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Arson, Homicide and Cat Photos

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It wasn’t a date.

“You should try this strawberry shortcake! It’s really great!” Kurusu offered with a smile that could be read as either innocent or teasing. Even after knowing him for several months, Goro still found it hard to read Kurusu sometimes.

Goro wanted to tell him where he could stuff this cake, but he had spent the last few minutes strongly regretting not ordering said shortcake (because strawberry shortcakes didn’t fit the serious image of detective prince he was working so hard on). And while his cheesecake was very good, he found himself casting longing glances towards Kurusu’s order.

“Ah, no, there’s no need…” Goro assured, his fake politeness activating automatically, before he could accidentally share his true thoughts. Like the fact that he really wasn’t sure if Kurusu had noticed his glances or if he was being his usual whimsical self.

The idea that it might be the former made Goro want to stab Kurusu with his dessert fork, steal his stupid shortcake, and eat all of it before his eyes.

It was a really nice vision, which of course meant he couldn’t indulge it.

Instead, reality obliged him with a sight of Kurusu scooping some of his shortcake onto the small fork and aiming it at Goro. Like one of those idiotic girlfriends who insisted on feeding their boyfriends like they were too stupid to hold their utensils. Which might have actually been the case considering that most high schoolers were total morons.

“Say aaa,” Kurusu prompted with a smile that was definitely teasing.

Goro’s urge to stab him with the fork grew, but his wounded pride ended up clashing with his gluttony, because the truth of the matter was he really wanted to try that stupid shortcake with its stupid strawberries and delicious looking cream.

Kurusu even made sure to scoop half of the strawberry in his offering, fuck his thoughtfulness.

Goro decided to buy time by checking if there was anyone looking at them. No amount of cake would make him risk ruining his image. However, their table was secluded enough that no other patron could see them and no one from the staff was nearby to eavesdrop on them.

Goro stared at Kurusu and his offering, trying not to show his frustration. He was probably failing, because Kurusu was looking at him with a bit of wariness, as if Goro was as likely to go for the shortcake, as he was to bite his hand. It would be a humiliating comparison, if it wasn’t such a good summary of how Goro felt in that moment.

Finally, he moved forward hesitantly, feeling like he was making a very terrible mistake. Which was how he usually felt after his outings with Kurusu.

Goro made sure to pull a strand of his hair that threatened to fall into the cake and tucked it behind his ear, before rapidly biting on the cake and returning back to his seat as quickly as humanly possible.

Kurusu’s face betrayed nothing as he asked.

“How is it?”

“Good, but a bit too sweet,” Goro replied truthfully.

Kurusu smiled at that.

“Yeah, I thought so too.”

*

Like many other terrible decisions that seemed to define Goro’s life, the one to befriend Kurusu felt inescapable. Like hastening the inevitable. Maybe Kurusu felt the same way, since he was the one who had slipped a piece of paper with his number into Goro’s pocket during their meeting in the TV station.

Then again it was Goro who on a particularly lonely night decided to indulge himself and text the strange boy who hadn’t been afraid to confront him during the discussion.

It was a mistake.

Goro: Hello, I decided to contact you since you seemed desperate enough to push your number on me

Kurusu: Oh my gosh, is that you, Akechi?

Goro: Do I want to know how many people find your phone number in their pockets?

Kurusu: Well, you are definitely the first person to actually text me back after I tried that…

Goro: You sound desperate

Kurusu: Sorry to ruin whatever cool image you had of me

Kurusu: ANYWAY

Kurusu: Are you free this Sunday? There’s a restaurant I wanted to check out

Goro: You don’t have anyone else to go with?

Kurusu: My cat

Kurusu: [Morgana.png]

Kurusu: He’s the cutest, but not the best date

Goro: Are you the type to spam people with your cat’s photos?

Kurusu: Is that a dealbreaker?

*

“You came!” Kurusu said, sounding honestly surprised.

Goro was also surprised that he had decided to accept Kurusu’s invitation, but this week had been pretty easy on him and he did have some free time in his usually busy schedule. Just enough to meet the number one suspect in the Phantom Thieves case for a lunch.

“Did you expect me to stand you up?” Goro asked, not sure how he should feel about that.

“You know how it goes. The popular kid asks the outcast out to later stand them up and prove to them that nobody will ever love them,” Kurusu explained, showing a deep understanding of bullying techniques. Goro really wanted to ask how he had acquired it.

“You are the one who asked me out,” Goro pointed out instead.

Kurusu shrugged.

“I figured that my best shot at making a good impression was by cutting down on how much effort you would need to put into dumping me,” he said in a monotone voice that made it difficult to judge how much of it was a joke and how much was serious.

“I get a feeling your impression of my character is very wrong,” Goro deadpanned.

“Is it?” Kurusu asked, tilting his head.

It probably wasn’t, because Goro found himself accompanying Kurusu to the restaurant.

*

Kurusu: Did you like the restaurant?

Goro: You are asking that only now?

Kurusu: I got a feeling you would say something really pleasant using words like quaint and rustic if I did it right after we left

Goro: I don’t know where you get those weird impressions of me

Goro: My soup was lukewarm

Kurusu: There was a piece of metal in my steak

Goro: What type of reviews convinced you to try that place?

Kurusu: Ryuji said it was the worst place he ever visited

Goro: Really?!

Kurusu: I thought he was exaggerating

Goro:

Kurusu: You can choose the place next time we go out!

*

There shouldn’t have been a next time after that fiasco, but somehow Kurusu convinced him to hang out again.

It was hard to tell which one of them was more eager for this meeting, though for entirely different reasons.

“You should have told me it would be a high class place, you know,” Kurusu whispered, as he hid behind his menu. His black hoodie looked good on him, but it didn’t help the fact that he was woefully undressed for the pricy restaurant Goro had chosen.

Vengeance was the tastiest course one could order.

“I’m sorry. I thought you wouldn’t have any fitting clothes anyway,” Goro replied with a perfect smile.

“I could borrow some,” Kurusu hissed with a bit of annoyance, confirming Goro’s suspicions that his wardrobe was painfully sparse.

“My, my, don’t sweat small details. You should enjoy yourself,” Goro suggested, offering the most plastic smile he could muster.

“Yeah, I could cause a scene, so we both feel uncomfortable as a bonding activity,” Kurusu suggested, not sounding like he was joking.

“Excuse me?” Goro asked. A scandal was the last thing he wanted, so he figured giving Kurusu an out would be the preferable course of action.

“Don’t you think it would be romantic? Causing a scene, ruining the dinner for all the snobs who come here, and then running away before the police can get to us.”

“...you are aware that I made the reservation under my name? Besides, are you calling me a snob for inviting you here?” Goro asked, pretending to sound wounded. Internally, he couldn’t help agreeing with the assessment. Every other person in this restaurant reeked of entitlement so thick it overpowered even the copious amounts of perfume some of them wore.

“No, though I can’t say I understand why you would want to blend in with those assholes,” Kurusu admitted in a bout of honesty. Goro smiled involuntarily, because it was nice hearing someone validate all his unpopular opinions.

It took him a second to realize that Kurusu could see it. Goro quickly tried to change his expression into one of disapproval, but it was too late.

“Oh my, who would have thought the famous Goro Akechi is into revolution,” Kurusu snickered.

“Revolution?” Goro repeated, confused.

“Overthrowing the bur… something… there was a fancy French word for that,” he said, stumbling on the term.

“Bourgeoisie, I presume. I’m not sure if you are aware, but the term includes the middle class, while you seem to mostly hold a grudge towards the elites.” Goro paused to drink his water. “You should probably plan your revolution better.”

“I will keep that in mind when I start it. Do you think Morgana is photogenic enough to be put on the flags?”

“No.”

*

Kurusu: But think about it

Kurusu: I could start

Kurusus: MREOWLUTION

Goro: It’s 2 AM go to sleep

*

“Is there a reason why you always bring your cat with you?” Goro asked, as he watched Morgana’s head peek out of the bag, so that Kurusu could give it his sushi. Kurusu handed his portion discreetly to the cat, as if it was perfectly normal behavior.

“A chaperone?” Kurusu offered innocently.

The cat choked on the sushi it was swallowing. Goro could relate to that, even if he didn’t want to relate to weird talking cats that Kurusu was deeply emotionally invested in.

“Is it going to meow incessantly at me if I try to do something indecent?” Goro asked, deciding to play along.

“If I have to see anything like that, Joker, I will scratch your eyes out and…” Morgana’s threats were silenced, as Kurusu quickly stuffed its head back into the bag and zipped it. The bag shook with indignation, but the cries transformed into annoyed mumbling.

“As you can see it is a very effective deterrent,” Kurusu said, desperately trying to sound smooth.

“I still would prefer if you didn’t bring it with you,” Goro admitted, giving a careful glance to the bag.

“Are you jealous?” Kurusu asked teasingly.

“I don’t believe you will ever love anyone half as much as Morgana,” Goro admitted, because Kurusu’s status as crazy cat person was unshakeable. “I’m more afraid that your cat will start to feel jealous of me.”

“Fair,” Kurusu said, as he asked the waiter for an extra portion of sushi to take home. Goro had a strong feeling that all of it would be given to Morgana as apology.

*

Goro was starting to get a feeling that meeting the leader of Phantom Thieves in his free time was a bad idea. No, not even a bad idea. An absolutely terrible idea.

“On the bright side, at least you didn’t bring your cat with you this time,” Goro said. “On the other, I’m starting to wonder if you might have an illness where if you don’t have a cat nearby you will break into a rash or something.”

Kurusu, who had somehow attracted half of the felines residing in the cat cafe they were sitting in, just smiled like the happiest person on the Earth. Goro, who sat next to him, resisted the urge to sigh.

“Yes, definitely. I think it’s lethal,” Kurusu deadpanned, as a huge white cat jumped onto his lap and immediately took it over.

“I will make sure to account for that if I’m ever in charge of choosing our meeting spot,” Goro said, as he glanced at the cat. He couldn’t help feeling somehow envious of how easy it was for that stupid furball to just go and claim someone like that. It didn’t even put effort into it. It just looked pretty.

Stupid cat.

“What? Jealous that even cats find me irresistible?” Kurusu asked, and it took Goro a second to realize that the question was aimed at him.

Even? You make it sound like you have a line of people fighting for your attention,” Goro said, feeling a bit surprised. As far as he knew Kurusu didn’t have many acquaintances. Just the few people who worked with him as Phantom Thieves.

“You have no idea… but don’t worry, I will always have time for you,” Kurusu said flirtatiously. Goro rolled his eyes.

“I have a strong feeling that you may have an overabundance of it,” he replied, deciding to indulge in his cat shaped cookies. Honestly, why did people feel so strongly about felines? It wasn’t like they were that much different from other animals.

Goro was halfway through his third cookie, when he dodged instinctively, sensing a malicious intent.

As he turned his head, he saw Kurusu holding a headband with light brown cat ears attached to it. Somehow when he wasn’t looking Kurusu had managed to put a similar headband with black ones on himself.

“What are you doing?” Goro hissed, leaning away from Kurusu. The Shujin student twisted himself forward in response. The white cat meowed in protest and jumped from his legs.

“Trying to help you have fun,” Kurusu said, renewing his attempt to put the ears on Goro.

“Since when is wearing cat ears fun?” Goro asked, slowly inching away from Kurusu.

“Since I said so…” He paused as he lunged forward, but Goro was faster, barely avoiding the attack. “Come on, at least wear them long enough so I can take a photo,” he insisted.

“A photo?” Goro asked in mortification, as he stood up.

“Oops…” Kurusu muttered, as he realized he had voiced his nefarious plan. “Uhhh… well then… how about we make a bet?” he suggested.

“A bet?” Goro asked.

“If I win you wear the ears and let me take a photo. If you do then you can ask something equally embarrassing of me,” he suggested, his eyes shining behind the glasses.

Goro made a thoughtful sound, but truthfully he didn't have to think long. An opportunity to show Kurusu - no, Joker - just how inferior he was was just too good to pass up. Not to mention, he could embarrass him further afterwards…

“What bet did you have in mind?” Goro asked slowly.

“I didn’t think that far,” Kurusu admitted, looking around for something. His eyes landed on a deck of cards that seemed to have been left for clients to use. Kurusu took it and quickly checked the deck to make sure that it contained all cards. “How about a card game?”

“What card game?” Goro asked, as he walked around the table to sit opposite Kurusu.

“Poker?” Kurusu asked.

“You are joking,” Goro said. He knew poker, but he definitely didn’t feel like sharing this particular tidbit about himself with Kurusu.

“I am. I don’t think you would be into Old Maid… How about Mau Mau?”

“Are you meowing at me?” Goro asked, unable to escape the suspicion that Kurusu was pulling his leg.

“No, it’s a pretty simple card game. I could explain the rules to you right now. We can play warm up matches before the official ones,” Kurusu suggested, already dealing the cards.

The rules were indeed easy to learn, and as Kurusu explained, highly customizable. They agreed on the effects some of the cards would have.

Unsurprisingly, Kurusu won in the practice match, as Goro fumbled a bit trying to figure out the game.

After two more practice runs Goro deemed himself ready.

“Whoever wins two matches first wins the bet,” Kurusu suggested. Goro nodded. That seemed fair.

The first match went on in a flurry. Goro won without much trouble as the cards seemed to favor him.

“My, it seems that lady luck does not wish for me to wear cat ears,” he joked as he finished the round with a joker. The irony of that was almost amusing.

“If that’s true, lady luck has terrible taste,” Kurusu retorted, dealing the cards for the second round. Goro blinked, not sure what to say to that.

The next round wasn’t so easy. They both got stuck at the beginning with no matching cards, and when they finally got the needed ones they ended up creating long chains of card effects.

“You take seven… no, nine cards,” Kurusu muttered, as he counted the twos and threes both of them threw.

“I didn’t expect you to hold on to that two,” Goro muttered bitterly, as he drew the cards.

Kurusu shrugged.

“I figured out last time that you are good at waiting and not playing all your good cards at once,” he explained. “I just needed to outlast you.”

“Are you that desperate to see me in those cat ears?” Goro asked, staring at Kurusu.

“Dunno, are you that desperate to win against me?” he retorted, giving Goro a level gaze from above his cards. “You are having more fun than I thought.”

Goro frowned, caught off-guard by his words.

“Fun?”

“Yeah,” Kurusu muttered distractedly, choosing the next card to play. He put two sixes on the pile. “Mau.”

Goro clicked his tongue, caught between wanting to argue with Kurusu about that and the danger of losing the game, as Kurusu was left with only one card.

He played two fours he had on hand.

“I wait,” Kurusu said with a shrug.

Goro exhaled, looking at his cards. Unfortunately, he had no cards that would force Kurusu to draw.

No, wait, he had one.

He played a jack.

“I demand eights,” he said. He had three in his hand so surely...

“Would you look at that,” Kurusu hummed with a shit-eating grin as he placed the last card he had on the pile. It was eight of spades. “Mau mau.”

They were tied now.

Goro sighed, as he gathered the cards to shuffle them.

