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Counting to Nine

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He learns about the Phantom Thieves almost immediately after their first case. Kamoshida is an ugly -- but not unusual -- public affair, and Goro wouldn't have even thought twice about the matter if it hadn't disturbed one of Shido's lackeys, stirring up all manner of rumors around Shujin Academy that had to be properly put to rest. Even then, he would have dismissed the whole matter as just more proof of how broken the world is. Teachers hold positions of power; power is inevitably misused. Who could really be surprised about a coach molesting and beating their students? Only the naive. Only the willfully blind. Only adults who would gasp and clutch their chests in exaggerated shock, and then grope thirteen-year-olds on trains on the way home.

But Shido had refused to move on, insisting that Goro stay alert for any information about Kamoshida's case. Not about what the teacher had done, of course -- Shido actively encouraged the same abuses from his own lackeys -- but what had been done to him. If there had been blackmail involved, or drugs. History of mental instability in the Kamoshida line.

Changing hearts, is all that Goro can come up with, a conclusion echoed by the news -- which Shido remains strangely obsessed over.

"Is this something from the research?" Goro asks during his next call, gingerly testing the edges of Shido's patience.

"Just keep doing your job properly," is the snapped reply, lashing out over the phone line like a slap. Goro recoils instinctively, but the fear is matched by a warm flare of triumph. He's managed to dig out yet another hint from Shido's defenses. Just a bit.

But Goro's status is too uncertain to risk; he's not indisposable in Shido's book yet. "Of course, sir," he answers swiftly, trying to wrestle down the feeling of dread that he might have pushed too far this time. "If you want, it looks like I might have the opportunity tonight to take care of that extra assignment you mentioned. We don't have to wait until the weekend after all."

A pause.

"Yes," comes the reply, and Goro closes his eyes in relief. "Do just that."

Everything's fine. He’s not discarded yet.

The potential hazards of the Metaverse don't worry Goro as much as they could. Shido's strange behaviors could imply a hidden poison of some kind, like if summoning a Persona too frequently kills the owner -- but Goro doesn't care. His Personas are his only route to punishing Shido. There’s no way he'll stop using them voluntarily.

Whatever happened to Kamoshida isn't going to get in the way of his revenge, as far as he can tell.

Whenever he escapes reality and flees into the Palaces, Goro takes his time prowling the other world. Madarame's museum is a simple game of hide-and-seek, advertising its toll of students in a surrealistic series of mug shots. The workers in Okumura's factory care more about their quotas than the intrusion of a black-masked consultant; he barely rates as a threat there, and even then only because he made sure to drop hints to the managers about budget cuts. He's lucky to have Loki, in more ways than one. The Persona wraps him safely in dark leather at a moment's notice, faceless and frightening, like a Shadow himself.

Shido's Palace is no barometric at all: the man's paranoia ebbs and flows depending on the latest poll. Most days, it treats Goro as if he belongs. The Shadows there show Goro deference, getting out of his way respectfully. He always has a table at the restaurant whenever he wants, and one of the best rooms on the ship to call his own. It's almost as good as being feared in the real world. It's proof that Shido recognizes Goro's power.

He makes an effort to explore all the Palaces that he can find, reciting names into the Metaverse App and recording the guilty parties. It's like gently riffing his fingers through case files, but leaving no prints behind. Palaces are more attractive than Mementos; each one is a glittering jewel of farcical hubris, where the ruler's corruption is on display with no business suit or boardroom to hide it.

It's during one of his recreational trips that he finally catches sight of the Phantom Thieves.

He’s sliding through Madarame's defenses, practicing his ability to dodge the laser barricades, when half the guards suddenly break off and bolt down the nearest hallway. Outraged shouts echo like a riot. Akechi's torn between pilfering the museum on principle, and discovering the new threat. There are a few rooms he hasn't managed to access yet; security might be distracted. Madarame might have hidden, undiscovered depths.

Practicality gets the better of him, and he dashes to the entryway just in time to watch the Shadows be ripped apart by a storm of black wings and knives.

The Thieves are flashy, loud, clumsy. They fumble with their Personas, sometimes targeting the wrong weaknesses, scrambling whenever they discover a new Shadow they haven't fought before. Goro dismisses them one by one, evaluating their combat abilities with the precision of a doctor's scalpel: veins opened and emptied, the patient dead before the pain has time to hit.

But one of the Thieves stands out. He talks to the Shadows, holding back on his attacks. He lures them to him, befriending them, convincing them to become his tools. Like Goro, he uses more than one Persona.

Unlike Goro, he uses more than two.

Much more.

Goro doesn't bother to stop the Thieves as they tear through Madarame's Palace, haphazardly stumbling through the galleries night after night. He probably should. But Shido -- despite demanding information -- hasn't told him to investigate the Thieves directly yet, and Goro doesn't want to admit how he saw them. There's no reason to confess that he's been wandering through certain Palaces, not when he has a head start into investigating the Thieves and their abilities. He needs all the trump cards he can get.

