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He came to with a gasp, air burning through his throat like the oxygen around him was on fire and limbs like iron, as if he just ran with all his might from an enemy. It took long seconds for his confused senses to come down from their high-alert state and allow him to realize that there was nothing, here, nothing but the dusty attic and Morgana’s weight at the foot of the bed—

 

Ren let out a trembly breath, feeling a drop of cold sweat run down from his temple toward his chin. He already couldn’t remember what he dreamed of, but it did not really matter: He knew that, whatever it was, must have been in the same vein of his usual dreams.

 

He extricated himself out of bed, still feeling his limbs tense as marble. When his naked feet touched the cold parquet it was almost as if the sensation was ten times stronger than usual. He paid it no mind, he was almost used to that.

 

He ignored the vague sense of nausea settling in his stomach as he padded downstairs to go grab a glass of water— He felt like his head was full of cotton, not a real thought capable of making it through that fog filling him from the inside out— He was like a violin string as he struggled to keep a steady grip on the glass and fill it with water—

 

In an attempt to stop his hand from shivering and spilling half of the water inside the sink, his fingers tightened even more around the glass, that gave an ominous creak before going into pieces with a much louder crash. Sharp edges opened cuts on his skin like it was butter, blood pinking on the water that was still running.

 

It was a brief, sharp pain, followed by the sting caused by the water. Ren blinked, suddenly feeling back into himself as he watched the two shallow, but long, cuts on his hand. He let out a slow, deep sigh, as his thoughts finally slotted back into place.

 

Fortunately he mustn’t have woken Morgana with the noise, seeing the lack of calls coming from upstairs, but Sojiro would be pissed if he just left the pieces of glass in the sink, so he carefully picked up all of them and threw them in the trash, ignoring his cuts. The bleeding soon stopped on it’s own, and he distractedly dabbed the rapidly drying blood away with some paper towels and throw those in the trash, as well, hoping no one would pay mind to the cuts when they would meet the next day.

 

He walked back up into the attic, slid into bed once more. His ribs still ached, but he took a deep, deep breath and closed his eyes.

 

He was alive, for one more day.

 

 

“…I swear, when we’ll finally face his shadow I’m just—“ Ryuji slapped a fist in his other hand and made a twisting motion, in lieu of explaining what he’d like to do to Shido’s shadow. Ren smiled weakly. He could definitely relate: They’ve been going at Shido’s cruising palace for a steady three days with what felt barely any progress at all.

 

“I guess we better retreat for the day.” Makoto sighed, eyeing Ann that was massaging her leg and Yusuke that kept swaying a bit on his feet after the blow to the head he took an hour earlier.

 

Panic rose in Ren’s stomach like bile, but he kept his expression neutral. He knew, logically, that Makoto was right. If they kept going when they were already tired they’d only risk to get seriously hurt and, while their Personas’ healing powers could patch them up, there was only so much healing could do. Stress, that they could not just heal away as easily.

 

Still, the idea of the days flying by while it felt like they were making no progress at all made Ren feel like he could either puke his guts out, or run away screaming, or just roll in a ball somewhere and beg for the sweet embrace of death coming from him. He was wearing thin, all the responsibilities he carried for months and hits he took in a desperate attempt of getting a single chance to save his own life and try to get all of them out of this hole they’ve accidentally worked themselves into were eating him from the inside out, like a corrosive acid burning in the depths of his stomach.

 

Every day that went by was a tick of the clock moving toward his inevitable demise. Toward the fact that all his friends would inevitably get arrested and possibly end exactly as he will: Some meters under the ground in a wooden case. Taking down Shido was their only chance, and yet it felt like they would never make it in time for the elections, sending Ren into a spiral of panic making him feel like he couldn’t even properly breathe anymore—

 

“Joker?” Makoto asked, softly. He could see her eyebrows furrowing from under her mask.

 

“Yes.” Ren managed to reply, voice coming out raw. “Yes, let’s get back, for today. We’ve done enough. Good job, everyone.”

 

He saw Haru and Futaba exchange a glance out of the corner of his eye, but did not turn to make sense of it. He was starting to feel that familiar sensation of walls closing in on him that at this point he knew preluded even worse things. He had to get out of there and away from the group before they could see their leader crumble down like a castle of cards.

 

He moved almost on auto-pilot, like he wasn’t quite inhabiting his own body as they made their way back and out Shido’s palace in tired silence. He maintained a somewhat stable tone while he asked Morgana to go back home with Futaba while he went to take care of some things in the velvet room.

 

“Why didn’t you go before we left the palace?” Morgana asked, clearly confused, and Ren plastered a lopsided smile on his face and shrugged. “Well— Ok, then. I’ll see you in a bit.” Morgana added in front of that, with a sigh, as they parted ways.

 

No one questioned him. They were all so used to him disappearing for a few seconds and then reappear with new Personas and an apology for the time it took.

 

He didn’t know if that was a blessing, or a curse. Part of him desperately yearned for someone to realize that he was crumbling down like he was made of wet sand, and yet he also wished to keep all of this a private secret. He was the leader. He had a role to fulfil. Leaders of phantom thieves weren’t supposed to wake up in tears from a nightmare like they were five year old, nor to hope someone would just hug him and tell him everything would be ok.

 

Justine and Caroline glanced at him as he stepped into Mementos alone, but said nothing. And Ren said nothing back as he took the stairs down, plunging in the familiar darkness and walking until he was far enough that he could not feel that strange tickling at the back of his head telling him an access to the velvet room was nearby.

 

He choose a dark, empty spot at the end of a cul-de-sac, sat down with his knees collected against his chest, and finally, finally allowed the everything, that he could feel piling up on his shoulder the moment he gave in to the fact one more day has went by, to cascade on him like a shower of icy-cold water. He muffled the wrecking sobs against his gloved palm, eyes screwed shut, as the last, broken thoughts left him, leaving him with nothing but pained white noise in his head and the sting of a thousand needles in his stomach.