“I’m merely trying to avoid humiliation,” Goro said, returning to their previous discussion.

“Sure,” Kurusu said in a tone of voice that clearly indicated that he didn’t believe Goro’s lie even for a second.

“You don’t sound convinced,” Goro noted, as he dealt the cards.

Kurusu took up his cards and rearranged them in his hand.

“You could have refused my challenge. I was just messing around, so if you were really uncomfortable with my teasing I would have dropped it.” He paused to play his first card. “However, the second I suggested we make a punishment game out of it you seemed to love the idea.”

“I think love is a big word…” Goro replied, feeling uncomfortable at being read so accurately.

“I can’t remember seeing you so excited about something before. Even in that restaurant you took me to, you were mostly faking liking any of the food you ordered,” Kurusu pointed out.

Their match continued, Goro’s attention split between the cards and the discussion.

“Hardly, it was perfectly fine food,” Goro argued.

“And terrible ambience. You seemed to want to set that place on fire almost as badly as I did,” Kurusu deadpanned.

“I didn’t take you for an arsonist, Kurusu,” the detective said, deciding to change the topic, because the idea of burning that particular establishment, preferably with most of the guests still inside, sounded extremely appealing.

“Yeah, I’m more of a revolution type of guy. Arson would suit you better, now that I think about it.”

Goro almost choked.

“I work with the law enforcement. I’m not a criminal,” Goro argued.

“It just means you don’t have a record yet,” Kurusu retorted. “Those two things are not mutually exclusive, you know.”

“Because you can be a delinquent with a heart of gold and criminal record,” Goro finished, seeing where Kurusu’s argument was coming from.

“You left out the part about how I’m a handsome delinquent,” Kurusu said, as if Goro had left out something important. He hadn’t. If Kurusu thought that he and his bedhead qualified for anything other than looking passable if the lighting was right, he was deeply mistaken.

“Are you?” Goro asked, faking genuine surprise.

“That hurt way more than it should have,” Kurusu mumbled, but his expression quickly morphed into a more triumphant one. “Mau.”

“I’m afraid this is not the end of your suffering,” Goro said with fake concern, as he placed the king of hearts.

Kurusu grumbled as he took five cards. He looked at them with a blank expression, before glancing back at Goro.

“I want to be petty, but you know... you do look good,” Kurusu said, as he played a card.

“This… seems rather sudden,” Goro replied, feeling a bit blindsided by the topic suddenly shifting back to him.

“Yeah, I just realized there might have been a misunderstanding…” Kurusu admitted.

“A misunderstanding?” Goro repeated. This seemed like a ploy, but he was curious enough to poke at the trap. He placed a card. “Mau.”

“Yeah, you seem to be thinking that I’m trying to make fun of you,” Kurusu admitted, playing a card. “Which is a fair assumption, but that’s not it.”

Goro was unhappy to discover that he couldn’t play his last card and had to draw instead.

“Then could you enlighten me as to your actual intent,” Goro requested.

“I think you are pretty and would look even prettier with cat ears,” Kurusu said, his face betraying nothing. Unlike Goro’s, because what the fuck was that even supposed to mean?!

“You… you are making fun of me!” Goro shouted, stuttering a bit. He could feel himself blush slightly, because he had honestly not expected to hear an outrageous claim like that. He was used to hearing compliments from random people, but hearing them from someone like Kurusu was just…

Why was he even so bothered by this? It was just some nonsense from a stupid attic trash who knew nothing and…

...and thought Goro was pretty...

“By the way, it’s your turn,” Kurusu said, smiling widely. Apparently, Goro’s flustered reaction was hilarious. The detective fumed as he drew yet another card with more force than necessary. “And I’m telling the truth.”

“I find it hard to believe,” Goro muttered.

“What, that you are pretty?” Kurusu asked, his cheeky smile firmly plastered on his face.

“No. That you have enough aesthetic appreciation in yourself to notice,” Goro deadpanned.

“I have an eye for valuable things,” Kurusu said with a wink.

Goro had to remind himself not to let it show on his face that he understood the joke, because it wasn’t half as funny if you didn’t know that Kurusu moonlighted as the leader of Phantom Thieves. Which Goro wasn’t supposed to know. Not yet anyway, but the plan was in motion, so it wouldn’t be long until...

“Really? You seem like someone who is easy to please,” Goro said instead, cutting off his line of thought. It wasn’t time for that.

“Are you calling me a cheap date?”

“Given how much you complain about that one time I took you to a more expensive place, I’m starting to feel like this might be the case…” Goro muttered, playing a card.

Kurusu gave him a smug look.

“You forgot to say Mau,” he pointed out, as he played his own card. “Mau,” he added, since he was only holding one card now.

Goro almost swore under his breath as he pulled five cards. It wasn’t like him to slip like that. He quickly played a three of hearts, planning to stop Kurusu from winning, but his efforts were in vain.

“Mau Mau!” Kurusu exclaimed as he played the joker. His smug smile was truly insufferable. “It’s your loss.”

Goro tried not to show on his face just how irked he was by the whole situation. He forced a smile on his face that probably wasn’t very convincing.

“I guess you win the bet,” Goro offered, desperately trying not to sound like he was sulking.

Kurusu was staring at him now and Goro froze, not sure what was happening.

“You know… if you really don’t want to do it…” Kurusu started, his voice containing something that sounded morbidly close to pity.

Anything but that.

“Just give them to me and let’s get this over with,” Goro hissed, interrupting him.

Kurusu was still giving him a look, but wordlessly passed the fake ears to Goro.

Goro stared at them for a second, trying not to show how disgusted he felt at having to wear this dirty headband that who knows how many people had worn before him. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to stop thinking, and placed it on his head.

“Smile,” Kurusu muttered, pulling out his phone to take a photo.

“Smiling wasn’t part of the deal,” Goro pointed out.

“But taking a picture was, and are you sure you want to look miserable in it?” Kurusu asked, feigning innocence.

Goro faked a smile in response. Kurusu quickly took a photo, but he didn’t seem to be satisfied with it. Goro was about to ask if he could take the ears off now, but before he could Kurusu moved suddenly, sitting next to the detective. The sudden proximity made Goro forget what he was about to say.

“What are you doing?” he asked, confused.

“I realized I’d rather have a photo with both of us,” Kurusu explained, changing the settings in his phone so that it would take selfies. “That will be it, I promise. So give me just one more smile, okay?” Kurusu requested, grinning at Goro.

Goro wasn’t sure what to say, as Kurusu raised his head trying to aim the camera at both of them. Still, it didn’t seem they would fit together in the frame, no matter how much Kurusu strained his hand. His struggle was entertaining, but Goro was caught off-guard when suddenly Kurusu pulled him closer with his other hand. The breath caught in his throat, as his mind blanked out. He didn’t remember the last time someone had pulled him close like that.

He looked up to see that both he and Kurusu fit into the frame now. The delinquent was grinning widely as if a photo with Goro was the best thing ever.

Somehow it felt different from all those times when random people had asked Goro for a photo.

“Put your best smile on, detective,” Kurusu said, as he steadied his hand.

As he took the photo, the expression on Goro’s face was softer than anything he had ever showed to the cameras in the TV studio.

*

Kurusu: [nekomimiftw.png]

Kurusu: I forgot to ask if you want the photo, so here you go

Goro: I thought my silence was telling

Kurusu: Yeah, about that… is there a reason why you got so quiet after we took it?

Kurusu: I felt a bit worried

Goro: It was nothing

Goro: I was just reminded of something

Kurusu: I hope I didn’t make you remember anything bad

Goro: You have nothing to blame yourself for, Kurusu

Goro: But I would definitely appreciate if you deleted that photo

Kurusu: Nope, not happening

Kurusu: I already set it as my wallpaper

Goro: You did WHAT?!

Goro: Wait

Goro: Does that mean I somehow beat Morgana?

Goro: I thought nothing could make you change your wallpaper with it

Kurusu: Morgana’s still my lockscreen

Goro: ...that’s probably for the best

*

With summer came the first part of Goro’s plan. In a somehow unsurprising twist, the challenge from Medjed caused the leader of Phantom Thieves to be busy.

Goro had to tell himself that it was a good thing that Kurusu was so frantic he didn’t have any time to meet with him. It was all part of the plan.

There was really no reason to feel restless about it.

Or create a list of places he would want to take Kurusu to.

It would all be meaningless in the end, but that hardly seemed to matter as Goro updated the list every time he thought of something.

*

Kurusu: Sorry for not contacting you

Kurusu: I ran into a bit of trouble

Goro: I hope it was nothing serious

Kurusu: There was a girl who needed help

Kurusu: With homework

Goro: Homework?

Kurusu: Yes

Kurusu: Anyway, now that I’m free would you like to meet?

*

Goro went through his list six times before giving up on it and suggesting a stroll through Inokashira park in the evening. There weren’t that many people at this hour, though Goro really should have accounted for the mosquitos.

“Wow, it seems that local wildlife is also a big fan of the detective prince,” Kurusu quipped. Not that he wasn’t also a target of the insects’ attacks, but he had a jacket thrown over his shirt, which meant his hands were less exposed.

Goro had no protection like that.

“You seem to find a lot of enjoyment in my suffering,” Goro pointed out, almost regretting coming here. Recently, he found himself not wanting to share his time with Kurusu with other people, and so he choose a rather secluded place for their meeting.

“Not at all, I’m happy to see you after… wow, it’s really been a long time since we saw each other, huh?” Kurusu admitted, grinning at Goro.

Somehow, that smile made all the mosquito bites worth it.

“You mentioned you were taking care of some girl,” Goro muttered. Somehow that fact was making him feel uncomfortable. He had no way of knowing what exactly the thieves were doing in response to the Medjed crisis. Not that it mattered. Their win was temporary.

Still, Goro found himself curious.

“Yeah, it was a real struggle. I will probably have bad memories of Egypt for the rest of my life?”

“Egypt?” Goro asked, confused.

“Yes, especially the sphinx,” Kurusu confirmed seriously.

Goro had no idea what Kurusu was talking about, but figured that asking questions would only lead to more confusing answers.

“I hope she was at least pretty enough to make your effort worth it,” Goro muttered.

Kurusu stopped suddenly.

“You are jealous?” he asked, his voice caught between surprise and amusement.

“Of course not,” Goro answered automatically. There was no way he was jealous of some random girl being tutored by Kurusu. Especially because she seemed to be nothing more than a cover story.

She had to be a cover story.

“You are jealous!” Kurusu repeated, this time grinning at Goro. “Awww, you don’t have to be, babe!”

“If you call me that one more time I’m deleting you from my contact list.”

“Would you prefer honey?” Kurusu asked, batting his lashes like some coquette.

“I would prefer if you didn’t come to some idiotic conclusions,” Goro said, belatedly realizing he had lost his cool.

Kurusu must have realized it too, but he didn’t seem too bothered by the outburst.

“Don’t be like that, Akechi,” he said, his smile smaller, but somehow warmer. “I missed you too, you know.”

All the fight left Goro, as Kurusu’s words repeated in his mind and their meaning slowly hit the detective like a brick.

Missed. He was missed. Kurusu had thought of him while they hadn’t seen each other.

Wait, no, it was probably just a figure of speech. Nothing more…

Goro was so caught in his thoughts that he didn’t even realize when Kurusu closed the distance and put his hand on Goro’s shoulder.

“Sorry for leaving you like that. Next time I will make sure to find some time to meet you. Or at least try to keep in touch more, okay?” Kurusu said.

Goro nodded stiffly, not sure what else to do in the current circumstance. He wasn’t quite used to Kurusu invading his personal space like that. Nobody did that.

Worst of all, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant.

“How about we sit somewhere? I want to hear all about what happened to you while I was busy,” Kurusu said, directing them towards a nearby bench that overlooked the lake.

“Probably nothing as interesting as your tutoring adventures,” Goro assured, trying to act more composed than he truly felt.

*

Kurusu: Are you okay?

Goro: Why wouldn’t I be?

Kurusu: I saw the backlash after the whole Medjed thing…

Kurusu: I didn’t realize PT fans would retaliate against you…

Goro: You don’t need to worry about me Kurusu

Goro: It’s not your fault

Kurusu: Still

Kurusu: You don’t deserve being flamed for having different opinions

Kurusu: I obviously don’t agree with your views on PT

Kurusu: But I just…

Kurusu: I think it’s admirable you have opinions of your own that you are sticking to

Kurusu: I don’t want you to go through this >_>

Goro: Your sentiment is more than enough Kurusu

Kurusu: If you have time we could go out somewhere

Kurusu: I think you deserve to get a break from this whole mess

*

Goro would be lying if he said the sudden lack of popularity didn’t bother him. He knew this was just a temporary setback, but it still stung that people who had supported him until now were throwing him under the bus that easily.

Just another proof that society consisted of nothing more than rotten masses beyond saving.

It was highly ironic that the only person who seemed to genuinely worry about Goro was his archenemy.

“What do you think about ice cream?” Kurusu asked. It was clear that he was trying to be thoughtful. He choose a place that Goro would like, a quiet cafe that provided plenty of privacy and good food. He talked a lot, but always avoided topics that could remind Goro of the dumpster fire that was happening on his social media. Hell, he even toned down on the teasing.

Goro really wasn’t sure how to handle this. In his imagination he always saw Joker as someone who would gloat once he won against Goro. Relish in the victory.

Goro surely would.

“Maybe you would like to try something else? I will pay for you,” Kurusu offered.

The reality was so different that Goro wasn’t sure how to handle it. Part of him felt annoyed at the obvious pity he was receiving, but another part (that Goro would swear he had buried a long time ago) seemed to relish how obviously worried Kurusu was about him. There was something nice about knowing that someone was concerned about him. That someone cared.

It would be great if it wasn’t the same person that Goro was planning to murder in less than three months.

“There’s no need,” Goro assured, as his stomach twisted at the thought. Somehow, as the deadline approached, it was harder and harder to pretend that there was no correlation between the person sitting before him and his plans.

Kurusu smiled shyly, completely unaware of Goro’s inner conflict.

“I insist,” he said, looking at the detective. “I want to do something nice for you.”

“Your company is already more than enough,” Goro assured, because if Kurusu did any more for him it would become difficult to execute his plan. Unfortunately, Kurusu still looked unconvinced.

“That’s not true,” he muttered, grumpily stirring his coffee with a straw. The whole thing shouldn’t have looked half as endearing as it did. “You’ve always found time for me even though you’ve been busy with your work.”

“I… yes,” Goro replied, because the truth of the matter was that Kurusu… no, Joker was supposed to be a part of his work.

Except, the whole thing stopped being only about his plan somewhere along the line.

“See!” Kurusu said triumphantly. He looked at the menu with renewed vigor. “How about those cupcakes? They look pretty good,” he suggested, turning the menu towards Goro.

“Okay. If you insist I will accept one,” Goro said, feeling like he had just lost a fight.

Kurusu quickly called the waitress and placed the order. After that an uneasy silence fell between them, as if neither of them was sure what to say now.

