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He Can't Talk And I Can't Walk

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The walk back to Yusuke's apartment glittered with Christmas lights. For the first time all season, Ryuji took note of them. He hadn't realized how soon the holiday was approaching, how fast time had flown by. He paused to examine an over the top display inside one of the store windows. In years past he would have been halfway through his gift shopping. He and his mother would have hung lights and decorated a small tree. There would no doubt be a Christmas party planned for LeBlanc.

This year those things felt far away and Ryuji couldn't even find it within himself to feel excited.

He was even less excited to see Akechi waiting for him in front of Yusuke's apartment. Goemon was lingering at the detective's side. He was keeping her occupied with a plate full of vegetables.

"Yo," Ryuji greeted, approaching the strange pair. He leaned on his cane to help him kneel down next to the tortoise to examine her. She looked to be in good condition despite the company she had kept. "She looks okay."

"Of course. Do you think I would have harmed her?" Akechi asked.

"I dunno. Maybe," Ryuji hedged. He stood up and stepped around Akechi to get to the door. Once he had unlocked it he swung it open and gestured for the other man to enter.

"Not very pleasant this evening, are we?" Akechi mused. He knelt down to retrieve the plate of vegetables, using them as a lure to tempt Goemon into the apartment. "Where should I lead her?"

"Yusuke's room is on the left," Ryuji explained, waving his hand vaguely towards it. "She's got a den on the patio if you want to put her out there to eat."

Ryuji kicked out of his shoes and stepped into the kitchen to stow away the leftovers Hari had sent with him. With his food settled in the fridge, he moved on to his bedroom to change clothes.

"I hope you don't mind," Akechi said when Ryuji returned. He nodded towards the coffee table where he had set up the chess board. The black pieces were on his side while white faced the empty couch across the table. "The standard rules are that white takes the first move. I decided to give you the advantage."

"Great," Ryuji sighed taking his seat. He looked over the pieces and tried to recall their names and movements. To begin he moved one of his pawns forward. "How did you find Goemon?"

"She was wandering the hallway on my floor," Akechi explained, mirroring Ryuji's move.

"How did you know she was Yusuke's?"

"Akira's showed me photographs of her." Akechi leaned forward to observe the board, steepling his fingers in front of his chin. The room was quiet for a few minutes while they traded turns. "You're certainly a chess novice."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ryuji asked, watching as Akechi moved one of his rooks forward to capture one of Ryuji's knights. "Okay, I got it."

"It will be unfortunate if you take offense to losing."

"I ain't gonna lose to someone like you."

"You can dislike me all you want, Sakamoto. It won't make you a more skillful player. Chess isn't the sort of thing you can win on will alone."

"I don't care. I'm not letting you win," Ryuji insisted again, cautiously moving forward one of his knights. He hadn't been paying attention to his moves before, but he was now. He could feel his heart racing inside of his chest, sweat forming at his brow, he couldn't let Akechi beat him. The two traded moves back and forth for a while in silence. Save for the occasional mumbles of interest from the detective. Akechi's eyes never strayed from the board. He was always watching it with his expression dawn in concentration.

Ryuji could tell early on that he was going to lose. Move after move Akechi captured his pieces until he only had one bishop and his king remaining.

"There's no way you can come back from this," Akechi explained. He moved his finger over the board to show the various moves that Ryuji could make. "Move your bishop and it's checkmate. Move your king and it's check. I'll have you beat in two moves or less."

"This is bullshit," Ryuji hissed, moving his king in a show of stubbornness. Akechi's eyebrows rose, but he didn't reply. He moved one of his knights to follow the path of the king.

"Check."

Ryuji shifted his bishop forward to protect the king. He knew that the piece would be lost to Akechi on his next turn.

"Wait," Ryuji hissed, holding a hand up to stop Akechi's removal of his bishop. The detective crooked an eyebrow at him, fingers lingering in the airspace over the piece. "I hear something."

There was a familiar tone coming from his bedroom, a melody he was certain he knew. He stood up to walk towards his room, seeking the source. It turned out to be his cellphone, blasting an old rock song that he recognized as Akira's old ringtone. He hadn't heard it in years, as the two of them didn't have the ability to have regular phone calls. Despite this, Ryuji had always kept the same ringtone, even through a few phone upgrades.

He stood flabbergasted for a second or so before his brain and body caught up to each other. He grabbed the phone from the top of the nightstand and quickly answered the call.

"Hello?" He called out, receiving silence in reply. "Akira?"

He couldn't be sure, but he thought he could hear something in the background.

"Are you there...?"

* * *

Akira hadn't actually expected Ryuji to answer the phone. His heart jumped in excitement when he heard the other man's voice. He pressed his phone closer to his ear, moving his lips, trying to form a reply.

"...ji," He greeted though his voice was hardly more than a whisper. He swallowed hard and tried again. "Ry'ji."

"Hey..." Ryuji's tone softened. "The hell you callin' for man? Y'know it's not good for your voice."

He placed a hand over his throat, already exhausted by his earlier attempt at talking. He wanted to reply but it was hard enough trying to breathe, never mind form words.

"We could'a jus' done a video call you know."

He shook his head, though he knew Ryuji couldn't actually see the action.

"We still can. Lemme call you back-"

"Nnno-...!"

"Are you okay?" Ryuji asked, his voice laden with concern. Akira had no way of answering. He didn't want to hang up the phone, afraid that something might come up to prevent Ryuji from calling him back. He flipped the lid up on his laptop and opened their chat window. He typed out a one-handed message.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Don't hang up.

There was a pause while Ryuji pulled his face away from his phone to check the message. He let out a soft rumble of understanding.

"I got you, man," Ryuji said, returning to the phone line. "I won't hang up. Just give me a minute."

Akira held his breath, listening to the soft background noises on Ryuji's end of the phone.

"We gotta finish this later," Ryuji said distantly. There was a voice that said something in reply though Akira couldn't make any of the words out. "Yeah, I guess tomorrow's fine."

There was a few moments of silence, some rustling and scratching, more murmured voices. Akira strained his ears to try and make out what was happening. Before he could come to a conclusion Ryuji returned.

"Sorry," Ryuji apologized, his voice tense. "That was uh, Akechi."

Akira's eyebrows rose in shock. It hadn't at all been what he was expecting.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Akechi was with you?

"Yeah, it's kind of a long story."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I've got time.

"Okay. Uh... I found Goemon. Sorta. She didn't actually get as far as I thought."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Is she alright?

"Seems to be. Actually, Akechi found her." Ryuji trailed off.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Did he give you a lot of trouble?

"Kinda. He made me play chess against him. We made a bet and I lost."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What were the terms?

"I have to beat him to get Goemon back."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What? That's impossible. He knows you can't beat him.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's nothing to do with you personally. He plays at a professional level. It's unlikely that you'd ever beat him.

"Wait. He's that good?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Yes.

"That bastard."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: He can't steal Goemon from you.

"He did bring her back but..."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: But?

"You called at the end of our game. He probably knew I wasn't going to want to play him again tonight, so he said he'll be back tomorrow."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What are you going to do?

