No. This couldn’t be happening. He refused to believe this was happening. He stared with widened eyes at the situation in front of him, unable to move, unable to scream. He wanted to, but his body refused to allow him these privileges. He could only watch, a simple bystander. The explosion. That fucking explosion. Where had Ryuji gone? He was just there… amidst the flames, he expected to at least see a shadow, or some sort of indication. To see Ryuji’s yellow gloves still dangling from that handle. But he saw nothing indicating that he was there. Ann’s gutwrenching cry didn’t help at all. His hands trembled, it felt like someone had begun to squeeze his chest. He couldn’t breathe. A breath would turn into a hiccup, which he desperately tried to hide. He wanted to pull his mask back down over his face, hide himself. Hide how there were tears pricking his eyes.
It surely didn’t help when they were returned into the real world.
Because in the real world, he had no mask to cover his face with. He only had his hands. Sure. They were alive, but… where was Ryuji? Where the hell was he? He felt his shirt, noticing he was no longer in his Phantom Thief attire. No one was. They were back in reality, truly. With no Ryuji in sight. It was night. Maybe that was why. But he could see his comrades easily. And he would think that Ryuji would be the easiest to spot, with his blaring shirt and hair. But there was no Ryuji. He looked around, hoping there would be some sort of sign that he was alive.
“He… didn’t make it out…”
Haru’s words helped him none. His fists clenched. No, he was keeping his composure.
“We have to go back!”
Futaba… that couldn’t happen.
See? Morgana even said so. He couldn’t hold it. A humorless laugh left his lips, then he realised how out of place that was.
“… this isn’t funny at all.”
If one were to be closely paying attention to his voice, they would be able to hear how there was the slightest of trembles. Goro was enough. Ryuji, he could not accept. That was the last straw for him, this couldn’t be real. He dug his nails into his palms, hoping the pain would wake him up from whatever hellish nightmare he was living.
Before anyone could stop him, he ran. He heard Futaba calling after him, but he didn’t stop. He had to look for Ryuji. He had to. There was no other option. He couldn’t be dead, no, he couldn’t be dead. He didn’t care that he was tired, he didn’t care that he felt as though the life had been sapped out of him. He was going to make sure this wasn’t the case for Ryuji. He had to be around here somewhere. Somewhere. Maybe he got launched out! He would even accept him being knocked out, but, oh god, don’t let him be dead, please don’t let him be dead. His own pulse was louder than his footsteps. He would stop occasionally, looking around for a sign. Each time, there was none. There was-
He almost tripped. He caught himself, arms flailing out at his sides. He looked down, hoping to see what he had tripped-
He did fall. He sunk to his knees. Ryuji? He was just… laying there. He could see no rising of his chest, nothing indicating he was breathing. His hands shook. He unclenched his fists, shakily placing his palms on Ryuji’s chest.
A flutter of the eyelids. His own eyes would light up. That was good! He was alive! He gently shook him, hoping to wake him up more.
“Ryuji! Ryuji, say something!”
Chestnut orbs trailed to him slowly, half hidden by his eyelids. Ryuji squinted at him, as if he was trying to make sure this was him.
He almost started to laugh, feeling tears prick his eyes again. He was alive! That was good, good! Really good!-
“… sorry, man.”
“What? There is nothing to be sorry about!”
Ryuji’s laugh hurt him. Why was it so devoid of life? So devoid of anything that resembled what Ryuji embodied? His own smile slipped away, replaced by a frown of confusion. Ryuji continued to look up at him, giving him a sad smile. He hadn’t even noticed how the blond’s hand was squeezing onto his. He was too focused on making sure Ryuji kept his eyes open.
“I… are they fine?”
“Yes. They are. It’s all because of you, you-”
“Hah… that’s- that’s good.”
Why did he sound so lifeless? Was he just tired? Ryuji tightened his grip on his hand, nearly causing pain. But he didn’t care. His other hand squeezed right back, holding onto Ryuji’s hand like it was the only thing that was there. Ryuji looked away for a few seconds, then back at him. This time, he could see how there was a slight indication of tears- Why was he tearing up? What was going on?
“Sorry. I’m- I’m just… tired. Y’ don’t mind if I- if I- if I just nap, yeah?”
While there was a slight red flag, he ignored it, brushing it off as Ryuji was just tired, he must’ve been after something like that. He shook his head.
“Of course not.” Why would he ever mind that? People needed rest, he knew that. So this was no issue. Why would Ryuji ask such a question, anyway? It wasn’t like him. That was what was beginning to worry him. Again, that lifeless laugh.
“... thanks, Yusuke.”
“... you were always- always a good friend.”
Were? What was that past tense? Ryuji gave his hand another squeeze. And then it loosened, suddenly. The only reason his hand hadn’t fallen to the ground was because he was holding onto it. He slowly let Ryuji’s hand down. He noticed, again, there was no indication Ryuji was breathing. Nothing. Out of concern, he gently shook Ryuji again. This time, there was no flutter of the eyelids. A bit rougher. Nothing. No reaction. No twitch of a muscle, nothing. His panic began to come back, punching him in the chest.
“Ryuji…? Ryuji, wait, wake up.”
No response. That sick feeling returned. No… had he just… died? No, that couldn’t be right. He shook Ryuji again, still nothing.
No amount of shaking seemed to wake Ryuji up. He sat still, staring down at the blond. He didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye. Not the first time in the Metaverse, and not this time. Twice, he missed the chance. He almost crushed Ryuji’s hand with his, trying his best to keep his composure. Trying to not start damning Shido to hell. His eyes burned.
“Hey, don’t go running…”
Morgana’s voice didn’t make him look back. He just kept looking at Ryuji, still squeezing his hand, as if the pressure would be enough to get him to stir. Morgana padded up, ears drooping slowly as the realisation hit. He heard the rest of the Phantom Thieves catch up. And he definitely heard Ann’s ear-piercing wail. He didn’t even move. He was too focused on Ryuji to turn back. He had to wait, maybe. Wait for Ryuji to wake back up, yes, that was what he had to do. If he looked back, he would see how Futaba would crouch down and lay her head on her knees. He’d see Haru clinging onto Makoto, Makoto herself managing to keep up a calm composure. He’d see Akira simply frozen in time. Oh, Akira. Ryuji had been his best friend, no? This had to be hitting him hard. Harder than any of the other thieves.
What was that? It felt wet. Had it begun to rain? He held a hand out. No, it hadn’t begun to rain. Then why was there a drop on his face? Oh, there was another. On the other side… no, he couldn’t be crying, right? He reached up, brushing over one of the tracks. Then there was another. Fuck… how did he stop them? A deep breath converted into a loud gasp. He curled in on himself, having released Ryuji’s hand. His own hands covered his face, trying to stop the tears with the sheer force of his fingertips. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be real. He refused to believe it.
The hand on the back of one of his shoulders shattered him. He curled up more. He hadn’t said goodbye. He was too blind to see that Ryuji was in his last moments. He was too hopeful to see. Pathetic, stupid. Stupid. His hands moved from his face to the sides of his arms, nails digging in through his shirt and raking across his skin. He hadn’t said goodbye. That kept stabbing him in the gut. He hadn’t said goodbye, his last words had been “of course”, not “goodbye, I love you”. The burning in his eyes became worse.