Third week of April, 2017
A month and a half passed after they’d screamed at each other and cried themselves to sleep, and things, thankfully, improved from there. Weekly physical therapy appointments grew easier and easier to complete, and with the Thieves helping with the exercises he had to do at home, Goro was visibly getting stronger.
Ryuji had made it a challenge, which had incensed Goro enough to make it all the way through the entire hour-long appointment for the first time. Makoto brought him a set of weights for his good arm, promising him a one-handed push-up competition once he’d gotten some of his strength back. Futaba kept them in a steady supply of movies to watch while stretching, though some were more questionable than others.
Haru, busy with college, stopped in less often, but she always brought a treat along, a new recipe she was working on for her cafe in her spare time. Yusuke showed up for dinner some nights, and sometimes he and Goro sketched together. Morgana was around, as always.
And Ann brought her usual cheer, multiple hair-care products, and Shiho with her when she could.
Shiho had been through the whole physical therapy merry-go-round the previous spring and summer after her injuries had left her laid-up in the hospital for over a month. It had been a slow process back to normal, but eventually she was right as rain, and armed to the teeth with first-hand knowledge. Goro had been a little wary at first, considering this was a completely new person to deal with, but after Ann informed him that she knew all about the phantom thieves, Shiho had become a welcome visitor, helping him through some of the more complicated exercises and assuring Akira that yes, it was fine to bend your leg like that if you were flexible enough.
“You’ll be okay with Shiho while I’m out?” Akira asked, tying his shoes while Goro clicked through something on his laptop.
“No, I will waste away,” Goro replied immediately. “It would be different if you went out every Sunday and I was used to it, but I think Shiho will find me laying pathetic and abandoned on the floor.”
“Asshole,” Akira said fondly, and went to get the door when the doorbell rang. Futaba was crashing her way down the stairs somewhere in the background, ready to accompany Akira on his outing, and then Ann and Shiho were piling into the living room with a chorus of “Hi, Goro!”
Goro raised an eyebrow. “Hello, both of you. Ann, you came too?”
She beamed. “I was going to meet up with Akira anyway, so I figured I’d just come with Shiho and we could all go together.”
“I see. Efficient, really,” Goro said, but it was strange. Akira and Futaba going out once a week was a constant, but Ann joining them was new to him. It caused a nagging feeling that something was going on, something he wasn’t being told. He wasn’t going to ask them now, as they said a round of goodbyes and headed out, but Shiho was still here and probably knew at least a little.
He waited until they were in the middle of the warmup stretches before he asked casually, “Does Ann always go out with them on Sundays?”
Shiho nodded. “Seems like it, unless she has a photoshoot. All of them meet up.” It was clear what she meant by ‘all of them’. “I think they’re exploring. They’re not stealing things anymore, according to Ann, anyway.”
“That makes sense.” It did. Of course finding him wouldn’t have just ceased their attempts to explore what was left of the metaverse. Their original goal was exploration, not a rescue mission. But it was still irritating that Akira hadn’t mentioned it. It felt like he was trying to keep it a secret. Why? To spare Goro’s feelings, since he obviously couldn’t accompany them? That idiot. How unnecessary.
But none of that was Shiho’s fault, so when she sat up and said, “Okay, ready to work on the knee bends?” he just nodded.
“I don’t think I say it enough, but thank you for coming over to help me with this,” he said. “I really do appreciate it. Akira’s great, but he’s too afraid of hurting me.”
“Ryuji and I have been through this before,” Shiho said, smiling at him as he rearranged himself on his back. “We know how to tell when something is too far or not. But I can tell you’re getting stronger. Soon you’ll be ready for stairs!”
Stairs seemed like a very distant obstacle, but her enthusiasm was infectious, and Goro found himself smiling, too. “If you say so. Let’s go, then!”
Shiho stayed for a while after his exercises were done, chatting and raiding the kitchen for Akira’s snacks. Halfway through splitting a box of Akira’s favorite mushroom-shaped chocolates, Shiho looked over at Goro and said casually, “So, are you going to tell Akira that it bothers you that he didn’t tell you about going off to do thief stuff?”
Goro paused with a mushroom halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“Not ‘what’,” Shiho said. “You clearly didn’t know where he was going. I recognized that look when you found out. The ‘I’m upset but I’m not going to say anything and make it worse’ look. Ann made that face a lot while everything was happening with Kamoshida.”
It was still surprising how perceptive Shiho was for someone that had only known him for a few weeks. Goro sighed, eating his mushrooms while mulling it over. “I should, I suppose,” he said eventually. “But what am I supposed to say? They can’t take me with them. I would just be a burden like this.”
Shiho frowned at him. “They still should have told you. It’s something you were involved in, too.”
“He probably didn’t want me to feel bad that I couldn’t go.” Goro paused. Every time he noticed that he wasn’t automatically assuming the worst anymore, it surprised him all over again. “I… You’re right. I’ll talk to him. Tomorrow, though. He’ll be tired tonight.”
“That’s fair. Ann’s fallen asleep on voice-chat a few times on Sunday nights. It’s kind of cute.” Shiho held out the box and tipped a few more chocolates into Goro’s hand, then hummed. “Oops, we’ve almost finished this box. I guess I owe Akira more sweets.”
“His name wasn’t on them,” Goro pointed out lightly, and Shiho giggled.
It made sense now why Akira went to bed earlier than usual on Sundays. Goro knew just as well as the rest of them that even with the increased resilience of the metaverse, it still left you tired when you returned to reality. And in this case, Akira sleeping so deeply was going to be beneficial.