"Play till I win I guess," Ryuji sighed. "He technically gave her back but I know it ain't over. He's gonna keep showin' up."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Do you want me to talk to him about it?

"No. I don't want you to have to keep rescuin' me from him. This is somethin' I gotta do on my own."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I understand.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What else is going on?

Silence overtook Ryuji's line and Akira worried that the call had disconnected. He moved his head away from his phone, confirming that it hadn't.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Ryuji?

"I... I'm not real sure what to talk about."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Anything. Please. I need to hear your voice.

"Well, since we're talkin' anyways, I jus' wanted to tell you how sorry I am for last night. I didn't mean to yell at you. You were only tryin' to help me out 'n I directed my anger at you."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's okay. I can be pushy sometimes.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: How are things going there?

"They're a'ight."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Ryuji I'm serious.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: How are things?

"They're fine, man. Let it go." Ryuji whispered his voice heavy with sadness.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: You can talk to me. You know that.

"Shit. Jus'-... Forget I said anythin'. You've got enough to deal with right now."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's okay. I want to hear about it. Please?

"I can't."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Ryuji. Please?
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I don't care.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I want to hear it.

"Everythin' feels all wrong," Ryuji grumbled after another long stretch of silence. "I've got all this stuff going on and I don't think I can handle it. I'm fuckin' things up. You haven't even been gone that long and I can't handle how it's makin' me feel."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I miss you too. I know this is hard.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It feels impossible for me too.

"We haven't been able to find time to talk at all. I have no idea how your trial thing is goin' or how you're dealin' with everything. It's friggen bullshit! I hate this."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I'm sorry.

"I-... Don't apologize, man. We both know you had to go and do it." Ryuji's voice cracked, tapering off into another prolonged silence. Akira could feel his heart sinking inside his chest. "I'm lonely. Or something."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's okay to miss everyone.

"Why'd you all have to leave at once?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: The timing was bad.

"I feel stupid. It's been like, what, a week? How am I supposed to stand this?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Have you been hanging out with Futaba and the others?

"Sorta... Futaba mostly."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What about Ann? Yusuke? Have you heard from them?

"Kinda. Yusuke calls to check on Goemon every couple days and Ann and I talked the other night."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: A good talk?

"Not... Exactly."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What was it about?

"Nothing, man. Jus'-... Tell me what's goin' on with you. I can't stand not knowin' how you're doin'."

He wanted to protest, to insist that Ryuji continue with his side of things, but he couldn't hold back. He had, after all, been the one to selfishly initiate the phone call.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Okay.

"Here, let's switch to a video call," Ryuji suggested.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: NO.

"Why not? It'll be easier."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I can't
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: See you
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Right now

"C'mon man. What does that even mean?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's not personal, Ryuji. I just can't do it right now.

"I'm gonna need a better answer than that." Ryuji sighed, his voice bordering annoyance. Akira floundered to find an excuse. He didn't want to have to explain the reason behind his sudden phone call. He didn't want to admit that he was struggling under all the pressure. More than anything he didn't want to give Ryuji another thing to worry about.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's my problem. I'll deal with it.

"I'm switchin' to a video call. Either answer or don't."

Akira winced at Ryuji's words, scrambling to compose himself. He watched in nervous anticipation as the offer for the video call appeared on his laptop screen. His eyes scanned between the two options, 'answer' or 'decline'. He didn't want Ryuji to be an audience for his current mental breakdown. He also couldn't stand the thought of ending the conversation. With a shuddering breath, he accepted the prompt.

A few seconds later the video feed came into view and Ryuji's face appeared. Akira inhaled sharply, feeling like he had been sucker punched in the stomach. He definitely wasn't ready for this.

"You look tired." Akira signed and it was true. Ryuji looked worn down, his skin pallid and his eyes ringed with dark circles. It was obvious that he hadn't been sleeping well.

"Shit. You don't look so great yourself," Ryuji mumbled. His eyebrows knit together in the center of his forehead. "What happened?"

"I-"

"C'mon man. Tell me everything."

Akira hesitated for a moment, unsure of where to start. His eyes darted around the room, then back to Ryuji, his body strung tight with nerves. His earlier panic was beginning to well up again, his throat closing up.

"It's okay," Ryuji said softly, able to see his distress. "Start at the beginnin'. We'll piece it together as we go along. A'ight?"

"Okay," Akira agreed, forcing himself to take a few deep breaths of air. Once his body had relaxed, he began. Half signing, half typing, he told Ryuji everything that had happened since he got to the hospital. He told him about all the tests. Showed him his needle bruised arms Explained all the procedures he had endured. He talked briefly about Igor and the man's disturbing psych evaluation. He told Ryuji about Lavenza and her past as one of Takemi's patients. He told Ryuji about his parents and the custody order.

"They came by the cafe," Ryuji explained during a pause in Akira's story. "We warned Takemi about it and she was going to tell you but I guess they got there first. I should have told you myself."

"It's okay," Akira assured him. "What happened?"

"They were lookin' for you. Picked a fight with Boss and made a bunch of threats towards him, but none of them made any sense. Jus' that if Boss didn't tell them where you were 'you know what' will happen."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: That's annoyingly vague.

"I know, man. The hell did they mean by that?" Ryuji growled, shaking his head. "They also said somethin' to Boss about how he was in trouble six months ago. Like they had helped him out with somethin'."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I don't have any idea what that could mean.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Did they say anything else?

"Nah. Nothing specific." Ryuji sighed, his whole body deflating with the motion. "I'll keep lookin' into it for ya."

The two of them fell into silence, but Akira didn't find it to be particularly uncomfortable. Ryuji seemed relaxed enough, his eyes focused on something inside of Yusuke's apartment.

"'ji." Akira whispered, calling the blond's attention back to the camera. Although, to call him a blond was only half true. His roots were growing out, overtaking the bleached portions of his hair. Akira pointed to his own head, tilting it to the side in a question.

"Oh. M'hair? Yeah, I haven't had time to really do anythin' 'bout it." Ryuji scowled, running a hand self-consciously through the spikes. "I feel like someone else when my hair gets all dark like this."

"I like it. It's nice."

"You wear glasses for a reason."

"I'm serious!" Akira implored. "I miss feeling it."

"My hair? That's weird," Ryuji snorted in amusement. "Though, I kinda miss yours too. It's all soft 'n stuff."

"How are you?" Akira held up one of his hands, stopping Ryuji as he opened his mouth to reply. "I mean, how are you 'really'?"

"It... It's like I said earlier. I'm not doin' so great without everyone. Without you," Ryuji's brown eyes trailed away from the camera, focusing elsewhere. "Man, it's not fair. I can't lie to you but the truth don't seem- Doesn't seem- Now ain't the best time to be troubling you with my shit."

"We're a team," Akira signed, tapping the side of his own forehead. "Remember?"

The two men fell into silence again, newly punctuated by Ryuji's discomfort. He could barely bring himself to look Akira in the eye.

