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a multitude of deaths, and a world for the two of us alone

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“Let's go on a trip,” Akira says. “We could go somewhere nobody knows us… somewhere we can see the summer constellations.”

He's staring out the window into the night; from outside, Shibuya’s lights cast harsh, irregular shadows that make the sheets wrapped around his waist look like a perilous territory of valleys and peaks. Lying in Goro's apartment, close to the heart of the city, he looks somehow out of place compared to the way he blends into that dusty attic he calls home – like Shibuya’s urban artifice hasn't yet sunk into his face or the air around him. As he gazes hazily out the window, he doesn't see that Goro is watching him.

“I just remembered. When I was little, there was this cottage by the shore that my parents took me to one summer…” He trails off and then turns away from the window towards Goro, and Goro quickly looks elsewhere to just narrowly avoid making eye contact. “Should I call and ask where it was? We could go, just the two of us.”

Goro can never quite think properly around Akira – no matter how hard Goro tries, it's like he can't make the pieces form into a coherent string when he knows Akira is going to listen to what he has to say. Still, he has enough sense about him to know that he should say no, that the idea is stupid, that all of this is pointless. He has no interest in seeing anything naturally bright like stars, and he hates it when he doesn't feel people watching him: without anybody's gaze upon him, he doesn't know what face to put on and he begins to feel uncomfortably like himself instead of who he pretends to be.

Say no, Goro tells himself.

"Do what you like," Goro says, and knows that he may as well have just said yes.

 

 


 

 a multitude of little deaths.

 


 

  

Just before summer segues into autumn, the two of them take an overnight train and leave Tokyo. Akira sits in the aisle seat, and Goro takes the window.

It's the first time that Goro has taken a long trip with company at his side since he was a child – he doesn't remember the details, exactly, because the train rides from relatives in one city to another have all blurred together in his memory. All of them were essentially the same, anyway: yet another guardian who would tell him not to make any trouble, yet another house that would fail to become a home. At least Akira is an agreeably quiet traveling companion, who doesn’t bother with making meaningless small chat and lets Goro be.

As the sun sets and the rest of the car quiets down, the only noise that's left is the clack-clack of the train's wheels against the rails. Clack-clack, clack-clack – Goro has always liked patterns and predictability, so the rhythmic sound is rather soothing. As night falls, the lights in the car dim so that the train passengers can sleep, but instead of dozing off, Goro lets his mind wanders until he's thinking about nothing at all, just watching the lights from houses as they fly past, eyes glazing over the scenery as time melts away.

“This reminds me of that book,” Akira says suddenly, without preamble, and Goro is abruptly jerked out of his reverie. “I'm sure you've read it… Night on the Galactic Railroad?”

“I’d say this is a far cry from traveling across the Milky Way,” Goro replies after a pause to gather his mind and turn Akira's way.

Akira smiles slightly. “Just pretend that the city lights in the distance are the Northern Cross,” he suggests. “See there, off over in that direction? It's Deneb, and over here's Delta Cygni. And between the two of us – Albireo."

Goro laughs politely, hollowly. “Albireo, the double star,” he says. “That's a rather amusing choice.”

Except it's not funny at all. He knows that if Akira’s familiar with the book, then Akira must also know that the Galactic Railroad is really the train to the afterlife.

“I think it fits, though,” Akira says, and then folds his hands over his stomach and leans back in his seat, closing his eyes, ending the conversation just as abruptly as it was started.

That's not fair, Goro thinks, you haven't explained at all. How does it fit? I don't get it. Is this some sort of game, going on a trip like this? Saying things like that to me? I don't understand at all.

He can't help but feel that he almost wouldn't mind it if the train crashed on the way – a braking accident, perhaps, and the train doesn't slow down at one of the scheduled station stops. They're fairly close to the front of the train, so the impact might be enough for them to die instantaneously, without having to suffer through a slow and agonizing death. The night train would end in the afterlife, just like the Galactic Railroad.

He falls asleep thinking about train accidents and subway deaths, and doesn't wake up until they safely arrive at their destination the next morning.

 

 

 

THE FIRST DREAM IS OF ASSIAH.

                “Once upon a time, there was a boy and his mother.”

                “You’re such a strong child. Even if you’re alone someday, you’ll be fine.”

                “That is what she often told him. And so he knew he was strong.
                One day, she said to him:”

                “You’re such a strong child. Even when you’re alone, you’ll be fine…”

                “And he understood before he knew that after that day, he would be alone.”

 

It begins in the middle, as dreams are wont to do. Akira's back is to the floor and it takes Goro a few moments to realize that it's because Goro is holding him there, legs straddled around Akira's waist and hands on his neck. Akira's glasses are slightly askew, and there's the beginnings of a bruise on the side of his face – I must have knocked him down, Goro thinks to himself, as if detached from the situation.

“Are you alright?” Akira asks, voice soft and low, and it strikes Goro as such an idiotic question. He's not the one on the ground, Akira is – and yet Akira can still ask a question like that? Something inside of him flares up, a hot and searing emotion like a serrated knife tearing through his good senses–

“Are you,” Goro replies, tone deceptively icy, “looking down upon me even now?”

Akira seems surprised, and it takes him a moment to respond. “Why would I be looking down on you?” he says.

It's not a no, but to be honest, Goro doesn't think that he would believe it even if Akira had denied it outright. He can't stop and he doesn't know why – he tries searching for his self-control, but it's like the part of his mind that exercises restraint is broken and he's reduced to a mass of emotions and desire. “Because you think you're better than me, don't you?” he asks, voice escalating slowly but steadily in volume. “That's why you keep me around, don't you. To make yourself feel superior? To try and make me into somebody more like you?”

“Akechi,” Akira begins, but Goro doesn't let him go any further.

