Returning to rural life was a bit of an adjustment, Akira had to admit. He’d been too optimistic about the move initially, thinking that relocating into the city the previous year had been much more difficult. The amount of change was significant, but he tried to put it into a positive light. Sure, Yongen-Jaya was great, but he hadn’t seen his parents in almost a year. And while he’d miss the Phantom Thieves and all the friends he’d made, he was always good at fitting in and making new ones. Besides, it wasn’t like any of them were actually gone.
Case in point, Ann, whose constant texts were more of a hassle than a comfort at this point.
Would you calm down? My phone is vibrating so much it looks like it’s got malware of some sort...
Well it’s not like I can help it! I’m so excited to finally see your quaint little farmhouse! I want to see where little Akira-chan grew up~~~
Akira rubs his temples, barely stifling a groan. Now
was one downside to leaving the city. His friends apparently saw him as nothing but a country hick now that he was out of Tokyo.
Although it’s quite a charming image, I’ll remind you that I do not, in fact, live on a farm.
Morgana laughs from inside his bag. “C’mon Joker, you’re so calm and collected. It’s hard to believe you’d get so ruffled over a little teasing, country boy . Maybe you really do miss city life?”
He ruffles Morgana’s fur in an attempt to avoid answering the question. No thank you, he’d rather not admit any of those things aloud. It was much easier to deny missing it at all than to think about what it might mean for him otherwise. Another year condemned to a place that felt like it was miles away from home? It wasn’t something he’d like to dwell on, for today at least.
“Whatever you say, Mona. Somehow I get the feeling this is just payback for leaving her in class alone with Ryuuji.”
Akira could admit that he was jealous about that, at the very least. Ann and Ryuuji had gotten their third year class assignments together. It could have been the three of them…
Well, he wasn’t one to brood about things like this. Missed opportunities weren’t life changing, not in the grand scheme of things. He preferred to focus on the present. That was what he liked to think about himself, anyway. Still, he wasn’t immune to the sting of regret, or the guilt that came up like bile in his throat at the thought of—
“Akira!” Ann’s voice cuts him out of his thoughts. She practically sprints off of the bus towards him, nearly pushing over several innocent bystanders on her way there. Akira puts his phone back into his pocket, and offers a hand to carry some of her bags (which threaten to drag him down to the floor as soon as he gets a good grip on them -- “What do you even put in these things?”)
They decide to drop Ann’s stuff off quickly at Akira’s house before starting the tour he promised her. He refuses to carry around whatever she has in that bag of hers (“you’re just here for the day, right? What are you going to need all this stuff for?”) but she uses it as an excuse to explore his house. Thankfully, both of his parents are at work, so he doesn’t need to explain the nosey blonde going through all of his childhood photos--and evidently, collecting blackmail material to take back to Tokyo.
In a futile attempt to distract her, and to stop her from turning his entire house inside out, he suggests a popular cake shop in the area to catch up and talk.
To his own surprise, Akira’s suggestion is a success. Ann is happily chewing on her third piece of cake by the time they finish catching up on recent school events. Inevitably, the conversation turns towards their time as Phantom Thieves.
“It’s so strange without having the Metaverse to back us up. Or Makoto or Haru, for that matter.”
“Do you miss them?"
“As much as you do, probably. It’s weird, having to take responsibility as the new seniors in the school.”
“I can only imagine. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in a new school yet again in my last year of high school. People aren’t really forcing a lot of responsibility on the kid who can’t stay in school for more than a year.”
“Akira, I’d feel a lot more sympathy for you if I didn’t know how good you were at getting people on your side. Ryuuji was at your side from day one, right?” She took a second to swallow a particularly large bite of chocolate forest cake. “Still though, you’ve left a gap here at Shujin.”
“No more criminal transfer student to gossip about? Oh, what a shame...” He grins and wiggles his brows, and Ann holds her fork in a way that suggests she can and will stab him with it. Instead, the two just laugh.
“Seriously! Ryuuji is a lost cause without you around. Kawakami and him have this weird rivalry going on. She’s been trying to get him to dye his hair back to its natural color but he gets more and more stubborn.”
“Really? It’s funny, I just can’t picture him without the glaring yellow lump on his head,” Akira says amusedly.
“Right? Natural hair would just look bizarre at this point. But that’s not even getting started on him and poor Mishima…”
While Akira loves Mishima and appreciates all of the work he did for the team, he can’t help but smile at the image of Mishima and Ryuuji duking it out without him there. “I honestly do wish I could be there to help, Ann, but my parents are, well, they want me here for the rest of the year.”
Ann nods. They’ve been over this particular subject what feels like a million times. Of course, once Akira’s probation ended, Sojiro had offered to take him in for the next year to finish his schooling at Shujin. A big part of him wanted to take the offer, but his parents had refused. It was easier to accept your son once his name had been cleared, Akira supposed.
A part of him had hoped living away from Tokyo might help him get over some of his regrets, but...no such luck.
“Just don’t forget about us, alright?” Ann sighs wistfully. That either means she’s thinking deeply about something or ready to order yet another slice of cake. But when she doesn’t flag down their waitress, Akira realizes maybe something is up.
“Ann, do you really think I could forget about you guys? You’re the best friends I could ask for.” He smiled gratefully. “Joining the Phantom Thieves made me the person I am today. I can’t just forget that so easily.”
“I know that much, dummy. It’s just that...losing the Metaverse has felt like losing a part of myself, you know? Before we entered that place, I was just a slave to Kamoshida and his reckless desires. Once I accepted Carmen, I felt like I was stronger, like I was able to fight back. And now that that’s gone…”
“Ann, you’re one of the strongest people I know. Having a Persona doesn’t have anything to do with it. You came to that strength on your own, didn’t you?”
