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L’appel du vide

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Akira messed up – and if he could make one blanket apology for his existence, he would.

It wouldn’t change anything, but Akira messed up and he doesn’t know what the hell to do to get back on track. He’s been derailed, the tracks dismantled, his compass blown to pieces, and hell if he knows how to read the fucking stars.

Three years.

Three years erased because of one mistake. He still doesn’t really believe it, but it's hard to pretend that it isn’t his sixteen year old face staring back at him in the mirror of Leblanc’s tiny bathroom or that Sojiro hadn’t been looking at him like he was gum stuck in his hair – very much unwanted and too damned difficult to get rid of.

Akira messed up, but he knows how to play it cool. He’s been playing it cool since a pair of handcuffs were slapped across his wrists and he was shoved face first into the back of a cop car because some drunken self-entitled asshole pointed a finger at him. He can totally play this cool, this is nothing.

He stares at his phone. It's the early morning of April 11th, 20-fucking-16, and if yesterday is a thing that really happened, today is going to be his first day at Shujin Academy.

There is no little red app on his phone.

He chews his lip and doesn’t blink as he stares.

It's nothing.

Still in lounge wear, he grabs his wallet and manages to climb out of his second floor window without falling and spilling his brains out on the empty street below – all in spite of his not shaking at all hands. He trips over his sweats instead, cursing as he stumbles in the direction of the train station in the darkness of the morning. He takes the train to Inokashira park and finds a spot on the bridge he knows has a phenomenal view of the sunrise.

Not that he’s looking.

His brain’s short circuiting, and he can see explosions of colors worthy of a superhero battle scene whenever he closes his eyes. His line of sight blindly follows the lethargic movement of the murky lake water and if he weren’t already shivering from the cold, he’d throw himself in to shock himself out of his shock and probably right into pneumonia, but hey – some things are worth the sacrifice.

He’s not thinking much of anything at all when a hand lands on his shoulder and he’s spinning around haphazardly, a very manly scream trapped somewhere in his throat with his heart, and once again regretting his choice of clothing as his feet catch the long ends of his sweats as he trips and nearly falls over the goddamned railing of the bridge and into the water he’d sort of just managed to convince himself not to drown himself in.

Another hand finds his other shoulder in an attempt to steady him, and Akira takes a moment to make sure his soul didn’t fly straight out of his body and into Yaldabaoth’s grabby little hands before looking at his unintentional murderer slash savior.

He quickly takes back the savior bit as he finds himself staring at the face of a very concerned looking Akechi Goro dressed to the nines in color coordinated name brand athletic clothing. If Akira thought his brain was short circuiting earlier – he’s wrong.

Three years.

The reality of his situation hits him like a bag of bricks to the nuts.

Fucking three years.

Akechi Goro is alive – one of his biggest regrets is alive and standing in front of him looking like he’s ready for some highbrow magazine photo shoot when what he really needs is five years intensive therapy and at least five more steps away from Akira.

No, no, no – the universe is not allowed to shove this on him so soon after it just flung him three fucking years into the past.

“Um,” Akechi says after a moment, before blinking and hastily pulling his hands away and letting them hover in front of him as if he isn’t sure where they came from or what he’s supposed to do with them. They’re just hands, Akechi. “I’m terribly sorry about that, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Some part of Akira is aware that he’s gaping and he can only imagine the kind of face that he’s making between the incoherent thoughts sparking, yet not quite catching fire as they die in formation within the confines of his skull where his brain ought to be. Akechi kind of shuffles on his feet as his eyes dart around, and Akira is still perceptive enough to deduce that Mr. Teenage Hitman is already looking for an escape route.

“I just,” Akechi coughs into the crook of his arm, and at least he is a sanitary human being (since he’s certainly not a good one), and backs up a little. “Sorry, I thought you were someone I knew?” He tries to say, but asks instead with a short laugh. He doesn’t sound or look very sure about it. Akira would wager he’s more sure about the existence of the Loch Ness monster than he is about that sentence.

But Akira’s brain is still on the fritz and he’s still gaping, because he’s smooth as a fat cat stuck in its own door flap.

Casting aside his awkwardness and now looking genuinely concerned, Akechi takes a step closer and asks, “Are you alright?”

Akira manages to snap his jaw back up with the rest of his face as he pulls himself together with the mental equivalent of duct tape and water soluble glue.

“I – uh – blood pressure,” Akira croaks. He closes his eyes and wishes he was anywhere else when he opens them again. No such luck. He clears his throat as he avoids eye contact. “Sorry, I meant to say I have low blood pressure – takes me a minute sometimes to, uh, wake up?” He’s just making this up as he goes. He pinches the bridge of his nose and wishes for an asteroid to breach the Earth’s atmosphere and hit him square in the head.

Once again, no such luck.

“I see. Regardless, I apologize for scaring you.”