“You're just like my stupid mother,” Goro snarls, fingers tightening around his neck. His knuckles are turning a pale, bone white and so is Akira's face. "The both of you think you can make a bad person good, by – doing what, exactly? What the fuck is your game?"

Akira doesn't reply – of course he doesn't, he can't – instead, he reaches up to wrap his hands around Goro's wrists, but he can't form a proper grip. He visibly struggles for breath, and there's something Goro can't help but find uncomfortably erotic about the way that he wheezes so desperately that saliva coats his lips. It's insanely Oedipal, Goro knows, to compare Akira to his mother and then find himself morbidly attracted to how helpless Akira is with his hands choking Akira's neck, the way that Akira's body convulses underneath him. He couldn't kill his father, so he'll kill Akira as a substitute, as the person who destroyed his father instead; he can't lust for his mother given that she's dead, so he'll lust after Akira instead, because he just can't understand why either of them will sacrifice themselves for people who don't deserve it –

And then Akira begins to still. His hands loosen around Goro's wrists and his eyes flutter shut, and Goro can tell it takes all of his remaining strength to muster up the life in him for one last act: his lips move silently, but the only noises he can make are faint gasps.

“I don't –” Goro begins, and then the horrible realization of what he's doing sets in, the terrible weight of the act crashing over him. This isn't me, he thinks to himself desperately, it wasn't really him who forced his fingers around Akira's neck, wasn't him who pressed his thumbs into Akira's throat and took sickly, visceral pleasure from how good it felt to crush down into his windpipe, both thrilled and repulsed by how easy it is to perform such efficient violence. This isn't me. This isn't me.

“I don't understand,” he says, tone cutting too close to genuine alarm for his liking, he isn't supposed to sound like this – he's supposed to be cool and calm in temperament, image immaculately curated, every action deliberate and controlled.

He lets go, but it's too late: Akira has stopped breathing, and his chance to hear what Akira might have said has passed.

 

 


 

  

Goro wakes up to find Akira shaking his shoulder, and for a few seconds, he can still feel it – the sensation of gripping too hard with his fingers, squeezing the life out – Goro yawns to pass off the moment of hesitation as lingering sleepiness, though. “Are we almost there?” he asks.

“The train’s about to pull in,” Akira replies.

They buy breakfast at the train station and eat as they walk through town to the cottage that Akira’s booked for them. The humble little house is kept well enough to be hospitable, but as the two of them stand just inside the front entrance with their carry-on bags at their sides, it's clear that the little house is empty for most of the year. Most of the surfaces have been cleaned off, yet dust and the remnants of cobwebs in linger the corners. Goro can hear the muted sound of waves from a distance – or maybe he's just imagining it, because it would fit the atmosphere of a quaint cottage in a seaside town better to be able to hear the water. He knows rationally that the tide shouldn't be that strong in this part of Japan, so there's no reason to think that the sound of water would carry so far inland.

“My, but isn't this bucolic,” Goro says, tone aggressively enthusiastic. He knows it comes out fake, but that's the point of him making a show of it in the first place.

As always, he isn't sure whether Akira's actually understood that he's being farcical and is merely ignoring it, or if Akira genuinely hasn't detected the distinct hollowness to his words, because all Akira replies with is, “Isn't it? It's hard to believe places like this still exist.”

“Well, I'd have to say that I prefer the city,” Goro says.

Akira makes a humming noise. “Not sure what to do with yourself in a place like this?” he asks.

That's part of it, Goro supposes. The concrete jungle is familiar territory to him; he relishes in the nameless masses. He likes the cold and sleek urban aesthetic, where there's so much going on at any moment that he doesn't have to stop and think about how little is going on within him.

But on a larger scale – what is he doing with himself, anyway? Now that the book has been written and the end already penned, what should he do without his revenge to obsess over, to consume him? What's the point? What's his purpose?

That isn't the question that's being asked, though. “Not entirely, no. This trip was your suggestion, wasn't it?” Goro replies, still using his fake-polite voice. “I thought you would have some ideas about what to do.”

“So it was, and I'll take responsibility for that fact,” Akira concludes, without missing a beat. “Let's put our things down first, and then – hmm. We should get food too, I think, there was a grocery store I noticed on our way…”

“Fine,” Goro says, and picks his bag up. It's easier to go with the flow at times like this anyway, when he doesn’t care much either way what happens.

There's a pause before Akira follows suit, though. First, he frowns for a moment, stares back over his shoulder, and then asks, “Is it just me, or can you hear it too? The sound of the waves.”

Blandly, without hesitating, Goro replies, “It's your imagination. We're still too far inland for that.”

“I see,” Akira says softly, and then picks up his bag.

 

 

 

The rest of the day passes by sluggishly. It's almost as if they've passed into a pocket dimension, Goro thinks, where everything moves to a completely different rhythm than Tokyo does. Akira slows his pace down to perfectly match with the sleepy seaside town, but Goro's mismatches it with awkward syncopation, and the fact that he doesn't belong feels conspicuously obvious. He can't hide the sensation of being an outsider the way that he can in the city, where everybody understands – to some extent, at least – how it feels to be alone in a crowd.

“Is there anything that you want to do in particular?” Akira asks as they eat dinner. He'd found local vegetables and seafood sold for cheap when they wandered through the town earlier, taking side-streets to avoid tourist traps. And so he'd cooked a simple seafood curry, moving around the kitchen with such graceful ease that Goro didn't see a point in offering help when he can only cook at the most basic of levels – instead, he'd sat at the dining table and idly flipped through the news on his phone until dinner was served.

Goro looks up from his plate before answering bluntly, “I don't know. I've never been on a vacation outing before, so I have very few expectations surrounding it.”

Akira tilts his head in Goro's direction. “It's my opinion that vacation is the best time to do nothing,” he replies. “It's one of the few times where having no plan is a valid plan.”

