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Phantom Stardust

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12/31/17 – Saturday

“Just look at ‘em all party down there,” Ryuji commented.  “They don’t even know.”  The lot of them watched from the high building out of the cold and hustle of the city.  Police had them packed like sardines to keep the roads clear.  The populace had all been awaiting the fireworks ceremony, blissfully unaware of what was happening to Akira.  But the Phantom Thieves knew full and well.  “Heh.  Guess that’s fine.”  Ryuji never failed to keep a stiff upper lip.  Too hardheaded to get any sorrow through his thick skull.  He hadn’t forgotten Akira’s words.  Even with the Metaverse gone, the job wasn’t over just yet.

“I wish he… he could be here with us.”  Unsurprising that Akira’s departure had hit her the hardest.  The blonde had completely lost her sweet tooth.  Not a day went by where she didn’t think about him.  The man she loved all along in that cold cell, far away from the comfort of Leblanc.  They weren’t even permitted to visit him.  Sae was keeping his arrest deep under the rug as she could.  Ann wasn’t sure whether she’d kiss or kill him when they got him out.  But they would get him out.  They owed him everything.

“That said, we have our cellular phones, yes?” Yusuke inquired.  “Was there truly a need to meet?”  Ever the pragmatist. 

“Our next move’s important,” Ryuji assured him.  The boy leaned his fist against the glass and stared out at the masses.  “We gotta get pumped.”  They all shared the blond’s resolve.  Akira had never once left their minds.  It was a struggle just to concentrate at school.  For Ann, it made sleep incredibly difficult. 

“Besides, don’t you think it’s nice talking in person?” Haru asked with a sweet smile.  Yusuke couldn’t help but return her glowing affection.  With Christmas and the rest of the holiday season afterward, it had been too long since they reunited.  Thankfully, they had managed to salvage something together after Akira left.  It wouldn’t all be gloomy.  Their attention shifted to the roaring crowd beneath them as they counted off the new year.  

“New Year’s Eve…” Makoto muttered to herself.  “It seems rowdier this year, doesn’t think?”  A newfound energy was present in the masses, the apathy Yaldabaoth had weaponized scattered.   New year, new beginnings.  New plans.

“We’ll need to brace ourselves,” Ann stated with the utmost determination.

“I’m going to try contacting my father’s associates.”  Despite not being so prominent in Okumura Foods’ involvement, Haru still had some pull.  They weren’t all Sugimuras. 

“Sounds good to me,” Ryuji said with a chuckle.  All across the board did they confirm their resolve.  Not a sliver of hesitation to be sensed. 

“Sounds like we’re set,” Makoto acknowledged.  “We must succeed, no matter the cost.”

“Yeah!” Futaba squeaked.

“Let’s do this…”  Ryuji signaled the thumbs up, and the lot of them broke off.  The morning would be their new beginning. 

Save Akira Kurusu no matter what.  Even if it was the last thing they ever did.


 

1/01/18 – Sunday

The new year had come at last.  Fireworks booming off in the distance that lit up the night sky.  Where the people cheered, laughed, kissed, and celebrated the start of something new.  Over the hills and way far away from the juvenile correction center Akira was being housed in.  Not that it mattered considering he couldn’t even see them from his cell. 

“Here’s to a lousy year,” he mockingly toasted, leaning back onto his cot.  The facility was barren of people, and any other delinquents were in another part.  As such, he barely had anyone to interact with.  Whether that was a plus or a detraction he wasn’t quite sure.  Sae had been watching them like a hawk during his imprisonment so they thankfully hadn’t tried anything just yet.  They kept him under their thumbs but minded themselves.  The entire police force was under the microscope after Shido’s confession, meaning one little slip-up could cost them their jobs.  But it all seemed so inconsequential to Akira now from within his meager cell.  Shido, justice, and all that.  There’d be nothing for him if he got out, having given up his friends and betrayed them.

From in there, his biggest struggle was time.  Some way to make it pass while he awaited Shido’s judgment.  Just counting the minutes away within his cage.  A metaphorical counting as he couldn’t see the clock from where he was.  He couldn’t see anything after they confiscated his glasses.  A supposed “safety measure” as though he’d somehow turn his only pair into a shank.  It only made everything crawl along all the slower.  His only comfort nowadays was sleeping.  The one time of the day where he didn’t have to think and could just shut down.  Be as free as he could get.  He didn’t even dream.  All he beheld was silence and darkness.  Not much of a change of pace from the waking world but it was at least on his terms.  And it would soon be time again as he felt his eyes grow heavy.  A welcome reprieve from the world.

Akira bundled up in his cot and closed his eyes.  He had gotten used to the stiffness it provided, welcome to at least have something passably warm to hunker inside of.  It didn’t take long for him to drift away into the darkness.  Silent without a thing to be seen.  No hassle from the outside world, no pain or regret to dwell on.  Its melancholic stature was rather comfy.  But from the corner of his eyes did he see the darkness begin to lift.  Even in his subconscious state, Akira was perturbed.  It surely couldn’t have been time to wake up yet.  But as fog rolled in with the shift to whiteness, he understood he was still asleep.  Having a dream for the first time in forever.

