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A Farce at Playing House

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Ryuji is not one for keeping secrets.

 

He used to get scolded by the gang in their high school days for talking just a little too loudly about being Phantom Thieves, but he thinks his overexcitement was justified. They were fucking cool. In elementary school, he once got in trouble for making another kid cry because he couldn’t hide that he was upset over finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real.

 

So he’s an honest guy. He doesn’t like lying, it makes him uncomfortable. He’d much rather deal with the falling out of someone getting upset over the truth than actively deceive them, no matter how significant the topic may be. So it’s a miracle that he’s kept a certain secret under wraps for so long, from literally everybody.

 

He’s never told anyone just how he escaped Shido’s palace.

 

By all accounts, he should have drowned. The explosions destroyed whatever leverage he could have had to keep himself afloat, and falling from such a drastic height had left him too breathless to swim anyhow. His body felt like a bag of bricks, slowly sinking to the bottom to be forgotten, but something wouldn’t let him. Something scooped him up and away, helped him swim just enough to get out of the Metaverse and collapse on the grass outside the Diet Building, limbs shaking violently.

 

Not something. Someone. Akechi Goro.

 

While he was hacking up a lung, Akechi kneeled next to him, perfectly poised. Did the bastard even need to breathe? Ryuji gave one last violent cough before looking his way, nodding at his inquisitive head tilt.

 

“I’m good,” he said, pushing himself upright. He was about to ask how Akechi was faring, but the guy interrupted him with a glare.

 

“Do. Not. Say. Anything.”

 

What? ” Ryuji stared in disbelief. “I was just gonna-”

 

“Not a word,” Akechi cut in once more, “You tell no one.”

 

Ryuji was about to raise hell to argue with the son of a bitch, but he heard sobbing not too far away from them. Futaba...shit- He went to move towards his friends, but Akechi grabbed his arm, pulling him back to sit with a strength that he should not still possess, considering all he’s been through.

 

“Swear it!”

 

“Shit, fine! Fine! I won’t say anything.” Ryuji shook the other’s arm off, finally standing. Akechi nodded warily, following his lead. “What the hell are you gonna do?”

 

Akechi didn’t say anything, head jerking like he was shaking away any answers that came to mind. Ryuji regretted asking, he didn’t have time for an Akechi crisis. But it still didn’t feel right when the guy just walked away without another word, never answering.

 

Ryuji watched him leave, noting the direction he chose, but it seemed aimless anyhow. He doubted he’d be able to find him again. He began to hear Ann crying too and shook the moment off, running to his friends.



He hasn’t thought about that night in years. Well, that’s not true. That was a big night for the Phantom Thieves. A big triumph and a weight lifted off the shoulders of his best friend, unforgettable in that aspect. But that moment between him and Akechi? Ryuji honestly kind of put it out of mind. It didn’t seem that thought out by Akechi anyhow, and he doubted the guy thought about him and what he did for him that night anyway. So Ryuji didn’t attach any meaning to it either. It was a shared moment between two people, two survivors.

 

Two thieves.

 

He kept his promise, never told anyone. They all had their moment mourning the guy when they thought he was dead, but there were bigger issues at hand. The end of the world and all that. And then when that was done, everybody seemed to kind of move on. Ryuji didn’t want to seem like he was dwelling by bringing up the past, something no one could do anything about, so he didn’t. He put it out of mind. And it stayed there for years after.

 

When anyone asks the typical question, “What are you majoring in,” he ends up spilling his injury story every single time. Well, an abridged version. He knows there’s no point in telling people an asshole teacher was responsible. No one believed him the first time around, why would they now? People usually find him sympathetic for being inspired by the doctors that helped him, but he hardly thinks it’s anything so grand. When it came to decide, he kind of just looked at Ann and said, “Sports?” She had been the one to suggest physical therapy, and it seemed solid enough of an idea. Something kind of in the medical field, something his mom could be proud of.

 

But he had underestimated the amount of science courses he’d have to take. And he can only text Futaba so much.

 

He finds a diner with amazing food that’s also a great place to study, getting that feeling of comradery that he lost transitioning from high school to college. The place has its fair share of regulars aside from himself, and everyone tends to be friendly and encouraging even when Ryuji stares at his laptop screen for hours and end willing his health science assignment to finish itself. He’s too busy nowadays to think about the past, especially that moment between him and Akechi.

 

The memory certainly hits him like a bullet train now, as he takes in the sight of his waiter of the day, none other than the Detective Prince himself.

 

“WHAT THE EFF?” Ryuji yells. Some of the aunties behind his booth make a shushing sound, and he can feel his face heat up with embarrassment, “What the hell are you doing here?”

 

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Akechi answers, face pulled in confusion. He backs away slightly, as if he’s frightened of Ryuji. The thought would make him laugh if the current situation weren’t so mind-blowingly bizarre. “I’m here to take your order, sir.”

 

Ryuji looks at him up and down. Okay so he looks...different. His hair is longer and pulled up in a ponytail. It’s actually pretty weird seeing his hair out of his face, he didn’t realize that so much of it was hidden away wearing it down all the time in high school. He can see just how sharp his jawline is, how long and slender his neck is. He looks kind of tired, worn out, not so perfect anymore without his fame.

 

Ryuji looks down at his name tag for one last confirmation. It reads, “Himura Koji,” which would be next to impossible to read as, “Akechi Goro.” The mildly terrifying manager is glaring at him from behind the counter, and the diner hold an uneasy silence, so Ryuji decides to drop the issue, “Sorry. My bad. I thought you were someone else.”

 

“I’ve been told I have one of those faces,” this guy says with a cheerful smile, appearing harmless, but no one bounces back that fast. Ryuji decides to remain wary. “Can I assume you’re one of the regulars? I just started working here last week, so please be kind to me if I make mistakes.”

 

Once he gets Ryuji’s order, he walks away briskly. Ryuji turns back to his math notes, but knows studying is pointless at this rate. He just can’t help but keep glancing back at the guy, watching him interact with the other customers. It’s so reminiscent of how Akechi would act on TV, but it seems almost more genuine. As genuine as customer service can be.

 

It’s more like the waiter doesn’t care as much as Akechi did if people like him. Like he’s polite, but it’s no skin off his back if they get pissed off. He seems freer. Ryuji gets caught staring a couple of times, but he just glares at not-Akechi and shovels more rice into his mouth until the guy is satisfied and returns to his work.

 

He’s finally freed of the walking deja vu when the waiter appears to be sent on his break, disappearing outside. The manager comes over to Ryuji’s table to refill his beverage and check on him, her gaze not so subtly scolding him.

 

“Getting any work done?” She asks in a tone indicating she already knows the answer. Ryuji stares at the two math problems he’s completed so far and picks up his pencil, ready to get back to work.

 

“What’s the deal with the new guy?” He interrogates, dropping the pencil back on the table. The woman sighs and puts her hands on her hips.

 

“What’s your deal with the new guy?” She looks around briefly before quieting her tone, “Look, he’s your typical runaway kid, alright? No family to turn to, he lives alone in a crap apartment. He seems like he’s really struggling to make ends meet. I felt bad for him, and he’s polite and people like him. Be nice .”

 

“He told you all of that?”

 

“You can tell. But you should back off, okay? Your death glares upset the other customers more than anything, and he doesn’t need to be harassed. I honestly thought you would get along with him, since he’s a runaway.”

 

Ryuji looks up at her, puzzled, “How do you mean?”

 

She chuckles and points at his legs, “You’re a runner too.”