That sounds terrible, in Goro's opinion. Idle hands make for an idle mind, and an idle mind thinks of unnecessary things. He opens his mouth to say as much, but then his people-pleasing habit kicks in full force and instead he says, “Well, that'll be an interesting change of pace, I suppose.”

The way that Akira eyes him makes him suspect Akira knows he isn't being truthful, but Goro can't be sure. “Just let me know if you get bored,” he says. “I'm sure we can find something to do.”

What's your game, Goro wants to ask. What's the point of coming out here? Doing all of this? Why even bother spending your time with somebody like me?

Instead, he just smiles primly and replies, “You always find a way to keep my interest, Kurusu. I'm not worried about being bored at all.”

Akira smiles vaguely and lets the conversation end there. They barely speak at all for the rest of the evening, and only to ask questions of courtesy: Should I clean the dishes, since you cooked? Okay. I'll let you shower first, alright? Got it. There's only one bed, but there's no problem, right? It's far from our first time sleeping together. I'm turning the lights off now, good night. Good night.

Goro falls asleep thinking about how delicious dinner had been, even though Akira had used pre-made stock and curry cubes, and how efficiently Akira had cut through the raw seafood, knife slicing through flesh without hesitation.

 

 

 

THE SECOND DREAM IS OF YETZIRAH.

                “His mother said that he was a prince because he was the son of a king.
                A prince is strong and noble, kind and brave.
                Someday, the king would return for his queen and their prince.”

                “Nobody treated him like a prince, but he believed his mother above all else.
                And so he was strong and noble, kind and brave.
                And so he waited for the king to return him to his rightful place.”

 

There's the hilt of a knife in his hand and the first thing that Goro thinks is that he doesn't like the way that the weight of it feels – it's too light. He'd prefer something with more heft to it, something that feels more solid and weighty.

It's only after that brief contemplation that he realizes that the blade of the knife is buried in Akira's stomach and he's clearly the one who put it there. “Akechi,” Akira says slowly. There isn't even the slightest undertone of accusation to the way he pronounces the name, but instead of grateful, all Goro can feel is annoyed – he wants to be hated. Being hated is so simple, he's used to being hated. It's a familiar weight to carry, as burdensome as it is, and without that heaviness at his back he wonders if maybe he’d just float away completely.

If Akira would just hate him, this would all become so easy.

“I did this, didn't I?” Goro asks. “So blame me. Or did you just happen to run into this knife while I was holding it?”

“Akechi–” Akira begins to reply, but Goro won't let him.

“You're so holier than thou, I can't stand it,” Goro snarls, even though lashing out doesn't feel good at all. “What's the point of pretending? Are you going to forgive me? Like how you forgave me when I tried to kill you before? Do you really still think there's something worth forgiving here, or do you just love to play the martyr?”

And then he yanks the knife out, splattering the both of them in Akira's blood. But it isn't enough to sate him, it isn't enough to convey how much he wants Akira to stay away from him – to stop pretending like there's anything good left to be salvaged in him when he just wants to curl up alone until he withers away – and he can't stop that deep desperation from bubbling over in the worst way possible, tapping into that part of him that can't help but feel vindicated like this, hurting others to make his own hurt go away, giving Akira a reason to hate him the way he hates others.

He remembers the brutally elegant way that Joker handled his knives in the Metaverse, swapping seamlessly between forward and reverse grips, making up for his lack of reach with his headstrong agility. Goro can't wield such a short blade nearly as well, but he doesn't need dexterity when he has enough strength to plunge the blade into Akira's body until the hilt is buried so deep that Akira's flesh becomes its sheath. But it's not until Goro pulls the knife out that Akira gives a yelp of pain, a tremulous ah, ah

The noises he make sound almost like moans of pleasures, timed to rise and fall as his body is entered and exited. Goro almost doesn't notice himself stabbing into Akira over and over again so much as he is cognizant of how Akira reacts with every time his body is penetrated – but where pleasure escalates to a climax, Akira's cries instead drop off perilously, growing softer and weaker.

In the end, Goro is left dyed red in Akira's colors with neither Akira’s forgiveness nor hatred weighing upon him, just an abundance of nothing.

 

 


 

 

 Goro doesn't jerk awake. He doesn't find himself breaking out into a cold sweat, nor is it difficult for him to breathe. He just opens his eyes as he escapes from his sleeping state into lucidity, and then curls the fingers of his right hand up, digging his nails into his palm to let the pinching sensation convince him that he's returned to reality. If he concentrates, he can feel his heart beating steadily, neither faster nor harder than it usually does. Dreams like this are old hat for him; he doesn't get worked up over them anymore or even think of them as being nightmares. The only difference from the norm, he supposes, is that he usually dreams of killing people who are already dead, reliving memories that lie in a different world.

But Akira is very much alive and sleeping peacefully at Goro's side. Gingerly, Goro sits up and reaches for where his cell phone is charging on the nightstand to take a glance at the time: 5:30AM. That's early, but he's sure he can make some sort of excuse – that he doesn't sleep well in unfamiliar places, perhaps, or that yesterday's travels are still affecting his internal clock.

He gets up and watches the sun rise from the living room. For something so common, he realizes, the sight is startlingly beautiful.

Akira gets up a few hours later and without prompting, begins making a simple breakfast for the two of them. “Should we go to the beach once it warms up a bit more?” he asks as he sets down on the dining table two plates with a slice of toast with a fried egg on top.

“Why not,” Goro replies, quietly sitting himself down across from Akira.

To that, Akira just smiles slightly and begins eating, so Goro follows suit. The eggs are warm and fluffy and perfectly seasoned for a light breakfast, contrasting perfectly with the crisp texture of the toast – half of it is gone before he even knows it.