It was a lonely field.  Grass and sidewalk with only an isolated bench, a solitary tree erected beside it.  Nothing through the fog could be seen for miles.  Again, it felt rather comfy despite how lonely it all seemed.  Akira sat down on the bench and just surveyed the landscape.  He was waiting for something to emerge through the fog or have it part to reveal something hidden from him.  But it remained.

“Greetings, Akira.”  In complete surprise, he whipped around to see none other than Akechi sitting beside him.  Looking content as can be with a smile on his face.

“Akechi…?”  He closed his eyes and shook his head, but he still remained before him.  Despite being just a dream, he couldn’t seem to accept what he saw.  “But you’re dead.  Am I…?”  Akechi merely chuckled and shook his head.

“No.  You’re still asleep safe and sound in your cell.  Very much alive.”  Akira felt crestfallen at his words.  What he wouldn’t have given to just wake up and feel everything since Okumura’s death having been a dream.  All of them celebrating together, Akechi and Morgana still with them.  But such things were fantasies.

“Akechi… I’m so sorry…”

“It’s not your fault, Akira.”  The detective placed a comforting hand upon his shoulder.  Neither malice or malcontent in his eyes.  Matter of fact, it felt like peace.  “I made my choice, and I stick by it.”

“I wish I could’ve saved you.”

“We all have regrets.”  Akechi had a lifetime of them.  What he wouldn’t have given to be the stronger person.  To not have been used by Shido so easily or throw away his morals and friends for revenge.  “I myself couldn’t remain caged in such a place.  Even now, you show more strength than I.”

“You call this strength?” he scoffed.  “I broke my word and threw my friendship away.  And for what?  So Shido can sit in a cell all taken care of?  You and Morgana are gone.  How is that fair?”  Akechi merely closed his eyes and nodded.  The boy could feel the pain wafting off of him.  Frustration, anguish, feeling so lost.  All things he was quite familiar with.

“You’ve done the right thing, but not all is lost.  Like the phoenix from ash will a better world rise once Shido is sentenced.  You have to hold onto hope.”

“But how can I?”  It was so easy before to posture about the greater good and believing in what was right.  So close to happiness only to have it lost again.  Akira’s head drooped down as he limply shook his head.  “I’m not the person you thought I was, Akechi.  I can’t be that person anymore.”

“Yes, you can.”  The detective held his resolve even at his resistance.  “I know you can.  I believe in you more than I have anyone else.  It’s okay to be lost, but you’ll eventually find your way back again.  I won’t count you out just yet.”  Akira merely brushed him off and leaned on his knees in silence.  The glowing beacon of optimism for the Phantom Thieves now having dimmed.  Akechi merely chuckled.  “You’ll see.”

Akira said nothing, instead stewing in his jadedness.  It didn’t upset Akechi in the least, the detective content to just sit with his friend after so long.  Even if it was just a dream.


 

2/13/18 – Monday

Akira sat in the little glass booth with some degree of impatience for once.  Not that he had anywhere to go, being incarcerated and all.  Just felt some itch eating away at him that he couldn’t quite scratch.  The guards had escorted him here for some sort of impromptu meeting.  With who, they hadn’t specified.  But it was of little consequence to Akira.  Had it not been for a guard telling him, he wouldn’t have even known it was Monday.  They had at least extended him that kindness.

Strangely enough, the guards had been acting significantly less cold to him over the past couple of weeks.  He himself wasn’t quite sure.  And didn’t care all that much either.  He was just eager to get this over with to return to his cell and put the remaining week out of his mind.  Especially tomorrow.

February 14th.  Valentines’ Day.  It could’ve been his first one with somebody.  His first with Ann.  But that ship had been sunk by his own hand.  Part of him desperately wanted to believe she was still holding out for him, but how could she after his lying?  Perhaps she had found someone better.  Ryuji?  Yusuke, perhaps?  Would serve him right.  Perhaps she was happier with someone she could trust.  Someone that wouldn’t lie to her face.  Akira felt himself grow sick at the thought.

“Long time no see.”

On the other side of the glass was Sae Niijima, just in time to rip him out of his self-loathing.  She took a seat and sized him up.  The boy looked a bit paler and thinner from his time in here.  Prison food wasn’t exactly the most edible thing.  

“Been a while,” Akira forced himself to say.  Even without his glasses, he couldn’t really see her.   Not that there was much to look at to begin with.  Sae had been the only equivalent to a friendly face he had around here, but she was so busy with the Shido case that it was rare to see her.  Probably the only equivalent of a friend he had anymore.

“I have two great pieces of news for today.”  Akira folded his arms and leaned back in his seat.  Despite his close proximity to the situation at hand, she had kept him in the dark on a lot of it.  Confidentiality reasons and nondisclosure agreements.  It all sounded like a bunch of jargon to the boy.  In truth, the hopes of seeing the outside again had slowly withered away.  He still had no idea how he was going to break the news to his parents.  They had to have known by now, no doubt informed by the police.  The boy hadn’t heard anything from them though.  Not even permitted a one phone call. 