Akira waves his hand in an aimless gesture he hopes conveys ‘don’t worry about it’ as he stares at the old wooden planks of the bridge under his feet. Akechi’s face is too real and too soon. “Don’t worry about it,” He says, just in case. He doesn’t want to be seen as rude and get shot this early in the game. He’s still banking on that asteroid. “I was thinking about jumping down anyways; really wake myself up. You saved me the trouble. Now I’m awake and won’t need to run my clothes through the wash at,” He checks the time on his phone. “5:30 in the morning,” He deadpans and blinks a few times while furrowing his brow. That was decidedly much later than he thought it was. He looked at the sky, a little offended to see the sun happily lighting the park with romantic pastel overtones in conjunction with the newly blossomed cherry trees. He freezes. “Oops,” He says.

It might have been three years, but he still remembers Sojiro opening shop every morning at 6 a.m. on the dot when he lived there.

“Is something wrong?” Akechi asks, but Akira is already making a run for it.

“Gotta go! Bye!” And it's as good an escape as any, he supposes. Russian roulette’s a less deadly game than Akechi – and Akira’s not sure he even wants to play, but it wouldn’t be right not to try.

Damn his misguided morality.

He can hear Akechi say something as he high tails it out of there and he can’t make out the words, but it sounds very confused.

He barely makes the train that would get him back to Yongen-Jaya in time and he thanks his past self for being in better shape than his 19 year old self as he very stealthily climbs the building and hurls himself through the open window. He sees Sojiro come around the corner just as he shuts the curtains. He throws himself on the bed and tries to look like he’s been sleeping all night instead of having an extended existential crisis amidst the literal ghosts of his past.

He checks his phone again. The metaverse app is nowhere to be found. His mind races but his thoughts are missing.

This isn’t nothing.

 

 

 

He simply accepts that he’s cursed when he sees Akechi at the station as he heads to school, looking as composed and innocent as ever. Akira takes a few steps back and decides to take the late train if only to avoid the slight possibility of Akechi recognizing him.

Someone bulldozes right into his back, nearly knocking him off his feet.

“Oof. C’mon, what the hell man – watch where you’re going,” Goddamnit Ryuji. Not that Akira isn’t happy to see him, but seriously? Now? From the corner of his eye, he can see Akechi watching them. He hopes his uniform and glasses combination is enough of a difference from his just out of bed look to make him unrecognizable. He knows this is a futile hope.

“Sorry,” Akira says. And then he says nothing, because what do you say to your best friend of three years who doesn’t even know your name? At least Akira won’t have to worry about Ryuji finding out about his limited edition video game Morgana broke last month.

Cat instincts – what’s up on the table must fall down. Preferably into pieces.

Ryuji shrugs and sighs in the exaggerated way he always does. “We’re good, dude. Just watch yourself, there are some shitty people around here,” Akira scratches the back of his head as Ryuji walks around him to find a place to wait. Akira checks his phone for the millionth time that morning to yet again find no trace of the stupid app that he’s supposed to be using pretty damned soon. He tries projecting a mental threat to Yaldabaoth before realizing that would only hurt his case.

And like keeping a constant eye on a spider on the wall just to make sure it never comes within biting or jumping range, it's with some alarm that Akira notices Akechi missing from his spot. Akira discreetly scans the area, hoping Akechi just caught his train or saw someone else he knew or had a terrible case of the runs and is not, in fact, the suspiciously identical to Akechi person making a beeline for him.

Akira side steps behind a pillar.

Akira is stealth, stealth is Akira. They are one and the same. Akechi saw nothing.

Akechi peers around the pillar, brow raised and poorly concealed amusement plastered on his face.

Shit.

“What a coincidence,” Akechi says. “I never expected to run into you again so soon.”

Akira stares.

Akechi blinks and smiles charmingly.

Akira stares long enough that he can hear a ding notifying him that he’s earned the ‘Creep.’ achievement in the game of Life.

“Hi,” Akira finally chirps, because he’s smooth as a greased up penguin trying to climb a rock wall. He swears he used to be cool. He’s spent too much time with Futaba and Yusuke. Their combined weirdness has overthrown him.

“Hello there,” Akechi properly greets in return with all the cool that Akira used to have – but he’s all soft neutrals and false pretenses. Akira knows what he really is – and he is fire and rage and probably already plotting Akira’s untimely demise. Akechi can screw off, because Akira’s got an asteroid coming anytime now. “Sorry if I startled you again.”

“Startle? Me? No, I’m okay. Saw you coming a mile away,” Akira stands up straight as he cranes his head to very obviously scan the tracks for his train.

“Oh, well, consider my apology rescinded then,” Akechi smiles his TV smile. Akira internally calls him an asshole and sort of hopes the sentiment is conveyed through his expression, but Akechi doesn’t give away whether or not he catches it. Why is Akechi even talking to him? Akira has done literally nothing to gain anyone’s attention. “Akechi Goro,” He says, bowing slightly in greeting.

Why is this happening.

Akira stares for half a beat too long before bowing in return. “Kurusu Akira,” He immediately regrets the decision to share his name when he sees something dance across Akechi’s eyes.

“Kurusu Akira,” Akechi repeats, contemplative. “Have we met before? Before this morning, I mean,” He’s scanning Akira with more intensity than an X-ray and Akira wouldn’t be surprised if he visited Takemi later just to find himself radioactive after this kind of invasive treatment.

