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When Mishima approached them that afternoon, it was clear that something was bothering him. He spent some time there, next to Akira and Ryuji on the roof, in contemplative silence, making the other two exchange brief, confused glances.

“Hey, dude…” said Ryuji, calling his attention. “Are you okay?”

Mishima raised his eyes, looking back at him.

“Sakamoto…” he said with a serious voice. “Did you get into a fight with someone on the last few days, or something like that?”

The sudden question made him frown.

“What?” he asked. “No… At least not that I remember. Why?”

With a brief sigh, Mishima showed them his cell phone. It was, as expected, on the phan-site, showing the requests made for the Phantom Thieves. Ryuji was about to question him what was the matter, when he noticed something strange: among those requests, there were many with the same phrase written all over.

Destroy Ryuji Sakamoto.

“What the fuck?” he said. “Destroy? Isn’t that a little too much?”

Akira took Mishima’s phone in his hands, glancing through the requests.

“There are many of them, and all say the same thing,” he turned to face Ryuji. “This is weird… Do you know anyone who hates you this much?”

“Not really,” Ryuji lowered his eyes, trying to think of someone. “I mean, I know many people at school kinda dislike me, but… That much?” he shook his head. “Can’t think of anyone.”

Akira twisted his lips, giving Mishima his phone back.

“Do you know anything else about this?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” he said. “But, considering Sakamoto’s reputation, I’d say there’s a big chance it’s someone from school.” He turned to Ryuji, seeking confirmation. “What do you think?”

“It must be…” he said. “I can’t really think of anyone who’d hate me that much anywhere else. Maybe…” Ryuji placed a hand on the side of his neck, a little uncomfortable with that thought. “Someone from the track team? They got really mad at me ‘cause of Kamoshida ‘n all that.”

“The track team?” repeated Akira. “You think they’d still be holding it against you, after all this time?”

Ryuji shrugged.

“Dunno, man…” he said. “I kinda messed up pretty bad.”

The three of them were silent for a while, considering their options.

“Well, it’s not like you’re gonna steal my heart, or anythin’ like that,” said Ryuji with a shrug. “So we can just ignore it.”

The other two agreed to that, and soon the bell rang, announcing the end of their lunch break. Ryuji went back to his class, while Akira and Mishima entered theirs together. He took his seat, but couldn’t really pay any attention to whatever the teacher was saying: it wasn’t unusual for people to dislike him, but for someone to go as far as to ask the Phantom Thieves to change his heart… No, to destroy him.

Remembering that phrase almost made him laugh. Who would be so childish, to the point of posting that same, stupid request over and over? Besides, he didn’t remember doing anything that bad since the whole Kamoshida incident, which had already been solved. So, why? Being unable to think of a reason was what bothered him the most. Still, it wasn’t a big problem.

Or so he thought.

As soon as Ryuji opened his locker that day, he was greeted by a piece of paper with a short message written in bold letters.

Kill yourself you cunt!”

He raised his brow, turning to Akira and Mishima, who were waiting for him to go back to the station, showing them the message, calling their attention.

“Seems like my big phan is from the school, alright,” he said in a humorous tone.

But his friends didn’t seem to find the message as funny as he did.

“This is ridiculous…” said Mishima, furrowing his brow. “We should tell the teachers.”

“Nah, just leave the guy be,” Ryuji shrugged. “They’ll get tired of it soon enough.”

Akira turned to face him, forcing a shocked expression.

“Ryuji Sakamoto is passing up the chance to break a nose?” he asked. “I almost don’t recognize you…”

“I’m a new man now, Akira,” answered Ryuji, forcing a serious, solemn voice, worthy of the Godfather. “I left those bloody days behind me. I reformed my—”

“Yes, sure…” Mishima interrupted him, already used to how he and Akira could go overboard with their dramatizations. “But this still bothers me…” he lowered his voice to a whisper. “If the person is taking action outside of the phan-site, then we have more reasons to worry.”

“It’s not a big deal,” insisted Ryuji.

“Actually, I agree with Mishima,” admitted Akira. “As stupid as leaving a letter on someone’s locker sounds, what if they try something else?”

“Like what? Beating me up?” Ryuji scoffed at the idea. “They’re welcome to try.”

“Sakamoto!”

Mishima’s angry tone made him avert his gaze.

“Fine, I get it…” he said. “But don’t you guys think you’re worrying too much? I mean… This could be a one-time thing, right?”

“Considering the number of requests with your name on the phan-site, I doubt it,” said Mishima.

“Who knows?” proceeded Ryuji. “Maybe they were just having a bad day, and will forget about it tomorrow.”

He looked at Akira, seeking backup. His friend considered it for a moment, before sighing in defeat.

“Alright…” he said, to then stare into Ryuji’s eyes. “But, if this happens again, we’re not letting it pass.”

“Sure, sure…” Saying that, Ryuji offered him a provocative grin. “Man, you’re so worried about me…”

“It shouldn’t be a surprise by this point.”

That answer, especially when said with that serious, honest voice, hit him straight in the heart, but he somehow managed to act normally, offering Akira a wide smile.

“Aww, dude…” he said in a playful voice, placing both hands over his own chest. “You’re making me feel embarrassed!”

This time, Akira offered him an amused smile.

“You’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” he said in a Casanova tone, dramatically fixing his glasses.

“Dude…”

“Bro…”

Mishima rolled his eyes at their playful banter.

“Why are you two always like this?” he asked.

Both of them looked at him.

“Want us to compliment you too?” asked Akira.

“No need to be jealous!” added Ryuji in an overly sweet voice. “Y’know, Mishima… You have such an adorable—”

“Stop it!” asked Mishima, covering his face with both hands. “Why do I still walk with you two?”

“Because you secretly love us.”

“Not so secretly, Akira.”

Mishima groaned, his ears becoming bright red. It was easy to make him feel flustered, and both Ryuji and Akira wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to do it.

“Being your manager is suffering,” muttered Mishima.

“He didn’t deny it!” said Akira.

“He didn’t!” agreed Ryuji.

Mishima raised his eyes, pouting at them.

“I’m going on ahead,” he said, walking toward the entrance doors.”

“Hey, wait for us!”

Before Ryuji could go after him, Akira held his wrist, making him look at him.

“Ryuji…” he said in a low voice. “Are you really alright? With what happened, and everything.”

Ryuji couldn’t deny that part of him was happy that Akira was concerned about him, even if the reason was a childish prank like that one.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” he said.

“Okay.”

