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Ryuji throws his back deeper into the crevice of the couch, even as that old piece of shit groans like a threat under his weight. “Akira’s late again.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Ann chimes in, her nails clicking on the table.

Out of the four of them, Makoto is the only one still standing, politely holding onto her schoolbag. Looks like she hasn’t made peace yet with the fine layer of dust and cat hair on everything in the attic, but she’ll come around eventually. “Actually, I thought Akira-kun was usually rather punctual.”

“No, he is, I guess,” Ann says. “But if he’s late? Then he’s late at the worst possible time.”

“Yeah, like to his own effin’ party!” Ryuji belts out. Because—seriously? It was Akira’s idea in the first place to celebrate their new hideout and now he’s gotta make everybody wait for him? He’s pretty sure they left Shujin at around the same time. A snack run wouldn’t have taken this long. Probably just caught up in the bathroom. Or maybe something bad happened – like what exactly, he doesn’t know, but Kaneshiro’s bound to have a couple of pissed-off goons still left in town.

Ryuji doesn’t say what he’s thinking, of course, it’s a dumb thought, but he anxiously eyes the stairs anyway.

“Oh, well, that I can see. Not just anybody can miss half their first day at school like it was nothing.”

“Whoa, hold on! D’you know the kinda shit that went down that day? That was totally not our fault!”

Eventually their argument is mercifully cut short by the bells ringing out downstairs and Ryuji sits up with a start, fast enough he gets stared at. It could just be a customer, even though this place is dead as hell every single time he comes over, and then he hears it, the sound of footsteps thudding up the stairs, and even Yusuke stops eating his chips long enough to look up.

“You sound like a damn elephant,” Sojiro hollers from downstairs, and Ryuji can see why, because strapped to Akira’s back is an enormous, heavy-looking bag, so big it’s pushed Morgana’s off to the side in a sad, crooked lump.

“Ho ho ho,” Akira says in his burliest voice, and Morgana immediately rolls his eyes.

It’s the sweetest haul Akira’s ever brought in. The bag is absolutely stuffed to the brim with packaging, fat bundles of bubblewrap and kraft paper with a peacebound katana hilt proudly sticking out at the top, and it’s a miracle he even made it to Leblanc instead of violating his probation fifty times over on the way here. He heaves it down to the table, sticks his hand in and pulls out some legit dominatrix whip that makes Ann swoon and Ryuji’s ass pucker.

She practically cuddles the damn thing and cheers, “Weapons!

“That’s where you were?” Makoto says. “Out buying fake swords?”

“I bought fake everything today.” He digs around in the bag again. “And this one’s yours.” He smiles and hands Ryuji the shotgun he’s been raving about for two weeks, chrome-barreled with a short walnut stock, and Ryuji’s heart thumps in his chest. Then Ryuji realizes he’s holding a new gun and his heart does it again.

Goddamn. He’s hopeless.

“Thanks, man,” Ryuji says, keeping his eyes down on the shotgun in case he looks totally obvious.

(He steals one more quick glance while Akira is looking the other way, though.)

Soon everyone is busy admiring their new gear, and damn, Akira wasn’t kidding about buying everything. Upgrades were few and far between, only done when they miraculously had the spare cash or something was just too beat-up to use anymore, but this is more like a complete overhaul: weapons and armor and a few of the pricey little rings and charms they’d laughed off ever trying to afford. It’s nuts. Yeah, so there was a lot of old crap to replace, but Ryuji’s surprised it happened all at the same time.

Yusuke plucks at the band of Morgana’s slingshot. “This must sound ungrateful, but… do we have the funds for this?”

“Of course,” Akira says. “Our weapons guy likes his money. He’s not gonna just give me all this stuff without paying up.”

“But how?”

“I have my ways.”

“That sounds, honestly, incredibly suspicious,” Makoto says.

“It’s nooooot?” Akira says, shamelessly unconvincing, and it’s enough to get a laugh out of Makoto. “There’s money out there besides the Metaverse. That’s not shady. Get a part-time job, you guys.”

