He barely keeps from vomiting at the thought of yesterday. Takemi is pleased.
“Must be getting easier to keep things down. Very good, Akechi-kun.”
She swipes his dishes from the TV tray and gives him a sincere smile. The curtains flutter by an open window, sunlight bleeding across her form as she walks away, and Akechi swears he sees white wings. Just another person he can’t ever repay.
Six or seven months ago, was it? It feels like forever now, while he’s safe and trembling slightly. That part of it might never disappear. He can only consider the physical pain; everything else is too numb, and he knows what sort of horror the reality will be once this detachment wears off. He sits upright in the hospital bed, tightening his back brace and glancing at the clock. Thirty minutes left before visiting hours are over.
Seven months ago exactly, Akechi regained consciousness in the Velvet Room after staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by his cognitive double. It would’ve been nice to jump ship before the bullet hit. Perhaps his good luck had finally run out.
The place was oddly familiar, considering how he’d never felt the need to come back. Never felt the need to acknowledge anybody else’s plan except his own. He was gifted a power he already knew how to use for the task at hand, after all; it was just a matter of splicing the two together.
But this was a different part of that chamber. Same colors, different bars… and he lay bleeding and out of breath behind them, sheltered by the unusually quiet presence of his Personas. Other than them, he was entirely alone. It almost felt good until the echo cut through his head.
“Why can’t you choose, even now?”
Akechi closed his eyes. He wished he didn’t understand what Loki meant.
“You don’t really believe we can continue to coexist.”
“I… can’t think of anything else. There is no other way out.”
“At least we are in agreement, then.”
A muted peace- one he didn’t feel when they pulled him out of the Metaverse into the only secluded place he could remember- washed over every wound, every tangled nerve, as he struggled to remember a reason for deserving it.
“We only know one way to remove you from the cage you put yourself in.” Robin Hood this time, stern and somber. Still without judgment. “But this means mutual destruction. It means losing both sides of yourself and starting over. Is that something you’re willing to endure?”
Akechi really, truly wanted to laugh until his lungs gave out.
“Do what you must. Just let this be the end of it.”
“This won’t settle the war within you, but as it is your last chance… I pray you recognize yourself back at square one.”
Even without looking directly at them, he could feel the tremors as the Personas’ powers reacted all around the cell. Swore he could see their horrific amalgamation of limbs and horns, black and white, red and gold- faces serene, shining through the pain.
It all could have been something beautiful. Something real, drenched in the crimson of passion instead of blood. Maybe he could’ve learned to accept the darkness in his heart, in his wings, spreading them to rise out of the ruins Shido built around him. If only he’d stopped to figure it out.
If only they’d met a few years earlier.
“It’s time to pull yourself together, Goro Akechi.”
He found himself thinking like a child again, in the back streets of Tokyo with nothing to care for but his own aching wounds.
He lurches suddenly and, grabbing the closest garbage can, nearly coughs up broth and juice for the hundredth time.
Yes, it’s getting easier to swallow it back down. Swallow everything back down.
It’s getting easier to go outside and walk a few blocks to the nearest park, do pull-ups on the bars, and get back to his private room before sundown. The first few times he couldn’t stay for more than an hour, paranoid that every shadowy figure would recognize him, would approach him and gun him down or worse. The boy he feared most is gone, back to his hometown, and the constant reminder is necessary. Akechi sweats under a dark hoodie each time regardless.
Yesterday afternoon’s trip was no different. Not at first.
He took a break to catch his breath and check on his funds, still in possession of a cheap cell phone. Month to month he dipped into meager savings and offered it up to Takemi in exchange for a discounted room and a pact of secrecy, though the latter didn’t seem necessary. She took one look at the bloodied excuse for a detective on her doorstep that night and agreed to a deal. “You’ve been on TV, huh? I don’t pay attention to celebrities,” she said. “But you’re in pretty bad shape, so you’re welcome to stay if you have the means.”
