Goro is one for keeping secrets.
He is well accustomed to twisting his words until they are honeyed, silvered, beautiful things that keep him in good graces. Sometimes his secrets are small. White lies wrapped in politics to appease the fragile ego of detectives and police officers in the precinct, irate that a child was able to do their jobs with more aptitude.
Sometimes the secrets were large. Lies spread, pervasive, in the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. Akechi Goro, Detective Prince, a prodigy in his own right. Deception that he layered on himself until any remnant of something before ‘Goro’ disappeared from both memory and record. He wrapped it around himself like a blanket, covetous of the security it provided even as it looped around his neck.
He’s never told anyone how he escaped Shido’s palace.
Not that he had anyone to tell, not that anyone wanted his survival in the first place. Two shots, both to the head, a double tap done with accuracy given only by experience. The shadow didn’t have a chance to pull the trigger. How fitting that even with all of his posturing, his lies, his attempts to make himself needed, the shadow of himself is only the sum of his presumed incompetence.
The engine room would have been his grave had the explosion not rocketed him out. His retribution would have been ridding the world of himself had he not seen the shock of blond hair dip below the surface of a tumultuous cognitive ocean.
He feels the power of Berserker rush through him, filling his veins with heat, making the edges of his vision go red. Loki’s laughter echoes between his ears but Robin Hood’s gentle presence is what pushes him forward. He pulls Sakamoto from the sea, from the palace, from the metaverse to collapse coughing and sputtering on the dew-damp grass in front of the Diet Building.
Power rushes out of Goro all at once and exhaustion weighs heavy at his limbs. He kneels in front of Sakamoto, watching him cough up non-existent water, his lungs tricking him into believing he was still drowning. Goro watches him gather his bearings, breath deep, when the reality of what he’s done crashes into him all at once.
“I’m good,” Sakamoto says as he lifts himself to sit, catching Goro’s eyes and mistaking his severity for concern.
“Do. Not. Say. Anything.” Goro tells him, horror and anger pushing force into his words, making his jaw ache with how he grits his teeth around the command.
He can see Sakamoto’s immediate incredulity, “What? I was just gonna-”
“Not a word,” he cuts him off, feeling his heart thunder in his chest. “You tell no one.” He can hear the other Phantom Thieves in the distance, wailing piercing through the dark night. He watches as Sakamoto moves towards them and grabs him tight by his bicep, pulling him back down. “Swear it!”
“Shit, fine! Fine! I won’t say anything.” Sakamoto shakes his hand off and stands. Goro nods at him, watching him warily, searching for insincerity as he stands. Sakamoto looks at him, “What the hell are you gonna do?” He asks.
Goro shakes his head, jerky for his tense shoulders. He doesn’t have answers, didn’t have the thought that he would make it this far, that he would need a Plan B for his survival when he had not thought his survival would be an issue. Answers dry up on his tongue, honey solidified, silver oxidized. Goro takes a step away from Sakamoto, away from the clamor of the Phantom Thieves. Away from the Diet Building and personage he had created for himself.
Goro does not look back even as he hears Sakamoto run off, footfalls almost eclipsed by the wailing of those who miss him. The night that embraces him is dark and silent.
It’s been lifetimes since that night. Years of finding places to work that won’t recognize his face, regardless of how quickly media fame fades. Years of finding housing that will accept a name without record.
Himura Koji. Intimately familiar but still distant as a stranger. The records of his birth had been destroyed when his mother died, when he assumed Akechi Goro so that he could not be traced even under Shido’s watchful eye.
His hand was still unsteady, despite the years separating him from the grandeur, writing the kanji to sign the contract of employment at a small diner even as an auntie cooed about how sweet his name was. That unsteadiness was more pronounced when that same auntie found him sleeping slouched along a curb a few blocks away and pushed him towards an apartment complex that accepted his residency purely by her commendation.
The kindness chafed at him, uncommon, unbidden. Years as Himura Koji trying to find some place he could stay at for more than a few months, a job that could pay for housing, housing that would remain consistent- lifetimes of street corners but refusing to panhandle, keeping his head down, his face hidden, his name locked away.
She smiled at him and gave him a hot meal on his first day. She laughed when he dropped an entire tray of water and playfully tossed him a washrag to clean up. She clucked at him, ever endearing, when he moved too slow and bumped him with her hip to get him going quickly. Her towel was a whip crack but never was a threat. Her smile was genuine and pushed at wrinkles that bloomed from the corner of her eyes.
It had been a week, but after years of struggle as Goro, as Koji, she made it easy to work hard. He would take what he could while he could, employment, a roof, unsure of when it would be swiped from him by his own hubris like everything else he had held close. When his confidence would turn to arrogance and he would lose what small respite he had cultivated by luck. It’s still easy to smile sweetly and to bow low, to cock his head to the side just enough to be charming.
Maybe it’s because he’s lost some of his charm from the dimmed spotlight, but he finds that he does not need to hide as much of his true feelings and finds that he does not care if people are aware of his discontent. They would throw him on the street regardless of how bright his smiles were or how cloyingly sweet his words. What had made him coveted does not matter anymore and it is too exhaustive to keep up appearances that only helped because he would boost television ratings.
Maybe it’s because Auntie just laughs at him when he loses some of that charm in the face of a rude customer that Goro feels like a thick fog lifting, like he can breathe just a little bit easier.
It’s been a week and he’s settling in. Auntie looks after him and scolds him if he calls her ma’am; his coworkers help him along, give him pointers to deal with complicated orders and ornery regulars. They joke as he’s given his first night shift and tell him to watch out for sleepy college kids that are wont to fall face first into their food and their notes alike.
They laugh even as his breath is pulled from his lungs like a punch. There is a guillotine blade hanging high over his head as he sees a familiar shock of blond hair. He’s not drowning now, though he keeps his head low over his books and computer. Goro had always hated what Shido thought about loose ends but in this moment he can concede to the caution.
It’s been years since the first and only time he’s saved a life, a week since he found some tenuous comfort under Auntie’s watchful eye. Frustration sits heavy, roiling into anger that he would lose something so soon because of something he had actually done right.
“Himura-san,” Maya delicately touches his shoulder to get his attention, holding out the laminated paper with table assignments, “You’re in section four today.” She gives him a small smile, eyebrows upturned with something like earnest worry, “But don’t worry, it’s small, so you’re lucky!”
Goro smiles at her, feeling cold, “You’re a little young to be so superstitious, aren’t you Maya-chan?” He chuckles into his hand to hide the shake. “I appreciate you being so generous to a newcomer like me. I’ll make sure to do a good job, so please continue to take care of me.”
His table is in that grouping under Goro’s responsibility. Sakamoto Ryuji, too wrapped up in his studies to have seen Goro yet. It’s been years, he thinks, years and lifetimes ago, and he never mattered much to that particular Phantom Thief anyway. Maybe he could get away with introducing himself as Himura Koji and be done with it, he wouldn’t need to leave, wouldn’t need to upend all of the kindness he’s been shown in a rare oversight of karmic justice.
“What the eff?!” The smile on Goro’s face feels plastic but it holds despite Sakamoto’s loud exclamation. Other patrons turn to look at the commotion, grumbling angrily at the college kid making too much noise for so quiet a diner. He watches Sakamoto’s face heat and Goro adjusts the grip on his order pad. “What the hell are you doing here?” Sakamoto asks, angry.
Himura Koji is a doppelganger, a shadow, a long joke with an unsatisfying punchline, and he was recognized immediately by the one person he thought might be able to overlook him. He saved his life, but Sakamoto Ryuji was far from owing him a debt.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he takes a step back. Nonthreatening. Not who you think. Confusion carefully crafted pinches his eyebrows but he can’t ignore his wild heartbeat or how tightly he grips pad and pencil. “I’m here to take your order, sir.” Anger sits just beneath his skin, hot and violent. He’s so tired, he doesn’t need to be berated by Sakamoto of all people.
Goro watches Sakamoto look him over, his eyes hesitating on things Goro knows have changed since they last saw each other. It takes conscious effort not to let his enmity show on his face. Such strong hostility has been rare recently and to feel it again, so strongly, aching like venom in his veins, has him clenching his teeth around polite serving inquiry.
Sakamoto stalls on his name tag. Himura Koji. No other way to read the kanji, even for the more simple of the Phantom Thieves, if memory serves. He sees Sakamoto look over his shoulder and then the confrontation seems to drop from his shoulders. “Sorry,” he tells Goro, “My bad. I thought you were someone else.”
“I’ve been told I have one of those faces,” he clips. His smile folds into an arc more genuine, happy to be rid of the suspicion of someone so easy to fool. The anger softens in his fingertips and his ability to work and live here is made more permanent. “Can I assume you’re one of the regulars? I just started working here last week, so please be kind to me if I make mistakes.”
Sakamoto’s order is easy, a diner staple. Goro’s notes are sloppy with remnant tremors and he walks away briskly, eager to be free of Sakamoto’s prying gaze. His smile can’t fully drop even as he turns away. There are too many other eyes, too many other curious patrons too polite to ask about the initial loud altercation but still watching regardless.
He tries to avoid the table as best he can while he waits for the food to be cooked. He fills Sakamoto’s water when it gets low and Sakamoto does not ask for a refill of whatever specialized drink had been brought to him before Goro started his shift. He doesn’t ask Sakamoto if he would like one, either. Goro can still feel his eyes on him every time he passes by, every time someone is seated at a nearby table. He’s walking on a tightrope and Sakamoto is waiting for him to fall. To reveal his identity, to confirm every suspicion that Sakamoto has so that he can-
So he can what? Go back to the Phantom Thieves and inform them of Goro’s survival? If he has not done so already. Goro had asked him so long ago to keep a secret but he doubts sincerely that the request was honored. If anything, they had just been waiting for him to pop back up on Medjed’s radar to bring him to their own kind of justice.
