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The arena was certainly a challenge but one that he managed to overcome on his own.

He felt a little smug emerging without much damage as he held his own against Shadows that were of equal strength to him. The disadvantage was not felt as strongly as he thought it would have been.

He was quite proud of himself.

It was something to be praised for, he held his own against the odds stacked against him and he swept the floor with the Shadows that towered over him, swatted them like flies with some backup support from Oracle. It was promised to be an even and fair fight, and it was anything but.

When his teammates greeted him after he collected the coin amount promised, they were congratulating him, patting him on the back and showering him with admiration.

That is until Crow spoke.

"Yes, I expected that would be the case. Our other trials have been rigged as well, after all." He mused with a small smile that Joker knew was just him rambling his thoughts aloud. It's something he had grown accustomed to over the last month of them spending time together. He saw Queen stiffen in his peripheral and shot her a glance that caught her attention. Her shoulders slumped a bit and she faltered in answering him.

"Wow, you thought that far ahead?" Her voice was blunt, devoid of amazement and Joker wondered if she had been taking acting lessons from Ann in her spare time.

Crow didn't notice though, he just smiled at her and nodded. "He possesses multiple Persona right? Who better to handle a case like this than him? I had faith in his abilities which is why I volunteered him."

A cloud of nervous laughter around him barely hid annoyance of the situation. He could feel his teammates' tension that the person who was going to betray them was putting him in harm's way deliberately. He could feel it radiating off of them.

They were all terrible actors. The point was to make Crow feel welcomed so he didn't suspect anything... They had all been so obviously on edge since he joined and they discovered the truth about his intentions that they were making it difficult to deceive Akechi... the Detective Prince and someone who prided himself in his observation skills. Even though they seemed to be so close to being done now, it was still important to keep up appearances.

Morgana and Akira's solution had been to have a long talk with them a few days ago about trying to hide their distaste better and act like Akechi was a member of the Phantom Thieves.

Only it seemed to backfire.

It had only resulted in his teammates being more obvious now than before and it was starting to grate on Joker's nerves. He already had enough to worry about learning that his secret boyfriend wasn't the person he thought he was and was planning on murdering him in a week's time. It was hard enough keeping face as is and playing everything off as okay... especially when they were alone in the attic of Leblanc.

So them not taking the direction well was making it exceedingly difficult on Joker.

The air was tense in the room but Crow continued to pretend not to notice. Joker knew he knew the Phantom Thieves didn't like him but this was getting painful to watch. And embarrassing.

"Smart thinking, Crow." He interjected, trying to dissolve this awkwardness of the situation and sighed in relief when the others started backing up his statements.

"Yeah! Really smart thinking!" Oracle chimed in with gusto and she landed a punch on Crow's arm. He chuckled and rubbed the area and Joker started thinking she probably punched him harder than necessary.

"I appreciate the praise, but I didn't do any of the legwork, that was Joker."

"Nah, you used him like a pawn! You had a strategy! We don't use those much! We just kinda barrel through." She grinned widely.

Pawn was a little harsh, he was at least a knight. At least.

He saw Queen stiffen again. "We don't barrel through, Oracle! We have a strategy and a solid team."

"Not as solid as it was before Crow showed up." He heard Panther finally speak up. Her words were spaced a little too far apart as she spoke like she was forcing herself to lie through her bared, obviously gritted teeth.

"You're right. Since Crow has graced our group, we have been more efficient in our time management. Normally we'd have not made it past the first floor at this point." Everyone murmured in agreement at Fox's input.

Now it was feeling more natural. Even if the jabs were made at him.

"We wouldn't be nearly this far this quickly without Crow."

"I suppose you are correct."

"Yeah, it's been kinda crazy how many coins we've gotten out of that old bag."

"That's my sister, Skull."

"Well, whatever, it's still pretty sweet that we made it this far."

"His leadership skills have been most helpful guiding us like this."

Wait.

"If only we had Crow before! Can you imagine how fast we would have gotten through Kamoshida's shit?"

"Oh, and the bank."

"Man, if he had been with us since the start, we'd have solved double the cases. 

Wait. Now they were crossing a line.

"That's a bit much." Joker started but his voice fell on deaf ears. Crow caught his gaze but just laughed which did nothing for Joker's already frayed nerves.

"I don't think we would have progressed any quicker, I-I think Joker's leadership has been excellent."

"Nah, he ignores my intel a lot of the time, Noir. You haven't been with us long enough."

"And wastes items-"

"And takes far too long healing-”

“And uses his energy too fast.”

“And makes us drink gross shit he finds in vending machines.”

"If we had Crow we would have just blown through Palaces and had more time doing game nights."

"We don't do game nights, Oracle."

"Maybe because we are too busy in Palaces, Inari, keep up."

Well if Oracle was good for nothing else, she was an excellent hypeman. Except now it was getting to be absurd.

"Maybe we should call it a day." He interjected through clenched teeth. He suddenly had all urges to get through this Palace fade from his list of important things to do. He could be fishing... or sleeping.

"Are you sure? The day is still young and I think we are almost done with this." Crow asked him, finally speaking up. He glared at him under his mask. His boyfriend was pushing his buttons on purpose now.