"I can't," He said again, his voice thick with emotion. "It's not that I'm trying to hide anythin' from ya. It's jus' that so much happened in the last couple days that I'm havin' a hard time dealin' with it all. I already unloaded a bunch on Ann, I can't do that to you."

"Start at the beginning," Akira signed, mimicking Ryuji's earlier words back to him. It took a few more minutes of prompting but eventually, Ryuji cracked and began to relay his side of things.

It was certainly a wilder tale than Akira's had been. There were so many twists and turns that he could hardly keep up. Ryuji told him how he had landed his random internship at the tattoo shop and about his search for Goemon. What was going on with his physical therapy or random anecdotes from his new job working at Le Blanc. He talked about living in Yusuke's lavish apartment and how lonely it was turning out to be. How ashamed he was about the small amount of progress he had made unpacking boxes at their apartment.

A few times Akira could see Ryuji on the verge of happiness. When Ryuji spoke of the mysterious tattoo parlor, his lips turned up at the corners. Or when he talked about the progress he had made in his physical therapy classes. A few of the stories caught Ryuji on the verge of laughter. It was usually something involving Futaba and Sojiro or something funny Morgana did. He'd be at the edge, almost smiling and then he would catch himself. Something would flash behind his eyes and steal away at his joy.

It was difficult to watch Ryuji struggling. It was so unlike him to be so negative and so critical of himself. After a while, he stopped talking entirely, at a loss for words. Another drawn out silence where neither one knew quite what to say.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's getting late. You should lay down and try to sleep.

"I don't want to hang up the phone," Ryuji whispered. "I don't know when we'll talk again."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Soon. I promise. I'll be better about checking in.

“I feel like I brushed over your problems with all of my stuff.”

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: You didn't. It's actually nice to have something else to think about.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: And you listened to everything I had to say. Everything I needed to say.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I don't know when exactly they'll take me in for the surgery. It could be tomorrow it could be a week from now.

"What...? Tomorrow? Innit that kinda-... Soon?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I'm ready for it.

"Even though Takemi won't be there?"

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It was always going to be something I would have to do on my own. I never had any preconceived notions about that.

"You might've been back for Christmas if not for your parents."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I know. And I'm sorry about that. I had to make a compromise somewhere.

"I get that."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Ryuji. I agree with what Ann said about pursuing something outside of your college classes. You don't have to drop them. You can put them on hold. You might be happier if you didn't have other people's expectations hanging over your head.

"It's not other people. It's my mom, man. She worked so hard to take care of me. I can't let her down."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: But you can't let yourself down either.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: She wouldn't want that.

"I'll think about it."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I don't know if the tattoo internship is going to turn into a passion for you but it's worth looking into.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: You also don't have to keep trying to do everything on your own. Ask for help from Futaba and the others. From me. I'll do what I can from where I'm at.

"I know. I'll try."

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Will you stay on the phone with me until I fall asleep?
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Or until you do. Lol

"Yeah, I can do that." Ryuji murmured with a slight smile. It wasn't completely convincing, but Akira would take what he could get.

Despite his new list of worries, he was beginning to feel calmer. Talking to Ryuji often had that effect on him. He climbed back into bed and settled the laptop on the bedside table. Ryuji had slouched over against the cushions of the loveseat he had been sitting on. It was almost like they were laying together.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Tell me again about the tattoo shop.

* * *

"Akira?" Ryuji whispered, staring at the screen of his phone. He was halfway through the story of how he landed his internship when he noticed Akira's eyes had closed. His expression had relaxed and he didn't stir, even when Ryuji called his name. "Fuck. You went to sleep, huh?"

The answer was obvious, but Ryuji still felt disappointed. This was the first time they had been able to sit down and have a long talk. There was no way to know when the next opportunity would come. The surgery weighed heavy on Ryuji's mind. Especially knowing that Takemi wasn't going to be there for it. If something went wrong-...

Ryuji quickly shut the door on that train of thought.

"See you soon man," Ryuji whispered, sliding his thumb up over the end call button. When the video call had fully disconnected he let his phone drop to the floor. Rolling onto his back, he stretched out over the loveseat. He breathed deeply and watched the city lights play over his bedroom walls. He wasn't sure if the talk had made him feel better or worse, his heart still raged in turmoil.

"At least Akechi left." He sighed, surprised when he heard a soft meow in reply. Morgana was sitting atop the platform bed, staring down at him. Dinner time, Ryuji supposed. He rolled himself off the seat and made for the kitchen, the cat hot on his heels. His body felt weighted and heavy, but he had responsibilities to take care of.

He fed Morgana, adding a little extra tuna to the cat's dish as a treat, before going to check Goemon. The tortoise was peacefully tucked inside her burrow asleep. She seemed no worse for wear despite her adventure. He took a photo to send to Yusuke, assuring the artist that she was in good hands. He left out the information on her disappearance. What Yusuke didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Right?

He rushed through his nighttime routine, eager to get to bed. The moment his head hit the pillow, he was out.

* * *

"Akira," Takemi's voice, rousing him from his sleep. He opened his eyes and glanced around the room surprised to see that it was daytime. He slid his hand up over the nightstand in search of his glasses, hand brushing over the keys of his laptop. His conversation with Ryuji came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. He glanced up at the screen, but it was dark. A disappointing sight.

"I have to leave soon," Takemi explained, taking her usual seat next to the bed. She retrieved his glasses for him off the floor and offered them to him. They must have fallen off the bed during the night. "I spoke with the surgeon and they want to get you into surgery this evening."

"That's fast," He signed, feeling surprised.

"You can thank your parents for that. They insisted you have the surgery as soon as possible. Your mother wants you to be home for Christmas after all."

Akira sighed in frustration, rolling his eyes. Takemi made a soft sound of agreement.

"It honestly depends on your recovery," she explained. "You've worked hard to get into this trial. Don't allow her to force you to move at an accelerated pace. What she wants and what you need are not the same thing. It's still a closed trial. If you need more time to recover then use that to your advantage."

"I understand."

"One other thing, my little guinea pig. For your own sake, don't push yourself beyond what is reasonable." Takemi locked him in a hard-eyed gaze. "I know you're eager to return to Tokyo but this is a huge opportunity for you. We were expecting two months for recovery. With the success of earlier trial patients, it seems that time frame has been shortened. However, that doesn't mean you should rush through it. If you throw away this chance it may never come again. Listen to the doctors. Listen to Lavenza. Be patient."

"I will be," Akira signed, meeting Takemi's eyes. He set a hand over his chest, tapping his palm against it a few times to physically show his sincerity. "I promise."

"I'm counting on you," Takemi replied with a stern nod. "It's fortunate that you skipped dinner last night."

"Why?"

“Some surgeries require that a patient fasts. Throat surgeries especially."

"I do not understand."

"That means you won't be able to eat anything between now and then. My, such a sour face."

"No food?" Akira asked, his lips turned down into a scowl.

"Sorry. That's the rules."

Akira turned his back to her, still frowning in displeasure.

