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The Reed Which Grows Nevermore Again

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Akechi: I promise you this is easier to do over text.

Akira: esp since I’m going to tattoo ‘stop talking doctor’s orders’ on your forehead

Akechi: I fail to see how that would assist me at all

Futaba: you’d have to do it backwards so he could read it in the mirror every morning

Futaba: while you’re up there you should make a list

Makoto: Can we focus on Shido, please?

Akechi: Right.

Akechi: He is fundamentally driven by a desire to exert control.

Akechi: He is always the smartest person in the room, the most capable.

Akechi: Everyone else comes down to a supporting cast. Tools.

Makoto: A crew.


Sometimes, Akira finds the best way to cope is to look at the world through the lens of the disaffected, the nature documentarian who has already lost a limb and a half to smiling crocodiles.

Observe, he will say to the audience sitting at home, their fingers tucked away where no teeth can nip: underage drinking.

This is his own mistake. He managed, at some obscure point, to fake smooth criminal until he sort-of, kind-of made it. At least two and a half people are convinced, and Ryuji is one of them. Ryuji assumes that Akira and ill-gotten alcohol have a long and chummy relationship, that Akira has been ‘partying hard’ since he was old enough to slap on a pair of sunglasses and lie to the 7-11 clerk.

Which is absurd, because Akira absolutely doesn’t mind lying, but he very much does mind getting a 7-11 clerk in trouble. And sure, he’s thought about smuggling a few beers home, or crashing the right party, et cetera, et cetera, but in the end it all sounds like a lot of effort.

Ann is smiling at him. Ann knows.

Well, she should. It’s Ann’s apartment they’re sitting in, Ann’s misbegotten alcohol they’re about to guzzle like the hooligans they are. Ryuji and Ann on one couch, Akira and Goro on the other. A lonely and pared down ‘us.’ Akira tries to convince himself it doesn’t really matter. There’s no amount of harassment that would get Makoto on board with this, and Haru is probably well past seeing alcohol as novel anyway. Morgana’s a cat, Futaba’s -- even more of a minor than they are, and Akira’s done playing around with Sojiro’s patience.

Ryuji point blank refused to drink if Yusuke was coming, which Ann will be discussing with him later in excruciating detail, Akira’s sure.

Goro picks up a can of Chu-hai and peers at the alcohol content. “Where’d you get these?”

He still sounds like he got ambitious about gargling glass. Akira brought the whiteboard, but Goro is more and more stubborn about talking. He’ll go on until he can’t anymore, which is the only way he knows ‘stop’ is an option.

“Ffft,” says Ann, more or less, “detective it.”

“I’m grounded from detectiving,” Goro says with a great deal of solemnity and only the slightest trace of irritation.

It’s good to hear him joke about it. It’s good that he found an alternative to staring blankly in shock or pacing the attic like a caged animal, crocodile teeth tearing into the pads of his fingers.

“Her parents bought it! Can you believe it!” Ryuji doesn’t. Ryuji is still waiting for his mother to leap out from behind a curtain and start condemning him to increasingly creative hells.

Ann rolls her eyes. “It belongs to my parents, and they don’t mind me drinking it because Europe. But drinking alone is a total drag, so hi.”

Goro tilts the can to read the ingredients label. He almost pulls off casual interest.

“Okay,” Akira leans back into the sofa, slinging an arm around Goro’s shoulders. “I want a completely honest show of hands: people who have drank before.”

Nobody moves. Ryuji’s eyes dart around the room. Ann creeps a hesitant hand into the air.

“Wine.” Her hand drops heavily into her lap. “On holidays,” she admits. “Look, just because they said I could doesn’t mean I have. I have school, and a job, and I’ve seen my mom hungover!”

Ryuji slaps his hands over his face. “Oh my god,” he moans, “we’re nerds.”

“Yes, we are,” Akira says.

“You’re supposed to be cool!”

Akira shrugs. “I lied.”

“Akira’s cool,” says Ann. “I’m cool. Akechi’s -- ”

Before she can falter, Akira steps in. “Goro owns ten sweater vests, Goro’s not cool.”

He nudges Goro’s knee with his, hopes the silent reassurance comes across: just teasing. Just the sort of thing that friends do with friends. Goro jabs him in the side with a pointy elbow, which Akira thinks is understanding.

“This isn’t really necessary,” Goro says.

Ann shakes her head. “I’m putting my foot down. Everybody else got a party, you get a party.”

Goro looks touched -- or confused. One or the other. “In that case, I’d like to make a patently uncool suggestion.”

“I’ll consider it,” Ann tells him.

“Can we go to that bakery we passed on the way here and get cake instead?”

They get cake. They get two cakes.


Akira’s changed his phone background; Makoto can see it over his shoulder. For the last little while, it’s been a group photo. Today, it’s a picture of Ann and Akechi, each of them holding at least 4,000 yen worth of cake covered in candles. The piles of whipped cream and macarons and edible decorations might explain why Ryuji’s looking a little green around the gills this morning.

Makoto’s teeth grind. They’re standing in the shadow of the Parliament Building, ready to bring Masayoshi Shido to justice, and Akira is out spending Phantom Thief money on cakes for Shido’s son.

Perhaps she’s being unfair. Perhaps the cakes were for Ann, for some previously undisclosed Finnish holy day dear to Ann’s heart, one which demands cakes and posing for pictures -- flirty pout and all -- with your enemies. Perhaps, if Makoto is very lucky, Ann and Sae are participating in the same elaborate long-con, working in tandem to take Akechi down from the inside. But no, Ann’s not that good an actress, and Sae obviously doesn’t care that much about Makoto’s feelings.

( There’s nothing like sitting down at your kitchen table and listening to your sister tell you she wants to adopt a serial killer, honestly. Makoto tries to catalogue the physical sensations -- sweaty palms, a jackhammer increase in heart rate -- and can only include that she’s either having some sort of panic attack or is about to literally explode and make a terrible mess of the apartment.

“I refuse to be related to him.”

“I’m not telling you to get your opinion or your advice,” Sae says. She made Makoto a cup of tea. She’s trying, and that makes it worse. “I’m telling you because I know it’s going to affect your life, and I do want to minimize that impact.”

“Minimize impact!” Sometimes Makoto wishes she never learned to raise her voice; it’s harder and harder to turn her own volume down. “We are well past the point of minimizing Akechi’s impact!”

Sae raps her knuckles on the table twice, like she’s trying to get someone’s attention in a busy conference room. “Mind the neighbors.”

“You mind the neighbors!” Makoto knows it’s gibberish even as it’s coming out of her mouth. The look Sae gives her agrees.

“You’re smarter than this, Makoto. You’re sharp. I hope none of this is...lingering teenage drama.”

