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11/18

Haru is sick of crying.

It’s messy, for one thing, and it certainly isn’t helpful. Worse, it’s upsetting Makoto. There are only so many travel packs of tissues even the most prepared young lady can dig out of her purse. But every time Haru manages to shore herself up, she thinks again of her father dying, or of -- what Akira said. And then she’s off again, sitting at Makoto’s dinner table trying to work out the science of sobbing without getting hiccups.

Makoto resorts to napkins in desperation. “Is there anything you need?”

“To shoot -- ” Goro Akechi “ -- something,” Haru says through mucus and tears. She’s a mess; if the tissues haven’t ruined her make up, the napkin certainly has. “I’m sorry, that sounds horrible.”

“On the scale of things I’ve heard this month, it’s really nothing.”

It’s been a truly terrible month indeed. Tomorrow, they’re set to change Sae Niijima’s heart. They’ll have to work as a team to save Makoto’s sister and their lives as Phantom Thieves. If Akira brings Akechi along, Haru may bite them both. She lives with the heavy, feral certainty that, given the chance, she would tie Goro Akechi up in a sack and throw him in the Sumida River.

She came here to comfort Makoto. She brought cakes.

“I’m sorry -- ” Haru starts, but is unsure of which thing it might be best to be sorry for.

“It’s okay.” Makoto reaches out and pulls the bakery boxes closer. “Or it will be.”

Haru digs and finds a smile, because Makoto deserves one. “It will.”

 

Goro is sick of crying.

It’s disgusting, and he can’t seem to make himself stop. He falls into exhaustion and jolts awake with one of a dozen, hundred, thousand sickening memories crowding into his dreams. His heart is a cruel creature, jealous of all the time he spent ignoring it. Does it feed on the vivid details of moments long since repressed and cast aside? This murder, that gunshot, those cruel hands.

He shoves his face into the dingy fabric of Akira’s not particularly comfortable sofa and does not sob. It’s foolish and he’s done with it. No more! He’ll get on a bus and burn two or three group homes to the ground if he has to.

Mistake -- it’s easier and safer to think of the families that simply didn’t want to deal with him and his cadre of problems than it is to dwell on the crowded institutions. Goro hisses a breath out through his teeth, bile rising in his throat.

He is also sick of vomiting.

He pushes himself up and crosses the attic quietly, careful not to trip and break his neck, hilarious as that would be. The third step down creaks; he steps over it. The door to the bathroom squeals when taken by surprise; he is gentle. He levers himself down onto his knees and throws up as quietly as he’s able, which is very. Life has been kind enough to teach him such a variety of skills.

Leblanc’s bathroom is tiny. Once he’s flushed the toilet and rinsed his mouth out, Goro can tuck himself against one wall and rest his feet against the cabinets opposite. He sits in the windowless dark and thinks about how inconvenient empathy is. He wishes he remembered how he turned it off in the first place -- for others, for himself. He knows he scraped it together for awhile there, that at ten, eleven, twelve he still possessed some emotional wherewithal.

It was only after he gave up on it altogether that God spoke to him. At fourteen, he unlocked the secrets of sainthood. It must have been the day the family with the attic sent him back to the group home. Yes, that sounds right. He remembers that anger, that helplessness, the feeling that he had fucked up for the last time. Nobody adopts teenaged boys. They bundled him up with his cardboard box of crap and shuffled him back into a cold dorm and he decided no.

The bathroom creaks open. Goro tenses for Akira or, worse, Sojiro, but it’s just Morgana nosing his way in. He hops up onto the counter and stares down at Goro, eyes glittering in the dark.

“I thought I heard you come down here.”

“You have an unfair advantage.”

They stare each other down. Goro looks away first, guilt shivering down his spine. Morgana knows; they all know, of course. If there’s one thing Goro’s not used to, it’s being caught red-handed.

“Are you okay?” Morgana asks, ineffable demon that he is.

“For reasons yet unknown, it appears I’ll live.”

“...I get nightmares too, sometimes.”

Goro nearly swallows his tongue. “What?”

“I don’t think Akira’s noticed. You could drop a brick on his head and he wouldn’t wake up.”

“Particularly not after you’ve dropped a brick on his head.” Goro draws his knees to his chest and peers up at Morgana. “What does a creature like you dream about?”

“I’m not a creature! And it’s not important!” Morgana visibly flounders, his paws kneading anxiously at the countertop. “I’m just trying to be nice, geez. What does a creature like you dream about?”

“Human kindness, or lack thereof. What my test scores are going to look like this semester.”

His math teacher is going to murder him if he ever decides to go back. That’s fine.

Goro’s phone buzzes across the floor, sending Morgana skittering off the countertop. He tucks himself behind Goro’s knee and hisses at the offending thing until he realizes that no, technology has not taken it in its head to murder him.

“It’s just an alarm,” Goro tells him.

“An alarm!” Morgana’s tail is twice its usual size. “Do you know what time it is! What do you need an alarm for right now?”

The alarm is connected to a calendar appointment that is scheduled every nine days without fail. If anyone happened to snoop through Goro’s phone, they would find that appointment labeled ‘snacks.’

“I have to call Shido.”

Morgana deflates in one ricochet from panic to pity. “Oh. Your...dad?”

“I’m not having this conversation with a cat,” Goro says, trying to sound hard and mean instead of upset and lurking in a bathroom after puking. “Shut up for a little while.”

Morgana glares as only a thing shaped like a cat can, but he doesn’t speak. It’s impossible for him to fully grasp the situation, but Goro has tried to explain Masayoshi Shido to Akira. Morgana knows enough to be cautious, and that’s all Goro needs for now. ‘Frightened’ is the sort of emotion that fucks everything up.

He dials Shido’s number, which he has memorized and will delete from his phone records after the call. He puts the phone against his ear. He waits. He breathes.

“Akechi,” Shido says, and Goro nearly throws the phone against the wall.

Fear is useless.

“Shido.” He reminds himself to be calm and cold: an apple fallen so close to the tree that it spreads rot to the roots. “There’s been a change of plans.”

“Excuse me?”

“I won’t be bringing the police to the Phantom Thieves. Nor will I be bringing the Phantom Thieves to the police.”

“Oh?” It isn’t any sort of capitulation. It’s Shido spooling out the rope for Goro to hang himself with. A variety of incorrect answers lay at Goro’s feet.

Shido knows Goro has nothing to threaten. There is no one in this world for Shido to hold hostage, no blackmail that wouldn’t tear Shido down as well. If Goro flinches in the jaws of this crocodile, he will die. It’s not an entirely unwelcome thought, still, and if Shido were anyone else, Goro might not mind giving him the satisfaction.

“Martyrs receive glory,” says Goro, ignoring Morgana’s nervous stare. “I won’t have them piggy-backing on my hard work, turning their juvenile delinquent into some Christ for the masses.” He inhales -- and it’s too deep, too steadying. Damn it. “I’ll take care of it myself. Quietly. Like always.”

“And what of your glory, and mine?”

“It’s my responsibility. I started this, and I’ll take care of it.” Goro hears himself being hasty.

“Tell me, Akechi, you’re not thinking of doing anything stupid , are you?”

“The leader of the Phantom Thieves is -- ” upstairs, asleep “ -- mine. Mine to deal with as I please.”

Shido laughs. Shido keeps on laughing even as Goro, queasy again, pulls the phone away from his ear and takes the opportunity to shove his face in his elbow and breathe.

“I knew you were a sick little fuck,” says Shido. “Fine, you need to get your rocks off that badly, have it your way. But you bring me proof.”

“Of course.”

Goro’s phone clatters against the tile. Little pinpricks of pain blossom in his knee as Morgana digs his paws into Goro’s cheap pajama pants and hauls himself onto his hind legs.

“You haven’t talked to anyone about this, have you?”

“And who would I talk about it to, pray tell?”

“Akira, duh.”

Goro’s boyfriend. What a farce. Akira is a mysterious jumble of affection and daring and pretty eyes. It’s hardly surprising that Goro allowed himself to be snagged and dragged down -- dragged up? He’s still not sure if the kissing was part of the ploy, of the grand lie of omission that led to this disastrous point. Undoubtedly, Goro should march upstairs and demand answers, dignity, justification.

A dangerous prospect, opening the door to unhappy truths. If he stays right here, just so, the lie lingers unchallenged. He is free to cling to the feeling of fingers in his, lips on his.

“He doesn’t need to be involved. And neither do you, for that matter.”

Morgana would rather be with Goro’s victims, and they both know it. He stays with Akira because he’s afraid for Akira, and they both know it. It’s unfortunate. Goro always wanted a pet. Maybe once he’s kicked out of Leblanc and all avenues are closed to him, he can get a dog.

“Look, whether I like it or not -- whether you like it or not! -- you’re a member of the team. Akira made a choice, and we’re sticking with it.”

“How optimistic of you.”

Morgana raises his voice over Goro’s: “And that means you work with the team!”

“Until they find a place to hide my body.” It’s not as if he’s angry. Anger is reserved for the righteous, isn’t it?

Morgana digs his claws in, which is going to ruin Goro’s pajamas with blood, and fills his kitty lungs to shout. The stairs creak above them, then thud-thud-thud as Akira makes his way downstairs in the dark.

“This is your fault,” Goro tells Morgana as Akira opens the door to the bathroom.

Morgana hops back up to the counter and grooms smugly. “Good.”

“Can we sleep?” Akira croaks, bleary-eyed and, quite frankly, cute. It’s terrible. “Is that still a thing we do?”

Goro is exhausted. What can it hurt, to live a little longer in the delusion? He holds his hands up for Akira’s help. Akira picks up Morgana and slings the cat, indignant squeak and all, over his shoulder, then takes both of Goro’s wrists and levers him up without complaint.

Akira gets too close and squints at Goro in that way he does when he doesn’t have his glasses on and wants to read a menu or a face. “You okay?”

“I find the floors of public restrooms an excellent place to meditate.”

Akira holds Goro’s hand on the way up the stairs. The indignity of being guided back to bed like a wayward toddler is underscored by Morgana’s impression of raised eyebrows, but it can’t compete with the awkward jump of Goro’s pulse. He tries to steer himself back to the safety of the sofa, where he has been sleeping in lieu of discussions or assumptions. Akira tugs him towards the bed.

Goro surrenders. Somehow, under the weight of Akira’s arm, a dusty comforter, and Morgana spread over their hips like an impractical jailer, he sleeps.

 

11/19

Akira shows up to the courthouse with Akechi in tow. Haru digs her fingers into her sweater and does not flinch. She tries not to be petty, but there’s something like justice in how terrible Akechi looks. His eyes are red-rimmed and purple-bagged, and he’s breaking out along his hairline and jaw. If he hasn’t been sleeping, she hopes he’s thinking about her father.

As they approach, Akechi smiles and waves. A chill zips down Haru’s spine and spreads into her fingers; the gesture is exactly the same as it was before his change of heart, the expression identical to a murderer’s. Akira doesn’t even break stride, not when Futaba tucks herself behind Makoto, not when Morgana pops his head out of Akira’s schoolbag and shouts a too-loud greeting.

To say it’s awkward would be an understatement. Haru has been in ballrooms full of people sleeping with each other’s spouses and felt less tension.

