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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.”

Chapter Text

Wandering through the village with Yusuke and Morgana, Akira had the distinct impression that he’d become unstuck from time. The three of them laughed and chatted the same as they had ten years ago. Yusuke even walked the same, his slow, purposeful stride once again making Akira feel slouchy and clumsy by comparison. But he looked so different now that Akira kept glancing over at him, trying to reconcile this new version of Yusuke with his memory. Akira couldn’t seem to help himself, sneaking glimpses as they spoke.

One too many, it seemed. “Is there something in my hair?” Yusuke asked, patting carefully along his crown.

Flushing, Akira cleared his throat. “What? No. Sorry. It’s -- ah, I like your hair longer.” Was that a weird thing to say? It was. Dammit, why was it so hard to breathe all of a sudden?

Yusuke regarded him for a long moment, his expression ineffable. “Thank you,” he said finally. “I grew it out during my travels. Have you ever tried to get a haircut in a foreign country?”

Akira had barely left Tokyo the last few years, much less Japan. “No.”

“I don’t recommend it,” Yusuke said firmly.

“Well, this place hasn’t changed, anyway,” Morgana said. “The village is always the same. Nice and peaceful.

Akira had to agree; Garu-mura was largely unchanged from his last visit. Except no, there was something.... “I don’t believe it,” he said, rushing up to the bulletin board in the town square. “Is this for real?”

“You sound like Ryuji,” Yusuke noted.

“Is that a poster for the Spring Dance? Yeah, we do it every year,” Morgana said.

“Not that, this!” Akira jabbed his finger at the bottom of the flier in question. “Mayor Toranosuke Yoshida?”

“He got elected three years ago, I believe,” Yusuke said. “Why, is that a problem?”

“I don’t believe it,” Akira said again, grinning. “No-Good Tora is the mayor??”

“Hey hey, don’t call him that,” Morgana chided him. “He’s done great things for us.”

Akira shook his head. “No, I mean -- I know him. I went to like dozens of Yoshida’s speeches in Shibuya. He taught me all about public speaking. I thought he retired.”

“He retired from the Diet, maybe, but I’m not sure he’ll ever retire from politics,” Yusuke said. “I had no idea you knew him. How funny.”

“It’s a small world,” Morgana agreed.

They made their way out of the village center, following the west river upstream. “Come, I’ll show you my workshop,” Yusuke said, leading them down a gravel path.

“Ugh, I’ll stay out here,” Morgana said, settling himself by the edge of the water. “The sawdust makes me sneeze.”

“Sawdust?” Akira asked. His confusion evaporated when Yusuke opened the door. The small home was almost entirely given over to a woodworking studio.

“I transitioned to sculpture in college,” Yusuke explained. “I had been working in metal and concrete, but since moving here I’ve started exploring wood forms.” He launched into a long, involved explanation of his latest piece, an undulating series of interlinked toruses.

Akira leaned on the windowsill, watching as Yusuke gestured dramatically as he spoke. The late afternoon sun came out from behind a cloud, alighting on the motes of dust and casting a golden glow throughout the space.

There was that feeling again. Akira lost track of what Yusuke was saying, distracted by the emotions that welled up. It was like... he didn’t know. Nostalgia maybe? If it was, it wasn’t the fun, happy kind -- it was the kind that left an ache in Akira’s chest, a combination of yearning and loss. It was uncomfortable, and Akira shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to force himself to focus.

“I apologize,” Yusuke said then, cutting himself off. “I do tend to go on.”

“No, I like hearing about your work,” Akira insisted. “Just like old times, you know?” Akira tried for a grin.

Yusuke’s brow furrowed, as if that idea troubled him. He turned back to his sculpture. “I would hope I’m less arrogant than I was in high school, anyway,” he said.

“You weren’t arrogant,” Akira said automatically. When Yusuke raised an eyebrow, he relented. “Okay, maybe you were a little overconfident,” Akira laughed. “But only just. You always were talented,” he said, looking around the room. “I always expected to see your works in the Ueno someday.”

Yusuke smiled, not meeting his eyes. With a breathy laugh, he said, “I actually did have a piece on exhibit there for a short time.” He moved toward the door.

“What? Are you kidding? How did I miss it?” Akira followed him out, aghast. “I went every year!”

“It wasn’t very big,” Yusuke said. “And it was part of a collection from a variety of artists. You couldn’t have known.”

Akira was still embarrassed. It was on the tip of his tongue to apologize for losing contact, but then again, that had been Yusuke’s choice, hadn’t it? Akira had tried to reach out for months before giving up. Maybe now wasn’t the time to bring it up.

Outside, Morgana was sprawled out on a rock, watching the water go by. He yawned. “Well, what should we do now?”

“Uh, I hadn’t really thought about that,” Akira admitted. “I guess I should have thought this trip out a little better, huh.”

“Eh, it’s good to be spontaneous sometimes,” Morgana said, stretching as he stood. “Shake things up. I know, let’s go to the docks.”

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fish market, would it?” Yusuke guessed.

“No,” Morgana sniffed. “Well, not totally. I didn’t have any curry, remember? And anyway, the sunsets are spectacular this time of year.”

They made their way to the waterfront. Akira had only been there one time, on his first visit. It was cleaner and nicer than he remembered, with a small, tidy beach. “This is nice,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s really cleaned up since Okumura Foods took over the fishery,” Morgana said.

Sure enough, Okumura’s logo was painted on the side of the boats. “Wait, you mean Haru’s company?”

“Yeesh, you really are behind,” Morgana laughed. “Didn’t you know they got into the sustainable fish market? Haru wanted to move things away from burgers.”

“I knew she was doing well,” Akira said defensively. “It’s not like she’s got a lot of time to hang out, you know.”

“She stops by sometimes,” Morgana said, heading confidently to the back of the fish market, located in a small building on the backside of the pier. It looked like the business was closed for the day, but Morgana hopped up to the window and began pawing at it. “Hey! Hey in there!”

“Rude,” Yusuke scoffed, shaking his head.

The door popped open a moment later and a gray-haired man in an apron stepped out with a small dish. “Wonderin’ when you’d show up, damn cat.” He set the dish down.

Akira almost fell over. “Mune-san?”

The fisherman shielded his eyes against the glare. It was, without a doubt, Munehisa Iwai, their former weapons dealer. “Holy shit. Holy shit, kid, what the hell are you doing here?” He held his hand out, then pulled it back. “Hang on, you don’t want a handful of fish guts.”

Yusuke looked at them, surprised. “You know each other?”

“Ah... Munehisa-san made our ‘model’ guns,” Akira coughed delicately.

“I see,” Yusuke nodded. “It seems today is full of surprises.”

“Huh,” Iwai grunted. “Take it you two knew each other back then. Well, I’m just an honest fisherman now. Moved here couple years back -- Kaoru runs the library, so it worked out.”

The coincidences were starting to get a little suspicious. Akira glanced at Morgana. If there was a way for a cat to look innocent while gobbling fish scraps, he was managing it. “Yeah, that’s great,” Akira said absently.

“What brings you here?”

“Oh, um. I’m visiting Sakura-san. I lived with him back in the day.” Akira made a vague hand gesture.

“Huh,” Iwai grunted again. “Well, small world, I guess. Anyway, I’m closed now, but if you’re around tomorrow, stop by for lunch or somethin’. I make a mean trout soup.”

“I will,” Akira promised.

Akira and Yusuke made their way to the end of the pier and sat, hanging their feet over the edge.

“That’s two coincidences,” Yusuke said thoughtfully.

“Well, three, really,” Akira said. “I think you count.”

“Do I? Three, then,” Yusuke nodded. “I wonder....”

Morgana came sauntering up, licking his whiskers. “He’s always got the good stuff, that Mune-san,” he said. He began to groom himself.

“Did you know that he was the one who...” Akira looked around to make sure no one was nearby. “-- made our guns?” Akira whispered. “You must’ve known. I brought you to his shop!”

“Eh,” Morgana shrugged. “I was in the bag most of the time, you know. I didn’t get a good look at people’s faces.”

Akira wasn’t half satisfied with that answer, but he let it drop. The sun was going down, and it was, as promised, gorgeous: pink and gold and orange with a crescent moon hanging low.

“I never get tired of that view,” Yusuke said. “I tried painting it several times, but then I realized there wasn’t much point. I’d never manage anything close to its beauty.”

“I don’t know the last time I watched the sun go down,” Akira admitted.

“You’ve been locked up in that city too long,” Morgana said.

“I guess.”

They sat until the sun was well and truly down. As soon as that happened, it got cold. “Come on,” Yusuke said, getting to his feet. “Let’s go back to the Stardrop and get something to warm us up.”

It was probably a mistake to have coffee so late in the day, but there was no way Akira could resist when Sojiro offered him a cup.

“I think I missed this more than the curry,” Akira sighed.

Sojiro frowned at him. “Don’t tell me you’re drinking crappy coffee now, too.”

“Well I mean... not on purpose. It’s just hard to find time in the morning,” he mumbled.

“Next thing you’ll be telling me you get it out of vending machines,” Sojiro said. When Akira slouched further down and refused to look at him, Sojiro threw up his hands and walked away, muttering to himself.

“What is it that you do? Does your job keep you very busy?” Yusuke asked.

“Oh, it’s....” Akira faltered under the weight of Yusuke’s attention. Usually when he got asked this question, Makoto was there to answer for him, jumping in with a perky tone of voice. He works at the corporate office for the nation’s largest retailer! In line for a promotion soon, too, isn’t that right? And then she’d smile at him proudly. As though they didn’t both know that if there was indeed a line for promotions, he’d be last in it. “Um, it’s customer service,” he shrugged. “I process complaints.”

Futaba wandered up, a kitchen towel slung over one shoulder, just like Sojiro. “Still living the Jojamart cube farm life, eh?” she said, leaning on the counter. “Don’t know how you stand it.”

“That’s the second time you’ve said that,” Yusuke said. “What is a cube farm?”

“Ugh, they’re awful,” Futaba groaned. “I spent four months in one before I started freelancing and it felt like forty years. Everyone’s in these cubicles, so you’re cut off from seeing or talking to anyone else, but you can still hear every keystroke and squeaky chair and fart. Usually security cameras galore too, and they monitor your screen so you can’t slack off. If you’re lucky you’re in a place with windows and natural light, but those are rare.”

Yusuke looked horrified. “That’s no way to live.”

“It’s not that bad,” Akira shrugged. “We’re allowed to have one earbud in, so we can listen to music or whatever.”

“Still,” Yusuke said, shaking his head. “Are you still writing? I seem to remember you carried a journal everywhere. Having a creative outlet can make even the worst job tolerable.”

The last thing Akira wanted to talk about was his writing, or lack thereof. “It’s not that bad,” Akira said again, more firmly. “I’m lucky to have the job at all.” Even though his criminal record was technically expunged, Akira’s history was available with the most basic web search. Finding a college to accept him was difficult enough; getting an employer to take a chance on him had required calling in favors from both Sae and Haru.

“I keep telling you,” Futaba sighed. “Give me an hour and I can set you up with a whole new identity. You’ll have your pick of jobs then.”

“No.” Akira hadn’t meant to say it so forcefully. He took a breath and let it go. “Sorry. I’m just... I’m not running anymore.”

Futaba blinked at him in surprise, and then she nodded. “I get it. I just hate that you’re stuck there. That’s not right. You deserve better.”

Akira laughed ruefully. “You sound like Makoto,” he said, toying with his coffee mug. “Of course, when she said it --” Akira shook his head, flinching as he heard himself. “Forget I said that. You’re all her friends too. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“We were your friends first,” Futaba pointed out. “I’m Team Kurusu all the way.”

“Me too!” Morgana called from the nearby window. “Team Kurusu! Ooh, we should get t-shirts made. They make t-shirts for cats, right?”

Akira laughed despite himself. “Thanks, guys.”

After cashing out the last customer, Sojiro joined them. “So, how long can you stay? Friday and Saturday nights get pretty crazy here, but the mornings are quiet.”

“Ooh, you have to stay till Sunday at least! Sojiro has perfected his pancake recipe. We open for brunch on Sunday so you have to try it,” Futaba insisted.

“Hey, don’t pressure the guy,” Sojiro said. “I can make pancakes whenever.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Akira said.

“It’s no bother at all,” Sojiro scoffed. “Though you’ll have to sleep on the sofa. I threw out the spare futon mattress and haven’t replaced it yet.”

“That’s fine, thanks. And... yeah, I can stay till Sunday,” Akira said. “Maybe I can help in the kitchen if you need it.”

“Yessss!” Futaba said, going in for a high-five. “I call dibs on not washing the big pots!”

They stayed up too late, but perhaps that was inevitable. Finally Sojiro called it a night. Yusuke left, and Futaba and Morgana headed off too-- apparently Futaba had rented a basement apartment on the edge of town, and Morgana slept there. There was a kind of comforting familiarity in following Sojiro upstairs, though this time it was to a proper apartment, not a dusty old attic.

Not to say that it was especially tidy. “Sorry,” Sojiro muttered, grabbing stray magazines and ash trays to make room for Akira.

“Thank you for letting me stay,” Akira said. “I apologize for not letting you know first. I thought you might like the surprise.” In hindsight, that was rather stupid -- who liked being surprised by overnight guests?

“Don’t mention it,” Sojiro said, handing him a pillow and a blanket from the hall closet. “I’m glad you made it down for a visit. Been too long.”

“Yeah,” Akira nodded.

For the first time in three weeks, Akira fell asleep right away. Perhaps it was the change in environment, or maybe just fatigue from the long drive and all of the visiting. Either way, his eyelids drooped almost immediately.

He woke up with a start sometime in the middle of the night. His dream was already dissipating, too fragile to grasp. All he could remember was something about a tower. Whatever it was, it left Akira haunted by a sharp longing. For a few minutes he thought he was missing Makoto. But then he realized it wasn’t so much that he missed her, specifically. If she were there now, she’d be miserable from not having a proper bed. And it wasn’t like they’d spent the night together all that often, these last few months.

Then it hit him. It wasn’t about Makoto at all, really. He was lonely, plain and simple . Maybe he had been for a long time, and just hadn’t realized -- how could you be lonely when you were engaged, right? And it wasn’t like he didn’t have friends at work.

But they weren’t friends like Ann and Ryuji and Futaba and Morgana. Hell, he hadn’t spoken to Yusuke in almost a decade, and yet seeing him today, it was like no time had passed. Akira was pretty sure that if he stopped showing up for work tomorrow, almost no one would care. They might notice, sure, but it wouldn’t bother them in any way if Akira was gone. It would just be a footnote in their lives. Being here, with even just a few of his old friends, called into sharp relief what he’d been missing.

Sighing, Akira fumbled for his phone to check the time. Ugh, four-thirty. If he was home he might get up, but he wasn’t going to risk waking Sojiro. He was tempted to scroll through his phone, but he’d never get to back to sleep that way. So he laid there, listening to the distant sound of Sojiro snoring in the other room and feeling miserable.

Of course, he did eventually fall asleep again, proceeding then to oversleep, groggily coming to awareness well after nine o’clock. Blearily, he washed up and went downstairs.

“Hey, you’re up,” Sojiro said. “Give me a minute, I’ll fix you something to eat. Eggs sound good?”

Akira nodded, taking the seat at the far end of the bar, nearest the kitchen. His phone pinged; without thinking, he glanced at it, only to nearly drop the thing when he saw he had a chat from Makoto.

It was almost 9:30; she had to be at work by now. Makoto was very strict with herself about not texting at work, so it had to be important. Wincing, Akira unlocked his phone.

Are you alright? I called your office but they said you were sick!

Akira stared at the message, not sure of how to respond. Why the hell was she calling his office? Dammit, that didn’t look good -- his supposed fiancee calling to look for him, when he was meant to be ill at home. Of course his manager wouldn’t know they’d broken up, which just made it all the more suspicious. Shit.

I’m ok. What do you need

There was a pause as Makoto typed. I have a box of your things. I was going to drop it off at your office at lunch, but I can bring it by your place after work. Do you need anything from the pharmacy? I can stop on my way.

“Fuck,” Akira swore under his breath.

Sojiro set a plate in front of him. “I’d ask if it’s lady troubles, but I think I know the answer,” he said.

“Sorry,” Akira said, shaking his head. “I just need to get back to her.” Huffing, he typed a response. Don’t do that -- not at home right now. Will be in office Monday.

The ellipsis flared to life and dimmed several times, but no message came. She was probably too mad to respond. Finally, Akira put his phone in his pocket. “Sorry,” he apologized again. “She called my office looking for me, so there’s a whole... thing happening,” he explained.

Sojiro nodded sagely. “I take it she’s not a firm believer in mental health days.”

Akira snorted. “No.”

Sojiro sighed and looked out the window. “Look, it’s none of my business what happened. And I like Makoto. She’s smart and strong. Reminds me a little bit of Wakaba, actually. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I think... I think when it works with someone, you just know.”

Akira sighed heavily. “I thought I did know,” he muttered.

Sojiro laughed. “That’s the hell of it all. You always think you know, until you really do, and then you realize you were wrong all along.” Sojiro stared out the window, his gaze far away. With a blink, he came back to the here and now. “Just an old man rambling.”

“No, that -- that helps. Thank you,” Akira said.

“No problem,” Sojiro said.

Sakura’s wisdom aside, Akira was still aggravated. Dammit, how was he supposed to enjoy his visit now? He could practically feel Makoto’s disapproval from halfway across the country. Sojiro was right -- Makoto was of the opinion that work should only be missed when one was a danger to others or rendered physically incapable of carrying out one’s duties. Taking time to deal with stress or a breakup was out of the question.

As angry as he was, Akira was also ashamed of himself. He wished he was as upstanding and forthright as Makoto. Taking this time felt indulgent and weak, even if he knew he needed it. He ate his breakfast and did his best to enjoy his coffee. He was here now, anyway, and it wasn’t like Makoto could dump him again.

Sleeping on the couch wasn’t the only downside of not making proper plans, as Akira soon found out when everyone was busy that day. Sojiro was working, of course -- even though the restaurant was only open for lunch and dinner, he spent the mornings on prep. Futaba had a deadline to meet and was busy, too. Akira wasn’t sure what Yusuke was up to, but it felt weird to just show up unannounced.

Luckily, Morgana was still a cat, and therefore had no job. Akira found him lounging in the sun outside the restaurant. “How was breakfast?”

“Good,” Akira said automatically. A woman walking by looked at him funny. “Er, I mean, good kitty,” he said, hastily bending down to pat Morgana’s head. “Can’t believe I forgot that no one can understand you,” he murmured.

“Ha! I’ve gotten pretty used to it. It’s good that Fox is here now, too. It was getting boring just talking to Futaba all the time. Come on, I’ll take you somewhere where we can talk.”

Akira followed Morgana through the tiny hamlet and back to the waterfront. “Fish again?” Akira guessed.

“You’ll see,” Morgana said. He didn’t go to the docks, but instead to a little run down cottage near the beach. There was a bench tucked into the shrubs on the side, facing the ocean. “The sound of the water should cover our voices,” he said, hopping up to the bench. “And if anyone sees us, they’ll just think you’re talking to yourself.”

“Great,” Akira said, rolling his eyes. Still, he sat. “Does no one live here?”

Morgana shook his head. “Not for ages, far as I can tell. I heard the mayor talking about it once -- it’s for rent, but it must be expensive or something because no one ever moves in.”

“Huh,” Akira said. “It doesn’t look that bad, close up.” From the docks, the house had looked almost unliveable. But here, Akira could see that although the paint was in terrible shape, the structure itself seemed solid enough. There was a sense of stillness, as if the cottage were much more secluded than it really was. The busyness of the docks seemed miles away, and only the sound of the ocean and gulls could be heard. It was an intensely calming place.

“It’s fine on the inside,” Morgana said. “Cozy, even.”

Akira knew better than to question why Morgana knew what the inside was like. Once a phantom thief, always a phantom thief, it seemed. “Who owns it, I wonder? I mean, it’s waterfront property. That’s got to be worth a lot.”

“There’s a couple places like this around. An old farmhouse, a house down by the river.” Morgana took a lazy swipe of his paw at a fly.

“I meant to ask you -- isn’t it a little strange, all of the people that live here? I mean, Yusuke, Mune-san, the mayor....”

“And Haru comes every so often, too. Technically it’s to manage the Okumura Foods holdings but I think she just misses me.” Morgana sounded very smug about that.

“Yeah. That’s weird. What’s going on?” Akira folded his arms.

“Can’t a guy have some friends? Yeesh,” Morgana tutted.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

Morgana shook his head. “Look. This place is... special. I don’t know what it is. And frankly, I’m not sure I care. Certainly not enough to go poking around and ruin it.”

Akira snorted. “Special? That’s the best you can come up with?”

Groaning in frustration, Morgana sat up, as prim as he could manage. “I dunno, it’s got a different energy. Can’t you feel it?”

Akira was about to say no, but then he paused. Was there something, though? Whatever fleeting sensation he might have had, it dissipated almost immediately. “That doesn’t explain why all of these people moved here, though.”

“Maybe it’s just a nice place to live,” Morgana said. “I love it here. I never want to leave.” He closed his eyes and raised his face to the warm April sun.

Akira didn’t know what to say to that, so he watched the seagulls gliding in the air and tried not to think about the life waiting for him back in Tokyo.

Chapter Text

The shack by the sea might have been a good place to chat, but it had another (clearly intended) benefit: it was close to the docks and the fish market. Morgana was quick to remind Akira that there was an offer of lunch on the table, so they headed over around midday.

Iwai was hosing down the dock. “Hey, kid. I see that damn cat followed you.”

