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He doesn't get the smile right the first few times. He can't get his eyes to behave properly, crinkling in the corners, unless he stretches his mouth in ways that feel wide and plastic, like a foreigner baring their teeth. His chin is too small for his face. No matter what corrections Goro makes to his expression, his eyes remain flat and wary, mistrusting even his own reflection.

All week before the first day of junior high, Goro practices in the tiny, pink plastic mirror he inherited from one of the other kids before they were transferred to a different institution. A twelve-year-old's face stares back each time, brittle and insincere. It's not good. He needs to be ready to present himself the right way, to have already designed the perfect picture of who he wants to be known as. If he can't establish his reputation properly, it will haunt him for the rest of his time at school.

If Goro's not careful, the other students will define his identity for him.

He's proud when he finally manages an expression that one of the matrons praises the next time she sees him, inspecting him to make sure he's wearing the school uniform properly. It's a hand-me-down, too big in the waist, and he endures patiently as she fusses with safety pins, experimenting with different ways to tuck in the excess fabric against his hips.

In class, he's braced during lunch as the students begin their first, tentative attempts at conversation with each other. Some of them already know him from elementary school; he avoids them studiously, turning instead to befriend the strangers around him. Each one is a fresh opportunity for hope. If he can only make sure they like him, he'll have the protection and connections he needs for a good school year.

It starts off well -- Goro's smile works, his careful inquiries about others opens up all kinds of delighted bragging -- and he starts to relax as he files away places and names for reference later. But then, inevitably, one student turns the tables and asks Goro instead about his own home. His own parents. His own life history. It's time for Goro to share.

He tries to squirm out of the questions at first -- he lives down the way, across town -- but they press and press, backing him literally into a corner of the classroom. Like dogs, they can sense the weakness on him.

All too quickly, one of them connects the dots. "You're one of those dead-end kids my dad was telling me about, huh? You've got no family. Not even strangers will take you. You must have messed up real bad to make everyone hate you so much."

Instantly, the mood of the conversation changes. Friendliness turns to wariness, which transforms into mockery. Even the most sympathetic face shuts down. Their eyes skim over Goro, pretending he's no longer there.

The next day, no one wants him to join them for lunch.

No one wants him.

He hears it over and over at school afterwards, a nickname that gets passed around as quickly as an illness. Throwaway child. Garbage Boy, Gomi-kun instead of Goro. Trash gets stuffed into his desk, to make it feel more like home. His books go missing; the snickering informs him that a failure child has no need to study.

At twelve, Goro already knows that they're right.

When the clubs start recruiting, Goro doesn't bother to inquire; he goes straight home after class, and declines any of the fliers that the other students try to press into his hands. The senior high schoolers are back already, milling about in the common room. None of them are welcomed into clubs either -- they don't have the money for fees or equipment. Some of them try to study in the libraries, but the best tables and books are taken up by established cliques of students, and so they all end up returning to the institution anyway, trying to use the limited resources there.

Goro slides his schoolbag onto the far end of the table and fishes out his homework. He was lucky enough to sneak into the school library and copy out a passage from one of the key readings before he got pressured into giving up the seat, and it might be enough to get his assignment done if he makes lucky guesses. A handful of seniors are on the other end of the table, slumped like broken toys across the mismatched chairs. They're not even bothering to try to tackle their own work; their schoolbags are flipped open haphazardly, papers leaking out and ebbing slowly towards Goro's side of the table like a pale, crystallized oil spill.

"And then they said I could just write and ask my parents to pay for a uniform set. As if they'd give me money for equipment," one of the older boys is snarling. "If they cared that much, they could come and take me back instead."

"At least your mother's alive," Goro whispers, traitorously, the hiss escaping out of his mouth before he can stifle it.

Unfortunately for him, the retort cuts through the grumbling. The older boy's shoulders jerk up; he launches off the table, knocking one of the schoolbags away with his fist. Pens sail like multicolor shrapnel. He reaches the other side before Goro can untangle himself from his chair and twists Goro's arm up behind his back, slamming him against the edge of the table. The wooden edge digs up into Goro's stomach. Pain ripples along his ribcage, explosions that ache between the bones.

Goro's teeth grind together. The air that escapes him comes out in a whimper.

"Shut it, Goro," the boy growls. "You know how lucky you are? Your mother's dead. You’re legally adoptable, you could have family someday. I'm stuck here forever." Another yank, and then Goro's punched back into the table, hard enough that one of his feet comes entirely off the floor. The rest of the kids only watch in silent agreement. "Even if someone wanted me, I couldn't go! They wouldn't let me!"

Goro nurses his bruises in silence the next day. It's true that he's eligible. Even so, no family keeps him for long, even when they do take him in. They can see his mother's registry. They can see Goro's own. They know the gap where his father should have been. They know to return him to the system, hoping to exchange him for someone who's not damaged goods.

All the children at the institution are like this. Either they're orphans or deliberately abandoned, excised out of their families for reasons of illegitimacy, financial situations -- or even just allegations that their personalities are bad, that they're unlikable, that they can't be handled in a home setting. All of them have no future, nowhere to go.

Goro only has the family register of his mother, second daughter in her family and not inheriting the main line. As an unwed mother, the register is largely blank: only his name and hers, with no one else listed. He doesn't have the resources to hunt for more; even if he did, they're under no obligation to acknowledge him.

