He goes through the motions. Gets up, gets dressed, goes to school, raises his hand, answers questions. Stops raising his hand when he realises he’s getting dirty looks for knowing everything; he’s not trying to show off, but it’s not his fault Shujin had a more advanced curriculum. Does his homework, turns it in, puts in the exact amount of effort required for PE class, no less, no more. He’s been a student for so long that it’s routine by now, that it would take more effort to stop than to keep going. He wasn’t popular before, but he had some friends. People who would sit with him at lunch, maybe talk about a TV show or a book with him, invite him to their birthday parties. Now he doesn’t even have that much. It’s not that he didn’t try; he sat at the lunch table with his old friends the first day, the same one in the left corner, as if the last year hadn’t even happened, and he tried telling them about Tokyo. Not about the most important part of Tokyo, of course. But about the school, the crazy teachers, his shitty crate bed, the friends he’d made. Normal stuff. They didn’t want to hear it, though. Told him that it wasn’t enough he got arrested, but now he had to flaunt how he’d gotten to spend a year in a city prep school as “punishment”? It turned out clearing your name in the eyes of the law didn’t change people’s opinion of you all that much. He eats lunch alone in his classroom now, tries to fade into the background.
He heads straight home after school. There’s no crazy doctor trying to drug him here, no politician to help, no Shogi games in church. No part time jobs, either; he gave out at least a dozen resumes, but every time the position was already filled. He’s not stupid. He knows no one wants the kid who got arrested working in their shop. So he goes home. Does his homework, reads a bit, tries not to notice how Morgana’s fading away. In the beginning they talked a lot, but then his parents started noticing, so he stopped doing it when they could hear. He can’t bring a cat to school here, either, the school’s smaller and people would notice. These days Morgana sleeps most of the time, only gets up to eat, really. He doesn’t know what to do, worries it’s too late. Probably should send him back to Tokyo, but he’s not sure who would take him.
On a good day, he’ll get a call from his friends back home, back where home should be. They called a lot at first, the whole gang crowded around a laptop in the cafe, laughing, talking about nothing and everything. But their lives kept moving, with university and school and jobs, and now he’s lucky if he gets one call in a week, and it’s never the whole group anymore.
In the evenings, he eats dinner with his parents. It’s awkward. He was never particularly close to them, but he never hated them like some kids do, either. He’d tell them about his friends, schoolwork, stuff like that. When he got arrested, they said they believed him, and they worked hard to find him that spot in Shujin, but when he left… they never called. Not once in a whole year, not when he got arrested again, not when he finally got out. Maybe they were waiting for him to call, but how’s that fair? He doesn’t resent them, not quite, but they don’t really belong in his life anymore. There’s so much that’s happened, so much that they don’t know about. They don’t even know he has a boyfriend. He goes to the grocery store with his dad, nods at the right moment when his mom tells them about her day at work around the dinner table, but it all feels a bit distant. Like it’s happening to someone else.
Weeks pass, and things don’t get better, but they don’t get worse, either. He tries to convince himself that’s a good thing.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Akira was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. Glow in the dark stars made careful constellations across it, reminding him of the artist friend who’d given them to him. At the top of his bed, his Phantom Thieves banner hung as a sort of makeshift headboard, the rest of the gifts he’d brought back scattered across the room. He’d set them up back when he’d just gotten home, when reminders of his friends made him happy, rather than sad. He’d considered putting them away since, but never really had the motivation to do it. The only one he’d hidden was the ramen bowl, pushed under his bed in a crying jag 2 weeks earlier. Every time he’d seen it, it reminded him of Ryuji.
