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i'm contagious (it'd be safest if you ran)

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Ryuji really doesn’t know how many times he’s read this page over, but he knows it hasn’t stuck at all and really doubts that it will. He tries to process the words and diagrams on whatever page he has opened in his biology textbook, but his brain desperately wants to focus on other things in an attempt to escape it.

Instead his brain focuses on the way Makoto’s fingers move quickly as they press the keys on her calculator. He looks over in the direction of the noise, now noticing the scratch of her mechanical pencil on her notebook paper as she worries her lower lip between her teeth in concentration. She’s always so focused like this, she complained about Ann and Ryuji dragging her over to Leblanc to help them study for their upcoming finals before summer break, but Ryuji knows she would’ve just spent another night in her and her sister’s apartment studying alone if they hadn’t gotten her to come help them. She easily fell into a rhythm of studying and rewriting out her notes, stopping every thirty minutes (Ryuji doesn’t know how she’s always so exact without setting a timer) to quiz the rest of the group on the materials they had been studying.

As if on cue, Makoto stops punching numbers into her calculator and looks up at the rest of them, immediately making eye contact with Ryuji, and he feels like a puppy that got caught tearing up tissues before she can even scold him, “Are you ready to go over what you’ve been reviewing?” She asks as a general question to the table, but Ryuji already knows he’s fucked from the glare he’s been victim to many, many times during last minute study sessions like these.

“Hah,” Ryuji breathes out as he nervously rubs the back of his neck, “We can try for sure, but I can’t make any promises that you’ll be impressed.”

He doesn’t miss the way Makoto’s glare turns into an expression that’s… disappointed? Sad? He can’t really figure it out, he’s been on the receiving end of many disappointed and disapproving looks from adults whenever he slacked off, but Makoto’s had a touch of pity to it that those adults’ looks never had. Well, except maybe his mom, but he really can’t imagine why Makoto would care as much about his already doomed exams as his mom does.

Makoto opens her mouth to say something, but before she can Morgana takes this opportunity to scold Ryuji. God, this cat effin’ scolds him like he’s being paid for it, “Well of course she won't be impressed, you’ve been too busy ogling Makoto to focus on your textbook!”

Ryuji flushes at that, and God he wishes he could just sink into himself so much that no one could see him. Instead he settles for reaching over Akira’s lap to the chair at the end of the table ruffle the cat’s fur as he squeals in protest. As Ryuji retreats to his own seat, he steals a look over at Makoto to see if she’s upset or offended at all, but he’s relieved when she just ignores the two of them in favor of starting to review the math problems she had Ann work on. He sinks down into the cafe booth and starts chewing on the eraser of his pencil as he anxiously waits his own turn for Makoto’s ruthless quizzing.

Ryuji shifts his attention over to Akira, who, surprising to no one, is focused on annotating the book he was assigned for his literature class. He hadn’t looked up from his book once to pay attention to any of the earlier conversation, the only acknowledgment of it being when he scooted back a bit to let Ryuji climb over him to harass Morgana. Not that Ryuji is surprised at all, Akira has been like this since they met. So damn smart and focused and stealing time to read and study whenever he could.

Ryuji has always been jealous of that part of Akira, not that he’d ever let him know that, no sir. Really, if he’s being honest, he’s jealous of a lot of parts of Akira. Akira, who is clever and diligent and level headed and organized and gets work done when he needs to, all things that Ryuji isn’t. He’s actually exactly the opposite of all of those things, really, but at least when it comes to the Phantom Thieves he knows what he lacks in his brain he can make up for with his body, and he’s managed to convince his friends so far that that’s enough to keep him around.

Ryuji is snapped out of that train of thought when he realizes Akira’s hand is waving in front of his face, and his eyes dart up to meet his friend’s gaze.

“Earth to Ryuji,” Akira says with a slight chuckle in his voice, “I was asking if you want me to quiz you instead, since it looks like Ann is going to be taking up Makoto’s time for a bit and I don’t want all the information seeping out of your brain.”

Ryuji looks over at the girls and sees they’re only on about the third problem, and he knows that a quiz with Akira is much more preferable anyway. When Akira quizzes him, he never makes the other boy feel stupid for not understanding as much as he would like. Ryuji knows Makoto never really means to make him feel that way, but sometimes it’s just hard to miss the way she deflates whenever he royally misses the mark. Akira is patient, soft, understanding, and most of all, sympathetic. Akira understands him better than any of the other thieves, to be honest, and that’s really what he needs during times when his brain is in another universe and he doesn’t want to be treated like he’s as stupid as he feels.

“Yea,” Ryuji breathes out with a laugh, “I could for sure use any help your crazy smart self is willing to give me.”

Akira just gives him a soft smile in return as he reaches over to grab Ryuji’s book from the spot on the table in front of him, “After we’re done here and everyone heads out, you can come up to my room and we can play some Star Forneus. God knows I’m not gonna be able to beat the level I’m stuck on without your help.”

Ryuji’s face lights up at that, “Yea dude, of course! You’re just gonna have to work your magic coffee skills if we want to be awake enough to beat it.”

Akira is smiling at him still, he looks like he’s just happy to see Ryuji happy. Ryuji knows that Akira could beat the level on his own, really, and he’s just trying to motivate Ryuji, but that’s why he trusts his best friend so much. Akira just always knows the right thing to do or say, and Ryuji doesn’t really know how he got so lucky to have someone like that on his side.

“Maybe if your score is satisfactory enough,” Akira places the book in his lap, slowly turning the pages to figure out what he wants to test Ryuji on, “I’ll even make us some curry.”

Ryuji lets out a chuckle at that as he playfully shoves at Akira’s shoulder. He knows he’ll make them curry anyway if he whines enough, but it definitely makes him want to try harder so he can feel like maybe he’s earned something.

-

They’re all sprawled out on their respective spots in different parts of their hideout, trying not to completely melt in the summer heat in the poorly circulated attic of Leblanc. Ann unhelpfully has herself flopped across Ryuji’s lap on the couch as she fans herself, and the way the sweat sticks to the back of his neck is really the only thing he can focus on as Akira gives them the update he got from Sojiro about Futaba’s condition.

She’s been asleep for over a week now, and the feeling of impending doom shared by every member of their team worsens every passing day that leads closer to Medjed’s attack.

“He said he wishes he could give us any kind of prediction of when she’ll wake up,” Ryuji is trying to focus on Akira’s words, but he knows there’s no real update to be given anyway, “But personally I’m afraid she worked herself so much that it might be longer than we can afford.”

Ryuji doesn’t miss the way that Ann starts to tug nervously on her pigtails, he’s noticed that’s one of her nervous habits. Honestly over the time he’s been fighting alongside and hanging out with his friends, he’s been able to pick up on a lot of their nervous habits. He has a difficult time making and holding eye contact, so it's pretty easy for him to pick up on small things other people normally wouldn’t. Akira twists and pulls at the ends of his hair, Ann pulls at her pigtails, Morgana licks and cleans himself almost excessively, Yusuke chews on his nails even though there’s not much left, and Makoto chews on the end of her pencils.

Ryuji knows he has his own fair share of nervous habits, but he mostly has a hard time keeping still. His biggest habit is the way he bounces his leg, he sees enough people do it that he hopes maybe no one else notices how much about him it really says. With the way Ann is sprawled across him though, he settles for drumming random beats with his fingers onto Ann’s leg.

Eventually the only sound that flows through the room is the whirring of the old fans Akira bought from the second hand shop across the street. The silence shared between the group is filled with tension and worry, and Ryuji wonders if he’s the only one that can feel it.

Another one of Ryuji’s nervous habits is talking. He doesn’t like the empty spaces that silence leaves, the anxiety that beats through him in time with his steadily increasing heartbeat. Even if he says something stupid, which he knows he usually just spouts useless nonsense, at least it leaves less room for his thoughts to suffocate him in the deafening silence.

