The party ball still hung from the ceiling, along with the banner reading "Welcome home, Akira!" The Kurusus just didn't have the heart to take them down. They'd been sitting in the darkness for two hours waiting for their son before deciding to call it a night. So they sent all their guests home and just decided his return party would be a smaller, more intimate affair.
It had been a rough year for Jiro and Manami. Sending their son Akira away to Tokyo had been the hardest decision they'd ever had to make. Of course they didn't believe their son had actually attacked a man, but what could a couple of small town folks like them do against the court system? The trial was clearly rigged. They knew what the people around town said, not-so-quiet whispers about the failures of parents sending their delinquent son away in shame, but that couldn't be further from the truth. With this year-long probation, home had nothing to offer Akira. He couldn't go to his school anymore, he couldn't get a job anywhere in town, and all of his friends' parents were telling them to stay away from him, so he'd have no social life. It was no way for a boy to live. He needed a life, a fresh start, to go somewhere that he could do something without living in constant judgment. And so when they learned that Shujin Academy would actually take him in, sending him away seemed like the only humane thing to do.
For the longest time, they thought their son hated them. They had poor phone service so that meant no calls, and he hadn't responded to any of the letters they sent him while he was away in Tokyo. As it turned out, the man who had falsely accused their son of assault, Masayoshi Shido, the almost-prime-minister of Japan, had some flunky in the post office who was making sure those letters were lost. Some petty order he'd given while the crooked trial was still fresh in his mind before he moved on to bigger and better schemes. They thought he wasn't writing back out of spite, but now they knew the truth: He wasn't getting their messages. Still, they didn't want to imagine of what kind of pain he must've felt thinking his parents didn't even care enough to write.
But now, Shido was known for the monster that he was. He was in jail, and not only had Akira fully lived out his probation, but he was even cleared of all misdoings thanks to the corrupt politician's change of heart and testimony. Their boy was finally coming home, and he'd be able to go to school again and spend time with all his old friends and be surrounded by love. Except, he was three days late now. Where could he be? Why was he so late?
Jiro and Manami were sitting in the kitchen, silent and gloomy. They were both trying to read the newspaper, but neither of them were actually paying attention to the text. Their thoughts were on their missing son, and those thoughts were growing darker. The air was filled with sadness and worry. They were taken out of their funk by the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside the front door. Jiro and Manami looked at each other. Was he finally here?
The door opened. There were footsteps.
"Mother? Father? Are you home?”
They leapt up from the kitchen table and ran to the front door. There he was, with the same messy black hair he had the last time they saw him, their son. Akira had finally come home. Manami threw her arms around her boy, tears of joy streaming down her face. She was so overcome with happiness she couldn't even form a coherent sentence.
"I missed you too, Mother", Akira said, returning the hug. Jiro managed to maneuver around his wife and snake his arm over his son's shoulder.
"It's good to see ya, boy! I see city living hasn't changed ya a bi-" Wait, no. That wasn't right. Jiro stared into Akira's eyes. Didn't he used to need to look down a bit to do that? His neck was completely straight at the moment. He squeezed his son's arm a bit too. There was some added muscle now. He stepped back to take a look at his son in full.
"Well, I'll be. My boy's become a man.”
Manami finally composed herself and let go. She stepped back, smiling. And suddenly, her face turned to anger. She hit her son on the arm.
"Ow!" In the past year, Akira had been burned, electrocuted, clawed at, and been barraged by godly energy in the Cognitive World. And yet, this soreness was more painful than any of it, somehow. "What was that for!?”
"Manami, what're ya doin'!?" her equally-confused husband yelled.
"Where have you been!?" screamed Akira's mother. "We've been worried sick about you! You were supposed to be back three days ago! We thought you might have been in some kind of accident, or worse!”
"I'm sorry, Mother", Akira said, still rubbing his arm. "We made a few detours along the way.”
"'We'?" his parents asked in unison. Akira nodded.
"There's some people I'd like you to meet." He looked behind him through the still-open door. "Come on in, everybody!”
Akira stepped out of the doorway, and a small parade of people began making their way into the house. First was a boy with blonde-dyed hair, like one of those delinquents on those TV shows.
"Aw dude, this is your house? Bet it feels weird bein' back here after livin' in a coffee shop for a year!”
