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A Single Drop

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The bullet takes him near the shoulder. The shock of it kicks everything out of him: air, blood, thought. Life. Sound distorts and turns tinny. Sensation drains from his body. He's been hit before in combat like this, hit badly, and that familiarity alone is why his mind is already racing to analyze the damage before it can even register the pain.

Lung at risk, collarbone, shoulder. Right side of the body. Not immediately lethal.

But this time -- unlike the others -- he doesn't have the Thieves at his back. There are no Personas ready to stretch out a hand and heal him, or to block Goro from being ripped apart by Shadows. The Thieves are on the other side of the bulkhead door. Joker's knives are out of reach.

There's no one here to catch him.

He slams into the steel floor of the hold, and barely registers the impact. The ship's already melting around him, as insubstantial as mist laced with veins of rust. Metal fractures and opens beneath his weight, and Goro falls through into blackness, pain remaking the shape of his body and replacing every nerve with pure agony.

When he finally comes to a halt, he's not even sure he's stopped moving. The ground presses suffocatingly against his cheek and nose. His chest is a crucible of molten iron; his arms aren't working. He can smell the blood that must be all over him. If he's not already dead, he will be soon.

But he's able to focus a little better, now that the initial pain has changed gracefully into the greying-out of bloodloss. The floor here is red and green and swirling, a pattern that he gradually realizes is carpet instead of chaos. He can hear the distant, rhythmic clattering of plastic and metal. Lights strobe their colors in endless patterns in the corners of his vision, neon advertisements designed for allure.

There's a scuff of footsteps, and a pair of boots comes just barely into focus. One of them prods his skull until he groans, and manages to lift his head enough to get away from it.

It's a girl. Two girls, to be exact, nearly mirror images. Their uniforms are a startlingly rich blue, hats cocked with geometric precision over their pale hair. Eyepatches cross in alternating directions on their faces, but the visible irises are bright yellow. Golden. Dangerous.

Shadows, Goro thinks, forcing his wits to catch up. His fingers scrabble weakly against the carpet for a gun that isn't there. He can't sit up. He can't make his body care enough to obey him.

The girl with the baton crouches down, sniffing disdainfully at him as if he were a rotting fish on the side of the road. "That was more headache than it was worth, hauling you out from between spaces like that. What did you do to end up so lost?"

"I killed the cognitive version of myself," he answers simply, because he's running out of energy to breathe air properly, let alone deceive while doing it.

That appears to be the right answer, however, because the girl nods triumphantly. "Of course. You died," she announces smugly with a lift of her chin. "Or at least, that's what the Palace thought. It couldn't reconcile your cognitive death with you continuing to be alive, so it threw you out for the rest of this world to deal with."

Thrown out. Like garbage, he thinks bitterly -- but the logic works. To the very end, that's what Shido thought of him as well. Not just disposable: complete trash.

"Help me," he croaks. He tries to move his head higher, and the effort exhausts him completely, dropping his skull back onto the carpet. His legs feel like cold lumps of stone hammered into his hips. His extremities have given up the ghost; even if there was a medical facility nearby, he wouldn't be able to reach it like this.

Not much time left, he thinks bitterly, and can't even manage the strength to cough out a laugh.

Both girls linger to watch him, but the one with the baton finally shakes her head. "Our orders were clear," she states firmly. "The Master requested you be placed in a more stable Palace to observe your final moments, worm. He said nothing about actually saving you."

"But Caroline," the other one chimes in softly, "don't you feel this is a strange request for the Master to make? He has never relished the fruitless suffering of humans before."

"Hasn't he?" Caroline tilts her head; a few wisps of her hair have escaped their tight coils, and they float like lonely spiderwebs. "Or has he? Augh!" she barks, stomping her foot. "Don't confuse me, Justine!"

Their arguing drifts away as Goro tries to keep his eyes open, and fails.

That's it, then. In the end, he was always destined to be discarded. Even the god who first saved him from obscurity is only interested in watching him finally die.

Waking up to death this time is warmer than before. It's like sunlight against his skin, a pressure he tries to turn his head towards, slim fingers on his cheek. He groans, hoping to somehow express his gratitude for any sensation that isn't pain.

It doesn't last.

"Wake up, little detective prince," a voice purrs. The fingers pull away from his skin, but only to slap it, harder and harder until Goro's nerves can finally register the sting. "This is a remarkably pathetic way for you to die."

Yellow eyes -- a pair of them this time, framed by a thick border of black mascara, like gold inset in lacquer -- greet him when he finally manages to pull his eyelids open.

It's Sae's Shadow. She's still dressed in black and fishnet-crossed skin, the wide brim of her hat dipping like a stormcloud towards him. Her teeth are bright inside her grin. Every inch of her remains as dangerous as he remembers, a living challenge just waiting to snap, like an elegant flytrap that beckons its prey just a fraction closer with each second.

But the brittle tension that defined her is absent, and the lack of it changes everything about her. Her shoulders are slack, and her gaze is relaxed, no longer staring with the same intent hunger of a gambler waiting to catch a sleeve trick. Like a spring that's been finally allowed to uncoil, Sae's Shadow doesn't look as if she's been wound past the point of breaking and still expected to operate. She's comfortable in her skin, her authority. She's patiently waiting for his reply, rather than aggressively fighting to keep the conversation moving at her own pace.

Goro finally finds the strength to shape a few words; they come out in an undignified mumble, lacking form and meaning both. Giving up on speech, he debates trying to roll over instead, and then wonders if he'll bleed to death even faster that way. Dying on his back doesn't feel any better than smothering himself with the carpet, but maybe his last sight won't be of technicolor polyester.

