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Friday, September 9

Instead of going on the school trip to Hawaii with her friends, Akira Kurusu went to attend an entrepreneurship-related course. She had been looking forward to that course for a while and had enrolled in it two months ago, way before she heard anyone mention the school trip, and she wasn't going to cancel that. Plus, she had the benefit of the course counting as an extracurricular activity. The course would span three days. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Her friends would return to Japan on Monday, and she would join everyone at school on Tuesday.

The first day of the course was over, and Akira was quite satisfied. She had learned a few interesting techniques, some of which she believed would also be useful to her as the leader of the Phantom Thieves.

When she arrived at the hotel, she ran into someone she hadn't expected to see.

"Do you have a reservation, Akechi-san?" The female receptionist asked.

The high school detective fiddled with his hair for a split second. "No, I don't. My trip was too sudden and I didn't have time to make a reservation in advance."

"Oh. Then, I am sorry. We are already packed. If you haven't made a reservation previously, then you cannot get a room."

"Ah. I... see..." Akechi seemed to be considering his options.

"Unless someone is willing to share a room with you," The receptionist added. "Though I think it would be difficult, with your current reputation and all..."

Akira knew too little about the high school detective. He always wore that annoying TV celebrity mask that was obviously too fake and meant nothing to her, and Akira didn't think much of him at first. But that day when Akechi appeared at Leblanc and disclosed a bit about his past, Akira came to a conclusion. It was like the saying went. "Do not judge a book for its cover." And Akechi's cover, his TV celebrity mask, really didn't convey anything about his true nature. She got curious to know him better, but they hadn't run into each other again since then. That is, until now.

Akechi had been receiving a lot of hate from the public since the day the Phantom Thieves managed to take Medged down. Whether the receptionist was seriously considering to have someone share a room with him or was just mocking him was up to anyone's guess, but Akira couldn't waste that opportunity to learn more about the young detective.

"I wouldn't mind." Akira pipped up, right from behind him.

"Ah!" Akechi startled. He quickly turned around, and his eyes widened comically at the sight of her, in an expression totally uncharacteristic of him. "... K-Kurusu-san? I w-wasn't expecting... to see you here."

"Me neither. How many days will you be staying?"

"Until Sunday at most."

"Oh, me too. Um, I don't mind sharing the room with you, if it's really okay with the hotel staff..." Akira threw a glance at the receptionist.

"It's against the rules to have strangers share a room," the receptionist said. "However, you two seem to be well acquainted enough with each other." And Akechi tensed. "Most of our rooms have more than one bed, since people tend to come here in groups." The receptionist checked Akira's reservation info on the computer. "Yes, Kurusu-san, your room actually has two beds. I could change your reservation to a double room reservation."

Akechi's face flushed. "A-are you two serious?"

Akira nodded firmly.

"Still..." Akechi stared downwards sheepishly. "You a-are suggesting that we, two people of the opposite gender... stay in the same room."

"And?" Akira shot back nonchalantly. "I've slept in the company of male friends no problem. And you're going as far as being this polite and arguing this much. I trust you won't try to do anything weird to me."

His face scrunched up in horror. "I wouldn't...!"

"Then, we have nothing to worry." Akira turned to the receptionist. "Please, go on."


Akechi stared apprehensively as the receptionist changed Kurusu's reservation. He paid for his part of the bill, then both he and Kurusu got a copy of the room key.

The hotel was small, and the room was quite plain, but Akechi didn't need much. Indeed, the room had two beds. Akechi sat on one while Kurusu sat on the other. He stared warily at the girl. Outside of his mindless admirers, no one ever welcomed him anywhere he went, especially once they looked at his documents and learned he was a bastard child and an orphan. And he had disclosed about his situation to her, too. She also knew he was against the Phantom Thieves, and obviously couldn't be one of his mindless fangirls. Why did she insist on sharing a room with him so much? She must have an ulterior motive. That had to be it. What could she want with him?

"Kurusu-san, why are you doing this?" He asked bluntly.

"What? Sharing the room? Because I heard that you couldn't get a room, and I don't want to leave you without a place to sleep."

"... Just that?"

"Did you actually expect something else?"

"N-no, I just..." This was frustrating. Even though Akechi always had the exact words to respond to interviews or fan questions, words tended to escape his grasp whenever he was interacting with Akira Kurusu. That girl's behavior didn't follow common patterns, and always defied his logic. "I just think you're being... too nice."

"Are you implying that I'm not a nice person? Now, you offended me, mr. detective."

"Huh!" Akechi quickly shook his head. "No, I am sorry. That was not what I-"

She unexpectedly laughed and waved his apology off. "I'm just kidding. You're too serious, Akechi-kun. Relax."

She had just acted in an unexpected way again. He couldn't comprehend. Was she making fun of him like the bullies at the orphanages and schools he had been at? Or was she trying to lower his guard? ... Or what?

"Actually, there's another reason." Her words snapped him to full alertness again. Of course she had another reason...

Akechi's paranoia kicked in. He had followed the Phantom Thieves in the Metaverse from a distance at a few occasions, and even though it was hard to see details from a far, he suspected she might be one of them, thanks to her peculiar circle of friends, which was mostly composed of people involved with the Thieves' previous targets. What if she were suspecting him as well? What if she were there because she was following him!?

"I wanted to talk to you," she added.

Akechi was on edge now. Was she trying to corner him?

"... Talk about what?" He asked reluctantly.

"I don't know. Hadn't you said you enjoy talking to me?"

"Uh. Y-yes, I had." Akechi admitted. He had really said that. In fact, more than once. Every talk with Kurusu was an interesting experience, as frustrating as their interactions could be.

"But we rarely run into each other, and I was wondering when we'd be able to talk again. When I saw you at the reception room, I decided I couldn't let this opportunity pass. Now that we're here, I believe we'll have more time than usual to interact. So, talk away."

This was suspicious. Akechi needed to gain the upper hand and seize control of the conversation before it was too late. He wanted to make her slip and confirm that she was in the Phantom Thieves, but as Kurusu had just pointed out, they would be in each other's presence for more time than usual, and he didn't want to make her uncomfortable.

"So, Akechi-kun, what brings you to these parts?" She began, since he was taking too long to spark conversation.

"A case. I need to investigate something nearby, and will have to stay here for a few days. What about you?" He hoped she actually wasn't there to follow him.

"A course. Today was the first day. It was great!"

"Hm? Shouldn't you be at school, though? My school gave me permission to take care of detective work during school hours as long as I deliver good academic results. Do you also have permission from your school? Or is this course school-related?"

"Oh, no. It's not school-related. Actually, there's a school trip going on right now, but I had enrolled in this course a few months back and didn't want to miss it. I had to ask for permission to skip the trip."

Akechi offered her a genuine smile of admiration. "You had chosen the course beforehand, and even skipped a school trip in favor of it? You're very dedicated, Kurusu-san."

"There's a huge difference when you choose to learn something you want, rather than when you have to learn stuff others force down your throat."

Akechi had studied a lot on his own, but not necessarily because he "wanted" to learn things. He mostly forced himself to study many subjects just so that he could bring them up as conversational topics, and so that people would view him as a well-informed person.

"Yes, I suppose so..." Akechi answered anyway. And the conversation died. For a moment, they only stared at each other in silence. Akechi decided to try and approach the topic of the Phantom Thieves. "Have you seen the rankings on the Phantom Thieves website?" He quickly added, "Oh, what a silly question. Of course you would-"

"Rankings?" She cut him off. "What's this about rankings?"

"Huh? You haven't seen them?" This threw Akechi off. If Kurusu were indeed a member of the Phantom Thieves, then she should have been keeping up with the website, shouldn't she?

"No, I haven't. I've been too busy lately with the trip here, the course and all."

"Well, there's a ranking about who people want the Phantom Thieves to target next." Akechi ended up explaining. "Mr. Okumura is at the top."

"... Who?"

Akechi suppressed a grunt. Was Kurusu playing dumb or what? "Mr. Kunikazu Okumura. The owner of the Okumura Foods chain, which includes Big Bang Burger."

"Oh...? But why would people want him targeted?"

It was important to have the Thieves target Okumura. It was an integral part of the trap. "His company is growing much too quickly. And there are a lot of shady rumors about it, such as slave labor, and its competitors conveniently... disappearing and benefiting his climb to success."

"'Conveniently' disappearing? What do you mean by that?"

He didn't really want to elaborate, but it sounded like he would need to. "Other fast food chain employees having psychotic breakdowns and causing scandals that ruin the chains' images, like that incident at Wild Duck Burger, for example. Or influential people in the fast food industry... dying of mental shutdowns... and only Okumura benefits from all of this, no matter how you look at it..."

Kurusu's eyes widened. "Whoa, wait. You mean to say the mental breakdowns and shutdowns are planned?"

Akechi nodded. "That's the only explanation. And a thought occurred to me. The forced changes of heart the Phantom Thieves cause are obviously planned as well. Perhaps these mental diseases and sudden heart changes have more in common than we had assumed..." He was expectant to see Kurusu get on the defensive and make a slip.

"... What? You think that the Phantom Thieves are behind those breakdowns and such?"

"I didn't say that. But this theory makes sense, and I believe we shouldn't ignore the possibility. If the Phantom Thieves indeed end up being the ones responsible, then they are more dangerous than we gave them credit for."