Before he can think, his mouth is already open, “Do you think we should go to Mementos again?” He can feel the pressure of anxiety in his ears like a voice begging him to shut up shut up shut up, “I know we’ve already got as far as we can until we take care of Medjed, but wouldn’t it be better than just sittin’ around here worryin’ about Futaba?”

Ryuji pretends not to notice the look of concern in Akira’s eyes when he says that, no doubt he’s noticed the anxious edge in Ryuji’s tone. God, he loves his best friend, but sometimes he wishes he wasn’t so damn observant all the time. He doesn’t care that Akira is more of a quiet type, but he sure wishes that it didn’t make him such a damn good listener and observer.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, honestly,” Makoto speaks up as she straightens her posture and brushes out her skirt, “We’re all quite low on energy as it is, and I’m worried our anxieties will distract us in battle, and we can’t afford to be careless and let ourselves get hurt. We’re under enough stress with Futaba, I don’t wish to have to worry about anyone else in our group.”

Ryuji knows that she’s right, but it doesn’t keep him from letting out a frustrated huff as he sinks further into the couch and ignores the distressed noise Ann makes at the shift in position, “I just hate sittin’ around, ya know? It feels…” Stressful, lazy, like a waste of energy, a waste of time when he could be actually doing something productive, he’s wasting so much just by sitting here, “...bad.”

“Pfft,” Morgana scoffs at him from his spot perched up on the table, “Good at words as always, aren’t you? Why don’t you use this time to actually do your homework?”

God, Ryuji really doesn’t have the patience to deal with Morgana’s cheeky attitude right now, “I’ve tried,” He grumbles, but it’s the truth, “I just haven’t been able to focus.”

“Yea, like that’s surprising coming from you,” Morgana has an effin’ death wish, Ryuji thinks, “No wonder you flunked so hard during the last exams.”

Wow. Okay. Alright.

Here’s the thing: Ryuji knows he’s not the smartest, or the most hard working, or the most accomplished student in the Phantom Thieves, and he’s fine dunking on himself for it.

It’s a special kind of hurt whenever someone else knows it, too.

He’s exploding before he knows it, “What do you effin’ know?” He shouts, startling Ann out of his lap, “You’re just some stupid stinkin’ cat! You don’t know shit, you don’t have to work as hard as I do to get anywhere close to the rest of these guys! So don’t effin’ act like you know anything about how hard I worked to get into Shujin and stay there!”

The silence that follows is actually worse than the one filled with tension that made him start talking in the first place. When Ryuji cools down a bit, he’s suddenly distinctly aware of everyone of his friends’ gazes fixed on him.

He looks at Yusuke, who doesn’t even bother to fix the strand of hair that falls out of his sidebangs, as he’s too busy looking at Ryuji with his jaw dropped only the slightest bit but his eyes wide. His gaze flips to Makoto, who decides to look at an apparently very interesting stain on the table the moment their gazes meet. He looks at Ann, who is sitting straight up next to him with her hair slightly messed up from the movement, surprise is obvious in her expression but as someone who has known her as long as he has, he can see the subtle concern in her features. He turns to Morgana, who is purposefully not making eye contact with Ryuji and hiding his tail between his legs.

Finally, he makes himself look at Akira, expecting the disappointment Ryuji feels in himself to be written all over his best friend’s features. When he makes eye contact with Akira, he’s surprised to only see concern. No fear, no judgement, no disappointment, only concern.

God, Ryuji just wants to cry. He wants to yell and run and scream and cry and punch something that can’t feel. He wants to beat himself up over the fact that he still hasn’t changed, he isn’t any better than any of the scumbags whose hearts they steal.

He isn’t any better than his Dad.

“Alright team,” Akira speaks up, finally breaking the silence. Ryuji won’t look at him, but he sees him shooting off a text on his phone, “Let’s break for today, I think we could all use some well earned rest.”

Ryuji feels his phone buzz, and he quickly checks it as everyone awkwardly packs their bags.

Akira [17:18]
Do you want to hang back? We still haven’t
finished Power Intuition and I think it’ll help
us get some energy out.

He looks up at his best friend as everyone says their goodbyes and Morgana trails behind Ann. Akira gives him a soft smile that instantly wipes away some of the shame and calms his heated nerves.

God, how can Akira always see through him so well?

-

Ryuji is leaning against a machine at his normal spot in the arcade, and he can feel his own face light up when he sees his best friend walk through the front doors, slightly slouched with the Mona bag on his back.

“Hey leader!” Ryuji greets him with a big smile, and Akira gives him a soft one in return, “I hate all this waitin’ around.” Futaba finally woke up the previous week and defeated Medjed within the day of the deadline, much to the relief of the phantom thieves. Now they were just slowly but surely working her up to be able to go on their much needed beach trip. The time in between that though was boring and wasted on waiting, and Ryuji was itching for something to do, “You wanna go trainin’ at the gym?”

The look Akira gives him is not one of Ryuji’s favorites, it’s full of concern as his friend furrows his brow and cocks his head to the side as if he was a confused puppy. It would be cute if it didn’t make Ryuji’s gut twist in worry at the thought that he’s said something to upset Akira.

“Ryuji,” Damn, hearing the worry in Akira’s voice definitely doesn’t help the twisting feeling, “We’ve gone to the gym three times already this past week, and I don’t know how much training you’ve been doing on your own. You’re supposed to take at least two rest days a week, but I’m worried you aren’t even following that.”

Dammit, sometimes Ryuji wishes Akira didn't see him as well as he did, he can never get away with shit like this. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t know what to say because he knows Akira is right. He hasn’t had a rest day in the past week, all the pent up energy he’s been feeling making it impossible for him to keep still. He just wants to run and run and run until he finally feels enough exhaustion in his bones to rest.

When Ryuji looks down and slightly pouts, he knows he’s just confirming Akira’s worries without having to tell him. He decides instead to fix his stare on a very interesting button on his friend’s shirt, but when he sees Akira’s shoulders sag at the realization of Ryuji’s habits, he wishes he had stared at his shoes or something instead.

Ryuji doesn’t register Akira’s arm moving until he feels a pressure on his upper arm, and his eyes dart to the spot to see his best friend’s hand there in a firm, comforting grip.

He looks up at Akira to see him sporting a soft, comforting smile. Akira really only ever smiles soft smiles, the brightest ones saved for the most special occasions, but each smile has a different meaning.

This smile says ‘Hey, it’s okay, I’m not judging you. I care about you and I want to help’, Akira may be a quiet guy, but Ryuji thinks he knows how to read inbetween the lines pretty well by now.

“Let’s go to Ogikubo, my treat.”

He can’t bring himself to turn Akira down, so maybe he can try to quiet the energy that thrums in him like sparks ready to turn into lightning strikes for his best friend who’s just trying to provide cover.

-

Ryuji knows that he should be paying attention to whatever Ushimaru is droning on about, but he can’t bring himself to focus on the words he’s saying or even what he quickly scrawls on the chalkboard.

He feels his leg starts to bounce again as he shifts into the sixth position he’s tried to get comfortable in in the last five minutes, and of course it’s no more comfortable than any of the others. He knows he’s risking a swift chalk piece to the head when he pulls out his phone, but he thinks if he doesn’t find something to do that he can actually focus on right now he’s going to explode out of his seat.

Ryuji [11:13]
Yo, up to anythin’ fun??

Futaba [11:13]
Nothing much :P just playing some power
intuition to pass some time until u guys
are outta school!!

Ryuji [11:14]
Oh sweet!! Me and Kira
were playin’ that a bit ago.
If you need any help I’m
here for ya

Futaba [11:14]
,,,
Futaba [11:14]
Aren’t u in class??

Shit. He was hoping she didn’t know his class schedule that well.

Ryuji [11:15]
I mean
Ryuji [11:15]
Yea?

Futaba [11:15]
Ryuji,,
Futaba [11:15]
I know u have a hard time focusing esp in school
Futaba [11:16]
But i dont wanna enable u by helping u focus
even less :( i care about u dude and wanna
see u succeed

Ryuji [11:16]
Ah you’re right
Ryuji [11:16]
I’m sorry Futaba, I didn’t mean to drag
ya into it
Ryuji [11:16]
I’ll try to focus then, I’ll see ya after
school!!