Nothing good is waiting for Goro when he gets older. Like the other children, he’ll have problems with marriage prospects, with company jobs -- with anyone who wants an excuse to disqualify him out of hand. No matter how hard he tries, he'll never be able to defend himself from someone who says, you're not like the rest of us. Your upbringing was troubled. You won't have learned the same values. You won't understand the same things.

The only thing he can do with his life is spend it, and choose how much dignity he can have when he dies.

Goro's not as physically tough as the other kids in his school, or even in his current institution. He never has been. Nutrition has been a roller coaster of inconsistency as he's been bounced between foster attempts and institutions. He's never known what it's like to eat until he's full. Everyone else is either stronger or younger; Goro doesn't know what it's like to start on equal footing.

Similarly, a competitive education isn't something Goro takes for granted. His high school costs are covered by the government -- upper secondary gaining more funding from recent measures that have been passed, just in time for him to benefit -- but all generosity stops there. Only public schools are funded at his institution, and only within a specific proximity. There are organizations he can apply to for scholarships, but their waiting lists are long and choked in red tape. Every child claims to be more deserving than another.

Even with those options, Goro's behind. He doesn't have cram schools to take advantage of -- extra classes, special tutors, private high schools that have accelerated curriculum in order to launch their graduates directly into the elite universities. He doesn't have the club participation to show that he's a well-rounded student who deserves teacher recommendation letters. He doesn't have student council memberships, extra responsibilities, social connections, honor marks to his name. Without them, he can't climb higher.

Either way -- no matter which schools he might qualify for -- at eighteen, Goro will be cut loose from the institution and left on his own.

He studies for different entrance exams anyway, re-reading the financial aid fliers from Ashinaga that offer yen-per-month funding. He's successful enough at part-time jobs to save up enough for a cheap, basic-level phone, even though that cuts into his study time. He reads late into the night, studies on trains and during lunch, and tries to jam as much knowledge into his mind as it can handle.

But there's no point to his efforts. There's no goal. There's no money for Goro to get the education to be competitively viable. He won't have the entrance exams to pass to get into the high schools to get into the colleges to get into the jobs, to get into the life that everyone else takes for granted. No one will want him enough to give him a chance; he can't even convince them to look his way, no matter how often he practices smiling.

As everyone says, he's a dead-end. A waste of taxpayer dollars. All he has to look forward to is counting down the rest of his days, scraping by on any wages he's lucky enough to get.

The reason for this is Shido. Goro exists because of his father. Goro's mother is dead because of his father. If there's anything Goro should spend his days on, it should be destroying the person who was responsible for ruining not only his mother's life, but Goro's as well.

It's not much of a purpose.

Then again, it's all he has.

In Goro's second year of junior high, two kids from his institution commit suicide.

No one is particularly surprised. Both teenagers had declined going to senior high, knowing already that they wouldn't be able to get into one of the better schools, or to even pass a decent entrance exam. It had happened outside the institution. After classes had ended for the day, the two of them had filled their school bags with concrete chunks from a nearby construction site, roped and taped the weights around their stomachs, and visited the nearest bridge.

Their remaining possessions are sorted for redistribution among the institution kids. Goro tries to volunteer for the task, but so does nearly every other kid, all with the hope of lining their own storage shelf with a few choice picks. All their best efforts are thwarted when two government workers stop by instead, handling the paperwork along with an evaluation of local management.

As Goro passes them by in the hall, he hears them muttering together: what a waste of good funding. If they were going to kill themselves all along, they should have done it a long time ago.

The words might have hurt once. Goro might have taken them to heart, if he hadn't already known what adults think of people like him.

As it is, if he didn't have his new goal, he might have thought about following those same footsteps anyway.

But he can't die yet. He's planned it out, over and over in encrypted scrawls in the corners of his school notebooks: advantages and disadvantages for different types of murder. The best way would be scandal. The easiest way, on the other hand, would be to shoot Shido, but that would require having access to a gun, and he’d have to be in the police for that. Or to have yakuza connections, and that would never work; Goro would have to invest far too much, working from the ground up, and then he'd have to hope to be part of a clan that was connected to Shido's branch of politics. By the time Goro got into any kind of position that would give him a half-decent weapon, Shido would be so entrenched in the political system that he'd have his own army of bodyguards. He'd never let himself be caught off-guard.

Lack of physical strength means that Goro doesn't even think about attacking the man in hand-to-hand violence. So: politics. Scandal. Goro's research begins there; he makes lists of the types of accusations which historically have stuck on politicians, rather than being waved off dismissively as mere quirks to be grandly overlooked for those in office. Another cross-check on the remaining cases, to filter out claims which Shido would be able to counteract as fraud; Goro's own existence falls in that category. No one would back him on a DNA check. Shido would make sure to halt any interest long before it began.

Categories winnow themselves out, ruthless as natural selection. The survivors are business and medicine. A healthy dose of legal knowledge is essential to both, or else Goro won't have the right knowledge of how to counteract Shido's defenses. All three require serious schooling. Universities, majors, career plans. There's no time in his schedule for anything else -- any side interests, explorations of other courses -- and Goro ruthlessly shoves aside anything that looks remotely extraneous, refusing to let himself get sidetracked. He doesn't have the time for hobbies. He doesn't have the time for anything.

At school, he becomes a model student, memorizing notes from morning to night. Disappointingly, that doesn't earn him concrete approval either. His teachers are pleased, and some of the students cozy up to him, but others only scowl. A few whisper of cheating; others, that the teachers are pitying him and going easy on the charity kid, giving him false ideas of value.