“Pfft, don’t let him fool you; he totally loves me,” Morgana said. He sounded very smug about it.

Iwai shook his head. “I swear he thinks he can talk.” He coiled the hose and hung it on a hook. “Come on in, we’ll grab some lunch.”

The interior of the market was tiny and spotless. “Mostly I just act as a middleman between the fishermen and Okumura, but I buy some to sell to the locals. Plus we get the occasional tourist and such.” Iwai waved at the cafe tables off to the side of the shop. “Take a seat. Trout soup okay? Specialty of the house.”

“That sounds great.”

Iwai slipped into the back, emerging a few moments later with lunch. He opened the window and set a small plate of fish scraps on the sill for Morgana, then passed a bowl of soup to Akira.

It smelled good, and tasted even better: the broth had a light texture but a full flavor, unctuous and briny with a hint of spice. “It’s delicious,” Akira said, trying not to sound surprised.

Iwai laughed. “Weren’t expecting that I could cook? You’re half right. I can only do a few things, and this is one of them. Good way to use up scraps, and the fishermen love it.”

They spent a few minutes eating in companionable silence. “So, what’re you up to these days?” Iwai asked.

There was no point in sugar-coating it. “My fiance just dumped me and I have a shitty job processing email complaints for Jojamart.”

Iwai nodded thoughtfully. “Well, that... sucks,” he said finally.

“Pretty much.”

“You don’t sound all broken up about the first part, anyways,” Iwai pointed out.

Akira shrugged. “We were on life support for a long time I guess. Just took a while for her to pull the plug.”

“Her?” Iwai blinked.

Akira figured he was asking for specifics. “Makoto Niijima. She’s trying to be the next Police Commissioner.”

“You were dating a cop? Wait, Niijima, Niijima... wasn’t her dad a cop too? I remember the name.”

Akira nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Iwai started to laugh. And then he kept on laughing, like he couldn’t stop. “After all that shit you and I got up to, plus god knows what the hell else you were doing back then, you were gonna marry a cop? A lady cop?”

Put like that, Akira couldn’t help but laugh too. “She knew about what happened,” he said. “And it’s not like she’s the only female officer on the force.”

“I know that. Honestly I was kinda surprised you were with a girl at all. I guess I thought... ah, doesn’t matter.”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Wait... you thought... oh my god.” He rolled his eyes and stared up at the ceiling, incredulous.

“Hey, there’s nuthin’ --”

“Wrong with that,” Akira said, simultaneously. “I know.” The whole thing was so ridiculous that he just laughed again.

Apparently Morgana thought it was funny, snorting as he ate his fish.

“Swear to god, it’s like he’s laughin’,” Iwai said. “Look anyways, the point is, that had to have sucked, right? Being with a cop, I mean. Didn’t think you got the fairest shake in the world when it came to the law.” Iwai shrugged. “Dunno. It’d bother me, I guess.”

Akira didn’t have much to say to that. He was still uncomfortable around the police as a whole, it was true. He had night terrors for years after he’d gotten detained, drugged, and beaten. But he believed in Makoto, and the city needed more people like her on the force. So he’d tried his best to make peace with it, mostly by avoiding anything to do with Makoto’s career.

It wasn’t like she was running around advertising their relationship to her coworkers either. Not that she was ashamed -- she took great pains to communicate that to him, countless times. I’m not embarrassed; you’re a hero. My hero, she used to say. But you have to remember how it looks for me.

“It was complicated,” Akira admitted. “But at least I didn’t have to go to any parties at her office.”

Iwai burst out laughing at that, slapping the table. “Right? Office parties are the worst, but with cops? Pffft, can you even imagine?”

They were still laughing when the shop door opened. “Ah, Kaoru, c’mon in. Hold on, I’ll get that salmon you wanted. You remember Kurusu-kun, right? Worked at the shop back in the day.” Iwai got up and began rummaging through one of the coolers.

“Nice to see you again,” Kaoru said, nodding politely. “Are you visiting? Or have you moved here, perhaps?”

“Just visiting,” Akira said. “Though I keep running into people I know. It’s weird.”

“Well, everyone loves Garu-mura,” Kaoru smiled. “I would be happy to show you the library and museum, if you ever have time. Though, my wife and I are entertaining guests this weekend.” He held up the packet of fish as if to explain.

“I appreciate the invitation,” Akira said.

“Gah, you kids, always so polite.” Iwai scoffed.

Akira spent another half hour or so catching up with Iwai and finishing his soup. But then a customer came in, so he left. By then the wind had picked up, whipping across the sand of the beach.

“Ugh, this is no weather for cats,” Morgana said. “I’m going home. You good on your own?”

“I think so,” Akira said. “I can’t imagine I’ll get lost.”

“Stay out of the caves and you should be fine,” Morgana called out over his shoulder as he dashed across the sand.

Caves? Akira had no idea what he was talking about, but he wasn’t about to go spelunking. Instead he went back to the cottage by the beach. Shabby as it was, the little house already felt familiar. Despite being rundown, or maybe because of it, there was a sense of calm about the place which appealed to Akira immensely. Most of the places Akira spent his time felt temporary, the kind of slap-dash faux luxury that seemed endemic to modern construction. The cottage, meanwhile, felt real. It occupied its space completely. It had -- what had his high school teacher called it? Genius loci. A spirit of place. He wondered if Yusuke would know what he was talking about. Probably.

It felt a little weird to be there, though. It was private property, after all. He comforted himself with the knowledge that there didn’t seem to be anyone around, and there were no signs posted about trespassing. If anyone caught him, he could claim that he was interested in renting the place out.

Akira laughed bitterly to himself as he sat on the bench, both to think that he’d become so skittish about trespassing, and at the thought that anyone would believe he had enough money to rent a place on the beach, even if it was a shack. He was barely scraping by. The only reason he and Makoto had such a long engagement was because he couldn’t save up enough to buy her a proper ring. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise.

As he sat there, the reality of his situation began to truly sink in, in a way that he hadn’t yet grasped. He hated his job; he hated his apartment. He hated his life. Makoto had been the only person he could realistically rely on. Even though they hadn’t been a good couple -- he knew that much -- she was still all he had. When he went home again, he would have nothing.

The realization hit him like a punch to the gut. The next thing he knew, he was crying. And not gentle tears, either; he was wracked by great heaving sobs that he couldn't control. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes as he curled in on himself, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

The worst of it had passed when he heard someone say his name. It was Yusuke -- how long had he been standing there?  Akira jolted upright, wiping frantically at his face. “Yes? Sorry, sorry, I --” He tried to laugh at his state, managing a breathy, helpless sound that was more than halfway to a sob.

Yusuke’s expression was twisted with sympathy. “Morgana told me you might be here. Would you like to be alone?”

“No! No, I mean. You don’t... it’s fine, you don’t have to... sorry,” Akira said again.

Yusuke fished around in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he handed to Akira. “There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”

“I shouldn’t be this upset. It was for the best.” Akira took a deep breath to get ahold of himself. “Honestly we hadn’t been getting along for a long time. It was just... we were a team, you know?” He blew his nose; the handkerchief smelled faintly of paint thinner and sawdust. “At least, I thought we were. Anyway -- shit, I’ve been so rude. Haven’t seen you in ten years and I haven’t even asked what you’ve been up to.”

Yusuke paused for a moment, then sat next to him. “Traveling, for the most part. I went to Europe, to Canada, Vietnam, even Senegal for a few months.”

“Why Senegal?”

“French is common enough there that I could get by. My English is not so good.”

“Oh right, I forgot you took French,” Akira said. “Remember when we were in Hawaii, and we ran into those Canadian girls? Ryuji’s face when you started that conversation with them in French was just priceless.”

Yusuke shook his head. “He looked like he was about to have an aneurism.”

Akira gave a rueful grin, remembering it. “Anyway, tell me more about your travels.”

Yusuke stretched his legs out in front of him. “That could take quite a while. And I’m sure you’d rather do something with what little time you have here, other than listen to me drone on.”

There was a bitter, self-mocking note to Yusuke’s voice, something Akira had never noticed before. It was almost painful to hear. “Are you kidding? Of course I want to listen,” Akira said quietly.

Yusuke turned sharply to look at him, as if in disbelief. “Truly?”

Akira frowned in confusion. It was almost as if Yusuke was insecure, which made less than no sense. “Unless you’d rather hear more about my shitty job or my pathetic home life? I mean I’m happy to tell you all about how I spend most evenings playing video games that I’ve beaten a hundred times, if you’d rather talk about that. Do you need tips and tricks for Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town? I know you’ve been traveling the world, but did you know? If you give the Harvest Goddess a flower for ten consecutive days, she will give you a Power Berry.” Akira nodded with utmost sincerity.

Yusuke laughed. “A Power Berry, you say? Fascinating.”

Akira grinned. It felt good to make Yusuke laugh. Granted, Akira liked making anyone laugh, but there was something special about getting Yusuke to crack up. Part of it was just that he was usually clueless that anything funny was happening at all, which just meant Akira had to go to extremes to make the jokes land. And Yusuke’s laugh was rich and unselfconscious, well worth the effort. “Wait till I tell you about the pineapples, that’ll really blow your mind.”

Still smiling, Yusuke stood up. “I fear that will have to wait. I came to fetch you, actually. Futaba-chan was having trouble texting you.”

“Oh shit, I turned my notifications off,” Akira said, fumbling in his pocket. “Makoto texted me earlier and -- ugh, never mind.” Sure enough, there were half a dozen increasingly emoji-riddled texts from Futaba waiting for him.

“Are you -- don’t feel like you need to rush back,” Yusuke said. “If you need some time.”

“Nah, I’m good.” Akira got to his feet, embarrassed that Yusuke had seen him so upset. “I’ll, uh, wash this tonight,” he said, holding up the handkerchief.

“No hurry,” Yusuke said. “I have many others. There’s a lot of pollen here in the spring; I try to keep one on me at all times. I never could get used to wearing a mask.”

There was probably a joke in there somewhere, something about the metaverse and their personas and masks, but Akira didn’t push it. Instead he followed Yusuke back towards the village. Once they got into town, Akira made his way back to the Stardrop, leaving Yusuke to do... whatever it was he did with his afternoons. Sculpting, probably.

Futaba was waiting for him at the restaurant. “Finally,” she whined, dragging the word out melodramatically. “You took foreverrrrrr.”

“Sorry, I turned my phone off,” Akira explained. “Everything alright?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah everything’s fine,” she said. “Just wanna show you around the kitchen. You’re still up to give us a hand, right?”

“Absolutely,” Akira said. He meant it, too; he was looking forward to getting in the kitchen again. He missed the camaraderie of pitching in at Leblanc. When he was having difficulty getting accepted to college, Akira thought about becoming a cook, but Makoto had talked him out of it.

Akira donned the apron Sojiro handed him. “You know you really don’t have to help, right? We’ll be fine,” Sojiro said.

“No we won’t,” Futaba insisted, in that ‘we-talked-about-this’ tone of voice people use when they’re trying to present a united front. “Joker has to help. It’s imperative to the mission.”

Sojiro snorted. “What mission?”

“You’ll see,” Futaba said mysteriously. “Come on, Joker. Let’s get you settled in.”

The kitchen at the Stardrop Saloon was much bigger than at Leblanc, and it was equipped better, too. There was a proper dishwasher, which Futaba showed him how to operate. It was surprisingly easy to slip back into the routine of helping in the restaurant. Akira mostly washed dishes and plated otoshi, occasionally running food to a table when Futaba was too busy. It helped that the Stardrop was a pretty laid-back place; even when it was bustling at the rush, Sojiro still had time to chat with his customers.

“Man, this is so much easier with you here,” Futaba said, bringing in a bus tub full of dirty plates. “We don’t really need three, but it’s all I can do usually to deal with the noise and all the people. I tried wearing headphones once but Sojiro said I needed to be able to hear the customers.” She made a face.

“Can’t he hire someone else?” Akira asked. “I mean, it seems plenty busy.”

“Oh sure, the place does great. It’s not a matter of affording to pay someone -- it’s that no one wants the job. Most of the adults around here have full-time jobs, and the kids would rather work earlier in the day, if they even need to work at all.” Futaba shrugged, sighing artlessly. “Yep, it’s a real shame. But we manage.”

Akira got the impression she was trying to tell him something, but whatever it was, it was going over his head. It’s not like he knew anyone looking for work all the way out here. Although... “What about Yusuke? I mean, I know he’s got his sculpture, but surely he’s got some time.”

Futaba burst out laughing. “Are you kidding? Inari? In the kitchen?”

Akira scrunched his nose. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. He’d probably get distracted by the interplay of the grease and soap bubbles instead of actually doing the dishes.”

“Plus don’t forget the raw-yet-burned rice,” she pointed out, loading a tray with orders of curry. “It looks like the rush is almost done, by the way. Should be slowing down soon.”

Akira nodded and went to work loading up the dishes into the machine. Talking about Yusuke reminded him that he needed to wash the handkerchief out later. He smiled to himself, thinking of how old-fashioned it was that Yusuke carried hankies with him rather than paper tissues.

Akira wondered if they would become friendly again. As much as he hoped so, the question remained of why they had ever stopped being friends in the first place. After Akira left Shujin Academy, Yusuke stopped responding to his texts. At the time, Akira had been rather hurt by it. It was hard not to take it personally, even though he knew Yusuke was probably just busy.

Akira actually mentioned it to Makoto once. Probably he shouldn’t have brought it up, but it had been months since he’d heard from Yusuke by that point. He didn’t remember quite what he asked -- something about whether she’d been in contact with Yusuke at all. He did remember, however, the pained look on her face. Like she knew something but didn’t want to say. She said something vague about losing touch, Akira couldn’t recall what. Reading between the lines, it seemed she was trying to tell him that his friendship with Yusuke was more one-sided than he thought, that perhaps Yusuke hadn’t liked hanging out with him all that much.

Which... as much as that sucked, he had to admit it was fair. They had been thrown together by circumstance, after all. It was silly to think they would all continue to be fast friends. Akira was certainly closer to Ryuji than he was to Haru, for instance. Fair or not, it was upsetting to hear.

Still, seeing Yusuke again made him wonder if he was remembering things wrong. Did it really matter what had happened, though? It was ages ago. They were adults now. There was no point in Akira being petty about it; Yusuke surely had his reasons for cutting off contact at the time, and there was no reason not to be friendly with him now. He told himself he needed to stop worrying about it, pushing aside the kernel of confusion and hurt feelings. It was enough that they had gotten a chance to catch up after so much time, wasn’t it?

Sojiro appeared in the doorway, wiping his hands on a kitchen towel. “Yo, come on out to the front when you catch up. I’ll get you some dinner before I shut the grill off for the night.”

“Be right there,” Akira said, pulling the last tray from the dishwasher. He stopped wondering about Yusuke. He had more immediate concerns, like whether Sojiro was as good with yakitori as he was with curry. He headed out to the dining room to find out.

Futaba was wiping down the tables. All but one of the customers had already left. There was still an older man sitting at the bar, chatting quietly with Sojiro. He turned when Akira came out of the kitchen. “Ah! The man of the hour!”

It was Yoshida. He’d aged -- both his hair and his body had thinned -- and it was probably the first time Akira had seen him not in a suit and tie.  He patted Akira on the shoulder as he turned to Sojiro. “Did I ever tell you how much Kururu-kun’s support meant to me? I literally wouldn’t be here today without him,” he beamed proudly.

“That so?” Sojiro looked as if he didn’t know whether to believe that or not.

“Absolutely,” Yoshida insisted. “My last term in the House of Councillors would never have happened if this young man hadn’t stopped to listen to my speeches.”

Laughing, Sojiro rubbed at his neck. “Knew you were getting up to a lot after school, but I had no idea you were so involved in politics.” He threw a dozen chicken skewers on to the grill.

It smelled amazing; Akira suddenly realized he was starving. “How is it you came to Garu-mura?” Akira asked politely.

“Eh, I’d planned a second term in the Diet, it’s true,” Yoshida said, shrugging. “But I’m an old man now, and the stress was too much for me. So I moved here instead. It’s where I used to come as a boy for the summer. I’ve made a full recovery, and the people of the village have seen fit to honor me with this post.”

They chatted for a few more minutes before Yoshida left, making Akira promise to look him up the next time he visited.

“Oh my god I thought he’d be here forever,” Futaba groaned, making a beeline for the tray of food Sojiro set on the bar. She crammed a skewer in her mouth before she’d even sat down all the way. “So gooood.”

She was right; the chicken was delicious. “These are amazing,” Akira agreed. “I don’t think I’ve had any like this before.”

“The secret is, I brine the chicken breast first. That way I can get away with thinner pieces and a higher heat to get them nice and crispy without drying out. It’s not like a marinade though -- doesn’t add any flavor, so the chicken still comes through.”

“Oh, I saw that on TV once. But for turkey. I always meant to try it, but....” Akira shrugged and helped himself to another skewer.

“Yeah, can’t see you roasting up a whole turkey,” Sojiro said.

“Why? It might make prissy-face’s blouse smell like food?” Futaba rolled her eyes.

“Be nice,” Sojiro said mildly.

Futaba shifted gears. “You were such a big help tonight. Wasn’t he, Sojiro?” Her voice was sly; it seemed like she was up to something.

“Well, yeah,” Sojiro said, uncertain of where the conversation was going. “Always good to have experienced help.”

“Phew, it got all smoky in here,” Futaba said loudly, theatrically waving away non-existent fumes from the air. “I should just go open a window.” She opened the closest window wide to the night. “There, that’s so much better with this open window.”

“Futaba, what are you on about?”

Morgana leaped onto the windowsill. “Oh, yakitori!”

“You’ll get none of mine, Mona!” Futaba said, hurrying back to her seat and curling an arm possessively around her plate.

It was clear they had something planned. Akira helped himself to the last skewer.

“Hey!” Futaba objected.

“What? You can have these whenever you want,” Akira said.

Futaba looked like she was about to argue, but then her eyes narrowed. “That’s right, I can,” she nodded slowly. “And if you moved here and worked for Sojiro, so could you. Isn’t that right, Sojiro?”

“What?” Sojiro looked up from scraping down the grill. “What’s this about?”

“Akira, you should do it! Come live with us!” Morgana yelled.

“Can’t he have the job Sojirooooo? Pleeeeeease?” Futaba begged.

“Well I mean, uh... I mean of course, but....” Sojiro looked at Akira, clearly weighing out the idea in his head. “I wouldn’t be able to pay you very much, and it would only be part time. That’s not exactly enough to justify moving.”

Akira sighed, shaking his head. Now that he realized what they’d been leading up to, it seemed obvious. For a second, he allowed himself to consider how nice it would be to be here all the time. Sojiro and Futaba were kind of like family -- and Morgana too, in a way. The family he would choose, if he could. And of course, that meant he’d be able to see Yusuke, too.

Akira’s chest did a funny throbbing thing, like his heart skipped a beat. Before it could fully register, his mind pushed the whole concept aside. It was ridiculous. He could never afford to move out here. “And just where would I live?”

“You could stay with anyone!” Futaba said, making a vague, dismissive hand gesture. “That’s what couches are for.”

“No, couches are for sitting,” Sojiro said. “What you’re talking about is called ‘being homeless’.” He took her plate, dumping the empty skewers in the trash and washing the plate in the bar sink. “Plus, he’s got a whole life in Tokyo -- a job and friends and a place of his own. That’s the place for a young guy on his own, not out here in the sticks. I know you don’t care about dating, but once this guy brushes himself off, there’ll be any number of girls just dying to meet him. Or, you know. Boys,” he amended quickly. “I don’t judge.”

“Oh my goddddd,” Akira said, folding his arms on the bar and burying his face in them. “Not you too? I like girls,” he insisted.

“Wait, does that mean you won’t do it?” Futaba said, deflating in disappointment. “Aww, we had it all worked out!” She looked sadly at Morgana.

“Yeah, maybe next time talk to another human before you hatch these little schemes,” Sojiro said.

“What? I am a master strategist! I am the greatest when it comes to planning! You tell them, Futaba! You have to defend my honor! You have to --”

“Wow, I really pissed him off, eh?” Sojiro shook his head and went back to wiping down the bar.

That night he laid awake for hours on Sojiro’s couch. Well-intentioned as Futaba’s scheme was, it only served to make Akira feel worse, not better. He couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the idea, despite how heavy his eyes were. Could he actually make it work, financially? Probably not. The cost of living was undoubtedly cheaper in Garu-mura, but there wasn’t a lot of housing stock. Even if someone had a room for rent, it would have to be practically free for Akira to afford it on a part-time salary. Though, maybe he could supplement his income in other ways? Maybe Iwai could use some help? Or he could get back into writing, do some freelancing like Futaba did with her coding gig? Maybe Ohya would remember him, if she was still working as a journalist, and help him get started.

Every idea was immediately quashed by a heavy dose of reality. Even if Iwai needed help, Akira knew nothing about fishing. And he hadn’t written a word in years. The concept that he’d somehow be able to compete as a freelancer was ridiculous, even if Ohya were able to help. Plus, he wasn’t a journalist. Whatever silly thoughts he’d entertained when he was younger about being a writer were irrelevant; he’d never make a living that way.

A big part of it was that he didn’t want to rely on anyone else for help. He was twenty-seven; he should be established by now, not cobbling together an income from scraps and sleeping on couches. As miserable as his life in Tokyo was, it was his and his alone. That had to count for something, didn’t it?

Akira had just managed to drift close to slumber when he wondered, idly, what Yusuke would think of Futaba’s plan, whether he would like it if Akira moved here. Suddenly he was wide awake again, chest thumping. “Dammit,” he muttered, sitting up. He rubbed his eyes; they were thick with grit.