 

And then, it happened. He didn’t know how, but he bit down on his own hand, bit down hard enough to cause a sting of pain cutting in him like a thunder through the fog. He let out a noise between a sob and a broken gasp, opening his eyes on unfocused black and red. His thumb was throbbing, now, in time with his erratic heartbeat— And every sting of pain was enough to chase away all the weight that was pressing him down like an unstoppable force of gravity.

 

It was just like the night prior, when the glass cutting his skin seemed to suddenly clear those clouds of panic surrounding him. Ren blinked again, as he took deep, wheezing breaths and attempted to rein back his racing thoughts. He worked the spot he bit into the hardest under his other hand, and then pressed down on it enough to elicit more pain.

 

It was absurd, and yet his mind was clearing. The pain— Was helping .

 

Yet again he blinked as he realized the potential of this. In the meta-verse he could heal himself easily, he didn’t even have the cuts from the night prior anymore— He could just— Do what he must, and then heal himself, and walk back out there ready to step back as the leader his friends desperately needed.

 

He took out his dagger. Heavy and finely carved, with an always sharp blade that had saved his life more times than he cared to count. He guided his other hand against his lips, tugged the glove away from it with his teeth and then, shivering minutely, pressed the blade at the center of his palm just barely. The glove was still in his mouth and he bit down on it as he closed his eyes and just— Went for it.

 

The pain was sharp and almost familiar. But it was also clearer that anything else. This time it wasn’t a shadow attempting to kill him, nor a corrupt police officer trying to bend him until he would break. No, this time it was his pain. He was in control .

 

It burned, as the blade run down from his palm to his wrist, warm blood rapidly running down with silent drop falling on the tracks of mementos. Ren opened his watery eyes again, as he held his hand higher.

 

It was deep, a precise line stopping just a bit under his wrist. the blood was running copious, almost hypnotising as he stared at it, feeling vaguely light headed and yet calmer than he had been in weeks.

 

He allowed himself a few more seconds, just a bit more of blood running and pain burning, before summoning the strength of one of his Personas to let his skin heal back to it’s untouched state and the pain diminishing. He slowly rose on his feet, wobbling on his vaguely weak knees. His blood was already mixing with the Mementos ground, impossible to discern.

 

He put the glove back on, the dagger in it’s sheath, and then made it out with the intention of leaving this single moment behind.

 

 

But he came back. Again and again and again. He came back as they made it through Shido’s palace painfully slowly, as they faced Akechi and could not do anything to save him when it finally felt like the other boy had finally changed for the better— He came back after they faced Shido’s shadow in what was undoubtedly the hardest fight they faced yet and he tasted the pure, unadulterated fear and pain of losing Ryuji even if only for some minutes. He came back as the days passed and they had no choice but to wait for Shido to finally confess, as the days passed and it felt like all their efforts were going to be for nothing—

 

He came back, again and again, getting better and better at making up excuses to slip into Mementos alone. Getting better at plunging his blade into his own body in more and more daring ways, almost galvanised by the ability of provoking himself pain, of seeing his skin and flesh open up, the warm blood spilling, and yet coming out as if nothing has happened. Galvanised by having something , an outlet that allowed him to keep his head into the game and his cool when his friends and teammates needed their leader the most.

 

It was like a drug, and exactly like one it was starting to get harder to go on before he needed to do it once more. The time seemed to get shorter and shorter the closer they got to the elections. First he came back only in a few days, then every other day, and now he couldn’t go on a single day more without needing this moment to escape from everything, even if only for a few minutes.

 

He needed it, he reasoned with himself. It was the only thing keeping him together, the only thing he could truly control as the world felt colder, more indifferent, more out of their reach as the hours went by. His life could go to shit in a second flat at any point. This was the only thing he had.

 

 

Ann looked up when he got closer. The park was empty at that time of the evening, their breath condensing in front of them as they huddled in their jackets. There was something haunting her pale eyes, something he could not quite discern, but it didn’t really matter: Ryuji had the feeling that whatever was eating her mustn’t be much different from what was eating him.

 

“Hey—“ She started, indecisive, shifting on the bench to make some space for him. Ryuji sat down, nodding back. “Sorry I called you so late, but—“ She sighed. “I think something’s up.”

 

“With Ren, right?” Ryuji replied, flat. She didn’t seem surprised, at all, so he went on. “I know. He’s been— Weird for a while. I’m worried.”

 

“I am, too.” She murmured, just a tinge of fear colouring her tone. “We all are. I was talking with Futaba and Morgana, today— He’s just spending more and more time out, lately, being shifty.” She sighed once more, nervously playing with one of her pigtails. “It’s just— We are all stressed with this situation, but Ren, he— He’s been through a lot, right? I mean, he almost died— And then the police—“ She thinned her mouth in a thin line, silent for a second, before continuing. “Shido’s palace was terrible, and everything that happened with Akechi, too— Ryuji, I just— I don’t know what to do.”

 

He knew she would say that. He also didn’t know what to do. Ren had always been so private— Always listening and helping, but never venting nor asking for help. Ryuji had tried to throw him more than one hint, lately, asking him if he wanted to talk about stuff, if he needed anything— And only getting back polite answers clearly meant to console him . He more than once contemplated the idea of grabbing Ren and shake him, yell at him to just talk and tell Ryuji what was wrong and how he could help—

 

But if Ren was so hellbent in keeping silent, what could Ryuji possibly do that he hadn’t already tried?

 

“Has he said anything about where he goes?” Ryuji asked with a tired sigh, scratching his forehead. Ann shook her head.