"Akira," Takemi's voice had turned serious, prompting him to glance over his shoulder at her. "This is still a closed surgery trial, so your parents won't be able to bother you until you're ready for discharge. They've signed all the necessary paperwork so you shouldn't run into any more trouble. I regret that I won't be here with you when you wake up."

"I will be okay."

"I know that but it will still be disappointing to miss. They were going to let me observe the procedure."

"What?" Akira narrowed his eyes at Takemi, not at all pleased by the way she was smirking at him.

"You didn't think I was here to be your babysitter, did you?" She leaned closer to him, capturing his face with her hands. "For me, this was academic. I really did want to see how my little guinea pig did on the table."

"I hate you sometimes."

"Did you and Ryuji talk?" Takemi asked, nodding her head towards the open laptop on the nightstand.

"A little," Akira signed, reaching a hand out to close the lid.

"He and Futaba told me about your parents. I'm sorry I didn't get to warn you before they arrived."

Akira shrugged, pulling free of Takemi's warm hands on his face.

"It is what it is."

"You don't have to do this," Takemi said, breaking a few moments worth of silence. Their eyes met and for the first time, Akira saw in her his own hesitation. Takemi had always been stoic and a clear-headed source of advice. He realized then that even she was not infallible. "I know it's not like me to vacillate on things like this. I want to know you're doing this for the right reasons. That you're doing this for you and no one else."

Akira thought on that for a moment, weighing all the feelings inside his heart.

"I want freedom," He replied after a short time, meeting Takemi's gaze. Her eyes softened and she smiled, a rare and private smile that she reserved for him.

"I understand." Takemi nodded resolutely and stood. She ran her fingers gently through his hair. "I'll keep in touch through Lavenza. Take care of yourself. When you return to Tokyo I'll be waiting to perform a full check up on you. I'll know if you've slipped."

"Understood."

"I'll see you soon, Akira." Takemi pulled her hand free and stepped towards the door, glancing back only to add, "I'll keep an eye on Ryuji for you. He's in good hands with me."

"See you soon."

Akira closed his eyes and listened for the sound of her shoes on the tile flooring in the hallway. He counted her footsteps until he couldn't hear them anymore.

* * *

Ryuji was two steps into the cafe when Futaba descended on him.

"What happened with Goemon?! Is she okay?! Did you find her?!" The redhead was bouncing on her tiptoes. Twice she almost knocked him off balance.

"Hold on a second, Futaba!" Ryuji exclaimed, catching hold of her shoulders, half to keep from falling over and half to hold her in place. "Yeah, I found her. She's safe back at Yusuke's apartment."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I-... I knew I was gonna find her."

"How'd she get out anyways?"

"Er, I think the maintenance guys might have forgotten to shut the door to her pen," Ryuji explained. He caught Sojiro's eye from behind the cafe bar. The two men stared at one another for a heartbeat, until the older man nodded in silent agreement. "Might be kinda cool if you come up with a way to GPS track her or somethin'. In case she gets out again."

"Are you kidding me?!" Futaba gasped, her eyes wide with excitement. "I'm gonna run home and get started!"

"Futaba," Sojiro's voice from behind the counter. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Mmm, no?"

"You need to be leaving soon to get to school."

"But Sojiro! It's the weekend! Can't I stay home?" Futaba dipped away from Ryuji to turn towards the bar. Seeing a chance to escape, Ryuji slipped past her and into the cafe bathroom to change clothes for his shift. He could still hear Futaba and Sojiro arguing. He snorted in amusement at her feeble attempts to sway the older man. By the time he came out, she had conceded defeat and had left.

"I've never met a kid who could argue like that!" Sojiro seethed, throwing his arms towards the ceiling in exasperation. "That aside. Thank you for not pointing out her mistake with Yusuke's turtle."

"Tortoise," Ryuji corrected, raising his eyebrows in surprise at himself. He shrugged his shoulders and leaned his back against the bar. It was startling to see the cafe empty on a Saturday morning. He hadn't noticed before, but there had definitely been a drop in customers. "It wouldn't'a done any good to go blamin' it on her."

"I appreciate it either way."

"I need to talk to you about somethin'."

"Oh, uh, okay," Sojiro mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. He gestured to one of the empty seats at the bar and poured Ryuji some coffee. "What about? You aren't quitting, right?"

"Nah, nothin' like that." Ryuji curled his hands around the steaming mug, allowing the heat to seep into the bones of his fingers. "I need to know what Akira's parents did for you six months ago."

Sojiro jolted, his expression shifting from surprised to angry. "How the hell is that any of your business?"

"Because it's comin' down on Akira."

"It's got nothing to do with him either!"

"They made a threat against you! It's obviously got some leverage!" Ryuji snapped, tightening his hands around the coffee mug. "You were all too quick to give them the name of the hospital where Akira is! If they've got you mixed up in somethin' I need to know."

The two men fell silent, Sojiro glaring at the floor and Ryuji at the mug in his hands. Time trickled by, measured by the clicks of a clock on the kitchenette wall.

"How long have you known about the custody order?" Ryuji asked, straining to keep his voice level. He knew this wasn't the appropriate time to lose his head and become aggressive.

"Only for a couple of months," Sojiro confessed, speaking through clenched teeth. "I didn't actually think that woman would go through with it. Even if I had believed it, I couldn't have done anything to stop her. When he turned eighteen my guardianship legally ended. I imagine she filed for it sometime around then."

"They've had it on him since he was eighteen...?"

"As far as I know."

"Then why the hell didn't they say anything?" Ryuji demanded though he didn't expect Sojiro to have an answer for him. He lifted his cup to his mouth and drank a few large mouthfuls of the coffee, allowing it to burn his throat on the way down. "Boss, what happened six months ago?"

"Will you let it go?" Sojiro's voice had lost most of its anger. When Ryuji glanced up at him, he was wearing a pained expression. His were eyes lost as they scanned the empty seats inside the cafe.

"They loaned you money." Ryuji guessed.

"...Yes."

"Why?" Ryuji pressed, trying not to let his emotions get the better of him. He felt bad about cornering Sojiro. Especially about a subject that seemed to be so personal, but he couldn't back down. He needed to get to the truth of things.

"Do you remember when I went to the hospital at the beginning of the year?" Sojiro asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Yeah. You had a high fever or something, right? Had to stay there a couple days?"

"...I had a heart attack."

"Excuse me?" Ryuji stammered, his own heart jolting from the shock. "Why didn't you tell any of us?"

"You think I wanted that getting back to Futaba?!" Sojiro barked, pointing a threatening finger in Ryuji's direction. "You can't keep your damn mouth shut for anything."

Ryuji clenched his teeth together against the angry words he wanted to sling back at Sojiro. He knew that if he started a fight they would get so far off track that he'd never find anything else out. He forced himself to take a few moments to calm down. He took steady deep breaths and waited for his pulse to stop throbbing inside his forehead.

"It was a small one," Sojiro continued without any prompting. He had begun to pace back and forth behind the counter. "I had to borrow money from the cafe to foot the medical bills. This place isn't exactly the most popular place in town for coffee. It was hard for the business to make up that lost income."