The more Goro's alert for it, the more he hears. A teacher may praise him to his face -- but then, in conversation later with someone else, that praise crumbles. They shrug, claim that Goro lacks vision, that Goro has enthusiasm but shallow understanding. That Goro is a good kid, but will be lucky to find a manual labor job. That Goro needs to practice the same skills they applauded only yesterday. That Goro can't trust them whenever they say, you did well.

A million tiny dismissals settle like dust whenever Goro's back is turned. Like glass shards, they slide their points into his skin and leave him wincing. He already knows that being loved is something you have to work for, and keep working for -- and even then, you'll never be perfect. Being loved is a transaction. Like financial aid, it can be withheld.

Goro already knows. It shouldn't hurt.

He's not sure what he'll do if he can't get close enough to Shido to pull off manslaughter quietly. Or, rather, he knows exactly what he'll do, which will have to be messy and public. All over the news. Yet another dead-end child, creating yet another crime.

Every good Japanese family will be able to shake their heads in disapproval, murmuring softly about how this is proof of why they should never adopt.

The app shows up on his phone one day, with a destination already bookmarked.

Goro has nothing to lose by exploring it.

When he first drives one of those raving, yellow-eyed people berserk -- by accident, really, self-defense when they melted into a clawed monster with too many mouths -- he doesn't consider the consequences. He'd already learned that there were boundaries between the real world and Mementos; the app itself was clear about the distinction, even if Goro hadn't seen the way Loki would rise to his call, or felt the cold leather of his suit on his fingers.

He thinks nothing of the assault until he happens to hear the gossip the next day about an officer worker who had snapped in the middle of the afternoon and had gone on a rampage, destroying equipment and attacking the rest of the office staff. Three people were injured; the salaryman himself was being treated for a broken leg when he'd launched himself down the stairs, and was unable to answer questions due to heavy sedation. Claims were already racking up about how it must have been from an unhealthy office environment, along with counter-claims about how it must have been the man's home life instead.

He digs further, through the news and rumors, until a company photograph of the man finally pops up on Goro's screen, eyes brown instead of gold.

Goro discovers his fingers are shaking.

He sets down his phone carefully, staring at it as if it were a brightly-colored spider. This is a faster way to get to Shido. If Shido were to go wild during a key political interview -- yes.

He recalculates his plans that night, shuffling notes on schedules and voting cycles, expected speeches and meetings where Shido might be visible in front of the public eye.

He recalculates them again when he can't find Shido anywhere in Mementos.

In desperation, he checks the app for location help -- and is promptly told to look in a place called a Palace.

Preparing for the meeting with Shido takes more than strategic manipulations and research into political opponents -- it takes all of Goro's courage, rehearsing silently in bathroom mirrors and corners of the library. Planning for his clothing takes careful savings, and then trawling the weekend street sales, talking politely with widows selling the suits of their deceased husbands. A fresh haircut rounds out the look; Goro makes sure to grow out for a week to help it look more natural, as if it's a style he's always worn. Everything's measured, rated, evaluated for the right effect. Everything's a calculation.

His first inquiry to Shido hadn't gone anywhere, even when he'd hinted at responsibility for the incidents that had taken out Shido's opponents delicately, one-by-one: too infrequent to cast suspicion on Shido himself, but too consistent once you knew what to look for. The second inquiry had worked. Goro had triggered a breakdown in one of the politicians opposing one of Shido's proposals, dropping the man's failed career like a dead animal on Shido's doorstep.

It's inelegant -- but it works.

Shido doesn't waste any time once the introductions are over. He sizes Goro up from across his desk; his fingers had fanned Goro's careful documentation in a careless spread of paper, touching the sheets as little as possible, as if Goro's work was already beneath his notice. Faces and dates stare up from the pages, careful lines of text that connect trips to Mementos with critical collapses of judgement.

Goro's nerves convulse as he waits out the silence. He measures his breathing, counting down and up; if he does not move, he will not flinch.

Eventually, Shido speaks. "People with your particular talents are valuable," he acknowledges, gaze flicking down once to his desk and then back up again. "What are your compensation fees?"

A trade-off. Goro expected it. Anyone would have a demand, and the one Goro prepared is both a test and a safety net, meant to discourage further investigation. There was no getting around it -- Shido would have been able to track down Goro’s history. He'd already know that Goro is an orphan. It'd be foolish not to research a tool so valuable, if only to look for family members that could be threatened.

Goro can expect it, because that's one of the first places he'd start too.

"I'd like some luxuries for myself," he finally claims, forcing a casual shrug. "Being looked down on for so long has left a bad taste in my mouth. For once, it'd be nice to be appreciated by the public. As I proposed in my email, receiving the fees of a specialist contractor would be fine for me, but I also want a new family registry." His list of requirements unfolds, as neatly and arrogantly as a line of pre-made gravestones. "New names on both parents' sides, with no concerns of scandal. That way, I can properly start a public career -- even if it's just as a hobby."

The demands are appropriately shallow. A new name won't protect Goro forever, if someone really wants to dig. The other orphans will remember him; his hair can be dyed, but his face can't be changed without surgery, which Shido won't pay for. If Goro becomes too famous, inquiries will be inevitable -- he'll have to depend on Shido's contacts to keep inquiries deflected into discreet channels.

Shido would know that, too. By choosing a lack of foresight and overplaying his ambition, Goro is delivering the leash into Shido's hands. The bait is too good to pass up.