And he's never seen another Persona user in action, either. That alone pulls him along in their wake, checking each night to see if they've gone back in, following along as closely as he dares. He'd already guessed that his powers weren't unique -- Shido's lack of surprise at his abilities had been one of Goro's more cutting disappointments -- but neither are they common, and revealing his ignorance to Shido would be as good as getting down on his knees on the man's million-yen office carpet, and gutting himself with a letter opener.

Despite their ineptitude, it's fascinating to watch the Thieves in battle. These people are his peers. They're his first opportunity to really understand his own powers, without having to pick through Shido's landmined secrets. He's a child seeing himself in the mirror for the first time: he's not sure which parts are real.

It's confusing why most of the Thieves refuse to use more than one of their Personas, however. Leaving weaknesses exposed is a poor strategy. They should be smart enough to at least react to obvious attacks, switching their vulnerable sides out.

Only when Goro manages to eavesdrop more does he realize that it's not by choice.

It happens when the Thieves are taking a rare break in a stairwell instead of a closed room; the guard patrols are light enough that they've sprawled out along the steps to relax, voices carelessly loud. They're still explaining things to their newest member -- the Kosei student, who has questions which range between practical and esoteric, but whose inquiries have helped Goro learn things all the faster.

"I mean, can you imagine what this would be like without Joker to fill in the gaps?" Takamaki's voice, chosen alias of Panther. "Carmen's enough of a handful for me -- if I did have another, I'm sure she'd complain constantly."

The Thieves laugh it all off, but in his cubby -- crouched in between paintings and buckets of primer -- Goro feels a cold needle of ice in his chest as he understands the truth.

One Persona is the standard. A single, secret face against society, counterpart to one's public identity: a shadow, solitary by nature. As complex as people are, all their paradoxes can still be wrapped up in that partnership. One Persona, one outer face.

And then there's Joker -- Joker, who already has dozens, and ones that aren't even limited to the Shadows they've met. Joker has more facades than any of them, and Goro doesn't know what it means, except that Kurusu must be more manipulative than anyone else Goro's ever met -- including himself.

He should know better than to visit Leblanc. Kurusu may be living there in a cheerful violation of the zoning code, but curiosity is a poor excuse for leaving potential evidence behind. Goro knows enough about criminals -- actual ones, not the cases he's created -- to know how law enforcement looks into suspicious visitors before the date of the crime, hunting out connections and motivations. But Goro doesn't have to worry too much; all his deeds are committed in places the police will never find on their own, even the ones not on Shido's payroll. On paper, he's an innocent.

He doesn't worry about being noticed for other reasons, either. He has a dozen excuses in case Shido inquires, but only one matters. Visiting Leblanc is important, just in case Goro has to remove Isshiki's daughter next. Neatness matters. Loose ends are poor practice.

A proper answer, for Shido's trained killer.

When Goro finally invades the cafe for the first time, the smell of fresh coffee wraps around him and sinks against his clothes like an overperfumed sybarite. Faced with a dizzying array of options, he blindly orders a cup of the house blend, and is pleasantly surprised when the cafe owner suggests several other bean options available for grind.

Sakura is friendly enough, once he realizes that Goro's willing to appreciate the skills of a connoisseur. The man offers earnest conversation as he fires up the coffee siphon, polite and interested in Goro's taste preferences. He chats pleasantly at length, whittling away the early evening, without any awareness that he's serving the murderer of his adopted daughter's mother.

All too quickly -- Kaneshiro making a pattern of three now, hearts mysteriously changed, Palaces destroyed with the owners left alive -- Shido finally demands that Goro take action. Giving up the the Phantom Thieves feels like exhaling a sigh that's been held on his tongue for months. Goro offers the information with the soft regret of a poker player surrendering a handful of chips. He only saw them in Kaneshiro's Palace, he claims. He wasn't sure it was them until now, when it was too late.

Shido, of course, already has plans to take advantage of what would otherwise be a setback. "You're certain of their identities?"

"Of course. I'm keeping an eye on all of them now. They're just a bunch of students playing around between classes. They don't have the imagination to think that someone else might be in there spying on them."

Shido's voice is a smug purr of satisfaction in his ear. "Good. Keep it that way."

Build them up. That's the goal. It draws out Shido's game -- and Goro's as well. He drums his fingers over the screen of his darkened phone, watching his prints smudge the glass like crushed snowflakes.

He's not unhappy, not entirely. The Thieves are still his secret. True, most of them are disappointments. They’re his competitors, at best -- and not even good ones. Failures, but Goro can't afford to be picky, considering he has no other source of information and no frame for comparison.

There's only the Thieves and Kurusu, and Goro fits on neither side.