It hadn’t been so bad in the beginning, when they’d been able to talk all afternoon on video calls, texting late into the night and waking each other up with exceedingly sweet messages full of emojis. Then Ryuji had decided he knew what he wanted to do with his life; he was going to become a gym teacher. He’d talked it over with Akira at length, hesitating between being a sports therapist, or maybe opening his own gym. In the end, he’d decided on teaching because of Kamoshida, Yamauchi, and every other mediocre gym teacher he’d had before. He was going to make a difference, teach kids to love exercise rather than hate it. Akira was so proud of him; it was exactly like Ryuji to pick such a selfless goal.
Ryuji’d gotten a part-time job as a trainer at the gym, his mom finally relenting when he explained that it would look good on his applications. He worked in the evenings, so that had been the end of the late night texting, but they’d still had the rest of the day. When school had started back up, though, Ryuji had realised school grades would count for his applications even if he was going to be teaching gym. Now he spent half his afternoons at the library with Ann and Mishima. He even had a weekly study date with Makoto, who’d been so happy about his newfound motivation that she’d offered to take the time out of her already very busy schedule.
They still sent each other texts throughout the day, and they tried to get at least one video call in each week, but Akira felt more and more like he didn’t fit in Ryuji’s life anymore. Like he was some dead weight holding Ryuji back as he ran towards his future. When Ryuji said he loved him, some part of him deep down inside told him that they were empty words, that he didn’t mean them anymore, and somehow it hurt even more than if Ryuji’d stopped saying it.
Ryuji was Akira’s first boyfriend, first anything, and he’d thought he would be the last, too, but how foolish was that? High school sweethearts staying together forever, what an unlikely story.
His thoughts drifted to Makoto and Mishima. They’d spent a lot of time together when they were working on getting him out of jail back in January, and they’d ended up falling for each other. They made sense together; they both cared a lot about school, about changing the system from the inside. They fit well on a more personal level too, Mishima a bit submissive, Makoto more than a bit dominant, easily taking the reins of the relationship. When he’d gotten out, Akira hadn’t been surprised for long to see them holding hands.
About a week after the start of term, though, Makoto had let him know delicately that she and Mishima weren’t dating anymore. She didn’t have time to see him with the police academy workload, and Mishima wasn’t much better off with his new role as student council president. They hadn’t had that much in common other than the Phantom Thieves anyway, she’d told him, and she’d started finding it hard to keep up with his anime references. It had only been a few months and it was an amicable break-up, both of them agreeing that it wasn’t what they were looking for, but Akira had taken the news very hard. It had felt like a sign. And then later, there had been the Shiho situation, but that didn’t bear thinking about.
He considered getting out of bed, but there wasn’t anything to do; he’d gotten all his homework out of the way yesterday after school, he didn’t feel like reading right now, and it wasn’t like he needed to make lockpicks or work out to be fit for the Metaverse anymore. He wasn’t sure he could make lockpicks or do pull-ups anymore, actually. He suspected that something had made him a bit of a superhuman last year; he wasn’t sure if it came from being a wildcard or just from accessing the Metaverse, but he’d been smarter, faster, stronger than he was now. It was a palpable difference, one he’d started noticing during his first days in jail.
He reached for his phone to call Ryuji, but remembered that he had said something about being busy all day, repainting a bedroom or something like that. Rolling over, Akira closed his eyes and let himself drift off into an uneasy half-sleep.
A few hours later, he was woken up by his mother knocking on his door.
“Dinner in 30 minutes,” she called, and her footsteps retreated. Akira sat up, rubbing his eyes, then made his way to the bathroom in the hope that a quick shower would help him feel slightly less dead.
The shower didn’t help with the massive dark circles and the bloodshot eyes, but then again he hadn’t really expected it to. He sat down to dinner, curry tonight, and pushed down the surge of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him as an image of Leblanc popped up in his mind, Ryuji sitting in a booth with him, eating some ridiculously spicy curry he’d made and lying about it being good.
“Are you ok, Akira?” his mom asked.
“I’m fine, just tired,” he mumbled, and his parents shared a worried look.
