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It isn't like Akira never expected to see Akechi again. He just hadn't expected it to be like this.

They've probably passed each other by at least a few times since Akira moved back. It's one of the hazards of living in the same city again, and Akira's just relied on his own relative anonymity in the crowd to avoid having to confront him. Akechi has half-a-dozen TV spots and a few newspaper articles to his name alongside a small legion of fans that seems disproportionate to his fame, and Akira has a shiny new criminal record that made his parents move him into a dusty attic over a café.

If it were a competition, Akira would be losing, at least on the face of it.

" - my name is Goro Akechi," Akechi's saying, gaze sliding right over Akira in a way that has to be deliberate, and Akira smiles, feeling a nostalgic tug of fondness for him all over again.

"Goro," he says, interrupting Akechi just as he opens his mouth again, "really? Did you forget me already?"

Akechi's media-glossy smile tightens at the corners when he meets Akira's eyes. "Of course not," he says smoothly, "but considering the last time we saw each other..."

Akira steadily holds his gaze. He won't be the first to look away.

"Wait," Ryuji says, barrelling unconcernedly through any potential awkwardness, "you know this guy, Akira?" He yelps as Ann belatedly elbows him. "I mean - "

"Yeah," Akira says, "we go back."

"Yes," Akechi says crisply, "I suppose so."

"You mean, you're... friends?" Ann interjects, glancing between them. Her eyebrows are pulling together with confusion and a touch of worry, and Akira smiles at the irritated twitch of Akechi's fingers he still isn't able to hide.

"Something like that. We haven't seen each other in over a year, after all." Akira lets amusement tug at his smile as he dips his head and lowers his eyelashes, deliberately flirtatious in the way he knows Akechi reluctantly likes. "You never did call. Looks like you've done well for yourself, Detective Prince."

"You're a detective?" Ryuji says. "Seriously? But you're our age!"

"Yes," Akechi says, dragging his gaze from Akira back to Ryuji, "though I'm hardly the first or the best. I'm a rookie who helps the police on occasion, that's all."

"Wow," Ann says, surprised. "Actually, I thought I recognised you. You've been on TV a few times, right?"

Akechi's polite smile turns a little less plastic as he clears his throat. "Yes, well," he says, "I just wanted to introduce myself since we'll be seeing each other again tomorrow, but I'm really only passing by. I won't take up more of your time. I have a briefing to get to now - "

"Wait," Akira interrupts, "how long is it?"

Akechi pauses. "What?"

"The briefing," Akira says. "We don't have to go back to school this afternoon."

"I - don't know," Akechi says, visibly wrong-footed. "It shouldn't be that long, I suppose. But you said you were going to get pancakes…?"

Ryuji scoffs. "Huh? No. We were talking about heading to Dome Town - "

" - and we were wondering if you wanted to come along," Ann finishes before Ryuji can stick his foot any further in his mouth. She glances at Akira to confirm and he nods at her, then turns to Akechi.

"And we can catch up," Akira says, "I'm sure you're… curious as to what I've been up to."

Akechi's mouth thins as Akira's smile widens. "Quid pro quo, I assume," Akechi says. "Though what makes you think I don't already know?"

"You don't," Akira says, confident and unconcerned. "We can meet you there."

Curiosity is one of Akechi's persistent failings and Akira knows it. He can almost see the justifications Akechi is building behind his eyes. "If I wouldn't be imposing..."

"Nah, 'course not," Ryuji says. "It'll be better with four, anyway, all the rollercoasters seat two."

"Better be ready," Ann adds with a touch too much enthusiasm, "we're going on all the best ones! ...And we probably can get pancakes after, too."

Akira's bag rustles, Morgana barely holding in his own objection, and he says diplomatically, "Let's see how we feel. We'll see you there, Goro - text me when you get there."

It isn't the first time Akechi's looked at him like he's a puzzle to be dissected. Even now Akira likes it far too much, heady with the flush of his attention and the thrill of his chase. Despite their recent endeavours, he's never felt more like a thief than he does at this moment, walking away with Akechi's regard stolen for him alone, and it takes a long time for Akira's smile to fade.

 

Akechi texts him an hour in, after they've just started recovering from the longest and worst of the rides. Morgana groans from Akira's bag when he mentions it. "How do you know this guy, really?"

"I told you," Akira says, "we had a hobby in common. And then I moved."

"You never thought about catching up?" Ann wonders, screwing the lid back on her water bottle and eyeing the rollercoaster line contemplatively. "Though I guess it'd be hard..."

Akira shrugs. "We've taken pretty different paths."

"Oh," Ryuji says with dawning realisation, "because of your criminal record? He doesn't care about that, does he? Man, that's gotta suck."

"You should still be careful," Morgana says, "if he's as good a detective as you say."

"Yeah, Ryuji," Ann teases, "no talking about the Phantom Thieves."

"C'mon, really? Everyone at school's talking about us already - "

Morgana coughs loudly just as Akira spots Akechi manoeuvring through the crowd. He's terrible at going incognito, if that's what he's even trying for; he's eye-catching, his posture straight and purposeful, and Akira's gaze is drawn to him like he's magnetised as Akechi side-steps another person and looks around.

Ann notices him a moment later and rises to her toes to wave at him. Ryuji slouches a little further, hands in his pockets, and Morgana grumbles a moment before stuffing himself back in Akira's bag. "Do I have to," he's muttering, and Akira smiles despite himself.

"Who even brings a cat to an amusement park?"

"Just you," Ryuji says unhelpfully, and Ann's still giggling when Akechi finally joins them.

It takes some time for the awkwardness of someone new added to their group to fade. Akira notices the way Ann and Ryuji try to include Akechi, some more ham-fisted than others; he's shut in beside Akechi on a rollercoaster that has Akechi's hands balled into fists, nails digging into his palms. "I don't know," Akechi says when Ann suggests another ride, and Akira finally takes pity when Akechi turns to him, deteriorating politeness in his sharp-edged smile.

"Take my bag, guys," Akira says, "I'll take Goro on the Ferris wheel instead."

"Ooh," Ann says, her tone far too knowing, and Akira winks at her and gallantly offers Akechi his arm.

Akechi doesn't take it, of course, but it's worth the reluctant smile on his face regardless.

"It seems counterproductive," he observes, slanting Akira a sidelong look, "to pass your schoolbag off to the two on the more dangerous ride."

"I brought my cat, and he's a huge fan of rollercoasters," Akira says blithely. "Or maybe I just don't want him eavesdropping."

"I never know when you're joking," Akechi says. "Is that what this whole Phantom Thief business is about?"

Akira doesn't look around at the surrounding crowds. They're in a short line, waiting for the wheel's next stop, and the Phantom Thieves aren't as unpopular a topic as Akira half-wishes they were. "If it is," he says slowly, his attention fixed on the dissatisfied curve of Akechi's mouth, "it's as much a joke as those psychotic breakdowns all over the news."

Akechi's gaze sticks to him, eyes narrowed, attention sharp as a knife. The Ferris wheel squeaks to a slow stop in front of them, and Akira offers a brief smile to the attendant as they each take a seat across from one another. The passenger cabin they're situated in is empty otherwise, and Akechi takes advantage of the lingering sound of the wheel starting up again to say, expectantly, "You can change people's hearts."

"You can, too," Akira says mildly.

"Not permanently," Akechi says, "and you know it doesn't last. When did you pick it up?"

"I wasn't hiding it, if that's what you're asking." Akira sets his elbows on his knees, dropping his head briefly to hide his eyes. His hair falls across his forehead and he reaches for Joker's easy confidence until Arsene leaks through to his smile. "It's new, I only just learned how. Anyone can do it."

"Anyone?" Akechi mouth curls disdainfully at the corners, his usual politeness forgotten. "I find that difficult to believe."

"Believe what you will," Akira says easily. The afternoon sunlight slants across Akechi's hair and glitters in his eyes, and Akira wets his lips and tries not to stare for too long. He turns his gaze to the amusement park instead, sinking down beneath them as they slowly climb overhead. "Should I tell you how?"

"Were you planning to?"

"It depends," Akira says, carefully weighing each word, "on what you'll do if you know."

The Ferris wheel is nearing its summit, and Akira looks across the rollercoaster tracks that wind high and far, across the dome of the stadium nearby. Akechi's expression is unreadable even to him, and for a long, silent moment Akira wonders if he's pushed him too far.