"Six months ago Akira's father showed up and offered to loan me the money to get the cafe back on its feet." Sojiro stopped pacing, his head hung low with shame. "I couldn't see any other way."

"What the hell? So he loaned you the money and now he's hanging it over your head?" Ryuji slammed his fist down on top of the bar, causing the liquid in his mug to leap over the side.

"No. It wasn't his father that was the problem. It was his mother," Sojiro explained, shaking his head. "The Kurusus aren't exactly wealthy but they're stable. For that much money to suddenly leave the account, well there was no way she wasn't going to notice it."

"Why would his father offer if it was going to be a problem?"

"I guess because he's more or less a decent person."

"More or less," Ryuji scoffed, rolling his eyes. "He either is or he ain't."

"The point is, she found out about it," Sojiro continued, ignoring Ryuji's remarks. "She wanted to me to make her a business partner and of course I refused."

"Bet she didn't like that."

"She threatened to sue me. Threatened to use the custody order to force Akira to go home with her. All kinds of crazy things like that."

"Can she do that?!"

"Legally, yes."

"Shit," Ryuji hissed, clenching his fists over the top of the counter.

"She's never made good on any of those threats but I don't want to do anything that might rock the boat."

"Why didn't you tell Akira they had that custody thing on him?"

"Because I thought I could protect him," Sojiro growled, resuming his earlier pacing. "I never honestly thought they would try to use it against him. That was my naivety."

"They are usin' it."

"I know. Takemi called me last night."

"So we gotta do somethin'!" Ryuji exclaimed, his head spinning with anger. "We gotta go to the hospital and make them get rid of it!"

"Kid, you're out of your mind." Sojiro scoffed. "You're getting all worked up over nothing. Takemi said they wanted to have him home for Christmas. They're gonna drop it after that."

"I don't believe that! Everythin' they've done up until this point has been complete shit. It's probably another scheme!"

"You're letting your imagination run away with you."

"I'm not! I've got a feelin' about this!"

"Oh yeah?" Sojiro turned to Ryuji and crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's say they did plan to keep the custody order. What would you do about it?"

"I'd go there and make them get rid of it," Ryuji replied with resolute determination.

"You think it's that easy?!" Sojiro snapped, coming up to stand in front of Ryuji. "This is a legal matter."

"Makoto's sister can help us. She's a lawyer innit she?"

"Even if she could it's not likely we'd win."

"I'd make sure we did," Ryuji insisted, his voice rising with desperation. "We can't sit on our hands doin' nothing!"

"You've lost your damn mind," Sojiro derided. He ignored Ryuji's growl of frustration. His hands patted at his pockets, searching for his pack of cigarettes. "I need a smoke."

Sojiro stepped out from behind the counter and made for the door, Ryuji donned his cane to follow him. They two of them stood outside Le Blanc, blinking in the harsh winter sun. When Sojiro lit up a cigarette, Ryuji stiffly held his hand out for one. He earned a raised eyebrow from the barista.

"Just give me one," Ryuji grumbled as Sojiro shook another free of the box. Ryuji lit the end of it and cautiously inhaled through the filter. The smoke burned the back of his nose and throat and caused his lungs to seize up. Embarrassingly he began to cough, smoke rising in puffs in front of his face. Sojiro looked at him out of the corner of his eye. A slight smile turned up the edges of his mouth, but he made no comment. When Ryuji could speak again, he asked, "Should you even be smoking?! You had a heart attack!"

"Shh! Keep your voice down! And I told you, it was a small one," Sojiro insisted, taking a long drag. "Akira'd have my hide if he knew I gave you one of those."

"Well yeah, he can't be around stuff like this, with his throat and all."

"So don't make a habit of it."

"With all the stupid shit that keeps happenin', I might not be able to help it." Ryuji sighed, taking another go at his cigarette. The second time it went down smoother, making his head spin with dizzy pleasure. The smoke warmed him from the inside. "You really could'a told us... I know I don't have a great track record for keepin' secrets, but I'd have done it. Big things like that aren't somethin' I mess around with."

"I- Sorry. For what I said," Sojiro grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. He ashed his cigarette from between his teeth, the end falling neatly down onto the ground. Ryuji would never admit it, but it was kind of cool. "You're not a bad kid."

"Don't get all weird."

"This whole conversation has been damn weird." Sojiro huffed, his throat rumbling with would-be laughter. "I hope he doesn't do anything rash."

"Whaddya mean?"

"Er, it's not my business to tell really-"

"Boss, c'mon." Ryuji slipped the man's unlit cigarette from his hand, replacing his own spent one with it. This was definitely going to become a problem later.

"Part of why he came to live with me was his behavior at home." Sojiro began, holding his lighter out to Ryuji. "I was pretty leery about allowing him to stay with me. That's why he ended up in that attic instead of my house. I didn't want him getting Futaba mixed up in anything."

"What was he doing?"

"All kinds of things. Getting into fights at school, stealing, running away."

"Hold up," Ryuji turned to look at Sojiro, his eyes wide with disbelief. "Are you sure they weren't jus' makin' all that up? I mean, he's never done anything like that here."

“As his mother described it one time, he was like a caged animal. Always trying to claw his way out.”

“I would too if she was my mom.”

"Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be the complete opposite."

"That doesn't sound like him."

"They've got it on paper. He got arrested a few times." Sojiro shrugged his shoulders. "He was pretty sulky when he first got here. Definitely looked like someone who had been raising hell but he never gave me any trouble. Well, outside of all that stuff you two got yourselves into. That was kid's stuff though."

"He never told me any of that," Ryuji grumbled, unsure of how to feel. He didn't like to think that Akira had been hiding something from him. "He got arrested?"

"Apparently. More than once."

"I can't wrap my head around that."

"We've talked for long enough," Sojiro said, lifting his arms over his head to stretch, causing his joints to pop loudly. Ryuji looked sharply at him. "I'm fine. I wouldn't have told you about it had I known you were going to make such a fuss."

"Can't believe you had Takemi lie to us about your heart attack," Ryuji shook his head and put out his cigarette. He brushed past Sojiro to enter the cafe. His head was still spinning from the smoke.

* * *

Ryuji finished his shift at the cafe and found himself with an open afternoon. He decided it was due time to make some progress on unpacking boxes at the apartment. He still didn't feel fully comfortable going through Akira's things. Though his conversation with Sojiro had made him curious. Did his journals have any information about his past?

He couldn't bring himself to find out.

He spent the first half of the afternoon working on the kitchen. He unpacked all the second-hand dishes from Le Blanc and put them away in the cabinets. He mad lists of any utensils they could use more of, planning to go out and buy them on his next day off. He stopped after a couple of hours to have a late lunch.

While he sat atop a makeshift sofa of boxes to eat, he considered another video call with Akira. The idea was quickly discarded. Though he longed to see him again he still felt wary of what Sojiro had told him earlier that morning. He settled for a few texts instead. He didn't want to completely ignore Akira on the day of his surgery.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: wat time is the surgery @?
☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: it was nice 2 talk to u last nite

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: The surgery won't be until after 6 tonight. It was nice talking to you too. I'm sorry I fell asleep.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: no big deal how r u feelin?

