Yuuki Mishima was invisible. He always had been, and at some point he'd made it his thing. He'd spent so many years alone, ignored, isolated, forced onto the sidelines while he watched everyone else's lives unfold in front of him that he couldn't let himself imagine living any other way. It would be too cruel of a fantasy.
Getting jostled around carelessly by others in the hallways after school was a gentle reminder that he did take up physical space after all. Pain from someone's bag stabbing into his shoulder or getting pushed up against a corner by a couple of friends too focused on each other to notice him forced him to reconcile his body's existence on the corporeal plane. Even if nobody could see him, he still existed. He still felt.
He made his way downstairs, narrowly avoiding tripping when an upperclassman turned to talk to a classmate suddenly and nearly smacked him in the chest with his bag. He clung to the guardrail and finally made it to the entrance, looking around for that tell-tale mop of frizzy black hair. After scanning the crowd a few times and nearly giving up hope of finding him at all, telling himself of course he left already, he probably went with one of his real friends, he has better things to do than talk to someone like you, he saw Ren Amamiya round a corner and lock eyes with him through the mess of students.
He watched Ren make his way through the crowd, parting it easily. No one wanted to get in the way of the criminal transfer student. Even after a few months of attendance, Ren's reputation at Shujin hadn't changed much. People were wary of his presence and gave him space, but they were also hyper-aware of him and everything he did. The polar opposite of the effect Mishima had. He briefly thought that maybe they could just cancel each other out and stop existing altogether. That might not be so bad, if it was with him.
Ren finally caught up to where he was standing and stopped in front of him, creating a barrier around the two of them just by being there. The stream of students who had been shoving Mishima around until he was flattened up against the wall parted around Ren's back and gave them space. Like his own personal bubble.
“Hey,” Ren sounded tired, as he usually did. If Mishima had to guess, it probably was tiring being a Phantom Thief, but he'd never asked. “I was looking for you. I was worried you left already.”
Mishima swallowed back the panic he felt instinctively rising in his chest. No one was ever looking for him unless it meant trouble. I was looking for you was for when Kamoshida cornered him after practice and--
“No! Uh, nope. I'm still here. What's up?” He tried to sound casual and his voice only cracked a little. He knew Ren was safe, knew Ren wouldn't hurt him, knew it was probably just about the Phansite or something, but he still felt his chest tightening with anxiety, making it harder to get his breaths in.
“Nothing major, just wanted to catch you before you went home. Wanna grab something to eat with me?” Ren smiled sweetly down at him and his chest eased up a little, replaced by confusion. If he needed something, he could just tell him here, or text him later. Why should Ren bother spending his precious time like this? Didn't he have important Phantom Thief business to be taking care of? There had to be a million things he'd rather be doing. But it was only polite to go along with what little Ren asked of him.
“Uh, yeah, sure. If you're not busy, I mean.”
“If I was busy I wouldn't ask. C'mon.” Ren put an arm around Mishima's shoulder, making him flinch slightly, and walked with him out the entrance to the school. People watched as Ren went by, like they always did, some trying to be subtle about it at least. It was more attention than Mishima was used to getting and it happened every time he was around Ren these days, like someone shining a spotlight on him when he was so used to being in the dark. He didn’t hate it.
Mishima’s purpose had become running the Phansite and he had clung to it like his life depended on it. Maybe it did. Every second of downtime had been taken up by patrolling the forums, checking the poll results, taking notes on requests, filtering information to pass on to Ren, dissuading rumors, doing research. It beat his old hobby of laying in bed in the dark icing bruises and wishing he really could truly disappear completely. He felt useful for the first time in his life. He’d had useless, worthless, pathetic, stupid, disgusting beaten into him by Kamoshida’s fists so many times he’d easily come to accept those words as the truth. He was only just now starting to wonder if there might be more to himself than that. If he could help the Phantom Thieves, there had to be. He had to be worth something, even if he was replaceable. Even if Ren only saw him as a tool. Even if he would never really have any friends. Even if he stayed invisible the rest of the time. It was worth doing if it meant he had made some sort of difference for someone.
