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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.

Chapter Text

He goes to Leblanc not because he belongs there, but because nothing else comes to mind.

It's the end of the world, or good enough. The city stretches itself out in bustling storefront blocks, slowly winding down after another long work day. Everything Goro sees is a perfect mirror to the Tokyo outside: each Shadow looks like a regular person, an identical counterpart to their public selves. Shopkeepers take down their curtains and pull shut their doors. Taxi drivers nudge cars through traffic. Salarymen wait patiently at crosswalks for the musical cues to cross, interested only on the length of their commute home, or to the nearest bar.

If it wasn't for the color of their eyes, he would think that he'd returned to the real world after all.

Rejecting escape doesn't take him entirely off the hook. Goro still needs to find money, shelter, all the practical basics. If Leblanc remains intact, he could take it over -- assuming that a version of Sakura hasn't already returned in residence. If not, there are other options. He'll find a niche.

Because -- even without the casino -- living in the Metaverse on his own isn't impossible. Goro doesn't need to rush out to find a patron, or try to impress the Shadows into giving him a job. For all that the Metaverse can mimic the real world, there are still key differences, and the biggest one that matters right now is the same factor that will keep Goro alive.

Every time he's checked his wallet, he's had money in it. Whenever he's opened the refrigerator in his apartment, there's been food: never wilting, always fresh, disappearing on its own before it can spoil. The clothes in his closet are perpetually clean and pressed. He can guess the same thing is happening with his rent and utility payments, with his bank account. Within the Metaverse, all the details of daily life are automatically maintained, just so long as they fulfill outward appearances.

Leblanc never ran out of coffee beans.

The Metaverse is a system that operates on people's assumptions: by not thinking about how food gets to your plate, you never stop to consider the possibility that it may never arrive. Fish leap from ocean nets directly to the grill. In the same way that wealth appears in Palaces because of unconscious expectations, Goro's basic survival is possible simply because the majority of society likes to tell itself that the needs of others are already sufficiently covered. It's one of the many white lies that people lean on whenever they glance away from poverty on the streets, or in the news. Someone else will take care of things. They don't need to be the ones to step forward.

In the real world, people starve to death five feet away from a restaurant. In the Metaverse, that very same neglect is what will keep Goro alive.

He rides the subway without any hurry, letting the car tug his balance back and forth, swaying like waterweed in a current. It had been a passing fancy to turn into a nameless Shadow, but it might be his fate after all; he doesn't know what becomes of humans who stay too long in the Metaverse. He might haunt this world forever in his current form, or wake up one day and find his own eyes have gone golden without realizing it. He could go on an entire, unstoppable murder spree here, maybe terrorize the real world like the emperor Shido wanted to become -- but he doesn't care. He doesn't care. What good would it be to demand attention like that, when in the end, even it wouldn't last?

Couldn't last. Even if Goro had survived the cruise ship, Akira would have run out of reasons to spare him eventually. That's human nature: pure and simple and motivated by mere self-interest.

Sae's voice is soft and purring in his memory. Aren't you glad you're in a world of Shadows, Akechi?

He pushes into Leblanc -- and stops with the door half-open, stunned at what he sees inside.

"Akira," he breathes. The syllables are razors on his tongue.

The other teenager crooks a smile, cleaning rag dangling insolently over the countertop. "Did you think I wouldn't still be here?"

"Yes," Goro acknowledges, fully horrified now. If Sae's Shadow no longer has a Palace, then that means that there's only one conclusion: Akira is Goro's cognition. Maybe that's been the truth all along. The Akira he sees is only a fantasy slapped together from Goro's most pathetic cravings, pieced together from all the things Goro wants him to be. Goro hasn't been discussing matters with Sae's subconscious -- he's been talking to himself the whole time, fooled by self-indulgent circles, an echo chamber with a population of one.

"How long were you my illusion?" he whispers. Despite himself, he pushes forward from the entryway, feet moving in jerky steps. "The whole time?"

Akira's mouth is moving, saying something flimsy about how much he cares, but Goro shakes his head violently. The more Akira talks -- the more Akira lies, the more Goro lies to himself -- the less he wants to hear it.

"How long?" he insists, ignoring whatever madness Akira must be babbling about. He slams his hands on the counter; the sting on his palms sends prickles into his bones. "How long have you been just -- just my own mind, parroting words back to me?"

Akira stares him down, his mouth pressed hard in a flat line, refusing to deceive by virtue of refusing to speak at all. His lungs take the air in sharply, eyes blinking slow and steady until Goro's resolve breaks first, and he looks away.

"I saw something in you, back in the real world." Akira's voice is barely above a whisper. "What was it that you saw in me?"

This riddle stops Goro at last, cutting through the cold horror and challenging him to pick up his discarded rationality. His mental gears shift automatically into dissection. He knows the shallow assumptions he'd rotated through originally before finally touching on the truth: that Akira isn't the thief, he's the mask, a thousand facades that can only be juggled successfully by the kind of mind that refuses to be owned by any of them. A budding sociopath, already embarking on a successful career. Akira fits all the bullet points of a textbook threat.

But even after coming to that conclusion, there had been more to explore, winding around the confusing tangle of ideals that powered the Thieves. Joker had been a competitor, a counterpart. A challenge, someone for Goro to bring down. Someone to conquer, to beat; someone who didn't deserve the adoration they were getting when they were secretly as rotten as Goro himself.

He grasps for any number of excuses -- but they all flake away beneath the truth. There had been a single driving force that had finally lured Goro into betraying his own caution, searching for proof that he'd become important enough in Akira's mind that he could never be excised. He'd won eight of Akira's masks, in the end. He'd only ever made it to eight.

"I saw someone who thought my Justice was beautiful," Goro confesses quietly, swallowing down the muted shame of not claiming them all. Every inch of Akira should have belonged to him -- there shouldn't have been room for anyone else. "I saw someone who willingly made me a part of his life."

"Then, if I'm here now," is Akira’s merciless reply, as slow and unyielding as cold molasses, "aren't I part of yours?"

Goro closes his eyes. The question carves his breath out, leaving aching holes where his lungs should be. He deserves it, he deserves his own logic coming back to strike him for his arrogance. He was the one who let himself be blinded. He deserves everything.

Silence doesn't spare him, either. "Why is it so important what I am?" Akira asks next, a followup strike while Goro's still bleeding, stunned and open for the kill. "Or what created me?"

"Because," Goro struggles. His throat is tight; he's breathing hard and shallow, like a bellows trying to overcome a hole in its webbing. "Because if Sae made you, then that would have meant, it meant -- "

"Tell me why it matters," Akira's voice insists softly, and the command almost masquerades successfully as a question. Almost. But if Akira is just a manifestation of Goro, then it's different, everything's different: it's Goro's own mind challenging him to not run away, and he can't hide from it forever.

"I -- had hoped that you being here was proof that Sae wanted me to be happy." Each word feels like it's being pried out of his chest, as if the truth had been carved on his ribs and is now being revealed bone by bone. His skeleton is cracking beneath his own inept hands. "Because I hadn't -- I hadn't given up hoping that someone out there wanted that for me."

The truth is nauseating. It tastes like dust and bile in the back of his throat. He takes a step backwards, keenly aware of the door in reach behind him. It's a futile effort, but tempting anyway; now that he's aware of Akira's nature, the cognition could probably follow him anywhere, haunting Goro like the murder victim he should have become. How truly pathetic, to be so incapable of being loved that Goro had to make up a literal figment to pretend for him, a doll that would smile and accept being touched, who would give Goro whatever he asked for because that's what it was designed for.

Akira's talking still, impossibly, as if he thinks that words could somehow make everything better. "Goro, listen," he says, focused and intent. "You have connections with other people. I know you don't think that the Thieves want to have you with us, but it's not true. Having connections in the cognitive world is more important than you think -- that means you're never alone."

The compassion burns like acid. Goro feels his face contorting in a grimace, into something ugly and raw and horrible, and he twists it away to glare at the floor. "I've always been alone," he grits out, hearing the self-pity and hating it and unable to stop himself anyway: a child's cry, a choked scream that's been echoing from years in gritty institutional halls, penned up and denied so that no one would be able to judge him on having it.

He breaks his immobility at last, forcing himself to turn away by fractions, each centimeter closer towards escape. His hand makes it to Leblanc's door. The wood is an implacable mountain against his palm. He's dizzy, his mind on overload trying to second-guess every single conversation in the Metaverse, shredding each memory that flickers by. Akira had been hard enough to predict on his own; Goro had assumed the cognition's reactions to be based on estimations of Sae's knowledge, wagering that Sae hadn't been aware of the range of Akira's Personas and what they signified. It had been a gamble, one that had let Goro grow complacent. Sae's Akira was someone who was capable of complex deceptions, but who was still only an average teenager at heart.

Goro's Akira would have been different. Was different -- is different. Goro's knowledge of Akira's capacities means that Akira would have inherited every inch of his ability to trick others with perfect sincerity, smirking as he negotiated with the demons of people's minds. He stole hearts like prizes. He changed people from the inside out -- without their permission and without their consent.

The more that Goro tries to recalibrate dozens of afternoon debates -- running them through the filters of their real-world counterpart -- the more his own logic crashes and collapses. He can't trust anything. He can't trust anything. Akira may be capable of telling anyone and everything exactly what they want to hear -- but he doesn't, not all the time, or else he would never have ended up with a criminal record in the first place. Unlike Goro, Akira's never cared about other people's opinions enough to exercise his considerable power. Akira's never yielded to anyone.

Immediately, Goro’s mind slams up against one possibility, and refuses to budge.

If Akira is here because Goro wants him to be, then he's also a reflection of every single desire Goro has.

All of them.

The thought is enough to wrestle Goro away from the door at last, narrowing the world down to pinpoint focus. He crosses into the cafe, not caring anymore about propriety or formality or even common sense as he pushes chairs out of the way, stalking down the length of the countertop until he rounds the corner, and has Akira trapped.

Akira only watches as Goro relentlessly approaches; he doesn't flinch back when Goro reaches out slowly, tracing fingertips across the contours of Akira's apron. From stomach to chest to shoulders, Goro walks his hand up, taking his time to register each centimeter. It's intoxicating to have this degree of power: to watch Akira's breath speed up the longer that Goro stands close to him, the blood rising in his cheeks, pupils widening as if Goro is blotting out all light and all Akira can see is him.

When Goro runs a thumb across Akira's mouth, Akira swallows convulsively. His eyes flutter shut. His tongue darts out to wet his lips and Goro's skin at the same time in a hot flicker, and the feeling of control -- of ownership -- overrides every remaining resistance Goro might have tried to muster.

This Akira is not real. He shouldn't test it further. This Akira is a doll, an artificial construct, something he shouldn't use in this way. This Akira is not real. Goro can't keep pretending that Akira is anything more than his own fantasy, even as he yanks at the zipper of Akira's pants and goes to his knees before him, pushing the apron out of the way.

He keeps telling himself he can't keep lying, that he shouldn't keep lying, even as he's putting his mouth clumsily on Akira's skin, opening his lips hungrily to take Akira onto his tongue, and hears Akira make a breathless, ragged gasp, saying, yes, Goro, please, yes.

He stays that night in Leblanc, in the rickety, dusty attic he used to mock. The sheets are soft and thin. It's the first time he's slept with anyone else in his bed since he was a child in the orphanages and they had to double-bunk for lack of space. Having Akira beside him keeps him awake, aware; Goro keeps swallowing hard, remembering the taste in his mouth and wanting it back again.

Akira's knees tangle with his. Goro reaches out, and sets his hand carefully on the other teenager's ribs, touching bare skin where his shirt had climbed up. The glow of the heater ripples over all the mismatched souvenirs decorating the attic, from the posters and figures to the stars dotting the ceiling beams. It coats the sheets in a warm haze. Akira's breathing is steady under Goro's fingers.

