There’s quiet moments, too, hidden in the nights in-between searching for their enigmatic mastermind. Sector City is still a city, after all, even with all the robotic security that seems intent in impeding their progress, and the fires that break out after the attacks. Shotaro has money to get them a hotel room for the next few weeks - though not after some sort of joke at Eiji about it, with Eiji laughing but looking sheepish - and it becomes their sort-of base of operations. There’s still only two beds, though, even if they are quite large, and despite Aruto attempting to say it’s fine, his status as the “newbie” has landed him one of the beds without any objection. Shotaro and Eiji technically share the other one, though Eiji seems to fall asleep on the large, comfy chair more often than not at this point.
Aruto can’t sleep. He wants to, really - it was a long day today. They’ve all been long days, most of the time spent transformed, and the constant battling puts strain on all their bodies. But he can’t sleep, and he doesn’t know why, and he’s been staring at the ceiling for an hour now, and it’s getting really old. So he switches to scrolling through his phone instead. There’s some emails, mainly from everyone back home - a few messages from Fukuzoe informing him on how the company’s doing, one from Yaiba with like, three emergency numbers to call if things go south, and one from Fuwa with an extremely short message to take care of himself. Even if it’s not exactly worded like that, he assumes that’s the message. There’s also a few emails from Gai, but Aruto already knows what they are. And while Aruto respects the fact that he’s at least trying to make up for what he did, countless pictures of his robot dog collection in various small hats are not helping, and they go into the spam folder by default at this point.
There’s a message from new Izu, too - and while it’s a bit strange that he’s referring to her as “new Izu”, it feels wrong to not differentiate them. It’s just a small status report, mostly just saying that she’s functioning normally, and a screencap taken of her looking at the tamagotchi Aruto had bought her. At least she’s having fun.
Aruto just scrolls through his emails for a while, looking at older ones, before looking through his pictures. He knows that, objectively, it’s really not a good way to cope, looking at pictures of you and your friends before everything went to shit. But he’s lonely - or homesick - or something , and the pictures of Hiden Manufacturing are nice to look at.
“You’re going to be really fatigued if you don’t sleep, you know,” comes the voice, and Aruto almost slams his head against the headboard with how much he jolts. Eiji’s moved from where he was sleeping on the chair to sitting on the edge of Aruto’s bed, and it’s two am, and Aruto was certain he wasn’t that loud.
As if to check, he looks at Shotaro, but - nope. He’s still fast asleep, even snoring a little, and Aruto lets out a sigh of relief. If he woke everyone up, he’s pretty sure Shotaro would have some words for him.
“Sorry, Eiji-san,” he says instead, looking back at his phone. “Didn’t mean to wake you up. Just...can’t sleep.” Eiji just nods, moving to sit next to Aruto instead.
“I know what that’s like,” Eiji says quietly, and he gives Aruto one of the comforting sort of smiles that Aruto’s been getting a lot lately from him. It’s weird , because Aruto doesn’t need to be reassured? He knows what he’s doing, but Eiji and Shotaro are so careful around him, have been ever since he admitted that he really hasn’t met many other riders before. Shotaro insists on calling him “newbie” and “kiddo” even though he’s really not that young, and Eiji…
Aruto really can’t figure out Eiji. He’s strong, definitely, experienced just like Shotaro is, with a multitude of forms that he switches through quicker than Aruto can grasp what their strategy is (even if Shotaro insists he can do that too, he just needs his “partner” for that), and he has a sort of idealism Aruto finds comfortingly familiar. But there’s other things, too, like he sometimes forgets he’s the one that uses his powers, like he’s listening for someone else, and Shotaro has to call to get his attention. Eiji’s bright, and always talks about helping people, and he’s the first of them to move if someone needs help, but there’s times where it’s almost like he has to remind himself to rest once one of them decides it's time to stop for the night.
There’s the comforting smiles, too, because Aruto can tell that they’re genuine - either that, or Eiji is really good at fake ones. But there’s something to them too, something forlorn that makes Aruto feel like Shotaro and Eiji are so careful around him because of something he just doesn’t know .
“You’ve got a lot of people looking out for you, huh?” Eiji speaks up in a soft voice, and Aruto quickly turns his phone off. Was he looking at Aruto’s pictures?
“Somehow,” he quips with a short laugh, like usual, but that earns him one of those Looks, the ones Eiji and Shotaro do when Aruto says something they don’t like. And he doesn’t know if it’s just that he’s younger or less experienced or what, but there’s that empathetic look in their eyes, and he doesn’t understand why. It’s really not like he’s saying anything wrong , right?
It’s starting to feel like they pity him, and he’d almost be okay with it if he knew why. Not that he needs it - even if his war isn’t over yet, with Azu out there, he survived that year and he’s fine, so he deserves to be here. He’s just like the two of them, even if he’s struggling to catch up a little. He’s not a kid.
Still, there’s a tension Aruto’s pretty sure he created. Shotaro and Eiji work well together, like they’ve always been fighting together, even though Eiji mentions they haven’t had to fight anything in a while. Aruto’s the one trying to understand what’s going on, what “Foundation X” is and why the other two seem to despise it so much, what’s with Shotaro’s insistence on finding the Cyclone memory, and why Eiji carries around a useless, cracked red medal, but they’re the ones pushing Aruto to explain everything.
He’s mostly managed to fend them off with small, non-answers, just saying that his fighting stopped in August, that his friends couldn’t make it (though that one was a rushed answer, a harmless question of “do you have allies who can help?” leading to him remembering crushed metal in his hand on the way to Daybreak, and Aruto’s pretty sure they’ll see through it eventually), that his job isn’t exactly done but disarmed for now, and no, nothing’s gonna end the world. Shotaro and Eiji both seemed relieved at that last one, which makes Aruto think that world-ending problems are much more common than he thought, and he’s almost grateful that Azu was just focused on toying with humans and starting wars.
