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Akira made a promise to himself when he escaped from that courtroom:

Keep your head down.

So much for that. He flips his phone over and over in his hands, ignoring the DVD he put in, ignoring Morgana’s stare. He knows he has a problem, or a complex, or something. He’s known it since elementary school, when he came home with busted lips and bruised knees, unable to turn away from bullies. He never achieved much except getting in the way, scrawny as he was, but he never stopped, either.

Dad said: Stop being stupid.

Mom said: Don’t call your son stupid. Akira, stop being foolish. This is real life. You’re just making yourself a target.

Well, he went and proved them right.

His hands go still, his phone face up. His friends beam up at him from the lock screen, Makoto with her arms around Futaba and Haru, Ryuji and Ann and Yusuke jostling for space behind them. It’s a terrible picture, the best out of ten. Smiles and elbows and wounded dignity fill the phone screen from corner to corner--is there even room for one more?

Akira unlocks the phone and opens starts a new group text.

 

 

Akira: let’s move plan A to plan B

Ryuji: ??

Ann: this had better not be about what I think it’s about

Akira: No, it’s definitely about that.

Makoto: Now really isn’t the time to be doubting the measures we’ve already put in place. Particularly since this operation is so delicate.

Akira: I’m not doubting, per se.

Ryuji: that sounds like doubt to me

Haru: It’s okay if you’re scared. I would be.

Yusuke: I’m not even the one putting myself in danger, and I’m terrified. You must summon the courage of a hundred lions!

Akira: that’s not the issue

 

Morgana leaps off his chair and claws his way up to read over Akira’s shoulder. He makes a displeased little cat noise.

“It’s a great plan!”

“Sure,” Akira mutters, trying to focus on typing.

 

 

Akira: I’d like to try one thing, and if it doesn’t work, I won’t mention it again

Akira: but I think it’s important to try

Makoto: That’s fair. What is it?

Akira: Can everyone come over?

Ann: Is tomorrow good?

Akira: I was thinking now, actually

Ryuji: NOW?

Akira: please

Ryuji: uuuuggggggggghhhhhhh dude you’re lucky my mom’s working the night shift this month

Akira: will it be a problem for anyone else?

Makoto: No. Sis still hasn’t been home. So I suppose that’s two night shifts in our favor.

Ann: My parents are in Spain, so like. I could be at a bar right now, whatever. Coffee shop’s probably better!

Makoto: I hope you’re NOT at a bar

Ann: god no, then I couldn’t be wearing these sweat pants

Haru: My schedule is my own, no worries on my end.

Yusuke: I’d be a sad phantom thief if I couldn’t get past one dorm monitor.

Futaba: why am I the only one who REALLY has to sneak out

Futaba: What if Sojiro catches me! He might figure out how to ground me!

Akira: Just tell him it’s Phantom Thief business

 

Morgana dumps himself over Akira’s shoulder right into his lap, covering the phone with twelve pounds of belligerence.

“What’ve you got up your sleeve?”

Akira runs a hand through his hair, wincing when he catches on his tangled curls. “I’ve just got a hunch.”

“About Akechi? He wants to kill you! What’s there left to have a hunch about?”

Akira shrugs. He knows he’s got a good shrug, expressive without being belligerent. It’s finely tuned to make his parents draw their own conclusions. Grade on that bio test? Shrug. Joined a club yet? Shrug. Met any nice girls? Shrug.

It doesn’t have the same effect on Morgana, who just squirms around and bites Akira’s wrist. Akira yelps and swoops Morgana up by his kitty armpits, phone clattering to the ground as the group text buzzes on and on.

“Friends don’t bite friends,” he tells Morgana, very solemnly.

“Friends don’t let friends get murdered!” Morgana snaps at Akira’s nose. “This had better be a good idea.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I’m willing to hear everyone out.”

Akira tucks Morgana under his arm and bends to pick up his phone. Ann is whining about having to put real pants on (why, asks Yusuke, who hopefully isn’t going to show up in his pajamas), but Ryuji’s on the train to Shibuya. Haru’s in a cab and on her way to pick up Makoto, and Futaba--

 

 

Futaba: SIGH, mission failure. ): I’m being escorted.

Futaba: womp womp

Futaba: What lame espionage

 

Akira puts down Morgana to pull on jeans; he likes the illusion of competence being dressed affords. No, no, our lives aren’t careening out of control: look, we all showered this morning. He heads downstairs with his glasses on, his hair combed, and almost feeling like he can sell his nonsense by time the bell on the door jangles.

Sojiro, looking distinctly unimpressed, is a good test run.

“You kids are lucky it’s Saturday. I know Yongen is a safe neighborhood, but Futaba shouldn’t be running around by herself at this time of night.”

Futaba rolls her eyes. “You let Akira run around whenever he wants.”

“If I hear any news of Akira out at one in the morning, I’ll have something to say about it.” Sojiro raises his eyebrows. “Which you aren’t, right?”

Shrug. “The others will be here soon.”

“So I gathered. Criminal activity or not, don’t make this a habit.” Sojiro heaves a sigh. “I’m going to heat up some leftovers. I’ve never met a teenager that wasn’t hungry.”

Futaba pumps her fist victoriously. Akira slides into his seat at the bar and enjoys the quiet before his friends all gang up on him and tell him he’s lost his damn mind. Morgana’s fur is soft and Futaba’s chatter cheerful, the aroma of curry wafts through the shop. It’s comfortable, the sort of serenity Akira lets himself imagine when he reads about other people’s families in other people’s books.

He concedes to himself that it’s not fair to think that way. He knows his parents aren’t terrible; he knows his parents are trying. They’ve never raised a hand to him, and they’re at least physically present. But sometimes he gets the feeling that aliens showed up at their doorstep one night sixteen years ago and dropped off a baby without explanation. They always seem so baffled by him, an attitude that Akira finds more irritating the deeper Sojiro’s quiet understanding grows.

When he feels like sulking about it, he tries to imagine complaining about his emotionally distant father to, say, Ryuji. It usually shuts his brain up.

Yusuke shows up just as the rice cooker goes off. He’s wearing a terrible hoodie and, of course, pajama pants, frayed at the edges, covered in butterflies on purpose and paint more incidentally. He’s wearing flip flops. His feet are also covered in paint.

“You caught me in a moment of creative passion,” he admits, then sniffs the air and perks up considerably. “Food?”

“You know it’s November, right?” Akira asks.

Yusuke wriggles his weird tall person toes. “I planned ahead, and luckily so. I passed an RA on my way down the hall, but appeared to be going to the restroom.”

“Oh my god, Inari,” Futaba says. “Put some socks in your pocket next time.”

“Hm,” says Yusuke, more interested in the plate of curry that Sojiro passes over to him. “My physical body is but an imperfect vessel, meaningless in the face of my art.”

Akira’s parents never taught him to say weird shit like that. He exchanges a look with Futaba, all eyebrows. Sojiro feeds them, then the others as they trickle in, Makoto and Haru, Ann upgraded to yoga pants, Ryuji grumping about the chill.

“I’m holding you responsible for this,” Sojiro tells Makoto.

“Yes, sir.” She was probably planning on it, anyway.

“And forget about going back home tonight. Ryuji and Yusuke can stay here, and I’m sure we can squeeze the three of you girls into Futaba’s room if we try. There’s a couch at the house, too.” Sojiro’s gaze takes in the assembly of plucky teenage ne’er-do-wells. “Where’s Akechi?”

“Uh,” says Ann, in chorus with Ryuji’s, “um…”

“He has work,” says Akira.

Sojiro doesn’t look convinced, but he leaves it be. “Right. Girls, do you want me to come walk you home when you’re done?”

Makoto clasps her hands in front of her and bows. “Thank you, but it’s quite all right. I’ve got a black belt.”

“Got it. Futaba, stay close to Makoto.”

Futaba makes a sound like the air being let out of a kiddy pool all the way through Sojiro’s departure.

Once food and dishes are dispensed with, the thieves rearrange themselves so that Akira is trapped in the corner of one booth. He’s got Ryuji next to him and Makoto staring him down across the way. He pulls out his cell and brings up the Meta-Nav app, then lays it on the table.

Akira takes a breath and says a little prayer, though he’s not sure to who or what. “Goro Akechi, Ace Detective.”

The Meta-Nav dings cheerfully.

What erupts is not quite pandemonium, but certainly a close cousin. Futaba claps her hands over her ears--over her headphones, over her ears--as everyone starts shouting all at once. Ryuji seems to be running through every swear word he knows. Only Haru is silent, one hand clasped over her mouth, her eyes wide.

Makoto’s voice rises above the din, strident and stern. “We’ve just gotten into my sister’s palace! You can’t mean--” she falters as the others go quiet and look to her. “You can’t mean for us to do both.”

Akira stares hard at the phone. “I do.”

“This shouldn’t be possible.” Morgana paws at the phone as if pushing it off the edge of the table will solve all his problems. “I feel like this shouldn’t be possible! He’s a persona user. A palace would mean his shadow is manifesting independently, but a shadow is a persona. I think. Right?”

He looks around the table for agreement, but everyone just stares back.

“You know more about it than we do,” Makoto says at length, and she leaves off ‘for some reason.’ “However, if it’s happening, it must be possible. But… where would we even start to find his keywords?”

Shrug.

Ann reaches out and prods the phone. “Police station.”

No.

If nothing else, sheer curiosity has everyone going around and around the table, throwing out anything they can think of. Ryuji is convinced it should be an IHOP.

Akira sits and thinks about Goro Akechi, who sits and drinks coffee at Leblanc’s bar for hours. Who doesn’t seem to have anywhere else to be, anywhere else to go. Who is definitely planning on murdering Akira, though the details are a bit hazy. A forgivable offense? Maybe, maybe not. Akira’s hoping they won’t actually have to find out.

Akechi’s their age. Akechi’s in high school. Akira’s never sure what the hell is wrong with the police, in general, but he certainly wants to know what the hell is wrong with the police, specifically, letting a teenager work criminal cases. He still has no idea how that started. When did someone first allow Akechi to wander onto the scene of a homicide like it was no big deal?

He just wants to give Akechi a chance. It’s the safe thing to do. Safer, anyway, then the possibility that he’s going to end up with Akechi pointing a gun at his head.

Everything circles back around to the sinking feeling that he might let Akechi shoot him, cognitive self or not.

“The universe!” Ryuji declares, irritable. “The Milky Way Galaxy. Our solar system. The moon. Earth.”

The Meta-Nav dings. Ryuji squawks.

“The world,” Haru whispers. “Really? The whole world?”

Nothing to refute it. Morgana hops up on the table and circles the phone, tail lashing.

“A Palace and its key words encompass the place a ruler feels most strongly about.”

“Akechi can’t rule the world ,” says Ryuji.

“It’s about perception, not power. Someone might have a distorted view of--their office, or their grocery store! Or their home, but not other places.”

“So the way he views the entire world is distorted?” Ann asks, voice heavy.