“This is,” he begins to say – nostalgic, he thinks. Eating this makes me feel so nostalgic. “This tastes wonderful,” he says instead, and leaves it at that.

 

 

 

As the conventional wisdom goes, there are two kinds of death. The first is a straightforward cessation of biological functions, when a person stops breathing and their heart stops beating, when the blood stops circulating and their brain goes permanently dormant. Then there’s the kind of death that comes from being forgotten, more joined to an abstract concept of identity. In the cognitive world, Goro Akechi has already died the second kind of death, leaving him in a strange state in the real world. Barely anybody really remembers him – they might recognize his name, perhaps, but only distantly, as if he’d been a celebrity a decade ago instead of a few months ago. In the end, he’s left with only a handful of people who remember him, and an even smaller number of people who really acknowledge him. And sometimes Goro wonders if Akira Kurusu is actually the only one who knows him, the way that he is now.

But it’s not all bad, he supposes. It means they go well uninterrupted as they walk through town and onto the sand-worn boardwalk that stretches parallel to the shore, and that nobody else bothers them.

This part of the seashore isn’t really meant for beaching. The sand is coarse and doesn’t hold the sun’s warmth well – the scenery is beautiful and lush, though, even somebody who doesn’t care much for nature as Goro has to admit that the view is positively gorgeous. With the sun shining overhead, the sky is a lovely light blue and the sea a deep, vibrant cerulean that fades elegantly into white foam as it washes up on the shore. His mother would’ve liked it here, Goro thinks, and then tries immediately to stop that line of thought.

“This reminds me a little of my hometown,” Akira says, as they approach the end of the boardwalk. “It’s not as pretty there, but it has a similar sort of atmosphere… maybe it’s because it’s also close to the water?”

“Ah, right,” Goro replies, after a pause. “I forget sometimes you aren’t a native Tokyoite. You blend into the city so well. Do you miss it, though? Your hometown.”

Goro isn’t sure if he actually cares, though – lately, he can’t tell if he’s just playing the pleasant and polite role he’s so used to or if he really wants to know the answer when he asks Akira these small, meaningless questions. And in the end, does the distinction matter for anything consequential?

“Sometimes. Not most of the time, but there are days when Tokyo is… exhausting.” Akira tilts his head in Goro’s direction, as if to silently say, I’m sure you know what I mean. “Maybe we could visit together someday. If you’re interested, of course.”

“Already thinking to your next vacation while you’re still on this one?” Goro replies, raising an eyebrow.

There’s this expression Akira often makes – something that’s on the borderline between a smile and a smirk, and Goro’s never quite sure how to read into it. Right now, he thinks it might be a smirk, though. “It wouldn’t be a vacation to me, just going home,” Akira says, “for all the good and the bad that going home entails.”

Goro doesn’t know what that means – he barely remembers the concept of home – but he doesn’t want to admit it. “Point taken,” he concedes. “I’ll think about it. But you have a way of convincing me to go along with your plans, so I’ve a feeling I’ll give in eventually.”

This time, Goro is sure that it’s a smile that breaks across Akira’s face, something genuinely happy. It makes Goro feel warmer than the sun shining overhead does, but it’s not because Akira’s happy. It’s because, for the briefest of moments, Goro Akechi became a person who’s capable of making another human being happy.

 

 

 

Sleeping pills leave him disoriented for hours after he's woken up, so Goro takes supplements when he gets restless instead – melatonin, valerian root, whatever he happens to grab off the shelf that claims to put a person to sleep. He doesn't know if they actually work, but he deliberately chooses not to look into it, because all he needs to do is believe they work.

So before he goes to bed for the night, he digs up the bottle of valerian supplements he’d shoved to the bottom of his travel bag and shakes one of them out. He’d packed them just in case of restlessness, but he doesn’t need help sleeping. He needs help not dreaming – because his dreams are betraying him, he knows, forcing him to come face-to-face to exactly what measure of a human being he is, a wretched mass of pride and yearning and not a single inch of him the golden boy he so desperately tried to mold himself into.

Goro takes the capsule with the rest of his water, then frowns. “No, one more,” he mutters, and swallows a second one down dry.

Even before he falls asleep, though, he has a feeling in his bones that he won’t escape from his dreams so easily.

 

 

 

THE MEMORY CREATES THE THRONE.

                “Even if you’re alone someday, you’ll be fine.”

                “That is what she often told him. So even as he was alone, he remained strong.
                But being alone means there is nobody with whom to split your sadness.
                But being alone means there is nobody with whom to share your happiness.”

                “And so, the prince sought to find his father, the king.”

 

In an underground interrogation room, Goro Akechi shoots Akira Kurusu with a silenced pistol. At close range, the entry wound goes in neatly but the exit wound comes out messy: his forehead is painted red, but the splatter on the wall behind him is more difficult to describe, a mix of fluids and cell matter that clearly isn't entirely blood. It looks as a bullet wound should look, not like what it's dressed up to be on television – it is grotesque and brutal. It is not clean, but at least it's an efficient death. Akira Kurusu would not have felt his brains being blown out of the back of his head, at least.

The act is disgusting. It is corruption incarnate, and made all the more disturbing by the fact that it's the first time that Goro Akechi has pulled the trigger of a gun in real life. It was easy because it felt no differently from how he feels when he uses a gun in the cognitive world. He didn't hesitate. Why would he hesitate? He's already used to playing executioner. The only thing different about this particular execution is the location.

There was no need to hesitate, so he didn't. And to be honest – to Goro Akechi, it feels good. Akira Kurusu didn't deserve to die, but Goro Akechi didn't deserve this or that or anything or his entire cursed unwanted wretched unfortunate painful painful painful existence and so, it feels good to inflict the hurt he has received on somebody else for a change.

