[Hears the Silence So Loud]

He picks the tracks with an attention to detail that's borderline obsessive. Drag and drop. Rearrange. He doesn't bother with playlists because he always has his MP3 player on shuffle, anyway. It isn't the tracks themselves that matter so much as the feeling behind them. The beat. The sound. The repetition. He needs something loud enough to drown out atmospheric noise and something resounding enough to blur out the rest.

And even then, sometimes he has to crank the player to its highest volume.

He does this nearly every night -- dumps all one-thousand tracks and begins anew. He can't risk getting used to the same songs, because once that happens he gets bored and his mind wanders. The music becomes transparent. So he picks and chooses with a fervent abandon akin to neurosis. Something different; something always different. His cd stack becomes larger. His hard drive is perpetually full. The cycle continues.

Yosuke Hanamura's always been more than a little neurotic.

Yosuke knows the precise moment he learned what true fear was. Can trace himself back with startling detail -- he hadn't had breakfast that day; he couldn't find anything for himself to use as a weapon just yet; his MP3 player was low on juice; and his surroundings looked so much like a foggied Konishi liquor store that it sent chills down his spine. He had to keep calm, though; couldn't lose it in front of Souji. If Souji was going to be so calm and collected then he definitely couldn't panic.

But even with all that in mind, the moment unfolds as such:

First there's a feeling almost like static, but not.

Next the feeling is accompanied by a thick odor reminiscent of petroleum.

Then the creature appears from nowhere, and morphs into something his brain simply cannot fathom -- not yet, just not yet. And the last thing Yosuke is aware of before his mind curls in on itself and he resigns himself to dying in some godforsaken dimension or wherever it is, is a gloppy growl that sounds like nothing he can fathom.

That night he falls asleep hiding under his blankets and clutching his headphones to his ears like a lifeline. His MP3 player is charging. He'll never make the same mistake again.

He received the headphones as consolation, in a way, almost as if his parents actually believed that a gift -- any gift would make up for them tearing him out of a high school he was actually pretty okay with, and dumping him out in the middle of nowhere. They weren't even the headphones he really wanted. Sure they looked cool, but he would have preferred something with a little more fidelity; a little less thumping bass.

Months later, when he realized he was Inaba's very own public enemy number one, he also learned to be grateful of the heavy bass, and thankful that they weren't of the open-air variety.

After that, they became something more than a trademark. They became a source of comfort he could indulge himself in when it seemed the very town itself stood against him.

They became his final grasp at maintaining some semblance of control.

He isn't sure it's going to work the first time he slips the cans over his ears and immerses himself in heavy industrial metal, but he can't back down. Yukiko is counting on them and Souji is counting on him and after that showdown at the television's Konishi liquor store, he can't let his friend down again.

So he brandishes twin knives, clutching the handles tight enough to hurt, and loses himself in the fight.

Some would find the sound of angry, growling German jarring, but he's never felt more soothed.

"Does it ever get to you, Partner?" Yosuke isn't sure how or why that simple sentence has come out, and truthfully he wishes he could take it back. They have no choice but to wait another day to get information on Rise's kidnapping, and a detour through the riverbank is the only thing either of them can think of doing to get their minds off that distinct feeling of momentary failure.

Somehow Yosuke's let his mind wander again. Souji is always so unflappable, so difficult to read. So at odds with Yosuke. And sure, Yosuke knows he's getting more comfortable being himself around Souji-- It's hard not to be himself after everything that's happened; everything the other has seen. He'd just prefer it not to happen remotely like this.


It's easier to slump into this kind of complacency, but he still hates seeming weak; hates feeling out of control. Souji's counting on him and he can't let it slip -- this terror that keeps him awake at night, the fact that he's holding on by the barest of threads at times. Kanji's getting used to handling Take-Mikazuchi, Chie is (and always has been) beyond terrifying, and Yukiko's magic is more than formidable. Yosuke knows Souji and he knows that there's a pretty good chance once he catches a whiff of what's bothering him, he'll be stuck back with Teddie and--

"Has anyone ever told you just how amazingly vague you can be, Yosuke?"

It's then that Yosuke snaps to his senses and realizes he's been walking by himself a few paces, gulps and turns around to find Souji leaning against a tree, arms crossed in front of his chest.

And he's smiling.

Smug bastard.

"Sh-shut up."

