“Soo, uh,” Ryuji said, scuffing his socked toe against the hardwood floor. “Everything okay?”
Akira looked up at him from where he was sitting at the kotatsu, flipping through the book he’d borrowed from the library ages ago without really reading it. “Yeah?” he replied, confused. “Why?”
Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck and sat across from him. “Dude, not that I mind or anything, but when you show up at my house at 8 a.m. and ask to hang I’m gonna assume something’s up,” he said pointedly. Akira twirled at his bangs.
“Sorry,” he said, glancing at Ryuji’s obvious bedhead and pajamas. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“Wha… no, that’s fine, that’s not the issue,” Ryuji said exasperatedly. He sighed. “Well, whatever. I guess you’d tell me if it was serious. Wanna play some Mario Kart or something?”
Akira grinned. “Only if you’re ready to get your ass kicked,” he said, narrowly dodging the pillow Ryuji threw at him.
So, maybe Akira was avoiding his problems. He didn’t know what else to do. Goro was relentless, and he was never going to drop the subject no matter how much Akira begged and deflected. He obviously couldn’t hide from him forever, but he could sure as hell try.
“Aww, dude, come on!” Ryuji whined. “You totally backed out of first so I’d get hit with the blue shell!”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Akira said casually, passing Ryuji’s Yoshi as he spun out and gliding over the finish line. He put the controller down and lounged back on his hands, sending Ryuji a smirk. “Cat Peach wins again.”
Ryuji groaned and put his controller down much less gracefully. “Why the hell d’you always play as Cat Peach anyway,” he grumbled. “Weirdo.”
“Because she’s unstoppable,” Akira replied without hesitation. He laid back on the tatami and put his hands behind his head. “I would trust her with my life.”
Ryuji rolled his eyes and shoved at Akira’s knee. He paused for a moment, before flopping down to lay beside him. “Been a while since we hung out like this, huh?” he said. “I kinda miss the old days, before everyone in Tokyo demanded your attention.”
Akira chuckled once. “I kinda miss that too,” he said quietly. He turned to Ryuji. “Sorry.” Ryuji waved him off.
“Nah, man, don’t apologize,” he said. “I get it. You’ve got a lot on your plate. Not just with all the people you hang out with, but with what’s going on with Shido, too.”
Akira flipped back to face the ceiling again. “Yeah,” he said.
“Can’t say I’m not a little worried,” Ryuji said with a shaky laugh. “This one’s, like… pretty huge, y’know? You think everything’s gonna turn out okay?”
Of course, Ryuji didn’t know the magnitude of what he was asking. He thought their biggest problem was still changing Shido’s heart. And no matter what Akira said, he wouldn’t be able to make him understand. Not in a way that mattered. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.
Ryuji snorted. “Real encouraging there, leader,” he said, nudging Akira playfully. “You’re supposed to reassure me that we’ll win like we always do.”
Akira smiled tightly. “I know,” he said. “My bad.”
Ryuji’s response was interrupted by a sudden knock at the door, so loud and frantic that they both jumped up in alarm. “The hell…?” Ryuji said standing up and approaching the door hesitantly.
“Ryujiiiii!” a familiar voice called from the other side of the door. Ryuji untensed immediately and let out an exasperated groan. “Open up right now if you’re not dead!”
Ryuji rolled his eyes and threw the door open. “What are you talking about?” he snapped. “Why the eff is everyone showing up at my house unannounced today?”
Ann pushed the door open and walked in, shoving her phone in his face. “It would have been announced if you’d answered your phone!” she snapped back. “I’ve been trying to reach you and Akira both all morning!”
“Sorry,” Akira said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I left my phone at home.”
Ann’s attention snapped to him, noticing his presence for the first time. “Oh, thank god, you’re here,” she said, letting out a deep breath. “I was about to drag Ryuji out to search Tokyo for you.”
“What’s with the dramatics?” Ryuji asked. “Wanna start making sense?”
Ann shifted awkwardly, twirling one of her pigtails around her finger. “Um, okay, don’t freak out,” she muttered. Ryuji sighed.
“What did you do,” he asked flatly.
Ann rolled her eyes. “Oh, shut up,” she said, pushing him out of the way and addressing Akira instead. “I… kind of ran into Akechi this morning.”
Akira let out a deep, long-suffering sigh. “Ah,” he replied.
“You what?!” Ryuji screeched. “Where? Why? That murdering bastard has some nerve showing his face after what he did.” Ann chewed on her thumbnail agitatedly and looked away.
