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The room spun before his eyes. Alarm bells rang in his ears from minutes earlier, faint reverberations that rocked through his numbing body like an electric charge. He could still hear the Phantom Thieves calling his name, desperately knocking against the bulkhead door with fists and weapons alike.

It’s pointless, he felt like saying, though he couldn’t muster the energy to produce the requisite sound. Even if they did manage to power through the doors, Goro would be dead before they reached him. He was bleeding out already—that stupid fucking clone had shot him right in the abdomen, aim just as good as his own. 

The voices were growing fainter and fainter, and Goro’s eyelids were heavy, vision blurring before him. So this really was it, then. He was to die on a cold, disgusting floor in his father’s stupid ship surrounded by enemies too pathetic to even attack once their master had died. 

A fitting end, in some ways. Perhaps Joker and his teammates would feel a moment’s remorse, but that would surely be eclipsed by their triumph over Shido. The name Akechi Goro would quickly fade into their distant memories, one to be forgotten and cast aside as their success reached even greater heights.

Goro thought he could make out the sound of retreating footsteps. So they were leaving, then—he must have been dead enough to register as such on Sakura’s technology. Had Joker looked back? Had he hesitated in leaving, placed his forehead on the door and waited for signs of life from within? Or had he departed immediately, resolved to defeat Shido but otherwise undisturbed?

It’s cold, he registered dimly, a sick chill creeping down his body. It’s so fucking cold.

He was well and truly alone now. Eyes slipping shut, he took one breath—low and deep as he could, but it shuddered in his lungs anyway, popping like a bubble before it could escape—and sighed into the dark.

.

.

.

And then he opened his eyes.

Strangely, he was in a bed. It was uncomfortable, ridges digging into his back and pressing into his skin, but warm, too, and he was burrowed in a blanket, head resting on a soft pillow. A slight draft wafted in through the window, and the curtains billowed in his direction, white and filmy against the pink sky.

Goro blinked. He recognized this room—knew intimately the sight of those windows, the blue blanket he was cuddled up with—but it couldn’t be the room he was thinking of, because that was Kurusu’s room. And, more to the point, Goro was fairly certain he’d just died tragically in Shido’s Palace.

As if attuned to his thoughts, the stairs creaked. Goro scrambled up, clutching onto his blanket for dear life. So Joker had figured out a way to save him, beyond all odds—fine. Fucking wonderful. But he was being kept alive for a reason, obviously, and though he’d made his peace with the Phantom Thieves he doubted it was anything good.

Out of instinct, he winced. He’d shot himself in the stomach—or something along those lines, he thought wryly—before he passed out, and the wound was probably still fresh, at most several days old. 

But the pain never came, because his injury wasn’t hurting at all. Nothing hurt, actually; not the bruises he’d sustained during his fight against the Thieves, or even the cut on his thumb from a few days prior. And, to top it off, he was wearing a white shirt and black slacks he didn’t recognize, not his school uniform. Tentatively, he slid the strange shirt up, revealing a completely unmarred stomach.

What the fuck?

“Everything okay over there, Goro?” came a familiar amused voice from the doorway. “You look like you’re having some trouble with that.”

Goro’s head shot up. Damn, that was fucking annoying. He’d been so preoccupied with the mysteriously disappeared gunshot that he hadn’t even noticed the door open, though he supposed that wasn’t entirely his own fault. Joker could be a sneaky bastard when he wanted to be. 

“Joker,” he said in lieu of greeting, crossing his arms over his chest and letting his shirt slip back down, covering his bare belly. “What am I doing here, exactly?”

Now that Goro was looking, Kurusu seemed different, sort of. He’d discarded his blazer in favor of a hoodie, and his glasses were askew on his nose, fogged up with steam. Even his hair seemed wilder than usual, curling behind his ears in black bunches. 

Kurusu laughed, and the sound was clear, unbothered. “So I’m Joker now? I thought we were past that stage. You must be sleepier than I thought if we’ve reverted to that level.” Holding up his right hand, he offered Goro a grin. “Thankfully, I come bearing gifts.” 

Balanced on his palm was a steaming cup of coffee, and Goro’s nose twitched traitorously at the smell of it. Though the whole affair was horribly suspicious, Leblanc’s coffee was, it had to be said, delicious. Perhaps even delicious enough to warrant conversing with Kurusu face-to-face.

“…Fine,” he said at last, reaching out to snatch the beverage from Kurusu’s hands. “Hand it over. And stop holding it like that—you’re going to make a mess all over the floor if it spills.”

Kurusu relinquished the cup dutifully and plopped down at the end of the bed, chuckling a little when Goro took a desperate gulp. “Gee, babe,” he teased, rubbing his chin in mock thought, “good to see you, too. Oh, how am I? I’m great. Work was fantastic.”

Swallowing, Goro leveled a scowl in Kurusu’s direction. “Stop messing around,” he muttered, placing the mug on the nightstand. “What’s going on here, exactly? How did you get me out—wait, no, wrong question. Did you defeat him?”

The smile spread across Kurusu’s face dropped, and his brows furrowed, creasing together on his smooth forehead. “What are you talking about?” he asked, concerned. “Are you not feeling well?”

He leaned forward, pressing the back of his palm against Goro’s forehead. It was such a familiar gesture, one that recalled nights as a kid in his small apartment with his mom, who rubbed his arm when he felt sick and sang him lullabies and spoon-fed him her special soup, even though he knew it was just the canned stuff from the grocery store next door, and—

“Stop it,” Goro hissed, swatting Kurusu’s hand away. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, so stop pretending you don’t. And stop calling me Goro. We’re not on such familiar terms.”

Kurusu drew back, evidently hurt. “I haven’t called you Akechi in months,” he said, lifting his hands to give Goro space. “And I promise, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. All we did today was go to the internet café—you know, the one you like in Akihabara?”

Goro did know the internet café he liked in Akihabara. He’d spent many nights there throughout middle school and high school studying for exams, hunched over textbooks until dawn broke over the city and it was time to leave. What he didn’t know was how Akira had any knowledge of his late night study habits—he’d never revealed the spot to any of the Thieves, and certainly not to Kurusu himself.

When Goro stayed silent, Akira’s eyes widened with concern, and he slid his phone out of his pocket. “That’s it,” he muttered under his breath, fingers flying over the keyboard. “I’m calling Dr. Takemi. She’ll be furious with me because of course it’s her and Sae-san’s date night, why wouldn’t it be, but this is seriously freaking me out.”

Reaching out to grab at the phone, Goro tried to quell the panic in his voice when he snarled, “Don’t be stupid, Kurusu—Shido is monitoring Yongen-Jaya. If he sees me exit Leblanc he’ll be onto us both, and then you’ll get us killed. Unless you’ve already defeated him, though judging by your previous confusion I highly doubt it.”

Kurusu’s hand stilled, fingers frozen over the buttons. “Sorry,” he said, confused. “Did you just say Shido? And… Kurusu?”

“Of course,” replied Goro, hands falling back down at his sides when it seemed like Kurusu wasn’t going to call a doctor after all. Something was strange about this—Kurusu calling him by his given name and vice versa, the missing gunshot wound, the clear surprise at hearing Shido’s name.“Who else would I be talking about?”

“Goro,” started Kurusu, cautious as he sat back to appraise Goro, “we changed Shido’s heart over two years ago, remember?”

Oh.