Akechi could hear Kurusu's gears turning inside her head. She did an aggravated expression, unable to keep her calm exterior for once, and he was sure he had gotten her this time.

She wordlessly took her cellphone and began tapping on the screen. The taps gradually became more and more furious.

"This... this is outrageous!" She nearly shouted out of the blue, and startled Akechi for the second time that day. "I'm looking at the website right now. The comments are a mess. People are saying whatever they want, telling the Thieves to target anyone before the public gets bored, as though this were some kinda spectacle! Basically, they're saying that as long as they aren't involved, everything can burn and they'll treat it just as entertainment! Ugh, just reading these things make me sick..." She put her phone away.

"That's the public for you. They switch sides easily and just support whatever is more popular at the moment. There's never any guaranty they will remain on your side. They may be with you today, but might become your enemy number one tomorrow. In my case, I had a lot of fans before, but as soon as the Phantom Thieves defeated Medged, everyone suddenly turned against me. You have seen the rankings now, right? I don't know if you noticed, but my name is in there too."

"Haters gonna hate, and there's nothing you can do about it. Just let them talk."

"Thank you," He said, even though he was sure she also disliked him and was just being polite. "Though I have to admit. It'd be interesting if the Phantom Thieves really decided to come after me. Then, I would be able to find out their methods."

"Do you think they'd come after you?"

"... Perhaps."

"What makes you think that?"

"I am the most well-known figure opposing them so far. They might decide to eliminate opposition, just as Okumura has supposedly been doing. If the mental shutdowns and the changes of heart are indeed related, and if the Phantom Thieves turn out to be the ones causing them, then it would be likely that they would chose to follow the same plan."

Kurusu clearly didn't like hearing him blame the Phantom Thieves for the mental diseases. Akechi could tell from her expression that she was holding herself to not scream, "We would never do such things!" or something along those lines.

Kurusu sighed and tried to recover her composure. "Akechi-kun. As much as I don't doubt your detective skills, I hope you're wrong about this. I see the Phantom Thieves as the hope for us who got abused by corrupt adults and wronged by society, you know? I don't want to believe the Phantom Thieves might be responsible for those terrible things."

This threw Akechi off once more. Kurusu was either acting, or was really clueless about Phantom Thieves matters. Akechi almost began doubting his suspicions of her being one of the Phantom Thieves. Almost...

Akechi forced a chuckle. "Yes, let's hope they aren't. As much as I don't like to be wrong, it would be interesting to be proven wrong about this. If it turns out that I was judging the Phantom Thieves badly and they are indeed just, then I can have some hope that not all is lost in this harsh and messed-up world."


The bitterness in Akechi's words caused a pang in Akira's heart. "You think that this world is hopeless? Surely there's a lot of bad stuff going on, but there's a lot of good stuff, too!"

Akechi scoffed, uncharacteristically for his celebrity self.

"Akechi-kun?"

Silence. His only response was to look away from her.

"Okay. I don't know what happened to make you think that way, but we won't talk about it now if you don't want to. Just know that if you feel the need to talk to someone about anything, I'm all ears."

Akechi's mouth opened slightly, but he said nothing. Akira had likely touched a sore spot, and he clearly didn't trust her enough to discuss that topic with her.

"Alright. I'll leave you alone for a bit. I'll go take a shower." Akira stood up from her sitting position on the bed and excused herself to give him some space.


Alone in the room, Akechi began thinking. Not that he disliked the Phantom Thieves. He was sure that their actions were bringing good results. However, they were the perfect scapegoats to frame the mental shutdowns on so that Shido would gain the public's trust and reach the top, which would mean that Akechi could finally get his revenge and shove the man off the mountain. If only the Phantom Thieves had appeared years earlier, before Akechi had approached Shido, before that mysterious entity had given Akechi that power, before Akechi had begun walking that destructive path... he may not have messed up so much, and may still have a chance of having something good in his future.

However, that didn't happen, and reality was totally different. By now, Akechi's life was an irrecoverable wreck, and there was nothing that could be done about it. When Shido tasked him with killing people, he didn't want to. But Shido would eliminate him if he didn't obey, and Akechi went on with it, as it was the only way he could get his revenge later.

Akechi kept telling himself that most of his victims deserved to die because they were corrupt and filthy power-hungry bastards playing the "eat or be eaten" game, but deep down, he had known it was just an excuse. He had known what he had been doing was wrong. He had caused too much harm to others already. But he was way past the point of no return. As an unwanted child, he was already labeled and had no hope for a good future. From the moment he accepted to follow Shido's orders, he threw away the last shards of hope for a decent future that he still might have had. Now, he had nothing else to lose, and the only thing he had a chance of getting was the taste of revenge. And for that, there was no option other than doing what Shido wanted.

Once Kurusu came out of the shower, he went in. And once he came out, they went to have dinner at the small restaurant downstairs. Akechi took his distance to not get in Kurusu's way and let her have her space.


Akira took her full bowl and glanced around in search of Akechi. She spotted him dining all by himself at a faraway table with six seats. He had been acting weird since they had last talked. It must have been the topic. Akira needed to make it up to him somehow.

Akira approached his table. "Akechi-kun?"

"Huh?" He snapped to attention. "What is it?"

"Are you... angry at me?"

He seemed confused. "Hmm? ... No, I'm not. Why do you think that?"

"Well, you've been kinda evasive..."

Akechi shook his head politely. "Oh, no. Sorry if it came across that way. It wasn't my intention. I was just lost in thought. Plus... I didn't want to get in your way. I mean, I'm already intruding in your space by staying in the same room..."

Akira waved it off with her chopsticks. "Nah, you aren't intruding. I wouldn't have offered to share the room if I had thought that, now would I? Also, to tell you the truth, one of the downsides of coming here was that I'd have to spend days here alone, far from all my friends, literally continents apart since they're in Hawaii now. So, I'm glad to have run into a familiar face. Some company would be nice, but if you prefer to have dinner alone, I'll leave."

Akechi raised a hand. "No, that's not it... not that I 'prefer' to have dinner alone. I'm actually not used to have company. Sometimes people from work treat me to dinner, but it's only to discuss work. It's rare for me to hang out with someone around my age, even more so during a trip. If you don't mind having me as company, then by all means take a seat. There are many to choose from." He motioned to all the empty seats around the table.

"Thanks." Akira chuckled at his gesture and sat on the chair next to him. She would go straight to the point. "Um, Akechi-kun. Sorry about earlier."

"Huh? Earlier?"

"Yeah, the topic. It bothered you, didn't it? I'm sorry."

Akechi shook his head. "Don't be. I was the one who started it." He lowered his gaze. "I wish I could have the same positive outlook on the world as you. But..." He trailed off. Akira silently waited for him to continue talking, which he did a moment later. "A lot happened to me while I got passed around institutions and foster homes. It was not easy. Kurusu-san, I don't know the extent of the hardships you have been going through at the moment, but I assume it hasn't been easy, either."

"Huh?" Akira had no idea what he was talking about.

"I... uh..." Akechi inched his head closer and whispered in her ear. "I'm aware that you are under probation. Y-yes, I... looked you up. I'm sorry."

"Oh?" That was all that left Akira's mouth. Come to think of it, it looked like Akechi suspected her and her friends of being the Phantom Thieves, and it was no surprise that he would investigate them. He was a detective, after all. Their personal information had to be the first thing he would look into.

"Assault, though? What did you do?" He continued prodding.

"Trying to get dirt on me now, detective? Or are you just having second thoughts about sharing a room with me?" Akira shrugged slightly. "Seriously, though. Do you think I'm the kind of person that'd assault someone?"

"No, I don't. This is the reason why I'm asking. The way the case was handled was really strange, if you ask me."

"I could tell you the details. Whether you'll believe me or not is a whole different story, though."

"Go on." He nodded in encouragement.

Akira told Akechi about her attempt to save a woman that was being harassed, and how it ruined her life.

"He forced the woman to incriminate you, too?!" Instead of listening with an analytical expression like she had expected, Akechi's eyes flared and he was gritting his teeth by the end of the story.

"Yeah, and she did. Believe it or not."

"I... believe you. While there's no proof of anything, and I have no way to tell whether you are exaggerating or not, I know that this kind of thing can happen. From the anonymity, the man must have been a powerful person as well. Any idea who it was?"

"No idea." Akira shook her head. "It was dark, and I don't remember his face. Not to mention the shock of it all. All I remember is that the guy was so drunk that he couldn't even tell I'm a girl! It was probably for the best, now that I think about it. If he had noticed, he might've tried to harass me, too."

Akechi was horrified. He shuffled awkwardly. "... Uh, sorry. Was this supposed to be funny?"

"I don't know. It was supposed to be absurd, which it is. You may laugh if you want."

"Er, no, I'm not going to laugh at your expense." Akechi paused. "After it happened, how did you react?" He quickly tried to retract the question. "Uh, sorry if this is too personal."

"It's okay. I'll tell you." Akira waved it off. "I didn't know what to do. My previous school labeled me as a delinquent and expelled me. Honestly, I thought my life'd be over. I had worked so hard, studied so hard, done everything to follow the values I learned. I had been sure I had done everything right and had been improving as a person each day. Then, one night, that happened. Everything went downhill in less than five minutes, and I suddenly had my reputation ruined and everything taken away from me in a blink. I was scared of the future. I thought that I might never recover my integrity, or that even if I did, something might happen the next minute and make me lose it all again. I only managed to not give up because my parents know me better than anyone and are on my side. At least Shujin accepted to take me, and I got sent here. My parents couldn't come with me because of their work, but they still support me."