He has little to do with implementing the Medjed plan, other than to babysit the Shadows of various programmers just in case the Thieves manage to track down enough information to start threatening the right developers. The checklist is tiresome. Goro schedules his visits in rotations by the hour, thinking of a million better things he could be doing other than wasting each evening protecting people whom he's just as likely to kill later.

But the Thieves never show. Somehow, from what Goro can tell, they manage to overthrow the threat all on their own through the surprisingly practical route of finding their own hacker. After that, he loses their trail, assuming a combination of vacations and summer distractions -- except that he notices Isshiki's daughter finally moving around outside the Sakura house. It's disconcerting, like setting his phone down on the counter while going to heat up dinner, only to have it get up and walk off to the nearest train station on its own. He'd assumed she would be a predictable quantity for the rest of her life, choosing a shut-in's existence and living off Sakura's charity for as long as she could.

But Isshiki's daughter goes outside, and then goes into Mementos, and by then he can guess what influence finally dug her out of her lair. Even she gets a Persona. Even she -- like Shido, unlike Goro -- knows information about the Metaverse.

The catbus is getting heavier by the month.

Kurusu's still the only one of the crowd who uses more than one Persona. The rest of the Thieves don't seem to have caught on to what this means yet. They act like Kurusu's a genuine friend, trustworthy enough to cover their backs in and out of combat. None of them show any alarm even as Kurusu reveals more and more faces in each Palace, a kaleidoscope of social facades turned into pure power. None of them seem to recognize the danger of someone who has dozens of deceptions at their command.

And Goro -- only two, always only two -- Goro is stuck between them, neither simple nor complex. Loki and Robin Hood are enough for him; between the range of their powers, he doesn't feel weak. He should count himself as superior to all of them, having greater experience and connections. He shouldn't be concerned.

But in the greater game, Kurusu looms tall, and even Goro can't tell which parts of the other boy's lies are just honest enough to keep track of.

The first time Goro orders coffee at Leblanc when Kurusu is working, he makes sure to watch the other teenager's expressions. He doesn't know what to expect. Whenever Goro wears Robin Hood, the shape of his social behaviors feels like embers glowing on his skin: Robin Hood is the effortless smile and depreciating laugh of the Detective Prince, the pure ideal that slaps a challenge on every table to be noticed. Robin Hood is Goro's anger for himself. Robin Hood demands society to look upon him as a hero, an adored champion. It forces them to bring him up to their level at last, rubbing it in their faces while his white uniform gleams clean.

Loki is his willingness to destroy them. Loki breaks them down into panic and madness and rage, drags them down into the shame of their own hearts. Loki ruins them with the desires they've always had, now laid bare. No one can cling to self-control while under Loki's touch.

Goro's two Personas work in perfect tandem together. They define the shape of his justice: first showing the world that he's as good as the rest of them, and then ripping apart their illusions of superiority in turn. Both of them are always close at hand, though only Robin Hood ever gets drawn upon outside of the Metaverse.

He doesn't dare to wear Loki in public. He doesn't dare to wear Loki around anyone who isn't going to be dead five seconds later.

But Goro can't see anything on Kurusu's face as the other teenager obediently brews and fills a fresh cup from the siphon, setting it down precisely in front of Goro without sloshing even a drop. If it's a Persona that's subservient, or mischievous, or one inch from smashing a carafe into Goro's face -- Kurusu doesn’t show.

Goro reaches out slowly, circling his fingertips around the porcelain mug. "Thank you, Akira," he says deliberately, choosing the more intimate name to see if it will ripple through Kurusu's demeanor, and expose a reaction after all.

But in those dark eyes, Goro sees nothing that he can put a name to, either as a Persona or as a human emotion. The glasses -- fake glasses, another deception -- are a glossy layer between them, a mocking shield that claims both transparency and correction.

"Enjoy," Kurusu says, and holds his stare steady until Goro surrenders, and looks away first.

He forces himself directly into the Phantom Thieves at last in October. There's very little time -- Shido will want them all dead soon, and Goro may as well close the matter properly, and not be distracted any further. It'll be a shame to lose them, if only for information.

Leblanc is his personal treasure, one he wishes he won't have to let go of when the time comes. He likes the way that Sakura serves his coffee. The curry is outstanding. Smaller shops have always been his favorites to visit. Higher-priced cafes expect people to put on airs from the moment they step in the door; the experience is half the price tag, pretending that you're wealthy enough to afford being waited on hand and foot, paying an extravagant amount for a single cup of coffee.

In environments like those, people are primed to watching for fakes. Any holes in Goro's behavior would be pinpointed faster than he'd like. The waitstaff would see the way he uses his finger to lick up the last bit of frosting or crumbs off his plate, unable to leave food behind; they would see the way he always finishes his cups down to the dregs, adding extra cream after the first few sips to try and stretch the coffee out further. They would note the way Goro avoids using the cloth napkins as much as possible, lest he stain them.