Futaba [11:17]
Aight see u then!!
Futaba [11:17]
Good luck bud >:3

Damn, Ryuji really needs to give Futaba more credit. Of course the moment he goes to put his phone back in his pocket, he feels a sharp pain in his forehead as a small piece of chalk shoots into it.

“Eyes on the board, Sakamoto!”

God, Ryuji really dislikes this dude. Ann has told him stories about how Akira regularly dodges the bullets of chalk, and as Ryuji slumps impossibly further into his seat and rubs his temple, he really wishes he could be that cool.

 

 

When the gang meets up in the attic of Leblanc later that day, Futaba comes barreling up to Ryuji.

“Hiya!” She’s almost shouting, she looks so excited, “I gotcha something!”

She holds out her hand and in it is… well, Ryuji doesn’t really know what it is, actually.

“What’s this?” He asks her, knowing full well the confusion is evident on his face.

“It’s a special item to help you level up your focus!” She says, hopping up and down excitedly, “It’s called a fidget cube, each side has a different function that helps keep your hands busy. This side has switches, this one has buttons, this side even has a tiny joystick. It’s like your own mini controller!”

Before Ryuji can really process what’s happening, Futaba is grabbing his hand and placing the toy in his palm, “Come on!” She encourages him excitedly, “Try it!”

So he does. He presses the tiny buttons and flips the switches and moves around a ball that sticks halfway out one side. It’s cool for sure, but he doesn’t really get it.

Before he can thank Futaba, Akira is calling them all together to go over the new Mementos targets they all sought out for today so they can train up a bit with Haru before heading back into her dad’s palace. Ryuji heads over to take a seat on the couch and Futaba plops down next to him.

Ryuji finds himself fiddling with the toy while Akira talks, weirdly finding it a lot easier to focus on Akira’s words and take part in conversation today. He absentmindedly keeps toying with it while he weighs in on their different targets.

Once they’re all set and preparing to head in, Futaba grabs Ryuji’s arm, “So, how’s it workin’ out for you?”

“How’s what workin’ out?”

“The fidget cube! Duh,” She gives Ryuji a flick on the forehead but ignores his squawking at her for it, “Like I said, it’s supposed to help with focus. I was trying to look up ways I could help you with your problem you’ve been having, and the all knowing internet said this would be a perfect fit for you! So I went out on a side quest to find one for you.”

Wait.

Futaba left the house… by herself… to go buy something… she thought would help Ryuji?

“You went out on your own? For me?” Ryuji knows his shocked face must look stupid, but he’s about .2 seconds away from yanking Futaba into a hug.

“Yea, actually,” Futaba looks kind of sheepish, but Ryuji can see a bit of pride there, “I could’a just ordered it online, but I wanted to have it for you ASAP in case it would help.”

Eff it, Ryuji pulls her into a hug that borders on crushing her tiny bones, and she lets out a surprised squeak but quickly moves to return the hug. Distantly, Ryuji realizes all the other thieves have stopped dead in their movements, but Ryuji can’t bring himself to pay attention to that too much.

“Thank you Futaba, really,” He says into her shoulder, feeling like his voice might crack, “You really don’t know how much this means to me.”

Futaba pulls away, chuckling, “Of course I do! You and everyone else have worked so hard to help me rank up in all my stats I was seriously lacking in, so I gotta help you too!” She shoves a hand in his hair to ruffle it up, “Now let’s go kick some butt!”

He shoots her a huge smile full of warmth, “Alright,” He exclaims as he pushes himself up from the couch, “I’m gonna bust loose!”

He makes sure to pocket the fidget cube before his clothes change.

-

“Go head and disrobe.” Yusuke commands, and Ryuji feels himself scoff at how blunt the other boy is.

At least he feels he has a semblance of privacy as Yusuke sets up his canvas and supplies they’ll need for the session. Yusuke had asked Ryuji to help him with a pose study for his artistic anatomy course, and of course Ryuji would do anything to help one of his friends out, so he agreed in a heartbeat.

It didn’t make him feel any less uncomfortable standing in the middle of his friend’s dorm room only dressed in his boxer briefs.

“Hey man, do you mind if I turn some music on or something? I know how you get whenever you’re in your weird trances, and I just like having background noise on.”

“Of course,” Yusuke agrees, “Play whatever you like, I can assure you it will not be a bother to me.”

“Yea,” Ryuji laughs, “I don’t doubt that.”

Ryuji goes ahead and hooks up the small speaker he brought with him, he was pretty confident Yusuke wouldn’t turn him down and he knew he wouldn’t be able to sit in silence for what might be hours. He puts on his favorite playlist full of soft but upbeat music, still trying to be considerate of Yusuke’s focus, and turns back towards his friend and awaits instruction.

“You may go ahead and position yourself here,” Yusuke says as he gestures to the chair he sets at an angle in front of his work station, “Set yourself however you see comfortable, I think it will be a good challenge for me if I don’t control your pose myself.”

“Alright dude, you’re the boss.” Ryuji reaches down to his pants left on the floor and grabs his fidget cube out of the pocket.

He goes ahead and grabs a seat on the chair, sitting at a slight angle and leans back. Thinking he might want to get comfortable, he slides his hips forward and props one foot up on the seat of the chair while he plants the other on the ground. He absentmindedly starts playing around with his fidget cube.

“This okay?” He asks, wanting to make sure nothing was completely wrong with the pose he’s chosen.

“It’s perfect,” Yusuke confirms as he sits on his stool and picks up a pencil, “The pose is slightly complicated yet somehow appears natural, which is on par for your usual sitting positions. I believe this will prove to be a very effective study.”

Ryuji rolls his eyes at that as he slumps a bit further. Classic Yusuke, always so good at insulting people and never knowing he’s said anything wrong in the first place.

They settle into a comfortable silence as Yusuke goes into his artist’s hyperfocus, as the thieves call it, and Ryuji tries not to shift from his current position unless the artist asks him to.

Ryuji watches as Yusuke's gaze shifts back and forth from the other boy’s body to his own canvas, sketching out Ryuji’s form and the contours of his veins and muscles and the bending of his joints. Ryuji knows Yusuke could stay in this trance for hours, not worrying about sleep or food or anything besides his art. Yusuke has been considerate enough to guarantee they can do this in multiple sessions. Ryuji has sat and watched the artist work for insanely long periods of time, but even Yusuke somehow realizes it isn’t so easy for Ryuji to sit in one position for too long.

He kind of wishes it wasn’t something his friend picked up on, he presses on the buttons on one side of the cube a little harder at the thought that his shortcomings are so easy to pick up on.

He’s always been like this, constantly fidgeting and bouncing and shifting, even when he was a kid. He feels himself grip onto the fidget cube at memories of his dad yelling at him to sit still and not make a sound, threatening to hit him and hit him until he couldn’t move even if he wanted to.

He chokes down a noise at the memories of when he made good on those threats.

Pushing those thoughts away, he looks back at Yusuke, still sporting the ever so concentrated look on his face as he continues sketching.

He wishes he could be more like his friend, so often cool and composed and able to focus on his projects so intensely for such long periods of time. Sure, he did weird things like spend the last of his money on lobsters in the name of his passions, but at least he had something to call his own and be proud of.

“Alright,” Yusuke says suddenly, startling him out of his own thoughts, “I think that is a good place to break for the day.”

“Oh, alright,” Ryuji gets up from his chair and stretches, hearing and feeling all kinds of popping happening in his body. Damn, has it really been that long already? “Just lemme know whenever you need me next.”

“Of course, I will be sure to contact you soon when I plan out my schedule.”

Ryuji moves to put his clothes back on, and his mind drifts off to his thoughts from earlier. Hell, he might as well ask Yusuke about it if he wants to learn his trade secrets.

