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Yesterday's Protagonist

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“I still can’t believe you studied English in university,” Ann pouted. “That’s my thing!”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize you were the only person in the world allowed to speak English,” Akira snorted.

Ann wrinkled her nose at him as she cut into her piece of cake, and on the other side of her, Haru giggled. “I just mean, it’s the only thing I’m good at, aside from modeling! You’re not allowed to be good at everything.”

“I’m not good at everything,” he answered serenely, “just most things.”

He grunted as Ann playfully kicked at his leg from the other side of the booth, and Morgana rolled his eyes. “Don’t fight with Lady Ann in Haru’s cafe!” he chided.

Instead of answering, Akira took a sip of his coffee, and Haru laughed gently. “It feels nice to reunite like this,” she smiled. “And I can’t believe you really do want to work here! You’ll be such a big help! I couldn’t ask for a better assistant manager!”

“The ultimate barista,” Ann agreed. “The ultimate English-speaking barista.”

“Your English is probably still better than mine, you know,” Akira chuckled. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it is. I only took a little, since I was focused on psychology and sociology. And I’d look ridiculous if I tried to model.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” she replied immediately. “Right, Haru? He has some kinda weird natural charisma, doesn’t he? It’s almost... supernatural!”

Haru nodded her agreement, and Akira played with the ends of his hair as he smirked. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” he teased.

“Oh, shut up,” Ann laughed. “So, when do you start? The grand opening?”

“In a week, yes,” Haru said. “I’m so excited! Especially for the celebration party in two days. I feel like I haven’t seen Ryuji in forever!”

“I can’t believe you miss that idiot,” Ann chuckled.

“You say that like you don’t miss him too,” Akira laughed as he sipped at his drink. “Three whole months without your favorite verbal sparring partner while you were overseas. Just tragic.”

“You can’t prove anything,” Ann fired back. “You better not tell him! I’ll never hear the end of it, ugh.”

As she shoved a piece of cake in her mouth, Akira snorted. “Charming as ever, huh?”

He grunted as Ann kicked him again, and Haru laughed while Morgana muttered “You totally deserved that.”

Haru’s cozy little cafe was only a short train ride away from his new apartment, something Akira was sure he’d be endlessly grateful for once he began working. But tonight, he decided to stay on the train for a while longer, as he had a special destination in mind.

The shrine was quiet, and empty of people as he walked through the gate and up the cracked stone steps. It was starting to get dark, and he felt the edges of fatigue creeping in on him after a long day, but this... this was important. From the bag he kept slung over his shoulder, Morgana watched silently as he purified his hands in water before walking up to the offering box. Dutifully, he pretended not to notice the slight tremble in Akira’s hands as he slipped a coin in before clapping his hands together to pray.

“Do you think it’s weird that I do this?” he asked quietly, a few moments later.

“No,” Morgana said softly. “You... you miss him, don’t you?”

Akira was silent for a moment in thought as he looked at the offering box. “I... miss what he could have been. I regret not being able to save him, in the end.” He sighed, and rubbed at his eyes. “Especially considering he saved all of us.”

“You did what you could. We all did,” Morgana answered softly. “And you kept your promise to him. I think... I think he’d appreciate that.”

Akira stared at the box, the empty feeling in his heart too familiar and well-worn. “It’s been five and a half years,” he whispered, “and I’m still upset about it.”

Morgana shifted in his bag, his tone still soft. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “It’s because you’re so kind. That’s why you care... I think it’s your most admirable quality. Being able to care so much is what gave you the strength to survive and save the world.”

“Aw, you flatter me.” It was meant to sound teasing, but fell a little flat, his voice empty of its usual playful lilt... like he couldn’t manage the energy to pretend.

Morgana didn’t answer, but Akira could feel the weight of his sad eyes. He sighed, and made his way back home without saying another word.

Work ended up being exactly as good as Akira had hoped.

Okumura Foods had been promoting Haru's little cafe for months, and the first two weeks found them absolutely slammed with business. When he wasn’t training new baristas on how to make the perfect cup of coffee, he was helping Haru do the scheduling, cleaning, and using his hard-earned English skills to speak with some of their foreign customers. Often, Morgana would tag along when he wasn’t visiting other former Thieves, sitting on a special stool that Haru had put in the cafe just for him.

Three weeks after the opening, business had finally started to ease into something more manageable, and Akira wasn’t working from dawn to dusk anymore. By the time he closed up shop with Haru, he was still tired, but in a way that felt satisfying after a hard day of rewarding work. The bell above the door jingled merrily as she shut and locked it behind them, and her eyes sparkled as she thanked him for his help.

“Shouldn’t I be the one thanking you?” he asked. “I get to make coffee all day, talk to interesting people, and get paid scandalously good money for it while I get my foot in the door for my real career.”

Haru’s smile was bright, even in the darkness. “I’d have never opened this cafe if you hadn’t helped me when we were still in high school, though. You helped make my dream come true, so helping you in return is the least I can do. And... and it helps me, too!” She bit her lip as she looked down at the ground. “Actually, I feel kind of selfish when I put it that way...”

“Nah. Just think of it as a mutually beneficial business deal between friends,” Akira grinned. “Anyway, I’m gonna get going.”

“Oh! Would you like me to drive you back tonight?” Haru asked. “You look so tired. I’m sorry... I should give you a couple of extra days off, now that we don’t have so many customers.”

