The walk out to the cruiser’s foredeck was deathly quiet, with no one speaking more than necessary. Truly, there wasn’t anything to say, Haru thought. Even finally making it into the assembly chamber and finding the swirling, amorphous coalescence that would become Shido’s treasure was a deeply understated moment, without fanfare or words of victory. Any comments were only functional and brooked no replies before they made their way back out of the building and toward their exfiltration point. Haru’s place in the backup team with Yusuke and Morgana gave her some freedom to take her time and make a careful mental map of the cruiser’s twisting corridors.
Ryuji and Ann slumped against the ship’s railing to catch their breaths while everyone regrouped. “Joker, your armor is shredded,” Makoto said with a nod toward his clothes. Shredded might have been too generous, really. His sleeves and gloves were little more than tatters while a deep gash cut diagonally across his undershirt, remnants of the single-minded rage directed at him.
“I’ll be all right,” came his cool, effortless reply. There was pain under his grin, though. “It’s only the outfit, it’ll mend the next time we’re here. Come on, let’s get back to the real world.”
Ryuji got to his feet and winced at putting weight on his bad leg. “That was it, yeah? All that’s left now is to send the calling card?”
“Looks like it.”
Haru remained silent as she helped Ann up and walked toward the ship’s prow to slip back to reality.
She walked with them to Tameike-Sanno Station, counting each minute that passed in her head without so much as a twitch in her lips. There was no reason to arouse their suspicion. It was easy to lose them in the beginnings of the evening commute, a crush of bodies that separated them on their way to the Ginza Line transfer. Haru waited until Akira and Morgana disappeared around a corner with Yusuke, then turned promptly around and made for the exit.
The only time she broke stride was to wait at a stoplight, when nervous energy flooded through her like adrenaline, laboring her breaths and making her hands cold as they trembled. Lying and deception didn’t become her, like an ill-fitting glove or shoes that ran too tight. But then, she hadn’t lied, had she? Everyone else was too wrapped up in their conflicted thoughts to ask her what she planned to do, or even if she was all right.
That was fine.
The Diet building loomed high within its gated grounds, a flurry of activity in the fading sun. Lights began to flicker on as she lingered in front of the fence, holding her phone in her hand with her thumb hovering over the button to start the Navigator. She was already exhausted, her muscles ached in ways she couldn’t describe from the constant transformations into and from a rat, and she had barely any stamina left to siphon off into attacks. But she had to be sure, she had to…she had to know.
It was an unpleasant feeling, not unlike tumbling over herself again and again while falling, but the disorientation and lurch in her stomach subsided quickly enough as she emerged in the cognitive world again. Her skin prickled with the sudden change of clothes, and her mask settled over her face as a familiar, comforting pressure. Haru stroked the edge with one gloved hand and heard Astarte’s soft voice in her mind, melding so perfectly with her own thoughts that she struggled to tell the difference. “Tell me I’m right,” she said. “Please.”
The shadows were in disarray, far from the image of the ordered, proper scene they had first stumbled on. Simpering party guests complained loudly about noise from the engine room, guards were hurrying to and fro and scrambling without any real goal, and the dogs paced, full of nerves, in random patterns. They were easy enough to avoid without a group, slipping from hiding spot to hiding spot, rushing when their backs were turned and biding her time when they drew closer.
She was forced to make her way all around the ship again, but Haru didn’t care beyond the time it wasted. The handful of fights she couldn’t avoid, too, were little but irksome distractions. By the time the remainder of the shadows yielded and she was able to get back into the engine room, every step was a struggle, a product of pure will rather than any real energy.
From her entry point on the catwalk overlooking the engines, she could see that the alarms and lights had stopped, but the security cordon was still up, a thick wall of steel denying her the proof she needed. Haru made a quick sweep for any lingering guards, then approached the wall. No obvious release switch stood out to her, as she expected. That would have been too easy.
Her remaining grenades stacked neatly on the floor in front of the cordon before she loaded the last one into her launcher and tugged at her mask. It dissolved in a wreath of blue flame, and then Astarte’s gaze drilled into her back. “Heat Riser, please. And Tetrakarn.”
Shimmering air around her and the press of fatigue told her that it had worked, but she well and truly had nothing else left. If this wasn’t enough, it would mean her endeavor would have been for nothing, going home with her tail between her legs and her questions unanswered.
Astarte’s voice was sonorous, condescendingly maternal as Haru leveled her launcher and switched off the safety. “The blast will hit you at this distance.”
“Hence the barrier.”
She settled back into her mask as Haru let go of a long breath and squeezed the trigger. Her heart skipped in the instant between the hollow thud of the grenade firing and striking its target.