“Nope,” He pops the p as he gives up hope on an asteroid caving his skull in and wishes for something less extraordinary. A volcanic eruption under his feet, maybe. “I’ve only been in Tokyo for three days. Haven’t really met anyone,” He thanks whatever gods might exist (except Yaldabaoth) when he sees his train pull in as he interrupts whatever Akechi was going to say as he points at the tracks. “That’s me. I’ll see you next time,” Never. He’ll see him never, he means to say.

Akira flees.

“Have a good day, Kurusu-san!” Akira hears from behind him.

“I won’t,” Akira mutters under his breath as he squeezes between other people in the crowd in a desperate bid to put as much distance between himself and Akechi as possible.

He doesn’t manage to get a seat on the train and his brain is still on standby, so it's when he’s already walked halfway to Shujin, umbrella handy, he remembers he’s doing everything all wrong. He’s exhausted and a bit jittery from not sleeping all night and dealing with the unexpected fiasco known as Akechi, so he shrugs and just goes to school. He’s already messed up the timeline, might as well just roll with the punches. Yaldabaoth hasn’t even given him the app yet, meaning he’s onto him or something else is going on.

Akira goes through the motions: Kawakami bemoans her luck; He ignores the nasty looks and malicious whispers he remembers from the first time; He sits behind Ann, as beautiful as always, who smiles encouragingly at him after his shoddy introduction. Akira loves her for always giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.

He ignores the ache in his heart that no one else remembers.

He gets through the day on autopilot, gets back to Leblanc without saying a word to anyone, and sleeps clean through the afternoon and night.

He dreams of an empty velvet room and a contract with his name signed at the bottom - but isn’t addressed to him. He dreams of a teenager who followed all the rules to the letter and still managed to break every last one.

Akira dreams of failure.

He wakes up early to a sense of finality settling over him as he accepts his new reality.

Akira messed up.

 

 

 

He’s more composed than he was the previous day, and if he catches his hand shake as he prepares breakfast for himself and Sojiro – it's because of the early morning chill.

“Oh, you’re awake,” Sojiro says as he walks through the door, the happy ring of the door chime a jarring contrast to his aloof voice.

“Yeah, sorry I disappeared yesterday. I wasn’t feeling too great,” Akira adds a bit of salt to the pot.

“It's fine. Just let me know next time if you’re sick – I can pick up some medicine if you need it,” He says, and Akira smiles gratefully. He might not really like Akira just yet, but his dad instincts are strong. “Trying your hand at being the cook, I see.”

Akira belatedly realizes he probably should have asked for permission to cook. He’s so used to doing whatever he pleases in the cafe, it skipped his mind entirely. “I know a thing or two about breakfast curry,” Akira says. “Figured I’d return the favor, since you’ve been cooking for me everyday. I think you’ll like it.”

“Confident, huh? Alright, we’ll see what you can do. If it's half as good as it smells, I might be willing to give you a few tips.”

Sojiro stands no chance against Akira’s curry. Not only did Akira end up moving back into the cafe for his third year at Shujin, he worked (and occasionally crashed) there part time through first year of university when the tiny cafe started picking up some decent business. He knows all of Sojiro’s and Futaba’s favorites.

“Not bad, kid,” Sojiro begrudgingly admits when the food is done. For still being pretty lukewarm (or at least not subzero) towards Akira, that’s probably the best compliment he’ll be able to get out of him. “You have potential,” Akira smiles as he pushes his own food around in the bowl. He knows he should be starving, but his appetite’s not really there. “Who taught you how to cook?”

Akira shrugged. He couldn’t exactly tell the truth and Sojiro is pretty good at catching him when he spouts bullshit. “I had to learn for myself,” He doesn’t notice Sojiro’s contemplation as he loses himself to memory.

“Know anything about coffee?” Sojiro asks.

Akira knows plenty about coffee, but it never hurt to revisit the basics. He shrugs again. “It's made from beans?”

Sojiro chuckles as he stands and walks around the counter, pulling an apron over his head. “There’s a lot more to coffee than just the beans – finish up your food and I’ll teach you a bit about technique.”

Bittersweet is the word of the day as Akira leaves for Shujin, making sure to catch the last train possible to avoid any homicidal detective princes that might be lurking about. And Akira knows he hasn’t exactly been forgotten by everyone so much as he just remembers things he really, really shouldn’t – but it feels like it.

For the first time in three years, he feels genuinely alone.

It sucks.

Morgana’s sitting on a wall staring at Akira as he trudges up the steps, and that gives him pause. It's definitely Morgana. Akira’s been toting Morgana around with him everywhere for years to the never ending woe of his back, he wouldn’t mistake him for anything.

But that would mean -

Akira looks around as he feels some sort of pressure bearing down on him as though he’d suddenly found himself under leagues of water, pressing him down and crushing -

and it's gone.

Kurusu-kun.”

Akira looks up from where he’d crouched down in pain, arms protecting his ribs, to see Kamoshida and Ryuji hovering over him, Morgana no where to be seen.

“Dude, you alright?” Ryuji asks, crouching down with him. And yeah – Akira’s fine. Any trace of pain he felt vanished as if he hadn’t experienced it at all.