It took a while, but Goro was able to slowly retrieve his crutches and Akira’s phone without waking his roommate. A quick check of the home screen showed him nothing noteworthy, but swiping to the second screen of apps revealed the meta-nav, camouflaged among other colorful game icons. With one last backwards glance at Akira, Goro made his way out of the room as quietly as he could, biting his lip against the soreness in his legs. Hobbling was less than ideal, but the chair would make too much noise, and it was only across the house. Just enough to get Akira out of range.
He’d been to the metaverse so many times by now that the transition no longer bothered him, but this time, his stomach was twisted up in knots. He found himself choked with anxiety, not knowing what he was going to find or what was going to happen. When his vision cleared, he found himself standing on top of a short skyscraper, looking out over the flooded remnants of Cognitive Tokyo. Somehow it was less ominous than it had been in his father’s Palace, and the twilight sky glimmered with just-visible stars.
The next thing that caught his attention was his outfit. He still had Black Mask’s muted, striped color scheme, but it wasn’t restricting and tight against his skin anymore. It was more of a tunic, with looser pants that wouldn’t chafe his still-tender scars and a belt around his waist. The rest of the belts had moved to his left arm, three spaced down the length, and the ragged cape and pointed helmet had become a hooded cloak that draped over his right shoulder, hiding what was left of his right arm from view.
He reached up and pulled off his mask to examine it. It wasn’t the pointed, intimidating one anymore, or the bright red. Instead it was just simple and black, like a pair of wings spread wide, with only one eyehole. Crushing it in his fist dissolved it in blue fire, and both Robin and Loki appeared before him.
Princeling, Robin said, kneeling. Loki didn’t say anything, but bowed mockingly with his usual unnerving grin.
Goro took a step forward, reaching out to Robin, but then stopped as he finally noticed the final thing that was different.
He was standing.
Without his crutches.
His eyes widened, and he kept walking forward, marvelling at being able to move without a struggle. He touched Robin Hood’s arm, looking back and forth between him and Loki incredulously. “I can… I can move…”
Cognition, Robin supplied.
You know what your legs are supposed to do, Loki added.
“Right…” He glanced down at his missing arm, frowning. Cognition couldn’t fix everything. But eliminating pain for limbs that were still there…? He wasn’t going to ask too many questions. This was already a gift. This meant that he could go with the Thieves. He could be part of the group again. He could help.
Loki reached out and flicked his hood off so he could ruffle his hair. You look much more like a thief now, the trickster persona said, something surprisingly fond in his voice, and Goro smiled.
“I do, huh?”
He didn’t return to reality right away, taking advantage of his newfound mobility to run and jump around the rooftop for just a few minutes. It felt good to not be hobbled by his injuries, but eventually he knew he needed to go home and sleep, especially if he was going to confront Akira. Once he was back in the Sakura household, crutches right where he’d left them, the soreness set in, but even then, it wasn’t as bad as it had been just a month before. His muscles were recovering, slowly, and knowing that was enough to keep him from being too upset about the pain. When he settled back into his futon, he was content.
“You’ve been going to the metaverse without me.”
Akira, who hadn’t even been home for two minutes, blinked owlishly from the doorway of their room. “What?”
Goro regretted that having only one proper arm meant that he couldn’t adequately fold them disapprovingly. So instead he tried to be as stern as possible. “Don’t play dumb, Akira. Shiho said that you were all off ‘exploring’ on weekends. I saw the app on your phone. I was a detective, you know.”
“We’ve just been looking around,” Akira said, setting his bag down. Morgana hopped out, meowing in agreement.
“That’s right!” he said. “It’s just the ruins, and they’re getting more ruined by the day. There’s a lot less than there were when we found you.”
“That’s not the point,” Goro said. Was he being a little sharp? Probably. “The point is that you didn’t tell me. You just let me think you were going to Akihabara or something, meanwhile you were running around the metaverse without me.”
Akira flopped down on his futon. “You’re still not back to full-strength. It wouldn’t have been safe to take you with us.”
“That’s still not the point. I had no idea where you were really going. What if something had happened, and none of you had come back? What was I supposed to think?” Goro huffed. “I’m not angry that you didn’t take me, just that you didn’t tell me where you were going. But it’s a moot point. I can stand in the metaverse.”
“You went into the metaverse alone?!” Morgana yowled.
Goro nodded. “I took the phone. Last night.”
Akira was quiet, processing the rest of what he had said. “...you can stand in the metaverse? Because… Because your cognition of your legs is that they’re okay? Is that how it works?” He looked between Goro and Morgana, his eyes going wide. “That’s amazing! Goro!”
It made Goro feel warm to see how excited Akira was. “I walked around for a little while, jumped up and down, ran back and forth a few times… It didn’t seem to be a fluke. And I still have Robin and Loki.”
“That means you can come with us!” Akira said happily, and being included, willingly and automatically, soothed a nagging insecurity that Goro had been doing his best to ignore as unreasonable. And now he knew for sure that it was. They wanted him there.
“My outfit is different,” he murmured, and Akira looked even more shocked.
“Wait, really? I want to see. We could just shift over really quick…”
“Or you can wait for next Sunday,” Goro said smugly. But then he smiled. “Besides, we still have to tell the others.”
“They’ll be happy to hear it,” Morgana said, and he hopped up to Goro’s lap.
Goro scritched behind his ears fondly. “I know they will.”