"Some victorious hero you are," Sae's Shadow purrs, but her smile is wry, not mocking. When she pats her hand on his face again, it's gentler this time. "Bet on the wrong odds?"

He tries to crane his head to focus on her better, but his hair falls into his face. He can't brush it aside. The clatter of the casino is an ocean of plastic chips, voices endlessly giggling. His fingers are numb chunks of flesh. His voice has stopped working completely. He tries to force air out between his lips again, but it feels as if there's a vise around his chest: it won't move.

Sae's Shadow, mercifully enough, doesn't wait to see if he'll bargain for his life. “I can hardly get decent gossip out of you like this. Lucky for you, we have medical staff available for on-site altercations." A snap of her fingers summons two Shadows to her side, security uniforms painted across their shoulders. "It wouldn't do to have you give this place a bad reputation by staining the carpet further. You can explain yourself after some rest. Or, at least, pay for the cleaning fees."

He sleeps for days -- how long, he doesn't know. Warmth slowly comes back to his bones and stays there. The room they have him in isn't a hospital, but a lounge suite for high rollers to relax in between games, with a couch plush enough to be a bed. Velvet blankets pile haphazardly over him like a king, propping him up and swallowing his limbs within their fluff. The Shadows bring him meals, full courses each time, dutifully taking away whatever he can't finish. There's even a washroom where he can clean up, first from the sink, and then from the small shower cubby, filled with endlessly replaced one-shot packages of soap and hand lotion.

Rightfully speaking, Goro should be in an intensive care unit -- he should have had blood transfusions, antibiotics, surgeries performed in sterile environments. He should have had a rib shattered, tendons snapped, a shoulder ruined. Months of physical therapy, limited ranges of motion. Instead, Goro's been sewn up in the back room of a gambling estate and left to heal, as if he'd done nothing worse than scrape his knee or sprain an ankle. The wound in his shoulder is already knitting together, pink and puckered hot.

He tries not to think about it too hard. It's the same glossy handwaving of belief that lets the Thieves bring soda drinks into Mementos and treat them like magical potions. The last thing Goro needs to do is logic himself back into death because he can't allow himself to believe in a few stitches.

On the other hand, there's nothing he needs to hurry back to be alive for, either. The Thieves will have beaten Shido by now. Even if they haven't, Goro knows what Shido has in mind for his actual plans: Goro will never, ever be allowed to see his revenge come to fruition, because he never succeeded in becoming indispensable in Shido's eyes. All those promises had been lies as well. Shido never thought of Goro as precious. He never considered Goro to be part of his future.

There's no place in the real world for Goro anymore. Not with Shido. Not with the police force. Not with the public.

Not with Akira Kurusu.

Everything Goro had worked for -- everything he had invested towards Goro Akechi, Detective Prince -- is gone now. Like a puff of dust, all his reputation's destroyed. Every bit of the effort he had invested had ended up worthless so easily: an unlucky child, from start to end.

But he had chosen that loss. It's a decision that belongs to him, and which he won't shirk responsibility for. He had asked the Thieves to change Shido's heart. He had accepted the consequences.

It's a strange feeling that's been left behind in the gap where ambition had once lived, and Goro takes his time turning it around in his thoughts. Resignation, maybe, or hope, or just acknowledgement that he'd reached the limits of his abilities, that there really wasn't anything he could do to be truly wanted by someone else. To have someone crave his presence, to want him around. The one thing he did right with his existence was to give the Thieves a chance to win, and accept death for himself after all.

How the other orphans would laugh to see him now.

He lets the situation roll around in his mind while he fades in and out of sleep on the garish lounge couch, eating food dutifully when it's brought to him, washing when his skin doesn't feel clean. Sae's Palace staff bring him spare clothes -- casino uniforms in his size -- and cycle out his dry cleaning. Sae's Shadow has only a few questions, rudimentary and straightforward: how he got injured, what happened on the ship, how he thinks the odds are stacked. No one makes any demands on him, or presents him with a bill for their services. No one asks anything at all.

Which means that it's only a matter of time before the Metaverse finally discards him, too.

Self-preservation is clear: he should be trying to ingratiate himself with Sae's Shadow, or otherwise seek out another source of influence and power. Goro's only value has ever been in how useful he's been to those in authority, and -- right now -- he's not doing any of the work necessary to prepare a smile and a suit and a face that agrees with whatever's being said.

He should be doing a lot of things.

None of them seem worth the bother.

At the end of each day that passes without incident, Goro waits for the punishment that he knows is on the way. It's not unfair. It's simply inevitable. Eventually, Sae's Shadow will sweep into his room and demand for him to turn over every scrap of knowledge he has before finally executing him. Or she'll ask him to sell someone out, or to go kill someone, or maybe kill a lot of people -- and when he doesn't jump to obey, she'll throw him back into the void.

That's just how the world works. It's always been this way.

Goro's phone does its best to try and keep up with the passage of time, but even it gets confused -- or maybe he does, feeling as if the days are passing both too slow and too fast. As always in the Metaverse, it can't get a signal. The battery percent ticks down slowly, point by point, until Goro sighs and holds the button to power it down completely. He doesn't know when he'll be home next, and he doesn't want to petition Shadows and cognitions to see if anyone has a charger that's compatible with his phone model.

Even while completely shut off, however, the battery won't last forever. His phone will run out of life someday. It's his last anchor to the real world; without it, months could pass on the outside without Goro realizing. Years.

The screen flickers off.

Goro puts it in a pocket of his peacoat, folded neatly on a sideboard, and lets it stay untouched.