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I'm okay. It kind of feels surreal. Like it's not actually going to happen.
[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Also hungry. I guess I'm not allowed to eat anything before the surgery.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: shit that sux

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: :(

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: wat about ur parents?

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: It's a closed surgery trial. They're not really allowed to be here again until after I'm allowed to leave the hospital. So at least I get a break from them.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: im glad we r talkin again

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Me too. I didn't mean to clam up on you.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: nah it was my fault 2
☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: ive been so damn busy

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I think it's really awesome that you got that internship. I've been meaning to ask though, what painting did they see?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: oh that

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Yeah that.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: it was just some dumb finger painting thing i did with yusuek
☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: **yusuke

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Why didn't I ever get to see it?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: we got into that big fite

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Oh. That makes sense.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: think i left it at my moms house anyways

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Can I see it when I get home?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: /////// maybe

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: What are you so shy about? ;D

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: its just embarrassin ok???

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Are you having a better day today?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: yeah
☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: hbu?

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I think so. We'll see after the surgery.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: how will i know ur ok?

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: Once I'm awake enough, I'll text you.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: promise?

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: I promise.

Ryuji sighed in relief, though he still wasn't feeling completely calm. He glanced at the clock, trying to determine the time difference. While he was counting the hours off in his head, another notification flashed across his phone. Another number he didn't recognize.

💀: I'll be back in town tonight. Come by my office.

He checked the number attached to the message, trying to recall if he had seen it before.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: new phone who dis?

💀: Dr. Takemi

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: oh lol sorry

💀: Are you going to stop by?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: i guess i can

💀: Simple yes or no.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: yeah ill be there

💀: Don't keep me waiting till late.

Ryuji sighed around a bite of his food. He definitely didn't want to make time to go visit with Takemi. How had she gotten his number anyways?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: cant do chess 2nite

♛Crow♛: Afraid I'll beat you again?

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: im serious!!!

♛Crow♛: So am I.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: akiras havin his srgery 2nite

♛Crow♛: Then allow me to distract you. I'll be there at 8.

☣ŜЌǗĹĹ☣: i said no

♛Crow♛: I'll see you then. :)

"Stupid bastard Akechi," Ryuji hissed. He finished the real of his meal and returned to his work of unpacking.

When the afternoon sun had begun to set, he went to the tattoo shop for a couple of hours. Saturday nights seemed to be busy for the shop and he was able to observe all three men as they put ink to skin. After dinner and on his way to Takemi's office, he received one final message from Akira.

[♣]]]Joker[♠]]]: They're sending me back. Talk to you soon.

* * *

"Sorry to say but you're not allowed to walk yourself down to the ER." Levenza had arrived in Akira's room, followed by two other nurses and a gurney. "Takemi was right. You do make faces when you're displeased about something."

"I do not," Akira protested, eyeing the bed on wheels with distaste.

"Change into these."

Lavenza offered him a small stack of clothes and he excused himself to the bathroom to change. When he glanced up into the bathroom mirror he remembered that he had been wearing one of Ryuji's shirts. He had packed it impulsively the night before he left Tokyo. It was a welcome sight and he wished he didn't need to take it off.

While he was alone, he sent one final text to Ryuji. Typing the words out had been something of a struggle. His fingers were nearly locked from his tense nerves.

He undressed down to his boxers and tucked himself into his new set of hospital clothes. He shed Ryuji's shirt in favor of an open back blue and white hospital gown. He struggled to tie the straps along the back, shivering with his shoulders exposed. There was an unsightly hair cap that he instantly hated. He knew he would only need to wear it for the surgery, but it didn't diminish his disdain.

It took some adjusting to get all of his hair up inside the cap. When he looked in the mirror he wished he had a voice to groan his displeasure with. Ryuji would find it amusing though so, despite his feelings about it, he took a photo to send to the blond later. The only part of the outfit he could agree with was a pair of knee high compression socks. The bottoms of which had small round rubber pads to prevent slipping.

Scowling at his reflection one last time, he opened the door and stepped out into the room. Lavenza kept her expression neutral but she couldn't hide the amusement in her eyes. She approached to take his clothes and his phone from him, settling them on the bed. She then turned to peel back the sheets on the gurney, patting it's stiff plastic covered mattress.

He moved to climb onto it when a soft giggle from one of the other nurses caught his attention. He raised his eyebrows at Lavenza in a question. Instead of answering she walked around behind him and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Those come off too," She said sternly, snapping the waistband of his boxers. He jumped forward in surprise casting a sharp look over his shoulder at her. She was definitely a mini-Takemi. "I can help you if you can't do it yourself."

"I can do it!" He signed, moving his hands in sharp movements. He turned his body front facing towards the nurses, his face slightly flushed. It was embarrassing to admit that a room full of nurses had him so flustered. Especially when his mind trailed to the memories of all the things he and Iwai had done in the back of the gun shop. They were infinitely more obscene. 

He definitely couldn't think about that right now. It wasn't helping his situation.

He hooked his thumbs into the top of his boxers and drew them down over his hips, dropping them to the floor. He stepped free of them and was about to bend down to pick them up but thought better of it. The back of his hospital gown was still untied. Instead, he grabbed them with one of his feet and flung them in the general direction of the bed. They missed and landed on the far side by the wall but that was close enough. He reached around behind himself to clutch at the back of the gown. He hoped it was closed enough to save him some dignity.

He inched his way onto the gurney and pulled the sheets up over himself. Lavenza's face was still impassive but he could see a hint of a smile. It was a sure bet that she was going to spill all the details of his struggle to Takemi later.

The three nurses gathered at different points of the bed. There was one at the head to push and Lavenza and the other on either side. They lifted up a set of rails to make sure he didn't roll out by accident, locking them into place. While they all pushed the bed, Lavenza explained the procedure to him one final time.

Due to the location of the vocal cords, he would be going under without a breathing tube. The surgery would be kept as short as possible. An incision would be made at the center of his throat where a scope and the needed tools would be passed through. The doctor would go in and reassess the damage and make the needed repairs.

He had heard it all before, but he couldn't help the wave of discomfort that settled inside his stomach. He placed his hands over it, hoping the pressure might soothe some nerves. The bed slid into a large elevator. For a moment he was forced to watch his own tense expression in the mirrored ceiling. That and the view of the horrible hair cap.

A soft chime announced their arrival to a new floor. The doors on the opposite side of the elevator opened and the nurses continued their path. They passed by a small break room, the scent of coffee flowing from beyond the door. Akira was painfully reminded of how hungry and thirsty he was.

"You're a bit pale," Lavenza reported, glancing down at him. "Do you feel sick?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"It's probably just nerves." One of the other nurses assured him.

"We're going to take you in for the anesthesia," Lavenza explained as the bed came to a stop. "After that, you'll be asleep and you won't have to worry about anything for a while."