He lies awake, and remembers what it was like to feel Akira moaning instead: rapid and helpless and entirely his.

When evening rolls around the next day, Goro turns to Akira before the cafe is even closed, and pushes him up against the counter.

Time slips away even faster after that. Sae's Palace isn't around to return to, but Goro still has his apartment; he leaves the spare casino uniform stacked neatly on a shelf in his closet, respectful to the memory of her Shadow. He and Akira spend their nights together, visiting the bathhouse late afterwards. They wash themselves clean, and then ruin it all within minutes of returning to Leblanc, making each other sticky and disheveled with abandon.

He lets Akira tie an apron around him for the first time, laughing at the absurdity of being one of the cafe's employees. He lets Akira get distracted, too, apron strings sliding through both their hands as Akira presses against him and takes long, slow kisses from his mouth. Goro's ravenous for every moment he can claim, his fingers clinging to Akira, tugging constantly for attention. He pulls Akira's hips hard up against him, lets Akira push up his shirt, moving delicately around the thick scar on his chest. He learns more about how Akira feels against his tongue, how Akira's fingers feel gripped in his hair, the soft groans as Akira moves jerkily against his hands and loses control with a sharp, frantic cry.

He learns what makes Akira pliable underneath his touch, and what leaves Akira arching eagerly instead. He memorizes every spot on Akira's body that leaves him gasping and begging, vulnerable to Goro's whims: if Goro will touch him again, kiss him again, whisper promises of what he'll do next. Even that's barely enough to sate Goro's hunger; he keeps wanting more, over and over, demanding more sensation without it ever being enough, until it's Goro's turn to be on his back, sweat painting the sheets to his spine. Every inch of his skin is hypersensitive from Akira's mouth and Akira's fingers moving inside him, slow and careful, from Akira's voice asking him urgently if he’s sure he wants this, and Goro whispering, yes, yes Akira, I want everything you have. Yes, now, now -- oh.

It's pure self-indulgence. Wish fulfillment, a fantasy. And it's best to think about it that way, because whenever Goro lets himself consider the situation further, the absurdity of it all is horrifying: Goro created his very own personal delusion to love him because no one in the real world would, and now he's promptly taking advantage of it, over and over again.

But, strangely, revealing the nature of the illusion changed more than he anticipated, like a loop that repeats its own flaws back until the reflection becomes entirely transformed. Now that Goro knows about Akira, and Akira knows he knows, neither one of them has to resort to tact anymore. The truth doesn't ruin Leblanc, but it changes the board in a way that leaves Goro uncertain again, like switching out a chess set mid-game with a handful of shogi pieces. Maybe it's because he spends all his time with Akira now, with those never-ending questions and deft observations and commentary, a mirror of Goro's thoughts that he can’t escape from. Left to his own devices in the Metaverse, Goro could have spent each day peacefully ignoring everything. Akira is the one who keeps making him think.

Before, he might have deflected Akira's prying. Now that Goro has nowhere to run to, he stays to endure it.

As shameful as it might be, the cognition's nature is an unexpected relief in other ways, too. Akira is here because of Goro. No matter what Goro says -- no matter what confessions he might make, what ugliness about himself he may reveal -- Akira won't leave. He might argue, might challenge conclusions, might refuse to let a matter rest, but he won't reject Goro, and that’s the part that triumphs over everything else.

Like a Persona, this is a part of Akira that belongs to Goro, only Goro -- and it doesn't matter if he was the one to create it, because it's still his.

Surprisingly, Sakura doesn't show up, even though it's his cafe. Goro doesn't know if it's because his presence is enough of a disruption, or if there's some other criteria -- if, as long as Goro doesn't want things to change, they're locked in place. There are so many rules about the Metaverse he never was privy to; he could investigate further, but he can't think of a reason to disrupt what he has now.

Like Sae's Shadow, Goro doesn't have to perform here either. He never has to perform again in hopes of being accepted. All he has to do is live, and to be content.

And to answer Akira's endless questions.

"Are you happy here like this, Goro?"

Goro exhales, open-mouthed, as if the winter air made it far enough inside the cafe to mist his breath. "No one wants to arrest me here," he quips back. "However this life turns out, the real world can't be any better. I don't belong there anymore."

The sound of chuckling drifts out from the kitchen. "As long as someone remembers you, Goro, you have a place in the real world. Or a lot of places." Plates clatter, and Akira strides out with a cutting board laden with vegetables. "It wasn't just the Thieves who made a difference for me -- every bond ended up mattering, both big and small. And sometimes, it was the smaller meetings that ended up being the most important -- not for you, but for the other person. You must have had that impact too. Well?"

Small. Goro automatically dismisses the idea; then he thinks back to all the faces that have populated his trips through Tokyo, the ones who weren't reporters or politicians or employees who would be useful as future leverage. Anyone who hadn't fallen in one of those categories had been harmless, but he'd still enjoyed talking to them, and seeing them smile back. If it hadn't been for the way Sakura had originally welcomed him, he might not have dallied as much in Leblanc to begin with. He'd claimed it was a way to spy on the Thieves, but even at the time, he knew it was a poor excuse; he'd gained more benefit from conversation with Sakura himself, chatting about everything from teacups to roasting techniques.

"How can I possibly put faith in such a thing?" he parries back bloodlessly anyway, chin on his hand. "Shido threw my mother away. My mother died. Every bond around me broke." It's easier to talk to a cognition than a person, putting the words together without worrying if they're perfectly framed. "Even you tried to use me."

"With all fairness," Akira points out blandly, "you were trying to murder me at the time." He opens the fridge and pulls out half an onion, scrutinizing it through the plastic wrap. "Are you planning on a third attempt yet?"

No, Goro starts to say, and then, maybe, because he still has professional pride. "What would I stand to gain from that now?" he compromises at last. "If you're that worried, shouldn't you be throwing me out of Leblanc for your own safety right now?"

"Maybe I just like having your attention."

The statement stirs something warm in Goro's chest; then he catches himself before the distraction can take him off-track. There's a more important dilemma attached, and Goro hesitates before finally pressing ahead. When he speaks, he can't look at Akira; all he can do is stare at the counter, memorizing each tiny pit and imperfection. "You once summoned angels that you said reminded you of me. You said I was justice. Is that still something you could do say? Knowing who -- knowing what I am?"

As casual as he tries to make it, Goro finds himself holding his breath for the answer. It's a question that encompasses everything, impossibly, in that single demand: to accept that Goro is an orphan, that his existence helped drive his mother to suicide, that his father used him as a throwaway murderer, that Goro agreed to it willingly. He knew when Akira survived being captured that the Thieves had figured something out -- he just didn't know when.

It must have been a close thing, as last minute as possible. There's no way that Akira's Personas wouldn't have reflected it. Goro doesn't know what happened to them as a result, but he can imagine them twisted out of their shining forms into something contemptible, something repulsive, mirroring what Akira surely must have felt at that revelation.

Setting down the onion on the chopping block, Akira leaves the vegetables half-cut. He pulls off his apron with a strange formality and drapes it on the nearest chair before he closes the rest of the way between them, sliding a hand around the back of Goro's neck and pulling his head close against him.

"I knew what you were capable of all along," Akira answers, the whisper of his breath against Goro's ear. His fingers cradle Goro's spine. "It's okay. I knew."

Life in Leblanc is surprisingly mundane for a fantasy. No Shadows burst through the door, claws raised to attack; gravity doesn't invert, houses don't twist into castles. Blood refuses to drip from the sky, which remains stubbornly blue, only bleaching to grey and white whenever it lets in snow.

Goro takes to the duties of a cafe with the same zeal that he once used for cram sessions. He makes lists of groceries and learns which times of day are best for shopping locally, when the freshest vegetables are brought out and when they're marked down. Like the real world, the older storefront owners here don't care about who Goro is; to them, he's just a schoolkid who's interested in used knicknacks, and who doesn't mind listening to tips about using cheap kitchen supplies to clean slow drains, or scrub out stains in fabric. There's one elderly woman who must have never found out who the Second Detective Prince was, because the only reaction she has to him showing up is to press extra fruit into his bag for free, clucking her tongue about his weight and nutrition.

He learns how to make curry that only ends up feeding himself and Akira; no diners cross Leblanc's threshold. Even so, the cafe has its own life. Now that he's settled into it full-time, Goro can spot the signs of its connection to the rest of the Metaverse, part of the same beating pulse of daily business that even he overlooked. The coffee pots deplete themselves periodically throughout the day, faster than both he and Akira can drink them dry. The cash register fluctuates its bills and coins. The curry pots sometimes have no leftovers when it's time to close, though Goro can't remember eating more than one bowl. It's as if customers are visiting between blinks of his eyes, invisible and unremarkable; they exist in a different space, uninterested in disturbing his side.

Even without people to attend to, however, the rest of Yongen-Jaya beckons. Without consciously planning for it, Goro finds himself going on walks to fill in the time that he would have otherwise spent in the casino, falling back into old habits as naturally as if he'd never gone into a Palace and been shot. He finds a used bike at a secondhand shop, and starts to ride again. Sometimes, Akira shuts down the cafe and they go out together, wrapping up against the crisp weather. No one remarks on their truancy; they're two teenagers forever skipping class, never worrying about grades again.

It's an endless vacation from reality, where he and Akira have no obligations but to sit and talk with the fervor of lazy antagonism, verbal jousts that strike as often as they miss. They sit and watch shapes in the coffee steam, and argue over symbolism in Palace architecture. They touch each other at leisure, indulging whenever the mood strikes. Sometimes Goro goes out on his own, pulling on his coat and walking through Yongen-Jaya's neighborhoods, etching the territory into physical memory: the feel of sidewalks beneath shoes, and the same left and right turns that lead back home again.

It makes him laugh whenever he thinks about it: sharp, dry barks of sound that feel wrenched out of his bones. When he was young, he'd never considered this kind of life as an option. Not seriously. It had always been death, and then Shido and death, and then everything had gone off the rails the instant that he'd thought he'd have a chance of finally spiting the world by becoming its celebrity darling. Goro had never accepted society's efforts to make him settle for whatever scraps it would throw his way, to truly believe that he wasn't capable of ever being more. If Goro couldn't prove that wrong, he would have accepted death. He had accepted death, on the floor of Shido's ship. The choice had been better than the humiliation of being forced to swallow the verdict.

But the Metaverse had given him something else instead. Something simpler. It isn't a world to rebel against because it had never insisted he was worthless; when even the gods had rejected Goro, Sae's Shadow had welcomed him in. Now Goro's universe is the size of a cafe and Akira's smile, and -- for the first time -- that's big enough.

The tranquility settles around Goro as firmly as an avalanche, like tar settling and cooling in place. As gentle as it is, something inside him is starting to shift under the combined pressure, with the relentless force of riverwater on stone. Something's knitting itself together or burning itself out, like a bone mending itself in a different way after being shattered by a cognitive bullet. Each confession to Akira feels like digging a splinter out of his body, rooting through flesh until it bleeds and oozes, but can finally heal clean afterwards. Akira is deft in his searching -- Akira has always been deft, alternating between bluntness and deception like the knives in his left and right hands. He leads Goro along with the same merry abandon, and each time that Goro catches his breath against the pain, he's finding another revelation turning up to analyze next.

They talk all day about Goro's life, both before and after discovery of his powers. They talk for longer and longer about Shido. They talk about the orphanage, Goro struggling to put words to memories that never had to be voiced before, because none of his peers needed the reminder and no one outside cared. It's hard to wrap labels around the experiences. He remembers being hungry, but the word is inadequate; he remembers being hopeless, but that word is too small. They'd talked about Goro's childhood before, when it had been simply the facts: now Akira wants to know what it meant to Goro, why it meant what it did.