“You know…” Kurusu finally said, once their cupcakes arrived. He angled his face so that his glasses completely obscured his eyes. “If you ever need some quiet place… then the coffee shop I’m staying at is a pretty nice place. You could visit sometimes. It’s called Leblanc.”

Goro of course knew about Leblanc, and had even considered visiting it to monitor Kurusu. He had decided against it, because he already saw the leader of Phantom Thieves pretty often, but if it was an invitation…

“Thank you. I will be sure to check it out.”

*

Kurusu: Say, do you think it would be possible

Kurusu: For Phantom Thieves to actually steal someone’s heart if they fell in love?

Goro: I almost thought you abandoned your tradition of weird 2 am texts

Kurusu: Says the person who is always awake at 2 am

Kurusu: Anyway

Kurusu: What’s your opinion as the detective?

Goro: You should at least TRY to regulate your sleeping schedule, Kurusu

Kurusu: About the heart stealing things, not me being nocturnal

Goro: Sometimes I wonder if I would even notice if you and your cat somehow changed bodies

Kurusu: You would, he insists on going to sleep early

Goro: I see

Goro: Coming back to your question. Shouldn’t you know that as their fan?

Kurusu: Maybe

Kurusu: I’m more interested in your perspective on that, tbh

Goro: I guess I have no choice...

Goro: There are two theories about how “the heart stealing” works

Goro: The first is mostly popularized by PT’s fans and claims that heart stealing merely makes the victim realize their crimes

Goro: In which case I don’t see how it could help with romance, unless someone was extremely closeted

Goro: The second theory that I’m responsible for is that PT’s alter the mentality of their victims to suit their needs

Goro: In which case it would be possible, but highly unethical

Kurusu: You have ZERO romance in you

Kurusu: What about the heart stealing that involves being suave and looking good in black?

Goro: Well

Goro: As much as I would like to dismiss it...

Goro: The evidence suggests Morgana succeeded in that kind of heart stealing months ago

Kurusu: HOLY SHIT YOU ARE RIGHT

*

Leblanc was criminally cozy.

Kurusu hadn’t lied about it being a quiet place. There was barely any traffic despite the fact that the coffee was incredibly good. The barista never asked any unnecessary questions about Goro, even when he sat in the cafe way longer than he probably should have.

And then, there was Kurusu.

“Oh, hi, Akechi!” Kurusu greeted him as he entered.

Goro waved back, but then realized Kurusu wasn’t alone.

“Wait, what is he doing here?!” an angry voice asked. Goro quickly identified its owner as none other than Ryuji Sakamoto. A person he felt he knew quite well from Kurusu’s stories.

“Don’t be rude to customers!” Sojiro quickly berated him. “He’s paying for his coffee unlike some other people I know.”

“Uh, right, sorry,” Ryuji apologized quickly, looking awkward. “I should probably go. Let’s talk tomorrow,” he said, addressing Kurusu, before he quickly left Leblanc.

Kurusu sighed, as he took a seat next to Goro.

“Sorry about that. He still feels pretty strongly about your opinions on Phantom Thieves.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Goro said quickly. “We are probably just incompatible.”

Kurusu gave him a curious look.

“Really? I thought you were quite alike,” he admitted, as Sojiro handed him a cup of coffee. Kurusu accepted it with thanks.

Goro scoffed.

“Alike? Me and him?” Goro asked, trying not to show just how ridiculous he found the idea. Sure, he didn’t know Kurusu’s friend very well, but it didn’t take a genius to realize how different the two of them were.

“I mean, obviously you aren’t identical,” Kurusu muttered from above his coffee. “But you both are pretty stubborn, have strong views, and feel the need to take action when you see injustice taking place.”

Goro froze, surprised by this assessment.

“That’s… you put a lot of thought into it,” he finally said.

“I didn’t understand why you felt similar so I might have overthought it a bit,” Kurusu admitted, staring into his coffee.

“I can’t speak for Sakamoto, but your assessment of me sounds correct,” Goro admitted.

Kurusu smiled at that.

“Do you want me to give you his number? Maybe you two would be friends,” he suggested.

“I get a feeling you would lose a friend this way,” Goro retorted.

“Oh come on, I’m sure you wouldn’t hold it against me that much.”

“I was talking about Sakamoto,” Goro pointed out, caught off-guard by the answer.

There was a moment of silence as the two of them drank their coffees.

“Are we friends?” Goro finally asked, feeling like he would burst if he held the question inside himself any longer.

Kurusu gave him a surprised look.

“Of course we are,” he said as if it was the most obvious thing ever.

Goro’s coffee suddenly felt much more bitter.

*

Kurusu: Once more, sorry about Ryuji

Kurusu: I should have warned him you could be there

Goro: Don’t worry Kurusu, I don’t particularly care about his opinion

Kurusu: Wow, that’s harsh

Kurusu: Ryuji will be elated to know you return his feelings

Goro: That was very funny Kurusu

Goro: I may have almost deleted your number from laughing so much

Kurusu: ANYWAY

Kurusu: I got an extra ticket for the new movie on Saturday, since the person I was supposed to go with got sick

Kurusu: Would you be interested?

Goro: Do I want to know what movie it is?

Kurusu: Well…

*

Fleeting Like Sakura Petals wasn’t the worst movie Goro had ever seen, but it definitely qualified for the top ten.

“I think Ami really should have called the cops by now,” Goro commented idly. “She could build quite a strong case against Keiichi at this point.”

Kurusu stopped chewing popcorn for a moment.

“You mean for all the stalking?”

“Yes, with a good lawyer she could even have him serving a sentence for two years.”

“Wow,” Kurusu muttered, before resuming his popcorn consumption.

It was impolite to be loud in the theater, but somehow they had ended up in pretty isolated seats with only a couple of other people attending the screening. Half of whom were now busy ignoring the film and making out. Goro was starting to consider throwing popcorn at the couple closest to them. They were so busy sucking each other’s faces off that they seemed to have forgotten about the world around them entirely.

Kurusu would surely lend some of his popcorn for this noble cause.

“I don’t understand why Ami continues to indulge all his creepy behavior,” he muttered, trying to concentrate more on the mediocre fictional love than the actual sickening couples surrounding them.

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Kurusu muttered. “I mean, Ami is obviously lying about not caring about him.”

“What do you mean?” Goro asked, confused.

“I feel like she is the one who created that situation in the first place,” Kurusu admitted. “She keeps calling Keiichi trash, but you can see she enjoys the attention she’s getting from him. However, she can’t bring herself to admit her feelings, so she insists she feels nothing but disgust for him. Even when she is the one who loves him the most.”

“Oh, I didn’t expect such a deep analysis from you,” Goro muttered. “You almost make it sound like she is the villain of the story.”

“In a way… Keiichi is a pretty straightforward guy who is trying to figure out the mixed signals she sends him. She’s the one who is lying about her feelings both to him and herself.”

“That’s an interesting reading,” Goro replied.

“Not really, it’s just…”

A loud moan interrupted Kurusu’s words. Both students turned toward the source to see the two people who had been intensely kissing a moment ago, going at it with even more vigor.

“Could I borrow some of your popcorn?”

“Sure.”

The hailstorm of popcorn they caused was extremely satisfying.

*

Kurusu: Do you want to choose where we have our next date?

Goro: Date?

Kurusu: Meeting

Kurusu: I usually tell Sojiro I’m meeting a cute girl when I go somewhere with you, because he seemed disappointed I’m not seeing anyone

Goro: how long has it been going?

Kurusu: Since June

Goro: Really?

Kurusu: If it bothers you I can tell him I dumped her

Kurusu: I’m not dumping you of course

Goro: I don’t think you can dump me when we aren’t dating

Kurusu: Says the person who constantly threatens to dump me

*

There was something off about this exchange that left Goro staring at his phone, trying to decipher the hidden meaning that was escaping him.

It wasn’t the first time Kurusu had joked they were dating. He seemed to find delight in dirty insinuations and flirting. He always joked about it.

Or did he?

How much of his flirting was just teasing and how much was genuine? Goro assumed it was just a joke at his expense, but this conversation… Akira seemed so uncharacteristically cautious. Like he was afraid that Goro would be offended if his joke was taken seriously.

Which didn’t make sense, unless…

Unless he actually was self-conscious about his feelings. Unless he was afraid of ruining their relationship, and there was no way that could be true, because that would mean…

Goro curled under the blanket trying not to think about this discovery.

It should have been a moment of victory. If the leader of Phantom Thieves was so emotionally invested in him, then it would be easier to fool him into thinking that Goro was on his side. It would be easier to execute the plan. It would be easier to complete his vengeance.

Instead, all that Goro could think about was how softly Kurusu smiled at him whenever they met.

*

Goro ended up oversharing about his past during his next visit to Leblanc.

He told himself it didn’t mean anything.

He still saved all the derpy pictures of Morgana Kurusu had sent him that day in an obvious attempt to cheer him up.

*

Kurusu: And then it took us an hour to pull Morgana’s head out of that jar

Kurusu: Because he would panic whenever we tried to pull the jar

Kurusu: We ended up having to call a local doctor

Kurusu: To give him anesthesia

Kurusu: She kept complaining that she’s not a vet

Kurusu: But still helped us remove the jar

Goro: You called an actual doctor to help you save your cat from a jar?

Kurusu: It sounds a bit stupid when you put it that way, but we were a bit desperate

Kurusu: Since Morgana was extremely distressed

Goro: I’m not sure whether I should be impressed or mortified about how much you would do for your cat

Kurusu: Hey, I wouldn’t do that JUST for Morgana

Kurusu: If you ever got your head stuck in a jar I would also help you!

Goro: That’s… not likely to happen

Kurusu: :<

Kurusu: How am I going to prove myself to you otherwise?!

Kurusu: I can’t save you if you don’t get your head stuck in a jar

Goro: I’m sure you will think of something

Kurusu: I just want you to know

Kurusu: that you can rely on me

Kurusu: if you ever need help

Goro: That’s…

Goro: Thank you for the sentiment

Kurusu: It’s not just sentiment

Kurusu: I really want to help you if there is something troubling you

Kurusu: I want you to be happy

Kurusu: it msut sound cheesy

Kurusu: *must

Kurusu: I should go to sleep

Goro: It’s alright, I’m happy you think that way

Kurusu: Really???

Goro: It’s the nicest thing anybody ever said to me

Kurusu: Oh

Kurusu: Well...

Kurusu: I just want you to know

Kurusu: you are very important to me

Kurusu: and I’m glad you were born

Kurusu: I should really go to sleep now

Goro: That…

Goro: Kurusu

Goro: Are you really sleeping?

Goro: Kurusu?

*

They went to a cafe after that.

It wasn’t a date.

But as Goro chewed on the strawberry shortcake, he realized that maybe not giving something a name was nothing but an avoidance strategy at this point.

*

“Are you trying to seduce me?”

Kurusu froze at the question, as if scared.

They were walking alone through Inokashira park again, when some part of Goro snapped. Maybe because he knew they didn’t have time. Maybe because he hoped that Kurusu would laugh at the question and easily dismiss it, proving that it was just Goro’s delusion. A sad little lie he told himself.

Instead, Kurusu looked at him cautiously, stopping in the middle of a pile of yellow leaves. It made him look strangely ethereal, as the blowing wind pushed the leaves in the air.

“Why are you asking?” he returned the question.

“I’m not sure I follow,” Goro said, not knowing what to make of Kurusu’s avoidance.

Kurusu slowly gave him a scrutinizing look.

“You aren’t interested in having a relationship like that with anyone, so I’m not sure why you are bothering to ask,” Kurusu clarified, but then he paused, his voice uncertain now. “Unless something changed in that regard.”

“I…” Goro started, but the words failed him, because he was hit with a startling realization that Kurusu was right.

He wasn’t interested in having that kind of relationship with anyone, because there was no way that there was someone who could honestly love a warped and cursed person like him. He didn’t even dare to dream about it, instead focusing solely on his revenge.

He shouldn’t care about Kurusu’s intentions, because if he actually cared about it it could only mean… There was no way…

“Unless,” Kurusu said slowly, his eyes suddenly sharper as he must have been hit by the very same realization as Goro, “you are interested now.”

Something shifted in the air between them, as if a carefully maintained balance had been violently destroyed, leaving in its wake an abyss of unsaid feelings and urges. Goro was suddenly extremely aware of every detail. How the wind was lightly tugging at Kurusu’s curly hair and that Goro no longer felt disgusted by how messy it was. Or how he didn’t mind holding hands with him anymore, whenever they weaved through the crowd. And that there was something about the way Kurusu looked at him that made him feel like maybe he wasn’t cursed after all.

That maybe there existed a possibility of him attaining happiness after all.

It shouldn’t have been possible, and yet…

Goro made a miserable sound, something between a gasp and sob, before he bolted. He could hear Kurusu calling after him, but he never stopped, trying to outrun all his fears and emotions as he escaped from the park.

*

Kurusu: Akechi

Kurusu: Are you alright?

Kurusu: You haven’t been responding, but I’ve seen you on TV so hopeful nothing is wrong

Kurusu: I’m really sorry if something I said hurt you

Kurusu: I just assumed…

Kurusu: Please, talk to me

Kurusu: Akechi

Kurusu: Goro

Kurusu: Please

Goro: I’m sorry, but I need some time to think. I will contact you when I’m ready.

*

He knew he would never be ready. Not after realizing how much he had fucked up.

There was no way to reverse this. No way to take back months of texting and talking. No way to rip out the nebulous feelings that were now threatening to overtake him and ruin everything he had worked for.

Because even when he had distanced himself as much as possible from him, even when he stopped meeting and texting him, he couldn’t stop thinking of Akira Kurusu. It was like a curse, threatening to swallow him whole.

He could now see it clearly. Like a satellite, which had been influenced by a planet’s gravity - at some point rather than following his own path, he had started to stray into Kurusu’s orbit.

It was pathetic, really.

He had started meeting Kurusu to accomplish the exact opposite. Earn his trust, lure him into a false sense of security, learn about him so that it would be easier to strike him down when the time came.

Instead, Goro’s phone had an obscene amount of Morgana photos saved on it, hours of texting logs that consisted of nothing but stupid banter and terrible cat puns, and a selfie of him and Kurusu set as a wallpaper. He couldn’t even tell when he had decided that changing his wallpaper for that photo was a good idea. Probably around the time when his good judgement had forsaken him completely, so he could start crushing on the person he was planning to kill.

Goro slowly took a breath, trying to clear his head.

He started to delete the Morgana photos, but soon found himself unable to delete some of them. They reminded him too much of the happy memories he had made during the last few months.

He sighed, putting his phone away, but even that didn’t help. His apartment also showed various traces of Kurusu’s influence. From a black scarf that Kurusu had helped him choose during one of their shopping trips, through various small gifts lining his desk, to an empty box of Leblanc curry lying in his sink.

He turned his back on everything and tried to fall asleep.

It was only when he woke up, miserable and exhausted after a night full of nightmares that heavily featured grey eyes looking at him with disgust, that he realized that there was truly no escape.