"Classic Joker." Someone from the crowd of thieves mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear.

"Drop it." He said and motioned for them to follow him to the safe room. The arena battle was now wearing on his energy and he didn't think any of the drinks he had with him would soothe his bruised pride and irritation.

He heard someone rush up to him and walk beside him.

"Ah- Joker." He turned to Crow and stopped mid-step.

"We really are almost done with this, all we have to do is go to the bridge and pay the amount due."

He held up his hand to him, waving off his suggestion. He was actually... quite bitter that they went through Niijima's Palace so quickly. It meant that things were going to be ending soon and-

He wasn't ready. Even though it was an illusion that Akechi felt anything for him... Even though it was all fake. He wasn't ready to give it up... not yet.

"I said we are done for the day. It's no big deal." He said stubbornly. Crow kept by his side.

"We should at least secure the infiltration route." He caught his hand and Joker finally took the time to look at him. No. He wasn't done with this arrangement, not yet. Soon this game would be up. He never really wanted it to end. It hurt to think about.

"Joker," He almost jumped, lost in his own thoughts to look down at Mona. "Crow's right, we should just finish up."

"We will come back another day and deal with this, then send the calling card, alright? I just have other things to do today." Crow let his wrist go and gave him a simple smile. He could feel Mona's eyes staring straight through him. Joker had nothing else to do today, and his friend knew it. Even still, he was grateful Mona didn't contradict him.

"If you say so, you are the leader." Mona let out a long sigh. He didn't care though.

He was the leader. For as long as it will last.

Once they were outside the station, chatter began up again. Apparently, the general consensus among his friends was that they should have finished with the bridge and dealt with it. He knew why they were still discussing it. The day was still young and they didn't want to be around Akechi anymore. He was the exact opposite though. He wanted him around more. They didn't have much longer until the deadline. They could at least grant him this.

"This wouldn't have happened if Crow were our leader." He heard it this time from Futaba, who was crossing her arms.

"It doesn't matter, we will finish it another day." He reassured her, trying not to let the jab get to him. But she was too busy talking to Ann and Yusuke to hear him.

"I do have a project to finish up shortly."

"Finals are coming up."

"I don't think me stepping into a leadership role would have any effect on the progress of our venture." The detective mused, resting his hand on his hip with some air of importance. "Your current leadership has already been through these types of obstacles and knew how to navigate them well. Far better than I."

"And yet you picked it up like a natural." The jab from Makoto was deliberate and pointed in implication. Dammit, they just couldn't let this go.

"Perhaps, but I don't believe having an argument about who would be a better at leading at the helm is going to be fruitful. The Phantom Thieves are no more after this mission, remember?"

"Yeah, yeah we know." Ryuji all but rolled his eyes. "You've only said it a hundred times already."

"I believe that's a gross over exaggeratio-"

"Oh! I know!" Futaba spoke up, excitement present in her voice, cutting off the detective with her volume. "We should have a competition!"  Silence fell over the group at the suggestion.

Competition?

"Competition between who would be the better leader! Akechi or Kurusu!" She pointed at each respected party member and everything went downhill from there.

Goro almost immediately began to kick up a fuss about the idea but everyone else was... just as eager as Futaba was. Another easily read situation due to their terrible attempts at acting.

They wanted to see Akira crush Akechi one-on-one.

Oh, this was humiliating. He wished he had a mask to hide behind, his hands would be too obvious right now.

"Yes! That's a great idea!"

"I'd love to see this!"

"I'd pay money to see this, man."

"You don't have money, Ryuji. You still owe me."

"I paid that back years ago! You know that! Stop bringing it up."

The excited chatter was setting his nerves on edge for the second time that day.

He looked over at Goro, just to share an exasperated stare, but he found the detective... smiling now. Oh no. He changed his mind.

This could not be happening.

“Perhaps. This does sound like a good way to close out this arrangement."

Akira could hear glass breaking somewhere in the distance, and he knew for sure that it was probably, most definitely, his last nerve. He couldn't count on Goro for anything. He couldn't count on any of them for anything... except maybe Morgana, who looked just as annoyed as he felt. He had a feeling he'd be hearing a very long lecture from the feline later in the night. He had almost gotten to the point where he could fall asleep listening to him ranting to him about his 'terrible life choices'. It was pointless to hide from Morgana his relationship with the detective. In the very least, that meant they got nights alone together... even if those were limited now.

"Yeah, that's right! Now it smells like team spirit! Leader, you have to! A challenger approaches!" Futaba's palm smacked him on the back and he wondered where she got that much muscle mass to pack a slap like that. He figured that it was probably over compensation for her nervousness.

The excitement that broke out amongst his friends was almost contagious, if it hadn't already sullied his mood, he would have been quietly agreeing that it did actually sound fun. However, a one-on-one match with Goro given what was due to happen in a week was… disheartening. So, of course, he raised a quiet protest.

"Do we really have time for this?" He sighed and pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

"I don't know, you seemed to have prioritized your own time over that of the team's today." Goro hummed loudly, straightening out his gloves and stared straight at Akira. The slightest of smirks graced his lips.