If it all falls apart here, he doesn't know what to do. He couldn't smuggle in a weapon. The glass windows are probably too thick to break. There's no way he'd be able to shove Shido out of one, anyway, or bludgeon the man with a chair or a desk ornament.

He holds his breath and hopes, hopes that Shido doesn't remember his mother’s name.

For once, Shido's dismissal of other people works to Goro's advantage; he arches an eyebrow, as if scornful of such a small fee, but then eventually nods. "Your pay rate was reasonable enough, if I recall. Of course, you'll have to prove you can actually perform the work. A handful of coincidences can be claimed by anyone," the man adds, turning back to his computer and tapping a few commands on his computer. When he rotates the screen, it's taken up by a picture of a dark-haired woman with glasses. "This woman, Wakaba Isshiki. I want you to kill her Shadow within a week. If you can demonstrate that you're useful, then I'll accept you."

Useful. "I will," Goro promises softly, his eyes fixed on the image, memorizing the kanji of Isshiki's name and the shape of her face in equal measure. The rest of the words barely register. This is his chance. "I'll show you how capable I am."

When Goro moves out of the institution, he carries all of his possessions with him in a small duffel bag.

The paperwork is quick. He signs his name for the last time -- the name he won't ever have to use again -- and legally announces that the institution has no further responsibility for him, and no obligations. The matron nods her head; he bows, and then lets himself out.

Halfway down the road, he pauses. Despite himself, he turns back, wondering if he'll see someone coming after him, yelling that he's not allowed to leave yet without saying goodbye. One of the other kids might miss him. One of the adults might wish he would have stayed longer. Someone might care.

No one shows.

At first, rage seizes him, pinning him in a vise that freezes his lungs and makes it impossible to breath. He can't move. All he can do is think about all the favors, all the smiles, all the ways he swallowed his resentment and always tried to be helpful -- they should have counted for something. His mind is a traitor; it whispers with an engine's ruthless beat: Didn't I do a good enough job? Didn't I smile enough, didn't I make them want to miss me? Didn't I give them a reason not to throw me away?

The anger is slow to unclench its fingers. When it does, Goro finds a chill sliding in to replace it. As he stands there, cars flowing past in an indifferent tide, he realizes the real reason no one's coming after him.

It's not that they don't believe he's getting out. They just don't think it'll last.

There's no reason for any of them to say goodbye because they'll all end up in the same place: menial jobs, lifelong failures, early deaths.

The worst part is, they're not wrong.

The first paycheck from Shido has already hit Goro's account. The bank is a few stops down from the institution; he checks his funds, pulling in a long breath at the sight of all those zeroes. The account is listed under his new name, fresh legal paperwork smoothing the way for his created identity. Despite his nervousness, Goro forces himself to patiently go through the steps that he's planned for, signing his acceptance of a credit line with the comfortable smile of a teenager who's circumvented age restrictions a thousand times before.

"For work," he says smoothly to the teller, and is almost disappointed when they merely smile and bow.

His new apartment is in Tokyo. He collects the keys and handles the paperwork in the same visit; he’d picked the listing without touring it first, using online photo galleries to help him make the selection. He has a story already prepared for the landlord, but it goes unused; as long as the money is in the right place, no one's particularly concerned with Goro's existence.

The lack of reaction is surreal. Everyone treats Goro as normal, as if he's pulled on a different layer of skin along with his name, and has walked into a world where he's never been treated as inferior.

When he steps inside his apartment for the first time, he stares at the tatami mats. His weight feels too heavy on the floor, fibers compressing under his feet. The walls are white and empty. The bathroom still reeks of bleach. Everything is too clean. It's too fresh, too pristine.

He's never lived anywhere this new before. He doesn't know what to do, except to ruin it.

The second moment of horror comes when Goro realizes that the evening is growing late, and the next thing he'll be expected to do is find dinner, take a shower, and go to bed. Dinner is simple; there's a grocery down the block, in easy walking distance. He'd ordered in the basics for delivery -- dishes, towels, bedding -- and they had arrived dutifully a few hours ago by truck. All he has to do is unpack them now, like a normal person would.

Goro knows what futons are. He knows he's supposed to lay them out and fold them up, and that people sleep naturally on the floor. As a well-developed member of society, Goro Akechi should be able to spread out his bedding like any other high-schooler his age and have a good night's sleep.

But he can't. He can't. The flooring in the institution was all tile; the beds were raised on wheels and rails so that they could be pushed around and rearranged to cram the ebb and flow of kids together. The tiles were always dirty, coated with spills and stickiness. Melted or rotted food, when someone tried to store snacks in the cubbies. Sometimes urine, when a particularly young child was brought in and crawled under their bedframes to cry.

Goro remembers the feeling of cold water in the washing bucket during his turns for clean-up. He remembers each drop of fluid on his skin as he would scrub and rinse in filthy liquid that only continued to turn grey and gritty the longer he washed.

He can't do it. He can't sleep on the floor. It's a paradox: the floor is too dirty, but the tatami is too clean. Eventually, it too will become filthy over time, and then he'll be trapped on it, trapped as it inevitably wears out with use, wears down to rot.

Here he is, free of the institution with more money than he's ever seen before, and Goro can't even handle the simplest task of home life.

That night, he forces himself to throw the futon together in the center of the room, a cacophony of sheets and bedding and pillows. He burrows into it like an animal, smelling the crisp chemicals of the factory still on the threads, and tries not to think of how he's already eradicating their newness.

The next day, he orders a bed with a frame instead, and tries not to acknowledge the relief.

