Actions

Work Header

you will not take my heart alive

Chapter Text

Goro Akechi is halfway out of class and glancing down at his phone to check for messages when he sees it. The calling card is his lock screen.

He freezes in the doorway. The rest of his classmates buffet him cluelessly out of the way until he’s just standing by the door in the hall, but he barely feels it, can barely even take in the words blazed across the screen. We will take your distorted desires without fail.

The phone buzzes in his hands. A text. A photo message, Akira fucking Kurusu, who he shot, who he watched die, making a peace sign with one hand and holding up today’s newspaper with the other, the tiniest smuggest smirk on his face.

It feels like a joke. It feels like he’s been stabbed in the chest. Or in the back - and here he thought he was the treacherous one. Impossible, impossible, impossible that this could happen, that Kurusu could be alive, that he could be shown up like this by those fucking kids. (And how could it be possible? Never even mind Kurusu being alive - Goro has a Persona, he has two, the cat said… Maybe they were only trying to scare him. But there was no precedent for them doing something like that, and if Kurusu was okay who knew what they could pull off?)

They must have been laughing at him the whole time. His entire body is shaking so hard he thinks he might drop the phone.

The thought occurs to him of just... just taking his gun and going straight to Leblanc, before they can go through with it. But they would have thought of that, why else would they send him this at the end of the school day? They wouldn’t even be at Leblanc by the time he got there, or outside his Palace. (He should know what his Palace is, but somehow he can’t even begin to start guessing. It’s like his brain is wading through sludge. Goro’s never felt so goddamn stupid.) And anyway, even if he did catch them in time, how’s he going to cover up an unplanned multiple homicide in Yongen-Jaya?

All he can see is Kurusu’s face. He wants to scream. He wants to snap his phone in half. One of his idiot classmates is saying something to him and he can’t parse the meaning of her words because all he can think about is that he’s ruined, and he’s ruined because he can’t hold a candle to Akira goddamn Kurusu.

But. It hasn’t happened quite yet. He’s his own last defence. He knows the inside of his own mind, he knows he’s miles better than any of their previous marks. And he’s not going to wait around to be executed.

 He takes a breath. Smiles at his classmates and says something meaningless, and then types with trembling hands.

Goro Akechi: I’m going to kill you I’m going to kill you I’m going

Stops. Deletes it. (Don’t get sloppy now, Akechi.) Starts again.

Goro Akechi: Good luck, Joker.
Read, 3:39 p.m.

 


 

He leaves school. Finds a quiet, unoccupied alley where he can think. Opens the navigation app.

Place. Keyword. It’s so hard to make himself focus, hard not to think about how much he needs to pull this off, how violated he feels by the idea of them getting into his head in the first place. (How much do they already know? They’ve been infiltrating the place for days at least - no. Stop.) Where to even start? He doesn’t… he’s never felt any mastery or connection to any one place, never belonged anywhere.

He tries his apartment, the National Diet Building, the police headquarters. Fucking Shido’s fucking house. He even suggests “The hearts and minds of the Japanese people” to the Nav as a gag. None of them are hits, of course. Hmm.

He needs to be methodical about this. He tries every special ward he’s ever spent time in, and then the rest of them too. (For a moment he genuinely fears Ni-chome will be a hit, just to bring him as much mortification as possible, even though he’s barely set foot in the place.) Goes from there and expands: Tokyo, Kanto, Honshu, Japan-

And that’s the one. Okay. He’s getting somewhere. And the location is broad enough that he should be able to get in from here, once he has the rest of it.

A keyword. What is Japan to him? A shitty fucking backwards garbage dump of a country, but that’s not a Palace, now, is it, so concentrate. A… a contest. A television show? No. A competition. What kind of competition? How do you make a competition a place?

A warzone. A battlefield.

Maybe he’s being too literal. Come on, you dumb piece of shit, they figured this out.

A colosseum. A sports arena. An arcade.

“Beginning navigation,” chimes the app.

Really? Huh.

(Okay, let’s be honest: he’d loved arcades once, saved every coin he had for them. Every Sunday, when she could, when she wasn’t working or having one of her bad days, his mother would take him to the one in the mall by their apartment. But then she died, of course, and his first foster parents told him he needed to grow up. He hadn’t understood at the time but they were right. Some people just can’t afford to waste their time like that.)

The world shifts in front of him. Not dramatically - the world goes a bit dimmer, like an overcast evening; the rumble of traffic and conversation muffles, the familiar sense of strangeness sets in. Nothing else, yet. His bike is still here, which is convenient.

When he glances down at himself he’s in blue and black. He has no time to waste but he can’t help pausing, startled. This means - what, that he’s a threat to himself? But that makes no sense, given what he’s here to do. And he can’t even will himself into his false costume, which normally he can do as easily as blinking. Not that he needs to change his outfit right now, but still. He’d appreciated the sense of total control it gave him, to know that his clothes would always be whatever he needed them to be in the cognitive world. Bizarre. Annoying.

He really doesn’t want to be thinking about any of this. He gets his pistol and holster from his briefcase, checks that the gun’s loaded. He feels better with the weight of it in his hand. More secure, more focused. He can do this. He’s going to do this.

He leaves the alley. Looks around. There’s a new building, a tower, a kilometre or two north of him, taller than even the skyscrapers surrounding it. It’s pitch-black and its silhouette is shifting like fog, the way things in the cognitive world sometimes do. He holsters the gun and gets on his bike.

The building, when he gets to it, says ARCADE DEL PRINCIPE in vivid red roman letters above the entrance. Ugh. Subtle.

The inside is nothing like a real arcade, of course. It’s darker than real ones are, cavernous and empty. There are no statues, nothing ostentatious like he’s seen in other people’s Palaces; just endless arcade machines and neon-on-black and a deep background murmur - just like Mementos, right down to the firm sense that the voices are all whispering about him. There’s probably something meaningful on the game screens blaring at him, but the thought of that makes panic flutter fast in his chest, so he’s not going to stop and look, he can’t, he’s going to kill the Phantom Thieves for doing this to him and get out and it’ll be fine.

He meets a guard, finally, at the top of the first set of stairs he finds. “Master Akechi,” the masked demon says, “what are you doing here? I thought you were taking care of the intruders!”

He doesn’t have time for this. “I’m working on it,” he says. “Where are they? Up?”

“Of course,” says the demon, “but weren’t you-”

“Can you get me there any faster than I can get there myself?” Goro says sharply. (To be honest, he’s always appreciated talking to demons. He doesn’t have to hide the ice in his voice.)

“Oh,” she says. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Then shut the hell up and get out of my way.” Something occurs to him, though, before he leaves- “Why weren’t there any guards downstairs? Are they taking care of the intruders?”

“The downstairs is empty,” says the demon, blankly.

“Yes, I know, WHY.

“It’s just empty,” she says, and this is pointless, so he just keeps going up the tower.

There are so many stairways. More and more guards as he goes higher, at least. The paths twist and turn but he feels like he knows the layout of it by - ha - by heart, already, the way you know a place you’ve never been in a dream. And even if it weren’t for that, he’s sure he could find the way by just following the trail of opened gates, or the shattered display cases where Joker’s bafflingly infallible sixth sense for loot had clearly led him.

In a dark lobby area on the fifth floor he finds… not a statue but a cheap-looking cardboard standee, just a touch larger than life, under a lone spotlight. It has a black silhouette printed on it, clearly him in the Robin Hood garb, posing like he’s on a movie poster. In tacky neon bubbles next to the image, it says:

The REAL Detective Prince!
The Bastard Rook of Tokyo!
Goro Akechi!!

Fine, he thinks. Sure. Whatever. Heaven fucking forbid his Palace have an inch of class to it.

He’s lost count of which floor he’s on when he turns his head and sees a woman alone in the bend of a hallway.

She’s turned away but he knows who she is, instantly. He knows every detail of her, the faded second-hand sundress and the length of her hair; the way her jaw curves like his. The way she’s lit too bright and cold for her surroundings, colours too brilliant and shadows too dark; the way she looks in the old photo he kept, the one that over the years has somehow fused with every memory he had of her.

She looks at him. Or, no - she's looking past him, into the empty corridor, like she's searching for someone else in a crowd.

He’s missed her for so long. And he knows this isn't her, he knows where he is, but something compels him anyway to call out to her. She looks straight at him when he does, and his breath catches - but then her expression changes, her eyes widen. Some kind of recognition… and she takes a step back.

"Wait," he says, hating the desperation in his voice. He can’t read the look on her face; apprehension, fear? He holds his hands up placatingly, like he’s approaching a skittish animal. Takes a few steps forward. "Wait, please." He just wants to hear her voice again. He just wants her to smile at him.

But even as he speaks she's turning away, walking quickly, glancing over her shoulder at him. She rounds the corner. He can't help himself - he runs after her.

She's completely gone by the time he gets there, of course. But after all, she was only an echo, a creation of his cognition, not even a ghost. He shouldn’t want to see her; there was nothing she could tell him that wasn’t already in his mind.

Goro pulls one of his gloves up and digs his teeth hard into the flesh of his wrist until he feels calmer.

Then he looks around. He’s getting closer to them, he knows it; there’s still time. Fucking focus. There’s another staircase here, and, on the top landing, a single arcade cabinet and a closed mechanical gate. Every other gate he’s seen has been wide open; maybe the Phantom Thieves had missed this area (although given Kurusu’s insistence on thoroughness that didn’t seem likely), maybe it had just shut itself behind them. Who cares? As long as it kept taking him upstairs it didn’t matter.

The machine, like all the rest of them, looks like it’s some bootleg Star Wars rip-off, all starry speckles and primary-coloured lasers over black, just off-brand enough to maybe avoid litigation if it were in the real world. He walks up to it. It’s cycling through attract mode but seems to react to his presence as he approaches - the screen goes black, and then flashes a top scores display.

It’s not like a real one. There’s only three entries, three names fully written out next to pixel art representations:

  1. Akira Kurusu        \(★^∀^★)/
  2. Masayoshi Shido    (ノ_<。)
  3. Goro Akechi        (ಥ﹏ಥ)

PRESS ‘START’ !!

For a moment Goro is just fucking done. He’s had it, had it with Joker being alive, had it with this Palace, the idea of his enemies tramping through his subconscious. He feels unsteady, he’s been too focused for too long; he feels like he’s on the verge of absolutely losing it. But he doesn’t have a choice, so he steps forward, steels himself.

The floor shakes. Once. Twice. The screen goes blue. “No,” he says, “no no no no no -”

The world falls apart.

 


 

After the fight, after the armoured monster that was Akechi collapses and dissolves, all that's left is Akechi's Shadow, on the ground, sobbing like a little kid.

They stand there for a minute in shock, watching him, before Ann says, "This sucks.”

Akira turns and looks at her. She’s staring at Akechi with the expression of someone who’s just smelled rotten milk, her arms folded tight. "This all just freaking SUCKS,” she says. “We shouldn’t have wasted time on him. He's been killing people! For years! He murdered Haru’s dad just WEEKS ago and now he's just snivelling on the floor. Haru and Futaba were right, we don’t need his help, he’s PATHETIC."

Before Akira can say anything - and what is he going to say, he gets her point, but he feels... - before that, Akechi (though it's not Akechi, he reminds himself, it's just a twisted echo of his desires) lets out what might be a sob or a laugh and says, "You're right."

Akira looks at him. His hair is in his face, his nose running, a bruise raising under his eye. He speaks like he’s spitting blood. "I'm a monster, a miserable rabid beast. I'll do anything if you don't stop me. Just kill me and let it end." He laughs again, clearly definable as a laugh this time, though it's hoarse and loud and nothing like the way his laughter sounds in real life, and adds, "I'd do the same for you."

"Oh my god," says Ryuji. "Oh my GOD, dude, we are OBVIOUSLY not going to do that, are you KIDDING."

Akechi... looks at Akira. Desperately. Like he thinks Akira might do it, or has the power to, what, authorise it? It's disturbing.

Akira says, as firmly as he can, "We're definitely not doing that. We’re sticking to the plan," and moves to go get the treasure, the rest of the group ahead of him. But as they leave, Akechi grabs his coattails and says in a thick whisper, "Please, Joker."

Akira doesn't know what to say. He looks down at him. The rest are ahead now, they'll notice that he's lagging behind in a minute. Akechi looks small, terrified, so much like a lost child. It's strange to realise that he's never seen a genuine expression on Akechi's face in real life. Never seen a genuine expression on Akechi's face, ever, because this isn't Akechi, but it feels so much like how he must actually be.

"Please,” Akechi says, “don't do this, I'll have nothing left if you do this."

Akira shouldn't want to talk to him but he finds himself kneeling next to him anyway. "If we do what?" he says, softly, so the others won't hear. He's not sure why he cares. "Get you to start treating people like people?"

This close, he can tell that Akechi is trembling hard. He can hear the ragged intake of his breath. "My whole life," he says, "was about - proving everyone wrong - getting strong enough to make everyone who discarded me regret it - but they were right, you were all right. I..." He trails off, and then repeats, staring straight Akira's eyes, his voice cracking, "I'll have nothing. I'll BE nothing."

Their faces are so close. Akechi's Shadow's eyes are inhuman and frightened and huge. "You didn't have much to begin with, if that's true," says Akira, as gently as he can.

Akechi’s face contorts into the most miserable smile Akira’s ever seen. “No shit, asshole,” he says, but not aggressively. “That’s WHY I’m - I'm fucking begging you, don't do this to me." He grabs Akira's hand suddenly with both of his. His palms are clammy and his grip is far too tight. His face is soaked. "You know we're the same, you have to see it too, you must understand what this will do to me. Please just kill me, please."

Akira feels frozen in place.

"Joker, we have to hurry it up," comes Morgana's voice from ahead of them. ("What's he even doing?" he hears Ryuji say. "Shh," says Makoto.)

Akira takes a deep breath and pulls his hand out of Akechi’s grip. "I'll help you,” he says. “It'll be fine. I promise." He expects... something positive, at least, but instead Akechi's eyes narrow in suspicion. He recoils, curls up in on himself, and stares cold and hard at Akira.

The last thing Akechi's Shadow says to Akira is, "You're so full of shit, Joker."

Akira swallows hard. Then he stands up and walks away and doesn't look back.

 


 

Goro lands on his ass in the same alley he’d come in from, painfully but safely and completely alone. He’s in the real world. They’d done it. He’d failed. He hadn’t even seen them.

He looks at his hands, watches them tremble. Clenches them. Hits the ground once, twice, again, as hard as he can, harder, so hard it feels like his bones will shatter, until he can’t do it anymore and then he covers his mouth as firmly as he can and he screams.

Then it passes.

Since Goro was a child, he felt, sometimes, removed from the world. Like his eyes can’t quite focus right, like he’s been separated from everything by a pane of glass only he can sense; like nothing outside him is real, no matter how bad it is. (Like nothing inside him is real, either; he’s only a camera, recording everything without emotion, waiting it out.) It used to frighten him but he learned to welcome it. To use it.

So, now: he feels distant, and disoriented, and shocked. That’s all.

He makes himself stand up. Wavers unsteady on his feet. Thinks, suddenly, although he thought he couldn’t think when he was like this - of petty cruelties, lives ruined and lost, stupid twisted scheming. All he’d ever been.

Ah. It’s starting, then.

Goro watches himself vomit on the ground and stagger to his bike. He goes home.

 


 

It’s the next morning when someone starts banging on the door to Goro’s apartment.

He doesn’t move. He’s been huddled on the floor in front of the television all night, letting the sound drone meaninglessly. He’d turned it down when the neighbour banged on the wall, turned it up again when he heard her leave for work; it doesn’t make him feel better either way but it beats being left alone with the litany of offenses that keep parading through his head.

His gentleman caller doesn’t seem dissuaded by the lack of response. “Akechi,” he says from the hall, “I know you’re in there, I can hear the TV. Open the door.”

Goro thinks about the last time he saw Kurusu’s face. (What he’d thought was Kurusu’s face.) The absurd amount of blood in a human head. The strange, cold mix of satisfaction and disappointment he’d felt at the time - that this was it, it was over, they were done with each other. He feels sick again.

Kurusu must be just delighted to have pulled all of this off.

“I’m not leaving until I talk to you.”

Goro does not want to see that smug fucking face but something compels him to stumble over to the door anyway. Maybe it’s the only way to get rid of him. He leaves the chain on the door, opens it a crack, and says, “You won, so leave me the hell alone.”

He tries to slam it, but Kurusu has already wedged the toe of his shoe into the gap. Goro sees him wince delicately at the pressure but all he says is, “I brought you curry.”

Of course he did.

Goro closes his eyes, leans into the doorframe, and tries to modulate his voice. “Why are you here, Kurusu? To rub my nose in it?”

“I needed to talk to you. And I wanted to see if you were okay. It… didn’t seem like you had anyone else who’d do that.” His tone is almost sympathetic. Goro can see the line of a mostly-healed cut on his cheek from the interrogation.

“Go to hell,” says Goro. He didn’t think he could feel even more humiliated, but here he is. He says, more to himself than anything, “I can’t believe you’re alive. I shot you.”

Kurusu just smiles - smiles! - and says, “If you let me in I’ll tell you how I did it.”

And what can he say to that? It’s a bit insulting to assume that Goro couldn’t figure it out himself, that he’s just dying to hear how cleverly he’d been hustled, but, well - he didn’t figure it out, although he would have if he hadn’t had more pressing problems. And he does need to know. So Goro stares at him for a moment (and Kurusu stares back, of course, that steady dark gaze behind almost-definitely-fake lenses, his face as inscrutable as ever) and then sighs in irritation. “Is it just you?”

“Just me,” says Kurusu, and holds his bag open in front of the door as proof. Not a magic talking cat to be seen. Great.

Goro bites his tongue hard and gives in. “Move your foot and I’ll open the door.”

He has lost so completely.

 


 

He watches Kurusu taking it all in - the tiny, sparse apartment (smaller than that awful attic of his - not unusual for Tokyo, but still, Goro had never wanted Kurusu to know about it) lit only by the blue glow of a screen and the sunlight leaking through the closed window shade. Goro’s uniform jacket is lying wrinkled on the floor next to a pile of used tissues. Goro himself must look pathetic, too: his eyes feel swollen and gluey, his nose running and raw. He wonders exactly how many of his worst secrets Kurusu must be thinking about when he looks at him.

How did you kill yourself, he finds himself wondering, without making anyone clean up after it? A river, maybe. A cliff over the sea. What else could he do to atone, to make up for it, to escape the way the world would look at him when they realized what he was?

Kurusu flips on a light and heads over to the kitchenette, pulling a plastic container out of his bag. Says, “Do you want the short version or the long?”

Goro winces in the sudden incandescent glare and says, “The short, obviously.”

“Could you turn off the TV?” says Kurusu.

“No.” Kurusu gives him a look, so Goro adds, more feebly than he likes, “I’m watching it.”

Kurusu looks flatly at the screen. “I didn’t take you for a big baseball fan.”

He’s not. The sound of it, the gentle predictable patter, makes him feel less like he’s trapped alone with his worst enemy. Second worst. Although maybe Kurusu surviving his own murder has shifted the rankings a bit. “Yeah, well. Go Swallows, right?” It’s good to know he can still lie, at least, but he can’t seem to harness the right tone anymore. His voice sounds like it’s on the verge of cracking.

“Sure,” says Kurusu, sounding deeply doubtful.

Goro slumps back down onto the floor, rests his forehead on his palm. “Just tell me.”

Kurusu gives him the whole story while he gets the meal ready. His voice is flat and calm the entire time; he doesn’t even sound a bit like he’s bragging, which makes it worse. And besides that, it’s a bit hard to concentrate on it all - not because of the stupid baseball game but because he can’t stop himself from thinking about how Akira Fucking Kurusu is currently discovering that Goro’s kitchen cupboards contain, in total, two plates, one set of chopsticks, a spoon, and two travel mugs. But he gets the gist.

The phone. The phone and the goddamn pancakes. He’s such an idiot.

When Kurusu’s done narrating, he sets a steaming plate on the table near Goro’s head, and sits down sideways in Goro’s desk chair. He hasn’t (presumably because of the chopstick situation) served any food for himself.

It smells incredible. And of course, because this week needed to get worse, something about that - maybe the impact of hearing what a fuck-up he was; maybe the indignity of this small kindness on top of everything else, like a consolation prize - makes something snap in him. He can feel his face contorting and tears, actual tears, start to brim. He covers his face with his hands in horror.

Don’t, not now, don’t FUCKING do it. The Phantom Thieves really have destroyed him. He hasn’t cried in front of another person since he was eight. He wants to wring his own neck.

“Oh,” says Kurusu behind him, because of course he noticed. “Oh. Um. Akechi-” A tentative hand on his shoulder. Goro pulls violently away and snarls, “Don’t touch me!” and then that’s it, he’s actually sobbing, doubled over and gasping for air. Everything has gone so monumentally wrong, his life is so monumentally wrong, and now all he has is the boy he’s hated and lusted after for months, back from the dead, feeding him home-made, microwaved curry.

Kurusu pulls back, hands up, apologetic. “Sorry.”

“Seriously,” Goro chokes out, “I don’t want you here. You shouldn’t want to be here, you moron, what is wrong with you? I...” He scrubs at his face furiously with the back of his hand. “All I can think about when I look at you is seeing you die, do you get that?”

Kurusu sits on the floor next to him. His voice is so, so quiet. “I do.”

“And I’d rather be brain-dead than feel this bad about it while you sit in my apartment, WATCHING.”

Kurusu doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t even understand how you did it,” Goro adds miserably when the silence becomes too unbearable. “None of you have Palaces, I checked, and the goddamn cat said you couldn’t have one if you had a Persona, so I thought I had to be fine. I thought I was so clever.” He laughs, harsh for once, the way he actually laughs when no one’s listening. It turns into a hiccup.

“It…” Kurusu sighs heavily. “We don’t know how it worked. It confused Mona a lot, if that makes you feel better. What we think happened is that… a Persona is supposed to be your true self, right? A version of you that you’ve accepted and, like, integrated into yourself. But there are some people - like me, and, I bet, you - who have more than one mask. Which means there’s other parts of your true self. That can become distorted. If that makes sense.”

Goro blows his nose, loudly. Fuck propriety. “It doesn’t. You sound like an idiot.” It’s hard to sound as withering as he’d like to, given that he’s still crying, but he gives it his best.

Naturally, Kurusu just smiles a little and shrugs. “That’s the best I’ve got.”

“Of course it is.” And honestly, it’s a pretty decent hypothesis, but Goro’s not going to tell him that.

After another silence, Kurusu leans forward and says, “Look. You do deserve to feel this bad. I’m sorry, but you do.”

Another bitter laugh forces itself out of Goro’s mouth. “Okay.”

“But you don’t deserve to be alone while you deal with it. So I’ll leave now if you want me to, but I’m coming back tomorrow. All right?”

Goro wipes his face with his sleeve and glowers at him: Great Akira the Moralizer, who knows exactly what everyone else deserves. Perfect, beloved Akira. “If I say no, will you bang on my door for an hour anyway?”

“Definitely.”

Goro sighs as dramatically as he can. “Fine. Get out.”

Kurusu nods solemnly and stands up. He looks like he’s about to say something else, or lean over to give Goro a masculine, heterosexual pat on the arm or some shit; but then he looks Goro in the eye and seems to decide against whatever it was, sliding his hands into his pockets.

Goro looks away, at the TV screen. Someone’s - scored, or whatever. Hurray.

He wants to sleep for a decade.

“Hey, Akechi-”

He turns his head just in time to see Kurusu throw Goro’s phone straight at him; somehow he manages to catch it, instead of it landing directly on his face, but it’s close. He’d turned it off and flung it at the wall hours ago, because it kept buzzing and he absolutely couldn’t deal with that. He’d kind of been hoping the impact had just broken it for good, but no such luck, of course.

Kurusu has the grace to look a bit apologetic about tossing it directly at his head, at least. He says, “You really should keep your phone on.”

“Just go,” says Goro.

He goes.

 


 

Akira: i’ve never seen anyone get meaner after their heart was stolen before btw
Goro: What can I say? I’m talented.
Akira: lol
Akira: you’re just not bullshitting me anymore. it’s interesting
Akira: see u tomorrow
Goro: I really wish you’d learn to type like a grown-up.
Akira: lmao
Akira: nite ;)
Goro: Fuck you.

 


 

For months before it happened, Goro daydreamed about killing Akira Kurusu. Not the way he was actually going to do it - the way he wanted to do it, secrecy and practicality be damned. It went like this:

You’re friends. You act like you’re slipping bits of information about yourself to him, bat your lashes and give him the big sad orphan eyes. (Everything you tell him is a lie, of course. If he knows anything real about you, that’s it, you’ve already lost.) You always stand a bit too close, lean a bit too far in, put your hand on his arm casually, like you don’t realise that it might mean something. You invite him to the movies or some shit.

And then, when this has been going on for - well, long enough, fantasies don’t really need an explicit timeline - you make your move. You find a way to be alone in that miserable attic with him and tell him something like Oh, Akira, you’re sooo special, the fact that you’ve never used a comb just turns me on so much, I can’t live with this secret eating away at me! I’m just so desperate for juvenile delinquent dick! Take me now!

(Maybe sometimes this part was a bit more earnest than that, but that’s awfully close to actually planning some kind of confession, don’t you think?)

But here is an essential part: before the idiot manages to stutter out an answer, you act all wounded again -oh Akira what was I thinking, you’d never want someone like me, I’m not worthy of you and anyway you definitely seem straight, how foolish I’ve been! Et cetera. Twist those heart strings, make him think about how bad he feels for you. Lean in just far enough that when he kisses you, he thinks it was his idea.

Don’t let it go too far yet. Leave him there to jerk off over the thought of you. (Something about this detail always got to Goro, made his toes curl.)

Play it out for as long as you want after that - you can fill in the details at your leisure. What it comes down to is the ending: straddling him on that sad little mattress, his cock deep inside you, and just as he’s about to come you wrap your hands around his throat, stare him straight in the eyes, and squeeze.

Don’t say anything. Hold him down. You’re almost the same size and build but you have surprise on your side; he’ll fight back, leave you with bruises to remember him by, but that’s part of the fun. Feel the vibrations of his larynx under your palms, watch the colour of his face change and the anger turn to fear. Let him spend those long final seconds looking at you, knowing that you beat him.