 

“Morgana tried to follow him but Ren managed to lose him— He think he might be going to the meta-verse.”

 

“What?” Ryuji replied, frowning and turning to face her fully. “Is he sure?”

 

“Pretty much.” Ann sighed. “He said Ren literally disappeared behind a corner— Either he has found a palace he hasn’t told us about, or—“

 

“—He’s going to Mementos.” Ryuji finished for her. “But why ?”

 

“Hell if I know.” She replied with a cold, self-deprecating laugh. “Ryuji I— No, we spoke about it and we think you should be the one to do something.”

 

He blinked at her. He tried to. He wanted to. But Ren kept shutting him down—

 

“You’ve always been the closer to him— You’ve been by his side from the start.” Ann continued, fists tight in her lap. “If we try to corner him all together he’s just gonna close himself off even more. We think you’re the only one that can reach out to him.”

 

“I tried—“ He finally managed to grit out through the mix of anxiety and anger lodged in his throat. “I tried, Ann, but he’s so goddamn stubborn —“

 

“Ryuji I— I’m afraid we might lose him for good, this time.” Ann whispered back, eyes watering. “It feel like he’s getting more and more far— If we don’t do something—“

 

She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to. They both knew how it would’ve ended.

 

“What am I supposed to do, Ann?” Ryuji let out, raw, running an hand through his hair as he leaned forward to rest his elbow on a knee. “Short of staking it out in Mementos to see if that’s where he goes—“ He blinked, trailing off. Right, staking it out once more— He could not believe Ren would face a palace alone, that he won’t tell them he found another important target, so Mementos might truly be the place he was going— “…That— Might actually be worth a try.”

 

“You— You think?” Ann asked, her voice halfway between tiredly hopeful and worriedly anxious.

 

“What have we got to lose?” Ryuji murmured back, pulling at his lower lip. “If I manage to find out what the hell he’s doing we might be able to coax it out of him—“

 

“If you feel up to it then try, I guess. It’s all we got.” She agreed with a tired sigh. “I’ll— I’ll tell Futaba and Morgana to let you know when it looks like he’s leaving. Be ready.”

 

 

It didn’t take long at all. Only a couple of hours, in fact. Ryuji was in his room, sulking on the floor as he watched a tv series without paying any attention to it, phone plugged to make sure it won’t run out of battery and propped near his head, so he won’t miss any message or call. The clock struck two minutes after eleven when it buzzed and he fumbled to turn on his belly, propped on his elbows, and opened the text from Futaba that just said ‘ He’s going out ’.

 

Ryuji wasted no time. Rushed to the entrance and put his shoes on without bothering to grab a jacket as he stuffed his keys in a pocket and ran out, to the nearest subway station that was blissfully close to his house. It was such a luck that accessing mementos from any station led to the same, usual entrance, because as soon as he stepped into the familiar, shadow-free platform he barely had the time to hide behind a pillar before the elevator opened with a soft chime and the familiar noise of heeled booths filled the silence. Ryuji held his breath, keeping himself pressed against the pillar and barely daring to peek out only when the noise of steps became metallic, sign that whoever stepped in was walking down the unmoving escalator.

 

It was indeed Ren, long coat hugging his form and red gloves standing out in the dark. Ryuji wasn’t quite sure how to feel— Finding out where Ren seemed to go so often, at last, answered a question that has been eating at him for a while, but at the same time the worry only grew— Why was Ren going into Mementos alone ?

 

Ryuji followed, keeping his steps as muted as he could. But doing so inevitably led to the inability to catch even Ren’s coat-tails as he went through the twists and turns of Memento’s first floor at a much faster pace than him. Ryuji cursed himself silently— Stealth wasn’t exactly his strong suit, and now he had no idea of which turn Ren took— He kept advancing, careful to avoid the shadows. He wasn’t exactly worried, at this particular depths of Mementos they were barely dangerous for any other them, but he certainly didn’t want to alarm Ren with the noise before Ryuji could find out what he was doing— So he kept going and hoping he’d find Ren, it was his only chance.

 

Long minutes went by as he sneaked in the oppressive silence, focused on catching any possible noise that would point out Ren’s whereabouts— And his hopes got answered when something that sounded like an hiss let out through gritted teeth seemed to come from not too far away. He followed, heart beating painfully in his throat. It definitely sounded like an hiss of pain, but Ryuji didn’t hear anything that suggested a battle might be happening— and time was going by fast. There was the concrete risk that a very dangerous shadow might make itself known soon, and if there was something Ryuji definitely didn’t want to happen was to hear the sound of chains being dragged around as it was just him and Ren in there.

 

Another similar hiss, much closer. Back and leg burning due to the pose he had to keep in order to walk silently, Ryuji carefully flattened his back against a wall and then very carefully peered over the corner, anxious sweat breaking on his forehead—

 

He had no idea what he expected to see, he didn’t had the time to even think about it, but the scene in front of his eyes was nothing he ever imagined he might witness directly. Ren was just sitting on one of those crates abandoned at the end of a corridor, vaguely hunched over with his left elbow resting on one knee, forearm distended forward. The sleeve was rolled up all the way to his bicep, and in his right hand he was holding his dagger. He let out a tiny grunt when the blade plunged in his skin, and kept silent as he slowly carved a line in his own arm, close to his elbow. There was already a mess of jagged, red lines, starting from his wrist, rivulets of blood rolling down and letting steady drops fall on the floor.

 

Any thought flew out of Ryuji’s head, as a mix of horror, pain and disbelief filled him from the inside out like a wave.

