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beauty & vice

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Mishima made sure to remove the Shujin blazer this time, stuffing it into his locker at the school’s entrance. He was late for his first class, but being in the top fifteen percentile of well-tested students meant his tardiness would be overlooked.  He had new footage from his old school that he wanted to share with Sakamoto and Kurusu.

 

Lunchtime was out of the question, so Mishima asked if he could see them after school. The roof was taken by third years that looked ready to become yakuza after graduation, but Mishima had another location. A tool shed near the abandoned greenhouse that once belonged to the Gardening Club; he’d done his research. They set up outside, Mishima dragging a table from the greenhouse. Getting caught coming out of a place so cliché would cause more suspicion than any of them needed. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

Ryuji glanced at the small figure fiddling with his phone and couldn’t help but wonder how Mishima managed to sneak into Shujin to capture this video. Each classroom lined up accordingly, so there would be no place for him. Unless... “Did you bribe someone?” Ryuji muttered before he could stop himself.

Mishima blinked at him, his brown eyes large and unassuming. “I might have,” he admitted casually.

“Look at how much our little boy has grown,” Akira laughed, tousling the already unruly dark hair. Mishima didn’t shy away from the touch. If anything, he leaned into it.

“Stop corrupting him!” Ryuji slapped Akira’s hand away, pulling a surprised Mishima behind him. “And who the hell would have a kid with you?!”

Akira pouted, placing a hand against his heart. “Ryuji. You wound me.”

“Stop it,” Mishima sighed, stepping out from behind Ryuji to continue his previous ministrations. When his phone refused to balance, he dug around in his school case to find the stand he rarely used. “Remember that ransom note Kamoshida received a while back?” he muttered as he connected the acrylic pieces. “I think the sender actually went through with it…” Making sure he had the other boys’ attention, Mishima tapped his phone so the video could play.

The steady camera angle was tilted to accommodate the doughy figure of the principal as he walked across the stage and up to the podium.

Ryuji took note of the blond twintails near the front of the row, but then focused his attention back on the Principal once the man started speaking.

As you all know, a tragic event took place the other day. Thankfully, we have been informed that she has pulled through, but it will take some time until she recovers.”

Ryuji freed a hand from the pocket of his school slacks to tap Mishima on the shoulder. “Is that true?”

Mishima fiddled with his hands. “She’s in a coma. The worst of her injuries have been taken care of, though, so I guess it is true on some level.”

Ryuji huffed out a sound of disgust. Even in a dire situation as this, adults still lied. The principal was forced to cut his speech short a loud bang of a closing door interrupted him. The blond that piqued his interest before let out a startled gasp at the appearance of someone off to the side. Ryuji didn’t need any guesses to figure out who it was, and gritted his teeth after the camera found him. Kamoshida.

I… have been reborn,” Kamoshida stated pitifully, his broad shoulders uncharacteristically slumped.

Akira snorted, muffling any forthcoming sounds with his hand after being elbowed in the side.

With heavy steps, Kamoshida made his way along the side of the gymnasium, climbing up onto the stage to join the astonished Principal. He didn’t need a mic for the student body to hear his confession. “I have repeatedly done things that were… unbecoming of a teacher. Verbally abusing students… physically abusing my team, and sexually harassing female students.”

Mishima’s left hand rose, gripping his right arm, both Ryuji and Akira tracking the movement. Akira covered Mishima’s hand with his own, whispering in his ear, words of comfort that Ryuji couldn’t hear.

I am the reason why Suzui Shiho tried to kill herself!”

The video feed became shaky as the camera holder was jostled by the alarmed student body. Words and slurs flew back and forth, but the camera’s main focus was the proud man, now down on his knees, bowing and crying his sins. “I thought of this school as my own castle… There were even students that I sentenced to expulsion, simply because I didn’t like that…”

Ryuji ignored the whispered gasps of his name. No one cared then; why should he care what they thought now?

I am truly sorry for putting innocent youths through such horrible acts…”

Ryuji opened his mouth to yell a retort at the video, but caught Akira’s warning gaze. Mishima was with them. Mishima, who knew nothing of the other world where they’d beat Kamoshida’s Shadow into submission.

I am an arrogant, shallow, and shameful person. Now, I’m worse than that…” Kamoshida slumped onto the stage, his towering figure now curled into a prostrating position. “I will take responsibility and kill myself for it…!”

“Fuckin’ coward,” Ryuji spat.

Someone else agreed with his assessment. Above the yelling faculty and wily students filled with unrest, a voice rose. “Don’t run, you bastard!”

The camera focused on the blonde, now standing ahead of the line of students. Her face went unseen, but her stiff body language filled in the nonexistent gaps her angry, accusing voice didn’t leave behind. “Shiho’s still alive ever after all the things that made her want to die! You have no right to run from this!”

You’re right,” Kamoshida whimpered, a sniveling sound. “I should be punished under the law and atone for my crimes. I did horrible things to Takamaki-san as well,” he sobbed. “I tried to force her into—”

Shut up!” Takamaki screamed. She fisted her hands over her ears, hair obscuring her face as she ducked her head.

Akira’s eyes widened. Even through a recorded video, he saw it. The slight distortion that surrounded Takamaki in that moment of emotional distress. She had a connection to the cognitive world. The amount of times they visited Kamoshida’s Palace before toppling it probably made her more susceptible to its influence. Could she be an ally? Akira pulled himself from his thoughts just in time to see Kamoshida grovel across the stage, pleading for the police to arrest him. He smirked. A job well done.

Mishima stepped out of Akira’s embrace to end the video and collect his items. “Takamaki recognized me after they dragged Kamoshida off the stage. I escaped during the chaos.” He closed the flap of his school case, lifting the bag from the table as he turned and faced his classmates. “Just like that note said—he really did confess his sins. Is this… real?” Mishima let out a frustrated groan, hiding his face behind his bag. “Why am I asking you guys? You probably don’t know any more than I do!”

Ryuji pushed the bag down to grin at Mishima. “Do you have someone whose heart you want to change?”

Mishima’s hopeful look didn’t go unnoticed, but he made a valiant attempt at hiding behind a lopsided smile. “No.”

Ryuji arched an eyebrow, making his skepticism at the response clear, but dropped the issue before it could grow into unwarranted suspicion. “As much as I hate leaving you with this guy,” He jabbed a thumb at the innocent Akira standing off to the side, “I have to meet a friend. Stay out of trouble, Mishima.”

Mishima watched Ryuji walk away over the top of his school case. “He blames himself because I got transferred. He stood up for me—for the whole volleyball team. Why am I telling you this?” he sighed with a strong shake of his head. It was the past and that was where it needed to stay.

“How ‘bout I treat you to Big Bang?” Akira hummed, pushing Mishima’s bag lower so the shorter teen could look at him.

“I prefer going to the dinner…”

“Steak and coffee, then!” Akira’s declaration was accompanied by a triumphant fist pump.  

Mishima smiled at the other’s endless energy. It makes one wonder what he did in his past to end up at a dump like this. Again: the past stays in the past. Falling in step with the transfer student, they left the school campus and headed for the station.


Akira was a busy boy for the next week. He prowled the streets in search of clues that would help them take down their next big target. If he took care of a few smaller problems along the way, who could blame him? Too many corrupted and violent citizens were being ignored.

He always loved seeing them cry. Even babies had more tact whining for an attention than an adult blubbering about forgiveness for his sins.

The universe obviously decided Akira had played around long enough, shoving Ryuji into his path like it was wont to do when he strayed too far.

"Wanna go to the gym?"

Akira wasn't expecting such a polite tone from the blond, considering they were still in class, and was stunned to silence. Was this in celebration for the downfall of Kamoshida, or was his fellow classmate trying to be civil?

Ryuji's brow creased as the seconds ticked by, a scowl taking hold of his frown. "Forget I asked," he snapped, already turning on his heel to go back to his corner desk.

Akira snapped out of his stupor and gave chase, as short a distance as it was. "Sorry. I would want nothing more than to spend time with you, but..." His hand rose, but never made it to his bangs, and fell back to his side. "Yusuke invited me out."

It was Ryuji's turn now to be surprised. Yusuke hadn't mentioned anything of the sort to him, but then Yusuke was also his own person and probably had a reason. "Whatever. If you see me loitering around, I have free time, so ask me if you want to hang out."

Akira kept his elation to a minimum with a small smile and a quick nod. "Okay." He watched Ryuji pack his school case, backing up when the blond walked by him to get to the door. Akira exhaled the breath he'd been holding, his shoulders slumping when he did. The more time they spent together, the more he limited his teasing and gave in to the flustered behavior that comes with a crush.

Akira walked back to his desk to finish his own backing so he could head out. He was supposed to meet Yusuke at Shibuya's underground walkway.

Considering Madarame's "house", it was easier to go in from Central Street. When Akira descended the stairs, and turned the corner, he realized where his nervousness was coming from. Yusuke stood at the end of the wall, hands folded behind his back in an elegant, yet relaxed pose. Winning over Yusuke would be his biggest conquest.

Yusuke lifted his head, brushing his bangs out of his face, and Akira's stomach attempted to somersault up to his throat. The taller teen didn't smile, but he did acknowledge him with a nod. Akira adjusted his bag strap after coming to a halt, tilting his head questioningly. "Where are we going?"

"Madarame has a Palace, doesn't he?"

Not the greeting he was expecting. Not a date, then. Akira tried not to let his disappoint show by feigning nonchalance with a shrug.

Yusuke's eyes widened in surprise before narrowing. "He... doesn't?"

"He probably does," Akira lied. Madarame had a hideous Palace, but it wasn't time for Yusuke to see it yet. "But it will take me some time to figure out how to get in." He tilted his head, glasses catching the station light and obscuring his eyes from view. "Was that all you wanted?"

"Yes." Yusuke cast his gaze downward after his soft admittance, studying the floor tile. “I saw the news about Kamoshida and hoped that we would be able to do the same for sensei.”

"At least you're honest," Akira sighed, feeling sorely disappointed. He could've been spending his time with Ryuji.

"Of course he's honest, asshole."

The bump from behind sent him stumbling forward. Akira caught himself before he fell, already knowing who the culprit was. He heard the voice every day (except Sundays).

Ryuji took his place at Yusuke's side, glaring at the bespectacled teen. "I wasn't jealous, just bored, so I followed you. Since we're all here and near that guy's shop, maybe we should have another talk."

Akira smirked, a quip on the tip of his tongue. He swallowed it, knowing he wouldn't win any points with Yusuke if he disrespected his boyfriend in front of him. "Too early," he said instead. "Even though I helped Mune-chan clear his name, the cops sometime stop by to see if he's still on the straight and narrow."

"...why do you call him that?" Ryuji wondered aloud. "He scares the shit out of me, and I've only seen him once!"

"His reputation precedes him. And I do it because I know it pisses him off," Akira laughed. "He can't lay a hand on me."

"You like flirting with danger," Yusuke surmised.

Akira's eyes found Ryuji's as he replied with a soft "yes". Ryuji looked away, biting his lip to hide his own amused reaction.

Yusuke was no fool. Being an artist meant he had to be aware of every detail, no matter how obvious or obscure. He was also unconcerned with Akira's advances, but knowing Ryuji—Ryuji would beat himself up for thinking he was being unfaithful. In that moment, he realized why Akira's mood soured before Ryuji's appearance. "You wanted to spend time with me."

"Idiot," Ryuji scoffed, bumping his hip against Yusuke's. "Anybody would."

"Nobody wishes to spend time with me other than you. Not even sensei."

Ryuji wrapped an arm around the taller teen's neck and pulled him down to his height. Akira noted they now had the attention of the gossiping housewives nearby; the worse kind to provide new material for.

Yusuke easily slipped free of Ryuji's hold and moved around him towards the stairs. "You two have fun together. I forgot that there's the upcoming art exhibit." He pressed his fingers to his temple. "Things have been so hectic." Even Akira could tell the smile was forced and he hardly knew the artist.

With a soft farewell, Yusuke disappeared into the hallway that led back to Shibuya's central street.

"Shit...!" Ryuji sank into a crouch, fingers tangled in his blond hair. He stayed down for a while, muttering curses and other phrases Akira chose to ignore. When he finally rose, a glare furrowed his brow.

"Yen for your thought?" To prove he was serious, Akira pulled the coin from his pocket and tossed it in the air.

Ryuji snatched it up before it could fall into the waiting palm. "Gym's across the street," he grumbled, kicking the grimy station floor once before leading the way. Akira followed with a wide smile. 

xxx

Ryuji had the best laugh of his life after Akira climbed on a treadmill. He was still snickering even after he stepped off his own machine to squat next to the crumpled heap of a teen. "Pathetic," he snorted. "Why are you so great over there but shitty here in the real world?"

"You think... I'm great?" Akira pushed himself up, his arms trembling even though he'd been working on cardio.

"Don't get cocky. You suck. You're gonna be wasting the protein I gave you if you quit after this." Ryuji's grin was almost malicious. "I'm not done with you, Joker."

Akira felt a different kind of energy course through him and collapsed back onto the foamed floor with a whimper. He wasn't expecting Ryuji to hoist him up and over his shoulder. Akira scrambled to keep his glasses on his face, his legs flailing to find something solid for him to stand on. A slap to the back of his thighs made him go completely motionless. Ryuji froze after a few steps, the reason pressed against his collarbone.

"I'm sorry," Akira whispered. "I..." He had no excuse.

"Wanna take care of it?" Ryuji mumbled, his ears a cute shade of pink. He was the reason for Akira's arousal. It was a nice feeling, knowing he could turn on not just one, but two people without trying (and making a fool of himself in the process).

Ryuji carefully made his way to the locker room, his cheeks growing hotter with every little sound Akira released as he was jostled. Once they were in the privacy of the benched area, he set the brunet down onto the floor and Akira wobbled his way into the nearest stall. Ryuji took a seat on a nearby bench, covering his ears with his hands as he bowed forward. He chanted Yusuke's name in his head, stopping only when he felt a light touch to his shoulder.

Akira stood behind him, flushed, and trying to hide behind the collar of his black jersey. "I guess I really am a pervert," he chuckled in an attempt to make light of the situation.

Ryuji lifted his shoulders in a faint shrug, not sure how to address the situation. Akira obviously liked him, but did he like Yusuke as well? Should they be having this discussion in a place like this? He offered the brunet a weary smile. "Wanna try the treadmill again?"

Akira glared from behind his glasses. "You obviously want to see me make an ass of myself." The tension eased from Ryuji's body and his smile grew into a grin. "It's nice, knowing that you suck at something. Let's test out a few other exercises and work out a routine."

"Aye, aye, captain." Akira gave a mock salute and waited for Ryuji to rise from the bench before they walked out of the locker room together.

Once they were back amongst the machines and reclaimed their own, Ryuji set Akira's for a brisk pace while giving himself a jog. After fifteen minutes, he felt a telltale twinge in his right leg and dialed down his speed. If he pushed himself, Yusuke would never forgive him. He let himself glide along the belt to the back of the treadmill and then stepped off. Ryuji performed a few stretches to loosen his limbs, gritting through the slight pain, and stood tall when Akira stepped off to join him.

"Let's take a shower together," the blond declared with a carefree grin.

Akira's fingers dug into the hem of his jersey jacket, eyes wide behind his glasses.

Ryuji doubled forward, hands braced against his knees as he laughed. "Oh, gods! I can't believe I found your weakness! This is great." He lifted his head high enough to smile up against the brunet. "I'm not making fun of your feelings, just so ya know. I'm doin’ this for your own good. Can't have you poppin’ a boner on the train during rush hour because I’m pressed up against you." Ryuji’s gaze followed Akira’s hands as they folded together in front of his crotch. “Again? I’ll give you this, you have some amazing stamina.” He pushed at his knees to stand straight. “How about you use it to work out the rest of your body?” Ryuji guided Akira back to the locker rooms with a light hand against his lower back.

They showered, two stalls apart—Akira’s took longer than Ryuji’s, and dressed in nondescript jerseys. Their school uniforms were tucked away in their bags.

Akira shoved his hands into his pockets once they were outside in the street, hunching his shoulders up to his ears. "Untouchable, or are we going our separate ways?"

Ryuji thought about his choices and realized he actually enjoyed spending time with the transfer student. When he wasn’t being a pain in the ass. Without an audience, Akira seemed more docile, and so fun to tease. "Separate ways," Ryuji sighed. "But..." He looked to the end of the street, watching the cars drive by. " Despite the shit you told Yusuke, Madarame has a Palace, doesn’t he? I know you know how to get there."

He turned back around and Akira felt his lips spreading into a wide grin. Those eyes were alight again. 'Skull!'

"Can we go to Madarame's Palace tomorrow? I feel like Yusuke's not telling me something. I wanna help him. Maybe I can find something that geriatric bastard is hiding."

"Geria..." Akira trailed off into laughter, hands curled around his midsection. 'The things you say—I can’t help loving you!'

Ryuji's eyes widened, the blond taking a surprised step backwards, and Akira quickly realized his mistake; his thoughts had been spoken aloud. He cleared his throat, freeing a hand to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "I do. If you feel my confession will make tomorrow awkward, then just pretend you never heard me. I have part time jobs at the underground mall that I can be doing."

"No," Ryuji mumbled with a shake of his head. "I'm... I feel happy? I don't know what this is, but I still want to go to his Palace."

"Fine." Akira dropped his hand and executed a curt bow before spinning away sharply.

"Ah..." Ryuji watched him walk away, feeling something akin to disappointment. "What the hell just happened?!" he growled to himself.

While Ryuji berated himself for his actions, Akira doubled back using another as a shield to hide him from sight. He made his way through Central Street until he was staring at the rundown hovel Madarame called a home. 

Tomorrow, an annoyed voice reminded him. Akira bared his teeth at nothing, angrily kicking at the guardrail. Yusuke was trapped and Akira couldn't save him by himself. Ryuji was willing, but... Were they enough?

Yes, we are.

Akira found himself relaxing into an invisible embrace.

Soon, we'll have a third. They'll grow so strong—we'll be unstoppable.

