Zen and the Art of Practical Neurosis

Thank you so much, you guys, for all your support and feedback. I didn't really think that this crappy little collection would really interest people, but I'm very glad that it has.

The past four installments were like babies to me. It was something I wrote simply because I loved doing it, and I'm glad that other people have as much invested in it as I did.

So, I've decided to keep the collection going just a bit longer. I have a few miscellaneous, unrelated stories that I've written up over the years, that don't trace back to the overarching storyline that I've established in the last four stories. They were rotting on my hard drive, so... I figured that I might as well share it with all of you.

This one was... a bit bizarre for me. I tried playing around with different kinds of Souji. This one definitely isn't the flat, calm Souji I've been writing for the past four chapters. He sn't even remotely similar to the Souji established in either the comic or the dialogue choices in the game. If anything, this iteration of Souji was based on a very close friend of mine, a young, feisty, and fearful kind of guy that tends to jump to aggressive conclusions but has a good heart and sense of humor besides. I claim artistic license! I'm sorry if this isn't the Souji you enjoy reading. Just bear in mind that he is intentionally OOC, and that Souji in-game is meant to reflect the player anyway and has no true set personality.

Please excuse the run-on sentences. I was experimenting with a kind of narration that has more in common with a teenager telling a story to a friend than a narrator relating a story to a reader. I hope it isn't too confusing, and I pray it doesn't rape the grammatical side of your brain.

TL;DR? This story is weird. Enjoy!


It's official, I think. I'm finally paranoid.

I adjust my glasses (which had been sliding down my nose all damn afternoon thanks to the sweat and were becoming a real fucking nuisance) just for a distraction from the slow, agonizing torture of feeling like you were being watched. Ever been in the bathroom late at night and you're too afraid of seeing the Blair Witch or something waiting for you in the tub if you look in the mirror so you keep your eyes shut and haul ass out of there as soon as you finish washing your hands? It felt like that. Only there was no warm bed to return to and thick sheets to hide under. Only fog. And a metric assload of steam.

Shut up, real men get scared and talk about it freely. You're just jealous.

I frantically look around the walls for something, anything, but find nothing. At least a Shadow would be an excuse for me being such a pussy. Leader's senses and all that. But no, nothing. Nothing but Yosuke and Yukiko. I had at least expected Yukiko pick up on the bad vibes, but she was furiously fanning her glistening face with her gaudy little fan, totally immersed in looking miserable. Her hair, dripping from the humidity, didn't move an inch. It was kind of scary.

Yosuke, on the other hand, had somehow found the bed of coals in the center of the room highly fascinating. He held his hands behind his back, tightly clasped together, his foot tapping to the beat of his own personal soundtrack. He certainly seemed relaxed. His kunai lay untouched in the belt loops of his trousers. His highly expensive kunai, I might add. I wanted to call him out for not thanking me for them or at least using them right there, but I was too afraid inhaling any more steam would cause me respiratory failure. Besides, he was probably blasting some shitty song in his ears. I doubted he could hear me. You can't hear anything over Bump of Chicken, a lesson I learned through trial and error.

He notices me. He slides his headphones off, still clutching them with the intention of putting them back on, like some model would in an advertisement for Sony.

"Something up, partner?" He asks. I see him blink innocently from behind the mist gathering on his orange spectacles.

I realize I've been staring at him long enough for it to become nice and awkward. I also realize that being called 'partner' is just as disconcerting as feeling like you're being watched.

"You feel that?" I ask, totally prepared for the "WHAT WHAT HUH WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT" that would inevitably ensue. Which indeed did ensue.

"Um, if you're talking about the heat, then-"

"You don't feel it then," I declare. We shuffle ever on.

Don't you hate it when you realize that you've been feeling normal for the past few minutes for once and then when you think about it, it comes back? 'Cuz I sure do. Before I knew it, my skin began to prickle and crawl again, just after feeling some semblance of relief. I couldn't walk fast enough. Even speedy little chicken-legged Yosuke had to jog to keep up, and he literally does laps around me in physical education.

I stop. Yukiko bumps into me. I mumble what sort of sounds like "sorry," and carry out my neurotic survey.