Goro takes his food to the table and uses it as an excuse to stop by even less. Sakamoto does not flag him down which makes it easier. Goro still catches him staring even as Sakamoto pretends that he wasn’t. He is quick to avert his eyes, to act like he was focusing on a particularly dense section of his notes, to shovel rice into his mouth like it’s the first and last thing he’ll ever eat.
Goro’s first break does not come quickly enough and he rifles through his belongings in the small employee area. He fishes out a slightly crumpled pack of cigarettes and slips outside behind the building. He breathes deep, inhaling cool night air before lighting a cigarette. The drag pulls the tension from his shoulders as hot smoke licks down his throat.
Exhale- it disappears into the night sky along with the thin wisp that stretches from the red cherry between his fingers. He leans against the building, contemplates sitting at a step but decides not to dirty his clothes.
Sakamoto had not been fully convinced of his identity, that much was obvious. He had accepted it easily enough but his constant eyes on Goro meant that he was still skeptical of Himura. He would have to leave. Sakamoto was obviously a student in the area, a regular long before Goro became an employee. Even if he had kept the secret, Goro would not force his presence on to someone that, in all likelihood, hated him.
It would be harder to escape this time around. Auntie was invested in him, had secured him a home and a job, fed him and tended to his well-being however distantly. He doesn’t have much choice, though, he thinks as he takes another drag. Smoke curls around him and he closes his eyes against a blank sky.
He finishes his cigarette and puts it out with the heel of his shoe. There are ashtrays inside but in a brief moment of contrariety, he tosses the butt to the ground and turns to head inside.
Auntie passes him on his way to the restroom to wash the smell of smoke off his hands and gives him a kind smile. She opens her mouth to say something but seems to think better of it halfway through, closing it and instead placing a firm and gentle hand on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t litter, especially if you’re not old enough to smoke anyway.”
It was not what he was expecting her to say and a small laugh bubbles out of him before he can help it. “How did you know I was even smoking?”
“It’s an old woman’s wisdom,” she winks at him, “not too old, mind you.”
“Of course, Auntie.” He ducks his head in a small bow and slips away, trying not to let his smile harden.
The water from the faucet in the restroom is cool against his hands, the soap delicately scented to chase away cigarette smoke clinging to his fingertips. Goro looks at himself in the mirror, sallow from the harsh overhead lights and lowers himself to rinse ash taste out of his mouth as well.
He braces himself heavily against the sink and breathes deep. Sakamoto is still undoubtedly sitting there in the small arrangement of section four, all number of unlikelihoods stacked against him. Goro just has to play the part for a little bit longer, for the rest of the night and the handful of days it will take to find a new job and a new place to stay. And then Sakamoto won’t have to worry about him and Goro won’t have to worry about the Phantom Thieves’ particular brand of justice.
When he steps out, he can see Sakamoto bowed over his books, giving his studies his rapt attention. He does not look up when Goro walks by and resumes his duties, nor does his gaze stray as Goro handles other patrons. The suspicious looks have ceased for now, even when Goro refills his drink and slyly removes empty plateware from the table.
The lack of attention concerns Goro, despite it being what he wanted. If Sakamoto had informed the Phantom Thieves, wouldn’t the reaction be to watch him closer? To make sure he doesn’t get away? To make sure he doesn’t try to poison Sakamoto’s food or slip something into his drink or something just as equally nefarious as they must expect of him?
Goro bites at his chapped lips. “Auntie,” he asks after making his rounds, finding her surveying the floor to ensure all customers are taking care of.
She hums in his direction.
“The table with that regular, the blond college student,” he hesitates and she looks at him from the corner of her eye, “I’m afraid I did not provide the best service. Would I be able to cover his bill with my meal for tonight?” Goro doesn’t quite look in her direction, eyes politely averted. He is very careful to not look directly at Sakamoto.
“Did you spill a drink on him?” Auntie’s gaze is piercing.
“Ah- no, nothing like that,” he purses his lips, “I feel my inexperience has led me to not be as attentive as I should have been, and-”
“He is a regular, and he’s certainly loud, but I’ve never seen him have an outburst like he did when you first walked up. Is this related, perhaps?” She’s smiling but her gaze is still sharp, equal parts teasing him and searching.
Goro is floundering. He had not expected this amount of pushback from her for giving up his own meal. He had thought that by offering a meal that was already free, she would be more inclined to agree in the interest of the diner’s profits. “Yes,” he answers carefully, “he had mistaken me for someone else and my reaction may not have been the most ideal.”
Auntie hums again. “It’s your meal to do with as you wish, but don’t make a habit out of it. I like making sure you’ve eaten at least one meal.” She bumps him with her hip and he swallows around her words. He bows his head and resumes filling half-full water cups, unable and unwilling to name the feeling pooling warm in his chest.
By the time Sakamoto waves him over to resolve his check, Goro has already settled the amount owed and cleared the check from the system. Presenting this information to Sakamoto provides its own challenge, however, because for all intents and purposes, there was no reason for Himura Koji to provide a free meal to a customer he had little interaction with.
He smiles at Sakamoto when he is summoned, but it feels crooked as he watches him take out his wallet. “Your bill has been taken care of.”
Sakamoto keeps his wallet in hand and makes no move to put it away, “Huh? Why?”
Goro clenches his jaw for a moment before releasing the tension. Why? Because there’s nothing Goro can do to make up for everything he’s done or thank Sakamoto for keeping the secret for this many years when he did not need to. Because Sakamoto had watched him most of the night with suspicion but no hostility. Because he had kept a promise when he received no benefit from it when it was only upheld by the desperation with which Goro had gripped his arm in front of an empty Diet Building.
He clears his throat, “I know the other workers are much more adequate than I am, so,” Goro pauses, “consider it an apology.” There’s more weight in his words than there should be, and he knows it only makes him look guilty. He can see the shift in Sakamoto.
“Are you sure we don’t know each other?” Sakamoto is not subtle.
“I’m afraid not.” Goro steps away and bows low, “Enjoy the rest of your night.”
The dumbstruck look on Sakamoto’s face as Goro walks away is almost satisfying.
Sakamoto is still sitting at the table when Goro leaves at the end of his shift. Auntie orders him to get home safely as he hangs up his apron and retrieves his backpack. He nods and waves goodbye to his coworkers as he leaves the diner. The night is dark save for the sparse cones of light from street lamps overhead; it’s almost peaceful leaving the diner so late at night. He had only had morning and afternoon shifts during his initial training, so going and leaving was always met with busy streets. To have it so quiet now, with only the sound of his own footfalls and the silence of the night, is kind of nice.
It doesn’t last, unsurprisingly. He knows he’s being followed when he gets about a block away from the diner. There’s only one person that would try and it takes everything in Goro not to spin around and catch him in the act. It’s entirely likely that Sakamoto lives in the same direction as him, Goro reasons with himself. Regardless, if he were to act aggressively over something potentially innocuous would only hurt his attempts at convincing Sakamoto that he is Himura Koji and no one else.
It’s a twisting path through backstreets to get to his building. He walks briskly through the night, not allowing himself to admit that there is a tiny spark of fear sitting at the base of his spine. Goro has already decided to leave this place and this home and this job, if Sakamoto were not appeased by Goro’s leaving, there is a high chance that he might involve the other Phantom Thieves or even the authorities as penance for his crimes. It would not be outside Sakamoto’s right, for all that Goro did, and any life debt Sakamoto might owe is nullified with all the blood Goro already has on his hands.
He arrives at his apartment without any solid plan in place. He stops in front of the doors holding desperately on to a new old name. Goro hears the footsteps stop in time with his, and then a secondary shuffle of shrubbery. He turns around to look at the bushes lining a building, still moving with Sakamoto’s attempt to hide.
Goro watches as Sakamoto peeks his head out and shrieks when their eyes meet. Sakamoto has always been the loud one and it seems some things do not change.
“So you were following me,” the ice in Goro’s veins leaks into his words. “Come on out, let’s chat.”
Sakamoto looks defeated pulling himself from the bushes and walking towards Goro, head hung low and slouching for all he can. “I just wanna put it out there that I didn’t mean to sneak.” Goro holds back a scoff, “You walk with a purpose, I couldn't catch up to confront you in time.”
“And then you hid when I stopped.” Goro’s eyes narrow.
Sakamoto throws his hands up in surrender, “I went about this poorly, I’m sorry.”
Goro can hear his heart in his ears. Sakamoto still is not acting in the ornery fashion Goro had become accustomed to during their brief bout as teammates. Inquisition is not overshadowed by by the normal viperous twist that Sakamoto’s face would take when he had first approached the Thieves, though he is still as headstrong.
“Why do you want to confront me, anyhow? Why are you so insistent that I’m someone else?” Because Akechi Goro is dead and he would like to stay that way.
“Come on, man,” Sakamoto says, “I know it’s you. I’m sorry I reacted so loudly back there but now we’re alone. I’m not here to hurt you or anything.”
Goro crosses his arms with a huff. He grips his own biceps tightly, drawing his shoulders up unconsciously. There’s no reason to maintain a weak charade and Sakamoto has made it clear he’s not going to take anything but the truth. Goro does not fully believe his words, has no reason to; hurt doesn’t have to be physical. “You couldn’t just take the apology and let it lie?” He says after a moment.
