They had all come to check on him of course. Akira was absolutely grateful for that. He is grateful for many things, but this especially.
“God kid, you look awful.” Sojiro half teased, already in the process of making him a hot chocolate.
Akira grinned, trying to keep himself from laughing because everything hurt. The officers were not kind to him, doubly so after getting access to his files. Speaking of, he was so out of it he almost forgot the unbearable squeezing on his hurt ribs this entire time. He fumbled for the zipper under his shirt, trying not to break it in his desperation to get it off of him. He belatedly realized he needed to be shirtless in order to complete his task, getting immediately upset. He ran to the bathroom, shutting himself in.
“Shit, Akira?!” Ryuji called after him, wiggling the locked handle.
He dropped his shirt on the floor, hissing in pain as some skin came off with it. He had to peel off his binder, shaking uncontrollably. It was soaked in blood and ruined.
“Fuck…” He muttered, sliding down onto the floor.
This was my only one.
He couldn’t exactly order another one without Sojiro seeing it.
“Akira are you okay?” His best friend asked, concerned.
He swallowed thickly. He can’t stay like this. His wounds would get infected. He put the shirt back on, wrapping his destroyed binder in his jacket. He stepped out, Ryuji backing up for a moment in shock. He moved to wipe away his tears, Akira leaning into the touch.
“Shit dude. Are you okay?”
“Everything hurts.” He said, only half-lying.
“Here, why don’t we wash th-”
Ann got up and reached for the bundle of clothes, Akira immediately hugging them to his chest, hissing as he pressed onto his bruises.
“I’ll do it later.” He mumbled.
He could see their concern, but he wasn’t exactly out to them yet. Only Morgana, but he made Morgana promise not to say anything. And Takemi in a way, because she had to know he was wearing one in case he had issues with it. He was numb as Sojiro guided him to a chair and slid the hot chocolate in front of him. The clothes he dropped into his lap, leaning protectively over them as he wrapped his hands around the mug.
“What the eff did they do to you?!”
“Ryuji.” Sae said sternly, making Ryuji wince.
He couldn’t stop shaking.
“Maybe we should come back tomorrow.” Makoto gently suggested.
Akira nodded. He took a sip, just to see if he could keep anything down. He suddenly lost his appetite for the hot chocolate he asked for.
“See you tomorrow, then.” Yusuke said, getting up.
That prompted everyone else to get moving, wishing him well. Sae quietly offered a ride to some of them, but they all politely declined and went on their way. Soon it was just him, Sojiro and Morgana left, stewing in silence. Sojiro carefully cleaned up everything, putting it all away.
“I’ll call you out for the time being. Say you had to go home for family business. Make sure you lock up after I’m gone.”
Akira nodded, his throat feeling restricted. Morgana checked over him in concern, making sure not to touch him. He watched as Sojiro started towards the door, flipping the sign closed.
He stopped, looking at Akira. He could see how serious he was, sitting down across from him. Akira slowly unwrapped the jacket and held it up so he could see the ruined binder. Sojiro seemed to recognize what it was, putting a hand to his chin and closing his eyes, leaning back with a frown. Akira felt some tears run down his face, panic rising in his chest. Sojiro opened his eyes again and looked it over, prodding at it.
“That certainly looks like it’s beyond salvaging.”
“Uh huh.” Akira squeaked out.
“I can’t let you wear that anymore. I doubt it would last much longer like this.”
Akira stared at him blankly. He wasn’t sure he heard that right.
“I can put something in for you with an order I have upcoming. I haven’t placed it yet, but I can make sure it gets here fast once I have.”
“Yeah. That’d be great.”
Sojiro placed a notepad and a pen down in front of him, a list of coffee bean orders on it. Akira stared at it for a moment before he quickly wrote down what he needed. Sojiro took it back, getting up.
“Just be careful when you go out for the next few days, alright? I want you to be safe.”
“Okay?” He said dumbly.
Sojiro closed the door behind him, the lock clicking in place. Akira wrapped up the binder in his jacket again, going upstairs. Morgana was right at his heels, jumping up on desk next to his bed.
“He took that better than my parents did.” Akira said in awe.
“Considering you were only just able to take it off now, I think our first order of business tomorrow is seeing Takemi.”
“Yeah, definitely, my ribs hurt like hell.”
Finding a sleeping position that was the least painful for him was a long process, tossing and turning until he found it. And then, he couldn’t sleep. His doubts bubbled up in his mind as he drifted, pestering him awake.
They had to have noticed, right? How could they not have? Did Sae look at my records or did she just walk in not knowing? My chest isn’t exactly small. But they’re my closest friends, they’d understand.
Then he remembered back home when he had one close friend, the other outcast. At least, until he came out. Then he was abandoned so swiftly, there were even rumors about him. Outcast by the other outcast. Too weird for even the weird kid. The memory gnawed at his heart, making him double-guess how close he really was to the others.