Every time Ren texted him that he’d completed a request from the Phansite he felt a swell of pride. Someone’s life was better now because of him. He had made that happen. Without him, there would be so many people continuing to hurt, unable to get their cries for help to reach the Phantom Thieves. He was tired, exhausted.He'd forgone sleep for months now in favor of trying to help as many people as he could, but it was worth it to feel important to someone.
Sometimes Ren commented on the dark circles under his eyes or how he would nearly start to doze off at the table when they’d hang out together after school, asking if he was getting enough sleep, insisting he take breaks to get some rest, but Mishima shrugged it off, happy to keep working. Ren would text him periodically late at night to ask if he was still up and tell him he should get some sleep if he was. All he could do was assure him that he was fine and wonder why he bothered asking after him so much.
Sleeping meant having to disconnect and disconnecting meant spending time all alone with his thoughts running rampant in the dark. In the hour or so it took for him to fall asleep, it was like watching an unstoppable movie reel of every horrible memory his brain could conjure up, rapidly fired at him until he lost consciousness. The movie reel gave way to even more vivid dreams most of the time. Kamoshida slamming his head against the wall for tripping during practice. Kamoshida kicking his ribs in for missing a pass. Kamoshida throwing punches at him while he cried, just because this time. He always woke up from those dreams with his heart pounding in his ears and his cheeks wet. He preferred pulling all-nighters if this was the alternative.
He put everything he had into the Phansite and sometimes he felt like he deserved something out of it in return. What was wrong with using all his hard work for something fun? Sometimes he'd chat up other members of the Phandom anonymously, hoping to hit it off with them and build a friendship, but he never seemed to get a spark with anyone. He knew he was lonely. He knew he'd settle for guys or girls if it meant someone would even look his direction. But he'd have a few anonymous conversations on the forums and things would fizzle out every time. He chalked it up to just being a boring person, just like he'd been told for years.
He'd tried a few times to meet up with some local Phans just to hang out and it seemed like every time he made plans, something fell through. The other person got sick, or missed their train, or something else came up suddenly. The worst was when they just forgot. He took Ren with him the first time, only to get stood up entirely. After that, he was way too embarrassed to ask him to come with him again.
He couldn't blame anyone for not showing up. He asked himself if he'd want to meet with someone like himself, and the answer was always an unwavering, “No.” Nobody else was the problem here, just him. He felt pathetic. He tried to think of it as a learning experience every time, but what exactly was he supposed to be learning here? That nobody could see the worth in him even if they didn't know who he was? Whatever.
He tried to find comfort in anything, for his sanity's sake. He had his real, tangible connection to the Phantom Thieves and that was something none of these people had. It was him who was making this all possible for everyone else. He had worth, he had a purpose. If they knew that, they would have all thought twice about treating him like he meant nothing.
Monitoring the Phansite day and night as its sole admin meant subjecting himself to a steady stream of other people’s thoughts and feelings. He had wanted the Phansite to be a place to post support for the Phantom Thieves, but often what he got was a lot more sinister. He did his best to filter things out. He didn’t want other people to have to see the things he was seeing and get discouraged, and it wasn’t fair for people to come to this forum wanting to see uplifting positive messages and instead see the kind of disparaging filth users seemed insistent on posting daily.
There were cries of disbelief, but he knew those had to be coming from a place of jealousy or insecurity. Why wouldn’t someone want to believe that there were good people out there making the world safer for everyone else? The Phantom Thieves were real life superheroes. It wasn’t hard to see that.
But what really bothered him were the threats. There were descriptions of violence against the Phantom Thieves, some more thought out than others. And then there were threats against the admin himself. Some people would drop subtle hints that they knew who the admin was, that they went to school with the admin, that the admin needed to be put in their place and stop spreading lies and propaganda. To someone who had been in very real danger of being physically assaulted at school regularly up until very recently, this was having the intended effect of backing him into a corner. He knew there was no way anyone at school could know it was him. No one ever even looked at him, let alone talked to him. They’d never assume someone as invisible as him was capable of something like this. But what if one of them had seen his phone…? He needed to be more careful, even if it was just a joke.
He had posted on the forum asking about self-defense and was met with all kinds of advice, but what really struck him was the idea of buying a model gun. If he pulled out what really looked like a gun, nobody would mess with him, right? And he wouldn't get in trouble with the police just because it looked like a real gun. It wasn’t capable of actually doing any damage, but it made him feel more secure just knowing he had it.