Morgana manages a cat shrug and jumps into Haru’s lap. She rubs at his ears, both looking for comfort. Akira tries not to begrudge her his cat--not that Morgana is anybody’s cat, really, he reminds himself. And Haru’s more sensitive, is in a more precarious emotional space. Of course she gets the cat right now.

Makoto stares at the phone like it might bite. “What does he think of it as, though?”

Ryuji snorts. “His playground?”

Akira’s shoulders tense at the suggestion, then relax when the Meta-Nav rejects it. The world. The world. The whole damn world. Akechi really does think he’s out of places to belong. A lump claws its way up Akira’s throat, but he swallows it down.

“I’ll try to talk it out of him tomorrow, when we go to Sae’s dungeon.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Yusuke asks.

“No,” Akira says, his attempt at a reassuring smile thin and anemic. “And I remember the rules, I know it has to be unanimous. It’s asking a lot to--pull a heist under a heist.”

“But the risk to you would be less, in the end,” says Makoto.

“And I guess Akechi’s not totally terrible,” Ann adds. “Other than plotting to, you know. Murder you and all.”

“That’s part of it, though.” Akira cups his phone between his palms and stares down at the Meta-Nav. “There was someone on the other end of that phone call. Someone with the power to help him kill a suspect in police custody.”

To blackmail him, maybe? Akira has never so devoutly wished for someone to be powerless, to be used.

Makoto nods. “A dangerous loose end. But if we change Akechi’s heart, you’re out of danger and we have the name of his contact. I’ll have to revise our plans for after Sis’s Palace, but we have time. I’m willing to try.”

“Me too,” Futaba says. “I wanna see what weirdo dungeon the weirdo has.”

Akira finds himself grinning a little more real, a little wider. “Good reason, I guess.”

Ryuji and Ann chime in with reluctant acceptance. Akira knows they’re not enthusiastic--he’d be worried if they were--but they’re loyal. He can’t remember the last time he had people who would just… do things for him. Unequivocally stupid things, just because he asks. It takes Yusuke a little more time, staring at his paint splattered toes, but he finally nods.

“I can’t help but feel like this will give me--give us answers, about what happened to my father.” Haru’s voice is soft but she’s obviously determined. “I think we should do it.”

“All right.” Morgana sweeps a judgmental feline gaze around the table. “We figure out the keyword tomorrow. Everybody be on your guard. And Ann -- with your acting, maybe just don’t talk to Akechi.”

 

 

Akira: Ready for tomorrow?

Akechi: Of course! It’s a little exciting, to be honest with you. I know I should consider the dangers, but…

Akira: Totally normal.

Akira: We all get pretty worked up about it, tbh.

Akechi: I’m trying to imagine you worked up, and I’m not sure it’s… working.

Akechi: No group chat tonight?

Akira: Nah, couldn’t sleep.

Akira: Figured you might be an insomniac, too.

Akechi: One of my afflictions, among many.

Akechi: I look forward to your leadership tomorrow.

Akira: Wanna hit up okonomiyaki after?

Akechi: You sing to my heart.

Akechi: I’d be delighted.

 

They make it through one level of Sae’s casino. One. Akira grits his teeth and banishes disappointment. It’s always like this in the beginning, he reminds himself. It’s always hardest when there’s no way to know what to hit the enemies with, or how hard they’re going to hit back. Things will get better, easier; he already has a list ready for the Velvet Room.

He can only hope something will overlap between Sae and Akechi. If Ann could just light everything on fire, that would be convenient.

Maybe Akechi’s Palace will make Makoto look a little bit less like she’s been run over by a train. She leans hard into Haru, who bears her weight without complaint. She promises to take Makoto home, to make sure she’s okay, she’s fed, that she sleeps. Akira would do it, but Akira has a--

Mission.

Akechi smiles at him when they reemerge into the real world outside of the courthouse. He steadies Akira with a courteous hand when Akira stumbles, but between gloves and jacket, Akechi’s fingers just feel like dead weight.

“Quite the workout,” says Akechi, dull touch lingering. “I understand if you’re too worn out.”

“Food’ll help, I promise.”

Akechi finally reclaims his hand. Akira doesn’t miss it. What he misses--as Ann declares a girl’s night, as Futaba declares they’re bringing the cat, as Morgana objects but is carted away--is Akechi’s summer uniform and his bare hands. Yusuke and Ryuji linger awkwardly until Yusuke catches Ryuji’s sleeve.

“By my tally, I owe you a baker’s dozen of beef bowls. Allow me to begin paying you back.” To Yusuke’s credit, it’s as close to suave and subtle as he’s ever gotten.

It takes Ryuji a moment--he spent the last leg of floor disoriented and exhausted, Akira doesn’t blame him--but he gets his feet under him, conversationally speaking.

“About time. Come on. See you, Akira.” He even forces out a normal-ish: “Akechi.”

Yusuke takes off down the street at a too-brisk walk, dragging Ryuji along by his sleeve. Akechi waves politely until they’re out of sight, then turns to Akira with a crooked grin that’s almost sincere, almost something.

“Are they…?”

“Are they what?” Akira shoves his hands in his pockets and starts toward okonomiyaki. He doesn’t start conversations about sexuality, and he definitely doesn’t finish them. It’s easiest to be oblivious until he knows for sure what his reception’s going to be.

Cowardly, maybe. But he’s got other things to focus on.

“Nevermind. I take it you have a destination in mind?”

“As long as a train ride isn’t going to break the bank.”

Akechi chuckles. “Hardly. I promise television spots pay well, even when I’m being castigated.”

“Is that why you do them?”

Akechi follows Akira onto the escalator down into the subway, forcing Akira to angle himself sideways and look up. Not the smoothest move Akechi’s ever made, but maybe other people don’t notice the ways he finds to loom.

“The petty cash? No, of course not.”

“Then why?”

It takes too long for Akechi to respond, a little too much time spent pulling out his wallet and tapping his commuter pass against the ticket gate. Akira wishes he could see Akechi’s face, and he lengthens his stride so they’re walking side-by-side past the shops.

“Information is the right of the public,” is what Akechi finally settles on.

“Even when they’re being assholes?”

“Are they ever not? The masses are ravenous. What are you and I but a new generation of gladiators?” Akechi must know he’s stepping too far, letting too much irritation seep into his voice. He pulls up. “Lucky for us, they no longer give us swords and weighted nets, yes?”

“We do have swords,” Akira says. “Some of us have dorkier swords than others.”

Akechi looks deeply affronted, and the conversation turns to excuse you, Star Wars is art. It’s a sin that Akira’s never seen it, apparently. They jostle into the crowded train car, and Akechi lets Akira have an open seat, stands in front of him holding the rail. Looming again, but Akira can’t even feel slighted, much less intimidated. As it turns out, Akechi has a lot of feelings about Luke Skywalker.

“I really cannot believe you’ve never seen it.”

“My parents weren’t big on anything that wasn’t educational, to be honest. Or getting me out of the house.”

“Oh.” Akechi shifts his grip on the pole, makes eye contact with the wall just over Akira’s shoulder. “One of my foster homes had a sizable VHS collection. As long as it kept me quiet, I was allowed to watch movies however long I liked.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Something like that. They weren’t otherwise kind.”

The list of people Akira wants to track down and shake until their brains rearrange is getting longer and longer. How is he supposed to stay on top of everyone that needs a change of heart or swift kick in the ass?

“Oh.”

“I’m--pleased that Sojiro is good to you. In our little wars, we don’t always get competent generals.”

“He’s been a great Yoda.”

Akechi laughs, a loud bark of a thing that seems to take him by surprise. “Yoda was an asshole.”

 

 

Akira: I think I’ve got it

Ryuji: Wish I could be more excited about that.

Akira: will everyone be okay for tomorrow?

Haru: Absolutely. I feel like this is important.

Akira: thank you

 

Leblanc is too obvious. Akechi could waltz up to the door any minute expecting a cup of coffee; nobody wants to greet him with a CLOSED sign and clandestine meetings. Ann heaves a sigh and volunteers her apartment.

“As long as no one gets weird about it,” she says at steady and meaningful volume, staring at Yusuke.

Yusuke huffs. “I have explained this to you multiple times.”

Ann’s building is an Omotesando highrise with marble floors in the lobby and a bored doorman. He signs them all in, painstakingly checking their student IDs and squinting suspiciously like he expects bottles of booze to start rattling out of Ryuji’s pant legs.

“Thanks, Mr. Hanashiro,” says Ann, sweetness and light. “Study party, you know?”

Mr. Hanashiro does not look convinced. Makoto squares her shoulders and does her best, and something in her Student Council President gaze wears him down.

“Go on up.”

“Brr,” says Ryuji, once the elevator doors are closed behind them. “I thought that guy was going to call the cops.”

“I thought he was going to call my parents ,” Ann moans. “He’s such a pain.”

They pile out of the elevator on the twelfth floor, and Ann unlocks a inconspicuous door that opens on a conspicuous apartment.

“It’s lovely,” says Haru, as everyone else considers their lives and their choices. “Is this hardwood bamboo?”

Ann laughs nervously. “Uh--yeah, I think so. God, guys, it’s not a big deal.”

It takes another ten minutes to get Ryuji to stop going on about the size of the television. Eventually, Akira just interrupts him (and Futaba musing too pointedly about security systems) by pulling out his phone. No one pays him much attention, granted, until Morgana does the solemn duty of making the rounds, swiping at ankles.

“Goro Akechi,” Akira says, and, “the world,” and, “a battlefield.”

The switch to the Metaverse is like swallowing tapioca pearls without chewing, just externally: a little squishy, a little uncomfortable, a little hard to breathe. Luckily, it never goes on too long; it’s probably less than a minute before they’re seated not on leather sofas, but on rickety chairs in the bombed out shell of a building.

There is no roof above them. The sky is a bright and cheery blue, which does nothing to dissuade the fat raindrops splattering down. Akira stands up first, walks carefully to the jagged ledge where the balcony once was. Tokyo stretches out before him, a shattered wreck. Parts of it look wholly abandoned, and as though they’ve been that way for years: greenery sprouts up from ruined office buildings, towering trees stand triumphant over the frames of houses.

Other parts are simply on fire, smoke twisting up into the clear sky. In the distance, there’s an explosion, gunfire.

Ryuji says, “holy shit,” and that about sums it up.

Makoto comes to stand next to Akira. “We’re already a threat,” she says, her voice a rough whisper.

Akira presses his gloved hands to his familiar mask. He doesn’t know why he’s disappointed, or what he expected. That of all the world, Akechi would see him as safe? It’s better this way, Akira tells himself, because otherwise he’d have to live with ruining it.

“How are we supposed to find the treasure in all this?” Haru asks.

Morgana scrambles to the top of the wall and shades his eyes with a paw. “I think we got lucky. It’s not too far. I can feel it, over--” He spins in a wide arc, ending with paw jabbed towards the opposite horizon. “Over there!”