When he finally feels good enough to wander around on his own without getting too out-of-breath, he goes to find Sae's Shadow.

She's overseeing a floor from one of the surveillance rooms, letting the monitors run steadily while guests cycle in and out. There are fewer active tables than he remembers. Several of the screens are dark. Account ledgers are spread out on the table around her, showing neat lines of relentlessly dense handwriting.

"Akechi," she greets him with, tipping her pen towards him in a jaunty salute. One heeled foot swings idly beneath her chair, shamelessly informal in ways that her public self never would dare show in the office. It's illicitly delightful; he's seen her working after hours before, but she's never let her professionalism slip even once. Getting to watch it happen is like catching her drunk at her desk during working hours.

"Niijima," he returns politely in kind, and because Sae's Shadow is her -- just not the face she shows him publicly. It would be disrespectful to pretend it's fake, any more than someone might try to cut Loki out of him with a word. He glances down towards the account she's working on, and is started to see the references to evidence and testimonies: court cases, and not casino earnings after all. "Am I interrupting?"

She sighs, clicking her pen in a way he recognizes from too many late nights on too little caffeine. "Hardly. Compared to these cases, you're refreshingly simple."

"I'm not sure if that's a compliment, Niijima."

"Simple is good," she insists. "The more complex something is, the more places to hide corruption."

"But simple is also the easiest manner of misdirection." It's easy to fall back into the banter: they've gone through similar arguments before, sparring with each other when they can't score points in the legal system. "A single drop of evidence to implicate the spouse is taken more seriously -- and faster -- than the weapon itself discovered on a stranger."

She laughs, a frank warmth that is infectious in its candor, and Goro can't help but smile back.

They trade papers back and forth as she asks his opinion on some of the evidence. He can't resist volunteering it on the rest, picking up files at random for examination. Self-confidence seeps into him with each new case he studies, calm and reassuring. He knows how to analyze this kind of data, and do it well; even though he doesn't intend to impress Sae's Shadow, it feels good to dust off his skills and see how quickly they respond. Even when he's lost everything else, this level of proficiency still belongs to him.

In the end, Sae's Shadow claps her hand triumphantly on the stack of paperwork they made breakthroughs on together, and shuffles the folders closed with a look of satisfaction.

In his room that night, Goro thinks about the mass of unsolved cases still waiting on the gambling table. Each one represents an opportunity. He could dive into the work more actively, become invaluable to Sae's Shadow this way. Become useful. Needed.

Instead, he pulls the blankets up past his chin, smelling chemical traces of dry cleaning on the synthetic fibers, and goes to sleep without any plans for the morning.

They rotate through casino rooms after that, but the business remains the same. It's not the last time he spends his day with her, in a mimicry of work -- or real work after all, he figures, for each case that they dissect together must have its own counterpart in the other world. More and more surveillance monitors go dark. Sae's Shadow changes by small degrees. The hat is the first to go, discarded to the side, and then completely absent. Then the heels. Pants, instead of the dress. Each day, a little less of the mascara. Each day, a little more traditional.

But her eyes remain brilliantly golden, and whenever he catches a glimpse of them, Goro's reminded that the world he's in is still very far from home.

By the time Goro's chest no longer aches constantly -- only when he stretches, or contorts too much while pulling on a shirt -- he and Sae's Shadow have their daily meetings down to a routine. They've shifted their work out to one of the open-air tables; the den is silent and empty of players, making each of their words echo like bullets in the hush.

Sae's Shadow, Goro's discovered, can't resist handling decks of cards. She shuffles them while she works, dealing out fresh hands with each new case file. At first, he had wondered if she expected him to play a round in counterpart, but she seems content to let the cards spell out their meanings to her through number and suit, like fortune-telling with a five-card draw.

And the cases never end, either. Whenever they clear a pile, the attendants dutifully bring a fresh stack. Goro had started to feel proud of his response rate; now, after seeing no change in the mountain confronting them, he can sympathize with Sae's burnout. Anyone could develop a Palace after facing off against these odds for so long.

"How many are you working on right now?" he blurts, staring down at a new manila folder that had been neatly slid in front of him the moment he had finished the previous one.

Sae's Shadow doesn't try to hide her smirk. "Are you in that much of a hurry to recover?" she drawls, flipping out another round of cards face-up across the felt. The King of Spades leers at Goro atop a cover sheet on corporate embezzlement. "You'll only be arrested if you return to the real world."

"Arrested or killed," he acknowledges without rancor. Hearing news of the Thieves' triumph from Sae's Shadow had been another moment of closure for Goro's life, in more ways than one. There would be consequences for Goro both in the public eye, and from the rest of Shido's accomplices. While Goro had been hidden from the majority of Shido's network -- or so he can only assume, a guess based on how Shido wouldn't have revealed the source of his power unnecessarily -- having Goro be publicly identified as Shido's pet assassin would be significant reason for a number of individuals to want to see him dead before he ever got to trial. Fitting justice indeed, for trying to do the same to the Thieves.

Which leaves only the cognitive world now as a place for Goro: between lives, just as he fell between Palaces. Between life and death, with neither side more appealing than the other.

Between choices, with no interest of his own in the results.

They wrap up their work for the evening, marking their places with paper clips and sighs. Rather than head back to his room, Goro lets himself wander, stretching his legs after hours of paperwork. Most of the dens he peers into are abandoned and dark; dropcloths cover the tables, and chairs neatly line the walls in rows. The few remaining gamblers drink lightly, and are more willing to call it a night after a few rounds of losses.

By the time Goro reaches the main entrance of the casino, hardly any Shadows are still pulling the slots. He pushes open a door just enough to breathe in the cooler air of the night, looking out at a city that's so close to home, and so impossibly different.