"It's a compliment! Really." Souji laughs. Blinks. Cocks his head to the side and stares at him searchingly. "...are you blushing?"

"It's nothing. C'mon, dude. I know you're a super genius, but some of us need to juggle saving the world and studying." He knows he could have handled that with a little more finesse, but...

Finesse was never one of his stronger points and he was really just looking for an out as quickly as possible, even if that means walking away from Souji. As it is, if he'd been with anyone else, he has a feeling he'd be immersing himself in speed-metal. He begins twisting and tangling the cord to his headphones in hand, reciting lyrics silently.

After he's given himself a second to cool off, he slows, turns and waits for Souji to catch up.

Yosuke knows he might be imagining things, but Souji hasn't taken his eyes off him.

That night he finds an email in his box from Souji. There's no message, just a download that proves to be not of the virus laden variety.

Yosuke's never listened to Nightwish and at first he's more than a little skeptical, laughing a bit and wondering why Souji listens to chick music. Then it picks up, louder and yet still beautiful and it's almost perfect.

He plugs his MP3 player in again and with a few clicks he's adding the entire folder into his playlist.

It's different from what he's used to. So very different. And different is exactly what he needs.

He's not sure what Souji was thinking -- whether he's figured something out or he's just messing with him, and Souji never mentions sending the message to him, but it's almost like his friend understands.

It's almost like he knows.

Months later everything goes to hell in a glorious, mind-blowing, totally unsurprising blaze of terror and embarrassment.

In other words, things go wrong in a distinctly Hanamura fashion.

Getting ready for battle used to mean going to Daidara for new equipment or hanging out with that weird fox to butter him up into lowering his prices. Times have changed, though. With Nanako in the hospital and the real killer exposed, they've reached the end of the line and with that, they know what the have to do.

They have to be stronger.

Some days Souji has this unreadable glint in his eyes, like he's angry and frustrated and wants something more out of himself. Like he just wants to finish up and bring Adachi to justice, but he knows they're not fit to take him on. He knows they'll fail.

He knows that if they train a bit more, they can win.

He trusts them more than Yosuke knows he trusts himself.

These are the days they find themselves back in the strip club, or Naoto's secret lab. Two days ago they had revisited Nanako's Heaven and watched Souji practically blast the large Okina monster to pieces by himself.

That's why they're back in Mitsuo's strange little videogame world.

That's why they're fighting yet another giant robot that looks like it escaped from some weird seventies anime series.

In retrospect, they shouldn't have been so lax on their battle plans for this one. It's understandable, though. They hadn't had any trouble getting to the top of the dungeon -- the monsters are just that pitiful, and Naoto is having no problem dishing out the damage, despite coming along for experience.

So maybe there's an excuse when they're caught off guard, but that doesn't make it okay.

The robot soldier is slow. Its attacks carry quite a punch, but they're sluggish enough to dodge and it's obvious enough when a hit is coming to block if necessary. They know they have everything down, and after dealing with the secret lab and Heaven, this shouldn't be a problem. Even Rise announces that the fight will be a piece of cake.

And that's when Yosuke misses a cue and the giant robot unleashes a massive hit, throwing him to his side and --


Yosuke groans, rolling onto his back before attempting to heave himself upward. Something's wrong. He can't quite put his finger on it, but everything's distorted. His vision is swimming and his hearing seems off, but that doesn't make sense...

That's when the monster edges back into his field of sight, coming back for a second hit.

He braces for the attack and this time it hits a little higher -- diagonally managing to clip his shoulder and squash the air from his lungs before throwing him aside.

He's vaguely aware of Rise shouting something, but it's difficult to make out the words over the sound of his lungs attempting to move oxygen in and out. It's high-pitched and sickeningly abnormal, and coupled with the wild pounding of his heart, it's near overwhelming. Otherworldly. He watches numbly as Souji takes a wild, vicious strike, followed by the sharp, clinical voice of Naoto and an almost deafening Megidola. It's getting easier to breathe, but something's still not right.

If only he could clear his head, he might be able to figure what that something is.

Naoto pulls him to his feet, but he's still too terrified to move; too terrified to do anything. This isn't right. He's feeling lightheaded and his shoulder feels strange; weak and blindingly pained. But that's not it, that's not it.

There's no music.