Goro Akechi shoots Akira Kurusu with a silenced pistol, and then he smirks. He laughs, because he has won. He plants the gun to make it look like a suicide, and he leaves.

The moment that he steps out of the door, a wave of something terrifying and immense crashes over him. He finds it momentarily hard to breathe, and he feels scared. But why? He's just eliminated the last threat to his slow burn revenge. For a few seconds, he feels almost like he has exited his body, the concept of Goro Akechi separating from the shell that is his physical being, floating above so that he can see himself clearly.

Am I, he wonders, paralyzed and full of fear, finally so far gone that I'm no longer qualified to be human? And so I'm leaving my human body behind?

The moment passes and he regains his senses. He brushes it off, but he doesn't forget it happened.

 

 

 

THE THIRD DREAM IS OF BERIAH.

                “There are kind and benevolent kings.
                There are cruel and harsh kings.”

                “He had thought his father, the king, would be full of grace and generosity.
                But his father, the king, was callous and cold-blooded.”

                “The prince felt fate coursing through his veins.
                His kind mother was weak. His cruel father was strong.”

                “What path was he to walk?”

 

In an underground interrogation room, Goro Akechi shoots Akira Kurusu with a silenced pistol. The bullet goes through cleanly, painting his forehead red with blood, and then Goro Akechi smirks. He laughs, because he has won.

Except Akira Kurusu isn't dead. He's still staring forward, eyes full of life, full of emotion that Goro can't read. “Did you think that would kill me?” Akira asks, and his tone is both sweet and full of malice at once.

Goro shoots again, this time the bullet goes through Akira's chest. Still, he doesn't die. “I won't let you kill me so easily,” Akira says, and he stands up. Bang, a bullet through his stomach. Bang, a shot that should've pierced his lungs. Red flows out of his body, but it doesn't adhere to the laws of physics like a liquid should, it almost seems to seep and flow out of him like fog, covering him, dripping down his forehead, staining the whites of his eyes a bright crimson.

Akira moves towards Goro steadily, gaze unflinching even as he bleeds out. Goro swallows and clutches his gun and – no, he's not scared. He just doesn't understand what's happening, and is suitably on edge.

“You can't kill me,” Akira says, voice sugar-sweet, cloyingly saccharine. “You're not capable of it. You're not allowed to do it either. Do you know why? It’s because you don’t really want me dead.”

Goro wants to scream at him to shut up, but there's a lump in his throat that prevents him from speaking, an uncomfortable mass that feels like something squeezing at his windpipe so hard it feels like it's about to break from the inside out. This isn't Akira Kurusu, he realizes. This is just this is onlya fake, it's a fake, it's

Akira cups his hands around Goro's cheeks, and even when their faces are so close, Goro realizes that he can't make out Akira's expression at all. It's like his eyes slide off of Akira's face when he tries to look at it, and all he can do is stare back at those eyes of his. But there's nothing in there: his eyes are like an abyss, deeply dark with no bottom in sight, nothing to reflect the light or suggest what emotions lie underneath.

“Besides, you already know, don't you?” Akira tells him. “You already know that killing me won't fill up what's missing inside of you. You're wasting all this energy on something useless when instead you should…”

Goro wakes up before he hears the rest.

 

 


 

  

Unlike the day before, Goro wakes up and the late morning sun is already shining bright over his face. His limbs feel a bit sluggish as he pulls himself up and out of bed, and he spends longer than he needs to washing his face, running the cloth over his skin over and over, as if trying to rid himself of the dirtiness he'd accumulated in his dreams.

“Not feeling well?” Akira asks, when Goro finally shows his face.

“Just tired,” Goro replies, and smiles politely. “I suppose this is relaxing properly, though, isn’t it? I don’t sleep in often.”

“Sure,” Akira agrees, and gets up to cross the distance between them, reaching out to touch Goro’s shoulder lightly before asking, “Should I make something to eat?”

You didn’t have to come so close just to ask that, so why? Goro wants to reply.

Instead, he says, “No, let’s go out. If you don’t mind, of course.”

“Getting tired of curry, are we?” Akira replies, but way he smirks makes Goro think he’s just teasing.

“No,” Goro says, which is the truth – there’s a certain novelty, he feels, to having somebody cook a meal with him specifically in mind that he can’t easily describe in words. “I just feel like I should give you a break from cooking,” he continues, which is a lie. Having Akira cook with him in mind also makes him feel strangely uncomfortable even as it gratifies him, and he doesn’t know if he can balance those emotions when he’s still out of sorts from his dreams.

“It makes me happy to do it, you know,” Akira says, “but the thought’s appreciated. Let’s walk through town and we can stop when you see something you like, then.”

Only then does Akira let go of Goro’s shoulder. But the weight of Akira’s hand lingers on him, and it occurs to him: does he want to be saved by that hand, or judged by it?

 

 

 

The day seems to pass quickly despite the fact that they don’t do anything particularly special, and Goro has to wonder if he feels that way only because he wants to push the night off. He already knows there will be more dreams waiting to entrap him – all he can do is guess exactly how the details will differ this time.

“Let's go for a nighttime walk,” Akira suggests after the sun’s started to go down.

“Alright,” Goro replies. It occurs to him that his rule of thumb to acquiesce to requests he's essentially apathetic to has seen quite a bit of play over the past few days, but he decides to willfully not think about what that implies.

So they end up on the seashore again, abandoning the boardwalk for the sand to be closer to the sea. With the sun down, the water looks different – darker, obviously, but also deeper and calmer. Compared to the sun, the way that the moonlight reflects has a more translucent sheen, a more ethereal beauty. As they continue walking, Akira begins to break away, walking a little faster than Goro until there are a few strides between them. It's an odd change of pace when Goro's started to get used to feeling too fast for their surroundings, as if Akira's finally coming to life now that the sun is down.