Despite all his years in the Metaverse, Goro's never explored too far from a Palace before. He's never wanted to get lose track of the exit. It's the rule of common sense, the warnings of old ghost stories that reminded children over and over not to explore the darkened hallways, not to go into the forest. Don't tempt the spirits to snatch you away. Never go astray.

Now, however, he has no idea of where he could go. Shido's Palace isn't an option -- permanently. Without it as a point of escape, Goro doesn't have anywhere else that could offer a route back to the real world. He doesn't know if he can reach another Palace from here. The Metaverse must be interconnected, but Goro's never experimented with its limits, and he's wary enough of its dangers.

Mementos might work. It's a universal Palace, that's what the Thieves had said; it's rooted to Shibuya's subway, which is a stable enough destination to pinpoint. If Goro tries hard enough, maybe it would let him in, and then let him out into the real world again.

But there's no reason to try. Arrested or killed, that's what he told Sae's Shadow, and that's all that's waiting for him on the outside. The nothingness inside him hasn't lessened, either. He doesn't know how to quantify it yet, only that there's something smoothed over and blank inside his chest, a numbness that echoes the muted nerves of his gunshot scar. He has no motivation to fight. He'd have to have a reason to fight, to care, to seek fame and adoration -- and there's no point in it, no Shido to subvert, no Detective Prince to nurture in the public eye. A Shadow could rise up and attack him now, and Goro wouldn't even blink. He'd watch its talons come for him, and accept the inevitability of the world's judgement come home to roost.

Curious, Goro stretches his fingers into the air, searching his mind for traces of Loki and Robin Hood. For a long, cold moment, nothing answers -- but finally, finally, they stir in his thoughts. Both of them question him, nudging against his instincts, ready for a fight. They're only a heartbeat from the surface, an exhalation of their names upon his lips -- but he drops his hand and lets them go, satisfied that they at least still exist.

He steps out of the casino hesitantly, half-hoping to simply slide out of the front steps and back into the real world -- but as he wanders through the streets, first taking careful loops around the perimeter and then being more daring, nothing jumps out to startle him. Even though they're Shadows, none of the commuters give him a second glance. He blends in easily with them, both the ones with faces and ones without, becoming one with a crowd of pedestrians more occupied with traffic than with the intruder in their midst.

When he descends the stairs into the subway, the lights remain bright; the gloom of Mementos never invades. He switches from line to line with bemusement, watching for any hint of crimson veins to come bleeding through the walls -- but the only colors he sees are from advertisements and station signs, eagerly promoting new phone models and the latest idols. Announcers patiently count out the beats at each station. Teenagers punch out drinks from the vending machines, complaining about the weather as they heft their schoolbags, asking one another about test results.

Even though Goro lingers, Shibuya never shows its hidden side.

His apartment, surprisingly, is intact. Sae had never set foot in it, but the presence of Goro's mind must be sufficient to provide it with furnishings and supplies. He takes a long shower, breathing in the familiar smells of his home: the disinfectant on the countertops, the faint mold of the drains that need to be scrubbed. There's food in his fridge, but he avoids it on principle, uncertain of expiration dates when it all might be an illusion anyway. His phone charger is missing, which is a disappointment; he chalks it up to poor attentiveness on his part for where he last plugged it in.

As if in compensation, the clothes in his closet are all neatly lined up and have all their details intact, even down to the number of buttons. He pulls a pair of trousers free, warily shaking it out. When it doesn't dissolve into mist, he assembles the rest of an outfit, folding up the discarded casino uniform to bring back. It feels strange to be in his usual clothes again. Like his phone, it's a reminder of the world he's lost touch with; this style of dress belongs to the Detective Prince, and that's not who Goro will ever be again.

Having no other leads, he takes the train to Leblanc.

He's not sure what to expect there. It could be empty, or stuffed with customer Shadows; there could be a yellow-eyed Sakura lurking hungrily, offering curry that's stewed from pure nightmare. There could be another Palace claiming the territory instead, dominated by any number of storekeepers or residents who had reached a breaking point in their lives, pressured by society's demands.

But when Goro pushes Leblanc's door open, all he sees is Akira.

One of Leblanc's aprons is tied neatly in place around the teenager's waist, spotless and ready for service. The cafe is saturated with afternoon sun. Fresh coffee steams in one of the siphon bulbs, lacing the air with flavor.

There's no sign of any other customers, or even of Sakura; the world here is filled with only Goro and Akira, as if someone had distilled down all their stolen afternoons into a single draught, concentrated like a coldbrew meant to be trickled over ice. Everything's perfect. If it wasn't for the quiet heat of the healing wound in his chest, Goro could have wondered if he'd somehow hallucinated all of November, and never been lost from the world.

Akira's smile is warm and easy. His eyes are human-grey, and not yellow at all. "And here I thought you'd never stop by."

Goro finds himself staring hard at the other teenager's face, wondering if a bullet hole will open up in Akira's forehead the longer that he waits. Maybe if he thinks about it too hard, it'll happen anyway in response to cognition -- like the risk of the scar splitting wide in Goro's flesh and peeling back layers of muscle and tissue like an unraveling, red wet flower.

"Kurusu," he says, and then discards the graciousness of polite formality. "Akira. So you refused to stay deceased here as well?"

Logic doesn't strike Akira dead on the spot. "Yeah," he acknowledges with a smile. "Come sit down. Let's talk."

It's tempting to pretend. To slide into a chair, and play make-believe at reality. Goro cuts through the urge as cleanly as a Shadow. "How long were you lying to me, Akira?"