“Do tell…”  With his words did Sae feel a smile muster upon her face.  She could sense the wavering resolve within him.  His eyes didn’t have that familiar silver sheen she was used to seeing.  It wasn’t too surprising, a boy of his age being kept isolated in a juvenile hall while being branded a criminal.  But this would surely reinvigorate that lost spirit.

“First, we finally managed to prosecute Masayoshi Shido.  He’ll likely be found guilty.”  Akira’s eyes widened in surprise at her words.  He couldn’t believe his ears.  It had to be another dream, like the one with Akechi or the Velvet Room.  No doubt he’d wake up in his cell as usual again.  “I’m grateful for your cooperation with the trial.  Your testimony proved to be very useful.  To be frank, it seemed almost hopeless at one point.  I felt myself losing hope too.”  Akira couldn’t help but flinch at her words.  He thought he was much harder to read.  Not as stealthy as he thought he was.

“…But how?”

“Thanks to the civil protests, some of the more indecisive prosecutors came to our side.  It will likely be some more time until the hearing begins, but this is the first step to true change…”  As Sae went on and on, it started to slowly sink in that this wasn’t a dream.  No, he was wide awake and fully conscious.  This really was happening.  The prosecutor was dumping so much information on him that he couldn’t keep up, the boy too overwhelmed with the joy that his sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.  Though there was one thing he kept focusing on.

“Hold on,” he interrupted.  “Civil protests?  What protests?  Nobody was supposed to know about this.”  Even with his blurred vision could Akira make out the cheeky smile on the woman’s face.

“That brings me to the other piece of good news.  As of today, you’ll be free to go.”  Now he really had to be dreaming.  Akira couldn’t let himself believe it.  It just sounded too good to be true, like some sort of fairy tale.  His heart was racing, his eyes ached from trying to hold back the tears of joy.  “Shido’s confession brought light to the truth of your case.  We were able to prove your innocence in the original assault charge that led to your arrest.  Your sentence will no doubt be rescinded.  You’re a free man.”

“How…?”  His voice sounded so fragile, as though one more word would utterly break him.  Were he not caged in these walls, Akira would jump for joy.

“Remember those civil protests I told you about?” she asked before winking.  “The others did everything they could for you.  Bringing in the woman who was the victim in your case as a witness was the turning point.”

“Th-they found her?”

“And she wanted to give you this.  It’s an apology letter.”  Through the small window in the glass did she slide him a sealed envelope.  Very carefully did he open its contents and read what resided within.  Her handwriting was impeccable.  Definitely a secretary alright.  A big sweeping bunch of paragraphs apologizing up and down for her cowardice, leaving him to dry, and how a single day hadn’t gone by where she hadn’t remembered his bravery.  It genuinely touched him to read.  He made a note to write her back and let her know he forgave her.  Perhaps even visit her in person.

“That wasn’t all,” Sae continued.  “An unbelievable amount of support has come in from various other places as well.”  From inside her purse did she retrieve an entire folder, sliding it through the glass to him.  Its contents hit him like a ton of bricks.  Every single person he had ever met had come forward to plead his innocence.

Tae Takemi cited him as a key figure in the completion of the medicine for her medicine.  That he had volunteered without pay to help her find the cure for Miwa-chan.

Sadayo Kawakami had managed to get the entire school board to release an official opinion objecting his arrest.  Mr. Ushimaru, Mr. Hiruta, Mr. Inui, Ms. Chouno, and Ms. Usami had somehow been swayed to her side. 

Munehisa Iwai had put himself in the public eye to stick up for him, citing him as a good employee and a friend to his son Kaoru.  What’s more, a lot of the people inside had given him a wide berth and even told him the gecko has his back.  Now it all made sense.

Yuuki Mishima had spearheaded a big petition having been signed by hundreds of students all across Shujin.  He saw a few names he even recognized, like Eiko Takao, Iida, Yumeko Mogami, Ikesugi, Nishiyama, Takaeishi, and Nakaoka.  As well as the signatures from his friends Ryuji, Makoto, Haru, and Ann.

Chihaya Mifune testified about his freeing her entrapment from the Assembly of Divine Power.  The chairman himself had even come on board to back her claims and citing the boy as instrumental in their reformation, no doubt fueled by his change of heart.

Ichiko Ohya had released a story in the newspaper about his prosecution, even managing to find the woman having been accosted.  As well as cross-referencing Shido’s story heavily with local eyewitness testimony from the people in his old neighborhood.  The reporter had even gone so far as to publish the story on Kayo Murakami and Shido’s slush fund.

Toranosuke Yoshida had come forward to speak on his behalf, citing his volunteer work and bravery.  Even publicly denouncing Shido and giving credence to Ohya’s story. 

Shinya Oda and his mother Hanae came forward to vouch for his good behavior, stating he was like an older brother to the boy and had actively improved their family life. 

Hifumi Togo spoke about him giving her the support to speak out against the fixed shogi matches and the corruption scandal.  Even getting some support from a petition going around Kosei High, Yusuke’s signature the very first one at the top.

Shiho Suzui even took time out of her busy schedule to testify for him, stating he and Ryuji had been trying to help her, Mishima, and others speak out about her abuse at Kamoshida’s hands before she had been hospitalized. 