Then, suddenly, Akira stops and turns around. In the light of the moon, the dark strands of his hair seems to meld the borderlines between him and the night sky behind him, and the bright sheen of his eyes is as another one of the stars twinkling from far, far away. And Goro can feel something deep within him begin to pang, like a dull ache from an old wound – he feels the sea of souls between them, a vast chasm of an abyss that separates their existences between the one of them who gives off light for those around him and the one of them whose darkness consumes everything, even itself.

Goro breathes in deeply and interlaces his fingers, forming a cup with his palms that he holds over his stomach, thumbs connecting to create a full loop out of his hands. If he turned them upside-down, his pose would almost be as if in prayer. “The night sky,’ he begins to say, and then lets the subject trail off with no action behind it, letting that trite, overused line go unfinished: the night sky is beautiful, which really means – I think you're beautiful. I love you.

What is it, even, to love somebody? Does that mean that you would sacrifice anything, for that person you love? Except that sounds terribly unhealthy, more like obsession than anything else. Does that mean that you would trust them unconditionally? But blind faith can make fools out of both the person believing and the person believed in. He doesn't understand so many things, like how Akira's eyes can be so dark and yet radiant when the clear night sky embraces him. He doesn’t even understand himself anymore, whether he wants Akira to come closer to him, or if he wants to push Akira away.

“It looks much more beautiful than in the city, doesn't it?” Akira says.

In the distance, crickets are chirping; by the boardwalk, fireflies are beginning to alight. “It is,” Goro replies. You are, he means.

Akira smiles and steps towards him, reaching for both of his hands as he gets closer to pull Goro in. Goro doesn't resist as Akira wraps his arms around Goro's waist and kisses him, then again and again, each time a little deeper and longer. Everything around Goro blurs a little and all he can think about is the touch of Akira's lips, the taste of him, how reassuring it is to have Akira nearby – that he might not mind letting relinquishing control, if it’s Akira Kurusu who will decide his fate.

He doesn't really remember how they get back to the cottage afterwards, but he remembers letting Akira hold his hand and guide him. He remembers the way their fingers interlaced, palms pressed together, and how it felt like something was finally filling him up from the inside out: something warm, something soft, something vulnerable, something as lovely as it is terrifyingly unfamiliar.

I don't know what I'm doing with myself anymore, Goro Akechi realizes as he closes his eyes and lets Akira kiss him one more time before he escapes to sleep, even as he knows that’ll offer him no reprieve. Maybe I never did.

 

 

 

THE FOURTH DREAM IS OF ATZILUTH.

                “He chose the path of the strong and the cruel.”

                So he fell, and fell
                                and fell, and fell
                                                and he fell and discovered the very bottom of his soul.

                The depths of his soul were empty.
                And he was alone in the darkness forevermore.”

                “The end.”

 

Akira lies limply in a bathtub, water submerging him up to his chest. When Goro looks down, he realizes his hand is on the faucet – was the one who ran the water? He supposes it doesn't really matter, but what does is that in his other hand is a pocketknife.

His mother died with her wrists slit in the water. Goro didn't see it himself, but nobody had seen fit to keep from gossiping in front of him even at his mother's funeral. The bathroom in their apartment had been small, and their ofuro bathtub had similarly been tiny, barely large enough to fit his petite mother when she drew her knees up. They almost never used it, because it was too much effort to run a bath when the showerhead was perfectly serviceable for cleaning.

Still, Goro had liked using the bath not because he found it particularly fun, but because it meant that she'd have the time to dote on him a bit, to carefully wash his hair as he soaked in the warm water. At moments like that, when his mother went out of her way to care for him – only then did he feel like he was beginning to understand the sensation of being loved.

He doesn't enjoy baths anymore. All he could ever think of when seeing the bathtubs at his relatives' houses was how the blood must've looked in the water as his mother bled out – did the red bloom like flowers? Did it ripple across the surface of the water? How quickly was the clear water dyed, and how quickly did his mother die?

Before him, Akira lies unconscious in the water, completely vulnerable. He could find out the answer to all those questions.

But Akira Kurusu isn't like his mother at all. His mother was short with wispy, long hair and eyes that curved pleasantly at the corners, making it look like she was always about to smile. And his mother died sitting outside the ofuro bathtub, wrists dipped into the water as she slumped on the floor, because it was too small for her to fit her body comfortably.

In sharp contrast, Akira Kurusu is tall and leaves his wavy locks of dark hair unruly, obscuring his face in a way that Goro suspects is very deliberate. He lies completely bare in a Victorian-styled bathtub with elegant little clawfeet that's just long enough to fit his limbs but leaves the back of his head lolling over the edge slightly, instead of resting neatly on the edge.

They're nothing alike. They're as day and night, and yet he can't stop thinking about her, about how warm and comfortable it was when she ran the bath for him, how pleasantly amniotic it felt to have the bathwater around him. It was safety, security, it was being cared for, it was knowing he had a place, it was being loved–

And then he realizes what it is about Akira that makes him think about his mother: it's because he wants such similar things from the both of them.

He carefully sets the pocketknife down on the floor and slumps to his knees as he clutches the edge of the bathtub with both hands, then rests his forehead on his knuckles. “I don't have the right,” he says aloud, “to ask for all of those things from you, do I. Let alone to want it to come unconditionally…”

Akira doesn't answer – but of course he doesn't. Goro exhales sharply and stands, reaching forward tentatively to touch the side of Akira's face. Then he laughs sharply, because the palm of his hand finds Akira's skin already cold and clammy, and he knows before he slides his hand to Akira's neck that he won't find a pulse: Akira Kurusu has been dead in this bathtub all along.