He tried to explain this to Ren, but he was still met with a very concerned look. Maybe Ren didn’t understand being scared by threats like that. He was a Phantom Thief, after all. Nothing must phase him anymore. Mishima decided he needed to be tougher too if he was going to be the Phantom Thieves’ PR manager. He resolved himself to finding even bigger targets for them to take down. Then he’d really get the praise he deserved. If it meant being able to get recognized for how valuable and hard-working he really was, a little danger shouldn’t mean anything. If the Phantom Thieves were putting their lives on the line to take down corrupted adults, then he should be doing the same. If someone came after him, it was a risk he was willing to take.
He had felt more confident lately, and he was sure it must be showing in his demeanor. The old Mishima never would have done something bold like buying a model gun when faced with threats. Doing all this work for the Phantom Thieves had really made him feel like there was something only he could do. Everyone else just hadn’t realized how important he was yet. But they would, and they’d see that they were wrong to ever treat him like they had.
As if the world were testing this new resolve, it sent none other than his middle school bully right to his face. Though he’d once been used to this level of humiliation on a daily basis, now it felt on a whole new level, with Ren there to watch him stammer and get reduced into a doormat. Akiyama had all the same material: Mishima was a zero, he’d always be a zero, nobody would ever notice anything he did, he was exactly the same as he had been in middle school. But he wasn’t the same anymore, and he knew it. He tried to defend himself, only for Akiyama to remind him he was so invisible to the rest of his classmates that no one had even remembered he had existed to invite him to their reunion.
He could feel his face burning red and tears stinging at the corners of his eyes by the time Akiyama walked away laughing, but he clenched his jaw and made it clear to Ren that he knew things weren’t the same anymore. Akiyama didn’t know the new Mishima, the Mishima who had found a way to help others in the way only he could, or the him who had thousands of people noticing something that only he had made possible. He wasn’t boring or invisible anymore.
If there was one thing Mishima couldn’t stand, it was people getting the spotlight who didn’t deserve it. Kamoshida had gotten everyone’s praise as a star volleyball player, and he hadn’t deserved a second of it. People climbed into the public view all the time who were really despicable awful people, and sometimes they didn’t even try to hide it. It made him sick. There were people like Akiyama who were handsome and popular, but they were also condescending bullies. But no one cared about that part. As long as you were good-looking and well-liked, nothing else mattered.
Lately there had been some stir in the media about some up and coming young actor. He was handsome and popular with girls, and Mishima was sure he was scum underneath his exterior. It seemed like every celebrity was like that these days and he was willing to believe this guy was no different. If the Phantom Thieves took down someone that prolific, they’d really get some attention for sure.
He was angry, but he wasn’t jealous. Why would he be jealous of someone who acted like that? He could never want to be like the people who had hurt him the most, he only wanted to take them down like they deserved. Ren’s subtle suggestion that he was simply jealous of the actor’s success only made him more dedicated to making sure this guy had a change of heart. He’d have to confess all the bad things he had done and then no one would watch his movies and everyone’s eyes would be on the Phantom Thieves instead. And that was just as good as everyone’s eyes being on him. He was the only reason they had gotten this far in the first place. It was all thanks to him.
A few weeks went by and it seemed like Ren was avoiding him. They’d usually run into each other after school a few times a week, or Ren would run into him at the train station in the evening. But recently, he would see Ren across the hallway, only for him to turn and walk the other way. His texts went largely unanswered. Months ago, this would have been a devastating blow to his self-esteem, but the new and improved Mishima had more important things to worry about.
There had been a surge of new negative comments coming in on the Phansite and he was just about fed up with it. He had begun sending warning messages to repeat offenders, threatening them with a promise of being the next target if they didn’t rethink their actions. Sometimes it worked. He felt powerful. He was enjoying himself.