“Yeah, sorry,” He says as he stands, confused as all hell. Ryuji didn’t seem too convinced, but Kamoshida didn’t give a damn as he hid the annoyance on his face with a neutral smile.

“Well, if you’re fine, you need to get to class – both of you. I’m closing the gate,” Kamoshida says, but Akira’s not listening. He’s staring at the school.

Furiously, Ryuji pulls Akira along. “What a dick. I hate that guy,” He rages before throwing Akira a concerned look. “You sure you’re alright? You don’t look so good.”

That’d be because Akira is seeing things he definitely should not be seeing. Much like the safe rooms that existed inside of the palaces, Shujin Academy looks distorted – the large stone walls and columns of a castle flickering and blurring reality. Akira rubs his eyes when his brain refuses to process it. He’s relieved when it's simply Shujin Academy when he opens them again. “Sorry, just – vitamin D deficiency,” Akira says, and Ryuji probably doesn’t know what that is, but it must sound good enough to him as he grins and slaps Akira’s back.

“Just sleep through class, you’ll feel better in no time.”

“Yeah, yeah – that’s yeah. I’ll do that, thanks,” Akira is militantly scanning the perimeter, checking for anything weird.

“Hey, uh, you’re that criminal record guy, right?” Ryuji asks with an incredible lack of tact. He at least seems to recognize the fact as he cringes and grins apologetically.

Akira doesn’t mind. “Yup, that’s me. Criminal mastermind right here. Kurusu Akira, nice to meet you.”

“Sakamoto Ryuji. And don’t worry, I don’t really buy into all the crap going around about you. People will say anything about anyone here.”

“I’ve noticed,” Akira smiles. “Thanks,” Ryuji’s still grinning as he rubs the back of his head. “Hey, uh, was there a cat around here a minute ago?” Akira asks.

Ryuji stiffens as his eyes dart around in his skull and he grinds his teeth. “No?” He denies, but he mutters something most certainly insulting to Morgana under his breath.

“Huh, weird. Could have sworn,” Akira says more for Ryuji’s sake than his own. Ryuji must have found his way into the metaverse without Akira, after all. He supposes that’s a good thing – Kamoshida definitely needed to be taken down, and Akira is currently as useful as a marooned plane without wheels. Now if he followed Ryuji around for a bit after school he could pretty easily get pulled into the metaverse with him and they could tear through the palace before Kamoshida could do anything to Shiho. He’d have to get Ann in there somehow too. He can probably just lure her over with the promise of chocolate lava cake or something.

It works every time.

He parts ways with Ryuji as they head to class and tries to at least start some kind of dialogue with Ann in class by asking to borrow a pencil. Turns out she doesn’t have one either and they both beseechingly turn to the overly prepared student behind Akira for help.

The bastard drags his pencil case closer to himself and hides his face behind a book.

What a dick.

Akira and Ann not so quietly commiserate together before the teacher arrives and Akira is pretty sure they are now the best of friends.

He tries to find Ryuji at lunch, but Kawakami finds him instead and has more than a few words about his lack of preparedness for class that day. After school, Ryuji is nowhere to be found and Akira most certainly does not freak out and make a safe house out of a trashcan when he sees someone wearing the same uniform as Akechi on his way back to the cafe.

It's raining when he gets to Yongen-Jaya, he doesn’t have an umbrella today, and he hates life.

Sojiro shakes his head as Akira slinks through the door, but takes pity on him with a hot bowl of curry and a fresh cup of coffee.

Akira decides he needs a plan.

 

 

 

Akira fails to make a plan because apparently his brain stayed back in 2019 with his real life.

He thinks about the events that led to his current predicament and casts them aside. They’re irrelevant for another couple of years, he can worry about that later. Or never, if he plays his cards right.

It's another sleepless night. His brain is running at 110%, but nothing is being processed.

Sojiro has yet to trust him with the keys to the cafe, so he finds himself once again sneaking out of his window at some unholy hour of the morning and taking a train to Inokashira Park, this time to actually watch the sunrise.

It wasn’t even a year ago when he picked up the habit. Yusuke had just splurged the little money he had on an overpriced camera he wanted to use for reference photos (and because Akira is a push over and Yusuke knew he would be fed whenever he got hungry) and reference photos apparently entailed taking the most artistically timed photos possible at the ‘golden hour’ of the day. Reference photos also apparently entailed waking Akira up at three in the morning to help Yusuke lug around 50 pounds of equipment Akira’s certain Yusuke never even used, easily satisfied with the automatic mode on his fancy DSLR camera he never even read the manual for (because art doesn’t need instruction – it is born pure and from the heart. Akira knows this isn’t true. Yusuke knows this isn’t true. Akira suspects cameras were just too complicated for his poor friend). Any attempt to explain there were, in fact, two golden hours of the day (the other in which Akira was already awake) was met with deaf ears.

There was simply no way to escape Yusuke’s machinations.

They were roommates.

But sunrises – when Yusuke was busy fiddling with the tripod and trying to remember which lens he needed or what an aperture was (– and Yusuke should really stick to painting, but whenever he managed to get a good photo, he’d light up so ridiculously bright –) Akira would relax and let the sunrise take him over.

