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Endless Days Spent Running Wild

Chapter Text

When Sojiro Sakura was younger, he saw himself as a paragon of societal change. Like any kid his age, Sojiro believed he could make the world how he wanted with misplaced rebellion. He drank too young for his age, convinced older friends to buy him cigarettes in high school, and stayed out past curfew. It took his father chewing him out and shouting so loud that Sojiro wondered if he’d still be able to hear afterward for him to realize the world wasn’t going to change with him and his poor behavior. All that resulted from it was the disappointment in his parent’s eyes and an addiction to cigarettes he couldn’t obtain on his own.

He grew up. It was inevitable and somewhat of a relief. He graduated college and found himself a job in the government. He met Wakaba, a scientist more brilliant than he could ever hope to be, and he fell in love. Unfortunately, she never felt the same. Instead, he was her friend and content with that. Sojiro shared his coffee, of which he believed to be the best, and she shared her curry, of which she knew to be the best for his coffee. He visited her when Futaba was born and helped her with her new daughter whenever he could. When Wakaba died, Sojiro blamed himself. She’d asked him for help and he’d taken her offhand comment as a joke. He hadn’t seen Futaba for a year, but he was relentless in getting her away from her uncle and under his care instead. It was the least he could do to earn Wakaba’s forgiveness.

Sojiro thought everything would be better for Futaba once he’d gained custody of her, but if anything, it might have been worse. She ran at the sight of people, cried at the sound of foreign voices, and barely left her room. He had to place her meals outside her door and wait by the stairs to catch a glimpse of a pale hand slip the plate or bowl inside. She managed to finish middle school, through copious absences and miraculously passed finals. Futaba refused to take any entrance exams for high school and he let her stay home. In some ways, he hoped that letting her do only what she was comfortable with would make him a good father for her. He knew that wasn’t the case. How anyone could trust him with anymore children was beyond him.

Sojiro sat at his kitchen table. Futaba had long since eaten and placed her empty dishes outside her door for Sojiro to take. He wished her a goodnight through the door and after a moment she called back with the same sentiment. LeBlanc was closed for the night and the television droned on quietly in the living room. Earlier that evening, he had brought the mail in and set the pile on the kitchen table to be sorted later. Now that he had looked through it, he noticed the manila package addressed to him. Inside was the record of a young man by the name of Akira Kurusu.

Sojiro still had a few connections and friends from before he retired and requesting for Kurusu’s information before he took the kid in was easy. Over all, the kid’s record was squeaky clean aside from the ugly blot that was his assault of an older man. It was nothing serious and the name of the man wasn’t given. All that resulted from his attack was a cut on the man’s forehead. Supposedly, it was out of character for Kurusu, but Sojiro knew not to judge a book by its cover. Too many people went about their lives pretending to be good people. Kurusu might be no different.

Sojiro’s heart did go out to the kid, however. No child deserved their life ruined by one stupid mistake. He could attest to that himself. He’d set this kid straight, raise his voice, scare him a bit. He frowned when he found a copy of the kid’s mugshot among the mostly empty pages. Wide-eyed and cheeks streaked with tears, the kid looked everything like the sweet boy who could do no wrong the mother who had called him claimed Kurusu had always been.

Sojiro scratched his chin and sighed. This was nothing like when he’d taken in Futaba. He knew Futaba and he knew Futaba’s family. The Kurusu family were complete strangers entrusting him with their child in their desperation to get someone, anyone, to help them fulfill the court ordered probation and keep him in school. They’d been so hopeful after a friend who was only a regular at Sojiro’s café for a short time shared too much information and convinced him to give them a call. Just because the man thought of him as a friend didn’t mean Sojiro returned the sentiment and yet, here he was, looking down at the kid’s record to prepare himself for his yearlong stay.

He glanced toward the stairs and frowned. Sojiro couldn’t bring the boy to live here. Not with Futaba the way she was and the way the kid supposedly acted. He couldn’t tell Futaba that he was watching this boy either. She’d fear the world even more than she already did with the physical evidence of the world’s violence living nearby. He’d put him in LeBlanc’s attic. Kurusu wouldn’t have any room to complain. He’d be away from Futaba and… alone in Sojiro’s livelihood. His headache was getting worse. Sojiro removed his glasses and rubbed his temples in an attempt to deter it. He’d be trusting that boy with his only source of income and they were lucky enough that, with Kurusu’s parents’ monthly payments, he had enough money to support them all for a year if all went well. He deliberated for a few silent minutes, but ultimately, he decided to let the boy live in the attic. If he did any damage, he’d have proof and that boy would be in violation of his probation. If Kurusu was as good as his parents originally believed, this year would be a breeze.

Sojiro looked back down at mug shot of a boy clearly in over his head and terrified. He’d do his best to help the kid if he was willing to be helped. Sojiro couldn’t do much if he wasn’t. Sitting up taller and stretching his back, Sojiro closed the file and sighed to himself.

Akira Kurusu.

Fifteen years old and turning sixteen near the middle of March.

Barely a year older than Futaba. Much too young to have his life thrown away.

April 9th is when he was expecting the kid. It was a lazy morning with only a couple regular customers arriving early for the morning rush. Sojiro had some quiet time to read and do a few crosswords through the afternoon. The television was background noise and eventually he forgot he was waiting for someone. It was only when the bell above the front door jingled and he looked up to see a kid dressed for school, that he remembered.

“Right,” he sighed, setting his paper down on the bar behind him, “They did say that was today.”

He stood and the boy said nothing.

Sojiro decided to bridge the gap and speak first, “You’re Akira Kurusu, right?”

The boy still said nothing again. He fidgeted, eyes meeting Sojiro’s for a second before flickering away and back again. Eventually, he nodded and blurted out, “Please take care of me.”

Sojiro couldn’t tell if that was the kid’s attempt at humor or a genuine request. Instead of laughing and risking the chance that the kid had not meant to be funny, he nodded and smiled. “I’m Sojiro Sakura and, yes, I’ll be your guardian for the year,” his smile fell, “and I’ve got the gist of your situation. You said you were protecting a woman from a man trying to assault her, you pushed him off, and he fell, right?” He waited for Akira to try and change his story. He didn’t and Sojiro continued, “You were arrested for an assault you still claim you didn’t do and the courts ordered you to a year of probation. You understand I’m not going to baby you. I’m not your father and I’m not your friend. I’m watching you for your probation officer. One wrong move…” he raised a finger and pointed out the front door of the café. He let the implication of the gesture hang in the air. He’d never been great at scare tactics, but he hoped what he learned from his father would work the same as it did for him all those years ago. It looked like it might have, as Akira gripped the straps of his bag a little bit tighter and nodded. He motioned for Akira to follow him and turned around. He missed the surprised look on the kid’s face as he walked up the stairs to the attic.

When he turns back around, Akira had followed him. The attic was coated in a thin layer of dust. In the middle of the floor, sat a large cardboard box full of belongings Akira’s parents had shipped to him a few days before. Sojiro felt as though he would regret this. “This is your room,” Sojiro said. There was no flare to his gesture and no interest in his voice. “You’ll need to clean it up and move some things around. I’ve made your bed for you, but that’s it.” The bed was actually a few old spare futons piled onto an old bedframe to keep them up off the dusty floor. Sojiro didn’t have the money to purchase a new mattress that would only be used for a year and he felt bad about it, but he pushed the feeling aside, “There’s a bath house across the street. I suggest you make use of it.”

Akira looked around the room, silently. The expression on his face was indecipherable. Sojiro could guess that he might be uncomfortable and confused. If the kid didn’t like it, he’d have to deal with it. He wasn’t going to go soft on the kid on the first day. “You got something to say?” Sojiro asked, raising an eyebrow and inviting the kid to complain. He had a few planned lines prepared to shoot down any attempts at defiance and disobedience on Akira’s part, but all Akira said was, “It’s… a big room.” His voice was quiet and timid. It was almost as if he was impressed that the entire room was his.

“I’m not going to clean it for you, so get busy,” The statement doesn’t quite fit with Akira’s lack of rebellious speech, but he said it anyway and couldn’t take it back. He knew the kid wouldn’t clean the room and Sojiro would probably have to make a bit of headway in the grime when Akira was away at school so the poor kid didn’t breathe in dust for the rest of the year. He’d go back on his word and he knew it. He does the same thing when trying to discipline Futaba. It was useless.

Akira nodded anyway and Sojiro stepped around the kid to return to his café. For the rest of the afternoon, Sojiro hears footsteps and objects scrapping against wood flooring. At one point, there was a loud bang and Sojiro jumped. He glanced up at the ceiling and then at his empty café before making his way back upstairs. Akira was on the ground, but was back on his feet before Sojiro could ask him what happened. Upon closer inspection, the situation became clear. Akira had knocked over an overcrowded bookshelf Sojiro couldn’t remember the purpose of and fallen when heavy books rained down on him. The smile Akira sent his way was sheepish and embarrassed. Sojiro helped him pick them up amidst far too many apologies from Akira. He was surprised to see the room was cleaner than when he left it earlier. “I didn’t expect you to actually clean the place up,” Sojiro admits when the books are off the floor. Most were placed in a trash bag that Sojiro is going to move to a storage room in his actual house to be at least a little help in decluttering the attic space. Akira, for the most part, appeared thankful.

When night drew closer, Sojiro climbed the stairs again to bring Akira his dinner. He went up there with the full intention to remind the kid that they’re going to Shujin Academy tomorrow to get him registered for the year and that if anything went missing from the kitchen during the night, he’d have hell to pay. The words were caught in his throat when he reached the top and found Akira sitting on his bed, staring up at the rafters with a miserable look in eyes. In that moment, Akira reminded him of Futaba; scared, lost, and receding into herself. Sojiro looked up at the rafters and nothing was there. He thought for a moment, that he didn’t want to leave the boy here alone. It would be so much safer if he told Akira to pick up his futons and follow him back home so he can move the couch back against the wall and let Akira take over his living room for the year, where he can keep a closer eye on him.

He didn’t say any of that aloud and instead, cleared his throat to get Akira’s attention.

Akira blinked a few times and looked at Sojiro, looking startled and tired. Sojiro lifted the plate up to show Akira what he’d brought and continued into the room. “I brought dinner,” Sojiro handed off the plate and Akira looked content to just stare miserably at it and push the rice and curry around with his fork. “Clean the plate when you’re done,” Sojiro told him, “and I’m going to lock up. You’ll be alone at night so… don’t do anything stupid.”

Akira seemed to understand what he’d been trying to say and gave him a sad smile. “I’ll be fine,” he promised and Sojiro held him to it. That night, Sojiro couldn’t sleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning, everything was fine. Futaba was in her room and the bowl of cereal he’d placed outside her door was gone almost as quickly as it was placed down and Akira was dressed and downstairs before Sojiro could think to call for him. He let the kid eat and they left for Shujin Academy when he was done.

Sojiro signed the school registration papers and barely listened as the principal reiterated exactly what Sojiro told Akira with slightly different implications of expulsion rather than homelessness. The kid’s homeroom teacher hovered in the room and that wasn’t much better. Her voice was gloomy and she kept a safe distance from Akira, as if he might try something at any moment.

“You’ll make sure he understands the circumstances, won’t you, Sakura?” the principal asked and Sojiro wasn’t quite ready for it.

“I’ve already let him know,” he settled on and he seemed pleased with that. Sojiro glanced in Akira’s direction and saw young boy with a resigned expression and glassy eyes, as if he had blinked back tears. Akira hadn’t spoken once through the entire verbal exchange. He’d just accepted everything he was told.

The teacher said something to Akira about meeting her first thing in the morning and Sojiro eventually asked if they could leave. He had a shop that he needed to keep open as long as possible if he wanted to keep two kids fed. With his prompting, they finally let them leave. Near the entrance, Sojiro sighed and caught Akira’s attention.

“They’re treating you like a real criminal,” Sojiro rubbed the back of his neck, massaging a stiff muscle, “I can’t say I’m surprised. Nothing’s changed since I was a kid.”

Akira seemed taken aback by his comment, but Sojiro didn’t let him dwell on it much longer than a few seconds. “Come one. Let’s get you out of here,” Sojiro started to walk away and Akira quickly followed.

Traffic was bad and Sojiro knew he wouldn’t make it home in time to open the café. Tension grew in the vehicle as road rage took hold and Sojiro cursed at his misfortune. This had been such a waste of his Sunday. He eventually opened his mouth to say something and let off some steam. What he’d meant to say was ‘This is such a pain’, meaning that the situation and timing was unfair. What came out was, “You are such a pain.”

Akira looked at him, eyes searching for an explanation to what he’d done to upset his temporary guardian. At least, that was what Sojiro thought he might be thinking. The kid couldn’t possibly have been trying any harder to make himself out to be a good, quiet kid with nothing to hide and a willingness to please. Sojiro honestly just wished he’d drop the act and talk more. He looked away to keep his eyes on the road.

“Why did you take me in then?” Akira’s words are accusatory. He had every right to sound that way. At least he was talking.

Sojiro stuttered before he could speak again. “I was paid for it,” he answered plainly. It was the truth. As Akira’s unofficial parole officer, he was paid a small sum by his parents to keep him. It wasn’t like the government was going to pay him for his charity work. “And…” Sojiro added before he could think better of it and he couldn’t stop with the word now hanging in the air, “I thought you deserved a second chance.”

Akira seemed content with that, if a little shaken. Sojiro felt terrible. The rest of the drive was spent in silence. They didn’t make it back in time to open LeBlanc.

-

Sojiro honestly hadn’t expected Akira to wake up and go to school. He expected to have to walk up the stairs and find Akira still in bed, attempting to sleep the day away. He’d wake the boy up, force him to put on his uniform, and rush him out the door to make it to school on time. Akira smashed any expectations he’d had. He was awake, pristinely dressed, and ready to leave for school only five minutes after Sojiro had arrived. He almost seemed surprised when Sojiro stopped him from leaving.

“Eat first,” Sojiro said, placing down a plate of the day’s curry. Akira stared at it. “What?” Sojiro asked, “Did you think I wouldn’t feed you?”

“No, I…” Akira shook his head and sat down, “Thank you.”

“Good to know you still have manners,” Sojiro said, meaning it as a joke, but it came out a bit more serious than he had intended. Akira ate and Sojiro tried to make conversation. He told him that it was surprising that he was actually going to school and that he’d better eat quickly because he didn’t want customers to come in and see him eat for free. He knew the sign outside said that they were closed, but Akira didn’t need to know that.

Akira did as he was told and was done rather quickly. He seemed happier than he had been the past few days. “Ready to go?” Sojiro asked and took his plate, “You know what train to take and when you have to transfer?” Akira was from the countryside and from the sound of it, had never been in a large city before. Coming to Tokyo had to be overwhelming him. Sojiro almost wanted to drive him to school again, but with the truck and train accidents lately, traffic was so slow, he’d never open the café again.

Thankfully, Akira nodded and flashed a list of subway lines he’d written out for himself, as if that would prove he’d be fine. He began to leave and Sojiro asked him to flip the sign to 'open'. Akira looked back at him, head tilted and then smiled. Shrugging, he turned back around and left, flipping the sign as he had been asked.

Later that morning, when a regular came by for a cup of coffee and commented on the rain that had started coming down hard outside, Sojiro wondered aloud if Akira had brought an umbrella. He didn’t remember seeing him with one and that probably meant he didn’t have one. Sojiro shook his head and forced himself to stop worrying about it. Akira would be fine. He’d be drenched in rain water, but he’d be fine.

It was hours later that Sojiro regretted not putting Akira’s number in his phone. He’d gotten a call from Shujin that Akira had successfully made it to school, but that he was hours late and been unaccounted for the first half of the school day. Sojiro was seething. He had placed his trust in Akira and the boy had lied; perhaps not verbally, but in his actions. He riled himself up the entire afternoon in preparation for when Akira would return. He wanted to still be angry when he finally met with him face to face.

When Akira walked through the café door, Sojiro opened his mouth to start his prepared rant, but the words were caught in his throat. Akira walked in to LeBlanc as though he was walking toward his own execution. His eyes were downturned and his posture hunched. He was waiting and ready for Sojiro to do his worst. The expression on Akira’s face softened the edges Sojiro had set in place and he struggled to stay angry. Boys like Akira needed tough love to set them on the right path. That was what Sojiro had needed and that is what he was going to give him. “What the hell happened?” That was a good start. It was a little much, but it let Akira know he wasn’t playing around. “I got an interesting call from your school. First day and you’re already playing hooky?”

Akira shook his head.

Sojiro placed his hands down on the bar and leaned forward. He was not going to let himself be lied to. “Want to explain yourself?”

Akira had a few false starts before he finally said, “I got lost.”

He’s making eye contact and Sojiro can’t tell if he’s lying or not. If the prosecutors who aided in his sentence were to be believed, Akira could very well be an amazing liar who just got caught for the first time and justly punished. Then again, Akira was new to the city and his accent was what gave him away the most whenever he made the attempt to speak. He very well might have gotten lost in the subway and been unable to call Sojiro for help. It would have been extremely easy for a quiet kid like him to miss a stop and get lost for hours. The silent desperation in Akira’s eyes told Sojiro there was some truth to Akira’s statement and Sojiro couldn’t manage to stay angry.

“Alright,” he said finally and backed off, “You know where you’re going tomorrow? I don’t want to get another call from the school.”

Akira nodded and escaped to his room.

Sojiro knew he was in over his head, but he had already agreed. The journal he had bought for Akira caught the corner of his eyes. He’d forgotten to give Akira the journal when he’d first came. Sojiro grabbed it and climbed the stairs. Handing the leather-bound journal over, he said, “Write in it. I need to report on your behavior twice a month and it’ll be easier if you help by keeping a log. I can’t keep an eye on you all the time.” Akira took it without a dispute and Sojiro left him alone for the rest of the day.

Sojiro locked up that night. When he entered his house, he could hear Futaba in the kitchen. He knocked on the wall to let her know he was there and she jumped. Startled, she squeaked out a soft, “Sojiro?”

“I’m home,” Sojiro called back and stepped around the corner. Futaba stood barefoot in the kitchen, bouncing anxiously on the balls of her feet, watching the microwave. When it beeped, she ripped the microwave door open and grabbed the item she had been heating up. Sojiro wasn’t fast enough to stop her and she cried out, dropping the cup onto the counter.

“You don’t have to eat microwave noodles, Futaba,” Sojiro told her for what felt like the hundredth time, “I can make you something for dinner.”

Futaba didn’t look at him. She shook her head and pulled her long sleeves over her hands. She grabbed the cup again, her hands somewhat protected by her shirtsleeve, and picked up the packet of flavoring and a pair of chopsticks before scampering off into the darkness of the house and up the stairs.

Sojiro was alone again. Two kids who simply wanted to avoid him like the plague. He couldn’t do this. There was no way he could do this. It wasn’t like he could send Akira back home and he’d be a failure of a father figure if he allowed himself to do that. He would never forgive himself.

The next morning, Futaba’s door was sealed shut, as usual, and Akira was awake again, just in time for Sojiro to step behind the counter and put his apron on. He put a plate of curry down on the counter and Akira stopped. “Curry again?” he asked.

Sojiro clicked his tongue against his teeth and frowned, “You don’t want it?”

“No, I do,” Akira sat down and started eating. How quickly he was shoveling the forkfuls of curry into his mouth had Sojiro a bit worried for Akira’s eating habits. Curry probably wasn’t the healthiest thing for a sixteen-year-old to be eating on a daily basis, especially for breakfast. Sojiro had only been giving it to him out of easy accessibility, but maybe he should buy him something more substantial and section off a part of the fridge for him to use.

Akira left for school and Sojiro doesn’t get a call this time. He can only assume Akira made it there and was doing fine. A few customers came by. Sojiro served them and they eventually left with friendly smiles and well wishes. Akira returned home a little later than last time, but Sojiro thought nothing of it. Akira was home and he looked tired.

Takemi, the doctor from the alley around the corner, was seated in a booth having a moment for herself to relax with a cup of coffee. Akira stopped by her table and Sojiro had to scold him and tell him to leave her alone. He walked up the stairs as he was told and disappeared into the attic. Sojiro didn’t bother him with anything more after that other than with an offer of dinner. Akira had apparently already eaten. Sojiro reminded him that he couldn’t stay late every day the kid decided he wanted to wander around after school. Akira seemed to understand.

Chapter Text

A couple of days passed as normal and then Akira brought home a cat. The kid did a poor job of hiding it. His bag shifted strangely as he walked past and he’d been so quick to escape Sojiro’s line of sight. The cat was crouching defensively on Akira’s bed when Sojiro climbed the stairs to ask the kid about what he was hiding. It’s cries and meows were loud and obnoxious. Akira couldn’t have kept it hidden for longer than a day before Sojiro would have climbed the stairs to investigate the noise. Akira stood from his kneeling position by his bed and stepped sideways to try and hide the cat he’d brought home with his own body.

Sojiro could hear Akira’s pleas now. Can I keep it? I promise I’ll take care of it. I’ll feed it and clean up after it. I’ll pay for vet bills and everything! Sojiro knew he wouldn’t. He’ll end up spending his money to care for the animal too. This was normal though, right? Kids bring home animals and beg their parents to let them keep them all the time. This was something normal; something that proved at least one of the children under his care was okay. One of them was normal.

“I found him,” Akira admitted, “…He was abandoned.”

Sojiro dropped the hard expression he had forgotten he put on to scold Akira before he’d come up. He looked down at the cat and it meowed again. “That’s… unfortunate, but this is a café,” Sojiro said, even though he wanted to allow it, “Animals are a health code violation.”

Akira looked back at the cat and the two of them make eye contact. The cat meowed. Akira returned his gaze to him and Sojiro knew he was going to say something. He was going to beg a little harder and a little louder to keep the cat. He was kid and he was going to act like it. Sojiro gave in before more than a word could slip past Akira’s lips.

“Do you have a name for him?” Secretly, Sojiro wanted to name it. It was a male, if Akira was correct in saying it was, and he whined louder than Sojiro had ever heard any cat whine. He felt like Prince would be a fitting name.

“Morgana,” is instead what Akira offered as a name and Sojiro was surprised. It was definitely not the name he would have chosen, but it wouldn’t be fair to take the cat for himself when he was letting Akira keep it.

“Alright,” Sojiro said instead, “Just… keep him up here and away from the customers. If anyone sees him downstairs, he’s back out on the street.” It was another lie and Sojiro knew it. He wondered if Akira knew it too.

Akira smiled and nodded. “Yes, thank you,”

“Hopefully, this’ll be good for you,” Sojiro muttered to himself and spoke his thoughts aloud, “Having a pet might keep you out of trouble.” It was easy to rationalize keeping the cat, now dubbed Morgana, around. Akira sat back down and began to stroke Morgana’s back. Akira looked happy for the first time since he walked through LeBlanc’s door.

Sojiro left the room, motivated by an overwhelming urge to keep that expression on Akira’s face, and searched the fridge and the pantry in the kitchen. He found tuna and dumped some onto a plate, before returning to the attic. He could hear Morgana meowing and whining from the first floor. There was no way that kid could keep the cat hidden in the attic during the day, especially without a door to shut him behind. He placed the plate down on Akira’s bed and Morgana was quick to jump on it and begin eating. “It just keeps crying out in that cute little voice,” Sojiro sounded annoyed and he was, but it was difficult to stay that way. “Clean that plate when he’s done.”

Akira nodded and continued to smile, “Thank you.”

“Stop that,” Sojiro sighed. Akira had been doing that a lot lately; thanking him for the smallest things. “Just… remember what I said.”

Sojiro locked up that night and thought about what he’d have to pick up to bring back in the morning. They’d need a litter box and litter, food and water bowls, cat food, cat toys, and a tag for Morgana’s collar. He’d probably need a good recommendation for a vet to take him to. Strays were prone to fleas and heart worm if he remembered correctly. It’d be unfortunate if anything like that went untreated and either way, it’d be pricey. Sojiro would find the money somewhere. He had already agreed after all.

It took a couple of days for Sojiro to find everything they needed. He had even managed to schedule a vet appointment in a week. He attached a tag to Morgana’s collar and watched as Akira set his school bag on the ground and Morgana jumped into it. When Akira picked the bag up and slung it over his shoulder, Sojiro had to stop him. “What are you doing?” he asked and Akira laughed nervously. He obviously recognized what he had just done was strange, but hadn’t thought much of it during the action.

“Have you been taking that cat to school?”

Akira nodded and Sojiro really wished the boy would talk to him more.

“Just… don’t get in trouble,” No wonder he hadn’t heard the cat during the day. At least it kept Morgana away from the café while customers were there, but if he got another call from the school… Sojiro would cross that bridge when they came to it. Animals are good for kids. It teaches them responsibility. It was… a therapy animal. There must be some way to get the cat trained and certified fairly cheaply. It already seemed to just sit there and Akira seemed better off having him around. He didn’t want to lie, but he might not have to.

Akira left for school and Futaba texted to ask if she could buy a book online. He asked for the price, but ultimately said ‘yes’ regardless. Sojiro really needed to learn to say ‘no’.

Akira behaved himself for a few weeks, even took Morgana to the vet by himself like he was asked, but when Akira returned home with a bruise on his jaw and a heaviness to his gait, Sojiro tensed and stopped scrubbing at a coffee mug ring off of the counter. “What happened?” he asked and he knew he sounded accusatory, but no kid gets a bruise like that on accident. Akira took a step back and Morgana meowed from inside his school bag. He placed a hand over the bruise and winced. “I…” Akira didn’t say anything more.

“Did someone hit you?” Sojiro thought the worst. Akira had been doing so well, “Did you get into a fight? You know the circumstances of your probation.”

“No,” Akira had answered so quickly, Sojiro had barely finished his sentence. “It’s… gym. I was… hit… with a stray volleyball.”

It sounded like a lie. It was obviously a lie. Akira could barely look him in the eye as he said it. Sojiro didn’t know what to say to get the truth out of him. The longer Akira stood under his scrutiny, the more reserved and defensive Akira seemed to be. “What did you do?” Sojiro asked again.

“Nothing!” This had been the first time Akira had ever raised his voice to him and he seemed to realize it. His eyes are wide and frightened. Sojiro refused to lose his resolve again just because Akira looked pitiful. “I’m sorry,” Akira mumbled and the door opened with a soft jingle. When Sojiro looked over to greet the customer, Akira slipped away as fast as he could to the attic. Sojiro had lost again. Some disciplinary figure he was.

Akira stayed in his room for the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening. When the last customer walked out the door, Sojiro flipped the sign on the door to closed. He removed his apron and hung it neatly on a hook on the wall. He wiped the counter down as he smoked and thought about how he would address Akira and the bruise on his face before he left for the night. Should he even address it? It just seemed wrong to leave it alone.

“Come down here!” Sojiro called out and waited a moment before putting out his cigarette. In the silence, he wondered if Akira had snuck himself out the second story window, but after another minute or two, Akira’s heavy footsteps could be heard shuffling toward the staircase.

Morgana followed Akira down the stairs, close to his heels and meowing. Sojiro wanted to tell Akira to leave the cat upstairs, but they were closed and if that cat always followed him so closely, the cat wouldn’t remain upstairs for long. Akira stopped on the other side of the bar. The tiny frown that was a near constant on the boy’s face was deeper. He looked up at Sojiro through long lashes and sad eyes.

“We’re going to talk about this,” Sojiro said and threw his dishtowel over his shoulder, “How did you get that bruise?”

“I told you,” Akira muttered and shoved his hands into his pockets. He had already changed out of his uniform and looked ready for bed. “It was a volleyball. I wasn’t paying attention and… got hit.” He stuck to his story and Sojiro couldn’t fault him for it. It was a smart tactic to stick to your guns and perfect your story if you were determined to lie.

It was a lost cause to continue grilling Akira for answers, so he settled on, “Should I be expecting any phone calls about your behavior? I have to report back twice a month so don’t start making me have to write more crap. You can get yourself killed if you want, but don’t go dragging other people into your mess.” He hated how he sounded, but Akira had to know people wouldn’t put up with him just because he was kid.

“No one will call,” Akira shook his head and Sojiro felt inclined to believe him.

“Alright, well…” Sojiro adjusted his posture and stopped his interrogation, “Let’s drop it. You need to stay out of trouble… uh, so what do you say to working here in the afternoons when you’re not busy with your school work.” The change in subject helped to perked Akira up. He seemed interested in Sojiro’s offer.

“I can’t pay you,” Sojiro added and the droop in Akira’s shoulders was hard to miss, “but I can teach you how to make a great cup of coffee. The ladies like a man who can prepare great coffee.” Akira matched Sojiro’s smile with his own.

Akira nodded and agreed, “You are letting me live here after all.”

“Now we’re talking,” Sojiro turned and prepared a plate of curry. The bruise wasn’t forgotten, but was easily ignored. Akira sat down at the bar. Upon the realization that Akira was getting to eat, Morgana disappeared and returned with his food bowl wedged between his teeth and barely situated in his jaw. He dropped it to the floor and meowed. Sojiro scooped out a can of wet cat food into the bowl. Morgana stared for a second before eating.

“I don’t think he likes that brand,” Akira mused between bites.

A couple of days passed and Sojiro pushed the unknown reason for the bruise on Akira’s face to the back of his mind. It was brought back to his attention when he unmuted the television after delegating the job of washing dishes to Akira. It was the set to the news and there was a segment on Shujin Academy: ‘High School Volleyball Coach Arrested for Abuse of Student body’. Sojiro felt his blood run cold.

“It’s… gym. I was… hit… with a stray volleyball.”

“Ex-Olympian Suguru Kamoshida confessed this afternoon to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of students during a school assembly after a female student was driven to suicide,” a female news anchor explained, “He then called for the police to be alerted and take him into custody.”

Sojiro couldn’t help but glance in Akira’s direction. Akira wouldn’t look up at the television, but Sojiro could tell his attention wasn’t on the dishes. He’d been wiping a cleaned and dried dish for the past couple of minutes. ‘That bruise,’ Sojiro thought to himself.

The news segment continued with interviews of students. Their faces weren’t in frame and their voices were distorted to hide their identities. Some talked about their own experiences while other talked about the experiences of their friends. One young man was fidgeting, uncomfortable with the attention and nervous under the reporter’s invasive requests for information. He was different than a few of the others, because the yellow graphic tee he wore under his school jacket had to be blurred out to avoid accidental product placement. “He… He uh,” the boy didn’t seem ready or willing to speak, but the reporter kept pushing. Stage fright was not this kid’s friend, “He broke my femur l-last year when he coached track and uh… threatened me and my friends.”

With the boy probably unwilling and afraid to say more on camera, the news station cut to another student. It was another girl this time, with a white hoodie under her jacket and long blond hair that fell beyond where they were willing to lower the frame to keep faces hidden. These last two kids had recognizable features that Sojiro was sure they’d be recognized by their peers later, so the attempts to keep them anonymous was useless. “Kamoshida made sexual advances toward me and when I wouldn’t agree to let him touch me, he… did it to my friend instead.”

Sojiro felt sick. The media was putting these kids’ pain on display for viewers. It was obvious and that teacher clearly had reigned over the school for far longer than any sane human being should have allowed. The claims the principle made of Kamoshida being a good man until the events of the past year were admitted was an obvious attempt to soften the blow to the school’s reputation. Sojiro wouldn’t be surprised if the faculty had always known. Something as large scale and terrible as Kamoshida’s actions couldn’t go unnoticed for so long.

“God, kid I…” Sojiro muted the television. He didn’t know what to say. “That’s your school, isn’t it? That bruise… you said it was during gym?”

Akira looked at him over his shoulder. His glasses were slipping down his nose and he pushed them up with a soapy hand. For the first time, Akira looked up at the television and shrugged.

“Don’t do that. Say something,” Sojiro stood up from his barstool and walked around the bar. “Did Kamoshida hit you? Did he threaten you? Are you okay?”

Akira responded to Sojiro’s obvious concern, which was a relief after multiple attempts to communicate with Akira the past few days had fallen flat. “I’m fine,” Akira said, probably to reassure Sojiro, but that wasn’t what either other them needed right then. “He… Yeah, he hit me,” Akira turned back toward the sink, “but I’m okay now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Sojiro realized as he said it that Akira technically had told him. He had just decided to believe Akira had lied to him when he left the more important pieces of information out.

“I couldn’t,” Akira explained and them quietly said, “No one could.”

“…Right,” Sojiro thought back to the news report. Kamoshida had dished out verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Kids who wanted to speak out were threatened and those who did were ignored or treated worse than before. With how Sojiro had made the consequences of one misstep on Akira’s part sound, he could see where Akira would get the impression that admitting exactly where the bruise came from would result in him getting punished and not the adult responsible. “You really should have told me when it happened. You wouldn’t have gotten in trouble. I would have called the school and demanded that teacher be fired.”

Akira just shook his head in response. “That wouldn’t work. They knew. Kamoshida said he’d say it was self-defense. It’s worked before with others.”

So, it did go to the top. He’d need to get the kid out of that school, but Shujin had been the only academy willing to accept him, even with his remarkable grades. They needed a success story; a delinquent turned productive member of society by the best and most accepting school in the nation. Their plan had certainly fallen through with Kamoshida demanding his own arrest. If Sojiro took Akira out of Shujin, even if it was for his own protection, they’d be in violation of his probation. Akira needed to stay in school at all costs. “I still would have tried. That shouldn’t have happened to you,” Sojiro glanced back at the television. An image Suguru Kamoshida’s face was shown alongside the female news anchor. The subtitles Sojiro had set to scroll when the television was muted let him know she was talking about Kamoshida’s past achievements and how many of those around him were astonished by how much he had changed. A man like that didn’t deserve that sort of coverage. They should be denouncing his behavior only and forcing the school to apologize to the kids and their families. Even worse, they changed the subject to a group of mysterious individuals who called themselves the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. They were assumed to have blackmailed Kamoshida into confessing. Sojiro couldn’t care less. “What about the other teachers?” Sojiro asked, “They aren’t like him, are they?”

“No,” Akira shook his head, “Some are strict, some ignore me, but they’re okay. Kawakami’s nice.”

“That’s your homeroom teacher, right?” Sojiro remembered how she seemed to distrust Akira the last and only time he’d seen her. “She’s actually nice to you?”

“Yeah,” Akira finished the last dish in the sink and dried his hands off on a clean towel.

“And you’re sure? If anyone threatens you at school again, if it’s with physical violence or, God forbid, sexual advances, you need to tell me immediately. You won’t get in trouble for trying to get help. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”

Akira smiled and nodded. The look in his eyes told Sojiro he’d been afraid for too long, possibly the entire month, and was more than grateful to be told there was someone willing to listen. Sojiro’s chest felt tight and he wished for Akira to never think like that again. “Thank you. I will.”

Chapter Text

The month was over and May was much warmer than April. Sojiro asked for the journal he had given Akira and the boy handed it over without complaint. Sojiro had to report in today and he hadn’t looked at what Akira had written since he’d given him the journal. He hadn’t asked Akira where he had been in the afternoons since he first arrived and he hoped reading what Akira had written would give him some insight.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much. Akira had dated each page he used, so it was easy to keep track of what happened when. The first day of school, Akira had written that he’d taken shelter from the rain under an awning and met a pretty, blond girl. She unfortunately got into the car of a teacher he didn’t know the name of at the time. He was then told by a boy that ran up to try and stop the car that the man’s name was Kamoshida.

The boy was named Ryuji and the girl was named Ann.

Akira never wrote more than a few sentences to describe his days after that. He stuck to what Sojiro needed to know and it made Sojiro’s job easier.

Akira claimed in writing that Ryuji had attempted to lead Akira to school, but he’d gotten separated from him and lost. Something about that didn’t make sense, but Sojiro left it alone. Ryuji was mentioned a lot more after that. Akira spent quite of bit of time with him. He had eaten with Ryuji, walked to the train station with Ryuji, stayed afterschool to jog with Ryuji. Ann eventually joined the pair on their outings.

Akira had made friends. It was surprising, but Sojiro was thankful for it. He would remind Akira to only surround himself with good influences, but from the sound of it, they could be good kids. It was easy to just report that Akira was spending time with new friends around Tokyo.

He returned the journal to Akira before locking up for the night, and stopped by the grocery store before walking home.

-

“I’m going out to eat with my friends today,” Akira said between bites of his breakfast. Morgana eyed Akira’s food from his bag. When Akira thought Sojiro wasn’t looking, Sojiro would catch Akira sneak Morgana pieces of ham.

“Where are you eating?” Sojiro barely looked up from his newspaper.

“Uh… A Buffet?”

Sojiro looked up then and raised an eyebrow, “Those are pretty expensive. You have that kind of money?”

Akira stopped chewing and swallowed, “One of my friends, um, has a part time job and has been saving up for a while now. They’ve been wanting to go, but they didn’t want to go alone.” That was the most Sojiro thought he’d ever heard Akira say at one time. He was impressed.

“Okay,” Sojiro saw no reason to argue. “Be on your best behavior.”

Akira grinned, “Of course.”

-

Akira came home looking pale and sluggish. It looked like someone had taken the phrase, eat till you’re sick, a little too seriously. “I take it you won’t be having dinner?”

Akira shook his head and walked up the attic stairs. “Good night!” Sojiro called after him and he received a weak, “G’night,” in return.

Back home, Futaba was in the kitchen and he managed to stop her from eating more instant noodles. She was willing to stand in the kitchen, her nose buried in her phone and her headphones over her ears as he made her a suitable meal. When he finished, she took a plate and ran.

Everything was the same at it had always been. At the very least, Sojiro hoped he wasn’t a complete disaster as a guardian. Akira seemed to be doing better, but he’d only have the kid for a year. Futaba was just as important, if not more. He hadn’t been able to help her yet. He might never be able to.

He was beginning to think the stress was getting to him. Akira helped to keep his blood pressure on the healthier side by working alongside him in the evenings. Akira picked up on how to use the coffee press fairly quickly and listened to his advice with rapt attention. Sojiro explained to him that customers should have their experience tailored to them, so it was important to know what kind of people they were.

He was about to go into an explanation of who the previous customer had been and why he was so kind and playful with her when he spoke, when the door opened and Futaba’s uncle entered his café. Sojiro bristled and glared.

Futaba’s uncle, Youji Isshiki, was a greedy man he hadn’t seen in person since he had taken Futaba from him. As he stood in the doorway of LeBlanc, with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face, Sojiro wondered about just how much money he was going to ask for and how he had managed to find LeBlanc in the first place.

“Look at this place,” Youji smirked and turned his head to look around the room, “I heard you moved out here after you retired. It’s quaint.”

“Your order?” Sojiro ground through his teeth. Akira leaned to the side from behind him to look at who he was talking to.

“Why so pushy?” Youji’s smirk never left his smug face, “I just came to say hello, but I see you’re annoyed. I’ll come by another time.” He turned and left. He hadn’t pushed for money, but he had put on a sickeningly kind attitude to keep his apparent part-timer from getting suspicious. He had restrained himself around Akira and Sojiro hoped it would stay that way. With him gone, Sojiro could breathe again.

“Who was that?” Akira asked.

Sojiro turned around to look at him. He was genuinely concerned and curious. Sojiro couldn’t tell him. Explaining Futaba’s uncle would only force him to explain who Futaba was. Then Akira would only be more curious. He couldn’t let Akira get too close to himself or his family. Instead, he told him, “It’s none of your business.”

It really wasn’t any of his business. Ignorance was bliss. Akira didn’t need to know about Futaba’s uncle for his own good. They were fine. Youji wouldn’t come back if he refused to be his source of easy money. “Come on. I’ll teach you about bean types.”

“There are bean types?” Akira asked, oblivious. “Coffee sort of always tastes the same.”

Sojiro couldn’t help but smile, “That’s where you’re wrong, kid.”

After each lesson, Sojiro would find himself attempting to make small talk with Akira while the café remained empty. In the beginning, he wasn’t easy to talk to. Akira would only respond with shrugs or indecisive gestures. One word answers were almost as common. It was only once Sojiro decided to ask him about his interests and not school and Tokyo, that Sojiro made some progress.

“I played baseball back home. I was a pretty good pitcher, I guess,” Akira finally managed to share. Sojiro had heard this from Akira’s father. Apparently, Akira had been one of his school’s best pitchers, but his arrest and subsequent expulsion meant he couldn’t play anymore. Akira hadn’t taken it well.

“Did you like it that much?” Sojiro asked, attempting to keep Akira talking.

“Yeah. It helped clear my head…” he paused, “I had to go home early after practice for something… I can’t remember. That’s the night I saw that man grab that woman.”

“Oh,” So much for trying to keep Akira from thinking about his probation.

“No one believed me, so I couldn’t go to practice again…”

“There’s batting cages down the street,” Sojiro interrupted and pointed vaguely ahead of him to a location past the far wall. Akira seemed knocked off balance for a second, as though Sojiro had pulled him back from falling into his memories.

“I wasn’t really the best batter,” Akira’s smile was sheepish.

“Who cares and don’t sell yourself short. If you were good, you were good,” Sojiro smiled back, “Get some practice in. Keep yourself busy there. At least then I’ll know for sure you’re not getting into any trouble.” Akira eventually did enthusiastically agree to go by the end of the day and Sojiro walked with him to the batting cages to buy him a monthly subscription.

There were also days where Akira didn’t work for him. On days like that Akira would come home tired and blurry eyed. Sojiro worried Akira was getting sick, but Akira promised he wasn’t. He was just studying with friends and they always went a little too late. Sojiro wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he chose to keep his mouth shut and wait for the proof to show in Akira’s grades.

When his grades did come in, Sojiro was stunned to learn Akira scored at the top of his class. Sojiro had hoped to offer Akira a reward for his obvious hard work. The kid had apparently shown interest in the old RC television in the secondhand shop nearby if the pleasant talk of his neighbors was anything to go by. It was extremely cheap and still worked just fine. If the kid wanted it, Sojiro could buy it for him as a present. That was what guardians did for kids who earned high scores in school, right? They rewarded them for it.

Akira didn’t seem all that pleased with his achievement though. He sat in a barstool after hours, head resting on his arms. Morgana meowed, curled up on the seat beside him. “You earned perfect scores,” Sojiro said, confused by Akira’s dejected mood, “What’s wrong?”

“No one thinks I actually did it on my own,” Akira’s voice was muffled by his shirt sleeve, “They think I cheated.”

“Did you?” Sojiro asked. He knew Akira hadn’t.

“No! I tried really hard and helped my friends study too,” Akira sat up. Sojiro placed a warm cup of Blue Mountain with sugar and cream in front of him. “Thank you… I just… I thought everyone would stop being scared of me if I showed them I wasn’t so bad.”

“Ah,” Sojiro nodded and leaned against the counter. “Why are they scared of you?”

“Kamoshida… told them about my record and the rumors got out of control,” Akira was holding something back, but Sojiro had learned not to push. Akira would only stop trying to speak to him.

“He’s gone, but it’s still haunting you?” Sojiro shook his head, “Rumors are tough, but don’t let them get to you. You’ve got friends, right? They believe you did nothing wrong?” Sojiro wasn’t sure when he decided he believed in Akira and believed that his conviction was false and unfair, but he did and that was all that mattered.

Akira nodded and sipped his coffee.

“If you’ve got some good friends around you, I think you’ll be okay.”

Sojiro bought the television for Akira and while he was there he grabbed the old console collecting dust right beside it. He had the box sent to LeBlanc and Akira was surprised when he descended the stairs around noon and saw it. Sojiro told him the box was for him and Akira tried to tell him he hadn’t ordered anything. Sojiro eventually got him to open it without spoiling the surprise. Akira saw the television and the apparently retro game system and his obvious joy was heartwarming. He helped Akira set everything up in his room and jokingly told him he wouldn’t need to pay him back if he kept up with his studying. Akira eagerly agreed and turned the console on. Sojiro left him alone with whatever games had come with it, because if Akira was anything like Futaba, he wouldn’t leave that spot for the rest of the day and into the night.

Chapter Text

In early June, Akira brought friends home after school for the first time. One was a loud young man with his hair bleached like a delinquent’s and a limp Sojiro couldn’t miss. The next was a girl with bright blue eyes and naturally blond hair, who smiled every time she locked eyes with Akira. The last one was also a young man, much too tall and much too thin, with hair that fell in front of tired eyes that flickered around LeBlanc in an attempt to take in the entire room. This specific boy had luggage with him. It appeared to be the bare minimum, with the addition of art supplies and canvases. He was probably an artist.

That reminded him. Hadn’t he heard something about a famous artist stealing and abusing his pupils?

“I’m back,” Akira said with a grin.

“And you’ve brought friends,” Sojiro responded and jokingly added, “Are they going to buy something or loiter?”

The blond boy’s eyes widened and he stumbled over his attempts to say that they would definitely buy something. Sojiro laughed before the boy could finish stuttering and shook his head. He waved the four of them over and asked them for their orders, “Don’t worry about it. What’ll you have? It’s on the house. I’m Sojiro Sakura, by the way, but most people just call me Boss.”

The girl was Ann, who he remembered from Akira’s journal. He did his best not to tease and remind Akira that he’d written that she was pretty. She seemed like a nice girl; polite, well-spoken, and proud. He could see the two of them doing well together. She’d do wonders for Akira’s demeanor. He should start giving Akira tips on how to treat a woman right. Ann’s order was simple. Coffee with cream.

The tall boy that leaned over from his seat to rest his arms on the countertop was Yusuke. Sojiro didn’t recognize the name from Akira’s journal. He didn’t share the others’ uniform and Sojiro could only assume he went to a different school. When he asked, he learned Yusuke went to Kosei, a prestigious fine arts academy. How Akira managed to meet a Kosei student and befriend him was beyond him, but Sojiro accepted it. Yusuke asked for an espresso.

The boy who bleached his hair was Ryuji. It was nice to finally put a face to the boy Akira had managed to first befriend. He was as good as a kid as Akira had made him sound. His smile was bright and his laugh was practically contagious. He was loud and, from the looks of it, a bit obtuse, but a good kid nevertheless. Ryuji didn’t want a coffee. He asked for a soda.

Sojiro told Akira to help and had him prepare Ann’s drink. Ryuji and Ann kept the conversation going. They talked about school and their hopes for summer to come just a little faster. Akira was distracted as he attempted to press the coffee beans Sojiro had instructed him to use and not mess it up. Sojiro could understand, but he had hoped Akira would give Ann a little more attention. Instead, most of his upward glances as he listened along to his friends talk were delegated to Ryuji. Sojiro wondered if Akira was oblivious to how Ann looked at him or if he had missed something instead.

Ann and Yusuke both praised the flavor of their drinks and Sojiro was glad to hear it. Ryuji had taken interest in this “flavorful” beverage he was missing out on and eagerly asked Ann to let him try some as his hand was already around the cup. He brought the coffee to his lips and Ann watched and waited. She hadn’t even reacted to him grabbing the cup to drink from it. Sojiro could only assume she hadn’t cared. However, she did smile mischievously when Ryuji’s face scrunched up as he forced himself to swallow the mouthful he had taken. He gave the cup back and his friends laughed at him.

“Blech, it’s so bitter!” Ryuji made a variety of interesting faces, “It’s like cruel and unusual punishment!”

Sojiro chuckled along with them, “When I was a kid, I didn’t like coffee either.” Coffee was an acquired taste, that was certain.

Ryuji shook his head, “Ugh, I can’t get the taste out of my mouth!” He gulped down his soda and looked somewhat better afterward. It was an intense reaction to coffee that had cream added to it, but everyone had different taste buds. Ryuji’s just didn’t like coffee.

Sojiro turned to Akira, “Take your friends up to your room. There’s no need to stay down here.”

“Oh, I wanna see!” Ann said eagerly.

Sojiro frowned, slightly disappointed in himself now that someone else would see where he had been keeping Akira, “It’s only an attic.”

“Thanks for the soda,” Ryuji said as he stood. He grabbed Akira’s arm and they left together. Yusuke followed closely behind, but Ann remained downstairs to finish her coffee.

“So, Ann,” Sojiro began, perhaps her and one of the other boys were dating. No point in helping Akira if she was taken, “You’re spending your time with three boys? You have a boyfriend?”

“Nope,” Ann responded and smiled, “Never had one, either.” Akira still might have a chance.

Ann turned and thanked him for the coffee. Immediately, she noticed the boys’ school bags, including the bag Morgana sat in, tucked away on a booth seat. Morgana had been struggling to escape the entire time. “Geez,” she grumbled under her breath, “They had to leave the Mona bag down here.” She picked each bag up and ascended the stairs.

“Sweet girl,” Sojiro mused to himself and wondered what he had to do to convince Akira she was a keeper.

With the kids upstairs, Sojiro busied himself with cleaning their used cups and glasses and listening to the news. It had mostly been background noise, but then the name ‘Phantom Thieves’ came up again. First time he’d heard of the Phantom Thieves, they had blackmailed Kamoshida into confessing. Good on them.

He had forgotten about them, until a morning talk show where that Akechi kid talked about them and the dangers of rogue thieves who “stole hearts”. With Madarame confessing his crimes after their blackmail and his last remaining pupil confirming his adoptive father’s tearful statements with his own brief interview, Sojiro could somewhat understand the sentiment, but it was hard to be angry when they removed Kamoshida from the list of things Sojiro had to worry about.

He still listened, though. They had a good point. Nothing good would come from vigilante justice, in the long run.

Thankfully, Sojiro didn’t have to think about Phantom Thieves for much longer, because Akira’s friends had returned to the first floor, excitedly explaining they were going to the store to buy ingredients for hot pot and had a request to ask of him.

Yusuke was homeless after he had been thrown out of Madarame’s home and left the school dorms. Now, he needed a place to stay. Sojiro finally recognized him as Yusuke Kitagawa, one of the young pupils the Great Madarame had been stealing from and abusing, and the boy that had been forced on camera to talk about Madarame and point out his own paintings. When Ann asked him politely if Yusuke could stay here for the time being, Sojiro couldn’t say no. He couldn’t bear to see a third kid fall through the cracks of an uncaring society when he could still make room. He once again wondered why the universe continued to drop needy children into his lap, but when Yusuke smiled and thanked him with a deep bow, he forgot his hesitation almost immediately. Sojiro wished them well on their little excursion to the store and when Akira managed to find his way back down after they had left, he directed him to a large enough pot they could borrow to cook with.

“Would you like to join us?” Akira had asked, ever the kind young man he had clearly always been.

“You know how busy I am,” Sojiro wasn’t busy, but any excuse not to intrude on Akira and his friends’ celebration of… -what exactly, Yusuke’s escape from his abusive father?- was good enough for him, “You kids have fun.”

Akira nodded, although Sojiro couldn’t tell if Akira wanted him to join or if he was just trying to be polite.

“By the way, her name’s Ann, right?” Sojiro feigned indifference, but he wasn’t sure if it had worked, “She seems like a nice girl.”

“She is,” Akira agreed. Sojiro couldn’t gleam anything from his response.

“She said your friend doesn’t have anywhere to go. Asked if I could take him in for a bit,” He changed the subject instead.

Akira looked away and then down at his feet past the pot he was holding, “I was afraid to ask.”

“Yeah, I guess she had the same idea. Probably thought I’d be too pitiful for you to ask since you’re already freeloading. Don’t worry about it. He can stay.”

“Great! Thank you,” Akira looked back up at him and grinned. Sojiro was glad he was smiling more often. His friends were working wonders.

“Be careful with that fire,” Sojiro cautioned once Akira’s friends had returned and began to follow Akira back into the attic. Akira promised they would be and, once again, Sojiro was left alone with the television.

”But hypothetically speaking, if these Phantom Thieves are real, I believe they should be tried in a court of law.” They were airing that talk show again. Goro Akechi, boy detective, spoke of his brand of justice. Sojiro muted the television. “I don’t care,” he grumbled to nobody in particular.

-

The next morning was a Sunday and Yusuke came down for breakfast by himself.

“Where’s Akira?” Sojiro asked.

“Asleep,” Yusuke responded and yawned, “He seemed too peaceful to disturb.”

“I’ve got a few things here better suited for breakfast than curry,” Sojiro said and pointed his thumb toward the fridge. “Top shelf is for you guys. Help yourself.”

“Actually,” Yusuke grabbed ahold of the end of his shirt sleeve and pulled it down farther over his hand. He fumbled awkwardly with the fabric, running his thumb over the seam, and then did the same for the opposite side. “I apologize for yesterday and I am truly grateful for your hospitality, but I will be returning to the dorms.”

“Oh?” Sojiro was surprised.

“I thought about it a lot last night and… I couldn’t possibly continue to intrude.”

Sojiro nodded and hummed thoughtfully to himself. The kid seemed fairly certain that he wanted to go back. If that was what he wanted, Sojiro would let him. It would keep Sojiro’s wallet a little heavier not to have to feed four people, but he couldn’t say he wasn’t disappointed. “Alright then, but sit down. Have a cup of coffee. On the house.”

Yusuke thanked him with another deep bow that wasn’t particularly necessary, but he wasn’t going to scold him for something so polite. He poured Yusuke a cup of freshly brewed coffee and the boy sipped it happily. “It truly is a delight to sample such exquisite coffee.” He’d definitely miss this kid.

“You could stay until you find a place, you know,” Sojiro reasoned, “I can’t promise it’ll be comfortable here, but…”

“Thank you, but I really should return. I realized something.” Yusuke frowned and he lowered his gaze to the dim reflection of himself in the coffee cup, “Perhaps it is due to my upbringing, but I don’t know anything of the world, let alone other people. If I am to depict people in my art, I should interact with them. I should get to know them, starting with the people close to me.”

“I see,” the kid was wiser than he seemed. Sojiro respected that. He scratched his chin thoughtfully, “Good on you for realizing that yourself.”

“Please don’t exaggerate,” Yusuke shook his head. Sojiro could tell the boy had a problem taking well deserved praise. Yusuke sipped his coffee and eventually drained the cup. Soon enough, he spoke again, “It seems Akira, Ryuji, and Ann have all had a rough time, as well.”

Sojiro was curious now, but he held his tongue. As much as he wanted to know what had happened to the pair of blonds, he wasn’t going to ask.

Yusuke continued, “I may be over stepping my bounds, but… Are you related to Akira?”

“What?” Sojiro hadn’t been expecting that question, “No, no, I’m not… I’m just an… acquaintance. I know a friend of his parents.”

Yusuke nodded and took a quiet moment to think, “So… then why did you take him in?”

“Why?” Sojiro hadn’t thought about that since the second day Akira had been there. Akira had asked the same question. Sojiro’s answer had been awful. “I suppose… he reminded me of myself when I was his age,” Sojiro mused. It was true, the more he thought about. He was a bit late in regards to Akira’s upbringing, but he was doing exactly what his father had done for him all those years ago.

“That was it?” Yusuke asked, as if Sojiro’s answer didn’t make any sense to him.

“It doesn’t take much once you’ve taken consideration on a person.”

Yusuke still looked like he didn’t understand. He hummed to himself and tapped his thumbnail against his coffee cup.

“Well,” Sojiro continued in an attempt to explain and comfort, “Take your art instructor, uh, former art instructor. He must have felt something for you all these years. I can’t imagine he cared for you for so long with his only intention being to steal your art.”

“Truth be told, I cannot hate him from the depths of my heart either,” Yusuke still frowned, but he nodded. He seemed to finally understand. His eyes suddenly lit up and he stood, “Oh, yes! I almost forgot!” Yusuke reached into his luggage and placed a covered canvas on the counter. He removed the velvet cover to reveal a painting. It took Sojiro a moment of thought before he could identify it as the Sayuri. It looked a bit different than Sojiro remembered, but he wasn’t an art buff and didn’t expect to recognize the finer points of the art world immediately.

“The original was painted by my mother,” Yusuke enlightened him. Sojiro wasn’t surprised. What else had Madarame taken?

Yusuke continued speaking with a wistful smile, unaware of Sojiro’s worries, “but it’s lost to time now. This is the only copy to reveal the original work. The baby is me and the woman is my mother… I would like for it to remain here, in this café.”

Sojiro blinked, unsure if he had heard Yusuke correctly, “Are you sure? This seems important.”

“It’ll be met with skepticism in the dorms and I’ll most likely keep it covered. A hint of color, shining light on an otherwise ordinary day for tired patrons…” Yusuke lightly traced his finger over the outline of his mother’s face. There were no genuine brush strokes to damage on the flat copy, so he was free to do so without harming it. Yusuke kept his smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes, “I feel as though my mother would have liked that.”

Sojiro smiled back, “Then I’ll take good care of it.”

Chapter Text

Akira woke up sometime around noon and wandered downstairs, dressed for the day but with his hair still tangled from tossing in his sleep. He glanced drowsily around the first floor of LeBlanc, a small frown on his face. “Where’s Yusuke?” he asked and sat down on a barstool.

“He went back to his school’s dorms after breakfast,” Sojiro explained and placed a cup of coffee down in front of him. Akira took it the cup and sipped from it, some semblance of life returning to him.

“Aw, man,” he muttered under his breath, yawned, and wiped the weary tears from his eyes.

With no one else around and Akira silently sipping his coffee, Sojiro leaned against the counter to watch the television.

A group of individuals, ranging from their twenties to their mid-thirties had been interviewed extensively after Madarame’s confession a few days prior. Each of them, a pupil under Madarame’s hold for years before ultimately finding themselves out on the street, spoke up about their experiences and took the time to point out their own paintings and request they be returned. It became painfully obvious that not a single piece of art in Madarame’s galleries for the past ten years had been his. He had been slowly phasing out his own art after the first few years he had begun to plagiarize, but by now, nothing he claimed he had painted in his galleries were his own.

“It’s a shame,” Sojiro muttered to himself and shook his head in disgust.

Akira glanced up to catch a glimpse of a young woman clutching the frame of a painting as if someone would take it away at any moment while she explained what Madarame had her do. He nodded, “Yeah, he was using people for a long time.”

Sojiro, before Yusuke had left, had tried to comfort the boy. He had believed, with less information than he had now, that Madarame had to have cared for Yusuke on some level. Sojiro still had the bare minimum of information on Yusuke’s situation, but he was beginning to question his original stance. Madarame had used and thrown away the lives of so many young people. Why had he done it to Yusuke too? How could he have done that to anyone at all?

Sojiro found, at least, some solace in the fact Madarame had found his conscience again. There was at least some respect he had for a man who would willingly admit his injustices and ask for punishment. It was never too late to change. It was never too late to make things right, if you tried. Even if it took a mysterious group and a couple of teenagers willing to protect their friend to convince him to take the first step.

But, then there was Yusuke. He was the youngest of all of Madarame’s pupils and had been completely dependent on him. If Madarame was jailed and Yusuke had to live in the dorms in a school that must cost a fortune to attend…

“You think your friend will be all right on his own?” Sojiro asked.

Akira hummed quietly to himself and eventually shrugged, “Probably?”

Akira’s confidence in his friend was… certain. Yusuke would be just fine on his own as long as he stayed in the dorms and maybe even found a part-time job. Loud whining yowls pulled Sojiro from his thoughts. Both he and Akira glanced down and found Morgana sitting in front of his food bowl, a frustrated look in his eyes.

“Feed your cat,” Sojiro ordered and Akira stood to find the cans of cat food tucked away in the kitchen, hidden from customers’ view.

-

When Sojiro asked for Akira’s journal, the kid handed it to him without complaints, as usual. For the most part, his simple explanations of his daily activities were similar to how they always were. Yusuke had been included in the more resent entries, as Sojiro expected. Apparently, Yusuke had asked to paint Ann for the express purpose of creating a new work for Madarame to present at the end of art gallery. Luckily, they had convinced him that Madarame was using him and that he had to learn to stand his ground. They then spent the rest of their time before Madarame’s confession together after school to keep Yusuke distracted.

At this point, a few months after he’d given Akira the journal, Sojiro began to wonder if it was even necessary to continue to check it. The boy did nothing other than spend time with his friends, study, occasionally work, and play video games. He never reported back about Akira in much detail. They wouldn’t need details unless Sojiro noticed something out of the ordinary. It was obvious that Akira wouldn’t be getting into very much trouble, even if Sojiro just stopped asking him to turn in his notebook.

Sojiro reported on Akira’s good behavior and returned his journal. Sojiro contemplated telling the kid not to bother with it, but thought better of it. He might not check the next time he had to report in, but he might want to take a look later.

“You’ve been pretty good lately,” Sojiro mumbles over an unlit cigarette. He had forgotten his lighter downstairs, “I’m fine with you going out at night. You don’t have to stay in the neighborhood, but don’t wander too far.”

Morgana circled Sojiro’s feet as Akira adjusted the books and papers inside the cat’s usual seat to fit the journal again. He purred when Sojiro reached down and scratched behind his ear. Sojiro still couldn’t believe he’d allowed Akira to keep an animal in his cafe.

“Sojiro?” Akira’s voice caught Sojiro’s attention.

Sojiro stood up straight, leaving Morgana to lean into the hand that had disappeared from his chin. He gave Akira his full attention and Morgana followed suit by leaving Sojiro’s side and jumping into Akira’s lap.

“Sorry about… bringing my friends over and making you let Yusuke live with us,” Akira snorted softly as he laughed to himself, “Even if he literally left after one night.”

“Eh,” Sojiro waved away Akira’s concerns with his hand, “Don’t worry about it. As long as they’re good influences, they can come by.”

“Really?”

Sojiro shouldn’t have said that. He didn’t need Akira bringing his friends to loiter and drive away the few customers he had with their presence. It wasn’t that they weren’t welcome, but most of his customers were close to his age or elderly. He couldn’t imagine they would want to spend their quiet mornings or afternoons surrounded by loud and excitable teenagers, as nice and respectful as they all seemed.

“Sure,” Sojiro said before he could stop himself and, at that point, he almost didn’t want to. Akira had made friends, other than the strange little cat he somehow managed to sneak into every place he went without getting caught. He had real human friends. Somehow, whatever they’d done helped Akira and, almost as surprisingly, Akira had helped them. They all seemed like wonderful kids and, after realizing he was so willing to take in Akira and Yusuke for absolutely nothing, he couldn’t imagine himself turning any of them away. If they came by, asking for free drinks and a place to spend the afternoon, Sojiro wouldn’t bat an eye. They wouldn’t get free refills though. He had a business to run after all.

“You won’t be able to get into trouble if your always downstairs,” Sojiro said, explaining himself.

Akira smiled, “We’ll try not to be too much trouble.”

“Yeah right,” Sojiro grumbled, attempting to return to the hardened guardian facade he had let slip far too many times already. Sojiro turned and descended the stairs, leaving Akira on his own.

That night, after Sojiro finished cleaning up, he passed the Sayuri. Sojiro found himself staring at it, thinking quietly to himself. The painting was beautiful, even if it was just a cheap copy. A self portrait of a mother and her son. Yusuke hadn’t told Sojiro how his mother had died, but it seemed clear Yusuke hadn’t been old enough to remember her face before she passed away, otherwise, he might have recognized her a long time ago. Sojiro couldn’t imagine a woman, who looked at her son in reality the same way the painted version looked at her infant, willingly leaving her son behind. However, because fate is cruel and unfair, she died anyway.

Yusuke, with a loving mother, gone too soon, and a world practically punishing him for it… Sojiro had seen it before. The feeling he got from staring at the painting was familiar. It was regret. It was self-pity; selfishness. It was the feeling he had tried to push down by taking in a little girl, hurting worse than him, because it was the only way to keep Wakaba from haunting him every time he closed his eyes. The feeling was wistfulness and longing for someone too far gone to reach.

Sojiro locked LeBlanc’s door behind him and trudged home.

Chapter Text

June was almost an uneventful month. Sojiro was able to report to Akira’s legal probation officer that he’d done nothing but stay a model citizen. Akira had, however, for a short time, seemed to be spending far too much time with his friends on Central Street. Sojiro was warned to tell Akira to stay away from Central Street for a while. Apparently, a mafia group had made themselves home in Shibuya and were extorting teenagers out of their money and eventually their family’s savings. The police could hardly do anything about it.

When Akira had returned home from yet another outing to Central Street, Sojiro told him about what he’d heard. “I’d feel better if you and your friends stuck around here when you want to hang out. Central Street isn’t very safe right now.”

Akira had been jittery that day, as if something important was coming up and fast. The scowl on his face was unwelcome. “What’s with that look?” Sojiro asked, “Don’t get into any trouble… You aren’t already in trouble, are you?”

“No,” Akira shook his head, “I’m going to change and… I’m going to the batting cages.”

“Alright,” Sojiro agreed, but he had initially hoped Akira would stick around to help him close up shop, “Remember what I said.”

“Stay away from Central Street,” Akira repeated back to him and climbed the stairs. Morgana watched Sojiro with his large, blue eyes through the opening in Akira’s bag. Akira was such a strange boy, with an even stranger pet to match.

Over the next few weeks, Sojiro couldn’t confirm whether or not Akira and his friends stayed away from Central Street like he’d asked. Any time the group wasn’t in the café, they could easily be anywhere they shouldn’t be. He supposed he trusted Akira to listen to him, though. The kid hadn’t let him down yet. He couldn’t imagine what he’d do if Akira fell into the hands of the mafia. Would he be too afraid to say anything, like the other adults and children who had gotten themselves trapped? Sojiro hoped not. Akira trusted him, right?

One afternoon, while Akira was out, a girl in a Shujin uniform came by looking for him. Unfortunately for both of them, Sojiro had no idea where Akira was. She didn’t seem to mind all that much and, instead, asked for Akira’s phone number.