Akira's own eyes narrowed in response. "Excuse me?"

"Today everyone wanted to secure a route to the treasure and you refused them for your own agenda." The words leaving Goro’s mouth were coated in honey and dripping in superiority. "Your own selfishness set us back a day, so tell me, why is this any different? Don't tell me you are afraid of a little challenge, Kurusu?"

Heat traveled to his cheeks, his teeth gritted and he could hear them grinding against each other as he tried to save face. He pushed up his glasses needlessly to front more time for him to react.

"Afraid?" He asked, trying in vain to keep his voice low and calm. "Of you? Not even close. You're on, Akechi.”

He swore he saw Goro's smile widen just a touch and it sent shivers down his spine.

__________________________________________________________________________________

His phone buzzing at school was a common occurrence. Between his activities with the Phantom Thieves and his confidants wanting him to do whatever they needed him for after school, his phone was almost constantly ringing with notifications. He was able to sneak a look every once in awhile, but this message had been one he was expecting. And not looking forward to.

It was to the group chat, Futaba's face popping up with an announcement.

Futaba: First Challenge location coordinates sent to the opponents' phones! Be there at 15 hundred hours or you're disqualified and will be publicly shamed!

He rubbed his temples, already feeling a headache coming on but Goro answered the chat quicker than he could have.

Akechi: If I'm not mistaken, this is a trampoline park.

Futaba: Bing Bong! The detective strikes again. What are you, a human GPS? An android?

Akechi: Just a psychic.

He watched the two bounce back and forth and slid his phone away to catch Ann stealing a glance back at him.

"Sorry." She mouthed before returning her attention back to the front of the class. He sighed and slumped in his seat. What could they possibly do that was competitive at a trampoline park? Morgana peeked out of his desk a little to whisper his refusal to attend something so trivial and Akira envied him.

“Take me with you.” He sighed. His phone was still buzzing in his pocket and he was sure that both chats were going; both the one with Goro and the private secondary one where he wasn’t included. More often than not, Akira worried that someone would accidentally post information in the full chat and blow their cover. Right now, he wished it would just happen so it could be over and done with. But that was his own selfishness talking. Things would be easier if everyone could just be honest with each other.

But no, he just had to agree to a stupid competition he didn’t even want to do. Not that he didn’t feel he could hold his own against his boyfriend…

Well, actually he didn’t think he could hold his own. That was the problem. Akechi Goro was built. Very well. He had felt the firmness of his muscles many times in the past month, he knew how strong his legs were and how defined the lines were on his stomach and the curves of his arms-

The soft whisper of his name on Goro’s lips.

Akira pinched himself on the wrist.

Now was definitely not the time to be thinking about his boyfriend, soon-to-be nemesis naked underneath him.

This was such a pain.

He pulled out his phone after leaving the classroom with Ann, scrolling down the messages of fake camaraderie in one chat and the jeering of his teammates in the private one, telling him he needed to “destroy Akechi at all costs”.

“You should call it off if you don’t want to do this, you know.” His friend offered, peering over at his phone. “You don’t look too into it. Everyone’s just tired and nervous about what’s going to happen.”

You’re telling me. He thought bitterly to himself and shook his head. He would never live it down if he canceled.

"It's fine, I want it done." He waved off her solution. It'd be better this way anyway. The thought of him going head to head with Goro wasn't... completely unappealing.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. He had been so frustrated with his situation that this would be an excuse to get his pent-up irritation at the hopelessness of his relationship and the demise of his connection with Goro...

Knocking him down a peg or two may make him feel better. Even just a smidge. He was angry and justifiably so. Maybe this would diffuse his irritation and anxiety about it all.

However, that anger did not only diffuse but melted away when they arrived at the address Futaba sent everyone after Akira dropped Morgana back off at Leblanc. He vaguely heard his friends greet them but the humming jolt that rushed through his body and he was rooted to the spot. He certainly hadn't expected to see Goro in something as casual as a tracksuit with his hair pulled back into a ponytail and... bending over-

Oh, that was very distracting from his current feelings.

His throat felt very dry all of the sudden, watching him stretch, the fabric of his dark gray track pants hugging the round of his ass just a bit too snuggly. It was hard to rip his eyes away but once he stood back up and looked over at him, his gaze finally dislodged as heat rose to his cheeks. When he managed to make eye contact with Goro again, he saw that smirk once again. He felt the prick of irritation and excitement wash over him as those dark russet eyes cut right through him.

That fucker. He did it on purpose.

That's how this game was going to be played.

Luckily no one else seemed to notice, just as Akira didn't really notice them all standing around waiting for him, Ann, and Ryuji to show up. When it came to Goro he had tunnel vision.

"Finally. Took you long enough!" Futaba's greeting was enough for him to break eye contact with Goro once again. There may have well have been static in the air around them as the group came together. Akira made sure not to stand too close to Goro but could tell the other was watching him closely, as he often did during Phantom Thieves meetings... as he often did when his mouth was between Akira's thighs, staring ever so intently at him as he came undone.