Sojiro Sakura vouched for his good behavior and how he had helped his daughter overcome her depression.  That he had improved their family life and become like a son to him.

“I had advised your friends not to formally testify in court in order to keep authorities off their backs.  They certainly didn’t make it easy.  To think they’d be able to track down someone involved in a case from well over a year ago…”

Now Akira couldn’t fight it.  The tears had come in full force now.  So many peoples’ lives he had touched, so many he had saved.  Now they had come to save him.  It was just too much to bear.

“Dammit…” he uttered, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.  It was embarrassing to be seen like this in front of Sae.  But maybe he deserved to let himself be a little weak.  This was the first time he had felt alive since Morgana’s death. 

“Regardless, the righteous Phantom Thieves are gone.  All that remains is for us adults to lead society in the right direction.  Then again, I have to wonder if you believe what I say.”  Akira managed to dry his eyes and work up a smirk.

“We made a deal, after all.”  If there was just one promise he could keep, it would be this.  Something to redeem his lost honor in his eyes.  “Besides, there’s few else I’d trust besides you.”  Sae couldn’t help but be touched by his words.  The first time they officially met, she had been interrogating him as a criminal, and he shouted her down as corrupt and a bad sister.

“Thank you.”  If they could do their jobs well, there wouldn’t be a need for Phantom Thieves at all.  Teenagers wouldn’t have to endanger themselves to fix their mistakes.  It was their turn to step up to the plate and let the kids be kids.  “Still, I’m glad I was able to save you in court.  I’ve never felt so happy in my entire life.”

“That makes two of us.”  Sae chuckled in amusement as his light and charisma slowly started to fade back in.  It made sense why they all respected him so much.  And why Makoto would talk about him often.

“I’m not quite sure how to put it, but… saving your future meant more to me than my own career.  I feel like you even taught me how to live.”

“You always knew, Sae.  It was why we’re here now having this conversation.”  The prosecutor scoffed with amusement and shook her head.  Quite the charmer.

“That’s not true,” she admitted with a smile.  “You give me too much credit.  I had completely forgotten, and it was all thanks to you all that I could atone.”  There were still so many questions she had.  Their method of operations, the Metaverse, how Akechi had done what he did, what her Palace looked like.  “…By the way, there’s something that’s been on my mind.  What did the Treasure of my world turn out to be?”  It had been something she hadn’t even asked Makoto.  The Palace represented an inner and twisted self, an ugly amalgamation of her disillusion with the world.  She never wanted to imagine how wicked or cruel she was in there.

“We don’t know.  We never actually took your Treasure.”  The photo planted in the briefcase had merely been a stand-in for the real Treasure.  Something to cement the entire story together.  Had Akechi not betrayed them, perhaps they would know.  But the secret was lost for good now.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter now one way or the other,” Sae relented.  Both disappointed and relieved with his answer.  Maybe it’s better off not knowing.  Or maybe she knew all along but can’t recall.  Either way, she’d have plenty of time to think about it after today.  “There is… one more thing.  I haven’t even told Makoto about this.  But I realized something after meeting all of you.  My most prized “treasure” – I can say for certain – is the justice I use to protect those important to me.  Makoto helped show me that as well.”  Her thoughtful expression shifted to a melancholic but relieved smile.  “Once the Shido case is settled, I’m thinking of quitting my job and becoming a defense lawyer.”  Akira hadn’t expected any of the news delivered to him today, but that for certain had definitely not been planned on.

“But why?”

“I wanted to reform the system, but I’ll have to leave that to someone else.  I just wasn’t cut out for this.  You made that clear by revealing my Palace.”  It both hurt her pride and lifted a great burden off her shoulders to admit it.  Akira didn’t share the sentiment, feeling a great aching in his chest from her words. 

“Sae, I never wanted to make you quit.  You don’t have to throw away years of work to atone-“

“No, it’s fine.  I want to quit.  Move on to something better.  Going forward, I want to enact justice not for myself, but for the sake of others.  Something that makes me happy and proud of myself rather than being a slave to the system.  And what better way to rebel against the system than defending people from it?  I already have one success story.”  Akira wasn’t sure how he would fare with all this public attention when he got outside.  No doubt people would want to interview him or hassle him on the streets.  Even before becoming a Phantom Thief had he prized anonymity and remaining obscure.  Though he was rather curious what his parents had to say.  “I don’t want you to think I’m throwing in the towel.  There’s just too many bad memories of this place.”

“I understand.  You’re allowed to look after your own self-interests to find happiness.  After all, it’s your dissatisfaction with your job that put you here in the first place.”  Sae smiled, letting out an amused huff of air through her nose.

“You really are one of a kind.  You know, this job has shown me my fair share of criminals and convicts.  But if young people like you exist in this world, maybe things aren’t as hopeless as they seem.”  With their victory in her back pocket, she felt only good things for the future.  Recapture that lost spark and make her father proud.  Make Makoto and herself proud.  “Well then, I need to go submit the paperwork for your release.  Before I go, may I ask you one final thing?”

“Only if you do me a favor.”  Sae quirked an eyebrow curiously at his request.  What else could he possibly want?  Nevertheless, she smirked and nodded.