They would know how much he's pretending.

Those kinds of cafes encourage their customers to indulge in unnecessary excess. Goro can't play along for long without an eventual twist in his stomach. And cafes that serve an elite clientele in truth -- where there are no price tags, where the waitstaff comes to your table and allows you to select beans from sample bowls lined up on silver trays -- those ones cause Goro's nerves to itch, his skin to feel too tight. He doesn't fit in there either, not truly, and having to fake it drains the energy out of him.

But places like Leblanc are eccentric, small, aware that they don't have the luxury of picking and choosing their clientele. They welcome every customer without any greater expectations than proper payment and enjoyment of the services. They straddle the border between anonymity and intimacy, and turn a blind eye to any quirks.

He likes Leblanc. Sakura appreciates it when he visits. The Phantom Thieves hate it -- they've seen him speak on television for months, and do a poor job of hiding their current loathing -- but even that is a warm simmer of satisfaction in Goro's life.

But Kurusu -- Kurusu is impossible to read. His voice has started turning flirtatious whenever Goro's at Leblanc, but if Goro excuses himself, Kurusu doesn't speak up to stop him. It's a mixture of hospitality and rejection, welcome and indifference: a rebellious power play, daring Goro to counterattack.

Goro's not surprised by the change. After stepping up his game to blackmail, he expected Kurusu to try and fight back. There are a thousand potential responses that would fit even Kurusu's range of facades, from veiled contempt to insults to actual violence. Any hostility would make sense.

But instead, what he finds most often is a strange smile on Kurusu's face, elusive and inexplicable. Coffee passes from hand to hand; information doesn't follow. In combat, Joker is professional to a fault, neither ignoring nor ostracizing Goro on the field. If there's any resentment for the demands that Goro has pressured the Thieves with, Joker doesn’t show it.

When it's just the two of them in Leblanc, and Kurusu is disguised by only a pair of glasses, his defenses seem lower than ever. His expressions appear sincere. He offers smiles that are so unguarded, so lopsided, that Goro almost forgets that the leader of the Thieves is almost certainly a sociopath.

Now that there's no barrier between him and Kurusu -- none save for the lies that both of them maintain like fortress walls, Goro that he is innocent and Kurusu that he is sane -- Goro finds himself becoming more daring in his attempts to learn more. There's very little time before he’ll have to murder them all. It's abjectly unfair.

"Do you hear them?" he asks Kurusu outright during one afternoon at Leblanc, and doesn't specify.

Kurusu meticulously wipes down the counter, and -- surprisingly -- provides an answer immediately. "All the time. Did you want a refill?"

The lack of further explanation is normal; Kurusu is just as cryptic as Shido. But Goro can't help prying at that opening, pushing his empty mug across the counter into Kurusu's waiting hands. "Come to think of it, Morgana's still your leader, correct? What's it like, being more powerful than everyone else, but having to follow a cat?"

This gets Kurusu to pause at last. He tops off the mug deftly and arches an eyebrow, perfectly unruffled. "I'm not sure. What's it like to having establish yourself through Shirogane's fame?"

The jab hits. Goro smiles ruefully, masking the wince. "About the same, I'd imagine."

Kurusu's eyes crinkle in what could be humor, or hatred, or both.

Kurusu is dangerous, Goro reminds himself as the teenager moves away to wipe down the counter. No one who uses that many Personas can be trusted.

But with each afternoon spent together, talking like almost-friends, it's easy to forget the threat. Kurusu says all the right things to keep Goro's interest, playing Goro like a fish on a hook: letting just enough slack out, pulling Goro carefully closer and closer with the gentlest of pressure. He smiles and jokes and drops implications like candy, until Goro finds that he doesn't mind the feel of the line tugging on him, leading him forward into listening for the next tidbit that Kurusu will reveal next.

When conversation fails to expose any weaknesses in Kurusu's demeanors -- so many of them, shuffling like cards depending on whoever else is around -- Goro's next tactic is simple: he'll force Kurusu to reveal his Personas directly. Mementos is the best recourse. Personas have shapes there that Goro can track, rather than trying to guess at the degrees of Kurusu's eyes, the tilt of his lips.

He makes his first suggestion in person, rather than blend in with everyone else's text messages. “Do you have time to get a little practice in today?”

Kurusu lines up the siphon burners on the counter as neatly as the spent casings of a gun. "I might. Does this afternoon work for everyone else?"

"I checked in earlier, and it seems as if the rest of the team is occupied with their own errands," Goro states with carefully falsified regret. "Would you still be interested if it's just the two of us?"

He finds he's holding his breath as a prayer against refusal. But Kurusu finally glances at the counter, and then towards the ceiling. "I can let Sojiro know I'm stepping out, sure. Let me get Morgana -- "

Goro's touch on his wrist stops him like a shot. "I'd prefer not to bother him either, actually. We wouldn't have to go very far. I'd just like some more experience with Robin Hood. You understand -- I haven't been at this as long as you have," he claims, and wonders if he's exposed himself in a fatal lie when Kurusu's gaze darts back towards him, too fast for mere concern.