Akechi stared intently at her, as though he were seeing her for the first time ever. "You are an admirable person, Kurusu-san. Despite how the world mistreated you, you still manage to see things in a positive light. You seem cheerful most of the time, and I could have never imagined the things you had gone through, or even that you are an outcast."

"Same here, mr. celebrity. I'd have never known any of the things you went through if you hadn't told me at Leblanc."

He shuffled again on his seat. "To be honest, I hadn't intended to tell you those things. I feared you would treat me like everyone else does if you were to learn about my situation. But when I realized it, I was already talking."

"Looks like you were desperate to get that out of your system. I'm glad you told me, though. You don't seem to be the kind of person that trusts others easily."

"Ah, yes, you got that right. I usually can't get myself to trust others. But I don't know. There is something about you that makes me say more than I should sometimes."

"Who could've guessed? At the end of the day, the famous high school detective is an outcast just like me. I know what it feels like to be labeled. You can talk to me without fear of being looked down on."

"Thank you, Akira."

"Huh?" Akira blinked. "... Did you just call me by my first name?"

Akechi jumped on his seat, startled for the third time since Akira had run into him. "Ah! Sorry. I mean, Kurusu-san." He quickly corrected himself.

"No, Akira is fine. All my friends call me that. I just wasn't expecting to hear you do it so suddenly."


How could she say such a thing so naturally?

"Um, but... I'm not..." Akechi tried to argue.

"My friend?" She finished the sentence for him.

Akechi nodded.

"Yeah, maybe not quite yet. But do you want to be?"

Akechi was unsure about how to respond. He had no friends, as it seemed like no one was willing to give him that status. Even though he didn't know how it felt like to have true friends, he believed that a true friendship was supposed to be special, not something superficial or forced.

"That... would be nice. But do you think we can really become friends? I mean, I believe that a true friendship should be something that comes naturally."

"Despite our different opinions of a few things, we've been getting along pretty well so far, haven't we? I believe we can continue to get along and eventually become good friends. I'd like that."

Unfortunately, it wasn't this simple. There was still his Metaverse issue. If Akira were to find out about the horrible things he had been doing, she would hate him for sure. It should be better to not get too close to her. But...

"By the expression on your face, I can tell you'd like that too." Akira's hand unexpectedly landed on Akechi's arm and startled him. "Wow, you sure are jumpy today, detective. It's the fourth time already."

"... Y-you have been counting?" He lowered his head and tried to hide his embarrassment. "Uh, no, never mind. It's not important. Anyways... y-yes, I w-would like that, but..."

"Then let's give it a try and see what happens over time. The first step is, start by learning to call me 'Akira.' It's how i prefer people to call me. Less formal."

"I..." The notion of having her also address him by first name crossed his mind, but he dropped it quickly. From the time his mother passed away, no one never ever addressed him by his first name again. It was either his full name or last name, never his first name alone. It got to the point that his first name separated from his surname became foreign to his ears. Asking someone who wasn't even a friend (yet?) to use his first name would be asking too much. "I understand," he said instead. "A-alright, then, Akira it is."

"Good." She smiled approvingly at him. "You learn fast."

"I do." Akechi puffed his chest.

"Show-off." Akira elbowed him lightly and startled him once more. "Fifth time. You need to work on learning to get used to these things, too."

"... I suppose so..."

... ... ... ... ...

Akechi and Akira finished their dinner and returned to their assigned room. Akira turned on the TV, but nothing interesting was airing. They flipped through the channels and tried to watch a few movies, but nothing grabbed their attention enough. A yawn from Akira was the sign that they should stop wasting their time with meaningless boring movies and go to sleep.

"Okay. Now I need a good night kiss." Akira suddenly declared.

"... What?"

"A good night kiss." She repeated.

"Y-yes, I heard that."

"Then, please, Akechi-kun, would you...?"

"M-me?!" Akechi's eyes widened. "Why?"

"There's no one else here." She stated the obvious.

"Huh? But this is... not right!"

"Just a quick and light peck on the cheek. That's all I'm asking. Nothing special. There's nothing wrong about that."

"Um, but..."

"Please?" Akira insisted.

"..." Akechi tried to ignore her request, but she didn't seem about to give up anytime soon.

"... Pretty please?"

Akechi bravely tried to not give in to that cute pleading face of hers. "A-Akira, sorry, but..."

"Akechi-kun, you accepted to learn to become my friend. So, you obviously need to learn how to deal with me. It's part of the process."

Akechi didn't respond for a moment, but Akira refused to stop staring at him expectantly, and he didn't want to see that expectant face morph into a sad face. Akira was always so cheerful, and sadness didn't fit her. Plus, if she was specifically requesting that action, she shouldn't think less of him if he were to do it. It should be okay.

"... F-fine." With a sigh, Akechi stood up and hesitantly walked over to the other bed where Akira was seated. After an intake of air, he tentatively inched closer, and his lips timidly touched Akira's delicate cheek. Then, Akechi quickly backed away and scurried back to the other bed as though he had just done something forbidden.

As if his embarrassment weren't enough already, Akira began laughing her head off. "Ah... ... you... you really did it!"

"H-huh?" Realization finally dawned on him. Akira was just messing with him. Akechi wanted to bury his face into the ground. "Argh, I really shouldn't have done this... it was a prank, wasn't it?"

Akira's laughing subsided. "Hmm, sort of. More like a dare. Honestly, I didn't think you'd really do it. But you did... and it was so cute! Well, after this, it's only fair that I do my part too." She stood up. "Don't worry. I won't leave you to bear the embarrassment alone."

Akira was walking towards his bed.

Akechi's eyes widened in panic. "A-Akira, wait..."

She reached him. Akechi tried to back away, but Akira was quicker. With no hesitation whatsoever, she inched forward and kissed his cheek, with a level of affection and kindness that he didn't deserve. Akechi froze on the spot, and his heart began beating faster.

"Done. Now we're even, right?"

Akechi's mouth opened, but no words came out.

"Good night." Akira gave him a kind smile and walked back to her bed. She placed her glasses on the bedside table and turned the lights off.

It took a while until Akechi finally recovered his movements and managed to get in bed. "... Akira?"

"Hm?"

"This made me remember. My mother used to do that when I was little."

"Oh?"

"I saw it on a foreign movie, and basically convinced her to do it."

Akira laughed. "Aww. I'm just imagining how cute it probably was. Anyway, it seems to be a good memory."

"Yes, it is." A memory from the time he was just a child, when his heart had been pure and he had done no wrong. His mother's good night kisses had been his incentives to stop playing and go to bed early. They were nice. Akira's was nice too, but it was different. For some reason, it made him feel dazed and caused his heart to beat faster. In fact, his heart was still racing.

"Sorry to have embarrassed you." Akira apologized. "But I'm glad that this brought you a good memory back."

"No, it's fine. Uh... thank you." Akechi didn't know what else to say. Despite the awkwardness of the event, a quick thought crossed his mind. The thought that he wouldn't mind having it happen again...

Chapter Text

Saturday, September 10

Akechi went to the Metaverse just as planned. He had orders to eliminate the Shadow of Shujin Academy's principal, whose Palace was a property nearby. However, something unexpected got in the way of his plans. Akechi was quite out of his element and was making too many basic mistakes, being ambushed more often than not and increasing the Palace's security level. Why? Because he often found himself distracted by his memories of his latest interactions with Akira Kurusu. The way she didn't seem to judge him, despite his past, and despite his opinion differing from hers. The way she seemed to like the idea of them becoming friends. The way she defied his logic by embarrassing him while seemingly trying to make him feel at ease at the same time. The way she kissed his face so gently and made him feel as though he was floating in the clouds...

Of course, the Shadows took good advantage of Akechi's absentminded state, and scored critical hits and one status effect after another. Dizzy, forget, confuse... even though the status effects healed over time, it got to a point where Akechi's head was spinning from having his mental state scrambled so much, and it was obvious to him that clearing that Palace that day would be impossible. Not to mention that the security level was too high already. Akechi would have to retreat.

It was five in the afternoon when Akechi returned to the room at the hotel, and his head hurt. He took a shower and tried to clear his head, but the shower didn't help him feel better in the slightest.

Akechi tried to take a nap, in hope of getting better after waking up. However, his headache refused to go, and sleep refused to come.

Frustrated, he left the hotel and dropped by the nearest hospital to hopefully get a medicine to reduce the pain. Of course, the doctor wasn't able to identify the cause and just said it was a high level of stress. Akechi had the recommended medicine and returned to the hotel.

Thanks to the medicine, the pain went away little by little, and Akechi was feeling well enough to do some of his school homework. However, it wasn't long until his eyes began insisting on closing on their own, and he began feeling numb...


When Akira arrived back from her second day of the course and entered the hotel room, she found Akechi sitting slouched on his bed holding a pencil and a notebook.

"I'm back." She announced.

"Hmm." Akechi mumbled. He straightened his posture and looked at her wearily.

"Akechi-kun, are you okay?" Something was clearly wrong, and she couldn't help but ask.

"Hm? Yes, I'm fine. I had a strong headache earlier, but I had a medicine and am feeling better now."

"Ah." The medicine may be making him sleepy or something. "What are you doing?"

"Homework. I have to maintain good academic results."

"Okay. I'll take a shower and will be back soon."