Having this kind of person in their home would've concerned the Kurusus, were it not for the wildly different person who followed him in; Another blonde-haired person, but this one was a girl, and it was natural. She looked a little American, like the kind of beauty queen most boys who grew up in town could only ever dream of meeting.
"Yeah, this place is great", the girl said. "I bet you missed being able to actually see the sky without a bunch of buildings blocking everything. Ooh! Can you see the stars at night here!?”
"I should hope so", said the next person, a tall dark-haired boy with a strange way about him. "I'd like to capture it on canvas while I'm here.”
The next person to enter was a very serious, respectable looking young lady with short brown hair. She was also the first to actually take the time to introduce herself, bowing before the Kurusus.
"Hello there, my name is Makoto Nijima. It's a pleasure to meet you." She raised her head. "I'm Akira's- Well... Your son and I- That is to say-“
"She's Akira's girlfriend" said the next entrant, another young lady in fine clothes with fluffy hair holding a black and white cat. "And this is Akira's kitty, Morgana! We also call him ‘Mona-Chan'!"
There was one more person standing outside, hiding behind the door frame. A short girl with long orange hair, glasses, and earphones on.
"Come on in, Futaba", Akira said. "You don't have to be scared of my parents. They're just as nice as Sojiro.”
"O-okay then", the girl said. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her quickly, accidentally slamming it.
Within a few minutes the Kurusu house had gone from being full of silence and worry to noise and laughter. Akira had certainly brought back an eclectic mix of young people with him, and while it was a bit overwhelming, at least now they knew that their son hadn't been alone for an entire year. Manami had question after question for all of them, especially Makoto, since she was Akira's first girlfriend. Makoto would blush at some of the questions asked and Akira would laugh, and then Akira's mother would say something embarrassing and Makoto would start laughing at Akira's blushing. Meanwhile, Jiro really hit it off with Ryuji, having done some running himself in his youth.
"That's a cryin' shame about your leg, young man. Still, you seem to be in pretty good shape. Bet if you got back into it, you could even make a play for the Olympics!”
"Screw that", Ryuji responded. "The only Olympic-winner I ever knew was a total bastard. Until we became the Phantom Thieves and changed his heart, of course!”
The room went quiet. Of course, when Akira had been sent to juvenile hall, his parents were informed about his involvement in the infamous Phantom Thieves of Hearts group. Even in their small town, they still followed current events, and knew about the whole story. But they had pushed it to the back of their minds. This wasn't something they wanted to talk to their son about on his first day home, there was supposed to be plenty of time for that later. And Jiro certainly didn't want to ruin the evening by lingering on it.
"So... Futaba 'Sakura', right?" Jiro asked, breaking the silence. "Any relation to the Sakura-San that Akira stayed with?”
"He's my dad", the girl answered plainly. "Adopted, but that's still a real dad.”
The party continued from there. They all kept chatting and ate the cake that had been in the fridge for three days. Eventually, all of Akira's friends left for the evening, except the cat, saying they'd found an nearby motel to stay at. Finally, the Kurusu family was all back together, alone.
Akira and has parents sat around the living room. The cat sat in Manami's lap, and she began to stroke him. He purred happily.
"So", Akira began, "we have some things to talk about.”
"What, that Phantom Thief stuff?" Jiro scratched his head. "We don't gotta talk about that right away.”
"Well, that too. But actually-“
"Of course you can keep Morgana", Manami interjected, still petting the creature. "How could we turn away something so adorable?" Morgana let out a long series of mews that seemed like he was very pleased with himself for some reason. Akira rolled his eyes, as if he understood what the cat was saying and it was very smug.
"I'm glad to hear it, but actually, I don't want Morgana to stay.”
"Oh, I see", Jiro said. "You're gonna give him to that Haru girl. She seems really fond of him. And I bet a rich girl like that could give him all the pamperin' he ever needs.”
"No, I want him to stay with- This is hard." Akira sighed, habitually moving his hand up to his face to adjust his fake glasses, only to suddenly remember they weren't there anymore. "Mother, Father, I love you. And I've missed you so much, and I'm so happy to see you again. But... I want to stay in Tokyo.”
"WHAT!?" Manami jumped to her feet, forgetting all about the cat sitting in her lap. Morgana was unprepared for her outburst and just barely managed to land on his feet, scurrying over to Akira. "What are you talking about!?”