Ryuji scratches at his nose. “What’s over there?”

“Tokyo Tower, mostly,” says Ann.

“That old thing?” Yusuke asks. “Hmm. Perhaps, like Tokyo Tower, Akechi feels usurped by the glory of another.”

“Making me Skytree? C’mon.” Akira leads the way out of the apartment. “No, I think, it’s just… He loves Star Wars, right? All that old adventure stuff. He probably likes a lot of old anime, too.”

“And shit always went down at Tokyo Tower,” Ryuji says.

Akira nods. The elevator is useless, so they take the stairs one ginger step at a time. Mr. Hanashiro is nowhere to be seen. Despite the ongoing sounds of cannons and machine guns, there’s no one to be seen. They walk out of the empty building onto the empty street. A flock of sleek planes flies overhead, near silent. Akira shivers and tries not to think of his history textbook or the memorials back home. It’s just an illusion, just a distortion.

Morgana cat-busses without even being asked. The indomitable Phantom Thieves can’t pile in fast enough. The familiarity of a magical shape shifting mind-construct-cat-thing is much, much better than the world around them. The girls squeeze together upfront, and Akira can see Haru and Ann’s hands tangled together. Without pause, Makoto drops one hand from the steering wheel to squeeze Futaba’s fingers. Akira has never wanted to push masculinity down a flight of stairs more than he does in that moment, shaken and wishing he had a hand to hold.

Ryuji’s hands are clenched in his lap. Yusuke stares fixedly out the window.

Dad said: Don’t be a wuss.

Mom said: Be brave.

And they meant the same thing, right? Akira adjusts his gloves. He can do this, and he will , because no one deserves to live with this inside their head.

Tokyo Tower rises between ruined buildings, but as they get closer, there’s something wrong with its silhouette. Bulky walls surround it, half-built turrets at every corner. The red and white spire climbs above the construction of a startlingly European castle. Pennant flags striped black-white-red hang limp in the rain. In places, the stone crumbles or bears the pockmarks of gunfire. Morgana creeps up alongside the side of the empty moat until they can see the drawbridge, tightly secured against the wall.

Akira climbs out. Morgana shifts back to his usual Metaverse form, and Akira welcomes the weight on his shoulder. Ryuji whistles low and impressed; the noise echoes through the empty city as sharply as the noises of war.

“Keep an eye out for a way in,” Akira tells them, then leads the way back away from the gate, hugging tight to the side of the moat.

He watches the walls, unable to shake the feeling that a guard will lean over and spot them, that a sniper will shoot them down with little fanfare. It’s Yusuke who thinks to look down.

“There,” he says.

Akira follows where he’s pointing: a sewer grate set in the wall of the empty moat.

He clasps a hand on Yusuke’s shoulder. “Good eye.”

Yusuke preens about it right up until they actually have to jump down into the moat, which might not have crocodiles but does have a few inches worth of rain water and muck. Algae slicks the walls; they might have to find another way out. Akira tries not to think about that as he knees in front of the grate, stagnant water seeping into his pants and coat. The padlock holding the grate shut looks more impressive than it is; it’s a matter of minutes to pick it and cast it aside.

The grate squeals open. Akira holds his breath, but nothing happens. He leads his team in.

“This is some Phantom of the Opera bullcrap,” Ann mutters, her hand already resting on the handle of her whip, but the going is easy. Futaba guides them this way, that way, this way, until they can haul themselves up onto a stone platform that boasts a set of stairs Akira would swear came right out of an RPG.

“Okay. Skull, Queen, Panther--stay here with Oracle. I’ll give you the signal if we need you to come after us or clear an escape route.”

Even as he motions for Haru and Yusuke to follow him, Morgana still perched on his shoulder, Akira wishes he’d come alone. He knows that’s stupid. He tells himself it’s stupid, then keeps on wishing it. He wonders if this is some sliver of how Yusuke or Haru felt, mucking around in the thoughts of their loved ones. Akira wants to bolt up the stairs and--tidy up? Cover up the evidence he knows is there?

Goro Akechi wants to murder you, he reminds himself. Goro Akechi wants you dead.

He slips through the door at the top of the stairs and emerges into a damp entrance hall, cavernous and filthy. Soot stains every exposed inch, the floor is strewn with moldy hay, and the only point of color in the room are the fraying tapestries that hang from the ceiling.

Tapestries that each depict a knight in black, arrow drawn and pointed at figures knelt in prayer. Haru stifles a sound. Akira stifles his nausea. He wants it to mean nothing, but--

Don’t be stupid.

It’s the worst relief when he spies a shadow shuffling through the darkness. He ducks behind one of the terrible tapestries, waiting for it to wander in range. It’s dressed in an absurd mix of costumes: a knight’s plating, the pants of a SDF soldier, a policeman’s bullet proof vest. But the mask bears the familiar long nose of a crow demon, and the hair fluffing out from under an officer’s hat--

“That’s not…” Akira manages.

“No,” Morgana hisses. “Just a normal shadow. But it’s weird.”

Akira’s not used to feeling this uneasy in a palace. Joker doesn’t do uneasy. Joker smirks and saunters and backflips off things that don’t necessarily need to be backflipped off of, and it’s fun, it’s freeing. A mission, a goal, the reward of a good job done well. There’s no room in Joker for sinking dread.

Akira darts out and tears off the shadow’s mask. He breathes a little easier when the Akechi-seeming dissolves, reforming into a towering knight with fire in its eyes--literal fire that licks up over its helmet and leaves blistered metal in its wake. This, at least, is easy to understand. Akira steadies himself and reaches down into the cool, dark well of himself to find Sarasvati.

It’s a fair few fights before they can leave the hall and its tapestries behind, slow going. Sae’s casino is all light and noise; it’s a thrill. Here, the only color is the red and white beams of Tokyo Tower emerging from walls at dizzying angles. The girders sometimes block passageways, forcing them to climb through or go around. The shadows--all Akechi, wearing bits of school uniforms, pop idol outfits, princely capes--make no sound, and their true forms are vicious.

When his watch beeps the five hour mark, Akira leads his team home.

 

 

Akechi: are we headed to the Casino today?

Akira: No. It’s important to have breathers.

Akira: Sorry.

Akechi: No apologies necessary. Will I find you at Leblanc?

Akira: Yeah

Akechi: Do you think we can convince Morgana to take a field trip?

Akechi: Not that I find him objectionable, but I find myself selfishly guarding my time with you.

 

Akechi shows up wearing a cardigan and hauling a tote bag of DVDs. He doesn’t look like a boy carrying gunfire in his head.

“Do I have your attention for the next nine hours?” he asks.

Nine?

“At least. The original trilogy is a must, of course, but, well. Rogue One is my favorite, and I suppose I was hoping to embrace the excuse.”

Empty streets and landmines. Shrapnel buried in buildings.

“Sure. What else would I be doing on a Sunday?”

It turns out that Akira isn’t the biggest fan of Luke Skywalker. He worries that has something to do with how birds will fight their own reflections. He much prefers Han Solo, though in his fit of auto-psychoanalysis that’s not much comfort. Akechi keeps a running commentary through the movie, explaining this special effect or that detail, describing the process with the unbridled delight of a great big nerd. He forgets to be subdued; his hand gestures become wider and wider, his voice breaks out of its careful, gentle cadence.

They call a break after the first movie, Akechi pleading hunger. He’s so willing to ask for food. Akira’s so willing to fill in tragic blanks, shade in fraught stories of hunger and neglect. He knows--he knows --he’s grabbing at anything that will make Akechi vulnerable, the knife at Akira’s throat impossible.

And Akira just keeps on doing it. There’s a small scar on the back of one of Akechi’s ungloved hands, and there must be a story there, a little drama full of quiet suffering. Because if Akechi just accidentally sliced himself open with the lid of a tuna can one day, he’s probably capable of stabbing Akira in the kidneys.

“I won’t get you into trouble if we order out, will I?” Akechi asks, already pulling his phone out of his bag. “My treat. Pizza?”

Futaba will know that Akechi ordered pizza to Leblanc. Can Akira pass it off as intel gathering? Keeping his enemy closer.

“Pizza’s great. Sojiro doesn’t mind, as long as we clean up after ourselves.”

Akechi prefers margherita pizza, takes two lactose pills before they dig in, and has unduly fascinating hands. His nails look manicured. There’s a loose thread at the edge of his stupid blue cardigan. They eat side by side on the sofa, knees nearly touching, and talk about school. Akechi claims he’s terrible at math.

“Don’t tell anyone, but trigonometry is about to get the better of me. I go home every day and weep into triangles.”

Akira snorts. “You should see my Chemistry grade. Or not--you might disown me.”

“Never,” says Akechi, who is very earnestly plotting to stage Akira’s suicide.

Akechi helps Akira clean up, greets Sojiro politely as they pass by with the pizza boxes. On their way back, Sojiro gives Akira a Look.

‘What?’ Akira mouths as Akechi goes upstairs ahead of him. Sojiro just keeps on making that face--mildly concerned, maybe. Inquisitive. It takes a few seconds for it to click; that’s the same face Sojiro made when he asked if Akira and Ann were a thing (then Makoto, then Haru). To his own horror, Akira feels the tips of his ears turning red. He shakes his head once, as stern as he can manage, and retreats to the sanctuary of his attic.

People in Tokyo see too much.

Akechi asks if there’s a way to watch the next movie from anything other than kitchen chairs. Akira digs an extension cord out of storage and they haul the table and television to the middle of the room. He sits on his futon with Akechi’s stocking feet a bare inch from his and hates himself, ferociously, because he wants nothing more than to save the murderer next to him. His head’s not on right, that much is clear.

 

 

Akira: the jedi strike me as kind of fucked up, pardon my french

Akechi: They are, a little. That’s why Yoda’s an asshole (pardon my french, also)--they lost their way.

Akechi: I cannot, on humanitarian grounds, force you to watch the 2000s prequels, but they go into it a bit.

Akechi: Luke sees the world clearly. I always wanted to grow up to be like him, to have that sense of of purpose.

Akira: I see myself as more of a Princess Leia.

Akira: could rock the hair buns, right?

Akechi: Is that only because you find Han Solo dashing?

Akira: Maybe

 

Trips to the casino get more and more awkward. The deeper they go into the castle, the harder it gets for everyone to act casual. Akira can see his team members rocking between quiet pity and simmering anger. They have two weeks. He needs to get this done with.

 

The fiery knight, it turns out, is Roland; he’s perpetually grumpy, but a steady hand with curse skills. Akira talks him over with bravado and promises he cannot possibly keep. Roland, Cherubim, Jeanne d’Arc. Each mask sits heavy on Akira’s face as he leads the Phantom Thieves up and up towards Goro Akechi’s heart.

Outside, a siren wails low-to-high. Akira hits the deck, crouching with his arms up over his head, away from the slit windows, away from a precarious looking ceiling beam. It isn’t until the siren fades that he looks up and sees Haru mirroring him across the hall, Yusuke sheltering Morgana in a doorway.