Usually that’s where it ended, but Goro let it go a bit longer sometimes: imagined Morgana, coming back from… wherever Goro’s imagination has banished him, whatever, who cares - coming back and finding him naked and stiff in his own bed. The shock and pain on his idiot friends’ faces. He could play up his own distress, maybe join the investigation? Maybe. Maybe that was a bit much.

It was overall a deeply adolescent fantasy, but hey, even Detective Princes have needs, right?

 


 

Kurusu comes by the next afternoon, like he said he would. Goro doesn’t get up when Kurusu starts knocking - thinks, bitterly, of making him wait at the door, to prove that Goro still has something resembling power in whatever this relationship is - but then it turns out he hadn’t actually locked his goddamn door the day before, so that’s a wash, and Kurusu just strolls right on in. At least it means Goro doesn’t have to get out of his futon.

Kurusu peers around the folding screen, the ugly one the previous tenants had left, down at Goro. “How are you feeling?”

He feels like he’s drowning in memories. He feels like bashing his own head in with a rock. He keeps thinking how fucking stupid he was, to convince himself that becoming Masayoshi Shido’s attack dog, his pet, doing his dirty work, was ever going to get him anything, ever going to make his life into something worthwhile. He’d felt so tangibly close to pulling off the long con, felt invincible; but why would he ever expect something to work out the way he wanted?

“I’m great,” he says. “Peachy. How are you.”

Kurusu’s doing that thing where he taps at the ground with one foot, so absently it seems like he’s not aware of it. “I got melon pan on the way here, if you want some.”

Goro is so, so tired. “Stop acting like I’m some… some wounded animal you have to feed until I get better.”

Kurusu looks at him. Goro feels like he must be thinking, Aren’t you? He says, “I told you yesterday what you wanted to know. I want to know how you’re doing. Seriously.”

“So you can report back to your little friends about it?” says Goro darkly.

Alarmingly, Kurusu seems to give that statement serious and measured consideration. “Partially,” he says after a moment. “Mostly because you’re a mess.”

Goro stares at him. Sits up. “You’re a total asshole when you want to be, Kurusu, do you know that?”

Kurusu tilts his head to the side a little. “I really don’t mean to be,” he says, and honestly that’s hard to fucking swallow, but. Well. Remember who he’s talking to.

Goro rolls away onto his side and covers his head with his pillow, as pointedly as he can. After a moment he hears the sound of Kurusu’s footsteps moving away. Good. Fuck off.

He wants to try to go back to sleep, but he knows there’s no point; he could barely sleep all night, despite how desperately he wants to. He’s not going to be suddenly able to relax now that Joker of all people is wandering around doing god-knows-what in his apartment. Even normally, he can never fall asleep when anyone else is around.

Still. It’s not like he wants to get up, either. So he closes his eyes and keeps thinking about Kurusu.

Goro has wondered a lot - more than he probably should have - what could have possibly made Kurusu the way he is. Not just what made him an intolerable busybody, so convinced that there's a right side to justice and he's on it (though Goro certainly wonders about that too), but - where did that preternatural calm come from, the cool predator stare? Goro knows a thing or two about facades, and as far as he can tell, that part of Kurusu isn't one. He’d made that clear in the interrogation room: take Joker’s mask off and you’ll still have Joker.

No wonder Kurusu saw through Goro so quickly. Goro had thought he was so special, the smartest guy in any room, a real life chosen one, but the idea seems so ludicrous to him now; he'd only ever grasped a fraction of the strength Kurusu so nonchalantly wielded. (Because Goro's pathetic, a monster, disposable trash -)

So how does a person, a child, get that way, in small town Kanto, with two parents? What could they possibly think of him? They’d sent him here - were they relieved to be temporarily rid of this strange force of nature in a teenager's body? Was he just a nuisance delinquent to them, ruining the family's reputation? Or did they actually love him?

And what the hell is he doing in Goro’s kitchen?

He gets up, follows the sound of running water into the kitchenette. To see-

“Are you doing my dishes?"

Kurusu turns around and says, “It was my fault they were dirty.” Which is true. “I kind of tidied up, too. I hope you don’t mind.”

Goro doesn’t have enough things for his apartment to get messy, which is sort of the point of not having things. Still. His sad little pile of tissues is gone and his jacket has been hung up, and everything else looks a bit more… arranged. It’s… nice? Really invasive and completely unnecessary. But it was nice of him.

So. Maybe he should try a bit harder. He leans against the cupboards.

“What happened to your hands?” says Kurusu - absently, but in a calculated sort of way, like he’s been waiting to bring it up. Goro looks down. They look better than they’d looked the day before, but they’re still a bit bruised and scraped from hitting the ground. He hadn’t realised it was very noticeable to other people.

“I fell,” he says, which is the most transparent shit in the world, but what is he going to say, I tried to follow you into my Palace and failed utterly and then lost my shit about it like a toddler? God. No. Absolutely not.

Kurusu looks a bit concerned but doesn’t pursue it, and maybe that’s what makes Goro decide to answer his question. “You… you wanted to know how I’m feeling,” he says.

Kurusu puts the towel he was holding down on the counter, and nods.

Goro takes a deep breath. He’s only saying this because there’s no one else in the world he can talk to, and because he feels so awful that if he doesn’t talk to someone he’s going to throw himself out of a window. He’s not saying it because he thinks Kurusu gives a shit about him or could possibly understand.

“When I was… when I was a kid, one of my foster families…” He’s not sure how to put it. He sighs and starts again. “They were pretty good, actually, but the woman, her father was a drunk. The nicest old man you’ve ever met when he was sober and the absolute meanest when he wasn’t.” He looks at Kurusu. He’s nodding again, which is incredibly annoying. “God, I’m not comparing myself to that part. What I mean is, he’d say all this shit one night and then the next day if anyone told him what happened he was just horrified. Legitimately, I think. Couldn’t remember it or understand why he’d said it, even though he clearly meant every word at the time.”

Kurusu says, “You feel like that.”

“Yeah. Except I remember everything I did.”

Kurusu looks thoughtful for a moment. “That was a good foster family?”

Well. What did he think was going to happen if he told anyone that shit. “Yeah, Kurusu, that’s it, you’ve figured me out. Great job. You’re the real detective here. You know that wasn’t my point.” He rubs the bridge of his nose miserably. “Shit, you’re just going to tell everyone that whole story, aren’t you.”

Kurusu says, “I’m good at keeping secrets,” like he’s fucking twelve years old and had been entrusted with the name of Goro’s first crush or something. “When I said I’d report back, I meant… generally. And I was kind of joking, too.”

Goro can’t help smiling a little. “You have a terrible sense of humour."

“No, I’m really funny,” says Kurusu, very solemnly. Goro snorts. “Are you sure you don’t want the melon pan?” he continues, holding up his bag. “I’m gonna eat it if you don’t.”

Goro’s already out of bed and talking to him, so. “Fine. Give it here.”

It’s really good. He’d barely touched the curry the other day. And apparently they’re just… hanging out in Goro’s kitchen, now, so with as much dignity as he can muster he hops up onto the empty countertop by the fridge. Watches Kurusu finish cleaning the plate and set it aside to dry. It’s not a bad sort of silence. He doesn’t mind it.

Then Kurusu turns to him and says, “I need you to tell me about Shido.”

Goro feels momentarily winded. He knew it. He knew it. Kurusu isn’t here to hear how he’s doing or keep him company. He just wants something from him. He’s exactly like everyone else in the world and Goro should know better than to be disappointed.

“Akechi?”

“You don’t need me to do anything,” he says, drawing himself up cold and stiff and as imposingly as he can. “You’re the big mastermind here, aren’t you? Figure it out yourself. You probably learned more than enough traipsing through my head, anyway.”

Kurusu’s expression has gone very still. “Calm down,” he says.

“No,” says Goro, and instantly regrets how childishly petulant he sounds, but he can’t seem to stop himself. “You just ruined my life, I’m not helping you with anything.”

“Well, you tried to kill me, so I think we’re about even.” Kurusu stands up straight from his slouch. His expression is obscured behind hair and lenses. He sounds like he’s being very careful about every word. “I’d think you of all people would want to help with this.”

Goro knows he deserves it but it sucks, it sucks, to have the murder attempt thrown in his face, like he could possibly forget that he’s a monster. It’s not even close to the worst thing he’s done. His jaw is so tense it hurts.

Kurusu says, “Whatever, dude. I thought…” He shakes his head minutely. “Whatever. We can talk tomorrow.”

He leaves. Or Goro thinks he does, until Kurusu adds from the door, sounding the most annoyed Goro’s ever heard him, “If this is your bike in the hall you’d better move it before it gets stolen.”

Goro looks at his balcony. His bike isn’t there. Shit.

“Akechi-”

“I’m coming,” says Goro, and stalks over to the door. Apparently he’d just thrown it against the hallway wall when he got back. He really doesn’t remember the process of getting home from his Palace at all. “Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”

“Why do you think?” says Kurusu. He sighs, heavily. “Look. I get that this sucks for you. I really do. Just… could you try to think of other people for once?”

Akira Kurusu is the most self-righteous, condescending, insufferable son of a bitch Goro’s ever had the misfortune to meet. “What, like you do?” Goro spits out. “Give me a fucking break, Joker, you don’t care about people. You just want to feel superior to them.”

Kurusu looks a bit taken aback. Good. “That’s not true,” he says.

“Really?” He moves forward, gets in Kurusu’s face, exploits what little height advantage he has as much as he can. Kurusu just stares at him and doesn’t blink. “No one forced you to try to get famous off this shit. No one needed to ever hear about the Phantom Thieves, you could have done everything completely in the shadows and you didn’t. And don’t blame your goddamn friends for that, we both know who’s in charge of your little operation. Do you really, seriously think you’re all that different from me?”

Kurusu squares his jaw and says, “I’m trying to be.” He takes one deliberate step back - I’m not intimidated by you, that movement says, I’m just done with this. “See you tomorrow, Akechi. Bye.”

Chapter Text

Akira: hey
Akira: can’t make it today after all
Akira: rly busy
Akira: hope not having to see me cheers you up lol
Akira: pls think about the shido thing
Akira: you KNOW it’s more important than how much you hate me

 


 

When Goro Akechi was almost sixteen, he dreamt of a royal blue crypt. It was cold, and drafty, and empty and not empty at the same time.

The memory of it tried to slip away from him when he woke, as dreams do, but something about it seemed special, different. So he clung to it as best he could, tried his hardest to piece it together: luminescent golden eyes, he remembers; a certain tune; a butterfly so black that it seemed like a hole in the world. And a voice that said, “You will find yourself in Mementos.”

He had been following his father for months at that point. He was still in the Metropolitan Assembly in those days, and most afternoons, after school, Goro would head down to where his office was, to do his homework in the cafe across the street and wait to see Shido emerge. He learned his habits, his subway route (Shido still took trains back then; Goro relished the few times he managed to get in the same car as him, overheard him complaining about colleagues on the phone). He learned where he lived. He didn’t know what he was going to do with any of this information yet, but he was smart. He’d figure it out.

One evening, waiting for his train home from the Assembly building, Goro found a strange app on his phone. Felt strangely compelled to open it. Thought of the word from his dream.

You know how this goes.

In the depths he met a man. He looked like the owner of the cafe Goro frequented, except his eyes were wrong. The man told Goro that he hated his wife, that she had their child to trap him, that all he thought about every day was beating both of their heads in until they shut the hell up for good. He said, how fucking dare you look at me like that, kid.

Something about him made Goro think about everyone he’d ever loathed, everyone who’d ever touched or hurt or abandoned him. The way he and his mother were treated like trash by everyone in the world, used and thrown away. The way she’d just accepted it. She’d thrown herself away, she’d finished the job. She hadn’t even had the decency to take him with her.

Which meant he was still here. He didn’t have to be the same.

The man shifted and changed. His mouth opened too wide.

The voice in his heart said, I’ve awaited thee for too long. Promise thyself to me, and thou wilt never again be held by the bonds of despondency. Yes. Good. I am thou and thou art I; and now we shall mix the mead of these men with malice.

It hurt more than anything else in his life. It felt like his brain was being wrenched out of his skull through his eye sockets. He was screaming and bloody and then he was stronger than he’d ever imagined was possible.

Loki defended him. He defended himself. He wanted to kill the man but Loki laughed and said, Thou canst do better than that; and so Goro reached out and took hold of something delicate inside the man’s heart and twisted it.

The man screamed for an eternity and then dissolved into shadow.

He got home far too late that night, but his foster father’s anger didn’t even matter because he knew he had been blessed. The next day at the cafe, he heard the waitresses say that their boss had been into an accident, driven his car straight into a moving cargo train; and Goro couldn’t stop himself from smiling because now he finally knew how to make his father learn his name.

 


 

It’s dark on the fourth day after Goro’s heart was stolen when Kurusu next shows up at Goro’s door. He knocks three times and Goro opens it because, well... he hadn’t loved being alone. He doesn’t say anything, though.

Kurusu doesn’t act like he’s still pissed, even though he must be. He says, “Hey,” very normally, and sprawls sideways in Goro’s desk chair again, and yawns wide. “Sorry,” he says when he’s done. Smiles sheepishly at him a little, takes a long swig out of the travel mug he’s carrying. Goro leans against the wall. He knows this act, he’s been feigning untouchability for years, and Kurusu knows he knows it, so what the hell is he trying to pull?

“How can you be ‘busy’ when you’re clearly not going to school?” Goro says after a moment, eyeing the hooded sweatshirt Kurusu’s wearing under his jacket. It’s sloppy and ordinary but somehow it kind of works for him. Or maybe Goro just likes seeing the dip of his clavicle.

Kurusu shrugs and says, “It’s a gift.”

“Hm,” says Goro. Crosses his arms. “You’re only skipping school to maintain the ruse of being dead, correct?”

“Correct, detective,” says Kurusu, although not mockingly - he sounds entertained, almost… fond.

“I could have called Shido and told him you were alive, you know. You could be totally wasting your time.”

Kurusu smiles big and dazzling at him. “You didn’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“You wouldn’t be bringing this up as a hypothetical if you’d actually done it,” he says, “and anyway, I don’t believe you’d do it to begin with, even if I hadn’t changed your heart. You always wanted to deal with me yourself. It’d ruin the game if you brought Shido into it directly. Right?”

Of course he’s right. He’s always right, isn’t he? Acting like he figured that shit out himself when he’s seen inside Goro’s head is fucking cheap. Goro glares at him and then blurts out, before he realises what he’s doing, “I need to shower.”

“Oh,” says Kurusu. “Okay.”

“I was about to,” he adds, “before you showed up.”

Kurusu shrugs a little. “Don’t let me stop you.”

He wasn’t actually about to shower but he does need to. Maybe he announced it because he wanted to get out of this weird conversation, which feels so much like the mid-stages of the cat-and-mouse game they used to play. Maybe he just feels like shit, being seen by Kurusu in the same clothes he’s been wearing for days with grease in his hair.

He doesn’t know how to leave the conversation gracefully, though that used to be a talent of his, so he just goes straight into the bathroom and locks the door. He turns just the cold water on and lets it go until he feels too numb to think. You’re going to make yourself sick, he thinks in his mother’s voice after a while, sharp and annoyed, and makes himself get out.

When he turns the water off it occurs to him that, well - he’d sort of thought, if he was ever undressed this close to Akira Kurusu, it’d be a bit more exciting, more of an… occasion, you know. Ha. Figures.

When he goes back into the main room, towel wrapped high like a girl for modesty’s sake, he intends to go straight behind the folding screen and get changed, but he can’t help looking over at Kurusu. Just to make sure he hasn’t started sorting Goro’s books in gojuon order, or something equally intrusive and bizarre.

What he finds is that Kurusu has moved the chair just far enough to lean back against the wall, using one hand as a cushion for his head, with his eyes shut firm and his glasses tucked into the neck of his shirt. Goro can’t imagine how he could possibly be able to doze off like this, in the home of his literal enemy, no matter how declawed that enemy might be. But then, he’s pretty sure he once saw Kurusu sleep standing up on a packed subway platform and jolt to full attention the moment his train arrived.

His face looks naked, without glasses or a mask; bare and young and frustratingly attractive. He has the longest eyelashes Goro’s ever seen on a boy.

Kurusu shifts. Opens his eyes and looks straight into Goro’s, blinking lazily at him like a cat.

Goro turns his head immediately, as if that would disguise the fact that he’d been staring at Kurusu in a towel like a total lunatic, and walks briskly but not too briskly behind the folding screen. Pulls it completely closed. Sits on the floor and buries his face in his hands.

The day before had been… bad. The worst day he’d had since this bullshit started, which was saying something. He’d been mostly holding himself together until Kurusu had cancelled, and then it had hit him that there was absolutely nothing else in his life anymore. Just himself, and his past, and his gun, and a phone that keeps ringing which he can’t bring himself to answer.

He has to fucking get it together.

He stands up and puts on the first shirt and khakis he grabs, and towels his hair until it stops dripping. Reaches automatically for his cologne, but it’s the one Shido bought him (or rather, gave him a 10,000 yen note and told him to buy, because he didn’t want to work with anyone who smelled like a drugstore), so… maybe not. And maybe it’s weird, anyway, to put cologne on when you have someone over, especially if you have a fraught relationship with that person. He imagines it: Kurusu instantly just assuming that Goro put cologne on for him because what else could it be for, it’s not like he’s left his apartment recently. Yeah, no. None of that, thank you.

And then he goes back into the main room with as much dignity as he can muster and says to Kurusu, who’s drinking from his travel mug with one hand and holding his phone in the other, “How much do you know about Shido?”

Kurusu looks up at him. Puts the phone down on Goro’s desk and swallows his coffee hastily. “Um,” he says. Counts out each point on his fingers. “He’s popular. He’s been rising in politics for about a decade. He’s a litigious rapist.”

Goro wants to punch him in the throat. “That’s not funny.”

“I know it isn’t, I’m not joking.” Kurusu looks exasperated. “I’m sorry if that sounded glib. I’m just tired. And it is the literal first thing I ever learned about him, you know.”

Ugh. Okay. “And?” he says.

“And he’s your father,” says Kurusu, a bit reluctantly, like it’s just occurring to him that calling someone’s dad a rapist to their face is a minefield. “And he was using you.”

“I was using him,” says Goro, as firmly as he can. It’s true. He needs it to sound true.

Kurusu says, “Okay. Sure.”

“What does that mean?”

Kurusu looks as tired as Goro feels, which is kind of satisfying, at least. “It means sure, Akechi. I’m trying really hard to get along with you today, man, can we please just have a normal conversation for once?”

Goro hugs his arms and wishes he had more than one chair, or that Kurusu would stop taking his. “I don’t-” he begins, and then his phone, on the desk next to Kurusu’s, vibrates. Insistently. It’s ringing.

Kurusu looks at it and looks at Goro and a light goes into his eyes. He says, very quickly, “He’s been calling you and you haven’t been answering.”

“Yes,” says Goro, because he doesn’t know what else to say.

Kurusu grabs it, holds it out to Goro, suddenly fast and alert. “You need to answer it.”

“I do not need to-”

“You do, he’s dangerous and now he’s pissed at you. Do it.”

“I can’t talk to him when I’m... when I’m the way I’ve been,” Goro says. He hasn’t been able to bring himself to return calls to his stupid school.

“Crow, you are the greatest bullshitter I’ve ever met, you have to answer this phone.” And Goro knows he’s only calling him by his stupid codename to be manipulative, to remind him of when they worked together, to make him feel like part of his team-

He takes the phone. Takes a deep breath and answers it. “Hello.”

“It’s about time, Akechi,” says Shido. “Do you seriously think I have time to be chasing after a kid who won’t return my calls? Do you think that’s my priority right now?”

“No, sir,” says Goro. His throat feels thick. “I’m sorry. I’ve been sick.”

“Let me tell you something about the real world, Akechi,” says Shido. “In the real world, no one cares if you’re sick or miserable or if your leg’s just been sawn off. You still show up to work and you return your damn calls. If you were half as mature as you pretend to be you’d already know that.”

“Yes sir,” he says, and gestures frantically at Kurusu to get out of his fucking chair before his legs collapse. Kurusu stares blankly at him for a moment before getting up, and Goro falls into the chair with cold relief. “I’m really sorry, sir.”

“Now,” says Shido. Sighs. “I need you to do another favour for me.”

“Oh,” says Goro, and closes his eyes. “Wh-what might that be?” That stutter. Awful.

“It’s about the loyal customers of our… business,” he says. “How about you take care of all the ones that seem suspicious? As many as you need to.”

Everyone who’d wanted someone out of their lives. Well, honestly - they’re all suspicious. Although he means any that are potentially threatening to him, of course. He says, stupidly, “Right now? With the election coming up?”

“Yes, the sooner the better,” Shido says.

That’s so many people. He wants him to kill so many people. “But- wouldn’t it look fishy, sir, if a large number of people were… were taken out of commission just before-”

“Are you,” says Shido smoothly, “talking back to me?”

Shit. “No, sir,” he says, fast. “I’m just concerned about how this might affect your chances. I understand why you might be-” Don’t insult him, for the love of God don’t accidentally insult him- “-uneasy, but surely it would be less risky to wait until after the election, when things calm down.”

Shido is silent for a moment. Then he says, “You disappear for days and then you argue with me. Interesting. Have you become some kind of campaign advisor while you weren’t answering your phone? Are you an elections expert now?”

“No... sir.”

“No,” says Shido, and laughs and adds, “you’ve never even voted.”

Goro laughs too, as accommodatingly as he can. “This will be the first time, sir, you’re right.”

“So maybe, Akechi, you should listen to your elders and take your damn orders. Do you have any other opinions you want to share with me?”

“No, sir,” says Goro. His chest hurts. “I’m, ah - again, I’m very sorry. Consider that favour done.”

“I should hope so,” says Shido, and hangs up.

Goro lets the phone fall onto the desk. Presses a hand to his mouth.

Kurusu says, from very far away, “Okay. Okay, that was good. Hey.” He’s half-kneeling in front of Goro now, so that his face is just below eye-level, and carefully takes Goro’s free hand in one of his. Goro looks down at him. Tries to get him into focus. “Hey,” Kurusu repeats, “that was really good.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Goro says, and hates how strained his voice sounds. He hopes it wasn’t like that when he was talking to Shido, he thought it wasn’t, he used to be so good at being in control, but...

“I’m serious, Akechi.” Kurusu smiles. “From one bullshitter to another, that was fantastic.” Goro must still look dubious, because he adds, “If it was me… I just deny things, act all vapid, you know? And I’m really good at that but I can’t really hold a conversation like you just did.”

Goro can’t think of a response to that for what feels like far too long. Eventually he says, “You held conversations with me.”

“You’re a special case,” says Kurusu.

Goro’s not in the mood for deciphering Joker’s weird deadpan bullshit. He looks down at their hands. Kurusu’s grip is so light he can hardly feel it but his thumb is stroking the back of Goro’s hand.

“Do you... usually react like this after you talk to him?” Kurusu says, uncharacteristically hesitant.

Goro snorts, doesn’t quite look him in the eye, and pulls his hand out of Kurusu’s grasp. “No, because usually I haven’t had all this...” He gestures vaguely, as if he can encapsulate it all in a hand movement. “This shit going on.”

Kurusu makes a soft, thoughtful noise.

Goro hesitates. Admits it. “Sometimes I do. But, I mean.” He tries to force his voice to sound calm, dismissive. It only half works. “Usually, it’s fine. It’s just... well. No one likes getting yelled at.”

“That’s definitely true,” says Kurusu, a smile in his voice, which makes Goro feel a bit guilty. But that’s not the most pressing issue.

“He wants me to kill more people, Kurusu. A lot more. Even before I wouldn’t have wanted to.” He wasn’t a psychopath, or at least he probably wasn’t. He’s thought about it a lot, and not just in the past few days. It’s important for Kurusu to know that he’s probably never been a psychopath.

“Okay,” says Kurusu. He doesn’t look surprised, but he doesn’t look very collected either, for once. He looks like he’s thinking very hard. “Okay. We’ll figure it out.”

“Will we?” says Goro. “He’s going to keep calling me. Me, not ‘us’.

Kurusu says, “Meet with the rest of us. Tomorrow’s Saturday, so after school. Leblanc. The sooner we deal with Shido the better, especially if he’s getting paranoid; we can all help each other.” He’s seconds from falling into the faux-concerned counsellor voice Goro remembers from after his mother died. Help us help you.

Still. Maybe it’s worth a try. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt. It seems more likely that it’ll be a fucking disaster, but what else is he doing with his time now? He nods, regretting it even as he does.

Kurusu beams. “I’ll come pick you up,” he says, like it’s a date.

“You know I know where Leblanc is,” Goro says flatly.

“Yeah, but I want to make sure you actually show up,” says Kurusu, still smiling. “No offense.”

“Right.” Because he’s a child who needs to be chaperoned. A dog who needs to be kept on a leash. Great.

Maybe he’s just always going to be someone’s dog. Maybe he just has to deal with that.

 


 

The first thing Goro says when Kurusu arrives the next day is, “This is an awful idea, Kurusu, haven’t you thought about it?”

Kurusu gets a look on his face like he thinks Goro is just being dramatic, or trying to get out of it, but Goro continues, pacing around the room. “Someone’s going to recognize me on the street. They always do. And if they recognize me they’ll look at you, and - and even if they don’t, someone’s bound to take pictures. The pair of us will be all over the internet.” He snaps his fingers. “Instantly. And then we’re both fucked.”

“Oh,” says Kurusu. “You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. I’m not suddenly stupid now that I’m- I’m like this.” He feels stupid all the time now, actually, like the biggest moron on the planet, but he can’t stand the thought of Kurusu agreeing with that.

“I didn’t think you were,” says Kurusu - genuinely, not in annoyance or obligation. He presses a finger to his lips thoughtfully for a moment, and then says, “Do you own a hoodie?”

Goro stops pacing and stares at him.

Kurusu laughs a little. “Right. Stupid question. Take mine.” And then he takes his jacket off, unzips his grey sweatshirt. His t-shirt is a bit bunched up underneath it, and Goro catches a glimpse of the pale skin of his abdomen for a second before Kurusu adjusts it and holds out the hoodie. He says, “Come on, Akechi. It has to be something that’s not your style, right?”

“I suppose,” says Goro, not reaching for it. “You’ll still be noticeable, though.”