He pinched himself again and forced his mind to concentrate on the group and fell in line to gather around Futaba. He saw Makoto watching him out of the corner of her eye and gave her a smile to reassure her. It seemed to do the trick, her shoulders slumped with ease.

Everyone else was listening intently as Futaba cleared her throat loudly to cut the chatter.

"Okay, losers!" She pushed her glasses up and grinned wickedly. It was actually quite endearing. She had made so much progress in just a few months. Now she was calling them all names and trying hard to relate to them and interact when before she was hiding in her room and shutting everyone out. So no matter how sinister she tried to make herself, it just brought amusement to him.

"Today's challenge is going to be PVP! Joker vs. Crow! Inside this lair is a task so difficult that it may just end in misery and anguish," Her voice was deep and filled with energy, much like that of a narrator for a Sentai series or a sports commentator. "An obstacle course awaits our mortal competitors, now if they make it out alive-" She cackled. "Is a completely different story! The maze is laid out and at the end, the strongest must take the weaker out!"

"So, an obstacle course that ends with us fighting each other?" Goro's voice echoed Futaba's explanation. He felt the detective purposefully brush up against his shoulder as they listened but he did his best to ignore it. He wasn't going to let him get under his skin and distract him more.

"The detective is on it today!" She snickered. "We are all just going to watch, of course, and cheer on the rightful leader."

There was an obvious exchange of glances between the rest of the thieves and Akira just gritted his teeth.

"Fine, after I win we can just all go home right?" He asked, standing up straight from their huddle around the youngest member of their group.

"That's a bit presumptuous of you." Goro chided, another unpleasant smile adorned his face. "Especially considering how badly you're going to lose."

Akira laughed and shrugged. "Lose to you, of all people? I don't think so."

He absolutely thought so. Back in his hometown, he was actually rather athletic, participating in the swim team almost religiously until he was expelled from his school because of his arrest. He missed swimming and, of course, Shujin didn't have a swim team he could join. Not that anyone would have wanted him anyway, given his leaked track record. Palaces helped him get the physical activity he was craving since he was expelled though. But swimming only worked out his body so much, just like Palaces. Whatever Goro did... was much more focused on toning his limbs so an obstacle course was strongly in his favor from what he had seen and felt first hand.

"Really? If you look at this objectively, this is a challenge in both strength and endurance. In a stamina battle, I believe I have you quite proverbially licked." He goaded with a hum of arrogance. Could he maybe not phrase things quite so awkwardly? He fought the creeping blush rising to his cheeks. Why was he doing this? Oh well, two could play at this game.

"I bet I can knock you on your back." He countered, biting back with just as much venom as Goro was putting forth.

There was a glint in Goro's eye that made his stomach squirm ever so slightly.

"How successful have you been in that endeavor before, Kurusu? I find the opposite is often true." The detective quipped, his chest puffed with smug pride and Akira very much wanted to wipe that smile right off his face.

"And I find it true that you are on your knees more ofte-"

"What are you guys talkin' about?" Ryuji's voice stopped him mid-sentence. It was only then that Akira realized his friends were watching them, bouncing their heads back and forth between them as they continued to trash talk each other which was slowly leading to jabs at their bedroom behavior. Goro seemed to realize it too, almost sheepishly deflating from his earlier ego trip without a word to explain.

"Palaces of course." Akira quickly took the burden to answer, his voice as flat as he could make it and hoped his friends bought the lie. Goro cleared his throat and nodded.

"Yes, Palaces and Mementos, clearly." His boyfriend tacked on.

Wow, thanks for the save on that, asshole.

"Ahh..." Haru looked like she wanted to say something more, the confusion obvious on her face but their director was losing her patience.

"Let's see if you can back up that trash talk! Boys, go to the park!" Futaba pointed and they obeyed, Akira silently thanking her for cutting off any further inquiry. He wondered frequently if she knew how often Goro came over because of her bugs downstairs in the cafe, but he tried not to think about it too much.

Both he and Goro paid the fee to enter and took off their shoes to replace them with the special socks the trampoline park provided and looked ahead to their challenge. It looked pretty standard; filled with tunnels, rope climbing, a bar swing and courage dive from a rock wall and what looked like a foam pit at the very end. He could barely make out two long poles stacked against the pit and ropes hanging from the ceiling. That's what Futaba meant about the stronger taking the weaker out. He couldn't wait to see Goro where he belonged, amongst bright red foam blocks that probably smelled weird. Hopefully. Akira shoved his fashion glasses in the locker with their shoes and Goro's case and extra clothes before he took a look back to his teammates.

The cheers from his friends felt loaded, like a gun was to his forehead telling him he better not lose. He was thankful at least Yusuke was so distracted trying to capture the moment on his sketch pad he didn't join in with the obvious chants that were meant to encourage Akira. Their obvious bias was doing the exact opposite of trying to hide that they knew something was up.

"You have quite the fan base, I'm almost jealous." Goro murmured to him as they both watched the rest of the Phantom Thieves.

"Oh? Mr. Ace Detective jealous of some delinquent trash like me? I feel special." He smiled back at Goro with ease. The look on his boyfriend's face was like a punch to his gut. The polite face he put forth didn't match the tone of his voice.