Well, that was a conundrum. So Goro really had died, then, and this idyllic scene was a product of his fevered imagination. He’d heard of such things happening before, people on the verge of death hallucinating hyper-realistic visions of paradise or God, but he’d never expected it would happen to him. He wasn’t usually one to entertain such indulgent fantasies.

But why Joker? he thought, holding Kurusu—no, Akira’s anxious gaze. Why is Joker the one appearing in my final moments?

Undeniably, he felt something unique for Kurusu Akira. The leader of the Phantom Thieves had introduced Goro to possibilities he had never imagined, shown him a life that he could have led had the circumstances been different. But ultimately they hadn’t been different and Goro had died alone anyways, bled out on the floor under Shido’s thumb. There was no point in exploring what might have been had something changed along the way. But still, maybe he could go along with it for a little while. Goro was dead regardless—it didn’t matter whether he embarrassed himself pretending to have friends in his own mind. 

“Right, of course,” he decided to say, breaking the tense eye contact and trying to make himself look as contrite as possible. “Sorry, um… Akira. I didn’t mean any of that. I was simply disoriented… Sometimes the nightmares are a little too realistic.”

Akira frowned, but he seemed to buy the cheap lie, placing a reassuring hand on Goro’s blanket-covered knee. “I can ask Dr. Takemi for some sleep aid if you’re having trouble. I know we decided to put them aside for a while, but if you’re still struggling it’s no big deal to—”

“No,” Goro interrupted. “It’s fine, really. Anyways, thank you for the coffee. It’s delicious, as per usual.”

Though Akira looked like he wanted to say something more on the subject, clearly he thought the better of it, because his eyes brightened with humor. “I didn’t study under Sojiro for nothing,” he joked. “I think I learned more about coffee and curry than the Metaverse that year.”

“At least those skills are usable,” said Goro dryly, fighting back a smile of his own when Akira barked out another laugh. “I doubt you could put former Phantom Thief on your resumé.”

Akira grinned, wagging a disapproving finger in Goro’s face. “Rude and wrong, Mr. Detective. Ryuji has done it at least three times.” He paused, and added with a thoughtful tilt of his head, “Though I don’t think that ever made into the final version. Thank God for Ann.”

Huh. So Takamaki and Sakamoto had some sort of relationship, then. That was interesting—certainly not a couple he’d seen coming in high school, though it had been obvious from the get-go that Sakamoto harbored some feelings for her.

“Thank God for Ann indeed,” he echoed, taking a long sip of his coffee. Calling Takamaki by her given name felt strange, but if he was reading the room correctly, not doing so would arouse Akira’s suspicions more. Obviously they had all become friends in this warped world, formed from the lonely recesses of Goro’s psyche. It was sort of humiliating. “Good to know everything’s still going well on that front.”

Akira chuckled. “You know them. They’ve always been like that. Actually, I think they’re even planning a trip to Los Angeles sometime soon, too, for one of Ann’s international shoots. I hope Ann gives Ryuji some time to practice his English—I distinctly remember him saying he’d never need it back in high school.”

“Right,” said Goro, though in truth he barely knew them at all. Some of these things matched what he knew about his former teammates, but he’d spent most of his time in Akira’s presence alone. He couldn’t recall ever being alone with another Phantom Thief on purpose.

“Speaking of,” continued Akira, oblivious to Goro’s mental struggle, “that’s actually why I woke you up. Makoto texted me an hour ago––she and Haru are going to the diner for some dinner and were wondering if we could drop by. You up for it?”

Goro considered this. Niijima was sharp, too sharp for his liking, and she would probably notice something was off. But if this truly was Goro’s dream world, then it shouldn’t matter whether her interest was piqued or not. Besides, it might seem more suspicious for Goro to turn down Akira’s request––they were clearly close friends, and Akira knew his preferences well.

“Okay,” Goro acquiesced after a few more moments of reflection. An argyle sweater vest that looked suspiciously like one of his own dangled from the chair at the end of the bed, and Goro had a hunch his dream self had left it there before settling down to sleep. “Just let me get dressed first. I’ll meet you downstairs in five.” 

Akira gave him a mock salute and said with false solemnity, “Yessir.” He hopped to his feet, marching step by step out of the room, and pushed the door shut behind him. His footsteps were still audible even after the door was firmly closed, squeaking on the old staircase as he made his way to the café.

Releasing a sigh he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, Goro swung his legs over the side of the bed, rising on slightly unsteady footing. He grabbed the sweater and pulled it over his head, running a hand through his hair to straighten out the bedhead he was certain he’d developed, and began to take stock of the room around him.

Now that there were no distractions around, the wheels of his mind were turning, analyzing the meager information the room provided. Unlike in the real world, this version of Akira’s room was bare––there were no posters on the walls, no mementos lining the shelves, and hardly any personal touches at all. The old tool desk was dismantled, too; the place where it had stood during their team meetings was empty save for cobwebs.

“So Akira doesn’t live here anymore, then,” muttered Goro, gaze sweeping briefly over the empty room. “Though obviously he still assists Sakura with the café.”

He was beginning to piece together a picture of the events that had led him into Akira’s former bedroom. Probably after a hard day of work, dream Goro had retreated to his former hiding place for a cup of coffee. Coincidentally, Akira—who was a close friend in this fake universe, apparently—was picking up an evening shift at Leblanc. Noticing Goro’s exhaustion, Akira had offered up his old attic room as a place to rest for the time being, and had continued working downstairs in the meantime until Niijima and Okumura had informed him of their dinner plans.

Yes, that sounded about right. Though he still had innumerable questions about this strange hallucination—was it a product of the Metaverse, or simply the delusions of a dying man?—there was no better way to answer them than exploring the limits of the universe stretched out before him. And Akechi Goro, if nothing else, had ample experience defining the rules of cognitive worlds.

Satisfied, Goro straightened out his sweater and strode downstairs. When he reached the foot of the stairs, he immediately noticed Akira staring out through the glass pane of the front door, back turned to the attic. His hair was longer than it had been before, black curls brushing the knob of his spine, and he was broader, too, the shape of his lean body better defined than ever before.

Goro coughed conspicuously, alerting Akira to his presence. “I’m ready,” he said, walking a few more paces to close the gap between them. “I hope I didn’t make you wait too long.”

“Not at all,” said Akira, turning around to give him a once-over. “You look nice as always, Goro.”

A light blush rose in Goro’s cheeks, much to his horror. “Thank you,” he managed, avoiding Akira’s gaze. Being so bashful over a compliment from a friend was unendingly humiliating—was he really that susceptible to being charmed?

Akira leaned forward, tucking a strand of hair that had fallen loose behind Goro’s ear. “No, seriously,” he said, brushing his thumb over the arc of Goro’s cheekbone. “I love that sweater on you, you know that. Reminds me of the old days, y’know?”

“I suppose so,” Goro replied, slightly breathless. He knew his face was probably bright red, but he hardly cared. Was Akira like this with all of his friends? How had he never noticed how flirtatious Joker was? “I never realized—mph!”

Whatever he was going to say evaporated from his mind when Akira ducked down and kissed him, slow and sweet. His lips were soft and dry and the hand on Goro’s cheek was smooth, cool against the heat of Goro’s flushed skin.

This is nice, Goro thought, unbidden, letting his eyes drift shut and sinking into the kiss. It’s really nice. 

What must have been only a few seconds later, Akira pulled back, eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “Just one for the road. You know how they feel about PDA,” he teased, pushing open the front door. He held it open, waiting for Goro—who was rooted on the spot, dumbstruck—to follow. “Shall we?”