Akira waits it out patiently as Goro fumbles through language, asserting and contradicting himself as he searches for the meanings behind each phrase he chooses, simultaneously hoping for Akira's understanding and trying to deny it all at the same time. None of it's important; every orphan endured it. Goro's situation wasn't any different. All the kids were in dead-end situations. They'd been taught not to expect anything from society; they'd been trained to think of themselves as already getting exactly what they were meant to receive in life, which was nothing. What happened to Goro wasn't particularly significant. He's had practice in reminding himself that none of it matters.

It still hurts.

Whenever the conversation gets too serious for too long, or when Goro finds himself balking at the next conclusion that Akira is delicately leading him towards, they take breaks to handle the cafe instead. He practices brewing coffee for hours. All of Goro's knowledge has been picked up magpie-style from the various cafes he’d lingered at, and half of it counteracts the other. Most of the viable techniques had come from Sakura, ironically; the man had enjoying sharing trivia at the drop of a hat. Now that Goro's on the preparation side of things, he's developed a new appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into a good cup. Bringing out the intended flavor requires a chemist's attention to detail: the temperature of the water, the grind of the beans, the digital timers dutifully counting down the seconds until the optimal brew.

Waiting for the water to boil is an exercise in patience. Goro stares dutifully at the kettle, and not at the mound of coffee grounds heaped in the pour-over brewer, waiting for him to spatter them everywhere.

"Why don’t I ever see a cognition of Takamaki or Kitagawa here?" he asks aloud, idly searching for a distraction from the timer.

Akira pauses in scrubbing down a pot, lifting a wrist to push his bangs back clumsily. Soap suds drip in melting trails from his fingers. "Then I'd have to be someone else for them, wouldn't I?"

It makes a disturbing amount of sense. Even knowing everything that Akira could present himself as -- the dozens of different public demeanors, all ready at command -- the cognitive form of him here remains stable. It's always been the face that Goro's seen when it's been just the two of them: a mixture of wryness and warmth, mischief hiding and showing itself at will. But, just like Goro, there's something different now, too -- something that's been tempered through experience, that stems purely from the awareness of Akira's capacities. All their cards have been laid out on the table to be judged, making a long count of lies, counter-lies, manipulations and betrayals. They'd both hurt each other. Goro had been prepared to destroy the Thieves multiple times over -- and Akira knew it.

And yet, even so, even despite all of that, Goro's subconscious built a construct that's still willing to forgive him.

He finishes another attempt at the pour-over, too impatient to make perfect circles with the water. The brew trickles grudgingly into the cup. When he glances over, he sees that Akira's only made it halfway through the dish stack, rinsing a pile of plates that had ended up dirty somehow, legacy to the trail of invisible customers that had flickered through the doors. After shaking off another saucer, Akira straightens up with a long sigh, rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand; seeing Goro's attention, he smiles fleetingly before starting to wash out a cup.

The expression is so unguarded that Goro's chest tightens convulsively, hard enough to ache.

"You never would," he says out loud, insulated safely by the clatter of dishes and running water. Even then, he whispers the words under his breath, a litany to himself against hope. "You never would look at me like that in the real world. This isn't really you. Admit it."

The cognition can't be Akira's actual Shadow. That's one of the things Goro picked up early on from spying on the Thieves, something he always took satisfaction in, because it meant he'd be immune from being cognitively manipulated. Goro has no Shadow that can be targeted; his heart is hidden from anyone's best efforts to analyze it. It means he doesn't have the same ability to attack the Thieves -- but they couldn't go after him, either. It had been a worthwhile tradeoff. No one with a Persona has a separate Shadow. None of them are left that exposed.

Now, he wishes otherwise.

The change in Akira's questions comes without warning, during a night that's identical to all the others, winter air creeping in through the cracks in Leblanc's door and the window in the attic. It's Goro's turn to do the wipe-down of the cafe's tables and chairs, refilling the bottles of cleaning solution and gathering up the rags. They still use the washing machines by the baths, and if they get there early enough, there should be a couple of machines free. He and Akira can sit in the humid warmth and listen to machinery rattle, or they could order takeout from another restaurant for the variety, or grab an early bath for once; any of the options are good. He could brace Akira against the wall and run his thumbs along the other teenager's thighs, teasing and taunting through the fabric of Akira's pants until those have to go straight into the wash too. They could do it all, over and over again, for as long as they feel like. There's time.

One by one, the towels pile up into an off-white mound with occasional stripes, and then Goro adds his own apron, wadding it up in a failed toss across the room. Nothing seems particularly out of place -- but he frowns when he reaches Akira, picking at the layer of stray hairs that have dusted the other teenager's apron.

"Have you been visiting every animal in the neighborhood?" he jokes, picking at the debris in dismay. The hairs aren't coarse enough to be a dog; it must belong to a neighborhood cat. There are strays in the Metaverse, just like in the real world -- and, just like in the real world, they manage to survive because enough people prefer to believe that animals can magically take care of themselves on the streets, and that their natural environments are concrete and asphalt. Goro's tried talking to them; unlike Morgana, they don’t talk back. "Maybe we should turn Leblanc into a dry cleaners instead."

But Akira catches his hand, pinning it as deftly and firmly as if pinching a blade between his fingers. "Goro," he interrupts quietly. "Tell me something. Is this situation here in the cafe, what we have together right now -- is it really enough for you?"

The urgency in Akira's voice doesn't make sense. It has all the weight of a warning, but a quick glance around Leblanc doesn't reveal any threats. "Did you want a pet?" Goro asks, baffled, trying to figure out if he should be worried or not. "I never thought about it, but if you want one -- "

"This is important," Akira insists. His grip is on the edge of painful, pressuring the bones. "Is this life the one you want?"

Goro blinks.

Getting challenged by the cognitive Akira isn't new, but there's something overwhelmingly strange about the question this time, enough that he instinctively falls to the defensive, and then finds himself lacking a reply. The answer should have been no, unthinking and easy. Before his injury, Goro never would have settled for any kind of life that refused to rebel against the world that had mistreated him.

But he can't say the denial anymore and still mean it. He's not the same. He's not the person who was left dying on the carpet of Sae's Palace; he's not the person he was before he fought the Thieves in Shido's ship. Over the days -- weeks, months, he doesn't know how long it's been anymore -- the nothingness inside him has blurred the edges of his ambition. He doesn't have a future, and therefore, he doesn't have to care about the lack of it. By staying in the Metaverse, Goro can entirely avoid thinking about how he's giving up on the mission that's kept him going for all these years: he's as good as dead already, so none of it matters.

He doesn't know how he feels about the real world anymore. He doesn't know how he feels about anything except for this present moment here, in the warmth of Leblanc, standing close enough to Akira that he can feel the heat of the other teenager's skin.

This is where he could end his life. More than that -- it's where he could be happy. He could grow old like this, day after endless day, with no obligations and no pressure. Run the cafe with Akira. Spend days surrounded by the smells of coffee and curry, and nights with his mouth on Akira's neck. He could fade effortlessly into the background of the Metaverse without protest, until he recognizes each Shadow by name and they recognize him back, and it becomes the real world for him forever.

It doesn't sound so bad anymore. Maybe it never should have.

"This place is all that's been given to me," he finally says aloud. He's said it a hundred times over by now, but Akira's stare makes his voice weak; he can hear the start of something shaking in the back of his throat. "This is the only reward that I haven't had to compete for. Why shouldn't I accept it?"

"But it's not." As merciless as if hearing a Shadow beg, and calling for the kill anyway, Akira slowly releases his grip, finger by finger until only the ghost of his touch lingers behind. "It wasn't the Detective Prince that the Thieves welcomed in -- it was you, Goro, another kid like us who'd been messed up by the system. Even after we fought, we still wanted you to come with us. Do you think that invitation isn't there anymore?"

Goro jerks his head in a refusal, shaking it hard enough that it twists one of the muscles in his neck, a pinch at the back of his skull. "You only let me in because I blackmailed you. You were forced," he adds bitterly, the short cough of laughter acidic in his mouth. It had been a poor facsimile of play, pretending to have friends -- but it had been something Goro had still looked forward to, eager for each occasional text on his phone, all the while knowing how many private chats he was surely being excluded from.

"Except that blackmail isn't a factor anymore." The cafe is too small. Goro can't get away from Akira's calm, murderous words. "If the Thieves showed up right now and invited you to come with them, what would your excuse be?"

He can't breathe. He can't look at Akira, can't string his thoughts together in an adequate defense. "They wouldn't -- "

"Tell me what your excuse would be, Goro."

Goro inhales his answer in a sharp gasp, swallowing back down the broken jumbles of logic. The fact that it's his own mind interrogating him doesn't make it easier this time around. Akira is the shape of his own justice reflected back, so brilliant it burns.

When he's silent for too long, Akira follows up with another strike. "Are you just going to give in?"

Too late, Goro thinks, and wants to leave it there forever, closed and complete. Instead, he scowls, unable to keep from being baited again. "Why not?"

"Because you never have before."

"And I learned my lesson." The scar is in his chest to prove it. The scar and the loss and the fact that he's in the Metaverse at all, separated from the real world a little more with each passing day. "There's no reason to return."

Even as he speaks, however, he remembers the fleeting smell of liquor, the breathy voice of Sae's Shadow -- I hope I can see you out there someday, Goro -- but Akira spares him the counterpoint. "Can you prove it?"

The unexpected stubbornness finally snaps Goro out of his daze. Getting asked something so obvious is like having to argue if the world is round, or if the sun is the center of the universe. Enough frustration sparks in the back of Goro's mind to give him something to rally against; he steps away to give himself distance, from Akira and from the discussion both. "How? What exactly am I supposed to prove, Akira? Should I make a list of every single person I’ve ever spoken to, simply so I can document how little I meant to them?"

Akira doesn't pursue him, only pulling restlessly at the cat hairs on his own apron, puckering the fabric into green creases. "Think about it, Goro. I've been telling you all along that you have connections. Remember what happens when people's hearts in the real world shape the Metaverse. If someone out there believes a door is locked, it'll stay locked -- and if they think there's a place for you with them, then there's a place waiting. If you want absolute proof that someone out there wants you to return, all you have to do is see if their heart will lead you home. If you're right and nothing happens, then then at least you'll know," he presses, going in for the final blow. "You'll never have to doubt again. Isn't finally having that answer worth the effort?"

The argument is just barely stable enough for Goro to consider it -- but he does. They’ve all exploited the rules of cognition before to break through the structure of the Metaverse in increasingly bizarre ways. And Akira's point is simple enough to counter. All Goro has to do is walk out of Leblanc in search of something that won't be there. Then his rejection will become fact, unarguable and permanent; then he can give up forever on looking for a reason to leave, because he'll know that there won’t be one.

Unless Akira's right.

Maybe Goro really is that important to someone. Maybe someone -- maybe Akira -- has been thinking about him day and night, hoping to see him again, wishing that Goro survived the impossible.

Maybe someone wants him badly enough that their desire is strong enough to break open an entire world.

Like an ember catching summer-dry weeds, the idea ignites the greedy, ambitious part of Goro, pulling open the hungry pit inside his heart. Akira's right; Goro's never been easily resigned before. If he had been, he would have accepted his fate as an orphan early on -- he never would have started down the road of revenge against Shido. Instead, he's always needed to devour: more praise, more assurance, more parts of Akira's soul. Each memory had been like a coin that Goro could store and save up, counting out as case evidence against fear, a flimsy shield he could brandish and whisper, this is proof that someone wants me.

In the back of Goro's mind, Loki and Robin Hood stir.

Even if there is a path, that doesn't mean it's safe to take. Being arrested is only marginally higher than Goro's chances of being executed. By leaving the protection of the Metaverse, Goro would give up a universe that accepts him for one that won't blink twice if he freezes to death on the street.

"A single drop of evidence," he whispers, remembering conversations with Sae's Shadow, debates over guilt and innocence and motivations. It's so little to go on -- so painfully little. No matter how he considers it, Goro's decision to stay in the Metaverse is solid. He's weighed the facts the world has given him, and every argument shows that he's making the right decision. The smart decision. The only one that makes sense.