“Hey Yusuke,” Ryuji starts once he’s pulled over his sweatshirt, “Can I ask you about somethin’?”

“Surely, what can I help you with?”

Ryuji starts fiddling with the fidget cube again, it’s become one of his nervous habits, “You just always become so focused when you’re workin’ hard on a project. I guess I was just wonderin’... Well, how?”

Suddenly, Yusuke looks away, a pained expression on his face. Before he can answer, Ryuji is already backtracking in a panic, “You don’t have to answer that if you’re not comfortable with it man! I just have a hard time focusing myself and I thought maybe possibly it would help if you told me how you’re so good at it but that was just a dumb idea so you don’t have to-”

“Ryuji.”

Ryuji feels like a kicked puppy whenever Yusuke cuts him off, but when he finally makes himself look at Yusuke, the artist doesn’t look angry with him.

“It’s quite alright, really,” He looks away again as he says that, though, “I believe after you all helped me escape Madarame, I have come to realize some things that I am… quite ashamed of.”

Yusuke looks like the words pain him to admit, as if he’s embarrassed for a reason Ryuji doesn’t get.

“When I grew up in the atelier, there were a lot of rules that just seemed proper of an artist to me, as it was how I was raised. Madarame often made me work for long, draining hours. I would miss out on sleep, skip meals, just so I could finish my pieces on time for him to use in his exhibits.”

The embarrassed look on Yusuke’s face turns a bit sadder the more he continues on, it makes Ryuji want to pull him into a tight hug.

“I spent my life believing sacrificing my existence was a necessary stepping stone in the path of my life as an artist. Madarame taught me if I didn’t work to earn luxuries such as rest, food, and shelter, then I did not deserve such useless things in the first place.”

Yusuke finally looks Ryuji in the eye again, and he feels like his friend’s stare bores into him.

“I still often struggle with these thoughts, as they were all I was raised on. It has not been very long since I’ve been unlinked from Madarame’s chains, therefore I find myself unable to free myself from certain shackles he locked onto me. I believe now though, in my heart, my mother would not want me to live the life I was raised into.”

“So instead of doing better for yourself, you’re trying to do it for your mom?” Ryuji’s voice comes out softer than he meant it to, like he’s afraid his words might shatter Yusuke if he says them too loud.

“Precisely,” Yusuke sighs, “I’m not sure how conventional it is, and I would like to one day evolve into living for myself, but I am simply not at that point yet.”

Really, Yusuke understands him more than Ryuji had realized. Being silenced and forced into submission all their lives, Madarame just took a less physical approach than Ryuji’s own dad. Really though, it’s all the same in the end.

If Yusuke is trying to be patient with himself, trying to learn how to live the way he wants to with his disadvantages rather than trying to get rid of them all together, couldn’t Ryuji do the same?

His thoughts are cut off when he hears a grumble, and he assumes it’s coming from his friend’s stomach.

“Ah,” Yusuke already confirms, “My sincere apologies, I must have forgotten to feed myself again. And after all that rambling I did about trying to better my ways.”

Ryuji just laughs and throws an arm around his friend’s shoulder, “Nah dude, it’s a learnin’ process. Come on, dinner’s on me tonight. I’ll buy us some sushi!”

-

They’re trucking around the ever twisting tracks of Mementos, hunting down target after target they’ve gotten from Mishima’s hard work on the Phansite. It’s impossibly cramped now that they’ve (reluctantly) added Akechi to their ranks, but at least Akira takes up the space between Ryuji and that damned detective in their row of the Monabus.

Luckily they’re on their last target for this trip, which Ryuji is more than grateful for. Akechi and Ann are having some conversation about crepes or whatever, Ryuji can’t even bother to pay attention. He resigns himself to staring out the window as the walls of Mementos zoom past them at Makoto’s relentless pace.

“Sakamoto-kun?” Suddenly Ryuji snaps out of his trance, and he realizes that Akechi was actually saying something to him.

“Sorry, got distracted,” He doesn’t really mean the apology, but the excuse isn’t so much a lie itself. He leans forward to look past Akira, “What’d ya say?”

“I was just curious about what you have in your hand there,” Akechi, the ever perceptive bastard, gestures to Ryuji’s fidget cube being toyed with in his hand, “I admit I’ve never seen anything like it, and you always appear to be fiddling with it while we ride along.”

“Oh this thing?” Ryuji says dumbly, he’s always trying his best to keep his cool around the detective, but every time he opens his damn mouth it makes Ryuji feel like a spark that’s one small crackle away from bursting, “It’s just my fidget cube, I like havin’ somethin’ to do with my hands when I’m just sittin’ around. It helps my focus.”

“Oh, I see!” Akechi says through a too sharp (and too fake) smile, the one Ryuji always sees him wear during interviews on TV. Honestly, Ryuji is surprised Akechi is even making conversation with him in the first place. Maybe he’s just trying to snuff Ryuji out, figure out his weaknesses before he tries to take Ryuji down like he plans to with the rest of the thieves, “That is rather interesting, but I suppose it makes sense!”

It seems like the conversation ends there, but Akechi doesn’t break the eye contact they’re holding, and Ryuji doesn’t want to be the first to back down from whatever is going on here. Akechi holds that sharp smile, and Ryuji has an eyebrow cocked in return. He feels kinda bad for Akira, who could probably cut the tension that rests in front of him with his knife.

Ryuji wishes he could knock that stupid smile off of Akechi’s face. He’s always wearing that same, smug look, that looks like it’s full of secrets only Akechi is aware of. That bastard, he has no damn clue what's coming to him. He can’t wait for the day he can grab Akechi by the back of his neck and shove his face down into his own failure.

Whoa whoa whoa, calm down calm down calm down. He doesn’t want to physically hurt Akechi, not really. He just wishes he would stop looking at him like that.

Suddenly Makoto makes a sharp turn, jostling the bus and breaking the focus of the tense moment, which was probably for the best anyway. Ryuji realizes they’re heading head first into a warping red and black portal, which means they’ve finally found their last target for this trip.

They pile out of the Monabus once they’ve passed through the portal, and Makoto quickly goes over the target and the plan before they approach the shadow, “Our last target is a man named Sumida Yuji, and his son posted a call for help on the forum. Apparently his father comes home late every night smelling of booze, and abuses both his own son and wife physically and verbally. His son is afraid if something isn’t done soon, him and his mother may not live long enough to escape him.”

“Alright, I want Crow, Queen, and Skull on the front lines with me. Are you all ready for this?” Akira, or Joker really now that they’re about to engage in battle, addresses the lineup as a whole, but he looks at Skull specifically.

Skull had found this post on the Phansite himself, and immediately brought it to the attention of the other thieves during the next meeting. They had all agreed of course, but the leader had pulled him aside before they took off for Mementos.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Akira had asked him, of course wanting to help this family in need, but needing to care for his teammate and best friend first.

“Course dude! We gotta do this, I promise you can trust me to keep my cool.”

Akira had given him a soft smile, full of trust and faith, “Alright then, I’ll trust you as always.”

Skull gives him a nod before they approach the shadow, and Sumida looks like he’s already wanting to bite the thieves’ heads off.

“Ha! What sorta business could you lot have with me?” Sumida stumbles in his place as he barks at them, apparently even drunk in the cognitive world, “I haven’t done nothin’ to nobody!”

“I believe your family would think differently about that,” Crow retorts, and frankly Skull is a bit surprised he’s even entertaining this guy, “We’re here on behalf of your wife and son, to bring justice upon you and restore your distorted heart!”

“Now that’s rich,” The shadow laughs, every time this guy opens his mouth Ryuji wants to stuff his fist in it, “Was it the whore that sent ya? Or was it the good for nothin’ brat?”

“What was that?” God, the way Sumida talks about his family makes bile rise in Skull’s throat, and he barely manages to choke it down, “You’re really gonna talk about your family like that?”