“I honestly probably would have given up if you hadn’t done that.” Sakamoto’s face pinches, “And that’s a really shitty apology, by the way.”
A flash of anger snaps down Goro’s spine. Of course Sakamoto would insinuate that a free meal would be enough reparation for everything that Goro did when he was still Goro, of course he would completely miss the point. Goro smirks as something cruel sits in his throat. “I didn’t do anything to you. In fact, if I recall, I saved your life.”
Sakamoto looks at him nonplussed, unanswering, and the cruelty sitting on the tip of his tongue dissipates. He can’t hold on to the anger long enough to do anything with it. He had made a split second decision in a moment of weak kindness and every time it comes back to haunt him. “That was for intruding on your life once more. The intent was to never make my presence known to any of you ever again.” The free meal had been small, all he could give because beyond that job he had nothing. He had never attempted to apologize for anything else because some things were too big for forgiveness, “So, I apologize, and it might take me a few days, but I will be finding a new job soon.” He could uphold his end of an unsaid bargain.
“Whoa, whoa, hang on man! Don’t- you don’t have to go that far, alright? That’s like, really drastic.” Sakamoto looks as surprised as Goro feels and Goro works to keep it off his face.
“You’re a regular there, are you not? It won’t do to have us running into each other so often.” Goro doesn’t know why he has to explain this, why Sakamoto is resisting so much. He knows he’s not wanted around, he doesn’t understand why Sakamoto won’t just let him go.
“Will you quit pretending to be all cool about this?” Sakamoto snaps and Goro tenses. “I was surprised to see you after you just left suddenly that night, but it’s not like I want you to piss off or anything! I didn’t come here to tell you to ‘leave town or else.’ I just…” He pauses and Goro runs the same thought around in his head, Why did Sakamoto follow him all the way here?
“I was surprised, okay?” The heel face turn of Sakamoto’s tone gives Goro whiplash. Frustration and anger had given way to something sheepish. Soft. “And I’m sorry for making a scene. But I’m not upset to see you or anything, so don’t- don’t quit your job.” He chuckles nervously and Goro doesn’t know how to feel. “It’s not like I can’t go to another diner or anything you know, so. If you’re not comfortable seeing me, it’s chill, but it’s easier for me to take my loitering elsewhere than finding another job.”
Before he can think of the implication of his words, Goro says, “I don’t understand. You should hate me.”
“Well,” there is a lot left unsaid in Sakamoto’s pause, but Goro can’t parse it, “I don’t. Like you said, you didn’t do anything to me, but, like, you hurt my friends. And did a lot of shitty things. But we still mourned for you. After Shido’s palace. We changed his heart for Ren, but also for you. You were a victim, the same as us.”
Goro feels like he’s been slapped. Like the air has been pushed out of his lungs, like he’s drowning. Sakamoto steps towards him and he steps back. “I’m not the same as you. It doesn’t comfort me hearing these things from you.” A whip-crack thought, “Did you tell them?”
“No.” Goro searches Sakamoto’s face for a lie but he answered too quickly for it to be anything but the truth. “I wanted to. I’m not lying, we really did mourn for you. And it was comforting to know that you were out there, somewhere, still breathing. It kind of killed me not to share that with them. But I didn’t, because you asked me to.”
“More like demanded it.” Sakamoto’s words make the interaction feel gentle, disparate, less frantic than it was, but despite the quip, Goro still feels like he can’t quite catch his breath. Sakamoto claims he found comfort in his survival, in his survival. Bleeding heart aside it doesn’t make enough sense to Goro, when he was only ever a threat and a betrayer to the Phantom Thieves.
Sakamoto chuckles, “Yeah, you did.” He claps his hands suddenly enough to startle Goro, “So you have no reason to quit your job, and no reason to apologize.” Goro can’t get his words together fast enough in the brief pause to negate the lack of need for apology. “Now I owe you one. Or, two, if you count saving my life.”
“That’s really not necessary,” for a lot of reasons.
“If I’m overstepping my bounds, tell me, but I’d like to have a proper conversation with you. To catch up,” Goro can see the beginnings of a stubborn pout.
His mind is reeling but his shoulders drop. This was not how he had anticipated a conversation of this nature to go. He had not anticipated to be mourned for, to be fought for, to be included in a final decisive battle over a false god that had his thumb on the pulse of Tokyo and his boot over Goro’s throat. He had thought with some level of certainty that Sakamoto would have immediately reported of Goro’s survival, that the Phantom Thieves would have wanted to keep him close.
“Maybe I don’t want to talk to you.” Goro says, “Maybe I just want to forget that part of my life and move on.” He refrains from wrapping his arms around himself, instead putting a hand on his hip in false bravado. There’s a superiority he searches for, of being able to let go of everything that tethers him to the Phantom Thieves while it is obvious Sakamoto cannot. However superficial that feeling may be, it’s the only familiar comfort he has. Goro has always been able to adapt, whether it was by choice or not, and the insistency Sakamoto pushes at him is enough for Goro to be contrary to Sakamoto’s requests. He’s adapted, he’s moved on. He does not want to confront the past when it only serves to be a mirror he does not want to face.
“Live as Himura Koji?” Goro nods, surprised that Sakamoto came to that conclusion and angry that he has to fight for it. Sakamoto sighs, “Sure, but I still gotta repay the favor. Let me buy you food sometime. From somewhere besides the diner, you probably eat there all the time.”
The offer is odd, but it would give Goro enough time to find a new job without raising the suspicion of Sakamoto. He would take the meal, give Sakamoto whatever closure he wants, and then disappear like he was supposed to. “Can’t turn down free food. One meal. And I reserve the right to remain silent if you ask certain questions.”
Sakamoto rolls his eyes, “Alright, officer. Can I reserve the right to not answer questions you might ask me?”
“What do you possibly have to hide?” An interesting question if he didn’t know for a fact that Sakamoto was the most open book out of all the Phantom Thieves, even going so far as to shout about his association with the criminal group in public.
“Oh, I’ve got stuff. I’ve got lots of… secret stuff.”
Goro is not impressed, “Whatever. You know where to find me.” The thought is troublesome. Sakamoto could still, at any moment, tell the Phantom Thieves that not only did he survive, but that Sakamoto knows where he is currently staying as well. “I’m going to bed.” He turns away burt Sakamoto’s eyes are still heavy on him.
“Wait, you live here?” It’s better than the street corner or the shack that barely had a roof, but Sakamoto need never know about how Goro lived before now.
“It’s more glamorous on the inside, I assure you.” Goro tosses the joke over his shoulder. “Thank you for walking me home, I felt very safe.”
He hears Sakamoto step away, and the scene is so familiar that Goro has to shake the memories away.
“See ya later.” Sakamoto says.
“Right.” An unfortunate development. But it’s only the one time. The one meal. The one unnecessary repayment that Sakamoto seems intent on doing despite Goro carrying the debt of years of mistakes.
He enters the apartment building with a sigh. It’s slightly warmer inside than the chill of the night air but it doesn’t calm the tremors that pick at the tips of his fingers. He could almost go for another cigarette as he climbs four storeys up, lamenting the out-of-service elevator. Auntie had joked with him, told him that by next month it would all be fixed up. At least, that’s what they had said four months ago. And two months before that.
Goro’s thighs begin to ache by the time he gets to his floor and turned down the hallway to his apartment. The key slides in the lock and the fall of tumblrs sounds loud in the silence of the hallway. His apartment was not much to look at and what little furnishings he had were provided by the landlord at the request of Auntie. He had thought it would have been enough. He thought that this could last him a little longer than anything else he had encountered.
Cold seizes his chest. Sakamoto had ruined everything. He had probably gone back to whatever he called home and told the Phantom Thieves exactly what had happened and exactly where to find him. He had maybe a few days before they were all able to convene in Iwatodai, a few days to pack up his meager possessions and find a new place to stay and a new job to keep steady.
He wouldn’t be able to tell Auntie. Sakamoto was a regular, so it was a liability if she knew, if Sakamoto asked her where Goro had gone. He stands just inside the entryway, door shut and solid behind him, and feels his heart hammer against his sternum. Rage presses at his temples and he thinks of the regret of not tying up a loose end. It would have been so easy to let him drown. It would have been so easy to forget about one more name to a heavy ledger.
Goro pinches the bridge of his nose. Breathes deep. The anger keeps his jaw clenched but as he takes another deep breath, he’s no longer immobilized by it. He drops his backpack off at the door and toes off his shoes. He’s so tired. Tomorrow is his first day off since starting at the diner and he’ll have to use it to go apartment shopping.
The bedsprings protest when he collapses onto his mattress. Goro scrubs at his face, willing the rancorous frustration to abate. He should have assumed that something so good would not last, that’s not how any of his life has worked and there is no reason for it to start now. He drapes his arm over his eyes. He should be used to this.
The next day proves discouraging. And the day after that. And the day after that. A week’s worth of Goro going to the diner to work and searching for alternatives to his current arrangement.
Auntie caught on very quickly. By the second day she was giving him looks of stern concern when she gave him his employee meal, clucks followed by a passive aggressive bemoaning of people not asking for help when they need it. Goro steadfastly ignored her eyes on him and merely smiled in return, agreeing that it was unfortunate people couldn’t reach out to those willing to help. He had a list of apartments to view after his shift was over and he kept that in the forefront of his mind even as she shook her head at him.
