto had fallen into a dark silence

"What do you want to do... Leader?" Yosuke's jaw was set, his eyes cold. Souji had never seen him like this before.

"Wait a second here..." It didn't sound like his voice. He felt everyone's gaze become colder, more lethal.

"Wait?!" Yosuke's rage was mounting, his face turning redder with each passing second. "We don't have time to wait! If we don't do this now, the cops'll come back! What're you trying to say?!"

In spite of his own emotions, Souji measured his words carefully, hoping to diffuse the situation. "We're... missing something."

"Something we don't know...?" Yosuke was taken aback, but his rage overruled his curiosity. "What don't we know?!

Souji looked down at the quaking, quivering shell of a man, and pity stirred his heart. "...Namatame's true feelings..."

"But we just heard the guy's true feelings on TV! What didn't you understand?!"

Souji felt his own temper rising. He turned to face Yosuke, but managed to see everyone else's anger reflected in their eyes. The detective's usual silver-blue irises seemed tinged with red. "...Something's bothering me."

"Well, what is it?!" demanded Yosuke impatiently. "I already told you, there's no time to waste! Are you even getting at something here, or are you just stalling?!"

Souji gritted his teeth at the accusation, but held firm. "We're. Missing. Something."

"Missing...? Like what exactly?" Yosuke sounded tired, but then his emotions forced him back into a rage. "Dammit... I've heard enough of this bullshit! Give me a straight answer! Are we doing this or not?! That's all I give a damn about right now!"

Something in Souji's mind abruptly snapped, and he bowed his head, breaking off eye contact in an effort to control himself. He had had enough of the temper tantrums, enough of the selfish raging that seemed to have overtaken all of his friends. How would any of this matter when Nanako…when...

"…down…" Souji's voice was faint, causing everyone to move closer to try and hear him more clearly.

"What-?" Yosuke began angrily, but he was cut off as Souji's head snapped up, eyes flashing dangerously.

"Would you all just… CALM THE HELL DOWN!?" Yosuke jumped, taking a step back in shock. Rise squeaked and grabbed Kanji's arm, who stood frozen in shock, eyes wide. Yukiko gasped softly and jerked backward, crashing into Chie who looked ready to be sick, while Naoto stood off to the side silently, staring at Souji, unable to speak. "You're… you're not the only ones who are in pain because of this!!!"

The group was silent, all of them hit hard with the same, harsh wave of guilt.

"You… none of you—not even her own damn father—knows her as well as I do…" He trailed off, shaking his head, fists clenched. "And you would possibly condemn an innocent man to a fate we swore to prevent others from... How does that justify—Nanako wouldn't want…"

"S-Senpai?" Naoto's voice trembled slightly, her stomach turning as she realized that she had lost control.

"H-home. I need to—I'm going…home." Souji spoke, forcing a calm tone to his voice as he stepped back. "I—no, Yosuke, I don't need you to come with me. I… need to think for a minute. Allow me that. I just… need to come up with a plan for what to do with the case and…Excuse me." Slipping around the faces of his concerned friends, he walked down the hallway slowly, breaking into a sprint the moment he disappeared from view.

No… Nanako. No, no, no! This… this isn't fair! She… A strangled noise escaped his throat, but he swallowed it down, darting around nurses and doctors as he made his way to the front doors.

"We... deserved that, didn't we?" Yosuke winced as Souji disappeared out of the door.

"...Every word." Yukiko stared down at the floor, a slight flush of embarrassment in her cheeks.

"But... Senpai is hurtin' bad." Kanji shook his head lightly, face contorted in pain. "Shouldn't we go after him or somethin'?"

"S-senpai..." Rise sniffled loudly, her eyes brimming with tears. "...We gotta help him! Let's go before he—"


Everyone turned to Naoto as she spoke, the only passive face in the room.

"Are... you sure, Naoto-kun?" asked Chie in concern. "He's always been there for us when we needed him. Shouldn't we return the favor?"