 

Apparently that means he’s supposed to understand people like Akechi. As if being involved in track had some sort of deeper meaning to him and his traumas instead of a desperate attempt by his mother to get all of his excessive energy burnt out. He doesn’t get why people run away from their problems, he doesn’t get why someone like Akechi would do the things he did. Honestly, he’s probably the least capable person on this planet to get along with Akechi Goro, when he’s so used to being upfront and personal whereas Akechi...definitely wasn’t.

 

If anyone is going to understand Akechi for who he really is, it’d be Ren, not him.

 

Thinking about Ren spurs something in him, a jolt of inspiration that he always feels next to his best friend, and he gets back to work with a newfound burst of energy. Ren wouldn’t be so shaken up by some Akechi lookalike, Ren wouldn’t stare someone down while they were trying to do their job. Futaba joked about making Ryuji a shirt once, “WWRD, What Would Ren Do?” He thinks about legit texting her about it now, except he’s in the zone and he’s going to get this assignment done before he leaves.

 

When he’s packing up to leave for the night, he motions not-Akechi over to pay for his bill. The guy smiles awkwardly, though, and says, “Your bill is taken care of.”

 

“Huh? Why?” Ryuji makes no movement to put his wallet away.

 

“I know the other workers are much more adequate than I am, so... consider it an apology.”

 

Ryuji frowns and his suspicion comes back to him tenfold. The way the guy is making direct eye contact with him, so purposefully, and the way he puts emphasis on the word apology ?

 

“Are you sure we don’t know each other?” Ryuji asks, proud for his subtlety.

 

“I’m afraid not,” he steps away with a courteous bow, “Enjoy the rest of your night.”

 

Ryuji stands there, dumbstruck, for longer than he wants to admit. He knows he’s not crazy, that guy is Akechi, it has to be. The man comes back out to the main dining area a few minutes later, sans apron with a worn backpack slung over his shoulder and he’s leaving the diner, waving goodbye to the other workers.

 

This is Ryuji’s chance to catch him alone. He follows him out the door and down the dark street lit by street lamps, keeping a safe distance so as to not be detected. He quickly loses track of where they’re going, heading in the opposite direction of the college town. He hasn’t realized until now just how little he knows of this part of town, and he looks around shiftily.

 

Eventually, his target stops outside of a run down brick building and Ryuji ducks behind a nearby corner. He strains his ears to hear any movements, but there doesn’t seem to be any. He takes a peek around the corner to see Akechi still standing a distance away, but definitely staring his way. He shrieks and ducks back, but it’s far too late.

 

“So you were following me,” Akechi confirms, loud enough for him catch. “Come on out, let’s chat.”

 

How can he say something so normal so menacingly? Ryuji sighs and hangs his head low, stepping out and walking closer.

 

“I just wanna put it out there that I didn’t mean to sneak. You walk with a purpose, I couldn’t catch up to confront you in time.”

 

“And then you hid when I stopped.” Akechi’s eyes narrow.

 

Ryuji throws his hands up, “I went about this poorly, alright, I’m sorry.”

 

“Why do you want to confront me anyhow? Why are you so insistent that I’m someone else?”

 

“Come on, man,” Ryuji says, exasperated, “I know it’s you. I’m sorry I reacted so loudly back there but now we’re alone. I’m not here to hurt you or anything.”

 

Akechi huffs sardonically and crosses his arms. His polite demeanor has totally flown out the window, a wary defensiveness moving in to replace it. Ryuji waits for him to give up the act, since he’s so close to the edge now. Eventually, he responds, “You couldn’t just take the apology and let it lie?”

 

“I honestly probably would have given up if you hadn’t done that.” Ryuji’s face scrunches up, “And that’s a really shitty apology by the way.”

 

Akechi has a ghost of a smirk on his face, “I didn’t do anything to you . In fact, if I recall, I saved your life.” He briefly looks smug, but when it goes unanswered by Ryuji, he continues, “That was for intruding on your life once more. The intent was to never make my presence known to any of you ever again. So, I apologize, and it might take me a few days, but I will be finding a new job soon.”

 

“Whoa, whoa, hang on man,” Ryuji interrupts hastily, “Don’t- you don’t have to go that far, alright? That’s like, really drastic.”

 

“You’re a regular there, are you not? It won’t do to have us running into each other so often.”

 

“Will you quit pretending to be all cool about this?” Ryuji snaps. He sees Akechi’s shoulders climb up to his ears ever so slightly, “I was surprised to see you after you just left suddenly that night, but it’s not like I want you to piss off or anything! I didn’t come here to tell you to ‘leave town or else.’ I just…”

 

What did he follow Akechi all the way here for?

 

“I was surprised, okay? And I’m sorry for making a scene. But I’m not upset to see you or anything, so don’t- don’t quit your job.” He chuckles nervously, embarrassed at yet another outburst, “It’s not like I can’t go to another diner or anything you know, so. If you’re not comfortable seeing me, it’s chill, but it’s easier for me to take my loitering elsewhere than finding another job.”

 

He trails off pathetically and Akechi watches him with disbelief. “I don’t understand. You should hate me.”

 

“Well...I don’t. Like you said, you didn’t do anything to me, but like, you hurt my friends. And did a lot of shitty things. But still, we mourned for you. After Shido’s palace. We changed his heart for Ren, but also for you. You were a victim, the same as us.” He tries to take a step closer, but Akechi flinches and pulls back.

 

“I’m not the same as you,” he mutters darkly. “It doesn’t comfort me hearing these things from you. Did you tell them?”

 

“No. I wanted to. I’m not lying, we really did mourn for you. And it was comforting to know that you were out there, somewhere, still breathing. It kind of killed me to not share that with them. But I didn’t, because you asked me to.”

 

“More like demanded it.”

 

Ryuji chuckles as he feels the mood lighten slightly, “Yeah, you did.” He claps his hands decisively, “So you have no reason to quit your job, and no reason to apologize.” He pauses, knowing he had offered to stop visiting the diner, but he still can’t help but suggest, “Now I owe you one. Or, two, if you count the saving my life.”

 

“That’s really not necessary,” Akechi argues.

 

“If I’m overstepping my bounds, tell me. But I’d like to have a proper conversation with you. To catch up,” Ryuji continues stubbornly.

 

Akechi’s shoulders drop from cautious to defeated, his whole posture sunken in. He used to stand tall and proud, always putting himself on display for the rest of the world. Nobody’s watching anymore. “Maybe I don’t want to talk to you. Maybe I just want to forget that part of my life and move on.”

 

“Live as Himura Koji?” When Akechi nods sullenly, Ryuji sighs, but he’s as stubborn as ever, “Sure, but I still gotta repay the favor. Let me buy you food sometime. From somewhere besides the diner, you probably eat there all the time.”

 

Akechi keeps his expression guarded, but he relents, “Can’t turn down free food. One meal. And I reserve the right to remain silent if you ask certain questions.”

 

Ryuji rolls his eyes, “Alright, officer. Can I reserve the right to not answer questions you might ask me?”

 

“What do you possibly have to hide?”

 

“Oh, I’ve got stuff. I’ve got lots of...secret stuff.”

 

It’s Akechi’s turn to roll his eyes, “Whatever. You know where to find me.” He turns towards the building, walking away, “I’m going to bed.”

 

“Wait, you live here?” Ryuji asks, taking in the building. It doesn’t look like it’s had proper maintenance in years.

 

“It’s more glamorous in the inside, I assure you,” Akechi jokes. “Thank you for walking me home, I felt very safe .”

 

There he goes again, saying something normal, but his smile is so cruel. It sends a shiver down Ryuji’s spine. He shakes it off and waves, stepping backwards, “See ya later.”

