It was funny how quickly the ideation of rebellion could wither beneath the dry march of country months. The old anonymity of city life felt almost as mythical as a salaried career, and as his final year of high school gave way to the pressures of university applications, Akira could no longer tell which he fantasized about more. Studying numbers for the sake of a nebulous future certainly felt far less glamorous than honing his skills as a thief. But the quieter his phone became in the wake of the whirlwind at Shujin, the more he wondered if it hadn’t all just been a dream.
Morgana left him once he selected a school. They spoke about it like it was avoidable--like there was some elaborate ruse they could concoct to hide a small mammal in a dorm room for a four year stint. But having the vein to Tokyo cut soon sapped the sincerity from their discussions. It became more of a ritual instead. On quiet nights, after going so long without speech that Akira wondered if Morgana had ever even spoken at all, he would posit plans. They started small--things like sneaking fish back from the school store--but Morgana would respond with something even more outlandish until they were carving hypothetical tunnels beneath the the university. And though they both knew the words were a hollow comfort traded over dry textbooks, it felt good to hear Morgana laugh again. It felt good to know that some part of who he used to be still existed.
Where it went, in the end, he never knew. The day he was set to move into the dorm, Morgana was nowhere to be found. Akira wasn’t surprised. But the empty depression in the bed left him feeling more hollow than he expected. He would have been lying to himself to say he hadn’t seen it coming. He just thought he’d be more ready.
Over the next four years, a trickle of news kept him afloat amidst a sea of new faces and burgeoning expectations. But it was hard to follow up on a passing mention of Ann’s overseas modeling gig with a test in the morning. It was hard to comment on social media updates detailing the bright future of an heiress when he could barely scrape by on part time jobs. He told himself that once things calmed down, he would reach out. Once there were no more tests and he finally got his life in order, he’d call someone up.
But there was always a test--always something to do or some excuse to put it off. So when he finally found himself back in Tokyo, it was without all the fanfare of reunion that he used to envision. Instead it was with a hotel reservation on his phone and plans to catch an interview at an advertising corporation in the morning.
Rolling his suitcase behind him down the familiar streets of Shibuya, he felt more like a criminal than he ever had before--some imposter wearing the face of a man who had once made promises of freedom and hope. It wasn’t a face he wanted to show anyone, though his thumb had hovered over Sojiro’s name in his contacts list for a very long and very vulnerable moment on the train. But returning to Leblanc as a tired college graduate in need of a job would have felt like too much of a betrayal.
So he arrived at his hotel on schedule, checked into his room on time, and unpacked his suitcase in an orderly fashion.
The banality felt wrong. It felt wrong in a way it never had in the university or his hometown. The last time he had been in the city, heists and late night excursions had occupied almost his entire schedule. It had felt noble. Now it just felt distant--like a playtime fantasy that maybe never meant as much as they had all pretended it did.
Sinking down onto the crunchy comforter of the single bed, he slipped his phone from his pocket. The display had been left open to his contacts, and his eyes hovered over all the old code names for a moment before he brushed them aside to pull up a different app.
He was in Tokyo, after all. Turning in before nine used to be something he’d viciously protest, staying up and making plans well into the wee hours of the morning and falling asleep in Kawakami’s class to Morgana’s chiding. If all he did now, on the eve of his corporate imprisonment, was take a bath and go to bed, he would never be able to look his own reflection in the eye again. It was time for crime.
Or at least a drink.
Pulling up a list of bars, he thumbed through them methodically, checking the time at intervals to make sure he didn’t waste his entire evening on poor intentions. The quicker he got alcohol into his system, the quicker he could stifle the preemptively swelling regret. But none of the bars piqued his interest until he got to Shinjuku Ni-chome. Slowing his scroll, his eyes narrowed.
Sure. He’d always wondered, as a frustrated teen. And if his old self was already dead and his current self was about to die tomorrow, he might as well.
One change of clothes and a train ride later, Akira found himself standing in the middle of a bustling city street wearing jeans and a simple button down. He clearly had not packed with clubbing in mind, a fact made plain by many of the other more outlandishly dressed pedestrians milling around him. In spite of this, many paid him no mind, not with all the open air bars to sample and patrons to meet. Discreetly counting the bills inside his pocket, he realized it was likely to be a short night if he began spending too soon. Instead, he watched some of the people pass, trying to ascertain where a spindly, bespectacled college graduate in an old pair of jeans might not get turned away immediately. After watching a few foreigners pass, he finally settled on a gaggle of young men, who were all laughing and standing close as they made their way down the street. Though their whimsy had Akira placing them firmly in the prime of their college years, he figured the grey cloud of liminality that shadowed his own eyes could be hidden behind his glasses and hair if it came to it.
Ducking down, he followed the group into a small building, one that pulsed with distant music. Beyond the fading light outside, the interior was lit only by colorful lights near the dance floor and behind the bar. Pressing himself against the wall to avoid most of the surging bodies of 20-somethings, he edged toward the alcohol like some kind of thief. The thought sent a spark of lukewarm nostalgia pulsing through his body. It really was a lot like the Metaverse. The bright lights and frenetic energy all sent something aching down into the roots of his teeth, and he swallowed several times before slipping up to the bar.
He could barely hear and barely be heard, but through a brief exchange with the bartender, he gleaned two facts. One: he did not get questioned or scrutinized too closely. Two: drinks were expensive. Pulling back a bit to allow someone else to order, he waited for an overpriced beer to appear before him. Casting another glance to the dance floor, he watched the lights spin and shift, going from green to purple to blue, bouncing off the waving hands of clubbers who had all presumably been to a club before.
