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perhaps even friends

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There was no pain in his chest when he awoke, flat on his back, staring into some infinite darkness. He didn’t bother to sit up as he assessed his condition. His chest wasn’t bleeding but it ached something awful regardless, and when he poked at it with a single finger he hissed.

“Good morning.”

The voice that drifted through the air sounded distantly familiar, but Goro couldn’t place it. He sat up slowly, and -- stopped. The ground he lay on was carved into thin air, burning sigils that hurt the eye; there were columns around their edges made of blinding white stone that stood in the middle of an infinite spiraling galaxy, stars flinging their burning bodies in every distant direction. In the center of this impossible place sat a table with a delicate tea set and a man in a butterfly mask. “Come sit down,” he said, nodding his head at the chair across from him.

Goro was dead already. He stood, and crossed silently, and sat.

“Akechi Goro,” the man said. He was smiling in a way that Goro was intimately familiar with, an expression that served as a placeholder more than anything else. “Welcome to the Sea of Souls.” There were two cups of tea on the table, and he pushed one at Goro. “Please, drink.”

Goro reached out and took the cup, pressed it to his lips but didn’t take a sip. It smelled bright and sweet, and when Goro spoke his voice sent ripples across its surface. “I suppose this is the afterlife, then.”

“Not quite.” Goro’s eyes slid up as the man lifted his own cup of tea. “I plucked you from the space between life and death, where the boundaries between reality and cognition were at their weakest, and brought you here.”

It sounded far too good to be true. Goro put his cup down on his saucer without drinking, and slowly straightened in his seat. “Did you,” he said. He was viscerally aware of his mouth, of his tongue pressing against his teeth, of the movement of every tiny muscle. There was still gunpowder on his lips.

“I did.”

“And are you going to explain why,” Goro said, inflection flat, “or are you going to wait until I’m down on my hands and knees, begging you for the information?”

“Forgive me,” the man said. “It has been a long time since I’ve spoken to a human. It becomes easy to forget conversational cues.”

“Is that so.” It was the kind of statement that would’ve been best punctuated by a smile of some sort, but Goro’s face refused to shape itself as such. “Somehow I don’t believe you.”

The man reached out -- but it was only to take the teapot once more in his hands, filling his half-full cup. Goro watched the man move, and listened to the sound of water, and realized that the bubbling rage in his chest truly wasn’t a thing that could die.

“Let me tell you a story,” the man said, dropping a single cube of sugar in his tea. “There were once two gods, and the powers they possessed were vast. One believed in the endless potential of humanity -- their growth, and their life, and their goodness. The other, put simply, did not.

“They tried to fight their battles directly, but….” His smile slipped. Without it, his face didn’t look quite real -- a puppet carved from meat, animated by some great unseen hand.

The man took a sip of his tea, and when he set his cup down his smile was fixed back in place. “There were several unforeseen complications,” he said. “In the end, their contests were moved to proxy battles. Perhaps you’ve heard of the murder case of Inaba, or that disease that spread over Port Island several years ago.”

“Or the Phantom Thieves of Hearts,” Goro said. “Which I assume is the reason you’re telling me all of this.”

The man nodded. “Precisely.” He blinked once, slowly, and when he opened his eyes there was a strange weight to his gaze that hadn’t been there before. “These games have always been rigged against me,” he said. “I have never minded. To win a rigged game -- I’m sure you understand, how it feels to know the system is stacked against you and to still crush it under your feet.”

Goro bit the inside of his cheek in lieu of replying. “Recent events, however, are such that even I can no longer turn a blind eye.” The man’s smile was less placeholder now; there was an edge to it now that Goro couldn’t decide his feelings on. “The rules of what my proxy ought to be given are very clear; violated, they tip the game from unfair to unwinnable, and that is unacceptable.

“You see,” the man said, “I am forbidden from interfering with my own proxy. Whatever ruin he comes to -- whether it be his own, or whether it be that of his opponents -- must be by his own hand. But you -- in the space between realities you were left abandoned, and thus I found you within my reach.”

“You want to use me as a pawn in your game,” Goro said. For the first time since coming here he smiled, all bared teeth. “You realize that gives me absolutely no desire to work with you, correct?”