“Okay,” says Akira, “obviously there’s been a change of plans.”

Akechi did you a favor.

Well. It isn’t the first time a man’s voice has become poison in her ear, and she supposes it won’t be the last. Haru understands priorities. She’ll do this for Makoto, even if she has to live with the echo of Akira’s cruelty ringing in her ears, even if she has to stare at the back of Akechi’s head and not do anything -- rash.

“I have a lot to tell you,” says Akechi, pulling out his phone, “but not here.”

The Metaverse, at least, is easy. Noir knows where she stands with an axe in hand and Milady at the ready. She is precisely sure of how she feels and what can be done about those feelings. She hopes something tries to get in their way. Not a big enough of a something to delay Prosecutor Niijima’s recovery, of course, but a moderately sized something that shatters satisfactorily.

Joker stands with his hands in his pockets, shoulders tilted back. “Noir, Oracle. Can I talk to you?”

Oracle lifts her mask so that Joker can see the width and breadth of her incredulity. “Depends on what you’re going to say.”

“I’d like to apologize,” says Joker.

Behind him, Crow huffs a soft laugh.

“Well, this should be interesting,” Oracle says. She grabs Noir’s elbow and marches her over to Joker. Without so much as shifting her eyes in Crow’s direction, she loops her free arm through Joker’s and drags both of her unprotesting victims out of earshot of the others.

Noir looks over her shoulder. Crow leans against the building and pulls out his phone as the others shuffle into an awkward semi-circle around him. If he so much as twitches, he’s getting pummeled.

“Okay,” says Oracle, letting go of them both to put her hands on her hips. She rocks forward onto her toes and back onto the balls of her feet, over and over. “Apologize, then!”

“I’m sorry. I let things get out of hand.”

He sounds sincere, at least.

“And?” Oracle prods.

“I said some things that didn’t need to be said. Especially to you, Noir.”

Noir isn’t certain it’s enough, not with Crow twenty feet away and armed, but it’s nice. She’ll take nice.

Oracle won’t. “ And?

“And?” Joker asks.

“You’re sorry you went over our heads and stole that jackass’s treasure, right? And you’re sorry you have to drag him around now?”

Joker shrugs.

“Akira,” Oracle hisses.

“Futaba.”

“Tell me you’re sorry for taking his side!”

Joker fidgets with his gloves. Akira does the same thing with the cuffs of his school uniform when he’s antsy. He wants capitulation. Noir, too tired to give him anything else, is ferociously glad that Oracle refuses.

“I didn’t take anyone’s side. We’re all on the same team.”

“I am not on his team!” Oracle’s voice cracks through the stale air of the Metaverse like a whip. “I cannot believe you!”

She turns away from him and storms over to the group, her back to Crow in adamant refusal to acknowledge his existence. Oracle shrugs Queen’s hand off her shoulder and snaps her mask back down; she stands between Queen and Fox, hunched small and drawn in on herself.

For a moment, Joker looks as if he’s been shot. He stands with his hands frozen mid-fidget, his lips parted in shock, blinking rapidly. Then he snaps his mouth shut and turns to Noir.

“Are we okay?”

No, Noir wants to tell him. She wants to clench a fist and punch him in the nose. But he’s so tired.

She ends up on, “Maybe,” and doesn’t quite bring herself to touch him.

They let that hang in the air between them for a little while longer before Joker squares his shoulders and heads back to the team. Noir follows.

“Crow,” Joker says, “Mona, Panther. You’re with me.”

 

11/20 

Before Sae Niijima falls, Goro asks Akira for his gloves. They smell like blood and gunpowder, and Goro tucks them into his pocket knowing they won’t be enough.

After Sae Niijima falls, the treasure of her heart plucked from her like an overripe fruit, Akira stumbles on his way up Leblanc’s stairs and falls into bed. Goro sits beside him and waits for Morgana to stop twitching, waits for the night to tick over into an hour that hushes even Tokyo. Then he slips out of Akira’s bed and pulls on khakis and a collared shirt. It’s not his school uniform, and the only gloves he has are the bright red souvenirs tucked into his bag, but it’ll have to pull him through for now.

Yongen sleeps, and Goro has a long walk ahead of him.

He must be distracted, because he never notices that he’s being followed. Not until he stops in front of Shido’s office building and nearly suffers a heart attack when Morgana climbs up his khakis. Goro flings himself into the shadow of the nearest wall; Morgana clings onto his bag’s straps for dear life. Pressed against brick, Goro gulps in air.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He keeps his voice low, but he badly wants to shout.

“I told you to talk to Akira about this, you know. Where are we going?”

“You aren’t going anyway! I am going to negotiate, you -- ”

“I’m your chaperone.” Morgana catches the zipper of Goro’s bag between his teeth and drags it open enough for him to wiggle inside. “Quiet as a mouse. Or a Phantom Thief.”

Goro stares into his bag. Two luminescent blue eyes peep back at him.

“Why?”

“I don’t trust you any further than I can throw you, and, on the other hand, Akira would really freak out if you died. So!”

“Akira will really freak out if you die, stupid cat!”

And none of the others would believe Goro didn’t do it. The thought of what he did to humans drags at him, digs into his back and weighs him down, but even the vague notion of hurting a cat -- all right, a cat-shaped thing --

He’d be pissed off to be accused of it, and he knows it.

“I’m not a cat,” Morgana says, “and I bet I’m smarter than you.”

“Then do my math homework,” Goro grumbles, but he pulls the gloves out of his bag and tucks them in his pocket, then zips Morgana up with just a little gap for airflow. “Not a peep or we’re both up shit creek, do you hear me?”

“You’re pretty vulgar when you’re not on television, you know that?” Morgana squeaks as Goro jostles the bag. “Fine, fine! Going dark, Crow.”

Of all the stupid -- “Ten-four, Mona.”

He has an ID to get into the building. It uses the fake name of a fake employee of some bank’s corporate headquarters. Shido knows whenever he visits, but no one else is any the wiser. Or so he’s told. Goro grips the straps of his schoolbag, which now feels like he’s carting around a bowling ball, and heads for the freight elevator. Shido’s office isn’t on the very top floor, which Goro hopes really chaps his ass, but it’s close. The elevator ride is long, silent, and nerve-wracking. Goro’s stomach turns over and over on itself.

Akira’s theft of his heart didn’t tell Goro anything he didn’t know about murder or the lives he’d ruined. God -- or whatever that thing was -- made it very clear that sacrifices would have to be made if Goro wanted to make his mark on the world. If he wanted to get out of the group home, he had to prove himself useful. If he wanted to tear Shido apart with his bare hands, he had to get close enough to do so.

What Goro knows now, with sick certainty, is that none of it mattered. He was selfish. He made people into orphans, widows, grieving parents, because he was selfish.

Shido is using him, and he is not using Shido back.

Akira said he could make up for it, that time and effort will be enough. Goro isn’t sure. Goro isn’t sure he shouldn’t walk into Shido’s office, pick up a paperweight, and beat the man’s skull in until his useless bodyguards hear the commotion and come to introduce Goro to his benighted maker.

But where would that leave Morgana?

The elevator dings and the doors slide open. Goro straightens his shoulders and lengthens his stride, nodding to the bodyguards on his way past. He doesn’t know what they’ve been told. He doesn’t want to know what they assume. He knocks once on Shido’s door and lets himself in. Shido knows he’s coming.

Goro pulls the gloves out of his pocket and throws them on the desk, on top of whatever paperwork Shido is pretending is more important than this meeting.

Shido leans back in his chair and allows the moment of silence to stretch between them.

“You look like hell,” is what he finally says. He is not concerned.

“I have the flu.”

“Your talents leave you with the immune system of mere mortals? How disappointing. And what,” Shido says, prodding at one of the gloves with the end of his pen, “is this?”

“Your proof.”

“My proof. Proof that anyone could have bought from a department store. You’re not fucking with me, are you, Akechi?”

“What did you want me to do, drag his corpse through downtown Tokyo for you?” Goro sneers. “I just told you I have the flu.”

It’s a good excuse. It explains the rasp to his voice, any tremors that might escape to show in his hands, the sleepless nights he wears plain on his face. In that moment, Goro thinks fondly on influenza.

“Where is the corpse?”

“Lost in the Metaverse collapse, where no one will ever find it.”

Shido leans over his desk and steeples his fingers like a Bond villain. Does he know he’s doing that? He must.

“I don’t think I believe you.”

The guard outside has a gun. If Goro makes it out the doors first and is very quick, he’ll be able to get it out of the holster before the man realizes what’s happening. Shoot the bodyguard, shoot Shido, make sure Morgana gets to the stairwell. Text Akira. Wait. It’s not terrible, as plans go, but he’s not at the top of his game, certainly not as fast as he is in the Metaverse with a full night’s sleep. If he fumbles the gun, the guard gets to draw.

Goro’s met that bodyguard. He would definitely shoot a cat.

“If I were going to lie to you, I would put more effort into it. It’s not that hard to buy a pig’s heart.”

“And now you’ll give me names?”

For the first time in days, Goro is grateful to himself of the past. He guarded the names of the Phantom Thieves out of pure jealous spite, sure that Shido would cut through elaborate plans and necessary steps to have a bunch of teenagers smothered in their sleep. Shido prefers to use the Metaverse, but Goro has turned him down enough times to know that it’s not his only tool.

“Not unless you have something I want in return.”

Shido raises an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet. I like the thought of you owing me a favor.”

Shido seems to let it go. But even as they talk business, Goro knows not to take the change of topic for granted. Shido isn’t happy. He gives Goro a list: people to be eliminated before the election, lest they make themselves troublesome. A show of Shido’s sort of faith, or a test. It could very well be both. Goro memorizes the list and recites it back, mind already scrabbling for solutions that don’t involve a gun. He turns to go.

“Akechi,” says Shido, and Goro pauses with his hand on the doorknob. “If I find out you lied to me, you can’t even imagine how sorry I’ll make you. On the other hand, I suppose...job well done.”

Some broken piece of Goro wants to sit up and beg at the praise. He hurries out.

 

 

Ann: How’s Makoto doing?

Haru: Better! Ms. Niijima is still pretty worn out, but they were able to have a talk.

Haru: I think things are going to be okay between them.

Ann: Thank goodness!

Ann: All this drama is enough to make me glad my parents believe in a hands-way-off approach

Haru: Are they coming home soon?

Ann: For Christmas, maybe? My mom makes it this Whole Big Deal and I have to go to Church and pretend I know wtf I’m doing there.

Ann: But it makes her happy when we’re all together for it.

Ann: ...sorry, I know it’s kind of rude to whine about them, since. Stuff.

Ann: How’re YOU holding up?

Haru: I’m fine.

Haru: Or. Maybe I’m not?

Haru: It’s hard to tell, which seems like a silly thing to say.

Ann: it’s really not. What’s better and what sucks?

Haru: We got through this without any harm coming to Ms. Niijima. That’s very important to me.

Haru: And I suppose nothing in my life is truly dire!

Haru: But Akira was helping me with a few things, and now.

Haru: It is what it is.

Ann: Hey, I know Akira is super easy to talk to and stuff, but he’s not the only Phantom Thief who knows what’s what!