Haru exhales a weak giggle. “At least we know that disaster preparedness has sunk in, right?”

“All we need is a whistle and five gallons of water,” says Yusuke, pretending he never clutched Morgana to his chest.

Haru gets to her feet first and gives Akira a hand up.

“Dibs on the first safe room sofa,” he says.

“You don’t like earthquakes?” she asks.

Does anyone? “Not even a little bit.”

As a kid with an overactive imagined, he would lie in bed and go over their emergency plans again and again. Mom put him in charge of the batteries, of the family dog. Until the day that dog died of content old age, Akira imagined every scenario in which he would fail to rescue it from an earthquake, a tsunami, a freak volcanic eruption. Between that and the memory of police cars, he’s the first to admit that sirens don’t agree with him.

The room behind Yusuke isn’t a safe room. It’s a library. It’s a disgusting library, lit by high, barred windows and flickering torches. The smell of rotting paper and mold crawls up Akira’s nose and makes him sneeze. Bookshelves are squeezed into the space without rhyme or reason, sitting at inconvenient angles or blocking one another off entirely. Each is crammed with an eclectic collection; on the one closest, Akira can see copies of both Symposium and The Rainbow Fish.

One of the volumes is in much better shape than the others, leather-bound and gilded with gold. Haru pulls it off the shelf before Akira has a chance to. It creaks as she opens it.

“Once upon a time,” she reads, fluting voice struggling to be heard over the sound of gunfire drifting in through the windows, “there was a Wicked King and a Young Prince. The Wicked King was truly wicked indeed, traveling across the land to rape and steal and wither whatever he touched with his greedy hands. Upon a Noble Woman, he left bruises and a child chosen by God.”

Akira peeks over Haru’s shoulder. That one word--God--is illuminated in gold ink and curling letters.

“The Young Prince grew,” Haru continues, “and when he was old enough for his Sacred Duty, God spoke to him and showed him the way to topple the Wicked King.”

An illustration sprawls across the next two pages, colors more vivid than anything else in the castle. Akechi, swathed in a red cape, wearing a black masque, kneels before a throne made of writhing human shapes. There’s a man on the throne, his shoulders cloaked in furs and a sword clenched in each fist.

Akira pulls the book out of Haru’s hands. The illustration has caught the king’s ugly face in exquisite detail, and something about it is sickeningly familiar. He can’t even look at the opposite page, at Akechi-the-prince in his black mask, who has a quiver of arrows over one shoulder and a bow in his hand.

Akira reads the tiny text squeezed in below the two figures. “Wearing a Black Mask on his heart, the Prince did his father’s cruel bidding. And while his father grew arrogant and complacent, the Prince worked with God to increase his power and his glory.”

Akira flips the page. He’s greeted by a row of glassy-eyed corpses staring up from their coffins, arms crossed over their chests. Akira’s voice lodges in his throat. He recognizes these people. Some of them, at least. Haru’s father is the last in line, but before that, Akira knows Kobayakawa.

Wakaba Isshiki.

Kanji chases itself through the gaps between the dead. Names. A hit list.

Haru grabs the corner of the page and tries to pull the book back. It doesn’t rip, but Akira doesn’t budge. He slams it shut, nearly catching Haru’s fingers between the pages, and tucks it against his chest. She’s ready to make a grab for it, ready to fight him for it, but their tussle is smothered in the cradle:

“Ah, you found my story.”

Yusuke and Morgana draw their weapons in an instant. Akechi, yellow-eyed and sweet-smiling, emerges from the maze of shelves. A deerstalker sits jauntily on top of his head, and he’s wearing a Feather Rangers uniform, a cape, military boots, a knight’s greaves.

“That’s it!” Morgana yowls. “That’s the real one, the real shadow!”

Akira already knew.

You --” says Haru.

“It doesn’t have a title yet,” says Akechi. “It needs to be something snappy, something people will really remember me by.”

“You killed my father!” Haru’s voice is squeaking, gasping, breaking--angry.

Akechi blinks and looks to her as if he’s just noticed she’s there. He chuckles. “Prepare to die? So what?”

“You did kill him!” Morgana shouts.

Akechi shrugs. “I’ve killed a lot of people. Bang, bang. Does it matter?” He peers at Haru. “Okumura, right? At least he’d done something wrong--oh, don’t cry. I bet you didn’t even like him.”

“I--” Haru sputters. “I loved him!”

“Fat lot of good that did you. Hello, Akira, what brings you here?”

“You.”

Akechi presses a hand to his heart, a melodramatic gesture matched by his showman’s grin. Every bit of him is a little too loose, like he’s been strung together and his knots are coming undone. Pinocchio on the verge of collapse.

“Me?” Akechi asks. “God, what a shitty reason. Find a better one!”

“You’re reason enough.”

The shadow shakes his head and clicks his tongue. He steps forward, his cape dragging behind him, his boots a size too big and clomping as he comes.

“No, no, you’re here for him. That’s fine, I understand. No worries, eh Okumura? My shit father hates me too.” He smiles for her, bright and toothy. “Start a club? You’re invited, of course, Kitagawa.”

“Don’t speak to me.”

“Don’t speak to me,” Akechi mocks, though he can’t dip his voice as low as Yusuke’s. “You’re guests, you know. You could try to act like it, instead of getting your paws all over my things.”

Haru’s in his personal space before Akira can intercede, before he can move. Her axe is at Akechi’s throat, her shoulders heaving.

And her voice is steady now, despite the tears dripping off her cheeks. “Why would you do it?”

“Can’t you read? Because he told me to! For his Glorious Japan! He’ll probably want to rename it.” Akechi lapses into thoughtfulness. “Shido-kuni. Think it’s got a ring to it?”

“Shido?” Morgana echoes, and it echoes in Akira’s head as well.

“Papa!” Akechi drags his voice low again, “ O-tou-sama. Not that he knows. I had to prove myself before he’d even look at me. Not that I really blame him, I was an obnoxious little shit. Maybe if I’d had tits, right?”

Akechi looks around, waiting for them to laugh at his joke. Silence follows him. He rolls his eyes.

The doors slam open.

“Oh.” Akechi sighs. “Well, fuck.”

It’s one of the mock-Akechis, kitted out mostly like a samurai. Sword aloft, it storms into the library. “Intruders!” It shrieks in a voice that crackles with puberty.

“Yes,” says Akechi. “Shoo.”

The shadow screams and bursts at the seams.

 

Akechi is gone by the time the Shadow dies. Akira is exhausted by the time they meet up with the rest of the group. Haru is silent by the time Morgana ends the story. Futaba is shaking by the time Akira agrees to show her the book. His mouth tastes like copper.

“Hey,” says Ryuji, “let’s go home, okay?”

Ann nods. “Back to my place. We need to talk.”

Akira doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to leave the Metaverse. He would rather curl up in a corner of some building’s shell. The worst part is, he doesn’t know why. Of course Akechi has killed before. His voice on the phone was cold, exact. Experienced. You don’t go from zero to murder in sixty seconds. Of course it’s all connected.

Of course the boy who sat in his bed and made fun of robots with him killed Futaba’s mother and Haru’s father. What doesn’t make sense about that, Akira, huh?

As soon as they’re in Ann’s apartment, he goes to the bathroom. He sits on the floor and soaks in the cold from the tiles. A few feet away, Haru is crying again. Ann murmurs soothingly to her; Akira can’t make out the specifics. He doesn’t belong here. Ten deep breaths and he stands up, walks into the living room to apologize, to excuse himself. Futaba sits in a puffy chair, smaller than ever, curled in on herself with her face buried in her knees. Morgana shoves his head under her elbow, purring like a jet engine, trying to soothe.

This isn’t what Akira wanted to discover. He wants to go back in time and burn that book.

Ryuji jumps to his feet, as if Akira’s reappearance popped the cork out of some bottle. “That son of a bitch!”

There’s a hot rock sitting in Akira’s stomach and boiling all of his insides. He doesn’t know when he swallowed it.

“That’s why he likes Luke Skywalker,” he says, and it’s the stupidest fucking thing that ever came out of his mouth. All of his friends turn to look at him, staring because he has just outed himself as an insensitive prick in their time of need.

“What?” asks Ann, eyebrows furrowed.

“Akechi likes Luke Skywalker. It’s the--it’s the dad thing. The evil dad thing.”

“Like I care,” says Futaba.

“Wait.” Haru wipes at her eyes with one of the several dozen tissues Ann has handed her. “Wait. Have you been hanging out with him?”

Akira shrugs. “We’re acting normal, right?”

“That’s--” Whatever Makoto was going to say is swallowed. “That’s very dangerous, Akira.”

“It’s fine.”

Haru stands up, scattering her tissues. “It’s not! You’ll have to stop immediately!”

The rock flares hotter, becomes molten lava and eats into Akira’s veins. He doesn’t know why. There’s no reason why. He should agree and keep his mouth shut. He should agree and give Haru a hug. It’s stupid, it’s stupid, it’s stupid--

“No.”

The room goes as cold as his body is hot.

“Excuse me?” Yusuke asks.

“No,” Akira says. “If I stop now, that’s just going to tip him off before we have a chance to finish his Palace, much less Sae’s.”

Haru stares at him. “You want to go back there? Why ?”

“We agreed.”

“He killed my father!” She balls her fists, draws her shoulders up. “He killed Futaba’s mother!”

“I know that.” Wakaba Isshiki and her dead-fish eyes behind glasses just like Futaba remembered them. “Isn’t that all the more reason we should change his heart?”

“I don’t want to.”

“What do you want to do, then?” Akira says, the lava suddenly on his tongue. “Kill him? Let him have a crack at killing me?”

“Maybe we should kill him.” Futaba isn’t looking at anyone. She stares out the floor to ceiling windows at Tokyo’s shining, living lights. “Do you think someone that horrible can even have a change of heart?”

Akira fights for calm. “We aren’t killing him. We aren’t killing anyone.”

“He did.”

“I told you I know that!”

Makoto steps in front of Futaba’s armchair, placing herself between them. It takes Akira a second to register the gesture as protective.

“Don’t yell at Futaba.”

“I’m not yelling.” It’s his father’s refrain, and it tastes like ash.

“Yes, you are. Calm down.”

“I’m calm.” Or, at least, he hopes he is. “I just don’t see how this changes anything. We still get the best advantage out of changing Akechi’s heart, don’t we?”

“What if Futaba’s right?” Asks Haru. “What if we can’t?”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. There’s--this Shido must be the person pulling the strings, ordering these assassinations. Futaba’s mother died more than two years ago! Akechi was only fourteen. Fifteen at most.”

“So?” Haru asks.

“Nobody kills people at fifteen .”

“Bullshit!” Futaba unravels all at once, bounding out of her chair. She trembles. “He did! Stop making excuses for him!”

“I’m not!”

Makoto raises her hands like an officer facing down a riot. Like an officer politely telling you you’re under arrest right before he nearly dislocates your shoulder twisting your wrist behind your back.