"Mother, please, calm down." Akira looked away from his enraged mother to his father, still sitting in his chair. His father's face was a sad one. And yet, at the same time, he didn't seem particularly surprised. "This isn't a decision I'm making lightly. I thought about it all the way on the drive home.”
"Oh, I'm certain you did", Akira's mother yelled, her face turning red. "I'm sure you talked all about it getting up to who-knows-what in that van with your pretend-nice girlfriend and your cadre of delinquents and air-headed models and weirdo artists and-“
"Manami, stop", Jiro said sternly, still sitting in his chair. He managed to maintain his composure, and it was a good thing too, because he could see his son's knuckles turning white as he clenched the armrests of his chair harder and harder, clearly about to explode. "You've got every right t’be upset, but don't start bad-mouthin' those kids! We just sat down with 'em for the whole evenin', and they're all upstandin' youngsters!" This seemed to calm both his wife and son, as Manami sat back down and Akira released his death-grip on the chair.
"I'm sorry," Manami said, the red hue fading from her cheeks. Her eyes were beginning to water. "I just don't understand. You only just got home, and you want to leave again? Did we do something wrong!?”
"Mother, please don't think that. It has nothing to do with you.”
"Then what is it? Why would you possibly want to leave if you're not just trying to get away from us!?”
"Well, the thing is-“
"It's this town", Jiro interrupted, “ain't it?" Akira nodded. "Yeah... I had a feelin' this'd happen."
"I can't stay here", Akira said. "It would just be too much to bear. The way these people treated me after the lawsuit-“
"But they know better now", Manami said. "Everyone knows that you were set-up by that no-good Shido!”
"That doesn't make it okay!" Now Akira was yelling. He was trying to keep it together, but clearly this had been building up for a while. "Everyone was so quick to believe the worst of me! My teachers, my so-called 'friends', everybody! Even with my record cleared, they can't take that all back! I can't just go back to that school and pretend like nothing ever happened!”
"So what, you're just going to run away?" Manami was getting worked up again, and this time Jiro didn't think he could stop her. "Go back to Tokyo where you have no family and just hope everything works out!?”
"I have family there", Akira said. He was making an active effort to calm himself down, not wanting tensions to keep escalating between himself and his mother. “Sakura-Sa- Sojiro. We became really close while I was staying with him. He's like a second father to me. He even said that I could stay with him if I came back. And Futaba's like the sister I never had. And there's Makoto, and all my friends. After everything we went through together... They're the most meaningful relationships I've ever had in my life." Morgana jumped up on Akira's lap and meowed indignantly. "Yes, Morgana, I'm including you in there too.”
"I- But-" Manami was flustered. She took a deep breath and continued. "That's... nice, Akira. I'm so glad you have all those people who care about you. But what about school? You've already pulled out of Shujin, it's not like you can just go back.”
"Actually," Akira said, a proud smile on his face, "I was the top of my class! I-“
"That's wonderful!" Manami's mood had suddenly changed again. She was filled with the kind of glee only a mother could have. "The top of the class at a prestigious school in Tokyo, I can't believe it! Jiro, can you believe it!?”
"That's m’boy!” Jiro’s smile was prouder than his son's. "I always knew he was a genius! He gets that from my side of the family, after all!”
"From your side?" Manami huffed. “Have you heard yourself speak?”
"I didn't say me," Jiro replied. "Just, y'know, my side.”
"Anyway," Akira continued, "In light of that, plus the corruption in the school my activities as a Phantom Thief exposed, my teacher Ms. Kawakami says she can get me back into the school with no problems.”
"And is that really what you want?" Manami asked. "To just stay in Tokyo forever?”
“Honestly? Yes.” Akira went to adjust his phantom glasses again. That was a habit he was going to have trouble kicking. "I mean, I only have one year left of high school anyway. So then I'd be applying to colleges in Tokyo. And in the meantime I'd be going to my old school again and everything would be awkward and I'd hate it. And, sure, I'd have you two. I'd go fishing with Father, and help you around the house, Mother, and those would be the good moments, but everything else would just be... stagnant. Tainted by the waiting to go back to the city, to all the other people I've come to love, to the life it has to offer me that I just can't have here. I wouldn't be living, not really. Just counting down the days until I'm out of a bad situation." Akira looked down at Morgana. "And we've done enough of that already, haven't we?" Morgana nodded in agreement.