“Pass,” Ryuji instantly says. All Makoto gives him is a dirty look.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” Akira says. “So don’t worry about it. I got it taken care of.”

Well, if Akira says it, then it must be true. Ryuji just relaxes back on the couch, cocks his shotgun on his knees and doesn’t worry about it at all.

-------

Today is a Sunday, which means that Ryuji has nothing better to do than hang around in a red light district.

And it’s not like he and Mishima have anything else planned – they already ate lunch and snacks, he’s seen ‘Like a Dragon’ twice before, and Mishima won’t even try to sneak in anywhere fun, like a nudie club or something, meekly avoiding every bouncer they pass by like they’ll get vaporized on eyesight. Instead they stroll around the streets, peek through the storefronts, try some disgusting new vending machine drinks. Not as great, but it’s something to do and something is better than nothing.

“Don’t you think the school trip was way too short?” Mishima says. Maybe, Ryuji thinks, or maybe it would’ve felt longer if he didn’t dick around on the Phansite the whole time. “Didn’t they get a whole week last year? How is that fair? We could’ve gotten one more day on the beach...”

“Whatever, dude, you wouldn’t even’ve gone if I didn’t drag your ass out there.”

Mishima grimaces. “That’s because you get all crazy around so many girls. Ah—” he quickly brings his hands up, “I, I mean—but I liked going with you! Really, it was no problem!”

Ryuji scoffs and stiff-arms him, but doesn’t really deny it. So he might’ve gone overboard at the beach. But there were all those suntanned girls everywhere, hot and stacked as hell, and there was Akira, smiling and shirtless and somehow looking even better since their last beach trip, so what did Mishima expect from him?

“Oh crap!” Mishima hisses after a peek at his phone. “I gotta get home already.”

It doesn’t seem that late, but the sun is already starting to set and they kind of did spend the entire day just doing random bullshit. Ryuji stops mid-stride and settles for what he’s standing in front of for their last diversion. “Hey, you wanna hit up the bookstore before you go?

“But I’m already late...”

“Oh, ‘kay man, then I’ll catch you tomorrow.”

Mishima throws up a clumsy shaka. “See you later!” he calls back with a big smile, and Ryuji groans because Mishima was right all along; no bouncer would have ever let them in.

He dips into the bookstore. At first he figures he’ll just check out the manga they’ve got, pick up something new, random shit, whatever. It’s past the adult section, because Kabukicho, and Ryuji takes his sweet-ass time meandering past all the glorious dirty mags on the way there. Shelves full of ‘em, just top-to-bottom girls leering up at him as he eyes the covers over. And guys—he’s quicker about those, way sneakier, but he definitely looks at them, too.

Just once, though. In fact, that would’ve been the end of it if something there wasn’t tugging on the edges of his mind, a flash of instant familiarity.

Akira?

Ryuji doubles back. Without even thinking, he reaches into the crowd of hairless beefcakes and pulls out one of the magazines – ‘APOLLO’, from its chunky header – and stares down at it. This cover is a little different, a jumbled collage of several young men, and goddamn if the guy in the middle doesn’t look just like Akira. Like secret twin, pod-person-clone-level of similarity. It’s fucking spooky.

And it’s kind of giving him bad ideas. His attention towards Akira was way beyond platonic, had been for awhile now, but first and foremost, he was Akira’s friend. No crush was going to get in the way of that. Ryuji worked real hard to keep it that way, because whatever dumb, horny, pent-up ideas he got into his head about him got locked down as quick as they popped up, and so far it had worked. He was good. But now this, his very own substitute Akira, getting naked on paper in ways he could only dream of and already did?

His fingers itch in anticipation. This is dangerous. This is honestly dangerous, because this substitute is maybe too perfect; like Ryuji’s looking right at Akira himself. But that’s stupid, because Akira would never, ever have done something like that.

Right?

The magazine is wrapped up tight in plastic. He’ll have to take it home with him to check.