“According to your testimony, you could have stopped after taking Kamoshida down, couldn’t you?  Why did you continue acting as the Phantom Thieves…?”

“Because people needed help.”  Such a simplistic answer delivered without batting a single eyelash.  Akira truly was braver than any cop Sae had ever met.  Right up there with her father.

“I have my own theories.  Perhaps I’m thinking too much into this, but a thief who justly stole the hearts of others.  And a criminal who controlled them for his own gain.  It seems your destiny has been tied to Shido’s for some time… and now, it’s finally settled.”  Akira couldn’t help but smirk as he leaned back in his chair, watching her debate with herself.  So she didn’t remember Yaldabaoth and Satanael or the distortion of the modern world.  Strange, seeing as she had proclaimed him “the world’s savior.”  Nobody else besides them seemed to remember it either, not even Sojiro.  He deemed it for the best, no doubt the public knowledge of a giant god descending from the sky and enslaving the world would throw the whole world into chaos.  “I remember you doing… something, but I just can’t pin it down.  Ugh, this will drive me crazy for the rest of my life.  I’m making sense though, aren’t I?  Doesn’t this seem a little too perfect?  It’s almost as though someone planned it all…”

In a way, he had to almost thank Shido for everything that happened.  Had he not encountered him back at the Wilton Hotel, the Phantom Thieves may not have continued on.  Perhaps even Yaldabaoth was owed some due respect as well.  After all, had it not been for his manipulation of Akechi and Shido, he’d have never become the hero he wanted to be.  Would never have met so many wonderful people.  And never have met Ann.

“Heh.  You have no idea…”  Sae smirked at his playing coy.  The boy knew something but kept his cards close.  Perhaps it was for the best.  All the Metaverse nonsense was behind them now.

“Could it be that this was your goal from the very beginning?”

“We were all just pawns in a bigger game is all.”  The soon-to-be former prosecutor chuckled once more at his wit.

“A “game.”  That’s quite a fitting response for you.”

“What can I say?” Akira jested with a cocky shrug.  “I play to win.”  The detective apologized for her rambling, but Akira paid no mind.  This was the only casual conversation he had in months.  Felt relieved to feel like a human being again.  “Now, about that favor…”

“Name it.”

“Has Akechi’s name come up anywhere in the confession?”  Sae blinked, rather perplexed by his question.  It only made sense given their history.

“He only confessed to arranging his death.  Nothing about his involvement.”

“Good.”  Akira leaned forward and stared at her through the glass with reignited determination.  “Tell the people Akechi died trying to save people.  A pawn in Shido’s arsenal that was manipulated and killed in the line of duty.  Keep the Detective Prince legend alive.”  Sae attempted to ask why but swiftly silenced herself.  She could sense where Akira was coming from.

He’d never truly forgive himself for Akechi’s death.  Whether that dream he had was just a dream or a premonition, he wasn’t quite sure.  But he had still stuck with him after so much.  Believed in him when he doubted himself.  The laughs and friendship they shared, the pain he felt at his betrayal and sacrifice.  It had all been real.  All his life had he been a victim of circumstance under both Shido and Yaldabaoth.  Deranged and strung along like a feral dog.  In his last moments, all he had wanted was the freedom to make his own choices.  To be himself, the right way.  He ultimately got his wish.  But he deserved a lot more than what he had given.  Extend this final kindness to him, let his spirit rest easy being praised as a hero.

The rest would be silence.


 

“You nervous?”

“A little bit…”

He could hardly believe it.  Against all odds had he been freed and cleared of all charges.  His life and future were his once more.  And Shido would soon be convicted.  At last could he finally put everything behind him.  Well, almost everything.  There was just one more hurdle to overcome, and it was waiting for him inside Leblanc.

His best friends.  They had given him his life back.  Saved him from the system and even himself.  Yet he still held that lingering fear that they would resent him somewhat despite all the things they had done for him.  It felt like there were weights sinking his stomach down.  Absolutely refusing him to trudge on forward as he stood in front of the door.

“You’ll be fine, kid.  Trust me.”  Despite his kind words, Akira still felt great apprehension at seeing his friends again.  What if they yelled at him, berated him?  Not that he didn’t deserve it but today had been going so well.  “I’ll be right back.”  Sojiro pulled the car around the building and left Akira in the dust.  All by his lonesome did he reside.  It was hard to breathe from the tense knot forming in his throat.  The sound of footsteps rounding the corner drew his attention.  Sojiro stood at attention with his calm smile.  The old man was as confident as ever.  What Akira wouldn’t give to have some for himself.

With Sojiro at his side, Akira finally mustered the strength to open the door.  The ringing bell sounding like a gong in his ear as he took sight of all of them.  One by one did they sound off.  Futaba and Makoto hesitated in surprise before beaming at him, the latter waving.  Yusuke remained calm and collected as he leaned on the counter, eyeing him through his peripheral with a smile.  A solitary wave was extended by the artist while Haru clutched her heart, cooing like a dove.  Ryuji laughed, leaning forward on his knees with a Cheshire cat grin.