Makoto has to leave. She has to go to her bedroom, shove her face in a pillow, and scream.)

Not that this is about Makoto’s feelings.

Haru twists her fingers in the weight of her sweater. Makoto presses a hand against the small of her back: I’m here. Even if Makoto ever forgives Akira for his shortsighted embrace of Akechi, for diving headfirst into decisions made by hormones and pity, she won’t forget how he dropped Haru like a hot potato. On the school rooftop, confessions and questions tumble out of Haru in stops and starts.

To be trusted with that vulnerability is a gift. Makoto will not allow Haru to be swallowed whole by some villain.

Haru’s shoulders relax. She murmurs, “thank you, Mako.”

Makoto will make some excuse for her blush later. She’ll have to, if Futaba’s waggling eyebrows are any indication. Futaba and Yusuke have been watching far too many serial dramas. Makoto needs to find them something more wholesome to focus on.

(What that might be, she has no idea. Cooking shows are wholesome, maybe. Definitely not the home shopping networks, given Yusuke’s budgetary disaster area.)

“We ready?” Akira asks, still the leader despite everything. And despite everything, he gets a chorus of agreement.

Somewhere in the middle of the strange, sticky feeling of crossing over to the Metaverse, Makoto drops her hand from Haru’s back. As the oceans of the apocalypse rise up around them, Haru takes Makoto’s hand instead, gloved palm against gloved palm.


 Joker’s mask settles itself on Akira’s face. He averts his eyes from Haru and Makoto’s intertwined hands, self-conscious about their privacy.

If Goro’s bruises have followed him to the Metaverse, his collar and mask cover them. The mask can’t quite hide the wildness of his eyes, too much white visible around the irises; his collar doesn’t quite strangle the noise he makes, something like a refusal. He startles away from Akira’s fingers at his elbow, takes two wide steps backward and nearly trips over Morgana. Akira holds up his empty hands, palms out: no weapons, no threat.

He can’t deny it hurts. Similarly, he can’t deny that he’s a little sleep deprived, that he’s lost hours to scouring the internet for astonishingly contradictory advice. Therapy , Sae said, and Akira feels selfish when he hopes it happens soon. He doesn’t have regrets. He has the sick, sinking feeling that silenced him in the back of a police car, in a holding cell, in juvenile court, in Kamoshida’s palace without Arsene: helpless in the face of something larger, and bitter. The bitterness of an animal caught in a trap.

It’s an alarmingly pertinent metaphor, when he thinks of Goro gnawing off his own leg to escape.

Morgana yips out an objection and Goro teeters back towards Akira, a wobbling doll caught in its own orbit. Then he straightens: straightens his shoulders, straightens his gloves, straightens the fall of his coat. He stands and breathes and looks around with an assessing eye, as if the moment never happened at all. Akira thinks - just for a second - that Goro’s gaze catches on the corner of the deck where the Velvet Room glimmers, and memory snags like cloth.

Didn’t Igor say --?

But if Goro sees the door and its unusually fidgety attendant, he’s good at ignoring it. Not beyond the realm of possibility, but overshadowed by the doors looming at the other end of the deck.

“Melodramatic,” Goro declares at last, his voice smooth and easy.

“Dude,” says Ryuji, “You’re one to talk.”

“There is a difference,” Goro says, as if he knows what Ryuji’s talking about, “between dramatics and melodrama.”

“Sure, man, if you say so.” Ryuji grabs the railing and hauls himself up to look at the churning waters below them, teetering precariously overboard. “You guys think anything lives down there?”

Yusuke makes a noise like a cat being stepped on and hauls Ryuji back by his collar. “I daresay things are more likely to die down there than live.”

Not that ‘up here’ is any better. Akira leads the way inside because he can, because he should, and because it’s marginally better than standing on the deck wondering if he’s seasick or not. In the recesses of his mind, Arsene paces; Akira feels him like the weight of wings. In the past, he’s dismissed Arsene, shuffled him into the Velvet Room’s - what? Files? Morgue? To make way for this spell or that one.

The longest that lasted was all of two hours. Arsene laughed to be welcomed back in the fold, laughed again the next time Akira tried and called him home ten minutes later. With Arsene, Akira feels somehow stronger, somehow larger. Realer. Who knows, maybe he’s just working out that lingering childhood spite. ‘My new dad wears a tophat.’

Akira reminds himself, again, that he’s being petty. That, in the grand scheme he’s been presented, his dad is going for a silver in the parenting Olympics. Gold goes without contest to Sojiro, who still hasn’t kicked out his petty ass or his boyfriend’s belligerent one. Who just sighed and said ‘not forever.’ Who called up some old coworkers and old favors to see a couple off of Shido’s hitlist disappeared right into witness protection.

Silver medal is pulled in by ‘not physically violent’ and ‘would probably just ignore the gay thing.’

( “So, like. Question.” Ryuji is on his third piece of cake, and the sugar is helping him along to a space nigh-on drunk. “Are we all - ” he spins his fork in a way that’s meant to be profound or expositing and fails at either.

Denial is still Akira’s force of habit. “Sorry excuses for criminals? We didn’t even steal these cakes.”

“We did lie to get candles,” says Ann, whose birthday it is not. The bakery may never recover from her deceit.

“No, you know, uh - homo.”

“Oh, well. I’m bisexual, so. Maybe?” The word sits easy on her tongue, somehow. Maybe it’s her perfect English accent, or that she doesn’t flinch away from it. She didn’t so much confess about Shiho as awkwardly realize that she had to, even to the witnesses of rooftop declarations of love.

“Huh.” Ryuji takes a minute to mull that over, masticating it like his next bite of cake. “I guess that’s a thing, isn’t it?”

Goro hums thoughtfully. “There have been some small studies done on the phenomenon of like congregating to like, even unknowingly. We subconsciously seek out those we perceive as, somehow, safe.”

Akira says nothing. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. It’s stupid, isn’t it? He’s got a boyfriend and he works at a drag bar. He’s got a Risette poster for non-licentious reasons. It’s not as if half of his world isn’t in the know, but the conversation flits onto a side topic -- Makoto’s crush on Haru -- without him. He is unmoored, unmasked.

Goro puts a hand on his knee and gives him another macaron to shove in his mouth. It’s a good excuse for silence. The uptick of Goro’s smile is sad, knowing. Akira licks a fleck of icing from his thumb and breathes a bit easier.)

Goro does not breathe easy. The party guests ignore them, tittering nonsense, but the guards do not. Robin Hood is at the throat of every shadow. Even in between fights, the glow of him doesn’t quite dissipate; his presence clings to Goro in a blue haze.

No one breathes easy, not even in the safe room.