He was stuck in his self-made hell.

*

He avoided Kurusu for as long as he could, but there was a limit to what he could do. The plan was still developing regardless of Goro’s newfound emotions.

So he shot Okumura when the time came, setting everything in motion.

He forced himself not to think how disappointed Kurusu would be if he knew Goro had killed him. How, after all their hard work to change his heart, he came here to ruin everything. How he would be leaving the younger Okumura parentless.

He ignored all those thoughts, but he knew that there was a limit to how much he could run away.

Soon, he would have to face the person he was trying to avoid.

*

The blackmail went better than expected. That was to say, Kurusu was silent most of the time and there were no angry accusations thrown by him. At least by him. Sakamoto definitely didn’t lack those.

In the end they gave in and agreed to let him join the group and even promised to disband after this heist. All according to the plan.

However, when Goro looked at his phone in the evening, he froze.

Kurusu: Meet me tomorrow evening in the cafe we usually visited

Goro: I have work tomorrow

Kurusu: Skip it

He shouldn’t have been surprised to see Kurusu act harsh towards him, since he honestly deserved at least that much, but it still stung a bit.

Goro: I will see what I can do

Kurusu: You’d better be there

*

Goro shouldn’t have felt as anxious as he did when he stepped into the cafe. Sure, there were many reasons for Kurusu to be angry at him, but he had this. Surely, Kurusu wouldn’t do anything stupid when it was Goro who was holding all the cards.

Right?

He spotted Kurusu sitting in the back, empty cup of coffee before him. The leader of Phantom Thieves was glaring at him. Goro slowly moved towards the table, trying not to look him in the eyes.

As Goro took the seat opposite Kurusu, he finally looked at the other boy and noticed dark rings under his eyes.

Apparently, Goro wasn’t the only person who had been losing sleep recently.

“Hello,” Goro said hesitantly, then noticed that Kurusu’s bag didn’t look like it contained a feline. “Morgana isn’t with you?”

“It took me an hour, but I persuaded him not to come with me,” Kurusu said tiredly.

Right now he looked nothing like the leader of Phantom Thieves. Tired, angry, and miserable. Goro would probably rejoice in his heart seeing what he had reduced his rival to if he wasn’t one good poker face away from mirroring him.

“You still have that stupid fake smile on your face, so I should probably make this clear now,” Kurusu continued, his voice quiet, but full of cold fury. A waitress tried to approach them with a menu, but Kurusu glared at her before she could reach them. Apparently, Goro would be getting no refreshments. “I’m not meeting you as the leader. I called you here as your friend to tell you that you are almost the shittiest person I know, and I spent the last several months going through the cognitive worlds of some really messed-up people,” Kurusu said, sounding genuinely hurt.

Goro wasn’t sure what to say, because he definitely hadn’t expect this sort of confrontation. It seemed he had misjudged just how much Kurusu would feel hurt by his betrayal.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he replied automatically, doing his best to sound genuinely remorseful, but Kurusu’s expression told him that this was the wrong thing to say.

“I didn’t come here to talk with the detective prince,” Kurusu hissed. “I don’t want to hear your empty non-apologies. I want some fucking explanation.” He accentuated his words by hitting the table. The only other patron in the cafe turned around to look at them, but quickly returned to his coffee with a newfound urgency.

Goro sighed, deciding that if it was a confrontation Kurusu wanted then a confrontation he would get.

“I’m not sure why you are so angry about this,” he said, his voice sounding much colder now. He was also talking quietly, not wanting to be overheard. “You approached me because you wanted to get information out of me, didn’t you? You are quite the hypocrite for pulling the friend card now. Or are you just angry that I beat you at your own game?” he asked.

“Like you are one to talk. You knew who I was way before Okumura’s palace. Or at least strongly suspected me,” Kurusu retorted. “So stop acting like you have any sort of moral high ground here.”

“I don’t see why I should feel bad,” Goro said, because Kurusu didn’t know even half of it. “You knew I was taking part in Phantom Thieves investigation. You knowingly played with danger, and now that it returned to bite you in the ass you are throwing a tantrum.”

“Can you stop making it about winning and losing for like five seconds?” Kurusu asked, raising his voice. “Because if you did then maybe you would notice that there are other things in life than your stupid competitive streak!”

The other patron hastily handed the waitress money and left. The waitress gave the two arguing boys a fearful look and quickly disappeared into the inner part of the cafe, probably not wanting to get caught up in this particular fallout.

“Says the person who pretends to be some sort of gentlemen thief,” Goro replied, his words pure venom. Now that there was no one in the cafe to listen in on them, they didn’t bother to whisper anymore.

“No, I think when it comes to pretending I’ve got nothing on you, detective prince,” Kurusu said not hiding the irony in his voice.

They glared at each other, not hiding their hostility.

“Did you call me here to exchange barbs?” Goro asked, his throat feeling very dry. He strongly regretted not being able to order anything before the argument began.

Kurusu sighed, some of the anger escaping from him.

“No, but I still think you are full of shit,” he said, reaching out for his bag. Goro tensed for a second, not sure what to expect, but was surprised to see Kurusu producing a stack of paper. The thief threw it onto the table, the papers scattering messily all over it. Goro rose from his seat to see them better.

They were prints of photos. There were about twenty of them. Goro remembered some of them; others he was seeing for the first time, but could identify when they had been taken.

All of them featured the scenes from when they met together. Despite himself, Goro reached for the photos and started to rearrange them so he could see all of them. He was surprised to see that Kurusu had made photos ever since their first meeting. There was a slightly blurry photo of Goro looking with pure despair at his meal in the terrible dinner Kurusu had chosen for their first meeting. Several photos made after they left the expensive restaurant, featuring Goro wearing his nicest suit. A memorable photo from the cat cafe. A number of photos from their visit to Inokashira park…

“What is that?” Goro asked, his voice sounding much more vulnerable than he wanted.

“Well, I thought as a detective you would appreciate it if I brought proof with me,” Kurusu said, his voice eerily calm.

“Proof of what?”

“That despite all the terrible reasons this whole thing started, we are long past the point where we can lie to ourselves that the bond we have isn’t a real thing,” Kurusu said, looking straight at him. “And it’s high time we actually talked about that.”

Goro swallowed uneasily, words failing him. He slowly sat down, holding one of the photos from the Inokashira park. He looked blankly at it, trying to gather his thoughts.

“I’m not sure what you expect from me,” Goro said slowly, because this was uncharted territory for him. His life was always about meeting expectations, but somehow he could never really grasp Kurusu’s thoughts of him.

He wasn’t even sure he wanted to know them.

“Some honesty would be nice,” Kurusu said with a sigh, but then his expression softened a bit. “Would you like something?”

“Excuse me?”

“Something to drink.”

“Cappuccino would be nice.”

Kurusu got up from his seat and approached the counter.

“Excuse me, I would like to make an order,” he shouted.

The waitress appeared a moment later, looking relieved. Probably because the argument had not escalated to an actual fistfight. She quickly took Kurusu’s order and started to brew coffee.

“If you don’t know where to start then maybe I will,” Kurusu said, when he returned to his seat to find Goro lost in his thoughts. “You were half right about me approaching you for information, though honestly I never thought you would actually text me. I gave you my number on a whim, because I was curious and wanted to talk more.”

“You make it sound like it was less about getting information out of me and more about getting to know me.”

“At this point I can’t even tell exactly what motivated me back then, to be honest,” Kurusu admitted, as he started to collect the photos into a pile to make space on the table. “Morgana thought it was a huge risk, so I had to keep assuring him that it was all about getting the information out of you. However, I didn’t think you were the type to carelessly throw confidential information around, so I mostly hoped to get a read on what kind of person you are.”

“I guess it was similar for me,” Goro admitted. “I thought you were an interesting person.”

“Did you already suspect me then?”

“...uh, not really… maybe… I guess I had a hunch at that point, but nothing more. I mean, there were hundreds of Shujin students, so I logically knew there were a lot of suspects…”

“Wait… did you want it to be me?” Kurusu asked.

Goro looked at him surprised, caught off-guard by the question.

The waitress appeared with their order, giving Goro a bit more time to think through his answer. He was surprised to see that aside from the coffee, he had been given a piece of cake. He gave Kurusu a questioning look, but the thief simply shrugged, as if it wasn’t anything worth mentioning. They waited for the waitress to leave before resuming their discussion.

“I don’t know…” Goro finally admitted, as he threw sugar into his coffee. He stirred it slowly, watching the foam change color from white to brown. “Sometimes I can’t help feeling like it was fate… but I think it was during the summer that I started to be sure that you were the leader.”

“Back when we were busy with Medjed,” Kurusu guessed.

“Yeah, it was circumstantial evidence at best, but…”

“It was enough to confirm your suspicions,” Kurusu finished for him. He took a bite of his own piece of cake. Goro nodded. “I would also probably suspect myself at that point.”

“Anyway, my suspicions were not really enough to build a proper case, so I bid my time waiting for a chance to catch you in the act,” Goro explained, taking a sip of coffee. So far so good, maybe he could end this meeting with no prob...

“And then you had your gay crisis,” Kurusu deadpanned.

Goro choked on his coffee.

“I… ekhu… did not,” Goro denied vehemently, barely stopping himself from spitting the liquid in his mouth. He forced himself to swallow it, despite the pain.

“You ran away from the park,” Kurusu countered.

“Correlation does not equal causation, Kurusu,” Goro replied, trying to even his voice, but it was hard when his throat still burned.

“You can’t outrun the gay, Akechi,” the thief whispered mockingly.

No, but I can kill it, Goro thought bitterly, before quickly shooting down this particular thought.

“I think you should be more worried about yourself,” Goro said. “Rather than my supposed feelings.”

“Funny you say that… I don’t think I told you why I am on probation, you know,” Kurusu said suddenly, as if he had been waiting for a good moment to bring that up.

“No, I don’t believe you did,” Goro said. He had certainly seen the files, but one look was enough to tell him that they didn’t contain a full story.

“It’s a really interesting story. You see, I was returning home one evening when I heard a woman shouting. When I got closer I saw a drunk man trying to push her into the car. She was resisting, but he was obviously stronger than her.”

“You tried to help her?” Goro asked, having a feeling that he knew where that particular story was going.

“Yes. The funniest part is I didn’t even do anything. I just stepped forward and told him to leave her alone. And then he stumbled and hit the pavement.” Kurusu sighed. “If I knew what would happen next I would probably have escaped immediately from there, but I was pretty shocked by that whole scene. So before I could even comprehend what the hell happened a police car rolls up next to us and I’m the one being cuffed and shoved into the car, because apparently the drunk guy is some sort of a big deal. The next thing I know, my parents think I’m a disappointment and I’m being sent to Tokyo on probation.”

“Most people would keep their heads down after such an experience,” Goro pointed out.

“Most people don’t get accidentally transported to a cognitive world on their first day at a new school to almost get killed by the twisted desires of the PE teacher,” Kurusu retorted, as he took a sip of his coffee. “It was then that I got my persona. Do you know how?”

“No,” Goro said, because he didn’t really know much about the beginnings of Phantom Thieves other than the fact that Kamoshida had been their first target. He could piece together some elements like Shiho Suzui’s attempted suicide and the rumors surrounding the disbanding of the track club, but he had only realized that Phantom Thieves utilized the cognitive world just like him when he saw them in Madarame’s palace.

“Ryuji was with me when we got transported to Kamoshida’s palace. And because Kamoshida already viewed him as a nuisance, his distorted version tried to kill him first. I was pinned to the wall and forced to watch it. Would probably have been next…” He chuckled humorlessly. “So I’m there watching the only person who had been genuinely nice to me since I came to Tokyo about to get skewered, when a voice asks me if helping that woman was a mistake.”

“That’s... interesting,” Goro admitted, surprised by how open Kurusu had been. Truthfully, he had expected him to guard his secrets more, not reveal them so openly. Of course, this whole story could have been fabricated, but Goro had yet to see the point of such an unnecessarily complex lie.

“Long story short, I said it wasn’t a mistake. Next thing I know I have a persona, who proclaims that together we will help people even if I end up in hell as a result,” Kurusu explained in an uninterested tone that wildly clashed with the story he was telling.

“How dramatic,” Goro commented, not sure what else to say.

“I hope you are starting to understand now.” Kurusu looked straight at him, obviously expectant.

“No, I don’t think I’m seeing the point of your story,” Goro admitted.

“I’m no longer helping people just out of the goodness of my heart. Not anymore. Sure, that part of me is still there. It makes me feel good to help somebody. It’s the right thing to do. But right now, there’s another part of me. A part of me that helps people out of spite,” he said, his voice suddenly much more bitter. “Each person I help, each heart I change, is another middle finger to the jerk who ruined my life. And maybe if I keep going long enough I will find and reform him too,” Kurusu explained, his voice dark.

Goro couldn’t help getting slight chills. The bitterness felt all too relatable. Too close to what Goro carried in himself every day. It was different, but at the same time so similar it was making him feel light-headed.

“Your explanation is certainly enlightening, but I’m not sure I understand why you are explaining all this to me,” Goro said, once more hiding behind his pleasant mask. After all, he couldn’t let Kurusu know the truth. Not after all the hard work he had put in.

Kurusu smiled bitterly.

“I guess I wanted you to understand my motivations,” he admitted. “Arsene was being very dramatic when he talked about falling to hell if it was about helping someone, but the longer I continue as a Phantom Thief the more fitting this metaphor feels. And you know what?” he asked, looking challengingly at Goro. “I don’t care anymore. If I’m destined for hell, then I’m going to take it over and then use its resources to help even more people.”

“Ah, how practical,” Goro said lightly, but underneath his fake words he felt a tension.

Kurusu was not done yet.

“Anyway, now that this is in the open, let’s move to the actual reason why I called you here,” Kurusu announced. He paused to take a breath. “Remember how I told you that you can talk to me if you ever need help? That I will always hear you out? So, that offer still stands. I can help you,” Kurusu said with a baffling amount of confidence.

Goro could only gape at him, surprised by that development.

“You… think I need help?” Goro said, because this was way too absurd. “You are offering to help the person who has been deceiving you and is now blackmailing you?”

Kurusu shrugged.

“Makoto blackmailed us too before joining, so it’s hardly a novelty,” he pointed out calmly. “But yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Goro wanted to laugh, but there was nothing funny about the situation. Instead, his stomach clenched, as his anxiety worsened.

“You are out of your mind…” he muttered, not even sure what to say.

Why? Why now of all times? Goro had always wanted that. For someone to reach out their hand to him. To help him out of his misery. Except at this point he had already given up on that unattainable dream.

So why now of all times?

“Maybe I am. But what does it matter?” Kurusu asked. “I have resources. Whatever problem you have, I’m ready to put my all into taking care of it.”

“It’s awfully presumptuous of you,” Goro hissed. “To assume I have a problem. You are the one being blackmailed! You are the one who is a step away from failure! So why are you trying to pity me?!”

Kurusu sighed.