Zilch, as usual. I groan, and we continue our journey. The paranoia is stubborn and refuses to leave, despite assurances that nothing is there.

Somehow, Teddie contacts me from outside the… Bad Bad Bathhouse.

"Sensei? You all right? I can smell your fear, even through the steam…"

"What are you talking about?" I half-screech. The hysteria amplifies my emotions. "I'm not scared!"

"Whatever you say, Sensei…" He says, that stupid giggly cocky tone in his voice.

"Good riddance," I growl through harshly clenched teeth. I wonder if he was the one who was making me so freaked out. Maybe the fact that I knew that a furry Big Brother was constantly watching me did things to my psyche. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the fact that every so often the "intercom" would click on and Kanji would giggle about how good the gross service he's experiencing at the hands of the Hulk Hoganites feels.

Yes, that makes sense, I assure myself, sounding more and more like a normality-desperate schizophrenic every minute. All I needed was to be rocking back in forth in fetal position while wringing my hands and the illusion would be completed. It's like Chinese water torture. Yeah. That's it.

This does nothing. My heart thumps faster and faster, beating against my lungs, my ribcage, my head…

I'm going insane, I thought. I had to do something about it.

My instinct instructed me to turn around fast. And I did. Faster than I've ever done anything in my life. I know this because my brain still kept spinning around in my skull when I stopped and made me stumble and sway.

There was my proverbial Big Brother. And it sure as Hell wasn't Teddie.

Yosuke was staring right at me. He was rather close to me, too. Like, noses almost touching close. Unmanly close. The kind that calls for resounding cries of "no homo".

"Um," Yosuke sputtered, unable to look away, but desperately wanting to. "Are you alright, partner? You're shaking like a… leaf."

"Were you watching me? This whole time?" I hissed. I was indeed shaking like a leaf, but I didn't bother with confirming this.

"No! No, I wasn't watching you, I…"

"Ooooh," I object, "Ye-he-HES, you were. I know," I continue, shaking my finger like the kind of lunatic you see regularly in sitcoms. "I know, because I've felt it this whole time. The whole fucking time. Just staring. "

In my peripheral vision, I see Yukiko clutch her precious fan to her chest defensively.

"I… can't help it." He admits. I am livid.

"Really? I guess that makes you a stalker. C'mon, Mark David Chapman." I lift my arms in the typical testosterone-crazed tough-guy fashion. "I'll plant a restraining order on your face."

And he just laughs. Laughs. Like a goddamn hyena. So much that he has to flop on his knees to keep himself from falling over.

"What's so fucking funny?" I demand, grabbing him by the collar. I lift him up and hold him closely, trying to make myself scary, as a lizard would make itself bigger to appear threatening.

"Plant a restraining order on my face? Really? That's the best you could come up with?" He squeals, tears running down his face, his body consumed in spasms of hilarity.

To everyone's misfortune, this got Yukiko involved in the festival of guffaws. Yosuke covers his face, as if closing himself off from the situation would calm him down any.

At this, my mouth twitches. My chest heaves. My eyes squeeze shut. Soon, I'm laughing right along with them.

I drop Yosuke so suddenly he falls on his ass. It doesn't stop him. I tried to wipe the tears from my face, but they just flowed harder and harder as I laughed and laughed. The built up stress melted from my shoulders as they shook in fits of giggles.

Once we had calmed down a little, I helped Yosuke to his feet. He was still wobbly, and an occasional hiccup of a laugh would still escape. Yukiko was still going strong, but followed us anyway, clutching her stomach. Yosuke started up again soon after, and leaned on my shoulder to keep himself steady, snorting into my jacket.

"So, why were you staring at me again?" I asked, still grinning like the fool I had made myself out to be.

"Like I said, I couldn't help it," Yosuke said, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. "You're just… interesting, I guess. I wanna see what's going on in that head of yours."

Even though I still feel rather silly, this catches my attention and distracts me. I look down at him, as my neurotic heart began to pound again. He is nervous, red creeping across the bridge of his nose, but he smiles so warmly, so kindly, I feel so strange…

And then I laugh.

His glasses are crooked.