“Both of you stop yelling.”

“Stop telling me when I’m yelling!” Akira, admittedly, yells. He hears himself doing it, as if through layers of cotton. “You’re just going off of assumptions, and it doesn’t make any sense! If anyone else can have a change of heart, why not him?”

“It’s not just anyone,” says Haru, and she sounds so soft, so sad. It’s like needles under Akira’s nails. “It’s people who need--”

“Your dad killed people,” Akira snaps. “How many people do you think he fucked over and let die? Was that better than holding a gun to their heads?” It’s like every mean thing he’s held behind his teeth these past six months swarms its way up all at once, in one masterpiece of cruelty. “Akechi did you a favor, so maybe think about doing one back.”

Regret smothers the heat. They’re all staring at him, chins dropped, eyes wide.

“Akira--” Makoto begins.

Akira runs. He grabs his bag, light without Morgana, and doesn’t even bother putting his shoes on. He just grabs them from the entryway and goes, taking the stairs two at a time in his socks. At the bottom, he remembers Mr. Hanashiro; the entire thirty seconds he spends jamming his feet into his sneakers, the minute of power-walking past the doorman, feels like an eternity.

 

Thankfully, it’s a weekday. Crossroads is open, but not packed, and Lala’s free to bustle over and pat him on the head.

“You here for work, or you just want to drink all my cherry syrup and seltzer water?”

“Work.”

His voice doesn’t break, but she still raises an eyebrow at him. Then she shrugs extravagantly, so that he knows that she knows, and tosses him his apron. Here, at least, he can make himself useful. He avoids eye contact with the customers tonight, not interested in sticking his foot back in his mouth, but the bar shines from the force of his polish. Lala doesn’t even look up when his usual ‘go home and study something useful’ time passes, just lets him keep on washing glasses until closing time.

Then she sits him down with a cherry-syrup-and-seltzer-water.

“Sweetheart, I’ve been in this business too many years not to recognize a long face. What’s the matter?”

Akira pulls off his glasses and rubs at his eyes. He doesn’t want to tell her. He’s not prepared to deal with ruining any other relationships tonight, and there’s really no forgiving him. He might as well have pushed an old lady into traffic, given the twenty pounds of guilt hanging over his shoulders.

“Nothing,” he tries. “It’s fine.”

“Hey.” She hooks a finger under his chin and gently lifts his face to look at her. “You didn’t get kicked out, did you?”

“Oh--no. No, Mama.”

Her shoulders lose a little of their tension and she pats him on the head again. “Good. Good! Normally, I’d have contacts for that sort of thing, but. With your situation.” She waves a hand, banishing the fear. “We’d have worked something out though, honey. Well, if that’s not the bustle in your hedgerow, what is?”

“I was an ass to a friend,” he admits.

“You? I don’t believe it.”

Akira looks down at his hands, his nails stained pink and purple in the bar’s light. A blush creeps up his neck and his ears.

“No,” he says, “I was. I said some stuff I knew was bullshit.”

“Let me guess, that’s why you said it?” she asks.

He nods, mute and miserable. Lala leaves him there for a stretch, bustles back into the kitchen and comes back with a bowl of onion soup bobbing with little croutons. Weekday special, for the drunks who shouldn’t be eating so much grease.

“Give me the outline,” she says.

Akira, hungry now that he remembers what food is, inhales the soup before he feels up to answering.

“We’ve been arguing. Or, we’ve been disagreeing, about a friend of ours.” He pauses, then takes a leap for the fiction, for the outline of his fuckup. “They keep telling me my boyfriend is bad news.”

The lie is a little thrill, and that little thrill is a bear-trap around his ankle. Akira wants. Akira has wanted since someone famous and attractive sought him out and shook his hand. And who knows when that feeling dulled into something softer but no less idiotic.

“Is he?” Lala asks.

“Definitely.” Murder! Murder. Cold blooded homicide. Akira swirls his spoon in the remainder of his soup. It doesn’t feel real.

“God help the young. I can call some friends for that too, you know.”

She probably means the yakuza. Akira’s seen them in the back booths with their shirts unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up to show off their tattoos. They call Lala ‘Mama,’ too, and Akira has no doubt they’d rough up a high schooler for her.

“Please don’t. With me, he’s fine. It’s like he’s a totally different person from… some of the stuff I know he’s pulled. They remind me, and I just.” He flicks his fingers outward in imitation of a nuclear blast. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry before. I’ve never acted that way.” His voice is coming undone at the seams. The shame burns worse than the heat of his anger.

Lala hands him a napkin, but he pretends his eyes aren’t watering.

“I’m afraid I can only tell you one thing, kiddo, and that’s that there’s no easy answer. I’d tell you to kick this guy to the curb, but I don’t know him. And your friends love you, right?”

“Probably.” There’s a seventy-percent chance Haru wants to mow him down with a limo now.

“So they’re looking out for you. So unless this boy’s got a dick made of gold, I’d take what they say into account.”

“Mama!”

“Maybe he does! Cooch made of gold, whichever, I don’t judge. Even then, gold tarnishes. Probably fake, anyway, makes everything turn green.”

A snort of laughter bubbles up through the morass of his emotions. Unfortunately, it just makes the tears think it’s time to have a field day. He scrubs at his cheek with the drink napkin, hiccuping hysterically. Lala graciously turns to put away the last of the clean tumblers, and doesn’t look back until Akira’s gotten ahold of himself.

“There you go,” she says, as he takes one last bracing breath. “You good to call home? I don’t particularly want you running around Shinjuku unescorted this time of night. My friends only have so many eyes.”

Akira pulls his phone out of his pocket and winces at the bombardment of text notifications. They plunge down his screen into oblivion, and he’s grateful he’s too farsighted to read them. He unlocks the phone and slides it over to Lala.

“Could you call? Sojiro Sakura’s number, he’s my guardian.”

She looks at him like he’s an adorable puppy dying of cancer. “Sure thing, sweetie.”

Sojiro is there in ten minutes. He must, Akira realizes as Lala goes to unlock the door for him, have been out looking. At least he didn’t call the police. Or--Akira hopes he didn’t call the police, or even social services. He doesn’t want to be labeled ‘troubled’ any more than he wants to be a criminal.

Akira puts his glasses back on and tries hard to look like he hasn’t been crying or shouting increasingly rude things at people who don’t deserve it.

Sojiro is alone, and the first thing he says is, “How do you even end up working at an okama bar in the first place?”

“Really good french fries,” Akira blurts.

Lala laughs. “He lends the place an air of respectability. Now get out of here, I have to go take my face off.”

Akira lags behind Sojiro on the way down the stairs, two steps back all the way to the parking garage in the midst of Shinjuku’s hooting, hollering nightlife. He doesn’t want to get in the car. Some part of his lizard-brain tells him to run, that now’s his chance to go. He opens the door and buckles himself in, but Sojiro doesn’t turn the key.

“First of all, you will not believe how much trouble you’re in.” Sojiro’s grip on the steering wheel is white-knuckled. “Do you know what time it is?”

It’s just after three in the morning, as a matter of fact. Akira isn’t sure what Sojiro wants him to say, so he just sits.

“Second of all, Futaba is worried sick.”

“Futaba’s mad at me.” He assumes, at least.

“You can be mad at someone and worried at the same time. Case in point, right now. I almost had a heart attack! They didn’t even tell me you were missing until a few hours ago!”

“I wasn’t missing. I was at work.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“...I know. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Damn right it won’t.” Sojiro presses a hand to his forehead. “You kids are gonna be the death of me, I swear. You are grounded. No work, no hanging out, and I’m taking the cords to that TV.”

Akira freezes. “But--”

“If you’re doing those extracurricular activities of yours, Ann will text me. There, school, or home. That’s it. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir.”

 

The next day, Akira is exhausted and useless. He doesn’t speak to anyone, except to confirm their plans for Sae’s Palace, and that he does through text. It’ll feel good, he thinks, to be Joker for a few hours: calm, confident, less like he’s been jammed into a blender face first.

Akechi is sitting at Leblanc’s counter, sipping coffee and reading a Sherlock Holmes novel in English. Akira sits beside him and tries to think of something profound to say. He watches gloved hands cradle a coffee cup instead.

“Is everything alright?” Akechi asks. “You look like you’ve just gotten bad news.”

“He’s grounded,” says Sojiro, dropping off two plates of curry. “I shouldn’t be letting him talk to you.”

Akechi looks from the food to Sojiro like he’s lost a variable in their collective algebra equation. But then he smiles.

“I promise to be a good influence. It wasn’t anything too bad, was it?”

Akira fiddles with his fork. “No, just stupid.”

Akechi pats Akira bracingly on the shoulder, and his hand lingers too long. They eat.

 

Haru doesn’t show up to the courthouse. Makoto says she has a fever. Futaba mumbles that maybe she’s coming down with something, too, and maintains a quiet distance.

They finish much earlier than planned.

Akechi lingers as the others disperse. He’s too sharp not to have noticed the tension. If nothing else, Morgana gives it away by hopping into Futaba’s arms instead of Akira’s, but Akira is begrudgingly glad for it. Futaba needs someone around. You fuck up, you don’t get the cat.

“Does this have anything to do with why you’re grounded?” Akechi asks, once again the last man standing. He’s done it on purpose.

“Yeah.”

“I hate to encourage rule-breaking, but if you can steal a few hours--my, what a pun--you’re welcome to hide out at my place.”

That takes a moment to register. “Your apartment?”

“It’s just a studio, but I thought you might appreciate the breathing room.”

There’s a small chance Ann has told Sojiro that Akira should be heading home. There’s a bigger chance of Sojiro running into Futaba. Akira doesn’t care.

“Sure,” he says. “Lead the way.”

Akechi lives on the outskirts of Shibuya, down a few winding backstreets. The little concrete apartment building is painted a cheerful blue with white balconies and white doors. Akechi ushers Akira into the first door up the creaking stairs.

“Like I said, nothing fancy.”

Entryway, bathroom, washing machine. Crowded kitchen. A sliding door divides it from the living space: kotatsu, twin bed, television. Balcony curtains shut tight.

Akechi clicks on the light. “Looking at it, it’s probably smaller than your attic.”

“I like it. Must be nice, not having to use a bathhouse all the time.”

“You’re always welcome to my shower.”

Akira’s stomach flips. He’s flirting--he must be. Right? The way his fingers linger again as he takes Akira’s bag, that’s flirting. The way he invites Akira to sit on the bed rather than at the kotatsu.

Akechi strips off his gloves and his jacket. Akira knows what dying feels like. Akira’s tucked himself against the wall, so Akechi kneels on the mattress, gives himself height and poise. Akira tries to imagine him killing someone and, miserably, succeeds. Then he tries to imagine Akechi younger, with shorter hair and more acne. Still killing. It twists Akira’s guts.