 

 


 

 

 Goro wakes up and when he checks his cell phone, he finds that it's still the middle of the night. It's far too early to get up, and he doubts that he'll be able to go back to sleep when his mind is ringing with the afterimages of what he just dreamed. He sighs sharply, bringing a hand up to his forehead before slumping back into bed, wondering what he should do next.

At his side, Akira stirs and Goro freezes. ‘”Akechi,” Akira murmurs, voice muddied, still not fully awake – “What’s wrong? Can't sleep?”

“It's not your problem,” Goro replies. “Sorry if I woke you.”

There's a pause, and then Akira pushes himself up into a sitting position, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand before glancing in Goro's direction. “If I can help, though, you know I'm happy to,” Akira says.

“That's right, you're always so helpful,” Goro says, the words escaping him before he has a chance to blunt the scathing edge to his voice. There's a pause, and he tries to dial it back, to return to a more measured tone. “There's nothing you can do, but I… appreciate the thought.”

There's a pause, and then Akira asks, "Do you think I'm stupid?"

The question throws Goro off guard; he hadn't been expecting something like that to come out of Akira's mouth. “Stupid? Are you stupid – I don't know. I keep trying to figure that out myself,” he replies.

“It’s not like I can’t tell there’s clearly something on your mind,” Akira tells him, frowning and – Goro can’t stand it, the way that Akira looks at him with such genuine concern in his eyes. “You’re sleeping erratically, for one thing. It might not help, exactly, but – you know you can tell me anything, right? And I’ll listen to you.”

“You want to know why I’m sleeping badly? Well, it’s because I dream about killing you,” Goro says suddenly, desperate to end the conversation, and if this won’t push Akira away, then he doesn’t know what will. “Did you know that? Of course you couldn't know that, it's all in my head, but – I could probably do it in reality, too. Stab you to death, choke you to death. I guess the latter would be easier, wouldn't it.”

There's a pause. Goro waits for the shoe to drop, body tensing up in anticipation for Akira’s reaction.

“Then do it,” Akira says, staring Goro straight in the eyes. Something about his gaze forbids Goro from looking away, as much as he wants to. “Would that make you feel better? Then put your hands around my neck. What are you hesitating for? I'm telling you that you can do whatever you want with me. I won't resist.”

He's giving Goro full control of the situation, and yet Goro can't help but feel like he's the one being moved around. “Stop it,” Goro says, and then grits his teeth.

“Why?” Akira replies. “If that's what you really want, then do it.”

At that, Goro laughs – it's a frenetic, panicked sound, though, without even a single bit of mirth to it. “What the hell is your game? Do you have a death wish or something?” he asks, voice strained. “What the hell is wrong with you? How can you say that, even though I – even after I–”

He laughs again, with even more desperation. He reaches up, but instead of Akira's neck, he grabs at his own face, fingers curling into his hair so hard that it hurts. “You're just screwing around with me, aren't you?! This is all just some kind of game to you, isn't it. Is this funny to you, watching me play around in the palm of your hands? You think I wouldn't do it? Even though I have nothing left to lose?” There's something burning at the back of his eyes, and a terrible tension splitting across his head. It feels like something vile is trying to leave, exorcising itself from his body like a bad ghost.

“Akechi,” Akira says, and then slowly moves towards him, pulling himself close to Goro's side. He reaches out and carefully grasps Goro's hands in his, detangling them from Goro's hair and pulling them away, holding them with a grip both firm and gentle. Goro could yank away if he wanted to, but he doesn't; his muscles aren't moving properly, his synapses aren't obeying his brain, as if the sound of Akira calling his name has sliced straight through the haze surrounding his mind and switched some terrible impulse in him off.

They hold silence in between them, but Goro could swear that he really can hear the waves crashing, even across all that distance from the shoreline. Then finally, Akira squeezes his hands lightly and says his name again: “Akechi. This isn't a game to me, and I'm not messing around with you. I'm telling you the truth… you can do whatever you want to me and I'll accept it.”

Goro stares at him hard, fixating on every detail that he can. How can he be so calm? he wonders. How can he say these things like he means it? How can he be like this? Why can't I be like that too?

Instead of saying any of that, he bites his bottom lip briefly but viciously, and then asks, “How do you know I won't really do it?”

“I don't,” Akira replies. “I don't know for sure, but I trust you, and... I want to believe that's not what you really want.”

Goro knows what liars look like, not only because he's been surrounded by them, but because he is one, and liars have a sense for their own kind. But no matter how hard he looks, he can't find any indication that Akira is telling anything but the truth. He forces a harsh, vaguely hysterical laugh. “You're messed up, if that's what you really think,” he says, even though he knows Akira has seen right through him, straight through all the masks he puts up to know what kind of human being Goro Akechi is: a lonely child dying to be loved but who’d rather die than forsake his pride to admit it.

To that, Akira smiles thinly. “Then aren't we both?” he replies.

“I'll give you that,” Goro agrees. He pulls his hands away from Akira and holds them to his chest for a moment – then he reaches out and places one at the side of Akira's neck, pressing his thumb in hard, so he can feel Akira's pulse clearly.

But after a moment, the pressure in his fingers disappears; he closes his eyes as he leans forward and pretends it's momentum that compels him to kiss Akira, not desire.

 

 

 

THE FIFTH DREAM IS OF ADAM KADMON.

                That’s it?

                “That’s the end.”

                No. I won’t let it end like that. I don’t want the prince to be alone anymore.

                “You don’t have a choice. It isn’t your story.
                You can’t change the ending once it’s already written.”

                That’s not true.
                I’ll make it into my own story. Yours may have ended, but mine hasn’t yet.

                So… Just give me a moment. Ah, I’ve got it – I know how this story should start.

                Once upon a time, there was a boy who people called a thief.
                But he didn’t steal valuables. He didn’t steal treasure.
                What he stole were the things burdening people.
                He stole what caused people pain. He stole what twisted their hearts.