Akira offered him a light smile, which Ryuji returned. He placed an arm around his friend’s neck, bringing him closer, and Akira’s low chuckle made his heart flutter.

Damn, he really had it bad for that nerd…

They followed Mishima with quick steps, walking their way to the station together, parting ways with him when they reached Shibuya. Ryuji and Akira went together to the Leblanc, however, after his friend invited him to play video games in his room. They didn’t mention the requests or the message for the rest of the day, and it only came back to Ryuji’s mind when he was already at his own room, trying to fall asleep.

Kill yourself’, huh… When was the last time someone had said something similar to him? Even in the track team, after he messed everything up, people didn’t go as far as saying that.

No, the last time he heard something similar directed at him was probably from his old man, during one of his many drunk episodes…

You fucked up my life, brat… Why don’t you just go ahead and jump in front of a train, eh? Even that bitch you call mother would be happy to get rid of a worthless piece of trash like you.’

He could still remember the loud, mocking voice, as well as the strong smell of alcohol. He was around twelve at the time, but the taste of blood in his mouth was also a vivid memory, as well as the pain where his teeth had cut the inside of his cheek. By instinct, Ryuji placed a hand over it.

Fuck… Thinking about that old bastard was the last thing he needed. And all because some idiot thought it was a good idea to put some childish letter in his locker, for whatever stupid reason they had.

He closed his eyes, making an effort not to think about anything anymore, and it took him a while to finally be able to fall asleep.

 


 

On the next day, he found a similar message inside his locker.

You should just disappear!’

“Another one?” asked Akira, watching as Ryuji crumpled the paper and threw it away.

“Yeah…” he said. “Seems like it wasn’t a one-time thing, after all. Talk about having no better stuff to do…”

Mishima and Akira looked at each other, then turned their attention back at him.

“We need to know who’s behind this before anything else,” said Mishima. “If we can find the person, it’ll be easier to understand the motives.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” said Ryuji. “They’re probably from the track team, so I could try talkin’ to them, if it helps.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” disagreed Mishima. “They won’t be honest if you’re the one asking. I’ll talk to them tomorrow and try to learn something.”

“And we’ll keep an eye on Ryuji’s locker, for good measure,” added Akira. “We could also tell Ann to ask around, if someone saw who put this in your locker.”

“C’mon, man…” said Ryuji. “You know how bad she is with this sorta thing.”

“Yeah… You have a point.”

Without much else to do about that, they went back home. On the next day, Ryuji met Akira at the train station, and his friend quickly approached him, skipping the greetings.

“So…” he said. “Morgana and I have a plan.”

“What is it?”

Akira glanced at his bag, smiling at a dejected-looking Morgana.

“We’ll keep him inside your locker today,” he explained in a low voice. “This way, if the person leaves another message, he’ll see who it is.”

Ryuji thought about that idea for a second.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” he said.

“I still can’t believe I agreed to this…” groaned Morgana in response. “You two better buy me some nice sushi for my work.”

His words made Ryuji frown at him.

“You didn’t do anything yet, so stop demanding rewards!”

“Ughh, Ryuji…” the cat stared at him, narrowing his eyes. “With that attitude, I’m surprised there aren’t more people who hate you.”

“What a rude cat…”

Their bickering made Akira chuckle, and that was enough to brighten Ryuji’s morning. The train soon arrived, and, as soon as they got to Shujin Academy, Akira carefully placed Morgana in his friend’s locker.

“It’s so cramped…” complained the cat.

“Sorry,” said Akira. “I’ll bring you snacks during the lunch break, okay?”

Morgana grumbled in response, but stayed in place as they closed the locker again. Akira and Ryuji went upstairs, entering their respective classes when the bell rang. The hours passed, and Ryuji was starting to feel the consequences of sleeping so badly the last two days, his mind shutting out every ten seconds. He only realized that he had fallen asleep at some point when the bell rang again, announcing the lunch break. He got up from his chair, stretching his arms with a long yawn before leaving the classroom.

Outside, he found Akira and Ann waiting for him.

“Where’s Mishima?” he asked.

“Asking around,” explained Akira. “We decided he’s more reliable at this than Ann.”

That implication made Ann pout at him.

“Well, at least I’m not a delinquent who’d make them run away in fear,” she said.

Akira approached Ryuji, covering his ears.

“Don’t say that about him!” he said. “You’ll hurt his feelings!”

“She’s talkin’ about you, you little shit!” answered Ryuji, lightly shoving him, only to place an arm around his neck in the next moment. Ann watched them, shaking her head.

“I was talking about you two, but whatever,” she said, barely concealing an amused smile. “Anyway, we should go check on Morgana.”

The two boys agreed, and they walked downstairs together, approaching Ryuji’s locker, opening it to see Morgana’s less than amused face.

“My paws are numb…” he complained.

After glancing around, Akira carefully took him out, and, as he did, a piece of paper fell to the ground beside them. Ann reached for it, and, as soon as she read the content, her expression changed, first to surprise, then to anger. Ryuji glanced at the message over her shoulder, soon understanding the reason.

No one would miss you if you died!’

“Y’know…” he said. “This is getting old really fast.”

“This is disgusting…” muttered Ann, turning her attention to Morgana, who Akira had placed on the ground behind the locker, so he could stretch his legs a little. “So, did you see them?”

“A little…” said Morgana. “It was difficult to see through these narrow openings. But I’m pretty sure he was a guy, and had black hair.”

“Well…” Ryuji sighed. “That’d be more useful if you didn’t just describe half of our school.”

“Oh, I think he was wearing glasses too,” added the cat.

That addition made Ryuji turn to face Akira.

“C’mon, man…” he forced an annoyed tone. “If you have a problem with me, just say it to my face.”

“You’re dumb and ugly,” answered Akira with a deadpan expression, making Ryuji dramatically grab his own chest. Akira smiled at him, lightly nudging his ribs before turning to Morgana. “What time did he come?”

“It wasn’t that long ago…” answered the cat. “Just a little before lunch.”

“I see…” Akira lowered his eyes, playing with his hair, as he did when concentrating. “If he’s consistent with his timing, we could catch him red-handed tomorrow.”

“Yeah…” agreed Ryuji. “But, even if he isn’t, what Mona saw already lowers the numbers, right? I mean, I don’t remember many guys with glasses on the track team.”

“Worst case scenario, he isn’t from the track team,” added Ann, twisting her lips. “That would make things harder for us…”

Ryuji looked from her to Akira.

“Y’know…” he said. “Even if we don’t get the guy, that’s fine. It’s just some stupid letters.”

To his surprise, that answer made Ann glare at him.