Akira nodded his head, trying to take deep breaths to calm the restless pace of his heart. The nurses disappeared briefly, returning wearing similar hair caps and surgical masks. Gloved hands took hold of the bed again as they wheeled him into a stark white room. It was empty save a large panel of instruments tucked against the far wall.

"Do you have any questions?" Lavenza asked. Akira felt like he was being offered the chance to say final words before an execution. He shook his head fervently. She took hold of his hands and moved them beneath the sheets, tucking the sheets around him at the edges. He was effectively silenced. He shut his eyes and curled his fingers into the fabric. He thought of Ryuji, of Tokyo, of all his friends and his tiny Le Blanc family.

"Hello," A new voice caught his attention. He turned his head to see another nurse had entered the room. Though her face was obscured by her face mask she looked remarkably like Lavenza. Akira wondered if they were related. They certainly had the same striking yellow eyes. "My name is Margaret. I'm here to do the anesthesia."

While Margaret prepared the machines one of the original nurses pressed a thick clear mask down over Akira's mouth and nose. His stomach lurched with discomfort though he tried his best to keep a straight face. Behind his closed lips, he ground his teeth together, reminding himself it would be over soon.

"I want you to breathe deeply with my count down," Magaret instructed as she started the gas flow. There was a sharp hiss and then a bitter taste that made his lips curl back from his teeth. "Ten.."

He inhaled as deeply as he could and then exhaled.

"Nine..."

Another deep breath, this time with a distinct feeling of dizziness.

"Eight..."

Breathe.

"Seven..."

He'd lost control of his eyes, they rolled in circles around the room, his vision blurred.

"Six..."

I don't want to do this. He thought, knowing it was too late to go back.

"Five..."

I miss him...

"Four..."

No.

The world faded to black.

* * *

"Ow ow ow! Not so hard!" Ryuji couldn't understand how he had ended up in his current position. He was on his back in Takemi's examination room, shirtless, with the doctor on top of him. Well, on top of his leg, bending it back towards his stomach, stretching out the muscles.

"I'm impressed." Takemi mused, finally letting off the pressure. She moved over to her stool and sat down to jot down some notes. Ryuji remained where he was. He lowered his leg gingerly back down into a more reasonable position. "The flexibility has improved greatly. I can tell you've been to a few good physical therapy sessions."

"Yeah. I had a couple I went to this week."

"They're definitely working."

"Doesn't seem like it," Ryuji grumbled. The air in the examination room was frigid and without his shirt or jacket on he felt close to freezing. "It's so damn cold in here."

"I had the heat off while I was away. Saves electricity." Takemi explained mindlessly. Ryuji scowled at her back and rubbed his hands over his arms to work warmth into them. It was a mystery to him that she didn't seem bothered by it. She was sitting at her desk in a short-sleeved dress, her lab coat hung neatly by the office door. All winter long she dressed the same as she did in the summer as if the cool weather had no effect on her.

She's gotta be a vampire or something. Ryuji thought, it was the only explanation he could think of. It would explain her clothing choices and her frigid attitude.

"I'm freezin'! Can I get dressed?" He asked, earning a sharp look from the doctor. "C'mon!"

"How's the pain been?" Takemi asked, ignoring Ryuji's gripes. "You can use a one-ten scale."

"I guess maybe a four or five? It's been an eight at it's worst."

"I know your feelings on it but have you considered pain medication?"

"No," Ryuji said the word firmly, his expression hardening. "You gave me some before."

"I gave you giant high dose aspirin pills." Takemi swiveled in her seat, turning to face him. "I can start you out with something simple-"

"I said, no."

"There isn't any shame in it. Pain management is important for recovery."

"And am I?" Ryuji snapped, sitting up to pull his shirt back on. "Am I recoverin'?"

"Yes and no." Takemi continued, unabashed by his harsh tone. "You've been blowing off physical therapy for a long time so your knee was already weakened by that. When you slipped and fell you set yourself back even more."

"You said it would get better. That I needed to wait a month or two."

"I said it might get better. You're doing everything right but it's still early. I can't give you a definitive answer."

The two sat at an impasse.

“How long is he going to be in surgery for?” Ryuji asked, his voice soft.

“He should be coming out of surgery soon,” Takemi replied, checking the time on her phone. “Recovery might take another couple of hours. They have to wake him up and make sure his vitals are stable.”

“How dangerous is this surgery?”

“Well it's not brain surgery but it's not simple either. They're using new techniques that haven't been in practice for more than a short time. There's always a risk of accidentally nicking the vocal cords. He can't have a breathing tube during the procedure, so there's a small suffocation risk.”

“Eff that,” Ryuji mumbled, hugging his arms around himself to soothe away his discomfort.

“He'll have to breathe on his own.”

“He ain't exactly good at that.”

“I know,” Takemi agreed. “He and I both knew going in that this would be a tricky surgery for him.”

“What... Happens if he stops breathin'?” Ryuji wondered, his tone even softer than before.

“They'll take care of him.”

“But-...”

“They're doctors, Ryuji. They'll take care of him.” Takemi rose to her feet and gestured for him to get dressed. “I'll drive you home.”

* * *

Ryuji arrived at Yusuke's apartment before eight. He debated on not answering the door when Akechi arrived but decided it wouldn't be worth it. Instead, he found himself in the kitchen preparing snacks. While he worked, he spoke on the phone to his mother, explaining the situation with Akira. As usual, she seemed to have ideas and answers that he would have never thought of himself. By the end of the phone call, he couldn't help realizing how much he had been missing her.

“Oh, there's food this time,” Akechi noted as he stepped into the apartment. He slipped free of his shoes and stood awkwardly in the entryway. “Should I have any reason to think that you've poisoned it?”

“I wish I had,” Ryuji grumbled. He took up a plate and began filling it with food. “Eat or don't. Doesn't matter to me.”

“I suppose I can take advantage of your hospitality.”

“Yeah, well, don't get used to it or nothin'. I mostly made all this for me.”

The two of them retired to the living room, where they ate in silence. Akechi was meticulously neat and tidy as he ate, while Ryuji ended up under a dusting of crumbs. He tried to be discreet about brushing them off onto the floor.

“You said he's having his surgery tonight?” Akechi asked when they had finished their food. He was setting up the chessboard, placing the black pieces on Ryuji's side.

“Well, it should be over by now," Ryuji explained, checking his phone. His heart thrummed with anxiety. He hadn't received any new texts from Takemi. No news was good news, right? “He's prolly in recovery.”

“Nothing to be done about it,” Akechi said, gesturing a hand towards the board. He had already started the game.

“Y'never mentioned it before, but you're a pro chess player?”

“I wouldn't say that I'm making a career out of it but I do play for our university's chess group.”

“Is that so?” Ryuji inhaled a sigh. There was definitely no chance that he would beat someone who was able to play at such a high level. Even knowing that, however, made him stubborn and hopeful. If he could hold out for some dumb luck-

“Checkmate.”

“What?! We just started!”

