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Confusion is Nothing New

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When the end came, as heart-rending as it was, it felt inevitable. Akira had known for a long time -- maybe since the beginning -- that his relationship to Makoto wouldn’t last. They’d been kids when they got together, after all. If not for being thrown together as phantom thieves, they never would have become so close in the first place. God knows the student council president would never have noticed him otherwise. The fact they’d lasted as long as they had -- almost ten years, off and on -- was probably the strangest thing.

Makoto sent him an email, long and well-written, each word polished, laying out all of the reasons why they should part. We both know this has to end, she said. Almost a relief, in a way.

She was always too... well, he couldn’t say she was too good for him. It wasn’t a matter of goodness. Makoto was just on a different level, with a comet’s trajectory and the ambition to make her dreams happen. Not that Akira didn’t have dreams of his own; he did. Of course he did. They were just smaller and quieter, and they sounded foolish compared to hers. And he always had been a little star-struck by her, all too willing to let his own wants get pushed to the side to make room for hers.     

Of course, it was easy to see that now. Amazing stuff, hindsight. At least they hadn’t actually gotten married. They didn’t even live together, despite being engaged. One email and it was done. Quick and clean, a single snip of the scissors, and the ties were cut.

Akira was left adrift, or maybe it was more like freefall. He stumbled through his job in a kind of daze, barely registering what he was doing, operating on autopilot. Nights were so much worse; his apartment seemed too big and too small, too quiet and yet too full of the sounds of the city. He thought about writing again, picking up his journal what seemed like a dozen times before putting it away without jotting down a word. His phone blinked constantly as his friends tried to check up on him.

It was two and a half weeks since the end, and Akira finally managed to pick up the phone when it rang. He sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hey, Ann-chan.”

There was a slight pause; Akira could hear the sound of Ann and Ryuji’s baby gurgling in the background. “I was all ready to yell at you for not calling me back, but I guess I’ll save it for next time.” Ann’s voice wavered as she laughed, though whether from relief or worry it was hard to tell.

Akira huffed with laughter. “Thanks.”

“You’re -- you’re okay, though, right?”

Akira knew what she meant. The memory of what had happened with Shiho was never far from Ann’s mind. “Yeah. I mean, no. But I will be.”

“Can you visit? We’d love to see you. Oh, wait, not this weekend though, we’re out of town to visit Shiho. How about next week? It’ll be like old times!”

Akira winced. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded of old times. Just the thought of the three of them trying to have a good time while pretending everything was okay made his gut clench. As much as he wanted to see them both, he wasn’t sure he could handle it. Not yet. “I’ll try,” he lied.

“Pfft. You can’t fool me. Look, just... we’re here for you, you know that, right? Anything you need.”

“Yeah.”

The baby started crying. “I have to go,” Ann said. “It was good to hear from you.”

“You too,” Akira said, nodding to the empty room. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

It was another lie, and they both knew it. Akira stared at the phone in his hand for a long time after he hung up. Finally he stood, pocketing the phone as he grabbed his jacket.

He’d done a lot of walking, these last few weeks. He’d ride the subway and get off at a random stop, then walk until he was exhausted. It was that or sit in his apartment and drink until he fell asleep, and as tempting as that was, Akira knew it was dangerous. Not to mention expensive.

Somehow, he ended up in Yongen, of all places. He stood blinking on the platform as he realized where he was. Still, he headed up to street level. It hadn’t changed much. The theater was still open, and Takemi’s clinic looked to be thriving. He turned down the alley, moving automatically, till he found himself at Leblanc.

It was closed, as he knew it would be. The old man had moved, god, what was it? Seven, eight, years ago? After Akira went back home, things got harder for Futaba, especially once everyone else graduated and left her behind. So Sojiro and Futaba left to make a new start in a tiny village on the coast. Morgana went with them. Akira was in college by then -- no place for a cat. Plus, as Sojiro said, there were just as many bad memories in Leblanc as good ones, so why not find a place to make a fresh start?

The awning was so faded that it was hard to see the stripes, but the words “Coffee & Curry” were still visible. Akira’s eyes flicked up to the attic window, gazing at it without really thinking about what he saw. Eventually he noticed the window was open a few inches.