"I suppose you have a point, but people are fickle no matter how special they may make you feel." He suddenly felt so far away, like he could reach out to him and never manage to touch him even though they were so close. "I wish you luck." Formality overrode all the passion he was exhibiting earlier and Akira sorely missed the cocky mess that was his boyfriend in that moment. Maybe... maybe something would change through all this. Now he was determined to have fun and maybe-

Just maybe he could find out why he was going to be betrayed in six days. Maybe he could change both their fates. Maybe he could get through to him, maybe he could reach out and touch him.

"Ready?" Ann asked loudly as both Goro and Akira took their positions at the starting point.

He exchanged a glance at Goro that was not returned before she shouted: "Go!".

Akira kept up with Goro throughout the obstacle course, for a while they were neck and neck, until the rock wall. He watched the detective almost gracefully climb the several meter wall with ease as he was struggling with the sharp plastic rocks digging into the arch of his foot, swearing under his breath. Looking up was a sight though, watching Goro's agile body feet above him. He continued to swear as he grabbed hold of a rather shallow rock and gazed up towards the top where Goro was-

Sitting on the ledge, looking down at him. He flashed him a grin and winked at him and in that instant of competitiveness, Akira wanted to destroy that ego by any means necessary, even if his boyfriend was so very... very cute when he did that. His adrenaline soared as he tried to catch up. That asshole, trying to distract him and pitying him enough to give him a chance to regain their even footing.

It wasn't enough though, in fact, his left foot slips in response.

"See you on the other side, leader ." He heard a light laugh and then Goro was gone, out of sight and out of touch.

Shit, this was wearing him out. Even with Palaces and infiltrations and fights against Shadows, he still wasn't nearly in shape enough to keep up with Goro. It was a predictable outcome, even though he dreamed that he’d at least be able to knock his boyfriend off his high horse.

He finally made it to the top and looked down at the trampoline below him. Goro was already making towards the foam pit, that handicap closing the gap by just a few seconds. He hissed and jumped down, much differently than when he was in swim team but the jitters in his stomach felt the exact same as he braced himself for the impact of the trampoline that bounced him several feet back in the air until he regained his footing and dashed towards the planks where Goro was waiting for him, already recovered from the mad rush to get to the finish line. He didn't get how he wasn't that winded though. He was hunched over, crouching, most likely letting his muscles stretch a bit.

Besides his clothes clinging to him slightly, he didn't even look disheveled. How was that fair? Goro looked hardly phased while he was definitely a mess. He grabbed the polearm that was padded with foam and held it at his side as his boyfriend stood to full height on the beams.

Another disadvantage. Akira had been so used to working with daggers and knives. He wasn't accustomedused to ranged combat and the stance that Goro took with him reminded him very vividly that his boyfriend was very... well versed in reach weapons. Goro's left shoulder dropped to him as he took the pole in both hands and gave him such a sinister smirk that Akira almost wanted to just drop this whole thing and jump into the pit himself. It'd be easier, but that smirk left him rooted.

Just six days until something similar was going to happen... It terrified him. Was it really going to be the end of this? Their relationship? Was Goro really going to go through with murdering him? Would he smirk like he was right now? He got so caught up in the moment that he missed the second that Goro made his first and only move and that split second was all the older teen needed to get the upper hand and slammed the polearm into Akira's knee, knocking his feet out from under him. However, his reflexes at least allowed him to jab the polearm into the detective's side as he fell, watching in satisfaction as he saw him falling as well before his vision was enveloped by bright red foam.

He took a moment to himself to regain his composure, wanting very much to go back to acting and thinking that nothing was wrong. Goro sought him out, something he wasn't used to, even with his other friends. Rarely did it feel like something forced. It felt so genuine and real to him... he wasn't ready to lose it... nor was he ready to lose to Goro. Things would be so much easier if they talked but he knew that would jeopardize everything. Yet he didn't regret any of this, he didn't regret Goro even though he was angry.

There was still time to change things, to reach out and touch him. There was still time to make a difference.

"Did he die?" He heard Ann ask, muffled from the sea of foam he was surrounded in.

"Maybe of shame, how noble. It's almost inspiring."

He rolled his eyes. Thanks for nothing, Yusuke.

"Shut up, Inari. Hey, Akira, you alive in there?"

"Akechi, if you really killed him-"

"With a piece of plastic and foam?" He heard Goro's laugh, clean and crisp. No, of course not with a toy like that... but with a gun instead, soon. He sighed bitterly. At least he took Goro out with him when they were racing.

"Akira?" Haru asked, prompting him to throw a piece of foam off his face and looked up at Goro's outstretched hand.

He frowned and threw the rest of the foam off his body, trying with difficulty to get out. Nothing was solid in the pit and his feet kept getting caught in footholds between pieces. He finally took a hold of Goro's hand and wrestled his way out.

"Thanks." He mumbled as he was hoisted back onto the planks. He looked up at everyone else and frowned. "Why do you all look so upset?" True, they all were quiet and the atmosphere was so heavy he could cut through it.