Springtime in Inokashira Park is a favorite of Akira’s.

The sun has yet to properly reach above the swathe of trees within the park when he gets there, casting a soft yellow glow amidst the rising mist. Cherry blossoms sway with the breeze under a violet sky and blushing clouds, the falling petals reminiscent of spirits stealing their last dance before humanity can take over the day.

It's exactly the reprieve he needs.

“It's quite the view, isn’t it?” A light voice cleaves its way through Akira’s brain, cutting away the future he belonged to. He visibly recoils and digs his fingernails into the railing of the bridge to prevent himself from doing anything embarrassing.

Akechi, of course it's Akechi.

Wonderful.

He’s wearing a different set of athletic clothes, no less expensive looking than the last ones, and his hair is tied carelessly behind his head, long strands falling down to frame his face. And Akechi can say what he wants about the view, but Akira’s convinced he hasn’t been looking at all given how comfortably he’s set up to ogle Akira from the spot next to him on the bridge from where he’s blatantly turned away from the sunrise, his head propped up by a hand.

Akira is reminded of when Akechi used to sit at the counter in Leblanc. Languid, calm, and quiet.

Akira remembers Akechi screaming at him to just DIE as he tore and ripped and burned everything in sight, angry and desperate.

“Inokashira isn’t part of my usual cycling route, but I always seem to find myself here in the springtime. There’s a peace here you can’t find anywhere else in the city,” Akechi continues when Akira doesn’t. He has a placid little smile on his face Akira wishes he can believe in, but doesn’t.

Akira looks at the white knuckles of his hands where they’re still clenched against the railing and methodically forces himself to relax. He sighs and forces his eyes back to overlook the lake, instead seeing the imaginary silhouette of a gaudy ship destined to be the grave of just one. He rubs his eyes to dispel the image, bringing back the sunrise.

“If I could pick anything to be my favorite color, it would be this place,” Akira says when he’s collected himself, sees what he came for – not what he regrets. Akechi watches him for a moment longer before twisting around to try and see what Akira sees. A wistful smile draws his face and it sends a pang through Akira’s heart.

He remembers the same smile whenever he made Akechi a cup of coffee at Leblanc or whenever he’d say something stupid to get a laugh out of him, but didn’t quite succeed.

He remembers too much about Akechi. He’s the only person Akira couldn’t save – and while the others were eager to forget everything about him and move on with their lives – after a long day at the cafe, Akira would set a particular brew at a specific spot on the counter and just take a moment.

The regret hurts more than the loss.

Akira wonders what Akechi sees when he looks at the sunrise. The dawn of a new day? Or a reminder that he’s woken up yet again to his self-made hell on earth.

“I’m afraid to admit my artistic sense is limited, but even I can agree there is something special about the sunrise here.”

“You don’t need an artistic sense to appreciate something beautiful.”

Akechi chuckles and turns back to Akira, a quirk to his lips. “I suppose you’re right. There are many a tale out there about the fiercest warriors being brought to their knees by a beautiful woman or some incredible sight.”

“I mean, they could have been artistic warriors,” Akira says just to be pedantic.

“Ah, you’re right, of course. How thoughtless of me to merely assume otherwise.”

And Akira supposes it's his turn to say something, but he’s never really been too great at keeping up a casual conversation for any significant length of time in the first place and the anxiety is really starting to settle in at the pit of his stomach. He wonders if there’s secretly an active volcano under Inokashira Lake that wouldn’t mind going off right about now. Maybe a tornado or a water spout?

He looks to the sky. His delayed asteroid?

“It's strange, isn’t it?” Akechi says, breaking Akira out of his whatever he’s stuck in. Akechi is obviously trying to direct the conversation somewhere.

“What is?” He takes the bait.

“This makes for the third time we’ve met in three days. In a city as large as this – it's almost suspicious,” Akechi puts a hand under his chin and playfully scrutinizes Akira.

Akira huffs out a breath. “Oops, you caught me. I’m a huge fan – not a stalker, honest. Don’t worry; the hair and toenail clippings are just a hobby.”

Akechi stifles a laugh with his hand. “I wasn’t worried before. Though now I suspect I’ll have to be cautious with you.”

“I’m sure your detective training will prepare you for anything I could come up with.”

Akechi puts on an embarrassed face to hide the fact that he’s pleased. Akira knows better. “Ah, so you do recognize me.”

Akira really wants to run away at this point, because the potential to screw everything up more than it is already screwed up is so high it has escaped Earth’s orbit. “You’re on TV a lot,” Akira says as he nervously taps out a rhythm on his arm, switching back to simple and concise sentences.

“Hah, you’re exaggerating. I’ve only been a guest on a few shows,” Akechi deliberately moves the hair out of his eyes as he give Akira a sheepish smile.

“You’ve been on TV so much I think your face has been permanently burned into the screen,” Akira says as he gestures aimlessly with his hand.

Akechi does redden slightly, which makes Akira cackle internally – because as much as he knows Akechi craves attention and fame, he doesn’t know how to handle it at all.

“In any case,” Akechi diverts, “Since you’re such a huge fan, it's only fair that we commemorate this moment. How about taking a picture with me?”