Akira's cognitive form is as mercurial as his counterpart: he offers truth without flinching, or warning. "About which part?"

"The only one that matters," Goro snarls, but the fight goes out of him even as he says it, because he's smart enough to know that it's impossible to draw a circle around what that means. Everything matters. Everything was part of the lie. But everything was part of the truth, too, and he'd known it going in: Akira was capable of infinite deception, and had been so beloved by the Thieves that none of them had cared. He'd accomplished what Goro never had, being wanted and craved even with all his ugliness on display.

Maybe that was why the Thieves had offered to accept Goro in the end: because they had Akira to love first, and anyone else would have looked sane by comparison.

He surrenders to inertia, pulling off his jacket and draping it over the back of one of the bar chairs. Akira's already moving to pour a cup of coffee, arranging the sugar and cream next to it, just as he knows Goro prefers. For a moment, Goro thinks about refusing in a fit of dramatic stubbornness; instead, he settles with studying the coffee mulishly, disappointed by its innocence.

"It's Tanzanian Peaberry today," Akira supplies, helpfully. He pours himself a second cup.

Goro takes a sip. "What would you do if I shot you, Akira? Again?"

"Here?" As nonplussed as ever, Akira lets the corner of his mouth curve up. The expression is impossible to split between a smirk and a smile, changing underneath each inflection of the light. "Then who would run the cafe?"

Goro doesn't have a reason to spare the cognitive Akira. He doesn't have a reason to kill him either. The lack of motivation either way is like a stay of execution, both figuratively and literally: Goro doesn't have to decide on something to feel, because he's refusing to take any action that would require it. It's as if the strategy game of his life has been set on pause, and then walked away from indefinitely. Goro considers the pieces, but leaves them there to gather dust, arrested in mid-fight forever.

His personal agenda is over. But others are still in motion, and the lack of repercussions is equally bewildering and confusing. Like a metal splinter against his skin, it rubs and rubs at Goro's indifference until he can't leave it alone, even though he knows how a touch might draw blood.

Goro broaches the question the next time he's working on cases during dinner, examining larceny charges between mouthfuls of rice. "Why did you rescue me, Niijima? It can't have been simply for information about what happened in Shido's Palace. You should have received as much from the Thieves in the real world by now."

Sae's Shadow pauses in the middle of picking apart her own dinner, chopsticks dissecting a slab of fish. "Even though you've made some mistakes, you're still a good kid, Akechi. And I know what it's like to be led astray by convictions. After all, I wouldn't be here otherwise," she points out, deadpan, though the corners of her mouth twitch to betray her amusement.

The point is fair. Goro acknowledges it and presses forward anyway. "It's been more than just saving my life, though. You haven't asked me to repay any of this," he continues, a sweep of his hand encompassing the casino uniform, the dinner plates, his own continuing life. "Shouldn't you request compensation?"

Something in the helplessness of his voice finally catches her attention. Sae's Shadow sets down her chopsticks and studies him directly, hands flat on the paperwork, voice equally even. "Should I?"

Her evasiveness is infuriating. "Someone as smart as you has to have an ulterior motive, Niijima. No one has a place in the world unless they're performing for it. That's how society operates. It's human nature. No one wants you unless you're doing something for them."

Sae's Shadow scans his face, back and forth as if reading hidden warnings and disclaimers painted on his skin. "It is human nature," she confirms, unblinking. The gold of her eyes glitters like a jackpot. "So, aren't you glad you're in a world of Shadows?"

With no classes to attend or criminals to falsify, Goro finds himself with a startlingly vast amount of free time. Normally, his days would be overflowing with work: tests to study for, evidence to plant, people to impress or kill. He's accustomed to schedules that are overflowing by necessity. Survival hinges on fostering strong connections; each thread of influence he can cultivate might be a person worth manipulating, even if only as a sacrifice on demand.

But the cognitive world hasn't bothered to fill itself with any of Goro's obligations. Sae's Palace is stocked with gamblers, not government workers, and even if some officials might have seeped through, Sae doesn't know the full extent of Shido's network. Without those identities compromised, she doesn't know who to suspect -- and the result is that Goro can walk freely, with no one tugging on his sleeve or sending him meaningful glares. There are no ministers scheming here, no corrupt police officers smirking as he passes.

There are no assignments for him to handle, and no threats if he doesn't obey.

The lack of pressure is baffling the longer that it goes on. He already knew that there were no options left in the real world for him to aim for: to discover that the Metaverse doesn't mind is a matter that's impossible to wrestle with. His mind slides away from the concept every time he tries to grasp it. He's being allowed to simply exist here, living without cost: he's given food, shelter, clothing, all for no payment of his own. Unlike the orphanage, there's no time limit counting down towards his eventual doom. Sae's Shadow doesn't have a fixed quota of cases for him to fulfill; she thanks him whenever he shows up, but never insists on a particular number to close, or cares when he takes the day off to spend at Leblanc instead.

"How can this world function like this?" he asks Akira one afternoon: frankly, bluntly, because he's been asking the same question over and over blindly, aware that no one's left to answer it but himself. He's in the jurisdiction of a Palace; there's no one here but himself and Sae's psyche, and everything else is a reflection of that. "No one wants you unless you're playing a role that furthers their interests. You should know that even more than me, Akira. You never stop changing to suit, do you?"

It's a question he'd never dare to ask in the real world. It's too honest; it reveals too many doors in Goro himself. But there's a dizzying freedom in being able to voice these things out loud without repercussions, and the more that Goro indulges, the more he keeps going. This isn't the real Akira -- but it's close enough.