 

“What the hell are you doing?!” He snapped, voice coming out a mix of raw worry and anger. Ren jumped violently, losing his dagger that danced on the floor with a loud noise of metal on metal. He looked up at Ryuji with wide eyes, pale and sweaty, even his mask unable to hide the haunted light in his eyes or the dark smudges under them—

 

Ryuji marched forward, not even leaving him the time to react. He grabbed Ren’s left hand and tugged the arm closer to himself, examining the wounds. There was no denying all of them must’ve been inflicted by Ren’s own dagger—

 

“Dude, what the hell—“ Ryuji managed to grit out, worriedly patting Ren’s other arm as if searching for something. “Is this— D’you got hit with some kind of spell we hadn’t seen before? Fuck, my Persona doesn’t have any healing— Dude, you gotta talk to me, maybe there’s some item I can use—“ He let Ren’s arm go, taking off his ascot to carefully roll it around the wounds and stop the bleeding, his mind going a mile a minute. He and his Persona were the hard hitters of the group, but lacked any ability in healing. He needed to call Morgana, or Makoto, or—

 

“Ren, you think you can heal yourself?” He asked, realizing Ren’s ‘jack of all trades’ ability would definitely come in handy, here. “Buddy, c’mon, if you can talk to me, do it. I can’t take you out of here before healing you first—“

 

He had been so busy trying to do what he could for Ren’s arm and then check him over for any other possible wound that he didn’t really pay any mind to his expression. He finally looked up, trying to gather if Ren was still affected by whatever must’ve hit him, there always was that strange fogginess in their eyes whenever one of them got hit by a status effect—

 

But Ren’s gaze looked as clear as ever, only a mix of fear and other things Ryuji couldn’t quite discern deep into his wet eyes. Tears were clinging at the corners, ready to spill at any second.

 

“Ryuji.” He just whispered, broken, and that was enough to freeze Ryuji on the spot, an hand still keeping his ascot pressed on the cuts to stop the bleeding, the other tight on Ren’s shoulder.

 

“…Ren?” He managed to reply only after long seconds, something heavy landing in his stomach.

 

Ren looked down, the tears falling from his eyelashes as he closed his eyes and let out a low noise, like a wounded animal. The distinct feeling that this was something much, much bigger than any of them could really deal with hit Ryuji like a sledgehammer.

 

He tried to talk, but couldn’t. No word came out, not as the understanding that Ren wasn’t under the influence of a shadow, wasn’t being used like a puppet, that he was fully in control as he sat there and just— hurt himself, finally sunk.

 

Ren was silent as well, just sitting there with his head low, hunched as if carrying an heavy weight, his arm limp in Ryuji’s hold. He wasn’t making a noise, even if the wounds must surely be hurting—

 

Ryuji forced himself to find something in his mind, some part of cold, logical thought. They couldn’t afford to just stand there much longer.

 

“Ren.” He said again, voice so controlled it almost came out robotic. “Can you heal yourself?”

 

But Ren didn’t reply. He didn’t gave any sign he even heard the question. Ryuji gave him long seconds, but when no answer came he tugged at his unwounded arm, forcing him to stand on his feet as Ryuji slid an arm under his armpits. Ryuji started to move, mind full of white noise and only staring forward as he dragged Ren’s weight along the twists and turns of the Mementos floor, back to the stairs. His leg protested loudly, but he paid it no mind. Ren tried weakly to resist being dragged a couple of times, but Ryuji just silently dragged him harder. It felt like forever before they finally reached the escalator, and Ryuji just hauled Ren’s weight all the way up, making it to the first step before his leg finally gave in and they fell down by the entrance platform.

 

Ryuji took a moment to catch his breath as he turned to kneel on the floor, massaging his knee. Ren shifted as well, pitifully pinning his weight on his unwounded arm, the other tucked against his chest as his blood stained Ryuji’s ascot a darker red. Ryuji stared at it, still struggling in trying to form a coherent, logical plan to follow through the fog filling his mind.

 

He needed to call someone to heal Ren, but he could not do it from inside Mementos. He either had to step out and leave Ren for a few minutes to take a call, or drag him out, making it much harder to heal his wounds without the help of a Persona’s power—

 

Ren finally shifted on his knees in a position similar to Ryuji’s, his head still down, messy hair shadowing his eyes. And some part of Ryuji knew, as he looked at him. He knew that if he got out without Ren, he might not see him ever again.

 

“Get up.” Ryuji ordered in a low, flat voice, as he rose himself, any pain forgotten. There was something else filling his insides, something superseding the worry and fear and panic. A cold, controlled, icy anger. “Get up .”

 

Ren finally obeyed, swaying on his feet, still keeping his head down. Ryuji grabbed his elbow, roughly dragging him toward the elevator— And then they were out in the street, back into normal clothes, nothing to cover Ren’s bloodied arm tucked against his chest. Ryuji took off his shirt, ignoring the fact he was remaining in just a sleeveless undershirt in the middle of winter, and rolled it around the still bleeding wounds. Ren said nothing, just letting himself get moved around like a doll.

 

They came out from the station closer to Ryuji’s home, probably because he was leading. It didn’t really matter, Ryuji just kept his hand firm around Ren’s elbow as he guided him down the street, into a smaller alley, and then up the apartment complex. He didn’t really register the relief of stepping into his warm home, just kept marching forward to drag Ren toward the small bathroom, pushed him to sit down, and then rummaged for the first aid kit in one of the cabinets.

 

The silence was so heavy it almost felt like a physical presence as Ryuji took off his now stained shirt from Ren’s arm to start cleaning the wounds. The more blood he washed away and the more disinfectant he dabbed on them, the clearer it was that the cuts were methodically inflicted with a cold logic. It was hard to keep working when some of them kept bleeding.

 

“You need stitches.” Ryuji finally broke the silence, flat. “We can’t leave them like this. We need to go to a hospital, except they’d probably put you on a suicide watch and you are supposed to be dead already, in the eyes of the police.”