“So,” says Makoto, brisk and clipped, “I’ve been wondering.”

No use asking who she’s talking to. Goro stills in his pacing and turns to her. He folds his arms and lifts one hand to his chin, tilts his head and smiles. It’s a familiar posture, fragile as glass. Akira stays where he is, hands fisted in his lap, and lets this happen. There’s some small idea forming in his mind: he can’t stand between Goro and everything. He will when -- if -- he has to.

“About?” Goro prompts.

“To kill people, you just murdered their Shadows, correct?” Police-perfect, interrogation-exact.

“Just,” Goro echoes. “Just! Simply, only. Yes. I’m sure there are exceptions, but most people cannot survive without their Shadow any more than you can survive without your heart, your lungs, your brain stem. Eventually, they, ah, collapse? Implode. Too empty to maintain shape.”

Across the room, Haru is ashen and tight lipped under her mask. Akira meets her eyes. She looks away.

“What about the others?” Makoto asks.

“Others?” The halo of magic around Goro thickens, waits.

“The truck drivers, the train conductors. The ones that took people with them.”

“You don’t think keeling over at the wheel is sufficient?”

“Their actions were deliberate.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t realize you’d had a chance to ask them, officer.”

“There’s a difference between death and a psychotic break.”

Goro sneers, drops all his careful gestures. “I hope you all know what a misnomer that is. Parroting words the media cooked up to be as sensationalist as possible, what good does that do you? Some people just can’t stand to die alone.”

He’s lying. The pitch of his voice, the set of his shoulders, the way he rubs hard at his pinky -- a new bad habit since he was attacked. Makoto can see it too.

“If you were truly penitent, you’d tell us everything we needed to know. For your own safety and ours.”

Goro barks out a laugh. “Safety! If you’re looking for safety, you’re in the wrong fucking spot!”

And there’s the line.

“Drop it,” Akira tells Makoto.

“Joker -- ”

“I said drop it.” Arsene leaks into his voice, a wellspring of confidence and selfishness. “Now’s not the time.”

He didn’t think it was possible for her to be more unimpressed with him, but there it is. And as much as he’s set the Hermit upright in Igor’s hands, he feels another scale tipping out of balance.


 

Ann: okay question

Ann: whooooo is a famous poet from Iwate

Akira: idk ask Goro

Akira: he’s always ‘reading’ those ‘books’

 

Ann: Akira says you know who a famous poet from Iwate is

Goro: Have neither of you grasped the intricacies of an internet search?

Ann: Yeah, but it’s not cheating if I ask you.

Goro: That is absolutely not true.

Goro: The answer is probably Kenji Miyazawa.

Ann: How do you just like...know that?

Goro: I could have just Googled it.

Goro: On the other hand, I could enjoy his visions, however far fetched, of a utopia.

Ann: Ugh, why is everyone I know so smart ):

Goro: I’m flattered that you think so, though I don’t think my recognition of classic literature makes me any more intelligent than knowing who wrote Dune.

Ann: wtf is dune

Goro: nevermind

Ann: no wait I GOOGLED IT

Ann: Wow, you’re a nerd


Akira wakes in the Velvet Room, chains on his ankles and his mouth dry. He’s not cold, not warm. The Velvet Room brings with it an odd lack of sensation: his cuffs don’t chafe, the rough cotton of his prison clothes doesn’t rub his skin raw. He prods at the one of the bedposts with a bare toe; it’s the exact same temperature as the rest of the room, and it feels like he could crack it down the middle if he put his mind to it, a particularly stubborn eggshell.

“Are you pleased?”

Igor sounds - kind of pissed off, in his weird, echoing way. Arsene, prowling among the cells in Akira’s mind, cautions guile. With care for the chains and the expression on his own face, Akira swings himself out of bed and goes to the door. Caroline and Justine stand as silent as gargoyles.

“Pleased?” Akira asks, wrapping one hand around the not-cold bars.

Igor glares over his folded hands, or maybe that’s just how he always looks. “Another arcana reversed. You’re upsetting the game board and scattering the pieces. What are you trying to achieve?”

“We need to take out Shido.”

“Why?”

“He’s -- ” ‘Evil’ is too trite a declaration. “He’s trouble.”

“Take care not to let distractions stray you from your goal, lest you backslide into the crimes that brought you here.”

“What do you mean?” Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Caroline hisses out a warning. Akira tips his head down towards his jailers. Justine answers his questioning look with a small shake of her head. Later, Akira thinks, when Igor’s gaze isn’t so sharp.

“Take care with the company you seek,” says Igor, calm again. “Some exist only to lead you off the righteous path, into the tangle of dark woods.”

Akira wants to ask him how much he sees. Igor never mentions anyone by name, prods vaguely at incidents. If he’s got some kind of all-seeing eye, it’s an inexact one. Akira hopes. Igor stares at him, expectant.

“I’ll do what I think is right.” A half-assed declaration from a Phantom Thief of Hearts, but he doesn’t want to give up too much honesty. Igor has a look in his eye.

“So be it.”


Akira wakes with Goro’s face mashed between his shoulder blades. The bed is really too small for two, and Goro has a habit of migrating downward through the night in fits and starts and kicking limbs. His feet are probably hanging off the edge of the bed, escaping the blanket’s warmth. Morgana has adapted by moving ever-upward instead; Akira can feel fur against the back of his head.

A bigger bed, he thinks, in the vague way that he dares think of the future. One more year until graduation, a year back in the alien halls of his old high school. He thinks he can do it, if he thinks about afterward. If they can make sure Tokyo is safe for Goro -- if Akira can make it into some mid-tier Tokyo university --

A creaky little one bedroom, just enough for a double bed or two futon side-by-side.

His phone buzzes.

 

Makoto: We need to talk.

Akira: Okay. When and where?

Makoto: As soon as possible.

Makoto: Do you know anywhere we can get some privacy?

Akira: Sure. I’ll send you the address.

Well, there’s something he’s been meaning to do anyway. He fumbles out one more text before he drags himself out of bed, throwing the blanket over Goro’s head.

 

Akira: Feel up to hosting some teenaged drama?

Lala: Depends. It should at least be interesting drama.

Akira scoops up Morgana and drops him on Goro’s side, waking them both up in one explosion of indignation. The blanket drags Goro’s hair even further out of order. He sits cross legged with Morgana, each of them staring at Akira with the same baleful judgement. Warmth bubbles up in Akira’s chest, a pleasant shortness of breath. He can’t help his own grin.

“What?” Goro demands.

“Nothing.”

“Liar.”

“He is,” Morgana agrees, hopping out of Goro’s lap and stretching magnificently. “Futaba is going to take me over to Haru’s today. Don’t -- ” Morgana takes a moment to review all of the things they shouldn’t be doing, “get pregnant?”