“You’re a friend too?” Sojiro asked, skeptical of her motives, but not completely convinced her intentions were bad. He knew there was intense bullying at Akira’s school and he didn’t want to aid in perpetuating any of that cyber bullying he’d heard about on morning talk shows.

“I am,” she claimed with a hesitant smile, “I’m the student council president, I… well I want to help tutor him…”

“He’s top of his class in all his subjects,” Sojiro corrected and the student council president’s face flushed, “Why would you need to tutor him?”

“O-Oh he… he is?” she stuttered and pulled her hands up to cup them together in front of her chest nervously.

“You shouldn’t think so little of him,” Sojiro narrowed his eyes. He could guess by now what was going on here.

“I not!” the girl affirmed, cheeks growing a bit redder, “I hadn’t realized. H-He’d asked me to…”

“Here,” Sojiro pulled his notepad from his apron pocket and copied Akira’s number down on to the order slip. He tore the paper out and held it out for the girl to take. She took it, wide eyed and uncertain. Two girls were already interested in Akira despite his record. That boy must be a natural flirt. “There’s no need to lie. Be smart about it, though.”

“I don’t…” the student council president began, but cleared her throat and adjusted her posture to stand a bit taller; regal. “Thank you kindly,” she turned and left in a hurry, her phone already in her hand and adding Akira’s number to her contacts.

Apparently, the girl only managed to work up the courage to call right when Akira had returned home. Sojiro decided he had to be a bit nosy and ask what the call was about. Morgana meowed directly in Akira’s ear right as the boy opened him mouth. Akira flinched and shoved the cat as far back as he’d go while still hanging on his shoulder. “A friend called to apologize for getting my number without my permission.”

“A girl came by asking for it. I gave it to her,” Sojiro informed him and Akira seemed silently surprised. “Two girls already, kid? Be careful not to break any hearts.”

Akira laughed and shook his head, “It’s not like that.”

“Sure,” Sojiro rolled his eyes, “Now, are you working today or what?”

Morgana, as if he understood him, began to yowl obnoxiously and bat at the back of Akira’s head. Akira grimaced and whispered over his shoulder, “If you want to go to bed so bad, go by yourself.”

Weird cat. Weirder kid.

-

Sojiro had started to ask Akira where he’d been after he returned home late in the afternoon, just to be sure he wasn’t actually getting into trouble. It made more sense to know right away than continue to wait for Akira’s less than detailed descriptions of his whereabouts in his journal. Plus, with Akira going out at night when Sojiro wasn’t there, it was better to be safe than sorry. Not once did Akira admit to going to Central Street. Instead, he promised that he and a friend had gone out for ramen, or visited an art museum, or studied together in the library, or spent time at the park lake, or even gone to karaoke.

Sojiro didn’t see any reason not to believe him. Everything he offered as an explanation for where he’d gone seemed reasonable and more fun that walking around Central Street. Akira did let him know that he’d gotten a part-time job at a flower shop in the underground mall in Shibuya. “I’ll be careful,” Akira assured him, “but I don’t want to not go and get fired. I need the money.”

“You keep bringing that cat everywhere you go and you might get fired that way.” All joking aside, Sojiro agreed that getting himself fired would be terrible. Sojiro couldn’t imagine the 5,000 yen he’d offered him after he won some spending money from the lotto would be enough for all the activities Akira took part in after school. However, he would miss having Akira work with him more often. Akira would come back looking tired and Sojiro couldn’t possibly ask him to work after what he assumed to be a long shift and multiple cramped train rides. He had to remind Akira not to work himself ragged trying balance work, school, and his social life. If he was feeling tired, he could always cancel. His friends would understand.

It was on another day, when Akira had called and said he’d be at work all afternoon. His phone was dying and he didn’t have a charger so he wouldn’t be able to answer for a while. He was in the middle of reminding him to leave as soon as his shift was over and not talk to any shady characters, when the bell above the door rang. Sojiro glanced up and welcomed the well-dressed business women who had entered.

Akira agreed and when he hung up, Sojiro set his phone aside. “Sorry about that ma’am,” he smiled and turned up the charm, “Kids, ya’ know?”

“I do know,” the woman replied and brushed a few strands of long sliver hair behind her ear.

“What can I get you?”

The woman glanced up at the menu behind and above him with disinterest. “Unfortunately, I’m not here to enjoy some coffee,” She reached into the inner pocket of her suit jacket and pulled out a business card and a warrant. “I’m here to ask you about the death of Wakaba Isshiki and her research on Cognitive Psience.”

Sojiro’s heart began to pound in his chest. He squared his shoulders and took a tentative step back. He had been so careful to hide himself after he’d taken in Futaba. He would have stayed with his government position longer if he’d felt it had been safe for the two of them. This was the exact sort of thing Sojiro had been trying to avoid. His and Futaba’s connection to Wakaba and her research was an invitation for those looking for information on where to find it and how to use it to their advantage. He had no idea what exactly Wakaba had been working on or where it all was now, but he had known it was dangerous in the wrong hands.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sojiro growled.

“You are Sojiro Sakura, correct? You adopted Futaba Isshiki after her mother’s death and… is it true she isn’t in school right now?” The woman, who the card revealed to be Sae Niijima of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, was unfazed by Sojiro’s hostility.

Sojiro bristled. How dare she bring Futaba into this? Was she threatening him? “I am Sojiro Sakura,” he took a moment to breathe and calmed down. It wouldn’t look good on his part to let his temper flare, “What is it you’d like to know?”

“Before she died, Wakaba Isshiki was working on a field of study known as Cognitive Psience. You worked closely with her, is that right?” She was smug, as though she had caught him. She was wrong.

“I don’t know anything about that. I’m not a scientist.”

Niijima frowned and placed a hand on her hip, as if her change in posture would prove herself superior. “I’m simply doing my job, Mr. Sakura. I would appreciate if you would cooperate.” Her nail tapped the warrant she had laid down on the counter. Sojiro’s eyes followed the sound and watched for a second before reestablishing eye contact. Niijima was persistent.

“I understand that. I also see your warrant,” Sojiro motioned flippantly to the paper Niijima was flaunting, “But I have no information to give. Wakaba was my friend. I took in her daughter after she passed away. I have nothing else to give you.”

Sae Niijima’s gazed hardened for a moment. She picked up her warrant, but left the business card. “I see. I’ll be in touch then.”

“Once again, I have nothing,” Sojiro hid his annoyance under fake kindness, “Can I get you anything before you go?”

“…Mocha to go, please.”

“Coming right up.”

-

Akira returned home around nine at night. Sojiro had come back after closing because he’d thought he’d left the stove on. He had. It was a terrifying reminder that he was getting old and his memory wasn’t what it used to be. It was awful to imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t come to check or, if when Akira returned, he didn’t notice. If a fire had started…

Sojiro stopped the line of thought after he welcomed Akira home and checked the kitchen one last time to be sure he turned the stove off. When he saw that, yes, this time the stove was off, he remembered another piece of information he had forgotten. He needed to pick up salt. He needed to do that now, before he forgot again.

Just as Sojiro came around the counter, Morgana began to yowl and panic from on top of Akira’s shoulder. He had maneuvered himself out of the bag and preformed an impressive balancing act as he panicked. Akira had tilted over to accommodate.

“What in the world?” Sojiro hadn’t been sure how to react. He had never seen a cat do that.

Akira plucked Morgana from his shoulder and set him on the ground away from him and sheepishly laughed. The cat, as if realizing Sojiro had been watching him, sat in silence, and stared up at him, tail swishing frantically. There was something wrong with that cat. “What…?”

“Salt!” Akira blurted out and both him and Morgana flinched.

Salt? How had he known they needed salt? Why bring it up?

“What? Are you a mind reader now?” Sojiro asked. This night was only getting stranger. “How did you know I needed to pick up salt?”

Akira’s eyes flickered away and back, “…Lucky guess?”

“Sure,” Sojiro furrowed his brow and decided it was time to leave before something even weirder happened. Something like that maid he could have sworn looked a lot like Akira’s homeroom teacher bringing Akira his laundry basket. That had been weird.

Sojiro left and successfully bought salt as he put the night’s strange occurrences out of his mind. He returned home to an unlocked front door. He cursed to himself under his breath. He had to stop doing that.

Chapter Text

June turned to July and Akira kept his grades up. His friends stopped by as a group and individually several times. The Phantom Thieves were gaining steam after the infamous mob boss, Kaneshiro, turned himself in to the police. Sojiro couldn’t turn on the news without hearing something sensational or inflammatory about them. Supposedly the group could be linked to various crimes, including the mental shuts downs around the country and various deaths. Many believed that their victims, as terrible as they may have been, should never have been manipulated and were lucky they hadn’t been added to the death count.

It was terrifying, but there was no real evidence, just vague similarity and talk show hosts who let their loudmouthed guests talk for too long. All the same, the Phantom Thieves were increasingly popular with the youth. Countless people saw them as heroes and slayers of society’s evil and this interpretation belonged to an over whelming majority. Akira and his friends weren’t as eager to talk about the Phantom Thieves as some of Sojiro’s other customers. They smiled when they saw the news speaking in favor of the mysterious criminal group, like the children with inappropriate idols that they were, but they didn’t stop mid-conversation to talk about them like others did. Their behavior was normal for their age. They spend time together, laughed at stupid jokes, texted Akira constantly, and made plans for after school activities.

Sure, their circumstances were bizarre. Yusuke looked thinner by the day because he lacked the money to pay for food. Akira, a number of times, had shoved as many cracker packets as would fit into Yusuke’s school bag each time he visited. After the third time, Sojiro just decided it was best to send the kid home with extra curry to last him dinner for a day or two. His conscious wouldn’t allow him to let the boy go hungry. Ryuji seemed like he couldn’t stay away. He’d made occasional comments about how oppressively quiet his apartment was and how desperate he was not to sit around alone. He’d come by after school and him and Akira would climb the stairs with free drinks and snacks only to proceed to play video games for the rest of the afternoon. Ann was around the least out of the three. She preferred to take Akira away from the café rather than stick around and loiter. She was also a model, and rightfully so, meaning she was busier. Moreover, she had a friend in the hospital she visited just as often. Still, she found time to be with her group of misfits whenever she could. Overall, they were just average kids.

They were normal.

Akira was normal.

Futaba was anything but normal.

The longer Akira stayed, the more he smiled, the more he laughed, the more he joked and shot back sarcastic quips, the more Sojiro couldn’t ignore the disparities between him and Futaba. They were only a year apart and yet, Akira was ordinary. His friends were ordinary. Futaba wasn’t.

Futaba was in pain; deep emotional pain. Sojiro could still see some of that in Akira too, when the boy couldn’t shove down his feeling about his conviction and homesickness far enough for it not to show in his eyes, but he was slowly improving. Futaba wasn’t. She was getting worse and Sojiro didn’t know how to fix it. It was getting harder just to get by day by day.

When Youji called him one night when Akira was working alongside him, it was easy for Sojiro change the subject and tease the kid for being worried about him. When Youji walked into his café for the second time, Sojiro braced himself in front of Akira and couldn’t hide his distress. Futaba was getting worse by the day. She still woke up from nightmares about this man and the rest of his rotten family. Sojiro wouldn’t let him hurt anyone else.

“Haven’t I already told you I don’t have the money?” Sojiro ground out, “Look at this place. You see any customers in here?”

Akira couldn’t help but stare. Sojiro pushed him back toward the kitchen. Akira took the hint and hid. Youji probably wouldn’t try anything violent on Sojiro’s property, but he’d seen how sickly Futaba had looked in his home. His child abuse was blatant and Sojiro wasn’t going to take chances.

“Oh, no need to hide it, Sojiro." Youji was smug and sure of himself, “You must have saved plenty from your time in the government.”

“What?” Akira whispered from somewhere behind him. Both men ignored him.

“Aren’t you taking care of that employee you’re trying to hide, too?” Youji smirked. “For nothing more than charity, at that! I wish you’d show me the same kindness.”

Youji was wrong, he barely had any savings these days, but there was nothing Sojiro could do to change his mind. Begrudgingly, but with a plan in mind, he said, “If you’re not planning on buying anything, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m expecting a phone call, so I don’t have time to chat.”

“We can’t talk before your call comes in?”

“Well…” Barely a moment later, Sojiro’s phone rang. He thought it was just convenient timing, until he saw the number. Akira. “Oh, there’s that social services call I was waiting for,” he said as he answered, “They come around pretty often to make sure this guy isn’t getting into trouble. Want me to introduce you?”

That had Youji just about running for the door. He claimed he had business to attend to and left.

When he was gone, Sojiro sighed, “Does he really have nothing better to do?” It was going to just get harder to keep everything a secret. If he couldn’t tell Akira who Youji was, he should at least prepare him for the possibility of him coming back. It wouldn’t be safe otherwise. “I should explain,” Sojiro settled on saying, “in case he tries to drop by when I’m not here.”

Akira glanced at the door and then back at Sojiro. He listened with rapt attention.

“That man is… an old acquaintance of mine who is short on cash right now,” That was the simplest way to put it. “He looks friendly, but don’t fall for it. It’s an act. He’s dangerous, so if he comes by when you’re alone, call me.”

Akira’s tiny frown and gloomy eyes made a return after their long phase of joy. Sojiro wasn’t happy to see their homecoming. Akira grimaced a little, probably at the idea of Youji coming back at all, but nodded nevertheless. He wasn’t speaking again. To break the sudden tension, Sojiro smiled and praised him, “I have to say, I’m impressed you were so quick-witted. I wasn’t expecting you to call me to add credibility to my story. Good job! You saved me back there.”

Akira’s smile came back, but it was small and bashful.

“I’d feel better for the both of us if you wouldn’t get involved from now on.” There was the frown again. Sojiro hated himself for not leaving the conversation after his praise. It was too late to turn back now. “I just… It’s easier not to get into other people’s problems… I’d report him if it weren’t for…” Sojiro stopped himself a little too late. Akira tilted his head to the side, curious. Sojiro wished he wouldn’t go silent like that. He couldn’t go back to the boy Sojiro met in April. He’d been doing so well. He’d been so normal. “Nevermind. It’s getting late. I should get going. Dinner’s in the fridge.”

Sojiro and Akira removed their aprons and Akira opened the fridge. Morgana meowed for attention from the staircase. Sojiro left the scene just as Akira, thankfully, began talking to Morgana like he was people. He locked the door behind him and through the window, he could see Akira ascend the stairs with Morgana at his heels.

His house was dark when he returned, like it always was. He climbed the stairs and was about to knock on Futaba’s door to ask if she wanted him to make her dinner, but when he reached it, he could hear her sobbing. “Futaba, are you all right?” he called out to her.

“…Yeah!” she yelled back through her sobs.

“Can I come in?” Sojiro so desperately wanted to help his daughter, but she made it practically impossible. If the hallucinations were getting worse, he needed to get her help. “Please?”

“No!” Futaba cried, “Leave me alone!”

“But-”

“Please!”

As the only person Futaba would talk to through the door, Sojiro knew that she had reached her limit with him. She wouldn’t answer him from then on. He had been lucky enough to get anything at all. Futaba had been crying more often. What was he doing wrong? What did he have to do to fix this? He knew raising children wasn’t easy, but this was excruciating. He couldn’t help her.

Everything was easier with Akira, but Akira wasn’t Futaba. Futaba saw her mother die. “Have you eaten dinner at least?” he asked through the door. He received a text. Futaba answered him with a simple: Yes.

Sojiro sighed and wished her a good night. Futaba didn’t respond.

-

The name of the girl who had come by LeBlanc the previous month was named Makoto Niijima. Sojiro recognized her family name and it set Sojiro on edge, but Makoto seemed nothing like her guardian. She didn’t even seem to recognize his name either. At least Sae wasn’t using children as a tactic.

Sojiro met Makoto for the second time and finally had a proper introduction when Akira had brought her home, along with the rest of his favorite misfits. She was the student council president that had come looking for Akira’s number and he remembered her. She was just as polite as she had been back then.

As the newest, and apparently oldest, member of their group Makoto took charge of their rambunctious crew and interrupted Ryuji’s reminders of some sort of celebration to remind them all of their finals before summer began. Sojiro didn’t know what they were celebrating. It probably was something simple. The kids had hotpot to welcome Yusuke. They’d probably have another for Makoto.

“Oh, come on, Makoto,” Ryuji slumped against Akira’s shoulder where they all stood near a booth. “You’re no fun.”

“We need to study,” Makoto said and sat down with her bag. The others began to sit down with her. Yusuke pulled a seat from the bar counter and pushed it toward the booth table to make room for himself. He went to a different school, but Sojiro hoped Yusuke would be able to study with them regardless. When Akira set his own bag down, through his own complains of having to study, Morgana climbed out and up onto the table.

“No cats on the table,” Sojiro reminded him and just as quickly, Akira pulled the cat back onto the booth seat. Morgana’s paws dragging as he attempted to find purchase on the polished wood to prevent being tugged off and found none.

“Kitties belong on the table, don’t they Morgana?” Ann cooed to Morgana. The cat meowed in response and almost seemed to nod.

“No,” Sojiro said and held back a chuckle.

In response to his continued disapproval, Akira took Morgana’s paws into each of his hands tapped them against the table top. Morgana looked less than pleased. “Very funny,” Sojiro rolled his eyes and grinned, “Do that again and you and the cat can sit outside.”

Sojiro’s phone rang. When he realized it was Futaba, he answered immediately.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“It’s not the right one!” Futaba shouted, her voice cracking from underuse.

“I… What? What do you mean?” Sojiro’s eyes flickered across the room and made eye contact with a few of the kids. They watched him, probably wondering who he was talking to.

“The printer isn’t right!”

Sojiro frowned, “But that’s the one the staff recommended to me though.” He didn’t understand. Hadn’t that been the brand she wanted? “Won’t that printer do?”

“It’ll do, but it’s not it!” Futaba sounded upset. She was whining and Sojiro could hear her fussing with the printer and the cardboard box it came in over the phone.

“Alright, alright,” Sojiro backed away from the counter and reached behind him to untie his apron, “I’ll come by. We’ll get you the right one.”

“Thank you!” Futaba hung up the phone and Sojiro sighed to himself. She called him because the printer he had given her wasn’t the right one. Sojiro removed his apron and this easily caught the kids’ attention. Sojiro hung his apron up on the hook on the wall and rounded the counter.

“Akira, I’m leaving you in charge,” Sojiro said.

Akira nodded and pushed his textbook away from himself. He moved to stand up and Ryuji began to leave the booth to make room for him to exit, but Sojiro stopped them. “No, no, you keep studying. If anyone comes in go ahead and put your apron on and get their order, but if I’m not back in… let’s say thirty minutes, go ahead and close up, but you and your friends can stick around.”

“Okay… Where are you going?” Akira asked, both boys returning to their seats.

“Don’t worry about it,” It was a cryptic answer and Sojiro knew it. Akira didn’t seem all that willing to accept it, but he and his friends seemed hesitant to ask any more questions. Sojiro grabbed his hat from the back of the shop and placed it one his head. He left with his keys, leaving Akira with the spares.

Futaba was forced to let Sojiro into her room for him to take the printer. He was barely inside the doorway, but he could see the copious number of trash bags and clutter piled on the floor. She refused to respond to his requests to let him clear out the garbage bags from her room. Instead, Futaba focused on pushing the printer box toward him, along with the receipt, and getting him to leave her room as fast as possible.

Sojiro’s trip back to the electronics store for an item exchange through traffic and long lines was tedious and annoying. Sojiro had hoped he could convince Futaba to keep the new printer he’d gotten her, but it was impossible. He was stuck getting a different one. Sojiro knew Akira would have closed the shop by the time he could have gotten back, so he decided not to worry about the café. He came home around dinner with Futaba’s new printer. At least his newest purchase seemed to be the correct one. He started dinner at home and called the public phone to reach Akira.

Apparently, his friends had already left and he had made himself dinner.

A pot of water simmered on the stove beside Sojiro. He watched the steam rise from it and his fingers twitched toward his breast pocket to pull out his pack of cigarettes. “Good,” he said to Akira over the phone, “Thanks for watching the store.”

“You’re welcome… Whatever it was seemed important.”

“Yeah,” Sojiro looked toward the hallway and the base of the stairs, “Something like that.”

“…Um, I wanted to ask something?” Akira hesitated and Sojiro could hear Morgana meowing in the background, “Can my friends and I go to the firework festival a few days after finals?”

“Of course,” Sojiro was surprised the kid was even asking him. He decided he’d do his part in parenting him. He hadn’t done anything like it in a while for either him or Futaba. Sojiro settled on saying, “but only if you’re grades are good. Bring ‘em for me to see when you get ‘em.” He’d make up some excuse for himself to let Akira go, even if his grades fell flat.

Akira had thanked him and wished him a good night.

Sojiro hadn’t needed to worry about Akira’s grades. When Akira brought his scores for Sojiro to see the day they were planning to see the fireworks downtown, he had, once again, been at the top of his class. “English too, huh?” Sojiro had teased.

Akira had smiled, “Ann speaks fluently. It’s pretty easy when she’s explaining it.”

“Alright, well,” Sojiro gestured toward the paper Akira had been sent home with, “Don’t stay out too late. Remember there might be rain tonight.”

Akira was gone when Sojiro locked up and thankfully Akira remembered to take his keys. On his back porch, Sojiro smoked. He could hear the fireworks going off in the distance as rain began to pelt down from the partly cloudy sky. Sojiro sighed and texted Akira’s number.

Get home safe.

Chapter Text

Sae Niijima returned to LeBlanc on a quiet evening. She ordered a coffee and behaved as anyone would expect any average customer would. However, after Sojiro placed her drink in front of her, the act disappeared. “I would like for you to answer my questions this time around,” she said and rested her chin on her knuckles.

Sojiro sighed. Of course, that was what she had come for. Why couldn’t she just take his word for it? He didn’t understand Cognitive Pscience in the slightest. He didn’t have Wakaba’s research papers nor did he know where they had been sent. Sojiro had nothing to give her and yet she kept pushing. “I can’t help you. You’ll have to find someone else who actually knows something.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Sojiro saw Akira enter and pause in the doorway.

“So, you won’t tell me, no matter what?” Sae’s tone turned serious and her gaze hardened. Whatever she had done since she’d last been too LeBlanc had given her a trump card. She wasn’t afraid to use it.

Sojiro couldn’t hide his suspicions of her. Why didn’t she understand he was telling the truth? Wasn’t that her job? She should be able to tell the difference between lies and the truth. This wasn’t just about Wakaba’s research. There had to be something she wasn’t telling him. Sojiro frowned deeply, “I have nothing more to say about that.” Akira was standing right there. He’d be able to hear every word. Sojiro kept his response vague.

Sae glared and stood from her seat, her coffee forgotten, “I see. In that case, I have ways of making you talk.”

Sojiro took a step back, shocked and alarmed, “Huh? What’s that supposed to… Hey! We’re not done here!”

Sae turned and left, her heels clicking loudly against the floor. She stepped around Akira, who was stunned into silence. Wide eyed, Akira’s eyes flickered from Sojiro to Sae, who was already outside. Akira opened his mouth to speak, but Sojiro shook his head. Akira muttered something close to, “I’m home,” but it staggered off near the end.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sojiro groaned and removed his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose, “Everything’s fine.”

Lying to himself was getting old.

-

“The international hacktivist group, Medjed, has released a statement to the Phantom Thieves. To the Phantom Thieves causing an uproar in Japan: Do not speak of your false justice. We do not need the spread of such falsehood. We are the true executors of justice. However, we are magnanimous. We will give you an opportunity to repent your ways. If you agree to a change of heart, we will accept you as our own. If you reject our offer, the hammer of justice will find you. We are Medjed. We are unseen. We will eliminate evil.

Sojiro turned toward the television and listened. “This again,” he said aloud, more to himself than to Akira, who watched along with him, or Morgana, who played with his shoe strings. The newest Detective Prince was brought onto yet another talk show to explain why his unfavorable views were relevant, especially now that an international internet terrorist group had returned to leave their mark on Japan.

Medjed was all anyone could talk about around mid-July. They were an anonymous hacker group that had blown up a few years ago. Sojiro remembered that their earliest escapades involved revealing dirty secrets about politicians and CEOs before Medjed’s hubris got the better of them and their attempt to uncover injustice turned into active slander, manipulation, and the theft and deletion of integral company documents. They had been dormant in Japan for a while, causing damage worth billions of yen in the shadows in other countries. Their activity had slowed in recent months, but now it seemed they were returning full force.

Now, Medjed had declared a turf war on the Phantom Thieves.

They demanded that the Phantom Thieves stop their ‘false justice’ and submit to Medjed and their superior morality. It seemed to anyone who didn’t sensationalize the situation for ratings, that Medjed had only done this to earn some fame back from the recent antics of the Phantom Thieves. It had nothing to do with anyone’s brand of justice. However, Medjed had sworn that if the Phantom Thieves did not reveal their true identities, they would rain hellfire down on the economy of Japan by August twenty-first.

The talk shows and news channels never stopped talking about the ‘feud’ between Medjed and the Phantom Thieves. Medjed’s wrath was Japan’s punishment for following and believing in an organization that wasn’t theirs. Sojiro thought it was all overkill. It wasn’t a feud. Medjed had been eager to talk and claim victory, even though the Phantom Thieves had never made a single statement. The talk show hosts took this as disheartening and ramped up their attempts to instill fear and hysteria, just for the entertainment value.

Sojiro chose to remain calm through this. If Medjed was actually planning to leak major companies’ documents, there wasn’t anything the common folk could do. If the economy crashed, it was out of Sojiro’s hands. He had two kids to worry about, plus a few extra that had wandered in like strays after Akira. The effects of an economic downturn would probably hit him and the rest of the neighborhood pretty hard. There wasn’t anything he could do. So, instead of making a fuss, he tried to keep his kids calm.

Akira seemed discontented with every Medjed announcement. His face would scrunch up into a grimace and he’d frantically text on his phone. Sojiro had eventually decided to just change the channel whenever Akira worked with him in the café and steered the conversations with customers who had taken a liking to Akira away from Medjed. Akira seemed pleased to never talk about it, but occasionally even Ryuji or Ann would come by and ask if they could change the channel back.

“You kids shouldn’t be worrying about Medjed,” Sojiro had tried to dissuade them, but in the end, he always switched the channel back to the news. It never stopped talking about Medjed and the Phantom Thieves; just segment after segment of the same thing. “Things’ll sort themselves out. Leave worrying about money to the adults.”

“Wish we could,” Ryuji had whispered under his breath. Sojiro didn’t want to make any assumptions, but he could imagine money being tight for Ryuji back home. The same could be said for Yusuke, but he wasn’t present for Sojiro to comfort. Apparently, an art piece for a competition was occupying his full attention recently. Good for him.

Ann had smiled, but it wouldn’t reach her eyes, “We won’t worry… it’s just… hard not knowing what’s going on, is all.”

Akira remained silent.

Futaba was easier to keep away from Medjed’s dealings than Akira and his friends. Sojiro wasn’t even sure if she watched the news. He was sure it was all over the internet, but Sojiro had no idea what Futaba did all day. If anything, she probably played her videogames and read the textbooks he bought her at all hours. He never asked her about Medjed and she never brought it up. Instead, her fear lay within her own mind. He could hear her talking to herself and whimpering more often. Sojiro had her doctors’ numbers in his phone contacts and he was ready to call if he needed too, but he never did. She’d never come out of her room and they’d never be able to get to her. She’d kick and scream and Sojiro wouldn’t be able to live with himself. He just let her be.

If Sojiro could just ease the rising panic within his own home, everything would turn out for the better.

-

“Who is Futaba Sakura?”

Sojiro never thought he’d hear Akira utter those words. It had been so easy to keep Futaba a secret. Their residential street barely knew about her existence. Where had Akira heard that name? Who told him that name? Akira had slowly become part of the community through the café and his known connections to Sojiro, but he doubted there had been any gossip floating around about Futaba for Akira to overhear.

“Where did you hear that name?” Sojiro asked and it was difficult to feign ignorance through a harsh glare and a gruff tone. Akira gave him a skeptical look, an eyebrow raised just barely over his large wire frames. Akira knew something. He was just waiting for confirmation.

“I told you that you shouldn’t be poking your nose into other people’s business!” Sojiro didn’t mean to raise his voice. He clenched his jaw shut when he realized he had. Akira shrank back and the sight left Sojiro with a bad taste in his mouth. Akira didn’t respond and in the silence, Sojiro could hear Morgana rustling in Akira’s bag. The tension hung in the air and Akira’s eyes flickered toward the stairs, waiting for the right moment to escape to his room.

Sojiro sighed and took a step back. He ran his fingers through his hair, which was unfortunately thinning with age, and softened his tone to say, “I’m sorry… Just forget about it. I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

Akira nodded.

Silence again. Excellent. Could there possibly be just one single time when Sojiro didn’t screw something up for his kids? …No, his charge.

“You’re not in trouble.” Sojiro decided it needed to be said. Akira seemed relieved. “I’m sorry again. I shouldn’t have yelled.”

Akira nodded again and fidgeted.

“I’ll start your dinner,” Sojiro said before Akira could escape up the stairs. It was impossible not to see Futaba in Akira’s place and he wasn’t sure he could handle it if Akira regressed back to his avoidant behavior from April.

Instead of running, Akira came around the counter offered to help.

Sojiro was thankful.

-

Akira didn’t ask about Futaba the next day or the day after that. It was almost as if he had forgotten about her entirely. Sojiro was sure he hadn’t, but he was at least listening to Sojiro’s advice to mind his own business. It would only be a few more days before summer began. Sojiro knew that if Akira refused to drop the topic, it would be harder to keep the kids from learning about each other by proximity.

A letter distracted Sojiro from his worries. The envelope had come will the utility bills for LeBlanc and a letter from the public prosecutor’s office, of which he purposely ignored. The back was blank; not a return address or even the address for LeBlanc. Instead, it had Akira’s name printed on it. Sojiro wondered silently about what it could be. He could open it, invade Akira’s privacy, and satisfy his curiosity and concern. Sojiro knew it wouldn’t be right. He just couldn’t imagine what the letter was.

He was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he didn’t hear the bell above the door ring. Akira entered LeBlanc with his friends close behind. He stepped ahead of them to tap Sojiro on the shoulder and get his attention. When Sojiro looked up from the letters in his hand, he saw Akira smiling sheepishly at him with his large group of friends huddled behind him. They all watched Sojiro with equally apprehensive smiles.

“What’s with the large group?” Sojiro asked, not at all troubled by Akira’s need to bring over his rambunctious group of friends.

“We were thinking about planning for our summer here, if that’s alright,” Ann stepped forward and turned on the charm, interrupting whatever Akira was going to say to him. She didn’t need to do that. He would have let them stay as long as they wanted, like he always did. Besides, he would have preferred if she had let Akira speak. His friends needed to stop speaking for him and he needed to stop letting them.

“Sounds like fun,” Sojiro said instead of what he’d been thinking and smiled. He remembered the envelope in his hand and pulled it away from the stack of bills it sat among. Sojiro held the envelope out to Akira, “Here. This was addressed to you.”

“What is it?” Akira asked.

So much for getting any information on it from Akira. Sojiro could make a guess and assume it was from Akira’s parents. He couldn’t remember the last time the two strangers had called. Sojiro couldn’t make such a broad assumption, though. Why would they send an unmarked letter? It was strange, but he chose to ignore it. “No clue,” Sojiro shrugged and stepped aside to let the kids find their seats for the evening. “Well, it’s closing time. This old man will get out of your hair. Help yourselves to the rest of tonight’s curry.” He’d have more ready by the morning and, besides, he caught Yusuke looking toward the kitchen, just about ravenous. Everyone seemed pleased with his offer of a free dinner and excited to take advantage of it. Sojiro thought it might be beneficial to start teaching Akira how to make curry himself.

Sojiro continued to let his thoughts wonder to when he’d be able to start teaching Akira Wakaba’s curry recipe and if he should make sure Akira sent his friends home with whatever was extra tonight as he dismissed himself and started his walk home. He stopped on the way back to buy a new pack of cigarettes and he could overhear a radio playing from close by. It was probably one of the elderly men around the neighborhood listening to the evening news.

Medjed, recently, has declared their victory over the Phantom Thieves and have demanded they reveal their idenities. Five days after this public statement and the Phantom Thieves have made no move to address the issue. Akechi, what do you think?

Sojiro sighed and shook his head. He wanted to go home and forget about everything. Medjed, obnoxious talk shows, mysterious letters. He just wanted one day of peace and quiet.

Chapter Text

Sae didn’t stay gone for long. She returned, looking far more determined than she had during the last two visits. This time, she didn’t sit down, order a coffee, or even try to make small talk before she started her interrogation. She was motivated, Sojiro could give her that, but her constant probing was grating on his nerves. Why was she so driven to wring every bit of information out of him about a field of study he barely comprehended? Why did she want to know about Futaba, about Wakaba, about anything? There had to be better people than him to contact!

Akira returned home from school just in time to witness Sae’s unwavering ambition. She hadn’t even glanced in Akira’s direction when he entered, but Sojiro couldn’t help himself. He knew the kid recognized Sae, but the worried expression on his face told a bigger story. Akira knew something or was afraid of something; something he probably didn’t want Sojiro to know about and Sae’s continued presence was interfering with it.

Akira was friends with Sae’s ward. Sojiro wasn’t sure how she and Makoto were related, but he was certain Akira had seen Sae at least once before through Makoto. Sojiro growled somewhere deep in his throat. He was forcing bits and pieces together; grasping for straws and a person to blame.

“You read the letter, didn’t you?” Sae asked, stern and threatening. Sojiro hadn’t read it. It was from the public prosecutor’s office. It seemed important and he had been meaning to open it, but he had left it on the kitchen counter days ago and hadn’t touched it since.

Sojiro opted to ignore her question. “So, you’re the one who tipped him off about Futaba.” He gestured vaguely to Akira. The kid stayed silent and watched. Sae had the audacity to looked confused. Where else could Akira have learned Futaba’s name? She had to have tried to force information out of Akira and confused him. Sojiro glared and continued with, “You really shouldn’t have done that. I have no intention of talking to you about Wakaba. You shouldn’t use children for your dirty work.”

Sae shook her head and asked, “Tipped off? What are you talking about?” Her tactic must have been to play dumb, because she changed the subject almost immediately. “Back to the matter at hand… Your parental authority will have to be suspended. I take it you’re okay with that outcome?”

“W-What?” Had that been what that letter was about? Was Sae really going that far to get him to talk? Suspension of his parental authority meant they’d take Futaba away from him and send her right back to her undeserving family. Suspension meant there would be no one left to watch Akira and he’d have to go back to his parents, who Sojiro was now sure hadn’t called since early April. He’d have to drop out of school and violate his probation. His life would be in shambles. Futaba and Akira. Sae was trying to take his family away from him and for what? Answers he didn’t have?

Sae continued as if the panic evident on Sojiro’s face wasn’t something to apologize for. She simply steeled her gaze and pushed forward, “Considering the state of your daughter and your family overall, there are no points in your favor. Would you like to take this to domestic court? Our chances of victory are roughly 99.9 percent.”

That woman was a demon.

“With these suspicions of abuse…” She seemed so pleased with herself as she spoke. Sojiro’s heart pounded in his ears and he could barely hear her say, “there’s no way you could avoid having your custody revoked.”

Futaba. Akira.

Sojiro struggled to cough out, “You’re going that far?! I told you! I don’t know a damn thing about it!”

Akira watched on in, what Sojiro could only assume to be, confusion and terror. Morgana peeked over his shoulder, pawing at his shirt sleeve, but it was clear the cat was no comfort to him. Sojiro couldn’t blame him. Everything was moving too fast. This couldn’t be happening. This had to be some sort of convoluted lie!

Sae shattered whatever hope Sojiro had left in seconds. “We’re extremely serious about this,” she crossed her arms over her chest, believing wholeheartedly she was about to win some sort of elaborate game. “As long as there’s a possibility that Cognitive Pscience can be linked to psychotic breakdowns…”

Ah, so that was what this entire thing was about. The psychotic breakdowns that had been plaguing Japan in recent months was her motivation to ruin his life. Sojiro couldn’t take this anymore. Her thinly veiled threats still hung in the air. As long as there were psychotic breakdowns, Sae would do anything to force him to speak, even destroy his kids’ lives. Sojiro took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He needed to calm down. He knew he didn’t have another option. “Fine… I yield,” Sojiro conceded and opened his eyes just in time to see Sae smirk.

“Thank you,” Sae caught herself and forced her smirk into a kind smile, “I will contact you at a later date.” Sae seemed to finally address that fact that another person was in the room besides just the two of them. It wouldn’t be responsible to talk more in-depth about cognitive breakdowns around an innocent minor.

Sojiro sighed, “I doubt you’ll find anything you want to hear though.” Sojiro wasn’t prepared for what they’d do if he didn’t have the information she wanted. Even now, after he’d agreed, he didn’t have much more to tell them.

“That’s fine,” Her tune had definitely changed, “It will be up to us to decide whether the information you give us is useful or not. Next time I come here, it’ll just be for a nice cup of coffee.” Sojiro hoped he never saw her again.

She turned and stepped around Akira without a single acknowledgment.

“…And stay out!” Sojiro shouted when Sae had already left the building. He knew she hadn’t heard him and was thankful for that. He just needed to blow off some steam and get rid of his awful feeling of dread. Sojiro ended up loudly venting to Akira before he could stop himself. “That woman is real good at pissing people off…”

The look on Akira’s face hadn’t improved since Sae had left. He watched Sojiro with wide eyes and distrust. Sojiro hated Sae just a little more now. “…What’s with that look?” Sojiro lowered his voice to a softer tone. He was so tired. “Got something to say?”

Akira took a moment to collect his thoughts, mouth almost forming words before he rethought his options and tried again. Finally, he settled one, “Custody?”

“This doesn’t involve you.”

It did. Sojiro knew it did, but he couldn’t admit it.

The kid seemed ready to speak this time and suddenly asked, “Is Futaba your daughter?”

Damn that woman.

“That’s enough.” Sojiro chided. He felt terrible. Akira was asking perfectly reasonable questions considering the situation and what he had overheard, but Sojiro wanted that line of thinking to stop. The best he could do was discipline. “Just behave and keep going to school if you don’t want to get thrown out of here.”

Sojiro wasn’t even sure if that would be enough anymore.

He wanted to go home. He needed a smoke.

“Lock the store up.”

It was a little too early to close, but he couldn’t last the rest of the evening. Akira waited patiently for him to finished getting ready to leave and locked the store from the inside when Sojiro left.

That night, Sojiro finished off the pack of cigarettes he had just bought yesterday.

Nothing was going his way.

-

On Sunday, Akira was out with friends for lunch and Sojiro couldn’t ask him to stay behind to watch the store while he succumbed to Sae’s whims and walked down to the police station. Instead, he told Akira to remember to take his keys and Sojiro locked LeBlanc’s door behind him.

He still had nothing to tell them, but at least the police were easier to reason with. It took quite a few hours to convince them he was being truthful, but after that they were willing to listen.

“I didn’t realize Wakaba was in such a bad place,” Sojiro sat back in the uncomfortable metal chair he had been given to sit on, “I think she tried to tell me, but I didn’t understand. After she died, Futaba was passed around by her family, but I took her in to give her an actual home.”

“That’s all you have to say about Wakaba Isshiki’s death?” Asked a particularly disgruntled officer.

Sojiro nodded, “That’s all I know.”

It took another few hours of boredom and repeated questions before they let him leave later than he’d hoped. He didn’t know anything more about Wakaba’s research and her suicide than he’d said before and Sojiro was thankful they were finally keen on believing him. It was probably because Sae hadn’t been the one asking questions this time. Sojiro hoped that would be the last time he was questioned and that domestic court wasn’t the next step for him and his family. He’d have no money for a good attorney and it wouldn’t matter overall, Sae was right. He’d never have a chance of winning in a court of law, no one ever did. It was part of the reason Akira was staying with him in the first place. A kid like him couldn’t have won against those accusations, as false as they obviously were.

LeBlanc remained closed. Sojiro didn’t bother stopping to check the store. Akira hadn’t texted him to tell him he had gotten home safe and locked up again, so Sojiro could only assume he was still out with his friends. Sojiro went straight home.

In the end, he was thankful he had, because the front door was unlocked. A storm had begun outside. The dark clouds that had hung low in the sky all morning had finally burst and pelted the city with rain. Unprepared for the storm, the power had gone out inside the house. After a particular loud thunder clap, he heard Futaba scream. He heard multiple people scream.

“Futaba! Are you okay?” Sojiro cried out and lunched forward, throwing the front door open.

In the darkness of his home, Sojiro saw a dark figure, much taller than Futaba. In his shock, he thrust an arm out, holding out his hand to keep the figure at bay. The figure didn’t move. “Who the hell are you?!” Sojiro shouted and slowly began to step toward the hall table for a flashlight he remembered was stashed away in the top drawer. “Don’t move! You hear me?” he commanded and the figure continued to remain where it was.

He opened the drawer, not taking his eyes off the intruder, and felt around for the flashlight. When his fingers found it, he gripped it tight and pointed it ahead of him in the dark. When he flicked it on, his fear melted away and left him dazed.

Makoto Niijima crouched behind Akira, gripping his leg and whimpering apologies. Akira stood, frozen, reaching up to his shoulder to keep Morgana from leaping off.

“A-Akira?” Sojiro couldn’t believe was he was seeing. He was relieved to know it had just been Akira and one of his friends in his home, but he couldn’t help but wonder why. He glanced down to Makoto holding into Akira’s leg for dear life and grew extremely concerned. “What are you doing in my house?”

Makoto seemed to return to herself just enough to stutter out, “G-Good evening, sir… We didn’t mean to… intrude.”

“Niijima and… Wait…” Sojiro hadn’t thought he’d officially find out about Akira’s love life this way, “Are you two dating?”

“No!” Akira frantically shook his head, red in the face.

Makoto shared his embarrassment and turned a similar shade, “W-We’re just friends!”

Sojiro raised an eyebrow. He had certainly caught them in a compromising position, in his own house of all places. He supposed he hadn’t been a teenager in quite a long time. Times change and what people do with friends certainly could have differed from back then. He scoffed and shook his head, “Friends nowadays get that close to each other?” What was this world coming to?

Akira took a quick step back and Makoto frantically stumbled to her feet to put some distance between them. “That’s not it!” she squeaked, “This… um… Things happened and…”

"We would never..." Akira took another step back, desperate for more personal space.

Sojiro was expecting a hastily made excuse to be thrown his way. He wasn’t prepared for Ann, Ryuji, and Yusuke to stepped out from around the corner and join them. Sojiro just about had a heart attack. What on earth was going on?

“You kids are here too?” Sojiro asked, stunned.

Ann spoke up next, words tumbling out in rapid succession to explain, “We brought you some sushi, but nobody answered when we rang the bell and the door was unlocked. W-We could hear the TV though, so we got worried. We thought you might have passed out or something…” Her breath ran out near the end and she couldn’t maintain her volume. Her words petered out into a nervous whisper.

“The door was unlocked?”

The kids nodded.

Sojiro sighed and rubbed a sore spot on the back of his neck. Of course, the door had been unlocked. Exasperated, he admitted, “I do that sometimes. I really am getting old.” He wasn’t angry with them. They had only been trying to be nice. Sojiro appreciated it. Futaba probably didn’t, however.

Ryuji spoke up next and tentatively said, “There’s something else we wanted to ask you, Boss.”

Sojiro knew what was coming.

“Is it true someone else lives here?” Yusuke asked for the group.

There was no point in hiding it now. They had seen Futaba and Futaba had seen them.

“Yeah,” Sojiro confessed, “My daughter.”

“Is she…” Akira found his voice, “Futaba Sakura?”

“…Yes.”

“I-Is there anyway we could meet with her?” Makoto asked. Sojiro couldn’t understand why she was asking, but it didn’t take her long to explain herself. “I think we may have frightened her… so I’d… we’d like to apologize to her.” The others nodded in agreement.

“We’ll that’s…” Sojiro sighed. He knew he had to tell them, or at least Akira, everything. He couldn’t keep secrets anymore. He never should have. “You can’t talk with her,” he turned and motioned for their group to follow him, “Let’s talk at my shop. She’ll hear us if we stay here.”

As they left, Sojiro made sure he remembered to lock the front door.

Chapter Text

Sojiro led the Akira and his friends back to LeBlanc. They were quiet as they walked and the silence was almost uncomfortable. Sojiro leaned against the counter as the kids formed a half circle around him. Most of them stayed standing. Only Ann had wedged herself into a booth seat sideways to continue to face him. When the quiet dragged on for a moment too long, the kids glancing between each other and him. Sojiro steeled his nerves and forced himself to speak.

“Futaba… is my daughter… My adopted daughter. She’s just about your age and would probably be a first year below you if she still went to school.” Sojiro crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at the floor. He could have stopped there. He could have told them the rest wasn’t their business. He didn’t. He couldn’t.

“Futaba’s mother was…” beautiful, outstanding, breathtaking, remarkable, “a brilliant woman. She was hardworking and barely knew when to quit. Some could say she was even a bit socially inept with how far she’d go to keep working. I thought she’d slow down after she had Futaba, but she didn’t. Nothing could keep her from her work… but she was always a wonderful mother to Futaba.”

“She wasn’t your wife?” Ryuji asked in a soft voice only to get nudged with Makoto’s elbow.

Sojiro hadn’t minded. He chuckled lightly, “No. I never married and neither did she. I never knew who Futaba’s father was and she never told me. She was single when she had Futaba and she stayed that way… until she…” Sojiro’s voice trailed off into a thoughtful murmur. Remembering… hurt.

He’d come this far. He couldn’t stop now. “Until she left…” Sojiro blinked back tears from eyes. He couldn’t let these children see him cry. What kind of guardian would he be if he let Akira seem him fall apart?

Sojiro watched as Akira thought to himself. After a moment of silence, he seemed to find his courage and asked, “She left… or did she…?”

Sojiro finished his sentence for him, “She committed suicide.”

The sudden stillness in the room felt suffocating. Sojiro couldn’t tell if the group’s collective discomfort came from some sort of pity for him and his family or understanding from some facet of their own lives Sojiro didn’t and probably couldn’t understand. Sojiro didn’t know whether to be worried or not.

“…W-Why would she?” Yusuke finally asked, breaking whatever uneasiness had taken hold of them, “She had Futaba… Why would a mother…?”

“I don’t know,” Sojiro shook his head. He truly had no idea. One day, Wakaba had been perfectly fine and then the next, she threw herself in front of that car. Sojiro took in a deep breath, “She threw herself into the street one day… Right in front of Futaba, too.”

“Oh… god,” Makoto covered her mouth, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Futaba was passed around to her family members after that, until I managed to adopt her. She was so skittish and afraid of the world. She… even blames herself for Wakaba’s death.”

“Why?” Ann asked and Sojiro couldn’t help but find humor in how little he actually knew.

“I don’t know,” Sojiro tilted his head back to stare up at the dimmed lights hanging from the ceiling. “I’ve tried to ask her, but she just won’t tell me. I could barely get her to speak to me early on and I’ve made some progress, but not much. Recently…”

Why was he telling them so much? He didn’t need to burden them with information about a situation they could do nothing to improve. Still, it felt good to get some of what was eating at him off his chest. Why had he kept this secret at all?

“She’s been hearing things. She’ll tell me things like, her mom is watching her or ‘they’ keep saying it’s her fault.”

“Hallucinations?” Yusuke looked absolutely horrified, “Have you taken her to a doctor?”

“I tried,” He had tried so hard. “I couldn’t get her out of the house. I even had doctors come here, but she kept the door locked and if we tried to go in… she’d scream.”

“I had no idea,” Akira mumbled.

Sojiro tilted his head back down and raised an eyebrow, “Of course you didn’t. I made sure of it… but I guess that was pretty stupid of me. I shouldn’t have kept this from you. This was why I couldn’t let you live in my house. I was afraid… for Futaba’s sake.”

Akira nodded and gave him a sympathetic smile, “I understand.”

“Well,” Sojiro pushed himself away from the counter and stood up a little straighter, “I guess sharing time is over. Let’s put this behind us. I’m going home. You kids should too.”

Among the murmurs and slight nods of agreement, Sojiro found himself suspicious. He shoved the feeling down until it was nothing more than lingering guilt for having such a strong gut reaction to absolutely nothing. They wouldn’t go into his house again, he was certain. He was lying to himself, but that was nothing new. It just felt wrong to doubt the kids who had only stepped into his home in the first place because they were bringing a gift and had gotten worried about him.

He gave Akira a light pat on the shoulder as he walked passed.

Sojiro found Morgana scratching at the front door from the inside. Sojiro maneuvered himself through, using his feet to block Morgana’s escape into the outside world. After all they’d done to return him from stray to the status of indoor cat, Sojiro wasn’t going to let the cat slip passed him and get lost because Akira had misplaced him in the panic earlier.

The sushi had been left on the kitchen counter before Akira had followed him to LeBlanc. It looked expensive and well made. Where were these kids getting the money for these things?

Sojiro only ate a few pieces, while Morgana paced the floor looking irritated, before placing the rest outside of Futaba’s door and knocking. When he stepped away to watch from down the hall, a pale hand reached out to grab the take-out box.

Sojiro slept a little better that night with Morgana curled up at the foot of his bed.

-

Summer was in full swing after Shujin’s emergency assembly, which he firmly believed was needed. Sure, a different day, perhaps during the school year, would have been better, but it was good to know the school was taking the initiative and attempting to instill in their students that suicide wasn’t the answer. Akira and his friends hadn’t been as pleased, especially since they seemed to have been close to the girl who had jump off the school roof and it took a day out of their summer break. Now that school was out for a few weeks, Akira worked at LeBlanc more often.

The world was in a frenzy about Medjed, completely oblivious to the plight of his family. His regulars constantly asked for him to unmute the television and he couldn’t deny them that. Whoever had decided over the past few months that Akira was a wonderful conversation partner still tried to pull him and the kid into extensive debates of the Phantom Thieves obligations in light of recent events. It was only getting more irritating as time went by.

“What am I going to do?” asked a particularly annoyed man on his lunch break.

“Those Phantom Thieves haven’t said anything,” an elderly man muttered over his coffee one morning.

Akira was beginning to look so uncomfortable that Sojiro had to take him aside. He didn’t know why talk of Medjed bothered Akira so much. It probably had something to do with an overwhelming capacity to feel sympathy for practically anyone in addition to him just being a kid who was still trying to understand the world. He saw no point in letting talkative customers continue to add to his self-inflicted stress. “I think that’s it for today,” Sojiro pointed toward the door with his thumb over his shoulder, “Go spend time with your friends. I think you’re free from working here for the rest of the summer. No point in having two summer jobs right?”

Akira blinked, almost as if he had forgotten he had told Sojiro he worked at a flower shop. “Oh, yeah, two. Really? You don’t need my help?”

“Don’t worry about it. Have fun.”

Akira beamed and quickly removed his apron before rushing upstairs to grab his bag and Morgana. He was out the door and texting his friends before Sojiro could blink. He was certainly in a hurry.

-

For the next week, Akira came back later and later into the evening. The summer heat was clearly getting to him. His face was lightly sunburned around his glasses and hair sticking to his forehead. One of these days, the kid would come back with heatstroke. Running around in 90 degree weather could do that to you.

Sojiro eventually took it upon himself to buy Akira sunscreen and force him to take it with him and use it. He also offered him a cold glass of water whenever he saw Akira return looking ready to climb into the refrigerator if it would cool him down quicker.

“You enjoying your summer?” he asked as Akira gulped down a second glass of water after he spent an entire Sunday out somewhere with his friends.

“Um…” Akira cleared his throat and set the glass down, “Yeah, we’re hanging out and stuff.”

A vague answer for a vague question. All right, he’d play this game again.

“Don’t go killing yourself trying to do anything and everything in one summer.”

“We won’t.”

“…You’ve been out at night too,” Sojiro continued, wanting to tease him, “Been sneaking out to parties?”

“What?” Akira blinked at him.

“Hey, I was a teenager once,” Sojiro smirked.

“What? You?” Akira shook his head, matching Sojiro’s smirk with his own, “I thought you were always this old.”

“I’m not that old.”

“So very old.”

“Anyway,” Sojiro chuckled, “If you are going out to these parties, don’t drink. Remember it’s illegal to drink at your age.”

“I know,” Akira rolled his eyes.

“Don’t roll your eyes,” he scolded, but couldn’t stop smiling, “I mean it. Whatever you’re doing… don’t get caught.”

Akira turned to walk up the stairs to change and called back, “I won’t.”

“I mean it!”

“I won’t get caught!” Akira smiled back at him and they laughed.

-

A few days later, Akira’s friends were huddled outside LeBlanc. One second the street in front of his café was empty and the next time he glanced up, he heard a loud clatter and they were all outside and not moving to come in. After a few more moments of waiting for Akira and his friends to come inside, Sojiro grew tired of watching them idle. The café was empty and Sojiro saw no reason not to invite them in. Besides, a bunch of teenagers blocking the door would drive away even his most loyal customers.

When he opened the door, the kids practically jumped out of their skins. They stared at him, wide eyed and just about ready to run. “What are you guys doing out here?” He tried his best to show that he was confused and not annoyed by their presence. Also, he was beyond curious, “And what was that loud bang?”

“Oh! Uhm…” Ann, the first to speak, spun around to face him. Her smile was forced and her eyebrows were drawn down in worry. These kids had gotten into trouble. It was easy for him to tell they were hiding something. Well, as long as it was nothing serious, they could hide out in LeBlanc for as long as they wanted.

Ryuji surprised him next. He turned to Akira, leaned in, and quietly asked, “Wait… What happened to Futaba?”

“What about Futaba?” Sojiro knew he probably wasn’t supposed to hear the question, with how Ryuji had lowered his voice and turned away from him. However, he was paying too much attention to each of them not to notice. What was going on with Futaba? What had they done? Sojiro stopped that train of thought there. They probably hadn’t done anything. Futaba was probably fine. He shouldn’t jump to conclusion.

Makoto spoke up next after a moment of awkward silence. Sojiro received even less information from Makoto’s statement than from the rest of them. “We came all this way,” she put on a cheery attitude, “Why don’t we enjoy some coffee?”

“That’s a great idea!” Ann exclaimed, latching on to Makoto’s change in topic.

Akira finally spoke, sharing in his friends’ odd enthusiasm, “I can make something. Sojiro’s teaching me how to make curry too.”

“That’s fine, but…” Sojiro had to stop the conversation there. Nothing was making any sense.

No one seemed to hear him. Instead, Yusuke remarked that he wasn’t thirsty and received a rather harsh punch to the gut from Makoto. The entire scene before him was outrageous and baffling, especially when Makoto grabbed Akira by the arm and mentioned they had something to do and would be back shortly. If they weren’t dating, words probably had no meaning to teenagers this day and age.

The two of them began to walk away and Sojiro let them. He led Ann, Yusuke, and Ryuji into LeBlanc where they took their usual seats at the counter. They didn’t even have to place an order before he began brewing their favorites and pouring Ryuji a glass of soda. They each seemed content to sit in silence and wait, but Sojiro wasn’t.

“What on earth is going on?” he managed to ask once each of them had a cup in their hands, “I won’t rat you out to your parents if it’s not something serious or illegal, but none of you are doing a very good job of hiding whatever it is.”

The three of them sat awkwardly and sipped their drinks. Were they afraid to tell him? If they weren’t going to tell him on their own, he’d have to fish for it. Trial and error would get him somewhere eventually.

“Is it drugs?”

“No!” Ryuji immediately shouted. He didn’t seem to be lying.

“Alcohol?” They weren’t drunk, but who’s to say they hadn’t been trying to buy it. Perhaps, Akira had taken him too seriously after their playful ‘don’t get caught’ banter. Going to parties where alcohol was and avoiding it, was much different than trying to obtain it.

“Never,” Yusuke shook his head, letting Sojiro relax somewhat that his leniency wasn’t being taken for granted. Yusuke’s hair fell in front of his eyes. Sojiro almost told him to brush it back from his face. Yusuke wasn’t his kid, he told himself. So, he didn’t say anything.

“Smoking?”

“Ew,” Ann muttered. Welp, that was another no. Sojiro couldn’t think of anything else on the spot.

“Then what have you kids been getting into that you don’t want-…?” Sojiro’s question was cut short by Akira and Makoto returning, panic-stricken. He was just about ready to tell all five of them to hide upstairs to get them away from whatever or whoever had gotten them so spooked, but Makoto beat him to it.

“Futaba’s sick!”

Sojiro didn’t ask questions this time. He just followed them.

Chapter Text

When Makoto claimed Futaba was sick, Sojiro had been expecting much worse. The kids followed him closely, practically tripping over themselves to apologize over one another. Akira quickly mentioned something about finding Futaba unconscious outside the house and bringing her to her bed where she wouldn’t wake up.

He ignored their overall panic; not on purpose, but he saw no reason to add to it with his own. The front door was unlocked, but Sojiro had suspected as such if Akira and Makoto had found Futaba outside. Climbing the stairs was an even bigger hassle with five frantic teenagers clustered behind him. At the sight of Futaba’s open door, the group went still and silent.

Sojiro stepped forward first. He knocked lightly on the door, the fake police tape she chose to decorate it with rustling under his touch, and he slowly pushed Futaba’s bedroom door farther open, “Futaba? Sweetheart?”

Futaba lay on her back over the covers on her bed, asleep. Sojiro stepped inside and Akira and his friends followed closely behind. They crowded into Futaba’s messy room and surrounded her bed. Sojiro lightly pat her shoulder, “Futaba?” She shifted away from his touch and eventually rolled over onto her side.

Sojiro knew exactly what this was at a glance. Futaba had tired herself out and fallen into a sleep deep enough to scare anyone but her father. It was strange that she had been found outside, though. Futaba never went outside. Sojiro was certain she hadn’t seen the sun since he first brought her home.

“We’re… really sorry about Futaba,” Makoto mumbled, downtrodden.

“What?” Sojiro looked behind him to see tangible fear on the kids’ faces. That wouldn’t do. “What’s with those faces? It’s okay. This happens sometimes.”

“This happens?” Ryuji asked indignantly, “You’re kidding, right? This ain’t normal!”

Ann nudged Ryuji, but Sojiro agreed with him.

“It’s not, but its normal for her,” Sojiro sighed. The universe was trying their best to force every last bit of truth out of him it seemed. This was going to be difficult to explain. He could only hope a simplified version would suffice. “It’s like… a battery. She doesn’t have much energy or stamina… and she’s not getting much more sitting at home like this, so she gets tired easily. It’s like she hit zero and needs to recharge. She’ll be like this for a few days.”

“And…” Yusuke frowned, “There’s really nothing wrong with her?”

“I’ve shown her to doctors,” Sojiro shrugged, “They’ve said she’s fine.”

“Man, we got all worried for nothing,” Ryuji groaned and the rest of them muttered in exhausted agreement.

“That reminds me,” Sojiro turned to face them and scratched his chin, “Was this what you were trying to hide? What were you doing with Futaba? I can’t imagine what tired her out or why she was outside.”

The kids fidgeted and looked around at each other. Akira eventually opened his mouth and quietly said, “We... wanted to help her and…”

“What are you doing?” Ann whispered harshly.

“Yeah, man,” Ryuji added, “Wha-?”

Akira continued undaunted, “She said she wanted help, so… we tried to...”

Sojiro thought he understood now. Somehow, these kids had managed to continue talking to Futaba without his knowledge and convince her to leave her room and, obviously, the house. He didn’t know how they did it or how anxious she had been to tire herself out enough to fall asleep outside. They probably hadn’t been expecting it and ran to find him, panicked, convinced themselves they could fix it themselves, ultimately changed their minds, and finally brought him to her.

“That…” Sojiro gave a breathy chuckle, “I’m not mad, if that’s what any of you are thinking.”

The residual tension dissipated when they all realized they weren’t about to be scolded.

“It’s nice that you wanted to help,” Sojiro continued, “and I’m impressed you managed to get her outside. I haven’t been able to do that for years, but let’s not keep these things a secret from me. I won’t keep anymore secrets like this and you shouldn’t either. Deal?”

There was a small paused before, together, they responded, “Deal.”

Sojiro shooed them all out of Futaba’s room and left the door ajar behind him.

-

As sure as he was that Futaba was absolutely fine, Sojiro had a hard time leaving her alone for long periods over the next few days. He hated that he was going back on his word and asking Akira to stick around to watch the shop whenever he felt the urge to return home and check on Futaba. Akira agreed with little complaint, probably still feeling guilty for pushing Futaba as far as he did. He tried asking the kid how he’d done it a few times, but all he received in response was a guilty expression and silence. Sojiro tried to reassure him that he wasn’t angry. He just couldn’t stop wondering how Akira had managed it.

Futaba slept a few days longer than Sojiro had expected, but one morning she woke with a start when he nudged her shoulder. Sojiro was ready to apologize for invading her safe space and leave immediately, but Futaba simply blinked up at him owlishly before saying, “What day is it?”

Sojiro failed to speak for a moment, startled by Futaba’s lack of distress. He quickly recovered, reasoning with himself that this wouldn’t last for long, so he should cherish it. “It’s… August 21st. You’ve been asleep for a few days. Do you remember what happened before you fell asleep?”

Sojiro had to be dreaming.

Futaba gasped and jumped off her bed, “Yeah, hang on! I gotta do something!” She rushed to her computer chair, causing the pillow she used to rest behind her back to fall from the seat and onto the floor with a soft thud. She didn’t move to pick it up as she hunched over her laptop and typed away.

“Oh, well,” Sojiro began to slowly back out of her room, “I’ll bring you some breakfast.”

“Awesome,” Futaba said, distractedly, and continued her work. Sojiro had no idea what she was doing or why it was so important to her. He tried to glance at the screen before he left, pushing his luck with Futaba’s comfort levels, but he couldn’t understand a single thing. Sojiro saw lines of code he couldn’t read and webpages he didn’t recognize.

Sojiro left and brought her breakfast back to her.

He was happy to report back to Akira that Futaba was awake and had surprisingly been fine with Sojiro’s presence in her room.

“After breakfast you can go back to enjoying the rest of your summer instead of spending time here,” Sojiro said as he placed a plate in front of Akira. Morgana peaked over the counter to grab a bite while Akira was distracted by his phone. Sojiro shooed him away. He pointed to Morgana’s full food bowl, “You have your breakfast right there.” Great, he was becoming one of those cat people that talked to their cats like they could understand. Akira was rubbing off on him more than he thought.

“I like spending time here, though,” Akira said as he pushed his phone back into his pocket and began to eat. “I still need to impress you with my cooking skills.”

“Yeah, right,” Sojiro rolled his eyes. Sure, the kid’s coffee was good and getting better, but his curry left much to be desired. “You’ll get there one day. Today’s just not that day.”

“I have my own secret ingredient too, you know,” Akira smirked, although Sojiro could easily tell he was bluffing, “Let me cook next time.”

“Can’t wait, kid. We’ll let you try it out on your friends instead of the customers, though.”

Akira smiled and continued to eat. In the silence, Sojiro stepped back and took in the stillness of LeBlanc in the early morning. It was August 21th; the day Wakaba passed. Every year he’d make three cups of her favorite coffee; one for him, one for Futaba, and one for Wakaba. Originally, it had just been two, but he’d added the third when Futaba came home with him. She had found comfort, like he had, in the new little ritual, but just a year later, her cup would sit cold and untouched like Wakaba’s.

Her favorite brew was almost finished. It wouldn’t hurt to share this moment with Akira.

“Hey,” he tried not to let his dour demeanor slip into what had been a happy conversation. It hadn’t worked.

Akira looked up at him, his mouth full, “Hmm?”

“There’s something I wanted to do today,” Sojiro grabbed four cups, instead of three, even though he knew Futaba wouldn’t be coming down. He tried not to think about what this meant or why he wanted to do this. In some ways, making Akira a part of this was comforting.

Sojiro poured his cup first and Akira’s last. He placed it down on the counter and pushed it toward him. “Today,” Sojiro said, “is the day Wakaba passed. I brew her favorite blend every year. One for each of us. Including her… and now you too.”

Akira reached for it, a sad smile across his lips, “Thank you.”

Sojiro grabbed his own and, together, they both took a sip.

With Akira silent and Morgana rubbing against his pantleg and purring, Sojiro felt comfortable enough to keep talking. He hadn’t had someone who would just listen to him in such a long time. Sojiro could only hope he could be the same for Akira. Sojiro couldn’t stop himself from filling the silence, “Futaba… reminds me so much of her mother. Wakaba… why did she…? You saw me talking to the prosecutor-I mean, that woman in a suit, right?”

Akira nodded.

“I remember you were real bothered by it,” Sojiro remembered the fear and concern of Akira’s face too well. “She might come back, so I guess I should tell you about it. That woman was trying to get information on Wakaba’s research out of me.”

Morgana meowed.

“What was…?” Akira began to ask, but Sojiro shook his head.

“You don’t need to know what the research was. I don’t even think you’re allowed to know. Just understand, there was some trouble surrounding it. Obviously, Wakaba got dragged into that, as well. They ruled her death a suicide, but…” Sojiro paused, unsure if he should continue. There was so much Akira didn’t need to know, but Sojiro wanted him to know. “I’ve got my doubts. Supposedly, there were people who wanted to take her research and use it for their own benefit. Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t have a lick of evidence. That’s why I haven’t told Futaba my thoughts about it. No use opening old wounds because I can’t move on.”

