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“Are we all ready?”

Morgana’s voice is hushed, but loud enough to be heard by the circle of teens standing outside of the courthouse. He’d moved from Akira’s bag to his shoulders, the perfect vantage point to watch the Phantom Thieves nod together.

“Then let’s go.”

Goro feels the all-too familiar pins and needles spread through his body after Akira activates the Meta Nav, and within moments they’re all standing together, masks on and ready to go. The detective feels vaguely nauseous for a moment as he looks around the circle, the circle of people he’s genuinely come to care about despite his careful detachment, and makes the mistake of meeting Akira’s eyes. His stomach drops when he realizes that there’s no curiosity behind them, just his own regret and sadness reflected back from steel to ruby behind the physical masks.

All it takes is a nod and some silent communication before the chosen party falls in step behind Joker. Queen takes his right, Fox directly to his left, Crow on Fox’s other side, and Oracle hovering somewhere above them, already safe and scanning within her Persona.

------------------------

Crow really should have seen it coming. Joker had been working himself to the bone for the past few days, leading the Thieves through the various tricks and tests, never letting up unless it was to switch people out and let them rest. Everyone except himself, of course.

The Thieves eventually came upon what Crow assumed was their final trial: the Battle Arena.

“Only one volunteer.”

He didn’t hear anything the rest of the Thieves said as he and Joker locked eyes. Within the depths of the liquid steel, Crow saw raw, barely concealed exhaustion. He was about to speak up and insist that he completed the trial, when he was cut off firmly.

“I’m going in.”

The Thieves stopped talking, but immediately restarted after Joker’s statement. Skull was the most vocally against the idea, but Panther and Mona gave him a run for his money, protesting at increasing volume before Queen stopped them.

“He’s right. He’s the wild card, and the most adaptable. It has to be him.”

She doesn’t sound happy about it, but then again, she hasn’t seemed happy about anything since they originally stepped foot within the elder Nijima’s palace. The protests quiet down, but Joker hasn’t looked away from Crow’s own worried eyes. He seems to be asking a question that the detective can’t quite figure out, and it seems his time is up when Joker turns around to face the gate. Queen pays the entry fee to the attendant while Mona heals Joker to the best of his ability, and with a quick tug to crimson gloves to ensure their security, the leader of the Phantom Thieves is stepping into the arena, alone.

The vaguely sick feeling that Crow started the day with suddenly grows, and he takes a single step forward, unconsciously trying to follow Joker, but only one before his mind catches up to him.

This is the boy you’re supposed to kill in less than a week. There will be a bullet in his skull, and it will be from your gun. You mean very little to him, and he means nothing to you. Stop feeding this emotion. Remember your goal. Do not throw everything away now.

Within his heart, Crow feels Robin Hood’s vague disappointment at his disregard of his own emotions, but it takes strain to pick up anything from Loki. The chaos Persona is rarely hesitant to give his opinion, and the uncharacteristic radio silence sets his heart rate rising, hands clenching into fists.

Right off the bat, the fight isn’t fair. Heart in his throat, Crow watches from behind his mask while Joker faces off against the two Auspicious Pachyderms. His melee attacks aren’t doing enough damage, and even Arsene is starting to look less opaque. They finally dissolve after a decisive hit from the gentleman thief, but Crow dares not relax. His fear is confirmed when instead of just two, three Dancing Witches show up. Joker rights himself, Skull cheers, and Crow goes pale.

He cannot deny it any longer, not even to himself. The leader of the Phantom Thieves, the person he has been working tirelessly to catch and frame, his opposite, his target, Akira, has wormed his way into Goro’s heart, his mind, his soul. His kindness and understanding was the first Goro had ever truly experienced, and with a searing pang, he realized that Akira knew. He knew that Goro was going to betray them. The steely grey eyes had been filled with sadness even as he smiled at Goro--at Crow--and trusted his decisions within the casino.