“You’re still confused about where babies come from,” Akira says. He nudges Morgana towards the stairs with his foot. “Get, shoo. Bad cat.”

Goro waits until Morgana’s disappeared downstairs to ask, “And what has you all chipper this morning?”

“Am I chipper? I didn’t notice.” Akira drops a kiss to the top of Goro’s mussed hair. “Dress nicely, we’re going to see someone who will notice if you don’t. And Makoto.”

Goro makes a disgruntled noise, but he follows Akira downstairs to brush his teeth and comb his hair. It’s getting long. Shoulder-to-shoulder over the bathroom sink, Akira reaches over and pulls Goro’s hair back into a stubby ponytail. Goro wrinkles his nose. It’s an old argument already; Goro doesn’t think he looks good with his hair out of his face, only does it when it’s more important to hide that his current relationship with shampoo can be best described as ‘passing.’ Akira digs a hair tie out of Goro’s increasing stock of bathroom supplies anyway.

Between the ponytail and a pair of sunglasses pilfered from Ann -- so large and fashionable that they swallow half of Goro’s face -- he’s pretty unrecognizable.

“I look like I’m avoiding the paparazzi,” says Goro from behind scarf, glasses, and sickly-purple-green bruises. “And I fail to see how that actually helps me avoid the paparazzi.”

“Think of it as the purloined letter of fashion choices.”

Maybe that wouldn’t work, anywhere but Tokyo. In Tokyo, they share their subway car with three similarly dressed people, two girls in enough bows and petticoats to smother lesser beings, and an exceedingly polite doomsday profit. No one pays Goro or his sunglasses any mind.

Shinjuku isn’t exactly home-away-from-home, but Akira spends more than enough time in the neighborhood. He’s familiar with the people he can make eye contact with, and he avoids those he shouldn’t. At the sight of Crossroad’s vibrant sign, Goro’s eyebrows make an appearances above the shades.

“You hang out here?”

Akira shrugs. “I work here. When I’m not grounded.”

So little has been said on that subject, Akira hopes Sojiro has simply forgotten.

“It doesn’t seem...your speed,” Goro says, panting as he makes his way up the stairs. His breathing rasps from the combination of the cold air and exercise.

Akira holds the door open for him as if that’s helpful enough. “No?”

Lala likes to make like Crossroads is fancy, so she maintains a little coat room before the bar proper. The rack is mostly empty this early in the day, and Akira and Goro stand crowded in the tiny room, surrounded by velvet-rose wallpaper, breathing each other’s air. It should feel stifling.

“For a guy who’s put his tongue in my mouth, you can be amazingly circumspect on the issue.”

“What issue?” Akira asks, but his attempt at playful falls flat. He shrugs again. “Ryuji and I were hanging out down here one afternoon, and these guys started teasing us. Ryuji flipped, and I just...got sick of it.”

Goro pauses in unwinding his scarf. “Ryuji? Ryuji Sakamoto and his fresh passion for art appreciation?”

Another shrug. Akira is going to have shoulders fit for bench pressing the world, at this rate. “I didn’t react much better. Maybe he thought I was flipping out. I kind of was. We hadn’t known each other for that long, then, and well. Like you said, I’m circumspect.”

“So you made up for it by working at a drag bar?”

“Lala makes it a good place to be.”

“And this is where we’re meeting Makoto?”

“Lala won’t let her kill me.”

It occurs to Akira, belatedly, that Lala might let Makoto kill Goro. As they walk into the bar proper, Lala catches sight of them; her expression quickly morphs from delight to suspicion.

Maybe , Akira thinks, I can convince her this is my other unfortunate boyfriend.

“Mama,” Akira says, urging Goro forward with a firm hand on his shoulder, “this is -- ”

“That young man of yours, I assume.” Lala’s not shy about interrupting, or about coming around the bar to stare down at him.

Goro’s not shy about staring right back. He doesn’t even flinch when she reaches over and takes his sunglasses off. At the sight of the bruises in all their glory, her expression gives an inch. She props a hand on her hip.

“You’re that detective boy.”

“Retired.”

“Heard a lot about you.”

The television smile comes out in half-force, still distorted by swelling and discomfort. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you how much of that is true.”

“Did you get jumped, or have you just taken up MMA in your spare time?”

“I fell down the stairs.”

Lala meets Akira’s eyes and raises her perfect brows. His life is a stormy sea of disbelief. One more shrug for good measure. What can he tell her? Goro’s lie is as good as any, even if Goro’s said it like he knows it’s stupid. He must. It is.

“Sure thing, honey.” She hands him the glasses back. “No police business in my bar.”

He holds the glasses loose in his fingers. “Like I said, I’m retired.”

“One more coming,” says Akira, ushering Goro to a back booth and praying that the clientele today makes a weak gesture towards respectable. If Makoto starts any shit, he’s never going to hear the end of it.

He thinks he can trust her, but, hey. She thought she could trust him, and look how that went for her. Goro curls his fingers around Akira’s wrist and they sip seltzer-water cocktails until Makoto makes an appearance. She’s a little stiff-shouldered on her way through the bar, a little awkward, but she smiles at Lala and doesn’t go sniffing around for the liquor license or anything.

She smoothes down her skirt and slides into the booth across from Akira. “Good afternoon.”

“Hey,” says Akira.

Goro, for the first time in days, decides to follow doctors’ orders. He sits, silent, lips pursed around his straw. That’s something like an effort.

“You...look well.”

“Sure.”

It’s like they’ve only just met. Not even when the first met; Akira would welcome that simmering antagonism. At least there was something to that. Makoto sits across from him, a shuttered house: lights off, doors locked. Her hands are folded primly on the table in front of her.

Akira breaks first. “What do you want?” Not great. “To talk about,” he amends, almost smooth.

He just wants her to crack. He knows she’s capable of smiling, he’s seen heaps of evidence. He just wants --

Things he’s surrendered.

“In light of the importance of our most recent work, I’d like to...propose a ceasefire.”

Goro makes a sound around his straw that sends Shirley Temple ricocheting down his windpipe. He hacks into his sleeve, coughs like sandpaper. Akira rubs Goro’s back, meeting Makoto’s disapproving stare head on. What else can he do, with the horse so far out of the barn it’s been exported to a foreign country?

Makoto waits for Goro to rattle to a stop before continuing: “I think it’s to everyone’s benefit if we can negotiate. I’m willing to have said my piece on Akechi’s involvement.”

“What’s in it for you?” Goro says into a cocktail napkin. “What’s the catch?”

Her prim hands crumple into clenched fists. “I have a Mementos request.”