 

Ren said nothing, so Ryuji continued, as he bandaged his arm. “The better solution would probably be to call the others and get back into Mementos with them, so they can heal you.”

 

“No.” Ren finally spoke again, voice coming out a raw whisper.

 

“No?” Ryuji replied, the flat tone shifting dangerously. “So what, I’m supposed to just sit here and watch you bleed to death like a fuckin’ dumbass?”

 

Yet again, no answer came. Ryuji’s lips thinned, as he struggled to keep clam. He wanted nothing more than to slap some sense into Ren, yell at him until his voice would go away—

 

But what good would that do?

 

“Ok, then.” He found the flat tone back as he taped the bandaging close. “My mom is a nurse, have I ever told you that?”

 

No answer. Ryuji kept going. “She’ll be back from her shift in a bit. I’ll call her and tell her to bring some stuff, she’ll stitch you.”

 

“N—“

 

“If you tell me ‘no’ again, I swear to god, I’m gonna punch you.” Ryuji interrupted, snappy. “She won’t ask questions if I ask her to. Now, wanna tell me what the fuck is this all about?”

 

Silence.

 

“For how long has this been going on?”

 

Silence.

 

“Why didn’t you tell us anything?”

 

Silence.

 

Ryuji closed his eyes, took a deep breath, focused on the feeling of air going in and out.

 

“Fine.” He rose, grabbed Ren’s arm once more to drag him to the living room and push him on the couch. He watched over him, even as he called his mother and asked her to bring the necessary. He watched like an hawk, arms crossed as he leaned on the doorway. He watched as she came back, eyed the spotty bandage on Ren’s arm, blessedly did not ask anything in front of Ryuji’s expression. He watched as she got to work, sutured the deeper wounds and put fresh bandaging on them. Watched as Ren made not a single noise as the needle was pushed into his arm over and over. Watched as his mother asked Ren kindly to just lie down and try to sleep a bit, as he went, pliant, when she pushed him gently to relax on the couch.

 

She kneeled down by it, watching over Ren until he must’ve fell asleep. Her expression was flat and unreadable, something that Ryuji knew meant she was deeply worried. When it came to that level of worry and anxiety they both retreated into their shell, Ryuji was very well aware of  that.

 

“Ryu—“ She said, voice low, once she finally rose and walked toward the door frame, where he was leaning.

 

“Keep an eye on him, please.” Ryuji replied, standing more upright. “I need a minute.”

 

She didn’t stop him, when he went out. He walked with a tense, barely contained gait back to the subway station. Slipped back into mementos. The ascot was back on his neck, pristine.

 

“Do you two know anything?” He asked to apparently nothing. He knew those twins where there, even if he couldn’t see them until they made themselves seen—

 

“…The inmate has been coming here rather frequently, lately.” A young, almost toneless, low voice sounded from behind him. “Although we weren’t ever privy to his intentions.”

 

“How frequently?” Ryuji asked, turning to face the small figure, a single, yellow eye pointed at him.

 

“His lonely visits have started while you were taking on your latest challenge and have exponentially increased since then.” She replied, blinking slowly.

 

“Since Shido’s palace, then.” Ryuji commented to himself. The knowledge did nothing to quiet down the soup of contrasting feeling burning inside him. “Why did neither of you said anything?”

 

“The inmate’s reasons and actions are not something that pertain to our role. Despite our worry we could not—“

 

“Your worry ?!” Ryuji yelled, the last thread of cold logic finally snapping and letting all his anger and frustration cascade out like bile. “Is this how you worry?! Allowing him to come here and try to fuckin’ kill himself when you could’ve contacted any of us multiple times?!”

 

“Watch your tongue!” Another young, much more harsh voice interjected. “We as wardens are to act as a mere guidance, we are not allowed to intervene directly into the inmate’s life—“

 

“BULLSHIT!” Ryuji screamed back, facing the second girl. “All your stupid rules and stupid ‘inmates’ mean nothing! He could’ve died any time!”

 

“Caroline.” The calmer girl said, before her twin could reply. “You do not need to be harsh with him. He only worries for the inmate.”

 

“That doesn’t give him the right to speak to us like that.” The harsh twin, Caroline, growled. She whipped a baton, pointing it at Ryuji. “The inmate’s happiness is your responsibility. Aren’t you supposed to be ‘friends’? This is your failure, nor ours.”

 

“You fuckin’, little—“

 

A spark of energy whipping between them was enough to stop Ryuji and Caroline from going at each other. They turned  to face the other twin, her arm stretched forward.

 

“Justine!” Caroline snapped, clearly annoyed.

 

“It is not our role to damage one of the inmate’s confidants.” Justine replied, as soft-spoken as ever, but there was an almost dangerous underline in her tone. “We have our limits, chariot.” She added, kinder, turning toward Ryuji. “Our master gave us a purpose, and this purpose prevents us from acting outside the realm of our velvet room. We can merely ask you to please take care of the inmate.”

 

“Justine.” Caroline repeated, this time muttering in an almost pouty manner.

 

The anger just— Left. Ryuji stood there, looking back at the sad, yellow eye pointed at him.

 

“What am I supposed to do?” He asked, desolated. He suddenly just felt so, so tired. “How can I help him?”

 

“…I’m afraid I do not have a clear answer for you.” Justine replied, softly. “I only know that you have the power to help him, as his closest confidant. Do not doubt that.”

 

“…Good luck, chariot.” Caroline added, sounding contrite, and then the both of them disappeared in the blink of an eye.