He remembers being ten. He remembers thinking the worst thing in the world was that time his mom forgot him in the department store. He remembers being fifteen. He remembers thinking that having a crush on his upperclassman was the end of the world. His entire understanding of violence was encapsulated by video games, his scope of suffering his father’s awkward inability to connect.

“What’s the fight about?” Akechi asks.

On the plus side, Akira’s pretty good at lying. “I was an ass to Futaba. I’m not used to having so many people around. I’ll figure out a way to apologize.”

“They are all a bit loud, aren’t they?” Alone, Akechi’s smile is softer. “I apologize if you wanted some privacy.”

“It’s all right. You’re not stressful.” Except, of course, by proxy.

“That’s the nicest thing a boy has ever said to me.”

Akechi finally moves to sit next to Akira, their legs sprawled out in front of them, everything too close. If Akira turns, he can see Akechi in profile, catch the tips of Akechi’s hair.

“I take it back.”

“Oh?”

“You’re a scruffy looking nerf-herder.”

There’s that laugh again, the honest one, the loud and indelicate bark. Akechi sounds like a fucking seal. When he quiets, some of the laughter’s wildness stays with him, lingers in his eyes and in the catch of his hand around Akira’s fingers.

“Tell me the truth,” Akechi says.

You first , Akira doesn’t say. “What about?”

“You like me. I know you like me.” Akechi turns his head, and they linger an inch apart, staring. “Why?”

Akira can’t even wonder how he got in over his head. He knows exactly how, exactly why. And here he is on Goro Akechi’s bed, at an address that none of his friends know, banking on his legal guardian not realizing he’s missing for another few hours. If Akechi’s gotten tired of playing games, now’s a good time and place for him to end it.

“Do you?” Akira asks, raising his free hand to brush some of Akechi’s hair out of his face. “Do you know I like you?”

Akechi squeezes his fingers until it hurts. “Tell me the truth.”

You’re smart

You’re exciting

Out of everyone in that room, you paid attention to me

“I do like you.”

Why ,” Akechi presses.

“Because you’re cute and clever.” He drops his hand to Akechi’s neck, rubs his thumb along Akechi’s cheek. “Because you need me.”

Akechi snorts. “Everyone needs you.”

“No. I could drop off the face of the earth tomorrow and they’d get by, but you--” You’re a disaster area. Have you learned about the Ancient Greeks and sea monsters? A thousand teeth and all that hunger.

Akechi breathes.

Akira kisses him, because Akira’s not stupid enough to say what he’s thinking.

Akechi’s grip migrates up to Akira’s shoulder, and it’s tight enough to leave bruises. As Akira pulls away, Akechi lunges forward. The strength there is very real. He wraps his arms around Akira’s chest and breathes against Akira’s shoulder. Clinging. Akira holds him, feels through palms and cotton Akechi’s frantic heartbeat.

“You’d better not be screwing with me,” Akechi says, and there’s threat in his voice. He sounds, for the first time, exactly like that phone call.

The electric response of Akira’s body is not fear.

“Never,” says Akira. “Do I look stupid?”

Akechi shudders with unvoiced--laughter? He shakes his head.

“No. You don’t.”

He’s obviously never kissed before. Even when he’s not taken by surprise, even when he pulls himself up and takes the initiative, he’s clumsy and overaggressive.

Akira decides to find it charming.

 

Luck--or the Devil--is with Akira. He makes it back to Leblanc before dark, and Futaba’s nowhere to be found. Nor is he grounded within five seconds.

“How’d it go?” Sojiro asks.

“Fine,” Akira calls over his shoulder as he bounds up the stairs.

 

 

Akechi: Forgive me for the stupid question

Akechi: And, perhaps, for failing to clarify before you left

Akechi: But what does this mean?

Akira: Hey, Goro, I like you.

Akira: Want to be my boyfriend?

 

Haru: I’ve given it some thought, and I don’t think we should go back to Akechi’s palace.

Haru: I don’t want anything else to do with him.

 

Akira is delirious with the heady alcohol of bad life choices. It’s not pleasant, exactly. He jumps whenever his phone buzzes, expecting, by turns, to get in trouble or to get a text from Akechi--from Goro.

Goro cornered him in the station that morning, pulled him into an out-of-the-way corner and kissed him. Laughed at the look on his face until Akira kissed him back. Who knew the Ace Detective Prince had such a convenient off-button?

He misses Morgana in his desk. He hopes Morgana decides to live with Futaba forever, because the minute someone finds out about this, he’s screwed. ‘I need Morgana to help me with this math problem’ wars with ‘Morgana would literally murder me for this.’ He knows he’s being stupid. He knows he likes it when Goro smiles.

Akira presses his fingers into the bruises Goro left on his shoulders and fails to problem-solve in any aspect of his life.

It would make sense if Ann decided to abandon him, but come lunchtime she drags her desk around just like she always does. Their matching convenience store bentos tell a sad tale, though these days Akira gets home-cooked meals more often than not. Ann prods at her potato salad, considering it and considering him with equal dubiousness.

“Sooo…”

Akira winces. “Don’t worry. I’m thinking about how to apologize.”

“Oh, thank God,” she says, sagging back in her chair. “I was worried I was going to have to explain it to you.”

“I know I was out-of-line.”

“Hey, it’s okay to be scared. I was hoping this would work out too, you know? But.” She purses her lips, turns to look out the window at Aoyama rattling on with its day.

“It’s Haru’s prerogative, I know. And Futaba’s. I understand.”

Yes ma’am. Of course. I know.

“Well, just tell them what you told me. And buy them some chocolates, probably. Something upscale, mister.”

Akira salutes her with his chopsticks. Lunch is pleasant, even if the bento is underwhelming. Ann keeps up a steady supply of cat pictures; then she puts her phone face down on the desk and stands.

“I’m going to go see if the store has any melon-bread left. You coming with?”

He waves her off. “No, but you can buy one for me if you want.”

“Boys,” she tells him, wagging a finger, “are fundamentally lazy.”

She leaves him. It’s to his credit, he thinks, that he grabs her phone on a spur-of-the-moment decision. He didn’t plot it out, so it must be okay. He swipes out of the rest screen. Ann, technically, has a lock-code on her phone. Ann also cheerfully gives out the code to friends, acquaintances, and random strangers. The Meta-Nav stares up at him, its red eye accusing.

What does it know, anyway?

Akira opens the chat program. Her conversation with Sojiro is right there. It takes him a matter of seconds to type a new message:

 

Ann: Headed out today! Don’t know when we’ll be home ):

It’s the minute waiting for a reply that drags on, interminably. If Sojiro doesn’t reply, that’s fine. If Sojiro leaves it for just long enough, he’s screwed. If Ann comes back here to find him messing with her phone, he’s dead.

The phone buzzes.

 

Sojiro: No problem. You kids don’t overdo it.

Akira quickly deletes the two texts and tabs back to the group chat, then slides the phone over to Ann’s desk.

The melon-bread is studded with chocolate chips.

 

Tokyo Tower may have enjoyed its heyday decades ago, but it’s far from abandoned. The tickets are cheaper than Skytree, at least. Akira ducks into an empty bathroom before activating the Meta-Nav, and when he pokes his head out of the stall he does a quick check for any accidental hitchhikers. He makes his cautious way to the underground passageways and the glowing entrance to the Velvet Room.

“I have a question,” he says, which is enough to make Caroline bristle and prod at his shins through the bars of the cell, but Igor just chuckles.

“Ask away.”

“Would it be possible to have both a palace and a persona?” It’s impossible to know how much Igor perceives, or how much Igor gives a damn. Akira’s ankle deep in warnings already; he’s not interested in justifying himself to anymore concerned parties.

“Hmm.” Igor taps a long finger against his chin. “If a Wild Card such as yourself were to view the world through a distorted lens, then yes, a palace might result while a persona still flourishes. You are a collector, after all. Has something happened?”

Akira shrugs one shoulder. “Not really.”

Caroline pulls a face at him. “Inmate--”

Justine shushes her. Tension hangs in the air like a piano string, ready to take off the head of the unwary. Akira leans against his cell bars and tries to ignore his wardens. He’s had a feeling for awhile now that he’d rather not draw attention to them. Maybe it’s because they’re just kids, or they look like just kids, whichever. He’d hate to see them blamed for some fumble of his.

And it’s all going great until he tries to fuse Titania.

“Huh,” says Caroline, as Igor tuts over the possibilities and Akira makes a sound like Morgana horking up a hairball.

“I’m afraid not much will come of this,” Igor says. “This doesn’t bode well for your rehabilitation at all, my friend. A reversed Arcana is often a dire sign.”

“Reversed?”

Igor holds up a hand, the image of a tarot card suspended between his spread fingers. Akira stares, and Caroline and Justine stare with him. Justine fidgets, grip crinkling the papers on her clipboard.

“The Empress. Guidance and growth, a nurturing spirit. Upright, it represents protection and strength. A mother with her children, a shepherdess and her flock.” Igor snaps his fingers and the card flips itself end over end. “But reversed! Selfishness. A refusal to provide, or to see beyond the singular. The mother gluts one child as the others starve.”

“Thanks,” says Akira, once he’s able to peel his tongue off the roof of his dry, dry mouth. “That’s--informative. Maybe a different one, then.”

Igor hums. “I would not, I think, recommend the Hermit today.”

 

Akira leaves the Velvet Room with the twins whispering frantically behind him. It’s one thing to know, another to have the metaphysical proof of it all waved in his face. He’ll make it right. After. One thing at a time, he tells himself. Haru’s not going to murder anyone if you leave her waiting.

Goro’s shadow is waiting for him in the library. He sits at a rickety table, chin balanced on his palm.

“I don’t think your friends liked my story,” he says.

“No.” Akira leans against the table. It’s odd to look down at Goro. “Do you?”

“It doesn’t matter what I like.”

“Yes, it does.”

Goro tips his head back and smiles. “And if I do like it? Will you stay with me then?”

“I’ll change your heart.”

“Sure, sure. You’ll change my heart! Shido will change the world! All those people I killed, they wanted to change the blah blah blah whatever. The future, their lives. And oops, they’re dead! And it doesn’t really matter.

“It does matter.”

Goro laughs and folds his hand over Akira’s. He twines their fingers together and stares up Akira with rapture in his eyes.

“Joker, Joker, it’s not even a secret. No one can change the world.”

Akira stands and tugs Goro up with him. “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Goro shrugs and allows Akira to lead him out of the library. They hold hands until they have to dodge their first minor Shadow. Halfway through the fight, the shadow screams and fizzles into darkness. Akira whips around to see Goro’s shadow holding one of those stupid plasma rifles and shrugging.

“It’d be dumb if you died,” says Goro. “Go on.”

 

The floors get smaller and smaller as they wind their way to the top of the rebuilt tower. It’s not easy, but with Goro’s shooting it’s better than Akira braced himself for. He tries not to ask too many questions; all the shadows he’s met so far have been pretty fickle. They’re nearly there. A few more hours and he can go home and start cleaning up his messes.