He sighed. Why the hell was he even thinking about that? And what was up with everyone thinking he liked guys? He’d just spent the last decade with Makoto. And yeah, granted, it wasn't so great in the end, but not because of their sex life. He liked sleeping with her just fine. Sort of. They didn’t really have sex very often, but it was... it was fine. Akira was pretty sure he just wasn’t into sex in general. He was happy to let Makoto take the lead on that front.

Anyway he would know if he was gay, wouldn’t he? Most of the people Akira knew were straight, but you were supposed to just know, right? Sure, Yusuke was handsome, but that was just an objective fact. That didn’t mean Akira was attracted to him. He wasn’t even sure what that meant, being attracted to someone. Makoto was beautiful, and when they were together it felt... nice. Wasn’t that all there was to it?

Yusuke was just his friend. Hell, Akira had been uncomfortable around him for the first few weeks that they knew each other. For some reason it had been... weird. Like... like there was never enough air in the room, when Yusuke was around. Of course that just happened sometimes around handsome guys; that was just Akira being self-conscious and envious, wasn’t it? It had been the worst with Yusuke, though. And somehow Akira was always super aware of where Yusuke was when they were together, like there was a magnet in his chest.  That took forever to go away.

Akira sighed again, which turned into a yawn. He was so, so tired. He rifled through his backpack in the dark, eventually retrieving his earbuds. He put his phone on a white noise app and set it to the sound of the ocean. It was gonna kill his battery, but laying there with no distractions wasn’t working. With a final yawn, Akira counted the waves until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

On Saturday, Futaba put her freelancing on hold to spend time with Akira. She insisted on showing him every inch of the village, with the blatant intent to change Akira’s mind about moving. Granted, the village wasn’t very big, and he’d already seen most of it on previous visits. She made up for it by dragging him the long way around, showing him the caves, the bathhouse by the train station, and finally a weird stone tower on the far edge of the forest.

“Does someone live in there?” Akira asked, shading his eyes as he looked up at it. For some reason it looked familiar.

“Think so, yeah. It’s off the grid, so I haven’t been able to crack in and look around. But smoke comes from the chimney,” Futaba said brightly.

“Do you hack everyone?” Akira sighed.

“Negative,” Futaba said, not bothered in the least. “I only snoop on people I know for good reason.”

“Well that’s reassuring,” Akira said. “Sort of.” He squinted at the structure, tilting his head. Suddenly he realized what he was sensing. It wasn’t the building itself that seemed familiar, it was how it felt. “Futaba... can you....”

“Feel that? Yyyyep. Kinda like the way safe rooms used to feel, right? Only, like, the opposite.” She plopped herself down on a fallen log by the side of the path. “Weird.”

Akira frowned. “Have you asked Morgana about it?”

“Duh,” she said. “He says not to worry about it. I think he knows what’s up, but he doesn’t want to say. I tried the door once or twice, but it’s locked. Too bad there’s not someone around who knows about picking locks.” Futaba sighed in mock frustration.

Akira rolled his eyes. “I know you want me to move here, but it’s not that simple. I’m just not in a place where I can make it work, money-wise. And even if I could, my lock-picking days are long behind me.”

“Hmph. Seems to me like you haven’t even really thought about it.”

“I did, promise. Look. Maybe someday, I could reconsider, but for now.... I just don’t see it happening.” Akira turned his attention back to the tower. He almost said something about how weird it was that so many people he knew had ended up in such a tiny village out in the middle of nowhere. But if Futaba was so unconcerned about the bizarre tower, something as vague as Akira’s acquaintance with a few other villagers would probably be brushed off as coincidence.

“Fine,” Futaba huffed. “I’ll relent. For now. I just... it’s nice having you around, ok? And it’s nice here, and we’re all super happy, and we... I want you to be happy too. Okay, speech over. Hug time.” She held her arms out.

It was hard not to be touched. He held his arms wide too, and Futaba flung herself at him, squeezing his midsection for half a minute before she let go.

“Alright, let’s get to work,” she said. “You wanna run the food tonight? I wouldn’t mind getting a break from all the customers.”

“Sure,” Akira nodded. “No problem.”

They ran into Yusuke on the way back to the Stardrop; Akira suspected that was also less than coincidental on Futaba’s part. Yusuke was outside his cabin, stripping bark from huge tree branches he’d gathered from the forest. Even though it was only spring, the sun was warm -- apparently so warm that Yusuke had stripped off his shirt, wearing only a tank top.

He was still slender, but his muscles had heft now, flexing and bunching as he wrangled the wood. When he caught sight of Akira, his face lit up. He set the branch aside and waved, grinning as he brushed the stray strands of hair out of his face.

Akira’s smile was pained as he waved back. He had that feeling again, like he couldn’t breathe. Also it felt like he’d swallowed some bees at some point. It was more than a little off-putting, not the least because he didn’t know why it was happening. Was it jealousy? Shame? Maybe that was it. Akira certainly wasn’t in great shape any more, nothing like what he’d been back when he was a phantom thief. A decade of desk work would do that to a guy.

“Akira!” Yusuke called out. “What do you think?” He brandished the naked limb in the air proudly.

“It’s, um, very nice,” Akira nodded, trying desperately not to stare at his arms. “I’m sure it’ll be a masterpiece in your hands.”

Yusuke regarded it with something like wonder as he set it aside. “The lines are spectacular, don’t you think?” He untied his hair and let it fall free, tousling it with his fingers for a moment before smoothing it back into a ponytail.

Akira inhaled too sharply and set himself on a coughing fit. “Absolutely,” he croaked.

“You coming out tonight?” Futaba said.

“Of course.” Yusuke said it like it was a foregone conclusion. “I look forward to it. Perhaps if it’s not too busy, we can have a drink together,” he said to Akira.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Akira managed, still coughing.

“If you lived here, you could get drinks together all the time,” Futaba pointed out.

Yusuke’s eyes widened. If his face had lit up before, now it shone like the sun. “Are you considering moving here? But... that would be simply marvelous!”

“Dammit,” Akira grumbled. “I’m not,” he explained, shooting a glare at Futaba. “Someone just won’t take no for an answer.”

“Oh.” The disappointment in Yusuke’s tone was palpable. “Well. All the more reason to have a drink later. I’m sure Sojiro will be able to spare you for a few moments.”

When Akira made it back to the Stardrop, Akira was sure to mention that Yusuke might be stopping in. “Oh, yeah, he comes every Saturday,” Sojiro nodded. “How about you give me a hand till he gets here? It wouldn’t be right, making you work while your friend is hanging out.”

“Thank you,” Akira said, grateful that Sojiro suggested it. He hated to go back on his word about helping out, but it would be nice to catch up before Akira left in the morning.

The restaurant soon got busy; the tables quickly filled with regulars. Akira found himself being introduced several times over by his old acquaintances or Sojiro himself. As nice as it was to feel so welcome, it did make the actual restaurant operation more difficult, as people kept pulling him aside to chat.

Akira escaped to the kitchen for a moment to drop off a tub of dirty dishes. “Is it always like this?”

Futaba shrugged and started loading the dirties into a rack. “Pretty much.”

“I swear, I’m making it worse,” Akira joked, loading up a tray with otoshi. “If the mayor calls me aside one more time --”

A loud commotion in the dining area interrupted him.

“Who’s yelling?” Futaba asked, clearly confused. “No one can possibly be that drunk yet.”

Sojiro burst into the kitchen, beaming from ear to ear. “Akira, you’ve got to see who’s here! Here, leave those to me,” he said, taking the tray.

Akira followed him out. He barely made it into the dining room when he heard someone shout his name and barrel into him, hugging him so hard he was lifted bodily from the ground a few inches.

“Holy sh- Ryuji?? What -- what’s --”

It was, indeed, Ryuji, talking a mile a minute. “Hey man, I can’t believe you’re here! And Boss, wait is Futaba here too?”

Ann pushed him aside so she could hug Akira as well, albeit with only one arm as she was holding their baby. “Oh my god I can’t believe it!” she squealed.

The next few minutes were chaotic, especially once Futaba peeked out from the back, but eventually it came to light that they were visiting the visibly-pregnant Shiho, who was standing off to the side with her husband. Who just happened to be none other than... Kaoru Iwai.

Sojiro bundled them towards the big table in the corner, murmuring apologies for the disruption to the other guests as he went. No one seemed to begrudge them the surprise reunion though.

“God I had no idea Boss ran this place,” Ryuji said, looking around. “We’ve been meanin’ to come here for ages but usually we don’t have time when we visit.”

“It’s so so good to see you,” Ann said. “It all seemed to work out, didn’t it?”

Akira felt a small pang of unease -- there seemed to be a lot of coincidences and things ‘just working out’ lately. But he was far too happy to let that bother him in the moment. A thought hit him. “Did you know Yusuke is here, too? He should be here any minute.”

“What?? Yusuke??” Ryuji almost spit his beer all over himself. “Here?? I knew he moved to a small town a few months ago but I had no idea it was here.”

“Do you mean the artist who lives by the river?” Kaoru asked. “He seems very talented.”

Akira realized, belatedly, that he was completely crashing their dinner. “He and I can get a separate table,” he offered. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“Don’t be silly, it’s wonderful to see you again, Kurusu-kun,” Shiho said. “I had no idea you knew Sakura-san.”

“Waiiiiit a second,” Ryuji said, looking over Ann’s shoulder. “Duuuuude. Isn’t that -- that’s totally the guy from the place we used to get all our --” He shut his mouth with an audible clop. “Uh, stuff,” he said, raising his eyebrows significantly. “Didn’t you work in his shop?”

“That’s Mune-san. Kaoru-kun’s father,” Akira said pointedly.

“What? You’re related??” Ryuji squinted at Kaoru.

“That’s kind of a weird coincidence, right?” Ann said.

“There’s a lot of those going around,” Akira noted.

The door opened just then; it was Yusuke. He spotted them at once. “I don’t believe it,” he cried out, holding his hand over his heart.

The whole chaotic reunion repeated itself -- the hugging, the handshakes, the jostling to fit another seat at the already-crowded table. Akira found himself wedged into the bench seat between the window and Yusuke. It felt so familiar, and yet so different. For the briefest moment, he wished Makoto was there with them. Not because he particularly wanted to spend time with her himself, but he knew she would enjoy seeing everyone else.

The evening rapidly devolved into a rather boisterous party. Akira’s heart was full, as was his glass. Literally -- on top of the drinks they bought for themselves, other patrons of the restaurant sent over rounds as well, apparently touched by the obvious joy they all had at seeing each other again. Shiho and Ann weren’t drinking, which meant that some of their drinks ended up in Akira’s hands as well.

“So I guess we’ll be neighbors, huh?” Ryuji said, leaning across the table to clap Yusuke on the shoulder.

“What?” Yusuke looked at Akira, as if he had anything to do with it.

“Yeah!” Ann grinned. “Ryuji just got offered a youth coaching position in the next town over, and we thought it would be great to move here, so our kids could grow up together,” she said, gesturing between herself and Shiho. “That’s why we’re here -- we’re checking out houses.”

“That’s marvelous,” Yusuke said. “Who would have ever thought circumstances would align in such a way?”

“Pfffft,” Ryuji laughed. “Still talkin’ the same, I see.”

Akira’s mind seemed to jam. Ann and Ryuji were moving there, too? What the hell was going on? He needed to talk to Morgana. Something was clearly up. He wasn’t about to mention it to the others, at least not now. There was no point in bringing down such a happy occasion with his vague feeling that something was wrong.

Though, listening to the laughter and conversation around him, Akira realized maybe that wasn’t accurate. It wasn’t so much a feeling that something was wrong so much as that it was all too right. Maybe he was just being bitter, though? It was hard to listen to them all make plans for a future together, knowing he’d be on the outside looking in.

Shiho and Kauro left not long after that, as the expectant mother needed more sleep than usual. By that point, the restaurant had gotten pretty quiet. Futaba came out of the kitchen, and the window was opened to allow Morgana to take part in the conversation.

“Man, this could be Leblanc,” Ryuji said, shaking his head. “Boss lettin’ us hang out while he cleans up and everything.” He reached for his drink. “Though I gotta say, nice having a beer. Nuthin’ against his coffee though.”

“It does make a nice change,” Yusuke agreed. “We should have a toast.”

“Agreed!” Futaba said. “To new beginnings!” She held up her mug.

They all toasted, clinking their glasses together.

“Shame Haru’s not here,” Ann said. “I know, let’s take a selfie and send it to her! She’ll love that.”

Ryuji nodded. “Oh, yeah, we should send it to Mak-- ah, M-mishima,” he floundered.

Instantly, the mood of the table dipped; everyone looked everywhere except at Akira. “It’s fine, guys. Really. Just because we... Makoto’s still one of us. I know she’d love to see it,” he said.  

“Well, as long as you’re okay with it,” Ann said slowly.

“Come on, let’s all get in the shot. Don’t crowd Mona out,” Futaba said.

It took a few tries for them to all have their eyes open and such, but eventually the shot was taken and sent.

“Actually, it would be funny to send it to Mishima-kun,” Ann said. “Maybe I should tag him so he sees it?”

“Oh my god, he’d totally freak out,” Futaba said. “Did I ever tell you guys I found out he was modding a phantom thieves tumblr back in the day?”

“What is this?” Yusuke asked. “You mean the Phan-site?”

“No no, a Tumblr with like, the whole deal. Fanart, fanfiction, all these crazy theories. It was nuts.”

Ryuji looked confused. “But... nobody knows who we are or what we look like!”

“I know!” Futaba squealed. “That’s the best part! Everyone was going off of that 10-second video we put up on all the screens in Shibuya, where we were all in silhouette.”

“I don’t understand,” Yusuke said. “What is tumble?”

Futaba rolled her eyes and pulled out her phone. “Tumblr. I’m sure there’s still stuff in the tags, hold on.... Ha! Here, scroll through, you’ll see.”

“But... how do they know our names?” Ann asked.

“They don’t, that’s the best part! They just decided on names based on our Thief costumes. You’re Naughty Cat,” she said to Ann, “Kitsune Prince, Captain Punk, and Thief of Darkness,” she finished, pointing at Yusuke, Ryuji, and Akira in turn. “Haru was Dainty, and Makoto was Queen of Pain.”

Akira was afraid he might die from laughing. “Are you serious?”

“They gave us anime faces,” Yusuke said, frowning at the phone.

Futaba scoffed. “Well duh, they didn’t know what we looked like.”

“How come I didn’t get a name?” Morgana yowled.

“Uh, they thought you were like... a prop for Ann, basically. Like a familiar.”

“What?? That’s an outrage!” Morgana shouted.

“They aren’t even good anime faces,” Yusuke said mildly, continuing to scroll. “Why is my hair blue?”

“I can’t believe we didn’t know about this,” Ann said, shaking her head. “Please don’t tell me there are ships.”

“Pffft, ‘are there ships’, she says,” Futaba laughed.

Ryuji looked confused. “What the hell are ships?”

“Relation-ships,” Ann explained. “It’s like, you imagine characters together. And then make up stories about it. But we’re real people!” She scrunched her nose. “Didn’t they realize that?”

“Why are my legs and arms so long in these drawings?” Yusuke asked no one in particular. “The proportions are atrocious.”

Futaba snorted, answering Ann's question. “Like that matters? Everyone got paired with everyone. Ann and Yusuke were popular, because you both had tails I guess? And Ryuji and Makoto had that whole punk thing.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Akira laughed. “Did that mean I was with Haru? And how come you’re not in any of this?”

“I was behind the camera, remember? And no, believe it or not, your most popular ship was with Akechi.”

The table erupted into a chorus of disbelief and laughter. “Akechi??” Akira wheezed. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. Big time. That whole enemies-to-lovers thing is huge.” Futaba shrugged.

“Good lord,” Yusuke said suddenly, still staring at the phone. His eyes were big as dinner plates and his cheeks were flushed. “This one -- I’m not wearing any -- it shows my -- oh my god.”

“Aaaand we’re not looking at smut on my phone, thank you very much,” Futaba said, yanking the phone from Yusuke’s hands.

Yusuke was reluctant to let go. “Where would anyone find that much scarlet rope?”

“Alright, we gotta get out of here,” Ann said. She had a point; with all the noise, the baby had started to fuss. She and Ryuji left not long after that, so they could put the baby to bed. Sojiro followed next, letting Akira know it was okay to hang out as long as he wanted, as long as he locked up and turned off the lights.

Eventually, Futaba and Morgana left as well, just as Akira had poured fresh beers for himself and Yusuke. So it was just the two of them.

“What a wonderful night,” Yusuke said, smiling to himself as he pondered his beer. “I will definitely be paying the price tomorrow, I fear. I’m quite tipsy.”

Akira was too. “Do you ever take a day off?”

“Of course,” Yusuke said. “I just prefer to have a clear head while I enjoy them. Still, this is a special occasion.”

They chatted for a few minutes about the others, going over the highlights of the evening. “I had no idea Ann and Ryuji were thinking of moving here,” Akira said. “I guess I haven’t kept up with them so well, these last few months.”

“Neither have I. But you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” Yusuke said. “I imagine that things must have been... less than ideal for quite a while.”

“Mmm,” Akira hummed in agreement. “A really long while, if I’m being honest. Anyway, what about you? Have you, uh... had anyone special in your life?” Even as the words left his mouth, Akira regretted them. Both because the sentiment was so trite, and because he found he didn’t really want to know the answer, for some reason.

Yusuke looked at him, his expression hard to parse. Akira’s throat tightened up; why had he asked about that? It was none of his business.

“There have been a few,” Yusuke answered finally. “People I’ve met while I traveled, fellow artists. Nothing lasting, however.” A smile slid across his face and then disappeared again. “Not like Ann and Ryuji. I’ll admit, as long as it took them to finally get together, they seem a good couple.”

“Yeah,” Akira agreed. “In fact --” The rest of the thought dissolved as Akira’s mind finally put some pieces together. He looked up at Yusuke, blinking in astonishment. “You’ve been in touch with them. Ann and Ryuji, I mean.”

Yusuke didn’t seem surprised by the sudden shift in conversation. “I have,” he admitted. “And Haru and Futaba as well.”

Akira’s stomach dropped to the floor. He tried, desperately, to find a reason that didn’t end in Yusuke didn’t care about you enough to keep in touch . “Oh.”

“It’s not -- it’s not what you think,” Yusuke said quickly. He huffed in frustration. “I often wondered if we would ever have this conversation. And what I would tell you.” He toyed with his beer glass, wiping patterns into the condensation with his thumbs.

“No, I mean, it’s fine,” Akira stammered. “There’s no -- I mean, I didn’t expect --”

“No,” Yusuke said quietly, cutting him off. “You should at least know... while you were being held in detention, I was... made aware,” he said finally, “that there was a potential for my friendship with you to be considered --” he paused again, apparently searching for the word. “Inappropriate,” he concluded, with no small amount of disdain. “At the time, I thought it best for everyone if I faded out, so to speak. A decision I have often regretted, over the years.”

Akira struggled to comprehend. “I don’t... what do you mean, ‘inappropriate’? I don’t get it.”

Yusuke sighed, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “There were... extenuating circumstances. It doesn’t really matter. The decision was mine in the end, and I regret it deeply.”

“I thought I’d offended you. Or that you didn’t like me or something,” Akira blurted out. “I mean -- you know what I mean,” he laughed weakly, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was probably too drunk to be having this conversation.

“That wasn’t it at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Yusuke’s voice was quiet and full of regret.

There was a lull in the conversation. Akira was still confused -- perhaps more than he was before -- but knowing that he hadn’t somehow ruined things with Yusuke was a huge relief. “Well anyway, we’re here now,” Akira said, trying for a smile.

“That we are,” Yusuke agreed.

There was something in his expression that Akira didn’t recognize. A question, maybe, or perhaps an answer to something unspoken. Something in Akira’s chest started to ache.

His phone pinged loudly and they both jumped. “Who the hell could that be?” Akira said under his breath. “It’s after midnight.”

“Futaba-chan, most likely,” Yusuke guessed. “She keeps odd hours.”

Akira unlocked his phone and immediately regretted it. “Oh fuck,” he muttered, seeing Makoto’s name in the notification. He scanned the message briefly, enough to get the gist that she was deeply disappointed that he was faking illness to go ‘carouse’ with his friends.

“Ah, I see I was wrong,” Yusuke said. “I think I can guess who it is, though.”

“She is so pissed,” Akira groaned. “She called my office looking for me, which is bad enough, but now....” He groaned again, rubbing his face with both hands.

“I don’t mean to sound rude, but... does it matter what she thinks?” Yusuke said after a moment.

Abruptly, Akira sat up. “You know, you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t matter at all, does it?”

Yusuke shrugged. “Not so far as I can see.”

Akira took a deep breath, which turned into a yawn. “I should probably go to bed,” he said.

“Can I help you clean up?”

“Nah, I’ve got it.” Akira waved him off. “It’s just a few glasses.”

“Then I will take my leave as well,” Yusuke said, getting to his feet. “I probably won’t see you before you leave tomorrow. Safe travels.”

“Thanks,” Akira promised, getting to his feet as well. “And... don’t be a stranger, okay?”

“I won’t,” Yusuke said.

For a second they stood awkwardly. Akira was just about to give him a hug -- it seemed the thing to do, right? -- when Yusuke instead gave a slight bow, then turned to leave. “Have a good night.”

“You too.”

Akira stood there for a long time. Something about the way they’d said goodbye didn’t sit well, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Eventually he gave up; whatever it was, he was too sleepy and tipsy to figure it out now. Maybe it would come to him in the morning, or perhaps there was nothing to worry about at all. There was a first time for everything, after all.