"So, what, you'd just go to school and then spend time with your friends the rest of the time?" Manami was in a fight now, and she was determined not to lose. "It sounds like you have the next year figured out, but do you have any idea what you'd do in the future?”
"I think I do, actually." Akira reached into his pocket and pulled out a fountain pen. He tossed it to his father, who caught it and took a close look at it. Jiro whistled.
"This is fancy! Where'd you get it, son?”
"From a mentor of mine. Toranosuke Yoshida." Akira smiled as he thought back to all those speeches. "He's an experienced politician, probably the last honest one in all of Japan. He taught me a lot about public speaking, and he's offered to teach me everything else he knows. He had some rough luck for a while, but lately, he's finally getting his time in the sun he deserves.”
"Ya wanna go into politics?" Jiro scratched his head with the pen. "After everythin' Shido did to you?”
"Because of everything Shido did to me", Akira said. "I may not be able to change peoples' hearts the way the Phantom Thieves did anymore, but I could still be a positive influence in the world. If this country's going to be better, the people running it need to be better.”
"That's an admirable goal, Akira". Manami looked at her son in a mix of sadness and pride. He had grown so much over the past year, but she still didn't want him to leave. "But it won't be easy. It could be years before you see success, if you see any at all. What would you do until then?”
"Well, I have lots of options. I made a lot of connections while I was in Tokyo". Akira started counting them on his fingers. "There's Makoto's older sister, who's a successful lawyer. There's Ohya-San, who's a respected journalist. There's Dr. Takemi, who's fighting to cure fatal diseases and winning. Plus I'm sure Sojiro would let me work at LeBlanc, or my friend Iwai would let me work in his... hobby shop. Oh, and there's Lala-Chan at Crossroads, I wound up working behind the bar there a couple of times. Once I’m old enough, I’m sure she’d teach me how to mix-“
Akira looked back up at his mother. She was glaring.
"Orrrrr... one of those other things I said." Akira put on a big grin. "But I really think I'd like to work with Old Man Tora. I just have a really good feeling about it, you know?”
"I- But we-" Manami turned to her husband. "Jiro, say something!”
"Sounds like a plan, boy.”
"What? He's right! We can provide him with a lovin' home, but we sent him to Tokyo for his probation because that's all we could provide him! He's got no future in this town! He belongs out in the world, doin' excitin' things with his friends and makin' somethin' of his life! It's like I said when he walked through the door..." Jiro tossed the pen back to Akira, winking at him. "He's a man now.”
Manami didn't say anything at first. She just got up and rushed over to her son, crying and giving him a big hug.
"We just got you back, and now we're losing you again!”
"Mother, please," Akira said, returning the hug, "I'm not leaving immediately.”
"You're not?” Manami wiped the tears away from her face, trying to calm down.
"No, I'm staying for a bit. School's on break, and I want you to get to know my friends better." Akira broke the hug and looked into his mother's eyes. "That way, you'll know I'm in good hands.”
And so, for the next week, the Kurusus got better acquainted with their son's friends. Jiro went fishing with Ryuji and Futaba a couple times, and Morgana accompanied them. Manami was particularly flattered when Yusuke asked her and Ann to be the subjects of her next painting, but was disturbed when he chose to portray them in cubist fashion like Picasso, though Ann seemed unsurprised. Jiro and Haru conspired to keep Manami distracted one night so Makoto and Akira could sneak off for some alone time. It worked for about an hour, until it didn't. When the two came home, they could only stand still as Manami shouted at them, Akira's face gone pale in fear, while Makoto's turned completely red in embarrassment.
At the end of the week, the kids had packed everything up back in their van and were ready to go back to Tokyo. It took a while for Akira to get his mother to stop hugging him, but he eventually managed to escape her amorous clutches. And as the van drove off, his parents took comfort knowing that this time everybody's letters would reach each other without some stooge making their lives harder for no good reason. And although, like last time, saying goodbye was sad, it was different. The last time the Kurusus watched their son leave for the city, there was fear. This time, there was hope. He was going to be okay. No, more than okay. He was going to be great.