Sojiro sighed and leaned against the counter. He turned his cup on its saucer, the coffee rippling slightly. “Right before Wakaba died, she told me, ‘I think I might die.’ I brushed it off, thinking it was a joke, but if I had just taken her seriously…. That thought eats at me every day.”

Akira stayed quiet and watched him with sympathy.

Sojiro had come this far. He might as well pour the rest of his heart out into the open. “That’s part of the reason I took Futaba in… Redemption. The other part… Futaba’s relatives put her though such horrible things. They were heartless and just yelled at her for something she hadn’t done… How do heal emotional scars?”

He was asking a kid barely older than Futaba how to fix something he hadn’t been able to for the past three years. He didn’t expect an answer, but Akira gave him one, “They heal on their own.”

Sojiro nodded, “I know, but… I’m still waiting for it to happen and…”

He heard the bell above the door ring and glanced over to see who had come to interrupt their moment of peace. Sojiro nearly collapsed when he saw Futaba step inside and shut the door behind her.

“Futaba?” Sojiro tried to make sense of the situation placed before him. He thought back to when Futaba woke up and didn’t push him out of her room, when the other kids had found her outside the house asleep, when Akira had repeatedly asked who Futaba was. What was going on?

Futaba ignored his distress and walked around Akira, he hands behind her back, to sit down next to him, where Sojiro had placed her cup. She picked up the coffee, which Sojiro knew couldn’t still be warm, and took a sip. She grimaced and complained, “It’s cold.”

She hadn’t even addressed Akira. Futaba was sitting in LeBlanc, next to Akira; a boy she barely knew.

Sojiro didn’t know what to say.

“You can’t sell this!” Futaba scolded him.

Sojiro stumbled over his next few words, “N-Nevermind that! How did you get here…?”

She couldn’t have walked here. She wouldn’t have walked here!

“Uh...” Futaba raised an eyebrow, “I walked.”

She walked here. She left the house, stepped outside, and walked here.

“And you’re okay?” Sojiro couldn’t believe his eyes. He was ready to wake up and find Futaba still asleep, brew another pot of coffee, talk to Akira all over again. Sojiro didn’t wake up. He wasn’t dreaming.

Futaba slouched in her seat, “Was that bad?”

Sojiro frantically shook his head, “T-That’s not it! I’m just shocked to see you out of the house…”

Futaba frowned and played with her fingers as she rest her arms on the counter top. She averted her eyes and began to apologize, “I’m sorry I worried you.”

Sojiro laughed as warm tears pushed past his eyelashes. He scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, pushing his glasses up with his fingers. He forced his breath to come easier and he eventually managed to say, “It’s all right. Let me get you new cup.”

When Sojiro stepped away, he noticed Futaba lean in toward Akira from the corner of his eye. He heard snippets of their whispers to each other. “Medjed… handled…”

“Did… eliminate…?”

“Violent much?” Futaba snickered, “I heard… Thieves took care… it.”

Sojiro kept quiet as he poured Futaba a new cup. The Phantom Thieves and Medjed. Sojiro chose to ignore their hushed whispers. He should have never assumed Futaba knew nothing about ‘The Cleanse’ and Medjed’s harassment. Apparently, she already knew something about the outcome. The internet had everything if you knew where to look and he could only imagine that she did.

He gave Futaba a new cup and Futaba jumped back to sit back in her seat. “Thank you!”

-

With Akira’s help, they cleaned Futaba’s room. Sojiro made her promise not to let her room get as bad as trash bags piling up along the walls ever again.

In the morning, Futaba slept in and when he opened LeBlanc, Akira slept in too. He tolerated it for a while, but when Akira’s friends appeared unannounced, Sojiro thought it was about time Akira stopped wasting his day sleeping.

“Your friends are here!” Sojiro called up the stairs as he served the four of them glasses of soda. He could only imagine Yusuke would like breakfast too, so he prepared a few plates of curry.

Loud shuffling and stomping reverberated from the attic before Akira loudly made his way down the stairs with Morgana clinging to his shoulder. “Hey, guys!”

“Hey, man!” Ryuji returned his greeting first.

“So, you’re finally up?” Sojiro teased, “About time.”

“You look tired,” Ryuji comment and shifted closer to Yusuke to let Akira wedge himself beside him in their booth seat. Akira did look tired, but, then again, so did the rest of them. As much as he wanted Akira and his friends to keep busy during the summer, he couldn’t imagine overworking themselves to the bone would be beneficial to anyone.

“We went ahead and made ourselves at home,” Ann beamed cheerfully.

“It really is relaxing here,” Makoto took a sip of her drink, her eyes flickering up to catch a glimpse of the television across the room. She gasped, eyes wide, and set her drink down, “Boss, could you…?”

Sojiro reached to the remote and unmuted the television.

Late last night,” explained an obnoxious news reporter, “it was discovered that someone has tampered with the hacker group Medjed’s website.

Sojiro chuckled quietly to himself. They were about a day late on that news if Futaba had already discovered it online.

The site’s main page now displays what is thought to be the mark belonging to the Phantom Thieves. Moreso, the personal information of a Japanese individual, a possible Medjed member, was illegally publicized.

Medjed has yet to release a formal reply. Furthermore, their previously announced cleanse of Japan remained unimplemented for now. Some speculate that they have taken this series of events seriously and ultimately canceled their plans.

Laughter and hushed cheers from Akira and his friends drew Sojiro’s attention away from the television. They excitedly whispered among themselves, smug smiles all around. Sojiro frowned, “What’re you all smirking about?”

“Nothing,” Akira offered as an answer. Sojiro was never sure when nothing truly meant nothing with kids these days, but he didn’t want to pry any further. Instead, he’d like it if he didn’t have a bunch of teenagers suspiciously smirking and whispering in his café.

“Well, stop it. You’re gonna drive away all my customers.”

“But…” Ryuji pouted as he looked around the café, “there ain’t any customers.”

“Can it,” Sojiro crossed his arms over his chest, “My customers are on summer vacation too.”

“Or a year ‘round holiday,” Akira murmured.

“You wanna get kicked out?”

Akira’s smile and barely contained laughter was pleasing sight to see. It was good for him let loose and make jokes, even if it was at Sojiro’s expense.

Ryuji slouched into the booth seat, leaving even less space for Yusuke, who was pressed against the wall, and Akira, who could barely find room to sit in the first place. “Man,” he groaned, “I can’t believe our breaks almost over!”

“There are still ten days left,” Yusuke said, unamused, and pushed back against Ryuji’s invasion of his limited space.

“Yeah, that’s still a lot of days,” Ann leaned forward and rest her chin on her palm, “I wanna go somewhere, but we can’t just leave Futaba alone.”

As if she had known someone was talking about her, Futaba practically waltz into the café. She didn’t notice the large group immediately and stopped to smile in Sojiro’s direction.

Sojiro smiled back and spoke kindly to her. “Did you just get up?” he asked.

Futaba nodded and looked toward Akira, only to notice the other four people among them.

“Good morning,” Makoto greeted sweetly, but Futaba didn’t take kindly to it. Instead, she grew pale and grabbed Akira’s arm. Sojiro found this maneuver strange, until Akira stood up and Futaba began to use him as a shield. Had she grown that attached to him so quickly?

“It seems she’s still cautious of us,” Yusuke commented, dejectedly.

“Don’t take it personally,” Sojiro tried to say as comfortingly as possible. He didn’t know the extent of what they knew about Futaba from when he’d spoken to them about her and when she had fallen asleep, but he didn’t want them offended by something Futaba couldn’t help.

“Maybe… we should move upstairs?” Makoto suggested, “If any more customers come, she’ll be even more afraid.”

“You should go with them, Futaba,” Sojiro tried to help Makoto’s suggestion sound a little more appealing to her. Maybe she’d make some friends this way and come out of her shell. He didn’t know if this was pushing her too far, but she had come all this way, and in just two days! “It’s about time my regulars show up. I don’t need a bunch of teenagers loitering in my store.”

“Come on,” Akira smiled down at Futaba and led her to the staircase, “I’ve got some retro games upstairs.” Slowly, everyone made their way up the stairs and into the attic, leaving Sojiro alone with his café. Futaba had come out of her room for a second time and was now attempting to spend time with kids her age. Sojiro could hardly believe it.

Chapter Text

The fact there were no damages due to the hackers’ actions is but an afterthought. The issue I want to make clear is the attitude of the police, and more importantly, the government.

Sojiro sighed quietly to himself. Masayoshi Shido, in the wake of the Phantom Thieves news flooding in from every corner of daytime news, wedged his own press conference in among the sensationalized stories. Sojiro had never been a fan of politics or politicians. Even before he retired from his government agency position, Sojiro found them aggravating. There was hardly a politician who told the truth and if they did, it wasn’t like they could do much in office against those who were already there. Nothing ever got done and Shido’s promises of change did nothing to sway Sojiro. Besides, there was just something about his demeanor, his tone of voice, or even just his expressions that just felt off. Every appearance he made left Sojiro feeling antsy.

What do you mean?” asked a reporter.

Are they doing their best to find an effective countermeasure against these Phantom Thieves? Is it not the government’s duty to create a society where its citizens can live without worry? Unfortunately, the current cabinet is powerless. As such, they should be disbanded. I believe now is the time for me to risk my political career in hope of making a new reality. A new political system that goes beyond parties or factions… an ideal country of peace and order…

Sojiro hoped his ‘risk’ would force him out of politics for good or at least show some promise in actually working, but as of right now, it just sounded like anarchy. The increasing homicides and accidents were far more important than a group ‘changing hearts’. Fix the infrastructure, employ, and train competent police, do anything!

“This politician seems quite promising,” Hayashi, an elderly regular, mused as he finished his second cup of coffee.

“I have to agree. I hope he can work to ease our anxieties,” his wife nodded. She always agreed with her husband on everything. She always nodded along, at least in the moments Sojiro saw them together.

Hayashi turned to Sojiro to include him in their discussion, like they always did, “What do you think, boss?”

“Hm? Oh, sorry. I wasn’t listening.” He was lying. Sojiro never particularly liked to talk politics whether in or out of LeBlanc. It just didn’t seem right and there was no telling how anyone would react. Hayashi and his wife were too kind to react badly to disagreements, but Sojiro had rules for a reason. Thankfully, the two of them understood. They each had one more cup, paid, and left with smiles.

The kids remained upstairs for most of the day. He could only imagine how Futaba was handling it. Before dinner, Akira’s friends descended the stairs, Futaba and Akira not included. Ryuji and Ann left with cheerful goodbyes, but Makoto and Yusuke remained.

“We were all thinking,” Makoto began, “that to help Futaba come out of her shell a bit… we’d each spend a day with her doing different activities.”

“Oh?” Sojiro raised an eyebrow and paused in his cleaning. It didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Futaba would ultimately make friends and have a real summer for once. Hopefully, Futaba had agreed.

“Futaba seemed agreeable to the arrangement,” Yusuke said, “We’ll be back tomorrow.” He looked to Makoto, “It is tomorrow, right?”

“Yes,” Makoto chuckled softly, “I actually have something planned.”

“Wonderful!” Yusuke smiled, “Tomorrow then.”

“Sounds good,” Sojiro agreed and waved to them as they left.

Futaba trudged her way down the stairs, peeking around the corner to be sure no one else remained in the café. When she found that the coast was clear, she rushed to the counter and pressed herself against it. “They’re going to kill me,” she hissed, “Stop them!”

“She’ll be fine,” Akira chuckled, joining them at the counter.

Futaba groaned and buried her face in her arms, “Awful.”

“Maybe you should go with them,” Sojiro suggested to Akira. Akira’s presence might help her to stay calm around his friends, “She seems to like you.”

Akira nodded and smiled, “I’ll do that.”

-

The next day, Sojiro opened the café just in time for Akira to reach the bottom of the stairs with Morgana resting on his shoulder. If Sojiro didn’t know any better, he would have sworn Morgana looked as though he was reading Akira’s text messages over his shoulder. “Your friends?” Sojiro asked as Akira made a beeline for the door.

“Oh,” Akira turned around, “Yeah. Makoto and Yusuke are trying to get Futaba to answer the door.”

“They’re there already?” Sojiro asked as he adjusted his apron’s knots, “I must have just missed them. I would have opened the door if I’d known you were starting this early.”

“That’s alright,” Akira winked and slipped out the door, “I’ll get that door open.”

Sojiro thought nothing of the action until ten minutes later when he realized he hadn’t given Akira a house key.

When Sojiro returned home that night, there was no damage to the front door. Either Futaba had let them in or Akira had managed to force the front door open with no damage whatsoever. “Did he break in?” Sojiro finally asked as dinner simmered on the stove.

Futaba sat at the kitchen table and laughed, “Yep! He picked the lock and showed me how he did it too. He made it look easy.”

“Where’d he learn how to do that?” Akira had never seemed like the type to know how to pick locks. Then again, what did he actually know about Akira?

Futaba shrugged, “Dunno, but you can learn that kinda stuff online. People do it for fun and stuff too, with like, their own locks. He’s from the country side, right? I bet he was pretty bored out there.”

“Probably,” Sojiro served two plates and sat down across from her at the table. Futaba immediately began to eat. “So… How was your day?”

Futaba hummed and swallowed three large bites before speaking, “It was good. Inari nearly ruined my Featherman figurines, though.”

“Inari?”

“Yusuke!” Futaba groaned, exasperated by the mere mention of the boy, “When I wasn’t looking, he apparently decided to play with my Phoenix Ranger Featherman R figurines and popped the heads off! Then, since they had been decapitated, he thought it’d be a good idea to take them apart and rearrange their limbs onto different bodies and do you know why?”

“…Why?”

“Aesthetic.”

“I see,” Sojiro was taken aback by Futaba’s passion. He knew she got enthusiastic about things that interested her, but he hadn’t heard her talk so much or so loudly for so long that the shift was startling. She was slowly returning to the little girl Sojiro had known three years ago. Although, if she found her renewed passion in being angry at one of Akira’s friends, Sojiro might as well attempt some damage control. “Maybe he just didn’t realize you didn’t want anyone to play with them.”

“Maybe he’d just stupid,” Futaba pouted.

“That’s not very nice, young lady.”

“…I’m sorry,” she muttered reluctantly. Futaba took a few more bites of her dinner and continued, “I fought with him about it, but after a while we just started talking and… he listened to me. I didn’t change ‘em back.”

“Oh,” Sojiro was relieved she hadn’t had a terrible time, “Well, there you go. Do you think you two can be friends?”

“Yeah,” Futaba smiled sheepishly, “Inari’s nice… Uh, and Makoto is too.”

Yusuke was nice, huh? She had already given him a nickname. Sojiro wondered if he should be worried.

-

The next day, Ryuji and Ann came by during Sojiro’s smoke break with arms full of junk food. The kids spent their day upstairs talking and eating. Somehow, the three of them convinced Futaba to work in the café the next day. He had worried about her, but Akira had promised he’d look after her and he couldn’t argue with their collective enthusiasm.

Futaba was designated to dishes, while Akira supervised. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement for productivity, but it helped Futaba feel at ease and that allowed Sojiro to feel the same.

One of his regulars, a man who considered himself a food critic, waltz in with his usual boisterous attitude. Sojiro wondered if his opinion of LeBlanc changed much when Futaba served him coffee, face covered by a terrifyingly unrealistic mask modeled after a woman’s face. Sojiro, unfortunately, had to scold her to scaring the customers and remind her to be polite. She stuttered over herself as she corrected her mistake, but ultimately didn’t do a terrible job. Even if the mask was more than unsettling.

Futaba kept the mask for the rest of the afternoon and, around the end of lunch hour, Sojiro let her and Akira call it a day.

“Did you see me?” Futaba asked excitedly, her words muffled by her mask, “Did you see?”

“You did great!” Akira praised, not at all perturbed by Futaba’s choice of defensive shield.

“To think you’d go and talk to a customer on your own,” Sojiro mused, “Mask aside, I’m impressed.”

People really could change. Sojiro was glad to have been able to witness it in Futaba. He couldn’t be prouder.

“Want me to bring more customers coffee?” Futaba titled her head, the mask sliding and struggling to stay on.

“Mask comes off first.”

Futaba rocked back and forth on her heels, “I’ll think about it.”

By the end of the day, Futaba let him know that Akira’s friends had offered to take her with them to the beach. Despite his own worries, Sojiro told her that she should go and that she’d have fun. She seemed to agree and eagerly texted the group her decision.

-

Sojiro returned from the store a few days later to find Akira, Ryuji, and Yusuke sitting downstairs and talking about nothing in particular. Morgana sat in Akira’s lap, staring anxiously at the staircase, as if he’d much rather be in the attic than where he was now. Sojiro set his groceries down in the kitchen, careful not to let anything slip onto the floor, and turned to face the boys from behind the counter.

“It’s not that hard to throw a baseball,” Ryuji remarked and propped his right leg up on the barstool next to him. His hand lay on his thigh and his thumb rubbed circles into the muscle.

Akira scoffed, “Yeah, right. Come with me to the park and I’ll teach you how to pitch.”

“Great,” Ryuji smirked, leaned forward over the back of his chair, and mischievously said, “I’d love to hear about how to look dumb while I throw a ball.”

“You’re gonna regret saying that,” Akira rolled his eyes, “What about you, Yusuke? You wanna learn how to pitch?”

“You know I’m joking, right?” Ryuji muttered, apparently feeling bad for his previous comments almost immediately after they had left his mouth.

Akira smiled back, “Yes, I know you're joking.”

“I’d prefer to watch,” Yusuke declined and the boys continued to playfully squabble about baseball and whether watching people run around a track was more boring than watching people hit balls out of the air.

Sojiro eventually found a moment to interrupt.

“What are you kids doing down here?” he asked and they stopped their conversation to give him their attention, “Where’d the girls run off to?”

“They’re upstairs,” Ryuji pointed ambiguously to the ceiling.

“They went shopping for swimsuits yesterday and now they’re using the attic as a dressing room for Futaba,” Akira explained further.

“I don’t understand why they refuse to let us see the swimsuits,” Yusuke added, “If they picked rather garish colors, I don’t know if I can stop myself from focusing on the tastelessness of it.”

“Sure, man,” Ryuji rolled his eyes, “You’d only be looking at the colors.”

“I could easily have picked out a swimsuit with complimenting colors.”

“They would never have brought you, Yusuke,” Akira clapped a hand on Yusuke’s shoulder, “Don’t worry about it.”

“Why are they using your room as a dressing room?” Sojiro asked. It had really been the only thing he had focused on. Why not just do that at home? The attic was essentially Akira’s bedroom.

Akira shrugged, “I don’t know why.”

“We’re done!” Ann called down from the stairs as she descended. She held arms full of shopping bags from stores Sojiro didn’t recognize. She noticed Sojiro and waved to him.

“We don’t get to see it?” Ryuji asked.

“Nope,” Ann cheerfully replied and seemed to look directly at Yusuke, “It’s a surprise!”

Oh no. Not his little girl.

Yusuke didn’t seem to register Ann’s look, so Sojiro took it to mean he either wasn’t interested or didn’t understand. Either was fine.

“She’ll be a bit of a handful,” Sojiro said to interrupt, “but I hope she can make some great memories with you guys.”

“We’ll do our best,” Akira promised.

Chapter Text

Futaba held her new swimsuit in her hands. She still had time to get ready, but at this rate she was going to cut it close. Akira had apparently texted her a few minutes ago. He was ready to leave and waiting for them outside LeBlanc. “Sojiro,” she finally said after a long moment of contemplative silence.

“Yes?”

“What if I can’t do it?” she asked, her voice mousy and soft, “What if there’s too many people there?”

“Well,” Sojiro took a moment to think about what he was going to say next. There would be a large number of people out for a day at the beach. Sojiro wouldn’t lie to her. Going to the beach was a large step up from working at LeBlanc or meeting Akira’s friends. This was going to be difficult for her. Maybe, too difficult. Sojiro couldn’t help but think it’d be better if he just told Akira that she was sick and couldn’t go. Futaba could hide in her room and go right back to the way she’d been before...

Sojiro couldn’t let that happen.

“You can do it. Stick close to Akira and the others. You should try to have fun today!”

“Have fun…” Futaba held her swimsuit closer, pressed against the front of her pajama shirt. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Letting it out, she whispered, “Think about the team. Remember the plan.” Futaba opened her eyes and smiled, “I wanna go to the beach!”

“Atta girl!” Sojiro praised and wondered to himself why she’d called their little group a team.

Futaba ran off toward her room where she changed into her street clothes and finished putting together her beach bag. Sojiro waited for her by the front door, keys in hand, as she bounded down the stairs.

Akira was waiting in front of LeBlanc, just where he had said he’d be, fiddling with his phone. Morgana peeked over the edge of his bag as the two of them walked closer. Futaba greeted them both. Sojiro scowled, “You’re not bringing that cat to the beach, are you?”

Akira laughed apprehensively and then looked over his shoulder at Morgana. The cat meowed and then receded back into the bag to hide himself. Akira turned back to Sojiro and earnestly replied, “He wanted to come.”

“Sure, he did,” Sojiro grumbled, “Just don’t lose him.”

“I won’t.”

“Do you have everything?” Sojiro asked, changing the subject, “Sunscreen?”

“Yep,” Futaba pat her bag.

“Water? Snacks?”

“Makoto’s bringing a cooler,” Akira helpfully supplied.

“Towels? Change of clothes?”

“Oh my God, yes,” Futaba sighed in exasperation and squeezed her eyes shut. “Beach time!” She slipped away to get a head start on their walk to the train just to get away from Sojiro’s questions. She stopped when she noticed Akira hadn’t begun to follow her. Sojiro was fully to blame. He held Akira back to have a word with him.

“Keep an eye on her out there,” he said and tried his best to ignore how protective he was being, “Don’t let any boys hit on her.”

“That’s just not fair,” Futaba grumbled as if she’d even be comfortable with the attention in the first place.

“I’ll fight ‘em off,” Akira assured him in a serious tone, but with humor in his eyes. He held up a barely clenched fist, as if to prove his point.

“No, you won’t,” Sojiro shook his head. He pushed Akira’s hand down and Akira smiled. “Don’t get yourself in trouble, idiot. Behave yourself.”

“As always,” Akira agreed.

“Come on, let’s go! It’s just a day trip!” Futaba shouted as she slowly backed down the road. She wouldn’t go much farther without either of them, but Sojiro knew she wanted to fake eagerness in front of Akira. She couldn’t let them down after everything they’d had done for her. If they left now, Sojiro thought to himself, she might not get cold feet again.

“If you want to come home early, just give me a call,” Sojiro said as Akira joined Futaba a bit down the street.

“Okay!” Futaba called back and the two of them left for the train station. Sojiro stayed outside LeBlanc until he was sure he couldn’t see the pair any longer. LeBlanc opened a little later than usual, but it wasn’t as if he would have had any customers during the time he missed.

It was a beautiful day outside. It was a shame he had to work through it.

-

Futaba returned home with Akira just as the sun went down. Throughout dinner, her mouth ran a mile a minute as she recounted the events of the day through bites of food. “So,” she paused to swallow a particularly large mouthful of fish, “The beach was really pretty, but the sand got everywhere!”

Sojiro could attest to that. After removing her shoes, Futaba had practically tracked an entire beach worth of sand into the house. If sand had clung to Akira in a similar way, Sojiro would have to sweep LeBlanc’s floors in the morning.

“Makoto, Ann, and I got on a banana boat and we left the boys behind. I’m pretty sure they ran around to talk to ladies like idiots, but then we switched and they got the boat. Ryuji fell off, like, twice. Some creeps tried to hit on Ann and Makoto, but then the boys came back and they ran off with their tails between their legs. Ha! Or, I guess, they just didn’t actually care, but it was pretty impressive. Anyway, Inari was weird, because he kept his hoodie on all day. It was so hot out! I don’t know how he did it!”

“Maybe he just wanted to keep the sun off him?” Sojiro supplied as a possible reason. If the jacket was thin, he could imagine it would prevent a bit of sunburn without overheating him.

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Then Ryuji, Akira, and Ann ran around together in the water until someone decided to burry Ryuji in the sand at low tide and I made a joke about leaving him there. I know, I know. That’s not nice.”

It wasn’t very nice.

“Who was watching Morgana?”

“Me and Makoto. She thought the water was too cold, so she stayed by our stuff with me. On the walk home, I got tired, so Ryuji carried me on his back. It was a pretty cool time an- Oh, but get this! We were eating lunch, right?” She splayed her hands out in front of her, her expression giving away pure joy and excitement for what she was about to reveal.

“Sure,” Sojiro prompted her to continue.

“And Inari disappeared for a while…”

“Uh huh.”

“And he came back with two lobsters!”

Sojiro was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t know what he had been expecting Futaba to say, but Yusuke managing to purchase two whole lobsters for the group was certainly exciting. “Sounds like you guys had a good lunch.”

“Nope,” Futaba shook her head, “They weren’t for eating. He wouldn’t even let me touch them. They were for looking only.”

Sojiro paused to let himself come to terms with what he had just been told. “What did… he do with them?”

Futaba shrugged and shoveled a few more bites of her dinner into her mouth. With her mouth full, she said, “I think he’s going to keep them. We emptied out the cooler and put them in there with some ocean water and the lid open. Akira looked up how to care for lobsters on his phone.”

“Do they allow pets at the dorms?”

“I think he said they let you keep fish tanks.”

Sojiro’s eyebrows rose as he considered the events Futaba was relaying to him. “That’s a fun little loophole, then.”

“I know, right?!” Futaba laughed and scrapped the last of her dinner off her plate. She held it up with one hand and tilted it toward Sojiro, “More please!” Sojiro is more than happy to oblige.

About half way through her second helping, Futaba paused and briefly glanced at the black screen of her cell phone next to her plate as if she was expecting something. He had told her it was inappropriate to keep her phone on the table, but she hadn’t listened and he hadn’t enforced it. She looked away from her phone when nothing happened and looked up at him. “Sojiro? Why don’t we let Akira eat with us?”

Sojiro’s chest felt tight. Akira’s lack of participation in their family dinners hadn’t been a case of Sojiro not allowing him to. They had only recently started eating dinner together again. It had only been a week since Futaba had left her room. Akira joining them hadn’t even crossed his mind. “Well, I… He was never supposed to meet you,” Sojiro settled on saying, “I guess it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.”

He hadn’t even thought about letting Akira live in the house rather than LeBlanc now that Futaba was improving. Sojiro wouldn’t mind Akira coming to stay in the house, but he didn’t have a spare room. If Akira would have stayed in his home from the beginning, he would have let the boy take over the living room. After months of an entire attic to himself, Sojiro couldn’t imagine he would want to give that up for the floor of a living room. He supposed he’d only know for sure if he asked.

“I’ll ask him if he’d like to join us,” Sojiro promised and Futaba seemed pleased with that.

-

The next time Akira took the time to join him behind the counter of LeBlanc, Sojiro asked if Akira would want to join them for dinner. In a few more days summer break would come to an end and Sojiro couldn’t shake the idea that they ought to do something. Akira thought about it for a moment and eventually agreed, with the exception that they bring home some leftovers for Morgana. When asked about where he’d rather spend his nights, Akira explained he’d rather stay in LeBlanc for the remainder of the year and come by for dinner upon the occasional invitation. “I don’t want to intrude,” he’d said.

“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Sojiro reassured him.

In the end, their first choice of dinner together resulted in them going out to eat at a restaurant. They decided on sushi and Sojiro forced himself to pay the outrageous prices, even though Akira pleaded with him to let him pay for himself.

Futaba put sushi away as though her life depended on how much she could fit in her mouth at one time. Sojiro’s requests for her to slow down fell on deaf ears until she choked. Sojiro lightly pat her back until she could breathe freely again. However, when her coughing fit ended, she returned to her previous speed.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Sojiro chuckled.

Futaba nodded enthusiastically. Whatever she had mumbled over her food was lost on him.

Akira watched with mild concern and leaned away ever so slightly from Futaba’s flailing. He didn’t look unhappy, though. In some ways, he seemed grateful to just be included and only slightly put off my Futaba’s antics.

Sojiro remembered he, Wakaba, and Futaba would go out for dinner almost exactly like this only a few years ago. The last time he had gone out for sushi, it was to celebrate Futaba getting into middle school. Eating now almost felt like back then; back with the little family he had gained when befriending Wakaba. It was different now. Wakaba wasn’t there to see her daughter throw her manners out the window. It was different, but familiar too. Him and his little pseudo family.

His… family.

Sojiro asked for the bill.

“A hundred twenty thousand yen?” Sojiro scoffed, “You’re joking right!”

“Guess we’re not coming back for a while,” Akira muttered to Futaba.

Sojiro reached for his wallet.

His family.

Chapter Text

Sojiro glanced over his shoulder when the jingling of the bell above the door took his attention away from the television. Akira held the door open for a few of his friends, laughing at something one of them said. He tossed a baseball into the air repeatedly with his free hand.

Ann and Yusuke walked in before Ryuji, who looked particularly displeased.

“No, it’s not that bad,” Akira said, but couldn’t stop himself from snickering.

“It was pretty bad,” Ann grinned back at the two of them.

“Akira did have to correct your posture every few minutes,” Yusuke agreed.

“Okay,” Ryuji rolled eyes and crossed his arms over his chest, “So, I have a little bit to work on.”

“Like your posture,” Akira confirmed, “…And the release point.”

“And your aim,” Ann laughed.

“And your wrist movement,” Akira continued, “and probably how you start.”

“Okay, I get it!” Ryuji raised his arms into the air, “Throwing a baseball’s hard!”

“But that’s it! That’s all you’ve gotta fix!” Akira promised, “Then you’ll get it!”

“That’s literally everything!” Ryuji’s frustration turned into amusement.

“Hey, hey,” Akira said, calming the situation down, “For never having pitched a baseball before… it was bad, but better than I thought.”

“What?!”

“You threw one so far over Akira’s head that it hit a tree branch,” Yusuke clarified.

“Okay! I get it,” Ryuji laughed and threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender, “I’m bad at baseball… Hey, Boss.”

It was strange to be included in the conversation after witnessing all of that.

“Hey,” Sojiro stepped toward the coffee press. “You kids want your usuals?”

“I’d love some coffee,” Ann smiled and sat down at the counter. Sojiro couldn’t imagine how coffee would be a good compliment to a day spent in the summer heat playing baseball, but he wouldn’t judge. Coffee went well with almost anything if done right.

Yusuke followed suit and sat down beside her. Akira and Ryuji remained standing as Ryuji slung his arm over Akira’s shoulder. Akira missed his tossed baseball and watched it roll across the floor and under a table. “Hey, what about the curry you’ve been talking about?” Ryuji asked. His delivery of the question was almost shy. Akira smiled back before turning to Sojiro and slipping out from Ryuji’s hold.

“Can I?”

Sojiro shrugged, “I said you could try it out on your friends.”

Ryuji joined his friends, while Akira rounded the counter and threw his apron on. He avoided the pot of fresh curry on the stove and commandeered a smaller one, better suited for a small gathering of people. Sojiro focused on finishing their drinks.

“The gang’s all here,” Sojiro said as he placed two coffee cups down in front of Yusuke and Ann, “but where’s Niijima?”

“Break ends tomorrow,” Ann shrugged, “So, she had a meeting with the student council and they’re making plans for the school trip.”

Ryuji groaned and leaned back precariously in his seat, “I don’t wanna go back to school.”

“I feel similarly,” Yusuke crossed his arms on the counter and frowned, “I haven’t been able to paint anything worth looking at in a while. I can’t present anything to my teachers.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Sojiro said. It was a comforting statement that would cover all his bases. No need to give advice. It didn’t seem like any of them wanted it. Akira listened in, but remained silent as he hazardously followed Sojiro’s recipe for Wakaba’s curry. Somewhere down the line, Akira stopped paying attention to the written instructions Sojiro had let him use and began adding spices Sojiro had never told him to. Sojiro raised an eyebrow as he watched him pluck a few extra spices from the spice rack. “What are you doing?” he asked, curious and mildly concerned.

“Putting some love into it.” Akira opened a bright red spice shaker and shook a bit too much into the mix. Sojiro restrained himself from trying to stop him. He would let the kid do what he wanted. Sojiro just might not try the concoction himself.

“Done,” Akira announced when the pot of questionable curry bubbled dangerously on the stove.

Sojiro took a step back as Akira ladled out four plates of bright red curry and rice. He placed three plates in front of his friends and attempted to hand the last to Sojiro. “No,” Sojiro shook his head and raised a palm to block him. “I saw some of what you were adding in there, I’m not so sure-…”

“Oh, shi-!” Ryuji swallowed the mouth full of curry incinerating his mouth and grabbed for his glass. He washed down the remaining heat with his soda, only for the pain to most likely return a second later. His cheeks burned and his eyes watered. “Dude, what the hell!”

“Oh,” Akira muttered and glanced down at the plate of curry still in his hands. “Oops.”

Yusuke only paused for a second or two after Ryuji’s theatrics before trying a forkful of his own. He choked, but ultimately forced it down.

“You really should have seen that coming,” Ann chastised him, her nose scrunched up in annoyance. She looked up just in time to see Akira attempt the curry too. She gasped, “Akira, no.”

Sojiro snorted, attempting not to laugh. He covered his mouth with his fist to block the sound. Akira nearly dropped the plate as he forced it onto the counter and grabbed a clean glass to fill at the kitchen sink. After he gulped down the water, which would do nothing to save his burning taste buds, Akira turned back around, tears in his eyes. “Maybe,” he coughed, “Maybe that was a bit too much love.”

“You think?” Ryuji asked and looked back down at his plate, “…It’s not half bad though. I kinda like it.”

“You guys are stupid,” Ann sneered as the boys attempted another mouthful.

Sojiro sighed and leaned against the counter. At some point, struggling to swallow the curry turned into a game between Akira and Ryuji. Trying to figure out which of the two could eat Akira’s terrifying creation the fastest simply resulted in Yusuke finishing before them and asking for more. Ann refrained from eating her own serving for a while, but after a bit of coaxing and well-placed teasing, she tried it herself. She was reduced to tears.

“Oh, hey, look at that,” Akira said, eyes following the text popping up on the screen of the muted television. He reached passed Sojiro for the remote tucked underneath the back of the counter. Akira unmuted the television and the voice of a mildly interested newscaster filled the café. Akira and his friends turned to watch the television as they were told. Sojiro listened along with them.

The Phantom Thieves shocked the world by silencing a globally notorious hacktivist group. Now, their popularity goes beyond our own borders, with foreign media following them just as closely as our own. Many are heralding them as ‘dark heroes’ and ‘gentlemen thieves for a new age’.”

Sojiro grumbled to himself and shook his head, “Enough already, damn. All anyone talks about anymore is the Phantom Thieves – who they are, whether they’re good or bad… Starting to give me a headache...” The media coverage lately had been increasing, but this was just too much. Segment after segment was devoted to the discussion of the mysterious Phantom Thieves and now other countries were hopping on the bandwagon and filling the airwaves with more nonsense. The Phantom Thieves had been novel in the beginning, but watching the same television personalities bounce back and forth between opinions of the anonymous group practically every day left any further mention of them obnoxious in Sojiro’s opinion.

Of course, the kids didn’t share his sentiment. Ann and Yusuke smiled as they listened to the broadcast, but Ryuji was a bit more enthusiastic. “I think it’s pretty cool!” he boasted, “They’re finally getting the recognition they deserve. It’s going global too! Ain’t that crazy?” Ann reached out to shove him, earning her a playful glare in return.

“They’ve only been helpful,” Akira reasoned with Sojiro. He seemed almost hesitant to say anything else. Sojiro grimaced. He couldn’t win; not with four teenagers against him. “They aren’t that bad,” Sojiro eventually conceded, “I just wish they’d talk about something else. I’m getting sick of hearing the same thing over and over.”

“I’m here!” Futaba’s voice rang out as she burst through the door, “I heard there was some extra spicy curry!”

“Fresh out!” Akira lied and grinned devilishly.

Futaba gasped dramatically, clearly not believing him. “You ate it all without me? Who did it? Was it Inari? He’s a bottomless pit, not a boy!” She let the front door close behind her as she glared in Yusuke’s direction.

Yusuke didn’t look at all pleased with Futaba’s claims and sat back in his chair to get a better look at her from across the room. “I’m only on my second plate. Besides, it might be too spicy for you.”

“Such ignorance,” Futaba hissed and plopped down on a bar stool. She pointed demandingly at the simmering pot of liquid fire on the stove, “Gimme some of that curry!”

Akira made her a plate and handed it over without hesitation. As she took it from his hands he forebodingly whispered, “May you live to see tomorrow.”

Futaba took one bite and her eyes lit up in panic. She snatched Ryuji’s drink from his hand, downed the last of it, and chewed on the ice. After a few gasps to cool her mouth she announced, “I love it!”

Sojiro watched the exchange in amusement, but one nagging thought forced its way to the forefront of his mind. “How did you know Akira made curry today?”

Futaba didn’t answer him.

-

When afternoon turned to night, Futaba burst through the front door of LeBlanc. She grabbed Sojiro by the arm and tugged, jumping up and down and pleading with him to hurry. Sojiro could barely maneuver the ashen bud of his cigarette into his ash tray. Every attempt he made, Futaba’s tugging caused him to miss.

“Hurry! We’re gonna have a firework festival before Akira goes back to school!” She took a step back to tug harder.

“H-Hold on!” Sojiro pulled back to keep himself standing, “I haven’t even put out my cigarette yet.”

Sojiro finally pressed his cigarette into his ashtray and followed Futaba out to the front stoop of LeBlanc. Akira stood outside, three bags of fireworks and sparklers at his feet.

“I bought them all by myself!” Futaba declared and rushed for one of the bags.

Sojiro couldn’t believe his eyes.

Lights and smoke drifted through the alley where LeBlanc stood. Sojiro leaned against the brick wall as the kids knelt nearby and watched as their sparklers and ground based fireworks lit up the night. The kids’ glasses lit up with reds and yellows, hiding their childlike wonder behind them.

“Super double move!” Futaba cried out and flung two sparklers around at her sides.

The cat hacked and coughed nearby, sticking close to Akira, tail swishing.

“Hey,” Sojiro frowned, “The cat doesn’t like the smoke. Keep the flames away from him.”

Futaba didn’t quite listen, focused more on grabbing more unused sparklers. “Okay! I’m gonna do ten now!”

Akira turned to look at Morgana. He nudged him away slightly, but the cat stayed firmly where he was.

“Sojiro,” Futaba held a sparkler out toward him.

Sojiro gladly took it and allowed her to light it for him. Her eyes, filled with a joy and wonderment Sojiro thought had been lost forever, flickered up to meet his. She smiled and Sojiro felt like all was right in the world.

The joys of summer.

Futaba ran back to crouch at Akira’s side and watch as he lit a spinning top that screamed and spat out multicolored sparks. They both jumped back, clinging to each other, squealing and laughing like excitable children.

“Careful! Don’t stand too close. I don’t want to drive anyone to the hospital for burns.” Sojiro watched as the sparkler fizzled out before reaching his fingers.

“Akira! Light that one!”

Akira did just as Futaba asked.

Sojiro couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled so wide.

Chapter Text

Futaba crawled out of bed around the same time Sojiro had. During breakfast, she expressed her desire to attempt the lucrative lifestyle of a morning person. He believed in her, although, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she gave up in a few days.

Futaba followed him to LeBlanc and sat down on a barstool to watch him start to prep that day’s curry. Akira was nowhere in sight and Sojiro couldn’t hear the familiar shuffling from the attic he had grown used to in the mornings. Akira had slept in. He had anticipated that. He remembered how hard it was for him to get out of bed after summer or winter breaks when he was a teenager. Sojiro decided to let him sleep a bit longer.

When Sojiro eventually climbed the stairs, he found Akira curled up in bed, Morgana tucked under his arm. Sojiro knocked on the wall. The absence of a door made it difficult to knock before entering. “Time to wake up!”

Akira jolted awake, disoriented.

“You’ve got school today, remember?” Sojiro smirked, “Get dressed and come have breakfast. You’ve got thirty minutes.”

“Shit,” Akira hissed and tossed his blanket off himself.

Morgana yelped as the blanket flipped over to cover him. He jumped off the mattress to escape it.

Sojiro descended the stairs to finish preparing Akira’s breakfast and wait. Akira was quick, but his speed probably had something to do with neglecting his tangled curls. His fingers made a few quick passes through the black mess, only to get caught each time.

“Ooh, a uniform,” Futaba whispered and looked Akira up and down. Although his hair had been his last priority, his clothes were well kept and his shoes were polished. There wasn’t a wrinkle in sight. “I like it. The pants are kinda dumb though.”

“It looks better with the blazer,” Akira said as he set Morgana and his bag on the counter. He grabbed his breakfast and remained standing as he ate.

“It still looks good, though,” Futaba rested his chin in her palm and wistfully asked, “I wonder what Inari’s uniform looks like.”

“Not like much,” Akira replied between bites, “He surprisingly doesn’t stick to the dress code very well. I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to wear a jacket and tie.”

“Really?” Futaba perked up, “I wanna see.”

Sojiro gestured toward the door for Akira, “Hurry up kid or you’ll be late.”

Akira shoved a final bite of his breakfast into his mouth, grabbed his bag, and waved before exiting the café in a rush.

“So,” he said after a few awkward seconds, “Yusuke, huh?”

“Oh my God! No! Shut up!”

It was definitely Yusuke.

-

An automated voicemail was sent out to the parents and guardians of all students of Shujin. The voicemail informed Sojiro that the police would be returning to the school to follow up on new information on the investigation into Kamoshida. Sojiro had thought the investigations would have been over by now, but after some thought, he realized it made logical sense. He had originally wondered how one man could get away with such behavior for so long. The school only given a small, meaningless apology to the public after repeated prompting. Interviewing the faculty and asking the students to be truthful with their experiences didn’t seem like a terrible idea. It might finally uncover something heinous about the school’s administration.

Sojiro gave Akira a small warning, though he doubted he needed it. The police were investigating the faculty. The students’ testimonies were needed as cross references and nothing more. Akira would be fine, as long as he didn’t say anything stupid. His criminal record would mean nothing to them.

“Don’t worry about it too much. The date they gave was after your school’s trip to Hawaii,” Sojiro explained as he handed Akira his dinner.

“School trip to Hawaii!?” Futaba cried out and squeezed Morgana a bit too tightly. The cat struggled out of her grasp and leapt away to hide behind Akira’s legs.

“I can actually go?” Akira asked, surprised.

Sojiro nodded, “Yeah, your probation doesn’t stop you from leaving the country temporarily. Especially if it’s a school trip.”

“Huh, I didn’t know that,” Akira mused, “I thought I’d have to stay behind.”

Sojiro smiled and shook his head, “Nope. I just need to sign that permission slip and you’re off to Hawaii.”

“This isn’t fair!” Futaba whined.

Akira took out his phone and opened a group chat, “I need to tell the guys I’m going after all.”

“I wanna go to Hawaii,” Futaba laid her head down on the counter top, “I wanna go.”

“Hush,” Sojiro rolled his eyes, “It’s a school trip. You’d be able to go if you went to school.”

Akira put his phone away and grabbed his bag.

“I’m heading out. Come on, Morgana,” Akira bent slightly to give Morgana help to jump up and climb onto him. Morgana leapt with the grace only a cat could achieve and balanced effortlessly on Akira’s shoulder.

“That reminds me,” Sojiro chimed in, “You can’t smuggle that cat across the Pacific, kid.”

“Oh,” Akira frowned.

Morgana shifted his precarious position and growled low in his chest.

“Don’t worry,” Sojiro began, “We’ll-.”

“I’ll watch him!” Futaba perked up and reached up for Morgana, “Come here, kitty!”

Morgana lightly swatted her hand away.

“Maybe… later,” Akira conceded, but stepped away from Futaba’s grasp. He had certainly grown attached to his little cat.

“Don’t forget to bring me that permission slip,” Sojiro called after Akira as he turned to leave.

“I will!”

-

“This is a dumb shirt,” Futaba said as she searched through Akira’s box of clothes and raised a faded t-shirt up for the three of them to see. The box had somehow become a dresser for him. It had remained fairly organized before Futaba had gotten her hands into it. She had offered to help Akira pack for the school trip and somehow roped Sojiro into it as well. Nearly a week after Akira had been reminded of Shujin’s annual school trip, he still hadn’t managed to pack a simple suitcase for himself. Now, a day before he had to leave, his procrastination had gotten a tad ridiculous.

Sojiro hadn’t done much to help yet; other than keeping the two from going at each other’s throats with playful banter. “Futaba, that’s not nice,” Sojiro attempted to scold her.

Akira shook his head, “No, it’s pretty dumb. It doesn’t even fit right anymore.”

The shirt was older, worn out, with some sort of vibrant bear character Sojiro didn’t recognize on the front. “’We make every day great.’” Sojiro read the text on the shirt aloud to himself. He still didn’t recognize it. “Then why did you bring it?”

“I didn’t. Mom packed for me,” Akira lifted up his practically empty suitcase, “I never know what to pack.”

“You’d think she’d pack you clothes that fit you still.” Futaba pulled the shirt over her head and straightened it out over her own. “Can I have it?”

“Dork,” Akira chuckled.

“Loser,” Futaba returned. The shirt was far too big on her. If anything, it could be used as a nightshirt rather than anything she could wear around the city.

“It’s your first hand-me-down,” Sojiro mused fondly as he stepped closer. He fixed the wrinkles around her shoulders that she couldn’t reach.

“Do girls even get hand-me-downs from their older brothers?” Futaba asked as she turned around to pull out more clothes.

“I…” Sojiro stopped himself. Wait. Wait, had he just…? Akira wasn’t… Embarrassment welled up somewhere painful. He had never made the mistake of referring to Akira as family aloud for others to hear. At least, not that he could remember. He could only imagine how it would make Akira feel.

Akira didn’t seem to mind or at least hadn’t noticed. His attention remained on Futaba.

“Hey, hey, wait!” Akira rushed over to Futaba’s side and pulled the box away from her. “You said you were gonna help me pack, not steal my clothes.”

“If you stopped gaining muscle from working out with Ryuji all the time, maybe your clothes would fit and I wouldn’t need to take them,” Futaba reasoned with a mischievous smile.

“You know I can’t do that,” Akira turned to Sojiro, “Sojiro, stop your daughter!”

Futaba pulled the box back, “Sojiro, tell your… uh…,” She glanced back at Sojiro. Her eyes told Sojiro that she saw something in his face that stopped her in her tracks. Sojiro had no idea what that might have been. He felt strangely guilty. “Tell Akira he should give me anything cool he can’t wear!”

“You said the shirt was dumb!”

Sojiro didn’t say anything as the children bickered like they’d been siblings for years.

Akira was eventually packed for his school trip. Fortunately for Akira, Futaba had only gained one shirt for her personal wardrobe. It had taken far longer to fill Akira’s borrowed suitcase than Sojiro had expected. He was thankful they had only offered to help after LeBlanc had been closed for the night.

The kid now had a suitcase nearly full of clothing and travel sized necessities for the few days he’d be out of the country. He was forced, mostly by Sojiro, to leave room for any souvenirs he might be enticed to buy. The entire point of the trip was to have a good time and Sojiro let him know that. Akira had been hesitant to not bring his school bag. He claimed he wanted to be able to do the homework his teachers had assigned to be due after the trip, but Sojiro had a feeling it had something to do with Morgana.

“You wanna get stopped at security?” Sojiro crossed his arms over his chest, “You can’t bring your cat with you.”

“I didn’t want to!”

Sojiro didn’t believe him.

If Morgana hadn’t been a cat, Sojiro would have said he looked disappointed.

Akira left the next day. It was early in the morning. The sun wouldn’t come up for another few hours. Sojiro and Futaba had woken up with the express purpose of seeing him off at the airport. Sojiro hadn’t been pleased with the idea of Akira wandering out early in the morning alone to catch a train to take him half way across Tokyo to catch a plane that would take him even farther. Sojiro opted to drive them and thankfully, traffic was practically nonexistent in the early hours before dawn.

Akira had tried and failed to explain that they didn’t need to drive him. He was responsible and knew where he was going. He had left for Tokyo without a single goodbye from his parents after all. Sojiro asked if that was normal for them and, apparently, it had been extremely unusual behavior for his parents as he’d known them. It left Akira with feeling of dread for the rest of the day. Sojiro didn’t understand how Akira’s accidental oversharing would convince him he didn’t need to accompany the kid to the airport. If anything, it made him want to make sure the kid had someone to wave goodbye to.

Sojiro told him so.

Akira left after a quick goodbye, excitement overshadowing any hesitance to leave. As they watched Akira disappear into the airport sliding doors, Futaba fussed with Morgana fur. “He wants to go too,” she said.

Sojiro smiled as he turned the car away from the curb, “Poor thing. You think he’s going to miss him?”

Futaba laughed, “Less… ‘going to miss him’ and more jealous of him.”

Sojiro glanced back at the two of them through his car’s rear view mirror. Futaba played with Morgana’s paws. The cat seemed less than pleased with her behavior. The next few days would be interesting without Akira around.

-

Without Akira milling around the café in the mornings, Sojiro’s routines felt off. It had been easy to forget that Akira wouldn’t be wondering down from the attic for his breakfast and morning coffee. He wouldn’t be gone for long, Sojiro knew that, but he missed him nonetheless. He could only imagine the feeling persisting for quite a while after Akira left his household for good after his probation ended.

Morgana was surprisingly well behaved while in Sojiro’s home. He spent most of his time, probably unwillingly, in Futaba’s room. When Sojiro would enter, he’d find the cat perched on Futaba’s desk, dodging the occasional pat and ruffle of his fur. When he could manage to escape her clutches, Morgana would follow Sojiro around the kitchen when he was home, crying out for food.

The cat was welcome company. Over the past few months, Sojiro had taken a page out of Akira’s book and grown particularly fond of cats; Morgana especially. When he had the chance, he’d let Morgana sleep on his bed for a moment of peace before Futaba came looking for him.

Futaba was practically always on her phone or her laptop when Sojiro saw her, either texting her friends or distracting herself with the internet. She had received various pictures from Akira and the others. Curiosity won out on the third night the kids were gone and Sojiro asked to see some of the pictures she had been sent.

They sat together on the couch, Morgana perched in his lap, as Futaba flipped through her phone for pictures.

“This is the first one,” Futaba turned her phone around for Sojiro to see. The picture on the screen was a simple image of Akira and his friends huddled together for a picture on the beach. Their smiles were bright and their collective excitement was wonderful to see. However, one strange detail caught Sojiro’s attention.

“Is that Yusuke?”

He was certain Yusuke went to a different school and he thought he remembered that Futaba had told him Yusuke’s school was taking their students to Las Angeles.

Futaba turned her phone back around to flip through other pictures she was sent. “Yeah, apparently they couldn’t land because of a storm so they went to Hawaii instead,” she explained.

“Huh,” Sojiro could understand the inevitable detour. Landing in Hawaii to avoid the storm seemed reasonable by itself, but adjusting the entire trip to let their students spend the next four days in Hawaii seemed outrageous. “I guess that school does have a lot of money.”

“I know right?” Futaba turned her phone back around to show him a picture of a crab with its claw clamped around a stick Ryuji held near it. “What are the chances!”

“Hawaii is closer to us than LA,” Sojiro shrugged, “…That boy needs to behave himself over there.”

Futaba presented him another picture of Ryuji with a bandage over his finger and a regretful look on his face. “It got his finger,” she giggled.

“Of course, it did.”

Other pictures ranged from pictures of scenery to Ryuji ruining the scenery by posing strangely in front of it. There were a few of Ann presenting enormous bake goods or sweets to the camera she probably ate by herself. Another sequence of pictures had been sent of Akira, Ryuji, Yusuke, Ann, a girl from Kosei that Akira once said was named Hifumi, and a boy named Yuuki Mishima, documenting the process of digging a hole in the sand deep enough to fit a person, followed by a few more of Mishima buried in the sand up to his neck. Makoto, apparently taking the pictures, eventually took a selfie of herself in front of it all with a lighthearted but disapproving look. What was with these kids and burying their friends in the sand?

Futaba flipped to the next picture. Yusuke was the only person in frame. He was removing his shirt, presumably about to go swimming.

“Oops!” Futaba squeaked and quickly pulled her phone away. “I didn’t… He’s…” She frantically flipped through photos. Sojiro could only assume they were more pictures of Yusuke.

“Did he send you that?” Sojiro bristled a bit. When that boy got back to Japan, he’d have a very harsh discussion with Sojiro waiting for him.

“Well… I mean,” Futaba’s cheeks burned red, “I asked Akira to send me pictures of what Yusuke was up to and he… uh, he was being mean and sending me pictures… like… uh… Yusuke’s fine with it, though! It’s not like… uh. He just had his shirt off!”

“Futaba… Tell me. Do you like Yusuke? Does he like you?” Sojiro kept his voice calm. There was no point in scaring his daughter away from boys. She was a teenager and this sort of thing would have been inevitable if she had been healthy and sociable years ago. Now that she was, he had seen the signs. He hadn’t had much time to prepare, but he had known this was coming. “Do we need to have a talk about boys?”

“No.”

Sojiro raised an eyebrow, “Futaba.”

Futaba’s nose scrunched up as she held back her impulse to speak her mind. It didn’t take long for her to burst. “He doesn’t notice my attempts to flirt! He just says really savage things and everyone is just like ‘Ohhhhh! Yusuke, sick burn!’ in the group chat! It’s ridiculous!”

“Savage?” Sojiro racked his brain for where that term came from and what it was supposed to mean. He knew it probably had nothing to do with the word’s original meaning. “’Sick… burn’? Those are good… right?”

“I guess, but I don’t even know if he deserves it because I don’t think he knows he’s doing it!” Futaba threw her hands into the air and groaned loudly, “Why!?”

“Well…” Sojiro hadn’t expected her outburst to go quite like that.

Futaba dragged her palms over her face and accidentally knocked her glasses askew. “He’s just so pretty.”

“Maybe, he’s just not interested,” Sojiro offered as an explanation. He hoped Yusuke just wasn’t interested. Futaba’s expression told him she already had a similar idea. Sojiro attempted to clarify further, “You don’t need a boyfriend, Futaba. You can date when you’re… forty.”

“That’s terrible, Sojiro. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” Futaba glanced down at her phone.

“…Also, Yusuke and I will need to have a talk about this.”

“Please don’t!”

-

Letting Futaba date became a very heated topic of discussion around Sojiro’s regulars on the final day Akira was away. LeBlanc was particularly packed, containing just about four customers at one time. Conversations about the weather had transformed into questions about Akira, where he’d gone, and how he was doing in school. Akira, as difficult as it was to form a bond with neighbors within a big city, had managed to earn a place at LeBlanc among Sojiro’s customers. His absence didn’t go unnoticed. Spurred on by his customers’ genuine interest in his life, Sojiro couldn’t restrain himself talking to them and accidentally let a mention of Futaba and her interest in boys slip out.

They were all surprised to learn that they had lived nearby for so long and hadn’t known Sojiro had a daughter. Sojiro chose to lie and said her adoption had been fairly recent.

“Taking in a delinquent and adopting a teenager,” fawned Ms. Aiko, a woman painfully obvious in her interest in him. She twirled a lock of brown hair around her finger. “You’re such a kind and caring man, Sojiro.”

“You should let her date, Boss,” suggested an elderly woman from a booth seat. She was a sweet woman whose main topic of conversation was always her grandkids. “She’ll just end up dating behind your back. I know mine did when she was in high school. She ended up marrying the boy after college! Can you believe that? Such a sweet man. The boy of her dreams, she said.”

As she grew caught up in her musings, a gentleman who would come by once a week for his lunch break spoke up, “My wife and I decided on an age when my daughter could date. I say if she’s already a teenager, let her, but give any boy she brings home hell.”

“’Hell’ might be a bit too extreme,” a younger man reasoned after a sip from his coffee, “You don’t want her hating you for chasing him off.”

“All very valid points,” Sojiro refilled Ms. Aiko’s cup and ignored how she fluttered her eyelashes at him. “I just don’t know. I’ve met the kid she’s interested in, but…”

“Oh, let her date,” Aiko laid a hand on Sojiro forearm and smiled warmly, “The worst he could do is break her heart.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“She’s gonna grow up whether you like it or not.”

Sojiro knew that.

He might as well accept it.

-

Before Akira returned, he made it very clear over text that he could handle the trip back to LeBlanc on his own. Besides, he wanted to walk Ryuji home since his mother would be at work late. When Akira finally did return, it was just before noon. His eyes were glassy and distant behind his glasses. His hair was in disarray and his clothes were rumpled from sleeping restlessly on the plane.

“Welcome back! You get tanned a bit?” Sojiro smiled as he caught the slightest hint of a sunburn on Akira’s nose.

“How was Hawaii?” Futaba asked next before Akira could answer.

After a small pause, Akira held up his hand and extended his pinkie and thumb. Shaking it wearily, he said, “Aloha!”

“He’s been influenced!” Futaba sat up straighter, “We’ve lost him!” Akira giggled in response.
“I can understand why,” Sojiro chuckled in return.

Akira was practically falling asleep on his feet.

“Come on,” Sojiro waved him forward and stepped out from behind the counter. “Let’s get you to bed. I’ll take the suitcase.” Sojiro grabbed the case by its handle and walked up the staircase as Akira trailed behind him. Morgana was waiting patiently at the top of the stairs. Upon seeing Akira, the meowing began almost instantly.

“So,” Sojiro said over Morgana’s insistent noise making and set Akira’s suitcase down beside his bookshelf, “How was the trip?”

“Pretty good,” Akira said and immediately plopped down on his bed, “Jet lag is killer, though.”

“I can tell,” Sojiro shoved his hands into his pocket, “Listen, I’ll let you get some sleep, but I’ve gotta ask…”

“Hm?” Akira perked up.

“What does Yusuke think of Futaba? I mean… is he interested in her?”

Akira’s eyes flickered away and back to Sojiro. He nibbled on his bottom lip before asking, “Should I be worried about his future existence on this earth if I answer incorrectly?”

Sojiro scoffed and shook his head, “No, he’ll be fine.”

“…Yeah, he likes her. I’m pretty sure they both like each other.”

“Alright,” Sojiro nodded and attempted to convey as much nonchalance throughout the entire conversation, “You think he’d treat her right?”

“Definitely,” Akira reassured him, “I mean, they’ve gotta admit it to each other first, but yeah, I think it’d work out pretty well.”

“Okay,” Sojiro scratched his chin and thought aloud, “I like Yusuke. He’s a good kid. Respectful. Going places in life. Plus, I already know him.”

“Yep,” Akira leaned back against the windowsill beside his bed.

“So… What about you, huh?” Sojiro asked in an attempt to both change the subject and learn a little more about Akira. He hadn’t spoken to him in days and it felt nice to try and strike up a conversation with him. “You convince any of the girls to date you?”

“Huh? Uh,” Akira blinked the blurriness from his eyes and shook his head, “No, actually, the girls are great but…”

Akira went silent and Sojiro didn’t make a move to speak. As the quiet dragged on longer than he an anticipated, Sojiro felt as though he had just stumbled upon an epiphany. He’d known the kid for months and he was just now realizing Akira hadn’t been charming ladies into his friend circle? Akira fidgeted and pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged on his bed. Sojiro felt like an idiot.

“One of the boys then?” Sojiro ask.

Akira laughed quietly, “I mean…”

“It’s not Yusuke, is it? I don’t think Futaba would like that.”

“No… It’s… It’s Ryuji,” Akira’s gaze fell to his shirt sleeve. He picked at a loose strand on the seam.

“Ryuji,” Sojiro repeated to himself, “Of course.” Akira and Ryuji had always been the clingiest of the group. He’d seen time and time again how Akira listened to Ryuji with rapt attention even if others were in the room. They practically always sat as close together as they could. Sojiro had always assumed they were just close friends with how many girls Akira had begun to spend time with. It had never occurred to him that Akira would be interested in his best friend. Perhaps he should have continued reading Akira’s journal. He could only imagine how obvious Akira could have been making it. The realization of how wrong he’d been had him laughing.

“I haven’t told him, but…” Akira lightly pat Morgana on the head.

“You should,” Sojiro said, “He might say yes.” He reached out and ruffled Akira’s hair. His fingers were caught in his tangled curls for a moment. Akira pulled away from Sojiro’s hand and collapsed into his pillow. “Maybe,” he muttered, “Or I’ll just ruin our friendship forever.”

“It wasn’t a good friendship to begin with if he disowns you for that,” Sojiro turned and left for the stairs, “I’ll let you sleep… and I’ll try to convince myself Futaba dating isn’t the end of the world.”

“If I can date, Futaba can date,” Akira pulled his blanket over himself and buried his nose into his pillow.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sojiro stopped at the top stairs and smiled, “Go to sleep, kid.”

Chapter Text

Every news station clamored to spread the word about Shujin’s newest dilemma before the Shujin could alert any parents on their own. Principle Kobayakawa allegedly walked out into a busy street on his own volition just outside a police station. He had stepped in the path of a semi-trunk. The driver couldn’t stop in time. Kobayakawa was struck and killed instantly.

Akira came downstairs after Sojiro had muted the television; a news station relayed yet another scandal for Shujin Academy to combat. The kid frowned down at his phone as he typed something.

“Hey,” Sojiro called out to catch his attention.

Akira looked up, his eyes wide and uncertain.

“Did you hear?” he asked, keeping his voice low. Akira was practically a spooked deer when terrible things happened around him. He couldn’t blame the kid. He had a big heart. “It’s about your principal.”

“Yeah,” Akira nodded and glanced back down at his buzzing phone, “Everyone’s talking about it.” His voice trailed off into a whisper.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Sojiro decided to emphasize. The last thing he needed was his kid blaming himself for the decisions of an adult.

“They…” Akira fidgeted, “said it was a suicide?”

“Yeah, that’s what they said,” Sojiro nodded and stepped out from behind the counter. He placed an arm around Akira’s shoulders and gave him a quick squeeze.

“I really… didn’t like him, but…” Akira’s nose scrunched. He shook his head, “Was it because of the stuff with Kamoshida?”

“Could be,” Sojiro leaned away and rubbed his back. His muscles were tense under Sojiro’s touch and Akira seemed to find no comfort in Sojiro’s attempts to sooth him. He remained slouched and downtrodden. “Don’t worry about that. It doesn’t concern you. Everything will be alright… You know you can talk to me.”

Akira nodded and finally looked him in the eye, “I know.” He smiled, but it didn’t meet his eyes. Akira left for school without taking his breakfast.

-

“I can’t do this anymore.” Sojiro overheard a customer mutter to his friend over his coffee. Akira’s friends had left long before the two had trudged in before closing time. Both were in bright, blinding uniforms, with heavy bags under their eyes. The younger of the two was close to tears while the other smiled sheepishly; a faltering apology to Sojiro for coming in so late. He had seen him before. He’d come by occasionally for coffee cake to unwind on stressful days. He ordered two cups of coffee with cream and two slices of coffee cake.

They had sat down in a booth together to talk, but the younger man couldn’t keep his head off the table. “I can’t,” he whimpered, “I know I’ve got to keep working to keep my apartment, but I barely ever sleep. I’m running on coffee and energy drinks!”

“I know,” his friend agreed and cut a piece of his cake with his fork, “Okumura Foods is working us to death, but this is all we got. You couldn’t find a job before. I could try to help you, but I don’t know how helpful I’ll be.”

“I just can’t work there anymore,” He sat up long enough to take a sip of his coffee and then laid his head back down.

Sojiro refrained from saying anything. He did feel some sympathy for the two of them. He’d heard about Okumura Foods’ poor treatment of their workers, but it wasn’t any of his business.

When the two of them paid, Sojiro gave them a discount.

He’d lose his shop if he kept trying to be nice.

-

“Sojiro,” Akira met him at the bottom of the stairs as opened the store. “Have you seen Morgana?”

“Was he not with you?” Sojiro glanced around the floor of the kitchen to double check Morgana hadn’t managed to hide himself somewhere in the café. He shook his head after a moment. “Did he run off last night? The door was locked so he should be around here.”

Akira chewed on his bottom lip and quickly checked under the booth tables. “No. I haven’t seen him since before dinner yesterday.”

“What did I say about keeping the cat out of the café?”

“Well, I…” Akira continued to search around the café and up on the shelves. “I didn’t…”

“It’s alright,” Sojiro quickly corrected himself. There was no point in scolding him while Morgana seemed to be missing. There weren’t many places for Morgana to hide whether in the attic or the café. If he wasn’t upstairs, it was probably safe to say he wasn’t in LeBlanc at all. The increasing concern on Akira’s face had Sojiro feeling just as worried.

“Let’s try something else,” Sojiro pulled a can of tuna from the cabinets and placed it loudly on the counter. Normally, the sound of a can of cat food or tuna tapping against the counter would be met with Morgana practically materializing at their feet. This time, Morgana didn’t come running.

“He’s probably outside…” Akira opened the door and called out for Morgana.