                And so he could save a prince, he decided he would also learn how to steal loneliness.

 

He rests his head in Akira's lap, eyes half-closed with his hands clasped over his stomach. Slowly and carefully, Akira runs his fingers through Goro's hair, massaging his scalp lightly, and Goro relaxes under his touch. The tension in his muscles melts away slowly, and he thinks that perhaps this is what it is to be at peace.

“Is this a dream?” Goro asks.

There's a pause. Akira stops playing with Goro's hair and instead places his hands over Goro's eyes, covering them and shrouding Goro in darkness. It should make him uncomfortable, Goro knows, it should make his defenses go up instinctively to have somebody deprive him of one of his senses – and yet there's something soothing about it. This isn't necessary right now, Akira seems to be conveying. Sight will only distract you, so let me take it away from you until you need it again. I'll give it back. I promise.

“That's right,” Akira finally says. “This is a dream. A place where you aren't bound by reality. You can do anything, say anything... and in the morning, it'll all just be a fragment of a memory in your mind alone.”

“I'm not sure I believe you,” Goro replies.

Akira laughs gently, a single, soaring peal before he asks, “But do you want to believe me? I think that's more important, don't you? Don't think too hard about it. Just answer.”

“I want to,” Goro says, and is surprised at how easy the response comes. “I want to, but…”

“But?” Akira replies, prompting him.

“You of all people should know this. Reality is formed through perception and belief, but not all beliefs and perceptions reflect reality. And once those lines blur…” Goro trails off, and then sighs sharply. He thinks about the Palaces that he’s been in, about the deluded visions that each of those twisted souls had of the world, filled with gaudy glitz and cognitions that fawned over Shadows mindlessly – he wonders what the state of his heart would be like, if the Metaverse still existed. His Palace would be empty, he’s sure. Vacant and void, an endless abyss of white that swallows up everything, even himself.

“But, you know,” Akira says, “you’re missing something important about that. And you already know what that is, don’t you?”

Goro almost wants to laugh at that, and he’s sure the way he smiles is pathetic. “That only happens to people who are alone, doesn’t it,” he replies slowly. “It happens when you have nobody to confide in. Nobody to ascertain that your perceptions show reality as it truly is…”

He can feel Akira shift slightly, and the next time Akira speaks, his voice is closer. “But you’re not alone, Goro,” Akira tells him, and Goro can sense something strangely tense in Akira’s voice. A sense of urgency, perhaps, or even desperation. “So tell me anything, or everything, or however much else in between you need to know that you’re still seeing what really is. I’m trying so hard to keep you rooted here, in my own reality, so – please.”

Perhaps this is a dream after all, because surely nobody would ever talk to him like that in reality. Nobody could ever want him around as much as he wants other people to want him around, but when Akira sounds like that, so open and honestly pleading, Goro feels himself teetering on the edge of believing it could be true.

Goro breathes in slowly, exhaling sharply once he feels his lungs straining. And when he opens his mouth, he begins to tell a story.

 

 


 

 a world for the two of us alone.

 


 

 

 Morning comes and the sun finds them still tangled up in each other. Goro awakens but doesn’t get up, and when they’re so close together, he can tell Akira’s in the same sort of state – that neither of them want to be the one who starts the day. But eventually, Akira breaks their impasse and says, “This is it, isn’t it? It’s our last day here.”

Goro takes his time before he replies, “I suppose it wasn’t so bad, coming here with you. I could consider another trip in the future.”

Akira makes a noise somewhere between a hum and a harrumph. “I’m flattered,” he says wryly. “Such high praise, being not bad. But I’ll take what I can get.”

For a while longer, neither of them speak. Then, Akira squeezes Goro’s hand lightly. “I know you said before that we’re too far inland to hear the water, but… after staying here a few days, I’m sure of it. I can definitely hear the waves,” he says.

Goro considers the distance and the physics, but he finds his mind naturally drifting to how pleasant it feels to interlace his fingers with Akira’s, the way that their hands fit together so well, as if his left hand was meant to be paired with Akira’s right. “You’re right,” he finally replies. “I hear them too.”

And so, he begins to believe it.

 

 

When they board the return train to Tokyo, they reverse their original seating positions: this time, Goro sits by the aisle. It's another quiet overnight, and the two of them are content to be silent until the compartment lights dim – and just like last time, Akira is the one to suddenly break the silence.

“You know,” Akira says, without looking away from the window, “I think that there are some things that can only be seen from the outside looking in… that there are parts of an individual that only become apparent through observation. It's like that paradox about whether or not a falling tree makes a sound, if nobody is there to hear it.”

Goro folds his hands into his lap, leaning back into his seat. “You're saying you think you know something about me that I don't,” he replies. “So spit it out. What is it?”

Akira looks in his direction and smiles briefly, affectionately. He reaches across the hand rest separating their seats and places his hand on top of Goro's, then turns back around to continue gazing out at the night scenery flying by. “You talk in your sleep,” he says, and then nothing more.

Despite the way that the simple declaration changes everything and nothing at all – in spite of all these things, something bubbles over in Goro's stomach, and before he even realizes what's happening, he laughs fully and with resonance: it isn't a particularly loud sound, but it carries pleasantly and vibrates through the air gently, without disturbing anybody around them, and then fades out like a wave receding back into the water’s depths.

“That is something I couldn’t know on my own, I’ll give you that,” he finally says, once he’s had a moment to compose himself. And then he carefully rearranges their hands, so that he can hold Akira just as much as Akira’s holding him.

He thinks about the sea as he drifts off to sleep. Akira's hand is warm and comforting, an anchor that keeps Goro's mind from floating away through the Galactic Railroad – and he has a good feeling that tonight, even if he dreams, he won’t get lost in them.