“Uh, no – that’s –” Whatever Akira has to say must not matter as Akechi wrangles him over slightly so they’re both in the sights of Akechi’s phone. Before he even has a chance to protest, the telltale sound of an artificial shutter is heard and the image of a very bewildered and sleep deprived Akira next to the dashing visage of sports edition Akechi standing in front of a glorious sunrise is staring back at him from the phone. “Okay,” Akira says in resignation. He’s not sulking, but it's a close thing.

“Perfect,” Akechi says as he grins at his phone. Akira supposes it's only perfect because Akechi looks a model standing next to a member of Insomniacs Anonymous. “But, hah, I guess we should have used your phone so you could have the picture. What’s your number? I’ll send it to you.”

“Really not necessary...” Akira mumbles under his breath, but he can tell Akechi is plotting something and he’s a little curious so he pulls out his phone to check, because he’s gone through two different numbers over the last year alone (thanks Futaba), and he has no idea what 16 year old Akira’s number is. He can see Akechi’s eyes lock onto his screen, searching for who knows what – the phantom thieves aren’t even a thing yet, so looking for the metaverse app on some random kid’s phone probably isn’t his objective.

And that gives him pause.

The phantom thieves aren’t even a thing yet, but Akechi is unnaturally interested in Akira – someone he renounced as being unremarkable before.

Akira looks at Akechi. He still has some silly faux smile plastered on his face, but his eyes are focused and oddly intent.

Akira stops.

Does Akechi remember?

He doesn’t know whether to be terrified or relieved at the implication.

Because if Akechi remembers – what would his intentions be? Redemption? Or ensuring his original plans went off without a hitch?

Akira’s breathing picks up as he assesses yet another complication – but it's not possible, right? Akira’s the one sent back and Akechi was dead. Akechi had been dead for 3 years – not even a body left behind – and shit, Akira is thinking too much and Akira messed up and Akira isn’t even the one who was supposed to go back was never supposed to go back it wasn’t his fault –

“Kurusu-san?” Akechi interrupts his silent freak out. “Are you alright?” He asks, managing to look appropriately concerned as Akira’s eyes bug out of his head.

“That’s – I’m, uh. Number. Here,” He shoves his phone at Akechi before turning around and covering his face with a hand, the other on his hip as he tries to control himself. He soon hears his phone receive a message and turns back around. Akechi is still looking at his phone.

“You don’t have many contacts on your phone.” Akechi muses before he blinks and his eyes go wide because, wow – rude much? “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it. I just added myself on there so I couldn’t help but notice. I hope you don’t mind.”

Akira really sort of does mind, but doesn’t say anything as he takes his phone back as he stares blankly, intent on deleting the stupid picture Akechi used as an excuse to snoop around on his phone.

“New phone,” Akira lies. He remembers deleting all of his old friends from his contacts list with tranquil fury after his arrest when they made it clear they didn’t want anything to do with a criminal. They never tried to speak to him again and he never missed a single one. “New city. I have a few solid methods on how to make new friends, so I’m not too concerned about the current length of my contacts list.”

“I see,” Akechi sighs in relief when Akira doesn’t take offense. “You seem confident in your ability to make new friends. What’s your secret? I’ve never been particularly great at it myself.”

Snooping around on people’s phones isn’t a particularly great way to start a friendship Akira is certain, but doesn’t say. Neither is the pseudo-stalking Akira is certain happened in the last timeline and seems to be starting early in this one. He doesn’t say that either.

“Drop money on the floor. 100% success rate,” He says instead.

Akechi lets out a startled laugh, as if he surprised himself with actually finding something funny. “You have a very unique perspective.”

Akira shrugs and checks the time. He still has a couple minutes to waste before he needs to leave, so he risks a question before he gives into the urge to skedaddle without a second thought, “The other day – why’d you ask if we’ve met before?”

Akechi settles back against the railing and pulls a pensive face. “I wonder the same thing,” And okay, not what Akira was expecting at all. “It's strange, isn’t it?” He asks for the second time. And yeah, it is strange. What the hell is Akechi getting at here? “I can’t help but feel as if I know you. It's a very unsettling feeling and unusual enough that I can’t stop myself from trying to figure it out. Do you mind if we speak again sometime? Even if nothing comes of it, I still find myself oddly refreshed by our conversations.”

Akira doesn’t remind him that their conversations so far have been short, stunted, and nearly nonexistent due to Akira running for the hills at every given opportunity, but that’s probably the selling point for Akechi. Inspiring terror and dread into his unsuspecting peers has to be a thing that he’s into.

Akira obliges him as he takes a step back and nods noncommittally while pointing in a random direction with both hands. “Yeah, sure. I don’t mind,” And Akira really fucking minds because he has no idea what’s going on. “But I can’t right now. Got, uh, cafe stuff to do. Yeah. At the cafe,” Akechi should just pull out a gun and take aim now, because embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe Akira. “Bye.”

He swears he used to be cool.

He retreats and pretends not to see the amused glimmer in Akechi’s eyes.