Akira shrugged. “Only if it doesn’t throw a wrench in the schedule. I don’t mind coming in. As for the ride back, I’m actually not going straight home tonight.”

“Is that so?” she asked politely. “I don’t mind driving a little further, if you’d like me to drop you off somewhere else. It’s really the least I can do!”

He twirled a piece of his hair between his fingers. “Ah... sure. I just wanna spend some time at the shrine, that’s all.”

Immediately, her expression went soft with empathy. “Of course. Um... is everything okay?”

“Never been better,” Akira said casually as they walked to her car. “Just wanted to... talk to him. You know.”

“Oh,” she said with sudden understanding. “I’m sorry, that was insensitive of me...”

“No, you’re fine,” he said as they approached her sleek little car. He was quiet until they sat down and buckled their seatbelts, and then he spoke again, a tinge of regret obvious in his words. “Actually, I’m probably the one being insensitive, right? I mean, he...”

Haru gripped the steering wheel gently, and was silent for a moment as she stared at the sky in thought. “I don’t mind. I still don’t really... I can’t forget what happened to my father,” she answered quietly. “But I also kind of... understand that he was like all of us, in a way. Right? I mean...” She chewed at her lip, and looked down at her hands. “He did some truly horrible things, but... at the same time, he didn’t have much choice. He was a victim too. It was more Shido’s fault than anyone else, even though Akechi-kun was the one that pulled the trigger. And he... he did save us all, in the end. Maybe he could’ve escaped. But he didn’t.” Her jaw set, she looked over at Akira, determination hardening her gaze. “I can’t completely forgive him, but I think he deserved better than he was given. I wish... I wish we could have saved him too. I think it’d be better if he was still here. What happened to him isn’t fair at all.”

Akira was quiet as Haru started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot, but after a moment, he smiled. “You really are incredible, Haru. I’m really glad we’re friends.”

Haru’s smile was warm and genuine. “I could say the same thing to you.”

The shrine was completely silent, and this time, Morgana wasn’t there to keep him company.

Alone with his thoughts, he went through all the proper tradition as he made his way to the offering box, and sighed as he put his hands together in prayer.

Don’t know where else to do this at, he thought quietly. It’s not like you have a grave. You’re just... gone. Like you were never here at all, and the world’s forgotten you. But I won’t... I can’t. His shoulders drooped a little. I hope you’re happy, wherever you are now. I wonder if you can even hear me. I wonder what you’d say to me now, if you were still around.

Soft footsteps clicked against the stone path behind him, and he sighed again as he took a moment to gather himself and turn around, annoyed at the interruption. “Sorry, I’ll get out of your way--”

“There’s no need.” The man’s voice was pleasant and soft, and so familiar in a way that Akira immediately found distressing. He spun on his heel just a little too fast to be cool and collected, and locked eyes with a guy about the same age as him, and he was so - it couldn’t really be him, but...

“You seem startled,” the man said almost cheerfully as he swept his bangs from his face. His chestnut hair was gathered into a slightly messy ponytail, and his eyes gleamed in the dull moonlight as he fiddled with the collar of his shirt... and he really looked just like him, but it couldn’t be...

“S...sorry,” Akira stammered, completely caught off guard for once. “You just... you look and sound like... someone I used to know.”

The other man smiled then, and the plastic edges of it were all too familiar. “‘Used to’ is such an ugly way of saying it when I’m standing right in front of you, you know. A little rude, don’t you think?”

Akira took a step closer, and didn’t even bother trying to hide the shock written across his expression as he tentatively reached out. “Akechi? Akechi?” He pulled his hand back, unsure of himself, but he was close enough now to touch if he really wanted to - an urge he was clearly having a little trouble resisting. “...You’re alive?”

“Well, I’m relatively certain I’m not dead.” He spread his arms out, and Akira saw right through the cheerful mask. “Miracles really do happen, it seems.”

The slight waver in his voice didn’t escape Akira’s ears. “I... I can’t believe this,” he muttered.

Akechi’s smile was strained. “You don’t seem too happy to see me. Not that I can blame you, but seriously, talk about disappointing-”

“Hey, don’t go putting words in my mouth,” Akira sighed. “Of course I’m happy to see you. I just can’t believe I’ve been coming to talk to someone at shrines for five years now and he’s not even dead.” He cocked his head to the side and smiled as Akechi’s eyes widened. “Yeah, really. Corny, huh?” He toyed with the ends of his hair. “Why didn’t you send me a text or something? And how’d you find me here, of all places?”

“It’s a little difficult to send a text message when you’re locked up in juvenile detention,” Akechi answered with his previous false cheer, “which I’m sure you’re quite familiar with. Though I guess I’m more familiar with it than you at this point, aren’t I? And call it divine providence, I suppose. I swear it’s just a coincidence, though we certainly seem to be bound by fate, don’t we?”

Akira sucked in a deep breath. “You were in juvenile detention...? For how long?” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearly restless. “Actually, maybe a public area isn’t the best place to have a heart to heart. We have a lot to catch up on.”

“Fair enough. I’m surprised you even want to talk to me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Akira snorted as he pulled out his phone. “Of course I want to talk to you. What’s your number and chat ID?”

Finally, Akira saw the mask slip, just a little. A quiet sort of wonder had seeped through his cracks. “Are you an idiot? Of all the people on this planet, I’m sure you’re the only one that would consider it ridiculous, after...” He shook his head. “Here, I’ll give you my information.”