 

 

He wasn’t exactly surprised to find his mother waiting for him with a cup of tea ready, when he got back home. She said nothing as she took a blanket and draped him over his shoulders, not asking why he was going around in a sleeveless shirt in the middle of December. She then sat in front of him at the kitchen table, still not speaking. She didn’t need to.

 

“I can’t tell you what happened.” Ryuji started with a sigh, gratefully resting his fingers around the warm cup. “I’m not quite sure what happened myself—“

 

“Was it a suicide attempt?” She asked, almost clinical. It wasn’t hard to imagine the situation was pushing her to keep her nurse attitude even if she was off the clock.

 

“I— I don’t think so.” Ryuji murmured after taking a few seconds. It’s what he thought of, first, but the wounds were too methodical and the twins said Ren has been going to Mementos frequently— If he wanted to kill himself, at that point he should’ve succeeded already. “I think— I think he just wanted to hurt himself, even if I’m not sure why—“

 

She sighed, leaning back on her chair. “Self-harm, then.” She commented, softly. “It may be caused by many things. If he’s overwhelmed, if he feels like he’s not in control of his life— There are various issues that can lead a patient to harm themselves. Do you have any idea what would’ve caused it?”

 

Ryuji blinked. Not being in control— It made sense, didn’t it? With all the shit Ren went through, all the sweat and blood they poured to try take Shido down, and yet it felt like it didn’t make a single difference— Like the world didn’t care anymore.

 

Ren had to get drugged and beaten up by shitty people— They all had to see Akechi die even when it finally felt like they’ve built a real connection with him— They had to go through a harsh fight to win over Shido’s shadow with apparently no results—

 

Would it be any wonder if Ren felt like hurting himself was the only way he had to keep some sort of control over his life?

 

“I think I know.” Ryuji finally replied, raw, but added nothing else even in front of his mother’s expression.

 

“Ryuji… You can’t help your friend all on your own, not when he reached such a point. He needs professional help.” She murmured, kind. Ryuji worked his throat around a knot.

 

“I know— But right now, I can’t— He can’t—“ He groaned, massaging his forehead. Goddammit. They were in such a shitty situation— Ren was supposed to stay dead in the eyes of the law until the truth about Shido came out, he wasn’t even supposed to really leave LeBlanc— Getting him in a hospital was out of the question, but he clearly needed it—

 

She sighed again, deeply. “I’m supposed to report situations like this, but I know you won’t tell me anything.” She started, flatly tired. “You know what must be done, but I’m not going to risk putting either of you in trouble. I’m sure you will find a solution.” She took a sip of her tea, emptying her cup, before adding. “I trust your judgment. But I at least want your friend to come every couple of days, so I can make sure he’s healing properly.”

 

Ryuji blinked, silent. His mother had always been a keen, perceptive woman, so he wasn’t exactly surprised to hear her say that— Not when he had the distinct feeling that she knew more about what was going on behind the scenes than Ryuji really imagined.

 

“If you feel like things are getting worse, I want you to promise me you’ll tell me.” She continued, her voice shifting in a more severe tone. “Do we have a deal?”

 

“…Ok.” He replied, raw. “We have a deal.”

 

 

Consciousness came back to him slowly.

 

It was a smell, first, something not familiar but not displeasing either— Just the scent of a place he didn’t knew yet. Then the weight of a comforter keeping him warm and the feeling of a pillow that wasn’t his under his head. And then voices, muffled in the distance, not clear enough to make sense—

 

Ren cracked an eye open weakly. He felt so tired, he just wanted to go back to sleep— But he was somewhere he wasn’t familiar with, so he forced himself to open his other eye as well, rising his head a bit to look around.

 

He was in a bed not his, in a small room he never saw before. He blearily looked around, trying to understand how he ended up there, whenever he was— There were little stacks of manga magazines on the tatami flooring, a tv with a console and some games piled under it in a corner, and then a small library, on top of it a trophy depicting a young athlete running—

 

The realization hit him like a freight train. Ryuji. This must be Ryuji’s room—

 

Ryuji found him. Ryuji saw him, saw what he was doing, dragged him all the way to his home, asked his mother to take care of his wounds— He must’ve transported Ren into his own bed, as well. For what he could recall from his confused, foggy memories of the prior night, Ryuji’s mother was petite enough she’d probably have some difficulty carrying Ren’s weight anywhere.

 

Ryuji saw everything. Now he knew.

 

Seeing him suddenly come from behind a corner in Mementos had pretty much caused Ren’s brain to crash. He simply had no idea how to react, what to do, what to say, only capable of going with the flow as the shock froze any thought he could possibly try to form. He only found it in himself to protest against the idea of calling the rest of the thieves or Ryuji’s mother -no, no, God no, no one else had to know, please -, but incapable to reply to any other question Ryuji rightfully asked.

 

What was he supposed to say, anyway? That he was a weak coward that couldn’t deal with his life anymore? There was no need to say it, Ryuji must’ve known the second his eyes landed on Ren and what he was doing. There was no doubt that Ryuji would tell the others, regardless, and that all of them would drop Ren for good, now that the truth was out. Who needed a leader that resorted to that sort of outlet to cope with what he was doing? No one, that’s who—

 

The door opened. Ren, that was frozen in the bed by his racing thought and vague sense of nausea that was rapidly settling in his stomach, didn’t move, closing his eyes. Padded steps muted on the tatami flooring, the rustle of clothes as a presence bent down by the bedside. A soft touch, fingertips grazing Ren’s skin as they shifted a tuft of hair away from his forehead, and then a sigh. Some more rustling, only followed by silence.

 

When Ren dared opening his eyes just a sliver, Ryuji was sitting with his back propped against the bed, resting his head on his knees that he kept collected against his chest.