This had been a mistake.
He felt doubly certain of this as a watery beer was set before him and he yielded up half his small stack of bills in exchange. Rotating the glass, he inspected it through the rapidly accumulating condensation. As he did, he felt a tug at his pocket.
Instinct took over before common sense did. Whipping around in a superfluous swirl of movement, he raised his hands defensively against whoever had just tried to pickpocket him. And there, bent over with a small card tucked between his fingers, was--
“Fox!” yelled the bartender from behind a throng of patrons. “How many times do I have to tell you to announce yourself before you go handing stuff out? You scare all the newcomers away.”
Head swimming, Akira looked on as the figure straightened and the face of his old teammate appeared before him. Yusuke looked in the bartender’s direction and placed a hand beside his ear as though to indicate that he either could not hear or needed at least one more reminder not to accost customers. As he lowered his arm, however, his gaze finally came to rest on his latest victim, who had not yet gathered enough of his wits to make a retreat.
Akira pulled his beer close as if in defense. Yusuke looked at it for a moment.
“What are you doing here?” he inquired, voice raised just above the decibel of the music.
“I’m. I was in town,” Akira began, eyes darting around as if prepared for the rest of the team to come spilling out of the crowd as well. “What are you doing here?”
Yusuke looked genuinely puzzled. “I work here.”
Smoothing a small stack of cards in his hand, he produced one and once again held it out. “I must apologize for approaching you unannounced,” he explained as Akira limply took the card and held it up to the bar light. “Most of the time, people have difficulty hearing me or don’t seem interested in speaking at all, so I find that depositing information directly into their pockets is oftentimes more effective.”
On the card, Akira noticed a familiar graphic--one that he himself had had a hand in making famous. On the back of it was printed the phrase “Let me steal your heart” along with contact information. Flipping it back to the front as if he had missed something, Akira glanced up.
“What is this?”
Yusuke cocked his head and frowned as though perplexed by Akira’s confusion. “It’s a calling card.”
The frown deepened. “You should know as well as any of us that the Metaverse hasn’t existed for some years now. Though, the popularity of the Phantom Thieves still seems to be rather renowned. It’s probably why my contractors chose to operate under their theme.”
The music and unsettling nostalgia began to swell in his stomach and press against his throat. It made anything more than one-word replies difficult. “Contractors?”
“Yes. You understand that this is a red light district, don’t you?”
He did not hear the sound his beer made as he set it back on the bar, but he felt the cold splash of liquid as it sloshed onto his hand. Grabbing Yusuke’s fingers in his own wet ones, he pulled them both unceremoniously through the crowd and back outside.
The night air was not much less oppressive than the atmosphere inside. People still milled about, chatting and scoping out the different bars, and the music from clubs could still be heard. But the volume was at least more manageable. As Akira veered off down the street in search of a more private corner, Yusuke followed behind without question, lanky limbs flapping in resignation. After locating a relatively deserted alleyway, Akira paused and turned around.
“Sorry,” he said briefly, thumb flicking over the edge of the card. “Sorry, I’m just trying to process this.”
Yusuke blinked, as if to indicate he was all right with waiting for that process to happen. As he did, a hair drifted across his face, and Akira felt his memory jerk back to their first meeting all those years ago. Aside from another few centimeters difference in height and the exchange of a school uniform for a blue blazer with a fox tail dangling from the belt loop, not much about the scene had changed. Yusuke still stood in quiet confusion, but made no move to protest. He simply waited.
Looking at the card again, Akira held it back out. “Here.”
“Do you not want it?” Yusuke asked.
“I mean,” Akira faltered. “I don’t have any money.”
“I see,” Yusuke replied as he plucked the card back up and tilted his head as though to re-inspect it. “May I ask why you came here, then? I don’t mean to be rude, but it seems odd to enter this district without any funds. Are you meeting someone else?”
“No,” Akira responded--too quickly. Biting his tongue, he adjusted his glasses. “I just had some time to kill before taking care of some business I have tomorrow.”
“You didn’t think to contact anyone?”
He looked down, viscerally aware of the specific weight of that last word. “I didn’t know if there would be anyone around to contact.”
Yusuke put a hand to his chin. “I suppose that makes sense. My personal phone has been rather silent these days as well. But I’m glad for this coincidence, then. I thought you were out in Nagano finishing your schooling.”
“I was,” Akira replied. “Then I finished. I’m looking for work now.”
“In the city?”
“So your business here could become permanent?”
An odd note entered Yusuke’s voice, one that tightened Akira’s throat with how much it sounded like hope. “Maybe,” was all he could say.
Silence passed between them, and the distant beat of music came to fill it. As it did, the image of the club of lights bouncing off of raised hands and swaying bodies bled back into his brain. It almost blinded him to Yusuke’s movement as he made to turn away.
“Are you leaving?” Akira blurted.
Yusuke looked back over his shoulder, the fox tail at his belt loop swaying gently. “If you’re not planning on hiring me for the evening, I should move on. But if your business in Tokyo lasts for longer than tonight, I still keep my phone with all the old contacts on my person.”
There it was again. That timbre that sounded hollow and hopeful all at once. Fighting to swallow down the renewed tightness in his throat, Akira watched as Yusuke turned away, slipping back into the crowd. By the time he could will his legs to sprint after him, that thin frame had already been swept away by the evening tide of figures. Clutching his phone instinctively, he withdrew it from his pocket and pulled up his contacts.
And there he was. Fox. Frozen five years in the past on his last message. “‘Til next time.”
Akira looked back out over the stream of bodies. Next time.