“No!” she said, in a slightly loud voice, poking his chest with her finger. “There’s no way this is fine, and we can’t let this keep going! You may not care about it, but I do, okay?”

“Okay…?” answered Ryuji.

Ann averted her gaze, taking a deep breath, calming herself down.

“Sorry…” her voice was low. “But I just can’t forgive someone who says such horrible things to others.”

Her words made Ryuji’s chest tighten. Yes, of course she would be affected by that prank, especially after everything that had happened at the beginning of the year. He placed a hand on her shoulder, making her look at him again.

“Nah, you’re right,” he tried to sound nonchalant, as usual. “Let’s find the bastard and kick his ass.”

A light smile took her lips, and it made him feel a little better. It was true that, if it depended on him, he would just ignore that whole thing until the person behind it got tired and gave up. However, unlike those letters, he could never ignore Ann’s feelings.

“Ryuji…” she said, looking into his eyes. “Are you really alright with this?”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Kinda used to people disliking me already.”

As an answer, Ann placed an arm around his waist, hugging him. Before he could properly react to that, Akira did the same on his other side, and suddenly a warm sensation crept up his neck and face. It wasn’t like touches and affectionate gestures were something unusual to him, but, most of the times, he was the one starting them. Being on the receiving end of it still felt a little… strange.

“Hey… C’mon, guys…” he said with a nervous laugh. “I said I’m fine. You don’t need to—”

“Ryuji, shut up,” asked Ann.

“Yeah,” agreed Akira. “Let us care about you, okay?”

Their words made something inside Ryuji melt. He could try and deny it as much as he wanted, but… He liked that. Other than his mother, he couldn’t remember someone who made him feel important, or cared. So, to receive such a thing from his two closest friends was…

Crap… If that kept going, he’d get all emotional and embarrass himself.

“Okay, okay…” he said, gently pushing his friends away. “I feel pretty loved already.”

Ann and Akira exchanged a funny gaze.

“He’s embarrassed,” concluded Akira.

Ryuji stared at him.

“What?” he said. “I’m not—”

“He is,” agreed Ann.

Before Ryuji could keep complaining, Mishima approached them.

“There you are…” he said.

“Did you find anything?” asked Akira.

He nodded.

“I tried asking around, and a first year saw a guy close to the lockers yesterday, when she went to the restroom,” he absentmindedly indicated the toilet’s direction with a hand gesture. “She said he wouldn’t stop looking around, and she thought it seemed suspicious.”

“Did she know who it was?” asked Ann.

“I don’t have a name…” admitted Mishima. “But she described him as a tall guy, with straight black hair and glasses, and she believes he is a third-year.”

“It’s the same thing Mona said…” observed Akira. “Did she tell you what time it happened?”

“She said it was almost lunch break.”

“Same time as today,” Akira grinned. “Well, if we’re lucky, our guy will keep this routine going tomorrow as well.”

“As strange as it sounds to call it ‘lucky’,” said Ann.

Only part of Ryuji’s brain was registering that conversation, his attention still on Mishima’s previous words.

“A third-year, huh?” he said.

It had almost slipped his mind, since he always took out his glasses during the training.

“Anyone comes to mind?” asked Ann.

“Sorta…”

He sighed briefly, then noticed Mishima’s concerned gaze on him. He offered his friend a wide smile, messing his hair.

“Nice job, dude!” he said. “You make us so proud of you…”

“C’mon, cut it out!” complained Mishima. “Stop treating me like a kid, Sakamoto!”

“But he’s right,” added Akira. “You did it well.”

Ann giggled at Mishima’s attempts of freeing himself from their overflowing affection. Soon the bell rang, and they went back to their classes.

But Ryuji couldn’t stop thinking about what Mona and Mishima had said: the description, the age… Both of them matched with Ishida.

Having a familiar face associated with those messages made a bitter feeling fill his stomach. But the worst part of it was… Ishida was one of the few members of the track team who never treated him badly, or threw all the blame at him. On the contrary: he still greeted Ryuji with a friendly smile whenever they met on the corridors. Even during the practices, he was usually strict, but also encouraging and kind.

He couldn’t believe someone like him would do something that low.

But maybe he was wrong. Maybe what Ann said about it not being someone from the track team was true. Either way, it was useless to worry so much over a simple possibility.

The next day came, and the first period seemed to drag itself more than usual. He felt anxious, constantly making an effort to keep that whole thing out of his mind, just to soon realize he was thinking about it again.

So, he sneaked out of the last class before lunch, killing some time at the roof, before going downstairs. He waited for a while there, on the boys’ restroom, keeping an eye to anyone who approached the lockers. It took a few minutes, but, finally, a tall third-year with glasses appeared.

As he thought, that was Ishida.

Ishida glanced around as he approached Ryuji’s locker, taking a piece of paper from his pocket, and, as much as Ryuji would like to deny it, that was proof enough. He left the restroom, approaching the other boy with large steps. Ishida only noticed his presence when he was already beside him, staring at him, repressing his anger.

“What the fuck you think you’re doing?” he asked.

Ishida’s eyes went wide.

“Sakamoto… That’s…”

But Ryuji wasn’t willing to hear excuses.

“So, you’re the one who left those stupid letters in my locker the last few days, right?” he said. “And it seems you did it again… What does it say this time? ‘Kill yourself’ again? Or did you come up with somethin’ more original?”

Realizing it was useless to deny it, a shadow covered Ishida’s face, changing his usually kind expression to one of pure hatred.

“Go to hell, Sakamoto,” he muttered.

“What the hell is your problem, man?” proceeded Ryuji. “You still mad because of what happened with Kamoshida?”

“So what if I am? The track team may be back now, but I couldn’t even bring myself to rejoin it…” Ishida shook his head, a pained expression on his face. “Did you see it? It’s a mess! No one takes us seriously after what you did! Who cares if Kamoshida was a bastard? It was still one of us who attacked a teacher!”

“Look, I know I messed up, but—”

Before Ryuji could finish his phrase, Ishida interrupted him with a provocative gaze.

“You know, Sakamoto… If those stories are true, you really took after your old man.”

Ryuji gritted his teeth, both fists clenching. Ishida’s face was taken by a light, satisfied smile.

“What? Are you going to hit me too?” he asked in a provocative voice. “Go ahead, Sakamoto… Do it, and you’ll be out of this school before you—”

“Is there a problem?”

Ryuji turned his face, seeing Akira standing beside him, looking at Ishida, who stared back in silence for a second, before shaking his head.

“Of course trash attracts more trash…” he said in a low voice. “You really are disgusting.”