“You left your king unguarded.” Akechi moved his finger over the board, showing his own movement path. “I saw this opening early on in the game.”

“Dammit.”

“How's Miss Goemon doing?”

“She's fine,” Ryuji growled, throwing a hand towards the board. “Set it up for the next game.”

* * *

All around him Akira could hear voices. Their words drifted senselessly through the air like smoke. Their meanings were lost to him. His throat felt scorched with fire, a burn that continued down to settle inside his chest. His stomach flipped and churned nauseously. He tried to breathe deep to soothe it, but it only served to make the pain worse. He needed help.

Cautiously he opened his eyes, finding himself inside a dimly lit room. Curtains made up three of the four walls surrounding him. He glanced to his left to gaze upon a jumbled mess of white machines and the sight of them reminded him where he was. A small wave of relief washed over him as he realized that he had made it through his surgery.

“I see that you've finally woken up,” Lavenza appeared from a split in the curtains. She was being followed closely by another nurse. “This is Nurse Angie. She and I are going to get you cleaned up and ready to return to your room.”

“You slept for a long time. It's almost seven in the morning.” Lavenza said while she and Angie, a petite woman with bright green eyes and long blond hair, set to work. The blond tended to the machines while Lavenza asked a short series of questions. Akira answered the best he could with his hands. His fingers struggled to bend enough to form certain signs. Moving his arms was almost out of the question. It sent too many shock-waves of pain through his chest.

“Lavenza, I'm going to need your assistance,” Nurse Angie interrupted, her voice soft. She placed a gentle hand on Akira's shoulder to catch his attention. “After the surgery, we had to intubate you or insert a tube to assist you with breathing. I'm sure you can feel it inside your mouth. Lavenza and I are going to remove it for you. Do you have any questions?”

“How?” He asked, his signs translated to Angie by Lavenza.

“I'll have you relax your throat and take a deep breath while we remove the tube. It won't take more than a moment or so but it's a bit uncomfortable.”

“Got it,” He signed stiffly. He definitely wasn't looking forward to the removal process. His throat and chest were still aching.

“Don't worry. It will be over in a second,” Lavenza assured him. The two nurses gathered on either side of the head of his bed, lowering it into a flat position. “Whenever you are ready, Miss Angie.”

Angie peeled back the tape that had held the tube in place. She reminded him to breathe deeply and relax. The two things he wasn't certain he was going to be able to do. He gripped at the sheets like a lifeline, his body shaking in nervous anticipation. She gripped the tube firmly, reminded him once again to breathe, and began to pull. He shut his eyes and cringed away from the pain and discomfort. The moment the tube slid free of his lips his gag reflex kicked in.

Probably prepared for such an outcome, the two women hooked their arms under him to pull him upright. A bowl appeared in front of his face milliseconds before his stomach clenched up. The taste of blood and bile filled his mouth and he spewed the distasteful combination. He sat in silence misery until his body decided it had finished. Shaky and covered in a cold sweat, he motioned for them to lay him back down. Lavenza lowered him while Angie and the bowl disappeared through the curtains.

“Sorry,” He signed with a trembling hand.

“You don't have to apologize. It happens all the time,” Lavenza assured him, her voice almost cheerful. It didn't make him feel any less embarrassed. “Swallowing that much blood can make some patients sick to their stomach.”

He held up a hand to stop her from further commentary. He didn't need to know the details. Seeing it firsthand had been enough.

“The doctor said you did really well,” Lavenza continued, changing the topic. “He actually said that you were pretty much a prime candidate for the new procedure. He's expecting good results.”

“I'm glad.”

“I told Takemi about it. She'll relay it to your friends and your family,” As Lavenza said this, Nurse Angie reappeared. The two of them set to work cleaning him up while he basked silently in the attention. Angie cleaned the adhesive and blood off of his face while Lavenza freed his hair from the head cap. She smoothed her hands through it to comb out the tangles. The cold hiss of oxygen brushed over his face as they looped a clear tube under his nose and around his ears.

“Are you in any pain?” Angie asked when they had finished. He forced his eyes open to look at the blond and nodded. He ran his hand up over his chest and the bandages around his neck. “We'll give you something for it.”

“We're going to take you back to your room now,” Lavenza said as a third nurse appeared through the curtains. The three of them took up post around his bed and began wheeling him through a maze of hallways. He shut his eyes again and rested, listening to the muted hospital sounds. When they arrived inside his room the sun was beginning to stream in through the window, rising to greet a new day.

“The doctor will be by later today to talk to you about the surgery. As well as how we'll proceed with recovery,” Angie said. She moved over to the window to shut the curtains over it, bathing the room in near darkness. “I'm going to give you a light pain medication. It will help you sleep.”

“Here,” Lavenza approached, holding a small cup of water with a straw sticking out of the top. She positioned the end of the straw at his lips and he drank. It was the best water he'd ever had. “You can have some more later.”

“I'll be right back,” Angie said to Lavenza, dipping out into the hallway. While she was gone, the younger girl moved about the room. She covered him up with a thicker blanket, smoothing her hands over it to get rid of any wrinkles. He blinked gratefully at her, earning a small smile in reply. She plugged his cellphone in for him and set it on the bedside table, making sure it was accessible.

“If you need anything else, you can press the nurse's button,” Lavenza pointed it out to him. She ran through a quick explanation of the other buttons on the bed's control panel. “My shift is finishing up in a few minutes, but Miss Angie will be here to help you if you need anything.”

Akira nodded in reply as the Angie reentered the room. She injected the aforementioned pain medication into his IV line. The effects of it hit him almost immediately. The pain inside his throat and chest eased off and his body began to feel like it was floating. His eyes grew heavy and began to close. He slipped into another blissfully restful sleep.

* * *

Ryuji stared at the clock on the wall, watching the minute hand ticking towards the top. It was almost five in the morning and he hadn't been able to sleep at all. He sat in the living room on one of the couches, shoulders slouched forward. He watched the sun begin to rise over Tokyo. Morgana slept inside his lap and every so often Ryuji's hand would stray down to pet him. The cat would shift, his throat rumbling with purrs.

The blond was still bitterly recalling his chess session with Akechi hours earlier. The detective had smoked him in half a dozen games before heading home for the night. The chessboard was sitting on the coffee table, the pieces still left out from their final game. All evening long Ryuji had glared at them, going over in his head all the ways in which is strategy had gone wrong.

The sharp buzzing of his phone caused him to jump, startling the cat inside his lap. Morgana lifted his head to glance up at the blond, offended by his sudden movement. Ryuji leaned over to pick up his phone. His heart quickened it's pace when he saw the several new messages had come in from Takemi. Chest thrumming, he unlocked the screen and opened the messages.

💀: Akira is out of surgery.
💀: The nurses say that he's doing well and that the surgery went better than anticipated.
💀: Get some sleep.

Ryuji placed his phone down gently. He turned his head toward the large living room windows. He could see the first warm glimmers of sunlight creeping between the tall buildings. His vision began to swim and his face grew hot as the tension inside his body seeped out through his eyes.