The barrier glowed brightly before shattering against the overpressure from the explosion. Haru was saved from the brunt of the concussive force, but still flew back and landed hard before skidding and tumbling all the way to the control room. Glass burst somewhere, a small bell trilled out an insistent warble, and sprinklers overhead flooded the room with a spray of ice-cold water. Haru grit her teeth and sat up under the torrent, rubbing her shoulder while she collected her hat and launcher and the water soaked her down to the bone.
As she’d hoped, a hole had been blown in the security wall, small for how much ordinance she had devoted to it but large enough for her to get through. Haru waved the smoke away with her hat and worked her way through the narrow opening. She squeezed and struggled, and only a hand thrown out at the right moment kept her from falling on her face on the other side. Once her legs were clear, Haru dusted herself off and stood to look around the chamber.
And there he was.
Haru’s blood went colder and colder with every slow, labored step over to the stationary mass of twisted black fabric lying in a heap on the floor. She cocked her head. It looked so…childish, she realized. All the pointless straps, the ragged little cape and flares on the sleeves and pants, the claws, the angularity of the helmet that curled back into obvious horns—like a ten year-old had been asked to design a cartoon villain. Pity tugged her mouth into a frown as she stepped into the splotch of dark red running out from his body. Was his psyche so warped that he refused to even imagine himself as the hero…?
A small hole had been torn through the back of his outfit, an exit wound that stained all the fabric around it. Even with a placement that would have taken the shot through his lungs, something about it refused to process in her mind. After everything they had unleashed on him, all it took to lay him low was a single bullet from a cognition of himself. Haru clutched his shoulder to turn his body over and nearly fell back when Akechi took a ragged, sputtering breath.
The spurs of his half-shattered helmet grated on the floor as he turned his head to look at her, bloodshot eyes fixing on hers while his lips pulled back to flash his teeth. An attempt at shifting toward her failed halfway, with his face twisting in a spasm of pain. Haru’s hand reached back and settled on the haft of her axe, hovering just out of sight as always, but she let it go. There wasn’t any threat he could pose any longer, no more than the snapping of a wounded animal in its death throes. She looked back at him, steadying herself and refusing to break their stare first.
He looked away before she did, closing his eyes to cough and hack and struggle to draw another breath. A fresh spray of blood misted across the floor and the cowl of his helmet. Haru took the chance to move closer, and he responded with what she assumed was meant to be a growl, but only came out as a whimper. All the anger that had fueled her trip back through the cruiser began to cool, with sorrow taking its place.
“It took me three hours to get here again,” Haru said when she was standing over him. Astarte strained against the bonds of her mask, but her whispers of bloodlust went unanswered. For now. “I didn’t know if you’d still be alive, or even here, or if you might have managed to slink off to fix yourself up.”
She knelt down beside Akechi and traced her fingers down the sides of his helmet, following the lines in the metal until she found clasps and undid them. The whole thing slid over his head without resistance so she could toss it aside. His eyes were run red, his hair had been matted down with sweat, and specks of blood lingered around his mouth and beneath his nose. Rather than let his head fall back into the pool around him, Haru cradled his neck in one hand and slid the other behind his knees to scoop him up, staining her sleeves as she did. He was lighter than she expected. Akechi hissed in pain as his body stretched around the bullet wound, face contorting, hands balling into fists he lacked the strength to use.
When they were clear of the worst of the mess—though the slow trickle at her feet made it impossible to escape entirely—Haru laid him on a flat stretch of metal, sat next to him, and rested his head in her lap. He felt so cold, as if she had broken him out of ice. The anger and pain on his face melted into confusion as he looked up at her and felt her hand running through his hair.
“You’re dying,” Haru said in the softest voice she could manage. The slow trickle of blood from the entry wound on his chest made that clear enough. “There isn’t any way for me to carry you out of here, and I’m sure the shock would kill you if the shadows didn’t find us first.”
He nodded, doing little more than shifting his head forward once before it fell back against her leg. Wet heat pricked at the corners of her eyes to see the way he reacted—the way he didn’t react. There was no fear or panic in his expression, it was nothing he didn’t already know. There was resignation, maybe a hint of relief. Haru pulled her mask away to wipe her eyes dry, letting Astarte manifest and linger with Loki at the far end of the room, watching in silence. “Shall I stay with you until then?” Haru asked, and brushed some hair from in front of his eyes. “Or I can make it quick, if you prefer. No more pain.”
Akechi’s voice was tight, stretched to breaking once he turned away from her with a pained gasp. “You, of all of them…” Haru held onto his shoulder to keep him from rolling to the floor. “You’re trying to offer me mercy?”
