He knows it's bad when his vision gets foggy.

It's not the dungeon. His glasses are intact and secure. This fog is not a product of the world they visit, but only a product of his own clouded mind.

He sighs and digs around in his pocket for a caffeinated soda, or gum, or anything. Something to wake him up, snap him back to attention.

He doesn't find anything. It's not surprising. They've been pushing themselves hard. Everything is running out.

Time. Patience. Everything.

"There's more behind the next corner." Even Rise sounds worn out. It's perhaps even more obvious when she speaks directly into his mind. "Senpai, are you sure-"

He cuts her off. I can't stop. He swallows, tries not to think about it. Tries to ignore the fear bubbling in his head. Dull, sticky, heavy. More dull now, but it doesn't go away.

Can't stop. Nanako... is waiting for me. Can't stop.

He should. He knows he should call it quits. They have days, weeks, before it rains. But even then, Nanako will be alone in this world -

No. He can't stop now.

He feels the concern in Rise's presence, even when she changes the subject.

"Be careful. They're not strong, but..."

But they're all tired. If they're not careful, they'll start making mistakes.

I know. Aloud, he says: "Let's move."

They fall upon the shadows with practiced, ruthless efficiency. Ghostly shapes flicker and fade. Invisible blades carve insubstantial shadowy flesh, clash against dream-forged claws and armour. He waits for an opening.

Seconds pass. They feel like an eternity, drawn-out and bleak, until the time comes.

Sraosha-!

A blue flare as the card shatters in his hand. A rush of air. A crackle of electricity. Shadows disintegrate under the furious onslaught, boiling and burning, until nothing remains but ashes.

Leaving them victorious, once more.

He leans on his sword. Old man Daidara would kill him if he knew his work of art would be treated with so little respect.

He doesn't mean to, but the world suddenly seems unusually pale and oppressive, as if there is a heavy weight on his shoulders, and for a moment, his legs seem about to give out.

The moment passes. Wincing, he draws himself up, shakes his head. Brushes away Rise's concern, insists that he's fine.

The world inside the TV stretches on. It's green and lush, but it turns greyer and duller with each battle.

He drags his feet, but his resolve does not waver.

Every battle strengthens it.

Even when Sraosha's form becomes faded and indistinct, even when the divine lightning fails to eradicate the enemy ahead, he does not hesitate.

If magic proves unreliable, then his sword will suffice.

Shadow after shadow.

Enemy after enemy.

Everything in his path is an enemy.

Battle after battle.

After a while, he can't even hear anything through the fog, can't see anything but the enemy.

Battle after battle.

Then the battle ends.

The silence is deafening. And then something speaks.

He turns and sees only another foe.

An enemy which lowers its guard -

The scream of warning in his mind comes much, much too late.


In the dusty-grey world, a glint of red catches his eye. And then he realizes, faintly, as if he watches the scene from far away, that shadows do not bleed.

It's enough to conquer the cloying fog, if only barely.

He realizes that his body is tense and trembling. His hands are slippery with sweat and clutching the hilt of his sword so hard his fingers ache.

He did not finish the cut. But the edge of his blade, shaking slightly in his desperate grip, is tinted red. Tiny drops of crimson roll down its length and fall on the ground.

Yosuke draws a slow, unsteady breath as he stares down at the sword biting into his shoulder. Pale, wide-eyed.

The sword clatters on the floor. Souji falls along with it. Entirely numb, he feels nothing when his knees hit the ground, not when he falls backwards, hitting his back and head. Even the perpetual fear has left him, but in this state, he can't even feel relieved.

He doesn't see anything but ceiling until someone kneels by his side and pulls him up in a sitting position.

"The hell happened?"

He can only whisper in reply. "I thought - I saw an enemy."

Kanji doesn't buy it. Knows it's not the whole story. But he doesn't understand. Can't understand what it's like to empty his inner self, to burn his very essence like gunpowder in a rifle, until nothing is left inside. In that aspect, they are too different. Yukiko might know - she looks suspiciously at him even as she tends the cut in Yosuke's shoulder. Clean and shallow - they've all had worse. She doesn't say anything, however. Knows, perhaps, that it wouldn't do any good.

Kanji doesn't pry, either. At least, not yet. Just lifts him and carries him to the nearest exit.

He can't even protest.

Yukiko takes the lead, Amaterasu hovering at her side. And Yosuke pats his arm awkwardly. As if to say, hey, I know you almost cut my arm off, but no hard feelings, right?

"Take it easy, partner. We can't do this if you... uh. Just. Just keep it together, okay? We'll save her. I know we will."

Souji doesn't answer. He's not sure he could, even if he wanted to.

Rise meets them on the other side. Her skirt is wrinkled - it's strange that he notices something so trivial - and her lower lip trembles as she takes his hand. He feels her presence inside his head, scanning, studying. Feels a shiver as she brushes up against the bleak emptiness inside, then withdraws.

Her voice is a little unsteady as she speaks. "I'll - I'll take you home, senpai."

No one objects. Once outside, they go their separate ways.

As Rise half leads, half drags him along the familiar path to his empty house, he realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he didn't even apologize.

It's only when he realizes that he doesn't even care that the fear starts bubbling inside his head again.

Even with Rise at his side, warm and soft, he lies awake that night, unable to fall asleep, feeling cold, scared, and very much alone.