“I hoped that my little explanation would help you understand this is not pity, but I guess this isn’t that simple,” he said, looking thoughtful. “And for the record, you are awfully defensive for someone who supposedly doesn’t have a problem, Akechi,” he pointed out.

Goro felt embarrassed as he realized it was true. He sank down into his seat trying to regain his composure, but he couldn’t. It had been getting harder and harder to maintain it the more time he had spent with Kurusu, but now it was almost impossible. His nerves were fraying at the ends the longer their conversation continued. A more animalistic part of him felt like throwing both of them into Mementos just so he could tear into Joker with his sword and persona. Show him just how much he didn’t understand. How he knew nothing about Goro, so he would run away screaming and sobbing, broken just like he had been ruined in the past…

Composure, Goro.

“I’m sorry, I admit I have overreacted,” he said, his pleasant mask once more popping into place. Sadly, it was a tactic that was at this point very ineffective against Kurusu, because he only sighed tiredly at that.

“You are so…” Kurusu paused, searching for the right word, “difficult, Akechi.”

“You are the one who insisted on having this conversation,” Goro said with a charming smile that probably oozed poison at this point.

Still, Kurusu didn’t look nearly as discouraged as Goro wanted him to be. If anything he smiled back, obviously accepting the challenge.

“It’s true. And I’m sure you are curious,” Kurusu said in an obvious bait.

“Why should I be?” Goro asked, wanting to see what the leader of Phantom Thieves was planning.

“What gave you away,” Kurusu replied immediately. “You are a great actor. Probably even better than me. And yet I realized that something was wrong,” he pointed out, looking straight at Goro. “Aren’t you even a bit curious how that happened?”

Goro froze because Kurusu had a point. His confidence was clearly backed up by some sort of proof. Kurusu was a master of bluffs, but this wasn’t something that he could put blind faith in.

“Please, do explain to me what caused this misunderstanding,” Goro said with much more poise than he felt.

Kurusu smiled back.

“It’s quite simple, you see. Everything you did during the last couple of days doesn’t make sense. There was something off about your little blackmail scheme and it took me some thinking to figure it out, but I realized it.”

“Realized what?” Goro asked, leaning forward despite himself.

“This isn’t your plan. This whole scheme… it’s not Goro Akechi’s plan.” He paused, seeing indignation on Goro’s face. “By which I mean, you aren’t the person who is supposed to profit from this plan.”

“What kind of lunacy...”

“And that doesn’t make sense, because you are a selfish person,” Kurusu continued, completely ignoring Goro’s words. “Everything you do is calculated. I don’t think you are able to do anything without overthinking it. Which made me realize that something is wrong and the only explanation I can think of…”

“Cut the bullshit!” Goro hissed, this time managing to successfully interrupt Kurusu. He shut up, instead fixing his gaze on Goro, as if watching an extremely interesting nature documentary.

“I guess I can cross out hearing you swear from my bucket list,” he muttered, trying to lighten the mood. Goro threw him an irritated glance, but Kurusu didn’t continue. In fact he seemed fine with giving the initiative back to the detective.

Goro took a deep breath, trying to reset himself. Just calm down. Except it was impossible.

“I can produce some more expletives if that will help shut you up,” Goro said instead, feeling his good judgement leave him for good. It was so hard to think. Goro could almost feel Loki slithering under his skin, pulling every dirty part of him to the surface, just for the fun of it.

It was always so hard being yourself, when all you ever wanted was to ruin everything until it was as broken as you were.

“Really? Then throw your best ones at me,” Kurusu said easily, as if it was September, not October. As if Goro hadn’t betrayed him just two days ago and wasn’t planning to commit an even bigger betrayal. As if they still had a chance...

Something finally gave in and Goro stood up rapidly, running to the toilet. Maybe it was a good thing he hadn’t eaten much, because his stomach emptied quickly. He stood for a moment watching the remains of his meal flow down the drain before he returned to make sure he looked okay.

He didn’t look okay. There was a wild look in his eyes and for a second Goro almost didn’t recognize himself. He gave up on trying and left the bathroom, deciding to cut the meeting short. He needed to leave now, before Kurusu could do any more damage, ruin him even more. Goro didn’t think it was possible to break him further, but reality seemed to be trying to prove him wrong.

Unfortunately, Kurusu was a step ahead of him, because he had already been waiting outside.

“I already paid the bill. We should probably go.” And never return here, hung heavily implied.

Goro nodded, realizing that escaping could prove more difficult than he had thought.

They left with awkward silence hanging above them. It seemed that whatever bravado had pushed Kurusu to confront him earlier had vanished, leaving Goro with nothing to work with. Once more all of Kurusu’s feelings were hidden safely behind the facade of a quiet high school student.

Goro was tense, waiting for the silence to break, but it didn’t happen. Kurusu accompanied him all the way to the subway. It was only when the train was about to arrive that a hand suddenly tugged Goro. Surprised, he ended up at the mercy of gravity that inevitably made him fall backwards against Kurusu. Another hand swiftly secured Goro in place. He wanted to protest, but a more reasonable part of him pointed out that starting a commotion in the middle of a public place like this could end up really badly for him.

“Please,” Kurusu asked, his voice almost pleading. The desperation in his voice made Goro extremely curious as to what face Kurusu was making, but he had no way of checking it when they were facing the same direction. No matter how he angled his face upwards, Kurusu’s expression remained hidden. “Just think about what I told you today.”

The train arrived, momentarily drowning out all other sounds. Somehow, all he could think of at the moment was how warm Kurusu was. The warmth seeping into his back was strangely comforting, despite the circumstances. Goro nodded slightly, hoping that his non-answer would be enough. That it would buy him enough time to…

“...you.” He heard a part of the sentence as his ears once more adjusted to the volume.

“What?” he said, confused, not sure what was happening.

“I said, you deserve happiness,” Kurusu said, his voice much closer to Goro’s ears than before. It almost tickled. The warmth seeping into him was starting to feel almost like fire. “So much more than you were given…”

Goro wanted to protest, to argue maybe, but the proximity seemed to have impaired his vocabulary. He was pretty sure he was on fire. He could only stare blankly at the people exiting from the train, as he slowly burned to ashes.

“If you give me a chance, I swear, I will find a way to make you happy. So please, think about what I said,” Kurusu muttered, before Goro once found himself at the mercy of gravity, when the leader of Phantom Thieves shoved him into the crowd boarding the train. Goro was carried inside by the flow of people, before he could do anything.

When he managed to turn around to steal a look at the platform before the doors closed, Kurusu wasn’t there anymore.

What scared Goro the most in that moment wasn’t the fear that Kurusu had seen through him or how this could derail his meticulously crafted plan.

It was the fact that he was already missing the warmth he had felt when Kurusu hugged him.

*

Things proceeded as planned after that. He started to explore Sae’s palace together with the Phantom Thieves. It was an arduous but surprisingly exciting experience. Goro had never really had a chance to show off all the experience he had gained through his solitary adventures in the cognitive world, so it was satisfying to finally have an audience. Acquaintances. Teammates.

Apparently he was starting to delude himself even more, if he thought that people he had blackmailed into working with him could for some reason consider him a teammate.

Was that what falling into insanity was like?

Maybe it was, because being able to see Joker from… a closer than usual perspective was definitely not helping curb any sort of feelings in Goro. Quite the opposite.

He remembered the conversation with Kurusu, that seemed to have happened a lifetime ago, about stealing hearts by looking good in black.

Joker must have been taking tips from Morgana, because there was no other explanation, why that inane pick-up tactic was actually working.

All his movements felt effortless, yet precise. He slinked between the guards with ease that shouldn’t have been possible for someone who had been raiding the palaces for half an year at most. He smirked, as if he was in control of the situation all the damn time, which clearly wasn’t the case, because it was Goro who was holding all the cards and…

Okay, so maybe he was jealous.

It was a surprising discovery, because he shouldn’t have been. There were a hundred reasons why Goro was better, starting from the fact that he didn’t need friends or a talking cat to get through the cognitive world. He was fine on his own. Always had been.

Somehow, those thoughts didn’t help him calm down.

But it was fine. Goro would manage. He was a bigger picture person. Small details like crushes would not get in the way of his plan.

At least, that was what he kept telling himself.

*

It was in the beginning of November, when they were (as Goro speculated) about halfway through Sae’s Palace, that things started to go wrong.

Goro picked up on the fact that there was something off about the atmosphere from the moment they started exploring the palace, but it took him some time to figure out what exactly was off.

Apparently, there was some sort of divide within the team. Queen and Noir seemed extremely restrained whenever they interacted with Joker, as if they were desperately trying not let their emotions get the better of them. Panther and Mona seemed to be trying to cheer Joker up, acting in an openly supportive way. Finally, Fox and Oracle seemed to be the neutral faction, trying to act as normally as possible, but it was obvious the situation was getting to them. Oracle in particular seemed to be more chaotic than usual when navigating them, making some basic mistakes.

Joker was also not impervious to the atmosphere. While he did his best to act as usual, Goro quickly noticed that he had slipped several times.

It was only when Goro caught Skull staring at him in the safe room like this whole thing was his fault that Goro realized what was going on.

“Is this my fault?” he asked quietly, when Joker approached him to check if everything was alright.

Kurusu almost faltered, but shook his head in denial.

“Not really,” he admitted, stopping next to Goro. “I’m just reaping what I sowed.”

“I don’t think I follow,” Goro said, looking closely at Joker.

The leader scratched his neck, obviously embarrassed.

“I may have disagreed with other members’ opinions about how much of an ass you are,” he finally admitted, not meeting Goro’s eyes.

Crow stilled, surprised by that admission. It made sense, considering how the group seemed to be divided in this conflict. Makoto was a better actor than he had thought she would make, but it wasn’t enough to hide her animosity, which Goro couldn’t really blame her for. Similarly, he wasn’t surprised that Okumura was avoiding him. Phantom Thieves must have supported her after her father’s death and now Goro was threatening to ruin that sanctuary for her.

Ann was the only person who seemed to be willing to give Goro a chance despite the circumstances, while Morgana had been present on several outings he and Kurusu had, which meant he had known Goro the most after Joker.

Sakura and Kitagawa seemed unsure where to stand, but probably the most unsure seemed to be Sakamoto, who was obviously caught between his loyalty to Kurusu and dislike for Goro.

“I’m sorry for causing you trouble,” Goro said, with his usual fake politeness.

Joker gave him a look, as if he wanted to say something, but stopped himself.

“It’s alright,” he muttered, moving away from Goro.

Crow should have felt proud for being able to cause discord between the Phantom Thieves, but somehow this small victory felt extremely bitter instead.

They ended their exploration earlier than usual, but maybe that was for the best. The atmosphere seemed to be getting more and more strained the longer they went through the palace. When they left the cognitive world, Goro quickly excused himself, not wanting to risk getting caught in any sort of fallout. However, it seemed his worries were for naught, because he heard other Phantom Thieves also hurriedly throwing their goodbyes, probably driven by similar worry.

Goro let his thoughts drift as he walked to the station. He couldn’t help feeling that he was missing something. There was something strange in how Kurusu looked at him. Admittedly, ever since their argument, Kurusu had made sure that his feelings would be unreadable for Goro. It was a bit surprising discovering that Kurusu could mask his feelings as well as him, and the reason why the detective was only learning it now was because previously Kurusu had actually felt comfortable enough in his presence to let his guard down.

Goro did his best not to think about the implications of that.

He wasn’t far from the station when he sensed someone following him. He maintained his pace, pretending not to notice anything, but as soon as he turned the corner, he broke into a run. Unfortunately, his stalker must have noticed that, because Goro could now hear the footsteps of the person chasing him.

He spared a second to look around, only to realize that the person following him was none other than Kurusu.

Somehow, Goro decided that this was the worst case scenario and only sped up even more.

He jumped down the flight of stairs leading to the subway and weaved between the people on the escalator. He didn’t dare turn around, but he had no doubt that Kurusu was close. He’d seen him ambush shadows. There was no way the crowd would stop him from catching up to Goro.

As Goro reached the platform, he saw that people were already boarding a train. He leaped towards it. If he reached it before the doors closed, he would be able to escape Kurusu. Just ten more steps.

Five more steps.

Three.

The door closed, leaving Goro stranded on the platform. He watched in despair as the train slowly left the station, before remembering that he had no time to be standing around. Unfortunately, he was now trapped. Kurusu would surely notice him if he tried to leave, since there was only one exit. That left him with very limited choices.

He rushed towards the only place he could think of that could provide some sort of hideout.

The public toilet.

Goro knew it was just a temporary solution even as he closed himself in a stall. Kurusu wasn’t stupid and would soon figure out where he was.

If only there was somewhere else he could escape to. If only he could jump onto the rails and run through them like he did in…

Wait, that was it.

Goro quickly pulled out his phone and clicked the Metaverse Navi.

He selected the shortcut for Mementos and watched as, for the second time that day, the real world twisted around as he was transported to the cognitive one.

*

Goro didn’t dawdle and quickly left the stall.

He couldn’t dismiss the possibility of Kurusu checking out Mementos, so it would be the best to descend into the shadow infested levels. Kurusu wasn’t likely to search for him that desperately, considering he didn’t seem to have taken Oracle with him.

Goro moved forward efficiently, quickly disposing of any Shadows that attacked him. Luckily, the low level shadows were no challenge for him. He planned to continue his descent until enough time passed for a safe return.

He was on the fifth level, trying to find the next set of stairs, when he heard a frustrated shout.

“Akechi!”

Goro slowly turned around to see Kurusu in his phantom thief outfit looking as if he had just run straight from the entrance to here.

Which was probably the case.

“Joker,” Goro said slowly, unsure what to do. Admittedly, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Not yet, anyway, so it wasn’t like Kurusu had any reason to be angry at him.

“Why did you run away from me?” Kurusu asked, sounding annoyed.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was you,” Goro said, trying to sound regretful, but Kurusu shook his head.

“You knew it was me,” he said challengingly, pointing his dagger at Goro. “I just wanted to talk and you ran off the second you saw me.”

“That’s not really what…” Goro started, but Kurusu interrupted him.

“No, this is exactly what happened,” he said harshly, and Goro felt annoyed at the fact that he was now talking with Joker rather than Kurusu. Joker was much more confrontational. If it was Joker…

“What if I just didn’t want to talk with you,” Goro said, shifting a bit. He couldn’t help feeling wary. Some part of him was expecting Joker to attack him. Slice into him the second he let his guard down.

“Oh, I definitely noticed that,” Joker pointed out, sarcasm clear in his voice. He lazily twirled the dagger in his right hand. “And that’s a real shame, because I really hoped you would come talk to me out of your own free will.”

“You make it sound like there is something I should be telling you,” Goro said slowly, his eyes never leaving the dagger.

“Running away is usually a sign of guilt,” Joker pointed out calmly, seemingly more interested in the dagger he was playing with than Crow.

“That’s a very farfetched deduction, you know,” Goro pointed out.

Joker slowly raised his head to stare at him.

“You don’t think your suspicious behavior is proof enough?” Kurusu asked, tilting his head slightly.