“That’s all?” Goro asks.

“I checked the Meta-Nav. He doesn’t have a palace. But I’m sure he’s in Mementos.”

Akira already knows, but he still has to ask. “Who?”

“Hayato Sugimura.”

Got it in one. “Haru’s fiance.”

“If that’s what you want to call him.”

“How chivalrous of you,” says Goro. “Except you’re not coming, are you?”

“Why wouldn’t --” Akira’s brain catches up to the look on Makoto’s face. “You’re not coming.”

“No. Akechi owes Haru. Akechi needs to do this.”

Community service. Akira wonders if Makoto sees what she’s doing, sees judge and jury underneath her own decision. She’s determined that Goro serve some sentence, whatever’s in her power to dole out.

“Morgana has to go, and I’m not staying behind,” says Akira.

If he wanted, he could push it. Ann and Ryuji would come, if he asked. He thinks Futaba and Yusuke might, too. A million arguments could be made about what Haru deserves to do for herself.

“Fine,” Makoto says, knuckles white.

But. Even if she thinks she’s punishing Goro, Akira deserves it. Maybe -- Maybe he can step back from the things he’s said to Haru, close a little bit of the gap that stretches between them. He likes to be liked. He keeps track of his own failings.

Goro props his chin in one hand. “Fine,” he echoes back.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you.”

Goro shrugs. “This doesn’t mean I care about your feelings. Auntie.”

Makoto leaps up with the all the sudden, coiled power of a martial artist and pissed off teenager. In the real world, she’s head and shoulders above either of them. Given a votive candle and tactical knowledge of where Lala keeps the brooms, though, Akira thinks he might be able to give her a good fight.

“Whatever you care about, you’d better figure it out. I know where that adoption contract is, and I’ll shred it as many times as it takes for Sis to give up on you.”

“She doesn’t have as much patience for you as you seem to think she does.”

Lala’s heading over even before Akira gives her the signal for ‘trouble on the floor.’ Akira’s seen her kick out bigger problems, and he’ll take care of Goro.

He doesn’t know why -- okay, he knows exactly why, but -- Goro is capable of kindness and good humor. What he doesn’t know is why he thought this would go well, then. His good mood sits abandoned on the side of the road some kilometers back.

“Out,” says Lala, not to be argued with.

They go.


The boys head off to god-knows-where to god-knows-what. It’s not, presumably, murder. Sojiro never knew his bar could be set so low, but there it is. He itches for normal like a cigarette. What he wouldn’t give for the most obnoxious thing in his life to be a customer who thinks they know about politics. That’s the masochistic thought that drives him to open for lunch, to put up with the trickle of complaining elderly.

Silly him.

He’s barely one customer down, a hipster out the door, when the goon shows up. Sojiro knows a goon when he sees one, and this is a goon with airs and ambitions. The guy stands in the doorway, letting the afternoon sunlight frame him in melodramatic shadow. His suit is tailored, his gloves are leather, and his sunglasses are obvious knockoffs. The looming technique is practiced, and it probably works pretty well on people who haven’t seen it before. But Sojiro’s seen it. Hell, Sojiro’s done it. It’s an old gag.

“Come in and shut the door, you’re letting the flies in.”

Goon frowns, displeased, but does as he’s told. Part of the rule book, Sojiro remembers: be polite, be courteous, be kind. Anger and pain make more of a mark when they’ve got something to contrast.

“Sojiro Sakura,” says the goon in a low, drawling voice that he probably practices every morning in front of the mirror.

Sojiro sighs and puts down his washcloth. When’s he ever going to have a chance to run a damn cafe again? Fucking kids.

“Usually,” he says. He pulls out a cigarette, lights it, and pointedly does not offer the goon an ashtray. “You want the lunch special? It’s good.”

“I’m not here for lunch.”

“American place two blocks down does an all-day breakfast.”

“I’m here for a chat.”

Sojiro gestures broadly with his cigarette, arcing smoke through the air. “This look like a host bar to you?”

“Do you think you’re being cute?” the goon asks.

“Buddy, I gave up on cute awhile ago. You know my name. Are you going to introduce yourself?”

“Tanaka.”

And if that’s the guy’s real name, Sojiro will eat his hat.

“Sit down and have a coffee, Tanaka.”

Not-Tanaka takes a seat at the bar. Akechi’s usual seat, because of course. Sojiro puts on his most expensive coffee beans; if he can get this guy to pay his bill, he’s going to make it worth his own while. No other customers come to save Sojiro the awkward interrogation. Will Tanaka stay half-pleasant, or is he going to bust out bad cop?

“Nice place you have here,” says Tanaka.

“Shame if something happened to it?” Sojiro shrugs. “Not really. Burn it down. I’ll collect the insurance and move to a hipper neighborhood.”

“You’ve been interfering.”

“With what?”

“You know.”

“I really don’t. Are you going to enlighten me, or are we going to gawk at each other for the next three minutes?”

They’re going to gawk at each other for the next three minutes, evidently. Sojiro smokes his cigarette down and stubs it into the sink. He waits for the coffee to brew, rinses some dishes. Tanaka doesn’t so much as fidget. Sojiro pours him a cup of coffee and places it on the counter like a dear, gentle child.

“Put cream or sugar in that and I’ll kick you out of here,” he says.

Tanaka takes a sip and grimaces at the bitterness. What a baby. “You know who sent me,” he tough guys to cover it up.

“Again. I don’t. If this is about my pension, I’ll fight you for it.”

“Does social services know you’ve picked up another kid?”

“If they do, I want my medal.” Alarms don’t start going off in Sojiro’s head. Those alarms have been clamoring since Not-Tanaka-Actually opened the door. But Sojiro’s gut sinks, starts up the radio broadcasts and the S.O.S. He resolves not to flinch.

Tanaka drums his fingers against his coffee mug, well-trimmed nails tap-tapping against the ceramic. He arranges his face into something thoughtful, but it doesn’t suit him.

“I’m sure if you asked Mr. Akechi, he’d be happy to enlighten you as to... the harsh realities. One kid that’s not even yours, that’s an act of charity. The second, well. We know you weren’t feeling charitable when you cashed the check to look after the delinquent. But three, Mr. Sakura. Three starts looking an awful lot like a collection.”

Sojiro forces himself to maintain eye contact with awful sunglasses. “I don’t have custody and I don’t want it.”

“That’s worse.” Tanaka clucks his tongue like a disappointed granny.

“I know who sent you. You know I know who sent you. Why the BS? Don’t tell me he cares about the welfare of some brat he put out a hit on.”

“You’re interfering.”