“This all?” the clerk says when he rings Ryuji up, and he might be feeling pity or just a total lack of giving a shit about his wage slave job, but he doesn’t even ask for ID. The magazine goes into a discreet paper bag, the paper bag goes into the front of Ryuji’s pants, tucked securely underneath his shirt, and Ryuji goes into the subway feeling like some kind of gay porn drug mule as he boards the train. Which is exactly what he just bought, isn’t it? Heh, yeah, that’s weird. He wipes at his forehead with the back of his arm because he’s maybe starting to sweat, a little bit.

He’s relieved to see he’s still beaten his mom home when he nudges open the front door. In his bedroom, he fishes the magazine out and tears the wrapping off like a hyper kid on his birthday. He speeds through page after page of half-naked men, almost a little desperate, because he—because he was so sure, because of course he can recognize his own best friend, and if Ryuji really created a case of mistaken identity for himself then he’ll feel like the biggest idiot asshole ever—

—And then he stops in the middle of the magazine. Yeah, “centerfold”, that’s what it’s called; where everyone knows the best shit is. The scene on the page is a small, cramped bar, and it looks pretty nice, he guesses, because it’s got a rainbow of colorful bottles in the back and fancy-ass lighting like he’d imagine a nice bar would have. And there, dead center in the frame, is a guy propped up on a stool, lounged back against the counter, wearing nothing but a popped-open button-up and the tightest briefs he’s ever seen.

Holy shit,” Ryuji says out loud, to no one in particular. Then he jumps to his feet and runs over to his door, slamming the latch shut to make damn sure it stays that way. This needs to be between only him and Akira.

Akira. Akira—shit, shit, shit shit shit shit oh SHIT it really is him. It’s not Ryuji’s brain playing a nasty trick on him; it is 100% absolutely, undeniably Akira staring back at him from the glossy page.

What the fuck? When did Akira do this? Wouldn’t he have said something? Anything at all? Is this some big thing in Akira’s life he never knew about and was never going to? Ryuji’s not sure if he should be mad or upset or what, because he feels this feverish rush well up when he thinks about it that way, but it’s falling by the wayside the longer he looks at the photo. Akira is just sitting there, easy as can be, with rumpled hair and delicate airbrushing and a coy expression that says teehee, did I forget to put on pants AGAIN?

There’s a blurb of text in the corner of the page. Ryuji somehow manages to pull his eyes away to read it:

Name: Daiki M. (Lie.)

Age: 18 (Lie.)

Blood type: B (Lie. Well, probably – he’d never asked.)

A stellar debut for APOLLO ! ! ! Caught red-handed at Ni-chome’s hottest new bar Motif, we asked him to pose for some pictures as punishment! But are you forgiving enough to sneak him a drink?

That’s a lie too, right? Just some throwaway story, made-up crap meant to entice somebody who didn’t know him any better. Not that Ryuji really ever thought too hard about those things before either, because maybe all those surprise photo ops and interviews always catching a girl in an ill-fitting bikini were a little too convenient. Anyway, it’s all bullshit, from the story to this whole damn magazine, so he needs to trash it and just forget about it.

Instead, Ryuji turns the page.

“Uh,” he says as he immediately eyeballs Akira’s dick.

Seeing it is no big deal, because it’s happened every so often after gym or at the bathroom or that one time they went to the bathhouse together, and he could keep it together and be cool and Akira was cool with him being cool so what was the problem?

But Akira didn’t look like this before, spread, inviting. Parting his thighs, hands carefully framed around the swell of the bulge in his briefs, translucent white and barely blurring out his soft cock.

Making Ryuji fucking rock hard.

It’s a minute before he can even look over to the other pictures. They’re just as bad—worse—Akira turned around on the stool, thumbing the briefs halfway down his ass; Akira bent towards the counter with his nude body curved sleek like a cat; Akira’s face turned down with an uninhibited smile as he cups himself in his hands, a smear of mosaic masking what he couldn’t cover up. That’s the worst part, his smile, like he’s so happy to show off, like he’s glad Ryuji is staring at him from the other side of the frame.

Ryuji throws the magazine. It hits the wall hard, pages flapping open as it crash-lands to the floor, and then on another impulse dumber than the first, he grabs it back up and quickly starts smoothing out its new creases. Damnit. This shit is going straight to the bin outside. He’ll do it later tonight, once he’s sure his mom is asleep.