“Those idiots mean nothin’ to me,” the look on the shadow’s face suddenly turns sour, lacking any disgusting humor it held before, “The bitch never listens. All she needs to do is clean up after me and cook for me, but she’s always up in my business! Always askin’ me to spend time with the brat, ‘like a father should’ she always says. Like I give a shit! Those two good for nothin’ idiots just need to serve as my punchin’ bags, and nothin’ else.”

Skull feels his blood boil over before the shadow even finishes his sentence, and before he can respond the shadow is already transforming and gearing up to fight. Skull doesn’t think about the form, the weaknesses, or even whatever orders Joker is debating on giving out. His vision goes red at the shadow’s words and he’s already acting before he can think.

He’s already dashing when Joker calls out after him, “Skull! What are you doing?!”

Skull barely hears him, he’s dealing blow after blow and hit after hit into this piece of shit of a father. How many times had his own father hit him? How many times had he been forced to watch from a corner as his own father hit his mom over and over? Any bruises that formed couldn’t fade faster than it would take for new ones to appear. Ryuji had learned to live with the scars from too hard hits and broken bottles, but he could never entertain the thought of having to live with watching his own mom being beaten senseless before his eyes.

“Why can’t you just fucking sit still and be quiet for once, you damn annoying brat!”

He was just a kid. God, he’s still just a kid now, but he was even more of a kid then. So hopeless and so scared, each day having to watch his mom dot makeup over her bruises before each shift. So hopeless, wrapping his own wounds carefully so none of his friends at school would look at him funny or ask any questions. So scared, not wanting to go home after school but always heading straight back when he knew his mom wasn’t at work.

Just a kid, so hopeless and so scared, being hurt over and over again by the man who was supposed to love and raise him.

He wasn’t even the one that ruined his leg and ruined his life, that was a gift from a piece of shit teacher who had never cared about Ryuji from the moment they met.

“Skull!” Finally he snaps out of it as Joker forcibly pulls him back from the shadow, who at this point is just a bit below half health. He throws Skull out of the front line and calls Noir to take his place, and Skull can’t even be hurt about it.

He blew it. He effin’ blew it. He had asked his best friend to trust him, and he failed.

Maybe he was never gonna change. Maybe he was gonna be angry and hot headed and twitchy and unfocused and stupid for the rest of his life. It didn’t matter how hard he tried, how hard his friends tried to help him, he was always going to be a broken kid following in the footsteps of his sorry excuse of a father.

He’s hopeless, and he should’ve never let the Phantom Thieves try to make him believe he could ever be anything but that.

After his teammates finish off the shadow and grab his treasure, they wordlessly pile back into the Monabus. The whole ride back to the entrance is completely silent, which never happens on these trips, but the bus is full of heavy tension.

Ryuji pulls his cube out of his pocket, needing to do something with the anxious energy coursing through his veins like tiny sparks. Weirdly enough, he feels eyes fixed on him. He steals glances at each of the other thieves, but everyone seems to be focused on anything but looking towards Ryuji.

His eyes finally rest on Akechi, and it turns out his was the gaze Ryuji felt piercing into him. Akechi doesn’t look away when Ryuji notices him, and the look in Akechi’s eyes is… calculating. Like he’s trying to figure Ryuji out, like there’s a puzzle he actually can’t solve, like Ryuji is something he actually wants to understand.

Like… Like, in some way Ryuji isn’t aware of, he’s actually something Akechi could understand.

Before Ryuji can even think about confronting him, the Monabus comes to a stop, and he realizes they’ve finally reached the entrance. They all wordlessly file out one by one, none of them making a move to continue their time together past this trip.

Ryuji starts to make his way toward the station, when he feels a hand grip on his shoulder, and turns to see the hand belongs to Akira, “Can you make it home okay?”

Of course it’s Akira. Akira, who has always come to Ryuji’s rescue since the day they met. Akira, who has been trying to help Ryuji change for the better these past several months. All too good and sweet and perfect Akira, who probably could never understand the hateful rage that boiled under Ryuji’s skin earlier.

“Yea,” Ryuji gives him a smile that he knows isn’t any more convincing than his reply, “I’ll text you when I get home, dude.”

Akira doesn’t look convinced, but he gives Ryuji a small smile and nods, and turns to go his own way.

Ryuji doesn’t miss when Akechi joins Akira at his side, and for some reason he gets the feeling he doesn’t want to know what they’re talking about.

If Ryuji had to guess, though, he’d say Akechi is probably making fun of him.

-

There’s just about two weeks of free time before the date they agreed to send out Sae’s calling card, per Akechi’s suggestion.

Ryuji starts off this free time by aggressively avoiding his friends.

He doesn’t wait by the stairwell outside of Akira and Ann’s class anymore. He doesn’t go up onto the roof for lunch. He goes straight home at the end of the day. He plans to spend his Sunday locked in his room. He doesn’t miss his mom’s worried looks throughout the week.

They all text him. Of course they do, and really it would be endearing if he didn’t feel like shit every time his phone buzzed.

Akira [11/3 12:13]
Hey, do you want to come over after school
and read manga? I picked up something
that looked like you’d be into it.

Ann [11/3 17:45]
Ryujiiiiii I need someone to come shopping
with me today, down to tag along?

Futaba [11/3 18:22]
Hey bud! You should hop online
and game with me so I can kick your
ass!!

Makoto [11/4 09:45]
Hello. Are you free today?
I was hoping you would help
me with some physical training
while we’re idle.

Haru [11/4 10:56]
Hello! Are you able to come to the roof
later and help me tend to my plants?
I think it would be fun!

Yusuke [11/4 20:47]
Do you have time this weekend? I
just have a few final details for the
anatomy assignment and I was
hoping you could continue to assist me.

Akira [11/4 21:35]
Ryuji? I know you haven’t been
answering the others either.
What’s going on?

Ann [11/4 14:44]
Why aren’t you waiting outside
our class anymore? Akira and I
miss seeing your face!!

Haru [11/4 15:01]
I missed you at lunch today!

Makoto [11/5 13:33]
You missed lunch again today..
Your behavior as of late worries me.

Futaba [11/5 14:01]
You haven’t been online in days and
the others are sayin they haven’t seen
you since mementos,, whats up dude??

Yusuke [11/5 16:37]
The others are saying they haven’t seen
you at school, is there a reason you are
avoiding us?

Ann [11/5 17:01]
Ryuji c’mon, you can’t ignore us forever.
You know you can talk to me, yea?

Haru [11/5 17:35]
Please do just let us know if you’re
alright, you’re making us worry quite
a bit.

Futaba [11/5 18:01]
I know this is probably rich coming from
me, but you can’t hole yourself up forever
bud :/

Makoto [11/5 18:17]
Ryuji, we just want to hear from you, to
know you’re alright at the very least.

Yusuke [11/5 18:55]
Please do get in contact with us soon,
your energy is missed among our group.

Akira [11/5 19:05]
Ryuji please talk to me, you’re making
us really worried about you.

Every text just jabs more and more into the scars that trip to Mementos opened back up. He knows his friends care about him, he knows they’re just worried, but he also knows they’ll be safer without him around. He can’t bring himself to face them right now.

His phone buzzes next to him, and he forces himself to look at it like he has with each and every text that grew more and more worried in tone.

Akira [11/5 20:19]
Ryuji, I don’t want to spend my last
days alive to the world being ignored
by my best friend.

Shit. Shit. It’s not like he forgot about how things will go down when they send out the calling card, really he’s spent every day and every buzz of his phone thinking about how he just wanted to hang out with Akira before their lives went to shit.

He knows he couldn't bring himself to face a dead man walking as he throws a pity party for himself over a storm brought on by memories of a man who left a long time ago. Of a man he once called his dad.

He really thought he had changed, he thought he made progress to being a better person. Someone less angry at the entire world that wronged him over and over. Someone less…

Impulsive. Someone who isn’t shoot first ask questions later. Someone who doesn’t keep his anger shoved down and on a flimsy lock and key. He thought he could become someone better.

Someone like Ann, compassionate and level headed. Inches away from killing Kamoshida, she spared the bastard instead to serve him a harsher sentence.