Sojiro stepped out alongside Akira and tapped a fork against the can of tuna. They both called Morgana’s name, but after a few minutes, it was clear Morgana wasn’t going to come. Sojiro tried not to worry. Akira seemed to be doing enough of that for both of them. He was the adult. It was his job to improve the situation.

“Let’s text Futaba,” he suggested and dumped the tuna into Morgana’s bowl at the base of the stairs. “He’s been living in the house for a few days. Maybe he just went back. There aren’t many cars around the alley, so we shouldn’t worry too much. Okay?”

“Okay,” Akira replied skeptically.

Upon texting Futaba about Morgana’s disappearance, her answer was the same as theirs. Morgana was nowhere in the house.

Akira left for school and was gone for a majority of the day. Sojiro attempted to keep his eye out for Morgana, but he didn’t catch a glimpse of him. That night, after dinner, Sojiro interrupted the show Futaba was watching on her laptop. “Do you or Akira have any pictures of Morgana?”

“Oh, we’ve got tons!” Futaba said and picked up her phone to open her photo gallery.

“Great,” Sojiro massaged a sore spot on the back of his neck. He never imagined he’d be stressing out over a missing cat, but Akira was upset. It was almost impossible for him not to feel the same. “Can you and Akira find a good one and make a ‘Lost Cat’ poster? We’ll post it up around the neighborhood.”

“Yeah,” Futaba quickly went back to her laptop, “I can definitely do that!” Futaba switched to a different tab and pointed to an article she had found. “People say it’s really hard for lost cats to be found because everyone mistakes them for strays.”

“Yep,” Sojiro sighed, “That’s why I got that tag for his collar. Hopefully, if someone finds him, they’ll know to bring him back.”

“He’ll come back… Right, Sojiro?” Futaba asked.

“I… Yeah, we’ll get him back.”

-

The picture Akira and Futaba chose to include on their poster had Morgana staring straight ahead at the camera. Futaba reasoned that Morgana’s blue eyes and white markings were his most prominent features and their best bet at getting others to notice him. They posted the flyer around the neighborhood and Sojiro kept a few at LeBlanc to show his regulars.

No one had seen Morgana. The closest they’d gotten was a young girl who lived nearby thinking a completely black cat her dog had chased away was Morgana. It hadn’t been.

Morgana’s bowl was eventually left outside. Sojiro or Akira would refill it after the wet food dried out during the night. Sojiro was afraid of some other strays snagging the food they placed out to attract Morgana, but he did it anyway. Morgana had been a stray before. He would be fine for a while, but he’d tasted the comfortable life of a house cat. He’d come back when he was hungry, at least, Sojiro hoped he would.

-

Akira’s friends followed him home at the end of week. After school, they would spend a few hours looking for Morgana around their usual hangouts. Futaba explained that their reasoning was based off the fact that Akira brought Morgana everywhere. Morgana was a smart cat. He could very easily have found himself anywhere they had previously gone. Sojiro hadn’t been convinced. Morgana couldn’t possibly have travelled that far from home and if he had, their chances of finding him would be practically nonexistent.

Thankfully, a new member of their group carried Morgana in after them. “We found Morgana!” Futaba announced, arms outstretched to enthusiastically present him in all his glory.

“No kidding,” Sojiro laughed, relieved and thankful.

“This is Haru,” Akira introduced the petit girl who cradled their cat behind him.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Sojiro introduced himself, “I’m Sojiro Sakura. Did you find our little escaped convict?”

“Does that mean me or Morgana?” Akira asked.

Sojiro shrugged, “Both.”

Haru giggled and nodded; her curls bounced around her face. She sweetly replied, “It’s wonderful to meet you, Mr. Sakura. Yes, I did find Mona, but I’d say Akira and everyone else found me.”

“Really?”

“Her awful fiancée was bothering her,” Ann clarified.

“We took care of it,” Ryuji boasted.

“I’m sure you did,” Sojiro rolled his eyes. He wouldn’t repeat himself. At this point, he was sure all of them knew not to get themselves into any trouble. He could only tell the children around him to behave so many times before they stopped listening all together.

“Can Haru spend the night?” Futaba asked.

“Why?”

“Oh, there’s no need,” Haru carefully handed Morgana over to Akira and clasped her hands together in front of her. “I’m fine, truly. I should be going home.”

“We want you to be safe, Haru,” Makoto pleaded with her. She turned to Sojiro and continued her, “Sakura, her fiancée was attacking her tonight and we feel like she’d be much safer if she didn’t go home just yet.”

“Do we need to call the police?” Sojiro grabbed for his phone. He hoped they hadn’t been followed by Haru’s fiancée if things had gotten that bad while they were out.

Haru frantically shook her head, “No, please! It’s quite alright. It wasn’t that bad. He was just holding my arm a bit too tight. He doesn’t live with me.”

“Still…” Makoto grimaced at the notion of Haru going home.

“You can stay if you need to,” Sojiro reassured them both, “But if you feel safe going back, I won’t stop you.”

“I feel safe,” Haru promised, “My father is the only one home, aside from the servants. I’ll call for someone to pick me up.” Haru stepped aside and pulled out her phone from her purse. She dialed a number quickly and pressed her phone to her ear as she waited for whoever she was calling to answer.

“Servants?” Sojiro asked out of pure curiosity.

“She’s Haru Okumura,” Ann kept her voice soft enough for Haru to miss.

Okumura?” Sojiro blinked dumbly, “As in, Okumura Foods, Okumura?”

“That very one,” Yusuke said, nodding along.

“You’re kidding. How’d you meet her?”

“She actually goes to our school,” Makoto added.

“Wait, really?” Ryuji whispered for his friends.

“Yes,” Akira whispered back, bewildered by his question, “We saw her on the school trip.”

“Oh…”

“Thank you,” Haru said cheerfully into the phone and turned around. She hung up and returned her phone to her purse. “My driver said he’d be here in fifteen minutes to take me home.”

“Let’s wait upstairs,” Akira suggested and motioned everyone toward the attic stairs.

“I’ll let you know when they get here,” Sojiro turned toward the shelves of snacks he was supposed to sell alongside his coffee. “You kids want anything while you wait?”

“Obviously,” Futaba said, answering for the group, and then scampered up the stairs to catch up.

Haru left after a few packages of sweets and when her chauffeur overcame the struggle of finding LeBlanc tucked away in a forgotten corner. She thanked him for his hospitality, but Sojiro couldn’t imagine how he’d proved himself to be. Haru was a sweet girl. She was more soft-spoken than the rest; less rowdy. That wasn’t to say that any of the kids Akira brought back with him were any less than wonderful, but at this point, Sojiro wasn’t sure if he had the room in LeBlanc for all these kids to be spending their days attached at Akira’s hip.

“Honestly, kid,” Sojiro pinched the bridge of his nose and Morgana meowed obnoxiously by his food bowl. “I don’t understand how you keep finding these people.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Everything about you worries me.”

Chapter Text

Haru’s presence within Akira’s friend circle hadn’t been a onetime thing. She would follow behind them into LeBlanc as though she had found a place among them just as quickly as the others had. Haru and the others acted as though she had always been there. Sojiro welcomed her company with open arms.

Very quickly, Sojiro learned a few things about Haru’s interests and hobbies from accidentally eavesdropping on conversations. She repeatedly spoke positively of gardening and the occasional soup recipe; so much so, that Sojiro wasn’t surprise when, on one slow afternoon, Haru had come by with a hopeful expression on her face and a basket of fresh vegetables held tightly in her grasp.

“Akira’s upstairs,” Sojiro motioned to the staircase, certain she had come by to share her haul with her new friend.

“Oh, good,” her small voice squeaked. She turned toward the staircase and stopped at the base. As she tapped her knuckles against the wall, she called up the entryway, “Akira, I’m here!”

“I’ll be right down, Haru!” Akira called back down from the attic.

Haru smiled and nervously turned back around. She sat down at a bar stool and placed her basket of vegetables on the counter. “Those for Akira?” Sojiro asked.

“Oh,” Haru shook her head, “No, it’s… Well, I grew them myself. Akira said I could-.”

“I’m here,” Akira announced as he clunked his way down to the first floor. He realized, belatedly, that he had interrupted something. “…Sorry.”

“It’s alright.” Haru anxiously motioned him over.

Akira came to stand at her side. “Has he tried them yet?”

“…No,” she whispered back.

“Am I trying these?” Sojiro’s interest was peaked. Haru smiled sheepishly and nodded.

“She grows vegetables on the roof of the school,” Akira began explaining and then lightly nudged Haru.

“Akira told me,” Haru quickly continued, “that you knew a lot about how to run a café… Obviously… Um, and that you might be interested in letting me know if these are good to use. I’d love to start my own café one day and use my own vegetables.”

Sojiro was pleasantly surprised. He wouldn’t have considered himself a connoisseur of fine cuisine. He knew good coffee and what went into great curry, but beyond that, he couldn’t say he’d be the person to go to for taste testing produce. Haru seemed so nervous, yet hopeful. He couldn’t have turned her down.

“Absolutely,” he reached for a plate. Setting it down on the counter for Haru to place the vegetables she wanted him to try, Sojiro asked, “They let you grow plants on the roof.”

“…Well…” Haru giggled to herself and didn’t say any more than that.

Sojiro tried the cucumber first. It tasted like water with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

The tomatoes weren’t quite ripe yet.

The cabbages were small and wilted

The carrots were tasteless.

Overall, the selection wasn’t great.

“They’re…” Sojiro set aside the vegetables he’d been given, “Uh…”

“It’s that bad, huh?” Haru pouted, disappointed.

“It’s a miracle you could grow anything in planters in the school roof,” Sojiro reasoned, hoping his dissatisfaction with her produce wouldn’t stop her from trying to do better, “You’re on your way.”

“You think so?” Haru reached for a slice of her cucumber and took a bite. She grimaced and pushed Akira’s reaching hand away from the plate. “I can do better.”

-

Sojiro had been waiting for one of the few days when Yusuke would come to LeBlanc alone. He’d hate to embarrass him in front of all his friends, no matter how effective a fear tactic it could possibly have been. It took longer to get Yusuke alone than he had expected. With the addition of Haru, it seemed like Akira’s friends wanted nothing more than to spend every moment out of class together doing whatever they pleased around town until dusk.

Eventually, Sojiro was lucky.

Yusuke stepped into LeBlanc, fumbling over a large canvas covered by a tarp. “Good afternoon, boss,” Yusuke greeted him politely, like always, as he maneuvered through the doorway. “I came to see Akira.”

He made his way toward the stairs, but Sojiro had other plans.

“Hold on.”

Yusuke paused to look at him.

“Get back over here… We need to talk.”

“Of course.” Yusuke set his art piece down, leaned it against a wall, and came to stand across from Sojiro; the counter separating them. Yusuke watched him curiously, seeming to gleam nothing from Sojiro harsh demeanor.

“I heard you’ve taken interest in my daughter.” Sojiro watched as Yusuke didn’t react in the slightest.

“She certainly is… interesting.” Yusuke brushed a lock of hair away from his eyes.

Okay…

“Sure,” Sojiro said, attempting to pick his momentum back up, “but Akira told me you find her particularly interesting… You like her.”

“I certainly like her,” Yusuke agreed and for a moment Sojiro thought he’d gotten him. His hopes were quickly dashed. “She’s a delightful muse and a good friend, after all.”

“You… Yusuke, are you playing dumb?”

Yusuke’s owlish blinking told Sojiro that he had no idea where this conversation was going.

“Do you like Futaba?” Sojiro finally asked, “Do you want to date my daughter?”

“I...?” Almost immediately Yusuke caught on. His face turned red, color starting from his ears and flooding into his cheeks. “I certainly didn’t mean to… I hate to seem like I… I should go.”

“No.” Sojiro’s firm voice kept Yusuke’s feet firmly planted on the tile. “I… You can ask her out as long as you understand that she’s my little girl. If you break her heart or even try to attempt anything inappropriate with her…” Sojiro let his growl hang in the air, a wonderful maneuver to let the boy assume and internally exaggerate whatever punishment might be on the horizon lest he make a mistake. Whatever he’d be thinking would be far worse than anything Sojiro could come up with.

Yusuke nodded, just as a frantic Futaba rushed through the front door, “Sojiro, don’t!”

“I really should… go.” Yusuke fumbled up the stairs and into the attic, forgetting his canvas on the floor.

“He likes me?” Futaba pulled at her jacket sleeves.

“Futaba, how do you keep…?”

Futaba ignored him and rushed up the stairs.

Eventually, Yusuke returned to the first floor to grab his painting. “I… forgot it,” he admitted and laughed quietly, embarrassed.

Later that afternoon, Yusuke walked Futaba home, clumsily holding her hand.

-

LeBlanc remained relatively peaceful for the next week. Sojiro should have known that nothing stayed calm for long. If anything, he would now start to dread the peaceful moments. It only spelled disaster on the horizon.

Youji forced himself and his ego into LeBlanc just before closing.

“You just don’t know when to give up, do you?” Sojiro scowled, fed up and just about ready to physically kick the man out without another word.

“You’ll never guess what I just learned, Sojiro,” Youji sneered, a glint in his eye, “Futaba’s been cooped up in her room, shut off from society and school. That’s not very good parenting.”

“Yeah?” Sojiro growled, “And what have you done for her? Let her starve to death on your living room floor?!”

Youji’s smile morphed into a hellish snarl, “I think it’s about time you pay up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Get out. I already gave you most of the inheritance for custody.”

Akira took on a guarded posture from his spot by the kitchen sink. He glanced between Sojiro and Youji, a sour expression on his face.

“We could take this to court,” Youji shrugged, flippant, as if what he was suggesting wasn’t something devastating. Sojiro would have been scared if Youji actually had the money for a lawyer. Sojiro had stood his ground against him and more formidable foes before. He could do it again. Ignorant of his own failings, Youji kept talking. “I wonder who’d win between a blood relative and a guardian who won’t let her go to school and houses deviants.”

“Shut up, scumbag!” Akira shouted from the kitchen, a welcomed break from his usual silence under pressure.

“Hey!” Youji jabbed a finger in Akira’s direction. “You have a problem? I’ll sue you for intimidation!”

“You’ll sue a kid for scaring you?” Sojiro took a step forward and Youji responded with his own step back. Sojiro turned to look at Akira and pointed his thumb over his shoulder toward the staircase. “Stay out of this. Go to your room, okay?”

Akira had just begun to make a slow creep toward the stairs when Futaba strolled in looking for food. She froze at the sight of Youji. He smiled at her, fake and nearly sinister. Futaba flinched back, ready to run. Sojiro rushed to her side and shielded Futaba from view behind his back. “Get out, Youji!”

“You won’t beat me in court.”

“To hell with that! Get out!”

Youji smirked and shook his head, “I’ll let you think about it. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned, overly confident in himself, and left.

In the silence, Sojiro took a deep breath. “Akira, could you finish locking up? ...Let’s get you home, Futaba.”

“Sojiro…” Futaba barely managed to squeak. He took her small fingers in his and lead her home.

-

“Sojiro look!” The next day, Futaba rushed into LeBlanc, eyes lit up with pride, her phone pointed toward him. Sojiro saw a string of numbers and symbols he couldn’t quite make sense of before Futaba turned the phone back around to herself.

“What is that?” Sojiro asked.

“It’s Uncle Youji’s bank records!” Futaba grinned, pleased with herself and her findings. “He can’t take me away. He’s in debt and he might file for bankruptcy soon. He can’t take us to court! We have evidence he can’t take care of me!”

“How did you get that?”

“Hacking, of course,” she scoffed and rolled her eyes, as though his ignorance of her skills was laughable.

“How in the world?! That’s a federal offence, Futaba!”

Futaba shrank back at the sound of his voice. Her mouth opened and closed as she struggled to find something to say.

“We wouldn’t be able to use any of that in court. It was obtained illegally.”

“She didn’t know!” Akira said, quickly jumping to her defense.

“I know,” Sojiro sighed and combed his fingers through his thinning hair. “I know. Futaba, get rid of that. I don’t know how you got it, but get rid of it.”

“But he’s coming back tonight and-!”

Sojiro shushed her, “I know he is and it won’t matter. Nothing he could do would take either of you from me. We’re not going to court. I know he’s lying.”

“Why didn’t you… say anything?” Futaba asked, tapping her phone’s touch screen, and effectively deleted the information she had obtained from it.

“I’m the adult. You’re the kids. It’s my job to worry about these things.”

“That’s sort of ridiculous,” Akira said, tearing down the last of Sojiro’s delusion of protecting them from unnecessary stress. “We always figure it out.”

-

When Youji returned that night, Sojiro was ready.

Youji puffed up his chest and spouted the same old threats. Sojiro was less inclined to sit and take it two nights in a row. “You think they’ll side with you in court with your debt and failed business ventures? What do you think they’ll say when they realize how wasteful you are with your money?”

Sojiro’s antagonizing was met with frustration at first and violence second.

Youji’s face turned red, blood boiling under the skin. “This is your fault you little cursed bitch!” he spat.

“Hey!” Sojiro realized just then that Futaba was ahead of him and caught off guard.

He wasn’t close enough to reach her.

Akira stepped in front of Futaba before Sojiro could even think to move. It was as if he had seen the fingers of Youji’s right hand clench and readied himself for Youji’s swing before the fist was even made. Akira pushed Futaba back and just barely dodged a punch that would have made contact with his jaw. Youji, unable to recover from his missed swing, stumbled and fell forward onto the tiled floor.

Sojiro managed to come to his senses after Youji’s tumble and grabbed ahold of Akira and Futaba, pulling them back. He stepped in front of them both to protect them. Admittedly, it was a belated maneuver.

Youji returned to his feet. “Th-…” He cleared his throat, visibly mortified, “This is assault! I’ll sue!”

“Stop-,” Akira’s wilting voice responded behind him.

Sojiro interrupted him. “What are you talking about?! You tried to hit my children! You fell on your own!”

“Oh, really?” Youji scoffed, “They’ll believe a boy with assault on his record? I’ll see you in court!” Youji turned and limped through the front door.

That… had gone worse than expected. The tension in the café dissipated as Morgana slinked around a corner and made himself known with curious meow. Everything was fine. Everyone was safe.

“Let’s… Let’s go home, Futaba.” Sojiro ushered Futaba toward the door. “I’ll come back, Akira.”

Akira blinked back at him and a moment later, nodded. Sojiro was ashamed to admit he didn’t notice Akira’s distress until was too late.

Instead of staying with them both, he walked Futaba home. She clung to him, nearly in tears, before falling asleep beside him on the couch. He carried her up to bed and trudged his way back to LeBlanc. He couldn’t leave Akira with all the clean-up two nights in a row.

“Alright,” Sojiro sighed and tilted his stiff neck to pop it. “Futaba’s fine. She fell asleep once she calmed down.”

Akira was sitting exactly where he’d left him, his face buried in his arms. The sight was nothing less than concerning.

“You alright, kid?”

Akira raised his head and asked, “What… happens if you break your probation?”

“Well… uh… If you broke the law before the year was up, you would be in violation of your probation and the agreement you made in court. You would essentially go back to jail.” Sojiro came closer to stand beside his hunched form.

“And… stay there?”

“You’d stay for as long as they decide,” Sojiro placed a solid hand on his back, “but don’t worry about it. He won’t do anything. We won’t go to court. You have no reason to ever end up in jail.”

Akira curled in on himself, fear seeming to consume rational thought.

“Hey, hey,” Sojiro quietly sat down beside him, “Stop worrying. I shouldn’t have answered that question. Listen, what you did back there… Thank you. You stood up for Futaba and for me and I can’t possibly thank you enough. Honestly, I should have been the one to stand up for you… from the start. I went on and on about how you can’t fight back against society and how you should just accept the hand your dealt in life, but that’s just the garbage my father fed me. You’ll be fine. You’re a good kid. It won’t be long before everyone realizes that.”

Akira frown deepened, as if the words Sojiro used to comfort him only made him feel worse.

“Sojiro, I… What if I told you I…” Akira stopped himself as Morgana yowled at his feet. He picked Morgana up and placed him in his lap. It did little to calm the cat down.

“What if you told me what?”

“Never mind, Sojiro. I’m just thinking too much.” Akira stood, pulled Morgana onto his shoulder, and left for the stairs.

“Alright,” Sojiro stood up after him. “If you’re okay.”

Akira disappeared up the attic stairs and Sojiro couldn’t help but be reminded of how Akira looked back in April. After mopping the floor and wiping down the tables he had missed, Sojiro locked LeBlanc’s door behind him, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Chapter Text

Sojiro honestly had no idea what was going on. He had a feeling Social Services would drop by for a surprise visit before the end of the month if Youji went through with his threats of a custody battle. A call from Futaba’s uncle would certainly be a cause for concern. Youji was quickly solidifying himself as the bane of Sojiro’s existence. However, in many ways, Sojiro knew how to deal with him and Social Services.

Sojiro didn’t know how to deal with Akira’s school.

He’d received a call from the school’s new principal; a woman with a seemingly kind disposition. Over the phone, she assured him that Akira had not gotten into trouble, but after the police investigation of the school, she was worried about his school life. She wanted to discuss with him and a few other students’ parents about her plans to curb bullying. Akira was already in her office and waiting for him. It was good to know the new principal had as much disregard for his work hours as the last one did.

Sojiro reluctantly closed up shop within the hour and left for Akira’s school.

Akira was one of the few kids sitting alone outside the principal’s office. Most of the other students, along with their parents, sat as far from Akira as possible. Sojiro could only assume these were the bullies the principal had told him about. Their parents didn’t seem all that remorseful. In fact, they seemed content to reinforce the behavior with their own harsh glares and upturned noses in Akira’s direction. Upon seeing Sojiro, Akira sat up from his defensive slouch. Sojiro sat down beside him in one of the unoccupied, stiff, wooden chairs. He could feel the attention of the room shift to him.

“I didn’t do anything,” Akira said, desperately, almost as soon Sojiro settled into his seat. The world must have felt like it was crumbling around the kid’s feet. It was just one problem after another.

“I believe you,” Sojiro pat his back and found his gaze wandering around the room. A mother scoffed and pulled her son closer to herself. Sojiro scowled. His obvious distaste did nothing to improve the atmosphere. If anything, it might have made it worse.

Is this how it was for Akira every day?

The door of the principal’s office swung open and Ryuji, along with an older woman Sojiro could only assume was his mother, exited with awkward goodbyes. Ryuji’s eyes caught Akira’s and he smiled as his mother tucked him away to talk privately. “Mom, wait, Akira’s back there.”

She stopped to look, but the principal got to them first.

“Kurusu, is your-,” she began to ask, poking her head out of the office. “Oh, are you Sojiro Sakura?”

“I am.”

“Wonderful! I’d like to speak with the two of you next.” She motioned for the them to stand and follow her inside. Sojiro, without meaning to, stood up after Akira and placed his hand on his back to guide him along and guard him from the judgmental gazes behind them.

Kobayakawa’s office felt strangely empty. The original decorations had been removed and the vacant spaces had yet to be filled with his replacement’s trinkets and framed achievements. She sat herself down at her desk and folded her hands in front of her. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Sakura. Please,” she held her palm open ahead of her, toward the two new leather seats she had placed in front of her desk. “Sit down. I’d like to introduce myself.”

Sojiro and Akira did as they were told. Akira seemed to shrink under the principal’s authority. He wouldn’t be much help.

“My name is Mrs. Kimura,” she smiled toward Akira, almost attempting to comfort him. “I just spoke with one of Akira’s friends and his mother. From what I can tell, the boys are a bit guarded – understandably, I should add. This school really has proven to be an… unfortunate environment for growing minds.”

Sojiro nodded and gruffly asked, “Why did you want to speak with us? Akira’s a good kid.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Kimura laughed stiffly, forced, and meant to seem friendly. She glanced down at Akira’s school file. “Straight A’s, top of his class, very respectful. Even with this little dark spot of assault on his record, Akira really does have a promising future. In all honesty, I didn’t ask you to come for something Akira did, but rather, the people around him.”

“Ryuji’s great,” Akira said, bristling like an aggravated cat.

“He most certainly is,” Kimura agreed firmly, “And your surprisingly good academic performance is starting to rub off. It’s good, I think, that I’m here and the previous… influences on the student body are gone. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but I can’t say Kobayakawa did much to stop bullying or treat troubled students as they really are: troubled. I’ve been told that I’m soft, but I hope to help improve the school environment as best I can.”

Akira seemed distrustful. He turned his posture into something more respectful, but the suspicion in his eyes was difficult to dismiss. Sojiro decided to share the sentiment. He frowned, “I don’t think I understand.”

“How much has Akira told you about his school life?”

“Not much,” Sojiro admitted. Beyond the earlier days of Akira school year, Sojiro had no idea what went on at school. If he had still been checking Akira’s journal, he might have.

“Well, from what I understand, rumors have spread, like they always do. However, these happen to be… rather disturbing. I also understand that none of these are true.” She pulled on a pair of reading glasses and slipped a piece of paper out from under Akira’s file. “A few students have spread rumors that he carries various weapons, that he’s killed a man or multiple men, he’s in a gang, done drugs, sold drugs, beaten women, sexually assaulted women, was expelled from his previous school due to fights and deviant behavior… The list goes on.” She set the paper down. “Many of these accusations can be found online and we can’t quite narrow down where this began. Worse yet, the students believe and expand on these rumors as a means of isolating him. I am definitely late to the intervention, but I wanted to hear from Kurusu himself and let you know that I hope you’ll aid me in putting an end to this.”

Sojiro had known Akira had been bullied. He told him so, after all. He had never told him how bad it had gotten. The entire school had practically shunned him. “…Akira?”

Akira glanced toward Sojiro for a moment and shrugged, “It’s gotten better.”

“We’d love to help end this,” Sojiro said, definitively. Akira didn’t seem as pleased.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Kimura searched through her small stakes of paper. She handed Sojiro a packet on the effects of bullying with the number for the school counselor printed near the end. “This would mean Kurusu coming to speak to me, a teacher, his homeroom teacher perhaps, or the school counselor about what other students have said or done in the future. You shouldn’t be afraid to tell an adult.”

Akira didn’t speak.

“…I’ll make sure to talk to him,” Sojiro said to safe face.

“Thank you and don’t worry. His friend was just as nervous. Do you mind me sharing what the students outside have said with their parents?” She tapped on the printed list on her desk.

“Go right ahead and thank you.”

“Of course. I hope to see you at the school festival, Kurusu. I can’t wait to see what your class comes up with.”

They left, only to meet the incredulous stares of the parents and students waiting outside. Kimura followed them out and turned her attention to the disgruntled group after a quick goodbye.

“Hello, everyone,” Sojiro heard her say as he turned his back and left with Akira. “Now, I’d really like to speak with a few of you at a time or all together if-”

“Is this about that transfer student?” sneered a woman, “I’ll have you know I don’t think either my son or daughter is safe here with everything-…” Sojiro stopped listening as the resentful voice faded into the background.

“Do you need to go back to class?”

“Um…” Akira checked his phone for the time, “No, I don’t think so. My last period ends in 10 minutes.”

“I’ll just sign you out then.” Sojiro followed Akira back to the front desk in relative silence.

Eventually, Akira spoke up, “…She makes me nervous.”

“I could tell.” At the front desk, Sojiro asked to sign Akira out.

“I don’t think anything will change around here.” Akira heft his bag higher onto his shoulder. Sojiro could only imagine Morgana tucked away inside, patiently waiting to be free again.

“You never know,” Sojiro led him away to the parking lot. “She doesn’t seem anything like the last one.”

Akira quietly played on his phone during the drive back.

No matches found.

He quickly lowered the volume.

“What was that?”

Akira paused a moment too long. “An app.”

-

“Hello, I’d like a cup of coffee, please.”

Sojiro turned around at the sound of a voice. In the door way stood a young man with an immediately recognizable face. “Goro Akechi?”

“Ah,” his expression hardened. His smile remained, but his posture was tense. “You recognize me?”

“Well, you’re…” Sojiro gestured vaguely, unsure of what to say. He began again with a few false starts before settling on, “You wanted coffee?” Sojiro quickly stepped over toward the coffee press. Akechi nodded and sat down on a barstool.

“Yes, Blue Mountain? Black.” He pulled off his gloves and set them down on the counter nearby.

“Of course,” Sojiro collected the requested coffee beans from the carefully organized shelves behind him. Akechi watched Sojiro with mild disinterest as he pressed his coffee. Sojiro tried not to let the neutral stare bother him. He’d allowed himself to be bothered by the kid when he put himself and his television personality on obnoxious talk shows, but in person, he was just a kid... Yet, there was something… off.

“Sojiro Sakura, correct?” Akechi carefully added a bit of sugar to his coffee and stirred it slowly. “Such a quaint little café. I’m glad Sae told me about it. So… quiet.”

Sae Niijima had told him about LeBlanc and spoke fondly of it? Sojiro wasn’t so sure he believed it.

“Definitely quiet,” Sojiro agreed, “Not many new people come by. Especially not… anyone famous.”

“I’m thankful for that,” Akechi took a slow sip of his coffee.

“Press aren’t giving you much wiggle room?” Sojiro smiled tentatively. Some part of him, deep in his gut, told Sojiro that although Akechi seemed difficult to anger on the surface, the look behind his eyes told a different story. Sojiro couldn’t quite tell whether or not he was walking on eggshells with the kid.

“None at all,” Akechi mused and tapped a chewed fingernail against his coffee cup. Each nail on his right hand had been mangled by his teeth. It was probably a nervous habit from childhood he’d never been told to quit. “I can’t imagine it’ll be that way for much longer.” He brought the cup back to his lips.

“Really?” Sojiro leaned further on Akechi’s comment, “How so?” It was good to keep a conversation going. It looked like he needed it.

“Just… a feeling,” he smiled up at Sojiro. “I really do like this coffee. It’s wonderful.”

“Thank you,” Sojiro was pleasantly surprised by his compliments.

“I should come here more often.”

The bell above the door jingled as Akira pushed the door open. He stopped in the doorway upon laying eyes on Akechi. Akechi kept his keen smile even under the scrutiny of Akira’s troubled stare. “Hello, funny meeting you here. Are you residing nearby?”

Akira said nothing.

Sojiro could sense Akira’s anxiety and stepped in. “Uh, yes, he lives with me. Do you two know each other?”

“We met a while back,” he turned back to Akira, still smiling warmly, “Isn’t that right?”

“Yeah,” Akira finally muttered under a breathy laugh once his voice returned to him. Sojiro didn’t understand what about Akechi forced Akira to recede back into himself, but it ruined the ease Sojiro had thought he felt previously. Something was wrong. He set his shoulders and watched. “Here for some coffee, dude?” Akira asked.

“I am,” Akechi returned his attention to his cup.

“Cool. Sojiro makes the best coffee… I’ll be right back.” Akira quickly slipped away into the bathroom. The door shut quietly, as if Akira was trying to convince them he wasn’t attempting to escape the scene.

Akechi finished his cup and left with a quick glance in the direction Akira had gone.

Akira poked his head out of the bathroom the moment the front door closed. “Is he gone?”

“Yep,” Sojiro leaned over the counter slightly to catch a better glimpse of Akira from across the room.

Akira slipped out of the bathroom. Morgana leapt down from his shoulder and jumped onto a barstool. Akira came up to the counter, leaned in, and hissed, “He knows I live here.”

Sojiro blinked, “…Well, he…”

“No, he knew,” Akira glanced toward the door, “That’s why he came here. He’s looking for something.”

“Why would he be looking here and for what?”

Akira took a step back and seemed to almost reconsider how strange he was sounding. “I…” Akira shook his head and laughed bitterly, “You’re right. Yeah. He… I’m overreacting.”

“Is it about your record?” Sojiro didn’t understand why a teenage detective would set him on edge. The only connection he could make would be the assault, but it didn’t make sense for a big name like Akechi, who was in charge of hunting down the Phantom Thieves, to be interested in a kid like Akira. Akira’s eyes flickered around the room and then down to Morgana. Morgana chirped and Akira bent down to pick him up.

“No,” he shook his head, “Don’t worry about it. Never mind. I just… Yeah, I thought… The police still sort of… creep me out.”

“It’s alright,” he reached out to pat Akira on the shoulder. “No one’s coming for you.”

Akira nodded, but stepped away from him. His smile flickered into a frown as he turned and left for the stairs.

-

Just after closing time, a man and a woman in nicely pressed suits walked in as if they hadn’t noticed the ‘closed’ sign. “Sorry,” Sojiro began as he finished wiping down the counter, “We’re closed for the night.”

“Sojiro Sakura, I presume?” asked the woman, a clipboard tucked under her arm and a slight frown on her face. Oh boy, today was the day.

“Our apologies for coming in so late,” apologized the male investigator, “We’re from the domestic affairs court. We’ve received a report that one of your customers was assaulted by the young man on probation residing here with you.”

“Moreover,” the woman continued, “The report stated that you were abusing your child.” She glanced down at her clipboard, “Futaba?”

Futaba jumped from her seat and grasped Akira’s arm. She whispered something to him. Sojiro couldn’t catch it, but she was clearly upset. Sojiro would just have to fix this. He could prove himself worthy of caring for his kids. There was no reason for them to believe the report.

“May we have a word with you?”

“Absolutely,” Sojiro stepped out from behind the counter and motioned toward the booth seats. “Please, take a seat.”

With all of them seated and the kids hovering over him, Sojiro did his best to clarify that the report had been falsified. He explained that the most likely culprit was Futaba’s uncle and how he had been harassing them for months. “It’s true that Futaba was living as a shut-in and hasn’t begun high school, but during that time, we’ve been working on helping her to overcome her fear of people. We hope to get her into school by next school year. And… I would never abuse my daughter.”

“What about the assault claim?” The woman raised her harsh gaze from her notes. “The record shows this young man has the capacity for violence.”

“That’s not true!” Futaba shrieked, only to be shushed by Akira.

Sojiro continued as if nothing had happened, “Akira never laid a finger on him. He only stood in the way to protect Futaba.”

“To be honest,” the middle-aged man spoke up, his kind gaze falling on Akira, “We looked into your school record as well and it seems that there have been no issues whatsoever. It’s our job to make sure children like you are safe. How is it living here?”

“It’s great,” Akira said almost immediately, without a hint of reluctance.

“Futaba?” The man smiled and Futaba returned it.

“I love it here and I love my dad. I was really scared of everything for a long time, but… I’m getting better now. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“I think I understand what’s going on here,” the male investigator smiled at the three of them. “I don’t see any signs of abuse here.”

“Are you sure?” His partner frowned. “You didn’t even speak to the children alone.”

“The children are victims of the system here. The call was anonymous, which is already a bit suspicious. Plus, I wanted to see how they’d react when their guardian was near. You can hear the coercion in their voices if something is wrong. I don’t hear any of that here. Plus, I’ve been following Kurusu’s case for a while now. We’ve seen Sakura a few times already. You’ll learn more discretion after a good number of years, but yes, usually you should remove the child from the room to speak with them.”

The woman hummed to herself and wrote something down. So, she was a trainee. Sojiro supposed an easy case like his was good for newbies in training. The two left with a few more additional apologies, declining an offer for coffee or the day’s remaining coffee cake.

Sojiro held the door open for them and when they disappeared down the street, Sojiro couldn’t hold back anymore. He had felt tears burn at the back of his eyes for most of the remaining interview and he had refused to let them fall. Sojiro removed his glasses and took a deep, shaky breath.

“We did it!” Futaba tugged at his sleeve and bounced on her toes. When Sojiro didn’t respond to her excitement, she tugged a little harder. “…Sojiro?”

“Are you crying?” Akira asked, concerned.

Sojiro chuckled quietly to himself and wiped away a tear that trailed down his cheek. “You kids are just…” Sojiro sniffled and shook his head, “After all of that…” Futaba had called him ‘dad’.

Futaba wrapped her arms tightly around him. “We love you, Sojiro.”

Sojiro turned around and hugged her back. He held out an arm, extending it out to Akira beckon him closer. He joined the embrace almost immediately and clung to Sojiro tighter than Futaba had. Sojiro held them as close as he possibly could. “I love you kids so much. You’re both so important to me.”

Chapter Text

October was slowly creeping to an end and a cold snap had wormed its way into the city. The cold was a welcomed relief from the heat of summer. It made the warm smoke of Sojiro’s cigarettes feel more enjoyable than it had felt for the past few months. He knew he needed to quit. Maybe, one of these days, he’d get around to it.

A world beyond your wildest imagination~!”

“Alright, alright!” Sojiro put out his cigarette. Akira and Futaba had been clumsily washing dishes while they listened to a collection of Destiny songs on loop for the past hour. Sojiro reached for the phone Futaba had precariously placed at the edge of the countertop and paused the playlist, “That’s enough of that.”

The stress of uncertain custody and new authority figures had been long forgotten after the pair had rushed home from helping Haru in her garden after school. They spoke of Destinyland, themed rides, and expensive dinners. It had taken Sojiro a few moments to catch up.

“But, Sojiro, I’ve never been! Tomorrow’s going to be insane!” Futaba hazardously put away a few freshly dried plates. “We’ve gotta get ourselves pumped!”

Akira pulled the plug in the sink and drained the dirty water. “Neither have I. I’ve always wanted to go.”

Futaba bounced on her toes, “It will blow your mind. I can’t wait!”

Sojiro was glad they both were so excited. When Futaba was younger, Wakaba had never had the time to take Futaba out to theme parks or resorts. Then, after Sojiro had taken her into his home, he just never had the money. She wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. Destinyland, for as expensive as the tickets were, had always been congested with enormous crowds.

Sojiro had been hesitant when Akira and Futaba first declared that they’d be off to Destinyland the next afternoon. He hadn’t thought Futaba would be ready for such large crowds and they definitely didn’t have the financial stability for it. They’d been quick to reassure him that Haru had invited them and the tickets had already been paid for. Moreover, it would be a private party. A company party had been canceled and Haru didn’t want the money to go to waste.

“You’ll behave yourselves, right?” Sojiro tossed Akira a dry dish towel to dry his hands with.

Futaba hung hers at the edge of the sink. “Yeah, we know. We’re not a bunch of five-year-olds.”

“You’re not, but you apparently get an entire theme park to yourselves. You’re guests of the Okumura family. You should make sure to behave yourselves incase her father’s there.”

“Oh, he won’t be there,” Futaba said definitively; punctuating it with a shake of her head. “He’s got something more important to do.”

Her ominous explanation was cleared up by Akira, who added, “He has a press conference.”

“Oh, is that tomorrow?” Sojiro vaguely remembered hearing an announcement for a televised press conference with Okumura. After all the excitement in the past few days, Sojiro had completely ignored the news. Just last week they’d mentioned that a calling card had been found on Okumura’s desk in his home office. The placement had been threatening; an increasingly invasive move on the Phantom Thieves’ part. “Maybe I should watch it. People are saying the Phantom Thieves got to him.”

“Haru will be so happy.” Futaba grabbed for her phone and pressed play.

“She will?” Sojiro had to raise his voice to be heard over the music.

Akira raised his voice to explain, “Her marriage was her father’s idea. If he has a change of heart, he’ll call it off.” Futaba grabbed ahold of him, singing her heart out. Akira laughed and quickly joined in, unable to resist the call of childhood classics. Sojiro didn’t want to seem rude, but they sounded terrible. He didn’t tell them that.

-

Sojiro had probably been the only one to forget about Okumura’s press conference. Multiple news channels boasted throughout the day that they would play the conference live later in the evening, as if they were the only ones who could. The kids were long gone by the time a few of his regulars came by for dinner and made themselves at home. Even with only a few people, the close-knit neighborhood managed to make Leblanc feel far livelier than it ever had before. It was strange, but Sojiro welcomed the atmosphere.

“I heard he’s going admit how badly he’s been treating his employees. Isn’t that crazy?”

“It’s those Phantom Thieves. They always pull through.”

“My son works at one of his processing plants. The foods just terrible for you. The things he’s told me. Ugh.”

“Boss, do you know when that press conference is gonna start?”

Sojiro set his crossword down. “Geez, this stuff’s gotten everyone so excited.” Sojiro grabbed the remote and checked the guide. “It’s coming up next.” He unmuted the television and let the most recent news segment play aloud.

“How could we not be excited?” a man that Sojiro knew as Yamamoto asked and adjusted his suit jacket. He was an accountant, if Sojiro remembered correctly. “The Phantom Thieves have been the most interesting thing I’ve seen in years.”

That was probably true.

The café hushed as the press conference began.

Okumura stood, bombarded by camera flashes and the prying eyes of reporters. He remained composed and professional, unlike Madarame who had broken down into tears. He simply looked tired and almost remorseful under the conference room’s harsh lights.

Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to gather today. I would… like to elaborate on the truth behind my company’s management and labor. I want to shed some light on how my employees were forced to work under horrendous conditions, how lax we were with sanitation… and how my corporation acted as a whole to cover up every facet of this scandal. For this… I apologize.

After a beat of silence, the conference room erupted in journalists vying for his attention and raising their hands to ask specific questions or be the first to ask anything at all.

Okumura stopped them by speaking up again, “Please… Please. There is something else. There have been no coincidences during the past few months… There is something very important I’d…” He froze, gripping his chest as though it pained him to breathe. He choked, gasping for breath and gurgling. Okumura fell forward, his head slamming into the table in front of him.

The crowd of reporters gasped and began to speak to one another in frantic, hushed whispers. An aid rushed to Okumura’s side. They grabbed his shoulder and sat him upright to look at him, only to reveal Okumura’s face to the unsuspecting world. His eyes had rolled back into his head and a fluid as black and thick as oil oozed from his nose, mouth, and eye sockets.

“What is…?” Sojiro gasp as those around him screamed. The televised conference room quickly fell into disarray. Reports screamed, running and bumping into their own cameras. Panicked voices shouted for the cameras to be turned off. The feed was cut, leaving behind a message claiming there had been technical difficulties.

Sojiro muted the television.

“…They… They actually killed him,” Yamamoto whispered behind his hand. He had turned a sickly pale color. “I knew people thought… with that school’s principal… that they…”

Sojiro slowly grabbed for his crossword and slid it closer to himself. He stared down at it, dumbfounded, looking for a distraction, any distraction, while his heart pounded in his chest. He couldn’t read a single word.

He had just watched a man die.

-

“T-They said it was cardiac arrest?” Futaba whispered. She huddled close to Akira, who read the articles she had opened on her computer over her shoulder.

That hadn’t looked like any heart attack Sojiro had ever seen. He’d seen the disgusting contortions and the black, inky oil Okumura’s body had produced before. Similar examples had been broadcast all over the news barely a year ago. The obvious characteristics of a mental shutdown had been dripping down Okumura’s face. Early on, the first few cases were shown on television with a content warning for squeamish viewers. After months of nothing resembling the past horrors, Okumura’s death sparked outcry. The Phantom Thieves had targeted Okumura. That was simply fact. The Phantom Thieves were murderers. They were dangerous. The world had just been too distracted by their glamour and mystery to realize it.

Sojiro kept his thoughts to himself. Everyone was already thinking it.

“Yeah,” he said instead, “Probably just cardiac arrest.”

He watched Futaba closely. She pulled and rubbed at the skin on her fingers. It was one of the few nervous habits she had kept after her recovery. Sojiro couldn’t help but stare, as though any at moment, she would collapse to the ground and convulse as Okumura had or wander off into the street like Kobayakawa or… Wakaba.

He knew her behavior had been strange and unpredictable from the start. After Okumura was pronounced dead, talk shows that were more willing to place blame on the Phantom Thieves rather than believe information released by the press, compiled examples of ‘Changes of Heart’ and mental shutdowns to show the similarities. The Phantom Thieves hadn’t just gone after the big targets shown on the news. Various people online claimed they or the people they knew had received a calling card via anonymous email, text, or instant message and then suddenly changed the next day.

The more Sojiro sat with his own thoughts, the more he believed the circumstances sounded a lot like what happened to Futaba. It sounded almost insane but, she had gone to the beach! When had Futaba ever shown interest in the beach!?

The warning signs were there. A sharp change in demeanor, lethargy for days at a time, and… Sojiro stopped his train of thought before it could go any further.

He glanced down at the spot on a cup he had been numbly scrubbing at for the past few minutes. Akira pointed to Futaba’s computer screen. “Look, that one blames that Phantom Thieves too… This is really bad.”

“You two should go to bed.” Sojiro set the cup down.

“What?” Akira asked.

“It’s nearly midnight. We should all be in bed... Haru’s coming back to school tomorrow, right? Ask her how she’s doing. She’ll need her friends. For now… just go to bed.”

Thankfully, the kids listened, but their movements were sluggish and uncertain. His walk home with Futaba was spent in silence. She locked herself behind her bedroom door.

Sojiro barely slept.

Chapter Text

Sojiro didn’t know when or why he had gotten the sudden urge to clean. Perhaps it was the dust on a side table that had given him the idea. Maybe, it was the urge to be productive in the silence of his home that got him moving. Ultimately, he just wanted answers. Sojiro knew that Futaba’s shift in behavior wasn’t normal. He only hoped he was wrong.

The kids were going to be at Shujin’s school festival the entire evening. Mokoto had made it clear that they were all going to take part in something. Thankfully, Haru would be joining them. She needed to be in good company. Futaba had been so excited to see it all and Sojiro saw a valuable opportunity. He had gone into Futaba’s room before he lost his chance.

Futaba had promised to keep her room clean, but she was a teenager. Somehow, it always seemed easier at that age to drop whatever object she was holding onto the ground rather than place it back where it came from or in the garbage like a sensible adult.

Sojiro was pleasantly surprised to see that her room had remained livable. The bed wasn’t made and dirty clothes sat in a pile in the corner, waiting to be picked up and sent down to the laundry room, empty plastic wrappers and crumpled papers littered the floor here and there, but overall, Futaba had maintained a fairly clean room compared to her previous trash collection.

He began his quest to clean up Futaba’s room by picking up the trash from the floor. He had brought a trash bag along with him for that specific purpose. When he’d decluttered the floor, Sojiro moved on to Futaba’s desk. It was just as cluttered with various pieces of garbage and empty containers as the floor. Sojiro wondered to himself if it would just be easier if he gave her a larger bin to dump all her trash into, but, then again, it might encourage her to collect even more trash.

As he cleaned, Sojiro took precautions to ensure that whatever he threw away was actually trash. Futaba wouldn’t be pleased if she returned home to a bedroom missing anything she deemed important simply because Sojiro had been a tad bit careless in his sorting. She should feel thankful he was attempting to do that at all. Almost everything in the room looked like garbage when Futaba dumped anything and everything wherever she pleased.

A flash of red caught Sojiro’s attention as he searched through paper on Futaba’s desk. Wedged between two book covers was a deep red piece of cardstock. Sojiro reached out for it and pulled. The card was about the size of a postcard. The design was reminiscent of black and red paint splatters. Sojiro’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach when his eyes caught the Phantom Thief logo. This was all the proof he needed. He didn’t need to see more, but he flipped the card over anyway.

The card had to be fake.

Futaba Sakura has committed a great sin of drowning in sloth. Thus, we will rob every last bit of those distorted desires.

The Phantom Thieves

Sojiro knew this couldn’t be a joke. The card was far too similar to the real thing and there would be no reason for anyone to send a card to Futaba.

Akira.

Sojiro’s chest felt tight.

Akira had convinced Futaba to leave her room.

He was such a good kid.

Akira ‘found’ Futaba unconscious outside the house.

He wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Akira had been arrested for assault.

Akira had only been trying to help. He’d told him so.

He’s so cautious of the police.

He’d been arrested! How could he not be?

That boy was hiding something.

Sojiro found himself in Leblanc before he could convince himself not to go. He climbed the stairs to the attic two steps at a time. Akira’s room was far cleaner that Futaba’s and any mess lying around hadn’t been his to start with. With the card gripped tightly between his fingers, Sojiro began his search.

Akira’s room may have been spotless, but that only let Sojiro find evidence faster. Scrap metal covered an old workbench Sojiro hadn’t used since his thirties. Among the scraps were partially formed lock picks and circular objects Sojiro could only deem as smoke bombs. Sojiro didn’t know how he could have missed this the multiple times he come up to the attic. Then again, maybe Akira had been better at hiding his creations when he knew Sojiro could be looking.

Quickly, Sojiro convinced himself of Akira’s innocence. He knew Akira liked to pick locks for fun from what Futaba told him. It only made sense for him to have a few lying around. Upon closer inspection, Sojiro noticed the smoke bombs were fake. When he picked one up, he found that it was made of clay and painted to look menacing. It was just a homemade toy.

Sojiro continued searching, his heart still pounding. Akira’s shelf was cluttered with stuffed animals won from crane games and knickknacks he returned home with from various outings. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Sojiro took a step forward to get a closer look and his foot nudged something. He heard it scrap against the wood flooring.

When Sojiro glanced down, he was just about ready to be sick. The handle of a handgun poked out from underneath Akira’s bed. He knelt and reached down, careful to keep his finger away from the trigger. It was a black pistol; an intimidating yet familiar shape. However, it was unfamiliarly light.

It was fake.

It was a very realistic fake.

It was a toy, but it was too detailed of a toy for the average person not to think it was real.

Sojiro glance back down at the card he’d found in Futaba’s room.

-

“What’d Ryuji say after you ran off stage?” Futaba’s muffled voice fluttered in from outside.

“Nothing,” Akira opened the door and let Futaba walk in before him, “He just texted me and told me not to say it and then he dragged me onto the roof with Mishima and we didn’t talk about it. We talked more about his stage fright than about how I felt.”

“Maybe he didn’t think you were serious?” Futaba turned from Akira and smiled at Sojiro, “We’re home!”

Sojiro said nothing at first, thinking carefully about how he would start.

“Sojiro?” Futaba frowned.

Sojiro held up the calling card. Hardly able to speak, he cleared his throat and ground out, “I was cleaning up… and found this.”

He heard Futaba gasp. Akira flinched.

“This is a calling card, right? I’ve read about it online too.” After he’d found Akira’s fake pistol, he’d sat down with his phone and searched the internet for anything he could on the Phantom Thieves. It was easy. Their website was the top result, along with various articles calling them murderers and frightening fans spouting hateful comments to those who disliked their righteous vigilantes. It was terrifying and the realization that there was solid proof Futaba may have actually been affected made Sojiro’s blood run cold.

Futaba only grew angry at Sojiro’s invasion of her privacy and shot back, “Y-You went into my room without my permission?”

“I’ll apologize as much as you want later. So, what is this?” Sojiro thrust the card toward them both.

“That’s….” Futaba curled in on herself, bringing her arms in close to shield her body.

“This isn’t just some “game” you’re playing, is it? …Why aren’t you saying anything?”

Morgana meowed and jumped down from Akira’s bag. Sojiro ignored the cat’s aggravating yowls and, instead, paid close attention to the kids visibly panicking in front of him. Futaba pulled at her fingers and whispered to herself, “I mean… It was memorable…”

“And what about this?” Sojiro held up Akira’s fake pistol.

“Where did you…?” Akira hissed under his breath and dug a frantic hand into his school bag. He wouldn’t find anything, not when Sojiro had the proof in his hands.

Sojiro slammed the card down on the counter, sick of waiting for an answer, “Explain.”

“Explain…” Futaba parroted back.

“Is it something you can’t explain?”

Futaba began to breathe heavier. Sojiro knew she was panicking and he hated himself for it. Akira seemed to feel the same. “Ex… plain,” Futaba muttered again. Akira reached out to her, but ultimately kept his hands to himself. Morgana wouldn’t fucking stop meowing!

“I’ll explain!” Akira finally stepped forward, terrified.

“You will?” Sojiro kept his firm tone and hated every second of it. He took a deep breath and continued, “I’ll get straight to the point… Is this a real one? Did Futaba have a ‘Change of Heart’?”

Futaba broke down into tears and frantically wiped her face with her jacket sleeves. Akira lost his resolve to maintain eye contact.

Sojiro scoffed, “So, I was right.”

“Ever since mom died…” Futaba’s voice quivered as she forced herself to speak through the tears, “It felt like there was no escape… I was trapped.”

Sojiro felt his determination disintegrate. He forced himself to take a step back. This wasn’t how he should have been asking this. “Here,” he stepped toward a booth seat, “Sit down, you two. I can at least listen to everything you have to say.”

The two sat across of him. They crumpled under his gaze, barely able to keep themselves together. Sojiro didn’t have to say anything else to prompt Futaba to continue speaking. She wiped her face and sniffled. “The Phantom Thieves… saved me. They stole my messed up heart.” After a moment of silence, perpetuated by Akira’s inability to explain like he said he would, Futaba continued for him. “It’s the same as mom’s research! They changed… my cognition.”

“Seriously…?” Sojiro scoffed. He couldn’t believe what he was being told. The Phantom Thieves, through blackmail and harassment, changed her heart. They could have murdered her and yet Futaba was connecting their actions to her mother’s research. Although, what harassment would force Futaba out of her shell instead of farther into it?

Wakaba’s research…

He couldn’t really be entertaining the idea, could he? “Wakaba’s research was about altering one’s cognition… I wondered about it myself, too, but still…”

“When did you notice?” Akira quietly interrupted.

Sojiro sighed and shrugged, “I guess… when she said she was going to go to the beach out of nowhere. Even doctors had thrown in the towel. At first, I just chalked it up to other kids being a better support system than any adult. I mean, it seemed like it worked for you, Akira… but as I kept watching the talk shows here every day… After Okumura, a thought crossed my mind. I thought… what happened to Futaba seemed similar to what the Phantom Thieves were doing.”

Futaba sniffled and laughed weakly, “Wow.”

“I’m still your father, you know. I could never overlook such a drastic change in your behavior… But you think that Wakaba’s research and what the Phantom thieves are the same thing?” Sojiro really was going to entertain this idea. “I used work with the government. My job was to be the bridge between the country and the lab that Wakaba worked at. It’s around that time that I got to know her. I never told you, Futaba, but she said something odd when we were out drinking… That… she might soon die in an strange way. Who wouldn’t take that as a joke? I just laughed it off… But, it happened exactly as she said. If anything were to happen to you, I’d feel like I let her down.”

Sojiro turned his attention specifically to Akira, “There’s something I want to ask… Judging from what you’ve said, you knew about the calling card, didn’t you? You should have known about Futaba’s change of heart. Is there a connection between you and the Phantom Thieves? First, it was that teacher at your school, then that artist, and then Futaba… You even know Okumura’s daughter. At least of few of these incidents surround you. What do you have to say?”

“You’re sharp,” Akira laughed nervously. After he realized his attempt at humor had fallen flat and only added to the irritation on Sojiro’s face, Akira stopped laughing and coughed into the crook of his arm.

“You still think this is a game?” Sojiro glared, “These people are criminals. They’ve done as much harm as they’ve done good. They’ve killed people! Why did you introduce such dangerous people to Futaba?!”

Futaba raised her voice to match his and shouted, “That’s not true! None of it’s true! I asked them! That’s why Akira saved me! He never killed anyone! Ah…. Oh no.” She blinked through her tears and turned to Akira for help.

“You asked…? He’s never…?” Sojiro was lost. “Wait! Are you saying he’s the one that changed your heart?”

Akira shrunk farther into seat.

“So, you’re not connected to the Phantom Thieves. You are a Phantom Thief?” This had to be a joke. None of what Futaba said could be true. He had trusted Akira. Part of him still trusted Akira. All Akira had to do was say ‘no’. If he just said ‘no’, they could put this all behind them.

This was just some sick joke.

Akira simply nodded, “I’m a Phantom Thief.”

“You’re serious?” Sojiro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had wanted to be wrong. He had wanted so badly to be wrong. “You’re… For crying out loud… You…?”

“Sojiro, please,” Futaba whimpered.

“So basically, I’ve been sheltering a Phantom Thief for the past six months and Futaba’s involved?”

“I…I want to find the person who killed my mom!” Futaba cried.

“Wait! Killed?”

“She was killed! I remember it now.”

“Stop this nonsense!” Not only were his children part of a criminal organization who physically and mentally harmed people, but now they claimed Wakaba had been murdered? He hadn’t wanted to think about. He had never wanted to think about it.

“Why won’t you believe me?! Are you the same as everyone else?! Didn’t you know already?! The way mom died wasn’t normal! Didn’t you notice her research was stolen?!”

“Stolen? I…” Sojiro allowed himself a few silent seconds to find his words again. When he opened his mouth to speak, his voice was much calmer, “…When she passed away, I really did think it was odd. It never sat right. She would never have…”

Sojiro swallowed the heavy lump in his throat, “But what could I do?... All I was able to do was run and, now, I’m spending my retirement here. I took custody of you… to try and selfishly make up for what happened to Wakaba and for running. It’s my fault you were burdened with all this.”

“It’s not your fault, Sojiro.”

“…Ugh, now I’m the one getting consoled,” Sojiro removed his glasses and dragged his palm down his face. He needed to start over and collect himself.

“We never hurt anyone!” Futaba refused to let him believe otherwise, “It was whoever killed mom. We were framed!”

“…I see.”

There was a long pause between them. Akira kept his eyes trained down on the table top. “Am I getting kicked out?”

“Huh?”

“Am I getting kicked out?” Akira repeated without looking up. He blinked back tears from his eyes. “I swear we never hurt anyone. We just changed people for the better! I don’t know why they’re pinning everything else on us.”

“I believe you. It’s okay, but what do you mean?”

“I… messed up. I broke the law…” Akira risked a glance up at him. “Aren’t you going to kick me out… Call the police?”

Sojiro sighed and massaged his temples. Of course, Akira would still worry about that. Sojiro hadn’t threatened him with homelessness or juvie for months, but it made sense that his comments would stick. Sojiro immediately felt ashamed of himself. “No, don’t worry. I acted tough and yelled at you. Honestly, every time I said that… I would never have followed through with it. Even now, I guess. I have no intention of reporting you or kicking you out. You’re both safe here. That extends to whoever else you’ve roped into this. Besides,” Sojiro chuckled and slid out of his booth seat to stand up, “Who’d believe me? Unless they catch you red-handed, it’s impossible to track anything back to you. Let me just say one thing. Immediately back out of a fight that you can’t win.”

“What? Why?”

“If by chance, you pissed off the same guys who killed Wakaba… Then they are not someone kids like you can deal with. Listen to reason, okay?”

Akira leaned back into his seat and scowled. “This has been a terrible day.”

“Let’s eat. The, you can tell me more about this Phantom Thief business.” Sojiro made three plates of curry and brought them out. Futaba put her head down on the table and whined.

Akira ignored his food as he gave the names of his accomplices. Their identities didn’t surprise him. Ryuji had stumbled with him into what Akira referred to as ‘Kamoshida’s Palace’ and Ann followed close behind. Yusuke had joined them after they successfully convinced him of Madarame’s abuse and plagiarism. Makoto had been next and then Futaba. Their most recent member had been Haru. She remained on the team, even after her father’s death. Sojiro felt like he needed more information. Akira was only explaining in vague terms.

“You should also be careful with Akechi,” Akira explained, “He knows and he’s blackmailing us. He’s forced himself onto the team and we know he’s up to something. We’re not sure what yet, but we’ve got it handled.”

“Sure, you do,” Sojiro muttered and shook his head. “Look this is… a lot to take in with very little real details… H-How did Futaba know about you? I never mentioned either of you to each other.”

“I… found out about him first,” Futaba admitted, “Um… So, you know how I hacked into uncle’s bank account records?”

“Yes.”

“I’m really good at… pretty much everything with computers and… I bugged the café.”

“You what?”

“I just... I couldn’t interact with people, but I wanted some human interaction, so I bugged Leblanc to listen to you and the customers talk and I heard Akira. The Thieves had meetings here a few times, so I overheard them talking.”

“That’s how you’ve been running in here as if you knew what we were talking about.” Sojiro grew quiet for a moment. Something didn’t feel right. “…Do you still have those recording?” he asked.

“Uh… Yeah?”

“Delete them. Get them off your hard drive too.”

“Wait, I thought you’d be more interested in how I did it.” Futaba tilted her head, quizzically.

“I am and you can tell me later.” Sojiro had some experience with trackers and tapping devices. He knew how easy it was to spy on another party if you had the right equipment and he also knew how easy it was to intercept it if the person who placed it wasn’t skilled enough. “If you think Akechi is up to something, you need to get rid of any physical evidence linking you to the Phantom Thieves.” Sojiro pointed into the air, unsure where the listening devices had been placed, “This conversation is not something we want recorded and found if he gets a warrant to look through your things. If he already has something on you, you need to make sure he doesn’t get anything else.”

“Oh God, you’re right!” Futaba pushed past Akira to get to her feet and rush for the door. “I’m so stupid!”

“Don’t run!” Sojiro called after her, but she was already gone. Sojiro stood up and grabbed her plate. “I’ll go with her after I clean up.” Sojiro pointed down at Akira, “And you are going to bring your friends here tomorrow and you’re going to explain to me exactly what you’ve all been doing. Understand?”

Akira nodded, “Understood.”

Sojiro placed their dishes in the sink. “What have I done to deserve all this?”

“You trusted a hardened criminal, I guess.” Akira shrugged.

Sojiro took a moment to poignantly look at him and then pointed toward the stairs. “Go to your room. You’re grounded.”

“What?”

“You heard me, Phantom Thief. You’re grounded.”

Akira groaned, annoyed, but still surprisingly lighthearted, and trudged up the stairs.

Chapter Text

Early the next morning, Sojiro sat down at his own counter and quietly listened to the morning news. The tides had turned on the Phantom Thieves as quickly as Sojiro would have imagined. Alongside the rampant bad publicity, politicians were making their opinions on the Thieves known in a last-ditch effort to seem relevant. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t do much to improve their public standing. Representative Shido still maintained a prominent lead. The nation was convinced he had always been right and delighted in his every word.

That concludes the speech given by Representative Masayoshi Shido, who may be forming a new party based on his most recent comments.” The reporter’s voice was grating on Sojiro’s nerves, especially after everything he had learned. The Phantom Thieves weren’t merciless assassins, but no one else knew that. “We will now resume our coverage of the Phantom Thieves. As the suspects in the deaths of Okumura and many other victims of mental shutdowns, the Phantom Thieves have been designated the country’s most wanted fugitives. Police have decided to provide a monetary reward for anyone who can deliver information that leads to their arrest.

Sojiro heard Akira’s footsteps trudging down the stairs before he saw him. He stopped the kid from walking past him with a distracted wave and pointed him toward the television.

“Listen to this.” Sojiro increased the volume.

Those who provide the information on the Phantom Thieves’ whereabouts will be offered a reward of thirty million yen. The situation has become quite severe considering the high amount.

“If I report you to the police, I supposedly get thirty million yen for it.”

Akira frowned at the television. “That’s a lot of money.”

“I hope you understand the situation you’re in. Everyone will be on the lookout for the Phantom Thieves. You’ll be in danger every day, even at school.” He needed Akira to understand. Any semblance of normality had been thrown out the window the moment Okumura died. There was a bounty placed on Akira’s head and a hefty one at that. The possibility of someone other than Akechi putting two and two together and spotting Akira’s connections to nearly every target was rapidly becoming more plausible. This was not something a child should have had to deal with and Sojiro didn’t know how to help him. “…Why did this have to happen?” he muttered to himself.

Akira shook his head at the question. “I didn’t know it would. We just wanted to help people.”

“I know…” Sojiro sighed and scratched his chin in thought, “I… I guess… I’m sorry I didn’t realize sooner. All I can do now is give you a place to hide. Just don’t get desperate and do something reckless, okay?”

Akira nodded, but Sojiro wasn’t even sure Akira could promise him something like that. “I’ll be fine.”

“I promise I won’t sell you out.” Sojiro wanted to be sure Akira knew that, at least. “As long as you’re here, there will be nothing to worry about.”

“We won’t get sloppy again. Especially not around Akechi. I promise.”

“Good.” Sojiro motioned toward a plate on the counter, “Eat your breakfast and don’t be late for school. It’ll look bad.” Sojiro continued to watch the news as Akira ate. He didn’t know what he was going to do.

-

The café was quiet as Akira and his friends shuffled and fidgeted in their seats. Ann and Makoto sat themselves in a booth across from Haru, avoiding eye contact with anything in the room. Futaba sat in Yusuke’s lap and fiddled with the listening devices she had just taken down, while Yusuke slouched and rested his chin on the top her head. Ryuji picked a barstool to drop himself into and Akira remained standing, almost guarding each of them from Sojiro’s disappointment. None of them would look directly at him, even after five minutes of tense silence.

“Okay, look,” Sojiro decided to speak first, “You all know I know. So, let’s hear it.”

The fidgeting continued. Makoto spoke up first, “We are so sorry for lying.”

“I’ve heard a few apologies already. I want to know how you’ve been doing it. I thought it was blackmail, but Futaba mentioned her mother’s research. Do you kids know anything about that?”

“Mom thought you could change a person’s cognition,” Futaba began. “We finally found the definitive way to do that. People have shadows and those shadows hold cognitive treasures due to a person’s warped desires. If you steal it, you change a person’s heart. People with severe distortions get a palace to themselves. Everyone else is in Mementos, which is kind of like humanity’s collective palace.”

“Ryuji and I stumbled into it first,” Akira reminded him. He held out his phone to him. He pointed to a deep red icon with a design eerily similar to an eye. “This app appeared on my phone on the first day I got here and we accidentally found Kamoshida’s Palace, which was a cognitive representation of his distorted desires. It made the school look like a castle and he was the king.”