Chapter Text

If leaving Garu-mura on Sunday was painful, then going into the office on Monday morning was torture. After five days of happiness and sunshine, the drab greige walls and reconstituted air of the Jojamart headquarters might as well have been Mementos. Logging into his station, Akira saw his queue of complaint tickets was completely full, as expected. But a glance showed that all of them had been flagged as ‘problematic’. Great.

Every employee had the ability to flag a ticket that was likely to take longer than their allotted work time. In theory, this was supposed to keep overtime to a minimum. In practice, however, flagged complaints were the ones no one wanted to deal with. Although there were incentives for dealing with flagged tickets, sometimes they piled up. Managers had the ability to assign these flagged tickets directly, to spread the burden. Usually, there were no more than one or two each day.

Akira’s entire queue was full of them. No doubt it was his manager’s way of punishing him for taking so much time off. With a quiet groan, he opened the oldest ticket, which had been languishing in the system since Friday night. It was barely coherent, which meant the person didn’t speak much Japanese or was so blind with rage that they could hardly string two words together. He couldn’t even tell what they wanted; one second they were complaining about the service at a Jojamart store and the next about the “quality of goods”, without ever mentioning a location or item number.

Akira took a calming breath and reminded himself it could still be worse; he could be working the phone lines. He was still puzzling out how best respond to the ticket when the intercom crackled to life. “Kurusu-san, to the chief clerk’s office at once.”

Grumbling under his breath, Akira stood up, unsurprised to see that everyone within earshot was pretending not to look at him. Although the intercom was meant to be a general communication device, it was used primarily to call out employees. No one ever got called on the com for something good.

The chief clerk sat at his desk, which had a fancy name plate on it that said Shinsuke Kishi. The name rang a bell, though Akira couldn’t quite place it. Akira’s direct manager was there too, a sniveling man named Tanaka, as well as someone with a Human Resources nametag.

This is what it’s like to get fired, Akira thought. Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through him, but he found he was numb; he knew he should care, but he found that he didn’t. Well, not very much. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”

Shinsuke held up Doctor Takemi’s note. “I understand you’ve been ill.”

Akira regarded his superiors, all of whom clearly thought he should be intimidated. He was struck with a sudden, wildly inappropriate urge to laugh, which he suppressed. To hell with this. “Yes,” Akira nodded. “My fiancee of five years recently ended our engagement,” he said calmly. “I went to see my doctor because I was suffering from insomnia and depression. I was worried that it would begin to affect my productivity. She recommended that I visit a spa or temple. As I can afford neither, I went to a small town on the coast to stay with family friends and enjoy the sea air.” He hadn’t been remotely concerned with his productivity, and it was a stretch to call Sojiro a family friend, but Akira figured it was close enough to the truth.

Shinsuke raised his eyebrows, clearly surprised at Akira’s answer. It took guts to talk about such personal issues out in the open. “I see.”

Tanaka spluttered. “But -- then explain this!” He spun the Shinsuke’s monitor around to show the picture from the Stardrop. Ann had, unfortunately, posted it to her public Facebook page and tagged Akira, who was holding a beer and smiling in the shot.

If these bumblers in cheap suits thought they could rattle him, they were wrong. Akira’s expression didn’t change in any way as he glanced at the photo. “Is there a problem?”

The representative from Human Resources narrowed his eyes. “I may not be a doctor, but I do not believe a night of drinking is an accepted medical treatment.”

Shinsuke nodded and looked at Akira. “Well?”

It was all Akira could do not to smile. Did they not know he once endured almost 24 straight hours of police questioning, under the influence of truth drugs, no less? “My doctor’s recommendation was to take 3-5 days off from work. Not wanting to cause any more disruption for the company than necessary, I took her minimum suggestion for three days off: Wednesday through Friday. As you can see, that picture was posted on Saturday, which is not a work day.” He was the picture of calm, innocent confusion. “I think you’ll find my record of attendance to be more than acceptable. I do not take sick days lightly.” He did his best to sound mildly offended by the idea that he would ever abuse the system.

Of course the truth was he hadn’t taken unnecessary sick days because Makoto would have harangued him for it. They didn’t need to know that, though.

Shinsuke looked to the human resources guy for corroboration; he didn’t even bother to open the file in his hands and merely nodded, once, with extreme reluctance.

Shinsuke’s mouth twitched, as if he was holding back a laugh. “Would you say that you have recovered fully?”

“Without a doubt,” Akira said, completely deadpan. “I look forward to processing my tickets with renewed vigor.”

“Well, I’ve heard enough,” Shinsuke said. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he nodded at the others. “Kurusu-san, if you wouldn’t mind staying a moment.”

At that, Akira felt the first tingle of nerves. He settled back in the chair, unsure of what was coming next. Was he fired or not?

After the others left, Shinsuke leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. He regarded Akira for a moment. “I took a look at your personnel file,” he said finally. “You’ve been here almost six years.” He sounded bemused.

Akira took a chance on Shinsuke’s sense of humor. “Has it been that long already?”

Shinsuke snorted, not quite a laugh. He stood up and walked to his window, peering out over the grounds. “Six years is a very long time to be in the complaints department,” he said. “You must’ve seen many people come and go in that time.”

“I suppose so,” Akira agreed warily.

“Why is that, do you think?” Shinsuke squinted through the glass as if there were something absolutely fascinating in the parking lot.

Akira hesitated. Because this job sucks wasn’t exactly something he could say. “I assume my co-workers moved on to other opportunities,” he hedged.

That earned him a chuckle. “They did, because dealing with customer complaints is a miserable task that no one wants to do for very long. Nor should they. I do my best to make sure those with potential move up quickly. Granted, my decisions are filtered through the managers; I rely on them to tell me who is ready to move on, who has the motivation to succeed.” He sat back down and began fiddling with a fancy pen.

“I... see,” Akira nodded. He didn’t see, at all. His bravado began to slip away, eroded by the sudden pivot in the conversation.

“Which is why I was surprised to find that someone with six years of tenure even exists, much less someone, as you have pointed out, as reliable as you. And yet here you are. What’s more, having been caught skipping work, you manage to talk yourself out of being fired with a skill I’ve rarely seen.”

Now thoroughly confused, Akira managed to say, “I promise you, I told the truth.”

“Of course you did! That was the best part. I know a liar when I see one, Kurusu-san. You, however, talk like a politician. Which brings me to my point: what on earth are you doing here?”

It took a second for Akira to realize it was a legitimate question. “I don’t understand.”

Shinsuke leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk. “Why are you in this job? Why haven’t you been promoted? Failing that, why have you not moved on to somewhere else?”

The change in tone and the question itself were so unexpected that Akira was thrown off-balance. He floundered for an answer -- any answer. “I have, er, a troubled past,” he said.

“Yes, I’m well aware. It’s noted in your file that you were wrongly accused of a crime as a teen. Also, I may be chief clerk, but I can manage a web search.”

Akira flinched. “I have found my opportunities to be limited, as a result.”

“Have you been looking for opportunities?” Shinsuke pressed him.

“N-no,” Akira said. “Not exactly.”

“Because it doesn’t seem to me that you’re doing much to angle for a promotion, either,” Shinsuke said. “You may have excellent attendance, but your job performance itself is barely adequate. Your manager tells me you have a bad attitude. And yet I find you to be well-spoken and self-assured.” He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms as if in challenge.

“Perhaps I could... try harder.” Akira only just managed to say it without it sounding like a question.

Shinsuke grunted, shaking his head in frustration. “I’m not asking for my sake, I’m asking for yours. Let me fill you in on a secret. I used to be a terrible manager. I was only concerned for my own position, abusing my employees, taking credit for their work. One day I woke up and realized what I was doing. I found my inspiration. Since then, I have committed myself to being the best I can at my job. I know that corporate life can be difficult. I take the heat from higher up about the turnover rate in complaints, specifically because I don’t want people to be there forever. I had to fight just to make sure the staff can listen to music and use the same cubicle every day, for God’s sake. When it comes to this department, workers should put in their time and get out. Two years, tops. It’s a stepping stone, not a destination.”

Akira stared at him, aghast. Suddenly he remembered why the clerk’s name sounded familiar. Akira defeated Shinsuke’s shadow in Mementos -- he was one of Mishima’s requests. The reason he’d woken up one day and felt different was because Akira had stolen his heart.

Shinsuke must have taken Akira’s silence as contemplation, because he continued. “You need inspiration, Kurusu-san. Decide what it is you want from this job. You’ve been here six years; far too long. A young man with your confidence could go a long way in life. I’ll be honest -- I fully intended to fire you this morning. But I will give you another chance.”

“What, really? I- I mean, thank you, sir,” Akira spluttered, remembering too late that he was supposed to be pretending he cared about this job.

Shinsuke snorted at the slip. “If your performance improves -- drastically -- you’ll be up for promotion in six months. Or I’d be happy to write you letter of recommendation for another department, something more in line with your interests. It says in your file you have a creative writing degree -- perhaps marketing would be a better fit. Or -- I don’t know -- quit tomorrow, run away to some secluded cottage and be the next Murakami. It doesn’t really matter to me. The important thing is that you do not allow yourself to become stagnant. Now, go on, get back to work. I’m sure your queue is quite full.” He dismissed Akira with a wave of his hand.

Akira stumbled back to his desk, slightly dazed. He could hardly believe Shinsuke was one of his former targets; clearly, the change of heart had stuck. It was probably the only reason Akira still had a job.

Although he had been fully prepared to be fired going into the meeting, his discussion with Shinsuke energized him. Maybe it was hearing acknowledgement that the job just plain sucked, or maybe it was the fact that Shinsuke had been impressed with his handling of the interview, but Akira attacked his queue of tickets with renewed energy. By the end of the day, he’d cleared the flagged backlog. His manager eyed him with suspicion as he left the office; he was probably confused that Akira was still working there. Akira couldn’t blame him.

Akira was still in good spirits by the time he got home. He decided to treat himself to delivery, a rare luxury. After all, he hadn’t spent any money at all on food while he’d been away. He ordered from Pizza-la, then changed out of his work clothes and cracked open a beer.

He was trying to figure out what to watch on TV when the buzzer rang. Springing up in surprise, he managed to spill beer on his knee. Grumbling as he sopped it up with the edge of his t-shirt, he answered the door.

It wasn’t pizza; it was Makoto, holding a box of Akira’s stuff.

Akira stared at her, dumbfounded.

“May I come in?” she asked pointedly.

“Sure -- sorry. I thought you were pizza.”

“Didn’t you get my text?” Makoto sighed in frustration. She shoved aside the pile of mail on Akira’s table and set the box down.

“Right,” Akira winced. There had been something in what she’d sent on Saturday about “we’ll talk on Monday”, but he hadn’t paid any attention at the time.

“So. You skip work, go tromping all over, drinking all night, and now -- my god, you’re drinking again?” She threw up her hands when she saw the can of beer.

“It’s just one,” Akira objected weakly.

“I can’t believe you, honestly. You’d better hope your manager doesn’t find out you faked being sick. You know how Ann-chan is about tagging people in things.”

Akira rubbed his face. “For one, I wasn’t ‘faking’ anything. I ran into Doctor Takemi. She told me I should get out of town so I could --” Akira huffed. He didn’t want to get into it. “Did you come here to yell at me? Or to drop off my things? Because as far as I can tell, where I go and what I do is no longer your business.”

Makoto blinked rapidly. “Oh god, listen to me,” she said quietly. “I’m so sorry. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I was -- I was just worried about you.” She sat abruptly, twisting her hands in her lap.

It sounded like she meant it. Something about that softened the knot of aggravation in Akira’s chest, almost against his will. He sighed heavily, not sure whether that made things better or worse. Their fights had a way of meandering in and out like this; Makoto was usually quick to apologize when she crossed the line. Although that was good in theory, it was also exhausting. Akira was often left with no outlet for his own emotions; he couldn’t very well still be angry when she’d already apologized, right?

Makoto roused herself. “How is everyone?” There was a tenuous quality to her voice, underscoring her apology.  

Better to keep the peace, Akira decided. “Fine,” Akira said, leaning on the kitchen counter. “Apparently everyone is moving to Garu-mura. Ann and Ryuji are looking at houses now, so they can be near Shiho and raise their kids.”

“Really? But the village is so... tiny,” she said.

Akira shrugged. “They all seem happy.”

“And... Kitagawa-kun is there too?”

There was something odd about the way she asked, a forced nonchalance which was out of step with the distance of Yusuke’s surname. “Yeah. Moved there a few months ago, I guess.”

Makoto seemed very absorbed with a loose bit of packing tape on the box, scraping at it with her fingernail. “He looked well,” she said.

The buzzer rang again. Akira retrieved the pizza from the delivery man and set it on the counter, grabbing a plate. “Do you want some?”

Makoto hummed as she considered it. “Is it tomato sauce?”

“Mayo.”

Scrunching her nose, Makoto shook her head. “You go ahead though.”

“I wouldn’t, but I’m starving,” Akira said. “I worked through lunch. And before you ask, yes they know I went out of town. And I was in trouble, but I talked my way out of it. Also it turns out the chief clerk was one of our former targets. Lucky thing we got to him; I’d have been fired for sure, otherwise.”

Makoto gasped. “Really?”

Akira nodded. “Shinsuke Kishi. The terrible manager.”

“Ohhhh yessss,” Makoto said slowly, trying to remember.

“He wants me to make something out of my life,” Akira said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Hm,” Makoto said. “I feel like I’ve heard that before....” The words were sarcastic -- Makoto had said the same thing about a million times -- but her tone was warm and wry, loosening the rest of the tension in Akira’s chest. “Did you really talk your way out of it?”

It was a clear invitation to have a normal conversation, or at least the pretense of one. Makoto’s breakup email had said she wanted to be friends, after all. Akira hadn’t been sure what he wanted, but now, sitting with her like this, he found he missed their camaraderie. He had misgivings -- no matter how lonely he was, he didn’t want to get dragged into another pointless fight -- but in the warmth of the moment, he pushed them aside. “I did,” he admitted with a grin. He reached for another slice of pizza. “Are you sure you don’t want some? I can’t finish the whole thing.”

“Well....” Makoto perched on the edge of her chair to peer at the pizza, biting her lip as she did a mental calculation of calories. “Okay,” she said, laughing a little. “I hate that I like mayo sauce so much.”

“I feel like I’ve heard that before,” Akira said, grinning wider. “Anyway, yeah. Apparently, I ‘talk like a politician’ and ‘a young man with my confidence could go a long way’,” he said, quoting Shinsuke. “He thought I just needed inspiration. Which is hilarious, because his inspiration was us, stealing his heart in Mementos.”

“God, that’s just crazy,” Makoto marveled. “Also it sounds like you put those lessons from No-good Tora to use.”

“Oh man, I forgot to tell you. Yoshida-san is in Garu-mura too. He’s the mayor.”

“What?” Makoto frowned in confusion.

“Yeah. And Mune-san, the guy from the airsoft shop. He’s a fisherman. His son’s there too, married to Shiho-chan.”

Makoto stared at him. “How is that even possible?”

Akira shrugged and helped himself to one last slice. “No idea. Crazy, right? I guess Haru stops in too, from time to time. Okumura Foods has a sustainable fishery operation there. That’s where Mune-san works now.”

Makoto’s eyes narrowed. “Doesn’t that seem a little... I don’t know. Suspicious?”

“Kinda? But I mean, they all have a good reason for being there,” Akira pointed out. “And like I said, everyone’s happy.” At the last second he avoided mentioning the weird tower in the woods. It would be just like Makoto to try and investigate, and he wasn’t sure that was what anyone needed.

“Huh. Well, I guess it’s just a weird coincidence.” She wiped her hands on a napkin. “I should probably go. I have a stack of case reports to read through.”

Akira got to his feet. “Thanks for bringing my things. Saved me a trip.”

“No problem. Thank you for the pizza. It was... it was good to see you. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”

“Sure,” Akira said automatically.

At the door, there was an awkward moment which felt oddly familiar for some reason. Finally Makoto laughed. “Friendly hug?”

“Sure,” Akira said.

Makoto hugged him tightly, and for probably longer than needed. Akira didn’t mind, exactly, but neither was he sure it was such a good idea. This kind of physical intimacy had always been more important to Makoto than it was to him; given that he and Makoto were no longer together, he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for a hug to go on for so long.

But then Makoto pulled away abruptly, with a deep breath. “Alright, time to go. Have a good night.”

“You too.”

After she left, Akira tidied the table. As usual, Makoto hadn’t eaten all of her pizza, instead nibbling away all of the cheese and toppings and leaving half-moon bite marks in the crust. It was so deeply familiar that Akira felt a pang to see it, reminded of how long they’d spent together. Had it really been that bad?

Then he remembered how stressful the first few minutes of Makoto’s visit were. With a sigh, he unpacked the box. That was a whole different level of weirdness. Akira had left a few pair of socks and underwear -- must’ve been jammed under the mattress or something. Makoto had washed and folded them, which was completely unnecessary. Akira couldn’t decide if that was a subtle dig at the fact that he often did laundry at her place, since she had access to semi-private machines in the basement of her building. Maybe she thought she was doing him a favor.

The rest was stuff with practically no importance: a half-empty tube of toothpaste, a cheap promotional water bottle, a set of crappy earbuds, his spare umbrella. Sorting through it, Akira couldn’t help but wonder why Makoto was so eager to erase every bit of evidence of their time together from her space. She could easily have just thrown these things away; Akira never would have missed them. It didn't occur to him she might have just wanted an excuse to come over.

Once his table was cleared, Akira got out his laptop, intending to putter around online. He’d left it behind and hadn’t really gotten a chance to catch up on his feeds aside from checking his phone.

He logged into Facebook, intending to remove the pesky tag. Sure enough, there was the photo from the Stardrop. Akira clicked to maximize it, smiling ruefully to himself.

For a pic that almost got him fired, at least it was a good one. Everyone was smiling and happy; even Morgana was in the shot, sitting on the windowsill with his mouth wide open. Yelling about something, no doubt.

The only flaw in the picture was that Yusuke wasn’t looking at the camera, but off to the side. He leaned back in the booth, his arm casually stretched along the back of the banquette. If Akira had been sitting back, Yusuke would have almost had his arm around him.

The idea of that made Akira’s stomach feel buzzy and weird, so he focused on trying to figure out what Yusuke was looking at, exactly. His line of sight seemed to be trained on something over Ann’s shoulder, which was odd.

Gradually, and with a sinking sense, it occurred to Akira that it was possible Yusuke was looking at him. He zoomed in further, intending to dissuade himself. Yusuke was smiling, but not so broadly as the others, as if he’d been caught off-guard. His expression was full of joy, but tempered by something Akira couldn’t define.

The longer he looked at the photo, the worse Akira felt. In addition to the buzzing in his stomach, it was like that not-enough-air sensation, but somehow now it was making him... sad? Sort of? Not sad, exactly, it was more like...

Like wanting something you can’t have.

Clearing his throat, Akira closed out of the browser. He was being stupid; Yusuke had probably just been turning his head or something when Ann took the photo. That was it.

He slapped the laptop shut. It was getting late, and he’d been low on sleep lately. Best just to go to bed. He had a full day of work tomorrow, after all.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Akira got a text from an unknown number as he waited on the subway platform. The preview said I’d like your opinion.

Taken aback, Akira opened it before he could think twice. It was a picture of a hand holding a large... stick?

Akira burst out laughing as he realized who sent it. His first text from Yusuke Kitagawa in ten years, and he sent a big stick.

The train pulled in just then, so Akira had to wait before he could respond. But he managed to get a seat, so he pulled his phone out once he was settled. His stomach felt light and buzzy; it was hard to stop smiling for some reason. Akira zoomed in on the photo and realized Yusuke had carved delicate cherry blossoms all over the wood, subtly blending them into the grain.

He typed back It’s beautiful. As soon as he sent it Akira wished he’d thought about his response more. It felt weirdly stark and fawning. Maybe he should have added a joke or something?

Thank you very much, the answer came. I’m thinking of making a series for all the different types of wood here. I feel a renewed sense of inspiration. Though I’ve yet to think of a title....

Akira grinned at his phone. He couldn’t help it. It was just so Yusuke. Not just the flowery language, but the whole idea that he looked at a stick and apparently thought “I should send a picture of this to Akira.”

Of course it wasn’t a stick, not anymore. It was a work of art. How about Hidden Memories?

THAT’S PERFECT!!! Yusuke replied almost immediately. I am in your debt. You always did have a way with words.

Akira almost blushed. As it was, he squirmed in his seat, uncomfortable with the praise. lol are you saying I should start charging a fee? First one’s free, my friend. :D

The train lurched to a halt at Akira’s stop. Akira joined the clot of people getting off. It was funny -- Shinsuke had said something about writing, too. Okay, it wasn’t ‘funny’ so much as ‘darkly ironic’. Akira hadn’t been able to write in... he tried to remember the last time and quickly gave up.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to write. But without the network of teachers and peers at college, it became difficult. Writing in a vacuum was not very fulfilling. As supportive as Makoto had been of his writing as a concept, she was not an ideal cheerleader in practice. Anything Akira shared with her became subject to her criticism, as if she was still student council president helping him study.

It wasn’t that she was overly negative -- in fact, she was effusive with her praise -- but her feedback was, more often than not, focused on technique. It felt hollow to pour out his soul into a piece and have her compliment the spelling. Plus, she was eager to see him monetize his writing, and Akira wasn’t sure he wanted that. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t love to write for a living, but Makoto took a much more mercenary stance, pressing him about marketing and networking. So he quickly learned not to show her his writing, and after a while it just became easier not to write at all.

Maybe he’d get to be more creative if he moved to the marketing department, like Shinsuke had suggested. That would be worth enduring another six months of complaints. Wouldn’t it? Akira managed to have the thought without being paralyzed by dread.