Goro sits down in the middle of a stone hallway, gun in his lap, and refuses to move.

“They’re coming,” he says, which is unfairly ominous.

“Who?”

“You should know.”

Maybe Goro doesn’t feel vulnerable in a world of his own design, but Akira’s not taking any chances. He ducks around a dark corner and waits. The sounds of battle echo up through the corridors, of shouting and gunfire. Akira waits with a hand on his knife, but things don’t get really bad until he recognizes the voices.

“Shit.”

Goro laughs at him.

Ryuji breaks down a nearby door and Ann and Morgana tumble after him. Goro waves pleasantly and then, because he’s an asshole, points to Akira’s hiding spot. Akira comes out with his hands up.

“You!” Ann hollers. “I’m going to murder you!”

Ryuji keeps a keen eye on Goro, circling the shadow where he sits, but Morgana bounds into Akira’s arms, onto his shoulders, grabs his hair and shakes. Akira has to scruff him, and even with him at arm’s distance Akira is a little worried about Zorro.

Ann storms over and jabs Akira in the chest. “So! Guess who got a phonecall from Sojiro!”

“...shit.”

“Shit is right! Let me paint you a picture! Futaba goes over to the cafe for dinner, asks, hey, where’s Akira! Isn’t he grounded! Then it turns out that I sent a message saying we’d be in the Metaverse today. Which is suuuuper weird, Akira, because you know what?”

She waits. The moment stretches out.

Akira gives in. “What?”

“I didn’t send him any texts today! It’s been hours since school got out, nobody knows where you are, and you--you used me to lie to Sojiro!”

“You could have been dead!” Morgana manages an impressive amount of judgement for a creature dangling in Akira’s grip. “I just had Futaba feeling better, too!”

Akira looks to Ryuji, catches his eye, but Ryuji just shakes his head.

“I’m not talking to you right now, man. I’m too pissed.”

“My, my!” Goro exclaims. “Behold the power of friendship! Look at how bad you’ve made them all feel, Akira.”

“You shut up,” Ryuji snaps.

Goro ignores him. “You think I haven’t been watching, that I don’t pay attention? It’s all good when he pats you on the ass and solves your problems, isn’t it, but the moment he shows weakness is when the dogs show their teeth.”

Akira is tired, tired, tired. He knows he should be grateful, and he manages to dredge up a tiny portion, but mostly he just--wants them to go. Wants to steal Goro’s heart and bring it back to him, then curl up together on Goro’s bed with the curtains drawn and sleep for a month.

“Stop it,” he says, to Ryuji or Goro or both. He hands Morgana to Ann. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s really not going to cut it,” Ann says.

“It’ll have to, for now. I’m not going home without Goro’s treasure.”

“Goro?” Ryuji asks.

Goro smirks.

“You have to!” says Morgana. “Sojiro and Futaba are worried!”

“They can worry a little longer. I was already in trouble, you think Sojiro’s going to let me get away with it again? He’s going to kick me out and tell social services. I’m done.”

Maybe this is how Chihaya feels with her tarot cards, the future unfurling with absolute certainty. He did this to himself. It’s not even frustrating, it’s just--exhausting.

“You don’t know that,” Ann says.

Akira shrugs at her. “I’m just a pain in the ass. Maybe he’ll let me stay until we’re done with Sae’s Palace. He’s got Futaba to protect, after all. But that means I don’t have time to screw around. I’m doing this.”

He shoulders past her and holds his hand out to Goro. Goro takes it, but forces Akira to haul up most of his weight. Akira feels his friends staring. But when he walks away, they follow.

 

At the top of the tower, they reach a deadend. At least until Goro reaches up, snags a cord, and pulls open a trapdoor and its collapsible stairs.

“I lived in an attic once,” he says, peering up into the gloom. “Lovely big house. Reminded me of American movies, and the people were nice. But I wasn’t as good at behaving, then, and they didn’t want the trouble.”

“Whatever,” Ryuji mutters, stomping up the stairs. “It’s cool that you’re sad. My dad beat the shit out of me and I never killed a guy.”

“We all have our ways of coping,” Goro calls up after him.

Morgana leaps up the stairs and Goro follows, pausing only to give Akira a knowing smile. Akira’s not sure why until Ann grabs his elbow and drags him a ways back down the hall. He hopes Ryuji doesn’t get himself hurt.

“Okay, mister,” Ann hisses. “Talk while the talking’s good.”

Akira shrugs. “This is still easier than dying. Even pretend-dying.”

Ann plants both hands on her hips. She’s nearly as tall as him, and with her heels they’re eye-to-eye. He’s seen her this angry before, but it’s been awhile.

“Do not lie to me. I’m not stupid, Joker. Why are you sticking your neck out for this guy?”

It’s hard to look at her. Akira looks down at the dingy carpet instead. “I like him.”

“Okay, cool. I like dogs, that doesn’t mean we let the rabid ones eat people willy-nilly.”

“That’s not… I mean, I like him. And he likes me.” If he says love, he thinks he might give himself a heart attack.

Even that paltry confession takes a moment to sink in, though. Ann grabs his lapels, but shock has knocked some of the anger out of her.

“Since when?”

“Since yesterday, officially. Since--a while, otherwise.”

“Oh. Oh, wow. Oh my god.” She looks at him, her cup runneth over with pity. “You need therapy.”

“Probably. He needs it more. I’d like to give him the chance to get it.”

“That’s very forward-thinking of you?”

She lets go of Akira’s coat and backs away from him a feel steps. Bounces on her heels, rolls her shoulders. She looks at him, at the attic stairs, back at him.

“Don’t tell Ryuji yet?”

“I won’t, for his sake. But like, you need to think about where secrets have gotten you so far.” She gestures around them helplessly. Then she starts muttering in English, or Finnish, or something, and heads for the attic stairs.

 

The treasure hangs amorphous among dust-covered boxes and suitcases. Akira takes a deep breath, immediately regrets it, and sneezes. Goro leans forward over the clutter and swipes his hand through the treasure’s dubious mass. It snaps, for a brief moment, into some small, rectangular shape.

“Did you have a plan?” Morgana asks, in a tone that implies that he doesn’t think Akira has ever had a plan in his life, ever.

Akira shoves his hands in his pockets. “I thought I’d have more time. But I was just going to text him about it, to be honest with you.”

“You are being the worst Phantom Thief,” Ryuji tells him.

“Yeah, it’s been a weird couple of weeks. Ann, would you mind...”

“I want you to think really hard about how you’re going to end that sentence.”

He doesn’t. “You have his number. Just tell him I’m going to steal his heart, it doesn’t even have to be fancy. Then go somewhere public and wait for it to be over.”

Ryuji glares at Goro, who is pushing boxes out of the way to get closer to the treasure, and then glares at Akira. Akira can’t say he enjoys it.

“Why should Ann do your dirty work for you?”

“Because Morgana doesn’t have thumbs and I want you here.” Because it’s easier to trust that Ann will do it.

“Yeah, to knock you unconscious and drag you home! You’re out of your fucking mind, dude! I don’t know what bullshit sob-story Akechi’s spun for you, but it’s not good enough.”

“You should listen to the boy,” says Goro as he prods at effervescent light. “I am, at any angle, insufficient. That’s the hilarious part. You don’t have to be talented to kill people from the Metaverse, to take their lives or hearts or minds. You just have to exist. That’s why it’s such a fascinating place. Suddenly, my interminable ability to take up space was all I needed to be powerful.”

“Do you ever shut up?”

“You don’t find me charming?” Goro smiles just so, tilts his head just so. “Everyone finds me so charming.”

“Yeah well, people are idiots.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along! I’m glad you agree. Say.” Goro spins on a heel, marches up to Ryuji’s personal space with his hands folded behind his back. “What’s your dad’s full name? I’m sure I could find him in Mementos and, shall we say, do the needful.”

Ryuji clenches his fists but does not, to his immense credit, punch Goro square in the nose.

“Goro, I told you to stop.” It’s nigh on a miracle, but Goro backs off, returns to his treasure bothering. “Ann, please. There’s a safe room one flight down. You can leave straight from there.”

“Fine!” Ann throws her hands up in the air. “But only so I can also call Sojiro and tell him you’re not dead in a ditch.”

It’s strange: the cloying, sticky feeling of being a disappointment and having it matter.

“Do what you need to.”

She marches back down the rickety stairs with such force that Akira is afraid they’ll crumble beneath her heel, but they hold. Ryuji retreats across the attic to sit on an upturned trunk. Morgana paces. Akira wants to sit with Ryuji and make stupid jokes like they usually do in safe rooms, an increasing list of terrible puns about castles-museums-banks. He doesn’t know when he’ll get that privilege back.

And anyway, Ryuji lasts about five minutes before he grabs the nearest knick-knack and hurls it across the space. Goro watches its trajectory, nonplussed.

“Why the fuck would you do something like that?” Ryuji demands.

Goro rolls his eyes. “I told you already. My father wants to remake Japan in his image. People who don’t fit get cut out of the picture, snip snip. I just need the chance to get close to him.”

“So the people you killed don’t mean nothing to you?”

“Why should they! I never meant anything to anyone.” Goro gives up and flops down in front of his treasure, cross-legged on the floor like a kid at storytime. “My mother should have had an abortion.”

Ryuji winces. “Don’t say shit like that.”

“Oh, now you care! Very nice. She should have smothered me in my cradle, it would have done her a world of good. Better sleep, too.”

Akira crosses the attic and sits down next to Goro. It’s a little awkward, given the audience, but he can’t not. He rests a hand between the shadow’s shoulder blades, just a little bit of touch and weight, just an invitation. Goro sags against him, and Akira slides his arm around Goro’s shoulders. He doesn’t look at Ryuji or Morgana.

The light from the treasure shifts and disappears. It takes Akira a moment to register what that means, and that’s long enough for Goro to scramble to his feet. With reverent hands, he plucks his treasure from the air. Akira stands. Goro holds a picture frame, the cheap plastic kind you can buy in any 100 yen shop. There’s a couple in the picture, an unfamiliar woman and the wicked king from Goro’s story book, standing together, beaming proudly with their arms around each other. Goro sits in front of them, his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“It’s fake.” Goro’s voice cracks down the middle and spills thunder. “Why is it fake?”

Ryuji leaps to his feet. Morgana draws his sword.

Akira reaches out for the picture. “It’s okay. I promise it’s okay. Just give it to me, okay? Then you can go back to Goro--”

Goro jerks away from him, stumbling over a box. The picture frame hangs loosely from his fingers, but he keeps backing up.

“Don’t look at it! I don’t want anything from him!”

“Goro…” Akira is out of things to say. He’s not out of kindness, not anymore than a man facing a field of landmines is out of steps. It’s just--daunting.

“Why.” The shadow moans, lurches. “ Why. I can’t get rid of him, even in my own head? I’m so pathetic. I should be dead, I should be dead and it wouldn’t even matter, no one would care! He wouldn’t!” He jabs a finger at Akira. “You wouldn’t care!”