"Senpai will come to us when he deems it necessary," Naoto said gently. "He needs time to himself to get his thoughts in order... We shouldn't bother him right now, not when he's—"

"But we can't just leave him like this!" retorted Yukiko. "We should at least call him and make sure he doesn't do anything... anything--"

"He wouldn't do anything stupid, Yukiko-san," Yosuke said tiredly. "But I think you're right. We should at least let him know we're here for him. But try not to overdo it, okay? And if anybody hears anything from him—anything at all—call one of us as soon as you can. That way we can spread the word and maybe get some sleep tonight..."

Everyone nodded as they began to file out of the room just as Adachi returned. The officer pushed the group out of the room much more quickly, and the teens silently began their respective journeys back to their homes.

But in spite of her previous statements, Naoto found that she was just as worried about Souji as the rest of the group—if not more.

Pipipipipipi! Souji rolled over in his futon, staring dully at the faint glow of his cell-phone screen.

39 missed calls

Last caller: Yosuke Hanamura- 11:47pm

He turned away again, staring up at the dark ceiling. He'd been receiving calls and text messages from all his friends shortly after he arrived at the Dojima residence. He'd locked the doors and turned off all the lights, slowly dragging himself upstairs where he collapsed into his futon, not bothering to change out of his school uniform.

Brrr! Brrr! Brrr! The house phone went off, as the pattern had gone. They would try his cell-phone, the house phone, and then his cell-phone several more times before giving up, repeating the process again an hour later. The sound of the answering machine picking up drifted up the stairs and Souji could vaguely make out someone speaking.

"…Partner… know you're… please… pick…phone… help….others are… Souji? …I'll… cell-phone again…"

Souji grabbed his cell-phone, flipping it open. Sure enough, just a few seconds later the screen flashed his friend's name as it began to ring loudly. His thumb hovered over the green icon for several seconds, before moving to the red one and holding it down, waiting until the screen flickered and died, indicating that the phone had turned off.

Pulling the covers over his head, Souji sighed heavily, pressing his face against his feather pillow, shutting his eyes as tightly as he could. Holding his breath, the teen began to count slowly in his head, attempting to picture the infamous 'sleep sheep' that seemed to always appear in one's time of sleepless need. Alas, the 'sheep' did not come to his aid, leaving him agitated and exhausted. Just let me sleep… Souji thought miserably, rolling over to stare at the ceiling again.

Please, just let me sleep. Let me forget… just for a few hours. Let me… He bit his lip as it began to tremble, fighting back the stinging sensation in his eyes. Damn it… Get a hold on yourself, Souji. You're supposed to be leading everyone, not curling up in a ball feeling sorry for yourself! What right did you have to yell at them like that? They… they're in pain too… The stinging sensation refused to go away as Souji sat up, rubbing stubbornly at his eyes. D-damn it…

Standing up, he walked over to his dresser, picking up a small digital clock, staring at the small glowing green numbers. How long was I…?


He sighed softly, setting the clock back down, blinking his eyes again as the feeling returned, refusing to die down. A sudden choking sound burst from his throat, causing the silverette to cover his mouth quickly, gasping softly.

"I…" Grabbing his phone, he shoved the device roughly into his pocket as he ran from his room, stumbling down the stairs in a scrambled mess, just barely remembering to grab his keys before darting out the front door, slamming it behind him.

It was raining—pouring—but Souji didn't care. His shoeless feet smacked painfully against the wet cement, causing him to slip and nearly lose his footing on several occasions. His lungs screamed in protest as he ran through the dark-streets as fast as his legs would allow him, ignoring the soft moan of his muscles against the cold and sudden burst of movement. He was sure he'd cut his left foot on a broken bottle several blocks back, but still he pressed forward, head bowed against the howling wind, his soaking wet clothes working as a heavy suit of ice. I need…

His destination came into view as he ran up to a generously sized house, nearly sending himself tumbling forward as he stumbled up the steps to the front door. Raising his hand, be beat his fist against the front door, shivering violently as the wind blew against his back. I need… just right now I…

The door opened and a pair of silver-blue eyes widened in shock as they met his own.