She was still accepting test subjects for new medicines. Akechi was more than willing; her “worst case scenarios” really didn’t concern him all that much.
She had a particularly volatile experiment involving a vial of blood and multiple injections planned for that evening. Who knows how he expected to avoid passing out the instant a needle entered his field of vision. In all honesty, it’s no wonder he was so lost in thought. It’s no wonder he didn’t think to pull his hood back up, didn’t think to scan over the few people walking opposite him on the sidewalk while he trekked towards the clinic.
It’s no wonder he was stopped dead at the sound of his name.
This was indeed all his fault. If he’d been more careful, kept his head down, like he promised himself the day he woke up back in this wretched city…
He turned back just a touch. Just enough to catch the glare of late sunlight on the passerby’s glasses, but not enough to catch the expression behind them.
The young man said nothing else. Of course; what did he expect? There was nothing left to say now, nothing they both didn’t know already.
Even then Akechi managed a weak smile- forced, exhausted.
“Long time no see.”
Akechi didn’t take the bottled green tea that Akira wordlessly offered from his bag. He just stared the boy down, keeping his distance. Every attempt to get closer was met with resistance. Because Akira didn’t mean any of it. He couldn’t really want to be sticking around like this.
“Why don’t you come sit with me for a little while?” Akira smiled.
“Why don’t you keep on walking?” Akechi snapped back, mimicking the smile. Immediately his heart wrenched at the disappointment weaving into Akira’s face, remembering that some bullshit never changes. “What is there to talk about?”
“Quite a bit. Don’t kid yourself.”
This boy was the same as always. Paralyzing stare, slouched posture, quiet voice somehow drowning out the impending wind and rain. Akechi shivered.
“Nothing I have to say will interest you.” He leaned down and gathered his things, shoving them back into his shoulder bag haphazardly. “Or would you prefer it if I lied? Would you like me to say how sorry I am, and how I just want you to come back to the clinic with me so we can talk and you can fall asleep in the armchair like some kind of fretful lover?” Tears pricked at his eyes. “Do the wise thing and get lost.”
“The clinic.” Of course Akira disregarded ninety percent of his tirade. “So that’s where you’ve been hiding out since last year?”
Belatedly, Akechi realized he slipped up. God fucking damn it. He wrung his trembling hands, hoisting the bag onto his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, I won’t follow you back there or anything.” Akira’s shoe audibly crunched into the park rubble. “Maybe you can meet me outside tomorrow night, and we can get dinner.”
“Come on. I just spent half a year wondering what happened to you. I only want to talk—"
“I’m sure you do, and I’m sure you’ll be disappointed. Just knock it off. This whole… whatever you’re trying to do here. It’s a waste of time.”
The silence hung for a minute, and Akechi almost turned around at the nagging fear that he’d been alone this whole time, talking to an illusion. Instead, he found Akira staring him down.
“A waste of whose time?”
Akechi ran a hand over his face. “Yours. Both of ours.” Whatever keeps you away from me. “I mean it, Kurusu. You should have kept on your way. Please just forget this ever happened.”
If Akira responded, Akechi couldn’t hear it over the thunder of the downpour and his shoes in the mud. Deliberately heavy steps made sure of that.
He returned to the clinic soaked with rain and sweat and curled up in a cold, dark bed with his book, like always.
He hated the things he did to himself, like always.
Unsurprisingly, it seems the only thing Akira can forget is the speech Akechi gave him the night before.
Just when he thinks that reckless boy took his advice, he shows up to the clinic long after visiting hours with a carry tray of coffees, gratefully accepted by a Takemi who spent the entire day typing up reports, and gives Akechi the worst smug look in the entire world. He can’t even read a book in peace.
“You just don’t listen, do you?”
“Not especially well, no.” He lifts the carry tray. “I already had business here, but how funny that I ran into you. Have you eaten yet?”