For a chilling moment, he wonders if he's overplayed his position -- but then, Kurusu's attention flicks down to where Goro still hasn’t taken away his hand. Goro's fingers have curled slightly over the bone of Kurusu's arm. If he applies a little more pressure, he might be able to feel the pulse humming underneath, the steady beat of a heart that reveals nothing by its speed.

"All right," Kurusu finally concedes. "Let's go."

They're quiet for the subway ride, hips bumping together as the rails and other commuters jostle them around. Kurusu's shoulder is a shifting warmth against Goro's back, neither stiff nor flinching away. It moves in harmony to Goro's weight, reacting before even Goro himself knows which direction the subway will tip him.

Only when they've stepped into Shibuya's reflection does Goro resume the offensive. "Tell me, do you ever use your Personas when you're not in the Metaverse?"

Kurusu gives him a carefully bland look, so bland it's not even a good attempt at faking it. "What do you mean?"

Goro doesn't let him dodge the question this time; there are no cafe patrons around that they need to hide from. "Even when we're outside, you must feel their power. What's it like for you?"

This time, Kurusu finally gives him the respect of giving in. He pauses in straightening his gloves, dropping his hands to his sides. The motion brushes his fingers against his knives. "It makes it easier to understand where people are coming from. How to put them at ease, speak their language. Put yourself in their shoes, that sort of thing. Think like them a little more."

A pat answer. Goro would have known that already through observation, even if he hadn't experienced it himself through Robin Hood and Loki. He watches Kurusu's mouth instead, waiting for the rest of the explanation.

It lies so prettily, he thinks. It's so good at sincerity.

But when Goro asks to see the full repertoire -- like a little kid, more, more -- Kurusu shakes his head. "I don't like keeping too many active at once. I need some personal time to clear my thoughts and sort them out. Twelve was what was recommended to me as the maximum... for now, at least."


"Recommended?" Goro manages to ask, because at least there's a limit to Kurusu's monstrous power. Not enough to make him human again -- but it's a comfort to know that Goro won't have to craft countermeasures against an entire army of Personas at once. The limit explains why Kurusu takes breaks before each Palace and Mementos; Goro had wondered if the other teenager suffered from low blood pressure, or maybe a lack of courage.

There's more of an explanation, clearly. But no matter how Goro presses and presses, Kurusu doesn't reveal anything else, and they finish their practice at only a few floors in before checking the time, and going their separate ways home.

For someone with potentially infinite skills at his fingertips, Kurusu's tactics don't match up with reality. There are times when he doesn't bring the perfect set of Personas with him, even knowing the deficiencies in the team. Twelve is a large enough number to build a nigh-invincible formation -- but sometimes when the group is staggering under nausea or dizziness, Kurusu is inexplicably forced to shiver along with the rest of them, fumbling for a remedy or waiting for Haru to wipe away their ailments.

Goro confronts this as well the next time they're in Mementos, and Kurusu has pulled off his jacket to slather gel over the burns on his arms. "When we're out here -- just the two of us -- you only use your angels to fight with. That can't be strategically sound. Why don't you bring the rest?"

"Justice," Kurusu replies, and the word is so incongruous that Goro is struck silent, watching him squeeze out more burn ointment. "Everyone has something different that they represent, I suppose. To me, you're justice."

Goro blinks.

There's nothing witty he can possibly provide in counterpoint. Justice is a declaration that is so close to home that it's like a confession, a love poem to a heart that should never have been on display in the first place for Kurusu to target. Justice is the whole reason the Thieves exist. It's an ideal that should be so important to Kurusu that it has to be bigger than Goro -- bigger than someone who is systematically ruining the Thieves in every way imaginable while they're powerless to stop it.

There's nothing in what Goro can give -- has given, during any part of their relationship -- that could possibly equate to justice, in Kurusu's eyes.

"Why?" he finally whispers, around the shock. "That makes no sense."

Kurusu shrugs, tossing the empty packet aside and swinging his arms to help the gel dry. "I didn't pick it," he claims, which makes no sense either, unless Goro's embodiment of justice is so pure that Kurusu was overwhelmed by it -- which would be flattering, but that's exactly why Goro shouldn't trust it.

Still, the tightness in his chest doesn't ease. His lungs feel like they can't get enough air; at the same time, he's dizzy from too much oxygen, too much nervousness. It's as if Kurusu has changed shape physically with that confession, becoming someone strange and unexpected, someone who's dedicated part of himself all along just to Goro.

He can't stop looking at Kurusu.

He can't stop looking.