And yet -- he can't say no. For the slightest gesture of affection, the slimmest proof that the world might be different from what he's been taught, Goro's wagered everything before. For the opportunity to take down Shido. For the opportunity to be celebrated by the public. For the chance that the Thieves might see his situation as an orphan, and know he was struggling too.

For a single drop of anything, no matter what, Goro's always been willing to sell his life.

Chapter Text

He makes himself get up early the next morning, when the sky is still dark and the sun hasn't even considered breaching the horizon. Willpower forces him to dress and go downstairs before he can second-guess his own actions, buttoning up his shirt through numb habit, refusing to glance over his shoulder towards the bed where Akira is sleeping. There's a warm spot in the covers where Goro’s body had been. By the time Akira wakes up, it might be long cold.

Goro's fingers shake when he brews the coffee. Porcelain clatters against the counter; he's sloppy while pouring, spills a drop. Automatically, he wipes the counter clean with brisk strokes of the nearest rag. He can imagine Akira's disapproving frown if there's a mess left behind for the invisible morning customers.

That might not matter soon, he thinks, and then his breath chokes in his throat.

He pulls on his peacoat and leaves before he can argue himself out of it permanently.

The crispness of the pre-dawn air drenches him like a bucket of ice water, slicing through his clothes. He's not sure how long winter has lingered in the Metaverse, but it's cold enough to make him regret not wearing heavier layers. Frost etches milky spiderwebs in window corners. Yongen-Jaya is still dormant, with only the most determined commuters embarking on their daily business, bracing themselves for work. Goro watches them totter past, starting to instinctively follow the trickle towards the train station -- but then he stops after only half a block, recognizing the futility of the effort.

He doesn't know which direction to go in. There's no navigational course that makes sense; any and all of them could be hiding an exit. And -- if Goro's right -- then it doesn't make a difference where he goes, because no one will be waiting on the other side.

If he's right.

If Akira -- if his idea of Akira -- is correct, then the connection between himself and Thieves would provide a guide, or some kind of sign towards an escape route. Goro's not sure what he should even be looking for. A golden door, maybe, or a glittering road that leads into the sky. Tire tracks from the cat bus. Maybe all the Thieves will show up miraculously in person, as if Goro himself were a Treasure, just like Isshiki's daughter had been: a literal Treasure they'd steal from the Metaverse in the best theft of all.

Maybe. Maybe not. It all comes down to what he discovers next.

Doubt lingers like a miasma as Goro walks, hurrying in order to stay warm. Dawn crawls up slowly through the gaps in the buildings, greying out the sky before tinting it a limpid blue. He picks streets at random, first angling towards the rough direction of Shibuya, and then forcing himself to turn away on purpose, choosing the most obstructed alleyways and corners to explore.

It's an open challenge, a childish dare, and he knows it: making himself deliberately hard to find, putting the burden of effort on the other party. If the Thieves really want him, they'll search for him anywhere, no matter how obscure. And if they don't --

He tightens his fists, feeling the leather of his gloves creak.

If they don't, then that simply proves what Goro expected all along, and he should be overjoyed at being right.

The shift in weather comes on slowly. The sky turns cloudy again as he walks, like grey ink seeping into wet paper. Storefronts blur. Shadows lose their edges and outlines, darkness creeping up their limbs like poison until he can't lie to himself about the color of their suits anymore, not when their skin is turning black as midnight water. None of them move to attack him; none of them react to his presence, either, which means he has no indication of success.

If anyone else had suggested it, Goro would have called it the height of idiocy to walk deliberately into chaos and be surprised when he gets lost without a guide. Maybe this is how his transformation into a Shadow finally begins, and all of Akira's claims had been simply to bait him out here and trigger the metamorphosis.

Or it could be worse: that Akira might be deceiving him not because he wants to, but simply because Goro subconsciously expects it.

Which would be more realistic by far. There's a vast difference between the Thieves wanting Goro back as a teammate, and Akira wanting him back for himself. Goro could fight his way out of the cognitive world, only to discover that Akira's interest had been misinterpreted the entire time, and that he doesn't care about Goro as anything more than a friend. It would be Akira's final revenge, only existing because Goro's aware of the possibility: a trap laid with the teeth of both sincerity and deception, that never would have fired if Goro had been only a fraction more ignorant.

It's what Goro would have done. Delivering that same ploy back wouldn't be petty. It would be justice.

He can't blind himself to Akira's nature, either. Part of Akira is -- and always will be -- someone who can smile innocently while luring people towards destruction. It was part of Joker's strength, his monstrous potential for manipulation. His complexity and capacity for danger were never far from the surface. Taking Akira for granted was a guaranteed step towards self-destruction.

They both had wanted each other anyway despite the risks, enough to let each other into their minds. Akira had created Personas. Goro had pulled him into Leblanc. It had never been innocence that Goro had craved from Akira; that would have been only a small part of the entire picture, with its games and complexities and deceptions. Goro himself wouldn't have accepted anything less.

But -- despite playing him as a pawn as well -- Akira had manipulated him in a different way than Shido. Akira had showed Goro something he never expected to discover: that Goro's justice could beautiful in someone else's eyes too. It had been addictive to think that someone could see the face hidden beneath the Detective Prince, all the way down to the bottom of Goro's rage and spite, and still find him worthwhile. It should have stopped the first time he'd pulled the trigger to kill Akira. It should have stopped the second time -- and didn't.

I knew all along, he hears echoed in his memory, and remembers the touch of Akira's fingers on his skin.

"Akira," he whispers, wishing suddenly to be back in Leblanc, back under the warmth of the covers with Akira next to him, Akira's heat against his hips, Akira's heartbeat underneath his palm. He can't see any sign of the Thieves out here in the cold of the city. He has no idea what to look for. He can't imagine what form help would come in; there's nothing he's learned to trust. Any offers of assistance from adults had always been simple manipulation. Any offers from his peers had always been pandering. The Thieves -- the Thieves had hated him, and then not hated him, and Goro still doesn't know how to separate which part was which.

And if Goro can't envision it -- if he doesn't know what honest help looks like in the real world -- he'll never recognize it in the Metaverse, no matter how much Akira might reach out.

The whole trip is destined to be a complete waste of time.

He comes to a halt in the middle of a perfectly symmetrical crossroads, streets at right angles through a labyrinth of white perimeter walls. Childhood myths itch the back of his brain, urban legends that whisper the unluckiness of four. The familiar routes of Yongen-Jaya are gone; a wider residential district has taken its place, swallowing Goro up inside a prison of careful fences and houses that he's never seen before, not on any of his trips through Tokyo's wards. All the nameplates are blank, ornate plaques mounted dutifully outside doors and gates: perfect and pristine and empty.

He glances around, just to check, and is unsurprised when there's no road behind him.

Only fog remains, thick enough to haze the rooftops, heavy as velvet over the buildings and streets. It licks at the streetlights and swallows their glow. By the time he turns back again to the crossroads, it's already rolled over the other streets as well, claiming the territory hungrily and Goro along with it.

He wades forward like a swimmer at low tide, picking the street directly in front of him even as the city grows steadily more blurred. By the time he reaches the next crossroads, he can barely see the painted guidelines to indicate where each road parts ways. His fingers bat at the fog uselessly, watching it eddy around his knuckles.

When a hand touches his shoulder, he startles fast enough that he backpedals half a dozen steps away, almost slamming into a lightpost as he fumbles for an absent gun.

It's a winged figure, feathers and skin both pale enough that, at first, Goro mistakes the number of limbs -- no monster, but an angel, Angel herself. Her eyes remain bound, body wrapped into leather straps, but her head is turned towards him unerringly. There are no weapons in her hands, or light summoned to strike. She's the weakest of the Personas that Akira had attributed to Justice, almost never used; he'd made Akira call her up a few times in Mementos, but she hadn't been able to keep up with the tougher Shadows. After the first week, he hadn't seen her at all. He'd almost forgotten about her, overshadowed by her more destructive counterparts -- but now, seeing proof of her in the Metaverse, Goro can't imagine anything more powerful.

"Are you here for me?" he asks, feeling a leap of hope that he tries to crush as soon as he recognizes it. It's beyond convenient for one of Akira's Personas to show up now, of all times -- right after Goro's been told to look for a sign. It's the easiest form of suggestion. He refuses to be that gullible. "Or am I just imagining you, too?"

At last, Angel's placid composure changes; a smile curves her mouth, slight and sad. Her bare feet pad across the asphalt. He automatically recoils when she lifts her hand again, and she pauses; when she finally extends it forward, he holds steady as she brushes his hair back with gentle strokes of her fingertips.

She drops her hand to tug at his sleeve in silent command, and he finds himself taking a step obediently. She's here for him. There's no other explanation. Enough of Akira's intentions made it through from the real world that she was able to manifest -- or, more likely, it's just Goro's mind playing tricks on him again, giving him what he wants --

"Okay," he says, shutting his eyes as he forces himself to accept the possibility, rather than go mad. "Okay. I'll believe in you. Just for now."

He exhales and straightens up, focusing on the facts provided. Like the version of Akira in Leblanc, it doesn't matter where Angel technically comes from -- if Goro believes in her significance, she's real enough for now. Akira might have lied about the Justice Personas too -- handpicking any number of convenient Personas and arbitrarily assigning them a title -- but even so, Akira had chosen to set aside something that Goro could say belonged to him.

And now one of those Personas is here.

His gait picks up confidence as he follows, taking turns obediently as she does: left, right, right, straight. The houses shift, pressing together claustrophobically in their rows. Angel remains mute, her naked soles unflinching on the cold street. The chain on her throat jangles an arrhythmic melody as it scrapes against the ground, bumping over small grooves in the asphalt. Her fingers keep a fold of his sleeve imprisoned between the knuckles. None of the Shadows they pass comment on her presence; she could be another office worker en route to the station after forgetting her briefcase. The wake of her body dispels the fog in wide swathes as she moves, wings spread and feathers rippling.

Goro's lost count of the number of intersections they've winnowed through when Angel's steps finally slow to a halt. Her hand slips away; she gives him a tilt of her head, as if uncertain if he'll take the next steps on his own or not. The street this time leads down a narrow corridor of diners, the script on their lamps and banners running together like wet ink, proclaiming generic noodles and okonomiyaki and lunchtime specials -- but with no identifiers for brands. Without their names, every restaurant looks the same. He doesn't know where he is.

But he nods to her at last, and takes the road forward alone.

The restaurants huddle like lost children, growing closer and closer together with each street block before suddenly breaking apart into wider roads without warning. Buildings stretch up with renewed fervor, climbing higher and higher through the fog: fewer apartments and more department stores, closer to Shibuya than Yongen-Jaya. Even though his surroundings are more like a major city than a suburb, it's not one Goro can identify. The streets are laid out in strict grids, each intersection well-defined -- but he finds himself passing the same stores over and over, even when he can't remember doubling back. The landscape loops and repeats. He's in a circle of his own making.

He tries to shove away the trickles of fear worming through his chest, like parasites leaving rivers of damaged tissue behind. It's clear that the Metaverse won't let him go easily. He didn't think it would. If it had been that easy to enter and leave a Palace all along, there'd be no need for fancy keywords or panicked escapes after owners died.

He thinks of Angel's hand on his, and wonders if that was the key he needed, or if he was still only pretending.

Even though Goro must be in the heart of a city, the signs of life are inexplicably dwindling. Traffic has whittled down to only a few cars, and the sidewalks are empty of other pedestrians. The storefronts are open, but only a handful of customers browse the wares. Some shops are completely deserted; no owners yawn behind their registers, fanning themselves as they struggle to stay awake during a particularly slow day.