But no - Akechi cares about him, even when he would rather not. It's one of the most terribly endearing things about him.

"Do you want a promise, Akira?" Akechi asks with a mocking smile. "A deal? I won't interfere if you don't - "

"I want you to be honest," Akira says, sharper than he means to. "If you really think we should stop - go ahead, convince me. But don't do it for anyone other than you."

"My entire life is dictated by other people; it isn't about me, or you." Despite his tone, Akechi looks more thoughtful than annoyed, and when Akira meets his gaze he finds him studying him like a cypher, like Akira's a curiosity he's never solved. "I'm surprised, actually. I would have thought you'd want to avoid me, after… After you left. Why didn't you? Why did you even come back to Shibuya?"

"You didn't keep tabs on me, Goro? I'm hurt." Akira presses a dramatic hand to his chest and lets himself smile. "Who's the detective here, anyway?"

"You're deflecting," Akechi says. "You could have ignored me, you know. You didn't have to let your new friends know we're - acquainted."

Akira shrugs. "I couldn't ignore you."

"You - " Akechi bites back his first, irritated response and sighs. "You're as frustrating as always."

"All the better to seduce you with, my dear." Akira lets his smile veer toward a smirk. "Let me know if it's working."

"Seduce me," Akechi says, eyebrows raised, "or seduce me over?"

"It can be both. I'm good at multitasking."

Akechi drops his head for a moment, his mouth pulled tight. "Stop pushing. You know why I'm doing this - "

"Now you're deflecting," Akira says. "I won't give up, either."

"You're infuriating," Akechi mutters, looking away. Akira briefly follows his gaze past them both, toward the people coming into view and the slowly approaching ground. "I haven't missed you at all."

The wheel's stopped, briefly, to let a couple off two cabins down. Akira keeps his eyes on Akechi and suppresses the urge to reach out. "I can't believe that," he says, quietly wry, "not with how much I missed you."

Akechi's eyes widen, flush with surprise. "Akira…"

"Think about it," Akira says, and rises to his feet as their cabin swings to a gradual stop. He feels strangely sombre, thinking about the nearly two years they've been apart; it's a long time to miss someone, a long time to change a heart. "I know it might be too late, but... it's easier when you're not alone."

"You left," Akechi says, his even tone doing little to hide the fire in his eyes. "You made your choice and you left, you don't get to say that - "

Guilt for the last time they saw each other nearly chokes him. "It wasn't my choice," Akira reminds him, and his next exhale comes out as a sigh. He looks back at Akechi, a step behind him as they head back out to the main thoroughfare, and wonders if he regrets it, too. "I don't know, Goro. Maybe we should start over."

Akechi's hand covers his unamused laugh. "Start over?" he says. "I thought you said we were friends."

"Yeah," Akira says, "I am. I want to be. But do you?"

Akechi falls quiet, his face blank and unreadable, and Akira offers him a crooked smile before turning back to scan the diminishing crowd. He spots Ryuji's bright hair after a moment, then Ann's as she gestures with her water bottle, leaning against a nearby wall. Morgana's head is barely visible from Akira's bag, settled beside a vending machine, and Akira looks between them and Akechi who's still a step behind him, the familiar guise of politeness settling over his features like a mask. "Come on," Akira says, falling back to walk beside him, "you said you wanted pancakes, right?"

"I didn't say I wanted pancakes," Akechi protests only a beat too late, "I just thought you were talking about it."

"Ugh, you're talking about food? Now?" Ryuji's slouched more than usual, face twisted in uncertain disgust. "Just 'coz you guys were smarter and didn't follow this freakin' rollercoaster maniac - "

"I could eat pancakes," Ann says, shooting a glare at Ryuji as she crosses her arms. "Ooh, or a slice of cake. At least, I think so..."

"Don't force yourself," Akira says dryly as Morgana groans.

"Isn't it getting too late for that? Remember, you guys still have your school trip tomorrow - "

"Is that a cat?" Akechi's voice cuts over him. He's staring at Morgana's head poking out of Akira's bag, bare disbelief on his face. Morgana looks infuriatingly brazen for a cat in the spotlight even as Ann stutters:

"Um, yeah, well - "

"It doesn't matter," Morgana grumbles, "I don't know why I have to hide now - "

"He's mine," Akira says, over him. "He'd complain for a week if I left him behind."

"I would not!" Morgana protests as Ryuji winces.

"Yeah, he's - uh - kinda loud?"

Akechi's gaze slides from Morgana to Akira and back. "The cat who likes rollercoasters?"

Akira nods. "Yep."

Ann says, awkwardly, "We didn't really take him on any, if that's what you're worried about…"

"You did so - !"

"Like I said," Akira says casually, "I couldn't leave him behind. I guess I've become a cat person."

"You were already a cat person," Akechi says, and shakes his head. His smile is bemused, his eyes intent on Akira. "Just when I think I understand you, you surprise me again."

"I'm flattered," Akira says. "Are you sticking around?"

Akechi shakes his head. "I'm sorry, but I really should be going - I have an interview tomorrow to prepare for, after all. It was nice meeting you all, though."

"Any friend of Akira's is a friend of ours," Ryuji says, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess you aren't too bad."

"Yeah," Ann says, "See you tomorrow!"

Akira spends a moment too long watching Akechi's retreating back as Ryuji turns on Morgana and they start sniping at each other, only mostly good-naturedly. "I think we better split these two up," Ann says, nudging him with her elbow. "Are you and Akechi-kun… really friends?"

"I'm not sure," Akira admits. "I hope we are."

"Well, I'm rooting for you! We're on your side, okay, Akira?"

"Yeah," Morgana pipes up, "it might be pretty useful. He does work with the police sometimes - maybe he'll help us out with information?"

"That'd be awesome," Ryuji enthuses, and Akira's smile turns crooked.

"Maybe," he says. "Morgana?"

"Right!" Morgana wriggles back into Akira's bag and he hefts it over his shoulder. He's already getting used to the weight. "We'll see you guys tomorrow."

The train ride back to Leblanc is long and quiet, and Morgana side-eyes him but doesn't press when Akira dodges his questions with flippant remarks. He spends the evening helping Sojiro clean up downstairs, checking his phone on and off; his messages with Akechi start and end with the single text from that afternoon, brisk and impersonal in tone. I'm sorry, Akira writes, then erases it. I hope you're okay disappears under the delete key, too.

I had fun today, he decides on, in the end. We should do it again sometime.

A bubble pops up a few minutes later. It takes just as long for Akechi's response. Yes, he sends back, I think we need to talk.

A dozen responses run through Akira's head, from a playful Are you breaking up with me?? to the over-eager but eminently tempting, I'd love to!♡♡ Instead, he sends, Well, that sounds ominous. When?

Tomorrow, if you're available, Akechi texts back. Alone this time. Leave your cat with your friends.

Akira gives in to temptation. Sure, it's a date.

 

Watching Akechi play himself on TV is like watching an exercise in conceit; he smiles and makes poor jokes and laughs, restrained and modest, yet another persona settling a perfect glamour over the person underneath. Ryuji bristles when Akechi disapproves of the Phantom Thieves in pre-agreed talking points, and starts sending looks Akira's way. "He thinks we're criminals?" Ryuji grumbles, but when the microphone comes around, he hunches down in his seat, leaving Akira to take the fall.

What do you think of the Phantom Thieves? should be an easy question with an easy answer, but Akira's real opinion feels muddled with history and Akechi's steady gaze. "I think they're trying to change things," Akira says, "one way or another."

"Where law enforcement fails, you mean?" Akechi says, and smiles. "That's an interesting thought."

Akechi charms the crowd like it's simple and Akira can't take his eyes off him for more reasons than one. Still, the Phantom Thieves have made a mark, and Akira wonders how often Akechi will be asked to speak on them, how far they'll be able to go before they catch the wrong person's attention. He doesn't think it'll be long.

"My apologies," Akechi says, when he catches up to them after the show, "but the Phantom Thieves are quite the popular topic at the moment. I fear an interview where I establish a position was inevitable."

"Is that why you said that stuff?" Ryuji asks. "Or do you really believe it?"