(But it’s still shoved under his pillow by the morning.)

-------

Once again, Ryuji’s time at school is turned upside-down by Akira Kurusu.

He can’t have it look that way, though – he’s been texting Akira every day, like usual, and now he’s here at his classroom for lunch, like usual. But while Akira is inhaling his half of a katsu sandwich, Ryuji has barely touched his. The questions are hanging over him still, like they have for days now, and he’s no closer to an answer than when he bought that stupid magazine.

He picks at the corner of Akira’s history textbook, glancing up over and over at him. They’re friends. This is something he should know. Ryuji needs to nut up and just...

Just ask him. Super casual, like it’s nothing at all.

Hey man. Did you ever model or anything? Maybe pose for some kinda magazine? Did you know that your whole dick and balls are on display for 1200 yen at Hinokuniya and I memorized them so well I could pick out your meat in a lineup? What’s up with that?

“Ryuji?”

“Yeah?” Ryuji half-croaks out, his train of thought having run right into Akira’s dick again and derailing at full speed. Huge crash, massive casualties.

“What’s wrong with you?” Akira asks. “You okay?”

“No,” he admits, and then he quickly says, “I don’t know shit and I’m gonna fail this test.”

“That’s what happens when you don’t read all summer.” Akira crumples up his sandwich wrapper. “Hey, I’ve got two hours to kill after school. We can study at the diner if you want.”

“Yeah… okay,” Ryuji says, “thanks,” and when Akira gives him that same little smile straight from page four, he knows for sure the Sengoku period is a lost cause.

-------

Ryuji can’t let this goddamn magazine mess him up.

Sure, he’s looked at the magazine every single day since he bought it, but it’s not like he’s done anything because of it. He’ll pull it out before bed, take his time flipping through the same couple of pages, looking over each photo all over again, and then he’ll hop into the coldest shower known to man and bravely ignore his throbbing erection, like a good friend does. Then he’ll go to sleep, the curse of Akira’s dick having been exorcised from his brain for another night.

Tonight shouldn’t be any different, but it is.

The problem is, Ryuji just can’t relax. He’s restless in his bed, sprawled out on his stomach, rocking his hips in minute movements against the spread so his dick can get a taste of friction. He can’t touch it himself because this is an erection that Akira caused, and maybe getting hard over your guy friend isn’t great but rubbing one out over him is definitely worse.

His attention keeps snapping to the bottom row of his shelving. The magazine is right there, taped to the underside in what he thought was a pretty ingenious move. He’s read it once tonight already. So that’s done and over with, and he needs to go to sleep now like he’s supposed to.

But one more time can’t hurt. You know, just for a second.

He reaches out, pulls the magazine away with a sticky snap, and lays it open on the bed. Akira’s impish face greets him from the page and his dick throbs ‘hi’ right back. Ryuji sighs and buries his face deep into the mattress, just to casually suffocate himself, just to sink straight though it and right out of existence, and it muffles his groan from the pressure on his cock, thick against his hip, tangled up in his sweatpants, his sheets, his brain. When he dares look up again, Akira is still there, legs spread wide, and Ryuji rolls his hips a little harder for it.

About time, Akira’s wordless smile seems to say, but this asshole is trapped in a gay jerkoff rag so what does he know? Does he know how hard it is to keep this shit under wraps? Does he know how he’s always on Ryuji’s mind like some kind of lovesick moron? It’s a line he can’t cross, even now as he’s tumbling headfirst over it, because this is the kind of thing that ruins friendships forever.