Akira bit back a moan and imagined Arsene's wings draping over him. He closed his eyes to feel their gentle, comforting embrace. Unbeknownst to him, a pair of sharp gray eyes watched him wrap his arms around his midsection from the darkness of a second-floor room.


Ryuji had yet to drag his desk back to its original row, and the teacher stopped asking weeks ago. Akira chose to harass Mishima instead of the classroom's other resident delinquent, obviously ignoring the blond.

'Who's making things awkward now, asshole?!' Ryuji pushed his chair away from the desk, purposefully scraping the legs across the floor to create a noise that could rival nails on a chalkboard. Akira never once glanced over his shoulder and that only served to piss Ryuji off even more. Mishima was just a toy to the transfer student. 'You said you loved me... Pay attention to me!'

Mishima released the shudder Akira fought so hard to repress. He attempted to look behind him, but Akira's fingers guided his head back around. The gentle, yet forceful touch vanished when his classmate was snatched out of his seat and dragged from the classroom. Mishima covered his face, muffling his whimpers.

 

"Don't ignore me!" Ryuji snarled, tossing the brunet across the bathroom. He'd taken them to the nearest one and now proceeded to lock them inside.

Akira made a soft sound—a derisive chuckle—as he smoothed out the wrinkles in his uniform. "Isn't that what you've always wanted me to do?"

"Not after you go and confess to me! You didn't even give me time to think about it, and you act like you've already moved on."

"Maybe I have." Akira's smile was sickening to look at and Ryuji wanted to wipe it off his face. "Mishima is cute, and he'll listen to everything I have to say. Unlike a certain brute I know."

Ryuji stalked forward, crowding into Akira's space and forcing him to back up until he hit the wall. No. He wouldn't hit him; that wouldn't bode well for either of them. The predatory gleam in Ryuji's eyes, along with a sharp grin froze Akira in place. His eyes widened when the blond sank to his knees before him.

"Ryu—"

"This is what you wanted, isn't it?"

"Yes, but—"

"We've been dancing around each other since the fall of Kamoshida." Ryuji's fingers undid Akira's belt and buttons before slowly pulling the zipper of his fly downward. "I'm not easy, and I sure as hell feel like I'm cheating on Yusuke, but..." He tilted his head to stare at the teen above him, eyes bright with a strong resolve. "I want to do this."

Akira swallowed thickly and nodded. Ryuji grinned and returned to unwrapping his treat. Akira's head slammed against the wall, fingers clawing at its hard surface as he was enveloped by a warmth that brought him to a full hardness. He couldn't help but wonder how many times Ryuji did this with Yusuke—the blond was too good. Akira brought a trembling hand forward to rest atop the golden crown, but it was slapped away.

Ryuji pulled off and Akira whimpered at the loss, his hips thrusting forward pathetically to reclaim it. "I'm actually glad you don't see Yusuke every day like you see me. You'd be arrested for indecent exposure." As he talked, Ryuji arranged Akira's pliant body to his liking. He pulled both of his arms behind his back, using the weight of Akira's own body to keep them trapped there. "Or maybe you'd die from the blood constantly rushing here."

With both hands pressed firmly against Akira's hips to keep him from moving, Ryuji licked the twitching erection from base to tip, sucking the head back into his mouth. Up above him, it almost sounded like Akira was crying. 

Akira had cried—from absolute euphoric bliss. There was no hiding the tear tracks when he stumbled back into the classroom, well past the lunch hour. He was easing himself into his chair when Ryuji sauntered into the room shortly after, slamming the sliding door shut behind him. His grin was triumphant and the students remained quiet, only speculating on what happened between the duo.

There was always a power battle in class 2-2 between their worst delinquents, and on rare occasions, Sakamoto Ryuji would end up victorious. This was one of those occasions.

Sakamoto would never ask the faculty anything, a fact he'd made clear during opening ceremonies of his second year. Security had to drag him from the stage as he screamed how he felt about adults and authority. So it was no surprise when the blond stopped at Mishima's desk to ask about the current lessons before making his way to the back of the room. He ignored Kurusu on the way there, not that the transfer student would have noticed.

Kurusu's head was resting on his desk, atop folded arms that acted as a pillow. He was currently working his way up the rank of test scores, so she would allow him to rest this once. Whatever Sakamoto did had obviously been brutal. 

x

Akira woke with a start, a hand pressed over his pounding heart. A golden arrow had been lodged there, courtesy of one "Robin Hood". It hadn't felt like a dream, though, which meant trouble was brewing.

Chapter Text

Yusuke stared at the blank canvas before him, trying to understand why his brush was still dry and his hands were folded in his lap. Ever since that day he'd brushed off Kurusu and Ryuji, his artwork suffered.

Yusuke recalled dismissing Ryuji’s attempts to comfort him, only to have Kurusu's face creep into the mental image he'd created of his boyfriend. He had no right to be jealous. They went to the same school, of course they'd want to hang out together. His nails dug into the flesh of his palms as he clenched his hands into tight fists. Had he been pushed aside? No. Ryuji was practically his betrothed; they had plans to run away together once they graduated. So, what was this ugly feeling twisting in his gut?

The loud snap brought him back to reality, only for dread to take the place of the unknown emotion. He'd broken his paintbrush. To ask Madarame for a new one would result in a lecture. To purchase one would put a dent in his barely-there funds. Ryuji would gladly buy him one—a whole new set even—but Yusuke found the idea of seeing the other teen would only bring about more despair.

Maybe he could tape it back together... With that thought in mind, he set about finding the necessary adhesive. 


After three days with no results, Madarame grew impatient with his only remaining student. Yusuke felt more disappointed with himself than his sensei did, and used the excuse of a broken brush. He had one thrown at him for his efforts, with a threat of "paint, or else".

Yusuke would have to contact Ryuji and ask for one of the paintings the blond held for him, something he had no desire to do. Not just because those were "theirs", but because he'd wronged the other teen; he had no reason to ask for a favor. 

xxx

And yet somehow Yusuke found himself standing against the wall in the Underground Walkway, waiting patiently. He was taking the roundabout way of getting to Ryuji. He lifted his head, finding it somewhat unsettling that he could tell when Kurusu was nearby. Was this a residual effect of that world? He'd never know because he was never allowed to go. He had no Persona.

Yusuke gritted his teeth. He didn't want to be the damsel in distress.

Kurusu stopped farther away than necessary, the light gleaming off his glasses and hiding his eyes.

Even though he looked relaxed to anyone else at first glance, Yusuke could tell the teen was tense, maybe even angry. "Thank you, for meeting me," he stated in greeting. Somebody had to get the ball rolling.

"Are you going to ask to go there again?" Akira cut straight to the point. No sense in having his day wasted when he could be earning money legally

"I never asked before," Yusuke sighed, crossing his arms and cupping his elbows. "I assumed you planned to take me and had been looking forward to it."

Akira's anger drained out of him, eyes wide behind his glasses. He collected himself, only to start laughing. "I can't really stay mad at you. You're... just being you. Madarame snuffed out your potential."

"That's what I wanted to talk about," Yusuke sighed, eyes dimming as he stared down at the grimy floor beneath his feet. He shuffled his stance, pushing away from the wall. "I've reached a block and I would like to break it. I…" Yusuke raised a hand to his temple.

Akira closed the distance between them. He placed a gentle hand to the taller teen's shoulder. "Maybe we should go somewhere more private. I know of a café..."

Yusuke nodded. 

Leblanc was small and quaint. After walking through the door, the bespectacled man called out a greeting without physically acknowledging them; he was pouring a cup for a patron and couldn't be bothered with something so trivial. There were three other guests: a gentleman in the back booth closest to the restroom, and a couple in the booth before him. The gentleman's attention was torn between his paper and the news broadcasting on the television behind him.

Akira climbed onto one of the bar stools, turning it so he could stare at the television as well. Certain stations still discussed Kamoshida's so-called "change of heart", and this was one of them. Kurusu kept his eyes glued to the television, elbows propped on the counter, hands hiding the lower half of his face.

Yusuke placed his order once the café’s owner returned behind the counter, choosing to ignore the broadcast. It was a thing of the past and should stay there. Only it wouldn't, though he didn't know that. 

"Why are you so set on going to Madarame's Palace? Maybe it'll be worse than the last one we encountered.”  

"I feel left out," Yusuke admitted softly, though his voice didn't waver in the slightest. "Just over a month ago, Ryuji was disgusted by you. He came to me every day, angry. Complaining about 'some dumbass transfer student'."

Kurusu didn't bother hiding his snort, knowing those were definitely Ryuji's words and not Yusuke's.

"I feel embarrassed," the art student continued with the faintest hint of a smile. "That I'm acting this way. Ryuji would hang the moon then destroy if I asked him, but I can't admit my own weakness to him. I want to be strong for him."

"And he knows that," Kurusu murmured. "I find it hard to stop teasing him, but I also know just how conscientious he is. I can't guarantee your safety if you can't fight. Things will only get worse once people become aware of what we're doing. He realizes this is well and tried his best to keep you happy."

"And I pushed him away," Yusuke sighed, fingers tightening around his mug.

"More for me," Akira chuckled. "Though I would have liked you both, together. He's really rough," he sighed, purposefully rubbing the side of his neck where Ryuji'd first marked him.

"He told me what happened in the bathroom," Yusuke stated plainly, ignorant of the other teen's jab. "He apologized. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I will admit I'm not too upset." He faced Kurusu, tilting his head. "I saw you outside Madarame's house that night."

Akira's eyes widened behind his glasses, dark with too many emotions.

Yusuke plodded on, "If we spend more time together, maybe I'll be able to understand you. Maybe I'll be able to accept you."

Akira felt raw. Yusuke's intense stare surgically cut into him, whereas Ryuji's heated glares flayed him open. Either way, he was exposed and it was as terrifying as it was exhilarating. Akira looked away, shifting uncomfortably.

Yusuke blinked slowly, sitting up straight in his seat. "Do you have to use the restroom?"

Akira laughed nervously and used that as an opening for him to excuse himself. He quickly made his way to the restroom located at the bottom of the stairs, locking himself within. He took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself. It was as Ryuji said: he couldn't go around getting excited in public. Luckily, Yusuke's affect on him wasn't as strong as Ryuji's, and Akira was able to curb his arousal. It was then that he realized he really did need to use the bathroom for its intended purpose. 

 

Akira turned off the faucet after washing his hands. He braced them on the edge of the sink and stared at his reflection. The face that stared back at him was one he recognized—today. On bad days, he could barely remember his name, let alone the day of the week. Akira understood he was no longer normal, in all definitions of the word. The blame, as always, lay with the adults of their so-called refined society. They broke him and left some pieces missing when they remade him. His reflection morphed, a wide grin spreading across his face.

"Thank you, society, for opening my eyes." With a chuckle, Akira dried his hands and replaced his glasses before walking out of the restroom.

Yusuke was standing at the counter, bag already hooked over his shoulder; Akira's hung from his fingers. "I paid," he stated calmly.

"What? No. Kitagawa—"

"Yusuke," the taller teen interrupted, skilled in changing subjects.

He was not talking to Ryuji. His usual methods wouldn't work. Akira's eyes narrowed behind his glasses. "You won't let me pay you back, will you?"

"Of course not," Yusuke sighed, holding out Kurusu's bag to him. "Let's go. Boss." Leblanc's owner gave the teens his attention. Yusuke bowed deeply, his head almost touching the counter top. "I enjoyed my visit. Your coffee was exquisite. I hope I'll be able to return."

The older man chuckled, tapping his cigarette against the nearby ash tray. "You're laying it on thick, but I'll accept the praise. Go on, get outta here."

Yusuke straightened up with a smile and nodded at Kurusu, who had yet to take his bag. He gave it a little shake. “Shall we?”

Akira escorted Yusuke back to the station before seeing himself home for the evening. Before closing his eyes for the night, he sent Ryuji a short and concise text. Tomorrow.


Ryuji stared up at the house he frequented, only when its owner was absent. Yusuke was there now, but Ryuji knew for a fact that he was elbow-deep in paint and oils. He nudged the teen at his side, not looking away from the shabby building. “He won’t get dragged in, will he?”

Akira looked from Ryuji’s profile to the decrepit structure. “No. I’ve come here twice already and never saw him in the Palace. I think it’s a conscious act. Here.” He held up his phone.

Ryuji tore his gaze away, focusing it on the mobile device. Madarame; plagiarism; shack. He bared his teeth in a humorless grin. “I coulda told ya that.”

“Take us to his Palace then,” Akira instructed, wiggling his phone a little.

Ryuji stared at the keywords a few moments longer before letting his gaze sweep over Madarame’s house. Yusuke was trapped inside. Every piece of art he’d ever drawn—taken and put on display with someone else’s name. “…museum,” he murmured.

 

Yusuke winced at the sudden sharp pain, pressing a hand to his temple. It disappeared seconds later, so he chalked it up as nothing worrying and returned to his activities.

xxx

“Disgusting,” Skull spat as he stared up at the extravagant, blindingly bright gold structure that was once the hovel Madarame lived in. It spread as far as the eyes could see, with spotlights dancing in the sky as beacons for the onlookers. A line of faceless bodies stood in wait to be granted access to the “museum”.

Joker ran a gloved hand down the spine design of Skull’s outfit, just hard enough to gain the other’s attention. “I already figured out how to get inside. Follow me.” Once acknowledged with a nod, Joker ran for the peacock-decorated van. He easily scaled it, waiting at the top for Skull to join him. From there, it was up to the lowest point in the golden wall.

A shrubbery arch invited them into the museum. Joker stopped before they entered and pointed to the golden structure on the right of the path. “Take a swing.”

Skull’s hand tightened around the heavy pipe he carried. With a wild grin, he swung out, laughing when the object shattered. Joker bent to pick up the prize inside; a pearl that he easily slipped into his pocket. “Feel better?”

“Hell yeah,” Skull chuckled, tapping the pipe against his shoulder.

The infiltration consisted of a lot of climbing and leaping. There was even a rope involved. Skull was feeling excited about it all, until Joker explained what the many portraits hanging from the walls represented; until he saw Yusuke’s. It loomed from floor to ceiling. Skull clenched his hands into tight fists, the material of his gloves squeaking from the pressure. Yusuke still managed to look innocent in Madarame’s subconscious. With a feral yell, he dashed through the nearest set of sensors and faced off against the first Shadow guard that approached him.

Progress through Madarame’s Palace was easier with Skull at his side, but Joker could tell that his companion’s temper was getting the better of him; Skull was taking everything too personal. Joker found himself using the petite Pixie more often than he’d like, just to keep Skull’s health from plummeting to dangerous levels. She was a boon and a bane at the same time. The winged creature couldn’t protect him like Arsene and he suffered as much as she did when Apsaras rained ice down upon them.

Joker’s patience finally snapped after they left the second exhibition room. Skull walked at his side, still muttering about the “stupid dead chicken thing”. After two hallways and no attacks, Joker’s suspiciousness only to have it all washed away by the sound of running water. There was a pond, filled with fish, surrounded by tall, potted trees. The gold reflecting from the bottom of the water somehow created a calming effect. Skull exclaimed about something behind him, but Joker ignored him, taking several deep breaths as he watched the different fish glide by.

The peaceful moment of tranquility was shattered by the alarms blaring all around them. Joker spun away from the pond, dashing down the hallway behind him to find Skull on his behind, surrounded by infra-red lasers. The blond had obviously attempted a headlong rush at the literal blockade just beyond, setting off the security precautions. Joker almost resorted to knocking him out rather than throwing the blond over his shoulder. With Skull still fighting him and causing more raucous than necessary, he was surprised they made it to the nearby safe room without being ambushed.

Joker dropped him unceremoniously onto the floor, standing back to lean against the table.

"What the fuck!" Ryuji roared after ripping off his mask. He kicked at one of the rolling office chairs, causing it to slam against another. Both rolling to a slow halt before they reached the couch at the back of the wall.

"Shut up," Joker hissed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He wouldn't be able to stave off the oncoming headache, but he could at least prevent it from coming quicker. "Not everything can be beat with your fists. This is a world in somebody's mind."

After a few more harsh pants, Ryuji's tight form relaxed, his shoulders slumping as he slouched forward.

"We need Yusuke's help," Joker gritted out. They would probably need more than Yusuke's help further down the road, but who else could he trust? He pressed the palm of his left hand to his left eye, forcing it against the socket just shy of painful. The edges of his mask digging into his face didn’t help. Joker didn't hear Ryuji move, but he soon found himself pinned against the closed door of the hidden room, hands trapped above his head.

"Maybe if you stop being a selfish prick, you'd have the help you need!" Ryuji stepped closer, their chests only separated by the material of their outfits. “Yusuke’s been tryin’ to help for days!”

"You don't know what you're talking about," the brunet scoffed, looking away. As he stared around the half-transformed room, his mind wandered to Iwai. How much would the shop owner give him for all his finds?

Ryuji's fingers tightened around his wrist to bring him back to their current situation and Joker was pleased to find it did not excite him in the least. In fact, it did just the opposite. Raising a knee between them, he managed to force the blond away. He diligently dusted off his outfit once he'd righted himself. "Stop being a brute for once and let me think." Joker hooked his fingers around the edge of his mask and removed it with a tired sigh.

Ryuji snatched up the mask he'd left on the table, fitting it on over his face. With a soft grunt, he shoved Akira away from the door and headed back out into the flashy Palace. Akira edged his way to the couch and sank into it, head cradled I'm his hands. If the idiot wanted to die, let him.

Shortly after the thought passed, the door opened and Skull sauntered back in. Akira sat up straight, interest piqued by the confidence the other exuded. With a grin, reminiscent of his first victory, Skull stated, "I know how to get rid of that block." 

xxx

Akira’s faith in Ryuji was restored when they walked out of the Palace and out of the Metaverse.


Yusuke set down his brush and almost startled himself out of his seat after finding Ryuji lounging in the corner. The golden crown rested against the wall, snug between the corner. Yusuke stood from the chair, steps light as he made his way to the slumped figure, and carefully sank to his knees. He placed a gentle hand to Ryuji's left thigh, giving it a soft squeeze.

"Oh. You done?" The blond head rose, a familiar grin greeting the art student.