And then he takes it back, because even thinking of Azu is kind of stressing him out, and Eiji’s giving him yet another one of those concerned Looks. He’s so quiet , it’s almost unnerving, even though Aruto’s pretty sure that he’s trying to be reassuring or something. Aruto doesn’t like the silence - figured that out when he was on his own with the certain-Humagear he does not want to think about - but Eiji seems like he doesn’t want to say anything more, so Aruto guesses it’s his turn.
“Why are you guys so careful around me?” he says instead, the question blurting itself out before he can even decide whether it’s a good idea to say it or not. That’s not unusual for him, really, but it’s inconvenient. Eiji looks surprised, before smiling, looking back up at the ceiling.
“I guess I’m not the best at being subtle about it,” Eiji replies, and Aruto laughs a little before he realizes he was probably trying . It’s not like Aruto’s subtle either, honestly - but there’s a difference between being subtle and hiding something , and Aruto’s gotten quite a bit better at the latter.
“It’s always the worst right after.” For a second, Aruto’s not entirely certain what they’re talking about, with how quiet Eiji is - the smile’s gone, and he’s not looking anywhere in particular for a moment. He catches Aruto’s eyes again, and there’s another one of his smiles, but it’s got that pity to it again, the pity everyone had around him for the first days after the end of it all, and Aruto can’t stop himself from looking away. Still, Eiji continues. “It’s hard. To keep going, sometimes. And everyone reacts in a different way, so we were just trying to look out for you. Though Shotaro-san isn’t very good at giving people space, I think.”
“...nothing’s wrong with me, though.” Aruto mumbles. “I’m fine, really.”
Eiji smiles at that, laying back on the pillow.
“Do you want to know what I did? When it was all over?” Aruto looks at Eiji in surprise, and Eiji’s smile is different - not careful at him, but more...nostalgic? It’s hard to tell what’s in his eyes, and Aruto can’t read him at all. “I traveled a lot. I still do. I left everyone, and I left the town I had spent all that time in, and I just had to leave. I don’t go back much - I meet everyone in other places, or we talk over the phone. And I’ve always liked traveling, so maybe I was always going to leave. But it wasn’t even a week until I knew I just couldn’t stay.”
“You ran away.” Another shining example of Aruto’s mouth working faster than his head, honestly. Somehow, though, Eiji doesn’t seem mad, just giving a small hum.
“I guess. There were a lot of things I wanted to do. Help people, and help someone important to me, and I couldn’t do that by staying. But I don’t think you’re wrong. Part of it was definitely running.” He didn’t notice before, but Eiji’s hand is in his pocket, holding onto something tight. “But part of it was hope, too. Hope, denial, or maybe just sheer determination. Something like that.”
There’s more Aruto wants to ask - the story’s too vague, like it always is when Eiji tells him anything, compared to Shotaro who will go off on long tangents almost like narration. Still, Aruto doesn’t really have the courage to ask for details at the moment, and Eiji seems to have another idea.
“Why did you come to Sector City, Aruto?”
The question catches Aruto off guard - he doesn’t want to answer, not really, not when it feels like he’s being analyzed and prodded just because he’s still raw .
“There was news about the accident. I wanted to help.” His reply is short and stilted, and it’s so obvious to tell that it’s a particularly bad attempt at hiding once more, but Eiji doesn’t say anything. He just nods, and falls silent again.
“Riders help each other out, you know.” Eiji says it as calmly as ever, but the words feel bitter as soon as Aruto takes them in - maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be, ideally. Maybe the concept of Riders are good, and don’t just end in them all fighting each other, pushed against each other again and again.
“But,” and Aruto fidgets, “you don’t need to open up right now, Aruto.”
There’s an unspoken level of trust there, one that Aruto really isn’t too comfortable with - they’ve barely known each other for a few days, and most of that time’s been spent fighting. Is it just because he’s the new one, or are Eiji and Shotaro really like that?
They trust him. And, Aruto realizes, a bit too slowly, he might trust them, too.
“...does it get better?” he asks instead. “The whole...running away thing. Not trusting people. Y’know, from...what you’ve heard.”
Again, he’s said a little too much, but if Eiji noticed it, he doesn’t say anything. Maybe that’s also part of it, keeping quiet.
“Yeah. It takes time, but it’ll be okay. People want to help each other, so...I know it’s hard to accept, but people are good.”
He knows that , mostly. There’s just also that certain-Humagear who he doesn’t want to think about who really wants to try and twist his thoughts otherwise. And she isn’t even here .
“Okay,” Aruto says instead, just trying to take in the words and not fight them off. “Okay. Um...one more thing.”
“If...you lose someone important to you...does that get better, too?”
It’s a guess, really, with the way Eiji talks and the medal he carries around, and how him and Shotaro keep being sidetracked by the piles of coins Aruto doesn’t recognize - but Eiji’s eyes soften, and he assumes he got it.
“It takes longer. It takes a lot longer, but...I think it does.”
There’s not much else they talk about after that, but Aruto pulls up a picture of Izu - the first Izu, the day they had a competition with Gut-busting Taro, and there’s Fuwa and him and Izu, and despite Fuwa’s face that looks like he’s attempting to look the grumpiest a human possibly can, it’s a nice picture. Izu looks the same as she always did.
He shows it to Eiji. Eiji agrees.
It’s a nice picture.