 

Ren’s heart shot up in his throat, beating painfully. It wasn’t long before cold sweat collected on his forehead. Surely it was only a matter of seconds before Ryuji would realize he was awake and kick him out of his house, tell him that they were done— He stared at the back of Ryuji’s head, the short, darker hair on the nape of his neck fading up toward his bleached blond ones. He’d have to face the music, sooner or later, but he wanted to be selfish. Take just a few more seconds to look at his best friend, the person he cared for the most, the person he almost lose only a handful of days earlier— Take just some more seconds to be by his side, drink into his presence, before their friendship would inevitably end.

 

Minutes passed and Ryuji didn’t move. Just sat there, his back to Ren—

 

He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to deal with Ren’s bullshit. He has been burdened more than enough, already. If Ren truly loved him, now it was time to show it, and set Ryuji free from his toxic presence.

 

“Ryuji.” He managed to murmur, causing him to jump. Ryuji turned, pale, his eyes red-rimmed. “I’m sorry.” Ren added, before Ryuji could say anything.

 

“Wha— Ren.” Ryuji replied, sounding strangled.

 

“I wouldn’t have ever wanted you to deal with this.” Ren continued, tiredly flat. “I didn’t want to saddle anyone with my problems. I should’ve been more careful. I’m sorry.”

 

“That’s— That’s not the issue!” Ryuji snapped, clearly anguished, leaning over the bed more. “You should have spoke with us, Ren! Not going all alone into there to— To—“

 

“…I’m sorry you had to see that.”

 

“Not the point!” Ryuji snapped again. “Goddamnit, Ren! Why didn’t you say anything?! I’m your friend! I want to help you!”

 

“I—“ Ren blinked, surprised. He was so sure Ryuji would just tell him to get up and get out, so sure he’d tell him they were done, that now he simply had no idea how to react. “I didn’t want to burden anyone—“

 

“It’s not a burden! We are friends! Helping each other out it’s what we are supposed to do!” For some reason, the more Ren tried to explain his reasons, the more distraught Ryuji seemed to look. “You’ve done so much for me! I wanted so bad to be able to do the same, Ren, but I failed! I didn’t realize it had gotten so bad!”

 

Ren slowly sat, shivering a bit as the comforter slid off of him. His arm hurt. “It’s not your fault—“

 

“Is it not?!” Ryuji snapped and, much to Ren’s dismay, his eyes filled with tears. “You had to embark in a suicidal mission to try and survive! You got the shit beaten out of you without any way to defend yourself! And now this, after all we had to do to go through Shido’s palace it only feels like the world is becoming worse and worse! I should’ve known this would affect you, but instead I choose to keep myself blind to your pain because it suited me—“

 

Ren blinked, his head spinning. This didn’t make any sense— Why was Ryuji blaming himself? It was Ren, it was all on Ren— He was the weak one that couldn’t fill his role properly. None of this was Ryuji’s fault—

 

“Ren, please—“ Ryuji’s voice cut through his thoughts, a gentle touch on his chin rising his face up so their eyes could meet. “Please, stop blaming yourself. You went through a ton of shit, man, anyone would be in pieces in your place. We all should have seen much sooner how this affected you. We all owe you an apology. I’m sorry, Ren. I’m sorry I failed you this badly— I want to help, now. I want to make sure you won’t ever need to hurt yourself ever again.”

 

Ren’s head was spinning. All his expectations kept getting thrown upside down— He had no idea how he was supposed to react, everything was just so much

 

“Ren.” Ryuji’s voice broke, but his hand was steady as he closed his fingers around Ren’s wrist and stopped him from pressing down on his stitched cuts, a familiar search for pain. “Please, no. Don’t do this.”

 

“…I’m— I’m sorry—“ Ren stuttered back, feeling like a knot lodged in his throat was denying him the ability to speak properly. “I’m—“

 

And then he sobbed, eyes stinging, and sobbed again as Ryuji shifted up on the mattress to sit by his side, guiding him in a hug.

 

“It’s ok.” He murmured, an hand on the back of Ren’s head, the other gently rubbing his back. “Cry, if you need to. It’s ok.”

 

And so he did, face hidden against Ryuji’s shoulder, hands grabbing at his shirt— He finally gave in, finally allowed all the tears he held back to come forward, muffled sobs and whines rising up from his throat.

 

He had no idea for how long he let it all out, all he knew was that when the sobs finally subsided and the tears stopped he felt so, so tired— And also, like he finally managed to get a great weight he hadn’t even realized he had been carrying off of his shoulders.

 

He didn’t move, oddly comfortable into Ryuji’s embrace. Ryuji was warm and solid, his arms around Ren like a protective shield— He didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact Ren kept leaning against him, even if he had clearly stopped crying.

 

“I’m sorry I made you worry—“ Ren murmured, voice thick and tired. “I’m sorry I involved your mom, too—“

 

“ ’S ok, man.” Ryuji replied, gruff but affectionate. “She won’t pry. All she asked was for you to come over every now and then, so she could take a look at you and make sure you’re healin’ nicely.”

 

Ren hummed. He figured it was the least he could do, when she apparently accepted to don’t ask questions and risk to put them into even more trouble than they already were.

 

Ryuji moved, and Ren tried to retreat, sure that his friend must be tired already of cradling him like a baby— But Ryuji just shifted up the bed even further, to sit more comfortably by Ren’s side and guide him in a even closer, gentle embrace.

 

“I ain’t lettin’ you go.” He murmured, firm, as if he knew what Ren was thinking. “I’ve got you. You won’t have to deal with all that alone, not anymore.”

 

Ren blinked tiredly, unable to deny himself that being this close with Ryuji made him feel good in a way he hadn’t felt in what seemed like forever—

 

“I don’t want to trouble you—“ He murmured, unsure.