“No court would ever accept flimsy evidence like this,” Goro pointed out with contempt.

Joker was silent for a moment.

“I see,” he muttered in a tone that was chillingly devoid of emotion, before he put his left hand into his pocket.

Goro was surprised to see him pull out his phone. It was surprising because the Metaverse navi didn’t work in the depths of Mementos. It could only transport you back to the real world from the entrance.

However, Goro soon discovered that this wasn’t what Kurusu was attempting to do. Instead he played a sound file that filled the corridor with a somewhat familiar voice.

It was Goro’s own voice.

“...We could say he stole the guard’s gun and committed suicide during his imprisonment...”

It was as if the ground had suddenly been pulled from under Goro’s feet, leaving him disoriented as to where up and down was. He was falling down, not knowing how long he had until he would splatter on the ground. At least, that was how it felt.

His whole plan was a bust.

The voice file continued, but Goro wasn’t listening to it anymore, instead staring quietly at Joker who looked completely unfazed by the recording. It was obvious he must have had it for some time.

How long… How long had he known?

The question rattled inside Goro’s brain, making him unable to concentrate. How long had Kurusu smiled at him pretending not to know anything? Did the rest of the team know?

Suddenly, the internal conflict that seemed to have divided the Phantom Thieves raised much more questions than Goro initially had.

“...Don’t worry. I can guarantee I will get rid of the Phantom Thieves leader, just as I promised..” The recording ended with a quiet click. Kurusu remained still, as if waiting for Goro’s reaction.

“So, can we talk about your murder plans, now that we have clearly established they involve me?” Kurusu asked, sounding very unamused.

“You… since when…” Goro muttered, but his mind had finally restarted and he remembered when that particular conversation had taken place. It was soon after they started the infiltration of Sae’s palace. Almost two weeks ago.

“That’s actually a question I hoped you would answer,” Kurusu said, staring at Goro expectantly. “How long have you been planning to kill me?”

The question hung heavy in the air, but Goro couldn’t find his voice to answer. Kurusu couldn’t... that attic trash… that idiotic cat lover… shouldn’t have seen through Goro…

“Say, was this before or after you ran away from the park?” Joker asked, clearly goading Crow. Goro took a step back, as if he had been physically struck. “Because I am willing to make a bet that it was before that.”

Something snapped inside of Goro. He felt part of his pleasant mask shatter, as the bitterness filled him like a slow-acting poison.

“Of course it fucking was! How long do you think this plan has been in motion?!” he shouted at Joker. “You think you can just cause waves without getting punished for it? Are you that stupid?!”

Me? Stupid?” Joker repeated, visibly disconcerted. “You are the one who is acting stupid. Unless you want to argue that killing people is smart.”

Goro scoffed.

“Do you know what’s not smart? Following someone who is planning to kill you into a secluded place. Or are you that confident that I won’t be able to do it?” Goro asked, tilting his head in an obvious challenge. It also wasn’t a smart thing to do, but the dark scenery of Mementos and thrumming of power he felt in the cognitive world was really not conducive to good decision-making.

And he had been waiting so long to kill all those feelings tormenting him. It was hard to care about a plan, when he was so close to freeing himself from this stupid bond that had chained him almost as thoroughly as his past.

Serve it, serve it, serve it, Loki seemed to whisper with urgency in his mind.

“Oh, are you really sure you are going to ruin your plan by being all impatient?” Kurusu asked, seemingly unaffected by Goro’s thinly veiled threat.

“Aren’t you the one who ruined things by actually revealing that…” Goro started, but then stopped, as his mind finally comprehended what Kurusu was doing.

Kurusu surely wasn’t the only person among Phantom Thieves to know. He wasn’t good enough with technology to procure that recording on his own. He had to at least involve Sakura, but it was more probable that the whole team knew.

The conflict among Phantom Thieves…

“I may have disagreed with other members’ opinions about how much of an ass you are.”

Suddenly, Goro felt dizzy.

Kurusu wasn’t just forcing Goro’s hand.

He was forcing everyone’s hand. Goro’s, his backers, his team.

And he clearly hadn’t told anyone about this. He was ruining everyone’s effort on a whim.

“You… what are you trying to do…?” Goro asked warily, his voice more measured now.

“Shouldn’t you have figured it out, detective?” Joker asked, irony clear in his voice. “I did tell you to your face after all.”

Goro gritted his teeth in annoyance, but not because he couldn’t figure it out.

There was just one possibility and he couldn’t accept it. He didn’t even want to voice it.

“You… is this really some misguided attempt to help me?!” Goro asked, unable to stand the idea. He wanted Kurusu to disagree with it. Say out loud that he would never do something as idiotic as try to help his own murderer

“And he figures it out! Ace Detective Akechi Goro!” Joker gave a sarcastic clap, as if his words weren’t enough to convey how obvious the answer should have been.

“This joke isn’t funny, Joker,” Goro hissed.

“In case you didn’t notice, I’m not laughing, Crow,” Kurusu said, his voice turning serious. “It would be pretty distasteful to make light of the situation, considering how much trust I have betrayed just now for you.”

“Are you trying to make me feel indebted to you?” Goro asked, his defenses once more sharpening.

“Hardly. I just want to hear your side of the story,” he said, but then paused to scratch his neck. “Okay, maybe also have the other thieves hear it, because that would be helpful in persuading them to go straight after the person responsible for this, instead of playing a charade with you.”

“Oh, did we stop playing at some point? I hadn’t noticed.”

“You sure as hell haven’t and it’s a bit incredible watching you deny the obvious,” Joker replied with a shrug. “Then again, not like I don’t understand why you are lying to yourself.”

Goro froze.

“I’m not lying to myself,” he said, feeling himself tense.

“Suuuure,” Joker said with obvious doubt in his voice. “And you kill people because it’s fun.”

“You wouldn’t understand!”

“Try me!”

Goro fell silent, because there wasn’t a point in explaining anything to Kurusu.

“Well, if you are that stubborn, then how about I tell you what I think is happening and you tell me if I’m wrong,” Joker decided. It wasn’t a request. “You must work for someone very influential, because I doubt anybody could just blatantly stage a suicide. So some big business owner or maybe a politician,” Joker hummed, subtly scanning Goro for a reaction. Goro did his best not to react, but it was hard considering how much Kurusu had figured out.

“I think you are overthinking this,” Goro said, but Kurusu’s unwavering confidence was slowly but surely getting to him.

“Oh, is it a politician? It feels like you blinked just then,” Joker muttered with a smile. Goro hardened his expression. “Regardless, it seems you use Metaverse to do dirty jobs for that person. You lied when you said you only entered it recently, after all,” he explained matter-of-factly.

“Lies. What evidence do you…” Goro started to say in indignation, but Joker looked completely unbothered.

“You could hear Morgana since we first met,” Joker interrupted him easily, leaning on the wall behind him. “In the TV station. Though it was mostly your terrible acting skills that sold you out. It made me realize you must have known about Morgana way before that.”

Goro stiffened, as his mind seemed to run out of excuses at this point.

“No wonder you were so opposed to me taking him on our dates. It must have been awkward,” Joker added jokingly, but his voice lacked the humor. “Then again it’s not as awkward as having your plan foiled because you tried to make small talk about food.” Joker paused, obviously fishing for a reaction. “Or should I say pathetic?”

Goro clenched his fist. It was just cheap provocation. Cheap provocation from an attic trash. An idiot who overcompensated for being utterly average by wearing a black trenchcoat. A deranged flirt only good at pretending to have his shit together, when in reality he was a stupid, unnecessary, unimportant…

“Like really, I think I lost most of my respect for you,” Joker admitted, as he stopped leaning on the wall and started to stroll through the corridor they were standing in. “Playing a hitman for some corrupted bigshot? I thought you had some standards. Or at least morals. That sense of justice felt so real it’s still hard to believe you faked it. Do you have anything going on, or do you just like to be used by asshole adults until you turn into a parody of yourself, Ak…”

“SHUT UP!”

The power came unbidden to him, as all his anger and frustration consumed Goro. His white uniform peeled away like the lie that it was, instead revealing his black and blue bodysuit. Joker stood there watching the transformation in silence. Quiet and judgemental.

“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! I WILL KILL YOU!” Goro howled, as his self-control evaporated under Kurusu’s accusation. He’d had enough. Enough of everything. Of shitty adults, of stupid masses, of two-faced fans, of Phantom Thieves, and of those stupid gray eyes that kept looking at him, always looking at him, pretending to care when he didn’t it was all a lie it’s always a lie always always always…

“Loki,” Goro called, feeling the familiar power manifest behind him. Goro’s voice was steadier now. Hollow, but no longer wavering. “Incinerate.”

A wide fire attack swept through the corridor. Kurusu barely dodged the brunt of it.

It was not enough. Goro wanted to see him burn to a crisp. Disappear from the face of the earth, like the burnable trash he was.

“So that was your ace up the sleeve, huh,” Joker said, summoning Queen Mebd and quickly consuming a healing item. It seemed he wanted to play it safe.

Goro wouldn’t let him. He needed to make him feel at least as cornered as he felt.

Trash to ash and trust to dust.

“Go to hell!” Goro shouted, watching as Loki unleashed an almighty attack. Joker obviously didn’t expect it, almost staggering due to the impact. Something flashed in his eyes.

“Agidyne!” he ordered and chuckled when Goro braced himself against the attack. “I knew it. You are a guy who’d play with fire without actual resistance to it,” he said with a smirk.

“You think you know anything about me? Eat this!” Goro shouted, as he used Brave Blade. Joker barely dodged the slash, avoiding the damage. He used that small opening to charge at Goro and stab him with his daggers, before retreating. Goro immediately retaliated with a magical attack.

“I pegged you for an arsonist pretty early on, so I’d like to think my assessment counts for something,” Joker said cheekily while Goro’s fire attack ended up easily blocked with Mebd’s resistance.

“I pegged you as a nuisance the moment I heard of you and your inept teammates,” Goro hissed, as he withstood yet another fire attack. His health was dropping rapidly, but he knew Joker probably wasn’t in much better shape.

Goro pulled out one of the healing items he had been carrying just in case and consumed it.

Surprisingly, Joker didn’t decide to attack, instead watching Goro carefully.

“Are you jealous?” he asked slowly, as if putting pieces together.

“Why would I be jealous of you and your group of blind followers?!” he shouted. He wanted to continue attacking, but realized he had used too many spells. He hadn’t expected Joker to catch up to him, so he hadn’t been saving his power. Annoyed, he tried to discreetly check if he had anything that would help him regain some of his strength. “I’m stronger than all of you together!”

“So what?” Kurusu shouted with so much emotion that Goro almost dropped one of the items. “You don’t get friends to get physically stronger!”

Goro faltered just for a second.

“Then why would you pieces of shit stick together? You only do that because you need to use each other to get by!” he shouted back, feeling bile raise in his throat.

Where was that damn medicine? He’d definitely taken some with him.

“Isn’t this obvious? You should know this better than anyone,” Kurusu said, taking a step forward.

Goro tensed, his hand scrambling to find the item he needed.

“I know I’m not a pathetic little wretch who needs to hide behind his teammates to achieve anything. I’m strong by myself!” he proclaimed, giving up his search to aim his gun at Kurusu instead. “I’m stronger than anyone.”

Kurusu didn’t falter.

“It doesn’t matter how strong you are,” Joker said calmly, as if he wasn’t being aimed at right now. “Because no matter how strong you become, it will not rid you of your loneliness.”

Goro’s hand trembled for a moment. He immediately steadied it.

“You must be crazy to think about others at this point!” Goro pointed out, but the comment shook him much more than he let on. “I can’t let you live! Don’t think I will go easy on you because of some flimsy feelings!”

“If you kill me you will be the one suffering the most, which is why I will not let it happen. I will find a way to make everyone happy! Why can’t you trust me?!” Kurusu shouted, sounding desperate.

“The bonds you had with your friends shattered the moment you tried to get them to help me. You think I’m going to trust in something so uncertain?” Goro asked.

“They didn’t…!” Kurusu shouted, but his voice wavered. It was obvious that Goro had hit a sore spot.

“They didn’t believe you, did they?” Goro continued, feeling emboldened by this show of weakness. “They are only willing to follow you for as long as you pretend to be a selfless leader. But the moment they see that you are as flawed as them, they will abandon you without looking back,” Goro said, feeling something like euphoria, when he realized Joker looked scared for the first time. The sudden rush of power made Goro take a step forward, as he still aimed his gun at Kurusu.

“That’s not true,” Kurusu denied, but no other arguments followed. He was just a child now, realizing how weak he actually was when his friends weren’t with him.

“Isn’t it? Okumura must have hated you, considering how far your deductions have come,” Goro sneered. “Did she throw a fit? Oh, no, wait. She wouldn’t dirty her hands. Nijima opposed you for her, didn’t she?” Goro asked, feeling a maniacal grin instil itself on his face. “She loves to take the role of a prince on a white motorcycle, doesn’t she?” Goro chuckled at his own joke.

Kurusu didn’t answer, his face now inscrutable, as if a poker face could protect him from Goro’s words.

It wouldn’t.

“I think the fact that you are here alone speaks for itself,” Goro said, spreading his free hand. “The only way for you to pursue your actual wishes was to come here alone. With no backup. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t it pathetic that despite everything you did for them, when you needed their help the most, nobody came for you?!”

Kurusu was silent for a bit longer, but then he raised his head defiantly.

“No,” he finally said, looking straight at Goro. “I’m not alone, because you are here too!” he pointed out.

“Have you lost your mind?! You are my enemy!” Goro shouted back, perplexed by Kurusu’s words.

“No, I’m not! My enemies are the people who made you do this! I came here because I want to save you!” Kurusu shouted. Goro could see tears in the corners of his eyes.

“You are just doing that for self-satisfaction!” Goro retorted.

“So what? Would it be bad if both of us ended up happy when all of this is over?! Why should it be wrong?!” Kurusu shouted. “I refuse to accept the world where I have to sacrifice someone else for the sake of my dreams!”

“You are more naive than I thought,” Goro muttered, deciding that this was the end.

As if sensing his resolve, Kurusu jumped forward, his hand reaching out. Goro fired.

The shot missed, and as Goro saw Joker right before him…

He heard the familiar sound of chains right behind him.

“Goro!” Kurusu’s shout was filled with desperation he had never heard before.

It took him a second to realize that Joker hadn’t actually attacked him, but pushed him away. Another second to twist his body to see the spot where he had been just a moment ago.

And one more to comprehend the sight before his eyes.

Kurusu had been stabbed by the Reaper’s scythe. The blade was sticking through his chest, glistening in the dim light, and blood was beginning to stain his phantom thief outfit.

“...run,” Joker muttered with the last of his strength, before he lost consciousness. He slumped, but remained on his knees, held in place by the scythe that pierced through him.

Goro landed on the ground, quickly pushing himself away from Reaper. His brain seemed to suddenly jump into overdrive, analyzing the situation with sobering clarity.