The third day had Goro’s fifth immediate apartment rejection since he did not have enough work history to prove income, and his backpack was filled with brochures proclaiming how wonderful it was to live in whatever box they were trying to sell. They were crammed next to a list of available jobs that were farther out of the city so he’d be less likely to run into ghosts. It’s harder to visit them, harder to interview and show his interest, harder to get hired because of how far he had to travel. He can’t stay in Iwatodai, can’t stay near Tokyo, so he travels to further and further cities with fare and travel time rising.
On his break that day, Auntie confronts him with one such brochure in her hand. He is just stubbing out his cigarette butt, exhaling the last drag of smoke and thinking about what it means that he has not seen Sakamoto at all, when she comes out of the back door to the diner with a bang. She brandishes the brochure like a weapon but the look on her face belies her worry.
“Is something wrong?” She asks him.
Goro had not expected that question. He had expected a lot of accusation, a lot of anger since she has gone through so much to secure his place here. But she stands in front of him with her grip soft on the glossy paper and asks about his well being. There had been a lot of answers on his tongue, mostly excuses that feel more like lies the longer the question sits on his shoulders. But he did not have an answer to that.
“Himura-kun?” Auntie takes a step towards him and Goro bumps against the wall of the diner trying to take a step back. She’s not trying to crowd him, there’s no intimidation in her movements. Goro still wishes for more space.
“Nothing is wrong, Auntie.” Goro wracks his brain for an explanation, why nothing would be wrong but he’s obviously searching for a way out.
She waits patiently for him to continue and it is evident that she expects him to. Unease is etched into the lines of her face and it’s a more effective weapon than anything else that’s been used against him.
He has nothing to say. Lies dry up in his mouth and he swallows them down. His eyes are drawn to the brochure in her hands for an apartment that he’s already gotten a rejection from. He did not have enough financial documentation, not enough personal documentation, they may be cheap housing but they still need confirmation that Goro is who he says he is which is ironic, considering. He can’t tell her that he doesn’t want to rely on her kindness, that he has nightmares he didn’t bury deep enough, that a single boy in a small diner in a minor city 20 minutes outside Tokyo had come and upended his life again.
So he says nothing, even as the moments stretch into minutes and Goro needs to return to his post refilling waters and smiling kindly at ornery old customers.
“If you need help, let me know.” She says finally when Goro makes no additional move to answer her question. She offers the brochure to him, trying to search his eyes. The upturn of her eyebrows force deep grooves into her forehead, like she’s accustomed to worrying over others. It does not detract from the weight of her words, though, and Goro takes the brochure from her.
The lack of his own words surprises him; he’s more out of practice than he thought.
Goro nods, “Of course, Auntie,” and steps past her to go back into the diner. The back door shuts with a heavy click.
At the end of his shift, he throws away all of the places he’s received rejections from. There is a single brochure left for an apartment in Saitama an hour away by train but he still has the nagging worry that it won’t be far enough.
The rest of the week does not fare better. The diner demands his time and he can’t sacrifice it for travel. He tries going farther and farther out but between the restrictions of when the train runs and his own shifts pressing hours onto his back in exchange for yen in his hands, he finds little else. The number of brochures he takes home dwindles to near nothing by the fifth day of his search and his train rides are heading into hour long crusades.
He spends his work breaks smoking to give himself some sort of distraction. Sakamoto is heavy on his mind. He still has not visited the diner, but Goro has also not heard or seen anything about the other Phantom Thieves. He wonders if Sakamoto actually found another place to do his studying, that when he told Goro he didn’t want anything from him but a meal and a conversation, he had been genuine.
Goro ashes his cigarette with too much force and almost flicks the cherry off. A deep drag in place of a deep breath, letting the burn of smoke curl in his lungs before seeping out of his mouth. The taste clings to his teeth and he runs his tongue along the back of them in thought.
The backdoor of the diner opens carefully and Goro does not have to turn his head to know it’s Auntie. She’s the only other employee of the diner that takes her breaks out back.
“Himura-kun,” she says kindly in greeting.
Goro nods his head in a bow, “Auntie.”
She smiles, “Did you find a solution?”
Goro’s frustration has been obvious as the days flip over into a week. He does his job well enough, listens to direction, does not let distraction make a mess of his work. Auntie has still had her eye on him, offering gentle support when he clocks in and out, wishing him a restful break as he slips out the back with a cigarette already in his mouth.
Goro consciously unclenches his fist, “Not quite, but I believe I will be able to resolve the issue well enough.” Saitama is still the only place that will take him, but there are no jobs in the area that will accept him after just a week and a half at this diner and a handful of odd jobs prior to that.
Auntie hums, “I figured you would, you’re the resourceful type.” The look on her face is soft and Goro focuses on taking another drag. “You know, I think it would do you well to talk to that regular, Sakamoto-kun.”
Goro chokes on the smoke.
Auntie knocks him on the back as he coughs, laughing, “If you can’t handle a cigarette Himura-kun, it might be a good idea to wait until you’re of age.” She teases as Goro wipes away tears welled in the corners of his eyes.
“I- Auntie- he-” Goro stumbles over his words, trying to collect himself and determine how much he should reveal, “The loud one, right?” The play at ignorance rings false even to his own ears and he coughs more of the stinging out of his throat
She lets the bad lie slide, “Yes, though he was much louder when you served him. Usually he’s pretty well mannered, even if his hair color leaves much to be desired.” Auntie giggles behind her hand, “but I think it would do you well. You two boys are very similar, you might benefit from talking to another runner.”
“Auntie, I wasn’t-” the words crash into each other in an apologetic pile that Auntie will not let him say. Regardless of whatever significance running has, Goro owes too much to this one kind woman to have her think that he was running away from her.
She tuts at him and his jaw clicks shut, “I won’t nag you, but I do think it’s a good idea. Besides, you two are of a similar age, it might be nice for you to have friends outside this one old Auntie and Maya-chan.”
“You’re not old,” he says on reflex and Auntie beams at him. There are a lot of reasons he should not talk to Sakamoto, most of them being that either of them should be dead. Sakamoto was the one that pushed for an additional conversation, but the Phantom Thieves could be at Goro’s throat in an instant. There are never guarantees to kindness freely given.
That thought is what pushes at Goro, forces him to search farther and farther away. It spins in his head every moment he doesn’t distract himself with something else. It presses behind his eyes like a migraine and makes him hold his fists tight enough for his fingernails to leave crescent moon indents in his palms. He agreed to a single meal and a single conversation and Sakamoto has yet to show but he knows the days are numbered and he knows he’s running out of time.
“You’re a good boy, Himura-kun,” she laughs outright and pats him gently on his shoulder. “I am serious, though. Someone like Sakamoto-kun would understand, I think, if you don’t want to talk to an old woman. We like having you around here, and Sakamoto-kun didn’t seem too upset either.” She winks at him.
“You were aware when I came here looking for employment that there are extenuating circumstances and I would hate to become a burden on your kindness.” It’s the polite response but it settles uncomfortably true twisting among the smoke from the cigarette between his fingers.
“Himura-kun,” she says seriously and Goro looks her in the eye. Her face is set more sage than he’s seen it, even when she presented him with the brochure- evidence of his guilt, though she did not know what he was guilty for. “No one should go through this world alone.”
Goro swallows roughly against a crest of emotion that crashes against his sternum and makes his ribs ache. “I always appreciate your help, Auntie.”
“Good, then listen to this helpful advice and make nice with the Sakamoto boy. He looks adventurous and you need to get out more.” Auntie pats him firmly on the shoulder.
He has no chance to respond; she quickly turns and enters the diner again leaving Goro alone with the alleyway stretching beyond him. He can hear the gentle murmur and clink of tableware while the door slowly shuts and finds a comfort in the white noise he’s not familiar with. He takes another drag of his cigarette before flicking the butt away and following after Auntie.
Sakamoto comes back to the diner almost a full week after he and Goro spoke. Goro is preparing to take food to his assigned tables near the end of his shift when Auntie catches him.
“Your fellow runner is here,” she jokes and Goro feels a spike of anxiety make his fingertips go numb. He knew to anticipate it, knew it was going to happen relatively soon because Sakamoto had been so insistent on it and he didn’t seem the type to let something go, regardless of how trivial. “You’re free to go in 30 minutes so he’s not waiting too long, just make sure all your tables are taken care of before you go.” She seems happy that he appears to have taken her advice, though the plan was made before she made the suggestion. He doesn’t tell her this, simply nods and goes back to arranging the food on the trays to make it easier to carry.
Auntie is quick to move on with her duties after delivering the message and Goro is thankful. Her asserting Goro should interact with Sakamoto was disconcerting at the very least. He had not and does not consider any viable kinship with Sakamoto and his only goal for their dinner together is to let Sakamoto have his fill of whatever thrill there is talking to a dead man. If that is what he needs to let the past die, then Goro will indulge him just once.
Goro passes Auntie on his way back to the kitchen after she’s dropped off a whipped cream monstrosity to a familiar shock of unnatural blond hair. He watches Sakamoto take the first sip, face twisting in disgust before he shovels whipped cream and chocolate sauce into his mouth. He drinks coffee but has no taste for it- the thought almost makes Goro want to laugh.
“I hardly think you could legally call that coffee.” He tells Sakamoto as he steps up behind him and it is immensely satisfying seeing Sakamoto jump in surprise.
He looks at Goro with what is unmistakably a pout. “Asshole,” he murmurs.