For a moment, he had a wild desire to scale the wall and break in. It’d be easy -- he’d broken into much harder places when he was Joker. He even took a step toward the building before coming to his senses. He shook his head, sighing angrily at himself. What the hell was he thinking? He wasn’t Joker anymore. He hadn’t even gone for a jog in like six months -- there was no way he’d be able to get up there without someone noticing. No doubt the attic was full of pigeon crap and spiders. Plus, even if he could manage to get in, what good would it do? He’d just be reminded of --

The memory of his first kiss with Makoto, on that ratty couch in the attic, hit him so hard he gasped.

“Kurusu-kun? What on earth are you doing here?” It was Takemi, standing at the corner of the alley.

Akira struggled to form a smile. “Hello, Doctor.”

She stalked up to him, looking almost exactly the same as she had the last time Akira saw her a few years ago. “You look like shit,” she said, her eyebrow raised. “Are you getting enough rest?”

Akira laughed weakly. “Please tell me you’re not going to ask for an examination.”

Takemi snorted. “I’m off the clock,” she drawled. “I’m serious though -- are you well?”

“Oh, um.” Akira cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s nothing. I had a -- a breakup,” he managed, wincing. “Just... remembering old times, I guess.” He laughed weakly, squinting up at the building facade and desperately trying not to lose it in front of Takemi.

“Ah.” Takemi nodded sagely, and checked her watch. “Come on. Let’s go.” She cocked her head towards the main street.

“What? Where?”

“I’m buying you a drink or three and you’re going to tell me what happened,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Akira found himself following her without question, even though he could think of several perfectly valid reasons why he should go home. It was as if no time had passed and he was still sixteen, obeying her without question. A few minutes later they were in a hole-in-the-wall bar around the corner, a place he’d walked by what felt like a hundred times.

Takemi was clearly a regular, nodding at the bartender as she took a seat. Even though Akira had never been there, it was still enough like the times he’d been to the Crossroads with Ohya that he had a wave of deja-vu. Before he could fully move past it, Takemi pushed a tumbler of something brown at him.

“That’s the good stuff, so you’d better enjoy it,” she warned.

Dutifully, Akira took a sip. It was scotch, he was pretty sure. Or whiskey? He’d never been very clear on the difference. Either way it was smoky and sweet and it burned in a pleasant way.

“Now,” Takemi said, leaning back and fixing him with a steely gaze. “I want to hear all about it, but if he hurt you I can’t be responsible for my actions.”

Akira choked on his drink. “He?”

Takemi looked confused. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just assumed... wow, is this awkward.”

“I mean -- that’s fine, it’s just -- um....”

Laughing a little, Takemi rubbed her forehead ruefully. “I saw you in Inokashira Park once, in a boat with a boy, and I thought --”

“Oh! That was Yusuke-kun,” Akira said. “He’s an artist. He wanted to sketch lovers or something and needed me to row for him,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I dunno, it was weird.” He chuckled again at the memory.

Takemi nodded, though she didn’t look quite convinced. “Well, I stand corrected. Anyway, I tell me what happened.”

Akira did his best, though it was mostly a rambling mess of confusion: how the last two years had been nothing but stress and fighting and misery, how frustrated Makoto was that he was still in a dead-end entry level job when she had risen the ranks of the police force, how he was just dragging them both down with his lack of ambition.

Takemi listened to it all, leaning one elbow on the bar as she rested her chin on her fist. When he finally petered out, running out of things to say, she roused herself. Flagging down the bartender, she signaled for another round. “Drink up,” she said, nodding at the dregs of his glass as she began to rummage in her voluminous purse.

For a second Akira thought she was reaching for her wallet, but she pulled out a prescription pad. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said, as she began to scribble something down. “We’re going to have another drink and talk about something else. And tomorrow, you’re going to call in sick. Doctor’s orders. Take at least three days off, if not five. Go out of town, get some fresh air, go for a hike, maybe hit a shrine. Whatever. Just get out of your apartment for a bit and clear your head, okay?” She ripped the paper from the pad and handed it to him.

“What?” Akira stared at the note, confused.

Takemi thanked the bartender and handed Akira his drink. “Look, kiddo. Ten years ago you went through enough trauma for a hundred people, and I’m guessing you never really dealt with it. And now you’re on your own, you’re isolated, and you’re grieving. You need to process, and you can’t do that if you keep pretending nothing has changed. Shake it up a little, give yourself some time. Trust me, it’ll help.”