Would they abandon me t-?
Arsene’s smooth voice interrupted his negative spiral, jerking his head back a bit. He took a few shallow breaths. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t know why Arsene was so sure either.
“Come, then. Let’s talk about this, my darling thief.”
He closed his eyes, exhaustion finally overtaking him.
He opened his eyes again, in a familiar place, feeling warm. He sat up, noticing he was on a red velvet fainting couch with a black edge to it. He looked up to see Arsene sitting in the leather armchair next to him, his face dimmed in concern. The fireplace nearby flickered softly, the fire low. Akira patted the spot next to him, Arsene moving to sit there. Akira crawled into his lap, Arsene slowly wrapping his arms and wings around him. Akira let out a sob, slapping a hand over his mouth.
“It’s okay, Akira. You’re safe here.”
“What if they reject me, Arsene? After I tell them?”
“Why would they do that now, dear?”
“I don’t know. It’s… happened before. I don’t want to lose my friends.”
He felt Arsene gently caress his face, wiping away tears.
“You trust them with your life, and you theirs. They confide in you, fully, their fears, their dreams, their emotions. Why can you not confide in them the same way?”
“In the Metaverse I am who I really am. But the real world I have to come back to reality." Akira gingerly touches his chest, swallowing. “I’m… I’m scared they won’t understand.”
“This is part of you, no matter where you go. Here and in the real world, even if you need something to help you in one world. It’s natural to be scared about being honest. Yet, I know my friends, and they would not abandon you for being yourself. I’m confident your friends wouldn't either, because my friends are part of them. Even if they don’t understand right away, they’ll try for you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know.” Arsene’s voice softened. “I know they love you the way you are. This won’t change their minds.”
Akira looks down at his fingers, frowning. He moves to hug Arsene tightly, curling in on himself. Arsene returns the embrace, feathers brushing over his skin.
“Okay. I’ll try. I’ll… I’ll tell them.”
“Good.” Arsene murmured, kissing his forehead. “Now get some rest. I’ll be here, watching over you.”
Akira shifted, feeling lighter. He leaned his head against Arsene’s chest, Arsene shifting in response to make him more comfortable. Safe and warm, feathers soft against his skin, he fell asleep again.
“Oh, my little guinea pig, what have you gotten yourself into?”
Takemi’s joke fell flat, her voice deeply concerned. She was rooting around for things in her drawers, seeing how badly Akira was hurt.
“I need you to check me over. I don’t know if my binder caused more damage. They… I couldn’t take it off.”
“I need to see the extent of the damage. You need to take off your shirt.”
Akira did so slowly, dropping it beside him. Takemi pressed her lips together in a thin line as she saw all the bruises, cuts and the imprint the binder left on him. She turned back around, grabbing a bottle of antibiotic.
“Alright, first things first, we gotta clean those cuts better. This is gonna sting.”
Akira hissed through gritted teeth as she went about cleaning his wounds. Once she was done, she pulled back, pressing a stethoscope to his back.
“Breathe deeply for me.”
Akira winced in pain as he did so, exhaling slowly afterwards. She pulled back, writing something down.
“Definitely bruised. That’s gonna take some weeks to heal. You should keep an ice pack on your ribs once a day for the first few days, make sure to keep moving and breathing deeply so you don’t get an infection. Also, this should be obvious, but you shouldn’t wear your binder for the next six weeks.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, but we can’t have something constantly squeezing your ribs while they’re trying to heal. Better safe than sorry.”
“Take something like ibuprofen regularly while you’re at it. It will help.”
Akira gave her a little wave on his way out, flipping up his hood. Now he had to wait for his friends to show up. He slipped upstairs, not catching the attention of the one customer in the cafe. He sat down on the couch, anxious for their arrival.
They all filtered in one by one, Akira more nervous as they settled in. Ann plopped a bunch of snacks onto the center table, and everyone picked out what they wanted. Akira finally dropped the hood back, putting his phone on the table in front of him. After everyone settled down with their chosen snacks and drinks, they quieted down as Makoto cleared her throat.
“So, I think we need to figure out what we’re going to do from here. If that’s okay with you, Akira?”
Akira opened his mouth, closed it, bit his lip. Arsene moved, reaching out to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone. Akira exhaled slowly, straightening up a little.
“Actually, I’d like to talk about something else first.” He started, biting his lip again when they all turned to look at him.
Oh god, how do I say this?
“I’m… I’m trans. I…” He gulped, panic creeping back into his chest. “I… don’t know how much worse my injuries would’ve gotten because I couldn’t take off my binder, and… well… had to, had to take it off immediately but I didn’t want any of you to see me without it.”