“I’ll just be a kid who looks a bit like the dead Phantom Thief. Weird but not inexplicable. I wouldn’t pay all that much attention to that if I was just a member of the public - would you?”

“Hm,” says Goro. “I hope you’re right.” He takes the sweatshirt. Puts it on, self-consciously, over his button-up.

Kurusu looks amused by his reluctance. “You must have worn a hoodie before, Akechi. You weren’t born in a school uniform.”

“You don’t know that,” says Goro, but smiles. “Of course I have, it’s just... not something I was going to waste my clothes budget on.” Because the first money of his own he could ever spend on clothes was from Shido, and he had to be professional, and anyway it’s not like he wanted to keep wearing sloppy third- and fourth-hand clothes if he didn’t have to. He needed as much distance between himself and that part of his life as possible. So.

He zips it up. Says to Kurusu, who’s looking at him appraisingly, “How bad is it?”

“What? Not bad at all. I’m not going to insult you for wearing my clothes, dude.” He walks over to Goro and moves in a bit too close, but all he’s doing is pulling the hood up over his head, adjusting it a little. Gently nudging strands of Goro’s hair back. The fabric of the hood smells intensely like coffee, and also like teen boy, but not in a bad way. “There,” Kurusu says, not stepping away, one hand resting on Goro’s shoulder like he’s forgotten it. He smiles. “Seriously, it looks good on you. You can keep it if you want, I have another.”

“Maybe,” Goro says. He’s not sure what to do with this, with how unnecessarily kind Kurusu is being, with how comfortable it is - has been lately, even when Goro’s fucking furious; maybe always has been - to talk to him. Kurusu’s face is so close to his. He could lean forward and kiss him so easily, he’d barely have to move. He won’t. It’d be a nightmare if he did. But he could.

Kurusu tilts his head. Gets a look on his face, the I just figured out how to get past this locked door look. Says, “Actually -” and takes his glasses off and holds them out.

“Are you kidding?” says Goro.

“I just want to see,” says Kurusu. He slips the glasses onto Goro’s nose, and Goro reaches up to help adjust them because, well, what else is he going to do? Their fingers brush but Kurusu doesn’t seem to react so Goro tries not to either.

The lenses are exactly as fake as Goro’s always suspected. Kurusu steps back a little and looks absolutely delighted with himself.

“You’re an asshole,” Goro says.

“No, I promise I’m not making fun of you. You look cute. You should take a look.” And Goro could think about this damn boy calling him cute, or he could go look in the mirror, so he goes into the bathroom.

He looks… fine. Goro wouldn’t call it cute, himself, but that’s not a descriptor he particularly cares for in general, so whatever. He mostly thinks he looks uncomfortable, and like he needs either a nap or several litres of coffee, but he doesn’t… hate it. And he doesn’t look much like he does on TV, which is the important thing.

Something occurs to him. He says, loudly so it carries into the main room, “Wait - did you have these on in your mugshots?”

Kurusu appears in the doorway. “Oh. No, I didn’t.”

“You should keep them, then.”

“Good thinking,” says Kurusu, though he sounds a bit disappointed.

The weather that day is crisp and sunny, though cold enough that Goro regrets not wearing his gloves, cold enough that Kurusu hunches over and shoves his hands in his pockets even more than usual. Goro feels like he’s missed a huge part of the change of seasons, even though it hasn’t even been a week since this all started. Everyone else’s lives kept going and he just... stayed inside and thought about death and waited for Kurusu to show up at his door. It’s so fucking pathetic, when he lays it out like that. He’s so pathetic.

Maybe he should just think about how nice it is to be on the train, with Kurusu, and with no one recognizing him. He feels a bit like he’s some paranoid, aging ex-celebrity, actually, with the absolute lack of attention he’s getting - like he was being absurd to worry in the first place. Maybe he’s just a total has-been loser now. Maybe he was just so good at curating his public image that no one could possibly imagine him in casual clothes, so this is actually an accomplishment. Whatever.

A huge group of middle school girls are in their train car, so they don’t get seats; but the crowd presses Kurusu’s shoulder lightly against Goro’s back, and they listen to the girls chat about their teachers, and test scores, and boyfriends, until they reach Yongen-Jaya.

“Hey, Akechi,” says Kurusu as they leave the subway station. “Since you have more than one Persona-” (he says this so confidently, even though Goro’s positive he never confirmed it to him; his Shadow clearly had one hell of a blabbermouth) “-you must have met…” He draws his fingers in front of his face, like he’s indicating a long nose. What? Is this a weird joke about his mask?

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Goro blankly. And beyond that... when he tries to think about what Kurusu just said, it feels like his thoughts are slipping away from him, like water off a steep roof.

“Oh,” says Kurusu, and shoves his hands back into his pockets. “Of course not. Never mind.”

Leblanc is closed when they reach it. Before Kurusu opens the door, Goro takes the hood off and finger-combs his hair until it feels presentable. “You ready?” says Kurusu, smiling a little.

Of course he isn’t. He pats his hair down one last time and says, “Let’s just go in.”

It’s only Takamaki, Sakamoto, and Morgana, sitting at one of the booths. Sojiro Sakura isn’t there. The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, but the instant the door opens they go quiet and stare. At Goro, mostly, of course. Goro can’t read their expressions. He stands, uncomfortably, by the door.

“Hey,” says Kurusu, striding behind the counter. “You guys want coffee?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” says Takamaki, a bit too perkily, not taking her eyes off Goro. “Cream and sugar.”

“None for me,” says Sakamoto, and holds up his can of cola, and now really isn’t the time for Goro to let himself get annoyed over absolutely nothing but good god, the guy has the palate of a six-year-old, what on earth does Kurusu see in this guy? What about him could be remotely appealing to someone like Joker? How did the Phantom Thieves end up with a dumb punk like him a central part of their stupid fucking group?

“Akechi?” says Kurusu. “Coffee?”

“Sure,” he says. “Black.”

“I know,” says Kurusu.

“You can sit down, Akechi,” says Morgana, who’s standing on the booth table between Takamaki and Sakamoto. “We won’t bite.”

“Speak for yourself,” says Sakamoto, and laughs, and says “No, dude, I’m kidding. Sit down.” Goro hates him. But he feels stupid standing by the door like this, so he sits uncomfortably at one of the high bar stools at the counter, facing towards the group. They probably wanted him to sit at the booth, but that’s not his problem.

They sit in silence, listening to Kurusu make coffee. Eventually Goro says to Kurusu, because someone has to say something, “Sakura’s not here?”

“Boss and Futaba-chan decided they didn’t want to see you, so they went to the movies,” says Takamaki, even though he clearly hadn’t been addressing her. “Um. No offense.”

“Right,” Goro says. That’s fair. That’s a bit of a relief, in fact, even though it stings. The thought of seeing Futaba Sakura and Haru Okumura has been making him feel genuinely nauseous.

“Sorry, Akechi, we’re way early,” says Kurusu from behind the coffee machines. “I factored a bit too much time in for getting here, I guess.” He must have been expecting Goro to make even more of a fuss than he did, which is humiliating. “Everyone else should be here soon.”

There’s another painfully long silence. Kurusu sets a cup of coffee on the counter for Goro, and another on the table for Takamaki. He watches her pour extra cream and sugar into her cup until it’s not coffee-coloured anymore.

“So uh,” says Sakamoto. “You feel… different?”

“That’s a stupid question,” says Goro. “Would I be here if I didn’t?” Kurusu sits on a stool too, with his own cup, not next to him but one over.

Morgana looks up from licking his front paw and says, “I thought you were here because Akira twisted your arm.”

He doesn’t… like the idea of Kurusu talking about him with them. At all. He knew he must, that’s what people with friends do, but he still can’t bear it. He snaps, “I’m here because apparently you idiots need help doing your own fucking jobs,” and takes a pointed drink of his coffee. It’s superb, which is unsurprising but irritating.

Takamaki and Sakamoto exchange a long glance, and then Sakamoto says, “Dude, the real you is super rude, huh?”

“I thought it was just your Shadow,” says Takamaki in surprised agreement. The irony of the hooligan and the American (or... whatever she is) thinking he’s bad-mannered, no matter how correct they might be, doesn’t escape him.

“I did tell you,” says Kurusu, lightly.

Goro’s jaw seems to involuntarily clench. “Did you,” he says. He looks at them, their wide-open expressions. Looks at Kurusu, who has his blank face on. “Should we go over exactly how much you’ve said about me?” He can imagine it. You should have seen him cry, guys. Shido called and he looked like he was about to shit himself. Every time I touch him he’s SO into it, he practically loses his mind, it’s hysterical. He knows this is uncharitable, unlikely, but… but still.

“Oh,” says Takamaki, just cheerfully dismissive enough for it to sound suspicious, “he really didn’t tell us anything, Akechi.”

“Yeah, dude, he’s a closed book.” Sakamoto doesn’t sound like he’s bullshitting, at least. Morgana makes a noise of agreement.

Kurusu finishes a long, unperturbed sip of coffee and says, “I told them you’d probably be pretty hostile, but you’re just like that. And you don’t really mean most of what you say. That’s all.”

“It’s just a surprise, actually seeing it in real life,” adds Takamaki, the way you talk about seeing an animal in the wild for the first time. “You know?”

Goro doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just kind of huffs and drinks his coffee. He feels strangely hurt, though he shouldn’t be; it’s not like Kurusu was going to tell them, Oh, he’s a delight to be around.

At least they all seem earnest. That doesn’t mean they are, but they’re doing a good show of it, at least.

The bell at the door jingles. They all turn to look in sync. It’s Okumura, alone, looking drawn and anxious and tiny in that huge pink sweater of hers. “Oh no, am I late?” she says, very softly, not looking directly at Goro.

“These guys were all early,” says Morgana. “Come sit down.”

Takamaki pats the empty booth cushion next to her. “Did you see Makoto or Yusuke?”

“Makoto said she’d be running late. Um, something about college acceptance, I think. I don’t know about Yusuke-kun.” Okumura gives Goro a very wide berth when she moves to sit next to Takamaki. He watches Takamaki intertwine her arm with Okumura’s and squeeze her hand reassuringly, watches Morgana hops up onto her shoulders.

They wouldn’t be acting like that if Goro wasn’t here. Why is he here? They all know he’s not needed. All he’s doing is making this girl, who he barely even knows, completely miserable. Because he’s the monster who killed her dad without blinking. Who, he remembers suddenly, still has the video of her father’s death saved to his laptop, what the hell is wrong with him?

He should definitely just leave.

The girls chat for a little bit, uncomfortably, about mundane things - school, college applications. Goro isn’t really listening. And then there’s another extended pause, and Okumura says, “Akechi.”

He looks at her. She’s still pale and tense but she’s looking directly at him now and her jaw is set very firm. She says, “I… I didn’t want them to change your heart. I thought I’d changed my mind, which is why they did it, but I haven’t. I wish you’d died. I’d trade your life for my father’s in a second.”

“Haru…” Morgana begins, sounding alarmed.

“No, I’m not done,” she says. He wonders if she’s rehearsed this. Probably. She’s pausing between every sentence to take a breath, like it’s the only thing keeping her grounded, stopping her from screaming. “I was so excited to finally have a real relationship with my father, even if he was in jail. And then you ruined it. For your father. They told me that was why. But I don’t… I just don’t care, Akechi. I don’t care what your reasons were, I don’t care if you feel bad now, and I don’t want to work with you. Akira-kun thinks there’s good in you and maybe he’s right but I do not care.

No one moves for a moment.

Goro feels like ice. He takes a deep breath and hears himself say, flat and cold, “I don’t care about a spoiled rich brat mourning her tyrant daddy, so I guess we’re even.”

The others’ voices raise suddenly in protest, but Okumura just stares at him. She looks so sad. It’s not… satisfying. He didn’t even mean it. So he stands up and adds, bitterly, “I wish I’d died too, for the fucking record,” and goes out the door.

He’s only a few metres from Leblanc when Kurusu catches up to him. Of course. The guy’s ninety percent leg, did Goro really expect to outpace him?

“Akechi, wait.” He grabs Goro by the wrist, forcing him to stop so he can flinch out of Kurusu’s grip.

“Oh my god,” Goro says, turning to face him, “could you please just leave me alone for five minutes?” The weird old man with the radio who’s always there is staring at them.

“No, I can’t,” says Kurusu, very tensely. “What the hell was that?”

That was something that was obviously going to happen if you put us both in the same room, genius,” he says, but this flare of anger makes him feel awful too. He needs to calm down before he loses it again, so he says, as carefully as possible, “Look. I don’t want to talk to you about it in the middle of the street. Go take care of your friend. Bye.” But before he can turn and leave, Kurusu has actually grabbed him by the shoulders and is pulling him through a gate in the wall leading to - a laundromat? Really? This was here the whole time? How had he never noticed?

“There,” says Kurusu, standing pointedly between Goro and the doorway. He’s nearly in full Joker mode, unruffled and authoritative and the most righteous bastard on the planet. Goro can’t fucking stand it. “We’re not in the street. Tell me why you think talking to Haru like that is okay.”

Goro just says, “I knew this was a bad idea,” and smiles joylessly wide at Kurusu. “I knew it, Futaba Sakura knew it, I’m sure Okumura knew it, but you had to do it anyway, didn’t you? What kind of point are you trying to prove? I don’t have anything to add, Kurusu. We’re not friends, I’m never going to be part of your group. I’m just a fucked-up psycho who never means anything he says, right? So I don’t know what you expected.”

Kurusu is just staring at him. He’s so tired of being looked at.

“I’m leaving,” Goro says, softly. The way he learned to speak quietly, to make people lean in and pay attention, in his old life. “Let me past.”

Kurusu shakes his head and says, “No, we’re still talking-”

“Let me past.” He does his best to push by Kurusu but the guy is like a mountain, unmovable; all he does is put his hands on Goro’s shoulders again (Goro hasn’t been touched this much by anyone in - well - this isn’t like those times, but -) and hold him back, gently, paternalistically. So Goro shoves.

Kurusu stumbles back, hits the doorframe hard with his shoulder. Looks up at him. There’s a sudden hot glint in his eye, and then, taking Goro completely by surprise, he shoves him back, hard.

Goro doesn’t fall but it’s close. The laundromat is too small for him to go very far anyway - he just ends up struggling to catch himself on the dryers. His wrist twists painfully on impact. Kurusu’s stepping towards him and he looks angry, legitimately furious, finally; and Goro can’t help himself, he starts laughing from the sheer relief of actually getting a reaction out of him, the honesty of knowing he’s being looked at like the scum he is.

He reaches out and steadies himself on the lapel of Kurusu’s jacket. And then -

And then something comes over him and he pulls himself close and kisses Kurusu hard on the mouth.

Kurusu goes very, very still. They stay like that, for a long ridiculous moment, Kurusu’s lips soft and closed under Goro’s, until Goro pushes himself violently away. He hears himself start laughing again, high and hysterical, like it’s a different person. He’s done it, he’s figured out how to get Kurusu to leave him alone and all he had to do was tear his own heart out and let Kurusu stomp on it. He finds himself staggering backwards, leaning against the dryers again.

“What is wrong with you,” Kurusu says, finally. He’s lifted his fingers to his lips self-consciously, like he’s trying to wipe Goro away. Goro can’t see his eyes under that thick shock of hair. “This isn’t funny.”

Goro presses his hands to his own mouth, tries to will himself to stop cackling. It kind of is funny, though, is the problem.

“What’s going on?” says a voice from behind Kurusu. Kitagawa, peering in alarm over his shoulder. Sakamoto and Niijima-the-younger are with him. They can’t have seen what happened, though. The rest must still be inside, talking to Okumura.

Kurusu just stands there, hand at his mouth, unmoving. Staring at him.

Sakamoto says, in what he probably intends to be a whisper, “Look, dude, he’s completely unstable.” Something about that sets Goro off again, though it’s not funny, none of it is. His stomach muscles are starting to cramp and his eyes are watering so hard he might actually just be crying. They all keep looking at him like he’s a feral dog that might bite. Unstable is right. Dropping his voice a bit more, Sakamoto adds, “I don’t think… there’s no way we can do the Palace with him, is there?”

“Akira, what happened?” says Niijima Junior.

Kurusu shakes his head minutely and turns to his friends and says, “Ryuji’s right. We should just go in tomorrow. We can figure it out.” He looks over at Goro again and says, “Akechi...” but he doesn’t seem to know how to finish the thought.

What a mess he’s made. It’s long past time to make an exit. Goro wipes his eyes and says through giggles, as flippantly as he can, “I’m going to go. This was a fun afternoon, kids. See you later.” None of them protest, of course.

When he stands up straight they all practically scramble to get out of his way, except Kurusu, who just moves as languidly as ever to the side of the doorframe. He’s still a bit in the way, so Goro bumps his shoulder roughly on the way out, just to make a point and... Goro might be wrong, it’s a tiny, tiny movement, but he could swear he sees Akira Kurusu flinch.

Took him long enough.

Chapter Text

Haru: I'm sorry I said all that, Akira-kun. I'm sorry I didn't talk to you about it first. I didn't think I was going to actually say it but then I just saw him there drinking coffee with us like it was normal and all I could think of was the way my father died.
Haru: Akechi is a murderer. He killed my father and Futaba's mother. He shot you in the head and then he went on a talk show. How is that okay with you?
Akira: it obviously isn't but that doesn't make saying you wished he was dead okay either
Akira: that's such a messed up thing to say to someone haru i don't get it
Haru: I really am sorry.
Haru: I just miss my father so much all the time.
Haru: I don’t know what to do.
Akira: i know. i’m sorry.
Akira: but like
Akira: you miss him because you believe he was a good person underneath, right?
Akira: maybe akechi's the same. maybe he deserves a second chance too
Akira: are you still there?
Haru: He can have a second chance far away from me. You wouldn’t have social calls with Kamoshida or Madarame, right? Because they hurt your friends. And I thought I was your friend too.
Haru: Sorry.
Haru: I just think I need a break from this, Akira.


Akira: did you mean it
Akira: about wanting to be dead i mean
Akira: akechi answer your texts
Akira: dude come on
Akira: i know you’re reading these
Akira: akechi
Goro: That’s the part you want to ask about, huh?
Goro: Of course I meant it. People mean things like that all the time. Don’t act like it’s shocking.
Goro: And stop texting me.

 


 

Goro puts the TV on immediately when he gets home, but Shido is everywhere today. Interviews, news segments. And it’s not like Goro has cable. So he digs out his old VHS of The Phantom Menace, because, look, sometimes you just need to watch something, and remembering that he stole it from his first foster family when they got rid of him always cheers him up. And honestly, everyone’s wrong, it’s a pretty okay movie. It took him a very long time to figure out how to connect his second-hand VCR to a normal television, back when he got this apartment, but it was worth it. He likes the way the tape has degraded from being watched so many times, the way the music is slightly out of tune.

When he finally falls asleep on the floor to the sound of the VCR rewinding, Goro dreams of the crypt again.

It feels strangely real for a dream, genuinely cold and musty, but the light is an unreal blue. And she’s there, sitting on a stone slab amid the urns in her sundress, her feet bare and filthy. “Good to see you again, my little killer,” she says, and smiles. “It’s been a while.”

“Mom?” he says, before he can stop himself.

She tilts her head. “What do you think?”

Goro hesitates. Then says, “No,” though she seems so real, far more than the cognitive version of her did. There’s something wrong in more than in her language. Maybe her smile is too untroubled. “You’re something else.”

“I knew you were a clever one, Goro Akechi,” she says, sounding pleased.

“Stop wearing her face,” he says, mouth dry. “It’s cruel.”

She laughs. Something about her appearance shifts, only a little at first and then all at once; and she's Masayoshi Shido, and then Akira Kurusu, and for a second between each form there's just shadow. Not a Shadow like the things in Palaces, but empty deep blackness. A void.

"Stop it," he says.

The thing shifts one more time, and then it's him, Goro Akechi, looking coiffed and confident. It smiles wide with his mouth. "How about this? Oh, but this one is the worst, isn't it? You don't want to see this face. But it'll have to do."

Like Goro wasn’t already having a shitty day. This dream is terrible. And he doesn’t fucking believe that a creepy dream shapeshifter is mysteriously only limited to forms that will rile him up, but whatever. “What do you want?” he demands.

The thing leans forward and steeples its fingers. “I knew a child like you once, Goro Akechi. So angry, so lost, so in love... so consumed with daddy issues,” it adds, and laughs a little when Goro grimaces. It’s using his TV laugh, the affable chuckle he practiced for hours. “You see my point.”

“No,” Goro says. “No I fucking don’t, are you planning to get to it any time soon?”

“So vulgar,” the thing purrs. “He wasn’t like that. It’s very transparent, little lion, don’t you realise? No one will ever respect you again if you keep going around talking like that.” Goro opens his mouth, but the thing continues, “Oh, but you’re so hurt, aren’t you? You’ve been so wronged, you have no time for any kind of pleasantries. There’s no point in being polite to anyone if it won’t get you anything, eh? Though you haven’t even found out if I have anything to give.” It pauses. Shakes its head. “But I digress. My point, my defanged little killer, was that he, the other one, let me down, when we knew each other. But the similarities got me thinking.

“Let me spell it out for you, little fox. Some colleagues of mine are… testing humanity, as my colleagues are wont to do. As for me… call me an interested third party. A retired sportsman who still follows the game from time to time. I thought I knew how things were working out - and they were quite in my favour, actually - but your little friend went off-book. For you. Which is nauseatingly sweet, don’t get me wrong, but now…” It shrugs. “Well. And then I looked at you. Looked at where you’re going.

“There are so many paths you have walked, Goro Akechi. So many ends. In most of them, you die at your father’s hand - through the creations of his heart or via one of the dogs he keeps in addition to you. Poetic, perhaps, but a waste. In others, you stagnate and despair and finally choose to follow your mother. Even more of a waste; and not a road even you want, though you may tell yourself you do.”

“Why,” says Goro, “are you telling me this? What are you?”

It smiles. “I’m a lot of things. The Crawling Chaos, they called me once. A bit melodramatic. But all I want is to keep you in the proverbial race, my dear. Just think of this as a pep talk. Now - tell me, little lion, what are the desires these Phantom Thieves have stolen from you?”

Goro blinks in the sudden silence before realising the thing is expecting a genuine answer. “Uh,” he says. “The… the desire to kill people? Obviously?”

“Oh come on,” it says, “didn’t I just say you were smart?”

Goro thinks, and says, “My ambition,” and as he says it, it feels like he’s known it the whole time. “Ambition for revenge.”

“Mm,” says the thing. “That’s the one. Only that, really. Oh, sure, the first one too, but they’re connected, you see. It’s not so great a loss as you seem to think. And similarly, you think your Joker -” and it chuckles again, as if at some private joke - “you think he’s got so much more than you, but you’ve had the same powers all along. You’ve been too myopic to even notice.

“You are more than a defeated pawn, is what I’m trying to tell you. I tire of pawns. I prefer, ah…” It pauses. Grins wide. “Wild cards.”

"You're mixing your metaphors," says Goro. He feels… annoyed. Overwhelmed. "I don't understand any of this.”

"I work entirely in metaphors," the thing says, "it comes with the territory. But I apologise, little lion, for the lack of clarity. Look. You've been so focused on being a tool - ah, there I go again - but... you've always had a choice about where to align yourself. You made it, once, to be the tool of order. It never suited you. You can make it again. Will that choice be stagnation, or being the tool of your Joker - or something else?"

Goro opens his mouth, though he doesn’t know how to answer. Then he wakes up.

He stumbles blearily over to his futon. When he falls asleep again, a few minutes later, it’s a blissfully dreamless stupor.

Sunday comes. Sunday passes. He sleeps. He wakes up a few more times, but there’s no reason to get out of bed now, none at all, and it feels like he’s making up for years of sleep deprivation. And if he lets himself wake up for real, he knows he’ll start thinking again; and he definitely doesn’t want that.

Eventually, though, his phone rings. He’d left it in his pocket, which meant it had gotten slightly lost in his bedding while he slept, but he scrambles after the buzz in half-awake panic. He doesn’t even read the name on the screen before he answers. “Hello?” he says, and realises immediately that he’s being rude. Rushes to correct himself - “Sorry to keep you waiting, what can I-”

“Akechi-kun?” A woman’s voice? He’d been positive it would be Shido. Thank god.

“Speaking,” he says, trying to sound normal and awake. What time is it? “I’m sorry, may I ask who’s calling?”

“It’s Sae Niijima, Akechi-kun.”

Oh. “I see,” he says, and lets himself relax. It’s just Niijima. He can be as curt as he wants. He can let her carry the conversation.

“I, uh,” she says, which is incredible. He’s never heard her stumble before. “I heard what happened. I was wondering if you’d be willing to come talk to me.”

Which part of what happened, he wonders, but for some reason he agrees to go. She sounds relieved, like she’d expected more resistance. Maybe, Goro thinks after she hangs up, that means she’s heard quite a lot about what happened on Saturday.

Would Kurusu have told everyone what he did? He can’t have. He wouldn’t. But that’s the sort of thing you tell your friends about, if you have friends, isn’t it? If you’re a normal person? People on TV dramas tell their friends that sort of thing all the time. He thinks about texting Kurusu, to find out. To beg him not to, if he hasn’t yet. But you can’t really follow up “Stop texting me” with anything, can you? You can’t re-initiate a conversation you ended.

He gets dressed and heads down to the Public Prosecutors’ Office. (On the train, he changes his mind and texts Kurusu, What does everyone know about what happened on Saturday, no question mark to make it clear he’s being serious, he’s not asking, he needs to know. He regrets sending it immediately.)

Sae Niijima is still in the awful, tiny office he remembers, of course. When he knocks at her half-open door, she’s eating her lunch at her desk, typing simultaneously with one hand. She gestures him in. Looks at him hard.

Goro doesn’t like many people but he’s always honestly liked Niijima - not dissimilarly to how he’s always liked Kurusu, though of course in a significantly less complicated way. She’s brusque and dismissive, and he’d gotten endless thrills out of outplaying her, screwing her over - but she’s clever and hard-working and ambitious, and unflinching in the face of a profession that clearly didn’t want her there. They have a lot in common. And she never asked him about his personal life at all, which he appreciated. She treated him like a colleague.

When the door’s closed, she says, “I thought you’d look different, somehow. You look exactly the same.”