He managed to corner Ren one day after school and practically dragged him to their usual spot at the diner. He had important news to share and even if Ren didn’t want to be casual buddies anymore, they still had to work together for the sake of the Phantom Thieves. The actor he had planned for them to target had seemed to have come around on his own. There had been a slew of social media posts from him discussing his past actions and how he was going to do better going forward. He had even personally apologized to several people in his life that he had hurt and had insisted on being held accountable for any slip-ups he might make in the future while he was working on improving himself. Mishima was glad he hadn’t been more insistent that Ren take him down. If they had changed the heart of someone like that, it wouldn’t have been good for them.
He gave Ren the news about the messages he’d been sending on the Phansite. He thought it was a genius idea to push for more believers in the Phantom Thieves and to make sure he kept the negativity capped, but Ren only looked angry at him. Why? He was above just producing and advertising for them from behind the scenes now. He wanted to be a real part of the team too, and sending these messages was like sending his own calling cards. Why couldn’t Ren just be proud of him and tell him what a big help he was? He wasn’t hurting anyone. He just wanted to be able to change the world too.
The energy was already tense when Akiyama showed up again to bother him. This time he seemed different though, quieter, and Mishima called him on his silence. He had important things to be discussing and he didn’t have time for Akiyama to just hover over his table, silently staring at him like some sort of freak. He left again after hurling another insult at Mishima for good measure, and Mishima relaxed back against his seat, trying to lessen the tension in the air between him and Ren, who just looked concerned now.
Akiyama could call him a zero, invisible, boring all he wanted, but he still took the time to come and bother him. He wasn’t any of those things anymore, and that was his proof. Akiyama just didn’t see it. That was when it hit him: the person whose heart he should be changing was Akiyama. He was a bully, and he had been for years. In middle school, he had relentlessly made Mishima’s school life hell like it was his job. He knew no one would ever get in trouble for messing with the kid no one even wanted to acknowledge as existing, so he could do whatever he wanted. If anyone needed a change of heart, it was him.
Ren was still giving him that look across the table while he explained all of this. He realized it wasn’t just anger or concern now; it was pity. He hated it. Half-joking, he asked Ren if the Phantom Thieves were going to come after him one day too.
Mishima felt… strange over the next few days. He couldn’t seem to get his head clear and his thoughts had become so distracted that he found it difficult to focus on the Phansite. Was he feeling guilty? That couldn’t be it. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he was only doing what he could to help. It wasn’t his fault that Ren couldn’t see that. But… maybe he had gone about it the wrong way. Maybe he had gotten so caught up in the present that he’d forgotten what his real goals were.
All along, his goal had just been to help people. He just wanted to give people like him a space to feel safe and protected, to make sure nobody went through what he had gone through alone ever again. Being given so much attention by Ren and by the Phandom had made him feel important. Now he just felt pathetic. For a few moments, he was angry at Ren. If he hadn’t been kind to him, if he hadn’t been a friend, if he hadn’t made him feel like he wasn’t worthless, this never would have happened. He would have gone through the rest of his life with his accepted curse-slash-gift of invisibility and things would have been fine that way. Now he had a taste of what it was like to be noticed and he could never go back to how things had been before. He knew that wasn’t Ren’s fault. Ren hadn’t befriended him maliciously. He wasn’t even sure now that Ren had befriended him at all, with how distanced they’d become. That part was his fault.
The promise of being famous, even from behind a curtain of anonymity, had excited him. He’d let it carry him away. All this time, he thought he’d been helping. All he’d really been doing was riding on the coattails of someone else, deluding himself into ever thinking he could really be of any use. He needed to apologize to Ren.
They met at the park this time. He didn’t want to chance being interrupted at the diner and the park was always quiet this late. His mind was buzzing with anxiety, but he managed to get his apology out and Ren accepted it like he knew he would. Ren was kind.
He took back what he’d said about Akiyama. Changing the heart of some lowly middle school bully wouldn’t help the Phantom Thieves achieve global success. It wouldn’t get their name in international headlines. All it would do was make Mishima feel better about himself, and that wasn’t on the agenda. It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Ren saw right through him and questioned his obsession with their popularity. Was it really all about that, even now?
He shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course the Phantom Thieves would have changed his heart with the way he’d been acting lately. It would explain how weird he had felt suddenly, and all the obsessive introspection. Of course Ren would have a better grasp on the situation than even he himself had. Ren would know how inadequate he felt; how useless he really was; how he was only embarrassing himself by pretending to be a Phantom Thief this whole time when he was just using them as a crutch to make himself feel important for once. He didn’t deserve to hang around weighing them down. He’d give them more space. He’d back off and stop clinging onto them so desperately. And that started with getting out of Ren’s hair.