Yusuke cupped Ryuji's face between his hands, thumbs tracing patterns over his cheeks, before he leaned in to kiss widely spread lips. "I'm sorry—"

"Apology accepted! We need your help."

Yusuke let his forehead rest against Ryuji's, chuckling softly against the blond's lips. "Where would I be without you?"

"We can think about that another time." Ryuji's hands squeezed his shoulders, slowly easing him backwards so they could see eye to eye. His grin hadn't diminished and looked almost brighter than before. "That li'l shit finally admitted that he needs your help."

Yusuke blinked slowly, letting the words settle. "Kurusu?"

"Yes, idiot. Madarame has this blockade in his Palace, but only you can get us past it."

Yusuke raised an eyebrow, eyes alight with confusion. "How?"

Ryuji pushed until Yusuke got the message and stood from his crouched position. He got to his feet as well and took the brunet's hand, leading them out of the room and down the hall. Oh. Yusuke stared at the locked door before them, his free hand ghosting over the keys that dangled at his hip. He'd almost forgotten about this room since he had no way to access it. Storage for old paintings. Something told Yusuke there was more than that in the room, but it was obvious Madarame didn't want anyone inside, and so he respected that wish.

Ryuji released Yusuke’s hand to step closer to the closed door, pressing a hand against the decorated surface. It held the same pattern as the wall in Madarame’s Palace. "Jo—Akira says you need to open it when the old man can see it. We'll be in Madarame's Palace while you're doing that. Hopefully you can figure out what he means because I stopped listening after that. Everything else that came out of his mouth sounded like nonsense." He turned away from the door to show the brunet an apathetic expression.

Yusuke chuckled. "I think I understand Kurusu's intentions."

"You're so smart," Ryuji drawled in a high-pitched voice, letting his entire body slump forward into Yusuke's. Yusuke gave into the weight, if only to hear Ryuji's laugh directly in his ear after they were sprawled across the floor. He slid his arms around the blond, holding onto the muscular frame like a lifeline. It was. If he lost Ryuji now, he'd have no one. He'd become Madarame's favorite puppet.

Ryuji tucked his hands as far under Yusuke as possible, returning the hug as best he could. "Call me simple," he grunted, voice heavy with emotion. "I don't care what you do to me, Yusuke. I'll always welcome you back. If I have you, I'm happy."

"You are simple," Yusuke laughed, sliding his right hand high enough to tousle Ryuji's short golden strands. "But that's what I love about you."

Ryuji lifted his head high enough for Yusuke to get lost in the sepia of his eyes. "You..."

"Of course, my simple idiot." He watched tears form at the corners of Ryuji's eyes, but the blond buried his face in Yusuke's school shirt to hide his emotions.

"You're lucky my mom raised me to be a gentleman," Ryuji mumbled against Yusuke's chest. "I'd take you right here on this floor. Madarame be damned!"

"I'd rather sensei not see my naked ass. We still have some time before his return." Ryuji lifted his head, blinking red-rimmed eyes up at the brunet. Yusuke smiled innocently, but the blond could see the devil behind that smile. "Shall we reconvene to my bedroom?"

"Yes." Ryuji wriggled free and jumped to his feet, yanking the artist up once he'd found his footing. Yusuke went willingly, smile unwavering as he listened to Ryuji chat about everything and nothing at the same time.

Ryuji was napping between Yusuke's thighs, head tucked against the bare skin of the brunet's abdomen. He loved reminding him that it was his favorite place to be.

"Your legs are long and so damn gorgeous. I'm allowing myself a sample of what's to come in the future." Followed by a nip to his inner thigh.

Yusuke shifted, lowering the sketchbook, and stared at his progress. This was a book of memories. It was the only time he allowed himself to draw human portraits. Its pages consisted of nothing but Sakamoto Ryuji.

"Hmm?"

Or so he assumed. Yusuke stopped his flipping of the pages to study the one thing out of place in the book. In the corner of a page that captured Ryuji yelling, was a sketch of Kurusu Akira, obviously drawn from memory.

"Seems like we both can't get him out of our heads."

Chapter Text

With his pupil’s new piece completed, Madarame swooped in to whisk it off to the exhibit. Yusuke was glad for the break, but he couldn’t rest—not yet. He stared at the lock pick in his hand. Akira had given it to him with the most innocent of smiles, singing wonders about how easy it was to use. All Yusuke had to do now was wait for Madarame to return and make sure that he saw his treasured room was no longer impenetrable. Ryuji was counting on him; his freedom depended on it.

Yusuke stared at the peacock feather design of the door, turning the lock pick over and over in his hand. He still had fifteen minutes before the house’s owner returned. Curiousity called to him, and Yusuke found himself fitting the metal pieces into the lock. It took a few tries before it clicked open and the door swung wide Darkness greeted him. It whispered to him, beckoning him inside. Yusuke listened and took the first step over the forbidden threshold.

 

Get out!”

Time lost all meaning after walking into the storage room, so it was no surprise that Madarame returned before he could escape. He had no intention of escaping, though. Yusuke turned slowly to face the man that raised him, in more ways than one. The man that now tore him down. From his fingers hung a “Sayuri” painting. Countless more still surrounded him. “Sensei. What is the meaning of this…?”

xxx

Despite them not always seeing eye to eye, Joker couldn’t envision himself making it this far without Skull’s help. Also, the hotheaded Persona user seemed to have considerably calmed down since their visit yesterday. They both guzzled health restoring drinks after giving their all in the fight against the behemoth of a Shadow. Lowering the empty container from his lips, Joker’s discerning eye locked on the glass windows and doors just beyond the blond head.

Skull turned, following his gaze, and grinned at the sight of the control room. “Let’s hurry up and get that shit shut off!” He also wanted to make sure Yusuke was safe from Madarame.

Joker let the energetic boy lead the way. He handled opening the door and shutting down the security system, but gave Skull free reign to destroy the art piece just outside the door of the control room. After making a mad dash back to the central garden after being spotted by a wandering Shadow, Joker took a moment to enjoy the disabled infra-red lasers. That was one problem taken care of.

Skull’s attention was elsewhere. Taking slow careful steps around the topiary designs, his eyes widened at the lone figure standing just under what he assumed was an oversize bonsai tree. “Yusuke!” The run to his boyfriend was short and quick.

Yusuke had his head tilted back, eyes closed against the gold flowing through the branches overhead. “Ryuji.” The name was wrapped in a soft laugh that ghosted past his lips. “Everything that I’ve known and worked towards—it’s all been a lie.”

Ryuji pushed his mask upwards so it lay nestled in his hair. He held out a hand, but drew it back, fisting it against his side. “Oi… You’re scarin’ me. Are you hurt? Yusuke!”

Yusuke dropped his head, wet eyes locking onto the masked Akira. “Did you know?”

A simple shake of the head was the only answer he received. Joker had no idea what the question pertained to other than being Madarame-related.

Yusuke buried his face in his hands and Ryuji stepped forward, only to be pushed away. A tearful gaze kept him from trying again. “Sayuri is fake! A counterfeit. That room held so many copies in different shapes and sizes.”

“Shit…” Ryuji gripped the pipe in his hand so tightly, Joker believed he heard the metal creak. The blunt object was dropped, forgotten. Ryuji stepped into his boyfriend’s personal space and trapped Yusuke’s arms to his sides in a tight embrace to avoid being pushed away again. “Yusuke. Yusuke, I’m so fuckin’ sorry! I know… what that painting meant to you. But, you can’t give up now! You have to make him pay!”

Joker didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but… “We have to leave,” he stated calmly, shifting his stance so he could glance down the path that lead back to the pond. “That stunt we pulled set off more alarms than I thought. We’ve got a civilian.” Joker didn’t want Yusuke to be taken as a hostage, especially with him in such a fragile state.

“I’m fine,” the art student muttered. “Ryuji, let me go.”

“No.” Ryuji released Yusuke long enough to loop an arm around his waist. Whether Yusuke wanted his support or not, he was getting it. With a soft sigh, Yusuke conceded defeat and hung his arm around the blond’s shoulder.

Joker took the lead, as always.

-

Yusuke forced Ryuji to a stop when they entered the exhibition room just beyond the pond. “So this… is inside of sensei’s heart?” The question was rhetorical. Yusuke knew exactly where they were. He looked around at the portraits of unrecognizable faces. “Such a vain museum,” he scoffed, tightening his hold around Ryuji’s shoulder.

Ryuji started them moving so they could catch up with Joker.

A circular portrait in the next room forced Yusuke to halt their progression once again. He understood what these frames represented; Madarame’s greed. But leave it up to Ryuji to spell it out for him. Madarame saw them all as objects.

Yusuke leaned into the blond, smiling as Ryuji stammered out a soft ‘oi’. He straightened up after a sudden realization dawned on him and pulled away from Ryuji’s side, but not the protective arm around his waist. “I’m… in here, aren’t I?” The question was directed at the cloaked figure several feet ahead of them. “You lied to me. You’ve been lying to me. You knew about Madarame’s Palace long before we dealt with Kamoshida. You talked about someone, and my portrait… Sensei was always your target.”

Joker glanced over his shoulder at the couple, but remained silent.

Ryuji could feel the pressure under the padding of his jacket as Yusuke clutched his shoulder in a desperate attempt for support. He covered the hand, squeezing gently, and pressed a quick kiss to the corner of Yusuke’s lips. “I already yelled at that asshole up there, so don't think too much about it. Also, your portrait? It’s hideous, but we already know that old man can’t draw.” The tension eased out of the lanky frame pressed against his side, just as he’d hoped.

Joker started forward again without addressing either one of them.

-

With the exit leading to the lobby right in front of them, the fates proved to be against the trio when their path became blocked by several shadows. A cackling laughter had Yusuke pulling away from Ryuji as they turned around to address the new threat. Mask back in place, Skull stood protectively in front of the tall teen. Joker was at Yusuke’s other side.

The Shadow of Madarame looked—“Disgusting.” The word fell from Yusuke’s lips before he could stop it. With a topknot reminiscent of shoguns, which the man most certainly was not, he donned a golden yutaka and haori to match his Palace.

Another snarky chuckle. “That pathetic attire you know me to wear—the entire existence is all an act.”

Yusuke’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Every word the gaudy Shadow spouted only solidified the lies the Madarame of the “real” world told him in that storage room. Another home? A mistress? Yusuke suffered from the harsh reality of poverty: unable to enjoy a good meal or wonder if he would be able to afford the train to return home. No. His cage. Standing before him, boasting about his riches, was the man he handed his life over to; the scum that benefitted from all his hard work.

Skull took a threatening step forward, pointing his weapon of choice at the gold-outfitted figure. “You keep goin’ on and on about money this, money that…! No wonder you ended up with this disgusting museum. Everything in here, and everything you own… It all belongs to Yusuke!”

“Yusuke,” Madarame’s Shadow hummed. “You helped me achieve greatness! Because of that, I’ll give you this warning.” He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his haori. “If you wish to succeed in this world, I’d advise you not to rise against me.” A twisted and wicked smile spread across Madarae’s painted lips. “You were foolish to believe I took you in out of the goodness of my heart.”

Yusuke eased between the two masked figures to stand at the forefront of their small offensive line. “Unforgivable,” he rumbled, his voice low and dangerous.

Akira splayed his fingers across his face, hiding his grin in the palm of his hand. “Finally…!”

Madarame sneered. “This is how you repay me for keeping your sheltered for all these years—with ingratitude?!”

“That’s right. You’ve kept me sheltered, chained to a canvas. And for that… I will never forgive you!”

Have you finally come to your senses?

Yusuke’s eyes flew wide, glowing yellow pupils mere pinpricks in their contracted state. He clutched at his head, breath coming in short pants alongside his pained groans, and doubled forward. He could hear a voice. A voice that chastised him for his own naivety.

How foolishly you averted your eyes from the truthA deplorable imitation indeed.

Yusuke remained upright, only long to keep twisting and turning in a futile attempt to escape the pain tearing through his skull.

Best you part from that aspect of yourself!

That powerful suggestion forced a strangled, almost alarming scream from the depth of his throat before he gave into the pain and tumbled downward. Let us now forge a contractI am thou, thou art I. Yusuke clawed at the floor in a futile attempt that brought him no relief. The veins on the back of his hand stood out as he dug his nails into the unyielding surface, leaving bloody trails as he clawed at the floor in a futile attempt that brought him no relief from the pain tearing through his body.

The world is filled with both beauty and viceIt is time you teach people which is which!

And just as soon as it appeared, the pain vanished. Yusuke felt a clarity like he’d never known. His head snapped up, eyes still glowing yellow; a white mask, with painted red designs, obscured his features. “Very well…”

That deadly gaze fell upon the terrified Shadow that called itself Madarame. Yusuke rose gracefully from the floor. Lifting bleeding fingers to the mask covering his face, he gripped its edge and pulled it free in one swift yank—“Come, Goemon!”—only to be lost in a tower of blue flames. Gone were the shackles he’d let hold him down.

The expression on Yusuke’s face was one Skull had never seen before. He temporarily forgave Joker for all those times he’d become aroused, because the same was happening to him. A breathtaking sight, indeed. The gallant Persona standing tall behind the brunet was the perfect representation of Yusuke, pipe and all.

With a sweep of his arm, Yusuke froze the guards that blocked their way, sending them tumbling with an icy wind. There was no need to bring Madarame’s misdeeds to light—everyone present was already aware of his conniving deceitful ways. There was only one thing Madarame needed to know. “No matter what it takes, I will bring you to justice!”

Joker stepped up on Yusuke’s left; Skull took his right. He smirked at the newly awakened Persona user, tilting his head. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”

Yusuke grinned, the promise of retribution alight in his eyes. “Bring it on.”

xxx

Yusuke’s ice skills proved to be very useful against the new swarm of Shadows Madarame unleashed upon them, but they still lacked power in numbers.

The “embittered blacksmith” Madarame left his guests to deal with raised its sledgehammer to end Yusuke’s ice terror once and for all, only to have its efforts thwarted by strong gust of wind. The element was useless against the blacksmith, but had worked well as a deterrent. The Shadow Bicorn, now a Persona to be used by Joker and the source of the wind attack, stomped a hoof impatiently where it stood at Yusuke’s side.

Yusuke looked to Akira, only to find their leader looked just as shell shocked as everyone else. Why? Because Apsaras floated behind him, hands resting lightly on his shoulder as she waited for a new plan of attack.

Skull’s battle cry as he launched himself at the enemy reminded the other that there was a battle to be fought.

Skull took a flying leap at Yusuke, ducking around the snout of the white mask to seal their lips together in an adrenaline-fueled kiss. Yusuke stumbled, but remained upright, his arms hooking beneath Ryuji's thighs to keep him elevated.

"So fuckin' amazin'," Skull panted as he pulled away for a breath. He dove back in, sucking Yusuke's tongue into his mouth and effectively swallowing the other's moan.

Yusuke would have treated this like any other make out session and endured, but he was feeling a bit lightheaded. He broke the kiss and tilted his head away from Ryuji. "...faint," he breathed out.

Skull immediately unlocked his legs from around the tall frame and lowered himself back onto the floor. He cupped Yusuke's face with gloved hands, pushing the mask aside to get a better look.

"We should head back," Joker suggested from somewhere beside them. His thoughts still swirled around the fact that he could produce two Personas at the same time, and he was easily able to overlook the impromptu display of affection, but they were still in the enemy’s domain.

Joker made his way over to the couple, slipping Yusuke's left arm around his shoulder.

Yusuke didn’t put up a fight, and allowed himself to be guided along. He was unclear of how they left Madarame's Palace, but his senses began returning en route to the diner on Central Street.

There was no stopping the fresh memory of the discourse he exchanged with his father figure in that storage room. Lie after lie, until Yusuke had had enough; he walked out, with the threat of being arrested hurled at his back. That was the last thing Yusuke remembered before suddenly appearing in that unknown world. Ryuji slid into the booth first, Akira across from him in the opposite seat. Yusuke pulled his phone from his pocket as he took a seat at Ryuji’s left. He opened the unknown app to find that he had indeed used it. Ryuji had given him the keywords. He slid in beside the blond, folding his arms atop the table.

"I can't go back," Yusuke sighed after the silence stretched on.

Ryuji looked to Akira, who was politely distancing himself by staying silent. He placed a hand to Yusuke's thigh, glad that the booth's table hid his actions. "You can stay with Akira. He has a really nice apartment." He had offered up his home a long time ago, but was politely turned down.

Yusuke looked from Ryuji's slightly put upon expression to the top of Akira's dark crown. "I couldn't impose."

"I don't want you there alone," Ryuji scoffed with a roll of his eyes. "But he knows better. It’s big enough for the both of you, unlike my place. I won’t my art nerd be homeless."

“Ryuji,” Yusuke began in protest. “I would have moved in with you long ago if I didn’t think my presence would be a hindrance.”

The hand on Yusuke’s thigh pressed down firmly and Ryuji found himself leaning closer. “Nothing about you is a bother.”  

Akira cleared his throat to remind Ryuji of their surroundings, smiling coyly once he had everyone’s attention. "My apartment is open to either one of you, and I wouldn't dream of laying a hand on Kitagawa—"

"Yusuke," said teen corrected.

Akira nodded at him. "Yusuke. He has no interest in me, not like you do."

Yusuke had no argument there. He barely saw him as a friend, but he hoped that would change now that they all stood on equal footing. "If you'll have me. I'll confront sen—Madarame when I've collected myself." Yusuke sat up straighter in his seat. "When do we intend to make his Palace fall?"

"You have to get stronger first," Akira pointed out. He folded his hands beneath his chin with the sweetest smile. Ryuji reacted with a scowl. "I have the perfect place for us to visit now that we all have Personas."

Yusuke drifted in and out of the conversation after that, his thoughts centered around the impossible. 'I have... a Persona.' He chuckled behind his hand, earning stares from the other boys. "My apologies. I believe I'm still a little delirious by today's turn of events."

"Maybe you should call it a night," Ryuji suggested, lifting his hand from Yusuke's thigh to squeeze the brunet's shoulder.

"Ryuji can take you to my place." Akira was already digging through his school case to find the keys to his apartment. "I can sneak back into Madarame's house and get what you'll need for school tomorrow. I promise I won't get caught," he added after Yusuke attempted to dissuade him.