 

“Right.”

 


 

 

As soon as he gets back to his dorm, Ryuji opens a new group chat with everyone in the old gang. Futaba, forever always online, sends the first message.

 

Sakura Futaba: ???

 

You: wanna wait for everyone to come online

 

Sakura Futaba changed the name of the chat to “MOM HOLY FUCK”

 

You: ???!!

 

Sakura Futaba: i just have a hunch

 

Sakura Futaba changed her nickname to Oracle

Oracle changed your nickname to Skull

Oracle changed Amamiya Ren’s nickname to Joker

Oracle changed Takamaki Ann’s nickname to Panther <3

Oracle changed Kitagawa Yusuke’s nickname to Inari

Oracle changed Niijima Makoto’s nickname to Queen

Oracle changed Okumura Haru’s nickname to Noir

 

Joker: Why so many notifs?

Joker: Ah.

Noir: Hello everyone! How are you all doing?

Queen: I hope you’re all keeping up with your studies…

Oracle: (stares at skull)

 

You: i’ll have you know i was at the diner studying for hours

 

Joker: Ooh I like em smart

Oracle: GROSS

Panther <3: How’s math treating you?

 

You: rough, but i think im starting to get it?

 

Panther <3: (claps)

Inari: Why is my nickname the only one that doesn’t follow the theme?

Oracle: i mean. it does.

 

Inari changed his nickname to Fox

Oracle changed Fox’s nickname to Inari

Inari changed his nickname to Fox

Oracle changed Fox’s nickname to Foxy Grandpa

 

Ryuji looks away from the screen to let the two of them duke it out, shaking his hands loose. He’s nervous, he doesn’t know how the hell he’s gonna break it to all of them that not only has Akechi been alive for years, but that he just ran into him again? Completely unintentional, pure twist of fate, Akechi Goro just popped back into existence and he doesn’t know what to make of it. He doesn’t know what the best course of action is, despite tentatively making plans with the guy who tried to kill all of them.

 

So here he is, doing the one thing that always made the most sense to him, turning to his friends. He doesn’t want to keep this from them any longer. It was easy enough when he thought he’d never see Akechi again, but now he’s gone and guaranteed that they’ll definitely see each other again, and he’s not sure he can do so without telling them. They deserve to know, and maybe they can help him figure out what the hell he’s supposed to feel about all of this.

 

Panther <3: Wait Yusuke are you just gonna leave your name like that?

Foxy Grandpa: I like it

Oracle: ASDFGHJKL

Queen: Hold on, Ryuji, why did you decide to message all of us?

Oracle: oh yeah! pls tell mom what the holy fuck is

Panther <3: ??

Joker: Everything alright?

 

Deep breaths, Ryuji. It’s now or never.

 

You: it’s uh...actually about my study sesh today

 

Queen: Did you have a math related question?

Foxy Grandpa: If so, I hardly find it necessary to text all of us

Panther <3: Or did ya wanna brag that u finally finished a hmwk assignment all by urself? ;)

 

You: no dammit lemme finish

 

Oracle: …………….

Oracle: ………………………...

Noir: Yes?

Joker: hewwo?

Oracle: HEWWO?

Oracle: he died

Foxy Grandpa: RIP

 

Ryuji puts his head in his hands. He tries typing the words “AKECHI IS ALIVE” over and over, but he can’t bring himself to send it out. His thumb lingers over the button on his phone, but he remembers Akechi in the alley, all of his walls up and barely holding a conversation without running away. He mulls over the way Akechi had just settled on finding a new job so Ryuji wouldn’t have to see him again, like his own personal comfort didn’t matter, and how easy it was for Ryuji to actually rope him into meeting up with him. There was no fight in him anymore, he’s just given up.

 

For whatever reason, Ryuji feels that it’s unfair to expose him to the others like this. Maybe once he’s talked to him thoroughly, and can gauge what his temperament is, he won’t feel so guilty spilling Akechi’s secret. Part of him wants the guy to take responsibility for himself and own up to them all anyhow, but even he knows that’d never happen.

 

Panther <3: Hellooooooo earth to Ryujiiiiiiii

Noir: Should we try calling him?

 

You: sorry sorry i was just thinkin

 

Panther <3: About…?

 

You: when we would study for our exams. at Boss’s

 

Oracle: ??

 

You: and. idk. i miss you guys. i made the group on a whim honestly. sorry i dont got more to say

 

Panther <3: daaaaw

Oracle: GAY

Noir: Well we’re always here for each other, no matter what! <3

Foxy Grandpa: I must admit, it does bring a smile on my face to see all of us conversing once more

Panther <3: Ok can you PLEASE change your name

 

Oracle changed Foxy Grandpa’s nickname to kitsuNO

 

Panther <3: Thank

 

Oracle changed your nickname to Sappymoto Ryuji

 

The conversation dissolves from there, but it doesn’t die out either, and Ryuji smiles fondly despite his embarrassment at the sight of it. His phone chimes with a different message window, and he opens it up, seeing it’s from Ren.

 

Amamiya Ren: You sure everything is ok?

 

You: yeah man. i mean there is something kinda goin on, but i dunno all the details yet so i dont wanna say anything yet. but im ok, promise!

 

Amamiya Ren: Fair enough. If you need any advice just let us know, or you can message me first for you’re worried about what they’ll think.

 

You: thanks. hows your university life goin?

 

Amamiya Ren: Ughhhhhhh

 

You: lol yeah?

 

Amamiya Ren: Already counting the days I can come back to visit.

 

You: me too dude

 

When their road trip reached its end at Ren’s childhood home after their second year of high school, they couldn’t all reasonably go inside and meet his parents. So Ryuji was chosen as the safest option in order to avoid any romantic assumptions, and he got wrapped up into having dinner with the Amamiyas.

 

He had thought that Ren’s parents might have been distant and that if anything, the dinner would have just been painfully awkward. Ren himself could be interpreted as a distant person, and the fact that he went through everything with Shido and was shipped off hours away from his hometown sort of made it seem like his parents didn’t care for him that much. What little he had heard from Ren reminded him of Ann’s own relationship with her parents. Fine, but almost nonexistent.

 

He was quickly proven wrong as both boys were bombarded with questions about life in Tokyo, Ren’s mother and father talking almost too quickly to chew their food safely. Ren would quietly interject every now and then to remind them to slow down, and Ryuji sat there bug-eyed witnessing this dynamic.

 

They had missed their son dearly, and managed to rope him into going to college closer to home to make up for time lost. Ren, ever the people pleaser, didn’t fight them too hard about it, just asking that he could go to a school that was more in between their hometown and Tokyo, so he could easily visit both his family and his friends, who all had chosen to go to schools nearby Shibuya.

 

The distance between them is a lot better than it was in their final year of high school, but Ryuji still misses his best friend. He decides to tell him just that in their chat.

 

Amamiya Ren: You’ve reached your sap limit for the week. Go to bed.

 

You: <3 <3 <3

 

Amamiya Ren: Love youuuuuu

 

Ryuji plugs his phone in and turns off notifications, Ann and Futaba still chatting energetically in the group chat. He’s got an early lab tomorrow that he’ll be too wrecked to focus on if he doesn’t get to bed now. Even if he isn’t able to confront his friends just yet, he thinks that he’s able to sleep better after talking to them all than he would be if he were left to dwell on Akechi’s reappearance alone.

 


 

The next week proves to be too busy for Ryuji to attempt to meet up with Akechi again, too wrapped up in surprise quizzes and long reading assignments to make his way back to the diner. Whenever he does get a spare moment, usually when he’s scarfing down a sandwich in between classes or right when he goes to bed, he has to quell a worry that Akechi is going to skip town again.