Getting into a good prep school takes all of Goro's cramming. He's coming to it late, barely with any time to take advantage of extra tutoring to pass the entrance exams. He wouldn't even have had the funding on his own without scavenging from Mementos; he definitely wouldn't have had the falsified letters of recommendation without Shido throwing them in as part of the deal. It wouldn't have been enjoyable if he'd had to put himself at further disadvantage from the very beginning, begging for school money before Isshiki's body was barely cold.

Once Goro's in the system, however, he discovers a fresh form of terror: bills for education, for transportation, for uniforms and utilities and a better phone.

Palaces are highly profitable options once he learns how to use them. Cash is too prone to being untrustworthy -- excessive details on a bill for the subconscious to keep track of, and banknotes are already under critical scrutiny. But other forms of wealth are easier for the mind to replicate, whether it's in the form of precious metals or other collectibles; the problem is finding the right place to pawn in bulk, and Goro can't afford to be seen slinking around the wrong kinds of stores. His image would suffer. His perfect portrayal of a detective can't have funding traced to mysterious sales of valuables that have no explicable source.

Like it or not, he needs the funds that Shido has to offer, if only for the paper trail.

It's hard to get used to his new life. It's hard to know what he has the luxury for, investigating soaps and sprays and sanitizers, plastic gloves -- plastic gloves -- to protect his hands while scrubbing down his apartment. It’s a novelty to think that he can clean things, that he has the money to spend on chemicals that can keep his home in good condition. Grocery shopping is an unexpected delight as Goro lets himself take things at random whim off the shelves -- right up until he finishes paying, and goes home to hyperventilate over the bill.

But this is normal for him now. Or rather: it's supposed to be normal. This is what other people do, and Goro needs to be able to adequately pretend that he's a part of them.

He doesn't know how to buy new clothes. He's never worn anything new in his life; it's terrifying to put the fabric on his body, as if he can feel the sweat and oils of his skin permanently transferring to the fibers, making them forever sullied. New clothes are too expensive with their price tags. New clothes belong to other people, to another world entirely.

It's only after a stray, sneering comment from Shido that Goro realizes he's been wearing things two sizes too big; he should have been ashamed all along. He'd always assumed he'd been dressed properly, that the looseness was simply comfort level. Clothes had always been passed around in the institution, fraying cuffs and worn seams. Goro's school uniforms -- the ones he'd been lucky to have -- hadn't had the luxury of tailoring, and he'd fit into whatever size they had available as hand-me-downs. Now, he can buy a dozen uniforms, two dozen, fresh for each day of the month -- but he can't let himself settle with that. If he's to mingle with the law, to be embraced as a public figure, he'll have to dress a cut above his fellow peers. Suit trousers. Tailored coats, instead of blazers. He has to give them something to adore.

If he doesn't, they might dig deeper. They'll define him before he can take control.

Goro will be twelve years old forever, waiting for someone to pity him enough to take him home.

He goes to be measured the next day by a sales assistant, claiming that he's been growing too fast as a teenager, blending honest embarrassment with laughing questions. He manages to hide his embarrassment enough to navigate through the transaction, buying a fresh set of pants and shirts, and promptly fleeing without further explanation. He memorizes the sizes and brand. In the evenings, Goro reads clothing blogs frantically, unable to guess about proper measurements around the vague advice of wearing what was comfortable, what he feels most confident in.

He'll never feel natural; that's the problem. He shouldn't be wearing any of this in the first place.

He orders furniture haphazardly, piece by piece, not even knowing the possibility of ordering entire coordinated sets of things until after he's already picked out a desk and table from two different places. He has the money for books now, new books, books he wants instead of ragged leftovers at the institution -- but when he goes down to the stores, he flinches from the pristine, plastic-wrapped covers. Used books are familiar, their covers soft and worn, safe under his hands. When Goro finally forces himself to buy a new one -- the first in his life -- he sets the volume carefully on the center of his desk, flanked by stacks of used editions. It gleams beneath the lights. Its corners are perfect, pages unstained.

He leaves the plastic wrap on for the first night. Then the next. Then, a few months later, Goro brushes his thumb across the book to discover a thin layer of dust muting the colors. He's left it unopened for so long that he can't even remember why he wanted to buy it in the first place.

Chiding himself, he starts to tear at a corner of the plastic -- but stops automatically, his fingers refusing to obey.

Eventually, he sets the book back down unopened, and compromises by running his hand over the cover to clear away the rest of the dust.

In December, Goro braces himself for the holiday season. There aren't any events that he needs to attend, and he plans out his Christmas gifts to himself with precision. His list is all food, an extravagant ransom of it: pre-prepared meals, gourmet coffee beans, an entire cake that costs 130,000 yen.

It's far too much for one person, but he can't let it go to waste.

As the winter evening settles in a hush around his apartment, Goro assembles his Christmas meal from the boxes and sets his coffee brewing. Steam trickles through the kitchen, rich and fragrant. The cake has layers of frosting and gold leaf snowflakes, each one glittering and unique. It's heavy on the plate, as if each spoonful knows its percent in price. Goro tackles it last, sitting alone in his apartment while he eats it slowly with no one around to see his triumph, and unsure if it's a triumph at all.

The cake stops tasting good after two pieces. It's too fancy, too dense. It was designed to be shared around a table, not to stuff a single boy. Sugar clogs his throat.