“Different from...?” he says as he sits in front of her desk. There’s so little room that he barely needs to move the extra chair from the corner.

“You know what I mean,” she says. “Don’t play dumb.”

She could mean “from before they stole your heart,” but more likely it’s “from before you shot two people.” They’d seen each other since Kurusu’s interrogation, of course, they worked in the same sphere, but she’d been so busy. He’d wondered if she knew something, was avoiding him on purpose - but dismissed it. She couldn’t know anything, and if she did she couldn’t prove it. And of course she was busy, the leader of the Phantom Thieves had just died in police custody, everyone was busy.

He’d been so absurdly cocky.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Niijima continues, very calmly, when he doesn’t reply to her. “Makoto says you were… erratic, when you met with them.” She’s avoiding saying 'Phantom Thieves', he notices. The walls must be thin. He likes that she trusts him to figure that out himself.

“Makoto wasn’t even there,” he says.

“Well, ‘Makoto said everyone else said’ is a bit of a mouthful,” she says dismissively. “Do you mind if I keep eating lunch, by the way? I’m pretty swamped.”

“Of course, go ahead.”

She nods and shoves a rice ball into her mouth. Says behind her hand as she chews, “I heard you stopped going to school. You need to go back, he must have noticed.”

He forces a smile and says, “Is that what you called me here to talk about, Sae-san?”

“No, but I don’t trust a bunch of teenagers who hate you to tell you to make responsible choices.” She pauses. Shakes her head a little. “Look, Akechi-kun, I just don’t understand how you could have done… what you did. Any of it. I mean, I understand how, more or less. But why? You’re just a kid. And…” She sighs heavily. She looks genuinely very sad. “I always thought… well, I thought you were a bit of a shit, honestly, but a well-meaning one. I liked you. You’re too smart to have gotten wrapped up in this.”

Goro doesn’t know what to say to any of that. He looks at his hands. His phone buzzes in his pocket, but, well, one thing at a time.

Niijima lets the silence hang, and then says, calm and business-like, “So what are you going to do? Confess? I can help you with that, if you want. The circumstances are so unusual that I can’t begin to promise any kind of result, but I can try to make sure you’re only tried as a juvenile.”

The idea is… alluring. Get it over with. Never deal with the Phantom Thieves and their bullshit again. Never play nice with his father again.

His father. “He would ruin me,” he says, matching Niijima’s earlier intonation, and thinks of what the thing in his dream said, about dying at Shido’s hand. “He’d make sure he was completely clean. I’m sure he’s already got a plan in place that makes it look like I did everything completely on my own.” At best he’d play it like Goro was some deranged stalker. Which… well. That certainly wouldn’t be a difficult spin.

Niijima nods. “True. So we’ll wait until they’re done with him, then. His confession will likely get you sympathy, based on what I know of the circumstances. That will help. And I could… I don’t know, I could ask around in the meantime. Find you someone to talk to. I know a lot of really good court-appointed-”

“Absolutely not,” he interrupts. He loathes therapists, their false detached sympathies, the way they want to know all your business. And there’s no way he could explain any of what’s been going on, anyway. They’d think he was - god, the fucking irony - completely psychotic.

“It might help, Akechi-kun. I’d be discreet. No one would have to know.”

“No.”

“Okay. Well…” She sighs again. “Just lay low for now, I guess. And go to school, will you?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.” But the idea of ‘laying low’ bothers him. He hates it, actually, the thought of just waiting around alone for Kurusu to pull it all off. When it comes down to it: Shido was his mark.

He stands up. Niijima says, “Wait. Did you… did you know he was using you, Akechi-kun? Do you know that now?”

He almost just shrugs, but that seems unfair to her. He says, “I… I was using him, too.” It sounds as feeble and ludicrous as it did when he said it to Kurusu. She frowns a little. He thinks, and then corrects himself, very carefully. “No. I always knew. I just thought it was worth it to take him down. That’s all.”

It was more than that, it was the best he’d ever felt, tricking everyone - Shido, the public, people like Niijima - into thinking he was worth something. Walking around knowing that for the first time in his life he was the most dangerous person in any given room. But that all seems difficult to explain. He’s not even sure if Niijima knows exactly what his relationship with Shido is, and he’s definitely not going to bring that up unprompted.

She considers that. “I wish you’d talked to me. Maybe I could have helped you, before things got… as bad as they did.”

The thought of that is comical, honestly. “Why would I have talked to you about it?” he says, as kindly as he can. “Would you have, in my position?”

She doesn’t say, I would never be in your position and we both know it. Instead she just smiles sadly and says, “I know. I just… well. I guess things worked out as well as they could have.”

 


 

The first person Goro ever directly killed wasn't important. It wasn't Wakaba Isshiki, or anyone significant in city politics; it was Shido's assistant, and it was an accident. He was still only sixteen, after all. Shido wanted to see what he could do.

The assistant’s warped desires were… insignificant. He was in Mementos, not his own Palace. The whole setup was so much like the cafe owner that Goro thought it would be exactly as easy - easier, now that he had Loki and knew what to do. And he had the gun.

A week after Goro went to Shido and told him he could drive people's hearts mad - and he summoned Loki as proof, which was a ridiculously foolhardy move, he hadn't even practiced to make sure he could do it in the real world, or do it without attacking anyone, for that matter; but there he was, a real demon in his real father's office... A week after that, Shido called Goro in again and gave him the handgun. Silenced, sleek, surprisingly heavy.

"A loan," Shido said. "I'm trusting you. Prove that I should trust you. And know that if you do anything foolish with that, you’ll be dealing with the consequences alone."

Of course. He wasn't stupid. And Goro knew better than to ask where it came from. (It solidified a lot of what Goro had only suspected about his father. And that was the point, surely: to make him think, if he gives me, who's nobody to him, an illegal weapon - what else can he do?)

He could have shot Shido in the head right fucking then. But again: he's not stupid.

So. The assistant, in the depths. It happened so easily. Goro readied a finishing blow and then the demon that had been the assistant leapt at Loki, and Loki - no, Goro - Goro hit back, and the demon fell hard, and became a man again. Looked Goro straight in the eyes and said, sounding frightened, "Is this Shido? Are you his?"

He meant, Goro realised later: are you his employee, his assassin, his dog. At the time, Goro thought: he knows I’m his son, he sees it somehow. He didn’t know yet the distinctions between what Shadows knew versus what real people knew; so he thought, this man could say absolutely anything about me if his heart is driven mad. He could give the whole thing away.

The man repeated, with dawning realisation, "You're his," and Goro, sick with panic, pulled out the pistol and shot him point blank in the face.

It was louder than he expected, despite the silencer, and faster. The man keeled straight over, like a comedian doing a pratfall, and Goro just turned and ran. It wasn’t until the next day, when he met with Shido and he told him that a body had been found at the assistant’s apartment, that he understood what he had done. But Shido was… intrigued. Not pleased, because this wasn’t what he’d asked for, but not particularly angry either. Interested. He started talking about his research - cognitive psience, Jungian archetypes, the collective unconsciousness - like Goro was almost his equal.

And Goro found that he didn’t mind what he had done, not really. The assistant was no one to him, after all. People die all the time. It hadn’t even seemed real.

(He wonders, after the Phantom Thieves take his heart, if that was the moment he became a monster; or if something in him had broken sometime long before that, and he just hadn’t noticed.)

 


 

Kurusu had texted him back while he was talking to Niijima. i didn’t say anything about the thing you’re worried about. i’m not that much of a jerk, he said.

Goro isn’t sure whether he wants to say Good, or Thank you. He doesn’t know if he wants to be talking to Kurusu at all.

He realises, though, as he looks at his phone, that it’s already Monday. He’d somehow made it to Monday. Which means the election is coming up faster than he’d thought. What is Kurusu doing?

He thinks about it, on the walk back to the subway station. His options. Go to school, play at the good student again, pretend he’s someone with a future, when all his plans for years had only revolved around his father. Wait until it’s the right time to - what, be arrested? Tried? Go to juvie or prison or death fucking row? Let the media thrive on his downfall, again. It’ll so much worse this time.

And on the other side of that: a bunch of teenagers who hate him.

He switches trains at Shibuya and goes to Yongen-Jaya.

If they went into the Palace the day before, then Kurusu won’t have gone in today, that’s how he always works, because he’s a slacker and a moron and the luckiest person on the planet. How did the Phantom Thieves ever get anywhere, Goro wonders for the thousandth time. How are they so undisciplined and childish and still so much better than him at everything?

Leblanc is nearly empty, because it’s Leblanc - there’s only one normal customer, an old man in his 50s or 60s slowly sipping his coffee and reading a newspaper. He’s probably been there for hours and only spent ¥200. Futaba Sakura is sitting in one of the booths with Morgana and her laptop. She looks up in silence. He doesn’t pause in his stride, not even when Sojiro Sakura says, “Hey, wait-”

Goro just says, “Is he home?” and when Morgana says, “Yeah, but-” he keeps going.

He goes up the steps two at a time and says to Kurusu, “You need me.”

Kurusu’s sitting at his desk, fiddling with tools and some kind of wire. He turns and says, “You could have texted.” He looks…

“Joker, you look like shit.” He looks exhausted, in fact, and his hair is even more stupidly unkempt than normal. His glasses are perched on top of his head and there are dark half-circles under his eyes.

“Yeah,” Kurusu says, very heavily. “That sounds about right. Why are you here?”

“Oh,” Goro says, “does it bother you, having someone just walk into your home unexpectedly? Do you not like it? Does it seem kind of rude?”

“Yeah, all right, I get it.” Kurusu pauses, and then says softly, “I’m glad you’re okay. I was worried.”

“I’m always okay,” Goro says.

“Right,” Kurusu says, instead of pointing out how absurd that statement is, which is nice of him.

“Kurusu,” Goro continues, annoyed that he’s been distracted from the speech he’d been planning on the way there, “I’m serious. You need me. I’m the smartest person you know. I know Shido and his associates better than any of you. Forget what happened with us, you’re running out of time and I can help you more than anyone, and if you don’t get your shit together Shido’s going to be prime fucking minister. The only thing stopping him from hunting your friends down is this election - you do realise what kind of connections he has, don’t you? I was the tip of the damn iceberg.”

“I know,” says Kurusu. “I..” He sighs. “Do you want to sit down?”

“No,” says Goro.

“Dude, I promise I’ll still remember you’re taller than me if you sit down.” He gestures to his hideous little couch. “Please. This is a weird conversation to have with you yelling at me from across the room.”

“I wasn’t yelling,” Goro says, and reluctantly sits on the very edge of the couch. He’s always surprised by how comfortable the ugly old thing is. “Why do you think everything I say to you is yelling?”

“Sorry,” says Kurusu. He rubs at one of his eyes and props his head up with a hand. “Anyway. You’re right. I’m screwed. I completely screwed everything up. I… I thought…” He laughs a little, very darkly. “I thought I could help you, and you’d be okay once you got over the shock, and then Shido would be easy. But your Palace was so much more difficult than I thought-”

A surprised bark of laughter escapes Goro’s mouth. It had seemed pretty simple when he was tracing Kurusu’s footsteps.

“Yeah, I thought you’d like to hear that,” Kurusu says, and smiles momentarily. “There was this awful game… Anyway. Then it took longer than we expected to figure out Shido’s Palace, and then… then all that stuff with you happened, and the rest of us keep getting into arguments, and now we’re so behind. And it’s completely my fault. And I keep thinking… I keep thinking that if you kill yourself because of this, that’ll be my fault, too.” He says it so frankly.

Goro thinks about that. “For a criminal mastermind,” he says finally, “you’re an absolute fucking moron sometimes.”

“Yeah, I know,” Kurusu says, and smiles sadly again.

“No, I mean…” He doesn’t know how to say this. He doesn’t want to sound like people did when his mother died - the more they said This isn’t your fault, the less he believed them. He goes for, “My actions are my own. They’re nothing to do with you. That should be obvious.” And it’s not like it would be a loss, if he did it. The world would be better off. But he knows Kurusu doesn’t want to hear that. It’s not the sort of thing you’re allowed to say.

“I just wanted to help you,” Kurusu says, running a hand through his hair. “I know I pushed you too hard but I really just wanted to help. I thought you’d feel better if you were out of that apartment, talking to people, doing something.” He’s smiling but his voice cracks a little. Fucking hell. Goro absolutely is not capable of dealing with any of this.

“Maybe you should talk to your actual friends about this, Kurusu,” he says, uncomfortably. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”

Kurusu is silent for a moment, not quite looking directly at Goro. He seems to be collecting himself. Then he says, “You can call me Akira, you know. I think we’re past surnames, don’t you?”

“If you want,” Goro says, a bit confused by the non sequitur. There’s a pause. Joker looks expectant. “Oh god,” says Goro, “are you waiting for me to say it back?”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” says… Akira.

“You can call me whatever you want. I honestly don’t give a shit.” That isn’t true, of course. Hardly anyone’s called Goro by his given name since he moved out of his last foster home. He hasn’t heard it used kindly in a long time. He feels uncomfortable, out of his depth, like he’s letting Joker see his real self even better by letting him use it. Which is ridiculous. It’s just a name.

“Okay. Goro, then,” says Akira, sounding a tiny bit more cheerful. “You are my actual friend, Goro. Or you’re… someone I want to be friends with. Honestly.” The use of ‘friend’ seems very pointed. Not that Goro was expecting anything else.

When Goro doesn’t reply, Akira says, “Do you know why I wanted to change your heart in the first place?”

Goro says, “Because you’re incapable of minding your own business and obsessed with the idea of fixing people?”

“Well, yeah, that’s obviously part of it,” Akira says breezily. “I meant more specifically. The whole time we were in Sae-san’s Palace… well, for one thing, you were so capable it made me feel kind of redundant, which was weird. That’s a compliment, by the way. But also, I kept thinking, how is this the guy who wants to kill me, he’s just an intense nerd who likes Star Wars too much.”

Goro grimaces and leans back on the couch. “I do not.”

“Don’t you?”

“I don’t. I don’t, you know, read the books or any of that shit.”

“Too busy with Hegel and Jung, I guess,” says Akira. He says it with a hard J and a long U. It’s weirdly charming.

“No, it’s a yu sound,” he corrects, although the idea of letting Akira just completely mispronounce Jung for the rest of his life is temptingly funny. “Yu-n-gu, more or less. It's a Germanic name. And what do you know about Jung?”

“Nothing, honestly, I’ve just been looking at your bookshelf.” It makes sense that he’d butcher the pronunciation, then; the spine of the book Goro owns is in roman letters. “Anyway,” Akira continues, “it’s interesting that you’d know there are Star Wars books, if you don’t like Star Wars that much.”

“Well,” Goro says, and changes tactics. “Every asshole in the world likes Star Wars, everyone knows that. That doesn’t make anyone a good person.”

Akira chuckles. “My point is, I really… liked you. Spending time with you, I mean.” (Is that another calculated dismissal? Is Akira just straight, is that what’s going on? He sure as hell doesn’t seem straight, but he is best buddies with Ryuji Sakamoto, the most heterosexual person on the planet, so what the fuck does Goro know about anything. There are so many reasons why Akira wouldn’t want anything to do with him besides orientation, anyway.) “And you seemed to like us, I thought. Or me, at least. But then after all that, you still went through with it. You still shot me.”

“Yeah,” says Goro quietly. “I did. I’m a really good liar, Joker. That’s all that was.”

“If you say so,” says Akira. He hesitates, his slate-coloured eyes flickering back and forth across Goro’s face. Then he says, “Weird that you’d kiss me, though, if that’s all that was going on.”

“Oh fuck off,” Goro says, and stands up.

“Sorry,” Akira says quickly. “We don’t have to talk about that.”

“Good.”

But then Akira says, “Are you… was that, like, a weird power thing? Or…”

Jesus. “We’re not talking about it.”

“Sorry,” Akira repeats, sheepishly.

Goro sighs and pushes his hair out of his face. He should leave it there. They should never speak about it ever again. But… “Why would you think it was a ‘weird power thing’,” he says, miserably. “What did it accomplish. I’m not that incompetent.”

“Well,” Akira says, “it’s… you. No offense. But I just assume most things you do are weird power things. That’s why you used to… to flirt with me all the time. Right?”

Goro laughs and turns away and says, “Sure,” because he doesn’t know what else to say. He’d always thought of it as… a way to occupy himself. A cat playing with a mouse. A very attractive, tricky, surprisingly fascinating mouse. And maybe that fits the definition of ‘weird power thing’, after all. “Whatever.”

Akira says, “I’m sorry. We can leave it.”

But now that it’s been brought up, they need to see this awful conversation through. Goro turns back to him and says, “Maybe I just did it because I’m crazy, Joker. I mean, that’s me, isn’t it? I’m… I’m erratic and unstable and a mess. And crazy people just do things for no reason. That’s it.” It hurts to say it. It really hurts to think Akira might believe him. But it’s easier than No, you idiot, I just made a stupid spur-of-the-moment decision because I’m obsessed with your stupid face.

Akira frowns at him seriously and says, “I don’t think you’re crazy. Don’t say that about yourself.”

Goro’s never felt so simultaneously relieved and frightened. He says, “Everyone else thinks it. I know you all think it.”

“You just scared us, the other day,” Akira says. “But I really don’t think you’re… anything that you’ve been saying. You’re clearly not irrational. Dude, you’re not,” he adds when Goro snorts. “You obviously do things for a reason. You’re just going through a hard time right now. And it seems like you have been for a while.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child,” Goro says. “You don’t know a goddamn thing about what I’ve been going through.”

“No. I guess I don’t. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought this up.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” Goro rubs his temples irritably and sits down again. “I didn’t come here to talk about that.”

“I know,” Akira says. “Sorry.”

“Stop apologising.”

Akira opens his mouth, visibly stops himself, and says, “Okay. So do you… really want to help? Or do you just feel like you need to.”

“What?”

“I mean… I want you to help us, Akechi. Goro. I really do, and we definitely could use a hand. But I don’t want to just make you miserable.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” says Goro.

“I don’t want to make it worse. Again. And I mean, everyone else whose heart we changed… at this point, with them, they weren’t really capable of doing anything. Futaba just slept for like, two weeks straight. I thought the fact that you were up and talking to me the whole time meant you were ready, but-”

“I’ll be fine,” Goro interrupts. “Stop telling me everything you did wrong, would you, it’s really fucking annoying.” Then he adds, because he should probably at least try to be less of an asshole all the time, “I understand you meant well. Please, just give it a rest.” He maybe shouldn't have said that in the same tone as the first part, but, look, he's trying.

Kurusu looks a bit surprised, which is also fucking annoying. He nods. “Okay. Um. You’ll have to… well, actually you might not have to see Haru, because I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.” Interesting. Unfair, since it’s not like anything she said to Goro was wrong, but unlike some people Goro’s capable of minding his own business about it. “She didn’t… she didn’t call you or text you or anything, did she?”

“Of course not,” Goro says. “Why on earth would she? I killed her father.”

“Right,” Akura says. “I just thought, maybe… Well. Anyway. You’ll have to see the rest of us, including Futaba.”

“I know that, Kurusu.”

“Akira.”

“Whatever. I know I’ll have to see your stupid friends, I’m not an idiot. I’ll live. I’ll even be nice. It’s fine.” And he adds, “You already know I’ll do anything to destroy Shido. If this is the only way it can happen, now, I want in. I need to be part of it.”

A startled smile appears on Akira’s face. “Okay. Good.” He holds out his hand. “Shake on it, then, Crow.”

Goro takes his hand and says, “Don’t make me regret this, Joker.”

He goes downstairs, Akira at his heels. Morgana and both Sakuras are in a hushed conversation at one of the booths. They all look at him again. Morgana says, “How’d it go?” and Akira gives him a thumbs up, which is an extremely optimistic reading of the conversation they’d just had, but okay.

Sojiro Sakura gives him a long, steady look and goes behind the counter. Goro thinks about Wakaba Isshiki, how she’d been - what, Sakura’s lover, probably? Why else would he have adopted her kid? He hadn’t really paid attention at the time, though he’d read the obituary so many times he used to have it memorized. He’d been so struck by the sense of power, untouchability. The sense of being the only one who could do what Shido needed. He hadn’t thought about anything else. (Except, well: it had occurred to him, bitterly, that if Isshiki’s orphan daughter had someone who'd take her in, she was far better off than he had ever been.)

Morgana stretches languidly and says, “Akechi, come talk to us, will you?”

He looks at Akira, who makes a little shooing motion with his hands. Goro walks over to the booth and says in a hiss, so the one normal customer doesn’t notice he’s talking to a cat, “I shouldn’t. I should just go.”

“Look, are you helping us or what?” Futaba Sakura says without looking at him. She has her knees pulled up to her chest.

“I am,” he says. “If… you’re okay with it.” If the sight of me doesn’t ruin your day, except it must be doing that right this second. Just as much as it ruined Okumura’s day. Should he say any of that? Maybe not.

She shrugs and types something and says, “Whatever gets the job done.”

“Right,” Goro says. “Well. I’ll be out of your life as soon as it’s done. I know you must hate me.”

Sakura wraps one arm tightly around her knees and stares at her laptop screen and says, “I mean, sort of, yeah, but watching everyone beat the crap out of your Shadow kinda made me feel better about it. To be honest.”

“I see,” Goro says. “That’s fair.” Then, since he's here, he says, carefully, “About your mother. I’m really…” Sorry? Sorry sounds absurd, like it was some fucking accident. Oops, I tripped and murdered your parent, sorry! He goes for, “I wish I hadn’t done it. And I know that doesn’t help anything, at all. I know nothing I could possibly say will help. But I… I’d undo it if I could.” It all sounds so trite and meaningless.

She doesn’t turn her head but she looks at him. Then she blinks quickly a few times and says, her voice sounding tight and high, “Okay. Um. Thanks. Thank you for saying that.”

This is awful. He’d rather be yelled at. But he feels like he owes her this conversation, even though it feels like he’s very slowly pulling every single one of his teeth out with pliers. “I know it’s not something… I mean, when my mother…” He clears his throat, uncomfortably. Is he making this worse? He’s definitely making it worse. “Sorry, you probably-”

A voice behind him says, “Goro Akechi? You’re Goro Akechi!” He slowly turns his head. It’s the old man, looking both ecstatic and, as Goro looks at him, a bit embarrassed. A fan. There is one person he doesn’t know in this entire damn cafe and it had to be an elderly creep with the worst timing in the world. He shouldn’t have reacted to his name, he should have done the “I’m not him, but I hear that we look alike all the time, it’s so flattering” bit. Too late for that. He rearranges his face into a gracious, symmetrical smile and says, “I’m afraid I am, yes.”

“I’m sorry to be a bother,” the man says, self-conscious now. Goro hates the way people always drag this shit out.

“Not a bother at all,” he says, sunnily. “May I help you with something?”

“It’s my granddaughter, you see-” big fan, obsessed, going to be a detective when she grows up, blah blah blah blah blah. It’s not me who likes you, it’s her, never mind that I’m the one harassing you right this second. “She’s practically got her wedding to you planned out!” Ugh. Goro really hopes this girl is six and not sixteen.

“That’s amazing,” he says, and digs through his pockets for a pen, so he can get this over with. “It’s so incredible to hear that I’m making a difference to people. Now-”

“I can’t say how much we admire you, especially after the time you’ve had,” the man says, conspiratorially. “It must have been so hard, all that Phantom Thieves nonsense, having your name dragged through the mud.”

“Oh,” he says, and feels his smile get a bit more fixed, “well, that’s all water under the bridge now, you know? Justice won out in the end.” Futaba Sakura makes a noise in her throat like she’s suppressing a laugh. He doesn’t dare look to see what Akira’s expression must be, he needs to stay in character. This is so much more exhausting than it used to be. “Could I sign something for you?”

“Oh, uh - I thought - Mariko-chan would just love to see a picture of Grandpa and the Detective Prince, so maybe your friend could…?” He holds up his phone, looks hopefully back and forth from him to Futaba.

“Uh,” Goro says, and feels his mask of calm start to slip. He does not want to be on anyone’s fucking Facebook or Instagram or whatever while he’s avoiding both Shido and his entire academic career, especially while he’s standing literally in Leblanc. That could get back to Shido so quickly, and how do you find an explanation for skipping school to hang out in the dead boy’s house and pose for pictures? (Niijima was right, he really does need to go back to school, no matter how much he doesn’t care about any of it. Fuck.) He makes himself laugh and say, “Well, I don’t know, I don’t think I really look up for it-”

The man says, “Don’t be ridiculous, son, you look great! You look even better in person!” Which is such a bald-faced lie, he’s looked like absolute garbage all week and he definitely needs to re-dye his roots. He’s pretty sure this disingenuous little asshole is going to go home and say, “Let me tell you, that TV makeup makes such a difference.” He almost can’t remember why he used to love this shit. He feels like he’s on the verge of snapping.

His phone buzzes. He pulls it out quickly in relief. A text, from Akira: “you should pretend this is something important and bail. i’ll talk to you tomorrow”. Thank fuck for Saint Akira. He could kiss him. He needs to never think about that again, but he really, really could.

He says, “I’m so sorry, I don’t want to be rude but I really must take this call. Police business, you know.”

“Ahh, crime never sleeps,” the man says, absurdly. Goro’s a high school student with a weird job, not a goddamn Phoenix Ranger. And it’s three p.m.

“So true. Here,” he adds, and grabs a napkin and scrawls his name and a smiley face on it. Smiles apologetically and says, “It was so great to meet you.” He fake-dials his phone as he heads out, puts it to his ear, hopes like hell it doesn’t start ringing. Glances over his shoulder as he goes. Akira gives him a lazy wave.

Akira texts him again when he’s outside.

Akira: u still got it, mr popular
Goro: Never lost it.
Goro: God what a pain.
Akira: it worked out. it’s fine
Akira: c u l8r detective
Goro: Stop typing like an idiot. I know you only do it to annoy me.
Akira: sorry it’s just really funny that you hate it so much
Goro: No it’s not.


Futaba: hey thx
Goro: Thanks? For what?
Futaba: apologizing
Futaba: friggin duh
Goro: It didn’t change anything.
Futaba: also duh
Futaba: so we’re not like bffs now or anything but
Futaba: i’m sorry about your mom too
Futaba: i know it super sucks
Goro: Yeah. But you really shouldn’t be apologizing to me about anything.
Futaba: it’s what you say to express sympathy dummy
Futaba: btw do you know that you text like a grandpa
Futaba: like an actual senior citizen
Goro: Yes.