Goro’s mind was spinning, dizzy and overwhelmbed, but he mustered a believable nod and allowed Akira to lace their fingers together, let himself be led out into the comfortable evening streets of Yongen-Jaya. As they strolled toward the station hand in hand, the sun sank in the sky, bright orange streaks bleeding onto the pink canvas. The stirrings of daily life buzzed around them and neighborhood shops bustled with the evening rush hour.

Truthfully, Goro had already began to suspect that their relationship was deeper than he’d initially guessed. He wasn’t blind—the overly gentle touches and the references to a shared life hadn’t flown completely under his radar. His detective work had forced him to confront many uncomfortable truths in the past, but though the hints had all been there he’d refused to follow his intuition, rejecting the possibility of something more between them out of desperation. Even now he was tempted to deny it, because it ached to think about the fate that awaited this imaginary relationship.

There would be no future for him and Akira. Goro was a dead man.

“You sure you’re okay, Goro?” Akira asked, interrupting his inner turmoil. “You’re being suspiciously quiet.”

Goro squeezed Akira’s hand. There was no use agonizing over his own death now––it was done and over with. He’d made his own bed, and now he’d have to lie in it. “It’s nothing,” he said, forcing a smile. “I promise. I’m still a little tired, that’s all. Let’s hurry—Makoto will get annoyed if we keep them waiting for too long.”

Akira squeezed back, and they followed the winding path to the station. The train arrived with little fanfare, exactly the same as Goro remembered it. There were small changes—the movies being advertised were different, and the tiles were worn with time and rain—but the crowds, shifting and pushing to squirm into the cramped carriages, were constant. He could almost imagine taking the train with Akira back in high school; chatting by the door, reading side by side. 

I wish it were real, thought Goro, watching the station whiz by. Why couldn’t we have met a few years earlier?

 

The diner was warm and homely. Children ran down the aisle, chasing each other as their parents yelled after them, and the scent of steaming dishes wafted in from the kitchens. Niijima and Okumura were seated together at a booth near the front, heads together as they talked in hushed tones. Goro noticed their interlaced hands immediately, and his eyes widened infinitesimally.

Though there had been something between them even back in high school, Okumura’s position in her father’s company had evidently made having any relationship separate from business dealings difficult. The pressure on her had been intense, and sustaining something with a partner for so long—especially another woman—had probably been impossible at the time, if Goro’s understanding was correct. He’d expected a breakup within the year. But even now that they were approaching their twenties they looked happy, perfectly in sync with each other.

Good, thought Goro. It was nice to be wrong every once in a while. 

As if she was aware of Goro’s thoughts, Okumura looked up, and a smile bloomed on her flushed face. “Akira-kun! Goro-chan!” she called, waving a hand in their direction. “We’re over here! Mako-chan already ordered for you!”

Akira grinned back, and tugged Goro toward the table. “Typical Makoto,” he whispered, breath hot against the shell of Goro’s ear. “She always thinks she knows what everyone else wants. I’ll never forget when she gave Ann a minor allergic reaction at our graduation.”

Laughing, Goro let himself be pulled. They ended up across from the other couple, with Goro squeezed against the wall, facing Niijima head on. Immediately, Akira plunged into conversation with Okumura, barraging her with questions.

Goro stifled another chuckle and turned to the woman sitting across from him instead. Niijima’s red eyes were still as sharp as ever, but there was a softer tilt to the set of her brows. This age looked good on her—she was relaxed in a way Goro had never seen her express before.

“Hey,” she greeted, offering him a smile. “It’s been a while.” Her gaze flitted to her girlfriend and Akira, and she added dryly, “I’m glad to see Akira-kun is still the same as ever.”

Goro took a sip of the water laid out in front of him and replied, tone equally dry, “You know what they say about birds of a feather.”

Niijima snickered, and Goro released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Their relationship had been on thin ice even before he’d betrayed the Phantom Thieves; Niijima’s jealousy of his close relationship with Sae-san had always been obvious. To make matters worse, he was sitting across from her girlfriend, the very same girlfriend whose father Goro had coincidentally murdered. Awkward was a kind way of describing their situation.

“Now what could you two be laughing about?” Akira grumped, turning his attention back to Goro. “Ah. Making fun of us, I see. Hmm. Haru, what do you have to say about this?”

Fighting back giggles, Okumura raised her head and said, with as much seriousness as she could manage, “You’ve been bad.”

Niijima flushed a deep red, and she slapped a hand over Okumura’s mouth, steadfastly ignoring Akira losing his shit across the table. “Haru,” she hissed, scandalized. “We’re in public.”

“So this is what you do in private? I see. I suppose having a background in criminal law does make you more susceptible to… certain things,” said Goro. He was new to this—playing along with Akira’s schemes, teasing his friends—but seeing Niijima spluttering for air and getting a clandestine high five under the table from Okumura made him laugh with genuine joy.

“Nice one,” complimented Akira, slinging an arm around Goro’s shoulder. “I told you he’d join in, Haru. Goro’s always up for a good roast.”

Okumura beamed. “I should have expected such a show of bravery from Goro-chan,” she said, batting her eyes innocently. “One would have to be brave to be Akira-kun’s boyfriend, after all.”

“That’s right,” agreed Akira. His eyes were scrunched up in happiness, and a warmth settled deep in Goro’s stomach, fluttering and soft. “But don’t think I didn’t hear the insult there. You’re on thin ice.”

“Welcome to my life,” said Niijima, though she looked pleased. “Cease and desist, Haru. You’ve inflicted enough torture for today.”

The waitress arrived with heaping plates of food, effectively cutting off their conversation, and a comfortable silence settled on the table. Akira had expressed his doubts about Niijima’s food selection, but to Goro the steak was delicious––hot and perfectly cooked, it reminded him of home meals he’d never had.

As he looked up at the girls sitting across from him and felt the warmth of Akira’s hand next to his, Goro thought, Is this friendship? Is this what it means to have teammates who support you?

“Goro-chan?” said Okumura, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. Her impeccable manners hadn’t  changed, clearly; she was still much too polite. “You seem distracted. Is everything alright?”

Goro paused, considering, then said, “Yes, thank you. I’m just tired. You know how it is these days.”

Niijima swallowed a bite of steak. “If you’re having trouble sleeping I can always ask Tae-san for advice,” she suggested. “She’s always at nee-chan’s house these days, anyway. I’m seriously wondering when nee-chan will decide to fly them out to America and hold the wedding already.”

“Sae-san wants to get married?” said Goro, incredulous. “Really? I’d never thought it even possible. When we worked together at the SIU I could hardly get her to leave her desk.”

“Not anymore,” Niijima replied, a proud smile tugging at her lips. “Since she switched jobs she’s been hanging around Yongen-Jaya way too much for her own good. You’ve seen her skulking around Leblanc, right? Tae must be sick of her face by now.”

Akira shook his head, grinning. “Impossible,” he fired back. “I don’t think I’ve seen her this happy in years. Even her patients are noticing how spooky it is.”

Okumura hummed, laying her head on her girlfriend’s shoulder. “I think it’s romantic,” she sighed into the crook of Niijima’s neck. “Sae-chan finally finding love… Tae-chan giving up her cold façade…”

“Lay off the water, Haru,” teased Niijima, giving Okumura a gentle nudge. “It’s getting to you. And we all remember what happened the last time you got drunk with Akira-kun.”