Interfering ‘hardcore,’ as Futaba would say. It’s all come pretty cheap, to be honest. Sojiro might not have been the friendliest government agent around, but he was always scrupulously fair and forthright. That earned him a lot of kudos in the slime-pond of politics full of swimmers like Quote-Tanaka-Unquote. When he said that people were on a hitlist and needed to be quietly relocated, relocated they got. At least one is in America by now.

“Tell me something,” says Sojiro as he writes up the man’s bill and slides it across the bar. “Did he get a lackey to stomp the kid’s windpipe, or did he do that one himself?”

Tanaka’s lips thin. “I don’t know what you’re implying.”

“I know you know. I know you know I know, right? Be a god damn wrench in the works if a story like that happened to get published before the election.”

“You can’t threaten us,” says Tanaka.

“I can and I will.” But why , moans the retiree who lives inside Sojiro and doesn’t deserve to get knocked down and kneecapped like this, again and again. “Fuck your games. I don’t play them and I never have, but you don’t screw around with my kids. Any of my kids. Tell your boss to leave us alone.”

It’s a gamble. Even if it pays off, it’s not going to buy them a lot of time. But maybe Shido doesn’t want to show too many hands to his underlings. Or maybe Sojiro is digging himself an incredibly shallow grave.

Tanaka leaves without paying.


 

 

Goro: I feel it’s only right to warn you

Goro: But I’m going to drive Akira out to the countryside and leave him there

Goro: Like a dog we’re telling the children we sent to a farm

Ann: Whoa there buddy

Ann: Promise you’ll pack him lunch.

Goro: No. He doesn’t deserve lunch.

Ann:  Did he make fun of your lightsaber?

Goro: He keeps asking when Spock is going to show up in Star Wars

Goro: I can tell he thinks he’s being funny

Goro: I’m selling him to the second hand store

Goro: He just asked me if a random droid is Spock

Ann: Goro.

Ann: May I call you Goro

Ann: Goro

Ann: Star Wars would be BLESSED if Spock showed up.

Goro: oh my god

Ann: you can’t handle the truth

Ann: or the dubbed Finnish DVDs hiding in the back of my mom’s closet

Goro: ┌∩┐(ಠ_ಠ)┌∩┐

Ann: holy shit was that a kaomoji


Akira can’t skip any more school. Sojiro has been covering for him, but they’re both cutting it close. If Akira doesn’t shape up for the rest of the semester, somebody’s going to get clever and call his parents. That means sitting through homeroom, through math, through English class. It’s a little bit easier with Morgana back in his desk, but Akira’s mind is on an aggressive walkabout. He scratches at Morgana’s ruff and stares half-heartedly at the blackboard. Most days, he can drag himself through studying. Getting out of his parents’ house depends on getting into university, after all.

Today is -- a challenge.

Especially when Ann leans over her desk at lunch, peering at him intently. Ryuji’s invaded their classroom over the indignant protests, commandeered a desk over yet louder protest, and trapped Akira in a pincer movement of suspicion. He doesn’t blame them, but it’s one more thing. It’s always one more thing.

“Soooo. What’s up?”

‘Nothing’ crawls up Akira’s throat. He bites it back. “It’s a secret.”

“Dude,” says Ryuji, kicking Akira’s ankle. “You serious? Don’t be a shit.”

“I’m not. I --” Akira pulls off his glasses and rubs at his eyes. He leaves his glasses on his desk. Ann and Ryuji blur at the edges. “I promised Makoto.”

Ryuji slumps back in his stolen chair. “Oh.”

Ann glares at him. “What do you mean oh ?”

“He owes her one, right?”

“Right,” says Akira, grateful for the foothold. “You wanted me to apologize, didn’t you?”

“‘Apology’ and ‘bloodpact’ are two different things and you know it.”

“It’s probably not a bloodpact.” Ryuji eyeballs Akira. “It’s not a bloodpact, is it?”

“It’s not, I promise.”

“Good enough for me. C’mon, Ann. It’s Makoto. She’s not gonna...do anything. She’s probably going to make him write lines or something.”

Or something.

Ann’s expression is all sorts of unimpressed. She’s going to bring it up with Makoto later, Akira knows. And maybe that’ll go well, but Ann isn’t… Ann and Ryuji are his favorite blunt objects. He didn’t go into lunch expecting to throw a brick at Makoto.

“It’s nothing I wouldn’t have agreed to do anyway.”

“No offense,” says Ann; Akira braces himself for the offense, “but you agree to, like. A lot.”

Akira looks to Ryuji. Ryuji shrugs. “I love you, man, but I’ve met your boyfriend.”

You don’t understand, Akira wants to argue. You don’t understand how we are, you don’t understand how he is. And yet. Goro is his boyfriend, yes. Goro is his boyfriend. He doesn’t have to gut his relationship like a fish and display its innards for his friends’ divination.

One of their classmates has perked up and is trying, with an amazing lack of subtlety, to tip herself towards their conversation. Akira can almost read her thoughts: Whose boyfriend? Ann’s boyfriend? Maybe -- could it --

“Can you not, at school, please.” Not that whispering will save him now, since the gossip will notice his drop in volume. Ah, shit. Ah, well. That’s going to be all over the hallways in t-minus ten minutes, and what’s he supposed to do about it? The same thing he did about his criminal record: nothing. Not a word of a lie in it, after all.

Ryuji’s shoulders fall. “Sorry.” A penitent baseball bat.

Akira forces himself to unclench his teeth. “It’s fine.”

At least no one named names.


 

Ann bursts into the student government room like her only regret is not kicking the door down. She stands framed by the flickering halo of a failing hallway light, with her hands on her hips and her head held high. It’s only Makoto and the treasurer in today; the treasurer doesn’t deserve to be brutalized. Makoto quietly dismisses him. He edges past Ann and flees without her so much as looking at him. Ann strides in and closes the door, but she doesn’t lock it. That probably bodes well for the structural integrity of the furniture.

“Ann.” Makoto keeps her voice cool, keeps her attention on the fliers she’s sorting. “I didn’t realize you were interested in student government.”

The chair Ann drags across the floor makes an almighty screech. Makoto winches, then winces harder when Ann spins it around and drops down to sit in it backwards. It’s a little cheesy and profoundly unladylike.

“So!”

“Sew buttons on your underwear,” Makoto murmurs reflexively, squaring off another stack of fliers.

“What?”

Makoto returns Ann’s perplexed stare. “What?”

Ann rests both her palms on the table and tilts her chair forward. She’s going to take a nosedive into the linoleum at this rate.

“If your goal is to make Akira cry, I think you’re getting there.”