“But it’s more than that...I used to be able to help people in need. Like Shiho, and Futaba, and all those other kids who got screwed over. I don’t want to say that what we did wasn’t enough but I feel like our work went unfinished. Things are obviously much better now that Shido and Yaldabaoth are out of the way but…”
“ But didn’t we agree to leave this stuff to the adults?” In response to Ann’s pout, he gives in to her a little. “I know, Ann. You of all people should know I still have regrets.”
The conversation hiccups a bit as the tone shifts to something much darker. “Akira? You know you can talk about it to me if you want. I may not be able to really get how you felt about this whole Akechi situation, but I was on the team with him too. We all cared about him, regardless of what happened.”
At the sound of the name, Akira feels his shoulders tense and hopes Ann isn’t perceptive enough to catch it. Something tells him he’s not that lucky. “Ann, with all due respect, this isn’t something I’d like to talk about right now.”
She hears this, and seems to ponder it for a moment, before softly speaking, “So when will you talk about it? Akira, it’s been months . I know you two were close, but doesn’t that make it even more important that you talk about this?”
“Talk about what, Ann? What, do you seriously think it’s important for me to dwell on my mistakes? I’m trying to move on! I’ve made my peace.”
“You clearly haven’t. Especially if you think it’s somehow your fault that this even happened. You were nothing if not a loyal friend to Akechi--”
“One he evidently didn’t trust enough to be honest with,” Akira grumbles.
“--and do you seriously think you’re to blame for his mistrust? No. That was Shido, and Yaldabaoth, who used and manipulated a literal child into obeying their wills, for their own sick sense of power and greed.”
“And whose job was it to protect people from shit like that? It was mine . We could have...we could have saved him, I could have saved him. I failed…”
At this point, Akira’s face is hot with anger, and he’s not sure if it’s directed at Ann or himself (but something inside him is leaning towards the latter). Tears are threatening to spill from his burning eyes, and his breaths are becoming irregular. Ann’s face softens, and she grabs his palm from across the table. “You don’t need to hold it in. You don’t need to carry this burden alone, Akira.”
And at that moment, in the middle of a brightly lit cafe he’d be too embarrassed to ever return to, Akira lets himself
for the first time, and lets his tears fall.
Things calmed down later that night. As an apology for bringing that emotional outburst out of Akira, Ann offers to pay for tickets to a nearby cinema showing an action film. She casually mentions that if he has anything left over, he can always cry it out in the theater.
He elbows her into a nearby pedestrian without a sliver of guilt.
Truthfully, the experience was cathartic enough for him to be grateful--not enough to completely forgive her, but enough that by the end of the night they were back to laughing and chatting, reminiscing about the old times.
But when Ann grabbed her things and left on the bus back to Tokyo with a tear-filled hug, Akira felt those emotions dawning on him again. Now that his invisible emotional plug had been removed, he didn’t know how to compensate for all of these feelings.
He walks home along the dim golden streetlights, and it reminds him of a sunny smile at an old dingy cafe. He passes a bird digging through someone’s lunch and the name Crow immediately comes to mind. And, for a split second, he almost sees a head of shiny chestnut hair, but it’s just the darkness playing tricks on him.
Akira really needs to get his shit together.
“You know, Ann’s kind of right,” Morgana pipes in through the cutting silence of his nighttime walk. “You really need to stop internalizing this stuff. I can hear your sighs of distress from here.”
“Oh, my sincerest apologies. Did I wake you from your nap?” Akira hopes the dryness of his tone is enough to convince the cat to drop the subject, but alas, Morgana has never been one to pick up on subtext.
He yawns loudly, before purring and murmuring, “No, don’t worry about that. I slept well through your cafe trip. Lady Ann’s lap is so comfortable…”
Akira stifles a laugh. Of course, the only two ways to distract Morgana are sushi and Lady Ann (in that order). But despite his words, Morgana seems to be on the brink of unconsciousness, as he sleepily mutters, “Still, I heard what you said today, and it worries me. Of course, you’re our leader, but it doesn’t make you the only one responsible for what happened. Any of us could have done something, but we left it all to you. We share the blame, if anything.”
Akira breathes out another sigh. “I guess you’re right. Thanks, Morgana.” He strokes the cat’s head in an attempt to get him back to sleep.
Of course, he sees Morgana’s argument, but he still can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with it. It was his fault. There had to be some chance of redemption for Akechi--he had saved them in the end, hadn’t he? If Akira could have just reached out a little more, maybe he could have convinced him to let go of his quest for revenge. Maybe he could have saved him, if he had just been a little bit faster.
The stirrings of anger, towards himself and towards that bastard Shido, start boiling in his gut when he sees a flash of light out of the corner of his eye. A familiar shape floats towards his field of vision.
This is truly an unjust game
Your chances of winning are almost none
But if my voice is reaching you
There may yet be a possibility open to you…
A flash of recognition occurs, and Akira is hit by a wave of deja vu. But once he blinks, the apparition is gone. He rubs his head. “Must be more tired than I thought…” Who would have known emotions were so physically draining?
He lays in bed that night, and a part of him still feels a different cot under his back. One more rough, and cold, and stained with the smell of coffee and home . This may be his home in name, but Cafe Leblanc was the first place he felt like he truly belonged.
His last thoughts before settling into the deep embrace of sleep chastise him for becoming such an emotional sap.
An endless room of blue begins to materialize behind his closed eyelids, and an all-too familiar scene comes into view. The prison bars are gone, as well as the shackles Akira had overcome in the past, but Lavenza still cheerfully greets him with a playful twinkle in her eyes.
“Welcome back, Inmate.”