Condescension drips off his words because it’s easy to slip into, facing Sakamoto like this, with his too-sweet drink and kicked-puppy eyes. It’s easy to let the feeling of superiority cover him and brace his words like bookends. “I thought you might have forgotten about our little dinner date.” He also might have hoped for much the same so he wouldn’t have to face this particular brand of annoyance.
“I’ve been busy,” Sakamoto tells him, and after a beat, “I thought you might have gotten another job anyway, even though I said you didn’t have to.”
Tired frustration beats down the anger almost immediately, and all Goro can find himself doing is shrugging. “Tried,” he says simply. “You were right that it’s not so easy.” Ignoring Sakamoto’s assumptive words at Goro having his permission to stay, it’s vindicating to watch his face twist with the awkward pause. Goro has an idea about how his words come across to Sakamoto and how the knowledge that Goro tried to leave within the span of a week despite Sakamoto’s protestations would be received.
However, because he was unsuccessful, he is still beholden to the promise he made Sakamoto a week ago. Sakamoto kept his secret for years, after all. His smile feels like acquiescence and he shakes his head, “I’ll be able to leave soon.”
“I’ll be here. Doin’ homework.”
Amazing. Insightful. Illuminating. Goro actively stops himself from rolling his eyes as he acknowledges Sakamoto and walks away. He has too many tables and too many customers to handle to let the anger and anxiety settle too deep into his bones. He has a little under half an hour before his obligatory albeit casual interrogation, and finds interacting with his tables an effective distraction.
Goro puts a on a charming smile that slots into place, soft laughter a regular accompaniment. It’s a personage that he has had much practice with, even though now that same smile and same laughter and same inquisitive tilt of his head is no longer paired with the blinding heat of a row of set lights. It’s still effortless and will hopefully remain that way as he suffers through a couple hours of Sakamoto’s undivided attention.
30 minutes passes too quickly, Goro thinks as Auntie gestures him over and pushes him to clock out. His tables are taken care of, his customers are happy, “Go change, he’s been waiting for you.” Auntie fusses over him but her smile is fond.The less Goro came to the diner after visiting other employment prospects, the happier Auntie seemed to be, and it culminated into an unrelenting smile when he confirmed that he would be spending some time with Sakamoto. Goro is still unsure about what to do with her affections, still does not rely on it being constant, but he changes out of his uniform upon her instruction all the same.
Goro sits on the barstool to the side of Sakamoto and watches him immediately start to pack up his school supplies. He watches him silently, decompressing after changing out of his uniform and seeing how Sakamoto shoves all of his papers into a folder haphazardly and then cram it all into his backpack. Goro fiddles with his hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck unthinkingly.
“Anything in particular you’re in the mood for?” Sakamoto asks.
“You’re paying, so we can go wherever.”
Sakamoto’s incredulity is instantaneous, “Oh, I’m paying now?”
Goro twists a strand of hair along one fine boned finger, the edges of his smile pointed needle sharp, “Well, you are the one who is insisting on this. I could have easily avoided you, as you pointed out.” As he should have but it would have only posed the risk of another chance encounter.
“Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t,” Sakamoto mumbles as he leans his face down to put more into his backpack. “Ramen sound good then?”
Goro’s thoughts stutter to a halt, half sentences petering into nothing. There’s no reason for Sakamoto to be glad about anything regarding Goro. The only reason he should be glad is that it would be easier to keep him pinned here for the Phantom Thieves to apprehend him. But he didn’t call the Phantom Thieves here. It’s just him and an earnest dinner invitation with an entire week as a buffer. Enough time to get everyone here, to inform police, Sae-san. Ample time for Goro to have just disappeared if he hadn’t worried about where he would lay his head next.
Sakamoto looks at him.
“Yeah.” Goro says when he finds his words, “Yeah, alright. Lead the way.”
If Sakamoto thinks anything of his sudden mood shift he doesn’t say it out loud. He slides off his seat and heads out of the diner, not looking back to check if Goro followed. Goro doesn’t have to do this, but follows compulsively anyway. He could slip out the back, through the kitchen to the alleyway and out of Iwatodai within 20 minutes, given the train schedule. He could start a brand new life in Saitama without a trace left of him here.
Auntie catches his eye and winks as he leaves.
Goro quickens his pace to walk alongside Sakamoto once they’re on the street proper.
“When I first got to Iwatodai,” the silence shifts around Sakamoto’s words and Goro watches him from the corner of his eye, “my first mission was to find the best ramen shop in the area. It’s not like Ogikubo is super far, but I needed someplace closer, you know?” He chuckles. “I don’t wanna think about how much money I spent trying all these places out, though.”
Goro hums in response and can see the frustration pull at Sakamoto’s face. “You had a food blog, right? You kinda get what i mean?”
His jaw clenches and he forcibly releases the tension, “Eating out can get quite pricey. I don’t partake much anymore.”
“Not living that fancy celebrity life anymore, eh?” Sakamoto keeps his tone light but something hot coils in the pit of Goro’s stomach.
The food blog was to keep him active on social media to sway the opinion of the younger generation. It was to partner the severity of a detective with the softness of an idol, to keep public opinion positive, to keep him within the thoughts of the masses even when not interviewing for public television. It was the movement of a pawn on a chessboard, carefully calculated for the best outcome as he tried to unravel Shido from the inside. Nothing about his celebrity status was easy. Goro smiles around his ire, “Ah, the interviewing begins.” A joke to keep him from choking on his own tongue.
“You don’t gotta talk about it,” Sakamoto plays the part of ‘good cop’ too well. His sincerity, however manufactured, grates against Goro.
“It’s simple, really. When your credit card gets thrown in jail, you get cut off.” The answer is abrasive with purpose, meant to make Sakamoto uncomfortable, to give him an idea of what his questions will lead to. Goro raises an eyebrow challenging Sakamoto to contradict him. To give him an excuse to stop this charade of levity.
“Guess that’s why you haven’t moved too far out, huh?” Sakamoto’s voice shakes and Goro can see how much he regrets his own words.
He hums again and lets following silence hone it into a razor’s edge. Their stride does not falter but Sakamoto makes it a point not to look in his direction, so he lets the moment and his anger dissipate with the light of the setting sun.
When they reach the restaurant there are only a couple of people ahead of them in line. A chill fills in with the night and Goro crosses his arms. Tension sits heavy at the back of his neck and keeping his arms crossed hides how tightly his fists are clenched.
“What kinda ramen do you like?” Sakamoto asks.
“Spicy ramen,” Goro immediately responds. His smile is unbidden but he would take the lack of tension to decrease the intrusiveness of Sakamoto’s questions. He watches as Sakamoto rolls his eyes to an obscene degree.
“Oh, that’s great, they’ve got like a whole challenge you can do then.They take your picture and everything.” Sakamoto’s response is biting but there is no barb to it.
Between his crooked smile and how he hasn’t quite let go of the pout upturning his eyebrows, Goro can’t help his laughter. He had remembered Sakamoto as angry, loud, more inclined to his own cynicism regarding the way of the world rather than working around it for his own benefit. Sakamoto had never attempted to speak with him beyond cursing his existence, the basic requirements of traversing through the metaverse and-
-more than special.
“You’ve gotten better at sassing people,” Goro tells him.
“I usually can’t do more than one one-liner, though,” Sakamoto looks sheepish scratching at the back of his head.
Goro shakes his head, bubbles of laughter still popping on his teeth, “Seafood. I like seafood ramen.”
Sakamoto nods at him, “Can’t go wrong with this place. I go with the classic flavor myself.”
Goro has no real response, unsurprised by the simple selection. Straightforward is an easy way to describe Sakamoto and it occurs to him that all of the duplicity Goro has been assuming may not be the case. He keeps waiting for the shoe to drop, for Sakamoto to let it slip what his true intentions are insisting that Goro spend time with him, insisting that Goro stay right where he’s at, insisting that he can make a change so Goro doesn’t have to. Insisting he was glad Goro hadn’t left, that he was glad Goro had agreed to eat a meal with him. Insisting he was missed.
When it’s their turn to enter, Sakamoto moves forward to stake a claim on two seats further in. Goro takes a moment behind him, looking at the decor, counting the exits. Everything about it is simple, as expected, but the number of people filling the seats is surprising. It’s a low hum of activity between the gentle sounds of speaking and eating, as well as the louder clamor of food being prepared. His eyes stall on a display of ice cream before he sits down.
Sakamoto takes out a menu before Goro has a chance to reach for one, but he unfolds it on Goro’s direction and points out his recommendations. It’s such an innocuous gesture but Goro doesn’t have the wherewithal to thank him before the waiter is summoned and their orders are taken. Sakamoto drums on the table idly. It adds a gentle backbeat to the thrum of the shop.
“So we know why I haven’t gone too far,” Goro starts, inclined to give Sakamoto the same exhaustive questioning as he had received, “why have you stuck so close to home? Didn’t want to travel, see the world? Or even better yet, follow Amamiya back to his hometown?” His words belie his tone. The latter question may be unfair, since all of Sakamoto’s more pressing and personal questions have come about by apparent accident, but Goro does hold a genuine curiosity. He had not thought someone like Sakamoto would ever stray too far from the epicenter of the Phantom Thieves, wherever he might go.
Sakamoto carefully picks over his words, “It was cheaper to go here than to move further out. Wanted things to be easier on my mom, and I’m close enough to her that I can go home if she needs anything at all.”