Akechi nodded and directed his attention back to his homework.

When Akira came back from the shower, Akechi was still with his notebook and pencil, but his head had drooped, his eyes were closed, and his hands weren't moving at all.

"Akechi-kun." Akira lightly tapped on his shoulder. "You should probably stop for now."

"... No." He raised his head and responded. His eyes half-opened and went for the letters on his notebook again, but his pencil didn't move.

"Let me see." Akira effortlessly snatched the notebook from him.

"You won't understand. Third year material." His words dragged heavily.

She took a look anyway. "I can't tell what these equations are for, but I can tell that your calculations are wrong. You aren't in a condition to be doing math exercises right now."

"It's Physics." He countered with an expression between sleepy and smug.

Akira wanted to laugh, but contained herself. "Whatever. The point is, you're doing stuff wrong, and I'm sure this wouldn't count as 'good academic results.' You should wait to do your homework once you're feeling better."

"I'm fine!" Akechi insisted, even though he was clearly not fine.

"No, you aren't. You should take a rest."

"'M not tired." His heavy speech was anything but convincing.

Akira sighed. "Detective, you're so stubborn."

"You too." He shot back.

Akira playfully stuck her tongue out at him. And much to her amusement, he... did the same in return. Akira was unable to keep from laughing. Akechi tended to be too polite in front of others, and wouldn't have acted this way under normal circumstances. Whatever medicine he had had seemed to be causing quite the effect on him, and making him forget to put his polite masks and filters on.

"Stop it." Akechi grimaced, seemingly displeased that Akira was laughing at him.

"Uh, sorry." Akira managed to suppress her laughter.

"... Give that back." The detective's gaze fell on the notebook on Akira's hand.

"Uh-uh." Akira refused.

Akechi grabbed at the notebook, but his movements were too slow in his groggy state, and Akira effortlessly brought the notebook farther away from him. When he tried again, he lost the grasp on the pencil he had still been holding. The pencil rolled away until it fell from the bed and clattered to the ground. Akechi slowly reached out from his sitting position, but gave up and grunted in frustration, as though rolling out of bed to retrieve the pencil were too much work.

Akira retrieved the pencil, and Akechi stared expectantly at her.

"No, I'm not going to hand it back. Come and take it if you want." Akira placed both the notebook and the pencil on her bedside table, completely out of his reach in his current position.

Akechi grunted in annoyance and gave up for the moment.

Akira remained standing near her bedside table. "Now, have some sleep. I'll wake you up at dinner time."

"Not sleepy." Akechi dared insist even though his eyes refused to stay open, his movements were sluggish, and his voice barely came out.

"Yeah, sure," Akira said sarcastically. Anyone could tell at a glance that he might fall asleep at any moment. "What do you want to do, then?" But she had to admit that his brain was working surprisingly well to come up with arguments to throw back at her, and she made sure to add, "Aside from studying, that is."

It took a few seconds, but Akechi seemed to realize Akira had destroyed the argument he had been about to use. He said nothing, and insisted on struggling to keep his eyes open and stare at her, as if to prove to her that he wasn't sleepy. He suddenly stood up and took a few slow steps.

"Hey, where are you going?" Akira hurried over to him, worried that he might trip or bump into something.

Akechi walked past her and positioned himself behind her.

"Huh? A-Akechi-kun, what are you doi-" When Akira turned around to regard him, Akechi snatched her glasses off. "Hey! Give that back." She protested.

"Uh-uh." He refused, and did exactly as Akira had done with his study materials.

Since Akechi's movements were slow, Akira could very well have taken the glasses back from his hands. But she chose to let him have his way, just to give him the sense of satisfaction. She would make him think he had won, a fitting strategy for a Phantom Thief. It seemingly worked, from the way he placed the glasses on his bedside table and chuckled proudly to himself.

"I give up." Akira sighed in mock defeat. "You got me this time, detective."

Amusingly enough, this seemed to have convinced Akechi. He smirked in triumph, then stuck his tongue out at her again.

Akira did her best to contain herself and not give away that the victory had been hers, and not squeal at how adorable unfiltered Akechi was. She wondered whether he would remember this interaction once he was back to normal, or whether she would ever see him acting this way again after this.

"Okay, enough fighting. I don't like being on bad terms with you. How about we make up?" Akira suggested. "Let's make a trade. I give you your things back and you give me my glasses back. How does this sound?"

Akechi eventually nodded. Both teenagers retrieved the items from their respective bedside tables and walked towards each other. Instead of taking his items from Akira or handing her the glasses, though, Akechi took the glasses and awkwardly tried to put them back on Akira's face.

Akira stifled a chuckle. "... Um, they're upside down, Akechi-kun."

The groggy detective shuffled in embarrassment for a few seconds, then turned the glasses upright and resumed his attempt to put them on Akira. It was amusing to see the expression of concentration on his face as he tried to adjust the glasses. After some more struggling, he smiled at Akira when he finally managed to get the glasses right.

"Aww, this was so sweet of you. Thanks." Akira held the notebook on one arm to free one of her hands, which she used to pat Akechi on the head. "Here are your things."

Akechi took his study materials and placed them on the bedside table, seemingly accepting he wasn't in a state to do homework at the moment. He sat back on his bed and sighed tiredly.

"You should take a nap now." Akira insisted, and earned a grimace from Akechi. "Ah. If you always act like this when told to go to sleep, you'd have a hard time living with Morgana. Uh, I mean... my cat. He keeps bothering me and doesn't stay still whenever I refuse to go to bed early."

Akechi chuckled amusedly, and proved that he was actually listening.

"Seriously, Akechi-kun. At least rest for a few minutes while I catch up with my cellphone messages, then I'll wake you up and we go grab dinner."

Akechi reluctantly complied and got in bed at last. He grimaced, brought a hand to his head and grunted in pain.

"Is it the headache?" Akira stepped closer to his bed.

Akechi quickly removed his hand from his head to pretend his previous action had never happened. "I'm fine..."

Akira didn't buy it. She reached out and began petting his head.

"Stop." He protested weakly.

"Huh?" Akira stopped abruptly, worried that she might be making his pain worse or something.

"Go do your things. Wasn't this why you wanted me to go to sleep, so that I wouldn't get in the way?"

"What?" Akira was shocked. "Where did you even get that idea from? I didn't say that!"

Akechi scoffed. "But it's what you thought, isn't it?"

"No, it isn't! I only meant that you have time to rest while I do my stuff. That's all."

Akechi managed a suspicious stare for a few seconds, but his eyes closed, and he heaved another tired sigh. "Just... don't mind me, and go do whatever."

Akira was perplexed at the young detective's behavior, and wondered what might be wrong with him to make him think like that. She couldn't help but want to make him feel better, though. Despite his protests, Akira slowly reached out again and resumed petting his head. Akechi seemed too tired to argue back and didn't complain anymore. Soon, he was sound asleep.

Akira returned to her bed. She took her cellphone and checked up on Futaba and Morgana, then read emails she had gotten from her friends that were currently in Hawaii. They were sending her emails instead of using the chat because of the timezone difference, according to Makoto. And there was a message from Ryuji saying that Akira wasn't missing much, because everything they had done in Hawaii so far was the same as what they always did in Japan, including eating at Big Bang Burger. The mention of the fast food company made Akira recall her talk with Akechi from yesterday, when they discussed the Phansite rankings and the rumors about the Okumura Foods' president, but she decided to wait to talk about this once her friends were back in Japan. Akira replied to everyone's messages and put the phone away.

Fifteen minutes had passed since Akira began checking up on her friends. Akechi needed his rest, and Akira decided to wait a bit more. She checked the news and played games on her phone for twenty minutes, then walked over to Akechi's bed to wake him up.

"Akechi-kun?" She tapped on his shoulder lightly.

Akechi stirred. He blinked sleepily a few times, and when his gaze focused on Akira, he smiled. It was a natural smile, not one of those forced ones from TV.

Akira found herself smiling back. "You okay?"

Akechi's response was to slowly sit up, then get on his feet. He silently nodded to Akira, then headed to the bathroom. When he came back a couple of minutes later, Akechi still looked sleepy. Not even splashing water on his face seemed to have helped much.

Akira looked at him with concern. "What about the headache?"

"Gone." He uttered weakly.

Akira looked him in the eye. "Do you really mean it? Don't lie to me, please."

Akechi held her gaze for a second, then nodded firmly.

"Good." Akira smiled in approval. Akechi didn't seem to be lying this time. "Feeling well enough to go have dinner downstairs?"

It took a while for Akechi to process the question. "I... I'll go." His speech was still slow and dragged.

Akira was worried. Even though Akechi was apparently faring better than before, the medicine he had had still seemed to be doing a number on him. "Are you sure? I could find a way to bring your food here."

"I'll go." He repeated, trying to sound more firm.

"Okay. If that's what you want." Akira came closer to him and placed a comforting hand on his arm. "Don't worry. I'll be with you all the way."

They left the room and waited for the elevator. A few minutes passed, but no sign of the elevator. Akechi was almost falling asleep while standing.

"It's taking a while." Akira stated the obvious, mostly to keep Akechi awake.

"... Stairs?" Akechi uttered.

"No way!" Akira shot him a stern look. "What if you fall?"

"I won't." He tried to appear smug, without much success.

"I don't wanna take this risk."

"Then, I'll go alone." Akechi declared, much to Akira's dismay.