"I think…" Akechi slides a look toward Akira, who lifts a shoulder in a half-shrug. "I think they likely have their reasons, but there are better ways to solve these problems than this 'change of heart'."

"Who would've believed us - or anyone," Ann fixes quickly, "about Kamoshida? The whole school knew about him, and yet…"

"And Madarame, too," Ryuji says. "He's been doin' this shit for years, and the Phantom Thieves are the first ones to do somethin' about it."

"I can't believe the entire criminal justice system is inept," Akechi says. "Anonymous tips to a judicious detective, perhaps a student-organized mass complaint about your teacher... I don't have all the answers, I'm afraid, but while individuals may be corrupt, I believe the majority work within the system as designed."

Akira tilts his head. "And when the system fails?"

"Perhaps a discussion for later," Akechi says, mouth pulled in an uncertain line. "I have to finish up here first, but I assume you won't mind waiting?"

"Nah," Akira says, waving him off, and then has to do the same to Ann and Ryuji as he hands over his schoolbag with Morgana inside. "He asked me to hang out yesterday, sorry," he explains succinctly. "No eavesdroppers."

"Maybe I'm not interested in your awful flirting," Morgana says, nose in the air as Ann passes him off to Ryuji. "Don't come back too late!"

Their departure, though, leaves Akira standing by the wall with little to occupy himself but his phone. He flicks through his apps on auto-pilot, thumb lingering over the Metaverse app for a beat too long. Its very existence is a mystery that's stuck in Akira's thoughts like a weed rooted deep, and he remembers far too many long nights skimming papers too complicated to understand when he couldn't manage to fall asleep.

The nightmare still persists; Akira is starting to think it might never be gone.

"Planning another heist already?" Akechi says, suddenly, startlingly close. Akira's heart thumps in his chest, pounds in his ears, but he manages to recover with only a quick intake of breath as Akechi's smile turns faintly smug. "Or perhaps I shouldn't ask."

"Wouldn't that make you an accomplice to a crime, Ace Detective?" Akira's voice is remarkably steady. "I don't want to get you in trouble."

"I hope that's true," Akechi says. "Though I don't think we should discuss it here. Do you still like coffee?"

"I still like everything," Akira says, more seriously than he intends to. The flash of Akechi's smile makes the admission worthwhile.

They keep stride together as Akechi leads them from the studio to a nearby café. It's brighter and more impersonal than Leblanc's cosy quiet, and Akira discovers the coffee also doesn't compare to Sojiro's expert brew. "You should visit me," Akira says, "if this is what you've gotten used to."

"That's right," Akechi says. "You're in Yongen-Jaya, aren't you? I took your recommendation to look you up in the system and it had your address for your probation."

Akira deflects Akechi's intent stare by looking down at his cup, running a finger along the rim. "You found it interesting?"

"That's one word for it," Akechi says, his tone deliberately mild. It's an affectation he picked up from Akira, he knows. "I was surprised to see your accuser. Does he know?"

Akira finally meets Akechi's eyes. "I don't know," he admits. "I didn't see him after that night. And it was dark then - I almost didn't recognise him, either. But my name would have been on the paperwork - "

" - and he's taken notice of you once before," Akechi finishes. His eyebrows have furrowed, his mouth thinned into a frown. "I don't believe he would remember you from the first incident, but if he had reason to find you familiar..."

Akira presses his tongue against his teeth. "Will you be in trouble?"

"He doesn't have me followed," Akechi says, lip curling. "I'm hardly important enough for that, no thanks to you - "

"Goro," Akira says flatly, "you might as well blame me for liking you."

"You think I don't?" Akechi snaps. "You think I haven't spent months wondering how close I'd be if you hadn't - " He stops, taking a breath, eyes narrowing. "And as soon as you return to the city you set yourself up as some heart-stealing vigilante - "

"You can steal my heart any day," Akira interrupts, smirking, well-prepared for the hiss of frustration Akechi lets out through his teeth. "This isn't about that. Is it the team? You know you'll always come first in my heart."

"I hate you sometimes," Akechi says darkly, a hand over his face, and Akira knows he doesn't mean it at all. "Fine. Tell me why."

"A burden shared is a burden halved?" Akira says, though Akechi won't take the truism as he means it. "I didn't mean to, but they got dragged in anyway. We're making a difference, Goro. And it's useful to not be fighting alone."

"Don't be naive. Unless you're planning on actually helping - "

"No," Akira says. "I'm sorry. But if I do come up with a solution, I'll let you know."

"I should have expected that from you." Akechi sounds dissatisfied. "Will you be continuing this idiotic endeavour?"

"It's not idiotic until someone catches us," Akira says, easily. "And if we do catch his attention…"

"Don't force my hand, Akira." Akechi's smile turns hard and insincere. "You may have convinced me once, but - "

"I wouldn't," Akira says sharply, "I didn't, if you recall. You know why."

They both do. In the end, they're from different worlds; in the end, if they're pushed, neither of them know just which way the cards will fall.

"I just don't want you to regret it," Akira says, quieter, "after it's done."

"And if I regret you?" Akechi says.

"Then at least you still can, and I won't be holding it against you." Akira manages a smile that feels lighter than his heart. "Of course, you can hold me against you anytime."

"Let me guess," Akechi says with faint amusement, "I'm welcome to join you because I've already stolen your heart?"

Akira winks at him, and almost feels like himself. "You took the words right out of my mouth. Goro," he starts, more seriously, "are we… okay?"

Akechi pauses, considering. His head falls, hair obscuring his eyes. "You said that… we were friends, but that perhaps we should start over. I've missed you longer than I've known you, Akira."

"Well," Akira says, his smile suddenly freer without the weight of imminent failure lingering in his chest, "I do live above a pretty great café. I think you'll like it."

Akechi's steady gaze is matched to his small smile. "I'll certainly keep your recommendation in mind."

 

Despite the offer, it still takes a few weeks before Akechi drops by Leblanc, long enough that Akira nearly stalls like a deer in headlights when he hears the bell ring and sees his familiar face.

Akechi breaks step for a moment, too. Akira doesn't think it's the sight of him in an apron that causes it.

"Oh," Akechi says, startled, "you're..."

Sojiro seems unfazed, and Akira clears his throat. "Fancy seeing you here."

"I'm surprised, too," Akechi observes. "Of all the places in Tokyo…" His gaze catches on Sojiro for a blink before he looks away to the menu board. "You seem to be the expert, what would you recommend?"

Sojiro doesn't let Akira make the coffee he sells, not yet. Akira leans on the bar instead, enjoying the look on Akechi's face the moment he starts on his cup. "What did I tell you?" Akira says, smiling as Akechi sets his cup back down, and Akechi slants him a look.

"Don't look so smug," he says. "The atmosphere here is something to be coveted, I must agree, but I might well have found my way here without your interference."

"No secrets stay so for long, Detective Prince?"

"You do occasionally catch me unawares," Akechi says, an amused tilt to his smile. "Shouldn't you be getting back to work?"

Akira glances over at Sojiro, who looks largely disinterested in their conversation. Leblanc is an hour from closing but he's already starting cleaning up, and when Akira catches his eye he says, "Don't mind me. You two know each other?"

"From a few years ago," Akechi says.

"Guess that explains how a clean-cut kid like you knows a delinquent like this one." Sojiro fixes Akira with a frown. "And he's right. Come on."

Akira heaves a sigh that's mostly for show and lets Sojiro show him how to clean the coffee syphon without getting his borrowed apron as dirty as he's done before. When he's finally finished Akechi's on the dregs of his cup, looking over paperwork, and Akira takes the chance to close in on him, peering over his shoulder.

Akechi doesn't so much as flinch as he glances at Akira out of the corner of his eye. "Taking notes?" he asks mildly.

"No," Akira says, "I'm busy enough. Want a refill?"

Akechi looks pensive. "I probably shouldn't. Aren't you closing soon?"

"I usually close up," Akira says, "so I could sneak you in after-hours." He leans in. "We could have a forbidden late-night romantic rendezvous…"

"You be the Capulet, and I'll play the Montague?" Akechi's smiling, small and all the more real for it. "Unfortunately we're lacking a balcony."

"I'll pick a comedy over a tragedy any day."

Akechi's smile widens in amusement. "You're probably right. A heartbroken suicide isn't much like you."