“Alright,” he nodded. “Thanks.”

“No problem. It’s good I caught you, actually. I’m moving out of town next week.”

“What, really?” Akira was embarrassed to realize he hadn’t asked about Takemi at all. “What about your practice?”

“Too big now,” she said. “I have two other doctors under me, taking care of the patients while I’m stuck with administration. In a way, that’s your fault,” she smirked, tipping her glass at him. “Once you convinced me to stay, the practice took off. But I want to get back to my roots. I’m taking over the practice of my old doctor from childhood -- he's retiring. It’s a small town, so I’ll have plenty of time for my patients and my research.” Takemi’s voice was dry and dispassionate as always, but Akira could tell she was happy.

“That sounds great,” he said.

“It’s time for a change. Guess that goes for both of us, eh? Here’s to new things,” she said, raising her glass in toast.

“Yeah. To new things,” Akira nodded.

The next day, Akira’s manager wasn’t thrilled about it, but neither could he argue with what were clearly official medical directions. “Your doctor is all the way in Yongen-jaya?” he asked, looking up from the note with one eyebrow raised.

Akira just shrugged. He wasn’t the world’s greatest liar, but one thing he had learned was that sometimes shutting up was the best option. With a grunt, his manager put the note in a file and then sanitized his hands, just in case Akira was really sick. “Go,” he said, dismissing Akira with a wave.

It was all Akira could do to keep himself from sprinting out of the office building to the train station. Maybe it was just all the nostalgia from being in Yongen, but Akira had decided to go pay Boss a visit. It had been years, after all. If he hurried, he could make the 9:37 from Shinagawa, otherwise he’d have to wait another hour.

Probably he should call and let Sojiro know he was coming, but Akira wanted to surprise him. When Akira was in college, he visited often. But once Akira moved back to Tokyo and got a job, it was harder to find the time. And these last few years... it was really hard. Akira couldn’t quite put it into words, but he knew Sojiro and Futaba would be able to tell he was unhappy. Since Akira hadn’t been willing to admit that to even to himself, he avoided them.

The long train ride did him a world of good, though. He felt better than he had in a long time, once he got out of the city. For a while he dozed, then he watched the scenery going by. He suddenly remembered the thing Takemi had said last night, about thinking Akira was gay. He laughed to himself, remembering that day with the boats. God, Yusuke had been so clueless about some things, but he was so much fun to be around. Akira realized with a pang of guilt that he hadn’t thought about him in a very long time. Yusuke had gotten some sort of artistic scholarship that had him travelling, and they’d lost touch. Which was a bit strange; Akira had managed to keep up with the rest of his old friends, even if it was just a few times a year.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. Yusuke was such an odd guy -- just seemed to be in another dimension sometimes. Of course the same could be said for most of them, really. They all had their quirks.

It was a shame, though. Akira had really liked Yusuke. There was something... compelling about him. Akira had been super uncomfortable around him at first; Yusuke was intimidatingly handsome and self-assured. But that passed, and the times they had spent together were special, in a way that was hard to define.

And then something seemed to change, and suddenly they were spending less and less time together, even before everything had gone to hell. Akira frowned, trying to remember what had gone wrong. Before he could puzzle it out any further, he realized his final stop was coming up.

Akira was the only one to get off the train, and the station itself was practically deserted. It was 3:00 on a Wednesday, after all. He hefted his duffel bag and walked to Sojiro’s restaurant, making sure to approach it from the side, so he could sneak in without walking past the windows in the front. The smell of curry wafted out as the bell over the door tinkled.

Sure enough, Sojiro was behind the bar, cleaning out the espresso machine. “Welcome,” Sojiro grunted, throwing the greeting over his shoulder without turning around. “What can I get you?”

“Small house blend, please.” Akira didn’t bother sitting down.

Sojiro jolted upright, whipping around. “I don’t believe it,” he said, his face splitting into a grin. He bustled around the bar, spluttering as he caught Akira up in a one-armed hug. “What -- why didn’t you tell me -- how --”

And then the inevitable happened. Sojiro pulled away from him and looked around. “Where’s Makoto-chan? Couldn’t she join you?”

Akira’s smile froze in place. He knew this moment would happen, but somehow he was still unprepared. “Um. She’s, ah... not coming.”

Sojiro looked confused for a second, then understanding washed over his face. “I see. When did that happen?”