“I’m not offering it for your sake,” Haru said coldly, and pressed her first and second finger around his entry wound. His body stiffened and shook underneath her. “None of this is for you, or even for my father. It’s for me.”
“Your father.” His voice grew so soft that she struggled to hear him. “Did you come back expecting an apology? I don’t have one for you.”
Haru’s jaw set in a hard line, then softened. She rolled him onto his back so she could look him in the eye again. “No. There’s nothing you could say that would make me forgive you, and that’s not why I came back. I bit my tongue earlier, it was obvious you couldn’t pay attention to anyone but Akira-kun. But I…I think I understand now, what unsettles me so much about you,” Haru said, and went back to stroking his hair. Her stained gloves streaked blood through the locks. She took a deep breath. “It was abuse rather than abandonment, but my mother killed herself because of my father, too.”
Akechi’s eyes narrowed, and Haru produced a handkerchief to cover his mouth before he could cough up more blood. “I won’t insult you by trying to equate our circumstances, apart from growing up in a shadow so large that stepping out from under it seemed impossible. So I can—understand, I suppose. I can see how easily it could be me in your place right now, if things were a little different.”
“You don’t understand anything about me,” he spat. “Nothing, you hear me? Nothing.”
“You’re wrong, Goro-kun. I understand more than you might think.” Haru took back her handkerchief and dabbed away the spots around his mouth. “I understand that the world never gave you a chance. That the deck was stacked against you from the beginning. Everything that could go wrong for you did, I know that. But I also understand that you had a choice, and that you made the wrong one at every turn. You chose to kill Futaba-chan’s mother and my father. You chose to cause the mental shutdowns. You chose not to care about who was hurt as long as it made you famous and brought you closer to revenge against your father. And as much as you deserve to be punished for all of that…I can’t even be angry. When I look at you, all I feel is pity.”
“Don’t—” Akechi’s voice dissolved into a gurgle for a moment until a bubble of blood broke between his lips— “Don’t you dare pity me. Don’t you fucking dare.”
“What else can I feel when the hatred you let define your life has killed you?”
He had no more retorts, no sneering comebacks. All he could do was look up at her and try vainly to reach for her hand. Haru slipped one arm around his back and eased him up, mindful of the broken little sounds each time she pitched his body forward to rest his cheek against her collarbone. On the other side of the room, Loki curled up at Astarte’s feet. That she could have met him five years earlier, Haru thought, before he started spiraling. She sighed and made small circles between his shoulder blades with her hand.
“Why?” Akechi asked, his voice muffled by her shirt. “Why do all this for me? You should hate me.”
“I never said I didn’t.” Haru rocked him gently back and forth to try and soothe him. “The whole way here, I was hoping I’d find you dead, just so I could know for sure. So I could have some sense of closure. All of this is selfish of me, really. Proving to myself that I won’t become you.”
“Congratulations, then. You’ve done more than I would.” Akechi laughed despite himself, then convulsed, clutching at his chest and sagging in her arms. “Okumura—”
“Use my name.”
He took several moments to catch his breath. “Haru-san, please…it hurts so much…just end this.”
A chill ran up her spine. Destroying shadows was one thing, but he was real, flesh and blood, asking for a small scrap of the mercy the world had never seen fit to show him. Haru squeezed him tighter. “All right.”
He didn’t protest or even let his face twist in pain as she stood him up and walked him over to a low crate. Haru set him down on his stomach and nudged him until the whole of his neck was exposed. She brushed his hair out of the way and set his head straight as softly as she could. Loki had disappeared, but Astarte was hovering over the space he had been occupying, looking far too pleased with herself.
“I’ll make it quick.”
“Even though I don’t deserve it.”
Haru reached back and found her axe waiting. She leveled the edge over the nape of his neck as she tried to still the pounding in her heart, then brought it up over her head. “Yes. Even though you don’t deserve it.”
“Thank you,” Goro whispered.
She managed to hold herself together until she was home and had dismissed the staff for the evening. Some were confused, but none of them thought to argue with the eerie calm that had settled over her. Her smile, she was sure, must have looked so unsettling to them. When the door finally shut for the last time, Haru locked it tight, sank to the floor in front of her favorite couch, and stared at the ceiling. It began to blur after a moment, and she was dimly aware of the tears rolling down her face. The sobs wracked her until her whole body was sore, until the lights began to dim on their timers and she had thoroughly stained the fabric underneath her. Haru touched at where her mask would have been, and the air around her seemed to grow colder. “Tell me I was right,” she said. “Please.”
If she concentrated, Haru could feel a comforting embrace from Astarte on one side, and then the same from Loki on the other.