"No. You're coming with me," Akira said firmly.

"I'm fine on my own. I've always been..." Akechi mumbled, looking away from Akira.

It was amusing to see Akechi acting like a sulky child, instead of being polite like usual. However, he was refusing her help and behaving weirdly again. Akira was sure something was going on with him, but wasn't sure about how to approach it.

The elevator's arrival put an end to their little argument.

"The elevator's here. Problem solved. Let's go." Akira took the lead and pulled Akechi inside.

The elevator was packed, and the two teenagers ended up standing extremely close to each other. Despite the trip being short, Akechi seemed about to fall asleep while leaning into Akira as the elevator descended.

At the hotel's restaurant, Akira grabbed dinner for the two of them. She asked for a fork because she didn't trust Akechi to be able to control chopsticks at the moment. Once again, they sat next to each other at a table. Akechi still looked about to fall asleep, but was able to eat his food with no problems, though very slowly. Akira's dinner was no more, and she had to wait a while until Akechi finished eating.

Akira helped Akechi back to their room, then they took turns to use the bathroom and brush their teeth.

When Akira appeared back from the bathroom, she found Akechi sitting on his bed with his head low and a miserable expression on his face.

"Akechi-kun, what's wrong?"

Akechi took a while to respond. "It's always like this..." He began in a low voice, and Akira had to come closer to hear him. It sounded more like he was mumbling to himself rather than speaking to her. "Like at the foster homes. No matter what I did... no matter how well I behaved, all I managed was to intrude in the families' normal lives, waste their time and resources, and be a burden to them." He heaved a sigh. "I shouldn't have agreed to stay in this room with you. Now, I'm intruding in your life and burdening you, too..."

Akira had known orphans and children born out of wedlock had it pretty rough, but she couldn't even begin to imagine what bad experiences Akechi had gone through while in foster care. By the sounds of it, he felt that he was unwelcome everywhere, and that everyone viewed him as a burden. Was this the reason he tended to be so polite? To give the impression of a well-behaved kid?

"No, you aren't being a burden. I'm glad I decided to share the room with you. If I hadn't, you'd have no one to take care of you now."

Akechi gaped for a moment. "... Why, Akira? Why are you helping me so much?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"Aren't you doing this just to be polite or... you know."

"What?" Akira shot him a quizzical look. "Do you really think I'd offer to share a room with you and all just to be polite? I'm doing this because I want to help."

Akechi's face filled with hope. "Does... does this mean... that you care about me?"

"Yeah, of course."

"R-really?" Akechi's voice wavered. "No, it's impossible. No one does..."

And Akira came to a conclusion. His childish behavior from earlier hadn't been from the 17 year old Goro Akechi. It had been from the abandoned and helpless child he had locked away inside his heart, suppressed while he was forced to endure whatever he had to endure, deprived of the chance to come out because no one would give him proper attention.

"I do." She responded. "Tell me. What did they do to you?"

It looked like Akechi wouldn't respond, but he began speaking after a moment of silence. "At the institutions, I only served to add to the number of children, because the government gave them more money according to how many children lived there. The older kids bullied me, and no one ever cared." Akechi had a pained expression as he spoke. "People value blood relations so much, and always make a disgusted face whenever they look at my documents and see that I'm a bastard child. Apparently, being orphaned for having lost parents in a tragedy is one thing, and being orphaned for being a bastard child and unwanted by any relative is a whole different story. Once I was forced into a new foster family and they learned about my background, they'd look down on me and begrudgingly take me in. Some families only took me in to get the money from the foster care program, and others weren't given a choice because I had nowhere to go. Some neglected me, others beat me up for whatever reason, and once the social services found out how I was being treated, I got sent to another place, to some other random family that had accepted to take part in the program. They'd see my documents, rinse, repeat. This happened so many times that I've lost count. I did everything to be on my best behavior so that people would treat me better. It helped a little, but still no one really cared about me."

Akira felt a pang in her heart. How dare those people be so cold-hearted and treat him so poorly? How could they not care about that stubborn, but also sweet and cute child? And taking him in just to get the money from the foster care program? What the hell? This was the kind of people who needed a change of heart. How dare they take advantage of an innocent and helpless child like that?! Society had failed him, with its corrupt adults and screwed-up foster care system. Akechi had actually had it worse than any of the Phantom Thieves. It made sense that he would have become traumatized, and begin thinking whoever decided to help him had ulterior motives. This must be the reason he didn't trust others easily, and the reason he kept refusing her help and insisting he was fine on his own earlier. Now, Akira wanted to comfort him even more, and give him all the attention he deserved.

Akechi slowly stood up and took a tentative step towards her. "Do you really care, Akira?" He asked expectantly.

"Yeah, I do." Akira nodded firmly.

She determinedly closed the distance between them and enveloped him in a comforting embrace. Akechi's eyes lit up, and his mouth curved up into a wide, joyful smile. He wrapped his arms around Akira's waist and held her tightly as though his life depended on it, and began chuckling happily to himself. Akira wasn't sure whether Akechi was fully aware of his actions and whether he would remember them later, but she was glad that he was feeling better.

Akechi eventually leaned into her. The medicine seemed to have gotten the better of him again, and he dozed off with his head resting on Akira's shoulder.

Akira stroked his hair and continued holding him patiently until he moved again.

"Why? I don't understand." The sleepy detective mumbled. "Why do you care so much?"

"Hmm?" Akira wasn't sure. That was the kind of question she didn't think there was a logical answer for. "I don't know. What a strange question, detective. We began interacting, and I came to know you a bit better. When I realized it, I was caring, and that's it."

"... Just like that?" Akechi let out an amused chuckle. "Ah, this answer is so like you. You make things sound so simple... then, do you mean to say that it comes naturally?"

"Yeah, just how we agreed that friendships grow naturally."

"F-friendships..." Akechi muttered the word as though it were foreign to him. "You... still think we can be...?"

"Huh? Of course."

Instead of cheering up, Akechi looked sad. "Your heart is so pure. Unlike mine..."

"Hey, don't say that."

"But it's the truth." Akechi spoke slowly and in a low voice. "If only you could look inside my heart, you'd see how messed-up it is. And I'm sure you wouldn't like it..." His expression became pained. "I wasn't strong enough. I... screwed up so much..."

Akira had no idea where that was going. "Screwed up? What are you talking about?"

"I, I... I...!" Akechi abruptly broke free from Akira's embrace. He shut his eyes and shook his head frantically. "No! I don't want to think about it now. Or... ever again. I just want to... to..." Akechi began fighting his tears off. Despite his efforts, tears formed and leaked out of his eyes.

"Akechi-kun!" Akira gasped, unsure whether to run to Akechi or to get a pack of tissues. She finally settled on taking the tissues and hurried over to her bag, then went over to Akechi and began wiping the tears from his face. Akira could tell that Akechi was insisting on holding his tears off. "No need to hold your tears. Just let them come."

"B-but if I c-cry, they'll beat me up again..." Akechi said between sobs.

Akira didn't understand. "They? Who are you talking about?"

"The adults... they say I make too much noise and th-they can't sleep..."

"Huh?" Realization dawned on Akira. Akechi's suppressed child side must have come forth again. He must be talking about the adults from those foster families that mistreated him. "It's just you and me. There's no one else here."

"They're in the other room. They'll shout and come and..."

"No, they won't. I'm sure. Just trust me." Akira placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay to cry, Akechi-kun."

At that, Akechi was unable to contain his tears anymore, and began sobbing and crying uncontrollably.

The way he was breaking down briefly reminded Akira of Kamoshida and Madarame after their changes of heart. The more Akira wiped his tears, the more teardrops kept forming and rolling down his face. Akira patiently wiped Akechi's tears until they stopped coming.

"You don't need to tell me about it if you don't want to. If you ever feel like talking about it someday, though, I'll be here to listen."

Akechi didn't respond, and just stared downwards in shame.

"I think we should go to sleep. We need to get up early tomorrow, right?" Akira suggested.

"Don't want to sleep."

Here we go again, Akira thought with a sigh. "You're practically asleep while standing, you know."

"I don't want this to end..."

"What are you talking about?"

"This moment. This... dream. It's a dream, right?" Akechi paused. "Yes, you said you care about me. This can only be a dream, and I don't want it to end..." He mumbled. "If I wake up, the dream will end. I can only wake up if I'm sleeping, therefore, I don't want to sleep, so that I can't wake up..."

"Akechi-kun...?" Akira almost laughed at his desperate logic, but settled on being sad at how broken he was. "No, it's not a dream. It's real."

"... Is it? ... Then, if I sleep and wake up tomorrow, you'll still... care about me?"

"Of course."

A bit of silence. "... Okay." Akechi finally relented.

"Then, good night, Akechi-kun." Akira hugged him lightly, and gently gave him a good night kiss. He flashed a contented smile, but didn't move from his position.

Akira turned the lights off and went to bed. She fell asleep, only to wake up a short while later.

"Akira..." Akechi's voice came weakly from her right.

"Huh?" Akira startled awake, and realized that Akechi was leaning into her bed. "Akechi-kun? What is it?"

Akechi's hands navigated the region of the pillow until they met Akira's head. They stroked her hair a few times, then located her face. Akechi paused and Akira heard some shuffling before he resumed touching her face. From his touch, Akira could tell that he had removed his gloves.

"A-Akechi-kun...?"