Ann: We’re ALL here for you. If you ever want to talk, or hang out!

Ann: Or have me kick a guy’s ass.

Ann: b/c I am ON THAT

Haru: ...and you’re here for Akira, too?

Ann: Yeah. I am.

Ann: Sorry ):

Haru: No need to apologize. I understand completely.

 

Akira rambles down the stairs still rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He doesn’t look very apologetic. Sojiro has no idea how he’s supposed to lay down the law with a kid who already has exactly what he wants. What’s the use in scolding a cat after the cream is gone? Granted, the cream isn’t usually an assassin living in your attic. Fridge. Whichever.

“Akechi asleep?” Sojiro asks.

“Yeah. Morgana, too.”

“You know he can’t stay here.”

“Who?” Akira asks, and butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Morgana?”

When Akira first shuffled into Leblanc, his hands shoved in his pockets and a careful non-expression on his face, neither of them were in a good place. Sojiro regrets his part in that period of awkward silences and simmering resentment. He hates to see a return of defensive sarcasm. It’s both discouraging and insufferable.

“Morgana’s welcome here just as long as you are,” Sojiro says.

Akira’s shoulders tense and Sojiro knows he’s hit the nail on the head. A couple of years out of the government haven’t totally robbed him of his skills. Hell, what are customer service and parenting if not more delicate forms of interrogation?

“How long’s that?” Akira asks, chin in hand, endeavoring to look half-asleep instead of keyed up.

“However long you want to be. You hungry?”

The cafe isn’t set up to make much more than curry, but Sojiro can admit that curry doesn’t cover the width and breadth of a teenager’s nutritional needs. He can whip up a mean eggs and toast, even to Futaba’s exacting standards. Without waiting for Akira’s answer, because it’s polite to give a man a few seconds to pull himself together, Sojiro heads to the fridge to grab the egg carton and jam.

“...what does that mean?”

“It means what I said. Did I or did I not tell you that I’ve got your back?”

“You also told me you’d kick me out if I caused trouble. And that I’m a pain in the ass.”

Sojiro abandons the food on the kitchen counter and heads back to the bar. He waits for Akira to look at him.

“How long have you been worrying about this?” Sojiro asks.

Akira’s mouth twists as he fights not to frown. “Since Lala’s, I guess.”

“And you didn’t think to ask?”

“You said. ” Akira’s expression cracks into displeasure. He doesn’t like how that came out, Sojiro guesses.

“I did. Turns out we both say stupid things when we’re stressed. I’m not kicking you out. Whether or not you’re a pain in the ass is still up in the air. That -- ” Sojiro waves a hand towards the stairs, “that’s not even up to me. It’s up to Futaba.”

“I already apologized.”

“So I hear. Doesn’t mean you’re forgiven.”

He turns back to the stove. Akira needs time to process that. Sojiro remembers being a teenager, not entirely fondly. He didn’t dig up half the drama these kids manage, and he still managed to be confused and upset a good quarter of the time. Futaba needs space, Akira needs perspective, and Akechi needs --

Something. To not be the son of Masayoshi Shido, first and foremost, but they can toss a million yen in every prayer box in this town and that’s still not happening.

“I won’t say I’m sorry for saving him.”

The old folks who come in and take up Sojiro’s tables like to dote on Akira. They call him things like ‘a sweet boy’ and ‘respectful’ and ‘quiet.’ They’ve never had a front row seat to the steel underneath that quiet. Akira gives people a lot of leeway, but when he draws a line he draws it hard. Now he’s drawing a line and using it as a blueprint to build a brick wall.

“I’m not asking you to.”

“Futaba is. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I don’t understand -- ”

Sojiro cuts him off. “You don’t. And I wouldn’t try telling her you do.” He drops the plate of eggs in front of Akira and grabs a piece of toast for himself. “You know what she went through.”

“I know what they both went through.”

“I’m going to need you to dial back your Romeo and Juliet bullshit for a minute. There’s a kid in my attic who killed Futaba’s mother, directly or indirectly. It doesn’t matter. Killed one of my best friends.” Sojiro can almost think about Wakaba without it feeling like a septic gut wound. “He’s a victim too, but that doesn’t make this shit easy. Or equal.”

“I never said that.”

“But you’ve never said different, and that’s something Futaba needs to hear.”

Akira prods at his half-eaten eggs. “Since when -- ”

There are a million bad ways that sentence could end. It shouldn’t have started in the first place, but Sojiro can overlook that. No doubt it would have come barrelling out of Ryuji or Ann, leaving devastation in its wake.

“Futaba’s out with Yusuke today,” Sojiro says, ignoring whatever Akira thought better of. “She’s been saving up her allowance for some anime thing. I bet you can catch up to them, and I bet she’d like to see you without Akechi around.”

“Sure, but.” Akira’s eyes dart towards the stairs. He worries at the ends of his hair. “Can you -- he -- he was going to hurt himself.”

If someone ever invents time travel, Sojiro is going to hop back and kick the shit out of Masayoshi Shido before it becomes a capital offense. Maybe leave him locked in a janitor’s closet somewhere to think about what he’s done and what he’s going to do.

“The shop can stand to be closed another day.” Thank god for government pensions, right? “Morgana and I will look after him.”

Sojiro won’t speak for Wakaba or heap intentions on her memory. In his experience, it’s a dangerous thing to chase after the dead looking for justification. But she chose to have Futaba out of a deep-seated respect and regard for the lives of children, and he never heard her speak highly of exchanging eyes for eyes. In her way, she had more room for compassion than most. She’d figure things out for these kids, the way she always figured things out.

Sojiro’s not half as smart, but he can try.

 

Yusuke takes one step out of the train station in Akihabara and refuses to go any further. He presses his hand -- the one Futaba’s not latched onto -- to his chest and stares around with the most offended face. It’s the same one he made when Morgana managed to get half a tube of gold pigmented paint in his fur, so Futaba knows it. Then Yusuke pretends it’s not the noise or the crowd, says something nasty about the ‘flawed aesthetic’ of the maid cafe across the street, and drags Futaba back down to the subway.

Futaba doesn’t argue too hard, though she does call him a repressed nerd all the way down the escalator. Yusuke’s pretty all right, as far as support members go; he’s tall, and he’s real talented at ignoring what people say. He’s just not as good at buffs as Akira is, because Akira’s good at being calm. Futaba’s not sure that calm is an emotion Yusuke’s actually capable of. If neither of them are excited to be in Akiba, why do it?

Today isn’t a test, or a challenge, or a grind session. Today is...chewing up low-level pokemon with a legendary just to see them faint. Stress relief.

“There’s a big store across from Ueno Park,” she says, nudging him towards the Hibiya line and letting him part the crowd with his pointy limbs. “We can get ice cream after and you can commune with the trees or something.”

“You have a very flawed sense of what an artist does. And in any case, I would rather patronize the zoo, as I have some ideas about primality that could do with visual references.”

“And because you’re a furry.”

He turns his head to narrow his eyes at her. “Pardon?”

“Don’t play coy with me, Inari. Your tail wags. ” Futaba warms up to her topic, mostly because Yusuke’s doing hilarious things with his face. “Ask Ryuji, he knows. You have to remember that concussion he got because he was too busy staring at the negative space where your butt should be. I see all!”

Futaba has learned a lot of fascinating things about romance watching her friends run around getting their nonsense all over each other. Or, at least, she was learning. She even thought she knew what she was doing, for a few brief and powerful moments. So much for that. Whatever! Whatever, whatever. It’s better that she learned about Akira’s deep dark secret now rather than stumbling onto his vampire cult basement later.

At least she never has to live through him telling her he thinks of her as a sister like she got the bad ending in a stupid otome-game.

“Akira,” says Yusuke.

Futaba gapes up at him. “You’re not allowed to be psychic!”

“No. Akira.” Yusuke raises a hand and points across the station. “Excellent! He will rescue me from your delusions.”

Futaba digs her heels in. “No. I don’t want to talk to him and his stupid sidekick.”

“He’s unaccompanied.”

“What, really?” She turns to look and, miracle of miracles, it’s true. “Do you think he sold Akechi to the circus?”

“Akira doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to engage in human trafficking, no.”

“Damn.”

Akira is walking over to them. Futaba debates screaming or maybe climbing Yusuke to find higher, more defensible ground. It’s not a feeling she usually associates with Akira, and she doesn't like it.

“We can go, if you like,” says Yusuke, squeezing her hand.

Having an escape route helps shore up Futaba’s courage. “It’s okay.”

When he’s toe-to-toe with them, Akira does that thing where he ducks his head and messes up his hair and sort of half-grins. It’s a terrible weapon, and not fair of him to use it when she’s mad at him. And she knows she’s still mad at him, because she spent all last night clutching her pillow and thinking up a million different things to yell at him. She wasted hours stuck in her own head trying to figure out how to make him cry and feel just as bad as she does.

“I’m glad I caught up to you,” he says.

They end up taking the Hibiya line to Ueno anyway, and then they find the half-empty upper floor of an unpopular Mister Donut. Yusuke ushers them to a booth in the back corner and stares between them like he’s calculating angles and shadows.

“I’m going to go get us coffee,” he declares, a couple levels too loud, and turns to go.

Akira reaches out and catches his sleeve, tugs him gently back to the table. He pulls his wallet out of his bag and hands Yusuke a few yen notes. Yusuke stares at them in his hand.

“Oh,” he says, “I forgot. You like the filled donuts, don’t you, Futaba?”

“Strawberry!” She’s also too loud. It’s hard not to be, when someone’s taken the soda bottle of her existence and shaken it.

Yusuke leaves them alone. Futaba reminds herself that he’s just downstairs, and that he’ll be back soon with probably way too many donuts. She tucks her hands under her thighs so that she can’t bite her nails and stares across the table at Akira.

“Can I try this again?” Akira asks.

“Try what?”

“The apologizing thing.”

“Oh.” In her daydreams, this is where she could really give it to him: the knockout punch of plain refusal. “Sure.”

 

By the time Goro wakes up, sunlight is streaming into the attic. His head feels heavy, as if he’s slept too much or not at all, and he’s mashed into a wet spot of his own drool with Morgana heavy on his back. It is an awakening that demands to be forgotten, and if he had any sense he would go right back to sleep. He doesn’t, and when he fumbles for his phone on the floor it cheerfully reports that he’s slept past noon. He sits up, ignoring Morgana tumbling to the mattress and squawking indignantly, and runs a hand through his hair.

He hasn’t showered in three days. No wonder he’s a mess.

“Akira mentioned something about a bathhouse?”

“Oh good,” says Morgana. “You smell.”

“I’ll dump you in there with me.”

But Morgana shows him where Akira keeps his towels and his toiletries in a neat little shower caddy. They’re all drugstore brand, and Goro notes with some irritation that there’s nothing for acne. He needs to go back to his apartment.

Sojiro is washing dishes. Goro has meticulously avoided the man, which hasn’t been terribly difficult. He doesn’t come upstairs. Goro hasn’t had much interest in being downstairs. It’s an acceptable detente, until Goro comes crashing into metaphorical Poland with greasy bedhead and Morgana over his shoulder.