"So," Akira says with a wink, "if you think I'm dead, keep that in mind."

"I'm unlikely to poison myself in despair, no matter how dead you are."

"You're ruining the romance of it," Akira says, shaking his head and not bothering to hide his smile. "Really, Goro, not even a little sympathy for my corpse?"

Akechi gives it a moment of visible consideration as he starts packing his work away. "I suppose it would depend on who put it there."

Akira feels an irreverent amusement bubble up in him at the thought. "I wouldn't hold my breath," Akira says. "You'll never be rid of me for good."

Akechi looks at him, his suddenly pensive expression more serious than their conversation warrants. "An unbreakable bond…" He trails off, clears his throat, and reaches for his bag as he rises to his feet. "We'll see. Thank you for the coffee, Akira. Sakura-san."

He's right, in the end. That's it, isn't it? They'll see.

Akira takes his cup, ignores Sojiro's raised eyebrows, and lets his thoughts dwell in the repetitive monotony of closing the café. They've started their push into Kaneshiro's Palace already; he was mentioned as a known associate of the man in Akechi's file, and Akira is looking forward to seeing what unfolds.

The Goro Akechi Akira once knew is still there, though he's now covered by far-sturdier masks. Akira just doesn't know how much the years have chipped away at him, if underneath them he's still in one piece.

Akechi would say it's none of his business, but Akira can never let a lost cause be.

 

Akechi stops by the café twice before they've changed Kaneshiro's heart. It isn't just that they've been slow at the Phantom Thieves business; the next time Akira saw Akechi was just two days later after coming back from a day out with Ann, eating crepes and talking about Shiho, and Akechi was sitting at the bar, down to the last mouthfuls of a cup. He'd been staring into it like it held all the secrets in the world and left after exchanging only a handful of words with him, and Akira found himself thinking about it all evening like he would worry a loose tooth: his expressions, his tone, everything Akira had said in response.

The second time he stayed for longer. That made it worse.

"It's not weird for me to text him, right?" Akira asks, phone held at arm's length over his face as he squints at the screen. "We talk. We're friends."

"I don't understand," Morgana mumbles, curled up in a ball at Akira's feet. "It isn't complicated. What's going on with you?"

"I..." Akira can't give voice to his thoughts. At least, not all of them. "I worry about him."

"I don't think he wants you to," Morgana says doubtfully.

"Yeah," Akira says, "that's the point."

"You can only reach out to him so much," Morgana advises, stretching his claws out against the bed. "If he doesn't want to be friends… you have plenty of things you could be doing instead."

Akira doesn't say, but I don't want to be, or the more coherent and telling, it was my fault. He's not even sure it could have gone better, back then, though now… Setting down his phone beside him, Akira looks over at Morgana turning in circles to find a comfortable spot. "Maybe," he says, noncommittally. "Hey, Morgana, do you remember what you told us before we stole Kamoshida's Treasure? That it could go wrong?"

Morgana stops circling to peer over at him curiously. "But it didn't. Everything worked out, right?"

"Mm. But what did we do right? What would've made it go wrong?"

Morgana makes a thoughtful sound. "So we know what to avoid in the future? I… I'm not sure. I don't really know all the details."

"Do you think killing someone's Shadow would cause that - 'mental shutdown'?" Akira thinks it's something Morgana's said before, but the research on the cognitive world has blurred into mismatched pieces of knowledge by now; he doesn't know where he learnt it all.

"Well, considering our Shadows have transformed into our Personas, that would make sense." Morgana tips his head. "I guess you guys handled Kamoshida perfectly, then."

"Wait," Akira says. For a breath everything feels like that itch of focus in his eyes that makes pawnable junk stand out in Palaces, that tells him if his friends have something important they need to talk out. "So someone with the potential for a Persona can manifest a Palace?"

"…technically, I think," Morgana says uncertainly. "But if they went into their own Palace things might get messy - I mean, it's their own cognitive distortion. It'd be easy for someone to lose themselves if they can't muster their spirit of rebellion." He shakes his head, resting it on his paws. "That's all pretty unlikely, though."

"Yeah," Akira says. He closes his eyes for a moment to block out the glow-in-the-dark stars. "I can't imagine that happening to us."

He picks up his phone after a few minutes, looks at his message history with Akechi, and then switches over to the Phantom Thieves group chat instead. It's mindless and comforting to scroll back to read Yusuke's apologies for his exams and Ann and Ryuji's casual replies. Makoto's suggested putting off sending the calling card until the following week, in deference to Yusuke's more hectic schedule, and when Akira sends, What if we have a break this weekend? he gets a flood of messages in reply.

They sort out the details: an afternoon in Jinbocho, despite Ryuji's protests. Ann says, You should invite Akechi-kun, Akira! and then Akira spends a handful of minutes fending off Makoto's rampant curiosity at how he knows him and what Akechi is really like.

Perhaps we started off on the wrong foot, Makoto relents, and Akira finds himself smiling, a little wry.

Thanks, guys, he writes. I'll ask.

It's better than Dome Town, for all that Akechi gives their mismatched group an odd look when he sees them. Even Ryuji finds things to catch his attention in the shelves and stacks of books, and Akira feels a curious warmth at the way Yusuke draws Akechi into a conversation about art symbolism while Makoto flips through books on tactics with a frown. Perhaps it helps that Makoto is still new, that they're all still feeling each other out. Akechi rhapsodises on long-dead philosophers and Akira picks up the gauntlet until his education fails, and by the time they sit down to have curry Akira has spent the last five minutes poking fun at Akechi's too-serious taste in literature and Akechi, cheeks pink, has completely sold him out.

"Magical Witch Detective?" Ryuji laughs. "Where do you find this stuff?"

"At least that's not a book on cleaning," Morgana informs them, nose in the air. He's beside Ann in the booths they managed to secure, far enough away Akira can't elbow him quiet. "Reading a book is not the same as doing it yourself, you know."

"I like books," Akira says. "Even the ones full of pick-up lines."

"Oh, so that's where you're getting them," Akechi says, to laughter; Akira bats his eyelashes at him but he can't ignore the warmth of him pressed up against his side. "I think you must have a sixth sense for the worst published literature in history."

"Magical Witch Detective is not the worst of it," Akira says loftily, and slides a glance across the table. "Right, Makoto?"

"W-what, me?" Makoto stammers before rallying to the book's barely-deserved defence, and Akira shares a sidelong smile with Akechi, who's watching him with soft, thoughtful eyes.

"Share a plate with me," Akira says. "I can't finish it alone."

"What did I say about seduction?" Akechi says, amusement in the curve of his smile, but he shares Akira's plate, and Akira even coaxes him into laughter once or twice more. It's the sort that lights up his face and makes it hard for Akira to look away, the sort that warms him from the inside out.

It's a good day. The mood lasts Akira until the following evening, when another transport accident is on the news.

Another psychotic breakdown, the announcer's voice says in a low drone, and Akira is careful not to pay too much attention as he wipes down the cafe's countertop. Twenty injured, no fatalities - but really, it's just a matter of time.

He texts Akechi to meet him at Inokashira Park that weekend, Saturday evening. What's the occasion? he gets back, and Akira sends, Wanting to see you, of course. It doesn't feel as light-hearted as he wants it to, particularly not when he responds to the Phantom Thief group chat: We're sending the calling card tomorrow.

It might not be wise to meet Detective Goro Akechi so soon after he's changed a notorious criminal's heart, but then, no one ever accuses Akira of being that. Thoughtless, reckless, too prone to caring, sure - but that's what got him in this mess to begin with.

Akira gets to the park early enough to catch the last rays of sun in the sky. The lake glitters as the light dims from fire-orange and red and Akira takes a seat on the fence and watches the faint glow of the stars slowly unveil in the night. By the time Akechi arrives Akira's more thoughtful than worried, his mind settled and decisions made; when Akechi says evenly, "I see you've been busy," Akira glances over, giving him a sly smile.

"Busy enough," he says.

"It's dangerous." Akechi joins him on the fence, his back to the lake as his eyes slide from Akira to the park. "I thought you were doing this for some moralistic 'good', not capricious fame."

"Did I hit a nerve?" Akira asks, eyeing Akechi's thin mouth, the flat gleam of his eyes.

"You," Akechi says, "are drawing too much attention."

Akira shrugs. "I'll deal with it."