Makoto’s hands freeze, fingers trapped in the action of tidying corners. Her fingers are numb, her chest hollow. Everything that makes up the shape of her - Student Council President, Phantom Thief, sister - has dropped out of her. Blood roars in her ears and gathers in furious cheeks. He fingers clench into fists. They’ve been doing that a lot lately. She removes them from the fliers before she can ruin other people’s hard work.

“Have you spoken to Haru lately?”

“Ah.” Ann squirms. “No. You’ve had her back.”

“And I’ve seen significantly more tears than you have.” At this point, Makoto isn’t sure Akira’s capable. “And since she’s yet to lie to me, I still think I’ve got the better end of the bargain.”

“That’s between me and Akira.”

“So it is. I’m through discussing this.”

So, so through. She’s thrown herself into studying, akido training, laps in the pool at the gym until she thinks sheer anger will allow her to tear a man in half and breathe underwater. Nothing helps. Every moment, still or moving, is another moment of build up without release.

“You have a really bad habit of blackmailing people, you know that?”

Makoto tucks her hair behind her ear and tells herself: calm. “He told you.”

“No!” Ann throws her hands in the air and her chair thuds back to earth. “He told me he’s not going to tell me! How is this helping!”

“I’m not interested in helping Akira.”

“...are you serious?” Ann is quickly losing grasp on her priorities. Makoto can hear the wobble in her voice.

“Dead serious. He’s turned his back on us in favor of that -- that thing. ” Makoto draws in a breath. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to jeopardize the mission. I can work with him.”

Ann bites her lip. “You know, Akechi’s not so bad.”

“I’m not interested in hearing about it.” Makoto forces herself to keep her voice low, though she’d like to flip on the PA system and have at it. “He’s a murderer. More times over than you or I can count.”

“He’s just a kid.” Ann’s voice tilts further and further off-center, ready to escape from orbit and fling itself into the sun. “He’s just a kid like us, and -- we talk, a little bit. Text, mostly. I don’t think things were good for him, like. Ever.”

“I don’t think I care. Do you have a point?”

“My point is. If -- if Shiho had decided to hurt other people, instead of herself, I think I’d forgive her.”

Makoto...doesn’t like to think about Shiho. She thought, at the time: that girl must be a liar, that girl must be looking for attention, that girl is causing trouble. Because that’s what she was told to think. Ann said it once, and Ann was right, that Makoto failed. Makoto fundamentally, irrevocably failed a peer. She can’t do that again, not to Haru.

“That’s your choice to make. I’ve made mine.” The tightness in Makoto’s chest eases a fraction. “It’s just Mementos, Ann, I promise. They’ll have Morgana with them.”

Ann drums her fingers on the table and thinks about this. “All right,” she says at last, then leans over the table to grab a stack of fliers. “And where do these go?”


Akira lounges in Morgana’s front seat, long immune to the question of ‘interior spaces’ and ‘my magical cat.’ He made it roughly five minutes of empty, awkward catbus before he turned to lean against the door and sling his feet into Goro’s lap. Goro keeps absently untying and retying Akira’s bootlaces.

“How’s school?” he asks, the picture of mundanity in a demon’s mask and prince’s coat.

Akira lets his head fall back against the window. “It’s school. English test tomorrow, because fuck me, right?”

“What, no time to study?”

“Wonder why.” Akira nudges his heel gently into Goro’s stomach. “I should make you tutor me.”

“Mmm. Question one, Mr. Kurusu. What’s the plural of persona?”

“Trick question!” Morgana wails above them, around them. “Also, definitely not on his English test.”

Goro huffs softly. “Fine then. What do you want to study in college?”

His accent’s all right, if a little too soft around the edges. Akira’s been told he’s a natural at the mimicry, parroting back phrases like a tour guide. It’s all that stringing bits together that trips him up. He doesn’t even know what he wants to study in college in Japanese. He wants to study paying rent.

“Ah, maybe -- chemistry?”

Goro gives him a look. “You hate chemistry.” At least they’re speaking Japanese again.

“Yeah, but I remembered the word for it.”

Mementos drifts by out the windows, no longer nauseating in its patterns and bones. The monsters on the upper floors don’t want anything to do with them now. Akira wonders if they’ve learned to recognize Morgana through some sort of shadow gossip network. On any other day, he’d let Morgana play cat-and-mouse with them.

They lapse back into silence. It’s comfortable. If they weren’t surrounded by the psychedelic manifestations of distasteful humanity, Akira might even nap.

He keeps himself awake with a fit of masochism. “So, hey.”

“Yes?”

“Do you want Makoto to deck you, or…?”

Goro slumps back against the seat, his fingers going still. “No. I’d rather not get maced by Madame Junior Police.”

“Then why instigate?”

Goro turns his face to stare out the window. “Forgive the thinness of the excuse, but I don’t know.”

Akira has a couple of guesses. He thinks Goro does, too.

“You know, I don’t mind if you just ignore them outright.”

“That’s --” Goro raps his knuckles against the window in an empty beat. “Easier said than done. My temper has been more delicate than I’m used to.”

“You had it buried pretty deep. Your shadow…”

Goro freezes. Morgana slows down, then speeds up too fast to compensate. Akira jostles sideways. Slowly, movement returns to Goro, if only so he can pull off a glove and bring his hand up to worry at his cuticles with his teeth. He spits out a hangnail; Morgana yelps an objection about hygiene. Goro’s middle finger beads blood.

“My shadow?” he asks.

Akira wants to reach out to him, but tempers the urge. “Was pretty manic. If all the things you’ve been stuffing away are reintegrating, I’m not surprised you’re having some trouble with it.”

“Have you always been this generous?”

“When I was ten, I didn’t eat lunch for a month because I kept giving mine away to this kid whose mom always forgot his.”

“...what happened after a month?”

It’s Akira’s turn to look away, gazing out the windshield at the chaos. “My parents found out and stopped giving me lunch for a month. ‘So I could appreciate what I had,’ they said.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“It’s whatever. I was hungry either way.”

“Hunger’s different when you choose it.”

Akira swings his legs out of Goro’s lap and slides across the seat. As Joker, he’s probably even halfway to sauve as he reaches up and pulls the mask off Goro’s face. Goro blinks at him, perplexed, but it’s his own damn fault for having a mask like Igor’s horrid face. Akira drops it to the dashboard and curls his hands in Goro’s coat instead.

Their mutual make-out skills have improved considerably since that first fumbling moment in Goro’s apartment. Goro is learning that ‘pressure’ and ‘bruising’ are two fundamentally different things. Akira is learning not to put his boyfriend’s back to anything. They get by.

And they get away with necking in a sentient automobile right until Akira pulls Goro down on top of him, sprawling out on faux-leather and grinning up at Goro’s blown pupils.