“It was weird,” she continued. “I was just at the underground mall and he came up to me… I freaked out of course, I actually thought he was there to kill me for a minute, but then he just started talking to me all casually and I was pissed. So I tried to tell him off for being, y’know, a psycho, but then he… he started asking about you, Akira. He asked if I knew where you were, and he said that I should check on you because you might be in trouble.”
Ryuji gaped at her. “Wh… he’s supposed to think Akira’s dead!” he said in alarmed confusion. “He shot him in the face and now he’s worried about him being in trouble?! You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”
“Of course not!” Ann said indignantly. “I told him to get lost and ran away. But then I tried to call you a bunch of times, and you didn’t answer, so I got worried… like, if he knew you were alive, maybe he got to you for real this time or something.”
Akira scrubbed a hand over his face. “He followed you here,” he said defeatedly.
Ann and Ryuji both froze. “W-what?!” Ann said in alarm. “How do you know?”
“I know him,” Akira said tiredly, pulling on his coat. Ryuji turned to Ann accusingly.
“You dumbass,” he said with a scowl. “Why the hell would you come straight to Akira when you knew the enemy was on your tail?”
“I didn’t even know Akira was here!” Ann argued back, looking flustered. “Wh-what do we do?”
Akira shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ll go talk to him.”
“WHAT?!” Ryuji and Ann yelled at the same time.
“Um, dude, you can’t do that! He’s an assassin! He tried to kill you!” Ryuji said anxiously.
“At the very least, you can’t go alone!” Ann added. “We’ll come with you! Or maybe we should even call the police…”
Akira sighed and shook his head. “No, it’s okay, we… he already knew I was alive,” he loosely explained. “I’ve talked to him before now. He’s not gonna hurt me.”
“Uh?!” Ryuji exclaimed.
“Wha… I don’t even know what’s happening anymore,” Ann despaired. Akira gave them a small smile.
“Thanks for worrying,” he said. “But I promise it’s fine. You guys just wait up here, I’ll be back soon.”
Ryuji shook his head. “If he kills you, I’m gonna be so pissed,” he warned.
Akira took his time walking down the stairs of Ryuji’s apartment building. There was something bubbling under his skin that he couldn’t quite identify, but he was pretty sure it was either dread or rage. Probably a little bit of both. He hated that Goro made him feel that way, when before now he’d been pretty much the only comfort Akira had. He hated everything about this situation.
He stepped out of the lobby and immediately zoned in on Goro waiting for him near the parking lot, not at all to his surprise. Akira shoved his hands in his pockets and approached him, trying to keep his expression even and ignore the blood pulsing in his ears. “Clever,” he said in lieu of a greeting. Goro smiled pleasantly at him, and Akira wanted to hit it off of his face.
“Turns out I didn’t need to be,” he replied. “Sakamoto’s isn’t exactly the last place I’d check.”
“Maybe I was just hoping you’d take a hint and just leave me alone,” Akira said.
Goro rolled his eyes. “That was a ridiculous expectation,” he said dryly. “You’re underestimating how tactless I can be.”
“Clearly,” Akira responded. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not going to stop avoiding you until you drop it. There’s nothing you can say or do that’ll change that.”
“And I’m not going to stop chasing after you until we talk about it,” Goro replied without missing a beat. “So it appears we’re at a standstill.”
Akira just paused to look at him for a moment, feeling misery curl in his gut. They’d had the same conversation over and over again for days now, and it was exhausting. The absolute last thing he wanted to do was avoid Goro; all he wanted was to go back to Leblanc or Goro’s apartment and just sit and talk and be in each other’s company, like usual. “Please don’t do this,” he said desperately. Goro sighed.
“I have to,” he said, though to his credit, he looked a bit regretful. “You understand that, right? I have to. And it would be so much easier on both of us if you’d cooperate with me.”
Akira shook his head, looking away to hide his expression. “It has nothing to do with you,” he said. “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but the world doesn’t revolve around Goro Akechi. It’s not your job to investigate and control everything, sometimes it’s just none of your business.”
Goro narrowed his eyes slightly. “Is that so,” he said lowly. “Fine. Let’s pretend that after everything, your well-being is of no consequence to me. Even so, I would still be affected by this. As long as you’re unable to access that room, there is no where else for us to turn regarding our situation.”
Akira laughed weakly. The fact that he was not only a complete pathetic failure of a human being, but also that that could be the reason that they were stuck in this time loop forever, was not something that he needed to be reminded of.
He didn’t respond for a long time.