"I think it's because you lost. They were pulling for their favorite, after all." Goro explained simply.

His eyes narrowed. "What the hell- You fell in!"

"He didn't." Makoto chimed in, exasperation and disappointment evident in the way she carried herself. "He grabbed a rope before falling in and managed to regain his balance."

"I don't even get how it happened, sorry man."

It was then that Akira realized he was dating a demon. How on earth could any normal human be so quick to grab onto a rope midfall?

His mouth hung slightly ajar as the others muttered their displeasure with the results and Goro merely laughed them off. "Fate favors the prepared." He offered to Akira's unspoken 'how'. How pretentious.

The mood in the air was enough to almost suffocate him. This was absurd. It was just a stupid competition. If anyone should be disappointed it should be him. Which he was... sorely.

"But I believe we have settled this, as fun as it was, I think it's time to go back to work, don't you?"

Akira didn't want to think about how smug Goro was going to be the next time they were alone. He used dirty antics to distract him the entire time. Or maybe he was just seeing it that way because-

No, Goro was definitely just using his charms to seduce Akira and throw his concentration off. He'd get him back somehow, in no way was that fair or just.

"W-wait!" Futaba finally spoke up again. "We still have another challenge!" She spouted and everyone turned to her in obvious rekindled hope but to Akira and Goro's dismay.

"To Leblanc everyone!" She announced and pointed to the doors of the park.

__________________________________________________________________________________

"Come on Akechi, don't be such a big baby."

"But how, exactly, is cooking supposed to prove leadership?"

Akira was wondering the same thing, but the whole move to the cafe leaned towards Futaba only having planned the trampoline park with no doubt that Akira would lose. However, since he didn't win she was clearly scrambling for a spontaneous challenge and everyone else was on board with it.

Except him and Goro. The obstacle course wore him out to the point where he just wanted to sleep the rest of the night, especially if they were establishing a route to the treasure tomorrow in the casino.

But Goro was so adamant about not doing this and it peeked Akira's curiosity. Of course, Goro had won their first challenge but the way he was trying to reason with Futaba was eliciting some amusement. Maybe Goro couldn't cook? It sounded overly defensive, even for someone who wanted to keep their title as champion. Then again, he had never been over to Goro's apartment nor had the other cook for him, so there was a high possibility.

Maybe his revenge for the park would come sooner than he expected. The plan began spinning in his mind on how exactly he would unnerve Goro like the other had done.

Sex appeal may work but...

Charm might work a bit better, getting him flustered so that he made a mistake. What was that English phrase?

All's fair in love and war.

He bit the corners of his lips to keep himself from smiling too widely as he watched Goro and Futaba bicker.

"This is a bad idea. Boss is going to kill you guys." Morgana huffed from the table.

"I already cleared it with him as long as Akira serves customers and cleans up the entire mess." He didn’t know how she managed to both bully her adopted father into letting them take over Leblanc for the evening and also volunteer him for cleaning duty but honestly-

It was a small price to pay if he could make Goro sweat a little bit. Especially if he won. And he was sure he would win. This was made with him in mind, something he had been practicing since he showed up in April. So hopefully, with a little sabotage, he could edge out Goro.

Futaba paraded around the counter and stared at them all down. “In our next round of Joker vs Crow the challenge will be…” She threw open the fridge door with gusto and they all peered inside.

“Omurice!” She exclaimed and slammed the door before they could even take a look at the contents of the refrigerator. Well, that’d be easy. Maybe he could do something to make Goro drop his eggshells in the bowl or something.

He looked over at his competitor and smiled. “That’ll be pretty easy.”

Akira saw the corners of Goro’s mouth twitch and it took everything in him not to grin wider. Was he nervous?

Good.

He waltzed over to the back area where the stove was, luckily there was enough room for both of them to work back there but it’d still be close quarters. Also good. This was going to be a great arena for getting on every single one of Goro's nerves.

"Well, Akechi?" He asked him, turning around to face him fully. "I mean, I understand if you are nervous going up against me in cooking. I'm sure you're not the best at everything ." He heard Makoto laugh under her breath.

The pride in Goro's eyes spoke volumes his voice did not. "I'm not in the slightest."  

Well, Akira decided he'd have to change that.

After Goro reemerged from the bathroom to change into his uniform again, Akira stood by, holding an apron out to him. He took it and tied it around himself quickly before facing the kitchen.

"Wait!" Ann chimed in above the chatter of the rest of the group. "Shake hands! That's what they do in America before they square off!" She leaned on the counter and everyone else followed suit, watching them intently. Were they expecting Akira to rip Goro's arm off so he couldn't cook or something?

"We didn't do that befo-" The detective started to protest but was cut off by Ryuji.

"Do it for the team, Akechi." He snickered, obviously enjoying the prospect of Akira somehow one-upping Goro in a stupid handshake or the idea of bossing him around.

He sighed and submitted, holding out his hand out to Akira. Goro's skin was soft under his fingertips even as his boyfriend squeezed his hand with more force than was probably necessary.