Goro forces himself to eat it all before it can go bad over the next few days: cake as part of breakfast, lunch, dinner. He doesn’t know what he's supposed to think about such a luxury now that he has it. Smug for being able to waste so much money, or delighted like a child on a festival day. Anything, maybe, except for the emptiness in his chest whenever he stares down at the dwindling portions in the box, feeling nothing at all for what he's accomplished.

He's not proud. He's not depressed. Having the luxury of food like this is a concept so out-of-reach from real life that his heart can't even come up with an emotion for it, like an ant being quizzed on the intricacies of haiku.

He doesn't spend frivolously like that again. Everything afterwards is for a purpose, dedicated to furthering the public exterior of Goro Akechi. Costs can be justified when they go towards the plan, rather than get wasted on himself. Like his track for education, nothing should be extraneous; there's a purpose to Goro's life, and he can't become distracted.

It's easier said than done. Goro has room for all the indulgences he desires now, and for ones he's never known he's even wanted before. He's never outgrown his taste for sweets, despite how it marks him as boyish in a culture that pairs bitterness with masculinity. There's no need to yet. He'll leverage a youthful demeanor for as long as he can, wear the face of an idealistic teenager with enough hope to inspire thousands, while underneath Loki laughs and laughs and laughs.

He has the tatami in his apartment stripped out in favor of wooden flooring. He buys spray cleaners and disposable sponges and wipe rags to clean everything down. He gets more than one peacoat in identical colors, just in case he messes up and ruins one. His teachers protest at the change in uniform until he adds the badge embroidery to each one; the cost makes him nauseous, but when he pulls the first coat on and studies himself in the mirror, Goro knows it's the right decision.

He gets a bicycle. He wears the face of Akechi Goro well like this, making sure to always look his best even while he's sweating. He listens for gossip keenly, braced for inevitable rejection -- but there are fewer whispers than he expects. The shopkeepers say what a polite young man he is. The teachers praise his promptness of work. His schoolmates ask for rides on his bike; they tease and grin and flirt with him, but he deflects all their attention, especially the offers to come back and study at his place. Goro's apartment doesn't look natural enough: new things mixed with old, plastic wrap and bare essentials, reused paper cups alongside fresh leather gloves.

In the evenings, he leaves everyone else behind and returns home to silence. The dress shirts and trousers get carefully hung up in a closet that's becoming too full, packed with clothing that reaches perfectly to Goro's wrists and ankles. He goes home to luxury in the form of furniture that stays in place during the day and floors that don't get sticky with spills, and baths he can stay in for as long as he wants, wiping himself down with towels that don't reek perpetually of mildew.

The first time Goro kicks his trousers to the floor and steps away from them carelessly, he catches himself with a sharp breath, leaning against the wall. Only a short time ago, he would have held them carefully in the air, not daring to let them brush against anything, maneuvering around his apartment so that he could lay them on the bed with a minimum of creasing. Only a short time ago, he would have sold them for spare cash to hide away, and would have worn sensible pants that would have hidden the dirt, could have been scrubbed in a sink or a washboard without ruining them.

He crafts the final touches to his public facade with delicacy, filling in the details like a woodworker with filigree. Goro Akechi is a young man who would never flinch from trying out a new restaurant, or to buy a new handkerchief whenever one accidentally gets an unseemly spot. He lives cautiously -- but because that's smart for a teenager of any background, conserving funds rather than acting as if a paycheck is endless. Frugality is an admirable quality. It demonstrates that Goro Akechi is a young man who looks forward to the future, who is capable of long-term wisdom, and should be treated with the same respect.

He learns to enjoy coffee, because Shirogane was reported to also favor a cup or three, and following her model is a clear route to success. He sends out his clothes for dry-cleaning, feeling the unsettling thrill each time of a child still pretending to be something he's not. He alternates between store-bought food and plain rice with ingredients mixed together in a bowl, and tries to force himself to throw away socks that have worn too many holes through them -- though he finally relents and saves them for rags instead, when his willpower fails at the trash bag.

A year later, and Goro finally figures out the keywords to let himself inside Shido's Palace.

Nothing works out the way it's supposed to.

It had been so easy once. The endpoint had been clear. Now Goro makes up more and more excuses for why he should keep waiting. He's already gained access to the one Palace he truly needs. He doesn't have to delay any further.

He was supposed to be done by now.

Goro is sixteen. According to plan, he should already be dead.

But every day that he hears Shido's firm approval over the phone, telling him how useful he is, how vital as an aide -- every day wears Goro down, like taming an animal by first starving it and then feeding it by hand. He could have his victory now, but it would be so much better if Shido knew why. If Shido knew why, and yet couldn't change anything, if he had to rely on Goro in exchange for continued power. If Shido had to depend on Goro if he wanted to achieve his goal, knowing how easily he could be controlled by a person that all of society labeled pure garbage.

In futile attempts to reignite his determination, Goro practices his marksmanship in Mementos, trying to get used to the strength needed for full release of the trigger. It's not accurate to use a gun in Mementos -- cognition makes it easier to aim and fire, almost like a video game with no recoil or deafened ears -- but Goro can't ask for extended hours at a real world practice range without drawing attention, even with Shido's contacts.

The Shadows explode in spatters and collapse into nothingness. Every time he aims, Goro whispers Shido's name.

The rest of his new life doesn't fit as well as he'd like it to, either. Shido doesn't seem to care when Goro takes on cases as the Detective Prince; the police department makes fewer complaints than expected. Their leniency doesn't stem from Goro's skills, no matter how much he'd like to pretend otherwise. The police department doesn't want Goro because he solves cases, or because Goro appears to be brilliant -- they do it because they know Shido wants it, and nothing more. Goro himself is extraneous. It's a game that the adults are letting him get away with, just a game with Shido's connections paving the way.