He tapped Akira's face and hair curiously, as though he were discovering the sensation of touch for the first time. Akechi felt for the side of her face, then slowly inched closer and fondly placed a kiss on Akira's cheek. "... Night."

That gesture was so sweet, so caring, so soothing...

Akechi's hand went back to petting Akira's head, just like she had done to him when she tried to get him to sleep before dinner. This and the warmth that washed over Akira's heart lulled her to sleep, and the last thing she heard was a voice in her head saying that the Justice Confidant had ranked up.

Chapter Text

Sunday, September 11

Last night, Akechi slept better than he had in a long time. As his eyes slowly fluttered open and saw the sunlight reflected on the wall, he realized that it was sunrise. Akechi stirred, and a peaceful smile formed on his face at the memories of dreams about what it could have been, where he was younger, had no evil in his heart, and played happily with Akira. They would argue like friends did, not in an harmful way, but just to see who could get the upper hand in the argument. They would soon make up, spend time together, and even after learning about his background, Akira would still say she cared about him. And when he was vulnerable, she would tell him it was okay to cry and...

"Hmm? A-Akechi-kun!?" Akira's surprised voice came a few centimeters from his left, and Akechi finally realized where he was. He was right next to Akira, on her bed.

"Ah!" He startled as he tried to back away, and nearly fell from the bed. "A-Akira, I-I'm sorry!" Akechi blurted with his face red in embarrassment. He didn't know what else to say. "I a-apologize." Akechi couldn't make eye contact with Akira. She wasn't the Akira from his dreams, in whose presence he could make embarrassing mistakes without fear of being judged.

"Stop that." Akira sounded annoyed.

"I am really sorry. I honestly ha-have no idea how I... ended up... here." He sat up, ready to leave the bed. "This will never happen again, I-"

"I have no idea, either. You weren't here the last time I saw you. But no, that's not it." Akira also sat up, and unexpectedly placed a hand on his shoulder. "What I meant is, stop apologizing so much, being so formal and stuff. You don't need to do that with me, you know. Besides, I only realized you were here just now. You haven't done anything weird to me. I'd have noticed earlier if you had."

Akechi froze, unsure about how to respond. Akira's hand left his shoulder and proceeded to pet his head, and Akechi got lost in his memories of his dreams, the "could have been" moments... wait, but why was she doing this, right after he did something so embarrassing to her?

"6:45," Akira said out of nowhere, and the meaning of those numbers was lost on Akechi. He only realized what she was talking about when he saw the cellphone in her other hand. "It's still a bit early. So, wanna go back to sleep or what?"

"Err..." Akechi rubbed his eyes. "I-I don't think I can, after... this."

"I'm fully awake, too. If you want, we can talk to pass the time."

Akechi reluctantly agreed. They took turns to use the bathroom, and as Akechi waited for Akira to come back, he tried to recall yesterday's events. He remembered that he had been doing his homework, then the medicine made him sleepy. He was unsure what happened afterwards, just that Akira was forced to help him grab dinner downstairs.

Akira returned to the room, and surprised Akechi by sitting next to him on his bed. He had thought she would try to avoid him now.

"Akira." Akechi reluctantly began. "Yesterday, um... that medicine got the better of me, and... I don't remember much of what happened. I recall you helping me get dinner at the restaurant downstairs, but that's about it. I am sorry for whatever trouble I may have caused."

Akira burst laughing, and caught him off guard again. "No worries. You were being a bit difficult, but that's it. You've caused no trouble at all."

Akechi lowered his head in defeat. "Sorry. I really don't remember anything..."

"I see..." Why did Akira look a bit... disappointed? "Ah well, whatever. Just know that you owe me a pack of tissues."

"Huh?" The mention of tissues struck him like a shock spell. Akechi's gaze flew to the trash can in the room, and it indeed contained a lot of discarded tissues. Then, did this mean that it wasn't a dream? Did this mean that he had really broken down in front of Akira, that she had said all those comforting things, hugged him and...

"Remembered something?" Akira's voice took him out of his stupor.

"D-did I really...?"

"Cry? Yeah, you did."

"...! Th-then, did I really tell you all those things and you tell me all those things and...?" Akechi was unable to choose his words. They came out in a mess and he tripped over everything he said.

Akira laughed amusedly again, and Akechi was starting to enjoy that spontaneous laugh. "Yeah. I told you it wasn't a dream, didn't I?"

"Akira..." Akechi felt like crying again. If he were to do it and Akira still comforted him, it would be proof that her fondness for him was real. Proof that there was one person in the world who cared about him.

But he didn't even need to cry. Akira enveloped a comforting arm around his shoulders. "I'll say this once more. I'm glad that I was here to take care of you. And you know what? If needed, I'd gladly do it again."

Akechi gaped. Two lone teardrops formed, but he swatted them away with his hand. His heart began racing, and he felt a peculiar warmth in his chest, just like that time Akira told him she cared, in his... not-dream. This was the confirmation he needed, and now Akechi was sure. This was it. The warm feeling he had sought during his whole life. The feeling of being accepted, of being loved by someone. Now he had finally experienced it. This was what he had always wanted, and much more than he currently deserved. Akechi couldn't be happier.

Akechi and Akira went downstairs to have breakfast. As they began eating their food, Akechi spoke up.

"Akira. Are you still scared of the future?"

"Hmm?"

"You said that after you were falsely-accused, you were scared of never recovering your reputation, or recovering it but losing it in a blink again. Are you still scared of that?"

"Sometimes. Not as much as before, though. But I'll keep moving forward. I'm sure that all's not lost, and I'm not gonna bow down as long as I have hope."

A disturbing thought occurred to Akechi. If it turned out that Akira was indeed one of the Phantom Thieves and she ended up falling into Shido's trap, then it would really happen. She would lose everything in a blink. That thought caused a knot to form in Akechi's stomach. He didn't want that to happen to her. She didn't deserve that.

"The Phantom Thieves..." Akechi mumbled.

"Huh?"

Akechi had to come up with an excuse quickly. "Oh, no, I was just thinking. When people find themselves in a hard situation, they either give up or choose to believe in something to try to remain standing. Some choose a religion, for example. And you chose the Phantom Thieves. Is this it?"

Akira chuckled. "Something like that. And what about you? What do you believe in, Akechi-kun?"

Akechi searched his mind for an answer, but found none. Before, he would have tried to say something beautiful, or something that sounded righteous or polite and that others were likely to be pleased to hear. But he wasn't feeling like it now. As unsatisfactory as his answer was, Akechi felt he should be honest. "I... don't know."

Akira just smiled. "It's okay. Don't be ashamed of not having an answer to that. Actually, I think it's not supposed to be easy, considering where you came from. If you don't mind me saying, though, I think you're just the kind of person the Phantom Thieves wish to give hope to."

"Give hope to...? Are you sure they aren't just after fame and glory?"

"What?" Akira seemed horrified. "No! ... I mean, it can't be..." She quickly tried to recover from her little slip.

"Hmm. Let's see what they'll do now that their popularity is higher than ever. If they choose to blindly follow the rankings and do whatever their fans want, then I'll conclude that all they want is to please the public and get even more famous."

"It seems that the Phantom Thieves is the one topic we really can't seem to agree on, eh?" Akira sighed. "I really hope you'll find something good to believe in, though. It doesn't need to be the Phantom Thieves. You've gone through a lot. I just want you to have goals, motivations to continue on."

Revenge. His only motivation. Though it was strange to think about that, now that he had managed to get what he had wanted the most.

After breakfast, Akira left for her course, and Akechi for the Metaverse. Unlike yesterday, he felt rested and full of energy, and managed to clear the Palace without much trouble.

Akechi got to the place he was sure to be the last safe room. It was time to eliminate Kobayakawa's Shadow, the sole reason why he had come here. Akechi didn't want to continue killing people. But he had to do it, because Shido had ordered him to do so. Because doing what Shido wanted was the only way Akechi could get his revenge...

Akechi hesitated. The thought of revenge didn't motivate him like before. He had already gotten what he had always wanted, and for that, he hadn't needed revenge, and hadn't needed Shido. So, what was the point?

"Why the hesitation?" A voice, more like a sudden thought, rang inside his mind. It was Loki, his vengeful Persona. "You have come this far. You can't back out now and throw all your effort away. You have paid a high price for your revenge already. The lives of various people. If you give up, all of that will be unjustified. Are you fine with that?"

"Excuses!" His righteous side, Robin Hood, suddenly argued back. "For the sake of revenge? For the sake of justice? What justice? You know that these are all but pathetic excuses for excuses. What is done is done, and those actions can never be justified."

"... Yes. I know..." Akechi agreed.

"But have you forgotten?" It was the Loki side again. "After everything you have done, you aren't worthy of having a place in society. No one will accept you. Not even Akira. Once she finds out the truth, she will hate you."

Come to think of it, Akechi had wanted revenge because Shido had ruined his life. But by following those cursed orders, Akechi ruined not one, but various people's lives. Akechi was probably worth even less than Shido now... he doubted Akira would continue accepting him if she were to find out the truth.

"Yes, you aren't worthy of a place anymore, nor of the right to be loved. You have nothing to lose, since you have lost everything already." Loki insisted. "Shido deserves to suffer, and you are the only one that can deliver this suffering. You are so close..."

That might be true... but that revenge seemed more pointless each second. Akechi had been so selfish. How could he have thought that he had the right to ruin so many people's lives just to get back at someone for having ruined one life? No, all that mess wasn't worth it... but what could he do by this point? He had already gone too far.

