Akira thought that the worst pain had already passed: waking up a year in the past, Ryuji looking at him like a stranger, getting killed, waking up in the past again , trying to tell Ryuji everything to jog his memory, Ryuji backing away from him before running off--
Ryuji’s disappearance. Knowing what happened, knowing where Ryuji had ended up all by himself, knowing he hadn’t been there to protect him….
His dagger hadn’t been quick nor painless, but honestly, he deserved to suffer just as much as Ryuji had no doubt suffered all by himself by Shadow Kamoshida’s hand.
And now, here he was, watching as Ryuji approached yet again--as Ryuji looked at him like a stranger yet again--and all Akira could do was force himself to play along even as he felt his heart constricting in his chest.
He was careful, this time, to try and follow the first year as best as he could remember, out of fear of doing something or saying something that would accidentally get Ryuji (or any of his friends) killed. Yet even still, there were differences here and there that Akira supposed were unavoidable.
The biggest of which was Ryuji.
He was still Akira’s best friend, thankfully, but it felt like there was a wall between them that had never been there--and it was with a mixture of guilt and dread that Akira realized that he himself had been the one to put it there from the very beginning.
How could he possibly let his guard down with Ryuji like he used to when the memory of Ryuji looking at him like he was crazy and running away was still so fresh in his mind? What if he drove Ryuji away again by saying too much, or even just being too familiar with him?
So even if it hurt, he knew it was for the best to keep Ryuji--and all of his friends--at arm’s length. Maybe once this horrible year was finally over for good, then he would tell them everything, and maybe he would even work up the nerve to confess his feelings to Ryuji once more.
He just had to survive the next few months. Sure, they would be the hardest, most dangerous, most physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing months of his entire life, but… hey, if he did it once, then he could do it again--and this time, he could even fix some of the mistakes he’d made the first time around! Everything would be even better than it was before, and all of Akira’s struggling and inner turmoil would be worth it in the end when he could finally--
“Hey, so, uh… I think-- I think I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna ask Ann out.”
In an instant, Akira felt his entire world shatter.
By some miracle, he managed to keep his expression neutral as he watched Ryuji nervously fidgeting, clearly looking to his best friend for support as he continued rambling in the wake of Akira’s silence.
“I know, I know, she’s way out of my league, and I’d be lucky if she even takes me seriously, but like-- I don’t think I’ve ever clicked with anyone faster, y’know?”
Like a knife, Ryuji’s words pierced straight through his heart--
“And I know we argue a lot, but sometimes… I dunno, I catch her looking at me, and… ugh, I’m gonna feel like such an ass if I’m wrong about this.”
“But I just-- I just feel like she’s the one , y’know?”
“I can’t picture myself with anyone but her.”
--until there was nothing left inside his chest but broken shards of what had once been, and what Akira was beginning to realize would never be.
He’d deluded himself into thinking that everything would work out just fine if he could make it through this year, that all he would need to do was tell Ryuji he loved him and they would somehow magically regain what they’d lost--but that was never true, nor would it ever be.
His Ryuji was gone, and this Ryuji would never be his.
No matter how close they got, no matter how badly Akira wanted to reach out--to close the small distance between them, mere inches that may as well have been miles--he knew that he could never be with Ryuji the way he wanted to be. Honestly, part of him had known that from the beginning, from the very moment Ryuji looked at him without a single trace of warmth or recognition.
Akira forced a smile, just barely passable enough to not raise any concerns. “I’m sure you two will be great together.”
He wished he could say that knowing Ryuji wasn’t interested in him beyond friendship would make it easier for him to let go of his feelings and move on--yet as he saw Ryuji’s bright, hopeful grin and flushed face, he knew it was a lost cause.
It was impossible for him to not be hopelessly in love with his best friend. Even now--when he wanted nothing more than to find somewhere to hide so he could scream and cry and curse the world for taking away what was once his--his fractured heart still swelled simply from the sight of Ryuji’s sweet smile being directed at him.
So he continued to stay by Ryuji’s side, continued to support Ryuji and encourage him as his relationship with Ann grew serious, all while pathetically clinging to whatever scraps of affection Ryuji threw his way as his time with Akira was gradually traded with spending time with his girlfriend.
Which was normal, Akira tried to remind himself. They had limited free time as it was, and it was completely normal for Ryuji to turn down his requests to hang out because he already had plans to go out with Ann.
He’d done the same thing with his friends back when he was dating Ryuji, after all. He couldn’t fault Ryuji for wanting private time with someone that he had feelings for.
Even if that someone wasn’t him anymore.
(Even if that someone had never been him to begin with--not in this timeline, at least.)
By the time the next timeline began, Akira had perfected his fake smile, and he justified stepping away from Ryuji’s friendly pat on the shoulder by explaining that he wasn’t comfortable with people touching him, which Ryuji--being the kindhearted person he was--completely respected as he kept his hands to himself.
Things would be easier this way. The further he pushed Ryuji away, the less it would hurt when he had to watch Ryuji fall in love with someone else over and over again.
After all, Ryuji was no longer his, and would never be.
All he could do was watch over him by his side, so close yet so far away.