"You won't - " Akechi bites off his words, shaking his head. The evening light draws shadows across his cheekbones, obscuring his eyes, and Akira's gaze is drawn to the neat line of his collar and the loosened knot of his tie. "Don't be facetious," Akechi says, tone sharp, "you know what could happen."

"Yes," says Akira, "I know."

He meets Akechi's gaze steadily. Akechi's mouth curls into a faint, unhappy smile.

"You're too stubborn," Akechi says. "You can't save everyone."

"I can try." Akira presses his tongue to his teeth, fingers clenching the cool wood of the fence. "I have to try." Goro Akechi is a friend withering under an adult's thumb; there isn't any way Akira won't. But first - Akira has his own ghosts to exorcise. "Goro, two years ago. What happened after I left?"

"What do you mean?" Akechi asks. "I'm hardly going to share details with you of all people - "

"No," Akira says. "I mean. I got her out - I got us both out - but I didn't... I didn't see what happened, after. She was in the news. Missing. But..."

Akechi's frowning. "...You're staying with Sojiro Sakura," he says. "Don't you know?"

Akira stills. "Don't I know what?"

"Wait," Akechi says, "you weren't aware? That's - quite a coincidence."

Akira feels cold. "There's a lot of that going around," he says. "Goro, what happened?"

Akechi looks away. "Officially," he says, "Wakaba Isshiki had a psychotic breakdown and disappeared. Unofficially... Sojiro Sakura quietly adopted her daughter about a year ago."

Akira says, "I - didn't know."

"You were lucky," Akechi says. "We were lucky."

"I'm going in again," Akira says abruptly. "That's why I texted you. I know what I had wrong the first time. I'm not asking you to come in with me," he adds. "I just wanted you to know."

"You realise," Akechi says, after a long moment of silence, "she can't come back."

"She's hidden for this long," Akira says. "If he hasn't killed her yet - "

Akechi says, "Akira."

Akira looks at him. His eyes are light against the deepening darkness of the night, and though Akira can't piece out his expression, he knows it anyway. "I have to," Akira says.

Akechi shakes his head, rising off the fence as he straightens his blazer. "I know I can't stop you," he says evenly, looking back at Akira. "Just don't be stupid."

"That's a big ask," Akira says. His voice comes out remarkably steady. "Any other advice?"

Akechi considers him, then turns away. "Yes. Don't die."

The night eats him up, shadows grasping at his cream blazer until the honey-brown of his hair is lost to the colourless dark. "Thanks," Akira says, though he knows Akechi won't hear, and pulls out his phone for some light. The Meta-Nav app tempts him, an eye stylised in red and black, but Akira doesn't open it yet. He turns on the flashlight instead, flooding the ground with a wash of too-bright light. "I'll try."

 

It's surprisingly easy to lose his cat. Akira begs him off with the threat of having to endure an afternoon of flirting with Goro Akechi, then takes the train to Shibuya and switches lines from there once he's free. Sojiro might grumble but Akira knows he'll spoil Morgana to pieces when given the opportunity, and for this, he doesn't need an audience.

The Meta-Nav saves every location ever visited. Mementos was the only place Akechi had had on his, the first time they stumbled into the Metaverse; now, Akira's has it and Wakaba Isshiki's name directly underneath. Kaneshiro's is greyed-out, unreachable, and this has been why Akira can't stop thinking about it, why he can't let it go. Wakaba Isshiki still has a Palace, which means - what? She's still alive, somewhere. But...

Navigating... the app says. Akira goes.

The sprawl of the government-funded research facility is stark in the Metaverse, the golden brick-and-wood rise of a temple stretching far and high. The concrete walls surrounding it are more reminiscent of a prison, flat and forbidding, and Akira has to crawl past the unattended space near a hole in the barbed-wire gate before he can get a sense of the damage incurred.

The walls never fell, the gates never opened. But there's a crack in the roof of the temple like it was taken to by a giant sword, and under it collapsed layers of tarnished gold surround walls reduced to rubble. Inside, the sterile cell-like rooms and eerie empty labs have suffered unevenly, the path of destruction leaving some demolished, others untouched.

Akira creeps forward, keeping an eye on the few Shadows still prowling. The corridors of Wakaba's palace had always felt strangely unnatural, with dark walls creeping with red light and a thrum in the air too similar to Mementos to shake. That part of things has only gotten worse: for every collapsed wall he peers around the red has crept forward like a plant sinking roots, the whisper of what Morgana calls the collective consciousness of Shibuya a faint rush of wind, quieter than in the subway but all the worse for it.

Akechi had once said it might be due to her research on the cognitive world. He'd picked through files on the computers and they'd shared baseless theories as Akira alternated between flipping through esoteric handwritten notes and keeping an eye on the door.

They'd known so little, then. They'd thought they'd known so much.

There's a prison-guard Shadow between Akira and the next corridor, and he counts up the Vanish Balls and Goho-Ms in his pockets and the compendium of Personas in his mind. The Shadow glows an uncertain, flickering orange when he focuses, and Akira waits until it stops its patrol to take advantage and catch it off guard.

He's stronger than it. It goes down in two swipes of his daggers and a rush of an agilao after he barely dodges a wave of wind, and it's a relief, this reminder that things have changed. He won't be taken down so easily, now.

There are more than a dozen Shadows between him and the safe room he remembers, though, and by the time he gets there Akira is wearing thin, his spirit depleted more than a thermos of coffee will fix. He stumbles into the room and catches himself on the table, and his gaze is caught by the files tossed haphazardly across the table, thrown carelessly on the floor.

He hasn't seen Wakaba Isshiki's Shadow, yet. Considering the state of her temple, he's not even sure he will, not if he heads straight up to her Palace's core.

The last time he saw her she was surrounded by Shadow guards, only there to keep her secret and safe. It can only be worse now, but saving her Shadow might not even help at all - and Akira is done with hypotheticals. He has to stick with what works.

"I'm sorry," Akira still tells the room. He weighs a Goho-M in his palm, then lets the rush of its magic take him back outside the Palace's walls. It will take more than one trip, but Akira had expected that, and he only glances back once more before he heads back to the real world.

Morgana is easy to pacify once he gets back: "I don't want to hear about your dates," he says, wrinkling his nose as much as a cat can, "but if you're going out, you should bring me back something! Do you think you'll get sushi?"

"Maybe next time," Akira says, and covers a yawn. "I might go to bed early tonight."

"Wow," Morgana says, sounding genuinely impressed in the way he isn't when Akira takes naps during class. "Maybe my good habits are finally rubbing off on you."

"Keep it up," Akira says absently, collapsing onto his mattress. "You never know."

He only manages to get away once more between exams as the rush of news involving Kaneshiro starts pouring in. The Phantom Thieves are popular in a way they weren't before, made even more stressful with the sudden threat of an anonymous hacker group, and Akira is so exhausted by the time he gets back to Leblanc he doesn't have the fortitude to plan another solo Palace run.

Of course, that evening he gets a text message, and his terrible day turns even worse.

You're a Phantom Thief, comes from the unknown number. They call themselves Alibaba, and apparently one threat isn't enough. The rest of them don't know, do they? I'll tell everyone who you are and what you did, unless you steal Wakaba Isshiki's heart.

Akira sets his phone down. Then he picks it up again. Do you know Wakaba Isshiki?

The message doesn't go through. Akira deletes it anyway.

"Any news?" Morgana asks, peering up at him over his own food, and Akira shakes his head.

"It's not important."

It's only luck that stops Morgana from seeing the next message he gets, when Akira's just packing up his books after school. Are you going to steal Wakaba Isshiki's heart? Alibaba asks him. I've already made you a calling card.

She can't see it yet, Akira writes back. His fingers are remarkably steady on his phone. That's not how it works.

How does it work, then?

How do you know Wakaba Isshiki? Akira sends.

The texts pause for a moment. Will you do it or not?

It's not that simple, Akira writes. These things take time. His thumb hovers over the send key, and he adds, Do you know how to reach her?

That's not relevant. I need an answer; I'll give you two days.

Akira's chest feels tight. It's relevant, he sends, I need to know if she's okay.

A longer pause. She's alive and mostly conscious. No thanks to you.