Akira hummed as he put the contact info into his cell and recited his own, and gave Akechi a genuine smile as they locked eyes again. “You know, you seem a little different now. Not in a bad way, though.”

“A lot can change in five and a half years,” Akechi said simply.

Akira watched him, and weighed his words carefully. “For the better, I hope?”

Akechi shrugged. “Well, I’d certainly say so. It’s a lot better now that...” He smiled again, that frustratingly fake smile that Akira could never forget. “Never mind. Anyway, I should let you go home. You look tired.”

Akira took another step closer, and Akechi’s expression melted away into uncertainty. “I’m glad you’re here, Akechi.”

“And I thought I was the one with a flair for theatrics,” he muttered uneasily. “I don’t understand you.”

“Well, now we have a chance to change that,” Akira said. “Are you busy?”

The leaves of the trees rustled quietly with a burst of wind. “Not at all,” he answered. “...Why?”

Akira twirled his phone between his fingers like it was nothing. “Wanna come over for a little bit? I can make some coffee, and we can talk.”

Uncertainty twisted Akechi’s lips into a frown. “You’re inviting me to your apartment? Alone?”

“I trust you,” Akira said easily, as if it were nothing. “And I didn’t hear you say ‘no’. Though, full disclosure, Morgana usually stays with me. He’s hanging out with Futaba and Sojiro tonight, though.”

For a moment, Akechi hesitated, but then his expression changed as his lips curled into a soft, sad smile. “Okay. Lead the way, then.”

Akira grinned and threw an arm around his shoulders, like he hadn’t thought the man beside him had been dead for half a decade just a few minutes earlier. “If it’s all right, I’d rather walk beside you.”

Flustered, Akechi felt his cheeks grow warm as he looked at Akira with wide eyes. “...Were you always this disgustingly sentimental?”

“Nope,” Akira said casually. “But like you said, a lot can change in five and a half years.”

Akechi was quiet as he stewed in his thoughts, and Akira didn’t pressure him to talk; he just walked beside him, content with his presence despite the silence even as they arrived at the station and boarded the train. As casual as he was trying to act, Akira couldn’t help but let his eyes linger on Akechi’s face as they stood beside each other - something Akechi definitely noticed.

“Something on my face?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“A whole lot of handsome,” Akira grinned. “To be honest, seeing you still feels kind of... unreal.” He fiddled with his hair again, and Akechi hated himself a little for finding the familiar gesture endearing. “Feels like if I take my eyes off of you, you might disappear again.”

Akechi averted his eyes. “I don’t plan on going anywhere. Unless you want me to leave, that is.”

Akira leaned closer and lowered his voice to retain a little bit of privacy, and Akechi felt himself shiver as the barista’s breath ghosted over his ear. “Come on, stop saying stuff like that,” he whispered. “All this time, I thought you were gone. I’m so relieved to see you standing here I can’t even get pissed off about mourning for you when I didn’t need to.” When the tinge of pink on Akechi’s cheeks caught his eye, he couldn’t help but add a teasing note despite the seriousness of his words as he leaned even closer. “Like hell I want you to go anywhere.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Akechi muttered. “Do you have to stand so close?”

“We’re on a crowded train.”

“It’s not that crowded,” Akechi complained. “Which stop is yours?”

“The next one,” Akira grinned, delighted that teasing Akechi had only gotten more satisfying.

Akechi sighed, and brushed his hair out of his eyes. “I’d yell at you if we weren’t in public right now.”

“Yell at me all you want once we get to my apartment. We’re almost there.”

“Welcome to my humble abode,” Akira said with a flourish as Akechi shut the door behind him.

Akechi rubbed at his wrists and stood stiffly, like he was unsure of himself. When Akira stepped into his personal space again, the rising tension in Akechi’s shoulders was easily visible. “Just wondering, but have you completely failed to find any sense of self-preservation after what happened five years ago?” he snapped.

Akira stepped even closer, a smirk curling at his lips. “Should I be afraid of you?”

“I tried to murder you,” Akechi hissed. “More than once-”

Clearly, Akira wasn’t going to buy it. He shook his head and his expression grew just a little pinched, like he was recalling an old, familiar anger. “You were forced into being a hitman by an adult with almost limitless power, and if you didn’t do what he told you, you’d be killed. And then, at that critical moment, you sacrificed yourself to save us instead,” Akira said. “Or at least, that was your intent. Why would you kill me now, after doing all that? You’re not stupid... probably,” he finished on a teasing note.

“Well, that makes one of us,” Akechi snapped again. “I don’t understand you.”

Akira grinned and suddenly turned away to walk towards the kitchen. “What’s there to understand? I thought a friend of mine was dead. Now it turns out he isn’t, and he’s standing in my apartment, telling me what an idiot I am. It warms my heart.” With deft hands, he began preparing his French press for the coffee, and looked in his cabinet at the blends he had lined up. “Any preference?”

“...Whatever you recommend,” Akechi mumbled. Hesitation slowed his steps as he went into the kitchen, several steps away from the man that had unknowingly helped him survive the last several years. “You considered me... a friend,” he said haltingly, each word carefully chosen, “even after all of that.”

It wasn’t a question, but Akira nodded anyway as the coffee began to steep. “You’re smart as hell, and you were powerful, too. You could’ve figured out a way to get out of that situation and just let us rot. But if memory serves me right, that’s not what happened at all, is it?” he said with a smile. “Turns out the guy who called himself a big bad villain was a hero after all.”