What a shameless lie. Akechi would smack that look off his face in an instant if he were cleared for that kind of activity.
Akira doesn’t have many questions for Takemi. Quietly, Akechi hopes he doesn’t blame her for all this. The fact that she ran a private practice was probably the only thing keeping him safe. One question, though, gets a lot of attention, and it’s not for the doctor.
“You’re doing a personalized therapy program with Tae?”
Akechi reaches for the TV remote in the pouch on his hospital bed, turning the volume down, and sighs.
“You didn’t ask her to elaborate? She knows more about it than I do. I’m still at the beginning.”
“Meh.” Akira leans down from his stool, crossing his arms on the sheets and resting his head. “I’m more interested in how you’re doing right now. Especially when it comes to how well you’re eating. Seriously, dinner’s on me tonight.”
Takemi pops her head around the corner, and her devious smile nearly rips Akechi’s resolve to bits in an instant.
“You didn’t tell me you had plans with a friend tonight, Akechi-kun. I’m really happy with your progress lately. Just don’t get too far ahead of me, okay? I still have a few new formulas to test on my wonderful little guinea pig.” She pouts. “To think I was just about to fix you some eggs I found in the back of the fridge this morning. They’re probably still good a few months after the expiration date, right?”
In the end, Akechi rushes to get dressed. Maybe some fresh air would be good for a change.
Soon after, an ex-thief and a villain by proxy discuss lost time over dinner and coffee. Akechi thinks it would make the most wonderful, horrible romantic comedy, but somehow, it’s not so funny when you live it.
“Seven months… man, it really has been that long, now that I think about it.”
Akira’s eyes are unreadable. Akechi wonders what he was expecting to see in them otherwise.
When did he agree to talk about all of this? He always falls for this boy’s goddamn tricks. Everything on the plate tastes like sand; he’s not sure how long he’s had this perpetual cotton-mouth, but maybe it’s another bit of damage he’ll simply have to accept.
“Anyway, I figured a bit of real food might put you in a better mood,” Akira says, swirling a chocolate pretzel stick in his coffee. Disgusting. “Honestly though, your recovery program sounds pretty cool. I had no idea Tae did things like that. Although I can’t say I’m surprised… she’s secretly the sentimental type, but I’m sure you knew.”
“She won’t let me do anything that puts ‘unusual strain’ on my back or forces me to bend it. I guess she’s worried I might snap in half.”
He earns a chuckle for that, and almost returns it despite himself.
Akira really hasn’t changed much. He plans to come back to Tokyo in the summers for the sake of his friends. Morgana fell in love with the forests and temples in his hometown and claimed their woodsy backyard as a personal sanctuary. Akira works evenings at some place in Shinjuku to afford an apartment; supposedly, even with friends closer than most siblings, it’s incredibly hard to keep a lifelong only child from wanting their own private place. Akechi sympathizes with that.
The tapping of a spoon breaks him out of his trance.
“Are you okay?” Every worried question is paired with a smile on Akira’s part. He scoops a bit of omelette onto Akechi’s plate, gesturing to it deliberately.
“My apologies. I was a bit preoccupied there.” He stabs the omelette and hates how much better Akira’s food tastes. Maybe ordering plain rice was a bad idea. “I suppose I expected to you ask about what happened back in December by now.”
“Second awakening, I assume?”
Akechi nearly spits out egg. “I… y-yes, that probably is a good way to describe it. How did you know?”
“I know second awakenings are possible. That’s all I really need.” Akira leans forward. “But it’s been over half a year. I’m curious to know how nobody recognized you after your disappearance.”
Who cares is the first thing that comes to mind, but he shoves it back down. “Most of these stores around here… they don’t pay any mind to celebrities,” Akechi says, choosing his words carefully. “Beyond that it was mostly hiding in plain sight. Perhaps a passerby thought they recognized me once or twice. I looked ‘familiar.’ I just laughed and said I got those comments a lot. It wasn’t hard, especially when the whole world has forgotten you.”