But he wasted no time in his strategy to make his boyfriend slip up as he bent down into a small bow and brought Goro's hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to his knuckles, his eyes staring straight into his boyfriend's stunned face. His eyebrows raised, his lips slightly parted, his breathing shallow.

If they were alone he would have just leaned in and kissed him.

He could have heard a coffee bean drop on the ground if it had done so in that moment. Nothing around him moved or spoke. He could feel the eyes on them but he didn't care as he smirked and let go of Goro's hand.

"W-what was that?" Goro's voice had an edge of hesitation. This flabbergasted look was really endearing on him, especially since the action stained his cheeks pink.

"Oh, nothing at all." He cooed at him and smirked. "May the best man win, yes?"

Goro cleared his throat but only managed to nod. He almost considered that a win already. 

"Ah... ready?" Ann asked and soon they were starting.

If he thought the atmosphere at the trampoline park was uncomfortable, this trumped it easily. He heard his friends whispering over the sizzle of rice frying and couldn't help but feel a little triumphant about it. He at least got them to stop obviously faking cheering on both of them and they kept to themselves through this. The scene was probably more shocking for them than it was for Goro.

"He just-"

"Why would Akira do that ?"

"Is something going on? Is this part of his plan?"

"Oi, stop talking so loud, they can probably hear you."

"Don't preach at me."

"Did you observe how it affected Akechi? The expression he made was quite exquisite."

"Dude, if you talk like that people are going to get the wrong idea about you.”

“I don’t know what you are implying.”

Akira's eyes traveled over to Goro, who was mixing sauce and seasoning into his rice. It would be a dirty trick to make him mess up something like that. But Goro was the one who set the standards for playing dirty in this game so he waited until the detective began cracking eggs. That was when Akira saw his opportunity and made his move.

”You doing okay over there?" He mumbled, his feigned attention focused behind his boyfriend to the spices on the back shelf as he moved closer to him. He had to close the gap without him noticing.

"Of course I am, why wouldn't I be?"

With deft fingers, Akira untied Goro's apron in a disguised attempt to grab a few spice bottles off the shelf. Goro barely reacted, nor had time to do so as Akira placed the newly acquired bottles on the counter where the detective was preparing food and retied the apron. He made sure his body was close enough to feel the heat of Goro’s back through his uniform and whispered against the shell of his ear.

“Because you’re going to lose.” He chuckled, his voice low and hushed as he wrapped the loose bands of Goro’s dark green apron into a bow. “And when you do, wear just this for me, hm?”

He felt Goro shudder and his elbow snap back into Akira’s ribs. He laughed as the wind was taken out of his lungs and grabbed his spices and returned to his station. Goro rubbed his ear and did his best to hide his face from view, but he could tell he was blushing and frustrated. It was really…

Cute.

“Shut up, Kurusu.” He finally managed to spit out, sighing in irritation and began picking eggshells out of his mix.

He didn’t even care if he won at that point, that was worth the entire trouble this day had brought him. He wished they could have more times like this…

Life really had been too cruel to him. He continued cooking, making comments every once in a while to Goro about how cute the apron looked on him and Goro looked like he wanted to murder him.

Sadly, that wasn’t too far away from the truth.

While Goro was finishing writing something ontop of his perfect looking omelette, Akira decided to go in for the kill, he had nothing left to lose and honestly his dish looked… messy.

“What are you drawing?” He asked, leaning up on the counter beside him. Goro didn’t answer him, his tongue tucked between his teeth in concentration.

“Make sure not to squeeze the bottle too hard.” And his hand wandered, hidden from view and pinched his boyfriend’s ass.

Which earned him a soft yelp of surprise and a shove. Akira laughed softly. “Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist.”

Learn to.” The detective hissed through bared teeth and glared at him, going back to his little decoration of a bird. It was really precious looking even though Akira’s attempt to make him mess up his presentation backfired. At least he got Goro flustered. That was the best prize he could have won.

“Finished.” Goro smiled and swiped his bangs out of his eyes that had fallen out of their usual arrangement. Whatever nervousness his boyfriend had been feeling didn’t show at that moment, that earnest grin on his face as their eyes met made his heart flutter and in that same moment, he forgot that this same guy planned on murdering him.

Right now, they were both just… happy.

Futaba tutted impatiently and Akira was brought back to the present.

“Okie dokie! Let’s have a look then!” They all gathered around and the results were absolutely clear.

“Akechi’s is so neat!”

“Look at the bird.”

“Bird on an omelette? Clever.”

“It looks delicious.”

From the oohs and ahhs of the Phantom Thieves looking at Goro’s dish, they turned to their leader’s.

“Wow, Akira, your’s looks like you dropped it on the ground.” Ann noted, trying to sound thoroughly impressed but her voice was very flat.

“Yeah, it really does.” Ryuji nodded and picked up the plate, examining his messy work, his nose wrinkled.

Thanks guys, I appreciate your support.

Makoto sighed and rested her elbows on the bar top . “I guess he can’t be good at everything.”

“Or anything.” Goro stared at him, his voice whimsical with rekindled pride. Akira kicked his foot under the counter.

“It doesn’t matter how it looks does it?” Akira asked, shrugging before pushing up his glasses. “I’m confident in it.”