The answer was unexpected, but unsurprising. “Ah,” he says, not intending to push it. It’s a valid reason to stay close to Tokyo, and one more personal that just staying close to friends.
Goro is surprised when Sakamoto flounders, “Shit, man, I’m really sorry. First I make you bring up Shido, then I go and bring up my mom even though I know what happened to yours. Two for two on things I should definitely not make you talk about, wow.” Sakamoto takes a long drink of his water.
The care with which Sakamoto presents his remorse makes Goro huff. He hadn’t minded Sakamoto talking about his own mother, especially considering Goro had asked about the reason behind Sakamoto staying so close to home. But for Sakamoto to remember about Goro’s own situation and to be genuinely compassionate that he may have potentially brought up something painful leaves Goro searching for words.
“Are you this insensitive to your friends with dead parents as well?” Joking is easy, that way Goro doesn’t have to think too hard about Sakamoto’s immediate response regarding his well-being.
“I’m not this guy, okay? I’m not the guy people have serious, meaningful conversations with. I’m the guy people go to when they wanna do something simple like eat food, go see a dumb movie. When they wanna study with someone and come out feeling smarter. I’m not.” Sakamoto’s brow furrows, “Good. At handling heavy topics.” He waves the waiter over for more water and grabs Goro’s glass while he waits.
Goro arches an eyebrow to which Sakamoto ignores and continues drinking.
Once the waiter stops by their table to refill their drinks, Goro meets Sakamoto’s eyes. “We could just. Not. If you’re not the type to handle lofty topics, we don’t have to. To be frank, I’d prefer it.” It would make this one time occurance easier to get through, to say the least. Sakamoto’s impassioned declarations are more exhausting than Goro would have thought, especially because the suspicion percolating in the back of his mind has not subsided.
Sakamoto sighs, “Yeah?” Goro nods and he watches Sakamoto slump, “I’m sorry, I’m not usually so insistent on bringing past shit up. Probably because, yeah, I’m insensitive about it. I don’t know why I felt like I had to harp on it so much.”
“Probably because my shit is particularly potent,” he says wryly and Sakamoto barks a laugh. Goro can’t help his smile, “So. The age old question, what are you studying?” An easy topic change, a safe topic change, too. The future is much easier to face than the past.
“Physical therapy.” Sakamoto answers. Goro tilts his head in charismatic inquisition. “I dunno if you knew about my leg. I was in track and it got a bad break.” Goro looks over at his legs and Sakamoto rubs at what Goro can assume is the afflicted one. The way Sakamoto holds his words makes it seem like there is more to that story. That it wasn’t just a sports related injury. He would have expected additional explanation from Sakamoto, for him to illustrate some heroic tale of how he fell from glory. “The physical therapists are the only reason I can walk as well as I can. I wanna be able to return the favor, I guess, by helping others in the same way.”
“Ever the hero, helping others.” The snide lilt is unintentional but Goro’s own sincerity surprises him. Sakamoto had always been loud about being a Phantom Thief, he had been loud at how he viewed his justice, he had been loud in wanting to help people. Seeing the culmination of his brazen teenage self lead to him taking his own pain and using it as motivation to help others gave better explanation to the sincerity Sakamoto has given Goro through the past week.
Sakamoto shrugs, “You going to school or…?” He lets his words trail into the constant murmur of the shop.
Goro should have known this question was coming. He looks away. An exit to his left. One presumably through the kitchen. No visible windows from this vantage point. “Nope. Pretty difficult to apply for schools when you don’t exist.” Pretty hard to finish requisite secondary schooling when you don’t exist. For all Goro did he still holds the petty frustration that he was unable to finish high school at the very least.
“How do you mean?” Sakamoto’s question is immediate and him telling Goro that he is not the friend to handle heavy topics is brought to focus with how reactionary he is.
“Akechi Goro disappeared around the same time Shido’s heart was changed. All of my records,” and accomplishments, and struggles, and crimes, “are under that name. I am essentially off the grid.”
“Do you have to be though?” The question should be sharper than the way Sakamoto asks. It should be as barbed and angry as Goro feels. But it’s not. It’s the simple innocuous curiosity of the man sitting across from him just trying to understand.
It feels like pity Goro does not want. He watches the kitchen staff move with chaotic ease. “You heard what my cognitive self said, no? Shido planned to kill me all along. He probably already had players in place to make sure that happened. I think the reason it took the public opinion so long to sway was due to a massive clean up. Disposing of me might have been part of that.”
Disposing of Goro was definitely part of that. Once his cognitive self showed up in Shido’s palace, there was no doubt about Shido’s intent. He had thought he had secured his place among the few Shido trusted, however disgusted that made him feel, but he had instead made himself a loose end. He should have anticipated as much given Shido’s reaction to Wakaba, but he had been young and naive and more gullible than he gave himself credit for.
He can feel Sakamoto’s eyes on him. He can feel him chew the words. “Well. I’m glad they didn’t get to you, then.”
Goro’s head snaps back to look at Sakamoto. The pity he felt wasn’t there, the disgust he felt he deserved wasn’t there, either. Sakamoto’s expression is open and his words are earnest and Goro can’t keep up. Sakamoto keeps offering him kindness that Goro can’t accept.
Their food arriving saves him from having to answer and Sakamoto’s distraction is a welcomed grace. It smells amazing and Sakamoto makes a pleased sound, quick to take the first taste.
Goro follows suit, savoring it. It’s been quite a while since he had something as rich as ramen, and just the first sip of broth fills him with warmth. Old habits have him eating slower, more contained in his bites, but it also helps prolong the food. Sakamoto does not seem to have the same reservations and eats with fervor, loudly slurping noodles and broth alike. He’s not as bothered by it as he would normally be, finding he has a little more patience for Sakamoto than he would have thought. That realization makes him focus more on his food for the duration of their meal which is blessedly without conversation.
“Dessert?” Sakamoto asks gesturing to the ice cream display after their meals are finished and their bowls cleared from the table.
Goro gives a very fake yawn in response. He does not want to think about why Sakamoto seems to want to spend more time with him, he’s unable to come up with any concrete answer and the more he thinks on it the more the same questions run circles through his head. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short. It’s been quite a long day.” Sakamoto ignores his bad acting but agrees.
They go to stand and Sakamoto reaches for his wallet. Goro hesitates. Telling Sakamoto that he was required to pay had been done mostly in jest.
“I’ve got this,” Sakamoto tells him, “I owe ya, remember?”
A debt for a free meal that Goro lost nothing from, given in an vain attempt to apologize for something much larger than a single diner meal. Goro nods, “I’ll be outside, then.”
Goro had not realized how claustrophobic the shop had felt until he was standing on the curb just outside the front door taking a deep breath of the cool night air. He fishes his pack of cigarettes from his backpack and lights one. Tension had crept up his spine and buried into his trapezii, and he rolls his shoulders to try and ease it as he takes his first drag.
The taste of smoke overpowers the lingering saltiness from the ramen and he exhales heavily through his nose, watching the smoke vanish under the light of a lamp post.
The dinner had been. Successful. There were undoubtedly some rough spots, as to be expected, but not nearly the interrogation he had suspected there would be. It’s obvious Sakamoto has preconceived notions about what Goro would be like, how he would react to certain lines of questioning. But his responses had not been in line with the rude, brash boy that had once cursed his name and his existence.
His cordiality was constant, even when he thought he had inadvertently offended or upset Goro. It doesn’t make sense. Sakamoto doesn’t owe Goro anything. Saving his life had not meant he was now owed a life debt, it was a small amount of recompense for everything else Goro had done. Goro had thought that it was obvious. But Sakamoto insists on Goro staying where he is comfortable, insists on avoiding touchy subjects and apologizing if he falls into unavoidable pits, insists that he owes Goro a meal because Goro couldn’t think of any other way to apologize for intruding on his life.
Goro takes another drag of his cigarette and exhales slowly. The stream of smoke curls in front of him and obscurs his vision of the dark road. He exhales the rest in a quick huff.
He hears Sakamoto exit the shop and pause. Goro takes another deep drag, lets the smoke burn down his throat. He catches Sakamoto’s eyes and exhales out of the corner of his mouth away from him. “Want one?”
“Nah, I don’t smoke.”
Predictable. Goro shrugs. The cigarette has burned almost all the way to the filter and he takes another drag.
“It suits you, though, I guess.” Less predictable.
“Does it?” He holds the filter by his lips, letting the end of it rest against his teeth.
“Well, yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t expect you to be a smoker, but it does suit you.” Goro raises an eyebrow at him, his repetition doing nothing to explain. “I guess it’s the smoke. It’s cool to look at, like when it’s cold outside and you huff to see your breath? And then it’s gone in a moment, fading away into the air but you can’t help but wanna see it again.”
There’s a lot folded into Sakamoto’s words, albeit childishly executed. It explains his apparent fixation with Goro, at the very least. He takes a last drag and blows the smoke upwards between them, mimicking Sakamoto’s description. It’s easy to see the appeal, he thinks.
“Dangerous to your health, but addictive nonetheless.” He says, letting his words mix with the quickly disappearing smoke.
Sakamoto looks at him, tilting his head, “Huh?”
He didn’t expect Sakamoto to understand his own metaphor. He didn’t expect him to take a warning handed to him on a platter. “Want to walk me home?” Goro asks instead. It’s easier to offer than for him to follow him unbidden, sneaking behind bushes when Goro turns corners too quickly, and he tells him as much.
Sakamoto puts his hand on his chest dramatically, “I’m just concerned for your safety.”