"Who—huh? Senpai? What are you—You're soaking wet!!!" Naoto cried in shock, throwing he font door open as she dragged the upperclassman inside, shutting it quickly after him. "What—My god… Where are your shoes? What on earth were you doing outside in this—Senpai?" Is he… alright? I understand that he must be in a great deal of pain right now but… that look… something far worse is… "Senpai?"

A strangled choking noise escaped Souji's lips as he struggled to talk in an even voice, his body shivering violently on the doormat from something that Naoto had a sick feeling that didn't have to do with the cold or his wet clothes.

"I-I'm sorry…" He muttered softly, bowing his head as his shoulders began to tremble more violently. "I-I can't… I… I need…"

"Need?" Naoto repeated softly, stepping forward, trying to see Souji's face better. "Need what, Senpai? I… I can't help if I don't know what's…" He's shivering… and that look in his eyes. Pain. He looks almost as if he's ready to… "Senpai, please, talk to me. What's wrong?" The sleuth stepped forward again, looking concerned. Need… He's in pain… so much of it. If he's in pain… then he needs… "Sen—Souji-kun, I-"

Naoto was cut off as Souji's face contorted in pain, matching the agonized look in his eyes. He fell to his knees, water dripping all over the welcome mat as he wrapped his arms tightly around himself, shuddering violently before he let out a loud, blood-curdling scream. The sound that escaped Souji's throat was unlike Naoto had ever heard in her life. It was filled with pain, fear, anguish and loneliness… everything that the silverette had felt, but held inside, desperately trying to hold the appearance as the 'strong leader'.

The sleuth inhaled sharply as she hurried forward, kneeling down in front of Souji, grabbing his shoulders gently.

"S-Senpai?" Her voice shook slightly, eyes wide as she stared into Souji's own pain-filled silver orbs, a sudden sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Souji-kun, you…" He's always holding such a strong face. He always smiles and acts like he's alright, like nothing fazes him, but… She slipped her arms around Souji's shoulders, pulling him forward against her chest.

"Souji-kun, you don't always have to act so strong… Isn't that what you've been telling me all this time? Cry when you're sad and shout when you're angry… Just don't hold it all in. You can… let it all out. You don't have to act strong when you feel like this. Not with me." Or with the others but… I want to be your support.

Souji opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He struggled, his mouth moving silently as he tried to form words, but only silence could be heard. His face contorted in pain again as he gasped softly, feeling the strong stinging sensation in his eyes, knowing that he wouldn't be able to push it away again. He gulped, biting down on his lip, nearly drawing blood as something began to rise quickly in his throat before bursting out.

He began to sob. Loud, pain-filled and sorrowful sobs, muffled by the fabric of Naoto's night-shirt as the leader clung tightly to the detective, desperately clinging to the only comforting warmth he could turn to. He couldn't do this, not in front of the others. It was her warmth that he needed, her reassurance that it was alright for him to be the one to finally break down. Her slender arms around his shoulders and gentle fingers running through his hair were all that he needed to send the wall he'd been working so hard to build up crashing down in a pile of rubble.

I'd tell him, 'It's alright, don't cry,' but I'd be forcing him to lock that which has already been held in for too long again. Naoto sighed softly, tightening her grip around Souji's shoulders as she spoke. "…Let it all out, Souji-kun. You've… been holding this in far too long. We've all been relying on your support, all this time, yet… yet we never returned the favor to you. I'm… so sorry." Her grip tightened again as she gently pressed her lips to the top of his head.

"I-it's…" Souji began, his voice high-pitched and broken. It's volume faded in and out, wavering with weakness and self-doubt as he forced the thoughts he'd been locking away in his mind out into the open. "I-it's all my fault. Nanako… It's… it's my fault that she… I-if only we'd gotten to her sooner… Then she wouldn't have…. She wouldn't…" He choked on his words as his body began to tremble with renewed sobs, pressing his face against Naoto's shoulder. "I-I can't! I can't stand this!!!"