Chapter Text

One morning, when he was in first grade, Goro woke up his mother and whispered, “I have to go to school and I don’t have any lunch money.”

His mother didn’t get out of her futon, but she lifted her head a little and said, “I just gave you money. Don’t tell me you already spent it all.” It was hard to see her, in the hazy early light filtering through the windows. She didn’t like him to turn the lights on in the morning when she was sleeping in; and she always slept in, now.

“You gave me that last week,” he said, carefully. He didn’t want to whine. “I only have thirty-five yen left, you can’t buy anything for thirty-five yen.”

She rolled over and let out a low groan of frustration into her pillow and Goro’s stomach dropped. When she looked at him again her gaze was icy. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have wasted what I gave you,” she said. “You need to be more responsible, Goro, do you think I don’t have to eat too? You know we don’t have any money!”

He knew he needed to be grown-up about this but he felt his eyes start to well up anyway. He’d tried so hard to make the money last. “I’m just hungry, Mom,” he said. “You never even get up to make breakfast anymore.”

She looked at him like she hadn’t seen him there before, like she’d thought she was talking to someone else. Her face fell. “Oh no, baby, please don’t cry,” she said, and she didn’t sound mad anymore but rather like she was begging him, and something about that just made the tears spill down his cheeks anyway. “Goro-chan, I’m sorry, okay? I really am. I didn’t mean to snap at you, I didn’t mean any of that. I’ll make you breakfast tomorrow, I promise. Oh, sweetie, come on. Come here.” He moved closer to her, and she sat up fully and took his face in her hands. Her palms were very soft and cold. “Baby,” she said, wiping away his tears with her thumbs, “you can’t go to school crying. Do I go to work crying?”

Goro sniffled as quietly as he could and said, “You don’t go to work.”

She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, in and out, and then opened them and said, “Well, do I go to job interviews crying?”

He shook his head. She usually cried afterwards, but he knew that wasn’t the point she was trying to make.

She stroked his hair, pushed it out of his face, and said, “People like us have to be tough, Goro-chan. It’s hard and it’s not fair but we have to.” Then she sighed, and said, “Can you get me my purse?”

He got it for her. She counted out all her loose change on the floor and then gave most of it to him and said, “When I get this next job, I’ll take you out for the biggest dinner you’ve ever seen. It’ll be great. Just wait for that, okay?”

She’d said things like that before. He nodded anyway, and she smiled a little and hugged him very tightly. She smelled like she needed a bath.

He looked back at her, before he left for school that day. She was under the covers again, and he could see her shoulders shaking but she wasn’t making a sound.

 


 

When she was happy, his mother would say, sometimes: “You’re my best friend, Goro-chan.”

On worse days, she’d say: “You know you’re all I have, don’t you? You’re the only thing that keeps me going.” She’d take a long drink of convenience store sake from the bottle, and wipe her eyes with her sleeve, and say, “Doesn’t that matter to you?”

He’d always say, “Yes, of course,” because she wanted to hear it, and because it was true. He’d tell her, “We’ll be okay as long as we’re together,” and she’d laugh and tell him that he sounded like one of his cartoons with all that cliched bullshit, but he knew she was never actually mad about it.

The good days, though: the evenings she plugged her iPod into the speaker and danced around the apartment with him, picked him up and twirled him around and sang along to the pop songs very softly because she was self-conscious about her voice. The weekends when she took him to the arcade. The mornings when she got up on time and cooked them both breakfast, and drew pictures on his omurice with ketchup. Even before she was gone, he knew that those moments were special. He hoarded them safely in his memory.

She was all he had, after all. All they had was each other.

 


 

The evening before she killed herself, Goro’s mother painted her nails a vivid pink. “Do you like them, Goro-chan?” she asked, and held out her thin hands for him to see.

“Yeah,” he said, honestly, watching her nails glimmer in the reflected blue light of the television. “They’re really sparkly.”

“Your daddy would hate them,” she said coolly, and curled her fingers inwards to look at them. “They’re unprofessional.” She smirked a little, but something about her expression still seemed sad and distant, the way it always got when she talked about his father.

He needed to distract her from that, so he said, “Do mine too,” and that made her laugh.

“You’d get in so much trouble at school, baby,” she said. “I can’t do that to you. But…” She hummed, thoughtfully, and then said, “I could do your toes, if you really want?”

He nodded happily and took his socks off. She painted his toenails with him in her lap on the apartment floor, careful dots of sharp-smelling colour, and pressed a kiss to the crown of his head when she was done. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?” she murmured. “They’ll be mean to you.”

Of course he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have, even if she hadn’t told him not to. Not only because he knew boys didn’t wear nail polish, obviously, but because it was a gift from her, a secret, a sign that she really did love him. A sign that they were the same.

The next day, he came home from school to find a thick whispering crowd outside his apartment building. He slipped through them, unnoticed. Saw a pale slender arm on the ground, the joint bending the wrong way. Saw the pink shine iridescent in the sunlight. And then someone said, “Oh my god, that’s her kid,” and a strange pair of arms whisked him up so quickly that he started crying from confusion and shock.

He left the polish on for months, until it finally flaked completely off.

 


 

He used to imagine, sometimes, that it was all a sham. Her death was fake, a show, the only thing she could do to escape her endless grown-up problems, and she’d started a new life somewhere. Someday in the future he’d be leaving school and she’d be waiting at the gate with a new haircut and big sunglasses and those nails still neon-bright. She would say something cheesy like “Leaving you was the hardest thing I ever did, but I had no choice,” and then she’d explain it all to him, explain that the body he’d seen was just some kind of prop, not worth any of his nightmares; and then he’d go with her to their new home, far away from this city, and it would all be okay.

He always knew it couldn’t be true. He wasn’t a baby. And after a while, pretending there was even a chance of something like that happening just made reality hurt more; so he stopped, he put away childish things and buried the memory of her deep within himself. She was still there, of course, in his heart, in the photo he kept, even there in the mirror as his features started to thin out and solidify. (He had her nose, her jaw, those eyes that made them both look sweeter than they were. And yet, he’d eventually notice something inescapably like his father in his expressions.) He just stopped thinking of her as some magical force that could have saved him from the world. She couldn’t even save herself, after all. Though maybe if he’d been a better son, a stronger person, if he’d just tried a little bit harder…

And then he saw his father on the news, one day when he was fifteen. Just some government official, not saying anything important - but the sight of him made Goro feel like he’d been kicked in the face. So many years had passed since that man had created him and broken her, and now Goro was alone and his mother was dead and that vile piece of dogshit had just been out there the whole time, living.

He knew, then and there, standing in his foster family’s messy living room, that he’d ruin Masayoshi Shido’s life if it fucking killed him.

But of course. Of course it couldn’t happen, not the way he wanted. The Phantom Thieves stole his heart, and with it every last piece of the plan that had consumed his life - but still he has that old, immeasurably deep hatred. It feels like it’s all he has left, sometimes. Hatred, and fear, and guilt. He misses knowing what to do with any of it. He sees his life now from a distance: a litany of failures, and his future just a cliff face he can’t stop himself from driving towards. Beyond it, only a long fall to the sea.

But he’s still here. The old consolation, the old affront: he’s still here. All he can do now is help this fucking boy, this strange reflection of everything he failed to be, pull this last job off. Join his little cabal of followers genuinely now, watch him scheme and dazzle. And then Goro’s father will say sorry and that will have to be enough. The dead will still be ashes. He will still have nothing.

In Goro’s dream, that night, the thing wears Akira Kurusu’s face, with a neat round hole right in the center of his forehead. It says, “You’re moving again. Good. Now show them, little killer, what you’re made of.”

Chapter Text

Goro goes to school the next morning with a doctor’s note he’d forged the night before, and bows and apologizes effusively to the faculty. His homeroom teacher says, “I know these things happen, and of course we all understand you have unique circumstances, Akechi-kun, but you really should have communicated with us. Or a parent or guardian should have-” and he sees regret flicker over the teacher’s face after she says “parent”.

He says, “I know. I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.” And he’s a model student, a goddamn celebrity, so they accept that, even say that they’ll make sure it won’t affect his scholarship, since he’s been such a good representative for the school. It’s only the last half of his last year, anyway. Not that he expects he’ll be seeing graduation, no matter what happens.

The day seems so long. He’s so tired. He’s pretty sure he’s never going to feel fully rested ever again, at this point. And he can’t stop thinking about how meaningless it all is. Who cares about chemistry, literature, fucking philosophy class?

He also can’t stop noticing the cold silent interest of all his classmates, as they watch him and wonder where the school’s golden boy could have gotten to. None of them ask him anything directly, of course. He’s always been cordial with them; polite and pleasant, but never friendly. They never seemed to question it very much, especially for the past year or so, when he’s had the excuse of his career and being busy with the media. After a while, the only people in his school who tried to make more than small talk were starstruck transfer students, and they always backed off eventually.

At the end of the day, there’s a man he almost recognises at the school gates, wearing a very neat black suit and carrying a small briefcase. He says, “You’re back, eh?” to Goro, too familiarly, and falls into step beside him.

“Yes,” Goro says. “I’m sorry, have we…?”

“We have a common employer,” the man says, of course. “What did you have, anyway? The flu? Mono? Mono gets around real fast with kids your age, I’ve heard.” He smiles unpleasantly.

“The flu,” Goro says. “Excuse me, I need to catch my train.”

“Of course,” the man says.

Goro walks halfway to his usual station, and then doubles back and walks the long way to another one. It doesn’t seem like he’s being followed, but he can’t start underestimating Shido now. When he’s mostly sure no one is watching him, he digs Akira’s stupid ugly hoodie out of his bag and puts it on, just to be safe. It still smells like him, makes Goro think of that subway ride with Akira pressed against his back. Cool. Great.

While he’s waiting for his transfer at Shibuya to Yongen, a voice says, “Is that you, Akechi?” He takes his phone out so he can look appropriately distracted and doesn’t turn around.

“Akechi, it’s just us,” another voice says, closer now. He glances over his shoulder. It’s Niijima Junior and Takamaki. He stares at them flatly and then looks back at his phone screen. Sometime during the school day, Akira had put him in the Phantom Thieves group chat. (Or perhaps it’s another decoy, like they must have had before, and they’re still talking about him behind his back in a real one. Or… or maybe he’s being paranoid. He’s pretty sure they’re not actively trying to deceive him anymore, but that doesn’t mean they trust him, does it? They certainly shouldn’t.) The conversation is flooded with chatter and emojis and truly horrific grammar mistakes. It’s practically illegible.

“Akira-kun said you’re going into the Palace with us today,” Niijima says, awkwardly.

“Uh-huh,” he says, and thinks about how he shouldn’t have ever told Akira he’d be nice to these people. God. It’s not like they have anything to talk about. He says, “I’m just helping out. You don’t have to pretend to be my friend. I certainly don’t want to be yours.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly,” says Takamaki. “Jeez.”

He scrolls aimlessly up through the chat without reading it.

“My sister said she-” Niijima begins, and interrupts herself with, “Oh, hey, that’s our train.” They push on - he thinks about going into another car, but that’s a lot of effort given the crowd, and pointlessly rude besides. Niijima keeps talking into his shoulder as the train gets going. “She said she talked to you the other day, and you seemed, uh-”

He looks down at her. “I seemed...?”

“Well - quiet, mostly,” Niijima says, peering up through her bangs at him. “You know you can talk to her, right? I know it can be hard to tell, but she’s really worried about you.” Worried? Sae Niijima thinks he’s worth worrying over? Oh god, he hates that.

“Yeah,” Takamaki says, “Sae-san’s actually really nice.”

“No offense,” he says, “but I don’t need to talk to anyone. I just need to get this done.”

The girls look at each other, and that’s the end of the conversation. He purposefully walks very slowly behind them as they head through the backstreets towards Leblanc, single file through the alleys. Tries to let some distance grow, despite his longer legs. It had been sunny when he’d left school but the sky has turned a grim pale grey since then, and the early winter air has a bite to it.

He’d told Akira, in a text, that they should all just meet in Chiyoda. (Obviously Shido’s Palace is the Diet Building. Where else would it be?) That him coming out to Yongen again was both unnecessarily dangerous and a waste of everyone’s time. But Akira said, “if you’re doing this you should be part of the team, and that means coming to the hideout again at least this 1 time,” so… here he is.

‘Hideout’. God, that’s so infantile. Why be so desperate to make meeting up in accessways and attics sound cool? Goro would put money on Sakamoto being the one to have coined that shit, but the rest of them going along with it is just embarrassing.

Akira looks up from behind the counter and smiles when the three of them walk in. Sojiro Sakura has vanished again but the rest of the Phantom Thieves are already there, minus - of course - Okumura. It feels like he’s stolen her spot in the team, like he’s bullied his way in. He feels immensely guilty about it.

Morgana stands on the counter with his tail very straight in the air and says, “Gotta say, I seriously wasn’t sure you’d come back, Akechi.”

“Well,” Goro says, watching the rest of them crowd into the booths, “I did.” He folds his arms and leans uncomfortably against the counter. He needs to stay cool this time. He needs to pretend he’s still the charismatic detective from TV, who doesn’t flip out or yell at anyone, ever. He’s untouchable and powerful and if anyone fucks with him he will smile and react to it later.

Niijima Junior claps her hands together like she’s a fucking nursery school teacher and says, “Okay. Everyone’s here. Who wants to fill Akechi in on how we’re doing? Morgana?”

The stupid magic cat jumps over to the table and clears his throat theatrically. “All right. Shido’s Palace, as I’m sure is obvious, is based at the National Diet Building. It’s in the form of a cruise ship.” Oh, of course. He’s been into that stupid ship metaphor for years, endlessly talking about where he’s going to steer this country, how it’ll be when he takes the wheel. He never even seemed to notice he was doing it. Goro had always pictured it a bit more rising sun than deluxe western luxury, but maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. “We need to get five letters of introduction before we can get into the Representative Chamber, from five VIPs. Or, uh, four VIPs and a cleaner, I guess?”

“We were wondering, actually,” says Kitagawa, “if you knew the importance of this ‘cleaner’.”

Goro says, “What, like a fixer?”

“Wh-” says Niijima, and then, “Oh.”

Goro stares at them. “Don’t tell me you thought…” They’re all either looking down at their feet, or looking like it’s just dawned on them. Holy fucking shit. “Are you serious?” he says, and feels himself start to grin. “You took down a mafia boss a few months ago and that was too obscure terminology for you? Haven’t any of you seen a movie before? God, you really are just the sweetest little criminals on the planet. Seriously, Kurusu, even you didn’t figure that out?”

“It’s Akira,” says Akira. “Uh. In our defense, we’ve been spending a lot of time as mice, lately, it’s been kind of distracting.”

Goro knows he needs to be good but this is just the funniest fucking thing. “You could have asked your sister, you know,” he says to Niijima. “Or one of you could have googled ‘cleaner’ and ‘crime’, perhaps?”

“Okay, we’re morons, we get it,” Futaba Sakura interjects. “Move along.”

Anyways,” says Sakamoto, “do you know who this guy is? Like, you’ve met most of Shido’s contacts, right?”

Goro, through a great force of will, doesn’t roll his eyes even a little. He forces his expression to go back to neutral, and says, “I couldn’t give you a name, no. Do you think he would have been introduced to me as ‘the cleaner’? It’s not like his hired killers were all in a union together.” He must have met this man at some point, though. At a dinner, or passing each other in a corridor. Or outside his school.

The group nods, slowly. “Were you truly hired? Technically?” asks Kitagawa.

“That’s completely irrelevant and you know it,” Goro says, too testily.

“We’re allowed to ask you questions, man,” says Sakamoto, sprawling back in his seat. “You get that your entire life is really weird, right?”

Goro forces down the sudden wave of anger as hard as he can, like he’s packing a too-full suitcase. He smiles the way he used to, sweet and even, though he doesn’t give enough of a shit to make it reach his eyes, and says mildly, “And I’m allowed to not want to answer your stupid questions about my ‘weird life’.”

“Guys,” says Akira, all long-suffering. “Don’t start.”

“I’m not starting anything,” Goro lies. “I just don’t like being insulted for no reason.”

“Why are you talking to me,” says Sakamoto, stone-faced, “when Yusuke’s the one who asked you the damn question in the first place?”

“I was only wondering,” Kitagawa murmurs, looking down at the napkin he’d been doodling on. “I didn’t think it’d be an issue.”

Goro says to Kitagawa, trying to hide the irritation in his voice, “I wasn’t exactly salaried, but I was compensated. That’s how I got my apartment. Happy?” The apartment, and decent clothes, and anything else Shido decided he needed. Goro had tried to pretend, for a while, that it was Shido’s single paternal instinct making itself apparent, rather than just another way he could control Goro, make him be what he wanted him to be. Make him owe him things. So forgive him if he gets a bit touchy, talking about it.

“Can we get back on topic?” Niijima says.

“Please,” says Goro.

Kitagawa’s expression had gotten a bit keener at the word apartment (which Goro understands better than he wants to admit; there’s nothing like being an impoverished orphan to turn you into a crass materialist) but he nods and says, “Of course.”

“Actually, that’s about it,” says Morgana, sounding a bit embarrassed. “We should have been nearly done by now, but…”

Akira says, “I’ve been over it with Goro,” just as sheepishly. With a kind of distant horror, Goro watches the room react to hearing his given name being used so casually - heads turn, eyes flick from Akira to Goro and back again. None of them say anything, but they’re taking note.

“So how far in are you?” Goro says, as if he can distract them. “How many of these letters do you have?”

“Uh,” says Morgana, and looks at Akira.

“Two,” says Akira.

Two?” Goro repeats. “Are you kidding? You’re not even halfway?”

“You don’t have to be rude about it,” says Kitagawa.

God, now he’s being lectured by the spacey closeted weirdo. Goro hasn’t even started with rude. He bites his tongue hard, and then says, “Well, maybe you don’t need them. I mean, I’m as inner circle as anyone can get. I might be able to just vouch for the rest of you.”

They all look at each other. Niijima says, “That’s a good idea, but… they’re more like key cards, honestly. I don’t think it would work.”

“Ah,” he says, feeling stupid.

“And that would draw a lot of attention,” Akira adds, very calmly.

“Yes, I get it, I’m not a total idiot,” Goro snaps. “Let’s just go, then. We can’t keep wasting time here.”

They pack up their things. On the walk back to the subway station, Akira falls behind the group with Goro and elbows him gently in the ribs. Goro just barely stops himself from recoiling and says, “What?”

“Thanks for talking to Futaba the other day,” Akira says, very softly. “It was nice of you.”

“Oh,” Goro says. “Well. I did completely ruin her life.” He adds, as quietly as he can, so that the rest won’t hear, “It wasn’t nice of me. It was literally the least I could do.” An apology is barely anything, a bandaid on a gaping wound.

Akira says, “Don’t be dumb. You didn’t have to talk to her and you did. You’re doing good.”

“Uh-huh,” says Goro, more sardonically than he means to. “Sure.”

Morgana sticks his head out of Akira’s bag and says in a loud whisper, “Are you just completely incapable of taking a compliment now? He’s being nice.”

Goro crosses his arms, annoyed. “I wasn’t talking to you,” he says, and then before he realises it he’s kept going. “Honestly, if you really want to know, I just think it’s a pretty pathetic thing to be complimented on. You realise what you’re saying is,” and he pitches his voice unflatteringly sweet, though he still keeps it quiet, “‘Wow, Akechi, you said sorry, that’s incredible, you’re almost on the level of my rapist gym teacher.’”

“Why,” says Morgana, staring at him, “are you being such a jerk about this? He was thanking you. All you had to say was ‘It was nothing’.”

Akira adds, sounding exhausted, “This is why it’s remarkable that you’d apologize, Goro. Your entire reaction, just now.”

“Don’t you two gang up on me,” Goro hisses. He needs to stop this but the fucking cat just gets under his skin, and Akira is being unbearable, again, and anyway he knows he has a reasonable point. “All I’m saying is that I haven’t done anything remotely meaningful and it’s transparent and insulting of you to pretend I have. You don’t have to fucking baby me.”

He realises, suddenly, that they’ve all stopped walking. The rest of the group is staring at them. Kitagawa says, delicately, “Is something the matter?”

“Yeah, wanna fill the rest of us in on this weird whisper fight you’re having?” says Sakura. She doesn’t sound uncomfortable but she looks it, shifting restlessly from foot to foot.

Goro rearranges his face back to placid and says, “No. It’s nothing. Sorry.”

“It’s really nothing important,” Akira adds, smooth as ever.

“Mister Murderer here was just being an ass,” Morgana says, very crankily, and he disappears back into Akira’s bag. Akira frowns, jiggles the bag sharply on his shoulder. It’s nice to see him get pissed at someone besides Goro for a change.

Akira is blissfully silent for a while, but as they wait on the platform, he says, nearly right into Goro’s ear, “You don’t have to be so dedicated to putting yourself down, you know.”

Goro does roll his eyes to the ceiling this time. “I’m just being realistic, Kurusu. Sometimes those things go hand in hand. Though I get that you’re a perfect angel of morality, so maybe that’s hard to grasp for you.”

“You think I’m perfect?” says Akira, with so little inflection that Goro can’t tell if he’s amused or objecting.

Goro says, “My point was that you have a criminal record for being too good a person. Pardon me if it feels like we don’t have all that much in common.” He folds his arms and squares his shoulders and walks away to the other side of the platform. When the train comes, he purposely lets a few strangers wedge themselves between him and the rest of the group. He’s not angry or anything, really. He just needs a break.

Maybe he can’t do this. Maybe he should have at least waited longer to go back to school, instead of doing it today, because he’s already on his last nerve and nothing’s even happened yet. He’s such a useless asshole that he has a hard enough time just being civil to Akira, one-on-one, for an extended period of time. And he likes Akira, for a certain complex value of 'like'.

He can’t be like this. He needs to try harder. It’d be helpful if the rest of them tried not to be obnoxious little brats, too, but obviously that won’t happen, so it’s on him.

Behave, he thinks like a chant as they arrive in Chiyoda, as he falls into line behind them again. Behave behave behave.

 


 

November.

Takamaki groans and lies her head on the table in Kurusu’s room and says, "Why are Akira and Mona so laaaate. I'm boooored."

Her voice gets so goddamn grating sometimes. Goro looks up from his work, smiles, and says, "Now would be a pretty good time to get some homework done, don't you think, Takamaki-san? Sakamoto-san?"

"Dude," Sakamoto says, "I wasn't the one complaining."

"He does have a point," Niijima-the-younger says. She's been working on her own schoolwork next to Goro. "You'll be regretting it if you try to do it the morning before class again, Ann."

"I don't do that nearly as often as you think, Makoto," says Takamaki, but starts digging through her school bag, looking exaggeratedly sulky about it. “I'm just so sick of school right now,” she says, “it's so hard to concentrate on." Boo-fucking-hoo, Goro thinks, though honestly he can sort of empathise. But it’s not like whining about it will do anything besides get on everyone’s nerves. “And also,” Takamaki continues, apparently desperate to do anything besides open her textbook, “it's not fair that Akira has Morgana with him all the time, I'm positive Mona helps with answers."

What? Honestly? Goro takes a second to compose himself, bite back his anger, and then says, all flustered little good boy, "Does he really?" Takamaki nods. God, Goro thinks, no wonder he does so well on exams. What a conniving little shit. Incapable of doing anything under his own power, so fucking reliant on other people to the point of literally cheating at academics. He should be better than that. It's infuriating. Killing him is going to be the most satisfying thing Goro has ever done in his life.

He says, still with his why-I-never face on, "That's pretty dishonest, isn't it? Couldn't he get in trouble?" Okumura, bless her pampered little heart, nods emphatically, even though it’s not like she works for her results, either, really. People like her only get good grades because they’ve had professional tutors since they were two years old.

Takamaki frowns and says, "Well... not really? In trouble for bringing a cat to school, maybe, but that's it." She looks like she’s about to say something else, or she was and thought better of it.

Niijima says suddenly, "Oh, Akechi-kun, you're taking third year chemistry too, right? I can't remember how to do this-" and she pushes her paper on top of his work, which is… strange. A bit too aggressive, for her. But... he has a facade to maintain, so he swallows his suspicion and walks her through the calculations (which, to her credit, are actually fairly complex).

“You see,” he says when he’s finished, “It’s honestly pretty simple,” and beams politely at her. Niijima just frowns down at her work. God, maybe she wasn’t doing anything weird after all, it seems like she really did just need help. And she’s the smart one. Incredible.

There’s the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Kurusu at the top of them when Goro turns. His hair is damp from the rain, clinging to his cheeks, his glasses a bit foggy. He seems a bit exerted, like he’d been running, his breath coming quick through slightly parted lips.

Goro tears his gaze away and tucks his schoolwork back into his bag.

Kurusu says, “Sorry, guys, the time got away from me. But I come bearing gifts.” He drops the Mona bag onto the table, and then a plastic shopping bag next to it. Morgana climbs fluidly out of the bag and starts cleaning himself as the rest of them, except Goro, lean in, start going through the weapons (because of course it’s a pile of toy weapons, they should have known to expect it - Kurusu had spent the entirety of their last trip into Niijima’s Palace swindling demons for cash like the little con artist he is) like excited children.

“Not interested, Akechi?” Kurusu says, sounding amused. Goro looks at him again. He’s leisurely wiping his glasses dry with the bottom of his shirt, gazing thoughtfully at Goro.

Goro says pleasantly, “It’s hardly as if they’re going anywhere. Here, take a load off.” He doesn’t like sitting with the group of them, anyway, it makes him feel crowded and vulnerable; but he did really need to get as much schoolwork done as he could before they went into the Palace. These kids are running him ragged.

“What a gentleman,” Kurusu says, deadpan, but then he smiles as he takes the seat, and Goro feels his own smile threaten to turn into a full-on crooked smirk as he stands behind him. He worries sometimes, that he’s not being careful enough, that Kurusu might somehow twig to something being wrong - but that look on his face right now is so trusting. Surely he wouldn’t be turning his back on Goro like this if he suspected him at all.

Still. Goro needs to remember to watch himself. He’s been doing so well, he can’t fuck it up now.