Somehow, Sojiro knows Masayoshi Shido. The crawling sense of unease and invasion is not worth the safe shelter this provides. Pity is a dim substitute for understanding, and a thing in much shorter supply. Goro is certain he’s on a timer, an hourglass draining from ‘excused’ to ‘transgressor.’ The worst part is not knowing if his probation is measured in hours or days; he’s unable to read anything from the tilt of Sojiro’s mouth or eyebrows.

“Oh good,” says Sojiro, as soon as he catches sight of the towel and the shower caddy. He does not, thankfully, add ‘you smell.’ “You have half an hour.”

Goro reaches down in the tired hellpit of his own being and pulls up a struggling smile with both hands. “Or you’ll release the hounds?”

“Or I’ll come looking.” He doesn’t make that sound like the better option.

If Sojiro Sakura raises a hand in violence, Goro will kill him. He knows this like he knows how to breathe. Akira will be upset, of course, but Goro cannot --

Akira has never shown signs of physical abuse. Goro would have catalogued them. Social Services comes by on wellness checks for both Akira and Futaba. The odds are good that Sojiro doesn’t get violent. But Goro has seen the double-standard applied to favored children. He has been both quick to ingratiate himself and far too slow.

Can he defend himself without killing this man?

Goro spends too long in panic’s grip, smiling benignly at nothing.

“Akira asked me to keep an eye on you, that’s all,” Sojiro says, and there’s pity again to blunt all the edges. “The bath house is a couple doors down, next to the laundromat. Don’t cause trouble.”

Goro doesn’t cause trouble. He washes his hair and scrubs his face, then spends ten minutes huffing bath fumes and making plans. Only one or two of them are real, the others are the sort of thing he turns over in his head whenever stress overrides common sense: withdrawing his savings, packing his bags, and running. He could flee like a coward to America or Canada, or even England. There are foreign exchange programs, criminal deals, the heady proposition of not planning it out at all. He could play coward, leave Shido to his filth, and go.

Does it matter what he’s suffered for, what his mother died for, when he’s fucked it all up so thoroughly?

Did his mother kill herself because she knew what possibilities slept coiled in her son like vipers?

Logically, no. He was too young at the time to have developed a personality, much less moral or criminal failings. But extrapolation from his father surely wasn’t an impossible task, even with limited information. And here sits Goro in a cheap bath house, having inherited the worst weaknesses of both parents.

It would be unforgivably traumatizing if he drowned himself in front of an old man, so he hauls himself out of the water and meets Morgana in the locker room. He hopes that Akira is home; he could use some quiet space, some hand in his.

Goro deserves nothing from the universe, which is why he returns to Leblanc to find not his hopefully-boyfriend, but Sae Niijima.

She looks upset or contemplative, but not undone. Not torn down to her rafters and supports and left exposed to the open air. Her most radical concession to her changed heart is a fashionable blouse and expensive slacks instead of a full suit, as if a fundamental reordering of her world demands only a long weekend and a cup of coffee.

“Akechi. I’m glad I caught you.”

He has nothing respectable to throw in her face, just a shower caddy and courtroom malpractice she already regrets. He puts the toiletries down on the nearest table, just in case the urge to brain her with Akira’s shampoo overwhelms common sense.

“Are you? That’s an interesting development, these days.”

“So Makoto’s told me.”

That was another miscalculation, thinking he could back Makoto Niijima into a corner. He should have guessed.

“Told you everything, I take it.”

“Up to and including the talking cat.” She takes a good, hard look at him. “Would you really have done it?”

What a lovely time it would be to lie. To pretend that a couple of amateur makeouts and crushing doubt alone could have changed Goro’s mind. It’s what they want to hear, the ransom for their indulgence.

“Yes. Though you may have also been told that I was outmaneuvered before I even began.”

At least Akira is smarter than him. That’s a relief.

Morgana scrambles to the top of the booth. “Tell them about the meeting! They can help!”

Goro ignores him.

Sae takes a delicate sip of her coffee, then stands and walks over to him. One day, he can hope to be so tall. Must she really wear heels on top of that? It’s always driven him insane; if he wants the higher ground over Sae, he has to run for the nearest staircase and pray.

She pulls a folder out of her bag and lays it on the table. Goro’s name is written on the tab in her precise kanji.

“As I was telling Mr. Sakura, I made some mistaken assumptions about your situation. You’re not legally emancipated.”

Goro’s heart turns over in his chest like a car failing to start. “Is this a threat?”

“The guarantor papers on your apartment are signed by a representative of a shell corporation that I suspect I could trace back to Masayoshi Shido, if I wanted to take the time, and the rent is withdrawn from a bank account the representative opened on your behalf.”

“It wouldn’t be so easily traced,” Goro tells her, peevish.

Sae ignores him in favor of flipping open the folder. His name is all over the papers inside, of course. He wonders if she had to bribe someone to get them, or if she was taken at her word. She may well have connections in Social Services and Family Court after taking custody of her sister.

“You are legally the responsibility and ward of the Tokyo Boys’ Home. I imagine they’re being quietly paid off to ignore the situation, given your fame.”

“Paid off by Shido, no doubt,” says Sojiro, as if Goro doesn’t know.

“You can’t - ”

“What I can or can’t do is nothing next to what Shido will. All he has to do is cut you off. There must be a litany of other things he’s funding or legitimizing by proxy. Your school enrollment and your cellphone contract, to name two.”

Why is she telling him things he already knows! He has three years until he’s twenty and a list of people who need to be dead if he doesn’t want to be homeless. Does she want him to shoot them?

“Are you working for him?” Goro demands.

“I just want to make it very clear to you where you stand.”

“I know where I stand!” Goro’s voice cracks. He swallows it, ignores it, bulls his way forward. “I won’t be going back to the home, and if you think I’m stupid enough that you can convince me that juvenile hall is better --”

“You’re not as eager to confess as the others,” says Sae.

Goro sneers. “Who? An Olympic medalist, a mobster, rich men? As if they knew what they were in for. Go visit any of them in prison and ask if they’re regretting it. I’m penitent, not an idiot.”

“Are you?” Sojiro asks. He snubs out his cigarette and leans on the bar. “Penitent, that is.”

“Yes! You think this bullshit is what I wanted?” He grabs the folder off the table, flips through the papers: custody transfers, tuition statements, court documents. Shido has his hands on everything, leashing Goro to his side and it was fine because Goro didn’t plan past the man’s death, didn’t plan to live -- “It was supposed to make a difference!”

“Well. You sure made a difference, I’ll give you that.”

Goro flings the folder at Sojiro’s face, but that only sends papers flying. Sweeping the shower caddy to the floor is equally dissatisfying, and then there’s nothing else in grabbing distance but Morgana.

Morgana, who nearly volunteers himself for throwing by chiming in, “you should definitely tell them!”

Goro fists a hand in his own hair and pulls until it hurts.

“What’s the cat saying?” Sojiro asks. “He probably has a point.”

“The cat has a brain the size of a walnut!” Goro snaps.

“Excuse you!”

Sae is between Goro and anything breakable. “I also wanted to make it clear that I know where you stand. I’m not without sympathy, and, quite frankly, I had no place being complicit in the use of a minor as spectacle.”

Goro thinks he might hit her. He thinks it might be worth it.

The bells above the door chime brightly. Leblanc is still on its extended hiatus, the chalkboard outside apologizing for a long absence in light of a ‘family matter,’ which must sound better than ‘harboring a murderer.’ Akira tucks his keys in his pocket as he holds the door open for Futaba and Yusuke, each of them loaded down with Mister Donut boxes. Goro could escape, if it didn’t mean elbowing one or all of them in the face.

Three pairs of eyes track from the mess of papers on the floor to Goro, still tugging at his own damp hair and no doubt flush with anger. Akira’s eyebrows crease together as he frowns.

“Excuse me,” Goro says, perfectly light and calm, and retreats to the bathroom with long strides. He does not slam the door behind him. He sits down on the closed toilet and sinks his teeth into the meat of his palm.

He spends too much time in here. It’s stupid and unsanitary, but it’s the only place in this damn cafe with a door that locks.

Minutes pass. Goro breathes around the sting of his teeth and listens to the muffled rise and fall of voices. His heart calms and his face cools. As soon as he stops biting himself, he feels foolish for having done it. It was a bad habit he maintained as a child, from chewing on hangnails to gnawing his knuckles raw, that he trained himself out of for polite society.

There’s a knock on the door.

“Goro?” Akira calls through the frosted glass. “Can I come in?”

How romantic. Goro hauls himself up to unlock the door and crack it just enough for Akira to squeeze through. Then he latches it again and slumps against the sink.

“I didn’t know they were going to ambush you like that.”

“It was hardly an ambush.” Goro shoves his hands in his pockets so that he can’t do anything more pathetic than that. “If I can’t handle people telling me plain facts like they think I’m an idiot, I’ll never get into college.”

“Morgana told us about Shido.”

Of course. But it’s hard to be mad when his confined space is shared with Akira, when Akira reaches out with one hand -- the other is holding something bundled up in napkins -- and just holds Goro’s wrist.

“I’m selling your cat to the dog food factory,” Goro grumbles anyway.

“Not my cat. Look, Sojiro was the boring version of James Bond before he retired. He’s going to work something out. He’s making phone calls right now.”

Akira’s so earnest. He hurts Goro’s teeth, like the human equivalent of brainfreeze. Shouldn’t have eaten so fast.

“Why?”

“Hell if I know.” As if Akira doesn’t understand that favors are his due, and really, who doesn’t seek to clear bars when he asks them nicely to jump? “I brought you a donut. I made the mistake of thinking that Yusuke would keep the change instead of just buying five-thousand yen worth, so if you don’t like this one I can get you seven more.”

He holds out the napkin bundle to reveal the donut, covered in glaze and sprinkles and slightly squashed.

“You want me to eat a donut in the bathroom?”

“Hey, I clean this bathroom. You could go bobbing for donuts in that toilet.”

“Does anyone else know how disgusting you are?”

“No, you’re special.” Akira waves the donut in front of Goro’s nose, all straight-faced like he isn’t ridiculous. “Eat the bathroom donut, Goro.”

Goro grabs Akira’s wrist and tears a chunk out of the donut, which is the most productive thing he’s done with his idiot mouth all day. It’s a good bathroom donut. They share it, trading bites until Akira pops the last piece into Goro’s mouth and waits patiently for him to swallow. Then he leans in and kisses glaze from his lips.

Which answers a couple of questions about their mutual status, though not all of them.

Given the day-week-month-year-life he’s had, Goro is willing to indulge bathroom canoodling. It’s slow and sweet, heady. Akira plants a kiss on his cheek and nuzzles into his hair.

“Huh. You smell like me.”

“What a passably romantic thing to say. I stole your shampoo.” Goro’s fingers tighten in Akira’s sleeves. “Then I threw it on the floor.”

“...well, it’s kind of weird, to be honest.”

“You’re kind of weird.” Goro ignores the soft huff of laughter against his ear. “How long until someone comes to break the door down?”

“Not long enough,” Akira admits, then he pauses and shifts his hands so that his fingers are looped around Goro’s wrists, gentle but insistent. “Sae has a request for us.”

 

11/21

 

Futaba: I really don’t want to forgive him, you know? There’s the ~whole thing~ but he’s also just kind of a butthead?