Last but certainly not least was Ann, who rose completely from her seat and stared at him with awe.  Those beautiful blue eyes hadn’t lost their luster while he was away, shimmering as he took center stage within them.  Her wonderous blonde locks shined in the light, framing her sweet smiling face.  My God, she looked even more beautiful than the day they met.  All those months ago in the April rain.  Being away from her for so long only accentuated her perfection in his mind.

“Hey there!”

Sojiro leaned against the wall with a smug smirk, Akira having worried himself over nothing.  The blonde was the first to lead the charge, nearly pouncing on him from their embrace.  Akira swept her off her feet and spun her around in his arms while the two of them giggled like little kids.

“Woo hoo!  Namaste!” Futaba cheered.

“You did it!” Ryuji declared, nudging his ribs with an elbow.

“It has been a while,” Yusuke stated with a calm little smirk.  That signature reserved artist’s look he wore so well.  Akira couldn’t fight the chuckles rising in his stomach, beaming at them with a cat-like grin.

“Hope I don’t look too ragged from doing hard time,” he jested.  Ann giggled and took his chin between her finger and thumb, tilting his head to one side in order to properly inspect him.

“Not bad.  You look fine.”

“I’m glad you seem well,” Haru beamed.

“Group hug!”  They all dogpiled Akira with their loving embraces.  Sojiro merely shook his head at their childishness before he too was swept up in the hug.  These kids just could never leave him well enough alone.  Now he had to play the team dad for all of them.  It was already a handful with just Akira and Futaba.  Eventually did they let him go to grab his groceries.  A big celebration dinner was planned, and he’d do all the cooking.  Akira himself was strictly forbidden from aiding.  Only to sit back and relax with his friends.

“Man!  It went well, yeah!?” Ryuji pressed.

“I’m so glad we didn’t give up,” Makoto said with her comfiest expression.  Leblanc felt so much cozier now with him home.  Their home away from home.

“This was certainly worth the effort.”  Having been gone for so long, Akira finally took notice of just how often Yusuke liked to stand.  Even with a perfectly good chair at his disposal, he still took to his feet.  Then again, he was the same way.  Ann hugged his arm and leaned into his shoulder, Akira nestling his head atop hers.  Still smelling of sweet strawberry as she always did.  He had nearly forgotten.

“We didn’t know what to do once you were gone.  But then we realized something.  Even if we don’t have the Metaverse or any other special powers, we can still change reality.”  Not even for a second had Ann entertained a sliver of a doubt in her mind.  She had kept them all on the straight and narrow in his absence.

“We were runnin’ around everywhere we could since the new year.  It musta been over a month.”

“Not just us,” Haru added.  “Everyone who believed in you joined us.”  Akira still couldn’t believe the immense list of people that had come out to support him.  So much love poured into one place when he thought himself empty of it or undeserving.

“Thanks to that, we’ve got our leader back!”  Futaba had a big itinerary for them to catch up on lost time.  So many video games to play and manga to read.  Though despite all their unmitigated praise, Akira still couldn’t stifle out that lingering feeling of guilt in his chest.  Of all that he had subjected them to.  Making Ann cry and ruining Christmas.

“I…”  He paused and forced out a sigh to dissolve some of the tension he felt.  “There’s a lot to unpack here.  So much I need to say.  I… can’t thank you guys enough.  For all that you’ve done for me.  Sticking with me even after what I did.  I’m… I’m so sorry for worrying you all.  Bringing Christmas down and-“

“What’re you talkin’ about?”  Ryuji wasted no time in cutting through the sad stuff.  “You’re the one who took the hit for us.”

“We were upset to see you were gone, but we were more upset that you were forced into these circumstances.”  The artist once again keeping his level head.  As Ann held him close, she began to take notice of just how pale and thin Akira was.

“They treated you fine, right?”  No obvious bruises or anything on him.  If they had tortured him again, the blonde wasn’t quite sure she could take it.  Not after being away for so long.  “Actually… did you lose some weight?”  Akira tugged sheepishly at his collar.

“It would be understandable,” Yusuke interjected.  “I’ve heard the food in prison is quite foul.  So… what did you eat?”

“That is an understatement,” Akira said.  Anything besides what amounted to a meal inside juvenile hall would be fine dining to him.  “And you don’t wanna know.”  Truth be told, Akira wasn’t quite sure he could even describe it.  It lacked even the basest of flavors, though he found himself hard-pressed to eat often out of his sorrow at being separated.

“Was it bugs?  Fermented mackerel?  Or maybe durian?”  Futaba let her imagination run wild as she listed off the grossest things she could imagine.

“You’re missing the point,” Makoto said uneasily.

“Eh, you’re gonna get some good food soon enough though.  Boss is out gettin’ stuff for our party right now.  He went through your little cookbook and is gonna make everything!  We’ll be eatin’ like kings!”  Now that was something he had to see.  For all of Sojiro’s lectures about the proper method of making coffee and curry, Akira wanted to see himself put to the test when tasked with creating a big proper meal.  “C’mon, everyone’s back together!  It’s time to celebrate!”

It was easy to get swept up in the mood.  In Ryuji’s boundless energy at their reunion.  But something just felt missing.  Akira knew full and well what it was.  Or specifically, who it was.  And he wasn’t the only one to take notice.

“Everyone…” Haru solemnly sighed.