The whole table devolved into laughter, and though Goro didn’t know what they were talking about, he couldn’t help but join it. It was strange––mere hours ago he’d been counting down the minutes until he’d be able to kill the Phantom Thieves, but now they felt like old friends.

Morgana had been right when he’d accused Goro of misrepresenting his feelings toward Joker and his teammates, because he knew now that this is what he’d wanted all along. And it was painful to know he’d never get it.

 

When they left the restaurant and parted ways with Niijima and Okumura, nerves began to swell in Goro’s throat, clogging his words and rendering him silent. 

He wanted to say something to prolong this tenuous world, but the closer he and Akira drew to the station, the more he was convinced he was about to well and truly die. The night had been perfect—he’d kissed an amazing boy he liked, he’d spent time with friends, he’d enjoyed a filling meal—and there was nothing more he could demand from the fantasies of his mind. It would only be fitting for the dream to come to an end now that he had ridden it out to completion, however—

“Don’t go home,” said Akira, so out of the blue it was as if he’d read Goro’s thoughts. “Spend the night. Futaba’s gonna come around to drop off Morgana at some point, and it’d be nice to see her again. I have, in fact, procured a futon since the last time you slept over.” He gave Goro an exaggerated, suggestive smirk, and added coyly, “Though I don’t think we needed it.”

Ah. Goro’s face went red and he nodded, embarrassed by his own demureness. So it was like that between them, then. 

Akira laughed and drew him in for a hug, right in front of the entrance to the station. “You’re so cute, I can’t help myself sometimes,” he mumbled, arms circling Goro’s waist. “I just want to wrap you all up and never let go.”

“Then don’t,” Goro echoed, resting his head on the sharp bone of Akira’s shoulder. His neck was warm and his skin smelled nice, like fresh soap, and his arms rooted him in place, encircling him in their protective grip. “I’ll stay, if you want. I want to.”

Akira hummed, and the noise vibrated against the bare skin of Goro’s throat. “Let’s get going, then. We're all in agreement," he said. "And, uh… Quickly. There's an episode of Featherman airing tonight at eight and I really don't want to miss it."

 

Like Goro had assumed, they weren’t heading back to Leblanc. Instead, they took the train a little way’s past, getting off a few stations further down the line. There was a short walk, weaving through various community stores and small houses, until they finally stopped in front of an apartment complex at the end of a road. It was neither big nor small, and there were probably only about twenty apartments housed there in total, but there was something homely about the squat door and the flower boxes that sat in front of the entrance.

“Home sweet home,” said Akira, digging in his pocket for his keys. “Hopefully Futaba didn’t break in again and just used her own keys. It was tough explaining that one to the landlord.”

“Small miracles,” agreed Goro as he walked into the building.

Once the door was open, they went up to the third floor, and stopped in front of an apartment a few paces past the stairs. Akira let out a long, contented sigh and let them in, pushing the door shut as soon as Goro stepped inside. 

The entrance was largely undecorated, bare save for a rather ugly rug that led to a different room. The lights were on and a pair of familiar boots were strewn haphazardly on the floor, crumpled in a sad black heap.

“Futaba!” Akira called, slipping off his shoes and padding over the other room. “Get your butt out here! I’ve told you to keep your shoes neater a million times!”

Goro followed suit, placing his shoes next to Akira’s and trailed behind him. The room the short hallway led to—the living room, he realized—was furnished with a short, flat table in the middle and a couch pressed against the wall. There were a few more doors that led to other rooms, but the apartment was small. 

It made sense. If Akira was at university like Goro had assumed, he’d probably scrounged up his savings to purchase it. Briefly he wondered why Akira wasn’t living at home, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind he shook it off. This was Goro’s dream; he wouldn’t know Akira’s parents by face. The real Akira might very well want to move back in with his family.

“She’s not here,” commented Akira, setting his bag down on the table. “Probably ruining all my games, the little brat. Just sit down wherever, I’ll be back in a second.”

Once he was gone, Goro sat awkwardly on one of the cushions. Though he knew as Akira’s boyfriend it would only be natural to spend time at his house, he felt like a voyeur. The walls were decorated with photographs, framed and carefully placed, that Goro had never seen before. Group shots of the Phantom Thieves from high school occupied the first few frames with more people joining the cluster of teenagers with each subsequent photo, and then Sakura, posing next to his daughter in snapshots of happy family life. Eyes drifting across the wall, he took in a sharp breath. At Niijima and Okumura’s graduation, Goro himself was standing next to Akira, smiling for the camera. Next to that photo was one of his own graduation, and he glowed, clutching a bouquet of flowers and beaming at whoever was taking the picture.

“Damn,” he swore softly, forcing his eyes away from the wall. It was hard to examine those photos and imagine that they were real, because Goro would never graduate high school and Akira would never be around to take his picture like that. It was nothing more than a comforting lie.

Before he could reflect more on this, the door swung open, and Akira emerged. Stumbling out behind him was Sakura Futaba, who in turn was dragging a cat out through the frame. Her long hair was tied back in a ponytail and she wore a green hoodie, headphones around her neck as always. She looked basically the same, but there was a different aura about her; the set of her brows was less reticent, perhaps, or her eyes were less fearful.

When she noticed Goro, her face lit up. “Gorocchi!” she yelped, darting out from behind Akira. “Save me! Akira’s being a bully!”

Gorocchi? he thought, bewildered. He’d never been given such a nickname before outside of his more persistent online fans, though that had only annoyed him.

“No I’m not,” Akira replied, mussing up her hair. “Futaba’s just salty I didn’t let her beat my high score.”

Morgana sniffed from his position in her arms, and said, “She was coming a little too close for his liking.”

Akira scowled, and Futaba gently placed Morgana onto the floor, letting him shake himself off. Immediately, he leapt up onto the couch, stretching out on a long cushion. “If Goro’s staying over, I’m sleeping here,” he said, licking his paw. “That door had better be locked, Akira. Last time I almost sued for damages.”

“Same,” muttered Akira, eyes flashing. Goro honestly didn’t want to ask. “Anyways, Futaba, are you staying over here or going home? Sojiro’s texted me, like, three times asking where you are.”

Sakura snorted. “Stay here with you and Gorocchi? I think not. Besides, I have midterms in, like, a week. Even if I wanted to, Sojiro would freak out.”

Even Sakura didn’t want to stay? Were he and Akira really that infamous?

“Fair,” said Akira, dropping down onto the couch. “I’m gonna watch some Featherman reruns if you want in. If not, I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

Sakura grinned and ruffled his hair, earning a grunt for her trouble. Turning to Goro, she did the same, and said, “Stay frosty, Gorocchi.”

There was a moment’s pause, after which Goro realized he should probably respond. “Right,” he said, dazed. “You too, Futaba.”

With one final nod to the room, she bolted, shoving on her tall boots and running out of the apartment with loud, clattering steps. Goro stared after her in disbelief, hardly comprehending that she had left at all. 

Was this really the same hikikomori he’d met back then? Her approach to life—zooming in and out without a care—was so different from the way it had been before, when she’d condemned herself to die for nonexistent sins. Could this really be the same girl?
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Morgana, breaking Goro’s train of thought. “Is everything alright, Goro?”

His gaze lingered on the empty entrance for a few more seconds before he looked back at Morgana. “Yes, sorry,” he said, fixing his hair and moving to sit next to Akira on the couch. His boyfriend registered his presence with a happy hum, and Goro grabbed his hand, interlacing their fingers. “I was simply distracted, that’s all. Futaba is certainly a force to be reckoned with these days.”