"Thank you," Yusuke murmured haltingly. This was new. Other than Ryuji, he never had anyone go out of their way for him before. A smile crept onto his face, growing wider and brighter by the second. Ryuji practically vibrated beside him, wearing a wide grin all his own. He knew how rare it was for Yusuke to smile so openly. "Thank you, Akira."

Akira gripped his keys tightly, the pain from their jagged edges numbed by his clouded mind. He didn't know how to respond. Was he still breathing? "...welcome," he eventually mumbled, tripping over the simple word.

Yusuke chuckled, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. His actions were for naught when Ryuji's hand suddenly cupped the side of his head and dragged it down onto the blond's shoulder.

Their movement snapped Akira from his trance and he dropped his keys onto the table before slipping out of the booth. It was only after the transfer student disappeared that Yusuke realized that their friend didn't have a key to Madarame's house. He sent him a quick text saying just that and received an almost immediate response.

Kurusu: I'm a master thief. I know how to pick a lock.

"Of course he does," Ryuji scoffed, having read over Yusuke's arm.

Yusuke simply smiled as he pocketed his phone. "We should leave. I'm feeling a little tired."

"The check..." Ryuji leaned across him, looking for their waitress.

"If I know Akira, he already paid for it. It's his revenge against me." Ryuji raised an eyebrow and Yusuke wished he could kiss the furrowed lines away. "I'll tell you when we get to his apartment. Let's go." With no belongings other than the clothes on his back and the keys at his hip, Yusuke slipped out of the booth, waiting only long enough for Ryuji to join him.

xxx

Yusuke proved to be more exhausted than he let on when Ryuji found himself supporting the tall teen as they moved from station to station. "Deja vu," the blond sighed as he passed by Takemi's clinic on his way to the apartment complex.

Yusuke barely remembered taking off his shoes before collapsing into the foreign, but comfortable bed. Ryuji tucked him in and walked out of the bedroom. He left the door ajar enough that he could hear Yusuke if he woke. Settling onto the couch, Ryuji reached for the remote to the television.

Akira returned home to find the television watching Ryuji instead of the other way around. After closing the door, he set down his effects as quietly as possible and kept his steps light as he moved across the floor to the bedroom. Yusuke lay contentedly in his bed, the sheets outlining his gorgeous physique almost perfectly. This was a dream come true. Akira turned away after hearing movement behind him and counted himself blessed to see Ryuji waking. The blond pushed himself up from the cushions with arms Akira could only dream were wrapped around him. He knew first-hand how strong they were.

Ryuji rubbed the sleep from his eyes, mouth wide as he yawned, and slowly let his surroundings come into focus. The TV played news about something that held no interest to him. What did interest him was the teen leaning against the wall, shadows curling around him in an almost familiar gesture. A sleepy grin tugged at his lips. "How long have you been there, pervert?"

Akira smiled innocently. "Just a few minutes, but it was long enough. Would you like to spend the night? I have a spare futon."

"Nah." Ryuji stood from the couch, performing a series of stretches that left Akira shifting to better accommodate his growing arousal.

Akira pressed his head back against the wall with a groan. "Why do you torment me so?"

"'s only fair, considering the shit you put us through after you got here."

As he'd stated before, Akira had no apologies for his previous actions, and remained silent after Ryuji's accusation.

"I didn't wanna leave Yusuke alone, but you're back now. I have to make the last train." Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck, biting back another yawn. “I can’t have my mom worryin’.”

Akira uncrossed his arms, holding them open in invitation. "Can I get a goodbye hug?"

"I'll see you tomorrow at school," Ryuji scoffed, dragging his feet as he walked across the room. This was all too reminiscent of their first night together in this apartment. The only difference was that Akira was still fully dressed.

Ryuji stepped into the brunet's personal space, but Akira never embraced him. His arms remained suspended in the air, mind on overload. Ryuji's lips still burned where they'd been pressed against the corner of his mouth. "See you tomorrow, Akira," the blond whispered—not wanting to wake Yusuke—before seeing himself out.

Akira collapsed onto the floor the moment the front door clicked shut. He hid his head between his knees and curled his arms around the nape of his neck in a protective gesture. Akira could feel his heart beating wildly against his chest but made no efforts to calm it. He was not aroused, merely excited. Had Ryuji truly accepted him? How much of his trust had he earned? Even if he was merely being toyed with... If they didn't toss him aside, Akira would gladly play along. He pulled himself together long enough to put away Yusuke's belongings and drag out the aforementioned futon.

Akira moved throughout his home as quietly as possible to get ready for bed, though he doubted Yusuke would rouse anytime soon. Once everything was locked and turned off, Akira whispered a goodnight to his guest before tucking himself in to embrace sleep as well. 


Akira was startled from his slumber after once again having an arrow lodged in his chest. He clawed at the area, but it held no other wounds than the ones he inflicted upon himself with his nails. Gentle hands captured his wrists and Akira's dream was momentarily pushed aside to let Yusuke in. The dark-haired teen radiated nothing but concern and Akira found himself calming in his presence.

"Would you like to talk about it?" Yusuke offered, voice soft and gentle. Akira wanted to be embraced, and told his guest just so. Yusuke smiled and released the other's wrists so he could wrap his arms around the trembling frame. "If you want me to lie to you, I can tell you that everything is all right."

Akira snorted against Yusuke's neck.

"If you want something a little more truthful, but just as uplifting: things will get better.” Yusuke paused a moment to gather his thoughts before speaking from his own personal experience, “Everything won't be perfect, but life's not perfect. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy it.”

Akira's hands clutched at the back of Yusuke's shirt. He knew—they all knew just how bad things could get; the shitty hand life dealt them. Akira wanted to enjoy the world, but only after they changed it. He wanted to enjoy it, with them.

They stayed like that for several minutes before something drew Yusuke's attention and he pulled away with a whispered apology. Without the solid body and freshly showered smell clouding his senses, Akira realized that his kitchen was being used. Yusuke was making breakfast. He unfolded his limbs and staggered onto his feet, almost tripping when the futon refused to release him. He kicked at the material until he was set free then stumbled towards the kitchenette.

"You're not a morning person?" Yusuke inquired, amusement obvious in his voice.

"Not after a Metaverse raid," Akira yawned, climbing onto one of the two bar stools. "What're we having?"

"Sorry for using your kitchen without permission," Yusuke murmured. "It's not the ideal breakfast dish, but... I made omurice from the ingredients I could find. You had a lot of eggs." He tilted his head in confusion.

"I'm a good boy," Akira chuckled, though his smile and eyes told a different story. "People tend to give me random things when I help them out. Sojiro—the owner of Leblanc. He gave me curry for breakfast one morning." Akira's grin turned more innocent as he recalled the memory. "We didn't have any when we visited. Next time," he promised. "When we make Madarame confess his crimes, we'll watch it at the café over curry."

"We'll have curry the following day," Yusuke amended. "And we'll watch the news from here. You and Ryuji are terrible at hiding your emotions."

Akira giggled, leaning over the counter, arms folded atop its flat surface. "I'm glad. You're not mad at me."

Yusuke smiled as he set the plate down in front of the other teen. The fried egg was decorated with ketchup; the design was Joker's bird-like mask. Akira couldn’t help but grin, hurriedly snatching up his spoon so he could enjoy a homecooked meal by someone other than himself. He hesitated, however, because they hadn’t finished talking.

Yusuke placed his hands atop the counter, studying the smooth material between his splayed fingers. "I understand now that you were just looking out for my safety. With Kamoshida’s Palace, you already knew of the dangers within. That one enemy was a blessing in disguise.” Yusuke hated that memory, only because of the fear it still brought him. What if…? “It allowed Ryuji to awaken his own latent abilities.”

“And boy, did we need those abilities.” Akira twirled his spoon in his right hand, the left keeping his head propped up. With half-lidded eyes, he glanced sideways at Yusuke. “The same way I needed your abilities.”

Yusuke’s hands tightened into fists. His expression remained impassive, but there was a steely resolve in his eyes. It wasn’t the fire that burned in Ryuji’s; Yusuke’s gaze felt more dangerous. Akira unconsciously licked his bottom lip, tugging it at with his teeth to hide his perversion.

“I already knew that I was Madarame’s greatest monetary asset. I didn’t need to see that hideous portrait of myself to realize it.” His hands relaxed, but his entire frame remained rigid. “I had already accepted my fate of being his cash cow. I told myself that it was better this way.”

Akira tapped the spoon against his lips, studying the distant look in Yusuke’s eyes. His methods of dealing with Ryuji wouldn’t work on the boyfriend. Akira smiled against the cool metal. “But then a certain someone…”

Yusuke’s shoulders relaxed, a gentle smile replacing the terse line of his lips. “I’ll probably sound sentimental. I believe cliché is the word they use. But Ryuji is the best thing that happened to me. His imperfections make him perfect. And he has this ability to kiss things better.”

Akira shared in the laughter with Yusuke, knowing full well that Ryuji’s special abilities were both inside and outside of the Metaverse. He dug the spoon into his meal, pausing in taking the first bite to speak, “I wonder if I’ll be able to develop this ability. Would you let me? Kiss you if it'll make you feel better."

Yusuke's eyes grew wide, bright with surprise, only to return to their original state of calmness a few moments later. "We'll have time for that in the future,” he stated without hesitation or jest, and turned away to collect his own plate. Yusuke circled around the counter to take the stool beside Akira. “Let's work on getting to know each other better first."

Akira almost choked on his first mouthful of omurice. He coughed up a few rice grains under the artist’s watchful gaze, before finally catching his breath. Kitagawa Yusuke was proving to be a wonderful enigma; one Akira would spend a lifetime trying to unravel. With tears clinging to his eyelashes and a hand against his chest, Akira wheezed, “Is that…?”

Yusuke removed his hand from his glass of orange juice. Even though Akira had his own, he was ready to offer it up in assistance. He relaxed once the other teen regained his breath. “Friends, Akira.” Yusuke smiled, picking up his own spoon. “Eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”

“Yessir!” Akira shoved a giant spoonful into his mouth.

xxx

“I never touched him,” was the first thing Akira stated after hooking his bag at the side of his desk.

Ryuji stared at the back of his head until Akira turned, then he was staring into gray eyes. Same color as Yusuke’s, but different in every way. With a sigh, he stood from his chair and began noisily dragging his desk back to its original position. Mishima and every other student currently in the room stared on in either shock or horror.

Akira was nothing short of delighted. He kept it hidden, other than the smirk spread across his face. “Welcome back.”

Ryuji retrieved his chair, slamming it down onto the floor behind his desk. “Shut up,” he muttered, taking a seat.

The hostility between them had lessened and Ryuji’s words lacked the usual venom. They still carried bite and Akira eagerly looked forward to their daily exchange. He slipped into his own chair, folding one arm atop the desk while using the other to prop up his head so he could stare at the blond. “Saturday afternoon. That way, we can go back to my place and have our first sleepover.”

Ryuji stared at the saccharine smile being flashed at him and felt that telltale snap of his temper that warned him things would not end well.

Mishima jumped at the sudden crash, nervously glancing left to see what damage the duo had caused this time.

Akira sat on the floor, his chair kicked out from under him. He folded his hands between his thighs and remained there, his carefree laugh echoing throughout the classroom. Ryuji was glaring out of the window, his posture screaming ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Mishima found himself giggling along with Akira, which only caused the blond’s deadly glare to be redirected at him. Despite their reputations and the rumors that followed them, Mishima felt like those two were the most trustworthy in this hellhole they called a school. 

Chapter Text

"Mune-chan!"

Iwai didn't even bother rolling his eyes at the shriek that came from the back of the shop. He shuffled the candy he ate from one side of his mouth to the other and renewed his sucking. Not a full minute passed before Akira stumbled into the front of the shop and gracefully tripped over some unseen object. Iwai grunted, glaring down at the boy that had fallen across his legs, dragging them down from their counter perch.

Akira ignored the heated look and climbed into the man's lap, shoving his phone into the shopkeeper's face. "What does this mean?" Akira wailed.

Iwai closed his eyes and counted to five. When he opened them and found that his high school assistant still straddled his lap, he bit into the candy with a loud crunch. "I can't see it, idiot."

Akira sat back, taking the phone with him, allowing Iwai to see the boy truly did look frazzled. With a deep sigh, he set the magazine between them and gave his attention to the message on the phone's brightly lit screen.

Ryuji: my mom wants to meet you tomorrow.

"She probably wants to properly identify the boy that sexually harasses her son once she has you arrested." Akira's eyes grew wide and Iwai frowned. That was fear in the boy's eyes. "I'm a little worried that you're actually taking this behavior—" His right hand made a sweeping motion in the direction of their joined bodies, "—into the outside world, but it sounds like she's overprotective and wants to meet you before leaving her boy in your care."

"My care..." A little calmer now, Akira stared at the short statement. "...my care? Oh!"

Iwai grunted when the teen gave an excited bounce. "I take it you've figured it out?" he grumbled.

"Yes!" Akira pressed his phone against his face, giggling happily. Today was Friday, tomorrow Saturday. Did Ryuji intend to take him up on his offer to spend the night?

"Kurusu. Get the hell off me and get back to cleaning."

Akira pouted over his phone at the rough shopkeeper. "I guess I'm losing my touch if I can't excite you." He rocked his hips down against Iwai and was promptly dethroned. The shop’s owner was kind enough to hold his arm after pushing him off, allowing him to keep his balance. Akira laughed, pulling his arm free. "I thought older men liked them young."

"You're one second from getting your ass kicked outta here."

The threat of Iwai's words lay in the calm voice used. Akira would be kicked out and then some. Other than his apartment, this was Akira's next favorite place to be. With his arms at his side, he bowed deeply. "I'm sorry, Iwai. I overstepped my boundaries. I'll go back to work immediately. Please... don't kick me out." Akira's hands clenched into tight fists as he lowered his head even more.

Iwai lifted his cap to run a hand over his shorn hair, replacing it with a soft sigh. "Apology accepted. Just be careful, alright?"

Akira straightened up, hands behind his back as he nodded. "Of course. Anything Mune-chan wants." He unlocked his fingers so his arms could swing freely as he twirled around and skipped back to the room he'd abandoned.

Iwai smirked. He would never admit it, but he'd grown used to hearing the nickname, but only from Kurusu. A happy Akira was less worrisome than a sad and sulking one; he needed more happiness in his life. Iwai retrieved his fallen magazine from the floor and flipped back to his previous page. 'If those two can do what he does, they'll probably need guns soon. The hot-headed one...' He turned several more pages until he could find the section on new shotguns.

"Oh. Mune-chan," Akira sang from the back room. "Did I tell you I got a blowjob at school?"

"Jesus Chr—" Iwai slapped the magazine against his face, muffling the rest of his exclamation. He took it all back. Kurusu Akira should suffer. 


Friday started as a surprisingly normal day. No arguments or fights between the unruliest pair of the second-year classroom.

When lunchtime rolled around, Ryuji stood from his seat and was out of the classroom before anyone else could react. Akira looked to Mishima for answers, but the petite brunet could only lift his shoulders. That simple gesture alone caused Akira's focus to shift from Ryuji's disappearing act to another potential ally.

Mishima's smile wavered as Kurusu's unblinking stare became a weight upon his shoulders. It was hard to tell what the transfer student was really thinking because Kurusu never reveals his true intentions or emotions. The stare suffocating Mishima was calculating. It picked at his layers to find the truth and his worth. Mishima wondered why he didn't just look away and realized he couldn't. "Ku...rusu."

Akira blinked slowly and Mishima turned away immediately after the spell was broken.

"Maybe I should go find Ryuji."

"No."

Mishima halted his movements, sinking back into his seat after only just leaving it. He folded his hands between his thighs and bowed forward low enough that his forehead hovered scant centimeters from the top of his desk. "Please, stop," he found himself whispering. "I like you. I don't want to be scared of you."

"You're not scared of me," Akira laughed airily.

Despite the distance between them, it sounded to Mishima as if the statement were spoken directly into his ear.

"You're scared of what I see in you. So much untapped potential. I'm hoping I can use it, if you'll let me."

The classroom door nearest them opened, putting an end to their conversation, much to Mishima's relief. Akira's entire demeanor changed for Ryuji's return. He would have left his seat if not for the warning glare directed at him.

"Put these together," Ryuji demanded, kicking Akira and Mishima's desks.

The former occupant of Mishima's current seat had gladly switched with him if it meant he was no longer in the line of fire for stray desks and chairs. Both Mishima and Akira obliged and their reward was the bag Ryuji brought back with him.

"Open it," Ryuji sighed, walking past Akira to collect his chair and drag it back.

Mishima left the honor up to Akira, who carefully undid the cloth. He assumed, considering the shape and the wrapping, but seeing and knowing that he had been right made Akira more excited than he should've been. But who wouldn't get excited if they were given a homemade bento!

"Pick a box," Ryuji muttered after dropping into his seat at the end of the desks. "And if there's something you don't like, just swap with someone." He lifted the lid, revealing a colorful feast. Each tier being revealed was more gorgeous than the previous. Akira knew that was his biasness speaking, but he listened to every voice in his head, so why stop now.

When nobody made a move to begin eating, Ryuji took matters into his own hand, and lifted the containers until he could slide out the bottom one. Mishima claimed the middle box shortly after, leaving the top for Akira. With a chorus of “thanks for the food”, the trio dug into the lunch. There was nothing that went unloved, and the swapping of foods was to ensure everyone got a taste of everything.

Ryuji packed up the empty boxes once they were done eating, and stacked them neatly before wrapping the cloth back around them.

“So good,” Mishima moaned. He forced himself to sit up from his slouched position in his chair to catch Ryuji’s eye across the desks. “Did you make it yourself?”

Ryuji met the wide-eyed, curious stare once before focusing on the short tower before him. “My mom helped,” he murmured, his mind in three different places at once; the bento box’s safety, Mishima’s conversation, and the uncharacteristically quiet Akira. He shifted his entire focus to the back wall’s chalkboard and the doodle someone had left there. “She said it’s not healthy for us to be eating bread all the time. She was also… happy.” Ryuji trailed off, the pleasant warmth of happiness warring with the uneasiness of embarrassment over which would make him blush.