Morgana slams on the brakes, sending Goro shoulder-first into the steering wheel. He grabs at it, horn blaring, as Akira tumbles to the floor. Rough carpet smooshes into his cheek. Morgana flings the doors open.

“Out! Out! You’re walking from now on!”

“Morgana -- ”

Morgana doesn’t let Akira negotiate, just starts flashing every light in his possession. The passenger door slams open and shut.

Goro hauls Akira up off the floor and ushers him out of the catbus before hopping down himself. He reaches back to shut the door, but Mogana beats him to it and then turns back into a cat-monster with an unhappy pop.

He kicks Akira in the shin. “Gross!”

Akira coughs into his palm to hide his smile. “Sorry.”

“You are not.” Morgana sets to fussily cleaning his paws and ears. “Gross, gross, gross!”

At some point in the chaos, Goro’s mask popped back into existence. It shades his warm grin. Akira knows he should keep on apologizing, but he needs a minute.

Goro crouches down to pat Morgana between the ears. “We will never again sully the chastity of your real leather interior. Are we close to the target?”

“You better hope so,” Morgana grumbles. “I’m going to feed you both to shadows.”

They’re close. Akira hardly needs Morgana to tell him so. He feels the shadow in a spike of adrenaline, in Arsene’s keen interest. Akira lets the persona’s instincts guide him on silent feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see a blue haze rising around Goro.

Sugimura is easy enough to corner. The Mementos shadows always are. What sets them apart, Akira wonders. Is it the scope of their crimes, the lack of ambition, or have they been judged poorly in overall creativity? Maybe, with time, with opportunity, every human shadow lurking around Mementos would grow a Palace.

Akira looks at the shadow and thinks: We could try to reason with him.

And then he thinks: No.

And Sugimura’s shadow bursts out of its human-seeming to rise above them, a skeleton moaning in hunger and grabbing at whatever comes into its reach. More than once, Morgana just barely squirms out from between its naked finger-bones.

It’s not a powerful shadow. They’re doing okay. Akira swallows down an order called out to Ann or Yusuke, wasting seconds every time he has to remember they’re not there. It’s harder than fighting alone, somehow. ‘Skull’ sticks in his throat before he switches persona, a delay that heaps larger and larger upon itself.

Goro rolls under a seeking hand and slices off two fingers at the second knuckle. The bones clatter to the ground at twitch at the joint. Morgana sweeps them away with a garu spell before the skeleton can reclaim them, then has to skip back as a curse winds itself around Goro’s arms. Diarama beats it back, but Goro’s already retreating. He didn’t expect to be healed.

The shadow lunges to follow Goro, and Akira sees the opening. He yanks Roland to the tip of his tongue. The shadow’s bellowed eiga hits him square in the chest, but only a second before Roland’s agidyne reduces the lumbering thing to charred bone and ash. Curse eats into Akira’s ribcage. He wheezes reedily.

If Sugimura gives a speech of contrition, Akira misses it. He props himself up against the nearest throbbing, sickly warm wall and tries not to think of his ribs curling inward to pierce his heart and lungs. The shadow dissipates, off to finish their work, and Akira slides down the wall, landing respectably on his ass.

There’s a hand on his shoulder. Its fingers tremble like a body on the verge of hypothermia.

Goro. There’s no blood in his face, no color in his cheeks. Akira grits his teeth and draws his arm up to cover Goro’s hand with his own.

“I’m fine,” he pants, ruining any illusion of fine he might have mustered. “It just hurts.”

“Zorro!” Morgana calls, and healing magic washes over Akira like a hot shower. He drags himself to sit straighter. The world isn’t even swimming. Goro doesn’t let go.

“That was --  ”

Akira cuts Goro off. “Something that happens. What do you think we have Mona for?”

“He’s good as new!” Morgana pumps one paw in the air. “There’s nothing to be worried about when I’m on scene!”

“You were worried,” Goro hisses at Morgana.

Akira gives his hand another vague pat. “Like I said, it happens.”

“That was bad.”

“We’ve been lucky. It’s my fault, I was expecting…”

“Skull,” says Goro. His breathing is starting to even out, but his pupils are still pinpricks and he won’t ease his grip. “Or Queen.”

“Well, yeah.”

Akira tests out a deep breath. Nothing grinds together that shouldn’t. He rolls his shoulder. His chest feels fine. Goro finally, finally loosens up. Akira takes his hand and fits their palms together, fingers intertwined. He squeezes gently. A little positive example never hurt.

Goro stares down at their hands. “I apologize.”

“For not being a brick wall? Welcome to the club. You’ll have to stand in the back with me and Fox, but we have good conversations.”

“For getting you into this mess.”

“Mako -- Queen got me into this mess, and I let her. I already have my guilt trip all planned out.”

Goro jerks away, hand and all. “Don’t.”

“Goro -- ”

Don’t. I rescind my apology if it upsets you that much.” Goro stands and dusts momentary dirt off his fine white slacks. “There’s no need to disgruntle the younger Niijima any further. You said you were all right?”

“Right as rain,” says Akira.

“Then it’s forgotten.”

Not quite, Akira thinks, but hope springs eternal. Maybe by this time next year, they’ll all be singing karaoke together. Or maybe Makoto will decide to go to university in Hokkaido. Or the states.


 

 

Goro: What are your parents like?

Ann: Hoo

Ann: Boy

Ann: What a 1 a.m. question

Goro: I apologize

Ann: It’s fine, i was already up

Ann: My parents are like...well…

Ann: I love them and I know they love me.

Ann: But sometimes I do wish they were around to yell at me for liiiike

Ann: Waiting until 1 in the morning to do my homework!

Ann: What’s up?

Goro: I suppose I’m attempting to construct a narrative in its own absence

Ann: Suuuuuuure?

Goro: I’m curious about what normal looks like

Ann: Oh, well, you’re not gonna get that here.

Ann: I think Sojiro’s as close as it comes, and that’s still all what it is, you know?

Goro: I know

Ann: Aren’t Akira’s parents still together?

Goro: Nothing I hear about them bodes well.

Ann: Yeesh, go us.

Ann: Do you remember your mom at all?

Goro: I think any memory of her I have must be manufactured. I don’t know if I think she looks like me because I remember her, or if I’ve just, well...extrapolated? I don’t look much like my father.

Ann: Thank God

Goro: Do you admire my full head of hair?

Ann: Flowing locks! We should take you to get extensions. A dye job! You’d look great as a blond.

Goro: You’re a madwoman.

Ann: That’s what homework does to me. Akira’s asleep, isn’t he? No read receipts from fearless leader. You should go to bed too.

Goro: No luck in that department. What are you working on?

Ann: You any good at history, for a nerd?

Goro: I am excellent at history.