There was no way for him to fight Reaper. He could barely scrape together a spell and he had just a few healing items. The obvious thing to do was to try to escape to the lower level which had a rest space.

However, Goro couldn’t get himself to move, because his gaze seemed to have fixed itself on Kurusu’s limp body, which had hit the floor with a sickening thud, now that Reaper had pulled the scythe out of him.

He wasn’t dead yet. According to Morgana, because Persona users had a strong will to live, they wouldn’t die immediately after receiving a fatal wound in Metaverse. However, this only gave others a short window of opportunity to save them. If Goro ran away now, Kurusu would end up truly and honestly dead.

No more miracles. Just a dead body left in a cognitive world.

As if disconnecting from the dire situation before his eyes, Goro’s mind seemed to latch on the memory of how warm Kurusu was. That time on the train, or the moment ago when he pushed Goro out of the way.

It felt wrong looking at Kurusu’s unmoving body lying on the floor. The heat slowly escaping from it to seep into the uncaring air of Mementos.

Goro moved, before his mind even caught on to what he was doing.

“Loki! Burn him!” he ordered as his Persona unleashed a fire attack on Reaper. It didn’t seem to faze it, but it gave Goro enough time to reach Kurusu’s body and pull it several steps away from Reaper.

The monster seemed to give him a curious gaze before it swung down its scythe. Goro managed to withstand the attack, but he was cutting it close. Despite that he knelt next to the body to search it.

Goro never carried revival items, but Kurusu always did.

“Brave Blade!” he ordered, buying a few precious seconds, as Reaper had to steady himself after the attack. Goro cursed as he realized that Kurusu’s stash of items contained more than he had thought. He didn’t have time to search through it.

There was another, very stupid option available to him, though.

“Robin Hood!” he called. Goro looked at Kurusu. He had energy for just one more spell. Just one more and it would be over. Tears seemed to gather in his eyes as he shouted. “Samarecarm!”

The light gathered around Kurusu, but Goro could only watch dumbly as Reaper’s scythe flew towards him. He couldn’t dodge now.

It would pierce him just like it had pierced Joker, earlier.

So this is the end, huh.

Somehow, looking at the cognitive personification of death didn’t fill him with regrets, as he had thought it would. At least not the kind of regrets he had expected. He had thought he would regret not getting back at Shido, but somehow his lack of involvement in this squabble made him seem like a distant worry. Instead, there was a sort of reassurance in the subtle warmth that was once more emanating from Kurusu’s body. It meant that Goro had succeeded, even if his success was questionable at best and his objectives had gotten confused somewhere along the way.

Maybe it’s because I won’t die alone.

Goro thought, as the scythe was about to hit him.

Guess he was right about the bonds between people being the worst thing to ever…

“Garula!” a familiar voice shouted. A wind attack hit Reaper, making him barely miss Goro, the scythe swinging just above his shoulder.

“Crow, can you hear me? Mona is going to get his attention. Joker is about to return to us, but he might be a bit groggy, so help him move towards the exit, okay,” Navi’s voice filled his mind. “Just don’t dawdle. Mona can’t solo him for long.”

Goro nodded, dragging Kurusu by his hand. He had woken up, but was visibly disoriented, though he didn’t seem to mind that Goro was his guide.

“Miracle Punch!” Mona shouted behind them.

Goro tried not to think about anything as he ran away to the staircase leading to the lower level.

*

Goro felt very stupid about his clash with Joker. Apparently, Kurusu had an innate talent for making Goro regret everything.

“So how did you figure out I was in Mementos?” Kurusu asked, as Morgana and Sakura explained how they found them. It seemed that Kurusu’s suspicious behavior had worried them so much that they had decided to follow him.

“I asked Mona what would be the stupidest thing you could do in this situation,” Sakura explained. “And with my powers I could check if you really were inside the Mementos while staying at the entrance, so it seemed like a good idea to check that possibility.”

“Still, it took us some time to reach you,” Morgana said with a sigh. “Because we tried to be careful.”

“I’m sorry, Mona,” Kurusu apologized.

“By the way, what is Crow doing?” Sakura asked, looking at Goro sprawled on the chair and looking into the ceiling with empty eyes.

“Probably regrets everything,” Kurusu offered. “I mean, if at least one of us died it would be easier on everyone.”

“You have the numerical advantage. You could kill me right now, you know,” Goro muttered, not moving his gaze from the ceiling. “That would be the sensible thing to do.”

“Like hell it would!” Sakura snapped, annoyed. That seemed to finally pull Goro out of thoughts, as he slowly angled his head toward her. “In case you haven’t noticed, we are trying to make a change by being better than those rotten adults. Not by becoming rotten adults ourselves!"

Goro didn’t have an answer to that, so he returned to staring at the ceiling. It was easier than the alternative. Looking at everyone else and trying to figure out how to salvage this mess.

Who was he kidding. This was beyond salvaging.

“I think we should figure out what to do now,” Morgana pointed out.

Kurusu sighed.

“I guess I should call a meeting tomorrow to tell everyone I’m an idiot,” he suggested.

“What about today? Are you sure Akechi should be left alone?” Morgana asked. Everyone turned toward Goro.

“The moment I mention my identity had been compromised, I will become a liability to be eliminated,” Goro explained. “So you don’t have to worry about me selling you out.”

“So I was right that you are working for someone!” Kurusu said triumphantly.

Goro sighed.

“Yes, you were right,” he admitted tiredly. “Feel free to celebrate how fucking difficult it makes things for you.”

“Oh wow, you can swear after all. Could you do that before Ryuji? He will owe me a thousand yen then,” Sakura suggested.

“I couldn’t care less about your asinine bets.”

“Well, if you stay like that it should be enough…”

Kurusu coughed to get their attention.

“Since you admitted that you are working for someone, are you ready to share their identity? From what you are saying your life may be riding on it, so I would rather know who our enemy is as soon as possible.”

“Yes, it would certainly save us time,” Morgana admitted.

Goro could feel their expectant gazes on him. For a second he considered not telling them anything out of spite, but then he realized that he would only be protecting the piece of trash who had abandoned him in the first place. In the grand scheme of things, his spite for Shido outweighed his spite for Phantom Thieves.

“It’s Masayoshi Shido,” he said, because it was easier to just give them what they wanted than to endure their questions.

“Wait, by Shido you mean…” Sakura started.

“Yes, the most promising candidate for prime minister,” Goro confirmed.

“But why would you…”

“Can we save all those questions for later?” Goro interrupted her. “I’m tired.”

“I agree, it’s better if we have him answer all the questions tomorrow when everyone is present.” Morgana backed him up.

“So we let him go?” Sakura asked.

“No, I don’t think we should let him be alone,” Kurusu disagreed. Everyone, including Goro, looked at him.

“What do you mean?” Morgana asked.

“He doesn’t look well,” Kurusu pointed out. “I would feel better if I could keep an eye on him.”

“Well, you do have a point. He looks terrible,” Sakura agreed.

There was a silence, as if everyone was waiting for something.

“What do you think?” Kurusu asked. Goro belatedly realized they had expected him to say something.

“Whatever, you already made a choice, didn’t you?” he muttered. It made little difference to Goro whether he were to torture himself with his thoughts in the confines of his empty house or the haunting domesticity of Leblanc.

“Yes, but I want to know what you think,” Kurusu insisted.

“That I’m fucked no matter where I go, so what does it matter?” Goro offered, putting as much irony as he could into his voice.

“Leblanc,” Morgana said.

“Leblanc,” Sakura agreed.

“Definitely Leblanc,” Kurusu confirmed.

*

The real world felt fake as Goro walked through it. Distant and saturated compared to the cognitive one.

Goro should have been trying to think about his situation, but all he could think of was that moment when he was sure he would die. The inevitability of Reaper’s scythe stabbing through him. The feeling of warmth slowly filling Kurusu’s body again. The fact that somehow it made the whole dying thing seem worth it.

It shouldn’t have.

He shouldn’t have come out of it alive.

It felt like some part of him had died back then, but Goro wasn’t even sure what it was. He felt as if something had shifted inside of him, but could not point out what or why.

He couldn’t even understand himself anymore.

*

Leblanc looked terrifyingly normal.

It was empty - save for Sojiro who seemed to have been testing a new blend - and warm. Warm, warm, so warm Goro felt as if his skin was about to melt off to reveal all his black and ugly innards.

“Did something happen?” he asked, seeing that Kurusu was pretty much dragging Goro towards the attic.

“Futaba, could you give him a rough explanation, while I get Goro upstairs,” Kurusu suggested.

“Yeah, leave it to me!” she promised, taking her usual seat.

Kurusu nodded thankfully, and resumed his mission of getting Goro upstairs.

“Your attic looks as terrible as always,” Goro commented idly, looking at the dust gathering on one of the shelves. It seemed that his filter had died somewhere along with that missing part of himself. Or maybe he was just too tired to pretend he wasn’t a terrible person. Who knew?

“Awwww, I knew you loved it,” Kurusu offered jokingly, while he fished through his belongings. “Do you want to take a bath? You must be as sweaty as me after the whole almost dying experience,” he said, a slightly hysterical edge to his voice.

Apparently, Goro wasn’t the only one who felt weird about surviving that whole ordeal.

“Yes, I think I do,” he said. Kurusu seemed happy at that admission, fishing out his bathing supplies, towel and spare clothing and pushing them on Goro, before giving him directions to the bathhouse.

When they came downstairs Sojiro and Sakura gave them a somehow nervous glance.

“Akechi’s going to take a bath,” Kurusu announced, as Akechi walked through the cafe, trying to ignore the stares.

“Don’t drown,” Sakura offered.

“I will try not to. I think I’ve had enough near-death experiences for one day,” Goro retorted, before he closed the doors behind him with much more force than necessary.

*

The bathhouse was thankfully empty save for two old men who looked so senile, Goro doubted they would be able to recognize him.

He splashed himself with water, but somehow it didn’t seem to help him feel clean. There was still a sticky feeling to his fingers, like there was something there. Something impure he should get rid of.

The memory of aiming his gun at Kurusu flashed before his eyes and he shook his head to get rid of it. It was way too late to start feeling guilty about that.

He finally entered the hot water, letting the warmth slowly spread through him. All the chills and aches seemed to slowly disappear, but Goro couldn’t relax completely. There was a question of what to do now floating somewhere in the back of his mind.

Goro wasn’t used to not having a plan. He always had a plan. But now that everything had been railroaded by Kurusu, he found himself unnaturally directionless.

There was still his vengeance, of course, but Goro couldn’t figure out how to survive long enough to execute it, let alone how to execute it in the current circumstances. It seemed that biding his time until an opportunity presented itself was his only choice for now.

As he left the bath and started to dress himself, his phone rang. Goro quickly scanned his surroundings, but the two men who had been there earlier had already left. He was alone.

He answered.

“Why haven’t you been picking up your phone?” the familiar voice demanded.

Goro almost froze, but then slowly but surely a familiar mask slipped onto his face.

“I’m terribly sorry. It seems my presence in their group has caused a small rift among the members, and their leader decided to integrate me more into the group to maintain the control. I was unfortunately forced to spend some time with them after the infiltration and couldn’t contact you earlier due to that.”

“Next time tell them you are busy,” Shido said.

“Yes, I also deeply regretted having to waste my time like that, but I needed to maintain my cover. I’m not in the clear yet, as they are waiting for me outside, but other than what I mentioned everything is going according to plan,” Akechi assured him, glad he had learned to lie so convincingly. “They may pester me more during the next few days and they seem to already be planning another meeting tomorrow, so please forgive me if I’m unable to pick up the calls immediately.”

“I see. Continue your work and report to me if anything changes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Goro waited several seconds after the call disconnected before letting out a deep sigh, some of the tension leaving him.

He had managed to fool Shido for now.

*

When he returned, the cafe had the “Closed” sign on the door. They must have decided to close early to get some privacy. As Goro entered wearing the absolutely disgusting Hawaiian souvenir t-shirt that had been made in China (he promised himself to kill Kurusu just for making him wear that abomination), Sojiro gave him a look. Goro had no idea what it was supposed to mean, but after that Sojiro gestured at him to take a seat and pushed a plate of curry and a cup of coffee before him.

“I’m not completely sure what’s going on, but if those kids are ready to fight so strongly for you I’m not going to make it more difficult on them. Just keep in mind that if you try something I won’t hesitate to make your life hell,” he said.

Goro smiled despite himself, because the whole situation was so stupid it was funny.

He really had no idea what he was talking about if he thought he could make Goro’s life more hellish than it already was.

“Don’t worry. I’m not planning anything,” he assured. “Not anymore,” he added after a second.

The silence after his statement felt oppressive. Goro scooped the curry and stuffed it into his mouth quickly so he could escape any further conversation.

He hadn’t realized until now how hungry he was, so he continued to eat while ignoring the discussion about his stay at Leblanc.

It didn’t escape his attention that Kurusu’s wording implied that he planned to keep Goro here for more than just one night.

Whatever, it wasn’t like Goro wasn’t used to supervision. He thought bitterly about the phone conversation he’d just had, before turning his attention to the coffee.

“So, I heard you are going to stay here for a few days,” Sojiro said, as if it wasn’t his cafe Goro was staying in.

“I heard something like that too, except it was supposed to be a one-night stay,” Goro replied as if he wasn’t the person supposed to stay.

“Is that so?” Sojiro muttered, looking at Kurusu.

He shrugged.

“I’m not planning to keep him here by force,” Kurusu replied coolly.

“If I get lynched tomorrow, my stay here will probably be cut short anyway,” Goro pointed out, as he stared into his coffee.

“Look, lynching is forbidden in my cafe, so no such thing is to happen here,” Sojiro proclaimed.

“Yes,” Kurusu and Sakura answered in unison. That seemed to pacify the old man, who turned around to finish preparing things for tomorrow. “Honestly, I’d rather you kids minded your own business.”

“Too late for that, Sojiro,” Sakura pointed out. He sighed.

“Are you sure you will be okay?” he asked, looking at them.

“Yeah, we are more worried for grumpy detective here,” Kurusu confirmed. “I promise we will talk to you, if anything comes up.”

“I sure hope so, given who you are going against,” Sojiro said with a sigh. “Come Futaba, we should go home.”

“Coming!” she said. “What about you, Mona?”

“I will come with you. It’s probably going to be cramped here,” the cat said, also jumping off the seat he had been occupying.

“Sorry, Morgana,” Kurusu said.

The cat scoffed.

“Don’t apologize, just promise me you won’t do anything too stupid,” Morgana demanded.

“Promise!” Kurusu said playfully.

The cat sighed.

“Make sure you go to sleep early. You need to be on top of your game tomorrow if you are planning to convince others to help you,” Morgana said.

“I know.”

Morgana gave Kurusu a look.

“I think you are stupid, but I’m partially at fault here too, so make sure to make me proud.”

“I will, mom.”

“I’m not your mom!” Morgana hissed, quickly leaving the cafe.

Sojiro watched that spectacle with slight disbelief.

“Did your cat get insulted after you called it mom?”