He gets back to the cafe in good time and tries to psychically push the idea of giving Akira the keys to the cafe onto Sojiro over breakfast. It results in failure, which seems to be the running theme of the day. The theme persists when he doesn’t see Ryuji at all despite hearing everyone in school complain about him not so subtly asking everyone about Kamoshida and the volleyball team.

Akira decides to wait it out by Mishima. Ryuji is bound to make it to him eventually. Probably. Akira has plenty of faith in his friend, despite his intellectual shortcomings.

He grabs some snacks.

“Here,” Akira says, handing some sugar promoted as a drink to his poor abused friend. His eye is swollen from when he’d taken a volleyball to the face at the rally. “You look like you need it,” Mishima looks like he’s about to cry when he accepts the offering. “If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m really not much help, but I’ve been known to be a good listener.”

“I really don’t have anything to talk about,” Mishima evades. “I’m just… tired today.”

Akira shrugs. “Alright,” He slurps his own drink and changes the subject. “Someday when you’re not tired you wanna go to Shinjuku with me? I’d probably end up in some very unfortunate situations if I went alone. Unfortunate situations are much more compelling with company.”

Mishima is pathetically easy to befriend after that and even after Ryuji finds them and interrogates the poor guy about Kamoshida, Mishima sends him a text that night with a list of links and things in Shinjuku they absolutely must do. Akira would bet his left kidney that most, if not all of it is illegal. He also gets Ryuji’s number, promising to let him know if he hears anything that could help.

At the very least, it's a step in the right direction.

His eye catches Akechi’s name on his contacts list, above both Ryuji and Mishima, complete with an email address and a picture. One brown eye winks up at him from the screen and he takes a deep breath before pressing the screen down flat against the mattress. He doesn’t know the rules to the game anymore, but Akechi is definitely breaking them.

The next day is a step in the very wrong direction after he sneaks out again with the devious idea of going to the opposite end of Inokashira Park to avoid any possible interaction with Akechi to allow his brain to melt down uninterrupted while he tries to piece together some semblance of a plan.

His plan goes off with every hitch.

“Don’t tell me you actually jumped in the lake,” Akechi’s voice rings out across the cold morning in disbelief as his bike comes to a halt behind Akira.

Akira startles at his voice and twists a finger in his hair when he makes his way over. “Okay,” He agrees and Akechi doesn’t have to fake a laugh as Akira scratches the back of his head and avoids eye contact. “I regret everything,” He admits under his breath. Before Akechi can ask, he continues, “I may have also tripped over a rock,” He shakes some of the water out of his hair for emphasis. “And gotten chased out of the water by a duck.”

“A duck.”

“Or ducks, plural, as there were multiple of them.”

“You were chased out of the water by ducks.”

“I think I woke them up. I had to sacrifice the soggy remains of my toast to escape.”

“Just – why?”

“At least I had the foresight to take my socks and shoes off. Nothing in the world is worse than wet socks. Not even drowning,” He pauses thoughtfully. “Maybe drowning in bees, though.”

“Drowning in – excuse me?”

“And really, this is your fault. If you’d have been here five minutes earlier, all of this would have been prevented. Some hero you are.”

Akechi snorts. And it's such an ugly sound Akira can’t stop the laughter bubbling in his throat when Akechi’s face scrunches up in horror at what he’s managed to produce. Akechi is dazed for a moment as Akira laughs, but recovers quickly despite the burgeoning splay of red across his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “My apologies. I sincerely hope you can learn to forgive me,” He says with all the formality to be expected from a homicidal maniac pretending to be a civil human being. Is Akira being unfair? He doesn’t think so. Akechi is totally stalking him.

“I don’t know, I’m sort of a grudge keeper,” Akira leans towards Akechi conspiratorially and stage whispers, “It's a personal failing of mine,” Akechi is smiling wide and by the time Akira realizes it's a genuine Akechi is having a good time smile, Akechi has realized it too and tapers it down to his standard TV approved smile. Feeling something like disappointment, Akira passively pulls at the wet cloth stuck to his skin. Akira is willing to admit that jumping in the water may have been a mistake, but it did have the beneficial effect of waking him up so he isn’t a stammering mess at the moment. Nope, just his usual idiot self now. “I’m definitely regretting wearing jeans this morning. Wet jeans are arguably just as bad as wet socks.”

“Pneumonia is worse than either,” Akechi points out and Akira pretends not to hear as he moves to pull some sort of plant out of his hair. He stares at it for a moment before noncommittally tossing it over his shoulder. “I’m still not sure I follow why you would want to jump down there in the first place.”

“When you see a puddle on the ground after a day of rain, don’t you ever want to jump on it? Same thing here, just – bigger puddle.”

“Actually, I make it a point to avoid any and all puddles. Shoes are expensive.”

Akira purses his lips as he crosses his arms. “You’re really bringing me down right now.”

“My apologies, I’ll do my best to not ‘bring you down’ in the future.”

“I can smell it when a liar lies, Akechi.”

“Are you sure you aren’t just smelling the duckweed in your hair?”

So that’s what it's called.

Akira points a finger at Akechi as if he’s about to argue, but clicks his mouth shut instead. He settles for shaking his finger. “This conversation isn’t over,” He says after a moment. “I need a bath.”