Kurusu grabs something from the bag and passes it backwards to Goro. A fake ray gun. Well, not that there’s such a thing as a real ray gun. “The proprietor wanted to know if I had a little brother,” Kurusu says, dryly, draping an arm against the back of his chair. Looking up at him through his lashes.

God, he thinks he’s so fucking funny. “And what did you tell him?” Goro says, and takes the gun. He’s always surprised that they don’t feel like toys - it doesn’t have the heft of a real one, but it’s not that far off. He twirls it a little, flips it in the air and catches it. He’s showing off a bit, he knows. Kurusu shows off endlessly; maybe it’s contagious.

Kurusu says, “I said, a guy has to have some secrets,” and grins. Ha. No kidding. Goro gives him his most angelic smile and slips the new gun into his briefcase, next to his real one.

 


 

The ship that is Shido’s Palace is huge, lush and opulent, with none of the calculated minimalism of Shido’s home. Goro thinks about an iceberg tearing a hole in it from bow to stern.

On the deck, while the girls review a map on Sakura’s laptop, Sakamoto says to him, “Dude, your real Metaverse outfit is kinda fuckin’ terrifying, huh?”

“That’s the point, yes,” Goro says without looking at him. Where the hell did Akira get to? Oh - off in a corner, doing that… thing that’s hard to think about. Goro tries to focus on him. He’s facing away from them all, strangely silhouetted by a blue light coming from nowhere. Goro feels like if he just concentrates enough, he’ll get it, he’ll understand what Joker’s doing, why Goro almost hears… the voices of children? And under that, another voice, deep and unintelligible like the rumble of bass-

Kitagawa interrupts his train of thought with, “It’s an intriguing motif. Quite similar to your Shadow, in fact.” He’s leaning a bit too close, alight with academic interest. Goro steps backwards. “The armour theming in particular. And the stripes, attention-getting yet distorting-”

“Oh, I get it,” says Morgana from the ground, wide-eyed.

“Yeah, it’s incredibly deep,” Goro says flatly, before they start explicating the themes of this stupid costume. Rude little shits. “Way to go. You’re geniuses.” He looks over at Akira again. Still just standing there. How the hell does this work, he wonders. Thinking about it feels like he’s fighting a heavy current. Akira does… that… and then he has more Personas, even ones he’s never spoken to? He thinks of the thing in his dream. The same powers, it said. Does that include…

Sakamoto says, “So, like - doesn’t that helmet mess up your hair?”

Jesus fucking Christ, why won’t they let him think. And yes, it does, obviously. A while ago, he’d seriously considered cutting his hair short again just because going home with helmet hair was humiliating, but he really didn’t want to look anything like he did in middle school. And anyway, his hair eventually became an essential part of his image, so he just started packing a comb. “Please leave me alone,” Goro says.

“I’m just trying to make conversation,” Sakamoto says, sounding a little put-out.

“I understand that. You can talk to literally anyone else.”

“Oh my god, Akechi,” says the cat, and throws up his little paws in frustration like a person and goes over to the girls instead. Goro watches him leave sourly. He said please, didn’t he? What more do they want?

“Are we good?” says Akira from very close behind him. Goro doesn’t flinch in surprise, but only because he’s spent a lot of time training himself out of flinching. “Sorry about that, had to get some stuff out of the way.”

Goro almost turns to him and says, What stuff, what were you doing, I need to know, but- then the rest of them are there, chattering and moving, and he’s lost the thread, lost his fight against the current. It’s like forgetting a dream. He was thinking about something

He looks around the deck as the rest of the group heads into the fake Diet Building. It feels like there’s someone there, but he can’t see anyone at all; just the pristine deck, and the apocalypse beyond it.

Akira hangs back again and says to him, “Are you good?”

Goro says, “What do you think?” Akira shrugs, all How am I supposed to know? Which is ridiculous, it’s not like Goro’s exactly a mystery to him at this point. “I am so sick of your friends already, Joker. I know I told you I’d be fine but you’re all just so fucking…” He can’t think of a way to sum up cloying and obnoxious and kind of making me realise how much of a bitter unlikeable freak I am in comparison, so he just leaves it.

Akira sighs. “Look. Just… loosen up, all right? Relax. Can’t you pretend this is just like before, in Sae’s Palace?”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Goro mutters.

“Sorry. I meant it more as like… a helpful, friendly suggestion.”

Goro groans and looks out one last time at the wildfire-coloured skyline. The flooded skyscrapers remind him of a bad disaster movie he saw on television once. All Shido’s ambitions, the bullshit ideology that had become his life for two and a half years, summed up as a shitty dubbed blockbuster. Funny. He says, “You know I wasn’t relaxed at all in Niijima’s Palace, right? And when I was, it was because I was thinking about how great it would feel to murder you all?”

When he looks back at Akira, he’s smiling, because of course he is. “That tracks,” he says. Goro waits for him to add something else, but nope, that’s it. That’s all.

“God, you are no help, I hope you know,” Goro says. “You are the polar opposite of helpful. Let’s just fucking do this.” And he walks past him through the doors, after the rest.

 


 

In Niijima’s casino, he’d been surprised at the ease with which he’d fallen into the Thieves’ battle rhythm. He’d quietly resented every command Joker issued, of course; but as much as he hated to admit it, the kids had good strategic heads on their shoulders. They were sharp and aggressive, and flexible, too, able to correct any missteps so fast they made it all look easy. You wouldn’t know that they didn’t have nearly as much practice as he did. (Although they were a bit too focused on looking cool, he felt; that he couldn’t seem to quite keep up with.)

And now… now it isn’t all that different. He can use Loki as well as Robin Hood, which is a relief; and all of the Thieves except Akira stand a bit further away, seem a bit more taciturn than before. And of course Okumura isn’t there, Akira taking over for her psychic attacks. Maybe he’d never especially liked her, but Goro had certainly always found her secret reserve of aggression hugely entertaining. Found it familiar, too.

Goro hates every inch of this Palace, every luxury and floorboard and snivelling minion. It helps fuel him. And it makes him feel a bit better to be fighting again, to have an outlet, especially now that he doesn’t have to hold himself back to fit in. He’s good at this, he remembers now. He’s always been good at this. And isn’t Robin Hood proof? Loki had come to save him but he’d gotten Robin with his sheer tenacity, by taking every blow and returning each one so doggedly that in the end, Robin had volunteered his services. And he’d done it alone.

After Goro takes out a group of demons in one particularly decisive blow, Akira says, “I’d sure hate to get on your bad side, Crow.” No one laughs, but Goro smiles despite himself.

When they stop for a break in a safe room, Akira says to him, “Make sure you don’t wear yourself out,” but he sounds impressed. He hands Goro a plastic container of… cooked vegetables? Carrots.

“Sorry, what on earth is this?” Goro says.

“They’re from Noir,” says the cat. “We figured out some stuff since Sae’s casino.”

Sakura says, not looking up from her laptop, “They taste kinda gnarly, but they’re really good for keeping your stamina up.”

He gives them a try. They do taste pretty damn weird, even with most of the flavour boiled away. Morgana is just eating a raw one, which is the most bizarre thing he’s ever fucking seen, a bipedal cat monster acting like a cartoon rabbit. Goro says, “Can cats even digest vegetables?”

“I’m not a cat,” the cat says archly, “so I wouldn’t know, would I?”

As they stretch and snack and talk, Goro switches quickly to the Robin Hood outfit, because eating with his helmet on is a pretty awkward endeavor, and again finds himself the object of everyone’s attention, even though he’s standing as far from them as he can get, against the wall. “You can just do that?” says Niijima, wide-eyed. “Whenever you want?”

“Obviously,” he says. Looks at her like, Can’t everyone?, even though he knows he’s only doing that to be a jackass. Winding her up is just so easy, is the problem.

“How?” says Sakamoto.

Goro shrugs, feeling a tiny bit smug. At least he has one thing they can’t do, one single solitary thing that’s only his, even though it’s basically just a party trick. “It’s like flexing a muscle,” he says dismissively. “Metaphorically speaking.” Like how you don’t really know how you move your arm, you just do it. He switches to the black, and then the white again, just to show them.

“Cool,” Akira pronounces.

"I wish I could do that," Takamaki says sourly, and looks down at her catsuit.

He almost says, Oh, so you DON’T want to look like a whore? Could have fooled me. Swallows it before it comes out. Fuck. Why would he even consider saying something so pointlessly cruel? He needs to have his mouth literally stapled shut. The thing is, it's... it's the kind of thing Shido would have said. Maybe not to a woman's face, but under his voice to the man next to him, so they could laugh while she stood there, knowing she was being talked about. The words just slipped into his mind so easily.

Unfortunately. Unfortunately Takamaki is looking right at him now from where she’s perched on the table, and she says, "What is that face supposed to mean?"

"I'm not making a face," Goro says.

"Then stop staring at me," she says, and pulls the top of her suit a bit higher over her chest, self-consciously.

"I wasn’t staring at you." Though maybe he had been, a little, or at least he’d just… zoned out in her direction. He'd been thinking about Shido, anyway, not her.

"No, she’s right, you definitely were staring at her," Niijima pipes up. "Like, in a really weird way?"

What the hell is their problem? "I’m wearing a mask, you don’t know what my expression was. And I'm allowed to look in her general direction, you know.”

"Yeah, but you don't have to, like, leer," Takamaki mutters.

This is absurd. Goro says, "I promise I am the last guy here who'd be leering at you, sweetheart. Get over yourself."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Takamaki snaps, her voice very high now, at the same time Niijima says, "Could you stop?"

"I didn't do anything," he says, bewildered, and turns to the boys for support.

They all just stare back at him, even Akira. Sakamoto says, "Don't look at us, man. You should probably just apologise." He sounds kind of like he's enjoying it.

Goro turns back to Takamaki, whose face is turning the same colour as her outfit under the mask, and gestures to Sakamoto in disbelief. "You spend time with him," he says, "him, and that fucking creepy little cat, and you think I’m leering at you? Do you have any awareness of the world outside of yourself? Let me guess, you think Kitagawa's overwhelmed with lust for you, too, huh?"

"Ann," Akira says suddenly, "can I talk to you for a second?"

Takamaki hops off the table and approaches him, bristling like, well, a cat. “Not until I beat the crap out of this - this nasty narcissistic little serial killer-"

Goro just laughs in her bitchy little white girl face. “I would love to see you try, you stupid-”

“Don’t you dare talk to her like that,” Morgana yowls, which is honestly proving Goro’s point. He wants to dropkick that fucking animal out a window.

Akira gets between them, whispers something in Takamaki’s ear. She immediately looks even more angry and says over Akira’s shoulder, at the same volume as before, "Then why didn't you just say so?!"

Goro says, with his teeth bared in something resembling a grin, "Excuse me but what the fuck did you just tell her?"

"May I suggest you all calm yourselves?" Kitagawa says from somewhere to the side. "You're giving me a headache."

"Great idea," says Akira pleasantly, and puts a hand on Goro’s sternum for a second, like he thinks Goro is actually about to get violent. Goro takes a quick step back. "Everyone, please, just chill."

"Oh, fuck you, Kurusu," Goro says.

"Stop talking to him like that!" Niijima snaps. "It's not okay! Just because Akira's too nice to tell you to stop doesn't make it acceptable!"

Goro feels incandescent with rage. Ablaze with it. "You think Akira's nice? He's a self-centered, cruel little smartass-"

"Yes, I am," Akira interrupts, his face very still, "but so are you, so how about we all calm the fuck down for five goddamn minutes and then use our indoor voices."

They're all quiet for a moment. Then Goro says, softly, "Language, Joker."

Akira very smoothly grabs him by the wrist and drags him out into the hall, slams the door behind them and says in a hiss, "You told me you’d try to be nice.”

Goro pulls his arm free and hisses back, "What did you say to her about me?"

Akira is visibly struggling to stay calm. "I told her you weren't leering at her because you're obviously gay, since-”

“I’m what?”

“-Since,” Akira continues firmly, “as far as I could tell, that's what you were trying to get across but refusing to actually explicitly say out loud.” God, sometimes Goro wishes Akira had just fucking stayed dead. “And like, I'm sorry, I know that's super personal, I get that, but you didn't have to drag Yusuke into it too, you know? You can't be mad at me for telling her about you when you were on the verge of-"

Goro says, "I think there's something really wrong with me, Akira."

Akira stops. Says, "What do you mean?"

Goro laughs, briefly, humourlessly, and leans back against the corridor wall. It feels like everything that just happened is finally sinking in. "You think this got bad?” he says. “I almost said something so much worse, for absolutely no reason. It just... I honestly can't control myself. I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be around anyone."

"What do you mean, 'shouldn't be here'," Akira says, slowly, staring at him.

"Oh god, you're obsessed with that, aren’t you? That's not even what I was saying. I just mean... shouldn't I be getting better? Becoming a better person? Instead of just..." He shakes his head. "Maybe there's a limit, to changing people's hearts. I think I'm just inherently like this."

Akira rubs between his eyebrows. "Okay. So. First of all, you didn't say whatever it was you thought, so clearly you can control yourself. Second. Everyone thinks shitty things sometimes. If you recognize that it was shitty, and didn't want to say it, then that seems like a step forward to me. Right? I mean, what would you have done a month ago?"

"Uh," Goro says. He would have rephrased it and said it with an innocent smile, just nicely enough that she'd dwell on it for weeks. "Okay. But-"

"Third," Akira says, "as far as I could tell, that entire argument was you and Ann misunderstanding each other and then you both getting upset and defensive. That's all that happened. It's not a sign that you're innately evil or anything, dude."

Goro really wants to disagree, but he’s not sure how. So he says, reluctantly, "Okay."

"Okay," says Akira.

Fucking obviously gay, though. Goro sinks down to the floor and mutters, hating every word as it comes out of his mouth, "I could be bisexual, you know. It's not so outside the realm of possibility."

"All right," Akira says, "but is that what you want me to tell Ann?"

Goro breathes out in a huff, wraps his arms around his knees. "I'd have preferred that you hadn't told her anything."

Akira tilts his head and says, hesitant, "Are you, though?"

"No." Obviously not. “But you didn’t know that.” He picks at the carpet a bit and then says, "Why, are you?" He tries to make it sound aggressive, like he's not really asking, he's just throwing the question back at him to make him think about how intrusive it is.

Akira says, "Uh. Maybe?”

Goro looks up at him.

Akira says, "I'm going to go back inside. Come in when you want. Holler if any demons come by."

Goro says, "Wait,” and stands up again. When Akira looks at him, he says, "I don't really think you're... entirely cruel. Or self-centered."

Akira leans against the wall next to him, a bit closer than he’d been before. "But you do think I'm a smartass."

Goro raises his eyebrows very pointedly, and then remembers he’s wearing a mask and says, "Yes, Joker, because you are."

Akira chuckles. "True. Well, same back at you. I just got frustrated."

"No kidding. And that language. I'm clearly a bad influence."

Akira grins. "I'd never heard a bad word in my life before we stole your heart. Think of my sweet little criminal ears." Then he says, "Are you mad, that I told her?"

'Mad' maybe isn’t the word. "Well, I'm not... happy about it. But that was what I was implying, too, so... I'm..." He sighs. "I don't know. It's still pretty shitty. But I feel bad all the time, so whatever. It's fine."

He sees Akira actually wince under his mask. "You don't have to say it's fine when it's clearly not."

"Would you rather I started yelling at you again?” Goro says. “Because that could be arranged."

"That's a false dichotomy, dude, and you know it."

Cute. "Look at you and your big words."

"Look at you, deflecting everything I say," Akira says. "I'm really sorry, okay? I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted everyone to stop yelling. Especially before you, uh...”

“Outed your friend?”

“Yeah.”

Goro bites his lip, and then says, carefully, “You didn’t have to do the same thing to me, then.”

Not that he exactly has the moral high ground on, well, anything. He expects Akira to say something along those lines, but instead he just groans and looks at the ceiling and says, “God, I’m such an asshole.”

Goro laughs in surprise. “Yeah, well, I’ve been saying that, haven’t I? Welcome to the club.” He claps Akira on the back affably, to let him know he’s not actually angry or anything; and then realises as he does it that it’s a bad fucking idea, he definitely should not be initiating physical contact with him of all people. He tears his hand away, too fast. Folds his arms very awkwardly because he doesn’t know what else to do with them. Akira just fucking watches.

After a moment, Akira says, “Do you really think Fox is…?”

“You nosy little shit,” Goro says, amused. “God, yes, clearly. Not that I’m an expert, but I mean, how am I more obvious than-” Akira tilts his head a little, and Goro interrupts himself. “Don't you dare answer that.”

“Okay,” says Akira, grinning. “But, um… I mean, I…”

The door to the safe room opens before he finishes the thought, and Takamaki peeks out. Goro wants the ground to swallow him. She says, “Can I talk to you?" to him, very tensely.

Akira gives Goro a gentle pat on the shoulder and goes inside before Goro can stop him. Takamaki opens her mouth as he passes, gets out, “Hold-” before the door closes, and then makes a face. Which is about how Goro would feel if he had to be alone in a corridor with himself too, honestly.

Takamaki leans against the wall across from Goro and doesn't look directly at him, her arms crossed over her chest again. After what feels like a very long silence, though it was probably only thirty seconds or so, she says, “So I get that you weren’t looking at me. I’m sorry about that part. But guys talk to me like that all the time. I don't give a crap if you're…” she drops her voice, like she’s saying a bad word: “gay, or whatever, I really don't, it still makes me feel like... like I'm just stupid and shallow and useless. And I'm sure you all think I was just being a bitch but you were being really mean.”

"Yes, I was," Goro says. Although she was being kind of oversensitive, too. But maybe so was he. "I... I’m sorry. Too. For the record." Oh god, that was dire. Will he ever be able to genuinely apologise for anything in his life without it feeling agonisingly forced? He’d been fine at school. What kind of person is he, that he can he only say sorry like a normal human being when he’s lying?

Takamaki nods, and continues, “You could have just, like... been like," and she goes soft and breathy, "'Oh gosh, Takamaki-san, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, it just turns out that the real me is a weird jerk who can't interact with people.'"

Goro almost laughs. "Is that supposed to be what I sound like?"

"Yeah, that's your old fake detective voice."

It really isn’t, but he says, "I'll make sure to say that next time I'm being a weird jerk.”

"Good." She fidgets, and says, "I'm sorry I called you a serial killer."

He grimaces. "Well. It is technically true."

"I… I guess,” she says, “but it's still crappy of me to bring it up like that. I mean. I assume. To be honest, it's hard to tell how you feel about anything? You're just kind of like, low-level bitchy all the time, now."

"'Bitchy'," Goro repeats.

"I mean... sorry, I'm not saying that because you're..."

Ughhh. This is one of the many, many reasons why he didn't want to fucking say it. And it is extremely unfair that Akira’s not suffering through this conversation with them. He says, "I was bitchy all the time before, too, believe me. I just was better at keeping my mouth shut about it."

She laughs a little at that. “I kinda figured.” She’s playing with a strand of her pigtail, twisting it thoughtlessly between her fingers. She says, “Do you get that people are still scared of you, Akechi? Crow, I mean. Like, Joker’s not, but he’s not scared of anything. And I’m not saying this to be mean, it’s just to say that if we’re kind of on edge… like, I know you’re different and all now, that’s obvious, but you’re still… you know, the guy who…”

“Yeah,” he says, before she can start listing the things they both know he’s done. A month ago all he wanted was to be the scariest bastard on the planet. Now he just feels bad. God. Maybe it’s that he’s not even trying to be scary, anymore. Funny, that all he needed to do was be his fucking piece of shit self. “Well,” he says as lightly as he can, “it’s not like I’m going to do anything now. All bark.”

“I know,” she says. “It’s just going to take a while to sink in. And maybe you could be a bit… less bark?”

“Maybe,” he says, because pointing out that he’s been fucking trying and failing all day is going to make her realise that he’s a lost cause. He hesitates, and then makes himself say, "Could you just pretend Joker never told you that thing about me? Please."

She blinks at him. "It's not a big deal. No one will care."

Like she didn’t care, huh? And anyway, he cares, so deeply, about anyone knowing anything about him he hasn't controlled. He wants to scream every single time he remembers that the Phantom Thieves, all of them, were in his goddamn head. He'd more or less gotten used to the idea of Akira getting in there, but the rest of them...

What he says is, "Have you met Sakamoto?"

"Oh, god, he's just a dumb boy, who cares about his opinion. Seriously, Crow. Anyway, I'm not as much of a gossip as you clearly think."

"I didn't say anything like that,” he says, frustrated. “Give me a fucking break.”

She lets out a big sigh, mutters something that doesn’t sound like either Japanese or English under her breath, and then says, “Look, dude, why are you so rude now? Is it like, the vulgarity switch got flipped in your brain with the other stuff? You’re worse than Skull. It’s really immature.”

And that’s a blow to the ego. He bites his tongue, hard, and then says, as calmly as he can, “You’d prefer me to be, what, the same as before?”

“God, of course not, it’s obviously way better to act like a human being than that… creepy robot detective you used to pretend to be. I’m just saying, you don’t have to be so touchy all the time. We all have to get used to not being enemies anymore.”

“Hm,” he says.

“And I mean… isn’t it exhausting? To be like that literally all the time?”

“Everything’s exhausting,” Goro says, and laughs a little. “God, you can’t even imagine how tired I’ve been lately.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t be if you were nicer to people,” she says, as if it’s that simple, but she does sound a little sympathetic. She stretches her arms above her head and adds, “We should go back inside. And I won’t tell anyone your big dumb secret. I promise.”

It occurs to him, as she goes inside ahead of him, that she hadn’t asked how Akira had known to tell her. Which was… actually, was it good? Did it mean she was genuinely minding her own business, or didn’t care? Or that she had very quickly guessed something closer to the truth? He thinks of his Palace again. There’d been a cognitive version of his mother, so there must have been - oh no, not a cognitive Joker. Fuck. Why hadn’t he thought about that. He’s so stupid.

Maybe, if Akira had needed to tell Takamaki that he was… tell her his really unnecessary and inappropriate assumption, that meant it hadn’t been so bad. Hadn’t been too obvious. At least not to everyone. Maybe it hadn’t even happened, he doesn’t know for sure. But… he does know what Palaces are like, and where his mind’s been for the past half year.

Maybe this explains why Akira kept fucking touching him, that day, before Goro lost his shit at Leblanc. He knew what Goro wanted. He knew exactly how to coax him into it.

But he can’t start trying to unpack that, not here, not if he wants to get anything done. He needs to bury it, with all the other things he needs to not think about. Bury it and hope like hell it stays buried instead of bubbling to the surface, the way things keep doing now that his brain is all fucked.

The group inside goes silent when they appear. Akira looks like he was in deep conversation with Morgana. Takamaki says, too chipperly, “Okay. Sorry about all that. We’re good.”

“Mmhm,” Goro adds, and hopes they can leave it there.

The others look at each other, and then Niijima says, exhaustedly, “Look, the thing is, this can’t keep happening. Akechi, you were fine earlier. I mean, you were pretty grumpy, but nothing like this.”

“I didn’t start it,” he says, feeling like he’s a preschooler being lectured for pulling someone’s pigtails. He sounds like such a goddamn baby but he keeps talking anyway. “I didn’t start it with Okumura and I didn’t start it this time. And look, I talked to-” what’s her stupid fucking codename again- “Panther, we both apologised, it’s fine.”

“Not if you keep escalating every single fight,” Niijima says. “I mean - guys? Back me up?” She’s always been so insecure, Goro thinks, in the clinical way he used to, like it’s something he can squirrel away for future use.

“He could afford to chill out a little,” says Sakamoto, which is such a lackluster show of support that Goro feels a little offended on Niijima’s behalf.

“Look,” Sakura says suddenly, and Goro realises it’s the first time he’s heard her speak since the arguing started. “I agree that that stupid fight was totally awful, but it seems like he’s okay one-on-one. I mean, right? You basically got along with me, Crow, even though it was in like, a super uncomfortable way, and you seem fine with Joker and Panther now.”

Goro glances at Akira, who could very easily say, Actually, he’s a total jackass to me absolutely all the time, but he’s just nodding.

“Yeah,” says Takamaki. “Like, maybe he just doesn’t like being ganged up on.”

“God, stop talking about me in third person, I am literally right here,” Goro says. “Look, Niijima. Queen, rather. If it happens again I swear to god I will leave and never come back and you won’t have to deal with me ever again.” He sees Akira, in the corner of his eye, turn his head to look at him sharply.

“And we did have a really good talk,” Takamaki adds earnestly. “Didn’t we?”

“We did,” Goro says, and stomps down the urge to qualify that with something shitty. “Actually.”

“Okay,” Niijima says like a sigh. “Joker? Anything to add?”

“Me?” Akira says, sounding startled to be addressed. “Uh. Not really.”

“He is here because of you,” says Morgana, an edge to his voice. Trouble in fucking paradise, huh. Again. Great. He really does ruin everything he touches, Goro thinks detachedly.

Akira looks around at all of them, no expression readable behind his mask. “I honestly just think we need to keep moving,” he says. “Things are as solved as they’re going to be for now, hashing them out won’t do anything.” Excellent pep talk, Goro thinks but doesn’t say. Real inspirational leadership right there. He’s right, though.

“All we’re doing is wasting time,” Goro adds. “And I’m sorry for that-” wow, that one actually sounded normal; maybe he’s improving - “but we need to make up for it, and that’s not going to happen if we stay here.” He switches back to the black outfit to punctuate that, and realises as he does it that he’d spent the entire goddamn fucking argument and hallway confessional sessions with helmet hair. It shouldn’t matter. It’s not like he has any dignity left anyway.

“I know we can do this,” Akira says, very firmly, and Goro wonders if he’s trying to convince himself.

Chapter Text

Akira had thought he’d gotten pretty fit, in the past seven months or so, but Akechi’s Palace was making him reconsider that.

“How effin’ tall is this tower,” Ryuji groaned when the group stopped at a landing to catch their breath. The game cabinets were gone this high up, like the arcade was only a front operation. Which, presumably, was the point. Up here it was locked door after locked door, stair after stair, and posters on every surface of Akechi in that strange dark costume they’d never seen. “Holy shit. This is getting stupid.”

“I never want to see another staircase in my life,” Yusuke added flatly.

“The map says we have another ten floors to go,” Makoto said. “Ugh. Talk about male insecurity.”