He blinks slowly, checks the headphone wire to make sure it's still connected, and realizes its been severed. It hasn't merely been pulled from the jack, it's been severed. It's unfixable. He's unfixable. He fights the urge to slam his eyes shut, anything to pretend he's elsewhere and that giant creature isn't about to -- Maybe he's unconscious and he'll wake up and--

"...I'm going to die here."

"Yosuke, snap out of it!" It's Souji, he realizes dimly and he'd like to, really. He's letting him down, but--

"I'm going to die here. I'm going to die here. I'mgoingtodiehere." He feels himself repeating the words, the mantra sickening and out of focus with logic, but feeling so innately true that he doesn't know what to do other than gasp and wheeze and give in.

"Yukiko-senpai! Can't you Me Patra him?" Naoto this time, and he can feel himself on the verge of hysterial laughter because --

"It isn't working!"

--because he can feel that spell shower over him and it isn't working because it wasn't meant to work because he knows he's going to die and they're going to die and the more he thinks about it, the more he wants to laugh. And cry. And scream. He can feel his heart hammering away violently, high in his throat and he knows he's gasping on an equally violent level and --

Naoto runs over and slaps him this time, hard. She hits only marginally harder than he does, but he hits like a girl when he's unarmed and this should be hilarious. He should be able to make fun of her for that, cry out, 'hey guys! Naoto-kun hits like a girl!' but his vision is swimming and being taken over by the sight of that red mecha. Red like blood. Like death. And Souji is there, keeping the creature at bay, but with every hit, it growls and his terror increases and it knows.

He falls on his knees, clutching his head with the one hand he can still move, the other limp and hanging and numb. Dead. He feels like he's losing his mind, squeezes his eyes shut, but then finds himself even more terrified by the darkness. His thoughts are jumbled and frantic and darting, like small fish in a pond, teaming and surfacing and gliding so quick, so very quick. He can't stop them and he can't stop what's happening. Can't escape. He just needs an out, any out and soon he's sliding his glasses off just so the fog can obscure his vision a little, give him some sort of distraction, sickening as the fog may be. If he can't physically escape, maybe he can mentally... but it knows he's terrified.

Soon it will strike again.

It knows he's the weak link and before he can back away and put more distance between himself and the Soldier, it moves to strike and he can feel himself dropping, making himself smaller and bracing for what will inevitably be the final blow and--


He's afraid to look and afraid not to look, and when he hears the sound of metal hitting metal and a grunt of pain that can only be Souji, he can't help but whimper in reply. He's supposed to be the one taking hits for Souji, not the other way around. He's failed him, failed everyone and he wants to get out; be anywhere else.

But something's grounding him in a matter of seconds -- a tentative touch that he flinches away from, and then he feels a pressure on his shoulders both calm and strangely familiar. Before he can make sense of the feeling, he's being pulled forward and the embrace is familiar, too: fingers on his back tracing random patterns; calm heartbeat and steady breathing in spite of everything. Yosuke feels like Souji's his polar opposite at that moment; feels like he's made entirely of terror and despair as he buries his head in his best friend's jacket and tries to calm his breathing.

But he can still hear snarling as Yukiko shoots a Fire Break at the creature, and he can feel fear gripping his stomach tightly.

"I'm sorry," he whispers into Souji's jacket, and he is. So sorry, so stupid. Why can't he get ahold of himself? Souji seems okay, and part of Yosuke knows he must have deflected that hit with his sword, but the other part knows he shouldn't have had to.

"You're okay. Calm down."

"I'm sorry," he repeats, grits his teeth. Another hit, this time Megido, and a growl. He begins thrashing as best he can, ignoring the protests of what's probably -- no, definitely a dislocated shoulder. "So sorry so sorrysosorry--"

He finally breaks away from Souji's grip, falling painfully backwards and scooting away like a terrified child. He's embarrassed himself enough and now he wants out. Whether something else is out in that hall is of no concern to him. Getting out is priority and--

"Hurry up, guys! You've almost got it!"

Part of Yosuke wants to believe Rise's words, and in truth part of him does, but he's still terrified, and when the creature's giant red face turns toward him, he can't help but freeze in place and forget to breathe. This is it.

And that's when it unleashes a wail that strikes him to the core and grips him like fear never has before.

And then there's darkness.

"You don't take those off, much... do you?"

"Of course I do. They aren't attached to my body."