“Two weeks ago. No, almost three now.” Akira rubbed the back of his neck, looking around the restaurant.

Nodding, Sojiro clapped him on the shoulder. “We can talk about that later. For now, let me get you a cup of coffee and some dinner. And you should let Futaba know you’re here. You know how touchy she gets when she thinks we’re keeping secrets from her.”

Akira sat, grateful that he wasn’t going to have to talk about things just yet. He pulled out his phone and texted Futaba. There was no immediate response, so he set it aside and focused on his coffee. Which was, as always, fantastic. “You haven’t lost your touch.”

“Pfft, don’t give me that crap. How old do you think I am, anyway?” Sojiro poured himself a cup as well, leaning over the bar as he sipped his coffee.

Akira grinned. “I dunno, a million?”

Sojiro laughed helplessly. “Keep talking like that, you’ll be on dish duty.”

The doors flew open with a bang; Futaba barrelled into Akira a moment later, almost knocking him over. “Akiraaaaaaaaaaa!”

“Oof, Futaba, I need to breathe,” Akira wheezed.

“If you showed up more often I wouldn’t have to hug so hard.” Still, she relented, clambering into the seat next to him. “Where’s Mako-chan?”

“We... aren’t together anymore,” Akira mumbled into his coffee cup.

“Whaaaaaat? What happened? Do I need to ruin her life? I’ll do it, no questions asked.” Futaba pulled out her phone, ready to wreak havoc.

“No, it’s fine,” Akira said, pushing her phone gently to the side. “Please don’t do anything.”

“But... what happened?” Futaba wasn’t about to let it go without an answer. “Morgana is gonna flip his lid.”

“Where is he, anyway?” Akira looked around.

“Eh, he’ll be back. He likes to hang out by the river in the afternoon. Stop changing the subject.”

Akira sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “I dunno. She sent me an email.”

“An email?” Futaba screeched. “She dumped you in an email??”

Somehow that made Akira feel simultaneously better and worse. “It was for the best.”

“Aw, man, that’s savage, even for her.” Futaba clucked her tongue. “Guess we should’ve seen that coming, huh.”

“Be nice,” Sojiro growled.

“Pffft, nice,” Futaba scoffed. “I think I’m showing remarkable restraint here.”

Sojiro acknowledged the point with a nod. To Akira, he asked, “You’ll stay, right? Or do you need to be back in the morning?”

“I’ve got a few days,” Akira said, grinning sheepishly. “I ran into Doctor Takemi. She wrote me a note.”

Sojiro laughed. “Nice. Just like old times. Actually, speaking of old times....” He nodded significantly towards the entrance.

The bell tinkled as the door opened, and Akira heard a familiar voice. “Is that -- it can’t be!”

“Yusuke?” Akira stared at him for a moment, not quite believing it. “Is that you?”

His hair was long now, but there was no question that it was Yusuke. Akira slid down from his stool. A moment later they were hugging and laughing and talking over each other.

“Oh sure, you’ll hug Inari,” Futaba grumbled.

Before he could drum up a comeback, another voice cut in. “Joker!” Morgana hopped up on the stool. “When did you get here? Why wasn’t I told?” He head-butted Akira angrily.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was coming,” Akira said, still confused by the whole Yusuke thing. What was he doing here?

“Where’s Queen?” Morgana said, looking around.

“Makoto dumped him,” Futaba said. “In an email.”

Yusuke gasped. “What? That’s monstrous. How could she?”

Sojiro cut in. “Look, why don’t you all take a table while you catch up? I’ll get you some curry. Just finished tonight’s batch.”

“Thanks, Boss,” Akira said.

“Extra rice for me!” Futaba called out.

They settled into the big booth in the back corner. Akira was still trying to process being face-to-face with Yusuke for the first time since high school. “I don’t understand, are you visiting too?”

“Inari moved here months ago,” Futaba said. “Which you would have known, if you ever picked up your phone.”

“I needed a change,” Yusuke explained. “A place to concentrate on my work. I’ve always liked it here, and a cottage became available on the river.”

Something about that didn’t quite add up, but Akira was too distracted by the tray Sojiro was carrying over.

“Here we go,” Sojiro said, setting plates of curry in front of them. “Let me know what you think -- I tweaked the recipe. I gotta get back in the kitchen, but come find me if you need something.”