Well, not paralyzed for long .

Just a twinge.

He hardly noticed, really.

When he got to the office, Akira discovered Yusuke had texted him back. I would love for you to see it in person. Are you planning a visit for Greenery Day? I would be happy to host if you need a place to stay. Don't forget your yukata.

Akira stared at the phone so long it timed out. Stay with Yusuke? His brain froze, not sure of where to even start with that idea. He could visit again, he supposed. Granted, train tickets were expensive, but he could manage if he scrimped for the next few weeks; it wasn’t like he was saving up for an engagement ring.

But... staying with Yusuke? As in, sleeping there? Akira realized he was holding his breath and let it out in a whoosh. He was overthinking this. It was just a friendly invitation. Plus, it wasn’t like Akira had anything else going on.

Still, his fingers hovered over the phone screen for so long it timed out again. He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone at work; he hadn’t logged in yet, but it was still a minor infraction. Finally he just forced himself to answer. Sure that’d be great. Looking forward to it.

As soon as he hit send, Akira felt a spike of unjustified panic. He shook it off; he was being ridiculous. It was good that he was reconnecting with his friends. Wasn’t it? It was. It definitely was. Hasn’t Takemi said he was too isolated and stressed? Yeah. It would be fine -- good, even. It was just a long weekend.

Anyway, he could always change his mind. He could postpone or cancel if it started to seem like a bad idea.

Over the following few weeks, Akira and Yusuke continued to text, on and off. Yusuke sent him photos of other sticks and things he picked up on the side of the road or at the beach, and Akira would, half-jokingly, suggest a title. After a few of these exchanges, Akira asked if Yusuke had ever considered going on Instagram.

I have one, Yusuke wrote back. Kitsu_kita. I only post finished pieces to it though. Do you not like the photos? I can stop sending them.

No! Akira replied immediately. It’s nice to see what you’re working on. He typed and erased a smiley face twice before hitting send.

I’m glad. It is also nice to share my process with someone who appreciates it. I look forward to showing you the pieces in progress when you visit.

Akira felt a bit guilty at that; he still hadn’t fully committed to going on the trip. He knew his window of opportunity to cancel was closing; it was already Thursday afternoon, and he was due to travel on Saturday.

Akira promised himself he would look up tickets when he got home that evening. For the time being, his lunch break was over. Slipping his phone back in his pocket, he left the cafeteria and headed back to his desk.

As always, as soon as he logged back in, he was greeted with his performance statistics for the day: number of tickets processed, number of flagged tickets processed, average processing time, customer satisfaction, and how much he deviated from the goals set by Jojamart.

Despite working with twice the focus and drive since his discussion with Shinsuke, his performance metrics hadn’t improved. In fact his processing time had actually gotten worse. Though he didn’t have more than a few flagged tickets a day, almost everything that had come through his queue had been complex, things that couldn’t be resolved with a simple refund and required more time to address. The only metric in which he had made any gains was in customer satisfaction.

There was nothing to do but grit his teeth and carry on, though. Sooner or later he would have an easy batch of tickets and his times would improve.

By the end of the day, Akira was shaking with frustration. His processing time had gone up again. It was the worst it had ever been, in fact. How was that even possible? He was never going to get a transfer out of there at that rate.  

Akira’s manager appeared as if summoned. “Ah, Kurusu-san. I see you’ve had a difficult day.” Tanaka leaned over, tutting at the large red number on Akira’s screen. “That’s a shame.”

Akira clenched his jaw. “I admit, I have had to sacrifice speed to provide our customers with the best possible service.”

Tanaka bristled. “All very well and good, but your co-workers have similar satisfaction ratings and work much faster. I would think, after coming so close to termination, you would be motivated to work harder.”

Akira wanted to scream I am working harder! But instead he said nothing and stared straight ahead.

“Perhaps the tickets have been too difficult for you?” Tanaka asked, his head tilted to the side in mock-innocence. “We all have unlucky streaks.”

Something about the way he said it sent a zap of anger through Akira’s veins. He turned to look at Tanaka. “You’ve been turning off the flags.” Akira didn’t know how, but he was convinced in that moment that Tanaka had been messing with his queue, filling it with tickets that would take forever to finish.

“What? Don’t be ridiculous.” Tanaka’s smile was mild and chilling, confirming Akira’s theory. “However, if you are concerned with your statistics, you can always volunteer for additional shifts. There is a three-day weekend coming up, after all. I’m sure, now that you’re no longer engaged, you might find a good use for all your free time?”

Akira’s blood went cold. He stared up at Tanaka in horror. “What?”

“You do have six years of below-average metrics to account for. Perhaps it’s time you decided where your priorities lay.” Tanaka gave him another gentle smile. “Have a good night, Kurusu.”

Akira barely remembered getting back to his apartment, completely wrapped up in the situation. It would be one thing to work a single weekend to make up for his “sick” time. But he doubted Tanaka would be happy with that. Shinsuke said Akira might be up for promotion in six months, but only if his performance improved. There was no way that would happen if Tanaka was sabotaging him. Going back to Shinsuke was out of the question; that would just make it look like Akira was making excuses.

The thought of having to spend the foreseeable future dealing with such miserable tickets and having nothing to show for it was inconceivably bleak, especially with Tanaka gloating over him. The only reason Akira had lasted as long as he had in the job was because he’d refused to think about how miserable he was.

When Akira had first gotten arrested ten years ago, he became very good at not thinking. Certain trains of thought were dangerous. They lead to wanting things, things he couldn’t have, things like trust and respect and freedom.

Granted, when he was Joker, that was a different story. Back then, his desire for a different life gave him power. But he wasn’t Joker anymore; he couldn’t snap his fingers and reshape reality. It was easier just to keep his head down and not think about how miserable his job was.

In a way Makoto had helped; she had done the thinking about the future for the both of them. For the past six years, her refrain was constant: when you get that promotion.... After a soul-sucking day dealing with vitriol and negativity, those words were a comfort. Sort of.

But Makoto was gone. With only his own thoughts for company, Akira’s ability to shake off the abject wretchedness of the job waned quickly.

This, apparently, was Akira’s breaking point. Even though it was just one weekend, the prospect of giving in to Tanaka and working unpaid overtime made him feel shaky and sick. He’d rather quit.

Except that was probably exactly what Tanaka wanted. Hell, if he pushed Akira’s stats down far enough, there would be justification to terminate his employment altogether. In either event, Akira would be shit out of luck.

By the time Akira unlocked the door to his apartment, a rudimentary plan was taking shape in his mind. The trip was, obviously, out of the question. In a way, it was almost a relief. No matter how much he tried, Akira hadn’t quite gotten comfortable with the idea of staying at Yusuke’s place. He certainly wasn’t going to dwell on that now; he had bigger problems.

Akira began to idly sort through his mail as he thought it through. The only option was to work this weekend and see if Tanaka relented. In the meantime, Akira could start looking for another job. Probably he should have been doing that already. Much as he hated the idea, maybe Haru could put in a good word for him, or --

He paused, frowning as his attention caught on a large envelope addressed to him by hand. It was thick and there was no return address. With a shrug, he opened it.

The envelope contained a legal document and a single page letter from Toranosuke Yoshida. The letter read:

To my friend, Akira Kurusu,

My apologies for reaching out to you in this old-fashioned manner, but the circumstances seemed to call for it. I feared that you would dismiss this message if it were in an email, and perhaps with good reason.

One of my constituents, a rather reclusive man who has asked to remain anonymous for the time being, owns several large properties within the village and surrounding area. He recently approached me looking for recommendations for a caretaker for one of his holdings. You may have seen it on your last visit: the small cottage by the beach. He is concerned that, after being vacant for so long, the property may fall victim to the elements. Therefore, he is seeking a trustworthy young individual who will, for a greatly reduced rent, act as a caretaker. This includes restoring and maintaining the cottage in a state of good repair. I’ve taken a look at the place and can assure you this will require some effort but no construction skills are needed; mostly, the place needs a fresh coat of paint and someone to keep the yard in check. As you will see from the included lease, the minimum term of residency is one year.

In speaking with this individual, I had suggested that this might seem, for lack of a better phrase, too good to be true, especially given his insistence on anonymity and the use of a go-between to broker the deal. However, he seemed unconcerned by such matters, and said that “the right person will be willing to enter a contract.”

Regardless, I can personally vouch for the individual in question, and can assure you that he does, indeed, have legal standing to lease the cottage. I immediately thought of you when he presented this rather strange transaction, as I know you to be an upstanding young person with ties to the area. At your earliest convenience, please let me know whether you are interested. I am available by phone or email during business hours if you have any questions; however, as you might guess, I cannot promise I have many answers.

Yours truly,

Toranosuke Yoshida

Akira read the letter twice; it didn’t make much more sense on the last reading than on the first. He glanced at the lease, hoping that it would provide some edification.

The rental terms stood out in bold, including the monthly payment. “30,000 yen?? A month??? Holy shit.” Akira blinked, his hands shaking. “That’s... that’s insane, that can’t be right,” he muttered to himself. A cottage on the sea could make that every day on airbnb.

His first instinct was to say yes. It wasn’t even a matter of making the decision so much as Akira’s imagination taking the idea and running with it: waking up with the smell of the salt air; quiet mornings on the porch with coffee and his journal; evenings at the Stardrop, laughing with Sojiro and Futaba; long conversations about art with Yusuke; walks along the beach with Yusuke --

Akira snapped out of it with a huff. He read the letter a third time. It seemed pretty simple, even if the whole thing was ridiculous.

He was tempted to believe it was all a joke, something Futaba cooked up. But the letter was on official letterhead; the stationery even had a watermark in the paper. And Futaba was much more likely to set up a fake website or something. If it was a joke, it had required not just forging the documents, but going to the post office. That wasn’t Futaba’s style at all.

The thing about ‘entering a contract’ though... that resonated, for some reason. Something really, really weird was going on. It felt kind of like... like.... It was maddening, trying to put a label on the sensation. Finally, it hit him: it was just like when the popularity of the phantom thieves had suddenly gone through the roof ten years ago.

Too good to be true.

Akira set the letter down and began to look up train schedules on his laptop. Something weird was going on, for sure. More importantly, it might affect the other people in Garu-mura, which was rapidly coming to encompass everyone Akira cared about. Fuck Tanaka and his damn overtime. Akira needed to investigate.

***

On Saturday afternoon, Akira stepped off the train in Garu-mura. This time there were people waiting for him. Technically, it was just one actual person: Yusuke. But as Morgana was there as well, it felt like a welcoming committee.

“Akira, over here!” Yusuke called out, waving as if Akira would have somehow missed him in the half-dozen people milling around on the platform. “Good to see you again,” Yusuke said.

For a moment they stood awkwardly, as they had when saying goodbye a few weeks ago. Akira wanted to hug him, which was weird and distracting.

Morgana, thankfully, was there to smooth over the tension. “Yeah and so soon, too!” he chirped. “I think you set a new record.”

“Hey, give me a break. Tickets are 18,000 yen, you know,” Akira hefted his bag over his shoulder as they began to walk into the village.

Yusuke’s face fell. “Are they? I -- I didn’t even think to check.”

“It’s fine,” Akira said quickly. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I shall have to find a way to make it up to you,” Yusuke said.

“No, really. It’s fine,” Akira said. “That’s why I have a job. Or. Well, I hope I have a job,” he mumbled under his breath.

“Man, remember when all we had to do for money was head to Mementos for an afternoon? So much treasure....” Morgana sighed lustily.

Akira snorted. “‘All we had to do?’ You mean fighting and getting our asses kicked until we were exhausted?”

“Still, it was exhilarating,” Yusuke said. “What do you mean, you ‘hope you have a job’? Did something happen?”

“Eh, you know corporate life,” Akira shrugged. “Never that far from the chopping block.” He was dying to tell Yusuke about the weird letter, but he didn’t want Morgana to know about it. Not yet, anyway. It would make it harder to justify Akira’s doubts, and that wasn’t an argument he felt like having at the moment.

“That’s no way to live,” Yusuke frowned.

“I agree,” Morgana said, sounding smug. “Anyway, I’m off to the docks for supper.” He trotted off, tail in the air.

Yusuke and Akira walked for a bit. “Futaba sends her regrets,” Yusuke said finally. “I believe she’s ‘crunching’. Or maybe ‘crushing’. Either way, it sounds unpleasant.”

“I’m sure I’ll see her sooner or later,” Akira said. “Actually, it’s probably good she’s not here -- there’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Yusuke stopped and looked at him. “Oh?” He sounded nervous.

“It’s fine, no need to worry. Just -- best to have some privacy.”

Yusuke’s eyebrows shot up. “If you say so.”

On the way through the village, they ran into the mayor on the street. “Kurusu-kun! How good to see you again. You should have told me you were coming! Did you get my letter?”

Akira fought the urge to wince. “I did,” he said. “I am still considering the offer.”

“I completely understand,” Yoshida nodded. “Are you in town long? It would be simple for me to arrange a showing of the cottage; the keys are in my office. How about tomorrow morning?”

“Ah, that would be great, thank you,” Akira said. He hadn’t planned to let things get this far, but he also couldn’t think of a reason to refuse.

“Fantastic. Shall we say nine-thirty? That will still give everyone plenty of time to get ready for the dance.”

Dance? “I’ll see you then,” Akira said, eager to end the conversation before Yusuke started asking questions.

“What was that about?” Yusuke murmured once they were out of earshot.

“I’ll tell you when we get to your place.”

Yusuke had made an effort to tidy; Akira could see the marks of a broom in the sawdust, and one of the tables had been cleared and set up for dining. “I have a shikibuton airing out, but if you would prefer the bed --”

“A futon is fine,” Akira said quickly, ignoring the spike of discomfort at the prospect of sleeping in Yusuke’s bed.

They continued to make small talk for a few minutes as Yusuke showed him where everything was. Yusuke decided he wanted to make tea, so Akira sat at the table while he got the kettle going.

“What was the mayor talking about?” Yusuke asked. “If it is something you can share, that is.”

“Yeah, actually, I want your opinion. Here, take a look.” Akira dug the letter out of his bag.

Yusuke skimmed it and handed it back. “A little unorthodox, perhaps. How much is the rent?”

“Thirty thousand,” Akira said.

“A week?”

“A month.”

Yusuke almost dropped the kettle. “That is an astoundingly good deal. Are you... going to accept?” He said the last words quickly, turning his back on Akira so he could fiddle with the tea.

It was a strange reaction. “Welllll.... It’s a little suspicious, don’t you think? I mean, how much are you paying for this place? Er, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I’m not paying anything,” Yusuke said. “I’m here as part of a patron agreement.” Akira must have looked confused, because Yusuke explained, “An art enthusiast saw one of my exhibits. Through a gallery owner I trust, he offered me the use of this space for the year in exchange for a few of my larger pieces from the show and a commission. After a year, I will need to negotiate continuing terms, but for the time being, it is an ideal situation, don’t you think?”

Akira blinked. The parallels between the offers sent a chill down his spine.  “Do you actually know this art lover?”

“I do not. He wished to remain anonymous. The gallery owner brokered the deal.”

Exhaling, Akira realized Yusuke wasn’t nearly skeptical enough to see his point. For the first time in weeks, he wished he could talk to Makoto; she’d get it, for sure. “Wow, that’s great,” Akira said aloud.

Yusuke chuckled. “You don’t sound convinced. I assure you, I’ve been traveling in this way since college, stringing together house-sits and reduced-rent in exchange for work. I’ll admit this is a particularly beneficial arrangement, but....” He shrugged modestly.

“But you’re worth it?” Akira grinned. “I guess I’m not going to argue with that.”

Yusuke looked up from pouring hot water. It was a vulnerable sort of look, like he didn’t know if Akira was kidding or not.

Akira hadn’t exactly been joking; he knew Yusuke was incredibly talented. Still, everything came to a standstill while they looked at each other. Akira had to turn away, confused by the intensity of the moment.

“Do you feel this rental arrangement is too good to be true, then?” Yusuke said, setting a cup of tea in front of Akira.

“Well I mean... yeah,” Akira admitted. “It’s not like I’m some great artist, you know?”

“But... if you accepted, you could start writing again. Boss offered you a part-time job, didn’t he? Surely he would pay you enough to make ends meet.” Yusuke sat down across the table.

Absently, Akira noticed how sinuous the movement was. Yusuke always had the grace of a dancer; apparently that hadn’t changed. Akira was too frustrated to know what to make of the observation, however. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to find the words to vocalise his suspicions. He opened his mouth to answer, but ended up exhaling hopelessly. “It’s just --”

“You don’t think you’re worth it,” Yusuke said. It wasn’t exactly a question.

“C’mon, Yusuke. Thirty thousand a month? It’s not like this guy is asking for me specifically. If I didn’t know Yoshida-san....”

“But you do know him. And you mean enough to him that he offered you this opportunity,” Yusuke pointed out.

“It’s not that. It’s that, plus you getting this great workspace, and Mune-san taking over the fish shop and Boss taking over the restaurant and Yoshida becoming Mayor and Ann and Ryuji looking for a house here....”

Yusuke tilted his head. “When you say it like that.... Is that why you agreed to visit?” He sounded despondent.

“N-no,” Akira said, a little confused by the reaction. “I just got the letter on Thursday.”

“Ah. Well. That was also good timing, I suppose.”

Akira held up his hands. “You think? Especially since I found out my manager is trying to force me to quit.”

“Is he? Hm. Well. Perhaps you should investigate this further. I would be happy to help. If you need it, that is,” Yusuke offered. “Would you like me to come with you to see the cottage? I’ll admit I am curious to see what it looks like inside.”

“That’d be great. Hey, what was the mayor talking about? A dance or something?”

“Ah, the Spring Flower Dance. Yes, it’s tomorrow evening in the forest. Did you bring a yukata?”

Akira blinked. “I thought you were kidding.”

“Ah, of course. Because I make so many jokes,” Yusuke drawled.

Akira burst out laughing, spluttering his tea. “Sorry,” he said, taking the napkin Yusuke handed him.

“In all seriousness, I am curious about this dance -- apparently it’s quite the event. Most everyone from the village will be there. If you’d like to go, I can loan you something to wear.”

“Actually... that might not be a bad idea,” Akira said, thinking about it. “I mean, if everyone is there, we might be able to learn something.”

“Exactly. Also, I believe there will be free food,” Yusuke said, nodding solemnly. “Let’s not lose sight of what’s important.”

Chapter Text

The following morning, Yoshida pulled his tiny car up to the cottage exactly at 9:30. “Ah, Kurusu-kun! Sorry to have kept you waiting,” Yoshida said, hurrying to meet them at the door to the cottage. “I see you brought Kitagawa-kun as well -- always good to have a second opinion about these things.”

“We just got here ourselves,” Akira lied. In fact he and Yusuke had been there for a good fifteen minutes, having come early to look around without interference. However, there wasn’t much to see from the outside.

“Let’s see here, which key is it?” Yoshida fiddled for a moment with the lock. With a creak, the door opened.

Inside, the dust was thick, blooming in the rays of sunlight streaming through the skylights. And the cobweb situation was pretty extreme, it had to be said. It was all one big open space, with vaulted ceilings held up by rough wooden beams. There was a sleeping loft, accessible by ladder. The kitchen area was tucked underneath; it was small and dated, but there was a full-size stove with an oven, something Akira hadn’t had in ages. One wall was lined with bookshelves, just begging for a comfy chair and a reading lamp.

Akira was overwhelmed by how easily he could imagine himself living there. It was as if the place had been designed with him specifically in mind. The urge to ignore all his doubts and take the deal then and there was very strong. But then he saw a cat’s footprints in the dust and he reigned it in.

“It’s bigger than it looks,” Yusuke noted. “And the quality of light is quite nice.”

“And you can’t beat this view,” Yoshida said, pulling open the drapes on the east side to reveal sliding glass doors. “Wouldn’t mind waking up to that every day, I can say that much.”

“Oh my god,” Akira said, gawking. With the way the building was situated, the doors faced nothing but a view of empty tidepools and forested coastline, no hint of the busy docks or public beach. It was breathtaking.

There was no way this rental offer could possibly be above board, not with a view like that. No way. It was like something from a movie. Akira could work a thousand years and never earn enough to pay for what that view was worth. It was a view for rich people, not depressed losers who couldn’t even keep a job processing complaints at Jojamart.

Akira went through the motions of looking at the bathroom, as if it mattered. It was fine. Nothing short of raw sewage would affect how appealing the cottage was or how badly he wanted to move there, like, immediately.

“Well? What do you think?” Yoshida asked.

“It’s... incredible,” Akira admitted.

“Take your time to think about it,” Yoshida said, patting him on the shoulder. “It's a big decision. I can’t guarantee the owner won’t rent to someone else though. It is a very good deal, after all.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Akira nodded.

Yoshida checked his watch. “Oh good lord, it’s past ten already. I really must be going, I’m supposed to supervise the set up for tonight. Can I trust you boys to lock up when you leave?”

They gave their assurances and Yoshida hurried off. Once they were alone Akira looked at Yusuke. “Well?”

“This view is priceless,” Yusuke said, stepping over the the sliding glass doors. “I find it hard to believe that this cottage is so modest. It’s amazing that it hasn’t been redeveloped into a mansion.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Akira said. “It’s just... unbelievable.”

“And you suspect sinister motives?” Yusuke began to wander around the room. “I see Morgana was here,” he said, toeing at a catprint in the dust.

“It’s hard not to,” Akira said, answering Yusuke’s question. “Man, this place is amazing though. I’d love to live here. It’d be a dream come true.” He sighed heavily.