As they work their way through the tunnels, Goro finds he's holding back his sword every time Kurusu summons a Persona, ignoring the fight in favor of observation. Feathers slice through the darkness; Throne's wheel whirls like a maelstrom. The tines of Principality's crown split the air with the mercy of a dozen spears. Archangel's crimson wings snap open with the crispness of a banner cracking in the wind.

None of them had been selected for combat practicality after all. They were picked for him. Just him. Only him.

Each angel gleams with their own unique majesty. Dominion lifts their scales, cloak fluttering as light splits open Shadows like watermelons in summer, chunks of oozing flesh spattering over the subway tracks. Uriel's expression remains smooth as glass, never wavering as ichor pours in black rivers off their armor. All of them remain unbowed. Unstained. Righteous.


Is this what Kurusu sees me as? Goro wonders. And then: Could Kurusu -- could Akira really believe that of me?

That night, he tugs and pulls at the way Loki sits on him, and knows, he knows that Loki has nothing in common with those beautiful, shining creatures. Robin Hood wouldn't be a stretch. Loki could never stand alongside them, could never fit.

But if he had to pit Loki against Robin Hood, Goro knows who would win.

He doesn't protest Akira's choices after that. He doesn't protest the fact that he knows Akira is picking and choosing a facade on purpose, that Akira is manipulating him on degrees both slight and large. It's fair play, maybe, because Goro's already doing the same. It's laughable how easily he can come up with all manner of rationalizations for why it's okay to be led on this way. Why he doesn't mind. How he's not really being tricked. How he's still in control.

Because it's fascinating to watch the faces that Akira chooses for him. To know that Akira has set aside these Personas just for Goro -- that they, somehow by a chain of inspiration, belong to Goro. More accurately: that part of Akira himself belongs to Goro. He defines those things for Akira, outside the other teenager's control.

The fact that everyone else in the Phantom Thieves receives the same treatment doesn't matter. It turns out that Yusuke embodies the Emperor for Akira; Isshiki's daughter is the Hermit. But Justice, the most important virtue of all of them, is his. This aspect is Goro's to own; his claim is all over Akira's mind, like handprints dripping ink.

He makes Akira wear all of them whenever they go into Mementos, makes the other teenager call upon his Personas constantly even as it drains his stamina and leaves him chugging vending machine drinks as desperately as air. Each time Akira call one of his Personas into shape, smashing through their enemies with its power, Goro holds his breath and watches, rapt.

In each winged form, he searches for the shape of himself. The effort is futile; he knows why it's useless. The only face that Akira's seen on him is Robin Hood, which means that the shimmering images being offered are simply reflections of a reflection, mirrors echoing a single distortion and multiplying it into the illusion of an actual person standing there.

During one of their breaks between floors, as subway trains rattle along the tracks, Goro digs for more information with a boldness he'd never risk on Shido. "Do the others feel the same way about their Personas with you?" he tries, with an off-handedness he doesn't feel. "Panther, for instance, as Lovers -- "

Akira lowers the juice bottle, swallowing his mouthful hard. "You know, you don't hang out with the rest of us in our free time," he interrupts. "Are you that busy with work?"

"I don't need people the same way you do." It slips out of Goro’s mouth like a fish through wet fingers, fins scraping his skin. "And besides," he adds, seeking to turn the betrayal of his voice into a counterattack instead, "would you really welcome me?"

Akira regards him with a crooked eyebrow. "Stop by sometime and see."

The challenge is so blatant that it's almost disrespectful. It's also one he can't accept. Having to fake that much camaraderie with the Thieves for too long will defang Goro as quickly as if his own heart were stolen, and for nearly the same reason: they have everything to gain from changing his mind, and he has only his own failure to court.

Instead, he twists the question back again, makes it even more personal this time. "Really, Akira -- is that something you'd honestly want to have happen?"

Akira doesn't answer. His mouth -- his pretty, lying mouth -- pulls tight in the corners, a half-slant towards a frown that could transform into a smile at any given moment.

Tell me what you see, Goro wants to demand, to rip that expression open and leave it bare to be read.

He wants to ask so much.

In a fit of curiosity -- he refuses to call it jealousy, since it's merely gauging his adversary's powers -- Goro starts keeping track of which Personas Akira brings to their other practice sessions, when all the Thieves are together. He measures them in terms of Takamaki, Kitagawa, Sakamoto. There's a percentage he can calculate from there, to determine how much of Akira's thoughts he's occupying at any given time.

Or how much he isn't.

Now that Goro knows the significance, the need to claim as much of Akira as he can is like a bubbling obsession, creeping into his thoughts with the impunity of a harlequin. Akira's already halfway lost. It wouldn't take much effort to blind him the rest of the way by this fake and false idea of Goro, a Detective Prince who solves crimes of corruption rather than invents them. It would be a triumph that overwhelms everything the Phantom Thieves think they've accomplished: stealing the very heart of their leader, changing his mind through no power save Goro's influence.

To beat Akira's soul, to rob him of his ideals and replace them with what Goro has defined.