 

It’s only been a few days, and anyhow, it doesn’t really matter if Akechi does disappear again. He’s not a threat anymore, he’s his own person, so if he doesn’t feel like seeing Ryuji, or any of them ever again, then that’s just fine.

 

Every time he has this conversation with himself, though, he still gets a twist of discomfort in his stomach. He’s never had a problem being disliked before, in fact he’s outright welcomed it as an alternative to false politeness. Yet the idea of Akechi not actually wanting to see him bothers him more than he expected it would. He even knows that the guy only agreed to dinner begrudgingly, but he also knows how little Akechi’s words actually mean. Another reason why Ryuji shouldn’t be so worked up about this.

 

Akechi is a big ball of contradictions and confusion and Ryuji chalks it all up to that so he can focus on his last lecture before the weekend, shaking his good leg with nervous energy as he promises himself he’ll head straight to the diner afterwards.

 

It doesn’t occur to him until he’s actually at the diner that Akechi might not even be working today, or available to spend time with him today if he’s here. But it’d only hurt not to try, so Ryuji pushes the door open and steps inside.

 

“Sakamoto-kun,” the manager greets. “Want your usual spot?”

 

“Actually, I was wondering if A...uh…” Not Akechi. “...Himura was here today?”

 

The woman chuckles, “Ah, have the runners found a path to share?” When Ryuji’s face twists in confusion, she laughs harder and looks at her wristwatch, “I should be able to cut him loose in half an hour, if you want to take a seat at the bar. Coffee?”

 

Ryuji takes a seat and groans gratefully, “Yes, please, I’m dying.”

 

She laughs once more, “Picture perfect, right?” He nods and she goes to fetch his beverage.

 

Ren thinks it’s hilarious that Ryuji has been converted to this form of caffeine, but his taste buds still hate all variants of the damn drink. No amount of chocolate syrup and whipped cream can save him, but at least he’s not falling asleep during class anymore. He claps his hands together gratefully when the manager brings out her masterpiece, topped with a tall tower of spray can whipped cream, and he takes a sip once it’s set in front of him. He immediately shudders and gulps and spoonful of cream into his mouth to combat the taste.

 

“I hardly think you could legally call that coffee.”

 

Ryuji jumps out of his skin, whipping his head around. Akechi’s smug face is staring him down, smirk only growing wider as Ryuji’s expression turns sullen.

 

“Asshole…” Ryuji mutters, but Akechi takes no offense.

 

“I thought you might have forgotten about our little dinner date.” Akechi’s tone is teasing, but he’s got a full-on sneer on his face that would make weaker men’s knees buckle. Ryuji just rolls his eyes at the sight of it.

 

“I’ve been busy,” he responds. Then, because Akechi’s being a dick, “I thought you might have gotten another job anyway, even though I said you didn’t have to.”

 

Akechi shrugs, deflates a little, “Tried. You were right that it’s not so easy.”

 

Ryuji doesn’t know how to respond to that, so an awkward silence enfolds them. Akechi folds with a smile and shake of his head, “I’ll be able to leave soon.”

 

“I’ll be here. Doin’ homework.”

 

As soon as Akechi is out of sight, Ryuji scrambles at his phone for the group chat. His thumb hovers over it, but he can’t even bring himself to open it up today. He has to be able to figure this out on his own. There’s no use worrying everybody before it’s necessary, especially when they’re all so spread out apart, but this is just so fucking weird.

 

He hears Akechi’s laugh and turns around, watching him chat up another customer easily. The image is so stark in its difference compared to how Akechi used to be- both the image he created and the one he showed all of them when they fought in the engine room. They called him out for showing his true colors, but even back then, Ryuji had the suspicion that had been a front too.

 

Ryuji seriously doubts that Akechi is being truly honest with this stranger right now, but there’s an earnestness to the scene before him that makes him hopeful. He slides his phone back in his pocket, knowing for sure he doesn’t need to warn anybody.

 

He manages to get through one reading assignment for one of his gen ed courses before Akechi is sitting next to him, sans uniform. He watches Ryuji in silence as he packs up his belongings and pays for his drink, fiddling with his ponytail. When it’s apparent that Akechi isn’t going to break the silence this time, Ryuji decides to do more than ogle at the dude’s weirdly exposed face with this new look by asking, “Anything in particular you’re in the mood for?”

 

“You’re paying, so we can go whenever.”

 

“Oh, I’m paying now?”

 

Akechi’s smile is sharp, but the fingers twisting in his hair are delicate. A big ball of contradictions. “Well, you are the one who is insisting on this. I could have easily avoided you, as you pointed out.”

 

“Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t,” Ryuji mumbles, begrudgingly having to admit that he has a point. He sighs before suggesting, “Ramen sound good then?”

 

Akechi doesn’t respond right away, and Ryuji looks back at him to see that his eyebrows are pinched, smirk nearly faded away. “Yeah. Yeah, alright. Lead the way.”

 

Ryuji shrugs the moment off. There’s bound to be several weird points during this night anyway, getting hung up on them is only going to make it worse. He slides off his seat and heads out the door, not feeling the need to check if Akechi is following him.

 

To fill the silence, Ryuji tells him about how he made it his mission to find the best ramen shop around when he moved here.

 

“It’s not like Ogikubo is super far, but I needed someplace closer you know? I don’t wanna think about how much money I spent trying all these places out, though.” Akechi hums in response, and Ryuji tries to get him to engage more, “You had a food blog right? You kinda get what I mean?”

 

Akechi’s face twitches like he’s resisting pulling a mean look, remaining infuriatingly and distantly polite, “Eating out can get quite pricey. I don’t partake much anymore.”

 

“Not living that fancy celebrity life anymore, eh?” Ryuji points out. Unnecessarily, he realizes, belatedly. He’s seen where Akechi lives. He guesses a part of him still doesn’t really get why he’s ended up like this.

 

“Ah, the interviewing begins,” Akechi jokes.

 

“You don’t gotta talk about it,” Ryuji reassures.

 

“It’s simple, really. When your credit card gets thrown in jail, you get cut off.” Akechi raises an eyebrow, as if challenging Ryuji to contradict him.

 

“Guess that’s why you haven’t moved too far out, huh?” He responds, somewhat shakily. Why does he keep putting his foot in his mouth? Akechi hums once more, the sound of it biting, and they fall into an uneasy silence once more as they keep walking.

 

Probably the one thing Ryuji shouldn’t have brought up was Shido, but he’s managed to do it, and now he’s spending the rest of their walk to the ramen shop looking at literally anything else. Akechi doesn’t contribute anything to their conversation, content to let it die as well.

 

When they reach the restaurant, it is miraculously not too busy, and they only have to wait behind a couple of people. The setting sun brings in a nice chill that brings in a sense of relief, and Ryuji rolls his neck to loosen developed tension. A glance at Akechi’s direction shows him that he’s got his arms crossed, whether to fend off the chill or Ryuji’s prying words, it’s not quite clear. Ryuji deduces that it’s safe to assume both.

 

“What kinda ramen do you like?” He asks.

 

“Spicy ramen,” Akechi immediately responds, mouth turning upward.

 

Ryuji feels his eyes rolling back and he bites back, “Oh, that’s great, they’ve got like a whole challenge you can do then. They take your picture and everything.”

 

He hears Akechi laugh and can’t help the smile that forms on his face. He grits his teeth to keep it from turning into a full-on grin, snickering as Akechi keeps giggling.