“Not as a pawn,” the man said. “While I won’t deny that controlling you would make things easier for me, it simply isn’t possible.”

“You’re not going to reassure me that you’re more noble than that?”

“Would you believe me if I did?”

That was fair. Goro still didn’t lean back in his chair. “I would like to make you an offer,” the man said, after the moment stretched. “This place exists outside the boundaries of space and time. Under my current constrictions, there is a single moment at which I am allowed to interfere with reality, when I offer my proxy his powers. At that moment, I would have the opportunity to deposit all your current memories in your body as well, allowing you to change fate as you wish.”

“Time travel,” Goro said. “Or at least the facsimile of it.” Unbidden, his own stupid words came floating back into his mind. We could’ve been great rivals, or perhaps -- But if it were the moment that the Thieves were born, then that would be: “Six months ago, then? Or seven?”

“Yes,” the man said. “From there you would have to go it alone. My abilities only extend so far.”

“And what would you have me do?”

“Whatever you might like.”

“Even if I were to begin working against your plans?”

“Even then,” the man said. “Once I leave you back in reality, I would have no way to influence you.”

If he were telling the truth, it was a good deal, and that was precisely why Goro didn’t trust it. “You’re really going to take that chance,” he said, and disbelief was audible in his voice. “You’d unleash me on them, knowing what I can do.”

The man tilted his head, and under his mask the ruddy brown of his eyes seemed to flicker in the starlight. “I enjoy gambling,” he said. “The joker is a card that can flip the situation on its head-- putting two on the table would be twice as enjoyable, don’t you think?”

Goro couldn’t help it -- he snorted, loud. “Is that so,” he said, and felt his lips curling back in a sneer. “Even if it comes back to bite you in the ass?”

“Even so.”

“And if I refuse?”

The man’s smile didn’t waver. “You will die.”

Goro wasn’t surprised. He sucked in on the side of his cheek, gnawing at the flesh there, and stared at the man across from him.

The thing was -- he had been prepared for death. Ever since he’d stood Shido’s door, fist raised to knock, he’d known he’d been tying a noose around his neck. And he hadn’t cared, not really, not when he’d finally had a purpose, not when he’d finally thought he’d been getting one up on that fucking bastard but --

He hadn’t, in the end, had he? He’d stared down the barrel of his own gun and known that it hadn’t fucking mattered a single bit, everything that he’d done. All his hard work, all his plans, and Shido’d seen through it all. Even without Amamiya and the rest of those fucking Thieves he would’ve found himself with a bullet to the brain eventually; the only difference was the hand that had held the gun, and even then that cognition of himself and the cleaner weren’t so different in Shido’s eyes, were they?

The chance to try again was tempting. And yet -- Goro looked at the person across from him, and said, “Then I refuse.”

“May I ask why?” the man said. Over his shoulder Goro could see some distant sun cut a path through the void.

“I don’t care,” Goro said, and he could feel his sneer crawling back over his face. “About any of it. Your stupid game, or the world. They can all go to hell.”

“Then allow me to phrase the question as such,” the man said, and once more the smile had left his face. “If you can look me in the eye and tell me, honestly, that you have no desire to revenge, I will let you die. If you are content with having being spat on your entire life, if you are willing to pass on before realizing even an iota of your potential, if you don’t mind dying as a failure -- you may. I won’t stop you. But if you hold even a fraction of the rebellious spirit that led to your Persona, then I think that you might accept my offer.”

“Fuck you,” Goro said. Despite himself all the hair on the back of his neck was standing up. “Fuck you, I don’t --”

His words caught in his throat.

The man had begun smiling again, only this time Goro recognized it, too many teeth and not enough charm, with that same stupid dimple on the side that Goro’d never been able to force out no matter how hard he’d tried. It was not just a similar face to one Goro made, it was exactly the same, and suddenly Goro’s eyes were catching on the man’s jawline, the color of his eyes, the length of his ponytailed hair. “Who --” Goro said, slowly, “Who are you?”

The man reached up, and took off his mask, and continued to smile with Goro’s ugly mouth. “I am Philemon,” said Goro’s perfect mirror image, “And I am thou, as thou art I.”