Sojiro took his phone from him and pressed the icon. The app opened and revealed a simple search bar on a pulsating red background. It was unsettling for a reason Sojiro couldn’t place. “You enter a name, a place, and then a distortion. Then, the Nav lets us enter their cognition and the Metaverse. It’s also the only thing that works once we get in there. We can’t make calls, text, or take pictures.”

“You’re kidding.” It wasn’t that Sojiro didn’t believe him. There weren’t many options for him, but an alternate dimension was difficult to grasp. Where had these kids gotten all those strange names? Mementos? Distorted desires? Metaverse?

Ann spoke up next. “I got suspicious when Akira and Ryuji were snooping around for dirt on Kamoshida. I followed them in and I made them let me help. I couldn’t do nothing, especially after what he’d done.”

“I’m glad you did. You kids managed to get him arrested, after all.” Sojiro returned Akira’s phone and asked, “So, do you just walk in and steal their… treasure?”

“Nah,” Ryuji shook his head, “We gotta go in there and fight for it. Palace rulers have underlings that attack us and we gotta get passed them first. We always end up fighting the ruler’s shadow too once we send the calling card. Then, we grab the treasure, the palace falls apart and we gotta run out of there.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Yeah. They’re pretty much always trying to kill us.”

“Kill you!? How have none of you gotten hurt?” Sojiro wasn’t sure he was grasping anything at all. A group of children were throwing themselves into the minds of malicious individuals and exiting absolutely fine?

“We have powers that heal wounds. Plus, food or medicine is a great way to trick the brain into thinking we’re feeling better. It’s all mental,” Akira explained, “But, you saw that bruise on my face after we defeated Kamoshida’s palace. We had no time to heal it when everything was collapsing.”

“After that, we couldn’t let you notice again and I know how to hide bruises,” Ryuji boasted.

Sojiro furrowed his brow. “I’m not too sure that’s something to be proud of. How can you possibly do any of that?”

“We use our Persona,” Yusuke helped to explain further. “From what we understand, a Persona is a piece of ourselves representing our spirit of rebellion. They take the form of our personal view of a rebel and our outfits in that world reflect that. The awakening is… particularly painful.”

Painful? He really hoped Yusuke was exaggerating.

“So, you joined to change Madarame’s heart?” Sojiro asked.

Yusuke nodded, “I did.”

“I will admit,” Makoto cleared her throat and steeled her nerves, “Kaneshiro was my idea. I was asked by Principal Kobayakawa to find information on the Phantom Thieves around the same time students were falling into Kaneshiro’s influence. I told them I wouldn’t say anything if they convinced me of their justice and changed Kaneshiro’s heart. I… took a few risks and I ended up getting us into trouble with him. We entered his palace and I awakened my Persona there.”

“Then it was me,” Futaba chimed in. “I got the app after they sent the calling card and I followed them in. I met my shadow too. She told me that my memory was all wrong. I blocked it out because it was too painful to think about. She was killed the same way Okumura was. We’re sure of it!”

“Then me,” Haru said, unhappily staring down at the cup in her hands, “I wanted to help my father become the man he used to be. It didn’t… It didn’t work, but we know it wasn’t us.”

Sojiro’s attention returned to Akira when he said, “We aren’t sure yet, but… we suspect Akechi. He knows something. He’s planning something. He wouldn’t be defending us now if he wasn’t. I think he's lying when he says he only recently awakened his Persona. He’s already blackmailing us into letting him on the team and disbanding once we find the culprit behind the murders.”

“You think he’s responsible?”

“Him… or someone bigger.”

Sojiro groaned and shook his head. This was all too much. Sure, Wakaba had tried to explain her research to him in simple terms once. He’d barely understood, but he had gotten the gist. People had wants and needs that could take over. She knew there was a way to remove those wants. She had been so close to finding out how and testing it herself. As farfetched as an alternate dimension seemed back then, the kids appeared to know what they were talking about. It was terrifying.

“How far up do you think this goes?”

“We don’t know yet,” Makoto uncertain tone did nothing to relieve Sojiro’s fears, “but we’re assuming it goes pretty far if they could manipulate the public like this.”

Sojiro turned to Akira, “Do you remember what I said about pissing off the people that killed Wakaba?”

Akira nodded.

“I told you to back out.”

“We can’t!” Futaba cried, “Not now! We have to do this.”

Sojiro leaned against the counter and stared down the room of children who had gotten themselves ensnared in a problem bigger than Sojiro could have imagined. “Don’t do anything stupid… Don’t tell me anything too integral to any plan you have. Someone might come asking questions. The less people that know, the better.”

Akira visibly tensed. It had only been a split second, but Sojiro had caught it. “Agreed,” Akira promised.

Sojiro couldn’t believe the kid was still trying to lie. “Who else knows?”

“Uh…”

“Who else.”

“Our friends Mishima and Hifumi… My homeroom teacher, Doctor Takemi, a few other people I haven’t told, but I think are getting suspicious of me. Most of them think it’s just me, though, and I trust them.” He added the last part quickly, as if to stop Sojiro from staring at him in disbelief.

“Wait. Seriously?” Ann asked. Had no one else known? Sojiro closed his eyes and took a moment to breathe. He couldn’t believe this. The kid was practically trying to get himself caught. “Don’t tell anyone else. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

-

While her fellow thieves were away at school, Futaba warned Sojiro that Akechi would be attending their next meeting. Akechi had forced his way in and called for the group to convene. It was almost as though he believed he had the authority to do so. They had agreed to it, of course. There was no reason to be too hostile when he didn’t suspect that they doubted his motives.

She explained to him that he should let Akechi know that he knew about the Phantom Thieves. The entire team knew, so it was only reasonable to extend that knowledge to Akechi. Sojiro just had to pretend that he trusted him completely. He could that.

Around two o’clock, Sojiro closed Leblanc. If anyone asked, he’d say it was a family matter. It wasn’t like he hadn’t had an abundance of those throughout the year.

Akechi was the first to arrive. He knocked lightly on the door and then tried the handle. Sojiro had been sure to leave the door unlocked for them. “Hello?”

“Ah, Akechi,” Sojiro motioned him inside, “You’re early. Your friends aren’t back from school yet.”

“My mistake. Sometimes I forget I’m let out earlier than most due to work.”

“Not a problem. Shouldn’t be too long.” Sojiro pointed toward the coffee presses. “Can I get you anything?”

“Um, sure,” he sat down and placed his briefcase on the floor, “Same as last time?”

Sojiro reached for a package of Blue Mountain on the shelves. He shook his head and chuckled quietly to himself. “You know… I don’t know what you kids have gotten yourselves into, but from the looks of it, it’s a mess.”

“Yes,” Akechi nodded. He rhythmically tapped his fingers against the counter top. “If you don’t mind me asking… I was told in the group chat that you know our identities. How long have you known?”

There it was. He was asking questions disguised as small talk. The kid certainly was a detective. He either didn’t know when to shut it off or he just didn’t want to. It was times like these that Sojiro was glad he could call himself a former PSIA agent. Old training made it easy to conceal confidential information, especially if you never have the clearance to learn every detail involving your work. You can’t confess what you don’t know.

“Not too long,” Sojiro shrugged, “About a day or so. The kid started to get sloppy.”

Akechi smiled, “That’s pretty funny. It must have been a shock. What makes you so willing to help?”

This kid thought he had Sojiro wrapped around his finger, didn’t he? The cockiness was hidden deep behind a curious expression, but Sojiro could still catch a glimpse of it with a trained glance. Believing Akechi had an ulterior motive made the slightest misstep all the more obvious. The kid was a good actor, just not the best.

“Honestly,” Sojiro sighed and set Akechi’s finished coffee in front of him. A partial truth was still the truth. “I couldn’t imagine any of them killing anyone. They just couldn’t have… so I believe them. I want you to find this mystery guy you all keep talking about. If he’s the one who did it, he should be the one in prison.”

“It’s good to hear that you’re so confident in us, Sojiro. How much do you understand about what we do?”

“Barely anything,” Sojiro laughed, “You kids don’t make it easy to understand.”

The bell jingled and the two of them glanced toward the door. Akira entered, holding the door open for Futaba.

“Welcome home,” Akechi greeted them immediately.

Akira seemed to have gained some confidence since the last time he’d seen Akechi at the counter. He smiled and returned Akechi’s pleasant greeting with a cheerful, “Honey, I’m home!”

Futaba fell into a fit of giggles while Akechi only chuckled to himself in quiet amusement and returned to his drink.

The rest of their group trickled in within a few minutes of each other. Yusuke had been the last to arrive; held back after class by a teacher who wanted to discuss his history grade. He promised it was fine, but no one particularly believed him.

The meeting remained on the first floor while Sojiro meandered around the kitchen. He half listened as they shifted their topic of conversation from the difficulty of studying throughout the mess they had gotten themselves into to the mess itself.

Akechi held the group’s attention throughout most of the meeting. He had the blackmail material after all. It would be disastrous not to listen to him. He admitted he held some sort of personal grudge that motivated him get where he was in life and to seek them out. He held his convictions above all else and Sae Niijima was beginning to slip from those ideals.

Upon the mention of her name, Sojiro began to listen a little more carefully. He kept himself busy with organizing his surroundings, but most of his attention had shifted to the conversation.

“My sister?” Makoto asked, shocked, “…Part of me had always thought, but… Why now?”

“Sae has been put in charge of your case,” Akechi clarified, “As of late she has developed this fervor to track down the Phantom Thieves at all costs.”

“That must have been what my sister meant by ‘important’.” Makoto grew quiet. She drew into herself and chewed at her bottom lip. The conversation continued without her.

“It must be,” Akechi agreed, “I’m afraid that she isn’t above fabricating evidence if she doesn’t find anything substantial before her investigation of Shujin on the 20th. I believe she also mentioned an investigation of the Sakura residence. It isn’t looking good.”

“You really think she’d just make something up?” Haru asked, concern slipping into her voice.

“I know she would.”

“The courts would believe her too.” Akira crossed his arms over his chest, a sour expression marring his face. “They wouldn’t care if the evidence was falsified. They haven’t before.”

“Are we really going after Makoto’s sister?” Ann tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, clearly uncomfortable.

Akira curled a lock of hair around his finger before taking a deep breath and letting it go in a huff. “We have no choice.”

Makoto stood up and slipped out of the booth. “I just remembered I have something to do.” She paused before she pushed the door open and turned back to look at her team. “I’m not saying no… I just…”

“Need some time?” Akechi asked.

Makoto nodded.

“I’ll text you later,” Akira called after her as she left the café.

“Everything okay?” Sojiro asked, deciding it was safe to cut in, “She didn’t seem too happy.”

“We’ll be fine,” Akira sighed, “We’re too far into this to back out now.”

With Makoto gone, an awkward atmosphere took over the café. Eventually, Akira’s friends got up to leave, taking a few offered snacks with them. They scheduled another meeting to take place outside the court house in a few days. They were determined to change Sae’s heart, whether Makoto wanted to or not. All Sojiro could do was wish them luck.

Chapter Text

The next few days left Sojiro’s nerves frayed. He did his best not to let the news on the Phantom Thieves upset him too much. He needed to pay attention for their sake. Any new information on the investigation would be integral to their efforts to hide. He frowned down at the newspaper he had crumpled at the edges after his momentary panic at the sight of its largest headline. Someone had given the police a dead end to follow on the hunt for the Phantom Thieves and ultimately failed to receive the reward they had lied to earn. It had been a close call.

“Sojiro?” Akira slipped his hoodie on as he came down the stairs. Morgana followed close behind, watching the bag Akira had brought down with him. He set the back down on the floor and Morgana immediately jumped into it. “We’re going.”

“The cat comes with you?”

“He’s part of the team.”

“Sure, okay,” Sojiro shrugged and set down his newspaper. He wasn’t all that interested questioning Akira’s methods anymore. “…Just be careful.”

“I will,” Akira smiled and before he slipped out the door he asked, “…Am I still grounded?”

Sojiro laughed and the stress he had been trying to ignore the entire day eased a bit. He had only been somewhat serious about that. He had assumed Akira would take it as a joke and they’d quickly forget about it. Although, the kid had done enough to warrant being grounded. “Not right now, but we’ll talk about it later. If you stay safe, I’ll think about not grounding you at all.”

“Awesome,” Akira laughed in return and disappeared into the streets of Yongen-Jaya.

-

After their first meeting at the police station downtown, the next meeting took place in Akira’s room. They decided it would be too suspicious for a group of teenagers to repeatedly spend free time outside the police station. Plus, the attic had become one of their many hideouts over the course of the year. Sojiro had been an idiot to just assumed they liked to hang out up there.

Akira and his friends stopped by the café for snacks to take to the attic with them. They were as talkative as always. Nothing seemed too out of place, if he ignored the fact that Makoto wasn’t there. The meeting apparently couldn’t begin without her and Akira asked Sojiro to keep an eye out for her. She hadn’t responded to their texts.

When Makoto finally entered Leblanc, she didn’t seem to be feeling alright. She slouched and dragged her feet. Her posture and tardiness were out of character for the resilient student council president. Sojiro felt the need to stop her.

“Niijima, wait.”

Makoto clasped her hands in front of herself and quickly fixed her posture. With her back straight and her expression one of respect and remorse, she asked, “Is there something you wanted to ask me, boss? Have I done something?”

“You’re not in trouble,” Sojiro said, surprised she had assumed she was in trouble at all. “Are you okay?”

Makoto frowned and unclasped her hands to rub her arm. She shrugged, “I think so.”

“You don’t seem too sure about that.”

“I guess… I’m still not sure if we should enter my sister’s palace.”

Sojiro gave her an inquisitive look. “Why? If she has a…” He motioned toward his chest where his heart would be, “A distorted heart – or however you say it – shouldn’t you want to steal her treasure?”

“I do!” Makoto’s statement was almost firm. Her eyes flickered away and ruined whatever determination she wanted to portray. “I do… I knew that something was wrong. I thought about bringing it up once, but I was scared… I guess.”

“You could have said something before Okumura,” Sojiro cautiously suggested, “Nothing had gone wrong before then, right?”

Makoto nodded, “To change someone’s heart, you steal the treasure. To kill them, you kill their shadow. I know we’ve never been hesitant before when we knew the person was doing something wrong, but… now I…”

“She’s your sister. It feels different now,” Sojiro finished for her.

Makoto nodded again, “It does. I know it shouldn’t. Yusuke went up against someone who was basically his father and Haru stood up to her actual father. Yet, here I am, regretting agreeing to enter my sister’s palace at all.”

“What’s making you regret it?”

“She obviously has a palace. We were just in it, but for some reason, I keep thinking she’d be okay if we just left her alone. That would just ruin our plan, though, and is completely false. She’d only get worse, so…”

“Then I think you know what you have to do.” Sojiro hated the melancholy look on Makoto’s face.

“Maybe it’ll get easier the farther we get into the casino…” Makoto quietly sighed, “I don’t understand how she can think of a court room as a casino.”

So, palaces weren’t all castles. Sojiro couldn’t say whether that made sense or not.

“Niijima?” Akechi descended the stairs. “What’s taking you? We’re waiting.”

Futaba followed close behind, “Come on, Makoto! We’ve got plans to make.”

Makoto waved to them and forced a smile onto her face. “I’m sorry. I’ll be there in a moment.”

She turned back to Sojiro. “I’m sorry for bothering you with this.”

“You’re not bothering me,” Sojiro reassured her, “and everything is going to be okay. You’ll save her.”

“I… I will,” Makoto nodded, seemingly forcing herself to steel her resolve. “Thank you.” She turned and followed Akechi and Futaba into the attic.

-

Later in the afternoon, Sojiro looked up from his crossword as a woman in a pale blue sweater and shoulder length black hair entered Leblanc. Her worried expression and her purse clutched close told Sojiro she probably wasn’t there for coffee. Something was bothering her. Sojiro set his crossword down and attempted to smile to sooth her nerves. “Welcome. What can I get you?”

“Actually, I…” the woman cleared her throat, “I’m Mei Sakamoto, Ryuji’s mother… Do you know Ryuji?”

“Oh,” Sojiro hadn’t expected to actually meet any of the kids’ parents. Ms. Sakamoto looked concerned. If she was looking for Ryuji, it had to be because she suspected something. He had to be careful or he’d let her know something she shouldn’t. “I’m Sojiro Sakura and, uh, I know Ryuji. He’s… friends with Akira and-”

“Yes!” Ms. Sakamoto opened her bag and dug through it. Her energy certainly matched her son’s. She took out her phone and presented the screen to him. There were ten missed calls to a contact titled ‘Light of My Life’. “Ryuji hasn’t answered his phone all day. Well, I only tried to call him to tell him I was leaving work early, but he never answered me. He said he’d be here?”

“I…” Sojiro didn’t know what to say. Her explanation for her presence was unhelpful in letting Sojiro know if Ryuji had told his mother anything about the Phantom Thieves. Sojiro knew Akira hadn’t told him willing, but he had chalked it up to his already criminal status and Sojiro’s pointless threats. Had any of the kids told their parents? Did any of the kids trust their parents? Sure, Ryuji never spoke badly of his mother, but he didn’t like being home alone either. “Are you worried about him?” Sojiro finally asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Sakamoto nodded and clutched her bag a little tighter, “Please, I need to know if you’ve seen him. I need to know what he’s been doing.” She came closer to the counter and her short stature forced her to tilt her head up to look at him. Her eyes were pained and glossy with unshed tears. “After he met Akira, I was so relieved. He’d been so lonely at Shujin, but Akira made him want to go back to school again. He couldn’t stop smiling, but recently he’s been coming home later and hasn’t been answering my calls. His limp is more noticeable and he’s having trouble sleeping. He even told me he didn’t want to take his pain medication anymore because it made him lethargic. Then there was that meeting with the principal! If something is going on, I need to know! I’m not blaming your boy for anything. I’ve never actually met him, but he’s been such a good influence… I just need to know if you’ve seen Ryuji today or if he’s even here as often as he says.”

“Whoa, whoa, s-slow down,” Sojiro hadn’t been ready to hear Ryuji’s mother confess so much in one breath. He could already tell she was a kind woman. Sojiro didn’t entirely know what could have happened to send Ryuji into such a dark place before Akira moved to Tokyo, but he could tell she was worried he was finding his way back there. Ms. Sakamoto was a mother who needed reassurance that her son was okay and he hated that he had to lie to her. It was clear she didn’t know where Ryuji was or why. Sojiro had to think on his feet. “I saw Ryuji earlier.”

“Earlier?” Ms. Sakamoto’s eyes widened, “How much earlier?”

“Not too long ago,” Sojiro promised her and adjusted his glasses. He hadn’t thought he’d need to come up with an alibi for the Phantom Thieves. He really should have assumed someone would come looking for their child eventually. He should have remembered that phones didn’t work in that strange mental world and that he needed to back them up on whatever excuse they gave. “Akira and his friends mentioned something about… the arcade and that Ryuji’s phone was dying.” It was a pitiful explanation, but unfortunately it was the only one he had.

“Ryuji hadn’t mentioned that.” Ms. Sakamoto’s posture remained tense, but she wasn’t ready to bolt to her son’s aid the moment Sojiro told her something incriminating. She glanced down at her phone as if Ryuji would text her this information if she watched long enough. When no such text came she sighed, sat down in a bar stool, and placed her bag in her lap. “Maybe I should wait here for him.”

“Can I get you anything?” Sojiro asked and the idea of making her pay for a drink meant to comfort her left a bitter taste in his mouth. He was already lying to her. “It’ll be on the house.”

“No, no,” she waved his offer and dug through her oversized bag again. Miscellaneous object shifted and clinked together as she shoved them aside in her search. Eventually, she pulled out a thin wallet. “I’ll take a hot chocolate, please.”

“Not a fan of coffee?” Sojiro asked with a smile in an attempt to make small talk.

“No,” Ms. Sakamoto smiled back, “and neither is Ryuji. I was surprised when he said he was spending time here.”

“He doesn’t order coffee either,” Sojiro mused, “It’s always a soda. Those kids don’t even have to ask anymore. They always want the same things.”

“Do they really? …I-I’m sorry to change the subject, but…” Ms. Sakamoto paused and pressed her lips together, unsure if she should continue.

“Oh, no, please,” Sojiro gestured vaguely for her to continue and began heating up the water for her hot chocolate. “Ask away, Ms. Sakamoto.”

“Mei, is just fine,” she replied and crossed her ankles under the counter, “I was just wondering, but do Ryuji and his friends spend a lot of time here?”

“Here and around town,” Sojiro answered. The water began to boil. “They like to keep this as a meeting spot though.”

“Good… and you watch out for them?”

“I try.”

Ms. Sakamoto, Mei, made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a chuckle. She placed her hands onto the polished counter top and stared down at them, “And… Ryuji doesn’t seem afraid of you?”

“Afraid?” Now that was something he had never thought of. Ryuji didn’t seem like the type to be afraid of anything; especially an old coffee shop owner like himself. He fought horrific beasts alongside his friends in the distorted hearts of Japan’s most despicable people, for crying out loud. If anything, that kid was fearless. “No, not at all.”

“That’s a relief… Ryuji told me so much about his friends and what makes them all so alike,” Mei ran her right thumb over the knuckles of her left hand and was quiet for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was resigned and choked with emotion, “He told me about Akira and how he saved a woman, but was arrested. He said everyone at their school treats Akira worse than they ever treated him because at least they were nasty to Ryuji’s face instead of whispering behind his back… How much has Ryuji told you about… before? Anything?”

Sojiro placed a steaming cup of hot chocolate in from of Ryuji’s mother and the petite woman reached forward and wrapped her chilled fingers around it. Sojiro pressed his hands into the counter and leaned against it, “Not much. I never thought it was any of my business… I’m all ears, though.”

“What do you think of Ryuji?” Mei brought her eyes up to consider him. Her eye contact was intense and purposeful. Sojiro knew he was being tested.

“I think he’s… a great kid,” Sojiro thought about his words carefully. He knew what he believed about Ryuji and wanted to express it right. “He’s proud and doesn’t know the meaning of ‘inside voice’, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’d do anything to protect his friends and just as much to protect strangers. He’s a good kid. They all are.” He hoped what he had said was well received and ultimately comforting for Ryuji’s mother. He couldn’t stand the idea of Mei believing her son was anything other than great. He was apparently the co-creator of the Phantom Thieves and that told Sojiro enough. From what he could tell, as a single mother, Mei had done an amazing job; better than Sojiro could ever dream of.

Mei smiled and nodded, “Yes, he is… the best.” Her smiled vanished as she thought to herself. She brought her cup to her lips and took a sip. She flinched, “That’s hot, oops.”

Sojiro chuckled.

“Sakura…”

“Sojiro or Boss is just fine.”

“Sojiro… I hope you don’t mind me sharing so much…”

“I don’t,” Sojiro crossed his arms over his chest, “It’s practically my job to listen.”

“I’m thankful for that then,” Mei blew on her hot drink and took another sip. She set her cup down and sat a little taller before she spoke again, “I was married before… to a man I thought I loved. We married right out of high school and a few years later, we had Ryuji. He was good to me, to us, for a few years, but he started drinking after he lost his job. He found another one, but it paid less and he kept drinking. He was an angry drunk and the nights he’d come home he’d… he’d hit me. I tried to keep Ryuji away from him when he was like that, but hiding under his bed never lasted long. He beat us for years, but then one day, he just… walked out. I had managed to get him to sign papers for a divorce and I haven’t seen him since.”

“God,” Sojiro whispered. He would never have imagined.

I know how to hide bruises.’ Ryuji had looked so proud of himself. Sojiro wondered how he could have let that comment go unnoticed.

Mei continued, “I was such a terrible mother. I stayed because I thought I couldn’t support a child on my own. I kept thinking I could get him to stop… When I finalized the divorce, I believed I was finally doing the right thing for Ryuji. He didn’t have to be afraid anymore. He… He ran track in middle school and he was amazing. He was a little blur at every track meet.” Mei smiled at the memory, but her eyes were miserable. “He wanted to keep running in high school and his old coach told us he’d be eligible for a scholarship. I was so proud… but then that rat, Kamoshida, was hired as the assistant coach.”

Mei’s grip on her cup tightened and she ground Kamoshida’s name through her teeth. Her eyes hardened. “He got Ryuji’s coach fired and took over the track team. Track was everything to him. Kamoshida threw that all away… and for what?! Just to see children suffer? He treated them like dogs, but there was nothing I could do. The school wouldn’t listen to my complaints! ‘Kamoshida’s training style is unorthodox, but gets results.’ It made me sick… And then Kamoshida brought up Ryuji’s father and told him, in front of his entire team, that he’d be just like his father. He’d beat me, he’d beat his wife, he’d beat his kids.”

Kamoshida was worse than Sojiro could have imagined. He knew Kamoshida had been abusive to students. It had been all over the news for weeks, but hearing an actual story of a victim that he knew and cared about was gut wrenching. Ann had to have dealt with Kamoshida’s disgusting behavior too. Had either of them been interviewed? He hadn’t seen their faces, but it was a real possibility. He didn’t understand why it had never crossed his mind to ask.

Mei’s story only got worse. Ryuji took a swing at him, but he missed. Kamoshida dragged him to his office, broke his leg, and dared to call it self-defense. The school sided with Kamoshida, of course. “I couldn’t do shit,” she growled. A second later, she apologized. “Uh, pardon my language… I could only apologize to Ryuji for being a bad mother. He needed a good father figure and I couldn’t provide that.”

She went on to explain that Ryuji had lost the scholarship he had worked so hard for. At the hospital, they learned that his right femur had been fractured near his knee. He would need surgery to fix the break. He would never run professionally. It had been less than a year since then and his leg still bothered him. She could tell. Ryuji was a stubborn kid and after a while, he stopped going to physical therapy. “That’s why I was so afraid when he started limping again. He still refuses to take the medication the doctors give us because he says he doesn’t want it anymore. I know he’s in pain, but medicating it and dying his hair for him is all I know how to do. I don’t know how else to help him?” Tears slid down Mei’s cheeks as she sniffled. “I wanted to take him out of Shujin and put him into a different school, but he wouldn’t take the entrance exams. He’d cry and scream at me so loudly that the neighbors in our apartment complex decided to be nosy and ‘help’ by suggesting I send him away before he grew up to be like my ex-husband. I wished they’d never heard Ryuji through the walls. He wasn’t violent; he was scared! I can’t call myself a mother. One time, he said, ‘Mama, why can’t I just lay here forever? Why do I ever have to wake up again?’”

Sojiro stepped around the counter with a small packet of tissues and sat down beside Mei. He held them out to her and she took them. She wiped away her tears and dabbed her nose.

“Don’t say that. You’re an amazing mother.” Sojiro frowned as Mei shook her head in response.

“You’re an amazing mother,” Sojiro reiterated, “Who, by herself, raised a selfless, brave, and compassionate young man. The world will beat down our kids, but it’s not our fault. You’ve been there to support him the entire time.”

“It seems like your boy has done more for him than me,” Mei laughed bitterly.

“I could say the same for my daughter and I.” He realized, as he spoke, how similar he and Ryuji’s mother sounded. Perhaps, Sojiro should listen to his own advice for a change. “A few months ago, Akira helped my daughter through her grief when I had barely been able to do anything, but I was there for her. Sometimes, we can’t fix everything for our kids by ourselves. Sometimes, it takes a helping hand, but we’re not bad parents for it.”

A small smile spread across Mei’s lips before she took a moment to laugh at herself, “You know, you are incredible at listening. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Sojiro returned her smile.

“Before, when I asked if Ryuji seemed scared of you, it was because of his father and Kamoshida.” She shook her head, “I’ve started dating again and when I told Ryuji and asked if he wanted to meet my boyfriend, he looked so upset. I thought maybe, after so many adult men decided to hurt him, he’d grown scared of them. Maybe I’m thinking too much into it. I just wanted to do right by Ryuji for once.”

“I don’t think Ryuji is afraid of men,” Sojiro chuckled, “but I think he is worried about you. You shouldn’t date to find a father for Ryuji. He doesn’t need it. He has you. If anything, you should date for yourself.”

Mei nodded and picked up her cup again. She took another sip and savored what she could possibly taste through a stuffy nose, “I should do this for myself, shouldn’t I?”

“Are you still going to wait here until the kids get back?” Sojiro asked.

“Yes, I will. Thank you for watching out for him.”

“My pleasure,” Sojiro took out his phone from his back pocket and texted Futaba. “I’ll text my daughter and tell her to tell Ryuji you’re here.”

 

Tell Ryuji his mother is at the café looking for him. I told her you were all at the arcade and his phone died.

Those kids had better help him come up with a better alibi later.

 

It took about an hour for Ryuji to come running in through the Leblanc’s door, his friends close behind.

“Mama?” he was panting and standing awkwardly, favoring his left leg. Akira caught up to him and grabbed his shoulder, “You didn’t have to run.”

Mei stood from her seat and Ryuji walked directly into his mother’s open arms to hug her. “I’m sorry,” Ryuji mumbled into her shoulder, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You still call her ‘mama’?” Ann asked playfully, but Ryuji didn’t pay her any attention. He just hugged his mother and let her rock him from side to side.

After a moment, Mei pulled away and rubbed her hands over his arms to warm him from the chill outside. “Did you really run here? Ryuji, your leg.”

“I’m fine, mama. It’s not that bad, really.” He was trying to comfort her, but Sojiro could see him cross his right leg over his left to lessen the weight on it.

“You should at least run a bit differently,” Mei suggested, “Remember what we read about? You should take more breaks.”

Akira stepped forward to speak to Ryuji’s mother. “We’re sorry we worried you. We’ll be sure to tell you if we leave the last place we said we were. Also, I’ll make sure Ryuji takes breaks.”

Mei looked up at Akira and smiled warmly, “You must be Akira.” She let go of Ryuji and pat Akira lightly on the arm. “Ryuji told me so much about you.”

“Mom,” Ryuji whispered.

“You’re just as handsome as he said too!”

“Mom, stop.”

Akira laughed and turned to Ryuji, “You think I’m handsome?”

“Shut up, man!”

“It’s so good to finally meet the boy Ryuji adores so much.”

“Mom!”

Sojiro smiled to himself. He glanced to the girls and Yusuke who watched with amused smiles and then back to Ryuji and Akira who blushed as Ryuji’s mother fussed over the two of them. Ryuji shoved his hands into his pockets and avoided Akira’s eyes.

-

There were days when Akira didn’t run off to Sae’s palace with his friends. Sojiro didn’t ask why, but he could only assume they needed time to recuperate. He didn’t think he could have run through a mental death trap every afternoon at their age, even if he tried. While Akira was home, he made use of his presence around the café. Ryuji entered Leblanc about ten minutes after Sojiro had sent Akira to the store to pick up some ingredients for the next day’s curry. Akira had told Sojiro he had been expecting Ryuji to drop by and that he’d text him to let him know he’d be out for a few minutes. However, Ryuji looked confused when he found Sojiro as the sole occupant of the café.

“Didn’t get his text?” Sojiro asked.

Ryuji quickly glanced down at his phone and huffed out a low breath. “Oh, I didn’t see it, but he’ll be back right?”

“Soon enough,” Sojiro said, but he found himself unable to stop there and let Ryuji scamper upstairs to hide until Akira returned. Ever since Ryuji’s mother had admitted everything that had been weighing her down the past few years, Sojiro had to have a word with Ryuji and see how he was feeling. “Sit down. I wanna have a chat.”

“With… me?” Ryuji squinted his eyes and tentatively pointed to himself.

Sojiro rolled his eyes, “No, the cat. Yes, you! Sit down.” Sojiro pointed to a booth seat across from him.

“Uh, okay,” Ryuji slid into the booth Sojiro had directed him to and waited. Sojiro brought two items with him; a cup of coffee and a cup of hot chocolate. “Am I in trouble or something?” Ryuji asked as he took the hot chocolate from him.

“Why do you kids assume you’re in trouble when I try to have a chat?”

“I dunno…” Ryuji shrugged and brought his cup to his lips, “Because we probably are.” He watched Sojiro over it, curious.

“I talked to your mother a few days ago while you all were out stealing hearts.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Ryuji glanced away, “Sorry about that. I didn’t think my mom would come looking for me like that.”

“I didn’t either, but I probably should have.” Sojiro pulled out a cigarette and brought it too his lips. He thought about lighting it, but changed his mind when he saw Ryuji eyeing it. “You can’t have one.”

“I wasn’t gonna ask for one,” Ryuji denied quickly, “…Good boys don’t smoke.”

“Your mother say that?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s right,” Sojiro put the cigarette back in its packet. He’d smoke later. “It’s a bad habit.”

“…What did you wanna talk about?” Ryuji ran his thumb along the rim of his cup.

“Your mother told me something interesting… She told me about your father and about Kamoshida.” Sojiro was careful about how he spoke. He didn’t want to remind the kid of his past, but he couldn’t stay silent about knowing either.

Ryuji scoffed, “She must have told you about what a terrible son I am, huh?”

That wasn’t what Sojiro was expecting to hear. “…What?”

“She must have told you about how I ruined my chances of getting a scholarship by assaulting a teacher and gettin’ my leg broken, right? If she was talking about my dad, she probably was talking about how I kept running away and couldn’t help her ‘cause I was weak.” Ryuji tightened his grip on his cup and glared down at it. He looked a lot like his mother then; dealt a bad hand in life and angry about it.

“Did your mother say that to you?” Sojiro asked.

“No… but, I know it’s true.”

“It looks like you and your mother have two completely different views on what happened,” he said. Ryuji looked up at him, his eyebrows drawn low and nose scrunched. He was confused. Sojiro continued, “Your mother seems like she blames herself and understands your behavior for what it really was. You were scared, Ryuji, and that’s okay. Don’t blame yourself. You were a kid. You still are. You’ll make mistakes and you’ll learn from them.”

“I… I don’t…” Ryuji looked away, “I guess… but I’m such a-”

“Good kid?” Sojiro smiled, “Yeah, I know.”

Ryuji shrunk back.

“She also told me you stop taking your pain medication.”

“Well… Yeah, I mean…” Ryuji shrugged, “It helped, I guess, but it made me drowsy and I kept missing shadows. You can’t miss shadows. That’s, like, life or death in there.”

“It was prescribed to you, though.” Sojiro reasoned.

“Sure, but some doctors thought it was all in my head after a while. Others thought it was real… I run fine in the Metaverse without it. Besides, it makes me feel weak.”

“It doesn’t make you weak, but if you don’t want to take it, I can’t make you... You really shouldn’t have just stopped out of the blue, but it’s your decision.”

“…It’s not just about that, right?” Ryuji sipped his hot chocolate and refused to meet Sojiro’s eyes.

“Why don’t you want to meet your mother’s boyfriend?”

“Ugh,” Ryuji grimaced, “He’s just some guy she’s dating. She’s dated before and they just leave when they hear about me. No one wants the baggage of a sixteen-year-old with anger issues! He’s probably just another asshole.”

“You don’t know that.”

“My mom deserves better.”

“You haven’t met him yet.”

“I don’t want to meet him!”

“Your mother wants you to meet him.”

Ryuji stared. He furrowed his brow and his gaze hardened in defiance. However, it didn’t seem to last long. As he searched Sojiro’s face for a reason to talk back, his expression slowly softened into one of quiet discontent. The bell above the door rang and Akira stepped inside with his arms full of grocery bags. Ryuji sprang to his feet and immediately reached for them. “Let me help you with that.”

“Hey, Ryuji,” Akira said over the rustling of the paper, “Don’t worry. I’ve got it.”

“Ryuji,” Sojiro cut in before he had completely lost him to Akira and paper bags, “You should talk to your mom about it. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.”

“Talk about what?” Akira asked.

“Nothing.” Ryuji grabbed a few bags from Akira and followed him into the kitchen. After he unburdened his arms, he returned to Sojiro’s side and reluctantly nodded, “Actually, um… Boss… I will. I’ll talk to my mom… and I’ll… meet her boyfriend like she wants me to… maybe.”

Sojiro smiled back at him, “That sounds like a good plan.”

Chapter Text

October turned to November and the days seemed to creep by slower and slower. Sojiro’s days consisted of making breakfast, serving customers, and staring at the same news stories on repeat. Sojiro was somewhat pleased with the mundanity. It helped keep his mind off the danger Akira, Futaba, and their idiot friends were throwing themselves into. No other parent had wandering into Leblanc looking for their child since Ryuji’s mother surprised them. Sojiro had asked if it would stay that way, just to be sure, and they all promised he would be left alone.

Ms. Sakamoto’s nerves had been soothed and she was the least liking to come looking again. Ann’s parents were abroad on business and her caregiver practically never asked her where she’d been. Sae was too busy to come looking for Makoto and Yusuke had no one besides Sojiro to worry about him. After her father’s passing, Haru was mostly left to her own devices and Akechi was, as Sojiro was reminded from his past interviews, an orphan old enough to take care of himself. That left Akira, whose parents hadn’t contacted them since April.

Watching his phone for any signs of Akira’s parents making a single effort to check in on their son was the most thrilling part of Sojiro’s day. Or, at least, it would have been if they ever tried. Sojiro would make sure to keep his phone near him at all times, but they never called. When he finally got around to asking Akira about them, he told him they had been leaving him on voicemail since June.

Not only had Akira’s elusive parents let their son to leave for Tokyo on his own, but they seemed to be aggressively avoiding him. Their behavior seemed so disconnected from the worried and frustrated couple Sojiro had spoken to before Akira came to live with him. He couldn’t match the bittersweet fondness in Akira’s father’s voice when he spoke about Akira’s love of baseball or the act of Akira’s mother carefully folding her son’s clothes into a box to save him the trouble to the neglectful pair that had dumped their kid on him and disappeared.

Every faint buzz of his phone gave him some form of hope that Akira’s parents were finally trying to contact them. It was never them. Too many times, Sojiro checked his phone and was met with a news notification or a message from Futaba. He couldn’t help but feel bitter. He almost wanted the two of them to burst in and demand to know where Akira was. At least then, he’d know they cared.

Sojiro knew it had to bother Akira more than he let on. Akira would put on a brave face. He would smile and shrug whenever Sojiro brought it up, but he could see the scowls Akira would pull when he thought Sojiro wasn’t looking. No matter how much Akira had grown to love Leblanc, there was no way he wasn’t still angry and confused as to why his parents hadn’t taken his side. Sojiro admired him and the friends he had roped into helping him conquer the cruelty of the world. Other people who were just as fed up would have used the abilities they had gained to do far more despicable things, but they had channeled their anger toward helping themselves and others to better the world around them.

Akira’s parents should be proud. If his parents never told him so, Sojiro definitely would.

-

What Sojiro assumed would be the final meeting began the day after Futaba excitedly claimed they had found Sae’s treasure. Supposedly, they were going to plan the calling card while Futaba focused her talents on the last of her intel gathering. “The calling cards are important,” she distractedly explained before school let out as she typed out code Sojiro couldn’t make sense of, “They force the treasure to turn from a weird blob into something we can touch.”

Sojiro assumed that they would jump in, grab the treasure, and prevent whatever plot Akechi had tucked away by dinner, but the meeting dragged on. By closing time, the shuffling and shifting of furniture in the attic increased in frequency and volume.

Sojiro glanced up once he heard footsteps bound down the attic stairs. Akechi appeared first, a coy smile across his face. “I want to thank you for your hospitality. I can’t imagine you like indulging the whims of us children so often.”

Ann rolled her eyes as she stepped around him. She placed the small basket that had once held junk food for the meeting onto the counter. All that was left was a pile of empty packaging.

“I’m certain we’re not a bother,” Haru shyly offered.

“I would never turn you kids away,” Sojiro said and took the basket. He dumped the remaining trash into the bin under the counter. “Keeps you all where I can see you.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Akechi chuckled quietly to himself.

“We probably won’t be having another meeting for a while, boss,” Makoto said. “We’ve decided to wait.”

“Really?” Sojiro wasn’t sure he’d like to go through the stress of waiting for them to defeat a palace ruler again.

“We firmly believe it’ll be beneficial to us to wait,” Akechi stated firmly, as if Sojiro’s questioning of their decision would cause the others to change their minds.

“Cutting it kind of close.”

“We’ll be okay.”

Sojiro nodded. “Alright, I trust you then.”

“Thank you for having us,” Akechi thanked him again.

“It’s getting late,” Yusuke confirmed with a glance toward the pitch-black windows, “We should probably all be going.”

“Oh, Yusuke, before you go,” Sojiro reached back from the to-go container he had filled with some of the day’s extra curry. He held it out to him. Yusuke gladly took it and carefully placed it in his bag. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had Yusuke take something home with him, so he was happy he remembered.

Futaba fumbled clumsily for Yusuke’s hand. Once they were clasp together, she walked him toward the door. “Inari’s gonna walk me home, Sojiro.”

“Sounds good to me. Get home safe, alright?”

“Have a wonderful night,” Yusuke waved back as he was led away.

The rest followed suit, each wishing him and each other a good night.

Surprisingly, Akira and Ryuji remained upstairs. He hadn’t seen Ryuji leave with the rest. They might have decided he would stay the night without asking. It wasn’t as if it hadn’t happened before without Sojiro’s knowledge or permission. He might as well use the opportunity to get rid of the rest of the leftover curry. The boys had probably filled up on snacks all afternoon, but dinner was still important.

Sojiro climbed the stairs, fully expecting Akira to belatedly ask if Ryuji could stay once he noticed him. Instead, he found himself stopping half way up the staircase. He could see Akira and Ryuji awkwardly standing near each other, talking. Akira slouched with his hands shoved into his pockets. Ryuji kept his eyes trained to the ground, scuffing his shoe against the dusty floorboards.

“It’s just that…” Akira muttered, his confidence from earlier in the afternoon lost. “I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.”

“Why now?” Ryuji took a hesitant step back, momentarily seemed to regret it, and then stepped forward again.

“I tried at the festival. You told me not to say it.”

“I thought you were effing kidding, man!” Ryuji’s voice raised an octave, cracking slightly. “We were in front of the whole school! The shit they’d say…”

“I didn’t think you’d…” Akira turned his attention down to his shoes. In the silence, Sojiro wondered if he should return to the first floor or just interrupt them. The air around them had become oppressive. Sojiro took a step forward and the staircase creaked underneath his foot.

“I mean,” Ryuji cleared his throat.

Sojiro stopped.

They hadn’t heard him.

“I mean,” Ryuji tried again, his face dusted a light shade of pink. “Did you mean it?”

“Yeah,” Akira swayed, abandoning his attempt to move closer. “I really… really like you… a lot.”

“I…” Ryuji fidgeted.

Sojiro thought he should put an end to the awkward mess the two had found themselves in before it got any worse.

He didn’t move.

“Ryuji, I…” Akira reached out for Ryuji’s hand and just barely missed. “Please, don’t be mad. I want you to still be my friend.”

“What? Dude, I wouldn’t do that to you!” Ryuji reached forward and grasped the hand that had slipped past his own a moment before. “I really… I just… I like…” He aggressively wrapped his arms around Akira and pressed his face into his shoulder. Akira barely had time to return the crushing embrace before Ryuji jumped back. “I just need to think.”

“So… do you think you’d…?” Akira let the question hang in the air.

“…I’ll see you later, man.” Ryuji turned and ran for the stairs. Sojiro immediately began to regret not making a decision sooner.

Ryuji met Sojiro half way down the stairs. His body blocked Ryuji’s hastily executed escape. He stopped in his tracks before he could collide with Sojiro and send them both tumbling down the stairs. Sojiro held out one of the plates, giving a reason for his presence. “Are you leaving? I brought… dinner.”

“Oh, uh…” Ryuji glanced down at the plate of curry in Sojiro’s hand and then back up at Akira who had come to stand at the top of the stairs. “Thanks, but I was just leaving. My mom probably… I mean, yeah, she wants me home.” Ryuji carefully stepped around Sojiro rushed out into the night.

“That…” Sojiro slowly climbed up the remaining steps, “went well.”

“I really fucked that up.” Akira took the plate Sojiro held out to him.

“No, you didn’t.” Sojiro kept the second plate for himself and walked Akira toward the couch. The table the kids had unfolded for their meeting remained beside it. He sat down and Akira followed his example. Sojiro texted Futaba to tell her to come back to Leblanc and the set his phone aside. They’d be having dinner with Akira tonight.

“It had been so easy for Futaba. Yusuke already liked her.” Akira pushed his rice and curry around his plate. He slouched over the table and rest his chin against his free hand. “The stuff he says, Sojiro. How could I not think he liked me back?”

“It sounded like he wanted some time to think about it.”

“Probably, so he can think about how to reject me without making me feel bad. He’s considerate like that.”

“I think there may be a few issues with your logic there.”

Akira was surprisingly open to talking with him. Sojiro didn’t want to squander the moment, even after Futaba texted him back and had his phone vying for his attention.

“I thought I should have told him, especially because we’re getting so close to stealing Sae’s treasure and because he’s my best friend. It felt like I was lying to him.”

“That’s as good a reason as any.” Sojiro took a bite of his dinner. Akira had yet to do the same. “Whatever you’re planning seems like a big deal.”

Akira’s frown deepened as he hummed quietly in thought. “…Sojiro, maybe… maybe don’t watch the news for a while.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s just… the news is gonna start saying some crazy stuff. So, it’ll probably be counterproductive.”

Sojiro decided not to question him. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Akira still refused to touch his food.

“Eat something.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I think you are.”

Futaba bounded her way up the stairs with a plate of curry in her hands. Her thick boots clunking against the wood altered them of her return. “I’m back!” she announced and plopped herself down onto Akira’s bed.

“I thought Yusuke took you home,” Akira said after she took over his living space.

“He did, but Sojiro said to come back. So, how’d it go? What’d he say?” She bounced in her seat, waiting for good news.

“You knew about this?” Sojiro asked.

“Yeah! I was gonna stay and wait for you, but Akira said he wanted to ask Ryuji out and didn’t want me around.”

“Not everyone wants to confess in front of their friends,” Akira pouted.

“Inari ran into your room. It’s not like I wanted to tell him then. It was super embarrassing! But seriously, what happened?” Futaba asked.

“…He ran away.”

“Uh oh…” she grimaced, “You’ll have to see him after this too.”

“I hope I get to. I don’t want him to stop talking to me.”

“He probably won’t, but it’ll be super awkward. Are you two gonna act like you’re just our leader and not his friend?”

Akira didn’t say anything for a second or two, clearly disgruntled by the idea of treated Ryuji as anything other than his best friend. “…I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

So, they didn’t talk about it. Instead, they ate together. He and Futaba made idle conversation while Akira listened quietly. Akira barely finished his dinner before they left for the night.

-

Akira and Futaba suddenly had a lot of free time on their hands before they finalized the last steps of their plan. The two of them occupied each other’s time whenever Akira got home from school. Ryuji had apparently disappeared from his usual spots around Shujin. It had only been a couple of days, but Akira was clearly growing restless. Futaba was supposedly the only other person in their group who knew about Akira’s confession, so she had taken it upon herself to distract him. It didn’t seem to last long though, because over the weekend, Akira left her behind to spend time elsewhere.

Sojiro felt bad for him. He’d been a teenager in love once and it hadn’t been fun.

Ryuji’s attempts to avoid Akira were childish in Sojiro’s opinion, but they were children. He knew it couldn’t last long. They had obligations bigger than either of them combined. Ryuji would come to his senses sooner rather than later and everything would return to normal.

Sojiro’s confidence did little to ease Akira’s mood. He had convinced himself that Ryuji hated him. Sojiro really needed to stop leaving the kid alone with his thoughts. As methodical and brilliant he seemed in dangerous situations, Akira was a train wreck when it came to problems that dealt with emotions. Sojiro was far more versed in the world of relationships than Akira gave him credit for. He had been young once. He prided himself in being right and the events that took place that following Monday only further proved his point.

The landline at Leblanc had almost never been used. Sojiro had it if, by chance, customers unfamiliar with Leblanc called to ask for their open hours. No one new had learned about Leblanc through anything other than word of mouth, so no one had called the landline since he first opened. It surprised him when the phone began to ring.

“Leblanc; Sojiro Sakura speaking,” he said when he answered.

Hello, Sojiro,” a cheerful voice responded, “It’s Mei Sakamoto.”

“Oh.” Sojiro wouldn’t have recognized her voice over the phone.

I looked up the café’s number. I just wanted to give you a bit of a warning. Ryuji’s coming by to talk to Akira. He has something to tell him. Is he home?

“Yeah, he’s here. He’s been moping around the past few days. He’ll be happy to finally see him.” Of course, he had been right from the start. Akira should stop questioning his relationship advice. He’d only hurt himself.

That’s good to hear. I was a bit worried, because after I talked him into it, he ran out the door!

“Well, we’ll be waiting for him.”

Not long after Sojiro hung up the phone, Ryuji burst in through Leblanc’s door. Immediately afterward, Ryuji caught sight of Sojiro’s harsh glare and froze. Why hadn’t he just opened the door like a normal person? If there had been a customer seated nearby, he would have scared them half to death. “Uh…” he fumbled out after a moment, “is Akira home?”

“Akira,” Sojiro shouted up toward the attic, “Ryuji’s here!”

“No, no,” Ryuji began to move toward the stairs, “I’ll just go up-”

Akira bounded down the stairs two at a time and stopped at the last step. The two of them locked eyes and both visibly tensed. After a long and anxious moment, they both opened their mouths to speak.

“Dude, I’m so sorry!”

“I shouldn’t have said anything-! Wait.”

“What?”

Akira blinked.

Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck. He awkwardly motioned toward Akira. His eyes flickered down to study his muddy running shoes and avoid Akira’s gaze. “You… You go first.”

“I mean, you we’re… You were gonna say something,” Akira muttered back.

“Yeah, but… What were you gonna say?”

“I…” Akira took a few steps forward. He glanced toward Sojiro and sent an apologetic smile his way. He then turned his attention back to Ryuji and he took a deep breath to steady himself. “I’m sorry I told you I liked you. It clearly made you uncomfortable. We were getting so close to the end of all this, I was just… hoping… I don’t know…”

“Did you…” Ryuji cleared his throat and struggled to simply shove his hands into his hoodie pockets without making the casual motion look awkward and forced, “Did you mean it, though? That you like me? That you still like me?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool, ‘cause… ‘cause I…” Ryuji managed to look him in the eye for all of three seconds before his cheeks began to burn and he looked away again. “I think I like you too.”

“You…” Akira tugged nervously at a few of his dark curls, “You do? Really?”

“Yeah,” Ryuji nodded. The two of them grew quiet; painfully quiet. It was as if the idea that they both were interested in each other at the same time was such an impossible concept, that neither knew how to properly take the news. It took Morgana yowling from the top of the stairs to shock them out of their stupor.

“Can I… kiss you?” Akira asked tentatively; practically a whisper near the end, like he might still scare Ryuji away if he asked too loudly.

“…Sure,” Ryuji agreed, releasing the breath he was holding in breathy and awkward chuckle.

Akira immediately jumped at his chance and leaned forward, only for Ryuji to jump back just as quickly.

“Dude,” he stage-whispered, seemingly unaware that anyone could still hear him, “Boss is, like, right there!”

Akira locked eyes with Sojiro, his pleading gaze begging him to stop ruining everything. Sojiro raised his palms up in mock surrender. He couldn’t help but laugh. “Don’t mind me. This is my shop, though, so… If you don’t want me here, take it upstairs.”

Ryuji glanced back in his direction and then toward the windows out into the streets of Yongen Jaya as if he was worried about an audience. It took him longer to make a decision than was probably necessary, but when Akira grabbed for his hand to tug him up to the attic, Ryuji spun back around and smashed his lips into Akira’s.

Akira jumped back and Ryuji immediately apologized.

“No, it’s fine,” Akira nervously laughed, “It’s fine. I still can’t believe… I mean, I thought you hated me.”

“Nah, man, I…” Ryuji chewed his bottom lip, “I freaked out and I just kept thinking about…”

Ryuji’s voice trailed off and Sojiro tried to stop himself from being curious. The two had been so worked up the past few days, his presence as a parental figure had to be embarrassing by default. There was no need to make the embarrassment worse by making it seem like he was still listening, as much as he wanted to.

Akira motioned back toward the stairs, “You wanna come upstairs and talk about it?”

“…Yeah,” Ryuji agreed.

When they were gone, Sojiro couldn’t help himself anymore and shouted out, “Don’t close your door!”

“I don’t even have a door!” Akira shouted back.

Sojiro had really perfected this parenting thing.

Chapter Text

For the next few weeks, Sojiro didn’t see much of Akira or his friends. Everyone seemed to be keeping themselves busy before the day they planned to steal Sae Niijima’s treasure. Futaba sat in her room most days, typing nonsense into her computer between meals. Occasionally, Sojiro would manage to convince her to sit in Leblanc with him, but when customers came by, she’d slip away to the attic, her laptop cradled in her arms. Akira would leave early for school and come home after the sun had already gone down. Whether or not Akira dragged his friends along remained a mystery to him. All Sojiro knew was that the 19th was creeping closer and he could do nothing about it.

On the 18th, Sojiro closed Leblanc to give the kids ample space to hold their meeting. He gave them free reign over the kitchen and slipped outside to smoke throughout most of it. Ryuji wrote the first draft of the calling card and Akechi left before Sojiro could send him off with a proper goodbye. Sojiro never saw the calling card, but he did see the mess they made on his table. The ransom note aesthetic was flashy and intriguing, but the process of making the first copy left glue marks and cut printer paper everywhere. Sojiro didn’t bother getting upset. It didn’t really matter. He cleaned it up himself.

The next day, Akira and Futaba left together, Morgana tucked away safely in Akira’s bag. Sojiro wished them luck and forced himself to trust them. They had promised they would return home safely. It wouldn’t do him any good to disagree.

Keeping up pleasant conversation with his regulars throughout the evening had never been so difficult. Sojiro liked to think he was a patient man, but it aggravated him to no end to put on an interested facade when his kids were risking their lives somewhere he couldn’t reach. It was far too late to change their plans. If something went wrong, he could do nothing to help them. It was terrifying and it didn’t help that his customers were eager to talk about his missing helpers.

A few of them were disappointed to hear that Akira was still busy elsewhere. They wanted to talk with him, considering his self-imposed absence had lasted over a month. Sojiro tried his best to explain that Akira had better things to do besides spend his free time working for him, hoping the questions would stop. Instead, they just moved on to Futaba’s whereabouts.

-

The hours dragged by and the kids were late. It had been dark for a few hours already and dinner had come and gone. Sojiro turned the sign to ‘closed’, but left the door unlocked for them. They’d be home soon. He was sure of it. They’d walk right through that door any minute. Futaba would complain about the dinner she missed and command him to warm up some curry for her. Akira would sit beside her and he’d tell him exactly how it all went down.

Sojiro lit another cigarette. The entire restaurant smelled like smoke. His ashtray was littered with ash and burnt cigarette buds. Sojiro had managed to smoke through an entire pack in the last few hours, but he would allow himself some lenience. He needed something to keep his hands from shaking.

Sojiro had burned through about half of his most recent cigarette, when he heard the door slam open. He jolted and choked on the inhale. “F-Futaba?”

She burst through the door, hair windblown and wild. She had to have been running. Futaba plopped Morgana down onto the tile floor and quickly turned for the door, “Can’t talk. Gotta get home.”

She was gone before Sojiro could say anything else.

“W-Wait!” He rounded the counter just in time for the door to slam shut again. Morgana watched him from the floor, fur standing on end. Sojiro groaned and bent down to scratch Morgana behind the ear if he would let him. Futaba had frazzled the poor thing. She had probably gripped him too tightly to her chest when she ran to drop him off. Cats didn’t like being manhandled all too often… or at all. Morgana purred as he shifted his scratching to the cat’s chin. His dark fur flattened back out after a few quick swipes. “You probably like that cramped bag better than Futaba’s grip, huh, Morgana?” Sojiro mused to himself.

His hand froze over Morgana’s back. Futaba had brought Morgana home in her arms. Akira hadn’t brought him home. He hadn’t seen Akira come home. Sojiro bolted upright and rushed for the door. The streetlights illuminated nothing. It was late and no one was outside. Akira was nowhere in sight and Futaba was long gone.

Sojiro couldn’t leave; not until he saw Akira with his own eyes. He pulled out his phone and texted Futaba.

Did you get home safe? Where’s Akira?

Futaba answered back in seconds.

Futaba: We’re fine

That had been it. She didn’t explain. She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t tell him if Akira had gone home with her or if he was with the others. She didn’t even answer his next few texts. He eventually gave up.

Morgana jumped onto the counter and Sojiro didn’t bother removing him. The cat sat down, his strikingly blue eyes focused intently on the television screen. Sojiro put out his cigarette and grabbed for the remote. Whatever. Maybe he could drown out his own thoughts with a few late-night tv shows. He flipped through a few channels, but ultimately found nothing that would interest him. He picked a channel and landed on the local news. Great. He’d listen to the repeat of six o’clock news. He’d hear about tomorrow’s weather again. He’d pretend to be surprised by the sports section. Sojiro just needed to clear his head.

He’d text Akira in a few minutes. He’d clean a few glasses. He’d wash a few dishes.

Sojiro couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. The wet dishes slipped in his fingers. He tried to be careful, but it was hard. Sojiro reached for his phone. He’d text Akira.

Breaking news!” a voice rattled over the old television’s outdated speakers. Sojiro dropped the plate he had been holding.

“Shit.” He bent to pick up the shards. Morgana watched him, concern in his eyes.

The leader of the Phantom Thieves, whose name the police have yet to release, was arrested as of two hours ago-

“What the hell?” Sojiro returned to his feet. The ceramic shards bit at the skin of his palm.

-and has committed suicide while in police custody. We will be sure to keep you up to date on any new information regarding-…

Sojiro felt the broken pieces of the plate he’d dropped slip from his hand and hit the floor again. He couldn’t breathe. The smoke he had so carelessly filled Leblanc with suffocated him. Sojiro leaned against the counter, his heartbeat pounded in his ears, in his chest, in his head.

This…

This was…

This wasn’t real.

Sojiro took a deep, rattling breath. Morgana yowled and paced back and forth on the countertop, franticly vying for his attention. The cat stepped on the remote and the television shut off.

There was no way… Akira would never… Not Akira. Not his kid. Akira had been… Akira was always so strong. He was smart. He was resourceful. He was a leader. He wouldn’t have…

Akira had been caught. He had been taken into police custody. He would have been treated like a terrorist.

Akira was just a kid.

Had he been scared? Had he cried? Had he felt helpless? Sojiro’s thoughts traveled back to April, when he’d caught Akira, a boy he would have written off as a lost cause if he refused to shape up quickly, staring up at the rafters like his entire existence had fallen out from underneath him. Sojiro had been worried and rightfully so. He’d heard Futaba mutter horrific possibilities to herself, saying she deserved to die when she thought he couldn’t hear, and he had recognized the signs in Akira. Yet, he’d let Akira live there alone.

Akira would have lost everything if he was arrested. The nation’s most wanted criminal would not be treated with kindness, no matter the age. His only thought would be to protect everyone else. Sojiro was going to be sick.

He slammed his fist into the countertop. “GODDAMMIT!”

There were tears. He could hardly breathe.

Sojiro stumbled to a booth seat and collapsed into it. He buried his face in his hands and forced himself to find some semblance of control. He couldn’t do this; not now. He couldn’t fall apart. He needed… He needed to go home. He needed to get to Futaba. What could he do? What could say? God, Akira, what had he done? He should have put an end to it when he first learned what they were doing. He should have paid attention to where Akira was going every afternoon. He should have supported Akira from the start. Then, he might never have…

Now, it was too late. Akira had died alone and scared; defeated enough to put an end to everything.

Sojiro had to stand up. He had to leave. He had to go home and pretend everything was normal, because they were definitely being watched. He had to-

There was a sharp knock on the door. Sojiro looked up. He couldn’t see through the dark mirrorlike reflection of the windows. He didn’t move.

The knock came again. “Sakura? I know you’re there.”

Sae Niijima.

They’d lost.

“Sakura, please.” She went for the doorknob. It wasn’t locked. Sojiro stood up and met her at the door, his foot stopping her from opening the door any wider than he would allow.

“What could you possibly want?” Sojiro hissed and Sae had the gall to look surprised. “What else could you possibly take from me?”

Your daughter.

Sojiro needed to sit back down.

“I’m sorry.” Sae stumbled back a step and turned to glance down the alleyway. Sojiro had never seen her so anxious. Every time he’d seen her, she had been in control, maintaining an air of authority about her that Sojiro couldn’t hope to combat. In the darkness, her features lit only by the light passing through Leblanc’s door and a broken, flickering street lamp, Sae looked lost. She quickly motioned for Sojiro to follow her, leave the safety of his café, and see what she had hidden around the corner. He let himself fall into her trap and he could breathe again.

Sae bent down to tug at Akira’s arm, “Come on. You can sleep in a bed if you stand back up.”

Akira leaned back against the brick wall of the alley, seated on the damp pavement from the afternoon’s rain and gasping for air. Gasping, breathing, alive. Sojiro was at his side before he could even think and he pulled him into his arms. He was there, solid and warm, heavily leaning on him for support. Akira wheezed and fluttered his eyes open. Hazy grey eyes, obscured by dark pupils blown wider than they had any right to be, struggled to focus on his face. “Sojiro?” he whispered.

“That’s right.” Sojiro nodded and stood up, bringing Akira up with him. “Let’s get you inside.”

Sae stayed close, holding Akira by his arm as if she could help.

Akira dragged his feet as Sojiro led him into Leblanc and released him into a booth seat. He lowered his forehead onto his arms on the table as soon as he felt the booth seat beneath him. Morgana was on top of him immediately.

Sae spoke first. “Kurusu is a remarkable young man. I did not expect such cunning strategies from a child.” She glanced down at Akira’s exhausted form and frowned. Her praise fell flat. “I’m sorry. I’ve done terrible things-”

“I’ll say,” Sojiro interrupted and savored Sae’s bitter expression.

“But, he made me realize my understanding of justice was… misguided.”

In the light, Sojiro could finally see the state Akira was in. He was pale, shivering, short of breath, and covered in dark bruises and caked blood. He hid most of his face from view. Sojiro could only see one of the dark marks marring his cheekbone. Blood from a small cut on his hairline had dripped down his face and made the injury look worse than it actually was. His hands were scrapped and his wrists were purple and swollen from fighting against handcuffs. If that was what he could see, Sojiro was scared to know what he couldn’t.

“We need to get him to a hospital.”

“No!” Sae laid her hand on Akira’s shoulder, almost to shield him, as if she wasn’t the reason he looked the way he did. “In the eyes of the world, he’s dead. I don’t understand much of their plan. He hasn’t told me, but I know that this is a big part of it. No one else can know he’s alive.”

Sojiro didn’t know what to say. The plan? She knew? Had they changed her heart? Had they won?

Akira muttered something into his shirtsleeves. His words were too muffled for Sojiro to make them out, so he leaned down and waved Sae’s hand away from his shoulder so his could replace it. “What was that? Do you need something?”

Akira held his head up just long enough to say, “Call Takemi.”

Sojiro, when he forced himself to think about it, remembered Akira had mentioned Takemi as one of the few people he had told about being a Phantom Thief. “Does she know you’re alive?”

Akira shook his head and forced himself to sit up. He looked to Sae and she quickly reached for her jacket pocket. She pulled out Akira’s phone and the folded frames of his glasses. She almost handed the phone over to Akira before she stopped herself. “They might check his phone records and see he made calls.”

“It’s fine,” Sojiro concluded and left to grab his phone from the counter. “Give it to me. I’ll call her.” He had no idea how late Dr. Takemi took house calls, but he hoped she’d make an exception for them. From the gossip around the neighborhood, she had gone soft over the past few months and eased herself into the community. Maybe they’d get lucky.

Sojiro took Akira’s phone from Sae and found Takemi’s number from his contacts. Takemi let her phone ring for far longer than Sojiro would have hoped. She answered on the last ring.

“Who is this?” she asked, accusatory. Sojiro wondered if she’d heard the news.

“It’s Sakura. We need your help.” Sojiro tried his best to explain and she was quick to agree to help. She asked where he wanted her to meet him and he instructed her to come to his house. He needed to get Akira home.

“I’ll collect a few things from my clinic. I’ll be there soon,” she promised.

Sojiro hung up the phone and placed both his and Akira’s into his pocket.

“Who’s Takemi?” Sae asked.

“A doctor who owns a clinic in the neighborhood. Akira knows her.”

“Does she know about this?”

“She does now. Can you still walk?” Sojiro leaned back down and pressed his hand against Akira’s back. Akira’s eyes remained closed as he nodded. He didn’t make a move to stand, even after Sojiro applied a bit of pressure on his back to entice him to move. In the end, Sojiro tucked a hand under Akira’s arm and tugged him into a standing position. Almost immediately after Sojiro got him to his feet, Akira collapsed against him. He couldn’t remain standing on his own.

“Woah,” Sojiro hadn’t expected Akira to go from bearing his own weight to completely limp. Thankfully, the kid was still responsive. He moved Akira’s head to rest against his shoulder and looked to Sae whose terror had finally reached her eyes. He wanted to probe her for information on what had happened to Akira in the hours since he’d seen him. Sojiro’s first thought was head trauma. “What did they do to him?”

Sae spoke quickly and glancing toward the door, ready and willing to leave at a moment’s notice. “He was beaten during their interrogation and injected with an experimental truth serum. Too much of it probably.”