"You cannot undo the damage you have done, but there are things you can still prevent." It was the Robin Hood side. "You have insider knowledge that you can use to prevent the situation from getting worse, if you play your cards right. You will need to take risks, and to have some hope."

"Hope, huh?" Akechi muttered.

"I think you're just the kind of person the Phantom Thieves wish to give hope to." Akira's words replayed in his head.

The Phantom Thieves. If their intention was indeed to give others hope, if they only wanted to help those in need, then they were exactly the kind of people Akechi imagined ideal heroes should be. He had waited for so long for heroes to appear and save him, and no one came. They were there now. There was the saying, "better late than never," but in Akechi's case, it was already too late. However...

Akechi thought about Akira. How she had been incriminated falsely and gotten her reputation ruined. She didn't deserve that, and didn't deserve to fall into the trap Shido was laying for the Phantom Thieves, assuming she was indeed one of them. Even if not, if the Phantom Thieves happened to be extremely kind-hearted people just like Akira, they didn't deserve it, either.

Akechi couldn't have imagined what he was getting into when he approached Shido. While he had suspected Shido would have him do some questionable things, nothing could have prepared Akechi for the man's orders and plans to be so twisted. Chances were that the Phantom Thieves had no idea what they were getting into, either. Someone needed to do something and prevent them from getting in too deep, so that they wouldn't have their futures ruined like Akechi had. And it looked like that someone would need to be him...

The Loki side wasn't pleased by these thoughts. "Oh, so you have decided to listen to that naive cartoon hero Persona? I will warn you once more. No matter what you do from now on, no one will accept you. And once Akira finds out, she will hate you."

"It doesn't matter," Akechi said decisively. "Akira made me realize what is really important to me. I will do this for her sake as well, and also for the others. She may or may not be a Phantom Thief. But the point is, I don't want anyone else ending up in a irrecoverable mess like I did. I screwed up too much? Yes. My future is hopeless? Yes. Nothing I may do can account for the damage I caused, but I feel the need to do at least something right."

"Ah, so this is how it is..." Loki sounded disappointed. "You are really siding with the naive hope side. You are throwing everything you did, everything I did, away. What about me, then?"

"What do you mean? You are coming as well, of course. You are the part of me that caused all that damage. I know what I did, and can't deny you. It's the least I can do to take responsibility."

"I am you, and you are me. I see..." The Loki voice chuckled, seemingly relieved at not being rejected. "What you said sounded like something that Akira would say. She must be rubbing off on you already."

Akechi had to agree, and also chuckled.

The conflicting thoughts stopped forming in Akechi's mind. He was more at peace with himself. Or rather, as at peace as his conditions allowed at the moment. Now, he felt he could think more clearly about what to do.

This was it. The room where Kobayakawa's Shadow should be was just ahead now. Akechi smirked and stared determinedly at the door before stepping inside. It looked like he would end up betraying Shido sooner than he had expected...

Kobayakawa's Shadow took a step back in fright at the sight of the black-masked Persona user. "You are...! Ah... I s-see. All the pressure from the media. It was really him. And if you are here, it can only m-mean that...!"

"That he wants to eliminate you? Yes."

The chubby man's Shadow took another step back and cowered.

"But I don't feel like it," Akechi added. "Now you know what happens when you ally with the wrong people. And I also do. So, how about this? Let's make a deal."

"... H-huh?" The Shadow's eyes opened wide in puzzlement.

"You intend to report Shido, don't you?"

"I-I... I..." The Shadow stuttered.

"Don't do it. Or at least, not yet. It is no use. You will only be crushed if you try to do that now. He has much influence over the police. The only way to have him tried in court would be to turn the general public against him and have them pressure the police. And honestly, I can't see that happening in a while..."

"I d-don't understand... if he is already after me, e-even if I don't do anything... he will finish me one way or another!"

"You will need to hide." Akechi had no idea if that last-minute plan would work, or how to change cognition to make it work, but it was the only idea he had. "You will have to pretend dead."

"... What?"

"You have to influence your real self somehow. Pretend to have had a mental shutdown and stay in the hospital. Shido knows some people survive the shock and don't shutdown completely, though they are as good as dead. As long as Shido thinks this is what happened to you, he won't bother you, and won't suspect I disobeyed him, either. Then, once the tide changes and his crimes come to light, you may return and do your report against him."

"When his crimes come to light..." The Shadow echoed. "Wait, are you p-perhaps planning to have the Phantom Thieves target him?"

"Something like that." But not really. Akechi intended to find out the specifics of the Phantom Thieves' heart-changing methods, then do it himself. Before, he was worried that the Phantom Thieves might end up figuring Shido out and deciding to change his heart, and Akechi had been against that because he wouldn't get his revenge if they were to succeed. But now, it was different. He didn't want the Phantom Thieves involved in this, but it wasn't because of pride or revenge. It was because he believed they could still have a good future, unlike him, and they shouldn't risk losing it by diving in that mess.

"F-fine. I will try. If it is the only way for me to survive..." The Shadow accepted and faded away, likely returning to his real self.

It was the first time Akechi had seen something like that happen, and he could only hope his plan had worked.

Something resembling a cloud of smoke expanded and exploded at the back of the room. Everything shook, and parts of the wall began to crumble. Akechi had no idea what was going on or whether his plan had worked. All he was sure about was that the Palace was collapsing, and that it was time to escape.


Akira was back from her last day of the course. Akechi still hadn't returned. She recalled the moment he broke down in front of her. It sounded as though he hadn't told her all his problems just yet.

"If only you could look inside my heart, you'd see how messed-up it is," he had said.

And Akira realized that yes, there was a way to look inside his heart. She took out her cellphone and input Akechi's full name into the Metaverse nav.

... However, there was no hit. Akechi didn't have a Palace. This should be a relief, because it should mean his heart wasn't distorted, or if it were, it could be fixed in Mementos. Probably...

The sound of the door opening pulled Akira out of her search, and she quickly put her cellphone away.

"Welcome back." She smiled and greeted Akechi, who had just entered the room.

Akechi looked pleasantly surprised for some reason. "Oh, hi. I wasn't expecting that. You know, since I live by myself, I'm not used to having anyone to greet me when I return. By the way, Akira, this is for you." He handed her a pack of tissues. "You had said I owe you a pack of tissues, so..."

Akira couldn't help but laugh.

However, instead of being flustered like usual, Akechi laughed too. "Ah, I knew you'd laugh."

"Looks like you're starting to get a hang of how to deal with me, huh?" Akira grinned at him. "See? I told you it'd work out and we could become friends."

"Yes... I guess now I can finally say that I have a friend."

He Finally had a friend. Only one friend. While that was a good thing, it sounded a bit sad when he put it that way. Akira decided to try to brighten the mood. "And now I can even say that I'm friends with a detective! How cool is that?"

It worked, as Akechi let out another spontaneous burst of laughter.

They went downstairs to have lunch, and were doing small talk at the table.

"So, did you manage to solve the case you came here for?" Akira asked him.

"I believe I arrived at a satisfactory conclusion, and hope this will be enough to close the case. What about you? How did your course go?"

"It was really good. Totally worth having enrolled in it a few months in advance and skipping the school trip in favor of it."

"What was the course about?"

"It was about starting a business." Akira answered. "How to conclude it's even worth starting, where to begin, the documents and procedures needed, this kind of thing. And once started, how to deal with employees, customers, and the like. Interestingly enough, today our tutor mentioned those slave labor rumors about Okumura Foods you told me about. He said he doesn't know whether they're true, but it serves as an example of how we shouldn't treat our employees."

Akechi visibly tensed. "Uh, but I'm sure you wouldn't do that, seeing how kind you are."

"Yeah, that's one thing I wouldn't do for sure! I just want to have a place where employees enjoy working, and customers enjoy visiting. To tell the truth, I don't even know what the business will be about yet! It'll be a while before I can start anything, though. I still have high school and college to worry about. I guess I'll have to practice the techniques with Leblanc's customers for now."

"Well, you still have a long time to decide. I wish you the best." He looked embarrassed for some reason. "Uh... like, I really mean it."

"Thanks." Akira did her best to not laugh at Akechi's embarrassment. He wasn't wearing his celebrity mask, and really seemed to mean what he said. Though the reason for his awkwardness was beyond her.

After lunch, it was time for them to leave. They returned to the room to grab their belongings, then left the hotel. They took the same train. Despite it being a Sunday, they fortunately managed to find empty seats. They sat down, next to each other.

It would be a long trip, and Akechi took the opportunity to do his school homework. Around an hour had passed since he had begun. Akira kept wondering how the boy had been acting differently. He seemed more at ease, and wasn't wearing that annoying celebrity mask. It was as though pre-medicine Akechi and post-medicine Akechi were two completely different people.

"Finished?" Akira asked when Akechi put his study materials away.

"Almost. But I don't feel like continuing this now."

"Slacking off, eh detective? What about 'good academic results?'"

"No one said I won't finish it. Not all of it is due tomorrow. I'll finish it later."

"Hmm. From the way you had been stubborn about studying yesterday, I was sure you were the perfect role model student, who finishes homework as soon as possible."

Akechi spaced out for a moment, then his eyes grew wide. "Then... all of that really happened too?"

"Yeah. All of that, and maybe a bit more you might not remember." Akira teased.