Since the leader of the Phantom Thieves likely knows that Goro is against them...was against them, it’s highly probable that the rest of the thieves know as well. They’re Akira’s confidants, his most trusted, so of course they would know. They’ve been trusting Goro with decisions during Nijima-san’s palace (probably under Joker’s orders, because he knows the others don’t particularly like him or enjoy his company) all while planning to overtake him, if they have more than a single brain cell, that is, and for some reason, that knowledge makes him feel sick to his stomach.

His thoughts come back to the situation at hand, and his heart thuds in his chest when he sees what’s going on. Bile rises in his throat as he watches Joker--Akira--take a hit he wouldn’t usually. He had forgotten the carefully-parsed weaknesses and reflections of the Dancing Witches and fired a shot from his gun.

It reflects off the cackling shadow and slices through Akira’s coat, and blood oozes down the wound. Goro’s heart is pounding in his chest now, wheezing slightly, and the other Thieves take notice.

“Crow? Dude, it’s just a nick, he’ll be fine.”

Skull’s voice is curious and a little exasperated, but Goro just takes another step forward, his hands clenching into fists. Every emotion he can think of is roiling through his body, making his head spin. Rage, for how easily he slipped up. Fear, for what they would do with him. Anxiety, for how Akira would feel towards him. Desperation, for the desire for Akira’s continued friendship and companionship. Relief, that at least he wasn’t completely alone. Bliss, that someone knew about what he’d done, that he would be judged. Confusion, for how well Akira treated him, knowing that he was a murderer.

“How long?”

“Huh?” Skull’s tone is suspicious now, and the other Phantom Thieves have definitely taken notice of how Goro is acting.

“How long have you known that I would betray you?”

There’s a squeak from behind, probably from Oracle, and then a few beats of silence other than the roaring of the Shadow crowd watching Akira fight for his life.

“I dunno what you-”

“Oh, cut the bullshit, Skull.”

Goro sneers, but there’s no fire behind it. His eyes are tracking Akira relentlessly, watching every hit he shouldn’t have taken and every hit he should have landed. There’s shifting behind him, likely as the remaining members draw closer to each other like the pack they are. It’s Queen that speaks up next, unspoken leader when Joker isn’t around.

“How did you find out that we knew?”

“I’m a detective, Queen. It’s my job to understand people and what they think. Aki--” he cuts off and swallows. “Kurusu isn’t as mysterious as you make him out to be. After all, he is human, just like the rest of us.” His voice trails off near the end of the sentence when Arsene flickers rapidly and Akira stumbles out of the way of a particularly nasty attack at just the last second.

The Phantom Thieves all break out into a clamor, talking over each other and trying to decide what to do with him. Skull, Oracle, and Noir want to get rid of him before Joker even comes back, but Fox is adamant that nothing happens without Joker’s say. The tall artist has often thought about how he would have likely been used in the same way they all thought Crow was being used had the Phantom Thieves not come for Madarame and freed him from his imprisonment. He trusts Joker’s judgment and refuses to budge on his stance.

None of them notice that Akira is swaying after defeating the Dancing Witches, that he visibly pales when the Thunder Emperor appears and looms over him, all too busy talking over each other in desperation to get something done about the would-be traitor within their midst. No one is paying attention except for Goro, whose eyes couldn’t leave Akira even if he wanted them to.

Skull snorts in derision at something one of the other thieves says, but it dies when he finally notices the Thunder Emperor looming over their leader, and he elbows Panther out of her high-pitched, stressed discussion with Queen.

“Um…”

A crackle rises in the air and Goro smells electricity before he sees it, but he understands the implications first.

“No…”

His voice is hoarse and he watches in horror with the rest of the Thieves when the Ziodyne shatters Arsene and leaves Akira lying in a heap of black on the ground, his mask cracked in half beside him.