He wishes he could ask Shirogane for advice in being accepted as detective -- to have fought for respect, working uphill against a system that prefers seniority through age and sex. But he's a fake compared to her. It would be easy to resent and fall back on impossible claims -- that Shirogane's secret is more tolerable, that she has wealth and training -- except he can't believe it. Shirogane is still a woman in Japanese society. Goro is the face that Japan wants to see in an idol -- if only it weren't all a lie.

As his reputation grows, Goro throws out comparisons between himself and Shirogane actively, openly, daring for her to come call him out as a pretender -- but she never challenges him, never addresses him in the media or by email. He's not enough of a rival in her eyes. It's the worst, most pathetic cry for help he's ever seen, and he's certain that that must be why Shirogane doesn't respond either: she can see how miserable he is.

Detective Prince Akechi, darling of the media. Detective Prince Akechi, eternal pretender.

Shirogane might have been born into resources that helped her hone her practical skills, but her gifts are real. She managed to be accepted by society because of her intellect, her intuition, her determination even when she had to pursue cases with a justice system that actively rejected her, rather than passing her along.

Shirogane would take one look at Goro, and see right through him.

It's horrifying. Everything about Goro's life is laid out in his home. Even a fake detective like him can perform the analysis. Anyone stepping into his apartment can see that the person living there is an imposter, a stranger burrowed away into someone else's life: the plastic wrap, the ragged socks plugged along window edges for insulation. Mismatched clothes stacked alongside pristine suits. The plastic wrap, the too-new furniture that Goro doesn't use in case he stains it; the way that everything important to him is stuffed underneath his bed, as if he were still in the institution forever, still trying to protect the few possessions he owns.

Summer rolls on. The school year spells itself out through cycles of exams that Goro has to set aside enough time for in order not to fail. Between classes and jobs, he tries to gather the scattered threads of his plans back together, even though they've felt out of control for months. He's backed himself into a corner: he has to let Shido know in person, has to do it after a successful election.

In the evenings, instead of reworking his plans, Goro finds that he's bargaining. Bargaining. Letting himself think: what if Shido has one more day. One more week, to build up his pride. One more month. Two more.

The conditions keep changing: an implied political scandal, and then a forced one by maddening Shido's heart, and then simply killing the man through destroying his Shadow. Then, he couldn't find Shido in Mementos. Then, he had to get close enough to the man to learn his keywords. Now, the only terms for victory are Shido's humiliation in front of Goro himself. It will only count if Shido knows about Goro's identity too, after it's too late for Shido to reject him. Death would be too easy; Shido has to be alive in order to suffer. Victory will be sweetest once Shido is at the height of his power.

The problem is that that height keeps getting taller each day.

The conditions keep changing. Goro keeps changing them on his own.

But he can't act. No matter how feverishly Goro reminds himself of the risks, he finds that he's waiting. Another evening goes by, and then another morning, and as Goro rides the train to school or to the police station, he keeps telling himself there’s time. He can wait another day. The payoff will be better. He can wait, and listen to Shido praise him for just another day.

It'll make the betrayal better. Shido trusts him. Shido values him. Encouraging that dependency is what Goro needs for his complete revenge.

That's the only reason. Nothing else.

The Phantom Thieves come too late.

Changing hearts through Shadows sounds like a fantasy -- Goro had never imagined it was a possibility, even as he'd killed them. It would have been the best way to have taken down Shido; he could have humiliated the man effortlessly, and never had his fingerprints on it. But now, any confession will incriminate Goro as well. He can't take that route anymore without destroying his own reputation, his own life.

If only he hadn't decided that seeing Shido's waking horror was better than whispering the truth to the man's Shadow. If only he hadn't procrastinated, hadn't learned to love coffee in the afternoon and buying fresh groceries on the weekends, and feeling the sun on his face as he biked along the back roads and let himself look at all the storefronts and all the ways people would smile back at him.

The Phantom Thieves come years too late for other reasons, as well. Goro had tried to figure out how Mementos and Palaces worked on his own -- he didn't even have words for half the things he'd encountered, only what he'd gleaned from Shido's comments, and had tried to pretend he knew all along. Instead of Shido sharing any of the research, Goro had had to eavesdrop on the talking cat to learn what apparently everyone else already knew. He'd crafted his plans with only half the information, and now he's too far along to change.

Everything's different for the Thieves in other ways too. The Kosei student is an orphan as well, with his father similarly out of the picture -- although the arts can dodge some of the stigma, already allowed eccentricities. Two of the Shujin students had suffered under Kamoshida, and then Isshiki's daughter was made an orphan because of Goro. Her own foster situation, he'd learned, hadn't been any better than his own at first.

The irony isn't lost on him. It isn't lost a second time when Goro takes down Okumura's father, and watches her struggle to maintain her composure on TV.

All the Thieves had suffered thanks to the same system that had choked the life out of Goro. And yet, they had found each other for support -- they had teamed up in an insufferable lie of friendship, helping each other in school as well as in Palaces. Instead of leveraging their new powers to improve their positions in life, they went around taking requests from people on message boards, not even checking into the research that deeply, all for volunteer vigilantism.