Akira sends, Thank you, and it doesn't go through, not that he expected it to. Morgana's already giving him a curious look and Akira's smile feels brittle at the edges. "I'm meeting up with Goro," he says, "but he's busy with the Phantom Thieves case."

"Aren't you playing with fire there?" Morgana asks, settling himself in Akira's bag. Akira hefts it and glances back at him as he kneads his paws into Akira's shoulder. "Do you think he knows anything about Medjed?"

"He might," Akira allows, and makes a mental note to actually ask. But when Akira catches Akechi the next day it's at the train station, both of them on their way to somewhere else, and the truth of the matter is clear in Akechi's eyes and the wry fall of his smile.

Akira will get no help from that quarter. That evening he escapes to Leblanc's bathroom and texts Alibaba: I'll do it. But you have to give her the calling card when I tell you to.

I'll give you two weeks, Alibaba replies. Akira stares at the message for a long time.

By the time he washes his hands he's steady on his feet, none of the turmoil writhing in the pit of his stomach showing on his face. "I don't know that there's much we can do," he admits to Morgana, as they head to bed. "But I'll invite Goro out and see if we can get a lead or two."

Two weeks to steal a treasure, and Medjed's deadline is the week after that. Akira stares at the exposed beams of the ceiling and wonders, not for the first time, if he's doing the right thing; rightness seems a nebulous concept when it comes to delving into people's hearts. In the end, it's his own heart that decides it: these secrets aren't only his to keep.

 

He passes off two more Palace visits as dates with Akechi before the disingenuousness starts to eat at him. The next time he says he's going to see Akechi he actually does, an after-school meeting at a diner that Akechi suggests himself. Akechi has started on a slice of cake and a cup of coffee by the time he gets there, and Akira steals a sip and considers the depth of it on his tongue.

"I think you've spoiled me," Akechi says, "I'm used to Leblanc's standards of coffee now."

Akira can't place the beans but they're overbrewed, the water too close to boiling. "All the better to make you come back, my dear," he says, sliding into the opposite booth. "You haven't stopped by since Kaneshiro's arrest."

"I've been busy," Akechi says. "Haven't you?"

"Working on it." Akira eyes Akechi's fork and cake - strawberries, today - and steals a bite of that, too. "Mm, not bad. That's what I wanted to ask you, actually."

"I can't share details about an ongoing police investigation," Akechi says, and Akira shakes his head.

"No. Not Medjed. The other one."

Akechi stills, fork in the air, and then sets it delicately back to the plate. "I thought we discussed this."

"I want to make sure," Akira says, doggedly, "that you're not visibly connected to it. You're safe, right? No one's contacted you?"

Akechi's eyes narrow. "Has someone contacted you?"

Akira lifts a shoulder in a half-shrug, nonchalant. "I'm handling it," he says. "It's nothing I wasn't doing already. I assumed - I know got caught on the security cameras, bringing her in - but you didn't, did you?"

"Are you being threatened?" Akechi asks, face darkening, and Akira manages a huff of a laugh.

"Just answer the question, Goro."

Akechi purses his lips and glances briefly away. "Fine. Yes, I'm safe. No one knows I was there."

Akira feels the relief like a breath of fresh air, and he nods, resting his elbows on the table. "Good," he says, and then with some amusement adds, "So, about Medjed..."

"Sometimes," Akechi says, "I feel like you're only using me for my connections."

"Oh, no," Akira says. "Everything but that."

Akechi very nearly rolls his eyes at him and Akira kicks him gently under the table, his foot catching Akechi's ankle. Akechi doesn't push him away for the whole afternoon, and Akira...

If Akira can do this, he can do anything at all.

They talk about school and work, Akechi's detective job and Akira's shuffle of part-time shifts, about food and just how much Akechi still doesn't know how to cook. "I make a fantastic curry," Akira says, though he knows he probably experiments with it a little too much. "But don't let me stop you from your media tour of the most popular restaurants in Shibuya."

"You make it sound so undignified," Akechi mutters, but the reluctant smile on his face tells otherwise. "I don't only dine out for my image, you know."

"Mm," Akira says, "of course."

When they finally part the afternoon has dipped into evening. Akechi says, "Don't get into trouble," and Akira's smile feels light.

"You've seen nothing yet," he says, and waves him off goodbye.

One trip later and he's at the highest point of Wakaba Isshiki's Palace. The collapse centres here, where the ceiling has caved in, where the walls are shattered and the pieces scattered, where a winding path of destruction starts toward the entrance. There's nothing but sky above him, the unnatural blood-gleam of Mementos and Shibuya, and Akira sets a boot on a huge chunk of roof and fixes his gaze on the wavering nebula of a Treasure not yet formed.

There are no enemies here, now that he's dealt with the Shadows. The silence echoes in his ears.

"Focus," Akira chides himself, glancing around. He takes the return path to the entrance slowly, memorising the easiest twists and turns. He remembers it, of course, but that was two years ago; he can almost see the shade of himself skidding around the corridors, feel the thrum of long-lost panic in his chest. The trail is obvious: cracks in the walls, a streak burnt into the floor; it's like a tale he's already told. Here he used the last of his bullets, here he grasped for Pixie and healed —

He follows the shadow of himself down, and through, and out. The steps leading up to the temple are shallow and wide and Akira ducks behind a still-intact pillar as another patrolling Shadow walks past. It's not worth destroying, not when it'll just as quickly come back, and he slips past the gate to where the cognitive distortion ends before pulling out his phone.

Tomorrow, he sends, to that one still-open conversation. The unknown number sends only one message back:

Do it right.

 

Of course, nothing is ever that easy.

 

Akira brushes off Morgana's suspicions with a promise to read the book he picked up on Medjed, but the adrenaline flooding his veins has him check his path for cats as he disappears into the station crowds. He steps into the Metaverse with his pockets full of healing items, a fresh thermos of Leblanc's coffee and a single, specific hope.

The moment he gets past the wall, he knows it was for naught. The air is dense and heavy, pressing in the way of too much attention focused directly on him, and Akira looks up and up and sees the man who brought him here standing by the temple's open doors.

"Masayoshi Shido," he says, "your prison is gone."

This Shido is not the Shido Akira vaguely knows. Wakaba imagines him as a looming darkness, a man-shaped creeping virus on the world. He mans the prison that's taken over the temple of her work; he directs, people jump, and Wakaba once thought she would never get out.

She must think it still, wherever she is now.

"The Phantom Thieves," Shido says, conversationally. "Is there only one of you?"

"Does it matter?" Akira says. "I'm enough."

He dashes forward, daggers in hand. Shido starts to change a fraction of a moment later, Shadows coalescing as he grows — and Akira veers immediately left, straight through the gap in the wall.

If experience has taught him anything, it's that sometimes you can just take the easier path to get to your goal. He's even done this chase before. Akira takes the twists and turns imprinted in his memory and loses Shido down a narrow corridor; he surprises a Shadow there with a spell, then lingers close enough to the door of the nearby safe room to catch his breath. He knows it isn't nearly over.

There are a dozen Shadows between him and the top floor, and he takes them out as swiftly and stealthily as he can manage. One takes out half his gun's clip and he's down to a few mouthfuls of coffee by the time he makes it there to peer out at Shido standing statue-still in front of the Treasure, Akira safely ensconced behind a crumbling fragment of wall.

Akira drinks the last few drops of his coffee. It's good, though a little lukewarm. He breathes out, checks his personas, and —

— doesn't scream. A gloved hand clamps itself over his mouth and it's only the sheer shock of recognition that stops Akira from reacting as Akechi drags him back in the shadow of a nearby alcove, as Akira belatedly spots a Shadow poised at the doorway, a fraction of a moment from spotting him. "What are you doing?" Akechi hisses in his ear, his grip slipping from Akira's mouth to tighten on his wrist to the point of pain.

"Isn't that my line?" Akira says, and glances back to catch the full brunt of Akechi's sharp glare.

"What did I say?" Akechi snaps, voice pitched whisper-low. The Shadow that Akira missed rounds the corner and passes by them, pausing a moment before moving on; Akira shifts to face him, but Akechi's grip doesn't loosen at all. "Which part of 'don't be stupid' did you have so much trouble with?"

"None of it," Akira says evenly. "What are you doing here?"

"You didn't answer me."