Visible frustration wrinkled Akechi’s brow, and he took a step closer to Akira. “I’m a murderer. Did you forget that? Maybe I saved you, but I killed other people before then. The only reason I got to sit in juvenile detention for a while and eventually walk free is because I was a minor when it happened, and the judge took pity on me after hearing Shido cry and blather on about how I was just a blameless, easily controlled child that he forced to do his bidding in his testimony - and your testimony sealed the deal.” He stepped closer again, and again, until he was right up in Akira’s face - but the other man didn’t budge. “But whether it was entirely in my control or not, I still killed people. I tried to kill you. You should be scared of me.”

Instead of his usual smirk, Akira actually looked a little sad. “So that’s what this is about.”

“What do you mean?” Akechi asked defensively.

“You’re upset, and I wasn’t sure why at first. But I forgave you a long time ago. I trust you. I consider you my friend. You found me praying for you at a shrine, and it makes you angry, doesn’t it? But not really at me.” Casual as ever, he took two china cups from his cabinet, and set them on the counter. “Clearly you want to see me, or you would’ve just avoided me. But you approached me, and you seem to think you deserve a different reaction, or expected one, and you don’t know how to deal with kindness because you never experienced enough of it.” He reached into a drawer for a small spoon, and opened a small jar of sugar. “Anyway, I’m not scared of you. I never will be, because I know you don’t want to hurt me.”

Irritation flickered across Akechi’s face, but the fire quickly seemed to fade, and he sighed. “Like I said, I don’t understand you.”

“Time can change that, if you stop trying to provoke me,” Akira answered serenely as he fiddled with the French press. Akechi watched him work, and felt a strange sense of calm; it almost felt like those days years ago, when he’d found fleeting serenity at Cafe Leblanc. A moment later, Akira handed one of the cups to him; it smelled fantastic, and the nostalgia was nearly overwhelming. “Here, go sit on the couch in the living room. I’ll be right there.”

“...You remember how I take my coffee?” Akechi asked, obviously surprised. “...Or did you just guess?”

“Guess? No. As if I could ever forget anything about you,” Akira laughed. He stirred a spoonful of cream and sugar into his cup, and placed the utensil in the sink. “Come on, the couch is pretty nice.”

Akira’s living room was pretty normal; a big television in front of a plush brown couch, and a coffee table between them was cluttered with books written in both Japanese and English. Shelves of books flanked the television, and there were several framed photos of the former Phantom Thieves lining the walls. Akechi took a deep breath as he sat down and sipped at his coffee, all too aware of Akira’s eyes on him.

“You’re still staring at me,” Akechi sighed. “I told you, I won’t go anywhere, even if I still can’t figure out why I’m so important to you-”

“Honestly? I’m just wondering how you survived,” Akira said. “We really thought you were dead. And I never heard about you getting prosecuted.”

Akechi stared into his cup. “I asked Sae to keep it quiet, and she did... It’s a bit of a long story.”

He shot his cognitive self with no hesitation, put two bullets right between his eyes -- just as the Shadows lunged at him. He was ready to die, but suddenly a bright blue light burned around him, a voice that was both familiar and unknown whispered in his head - and told him to go.

The next several moments were a blur. He had some kind of new power, as if something had awoken within him after the promise he made with Akira, and it had allowed him to escape the room he’d been trapped in. He was alone now, with no Shadows or Phantom Thieves in sight. Short on strength, he struggled to get to his feet, nearly staggering with the gentle swaying of the boat. In the back of his mind, his Personas - something different about them that he couldn’t quite place, whispered that he had to go, he had to leave right now-

With his last reserves of strength, he cracked open a vial of magical ointment he’d found in a Palace long ago, slathering it over some of his wounds. It’d keep him alive, but he was still in bad shape as he slipped into the shadows and left the Palace. Anxiety ate at his nerves as he traveled out from the Metaverse to the front of the Diet building, and reality clung to his senses in a way that felt suffocating.

Stars dotted the night sky. All was quiet as he looked down at his bloodied hands -- there was little doubt who it belonged to. But he couldn’t go to a proper hospital; there’d be nothing but questions, and he needed time to figure out what to do with himself. Slowly, he made his way to the street and hailed a taxi; he practically collapsed into the back seat, and mumbled his address as the car began to move again. Fifteen minutes later, the man let him out in front of his apartment building, and Akechi stumbled into the empty lobby.

He glanced at his phone as he leaned heavily against the wall of the elevator. 1:15. No wonder everything was so quiet. Cold seeped into his skin as he took in a ragged breath; it wasn’t the first time he’d been severely injured in the Metaverse and had to treat himself, but it had never been quite this severe.

I should be dead, he thought uneasily as he carefully made his way down the hall. One step, two, one foot in front of the other; his pace was slow, each movement marked with sparks of pain that made darkness edge in at the corners of his vision. With shaking hands, he opened the lock on his door, and barely managed to shut it again before he stumbled towards the first aid kit he kept in the living room.

I’ll go to that seedy clinic in Yongen-Jaya in the morning, he thought as he opened an antiseptic wipe and a packet of gauze. As he wiped his wounds, he gritted his teeth against the sting, and wrapped his shoulder with greater care than he felt he deserved. He walked with agonizing slowness to the kitchen for a glass of water, and nearly dropped it after he filled it from the tap. With his good arm, he took a large gulp to wash down some painkiller, and made his way back to his bedroom.