"Shut up," Naoto growled as she pushed Souji's back, holding him at arms length. "Don't. Don't you dare try to blame this on yourself." Souji blinked, his eyes widening a fraction as he temporarily forgot his tears. He'd never heard Naoto take such a tone with him—or anyone—like this before. "If you're to blame, then so am I—and everyone else as well. What could we have done? None of us knew until it was too late." Her tone dropped with her eyes as the detective stared at the floor with a guilty expression. "If… if anyone is to blame at all, it's me. I… I didn't get to your house fast enough. I couldn't stop Namatame in time… It's not your fault…" Can the blame truly be placed on anyone for this? "We… did our best. It's all we could do. If we had rushed forward and acted rashly… We wouldn't have been able to save her from the TV world at all."

Reaching out, Naoto ran a slender hand through Souji's hair gently, trailing her fingers down the side of his face, cupping his cheek, giving him a soft, reassuring smile.

"You can't blame yourself for this. I'll repeat it over and over again until you believe me. Nanako… Nanako wouldn't want this. She wouldn't want you to blame yourself. If she knew her big brother was tearing himself up over this… You did save her, Souji-kun. If not from the effects of the TV—which we had no control over—from loneliness. You were at her side when she needed you most, both in the hospital and beforehand. She didn't have anyone before—her father was always so busy, but you made things better, didn't you? You made her happy, Senpai. Until… until the very end… you…" What am I saying…? Naoto thought, looking down. I… I am simply making things worse in allowing myself to speak so freely. Half of what I'm saying doesn't make the slightest amount of sense… I'm simply rambling in hopes that something will spark something in his mind and change his views on the situation.

Standing up, Naoto gently took Souji's hands in her own, pulling him up with her.

"Come with me, I'm going to ask Yakushiji-san for some spare clothes for you." She led him down the hallway, stopping outside a sliding door, which she opened with one hand, gently pushing Souji forward with the other. "Wait in here, I'll return in a few minutes. Have a seat… Don't worry about getting anything wet, I'll bring towels."

Souji didn't notice Naoto close the door. His mind was too numb to everything that had happened, and his body was nearly just as bad. He couldn't find the will power to direct himself to one of the room's many chairs, but his legs wouldn't be able to support him much longer.

The release had been cathartic, and yet Souji still felt like it hadn't been enough. He was silently thankful that he had come to Naoto's home instead of someone else's. Yosuke probably would have panicked, Chie definitely would have panicked. Yukiko wouldn't have had a clue what to do, Kanji would have been too shocked to do anything, Teddie… Teddie would have blown things far out of proportion and Rise would have made things worse by losing her head completely at seeing her 'precious' Senpai lose control.

Glancing around the room slowly, Souji tried to take in his surroundings, not properly registering anything that he looked at. There were chairs located in various points in the room, a table in front of him, bookcases and several windows with the drapes drawn. The floor was covered in an off-white carpet that looked dark against all the shadows of the dully lit room, the only source of light coming from the small lamp in the corner of the room.

The door slide open as Naoto slipped back into the room, a pile of clothes in her arms and several towels in her arms. Wordlessly, the sleuth shut the door behind her before walking over to Souji, setting the clothes on the coffee table before pulling Souji to his feet, gently sliding the soaking wet black uniform jacket off his shoulders, blushing faintly as she noticed the full effects of the rain-drenched white shirt he was wearing. Shaking her head as she silently scolded herself, she ignored the small sounds of protest Souji made as she unbuttoned his shirt quickly, slipping it off and dropping it into a pile with his coat.

"Lift your arms," she ordered softly as she picked up one of the towels, ignoring the rising heat in her cheeks as she ran the soft material over his chest and arms, keeping her gaze firmly focused on the towel. She didn't need her mind wondering, not now.

Grabbing the black dress shirt she'd gotten from the estate secretary, she tossed the fabric over Souji's shoulder's sliding his arms into the sleeves one at a time, shaking her head when he tried to protest again and button the shirt himself. He's always helped us—helped me so much, without ever asking for anything in return. He does it simply out of love for those he cares about. He's disregarded his own feelings for so long… Right now… right now I want to do all in my power that I can for him, no matter how simple me gestures may be. Naoto thought as she ran her hands up the front of the shirt, buttoning it, pausing as she reached the collar, raising her gaze to meet Souji's.