The group shifted, Akira wincing and looking down at the table.
“You know that’s super unhealthy to running around with one of those on-” Makoto started scolding.
“I know! I just… I never feel it in the Metaverse. Like it just disappears when I’m down there. I kinda forgot I had it on until I got dragged away.”
The others wince at the mention of his ordeal.
“Were you able to wash your clothes last night?”
Akira shook his head.
“It… my binder got ruined. I can’t wear it anyway, they bruised my ribs pretty badly.”
“Those bastards.” Ryuji growled.
“Ryuji, quiet do-” Ann started.
“Them and that shithead Akechi Goro!”
Everyone’s eyes went to Akira’s phone and froze. The Metaverse app was bright and cheerful, gently pulsing on Akira’s screen. Akira slowly picked it up, confused.
“But… he shouldn’t have a palace. He’s like us.”
They turned to Morgana for questioning, who also was just as lost as the rest of them.
“Don’t look at me! This shouldn’t be possible!”
“It’s asking for the other keywords.” Akira said.
“We should be going after the bigger target.” Futaba said, pushing her glasses up. “I don’t want to waste any time in case he catches you again.”
“Look, we’re just lucky he hasn’t come back here yet either. He could come back.”
“Sis… did mention he really seemed to like this place.”
“I’m screwed either way.”
“How did it not have a match earlier when we first met him?” Ann asked.
“I still don’t understand how he has a palace.” Morgana muttered.
“Wait, but I had a palace?” Futaba piped up.
“That was before you had your persona though. He already has his persona.” Yusuke answered.
“I don’t think now is the time to argue about this.” Makoto said sharply. “We have two big targets right now. Masayoshi Shido-”
“And Akechi. And we have neither of their keywords.”
“We know more about Akechi than we do Shido.” Ann pointed out. “It’d would be easier to figure his out. I don’t think any of us have even talked to Shido that much.”
There was muttered agreement among them. Akira yanked a pillow from behind Ryuji and shoved it into his chest, having a coughing fit. He softly groaned after it was over, straightening up again.
“Sheesh, that sounds nasty.” Ryuji said.
“In any case, I don’t think I can go to the Metaverse for a little while. I need to get somewhat better first or risk making this worse.”
“If you ever need it, I can do some physical therapy stuff with you dude.”
“Thanks. I can’t do anything too stressful. But I think we need to figure out keywords in any case before anything else.”
“So, Shido or Akechi?” Morgana asked.
“I say Akechi. He’s the bigger threat to us directly.” Akira said. “But I know Shido will be dangerous if we leave him alone too long.”
“Yeah, I say Akechi. We know him better.” Ann agreed.
“Anyone disagree?” Makoto asked the group.
Everyone shook their heads.
“So, let’s start small. Akechi’s apartment.” Makoto started.
“Shibuya?” Ryuji guessed.
“Great. Now we just need to think what he believes Tokyo to be.” Haru said, leaning back. “His playground?”
“A chessboard?” Akira threw out there, getting nothing. “Not that either.”
They spent a good hour tossing out different words that might be relative to Akechi to no avail, all of them getting frustrated. Akira got up, feeling he was sitting too much. Ryuji got up too, standing next to him as he stretched. He gently guided him as he did various arm exercises, showing him different ones he could do and Akira following along.
“We’re not getting anywhere.” Futaba grumbled, crinkling a chip bag in her hand.
“Maybe break for now and come back tomorrow?” Akira suggested. “It’s been kinda crazy the past few days.”
“Yeah, we should give you some time to sort out stuff as well.” Ann said, yawning. “Plus, we still got homework to do.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.” Ryuji grumbled.
They slowly filed out one by one, Haru hanging back a little while Akira said his goodbyes to them. He turned around slowly, blinking in surprise to see Haru still here.
“Hey. I was just wondering if you managed to get another binder yet?” She asked softly. “I could get you one.”
“Oh. Um, thanks. Sojiro already ordered one for me.”
They stood in awkward silence for a moment.
“But, thank you, for the offer. I’ve… never had someone who’d offer me that before.”
“Well, it still stands whenever you need another one. Good night.”
“Good night. Text me when you get home.”
He watches her leave, heaving a sigh in relief.
“That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” Arsene murmured.
“They didn’t treat me any differently, so that’s good.”
Akira let out a yawn, looking towards the bed. He undressed, shutting off the lights and crawling into bed. He had quite a few busy days ahead of him. And yet as he laid there with his eyes closed, sleeping seemed impossible. Soon enough, he found himself back in Arsene's room, clinging tightly to him.
"Akira, are you alright?"
"Overthinking again. I just need time to sort my feelings out."
"Ah... I understand. Emotions can be confusing. Take your time."
Akira sighed, pressing into his chest more. Arsene hummed gently, lulling him off to sleep.