 

“You’ve gotten better at sassing people,” he finally comments once he settles back down.

 

“I usually can’t do more than the one one-liner though,” Ryuji admits, scratching the back of his head. Futaba says he just needs to ‘grind’ more, but Akechi’s smile isn’t mean for once and he doesn’t really want to make it go away by mentioning her.

 

Akechi’s shaking his head at him, residual chuckles escaping, “Seafood. I like seafood ramen.”

 

Ryuji nods back, “Can’t go wrong with this place. I go with the classic flavor myself.”

 

“Hmm,” he hums back thoughtfully.

 

When they reach the entrance and find two seats inside, Ryuji moves ahead to stake claim. Akechi moves slower behind him, taking in the decor. It’s a simple looking place, slightly bigger than the average hole in the wall shop, but it’s always crowded and there’s a low hum of chatter surrounding them. The walls are decorated with posters advertising the shop’s food items, and he sees that Akechi’s eyes linger on the ice creams they sell. He briefly wonders if the sweet tooth Akechi seemed to have was as large as his own.

 

Once they sit down, Ryuji takes out just one menu to point out a couple of recommendations, and they relay their orders to a waiter relatively quickly. He slaps his hands against the table idly, contemplating a way to keep talking without inevitably bringing the mood back down, but Akechi goes ahead and prompts him with, “So we know why I haven’t gone too far, why have you stuck so close to home? Didn’t want to travel, see the world? Or even better yet, follow Amamiya back to his hometown?”

 

Ryuji frowns as his words sink in, the lack of bite jarring. He knows Akechi can be meaner, felt it at the diner, but it’s just not apparent here despite how much it could have been. He had absolutely no intentions of mentioning Ren at all due to their complicated relationship, but Akechi keeps subverting his expectations, leaving him blindsided.

 

Maybe someone smarter would have put together a lot sooner than he has that that’s exactly how Akechi keeps his winning streak.

 

But these mental gymnastics are too complex for Ryuji to think through without ignoring Akechi outright for too long, and the bottom line is that Akechi actually kind of sounds genuine, like he’s not actually pulling any tricks. Ryuji chooses to cautiously believe that for the sake of the conversation, “It was cheaper to go here than to move further out. Wanted things to be easier on my mom, and I’m close enough to her I can go home if she needs anything at all.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Oh, damn it. “Shit, man, I’m really sorry. First I make you bring up Shido, then I go bring up my mom even though I know about what happened to yours. Two for two on things I should definitely not make you talk about, wow .” Ryuji gulps down the water in front of him before he says anything else stupid.

 

Akechi huffs, “Are you this insensitive to your friends with dead parents as well?”

 

“I’m not this guy, okay, I’m not the guy people have serious, meaningful conversations with. I’m the guy people go to when they wanna do something simple like eat food, go see a dumb movie. When they wanna study with someone and come out feeling smarter. I’m not. Good at handling heavy topics.”

 

Akechi doesn’t respond right away, letting the silence permeate. Ryuji has to wave the waiter over for more water, and he grabs Akechi’s cup to drink from while he waits. He raises one perfect eyebrow in response, but Ryuji just keeps gulping to keep his damn mouth shut.

 

“We could just. Not. ” Akechi finally responds, after the waiter fills their glasses. “If you’re not the type to handle lofty topics, we don’t have to. To be frank, I’d prefer it.”

 

Ryuji sighs heavily, “Yeah?” The other nods. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually so insistent on bringing past shit up. Probably because, yeah, I’m insensitive about it. I don’t know why I felt like I had to harp on it so much.”

 

“Probably because my shit is particularly potent.” Ryuji lets out a surprised laugh and Akechi smiles. “So. The age old question…” Ryuji knows exactly what he’s going to say next, “What are you studying?”

 

“Physical therapy.” Akechi’s head tilts. Time for the life story. “I dunno if you knew about my leg. I was in track and it got a bad break.” He catches him eyeing his legs and saves him the trouble by rubbing at the bad one. “The physical therapists are the only reason I can walk as well as I can. I wanna be able to return the favor I guess by helping others in the same way.”

 

“Ever the hero helping others.” Again, another snide comment that somehow sounds sincere.

 

Ryuji shrugs. “You going to school or…?”

 

Akechi’s eyes turn away from him, glancing over the other patrons instead, “Nope. Pretty difficult to apply for schools when you don’t exist.”

 

“How do you mean?” Ryuji asks before he can register that this might go into heavy territory. How the hell is he supposed to talk to Akechi without shit getting too real?

 

“Akechi Goro disappeared around the same time Shido’s heart was changed. All of my records are under that name. I am essentially off the grid.”

 

“Do you have to be though?”

 

Akechi watches the workers in the kitchen prepare meals with distant eyes, “You heard what my cognitive self said, no? Shido planned to kill me all along. He probably already had players in place to make sure that happened. I think the reason it took the public opinion so long to sway was due to a massive cleanup. Disposing of me might have been a part of that.”

 

Ryuji’s stomach churns at the idea of so many people being involved with Shido’s scheming with cognitive pscience, and feels that much more relieved that they gave up the cognitive world to spare society from potential misuse, despite how much he might miss the power that world gave them.

 

“Well. I’m glad they didn’t get to you, then,” Ryuji settles with as an answer. It gets Akechi to look back at him, eyes wide.

 

Before he can answer, though, their food is dropped off in front of them and they both turn their focus to that. The steam and the aroma of the broth wafts into the air, and Ryuji inhales with a pleased sound. He lifts his spoon to take a sip of the broth, enjoying the flavoring from all of the ingredients.

 

Akechi seems to be savoring the experience as well, staring into his bowl’s contents for all of the ramen’s components. Ryuji sneaks a glance- shrimp, scallops, squid, onions and seaweed, all arranged in a picturesque form. It makes Ryuji recall Akechi’s food blog once more, and how he had accidentally gone on a deep dive in it when they were first researching him after the field trip. Akechi’s words describing the meals were flourished to an excessive degree, and his selfies were obnoxious in their presentation, but the pictures of the food always left Ryuji with intense cravings.

 

He doesn’t remember there ever being ramen on the blog, though. Akechi obviously doesn’t still have it running, but he watches the ex-detective sample the broth before taking a bite, curious if it’s a habit at all for him to eat in public a certain way now. If the slowness and deliberate movements are purely to savor the meal or to give off the appearance of sophistication. If he feels the urge to snap a picture with a phone Ryuji isn’t sure he even possesses. If the delicate way he chews his food and the perfectly contained slurping sounds is forced or if Akechi really is just that poised of a person.

 

Ryuji is thankfully stuffing his mouth and gulping down the broth, thus too busy to voice any of this out loud.

 

They eat without a further exchange of words, content to share the moment accompanied by the background noise of people filtering in and out. When their empty bowls are taken away, Ryuji motions towards the ice cream ad with an inquiring, “Dessert?”

 

Akechi covers his mouth with an exaggerated yawn, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short. It’s been quite a long day.” He’s seen better acting from Ann, but he lets it go with a nod. They both stand and Ryuji reaches for his wallet, and Akechi seems to falter.

 

“I’ve got this,” Ryuji reassures, “I owe ya, remember?”

 

Akechi nods warily, “I’ll be outside then.”

 

After paying for their meals and using the restroom, Ryuji joins Akechi outside the ramen shop. Once he catches sight of him, he stumbles to an abrupt stop. Akechi’s smoking a cigarette. With the casual way he holds the stick in nimble fingers, taking a lazy drag and blowing out the smoke into the air, Ryuji gets the impression he’s been doing this for a while. It just seems like such a degenerate action for someone who once prided himself on his perfectly and carefully-crafted image.