The silence settles around Goro with the stillness of dead air, boxing him in like a tomb's roof and walls. He's buried among concrete monuments, a familiar nothingness that beckons him to relax into its embrace. Now that the sun is up, Goro's no longer cold; dangerously enough, he doesn't feel warm either, which sends up instant fears of frostbite.

He pulls off his gloves to check his hands for numbness, testing his cheeks warily for sensation.

But then -- between the alleyways, with their dull and greyed-out colors -- a flicker of crimson catches his attention. It's muted by the fog, but still bright enough to jump out in contrast, dragging Goro's gaze back like a hooked fish. He reverses his steps, pulling his gloves back on as he glimpses the source: Archangel, poised in silent attention, standing sentry between two department stores like a misplaced statue in chainmail and plate.

Goro stops and waits for them to move, but the Persona doesn't step forward to join him. They don't point the way, either; there's no indication that they've even seen Goro. The shadows are too deep for him to glimpse anything past the angel's shoulder, and he can't tell if he's supposed to treat their presence as encouragement, or as a warning.

Finally, he turns around and looks in the direction the angel is fixed in, like a compass needle with no mark. It's a street like any other; he can't tell what's at the end. But he heads towards it, trusting it to be the right way, or close enough.

Further towards safety or to danger -- he doesn't know. With Akira, it's usually been both.

Store signs finish shedding their print entirely, abandoning all description of their wares. Neon kanji split apart into straight hatchwork lines. Goro works through the city faster now, feeling the pressure of time: the fog is catching up again, licking at his feet. At one intersection, Principality's face glitters in reflection over all the windows at once, multiplying crazily over every glossy surface; Goro whirls, trying to find the source, but the angel eludes him completely.

Still, he pushes forward, letting his instincts make decisions for him. Across roads, across bridges; the buildings waver more frequently now, shifting from city to suburb and all the way to country roads at one point, exposing dirt paths with grain fields coating the horizon. Another step, and office windows block out the thin light of the sun, trapping Goro in the narrow throat of an alleyway, multicolored lights painting stripes across the asphalt.

He must be getting closer to an exit. The instability of the landscape is proof that the Metaverse is allowing him to go somewhere, somewhere that veers treacherously away from the sanctuary of Leblanc. And if escape's really waiting at the end, Goro should figure out how to survive it before he's flung back out into the real world.

Pleasant as it is to imagine that all his problems will be solved by leaving, Goro isn't foolish enough to forget about the practical consequences of the last few years of his life. It would be simple to scrape together enough evidence to blame him for murder, even without cognitive psience as an explanation. Getting free of the Metaverse will be useless if he can't dodge being locked up in a literal prison for the rest of his life.

To justify it by claiming that the people he'd killed deserved it wasn't viable by any stretch of the imagination; he'd driven ordinary workers berserk simply because they were convenient methods to gain favor with Shido. He'd injured countless bystanders and passed it all off as mere collateral damage. He'd never given the consequences a second thought because Shido had asked for it, and making Shido dependent on him had given him sufficient reason to do anything.

But the truth is that Goro's never felt bad about killing people, either. Not once, not ever. Trying to justify that always came down to excuses that were too self-pitying to stomach -- that society had never loved him, and therefore he'd never developed a love back -- so he avoided it entirely, refraining from the same fake gloss that people like Shido used to let themselves sleep at night.

Nobility isn't part of that equation. Goro knows he's just as bad as the adults he's fought against. Going back to the real world isn't going to change that. Eventually he'll grow older and take their place, and probably ruin some other kid just like him. Time will turn full circle: Goro will become his own tormentor. He'll sneer at teenagers for being young, for being stupid, for being babies who don't know how the world works yet. He won't hesitate to hurt a child, if it means accomplishing his own goals.

But Akira and the Thieves had worked against that. They might fall prey to the same trap, but -- ultimately -- they'd stopped Goro as well. Maybe they could stop him again, as long as they're around.

Maybe the answer is far simpler: as long as Goro's not devoted to someone who demands such things, he might not care either way about hurting someone.

Which would feasibly work out -- assuming Akira stays.

A sudden queasiness snakes along Goro's gut.

He comes to a stop in front of what looks like a university, campus grounds looming through the fog. Like the rest of the city, the practice fields here are empty; no announcement bells ring in the hall. No students show their faces as they hurry from class to class, or stare out the windows while pretending to focus on their lectures.

If there's a school here, he realizes, then maybe there's a way to track down a train station. From the train station, he could find his way back to Shibuya, switching from line to line. From Shibuya to Yongen-Jaya. From Yongen-Jaya to home.

Akira will be waiting for him there. An Akira. Maybe -- for someone like Goro -- it's the best choice for everyone involved.

He turns to assess the road -- and jerks when he sees the winged figure standing directly in the middle of it, shield and spear at the ready. The curved lines of their armor are more severe than Archangel, a mirror of black and red reversed. The spear's point is aimed steadfastly towards the sky -- not directly at Goro, but the severity of the angel's regard causes him to tense anyway.

Power, he thinks: both a word and a name.

"I know where I'm going," he assures them, hearing the waver in his own voice, and wondering just how much is a lie.

The angel doesn't move out of his way. Unlike Archangel, Power turns their head to watch as Goro edges hesitantly to one side, and then the other. There's enough room to walk around the Persona, if that's what Goro wants -- but the longer the standoff continues, the more he finds himself backing down, slowly taking one step away and then another, until the challenge goes unanswered.

He picks his next direction at random, sliding through a side alleyway that leads him through what looks like a red light district before promptly dumping him out in the brightness of a major intersection. The buildings have been steadily growing taller again, cramming corner stores into the nooks and crannies of squatting office buildings, block after block of grey concrete. He’s downtown somewhere, mixed commercial and business; it’s nowhere he’s seen before, and none of the signs have words anymore to recognize.

Practicalities, then. Practicalities are a better distraction than doubt. Nothing's solved if Goro can't feed himself after escaping. Finances will be an issue; he won't be able to draw upon his current accounts without alerting anyone monitoring him for activity, and he didn't squirrel away savings in secret bank accounts with the intention of using them later. Life without Shido simply hadn't been in the equation. He can't predict to what extent he's been implicated in Shido's actions, but the best option would be to never be recognized as Goro Akechi again.

Which, ironically, is entirely possible thanks to Goro's very own origins.

There's already a legal record for Goro's identity that's existed separately from the Detective Prince for years. It's never been a matter of not having an identity to go back to: he just didn't have any reason to do so willingly, to wear the guise of Goro the orphan, Goro the unwanted. That Goro had vanished out of the system and slid through the cracks, gratefully ignored by social workers who wanted to check off boxes on a file and not think twice about him anymore. The records of Goro's life match the standard practice of school dropouts who had turned to manual labor, paid off the books; unlike a regular kid, his gap in education won't need an explanation, because he's never been expected to finish the same classes. It doesn't even matter that he hadn't left a forwarding address when he left the orphanage. No one would have looked for him.

Society, unintentionally, will be the very thing that gives Goro a second chance. It's precisely because he's an orphan that people wouldn’t comment if he shows back up at an agency, asking for help: no one would have expected him to achieve anything in the first place.

He'll survive. It won't be easy, but he can. He'll be thrown back into the pool of untrained manual laborers, but with some new advantages that change the field dramatically: Goro has the extra schooling that he lacked before, though he'll still have to come up with the money for tests. He won't be able to finish an official secondary school at his age, but there are other options for basic degrees. Nothing that will get him a job in the higher professions -- especially not with his birth history -- but enough to slide out of the bottom rung and potentially to a mid-level career, safely clerical or financial.

Practicalities had never been the issue, though. Living through his school years had been a matter of counting down the days. It has always been what came afterwards that made every day of childhood worthless.

Because Goro knows the shape of the world. Adults abuse power and then kids learn that you have to do the same thing if you want to survive, and the cycle just repeats itself over and over, forever. Schoolyard bullying grows up to disguise itself as politics. Power games played with sticks and rocks transfer themselves seamlessly to corporations. The gossip never ends. It just changes suits.

And that's exactly how the message boards of the Phantom Thieves filled up so fast, with people demanding retribution for the smallest petty thing, or threatening each other for imagined slights. Humans are scum; anyone would abuse power if they had the opportunity. There's not a single heart that's immune -- Goro's included.

That is the true nature of the world Goro's trying to return to. That's the world that he'll be trading away the paradise of the Metaverse for: a place where he will struggle each day against the nauseating hypocrisies of society, and still never succeed.

His resolve -- already battered, challenged a dozen times over since leaving the cafe -- cringes under the renewed assault. Like his own trip through the Metaverse, Goro's been going in circles. Society is a disaster. Goro is a disaster. There's no solution to find because there's no solution.

He comes to a dead stop at the next crosswalk rather than obey the light, disgusted that he even allowed himself to debate the alternative. As if beckoned by his refusal, Shadows drift forward instead to fill the gap: one, then a pair, and then a whole stream of them, yellow-eyed pedestrians that crowd together in their hurry to make it across the lines. Goro doesn't join them. The crossing melody chimes out the tones of its song and then ends, and Goro's left behind on his corner of the street, empty again except for him.

But there's another figure waiting on the other side, coming into view as the foot traffic disperses: Melchizedek, the metal wedges of its wings immobile as it hovers effortlessly with no concern for gravity. Unlike Power, it makes no motion to either stop or discourage him. It simply waits, shedding light like a lonely sun as it floats in the air, observing the choice that Goro will make.

He watches it, half-wondering if he can force a reaction out of it, but it doesn’t flinch.

They face each other stubbornly, Goro staring up at the reflection of Akira’s faith in him. His own Personas stir in the back of his mind. But by the time the angel finally vanishes -- disappearing as the lights cycle again and sing announcements for a safe crossing -- Goro realizes that he's not ready to give up just yet.

Not yet.

Shadows return and vanish with each block. One street is empty; the next, packed with people. Sometimes their limbs are melting like ink, running into fantastical shapes. Sometimes, only their eyes are golden. Fog licks its way back to Goro's feet and up to his legs, heavy with humidity. It's impossible to tell from the scenery anymore if Goro is or isn't making progress. The territory keeps changing just barely enough to lure him into focusing on the walk itself, like a subtle labyrinth built from asphalt. The nature of the trap is insidious; if all Goro has to do is travel far enough, anyone could get out of the Metaverse. He needs to focus on finding the next sign, the one that's finally an exit -- or the lack of it, so he can finally quit.

It's too bad, Goro thinks. If only he were a Palace owner, then he could try to make his own exit by simply wanting it badly enough. He can't use the same method as Shido's Palace to make the Metaverse reject him a second time: he doesn't have a cognition nearby, and he can guess what would happen if he actually tried to kill himself. If the Palaces are all gone, then he can't track down another version of himself. And -- since he's not a Palace owner -- he lacks any ability to create cognitive forms, so that option's out.

He lacks --

The realization hits like a sledgehammer, driving the breath out of him and replacing it with panic.

Even though he hasn't summoned them, Loki and Robin Hood remain with Goro. He still qualifies as a Persona user. He can't spawn a cognitive form of himself. He can't spawn a cognitive version of anyone.

Including Akira.

The mist eddies around Goro's legs.

He should have known. It's an unforgivable error, a mistake that a novice would have caught. Goro should have known from the very start -- he has no excuse not to have missed such a glaring detail, except that he'd been so eager to accept the idea that Akira was his creation and therefore wouldn't vanish. He'd clung to the first conclusion that came to mind, and had ignored any evidence to the contrary. He'd been desperate for Akira to stay. He'd been so easy to fool.

Goro forces himself to take another step forward, and then can't manage a second.

If Akira isn't his creation, and he isn't Sae's, then Goro doesn't know where the source is. He doesn't even know if there has to be one, not anymore. There are rules about the Metaverse that Goro was never privy to, unlike the rest of the Thieves or even Shido. Akira might have been Sakura's making, except that Goro can't imagine Sakura knowing that much about the Thieves -- or that much about Goro himself, enough to allow a cognitive Akira to keep up with him.