“Well, not quite everyone…”  With Futaba’s words did the others slowly begin to click in.

“Right… Morgana…” Ann said sadly.

“And Akechi.”  Akira leaned on the table and held a hand to his brow.  The energy in the room deflated rather fast, with Ryuji sheepishly rubbing his neck.  Internally was he kicking himself for his choice of words.  “I tried to save them, but I…”

“It’s not your fault.”  Ann rubbed his back and nuzzled her cheek into his shoulder.  “You did everything you could for both of them.  Our luck… just ran out in some places.”

“I at least made good on Akechi.”  They looked at him quizzically for clarification.  “I told Sae to keep his involvement a secret.  Let him and the people have the Detective Prince story where he fought with honor until the end where Shido killed him.  Just let people remember him as a hero.”

“That’s fair,” Ryuji commented.  “He deserves somethin’.  It’s the least we could do for him.”

“But Morgana…”  Akira pinched the bridge of his nose and delivered a heavy sigh.  Just when he thought the sorrow was behind them.  It would’ve crept up onto Akira eventually.  He still had to return to the bed upstairs alone.  No one to talk to.  “I couldn’t keep my promise to make him human.  I let him down…”

“There was nothing any of us could do.”  Yusuke’s attempts to dissuade his sorrow fell upon deaf ears.  Akira was willing to let himself heal over a lot of things.  But not this.

“…He may have been the key person on this whole mission.  We even considered what he would do when we were about to give up.”  The memories of Akira and Morgana kept Makoto going forward.  To not let either of their sacrifices be in vain.

“Mona totally woulda done something, right?  That cat would never quit on you.”  Despite their bickering, Ryuji and Morgana had bonded since the team reunited.  A mutual respect between one another mixed in with the banter.  And no ill will meant.

“He was always there to pull us forward,” Haru stated.  “He was the first one of you I met.”  The girl had always been sweet on the cat.  Holding and petting him like a common house pet but also regarding his feelings as well.  No teasing or jests, the girl fit to leave those for the others.  The only one whose bond was closer than her’s was Akira’s.

“Morgana truly was the engine of the Phantom Thieves,” Yusuke noted.  At the artist’s somber words could Ann find herself snickering.

“He was a car, after all!”  This got a little laughter out of them.  Just enough to lighten the mood. 

“I wanna see Mona again…”  Futaba missed holding the little cat in her arms, petting and teasing him.  None of them could hold a candle to Akira.  They were close friends, even roommates.  Brothers.  Part of him felt like it had died with Morgana’s departure.

The bell to the front door jingled and swung upon.

“Huh?  That was quick, Boss-“ 

But it wasn’t Sojiro.  Ryuji and the rest of them were staring at an open doorway with a little black cat in the middle.

“Someone call for me?”

Akira felt his heart stop.  His hearing went out, and the breath was hanging in his throat.  The boy managed to somehow shake off the shock and rose to his feet.

“…Morgana?”  Barely above a whisper.  It was just surprise after surprise today.  Akira even had to question whether or not it truly was the 13th and not his birthday.

“Mona!?” Ryuji shouted, nearly falling out of his chair.  Akira wasted no time in scooping the cat up in his arms to hug him tightly.  He held on with such force that the cat felt like he was suffocating.

“T-take it easy!” he managed to utter, voice muffled.  They had all gathered around and saw tears flooding down Akira’s face.  Shame about being seen crying be damned, he was going to let himself cry.

“Y-you’re alive!  You’re back!”

“What’re you doing here!?” Ann exclaimed in shock.  “I-I mean, didn’t you disappear!?”  They all saw it.  Right before their very eyes did he dissipate into stardust.  The rest of their days going by like he had just been a dream.  The cat eventually managed to wriggle his way out of Akira’s vice grip and popped his head out.

“Looks like the only me that disappeared was the one in the Metaverse.”  And just like that, he had utterly lost all of them.  Makoto herself stumbled to put the pieces together as best she could.

“So… you stayed in reality as a cat?”  He delivered a simple nod.  It made perfect sense to him.  Then again, he understood the Metaverse and cognition more than they did, especially with his reawakened knowledge of Igor.

“When I woke up, I was out in Shibuya looking like this.”  Ryuji grew angry at his inability to understand, as expected.

“That don’t make any sense though!  I mean, if you were alive, you shoulda come back right away!”  Morgana couldn’t help but chuckle at his blond friend.

“You miss me that bad?” he teased.

“Yes!”  Now the cat was unsure of how to proceed.  He had hoped to just jump right back into the banter with Ryuji.  Not be forced to see slight tears in the blond’s eyes.

“I… It was right after I had said goodbye.  It would’ve been awkward to come back so soon.  Plus, I… kind of couldn’t remember a lot of stuff.  All I knew is… that I had to find Akira.  But I couldn’t.  I spent months trying to find you and regain my memories.  I was able to find little things piece by piece.  I knew you guys had found your witness, so I was just waiting for Akira to get discharged.  I followed you back and waited to make my entrance.  I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“It seems he finally learned how to be tactful.”  Yusuke had to admit that Morgana’s own air for the theatrics rivaled his own.  Akira said nothing, merely holding Morgana in his arms while being content to just let himself cry.  Let all the turmoil out at last.