Futaba: and okay, his heart changed, but I went through most of that deal and still came out me the other end!

Futaba: maybe if it WERE a fun new personality button I’d feel better about the whole deal.

Haru: You’re not obligated. Particularly not just because Akira has burdened you with this. Akechi is manipulative and rude.

Futaba: That’s the meanest thing I’ve ever heard you say.

Haru: Really?

Futaba: about a human being and not a monster you’re about to punt, yeah

Futaba: I encourage this, obviously!!!

Futaba: pls punt Goro Akechi

Haru: I don’t think Akira would be pleased with me.

Futaba: Okay let’s take a second and shove how Akira feels up Akira’s butt

Futaba: This is about how WE feel!

Haru: I think I’m having as much trouble as you working that out.

Futaba: Yeah. :/

Futaba: I just...I spent a really long time being mad at myself, about mom

Futaba: And that didn’t go well!

Futaba: I’m glad you met me after, because it’s nice to know you don’t look at me and see what I was.

Futaba: Because I was a mess!

Futaba: And I don’t want to do that to me again. So I don’t know how long I can spend being angry.

Haru: Are those our only options? Anger or forgiveness?

Futaba: idk!!! What’s in the middle? Can you co-exist with someone and be okay and never forgive them? Am I ALWAYS gonna look over and be like ‘boy howdy I wanna punch this guy in the dick’ even if like thirty seconds before I saw his idiot face I was considering kinda sorta forgiving him?

Haru: To be honest, I haven’t even gotten to the considering it stage of that.

Haru: I guess I just need more time.

Futaba: and a baseball bat, am i right or am i right

 

Haru is used to keeping the world locked behind her teeth. She sits through dinners with her fiance, she lets him touch the back of her hand and the curl of her hair. She keeps on breathing, she lets it all pass by without a comment. She keeps her head down and she works hard for her own freedom while she can still imagine that such a thing exists.

She reminds herself that she’s a Phantom Thief. It doesn’t help much anymore, not given who shares the calling card.

When she closes her eyes, she watches her father die again and again.

Akechi did you a favor.

Is she more upset with the dog that bit her, or the boy who let it off the leash?

Futaba’s right: anger is exhausting. Loneliness is worse. Morgana only has so many transportation options, given his lack of opposable thumbs. Akira didn’t come to school this morning.

He’s called a meeting. Haru hasn’t responded to the group text yet.

It’s not that battle lines have been drawn, exactly. It’s just that Ann is in Akira’s corner, and it feels inappropriate to go running to Makoto or Futaba with every emotional hangnail, given what they’ve gone through. Ryuji, desperate to avoid conflict, is avoiding everyone, and even if Haru felt particularly close to Yusuke, he’s assigned himself to Futaba’s well-being. In his way. Futaba has been texting a rundown of his bad opinions on anime for two hours.

Perhaps it was all just fun while it lasted. She never got on well with her peers before; she’s surprised it took a crisis for the cracks to show. If she gets married, at least she’ll spend the majority of her time among adults, navigating the world of business wives and mistresses. She can find allies there, she’s sure of it; some of the older women already take pity on her.

Haru clutches the watering can and stares bleakly down at her garden. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the thrill of battle or the rush of victory and start thinking in terms of what she’ll be allowed.

The door to the roof swings open. Haru takes a deep breath before turning around and manages a small smile for Makoto. And Ryuji, which is a surprise. He slumps in one of the abandoned desks, kicking his feet up. If he looks tired, and Makoto exhausted, Haru can only imagine what’s waiting for her in the mirror.

Makoto holds out a bento. “Did you remember to eat?”

“Oh.” Haru thinks. “No.”

“It’s good! I stole some.”

Makoto rolls her eyes. “I shared some, in exchange for Ryuji helping me clean the student council room. And then we thought we might find you here.”

“I’m sorry I made you come looking.”

Makoto pushes the bento into Haru’s hands, then dithers a bit. Finally, she skips a few steps back towards the desk and pulls out a chair like a maitre’d.

“Please eat.”

Haru does as she’s told.

“Gotta keep your strength up. It sounds like the Phantom Thieves ain’t over yet.”

“Ain’t is not a word.”

Ryuji levels a finger at Makoto. “Akira told me to call you a prescriptivist whenever you do that, whatever the hell that means.”

Makoto wrinkles her nose. Despite herself, Haru smiles around a bite of rice. Ryuji and Makoto bicker as she eats, a running commentary between them that lacks any real teeth. Haru manages to get more food down than she has in days. Then she gathers up all her courage.

“You’ve been talking to Akira?” she asks Ryuji.

He cuts himself off in the middle of an impassioned defense of ‘blatant anarchy.’ “Yeah. I mean, we text. He’s been kind of. Busy.”

“With Akechi,” says Haru.

“...yeah.”

“You know,” says Haru, staring at Makoto’s delicately manicured nails so that she doesn’t have to make eye contact with either of them, “I thought about calling the police. I still have influence. I still have money. I could at least see him accused, and that would be enough to ruin him.”

Makoto’s hands clench and stutter, as if she’s aborted some movement. “Likely. His reputation, at least, which has suffered too many trials this year to endure another blow. Is that what you want to do?”

“What would you say, if I wanted to?”

Neither of them says anything for too long. Haru looks up. Ryuji is picking at a hangnail, his entire face a grimace. He would tell her no. He would tell Akira. That’s fine. Makoto frowns, but it’s thoughtful rather than judgmental.

“I would support you, but given what my sister’s told me about Masayoshi Shido, and Akira’s...entanglement in the situation…”

“The situation is delicate. I understand. I would hate to put Akira in danger.”

It’s a relief that she’s not lying.

“And really, what’s the point?”

Haru stares at Ryuji. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what’s the point?” Ryuji makes a wide hand gesture that does nothing to elucidate him repeating himself. “Like, I get it. And I’m gonna be the first in line to push Akechi down a flight of stairs if Akira decides that’s cool, but what’s fucking him over or putting him in jail going to do that we haven’t already?”

“You could say the same about all our targets,” Makoto says, manicure clenched tight.

“Maybe! Man, I don’t know.” He scrubs a hand through his hair. “I’m not saying we should go fling open the cell doors for Kamoshida, but. I don’t know! It was just a thought. You know I’m not any good at those.”

“It’s something to think about,” Haru concedes, though she doesn’t think she will. Akechi in jail would make her feel better. Safer.

Or would it?

“Will you come to the meeting?” Makoto asks. “You don’t have to decide anything before then, but you’re a member of this team.”

Ryuji and Makoto look so hopeful.

“I’ll come to the meeting.”

She pushes the half-empty bento away. She’s not hungry anymore.

 

11/22

Goro knows this isn’t going to work. He knows that he, himself, specifically, is not going to work. Hardly a word has been said and he’s already jealous. It’s not a new feeling, particularly not when faced with the sight of the Phantom Thieves sitting around a table, ready for action and the power of friendship. Goro sits in a bar stool turned toward their booth, his elbows on the counter behind him, and swallows down acid. He wonders: would they gather like this for Akira no matter what? How far must he fall before they turn their backs on him?

A useless thought, idle nonsense doomed to sour fruit. Akira is special, and Goro has been able to cope with that truth because he, in turn, is special to Akira. And yet, so are they. Maybe a mutual donut and swapped spit is simply how Akira gives his pledge of friendship. They still haven’t discussed it. Goro isn’t going to be the one to bring it up. He would rather sit here and glare miserably at the lot of them, digging the nail of his thumb into the flesh of his pinky.

Sae addresses them with the gravity of a courtroom proceeding:

“Given what Akechi has told us, this can’t end here. Masayoshi Shido’s bid for power would tear this country into pieces. I cannot let his criminal history and gross misuse of power stand. I’m building a case against him.”

Most of the indomitable Phantom Thieves look a little lost. Shido remains a hypothetical in their world, a boogeyman Sae sketches out in shadow puppets and dark tales. The children gape at her and imagine horrors, but there’s no real fear in them, no urgency.

“It’ll never work,” Goro tells her, and he hears himself using his television voice. That’s going to piss her off. “Even if you could build a case against him, it’ll never make it to court. He’ll bribe the judge. If the judge can’t be bribed, he’ll have the judge killed. And then you, for good measure.”

Ryuji glares. “What the hell, man! Don’t you wanna stop this guy?”

It is remarkably undignified to know that, in the process of stealing his heart, the Phantom Thieves rifled through his dirty laundry. Goro cannot imagine what his shadow was; he doesn’t want to. It was probably pathetic. He probably would have shot it. Spilling his secrets to Akira is one thing. Having the collective hooligans stare down their noses at the bastard child of Masayoshi Shido is another entirely. Goro digs his nail in harder.

“I want Shido to die slowly and in great pain. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be stupid about it.”

“It wouldn’t be so impossible,” says Sae, “if he weren’t working against us, and if I had a confession.”

“You want us to steal his heart,” says Akira.

She nods, pleased with him. “Exactly.”

Goro expects them to leap to their feet with enthusiasm and declare their righteousness. Instead, the majority of the group fidgets and looks at one another, unsure.

“This is important,” says Haru, and it’s the first she’s talked all night. “But…”

“Does Akechi expect to come with us?” Makoto asks, when Haru falters.

“Oh, I would insist.”

Sae gives Goro a sharp look. “We need him alive to get him to confess.”

“For how long?” Goro asks sweetly. He’s screwing with her; he shouldn’t be. This could be his chance, and he should reach out and take it. But they hate him. He knows they hate him, and he refuses to prostrate himself before them. Help me, Phantom Thieves!

“Goro,” says Akira, and that says enough.

Goro looks away, examines the news-crawl on the muted television. No more disasters, without him to cause them. “The indignity would be more than enough, I suppose.”

“I’m not going anywhere with him,” Haru says, pretending at sternness. Goro’s seen her mow through shadows like a woman possessed; he despises her meekness in the real world, the way she constantly looks to Akira for guidance over this or that. He’s pieced together enough of the story: a girl so terrified of being poor that she won’t even say no to a predator.

Haru Okumura is emancipated, or well on her way last Goro inquired with the right people. Her company-supplied lawyers blazed through that red tape.

“He’s a part of this,” Akira says. “He has more right than anyone to be there, if we’re going to do this.”

“He’s not a part of this team,” says Haru.

Goro glances over. Akira’s expression is a perfect mask of calm.

Again, Makoto backs Haru up. “He didn’t even want to be involved in the first place. I agree with Sis’s reasons for this request, and we need to do it, but he’s not coming.”

“None of you know Shido as well as I do. Good luck guessing his keywords, much less navigating whatever you find in there.”

“We’ve managed fine until now,” says Makoto. “We managed you.

“I managed that,” Akira says, placid but unmoved. “And I only managed it because Goro’s shadow helped me.”

Most of them goggle at Akira for a bit, which gives Goro the time he needs to mask his own shock. That’s the first he’s heard of it. But, really. Of course. Of course even the deepest buried parts of him sit up and beg for Akira Kurusu.

If Haru is pathetic, then Goro has truly reached a new low. But --

He catches Akira’s eye, catches the softness in that look. Goro feels his ears heat and something truly terrible happens to his stomach.