An inhuman snarl forces its way through his curled lips as Goro surges forward past the security and other Shadows, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks. His princely get-up vanishes as striped black and navy replaces it in a burst of blue flame, the ridiculous plague doctor mask molding and morphing around his face into the infamous black mask. The other Thieves rush forward to restrain him, fearing the worst, but the security has closed in around them before they can even get close. An entirely new Persona takes shape above him, black and white and writhing, shrieking in fury.

Blue flames erupt around the trembling detective again, his mind blank save for the Thunder Emperor and the crumpled form of the only boy that has shown him true kindness laying on the ground. He and Loki work in tandem to slaughter the Thunder Emperor, tearing him down with slice after slice, attack after attack, his body shaking as he goes completely Berserk to protect Akira from harm. Finally, the Emperor falls and dissolves with a shudder, but as he watches, more, angrier Shadows emerge and rain down attacks upon him.

A furious shriek tears through him, and the normally very carefully neutral face shows nothing but anguish and fury as the detective launches himself into the fray.

He lashes out with his sword and slices through every Shadow around him, his senses on high alert, and he’s vicious. The sword slashes through Shadows as if they were nothing, striking them down with a single hit, and Goro doesn’t even need to call commands before Loki is shattering the air with violent attacks, hurling enemies away from Akira.

More Shadows converge around him for having broken the rules of the arena, but as soon as one gets anywhere near Akira’s still form, Loki himself strikes them down without a word from his master. When there is nothing left but silence around them, Goro falls, trembling, to his knees beside Akira and rips his own mask away from his face. Robin Hood makes an appearance next to the hissing, striped form of Loki crouched over the leader, and waits for his master’s instruction.

“Samarecarm…”

It’s barely a whisper, but Robin Hood understands and completes the action while Goro takes Akira’s still form into his arms.

Queen has retrieved their winnings, but the rest of the Thieves are watching Goro, dumbstruck, as he carries Akira’s still form out of the arena and into the Lobby, Loki trailing behind possessively. No one speaks until they arrive at the Safe Room, and it’s Oracle.

“He’s alive...We need to get out of here for today.”

There’s no fight as they all retreat, Akira remaining in Goro’s arms, head lolled against his shoulder until they’re free from the neon lights and blaring sounds of the casino and back into the real world. Loki curls into his chest reluctantly, rattling anxiously whenever anyone comes too close to Akira and Goro.

“Akechi-kun…”

Haru’s voice is soft as Goro carefully props Akira against a tree nearby and checks his vitals, everyone else still shocked into silence. It isn’t until Ann carefully places a hand on his shoulder that he realizes he’s hyperventilating, fear coursing through his system as tears race down his cheeks.

“He really is the Black Mask…”

Ryuji’s voice barely registers to the detective, but he couldn’t care less. His mask is shattered and he sobs openly into his hands in front of the unmoving form of his rival? friend?

The only thing to break the stillness is when Akira groans and shifts, sitting up and finally cracking his eyes open.

“Akira!!”

Morgana finally breaks out of his haze and jumps onto the dark-haired boy’s lap, bristling up at Goro.

“Don’t you dare get any closer, Akechi.”

Goro doesn’t see Ann’s glare, but he hears Akira’s confused noise.

“What...happened?”

Everyone is silent for a moment before Ann finally speaks up, her voice strained.

“You were knocked down, almost killed, by the last enemy, and Akechi-kun went...insane. His Persona changed, his outfit changed, and he killed them all. It was like he was a completely different person….the Black Mask, just like we thought.”

Goro tries to apologize, his breaths still coming in wheezes and gasps, but he can’t form sentences, dizzy and nauseous. Loki is raging within his chest, wailing to protect Akira, and Robin Hood actually agrees with the chaos Persona, nudging Goro to shift forward a little towards the curly-haired boy.

“...Goro…?”

He lets out a choked sob at hearing his given name from Akira and turns into his shoulder, gripping his black blazer so tight that his knuckles turn white. Goro doesn’t hear when the rest of the Thieves step back at his silent command, but he does feel arms come to circle around him, holding him until his panic is just intermittent shudders and quiet tears.