“You mentioned you were seeing a doctor regularly in Tokyo. Do you think you would want to see one here too?” his father asked gently, and at that Akira jerked his head up and glared at him.
“That was to help her with her work , not for consultations! Like I already told you.”
His father raised his hands up apologetically. “It was just a suggestion.”
They finished dinner in silence, but the worried look on his mother’s face didn’t fade, even when Akira got up and went to do the dishes.
After dinner, Akira spent a few hours reading in bed, Morgana curled up by his feet. Reading was the only thing he still enjoyed these days. The librarians didn’t seem to care who he was, as long as he brought the books back on time and in good shape. Maybe they just didn’t know; the library was on the other side of the city, far enough from his house that he had to ride his scooter there. Lately, he’d been going there every week, swapping one armful of books for a another each time, grabbing whatever was on the “suggestions of the week” display without really caring. Anything he could use to escape his thoughts for an hour or two.
It was around 11 when he put his book away, sitting on the edge of his bed.
Morgana stretched and asked, “Going to sleep?” Akira was almost surprised to hear his voice.
“Yeah, I guess. I think I have a quiz in math tomorrow, I should turn in early.” He looked down at the floor. “Hey, Morgana... Do you ever miss it? Tokyo, the Metaverse, everyone…?”
Morgana didn’t reply, and Akira lifted his head to look at him, but his cognitive friend was already curled back up, asleep again. It was a dumb question, anyway. Morgana had clearly settled into the role of housepet without any issues.
Twenty minutes later, Akira was in his pjs lying awake in the dark. Plastic stars glowed above his head as he wondered what the point of any of this was. He didn’t have a goal for next year, or for anything after that. Sure, he was getting top marks, but you needed more than that to get into a good university. Clubs, activities, letters of motivation. How could he write a letter of motivation when he didn’t have any motivation anymore? It wasn’t like he particularly wanted to go to university, anyway, but he didn’t particularly want to do anything else either.
Ever since the Metaverse had disappeared, he’d felt like he had this huge lead weight inside of his stomach. It had all gone so fast back then. They’d all headed right home, exhausted from the fight, not even Ryuji hanging around. And then there was jail, and solitary confinement, sitting alone day after day. When he’d gotten out, they’d been so happy to see him, and he’d had so little time left with them, he hadn’t wanted to ruin it with his sad thoughts. Even with Ryuji, he hadn’t been able to bring up how empty he felt now, how unthinkable never ripping a mask off a shadow again was. Normal life was dull, and pointless, and he couldn’t imagine dragging his miserable self through another 60 or more years of it. There was a thought there, one he hadn’t allowed himself to fully put into words, even inside his own head, but it was growing stronger and he knew he wouldn’t be able to resist its siren call much longer.
His phone buzzed as he stared into the dark, willing his brain to turn off, to grant him at least a night’s respite.
Ryuji We didn’t get to talk this week :(
Ryuji I miss your face!
Akira looked at the screen, his eyes blurring with tears. More lies. He knew Ryuji resented the time their calls took out of his busy week; he had to. That was painful enough, but then the lies, it was just too much. Akira almost put the phone back down, but if there was one thing he was even more afraid of than losing Ryuji, it was that he would find out just how useless Akira was now. How pathetic and sad. The idea of Ryuji looking at him with pity in his eyes burned a hole through his chest. So he pulled up the keyboard, and even though every part of his heart was screaming, he typed in a reply.
Akira It’s ok, we’ll talk next week. Miss you too!
He put his phone back, face down so he wouldn’t see if Ryuji replied. It was such a faint echo of what he wanted to say.
I miss you more than life itself.
I can’t stand a single day without talking to you.
Honestly, it would probably be better for both of them if Akira could just… leave. Disappear. Then Ryuji wouldn’t have to act like he cared, and Akira wouldn’t have to act like it was ok. It wasn’t like anyone would miss him if he did. Akira buried his face in his pillow, and like most nights these days, cried himself to sleep.