It’s all right. He’ll take this.

What he will not take is being pushed out of his own revenge.

“I’m coming with you.”

There’s so much built up behind the trembling dam of Haru. Makoto puts an arm around her shoulder, protecting the dear, sweet axe-wielding career criminal.

“Absolutely not,” Makoto says.

Sae holds up a hand to cut off Akira’s response. “You have some time to consider it. I would rather you go into this battle with a cohesive plan, so please talk it over.”

She leaves, taking her air of official calm with her, and the discussion at the table devolves into a rabble. Goro stands and crosses the few feet of space. He puts a hand on Akira’s shoulder and leans down, ignoring everyone else in the room.

“Convince them,” he says. “I’m going to pick up some more clothes and my mail.”

He resists the urge to drop a kiss on Akira’s cheek, his mouth. It’s Akira who reaches up and gives Goro’s hand an affectionate squeeze.

“Text me when you get there, and when you’re coming back.”

Goro does not say, that really won’t help you if I decide to throw myself in front of a train. This opportunity to take down Shido is one too good to miss.

Voices raise behind him as he leaves.

Luckily, it’s early enough that the trains are still running, though he may have to take a cab back to Yongen and eat the cost. He can’t imagine Akira will be happy with him hoofing it through Tokyo. It’s a strange new sensation, wanting to ask for permission, wanting danger to be denied.

His apartment building is just as he left it.

“Hello,” he says to the spider on his doorbell. “I’m home.”

He knows something is wrong as soon as he opens the door. When he and Akira left days ago, no one was thinking about closing the sliding doors between kitchen and living area. They’re closed now. The apartment is dark; there’s no way for Goro to guess if the shadows he sees through frosted glass are right or wrong.

His mail is on the little table next to the entryway, barely illuminated by the moon and streetlight coming in through the door behind him.

If he runs, there will be someone waiting. Goro lets the heavy door fall closed behind him, steps out of his loafers and lines them up neatly with his sneakers. He clicks on the kitchen light and flips through his mail; let his intruder sit and stew for a little while longer. Bills, junk mail, a flyer for a local pizza place. The bills will have to be paid before the end of the month, but there’s no time to do the math now.

“If he wants to talk to me,” says Goro in a convivial sort of way, “he knows my cell number. This is really very melodramatic.”

It only takes a few steps for him to cross to the sliding door. He rests a hand on it, preparing himself for whatever talk lies beyond, and nearly misses the man slipping out of his cramped bathroom. The man gets an arm around his neck, but Goro gets his fingers between them and digs his nails hard into considerable muscle. The man jerks, which just puts his suit-covered arm in front of Goro’s mouth.

Goro bites hard and stomps his food down on the man’s instep at the same time. His attacker lets him go and reels back, but the sliding door slams open and Goro takes a fist hard across the face. He ducks the next swing -- hurls himself up into a headbutt that clacks the new asshole’s jaws together hard and hopefully he bites through his own fucking tongue --

Hands wrap around his ankles and yank hard, and he hits the floor. His cheek smacks into tile. He kicks out, hits nothing, kicks out again and hits the first attacker in the nose, hears the muffled thud and feels resistance giving under his heel, good. Weight pushes down on him, knees dig into his back, and some motherfucker has the sheer goddamn gall to handcuff him.

Goro gets out about two seconds of a thunderous scream before a gag is shoved into his mouth.

It’s very undignified.

He would prefer this not be happening.

Akira is going to be upset.

He’s hauled to his feet. The living room light clicks on. The space is too small for Shido, who seems to fill it from corner to corner with his smirk and his idiotic sunglasses.

“Now, Akechi, you’re making it very difficult to have a conversation.”

Goro glares. “Go fuck yourself,” is muffled by the gag but unmistakable.

“Do you know what I’m going to do to you if you scream?” Shido asks conversationally. He reaches out and grabs Goro’s chin, squeezing hard. “I’m going to sew your mouth shut. Now, can we try having a civilized talk?”

Shido jerks Goro’s head up and down in the parody of a nod, then backs off. One of the goons pulls the gag out of Goro’s mouth. Goro debates spitting. He debates making another go at biting or hollering.

“You could have called,” he hisses out instead.

“I don’t think that would make the point I’m going for. And I wanted to check up on you, get a look at this nice apartment we provided.” Shido puts a thoughtful hand to his chin and peers around, a great parody of inspection. “I just can’t put my finger on it, but there must be something wrong with it. Why haven’t you been coming home, Akechi?”

Goro tries to stand as tall as he’s able, given the circumstances. “I’ve decided it’s a shitty apartment.”

“I can see that, now that you’ve gone all bohemian. It certainly doesn’t live up to a private attic above a coffee shop, does it? None of that rustic charm.”

Goro’s heartbeat rushes in his ears. This is the price he pays for being distracted, for spending so many hours swinging between miserable and besotted. He likely earned a tail after his last meeting with Shido. There’s likely been someone poking around Yongen and asking innocuous questions.

Who owns that cafe there? Oh, Sojiro Sakura.

Such a bright girl, is that his daughter? Oh yes, that’s Futaba. Adopted, you know.

And the young man, his son? Oh no, just a part-timer.

Goro should have gone to Aokigahara when he had the chance. He swallows hard and drags the pieces of himself back together as best he can. He attempts a disaffected shrug, which is obnoxiously difficult when cuffed.

“The neighbors got an annoying new dog, and I thought it would’ve been too obvious to shoot it.”

“So you’re staying with this ‘friend’ of yours?” Shido chuckles at a joke no one’s told. “You’re a bit of a freak. It comes with your territory, doesn’t it?”

“How backward-thinking of you.”

“I hope it’s the part-timer and not the owner.”

Goro can’t quite stop himself from making a face. “Don’t be disgusting.”

“We’ve met, you know, Sakura and I. I suppose you aren’t his type. You remember Wakaba Isshiki, don’t you? Practically an alien, before you made her a corpse. Does he know?”

Yes.

“Has something convinced you that I’m stupid?” Goro asks.

Wrong question. Shido’s hand is broad enough to get a very good grip on Goro’s throat. The first squeeze is a warning. Goro wills himself not to falter in the guard’s hold. He scowls up at Shido, imperious as he can manage.

Something has certainly planted the seed in my head. Stupid or arrogant, maybe. Soft on that boy?” Shido leans closer, squeezes hard. “Tell you what, I’ve decided what my favor to you will be. Give me the names of the Phantom Thieves, and I won’t arrange for him to disappear into the Yakuza markets.”

Goro needs calm like he needs air; he’s not enjoying a surplus of either.

He thinks: say Haru Okumura.

He thinks: say Yusuke, Ryuji, Ann, Makoto. Say Futaba! They’re disposable, they’re not him.

He thinks: I can’t

What he says is, “Risette.”

Shido nods to the guard, and the guard lets Goro go. Goro stumbles, thinks of no clever plan before Shido throws him to the ground. His shoulder hits the kotatsu and he lands on his cuffed hands. He hooks an ankle around the guard’s, tries to sweep him to the floor, but Shido kicks his leg aside.

Whatever air Goro gasped in through thirty seconds of violence is made more precious by Shido’s foot on his throat. Goro takes a moment to be offended: Shido hasn’t taken his shoes off in the apartment. There’s terrible pressure on his windpipe. Does he imagine the sound of internal bits grinding together?

It’s only when he goes limp, stars popping in his vision, that Shido lets up enough for Goro to drag in a thin breath.

“I like to think I’ve been good to you over the years,” says Shido. “And I’ll admit, you’ve been useful. Have a little dignity, Akechi, and take my deal. By the time I’m elected, I want the corpse of that Phantom Thief you’re screwing. Akira Kurusu, was it? And try not to lie to me again. It’s disappointing.”

He doesn’t care if he kills me is perhaps an unintelligent revelation, when it comes part and parcel with Shido pushing weight onto Goro’s neck until he blacks out.

 

Sojiro is nearly ready to call it a night and head to bed when the doorbell rings. He looks to Futaba, who barely glances up from her gameboy to shrug. Sojiro mutes the NHK and levers himself up with a sigh and creaking bones he hates to admit to. A lot of people might have to ask themselves when they got so old; Sojiro knows the timeline exactly.

Akira is at the gate, stone-faced and fidgeting with his phone.

“What’s the matter?” Sojiro asks.

“Can I borrow the car?”

Sojiro snorts. “What, to sit in?”

“The car, and you to drive it?”

Him asking is a hell of a lot better than him lying and sneaking out.

“Just let me tell Futaba we’ll be gone.”

Akira nods once, sharply, and goes back to spinning his phone between his hands like he’s not worried about dropping the damn thing. By the time Sojiro returns, he hasn’t moved.

“All right, what’s up?”

“Goro hasn’t texted.”

“I’m honestly surprised you let him leave in the first place.”

Akira flinches. “I didn’t exactly want to, but can you imagine if I’d left? Or if I’d argued with him right then?”

It’s impressive how clearly Akira sees people and situations. It’s probably how he caused such a ruckus when he lashed out: it’s hard to push buttons you don’t know are there. Sojiro’s agency would love to train that sort of talent, but he thinks any organization toting badges will find Akira’s bridges thoroughly burned.

Shame about that Goro Akechi-shaped blindspot. Maybe by the time Akira runs for office, murderous gay partners will be passe.

“You know where he lives, I hope?”

“He lives -- ” Akira catches himself on something. “Yeah. I know where his apartment is. Let me put the address in my phone. And thank you. I really mean it.”

“Hope it’s no trouble.”

Of course it’s trouble. There’s no smoke without fire, and they’ve all been cheerfully hacking up a lung. The door to Akechi’s apartment is locked, and though the lights are on he doesn’t respond to the doorbell. Akira boosts himself up to peer through the kitchen window, but drops back down, swearing softly under his breath.

“Doors are closed, can’t see anything. Can you keep watch?”

Sojiro turns around and peers down the street just so he can pretend he didn’t see Akira pulling a lockpick out of his pocket. Thieves. Right. It’s a matter of minutes before the door creaks open. Sojiro pulls it quietly shut behind them as Akira strides across the kitchen without taking off his shoes.

They’ve both braced themselves to find a corpse. For a moment, Sojiro thinks they have, but corpses don’t rattle air in and out of their lungs in wheezing, gasping need. Akira’s next to him in an instant, checking his pulse in the inanity of panic.

“Fuck,” Akira breathes. He gets an arm around Akechi’s shoulders and pulls him upright. “He’s -- he’s handcuffed, can you -- ”

Sojiro kneels down and holds Akechi upright, one hand to keep him sitting, one hand to tilt his head up and ease his breathing. Akira’s hands are steady with the lockpick, and it’s not long before the cuffs clatter to the floor. They’re lucky someone was feeling old-fashioned -- making a point? -- and went with the cuffs instead of plastic zips.

“We should call an ambulance.”

Akira grimaces. “I know.”

Not an option. “Hold his head for me for a second.”

It’s been awhile since Sojiro had any reason to sling around bodies, unconscious or otherwise, and Akechi’s not exactly delicate. Sojiro’s knees aren’t going to be happy with him in the morning. A fireman’s carry would be better than bridal-style and risking concussing the kid on a doorframe, but his airway’s got enough to worry about as is.