I should be dead, he thought again. His mind felt slow and sluggish, and he barely managed to finish undressing before he collapsed into his bed. His hands still trembled slightly as he set an alarm on his phone for 6:30; he wanted to be at the clinic the moment it opened.

Sure enough, the next morning, Takemi was happy to treat him when he pulled out a small stack of money. It was nearly the afternoon by the time he made it back to his apartment, and he immediately crawled back into bed with the doctor’s warning about needing at least three weeks of rest ringing through his thoughts. Even news of Shido’s confession wasn’t enough to take the edge off of his physical pains, though the vicious satisfaction he felt was priceless.

A few days later, he woke to the sight of hell consuming the earth.

He didn’t remember falling back asleep after that, but judging by his phone, only about fifteen minutes had passed. A quick glance through the window showed the busy cityscape, with no signs of otherworldly influence, as if Mementos hadn’t just swallowed the world whole. Cold prickled at his sore skin, and he drew the blankets tighter around him, careful not to jostle his injured shoulder. Was it all a dream, then? ...Unlikely. He glanced back down at the news notification on his phone, and had no doubt that Akira had something to with it.

You kept your promise.

For a while, he let himself doze off, lulled to an uneasy sleep with the help of painkillers. He woke again in the early morning - now his clock read 5:37.

Out of habit, he reached for his phone to check the news - and felt his blood run cold.

Leader of the Phantom Thieves turns himself in to testify against Masayoshi Shido!

His eyes squeezed shut as he processed the implications. Idiot. Akira would definitely end up in juvenile detention. But Sae was clearly working with him and on his side - she’d saved him from Akechi, after all, and was Makoto’s sister too.

He’ll be fine, Akechi told himself, and he found that he believed it. A shiver raced through him as he glanced at the window, watching the snow slowly fall through the sky.

He saved me, didn’t he? I should be dead, but he gave me a second chance. Carefully, he sat up and got out of bed, and made his way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Drinking it felt almost unreal, dreamlike, and he felt his skin crawl with unease. He was... he was really upset when I got trapped in the Palace. When he thought I was going to die. They all were, but... A lump formed in his throat, and it became difficult to swallow. Furious with himself, he scrubbed at his burning eyes. I tried to kill him! And he still... he still...

Nausea curled in his stomach like a lead weight, and he braced himself on the counter. What should I do? He gave me a second chance, even if he’s unaware of it. He set me free... The realization that the Phantom Thieves - that Akira - thought he was dead was oddly distressing. I can’t contact them right now... he’s going to be detained for who knows how long, anyway. The tiles under his feet felt too cold, but he barely noticed as he stared into space, consumed with his thoughts. I can’t burden him with... with myself. Not now. But I’ll have to turn myself in eventually... Shido mentioned me in his confession. I’ve been reported missing. Honestly, I’m surprised nobody found me yet... Maybe they just didn’t care, with everything else going on.

His phone sat heavy in his pocket, and he was suddenly all too aware of it. I’ll call Sae-san after Kurusu is released, he promised himself. There won’t be any escaping this time. I’d be recognized eventually, so there’s no avoiding it... Tension rippled through him, and he grasped the counter more tightly, his knuckles pale. I don’t deserve a second chance, and I don’t deserve to be alive. Maybe I should just do them all a favor and put a bullet through my head right now. It’s not as if anyone would miss me.

Breathing was suddenly much more difficult than it had been a few moments ago, and sweat beaded on his brow. He thought of Akira, fulfilling his promise even now - turning himself in, when he had so much to lose if Sae couldn’t come through for him.

...He kept his end of the bargain. So for once in my miserable life, maybe I should do something for someone else. Laughter bubbled up from his chest, quiet and hysterical. He’d be so angry if he found out I’d survived, only to end up killing myself here in my apartment. It’d be funny, wouldn’t it? But fine. I won’t do it, then. I’ll turn myself in once things quiet down. Let myself be judged, and see what comes of it.

As he made his way back to the bed, he noticed the snow had begun falling faster. The city twinkled below, and somewhere out there, Akira was alive, he was alive, and it brought Akechi a small measure of peace.

Someday we’ll meet again, he thought with a small smile. I don’t think I can atone for all I’ve done, and to be honest I hardly want to try... but I’ll see if I can at least put a smile on your face, just once. It’s only fair.

Akira’s gaze was entirely focused on Akechi as he spoke. “When I contacted Sae, things went... surprisingly well. Between Shido’s confession and your own testimony, the judge felt like I was just a child that had been used. Like I was capable of reformation,” he said with a wry smile. “So I got to play nice in detention for five years, and then they let me go under probation.”

“You haven’t been out for very long, then,” Akira mused.

“Just a few months,” he confirmed.

Akira hummed, and tapped at his lips. “Do you live nearby?”

He traced the rim of his cup with his fingertip as he spoke, voice soft and careful. “About twenty minutes away by train.”

“That’s great,” Akira said with real enthusiasm. At Akechi’s confused glance, he elaborated, “It means seeing each other won’t be that difficult. We’re just a short train ride away from each other. Easy.”

Akechi leaned back, and stared at the wall in thought. “...You really do want me around, don’t you. I can’t see any reason you’d lie to me about it, but I can’t imagine being so forgiving.”