“He’s grown!” Futaba noted, poking at his belly.  “Tubby tabby!”

“Hey!  It’s rough on the streets!  And I’m not a tabby!”  The cat bashfully covered his stomach.  Perhaps he ought to join Akira at the gym for once.  Shed off some of the winter weight.  “But seriously though.  You guys saved him!  Well done on that, seriously.  You pulled it off even without my help.”

“Y-you’ve already returned to your normal conceited self!?” Makoto snapped.  “You… you…”  With that, she couldn’t help but laugh.  This emotional rollercoaster had taken them all over the place today.  How she had missed the little furball.

“I’m sorry I worried you all.”  Now Akira was managing to laugh through the tears, sniffling here and there.

“I-I thought I was never gonna see you again, little buddy,” he managed to choke out.  “Losing you was like… l-losing a brother.”  Morgana felt his heart crack at his words.  He had always seen the Phantom Thieves as a type of family.  But a brother?  Akira called him his brother?

“Oh, c-can I borrow the shower before you all rush to hug me?” he deflected, trying to look anywhere else but their faces.  He couldn’t let them see the waterworks coming on.  Not at the stake of his pride.  “I was stray for so long I think I might smell…”

“This ain’t the time for a shower, you stupid cat!” Ryuji growled out.

“Give us our tears back!” Haru protested.

“You are unforgivable, giving us heartache like this!” Yusuke glowered.

“Group hug!”

“W-wait!”  Without giving an inch, they all ganged up and squeezed the life near out of the feline.  Turning their pain, tears, and frustration into a big mighty hug.

“Sh-shtop ith!” the cat protested as Futaba pinched his furry cheeks.  “Talk about a harsh welcome!”

“This is how it should be,” Makoto managed between giggles.

“Matters are finally back to normal.”  At last could the artist feel his fire again.   So consumed with getting their leader back that he had lost the light.  Now, he felt like he could paint a thousand pictures in a single day.  And maybe he just will.

“Right!” Ryuji grinned as he gave the cat a noogie.  “You dirty fleabag!”

“Carnal blond monkey!”  In no time at all did the two of them start ribbing at one another.  As though neither Akira or Morgana had ever gone.  But the cat was drawn to the tears still leaking down Akira’s face, drying them with his paws.  “Come on, Akira.  Dry your eyes.”

“S-sorry,” he managed between sniffles.  “I’m j-just so happy!  My brother’s back!”

“B-brother…”  Now he really couldn’t fight the tears.   The cat ultimately surrendered and let himself cry, hiding his face in Akira’s chest.  Of all the things to transpire in all the world, Morgana had never been gladder to have been created to meet Akira.  It was a regular waterworks factory in their little hugging pile.  The kids had earned it.

“It’s great that you’re back and all, but what’re you gonna do now?”  The cat eventually managed to regain enough composure to answer Ann’s question.  Even with all that had happened, the plan hadn’t changed.

“Well, I’ve been thinking.  About how to become human, of course.  I might’ve learned that I’m not a human now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn into one!”

“That… does make some sense.”  If he could exist outside the Velvet Room and continue to exist even without the Metaverse, there had to be a way.  But with Igor gone, it would be an insurmountable task to figure it out.  But Akira was the master at defying expectations.  “Our deal still stands.  I promised to help you become human, and I meant it.” 

Loyal to a fault.  Akira was truly more than Morgana found himself deserving.

“If Morgana becomes human, he may end up just like Akira.”

“Totally possible.”

“Oh, I can see that!”  Haru, Futaba, and Yusuke’s words clicked something on in the cat’s head.

“Me?  Be like him…!?”  There was nobody in all the world he admired more than Akira.  Nobody he was prouder to be seen as a brother by.  It would humble the cat tenfold to be like him.  “…Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.”  Despite his big bleeding heart, Morgana’s pride fought his ability to showcase it.  He had already cried in front of them.  Showing anything else would just mortify him.  Unless it was to Akira himself.  “I mean, I definitely don’t want to be like Ryuji though.”

“What was that!?”

And sure enough, they were back to bickering like an old married couple.  Potshots and banter back and forth.  Sojiro came home just in time with his payload.  To him, seeing Ryuji shout at a meowing pet was par for the course at this point.  Strange but expected.  The others just watched them go at it with amusement.  Things finally felt normal again.  But one thing was missing….

“Hold this.”  Akira passed the cat over to Haru before narrowing the gap between his beloved, a hair’s breadth away.  “May I?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Ann said with a bashful smile.  Wrapping her arms around him, the two lovers delivered a passionate kiss.  Held so tight they might just fuse together like a Persona.  “I love you…”

“I love you too…”

And thus the party kicked off in full sequence.  The disbanding of the Phantom Thieves and a welcome home commemoration for Akira and Morgana.  Plus, a toast for the fallen Akechi.  They chattered excitedly among themselves while the two lovers resisted the urge to make out in full focus.  Every other glance was one of immense desire, a hunger.  None of them could really blame them all that much.  It was great to see them back together, but Makoto kept a spray bottle close by.

 Just in case.