They get him to the car, and Sojiro bundles him into the backseat with Akira. Then he sits for a too-long moment in the driver’s seat and tries to get his bearings. One deep breath, two. Three. Then he pulls out of the back alley and heads toward home.

“You know Takemi, right?” he asks, and just catches Akira’s nod in the rearview mirror. “Call her and tell her to meet us at Leblanc.”

“Okay.”

It’s not until Akira has suffered through a strained phone conversation that Akechi wakes up. His breathing changes, hitches; Sojiro adjusts the rearview to make sure he’s not choking on his own tongue. But he’s burying his face in Akira’s jacket and --

Laughing, in terrible, abrupt gasps.

Sojiro drives a little faster.

 

“It totally doesn’t count as being out by myself if you’re with me, right?”

“Right,” says Morgana, then peers up and down the street as if Akira is going to pop out of the shadows any second. “And we deserve an explanation!”

Futaba doesn’t care about an explanation, really. She already knows that explanation is named Goro Akechi. But sometimes it’s hard to be alone in the house, now. She’ll just sit in the dark and think things like, what if Sojiro never comes back? And now when she thinks about withering away in her room, too nervous to even open the door --

She has nightmares about the house being locked from the outside.

So! Outside it is. She sits in front of Leblanc’s door with Morgana on her lap and waits. Akira has to come home eventually, and she’s easy to find if Sojiro goes back to the house. It’s not like Akira can corner the market on juvenile delinquency! And it’s kind of nice, when there’s no other people, just the cracking buzz of the street lights, the hum of insects and distant traffic.

The first person to show up is heralded, not by slamming car doors and gruff voices, but the tack-tack of high heels on pavement. Doctor What’s-her-face draws up to Leblanc and stops, her eyes tracking to the dark windows and then to Futaba.

“Am I here for you?”

Futaba shrugs. “Not that I know. What’s your name again?”

“You can just call me Tae. Any idea where your dad is, Kiddo?”

It would be easy to take offense, except Tae looks like the sort of lady who calls 90-year-old men kiddo just to piss them off. She’s not quite as spectacular as the few times Futaba’s seen her getting coffee, but it is getting late. Probably even the most devoted people don’t want to slap on a new coat of makeup and take off their pajama pants.

“Him and Akira went somewhere.”

“Oh goody, a mystery. Love those.”

Futaba would love to say they linger there in comfortable silence like some sort of social wizards who never have awkward silences, but if Sojiro and Akira called a doctor… Anxiety worms into Futaba’s stomach and starts gnawing with all its little teeth. Maybe they weren’t going out for Akechi. Or maybe they were, and Akechi’s change of heart didn’t take the way they thought it would. Maybe a heart doesn’t stay stolen forever.

Finally, headlights in the distance, the sound of an engine cutting off, a car door, footsteps.

Akira and Sojiro look fine. Akechi, on the other hand, looks like hell. He’s strung between them like a shitty Christmas decoration, feet dragging as he supports himself on their shoulders. Futaba can hear him struggling to breathe from clear down the street. She startles to her feet, and Morgana leaps off her lap to go running to Akira.

“What happened!”

Akira’s face is -- Akira’s not really making a face. He’s just sort of frowning and staring into the middle distance. “Shido.”

If Tae thinks it’s a weird response to meowing, she doesn’t mention it. She strides forward and takes the keys Sojiro hands her. She unlocks the door and motions Futaba to go ahead of her.

“I don’t know where the light switches are,” she explains, which at least gives Futaba something to do.

She darts inside and flicks on all the lights while Sojiro and Akira haul Akechi in to sit on a table. Morgana jumps up next to him and forgets he’s not a cat or something, because he headbutts Akechi’s arm until Akechi notices him and sort of dully pats his head.

“What happened?” It sounds a lot colder when Tae says it.

“We’re not sure,” says Sojiro, “other than the obvious. Somebody tried to strangle him.”

Akechi opens his mouth, but Tae cuts him off with a sharp gesture.

“Don’t try to talk. You know he should be at a hospital, I hope.”

“Dr. Takemi,” says Akira. “Please. Not right now.”

Tae sighs hard through clenched teeth. “Fine. On your head be it. If he needs a trach, none of us are going to be happy. Get me what ice packs you have, and if you have some bufferin...”

Futaba grabs the opportunity with both hands. She scrambles to the bathroom to grab their first-aid kit, then hauls all of Sojiro’s ice packs out of the freezer. They’re supposed to be for burns. She piles the bounty on the table next to Akechi, which unfortunately means she looks at Akechi. One side of his face and his neck are an angry red.

He catches Futaba’s eye and smiles at her in a way she Does Not Like. She squeaks and retreats.

Tae taps his unmarred cheek. “Stop that, and look at me. Tilt your head back. Akira, has he been coughing or otherwise expectorating any blood or froth?”

“No. He’s coughed a little, but nothing comes up. It’s usually when he tries to talk.”

“Let’s make sure he doesn’t do that, then. Sojiro, warm water and honey? Let’s not do fun experiments with pill swallowing.”

Tae wraps the ice packs in towels and makes Akechi hold them to his throat while they wait for the water. Futaba tugs on Akira’s sleeve. He lets her guide him just outside the booth’s chaos.

“You said it was you-know-who?” she whispers. She’s not great at whispering, but damn does the situation call for it now.

“What, Voldemort?” As far as his humor goes, it’s a sad-sack attempt and he knows it. “Yeah, I don’t. Obviously I don’t know the details yet. I should have been with him.”

“What, so you’d both have the shit kicked out of you?” He doesn’t look comforted. “And we wouldn’t have let you go anyway.”

“I know. I do. I just -- I should have been with him.”

Their attention keeps tracking back to Akechi like heat-seeking missiles. Futaba can’t help it; Akira might be doing it on purpose. Tae grinds up a pill of bufferin with the back of a spoon and mixes it in with water and honey. As soon as she starts talking, Akira’s back at her side.

“Technically, I’m declaring him nothing-by-mouth, but I don’t want to take the time running back to my clinic for an IV setup.”

Akechi must be pretty damn tired, because he lets her tip the mix into his mouth with little complaint. He shudders as he swallows, the sort of jittering pain-spasm that Futaba associates with zio spells.

“Nothing-by-mouth?” Sojiro echoes.

“Ice chips and anti-inflammatories only for the next 24 hours, and you should really fucking take him to a hospital, I’m not kidding. But if you’re not, you can freeze juice, tea, or broth for him. I’ll bring him stronger pain killers once I’m satisfied he’s not going to drop dead. Any other injuries?”

Akechi shakes his head, but Akira says, “He was handcuffed.”

“For fuck’s sake...give me your hands. Akira, hold the packs on for him, thank you.”

The gist of the next five horrible minutes is that nerve damage is a possibility, but Akechi’s grip is still good so maybe he just won’t be able to feel temperatures in his pinky anymore. No big deal! Futaba feels sick.

Tae leaves them with a list of instructions -- set up a humidifier, no talking, don’t do this again -- and a promise to bring those painkillers and something for the inevitable bruises.

“All right,” says Sojiro, “we should all get some rest.”

Akechi croaks out something that’s almost linguistic.

Akira nudges him, very gently, with an elbow. “Hey, what did the nice doctor just say?”

Akechi scowls, drops the thawing ice packs on the table, and mimes writing something. The marks on his face are already starting to swell and darken, like a timelapse event in front of their eyes. It would be fascinating if it were a little less horrible or maybe on a screen somewhere.

When he’s been armed with an order pad from behind the counter, Akechi hesitates. He looks around at all of them, and he doesn’t try to force that perfect smile.

He scrawls something and holds the notepad up:

THANK YOU

It’s in brisk, untidy kana, as if he’s too tired to summon even the most commonplace kanji. Futaba doesn’t blame him. Not for that, at least.

What he writes next is worse.

I’M SORRY

And worse.

I WAS WRONG

The pen breaks through the paper and tears into the layer underneath. The deep breath Akechi takes rips through his throat and he shudders again. He manages one more unhappy attempt at speaking before he flings the notebook to the ground and leans his weight on Akira.

Futaba doesn’t forgive him. That’s too much right now, too big and too heavy, and she knows it. But she can’t be angry, either. Or, well, maybe she could. She thinks she could rage and yell and stomp her feet, if she let herself, but that’s no good for her either.  So there must be something in between, and she’ll go with that for now. Acceptance. Just because she’s going to keep all the eyes she’s got on Akechi doesn’t mean she can’t feel some sympathy for the kid sitting choked-out and exhausted on one of Leblanc’s tables.

 

11/24

What if he did this on purpose?

Even as Haru thinks it, she knows it’s uncharitable, but she doesn’t have much charity left for Akechi. Certainly, if that were true, people who harm themselves do so for very profound reasons. Haru’s just worried that Akechi’s profound reason is getting one over on Akira.

If they’re lucky, this will bring an end to it. Akechi can’t mean to go running around the Metaverse black-and-blue from cheekbone to nape, wheezing faintly.

Today, Akechi isn’t sitting apart from the rest of them at the bar, staring down at them with raised eyebrows and a superior expression. Today, he’s tucked in the far corner of the booth with Akira next to him and a small dry-erase board on the table. Haru arrived far too early and found herself caught without enough barriers between her and him. Morgana abandoned his perch between them to come say hi, but.

All evidence of the playful back-and-forth between Akechi and Akira, a black-and-blue waterfall of dumb jokes and bad doodles down the whiteboard, has been erased.

Akira looks very serious now, and aptly enough.

“Masayoshi Shido still wants me dead,” he says, and it’s followed up by Akechi scribbling on his board and holding it up like he’s announcing the next boxing round.

ALL OF YOU DEAD, BUT HE THINKS HE KNOWS AKIRA

“And whose fault is that?” Makoto demands.

Akechi just shrugs and points to himself with a wry grimace. This is why he scares Haru. He rocks between perfectly pleasant and too sharp, and there’s no indication of what’s real. How can he act like this now, when his father nearly killed him?

“I think this decides it,” says Ann. “We have to change Shido’s heart, or we’re so screwed.”

Akechi looks right at Haru and Makoto when he flips up his next message. I’M COMING.

Haru clenches her fists under the table. “Even if I’d agree, you’re too injured.”

MORGANA SAYS B/C METAVERSE COGNITIVE, PROB NOT ISSUE

He could at least do her the dignity of having nice handwriting, if she’s going to have to look at it, but it’s boyish and scrawling. He doesn’t even write out the kanji in ‘cognitive.’ She’s certain he would if he were on television, as certain as she is that he’s capable of exacting calligraphy.

“Still,” says Makoto. “We would all have to agree, and we don’t.”

NOT LETTING SHIDO NEAR AKIRA

Next to Haru, Ryuji shifts uncomfortably. “Come on, let him come. What’d we change his heart for, if we’re not gonna take advantage of his persona?”

Akechi gives Ryuji a thumbs up that seems to startle Ryuji as much as it disconcerts Haru.

“It’s not that I’m putting my foot down,” Akira says, “but I want him there. Or I’m just going to worry.”