It's infuriating. All of it -- Akira, mostly. Akira doesn't work on cultivating his image; he hasn't even embraced being a delinquent so much as ignored it, not caring at all what society thinks of him. Not trying to be wanted, not trying to be needed, and simply given everything regardless. It's something to be jealous of, and it also drives Goro crazy when he thinks about it too much, makes him want to scream at the walls for the unfairness of it all.

He can't want to reach out to them. They have the ability to not only ruin his life, but also to stop his plans for Shido's humiliation. They won't give up. With their delusions that they can change the system, they'll take Shido down and ruin Goro alongside him. The Detective Prince will be destroyed. All that work for a good reputation, all those approving faces -- gone forever.

Goro still has the power to win. He could go in right now, and take Shido's heart for himself. He could stop Shido permanently, leave the man bleeding out from his eyes with no known explanation. He could stop this all.

Stop everything: all the lies, all the manipulations, all the threats.

All the praise.

When he tries yet again to force himself to attack Shido's Palace -- and fails -- Goro laughs and laughs, dry and hollow, resting his head on the clean table of his apartment. His voice tastes like dust in his mouth. He's come all this way, defying the rules of reality itself, only to balk at the edge of victory. He's become corrupt over the years, infected by his apartment and his suits and his cups of good coffee, the flattery of talk show hosts and the needy attention of his fellow students. He's addicted to being able to talk to lawyers and police officers as no average high-schooler could. He's so important now: everyone wants him.

Everyone wants Shido, too. The road to Prime Minister is wide and clear; enough other officials have been knocked down like playing pieces, and there are no more obstacles waiting along the election path. It will be Shido's greatest victory. Everything he has done has led up to this; everything Goro has done has been to support this triumph.

If Goro wants to be completely confident in winning, he needs to kill Shido's Shadow before that happens.

But it's too late. He's lost his nerve. If Shido dies, Goro's job prospects will stumble; having your biggest client die isn't a rousing testament on your job history. He's not ready to make his living as a legitimate detective yet. He'd have to convince someone else to be his patron until a law enforcement agency takes him up, and that takes time and even more money for education.

Without direct connections, there's a strong possibility that none of Shido's co-conspirators would become his new sponsor. They might turn skittish if Shido dies. They might reject Goro. Anything's possible; Goro doesn't know the details of the research that Isshiki handled, or who else might have been trained in these same skills elsewhere. They might simply want to get rid of Goro, and replace him with a groomed hitman of their own.

There's no promise that he won't be discarded again and again, tossed aside by people who don't want to give him a chance, until there's truly no other future except for the alleyways: the alleyways or the river, always waiting.

Without Shido, there might be no one else in the world who might want him.

It's a nauseating thought, and Goro clenches his fists on the table, trying not to retch and sob in equal measure. He's backed himself into his own corner. He's let himself make these choices, let himself grow dull. All these years, he should have been reminding himself of things he shouldn't want, of time that he never expected to have. He needs to remember how he never expected any of this, how the people who smile when they see him aren't doing so because they like him. They value a hand-crafted illusion: an hollow idea of a Detective Prince, Goro Akechi the genius student.

The bookstore owner who has started setting aside the older, used copies of historical crime novels just for him, saving them on a special shelf behind the counter. The older woman at the small grocery store, who sells him vegetables on the weekends. The owner of the quiet sushi bar in Shinjuku that lets Goro sit and read for hours with endless refills of hot tea -- all these people only care because they don't know Goro, not truly. He should never have let himself get attached in the first place.

But he wants it all. Even if it's fake, even if it's a mismatched attempt at pretending. Detective Prince, apartment payments, school funding. Back in the institution, Goro couldn't imagine ever wanting to keep breathing past eighteen. Now he looks forward to each morning when he wakes up in an apartment that belongs just to him, each evening when he can eat dinner at a new restaurant he's curious about. Each time he rides the subway for hours just for fun, or evaluates a cup of coffee for flavor rather than its ability to fill his stomach. He wants everything, loves everything. He may be dressed in layers upon layers of lies, but for Goro, everything is so real that he can't bear the thought of giving it up.

Life is like a disease.

He's not supposed to crave it.

All these years, Goro was supposed to be strong enough to be fine with losing everything. He was supposed to be okay with throwing himself away, if it meant that Shido would pay. Garbage Boy, Gomi-kun. Disposable.

He should have stuck to the plan. He should have listened to his childhood self. He should have been ready to sacrifice himself with no regrets.

But he can't.

After all this time, he wants to live.

Goro's phone lights up with a notification reminder. A message had shown up earlier in voicemail with a name and a date: Shido's next assignment for him to handle. Goro's fist opens; his fingers curl around the screen. He pulls it closer and watches the alert glow against his skin, a steady beacon of Shido's need.

In the mirror the next morning, Goro practices his face. His hair is carefully brushed back; he examines the length against his neck, frowning as he considers a trim. His fingers dance up his shirt buttons like a pianist. The knot of his tie is perfectly crisp from all angles. He pulls his coat from the closet, lays it carefully on the bed. Trousers next. Socks, a fresh handkerchief. Gloves, which will be essential when Goro attends his evening work. His suitcase is by the door. Everything is calculated; everything is tailored for the right effect.

All the rough edges have been polished away. Anyone looking at him now will see only what he wants them to expect.

The train app chimes a reminder on his phone, and Goro Akechi finishes smoothing down the lines of his coat. One last check in the mirror before he leaves. His smile is effortless. His expression is sincere. He's framed perfectly, his reflection waiting for approval: a portrait of a boy with everything and nothing to lose.