“Goro, what happened?”

Akira’s voice is quiet and calm, his hand coming to cup Goro’s neck. Their embrace is entirely too intimate and trusting for who they are and what they have been tasked to do, but neither of them are pulling away.

“I’m...sorry. You went down and...none of them were watching. They didn’t see how exhausted-”

He cuts off with a sob and tightens his grip. Gone is the cold and calculating detective from before. This is an entirely new person. He is filled with regret, pain, and every emotion under the dark sun..

“You know…you know what I am and what I’ve done. I don’t know how, but y-you know what I’ve been told to do--Akira, I can’t. Please, I can’t hurt you.”

Akira shushes him gently and shifts slightly, allowing for the shivering detective/assassin/boy to curl against him, listening to his heartbeat to steady and reassure himself.

“I know… I’ve known for some time. But I also know you don’t want to. You might have before, but something changed didn’t it?”

He pauses, but there’s no response other than a shuddering breath released against his collarbones.

“You found where you belong, with us. You don’t need to take Shido’s orders anymore. We can help you, and you can help us. We need to take him down, both for your sake and the sake of Japan.”

It takes a moment, but Goro nods slightly and takes one final shuddering breath before sitting up properly. He refuses to meet the eyes of the other Phantom Thieves, even as they return and help Akira stand up.

------------------------

Up in the attic at Leblanc, all the Phantom Thieves have turned to stare directly at Goro after ensuring that Akira is fine now and walking on his own.

“So you are the Black Mask.”

A simple nod.

“How long?”

“Two years.”

“Why?”

“To get close to Shido so I can take him down. Personal grudge.”

“What grudge?”

“...”

“You owe us this much after causing this much trouble and murdering so many people.”

“He’s my father.”

There’s a heavy silence in the room, more suffocating than Morgana’s usual incessant questioning, and Goro feels choked by it.

“My mother was sexually assaulted by an up and coming politician...I was never wanted. I was a product of abuse, a reminder of her own suffering by the hands of Shido.”

His voice is nothing but venomous as he talks about his employer--his father.

“She killed herself when I was young and I vowed right then and there that I would be the one to end him, but he’s the one that found out about my Personas and employed me properly, as his hitman. I-I thought this would be the perfect way to gain his trust and then destroy him later on, when it mattered the most to him. I killed who he told me to, deranged the rest, and became his right-hand man.”

There’s a quiet whimper from Haru, and he winces.

“I-.... I’ve caused so much harm and suffering. My hatred was blinding me… I was supposed to trick you all into working with me and then lead you into an ambush. He knows how to get masses of civilians into the Metaverse, and-”

He takes a shuddering breath.

“And there was going to be a police ambush waiting after we stole Nijima-san’s Treasure. After whatever interrogation there was, it was my task to ensure the leader’s execution. I was supposed to put a bullet in his head.”

Goro’s voice is strained, and the entire room is stunned into silence from his admission. The only sound is from Akira moving closer to him, letting their thighs touch and shoulders bump.

“I quickly realized that...I couldn’t. I can’t. You all have always been right. However questionable it is, you all have been right every time in changing their hearts. I didn’t even know it was an option until after I was tasked with looking into Kamoshida’s case.”

He sounds bitter and looks away from everyone, staring intently at the wall, aching in the silence.

“Shido told me that only pain can come from the Metaverse, that it was created by the gods as a way to aid him on his way to the top. He only ever told me that I could kill people without a trace. He used me, and I let him.”

Akira’s voice is the only one that answers.

“Well, Crow, won’t you help us strategize our plan of attack and get your revenge then?”

Every other Phantom Thief turns to look at their leader sharply, including Goro. There’s a sly smile curling on his lips as ruby eyes search steely grey ones, and after a moment, the detective’s lips quirk up into an answering grin.

“Of course.”

The entire room breaks out into chaos around them, but Goro couldn’t care less because he has Akira's eyes locked on him, and for once in his life, he sees only kindness reflected back at him.