And close enough to have the same smile that Goro's come to expect whenever he cuts too close to the truth: a secretive, tiny curl of Akira’s lips, a slight narrowing of the eyes. "If it's your nature to be a trickster, is it really a trick?" he offers, his curiosity remote and light, like a razor disguised as a butterfly's wing.

"If everything you show is real, then everything's a lie," Goro retorts stubbornly, throwing back the petty paradox even though it gains him no ground.

The barb falls shorter than he'd like. Akira twists it around in an instant, a dagger caught and thrown in rebound. "Obviously there's something real," he replies. "If nothing else, it's proven through your heart, right? You believed in me, so there must have been something worth believing in."

The casual abandonment of common sense is enough to hijack all of Goro's more elegant arguments. "That's not -- that doesn't count," he protests, not sure which part he should deny first. "That's like saying if I believe there are monsters in the riverbed, there really are."

Mercifully enough, Akira lets the matter end there. "Hearts are strange things," he shrugs, and finishes drying off a glass with deft twists of his hands. It lines up alongside its companions with a crisp click, and Akira shakes out the towel before folding it into a neat white square. "What do you want for dinner?"

Goro snorts. He doesn't even know why he's arguing so much. It's not as if he wants to be asked to play a role anymore, to have to calculate out the optimal balance of traits to cultivate and show, all to convince someone else that they might find him useful in a specific niche. He simply doesn't know how to life live without it -- even a life that he no longer cares about, with no interest for what happens next. He can't understand the sudden restlessness that's been stirring in his thoughts ever since visiting Leblanc, disrupting the placidity that had settled into his chest alongside his scar tissue. It's a discontent that exists for no reason; it’s like finally being given a prize, and spurning it for being the wrong color.

Here Goro is, in peace and paradise, and he's ruining it for himself.

"Goro," he hears, a soft noise that's closer than he expects, soft and still somehow loud to his ear -- and when he turns his head, wondering why Akira's standing with his hands braced on the counter, Akira leans in.

The light, hesitant touch of Akira's mouth is enough to startle Goro motionless, freezing in place. As if attempting to gather evidence for a checklist, all his senses race to capture everything in a snapshot around him: the smell of coffee brewing, the warmth of the cafe, the distant noise of pedestrians outside. It's a case file in preparation, a crime scene that will be presented with analytical detachment when it comes time for a rational explanation for what can't possibly be happening anyway.

Then Akira shifts his weight enough to lift one hand, cupping the back of Goro's head, and the rest of Leblanc is washed away effortlessly by the sensation of Akira's fingers threading against his scalp.

Hunger opens his mouth for him, kissing Akira back with a desperation that's an open challenge, daring Akira to match him or be overwhelmed. He's blindly reaching now, both hands twisting in Akira's apron to prove that it's really there, that Akira really is touching him, that it's not just a hallucination brought on by delayed near-death shock. He wants all the proof he can find to document this in his memory, enough that he could fill an entire room with paperwork and never forget this moment of being wanted, being needed, being desirable enough that Akira is making quiet, needy sounds even as he's switched to kissing Goro's throat now, gentle and careful, as if Goro is something he's afraid of breaking by going too fast.

There's just enough of Goro's self-control to wonder, bitterly, if Akira feels this good because it would have been the truth, or if it's just because he'd always hoped it would be.

They break apart for air and weight, Akira finally letting himself straighten up from his precarious lean; his mouth is wet, lips half-parted and panting. The counter waits between them like a shield. Goro's first instinct is to go around it, go over it, to immediately resume being cradled in Akira's touch, being treated as something infinitely special and precious. He doesn’t have to stop. There's no one here who would judge him. There are no consequences for giving in: not here, not in the Metaverse, this place of cognitions and closure.

Nothing Goro does here will matter anymore.

It's that very lack of reason which finally gives Goro the traction to resist. "I need to go," he says blankly, vestigial politeness making his voice operate on its own. His feet take a jerky step back from the counter, smacking against a set of chair legs and causing them to screech. "I need to. Goodbye."

It's not until he's back on his couch in the casino that he can gather his thoughts into coherent order. Even then, they shake apart at the slightest breath. Akira's lips had been so warm. His fingers had slid over Goro's skin as if shaping a prayer, attentive to every hitch and shudder, every silent begging for more.

It doesn't matter. It's just a selfish indulgence. Akira isn't real.

Goro's back at Leblanc the next day despite himself. He manages to get through one cup of coffee and a few lines of dry-mouthed conversation before he pulls Akira to him, desperate and hungry for that same reverent touch on his body, the lie that he can accept precisely because it's a lie wholesale, a cognition out of whole cloth. It's okay that he’s doing this. It's okay that Akira's doing it to him. It's okay because it doesn’t matter in this cognitive world, which seems so willing to retain him even when he's not wearing a designer face to convince it that he's worth someone's time. It's okay that this means that Sae can see through him so completely that one of her cognitions is taking pity on him. Goro knows he should be ashamed for craving it so much that he can still taste Akira every night when he goes back to the casino. In every moment, he can feel Akira's careful, reverent hands touching him; he can hear Akira whispering his name against his skin.

He doesn't care. He doesn't care.

He keeps going back.

No customers interrupt them. The bell never jingles. No one raps on the window to criticize their behavior. Time drags on; Goro leans against the wall of coffee beans and runs his fingers up and down Akira's apron, slow enough to feel each stitch. Other days, he pulls Akira into his side of the booth, not caring if he jostles the table and sloshes coffee everywhere. They mix together in a haphazard tangle of legs and elbows and slow kisses that lose track of beginnings and endings, endlessly repeating until the sun goes down and evening sneaks in.