It smelled like heaven, and Akira said so. He took his time with the first bite, savoring it with his eyes closed.

“See there’s another thing you would have had if you ever came to see us,” Futaba reminded him.

Morgana jumped in, too. “Hang on, I thought Boss taught you all his tricks. Can’t you just make it for yourself?”

Akira shrugged. “I don’t have a big kitchen, so I can only cook at Makoto’s. And, um, the smell gets in our clothes.”

Futaba rolled her eyes. “So? You just said this smells like heaven!”

Akira cast about for an explanation. The truth was, Makoto had suggested to him that it wasn’t professional to go to work in clothes that smelled of food. Like all of her opinions, there was no question that she was correct, and so Akira had gone along with her rather than argue about it.

“That is easy for you or I to say,” Yusuke said. “We work alone. I imagine not everyone in an office might appreciate the nuances of curry.”

“Um... that, basically,” Akira nodded gratefully.

Futaba scowled. “Wait, are we talking about your office, the big old cube farm? Or the police station?”

Akira winced. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t drag their mutual friends into this. “It’s not like that,” he lied. “I just... don’t have a lot of time to cook.”

Futaba didn’t look convinced, but Akira cut her off before she could press him further. “Anyway, it’s not the same when you cook for yourself.”

“I’ve noticed that, myself,” Yusuke said. “When I cook, all I notice are the flaws.”

“That’s because you’re a terrible cook,” Futaba said, drawing immediate (albeit laughing) protests from the others. “What? He can’t even cook eggs!”

“Futaba, you can’t just say that, even if it’s true,” Morgana said, gasping between jags of laughter. “Oh man, remember the time he simultaneously undercooked and burned the rice?”

Yusuke took it in stride, tutting at them as he attempted to defend himself. “I don’t have a rice cooker. Must I point out that making rice without a rice cooker can take a person a lifetime to master? Anyway, I seem to remember Joker here wasn’t always a natural at making curry.”

“Oh god, I forgot about that,” Akira laughed, shaking his head.

“What, really? It was always great when you made it for me,” Futaba said.

“That’s because I always followed the recipe exactly for you, because I knew you’d be able to tell the difference. I took a few liberties when I made it for Yusuke.” Akira laughed again, grinning at Yusuke. “I was trying to impress you, I think,” he admitted sheepishly.

Akira had only meant it in the way that all teenagers try to impress each other. Like he had when he’d worked out with Ryuji -- he wanted to make a good impression, that’s all. But Yusuke’s eyes widened in shock as he stared back at Akira. “Truly?”

Akira’s smile slid from his face as he really looked at Yusuke. He’d changed more than Akira had thought. He’d always been good-looking; that much was undeniable. He still was, maybe even more so -- his face had lost some of the round edges, and the way his hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail emphasized the line of his jaw. But there was something else, something Akira couldn’t quite define, almost like... he didn’t know. It reminded him of something, like a song he couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, it made him nervous. “Yeah,” he said, scratching at his hairline. “You know,” he shrugged vaguely.

“Seriously though, are you gonna tell us what happened or what?” Futaba said, pushing away her empty plate. “I thought you were getting married.”

“Er....” Akira glanced at Yusuke, unsure if he knew about that. They hadn’t spoken in almost ten years, after all. But he appeared unsurprised. In fact he didn’t react at all, seemingly focused on his curry.

“It was just time,” Akira finished. “We... grew apart.” He took a big bite of curry to avoid saying anything else.

“But --” Futaba spluttered.

“Give him a break,” Morgana said, washing his face with a paw. “He just got here.”

Futaba grumbled but relented. “Grrr, but I want revenge! Who dumps someone in an email?”

“There’s no need,” Akira said. “I promise. These things just happen.”

“Ugh, I should go change,” Futaba said, checking the time. “I’m on dish duty tonight.”

“You work here? What happened to coding?” Akira asked.

“I still freelance. But the old dishwasher quit last year, so I’m helping Sojiro in the evenings,” she explained. “This place’ll be crazy busy in like an hour.”

“Which is my cue to get outta here,” Morgana said, hopping down from the table. “Come on, let’s go for a walk. We can come back later when it’s less busy. You’re gonna stay, right?”

“Yeah. For as long as I can, anyway,” Akira nodded, holding open the door.

Yusuke paused as he walked out of the restaurant. “Something to look forward to, then.”