“You don’t have to,” Akira said simply. “But yeah, I want you around. I wouldn’t have asked for your contact info and brought you here if I didn’t.” His smile was warm, and Akechi felt uncomfortable with how pleased he was knowing he was responsible for the expression. “We need to be more honest with each other from now on, okay? I’m not saying it’ll be easy, especially after the shit you went through, but we’re friends. We’re on the same side now, and I don’t ever see that changing. So if you need help with a goal of some sort, or I do something to upset you, just let me know. We can’t fix it if we don’t know what’s going on.”

For a moment, Akechi was quiet as he processed everything Akira said, a hand against his chin as he thought. “...All right. I’ll do my best. I owe it to you.”

Akira laughed, and leaned back a little as he slung an arm over the back of the couch. “Okay, good! I’m relieved. I’m still getting used to saying that kind of stuff, to be honest. But for you, I’d do just about anything.”

“I really don’t understand why,” Akechi murmured. “Nobody has cared about me before. Not until I met you and your friends. And then I put you all through unimaginable hell. Is it because you’re an impossibly good person, or is it because I possess some kind of worth I’m unaware of?” He tapped at his lips, and sighed. “The first sounds much more likely.”

“Why not both?” Akira said, his words a little more passionate than before. “I think you were like us, you know. Your life was total shit, because adults treated you like total shit. But the difference is that the rest of us had help in some way before we couldn’t take it anymore. You didn’t get that.” He became quieter, his tone suddenly much more serious. “It wasn’t fair. And I can’t undo the damage of the past. But if I can be a light for you at all, especially after what you did for us? I’ll do it. Without hesitation.” He moved closer, and their knees knocked against each other. The intensity in his eyes made Akechi’s skin tingle. “You deserve better than what you got. And for five and a half years, I was - sad. Angry. Regretful. Because I thought you’d never get a chance to experience the things you deserve, the things people never gave you or helped you find. And now you’re here. So that means I can help you after all.”

Akechi was stunned into speechlessness. His gaze flew from Akira’s down to where their hands were suddenly touching, then back up to his eyes - which were crinkled at the edges with the force of his smile. “I...”

“Sorry, I kind of said a lot,” Akira laughed as he backed away a little. “I’ve been told I can be kind of overwhelming with my words sometimes.”

“I don’t mind,” Akechi said quickly, his voice still quiet. “I just... don’t know what to say. I never... imagined this. All the times I’ve wondered what it would be like to meet you again, and I never thought it would be quite like this.” He smiled, wry and weary. “Sometimes I let myself think you’d be happy to see me, but to this extent? No way.”

“I’m always full of surprises,” Akira grinned. “Hey, no running away from me after this, all right? ...Please.”

Akechi smiled. “You seem clingy, Kurusu-kun. How unusual.”

“I wasn’t kidding about being afraid of you disappearing,” Akira said seriously. “I lost you once, and thought you were gone all this time. I don’t want it to happen again. And come on... it’s Akira. Hearing you call me Kurusu is just weird.”

Akechi looked down at where Akira’s hand still covered his own. “Are you implying you want to call me by my first name too, then?”

When he looked up, he was surprised to see Akira actually looked a little pink. “Well, yeah, if you’re okay with it. Kinda weird, I guess, if you’re calling me by my first name and then I just call you Akechi in return, right? No pressure, though.”

“I don’t mind,” Akechi said quietly. I’m glad, actually, I’m really glad - “You can... call me Goro. Maybe just when we’re alone, though. I’m not used to hearing it.”

“...Goro,” Akira smiled. “Goro,” he repeated again, his smile growing wider as Akechi began to blush, “Goro... I like it. Thanks.”

“I’m going to take it back if you keep doing that,” he grumbled.

Akira pouted playfully. “Don’t revoke my Goro privileges. I promise I’ll be good.”

Goro huffed out a short laugh. “You, being good? As if.” He looked down again, and suddenly sounded a little more unsure of himself. “You’re, ah... you’re still holding my hand.”

At this, Akira smirked. “You don’t seem to mind all that much, though.”

Goro flushed, and Akira gave his hand a gentle squeeze before he pulled away. Suddenly, Goro’s hand felt far too cold, though the rest of him certainly wasn’t - and he found that he missed the contact more than he imagined.

Nothing, of course, could escape Akira’s damnably sharp eyes. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly as he studied his face.

I’m not used to people touching me for any reason, Goro wanted to say. Out of everyone in this rotten world, I care about you the most, and I didn’t want you to let go, because even something that simple felt better than I could ever imagine.

“...I’m fine,” he choked out instead.

Akira paused, and reached out to hold his hand once more. Shocked, Goro looked up to see the other man smiling at him. “Hey,” Akira said softly, “What did I say earlier about being more honest, huh?”

The silence was heavy as Goro struggled to find the right words to say. “Something like this, though...” He looked away, clearly flustered. “It’s... embarrassing. And I feel childish.”

“What if I said I want to do this too?” Akira asked without hesitation. “It’s not so bad if we feel the same way, right?”

Uncertainty writhed in Goro’s heart, and his words were colored with the barest hints of tired, defensive anger. “Don’t lie to me-”

“I’m not,” Akira said firmly. “And I think you know that. You’re afraid, right? It’s okay. I’ll show you I mean it with time. You’ll eventually believe it if I don’t go anywhere, and I won’t.”