Someone like Yusuke, focused and detail oriented. Even if for the wrong reasons, he never missed a step. He could tell differences in shades Ryuji would never notice even if he stared at the swatches for hours on end.

Someone like Makoto, self disciplined and hardworking. Student council president and always heading their study groups. She kept them wrangled together like a mother of a bunch of very obnoxious children.

Someone like Futaba, skilled and determined. Even during her time as a shut in, she built up her skills in computers and became a damn master at whatever happens behind those screens. Coming out of being a shut in, she’s making amazing progress on her social skills.

Someone like Haru, kind and forgiving. Even though forgiving to a fault, she could never stay angry. She could never hurt anyone or anything, she only could nurture things and help them grow.

Hell, even someone like Akechi, patient and cunning. God, the bastard really got on Ryuji’s nerves. Even so, he wiggled his way into their group like a worm when he cornered them, and even though they were on top of his plan, he had to give him credit anyway.

Someone like Akira… Well, what could he even begin to say about Akira? He was patient, understanding, resilient, composed, reliable, he was a real leader. Ryuji had been his right hand man from day one.

And he still failed Akira when Ryuji asked for his trust.

With that thought, Ryuji pulls his blanket over his head and decides to go to bed at 8:30 pm.

 

He’s awoken by his phone buzzing, and at first he chooses to ignore it and go back to sleep, thinking it's another text.

The buzzing continues.

It’s probably a phone call then, so he grabs his phone out from under his pillow to look at the caller ID, already expecting it to be one of his friends.

He’s suddenly wide awake when the caller ID reads as Goro Akechi.

Akechi doesn’t ever call Ryuji. He doesn’t ever text him, hasn’t bothered to text him this whole time. Not that he’s surprised.

They barely ever even have one on one conversations, and now Akechi is effin’ calling him?

Before Ryuji realizes it, he’s already accepting the call, chalking it down to curiosity more than anything else.

“Hello?” Ryuji says into his phone groggily. Maybe he should’ve cleared his throat or something, but he’s half convinced this is actually some weird dream.

“Oh, my apologies, were you asleep?” Akechi questions, as if that wasn’t already obvious.

“Well, yeah.”

Akechi hums, “It’s only 11pm, did you have a tiring day? What kept you so busy, ignoring all of your friends?”

Ah, straight to the damn point as always with this guy. Of course the group’s token asshole is the one calling him out, “And what’s it to you?”

“Well, it’s all they can manage to talk about really,” Akechi sounds almost bored, why’d he even bother calling if he’s gonna act like this? “Especially Akira, he’s rather worried about you. You know how he can be, silent and stoic as our good leader is. It’s easy to read on him though, how worried he is for you.”

“Doesn’t take a detective to see they’re worried,” He ignores the way Akechi specifically points out his best friend, “My inbox is plenty proof of that.”

“So you’ve read the messages, but just haven’t bothered to reply,” Akechi observes, “Why is that, if I may ask?”

Ryuji has half a mind to tell him he may not and hang up, but he knows he has to at least play nice until the end of this mission, for Akira’s sake, “Just don’t feel like talkin’, I guess.”

“I would say you owe them some sort of explanation, especially after that stunt you pulled in Mementos.”

Ryuji feels defensive frustration spark and crackle in his chest, “Listen dude, it wasn’t a stunt. I don’t expect you to get it. Why’d you even bother callin’ if you’re just gonna be a dick with a superiority complex?”

Well, so much for playing nice.

Akechi just laughs at the insult, weirdly enough, “I think you underestimate me, Sakamoto-kun.”

Okay, now what the hell does he mean by that? “What the hell do you mean by that?”

“I don’t know your full story, Akira told me some crimes were better left explained by the victim,” Akechi’s tone shifts to one Ryuji can’t figure out, “I think some things are easily deduced by what I witnessed on the front lines, though.”

An uncomfortable silence passes between them, Ryuji’s only response is the sound of him shuffling in his bed. He would much rather be swallowed by his blankets than continue to have this conversation.

“I won’t ask you to confirm or deny anything if you don’t feel comfortable doing so,” Akechi continues past the silence, “But I suspect you have some kind of history with your own father.”

Ryuji feels his breath hitch. He knows it couldn’t have been in any way hard to figure out, but it feels different having Akechi say his on the nose guess out loud to him. He doesn’t give a response to that.

“Again, I won’t pry, but just…”

Another silence, but this one is filled with the knowledge that there’s more Akechi has to say. Ryuji keeps as quiet as possible and waits for him to continue.

“... just know that I can understand how you feel, to a degree.”

Before Ryuji can even open his mouth to ask what the hell that means, Akechi continues on.

“Also, realize how selfish you’re being.” Ryuji feels himself gawk at that, but Akechi presses on again anyway, “You have a whole support system of people, of friends, that want nothing more than to be by your side. You have things that others could not be so fortunate to have, so stop wasting it.”

Akechi’s words slice deep, and Ryuji knows he can’t even be mad. He can’t give some standoffish comeback, because he knows Akechi is right. He doesn’t like that fact, it doesn’t sit well with him, but he can’t deny it either.

He doesn’t really want to be alone. He just thought that it would be easier for his friends if he just… faded off. If he wasn’t around to hurt or endanger them, because he was so caught up in the worries that he was going to be just like his dad.

He knows those worries are always going to dance around the edges of his thoughts, of his relationships, but he doesn’t want them to be right.

He doesn’t want his dad to have been right about him.

Suddenly, Ryuji realizes he’s been exhausted by the last ten minutes, and Akechi speaks up again, “Just think about our conversation, and at least reach out to Akira tomorrow. He’s been droning on about you, so don’t keep him worrying.”

“Alright,” There’s a slight pause, it feels longer than it probably is as Ryuji tries to get himself to say what he needs to, “Thanks man, for uh, reaching out. And for talking a bit of sense into me. I’ll think about it for sure.”

“No need to thank me, I’m just doing my duty as a member of the team,” Akechi’s back to his normal tone, and Ryuji fights back a dramatic gag at the quick tone shift, “That’s good to hear, though. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you will.” Ryuji presses the end call button, and flops down into his bed, sinking impossibly further.

Damn, he kinda hopes he sees Akechi before he tries to kill their leader. He can’t believe he effin’ thinks that to himself, but he does.

He really does.

 

 

He can’t sleep.

That’s not even really a surprise, though. Most nights for Ryuji are like this, mind unable to calm down at the end of the day, the storm of thoughts persisting until he gives up on his quest of sleep to play video games or go for a late night run until he’s too exhausted for even the thoughts to keep him awake.

The problem is these aren’t the normal thoughts that keep him awake. This isn’t random deadlines he refuses to write down, considering what specials Ogikubo is running tomorrow, how many minutes could he run two kilometers now, what sales would be going on in Akihabara this weekend, if he should even buy a new game when he hasn’t beaten the last one he bought, did he brush his teeth? Damn, maybe he should in case he forgot.

He wishes it was the normal too loud random bullshit.

Instead he rolls around in his bed, twisting up his sheets more and more as if the movement will shake the loud pressure in his ears and the thoughts that feel like screams in his head.

He can’t believe he’s been acting so stupid the past few days. He finally has people who want to help him, who are willing to be patient with him when he snaps. Friends that are willing to help him study when it’s the last thing he can focus on, friends that make him take a break, friends that help him calm down, friends that buy him fidget cubes in hopes it’ll actually help him focus, friends that will be honest and make him feel not alone as he’s always felt.

Unlikely allies (friends? Can he afford to call Goro Akechi a friend?) that make him realize everything he’s been neglecting.

The shame crackles in his gut until it travels up and wraps itself around his throat.

God dammit, he’s not putting up with this. It’s not a good look for him.

He yanks himself out of bed, struggling a bit with the tangled mess of bed sheets, packs a bag, and makes his way to the station to hop on the next train to Yongen-Jaya.

 

He finds some spare pebbles on the ground and starts bouncing them off of Akira’s window. C’mon dude, The loud pressure is still in his ears, wake up wake up wake up I need you to wake up please wake up.