He walked past the two of them, quickly going back upstairs. Akira followed him with his eyes, but Ryuji’s attention was on that piece of paper on the floor, taking it in his hands.

Do like Suzui and jump out of the roof!’

Those words made Ryuji’s blood boil. He crumpled that sheet of paper, throwing it aside before clenching his fists.

“Fuckin’ bastard…”

Suddenly, everything inside his mind was bright red. He only wanted to reach that asshole and make him swallow his own words. It was an uncontrollable urge, and he would probably have done just that, without worrying about any consequences, if Akira hadn’t placed a hand on his shoulder, holding him in place.

“Ryuji, calm down,” he asked.

Ryuji needed a moment to control himself, taking a deep breath. Without looking at Akira, he approached that piece of paper again, holding it.

“We better not let Ann see this shit,” he said.

“You’re right.”

He went back to the boys’ restroom, only half of his mind working as he ripped that note and threw it in the trash. It took a moment for him to realize Akira had followed him there, and was now looking at him with a concerned face.

“He thinks this is funny?” muttered Ryuji, and his voice sounded weaker than he expected. “She… She really wanted to end her life! How can someone just… Say somethin’ like that, like it meant nothin’? What kind of asshole would—”

His voice failed. Maybe it was the memory of someone close to him getting so close to ending her own life, or maybe having someone he once trusted wishing the same upon Ryuji himself, but suddenly he felt heavy, unable to think properly. Akira pressed his lips together, and, not finding the right words to say, approached Ryuji, hugging him. For a while, neither of them said anything, and Akira’s familiar warmth slowly helped to calm him down.

“Let’s steal his heart,” muttered Akira.

“Yeah.”

They shared their discovery with the rest of the group after class, purposefully omitting the content of that last letter. After a brief discussion, they unanimously decided to head to Mementos that same afternoon, to steal Ishida’s treasure and put a stop to his actions as soon as possible. Since they didn’t have much choice but wait until Okumura had a change of heart, it seemed to be a good time to focus on that smaller, but still serious problem.

“This guy is the worst…” commented Ann with an annoyed voice. “No matter the reason, telling someone they should die is just… Wrong.”

“That’s true,” agreed Haru. “I never thought a classmate would do something like this. We need to stop him as soon as we can.”

With things settled, they went together for Shibuya, entering Mementos, going deeper into it, until Futaba’s voice caught their attention.

“Our target is close!” she said. “Prepare yourselves!”

And soon they found that crimson distortion, leading to a powerful shadow. In a silent agreement, Morgana crossed the portal, and it didn’t take long for them to see a copy of Ishida there, with bright golden eyes and a dark aura surrounding him. The Phantom Thieves got out of Morgana, weapons in hand, ready to face their enemy. Upon seeing them, a sneer took the shadow’s face.

Could it be?” he said in a monotonous voice. “The Phantom Thieves themselves came to see me? I knew you were too incompetent to follow my request, but to think you would come after me, from all people?” he sighed, shaking his head. “Aren’t you supposed to destroy the bad guys?”

“You’re right,” answered Ann through her teeth. “And, from what we saw, you’re exactly that.”

How ridiculous…” answered the shadow. “I did nothing wrong in my whole life! I have the highest grades, I’m great at sports, I’m nice to everyone… People look at me, and wish they could be half as good.”

Hearing those words coming from that familiar face still felt strange to Ryuji. Was that how Ishida actually felt? So, when he acted kind, was he just looking down on them?

“You’re full of shit…” he muttered, frustrated.

Those words made Ishida turn his attention to him.

Is that… Sakamoto?” he said, his slight surprise soon giving place to that sneer once again. “Why am I not surprised? Of course you’re part of a bunch of dirty thieves.”

“Hearing this guy is already pissing me off…” said Futaba. “Let’s defeat him!”

The others agreed. Shadow Ishida looked at them, a sigh leaving his lips.

Seriously?” he said. “You are really planning to fight me? I should have known the Phantom Thieves are nothing but disgusting criminals. Very well, then… I’ll be the one to destroy you all, so the world will finally know who is the true hero.”

With those words, the shadow changed his form. It was like a tall, deformed person, made of nothing but gray skin and bones. Long, greasy black hair partially covered its face, which didn’t have eyes or a nose, only a large mouth full of teeth. It had long limbs and fingers, and floated midair, in the middle of three bright silver halos, which moved constantly around him.

“So, that’s his true self…” commented Yusuke. “What an unpleasant sight…”

“As expected from a guy like him,” added Ann.

“Control your anger, Panther,” said Makoto. “We can’t lose our focus. First, we need to find his weakness.”

“Leave it to me!”

Saying that, Futaba moved Necronomicon closer to the shadow, inspecting it as the others prepared to begin that fight. Ishida didn’t attack at first, so the group decided to act. Akira was the first, using a physical attack that was swiftly avoided by the shadow.

“Damn, he’s quick!”

Ann followed him, but as soon as she used Agilao, Ishida raised a fire barrier, canceling her attack. The others tried to attack him in different ways, but the shadow seemed to predict all of their attacks, evading or defending against each one of them without any apparent trouble.

“It’s no use…” said Morgana. “He’s avoiding all of our attacks!”

“It’s like it’s reading our minds…” added Makoto, glancing at Futaba’s direction. “Oracle, did you discover anything?”

“I sense no weaknesses. Wait…” Futaba made a brief pause, and when she spoke again, her words sounded desperate. “Crap… We must retreat, now!”

Before they could react to her words, Ishida used an almighty attack on the whole group. Futaba tried to protect them with her persona, but, despite keeping them all alive, wasn’t enough to completely guard them against that powerful strike. The Phantom Thieves fell to the ground, breathing heavily, hurt and exhausted, while Ishida’s shadow didn’t have a single scratch on him.

So predictable…” said the shadow in his monotonous voice. “So boring… And here I thought the Phantom Thieves would be better than other people. This is what I get from having high expectations…”

“Bastard…” grunted Ryuji.

Again, the shadow turned his attention to him.

What did you say?”

But he didn’t give Ryuji the time to answer, quickly approaching him. The halos stopped turning, and the creature inside it reached its long arm, grabbing Ryuji by the throat, raising him from the floor, bringing him close to the shadow himself. Ryuji couldn’t breathe, and, for a moment, his mind seemed about to shut down. Instead of killing him, however, the shadow let him fall on the ground, on his knees and hands. Ryuji gasped for air, bringing a hand to his aching throat.

“Ryuji!”