 

After Akechi takes another drag, he catches Ryuji’s eyes and blows away from him, offering him a box, “Want one?”

 

“Nah, I don’t smoke,” he rejects, and Akechi shrugs, putting the stick back in his mouth. Ryuji watches the end turn red in fascination, commenting, “It suits you though, I guess.”

 

“Does it?” Akechi asks with the cig in between his teeth.

 

“Well, yeah. I mean I wouldn’t expect you to be a smoker, but it does suit you.” Akechi raises an inquiring eyebrow. “I guess it’s the smoke. It’s cool to look at, like when it’s cold outside and you huff to see your breath? And then it’s gone in a moment, fading away into the air but you can’t help but wanna see it again.”

 

Akechi’s face turns pensive, and he angles his head up to blow smoke in between them, watching it dissipate as if to compare it with Ryuji’s description. The longer they stand there without Akechi responding, though, the more self-conscious Ryuji gets.

 

“Dangerous to your health, but addictive nonetheless,” he finally answers cryptically.

 

Ryuji tilts his head to the side with a, “Huh?” Akechi smiles tight lipped and stubbs the cigarette out on the ground.

 

“Want to walk me home?” He asks Ryuji. His befuddled expression must deepen, because he elaborates with a laugh, “Better than you following me there whilst pretending you’re anything close to stealthy.”

 

Ryuji puts a hand on his chest in mockery, “I’m just concerned for your safety.”

 

“There’s your one,” Akechi laughs, then motions him to walk with him back the way they came. They walk side by side in silence once more, but it’s a comfortable one. The cigarette smoke clings to Akechi, Ryuji notices now, but it’s not necessarily unpleasant. It’s a sharp, bitter smell that contradicts his appearance- something that even Ryuji can’t deny is incredibly pleasing to look at. Even when Ryuji was spending every chance he could insulting Akechi back in their Phantom Thief days, he could admit that he understood why he had so many fans. All the guy had to do was smile, really.

 

It was all smoke and mirrors. And as soon as it was gone, people seemed to forget. The smoke dissipated and people continued on as if it was never there. But Ryuji could still smell it, the absence of it lingering under his nose. An ever evolving contradiction.

 

Wow, his literature lecture must be really sticking with him.

 

When he pulls himself out of his thoughts, they’ve nearly reached Akechi’s apartment building. They stop at the entrance and Ryuji stuffs his hands in his pockets, hesitating as to how to end this very strange evening.

 

He settles with, “So, uh...thanks for comin’ out with me.”

 

Akechi takes one step towards his building with a hum, “I hope I satisfied your curiosity.”

 

“Not really,” Ryuji admits. He botched any attempt to sensitively and appropriately gather intel on what Akechi has been up to since he’s disappeared, so he remains just as much of an enigma as before.

 

Akechi looks thoughtful, “I will allow one unabashed question that I will try my best to answer.”

 

“For real?”

 

“Is that your question?”

 

“No, asshole,” Ryuji grumbles with a pout while Akechi smirks at him. He taps his foot on the ground nervously, trying to think back on all of his particularly Akechi-centered musings to find the one thing that left him the most curious. But anything he thinks of runs the risk of offending Akechi and upsetting this delicate balance they’ve got going on. Ryuji’s realizing that this little mission of his is going to take a lot more than just one dinner. They’ve got to establish more trust between them. So what the hell can he ask him now?

 

“Who’s Himura Koji?”

 

Akechi’s smirk doesn’t waver, but is eyes scan over Ryuji like he’s trying to piece something together. Ryuji barely resists the urge to squirm, holding out for the guy to answer him, or ignore him and go inside, something.

 

Something in Akechi does give and he looks at some distant point out in the dark night sky. When he speaks, his voice sounds blank, like his emotions are just as far away as however far he’s looking out, “On record? He’s a boy who was orphaned at seven years old. Displaced from his modest childhood home to an institution that didn’t care where its children ended up, as long as they went somewhere. He proved to be trouble because they kept giving him back. Nobody wanted him. Then, when he was fifteen, he up and left. Disappeared without a trace.”

 

Akechi looks back at him with a despondent shrug, “Now he works at a diner in Iwatodai, serving nosy college students who think his life is somehow worth something.”

 

“It is,” Ryuji argues before he can think of all that Akechi’s implying.

 

“Spare me,” Akechi says without malice, turning to enter his apartment building.

 

“Wait,” Ryuji interrupts and thankfully, Akechi does stop. “Is that your real name?”

 

Akechi just huffs weakly, “I promised one answer.” Then he’s walking into the building, the sound of the door closing echoing into the night. Ryuji hangs his head.

 




MOM HOLY FUCK

 

You: how would you look someone up for info?

You: like to find old news articles they could have been mentioned in and stuff

 

Panther <3: Uhhhh this sounds really creepy?

Oracle: stalking someone? want me to hack them?

Kitsunaenae: Ryuji, the art of seduction can be much more impactful than whatever you have in mind.

 

You: it aint nothing like that!

You: its for a homework assignment. an essay.

 

Queen: Your professor should have taught you how to research on a subject through your school library or reliable Internet sources databases.

 

You: …...i must notve been paying attention

 

Oracle: bahahaha

Joker: I know some sights you can check out, I’ll text them to you

Noir: And I have some notes somewhere from my first semester about how to find books in libraries! I’ll find them and send them to you.

 

You: what about newspapers?

 

Queen: I can send you some instructions on how to look through newspaper databases.

Panther <3: Do you have to use those often for assignments in the police academy?

Queen: Moreso court cases as references, but newspapers are a frequent source as well.

Oracle: i can still hack somebody. you know. if you need me to

Joker: Futaba no

 

You: Futaba no

 

Panther <3 changed Oracle’s nickname to Futaba no

 

Futaba no: </3

 

Futaba no changed her nickname to FUTABA YES

 

FUTABA YES: why are you 3 like this

Joker: #ori3squad

Panther <3: yeeee

 

You: (sunglasses emoji)

 

Ryuji opens up new tabs as Ren’s, Makoto’s, and Haru’s individual messages come in. He copies and saves Haru’s notes to a document before closing out of that, knowing it will at least come in handy in the future. Ren’s message has a list of links to try, so he bookmarks those for reference. Makoto’s is the one he reads carefully, visualizing where he’ll need to go in his own library in order to find the databases he needs.

 

He plans to go between his classes in the morning to see what he can find on Himura Koji, if the records on Akechi are as limited as he implied. He does feel guilty going behind the guy’s back like this, but he knows he won’t get a straight answer otherwise. It’s not like he’ll ever use the information he might find against him.

 

It ends up not mattering much in the end anyhow. There’s exactly one article that Ryuji manages to find, detailing the police finding Akechi’s mother dead in their apartment after her son made the call. Ryuji’s leg shakes as he sits in the library to stop his hands from trembling. Akechi’s the one who found her. He supposed it made sense, logistically, but what does that do to a person, finding their parent like that? No wonder Akechi grew up so fixated on her the way he did.

 

The article doesn’t even mention Akechi by name, keeping the minor anonymous. “Himura Koji,” therefore, came up with nothing in general, and it took days scouring through articles just looking for “Himura,” but this one story’s details make it apparent that he’s found the right one. But Akechi’s mother’s name leads to a dead end as well, leaving no footprint in history to find.

 

After his fifth day spent in the dark recesses of the library’s basement, Ryuji admits defeat. A dark cloud of despair hangs over his head, even as he enters the diner later that evening, collapsing in his usual seat at his usual table. Not too long afterward, Akechi approaches him in uniform, presumably to take his order.