Morgana frowned up at her. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Ann sighed and said, “Don’t worry about it, Mona.”

It was a funny take on the situation, but Akira didn’t know if that was really what was going on. He thought of Chihaya, the card that kept coming up in her tarot spreads. “What does that one actually mean?” he’d asked her casually the other day, pointing to it. He’d been wondering for a while, and it’s not like Igor or the twins would give him a straight answer. “The… maison de… diu?”

Dieu,” she said, looking suddenly delighted. “The house of God. The Tower of Babel. It means, well - ambition and pride before the fall, you know. Destruction, and ruin. You know the story, right? Man’s hubris struck down by God’s unknowability. Laypeople think it’s the Death card they should worry about, but it’s really this one that’s a problem.”

“You sound really cheerful about that,” Akira said, “considering you keep drawing it for me.”

“I’m just happy that you’re interested,” she chirped. “But it also just means that change is coming. The aftermath of destruction isn’t always bad. Besides - since when do you worry about your fate?”

In the present, Haru said, “Is there a safe room nearby? I would really like to sit down.” She sounded uncharacteristically miserable, like she’d been the whole time they’d been in this Palace. Akira needed to sit down privately with her at some point, to say, You don’t have to do this one, no one will blame you - but he hadn’t been able to find the time, it kept slipping his mind. She hadn’t actually said anything about not wanting to be there, but of course she wouldn’t, Akira probably wouldn’t if he were in her position either. She was the newest member, after all. She wouldn’t want to cause any trouble.

“There should be,” said Makoto. “Joker, do you…” She turned, but not to him, to someone behind them, and then froze in place like she’d seen a ghost.

The rest of them turned too, and then let out a chorus of yelps. Another Akira was just standing there among them, in his school uniform. He was half in shadows but Akira could still see that his face was covered in blood, matting down his bangs and staining his turtleneck a deep rusty crimson. Akira thought of horror movies, special effects. Thought of how all of this was nothing more than warped ideas in a miserable teenager’s mind. That was all. (Except - except this stemmed from a memory of Akira’s death that only Akechi had.) “Hey, guys,” the cognition said, completely expressionless.

“What the hell,” said Ryuji, very softly. “What the hell.”

“I guess we should have expected this,” Morgana muttered. “How long have you been there?”

The other him just shrugged, his hands in his pockets. His face was swollen and bruised under the gore. “I knew you’d all show up eventually. So does he, I bet.”

“You know who we are?” Yusuke asked.

“Of course,” the fake said, and looked around at them all, and smiled contently. “You’re my friends. So many friends. It’s incredible, isn’t it, how people like me can just have friends, no matter what I’ve done? It’s so easy.”

God, Akira thought. He’d been kind of thinking that something like this might happen, would actually have been surprised if it didn’t; but he hadn’t realise how unsettling it would be, that the other him would be this grotesque. “Oracle,” he said quietly, “this guy’s not hostile, right?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Futaba said in their heads. “He’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen, but he seems friendly.”

Akira nodded. “Hey, uh, Joker,” he said, “we are getting close to the treasure, right?”

The fake looked at him like he was seeing through him, inside him. He wasn’t blinking. “You are. You’re doing well. You’re so close to giving that son of a bitch-” he really leaned into that, suddenly disturbingly vicious - “what he’s been asking for. I can’t wait. I’ve never wanted anything more than to see his pathetic little life destroyed. It’s all he deserves.”

Ryuji said, “Man, I get that you ain’t real and all, but you’re being pretty harsh.”

I’m not real?” the cognition said, and he tilted his head the way Akira did in real life, rubbed the back of his neck. It felt strangely predatory, the sheepishness of the gesture calculatedly false. “He’s the one who isn’t real. I figured it out, you know, I’ve been waiting to tell you all. He’s not a person, he never has been.”

They let that hang. “What is he then?” Akira asked, finally, when no one else spoke up.

“A simulacrum,” the cognition said, like it was obvious. “A bootleg replica. That’s all. You know, I thought he was real too, so don’t feel too bad. I thought he could be my friend. But then-” He pushed his bangs back, showed them the neat round hole in his forehead, sluggishly leaking blood like a faucet that hadn’t been turned completely off. Akira realized, in sudden horror, that he really didn’t want to see the back of the other him’s head. “I saw it in his eyes,” the fake continued. “The last thing I ever saw before I died. I knew him.” He laughed a bit - laughed not at all like the horror movie apparition he looked like, but completely normally, which somehow made it worse. “And I knew he couldn’t beat me, not really, not even by killing me. No one like him ever wins anything. He doesn’t want to admit it but he knows that too. Trash will always be trash, no matter how well you clean up for the cameras, right?”

“No,” Akira said, though of course there was no point in arguing with a cognition. “Of course not. I don’t think that.”

“We know you don’t,” said Futaba. Her voice sounded a little strained.

The other him just smiled and shoved his bloodstained hands back into his pockets and said, “My parents love me.” At least one of them was confident about that, Akira thought wryly, and then remembered where that must be coming from for Akechi, based on what they knew now, and felt sudden remorse. “My friends love me so much, I’m surrounded by love, all the time. A complete stranger will take me in and even though I’m a convicted criminal he will learn to love me! Do you think any of that could happen to someone like Akechi? Can you even imagine it?”

The cognition took a step forward, gazing intensely at Akira. He was so bloody it was even in his eyelashes, it was getting on his teeth as he talked. Akira wanted him to blink so badly. “And that has to be because there’s something in me that he just doesn’t have. Maybe he was born without it, or it died. Maybe that’s what he wanted from me - he thought he could rip it from my heart and make it his. But instead he just murdered it, and now he’s alone again. It’s funny, isn’t it? You should laugh. I do.”

“That’s…” Haru said, but she didn’t seem to know what else to say.

“That’s really fucked up,” said Ryuji.

This, Akira thought, was what Akechi thought of himself? Or, no - this is what he thought Akira thought of him, in those moments before he died. In the very last seconds. Which meant… which meant the cognition might not be telling the truth. Maybe. Trying to understand this felt a bit like talking to Akechi in person, struggling to work out whether any of the friendliness or weirdness or vulnerability was even slightly genuine. Layers upon layers of artifice.

The cognition chuckled a little, and then wiped at the corner of his eye like he was brushing away tears. His fingers came away crimson. He looked at them in cold curiosity and then smeared them on his school pants. Beamed sunnily at them.

“Uh,” Morgana said finally. “We… should get going. It was nice to… meet you.” The rest of them nodded, too hastily, and moved to walk away. The cognition followed them, and stopped when they stopped.

“Look,” Ann said, “uh, Joker. You seriously can’t come with us. No offense, or anything, you just… you can’t.”

“But you need me,” the cognition said, sounding genuinely confused. “You’re nothing without me. We all know I’m the only one with any talent.”

Okay, that was a lot closer to what Akira had been expecting from this. It was kind of a relief. “I’ve got it under control,” he said to the other him. (Ryuji muttered, “You don’t have to sound like you agree with him.” Akira pulled a quick apologetic grimace and continued talking to the cognition.) “Why don’t you, uh - keep an eye out here for us? As backup?”

“I’m the leader,” said the fake, like he was talking to very small children. Akira wondered if he should say, No, I’M the leader. But maybe that would make the cognition’s constructed equivalent of a brain short out or something, like a trick logic puzzle making a robot lose its mind in a story. He wasn’t even sure if the cognition understood who he was, though he - it? - certainly seemed to recognise something in Akira. Trying to parse out the exact mechanics of this didn’t seem especially helpful at the moment, anyway. He’d ask Morgana about it later, maybe.

“That’s true,” Akira said. “But, uh - that’s why you shouldn’t be risking yourself on the front lines. Right?” He looked back at the group, widened his eyes a little to say, Help me out, here.

Haru looked a bit sick, but she said gamely, “That’s true. One doesn’t put a general on the battlefield.”

The cognition frowned a little, and then seemed to realise something. “It’s because you love me. You want to keep me safe.”

“Uh - yeah!” said Ann, nodding emphatically. “Definitely!”

“That’s precisely it,” Makoto added. “We’ll scout ahead, and then regroup with you and form a plan for the… the final push.”

The other him smiled, angelic. A bead of blood dripped off his chin and onto the floor. “Okay. You guys do your best.” His tone was so condescending. Akira didn’t really sound anything like that, did he? “I’ll be here for you when you need me.”

“Thanks, man,” said Akira, and they hightailed it out of there. When Akira glanced over his shoulder one last time, the cognition raised a hand in a lazy wave.

In the safe room they found around the corner, Morgana said, “I knew he’d be here somewhere but I didn’t think he’d be so… so…”

“Dead?” Akira provided, doing his best to sound flippant.

“I suppose it makes sense,” said Haru. Her voice was very thin. “That’s the last thing Akechi remembers of you.”

“That was… highly unsettling,” said Yusuke. “How can you be so calm about this, Joker?”

Akira didn’t feel calm. He felt like he was going to see the other him every time he closed his eyes. Good thing he was a liar. He said, steadily, “It wasn’t real. Just remember that it wasn’t real.” And then, because he didn’t know what else to do, he said, “You guys ready for curry?”

They stared at him, and shook their heads, so he got out the coffee thermos instead.

Before they moved out again, Haru came over and sat next to Akira and whispered, “All those things the cognition said, about how Akechi’s missing something… what if he’s just a sociopath? Do you think this will still work?”

“Of course,” Akira said firmly. “Everyone’s heart can change. If there’s anything this whole thing has proven, it’s that. And I really don’t think Akechi’s a sociopath, Noir.” He didn’t think that was what the cognition had been getting at, either, though he wasn’t sure he could articulate why he felt that way. “He’s just a kid. Like us.”

“If you’re sure,” Haru said, but she didn’t look convinced. “I’m just not positive those things are mutually exclusive.”

 


 

Goro and the Thieves find the TV station president in the entertainment hall, engrossed in slots. Goro’s always thought that gambling is a strange hobby for the rich - it isn’t as if earning or losing the money would have any impact upon their lives - but maybe that’s the appeal. If you have enough money you can just throw it at anything you like. Maybe winning at slots is like a classy version of getting a high score in a video game, for these people, but with a bonus thrill from the illegality of it. There’s three of them, two lackeys and then -

Goro says, “Oh god, it’s just Watanabe. I thought it might be one of the difficult ones.”

“You know more than one president of a TV station?” says Niijima, and then, “Oh. Of course you do.”

“I should have guessed it was him,” Goro says. “Real boot-licker, convinced he’s this great evil mastermind. I’ll handle this.” He switches back to the white outfit; he needs to go for a refined look, right now. Takes his mask off and presses it into Akira’s hands. Akira takes it without hesitating. Then Goro puts on his brightest ace detective smile for them all and says, “Wish me luck.”

Morgana says, sounding genuinely disturbed, “It’s really creepy how easily you can start acting like that, Crow.”

“It was my job,” Goro says pleasantly. It’s good to know it seems easy to other people. Now he just has to maintain it. But this should be fine. He refuses to let Watanabe - not even the real Watanabe, an entirely imaginary one - get the best of him.

“Good luck,” says Akira, very calmly.

Goro takes a deep breath and saunters past the slot machines, does a very careful, deliberate double-take. Says, “Watanabe-san? Is that you, sir?”

Watanabe turns, looking annoyed at the interruption, but when he sees Goro he brightens. “Akechi-kun! What are you doing here, my boy? I thought you said you didn’t care for all this racket.”

He said-? Oh, god, he must mean the cognitive version of him that has to be lurking around here somewhere. If that little bastard’s presence ruins this act… Goro walks over and says, “I’m just passing through, Watanabe-san. But how are you? How’s lady luck treating you?” Shift the conversation to him. Everyone loves to talk about themselves, especially affluent middle-aged fools.

“I’d say my luck is better than ever,” Watanabe says, smiling and looking him up and down a bit too blatantly. There’s the difference between this Watanabe and the real one, Goro supposes. At least the real one has heard of discretion. (And this means, of course, that Shido has noticed the way Watanabe acts around him, which is… well. He can’t start thinking about that right now.) “Why don’t you sit down, son?” he says, and gestures to the seat next to him. The lackeys move out of his way so Goro takes it, leans his body in towards him in false interest. “I was looking forward to seeing you, actually,” Watanabe adds. “You hurt this poor old man’s feelings earlier.” He pouts exaggeratedly, and then chuckles.

Goro says, “I’m sorry. Things have just been so busy, lately,” and gives him a big apologetic smile and hopes what he said made sense, given… whatever the fuck the cognitive him had done.

Watanabe seems to accept it. He leans against the slot machine and says, “You recall that whole mess with Okumura?”

“Who could forget?” says Goro, and laughs a little.

Watanabe laughs too, longer. “All that funding he gave us, and in the end, we got to broadcast that mental shutdown of his. Our ratings have been through the ceiling. Give Shido-san my best for that, eh? And you - ha. I can’t say I understand how you do it, but well done.”

A part of him snarls, You think I’m an afterthought in this? It wasn’t Shido who actually did it, it was MY goddamn operation. Like it’s something he can still be proud about. But he smiles through it, the way he would have smiled through it before. (And, well, let’s be honest here - even now, it’s hard to care that much about Okumura’s death. He regrets doing it, of course, regrets the pain it caused that sweet, vicious little daughter of his; remembers the sheer joy he’d felt, watching it, with horror. But it’s hard to be that sorry that there’s one less abusive rich fuck in the world.)

Goro says, faux-modest, because these guys always seem to get a kick out of that, “I did what I could. It seemed to work out.” And indeed, Watanabe laughs again. Goro adds, like he’s only just now remembering it, “Oh, actually, Watanabe-san - I was wondering if you’d be able to do me a quick favour.”

“And what might that be, Akechi-kun?” Watanabe says, because men like him don’t rise to the top just agreeing to favours before they know what they are, even though he sure as hell owes Goro a few.

Goro tilts his head down, like he’s embarrassed, and then looks up through his lashes. Oh, Watanabe-san, I’m so confident on TV but I’m just a shy little boy at heart, thank god there’s a big competent man here to take care of me. Goro hates himself every fucking time he pulls this act but that’s never once stopped him from doing it. He says, “Well… would it be possible for you to give me a letter of recommendation?”

Watanabe leans a bit closer and says, “That shouldn’t be a problem, but… honestly, son, why on earth would you need one of those?”

This part is the gamble. “It’s for my friend. This is a bit embarrassing, but she lost hers.” He looks down and to the side. All sheepish about talking about a girl.

Watanabe bites. “She, hm? Oh my, look at you.” He smiles, though his expression is still hungry. “Well done, lad. Shido-san always thought you were a bit, ah… a bit of a nancy, to be entirely honest with you. But I said, no, he just needs some time to blossom. And so it is!”

If anyone else talks about his sexual orientation today Goro will kill them, probably, change of heart be damned. At least this is helping him understand what Shido does and doesn’t know. He says, “I wouldn’t say it’s anything serious, sir. But, you know… I’d like to show her around.”

“I bet you would,” the prick says, a laugh in his voice, and starts digging through his pockets.

Goro keeps talking, to make sure he stays buttered up, goes as earnest as he can without it verging into parody. He lets his fingers just brush against Watanabe’s knee. “And Watanabe-san… I did want to thank you for being so supportive. You and your station helped make me what I am. I never could have gotten as far as I did without you. No, I mean, we, Shido-san and I, couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Oh, stop, you sweet-talker,” says Watanabe, smiling. He pulls out a small envelope, but instead of handing it to Goro he reaches over with his free hand, uses it to tilt Goro’s chin up. Gets very close. Goro lets it happen, keeps his face pleasant and engaged, and thinks, distantly: Now you’ve done it, Akechi, you idiot. This is what you get for being such a goddamn whore. People are watching this. Akira is watching this.

The real Watanabe is discreet, but still - one time, after a dinner party, he’d gotten too drunk and pulled Goro onto his lap in front of everyone. He’d kept his composure even while scrambling to his feet, but somehow that made it funnier to them all, the child among men acting so unfazed by it. But at least Watanabe’s not that bad. He’s certainly better than that vile old inbred noble, the one who’s always thirty seconds away from talking your ear off about either women he’s borderline-assaulted or how the eugenics movement was really just misunderstood. Goro wonders sometimes if there’s ever been a powerful man in the history of the world who hasn’t been a pervert.

But now, Watanabe just looks him deep in the eyes and then says, “You’re like a son to me, Akechi-kun. I hope you know that. Have a good time with that girl of yours, eh?” And he lets go of Goro’s chin and holds out the envelope in both hands politely.

Goro tries not to look surprised, or relieved, or disturbed at the implications of that particular statement. (That’s a topic he needs to stay the hell away from thinking about, anyway.) He takes the envelope, stands up and bows deep. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, sir,” he says. “I’ll make sure that Shido-san hears how kind you’ve been.” And Watanabe grins wide at that, and Goro realises that that was his only real goal here, after all. Goro was fun to play with but ultimately just a means to an end. And since Goro got what he wanted, and obviously isn’t going to say shit to Shido, that means he won this one. He should be happy.

They say some more meaningless shit to each other, Goro promising to stop by his office next time he’s in the area, yada yada. As soon as he turns, he sees a number of heads duck behind the pillar he’d come from. He heads over at a forcedly normal pace, holds himself carefully while he’s still in Watanabe’s field of view.

“There,” he says when he reaches the Thieves, and shoves the letter into Akira’s hand. “It’s done. Now let’s get out of here before I go back and stab him in the throat.” The kids all stare at him. “Not literally, you morons. It’s a figure of speech.”

“I don’t believe it is,” says Kitagawa.

“Yeah, that’s a new one to me,” says Akira. He’s giving Goro one of his thoughtful looks. “Thanks for doing that.”

“It’s what I’m here for,” Goro says, and folds his arms very tightly. “Give me my mask back.” Akira passes it over, a bit hesitantly, and Goro snatches it impatiently from his hands.

The cat says, “Are you going to flip out if we try to ask about any of that, Crow?”

Well - given his recent track record, that seems fairly likely. Goro puts his mask on and says, “What’s there to ask about? He’s a creep. I knew he was a creep so I took advantage of it. There you go, end of discussion.”

The Phantom Thieves, for once, don’t seem to have much to say about that. They just look at him, or at their feet. After a moment, Kitagawa says, “Are all these people like that?” He sounds a little aghast.

“Not specifically like that,” Goro says. “But none of them are nice.” He feels suddenly compelled to make this particular situation a bit clearer. He says it all as indifferently as he can. “It’s not as if Watanabe’s an actual predator, you know. He just gets a rush out of messing with the boss’s toys. It’s incredibly easy to manipulate if you know what you’re doing.” They need to know he was in control of all that, the whole time.

“‘The boss’s toys’?” repeats Sakamoto. “That’s a seriously fucked up way to talk about yourself, dude.”

Well, Goro thinks wearily, if the shoe fits. He says, “It was a metaphor. Don’t strain yourself overthinking it.”

Sakura says, slowly, “Have you met that noble guy? The really creepy one?”

“Oh god, you all had to deal with Nijou?” says Goro, and then laughs at his own surprise. “Of course you did. Shit. Better you than me. How did that go?”

Most of the group seems to be looking very pointedly at Sakamoto, who says, “Look, I said I was sorry about that. But sending the girls worked, didn’t it?”

“Wait, hold on,” says Goro. “You sent the girls to deal with Nijou? Are you kidding? I wouldn’t make a woman I hated go within twenty feet of that fat prick.” These fucking idiot kids. Not that any of the Thieves would be in any actual danger, but regardless.

“We didn’t know he’d be that awful,” says Akira, though he sounds immensely guilty.

Goro tries to sound sympathetic, so Akira will listen to him. “You should have known to expect it. Just think of how you met Shido, Joker. Did you think that was aberrational? This is what the adult world is like. I would have thought you’d all have figured that out by now.” Akira, especially, should have worked that out. Goro knows he’s cleverer than this.

Akira looks at him very seriously and says, “Your father’s conspiracy ring isn’t the entire world, Crow.”

Goro says, “It’s cute that you think I was only talking about that.” And depressing. They really don’t live in the same world at all. He starts walking forward, because none of the others seem like they’re going to. They need to get out of here. They need to stop wasting time.

From behind him, Sakamoto says, “Look, fuck those assholes. But you can’t just act like all that’s normal, Akechi. You can’t just accept shit like that.”

This conversation feels so dangerous. Goro would very much rather shoot himself than discuss any aspect of his shitty childhood, or his shitty adolescence for that matter, with Ryuji goddamn Sakamoto. He stops, turns his head but not his body, and says, “The world must look pretty good from that high horse of yours, huh, Skull?”

“No, dude, it doesn’t, that’s my point. If people are shitty around you all the time, you gotta get mad about it!”

Goro’s not going to lose it again. He said he wouldn’t so he won’t. He turns around fully and says, calm as the goddamn doldrums, “I have been nothing but angry since I was seven and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it hasn’t exactly worked out for me so far.” Maybe that’s a significant oversimplification, but it’ll do, given that none of this shit is anyone else’s goddamn business. And if he’d spent all his time consciously mad, dwelling on it, he’d… he’d have been a lot like he’s been since his heart was stolen. Which hasn’t been a particularly useful, productive state, has it?

“Guys,” Niijima says, and if she’s about to chew him out for this too, a conversation he absolutely didn’t want or initiate or even get that upset about… But she just says, “The middle of a Palace is a terrible place to talk about this.”

“Agreed,” says Akira.

Sakamoto ignores both of them. “Crow,” he says firmly, “I’m not trying to start anything with you, I’m being serious here. I know messed up shit happens, and I know it stays with you forever. I know that.” Goro loathes the way he’s talking to him, as if they have anything in common, when every dumb punk in the world has been smacked around by someone from time to time. When Goro tried so hard for so long to drag himself out of the same gutter Sakamoto seems to have willingly dove into. “But you had other options besides your whole - batshit insane revenge plan, you know? No one made you join forces with your shitty evil dad! I mean, you coulda just done this-” and he holds out his hands, gesturing to the entire Palace - “ages ago, dude! We would’ve helped you!”

“Skull,” says Takamaki, “we just stopped fighting, give him a break.”

Goro says, though he can hear the frustration rising in his voice, “I genuinely don’t understand what you want me to say, Sakamoto. I did what I did, and being lectured about it now isn’t going to change any of that.” And besides, he didn’t even know you could change someone’s goddamn heart until the Phantom Thieves showed up. And by that point - well - he had too much blood on his hands to change his mind, even if he’d wanted to.

“Codenames, Crow,” says Akira, gently.

“Your codenames,” Goro snaps, “are stupid. You people do realise that, right?”

“Says the guy who wanted to be called ‘karasu’,” says Sakamoto, who just refuses to shut up. “Was that a bit, by the way? You were trying to make us think you were too dorky to be evil?”

“Clearly,” Goro says, although it wasn’t.

“Why do you call me Joker in real life all the time, if you think they’re stupid?” says Akira.

Just once he wishes Akira would back him up. Maybe he just thinks changing the subject is the same thing. Goro glares at him and says, “Can we please go? I really need to hit something.”

They acquiesce, and go on in silence for a while, only speaking when they get into battle. At the end of one fight, Kitagawa says, like the conversation is still ongoing, “It can be difficult, you know, to recognise that one’s situation is unjust. And… shameful, to know that others can discern it. So it feels as though there’s a dignity in isolation, but I… I don’t believe there is. Not really. One is merely alone.” Goro turns to look at him and Kitagawa looks a bit flustered and adds, “In my experience.”

“Yeah,” says Sakura in their heads, very, very quietly.

Goro thinks about saying, I’m not going to be nice to you just because you said some pretty words about how pathetic you think I am. Thinks about saying, It’s not exactly unjust if you actively sought those situations out, if you walked into the lion’s den and thought being smarter than the lions would keep you safe; so keep your empathy to yourself.

He says, “Right.” And then, uncomfortably, “Thanks.”

 


 

One night, long ago, Shido dragged Goro, along with Watanabe and a few other men Goro didn’t know, to a hostess club, orchestrated it so Goro could get in without being carded. He thought he’d hate it. He did hate it, part of it anyway - the men guffawing into their overpriced champagne about their wealth, their power, their petty little accomplishments. The way they looked at the girls like they wanted to devour them whole.

But - the girls. The women, really, they were certainly all older than he was. They were incredible, cold calculating mirrors who knew exactly how to fawn and flirt and appeal to a scumbag’s ego. It was hard to talk to the one he was supposed to be talking to, he was so busy watching the rest of them work. But she seemed to pick up on that too, listened to the others’ conversations and said to him, “Don’t you think...?” to get him involved. Real professionals, every one of them.

The girl whispered in his ear, after a while, “Are you doing okay, hon?”

“Me?” he said, and smiled at her. Woozily. He would need to make sure he didn’t actually drink, if this ever happened again - the champagne was hitting him harder than he expected. He tried to fake it like the girls, but everything he said came out a bit too honest. “I’ve just never been somewhere like this. You’re all… you’re really good at your jobs.”

“Aw, thank you,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure if you were just quiet or having a bad time. Or… if you don’t like me?”

He liked her. He didn’t remember her name, but he liked her, her careful artificial sweetness, the honey-blonde of her dyed hair. He could even imagine maybe kissing her, if he really had to. He said, “Sorry. Just quiet.”

“I know this place is a lot, if you’re not used to it,” she said, smiling apologetically.

He nodded and held up his champagne flute and said, “Uh - cheers?”

She giggled and said, “Cheers to what, Akechi-san?” She remembered his name, which was her job but still made him feel guilty. How did they do this job and drink? With every customer? He wondered if she had a sobriety trick, if she’d teach it to him.

He said, “Cheers to you, obviously,” and she beamed at that terrible line like he’d given her a diamond ring, and clinked their glasses together. Fucking amazing. Get the woman every acting award she could carry. “Ahh, young love!” said Watanabe, and everyone at the table laughed, the girl next to Goro most of all.

She said in his ear, “How old are you, hon?”

“Twenty,” he said, of course.

She whispered, “No, how old are you really? You won’t get in trouble, I know they paid off my boss. I’m just curious.”

He hesitated, and then whispered back, “Sixteen.” He wanted to say sixteen and a half, but that would just make him sound even more childish.

She said, “Is one of these guys your dad?”

He thought about just telling the truth - all he’d have to do was nod, and she’d be the only person in the world to know - but that would be such a stupid move. “No. More like… my boss.”