Akechi lowered his head in embarrassment. "I was rather unruly then... I'm sorry."

"I already told you to stop apologizing so much." Akira shrugged. "Actually, the whole thing yesterday was rather amusing. Everything you did was spontaneous, quite different from how you act on TV. You were just being yourself. Nothing wrong with that. Honestly, it's how I prefer it."

Akechi processed Akira's words for a bit, then heaved a sigh. "You know, this whole time, I thought no one would accept me as who I really am. This is why I've been wearing these polite and well-behaved masks to appear like an exemplar kid in front of others."

"Polite and well-behaved masks? Wait, you're saying that your real self's actually quite unruly?"

Akechi laughed. "To tell the truth, I don't know. I've been hiding behind these role model standards for so long that I don't even know how my actual self is supposed to be anymore."

"Oh, this is sad..." Akira looked at him with sympathy. "Yeah, not everyone will accept us as we are, and being ourselves may even get us in trouble sometimes... come to think of it, maybe I only got my reputation ruined because I didn't suppress my real self. I intervened in a crime scene, and look where that got me. I could've ignored it, but the will to help spoke louder. When I realized it, I was moving to do what I believed was right, and bam!" She smiled sadly. "I don't regret being myself, though. I mean, where'd be the fun in becoming a mindless robot?"

"Uh...?" Akechi shuffled awkwardly. "R-robot?"

"Yeah. Everyone has their unique qualities and quirks, and I think this is what makes people interesting. If everyone were to only follow the rules, act exactly the same and not show their uniqueness, they'd be just like mindless robots."

"Hmm, y-yes, you are right." Akechi agreed, a bit hesitantly. "But you are so strong, Akira. You continue being yourself even after all that happened. If something similar were to happen to me, it would be enough reason for me to be a mindless robot for the rest of my life. If only I had such a strong will, I wouldn't have..." Akechi trailed off.

"... Wouldn't have what?" Akira threw him a questioning look.

Akechi's expression aggravated. "Um... I don't feel like talking about this now."

"Okay." As curious as Akira was about the huge issue disturbing him, if he was not ready to tell her, she wouldn't press it. "I don't know if you remember, but I told you that I only managed not to give up because I had people supporting me. Maybe that's what you lacked?" Akira placed a hand on his arm, and this time, he didn't jump. "But fear not, my unruly and mischievous detective friend. You have me now."

Akechi looked moved. "I'm grateful for your kind words, Akira. And that will to help of yours is also quite impressive. Ah, the will to help..." He mused, deep in thought. "Since no one had helped me of their own free will before, I have never had the will to go out of my way to help others, either. But now... I think I'm beginning to understand. There are some people I feel like helping." Akechi sighed. "Akira, you're giving me so much to think about. If I don't finish my homework in time because of this, it'll be your fault."

"Hey, detective, quite looking for excuses to slack off." She elbowed him lightly.

Akechi laughed amusedly, and Akira laughed as well. Thus, the train ride continued...


As they arrived back in Shibuya and left the train station, Akechi's phone rang.

"Another interview." Akechi told Akira once he finished the call.

"When will that be?"

"I need to go there in an hour to record it, and it will air tonight. Couldn't you find me an excuse not to attend it?" He asked playfully.

"Oh, I thought you enjoyed being on TV, as it's your chance to boost your popularity. But you don't want to go?"

"I actually don't. Seriously, though, I have to. Whenever the studio calls me, it means they already have everything set and scheduled, and there's no bailing out."

"You said It'll air tonight?"

"Yes. It'll be the same as always, though. You don't even need to watch."

"Does this mean you'll keep trash-talking the Phantom Thieves?"

"Hey." Akechi raised a hand defensively. "All I have said so far is that they might not be just and no one knows their true intentions, and that if they turn out to be using their heart-changing methods for evil, then they are dangerous and must be tried in court. I have only raised points and hypotheses, and have never trash-talked anyone."

"Okay, okay." Akira waved it off. "Bad word choice. But you'll continue raising the same points, right?"

"Unless something happens that eliminates these doubts and disproves my points once and for all, then yes, I will stand by my words. I know you'll dislike what I have to say in the interview, and this is why I advised you not to watch it."

"If I keep spending time with you, I wonder if I can change your mind..."

Actually, you already did, where his thoughts, but his response to Akira was a scoff in defiance.

Akechi needed to do it. Continue opposing the Phantom Thieves on TV to make Shido think everything was going according to the twisted plan, and somehow get the Phantom Thieves out of that mess before it was too late...

"Alright then." Akira looked at him defiantly. "We'll see who's right."

"You seem rather confident. I wonder what you have to back that confidence up... I suppose it's either naive faith, or you actually know something most others don't." And it turns out I also know things you don't, he added as a thought, then chuckled with amusement. "Yes, only time will tell what is what, and we shall see who is right."

"It's a bet, then." Akira grinned mischievously. "If I win, I'll have you do... hmm, I'll think up a suitable dare."

Akechi knew Akira would win. He could only imagine what she might have him do. "Fine. I accept the challenge. Just don't ask anything you would regret."

"Huh? Why would I regret it?"

A quick thought crossed Akechi's mind. The thought that once Akira found out the truth about his actions, she would be horrified and deeply regret having traded those good night kisses and treated him so gently. But Akechi's mind was made up. Akira might hate him in the future and their friendship might be over. But he was set on doing what needed to be done. He would do whatever he could to prevent the Phantom Thieves from going too deep in the Metaverse mess and getting their futures ruined like what happened to him. It was all Akechi could do at this point.

"Akechi-kun?"

Akechi snapped back to attention and shook his head. There was no way for him to explain his last statement. "Uh, never mind."

"Ah, whatever. You have to think up a dare for me too."

"Okay. I will." Akechi responded, even though he was sure he would lose. He glanced at his phone. "It's getting late. We... should be going our separate ways."

"We should trade phone numbers!" Akira suggested.

Akechi nodded, glad to hear that. They took their cellphones and traded contact info.

"This way, you can contact me whenever you need something," Akira said.

"Y-you too." Akechi replied with some hesitation. "Akira, thank you for everything. You've done so much for me. If there's something I can do for you, just tell me. I'll try to help to the best of my ability."

"Thanks. I know you're a busy guy. I'll make sure to not bother you too much." Akira flashed a playful grin. "Well, we should be going. We'll talk more some other time. Good luck with your interview, and see you around!"

Akechi stood there, and stared sadly as Akira left. The peaceful, dreamy moment was over. Now, it was time to get serious and focus on his new, extremely dangerous mission, which would probable be his last one.


Later at night, Akira was back in Leblanc with Futaba, Morgana and Sojiro. The TV was on, and the girls were enjoying a refreshing serving of curry when Akechi's interview came on.

Futaba grimaced. "That detective jerk again. Go! Open your mouth and self-destruct!"

Akira was silent.

"When everyone least expected, the Phantom Thieves acted at the last minute and defeated Medged!" The male reporter said dramatically. "Was it a surprise to you as well, Akechi-san?"

"I hadn't been expecting that, either," was all Akechi said.

"Oh? No more comments? Being cautious, perhaps?" The reporter needlessly observed. "I assume that you also hadn't been expecting the backlash online." Either that reporter didn't like Akechi very much, or he was acting like that to please the general public, since most people were against Akechi now.

"Oh, certainly. I'm nearly speechless, still recovering from the shock." Akechi made a lame joke as usual and tried to hide his annoyance.

"The rankings on that forum show that the public wants the Phantom Thieves to target the Okumura Foods president next. Akechi-san, do you think they will follow the rankings?"

"Who knows? Their popularity is higher than ever now. If it's fame that they are after, then no doubt they will do whatever the fans want, because if they don't, they will lose their popularity. Or, now that they are famous, they might think they can do whatever they please as though they owned the place and do... something drastic."

"Something drastic? Oh. You had mentioned that you had found common points between the changes of heart and the mental shutdowns. Do you think the Phantom Thieves are behind the shutdowns as well?"

"This is unclear at this point. However, we can't deny that both the changes of heart and the mental diseases are sudden and so far unexplainable occurrences. If the Phantom Thieves have anything to do with those, though, only time will tell. Sooner or later, they will show their true colors. Then, we shall see what is what. There is only one thing I can say for sure, though."

"And that is?"

"No matter what happens, justice will prevail in the end."

"Pfft." Futaba wasn't the least bit pleased at those words. "Justice? Hmph. He'll see what real justice is. Just he wait!"

Akira couldn't help but think that something was different about Akechi. He didn't seem to be 100% in his TV persona this time. Even though he stood by his arguments as he told her he would, he seemed more cautious, and didn't say more than necessary. Was it just her, or did he had a distinct fire in his eyes during that last part? As cheesy as it had been...

"Akira?" Futaba noticed she was spacing out.

"Hmm?"

"Were you even paying attention? Oh well, not that you'd have missed much..." Futaba inched closer and whispered to make sure that Sojiro - who had been at the back - wouldn't hear. "All that matters is, we'll prove that detective wrong and show him our justice! Right?"

"Sure thing!" Akira focused back on her resolve. They would prove Akechi wrong and change his mind about the Phantom Thieves, and after that, hopefully they could help him find hope in his life. And since it would mean that she won the bet, Akira would dare him to do something unusual. Or perhaps she should simply have him drink that magical medicine again. Unlike annoying celebrity Akechi, sleepy and unfiltered Akechi was too adorable and too fun to mess with.