Mishima perked up, his full stomach forgotten, and watched the emotions play across Ryuji’s face. He noticed the quick glance thrown in the statuesque Akira’s direction and filled it away under “do not discus”.

Eventually, Ryuji looked away from the wall. The usual glare in place to scare others no longer had the same effect on Mishima, and the brunet smiled in wait.

“ShewashappyIfinallyhavefriends.”

Akira stood up almost immediately following Ryuji’s rushed admission, practically running from the room once he was clear of his chair. Ryuji waited a breath before following him. With a soft sigh, Mishima began to process of rearranging their side of the classroom back to its original state.

Ryuji followed Akira all the way up to the roof, waiting with his back against the closed door while the other paced back and forth across the empty expanse. Akira stopped abruptly and stormed over to the blond, punching the wall beside Ryuji’s head. Almost immediately, his emotions waned as sharply as they erupted and the brunet slumped against the strong body.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Akira wheezed, voice thick as he struggled to remain in control of his emotions. “I wasn’t supposed to get so attached. You’re all just tools to me! I didn’t… Why did I…” This wasn’t like him, but was there anybody in this world that truly knew him? They drugged him up so much during his interrogation, he barely remembered his own name.  

Ryuji lifted his hands, placing them gently on Akira’s shoulders. “After we finish with Madarame, I think we should all sit down and have that talk.”

“Talk…” Akira choked out a laugh, pounding his hand weakly against the hard surface at Ryuji’s back. “I don’t like this weak side of me. I think I’ll kill it.”

“Stop,” Ryuji hissed, his hands moving again to cup Akira’s face. Blank gray eyes stared back at him, shimmering with unshed tears.

Slowly, Akira’s lips stretched outward, curling into a chilling smile. “It’s quite simple when you have access to your own cognitive world.”

“Stop!” With his hands already cupping Akira’s head, it was easy for Ryuji to hold the brunet in place to smash their foreheads together. He towered over the teen sprawled on the ground, a bruise already forming at the point of contact. “You’re scared and you don’t want to acknowledge it! Tell me what you’re feeling.”

Akira stopped his writhing, but remained curled in a fetal position. “Happiness,” he told the ground. “I was so damn happy after reading the text yesterday, Mune-chan threatened to kick me out if I didn’t shut up. I was happy when you said I was a friend, but now I felt disgust. I was never meant to have friends. I just wanted to use you to get back at the adults that fucked up my life.”

Ryuji clenched his hands into tight fists in the material of his uniform slacks. “That’s a lie.”

"It is." Akira’s laugh was shaky, and he closed his eyes to visit the familiar darkness. With it came the voices in his head. “Happy—that’s all I feel. But I don’t deserve it. I’m just…” What had they called him during his interrogation? Akira only remembered the kicks and punches; the pain from being thrown into every hard surface available. With a frustrated yell, he pounded a fist onto the roof.

Ryuji caught the flailing arms once again, trapping them against Akira’s sides in an embrace. Akira stilled almost immediately. A hug was personal; more than a kiss—a greeting in distant countries, more than a blowjob—sex didn’t mean feelings were involved. Ryuji still wasn’t sure about his feelings for the transfer student, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Akira tearing himself apart like this.

Akira wriggled until Ryuji finally loosened his grip, slipping his arms free. They rose just high enough to curl around the blond’s waist, and Akira let his head rest against Ryuji’s shoulder. 

Lunch passed, as did every remaining class in the day. Ryuji didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until he was pulled from his slumber by an annoying, repeated poking to his cheek. Opening his eyes, he squinted against the sun, only to glare at the smiling Mishima.

“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.”

Ryuji grunted and attempted to sit up, but his right side was weighed down. Akira’s arm was draped across his chest, its owner tucked close against his side.

“I won’t ask,” Mishima whispered with a wide grin. “I’ll wait inside while you wake him up.” He hopped up and disappeared around the heavy door that lead back into the building.

“You heard him,” Ryuji yawned, scratching his head. “Wake up.”

With a soft moan, Akira lifted his arm and rolled away. The hard stone under his back reminded him where he was, and he slowly pushed himself upright. “I showed you something unsightly,” he mumbled, dusting dirt from the sleeves of his uniform. It would still have to wash, but moments like this was why he had a spare.

“You did,” Ryuji agreed with no argument. “But it also proves you’re human just like the rest of us.”

Akira didn’t want to be. He stood and waited for Ryuji to join him before moving towards the roof’s door. Opening it revealed a smiling Mishima, who stood with his back against the opposite wall. In his hands were three school cases. Good old Mishima. Akira accepted his when it was held out to him. Ryuji slung his over his shoulder once he’d taken it. No words were spoken between the three students as they made their way down from the roof to the first floor.

Akira thanked Mishima, who brushed off the gesture and parted ways from the other two.

“He could be so useful,” Akira sighed, almost dreamily, as he watched the petite brunet walk away. He winced at the light clout to the back of his head, pouting up at the culprit.

Ryuji clicked his tongue in annoyance. “We’re going to your place to freshen up before we meet my mom.”

“Okay!” Akira chirped, his abuse forgotten.

-x-

Akira wanted to punch himself in the stomach, if only to make the nervous fluttering stop. Every step that took them closer to the Sakamoto household brought more anxious thoughts to the forefront of his mind. What if Ryuji told her the truth? Would she call the police? Would he be arrested? Would he finally be killed?

“Hey. Do you want another headbutt?”

Akira tore himself away from his thoughts and back to the present reality. With wide eyes, he stared at the blond glaring at him, unable to provide a proper response.

Muttering beneath his breath, Ryuji took Akira’s forearm and yanked him all the way up to the front of the house. His free hand unlocked the door and let them in. “I’m home!”

“Your friend?” a curious voice questioned from out of sight, yet nearby.

“I dragged him here. He got cold feet. I told him you were a former yakuza mistress.”

Akira’s mouth fell open, his eyes wide. He was still sputtering when a petite and pleasant-looking woman entered the living room. With hair as dark as his, she bowed deeply at the waist after introducing herself. Akira remained frozen in place until a hand to the back of his head forced him into a bow. The echoing smack that followed terrified Akira even more and he wondered if today was the day he truly paid for all his crimes.

“Don’t lie to him, and don’t manhandle him!”

Ryuji was rubbing the side of his head where his mother had clouted him. “What the fff… eff?” he finished in a low mumble, cowed by the threatening glare cast his way.

Her glare transformed into a smile and Akira found his space invaded by the woman just a few centimeters shorter than himself. “I’m no yakuza’s mistress,” Sakamoto giggled, gently taking his hands in her own. A wide smile brightened her face and Akira saw the resemblance. “Thank you, for being friends with my Ryu-kun.”

And just like that, the fluttering in his stomach vanished and Akira returned her smile with a grin. “I have no idea where I’d be without your son. He helped me so much after I transferred. Thank you.”

Ryuji rolled his eyes at the lie, but his lips curled in the faint hint of a smile. If Akira could lie, then he was back to his normal, if not perverted, self. He trailed after the pair as his mother escorted Akira throughout the house in a quick tour. The tour ended in the kitchen, where everyone pitched in preparing dinner.

“How’s Yusuke?” Akira asked in an attempt to make small talk. He walked with Ryuji, the blond escorting him back to the station.

Ryuji ducked his head, kicking at a piece of trash in his path. “He said he’s gonna stay at the dorms. Hey.”

Akira studied the blond’s profile. “Hm?”

“I know he’s no pushover, but if I think he’s being bullied, can you find out? We’ll move him in with you. I don’t get why he’s so stubborn.” Ryuji clicked his tongue and reared his leg back. He unleashed the fury of his frustrations on an innocent coffee can. “We’ll be living on our own by next year anyway!”

Akira chased the rattling can, picking it up once he’d caught up. Ryuji was grinning at him when he turned around. “You’re not as bad as you let on. Still a pain in my ass, though. Here.” Ryuji held out his hand. “This is my neighborhood.”

Akira held it out, catching Ryuji’s hand when he made to take it. He pulled the blond in close, whispering against his cheek. “I promise we’ll protect Yusuke. Each other.”

“Fine. Just get off.” With a scoff, Ryuji hooked the fingers of his free hand around Akira’s jaw and gave him a shove. Akira happily stumbled away. He regained his footing and returned to Ryuji’s side.

As Akira boarded the train, Ryuji frowning at him from beyond the glass after the doors closed, he couldn’t help but wonder who was calling the shots now. He’d grown soft—complacent. Remembering the lovely evening he’d just shared, he conceded the fact that maybe things were meant to unravel this way. Maybe this was the family he was destined to have. The thought was far from unpleasant.

With a sweet smile, Akira waved at his escort as the train pulled away.


Akira almost suggested they skip school the following day. Almost. Ryuji was only attending for Yusuke’s sake; he wouldn’t be able to move onto a proper university as a high school dropout. Akira still offered to take care of them both—for life, but he was continuously rebuffed.

At the end of the day, Akira stood from his seat, gave Mishima a pat on the head, and continued on his way out of the classroom. From there, it was to the train. He could feel Ryuji's glare at his back the entire way. 

Yusuke was waiting for them in the Station Square as asked. He was pulled from his thoughts after receiving a tap to the shoulder. “Oh.” He smiled.

Akira pulled his hand back, clutching both over his heart. “I get a smile, from Yusuke. Ryuji never smiles for me.”

“Why the hell would I?” Ryuji grumbled, moving around the transfer student to stand at Yusuke’s side. “You came here to start trouble. Yusuke’s too naïve to see your bad intentions.”

Yusuke blinked innocently, playing the part of naïve. “Why are we here?” Straight to the point, as always. “Is this a Palace?”

Akira wondered just how much of his stories he could get away with telling. Turning the situation over in his head, he realized it sounded impossible, even to his addled brain. Just like this cell phone app can take us to another world, there’s a door here that only I can see. When I enter that world, I’m a prisoner. Akira’s expression became pinched. ‘Ryuji would like that.’

The big-nosed man in charge of that world was nothing more than a figurehead in Akira’s eyes. His diminutive staff did all the work. Igor claimed there were twin wardens, but he only ever saw one. A vile little creature with a filthy mouth and a short temper. A gremlin called Caroline. Akira had to admit though, it was fun seeing her slaughter Shadows so they could become something greater.

“Yo.” Fingers snapped in front of his face, breaking Akira out of his trip down memory lane.

“Sorry,” the brunet mumbled. He smiled sheepishly at Yusuke. “I don’t know if it’s really a Palace, but that’s what I was told”

It’s an unconscious collective,” Igor chuckled, hands steepled before his face “The general public shares one Palace.”

Akira pulled out his phone, pulling up the app Igor admitted to having installed on his phone. “Mementos.”

 

"Welcome to... The World!" Joker laughed, rubbing his lower back where Skull's knee had struck him.

"This isn't Dot Hack!" the blond shouted, his voice louder than usual to be heard over the howling. After leading them down into the subway, their regular outfits changed into the attire usually created for traversing Palaces. Skull looked around at the eerie darkness. There was still another level to go down before they reached the platform.

Joker (being Joker) climbed over the handrail onto the separating section and skated all the way down to the bottom. Fox inspected the wide, flat metal, only to be dragged down the unmoving stairs of the escalator by the crook of his elbow.

Skull released the other Persona user, only to raise a hand to shield himself against the vacuum-like wind and the small pieces of debris it carried.

Fox was enraptured by the creeping darkness that seemed almost “alive”.

Joker clapped his hands, gaining their attention. “Shall we begin? This is…” He spread his arms wide. “Mementos! I have no idea what this place really is. The enemies only travel in groups. One giant blob of a Shadow. Once you’ve broken apart the exterior, they separate into smaller Shadows. They’re the same Shadows we’ve faced before, so we know most of their weaknesses.”

Joker started moving during his speech, and now stood at the edge of the train platform. “There are obstacles—locked doors, but I’ve found a way to break through them.” He jumped down onto the tracks, coat flapping behind him and Skull shouting after him to be careful. “Sometimes I think I can hear a car in here, but I never see one. It could be the fact that I’m crazy and I’m in The World’s Palace!”

“Stop making references to that game!” Skull jumped down beside the brunet.

Fox stood apart from the pair, studying the new world Joker had taken them to. It was a thing of beauty. An unearthly muse that called out to him. He took a step towards the dark tunnels the whirling wind disappeared into, only to be stopped by a red glove on his arm.

"Not so fast.” Joker smirked. “You shouldn’t stray too far. I brought us here so we could get stronger. Goemon’s still a baby Persona.”

Fox felt irritation on Goemon’s behalf. “Then I shall follow my leader,” he huffed.

That response was a far one from what Joker was expecting, and his hand slipped off of Fox, arm swinging loosely at his side. “Lead…er?”

“Yeah.” Skull rudely stepped between them. “You’ve been at this longer than we have, so it only makes sense that we follow you.” He tapped his pipe against Fox’s sheathed katana. “We’re still babies, right?”

Fox chuckled softly, “Yes.”

“I hate you both.” With that off his chest, Joker stormed forward into the unknown.

Almost immediately into their travels, Fox and Skull were given a front row seat of how Joker managed to break through chained obstacles barring their way. The agile trickster goaded the Shadows into giving chase, leaping away at the last minute so the roaring entity crashed into the large double doors, opening new paths for them.

“It’s simple and effective,” Fox mused.

“He’s an idiot.” Skull ruffled Fox’s hair before making his way to where Joker stood over the group of Shadows, metal pipe dragging behind him.

They made it to the end of the tracks after a lengthy amount of walking (and fighting). Skull leaned against the new platform, only to jump right back up as a train rattled by before his eyes. The windows emitted an eerie red light. It stopped, as though picking up passengers, then continued moving. Skull slumped back against the concrete; he didn’t have the energy to be surprised right now.

Joker waited for them to join him on the platform so they could all descend to the next level. He stopped at the end of the escalator, staring straight ahead. The wall barring his way, decorated with glowing, abstract lines, was gone. Another set of stairs waited. Was there someone else? Joker shook his head. ‘It’s because of Kamoshida and Mishima,’ he told himself. It’s because the real world was becoming more aware of this cognitive world. He couldn’t shake the feeling of there being others, but he did bury it.

Joker faced his partners in crime. “How far do you want to go?”

“Out,” Skull groaned. He backed up the steps to take a seat. “This feels worse than traveling a Palace. And my head’s fuzzy…”

“I have to agree,” Fox sighed.

Joker pushed his mask up so it was nestled in his unruly hair. “Ryuji, are you spending the night?”

“Yeah.” Ryuji ran his fingers through his hair, mask resting on the step beside him. “That’s why we endured my mom yesterday.”

Yusuke found Ryuji’s lap much more pleasant than concrete, and settled himself there. “Your mother is an angel.” He smiled against Ryuji’s lips when the blond leaned up to meet him. “I won’t be able to spend the night. I’ve already done my time, now it’s your turn.”

Ryuji leaned sideways so Yusuke no longer blocked his vision, and found an innocent Akira watching them peacefully. He grinned. “I’ll try not to touch you.”

“I encourage it,” Akira replied, his expression unchanging.

Ryuji rolled his eyes, resting his forehead against Yusuke’s back.

Once everyone caught their second wind, it was time to leave. The group traveled up, up, up until they were walking back into the Station Square. Akira performed a quick sidestep to avoid a female student making her way down to the lower platforms. They were back in the real world, ever changing and constantly on the move.

Yusuke watched the duo walk away. Unlike that day several weeks ago, he felt only happiness as they disappeared through the gates leading to the Aoyama platform. With a smile, he headed off in his own direction. 

-x- 

Ryuji barricaded Akira in the bedroom after they argued for twenty minutes straight on who would take the bed. He was still fuming when he crawled into the borrowed futon.

Chapter Text

Mi-shi-ma.”

Mishima recognized the cheerful voice, but he only saw a blur before he was pushed into the dark tool shed. The wood was cracked and splintered, letting in slivers of light. Not enough to see his attacker. “Kurusu…?”

“Hmm?”

Mishima shuddered at the warm breath ghosting across his neck. “Wh…What are you doing?”

“I tripped.” The soft chuckle that followed the obvious lie was far from innocent.

Bull!’ Mishima took a shaky breath, releasing it slowly. “I already told you, I’m… I don’t—I’m not scared of you!” No, that wasn’t right. The door creaked open before he could correct himself, flooding the small space with light. Mishima would describe the look on Akira’s face as hauntingly terrifying, but he felt no fear, just as he’d been told.

Akira licked his lips, a wolf circling its prey. “I always knew you weren’t. I need your help, Yuuki.” He slipped an arm around Mishima’s shoulder, keeping just an inch of distance between their bodies. “What do you think happened to Kamoshida? Do you really believe he had a change of heart?”

“Yes,” Mishima blurted out without a second thought. “Because—” He emitted a sharp cry of pain after biting his tongue.

Akira’s fingers gently squeezed Mishima’s shoulder. “Because…?” he prodded.

“I set up an unofficial site. I meant it as a joke, but people have taken it seriously.” Apprehension forgotten, Mishima dug out his phone and pulled up the proof of his efforts. The mobile layout had a color scheme identical to the one chosen for the “calling card” delivered to Kamoshida. Tapping a few links, Mishima held the higher for the other to get a good look. “A few names were left by people suggesting their hearts needed changing. Those same people came back later to say that it happened!”

Akira chuckled softly as Mishima bounced in place.

“I wanted to show you and Sakamoto. You guys seemed interested in Kamoshida’s case. But… I guess you already found it.” Mishima peeked up at the brunet with shy admiration. “I’m not sure how you do it—”

“All in due time,” Akira interrupted, giving Mishima’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “I’ve had my eye on you for quite a while now, but Ryuji thought you were still innocent. I’m really glad I don’t have to give you a roundabout explanation.”

“You needed my help…?” Mishima reminded him.

Akira’s eyes shone. “Yes. I’m taking Ryuji with me to take care of a few corrupted hearts tonight, but I need you working on a bigger project.” He used his free hand to pull something from his jacket’s pocket.