Owning Akira is a thought that makes Goro want to shiver whenever he entertains it, letting it sneak into the edges of his daily work and distract him instantly from classes. It's like what he's always imagined controlling Shido would be like. A leash around the man's every waking moment; a hand directly inside Akira's thoughts. Possessing Akira -- or at least the part of him that's dedicated to Goro, that has swallowed down the spoon-fed lies and integrated them into his subconscious, permanently coloring an immeasurably precious ideal with Goro's face forever.

The percentage wavers. It doesn't rise above thirty on average, though there's one spike up towards ninety that causes Goro to hold his breath all through Sae's Palace, watching Akira as they weave through game after rigged game. He memorizes the names of the Persona angels, hypnotized by Akira mouthing the sounds of Goro's reflections: Principality, Power, Uriel. He spends far too much time that night analyzing it, wondering what caused Akira's preference to shift.

The next night, when Akira's back down to only three of Goro’s Personas, Goro spends far too much time analyzing the gap.

But after a while, once Goro has finished documenting everything, he notices something else that's troubling: all the other Thieves have a larger number of Personas associated with them. There are eight Personas that Akira described as being in the Justice role. Eight is hardly a paltry number -- but there are nine Kitagawas, nine Takamakis. Ryuji -- for no good reason that Goro can see -- has ten allocated just for him. Even the cat gets eight.

Which is the same number as Goro. He's the equivalent of an animal mascot in Akira's mind.

He calls Akira out on it directly in the middle of Leblanc, during one quiet evening when Sakura is out buying more cigarettes, and there's a break between customers. Curry burbles in the background, whispering of spices and comfort. "Are there only eight Personas that belong to Justice?"

Akira's face is remote as he glances towards the coffee siphons, his glasses as good as a mask.

"I think there could be more," he finally admits. "At least one more."

His dark eyes shift at last, flick towards Goro's direction, studying him with the detached curiosity of a scientist waiting for a mouse to seize in cardiac arrest.

Goro wets his lips, and then swallows hard before he can chastise himself for such an obvious tell of desire. He does want to see them all. He wants Akira to study him, to spin the threads of inspiration into a fresh creation born from both their minds. He wants to claim another slice of someone else's thoughts.

But the implication is blindingly clear: in order for Akira to come up with further Personas, he'd have to learn even more about Goro.

Goro's heart is a sledgehammer against his ribs. His chest is cracking under each beat. "How do I know you haven't hit your limit?" he can't help parrying back.

Akira's mouth quirks. "How do you know I haven't already discovered it, but I'm just waiting for the right moment to show you?"

The bait is nearly irresistible. The numbers howl for proof. If Goro didn't have so much to lose, he might even walk into the trap voluntarily: give himself up in exchange for seeing the new power that would come from letting Akira learn more and more secrets, undressing his soul and leaving it bare for Akira's perception. Impossible risk -- but impossible gains as well. Goro might be risking truths that no one alive has ever shared, but in exchange, he would be able to seize even more of Akira, taking more of him, writing over parts of the other teenager's mind so effectively that no one could lay claim to them again.

But if he did, then all Akira's pretty ideas about Justice would come collapsing down.

For a moment -- a crazed, unsteady moment -- Goro wonders what it would be like if Robin Hood was the only Persona he could show in truth. That Robin Hood, the Detective Prince, would be the full depth of Goro's personality. But then he would be shallow, unforgivably so, a thin candle next to Akira's blaze. He would have no idea what it's like to juggle different faces, to hold secrets that burn like black fire along his bones. To be a secret, one that's only a moment away from being discovered and recognized for the danger that it is.

Still, Goro finds himself wanting. He's never been able to make a mark on someone before like this. Akira's under his control in a different way from Shido: while Goro's fooled them both, Shido only knows Loki, and doesn't expect more.

Which is fine. Shido doesn't need to know more. The Thieves don't need to know more. No one has that right. Only Goro should be aware of his own complexity. He's never been unhappy with that before.

Never, up until now.

He gingerly prods his own thoughts after he bids Akira goodnight and leaves Leblanc, exchanging innocent words and less-innocent glances across the bartop. At home, he draws a bath immediately and lets himself breathe in the heat. The tub simmers over with steam. Goro sits on the rim and dangles his hand into the liquid, watching the skin of the water part around his fingers.

Despite all his hours with Akira, no other Personas have appeared for Goro to command. He didn't honestly expect that they would; he's only worn Robin Hood for a reason. There's no parallel word inside him that's saved just for Akira -- there's nothing he's given away to Akira in exchange for all their time together, nothing private or personal, nothing intimate. He's been the perfect Detective Prince in Mementos, and nothing more. He's never allowed Akira to take hold of him like that.

If he did, then perhaps -- perhaps.