A light blush crawled across her cheeks as she turned away, picking up the other two articles of clothing from the table, pushing them into Souji's arms.

"I'm… sure you're able to put pants on without my assistance. T-the boxers are Yakushiji's, but they're n-new. He said that he hadn't used them yet so…" She trailed off, clearing her throat awkwardly as she stepped around the table, gesturing to the other towels. "Just… use those to dry yourself. I'm going to get us some tea. Something warm but watered down, nothing to strong right now. It should help us both a great deal. Take your time, I'll knock before entering."

Naoto walked over to the sliding door, pausing as she glanced over her shoulder, hesitant to leave Souji alone again, not wanting to risk the silverette doing anything rash, despite knowing that he'd never attempt anything he knew was wrong, but given his condition, Naoto knew that most anything would likely be possible.

"…I'll be back." She muttered softly before slipping from the room, leaving Souji to dress himself.

Souji stared dully at the pants and boxers he had been given, wondering for a moment why Naoto had left. He decided not to think too hard on it, and simply changed his clothes without a word. He had only put on the boxers before he realized that there was blood on the floor near his right foot, and when he sat down and lifted his leg to examine it, he was surprised to see the deep cut on the arch.

Souji blinked slowly as he stared at the laceration. He knew he should probably call Naoto and ask her to bring a first aid kit, but he didn't seem to have the drive to do so. He mechanically reached for one of the towels and half-heartedly attempted to staunch the bleeding, and the white cotton bloomed with crimson flowers as he pressed it to the wound. He couldn't feel the cloth pressing up against his foot, and he finally realized just how cold he really was. Draping the blood-soaked towel over his foot, he leaned forward and rubbed his face with his freezing hands, a shaky, nervous sigh escaping his lips.

A loud knock broke the silence of the room, followed by Naoto's soft voice drifting through the door.

"Senpai? Are you decent…?" He didn't reply. "…I'm coming in. Please at least cover yourself if you're not finished."

The door slide open and Naoto walked inside, frowning when she realized how dark it was.

"Senpai, you can turn on the lights… How are you able to see anything like this?" Soft footsteps moved to the far side of the room, followed by a click as several lights burst into life. "I didn't boil the water, I thought that something luke-warm would—" Naoto stopped, gasping sharply as she noticed the towel hanging on Souji's foot, barely managing to keep her hold on the tray. Biting back a small scream of surprise, the sleuth set the tray down on the table quickly, rushing over to a small desk in the far corner, opening a drawer and producing a first aid kit.

Walking back over to Souji, she knelt down, carefully peeling away the towel, tossing it to the floor behind her as she opened the kit with her other hand. Peering inside the box, she bit her lip, frowning at the lack of materials she had. How long has it been since this was replaced? Shaking her head, she reached for the bloodied towel again, pulling out an antiseptic wipe, opening it with her teeth as she wiped the fresh blood away, quickly pressing the alcohol pad to the silverette's foot as she pulled it away, wincing as she saw white bubbles forming at the edges of the wipe.

"I'm sorry…" she muttered softly, knowing that something bubbling as much as it was would most likely cause a great deal of pain. She reached for another wipe, opening it and repeating the process several times until six wipes joined the bloody towel on the floor. A thick gauze pad was pressed against the arch of Souji's foot as Naoto pulled a white bandage wrap from the box, carefully holding the pad with one hand while wrapping the cloth tightly around his foot with the other. A small piece of white medical tape held the dressings in place.

"…Souji-kun," Naoto called softly. "Do you want some tea?" Still no answer. "Souji-kun, look at me…" She pulled his hands away from his face, wincing at the look in his eyes. She felt something catch in her throat as her chest tightened, a feeling of pain shooting through her as her eyes meet his. I can't stand seeing him like this…

"Souji-kun," she began firmly, "What did I tell you just a few minutes ago? Stop. Just stop trying to act so strong. Stop holding everything in. There isn't any reason for this… You don't have to act strong; you don't have to hold everything in. Not with me… there isn't any reason for you to…" she trailed off, lowering her gaze to the floor before muttering softly. "Is it… is it that you can't trust me? Am… am I not who you need?" I shouldn't be surprised. It's hard enough for me to hold myself up. How can I possibly even imagine holding him up when… He probably came to me simply because I was not as likely to act rashly as the others might… He probably would prefer someone like…

Naoto stood up, unable to hide the sad tone in her own voice.