“That’s a bold statement.”
Akechi chokes on a bitter laugh. “You think I took up more than a moment of anyone’s thoughts?”
“…I think you’d be surprised.”
The gritty feeling in his mouth comes back. Things were going so well for a minute there, he nearly forgot this was all a façade to toy around with reality. Akira’s aloof, devilish attitude remains as infuriating as ever.
“You’re so naïve. Considering all you’ve been through.”
Akira clearly didn’t expect that. Confusion blinks in and out of his eyes like a camera shutter.
“Did I say something wrong? I really do believe the world didn’t forget you. I didn’t.”
“You didn’t? Oh.” Akechi lifts his coffee cup to gaze at Akira over the rim. “You flatter me, Kurusu-kun. Frankly you always have. It’s a wonder I don’t drag you outside and pin you to the alley wall, just like I’ve always wanted. Would you like that?”
Akira’s reaction is too void of surprise; the sudden rush of irritation has Akechi convinced that he could crush the teacup to dust in his bare hands.
“Of course, I’m only kidding.”
“Obviously.” Akira watches him pull out his wallet and throw a stiff twenty on the table. “I just don’t understand—”
“—And that’s where you fail. Because I do understand. I understand how people think. What they want to see and hear. Manipulation comes naturally to me, and everybody wants to use talent like that without feeling responsible. They want to find someone to do it for them. And I’m that person; I’m their last resort.” Akechi solidifies his expression, completely plastic. “Why doesn’t that scare you, Kurusu-kun?”
The boy’s face is unreadable. “Why should it?”
“Because sometimes I even believe myself, as you’ve seen. Sometimes, it feels freeing, letting it flow out of me like the truth. I probably believed a lot of what I said back in the orphanage. Tricking older kids out of their pocket money and such. I enjoyed watching people’s optimism fade, because I knew the truth. I knew how cruel the world will be to you if you’re not one of the lucky ones.”
Akira picks up his own cup like he’s trying to give his hands something to do. He doesn’t argue, and Akechi was moments from storming out after covering the bill to absolve himself of any guilt, but something in the silence makes him stay. He stares out the window, watching passersby blur into the glare of streetlamps.
“I’m… really sorry. That was insensitive of me,” Akira says, finally. “I can’t pretend to understand everything you’ve been through. I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
Akechi lowers his hackles without intending to. Akira should probably let him storm out instead of apologizing for... what, exactly? But he’s started rummaging through his jacket pocket, searching for something clearly out of reach. He digs around for a good minute trying to juggle the half-full cup, and Akechi yanks it away just as it’s about to tip.
“What are you doing?”
“Making it up to you.”
“Jesus. It can’t be that important.”
“But it is… ah! Gotcha.” Akira presents a tiny drawstring bag and trades it for the tea before Akechi can protest. “Open it.”
He’s hesitant- wearing an expression between surprise and anxiety, really- but he does as he’s told and slides a smooth, ornate bell into his hand.
“It’s, uh… a filigree charm, I think it’s called?” He shrugs. “Boss gave it to me back when I had to stay in hiding and started going a little stir crazy. Apparently whenever you hear it ringing, it means somebody is thinking about you; it’s a reminder that you’re never alone.”
Akechi stares at it. Turns it over in his palm. It jingles quietly, the sound ringing out from intricate shapes cut into the red metal.
Nobody had ever given him a present like this. Typically he got generic candies from a fan, or office supplies clearly gifted out of obligation from a coworker; he never felt any desire to accept them, just to let them rot in the corner of his apartment, uneaten and unused.
“How thoughtful,” is all he can manage. It doesn’t sound like a total lie, but Akechi is stiff, cradling the bell like it might suddenly burst into flames.