The logic hardens like a glacier, ruthlessly cutting off other avenues of doubt.

The most likely answer is Akira himself. An echo into the Metaverse, reaching into the part of the cognitive world that Goro's trapped in now. Background noise that manifested through a combination of two Persona users who had more than one face each. Maybe the doors were blocked between worlds, but Akira had found a way through using Goro's own heart. Maybe there had been some kind of connection --

That means you're never alone, Goro.

Which means there's a very serious possibility that Akira's Personas are real. That everything's real. That the actual Akira is waiting at the end of it all. Goro had left Leblanc hoping for the smallest trickle of evidence that Akira might want him -- now he's drowning in an ocean of it, unable to surface for air. He has the memory of Akira's mouth on his, of Akira listening patiently over another cup of coffee. Of Akira brushing back his hair sleepily as the two of them drowsed in bed together, or laughing as they tried to compete at chopping vegetables. If Leblanc's Akira is actually part of the real Akira, then Goro has every answer he's ever wanted from the world: he doesn't need to guess anymore because he knows what's on the other side. He knows, because Akira's been the one showing it to him, day after day.

But even though Goro had fantasized about someone's affection, the reality leaves him shaky. It's different when a possibility is safely theoretical; having it manifest as fact feels like slamming into a concrete wall, an impact that's coming up too fast for him to dodge. He can't argue against the weeks of proof that have stacked up like a mountain, too solid for him to deny. Akira wants him; Akira cares about him, gave him a home and a place in his life, gave him everything that Goro demanded.

He doesn't know what to do with Akira’s love. Not when it's real -- not like this. He doesn't know what to do, except to continue yearning for it desperately, equally paralyzed by the fear that it will be snatched away the second he does something wrong.

He slows to a halt and sits down, another sick realization blossoming in his belly like a cancer. Originally, Goro had been thinking of nothing but Akira when he'd left the cafe, so confident that everything would be solved by whatever he'd find. That if maybe the real Akira rejected him, he'd have his final answer from the world: evidence that unwanted children never had a second chance.

Because that was what the world had taught him, over and over. No one will love him; no one will want a person like him. Which meant that if anyone does, the impossible had just come true: you had to run for it, you had to grab it, and do everything in your power to beg for it to stay. If someone was able to find enough pity in their hearts to love him even once, Goro couldn't afford to waste the opportunity, because it would never happen again.

If that chance ever came, he should cling to it forever, because the alternative meant spending the rest of his life alone and empty.

Shido had controlled him like that. Even Akira had led him along. Society has carved out a ravenous pit inside Goro that will never be full. And if Goro's going to obey that instinct, he'll be desperate all his life, terrified of that one person -- that one unique, impossible person -- falling out of love with him or liking him just a little bit less each day, until the final realization that they don't want him anymore.

Akira had been safe as a cognition. In the real world, he could walk away from Goro at any time.

Goro shudders, clenching his fingers on his arms. It's like school all over again. Like the television stations. Each day would be torture. Goro would watch Akira obsessively, wary for any sign of dwindling interest, willing to leap to the slightest command that might rekindle it. He'd second-guess every conversation, eternally afraid of not being needed enough, desired enough. He'd never stop being afraid.

If Goro's looking for proof that the world is different than what he'd been promised, he'll never find it, simply because he'll never believe it when it comes. He doesn't know what real help looks like. He doesn't trust real love.

He curls his knees up to his chest, burying his face against one knee. Even though he knows rationally what's happening, with the clarity of reading it off a page like one of Sae's case files -- history of abandonment, pathological need for affection -- he can't simply make himself feel otherwise. If it's a lie that no one can love him, then everything else that society said might be a lie too. Goro might actually be able to find a legal job that won't care about his birth history, that won't be a minimum, grueling wage. He might have a life that would give him the luxuries of regular groceries, of new clothes, of an apartment he can keep clean. He could work in a cafe somewhere, side-by-side with someone who cares about him despite everything he's ever done and everything he is: simple work, where people come to him only wanting a good cup of coffee and hot food in their stomachs.

But even if that peace is offered in the real world, Goro can't claim it. Akira's waiting there; Goro can't deny the truth any longer. And the two of them might run off to safety somewhere -- the destination doesn't matter, so long as Akira's within reach -- and then Goro will promptly spend the rest of his life trying to stay as close as possible, unwilling to let go of someone whose affection might be authentic.

Because if Akira ends up not wanting him too -- if Akira gets bored, and decides that Goro isn't entertaining enough any longer -- then that would be even worse than Shido. Shido had rejected Goro from birth; the man had built his career on discarding others. But Akira would have desired Goro enough to help him break out of an entirely different world, only for Goro to fail in keeping even his interest in the end.

Logically, Goro knows that normal people drift apart in their relationships all the time. It's rational. It's natural.

Logic does nothing for his heart.

With a shudder, Goro forces himself to uncurl. He leans back on his hands, uncaring about the dirt on the road, and looks out at the gloom-swathed city. His breathing ramps up and down, galloping unevenly like a horse with a stone in its hoof, attempting to obey the commands of its rider even as it begins to bleed. He's too numb to care when a pair of footsteps come to a halt beside him, half-hoping for it to be a hostile Shadow come to put him out of his misery.

With a whisper of feathers and cloth, Dominion sits down next to him on the sidewalk, equally heedless of pressing their own white robes against the ground. One wing flicks out and cups itself around his hunched form. When Goro chokes back a ragged breath that comes dangerously close to a sob, the angel frowns in concern, touching their long fingers to his shoulder.

Goro can't hide the flinch, but he ducks his head away as the angel draws back cautiously. "I can't fix this by myself," he confesses. "But I can't have anyone else fix it for me, either." It doesn't matter if he's saying this to Sae, or to Akira, or to society -- or just to himself, what matters is that the words themselves are being said, dripping nearly two decades worth of bitterness behind them. "How do you even change something this broken?"

The only answer is Dominion's silence.

They sit there together, letting the world passively reshape around them both. Slowly, like a tide grudgingly relinquishing the shore, the darkness begins to recede. The city that slides hazily back into place is the familiar cognition of Yongen-Jaya, with Shadows going about their daily business, thronging together in packs. They bring with them a soft buzz of voices: a litany of complaints about work, gossip traded with their coworkers, fragments of conversations on phones that only work for them. They're the first voices that Goro's heard other than his own since setting out on this failed journey. Like a warm ocean, he sinks back into the noise gratefully, feeling it seep into his body as gently as the heat of Dominion beside him.

"The only thing I've learned," he finally announces out loud, "is that I never should have come out here. I should have stayed in the cafe. I shouldn't have wondered. I shouldn't have tried. I shouldn't -- I shouldn't have wanted. I should have been happy with what I had. I shouldn't have thought I might be allowed more."

Months ago -- before Leblanc, before Sae's Shadow and Akira patiently brewing as much coffee as he needed to -- Goro would never have finished saying the rest. But here, in the safety of the Metaverse, he's free from caring. He's free from having to hold back from what people might think of him -- the rule that's controlled him all his life, dictating his very survival.

"Now I have that chance." His voice is small now, squeezed down enough to fit through the tightness in his throat. "The Thieves didn't kill me. Akira wants me back. But if I do, I'll just ruin it all. I'll destroy the very thing I always wanted."

The Persona beside him -- Akira's Persona, the part of his soul that was gifted to Goro -- doesn't offer any words of comfort.

The rumble of traffic increases suddenly, as if a caravan of trucks has just detoured through the city -- a dozen, two dozen, a hundred -- vibrating the pavement hard enough that Goro can feel it in the sidewalk beneath him. The ground bucks. Dominion's wing comes up to shield him, fanning its feathers protectively as the air begins to stir, clouds pouring like soot to darken the sky.

Goro hunches instinctively against the angel as he struggles not to be knocked over by the earthquake or tornado -- he can't tell, but it's too late to try and escape. The wind picks up into a blistering gale that lashes at his clothes and hair. He squints his eyes shut, bracing himself against the storm; debris ricochets through the air, posters and signs and entire shop curtains ripped free from their moorings, launched like bullets to shred anything in their path.

Through the noise of the storm, a low groan reaches his ears: the great creaking of a wooden wheel, straining with each revolution.

The force of Throne's passage fills his lungs and then rips the air back out. Through the shield of Dominion's feathers, Goro can see fire streak the air, splitting through the torrent like a spattering of indiscriminate arrows. One bolt slices through a streetpost and plunges into the sidewalk near Goro's feet, crackling with heat as it splits open the pavement. Even after the wind finally calms and falls still, Goro waits for Dominion to lower their wing before he dares to straighten up and review the damage.

The street is in ruins. The asphalt has been torn up, raked into deep grooves that leak flames instead of blood. Pedestrians -- having fled into the nearest stores for safety -- peer warily out of doorways, whispering to each other about the strangeness of the weather. Goro's ears are still ringing, the vibration thrumming echoes in his bones; he reaches up to touch his face carefully, wondering if his skin has been flayed off.

The trail -- and invitation -- is clear.

He doesn't move. Flames writhe wildly, sending ripples of heat into the sky. Goro ignores the way they curl around the gravel, melting whatever they can touch. He glances over finally to Dominion; the angel is studying him with a concerned tilt of their head, too tactful to push him into motion.

"All my life, I wanted this," Goro admits softly. "And now that I have it, I've finally realized that I can't accept. Akira wants me, but I don't know..." He trails off there, feeling the truth like a stone on his tongue, in his throat. One minute passes. Then another. If he waits here for long enough, that truth might engulf him inside it, and then he'll never have to speak --

"I can't do it," he announces quietly. "The only world I'm fit for is right here. I won't leave."

He pushes against the ground and stands up in one determined motion, not looking down to the angel as he turns -- and walks the other way.

The gloom slams ruthlessly back down around him, lit only by the soft glow of Dominion's wings. Soon, even that radiance fades. Goro doesn't look back; he keeps putting one foot resolutely in front of the other, lining them up carefully to keep from veering off-course.

If Goro walks directly back along the path that Throne had left, then that should be the fastest way to return to Leblanc. Akira will be there, waiting. They can make coffee, prepare some fresh curry, or pick up takeout from one of the other restaurants in the area. They can go out for a sightseeing trip over lunch, close down the cafe and visit the used bookstores in Jinbōchō. They'll have a lifetime together here, for everything.

He moves as quickly as he dares -- but it's too slow. He waited too long to take action. The flames are already weakening, flickering in their gouged beds faster than he can walk, and then run. The asphalt is knitting itself together, undoing Throne's work.

The path is nearly gone. He doesn't know if there are other roads in parallel, or intersections he should turn at. He can't even see the edges of the road anymore, no matter how much he veers left and right, so far that he's suddenly afraid he's been walking in circles again -- except that there aren't any buildings anymore either, no sidewalks or streets or fences to block his path. Everything's missing.

One by one, the fires disappear, taking the road with them and leaving Goro in blackness.

Nothing moves in the emptiness. The only sounds that Goro can hear are the ones he makes himself, hyper-magnified by isolation. Each rasping breath echoes like a bullet. The fabric whispers of his clothes roar against his ears.

He doesn't even know how he's still able to see himself, except that logic helpfully provides him the answer: it's not darkness he's in, but nothingness, so far into the Metaverse that the cognitive world isn't bothering to provide concrete shapes like a floor, ceiling, or sky. It doesn't expect eyes to see it. Maybe the only creatures that venture this far have no need for them.

"Akira!" he shouts, hoping for a reverberation, something to help tell him the shape of where he's at -- but the noise dies almost instantly, swallowed by the velvet of the void.

He swallows hard, and tries to take another step, stumbling when the ground comes up faster than he expects against his foot. He shuffles instead, hands out and groping, seizing on nothing.