Goro took in a ragged breath as Akira squeezed his hand again, and after a moment of great hesitation, he squeezed back. He looked up at Akira’s tender expression, and found himself smiling a little in turn. “Even after five years of rehabilitation, I’m still a mess,” he laughed weakly. “You’re so overwhelming. You always were. I don’t... I’ve never had anything like this.”

“That changes now,” Akira said gently. “You’re not getting rid of me again.”

“I... I don’t know what to say,” Goro whispered. “I’m almost 23 now, but I really have no experience with any of this.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Take your time,” Akira insisted. “Hey, how about I tell you something good instead? You know when you mentioned you had that nightmare about Mementos swallowing the city?” Goro nodded, and Akira continued, “Well... it wasn’t just a nightmare. That actually happened. And if it wasn’t for you, the entire world would’ve been doomed.”

Goro was silent for a moment. “...Are you serious?”

Akira laughed a bit sheepishly, and toyed with his hair. “I’m warning you, this is gonna sound ridiculous. But it’ll make everything make a lot more sense, including how you and I both had the powers that we had.” In a steady tone, he went over every detail about Yaldabaoth, the Velvet Room, and staring down the god of control to give power back to humanity. Fifteen minutes later, he finished with a sigh, and Goro stared in open-mouthed shock.

“That’s... that’s incredible,” he muttered. “But you said I had a hand in it too... Do you mean...?”

“Yeah, you got it,” Akira smiled. “If you hadn’t saved us on the ship, who would’ve stood up to Yaldabaoth? You would’ve been...” He paused, obviously uncomfortable with the words he was saying and the memories they brought back. “...gone. Shido planned to take you out before that ever happened. So nobody would’ve been left to wrench the world from the path of ruin.”

An uneasy laugh pierced the silence. “I... I guess that does make me feel better. So I wasn’t just Shido’s puppet... I was Yaldabaoth’s, too.”

“Not in the end, you weren’t,” Akira answered, his tone taking on some of its earlier passion. “You broke free of their chains - not just of the man who made your life hell from the start, but those of a god, or something that fashioned itself as one. And all those things you did before, the things Shido made you do - I think you made up for it a million times over by saving the world.”

Goro looked at the floor, his voice hardly a whisper. “You’re too forgiving.”

“No,” Akira said firmly, his tone just a little angry, “The rest of the world isn’t forgiving enough.”

For a few seconds, all was quiet as Akira watched Goro struggle to accept his words. “I... I didn’t know it was possible to change hearts,” he finally admitted quietly. “When I first approached Shido, I didn’t even really understand that death would be a result of using my power. And by the time it all fell into place, it was... it was too late. He would’ve killed me if I turned on him. I had to follow his orders or die. And I thought that if he killed me, and I couldn’t take him down, then he’d just... he’d keep ruining people. Maybe he’d make other unwanted kids like me.” With a shiver, he closed his eyes. “The thought... of him never paying for what he did to me, to my mother... it made me sick inside.”

“I know,” Akira said gently. “But it’s over now. He’s rotting in prison... but probably not for much longer.”

“Right.” Goro’s voice was quiet. “He was... sentenced to death.”

Akira nodded, and squeezed his hand. “You’re free, okay? You can put all of this behind you. I’m not gonna lie and say it’ll be easy, but I’ll be at your side. You’ve been alone for too long as it is. I won’t let that happen again.”

Goro looked away and rubbed at his eyes with his free hand. “What about... your friends, the former Thieves? And... Morgana? Would they tolerate my presence?”

“I don’t see why not,” Akira said. “They all thought you were a victim, too. That you were just like them. None of them felt like what happened to you was fair, not even Haru and Futaba.”

His gaze fell a little as he thought about it. “...I see,” he said softly. “Well-” Suddenly, a low whine and a rumbling sound rose above his voice, and his cheeks flushed. “Oh, sorry about my stomach... I haven’t eaten since this morning.”

Immediately, Akira brightened. “Really? Do you want to have dinner with me, then? I was just going to order some takeout tonight. It’ll be my treat.” He rubbed his chin in thought. “Do you like sushi? I feel like celebrating, since you’re here again.”

Goro seemed surprised. “Ah... are you sure? That’s a bit expensive, isn’t it? And it’s getting late... I don’t have my bike this time, and the trains will stop running in a few more hours.”

“It’s nothing to worry about. My job pays pretty well, and if you don’t mind, you’re free to sleep here. And then I can make you breakfast,” Akira offered.

“Well, if it’s not a bother...”

“It isn’t,” Akira insisted. “Here, I can pull up a delivery menu on my phone. There’s a place nearby that’s pretty good.” He looked over, and a smile curled at the edges of his lips that made Goro feel a little warm all over. “Wanna watch a movie or something while we eat? You must be tired, right? Everything we talked about is a lot to process.”

“You’re really too kind,” Goro sighed. “I admire that... even if I think it makes you a little foolish.”

He couldn’t help the way he smiled a little when he said it, and Akira grinned. “Hey, was that a joke? Were you teasing me? How the tables have turned.”

“Who said I was joking?” Goro scoffed. But his expression gave away his real feelings, and his smile only grew wider as Akira laughed and pressed himself just a little bit closer.

“Come on, take a look at the menu and tell me what you want. Don’t hold back, okay? Get anything you want, I can afford it. Hm, I think I’m feeling some salmon...”