“If you don’t want it, you can toss it later. Just make sure I’m not looking so my heart isn’t broken.” He says it like a joke, but Akechi despises the way his stomach drops from picturing such a scene.
“I… actually really appreciate this.” Akechi forces the words out like venom. He places the bell on a cloth napkin and rests his hands on his knees, clearly thinking hard. “That’s why it’s so damn frustrating.”
“Oh… um, I don’t follow.”
Mechanically, Akechi huffs and turns to him, but doesn’t look up.
“In the past, if I didn’t see any need for a gift, I could easily refuse it and that would be that. I’ve done it plenty of times. But part of my therapy is learning to accept tokens of kindness from others. It isn’t easy for me, so to make it a bit more… mathematical, I decided to always offer something in return.” Finally, he meets Akira’s eyes. “I have nothing to give you.”
At first Akira just stares. Then, clearly against his better judgment, he starts to laugh.
“You don’t owe me anything. Knowing you’d enjoy hanging onto it is good enough.”
“I want to give you something physical. That’s how I decided to work through this in the beginning until I can figure out something else. Please just play along.”
“…Okay.” Akira mellows out and wordlessly requests the bell for a moment, whipping it around his finger by the chain. “How about you offer me your company for tonight? My apartment is still pretty disorganized from moving back, but it’s probably better than… what, another night in the dungeon? You’ve got to be sick of hospital rooms by now.”
Neither of them noticed, but Akechi had been shaking his head in disbelief throughout the proposition.
“That’s very funny. You’re such a fool. You don’t want me there; I’m not good company.”
And he really doesn’t think so. Lately every day was comprised of eating what little he could stomach and traveling to the pull up bars if he felt motivated. He insists on this, all the way to the train station, all the way back to Akira’s apartment, all the way into his room, his bed, his mountain of sheets that smell so familiar, Akechi thinks he might burst into tears through the insistent dissuasion.
Akira just pulls the sheets closer to him while typing out a text message of consolation for Takemi. It’s much too late for this, he’s fondly told.
And he agrees with that the whole sleepless night through. But there’s no fondness in the thought at all.
Akira doesn’t stop visiting the clinic. Apparently Takemi really wants to bring him up to speed regarding the progress of some drug she developed last year, and they often disappear into her office for hours on end, howling with laughter from time to time. Akechi shoves in some cheap earbuds and buries his nose in a book at the sound of it.
He’s sure Akira will taper off his visits once he realizes Akechi is not all that interesting to be around. He finds that days pass like years when you haven’t broken your routine since before you can remember. Yet, through days and days, the sky never descends into a storm. When Akira leaves for work each night, at first, Akechi spends his time in front of the TV absently wondering if this will be the day he’s abandoned for good. Too many people participating in foster care promised to come back quickly and broke those promises without a second thought.
But Akira always comes back. He always sits next to Akechi on the hospital bed; always stays and watches whatever he watches at three in the morning in the dark without complaint the nights he can’t sleep through the pain; always lets them inch a little bit closer, as long as there is no protest. He always, always asks Akechi if he’ll be okay sleeping alone. “It probably gets cold in here at night,” according to Akira, and that’s true. He curls into a ball in the corner of the bed most evenings, wondering why it feels so empty if it’s only meant for one broken person anyway.
Takemi starts putting their frequent visitor to work, tasking Akira with making sure his therapy exercises are going as planned, whether that means accompanying him to a gym or the park, or joining him for dinner out of town for a change. Yongen-Jaya is a decent ride from Shinjuku, and Akechi knows he can handle it alone, but Akira still seems nervous letting him walk through the colorful streets at night. Akechi wants to hate the doting far more than he does.
When he hasn’t been at work during borderline concerning early hours of the morning, Akira insists on helping the therapy along through more direct means. Allegedly Takemi gave them permission to push a little harder, as long as a spotter is present, but any excitement surrounding that progress is tempered the moment Akechi realizes it requires Akira’s hands all over him.