Sojiro growled under his breath and shifted his position to keep a steady grip on Akira’s drooping frame. He bent down and lift Akira up into his arms, an arm under his knees and the other behind his back. Akira’s head rest lifelessly against Sojiro’s shoulder and his arms dangled limply.

Akira was heavier than he looked and Sojiro grunted as he attempted to keep himself from dropping the boy. Sae held her hands up in front of her and made slight abandoned movements as if she wanted to try and help Sojiro hold him in some way. “I’ve got him,” Sojiro said and Sae dropped her hands. “You can keep explaining while we get him home. Grab my keys.”

Sae grabbed the ring of keys from the dish by the cash register and turn toward the door. She held it open for him as he maneuvered his way into chilly winter air. Sojiro saw a black blur slip past him out of the corner of his eye. Sae gasped and jumped back to avoid it. He was able to catch sight of it once it was some distance down the road. “Morgana!” he called, but Morgana wasn’t a dog. He wouldn’t come when called.

“Was that a cat?” Sae asked.

“Yeah, it’s the kid’s,” Sojiro strained to say as he adjusted Akira in his arms again to distribute his weight in a way that wouldn't hurt his back. There was no way either of them could catch a sprinting cat, especially not with all the time they wasted just watching him run.

“Oh no,” Sae quickly shut the café door and locked it behind them, “Should we…”

“No.” He hated that Morgana had run off again. Akira cared about that cat more than he cared about himself half the time, but Sojiro couldn’t let himself worry about that. Morgana had run off before. He’d find his way back eventually. “Let’s get this guy home. Dr. Takemi will be there before we are at this rate.”

The short walk home took far longer with Akira weighing him down. Sae, unburdened, stayed a few steps ahead, unlocked both the gate and the front door and held them both open for him. “I don’t know how much they gave him,” she admitted, “It’s an experimental drug and no one’s sure if it actually works. If people are given too much for their body weight, I’ve seen it cause hallucinations and loss of consciousness.”

“So, you’re injecting detainees with a drug you’ve hardly tested and interrogating the people you’ve made delusional under the guise of getting truth?” Sojiro wasn’t at all pleased with the woman standing in his home. She at least had the wherewithal to look remorseful.

“I have no say in what the police-”

“Save it.”

“…Where are we putting him?” Sae asked to change the subject. Her eyes flickered around the entryway, looking for a place to lay Akira down.

Sojiro gestured toward the stairs with a nod of his head, “The bedrooms are upstairs. We’ll put him in my room. He needs a real bed.”

They climbed slowly, carefully avoiding bumping Akira against a wall or stair railing. Sae stayed close, ready to catch and push Sojiro forward if he tipped backwards on his way up. Thankfully, the three of them made it to the top of the stairs unharmed.

Morgana, surprisingly, sat expectantly on Sojiro’s bedside table. He regarded them with quiet interest.

Sojiro tried his best not to jostle Akira as he laid him down.

It didn’t take long for Takemi to find her way to Sojiro’s home. She’d knocked and Sae let her in, leaving Sojiro alone with Akira. He was awake again, just barely.

“Where are we now?” Akira muttered, almost too quiet for Sojiro to hear.

“Home.” Sojiro reached out and brushed Akira’s bangs from his forehead, careful to avoid the cut. His hair was too wet, his shirt too soaked around the collar for him to just be sweating. Had they dunked him in water?

The cold night air had chilled him, the water making the temperature difference harder to bare, but Akira’s forehead felt warm.

Takemi knocked on Sojiro’s bedroom door as she entered with Sae close behind. “Is he conscious?” she asked, foregoing even a simple hello.

“Yes,” Akira groaned, answering for himself.

“Good.” She smiled, the corners of her lips only slightly quirked, and set her bag down at Akira’s feet. “Sit up and we’ll take a look.”

Akira sat up on his own, but pulling his shirt over his head was a struggle. He refused help, even after the pain the motion caused him became obvious. When the shirt was finally off, violently tugged away from himself until it released him, Akira seemed ready to lie back down.

“Pants too,” Takemi instructed. Akira, displeased, did has he was told.

If Sojiro spent another moment in that room, he was going to be sick or angry or both. Akira didn’t need to see that. Sae’s startled gasped told him that she probably felt the same way. Akira’s school uniform had hidden far worse injuries than the bruises and cuts on his face and hands. His arms were bruised where aggressive hands had grabbed him too forcefully and twisted them, large bruises about the size of a boot print marred Akira’s side and right leg. No wonder Akira had such difficulty walking.

Takemi was unfazed. She had probably seen worse. Sojiro had too. His previous line of work, though less lively in later years, had left him bruised and bloody alongside he fellow agents. However, he’d never seen the same on a child before and definitely not on his own. Sojiro backed out of the room.

He gave himself a moment to breath, but it didn’t last long. Futaba’s bedroom door creaked open down the hall. She poked her head out, unable to leave her room when two unwelcomed outsiders had forced themselves into her home. Upon seeing her, Sojiro forced himself to forget his own fears and think about hers. “He’s fine,” he told her, “He’s pretty banged up, but he’s fine.”

“I know.” She stepped out of her room, certain of herself and her statement. “I have his phone bugged.”

“You…” Sojiro sighed, “Of course, you do.”

“What did she do?” Sae asked, joining them in the hall.

“Nothing,” Futaba squeaked and jumped back behind her door.

“Yeah,” Sojiro agreed, unsure if he could tell her or not when Futaba had acted so defensively, “It’s nothing.”

The two of them stood in silence as they waited. Ten minutes dragged by like hours before Takemi stepped out of Sojiro’s room to stand in the hallway with the rest of them.

“How is he?” Sojiro asked.

Takemi frowned and pushed her hands into the pockets of her lab coat, “I just run a clinic. There’s not much I can do for him with the equipment I have on hand. He needs to be taken to the hospital.”

“We can’t,” Sae began, ready to shoot down the suggestion for the second time, “He’s supposed to be dead. If we take him to a hospital, there will be a record of it. They’ll turn him in.”

Takemi sighed, annoyed, but thankfully relenting, “Fine. He has a concussion, but you should let him sleep. He’s been responsive, so he should be fine. From what I can tell right now, his current range of motion means nothing is broken, but I’ll have to take a few x-rays to be sure. He’s in a lot of pain, but I’m not going to give him anything for it. I don’t know what he was injected with or how much and Ms. Niijima doesn’t seem to know either. I can’t in good conscience even give him aspirin when I don’t know how the two drugs will react with one another. I think it would be best to wait. If I was part of a bigger hospital, I would run a few blood tests, but as it stands, my clinic wouldn’t get the results back for about a week. It wouldn’t matter by then.”

“So, we wait?” Sae asked.

Takemi nodded. “We wait and someone keeps an eye on him during the night.” She addressed Sojiro directly. “He has a slight fever, nothing too serious, but if you notice anything during the night, call me. I’ll get supplies ready before tomorrow. Bring him in first thing in the morning.”

Sojiro agreed.

When the two women left and the house grew still, Futaba watched over Akira while Sojiro fetched a chair to put by Akira’s bedside. The lights began to bother him in so late at night, or perhaps morning, he realized when he checked his watch. He turned them off as he went, shrouding the house in darkness aside from the hall light and the dim lamp by his bedside. Futaba reached out to stroke Morgana’s fur. The cat had situated himself above Akira’s head, curled up among his black curls and nearly blending in. He closed his eyes and purred.

When Sojiro returned, he shooed Futaba away and off to bed. He told her to let their friends know that Akira had managed to find his way home. She nodded, remembering, through the haze of a rapidly diminishing adrenaline high, that she still had a job to do. She typed out some sort of code into their group chat. When he asked to see, she held her phone out to him. It was simple and inconspicuous. If anyone was watching, they wouldn’t think anything of it. It was just a text from a girl who couldn’t sleep to her friends in the middle of the night.

Anyone still up? I can’t sleep :(

“They know what that means?” Sojiro asked. He felt like an idiot for asking. Of course, they knew. No one discusses a coded phrase and forgot it when it mattered; especially not one that meant their leader was safe.

Futaba nodded anyway, as if the answer to his question wasn’t obvious. “I wouldn’t have texted anybody if he wasn’t home. Plus, Akechi hasn’t left the chat yet, so it’ll make him think I’m still waiting.” Her eye lids drooped as she spoke. He managed to usher her back to her room with a gentle push in the right direction.

Sojiro leaned back in his chair. Akira’s soft, ragged breathing and Morgana’s soft purrs mingled together as the room’s ambient noise. With Akira asleep, Sojiro was finally left alone to think. Too much had happened in the last few hours for Sojiro to successfully process anything. Akira’s face had been cleaned and the cuts carefully bandaged. He was alive and that was all Sojiro’s really cared about. In the silence, with no one watching, he allowed himself to cry.

Chapter Text

Sojiro saw blood. A lot of blood. It had soaked into the beige sheets and trickled onto the carpeted floor. Akira lay on his back, blood dripping from his nose and the corner of his mouth. His eyes were open, empty and dark. He wasn’t breathing.

Sojiro woke with a start, forcing back panic and confusion. He looked toward Akira who slept restlessly, breathing through an irritated throat. Sojiro leaned forward from his chair and ran his fingers through Akira’s matted curls. His hair was soaked in sweat, but his forehead didn’t feel as warm as before. Akira’s breath hitched as a particularly deep inhale caught in his throat. “Shhh,” Sojiro shushed him as he combed his fingers through knots and brushed stuck bangs away from his forehead, “You’re okay. You’re fine. You’re home.” Sojiro’s quiet mutterings were more for himself than the unconscious boy in front of him. He needed to tell himself something to stay sane.

The sun peeked through the blinds, leaving broken streaks of light across Akira’s face. His eyelids fluttered in his sleep, probably bothered by the light. Sojiro stood and closed them, dimming the room and buying Akira a bit more time to rest.

Sojiro’s back ached from sleeping upright in a chair for – Sojiro checked the alarm clock on his bedside table – about five hours. He felt weary and lost, the adrenaline that had drawn his muscles tight earlier in the night, now left him sore and drained. He could only imagine how Akira would feel once he woke up.

He trudged down the hall. Futaba’s door sat closed, sealing her away like the entrance to a tomb he couldn’t have hoped to enter. He had to stop and remind himself that Futaba was fine, she was better, healthier, happier, and Akira was alive.

The stairs creaked under his feet. The house was quiet in the early morning and Sojiro relished in it. He didn’t notice that Morgana had followed him down until his bare feet hit the cold tile in the kitchen and the cat rushed in to brush his side against Sojiro’s pantleg.

“Oh,” Sojiro grumbled and rolled his neck to fix the crick in his spine, “You must be hungry, huh?”

Morgana’s food bowl sat in its usual spot in Leblanc, so Sojiro pulled out a small dish and placed it on the counter. Morgana jumped up onto the granite and watched him. “Cats don’t belong on the counter,” he yawned and searched through the kitchen for something to feed him. He begrudgingly thought that their only cans of cat food were in Leblanc too. He was too tired to walk all the way there. He finally stumbled upon a can of tuna and dumped it into Morgana’s bowl.

He decided he might as well start breakfast. A cup of coffee would do him some good.

Sojiro started with a simple pot, too tired to do much else. It didn’t take much effort to watch eggs cook, either. He was thankful for that, at least. The dream that had woken him up had faded beyond Sojiro’s recollection. The buzzing of adrenaline it left behind stuck with him, leaving him uncertain even when reality should have comforted him.

Sojiro glanced up from the sizzling pan when he heard someone shuffling around the first floor. Someone else had managed to pull themselves out of bed. “Futaba?”

“She’s sleeping,” Akira mumbled as he stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing sleep from his eyes. The blanket Akira had slept under was wrapped loosely around him to keep himself warm. He leaned heavily against the wall for support and blurrily blinked behind his slightly crooked glasses.

Sojiro rushed to his side and attempted to guide him toward the kitchen table. Akira weakly fought against it, but ultimately let himself be led.

“Are you feeling okay? I didn’t expect you to be up and walking.” Sojiro pressed the back of his hand against Akira’s forehead. He frowned, “I can’t tell if your fever broke.”

“I think I’m fine,” Akira said and bit back a yawn. He leaned back into his seat and closed his eyes. “Except for the fact that everything hurts.”

“Really?” Sojiro asked, “Everything?”

Akira nodded, “It feels like I was hit by a truck.” He grimaced, “Maybe three trucks... and a bus.”

Sojiro returned to the stove and tried to keep from burning breakfast. When he fixed Akira a plate, he turned around to find the kid with his head resting on the cool surface of the kitchen table and dozing off. Sojiro placed the plate down on the table and nudged Akira awake.

He sat upright, wincing hard at the pain it caused, and blinking away his drowsiness. “Hmm?” Akira glanced down at the plate set in front of him, “Oh, thanks.”

Akira didn’t really eat. He pushed his food around his plate, picking apart eggs and ham until he realized Sojiro was watching him. “Sorry,” he apologized, “I’m not really hungry.”

“You still have to eat.”

“I know. I will,” he said and forced a few bites.

“You kids are gonna be the death of me,” Sojiro grumbled and fixed his own plate.

Akira quietly chuckled and while Sojiro had been joking, he reserved the right to be a little bitter. “You get a kick out of scaring the hell outta me?”

“Were you really that scared?” He raised a bandaged hand to one of the larger bruises on his face, just under his eye. His wrists had been wrapped to keep the swelling down, but not much could be done for his face. Akira looked terrible and Sojiro could tell he knew it.

Sojiro turned and grabbed a bag of frozen peas from the freezer. He handed it over to Akira and he gratefully pressed it to his face. “I didn’t think you cared so much, Sojiro.” They’d been doing the same back and forth for months. It was just a joke; something to lighten the mood when Sojiro got too serious or when Akira became withdrawn. The playful grin on Akira’s face told him he was trying his best to make light of the situation, as if it was funny how he’d feared for Akira’s life. Sojiro should have just gone along with the joke. He’d started it, after all.

“It’s not funny,” Sojiro chastised him, instead. “You have no idea what I was thinking! Did your plan involve letting me think you were dead?”

Akira blinked and set the bag of peas onto the table, “What?” He dropped the smile and turned an inquisitive look up toward Sojiro, “Why would you think I was dead? I was here when Sae told you.”

“It was on the news.”

“Seriously? It got out that fast?”

“Yeah.” He hadn’t expected Akira to seemed so confused. When Sae had dumped Akira at his doorstep, he’d assumed Akira’s plan, whatever it was, had gone off without a hitch. Nothing could have happened without the Phantom Thieves’ leader wanting it to, other than getting beaten half to death, but for all Sojiro knew, they'd known that would happen. Perhaps he’d been stupid to think so. The beaten kid sitting at his kitchen table was nothing like the public assumed. He should know better than anyone else.

“Oh.” Akira frowned. “You weren’t supposed to hear about that part until I got back.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I didn’t think they’d announce it right when it happened, you know?” Akira shrugged, “I thought they’d hold off a bit and I’d be back before then. I didn’t want you think I was dead…” then after a quick pause, he added, “I’m sorry.”

“Well,” Sojiro reluctantly reached down and ruffled Akira’s hair. He needed to brush it, or something, before it got too tangled. Sojiro let his anger seep away. He hadn’t meant to let it boil over in the first place. “At least you’re okay and… you know what? Forget what I said before. Tell me your plans next time.”

Akira laughed weakly, “Yes, sir.”

Akira pulled the blanket over his feet to shield them from the cold and slowly curled up as best he could in his chair. Even the slightest movement made him wince.

“I didn’t even think about washing that uniform,” Sojrio said. Akira’s school uniform still sat on the floor, crumpled up and covered in grime and specks of blood. He'd need something to wear for the day. “I could wash it now and you could wear it to Dr. Takemi’s office or I could get you something from your room.” He’d get over himself and venture back out into the world whether he liked it or not.

“Whatever’s less work for you,” Akira rest his head on hand and pushed a few more pieces of egg around his plate. “Do I have to go to the clinic?”

“Yes,” Sojiro pat his shoulder and left for the stairs to grab Akira’s uniform, “Doctor’s orders.”

-

Takemi’s examination ended rather quickly and Akira pulled his shirt back over his head. In the daylight, Akira didn’t look any better, but he didn’t look any worse. Takemi wrote something down on her clipboard and disinterestedly commented, “You’re looking a lot better. You’re still a little on the warm side, but it’s practically nothing. I feel a little better about prescribing pain medication today.” She pointed back toward the x-rays she had taken and clipped to the light-box on the wall behind her, “Nothing’s broken, like I thought. Your rib is probably bruised, though.”

Akira rubbed at his side where he said he had been kicked. “So, that’s why it hurts when I breath.”

“How badly does it hurt?” she asked, her interest piqued by Akira’s complaints.

Akira shrugged, “Hurts as much as the rest of me does.”

“All right,” Takemi muttered and returned to her clipboard, “I think you’ll be fine. You’ve always been pretty resilient.”

“That’s good to hear,” Sojiro spoke up.

“So… can I cover this up?” Akira gestured toward his face.

Takemi narrowed her eyes. “You want to cover up…?”

“The bruises on my face. Like with makeup, or something?”

“You’re joking, right?” She leaned back against her desk and set her clipboard down beside her. Her annoyance did nothing to deter Akira’s questions.

“I wouldn’t consider a few cuts ‘open wounds’ so, it wouldn’t be too bad, right?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I’ve got to keep up appearances.” Akira carefully pulled his jacket back on, trying to avoid irritating his ribs, and tried his best to straighten it. They hadn’t had time to iron it and Akira didn’t seem to like that very much.

Sojiro scoffed, “You want to keep up appearances?”

“Well, I…”

He stopped Akira short, interrupting with, “No one is going to see you except for us.”

“The other Thieves will-”

“No.”

“As your doctor,” Takemi cut back in, “I’d say you shouldn’t cover your injuries with makeup, for what I believe to be obvious reasons, but I’m also just your doctor, so once you leave my office, you can do whatever you want.”

“Okay, sure, but I’m not going to the drugstore to pick up makeup for you so that you can lie to your friends. Plus, you’re dead, so you definitely can’t go.”

“Futaba has makeup, right?” Akira asked.

Sojiro sighed. “I don’t know.”

-

Futaba was up and had finished the breakfast he had left for her before they got back. She greeted them with a smile and made room for the two of them on the couch. “The team wants to meet up, but Makoto’s sister won’t be ready until tomorrow.”

“She’s on our side now?” Sojiro asked. He wasn’t all that surprised, considering her willingness to help only a few hours ago.

Akira nodded, wrapping himself in the comforter he had left behind after getting dressed to return to the outside world. “She better be. I didn’t nearly die trying to convince her for nothing.”

“Makoto said she’s gonna tell her everything. We also ended the original group chat. We can't keep pretending we think Akechi’s one of us, so we pretended to freak out and Yusuke brought up the idea of disbanding the group chat for safety reasons. We added you to the new one, leader.”

“Cool,” Akira said and checked his phone.

“Wait,” Sojiro began, “Niijima mentioned something about Akira’s phone records being checked. If he starts texting again, won’t that look suspicions?”

“You underestimate me,” Futaba sang and giggled at her handiwork, “Besides, who’d check the phone records of a dead man?” She wasn’t wrong. If they had done a good enough job convincing their enemies that Akira was dead, there would be no need to worry about Akira’s phone.

The conversation ended and eased them into fairly comfortable silence. Eventually, bored with doing nothing, Sojiro grabbed the remote from the coffee table and turned on the television. He switched it to the news, knowing he’d only hear nonsense he wouldn't appreciate.

Almost every segment was focused on the Phantom Thieves. Sojiro had suspected as much.

We will repeat our breaking news from last night: The leader of the Phantom Thieves committed suicide while in police custody as of 3 am this morning. After hours of interrogation, he refused to give the names of his accomplices or divulge how their crimes were brought about. Today, we speak with Mr. Eiji Hagiwara, a public prosecutor and advocate for stricter treatment of those in juvenile hall. How do you think such a young individual found the resolve to commit such atrocities?

Well, sixteen years old is fairly young for a criminal mastermind, but as his signed confession proves, he was behind it all. I’d say a large factor could be how lenient we are with youth these days. We let these children get away with anything with few consequences. Moreover, our children rarely interact with real people anymore. They favor the internet and violent videogames over real human contact.

I’ve heard quite a few people explain similar theories. Although the police have not released his name, we do know about his past record. Apparently, it should not be a surprise he turned to a life of crime. He was on probation for an assault in his home town and was forced to move to Tokyo. Perhaps, his motive lies there?

It is very likely his parents could not handle raising a boy like him and ultimately forced him onto others. It’s a pity, really. He was so young, but there isn’t much someone like him can contribute to society.

Considering the number of charges brought against him, along with the implications of many of their previous victims going comatose, his arrest was disastrous for him. They were looking into murder charges and it is easy to see why he took his own life instead of revealing accomplices.

Sojiro growled, “They’re idiots, all of them.”

Akira mumbled his agreement, his cheek pressed into the couch’s armrest. Futaba glanced up from her phone and frowned at the television.

“They aren’t saying your name,” Sojiro continued, “but they’re giving out details about your life as if the people who know you won’t… Hey, are you listening?”

Akira nodded, but his eyes were closed. He was dozing off, wrapped in a blanket cocoon. Morgana watched him from the back of the couch, his piercing blue eyes never leaving his owner.

Sojiro sighed and turned back to continue watching the news. Futaba silently returned to her phone.

The Phantom Thieves have yet to make a statement regarding their young leader’s death. Many speculate that they have been thrown into disarray.

Sojiro scowled. Barely a day had passed and they expected the Phantom Thieves to come forward? They were just trying to aggravate them. Sojiro grabbed the remote and changed the channel. “Idiots.”

Chapter Text

Futaba did have makeup. Sojiro didn’t remember buying any. Futaba had never asked for it and he wouldn’t have known what to get her if she had. Apparently, over the summer, Ann and Makoto had taken it upon themselves to find her makeup she would, ultimately, never use.

Whatever shade Futaba owned looked fine on her, but was lighter than Akira’s skintone. It made the areas of his face she applied it to look far too pale. Futaba didn’t seem to know what she was doing. She struggled to apply concealer as she watched a tutorial play out from the phone on her lap. Akira insisted that he didn’t mind. As long as she could cover the darkest bruises, he didn’t care what shade he was. Sojiro’s opinion on the matter remained the same. It was a bad idea.

Earlier that morning, Sojiro had called Akira’s school. He wanted to be sure Akira’s ‘death’ hadn’t reached the school before he could tell them differently. The attendance office hadn’t heard anything if their bored reaction to Akira’s temporary absence was anything to go by. Akira’s name still hadn’t been released and Sojiro strangely hadn’t been contacted even though he was Akira’s legal guardian for the year. He’d thought about calling Akira’s parents to let them know everything was fine, but if he hadn’t been told, who was to say they had been? “Yeah, he’ll be absent for a while. We’re not too sure on the dates, but he’ll definitely be back for his finals.”

When they asked him why Akira would be out for so long, he panicked and said, “Family emergency. Back in his home town. His uh… His mother’s sick. Really sick.”

They wished Akira the best and Sojiro said he’d pass the message along.

“’His mother’s sick’?” Sojiro scoffed at himself when he hung up the phone. “What kind of cliché excuse was that?”

Before he left for Leblanc, he reminded Akira and Futaba that Akira still needed to rest. Akira, shying away from Futaba’s mascara wand, promised him that he was feeling just fine. He had slept through most of the day before, after all. He wasn’t tired.

“Why do I need that?” Akira pushed her hand away, “You’ll poke out my eye.”

“I don’t know! I think I missed a few steps.” Futaba whined and moved back a few minutes in her video.

“What even is half of this stuff?” Akira picked up a round compact. “Can’t we just use the stuff we’re using now?”

Futaba looked up to see what Akira was holding. “I think that’s foundation.”

Akira frowned, “If it’s called foundation, why’d we put concealer on first?”

“…I don’t know?”

“Just let me do it,” Akira said and grabbed for the sponge in Futaba’s hand.

She pulled back, clutching her sponge and makeup close to herself and out of Akira’s reach, “No, I can do it!”

“I’m the leader and I say I want to do it.”

“You can’t pull the leader card now!”

Sojiro left before he caught the rest.

Akira’s friends were already waiting for him outside the café, nervously shuffling around. They smiled once they saw Sojiro and stepped aside to let him unlock the door. Once inside, Ryuji spoke first. “Is he okay?” He bounced his leg in his anxiousness.

“He’s just fine.” Sojiro smiled, trying his best to calm them down. If Akira wanted to keep up appearances, he’d let him. “He’ll be here soon. Where’s your sister?”

“She had work to finish, but she’ll be here soon,” Makoto promised.

“We’ll wait for her upstairs,” Yusuke said and Sojiro nodded. He filled a small tray with a few packages of snacks and sent them on their way.

Sojiro turned on the television and Shido’s angry voice left the speakers. “We have only begun our eradication of the evil spurred on by the Phantom Thieves. We need to rebuild our once great country and reform it into a nation our children can be proud of. Today, Japan is a sinking ship! I can no longer-” Sojiro changed the channel and waited.

-

Sae entered Leblanc and took a quick look around. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had to finish a few things at work.” She frowned. “Where are they?”

“Waiting upstairs.” Sojiro pointed the way for her. “Go ahead and call ‘em down. I’ll go get Akira.”

Akira and Futaba were practically out the door when Sojiro returned home. Futaba had managed to cover Akira’s face evenly and the kid looked a little more alive than he had before. They walked back together and Sojiro noticed how tense Akira’s shoulders were. Something about it didn’t sit right with him.

Akira’s grand entrance was met with as much excitement and fanfare as Sojiro would have expected. Ryuji practically threw himself into Akira’s arms the moment he stepped through the door. His friends crowded around him, leaving Sojiro little time to step back and escape the onslaught.

The girls’ smiles faltered, gazes flickering around Akira’s face. Ryuji’s attention was drawn downward, where Akira leaned most of his weight onto his left leg. Sojiro frowned. He’d known they’d notice something was off.

Ryuji turned his gaze back up to Akira’s face and forced a wobbly smile. With his arm thrown around Akira’s shoulder, Ryuji seemed to be tilting Akira just enough for him to rest against Ryuji’s side rather than the other way around. “Hey, man!” he began, “It’s good to have you back!”

The café immediately irrupted with chatter as everyone began talking at once.

“Guys, come on,” Akira laughed. They all pushed to make room for themselves beside Akira, but Yusuke’s lack of shoving ultimately earned him the spot. They all huddled around, waiting to hear his side of the story.

“It was…” Akira shrugged, “an experience.”

“How are you feeling? Are you okay?” Ann reached out to touch his hand. Akira pulled it back and scratched not too subtly at the bandages before hiding his hands in his pockets.

“Well,” he chuckled, “I died.”

The resulting laughter was strained.

“You must be okay if you can joke like that,” Ann concluded.

“I bet Akechi hasn’t even realize we tricked him yet!” Ryuji beamed and slapped Akira on the back. Akira responded to the good-natured gesture with a poorly hidden flinch.

“Hey…” Ryuji voice grew soft, “You alright, man?”

Akira nodded. Ryuji tried to speak again, but Ann lean over and whisper something into his ear. His brow furrowed. Her words made him take a step back.

Sojiro decided to enter the conversation before things derailed any further and he was ultimately left in the dark. Akira had been home for an entire day, but Sojiro still had no idea how a group of teenagers managed to fake a person’s death while in police custody. He massaged his temple and asked, “How’d you all manage to pull this off?”

Makoto gave him an odd look, “You weren’t told anything?”

Futaba and Akira laughed nervously to themselves.

“Barely. Your sister showed up in a taxi, helped me get him home, and told me he was considered dead. It was right after they announced he had ‘died’ too. Practically gave me a heart attack.”

“I didn’t know much else,” Sae admitted.

“We should probably tell you, huh?” Akira began.

Makoto smiled and nodded. “We wanted to make our enemies believe the leader of the Phantom Thieves was dead.”

Sojiro nodded along, “Okay…”

“So, we made Akechi kill his decoy in the Metaverse.”

“H-Hold on a sec!” Sojiro realized all too quickly that he was already lost. He’d known Akechi had been bad news, but Sojiro hadn’t known killing Akira was high on his agenda. Furthermore, how could a decoy have been in the Metaverse? He’d thought people only had one shadow! Plus, weren’t their ‘Persona’ some sort of replacement for their shadow? “Start over. What ‘decoy’? What are you talking about?”

“Akechi,” Yusuke said, “is the true culprit behind the murders and mental shutdowns. He and whoever he takes orders from set us up. Our goal was to determine where his orders were coming from.”

Okay. That made sense. “So, you’re going up against him and someone else.”

“You knew beforehand that Akechi was the traitor, didn’t you?” Sae asked Akira with a scrutinizing eye.

Akira smirked. “Akechi messed up. He made one fatal mistake.”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner if you were sure?”

“We couldn’t have you suspect him before we could track down the person giving the orders,” Makoto cut in. “Besides, you nor anyone else would have believed that.”

Sae sighed, “True. Akechi has been credited with the arrest of the Phantom Thieves… or at least their leader. Not even I would have thought he was behind all this. So, in other words, you left him alone on purpose. Bold move.”

Wait. Okay. Sojiro knew that. He’d known something was up with Akechi. Akira had told him that much. Makoto and Sae had interrupted Akira before he could tell them what the ‘mistake’ had been. Sojiro groaned, “God, I can’t keep up.” He turned back to Akira. “Uh, so what was the mistake Akechi made? What did he do?”

Akira opened him mouth only to close it again a moment later. He seemed to realize something Sojiro couldn’t grasp from just the look on his face.

“He heard Morgana’s voice,” Ann explained without a hint of the hesitance Akira had.

Sojiro frowned. “You mean our cat?”

“Yeah,” Akira chuckled and rubbed at the back of his neck, embarrassed, “I just realized I forgot to tell you. Morgana can talk.”

“You’re joking.”

Morgana meowed. If Sojiro didn’t know better, he’d say the cat was smirking.

Sae looked back at Morgana, surprised. “Does that mean he just said something?”

“But you don’t understand him, do you?” Ann continued, “That’s how it was for all of us too, until we heard him in the Metaverse.”

Futaba clasped her hands behind her back and rocked on her heels. Helpfully, she expanded on the idea of Morgana, a cat, talking, with, “When you’re in the Metaverse, Mona talks like a normal person and looks... really different. Once you hear his voice and your brain realizes he can talk, you start understanding him in reality. It’s a change in cognition!” She shrugged, “Most likely.”

“Akechi’s acting was pretty bad from the start.” Ann nudged Akira, “This guy figured it out pretty quickly.”

Ryuji took this time to add his two cents. “Akechi tried to act like he heard Morgana talk for the first time at the school festival, but he’d already heard him before then. We were talking about Dome Town and Morgana said it looked like pancakes. Akechi showed up and asked us about where we were getting pancakes. No one else had said anything like that.”

Morgana meowed again and Akira nodded. “His story was just too good to be real,” he said.

“That’s why we asked Futaba to wiretap his phone,” Haru added.

“It was really easy,” Futaba boasted and began to tap away on her laptop. “I pretended to be checking his phone out, but I was actually planting my app. My heart was pounding the whole time!”

“Your quirky nature came in handy,” Yusuke smiled down at her, pleased with what he probably thought was a compliment.

Futaba glared up at him. “It was acting!”

Yusuke continued to smile, “Certainly.”

“Anyway,” Futaba returned to her computer, “After a few days, this is what we got.”

She pressed play and Akechi’s voice filled the room. “Then, I’ll guide the police into her Palace and have them catch the Phantom Thieves red handed. It’s the only way to arrest them given their methods. I’ll deal with them after that.” Sojiro could practically hear the smile in his voice. “We could say he stole the guard’s gun and committed suicide during his imprisonment. How about that? No one will ever know I was there.

“He planned to…” Sojiro couldn’t finish his thought aloud. If they had never bugged Akechi’s phone, if they hadn’t suspected him, Akira would have died.

The guard will have to be one of ours,” the recording continued, “We’ll have to eliminate him afterward to destroy the evidence though. I’ll make the arrangements and then, the dangerous criminal responsible for the mass mental shutdowns shall end his own life. It’s poetic, really.

Sojiro wanted him to stop talking. He didn’t want to hear anymore. He didn’t need to, but it just kept going.

When he does, you will become a hero who saved Japan. As will I, of course?

“I knew he was acting strangely,” Sae crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head in disbelief, “but to think he was this far gone…”

“He’s no ace detective,” Haru growled. It was strange hearing such a harsh tone come from such a delicate looking girl. “He’s the one behind every murder he’s ever ‘solved’.”

“But it’s not just him. Whoever is giving him orders has power,” Makoto reasoned, “and a lot of it if they could orchestrate an assassination in a police station. We had to act fast.”

Sojiro nodded. He thought he understood. Although, he wasn’t too sure of it.

“Uh…” Sae’s brow furrowed as she worked through how she was going to ask her next question. “You killed a decoy in my… cognitive world? How did you manage that? How would you plant a decoy?”

“We didn’t have to plant anything.” Makoto smiled and continued to proudly explain their plan. “We needed a place within your Palace that looked exactly like the real world. The police station was a perfect fit. We needed to know where he’d be held and you were pretty forthcoming with that information when I asked. The people in your Palace looked exactly like people in the real world. If you knew what Akira looked like, he’d be there.”

“And how did you get Akechi there?”

“Futaba took care of that.”

Futaba beamed at the second mention of her hard work. “Yep! I’ve had Akira’s phone bugged since the spring trip. I knew exactly where the phone was and with Akechi’s phone bugged too, all I had to do was wait for you two to cross paths. It only took a few lines of code to make the phone think someone pressed the nav. Then, when Akechi walked off, he didn’t even realize he was in the metaverse.”

“But… what if we hadn’t crossed paths?” Sae asked. “What if I hadn’t taken the phone or hadn’t realized who to show it to? What if I hadn’t been convinced to start with?”

The room fell quiet. Every pair of eyes stared at Sae with discontent.

She sighed, realizing she already knew the answer, “He would have died.”

“We don’t really like to think about that part.” Ann anxiously combed her fingers through one of her ponytails, fussing with her hair until she seemed content. “It doesn’t matter, though. Everything worked out!”

Sojiro took some time to let the information sink in during the lull in their explanation. The decoy and the similarities of the Palace to the real world had just been a lucky coincidence. Akechi killed the replica in the metaverse, sparing Akira in the real world. Sae must have returned to the real world, grabbed Akira, and brought him home. However, one thing just didn’t quite add up.

“What did you…?” The room’s eyes turned to him. “What did you do with the body?”

Futaba blinked. “There wasn’t one. No one died.”

“Right,” Sojiro frowned, “There wasn’t one, but you need to find a body for an individual to be declared dead.”

“I can answer that,” Sae answered begrudgingly. “I looked into it. The police never even checked.”

“What?!” Sojiro didn’t believe that.

“They had a coroner working with them to ensure Kurusu’s death was reported as a suicide. They didn’t even try to look. They just passed along a falsified death certificate. I tried to be certain that no one would check the morgue for his body and it seems like we’ll be safe, for now. My interrogation must have just been a formality for the Director. I would say he could be one of our suspects for Akechi’s leader, but… he supposedly died of a heart attack yesterday.”

Sojiro scoffed, “There’s no way it was a heart attack.” It couldn’t have been, not when ‘heart problems’ had been the scapegoat for at least a few mental shutdowns that year.

“Wait,” Ryuji interrupted, concern in his voice, “Your boss died? They weren’t just going after, Akira?”

“Who the hell has that much influence?” One name came to mind. Sojiro didn’t like it.

“Actually,” Futaba said, “Akechi might have let that slip after their assassination attempt. I heard him say ‘Shido’.”

Shido?

“Shido…” Ryuji muttered and took a moment to think. “Feels like I’ve heard the name somewhere.”

“I’ve certainly never heard of him,” Yusuke said with downtrodden certainty.

Shido.

Sojiro knew a Shido.

Masayoshi Shido.

“Could it be,” Sojiro hated to even bring him up. He bristled every time that man’s face had shown up on television. He’d known him before he’d managed to work his way into the public eye. Sojiro had hoped he’d crash and burn long before election day and yet… “Masayoshi Shido?”

It felt like he had dropped a bomb.

Everything suddenly made sense.

Ann blinked up at him. “…Who?”

Oh. Right. He was talking to teenagers. Sojiro was surprised Ryuji had even recognized the name.

“He’s a politician, right?” Makoto asked, but most likely sure of the answer.

Sae tucked a lock of sliver hair behind her ear. “It’s certainly possible that Masayoshi Shido is the mastermind. He is running for the position of prime minister, but… that’s not much to go by. He would have a lot to gain, though. He’s always stood against the Phantom Thieves. His constant stance would boost his popularity after your fall from grace. It would make him seem consistent, trustworthy... wise.”

“Shido, huh?” Sojiro sighed. He removed his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. His head had already been spinning, but now…

“Something wrong, Boss?” Yusuke asked.

“Something about Shido always felt… off. I used to be a government agent.” Sojiro knew he hadn’t told all of them about his life before retirement. He hadn’t even told Futaba everything about her mother’s position. Now though, Sojiro saw no reason to hide what he knew. “Shido used to work with us as the head of a few small departments. He was a terrible man. Lied through his teeth and managed to get rid of anyone in his way. He kept saying he was going to be prime minister one day. No one believed him… Not even me. I think… Now, I think… he might have been the one to call it quits on Wakaba’s research. He’s the reason she’s dead.”

Ryuji took out his phone. “Masayoshi Shido, the man running for prime minister!”

Target found.

“Hell yes!”

“We need a place,” Makoto said, putting Ryuji’s excitement on pause.

Akira had been quiet throughout most of their discussion. When Sojiro glanced back in his direction, he noticed Akira staring off into the air, zoning out. He blinked his eyes back into focus when he noticed a few more pairs of eyes beginning to turn in his direction.

Surprisingly, he seemed to have been listening.

“Uh…” he shook his head and took a moment to think. “The diet building?”

Location found.

“Nice job, man!” Ryuji held out his hand for a high five. Akira kindly gave him one.

“We don’t have much time,” Sae said, growing anxious. “Is there anything else you need?”

“A distortion,” Makoto answered, unwittingly preventing Akira from answering. When Sojiro thought back on their conversation, she’d done that quite a few times. “When are the elections, sis? I’d say we have until then.”

“Almost four weeks, but won’t that be cutting it too close? If we wait too long there will be too many votes cast for Shido. We have to take early voting into account.”

“I don’t think it should matter once we steal Shido’s heart.” Makoto seemed confident. Akira shrank back in his seat. Ryuji seemed to notice.

Makoto simply continued. She hadn’t seen a thing. “Shido will confess his crimes. It won’t matter if he’s prime minister after that.”

“I suppose.”

“We have time.” Sojiro grabbed the remote and unmuted the television. A soccer game was on. Perfect; he needed some background noise. Akira looked like he needed a break. The moping wasn’t a good look on him. “Let’s take a break. Clear our heads. I know I certainly need one. You guys can come up with whatever the distortion is later. Who wants coffee?”

The smell of freshly brewed coffee was a relief and the mingling of freshly made hot chocolate wasn’t half bad. Sojiro decided he’d let them hold their meetings in Leblanc from then on and told them so. Akira couldn’t leave and it wouldn’t help if people could hear them from the attic.

Quiet fell over the café as everyone sipped their drinks and lazily watched the sports channels Sojiro continued to switch between when he got bored. Sojiro noticed Ryuji watching Akira over the manga he’d gotten from Futaba. He hadn’t been reading it. He’d been looking at the same page for a few minutes. Ryuji rocked precariously back and forth in his chair. He’d fall if he wasn’t careful, but Akira was clearly his priority.

“Ryuji-” he’d began when he noticed the chair tip a little too far.

“This is bullshit!” Ryuji shoved himself up from his chair and threw his book to the ground.

“Ryuji!” Ann immediately chastised him, but Ryuji didn’t listen.

“I’m sick of pretending you’re fine!” He jabbed an accusatory finger in Akira’s direction. Akira leaned away and blinked, confused and caught off guard.

“Ryuji, please,” Makoto cut in, “Leave him alone. This isn’t the time or place to-”

“NO!” Ryuji cried and aggressively stepped forward. As hostile as he looked, his touch was surprisingly gentle as he swiped his fingers over Akira’s cheek. He pulled back and presented his concealer covered fingers to the room. “’Eff this shit! You’re not gonna lie to me, man. You can lie to everyone else, but you’re not gonna lie to me! What the hell happened!?”

“Please, don’t fight,” Haru’s quiet voice attempted to break through the shouting, but she was left ignored.

Akira pushed himself to his feet, hiding a grimace behind a sour expression. “I’m fine! Everything happened according to plan!”

“I don’t give a shit!” Ryuji threw his arms up. “I don’t care about the plan! I care about the fact that you think you have to hide whatever they did to you from me! Long sleeves can’t hide the bandages on your hands, dude! You’re sitting weird and you can’t walk right! You think I wouldn’t notice that your leg bothers you?!”

“Shut up!” Akira screamed back, posturing just as aggressively as Ryuji had. He was angry, irritated by being accosted by his best friend.

“Don’t tell me to shut up! It’s not fair!” Ryuji stamped his foot. A childish reaction from an angry child. Akira took a step back, seemingly forgetting the booth was behind him. The back of his knees hit the seat, but he caught himself on the back of it; wincing hard at the pain he’d caused himself.

“Fuck off,” Akira hissed.

Ryuji opened his mouth to say something else possibly even more accusatory before Ann stopped him. She pulled him back and turned him to face her. “What is your problem?” Ann growled and gripped his arm a little tighter.

“You’re the one who said he was wearing makeup!” Ryuji shot back.

“I shouldn’t have told you then.” Ann glared up at him, “I didn’t expect you to attack him!”

“I didn’t attack him!” Ryuji’s voice cracked. He didn’t at all seem pleased by that particular accusation.

“Then what do you call that?” Ann pointed toward Akira.

“Shut up! You don’t know anything! I don’t want him to lie to me! I’m his b-…” Ryuji stopped himself short, blinking back tears. His eyes kept their glossy sheen.

“I don’t care if he’s your boyfriend!” Ann shouted, “We’re all his friends and we all can control our tempers!”

“But we all know he’s hurt!” Ryuji screamed and kicked the chair he’d originally been sitting in. Ann caught it just before it toppled over and slammed onto the floor. Ryuji seemed to immediately recognize the mistake he’d made; wide, apologetic eyes flickering back and forth between Sojiro and Ann. The room grew still. So, that was Ryuji’s temper at work. Sojiro had never seen it before.

Akira forced himself to right his position and stand at full height again. He refused Yusuke’s help and glared down at the floor. He clenched and unclutched his fists and swallowed down whatever he’d been about to say. Akira braced himself and asked, “You all know?”

No one spoke for a few tense seconds. Akira tried again, “You know, don’t you?”

“We didn’t think you wanted us to know, so we didn’t say anything,” Makoto said first.

“He asked me to,” Futaba admitted, wringing her hands.

“Is it as bad as we think?” Haru asked, her quiet voice finally heard in the tense silence.

Another long pause passed and Akira began to shake. Ryuji reached out for him, but Akira stepped aside and hasty stalked to the bathroom. He slammed the door behind him. A second later, the water turned on.

“I didn’t mean to,” Ryuji muttered. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, unable to find a comfortable way to stand.

“Yeah, you never do,” Ann harshly accused.

“Ann, perhaps that’s not fair,” Yusuke attempted to reason with her. Ann’s anger, as justified as it might have seemed in the moment, disappeared after getting a good look at Ryuji’s face. She tugged at her blond curls and sighed.

“I’m sorry… You should still apologize to him, though,” she said.

Ryuji nodded, “Yeah.”

The water stopped running after a few minutes. Sojiro glanced up and caught Sae’s disconcerted smile. He smiled back, unsure what to say. Akira pushed the bathroom door open and stepped out, his bangs soaking wet and face free of the concealer Futaba had smeared over it.

No one said anything as Akira trudged back into the café covered in bruises and cuts. He stood in front of the opening to the bathroom and the stairs. He refused to look at them, his gaze flickering from the walls to the floor, landing anywhere they weren’t. He sniffled and used his sleeve to wipe his nose.

They all just stared and said nothing.

Akira, probably dissatisfied by his friends’ silence, shakily said, “So, yeah, I lied. I lied, because I’m the leader! I can’t get hurt. I can’t be weak. I didn’t want you to see it… because I knew you’d all freak out. I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, but I don’t! I don’t think I know anything! Makoto acts more like a leader than I do! I’m supposed to be strong, but I’m not! I’m supposed to be smart, but I don’t even come up with half of our plans! I fucking cried when they were interrogating me! I cried and I was so high on whatever they gave me that I couldn’t even remember why I was there!” Akira trembled as he forced his thoughts out into the open. His friends didn’t look like they had expected his outburst. Sojiro certainly hadn’t.

“You all look at me like I can fix everything! But, what if I can’t!? Everyone keeps saying I’m special, but what if I’m not?! I just… I just don’t want you to think… I just…” A sob escaped Akira’s throat. He wiped away the tears streaking down his face, frantically trying to breathe and stop crying. “I just wanna stop pretending… I wanna stop acting like I’m not scared.”

Ryuji was the first to move and pulled Akira into a bone crushing hug. He rubbed his face against Akira’s shoulder, wiping away his own tears before Akira could see them. “I’m sorry,” was all Ryuji managed to say.

Sojiro stepped around the counter and pat Akira’s back. Akira seemed to melt into Ryuji’s arms.

“I’m tired,” Akira whimpered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m just really tired.”

Sojiro tapped Ryuji on the shoulder and gained his attention. “Why don’t you take him upstairs?” He motioned toward the staircase.

“Uh, okay.” Ryuji nodded and led Akira up to the attic.

The returning silence was punctuated with awkward shuffling and the not very subtle clearing of throats. Sojiro sighed and turned around to face the guilty looks of the remaining teenagers in the room. Sae looked on in uneasy confusion.

“Well…” Sojiro clapped his hands together once and stepped away. That had gone well… whatever that was.

“I wasn’t trying to…” Makoto stepped closer to her sister, searching for comfort, “I hadn’t wanted to be the leader. Akira’s a great leader. I just thought… Wasn’t I appointed strategist? I thought he liked my plans. I didn’t think he was just… listening to me.”

“He likes to do that.” Yusuke brushed his bangs away from his eyes and frowned, “He likes to listen to everyone’s suggestions and make decisions based on what he thinks. I suppose your… demeanor accidentally exploited that and made him think you were encroaching on his position.”

“I didn’t want to do that, though!”

Yusuke nodded, surprised by Makoto shouting, “I understand that. I apologize if my comment made you think I thought differently.

“We didn’t even notice,” Haru hugged her coat tighter around herself. She dug at the fluffy lining with manicured nails.

“It’s not your fault,” Ann promised her, sitting down beside her. “If anything, it’s ours. I’ve known Akira since the beginning and I didn’t notice a change.”

“He’s…” Futaba began, “A lot different in the metaverse. He doesn’t like to talk, no matter which dimension he’s in, but when he becomes Joker he barks orders, gets cocky, talks back to shadows. He’s so brave. He’s really brave here too, but…”

“He’s not Joker in real world,” Ann finished for her.

Morgana meowed quite a bit and the kids nodded along.

“What’d he say?” he asked, unhappy to be left out of the loop.

“People behave differently in the Metaverse,” Makoto repeated back to him, “because we’ve accepted ourselves and have a closer connection to our Personas. We’re free to be the people we want to be, but only a portion of that carries over to the real world. We feel free, but we have to actually work to change ourselves.”

“We wear our masks and we think we are indestructible. We shed our masks in our real lives so that we may use them there. Akira was the first of us to do so.” Yusuke crossed his arms over his chest. His hair fell into his eyes and he made no move to fix it.

Ann nodded, “I didn’t see it, but Ryuji did. He said it was the craziest thing he had ever since. Akira’s whole body caught fire and Arsene just burst out of him… It’s us. He’s pretending around us. My outfit, my persona… Everything is supposed to be my version of empowerment. That’s what Joker is for Akira, but… I still get scared. I didn’t just magically become more confident in the real world because I can whip shadows in the metaverse. I just accepted myself and pointed my rage toward fixing my problems. Akira didn’t become Joker in the real world the same way I didn’t become Panther or Ryuji didn’t become Skull. Why didn’t we see that?”

“We put him on a pedestal,” Yusuke agreed. Futaba brought her knees up to her chest and crouched in her seat.

“Is that bad?” Haru asked, looking around the room at her friends. “He’s amazing. He’s funny and he’s kind. He’s quiet, but when he speaks he always knows what to say. Is it wrong to think he’s special?”

“Perhaps not,” Sae said and turned toward Makoto like what she was about to say hit a little too close to home. An unspoken apology was hidden in her words, “but when you have high expectations for a person, they tend to crack under the pressure.”

“We should go and apologize,” Haru said and resolutely rose to her feet.

“Give him a few minutes,” Sojiro said and stopped her. “He needs some time to cool down.”

He didn’t want all of them barging upstairs to find Akira just as upset as when he’d left. Akira had Ryuji to talk to. It might be helpful to wait for Ryuji to come back down and let them know the situation.

However, Sojiro refilled a few drinks and Ryuji still hadn’t come down. It took thirty minutes before he finally took it upon himself to check on them.

When Sojiro finished climbing the attic stairs, he found Akira and Ryuji resting on Akira’s bed. Akira was asleep, his face pressed into Ryuji’s chest. His face was blotchy and red. Akira must have cried himself to sleep.

Ryuji pulled his arms away from Akira’s back when he saw Sojiro enter the room. He tried to sit up from the wall he’d leaned back on and move Akira without waking him up. Akira’s weight didn’t give him much of chance to move before Sojro told him to stay put.

“Was he feeling any better?” he asked, stopping to stand near the bed.

Ryuji nodded, “Yeah, I guess. I mean. He cried. We talked.” He hugged Akira closer. Akira mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep.

“You got pretty angry down there.” Sojiro hated the guilty look on Ryuji’s face, but he thought Ryuji’s outburst needed to be addressed. He hadn’t come back down and Sojiro was worried he was too ashamed to face them at all.

“…I’m sorry.”

“I accept your apology.”

Ryuji looked up at him, his brow furrowed and eyes glossy. “…I’m just like my dad.”

“You’re not,” Sojiro quickly corrected him. “It’s okay to get angry. You’ve got some work to do, but you took it out on the furniture rather than a person. That’s the first time I’ve seen you get like that too and it was because you were worried about him.”

“…Sorry about your chair.”

Sojiro smiled. “I don’t care about the chair.”

“I didn’t want to upset him.” Ryuji watched Akira’s back rise and fall as he breathed. “I didn’t want him to think he had to lie to me. I really… I…”

“Do you love him?”

“What?”

“You know what I mean.” Sojiro thought Ryuji did. Teenage romance was a flighty beast. Kids broke up over frivolous things and usually found someone new just as quickly. High school sweethearts rarely lasted and, even now, Sojiro wouldn’t be surprised if neither Akira and Ryuji nor Futaba and Yusuke made it past high school as a couple. There was something there, though; something that looked like love.

“…I… I guess I do,” Ryuji rubbed slow circles into Akira’s back, “He hasn’t said anything like that, though. So, I haven’t said it.”

“You want him to say it first?”

“Yeah… I don’t wanna make myself look like an idiot.”

“You won’t,” Sojiro smirked. “I can promise you that.”

“He’ll laugh at me.”

“You know he wouldn’t do that.”

Ryuji shrugged. He smiled back all the same.

“He’ll appreciate hearing it.” Sojiro left for the stairs, but before he took the first step down he turned back and asked, “How long are you planning on staying?”

“Oh, uh… just ‘till he wakes up.”

“I’ll let the others know he’s asleep.”

Back downstairs, everyone had crowded around the entrance to the staircase.

“Does he want to see us?” Ann asked. “Ryuji’s still up there, right?”

“He fell asleep,” Sojiro explained and motioned them away from the stairs. “Let him sleep.”

“He cried himself out, hmm?” Sae asked with a soft smile.

“We still need to discuss what to do about Shido… We need to sort ourselves out, too.” Makoto frowned and her nose scrunched as she thought about what to do. “I suppose we could meet up tomorrow… Ugh, wait, I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

“It’s alright. We need someone to guide us when Akira isn’t here,” Haru said and rest a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Right, but… that’s part of the problem.”

“Well, Ryuji’s technically his righthand man,” Yusuke offered.

“Sure, but when has Akira ever put him in charge?” Futaba asked.

“Come back tomorrow and you guys can talk,” Sojiro said, sliding himself into the place of leadership. “Don’t worry so much.”

The kids left together with Sae not far behind. She offered them all a ride home to save them the money. Futaba was the only one left after giving Yusuke a quick and nervous peck goodbye when she thought Sojiro wasn’t looking. She picked up her friends’ forgotten cups and trash.

Sojiro thanked her and stepped aside to let her clean. He glanced toward the staircase and decided it was about time he called Akira’s parents. They didn’t answer.

Chapter Text

“You weren’t fine, were you?” It wasn’t a great way to start the conversation, but Akira’s long silence later that evening had gotten out of hand.

Akira’s hand clasped Ryuji’s under the counter as they sat together, refusing to let the boy leave ever since he’d woken up a few hours ago. Akira didn’t answer Sojiro’s question. Instead, he stared down at the coffee Sojiro had placed in front of him.

“Akira?”

He looked up at him over the rim of his glasses. “I’m sorry. I don’t get why I still feel so terrible.”

“It’s barely been two days.” Sojiro couldn’t understand why Akira thought he had to push himself so far. Anyone else would have used his condition to rest and be coddled. He knew that Shido’s involvement and their knowledge of a portion of the man’s plans had forced them into a corner. They needed to stop him, but they had time. “Cut yourself some slack.”

“We don’t have time for that! We have to find Shido’s distortion and… My head really hurts.”

Sojiro sighed and crossed his arms. The kid was going to get himself killed at the rate he was trying to go. Akira rested his chin on his free hand and closed his eyes.

“How about an early dinner?”

Futaba perked up at the suggestion, “Ooh.”

“I should get going then,” Ryuji said and tried to remove his hand from Akira’s. He struggled and sent Akira a curious look. Apparently, Akira’s hand wouldn’t let go. “Come on, man.”

“You can stay if you want,” Sojiro said. Why not just have the kid stay for dinner if Akira wanted him around.

“Uh,” Ryuji let Akira continue to hold his hand, “Sounds good.”

“So,” Sojiro grabbed his keys, “What do you guys want?”

“Curry!” Futaba exclaimed. She carried her laptop over to set it on the counter and sat behind it.

“Really?” Sojiro shook his head and turned to the boys, “What about you guys?”

“Curry?” Akira asked.

“You too?”

“Curry sounds great,” Ryuji’s vote tipped the scale. Sojiro dropped his keys back onto the counter and walked back toward the stove. He’d need to cook a bit more rice.

“Alright, curry it is, then.”

“Honestly,” Futaba’s grinned up at him, “Your curry is by far the best thing we’ve ever eaten. You should just assume that’s what we want to eat.”

Sojiro laughed, “I guess, but I thought you kids would get sick of curry by now.”

“Never gonna happen.”

Dinner was surprisingly calm and easy to get through. Futaba occupied most of the conversation, while Ryuji and Akira huddled close together. They whispered to each other and Sojiro tried not to listen in.

Akira walked Ryuji to the train after dinner. When he returned, he slipped past both him and Futaba in favor of the stairs.

“What do you need up there?” Sojiro asked. “Let’s head back.”

“I want to sleep in my room.”

“You want to go back to the attic?” Sojiro didn’t understand him, but Morgana seemed to share Akira’s opinion. He waited on the steps for him, quietly watching.

“I’ve been sleeping in your bed. I thought you’d want it back?” He suggestion came out as a question, as though he were asking permission.

“I’m fine with the couch.” He wasn’t really. The lack of support the cushions gave left his back in knots, but he’d put up with it a little bit longer for Akira's sake.

“But it must be bothering you.”

“You need a real bed. You’re still hurt.”

“The attic has a bed.”

“The attic has a bed frame with two futons in it. It’s not a bed.”

Akira took another step up the stairs despite Sojiro’s protests.

“It’s not that late,” Sojiro tried to reason, “You don’t have to go hide in your room.”

“I… want to be alone.” Pleading slipped into Akira’s voice and Sojiro stopped trying to tell him no.

-

The next day, the team came back to Leblanc straight from school. They huddled around one booth, beginning to glare at their phones the longer they went without a hit. Sojiro wasn’t sure how they went about finding keywords for Palaces, but from his seat near the counter, it seemed like they just tried random words until something happened. It was a respectable strategy.

“Uh… castle?” Yusuke tried.

No match found.

“School? Maybe, university?” Haru asked, a shot in the dark.

No match found.

“Oh, come on!” Ryuji slid down his seat until his shoulders sank below the table top.

“Prison?” Ann tried, not entirely sounding convinced by her idea.

No match found.

The entire group groaned.

There had been no mention of Akira’s outburst from the day before. The urgent feeling brought about by the continued lack of information kept them distracted.

“This just isn’t working,” Futaba groaned and dropped her forehead down onto the tabletop.

Eventually, Akira opened his mouth to speak, “We should go to the diet building.”

“You think that’ll help?” Ryuji asked, still practically sliding out of his seat.

“It definitely could work in our favor,” Makoto agreed, “It might give us some insight into what Shido might be thinking. That’s the idea, right, Akira?” Her hesitant smile wasn’t commented on.

“Are you kids sure about that?” Sojiro asked. “What if the police see you?

“We’ll be fine,” Akira said and stood up. He rushed up the stairs and returned with his hoodie half pulled over his shoulders. He reached the base of the staircase and tossed the hood up over his head. “Ready. Let’s go.”

“Good disguise.” Sojiro’s sarcasm was surprisingly appreciated.

Akira smiled back, “It’s like I’m a completely different person.”

When Akira and Futaba returned home a few hours later, disheartened and unwilling to talk, Sojiro sat plates down in front of them and they begrudgingly ate their dinner.

-

When Sojiro opened Leblanc the next day, he didn’t expect another day of Phantom Thief meetings, especially after their failed attempts the day before. He didn’t expect them to give up yet, but school was still important and Akira still looked worse for wear. A few days of doing absolutely nothing wouldn’t kill him. However, he had assumed Akira would come down for breakfast. He didn’t and when Sojiro’s lunch break had long since passed, Sojiro grew worried.

He didn't hear Akira shuffle his feet around the attic like he normally did on weekends. It made Sojiro wonder if Akira was even in the café at all.

Thankfully, he was.

Akira lay in bed, curled up with Morgana tucked under his arm. The cat’s ears perked up when Sojiro entered, but Akira didn’t react in the slightest. Sojiro stepped inside with heavy footsteps, hoping to wake Akira. However, he probably shouldn’t have bothered. Akira was already awake.

“Sorry,” Akira muttered into his pillow, “Was I supposed to work today?”

“No.” Sojiro shook his head and watched as Akira pulled Morgana closer and scratched him behind the ear. He hadn't asked Akira to work in the cafe for weeks. “…You planning on doing anything today?”

“…Not really.”

“You want to see your friends?”

“No.”

“You want to come get some lunch?”

“No.”

“You want to… go for a walk with me?”

“No.”

“Do you even want to get up at all?”

“…No.”

“Well…” Sojiro shuffled forward and heavily sat down on the old couch in Akira’s room. It creaked disagreeably under his weight as he sagged into it. “Why don’t you talk to me? Haven’t had a real conversation with you in a while.”

Akira didn’t move for a few quiet moments before he slowly sat up and brought Morgana with him. He set the visibly annoyed cat into his lap and stroked his back. “Sure, why not,” he muttered, more of a statement than a question.

“Finally taking it easy?”

Akira shrugged, “I guess. You were right. I was tired.”

Sojiro was skeptical. “Are you sure it’s not because things aren’t going your way?”

Akira sagged in response to Sojiro’s concern. Morgana meowed, eyes locking with Sojiro’s. He must have been addressing him.

“What’d he say?”

Akira sighed and pat Morgana on the head. “…He said that you’re right.”

“Did you talk with your friends about what happened the other day?”

Akira shook his head, seemingly ashamed of himself.

“Did they mention it?”

He shook his head again.

“You should say something. You need to clear the air. Your team can’t fall apart now just because you kids won’t talk to each other.”

Akira didn’t respond, hopefully allowing Sojiro’s words to sink in. Morgana meowed again, rolling over to look up at Akira and get his chin scratched at the same time. “You’re one to talk after what you pulled with Ryuji,” Akira murmured.

Morgana hissed.

Akira rolled his eyes. His hand dodged Morgana’s harmless swipe. “You were being petty and you know it.”

“What’d the cat do?”

Morgana’s piercing and unhappy gaze turned back to him. Akira smiled ever so slightly and resumed petting Morgana’s side. “He ran away after he picked a fight with Ryuji. It’s… a lot to explain.”

Sojiro laughed, “Okay, fair enough. But seriously, let’s just talk. No… thieves stuff. No mentioning fights. Anything you want to talk about. I want to talk to you.”

Akira blinked back at him, a frown returning to his face. He glanced away and then back up, almost searching the room for something to talk about. It was as if he couldn’t think of anything to say beyond the goings-on of the Phantom Thieves.

“Anything?” Sojiro tried again. Akira opened his mouth and then closed it. He scrunched his nose as he racked his brain for something, anything, to say.

“What about…?” Sojiro couldn’t talk about school. Akira wouldn’t be going back for almost a month. That fairly mundane idea had to be scrapped. When had talking to Akira become so difficult again? Futaba forced her way into conversations with him now that she was back to her old self. Her and Akira seemed to have suddenly switched places in regard to the ease Sojiro felt when trying to get them to speak. It had been a slow transition, Akira becoming easier while Futaba became more difficult, but then there was Futaba’s quick change after her Change of Heart. After Akira had nearly gotten himself killed, he’d slowly closed himself off. If the timing of his outburst was anything to go by, they’d been on the verge of seeing this behavior for a while.

Sojiro racked his brain for a topic. Crane game stuffed animals sat together on a few shelves, while others sat on the floor, kicked off Akira’s bed. A poster of some brow-haired idol sat on the wall. A bit of graffiti covered it now; a twirling mustache adorned her upper lip. Idols bored Akira, Sojiro assumed. Akira had stuck glow in the dark stars to the rafters. Sojiro would have to peel them down when he left. The game system nearby was out of the question. Sojiro had never really been fond of video games. Finally, Sojiro’s eye caught a baseball forgotten in the corner of the room. Akira liked baseball. “How’s that swing coming along?”

“Uh…?”

Sojiro could practically see the cogs sticking in Akira’s tired brain.

“The batting cages. You’ve been going, right? Or…” Sojiro felt stupid thinking back on it. “Was that just a lie to stop me from asking you where you were while you fought monsters?” Whelp, he’d slipped right back into Phantom Thief business. Did Akira even like baseball? Were any of the small things Sojiro thought he knew about Akira true?

“Sort of?” Akira admitted reluctantly, “It wasn’t all the time, though. I went whenever I could. Helped clear my mind.”

“Then why don’t we go?”

“I don’t-”

“I know you said you didn’t want to go anywhere, but… it’ll help clear your mind, right?”

After a moment of thought, Akira nodded, “Sure. Just let me get dressed.”

After Akira had gone out the first time to see if simply being near the Diet Building would spur some sort of inspiration for a keyword, Sojiro felt a little more at ease letting Akira walk around outside. It helped that he was tagging along. The man at the counter looked up from his magazine as the two of them walked in. He frowned at the bruises adorning Akira’s face. The hood couldn’t hide how badly beaten Akira looked and Sojiro wouldn’t let him rush off to the house to force Futaba to give up her makeup again.

“What happened to you, Kurusu?”

So, Akira really did come here a lot.

Akira shrugged. Sojiro decided to speak for him. He’d come up with something before they left. The neighborhood wasn’t close, but word got around and the neighbors and Sojiro’s regulars liked Akira well enough. His appearance wouldn’t go unnoticed. “He had a run in with a group of bullies at his school. You’d be surprised how violent kids can get just because of a few rumors.”

It was a good lie. Sojiro planned to keep using it. It was good to keep their stories straight. The school wouldn’t see Akira because he was home for a family emergency and the neighborhood would see more of him because Sojiro pulled him out to keep him safe.

“Jeez, kids can be brutal these days.” The man took Akira’s membership card and swiped it, verifying his monthly subscription was still valid. “He get in any trouble?”

“No, thankfully,” Sojiro continued, the words flowed as if they’d been the truth, “They threatened suspension, but he didn’t fight back, so they didn’t try it. I’d have been furious if they had. I’m taking him out of school for a bit, though. Thought I’d bring him by to let off some steam.”

“Anything happen to those kids?” He looked over Akira’s face again. “You’d think these high schools would give up their no tolerance policies after things like this.”

“No,” Akira said before Sojiro could, effortlessly playing along, “Everyone always thinks it’s my fault.”

“Sorry to hear that.” He unlocked the door to the batting cages for them and waved them along.

They were the only ones occupying the batting cages on a chilly Tuesday morning. Sojiro stayed behind the ceiling high fencing, Akira’s bag with Morgana resting inside at his feet. He remembered Akira telling him he’d never been the best batter, that he'd even consider his batting average bad. Sojiro didn’t have enough knowledge of baseball to definitively say if that was still true.