Maybe just a little. Maybe if he took Akira out to a few of the restaurants he's been visiting. Maybe if he spent time with Akira outside of Mementos, or even Leblanc, visiting the rest of Shibuya.

Maybe if he let Akira in through the door of his apartment with its mismatched furniture and second-hand dishware, and allowed Akira to run light fingers over the row of identical coats in the closet. Maybe if he let Akira see the stacks of unread books, gathered from secondhand stores and bargain sales. Maybe if he let Akira lean in and smell the hundred-yen generic shampoo in Goro's hair, the discount soap on Goro's skin. Maybe if he let Akira pull his shirt open and count the years of orphanage life on Goro's ribs, Goro's muscles and bones.

Maybe if he let Akira take as much as he wants -- any of it, all of it -- and wait for the impressions to brand themselves into Akira's mind forever, creating a new Persona that might be more powerful than anything else the Thieves have ever seen.

The game has closed its teeth around Goro after all, in the end. No matter which way he turns, all he can see is a dozen reasons encouraging him to give Akira just a little bit more.

It doesn't matter, however. Despite all that Akira can offer in exchange, Goro still plans to win.

He's not sure how he wants to kill Akira.

The method itself isn't under debate -- with a gun, of course, no grandstanding need for an inefficient means of death -- but there's something to be said for proper setup. Gloves are required. He bought a fresh pair just for this. He picks at his clothing, fussing with the cuffs of his shirt. Maybe he should get a new coat, in case of accidental spatter.

It'll be the first time he'll kill someone in the real world -- almost ceremonial, that -- and he knows he shouldn't draw things out. With any other victim, sentiment wouldn't even enter the picture. Elaborate speeches are the hallmarks of villains who want to be stopped, and Goro has no intentions of flubbing his first point-blank murder.

His first, he catches himself, and doesn't even have the energy to sigh. After this, Shido will surely ask for more. It's fine. As long as Goro can gather evidence to keep Shido implicated, it'll all work out in the end, no matter how many crimes Shido will demand of him.

He pulls at the gloves restlessly, tugging the leather hard against his fingertips, and then yanks them off and sets them aside.

Clothing isn't the real issue. Goro's not sure which Persona would be the best compliment for his outfit. When he first imagined killing Akira -- back in October, a month ago that feels like a lifetime -- he expected wearing Robin Hood through to the very end, never letting Akira have the satisfaction of knowing there might be anything more. Akira hadn't deserved it, at the time. Akira hadn't offered him a reason.

Robin Hood is what Akira knows. But Loki is what Goro is, that missing piece that Akira doesn't know, the betrayal that Akira won't be expecting.

He could go in and shoot Akira without hesitation, as clean and clinical as stepping on a particularly large cockroach. Shift of the foot, weight bearing down until the pop of a carapace shattering. That would be the smart thing to do. Smart and practical.

But Akira's shown him so much, a tantalizing banquet to devour of impressions, things he believes Goro could be -- things that would be so appealing for Goro to be, in truth. If only he could stop and allow himself to become merely what Akira thinks of him. All he'd have to do would be to throw away the rest of himself: pretend a face like Loki never existed, and never gave him the power to fight back.

But even if Akira could be convinced, the rest of the Phantom Thieves couldn't. Their idea of justice doesn't include murder as a tool, not amidst their claims of changing hearts and reforming society. Akira may be flexible enough to contain a million facades, but the rest of the Thieves have never reached that level -- and none of them, none of them, could accept Loki.

It's not possible to stop his work now. Goro knows better than to hope it might.

So the least he can do is smash through the rest of Akira's mind by revealing that other face, and show just how far he's willing to go. Goro's methods are ones which the Thieves have never been desperate enough to touch, willing to ruin all of society if it means revenge on a single individual. It's too bad that he won't be able to summon Loki directly -- but honesty is its own gift.

Shooting Akira will be a public service, anyway. Any human with the ability to use that many Personas shouldn’t be allowed to live. Akira is a menace. Akira can be anything for anyone.

Akira let Goro own eight parts of himself, and almost more.

Goro reminds himself of that, again and again, as he looks into Akira's blindly shocked eyes and pulls the trigger.

Afterwards -- once he's finished reporting in and has properly disposed of the firearm -- he peels off his gloves and studies them in the light of his apartment. Rightfully speaking, he should discard them as well, to fully erase all traces of the act.

But the leather reminds him of Loki's armor. He can still smell the gunpowder lingering in the stitches. He can still remember the expression on Akira's face. A private moment, just the two of them. Their last connection. That final chance.

It wouldn't have worked out. It couldn't have. He doesn't care. He won't.

There's nothing inside him other than Loki and Robin Hood. And now, with Akira dead, there's nothing out there in the world that reflects him back.

Lost opportunities, he thinks and presses the gloves against his mouth, breathing the taste deep into his throat, wondering what that final, impossibly beautiful Persona might have been.

That ninth, impossibly beautiful lie.