Which he knows, he knows, but his eyes are wandering down to Akira’s briefs again and his body won’t stop moving and he’s grinding slow against the bed like it’s Akira himself, body to body, and with the photos in front of him it’s far too easy to imagine what Akira would look like sprawled out underneath him. He’ll look at Ryuji the same way he looks at the camera except this time it’s not for show, it’s all meant for him, that twinkle of interest in his eyes there because he wants this, too. He’ll finally let Ryuji in, let him touch the real thing, before he’ll run his hands down and touch Ryuji’s cock too, just like he’s doing now—oh, wait, fuck

Ryuji jerks his fingers away, but the damage is done. He’s so hard he can’t even think straight, harder than he’s sure he’s ever been, and when he flips the page and grabs at his dick again it’s because even his hands don’t listen to him anymore. He huddles up over the magazine and stares down at Akira’s back. He’s already long mapped it out – the twist of his spine, the curve of his ass, that tiny freckle hidden where nobody would ever find it – but it feels like he’s seeing this for the very first time, pulling him in like it’s magnetic, electric, the shiny-bright shocks of pleasure he gets from just looking at Akira matching beat-for-beat with the pump of his fist.

His fingers twist in his shirt, and his toes curl, and he’s breathing so hard he can’t help the shuddery noises he makes, and he’s never wanted to come more than this, because of Akira, along with Akira—

He barely catches himself when he comes, shooting hot into his hand until he’s dripping through his fingers. When he comes back down to earth, it’s already run down in fat drops onto his sweats and the sheet—great—but somehow, he feels better than he was expecting, like a weight was lifted off when he didn’t even know it was there. Totally wrong of him, yeah, but maybe he should’ve crossed that line a long time ago if this is what he was missing. And if Akira really was with him too one day… damn, he can’t get his hopes up, but he’d probably jack it ‘til his hands fell off.

As Ryuji tries to carefully clean up around the magazine, his phone chirps. He almost grabs it with the wrong hand but quickly fixes that before he looks at his messages. Hey, speak of the devil.

   AKIRA「 You wanna catch a movie tomorrow? 」

   AKIRA「 Toyo is gonna have a two for one deal. 」

   AKIRA「 Are you sleeping already? You better go to our date night or else wwwww 」

Yeah, maybe it’s not so bad on the other side of the line after all.

-------

“Ahh, hurry up, I’m cold,” Akira says, almost barreling Ryuji over in his haste to get through the doorway.

“Dude, my shoes,” Ryuji shoots back. He finally manages to sling the other one off, wet and crunchy with snow, so he can catch Akira clambering into his bed with his boots on, jacket on, everything, pulling on the comforter around himself tight. “You dick!”

Akira’s convinced to lose the extra clothes once Ryuji turns on his plug-in heater and joins him. Easier to cuddle closer without all the extra bulk, and it’s warmer too, lying tight together like this. Honestly, it feels cold enough outside that they’re probably halfway to hypothermia, and he’s pretty sure the only thing that fixes that is getting naked together in a sleeping bag. They’re kind of almost there.

“When’s the last time I was even over here?” Akira mumbles into Ryuji’s shoulder.

“Been awhile.” Before they started dating, which means— “Hey, but you’re here as my boyfriend now so I gotta forgive you for takin’ so long, yeah?”

“Is that how that works?”

“‘Course, man! I can’t get mad at you for coming over! Even if you mess up my bed doin’ it.”

“Okay, good.” Akira nuzzles his face up until Ryuji shivers from the cool touch on his neck. “‘Cause I’m really sorry.”

Yeah, the only Akira in this room for a long time was the one still lurking under his shelving. The Akira he never actually remembered to get rid of.

Oh, shit.

Ryuji slowly, stiffly cranes his head over, like he can even see the magazine from this angle, and mentally kicks his own stupid ass. He had all the time in the world to throw it away before Akira finally came over again, but it’s too late now. He can’t dispose of the evidence. The magazine will just have to… be there, hidden, while its subject material is curled up next to him not two feet away with no idea.

It’s probably okay if he doesn’t mention it. Akira doesn’t even catch the fear in his eyes when he looks back over; he’s too busy pressing his face against Ryuji’s skin, his lips sticking more and more to his neck until they become real kisses, the parting of his mouth nice and wet and warm. He’d imagined something just like this too, with the magazine in one hand and his cock in the other, until staring down at Akira’s head became a familiar sight.