"Fine," Akira interrupts, squeezing his eyes briefly shut, "I'm stealing Wakaba's Treasure - the core of her cognitive world. Goro, I thought you wouldn't come back here if someone paid you."

"You," Akechi says, "have collected an entire forum of Persona users, why the hell are you doing this alone?"

Akira casts an incredulous look at him. "Are you really asking me that?"

"I am," Akechi says, his voice hard, "because every single one of them seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that you've been spending this time with me."

Akira exhales. "They confronted you."

"And I covered for you," Akechi says, "so. Tell me why."

"You know why," Akira says. "If I tell them that I'm here, I have to tell them what happened, two years ago. I have to tell them about you."

"I didn't ask for your fucking loyalty - "

"No," Akira says, "but you've got it anyway, Goro. If you didn't scare me away then - I don't know how you think you have a chance now."

Then, Akira had made mistakes. It was easy to say, now, I should've been more careful entering the Metaverse, or I should have realised what you were planning to do but none of it ever hit with the force of that moment. That moment, when the cognitive world shivered around them with the directness of Shido's full attention, that moment when Wakaba - the real one - flew from her cognitive distortion's grip and hit the wall —

That moment, when Akira said, "Destroying the core of the cognitive world, you said," and they'd both glanced up at the ceiling above the shimmering core and thought —

No. Akira had thought. Akechi's mind was on something worse.

When the temple collapsed on the insubstantial core under Shido's brute force, nothing changed. They were weakened, already, low on stamina and spirit and Akira, catching his breath, saw the moment Akechi spotted her. Security flanked Wakaba's Shadow, more to imprison her than help, and Akechi's aim shifted to over Shido's shoulder.

Shido was distracted. Akira's heart felt cold.

That moment was this: Akira, taking a step between them. Akira, meeting Akechi's eyes. There was a desperate unsteadiness in Akechi's gaze that didn't change the unwavering sights of his gun and Akira said, "Stop."

"Akira," Akechi said. "Don't get in my way."

Akira knew, in that instant. He saw Goro Akechi and saw his masks and knew him down to the core, with an intensity that nearly made him choke. He swallowed it down. "No. I won't let you," Akira said, his voice steady even as his heatbeat pounded in his ears. "How much will you do just because he tells you to? Goro..."

"I don't care," Akechi said, eyes narrowed, stepping forward, "about her, about you. I'm going to destroy him, and if you're going to get in my way - "

"Goro, I don't care about that." Akira held his gaze, implacable. "I won't let you destroy yourself for him."

"It's my choice," said Akechi, flatly. Akira shook his head.

"And what will you have left? How much has he taken from you already? Goro - don't let him have you, too."

Akechi looked at him, and his conviction wavered. It was enough.

The rest Akira only remembered in flashes: attracting Shido's attention, hauling the real Wakaba Isshiki over his shoulder and fleeing as best he could, hoping none of it was in vain. He'd staggered out of the Metaverse barely conscious and two days later black-suited men showed up at his doorstep telling his parents he'd been lucky they didn't want to press charges, but they'd heard a change of scenery could help.

Akira had bowed his head and made empty promises and realised he might never know what happened, in the end.

 

"I don't understand you," Akechi says, now. "You knew - you knew I would have gone straight through you. Why?"

His visor is removed, his face exposed, and there's a vulnerability to that that doesn't pass Akira by. "You know why," Akira says, again. He can't stop himself from reaching out; Akechi's hand falls from his wrist as Akira's gloved fingertips ghost over his jawline. "Don't be stupid. I'd fallen in love with you."

"How selfish of you," Akechi says, and Akira gives him a crooked smile and lets his hand fall as he turns away.

"Of course," he says. "Do you want to help me kill Masayoshi Shido?"

"Well," Akechi says wryly, "it seems you do know the way to my heart, after all."

Akira winks at him and takes to the nearest corner, then ambushes the approaching Shadow with all the confidence experience has given him. He hits it twice before it dies to a muffled gunshot, and Akira glances back to Akechi, the flash of his Robin Hood outfit neatly blending with the gold-tarnished walls.

Akira quirks an eyebrow, Akechi tips his head. They take the next Shadow on together, the teamwork they'd lost coming back to them in fits and starts as they re-acquaint themselves with each other's skills. Akira shuffles through masks and Akechi starts timing his Desperation to the moment before he strikes; by the time they've circled around the Treasure Akira's blood is high, adrenaline pounding through his heart.

"Let's go," he says, grinning wolfishly, and steps out into sight.

"You again." Shido's voice rings out into the open space, around the Shadow-emptied room. He stands beside the Treasure, a gleaming hard drive hovering in mid-air, and Akira can see him scout for backup, the way he checks all corners of the room. "Shouldn't you be running away?"

"Sorry," Akira says, "not this time."

Shido's arms start to bulge, Shadows gathering to his call. "Worthless pawns like you don't belong here," Shido says, "not with this power, not in my world. You had it right the first time - you should leave before you force me to hurt you."

Akira flips a dagger, catching the hilt in his palm. "Yeah. It's a bit late for that."

Before he can talk, Akechi's saber catches Shido in the shoulder, splitting cloth to the congealing darkness underneath. Akira leaps forward, a spell on his lips, and he shuts his eyes as his dagger sinks into shadow to avoid being blinded by Robin Hood's light. Isis spits fire and Akira switches to Shiki-Ouji in a blink, catching Shido's retaliatory strike head-on without pause — and Akechi's there, ruthlessly taking advantage of the opening, strength boosted, weaknesses exposed.

Akira mutters, "Reckless," like he's really any better, getting distance to cast a shield over them both. Akechi's breaks in an instant under Shido's fist but the rebound makes Shido stagger; Akira's next psio sends Shido wavering dizzily and Robin Hood's slash cuts deep, spilling dark.

"You put on such a show," Akechi says, his smile wide enough to show teeth, "and now look at you fall."

"I cannot," Shido starts, clutching his abdomen, and Akira meets Akechi's gaze over his shoulder.

A wind spell rushes forth across the floor, Akechi's megidola catching Shido's untimely dodge. Akira flips to Neko Shogun and lets speed wash over them both as Akechi walks forward, gun aimed steadily at Shido picking himself up from the floor.

"I can never be destroyed," Shido's still saying, "not with this power that I've harnessed - "

He's starting to glow a threatening red. Akira starts cataloguing spells in preparation, healing and boosts — but then Akechi dashes forward, slashes Shido's legs out from underneath him and empties five bullets point-blank into his head.

When it's shaped like a person, a Shadow is subject to people's cognition, and no one can survive that. Shido is no exception to the rule.

"Fuck you," Akechi says. The anger slowly drains out of him as stares down at the slowly dissolving body, though he looks he's thinking about kicking it for good measure. Akira takes the moment to go for Wakaba's Treasure —

Only it's not there. Someone beat him to it.

"Mona," Akira says. "Give me that."

"Oh, don't let me interrupt," says Morgana. "It looked like you had it handled."

"Mona," Akira says, again. The floor starts to rumble underneath them, which is when the rest of Akira's mislaid friends appear from the direction of the stairs.

"Mona! You found him?" Ryuji asks, at the same time Makoto says, "Ah, Akechi-kun."

The honesty in Akechi's expression slams shut as he plasters on confusion. "Nijima-san? And... Takamaki-san - ?"

"Don't," says Morgana. "You already knew we were the Phantom Thieves, didn't you?"

Akechi glances Akira's way, and Akira shrugs and takes the gambit. "Mona," he says, "is this really the time?"

"Yeah," Ann says, "I mean, it's not like we don't know where he lives."

"I, too, would prefer to postpone conversation to a less precarious venue - " Yusuke stumbles as the already-weakened floor starts to give way under his feet, and Morgana looks over to Makoto before nodding.

"Fine," he declares. "But I'm taking this. We'll talk at Boss's place."

They leave the way they came in, Makoto shooting Akira an inscrutable look before she takes up the rear. Akira stops adjusting his gloves to meet Akechi's raised eyebrows with an uncertain smile. "Unto the breach?" he says, holding out his arm.

Akechi's gait is steady across the precarious floor. Rubble collapses around them, the foundations starting to give way, and Akechi's arm links with his as Akira finds the Goho-M in his pocket and the magic of it washes over them both.

"I was careless," Akechi says, as Akira glances around the crumbling entrance for his teammates and comes up zero to none. "They must have followed me in."