The image is ridiculous and Goro doesn’t feel bad for laughing, “There’s your one.” He motions Sakamoto to walk with him and side by side they enjoy a comfortable silence. Sakamoto does not disrupt it and Goro is too consumed with his own thoughts to press him on the matter. He wishes there had been some kind of revelation, some reasoning behind Sakamoto’s treatment of him, but the longer the night went on the less clear that reasoning was, the more the same questions rise and fall through his thoughts.
He wants to know where Sakamoto’s hostility towards him went, but does not want to hear the reason he thinks it is. He does not want Sakamoto’s subconscious pity, he does not want him to look with those ridiculous sad puppy dog eyes and pout and think he is a victim of all things. He does not want an explanation of kindness when that kindness stems from Sakamoto looking down on him, whether Sakamoto realizes it or not.
He did this obligatory dinner, though the feeling of a debt towards Sakamoto presses at his temples, and that was all he said he would offer. He unclenches his hands at his sides seeing his apartment building grow closer, but Sakamoto looks no less out of his own head even as they get to the entrance.
“So, uh, thanks for comin’ out with me.”
Goro takes a step away from him and towards the building, humming. “I hope I satisfied your curiosity.”
“Not really,” always quick to react, always quick to say what’s on his mind.
The feeling of debt owed pushes at him again, more insistent. “I will allow one unabashed question that I will try my best to answer.” It’s opening himself up too much, potentially. Giving Sakamoto this chance could determine a lot, mainly how quickly he needs to find a job in Saitama.
“Is that your question?” It’s too easy.
“No, asshole,” Goro smirks at him, can’t help it, while Sakamoto visibly wracks his brain for the most pressing question he has.
Goro runs through a myriad of questions that could be asked. How he ended up here, what was he doing before, what his plans are here. If he still has access to the metaverse, if he still has connections through Shido, how he was introduced to the metaverse, his connection to the research of cognitive pscience-
“Who’s Himura Koji?”
Goro freezes his face, keeps his smirk firm. Sakamoto looks markedly uncomfortable but Goro is at a loss once again. Of anything, of all the damning information Goro has, of all the evidence he could bear witness to, Sakamoto asks him who he is. Not how he found the name Himura Koji, not why Himura Koji. Who he is. And Goro finds himself wanting to tell a truth only the dead know.
He looks away from Sakamoto, towards a starless sky, dark for the city lights. “On record? He’s a boy who was orphaned at seven years old. Displaced from his modest childhood home to an institution that didn’t care where its children ended up, as long as they went somewhere. He proved to be trouble because they kept giving him back. Nobody wanted him. Then, when he was fifteen, he up and left. Disappeared without a trace.” Goro catches his eyes and sees something he can’t name. He shrugs, “Now he works at a diner in Iwatodai, serving nosy college students who think his life is somehow worth something.”
Goro wishes Sakamoto’s rapidfire reactions would stop taking him by surprise. “Spare me,” is all he can muster and he turns to enter his apartment building.
“Wait,” Sakamoto calls and Goro obliges, “is that your real name?”
Goro huffs, suddenly tired. Suddenly regretting all he’s offered. “I promised one answer.” The door shutting is loud in the entryway of the complex. It feels like the walls shake with the force of it, like it rattles in Goro’s bones. He does not think about the four story climb, does not think about the key clicking into place, does not think about toeing off his shoes and shedding his backpack and falling face first into his mattress.
Who is Himura Koji? Is that your real name? Over and over. Earnestness tilting the questions. He’s glad he promised just the one answer, because he doesn’t think he could answer the second.
Goro stops looking for housing alternatives by the next week, and Auntie seems to notice. She gives him sweets in addition to his employee meals, or extra servings of what he orders, or drinks with whipped cream piled high. It’s easy to throw himself into his work; as the days pass and he does not see any additional Phantom Thieves milling about in a hoodie as a poor excuse for a disguise, the suspicion dulls from something searing to a dull thought in the back of his mind.
He also does not see Sakamoto for a fair handful of days but does not think much of it. He had not seen Sakamoto for the entirety of his first week there, and only once a week thereafter. Going so many days without him either being at the diner during Goro’s shift or going to the diner at all is not unlikely.
Goro also stops counting how many days it’s been. Sakamoto has made himself apparent that he did not and will continue to not inform anyone of Goro’s identity, and he lets the anxiety rest a bit.
It’s easier to gain his necessary proficiencies when he does not have so much dread looming over him as well.
When Sakamoto does appear at the diner at the same time as Goro, it seems the despair has been transferred. He takes the same seat he did when Goro first encountered him without being seated by the available hostess, and no one moves to inform him to wait. It’s Goro’s section again, and he thinks that luck is an ugly, fickle thing.
Auntie approaches after seeing him stall serving Sakamoto. “You know, he likes his coffee picture perfect, mostly whipped cream and sugar and chocolate syrup. It’s surprising he has such a sweet tooth, don’t you think?” She giggles and Goro shrugs. “What’s the old adage, Himura-kun? Appearances can be deceiving?”
“I believe so, yes, Auntie.” Goro side eyes her but his smile is crooked.
“Good, go offer him one,” she swats at his hip and walks away, leaving Goro very little choice but to do his job.
Sakamoto has his head hung as Goro approaches, “Picture perfect coffee?” He asks, placing a menu in front of him.
“Can you bring me a cream soda?” He asks instead.
Goro raises his eyebrows, looking him over, taking in how not only his head his hung but his slouch is much more pronounced in the booth. “Are you not feeling picture perfect today?”
“No,” Goro feels his eyebrows climb higher. Sakamoto is absolutely moping. “Maybe if I stare at a cream soda I’ll be able to feel some joy. They’re aesthetically pleasing, ya know?”
“That they are,” Goro agrees with little feeling, “Might I recommend the pork cutlet meal to boost your spirits?”
“Man, you’re not even trying to give me that dazzling customer service voice.” Sakamoto whines at him, slapping the menu on the table almost petulantly.
“I’m pretty sure you’re quite familiar with how dazzling I can make my personality.” Goro smiles but he can feel it curl into a smirk. He looks over Sakamoto again, notes the dark circles, how deeply he slumps, and asks, “But really, when’s the last time you ate?”
“Don’t worry, you’re getting my money. I’ll do the pork cutlet.” Sakamoto misinterprets concern that hit Goro so fast he had not realized his own intention behind the question.
“Excellent, thank you so much for your patronage.” He flashes Sakamoto a blinding smile and Sakamoto shields his eyes. Goro laughs and settles his weight on one foot, cocking his hip, comfort settling him. “Really now, what’s got you so troubled?”
The shift is immediate. Sakamoto fidgets uncomfortably, is slow to start stuttered words, “I, uh, had a research paper. Couldn’t find any info on the subject, though. I looked for days and got nothing new.”
Goro narrows his eyes. “That seems like an impossible assignment.” Suddenly all of the suspicions are back at the forefront of his mind. Sakamoto is not subtle; it’s obvious he had attempted to look up Himura as a family name in the directories. It’s obvious he found the only pertinent information, though none of it included Koji.
“Yeah. Guess you’re right.” Sakamoto sounds defeated but Goro waits for more. When nothing is offered, he clicks his tongue.
“Let me get you your aesthetically pleasing cream soda.” He tries to keep the ice out of his words as cold climbs up his spine. He turns on his heel and all but marches into the kitchen to request Sakamoto’s cream soda and pork cutlet bowl.
The drink is out quickly, and he drops it off at the table without a word. The diner is busy enough that night that Goro is constantly moving. He picks up the pork cutlet bowl and delivers it just the same. His anger is icy but Sakamoto seems unaffected, blind to how Goro offers no additional conversation and does not linger long enough for Sakamoto to start it.
He had offered information about Himura Koji in a moment of weakness, swayed by Sakamoto’s apparent lack of ill will. He had made a miscalculation and Sakamoto had taken it in an attempt to find additional information to hold over Goro’s head. It would have been easy to give the name to their resident Medjed, less easy to trace the lack of information back, but now that his name was being used again, he was trackable no matter where he went.
It didn’t matter if he stayed in Iwatodai or traveled an hour away or four hours away, Himura Koji was no longer a name struck from record.
Except if they had wanted to trap him, he’d given them ample time to. If they had wanted to make a move they would have done so weeks ago. There’s no reason to stake him out if they already had the address of his apartment and his place of employment.
He clenches and unclenches his fist, standing in front of the system to clock out. Sakamoto had only done what he would have done- what anyone would have done eventually. The name on his name tag did not match who Sakamoto thought he was, so him attempting to do additional research is. Expected. He didn’t try to wheedle anything else out of Goro, hadn’t even wanted to tell him what he’d done. Sakamoto had taken the loss and let it lie.
“Auntie,” Goro grabs her attention as she wipes down the counter at the bar.
“I’d like to use my employee meal on a customer.”
Auntie rounds on him, “Again? Himura-kun, you need to eat! I’m glad you’re getting comfortable but comped meals are supposed to be a rare occurrence.” She puts her hands on her hips.
“I understand, Auntie, but I’m afraid I made a few assumptions and my service was not at the level it should be.” Goro keeps his eyes downcast.
“Assumptions?” She looks over to area four. “Ah,” she tuts when her eyes fall on Sakamoto. “You can’t be making this a habit, Himura-kun.”
“I won’t, Auntie.” It’s agreement enough. He hesitates before clocking out, heading to the kitchen to ask them to prepare a coffee picture perfect. He delivers it to Sakamoto’s table without any declaration and when he looks up at Goro in question, Goro just shrugs.