A proud smile bloomed on Akira’s face. “Damn straight,” he said. “Now that she’s actually going to school she’s at the top of the class, of course. Runs in the family.”

“It’s not just that, though, right?” speculated Goro. “I suppose it’s what one might call ‘joie de vivre.’ She seems so carefree.”

Akira laughed, running his hand over the grooves in Goro’s knuckles. When Goro shot him an offended look, he clarified, “I’m not laughing at what you said, just the way you said it. You’re totally right—she’s way happier now than she ever was before. I was just reminded of when you quoted Hegel when we first met. Not exactly your finest pickup line.”

Spluttering, Goro fired back, "You weren't exactly smooth either! I distinctly remember you saying 'honey, I'm home' one evening when you saw me sitting at the counter! I had no idea how to respond to such a stupid statement!"

Eyes wide, Akira started, "At least I—"

“You were both dumb as rocks,” interrupted Morgana dryly, eliciting a middle finger from Akira. “Hey, just telling the truth. No offense intended.”

Akira frowned and pressed a soft kiss into Goro’s hair, argument forgotten. “Offense taken," he said. "I’m the only one who can insult my boyfriend.”

A stupid, wobbly grin pulled at the corners of Goro's mouth before he could force it back down. "Thanks," he whispered, snuggling into Akira's side.

"No problemo," Akira said, leaning across the couch to grab the remote. He still had a cheap TV, but at least it was better than the CRT he'd had in his bedroom at Leblanc. Goro had never stayed over to watch anything on it, but out of all the things he regretted not doing with Akira during his actual lifetime, that wasn't one of them. "Red is still beating the shit out of Blue, and I'm not about to stand by and watch my boys kill each other. You good for a few episodes?"

"Sure," replied Goro, bringing his knees up to his chest. "Queue them up, Akira. I'm ready."

 

 

By the time the marathon was over, Goro was exhausted. He'd been awake for what felt like days, and the conflicting emotions of this fantasy world and the first half of the day were jarring, enough to make him want to sleep for an eternity.

Not literally, he thought darkly. He knew he was dead on a logical level, but this world felt so real, and the thought of dying filled him with immeasurable remorse. It wasn't that it had changed his feelings, exactly, but before when he'd lain awake at night and contemplated being friends with the Phantom Thieves—and Akira, too, on particularly lonely evenings full to the brim with self-loathing—it had felt like an impossibility. Now that he knew it was possible and precisely what it could look like, he didn't want to leave it behind. Finally he had something to cling onto, tethering him to the world he lived in, and it didn't even matter because he'd already fucking killed himself.

Akira nudged his arm. "Hey," he said softly. "Sorry, didn't mean to disturb you. Just wanted to say the episode is over." Rising to his feet, he stretched his arms over his head and offered a hand out to Goro. "Wanna go to bed? I'm super tired, and you're practically sleeping already."

Goro accepted the hand and let himself get pulled to his feet. "Need any help with the futon?" he asked, stifling a yawn. "You mentioned that you'd bought one…"

"No, it's alright," said Akira, ushering him away from the TV and into the room Futaba had been hiding out in earlier. "Just take the bed, I can sleep on the couch. There's plenty of time to set up the futon tomorrow."

Though Goro's mind was too tired to properly process the situation, his brows furrowed on his forehead. Something about what Akira had just said sounded wrong. "No," he protested. "We can share, Kurusu-kun. It's not a big deal."

"Jeez, you really are tired," muttered Akira, directing him toward the bed. Obediently, Goro sat down on its edge. "That's the second 'Kurusu' of the day. We didn't spend months getting rid of it just to revert now, did we?"

Frowning, Goro said without thinking, "Stop dodging the subject. Come to bed with me."

Immediately, he realized the implications of the words he'd just spoken. The undertones were intense, even though they clearly shared some sort of relationship of that nature if their friends' accounts were to be trusted. An embarrassed blush rose high in his cheeks, and he was on the verge of taking it back when he noticed Akira staring, jaw dropped.

"Um," Akira breathed out, at a loss for words. "Okay. Yeah, that's cool, we can just share. It's no big deal, ahahaha…"

Goro looked away, not trusting himself to keep calm if he kept staring at Akira's face. He'd never seen the other boy so flustered before, and the intense red of his cheeks—probably resembling Goro's own, which he could feel burning with humiliation—made his belly churn. "Cool," he said, and it sounded so unlike him he wanted to laugh.

"Cool," echoed Akira, sitting down next to him. "So should we just—"

Hands fisted in his shirt, Goro nodded, effectively cutting Akira off. "Let me take some of this off," he said, pulling the sweater vest over his head. He didn't have pajamas, but the white shirt he was wearing would suffice. It wasn't even clear that he'd survive in this world until the morning came, though the longevity of the dream suggested that it was a product of the Metaverse and not as he initially assumed.

"I'll just… yeah," stuttered Akira, turning away to tug his own shirt off. Like Goro had suspected, his back was broader than before, muscles rippling as he flexed his arms.

Stop staring, idiot, he berated himself, focusing back on his own predicament. He fumbled with his belt for a few moments, undoing it and slipping his pants off. Before he could flail around, Goro slipped into bed, tugging the blanket up to his chin and squeezing his eyes shut. His bare legs were hot against the cotton, and he could hear his own heart racing in his chest.

A few seconds later, the light flickered off, and the bed dipped with Akira's weight. He was emanating body heat, and though it was a beautiful spring night, the bedroom was cool, and Goro wanted to huddle up with him until sleep fell upon him. Maybe it was silly, but he somehow believed that if he was holding onto Akira the universe couldn't snatch him up and send him back from whence he came into the void of death.

Unwittingly, Goro's eyes opened at this thought. Akira's eyes were open, too, dark grey and soft even in the darkness. They were close but not touching; mere inches apart, Goro could practically feel the warmth of Akira's skin.

"Hello," he whispered.

"Hi," Akira whispered back. "So, you come here often?"

Mood broken, Goro couldn't help but giggle. "Shut up," he said through the laughter. "You're so annoying, leave me alone."

"Aw, but wouldn't be half as fun," said Akira, and Goro could practically hear the pout in his voice.

Affecting a deadpan, Goro replied, "You and I clearly have different definitions of 'fun.'"

Though the other boy gasped before any real verbal response, Goro could easily detect the righteous indignation in the sound. "Goro-chan's mean tonight," Akira whined, burying his face in a pillow. "Jeez, bullied by my own boyfriend… Talk about harsh."

"I guess you're tolerable," Goro conceded after a moment's pause. "Maybe."

Lifting his head from the cushion, Akira's eyes sparkled. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me," he said, touching his heart as if he were moved. Dork. "C'mere, it's all cold over here. I promise I don't bite without being asked."

Goro rolled his eyes but obliged, scooting forward to get closer to Akira. To help him along, Akira wrapped an arm around Goro's waist, closing the remaining distance between them. They were smushed together, arms and legs intertwined in a jumble of limbs, and Akira's breath was hot against Goro's cheek.

"Akira," he murmured, letting his eyes flutter shut. "You're really close…"

"Sorry," said Akira, not sounding very sorry at all. "Just let me—and I really mean only once, okay? Just…"

He leaned in and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Goro's lips, tightening his grip around Goro's waist when he reciprocated. Unlike the kiss at Leblanc, this one had intent; Akira's mouth was hot and certain against Goro's own, and his hands stroked the curve of Goro's hips with purpose. Goro tipped his head back to allow better access, sighing contentedly when Akira peppered soft kisses down his neck and onto his sharp collarbone.