“Can you at least do me a favor?” he finally asked, quietly. “I know that no matter what I say, you’re going to try to get in there anyway. So, if you do manage to… don’t steal my heart. Just kill me.”
Akira wasn’t really sure what he was expecting Goro’s reaction to be, but it probably wasn’t for his eyes to immediately light up with anger and his mouth to curl into the deepest scowl Akira had ever seen on his face. “What?” he asked, his voice so cold that it made the hair in Akira’s arms stand up. Akira shrugged.
“If changes of heart carry over through the loop, maybe mental shutdowns do too,” he said casually. “It’s worth trying out. Actually, it might even end the loop all together, if I were to die perman—”
He was cut off by Goro suddenly grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, pulling him roughly toward him and gritting his teeth with such fury that Akira was almost afraid. “I hope for your sake that was a terrible joke,” he said, low and quiet. “But regardless, don’t ever fucking ask something like that of me again.”
Akira forced a grin. “Why?” he asked. “You didn’t seem to mind much the last time.”
He reached up to push back his bangs, and even though there was nothing physically there, he knew by the look in Goro’s eyes that the other boy could clearly see the scar of a bullet wound that had never really existed.
Goro let go of him and stepped back like he’d been burned. He stared at Akira for several long moments, all of the anger immediately gone from his features and replaced by his usual, carefully expressionless look Akira could never read. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I knew someone, once, who would have rather suffered and been eaten alive by his own twisted worldview than allow himself to even entertain the idea that others might be able to help him down a better path. And he died miserable and alone,” he finally said, his voice still entirely devoid of warmth. He turned away. “Call me when you get over yourself.”
Akira stood and watched him go, and continued to do so long after he’d disappeared into the distance. He eventually found the energy to walk back up to Ryuji’s apartment, barely processing his own actions as his legs moved on their own.
“What happened?” Ann asked, jumping up the moment he walked through the door. “Are you okay? Did he threaten you?”
Akira sat back down at the kotatsu, staring ahead blankly as his brain struggled to catch up. “No,” he said quietly. “He’s just… trying to help.”
“Huh? The hell are you talking about?” Ryuji asked with a grimace. “How could that guy possibly help you?”
Akira just shook his head, trying to respond but his throat was suddenly too thick for the words to come out. He swallowed and just shook his head again. Ryuji and Ann’s shocked expressions began to blur in front of him.
“Akira?!” Ann asked in alarm, taking a seat beside him. “What’s wrong?”
It took him a few moments to realize that he was hyperventilating, and it wasn’t until he reached up to hide his face in his hands that he noticed the wetness on his cheeks. “Sorry,” he said, his voice broken and pathetic. “I’m… fuck.”
Ryuji knelt on his other side. “Say the word and I’ll go murder Akechi right now,” he said, his voice low and serious. Akira let out a watery laugh, shaking his head again.
“It’s not his fault,” he said, trying to steady his breathing. “It’s mine. Everything is my fault and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Ann and Ryuji glanced at each other. “Akira…” Ann said, placing her hand over his. “I know talking about your feelings isn’t really your thing, but you have to tell us what’s going on, or we can’t help you.”
Ryuji nodded in agreement. “Let us in, man,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.”
Akira closed his eyes. He took a deep, shaky breath. “You can help by not knowing,” he finally replied.
He didn’t know what his keywords were.
He didn’t especially want to know, and he definitely hadn’t put in the effort of guessing to see if a match came up on the Nav. But he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about it.
In the past, the real-world equivalents had been places that were important to the target. For Akira, the most obvious assumption would be Leblanc. But he had no idea what his distorted image of Leblanc might be. As far as he was consciously aware, it was what it was: a warm coffee shop and a place he could call home. There was no way something like that would manifest into a…
Maybe it would help to trace the distortion to its roots. When had this started, anyway? The first time Goro had died? That was impossible, the engine room wasn’t even a place that existed in reality. He though back to what Yusuke had said to him in Mementos, what seemed like a lifetime ago. I’ve noticed some concerning changes in your demeanor since the interrogation room, is all. Maybe it really had been since then. So what, the interrogation room? The police station? Could be. He felt like he was on the right track.
He buried his face in his pillow and groaned. He hated this. He hated that this was even something he had to think about. If he was being honest with himself, he’d known for a long time. Way before Goro had spoken his name into the Metanav, maybe even before he found out he’d been blocked from the Velvet Room. But if he figured out the keywords, if he was actually able to enter and physically see the evidence of how fucked up he was… that would make it real. And he didn’t want it to be.