Auntie catches him as he’s about to clock out, “Adding a little extra to your employee meal, Himura-kun?”
“Thank you for taking care of me,” he bows to her in lieu of answering.
“Of course,” she waves away his words with an eyeroll, “now hurry home and make sure you eat something!” She swats at him with the towel in her hand.
Sakamoto has not moved by the time Goro changes out of his uniform and gathers his belongings. He sees no reason to bid him goodbye, and the faster he leaves the faster he can lay in bed and let his aching legs rest.
It’s late enough in the day that a majority of the foot traffic has died down. It’s a peaceful lull in between the bustle, and Goro soaks it up, lets his mind wander as the sun sets.
He’s still bewildered about Sakamoto’s actions, or rather, his lack thereof. Even after telling him about Himura Koji, even after he researched it himself and found nothing, he did not pry. There was no subtle attempt to weasel the information out of him, there was no beligerant questioning fueled by frustration because Goro would not comply. He can’t reason with it. Can’t find the root cause for his courtesy or his understanding. Why would he keep it all a secret when it would be so easy to tell everyone? Sakamoto had spoken so extensively about the Phantom Thieves’ justice when Goro was fighting alongside them.
He has no more answers than he started with by the time he gets to his apartment and he unclenches his fists to unlock the door, shaking out the ache that settled in his knuckles. He toes off his shoes in the genkan, and heads into the modest kitchen area to find something to eat.
His refrigerator does not hold much, but he’s able to pull together a meager meal. Goro sits heavily on his bed, the only piece of furniture he was able to fit in so small a space, and eats slowly. He pulls the same questions and same answers in the same spinning carousel and can’t parse any further information. He wants to be able to shut thoughts about Sakamoto off, wants to be done with this guessing game he’s playing with himself because it’s too hard to believe that Sakamoto is playing with his cards face up on the table.
A commotion starts up somewhere in the apartment complex and Goro closes his eyes. His landlord is not a patient man and he is usually quick to quiet any noise that would be qualified as a disturbance. He is very severe and his view of Goro is very low, but he’ll take a quiet living space over a kind hearted fool.
Except the clamor only gets louder and Goro can hear the quick opening and slamming of doors that could only be a floor beneath him. Raised voices followed with the harsh bang of a door hitting the jamb. He’s content not to intervene, setting aside his dishware after he’s done eating and laying down with a flop. The voices get louder and he stares at the ceiling in annoyance.
Goro can almost make out the voices- obviously only a few doors down.
“..make… fucking phone call…”
“... couldn’t wait… I wouldn’t be here!”
Goro sits up very quickly and rubs a hand over his face. They’ve escalated into yelling and Goro can hear both parties clearly. He opens his door and leans down the hallway to find Sakamoto in a shouting match with his landlord.
“Excuse me,” Goro cuts in. Sakamoto whips around to look at him, eyes bright and smile growing.
Goro’s face is twisted with displeasure as he watches Sakamoto saunter down the hallway like he hadn’t almost had the police called on him for the disturbance.
Sakamoto is cheeky when he tosses, “Found him,” over his shoulder.
His landlord goes a peculiar shade of red. “This better not happen again,” he warns Goro.
“It won’t, I assure you.” He ducks his head politely before glaring at Sakamoto and motioning him inside.
Sakamoto slips his shoes off the moment the door shuts and looks around Goro’s humble living space. Goro is very suddenly embarrassed for Sakamoto to see how little he has. “You can sit there,” he nods to the bed.
He steps to the kitchen and pours Sakamoto a glass of water, handing it to him and wrapping his arms around himself. Tension tightens his shoulders as he watches Sakamoto drink.
“That guy was a dick,” Sakamoto says finally.
Goro leans against the sink with a sigh. “He’s my landlord.”
Sakamoto balks, “Shit. I’m sorry, you gonna be alright?” And there’s the immediate concern. Showing up unannounced, uninvited, without reason. But he still is immediate to apologize for anything he may have done.
Goro shrugs, then smirks, “It’s alright, he is a dick.” It makes Sakamoto chuckle but Goro can’t shake his own frown. “So what was so important that you had to bother everyone in the building?”
There’s the immediate switch again from boisterous to shy, “You covered my meal.”
Goro searches for an ulterior motive, waits to let Sakamoto say more. “Yes?”
“I wanted to know why. And I don’t have your phone number or anything, but I know where you live, so I came here.” Sakamoto’s face is so open and irritation flares in Goro.
“You also know where I work. You really couldn’t- I don’t even have a phone, by the way but why would you…” He can’t get his thoughts in order. He pushes his hands to cover his face and stops himself from making an exasperated noise.
“You don’t have a phone?”
Goro throws his hands up. “No. I don’t. I can barely afford this shit hole even working as much as I do. Who the hell would I even talk to? You?”
“Maybe,” Sakamoto mumbles.
A dam breaks. “If you’re looking for information, there’s nothing. I haven’t done anything in the past two years. Haven’t killed anybody, haven’t harmed anybody,” he can hear himself grow louder in his anger. He takes a deep breath and lets the rest of his rage concentrate in the pit of his stomach. “All I’ve been doing,” he continues outwardly calmer, “since you changed Shido’s heart is try to survive and stay out of sight. And I can barely do that. I have nothing important to tell you.”
Sakamoto’s openness hasn’t changed. He’s still looking up at Goro from the bed, head tilted slightly, “Then why did you buy me dinner?”
“I don’t like owing people favors.” An easy excuse to give.
“You didn’t owe me?” Sakamoto argues, confusion weighing down his words. “I literally bought you dinner as thanks for covering my meal the first time.” He seems to brighten slightly, “Now I owe ya another dinner!”
Goro shakes his head. “I don’t understand you. What do you even want? It’s not like I’m a joy to talk to.”
“Who says?” Sakamoto jokes and Goro thinks he might throttle him. “I don’t know, man. New city, new people? I don’t really know anybody and clearly you don’t either. I guess it’d be nice to have somebody you know?”
“Then befriend your classmates, I have no interest in clinging to the past, and I’m not your charity case.” The words taste like bile. Sakamoto’s pity folds into the anger sitting hot and spreading from his stomach.
“Geez, dude, you don’t have to make a big deal out of this!” Sakamoto groans like Goro is being the difficult one, like Goro has pushed at these interactions and then rescinded his involvement. “Weren’t you the one who said we didn’t have to deal with heavy topics? I thought that implied something, and then you bought my meal again? I don’t know, maybe I thought you wanted to be friends, too.”
“Well you were wrong.” Biting. Icy to sooth the fire licking at his throat, “I was merely clearing my debts.”
Sakamoto frowns. “I don’t believe you.”
Incredulity makes Goro reactionary. “I’m sorry?”
“I don’t believe you. Your logic doesn’t make sense, I think you’re just saying whatever to get rid of me.”
“And yet you’re still here.” Goro sneers.
“Yeah, until you give me a good reason not to be, asshole. You didn’t deny it though.” Sakamoto’s childish petulance is all at once exhausting. The repetition of all of his questions, the why at the base of everything, makes him very suddenly wish that this could be over.
Goro shrugs because it is all he feels he is able to do. “You’re too-” a beat, “-stubborn to argue with.” Sakamoto’s smug grin is infuriating in its own right.
“So…” Smug is not a good look on Sakamoto. His face is too soft for it to have any real effect, “Dinner sometime next week? On me?”
“You’re not going to give up, are you?” The realization accompanies dawning dread when Sakamoto shakes his head. Goro finds himself mirroring it. He presses his lips together in a thin line, “Fine. For the sake of score keeping.”
He expects Sakamoto to boast but he doesn’t. The smug look melts into self-satisfaction, “Thanks for the water,” he says standing and Goro is relieved Sakamoto has read the room enough to know that it’s the end of the conversation.
Goro watches him test weight on the leg he had pointed out earlier as previously injured. He seems satisfied with what he finds.
“Thanks for embarrassing me in front of the entire complex,” he gives Sakamoto a smile and opens the door to show him out and Sakamoto smiles back, daring to be smug.
The look falls very quickly, though. Sakamoto sighs dejectedly after looking into the hallway, “Really? Elevator broken, fourth floor? Wanna get more unlucky?”
Goro doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Maybe you should heed the warnings.” Maybe they should have been heeded weeks ago, before Sakamoto pressed him for the truth, maybe years ago before the metaverse twisted Tokyo apart.
Sakamoto pretends to think hard for a moment, “No thanks. I’m bad at following directions. Always been a troublesome student in that way.” And then he winks at him and Goro has never seen such audacity in his life. “Have a good night.”
“Yeah. Alright.” He closes the door behind Sakamoto and can’t pinpoint how he feels- how he should feel. The carousel is spinning faster, cacophonous questions that seem unbelievable. He settles heavily on the bed, the silence almost oppressive now that Sakamoto’s left. This was supposed to have ended a week ago with the first meal invitation. Goro was supposed to have appeased the most basic curiosities so that Sakamoto would be satisfied and they could move on.
It feels too much like dredging up the past, like all that awaits Goro now are cruel reminders of his own inadequacies. Sakamoto has already given him pity he doesn’t need or want. This false comraderie will not last. Sakamoto did not like Goro before, and clinging to what could have been does not help anyone.
He sighs deep, lets the frustration ebb high and then flow out. Sakamoto would grow bored eventually, and when that happened he would be cast aside, no longer the interesting new play thing that had captured his attention. It was only a matter of time, and Goro could be patient.