Right on cue, he sees the attic window being thrown open. Akira pops his head out, and he looks like he’s ready to chew out whoever is throwing rocks at his window at midnight until he recognizes Ryuji.

He doesn’t say anything at first, but to be fair to him, Ryuji doesn’t really give him much time, “Hey dude,” He says dumbly, as if nothing had been different at all, “Wanna open up the front and let me in?”

Akira’s eyes widen before he pops back into the attic, and Ryuji makes a rush to meet him at Leblanc’s entrance

He feels his heart pound like it wants to burst through his ribcage as he watches Akira unlatch the locks through the glass door.

At first, neither of them say anything when Akira opens the door. They both stand on one side of the threshold, and the silence that rests between them is thick with tension. Ryuji doesn’t have anything to say, not yet, he just wants to pull Akira into a bone crushing hug.

Akira isn’t looking at him, choosing to stare at his own feet instead, “I…” His friend is the first to speak up, though it sounds like it takes a lot to choose his words and get them out, “I-... I was worried about you. I was really really worried about you, Ryuji.”

Akira looks him in the eyes when he says his name, and as much as Ryuji wants to pull away from the pressure of his best friend’s stare he can’t help but stare at the way there’s something filling his friend’s eyes. It… looks almost like a storm, one with heavy rain.

Ryuji can’t take it anymore, he throws himself across the open doorway and yanks Akira into his arms, gripping him tightly as if they’re going to steal Sae’s heart tomorrow.

No, he can’t think about that, not right now.

Akira stiffens at first, but when he realizes what’s happening, he grips Ryuji back just as tight and buries his face in the crook of his best friend’s neck.

They just stand there like that for a while, no noise between them but Akira’s slowly steadying breathing and the still too quick pulse of Ryuji’s heartbeat. He doesn’t know how it can thump for so hard and for so long without exploding in a bunch of tiny sparks.

He can feel Akira’s relief and desperation through the tight grip fisting into his jacket, and he just wants to hold Akira tighter if it will soothe any of the worry away. He knows he needs to fix it, knows it’s his fault the worry is there at all, he just… really has no effin’ clue how to start.

He knows what he wants to say, he rehearsed about 15 different speeches in his head on the impossibly long train ride over here. He wants to apologize, he wants to apologize as many damn times as it takes to make Akira realize he means it. He wants to say he knows he was wrong, wrong for being impatient with himself and wrong for not trusting his friends to not throw him aside the moment he became too much.

That’s what it all really boils down to, anyway. He’s always been a lot to handle, a loud annoying boy full of endless energy and lacking the ability to just sit down and listen. At least, that’s what he’s always been told. It’s always the final straw, what gets him in trouble and drives people away.

He was just waiting for the inevitable moment his friends realized it too.

The anxiety still creeps on him, whispering harsh things in his ear about how if he shows Akira who he really is, he’s going to give up on Ryuji and he’s going to leave.

He shoves it down down down and forces him and Akira apart, and his friend goes a little more unwillingly. When Ryuji can see Akira’s face, he looks… well, he looks tired. Was that because of Ryuji? That’s probably a stupidly obvious question, but it still shakes him to realize he worried Akira that much.

Akira forces out a breath that’s one part sigh, one part laugh, “Come on, it’s freezing with the door open like this and Sojiro will kill me if I make his electricity bill go up. I’ve got the heater on upstairs.”

Ryuji just blinks at the way Akira changes his tone so quickly, but when Akira motions for him to lead the way to his own room, Ryuji stumbles a bit as he wills himself to move toward the staircase. He feels Akira’s gaze pierce daggers into his back the whole way up, and he tries not to let his back stiffen up at the invisible pressure.

Once they get past the staircase and into the attic, Ryuji wastes no time in toeing off his shoes and jumping aggressively onto Akira’s bed. He doesn’t really think before he starts to make himself at home in his usual spot in his best friend’s bed, pulling out his fidget cube and starting to play around with it. It’s just second nature, but he can’t even feel awkward or regret as Akira just laughs and shakes his head as he settles down next to Ryuji in his own usual spot.

They just sit there like that for a bit at first, their backs against the wall and Ryuji looking just about anywhere but at Akira while said best friend studies him, as if searching for the things that Ryuji isn’t ready to say yet. Really, the list of things Ryuji isn’t ready to say is endless, but he knows that he’ll never really feel ready.

The anxious worms in his brain are still screaming that Akira will leave him, screaming that everyone is going to leave him. That’s what he deserves anyway, his punishment for being too much, for being a fool, for actually believing that he could be anything outside of the labels that have been pushed on him for years and years and years. They tell him he’s an idiot for letting himself get comfortable, an idiot for thinking he could actually try to fight to heal the world instead of fighting for blood, an idiot an idiot idiot idiot idiot-

He lets out a sigh as if the noise can overpower any of his thoughts. He lets his head thud against the wall he rests his back on and scrunches his eyes shut. More silence. He still refuses to look at Akira, he’s afraid he might lose any of the small amounts of self control he has left. He jumps a bit when he feels fingers skate on the top of one of his hands to drag it away from his fidget toy, and he feels Akira interlock their fingers. He keeps messing with the toy in his free hand, but gives Akira’s hand a squeeze that he hopes expresses how grateful he is.

He takes a deep breath and counts to five as he does it, holds the breath for five, releases the breath for another five. He repeats this a few times, trying to calm down at least a little bit before he speaks. Akira is as patient as always, he stays quiet through the whole process and keeps a firm hold on Ryuji’s hand.

After his breathing exercises, another silence passes. Finally, Ryuji opens his eyes and turns his head towards Akira. He can’t look him in the eyes, though, and chooses to fix his gaze on where the neckline of Akira’s shirt meets his collarbone. Here he can focus on the way Akira’s chest rises and falls with each breath, instead of the way his eyes search and search and search.

“I’m sorry.” It’s all Ryuji can get out at first, and it comes out as a sad whimper. He’s mentally punching himself in the leg for how weak he sounds, but Akira doesn’t say anything about his tone.

“Why?” Akira asks, not because he doesn’t know, but because he’s slowly prodding at the bubble Ryuji keeps to protect himself until it pops. Ryuji wishes he wouldn’t do that, people have never liked it when the bubble pops and the sparks fly.

“I asked you to trust me with that target,” Ryuji’s voice is quiet and small, much unlike his normal loud volume, “And I messed it up. I messed it up so bad. I got so caught up in how upset I was that I failed you that I couldn’t even return the same trust you gave me.”

“You didn’t fail me,” Akira reassuringly brushes his thumb over the back of Ryuji’s hand, “You might have failed yourself, though.”

“Man, that doesn’t even make any sense,” Ryuji shakes his head, but still doesn’t look up at his friend, “You were the one trustin’ me.”

Akira lets out a hum, “I was, but I didn’t agree to let you be in the front lineup because I expected it to go without a hitch.”

Ryuji does look up at Akira at that, the confusion he feels surely written all over his face.

“Of course I think you’ve made really good progress since we’ve met, so I thought it would be a good idea to let you be able to confront some of the things you still held onto,” Akira sighs softly, “I had no idea the shadow would be so vulgar. If I had thought it was actually going to be dangerous, I would’ve made you be on the support line. You wouldn’t have been happy with me for it, but it would’ve been a hell of a lot better than the silent treatment you’ve been giving us.”

Ryuji breaks their eye contact again and lets out a heavy sigh, “I really am sorry.”

Akira leans down into Ryuji’s line of sight, forcing him to bring back the eye contact, “I don’t want you to be sorry, Ryuji. I just wish you had trusted us, I wish you had trusted me.”

“I know,” He wants to crawl out of the hold Akira’s stare has on him, but he at least owes him this if he really wants it this much, “I just…”

Ryuji takes a big gulp, as if his own spit can dislodge the words stuck in his throat, and takes a deep breath.

“I just didn’t want you guys to be the ones I ended up hurtin’ next.”