Morgana plants his cat-butt on top of the whiteboard, cutting off whatever argument Akechi wants to start about that. “Me too! And we need all the help we can get. Shido’s serious business. And well...if you don’t trust Akechi, wouldn’t you rather keep him where you can see him?”

He dutifully ignores Akechi prodding him in the shoulder with a marker as Makoto mulls that over.

“True enough,” she concedes.

Haru takes a deep breath. She unclenches her fists and presses her palms into her legs so that her hands won’t shake. She keeps her eyes open, because she doesn’t want to see her father dying. Akechi finally shakes Morgana off the whiteboard, and when he’s done writing he slides it over to Haru.

DIDN’T MEAN FOR THIS TO HAPPEN. STUPID. I’M SORRY.

As far as apologies go, it’s a little anemic.

“You meant to kill my father,” she whispers.

He scrambles to take the whiteboard back and writes his next message so violently that the marker squeals across the surface. He flips it back to her.

I WAS STUPID

“You were. I don’t care. It’s -- it’s not enough.”

He caps the marker and slams it on the table, leaving the whiteboard with her and scowling at the wall. Suddenly too sharp.

“You’ll be on separate teams, I promise,” Akira says. “Haru, please. I need you both.”

Haru swallows thickly. “Makoto, do you really think it’s for the best?”

“He’s not going to be teamed up with Haru, but I’m going to be teamed up with him.” Makoto’s jaw is in its most stubborn set. “And if he twitches in a way I don’t like, he knows what will happen.”

“Fine,” Haru concedes. She’s good at conceding, good at crumpling up the sadness and tucking it away where no one can see. This is what Akira wants. This is what Akira’s decided is important, and Haru’s not going to bring it to an ultimatum.

She’s worried she wouldn’t win it.

 

Goro wakes up that morning in excruciating pain and a good mood. Shido has granted him clarity, and the last doubts crumble away like retaining walls failing against the flood. Akira’s death holds no justice; Goro was wrong for years and years, but right in this crucial thing. His sore throat pulls him out of sleep, and he sits awake scratching Morgana’s ears and contemplating the lines of Akira’s face.

It’s all something like happiness or contentment or satisfaction, or some other concept that Goro understands mostly by proxy.

Not even the most doubtful Phantom Thieves can rob him of that, though his temper ebbs and flows. They leave, and his frustration calms. He can’t make them like him, but he doesn’t have to. The consequences of their contempt are no more complicated than awkward silences and difficult conversations.

They will not hurt him.

How strange.

Sojiro sets Akira the task of cleaning up the dining room, then heads home with Futaba. Stubborn, Akira refuses to let Goro help. His breathing’s not that bad. It’s all stoppered in his throat, which he considers leagues above the pressure of cracked and bound ribs. Dr. Takemi is a treasure, or at least her painkillers are. It’s a bit disconcerting that he can’t feel his pinky, but he’ll adjust. He doodles -- badly -- on the whiteboard that contains his voice.

Sae arrives like a bad omen, knocking on Leblanc’s locked door in the middle of a gentle autumn rain.

She’s back in her suit, immaculate Athena come to proclaim to the mortals. She leaves her black umbrella in the rack by the door and shakes Akira’s hand in greeting. Goro doesn’t get up from his seat at the counter; he’s injured, after all.

He slides his whiteboard down the bar to her. DID YOU BRING DINNER?

“I think you’re being fed well enough without me,” she says, then takes a long moment to stare at him.

Rude.

He knows he looks like shit, and it’s hard to hand out disarming smiles when half of his face is a puffy purple mess.

I’M BEING STARVED, he assures her.

Akira rolls his eyes at the scrawled complaint. “I’ll make you okayu tomorrow. Tae said it should be okay by then.”

If Goro’s not careful, Akira is going to invent curry rice porridge.

“Neither of you seem worried,” Sae says.

Goro shrugs. SHIDO WANTED TO MAKE A POINT. POINT MADE. GIVES DEADLINES BECAUSE he pauses and twists the marker cap in his fingers as he thinks HE LIKES TO MAKE YOU WAIT. STEW.

“We’ve got a plan,” Akira says, and, “You can sit. I’ll make you a coffee.”

He ignores Goro pointedly scribbling a coffee order on his board, pulling tea and honey off the shelf along with whatever hoity-toity blend Sae prefers. Sae sits, but she keeps on staring. Goro is starting to feel a bit like he’s going to be dissected, which is usually his clue to say something annoying.

“I have a few questions for you,” Sae says as she accepts the coffee from Akira with a stately nod. “First among them, does Shido know he’s your father?”

How like her, to cut straight to the thing that keeps him up at night. No matter how much he wants to be one step ahead --

HE COULD. I HAVE MY MOTHER’S NAME.

“But does anything bind you to him as a parent, legally and directly?”

People need to stop making Goro laugh. It hurts, even with the blunting effect of the painkillers. A little like taking aspirin and then slamming your hand in a door. Sae winces at the noise he makes, and Akira pushes the tea a little closer.

OF COURSE NOT.

Goro drinks his tea while Sae ponders that. Left to his own devices, he doesn’t much mind pain, but he prefers to choose when and why it happens. Pain can be grounding -- focusing -- in the right circumstances. But to suffer it as a lingering side-effect of Shido being an asshole, having it flair up at unpredictable moments, is frustrating.

Also, it upsets Akira, which is...upsetting in turn. So drowning in honey and green tea it is.

Sae clicks open her bag, and Goro anticipates the return of that awful fucking manila folder. But this stack of papers is different.

Sae says, “I have a proposal. I’ve given it thought, and so has Mr. Sakura, and it seems to us both that your crimes are another symptom of adult failures. There is little reason you should have been capable of such things, and no reason for you to have been encouraged. The system failed you, and that left you burdened with choices and responsibilities that should never have been options.”

It’s quite a speech, and she means it. She speaks quietly, but she’s level, intense, and doesn’t break eye contact.

“I’m not a child,” Goro rasps. The point is too important to be made in purple marker.

“Yes, you are. Yes, you were. And while that doesn’t absolve you, it presents us with a unique opportunity to make good on our mistakes.” She places the packet in front of him. “These are custody papers.”

For a sharp-edged moment, the world stops spinning. The universe pauses in its expansion. Goro’s battered throat gets a rest as he forgets to breathe. It’s --

What is this?

Pity?

A trap?

Akira stops pretending he isn’t paying attention. He moves back to the counter and places a hand on the papers. Goro nods, still stunned, and Akira picks up the packet and begins to leaf through it.

“You?” Akira asks Sae.

Goro hears the question, but he doesn’t quite process the meaning until Sae nods.

“I’m not going to ask Mr. Sakura to take responsibility, given the circumstances, and there’s literally no one else. I’m not interested in being anyone’s mother, I promise you that, but I am interested in making sure Akechi behaves himself. Supervision, school, therapy.”

“This is blackmail,” says Goro.

“If you want to think of it that way. Or you can choose to see it as an opportunity.”

“If he doesn’t?” Akira asks.

“That would certainly have an impact on actions I take in the future.”

Like deciding whether to prosecute Goro alongside his father. Whether to keep him in a juvenile facility until he’s 27 and even less fit for society than he is now. Whether to deny him the opportunity to graduate high school, college.

And maybe that would be right.

Maybe that would be fair.

“Conditions,” Goro manages.

“As I said, good behavior, school, therapy. You would immediately cease any work in connection with police departments or law. So much community service you won’t have time to be bored. But I’ll act as your guarantor for anything short of you running off and getting married.”

“Who, us?” Akira asks, handing the papers back to Sae. “I don’t think we can afford the plane tickets to America right now.”

Sae gapes at him a bit, but she recovers quickly. “Don’t think Makoto hasn’t told me how much you have in savings from all of this thievery. I fully expect help paying your boyfriend’s rent.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Goro tries once more to speak. If he’d like to go out and commune with the crows he could certainly live up to his namesake, but his larynx is done with human incidentals. He picks up the marker again. His audience is kind enough to pretend along with him that his hands aren’t shaking.

WHY

Why not the group home -- why not jail -- why not death -- why not the streets -- he knows the statistics, he knows the grim inevitability he’s lived up to --

Sae stares into her coffee. “Why do we send people to prison? Is it to punish them for the satisfaction of their victims? Is it to keep up good conviction numbers for the police departments?”

“Rehabilitation,” says Akira, and the word is oddly heavy in his mouth, like a stone he carries on his tongue.

“I would like to believe that. Makoto spoke to me about your work in Mementos. If I send Akechi to jail, I’m beholden to hunt down every abuser, stalker, and thief you’ve...altered. Or I can have the same faith in your mission that you do, and believe that a changed heart will cause no further harm.”

“What does that mean for Shido?” Akira asks, curious and -- cautious?

“Let’s count ourselves lucky that Shido has given us little choice in the matter. To dismantle the conspiracy he’s built in this country’s government, he must publicly confess, and I don’t think Japan at large is interested in a philosophical debate predicated on magical powers.”

“That’s fine,” Akira’s tone is ferocious in that quiet, intractable way. He turns to Goro; he reaches out and covers Goro’s hand with his. “That’s okay?”

Goro nods, and it’s just as well that he’s mute.

 

11/25

Ryuji gives Akira his crepe, and Ann hands Goro a paper cup full of whipped cream and chocolate sauce with a spoon stuck in it at a jaunty angle. Goro looks at her like a velociraptor that’s just been told it has a friend.

“I hope you can eat that,” she says. “We debated for a little while whether bananas were okay or not, but I’d really rather not see you choke on a banana.”

“That’s what she said,” Ryuji mumbles around a bite of strawberry.

Morgana scrambles out of Akira’s bag onto Goro’s shoulders to stick his face in the cream. Goro squawks something insulting and shoves at his face, but the squabble ends in compromise.

It’s really too cold out to be wandering around eating crepes, but winter gives them an excuse for the scarf wrapped around Goro’s neck. Truth be told, the bruise on his cheek invites enough stares all on its own. Akira stares at it, too, and fights against the disquiet.

Oh , he thought, pulling Goro close last night, I want to kill Masayoshi Shido.

It’s a bizarre feeling. One that’s easily drowned out by minute-to-minute concerns (this is hard on Futaba; this is so difficult for Haru; Goro thinks Akira doesn’t hear him throwing up at night) or the warmer reality of Ryuji taking Ann’s bet that he can’t shove the rest of his crepe in his mouth all at once and suffering the consequences. But it rears its ugly head when they have to pause and rest outside the airsoft shop. Goro leans against a wall to catch his breath and Akira thinks of murder.

He knows he’s not going to do it. He knows he wouldn’t even be able to, probably. But he didn’t like the results of his last bout of anger, and he’s still not used to feeling it so strongly. Anger is something Akira tucks neatly in his pocket and saves for Joker, not something to be hauled around the real world so that he can snap at people and contemplate homicide. But he swears he can feel Arsene stirring at the back of his mind.

Speaking of…

Akira glances at the end of the alley, where the blue mist of the Velvet Room slides out of focus if he stares too hard. He hasn’t been back since that last disconcerting visit, and there’s been nothing in his dreams. Out of the corner of his eyes, one of the twins waves, but she seems hesitant. Another problem for the pile.

But not for right now. Akira offers Goro his arm as Goro pushes away from the wall, and Goro takes it.