"It happens to all of us," Akira says, though it still feels too soon to joke about; he doesn't have the Treasure and it itches at his need to know it's done. "I'm headed to Leblanc - are you coming?"

Akechi pulls up the Meta-Nav on his phone. "I have the distinct feeling it's only an illusion of choice."

"It isn't," Akira says, grabbing Akechi's arm as the Metaverse dissipates around them. His gloves fade to skin, Akechi's suit to his school uniform, pristine folds starting to wrinkle under Akira's grip. "Goro. I won't let them force you into anything."

"Like you have?"

"I know you," Akira says. "They don't."

Akechi considers him. "I'll go," he says, finally. "I would hate to see the mess you'd make of lying to them."

"I'm an excellent liar," Akira lies, and Akechi's mouth twitches with a faint, unwilling smile.

Somehow, they don't run into any of the Phantom Thieves between the research facility and Leblanc. It feels like the moment before a lightning strike, the calm before the storm. Once they get to Yongen-Jaya Akira says, "It's strange, that it's over," and Akechi, mouth pursed in thought, considers the streets as they walk.

"Preparation is the key to success," Akechi quotes. "We were stronger than he was."

"It keeps me up, sometimes," Akira admits. "Wondering about all the ways it could have gone wrong."

Akechi says, quieter, "That's how it goes."

The bell on Leblanc's door jingles when it opens, and Akira finds himself the immediate subject of scrutiny from his friends crowded across a booth. Sojiro takes a phone away from his ear long enough to say, "Good, you're here. I'm leaving early; don't forget to close up."

Akira catches the keys he tosses and shares a sidelong glance with Akechi as he leaves them to their fate.

"So," Makoto says, once the door has shut behind him, "you have a Persona too, Akechi-kun? I have to say, it did surprise me when Morgana brought it up."

"And access to the Metaverse, too," Morgana adds.

"I'm not certain what Akira told you about our history," Akechi says, settling down on a stool, "but we first met in the Metaverse. We didn't even know each other - I think he bumped into me at most - but, well, the cognitive world acquaints us with strange bedfellows."

He looks over at Akira, and Akira smiles, wryly. "It happened a lot like me and you, Ryuji."

"What, you got captured, too?"

"Close enough," Akechi allows. "Enough for both of us to manifest a Persona."

Akira devotes himself to the art of good coffee while Akechi spins his tale. Perhaps he's heard that the best lies start in truth; there's enough of it there that it covers the gaps of Akechi's motivations, of Akira's help and subsequent censure, the push and pull game of morality they'd been too young and ignorant to play. He doesn't talk about the moment it went sour, pitching Wakaba Isshiki's Palace as a distortion they were both trying to remove and a mistake of accident and hubris, and Akira's passed along drinks for everyone by the time he finishes up.

"I mean, I think I get it," Ann says, "but why didn't you tell us?"

"No," Yusuke says, "it's quite obvious. You wished to hide from your mistakes, because facing them would mean admitting to reality."

"Yeah," Ryuji says, "owning up to shit is hard."

Makoto's frowning. "Logically, though, it's difficult to say you're at fault."

Akira shrugs. "Maybe. But that makes it worse."

"The cruel mistress of fate," Yusuke declares. "Her hand passes over us all."

"But, I mean… you found each other again, right?" Ann leans back, ponytails swinging when she tilts her head toward them. "So it wasn't all bad."

"Hm," Makoto says, neutrally, watching Akechi with a frown. "Does this mean you'll be joining the Phantom Thieves, Detective?"

Akechi sets his cup back to the table. "My moral objections to your methods hasn't changed, Nijima-san. This was just… cleaning up loose ends."

"But it's not like you'll be turning this guy in," Ryuji says. "So what's your problem?"

"Ryuji," Morgana hisses, then turns to Akechi. "You helped Joker steal this heart, though. What makes that different to everything else we do?"

Akira glances over at the stolen Treasure, a hard drive sitting on the table. He doesn't have a laptop, but he's fairly sure he knows what's on it. It wouldn't be her work.

Akechi looks up from it to Akira, a wealth of thoughts behind his tired eyes. "Wakaba Isshiki's Palace was destroying her," he says, finally. "And perhaps it's selfish of me, but I have my own problems with... 'rotten adults'. I couldn't ever feel satisfied by them suddenly regretting everything they've ever done - because they'd no longer be the person that crossed the law and got away with it, just because they knew they could. They wouldn't still be the person that deserved what was coming to them."

"Goro…"

"My apologies," Akechi says, briefly closing his eyes and shaking his head, "it's been - a very long day. I should…"

"No," Akira interrupts, casting a gimlet eye over his assorted teammates, "they can wait. Guys?"

Ann is the first one to move; when she elbows Ryuji quiet, they all start to rustle around, collecting their things together. "I'll take Morgana for the night," Makoto says when she hefts her bag and Akira spots him peering over her shoulder, expression cat-like and unreadable.

"We were worried about you, you know," Morgana says. "Will you be okay?"

"Yeah," Akira says. "I'll be fine."

There are still lingering questions hovering awkwardly in the air, but Akira shoos his friends out like misplaced cats and when he glances back to Akechi, he's watching Akira with a startlingly honest look in his eyes. It's more himself than Akira has seen from him since they've reconnected, and Akira feels such a rush of affection for him that he's sure he's smiling.

"Hey," Akira says, "thanks for that," and Akechi drags a hand over his face and huffs a laugh.

"Shouldn't I be saying that to you?"

"I didn't take that fall."

"You didn't let me take it, you mean," Akechi corrects. He keeps his eyes on Akira as he approaches him, and watches him with a faint, exhausted curiosity when Akira grasps his wrist and tugs him upright. "Where are we going?"

"You haven't seen where I live yet," Akira says. "Come on."

Akechi's nose wrinkles at the dust in the air upstairs, but he follows Akira with a lax disregard that makes Akira's limbs ache in sympathy. Akira's been overdoing it in the Metaverse but it's only helped his endurance, and Akechi probably hasn't fought seriously for a while. "Your cat was right," Akechi says, "you really do need to clean."

"I do," Akira lies unconvincingly. Akechi's followed him all the way to his bed and collapses on the mattress like he's wanted to lie down for an hour, hair splayed messily around his face as he stares at the beams of the ceiling. "No comment about how I belong here?"

"Stuffed up in the attic like someone's trash?" Akechi wonders toward the ceiling. "I... hadn't expected it, what he'd done to you. Did you really punch him?"

"No," Akira says. "But I wanted to."

"I want to kill him," Akechi confesses, to the echoing quiet of the room. "I've imagined doing it. Just walking into his office and pulling out the gun he issued me - he doesn't even keep security when I'm there, it would be simple enough. But more than that... I want to ruin him. I still do."

"Goro," Akira says, quietly. Akechi turns over, reaches out; Akira follows the gentle tug of his hand to lie down beside him.

The bed is small for one person, cramped for two. Akechi studies Akira with an intensity that makes his face warm. "I never told you," he says. "Back then, even with everything I had at stake... I couldn't have gone through you."

"How romantic," Akira says, raising his eyebrows, and Akechi smiles wryly as he shakes his head.

"I suppose it might be," he admits. "In retrospect. But a piece of me was yours, Akira, when I looked at you and I knew just how far you'd go. You collect shards of people everywhere, but I only have masks for myself - and for you."

Akira remembers: that spark of awareness, that yearning familiarity, so close to his heart it still feels raw and exposed. "So," he says, letting amusement paper over the honesty in his voice, "would you say I'd stolen your heart?"

Akechi scoffs and kicks him. A brief shoving match leads to Akira being pinned to the mattress, Akechi's hands holding him down, and Akira waggles his eyebrows to see Akechi's face when he laughs. "I think you'll find," Akechi says, leaning down, "I'm the one who stole yours."

He kisses Akira luxuriously slow, their noses bumping, his mouth pliant and warm. Akira's pulse is loud in his ears by the time he pulls back, and he wants nothing more than to tug him foward and kiss him again, to kiss him until he can think of nothing else.

"Welcome to the Phantom Thieves," Akira says, smirking, and Akechi kisses him again just to shut him up.

Akechi was right, when he called this love selfish. It is, more than anything: Akira might never let him go.