 

“It’s no trouble. I want to be here for you. I want you to be happy.” Ryuji interjected, his arms tightening around Ren. “I won’t leave you, Ren. You’re stuck with me.”

 

Tears rose to Ren’s eyes again, a knot forming in his throat. He was so sure, so sure this would be the end, that none of his friends would deal with him anymore— But Ryuji was still there, right by his side, keeping him close with such a gentle touch, his voice honest as he promised he would never leave—

 

“We’ll deal with this together.” Ryuji murmured, one hand rising to slowly run through Ren’s hair. “You won’t have to be alone anymore.”

 

And this time, when another sob rose along Ren’s throat, he didn’t try to stop it. He just allowed himself to roll against Ryuji’s warmth even more, allowed himself to melt into his tight embrace and let the tears out, as a timid sense of relief cut through the pain in his stomach, making him feel that, maybe, things would be alright.

 

 

Things got much worse before they really got better, but as Ren watched the snowflakes fall around the city, he could feel a sad quietness settling in his soul.

 

They went through something he knew would be hard to process, but at least he’d have plenty of time to do so from a prison cell. He distractedly rubbed a thumb over one of the scars on his left arm. The stitched cuts were healed once they were forced to plunge deep into Mementos and take on fights once again, but the few days that went by before they did so were enough to left permanent marks on him.

 

It didn’t hurt, not really, and maybe that was for the better. They barely had the time to do anything about his— Problem , before the world decided to head straight for it’s untimely demise. Ryuji had pretty much stapled himself at Ren’s side for those few days, blessedly keeping his secret with the others and preventing him from indulging in his habit once more—

 

Ryuji, that was now walking back toward him through the Christmas eve crowd. Ren blinked, unsure if he was starting to get hallucinations as well, now, but he definitely looked real—

 

“Hey man.” Ryuji said, sounding tired. “I— I couldn’t go home and just— Leave you alone.” He added, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He eyed the hand that Ren was keeping on his left arm. “…You— You ok?”

 

A weak smile pulled at Ren’s mouth. “Just tired.”

 

“Sorry if I’m being all clingy and stuff—“ Ryuji huffed, massaging the nape of his neck. “What just happened— Is effin’ crazy, man. Would it be ok if we stayed together for a bit?”

 

Ren was surprised to find out that the answer rising from the depths of his chest was a resounding ‘yes’. He wanted to be with Ryuji, wanted to spend his last few hours of freedom with him instead of stewing in disquiet thoughts and bitterness.

 

When he took his right hand off his left arm and grabbed Ryuji’s hand, Ryuji didn’t protest. He didn’t even look like he was surprised in the slightest. He just interlaced his fingers with Ren’s, looking at him with an unreadable expression.

 

They plunged into the city, not caring if anyone noticed them. They just walked hand in hand, their shoulders brushing as they silently went through the lively atmosphere lit up by the christmas decorations. They only separated once the night approached and the crowd started to disperse, waiting on the subway platform still closely side by side.

 

“You gonna be ok?” Ryuji asked softly when the announcement of the incoming train resonated from the speakers. He looked tired, when Ren glanced over at him.

 

He didn’t really answer, not until the train was coming to a stop in front of them. He jumped on, before turning on the door and pushing a small smile on his face.

 

“I’ll be fine.” He said, his voice charged with far more promises that Ryuji could possibly knew. “I will be careful.”

 

Ryuji eyed him, something charged in his eyes. Ren had to admit he might not be the only one keeping secrets, that night, not when Ryuji took a step forward looking like someone about to march into battle, leaning in on the tip of his feet to push a small kiss on Ren’s lips, retreating just a second before the subway doors hissed to a close. Ren blinked, feeling his lips tingle with the phantom feeling of that fleeting contact, as the train started to move, leaving Ryuji behind on the platform—

 

He let out a small, choked sigh as he leaned his forehead against the glass, hands splayed on the door as if he wanted nothing more than just go right back out, back to Ryuji.

 

Ryuji, that had no idea this would probably be the very last time they saw each other— Once more, Ren had pushed his issues on him without even asking.

 

But at least— At least he had these precious moments to keep close to his heart. Something to reminisce about when he would start to feel really down. Ryuji gave him one last, precious gift, and Ren promised himself he would make use of it, wouldn’t go back to bad habits. He owed Ryuji at least that much.

 

 

When the door opened with the familiar chime, Ryuji turned, heart shooting up in his throat. He has been jittery and anxious all morning, impatient to see Ren again, to look at him and reassure himself that he was back with them, truly free this time—

 

Ren stepped in, looking— Well. He smiled at them, smiled sincerely, and Ryuji swore that his heart might just explode at the sight— Ren didn’t protest when he was enveloped in a tight hug, his hands rising to rub Ryuji’s back gently.

 

“Are you ok?” Ryuji asked, so faintly that only Ren could hear him. Ren, that surely understood the real meaning behind that question—

 

“I am.” He replied, gentle, glancing up at Ryuji with something unreadable in his eyes. “I had something to look forward to.”

 

And Ryuji, that for two months was plagued by the worry of having no idea how Ren was doing while being kept in prison, having no idea if he might be angry or disgusted with Ryuji for stealing that little kiss for him, just saw all those worries being blown away like clouds in a gust of wind. He smiled, feeling for some fleeting instants like it was just the two of them, in the world, hanging onto each other—

 

“Hey, you done hogging him? We want hugs, too!” Futaba interrupted the moment, clearly impatient. Ryuji huffed, but Ren laughed— It was such a sincere, clear sound, and finally those last fears could be laid to rest. Ryuji stepped back to allow the others to greet Ren as well, sneakily sliding an hand around his— Ren’s finger hooked around his palm, as he launched a little, secretive smile in Ryuji’s direction.

 

They would keep walking forward, together.