“You certainly do,” Akechi confirms because he is an asshole.

Akira sniffs and turns his nose up in an exaggerated motion before grabbing his shoes and sauntering away. He ruins his act when he steps on a sharp rock and spews out half a dozen curses with increasing creativity that has Akechi’s brow raising to alarming heights.

He tries to help Ryuji with his investigation that day, but gives up after the fifth person he sneezes on.

He’s lethargic and on the verge of sneezing out his brain and coughing up his internal organs the next morning, but he can’t sleep and being stuck in his empty attic is bringing his thoughts to dark places. He doesn’t want to see Akechi that morning at all, but his mind is operating at 25% and he finds himself unable to think of anywhere else to go than his usual spot.

By the time he realizes it's the bone shattering cold that makes him feel like a corpse in the later stages of rigor mortis and that he really should have grabbed a warmer jacket, it's too late: He stands shivering at his bridge, defiant of the elements – he’s going to enjoy his damned sunrise, okay?

He ignores the hell out of Akechi when he struts over with an overbearing not-smirk on his face that he attempts to switch to something resembling concern when Akira glowers pointedly in his direction. The faux concern incrementally melts off his face with every sneeze, revealing his amusement.

Akira adds a point to the ‘Akechi totally fucking remembers’ tally in his head, mostly out of spite, but also because Akechi has become far too comfortable far too fast with him. He supposes it could also be due to the fact that Akira is kind of incredibly pathetic and Akechi has found no reason to worry about pretenses with him.

Akira glances at Akechi’s bike after he wordlessly implies he’s not leaving when he leans all his weight against the railing and yawns.

“Don’t you need to go keep up your heart rate or whatever?” Akira asks after he wipes away the bountiful stream of tears running all over his assuredly beautiful face as the wind assaults his eyes with what must be billions of microscopic daggers. “I hear that’s important to insane people who exercise at five in the morning,” Ryuji is one of these types. Akira doesn’t understand why so many of his friends are morning people when Akira would rather go to sleep at five am than continue to be alive.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get rid of me,” Akechi muses, tapping his chin.

“I am trying to get rid of you. Your smarmy face is annoying and I don’t appreciate it,” Akira’s voice sounds like sandpaper under a viscous layer of expired mustard. He attempts to clear his throat, only succeeding in replacing mucous with more mucous.

Akechi seems to take minor offense to the word ‘smarmy’ in relation to his face as he tries to adjust his expression to something friendlier. “You could have stayed home and avoided me entirely, yet here you are at five in the morning with the insane people who like exercising.”

Akira glowers some more, but it can’t be very effective because a fresh wave of tears breaks free and his nose is definitely dripping. He rubs his hands together in an effort to stay warm when he sees his fingernails are turning a stunning shade of cobalt blue.

He eyes Akechi’s weather appropriate jacket enviously.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the sunrise, thanks,” And that would have been true, except looking at anything without squinting until he only sees a thin strip of light is agonizing. He squints with determination anyways because his only other option is to acknowledge Akechi in some form, which he has no intention of doing right now.

At least until he notices the suspicious lack of chatter.

“Somethin’ on my face?” He mumbles when he catches Akechi staring.

“Snot, mostly,” Akechi replies cheerfully. And sure, Akira walked right into that one, but he can’t stop a short laugh as he hopelessly tries to wipe down his face with his arm again.

Akechi’s grin seems brighter when Akira gives up stifling the deluge of gross leaking from his face and he does not want to even begin to analyze what that might mean.

“I need to get back to the cafe,” Akira admits when he can’t make a fist with his hand any longer. It was stupid to leave in the first place.

“Cafe?” Akechi turns the word over in his mouth as he seems to try and remember something. “Do you need help getting back? No offense, but you really don’t seem to be in the best health.”

Akira can feel his masculinity take a hit at what is essentially an offer to walk him home.

“I’m good,” He says with narrowed eyes, although Akechi probably can’t tell the difference since he’s been squinting all morning. He turns on a heel before Akechi can try to convince him otherwise and shuffles miserably back home.

Akira is decidedly very not good by the time he makes it back, and might even be incredibly very bad when he sees Sojiro standing by the entrance to the cafe, his arms crossed and his face possibly even more cross. If Akira was capable of feeling like anything other than death, the day might have gone very differently. He sees the firm line of Sojiro’s mouth move before his chest constricts and he’s unable to breathe between incessant bouts of coughing.

Out of all the opportunities for death to finally win him over, it would be because of a cold and his own idiocy.

Always leave a place cleaner than you found it, Akira – One of his mother’s golden rules before she broke them all herself and left him to pick up after her. He hopes someone removes his body from the alley before he ruins too many people’s day. He hopes he wakes up at home, Yusuke begging him for help carrying paints and camera equipment or Futaba setting off his alarm in the dead of night because she wants a second opinion on a new character build.

He hopes –

 


  

He hates it when people say everything works out, everything will be okay in the end, that people shouldn’t worry because everyone finds someone. He wishes he could shake them until they understand that no, people die absolutely alone everyday and no one ever cares.

 

 

He doesn’t know what to do.

 

He hopes that everything will be okay in the end.