He tried to leave abruptly after apologizing, but of course he couldn’t even do that right. Ren had to help him up off the ground when he tripped and he felt worse than ever. But Ren’s hand was warm in his, and he didn’t look mad, or concerned, or worst of all like he pitied him. He just looked like a friend trying not to laugh when someone he loved had made a fool of himself.
They sat and talked things through for a while longer and he felt better. Despite how carried away he had gotten, there really were things that only he could do. He could run the Phansite the right way, without threats. He could help give shelter to those who needed it. He could make sure the Phantom Thieves were able to help the people who needed them. That was his special power after all, fame or no fame.
It was by chance that he stumbled on what he did a few weeks later. He had just been out for a walk with Ren, their relationship having been drawn even tighter after that night at the park. He hadn’t expected to find Akiyama on the ground like that, and he hadn’t expected to be able to stand up for him either. But having Ren with him and knowing he believed in him had given him the strength he needed to do the right thing. He had been in Akiyama’s shoes more times than he could count, and he wasn’t the type of person to just take it anymore. If someone was in trouble, he knew he would be the one to help them get back up.
He made sure Akiyama was okay and then he and Ren made their way to the diner to sit and talk. Despite his outward bravery, he was still pretty shaken up from the confrontation and needed to rest and decompress before he went home alone. He was always amazed at how fearless Ren was, but he noticed his hands shaking too. That made him feel a little better. Even Ren had weaknesses.
He didn’t know that Akiyama had followed them back, but after a few moments of sitting together quietly, they were approached by Akiyama and his friends. He noticed that Akiyama still looked distressed, though he was doing his best to play it cool. One of the guys he was with gave Mishima the usual run-through with the usual insults, but when Mishima started to react, Akiyama beat him to it. That shut the guys up quickly, and they all seemed confused by Akiyama’s sudden defense of the guy they’d all been picking on for years with no complaints.
Akiyama stepped forward and hesitantly thanked Mishima for what he’d done for him before. Mishima could tell it was taking all of his courage just to utter those few selfless words, so he spared his ego and played stupid. Mishima was so invisible and boring, Akiyama must have just been thinking of someone else. It was fine, it happened all the time. Don’t worry about it. Akiyama seemed to understand his image was being spared and backed off, telling Mishima he had changed. He knew he had. This was his proof.
He had always had people like Akiyama telling him he would never amount to anything. He had been told that his entire life. He’d had it physically beaten into him more times than he could remember, and he had really believed it too. But now he knew he had gained more strength than he ever thought possible. He had really helped. He had really made a difference for someone. He hadn’t even had to hide behind the Phantom Thieves this time to do it. He had done it with his own heart and his own power. He really could change the world.
He decided he wanted to help others do that too.
He met up with Ren again at the park the next day. Ren sat next to him against the low railing and looked at him with an expression he’d never seen directed at him before: admiration. It was the same look he himself had been giving Ren for months.
They talked things over for a while. Small talk led up to Mishima catching Ren’s gaze and thanking him genuinely for everything. He’d been able to do all of this because Ren and the others had stolen his heart. Ren looked surprised at that and shook his head. Now it was Mishima’s turn to look surprised.
“You mean you didn’t change my heart…?”
“You changed your own heart,” Ren smiled at him and put an arm around his shoulder. “You didn’t need us for that.”
He laughed and let himself be pulled in closer, resting his head on top of Ren’s comfortably. All this time, he had believed he had only been able to come this far because someone else had intervened, but he had done this all on his own. Even if he couldn’t change the world, he could still change himself, and maybe that was enough. It was a good start at least. He’d keep working hard, harder than ever, doing the right thing for everyone’s sakes.
His new goal for the future was to spread the word of the Phantom Thieves as far as he could, inspiring hope in as many people as he could. Believing that even on your worst days that there was someone out there fighting for you would make a difference. He was sure of it. It was what he had needed at his lowest points and if he had a say in it, no one would ever feel as alone as he had.
But for now, he felt like celebrating.