She nodded, playing it like a sixteen year old going to a hostess club with his boss was totally normal. Maybe it was, in some circles. “You like your boss?” she asked.

He glanced over at the others to make sure no one was paying too much attention to them. Watanabe’s eyes lingered a bit too long on Goro sometimes, but between the women surrounding them and the way the glass Shido was pouring was threatening to overflow, all the men seemed otherwise occupied. Goro said, “No. Do you?”

“Uh-uh,” she said, and grinned. Tapped her glass to his conspiratorially while a waiter sped past them with a towel. “To shitty bosses,” she murmured.

He smiled, and drank, and whispered, “How do you do this? All the time?”

“This job, you mean?” she said. He nodded. She said, “I like it. Honestly, Akechi-san, I do, I get paid to mostly just sit down and talk and drink all night. It’s like I’m a different person here. I’m what they need me to be for a shift, and then I go home and be me again. And it beats working at a grocery store. Why, you thinking of a career change?”

He said, “But how do you know…” The champagne was making this difficult. “How,” he repeated carefully, hoping starting the sentence over would give him more time to think it through, “can you know that the… the person you are when you go home is real? If you can be both people easily?”

She just laughed and said, “That’s a bit too philosophical for me, sweetheart.” He wondered if she meant it.

It was a real hostess club, the no touching type of hostess club, but somehow they ended up with the women in Shido’s limousine anyway. Shitty bosses, Goro thought as the girl kissed him, as he let his hand rest gingerly on her left breast for an audience too busy to notice. Just tolerate it, and then they’d both go home.

It got a bit hazy after that, but at some point the girl hustled him out of the limo, and then he keeled over and puked all over the sidewalk. She held his hair. “I’m sorry,” he said afterwards, staggering to his feet. “Did they see?”

“Probably not,” she said, wiping at his mouth with a tissue. “And these things happen. If they did notice they’ll think it was funny and then forget it, I’m sure.” She paused, and then said, “You okay, kid?”

He nodded. Mumbled in a slur, “I’m sorry I… in the car. I didn’t want to.” He wasn’t sure which part he was apologising for, the act itself or the lack of desire.

“I know,” she said gently. “It’s not a problem. Look, I don’t normally do this, but if you ever just want someone to talk to, you can call my work cell, yeah? The number’s on my card. And my name’s not Risa, it’s Linh.”

“Someone to talk to?” he repeated stupidly. He was pretty sure he’d lost her business card hours ago, but that wasn’t the issue. The real problem was that he’d somehow fucked up so spectacularly that this strange woman felt sorry for him, was concerned for him. It was bad enough that she’d just watched him heave his guts out in the street.

She said, “I’m a good listener, even when I’m not being paid for it. Just, if you need any help…”

He wondered suddenly and coldly what she thought was exactly going on with him and his ‘boss’, exactly how lurid her assumptions were. How dare she. How dare anyone think of him like that. So he pulled himself up to his full height - he wasn’t as tall as his father yet but he was getting close, and she was tiny even for a girl - and he said, every syllable carefully enunciated to make up for his sluggish drunken tongue: “I don’t need the pity of some trashy foreign whore.”

She let real emotions show on her face for a second, a flash of startled wide-eyed injury - but only for a second, and then she wiped it away. A class act to the last, this woman. A real fucking inspiration. “Do whatever you want with your life, then, kid,” she said, and put on a calm, neutral smile. “It doesn’t matter to me. Have fun with your boss.” And she turned and went back inside, her heels clicking on the concrete.

He should have felt victorious but really he just felt like he was going to be sick again, so he leaned against the limo until one of the windows rolled down, and Shido said, “What the hell are you doing out there, Akechi? Where’d your girl get to?”

“She was a bitch,” he said, because he knew that was what Shido would want to hear, and because saying it made him feel a little better; and Shido laughed and pushed open the door for him.

“That’s women for you,” he said, as Goro climbed back in. All the hostesses exited as if they’d been signalled by the open door, adjusting their dresses and giggling a little, uncomfortably, as they went. None of the men were bothering to adjust anything. “What was her name? I’ll get her fucking… fucking fired.”

Goro sat down. He knew this was petty, too cruel for such a small slight; but then he thought of the way she’d spoken to him, like he was too pathetic to take care of himself. “Risa,” he told Shido, and smiled, though his mouth tasted like stomach acid. “She said her name was Risa.”

 


 

Time went by. Goro developed an alcohol tolerance, learned to lie and flirt while shitfaced like the best of them. Better than the best. Even Shido went nearly honest after a few too many drinks; Goro couldn’t afford to do that, so he didn’t. And Watanabe kept watching him every time they met, until Goro finally decided he might as well capitalize on it.

It happened like this: there was a party at Shido’s, as there often was (so many stories from the past two and half years of Goro’s life start, there was a party-), and Watanabe had been hounding Goro all evening. Not hounding him overtly but enough that it was impossible to not notice - keeping a penetrating eye on him in every room, homing in on him for conversation and refilling his wine glass. He kept it up until Goro just thought, Fine. Why not. If I fuck you, you’ll owe me. Maybe it was even blackmail material. Not that he’d ever publically degrade himself by actually using it, but Watanabe didn’t know that, now, did he? And it was late enough that Shido had vanished somewhere with some girls, so he wouldn’t have to know about it.

He threw his head back and finished his glass, grabbed another for courage, and weaved his way through the crowd. When he found Watanabe standing alone at the appetizers table, Goro said, quietly, “It’s awfully busy, isn’t it?”

Watanabe looked a bit surprised to see him there. Pleasantly so, though, naturally. “It certainly is,” he said.

Goro wished he could just say: I know what you want and I’m feeling charitable so let’s just get it over with. Instead, he said, “You can barely hear yourself think. I was wondering if we could go somewhere a bit less… populated? I had some business questions I thought you’d be able to help me with.” And he smiled, charmingly and wholesomely, and took a long sip of wine without dropping his gaze.

Watanabe smiled too, but he said, “What would people think, of a lovely thing like you sneaking off with someone like me?”

Good fucking god, did he want to do this or not? Goro made himself go slightly embarrassed, said, “Oh - my, I didn’t even consider-”

Watanabe said, sagely, “When you’re in a position like mine you have to consider these things. However, there… there is a guest room on the second floor that’s often free. Do you know it?” Goro did, so he nodded and tried not to look impatient while Watanabe laid out a fairly standard you go there and wait for me plan.

This didn’t need to be such a production. Absurd. But, he thought as he went upstairs, having the pervert on his side would be great for ensuring future media saturation, wouldn’t it? Shido would be thrilled.

He sat on the side of the bed and sipped his drink and tried to decide what to do with himself. Watanabe was taking his time coming upstairs and there wasn’t much to do in Shido’s deeply generic guest room. He wasn’t going to get undressed right away or anything, of course. He wasn’t some common tramp. (Because fucking your father’s business associate was a completely normal, non-trampy thing to do, wasn’t it, Goro? But, well, that was how things went sometimes, wasn’t it.) After a bit of deliberation, he set the glass down on the bedside table, undid his tie and the top button of his shirt.

Watanabe showed up like he thought he’d be arrested if anyone saw him enter the room, quick and furtive. He locked the door and then looked at Goro and said, “Business questions, eh?”

Goro leaned back a little, smiled coquettishly at him, and said, “Business questions.”

He’d kissed worse people than Watanabe. That was all shit he didn’t want to think about - this was so bland and dull that it wasn’t worth thinking about. This was just an ugly old man with a crush. Unappealing but entirely harmless. Watanabe kissed down his neck and then whispered into his ear, “I’ve wanted you for so long.”

“I’ve noticed,” Goro said, but nicely, like he was teasing. And - “Wait, careful. Don’t leave marks.”

“You’re a bossy little thing, aren’t you, Akechi-kun?” Watanabe said.

Goro said, “When I want to be,” and tried to smile, but then Watanabe was on him again, his tongue in his mouth, so ferociously it was actually funny. He was fumbling with the buttons on Goro’s shirt with one hand, the other on his ass. Goro undid Watanabe’s shirt too, much more smoothly, just to be polite, and then said when Watanabe took a break from shoving his tongue down Goro’s throat, “What do you want me to do, sir?”

He had a feeling Watanabe would be the type who really got off on being called sir in this sort of context, and he wasn’t wrong. Watanabe looked like he was expecting to wake up any second now. He said, “Good lord,” instead of answering.

Goro was going to have to hold the guy’s hand for every step of this, wasn’t he. He reached over and finished his wine off in a few quick gulps, and Watanabe added, “What… would you be willing to…?”

Goro swallowed, and smiled, and said, “Do you want to fuck me?” Just to make it clear that he wouldn’t go much more unsanitary than that.

It was more than enough of a suggestion for Watanabe, who said, softly, “Please.” Aw. This was so much more pathetic than he’d been expecting. It was almost touching. He said, “Wait, don’t we need… equipment?”

Goro went digging in the bedside drawer for what he knew was there - condoms and packets of lubricant. (Shido had told him about that once, early in their partnership; said he shouldn’t hesitate if a girl ever took his fancy while he was here. Hilarious.) He held them up and said, sweet as cake, “Shall we?”

He was hoping Watanabe was the doggy-style type, so he wouldn’t have to keep his expression lusty, but of course he was the sit in my lap type instead. Creepy. When Goro lowered himself onto his extremely average dick, Watanabe groaned and said in his ear, “God, you’re so tight,” like they were in a porno. “You’re so tight for such a little slut, Akechi-kun.”

Well. So much for the charming pathos of horny old men. Good thing the rooms in this house were well soundproofed, at least. Goro made himself bite his lip and moan, even though he wanted to break Watanabe’s nose for speaking to him like that. Wanted to smash his head through a pane of glass and grind his face in the shards and tear the sense from his heart while he was at it. He thought of the man’s face in ribbons, his mind a gibbering wreck. Someday, perhaps. For now he had to let it slide, but someday.

Watanabe kept going with the revolting dirty talk, so Goro did his best to tune it out. He’d definitely had way worse sex than this, he decided. This was actually totally fine, apart from Watanabe being disgusting. Goro was kind of proud of himself, at how totally fine he felt about it. He knew taking the initiative was a good idea.

He tilted his head back in feigned ecstasy and thought of those kids he’d seen in Madarame’s Palace, earlier that week. Thought of him, the leader, that black-clad dazzler in gentleman-thief drag with that incredible, ridiculous tangle of hair. With that power. How could anyone like that just be an ordinary student, with an ordinary name like Akira? Somehow ‘Joker’ suited him much better. He needed to find out the guy’s surname so he could do some real research. Maybe there was a way to get it from Shujin Academy’s records. He’d have to make some calls. Shadowing those kids around the city in the hopes that someone would say Akira’s surname was pretty amateurish for a guy who had the connections Goro did.

He’d have to say hi at some point, too, play with him a bit. Make sure Joker knew who he was. And then - then he would crush them. It was a cute little game that those kids were playing, this ‘Phantom Thief’ bullshit, but they were in his way. He could even humiliate them in front of the entire nation, if he played his cards right.

Speaking of which. He said to Watanabe, “Put me on TV again. I’ll be so good for your ratings.”

Watanabe laughed, his face bright red, and said, “No kidding.”

Goro laughed too, rocked a bit harder, and said, “I’m serious, sir. It’d be a mutually - beneficial - partnership, oh god-” and then groaned like he’d never been fucked so good before. It was maybe a bit much, but you do what you have to do.

Watanabe said, between heavy breaths, “You’ll have to vouch for me to Shido-san.”

“Consider it done,” said Goro. He reached down and took himself in his hand and thought of the leader of those kids, Joker, Akira - the fluidity of his movements, the sight of his ass in his plaid school pants - and from then on, he didn’t hear a single filthy word that Watanabe said.

 


 

Being a mouse is awful. Awful, and incredibly fucking on-the-nose of Shido’s subconscious. Not that any Palace has ever been subtle, but - maybe Goro had higher expectations of Shido than he thought. He knew what Shido thought of the public, of women. He didn’t realise that scorn extended so universally to the denizens of his ‘ship’.

After what seems like hours of navigating the hallways, they come onto the side deck, blissfully human, and a man in a burgundy suit approaches them. “Akechi-kun,” he says. He looks a little familiar, in the same way the man outside his school did. His eyes are flat like a shark’s. “I thought you were downstairs. What are you doing with the riffraff?”

“Well,” Goro says, and then realises he hasn’t thought of a cover story. He thinks, childishly, of Star Wars, of pretending he’s escorting the prisoners or… or whatever. The prisoners on a cruise ship, though, Goro? Really? That’s a terrible idea, and would be even if it wasn’t from a forty year old movie everyone knows.

“He was just showing us around,” Niijima pipes up.

Goro says, in hopes of distracting the man, “I’m sorry, where do we know each other from?” He smiles, and adds, “I have such a terrible memory for faces, I’m afraid.”

The man doesn’t smile back. “From here and there,” he says. “And I think you met a subordinate of mine recently. Real sorry to hear about that flu of yours, Akechi-kun. The boss has been concerned, actually.”

“That’s kind of him,” Goro makes himself say. His mouth is very dry.

“Is it?” the man says. “Maybe you should watch yourself, Goro Akechi. Don’t make him think about you so much. Just some friendly advice. And, pardon, I must have missed it, why are you showing these people around here again? Who are they?” The courtesy in his voice sounds entirely mocking.

Akira steps up and says, smoothly, “Our parents know Shido-san. But when we realised Akechi-san was here - we just had to meet him. And he’s been very kind to us.”

“I’ve never met a celebrity before,” Takamaki adds, very cheerfully. Her voice is a touch too loud.

The man looks at them, and then back at Goro. “I didn’t realise there were any children besides you on this ship. But a boy has to have playmates, I suppose.” He studies the group, and then nods to himself and says, “I’ll see you later, kiddo. Be good.” And then he turns and walks off, just like that.

When they can’t hear the man’s footsteps anymore, Morgana says, “Who was that, Crow?”

Goro says, “I’m not sure. One of Shido’s dogs, I assume. Killers, I mean.”

“The cleaner?” Kitagawa asks.

“Maybe. I don’t know for sure.” He feels sudden cold regret. If it was him, they should have taken advantage of it. It would have been a huge time saver. “Sorry,” he says, “I should have thought of that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Akira says. “Whoever he was, he was obviously threatening you, so it was probably good that we didn’t start anything without having more information.” Something about that makes Goro feel a disarming jolt of affection for him out of nowhere. Akira looks away, down the deck, and then says, “Why don’t we go back to the safe room and then call it for today?”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard in hours,” says Niijima.

Goro says, “No. Absolutely not. We barely got anywhere, we need to keep going.” Though he’s not sure if he can. He feels half dead on his feet, has been feeling increasingly sluggish and stupid, no matter how much of Akira’s coffee he drinks between fights, and the man they just met has left him feeling antsy on top of all that. But that just means he has to buckle down and force himself to focus. To try harder. That’s all.

“Maybe you can do that,” says Akira, his hands in his pockets now, “but I can’t.” Which might be bullshit, but he does sound worn out. “We have the whole rest of the week, I’m sure we can do it. We did great today.”

“You did say you were tired, Crow,” Takamaki adds.

Goro says, more awkwardly than he likes, “I meant… more… existentially.”

“Big mood,” says Sakura, inexplicably.

Goro decides to ignore that, and says to Akira, “We can’t afford to screw around with this. We have to get this done as soon as possible.”

“If we force ourselves to keep going today we will get injured and sick,” Akira says, firmly, “and then we’ll really have a problem.” Goro wants to protest that he’s done this shit while ill before, but ‘I killed Wakaba Isshiki while I had a sinus infection’ is a monstrous thing to say to prove a point. And he would like to get out of here, think about something other than this hellhole for a while. “We have another letter, we’re really close to getting the next one, and most importantly we’ve more or less figured out how to work with each other again. That’s progress.” He smiles and says, “I swear, Crow, we’re doing fine.”

God, Akira’s whole authoritative act is somehow getting less annoying and more attractive every time he does it. Goro is absolutely hopeless. He mutters, “Well, don’t come crying to me when the new prime minister sends his hitmen after all of us.”

“You could try to have a little faith in us, you know,” says Morgana. “It’s not like we’re new at this.”

Goro sighs in exasperation. “I’m just concerned, all right? I’m not actually trying to wound your delicate little egos every minute of my life.”

“Then don’t,” says the cat, “be a jerk every minute of your life.”

“Dude, we get it, you don’t like him,” says Sakamoto. “Weren’t you the one who was all ‘Guys, Akira’s the one who nearly got shot, if he wants to help Akechi we should listen to him’ a few weeks ago?”

“Yeah, Mona, you’re being really fickle about this,” says Takamaki. “Especially considering you’re kind of a jerk too.”

Morgana’s eyes widen. “I- I am not!” he says, his voice going even higher than usual. “Lady Ann, do you really think-?”

“A huge jerk,” says Sakura authoritatively. “Massive.”

“I’ve heard that people dislike in others the thing they most dislike in themselves,” Kitagawa adds.

Niijima says, “Guys. No more hallway chats. Safe room. Now.”

These kids, Goro thinks as they walk, listening to them continue to bicker. These kids and their childish ideals and their good intentions. He hates to admit it, especially since they’ve basically been insulting him all day, but they’re kind of growing on him. Like they were in Sae Niijima’s Palace. He’d thought he’d just enjoyed the casino because he liked the con of it, the joke; liked being the only one (he’d thought at the time) who was ready for the punchline. Maybe he’d admitted to himself, too, that he liked being around Akira, or at least that he liked looking at Akira, but - but maybe it was all of them. Maybe they weren’t completely intolerable.

It’s getting late, when they get back to the real world, nearly quarter to ten, and they walk too fast to the station, most of the group whining excessively the whole way there. He doesn’t really blame them. This has always been the worst part of going into the cognitive world; coming back, the wave of exhaustion that hits you, the way you feel suddenly graceless and heavy. He thinks of times he returned from that world, in his old life, stumbling to the subway station feeling exhausted and vacant with screams echoing in his ears. Texting his father to tell him it was done and telling himself: those people didn’t matter. The fact that it was so easy to do proved that they didn’t matter. And nothing they said in that world, nothing anyone did, was even real, anyway. Just metaphors.

Goro grits his teeth at the memory and gives Kitagawa, who’s been quietly digging through his pockets with an expression of increasing distress, a few ¥500 coins, in order to prove to himself that he’s not entirely a piece of shit. Doing good things just to make yourself feel better is what shitty people do, admittedly, but cash is cash and Kitagawa looks like he’s just been handed the keys to the Louvre. It doesn’t make Goro feel much different.

The group disperses as they go, going to different lines or off through the tunnels - Sakamoto and Takamaki making frantic apologies on their phones to their parents - until finally they’re at Shibuya Station and the only ones left are Goro and the Yongen-bound crew. He doesn’t have any reason to be hanging around with them, of course, and is too tired to come up with a coherent explanation should anyone point that out. He just… wants to put off being alone for a little longer, maybe.

Sakura groans and says, “I’m going to pass out before we get on the train if I don’t get some caffeine in me,” and goes over to the nearest vending machine. “You guys want anything?”

“I’m good,” says Akira.

“You’ll never be able to sleep if you have caffeine this late, you know,” says Goro.

“Didn’t ask, psycho,” says Sakura, in the same tone she uses to call Kitagawa ‘Inari’. For some reason Goro actually laughs at that, a little. When he looks at Akira he’s smiling, too; not that predatory smirk he wears in the Palaces but genuinely and brightly, like he’s never heard anything as wholesome and charming as that exchange. His face actually lights up when he smiles like that. Goro’s never smiled that honestly at anything in his life.

He should come up with something clever to say, some witty parting jab Akira will like, but he’s so fucking tired. So he says, “Well. My train’s-” and gestures, woodenly, over his shoulder.

Akira says, “Okay. Uh, actually, before you go. Are you doing anything tomorrow?”

“The Palace,” Goro says, pointedly.

“Yeah, no, tomorrow morning, I mean, while everyone else is in school.”

Goro’s still wearing his uniform jacket, but with Akira’s hoodie over it. A part of him feels a bit aggrieved that Akira hasn’t looked at him hard enough to figure out why he’s wearing his school jacket, but then, it is the only jacket he wears most of the time. And it’s perfectly reasonable for Akira to have assumed that Goro was still being a miserable layabout shut-in during his downtime, as much as he hates to admit it.

If Goro were responsible, he’d say, I have school and hours upon hours of make-up work and exams I’ve barely thought about and my currently spotless reputation can only grant me so much leniency. Instead, he says, trying his best to sound as if he’s not very interested, “Why do you ask?”

“We have something of yours,” says Morgana from the bag, archly. Oh. The treasure, presumably. Right.

“I thought you could come over, maybe,” Akira adds, not quite making eye contact. “If you want to.”

Goro does, of course. But. “Sojiro Sakura hates me, doesn’t he? For good reason? I should probably spend as little time on his property as possible.”

Futaba Sakura wanders back with a large can of green tea and stands a little behind Akira. She does it casually, not like she’s hiding behind him, but… she is still very much hiding behind him. Which Goro can’t blame her for. Her voice is normal when she speaks, though. “He only hates you a little. Don’t even worry.”

Akira nods. “He said, quote, ‘I do feel bad for the little shit’.”

“Well, that’s a rousing endorsement,” Goro says flatly.

“He called Akira a little shit for like the first three months, every time he talked about him, and he loves Akira,” says Sakura. “I’m serious, dummy, you’re fine.”

“Why,” says Goro, suddenly suspicious, “are you being so nice to me today, Sakura?”

Sakura shrugs and drinks her tea. Then she says, “Sorry to break it to you, but you’re really not as hateable as you think you are.”

Goro thinks of the many, many people in his life who’ve disagreed with that, one of whom is currently in Akira’s bookbag, and says, “Hm.” Although - he’s a bit relieved she’s being dismissive of the question, honestly. He wasn’t actually ready to have another goddamn Phantom Thief heart-to-heart.

Akira says, “Look, dude, do you want to come over or not?”

“Sure,” Goro says. Fuck it. One more day out of school won’t matter when he’s in prison. (God, he hates the thought of that so much that considering it even jokingly makes his stomach clench, makes him wonder about the logistics of high ledges.) “Uh-” His voice cracks, embarrassingly, and he clears his throat and tries to pretend it didn’t happen. “What, uh, time?”

“Uh, eleven-ish? Ten thirty? I’ll need to run some errands in the morning, but they won’t take a lot of time.”

“Okay,” Goro says.

“Okay,” Akira says. “Cool.” God. They’re both being way too weird about this. Goro’s been at Leblanc so many times, in Akira’s shitty little attic so many times. It’s not a big deal. They’re just going to hang out, like normal people with friends do, and then Goro gets to find out whatever his treasure was and probably be humiliated by it, and Akira can say something like Just in case you were wondering, I wasn’t implying anything about us when I said I wasn’t straight, because I have zero attraction to violent douchebags with body counts.

Sakura says, “We should get our train, Akira. Sojiro’s gonna be worried.”

Akira nods, and says to Goro, “See you tomorrow.”

Goro smiles like he’s lying, because his real smile would make his feelings a bit too obvious, and says, “I suppose you will.” That was good, he decides as he heads over to his platform alone. Not perfect, but good. It sounded like he wasn’t too invested, which was the important thing. He can’t afford to let himself think too hopefully about this.

In those first few difficult years after his mother died, Goro decided that the reason good things never happened to him was because he thought about them too hard. Imagining them was bad luck, so he thought about the worst case scenarios instead. When he got a little older, of course, he saw that that was bullshit, magical thinking. (And by that point he’d realised that maybe good things didn’t happen to him because he just didn’t deserve them.) Goro had to be an adult, and what adults do when they want something is they work for it. You pick a goal and you point yourself at it and force yourself to work on nothing else until it’s yours. Your grades, your reputation, your father’s grudging respect. He’d even gone after Akira that way, a little bit, brute-forcing his way into his life.

But - but when he thinks about Akira now, thinks about wanting him, he feels that infantile superstition creep back in; like if he yearns for it in a way that isn’t clear, absurd fantasy, the way that half-boiled old ‘plan’ of his was, he’ll ruin what little chance he may have of anything happening. Even though, of course, he ruined those chances years ago, when he shot his father’s assistant; or maybe when he tore the sanity from the heart of that very first man. Or maybe it was further back: the first time someone saw what he was, saw that he wasn’t a person but an object, and used him like one.

Besides, Goro knows what this is, this game Akira’s been playing. Goro wants it to be something deeper but it’s just this: Akira is spending time with him because he feels responsible, because he’s infatuated with the idea of moral rehabilitation, and because he likes to think he’s a good person. Sometimes things are as simple like that.

Still, Goro thinks as his train pulls into the station. There are worse things than seeing him every day. And now that Goro’s more or less over the shock and the fury, if not the embarrassment, of learning about it, he has to admit it: Akira being alive is the luckiest break Goro’s ever received.

 


 

Akira: futaba wants you to call her futaba and didn’t know how to ask
Akira: since sakura is more sojiro’s name than hers
Goro: Would she accept ‘Isshiki’?
Akira: definitely not from you, she says
Goro: That’s understandable.
Goro: Futaba it is.
Goro: Tell her I don’t want her to call me Goro. And I’m honestly not saying that to be rude. It’s already weird enough that you do it.
Goro: Not that it’s terrible from you. You can keep doing it if you want to.
Goro: I mean
Goro: I don’t know what I mean. I’m more tired than I thought it was.
Goro: Please don’t read all these messages to her. Just the first two sentences.
Goro: Are you still there?
Akira: yes hi
Akira: sorry
Akira: fell asleep for a sec
Goro: Impressive.
Akira: futaba says she’s never going to call you goro and honestly it’s weird to think you have a given name at all
Akira: and i would have figured out which ones were for me instead of her lol but thanks for clarifying
Goro: Good.
Akira: i’m really glad you two are getting along
Goro: I don’t understand why.
Goro: Must be my winning personality. I’ve been so fun and easygoing lately, after all.
Akira: it’s those celebrity charms of yours. you’re irresistible
Goro: Ha.
Goro: I’ll see you tomorrow morning. If you’re so tired you’re falling asleep on the subway you should go to bed as soon as you get home.
Akira: thx mona
Goro: What?
Akira: dumb joke. don’t worry about it. nite goro
Goro: Goodnight, Akira.