They spend hours at a time under the increasingly menacing summer sun. No matter how light the touch is, his back often can’t handle it. He hates knowing Akira can watch him wince in pain, up close and personal, recoiling with too much care and kindness. Akechi is barely stronger than a porcelain doll in his eyes. He knows it. More than once he shoves the boy away involuntarily, which nearly always hurts like hell.
It doesn’t take long to give up his stubbornness.
Eventually much of the pain turns into a hollow, tight pressure. Akira keeps his hands flat on Akechi’s back, smoothing them down evenly, rolling the heel of his palm over dense knots and tender nerves while he stretches further and further than each day before. The routine typically goes off without a hitch, but as it gets hotter around high noon, Akira decides he doesn’t like Akechi’s unchanging attire for training outside, and he brings it up on a particularly sweltering day.
“You’re practically in a sweatsuit. It’s thirty-five degrees outside.”
“I find the discomfort makes me stronger,” Akechi bites back. “That’s the theme I’m running with lately.”
Akira nearly lets the vicegrip on his arms go slack. “No, it doesn’t. It just makes you irritable.”
“Mm?” He ends up yanking away in the end, bending forward. “But that’s always the case when we’re out here, yes?”
“I’d rather you not be dehydrated and pissy.”
Before he can reply, Akechi feels two hands slip under the back of his sweatshirt. He’s wearing a tank top underneath, but instantly notices how soaked it is.
He turns his head slightly. Akira’s smirk is visible from a mile away.
“Fine. I’ll dress down starting tomorrow.”
“You can at least take the sweater off. We still have an hour left. You have something on underneath, don’t you?” He hooks his thumbs under the hem and pulls it up, just enough to catch on the second layer of damp fabric and expose Akechi’s abdomen to the humid air. “And I could’ve sworn I saw you pack shorts.”
“Alright, alright— knock it off already.” He slaps Akira away. “I’ll lose the sweater, but those are old casual shorts. They’ll rip if I stretch in them.”
He easily convinces himself that his face is burning from all the direct sunlight, but it’s much harder to ignore how Akira moves his hands more like a fluid dance once the sweater is off, letting every inch of Akechi’s bare skin slide through his grip like sand- like he’s memorizing their movements. The more Akira focuses on touch, the less eye contact he makes, even when they’re speaking. He seems so focused that Akechi doesn’t try his luck at bantering anymore, preferring to let his mind wander like he does during quiet rainy evenings at Takemi’s place. A late afternoon breeze starts to whirl by, or maybe it was always there, but now he feels it rush against his skin wherever the tank top rides up.
Is Akira lost in thought, too?
Akechi quickly scolds himself for thinking so casually of him, even in his own head. Nothing says they’re friends just because Akira is pressing down and massaging deep circles in places Akechi would normally never let anyone touch. Takemi did the same thing countless times. He lets his breath filter in and out, trying to force those unsavory musings out with it.
At some point, Akira claps his hands and the world snaps back into focus.
“Jeez, I think that was your best yet. You were practically in tears last time we tried to bend your arms like that.”
“Will you shut up?” Akechi rubs the back of his neck, wicking away the sweat. He’s so unbelievably tired; last night didn’t bring much sleep, and what little he managed was restless and full of distorted images he doesn’t care to remember.
Akira just laughs. “Sorry, sorry. I don’t mean to undermine you. How about we get some dinner and relax at my place tonight? My treat, obviously.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Kurusu.” The promise of decent food catches Akechi’s interest. He brings a hand under his chin, pensive. “But I don’t have any of my things.”
He gets a shrug in response. Akira is already throwing their gear in the gym bag and pulling out his phone.
“You can borrow some of my stuff. I’ll let Takemi know you’ll be back tomorrow,” he says, typing away. Akechi’s instinct to protest deflates with surprising speed the moment Akira smiles up at him.
He doubts he’ll ever understand why anyone would look at him that way.