"…I'll go call Yukiko-san. She—you two seem very close." She's prettier then myself as well… Feminine and out-going. She's strong and is able to stand on her own when she's in pain. "She… she's probably the one you need. She'll… know what you need to hear." But why can't I? Why can't I say what he needs!? The sleuth turned away, clenching her fists as she tried to control herself, bowing he head to try and hide the pained look on her face. Why… can't I help him? Is it because I've not learned the proper way to act around someone on friendly terms? Is it because I'm not an adult? Because I'm not like the other girls? Would it be better if I were a boy? If I were someone like Yosuke-senpai, would he…?

"Naoto..." Souji's voice was hoarse, grating against his throat both from lack of use as well as from the loud scream from before. "...I don't need... Yukiko... I..." It hurt. It hurt to think, to speak, to feel, to see and hear. But he finally knew what he needed, knew exactly what would help him feel better. He knew that if he didn't speak that need out loud, he might very well lose access to it.

"Naoto..." he repeated, his hand rising to his face to cover his burning eyes. "I... I need..."

"Its fine, Senpai," Naoto cut him off, shaking her head. "I understand. You needn't worry about me. We… we still don't know each other that well." How many days have we spent after school together? How… how long had we been working on the case? At the shrine… He… he was just joking. I knew. I knew that he'd never—No. Naoto, stop. You're acting so childish. Of course he wouldn't…

"I'll go call her now…" Perhaps he likes Rise-san? "I could call Rise-san if you prefer… I very well could be mistaken about Yukiko-senpai." Rise-san… she's pretty as well and can be even more feminine then Yukiko-senpai. I-it's only logical that someone like Souji-kun would… Naoto's thoughts were cut off as something grabbed her wrist, keeping her from moving away.

"No... NO!" Souji nearly bumped into the nearby table in his haste to grasp Naoto's wrist. Turning, the detective's eyes widened in shock as she beheld the desperate, pleading silver eyes that had always been so steady and calm before then.

"Don't go! I don't want to be alone! Not now! I... I need you to stay, Naoto... Please stay with me!"

Naoto's mouth moved wordlessly as she struggled to speak, her own brain working to understand what Souji just said to her. He... He wants... me? But... what can I-? I don't understand how he--

No! No, no, don't go! Naoto gulped, the words of her Shadow—of herself—echoing in her mind, and she found that she did understand how he felt. Why? Why are you leaving me here!? Why am I always left alone? It's so lonely… I don't want to be alone!

"Senpai…" Don't. Don't remind me of what I said back then… Don't give me false hope. Don't… don't make me believe that—if you were to be the one to leave me alone, I… Naoto gently pried her wrist from Souji's grip, turning slowly to meet his eyes, feeling her breath stop as their gazes met. That look, he… "S-Souji-kun?" Please… don't look at me like that. Don't look at me like that. I-I…

The sleuth felt her body moving of its own accord, kneeling down slowly in front of Souji, carefully taking his face in her hands, not allowing either of them to look away from the other. His eyes… They say he's not lying but I… She blinked slowly, waiting silently for Souji to speak again, or many some form of movement. I… I want a reason for me to stay… and he's here, pleading for me to… but… Naoto bit her lip, holding her breath as she felt a soft stinging sensation in the corner of her eyes. I don't have any grounds on which to be upset. Not right now. Senpai is the one who…

Naoto gasped as Souji leaned forward and, unexpectedly, laid his head on her lap. She felt warm, comforting, the soft silk of her pajamas soft against his cheek. The silverette exhaled a shuddering sigh, his arms slowly reaching up to embrace the detective's slender waist.