 

“Picture perfect coffee?” He asks as he places a menu down in front of Ryuji.

 

“Can you do like a cream soda?” He asks instead.

 

Akechi’s eyebrow climbs slightly and he eyes his slumped posture, “Are you not feeling picture perfect today?”

 

“No,” he mopes. “Maybe if I stare at a cream soda I’ll be able to feel some joy. They’re aesthetically pleasing ya know?”

 

“That they are,” Akechi agrees half-heartedly. “Might I recommend the pork cutlet meal to boost your spirits?”

 

“Man, you’re not even trying to give me that dazzling customer service voice.”

 

“I’m pretty sure you’re quite familiar how dazzling I can make my personality,” Akechi smirks. “But really, when’s the last time you ate?”

 

“Don’t worry, you’re getting my money. I’ll do the pork cutlet,” Ryuji reassures sullenly. Until a beautiful cream soda is sitting in front of him, he will never know joy again.

 

“Excellent. Thank you so much for your patronage,” Akechi’s smile nearly blinds him now, and Ryuji shields his eyes. The waiter laughs, “Really now, what’s got you so troubled?”

 

Ryuji shifts in his seat uncomfortably, “I, uh, had a research paper. Couldn’t find any info on the subject though. I looked for days and got nothing new.”

 

“That seems like an impossible assignment,” Akechi comments, eyes narrowed.

 

“Yeah. Guess you’re right.”

 

Akechi keeps standing there, like he’s waiting for more, but then he clicks his tongue, “Let me get you your aesthetically pleasing cream soda.”

 

It is as much of shining beacon of hope as he was hoping it would be, and the pork cutlet does turn out to be delicious and rejuvenating. As the evening goes on and the patrons slowly filter out, he gets a few small assignments done, and gets a head start on his reading for good measure. Akechi comes every so often with cups of water, and even a cup of coffee just the way he likes it, unprompted. When Ryuji gives him a look about it, Akechi just shrugs it off and goes to help his other tables.

 

When he’s one of the last few tables left, he waves over the manager to pay his bill.

 

“It’s taken care of,” she announces, then elaborates when Ryuji looks at her in confusion, “Himura-kun made it his employee meal. If he weren’t an otherwise perfect employee I’d scold him for it.”

 

Ryuji feels pressured by her hard gaze, “Hey, I didn’t tell him to do that. You know I don’t go looking for freebies.”

 

“Yes, I’m aware,” her face relaxes with a smile, “The both of you are good kids, just don’t take advantage of a kind old woman’s heart.”

 

He rolls his eyes and follows this old song and dance, “Auntie, your skin is too healthy to belong to an old woman.” She pretends to blush and wave off his compliments. “How long ago did he leave?”

 

“About half an hour ago, why?”

 

Damn it, he hadn’t even noticed. Ryuji doubles his efforts to get his belongings packed away, doesn’t stop moving even when he hears her hesitant sigh, “Honey, kids like him are secretive. Sometimes you can’t be so direct.”

 

He does pause at that, but then shakes his head, “Doing nothing ain't gonna help anything.”

 

The manager might’ve said something about him missing the point, other customers might’ve commented on his sudden and rude behavior, but he pays all of it no mind. His mom used to tell him that track was perfect for him due to his driven nature. Once he got a goal in mind, he’d get to it no matter how rough the journey could be. He’s won his team a few track meets by literally eating dirt tripping to the finish line, and he would always look up at his teammates with a triumphant grin. They won, that’s all that matters.

 

So he doesn’t really care that he’s being too forward going to Akechi’s place unannounced. He doesn’t really care that neither of them aren’t very much equipped to talk about things that happened before. There’s something about Akechi that keeps propelling him forward, and Ryuji knows he’s the type of man who goes by his gut.

 

Akechi’s going to question his motives, without a doubt. And Ryuji’s surroundings look familiar enough that he’s not particularly worried about getting lost, so he tries to talk himself up, think of some things to say beforehand until he gets to Akechi’s doorstep. He used to do these sort of practice speeches when he was younger, not particularly thinking about why until Futaba revealed that she does it too.

 

“If I have a fake conversation with myself, even if it doesn’t go the way I planned, I’ll at least feel more in control of the situation you know?” She had said, and Ryuji had nodded vigorously at her in agreement.

 

When she had briefly left the room, Yusuke had looked up from his sketchbook with a constipated sort of expression, “I also find myself being careful with my words, but I’ve discovered it’s due to a residual conditioning from Madarame.”

 

Ryuji had immediately begun shaking his leg, hesitant to reveal, “Yeah. I guess my old man also kinda instilled that in me. Anything could have set him off, you know?”

 

“Sometimes it was best not to say anything,” Yusuke had murmured.

 

Ryuji had swallowed thickly before contesting, “Yeah, but don’t let ‘em continue to hold that over you. They’re not around, they can’t control us anymore. Our thoughts, our words matter.”

 

Yusuke had huffed, smiling gently, “I admire your resilience, Ryuji. It’s truly inspiring.” He had then turned the sketchbook over to show him the piece he was working on, a pencil sketch of Ryuji leaning against the wall, as he was just minutes ago. It had been a side profile, as he had been talking to Futaba sitting across the room. His back was pressed against the wall and his bad leg was bent at the knee while his good leg lay straight. Ryuji found the pose to be somewhat dynamic and spotlighting his legs specifically, in a way that had him rubbing his palms on them self-consciously.

 

“Damn, dude,” he had complimented simply.

 

“We are currently working on the study of human anatomy through figure sketching,” Yusuke had explained, “I thought you’d be the perfect model as everything your personality entails lays so apparent to your outer layer. You know exactly what type of person this man is just by analyzing his posture.”

 

Ryuji had looked over the sketch one more time, trying to see what Yusuke did, “I don’t really get it, but it looks really good.”

 

If he thinks things through, he’s at least a little bit less likely to offend someone by not saying the right words. His emotions still tend to get the best of him, and he usually abides by everything he says, but it’s a precaution in the very least. Damage control.

 

There’s something about Akechi, though.

 

Ryuji finds himself in the lobby of Akechi’s apartment building, strangely empty, and is unsure as to how to proceed next. The elevators have large OUT OF ORDER signs slapped on them, but he has no idea what floor Akechi’s even on anyhow. And with no front desk attendant, there’s no one he can ask.

 

Well, there’s neighbors. Ryuji climbs up the stairs to the second floor where the apartments start, knocking on the first door he sees. An older man wearing a stained shirt steps out, squints at him in annoyance but says nothing.

 

“Do you know if a dude my age lives here?” Ryuji asks as pleasantly as he can, “About yea high, long brown hair, kinda looks like a model if I’m being honest?”

 

The man replies with a monotone, “No,” before shutting the door in his face. Ryuji grumbles under his breath, but immediately steps to the next door to try again.

 

Luckily, he finds out from this neighbor that she hasn’t seen Akechi on this floor, but has passed him on the stairs going upwards. He thanks her with a bow before heading back to the stairs, climbing up. Once he reaches the third floor, he rubs at his thigh absently to soothe it while knocking on the first door he sees. No one answers. He moves to the next door, knocks once more. A woman carrying a baby steps out and he apologizes for the intrusion, then he describes Akechi in the same manner.

 

As soon as he finishes speaking, she responds negatively. He must look at her funny, because she elaborates, “I would know if a model lived here.”

 

“Well, he’s not really-”

 

“There’s no one like that here, kid.”