They kissed for minutes—or hours? Goro had no idea; he'd lost track after the first ten seconds—until Akira ducked down one last time, laying a final lingering kiss on Goro's collarbone before pulling away and flopping back onto his back. The room was silent save for their panting as they tried to get their bearings, punctuated by the whirring of the mechanical fan.

"Today was nice," said Akira after a few seconds, quieter than before. "We haven't hung out like that for a while now."

Or ever, Goro's mind filled in. We haven't ever hung out like that.

"Yes," he said, deliberately ignoring his nagging thoughts. "I had a lot of fun. Seeing everyone was nice, too."

Akira nodded, the movement so subtle Goro almost missed it. "I love you," he said suddenly. "You know that, right?"

Goro's pulse spiked, heart thumping way too loudly in his chest. He was sure Akira could feel it—their chests were pressed against each other—but he hardly cared.

Love. 

It was such a funny word. For Goro, it had at first meant the soft touch of his mom's hand brushing his hair back as a child, the sway of her hips to the tinny music they used to play on the radio in their old apartment, the taste of the onigiri she'd make every Sunday and put out on the table for them to enjoy together. When she'd died and the police had dragged him out of the very same apartment kicking and screaming, begging for his mom to rescue him, he'd grasped the meaning that would follow him throughout the rest of his life.

For someone as miserable as Akechi Goro, the only thing love entailed was heartbreak.

But now, Akira was looking at him with a tenderness he'd never seen before, not even in his mom's glassy, empty eyes. Goro drank it in, drowning in its depth and earnestness, and he knew then that love could not be encompassed by those two things. There was no definition that truly suited it, because it was supple, could contain millions of different meanings and layers. And Goro couldn't parse even a fraction of those from a single glance, but when he gazed at Kurusu Akira he realized that it didn't have to be painful. It could be uncomplicated, fun; it could even be joyful.

I don't want to die, he thought, and panic clawed at his throat, shoving his trembling heart into his mouth. I'm not ready to leave yet.

"I love you, too," he said instead. "Now go to sleep, dummy. We're both tired."

"Mmm," Akira mumbled, already well on his way to unconsciousness. "Nighttime."

Goro laid awake in bed for a long time after that.

It was a struggle forcing his weary body to stay alert, but he was so terrified of what sleep would bring that he didn't want to close his eyes. It was true that if this world really slipped away and he just died, the Akira in the real world wouldn't be overly bothered. Their interactions, even the meetups at the jazz club and the pool hall, had all occurred while Goro was gathering information on Akira and his teammates, and undoubtedly Akira had been equally suspicious of him. The wide rings of Akira's shocked eyes when the bulkhead doors came crashing down had taken Goro aback in their intensity, but that didn't indicate any deeper feelings on his part; leaving anyone to die likely weighed heavily on Akira's consciousness, good samaritan that he was.

If this world were a real possibility shown to him by the last traces of his dying Personas and not a dream, though, then it was different. Why would his own mind show him something so tempting only to snatch it away at the last moment? It could be an act of repentance on the part of his subconscious, saddling Goro with enough guilt to last thousands of lifetimes in Hell, but he assumed his final act of sacrifice had already fulfilled that role. What was the use in punishing someone who was already dead?

The question poked at him, jabbing his soft underbelly, but he was too worn down to answer, and with a defeated exhale sleep crept over his body and washed over him like a gentle wave, pulling him under. 

 

 

When he woke up, Akira was thankfully still there.

Light filtered in through the curtains, and at some point Morgana had migrated inside the room, curled up at the foot of the bed and snoozing heartily. Goro yawned, arms outstretched above his head, and swung his legs over to the floor. On unsteady feet, he stumbled to the door he assumed was the bathroom, ignoring Akira's confused groaning for the time being.

"I'll be back in a second," he said over his shoulder, and let the bathroom door swing shut behind him. Like the rest of the apartment, it was small; a few basic necessities were scattered on the counter, and the bathtub was just large enough to accommodate someone of their size.

There was a large mirror above the sink, and Goro leaned forward to inspect his face. He hadn't yet had the opportunity to look himself what with everything that had happened yesterday, but there he was in the flesh—the face staring back at him was certainly and undeniably his own.

Except it wasn't, exactly. His cheekbones were a little more defined, jaw a little sharper, and his hair skimmed the top of his shoulders, just slightly longer than it had been yesterday. There were a few bruises on his collarbone, and a pleased flush spread across his cheeks at the thought of them.

Not the time, he reminded himself, refocusing on the task at hand.

The boy in the mirror was Goro, but not quite the same Goro who had died in Shido's Palace. The differences would be minimal to an outsider, but for Goro, who spent hours obsessing over the image he presented to the public, they were obvious. He looked older, matured by the two years that had passed since Shido's defeat, but in a good way. He wasn't weathered by age; on the contrary, he looked better. The bags under his eyes less defined, cheeks imbued with a healthy coloring, hair soft and clean, his appearance was vastly improved from the mess it had been after that fateful November night.

"Goro!" came Akira's voice from outside, muffled by the closed door. "Your phone's ringing!"

"Coming!" Goro shouted, giving himself one final once-over before pushing the door open and leaving his reflection behind.

Back in the bedroom, Akira was sitting up, rubbing at his eyes. In his hand was a slim black cellphone, more advanced than Goro's current model but still vaguely familiar. An obnoxious pop song was blasting from the speakers, jarringly loud in the quiet of the lazy morning.

"It's Ann," Akira groaned, tossing the offending item in Goro's direction and burying himself in the blanket. "Shoo. I need my beauty sleep."

Giving Akira a cheeky wave, Goro shut the bedroom door, settling down on the couch. He held the phone up in front of him, examining the caller ID and profile photo of the person whose incessant ringing had awoken Akira, and sure enough Takamaki's name and face were flashing across the screen.

Goro pressed the 'ANSWER CALL' button and held the phone up to his ear. "Hello?"

"Oh my God, finally!" said Takamaki, overexcited voice just as loud as the ringtone had been from the other end of the line. "I've been calling for ages."

Goro carded a hand through his hair, and said in lieu of explanation, "We were asleep."

"Goro," she said, a hint of disapproval in her light tone, "you know it's almost noon, right?"

Seriously? Goro hadn't slept past nine in years, but when he checked the time displayed on his screen he verified that Takamaki was telling the truth: it was fifteen minutes til noon.

"Ryuji just asked me to confirm our plans for today," she continued when Goro didn't say anything more. "We're all meeting up at the Tokyo Tower at three, right?"

"Right," Goro confirmed, though in reality he had no idea. "I'll remind Akira when he wakes up."

"Great," chirped Takamaki, cheerful as always. "Well, now that that's out of the way, what's up? It's been, like, a week, and I haven't gotten any Goro time. I'm dying from withdrawal over here."

Goro paused. So he was friends with Takamaki, too, then. He'd hardly spoken to her, had only known her as one of Akira's closest friends and oldest teammates, but he knew the gist of her story. She was brave—given the opportunity, she'd fought hard to defend her friend. Having someone like that on his side probably wasn't a bad thing. "Nothing of interest," he replied casually. "I spoke to Makoto and Haru yesterday. They seemed in good health. As happily in love as always."

Takamaki laughed. "Sounds like them," she said. "Ryuji's doing okay too, by the way. He's too proud to call you himself—ouch, I'm just telling the truth, stop bothering me, Ryuji—but he misses you all. Working outside of the city is a pain for both of us." She yelped, and said quickly, "Sorry, gotta go—Ryuji's being a pain. Hey! Um, I'll see you later, yeah? Ok bye!"