Goro always makes himself stop before it goes any further than that, and Akira never pressures him.

But when they're not touching, Akira reaches across in other ways. It starts with an innocent question about how old Goro was when he first tasted coffee; then it branches out naturally to why Goro hadn't had such luxuries until later on in his teenage years, and what that experience had been like. Goro hesitates at first, instinctively; then he pushes himself to talk freely, recklessly, stringing sentences together just to feel out how they sound. It's all right if he doesn't say things perfectly. This Akira is a projection. He's safe to talk to, safe to confess stories about life in the orphanages, about life after them.

It's during one afternoon -- one endless afternoon -- that Goro finally puts a name to the sensation that's been haunting him, creeping in alongside the numbness and keeping him calm. Ever since waking up in the casino, he hasn't tried to be anything for anyone, even knowing the inevitable consequences. He's not wearing a facade, not constructing an identity. He hasn't struggled to be recognized: here in the Metaverse, he has no job to pursue, no schools to qualify into, no classes to ace. No bills to pay, no society to impress. Nothing.

No expectations to live up to. No expectations to fail.

Unconsciously, some part of Goro had still expected to be punished for inaction. Society had drilled the consequences into his head for not trying -- and even for trying, as an orphan. The cognitive world should have destroyed Goro when it realized he wasn't working hard at being wanted properly. It's had more than enough time.

And yet, somehow, he hadn't been rejected.

Sae's Shadow wasn't lying. Akira's cognitive form isn't faking. Goro could live like this so effortlessly, blending in with the other Shadows until one day, he becomes one entirely, the edges of his existence watering down until his body melts into blackness and his name becomes lost. Or maybe this is how the other Shadows came to be, the ones that he's never been able to put faces to: maybe they were also people who gladly relinquished their identities, surrendering their unique ambitions and never looking back. Or maybe there's simply no one left in the real world who can identify them anymore, once they've fallen through the cracks.

But here, in this part of the cognitive world, Goro's always welcome. It doesn't matter who he is. It doesn't matter what he is. He can amount to nothing, nothing at all, and for once -- in the emptiness of his chest -- it doesn’t bother him anymore.

He never knew that giving up would feel like such a relief.

He goes home to the casino every night. He makes himself go home, despite the temptation to linger -- Akira's sleeping upstairs in Leblanc's attic still, and there's a spare couch up there, if nothing else. But Sae's Palace is the only stable thing that Goro can count on in this world of illusions; he doesn't even want to assume that his own apartment will be the same from one day to another.

It's an excuse. He knows it's an excuse. Because each time that he makes himself leave Leblanc, it's a little harder not to wait until the last train has departed so he has an excuse to stay overnight. One night would become two. Two to three -- two to forever, staying entrenched in the sanctuary of the cafe, losing himself to an endless, perfect repetition of days that he never has to be afraid of losing.

During one of his evenings back at the casino, Goro's phone slides out of his coat pocket and bounces against the carpet. He stoops to pick it up and flips it gently over in his palm, watching the darkened screen reflect back his own image. If he turns it on, there might be enough battery left to tell him what day it thinks it is. It's waiting patiently for him, keeping track of the real world until the last of its strength runs out.

After a moment, he starts to set it aside on one of the lounge's sideboards -- but then tucks it back into its pocket after all, dormant and asleep.

One evening, all of Goro's warning instincts come alive with the clarity of a thousand sirens in unison.

He's in the middle of working through an early dinner in his casino room when the sense of danger floods him. Noodles slide off his chopsticks; Loki and Robin Hood instantly come to full alert, jostling for dominance under his skin. He'd been intent on finishing up the day's caseload before heading to Leblanc later, having brought the files back to his room so that he could stash them easily in case he ran short on time.

Now, however, the only information he can process is an overwhelming sense of dread. The air feels heavy and wrong. After a moment, he realizes why: even through the muffling of the walls, the casino is completely silent.

His clothes remain unchanged, not shifting to a uniform better suited for combat. Whatever threat is present isn't one from Sae. He tugs on his sleeves restlessly anyway, feeling Loki and Robin Hood just a breath away from being called into battle. Either one of them could provide him with a blade.

For the first time since his injury, Goro finds himself missing his gun.

There's no one in the halls when he steps out of the lounge. The casino is completely empty. All the lights have been turned off; the glitter of the tables has been shut down, leaving felt-coated monuments behind. The flyers papering the stairwells have given way to polite notices on bulletin boards alerting petitioners to fill out the proper forms, and notices of different law offices to call.

Even as Goro walks through the stairwells, the walls start to fade into the familiar, bland paint of the courthouse with its wooden doors and chipped waiting benches, the casino gradually erasing itself out of existence.

As he passes through one of the outer hallways, searching for any signs of Shadows, his breath catches itself in his throat in an instinctive gasp. The sky outside is red and broiling. The spines of prehistoric beasts rise up like skyscrapers, clawing at the buildings; the clouds are acidic watercolors, staining the sky with livid shades that tint the city beneath.

Outside, Goro can finally see what should be Shadows as well -- Shadows shaped like regular people, scurrying through the streets in orderly queues on the way to their shopping and business affairs. No one seems disturbed by the change in scenery; the crowds stream obediently around the bones.

Goro gives the sky one final, wary glance before searching out the central elevator.

A few casino lights remain on the top floor, neon bulbs chasing each other around the doorways -- but even as Goro steps into the hallway, they give one final, weak flash and fall dead, fading away into a whisper of luminescent steam. The double doors to the meeting room are open. There are no guards.