After a few stiff swings, sending baseballs flying in strange directions, Akira held his bat out in front of him, an end of the bat in each hand. The last ball bounced off the side of the bat and rolled across the floor. He sighed and took a step back. The pitching machine lobbing baseballs in Akira general direction from across the room shut off with a soft clunk as it reacted to losing its final baseball.

“You alright?” Sojiro asked.

Akira turned to look back at him. “Yeah…” He rolled his shoulder and winced. “My shoulders are really stiff. I should have stretched.”

Akira started the machine up again and waited for the next baseball to be fired his way. Another round finished and only a few baseballs missed. Sojiro thought he was doing well, but the glare Akira sent the machine told him otherwise. He grabbed for a baseball from behind him and lobbed it at the pitching machine. It thunked against the metal casing and Sojiro momentarily wondered if he should scold him for that. That aside, Akira apparently was a much better pitcher.

The more Sojiro stood watching, the more he felt like he barely knew Akira. He’d lived with him for almost a year and all he knew was that Akira liked baseball, he came from the countryside and couldn’t kick his accent, was a straight A student, and a Phantom Thief. It wasn’t much and anything he’d thought he’d learned could easily have been a cover for his thief work. Even now, Sojiro noticed Akira’s grades slipping. He wanted to ask something, anything. So, he did. “You have any plans for after high school?”

Akira frowned. The baseball he’d been trying to hit whiffed passed his swing. He scowled, braced himself, and swung at the next one a little harder than he needed to. “I don’t know. My mom planned for me to go to medical school, but I ruined my chances with that.”

“Did you want to go to medical school?”

“No, not really.” Akira hit the last ball of the machine’s round with another hard swing and stepped away from the plate. “Never really liked all the medical stuff.”

“So, what did you want to be?”

Akira shrugged. “Never really thought about it.”

“I’m sure you had something in mind.”

Akira hummed to himself and leaned against the fencing. It felt strange talking to him through the chain-link. “I guess… I really liked politics.”

“Politics? Really?” Sojiro raised a questioning eyebrow. Akira’s admission of his past ambitions took him by surprise. Sojiro had never once thought of politics as the goal of kind individuals.

“I really liked the idea of being a representative, you know? I ran for student council treasurer in middle school; not even president, but I lost pretty badly. It’s just a popularity contest.”

“So is real politics.”

Akira laughed, “Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t try to run for anything last year. It didn’t matter. I liked the debate club, though. Mom thought it’d be a nice second extracurricular, so dad didn’t have to convince her to let me do it like he did with baseball. I still tried to be popular back home, too. Everyone just said I was a show-off, though.”

“I’m sure you can try again once you get back home.”

Akira smiled disappeared. “No… My town… It’s really small. Word gets around fast and after I was arrested, no one would talk to me. I’m pretty sure they all still hate me. Besides, I don’t want to run for student council. I couldn’t even ask to join the clubs here.”

“Makoto couldn’t even get you in?” Sojiro would have thought being friends with the student council president would have been an easy way to cheat the system and worm his way into a council position. It wasn't as if the subordinate positions were voted in, anyway.

“I didn’t ask her to. Besides, I decided I didn’t want it anymore back when I still thought I hated her.”

“When was this?”

“Back when Principal Kobayakawa was around, he had her look for the signs of the Phantom Thieves at school. She’s actually really good at detective work… or maybe we were too obvious. She pretty much guessed it was me right off the bat and stalked me for about a week to ‘gain intel’.”

“So… when she asked for your number a few months back…?”

“Oh, she’d already talked to us by then. She wanted to apologize and that’s when we started becoming friends.”

“Oh, okay,” Sojiro nodded, thankful he hadn’t given Akira’s number away to a stranger at the worst possible time. Looking back on it now, Sojiro couldn't fathom how he managed to assume the two of them were interested in each other. "You don't hate her now, do you?"

Akira immediately shook his head, surprised. "No, of course not! I just... She's upset, isn't she? I was just overthinking things... I didn't..."

Sojiro silently berated himself when he realized where he'd forced the conversation. He needed to change the topic. "Anyway… Is there anything that would spark your interest in politics again?”

Akira stared, searching Sojiro's face for something. He knew what Sojiro was trying to do. Sojiro hoped Akira would take the bait.

“Actually… I mean, I’m still just thinking about it, but… I know a politician. He’s really good at giving me advice. He sort of helped me see what the political world is like and it's really interesting… and awful. I keep thinking that they need a few good people to try and turn things around, but my record is just gonna mess me up no matter what I do.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you managed to be elected prime minister when you’re older.” Sojiro was joking, but he couldn’t hold back the sincerity in his voice. Something about Akira made him think that the kid could do whatever he wanted if he just stopped holding himself back.

Akira sheepishly smiled and said, “Thanks. Maybe I'll make that my new goal. His name's Yoshida, by the way.”

“...Toranosuke Yoshida?” No-Good Tora? That was the man advising Akira in the political world?

“Yeah.”

Sojiro frowned. “He embezzled taxpayers’ money.”

“But he didn’t! He’s great, I promise!”

“Okay! Okay,” Sojiro quickly surrendered. Sojiro didn’t know him personally. He didn’t know how Akira knew him, but either way, Sojiro could relent and understand that he might know better. “It’s fine. At this point, anyone is better than Shido in my book.”

Akira adjusted the baseball bat in his hand and rolled his shoulders again. He didn’t seem like he was in pain, just stiff and out of practice. Maybe, Akira actually was feeling better.

“You want to start up the machine again or are you ready to head back?”

Akira looked back at the machine and baseballs scattered around on the floor. “Uh…” his smiled grew wider as he made a decision, “Let’s go again.”

-

The next afternoon, Akira called another meeting. Sojiro refrained from telling him to wait. The kid had been antsy the entire day. If calling a meeting would calm him down, Sojiro wouldn’t object. The meeting began once school ended. Ryuji and Ann dropped off the homework Akira had missed. Sojiro was surprised by how much there was for only a few days. “Ms. Kawakami said it shouldn’t be too hard. You have to read the chapters, though,” Ann explained. “She told the class that you were absent because of a family emergency.”

“Seriously?” Ryuji asked, "People in Ms. Chouno’s class won’t stop talking about it. Some of them said your mom was dying.”

Akira laughed, surprised, “Whoa, what? Where’d they get that from?”

Sojiro grimaced, “I had to tell the school something. I just said she was sick, not that she was dying.”

Akira sent a curious look his way. “It’s so obviously a lie, though. You couldn’t have just said I was sick?”

Sojiro shrugged. He’d known the excuse was flimsy, but it was the only one he had. “I’ll admit it. I panicked.”

Akira smiled and shook his head, “How’d people hear that, anyway?”

“I heard from one of the student assistants in the attendance office,” Makoto said, “that they overheard the faculty talking about it.”

“Some people are starting to feel bad for you, though.” Ryuji smiled and threw his arm around Akira’s shoulder, “So, that’s cool. One guy tried to say you probably poisoned her or something and a bunch of girls told him off in the middle of lunch. It was crazy!”

“Getting sympathy is always a good sign,” Akira agreed.

The meeting was slow getting started. Snacks were devoured and nonsense was discussed. Futaba scrolled through her phone next to Akira. The two of them checked the words they had already entered so that they wouldn’t begin to repeat themselves. There was no discussion of what Akira had said or any attempts at their collective apology. The entire group almost seemed to be methodically avoiding the events of their last few meetings. Perhaps, Sojiro barring them from the attic the day it happened allowed them time to second guess themselves. If they pretended it didn't happen, then perhaps the pain it uncovered would all go away.

“We’ve got nothing,” Ryuji grumbled.

“We’d have better luck just asking Shido what his distortion is,” Akira complained.

The group grew quiet again. Empty snack packages rustled as they pushed them toward the center of the table. No one said anything.

A moment later, Akira sighed. “Can I say something?”

His friends’ rather vocal reassurances were almost instantaneous. He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Akira pushed his glasses up his nose and closed his eyes, perhaps to steal his nerves. “I… I know I said it before, but I’m sorry. I really am. I didn’t want you guys to see that and I…”

“Whoa, wait,” Ryuji interrupted, “Dude, what are you apologizing for?”

“Akira, you don’t have to apologize,” Haru reached out for his hand and laid hers on the back of his. “You don’t have to be worried about what we think. You’re our friend before anything else.”

Makoto reluctantly began to speak next. “Akira, I wanted to say I’m sorry as well.”

Akira frowned, “For what?”

“For…” Makoto sighed, “For making it seem like I wanted to take over the team. That was never something I wanted.”

Akira shook his head, “No, I didn’t think you were. I thought…” He furrowed his brow and let his gaze fall to the hand holding his over the table, “I guess I just… thought you’d make a better leader.”

“I wouldn’t,” Makoto said definitively, “I never wanted to be the leader. Can you forgive me?”

“I don't need to. You didn't…” Akira laughed pathetically, “I’ve been so annoying.”

Ann immediately countered with, “You’re not annoying us. We understand that you’re scared. We’re scared too! We just need to stop thinking that we'll judge each other for how we’re feeling.”

“I’m sorry too,” Ryuji mumbled, casting his gaze to the floor, “I was mad… because you were lying to me. It scared me, I guess.”

“I think we’re all sorry,” Yusuke chuckled weakly.

"Yeah," Futaba chimed in, matching his hesitant smile, "We all sort of messed this up."

"I'll try to behave more like a team member rather than a leader," Makoto continued, "I understand that it's not my place. I'm... just used to it from the student council. I... I'm sorry, that was just an excuse..."

"No, please don't feel that way." Akira met her gaze again, concern etched in his features. Makoto's attempted reassurances only seemed to cause Akira more distress. "I was just being jealous. It was stupid. You're Queen, after all. You're our strategist. Your plans are amazing. I just let myself overthink everything."

"Your feelings aren't stupid," Makoto said firmly, "They're important and we don't want you to hide them from us because we let you think we couldn't handle it."

Yusuke nodded, "Exactly. You listen to our problems. It is only fair that as your friends that we listen to yours as well."

"We want to do that for you," Haru promised, still clasping his hand across the table.

Sojiro couldn't help but add his own thoughts before Akira responded. "We care about you, kid. It hurts more to know that you're in pain and refuse to tell us than to actually hear that somethings wrong."

"That's right," Futaba nudged Akira, leaning against his side. "If we know what's wrong, we can fix it!"

Akira's smile wavered. He removed his glasses to wipe away a few unshed tears. "Thanks, guys... I think... I think I really needed to hear that."

"We mean every word," Ann stressed to him and laid her hand over Haru's to aid in expressing her honesty.

Sojiro couldn’t help but smile along with them. He’d been worried no one would say anything at all and the team would buckle under the pressure when the stress of it all began to pile up. Sojiro had known he shouldn’t have underestimated them but he hadn’t been able to shake the thought. Now, they seemed happy. Still a little weary, but happy. Sojiro didn’t want anything he said or did to disrupt the feeling that enveloped them, so he kept his thoughts to himself. He felt calmer than he had in months.

Unfortunately for them, the tranquil atmosphere burst when campaign music made the walls rattle.

Sojiro frowned at the noise, “What is that? Who in their right mind plays their campaign music so loud?”

“To everyone gather before Yongen-Jaya Station!” a voice called out through a muffled loudspeaker once the music stopped. “I apologize for the commotion! I am Masayoshi Shido!”

“No way!” Ryuji rose from his seat. Haru wasn’t far behind.

“He’s here?” Haru asked and fumbled for her purse.

Akira sent a hesitant look toward the door, as though the voice itself made him sick. “Is that what he sounds like? I’ve heard him… speak…”

“Talk about lucky!” The grin on Ryuji’s face remained, despite Akira’s obvious concern. “We can actually see him in person and ask him stuff! Let’s go!” He was out the door before the others could stand. Haru, ready and willing to follow him, pulled her bag over her shoulder and rushed after him.

“Hey! Wait!” Sojiro shouted after them, but the door slammed behind them before he could get a word out. Sojiro quickly moved to remove his apron and prepared himself to run after them. He didn’t care how many monsters they eradicated in another dimension, it was far too reckless to run head first into their enemy’s presence on a whim. Sojiro didn’t know how fast he’d be or if he’d catch them before they said something incriminating, but he had to try.

Akira stood and bolted before Sojiro could finish stepping around the counter. “Stay here! I’ll get them!”

Alright, that worked too.

Sojiro blocked the door before the others could chase after them. “You heard him,” he said, “You’re all staying here.”

The three of them, or four if he counted Morgana, since the cat had vanished along with Akira, were not gone for long. However, the echoing of Shido’s voice grew softer as time went on until it stopped completely. Various questions ran through Sojiro’s head as he worried. Were they okay? Had Shido seen them? Did he recognize them? Had he recognized Akira? Had the police recognized Akira?

He hated waiting.

When Akira burst back in through Leblanc’s front door, looking pale and distraught, Sojiro flinched, terrified that something had happened. Ryuji and Haru followed close behind, looking just as sickly. “It was him!”

Sojiro frantically tried to see behind them. He wanted to be certain they weren’t running because they’d been followed. He closed the door behind them and ushered them further into the café. “What happened? Did he see you?”

“He was right there!” Ryuji shouted, “We were so close getting something!”

“He’s a terrible, awful man!” Haru cried, her hands balled into fists and shaking.

“Sojiro, it was him! He’s the one that got me arrested and sued my parents!”

“Shido?” Makoto asked, stunned. “Are you sure it was him?”

“Yes.” Akira grabbed the phone he’d forgotten on the table. He pressed the red navigation app on his phone and spoke into it. “A ship!”

Match Found.

Chapter Text

“I’ll call my sister and let her know we’ve found it,” Makoto said and grabbed her phone.

“He uses ship metaphors,” Ann said, finally realizing the connection.

“Should we go in?” Haru asked.

“Now?” Futaba balked.

The group huddled around the phone in Akira’s hand. They frowned at each other, concern etched on their faces. Sojiro would have thought they’d be happier to finally find Shido’s palace.

“I don’t see why not,” Yusuke reluctantly answered. “We have everything we need.”

“Yes, we have it. One second, sis,” Makoto pulled her phone away and covered the receiver with the palm of her hand. Makoto turned back to the group and leaned in to join the huddle. “Akira’s still injured. We should wait-”

“Makoto?” Akira quietly interrupted her.

“Yes?”

He hesitated, almost unwilling to continue. “I want to speak for myself. I don’t want you guys to speak for me anymore.”

“Oh.” Makoto seemed surprised, but her startled expression quickly shifted into a soft, understanding smile. She nodded; firm and resolute. “Yes, leader.”

“I still feel terrible, I’ll admit that, but we don’t have to do much. We should scope out the place, avoid as many fights as we can, and start forming a plan. If the palace is larger than we expect and if we keep waiting until I’m 100 percent, we’ll run out of time.”

“Understood,” the group answered as one.

Sojiro was pleasantly surprised by Akira’s ability to take charge. He’d never gotten the chance witness it before. They had all told him how easily Akira took control when facing off against horrendous monsters in life or death battles, but the most Sojiro had ever witnessed firsthand was Akira quietly listening to the group’s concerns before declaring when it was time to act. Now, Akira seemed to have a plan and a goal to improve his own self-worth. At least, that was what Sojiro hoped he was seeing.

Akira grabbed for Morgana while the others filed toward the door. “I’ll be here,” Sojiro called out to them as they left. Akira and Futaba sent him smiles back in return; a silent promise to return home safely.

-

Sojiro opened Leblanc back up just in time for a few customers to come in for a cup of coffee before their late shifts. However, most of his evening was spent alone with a few cigarettes and the droning of the television. He had purposely avoided the news, knowing full well the rut he’d fall into if he watched their continued coverage and slander of the Phantom Thieves and their deceased leader. The reality shows he’d left on helped to drown out the silence he hadn’t realized was so oppressive until Akira came to live with them.

He had been just about ready to start closing when Akira and Futaba returned.

“You’re back.” Sojiro took a final drag of his cigarette and put it out in the ashtray on the counter. Akira held the door open for Futaba. The two of them looked tired, but not any worse than they’d been a few hours before. Morgana jumped from Akira’s bag and meowed until Akira stepped around the counter and grabbed a can of cat food.

“How’d it go?” Sojiro asked, “You manage to avoid any fights?”

“No, we were attacked pretty much immediately by a couple of guards.” Akira held up his bruised wrists, annoyed. “Our healing abilities still don’t heal real world wounds, not that I thought they would, but...” He reached down and dumped the contents of the can into Morgana’s food bowl.

“Do you think you kids will be alright?”

“Probably,” Futaba said and shrugged, uncertain. “The Palace is a cruise ship! It’d be cool if it wasn’t Shido’s Palace.”

“Does that mean it’s smaller than the usual palaces?” Sojiro had never quite gotten the hang of what the Palaces were meant to look like based on the vague information he was given, but he did understand that they could take quite a bit of time to get through. Sae’s Palace, although they’d been delayed, had taken at least two weeks.

“Honestly, it might be bigger,” Akira said. “Plus, it seems like he has cognitive replicas of the people he knows and works with. We’ll have to talk to them and get recommendation letters allowing us to meet with Shido’s shadow before we can get to the treasure.”

“That seems… needlessly complicated.” Sojiro furrowed his brow. He saw no need for them to interact with people that weren’t even real. Wouldn’t it be easier to just bypass them all and find Shido themselves?

“Shido might have done it himself if our assumptions about his control over his Palace are true.” Akira turned to Morgana who meowed and nodded. Sojiro scratched the back of his neck and groaned. He should have known Shido would do everything he could to make things harder for them. If he had stolen Wakaba’s research, which he must have, then Shido had more information about the metaverse than any of them combined. If he could control his Palace’s defenses, they might be in trouble.

“So, what’s the plan?”

“We know the people we need to find and we have a map, so… we head back in before the weekend?”

Sojiro shrugged. He had resigned himself to having no authority over what they did as Phantom Thieves. “Whatever works for you.”

Akira nodded and waited for Morgana to finish scarfing down his food before he picked him up and followed Futaba up the stairs.

“Dinner in twenty minutes!” Sojiro called up after them.

-

For the next few days, Akira and Futaba left Leblanc to enter Shido’s Palace with the rest of the Thieves. Once again, Sojiro was left behind to silently wonder what they were doing and if they were okay. The weekend took far too long to reach them, but he relished in the thought that everyone was home, safe and sound. That particular Sunday morning was quiet, time seemingly slogging along through invisible muck. He hadn’t been sure what the kids had chosen to do that day until Futaba showed him an old notebook.

She showed him pages of lists with star stickers or simple check marks resting beside them. “Mom would write these for me; like a to-do list.” Futaba had never mentioned these before, but Sojiro had a vague memory of Wakaba telling him about a new disciplinary tactic she was using. It would reward good behavior rather than punish bad behavior, subconsciously training the brain to favor good behavior rather than devise better ways to conceal bad behavior. At the time, he’d laughed. He’d thought kids would always find a way to lie, whether to avoid punishment or just for the thrill.

“Akira’s been helping me complete the one’s mom left me, but…” she flipped toward a mostly empty page, “there’s a new one. It’s in his handwriting.”

Visit your mom?

It was a question, not a command. Akira had given her a way out.

“Yesterday, we were talking about… things and I told him I’d never seen mom’s grave. I think that’s why he added it.”

“I see,” Sojiro took the notebook. He didn’t need a closer look, but he felt the need to hold it in his hands. The two of them had to have been talking about death. Sojiro couldn’t think of any other topic of conversation that could lead to Futaba’s mother.

“Can we… go?” Futaba rung her hands.

“I’d love to take you.” Sojiro had wanted to go for a long time.

-

The drive was short and the walk through the deserted path between gravestones was surprisingly peaceful. The graveyard behind the church had always been so gloomy when Sojiro came alone, but in the chilly morning air, walking alongside Akira and Futaba, it almost felt welcoming.

Wakaba’s grave was exactly where he remembered it. The gravestone itself was small and modest, underwhelming when held up to a woman so extraordinary. Seeing her name carved into the polished stone reminded Sojiro just how much he missed her.

“Do you want to go first?” he asked, nudging the bouquet of lilies Akira had helped them arrange into Futaba’s open palms.

Futaba’s disconcerted look only intensified at Sojiro’s question. She shook her head and stepped back, plucking a single lily from the bunch and holding it close. Sojiro held onto the rest. She gripped Akira’s arms and pressed into his side. Akira sent a guilty smile his way.

Sojiro understood her discomfort. From what he remembered of Wakaba’s funeral, Futaba had been nowhere to be found. She never saw her mother buried. Sojiro stepped up to her grave, deciding it wouldn’t be so bad going first. Futaba and Akira walked away, wordlessly letting him know that they wanted to give him space.

Sojiro kneeled before her grave and smiled. “Hey…” he paused when he realized his words were caught in his throat. Sojiro blinked hard and cleared his throat. He set the lilies down in the dying grass. “I haven’t talked to you in so long. Futaba’s… well, she hasn’t gotten much bigger, but she’s getting older.” He laughed quietly at his own joke. It was dreadful. “She’s gotten herself a boyfriend, if you can believe that. I fought it as long as I could… but you probably would have been just as annoyed with me as she was… Um… Then, there’s Akira. He uh… He’s been living with us for… Oh, what is it now? Seven months? It’s been so long… You know, I was… I was an idiot. The kid shows up and I’m thinking he’s gonna be a handful – and he is, don’t get me wrong – but… he’s nothing like I’d thought he’d be. He’s a good kid; he really is. He helped… He saved Futaba… and helped me realize that I’m the biggest hypocrite I’ve ever known.”

Sojiro’s wobblily smile fell from his lips as he continued. “We’re in deep shit. It’s not Akira’s fault… or at least, I don’t want to say it is. Kid’s got a good head on his shoulders, but… he’s too in over his head. He almost got himself killed by going through with some elaborate scheme his friends cooked up and now… Shido’s forced us into a corner... I know what he did to you. I know it had to have been him. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you sooner. We’ll stop him. I’ll keep Futaba safe. I’ll keep them all safe.”

Sojiro rose from his knees and groaned at how the joints cracked. He stepped back as Futaba came forward. He let her take his place in front of Wakaba’s grave. Akira had wandered back a bit farther than where Sojiro remembered him being. He kept his hands shoved into his jacket pockets to keep them hidden from the chill and occupied himself with admiring the fancier gravestones. Sojiro left Futaba behind to allow her some privacy and interrupted Akira’s silence.

The dying grass crunched under his feet, alerting Akira to his presence. He turned around and smiled, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Sojiro pat him on the shoulder. “I told her about you, you know.”

“Oh,” Akira shifted awkwardly, “That was nice of you. What’d you say?”

“Just… a few things about how this year’s been… You want to say something?”

“Uh, no,” Akira shook his head, “I think it’d be weird since I never met her.”

“Alright.” Sojiro pulled a package of cigarettes from his pocket along with his lighter. He placed a cigarette between his lips and lit the end, shielding it from the wind with his free hand. He put away his lighter and inhaled. Letting it go, he said, “I told her I’d keep you guys safe, but I’m not too sure if I can really promise that.”

Akira nodded and removed a hand from his pocket to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You probably… don’t want me to say that we’ll be fine again… do you?”

Sojiro chuckled pathetically. “I’d like to hear it as long as you mean it. I want to be able to give you back to your parents alive.”

“They probably wouldn’t even care. I messed up their lives and they don’t want anything to do with me anymore.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yeah, it is… and don’t say it’s not my fault, because it is. I stand by what I did, but they just couldn’t accept it. They were fighting the last time they answered the phone.”

“…And that was months ago.” Sojiro said. He didn’t need to ask. He knew.

Akira nodded. In the silence, the wind softly tugging at them, Sojiro pulled Akira closer and tucked the boy’s head under his chin. Sojiro wasn’t quite sure if Akira had gotten taller, but he was certainly gaining on him in height. A few more inches and they’d be eye to eye.

The half hug lent itself to Akira letting go of his own reservations and returning the hug with both arms. “The lawsuit nearly ruined us. They fought. Someone said something about a divorce and… it’s all my fault.”

“No.” Sojiro was firm in his conviction that Akira’s parents’ terrible behavior was in no way his fault. “Stop saying that. It’s not.” He didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t know if Akira believed him or if he could change how he felt. Sojiro was, at the very least, thankful Akira was telling him in the first place. A moment later, Akira silently nodded in reluctant agreement.

“Sojiro,” Futaba called, boots crunching through the grass. “…Everything okay?”

“…Come here.” Sojiro reached out for her and she leaned in to join in on the embrace, pressing her face into Sojiro chest.

“I told mom about everything,” Futaba muttered, her voice muffled somewhat by Sojiro’s coat, “Like, how you guys and everyone else helped me get better and what we’re doing now.”

“She’d be so proud of you, Futaba.”

“Can you pat me on the head… like mom used to?” she asked, her voice barely half the volume it was before.

Sojiro chuckled and pulled back just enough to bring his arm back around and pat her firmly on the head. She beamed up at him. “It’s exactly how mom use to!”

Sojiro tugged them back in again, firmly squeezing. They laughed, wheezing slightly from his tight hold.

“Are you alright?” Sojiro asked and hoped Akira would mean what he said next.

Akira smiled. It was warm and broke out into a grin the longer he and Futaba watched. He nodded, “I’m okay. I just got a little emotional there.”

“Places like this can do that to people, no matter what it is... How about we go out to eat?” Sojiro pulled back so that he could see them better but refused to let them go. “What do you kids want for lunch?”

“Sushi?” Futaba asked. Sojiro was surprised she didn’t just ask for curry.

“It’s gotta be cheap. We’re not going back to that place again.” Sojiro shuddered at the thought of how much money he’d spent the last time they went out for sushi. Besides, Christmas was creeping around the corner and if he put off saving a few yen to buy them both gifts, he’d be out of time and money before he could blink. He wanted to make sure he had something for both of them. Once this was all over, they could start acting like everything was back to normal. A few presents would help them forget.

“Ramen?” Akira suggested, “I know a really good place. It’s cheap too.”

“Ooh, that actually sounds better! It’ll be warm.” Futaba agreed.

“Then let’s go,” Sojiro decided and lead them away.

-

I never would have imagined their leader committing suicide!” exclaimed an animated talk show host, his voice exaggerated beyond what Sojiro would consider normal human speech patterns. He was obviously milking his false shock and concern for views. “Akechi, did you anticipate this turn of events?

Yes, Sojiro wanted to grumble aloud. He scrubbed at the ring the last customer had so carelessly left behind a little too forcefully. Sojiro gave them coasters for a reason.

The camera shifted to frame Akechi better. Futaba booed playful from her barstool.

Certainly not to this extent.” Akechi said, lying through a pleasant smile and wrinkled brow; the perfect show of professional apprehension. “But it is important to note that he was the mastermind behind this past year’s commotion. Getting captured must have wounded his pride irreparably. Such things happen often to insurgent leaders.”

According to the police,” the host’s female counterpart began, “the whereabouts of the other members are still currently unknown.”

It would stay that way if Sojiro had anything to do with it.

Considering they can no longer acquire further testimony from the leader, the investigation will be hard to-

Akechi reentered the conversation; a calculated interruption. “May I butt in?” he asked and was quickly given permission. “The Phantom Thieves may have laid low since then, but they must not be excused! I don’t care if they come after me! For their victims and for their families…” Akechi stood up, an unrestrained look of determination on his face, “I will capture the remaining Phantom Thieves!

Sojiro muted the television, a bitter expression on his face. “Those were some bold statements,” he grumbled. He watched as Akechi returned to his seat. The text that scrolled across the screen to replace the sound told him that Akechi was apologizing, returning to his original pleasant demeanor. “You guys sure he won’t catch on?”

“I can still listen in to any conversation he has and record it,” Futaba said, opening an application on her laptop and angled the screen toward him. A small portion of her screen morphed into a replica of Akechi’s smartphone. “I can even see what he does on his phone. So, if he starts catching on, we’ll know in advance. He’s been getting calls from Shido and jumped into Mementos a few times. He also has a food blog he updates sometimes.”

Akira scoffed and leaned back in his own seat, “No, he doesn’t. You’re lying.”

“You think I’d do that?” She tilted her head in mock curiosity, “You think I’d just come in here and tell you lies?”

Futaba turned her laptop around to face her again and reopened a tab on her browser. “’Dear followers’,” she read, “’I deeply apologize for my recent absence. I haven’t had much time to peruse restaurants or cafes during the investigation. I hope to return with a clear head when this is all over.’ Then there’s a bunch of comments about how they don’t mind him taking his time and can wait until he’s safe. He wrote about Leblanc, which was weird. He liked the coffee.”

“He did come by a couple of times,” Sojiro mused aloud.

“Wait, I wanna read his posts,” Akira pulled Futaba’s laptop closer to himself and scrolled down. “Do you think he went to that maid café in Akihabara?”

“Why would he go to that?” Futaba asked and leaned in to view the screen along with him.

“He seems lonely,” Akira said, barely about to hold back a few lighthearted giggles.

“Only losers go to maid cafes,” Futaba said, a smirk on her face.

“Exactly,” he laughed and continued scrolling. “Ah, come on! He hasn’t?”

“If he has, would he tell the whole internet? He could barely survive just existing on the internet before.”

A devious look crossed Akira face. Somehow, it was more than a smirk. He had an idea; a bad one. “Should I leave a mean comment?”

“No,” Sojiro reached for the laptop, but Akira pulled it closer to himself.

“It won’t be that bad! It’ll be a joke! I promise!”

“Don’t you dare!” Futaba shouted. Sojiro thought she’d found a conscience, but he was wrong. “Anonymous comments still have traceable IP addresses!”

“Okay!” Akira pushed her laptop back toward her and laughed, “I won’t. I was kidding.”

“Sure, you were.” Futaba squinted up at him skeptically, “You had that smirk.”

The giggling continued and Sojiro couldn’t help but smile along with them. It was good to see them happy again, even if the source of it was slightly dubious.

Chapter Text

Sojiro opened Leblanc, the morning sun peaking over the horizon, while Futaba slept at home and Akira watched him heat up a fresh pot of curry. He leaned over the counter, head barely held up by his hand and his glasses sliding down his nose. In his own words, Akira was ‘bored out of his mind’ and just about ready to run into Shido’s Palace on his own for the thrill of it.

“Let’s not get reckless,” Sojiro said, not taking his eyes off the pot. He knew Akira wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been wallowing his self-pity most days he was left alone, whether it was lying in bed until noon or playing the same game for the third time. He understood Akira’s plight. He’d been so busy for months, going to school during the day and forcing himself to find time for friends, homework, and palaces in the afternoon. He finally earned some free time during the day, but anyone he would have spent that time with was endlessly busy. His only reprieve from the mundanity came when school let out and a meeting was called.

“Why don’t you go to the house and wake Futaba up?”

Akira groaned and shook his head, “She’s sick of me.”

“Yeah, well…”

Akira sighed loudly, vying for more of his attention. “I can’t even go anywhere without you because of the truancy officers.”

“I know,” Sojiro nodded along, hoping that if he agreed with Akira enough he’d get bored of complaining too. “I’ll take you somewhere the next time I get some free time.”

“You keep saying that, but you never do.” Akira rolled his eyes, “No one ever comes.”

“That’s not true; besides we need the money.”

“I’ve got money. I can give you money.”

“I’m not taking your money, kid.” Sojiro wasn’t going to let a kid pay his bills.

Akira groaned again and laid his head down on his arms, “I don’t even want to go to the batting cages anymore.”

Sojiro sighed and stepped back from the stove. “If you don’t stop complaining, I’m gonna make you work.”

“Please, anything!”

Sojiro’s scoffed, surprised Akira would even work to reduce his boredom. He thought for a moment about what he could have Akira do, only to realize that he really didn’t have anything. The shop was ready to open and no customers would be desperate to have Akira make their coffee instead of Sojiro. He opted to figure something out later.

“Are you finished with your homework?”

Akira was amusingly silent.

“Bring your homework down here and do that if you’re so bored. I’ll ask for your help when I need it.”

Akira groaned louder this time and pulled himself back from the counter. He trudged up the stairs and returned with an arm full of textbooks and worksheets. He dropped them down on the counter and begrudgingly got to work.

However, as well-meaning as Sojiro had been to force Akira to get his homework done, the kid was easily distracted. His phone never strayed too far from his side and that made it easy for Akira to pick it up when math problems were too annoying to finish.

“I thought you were supposed to be doing homework,” Sojiro muttered the longer Akira glared down at his phone.

“Sorry,” Akira said and set down his phone. He glared at his homework instead.

-

After a few customers came and went, a few dishes and cups and found a home in the sink. Akira jumped at the chance to wash them.

“So, let me ask you something,” Sojiro crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the counter. “I’ve been thinking that Futaba needs to start studying for her high school entrance exams, but I don’t know where she should apply. Shujin used to be good, but you’ve had enough problems there as it is.”

“I don’t know any other schools,” Akira said and shrugged, “Plus, I think part of the problem is that people know my record. I guess the new principal’s helping a bit.”

“I’m just worried about her.”

“There’s Kosei.”

“Sure, but it’s an expensive private school. I don’t know if I can afford that.” The bell above the door rang as another customer enter Leblanc and Sojiro glanced back over his shoulder. The officer standing in the doorway closed the door behind him.

“Welcome,” Sojiro said. He was surprised to see a police officer in his café. There were a few officers that watched the alleys nearby, but Sojiro couldn’t help but tense up at the sight of him.

“Welco- oh, shi-!” Akira grabbed for the cup he’d let slip from his fingers and smiled sheepishly at the two of them. “Sorry.” He quickly turned back around, hiding his face as best he could as he slouched a bit further.

“Careful there,” the officer chuckled lightheartedly, returning their greetings with a smile. He glanced up toward the menu and hummed to himself. “I think I’ll just get the house blend.”

“Coming right up,” Sojiro said and pulled a package of beans from the shelves behind him.

The officer sat down at the counter and checked his phone as he waited. As Sojiro worked, they all were relatively silent until the officer forced himself to make a little bit of small talk. “He your boy?” he asked, pointing toward Akira. The question was full of pleasant curiosity. It was small talk, simple as that. Sojiro had an easy time answering.

“Practically feels like it at this point. He’s a friend’s kid.” No point in going deeper than that. It didn’t matter that he’d never met Akira’s parents. A stranger didn’t need the distinction.

“Ah,” he nodded and turned to Akira, “Must be nice working for a friend of the family.”

“Uh,” Akira briefly looked over his shoulder at them before ducking his head back down. “Yeah, it’s…” He shrugged.

“You alright, son?”

Akira wasn’t doing himself any favors. Sojiro took it upon himself to answer the officer’s question. “He’s fine,” he said and then managed to flippantly add, “It’s some sort of anxiety thing.”

The Officer nodded and smiled back toward Akira. “It’s nice of you to let him work here.” Sojiro placed a to-go cup down on the counter in front of him. The officer grabbed it and replaced it with his payment. He waved as he walked away. “You two have a wonderful afternoon.”

“You too,” Sojiro called back and, once the officer was gone, turned to Akira to ask, “What was that?”

Akira laughed, “I panicked!”

-

Another day slipped by uneventfully and Sojiro had left himself believe things were cooling down. He hated being wrong.

“Welcome back.”

Sojiro didn’t know what he expected when Akira walked through Leblanc’s front door late at night. He certainly hadn’t anticipated him to come home alone, but his concerned look was quickly answered with a simple, “Futaba went home.”

“Okay, so…” Sojiro vaguely gestured toward Akira, unsure how to approach the subject, “What’s with that look on your face?”

Akira’s mouth was drawn into a tight-lipped frown, his brow furrowed. He seemed tired and wrung out, an unsurprising consequence of remaining in a Palace well beyond sundown, but the fatigue seemed different this time. Sojiro tried to piece together what could have happened from the dazed look in Akira’s eyes, but he couldn’t. He resolved to ask again and hope he got straight answer.

“Did something happen?”

Akira set his bag down on the floor and Morgana jumped out. He circled Akira’s feet as the boy found his way beyond the doorway and leaned against the counter. “I think… we just watched somebody die.”

“Woah, what?!” Sojiro reached out to Akira, but Akira quickly took a step back, shaking his head.

“I’m fine!” he said quickly, blinking back the haze he’d let cloud his vision, “We’re all fine, but… Akechi… Akechi was there. He attacked us and then… and then Shido’s cognitive version of Akechi appeared and they… He closed a flood barrier on us and then we heard gunshots. Futaba couldn’t find his signal on her radar.”

“Oh, God.”

Akira stared down at his shaking hands. He squeezed them into fists and asked, “Did you know Shido was his dad?”

“Sit down,” Sojiro managed to grab Akira’s arm and lead him to one of the booth seats. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I think so… I’m just… confused.”

“And Futaba? How’s Futaba?” Sojiro’s mind was spinning with every fragmented piece of information Akira provided. He didn’t understand. He’d thought they would have known if Akechi had caught on, but he supposed they couldn’t stop him from entering the metaverse. More importantly, they had all been forced to witness another death. It was terrible enough watching the father of a friend die on a screen but standing in the same room left a deeper mark. He didn’t want his little girl home alone.

“She’s okay,” Akira said.

He could’ve called her. He could’ve gone home. He could’ve done a lot of things, but he sat down and took Akira’s reassuring words as the truth. He’d see to Futaba once he got Akira back on his feet. Then, maybe he’d have them call their friends to make sure they were doing alright.

“I just can’t believe…” Akira slumped a bit in his seat, “I feel… bad.”

“Bad how?” Sojiro pushed.

“Like… Like that maybe I should feel worse. Akechi’s… gone. He just admitted everything to us; he sacrificed himself and somehow I feel… weird.”

‘Weird’ and ‘bad’ were not the descriptive terms Sojiro was hoping to hear when he asked Akira how he felt. It gave Sojiro practically nothing to work with. Upset, he could handle. Sad, he could try to fix. Angry, he could talk down. Weird? Sojiro was left in the dark.

“I wanted to save him,” Akira reassured him when he glanced up at Sojiro’s uncertain gaze, as if Sojiro needed to hear that Akira wasn’t bitter enough to hope for another person’s misfortune, “But… he did all of this because he was Shido’s illegitimate son… because he didn’t feel loved. He went to Shido… told him what he could do in the metaverse and he killed… He killed so many people, but not Shido. We were right there. He could have said something. We could have done something.”

Somewhere in Akira’s babbling, Sojiro thought he found the problem. Akechi, a young man, bent on righting the world he hated, starting with where he was first wronged, lied and manipulated, killing those that stood in his way. Whether that individual was a targeted request or a group of kids getting a little too close, Akechi pulled the trigger without question.

Akechi had given Shido the final piece of the puzzle to kill Wakaba.

Sojiro pushed that thought aside as forcefully as he could. He sat down across from Akira and folded his hands on the table. Akira stared up at him over the thick frames of his glasses. It took far too much willpower for Sojiro to keep his voice steady.

“You can’t save everyone. It’s hard to save people, especially those who don’t want to be saved. You didn’t know his situation and he didn’t want you to know. He wanted you gone. You did what you could.” Sojiro could hardly understand how he was still speaking properly. “Akira, it’s going to be okay.”

Akira’s eyes flickered to the tiled floor.

Sojiro leaned in, a firmness in his voice he hadn’t felt there before. “It’s not your job to save anyone.”

“…Maybe it is? Some sort of… rehabilitation?”

Sojiro shook his head in disbelief. “Where did that idea come from?”

Akira jerked, blinking away the strange moment he’d had. He turned his gaze back to Sojiro. “I-I don’t know… Something I’ve heard before, I guess.”

Sojiro wasn’t sure he understood. The poor kid had to be in shock.

“I wasn’t his friend, but now… I feel… I don’t know.” Akira shrugged and wrapped his arms around himself. “We let him die there, but we were always so careful to make sure everyone we changed the heart of lived. We gave them a choice.”

“I think you gave Akechi a choice,” Sojiro said. “I think he knew what would happen if he tried to join you again or just ran off. He wouldn’t have gotten out of this a free man after you changed Shido’s heart. Akechi would have been put on trial and gone to prison. Everyone in Shido’s entourage will. He had to make a quick decision when he realized he was wrong… and he made it… as painful as it is.”

“I know,” Akira whispered.

“It’s not your fault, Akira,” Sojiro whispered back.

Akira nodded and smiled sadly. “Maybe I should have been nicer?”

“You had no reason to trust him.” Even after hearing Akechi’s plight, Sojiro couldn’t push back his anger. Wakaba was gone and Akechi had nearly killed his children and reveled in it. He could never forgive him for that.

“Why did he want glory so badly?” Akira asked, “We were doing the same thing he was doing, but we didn’t hurt people. He didn’t need to. He could have asked!”

“I think he was in too deep,” Sojiro sighed, “but, you reminded him he was wrong... or you convinced him you were the only ones who could stop Shido.”

“I don’t…” Akira chewed his bottom lip. Morgana jumped into his lap and began to purr. Akira stroked the cat’s back as he continued, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. I’m still angry. I never liked him, but… I don’t think he deserved to die.”

“He didn’t deserve it, no one does, not even the worst of people, but we can’t change the past,” Sojiro said and leaned back in his seat. “All you can do now is stop Shido.”

Akira remained silent, letting Sojiro’s words sink in for a moment. Then, he nodded. “Yeah, Shido won’t know what hit him.”

The two of them walked back home together, Morgana following close to Akira’s feet and a change of clothes and pajamas occupying Morgana’s spot in Akira’s school bag. Akira took over the couch immediately, while Sojiro climbed the stairs and stopped in front of Futaba’s bedroom door. The door, still covered hazardously by fake police tape and ‘keep out’ signs, sat ajar. The glow of Futaba’s computer slipped through the opening.

Sojiro knocked.

“Come in,” Futaba called back almost immediately.

When Sojiro stepped inside, Futaba spun around in his desk chair to face him. Neither of them said anything for a few excruciatingly long seconds.

Sojiro came forward, slowly testing the waters, “Futaba, I… I heard…”

Futaba sprang from her seat, face contorted into a grimace to stop herself from crying. She lunged at him and threw her arms around him. He returned her embrace the moment her weight collapsed into him. “He killed mom,” she sobbed, “He didn’t even say sorry.”

Sojiro had no words that could fix what had happened, so he just stroked her hair and held her as she cried.

“He can never say sorry,” she whimpered, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair to anybody.”

He simply held her tighter. She was right. It wasn’t fair. Nothing ever seemed fair. Sojiro couldn’t help but wonder why the universe thought it was so difficult to grant him just one day where things didn’t fall apart; just one Goddammed day.

-

Shido’s treasure was practically in their hands. At least, that was what Akira promised Sojiro the last time he’d asked. Some sort of fervor had been reignited. The last step was to send the calling card. Then, whatever strange cognitive forces were at play would force Shido to let them in. So, to help, Sojiro drove them all to the train station, followed them to a secluded place away from the crowds, and was instructed to stand guard.

“Stay here with Makoto’s sister and make sure no one sees us,” Akira had said, “We really don’t want to mess this up by getting caught.”

“We’ll wait for you,” Sae had agreed.

Akira returned to his teammates and tapped his phone. A moment later, the six of them faded from existence. Sojiro’s mind was left to catch up with what his eyes had seen. Sae chuckled nervously beside him, most likely sharing the experience.

To make the sight of the two of them standing in silence in a back corner of the subway less suspicious, Sojiro leaned against a wall and lit a cigarette, content with finally letting his guard down around another adult. Sae was a surprisingly good listener.

“I thought that once we hit rock bottom, there would be nowhere else to go but up… Now it just feels like we’re digging ourselves deeper.” Sojiro took a long drag of his cigarette and breathed out through his nose.

“That…” Sae said, taking a sip of her coffee, “or we’re just losing our footing every few steps.”

It was a fun game of extended metaphors. Sojiro couldn’t help but laugh. Sae laughed along with him and Sojiro felt a little less like the world would come down on them at any moment.

“I think it’s important I mention that the investigation will pick up exponentially once this video is released,” Sae began.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” she said, frowning, “and I’ll definitely be the first they go to. There is absolutely no way I can get away with being the last person to supposedly see the leader of the Phantom Thieves before he committed suicide. I wanted to warn you that they might come looking for you too. You’re his guardian, after all.”

Sojiro scoffed, “They didn’t even tell me he died. Was I just supposed to think he ran off?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.” Sae smiled over the plastic lid of her cup, “Seems like an oversight on their part. That might hold up in court.” She finished the last of her coffee and tossed the cup into a nearby garbage can. "Akechi might still be a loose end."

"Yeah," Sojiro said, but was uncertain what she meant. "Did they tell you anything?"

"Tell me what?"

The kids returned, elated that their plan to film in the safest part of Mementos had worked, ultimately distracting them both.

Phones may not have service and camera apps may not open, but a real video camera had done the trick. Futaba showed him the raw footage. Sojiro didn’t bother asking them about the masks or their change of clothing. If that was how each of them saw themselves, he wouldn’t question it. It always felt better just to go along with everything involving cognition.

“Looks good,” Sojiro praised them and returned the camera, “but you can see parts of your faces.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Futaba grinned, “It’ll look really cool once I’m done editing it.”

“This is gonna be awesome!” Ryuji held up his hand for a high-five and Futaba struggled as she jumped to reach it.

Sojiro smiled. He never thought he’d be proud to know his kids were about to raise some hell.

Chapter Text

Futaba was in her room, hunched over her computer. The devious look on her face hadn't left since morning. She cackled to herself, fidgeting with nervous energy and fingers itching to touch computer keys.

She shooed him out of her room, denying his offer of dinner because he was distracting her. Akira was kind enough to eat with him in her place. They commandeered the living room, Morgana watching from the back of the couch in hope of sneaking a bite when no one was looking. He was caught easily. It was unbecoming of a supposed Phantom Thief.

They ate together, talking over the television as they waited for Futaba to launch her masterpiece. She had the perfect time picked out to unveil their return. Sojiro only hoped she knew what she was doing.

It was phenomenal when he saw it.

Their rerun of an overacted reality show fizzled out and the fire red logo of Phantom Thieves’ took its place. A sly grin spread across Akira’s face.

Ryuji’s distorted voice called out through the static, “Yo! What is up, everybody!”

Sojiro couldn’t help but smile too.

-

Sojiro debated opening Leblanc that following morning, but ultimately decided it would better if he did. Sae had warned him they were putting themselves back under Shido’s radar. She wouldn’t be able to get away without getting asked a few tough questions and Sojiro wasn’t going to be exempt from that. So, in anticipation for whoever might come looking for him, Sojiro pulled out a barstool from the counter and sat down.

He turned on the television and waited, barely listening to the news. Sojiro was anxious, but too tired to do anything other than sit and sip the coffee he had made for himself. He’d pretend everything was normal.

They kept him waiting longer than Sojiro would have liked. The kids were still gone. They’d be fine as long as their alibis held up.

Sojiro barely glanced over his shoulder when he heard his front door slam open. He’d been through worse and kept a cool head then. They wouldn’t rattle him. He turned back around. It was definitely a stupid move to turn his back on the enemy, but he refused to think these men could hurt him.

“How can I help you?” he asked, flippant.

“Where are they?” growled one of the men behind him.

So, they weren’t going to beat around the bush. Shido’s lackeys had grown some balls. Sojiro allowed himself to fully turn around. He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

His disinterest was met with a harsh glare. One of them uncrossed his arms and motioned around the room. “Search the place!”

Sojiro didn’t flinch when the agents ran past him for the staircase or around the counter. They pulled out boxes and storage containers. They poured over every nook and cranny, pulling apart documents and tossing aside anything that didn’t give them the answers they were looking for.

It must have been fairly aggravating for them, considering Sojiro had already scoured the place days before looking for evidence. A paper shredder had really been a good investment on his part. It was even better that the garbage had already been taken out and any evidence of lockpicks, smoke bombs, and blank calling cards had gone along with it.

“No one else is here,” one man said after rushing down from the attic, “and there’s nothing upstairs. It’s just a bedroom.”

Sojiro smirked. “Looks like you came all this way for nothing.”

The head of their legally dubious investigation turned his eyes, unreadable behind tinted sunglasses, toward Sojiro. “You’re coming with us.”

In an instant, Sojiro’s hands were yanked behind his back and metal handcuffs clamped them together. He grunted at how tight they were, but he wouldn’t struggle. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, but the blindfold they replaced his glasses with took a heavy hit to his bravado.

They forced him out of his own café and into the backseat of a car. Sojiro had to lean forward in his seat to keep from putting pressure on his wrists. The engine roared to life and he jolted back when vehicle lurched forward. Sojiro didn’t bother asking where they were taking him or what they were going to do once they got there. This had very quickly become a hostage situation. They could do anything to him.

Sojiro steeled his nerves and kept his mouth shut.

He tried his best to pay attention to how his body swayed when the car took a turn and when it stopped. However, it felt like they’d been driving in circles for over half an hour. Sojiro had lost his place and after a few more turns, he realized he was hopelessly turned around.

After one final stop, the engine turned off. Sojiro was yanked from the car and dragged indoors. The instant warmth of the heater was welcoming, but his uncertainty of where he was diminished the feeling. His silence kept his captors from speaking to him, which he didn’t mind at all. He didn’t think he’d like what they had to say.

He was forced to sit down on a stiff chair and a man to his right snarled, “Don’t try anything. We’ll see to you soon.”

Sojiro knew he hadn’t been left alone. He heard a door open and shut behind him, but he continued to hear the quiet shuffling of feet around him. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could try without possibly getting shot. He had no leverage.

So, he made himself comfortable. He’d wait it out. His kids knew what they were doing.

Blindfolded and left in silence, Sojiro grew bored. The fear for his life still lingered but was tamped down the longer the minutes ticked by. He was practically nodding off before someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Come with us... You’re free to go.”

Sojiro was guided by the pull of an unseen hand to stand up. His handcuffs were removed, but his blindfold remained. “Can’t let me see where I am, huh?” he asked gruffly, “Figures.”

He was led back outside into the cold and into another car. He didn’t bother guessing the turns or counting the stops. When he stepped out of the car, his blindfold was removed. A man in tinted sunglasses pointed toward a subway entrance. Sojiro’s vision was too blurry to tell if he was one of the original men that stormed into his café. “We apologize for taking your time. You may go home.”

His glasses were placed in his hand. “And you won’t even drive me home,” Sojiro frowned and turned to walk away, slipping his glasses on. He quickly checked his back pocket. He was glad he’d had his wallet in his pocket when they decided to drag him away.

The subway was crowded; crammed full of people who had no idea what Sojiro had been forced to deal with.

-

Sojiro sighed once he turned the last corner and finally saw Leblanc’s storefront. The lights were still on and the open sign remained untouched. He hoped no one had decided to barge in while he was away. Thankfully, or perhaps unfortunately, the café was just as they left it, with shelves emptied onto tables and boxes ransacked.

Futaba and Akira stood together, concern etched onto their faces. Ryuji stood behind the counter, Sojiro’s forgotten phone in his hand. This was the first time they’d be welcoming him home.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, stepping over a spilled box of Dr. Salt bottles. “They wrecked your room too, Akira, but we’ll get that cleaned up. Woah!” Sojiro stumbled back as Futaba collided with him. She hugged him close and pressed her cheek to his chest.

“You scared me!” she shouted, practically scolding him. “You’re just like Ryuji! Where did you go?”

Sojiro laughed awkwardly, “I…” He glanced up in time to see the relief in Akira’s eyes and the ire in Ryuji’s. “Shido’s goons came by, like Sae thought, and arrested me. I was blindfolded so I didn’t get a look at where they took me. It had to be a few hours of just waiting around before they told me I could go and drove me to the train station. I’m not too sure what that means.”

“I think,” Akira smiled uncertainly, “I think that means we did it.”

Sojiro smiled back. The look in Ryuji’s eyes disappeared, almost as though it had never been there at all. Sojiro removed Futaba’s arms from around him and gestured to the mess at their feet. “Let’s get this cleaned up. You can tell me all about what happened.”

“It was insane!” Futaba knelt down and began shoving soda bottles back into their crates. “We were going to all go out to celebrate, but Akira and Ryuji decided to be party poopers and said they wanted to go home, so I came with.”

Ryuji rolled his eyes and Sojiro barely caught Akira’s quiet huff as he handed Ryuji a broom from the supply closet.

-

“Are you alright?” Sojiro restacked a few tipped boxes in the storage room. He stepped aside to let Ryuji enter and put away the broom. Ryuji turned away from him and reached up to scratch at his split lip.

The kid nodded. “Yeah, I’m alright.”

“How’d you get that?” He gestured toward Ryuji’s back. Sojiro could have sworn the mark peeking out from the back of his shirt collar looked like a burn. “Do you want something for that?”

Ryuji shook his head. “It’s fine. I got it in the Palace. Mona said we can get rid of it next time we go to Mementos.”

“Okay,” Sojiro crossed his arms. “And what about that split lip?”

Ryuji shrugged and turned to leave. “I deserved it.”

“Woah, wait a minute!” Sojiro followed him out. “You deserved what?”

It might not have been the best idea to shout that when they were both back where Akira and Futaba could hear them but, Sojiro didn’t want to let Ryuji’s comment slide. The burn might have been from Shido’s hell of a cruise ship, but something told him the split lip wouldn’t go away with magic mind healing nonsense in Mementos.

Ryuji clenched his fists at his side. He refused to turn around and face him. Akira seemed to glean something from Ryuji’s face because he spoke up next. The speed at which he blurted his words out was a testament to how long he’d been holding back.

“We came home because everyone else thought it was a great idea to hit Ryuji hard enough to knock him into the lamp post and leave him there while we got dinner,” Akira turned to Futaba, surprisingly animated, “What the actual fuck, Futaba?”

Futaba quickly went on the defensive, “What?! Ann started it? Ryuji was being a jerk!”

“I still don’t know what I did!” Ryuji shouted, extending his arms out to the side, before dropping them, exhausted.

“You-…” Futaba quickly backed down, eyes flickering between her teammates, distraught. “We thought you died, but you were just hiding from us... But you…?”

“I woke up on the grass,” Ryuji shouted. “I don’t get it!”

“Okay,” Sojiro stepped between the three of them. He held his palms out before lowering them slowly, hoping to deescalate the situation. “Let’s take a few deep breaths and talk this through.”

“Sorry,” Akira immediately apologized.

Back to old habits. Sojiro sighed.

It was unfortunate hearing what happened after they all found themselves back on dry land. Ann had seemed the most outwardly distraught, seemingly angry under her tears, so Ryuji had been drawn to her first. He returned with a smile and ill-timed joke about how crying made her look hoping to stop the tears from flowing. He received a slap hard enough to split his lip for his troubles. The other girls managed to get a few good licks in before Ryuji’s head met the back of a street lamp and Akira managed to put a stop to the whole thing.

Sojiro offered him a small bag of ice and a hot chocolate.

“Sorry, I actually can’t stay,” Ryuji glanced down at his phone and swiped through a few missed text messages. “My mom wants me home.” He reluctantly took the ice and pressed it to the bump on the back of his head. He stood, but Akira grabbed his arm. Pulling him back, he looked Ryuji in the eye and shakily said, “I really… I’m sorry.”

Futaba buried her head further into her arms on the table. “Me too,” she whimpered.

Ryuji smiled, biting back what seemed to be a wince, “I-It’s fine. I’ll see you later.”

“I’ll walk you to the train.” Akira stood up, still holding on to Ryuji’s arm.

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” Akira’s hand slid down his arm to meet Ryuji’s hand and grasp it. He walked Ryuji out.

Once they were gone, Sojiro cleared his throat to gain Futaba’s attention. When she was looking, he motioned for her to come around to the counter. She begrudgingly came to stand in front of him, her eyes on her feet.

“So, you and the other girls hit him?”

Futaba nodded.

“And you think that was okay because Ann started it; because the other girls were doing it?”

Futaba shook her head.

“So, why’d you do it?”

She shrugged.

“Just because everyone else jumps off a cliff that doesn’t mean you do it too. You understand? Hitting your friends is not okay and I think you know that. There’s a difference between playing and genuinely trying to hurt someone. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. If another one of your friends made you mad, would you hit them too? If Yusuke made you mad, would hit him?”

“No,” Futaba squeaked, “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”

“Okay.” Sojiro reached out and placed his hand on the top of her head. “I’m glad you understand. When Akira chews you guys out later, you should listen then too.”

“I will.”

-

Election day came and it wasn't a surprise that Sojiro was terrified of their possible failure. Sojiro had been kind enough to offer them a spot in the café so that they could all watch the results together. Ryuji had bounded in first, a smile on his face and the burn on his back perfectly healed. The rest of their team wasn't far behind and offered hugs to him almost immediately, apologizing for what must have been the hundredth time if Ryuji’s promise that he’d already forgiven them meant anything.

Ryuji had practically been cornered and consoled, trapped between friends until the group hug dissolved into a confusing huddle and Ryuji couldn’t have reciprocated if he tried.

Finally corralled around one of the booths, they waited for good news. Sae was the last to join them. While Sojiro had the time to close the shop to cast his vote for anyone other than Shido, Sae had been required to finish work and answer another round of questions about her interrogation of the Phantom Thief leader before she could have her say in who the Prime Minister was.

“This is it. This is it!” Ryuji’s leg bounced under the table. The kids all fidgeted, their attention turned toward the television, but Ryuji’s jerky movements were the most noticeable.

“Cool it, kid,” Sojiro set their drinks down on the table, but was hesitant to hand Ryuji his hot chocolate. He wasn’t sure Ryuji needed any more sugar in his system. Sojiro gave it to him anyway. They all mumbled soft ‘thank you’s when he handed over their requests, not sparing a glance in his direction. Sae was kind enough to look him in the eye and smile when he handed over her cup of coffee.

She’d reached down from where she leaned against the booth seat beside Makoto to squeeze her little sister’s shoulder. “We’re alright,” she said, “I have a good feeling about this.”

“He’s guilty,” Makoto said hesitantly, “Right, sis?”

Sae nodded, “It’ll be difficult to prosecute him immediately, but if he gives a clear confession tonight, he’ll have a difficult time denying it later. His people will still try, but I’ll make sure I have exactly what we need to prove to the court he’s been behind it all. My concern right now is if, or when, someone might come to arrest Akira.”

Sojiro frowned. “Because he faked his death.”

“I plan on doing everything I can,” Sae promised, “Within the restrictions of the law. We need to start trying to act like law abiding citizens again. I promise to protect every single one of you to the best of my ability.”

It was late when the election results were finally tallied. Shido, unsurprisingly, had won.

Shido’s obnoxious smile greeted them on their television. He was handed a microphone and waited for the cheers to die down. “This election is the result of every citizen’s aid,” he said. “Your support warms my heart!” His smile wavered. His eyes searched the room behind the cameras until the smile fell completely. “That is… exactly why I cannot… I cannot forgive myself. The reason President Okumura passed away is… I am the one who killed him. I also manipulated the information so that it would seem as though the Phantom Thieves were behind the series of incidents. The one who controlled the hearts of others and gave rise to the countless victims… was me. It was all for my own selfish gain. I’ve even used people’s lives as stepping stones in order to claim this country as my own. I will confess everything! Please, I beg everyone to hold me accountable!”

The panicked politicians behind Shido were hilarious to watch. A man ran out in front of Shido and motioned for the cameras to be turned off. When the live video cut back to the unprepared newscasters, Sojiro was beaming.

“Hell yeah!” Ryuji shouted, nearly knocking over his cup as he bounced in his seat.

“I say we have a toast,” Sojiro held up his glass and gaining the rooms attention. Sojiro smiled, proud of what he’d witnessed the children around him accomplish and baffled by how quickly they’d all managed to worm their way into his heart. He cleared his throat, “Allow me to say a few words.”

Futaba draped herself over the back of a booth seat and groaned. Makoto whispered over her shoulder, “Come on. Let him have this.”

“Don’t complain,” Sojiro scoffed, his smile never leaving his face, “I’m trying to compliment you guys. Now, where was I? I honestly still can’t believe what you’ve all accomplished this past year. You should all feel proud. I’m definitely proud of you. Shido deserves what’s coming to him. A legislator’s pin is worth almost nothing.” He remembered when Akira had come back from dropping Ryuji off at the station and fiddled with the metal pin between his fingers. Sojiro quietly pondered how anything so worthless could mean so much to someone. Sojiro blinked back the tears that stung his eyes and took a moment to steady her voice. He never thought he’d be this happy. “Today we-”

Ryuji thrust his glass into the air. “Cheers!”

“Wait, I-!”

The rest of the room cheered along with him, interrupting Sojiro before he could attempt to finish what everyone must have thought was going to be a long-winded toast. He smiled and raised his glass. “Yeah, yeah, alright. Cheers.”

Chapter Text

“You have to go to school. You can’t fight me on this,” Sojiro said placing Akira’s lunch down on the counter. “You’ve had a long enough vacation as it is. This is the last day I’m letting you laze around.”

Akira groaned and rest his chin heavily on his open palm. He pouted up at Sojiro, seemingly hoping his sour mood would entice him to change his mind.

Sojiro raised an eyebrow. “You think that’ll work? What happened? I thought you were bored! I thought you wanted to go back to school.”

“Finals are in a week,” Akira grumbled.

“An even better reason for you to go back to school now.”

“What if I just don’t go?” Akira sat back up and grabbed for the coffee Sojiro had set aside for himself. Sojiro didn’t bother stopping him. He’d just make another. “I’m technically dead, right?”

“Says a falsified death certificate that was proven wrong a few days ago,” Sojiro leaned against the counter, “It means nothing. Besides, I told your school you’d be back by tomorrow. That ‘family emergency’ won’t hold up forever.”

“You should have told them I was dead,” Akira muttered before taking a sip of Sojiro’s coffee.

Sojiro rolled his eyes, “And then where would you be? On the street?”

“In the attic?” Akira playfully asked.

Sojiro scoffed, “Yeah, right. You know the rules I set. You don’t go to school and you’re out of here.” He pointed toward the door and smirked.

Akira hummed as he pretended to recall the memory and shook his head. “That’s not how I remember it. I thought it went something like, ‘I would never kick you out, kid. I care about you too much.’” He laughed.

Sojiro shrugged and grabbed Akira plate. “That’s alright. Use my words against me, that’s fine. I reserve the right not to do things for you, so I’ll just take this and you can make your own-”

“No, wait!” Akira shouted, still laughing. “I’m sorry! I’ll go to school.”

Sojiro smirked, “That’s what I like to hear.”

When Akira fumbled down the stairs half asleep the next morning, dressed in his school uniform with a frown on his face, Sojiro relished in the return to a routine he recognized. Akira may not have been used to waking up so early after nearly two weeks of destroying his sleep schedule, but Sojiro enjoyed the feeling of handing him breakfast before the sun fully rose and sipping coffee in near silence. Sojiro wondered to himself how he’d fair once Akira left Leblanc for good if having their morning routine reinstated after only two weeks had him smiling like an idiot. The kid hadn’t even left. He’d just woken up later.

It probably had something to do with the fact that Akira had been injured those two weeks. Every time the kid had woken up past noon and greeted Sojiro during his lunch break, he’d been reminded of what Akira had gone through by every bruise and cut he could see on the kid’s face. When Akira woke up at noon, it was because he needed the rest. It was because something was wrong.

Akira’s bruises had faded and Sojiro could only see them if he was specifically looking for them. He could look at Akira and not have to remind himself that the kid was safe. The association his brain made was stupid and some logical part of Sojiro told him so. If the kid slept in, it was because he was a teenager. There was nothing else to it, and yet, Sojiro liked to see him up walking around before the café opened. It felt better that way.

Of course, Akira didn’t agree.

“I’m dying,” he groaned into his coffee before tipping back his head finished off the last of it in two large gulps. Sojiro winced. He had to have scalded his mouth.

“No, you’re not,” Sojiro said and poured coffee into a thermos for Akira to take to school with him.

“You don’t know,” Akira whined and took the thermos as he tossed his bag over his shoulder. Morgana yelped from inside of it. “Thanks, Sojiro.”

“Not a problem.” He shooed Akira out the door. “Don’t be late!”

When Akira left, Sojiro was finally left alone to open the café. Futaba remained at home, most likely pretending to study for her high school entrance exams because he’d already told her five times and she’d try everything to get around it before she’d do as she was asked. He didn’t have to worry about her though. Exams were a long way away. She’d be ready.

Sojiro closed temporarily after Leblanc’s usual morning rush with the goal of shopping for last minutes Christmas presents on his mind. Futaba had been easy to shop for. She kept a list all year and sent it to him with the expectation that at least one item would become hers by Christmas morning. Akira hadn’t been so helpful.

Akira had been the type to claim he didn’t want anything when he actually did, just so that he wouldn’t seem selfish. Sojiro didn’t see a way to subtly get an option for a present out of Akira, so he set aside some time to find a gift Akira might like.

Looking for a gift online had been a bust. It was nearly impossible to find anything Akira might genuinely like without at least a hint. He’d been in Akira’s room a while back to remind the kid that school was imminent and homework needed to be done, but he’d mostly used the opportunity to look around the room.

Sojiro was left with zero ideas.

So, he started with the second-hand shop down the street. It was cheap and close by. He hadn’t walked in expecting to find anything.

The owner, an old man by the mane of Hattori, greeted him as he entered. “Shopping for a Christmas present?” he asked.

“Yep,” Sojiro replied, “Looking for something the kid I’m watching might like.”