“I couldn’t imagine eating this swile, there is nothing elegant about it.”

“Doncha just eat bags of bean sprouts?”

“I feel the shape is-“

“Enough already.” Ryuji’s booming voice broke up the chatter. “Let’s just try it already. But uh… Akechi’s first. No offense man.”

They dug into Goro’s dish which was really far too cute to consume. But Akira knew this was probably just a disaster disguised as something extraordinary.

One bite in his mouth told him-

He was absolutely right. Everyone’s faces fell where there was once excitement  and hope evident. Oh, that tasted like… nothing.

“How did you manage to make it look so good and yet it tastes like this?” He asked his boyfriend and saw the peek of a flush on his cheeks before the other’s dark eyes darted away.

“I don’t cook often, my apartment barely has a prep space.”

A nervous laughter rang out around the otherwise empty cafe.

“It’s kinda impressive though. It looked nice?” Ann politely commented after swallowing the concoction.

He was trying not to laugh at his boyfriend’s expense but after the crazy day they had, it was difficult to keep it in.

“It’s okay, Akechi, you can’t be good at everything.” He parroted back Makoto’s words to Goro and saw the other’s gaze turn so cold, he wouldn’t be surprised if he was cursing him in his head.

“It’s not bad, it just doesn’t taste like much. Just keep practicing.” He reassured him and it did nothing for the icy glare that was being thrown his way.

Futaba’s nervous laugh was enough to break the mood, though. “Let’s try Akira’s… it may be even worse.”

“Thank you, that was my last shred of self esteem you just crushed.” Akira huffed as he handed out spoons to them. The dish was almost gone by the time it was divided up, but Akira swiped some and held out a spoonful to Goro,

“Say ahh.” He teased and the detective took the spoon away from him and ate it.

There was silence as the room began to eat the egg, rice and sauce. Then the gushing of compliments started.

“Akira, this is so good!”

“It looks abysmal but I want the last bit of it, if you don’t mind.”

Akira waved for them to go ahead but looked to Goro for his reaction. “Well?”

The other boy shrugged in response. “It’s not awful.” He might as well said that he was going to only eat Akira’s omurice for the rest of his life. He couldn’t keep his smile back anymore. His expression didn’t go unnoticed on Goro because the other looked taken aback.

Everyone let out a sigh of relief, oblivious to the heated eye contact Akira and Goro were giving each other.

“Well, Akira has my vote!”

“And mine!”

“Mine as well.”

All around everyone voted for Akira and he mocked a bow at their applause.

“I suppose I concede defeat to you, leader. At least this time.” Goro sighed and took off his apron to hang it up where it belonged over the door and Akira felt a little disappointed to see it go. That look suited him very well.

“I guess we are done here then!” He stood up straight and finally was seeing an end in sight to this hell, even if it ended up being pretty fun.

“Wait!” Futaba slammed her fist on the counter. “You both are tied now! We need a tie breaker!”

Akira and Goro locked eyes again as the rest of them began to agree with her, even Morgana was starting to tread the line of absolute ridiculousness.

He knew Goro’s answer to their demands. It matched his own.

“We are tied, and as your leaders, we are all asking that you leave for the day.”

“Yes, we have much work to be done tomorrow and you all need rest. Please leave. At once.”

Together they both kicked the group of thieves out of the cafe. Every single one of them.

And Akira locked the door behind them. They both started laughing. A true, honest, joyful laugh that started bringing tears to Akira’s eyes. What a weird day. Goro wiped at his eyes once he calmed down from their fit of laughter.

“Your friends are so… odd.” He sighed, shoulders still shaking.

“Yeah, they mean well but they go overboard sometimes.”

Goro nodded and sighed. “And you aren’t much better in that respect.” Akira titled his head, playing innocent.

“Neither are you, Mr. I-have-you-licked.”

“That’s rich coming from you, who kissed my hand in front of all your idiot friends who have no idea we are seeing each other.”

“I like danger, what can I say?”

They shared another laugh and Akira took that moment to tilt his head up and press a soft kiss to his lips that was returned. Maybe. Just maybe…

As they separated, Akira continued to stare at him. “Did you have fun today?”

“I…” He could see the question tumbling in Goro’s head, working its way through the logical attempt to answer such a personal question before he gave up and truthfully answered. “I suppose I did.”

“I did too…” He leaned against him, his head on the detective’s shoulder, trying not to let the bitterness of their situation cloud this happy moment, because he knew it may not come again. It wasn’t fair that their days were numbered, but at least they had memories, if nothing else. Even if they weren’t well intended, even if it was just a ruse to lure them both into a false sense of security, he knew in that very moment, they were both truly happy. And so he let go of his anger and resentment and enjoyed the rest of the evening with his boyfriend. He hoped, prayed to any god or demon listening that this wouldn’t even be close to the end of their happiness, but the beginning. He wanted nothing more than to fix this, to make this work, to change fate.

But he didn’t believe in fate or gods. Not after the interogation room, not after his suicide announcement was aired, and not after the ship.

All he had were the memories of times that were happier now.

And that was close enough.