He laughed pathetically into his pillow. He was really no different from any of those bastards whose hearts they’d changed after all. How would his friends react if they knew the leader they’d followed and looked up to was just as distorted as their targets? How would he be able to face them? He already couldn’t look Goro in the eye. He couldn’t imagine how it was going to be when the other boy inevitably got in, and actually saw what was in Akira’s heart. He wouldn’t be able to live with that. He’d rather die.
That’s what it all came down to, wasn’t it? He was terrified of being seen for who he really was. He didn’t even know. Maybe he had at one point, but that had been a long time ago.
From the moment he’d intervened between that woman and Shido, he’d been dragged through a life that was meant for someone much more capable than he was. Someone special. As much as he tried to deny it to himself, the truth was that he was just a normal kid who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t a leader, or a thief, or a hero or a rebel or anything other than an average second-year high school student.
He wasn’t someone who could get beaten within an inch of his life and caught up in an almost-assassination and come out unscathed. He wasn’t someone who could be counted on to save others or help anyone, even when given a limitless amount of time to do so.
Despite all of that, the world and everyone around him had somehow decided that he was all of these things. He had no agency. He was trapped.
Ever since he’d come here, his life hadn’t been his own. Tokyo was, and always had been, his prison.
Goro held his breath, and didn’t release it until he felt the cognitive world envelop him completely. The first thing he noticed was that, despite his expectations, the Shibuya he’d arrived in wasn’t much different from the one he’d left behind in reality. Maybe a bit cloudier, and certainly more ominous, but if he didn’t know any better he wouldn’t think he was in the Metaverse at all. He took his first step, attempting to cast away all of his hesitation.
Akira was going to hate him.
He’d known that all along, though. From the moment he’d even suspected that Akira had a palace, he knew that things were going to change between them forever. It was regrettable, but there were things more important than Goro getting his happy ending. It was undeserved, anyway.
He had to do this. He couldn’t afford to hesitate.
He paused as he heard something crinkle under his boot. Black Mask’s boot, to be specific. It really should’ve come to no surprise to him that he was immediately seen as a threat… he had no doubts about whether Akira wanted him there.
He reached down and picked up the piece of paper he’d stepped on, a familiar pair of eyes staring back at him.
UP TO 1,000,000 YEN REWARD
FACES SEVERAL CHARGES INCLUDING MURDER
Goro sighed, frowning down at Akira’s mugshot. Figuring out the form Akira’s palace would take had been easy enough, especially after Goro had briefly seen the door to his Room when the twins had shown themselves to him several loops ago. It had interested him that it had been a cell door, especially considering that the one time Goro had been there, it hadn’t resembled a prison at all. He supposed now he understood why.
Except from where he was standing, he didn’t seem to be in a prison of any sort. It was just Tokyo, with the addition of Akira’s face plastered on every corner in the form of Wanted posters. Even the pedestrians seemed the same. They all seemed to be focused on something in Shibuya Crossing, however, and Goro followed the crowd cautiously.
“They still haven’t caught that guy?” he overheard someone saying, her tone sharp and aggressive. “Is it even safe for us to be out here?”
“They should’ve learned their lesson the last time he escaped,” another man was saying coldly. “He’s still a threat wherever he goes. It’d be better if they just got rid of him for good, y’know?”
Goro frowned deeply, inclining his head toward the big screen. There seemed to be some kind of news report playing, and it had the attention of everyone in the square. “And those are all the updates we have so far. Please contact the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department with any information,” the woman on the screen was saying. Goro noticed some Shadows among the crowd, and he quickly hid himself amongst the civilians to escape their notice. He was only here on intel for the time being; he had no interest in fighting unless absolutely necessary.
“For those of you just now tuning in,” the voice continued, but Goro was only half listening as he attempted to get an idea of his surroundings. “A manhunt is currently underway for escaped convict Akira Kurusu. The man in question is known the be extremely violent, so please take caution.”
Was the palace really the entirety of Tokyo? Was that even possible? How the hell was he supposed to find the treasure in an area that massive? He’d never done anything like this by himself. The only other time he’d infiltrated a palace with this objective in mind, he’d had… teammates.
“Kurusu was arrested in April of this year, and has escaped captivity several times since then. He is currently Japan’s most wanted man.”
Well, regardless, he would have to try. He couldn’t let this continue. He couldn’t let Akira view the world like this anymore, couldn’t let him believe things like…
“Among other crimes, he is currently facing charges for the murder of local celebrity detective Goro Akechi.”