“Well, then why don’t you?” Yusuke said. “If you suspect a trap, perhaps the best approach would be to appear to take the bait. If you remain vigilant, you can stay a step ahead.”

Akira blinked. “That’s... actually, that’s not a bad plan. I’m probably going to be fired anyway, and Boss did say I could work for him. I could even get someone to sublet my place in the city, in case I need to go back in a hurry.... Plus if something bad is happening, I’d rather be close by to deal with it. I mean once Ann and Ryuji find a place, almost everyone I care about will be here.”

When there was no response, Akira looked over to find Yusuke was regarding him with a somber expression. “What?”

Yusuke sighed and looked away. “Still coming to our defense so readily. You’re a better man than I am. I would have taken this offer immediately and given no thought to what it might mean.” He frowned, his gaze fixed in the middle distance.

Akira flushed. “It’s not -- I mean, maybe it’s nothing? But --”

“No, I agree there is something to this. There are far too many people with connections to you for such a tiny village.”

“Also, Morgana knows what’s up. At least, I think he does, but he won’t say,” Akira pointed at the cat prints. “I think it has something to do with that tower.”

“The one in the forest?” Yusuke’s eyebrows shot up. “I’ve been meaning to sketch it, myself.”

“Well, no time like the present, right?”

It turned out that the present was the worst possible time. They headed to the forest, stopping at Yusuke’s on the way to pick up a couple sketchbooks. But the path which ran past the tower was crawling with people ferrying folding chairs and tables and sound equipment back and forth on hand carts.

“They’re setting up for the dance,” Akira groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Dammit, we can’t get any closer to the tower with all these people around.”

“Agreed,” Yusuke said. “Why don’t we try approaching from the other side?”

“Is there a way to get back there?” Akira peered through the trees; there was a very clear path to the tower itself, but the structure seemed to be surrounded by forest otherwise.

“There’s another path further north that runs parallel to this one. I’m not sure how far it goes, but we can find out.”

As frustrating as the situation was, it wasn’t exactly a hardship to spend the rest of the morning walking through the outskirts of the village with Yusuke. The weather was beautiful, the trees had leafed out fully, and there were wildflowers simply everywhere.

“I feel like I’m in a Ghibli movie,” Akira joked as they came up to a pond with a rickety wooden dock.

“Hmm, yes,” Yusuke nodded. “Why does animated food always look so delicious, I wonder?”

Akira laughed. “Doesn’t it? It makes me want to cook.”

“It makes me want to eat. I am relatively certain I would have turned into one of Yubaba’s pigs; I never would have been able to resist the food in that stall.”

“Right? Though, I think Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite,” Akira said.

“I suppose that fits, for you at least,” Yusuke said. “Not enough food for my taste.”

The path led into a section of forest that was much more dense. “We should be getting close, surely,” Yusuke said.

When they passed under the cover of trees, the atmosphere changed. It was much darker, for one; not much sunlight filtered through the canopy. And it was cooler as well. What was perhaps most striking was the sense of stillness. It wasn’t relaxing, though; it was the stillness of a fox, right before the pounce.

“Oh wow,” Akira said quietly, stumbling to a stop. He rubbed at the goosebumps which had appeared on his forearms. Beautiful as the forest was, it wasn’t a welcoming spot; or at least, Akira felt out of place. There was something about it that made him feel shy, a bumbling intruder who might sully things by dragging the stink of the city along with him.

“This place is sublime, in the truest sense of the word,” Yusuke said. Unlike Akira, Yusuke moved confidently as he went along the path. As if he had every right in the world to exist in such a magical place, like some kind of woodland creature.

Of all the people Akira knew, he was glad that he was seeing this place with Yusuke. He was the one person who wouldn’t laugh or get uncomfortable if Akira tried to explain how the place made him feel. Not that he was about to try; but he could, he supposed. Makoto wouldn’t have appreciated it in the same way. She’d probably worry too much about the possibility that they might be trespassing to see how beautiful it is. Dammit, why was he thinking about Makoto all of a sudden?

The path took a promising turn to the left and then disappeared entirely, fading into the grass of a small glade. It was brighter there, the sunlight dappled. The remains of a shrine were visible at one end of the clearing: toppled columns, a squat statue, a few half-buried paving stones peeking out from the moss. At the other end there was a small pond -- or perhaps an overgrown pool -- thick with algae.

“Dead end,” Akira sighed.

“It appears so,” Yusuke agreed. “Still, this place is exquisite. We should have brought a picnic.”

“Always about the food with you,” Akira grinned. “Would be nice to have an excuse to stay longer, though.”

Yusuke gave him a funny look. “Are you in some sort of hurry? We certainly have time to sit for a few minutes. I wouldn’t mind doing some sketching.”

“Oh yeah.” Akira laughed sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. “I guess -- I don’t spend a lot of time doing things just for the hell of it, you know? Even when I’m home watching TV, it’s like, I gotta get in that downtime, but I don’t really....” He sighed, rather than having to say out loud, I don’t really enjoy it.

Yusuke frowned in sympathy. “Here,” he said, handing him a sketchbook. “I brought this one for you.” He made his way to a squared-off piece of stone and sat.

“I don’t know how to sketch,” Akira turned the sketchbook over in his hands. It was one of those soft-sided booklets that only had about fifty pages.

“Then write something,” Yusuke suggested, pulling a flat tin of pencils from the front pocket of his own sketchbook. He handed one to Akira. “Maybe the forest will inspire you.”

Akira stood there for a minute, not knowing what to think. Five years of writer’s block wasn’t likely to disappear because the forest was pretty. But he wasn’t about to say that. He found a flagstone that looked dry enough to sit on, with a column behind to lean his back. He had to admit, once he stretched out, it was pretty comfortable.

Yusuke seemed intent on sketching the remains of the statue, his hand already moving confidently over the sheet in bold strokes as he glanced up occasionally. With a shrug, Akira opened the notebook to the first page.

His mind was utterly blank, of course. Still, he had the feeling that Yusuke would bug him if he didn’t at least try to write something. So he started writing stream of consciousness.

Ugh I hate not knowing what to write. Yusuke is looking at me -- no, he’s looking at the statue. Can’t decide if the statue is creepy or not. This place is amazing. Definitely going to come back. Am I really going to move here? That’s nuts. It’s totally crazy why am I so excited when I think about it? I’m going to have to tell Makoto. She’s not going to like it. I wish I didn’t care what she thought. I kind of miss her, but not really. Oh man it feels like Yusuke is looking at me but he isn’t. What to write what to write. How am I gonna move all my stuff? Boss has a truck, maybe he’ll help. Is this a mistake? It doesn’t feel like a mistake. Except it sort of does. I wonder if I could grow out my hair like Yusuke. Probably not. It would just get all poofy and look stupid. And it’s not like I’m ever gonna look as good as him anyway. Maybe I should start doing tai chi, I saw him doing it this morning down by the river while I was making coffee. Oh shit, what if he wants this notebook back? Because that’s not creepy at all. Hi Yusuke, I like your hair and I watched you doing exercises like a perv. Dammit this pencil doesn’t have an eraser. What the fuck is the point of a pencil you can’t erase. Maybe I can eat this page or something and make sure he never sees it. Okay this is ridiculous, I’m stopping.

Akira set the book aside and leaned his head back. The leaves overhead shifted green to gold to green again as the breeze ruffled through. Akira took off his glasses, letting it all go hazy.

“That’s a useful trick,” Yusuke said quietly. “For color and massing studies. I can’t do it myself.”

“It reminds me of the opening to this one anime I used to watch all the time,” Akira said, gazing up at the leaves. “I loved that show. The manga was great too, but something about the animation....”

“You mean Mushishi?” Akira heard Yusuke sort through the pencils in his tin and then start sketching again.

“You know it?” Akira turned towards him, more out of politeness than anything; he couldn’t see Yusuke from this distance.

“You sound surprised.”

“I didn’t think you had time for things like TV.” Akira went back to looking at the leaves.

“I find inspiration in many forms of media,” Yusuke said. “And I like the theme song, even though I can’t understand it very well. I always meant to look up a translation.”

“Oh, the song is great,” Akira said. “Let’s see, it’s... hmmm.” Squinting slightly, he did his best to translate:

I walk ten thousand miles, ten thousand miles to see you

And every gasp of breath, I grabbed it just to find you

I climbed up every hill to get to you

I wandered ancient lands to hold just you

And every single step of the way, I pay

Every single night and day

I search for you

Through sandstorms and hazy dawns I reach for you

Akira sighed. It always made him wistful, that song. Then he chuckled. “You know, the rest of it is about robbing convenience stores and eating rats and toads. Funny, you’d think --” Akira realized he couldn’t hear the sound of Yusuke’s pencil anymore. He turned, jamming his glasses back on his face.

Yusuke was staring at him; he looked away as soon as Akira was able to focus.

“Yusuke?”

“Sorry,” Yusuke said hastily. “I never realized how beautiful the lyrics were. It made me think of -- of the past,” he said, in the sort of tone that people use when they don’t want to explain further. He began packing up. “Come, we should get a snack soon. If we wait too long, we won’t be properly hungry at the dance.”

“There’s a method, I see.” Akira got to his feet and brushed himself off. “I’m in your capable hands.”

***

When the time came to get ready for the dance, Yusuke took the whole decision about what to wear very seriously. “Hmm, let’s see.” Yusuke opened the door to his closet to reveal a shockingly wide range of formal wear.

“Wow, er.... Quite a wardrobe you’ve got there.”

“I go to a lot of art openings, as you might imagine. It helps to be prepared for any eventuality. All of these clothes are from thrift stores; I can assure you my career isn’t going that well.” He selected a yukata from a stack on the shelf and handed it to Akira.

“Uh, isn’t this going to be too long for me?” Akira was almost a head shorter than Yusuke, after all.

“No fear, I’ve got a solution for that as well.” Yusuke had him slip the garment over his shoulders while he fetched a small box of safety pins. “If we pin it carefully enough, the obi will cover the fold. We used to do it all the time in school.”

Akira dutifully held out his arms while Yusuke began messing with the fabric, making a wide horizontal pleat. It was a little awkward, as he had to reach around Akira’s body as he smoothed the cloth in place. Yusuke kept sliding his hands around Akira’s waist and hips and back, long, lingering touches. Akira was having a hard time getting enough air into his lungs. It was -- frankly it was a lot of touching. A lot.

“That looks even,” Yusuke said, holding the fold as he leaned as far back as he could to peer at the hem. “Alright, hold this here,” Yusuke said, directing Akira to pinch the fabric. “Now, let’s just --” Without warning he dropped to his knees.

Although it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do under the circumstances, somehow Akira hadn’t been expecting it. He glanced down without thinking. That turned out to be a mistake. The last person -- the only person -- who ever kneeled anywhere near that part of his body had been Makoto, most recently when things started to go seriously wrong about a year ago. She’d got it in her head that “spicing things up” would help. Which she had apparently tried to rectify by answering the door to her apartment in lingerie and immediately trying to give Akira a blowjob.

Except it had all gone wrong. Akira hadn’t been in the mood for sex, and certainly not in the mood to be ambushed by it. But he knew it was important to her, so he did his best to make her happy. It... didn’t go well. Makoto didn’t actually like giving blowjobs, and Akira was kind of lukewarm on them too. It had taken forever for him even to get hard at all, and he couldn’t finish that way. Makoto ended up crying, and while they eventually did have sex later that evening, it was only after a long and tearful discussion that left Akira feeling hollow.

The memory of Makoto being on her knees, mixed with the sight of Yusuke fiddling with pins at Akira’s crotch, was deeply confusing. Akira was still trying to sort it all out when Yusuke spoke.

“Hm, the fabric seems to be bunching,” Yusuke said, trying to straighten the pleat. He ran his hands around Akira’s hips again, back and forth. “I think it’s because you’re wearing jeans. Why don’t you take them off--” Yusuke started to ask, glancing up at Akira.

Seeing Yusuke’s face in this particular circumstance, especially with so much touch involved, jammed all of the circuits in Akira’s brain. Worst of all, a part of him that was decidedly not his brain throbbed, which was... there should not have been any throbbing, especially not now, of all times.

Akira gasped, grabbing Yusuke’s wrist. “I mean. Sorry, uh -- the pin stuck me,” he lied. “You know, this is a lot of hassle. I have a button down shirt with me, why don’t I just borrow a tie?” He attempted what he hoped was an innocent smile.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. It’s my fault for not bringing something to wear.”

Yusuke looked like he was going to say something, but then he just nodded. “If you say so.”

In the end, Akira borrowed both a tie and a vintage sport coat. The sleeves were too long, but Yusuke showed him how to roll up his cuffs to his forearms, which was something Akira had only seen in magazines. All in all, he looked okay, even if he was wearing jeans.

Yusuke, of course, went all out. It was clear he took the whole process very seriously. He dressed himself methodically layer by layer while Akira scrupulously busied himself with his phone.

“How do I look?” Yusuke said finally.

Akira had never been a particular fan of traditional formal wear, at least not on men. For some reason it always looked drab and dowdy. The yukata Yusuke had (eventually) chosen had a subtle pattern, blue on black, which added dimension to the fabric and brought out the highlights of his hair, now laid in a sinuous plait over one shoulder. It looked really, really good. Of course, it wasn’t just the garment, it was the fact that Yusuke was wearing it. And not the skinny, gangly teenager either, but Yusuke as an adult, tall and slender and graceful and --

“You look amazing,” Akira blurted out. “I mean. That’s -- I like the fabric.”

“Thank you,” Yusuke said, a little hesitant. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes! I’m just getting hungry, is all.”

“Ah! You see, my system worked. I’m hungry too -- let’s beat off.”

“What??” Akira spluttered.

“Let’s be off?” Yusuke repeated. “What did you think I said?”

“I thought -- never mind. Let’s go.” Akira sighed and followed Yusuke out, determined to choose his steps, and his words, more carefully for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Akira had no idea what to expect at the dance. Who holds a dance in the forest, anyway? It seemed like an absurd idea, right up until he and Yusuke emerged from the path into a large clearing in the woods. The sun was about to go down; strings of lanterns had been hung in the trees, giving everything a golden glow. There were cafe tables scattered around, each with a bouquet and lit candles. In a tent off to the side, Sojiro bustled to and fro over a long table groaning with food.

Akira couldn’t help it; he laughed, not because it was funny, but because it was all so ridiculously delightful.

“This is quite charming,” Yusuke murmured, nodding appreciatively. “Ooh, are those candied strawberries?” His eyes lit up as he hurried over to the food.

Akira laughed again as he followed. “Looks good, Boss,” he said, helping himself to a plate.

“Ah, you’re here! Good. Sorry -- can you just run to the truck and grab the small cooler? It’s parked around the other side of the trees,” Sojiro said, pointing to the west. He sounded frazzled.

“Sure thing.” Akira set his plate down and went to go find the truck.

Sojiro thanked him profusely when he got back. “Sorry about that. I know you’re just here to enjoy yourself, but I gave Futaba the night off too.”

“No problem,” Akira said. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. Uh, I’ve had an opportunity land in my lap --”

“Eh, what’s that?” Sojiro nodded distractedly.

“And I was wondering if the job offer was still on the table.”

“Huh?” Sojiro stopped fussing and looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I found a place here to rent. For, uh, real cheap,” he coughed. “And I thought, well, why not?”

Sojiro’s face split into a grin. “Are you kidding?? Of course the offer is still on the table! Damn, it’d be great to have you around all the time.This is amazing!” He pulled Akira into a rough, one-armed hug, pounding him on the back. “When can you start? Actually, hold on. Let’s talk after this shindig is over.”

Yoshida walked up.“I see a lot of happy faces. Is there some good news, perhaps?” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“I have decided to sign the lease,” Akira nodded, giving Yoshida a small bow. “Thank you again for giving me the opportunity.”

“Why, that’s splendid! Absolutely splendid. I’m so glad. If you want, you can drop the papers at my office in the morning, and -- oh, I see I’m being flagged down by the dancers. You must excuse me for a moment.” He hurried off.

Akira went to the edge of the tent to see what was going on. Music was playing quietly, although no one was dancing yet. It looked like people were waiting for something.

Akira stood next to Yusuke, who had a full plate. “What’s happening?”

Yusuke swallowed with some effort, having just taken a huge bite of food. “It appears we’re being treated to a Sakura dance.”

“Ohhhh,” Akira nodded, spying the small clump of women and girls in flowered yukatas. “Holy sh-- is that Futaba??”

Yusuke looked mildly surprised. “She’s really grown into her own. She looks lovely.”

Akira wasn’t sure he liked the way Yusuke was looking at Futaba. It made him vaguely uncomfortable for some reason. Maybe because Futaba was like a sister to Akira? That was probably it.

And then Yusuke’s eyes narrowed. “Are those... cats... on her yukata?”

Akira squinted. “Where the hell did she find Neko Atsume fabric?”

The dancers were getting into formation. There were about a dozen all told, ranging in age from eight to eighty. Yoshida stood in front of them with a cordless microphone and began to welcome everyone.

A throaty female voice came from Akira’s side. “Well now, isn’t this a surprise?”

It was Takemi, sipping a cup of punch as she surveyed the crowd.

“Takemi-san! What are --” Akira huffed. Was there any point in asking? “This where your new practice is, isn’t it.”

“It is, in fact. What are you doing here?” she asked, heedless of Yoshida’s speech.

“I’m moving here too, I guess,” Akira began to explain.

“You guess?”

“Shh, it’s starting,” Yusuke said.

The dancers got into position; a moment later the music swelled. The oldest dancer was given a central role; though her movements were a bit stiff, it was clear by the grace of her gestures and the serenity on her face that she’d been performing this dance for a long time.

The rest of the troupe was... enthusiastic, at least. They certainly weren’t going to win any awards for precision, but really, did it matter?

“Is that a little boy?” Akira whispered, peering at one of the dancers. He assumed at first it was a girl with short hair, but on second glance, he wasn’t sure.

“I think you’re right,” Takemi said.

“How wonderfully progressive,” Yusuke murmured.

The dance ended a few minutes later to avid applause. Takemi turned to Akira. “So, what’s all this about? You’re moving here? And who’s your friend?” She gave a significantly lingering glance at Yusuke, who was himself giving a significant lingering glance back at the food table.

“Where are my manners, sorry.” Akira tugged Yusuke’s sleeve to get his attention and then did the introductions.

“Ah, the doctor you spoke of,” Yusuke nodded. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Oh, the pleasure is entirely mine,” Takemi purred.

It took everything Akira had not to frown. Was she flirting with Yusuke? Takemi was like ten years older than them! Probably!

Yusuke, of course, was completely oblivious. “So, what brings you to such a small village?”

“I’m taking over the local clinic,” she explained. “I wanted a less intensive environment so I could focus on patient care and my research. But tell me more about yourself, please.” She sidled closer.

Flustered, Akira watched as Takemi homed in on Yusuke like a bird of prey. He was about to interject when Futaba came running up to him, slamming into his side and giving him a hug.

“Did you see my dance? Whaddaya think of my yukata?” Futaba hopped from foot to foot. “I made it myself. I found instructions on youtube.” She held out one sleeve to show him.

“It’s great,” Akira said, looking over her shoulder as Takemi walked back to the food table with Yusuke. “I’m proud of you.”

“Right? This is my second year. Last year I dropped my fan, oh my god I wanted to die. But I mean, I can’t be a Sakura without doing the Sakura Sakura right? Heh, it’s like that sentence in english: Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo....”

“Totally,” Akira nodded absently.

“Hey, are you even listening?” She swatted him with her fan.

“Sorry,” he said, ripping his attention away just as Takemi was... laughing and touching Yusuke’s arm?? Akira scowled.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Sorry,” Akira said again, shaking his head. “It’s nothing.”

Futaba went up on her tiptoes to look past him. “Ohhh, who’s that with Inari? Is that what you’re so distracted -- wait,” she said, her tone shifting from sly to confused, “isn’t that the doctor from Yongen?” She scrunched her nose. “But she’s old.”

Akira rolled his eyes as if he hadn’t thought almost the exact same thing. “She’s not that old,” he objected.

“Look I know Makoto dumped you and all but you don’t hafta go after cougars.”

“Augh, I’m not -- I’m not interested in her,” Akira huffed. Then he froze, realizing what he’d just said. “Wait, that came out wrong.”

Futaba’s eyebrows shot up. “Did it?”

“God, shut up,” Akira said, rubbing the back of his neck. “That’s not what I meant. I just think she’s too old for him, is all.”

“Well, looks like he’s trying to find out for himself.” Futaba pointed with her chin.

Akira turned to see Yusuke leading Takemi to the dancing area by the hand. Yusuke gracefully put his arm around her waist as they began to sway in a slow circle. Yusuke said something and Takemi threw her head back and laughed, inching closer to murmur something in his ear.

“Might wanna pick that jaw up off the ground,” Futaba laughed. “Man, I’m starving.” She skipped off towards the food, leaving Akira to stand and stare.

After a second, Akira realized what he was doing and wrenched his attention away. He felt awful, and what’s worse, he didn’t know why. His stomach was like a mass of snakes, a terrible twisting curdle of... he didn’t even know. Disappointment? Envy? Both?

None of which was remotely justified. Despite the age gap -- which really, wasn’t even that big -- Yusuke and Takemi were both adults. Akira had no right to begrudge them their flirtation. Determined to push his rotten feelings aside, Akira turned back to join Futaba and get some food for himself. He was, after all, pretty hungry.

There were plenty of dishes to choose from. By that point, word had gotten around that Akira was going to move to the beach cottage, so there were also plenty of people to talk to. Akira did his best to pay attention to both.