It's impossible to know how long or how far he walks before he hears it. At first, he mistakes the soft thrum for his own heartbeat, his pulse gone wild in his ears. Then the hammering rhythm falls out of sync with his body, growing louder and louder until he recognizes the rush of feathers, and looks up to see a single dot of color in the distance, like a lost sun that's plummeting towards him in its final descent.

Without the benefit of perspective, it's impossible to tell how close it is. The spot is a single firefly that grows without benefit of land or sky to define it. First it's the size of an spider, and then a bird, wings wide and gleaming. He reaches his hand out to try and catch it, flexing his fingers around empty air, watching it spread beyond the span of his palm.

Then he sees the glint of red armor, and the sword in the angel's hand.

Uriel, he thinks, a frantic recognition of the creature aiming itself towards him. The final Persona of Justice. The strongest one.

This is it. His breath hitches in a sharp inhalation of hope. Akira's still trying to find Goro, still trying to bridge the two worlds. Goro's that important to him. Akira won't give up.

But, strangely, the angel's flight path is high, too high, their gaze trained on an invisible horizon beyond Goro. Even as Uriel gets closer, cutting through the emptiness, they don't show any willingness to descend -- or to stop.

If the Persona keeps on course, Goro realizes, it will pass him completely.

And suddenly, just that like, all of Goro's resolve is gone, snapped like a twig in winter that's been carrying the burden of too much ice. His courage shatters. The raw craving crashes through every coherent thought he can manage and tears them all down, ravaging his self-restraint and sending him straight back to childhood in the orphanage, waiting for the right family to see him, and want him, and reach out their arms and welcome him at last: someone had come for him, someone was looking for him, someone would bring him home.

He breaks into a run, twisting around as the angel continues to close the distance without showing any signs of slowing down. "Uriel," he screams, and then, "Akira! Akira, I'm here! I'm right here, please look at me, please look --"

The angel's flight path dips suddenly, like a kite tugged on a string. The ground pulls them down, or the sky is collapsing; Goro doesn't care, only that the distance between them is closing. He reaches up as the angel passes, desperate to grab something, anything --

And misses.

Another heavy beat of wings, and Uriel is gone.

Goro stumbles to a halt, panting, hands flat on his thighs as he gasps for breath. The tears come up faster than he expects, out of his control. It's the kid in him all over again, facing another rejection from a family who had decided he didn't fit their image of a perfect little boy, like an ugly puppy in the store, forever wagging its tail and panting after hands that didn't want to touch it. It doesn't matter how much he hopes. It doesn't matter how much he begs.

He'll always be that orphan. Always.

It's disgusting and messy and awful, and humiliating even though there's no one around. His nose is running; he rubs at it clumsily with the side of his hand and only makes things worse, smearing mucus everywhere. His voice is choked against his palm. He gulps his own horror back down in bubbles of air, trying to force himself to breathe by default.

The world is a pit with him at the center, suspended in emptiness. The angel's appearance hasn't changed a thing. No path has risen up into view; no lights gleam in the distance. He can't tell where the angel went. Not a single feather has fallen to mark the way.

Uriel was the last one on the list. In Akira's mind, Goro had only amounted to eight Personas. He's out of chances.

His thoughts crash together, a dizzying swell that short-circuits again and again. His brain won't work right, still wailing in despair -- please look at me, please look -- and the only deductions that can be assembled all lead back to the same merciless result.

He wasn't good enough for Uriel to take. Akira had been willing to tolerate his hesitation before, but Goro's protests had finally given him enough reason to rethink his decision. Or, even simpler, the Metaverse itself and its rules had blocked Goro, with its myriad restrictions for how people could enter and leave, using keywords and cognitions and hearts.

All at once, Goro's wits congeal around a second, unshakeable conclusion: the reason he hasn't been able to leave the Metaverse is because he hasn't figured out how to appease it, either.

Of course. Every creature with power likes to prove its authority by making demands. The Metaverse can't be any different. Goro hadn't shown it that he was willing to follow its rules. He hadn't demonstrated obedience.

Goro brings himself back to sanity with white-knuckled discipline, waiting for his breaths to turn into gasps, open-mouthed but slower. His nerves buckle up into a dry heave that threatens to leave him nauseous again, but after his throat unclenches, he's finally able to focus clearly on a single goal.

He has to give up something. That's how all the stories go, all of them, including the one he'd fallen into as a way of bypassing death: you have to give up something to get out of the Underworld, and the Metaverse is close enough. Once you break the rules -- drink the wine, light the candle, look over your shoulder, say yes when asked -- you can't get out without paying something in return. Your arms, your feet, your purity. Your soul.

There's always a cost.

Goro grits his teeth against vertigo as he takes another step into the emptiness, misjudging where the ground would be, resisting the urge to reach out his arms just to see if they'd disappear as well. If the Metaverse won't let him out without his leaving something behind -- a metaphorical loss that makes sense under cognitive rules -- he has to figure out what to feed it. Some value of his. A dream. A perspective, a mentality, some thing that defines his identity, enough that removing it would fool the hounds into sniffing at a corpse while he slips free.

He could sacrifice his anger at Shido, and refuse to try and take vengeance against the man. He could defy society's values, flaunt his insolence against their respect like Akira always has. He could pin down his childhood dream of being loved like an insect in the sun and let it die a slow death by exposure, watching its legs twitch slower and slower until only rudimentary nerves are left.

Vengeance and adoration. Nothing else comes to mind. The two compulsions are matched as evenly as Loki and Robin Hood -- and as soon as Goro thinks of them, the puzzle pieces snap into place.

He'd died to get out of Shido’s Palace. Or, rather, a version of him had died, which had triggered the Palace's ejection. He can't shoot himself -- but he doesn't need to.

One of his Personas would count.

They're his own cognitive forms, after all, ones that he makes of himself for the outside world. Killing one of them should work the same way. And it even makes sense, in a logical way. Destroying your own Persona means throwing away the social mask they fuel. It's a sacrifice that society even applauds as healthy, showing that you've moved on from that particular facade into using the next inevitable one.

It's textbook psychology: kill that social identity, and you kill a constructed face. Kill that need, and you can free yourself to grow into someone new entirely. All his yearning to be loved, his hunger for respect: there's so much inside Goro that he can destroy in order to be free. He has plenty of fodder to burn.

This is the answer. This is how Goro can fix himself.

His breathing is perfectly steady now.

He stops walking. There's no reason to keep moving, not when the destination has been right with him all along.

Goro reaches out his hand and waits for the trembling to stop before he speaks. "Robin Hood."

The white weave of Crow's uniform explodes over his body, leather on his fingers and every tassel in place. Power rips through the darkness and congeals into Robin Hood, bursting gold and blue and white and red, a superhero with a winged bow larger than he is.

Goro waits for the flutter of the Persona's cape to finish settling, taking in every detail for the last time. "Kneel," he says aloud, trying to not let his voice shake.

Robin Hood has never defied Goro before. He doesn't refuse the order now. The Persona goes down to one knee in a graceful descent of white leather, setting its bow down without protest.

"Loki," Goro commands next, holding his breath automatically -- he's never tried to summon them both at once before, and he half-expects to fail, for Robin Hood to wink out of existence like a candle being doused. But black stripes zig-zag over Goro's arms, and air rushes behind him with the force of the other Persona's arrival, swift and ready. The warring tides of power leave him shuddering. "Give me your sword."

The blade that Loki gifts him with is different from the blue saber of Robin Hood -- gleaming and livid, a red claymore with a hilt half the size of Goro's body. He can barely lift it on his own, let along swing. It won't be a clean death.

Robin Hood is the only rational choice, he tells himself. The nature of that Persona is wedded to the identity of Akechi Goro, Detective Prince -- and that isn't a role that Goro can play anymore, not without going straight to prison or a grave.

And there are more reasons to choose him over Loki. Robin Hood is the voice inside Goro that's dedicated towards presenting his image as likeable, towards fostering the illusion of an eager, charismatic teenager whose integrity shines as bright as the sun. Every time Goro would get impatient or tempted to snap, Robin Hood had held him back. Robin Hood had given him the motivation to speak with a thousand news reporters, detectives, businessmen and people on the street; Goro had lifted his chin and thought of heroes, smiling eagerly at each new face. Robin Hood had been the self-assurance that had let him walk into places as if he belonged, and to face off against people who might normally scorn him. No matter how terrified he'd been on the inside, his Persona had given him the confidence he'd needed to become a public celebrity.

Killing Robin Hood means saying goodbye to that as well.

But it's the right decision. Akira will like him better without the overwhelming drive to be loved. Akira will be happier once Goro isn't as worried about winning people's affection. Goro will be safer to be around then. Goro won't be as needy. He'll be better. He'll be better, and he'll never have to feel like this again.

Even with the sharpness of the blade, Goro isn't strong enough to simply lean it into Robin Hood's chest and expect it to pierce the thick uniform. He'd have to perform a full lunge to do any damage, and the weight of it is all wrong for that anyway; it's a sword meant to hack, to chop, to let the weight of it split open its opponent's body. He takes one step closer, and then another; he touches the glowing point hesitantly to Robin Hood's chest, the scarlet metal like an accusation against the golden letters.

Then he takes a sharp breath, pulls his arm back, and makes a weak jab at the Persona's heart.

Pain rips every conscious thought out of his head, exploding across his nerves and sending him in a staggering recoil backwards, hunching his shoulders in an instinctive need to protect himself. The agony is more intense than anything he's ever felt before in his life -- worse than a bullet, worse than seeing his own cognition. Worse than his mother's funeral ashes in their neat little bag, alongside a notice of crematory fees.

The sword tip wavers, and then drops, scraping against the ground.

Robin Hood is watching him, silent and immobile. Even though the Persona's uniform is undamaged, blood pricks the fabric like an afterthought, scarlet blooming slowly over the rest of the colors. The shade is so vivid that Goro clutches a hand to his own chest, expecting to find himself mortally wounded instead -- but his uniform is dry.

It's the only way, he tells himself. It's the only way I'll be loved for real this time.

He tightens his hand, and attempts to lift the sword again.

He can't.

It's not the suffering that holds him back. His Personas were there for him when no one else was. Loki gave him the strength to survive -- but so has Robin Hood, letting him have the opportunity to meet and speak with so many people in Tokyo, everyone who'd been fooled by his poise and self-assurance. All the small stores and restaurants and people just like Sakura, who had welcomed him into their warm diners and shops and second-hand racks even when all of society was tearing Goro's reputation down. He can't even claim it was fame alone -- he'd never introduced himself formally to half of the places he'd lingered at, and while some had recognized him, others hadn't even cared.

Even without the identity of the Detective Prince, Goro still thrives off that attention. Being treated as a person who was intelligent and capable and resilient had given him the courage to keep being even more so, like a self-fulfilling cycle; he doesn't know how he can go back to life without it. Respect had fed him better than any meal. He can't give it up. The Detective Prince may be impossible to return to, but Goro still needs the role; he needs the confidence that lets him look at other people as equals, and never cower. Robin Hood rebelled against society by insisting over and over that Goro was someone they should admire. So many times, Robin Hood was the only one that would.

Goro can't get rid of Robin Hood. He's not strong enough to.

He's caught there, shaking, unable to find the strength to move. The red has soaked completely through Robin Hood's chest, blotching the uniform like an exotic flower. Crimson stains seep across the Persona's ribs and down his stomach, and crazily, Goro finds himself thinking, he won't stop bleeding. He'll bleed forever. We'll both keep dying here, dying eternally, and no one will ever come --


He jerks his head up at the sound of another voice.

It's not an angel this time. Or rather, not simply an angel. Muffled footsteps thump against the ground; Akira comes into view gradually, as if shaped out of an inversion of light, the shadows simply peeling away from him as he walks. His eyes are grey. Goro can't tell what kind of Akira it is -- if it's his own cognition this time, or another Shadow filling in the role, or something else entirely -- but none of the answers are good. It's bad enough either way that some form of Akira is present to watch Goro's failure.