“I promise I would.”

“Liar!” There’s more, but Goro’s words are strangled by a river of fire and acid spewing from his mouth. He heaves as his limbs twist and his body bulges, great wings tearing through the stupid Featherman uniform. Boxes, suitcases, floorboards burn and melt. A great dragon crouches above the photograph, Goro’s face at the end of its long neck, it shoulders scraping against the ceiling.

It twists its neck until its face-to-terrible-face with Akira.

“No one in this world deserves to live!” Heat and stench wash over Akira. “There’s nothing in the filth worth saving, and you’ll die with me, Akira!”

 

It ends. It’s painful, but it ends. Morgana holds the treasure, the photograph, wide-eyed but--subdued. Making an effort in a difficult moment. The same effort is reflected in Ryuji’s silence, his hand on Akira’s shoulder as Akira tries to hold a squirming, screaming, crying mess of Goro Akechi in his arms. The shadow sobs into Akira’s neck in the very same place the real Goro tried to figure out hickeys.

“There’s nothing for me in that world.” Goro’s voice is raw, so scratchy Akira can barely hear him. “No one wants me there.”

Ryuji squeezes Akira’s shoulder. Encouragement? Or a reminder to himself not to say what--well, what could honestly be said in that moment.

“I do. There’s always time, there’s always a place. Go back to Goro, please, and tell him that.”

The shadow shudders. Every breath he drags in sounds like a fight. Finally, he nods. In the moments before he disappears, he bears Robin Hood’s familiar helmet, gold wings reaching out.

 

Ann meets them at the entrance to Tokyo Tower.

“Did it work?”

Akira sags against the wall. “I hope so.”

“Should do,” says Ryuji. “Did it just the same, and it’s not like Akechi was there to fuck it up, you know?”

Despite himself, Akira laughs. “We’ve got that going for us. Look, I’m sorry to make you guys do that.”

“Eh, what are friends for, if we’re not supporting your apocalyptically bad love life?”

“...You knew?”

Ryuji shrugs. “It got kind of obvious. I still want to beat the shit out of him, but. If you’re going to be an idiot, I’m not going to let you go in without backup.”

Morgana digs his claws into Akira’s shoulders with more force than is necessary. “I move that we reopen leadership elections until Akira gets his dumb head screwed on straight.”

“Don’t invite terrible puns,” says Ann. “So. Look. Can I convince you to go back to Leblanc? Like, right now?”

“Can we make a pitstop first?”

 

There’s a little spider, the size of Akira’s pinky nail, living underneath Goro’s doorbell. Akira stares at it and wonders what that means, as far as omens and doorbells go. The others linger a little ways down the backstreet, clustered near a Coffee Boss vending machine. Ann is on the phone--probably to Sojiro. Akira’s not sure what she hopes to talk him out of.

Juvie’s going to suck.

He rings the doorbell; the spider scurries away.

There’s no answer, which Akira expected. He rings the bell again, then leans on it. He’s going to piss off the neighbors eventually, but then he can claim concern and they can call the paramedics. He wonders if paramedics are allowed to break down doors. The cops don’t sound like an exciting proposition at this, or any other, point.

He’s nearly as startled as the spider when something thuds inside the apartment. He jerks away from the doorbell. The kitchen has a little window; Akira scoots over to it and hauls himself up by the sill. Goro stands in the middle of his cramped kitchen, staring at the door with glazed eyes. He’s been crying, which means he hasn’t been murdering, which Akira will take as a positive step forward.

He returns to the door and rings the bell again.

After an eternity of seconds, the door creeps open. Goro stares out through the crack, face red, nose dripping.

“I thought it would be you.” He sounds nearly as bad as his shadow did, but he steps back and opens the door just far enough for Akira to slip through.

They stare at each other.

“Hi,” says Akira. Stupidly.

Goro laughs wetly and drags a hand over his eyes. “What the fuck? What the fuck! Why are you here?”

Landmines, landmines, everywhere. “For you.”

“Right, okay. For me. For me! You’re so--how have you even lived this long? Aren’t you overdue for trying to pet a pitviper?”

“What, do they have those here?”

Goro snorts, and that seems to take up all the energy he has left. He turns back to the sliding doors and shuffles into his living room to crawl under the kotatsu blanket. On the table, sitting innocuously next to a cup of instant ramen and the television remote, is a large kitchen knife. Akira’s blood turns to ice.

He sits down next to Goro, tucks his legs under the kotatsu, and moves the knife out of Goro’s reach.

“Fine,” says Goro. “It’s not--I just--you know, I couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that wouldn’t inconvenience my landlady. I’ve been Googling train tickets to Mt. Fuji.”

Akira puts a hand on Goro’s back and rubs slow, calm circles that absolutely belie the rapid jump in his pulse. Goro slumps forward and buries his face in his folded arms.

“When I was fourteen,” he tells the table, muffled and miserable, “I went to sleep and woke up in the presence of God. And God spoke to me, and God told me that I was special. That I could make or unmake the world! You, of all people, have to understand how much that meant.”

And Akira can. He can almost imagine being handed power and grasping it with both hands. What if he’d gone into Kamoshida’s Palace alone? Kamoshida might well be dead. Akira listens to Goro gasp out his confession--murders, breakdowns, lies--and thinks about power.

“It’s not an excuse,” Akira says to them both.

“There is no excuse.” One of Goro’s hands is clutching at his hair, pulling. Akira gently untangles his fingers. “I used what I had to make myself special. I wanted that son of a bitch humiliated, I wanted him dead and nothing else… Nothing else was real. Until you and your stupid fucking friends.”

“You like them.”

“And I’m sure they’re eager to be besties! It’s not fair, you know? How did you figure it out, why is it so easy for you?”

“It’s really not. For one thing, I’m screwed when I get home. For another, it’s--it is hard. It’s been hard, for all of us, and I think it’s probably just going to get harder. But you can’t take that out on everyone.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

Akira thinks about calling the cops. Goro would confess, certainly, and Goro might rot in jail while his father walked free. Goro might even manage to implicate the man. But the idea of the cops laying hands on Goro is too much. It’s stupid, and it’s selfish, and maybe it’s unjust, but it’s true.

“We’re going to make sure you spend the rest of your life doing enough good to balance out all the shit you’ve pulled.”

“Aha! Ha. Fuck. Sure.”

Akira presses a kiss to the crown of Goro’s head. “Come home with me?”

“Whatever you want, Akira.”

Together, they pack a bag. Underwear, pajamas, toothbrush. Goro leaves behind his school uniform and the kitchen knife.

 

“I can come in with you, if you want,” Morgana offers, though judging by the way he looks at Leblanc’s sign, he isn’t excited about the prospect. Akira doesn’t blame him.

“Go see how Futaba’s holding up.”

So many of Akira’s relationships are becoming touch-and-go. He needs to know how Futaba feels, but he doesn’t want to corner her, or Haru. And he’s not going to concede, either. He has no idea how this is all going to fall out, but he has a sinking feeling that Tokyo’s not going to be a great place for Goro in the long-run.

Morgana leaves them with one last suspicious look before heading off towards the Sakura house. Akira grabs Goro’s hand, knowing that the old gossips are going to talk, and musters up all the courage he possesses outside of the Metaverse and Joker. The sign on the door is flipped to Closed, but the handle turns and he opens the door.

Sojiro sits at the bar smoking a cigarette. He doesn’t look angry or surprised, or even scandalized by his juvenile delinquent holding hands with Goro Akechi. He just looks tired.

“Sit down,” he says.

They sit. Goro puts his duffel bag on the table, a sad testament to half-baked plans. If Akira gets sent to Juvenile Hall, he’ll have to go back to his apartment and his life. Can he scrape together enough of his ‘ace detective’ veneer without hurting anyone?

“I’m sorry,” Akira tells Sojiro.

“I’ve heard that one before. Not even a week ago now.” Sojiro takes his glasses off to rub at his eyes. “I was good at being a bachelor, you know. I never expected to be raising two kids, and it’s not like I looked up an owner’s manual for you brats. And what, you’re bringing me another one?”

“Well, I do like it here.” Goro’s tone is a sad approximation of his usual gentle cheer.

“I’m sorry,” Akira says again, because it seems like the best idea. “It’s only for a few days.” Maybe.

“I know I can’t keep you from pulling stupid stunts, but for God’s sake--what do you think would have happened if you’d died?”

Akira must need a nap and a powerbar, because sarcasm spills from him before he can stopper it. “You’d have to pay Mom and Dad back, probably.”

Goro laughs and drops his face in his hands. No doubt he’s imagining what’s going to become of them both.

“And don’t think I haven’t heard about him.

Goro freezes. “Oh?”

“Was the plan for you two to set up in my attic like The Zodiac Killer’s underage love nest?”

Akira will pay the world good money to never hear Sojiro say ‘underage love nest’ again.

Goro’s laughing, on the knife’s edge of hysterics. “I know where you can get a gun, if you’d like to let your daughter shoot me.”

Sojiro takes a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. “Do you really think that would help?”

“It might make her feel better.”

“Do you feel good about what you’ve done?”

“No,” Goro wheezes. “But that’s hardly my choice.”

“Doesn’t matter. And I’m definitely not letting Futaba end up like you, that’s no way to be a father. Kid, the only thing stopping me from calling up a couple of my old work buddies is that I knew Masayoshi Shido.”

“Oh.”

Akira can see the tears dripping down to splatter the tabletop, but he doesn’t think anyone wants to hear about them. He squeezes Goro’s hand.

Sojiro stands up and crosses over to their table. He stands in front of it with his arms crossed. Akira looks up at him and tries to think of anything he can say to save their skins. He didn’t enjoy meeting the nation’s glorious police force. He didn’t enjoy his overnight stay, or the interrogation room, or going to court for his assault charge.

It occurs to him that Goro will probably be tried as an adult.

Maybe they can flee to Hawaii and work at Big Bang Burger and die slowly of irony.

“You are both in a world of trouble, believe me. But you can have a few days. You--” he gestures at Goro--“are in no position to be doing anything, but you’ll stay the hell away from Futaba.”

Goro just stares at him with wild-eyed bewilderment.

“Okay,” says Akira. “He will, thank you.”

“We’ll work something out after this bullshit with the investigation is taken care of. Gives me time to think over punishment, since grounding you obviously doesn’t take.”

“...Not traditionally, no.”

Akira’s bedroom at his parent’s house had been on the first floor, and their garden had backed up onto rice paddies. As long as he didn’t mind getting his ankles wet, he was free to come and go as he pleased. It wasn’t like they checked.

“I need another cigarette. Get out of my sight.”

Later, he’s going to have to have a real talk with Sojiro. Later, he’s going to have to apologize to Futaba and Haru, and everyone else to boot. Right now, Akira takes the opening to scoot out of the booth and drag Goro with him to the safety of the attic.

He puts on Star Wars.