Akira’s voice made him look up, catching a glimpse of his fallen friends through those dancing halos, before Ishida’s hand grabbed the back of his head, forcing him to lean forward, until he was facing the floor.

Nah-ah…” said the shadow. “Stay back.”

“Shut up!”

Akira’s angry voice was followed by a gunshot, and, at the same time, Ryuji felt a sharp pain on his chest, close to his right shoulder. Dark blood dripped on the ground, and Ryuji realized, with some horror, that it was coming from himself.

Now, look what you just did…” said Ishida. “I tried to warn you: any harm I suffer in this form goes straight to him, so you better think twice before attacking. Unless you don’t care about his life… I mean, why would you, right?”

Ishida laughed briefly, before pulling Ryuji by his hair, making him stand on his knees with a pained groan.

Don’t worry, Sakamoto…” muttered the shadow. “I won’t kill you. What I really want is to destroy you… Like those guys on the TV, you know? I want to see you broken, and crying, and begging for me to forgive you,” an amused giggle echoed from beside him. “Ahh… Won’t that be nice?”

“Go fuck yourself…” answered Ryuji.

His answer made the shadow sigh.

Even in a moment like this, you won’t measure your words…” he said. “You were always like this, acting all confident, attracting everyone’s eyes to you… But I always knew you were nothing but an act.”

A sudden, a sharp pain in Ryuji’s head made him gasp. A blur of images and sounds enveloped him, only to disappear in the next second.

Oh, and it seems like I was right…” proceeded Ishida. “You’re such a troublesome guy, Sakamoto. So many secrets… No wonder I could smell them even in the real world. Now, let me see…”

“Wait… What are you—”

Ryuji’s words were interrupted by another of those floods of images and sounds. This time, however, they became more clear, coming one after the other, with no apparent connection. His mother teaching him to tie his shoes… Ann and Shiho in middle-school, cheering for him as he made his final lap… He playing with the old dog they used to have… He and Akira running from the station to the Leblanc under the rain… A younger version of his father kindly smiling at him.

Was Ishida watching his memories?

No,” said the shadow, “not this…”

Another sharp pain, and suddenly his father seemed much older and tired, smelling of booze and staring at him with enraged eyes.

Ah, this is what I’m talking about…” proceeded Ishida, sounding pleased.

The images kept painfully flooding his mind. His mother hiding a dark bruise with make-up… He in a hospital after a surgery on his leg, unsure if he would even be able to walk without limping… His younger self on the floor, covering his face with a hand, while feeling the warm blood pouring from his nose… The feeling of isolation at school… The panic he felt whenever he woke up in the middle of the night…

His father screaming… Kamoshida smiling… Shiho jumping… His mother crying…

Panic… Fear… Regret… Pain…

Anger.

Ah, I can see it now… You really are like him, aren’t you?”

Ryuji gritted his teeth: that bastard was having fun.

“Shut the fuck up,” he answered.

See what I’m talking about?” proceeded the shadow. “As soon as things get bad for you, you try to scream and punch your way out of it… Sounds familiar, don’t you think?”

Ryuji didn’t answer.

Do your Phantom friends know about this side of you? If they do, don’t you think they’re scared too? Just like you were, every single night, hoping your old man wouldn’t be drunk when he got home. Maybe they just put up with you because, if they don’t, they’ll get hurt too.”

Ryuji heard his friends’ voices, but they sounded distant and distorted, as if he was hearing them from underwater, so he couldn’t grasp their words. Everything was too loud inside his head, to the point he thought it would drive him crazy if it didn’t stop.

“I’d never hurt them…” he managed to mutter.

Is that so?” asked Ishida, in disbelief. “You say you wouldn’t hurt them, when you couldn’t even stop hurting yourself? Those said injuries from training, huh? It was so good to have such a convenient excuse! Who would ever guess the truth? You could just keep punching your tights until they got black, and no one would see. And even if they saw, that was fine… Just an injury from practice! As long as it wasn’t too obvious, or didn’t draw much blood…”

“It’s different…”

Is it? The way I see it, it’s just a proof that you can’t control your anger at all. What if next time, instead of yourself, you turn against someone else? You’re a danger to everyone close to you, and you know it.”

Ryuji tried to find an answer, but it was hard to think with all that noise. Ishida seemed pleased with his silence.

And let’s not forget about how you destroyed the track team…” he proceeded. “You yelled at everyone about Kamoshida, but, deep inside, you knew you deserved what he did. A broken leg? Why did he stop there? If it was your old man, you know he wouldn’t… Not until you were crying and begging him to, and still… You knew you deserved it, right?”

“I didn’t—”

It was because of you, after all… The two of them were happy before you were born. But then you came and destroyed everything, like you always do.”

“That’s not true…”

It isn’t? Strange, because you’re the one telling me all that. You know you're the reason your mother isn't happy… The reason she has to work to exhaustion instead of starting a new life. If you just weren't here… It's not like anyone would ever miss a waste of space like you, right?

"I—"

That’s why you act carelessly… That’s why you seek problems. You just want someone to end it all before you become a disgusting man like your father, because you have no courage to do it yourself. And you'd hate to be like him, wouldn't you? Judging by how messed up you are, you could be even worse... Can you imagine that?” a brief, amused laugh. “Of course you can! And you're so scared... So you keep seeking validation, expecting others to see something good on you, especially these little friends of yours... But they don't, do they? All they ever do is remind you of how worthless and stupid you are... It makes you hate them sometimes, doesn't it?

Ryuji felt his chest tighten. He raised his eyes, seeing the blurry figures of his companions just there, looking at him. No, that wasn’t right… He didn’t—

Ah… You hate them so much!” said Ishida. “How they’re always looking down on you, how they talk about you like you’re a burden, how they’re always expecting you to fuck everything up again…"

"No… Don't say that…"

What’s the matter? You didn’t want your friends to hear that? Oh, so even when you're so angry at them, you're still scared of them leaving you? It's easier to be treated like garbage than being alone, after all. That’s so sad… It hurts so much to be judged, right? To be rejected.”

Ishida stopped talking, and the beloved face in his mind informed him of what the shadow was about to say before he did it.

Especially by him.”

His stomach turned, and he could do nothing but hope that Ishida would stop there. But he didn’t.

Best friend…” said the shadow. “Sure, you’d want him to think that. If you’re his best friend, he’ll always be around… You never told him the truth, did you? About the things that go through your mind when you’re together? Of course not… What would you do if he rejected you too?”

Ishida made a brief pause, and when he spoke again, Ryuji could hear the satisfaction on his voice.

How about we do it now?”