"Wh-what? Jeez, are you always like this?"

"Like what?"

"You know what I mean!"

"They seem pricy. Shouldn't you leave them behind when we go into the TV?"

"That's crazy, man. Of-of course I'm careful with them, okay? They've held up pretty well so far."


"L-Let's go, Partner! Chie said she'd meet us at the gates and I don't think either of us want to try her patience."

The first thing he's aware of is Schubert. Piano was never his thing, but he can recognize it as one of Schubert's piano sonatas. It sounds like it's in A minor.

So either he's alive, or he's dead and listening to classical music.

The latter doesn't seem altogether too realistic.

Yosuke groans, rolls over a little and opens his eyes experimentally. The room is dim, lit only by a small lamp across the room, but his surroundings are more than recognizable, and they don't look anything like Nanako's Heaven, so either he's alive, or the afterlife is Souji's bedroom, and if that's the case, he's really gotta wonder...

"I doubt there's classical music in heaven, so you can stop thinking so hard." Souji's voice is as calm and even as ever, but when Yosuke looks up to his friend and meets his gaze, there's something akin to tired worry in his grey eyes.

"...How long was I out?"

Souji puts down his math textbook and glances at his watch. "A little less than an hour."

The music begins to crescendo and Yosuke doesn't know what to say. He wants to get up and go home and sleep for a whole week, but Souji's futon is comfortable and he isn't even sure if he can get up, let alone take his bike home.

"I told your parents that you're staying the night."

"That's... that's not necessary." He turns over, wearily giving in to the notion of spending the night, but not wanting to face the questions he's inevitably going to face. At least he feels a little better. He's sore and achy and drained like he ran a marathon. His shoulder protests a bit when he moves it experimentally, but it isn't too bad. "...How much do I owe the Fox?"

"Nothing, but you probably owe Yukiko. Salvation takes a lot out of her."

He doesn't know what to say and instead opts to stare at the way Souji's shadow hits the wall, large and looming and terrifying and protective.

"I think it goes without saying that you owe me an explanation, though."

Yosuke can feel dread drop heavily into his gut. He doesn't want to, but Souji is asking and after everything that happened, he hates to let him down. Again. Souji did everything he could and he's using that Leader Voice now and... "I'd... rather not."

"Come on, Yosuke. You trust me, right?"

"Please, man, just... You know I do, it's... I..."

"You should have said something."

"I didn't know." He's lying and he knows it and he knows Souji knows it, so he backpeddles a little, still talking to the wall. "I mean, I did know. I didn't think things would ever turn out like this and I should have. And I'm sorry and. And."

Souji's silence is worse than any response and the longer it carries on, the worse Yosuke feels. He doesn't want to turn around and he's unsure what else he could possibly say or do, other than curling in on himself, closer to the wall.

After what seems like forever, he can feel the mattress give a little, shifting with the weight of another. Any other day he would squawk and thrash around, but he's bone-weary and Souji is impossibly warm and calm and soothing. Tomorrow he'll complain that Souji's treating him like a girl, but for now it's more than okay. It's even more than 'nice.'

"...Next time, I want you to say something," It's the Leader Voice again, but this time there's something more, something both frustrated and understanding.

The last thing he manages before letting himself fall asleep is a near silent plea: "Please... don't cut me from the team, Partner."

He's alone when he wakes up and when he pads down the stairs, still sore but feeling more alive than ever, the living room is also empty, and so is the kitchenette.

It's past noon, though. Yosuke knows he shouldn't be surprised, but it still stings, that feeling of being left behind.

He turns around, intending to make his way back to the bedroom so he can ready himself to leave when something familiar catches his eyes -- something orange and red lying on the table and partially obscured by a note with Souji's handwriting scrawled on it.

I thought you might need these for now.

Meet us at Junes when you're ready, so we can decide when to go after Adachi. I'll be waiting.

He runs his fingers over the cool metal and shiny new platic of the headphones. They're a newer version of the same model, but they feel exactly the same in his hands and when he hangs them over the back of his neck, the weight is familiar and welcome.

Souji's right, he realizes as he pulls his shoes on, grabs a set of house keys from the table and heads for the door. He does need these now.

But as he steps out into hazy sunlight, Yosuke knows that won't always be the way things are.

And as long as he holds fast to that one singular truth, he knows everything's going to be okay.