With that the line went dead, beeping. Goro had to laugh—clearly their dynamic hadn't changed much since they were Phantom Thieves together if they were still bickering like that.

"How is she?" asked Akira from the doorway, finally roused from his slumber. "She sounded just as enthused as usual, if your face was telling me anything."

"Ann and Ryuji are fine," said Goro, placing his phone onto the table. "Ann did say something about meeting at Tokyo Tower today at three, though."

"Oh, right," said Akira, flopping dramatically onto the couch. "Yusuke was going to get some pictures so he could paint a group portrait. He's been talking about it forever." He groaned, arms splayed out like a beached starfish. "Ugh. I love him, but ugh."

"Let's get some lunch first," said Goro, giving Akira's crown of fluffy curls a consoling pat. "That should alleviate some of the discomfort."

Akira beamed up at him. "God," he said, swinging his feet over the couch's arm and righting himself. "Your mind, Goro. It works in beautiful ways."

 

 

 

They arrived at the Tower five minutes late. They'd stopped for pan along the way, and had gotten sidetracked by a confused old woman asking for directions to the Ginza line at the station. Exchanging glances, they'd agreed in mutual silence to keep quiet about their own confusion and looked for it with her, ultimately stumbling upon a guard who kindly directed her towards the gate.

When they reached the observatory, the rest of the Thieves were already waiting, chatting amongst themselves with a familiar vigor. Kitagawa, the only who Goro hadn't spoken to, was staring at the sky, stroking his chin in consideration. 

"Leave him be," whispered Akira. "He's been like this since his last piece got selected for the gallery. I'm too scared to even ask what he's planning for next time."

"I believe you," replied Goro, amused by the intense look of concentration on Kitagawa's face. "I don't think he'd notice if we all left."

"Akira, my man," a familiar voice shouted. "We've been waiting forever!"

"It was ten minutes, Ryuji," said Takamaki, elbowing Sakamoto, though it wasn't as forceful as Goro remembered it being in high school. "But seriously, get your butts over here. Yusuke's been arranging us and he's not stopping."

"Moving isn't helping, Ann-chan," said Okumura, hiding her laugh behind a hand. "Maybe if we tried to keep still, then—"

"Ah, Akira!" interrupted Kitagawa unknowingly, coaxing a louder laugh out of Okumura. "So you've arrived. And Goro, too. Excellent. I can finally begin."

"Finally's the right word," muttered Niijima, too loud to really be subtle, but Kitagawa didn't seem to notice. Some things, apparently, never changed.

Futaba squirmed in place, skinny legs knocking. "Hurry up, Inari," she complained, wrapping her arms around her chest. "It's freezing in here. I'm gonna get hypothermia if you don't hurry up, and then I'll never go to university, and then—"

"Shh," said Ann, teeth gritted. "You'll only spur him on. Just… keep… quiet…"

Kitagawa moved in front of them, framing the scene with his fingers. It was such a cliché gesture that it almost seemed deliberate, but knowing Kitagawa it was an act of pure instinct.  "Goro, stand to the top right. Akira, you go in the middle… Yes, that's it. Ryuji to the right…"

Directing them to the appropriate places, he stared at the formation he'd chosen. "Perfect," he said, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. "Truly, this will serve as excellent inspiration." Withdrawing a camera from his pocket, he knelt down, trying to find the correct angle.

While he was setting up, Goro noticed something out of the corner of his eye. A blue butterfly, a kind that he'd never seen in Tokyo before, settled on the rail, wings iridescent in the afternoon sun. It was beautiful—exotic yet comforting, strange yet familiar.

"Look at that," he said to Akira, pointing to the butterfly. 

Akira's gaze followed the line of his finger, and his mouth quirked in confusion. "I don't see anything," he replied, eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?" 

Goro was about to say exactly what he'd seen when a familiar ringing filled his ears. "I'm sorry," a whispering voice spoke into his ear as Kitagawa pressed the button to capture the photograph."Your time is up."

The camera's flash set a white blur across the world in front of him, and his surroundings melted into black, friends dissolving as his vision faded to nothingness.

 

 

  

Goro's eyes flew open.

A shining blue light pooled around him, leading to a door decorated with elaborate engravings in gold. It was strange—he'd never seen this room before, but he felt like he knew he needed to pass through the doorway into whatever laid beyond.

When he moved, however, he was immediately greeted with a throbbing head; he was sore from head to toe, and his stomach stung with a sharp pain. The gunshot wound, he realized, taking in the deep red stain bleeding through his shirt. So this was reality, then. Putting aside the painful implications of that epiphany, he struggled to his feet, staggering on unsteady legs to the door. Grabbing onto the handle, he pushed it open and tumbled face down into whatever was awaiting him.

"Oh dear," came a strange elderly voice from a little ways off. "Lavenza, it appears our guest has arrived a little sooner than anticipated!"

At that, something Goro couldn't see clattered to the floor with a loud bang, and light footsteps approached him at a fast pace. Somehow managing to lift his head, Goro was met with the sight of a petite girl crouching down in front of him, sweet features marred by a look of intense pain. Her silvery blonde hair fell in a long, straight curtain, tucked behind a blue headband, and her brows were set in a hard line on her forehead. Beneath them lay gleaming, golden eyes, glinting in the room's dim lighting. "I'm so sorry," she said, kind voice mellowed by guilt. "I thought we'd know when you arrived, and clearly the healing process didn't go as planned, either… Give me a moment, Akechi-san." Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a little blue book. Flipping to a specific page, she shot him a reassuring smile and said, "Diarahan."

Goro's body was enveloped by a healing green light, and seconds later the pain was gone. He sat up fully, shifting up the shirt to examine the blood splatter covering the patch of skin where the bullet had once been lodged. True to her word, the girl had gotten rid of the injury; his stomach was still bloody, but otherwise unharmed.

"I'm terribly sorry for my rudeness," she continued when he lifted his head to look up at her. "My name is Lavenza, and the man seated at the desk is my master Igor. Welcome to the Velvet Room, Akechi-san… Though admittedly this is too little too late, I'm afraid."

"I died," he said bluntly, stomach dropping as she winced. Falling asleep really had been the key to returning. Figured it would turn out that way. "That's what you're referring to, correct?"

Lavenza bowed her head, hands clasped in front of her. "Yes," she admitted, tone steady even through her obvious distress. "And I cannot begin to express not only how sorry I am that we could not interfere sooner. I will spare you the specifics for time's sake, but my master and I were sealed away by a malevolent force known as Yaldabaoth. Thankfully, Inmate…" she paused, dainty nose scrunching up on her face. "Pardon me. It seems old habits do indeed die hard. As I was saying, Kurusu Akira and his friends were able to save us from his control and defeat him, freeing Tokyo from his influence in the process."

"So why am I here?" he asked, cutting straight to the point. "If Akira won, there's no reason for me to still be alive, right? Everything worked out for the best."

Lip trembling, Lavenza buried her face in her small hands. "I fear this is all my fault," she confessed. "Akechi-san, you weren't intended to die. As a Wild Card, we were supposed to protect you—to guide you. It is my personal responsibility to ensure their continued safety. One out of two surviving is not a winning hand. Unfortunately, due to Yaldabaoth's power, we weren't even aware of another Wild Card until Kurusu Akira mentioned it to us…"

Goro halted. He was receiving so much information it was hard to determine what was important enough to ask after, but—"Akira mentioned me?"