Sae's Shadow is inside, poised at the wide bank of windows that overlooks the rest of the city. Neatly-pressed slacks have replaced her dress, flats instead of heels. The fabric of a turtleneck wraps around her throat, rather than a collar. The only thing separating her from her counterpart now is the color of her eyes -- that, and the brandy glass cradled in her hand. Not her typical martini; he can't really blame her, however, not with the sky looking like a raw side of beef still left upon the cow, pulsing with a living heartbeat.

"It's Christmas Eve," she states as he approaches, glancing at him over her shoulder. "Cheers."

Christmas, Goro realizes with a startled blink. It had only been November when he'd taken the wound. No -- early December. It's difficult to remember. "Has it really been that short?"

Sae's Shadow takes a long drink of her liquor, her throat flexing hard. "Time flies," she says wryly. "Time flies."

He joins her at the window, watching fresh skeletons birth themselves out of the soil. City buildings shimmer under coatings of slime, red rain oozing from the sky like strings of melting taffy. None of the crowds below have reacted yet. He can't tell what's more bizarre: the landscape, or the public's acceptance. "What's happening out there?"

"The time for my Palace has come to an end." There's no regret in her voice, nothing but a practicality he's familiar with, the mild impatience of a prosecutor eager for the opening statements to conclude. "This world and the real one are merging. The people we see out there? They're not Shadows -- they're the humans themselves. Your friends don't have much time left to fix things."

Goro almost wishes he had a drink of his own. The sky shows no signs that it plans to stop gleefully hemorrhaging. "They're not my friends."

She gives him a piercing stare, one eyebrow arched. "No? Are you sure?"

"If you continue that line of questioning, I'll have to ask you to pour a round for me as well, I'm afraid," he replies smoothly.

Her rich chuckle is his reward, and she tosses back the rest of her glass with ease. Normally one of her Shadows would be on hand to pass her a fresh one, but it's just the two of them up here. She strides towards the sideboard herself, refilling her drink with the same practiced grace as a card dealer. "You know what this means, of course. All the lines are blurring now. If you want to escape to the other side, Akechi, this is your only chance."

The sky is starting to drip in earnest. Storm clouds have gathered, clotting blood in poisonous lines on the horizon. Somewhere out there, the Thieves must still be fighting.

Sae's Shadow is right. He shouldn't linger. If there's any chance of finding an exit, it would be now.

"No," he announces at last, softly, feeling the truth of it as hard and unshakeable as a glacier in his chest. "Nothing's waiting for me out there."

The disapproving click of a tongue snaps him out of his thoughts; Sae's Shadow is giving him an assessing stare. "Is that what you've decided, or what was decided for you?"

"Does it make a difference?" He lifts a hand and touches the window gingerly. The thick glass shimmers beneath his touch, warring between the casino and the courthouse. "This world is what's left for me. I'm okay with that. What else is there to want?"

Sae's Shadow doesn't answer.

They watch the storm together in silence as it rises in intensity, lightning flashing in vicious spikes through the gloom. Below them, the crowds finally start to take notice of the unnatural weather: they stop and point and cluster together in helpless masses, waving their arms angrily towards a sky that looks ready to pour an ocean of rotting blood upon them in response.

But in the distance, a light continues to bloom. Goro can't see the source, but it's strong enough to split through the decaying clouds like a knife, sending stars streaking across the sky. It dims and struggles and finally crests in another flash that brings a wave of fresh sunlight at last across the clouds, dipping them in molten gold.

"Merry Christmas," Sae's Shadow says softly. Her brandy salutes the heavens. "Looks like your friends won the battle for reality after all."

Goro doesn't contradict her this time, watching the light work like acid, bleaching through the layers of grime and leaving behind only the brilliance of a crisp winter day. The skeletal landscape wavers, bones melting into smoke. Somehow, he's not sure what he expected. Some sort of trumpeting, maybe. Choruses. Rainbows. "Are we in the real world now?"

"No. This world will always remain, as long as hearts exist. But the distortions that allow people access are coming to an end." He doesn't know if Shadows can get drunk, but her hand trembles as she downs another swallow of her brandy, and he can't tell if it's nerves or liquor or both. "As for me, I've been off-course for far too long. It's time to get back to work."

His question, when it comes, is far softer than he expected. "What do you plan to do?"

"My Palace is almost entirely gone now." She's just as quiet as he is, just as hushed. In the emptiness of the Palace, theirs are the only voices around. "And if mine is, everyone else's might be too. You may never find your way out of here again, Akechi. It's not too late to try and run for it."

"Where would I run to?" he answers honestly, half-hoping to have the solution magically presented on a plate, rolling around the bottom of her glass.

But Sae's Shadow only shakes her head and finishes her drink without fanfare, discarding it on the nearest table without a second glance. Her movements are steady now, assured. She looks almost completely like the Sae he remembers now, except for the yellow eyes -- and the sense of confidence, of fearlessness, as if both Saes had combined together, looking out at him from the same resolute face.

He holds his breath as she strides towards him, but all she does is lean forward to press her lips lightly against his forehead, a chaste benediction of warmth.

"I hope I can see you out there someday, Goro."

He closes his eyes, smiling a little at the scent of alcohol on her words. "Merry Christmas, Sae," he replies.

The blue of the sky drags at his attention, then, as sunlight finishes burning through the clouds. Its brilliance continues to chase the red of the horizon away, vaporizing the detritus still determined to cling on. White flares stronger and stronger into a second dawn, cresting until Goro's forced to squint -- and then it, too, fades away like the tatters of a bad dream, taking every trace of crimson with it. All that's left behind is a fresh afternoon sky, as clear and blue as the ocean in summer, gleaming and full of promise.

When he glances back, Sae's Shadow is already gone.