The whole time, he was listening for the song to end, stealing glances towards Yusuke and Takemi. But then Akira got wrapped up in a discussion about sea urchin with Iwai. Had the music changed? He thought so, but a crowd had formed in between him and the dancing, so Akira couldn’t figure out what was going on.

“You lookin’ for someone, kid?” Iwai asked. “Dance partner, maybe?”

“What? No, I mean, not particularly,” Akira said, whipping around.

Iwai snorted. “Yeah, sure.”

By that point, Akira was positive it was a new song playing. Absently, he helped himself to another rice ball, barely tasting it. He finally -- finally-- caught sight of Yusuke again. He was still dancing? Takemi was murmuring into his ear, pressed almost completely against Yusuke’s chest. Yusuke was leaning down, nodding and smiling slightly at whatever she was saying.

Akira felt like he wanted to puke. God, why was he so upset about this? He had no right to be; it was completely irrational and he knew it. He stepped away from the tent and into the deepening shadows. The sun had gone down, and although the sky overhead was still a greyish blue, it was dark under the trees. Intending only to pull himself together, Akira skirted the treeline as he made his way out of the clearing.

No one seemed to notice. At first, that only fed his misery, but then it started to feel like an accomplishment. It felt, at least a tiny bit, like being Joker again.

He slipped down the path, sticking to the shadows, pleased at how easily it came back to him. It occurred to Akira that now might be a good time to check out the tower; pretty much everyone who was going to the dance was already there, so the path was deserted.

By the time he reached the fork in the path that led to the tower, his eyes had mostly adjusted to the dark. Still, he made his way carefully, trying his best to avoid crunching leaves and twigs underfoot. This he was not so good at, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that this part of the forest was actually quite noisy, between the crickets and the wind in the leaves and the tree frogs. The occasional scuffle of a footfall wasn’t that obvious.

He was surprised at how quickly the tower seemed to loom into his full view. He thought it was farther away, for some reason. Standing at the edge of the trees, Akira regarded the structure carefully.

It looked like something a wizard from a fantasy novel would live in. There weren’t many windows, and all of them were at least eight feet up. As Futaba had noted, there was smoke coming from the chimney, and several of the windows glowed, the light filtered through thick cloth.

Perhaps more important than how it looked was how it felt. As Akira stared up at the building, he was absolutely certain he’d been there before. Deja-vu rolled off the structure in palpable waves, giving everything a sense of unreality. The longer Akira stood there, the more it felt like he was dreaming. Had he been here before? Or merely dreamt it? His sense of balance began to falter as a wave of dizziness hit and he swayed on his feet.

“What are you doing here?”

Akira almost jumped out of his skin. Morgana was sitting at his feet, the end of his tail swishing.

“What are you doing here?” Akira whispered, glancing up at the tower to see if they had been noticed.

“Looking for you, duh. I saw you slip away from the dance,” Morgana said, not bothering to lower his voice.

“You were there?”

“Of course I was; you just weren’t looking for me, is all.” Time had apparently not interfered with Morgana’s ability to sound smug.

“I think... I think I’ve been dreaming about this place,” Akira said.

“Really? Huh.” Morgana began grooming his face with one paw. “You saw it last time you visited, right?” He sounded supremely unconcerned.

“Doesn’t it feel... strange?” Akira said.

“Strange how?”

“I dunno. Like... like a safe room. No,” he said, shaking his head. “It feels like the Velvet Room.”

Morgana froze for a second, paw in mid-air and tongue stuck out. “Definitely not,” he said after a short pause. “Trust me, I was born there. I know how it feels better than anybody. This is just a funky old tower, and a nice old man lives there. Sometimes he gives me cheese,” Morgana said approvingly, licking his chops.

Something about the way he said it made Akira suspicious. “What happened to all that talk about the village having ‘different energy’?”

“Oh, that? I just meant... you know, good vibes,” Morgana explained, a little too quickly. “Anyway, this guy goes to bed early, so we should get going before we wake him up. You know how old people need their sleep.” He stood and sauntered back down to the main path.

“Morgana!” Akira hissed, not wanting to shout. He hesitated for a long moment before he followed.

After staring up at the windows for so long, Akira had lost some of his night sense. The main path was let with small lanterns on the ground, so he found that easily enough. He knew Morgana was there somewhere, but the cat was nowhere to be seen.

There was, however, another figure bearing down on him, coming from the direction of the dance. Akira couldn’t see the face, but the gait was familiar enough. “Yusuke?”

“Ah, there you are. I’ve been looking all over for you,” Yusuke said. “I didn’t see you leave.”

“I know,” Akira mumbled, embarrassed and annoyed in equal measure. “Where’s Morgana?”

“Is he here?” Yusuke looked around.

“He... was,” Akira frowned. “Something weird is going on. Morgana was --” Akira paused. It was entirely possible that the cat was within earshot. Probably best not to go on about how strange Morgana was acting in that case. “You know what, I bet he just went to go see if there’s any snacks leftover,” Akira said, doing his best to sound nonchalant.

“I didn’t see him anywhere,” Yusuke said. “Are you sure?”

“Eh, it’s probably nothing,” Akira said. He waved vaguely, but shook his head imperceptibly when Yusuke looked at him. “Anyway, what time is it? Is the dance still going? We should -- we should get back,” Akira said. He didn’t want to go back even in the slightest, especially not if it meant having to watch Takemi drape herself all over Yusuke. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that it was none of his business. “I’m sure Takemi-san is missing you.” His smile was wan and forced

At that, Yusuke’s eyebrows shot up. “I highly doubt it,” he snorted. “She was dancing with Mune-san when I left.”

Relief flooded through Akira so strongly that he slumped. “What? Really?”

“Are you sure you’re alright? We can leave if you’re not feeling up to it.” Yusuke reached out and gripped his arm, as if he thought Akira might fall. “I know you’ve got an early train to catch tomorrow,” he said, squeezing Akira’s shoulder.

Under different circumstances it would have been weird, but Akira knew at once Yusuke was trying to give him a signal. “You know, I am pretty tired. And if we go back now, Sojiro’s just going to rope me into helping him clean up.”

“You don’t work for him yet,” Yusuke pointed out. “Also, my feet are getting cold. Let’s go.”

It wasn’t long until they were back in Yusuke’s workshop. Akira put on some water for tea while Yusuke changed into his pajamas, pulling thick socks on to his feet. “Ah, so much better,” he sighed. “I should have known May was too early for sandals.”

Akira changed too; by then the tea was ready. They settled into the living area. “The windows are shut, right? I don’t want us to be overheard.”

“I agree. I have news of my own to share.”

“You go first,” Akira said.

“As you saw, I was able to draw Takemi-san into conversation. I thought it best to start there, since you have a direct link to her.”

“Wait -- that’s why you were dancing with her?” Akira suddenly felt like a total idiot.

“Of course,” Yusuke said. “Why else?”

“I thought maybe you were -- that you -- she is very pretty,” Akira mumbled into his teacup.

Yusuke snorted. “Trust me. As attractive as she is, Takemi-san is not my ‘type’.”

“Right, right, how silly of me,” Akira nodded, remembering Yusuke’s penchant for traditional dress. Takemi’s miniskirt and fishnets were not Yusuke’s style at all. “Anyway, you were saying?”

“I asked her how it was she came to Garu-mura. She said her longtime mentor and childhood doctor had retired, allowing her to take over his practice.”

“Yeah, that’s what she told me too.”

“When I asked more about it, though, things began to sound familiar. The whole deal was arranged through the old doctor’s attorney. Takemi-san simply received a letter stating that she was being granted the right of first refusal for the practice. She never actually spoke to the doctor himself, however. The parallels are striking, are they not?”

Akira’s stomach fell. “Yeah. Yeah, they are.”

“Especially once you learn that I also was able to find out Iwai-san had a similar story. He was offered his position from a ‘friend of a friend’, despite having almost no experience in the fishing industry.”

Akira sighed heavily, wiping at his face. “This is bad.”

“It’s certainly a remarkable string of coincidences. What were you able to discover?”

Akira let all his breath out in a whoosh. It was surprisingly difficult to get the words out, probably because he never thought he’d say anything like this. “I’m not sure, but I think -- I think Morgana is hiding something. Something to do with that tower.” Akira looked up at Yusuke. “I don’t think he can be trusted.”

They stared at each other for a moment. “What do you propose we do?” Yusuke asked finally.

Akira’s mouth twitched. “How do you feel about a little breaking and entering?”

Yusuke’s smile bloomed slow as a drop of ink in water. “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

Chapter Text

As eager as Akira was to get answers, he returned to his apartment in the city the following day. There was no point in rushing in without a plan, something he’d learned very well ten years ago. Akira went ahead with signing the lease for the cottage, dropping off the papers with Yoshida on his way out of town. The last thing he needed was to start acting as if he had suspicions; he didn’t want whoever was behind all this to have their defenses up.

If there were defenses, that is. There was still a very real possibility that all this was simply a series of coincidences and there was nothing wrong. Akira had to keep reminding himself that he wasn’t Joker anymore; it was becoming frighteningly easy to slip back into that mindset. If the rental agreement was above board, he’d be an absolute fool to turn it down.

There was still the matter of his Jojamart job. That, at least, was an easy decision. He showed up to work on Tuesday morning exactly on time, where he promptly printed out a resignation letter. When Tanaka walked past his desk mid-morning, Akira caught his attention. “Sir, excuse me,” Akira said, getting to his feet. He handed over the letter.

“What’s this?” Tanaka tipped his head back to read, peering through the very bottom of his glasses. A grin flitted across Tanaka’s face when he realized Akira was quitting. “Ah, the work is too difficult for you. I suppose I am not surprised to find that you are giving up.”

Perhaps under different circumstances, Akira would have been embarrassed; Tanaka was certainly causing a scene, not to mention lying -- the letter said nothing about having difficulty with the job. Yet Akira merely leaned on the cubicle wall and sipped from his travel mug, even as he felt the surreptitious glances of the other employees. The truth was, he half expected Tanaka to fire him on the spot. He was almost banking on it, in fact. Granted Akira could certainly use the financial cushion of an extra two weeks’ pay, but if he were fired he’d be able to move before the end of the month, so it would be a wash.

Tanaka’s greasy smile slipped into a scowl when he didn’t get the desired reaction. He glanced once more at the letter. “I see you have given two weeks’ notice. No need. Pack your things. I will send security to escort you out.”

Akira put on an expression of mild surprise. “Are you terminating me, Tanaka-san?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shinsuke striding across the room.

“Kurusu-san, just the man I was looking to see,” Shinsuke said, looking pleased. “And Tanaka-san, good, you’re here too. I came to deliver this month’s customer satisfaction prize,” he said to Akira, pulling a card from his jacket. “It turns out there was a computer glitch. I’ve got IT looking into it now, but apparently every ticket you’ve gotten in the last two weeks was actually flagged, can you imagine? And yet you managed to double your customer satisfaction rating! Amazing work. On behalf of Jojamart, I am pleased to give you this gift card for 10,000 yen.” He handed the envelope to Akira with a tip of his head. “I look forward to seeing more good work from you in the future.”

Computer glitch, my ass. Apparently Tanaka hadn’t been as neat about covering his tracks as he thought. Akira accepted the card. “Thank you very much,” he murmured gratefully. “However, I’m afraid I’ve just been fired.”

Shinsuke’s head spun to look at Tanaka so fast it was a wonder his neck didn’t snap. “What? On whose orders?” He yanked the letter out of Tanaka’s hand, obviously thinking it was a termination memo. “This is a resignation letter,” he said. “Explain.”

By now, the room was as quiet as it could possibly get; the only sound was the air handling system and the whir of desktop fans. Tanaka’s mouth was opening and closing like a fish, so Akira spoke up. “I had planned to give my two-week notice. However, Tanaka-san has elected instead to terminate me.” Akira shrugged sadly. “I am sure this is completely in accordance with company procedure, however. There is probably no reason to call in my lawyer, Sae Niijima-san.”

Tanaka’s jaw hung loose; Sae’s reputation as an attorney was well-known. “You wouldn’t.”

Akira shrugged again. “She owes me a favor.” It was a complete bluff; there was almost no chance Sae would come to his aid now that he and Makoto were no longer together. Still, Tanaka didn’t know that.

Shinsuke scowled at Tanaka. “My office, the both of you. Now.”

Akira followed the two men. As they walked across the floor, other employees gave him surreptitious thumbs-up or grins. Akira did his best not to smile.

Once they were in the privacy of the office, Shinsuke sank wearily into his chair. “Tanaka-san, I’m almost afraid to ask: what the hell you were thinking?”

Tanaka straightened, raising his chin defiantly and directing his gaze into the middle distance. “Given the warning we had previously issued, and the ongoing reduction in Kurusu’s performance these last two weeks, both of which are extensively documented, I used my professional judgement to terminate this employee with cause.”

“Without checking with me first? This is highly irregular. Anyway, didn’t you hear what I said in there? There’s been a glitch. Accounting for the difficulty of the tickets, Kurusu-san’s metrics are within acceptable range. And even if they weren’t, customer satisfaction is our primary mission. His numbers are through the roof in that respect.” Shinsuke turned to Akira. “Clearly, you must have been working very hard.”

“I did my best,” Akira said modestly.

There was a quiet ping from Shinsuke’s computer. “Ah, I’ve got an email from IT about the glitch. It seems as though....” Shinsuke trailed off, his eyes tracking back and forth as he read the email. The content of the message was clear from the way Shinsuke’s expression hardened as he raised his gaze to Tanaka. A nerve in Shinsuke’s jaw started pulsing.

Akira could almost feel the waves of panic emanating from Tanaka. He was caught, and he knew it. It was glorious.

“Tanaka-san,” Shinsuke said quietly. “I will discuss this with you further in private. Wait outside.”

Woodenly, Tanaka got to his feet and made his way out, the faint smell of flop sweat following in his wake.

Akira did not laugh or smile or even smirk. He was quite proud of that.

Shinsuke took a deep breath, folding his hands on the desk in front of him. “On behalf of Jojamart Corporation, I would like to apologize for the treatment you have received. I am rescinding your termination. Furthermore, I accept your resignation,” he said, counter-signing the letter. “In light of the unprofessional way in which this was handled, I would like to offer you the next two weeks as paid time off, as well as an additional two weeks’ pay for your trouble.”

Akira realized he was being offered a month’s pay without having to work another day. “That is exceedingly generous of you, sir,” he choked.

“I assure you, under the circumstances, it is the least I can do. I am sorry to see you go, truly. I trust you have a better opportunity lined up? Do you need a letter of recommendation?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Akira said. “I’ll be helping out an old friend in his restaurant, and taking over the caretaker duties at a seaside cottage. I may even have some time to do a little writing, as you suggested.”

Shinsuke looked both confused and pleased. “How... unexpected. Well. I’m glad you found your inspiration. And when you write that novel, I expect a signed copy when you get published.”

With the unexpected bonus and plenty of time on his hands, Akira treated himself to sushi for lunch. It had all worked out far better than he’d anticipated. Now there would be plenty of time to pack properly and find someone to sublet his place, plus he’d have a little extra money in his pocket to furnish the cottage.

Still, as Akira tried to enjoy his sushi, he worried about Morgana. It felt very wrong not to trust him, but when it all came down to it, no one really knew what Morgana actually was, not even Morgana himself. “Personification of Human Desires Distilled into Talking Cat” wasn’t exactly an edifying title, after all. There was no telling whether he could be manipulated, or whether he had his own motives.

And yet, Akira had never forgotten how Morgana had kept him sane those first few weeks at Leblanc, ten years ago. It was like the whole damn world was against him back then, except for Ryuji and Morgana. If it hadn’t been for them....

With a shudder, Akira forced himself to focus on the here and now, setting those dark days aside. If something was influencing Morgana, then maybe Akira would be able to resolve it. It was the very least he could do.

When he got home later that afternoon, there was a notice from the property management company in the mail. Frowning, Akira opened it right away, fearful that his rent was going up. Not that it really mattered, but if it was too high, he might not be able to find someone to sublet.

However, the letter stated nothing of the sort. Apparently the company was looking to renovate all of the units in the building from studios to 1- and 2-bedroom luxury units. As such, they were offering to refund the last month’s rent for anyone willing to break their lease and move by the end of the month -- eleven days’ time.

“What the hell?” Akira read the letter again. It was perfectly straightforward. Not only that, it seemed reasonable, as well; many of the properties in his neighborhood were being renovated as property values had started to skyrocket. It probably made good business sense for his landlord to jump on the bandwagon.

But the timing of it was too perfect. Especially considering he’d just been handed a month’s wages and a 10,000 yen gift card that morning. He called Futaba.

“Joker! What’s up?” It seemed like she had him on speaker; her voice echoed strangely and the sound of keystrokes was audible in the background.

“Did you... did you hack Jojamart to expose my manager?” Akira asked.

“Hey now. No use of the H-word on unsecured lines. And no, why would I do that? Did something happen?”

“He was sabotaging my tickets at work, but somehow IT mysteriously discovered it over the weekend. The chief clerk was so embarrassed he gave me a month’s wages and let me quit on the spot. I thought maybe you had something to do with it.” Akira knew even as he was saying it that Futaba couldn’t have known; he hadn’t mentioned it to her at all.

“Nope, not me! Jeez, what an asshole though. Glad he got caught. Managers always think they know the system but they’re pretty terrible at hiding it when they do crap like that. Wait, does this mean you get to move here sooner?” The keystrokes stopped and Futaba’s voice got louder as she pressed the phone to her ear. “This is awesome!”

“Yeah, crazy how it all worked out,” Akira said absently, still frowning at the letter in his hand.

“Lemme see if Sojiro will let us use the truck. I’m sure he will though. We could be there, like, next Monday! Maybe? Oh crap, I gotta go, my inbox just exploded. I’lltextyoulaterbye!”

Akira sat with the phone in his hand for a long time, his thoughts scattered. Things were working out too well. But aside from Yusuke, he didn’t really think he could talk to anyone about it. Ryuji might’ve agreed with him, but he also would have encouraged Akira to take advantage of any... well, advantage. Same with Futaba. Ann was so positive and bubbly that it wasn’t worth explaining how no, actually, all this awesome stuff might be bad. He could call Haru, he supposed, but he hadn’t spoken to her in ages. Plus her job kept her pretty busy. Morgana had been the only one he could hope to explain this all to, and he was involved.

Akira suddenly remembered he had forgotten someone. He laughed bitterly. With a deep sigh, he typed Makoto’s number into his phone.

***

The door buzzed exactly at seven-thirty. This time, Akira answered it dressed in neat clothes that weren’t sloshed with beer.

“Hi,” Makoto said. She sounded nervous, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Is everything okay? Your text was pretty vague.”

Akira held the door wide to let her in. “Well... maybe?”

“Are you moving?” It wasn’t much of a question, given the state of his apartment. Akira figured he might as well use the rest of the afternoon to do something useful, so he’d begun packing things into boxes.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said. “Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Soda?”

“Just water, thanks.”

With a cup of water each, they sat at opposite ends of Akira’s tiny couch. It was awkward, both of them perched on the edges of the cushion, keeping as much space between as possible. “So, I think... I think I need your help,” Akira said.

“You asked me all the way here to get me to help you move?” Makoto didn’t sound pleased.

“No no, God.” Huffing, Akira did his best to explain what was going on -- the weird coincidences, the offer to rent the cottage, the notice from the landlord. He didn’t say anything about the tower, or about Morgana. Not yet.

Makoto, for her part, listened intently, asking for clarification on occasion, reviewing his copy of the lease and the notice from the landlord. “What about your job?”

“Welllllll....” Akira rubbed the back of his neck. “The manager was sabotaging my tickets and tried to force me to do a bunch of ‘volunteer overtime’. Since I got such a good offer on this cottage, I tried to put in my notice. Tanaka tried to fire me on the spot --”

“What??” It wasn’t quite a shriek, but close.

“But Shinsuke found out he was messing with my queue. So he un-fired me, gave me a month’s pay, and a 10,000 yen customer service award that I guess I was supposed to get anyway.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

There was a pause. “So... that’s it, then. You’re moving to Garu-mura to be a cook?” Makoto couldn’t quite hide the disdain in her voice.

Akira’s hands clenched at her tone. Suddenly he wasn’t at all sure telling her about this was a good idea. Literally anyone else would have congratulated him on getting such a fabulous chance to be happy; all Makoto seemed to care about was that Akira would be working at a low class part-time job. “I wanted to know what you thought of it all,” he said.

“Well, everyone does seem to want to move there for some reason,” Makoto said bitterly. “And this cottage is nice? You said it needs work.”

“It’s amazing,” Akira said, pulling out his phone. “Do you want to see?” He called up an image from his gallery.

“It’s... it’s a shack,” Makoto said, making a face. “Is it even structurally sound?” She sounded horrified.

“It just needs a coat of paint,” Akira objected. “And anyway, it’s right on the ocean. Look, you can see it through the windows.” He scrolled through his gallery to find a picture that did it justice. Somehow, he hadn’t taken any shots of the view itself.

“It looks desolate,” Makoto said, squinting at the screen.

“It’s not -- it’s right by the pier, where Mune-san works.”

“So, where all the fishing boats come and go? Does it smell?”

Akira pulled the phone away. This wasn’t going how he’d hoped at all. “Ugh, no, it’s fine. It’s beautiful. I thought....” He shook his head helplessly. Well, he had known she would be skeptical, just not quite in this way. “Forget it.”

Makoto immediately shifted to a conciliatory tone. “I’m sorry. It’s just -- when you put it altogether it sounds kinda... I mean, you skip work, piss off your manager, then instead of making it up you skip town again, and now you’re being kicked out of your apartment.”