Kurusu nodded.

“He kept telling me not to stay out too late.”

Sojiro sighed, deciding he probably didn’t want to know more, and left with his daughter.

As the door closed, Goro realized that this was the first time he had been alone with Kurusu since their fight.

And he was out of coffee, so he couldn’t even pretend to be busy with it.

“Do you want more?” Kurusu asked and Goro blinked, caught off-guard. “Coffee.”

Goro nodded quickly. Kurusu slowly got up and moved to the other side of the counter to take a clean cup. Goro watched how he prepared the coffee, happy that he didn’t have to do anything at the moment.

“Are you okay?” Kurusu asked, as he served the coffee.

“No,” Goro said, taking the cup.

“Okay, wrong question,” Kurusu agreed. “Did all of your wounds get healed properly? We were all pretty out of it, so I want to make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

“No, I don’t think so. And you should worry more about yourself. You were the one who almost died,” Goro pointed out. He was starting to feel unreasonably angry about this, even though Kurusu’s wellbeing shouldn’t have been his business.

His business was supposed to be his lack of wellbeing.

“I prefer to think of it as training,” Kurusu said.

Goro stilled, almost choking on his coffee.

“You can’t be serious,” he spat out, feeling the anger burning in his throat. “You won! You’ve beaten me in this stupid little game! There’s no reason for you to die anymore!”

Kurusu tilted his head.

“What are you talking about? If I don’t get killed in two weeks, you will die,” he pointed out, as if Goro’s wellbeing was actually a good reason to get killed. “Of course, I’m not planning to get myself killed, but we will probably have to at least go along with our original plan to fake my death,” Kurusu explained.

“I see,” Goro muttered, deciding to ask for more details of that plan tomorrow. “You are stupid.”

“Coming from you it doesn’t make much impact, you know,” Kurusu pointed out with a grin. “If you weren’t so stubborn we could have arrived at this point two weeks ago and without both of us almost dying.”

“I doubt it,” Goro said, staring into his coffee, because looking at Kurusu suddenly made him feel very guilty.

“Yes, I’ve been wondering about that,” Kurusu hummed. “What was your goal?”

Goro slowly raised his gaze.

“What makes you think I had any goal besides survival?” he asked calmly. He didn’t want to betray his feelings any more than he already had.

“You wouldn’t be so dejected otherwise,” Kurusu pointed out, looking thoughtful. “Besides, you were obviously playing a long game. Those incidents had been happening for some time… and the way you talked on the phone… you had a goal, I just can’t figure out what it is.”

“What does it matter?” Goro asked, caught between wanting to share his plan and the need to keep it a secret. “I failed.”

“I want to know,” Kurusu said, leaning closer. “If you want I can promise not to tell anyone.”

“Even if it would be easier for you to spin my story before your team so that it painted me in a sympathetic light?” he asked.

“I don’t break my promises,” Kurusu said after a pause, which told Goro that he had really considered his words. He sighed. “This won’t be easy no matter what I do.”

“You could discard me.”

“Yeah, no, that is not happening,” Kurusu said immediately, catching Goro off-guard.

“What? Are you planning to get through Shido’s palace alone if all else fails?” he asked in disbelief.

“If I have to… oh, so you knew he had a palace,” Kurusu muttered.

“Of course that asshole has a palace. Damn, just remembering that fucking place makes me so annoyed,” Goro muttered. It was the most vile reminder of what he had been abandoned for. A ship full of decadence and snobbery.

He was not one destined to be saved by that ark.

“So you guessed all the keywords,” Kurusu realized.

“I’m not planning to give them to you just like that, if that’s what you are asking,” Goro said, because he wasn’t about to give up all of his cards. He would need them tomorrow in the confrontation with other Phantom Thieves.

“I wouldn’t either,” Kurusu admitted. He then noticed that Goro had finished his coffee. “Do you want more coffee, or would you prefer to try to get some sleep?”

Goro considered his options.

“Sleep,” he said, rising from his seat.

“Sure, just give me a second to clean here,” Kurusu said, taking the empty cup. Then glanced at the cleaning supplies Goro had left on one of the seats. “And maybe catch a quick bath.”

Goro went upstairs after that, not feeling like waiting for Kurusu in the cafe. He looked idly at the various items lined up on the shelves to pass the time.

“Do you like my collection?” Kurusu asked, when he finally entered the attic.

“They are as tacky as you,” Goro replied, too focused on a cat figurine to even turn his head towards Kurusu. The figurine had a deeply unimpressed expression of someone who was above others. Goro was sure he had seen it before. “Did you steal that from the cat cafe?”

“Rude! I bought it. It reminded me of you,” Kurusu admitted, as he pulled out the spare duvet and threw it on the couch.

Goro wasn’t sure how to answer that. He kept looking at the items, as if they could give him answers.

They obviously couldn’t because the person he wanted the answers from was currently busy putting on his pyjamas.

“Were you serious?” he finally asked, when Kurusu finished dressing himself and proceeded to make the bed.

“About what?” Kurusu asked, not bothering to turn around.

“About going through Shido’s palace alone if you have to,” Goro said.

It couldn’t be true.

“Yes,” Kurusu said, as if there was no doubt about it.

“Why?” Goro asked, afraid to turn his head toward Kurusu. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what expression he was making. He was afraid to know.

“Many reasons…” Kurusu said, obviously avoiding the topic. Goro glared at him. “Okay, so before I say it, can you promise me you will not run away this time? I mean, the doors are closed so you wouldn’t get far, but…”

“I get it,” Goro interrupted in annoyance. “You are doing it out of some misguided feelings. That’s it, right?”

Kurusu froze, before letting out a big sigh.

“You make it sound so terrible,” he said in exasperation, tilting his head as if Goro was a stubborn child. But something flashed in his eyes that made Goro feel like he was the naive one. “But yeah, sure, call them misguided if you want.”

“You think they aren’t?” Goro challenged. “Because of me your life is in danger, you may lose your friends and the place you belong to. There’s no benefit for you.”

“I didn’t start being Phantom Thief for some tangible benefit,” Kurusu said the word with so much derision that Goro felt slightly chilled. “And I sure don’t see a reason to start now. I’m just doing what’s right,” Kurusu said dismissively, waving his hand. He was now facing Goro, having finished making the bed.

“You are letting your feelings interfere with your sense of justice!” Goro accused him. He wasn’t sure why he felt so strongly about it. Why he wanted to dissuade Kurusu so much from following the self-destructive path he had set himself on.

“I don’t think so,” Kurusu replied coolly. “I promised myself to save people who had been abandoned by everyone else with my powers and, unfortunately for you, you fit the bill.”

“I never asked to be saved!” Goro hissed.

There was a moment of silence as they looked at each other. Goro refused to back down. He was strong enough to manage on his own now, he was...

“Bullshit,” Kurusu finally said. “You wanted to be saved. You still do.”

“I don’t!” Goro denied strongly. Maybe a bit too strongly, because Kurusu’s eyes narrowed as if he realized something.

“No… that’s not it. You don’t think you deserve to be saved, do you?” Kurusu said, and Goro froze in surprise. “Because you did so many bad things that…”

“Shut up!” Goro said, feeling as if he was about to burst at his seams. “You have no idea what you are talking about!”

“Then tell me,” Kurusu said, taking a slow step forward. “I want to understand.”

“You don’t,” Goro denied, but he could feel his voice growing weaker. He realized that a part of him wanted to give in. Wanted to try trusting Kurusu, no matter how stupid that notion was.

It was a terrible realization.

“I do. Come on, Goro. I think at this point we’ve been through the worst skeletons in your closet,” Kurusu said jokingly, reaching out his hand in a reassuring gesture. Goro recoiled, his heart almost stopping for a moment.

“Don’t!” he hissed, panic rising inside of him. “Who gave you the right?!”

Kurusu froze, looking like he was mentally replaying the conversation in his head. Goro strongly hoped he wouldn’t realize what had spooked him so much.

“Did you just panic when I called your first name?” Kurusu asked and Goro cursed his perceptiveness. “I mean, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“...I’m not used to it,” Goro admitted, turning himself so that Kurusu wouldn’t be able to see his face. “So don’t.”

“Uh, right, sorry,” Kurusu said. He paused, as if considering his words. His voice sounded way too vulnerable as he added. “But if you ever wanted to call me by my first name… I would be okay with that.”

It was such a cheap gesture. It didn’t cost Kurusu anything to grant that questionable privilege to Goro.

It shouldn’t have made him feel so much.

Goro realized that there were tears streaming from his eyes surprisingly late. Maybe because today had been so draining, he had finally reached his limit and just broken down completely. He had been feeling so hurt and confused, it was a miracle he had held himself together for so long.

“Akechi… What’s wron…?” Kurusu started, catching his shoulder to look at him. The touch seemed to sear Goro. He pushed Kurusu away immediately, but that didn’t seem to stop that terrible feeling spreading through him.

So he tackled him for good measure.

That seemed to provide more of a reprieve, but also caused both of them to tumble onto the bed, when Kurusu attempted to stop himself from falling by holding onto Goro. Goro tried to fight the hold, as he felt them falling, but Kurusu didn’t seem intent on letting go.

“Stop that, Goro!” Kurusu shouted. Goro stilled immediately, his nerves going into overdrive as his mind finally stopped to process what was happening. Kurusu seemed to be the same, because his face was a picture of regret right now. “God, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have… I panicked, when you started to struggle… I’m so sorry, Akechi… I didn’t mean...”

Goro found himself covering his mouth with a hand just to stop him from talking. It occurred to him that he was now lying on top of Kurusu after they had tumbled, and maybe he should get up. Except he didn’t, because right now he could finally have some semblance of control over his life, and damn if he didn’t miss that. He wasn’t about to give it up because of some insignificant things like decency.

“Just shut up already,” he hissed, still keeping a hand over Kurusu’s mouth. He didn’t seem intent on struggling, waiting to see what Goro would do. “I’ve had enough of you yapping about being friends and trusting each other! It’s all a lie!”

Kurusu seemed to want to say something, but it came out muffled.

“You are so fucking annoying,” Goro said, but he knew his insult lacked bite. It was slowly dawning on him that as lost as he felt, there was a certain clarity to the situation he had lacked earlier. Away from the spotlight and Metaverse, masks both metaphorical and real, and finally having an upper hand against Kurusu, it dawned on him.

He didn’t want to hurt him.

It was stupidly obvious in hindsight. He could easily choke Kurusu now if he wanted. Okay, maybe not easily, but with moderate difficulty. Cut off the oxygen and end his life. Or, for an actual easy option, take a knife from the kitchen while going to the toilet and use it to stab Kurusu in his sleep. It would be quick and easy, probably pretty painless too if Goro aimed well.

It also made him want to vomit, as he immediately remembered the lifeless Kurusu lying under Reaper’s feet.

It must have shown on his face, because the living and breathing Kurusu underneath him raised his hand in what was probably supposed to be a reassuring gesture. Instead, Goro felt his insides twist traitorously.

He shouldn’t have been like that. He shouldn’t have been so relieved that Kurusu was alright, but he was and somehow that fact seemed to outweigh all other worries Goro had at the moment. He wasn’t sure why the relief hit him right now, rather than earlier, but it was hard to overthink the situation anymore when tears were gathering in his eyes.

“I hate it…” Goro muttered, wanting to vent, but having trouble finding words. “I hate you,” he hissed, and he could see Kurusu’s eyes widen behind his skewed glasses. Goro closed his eyes, as it was beginning to get hard to stare at Kurusu with all the tears getting in the way. “I hate you for making me feel like this…”

He could feel Kurusu relax and then shift a bit. Goro was surprised when suddenly a pair of hands embraced him, dragging him closer.

“It’s alright, we are both alive,” Kurusu said reassuringly. Goro had had to move his hand when he had been dragged, so nothing was impeding Kurusu from speaking anymore.

“It’s not okay…” Goro whined, because he knew it wasn’t. Nothing could change the reality of what he had done. What he had been planning to do. “Nothing is okay.”

Kurusu didn’t answer, instead just tightening the hold and letting Goro cry into his shoulder. Unable to stop himself he let out all his fears and frustration flow out of him, while Kurusu muttered in attempts to calm him. They spent the next few minutes like that until Goro’s sobbing started to lessen.

“Things definitely suck right now,” Kurusu admitted, rubbing Goro’s back in reassuring circles. “But we will figure it out, okay? I’m sure we can find a way to get out of this mess together,” he said in that stupid optimistic voice that Goro both hated and loved. Now that he had cried out most of his tears, the shame had started to fill him again, making him want to get away from Kurusu.

“How can you even say that after…” he started, but a small hiccup stopped him from finishing the sentence. Not that he needed to. Goro raised himself a bit, so he could see Kurusu’s face. He was sure his own probably looked terrible.

Kurusu looked like he was a bit stunned by what he saw. Which was fair, Goro knew he must have looked like a fucking wreck right now. Still, it stung, so he found himself stabbing Kurusu into abs to bring him back to reality.

There was a small yelp and Kurusu’s eyes seemed to focus again.

“Uhhh… right…” he said, obviously still gathering the pieces of his brain. “I mean, you saved my life. Isn’t that enough?”

Only Kurusu could make such a stupidly complicated matter sound so simple.

“What if I try to do something again?” Goro asked, his voice growing frantic. “I could try to kill you again!”

“You won’t,” Kurusu replied calmly and with so much certainty that Goro found himself disoriented by the amount of trust suddenly pushed onto him. “I know you’ve done bad stuff, but I just… I can’t think of you as a bad person.”

“Your trust will kill you someday,” Goro said, but found himself giving up for now. He was too tired to argue further.

“Maybe…” Kurusu muttered, and Goro could tell he was thinking about something else at this point. “You know, I was going to offer you the bed, while I took the couch, but… uhhh, would you mind if we stayed like this… I mean, not exactly like this, since my legs are starting to cramp, but you know what I mean.”

Goro took a second to consider.

“Fine,” he said, since his mind couldn’t really seem to find a reason not to agree. He shifted his weight onto the bed, so that Kurusu could move his legs, before just letting himself fall on top of him.

“I think I underestimated how touch-depraved you are,” Kurusu muttered.

“Shut up,” Goro said, as he pulled the blanket to cover them.

“We haven’t turned off the light,” Kurusu pointed out, just to be an ass.

“Whatever,” he replied, feeling too tired to care.

Kurusu was silent after that, and Goro was about to fall asleep, when a question pulled him out of his drowsiness.

“Say… do you like me?” Kurusu asked quietly. Goro didn’t think he expected an answer. He could probably pretend to sleep and ignore it.

He could run away, just like he did the last time.

“Enough not to leave you to rot in Mementos,” Goro found himself saying, because that much was apparently true. He pushed himself up a bit so he could look at Kurusu’s face. “So you’d better not go wasting my effort by dying like an idiot.”

Kurusu seemed to freeze for a moment, before smiling widely.

“Yeah, you too.”

Somehow as Goro finally fell asleep, despite all the problems he would have to face tomorrow, he felt more secure than ever.