Mishima gaped at the note dangling in front of him. It was an original “calling card”, but the recipient was not Kamoshida. ‘Which means…!’

“If you’ll make a few copies of these for me, it’ll really be a great help. There’s also something else, but... it can wait until the end of the month.” The contemplative look on Akira’s face vanished, replaced with exaggerated glee. He was indeed glad for Mishima’s help, but with all his brand new toys, he had to put on a show. Leaning down, Akira pressed his lips to Mishima’s cheek, feeling it slowly grow warmer. “Don’t get caught, okay?”

“Yes,” Mishima rushed out, slowly accepting the “calling card”.


Akira gave Mishima another “good luck” kiss on the afternoon of May 31st. Which may have been a mistake on his part, but he had no intention of taking it back. This one was on the lips. The short brunet became frozen in place, the stack of papers almost slipping from his hands. They were smaller than Kamoshida’s, printed on a firm cardstock. Akira used his index finger to hold them in place, waiting for Mishima’s brain to come back online.

“Stop doing that!” the smaller teen hissed, drawing himself away.

Akira plastered on his best smile, “I can’t help it. I love teasing cute boys.”

Mishima’s eyes grew impossibly wider, the calling cards rustling as he trembled. “That’s not… funny. Anyway… I need to go.” He pointed over his shoulder, unable to take his eyes off Akira’s smiling face. “If I stay too long, they’ll figure out the camera is on a loop.”

“They won’t,” Akira argued. “You’re too smart for that.”

Mishima was already backing away with slow, calculated steps. Akira’s smile was blinding, made worse by the afternoon sun shining high above his head. Mishima had no interest other than the weird friendship they already had, but this person was toying with his emotions in a horrible way. With a quick bow, he disappeared to complete his task.

Humming softly, Akira headed in the opposite direction.

Sir Madarame Ichiryusai, a great sinner of vanity whose talent has been exhausted. You are an artist who uses his authority to shamelessly steal the ideas of his pupils. We have decided to make you confess all your crimes with your own mouth. We will take your distorted desires without fail.

The argument between the thieving artist and staff member meant nothing to him. Akira’s main focus was Madarame’s body language. Of course Madarame would be upset; his evening was being threatened. No. Akira needed another sign that the Shadow was on full alert. Madarame’s previous stomping came to a halt and he appeared almost relaxed despite the threat looming over his head. That was what he was looking for. Akira browsed through the exhibit, slowly making his way to the exit. Once outside, he tried not to skip back to where the other two waited.

Ryuji straightened from his slouched position immediately after spotting him. “Well?”

“He read it,” Akira hummed. “Since he’s not at the house, let’s enter the Palace from there. Less chance of being caught.”

“This ends tonight,” Yusuke told them, his voice leaving no room for argument.

Ryuji grinned, bumping shoulders with his boyfriend. “We’ll show ‘em.”

Akira trailed behind the couple, bottom lip caught between his teeth. It did nothing to hide the excitement brewing in his eyes or the wild smile still spreading across his face. It was now or never. The sooner they ended things, the more time he would have to play with his favorite boys.

xxx

Even though they entered with a mission to complete, Joker decided to test his new ability one more time. He started them from the bottom floor where Shadows were somewhat weaker. The creepy zombie chicken whined at him and Joker lifted his hand to his mask. He closed his eyes, trying to remember what he'd felt last time. Fear. Rage. Protect what's mine. He ripped the mask free. Apsaras remained and Succubus joined her. Joker let out a breathless laugh. "The power of thought really is amazing."

Skull shared in his excitement with a loud hoot, and Fox reprimanded them both in a stern voice.

Luckily for them, bullets were Onmoraki’s weakness. A few shots from Joker downed the creatures, leaving them vulnerable to an all-out attack. Pleased with the results, Joker marched forward.

After making their way to the central garden, the small group took a break in the nearby safe room.

"How do you remember their weaknesses?" Yusuke inquired, katana flat on the table they sat at. Ryuji leaned back in his chair, eyes locking on their leader.

Akira brushed his hair from his eyes, using his mask to conveniently hold them back. Ryuji smirked at the action. "It seems pointless to just say I remember. I think the Persona I can summon tells me. I carry everything we've faced off against so far, so they remind me what hurts them." He sighed deeply, lowering his head. "It sounds stupid."

"It does," Yusuke hummed, never one for mincing words. "But considering all that I've seen—everything that I'm experiencing... I'm willing to believe you." He reached across the table, covering Akira's gloved hand with his own, and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You are very strong. Joker."

Akira inhaled sharply and Ryuji righted his chair with a laugh, "I was wondering when that perverted side of you would make an appearance."

Akira opened his mouth to argue, but was silence by a sharp squeeze to his hand.

"If I recall, Ryuji..."

Ryuji's smug grin melted right off his face and he sunk deeper into the chair to hide from Yusuke's voice. 

"You were the one that provided Akira with an oral service all because—and I quote—you wanted to shut up him up." Akira looked across the table, smirking at the blond's embarrassed blush. "We're all perverted," Yusuke sighed, slowly removing his hand from Akira's. He folded both arms over his weapon. "Maybe that's what drew us together."

A moment of silence followed, hanging thick and heavy in the air. Joker slammed his hands down onto the table, pushing himself up out of his seat. "We won't get anywhere moping around. We don't have long to go.” And with that, they took the quickest route—traveling through safe rooms—to make their way to the to the highest level traveled.

Fox would have enjoyed racing through a landscape similar to M. C. Escher’s Relativity print, had it not been for the annoyingly bright gold surrounding them—blinding them—at every twist and turn. In addition to the maze that was the room itself, another riddle soon barred their way, and it came in the form of Madarame’s most famous painting.

The “Sayuri” was his specialty. Fox knew every detail about the painting and helped guide Joker towards the right path after eliminating the fakes, though they were all probably counterfeit.

After freeing themselves from the maze, the trio of rogues rushed down a hallway of insurmountable vanity. Madarame’s portrait lined every inch of the walls. Skull faked throwing up as Joker pushed the heavy double doors that would lead them to their destination, and the Treasure.

Chaos greeted them in the Main Hall. Skull walked into Joker’s back when their leader stalled, making him aware of the blaring alarms. He stepped out from behind him, surveying the area. The oversized display area was surrounded by guards, all running back and forth with no apparent destination. Looking up to the rafters Madarame’s Shadow screamed at, Skull saw human-shaped silhouettes, but then quickly reminded himself that the Shadows of a Palace always appeared humanoid until their masks were ripped off.

Madarame only noticed their presence when Fox called out to him. “Meddlesome vermin,” he growled. “They’re everywhere!” He stretched out his arm to the guard on his left. “Is this what you’re looking for?” Tucked beneath the masked Shadow’s arms was a golden frame. Madarame smirked, eyes aglow, as he stared down his nose at the small group. “I suppose I can grant you a gift before you die—a glimpse of the genuine “Sayuri”…!”

Fox took a step ahead of the others, moving closer to the man he’d once called his foster father. “Genuine…?” The painting he’d treasured for most of his life really was… fake?

Madarame nodded at the Shadow and the guard moved forward, flipping the golden frame into an upright position. Gone was the gentle plume of lavender smoke that covered the bottom half of the painting. It revealed that the subject of the painting cradled a baby dearly in her arms. The reverent, caring look on her face was for the baby she held.

Fox’s eyes widened behind his decorated mask. He’d known Madarame helped his mother, but had still been too young to remember her before she passed. In a fit of rage after not delivering a painting on time, his mentor had spat at him: “Her skills and talents were quite astonishing. That’s why I decided to look after her. The only reason I took you in was due to my ties with your mother! You belong to me! If you have even a fraction of the talent she did—” A conversation he had never shared with Ryuji, for fear that he would’ve killed the real Madarame.

The painting, however—Fox could practically feel the love emanating from it. A mother’s love. “Mom…!”

It was a surprise reveal, even to Joker, but he left the theatrics to Skull. The blond released a loud, drawled, “hah?!”

Madarame’s condescending look returned as he gave them another long-winded explanation. “Indeed it is. This was painted by your mother. It’s a portrait of herself. A woman who knew her death was coming painted her last wishes for the son she would leave behind.”

Skull stepped forward, electricity crackling beneath his boot, eyes alight in rage and a desire for destruction. “You stole something that personal?! You’re lower than scum!”

“Call me what you wish!” Madarame’s Shadow roared. “Your mother and the artwork she created—they’re all my works of art! That goes for you as well, Yusuke! I’m going to reap you for the sake of my future.”

Gaze unwavering, the katana wielder stared at the golden figure directly across from them. He chose to ignore their enemy addressing him as a personal object. “I’ve heard that you destroy your “art” once they outlive their usefulness… Did that include my mother as well?”

With all the research done, that thought never once crossed Joker’s mind. Her death was the result of a seizure. Madarame proved him wrong. “—if I don’t call for help and leave her be, I could obtain her painting with no strings attached.”

Joker moved on instinct, reaching out to cover Skull’s trembling fist with a hand. His actions were also to ground himself. “You’re a thief, and a murderer.”

Fox inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. There was no point doting on the past. Even if Madarame wasn’t the foul man standing before them, his mother would never have received proper health care. He could now tell himself her life was better; peaceful. That still didn’t excuse Madarame—Shadow or not. “Thank you, Madarame,” Fox chuckled, hand resting leisurely on the hilt of his sword. “You were kind enough to share the truth with me.” The blade was eased out of the scabbard. “It’s unfortunate that every reason for me to forgive you has disappeared without a trace.”

Having been looked down on, Madarame’s Shadow threw another temper tantrum. His features distorted as they expanded, and the trio of vigilantes found themselves staring at five separate paintings.

“Now you think you’re art?” Yusuke scoffed, fully unsheathing his blade. “You’re a despicable fiend who wears the skin of an artist.”

Battling Madarame was tedious and frustrating. Every piece of himself was weak to different attack types. The mouth regenerated on physical attacks; the eyes, to elemental skills. The nose was the easiest to drop. The right eye went next.

Skull was aiming for the left eye when something suddenly washed over him. It felt like spider webs clung to every inch of his body and he brushed madly at his arms. That’s when he noticed the black of his outfit was even darker than before. It was almost as if he were covered in shadows.

Something about Shadow Madarame's sudden “attack” on their teammate didn't sit right with neither Fox nor Joker. Skull swung his arms to get rid of the dripping black ink. His hair was as pitch black as the rest of his attire. "What the hell was that...?" Skull muttered, spitting ink after it dripped into his mouth. He faced the floating pieces of a face, eyes narrowed behind his messy mask. "What the hell did you do to me?!"

The left eye regarded him briefly before the mouth soared down to attack. Skull held up his pipe in defense, but the bulky frame still bowled him off his feet. He knew for a fact that he was strong enough to take a hit and keep moving—some of his own attacks required a sacrifice to his health—but now he felt weak where he was sprawled. The frame reared back, only to snap forward, the mouth open wide. Skull jerked, feeling the teeth cut through his clothes and sink into his flesh. And then the pain was gone. He looked to Fox first, an apology in his dark eyes, before turning to stare pleadingly at Joker.

Fox's katana clattered to the ground after slipping from his fingers. Joker couldn't look away from the empty eyes that continued to stare blankly at him. Skull's body fell lifelessly to the ground after being released, a dark liquid pooling with the previous ink. Joker watched the blood spread, growing brighter and brighter the further it flowed from the ink blotches.

"Ryu...ji?"

Fox's voice sounded distant in Joker's ears. Red, red, red. Skull was dead, all because of him! No. He turned to stare at the paintings that were now melting into a puddle of ink. From it rose a figure. Madarame. Ryuji would never get up again, so why should he? Joker saw red, and then... darkness. 

"...ra. Akira! Stop! Akira, snap out of it!"

Joker blinked away the darkness, squinting when the gleam of Madarame’s Palace assaulted his eyes. Madarame lay at his feet, cowering, something dripping onto the ground near him. The source was his glove, stained black. The only thing black in this world was the ink this charlatan artist produced and Joker hoped he tried to rip out the Shadow’s heart.

Shifting his gaze from the sniveling creature, Joker found Fox sitting in the pool of ink and blood, Skull cradled in his lap.

Joker bared his teeth in a silent snarl directed at Madarame, but Fox's desperate voice stopped him from lashing out.

"He's not going anywhere. Joker, I need you to think. There has to be a way to... to wake..." Fox tightened his arms around the lifeless frame. "I can't live without him."

Joker took a step back, closing his eyes in thought. If they took him from the Palace in his current state, there would be no bringing him back. 'Bring back... revive!' "I'm so stupid," the trickster sighed. He opened the right side of his jacket and reached into the darkness. A small bead was held between his fingers when he removed his hand. "Arsene." The gentleman Persona appeared in a flurry of feathers and dark laughter. "Keep an eye on him."

Madarame whimpered and covered his head.

Joker hurried to where Fox sat, taking a knee near Skull's head. He cradled it gently, slipping the bead past his lips. He whispered an apology after having to force it down his throat, drawing his hand away with the hope that it worked. The diagonal rips in the blond's outfit slowly began mending themselves, working their way upwards until Skull drew in a sharp, shuddering breath. His mask pushed aside, Yusuke clung tight to his lover, breathing in deeply the unique scent that was Ryuji and the leather of his outfit.

Skull ripped off his mask, wide eyes staring up at Joker. "Did I...?"

"Don't," the brunet hissed. Pixie materialized at his shoulder. She fluttered down, pressing a kiss to Ryuji's forehead, before disappearing once again.

Ryuji was very familiar with the winged Persona and knew she aided in his recovery process. After three failed attempts to free his right arm, he pushed at Yusuke’s shoulder with his left. "Oi. Let me go."

"Never," the artist whispered, voice barely audible where his face was buried against Ryuji's chest.

"You have to." Ryuji ran a gentle hand over the dark locks. "This is your fight. He's your demon. You need to face him, one last time." 

Yusuke ducked out from beneath the hand, placing a kiss to its palm, and reluctantly released Ryuji. He pushed himself back onto his feet, reaching down to offer Ryuji assistance. Another gloved hand appeared beside his, courtesy of Akira. Ryuji grinned and accepted both, springing up when they pulled him.

Even in his last moments, the Shadow spouted nothing but nonsense to Yusuke.

“No one cares for true art… All they want are easily recognizable brands!” Madarame’s Shadow tripped over his own feet and fell, still holding tight to the original “Sayuri”. Yusuke calmly strode up, each step slow and deliberate. “I’m a victim in this too! Wouldn’t you agree?!”

Never had Yusuke felt such a strong urge to raise his hand against someone, but he buried the dark desire, and stopped his advances right at Madarame’s spread feet.

“The art world revolves around money after all,” the Shadow babbled on in explanation, hoping to be spared. “You can’t rise up without any money…!”

Akira dug his heels in after wrapping both arms around Ryuji. The blond still managed to drag him several feet as he snarled at the vain creature. “Why are we listenin’ to your bullshit?! You belong in the depths of hell then, because none of the money you own is yours! Yusuke is suffering because of you! Some of your former students committed suicide after you ruined their lives!”

“Ryuji.” Yusuke smiled placatingly over his shoulder at the blond.

Ryuji calmed, only to snap at Akira instead, hissing ‘pervert’ even though he made no attempt to remove the arms around his waist.

“That’s why… Yusuke, you should understand! Being a poor artist is truly miserable!” Madarame clutched “Sayuri” protectively against his chest. “I just didn’t want to return to that life!”

Yusuke’s eyes burned a deadly silver as he stared down at the sad excuse for an artist. His kick to dislodge the painting was light. Once it was out of harm’s way, he pressed the heel of his boot against the Shadow’s neck. “Don’t you dare speak of the world of art.” Each word was laced with ice and the promise of painful death. He shifted his stance, forcing Madarame to tilt his head back as he put more pressure into his foot. “You’re done for, along with this abomination of a world.”

Ryuji found himself sharing in Akira’s excitement—the brunet practically rutted against his back. This was a Yusuke whose company he could definitely enjoy.

Yusuke removed his foot, only after leaving Madarame with the strict order to confess all his sins and crimes. As the Shadow caught his breath, he stooped down to collect the “Sayuri”.

"There are others like you," Madarame hurriedly stated, pushing himself into a more upright seated position.

Akira stepped out from behind Ryuji at that reveal, a wary look darkening his features. “Who?”

“Does it matter…? I had to increase security, because everyone kept trespassing!" The sudden surge of anger left Madarame feeling hollow and he sighed softly, his posture crumbling, along with his form. “Sayuri” was gone. He had no Treasure to keep the museum open. As more of his form melted away, the Palace began falling around them.

“Yusuke!” Ryuji shouted, holding out a hand. Akira stood ahead of him, warily eyeing their surroundings as more and more of the building continued to fall.

Yusuke rushed ahead, ignoring Madarame’s pleading cries behind him.

xxx

In the time that he'd known him, Ryuji had no recollection of ever seeing Yusuke cry. The tall brunet had one arm wrapped around Madarame's Treasure and his free hand clutched the end of Ryuji's school jacket. His head was lowered, but Ryuji could hear the soft sniffles. Akira stood several feet away, hands in the pocket of his school slacks as stared in the opposite direction gave them their privacy.

"Yusuke." Ryuji pried the hand from his clothes, only to have Yusuke latch onto him instead. He smiled. "Hey. C'mon. We're going back to Akira's. I already told my mom. We'll talk about everything—" His gaze cut to Akira's profile. "—tomorrow."

Yusuke wordlessly nodded. With a deep breath, he raised his head.

Ryuji couldn't hold in his laugh and received a chastising frown for his efforts. "Because your face is the same even though you were just crying!" He used their joined hands to pull Yusuke in, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "My cyborg boyfriend." Yusuke didn't reprimand him for his actions of public display, which was all the proof Ryuji needed that he was exhausted. "Akira. Let's go."

Akira looked away from Madarame's house to assess the couple. Yusuke leaned against Ryuji's side, trying his hardest not to be obvious how much he desired the contact. Ryuji masked his worry behind a wide grin. Akira thought his mask to be perfect, but now he wasn't so sure. These two were a force to be reckoned with. They were putting cracks in his facade.