Akira straightened, blinking in shock. He’d never thought about this as anything but absurdly good; trust Makoto to pick up on the worst aspects and magnify them. In this case, it was actually helpful. “I never thought about it like that,” he said.

“You’re lucky you made such good friends,” she said, sounding bitter again. “Otherwise you’d have nowhere to go.” Despite the fact that her father and sister had gained so much notoriety in law enforcement -- or maybe because of it -- Makoto held a very dim view of people who relied on their family and friends for help.

There was no way Akira was going to bring up the thing about Morgana now; it would only make Makoto angrier. “I guess you’re right,” he said instead.

Makoto sighed. “Are you really moving there?” She seemed sad. “Who’s going to open my pickle jars?” It was an old joke; Makoto never needed help with anything.

Akira snorted. “I’ll get you a jar-opener before I go. From Jojamart.”

They laughed and some of the tension eased.

“So... it sounds like the next Phantom Thieves reunion will be at the beach. That’s fitting, in a way.” Makoto drank some of her water.

“Yeah, I guess. Haru comes out sometimes to check on the fishing operations. Maybe you can take the train together.”

“I don’t think Haru takes the train,” Makoto said dryly. “I’m sure she has a car.”

“It was a joke,” Akira said.

Another pause, and now the tension was back. “It’ll be good for you to be with Boss and Futaba again,” Makoto said quietly. “I know you were happy at Leblanc. And you’ll get to watch Ann and Ryuji’s baby grow up! That’s going to be great.”

As much as he knew she was grasping for straws, Akira appreciated that Makoto was trying to see the good in the situation for his sake. “Yusuke said I should start writing again. He thinks the cottage will be ‘inspirational.’” Akira smiled gently, remembering Yusuke’s impassioned speech about it, how his eyes had shone with excitement.

“He would,” Makoto said, rolling her eyes. “Glad to see he hasn’t changed,” she muttered into her glass.

The sudden change in her tone was surprising. There was genuine acid in her voice, not the kind of gentle teasing he was used to hearing. Akira turned to her. “What?”

She waved vaguely, not meeting his eyes. “Oh, you know how Kitagawa-kun gets sometimes.” Her laugh was brittle and strained.

Akira stared; this was the second time she’d used his surname recently. After all they’d been through, it was like a slap in the face. “Oh my god,” he said. “You’re the one who told him to stop contacting me, aren’t you?” Akira wasn’t even sure why he thought so, but in the moment, he was convinced it was true.

“Did he say that?” Makoto looked up at him, almost in a panic.

The wildness of her eyes was corroboration enough. “He didn’t, actually. He said it was his own decision, but you suggested it, didn’t you?”

Makoto huffed, flustered. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“You tell me,” Akira said. He was angry, really and truly angry, for the first time in ages. When Makoto didn’t respond right away, Akira continued. “He was my friend, Makoto. I really liked him.”

Makoto looked up at the ceiling, clearly biting her tongue. “I know. But he wasn’t your friend. Not in the way you think.”

Akira squinted at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”

With a deep breath, Makoto explained, speaking very slowly. “Yusuke was... interested in you. Physically. I thought... I thought he might try to... take advantage.”

Akira’s universe came to a standstill and lurched back to life between one heartbeat and the next. “Yusuke is gay?” he whispered.

“Gay, or bi, or... whatever,” Makoto waved the distinction aside, getting up to pace.

“And he... told you he was interested in me?” Akira’s mouth was suddenly very, very dry. He reached for his own glass of water, gulping half of it down.

“He didn’t have to,” Makoto said, rolling her eyes. “We all knew it.” She shook her head with a mirthless laugh. “Anyone who had eyes could see how he looked at you.”

“You told him to stop being my friend because of the way he looked at me?” Akira set his cup down. “I’m sorry, can you hear yourself speaking right now? How do you even know he liked guys?”

Makoto spun to face him. “Because I saw him kissing Akechi!”

The universe stalled again; this time, it did not start up. Akira’s tongue felt three times it’s normal size. “What?”

“It was during the school festival. Before we knew for sure Akechi was on to us. They were in a back corridor behind some boxes.” Makoto made a disgusted face.

“What??” Akira hissed, unable to believe it.

Makoto nodded rapidly. “It’s true.”

Akira shook his head to clear it. “Well... I mean, what did he say?”

“I didn’t ask him about it!” Makoto looked horrified. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, Yusuke, why were you standing so close to Akechi just now?’”

“Wait, did you actually see them kissing?”

“I know what I saw,” Makoto said, her voice shaking. “Akechi’s hand was around his waist, and he was leaning up, and -- look, I don’t want to get into it. The point is, Yusuke had feelings for you. He didn’t deny it when I confronted him.”

“So... just so we’re clear, you pre-emptively decided that I couldn’t be friends with someone, because he stood too close to another boy, and he might have maybe had some feelings that apparently only manifested to your vision?”

“He couldn’t be trusted,” Makoto blurted out. She sounded desperate to justify what she’d done. “I mean if he was making out with Akechi while he liked you --”

Akira’s held up his hands, cutting her off. “Do you even hear what you’re saying? What the fuck, Makoto? You know what, you should just leave.”

Makoto was close to tears. She stood there, eyes downcast, her breathing unsteady. “I was jealous,” she whispered.

Akira was in no mood to cut her any slack. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I was jealous,” she said, a little louder. She was crying for real now. “You two were so close, and he was so handsome, and I was going away to college. I just... I couldn’t stand the thought that he might try to come between us.”

There was a time when Akira would have done anything to get Makoto to stop crying. Those days were, apparently, over. It wasn’t that he enjoyed seeing her cry, but under the circumstances he didn’t feel particularly obligated to help her feel better. “I’m glad you admitted it, at least.” He handed her a box of tissues. Suddenly he remembered he’d never returned Yusuke’s handkerchief, and he almost gave in to a jag of inappropriate laughter at the thought that he’d have plenty of opportunity soon enough. But instead he sighed. “I think you should probably go,” he said quietly.

She wiped her nose and eyes, nodding. “You’re right,” she said quietly. “I’m... I’m sorry. For what I did back then.” For a gut-churning moment, Akira thought she was going to launch into another explanation, twist it around so that he was the one apologizing in the end, but she just nodded again. “Thank you for telling me about your move in person,” she said. “I hope it all goes well.”

Akira was still angry -- very, very angry -- but there was no point in expressing it, not now. It would just make him look like a monster. “Thank you,” he managed to say.

Makoto searched his face, though what she was looking for, or whether she found it, Akira couldn’t say. With a shuddering breath, she turned to go.

He stood and watched her leave. Even once she was gone, he didn’t move, not for a long time. His mind was racing so fast that it was might as well have been blank.

Akira still couldn’t believe Makoto had gone so far as to force Yusuke’s hand like that. Although, Yusuke had made it clear to Akira that the decision had been his. What was more baffling was the idea that Yusuke was into guys -- not just that, but into Akira, specifically.

Even just thinking about it made that weird, hard-to-breathe feeling come back. It was intensely uncomfortable. It felt like... like longing and loss. Not even loss -- the anticipation of loss, or maybe it was the feeling that whatever it was that Akira yearned for, he’d never get it. And the longer he dwelled on the sensation, the harder it became to deny what it actually was that he felt, which almost tipped him into panic.

Almost.

But... maybe Makoto was wrong, though? It wasn’t like she was right all the time. She admitted she was jealous. Maybe... maybe she’d accused Yusuke of -- of whatever, and he was so upset about it that he’d written them both off?

Yeah. That was probably it. That had to be it. Slowly, the tightness in Akira’s chest loosened. Satisfied, he went back to packing. By the time he ran out of boxes, he felt sort-of okay. Certainly, not great; fighting with Makoto wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time. But he didn’t feel terrible, either, and that was good enough.

 

Chapter Text

It had been an incredibly long day, what with everything that had happened at work and then with Makoto; Akira felt more than justified in going to bed early. With a sense of relief, he crawled into bed and shut his eyes.

Akechi kissed Yusuke.

Hissing, Akira’s eyes flew open again. Dammit, he did not need to be thinking about that. If it was even true. Makoto was certainly convinced, but that didn’t mean much. She hadn’t actually seen them doing anything, right? For all he knew she was making the whole thing up.

Akechi’s arm was around his waist and he was leaning up --

“Dammit.” Akira sat up, pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw stars. Why was he still thinking about this? It wasn’t like Yusuke betrayed them in any way. What difference did it make, who kissed who?

Akira’s mind, however, would not let this go. Over and over, it returned to the image of Yusuke and Akechi together. He tried to think -- had they been especially close? It hadn’t seemed so, but what would Akira know?

The worst part was that, as much as he wanted to think of anything else, he wasn’t even able to picture it fully. He hardly even remembered what Akechi looked like after all this time. Handsome, he remembered that much. Akechi had good hair, and he smiled a lot. But after so much time, Akira was just getting flashes of hands and faces.

Akira realized he’d never actually seen two men kissing before. Maybe that was part of the problem; maybe his brain wasn’t able to move on, nattering away at the idea like a dog with a chewed-out bone.

There had been many times in Akira’s life where some part of him knew he was making decisions based on shaky logic. Usually, it got him into trouble. And yet, despite having that nagging feeling now, he decided that it made sense to... well, to find out what men kissing each other looked like. Get it out of his system, right?

A part of him hoped he would be weirded out. Another part of him knew he was just grasping at any distraction. But even then, it wasn’t really a conscious decision; he found himself reaching for his phone before he’d even fully formed the thought.

After a second of hesitation, he typed “movies with men kissing” into the search bar on youtube. Most of the results seemed to be mainstream films where the idea of men kissing was a joke or a mistake. He scrolled until he saw a thumbnail of a video with two young men in school uniforms. Heart thudding, he clicked on it.

The clip was in english and the actors were white. There were no subtitles, but from the setting it looked like they were meant to be college students. They certainly looked like college students, handsome and slender, each sitting on a bed in a dorm room.

There was a lot of disjointed dialogue in the beginning, and they had unfamiliar accents; Akira couldn’t translate everything on the spot. They seemed to be arguing. No, not exactly arguing -- more like they were negotiating.

Akira flipped over so that he was laying on his stomach. He watched as one guy got up and stood in front of the other. The shot lingered on the second student, still seated, looking up at him.

Akira’s chest tightened; he inhaled sharply and held it. The second guy stood up slowly, asking a question. Their faces were impossibly close.

The familiar sensation of not being able to breathe swallowed Akira, but this time there was nowhere to hide, no easy distraction. Instead, something broke through, an undeniable bloom of heat which spread through his chest and belly and then down further.

He didn't stop watching, though. Not even when the first boy slid his hand up to the other's face, not even when they started to kiss, almost sweetly, gently, and then suddenly it wasn't so gentle, and --

“Oh shit,” Akira whispered. Intending to roll over and set his phone down, he shifted his hips and then froze in panic.

He was hard.

Quickly, he turned off his phone, his heart pounding. It didn't mean anything. Just a bodily reaction, that's all. It was just because... because he hadn't done anything like that in a while. That's all. Of course, it was natural to get a little turned on when watching people kiss like that. Even if they were both men.

Except Akira never got aroused by watching men and women kiss. He barely ever even got turned on from watching sex scenes -- they always seemed forced and awkward to him. Needless to say, he never bothered with porn at all. Even as his mind spun, looking for any explanation that was remotely plausible, deep down Akira already knew the answer. He knew because his fingers itched to turn the phone back on so he could keep watching.

But he didn’t need to watch. All he needed to do was close his eyes, and he could imagine that those boys were Yusuke and Akechi. Except after only a second or two, he wasn’t imagining Yusuke kissing Akechi -- Akira was picturing himself. Akira exhaled too hard, whimpering, as he imagined Yusuke devouring him with kisses, dragging his lips down Akira’s neck, nibbling on his ears and collarbone --

By now Akira was bucking against the mattress. The friction was almost too much and yet he didn’t want to stop. Or maybe he couldn’t stop. He kept grinding, gasping and whining. It felt like he was caught in a riptide. All too soon, he finished, shuddering.

He lay there for a moment before hastily getting up. The last thing he needed was to make an even bigger mess in his pants. He stumbled to the bathroom to clean up and change into fresh boxers.

When he got back to bed, he checked his phone, intending to make sure he’d closed the tab with the movie clip. Which he had; still, he stared at his phone with a sinking feeling in his gut.

There was a text.

From Yusuke.

Yusuke had texted him. While Akira was....

Akira felt sick with guilt as the realization of what he’d done hit him. He’d... he’d gotten himself off, not only while thinking about a guy, but Yusuke in particular. A guy he knew. A friend.

And it felt fucking fantastic.

It was horrifying. What would Yusuke think of him, if he knew? Akira had to assume it would be nothing good. He didn’t know which crisis needed more attention: the fact that he’d gotten aroused by watching men, or the fact that he’d gotten himself off thinking about Yusuke. After a second of paralysis, his phone timed out.

On force of habit, he swiped it back to life. Fingers shaking, he opened the text from Yusuke.

Futaba tells me your plans have moved up? This is wonderful news!! I will contact you tomorrow about helping you move. For tonight I must get some rest.

Akira read it three times, hoping his mind would find some purchase. Unfortunately, it latched onto the “get some rest” part, by helpfully supplying Akira with images of Yusuke getting into his bed, stretching, then pulling off his shirt and ---

“Augh,” Akira grunted and threw his phone to the side. Rubbing his face with both hands, he tried to calm down.

Okay, he thought to himself, taking a few deep breaths. Okay. I can handle this. He took another breath, held it a second, and let it out. I like guys. I’m gay.

He waited a moment for some reaction, some sense that he was unlocking a deep-seated truth. Mostly there was just a sinking sensation; he felt colossally stupid. Was that why he was always so freaking nervous around Yusuke? Yeah, maybe it was. Was that what being attracted to someone felt like? It would certainly explain a lot.

Though, was he gay, really? Wouldn’t he have felt this way a lot more often if he was? He was around guys all the time, and there were only a few that made him feel this nervous. Akira tried to remember, as if he could somehow prove himself wrong, argue his way out of this. There was Yusuke, obviously. And actually Akechi too, a little, now that he thought about it. Also that one barista in the cafe he went to while he was in college; Tetsuo-san, who had the cubicle diagonal from Akira for almost a year; that one security guard at Jojomart....

When Akira ran out of fingers to count on, he stopped. This was ridiculous. He liked women. Didn’t he? Just because he’d never been nervous around Makoto didn’t mean she wasn’t beautiful. And maybe if she’d kissed him the way the guys in the video had been kissing, Akira would have liked that too?

Akira couldn’t even picture it. He sighed and rubbed his face again. Did it even matter if he liked girls? The problem was, he liked Yusuke. Even just thinking his name sent a rush of warmth through him.

Of course there was the whole matter of what to do about it. Akira only had Makoto’s word that Yusuke had been interested in him. And if Yusuke had been caught kissing Akechi, that meant he was perfectly willing to follow through on his interest with guys in general. He’d never hit on Akira, though. Had he? Granted, Akira wasn’t exactly sure how flirting between men was supposed to work; his only experience had been those two guys Ryuji kept running into back in high school, and they were clearly just messing with him.

For once, Akira wasn’t trying to deny the obvious, sifting back through his memories for anything that would confirm Makoto’s theory. He was practically vibrating with the hope that Yusuke had liked him. Because maybe there was a chance he would be interested again, and maybe they would become closer, and --

With a groan of frustration, Akira stopped his mind from going there. It was too many ‘maybes’. If only there was some way for him to know if Makoto was right. Then he realized, there totally was a way.

He picked up his phone and texted Ryuji before he could reconsider. hey man I know it’s late but if you get up for the baby or whatever can you give me a call? no big deal tho

As soon as he sent the text, Akira regretted it. Dammit, this was stupid. What was he gonna do, just up and ask him --

The phone rang. Shit. Akira answered it. “Hey, you’re up.”

“Yeah, I’m on feeding duty tonight. She just started her bottle, so I got a few minutes.” Ryuji’s voice was hushed and a little muffled, like he was holding the phone with his shoulder. “What’s up, man? Everything okay? I heard you’re gonna move out to Garu-mura too, that’s awesome!”

“Heh, yeah,” Akira said, nodding into the phone.

“Wait, is that why you called? You need help moving?”

“No, I think I’ve got it covered,” Akira lied. He wasn’t about to ask Ryuji to drop everything to schlep boxes, not with a baby to take care of. “Sorry, it’s stupid. I shouldn’t have even texted but I --” Akira hesitated. “I was thinking about the good old days, you know?”

“Oh?” Ryuji sounded confused.

Akira took a deep breath; Ryuji was his oldest and best friend, surely he could ask. “So, yeah. Um. Back in the day, uh....” He cleared his throat. “Did you ever get the impression that, ummm, that Yusuke... liked me?” He winced to hear how stupid that sounded.

There was a long pause, in which Akira died and was resurrected countless times. “Wellllll, I mean....” Ryuji said. “Yeah, dude. We were all kinda surprised when you got together with Makoto.”

Warmth flooded through Akira, followed closely by intense regret. “What, really?”

“You didn’t know?”

“How could I? He never said anything,” Akira pointed out.

Ryuji snorted. “Uh, I dunno what to tell you, dude. It seemed pretty obvious to the rest of us. Didn’t you notice that he was always, like, right next to you?”

“I guess not,” Akira said miserably, though even as he spoke he remembered how he himself was always intensely aware of Yusuke’s location at any given time.

There was a muffled sound on the other end as Ryuji switched ears. “That’s not gonna bother you or anything, is it? I mean, he never made you feel weird or nothin’, right?”

“What? Oh, no no. No, of course not. It’s not a problem,” Akira said, his voice trailing off again.

There was a pause. “Are you... I mean, uh....” Ryuji coughed. “Maybe... kinda... glad?”

Akira sighed shakily. He hadn’t planned on saying anything about -- well, about the whole “possibly liking guys” thing. It was still too new, a scalding unformed lump occupying his chest cavity. But the time when he could rely on plausible deniability had long since passed. Saying no would be an outright lie at this point, and he wasn’t about to lie to Ryuji. “Maybe, yeah.”

Another pause. “Well, that’s -- that’s good, right? Figurin’ stuff out and all?” Ryuji’s tone was tentative and hopeful.

Suddenly the lump didn’t seem quite so huge and hot; Akira breathed a bit easier. “I guess?”

“You know nobody gives a shit, right?”

Akira laughed. “Thanks,” he said wryly.

“You know what I mean,” Ryuji huffed.

“Still can you -- can you not say anything?” Akira winced; it didn’t feel right, even talking about it obliquely like this, but neither did denying it.

“Of course,” Ryuji said. “None of my business anyhow.” The baby began to gurgle and coo. “Ahhhh crap, I got a diaper situation. Look man, I gotta go. Hey, if you change your mind and need help with the move, hit me up, ‘kay?”

“Right. See you,” Akira said vaguely, hanging up the phone.

So it was true. Was, being the operative word. The initial rush of hope dissipated quickly. It was so long ago, and Yusuke had become so much more attractive in the interim, traveling the world and being a successful artist. What had Akira done, except for become a pale, flabby mess prone to weeping on benches and getting fired? Yusuke certainly wouldn’t still be interested now? But what if he was, though.

“Ugh, this is stupid,” Akira mumbled to himself. He laid down and clicked off the light. It took forever, but eventually Akira managed to get some sleep.

However, his hopes that things would be more clear in the light of the morning proved futile. The same could be said for the following morning, and the one after that, too. In fact the whole week was a blur. Akira went through the motions of packing boxes and running errands as moving day loomed ever closer. But he barely registered most of it, too occupied by thinking about Yusuke.  

As much as he wished he could ignore the situation, it quickly became obvious that Akira couldn’t pretend Yusuke was just a friend, not anymore. For one thing, he started having some pretty, well, involved dreams about Yusuke. And not just when he was asleep: as he packed and cleaned, intricate daydreams or intense memories came out of nowhere, many of them shockingly erotic.

It was as if his mind, now unfettered, wanted to think of nothing else. Akira’s first inclination to say nothing gradually morphed into the idea of saying... something, anyway. He wasn’t sure what; he only knew that the concept of not saying anything made him feel miserable.

But he didn’t want to blurt out something stupid, either. Maybe he could just talk about the liking guys thing in general, not that he found Yusuke attractive specifically. That would be weird, right? It would.

From there, Akira conjured up lots of scenarios, trying to plan it out: sitting on the docks at sunset, just the two of them. Or maybe back in the forest. Or at the Stardrop, after it closed. In each scenario, Akira’s imaginary self was eloquent and witty and self-deprecating. And Yusuke was always supportive, admitting that he found men attractive, too. Maybe the Akechi thing would come up, and Yusuke would be relieved at the truth coming out? And then maybe he would say something about how he’d never forgotten Akira after all this time, and maybe then they would lean closer, and --

“Augh,” Akira groaned, shaking his head like a dog. He forced himself to pay attention to the sink he was attempting to clean. Sojiro was due to arrive in the morning with the truck; he didn’t have time to get caught up in another stupid daydream. Akira still had tons of cleaning to do. He could worry about Yusuke after he’d straightened out the source of the strange coincidences in Garu-mura. This wasn’t a love story he was in; his friends might be in danger. He couldn’t afford any more distractions. The Yusuke thing was going to have to wait.

Well. Unless the perfect situation came up, then he could say something. Or if, like, Ryuji accidentally spilled the beans. Or if maybe Akira and Yusuke were in extreme danger, and there might not be another chance. But other than those specific situations, Akira could wait. Or, wait, what if Makoto somehow confessed....

Akira fell into another daydream, now listing all of the scenarios in which it would be acceptable to say something to Yusuke. At the very least, all of the boxes were packed; his new life in Garu-mura would begin tomorrow, clean sink or no.