Their eyes are still locked in each other’s, and the silence that fills the room is heavy with the weight of the words Ryuji just admitted out loud.

“Ryuji…” The way Akira says his name makes him sound like he just took a punch, like those words alone pushed him down and knocked the wind right out of him.

“I know it’s dumb, I know I couldn’t actually ever hurt any of you, but…” Akira’s thumb is still brushing Ryuji’s own, and he feels like it’s the only thing keeping him grounded here, “I just couldn’t get it outta my head. If I lost it, if I let rage take over, then what could I do to stop what it wants?”

Akira’s thumb presses hard into the back of Ryuji’s hand, and Ryuji lets out a small gasp and furrows his brow in response. He wants to protest, but Akira is already talking before he can think of the words, “You could never, would never, hurt any of us,” The look in Akira’s eyes burns into Ryuji’s own, the intensity of his stare is overwhelming, “You act like you’re some terrible person that’s just waiting for the next time he can lay his hands on somebody. Ryuji, you’re not-”

Akira pauses, he looks like he’s trying to choose his next words carefully.

“You don’t take after your dad.”

Ryuji feels all the wind in his lungs leave him like he’s been punched in the gut, the force of Akira being so on the nose winding him. He knows it was obvious his dad was the reason he acted like he did in Mementos, but Akira acknowledging that his dad is the root of all these fears wasn’t something Ryuji had been prepared for.

“You are made of love and compassion,” Akira continues on so Ryuji doesn’t have to respond, and he’s thankful for it, “You wear your heart on your sleeve, and that’s why it gets as battered as it does. Maybe you are impulsive, maybe you can get a good swing at a shadow, but those things don’t make you evil and destructive. Those things are part of what makes you who you are. I don’t want you hiding any part of yourself, you don’t need to do that with any of us.”

Ryuji doesn’t respond right away. He looks down at the small sliver of bed sheets between them, and Akira lets him. He lets Akira’s words roll over and marinate in his brain. No one has ever taken those traits, the impulsiveness and the fight in him, and made them things that weren’t evil. All the things people have called him over and over again, twitchy and angry and lazy and annoying and stupid, were negative labels that just got slapped onto him and then slapped on again if they ever threatened to fade. Akira, well Akira treats these things like a gift. Like they’re pieces actually equal to all the other pieces that make up the puzzle that is Ryuji. He doesn’t even know what to do with that.

As the works sink further and further into him, Ryuji feels tears start to well up in his eyes. Instead of letting Akira see him cry, he flings himself into Akira and tackles him down onto the bed. Taking advantage of Akira’s surprise, he crawls on top of his friend and just clings, holding so tightly onto Akira as if he would fade away any minute. He buries his face into his friend’s chest, and starts to let the sobs wrack through him now that Akira can’t see his face.

Once he’s had time to catch up to what’s happening, Akira winds his arms around Ryuji’s body and holds him close. They lay there like that for a while, Ryuji crying into his friend’s shirt as said friend rubs random patterns into his back reassuringly. He realizes he’s been holding this back for… well, he doesn’t know how long. But now that Akira has gone and popped his bubble, he can’t keep back the tears he didn’t know the bubble was holding in from rushing out all at once. Akira doesn’t seem to mind, though. He just holds Ryuji until the tears are spent and he stops shaking.

It does eventually happen, though only after what feels like an eternity, but Ryuji finally feels himself start to breathe evenly. He tears his face away from Akira’s chest to assess the damage on his shirt, and grimaces at the big wet stain now covering a good amount of the front. Akira just laughs, “Don’t worry about it, I can just change in a bit.”

He knows Akira means whenever Ryuji is ready to let go of him, so he just rolls off him in overdramatic disgust, “Gross dude! Just change now!” He pushes against Akira as if trying to push him off the bed, but there’s no real force behind it.

Akira just laughs more at that, “Alright, alright, I’m going.” He hops up and changes his shirt quickly, but before he climbs back into the bed, he gestures to Ryuji’s bag, “You staying the night?”

Ryuji scoffs, “Yea, ‘cause I can totally hop on a train at one in the mornin’. What’s makin’ you so eager to kick me out, anyway?”

“Not eager,” Akira says as he climbs back into the bed, “Just making sure you weren’t trying to run out on me.”

Akira pushes at Ryuji lightly to get him onto his side, and Akira presses himself against Ryuji’s back, holding him close. Most of their sleepovers end like this, a tangled mess of limbs on Akira’s tiny bed, but it’s never been a bad thing. Ryuji is just always seeking physical contact with the people he’s close with, usually it’s an arm around the shoulders or interlocked fingers, but him and Akira are just always tangling together.

They fall into a comfortable silence, probably because both of them are exhausted from the night they’ve had, but Ryuji is so grateful his brain is more quiet to accommodate it.

He knows he has to break it though, just for a moment, “Hey, Akira?”

Akira just lets out a hum in response, his way of urging him to continue.

“I promise I’ll trust you guys more. And... I promise to try to trust myself more, too.”

A beat of silence passes between them before Ryuji feels himself being pulled tighter into his friend’s hold, “I have endless faith in you.” It’s quiet, and Ryuji barely hears it, but he does.

Ryuji just lets out a breath he didn’t know he was still holding, and finally lets his eyes slide shut as sleep pulls him under.

He starts making good on his promise by trusting Akira’s words. It’s his endless faith that’s gotten them this far, after all.

-

The next day Ryuji is coming back through the entrance of Leblanc with his hands full of snacks he went and picked up for this afternoon. He gives Sojiro a nod and a bright smile, and he just returns a soft smile of his own. Ryuji heads over to the stairs and starts taking them two at a time, growing more excited as he hears the sounds of his friends’ voices. He gets to the top of the stairs, and is greeted by the sight of all of his friends hanging around the table they keep in the attic for these kinds of gatherings.

As the creak of the final step makes everyone aware of his presence, they turn to face him, and Ryuji does his best to look like he’s not freaking out.

Suddenly, Ann is the first to jump up and exclaim, “There he is! Did you get the chocolate I asked you to grab?”

Ryuji rolls his eyes, but laughs at how just like Ann that is, “Yea yea course I did,” He makes his way towards the table to set down all the bags, “I got everything you guys asked for, so let’s start divvyin’ it up and diggin’ in!”

Once they all settle even shares of the goods, Ryuji plops down next to Haru on the couch, “All this is my treat! It’s the least I can do, I think.”

“I would surely say so,” Yusuke says around a stick of pocky, “You put us through quite a lot of trouble this past week.”

“Ah can it Inari,” Futaba shoves the pocky the rest of the way into Yusuke’s mouth, much to his dismay, “We’ve got our missing party member back, time to celebrate!” She flashes Ryuji with a big smile, and he feels the warmth crackle in his heart.

“Yes, I would say as long as Ryuji works to keep his promise to us, we don’t need to worry about this anymore.” Makoto tries to act as collected as she usually is, but Ryuji doesn’t miss the relief in the small smile that she gives him.

Ryuji looks over at the window, where Akechi and Akira lean against it, sharing a conversation of their own. Akechi meets Ryuji’s eyes, though, and he just gives him an understanding nod, which Ryuji returns. He doesn’t miss Akira’s smile as he watches the exchange.

“Alright, enough of the sap talk, someone feed me some sushi!” Morgana demands, and Futaba happily obliges him.

Ryuji goes to grab a snack from his own share, when he feels a hand on his leg. He looks over at Haru, who’s giving him a very sweet smile that’s full of joy, “I’m very happy you’re back to yourself, Ryuji.”

Ryuji feels the warmth in his heart crackle even bigger, “Nah, I’m doing better than that, actually.” He grabs Haru’s hand to hold in his own, “It’s all thanks to you guys.”

Haru lets out a bubbly giggle, “Now don’t sell yourself short! It’s thanks to yourself just as much as it is to us.”

Ryuji hums, contemplating that, “Yea, you’re right,” He says as he looks over the scene in front of him, “I guess it is.”