With a small smile, he shortened the distance between them. Akira clapped Ryuji on the shoulder as he passed to take the lead. They were going to his apartment after all. 

Yusuke released Ryuji after they crossed the threshold of Akira's apartment. Safe room. A small smile tugged at his lips at the comparison and looked around for somewhere to set “Sayuri”. Akira's hand covered his and Yusuke was surprised he had no objections when the painting was pried from his fingers.

"I have a workroom," Akira told him. "It'll be safe in there."

Yusuke nodded. He felt unsure of his emotions, considering everything that took place in that horrid Palace, and feared that his voice would betray him, so he remained silent during preparations for sleep. When Akira pulled out the futon, Yusuke tugged at it until it was released. He took the brunet's hand instead and led him into the bedroom.

Ryuji was sprawled diagonally across the bed. Despite their previous argument, Akira now realized his mistake; he was too invested in this couple. Instead of “Ryuji”, he saw “Skull”, bleeding out on the Palace floor. Akira felt his mask develop another crack and fought to free himself from Yusuke's hold.

"We're all scared, idiot," Ryuji sighed. He sat up, pushing aside the covers, and spread his arms wide. "Unless you're a shitty sleeper that rolls a lot, there's enough room here for all three of us."

Akira took a deep breath, exhaling it slow enough that his mask could repair itself.

Yusuke put all his efforts to waste, shattering it with the softest kiss against his lips. "Thank you," he whispered.

Ryuji grinned at Akira's bewildered expression. It really was great seeing the bastard knocked down several pegs. He hopped from the bed and swooped in, easily lifting the troublesome transfer student onto his shoulder. Akira protested as well as flailed, glaring up at the couple after being unceremoniously tossed onto the bed. His temper was ignored and Ryuji climbed over him, settling at his back. Yusuke turned off the lights before slipping in in front of Akira. His hand ghosted over the slender hip, curling around Akira's back.

“I was going to congratulate you on not getting hard because I picked you up," Ryuji mumbled against the nape of Akira's neck. “But I can hear your heartbeat."

"He's not." Yusuke's ankles were tangled with Akira's, his leg conveniently trapped between the other's thigh. He could feel no stir of arousal.

“I’m angry, that’s why,” Akira spat. "This seems very unfair." A lie. Anger was the only emotion he could conjure to hide his nervous excitement; Akira was quite content with his current predicament.

“Life’s not fair, idiot.” Ryuji hummed and threw his arm over Akira's waist, chin hooked over his shoulder. "Go to sleep, pervert."

Akira had no idea how long it took before he managed to fall asleep, but he had the fleeting thought that he felt more at home trapped between these two boys than he ever did in his family house. It was only after burrowing his way against Yusuke’s chest and having Ryuji’s arms tighten around him that Akira felt his subconscious slip away. Even if he didn't dream tonight, it wouldn't matter; he was living it. 

Chapter Text

"Mune-chan wants to see you both tonight," Akira sleepily muttered over his plate of scrambled eggs. He was startled awake after Ryuji's spoon clattered from the bowl, to the tabletop, and finally, the floor.

"Why...?" the blond choked out, eyes wide, almost bursting from his head. Yusuke picked up the fallen spoon, rinsed it off, and returned it to the bowl of cereal.

Akira shrugged, chasing his eggs with his fork as he pushed them around the plate. "I think he has an anniversary present for you for putting up with me."

"If he kills us—"

"Don't be ridiculous, Ryuji," the art student chided, bringing the plate of pancakes to the table.

Akira found the energy to grin as he snatched two off the top. Ryuji dragged one onto his bowl. They lapsed into a weird silence, void of awkwardness and tension, but still not calm enough. Yusuke brought his plate to the table and took a seat.

Akira watched him take a bite of his pancake, head propped up by his hand. "Yusuke," he drawled.

Curious gray eyes regarded him, the taller teen ever-so-patient as he waited for a question or comment to be tossed his way. Akira's gaze shifted to Ryuji, who was too busy trying to drown his pancake in his cereal to notice, then back again. He decided he liked things the way they were. "Never mind."

xxx

Unfortunately, they had school to contend with.

“We’ll topple the next Palace on a weekend,” Akira groaned, still waving even after Yusuke disappeared. He had no problems skipping, but his companions needed to attend. Akira wanted nothing more than to return to the comfortable pile he'd woken up in this morning. He settled for Ryuji's shoulder as they rode the train and was doubly glad the other teen didn't push him away.

Rather than feel comforted by the fact that Sakamoto and Kurusu remained civil and well-behaved during the school day, each teacher was filled with trepidation by the end of their class. 

At lunchtime, Mishima produced Ryuji's three tier bento box with an energetic "ta-da". The blond grinned, dragging his chair around to share Akira's desk with him. "I thought you might have forgotten it, but then I realized this is my chance!" With a sheepish smile, Mishima unwrapped the bento and placed a box in front of each of them. "It's not as awesome as yours was, but I just wanted to say... thank you."

Ryuji lifted himself from his chair just enough to tousle Mishima's dark hair. "There's no need to thank me. We’re both idiots, that’s all."

"You're too modest," Akira sighed as the blond dropped back into his seat. Instead of another argument breaking out between them, Ryuji merely switched his lunch box with Akira's. "Mature," the bespectacled teen scoffed, but the amusement was there in his eyes.

"They're all the same," Mishima laughed, opening his for the big reveal. A simple setup with the traditional foods. 

Akira picked up one of the small rice ball, holding it next to his face to mimic the grin it wore, courtesy of seaweed pieces. Ryuji picked up a piece of sausage, shaped like an octopus, and took a large, exaggerated bite, leaving behind the smallest piece of “tentacle”. Mishima could only continue to laugh at their antics.

xxx

"Ryuji," Akira whined. He stood at the school gates with Ryuji and Mishima.

The blond shuddered, a scowl forming on his face. "Don't do that. It's disgusting. And what the hell do you want?"

"Take Mishima on a date for me."

"What...?" Ryuji stopped in the middle of the street, fixing the brunet with an incredulous stare. His gaze shifted to Mishima, who blinked innocently at him, before he rounded on Akira with a snarl, "Why the hell can't you take him on one?!"

Akira smiled. "Contrary to popular belief, I actually work. I've been neglecting my jobs, so I thought I could swing by the flower shop this afternoon. Before we go to Untouchable."

Ryuji looked conflicted for a few moments before giving in with a loud groan. "Fine. We'll go to the beef bowl shop. It's nearby. Or did you have someplace else you wanna go?"

The question was directed at Mishima, startling him from his thoughts. He was so used to people talking right over him that he forgot these two were different from those of his past. He smiled, "That's fine."

"You usually like to go to the diner," Akira murmured.

"It's fine," Mishima laughed, the sound genuine and pure. Having this argument—an argument about who would spend time with him, and where—he never thought he would ever see this day. And even more amusing, they referred to the sudden outing as a date. "I get to spend a day with Sakamoto."

"We can go to the diner," Ryuji mumbled, shoving his hands into the pocket of his slacks. He cocked his head, grinning at his fellow delinquent. "They can both be loud, but I can give you a fancy steak date." Mishima found himself blushing and he had no idea why, nor how to stop the heat creeping into his face.

Akira held back his reply on "fancy dates", knowing he would have more opportunities in the future. He leaned into Mishima's personal space, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

"Stop that," was hissed at him from his victim, accompanied by a rude shove from Ryuji.

Just the way he liked it. With a laugh, Akira took the lead, leaving the impromptu couple behind. They were all going in the same direction. The trio parted ways at Shibuya's station square. Akira headed down while Ryuji and Mishima made their way to Central Street. 

xxx

Akira had just finished selling a handmade bouquet that impressed even him, when his phone chimed and alerted him to a new text. He shot the owner an imploring look and she waved him off, taking over at the front of the stall when he disappeared behind a wall of flowers. Akira checked the message, knowing it could only be from a handful of individuals.

Ryuji: Yusuke says he wants to talk.

Me: We can talk at Untouchable.
Me: Two birds, one stone. Mune-chan still wants to see you.
Me: He can treat us to dinner at the dinner.

Akira grinned, knowing fully well that would get a rise out of the other boy.

Ryuji's response was immediate. Hell no. I'm worried about why he wants to see us.

Me: Mune-chan is a teddy bear.
Ryuji: Grizzly...

Akira laughed softly. When Yusuke gets here, come rescue me.

Ryuji: As you wish, leader.

Leader. With a content hum, Akira pocketed his phone and flounced back to the front of the stall. He would make the best bouquet ever! 

Akira started untying his apron the moment Ryuji peeked uncertainly around the display of flowers. He folded it, tucked it away, and handed a few pieces of yen to the smiling young woman. On his way out, Akira grabbed two flowers from a display.

Fluffy was the only thing that came to mind when Ryuji accepted the multi-petal, pale yellow flower. Yusuke was handed a white one, which he cradled gently in his hands. With his hands free, Akira could now use his phone. His fingers flew across the screen, and then he shoved it back into his pocket, grinning at the confused teens.

Ryuji dug out his phone.

Perv: Longing.

“Waiting,” Yusuke read aloud from his own phone. He lifted the flower to his lips, smiling at the petal's soft touch. “You’re an interesting guy, Akira. Also, this won’t survive.”

The mood lightened, Akira laughed and made to take back the flower blossoms. Ryuji held him at arm’s length, a glare rooting him in place. “You gave ‘em to us. Why would you take ‘em back?”

Akira had no response and settled for a defiant frown. “Because Yusuke just said they wouldn’t survive.”

“We can press the petals.” As he made the statement, Yusuke brushed a thumb over one of the soft folds. “I can also put a petal in amber to turn it into a pendant that I can keep on me forever.”

Ryuji grinned cheekily. “What he said.”

Akira was starting to regret his impulsive nature around the couple. Most of his time at Rafflesia was spent brushing up on flower language to make the best bouquets for their few customers. Once he figured out that the camellias they carried had different meanings—and what those meanings were—he couldn’t stop himself from buying them to share with those closest to him. The mistake was inadvertently telling them the meaning behind his gifts.

“Let’s just go to Untouchable,” Akira sighed. He picked up his nearby school case and slung it over his shoulder.

 

By the time they arrived at the airsoft shop, the flowers were forgotten, safely tucked away in school cases. Akira threw open the door to Untouchable, the bell ringing shrilly overhead. "Mune-chan! I brought victims. I already know where we can hide the bodies."

Iwai tilted his head back, glaring at the intruders. He knew better than to ask if any cops or detectives hung around outside when Kurusu visited—the boy hated them as much as he did, and pushed himself up out of the swivel chair. Akira dutifully flipped the sign to close and locked the door. With a wave of his hand, Iwai ordered them to follow him to the back room. Once they were all gathered, he apologized gruffly for the small space.

Ryuji's fingers dug into Yusuke's palm, but the artist remained stoic and calm. It was all he could do to help Ryuji's nerves. Iwai Munehisa could be termed a dangerous man, so Ryuji had every right to be fearful. However, Yusuke put a little trust in Akira; he would never let any tragedy befall them. He hoped that message was conveyed to Ryuji.

Iwai pulled a case from the top of a metal shelf, setting it on a nearby table. He popped the locks and flipped the lid. Akira, being close enough to see the contents, let a grin split his face. He turned, eyes aglow as he stared at Ryuji. "How much?" he asked, almost breathless.

"On the house," Iwai chuckled. "It's a gift to them for putting up with you."

“I knew it.” Akira pouted, or tried to. His grin refused to wane, so it made for an alarming expression. "Mune-chan. I'm an angel." The snort came from Yusuke, wiping the grin from Akira's face. The art student cleared his throat, looking innocently at the clutter to his left.

Iwai's soft laughter drew all attention to himself. "You two really are a good match for this idiot. I'll give you yours first." Yusuke nodded and remained silent in waiting.

Akira tapped the back of Ryuji's free hand with his fingers. He aimed for a reassuring smile, whispering, "He'll need both hands." Reluctantly, Ryuji uncurled his fingers from around Yusuke's hand. Seconds after he took Akira's, the shopkeeper produced an assault rifle.

Yusuke's eyes widened and he reached for the weapon. "It's not...?"

"No. This is a gun enthusiast shop,” Iwai reminded them. They would find no loaded weapon here. “Kurusu usually asks for pistols, so I thought about what might suit you."

"In the other world," Ryuji murmured, taking a step closer in the small space.

Yusuke accepted the weapon and he turned it over and over in his hands, memorizing every inch of it. Bottom lip held between his teeth in an act of restrained excitement, Ryuji looked expectantly at the man. Iwai smirked and pulled his hand from behind his back. He spun the weapon on his finger before holding it out to the blond teen. A shotgun.

"It suits you," Akira laughed. When his hand was released, he tucked both into the pockets of his pants and watched as his friends enjoyed their new spoils.

"Customization and maintenance will fall on you." Iwai directed his statement at him with a slight nod of his head. "And those you'll have to pay for."

"Gladly." Akira grinned. He would do anything to keep his boys happy and safe.

Yusuke recovered first, bringing the rational thoughts with him. "Akira."

"Hmm?"

"How are we to hide these? You have a handgun, which can easily slip into your pocket. Ryuji can possibly hide his in the back of his pants. Mine..." He held up the replica assault rifle with one hand and indicated to himself with the other. Iwai tipped his hat, hiding his smirk.

"I'll carry them," Akira offered. "In my school bag." There was no amusement or fear in his eyes, and he smiled in a carefree manner. "If they catch me, what else can they do to me, that they haven't already?"

Akira's head bowed under the weight of Iwai's hand. "Idiot," he grumbled. He pulled away, waving his hand at the other boys. "Take care of him for me. And I'm sure there's something important you need to talk about. When you're done, I'll take us to the diner." He indicated to the replica guns in their hands with a lazy smirk. "Those can't come." With that, he made his way back to the front of the shop.

"Did you put him up to that?" Ryuji mumbled, tucking his shotgun under his arm.

"I told you, he's a teddy bear. Instead of worrying about me—"

"Someone has to," Ryuji snapped.

Akira rolled right over him. "I'd like to hear what Yusuke wanted to talk about."

"It's nothing major or important. Madarame contacted me.” Yusuke hooked a finger into the trigger of the assault rifle and pulled. Nothing happened.

“Did the bastard apologize?” Ryuji grumbled.

Yusuke tore his gaze from the replica weapon to stare between the two. “Yes. He also informed me that the police charges against myself and Ryuji have been dropped."

Ryuji’s mouth fell open, only to snap shut. “Me?” he sputtered.

Yusuke’s smile was small and gentle. “I never hid our relationship from him. He's a charlatan, but still observant. He could tell when you visited, only because that’s when I provided the best work." Ryuji's glare softened into a grin and he leaned in for a kiss.

Their behavior in no way meant that he had been forgotten.

Akira sighed, looking around. It was where they'd had their first serious talk, but now it looked smaller. Maybe it was because his companions were larger than life in his eyes now. He stepped towards Yusuke, but the art student curled an arm around his waist. "Not escaping," Akira laughed, a reassuring pat placed to Yusuke's shoulder. “I just don’t think this is the best place for me to tell my story.” He covered Yusuke’s hand with his own, glancing sideways at the other brunet. “Saturday. Madarame’s exhibit is Sunday. He’s already showing signs that our efforts weren’t in vain.

“Yusuke. Let’s wait until then, please. We had a plan, remember?” Akira smiled. “We watch Madarame fall apart and then enjoy curry at Leblanc.” He shuddered under Yusuke’s twitching fingers. “Now, let’s go get a free meal out of Mune-chan.” Akira shifted his gaze over his shoulder, to Ryuji. “Maybe we can all become better friends.”

“Sometimes,” Ryuji sighed. “Just sometimes… You can be terrifying.” 

"This is true," Yusuke agreed, removing his arm from around Akira’s waist. "But I'd like to think you won't hurt those you care for." He used both hands to hold out the replica weapon.

"Are you sure?" Akira drawled. Free of the loose hold, he turned around to give Ryuji his full attention and the sweetest smile. All while slipping Yusuke’s rifle into his school case.

Ryuji stepped into the brunet’s personal space, thrusting his shotgun into Akira’s open hands. "I won't forget what you did when you first showed up, but I'll overlook it and agree with Yusuke on this one."

Akira clicked his tongue in distaste, adding the weapon to his bag as well. "You guys are no fun anymore." He spun on his heel and marched to the front of the store. Iwai was on his phone at the door, talking in hushed tones with someone on the other end of the call. He nodded at them as they all filed out and opened the door to lead the way.

Iwai had business with an old colleague that needed taking care of, and his go-to spot was the diner. The boys were just an excuse, but he did pay for their meals; an extension to the gifts he'd already given them. He made his exit first, leaving the teens behind. 

When the unlikely trio walked out of the diner for the evening, Akira found his gaze wandering, drawn to Big Bang Burger. A girl—a Shujin student, going off the pattern of her skirt—stared up at the burger franchise. Akira could only see her profile. He liked to believe he was adept at reading people, but he couldn't get anything from her. Empty. Whoever this girl was, she had already resigned herself to fate and had nothing left to live for. 

Akira could hear the faint calls from his colleagues, but couldn't bring himself to look away. A head of pale brown curls, that looked soft to the touch, turned slowly in his direction. Even paler brown eyes met his. Akira was forced to tear his gaze away from hers when a sharp pain ripped through his head. He felt hands on his shoulders and back; distant voices asked if he was okay.

Akira squinted around the dissipating pain to find the subject of his attention slowly lowering her hand from her head. Those brown eyes were darker now, alive with emotions that had once been locked away. Akira leaned into the nearest body with a soft chuckle. If he played his cards right, they could have another to help them in their quests. 

xxx

Before going to bed that night, Akira received a text from Ryuji.

Ryuji: 1 attachment

Akira muffled his groan into his pillow. It was an image of the pale yellow flower in a thin vase with water.

Ryuji: my mom gave me the vase.
Ryuji: let's see how long your love stays alive.

Akira peeked at the new messages before shoving his phone beneath the pillow. He never removed his hand, and fell asleep loosely holding the device.


Akira didn’t remember much about school on Friday. The day was over before he could begin paying attention and that was good enough; his patience was wearing thin waiting for Sunday’s arrival.