Goro glanced around the apartment, and looked back at the menu on Akira’s screen. “Come to think of it, how much do you make? This place looks pretty nice for someone that seems to have graduated college recently.”

Akira snorted. “I’m not exactly a CEO or anything, but yeah, I make way more than I deserve if you ask me. I’m the assistant manager at a cafe Haru opened herself for now, until I can get something nice in my field of study, and she refused to pay me less than twice the average salary for that kind of position.”

Goro’s eyes widened, and he took a deep breath to shove down the envy he felt bloom in his heart. “That’s... very fortunate for you,” he managed to say.

Akira narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, and inwardly, Goro cursed. Of course nothing could escape his notice; Goro hadn’t been able to fool him all those years ago, and there was no way he could fool him now. “What’s your living situation like? You just got out of juvenile detention recently, right? Are you doing okay?”

“I thought we were ordering food,” Goro said a bit tersely.

“Come on, there’s no need to deflect the question. Seriously, I’m worried about you,” Akira insisted. “You’re not homeless, right? Or having to do anything dangerous for money?”

Goro laughed, but it was a bit strained, and he stalled for a moment by taking a sip of his coffee. Inwardly, he was proud of himself for setting the cup back on the table with hands that didn’t shake. “No, I’m fine, at least for a few more months. How about you stop interrogating me, and I tell you tomorrow?”

He felt uneasy as he waited on a razor’s edge for Akira’s reaction, but relaxed when the other man nodded and smiled a little. “All right, that’s fair. Sorry, I don’t mean to pry. I’m just worried about you, you know? If you ever find yourself in trouble or something, you can come to me. Seriously.” He squeezed his hand, and raised his phone so Goro could see the menu. “Anyway, dinner. I’m pretty hungry... Hey, wanna get a party platter?”

“...That serves four people,” Goro pointed out.

“Serving sizes are just a suggestion,” Akira said sagely. “And that wasn’t a ‘no’.”

Goro rolled his eyes, but he smiled as he did it. “Sure, that’s fine... thank you.” He squeezed Akira’s hand again, but looked away as he did it, clearly embarrassed.

And Akira squeezed his hand right back. “No,” he said, and the tone of his voice made Goro meet his eyes once more. “Thank you. For... for coming back. For being here.”

His heart seemed to thunder in his chest, the beat a pounding drum in his ears. “I... I should be thanking you for even wanting to talk to me, much less be my friend,” he said, nearly stammering over the words.

“Well, we can both be thankful,” Akira laughed. “So, thanks for being part of my life, and letting me be part of yours.”

“I really never expected you of all people to be so sentimental,” Goro muttered. He looked away, and scrubbed at his eyes. “Sorry... sorry,” he whispered harshly. “I’m not used to...”

“...Being wanted?” Akira asked softly. “Being... needed?”

Goro took in a deep, shuddering breath, and the light of the nearby lamp reflected on the tears at the edges of his eyes. “Yes, but... what are you implying, exactly?”

Akira’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “Well, that I want you around, and need you, of course. I haven’t felt this happy and at ease in...” He trailed off, and stared at the wall in thought. “Huh. I don’t actually remember, to be honest. Pretty telling, right?”

“I...” Goro felt his face grow warm again, and his heart refused to slow down, his head dizzy with emotion. “Just... just order the food,” he mumbled, clearly embarrassed.

Akira chuckled fondly as he began to dial the number on his phone. “Hm, okay. But you don’t hate the things I’m saying, right? If you do, I’ll stop. I just want you to be happy.”

Goro covered his face with one hand and looked away. “...No... I like it,” he admitted softly. “I like it a lot. I just... I just don’t know how to react.”

Akira’s smile was slow and beautiful, and Goro felt his blood start to run just a little hotter. “Oh, is that so? Well, I guess we’ll find out if you ever get used to it. And if you do... I’ll just have to figure out another way to make you blush like that.”

Immediately, Goro felt his flush deepen. “I’m not--”

Akira laughed. “Oh, you’re really cute when you do that. Sorry,” he chuckled. “Okay, okay, I’ll stop... for now, anyway. I’ll order the food,” he said as he pressed the Call button.

While he talked, Goro took the opportunity to study the small changes in Akira since he’d seen him last; his hair was a little messier, but mostly the same, and his jawline was just a little sharper, more square. Overall, his posture seemed more relaxed, and the dark circles under his eyes that Goro distinctly remembered as a seemingly permanent part of his appearance were nowhere to be seen.

With a click, Akira ended the call, and focused his complete attention on Goro yet again. “Okay, that should get here in about forty five minutes,” he said, breaking Goro from his thoughts. He grinned a little, and parroted one of Goro’s earlier lines back at him. “Something on my face?”

“A decent amount of handsome, I suppose,” Goro fired back, just a little bold and teasing. “If I look hard enough, anyway.”

Delighted, Akira laughed, the curve of his lips far more captivating than Goro wanted to admit. “You know you like it. Hey, let’s see what’s on television. What kind of stuff do you watch?”

As they flipped through channels together and finally settled on something, Goro felt a tension in his shoulders begin to uncoil - this wasn’t a dream he was about to wake up from, it was real. He was here, in Akira’s apartment, and the other man wanted him there.

Akira didn’t let his hand go until the food arrived, and when they finished eating an hour later, he wordlessly reached out to tangle his fingers into Goro’s once more with a gentle smile.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Goro started to feel truly at ease.

To be continued in Chapter 2.