 

The door is shoved closed in his face once more, and he lets out a frustrated grunt. The rest of the apartments on this floor proves fruitless as well, and he sighs deeply before beginning his ascent up to the fourth floor. Halfway up, his leg starts cramping on him and he stops for a minute with a shaky breath. He misses how his body didn’t wear out running around the Metaverse. Skull didn’t have shitty legs like Sakamoto does.

 

Ryuji massages at the sore spots as per the therapists’ instructions, feeling the muscles ease slightly. Normally, his leg doesn’t bother him too much, since he’s able to rest it during lectures. It’s been a long while since he’s forced himself to keep moving like this, and his body is kicking his ass for it.

 

When he reaches the top of the fourth floor, a sheen has developed at his temples from the exertion. He walks pathetically to the first door and resumes his search.

 

The guy who answers, though, doesn’t even let him get a word in, “The fuck are you doing knocking on every fucking door your see? Do you know how many calls I’ve gotten?”

 

“I’m just looking for my friend, man,” Ryuji starts, but the guy hollers over him.

 

“You couldn’t make a fucking phone call or even wait?! Goddamn kids-”

 

“Clearly it couldn’t wait, asshole, or else I wouldn’t be here!”

 

They start screaming over each other, words blurring together until a third voice cuts in. Ryuji stops and glances over to see Akechi leaning out of a doorway down the hall, giving him an irate look.

 

“Found him,” Ryuji says to the neighbor with a cheeky grin, sauntering towards Akechi’s direction.

 

“This better not happen again,” the guy warns.

 

“It won’t, I assure you,” Akechi responds politely before glaring at Ryuji, jerking his head to motion him inside. Once the door is shut, Ryuji toes off his shoes, scanning the environment for a place to sit. It’s a simple studio apartment, practically a broom closet. It’s got just enough space for a very small kitchen, a bed, and a dresser. There’s isn’t even room for a table to eat at.

 

Akechi must understand his dilemma, because he nods towards the bed, “You can sit there.” Despite his tense posture, arms wrapped around him tightly and shoulders climbing up to his ears, his tone is soft. As he hands Ryuji a glass of water, he can’t help but think that maybe he’s trying to make amends on Ryuji’s behalf for the loud argument in the hallway, and Ryuji makes a mental note to keep his volume low as well.

 

“That guy was a dick,” he says after taking a generous gulp of water.

 

Akechi leans against the sink with a resigned sigh, “He’s my landlord.”

 

Shit . I’m sorry, you gonna be alright?”

 

He shrugs, then smirks, “It’s alright. He is a dick.” Ryuji gives a surprised chuckle and Akechi frowns, watching him curiously, “So what was so important that you had to bother everyone in the building?”

 

Ryuji turns sheepish, realizing just how brash he’s been tonight. But he’s already here, so he answers honestly, “You covered my meal.”

 

Akechi seems taken aback by the simplicity of his answer, “Yes?”

 

“I wanted to know why. And I don’t have your phone number or anything, but I know where you live, so I came here.”

 

“You also know where I work. You really couldn’t- I don’t even have a phone, by the way, but why would you…” Akechi trails off, putting his face in his hands.

 

“You don’t have a phone?”

 

He throws his hands up, “No, I don’t. I can barely afford this shit hole even working as much as I do. Who the hell would I even talk to? You?

 

Ryuji feels chided like a child. He mumbles, “Maybe.”

 

“If you’re looking for information, there’s nothing. I haven’t done anything in the past two years. Haven’t killed anybody, haven’t harmed anybody,” Akechi’s voice grows louder the more irritable and defensive he gets, and he takes a deep breath to calm himself. “All I’ve been doing since you changed Shido’s heart is try to survive and stay out of sight. And I can barely do that. I have nothing important to tell you.”

 

Ryuji decides to file away the rant to think about later. “Then why did you buy my dinner?”

 

“I don’t like owing people favors.”

 

“You didn’t owe me?” He argues, confusion heavy in his voice, “I literally bought you dinner as thanks for covering my meal the first time.” Then, to lighten the mood, “Now I owe ya another dinner.”

 

Akechi shakes his head at him, “I don’t understand you. What do you even want? It’s not like I’m a joy to talk to.”

 

“Who says?” Ryuji half-jokes. Akechi doesn’t find it amusing. “I don’t know, man. New city, new people? I don’t really know anybody and clearly you don’t either. I guess it’d be nice just to have somebody you know?”

 

“Then befriend your classmates, I have no interest in clinging to the past, and I’m not your charity case,” Akechi retorts, biting.

 

“Geez, dude, you don’t have to make a big deal out of this!” Ryuji groans in frustration, “Weren’t you the one who said we didn’t have to deal with heavy topics? I thought that implied something, and then you bought my meal again? I don’t know, maybe I thought you wanted to be friends too.”

 

“Well, you were wrong. I was merely clearing my debts.”

 

Ryuji frowns, “I don’t believe you.”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“I don’t believe you,” he reiterates. “Your logic doesn’t make sense, I think you’re just saying whatever to get rid of me.”

 

“And yet you’re still here,” Akechi sneers.

 

“Yeah, until you give me a good reason not to be, asshole,” Ryuji argues, nearly sticking his tongue out at him. “You didn’t deny it, though.”

 

Akechi shrugs unenthusiastically, like all the fight has left him, “You’re too stubborn to argue with.” Ryuji grins smugly and Akechi huffs, exasperated.

 

“So…” Ryuji probes, “Dinner sometime next week? On me?”

 

“You’re not going to give up, are you?” Ryuji shakes his head, and Akechi mimics the motion, lips pressed in a thin line, “Fine. For the sake of score keeping.”

 

Call it whatever you want , Ryuji thinks, but keeps it to himself. He’s called Akechi out enough today. “Thanks for the water,” he says instead, standing and testing out how his leg feels. Sore, but he’ll make it home just fine.

 

“Thanks for embarrassing me in front of the entire complex,” Akechi responds with a plastic smile, opening the door to show Ryuji out. He remembers how many stairs he had to climb to get up here and sighs dejectedly.

 

“Really?” He asks Akechi, “Elevator broken, fourth floor? Wanna get more unlucky?”

 

Akechi doesn’t quite meet his eyes, “Maybe you should heed the warnings.”

 

Ryuji pretends to think hard for a moment, “No thanks. I’m bad at following directions. Always been a troublesome student in that way.” He winks before adding, “Have a good night.”

 

“Yeah. Alright,” Akechi responds, closing the door with a pinched expression.

 

Ryuji descends down the stairwell, with flickering lights and walls permanently stained with age, in disbelief at his own actions. Despite what he told Akechi, he doesn’t even fully understand why he came here, as if their interaction at the diner just wasn’t enough.

 

He did want intel at the beginning, feeling a sense of responsibility to know where Akechi’s head is at after everything that went down, but just as Akechi said, Ryuji couldn’t see anything harmful about him now. The guy was just trying to live, or not die in the very least. His life didn’t seem particularly eventful or substantial, and not like it’s Ryuji’s business in any way, but it doesn’t fulfilling in the slightest.

 

Ryuji found himself wanting to get to know Akechi better. Maybe if they had tried harder to do that in the past, things would have ended up differently. Just thinking that way won’t get anybody anywhere, but he can make the effort now, and he finds that he wants to. Driven by Akechi’s untrusting and secretive nature, driven by the lack of anything real about him anywhere, Ryuji supposes this all means that he does want to befriend Akechi.

 

He steps out into the warm, humid night and sighs. At the very least, he deserves a friend.

 

His phone chimes with notifications from the group chat. He stares at the screen briefly before sliding the phone back in his pocket.

 

Not now.