"Please, stay here with me... just for a little while... I don't want to be alone..." Souji's voice had lowered to a mere whisper, but his words echoed loudly in Naoto's ears as though he had shouted again. "I... came to you because... out of everyone in the group... I knew you would understand." Souji tightened the embrace and buried his face in Naoto's thigh, his shoulders shivering heavily.

"Naoto, you're the only one I need right now... so stay. Please..." Souji's muffled words were stopped by a pair of soft, gentle hands cupping his face. They lifted his gaze, and his eyes once again met the silver-blue irises of Naoto. She smiled as she looked at Souji with deepest affection, her orbs glistening with tears.

"Senpai... stand up." She gently lifted Souji to his feet and helped him walk over to the nearby couch. "...I'm not leaving, just lie down right here. You're going to hurt your back lying like this; I don't want you to wake up in pain." She sat down on the right side of the sofa and directed Souji to lie back down, his head once again resting on her lap. Grabbing a soft fleece blanket from where it rested on the arm of the sofa, she unfolded it and threw it over the two of them.

Naoto was at a loss as to what she needed to do next. I've... never done this before... What should I... She rested her hands on Souji, her left on his head, her right gently embracing his shoulders. In spite of her awkwardness, everything seemed to come naturally to her, her left hand brushing Souji's hair, her soft, delicate fingers running through the silver strands, her nails lightly scratching at his scalp. She heard him sigh deeply, and was pleased to finally see him smiling. Senpai... You just needed to let go, didn't you? Well, you won't need to worry anymore, at least not tonight. I won't let anything happen to you... You're safe with me.

"Forgive me for calling this late. This is Naoto."

"Naoto? You heard from him, huh? ...So how is he?"

"He's fine. In fact, he just fell asleep."

"He just... Wait, so he's there with you?"

"Yes. As strange as it sounds, he's... here with me."

"...Wow. He must really like you."

"H-huh?? I... doubt that's the case. I'm sure anyone would have--"

"C'mon, Naoto. He didn't even tell his problems to me, and I'm supposed to be his best friend. Right?"

"W-well... I apologize if--"

"Hey, don't worry about it. As long as he found someone to talk to, that's all that matters, right? Anyway, I have some good news for a change. The hospital called and said that Nanako-chan's alright!"

"...She's... alive?"

"Yeah! They don't know what happened, but they tried calling Souji about an hour ago and couldn't reach him. He must have put me down as an emergency contact, because they called me next."

"Thank God... I'll tell him in the morning when he wakes up. That... He'll be so pleased..."

"Yeah, don't wake him up for that. He must be exhausted as it is. I'll let you take care of him, though. I'll call everyone else and let them know he's okay."

"Perhaps you should make sure they understand not to discuss this with Senpai. He... did not wish to appear weak in front of them. If he finds out everyone's known the entire time, it will create a very awkward situation."

"Yeah, I see what you mean. Alright, leave it to me. We should think about meeting tomorrow and discussing what we should do next with the case. What time do you think you could drag our Leader to Junes?"

"Hm... Would noon be a sufficient time?"

"That's just fine. He needs to sleep in, anyway. We'll see you both around noon, then. And... thanks for looking after him, Naoto."

"It's... my pleasure. Good night, Yosuke-san."

Naoto gently closed her cellphone and laid it down upon the end-table. Her cheeks flushed a deep scarlet as she slid down the sofa and laid down next to Souji, resting her head against his chest. She could hear the soft pounding of his heartbeat in her ears and the rhythmic thumping, combined with the warmth of his body against hers, made every ounce of tension leave her body.

I... never thought I'd ever be this close to anyone. I'm helping him... He needs me. The sleuth slipped her arm around Souji's waist and pressed herself closer. She gasped sharply in in surprise as she felt two strong, gentle arms return the embrace, and she looked up to see a soft smile grace Souji's lips. Her blush deepened even more, but she didn't pull herself away; she was smiling, too.

We're... not alone anymore.

Naoto let out a soft sigh as she felt herself begin to drift into slumber, aided by the comforting closeness she shared with Souji.

I love you, Souji-senpai... I'll stay with you. I promise.