Damn, can’t he stop it for one second? The more he tries to put it out of his mind, the harder it comes racing back, boomeranging every single jerkoff session back into his head. Wasn’t there a story like that he read for class once? A guy who felt so guilty over something he could almost hear it haunting him? Although it was like, a dead dude instead of some dirty spank book. Ryuji guesses that’s only marginally worse.

Then Akira licks at the base of his throat and he makes this sudden, keening sort of groan because of it and he knows now what he has to do first. “Okay, if we’re gonna do this… I gotta make a confession.”

“You’ve only liked me for my ramen money. It’s okay, I don’t mind being your sugar daddy.”

“No! Shut up! I’m bein’ serious here, okay?”

Akira just laughs, because he always thinks his stupid jokes are so goddamn funny. Well, here goes nothing. Ryuji takes a deep breath, and then he blurts out, “I saw your pictures.”

Ryuji waits for the flash of recognition to hit Akira’s face, of surprise, of anger, of anything, but all Akira does is neatly cock his head. “What pictures?”

“Those… photos.” No reaction. “In the magazine?” Still nothing. Does Akira do this shit to him on purpose? “It’s like a… it’s this gay magazine, and you’re posing in a bar and you get butt-ass naked—”

“Oh shit,” Akira says and claps his hands over his mouth. “You saw my photoshoot pictures? When? Where?”

“Dude, I have the magazine. I bought it.”

That makes Akira bark out a quick, muffled laugh. “Really? You’re serious?”

“Yeah.”

“Whoa...” Akira’s eyes start to dart around the room. “Wait, where is it? You still have it? I wanna see.”

Of all possible things, ‘impressed’ was not the emotion Ryuji was expecting to finally get out of Akira, but that’s exactly how he looks as Ryuji peels the magazine away from its hiding spot and tosses it onto the bed.

“Man,” Ryuji sighs. “No clue you were a model, for real, zero.”

Akira quickly shakes his head. “I’m not.”

“You gonna lie like that right in front of this proof?”

“It’s true. It was only this. It was just quick cash.” Akira says. “I’ll be honest, I just kinda did it. I didn’t think too hard about where the pictures would go. Some horny old guys would look at them and that would be it.” He’s still staring at the cover. “Can I take a look?”

“What? Yeah, Akira, of course! They’re your pictures!”

Akira flips through the pages until his thumb catches on a sliver of one of his photos. The magazine opens wide too easily – embarrassing, because Ryuji knows it’s from cracking it open to that page a hundred million times – and Akira’s eyes about bug out when he sees himself. “No fucking way!”

Ryuji pores over Akira’s face. He looks like he’s on the verge of an aneurysm, or maybe that’s what he just looks like when he’s holding back hysterical laughter. “I wasn’t kidding, dude, you do look like a model. Like, y’know, you look professional ’n shit.”

Professional!” Akira cackles, and then he turns the page and gets even louder. Is he wiping at his eyes? “Look! You paid real money to look at a picture of my asshole!”

The only response here is to beat Akira upside the head with the magazine, which Ryuji does. It takes a good couple whacks, but he finally quiets down to somewhere above uncontrollable snickering. So this is what Ryuji gets when he does the right thing, huh? Lesson. Fucking. Learned.

Now Akira’s admiring him with an infuriating smile. “You’re such a cheater.”

“Why’s that, you goddamn moron?”

“Uh, I had to charm my way into your pants before I could even think of looking at you like this.” Akira snatches the magazine back. “This is like an all-access pass to my dick.”

“Hey, I just—I got it ‘cause I was figurin’ out if it was really you, okay?”

“But it’s still a porno mag you bought, right? Does this mean you’d go look at my photos and…” Akira doesn’t even finish his sentence because Ryuji’s sure his face gives it all away, heating up ‘til his ears burn, and the eager look Akira gets doesn’t make it any better. “Ohhh. Okay then. So… you want a repeat?” He nearly crawls onto Ryuji’s lap. “Private showing?”

Ryuji is going to pop like a volcano. “Am I gettin’ pics of this too, Mr. Model?”

“Oh,” Akira says as he leans in close, “you’re getting whatever you want.”