No… Not that. They had already seen his worst sides, heard things he never wanted anyone to know about him. Maybe they already hated him for it, but… If it kept going, without any doubt, Akira would…

“Stop it…!”

Why are you so scared of letting him know? Because then, he would realize everything you had until now was a lie? That you're always talking about girls, and pretending to be normal because you know how disgusted he'd be if he knew how much you wished he'd touch you, and kiss you, and-"

"Stop!"

"Pin you against the wall, or press your body against the mattress..."

"Please... Stop it..."

"How much you want him to fuck you senseless, and make you feel loved... a pause, followed by a scoff. “Loved? Someone like you? It's so disgusting he'd never want to look at you again if he knew. Oh my... But he just heard it! What a shame... Can you see the disgust in his face? In all of their faces?”

He couldn’t… He couldn’t look at them. He didn’t even want to fight Ishida anymore. What was the point? What was even left for him to reveal, now?

He just wanted it to end already.

See? This is what happens when something disgusting like you tries to have things you don’t deserve. I bet you wish you had stepped in front of that car, or jumped from the roof, like you considered so many times... Or maybe done as your old man said, and thrown yourself in front of a fucking train.”

He couldn’t even hate how part of him wanted to agree with those words.

Are you understanding now? How your cowardice only made everything worse? If you had died before he knew, he'd still remind you as a friend... But now you're nothing but a disgusting piece of trash, and no one will ever cry for you when you're gone."

"I know..."

He could still hear those distant voices, a little louder, but they were soon muffled by Ishida’s.

"Truth is, they'll be happy to get rid of such a burden. See why? You're the reason they ’re trapped here... If you weren't so weak, they could've defeated me without any problem. It’s just like your mother… If it wasn’t for you, she would be able to marry again, and start a new family, and be happy… But who would want someone with a son like you? I bet she wishes every single day you were never born."

Those voices… No matter how much Ishida spoke, Ryuji could still hear them.

“I know…”

You destroy the lives of everyone around you.”

Distorted, but louder and louder…

"You're right..."

They just wouldn’t stop.

"So... How worth are you of being alive, Ryuji Sakamoto?"

"I'm... not..."

Ryuji could feel Ishida’s satisfaction somewhere inside his head. He was so excited, so carried away with his words, so confident of his victory, that he didn’t notice how Ryuji’s mind focused on moving his right arm, reaching for his gun. With a quick movement, he raised it, pointing its pipe to the shadow’s chin.

"But they are, and I won't let you hurt them."

Before Ishida could react, Ryuji pulled the trigger, causing a sharp pain in his already wounded arm. The shadow screamed in its distorted voice, letting go of Ryuji, who quickly turned to face him, aiming at its chest, shooting a second time. Despite his trembling arm and hazy vision, he hit his target, and Ishida fell to the ground. Soon the others were by Ryuji’s side, Makoto crouching next to him, healing his wound, while the others attacked the now vulnerable creature with everything they had, until it lost its monstrous form, reacquiring the appearance of a high-schooler. Ishida’s shadow stared at them with his golden eyes, gritting his teeth in frustration.

“You better give up now,” said Akira in a serious voice, pointing his gun at his head.

Why? Don’t you understand? It was all because of him!” Ishida pointed at Ryuji’s direction. “He was always the best one! It didn’t matter that I was older, or took things more seriously than anyone else… Everyone only looked up to him, even if he didn't deserve it! And, even after he messed up, everyone still talked about him! Everything would be better if he just wasn't around!"

"You just wanted someone to blame!” retorted Ann. “Your track team is back now… If it’s so important to you, then why didn't you go back to it yet?"

"Of course I haven't! Even if he's not around, I'll just be in his shadow! He stole all the chances I had of standing out!"

"And you find it easier to blame a former member than trying to get better yourself,” Makoto shook her head. “You're just like a spoiled brat."

"I know... But everything was easier when everyone hated him."

Ishida stopped talking, lowering his eyes to the ground for a long time, before looking at Ryuji again.

You were the best…” this time, his voice sounded more frustrated than angry. “So much better than me. And still, you gave up on everything. You left the track team as if it meant nothing to you! How do you think that made me feel? To know that I always envied someone who didn’t even take it seriously?”

Ryuji simply stared at the shadow for a moment. Then, with some effort, he stood up, approaching Ishida, standing before him.

“You’re wrong,” he said. “I left ‘cause I messed up. ‘Cause I did somethin’ stupid and hurt you guys… I just couldn’t go back after everythin’ that happened. It just felt… wrong.”

He stared into the shadow’s golden eyes.

“But it was important to me too. For a long time, it was the only thing that mattered in my life,” he made a pause, lowering his voice. “You should know that better than anyone else by now.”

I—”

“Sorry for all the trouble.”

Sakamoto…”

The shadow lowered his gaze, a faint, sad smile taking his lips.

"I understand now…” he said. “I just didn't want to accept that I have no talent… That I'm not special, like I always thought I was. And you were an easy target.”

Ishida shook his head.

But I'm tired of running away and blaming others,” he proceeded. “I don’t care if I only have a few months left… I’ll go back to the track team. Even if it changes nothing, even if I can’t be special… I’ll do it while I still can.”

“Then do it,” said Ryuji. “You can be better than this.”

You’re right,” saying that, Ishida reached for his pocket, taking something out of it. “This is ironic, but… Here, I want you to have this."

Ryuji raised his hand, letting Ishida place something round and slightly cold on it. The shadow’s sad smile gave place to one of relief as he slowly started to fade.

"I'll step out of your shadow on my own," he said, before finally disappearing before his eyes.

Ryuji simply stood there, his aching head needing a moment to process everything that had just happened. He lowered his eyes to his hand, seeing there Ishida’s treasure: a cheap second place medal, from the track team’s competition in the previous year. The kind you could buy at any trinket store, and carried nothing but sentimental value. Ryuji couldn't even remember if he still had his… Losing to him had been so devastating for Ishida, and still, he could barely remember that day.

He really was terrible...

Ryuji felt tears leaving his eyes, and suddenly that composed mask crumbled. Still clasping that medal, he sat on the ground, hugging his knees against his chest, lowering his head, and started to cry like a small child.

“Ryuji…” he heard Akira’s voice next to him. “Are you—”

“Stay away!”

Those loud words left his mouth before he could hold them back, making a heavy feeling of guilt fill his chest.

“Don’t look at me…” he asked in a lower voice. “Please, don’t look…”

A low sob interrupted his words, and he didn’t try to keep talking. Instead of moving away, however, he felt Akira carefully place an arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer. More than comforting, that kind gesture was terribly painful.