"Yes," said Lavenza, lifting her head from her black gloves. "During our final conversation before he departed for his hometown, he revealed to me your ability to use two separate Personas. When I expressed my surprise, he asked whether we had helped you in a similar fashion to the instruction Yaldabaoth and I had given him. Of course, I didn't know of your status."

Resenting the way anger churned in his belly, Goro said, as calm as he could manage, "I see. So upon learning of my existence you wanted to rescue me, correct? And that's what that dream was?"

Lavenza bobbed her head, seemingly relieved by Goro's understanding. "Precisely! Though I admit my intentions were not entirely selfless… There's another threat on the horizon, you see. One that is perhaps even larger and more formidable than the one before it. I needed—"

"I'm not doing it," snarled Goro before she could finish. At her shocked face, he spat, "Let me get this straight. You created a dream world based on my internal desires and forced me into it without my consent or knowledge, then suddenly picked me out so I could solve your problems?"

"I believe there's been a misunderstanding," she explained, frantic, hands held high in the air. "Akechi-san, the dream world wasn't a product of cognition. It was a peek into the potential future that awaited you in the new world. I have no idea what its contents could have been. It is not my place to know the events set to occur."

From a desk in the center of the room, the old man with the long, hooked nose—Igor, Goro remembered—chimed in, "She's right, you know. Lavenza has many gifts, but seeing her own future—or alternate timelines, in this case—is not among them."

"So… so then, what I saw was real?" asked Goro. He was trying desperately to suppress it, but hope was welling in his stomach. "Or… could it be real, at the very least?"

"It was one of many potential futures," she confirmed. "Do you see now what I meant? This opportunity is not so much a new beginning but a do-over. There will undoubtedly be extremely dangerous factors, ones that I am not at present aware of, but in my current state I cannot combat them alone. I need two Wild Cards. You and Kurusu Akira must work together."

"If there's a chance, then I will succeed," he promised, hands balled into fists at his sides as he looked up at her. "I will gladly take this opportunity, no matter the personal cost. You have my word."

"That's all well and good but there is, of course, a caveat," warned Lavenza, stooping low to face him on equal footing. Her eyes were steely, but still not unkind—there was a certain determination to them that Goro respected. "Your memories of this world and of the dream you experienced will disappear. Only the strength of the bonds you formed will keep you tethered. Should you choose to betray Kurusu Akira again, your path could proceed exactly as it has in this world. The 'me' in the new world is the same as the 'me' now, but my powers are weak, and there's no guarantee you'll survive to see me freed from my chains. There may be no third chance for you."

Goro faltered. His memories of the dream world and his fleeting moments with Akira in the real world were the only motivators he'd had to deviate from his plan in the first place. Without them, there was absolutely no guarantee he'd change his mind before the deadline arrived. If he didn't, everything could play out the way it had before, and he would have gained nothing. 

Lavenza, noticing his hesitation, smiled. "That's good. You should hesitate—this decision is not one to be made lightly. I only ask you to think of it this way. Do you trust Kurusu Akira?"

"Yes," replied Goro immediately. It was a surprise how easily those words spilled from his lips, without the slightest moment of doubt, and yet somehow not; trusting Akira at this point seemed natural.

"And do you trust your feelings for him?" she asked, elegant dress swishing as she stood back up and leaned over Goro's prostrate form, strands of silvery hair slipping loose and hanging like threads in a web. "Do you well and truly care for him?"

"Yes," said Goro. "I do."

"Then you should be fine," said Lavenza, holding out a hand. "I have no regrets with my decision."

Taking the proffered hand, Goro pulled himself to his feet. "Neither do I," he said honestly. "Thank you, Lavenza."

"May we meet again in your near future," she said, gripping his wrist tightly, golden eyes burning into his. "Take care, Akechi Goro."

Nothing happened for a few seconds and Goro opened his mouth, about to ask what he was supposed to be doing, when a loud ringing clogged his senses. Casting one final look in Lavenza's direction, he thought he heard her shout "Good luck!" before the pressure became too much and everything went an intense, all consuming white and—

.

.

.

He opened his eyes.

This thought immediately and inexplicably annoyed him, struck him with a sense of déjà vu that he didn't fully understand. Sighing, he shook himself out of his momentary rest and checked his watch. It was already midafternoon, and they hadn't started shooting yet. There was a group of Shujin students touring the building and the company still couldn't get its shit together enough to operate on schedule? It was ridiculous.

To make matters worse, he was starving. The mention of pancakes earlier had reminded him that he hadn't yet eaten, and he knew with all the studio's issues it would be another few hours before he got the chance.

The students he'd encountered were an interesting group. One of them had had a sort of punk aesthetic, short, choppy hair dyed a violent yellow, whereas his female companion had possessed an elegant Western beauty, hair and eyes natural-looking. The third student had been particularly intriguing—eyes hidden behind a long, floppy fringe and thick glasses, he hadn't said a word, but he emanated a weirdly commanding presence. And something about him was so damn familiar, eerily so.

Interesting, he thought, waiting for the PD—who had finally appeared from the back room, tripping over his own apologies—to lead him onstage.

The hostess engaged the crowd in some meaningless banter before going out into the crowd, microphone in hand, to select a student to answer her question. Stopping in front of the same mysterious student from before she asked, voice cloying, "Hypothetically speaking, what would you think of the Phantom Thieves if they were real?"

The student's face was still blank but his voice was firm when he said, unwavering, "They're necessary."

Goro's eyes widened despite himself. Such a resounding message of support was unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome—an opposing viewpoint could make Goro's beliefs sound more legitimate. "Haha, I wasn't expecting that," he said, forcing down the real surprise in his voice. 

The male host said something irrelevant, but Goro wasn't listening. This boy was interesting—he spoke with such authority, but he shrank into himself in the public eye. "Indeed," Goro replied when prompted, hoping what he said matched the host's words. "It's rather intriguing to hear such a strong acknowledgement. In that case, there's one more question I'd like to ask. If someone close to you, for example your friend sitting next to you… If his heart suddenly changed, wouldn't you think it was the work of the Phantom Thieves?"

Barely lifting his head, the student responded without pause, "What would you think?"

Very interesting indeed, thought Goro. He fed the camera a few more lines, but his mind was focused on the student in the crowd. What would prompt a random civilian to reply to Goro's comments with such strong opposition? And why did Goro feel so keenly that they’d met before?

Before he knew it, the broadcast was over, and the students were clearing out to go home. The student was standing in the corner, alone, hands shoved deep in his pockets as he leaned against the wall. It was a perfect moment to engage him in conversation like Goro was itching to do—there was no one to see and think he was paying certain fans special attention, as was the case during the live.

"Oh, it's you!" said Goro, feigning surprise as he approached the student. "I'm glad I found you. I wanted…" he let the words trail off. Up close, the itchy feeling of recognition that had been bothering him was almost unbearable. There was something about him that reminded Goro of something, like a song from childhood with no discernible lyrics, and it pulled at his stomach, sending his heart up to his throat. When the boy shifted, clearly uncomfortable with the long silence, Goro shook his head. "Apologies. You just reminded me of someone, that's all. My name is Akechi Goro, as I said before. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Kurusu Akira," said the boy, at last meeting Goro's gaze. His eyes were dark and grey, penetrating, and Goro felt his cheeks redden as Kurusu took his hand to shake. "And the pleasure's all mine."