“Hmm… I might have one or two things a teenager might be interested in,” Hattori said and glanced around the tiny shop, “Your boy came by here a few times this year.”

“Has he?” Sojiro looked through a few tattered books and knickknacks. As he searched, Sojiro contemplated leaving to look elsewhere. Hattori had said himself that he didn’t have much a kid Akira’s age would want. Still, he stuck around, not completely willing to leave after only a few minutes. He knew Hattori. They weren’t close and he wasn’t a regular at Leblanc, but he lived and worked so close by it was impossible not to see him in the mornings as he walked to Leblanc.

As Sojiro slowly searched the store, a patch of brown caught his attention.

Hattori seemed to notice the object that caught his attention and smiled. “Are you interested in that baseball glove? It’s an expensive brand; relatively new, too. We’ve been trying to get rid of it.”

“Really?” Sojiro grabbed the glove and turned it over in his hands. He couldn’t tell how expensive it really was, but it felt like good material. To him, it was just a baseball glove. At the very least, it didn’t look old.

“Yeah,” Hattori nodded, “My son bought it for my grandson, but he’d rather play soccer now.”

Sojiro chuckled, “Last time I was here you said he was trying to get into track and field.”

“He got bored. Again.”

“Well, maybe he’ll finally stick with something before he graduates,” Sojiro placed the glove down on the counter. “I’ll take this off your hands.”

-

“Keep pulling that face and it’s going to stick that way.”

Akira glanced up from his phone once Sojiro addressed him. The glare he’d been directing toward the screen quickly fell and was replaced by something a little more neutral.

“Sorry,” Akira apologized, giving Sojiro a vague shrug to work with. “It’s nothing.”

“Doesn’t look like ‘nothing’,” Sojiro set a cup of hot chocolate down in front of him. “Your friends texting you about something?”

“No,” Akira reached for the cup but didn’t move to bring it to his lips. He paused for a moment, his brow creasing as he thought through his next move. “Okay,” he said, finally deciding to include Sojiro in his thoughts. “I’m going through the Nav and I was just… I decided to look up my parents’ names.”

Sojiro nodded, “Alright. What’d it tell you?”

“They’re there,” Akira said definitively, “but then I kept looking because something didn’t feel right. No one cares about the Phantom Thieves. It’s like we never mattered. So, I thought I’d just check for a few more names in Mementos and…”

“And?”

“My parents, Ann’s parents, Ryuji’s mom and her new boyfriend, the new principal; they’re all there. I know the principal’s name wasn’t there before.” Akira presented his phone to him. Akira’s reality-defying app was open, the background a deep pulsating red. The search bar at the top of the screen read ‘Honoka Kimura’ and below sat an indecipherable map with a single location labeled ‘Sheriruth’.

“She wasn’t there before? I thought you said Mementos was everyone’s palace.” Sojiro reached out to take Akira’s phone to bring it closer and make the text a bit easier to read, but Akira pulled it back. He erased the principal’s names from the search bar and entered the app’s search history.

“It is, but there were tons of people who weren’t there before. You’re not there, thankfully.” Akira began scrolling through names saved to the app’s history. Some names were bolded in a bright, obnoxious red while others, such as his own, were left as a dull grey. Akira pointed out a few names as he scrolled through far too many names to count. Had he been looking up names ever since he sat down?

“My parents’ friends are there. My old friends back home are there. I don’t get it! I checked their names months ago and it didn’t look like this. It’s like all our work just disappeared.”

“It’s okay.” Sojiro carefully took away Akira’s phone, afraid the kid was going to drive himself crazy going back through every name he’d ever entered. Sojiro scrolled farther on his own and eventually reached the end on a lightly faded red ‘Suguru Kamoshida’. He closed the app and set the phone aside.

Sojiro wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t know enough about Mementos or humanity’s shadows to feel confident in telling Akira that he had nothing to worry about. In the end, he still tried to. “Everything will be fine. You said it yourself that a palace or a shadow doesn’t mean they’re terrible people. It’s just-”

“-Distorted desires,” Akira finished for him. “I just can’t think of what would be causing this.”

“W-Well…” Sojiro took a moment to think. There weren’t many common links between the people in question. Shido had been on everyone’s minds. As a candidate for Prime Minister, his influence could reach the entire country. Akechi’s connections to Shido proved that he had a bigger role in the past few years of nationwide suffering. Sojiro could imagine his increase in popularity having something to do with shadows and Mementos’ depths. “Maybe it’s Shido?”

“But… how?”

“He’s been influencing the entire country. That’s why you wanted to stop him before election day, right?”

Akira frowned. “You think he still has that much control?”

Sojiro shrugged. He had no idea. “Possibly. We’re not any closer to getting him to court and Sae said there are a few people she’s tried to talk to who said they’d rather not prosecute.” Sojiro had seen enough news stories barely mentioning Shido’s confession to know that people were still in denial. He could easily imagine Shido having some sort of precaution put in place among his followers if something like this happened.

Akira grabbed for his phone and sighed. “I’ll call a meeting. We’ll figure this out.”

“You still have finals,” Sojiro reminded him.

Akira huffed.

“Get those done first, then we’ll work on changing the world.” He reached out and ruffled Akira’s hair.

-

“Why are finals always so close to Christmas,” Ryuji grumbled into his textbook, “Studying is always so hard.”

“Sucks to be you guys,” Futaba teased, barely sparing a glance up from her handheld game console.

“You never study, Ryuji,” Ann said, amused. She flipped through her textbook for an answer before turning it to show Akira. “That’s what you were looking for, right?”

Akira nodded.

Ryuji groaned and leaned over, pressing his face into the tabletop. “This is the worst.”

Makoto reached across the table and pat him sympathetically on the back. “I know it’s hard, but once it’s over we’ll officially be on break and you’ll be third years.”

“Yeah, if he actually passes,” Futaba jabbed, earning a louder groan from Ryuji in response.

“I don’t understand why I’m here,” Yusuke said setting aside a magazine Sojiro had handed him from the stack on the counter. He grabbed for another one. “My exams were last week.”

“To hang out with me!” Futaba scooted her chair a bit closer.

“Ah, yes,” Yusuke smiled down at her, “I do enjoy being held hostage.”

Futaba pouted, “Hey!”

“I don’t hear much studying getting done,” Sojiro finally chimed in. The room quickly grew quiet as those who needed to study returned to their textbooks and review sheets. Morgana watched from the counter, a smug glint in his eye. Sojiro still couldn’t get over the idea of Morgana talking to or understanding humans. However, magical powers did not allow the cat onto surfaces where people ate, so Sojiro grabbed him by the scruff and placed on the floor.

After a few minutes, Sojiro heard Ryuji mumble a dejected, “I hate this.”

“Stop complaining,” Makoto laughed, “and read.”

Hours of grumbling and shuffling paper ended long before the last train could depart and strand everyone at Leblanc. Sojiro sent them all off with a slice of cake, a new recipe he was planning on adding to Leblanc’s dessert menu. Akira made a face as he tasted it. “You should stick to curry.”

“That bad?” Sojiro hesitantly asked.

“It’s… crumbly? Frosting’s good, though,” he scooped a helping of frosting into his mouth before ascending the stairs. Sojiro trashed the rest of the cake. He’d try again some other time.

Finals came and went; barely a blip on Sojiro’s radar.

After the last day of class, a day filled with nothing but puzzle activities and movies to give teachers a chance to finish minor grades, Akira told him that he refused to check his grades. He swore he’d guessed on multiple questions and nearly fell asleep in Pre-calculus, but when Sojiro checked Akira’s report card online, he knew the kid had nothing to worry about. He’d passed them all and he kept his ranking; Top of his class.

“Check your grades,” Sojiro instructed Akira that evening as he corralled him and Futaba into the living room to set up the tiny Christmas tree they stored in the attic that they should have set up weeks ago. They’d just been so busy lately and Sojiro had never felt the need to put it up when he was living alone or when Futaba hid away in her room. Now, it felt wrong not to try and put it up.

Akira peaked around the tree, the tinsel in his hands half way up the plastic pine needles. He caught a glimpse of Sojiro’s smile and smiled back. “Okay, I’ll check later.”

-

“I can’t believe you didn’t fail!” Ann teased.

Ryuji beamed at the slight praise. “Yeah, holy shit! A B- in English? How the hell did that happen?”

“You studied,” Makoto offered, “That’s what happens. I’m just glad I found the time to study too. I kept my ranking.”

“I went to check the second years’ rankings,” Haru said, smiling softly, “You all did so well! Akira was top of his class too.”

“I was?” Akira asked and laughed, “I didn’t check.”

Sojiro looked up from the bills he’d been sorting through. He’d be able to pay most of them with a little extra to spare; the benefits of owning a café when it gets cold outside. “I told you to check.”

“Yeah, but I had to look online and I needed the password and I didn’t want to ask you,” Akira explained.

Sojiro shook his head. “Come on, kid.”

Morgana, who had been watching silently from Ann’s lap, decided to end the conversation there with a long drawn out meow.

“Oh, yeah,” Ann said, troubled, “Mona’s right. What are were gonna do?”

With Morgana’s not so gentle prodding, the meeting began.

“I say we go into Mementos and just speed run it to the bottom,” Futaba said, miming with her hands to indicate speed, “If we just keep moving, shadows won’t be a problem.”

“But getting to the lowest point we’ve ever reached took forever,” Ann complained, “Could we even really avoid them the whole way through? How long would that take?”

“The shadows on the first few levels you took me through always ran from us,” Haru remarked thoughtfully, “I’m certain we’ve struck the same fear into at least a few more on the lower levels.”

Morgana meowed again and, although Sojiro didn’t understand what was said, he listened as though he could.

“That makes sense,” Akira said, crossing his arms over his chest, “We should go in today. I’ll bring food and we’ll eat there.”

Sojiro checked behind him. He’d made enough curry the night before that he could give up some of it to them. He’d fill a few Tupperware containers and let them head out on their way. However, he was a bit hesitant to let them leave.

“You kids planning on actually going today?” Sojiro asked, “It’s Christmas Eve. Don’t you want a break?” It probably didn’t matter that he wanted to spend the day with them.

“This is important, Sojiro,” Futaba said seriously, “The sooner the better. Besides, we’ll be back before midnight!”

“We’ll be absolutely fine,” Haru confidently explained, “Morgana only wants to see the bottom, so he can see if he’ll regain his memories. If it helps us too, it’ll be a wonderful outcome for everyone.”

“Supposedly, he was once a human,” Yusuke added.

Sojiro opted to ignore the implications of their cat not only talking but also being a human. They’d fed the poor man cat food.

In the end, Sojiro sent them on their way; curry and a few thermoses of coffee in hand. He wished them luck and reopened the café.

He still hated waiting.

Chapter Text

Sojiro felt the world shift underneath his feet, as if it had turned 90 degrees and his body had just missed its chance to keep up. He felt it settle again a moment later. The water he had just collected to heat up had spilled over his hand; thankfully still cool. Hayashi, finished with his afternoon coffee, set a few bills on the counter by the register. His wrinkled hand shook no more than usual. “Something wrong, boss?”

That had to have been the strangest earthquake Sojiro had ever experienced.

“Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

Sojiro set his measuring cup down on the counter. “…Never mind. It was nothing.”

Hayashi went home, leaving Sojiro alone with the strangely muffled sound of the bell above the door. Sojiro watched it slowly shift back and forth. Back and forth. Why was it so slow?

Sojiro gasped and stumbled back into the shelves behind him. Coffee bean packets and unsettled jars rattled against him. He forced a second deeper breath into his lungs and settled himself. The ground had jostled beneath him again and yet, his surroundings seemed almost undisturbed.

The bell finished its ring with a metallic clink; normal again.

“I’m going insane.” Sojiro chuckled darkly to himself. His kids were driving him up the wall these days and he’d finally snapped. He needed a break, far away from children with demonic superpowers.

He needed something to do. A feeling of dread tingled at his fingertips. He glanced at his phone on the counter. He knew there wasn’t any service in Mementos, they had told him so. Calling and listening to a voicemail would only make him feel worse.

The sprinkling of rain tapping against the roof and pavement outside reminded him he was supposed to bring in that morning’s shipment of Dr. Salt from the front step. He had better get that done now before the crate filled up with water. Sojiro grabbed the money that had been left beside the register and slotted the bills into the bin. With his payment secured, Sojiro stepped outside.

The awning above LeBlanc’s door shielded him from the rain. The crate of Dr. Salt that had been placed at his door by one of the nearby store’s clerks remained dry. Sojiro was thankful for that. He hefted the crate into his arms and stood up straight.

Looking out into the alleyway, Sojiro felt his heart jump.

“What…?” A translucent red liquid pelted down from the sky, pooling on the pavement in sticky puddles.

Sojiro’s fingers clung tightly to the full crate, afraid he’d drop it.

“Sakura!” Dr. Takemi ran toward him, an umbrella over her head. The pink rain dripped lethargically from the edges of the umbrella and clung to places low on her white coat. “Can you see this?”

“Yes.” With his hands occupied, Sojiro pushed the door open with his shoulder, “Come inside. Now.”

She followed him in, closing her umbrella and placing it in the holder beside the door. It dripped slowly onto the floor. “No one I talked to on the way over could see this.” Takemi wiped at the stains the rain left on her coat. She couldn’t diminish their appearance and, after a few useless swipes, she let her coat drop and settle back into place. “You’re the first that could.”

“I have no idea what this is. I thought I’d gone crazy.” Sojiro’s eyes locked with his phone. He hesitated for a moment and then grabbed it. “I need to call the kids.”

“Kurusu and his friends? Where are they?”

“Shibuya.”

Takemi came to stand beside him, concern morphing her stoic features. “Do you think they have something to do with this?”

“Possibly.” Sojiro found Futaba’s contact, hit call, and held the phone up to his ear.

The phone barely rang before it went to voicemail.

“Shit.”

“They didn’t answer?”

Sojiro pressed call again.

It went to voicemail.

He tried Akira’s number.

He didn’t know why he thought he’d get a different result.

It went to voicemail.

“There’s no service in Mementos,” Sojiro murmured and ended the call.

“Mement…?” Takemi seemed curious, but she shook her head and changed the subject. “What should we do?”

Sojiro untied his apron and hung it on the wall. “I don’t know,” he said and grabbed for his car keys, “but I can’t just sit here.”

Takemi followed him to his car and climbed into the passenger seat uninvited. Sojiro didn’t mind her tagging along. She’d been an unexpected asset for them and Sojiro honestly wanted her around if – when he found the kids. If anyone was injured, they’d need her.

Traffic was astonishingly normal. Pedestrians walked the streets, ignoring the pink sludge falling from the sky. Sojiro noticed that the rain flooding the streets reacted a lot more like normal water the more it piled up. Sojiro was a little more cautious, but other cars sped past them, splashing pink liquid onto the sidewalks and people who didn’t notice in the slightest.

 

Once they reached Shibuya, Sojiro felt his heart plummet as he slowed the car and focused on the scene around him. Takemi adjusted her position to see more. Her jaw dropped, “What…?

Enormous, jagged, and malformed bones jutted up from below the pavement. They climbed into the air and Sojiro had to lean forward and crane his neck to see where they led. Taller than any of the skyscrapers that surrounded them, the bones connected to a curving and disastrous looking spine.

“It looks like a rib cage,” Takemi concluded and unlocked her car door. She climbed out, her heels splashing into the slowly climbing mystery liquid. Sojiro, panicked for a moment, pulled the car to the curb in the direction she’s gone and followed her.

“Is no one seeing this?” Sojiro asked, already knowing the answer. The citizens of Tokyo went about their day, expertly navigating the busy streets as if nothing was wrong. Takemi continued to stare up at the monstrosity hanging above them.

“Did…” she muttered, “Did those kids do all this?”

Sojiro quickly shook his head, although he couldn’t be sure she caught it. “This wasn’t the plan,” he numbly explained, “Mementos is just… this place where our subconsciousness is connected. I-I have no idea what this is.”

Sojiro grabbed his phone. He didn’t expect it to work, but he dialed Akira’s number and held it to his ear.

Shockingly, Akira picked up.

Sojiro?

“Akira?” Sojiro let his bafflement enter his voice, “What’s going on? Where are you?”

We… u-uh… We don’t have a lot of time. S-So, I’ve gotta go. We’re fine!

“No!” Sojiro shouted into the phone; the constant static on Akira’s end terrified him, “You’re not hanging up! Explain!”

Okay, okay. Do you see where we are? L-Look past the… the…

Sojiro forced himself to look past the rib cage, past the spine that extended out countless miles. Off in the distance, Sojiro saw what Akira was trying to show him. Hovering above them was a figure, geometric and smooth, shining and hallowed in a pale light. It stood out against their dark red surroundings; fighting against Sojiro’s growing feeling of dread with a radiating comfort that felt forced. It felt wrong. It felt like a lie.

Sojiro looked toward Takemi and she nodded. She saw it too.

“What is that?” Sojiro asked.

A god? ” Akira didn’t seem that sure.

There was a slight static jostle of the phone before Ryuji’s voice reached his ears. “It’s that guy's fault! He did all of this!

“Everything?” Sojiro didn’t know what to think.

It’s probably more nuanced than that,” Akira said, “He says he wants humans to be under his thumb. W-We might have been helping? Shido might have been a catalyst? He got to Akechi before me. It was all some… sort of game to him.

“You don’t seem to know what’s going on either.”

We hav-… go!” The phone connection was quickly slipping away.

“Put Futaba on!”

Another loud jostle and Futaba answered, “Sojiro, we really have to go.

“You kids need to get back here!” He pointed roughly to the spot in front of him, fully aware Futaba couldn’t see him and unwilling to care.

We can’t!

“Futaba, this is dangerous! This is-”

The end of the world!” she supplied for him, “It’s gotta be, right? Dad, the world’s ending! We have to go! We have to fix this.

Sojiro grew quiet. He looked past the monstrosity jutting out around them. They continued to be showered in rain that was slowly beginning to feel a little like blood. He sighed into the phone and realized he had no other choice. “Go.”

What?

“Akira’s in charge, right?” Sojiro forced himself to let his fears go, “He said you have to go. Go save the world, kiddo.”

We love you, Sojiro,” Futaba said and he could hear the smile in her voice.

She hung up before he could say the same and Sojiro forced himself to relax. He turned to Takemi and said, “There’s not much we can do.”

“I thought as much,” Takemi said, resigned.

Sojiro sighed and ran his hand over his tired face. He motioned Takemi back toward the car. The two of them stood beside it. Sojiro needed a moment to think. He needed some time.

“Sojiro?”

Takemi glanced back before Sojiro did.

Mei Sakamoto smiled in his direction and waved. She seemed entirely unfazed by the horrors surrounding them.

“I haven’t seen you in a while!” Her smile only grew.

“Mei!” Sojiro glanced around them. She couldn’t see it.

“You looked so frightened!” Mei laughed, patting him lightly on the arm. “Sorry to surprise you.”

“No, no,” Sojiro shook his head and nervously waved his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture. “Uh…” he cleared his throat and briefly glanced up. How could she not notice the rain? How could no one notice the rain?

“Have you…?” Sojiro realized his question was stupid the moment it left his lips, “Have you seen your son? Do you know where he is? I… I don’t want you to worry, he’s with his friends and they can handle-”

Mei blinked, her smile still plastered across her face, “I don’t have a son.”

Sojiro paused for longer than what was probably necessary or normal. “What?”

“I don’t have any kids,” she brushed a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Wait,” Sojiro shook his head, “Your son was the entire reason we met!”

Mei frowned and turned her gaze off to the side as if trying to make sense of what Sojiro was telling her. After a moment, she met his eyes again and shook her head. “I don’t have a son. You must be thinking of someone else. I went to Leblanc for…” she paused, her eyes blank for a few disconcerting seconds, “hot chocolate.”

“O-Of course,” Sojiro nodded along.

An explosion made the pavement rumble beneath his feet. Sojiro’s head turned up toward the top of the spine and he saw the minuscule figures of the children he was letting run off to fight a god. They ran passed a disintegrating monster as they neared the top. “This might be my worst nightmare,” he muttered to himself and Takemi sent him a look of pity.

“What should we…?” Takemi began but didn’t know how to finish. She glanced over at Mei’s bewildered and straining smile. “Should we do something?”

“What could we possibly do?” Sojiro asked, just in time to see a man holding a woman’s hand dissolve into black ooze. The woman screamed, jumping back from the remains of her boyfriend and frantically taking in the horror of her surroundings. “Oh, God,” Sojiro said, stepping closer to the two women beside him. There wouldn’t be much he could do if the same thing happened to any of the three of them but being closer to other people was a good way to trick himself into feeling safe. “It really is the end of the world.”

They watched as more people slowly began to succumb to the same fate. Sojiro didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to do. All the knew was that whatever was left of the people who’d vanished in a puddle of ooze was mingling with the sloshing flood that swallowed their ankles.

They were all going to die.

The complacent smile that was once plastered across Mei’s face slowly fell as her eyes began to register what was happening around her.

“Where…?” she gasped and suddenly grabbed for Sojiro’s arm, tugging him back with her as she struggled to shield herself, “Where’d that woman go?”

The child who’d been speaking excitedly to the woman who’d vanished began to cry.

“Sojiro?” Mei asked and shook him. “What’s happening?! What’s…? Where’s Ryuji!”

Sojiro didn’t answer, too stunned to say much of anything helpful.

Takemi pointed toward the being that claimed to be a god. It whispered in their ears, beckoning them back into the bliss of ignorance; a state of being neither he nor Takemi had been a part of and yet its voice had begun to reach them.

Forget your worries.

Forget your mistakes.

Forget about the Phantom Thieves.

Mei pushed passed him, reaching up as if she could reach the top of the rotting structure if she hoped strongly enough, and screamed, “Ryuji!”

“The Phantom Thieves?” a man nearby asked aloud, his voice quivering, “The Phantom Thieves!”

“Take ‘em down, Phantom Thieves!” cried out a young voice not too far away. The panic in the streets died down to hushed mutterings of concern. A boy was taking the lead. “Come on!” he screamed out into the crowd, “Why do you think they’re risking their lives? They’re trying to save us and this is how we repay them? Snap out of it!”

The cheers that followed were slow to build, but they put a weary smile on Sojiro’s face. Hundreds of people screaming out and waving their arms, hoping to be heard, hoping to be encouraging.

The rain stopped.

“Y-Yeah,” Sojiro pushed the crowded and found the boy he’d heard, Takemi and Mei not far behind. “Mishima, right?” He thought he recognized him from pictures Futaba had shown him, but he’d seen them so long ago, he wasn’t sure anymore.

The boy turned and nodded, “Yeah. Who…?”

“I know your friends,” Sojiro pointed up.

Mishima caught on fairly quickly. “You must be Boss. I… I don’t know why, but… I have this feeling. They can beat this guy. They can… but have to hope.”

“Hope, huh?” Sojiro thought he should have felt skeptical, but a voice in the back of his mind told him Mishima was absolutely right.

“You’ve come this far!” Takemi shouted, trying to raise her voice above the crowds’, “Don’t let me down!”

“Y-You can do this!” Mei shouted, her voice a bit more uncertain, “I believe in you!”

Sojiro joined in without a second thought, “Get this over with! He’s not worth your time!”

The screaming only grew louder as more and more strangers joined in.

Stand down.

No. Stand up. Stand up and fight!

A burst of black smoke burst forth, its bellows silencing the crowd. Thunder erupted as the rain clouds moved to envelope a newly formed opposing black figure, it’s dark wings nearly obscuring their enemy from view. It slowly raised its arm, a massive firearm held aloft, and a bone raddling crack shook Sojiro to his core.

There was a hole in their false god’s head.

Suddenly surrounded by light, the edges of the world peeled away and Sojiro had to squint to keep the light at bay.

“Ryuji!” he heard Mei call again over white noise.

When Sojiro opened his eyes, the world was right again.

The sun had already gone down and Sojiro had become numbly aware that it was still Christmas Eve. Flecks of snow fluttered down from the clouds in the sky, melting as it touched the pavement under his feet. It was if nothing had ever happened.

“Sojiro!”

He turned and Futaba collided into his side, crushing him in her arms to the best of her ability. “We did it!” she squealed and Sojiro found the strength to move again.

“What the hell just happened?” He asked, unable to hold back his nervous laughter.

“Honestly…” Futaba said, pressing her cheek into his chest, “I have no idea.”

Sojiro decided he didn’t want to ask any more questions.

“My baby!”

“Mama, I’m fine!”

Sojiro turned his head to watch Mei Sakamoto embrace her son and rock him from side to side. “What was that? What was that!?”

“Mama, it’s okay,” Ryuji said and hugged her back.

“That was…” she paused, “W-Why…? Baby, I was so worried, but I… What was…? What kind of trouble did you get yourself into?” Mei suddenly seemed lost.

Ryuji frowned and glanced around, looking for someone, only to be disappointed when he met Sojiro’s gaze and not one of his friends’. Sojiro could only shrug in response. Ryuji turned back to his mother and said, “The Phantom Thieves saved us! Don’t you remember?”

“…Phantom Thieves?” Mei nodded and began to lead him away, “I think I remember. They changed Shido’s heart, right? Good on them. He was a piece of shit.”

Sojiro leaned down a bit to whisper to Futaba. “She doesn’t remember.”

Futaba looked over as well and then around at the bustling streets of Tokyo as people went about their business as if a group of children hadn’t just killed a vengeful deity. “Nobody seems to.”

Sojiro watched along with her as they quickly were lost in the crowd. Akira’s friend, Mishima, was gone before Sojiro could even properly thank him. Ryuji disappeared with his mother and, from just looking in the immediate vicinity, Sojiro could find the others. Makoto was the only one, turning in hurried circles, calling out for her sister. Sojiro led Futaba over.

“I’m looking for my sister,” she explained, eyes drawn down to her phone. “Morgana vanished. We weren’t sure what to do so everyone started going home.” Futaba’s phone buzzed nearly a millisecond before Makoto’s. They both checked. Makoto smiled, “Now they’re all talking about meeting up tomorrow for a party. Why didn’t we just talk about this when we were all still here?”

“Different priorities?” Sojiro suggested. Ryuji had run straight to his mother after all and Makoto was still looking for her sister. Futaba had come to find him, but Akira had vanished.

“Where’s Akira?” Sojiro asked. He hadn’t gone home, had he?

“I don’t know,” Makoto admitted. “I can’t find my sister either.”

Sojiro began looking again. Akira hadn’t texted the group chat like the rest of their friends and Sojiro was almost worried he’d disappeared along with their cat, who might have actually been a man. Thankfully, when he called his name Akira came running. Sae was not far behind.

“Sis!” Makoto shouted and embraced her older sister. Sae held her close, smiling.

Sojiro held out his free arm for Akira and Futaba did the same. Akira entered their embrace without a hint of hesitance. “I can’t believe you two,” Sojiro whispered, holding back his tears. “…Let’s go home.”

Akira nodded into his shoulder.

Takemi hadn’t wandered far, so, relieved to have his family whole and compelled to be kind to the woman who’d tried to help look for them, he offered her a ride back home. She graciously took the offer.

Back in Leblanc, safe and sound, Futaba was buzzing with unused adrenaline, swinging her legs under her chair and kicking the wooden legs. Sojiro closed the shop early, fully aware no customers would be coming in so late in the evening on Christmas eve and unwilling to work after everything he’d seen.

“We should have a turkey for dinner!” Futaba declared, diving head first into a celebratory mood.

Akira laughed over the dishes he was cleaning, keeping his trembling hands busy.

“We don’t have the money for that, right now,” Sojiro gruffly admitted, “You think I should send Shido the bill for the damages his henchman did to my shop?”

“Absolutely,” Futaba agreed with a confident nod.

Sojiro watched Akira fuss over a grimy plate. It took him a moment to remember that for a lot of people Christmas eve was a romantic evening. Teasingly, he asked, “Ryuji didn’t invite you over?”

Akira glanced up and placed the dish aside. Drying his hands, he jokingly replied, “Not yet. Still hoping.”

“Do you think I should have gone with Yusuke?” Futaba asked. “I don’t think guests can stay the night, though.”

“Probably not,” Sojiro agreed.

“If Ryuji doesn’t call, we’ll just say that turkey is my one true love and I’ll stick around here,” Akira concluded.

“Yeah!” Futaba held out her hand for a high five. Akira indulged her.

Sojiro sighed, annoyed, but pleased to see their smiles. “Were you listening? I don’t have-”

“Sojiro! Turkey!” Futaba whined, smacking the counter a few times.

“I have some-” Akira tried to say, but Sojiro stopped him before he could finish.

“No,” Sojiro said, still unwilling to take money from a kid and fed up with the complaining. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and placed one hundred yen on the counter. “Here, Futaba, get yourself and Akira some candy.”

She snatched the money from the countertop without counting it first, a mischievous grin on her face. “I’m gonna get a turkey!” she exclaimed, as if she had just conned Sojiro out of enough money to get her exactly what she wanted. He watched her run out the door, amusement bubbling up from his chest.

“There’s no way that’s enough.”

Sojiro turned back to Akira who had begun to fiddle with his phone now that the dishes were done; locking and unlocking it over and over. It wasn’t hard to see that something was bothering him.

“Are you alright?” Sojiro asked.

“Sure,” Akira said, not taking his eyes off his phone.

“The Phantom Thieves are probably still the talk of the town… even if it seems like they forgot what happened tonight.” Sojiro hated to bring down the mood, but he felt like he needed to talk. He felt like Akira needed to hear that he was worried about him; that he cared. “What are you going to do?”

Akira met his gaze and watched him for a long, silent moment.

“Look,” Sojiro said, trying his best to sound reasonable, “I know I’ve been on the outside of all of this. I know I don’t fully understand and I don’t think I ever will, but we have to be able to rely on each other in times like these. The world has a lot of opinions about you guys. I want you to be safe. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to, but you need to know that you can always trust me.”

Akira nodded but kept whatever secrets he was hoarding to himself. He locked his phone again and set it down.

Futaba burst in, glaring in Sojiro’s direction.

“Hey,” Sojiro smiled, “You get that turkey?”

“Like I could’ve!” she snapped, “Not with this pocket change you gave me!” She held up her fist, a few crumbled bills clenched in her grasp.

“Did you get candy like I asked?”

“No,” she pouted.

Sojiro laughed, pleased with himself, but willing to make peace, “I’m sorry. Why don’t we just order out?”

Futaba gasp, successfully placated, and bounced on the balls of her feet, “I want pizza and I want to see some poor soul in a Santa consume deliver it!”

“That’s a little mean, but it sounds good to me,” Sojiro said and grabbed his phone. He nudged Akira, “What about you?”

“I want cake,” Akira replied, a whine slipping into his voice.

“For dinner?” Sojiro shook his head, “Stop complaining. Maybe I’ll order dessert too if you behave.”

Twenty minutes later, Futaba got her pizza and her delivery boy in an ill-fitting Santa costume. During dinner, Akira texted on his phone in one hand while he ate his third slice of pizza from the other. He was smiling in such an awestruck way, Sojiro could only assume he was texting Ryuji. Sojiro decided to leave him alone, until Akira chimed into his conversation with Futaba about her excessive data usage to ask, “Is it bad to say ‘I love you’ for the first time over text?”

Sojiro shrugged. He’d never had to think about it before. “Seems a little impersonal,” he said, cutting his slice of cake with his fork, “A little less special.”

Akira nodded and then glanced back down at his phone the moment it buzzed.

“What’d he say?”

“He asked if I wanted to come over and spend the night,” Akira said, halfway out of his seat, “His mom wanted him to spend time with her and her boyfriend, but now their both in the living room and he’s hiding in his room.”

“Well,” Sojiro checked his watch. The last train would be leaving in thirty minutes. If Mei was supervising, he didn’t see the harm in letting Akira spend the night. “If they’re okay with it, I don’t see why not. If your gonna go, you better hurry.”

Akira sprang from his seat and ran up the attic stairs. He came back down with his coat slung over his arm and his school bag.

“You’ve got a change of clothing?” Sojiro asked.

“Yep,” Akira said, throwing on his coat.

“Your phone?”

“Uh, yeah.” He nodded.

“Okay, we’ll watch…” Sojiro stopped himself when he realized Morgana wasn’t with them. He’d been so used to seeing the cat everywhere Akira was that he’d almost become an extension of the boy. There was a hole where Morgana used to be and Sojiro didn’t like it. “We’ll hold down the fort. Behave yourself for Ms. Sakamoto’s sake.”

Akira nodded and hurried passed them.

“Fine,” Futaba called after him, just as he reached the door, “Leave us behind to go be gross and make out with your boyfriend.”

“I will!” Akira yelled back and disappeared into the night.

After a moment’s pause, Futaba stood to leave. “Sojiro, Yusuke’s dorms aren’t too far away-”

“Nope, you're spending Christmas Eve with your dear old dad.” Sojiro reached out and pulled her back.

“No, come on! You let Akira go out!”

“Double standard. Plus, the last trains coming through and he’s probably already in bed. It’ll take too long to tell him. I know. I’m so mean.” He squeezed her into a side hug, grabbed his keys from the counter, and led her toward the door, “Come on. Let’s watch a few Christmas specials.”

“Ugh, like from when I was little?” Futaba groaned, but willing followed him out. She shouldn’t complain so much. Maybe they’d invite Yusuke over next Christmas Eve, where he could keep an eye on them. Plus, they’d be opening presents in the morning.

Chapter Text

Sojiro didn’t get much of chance to sleep in on Christmas morning. Usually, he would have stayed in bed longer. He spent most of his adult years without kids, so he’d take a day off work and sleep in as long as he liked on Christmas. When Wakaba had Futaba, Sojiro would visit that night for dinner. Even after Futaba came to live with him, she preferred to hunker down in her room as long as possible, breakfast and the repeated promise of presents the only way to get her to join him downstairs. Sojiro should have assumed this Christmas would be different.

Futaba barreled into his room just as the sun began to crest over the horizon. She flung herself onto his bed, dumping her entire weight across his legs, and jolted Sojiro out of whatever rest he’d managed to get after going to bed past midnight the night before. He groaned. His back hurt.

Futaba loudly voiced her complaints, “It’s Christmas! I demand presents and pancakes!”

“Alright!” Sojiro sat up, forcing back the drowsiness that threatened to send him back to sleep. He pulled back his legs and threw them over the side of the bed to force his feet into his house slippers. Futaba tumbled off the bed, full of energy and childlike excitement. “Santa better have delivered, Sojiro,” she declared, fully aware Sojiro knew she didn’t believe in Santa Claus. “I was great this year. I saved the world!”

“We might want to get Akira before we start opening gifts,” Sojiro suggested, amazed that Futaba wasn’t already out the front door. Although, she did manage to make it to the hallway.

“On it!” she called back, racing down steps two at a time.

Sojiro followed at a much slower pace and made his way to the kitchen. He started on the pancakes but didn’t plan on making too many just yet. Akira might want something else and Sojiro was perfectly willing to make anything as long as they had the ingredients in the house. He wasn’t going to the store. It didn’t matter how short of a walk it was.

The front door burst open a few minutes later and Futaba called out to him. Sojiro flipped a pancake and called back, “In the kitchen! Akira, what do you want for-”

“Akira wasn’t there,” Futaba interrupted, stepping past the kitchen’s threshold, concern etched onto her features.

Sojiro shrugged, unbothered. “He’s probably still at Ryuji’s. It’s still pretty early, kiddo. Did you call him?”

“I did,” she said, a whine slipping into her words. She held up Akira’s phone.

Sojiro turned off the stove.

Akira said he’s taken his phone.

Sojiro was starting to worry now. “Did you call Ryuji?”

“Not yet,” she admitted and Sojiro forced himself to take a deep breath and steady his nerves. Akira didn’t have his phone with him, but it was probably just an honest mistake. Sojiro had misplaced his cellphone from time to time. There’d been days where he’d left it behind while he worked at the cafe, only to receive a disgruntled phone call from Futaba over the landline because he wasn’t answering her texts or calls. Then again, Sojiro wasn’t a sixteen-year-old boy who had his cell phone practically glued to his hand at all times. Akira wouldn’t just forget his phone.

Accidents happen, Sojiro thought to himself as Futaba called Ryuji, He was in a rush. He had Futaba place the call on speaker for convenience sake.

After a few long moments, Ryuji answered, sounding half asleep and displeased, “Hello?

“Hey, stupid,” Futaba said. Sojiro sent her a disappointed glance, too tired to properly discipline her behavior.

Ryuji’s rapid counter really shouldn’t have been a surprise, “‘Sup, gremlin?”

“Is Akira with you?”

“Uhh…” Ryuji paused. They could hear muted shuffling over the phone, as though he were sitting up. “What?”

“Ryuji,” Sojiro said, entering the conversation when it was clear Futaba was only going to string the conversation out without meaning to, “Akira got to your apartment last night, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, “but… He went home… already.”

“When was that? Just now? A few minutes ago? Ten?”

“Uhh…” Ryuji paused again, uncertain, “No. Like, he left around, like, five? It was still dark out. He was going out the fire escape outside my window. He said he didn’t mean to wake me, but that you wanted him back home, I went back to sleep… Now that I’m saying that out loud… that was kinda sketchy. I asked him to stick around, but he left anyway.”

“I wouldn’t have asked him to come home in the dark,” Sojiro said, more for himself and his processing of events rather than for Ryuji.

“Oh,” Ryuji said, something clicking into place. “Why would he leave then? He said you called…”

“He didn’t have his phone,” Futaba whimpered, beginning to tug and knot her hair around her fingers. “Akira’s gone and he doesn’t have his phone! Sojiro, he lied!”

“I know. I know,” Sojiro said, his voice low, hoping to calm her down. Why would Akira lie? What reason did he have to lie after everything they’d done? Where had he gone and why hadn’t he taken his phone?

“Let’s go back to Leblanc.” He nudged Futaba toward the door and he locked it behind them.

Akira wasn’t at Leblanc. Sojiro didn’t expect him to be, but a part of him had hoped he’d climbed back in through his bedroom window, ready to lie about where he’d been. Maybe, Sojiro had thought, Akira had left some sort of clue. He had no reason that Sojiro could think of to run away. Akira’s status on probation might have still been in question and the chances of someone coming to look for him and his friends was a possibility Sojiro couldn’t deny. They must have been sloppy. They were only kids, after all, not criminal masterminds. They could have easily left evidence behind, but, all the same, Akira was safe at Leblanc and Sojiro had been so sure he’d made him understand that.

Akira wouldn’t just run away.

“We were all gonna have a party,” Futaba explained, sadness creeping into her voice as they looked through Akira’s room. The room was just about as messy as one would expect a teenage boy’s room to be, but the evidence Sojiro had removed before Shido’s men had some searching was still gone. The attic was not the hideout of a criminal mastermind. It was the room of a teenage boy who had seemingly gone missing overnight.

“Everyone’s coming to Leblanc. Should I…” her voice cracked, “Should I tell them not to come?”

“No,” he said, “They can come over.” Futaba needed her friends by her side. They’d helped her through everything Sojiro couldn’t and she needed all of them right now. “Is Makoto bringing her sister?”

Futaba nodded.

Akira had refused to tell him what Sae had said to him. Sojiro had a feeling this had something to do with her. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Sojiro took Akira phone while they waited. Hoping in vain that Akira would walk in sooner rather than later, surprised to see the two of them worrying about him. Sojiro didn’t call the police. As easy as it would have been to call for help and declare Akira missing, it would have been immensely stupid of him. The police weren’t on their side. If they mentioned this to any sort of authority, Akira wouldn’t make it out unscathed.

He scrolled through Akira’s phone. They hadn’t found anything in Akira’s room, but maybe he’d left something on his phone. Maybe he’d left a text message as a draft or called someone before he left. His last text was to Ryuji.

Be there in 10. cant stay long

He’d known. Akira had made the decision to leave before he’d even said goodbye last night. He had no reason, that Sojiro could pinpoint, to leave Ryuji’s home early.

There were also a few missed calls. The most recent were from Futaba, who’d called, heard Akira’s phone ring, and called again to search for it by ear. The rest, five calls, with one message left on his voicemail, were from Akira’s parents. Two from ‘Mom’ and three from ‘Dad’. They’d called around eleven the night before, not long after Akira had run off and Sojiro had locked Leblanc up for the night. They’d kept calling off and on until midnight. Akira’s father had left a message.

Sojiro played the message. “Hey, bud, you’re probably asleep… Your mom keeps insisting we need to talk to you. We’re… Call us in the morning okay. We miss you, bud.

They missed him.

If they’d actually missed Akira at all they would have called long before now, but, then again, the two of them had shadows in Mementos. Mementos was gone. It was a real possibility that whatever deity those kids had killed; that whatever made Ryuji’s mother momentarily forget she even had a son, had the same control over Akira’s parents. There was a chance that Akira’s parents were normal again or better than they were before.

Sojiro thought about calling them back. They might as well know that Akira had run off. A bitter part of Sojiro blamed them. It couldn’t be that much of a stretch to say Akira didn’t want Sojiro’s help because his parents had been absent and neglectful since he’d come to stay in Tokyo. Somehow, Akira couldn’t confide in Sojiro because his parents had already failed him. Selfishly, he liked the idea, but he couldn’t convince himself he was right. Akira wouldn’t just run off. He’d learned to lie and he could hide what he thought well, but only with strangers. Akira was practically an open book when you managed to get a little closer to him. It only took a bit of prodding and a little understanding to get him to burst. You just had to look for an opening, but sometimes it didn’t matter how much he trusted you. Sometimes, he kept a few cards close to his chest. He hadn’t told Sojiro about their plans to fake his death, after all. Akira had known what he was doing then. He probably knew what he was doing now. This wasn’t some emotional outburst or an attempt to hide. He’d had a plan; a plan he couldn’t tell Sojiro.

He needed to talk to Sae.

Futaba needed her friends. She didn’t need to be alone with her thoughts and, after her phone could no longer distract her, she cried. Sojiro hated to see her cry, so he sat down beside her and rubbed her back, fighting the urge to cry with her. He was her foundation, he had to keep her grounded, and he couldn’t do that if he broke down too. He told himself Akira was safe somewhere, not at Leblanc, not home, but somewhere. Akira was alright. They just needed to find him.

When Akira’s friends entered Leblanc, they came prepared for a party, each adorned in Christmas sweaters. Ann clutched a cake box and Haru carried a small bundle of wrapped gifts.

Ann gasped at the sight of Futaba’s tear-streaked face, “What happened?”

“Where’s Akira?” Ryuji asked, worried. Sojiro had forgotten he’d been left out of the loop the moment Futaba hung up her phone on him without thinking.

“He’s gone,” Sojiro explained, focusing on Sae. She’d entered last, her hand still holding the door shut behind her. She froze under Sojiro’s gaze. Good, she’d kept her guard down since the last time they’d all been together. She’d expected a party just like the others and her discomfort made her easy to read. Sojiro narrowed his eyes, distrustful. “And I want to know why.”

Seven pairs of eyes watched Sae as she stepped away from the door and further into Leblanc. “He didn’t tell you?” She seemed genuinely surprised. “I thought he would have told you.”

“Well, he didn’t,” Sojiro stressed, unwilling to give up the illusion that he was in control, but struggling to maintain it when tears still clung to Futaba’s lashes. The deafening silence that remained when Sae didn’t speak left Sojiro with a bitter memory of summer, Sae barging in, demanding evidence Sojiro didn’t have and threatening to take his daughter. He’d been scared then, but now it was her turn. “So, you should probably start explaining.”

Sae sighed and brushed a lock of silver hair away from her face. “I really… I really thought he’d tell everyone. Akira turned himself in this morning. He confessed to being the leader of the Phantom Thieves.”

“Why the hell would he do that?!” Ryuji shouted before Sojiro could. So, instead, Sojiro continued to stare, waiting for answers.

“I told him to go. We need him-”

“Bullshit!”

“Ryuji,” Ann quietly soothed, pulling him back by arm. He needed a moment.

“Why did you tell him to do that?” Sojiro asked, “Why did he need to turn himself in? I told him I’d protect him and you decided to undermine that. Why?”

“No, I…” Sae breathed out, her voice barely audible. After a moment, she fixed her posture and steeled her gaze. She was suddenly the woman she’d been back in summer, stern and sure of herself, but with a softness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Sojiro was being hard on her, he knew that, but he needed someone to be angry with.

“We need him,” she finally said, resolute, “Akechi’s gone. No one has found him and it’s likely he’s gone into hiding.”

The kids quietly muttered around them, but Sojiro couldn’t pick up what they were saying. Sojiro realized, a little belatedly, that Sae had no idea.

“Sae-” he attempted, but she interrupted him.

“Akira is our last shot. They already have his name, his face. He handed over a signed confession before I even got to see him. I imagine he had no idea what it was. He was barely conscious when I first walked in, but it’s still on file. We need him as a witness if we ever want to convict Shido. There’s been more pushback that I thought. He can’t help if he’s hiding… Plus, it wasn’t hard to trace everything back to you all. Shido’s trying to get himself convicted, but his sympathizers aren’t too keen on the idea. It’s only a matter of time before they get desperate and make something up to arrest you.”

“So…” Sojiro thought about his choice of words carefully before speaking, “We’re sacrificing him.” It still came out harsher than he wanted.

“No,” she shook her head, “Of course not.”

“But,” Haru squeaked. She cleared her throat and continued, “He’s on probation. If he’s arrested… won’t he go to jail? You’ll put him on trial for being a Phantom Thief.”

“The funny thing is,” Sae said, a kind smile on her lips, “There’s no proof other than a confirmation from him that this other world existed. Shido has no idea what you kids did and no one ever will. It’ll be Akira’s claim of his own innocence against Shido’s confession of guilt. I’ve told Akira not to speak to anyone and after we’ve frustrated the detectives enough, I’ll suggest we offer up immunity in exchange for information. If I pull this off, you kids won’t face a single charge. After that horror show last night, I got a few emails from higherups interested in finding Shido guilty. I’m definitely seeing this case through to the end.”

“But, the first arrest,” Ann said skeptically, “The one that’s on his record. That’s the reason he was on probation. That won’t get taken off, will it? He’s still in trouble.”

“I’ve been working on that. The problem is, there was only one other person besides Shido who was there that night in his hometown. I haven’t been able to access the files that would give me her name. I keep being told it’s irrelevant.”

“All coverups are,” Sojiro sighed and crossed his arms. If anything was worth looking into, it was suddenly deemed meaningless by those who feared prying eyes. He hated it. “They’re always ‘irrelevant’.

“But you’ll be bringing that up, right?” Ann asked, “He needs to admit he lied, so Akira won’t have to worry anymore.”

“I can get her name,” Futaba said with a confident nod of her head, “I can get her number too.”

“I’ll call her when you do,” Makoto quickly offered and looked to her sister, “So it’s easier to deny how you got it. Publicly accessible information and a snoopy little sister who found it by accident. Hopefully, no one will ask, but…”

“Sounds fine to me. We might need something more concrete, but we have time.” Sae pulled her phone from her pocket and began to type. “Futaba, you also had access to those security cameras, right? Do you have the recordings?”

“Uh, yeah?” Futaba responded, almost a question. “I watched a bit. I couldn’t stomach it.”

Sae glanced up, “We can use those. Nothing gets a jury or a judge on your side like watching police abuse their power over a kid. Technically, I can get clearance to those. I know they’ve been deleted, but I’ll just pretend I had someone explain how to recover them.”

Sae turned back toward the door and motioned vaguely toward her phone. “I need to make a few calls. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Sojiro liked to think he let her leave, but she stepped out without a second thought, her phone already pressed to her ear.

“Sojiro?” Makoto stepped up to the counter, a frown on her face. “She doesn’t know about Akechi.”

“Yeah,” Sojiro said, confused why she hadn’t been told. Akira had come to him immediately. He’d expected Makoto to do the same with Sae. “Why doesn’t she know?”

“We can’t tell her,” she carefully reasoned with him and wrung her hands, “Not yet.”

“So, we’re keeping more secrets?” he grumbled, frustrated. He groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is stupid.”

“I know, but-”

“They’ll blame us,” Ryuji interrupted, “We know they will. You heard Sae!” He pointed toward the door where Sojiro could see her pass back and forth outside the windows. “They’ll pin something on us and if we tell anyone what we know about Akechi, they’ll say we killed him! How the hell do you explain what really happened to a bunch of adults in court?”

“Let’s calm down,” Sojiro said and took a deep breath, “Is that the only reason why? We’d just be telling Sae, if we say anything at all.”

Makoto shook her said, “It’ll throw her off. She said Shido hadn’t seen Akechi since before the election and that he believes Akechi knew they had failed to kill Akira early on and ran away before Shido could realize. It might shake her if she knows. We have to be careful now. We have to keep Akira safe at all cost.”

“Oh God,” Sojiro stepped back and shook his head. He understood and he surprisingly agreed. It was stupid and probably a terrible idea, but he could see problems with either decision. “We’ll tell her later,” he said after a long moment of quiet, “We’ll tell her later.”

Sae continued to pace outside the front door, possibly scaring away any customers Sojiro could possibly get this early on Christmas morning. He didn’t mind too much. He didn’t particularly want any customers right then. He turned and started to heat up some water for coffee and hot chocolate.

“I… brought presents,” Haru awkwardly announced, attempting to bring some cheer back into her voice. She’d set her gifts down on a booth table earlier, but was now beginning to hand them out. “They’re not all that expensive,” she confessed, as if she thought she should have spent more. “I wanted us to all have a matching set, but then I thought about the boys and that maybe they wouldn’t want something too flashy, but maybe they would. I just couldn’t decide. I really hope you all like them.”

Within each box was a simple piece of jewelry, a small, delicate looking gold chain. “I was just thinking that Akira was leaving in March and that Makoto and I are graduating in a few days… I just…”

“Their wonderful, Haru,” Makoto said, comforting her. She carefully removed her necklace from its case and asked Ann to help her with the clasp. The others thanked her and put theirs on as well.

“I thought if I had it specially made with our logo or a charm similar to it, it may look less like a friendship necklace and more like a symbol that said we were the Phantom Thieves, so I left it plain,” Haru explained. She stepped toward the counter, an unopened gift in her hand. “Do you think they’ll let me give Akira his?”

Sojiro, disappointed in himself for being the one to break the news to her, shook his head. “They don’t allow jewelry or anything of the sort. It’s a hazard. It can be dangerous.”

“Oh,” she said, running her thumb along the edge, “That’s too bad.”

“But hold on to it for him. You’ll have a surprise for him when he gets out.”

Haru nodded, clutched the gift to her chest, “I will.”

The rest of the morning was spent drinking hot chocolate and talking about anything other than Akira’s arrest. Solemnly, they each told each other what they’d gotten for Christmas. Futaba reluctantly let Sojiro bring her presents from home so that she could open them at Leblanc. She’d gotten exactly what she’d wanted; a new set of figurines she’d had her eye on for months from a game Sojiro didn’t recognize and a new pair of headphones to replace the old pair that had slowly lost sound on the left side. She was happy, but not as happy as she’d been on other Christmases.

Akira wasn’t there. He didn’t get to open his gifts. Why should she get to be happy about hers? Sojiro understood how she felt, but he wished he could change her mind.

“Do you think they’re treating him okay in there?” She asked, fiddling with a figurine’s arm, “They were awful to him last time.”

Sojiro shuddered at the memory. “I’m sure he’s alright,” he lied. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

Sojiro grabbed for the cup of chilled hot chocolate Ryuji had ignored for the past fifteen minutes with the intent to refill it with something warmer.

“He could have told us,” Ryuji muttered bitterly, “He could have at least told me.”

Yusuke frowned and shrugged, “He likes to keep his secrets.”

“Or he forgets we can’t read minds,” Ann offered.

Ryuji scowled, “No, he likes to lie.”

“Hey now,” Sojiro interjected, “let’s not-” assume the worst about him, he wanted to say, only for Akira’s phone to ring loudly from across the counter, interrupting him. The room grew silent and Sojiro peered over to read the caller ID.

Mom.'

Sojiro quickly grabbed for it and answered, “Hello?”

H-... Who is this? Where’s Akira?

“…Mrs. Kurusu?” he asked, stunned even though the caller ID had told him exactly who was calling, “It’s Sojiro Sakura. Do you remember speaking to me back in April?”

Sakura? Y-Yes, I… Where’s Akira? We’ve been trying to get ahold of him.

Finally faced with one of the two elusive people he’d been trying to contact for most of the year, Sojiro was left speechless. He’d have to tell her. He’d have to tell her everything. Did she even deserve that?

Sakura, where’s my son?

Chapter Text

Sojiro readjusted his hold on Akira’s phone and glanced up to meet the eyes of those that had gotten curious. “Mrs. Kurusu, we haven’t heard from you since… since May.”

I know. I know,” she said begrudgingly, “Tell him I’m sorry. Just put him on the phone, please.

“I can’t.”

What do you-?

“He’s been arrested and, please, wait for me to explain before you react… Okay?”

He was arrested?” she asked, her voice crumbling into a whisper.

Sojiro took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck. “…Yeah.”

“…Why?”

Sojiro closed his eyes and sighed through his nose. “He… Do you remember the Phantom Thieves?”

“Oh,” she whimpered.

He told her everything he knew, which, when he said it all aloud felt like nothing at all. Akira’s mother ended the call in what Sojiro could only describe as panic with a promise to call again when she and her husband could figure out what they were going to do; their only goal: to see Akira.

Sojiro was thankful for their sudden shift in behavior, but it came a little late for his liking. They finally seemed similar or better than the kind of people Akira seemed to remember and talk about. Sojiro just wished it hadn’t taken the destruction of society’s collective subconscious to do it.

Sae eventually had to leave and she took Makoto with her. The air around them had grown dense and Sae claimed she had work to do. She hadn’t planned to stay very long in the first place. Sojiro wasn’t sure if he believed her, but the fewer people in his cafe, the better.

“What do we do?” Ann asked Makoto before she left. She was their strategist, after all.

“We find the woman from Akira’s hometown,” she’d said, barely a quiver in her voice, “And… maybe find a way to talk with Akira?”

Akira wouldn’t be allowed visitors that day, at least not while he was still under interrogation. He had only just turned himself in the night before. That gave them a few days to try and get their bearings without him.

“I still don’t get why he didn’t tell me,” Ryuji grumbled, kicking the supports under the counter hard enough to be heard. “He didn’t tell me anything.”

“He didn’t tell anyone,” Yusuke explained as though the facts of their predicament would calm Ryuji down.

“Who cares?!” Ryuji shouted, slamming his fist onto the countertop and blinking back tears. He quickly deflated, the anger and fury seeping out of him as quickly as it had appeared. “Why not tell me? He’s supposed to trust me.”

“It had nothing to do with trust,” Sojiro said, only realizing he’d figured out Akira’s plan as he began speaking. “Would you have let him go if he told you? Would you have let him run off to get himself arrested?”

Ryuji frowned back at him, his eyes flickering down and back up as he thought about his answer. He eventually huffed and crossed his arms over his chest, seemingly feeling defeated. “No, I wouldn’t have let him.”

“You would have tried to talk him out of it,” Sojiro said, more of a statement than a question because he already knew the answer.

“Yeah,” Ryuji mumbled with a nod.

“We all would have,” Futaba agreed, rubbing at her blotchy, tearstained face. “He didn’t want us to tell him ‘no’.”

-

Akira, unsurprisingly, had a plan. Sojiro had been the first to go to the police station once Sae learned that they would be allowing Akira to talk to family under police supervision. Thankfully, his guardianship for the year still stood and Sojiro was let through with only the slightest bit of resistance. Sojiro hadn’t thought he’d be let into the room with him, but Akira hadn’t yet been shipped off to a juvenile facility. All they had were holding cells and interrogation rooms ranging from barren but comfortable to unbearably hostile.

Sojiro was thankful to have been let to a room above ground, meaning they might have been given one of the more decent rooms to talk in. Akira had been moved specifically so that he could speak with Sojiro.

“He’s not talking,” explained a young officer, his voice giving away a little too much annoyance, “He probably trusts you, so maybe he’ll tell you the truth.”

“He’s a good kid,” Sojiro said after a brief pause. He didn’t want to seem too eager to defend Akira against unsaid insults. It wouldn’t look good. It might look like he knew something. “He’s always been a good kid.”

“Sometimes,” sighed the officer leading them down a hall of scuffed white walls and shiny linoleum floors and finally to a door that looked like every other door they’d passed, “Sometimes it’s the quiet ones you’ve gotta watch out for.” She unlocked the door, stepped inside, and held the door open.

Akira was already there, sitting on an old grey couch and staring at his feet in utter boredom. The officer watching over him, his arms crossed and expression sour, pushed himself away from the far wall and motioned toward the kid.

The officer holding the door sighed, “Stop it. He’s still a kid.”

“Almost an adult. We should treat him like it,” grumbled the man and left in a hurry, dodging Sojiro with ease even though Sojiro had nearly stumbled to avoid him.

“You have thirty minutes alone with him,” Sojiro was told and the door was closed and locked from the outside.

Sojiro turned toward Akira and looked up where the ceiling met the walls, searching for cameras without tilting his head back. Akira finally looked up and smiled. “Hey,” he said, and deliberately glanced over Sojiro’s shoulder as if to tell him that the cameras were behind him.

Sojiro nodded slightly, meaning for it to look like he was thinking to himself rather than signaling to Akira that he understood. “Hey, kid… This is quite the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Are you okay? They hurt you?”

Akira shook his head and picked at a loose thread on the cuff of his shirt sleeve, “No, I’m fine. They’re asking a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to.” They’re asking about the Phantom Thieves, Sojiro thought.

“I bet,” Sojiro said and took a step closer, “but… I don’t get why you’re here. You should be home right now.” Sojiro desperately wanted Akira to understand. You shouldn’t have needed to turn yourself in.

Akira shrugged and looked back down at his feet. No other way, huh?

“I… It won’t be much longer. They’ll realize this was all a misunderstanding.” We’re going to find the woman that helped frame you. We’re going to help you.

“You think so?” Akira looked up again, confusion in his eyes.

Sojiro sat down beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed lightly. “You have nothing to be afraid of. You don’t have to admit to anything you didn’t do.” Stick with the plan Sae gave you. We’ve got this handled.

Akira blinked, thought for a moment, and then nodded, seemingly deciding that Sojiro knew about their situation and was attempting to tell him something.

“You know,” Sojiro said to change the subject. He leaned away. “Your mom called. Your parents want to see you. They’re probably going to come down soon.”

Akira grew pale and frowned, “Are they… angry?”

“No,” Sojiro smiled, “Your mom just seemed worried.”

“Okay,” Akira said, wringing his hands, “I really want to see them too.”

There wasn’t much else to talk about; not with camera’s recording everything they said or did. There seemed to be a lot Akira wanted to ask but couldn’t. Sojiro just stayed beside him and promised him he’d make sure everything would be alright.

When their time was up, Sojiro stood at the request of the officer that had come in to separate them. Before he could leave, Akira spoke up. “I lost my phone,” he said, “They aren’t happy about it.” He watched Sojiro intently, gauging his reaction, trying to tell him something.

“It’s okay. It’s not a big deal. I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Sojiro said and reached down to pat him on the shoulder. The police weren’t getting that phone. He was going to make sure of that.

-

It took Futaba two days to find the woman who had testified against Akira in his previous arrest, much to her personal frustration because she ‘should have found her faster’. Makoto happily took the information she had found and attempted to contact her.

Akira’s parents had called to tell Sojiro they had managed to both get time off work at the same time and could be down in time to see their son before the trial and stay for a small portion of it. They would be staying in a hotel nearby and they thanked him for watching over their son when they’d been too focused on themselves to do it.

Sojiro had made sure they no longer tried to contact him through Akira’s phone. He tried to make sure there were never any responses to the calls or texts sent to Akira’s phone. Police could check for phone records, they although Futaba had a way to work around it, Sojiro didn’t want to take any chances.

He had continued to search through Akira’s phone, however. Akira had purposely left it behind. It made some sense to keep the app that had once sent them to the Metaverse away from the police while they investigated, but the app had disappeared along with Mementos. All that was left that could incriminate him or anyone else were text messages. The Phantom Thieves’ chat, so unfortunately named it would give any onlooker the evidence they’d need to get them arrested, was practically the first thing Sojiro stumbled upon. Beyond that were text messages sent to contacts Sojiro didn’t recognize. Sure, Akira’s friends were there, but there were also names that Sojiro hadn’t heard before, except for perhaps Ms. Kawakami and a politician, Yoshida.

Compelled to figure out what else Akira hadn’t been able to tell him before he ran off, Sojiro read far enough to learn who knew Akira was a Phantom Thief. Once he knew, which was fairly easy since most of them had texted Akira in a panic the night he ‘died’, he gave them a call.

-

He’s furious,” Ms. Oda said over the phone as various strangers were allowed into Leblanc after a quick interrogation from Futaba.

“What’s the password?” Futaba hissed as she peeked through the crack she’d made with the door.

“Uh… Morgana?” replied an uncertain voice. Futaba pulled the door open and ushered a slightly concerned Kawakami into the café.

“Really?” Sojiro asked, nodded to Kawakami in greeting as he attempted to remain focused on his phone call. “I’m sorry we caused you and your son trouble. We wanted to let everyone know.”

It’s not a problem!” she said kindly, “I’m furious too. He really did help Shinya and I more than we could ever repay him for. He told me Akira changed my heart and that was… scary at first, but I’m thankful for it.

“I’m glad he could help.”

Shinya’s convinced he can fix this by talking to people at the little arcade he frequents since the kids there are older than him. Akira’s like a big brother to him and… we’re not sure how much we can do, but if there’s anything you need, let us know.

“Thank you,” Sojiro said, still surprised by how willing everyone he had contacted was to jump into action without question. “I’ll let you know.” After a brief goodbye, Sojiro hung up the phone and glanced around the café, now full of people, most of which he’d never seen before.

Kawakami, who Sojiro thought must have been the final person to enter their meeting, found an empty seat with the help of Ryuji. She smiled sadly, telling Ryuji she was unsurprised that he and Ann had been Phantom Thieves alongside Akira. “It’s obvious in hindsight. I mean, you three were always together.”

Clearing her throat, Makoto gained the attention of the room. Beforehand, she’d done a quick headcount and seemingly deemed the number to be correct. “Thank you for being here, everyone,” she said looking around the room, “As you all already know… we ran into a bit of a problem.”

“This was planned, surely,” a young woman said quietly. She had introduced herself as Hifumi. “You’ve had plans like this before.”

“He didn’t plan it with us,” Makoto explained, “Mostly just with my sister and even then, it was probably a bit rushed.”

“If he hadn’t,” grumbled a sour looking man around a lollipop stem. Iwai, he’d said his name was, with a firm handshake and question about whether or not Akira was being treated alright. Sojiro said that it seemed like it, but Iwai was a bit more pessimistic. “We’d all be in jail right now. It’s not like we were subtle about being accomplices.”

“My sister’s certain she can keep that from happening,” Makoto promised, “but we think we might need your help.”

“Hey, anything,” Ohya, a reporter for a newspaper Sojiro hadn’t read in a long time, said with surprisingly intense confidence, “He helped us out. It’s only fair we return the favor.”

“You’re actually perfect for this,” Ann chimed in from across the room, “You wrote a lot of articles about the Phantom Thieves that really helped our popularity. It would be great if you could do the same for Akira.”

“I can do that,” she said and grabbed for her phone, “I’ve only got one person to convince to let me do it and he actually likes me now.” She laughed like she’d told a joke and the room laughed. Sojiro laughed along, but he was definitely missing something.

Sojiro found himself falling into the background as Makoto took the helm. He’d called these strangers together, but it was the children around him who knew how to utilize them. Social circles could be utilized, calls could be made, old favors could be called upon.

“I could start a petition,” Mishima eagerly offered and Makoto agreed wholeheartedly.

The meeting was in full swing and Sojiro wasn’t sure if there was anything he could contribute. He eventually sat down beside Dr. Takemi and sighed. “It seems like Akira worked for some of these people and they taught him a few things that helped,” he said, “What about you?”

“He came looking for pain medication,” she said, completely unfazed.

Sojiro frowned, “What?”

“Don’t worry,” she said with a smirk, “I mostly gave him herbal remedies and sugar pills or something over-the-counter if he actually came in banged up. The placebo effect works wonders and I tried to keep them pretty cheap for him.”

“Okay,” he said, only somewhat relieved, “And then he told you he was a Phantom Thief?”

“He didn’t tell me per say,” she chuckled, “He’s just a little obvious.”

“He ended up telling me,” Kawakami joined in, “He must have thought he had to since he wanted to convince me to let him change someone’s heart.”

“So, when did Akira tell you about all this?” Sojiro asked, curious. “Did the Principal talk to you about the bullying or…?”

“O-Oh! Th-The bullying?” she laughed awkwardly, “Of course, yes. I tried to stop it from happening whenever I could.”

She seemed caught off guard, but Sojiro didn’t push any farther. There was a large range of adults in his cafe, along with a fortune teller, which Sojiro thought was probably the strangest choice. Sojiro had a strong urge to ask more questions and dig a little deeper into Akira’s text conversations with the people, but he didn’t. Maybe he’d ask Akira when this was over or maybe they’d put all this behind them. Sojiro was sick of being blindsided with new information, but he ultimately resigned himself to it.

Sojiro sat back in his chair and let the meeting unfold around him. They’d fix this together.