“Go away…” he asked. “Just leave me here…”

"We won't do that,” said Akira. “C'mon, Ryuji... You didn't believe the things he said to you, did you?"

Those words made something bitter seem to grow inside his chest, and, before he knew it, he was yelling again.

"It was all true! Everythin’ he said was true! Everythin’ I do just hurts everyone around me! Even when...” his sobs cut his phrases, but he didn’t stop this time. “Even when I think I did somethin’ right for a change, I still mess it up in the end... I try to be good, I try to be different from my old man... I try to help people, to be a good son, and a good friend... But I can't do anythin’ right! I just... can't..."

He went silent. Now that he had said all that, he was left with nothing but a feeling of emptiness.

"I wish I had never existed."

As soon as he said it, Ryuji felt a pair of hands grabbing him by the shoulders. He looked up, only to meet Akira’s enraged face.

"Don't ever say that again!" he yelled. "What the fuck do you have in your head? You really think everything would be magically better if you just weren't around? Don't fuck with me!"

"Akira, stop!"

Saying that, Makoto moved Akira away from Ryuji, who still stared at him, unable to react.

"Ryuji...” Ann crouched beside him, first taking that small medal from him, then placing a hand on his head, caressing his hair as she spoke softly. “We're not going anywhere without you. You know why? Because we care about you, and it hurts us to see you like this."

Ryuji lowered his eyes again.

"You heard what that guy said..."

"We did... So what?" answered Ann. “We all have things we’d rather hide too. I…” she stopped for a second, taking a deep breath. “I’ve been in love with Shiho since middle school, and I’m scared to think what would happen if she ever knew it. And, since she tried to… You know… I realized I could lose her at any moment. And not only her, but all of you… I’m just so afraid of losing the people I love, to think that they were suffering alone and I did nothing to help…”

“It wasn't your-"

“No, you’ll listen to me!” Ann raised her voice, reaching for his hand, squeezing it between hers. “I never realized how much you were hurting, but now that I know, I can’t just ignore it! You’re important to me… If you’re in pain, I want to help! I don't want to go through that again...”

“But I… I’m nothing like Shiho,” said Ryuji. “Didn’t you hear what that thing said? It… It was all true, okay? I… I’m just that pathetic.”

“Don’t say that!”

"But it's the truth!” he insisted. “Whenever I messed up, or things went wrong, I just... I had to feel pain, or I just wouldn't feel better about it. I knew it was wrong, but I had to do it, 'cause I couldn't deal with things like a normal person!"

A heavy silence fell upon them. Makoto approached him, sitting on the floor on his other side, placing a hand on his back.

“Ryuji…” she said. “It’s alright, you’re not the only one,” she made a pause, hesitating a little. “I’ve hurt myself too, in the past.”

Those words made Ryuji stare at her, surprised.

“It was after my father died,” she proceeded, “It was… bad. I tried to hide my pain from my sister’s sake, but it just made everything worse.”

“You don’t have to…” said Ryuji.

Makoto shook her head.

“It’s fine,” she said. “I didn’t know how else to cope… I still have a few scars on the side of my body,” she placed a hand close to her hip. “I thought I was hiding it well, but my sister discovered it. Instead of getting angry, she broke down, telling me she didn’t want to lose me too,” she lowered her eyes. “I was so ashamed… I felt like I just brought her more pain.”

He looked at her, unable to say anything: even at the Phantom Thieves’ worst moments, Makoto was always so strong, and confident… He would never have imagined she had been through something like that.

“I did things like that too…” Futaba’s low voice called his attention. “Since my mom died, I had many bad moments, when I’d just think about ending everything. I thought it was just fair… One life for another, you know? That way I’d stop being a burden to Sojiro too. I was so tired of it… If you guys hadn’t helped me, maybe that’s how everything would have turned out."

“I never thought about ending my own life,” admitted Yusuke, “but many times I wondered if living was worth it. All I did was for Madarame’s sake, and still, he used every chance he got to remind me of how much of a nuisance I was. And part of me believed him. I thought he had saved me, so… Obviously, I had to be the one in the wrong.”

Ryuji looked from one of his friends to the other, opening themselves up, exposing everything they’d rather keep hidden. That wasn’t right… They shouldn’t have to do something so painful for someone like him.

"You guys saw what I did…” said Ryuji. “I'm always losing my temper and doing things I regret later... What if I hurt you next? I don't... I don't wanna hurt you..."

He felt Morgana’s small pawn on his knee.

"I'm scared of hurting others too..." admitted the cat. “I keep telling you all that I know I’m a human, but, the truth is I don't know… I have no idea of what I am, or where I came from before Mementos. Part of me is scared to know the truth. What if I am something… bad? It’s hard to admit it, so I just act confident. But I'm afraid, all the time."

“I’m scared of being rejected too, especially by my father,” said Haru. “That’s why I always kept my head down and did everything he expected me to. I hoped someday he would see me for what I am... But he never did, and now that we stole his heart, I feel like I’ll never know if there was a part of him that still cared.”

Ryuji felt Ann’s hands squeezing his again, and he turned to face her.

“You’re not the only one,” she said. “We’re all weak, and pathetic, and scared… But why does it matter? We’re here for each other,” she offered him a gentle smile. “We’ll always be.”

Ryuji couldn’t help but smile back as he looked at his friends. But soon his eyes met with Akira’s, and immediately that feeling of anxiety took him again: of course he wasn’t saying anything… Of course he was disgusted... Of course he—

Akira closed the distance between them, crouching on the floor in front of him, throwing his arms around Ryuji’s neck, hugging him.

“You’re nothing like that…” he whispered with a slightly trembling voice. “You didn’t deserve anything that happened. You—”

He moved away, cupping Ryuji’s face with both hands, looking into his eyes.

“You’re the one who gave me a reason to keep going, despite all the shit that happened in my life,” he said. “And I hate to think that you feel like that about yourself, when you did so much for me… I wanted to help you too… I thought I was… I never realized you…”

His voice broke, tears rolling down his face as he leaned in Ryuji’s direction, resting the forehead against his.

"I'm sorry…” he said. “I should have realized sooner, but I... I'm so sorry..."

Ryuji placed both hands over Akira’s, holding them against his face.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” he asked. “Don’t you hate me…?”

Akira shook his head.

“Never.”