But behind Akira, shining white and gold is a winged figure: an unfamiliar angel, metal-skinned and glistening with divine radiance. Their wings are crisp, feathers like razors, fanned and flexed. They're not a Persona that Goro's ever seen before, and he stares, baffled, wondering which of the Thieves must be represented -- who else Akira must be assigning new angels to, which Thief was chosen as Goro's replacement.

Then Goro rubs the back of his hand against his cheek, feeling tears drying in sticky indignity on his skin. A dozen more dignified responses flash across his mind, but the only thing that comes out of his mouth is the raw fear of a child. "I'm trying," he pleads. "I'm sorry, I'm trying as hard as I can. I'll get the exit open, just please, give me another chance, I can do it right this time."

When Akira shakes his head, Goro's chest clenches. "Goro, you've got to focus on what it is you want. Okay? That's the most important thing right now. Do you understand?"

"I am," he spits back, angry and desperate in equal measure now, terrified by the possibility that Akira will simply give up on him again for lack of effort. "I want this. I do. I want -- I want to stay in Leblanc with you, and go out into Yongen-Jaya and be treated like everyone else, and I have to figure out how to act correctly so that people will want me like that. Don't you remember? I killed my mother, I failed at killing Shido, I failed at killing you," he continues in a helpless babble, not caring anymore even if the Akira he's talking to is finally real or not. "I'll do anything and I'll keep doing anything, so I need to get rid of something in order to change that. Don't you get it?" he repeats, frantic now, realizing he's arguing in loops and plowing ahead anyway. "No one will want me back in their life like this. No one should."

"Goro," Akira's voice is like a punch. "I do."

Goro's heart is a metronome that beats against his brain, running its rhythm directly across all of Goro's self-control. I want you, he thinks, and can't stop. I want you, I want you. I want you.

I want that chance, no matter what it costs.

He swallows hard, blinking as he tries to refocus on Robin Hood. His Persona has never looked so perfect before. Even wounded, the purity of its uniform stained through, it still radiates nobility and conviction. The ideal of Robin Hood is an anti-hero who's adored, who follows his own rules with flair and style: the true heart of Goro Akechi, Detective Prince. Beloved by the people of Japan for bringing justice to those who would mislead them. Misunderstood at times, but always restored to respect and esteem afterwards. Friendly to everyone, regardless of social standing: visitor of corner stores and cafes, keeping conversations going at an easy pace that's comfortable and always at ease. Able to smile even in the face of doubt and scorn. A true asset to any team.

That time is over now.

The sword is still too heavy. Goro switches both hands to the hilt, pulling hard as if trying to lift a boulder, his arms shaking too hard to be steady. He can't stop now. He's too close.

This is it. It's a simple requirement to fulfill. Destroying his old self is the final act Goro needs in order to return to society. He'll make the necessary sacrifice to appease the Metaverse. He'll make himself better for Akira. He'll fix everything that makes him undesirable.

All Goro has to do is destroy the part of himself that doesn't matter anymore.

Doesn't matter. Shouldn't matter.

Killing himself shouldn't be that bad. He's done far worse for Shido. It's only his own life this time.

Shido had wanted Goro to die, too.

With a yell, he flings the sword away, hard; it spins into the gloom, vanishing soundlessly. His hands ball up into curled fists, setting the leather creaking in echoed protest, tighter and tighter until the folds of his gloves bite into Goro's skin.

"All my life, I've been told my existence is worthless, and the only value I have is what someone else thinks about me," he screams, his throat tight. Pride roars up like a lion, so fierce that its definition bleeds beyond the boundary of its own words, becoming anger, defiance, rage. Any label is too small to contain it; he is too complex to be contained. "That it didn't matter what I did to myself, because no one wanted that person anyway! Everyone else discarded me, but I'm not going to do the same! I will not throw myself away!"

As if shredded into ash by the declaration, Robin Hood's form glimmers and then shatters, dissolving into light -- and then Loki too, a second starburst flare that bursts like an explosion behind him and forces Akira to squint, throwing up a hand to shade his eyes. The twin blazes blast through the nothingness, turning black to grey to white around them in a halo without end.

He won't do it. He doesn't care if he never goes back to a world that's considered real, if he spends the rest of his life in an elaborate self-created fantasy. The cost isn't worth it.

He's not going to trade himself -- not to Shido, not to Akira, not to anyone anymore.

"I refuse to give up on myself," he continues, and he's screaming at this point, screaming blindly, howling himself hoarse in a voice that's his and Robin Hood's and Loki's all together, the rebellion inside him that would tear down all of society without hesitation. "I can't do the right things now, but that doesn't mean I can't find them someday! Everything about me does matter! I won't let go of any of it! Who I am is worth something right now!"

Akira's blinking rapidly, but he's smiling, looking at something past Goro's shoulder, head tilted back towards the sky. "Yeah," he agrees quietly. "It always has been."

The light doesn't stop increasing, bright enough to burn; the darkness strains and then shatters to pieces around them, everything becoming luminous as the angels themselves, calling down holy power to destroy anything in their way. There's no road, no ground, no sky. Even the ninth angel is obscured, blotted out by the silhouette of Akira standing there with his palm up and extended, eyes grey and steady. Goro can't tell what's happened to Loki and Robin Hood, but he can feel their weight in his thoughts: they haven't left him behind. He hasn't abandoned himself.

He reaches for Akira's hand.

The brilliance clears in a rush. Goro's plunged into the chill of early evening, surrounded by the glow of lightposts and signs, the winking flutter of bulbs that are almost past their life expectancy. The buildings around him are staggered at an average pace, compressed together only with the pragmatism of suburban necessity. The houses all have family names on their plates: Matsuda, Yamamoto, Sakai.

He feels seared from the inside out, every nerve scoured, as if he's been taken apart and put back together carelessly, the length of his arms and legs not matching up anymore. He flexes his fingers gingerly, wondering if the real world had made him a fresh body in order to bring him across, and then dropped him into it haphazardly like a piece of clothing in a packing box. Loki and Robin Hood are still there, but even they feel different, as if they've been dipped in molten gold and iron, wearing clothes and names that no longer fit. It's not a bad feeling -- just new. Everything's new.

He pulls out his phone, and stares at the blank screen.

If Goro wants to prove to himself that he's back in the real world, all he has to do is turn it on and see if there's enough battery left -- but that would be a critical mistake. Unless he pulls the card, his phone would immediately ping the nearest tower, and show anyone watching that Goro Akechi has returned to life.

He leaves it turned off, shoving it into his coat pocket, and doesn't touch it again.

All the convenience stores he passes are too busy for him to make discreet use of their trash cans. There's enough foot traffic that he shies away, wary of being recognized. The explanation for the chaos makes sense once he catches a glimpse of the sales signs: all the stores are advertising for chocolate, chocolate on sale, last chance today. Everyone's in a rush to get their Valentine's candy.

All that time in the Metaverse, and it's only February 14 on the outside.

Less than four months missing from the real world. It's felt like years. A lifetime being carefully dissected by Akira's patient words, taken apart and then restored each night by the feel of Akira's skin against his, his soul laid out for examination every morning to repeat the process all over again.

Time flies, he hears Sae's Shadow sigh. Time flies.

His face still feels sticky. He can only imagine how much of a wreck he looks like. There's no handkerchief in his pockets to wipe off with. The winter chill is freezing on the air, but he pulls his peacoat off ruthlessly anyway -- too recognizable by far when combined with his haircut -- and folds it inside out over his arm before raking fingers clumsily through his hair. The thin sleeves of his shirt leave him shivering in moments, but he forces himself to walk faster, trying to warm up through exertion. Society recognized Goro Akechi by his outward style and mannerisms; the one advantage to the Detective Prince being a construct is that Goro can disassemble it.

He doesn't know what he'll do with the rest of himself. Even after all of that self-examination -- his throat still sore from howling -- he doesn't know what the solution is to anything important in his life. Akira, himself. His future. He could still mess everything up. He almost certainly will. The chances are astronomically high that he'll ruin every relationship that matters, trying to learn how to trust in people, doubting out of reflex.

But buried in his chest, hot and fierce like a pair of suns, is the image of who he wants to be someday. Not Goro Akechi. But Goro somebody, a Goro who's respected by the people around him, for the merits he knows he possesses.

He keeps walking.

He avoids the main roads, ducking down the familiar, twisting streets that lead to Leblanc. By now, he has the side paths memorized, and he uses each one, finding a strange relief in his chest whenever he sees another landmark that's correctly in place. It's early in the evening, but he doesn't know if Akira will even be at the cafe. The rational part of his mind knows that he can only guess how much of what he saw in the Metaverse was a conscious manifestation of the real Akira. Sae's Palace had been part of the equation; Goro's presence as well. Or maybe there was something else entirely that had set up the game, someone else, a play of Shadows and trickster gods.

Or maybe none of that matters. Maybe there's no difference between Akira being a truth or a lie, as long as Goro could hear the words that were finally being said to himself.

He steels himself for the worst, and pushes through the cafe door.

When he glimpses Akira in the familiar apron behind the counter, he finds himself exhaling in relief. Sakura's there too, which is the only reason that Goro doesn't wonder if he simply got turned around and walked straight back into the cognitive cafe. Both of them glance up and then freeze in surprise, the threads of their conversation cut short like a hangman's noose being jerked taut.

"Good evening," Goro says softly, when neither one dives for either a phone or a weapon. "Can we talk?"

He waits there, all the energy used up out of him, as if he's spent the very last dregs just getting to this point and has no will to resist further.

Sakura sputters, his tone wavering between wariness and disbelief, clearly caught by shock. But Akira -- Akira isn't, Akira's utterly calm and composed, and this is what hooks Goro's attention and pulls the world into tight focus around just the two of them.

"I was hoping you'd make it." As deceptively relaxed as ever, Akira's voice borders on smug in the face of the impossible, as if bored of how long it took for reality to finally catch up to proper standards. "Over and over, I kept trying to figure out ways you might have survived. You were always on my mind." His deft fingers untie the lacings of his apron with practiced ease, slinging it over the counter in defiance of Sakura's continued protests. "Sometimes, I'd pretend I could hear your voice, constantly arguing with me, trying to be clever. I kept thinking about things I should have said, what I should have done. What I would still do, if you were here with us." His eyes flick up to Goro; he's in motion now, strolling around the counter with lazy steps that eat up the distance with the efficiency of a hunter. "Then, when Morgana pulled off that trick and showed up yesterday, I realized you could too. I used to dream about you, you know," he adds nonchalantly, always nonchalantly. "All the time when I was in prison. It was," the corner of his mouth turns up, suspiciously sly, "memorable."

The sight of Akira's lips curving pulls a flush to Goro's cheeks, distracting him despite himself. Of course. Morgana. Cat hairs on Akira's apron. Dreams, obsessions -- and the Metaverse ran entirely on the subconscious, crafting streetlights and buildings and even the weather.

But all that gets buried under the wave of pure relief that sweeps through Goro and causes him to fix his gaze on the scuffed floor of Leblanc instead, holding his composure as firmly as he can so it won't break. His relationship with Akira hadn't been one-sided after all. He doesn't know how many of their interactions in the Metaverse were shared or not -- in all those games of assumptions, he may never figure out the whole truth -- but what he sees right now, directly in front of him, is a place to start.

Only one concern cuts through his emotions. "You were in jail?" Goro manages to ask. "How did you get out?"

Akira reaches up, sliding off his glasses at last and leaving his face unmasked. It's the same expression that Goro remembers seeing so many times in both Leblancs, over and over; it's the same Akira that Goro has come to know, familiar and safe and real, in all the ways that count.

"Yeah," he acknowledges with a smile. "Come sit down. Let's talk."