Mishima placed a notebook on his desk with a wide smile. “These are today’s notes. I’m not sure if you’ll need them or not. We did cover some new material.”

Akira smiled up at him and scooped the book from his desk. His school case didn’t need packing, since he’d never taken anything out of it, and so he handed the book off to Ryuji. The blond wordlessly took it and slipped it into his case. “You’ll get it back on Monday.”

“That’s fine,” Mishima told him, hands tucked behind his back.

“Do we have plans today, Ryuji?” Akira shifted in his seat, turning towards the quiet blond.

“No,” Ryuji mumbled, latching his case shut.

“Great.” Akira pressed his hands together in a joyful manner. “Let’s go to the arcade.”

Without taking ‘no’ for an answer, he literally dragged Mishima and Ryuji from the school, to the train, and finally to the arcade. Hours ran away from them as they moved from machine to machine. Ryuji played the role of “sourpuss chaperone” by not participating, but he was finally smiling and Akira countered that as a win.

With Big Bang right across the street, it was easy to soothe the beasts that were their empty stomachs. It was at the table that Ryuji received a text from Yusuke asking to visit him. Akira waited until their trash was taken care of before pulling Mishima to the side and whispering in his ear.

The trio parted ways at the Station Square, Akira waving with more enthusiasm than necessary.

Yusuke was not waiting for them at the school gates, so Ryuji led the way to the dormitories. After just one knock on a closed door, he let himself in.

Yusuke looked up from his task to nod in greeting. He was packing a bag. “I actually had an ulterior motive for calling you over,” he stated, his back to the duo. “I’d like it if you can hold a few of my things for this weekend.”

The travel bag looked to be the last of things. There was a large, covered square that had even Ryuji wondering if Yusuke intended to paint over the weekend. A sketchbook was good enough. His own things were already packed. His mom practically kicked him out of the house after learning he’d be spending the night at Akira’s again.

Akira hovered restlessly while still trying to remain out of the way. Yusuke smiled at him after zipping the bag shut. He indicated to everything that covered the bed. A travel bag, a standing tote that was almost filled to bursting with books and papers, and the unknown, cloth-wrapped square. Akira felt it pointless to remind him that he was only staying a day and a half.

Ryuji received the bags and a kiss (on the lips); Akira received the unknown square and a kiss (on the top of his head); Yusuke kicked them both out with a jovial “see you tomorrow”.

When it came time to part ways, Ryuji carefully secured the wrapped object with Akira and sent him along with another kiss (to his forehead).


Akira spent the entire night cleaning up, which meant he was exhausted when the sun attempted to disturb his rest. Lucky for him, there was no window in his bedroom; just walls. The door was ajar, but the sliver of light that peeked into his room never reached the teen sprawled across his bed.

Akira peeled his face from the drool-damp pillow when the incessant chiming refused to stop. He stopped himself from throwing his phone across the room and instead checked it. The clock read forty minutes after twelve, which meant it was lunch time. It also meant he’d only had roughly five hours of sleep. With a begrudged moan, Akira unlocked the screen to check the sudden barrage of messages.

Someone had created a chat and added him to it. The avatars at the top of the screen were reflective of Ryuji, Mishima, and Yusuke.

Ryuji: Wake up, idiot!
Mishima: I hope you’re not sick.
Yusuke: They say idiots don’t get sick.

Akira could hear Ryuji laughing as lines of “hahaha” filled the screen. When he started typing, everyone erased whatever prior comment they were previously creating. And waited. It would be so easy to take Ryuji down with him. He was still trying to win Yusuke’s favor, so the art student was untouchable. Mishima was a deviant, yet pure soul. Mishima would be his scapegoat. With a sleepy smirk, Akira sent off his message.

Me: Mishima. We’re having a sleepover. Do you wanna join us?

Akira never saw any of their responses. He silenced his phone, slipped it under his pillow, and placed his head atop it. Another two hours of rest was in order.

xxx

Ryuji would have kicked down Akira’s apartment door if Yusuke didn’t still have the spare key. He did barge in after it was opened, stumbling out of his shoes along the way. “Mishima said he’s not coming!”

“Thank you for that message.” Akira sat comfortably at the counter, one leg crossed over the other. “But why are you yelling? Are you jealous?”

“No!” Ryuji dropped his bag at the edge of the couch while Yusuke closed the door quietly behind them. “I’m tryin’ to figure out just how crazy you are. We’re the ones the run around changin' people’s hearts! We're the ones he worships!”

Akira’s smile widened. “I’m not the one shouting it from the rooftops.”

“He knows,” Yusuke surmised, “What we can do.”

Ryuji’s head snapped from his boyfriend to the pain in his ass, recalling the quiet exchange at Big Bang. “Did you—?!”

“Mishima’s not stupid, and neither are you.” Akira sighed, hopping down from the stool. “Who do you think helped with Madarame’s calling card? Yusuke made the original and I handed it off to my cute assistant to copy and distribute. Who do you think delivers the filth we find in Memetos?” He took a few steps towards the couch, but stopped, and crossed his arms over his chest. “It would be an insult to all of us if I thanked Kamoshida for sending you all my way, but… I’ve been chasing you for a while.”

“Shujin was your first choice when you transferred,” Ryuji sighed, suddenly tired. He sank into the couch, burying his face in his hands. “Just when I didn’t think you could get any creepier…”

“You have to commend his devotion. To you, and to his plans.” Yusuke sat next to the blond, smiling at the surprised Kurusu.

Akira reigned in his shock to grin. “See? Someone gets me.”

“Only because he’s as strange as you.” Ryuji dragged his hands down his face with a groan. “What are we doing to pass the time? And what are we having for dinner?”

Three cooks helped speed things along, and dinner turned out great. Dinner and a movie.

After cleaning up, the trio retired to the bedroom. Akira hung back, staring at the bed Ryuji now willingly climbed into. He smiled, remembering their first fight over sleeping arrangements. ‘Now look at him.’ And look he did, only to realize that he wasn’t the only one.

Both Ryuji and Yusuke were watching him; waiting.

With a deep sigh, Akira removed his glasses, folded the legs, and set it down onto the nightstand. Yusuke made room for him and he climbed into the occupied bed. “I… already told you about the woman I defended and her powerful attacker.” Akira was unable to stop his flinch when Yusuke rearranged them into a more comfortable position. He forced himself to relax, trying to piece together enough memory fragments for a coherent story.

“I have no recollection of how I got to the interrogation room…”

 

There were no thoughts in his head. Not even the pain registered. The dark-haired teen was slumped over the cold metal desk, blood dripping from his mouth. There were no visible open wounds, just bruises that would take weeks before they healed. A thought: how could his parents let this happen to him? The suspect twitched at the pinch in his arm and his vision blurred again. Waves crashed over his head and everything became a distant memory. Was he even breathing? He was jolted into an upright position, a faceless shadow spitting at him.

Prisoner. Fate. Sealed.

Empty gray eyes slid shut, chasing the whisper. Did those words have a meaning? As a prisoner, was his fate sealed? Another sharp blow sent him to the floor and all traces of the strange voice vanished. He squinted against the darkness tainting his vision and realized that the papers fluttering in his face were what whispered in his ears.

"Give...name, you…shit!"

'...my name?'

The fresh taste of blood told him the wayward thought was spoken out loud. Taking the clipboard with shaking hands, he stared at the line, unconsciously running his tongue over the new cut splitting his lip. Am I signing my soul away?

The laughter started soft, before spilling out of his brain. He never knew laughter had a physical form, but the winged being in front of him looked like his "laughter". Those ebony wings spread wide, tips brushing the opposite walls.

What's the matter...? More laughter followed the question, the ethereal being tossing its head back. Are you simply going to watch? If you forsake yourself, your death will be at their hands. Was your previous decision a mistake then?

'No.' His actions had been just. The outcome had been unforeseen.

Very well. Vow to me. I am thou, thou art I... Thou who art willing to perform all sacrilegious acts for thine own justice! Call upon my name, and release thy rage! Show the strength of thy will to ascertain all on thine own, though thou be chained to Hell itself!

"Ar...sene." The clipboard clattered to the floor, the boy's body falling beside it. His screams bounced off the walls, drowning out the shouts demanding he "shut up". 

x

Akira stretched his left leg out alongside Yusuke’s, leaning back against the solid frame. He smiled, unable to show sadness or regret. What happened then, made him who he is now. "Nobody ever asked if I was okay. There was someone else… A woman.” Akira closed his eyes, but her face never came into focus. “She saw what they'd done, but was more concerned about getting a statement."

The hollow laugh that rumbled up from his chest sounded almost like Arsene’s on that foggy night. "The first thing I did when I got out, I made those bastards pay. Crooked cops. Oh! That was also the first time I learned about Mementos." Akira only paused to take a breath, but it was more than enough time to get smothered by a heavy body and strangled by long arms. What a happy way to die.

With a breathless laugh, Akira pushed until Ryuji relented and climbed off him. The blond didn't move too far away. He radiated concern and anger. He was a gorgeous flame, and Akira almost wished he could draw like the teen still holding him from behind. He tapped at the tight arms and they loosened enough for him to rearrange them into a better position. Neither asked him whether the interrogating officers were still alive. He hadn’t killed them. He just ruined their entire existences, like they had done to him.

"I can't believe those fuckers did that," Ryuji growled. "...to a goddamn kid! What the hell is wrong with the police?!" Akira's hand landed gently on his right leg and he remembered, immediately, just how flawed their justice system was. He snatched Akira's hand in his own, squeezing tight enough that it was sure to be painful. "I'm sorry."

Akira grinned and gave their hands a playful shake. "Don't be. Because of everything, I'm here... with you two. I lost a few marbles, but I am quite content."

Yusuke's soft laughter danced across his neck and Akira shuddered, squeezing back on Ryuji's hand. Not tonight, he told himself. Akira closed his eyes and forced himself to think about that hazy night; all the pain he felt during his punishment for a crime he never committed.

"When they released me to my parents…” Akira let his eyes open, but they remain half-lidded. His lips curled into a disdainful grin as he remembered his loving family. "They took one look at me and decided my suffering wasn't punishment enough. I had to listen to them tell me I was no longer a part of their lives before I could patch myself up. I don't think I slept that night. I stayed up, and packed... everything that was mine. Because I knew what was coming."

Yusuke's arms fell to his waist and Akira assumed it was so the other teen didn't accidentally choke him to death. The appendages squeezed him tightly; wordless condolences for all his suffering. Akira shifted his gaze to the quiet blond. Ryuji looked downright livid. He gave their hands a gentle squeeze, but that did nothing to ease the crease in his brow. "I'm totally bringing the room down," Akira joked, knowing full well it would do nothing to ease the heavy tension.

The bed bounced as Ryuji shuffled closer, folding his and Akira's hands in his lap. The remaining space between them disappeared as Ryuji’s mouth slanted over his. Yusuke’s words came back to Akira as he gave into the kiss. He has this ability to kiss things better. The kiss ended far too soon for his tastes, Akira chasing Ryuji’s lips as he moved away.

Taking a few deep breaths, Ryuji finally released Akira's hand so he could tangle both in his short locks. "What are we?"

A silence fell, neither awkward nor tense. It was a silence begging to be filled with answers.

"You are becoming someone very important to me," Yusuke whispered against Akira's unruly hair. "But I have yet to see you as anything more than a friend. Everything you’ve shared with Ryuji—will share with Ryuji—I know you need it and I won’t stand in your way. Maybe... with time."

Akira blinked, slow and deliberate, taking in the new information. "Knowing I have a place in your heart—in your thoughts... That is good enough for me, Yusuke."

Yusuke smiled, "Ryuji will love you enough for both of us."

"Oi..." the blond protested with no true argument to back him up. He dropped his hands from his hair, eyes narrowed at Akira with no heat behind his glare. “If Yusuke’s says I love ya, then I guess I do.”

Akira grinned, the gesture reminiscent of the permanent smile Arsene wore. “I accept your confession and this twisted relationship.”

With a huff, Ryuji pecked him on the lips before stretching over him. Akira slouched down and tilted his head to better see the brunet’s face. A gentle smile was directed at him before Yusuke gave Ryuji his attention. Akira closed his eyes, enjoying their warmth.

 

Miraculously, Akira didn’t wake when the couple rearranged him into a more comfortable position. Yusuke stretched out behind him and Ryuji climbed in from the foot of the bed. Once settled, Ryuji couldn’t stop himself from pressing a finger to the bridge of Akira’s nose. A wrinkle formed as Akira frowned at the disturbance to his sleep. Cute.

Ryuji removed his finger with a grin and fisted his hand beneath his head. A quick glance upward told him Yusuke was halfway to la-la land. It only seemed right to follow. 


The television was muted; the newscaster still discussed Madarame Ichiryusai’s appalling public display. It took several minutes before everything finally sank in. Ryuji collapsed against the cushions as he laughed uncontrollably. “It’s just like Kamoshida! Except… better! Did you see his face?! That old man had tears and snot running down his face!”

His companions were jostled, but remained silent as the blond expressed his glee. Akira crossed one leg over the other, his hands folded demurely in his lap. His joy was restrained. His joy was centered around the fact that the public were finally starting to take notice of them. Society even named them. Phantom Thieves— “…of hearts,” he finished aloud in soft whisper.

Ryuji finally calmed down enough to give his boyfriend his full attention. “Oi. You’re making that face. You’re not happy? We all know crazy over there is happy.”

Yusuke didn’t have to see Akira to understand how their host felt. He stared at the television—more specifically, Madarame’s wailing face frozen in the upper corner. The false artist’s confession was pushed aside to make way for more news, snapping Yusuke from his blank state of mind. He lifted a hand, brushing his bangs aside, and chuckled softly. “I’m elated.”

Yusuke barely had time to blink before Ryuji was in his lap, mouth covering his. “One more year,” the blond stated after pulling away, his voice low and husky. “One more year and we’ll be free.”

Yusuke looped his arms around Ryuji’s waist, tilting his head to smile up at his best and brightest muse. “We’re already free. Thanks to the leader of the Phantom Thieves.” He finally gave Akira his attention. The brunet practically buzzed in place where he sat. “I believe a trip to Leblanc is in order.”

xxx

A familiar voice alerted the occupant of the dark room and the small figure rolled closer to the cluttered desk, picking up discarded headphones. The muted lights of the computer screen filled with code revealed a redheaded young girl.

“—Ryuji.”

Nobody’s here! The Boss is in back washing dishes. I doubt he can hear us. We’re supposed to be celebrating! Madarame’s in jail… because of us!” There was a muffled sound, then Ryuji’s voice returned, “This curry is amazing, though!”

The shadowed figure let out a soft giggle, “Of course it’s good. Sojiro’s curry is the best!” Their good mood gradually faded as they drifted in and out of the trivial conversation.

“—bitter. Boss! Can I have a soda instead? Yusuke. Do you want this?”

I’ll take it.”

The young girl drew her knees close to her chest at the voice. “Kurusu… Akira.” From the recorded conversations, Kurusu Akira was the one in charge of changing hearts. “Maybe…” With a shake of her head, she pushed the current Leblanc session aside and recalled one that had taken place a few nights ago. There was still another capable of cognitive travel. The task would go to the most successful. A thief or a detective.

No one can help you.

“Nononono.” The headphones were pushed down, replaced by clenched hands to drown out the harsh whisper.

You deserve to die.

It’s your fault she’s dead!

Drawing her feet up into the chair, the redhead curled into a small, protective ball in hopes of stopping the harsh whispers. It did nothing to stop her own thoughts; thoughts that agreed with the numerous voices. She let out a pained whimper and remained in her hunched position until the voices faded away. How much longer could she wait? Before everything became unbearable…

xxx 

That night, Ryuji and Akira found out what they thought to be a blank canvas was, instead, a completed and framed painting. Yusuke carefully unwrapped the mysterious square, revealing the gentle colors of the original Sayuri. Akira recalled him leaving with it; he never imagined it would return.

Yusuke picked up the painting, his smile just as gentle as the woman permanently captured on canvas. “I’d like to give this to you. Akira.”

What!?” Ryuji squawked.

Akira was struck speechless, unable to comprehend Yusuke’s words.

Yusuke held the painting at arm’s length. He was too young to remember her, but in his heart, he knew; he could feel her warmth and love. “The thought of selling it never crossed my mind. I would be no better than Madarame if I did that. But you, Akira…” He lowered the painting to stare over its frame at the two frozen boys. “I believe you will treasure it as dearly as I do. Ryuji already has several pieces,” Yusuke smiled at the blond, receiving a grin in return, before giving Akira his attention once more, “So it’s only fair that Akira has something as well.”

“I couldn’t,” Akira stammered out. “I… It’s… No.”

Ryuji snickered, slinging an arm around the brunet’s shoulder. “Never thought I’d see the day. You’re at a loss for words and not aroused.”

“Shut up,” Akira spat, pushing weakly at the blond. Ryuji never moved, only tightened his hold. “Yusuke. That painting is… You said it yourself!”

“I know what I said. Maybe try a different approach next time and not threaten people—”

“My specialty,” Akira whined. He yelped after Ryuji playfully pinched him.

“If it wasn’t for you,” Yusuke continued, “I would never have this memory of my mother. If it wasn’t for you…” He trailed off with a soft chuckle. “Please, take it, Akira. It’s the least I can do, after everything you’ve done.”

“This drab apartment needs some life anyway.” Ryuji turned them both so they faced the wall behind the sofa, and extended his free arm. “I say, put it right there. When we walk in the door, we’ll see it.”

We. Akira ducked his head to hide his grin. “Yusuke—”

“Thanks aren’t necessary,” Yusuke cut in. “Let’s go ahead and put it up. I’ll sleep out here on the futon.” Neither Ryuji nor Akira argued; they both understood Yusuke’s intentions.

“That means you two get to be intimate without my interference.”

No arguments there either.

Ryuji gave Yusuke a good night kiss before wrapping an arm around Akira’s neck. The brunet waved as he was forcibly dragged away. When the door swung inward, Yusuke looked away to stare up at the serene painting. With a whispered ‘good night’, he climbed into the futon under Sayuri’s loving gaze.