Without thinking much, Ryuji hugged him again, burying his face on Akira’s shoulder, placing a hand on his head, keeping him close. Akira did the same, and, for a long time, neither of them tried to let go. At that moment, Ryuji wanted nothing more than to tell Akira how important he was to him… How much he had changed his whole life just by being there. He loved him so, so much…

Before they moved away from each other, another person joined that hug. And then other, and other, until the eight of them were tangled together in a clumsy, comforting embrace. No words, just that gentle warmth, and the certainty that what Ann had said was true: no matter what happened, they were there for each other. They would be together until the very end.

“Sorry…” said Ryuji, when they finally moved away. “I lost it back there, and you guys… I’m sorry for making you talk about all that.”

“You didn’t make us say anything,” said Makoto.

“That’s true,” agreed Yusuke. “We just felt like taking these unpleasant things out of our chests.”

"And I feel so lighter now!” Morgana raised both of his paws, stretching them with a wide smile. “Whew, I never realized secrets could weight so much!"

"And now I'm hungry too…” complained Futaba. “Hey, can't we all go to the Leblanc? Drown our sorrows in the curry… You know how it works."

The group looked at Ryuji, who couldn’t hold back a small, relieved giggle.

"Sounds good to me," he said.

They took the train together, and, as soon as it left Shibuya, Ryuji felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. Three new messages, all from the same person.


Yuuki: How did it go?

Yuuki: Is everything alright?

Yuuki: Please, answer me when you can


Part of him found it funny — and quite endearing — that, instead of messaging the group, Mishima chose to talk directly to him. He quickly replied to his friend, letting him know that everything turned out well.

They got to the Leblanc, but, before he could follow his companions inside, Akira held his arm.

"Ryuji, wait," he said, turning to the others, who were now looking at them. "You guys go ahead, I have something to say to him."

Ryuji’s stomach turned at that idea. Sure, he wasn’t expecting Akira to punch him or anything like that, but…

"Ryuji…" Akira started to say, looking at him with a serious expression.

"You're bothered, aren't you?"

His question made Akira stare at him with some confusion.

"What?"

"C'mon,” proceeded Ryuji, “I'm not blaming you... I know it's weird, but I promise I'll try to stop thinking of you this way, so... If you can still see me as a friend, I-"

A light punch on his shoulder made him go silent.

"Stop it," said Akira, sounding slightly annoyed. "You didn't even let me talk."

This time, Ryuji didn’t say anything, waiting for his friend to proceed. Akira took a deep breath, reaching for Ryuji’s hands, holding them before looking into his eyes.

"I was lost when I first came here..." he said in a soft voice. "You saved me. You gave me something I never had before… You mean everything to me, Ryuji, and still, I never had the courage to tell you how much I love you."

Ryuji felt like his brain had stopped working. He simply stared at Akira, trying to find a way he could have misinterpreted his words, but couldn’t find any.

"For real...?"

As soon as those words left his mouth, Ryuji felt the urge to punch himself for sounding that lame in such an important moment. Akira, however, simply chuckled in response."

"For real."

Akira moved closer, placing a hand on the side of his neck. Ryuji looked at him, knowing what was about to happen, but still unable to believe it, even after Akira’s lips touched his. He embraced his friend’s waist, and, even after they broke the kiss, they stayed close like that.

"I'm here for you, okay?" said Akira.

"I know... and I’m here for you."

Akira smiled at him, but it didn’t last long, giving place to a concerned expression as he reached for Ryuji’s face, caressing it.

"You're not leaving me, right?" he asked.

"’Course not."

“Alright.”

Saying that, Akira buried his face on the crook of Ryuji’s neck, groaning.

“Now I don’t feel like going inside anymore…” he said.

His words made Ryuji laugh, despite sharing that feeling.

“Then what?” he asked. “You planning to spend the whole night outside?”

“Yeah… We could make it a camping night.”

“Sure, sure… Wanna get a tent, light a fire, and roast some marshmallows too?”

“No…” he grumbled. “Too much work.”

“Don’t be so lazy.”

He felt Akira smiling against his skin, before placing a light kiss there.

"Can you stay here tonight?" he asked.

Ryuji rested his head against Akira’s, caressing his hair, a content smile taking his lips.

"Okay."

Despite all the bad things that happened in his life, at that moment, he knew he was the luckiest person in the world.

 


 

When he got to school the next day, Ishida was waiting for him. He apologized for the letters, and admitted he had been frustrated about many things in his own life, and just used Ryuji as a way to avoid his own problems. They talked it out, and, despite knowing they would never become friends after everything that happened, at least they were able to understand and forgive each other in the end.

He spent some time in Shibuya with Akira, Ann, and Morgana before going back home. His mother was already there, and greeted him with a wide smile.

“Welcome home, my dear,” she said. “Did you have fun at Akira’s, yesterday?”

“Yeah. You had lunch today, right?”

“I bought some take-out on my break.”

Ryuji stared at her, judging how honest her answer was. He knew she had the bad habit of “forgetting” to eat whenever Ryuji didn’t pack a lunch box for her, so, whenever he wasn’t able to do it, he had to make sure she was taking care of herself. She frowned at his gaze, twisting her lips.

“What’s with this judging look?” she asked. “I just said I had lunch!”

“I know, I know…” he sighed. “Just making sure my mom isn’t starving herself without me around…”

His answer made an amused laugh leave her lips.

“And what would I do without you to take care of me?” she said in a playful tone. “Anyway, we should start making dinner… I can’t wait to eat and fall asleep.”

She walked to the kitchen, and Ryuji followed her with his eyes. Sometimes, he had the impression his mother did nothing but work, and, as much as he didn’t want to think about it, he knew it was, in great part, because of him. He followed her, stopping at the kitchen’s entrance.

“Mom…”

“Yes?”

She looked at him, waiting for his next words, but he hesitated. While part of him knew she loved him, there was that smaller but persistent one that would never leave him in peace, that kept telling him she would be better on her own, without him around to weight her down. He lowered his eyes, clenching his fists as he finally asked what had been bothering him for years:

“Am I a burden to you?"

That question made she stop what she was doing, looking at him with slightly widened eyes. He was starting to regret his question, when she walked to him, pulling him in a tight embrace.

"You're not,” she said. “You the most precious thing that I've ever had in my entire life, and I feel blessed every day for being your mother."

His body relaxed, and a heavy feeling he didn’t even know was there finally left his chest. He didn’t doubt her words, just like he didn’t doubt his friends’, or Akira’s. They loved him despite all of his flaws, and mistakes, and doubts. They loved Ryuji Sakamoto the way he was, and, with their help, maybe someday he would finally be able to love himself as well.

"Thank you…"

It wouldn't be easy, but it certainly was a start.