Some people said the timers were a curse. They did their best to ignore the running numbers, going so far as to hide them permanently with cover tattoos--or scars, for the most extreme ones. Who wanted to be reminded that one day their heart would be shattered forever? Who wanted to witness the countdown to the most painful day of their lives?
Remembering you would die one day was a thing; remembering you were inevitably going to experience an amount of suffering that might end up being worse than your own death was a whole other thing.
Other people said the timers were a gift of God, a blessed reminder of that day that would come when they would face their biggest heartbreak, so they could prepare and maybe, be ready to stomach the grief and move on. God was benevolent. God wanted you to go on no matter what, keeping the memories alive within you in the shape of a life that had gone on even when your timer had reached 0.
Akira Kurusu didn't believe in a benevolent god.
Actually, Akira Kurusu refused to believe in any god at all.
He and his band of misfits had seen a lot, heard a lot, and even though they weren’t even legal yet, they had come to the conclusion that if any kind of god existed, it had to be quite twisted.
Akira liked to think that he was a boy of his own making, and that if fate was a thing, he had managed to cross it enough times to make it understand he wasn’t interested in a superior being dictating him how to behave. He had grown up, maintained a perfect image, broken it in the course of a minute, become a delinquant, been shipped to Tokyo like a disgusting package, found unexpected friends there, and all of this had nothing to do with any form of pre-written in the sky bullshit.
For this reason, Akira was deeply unimpressed with the fact that, like everyone else, he did, actually, have a timer on his body counting down to what was meant to be his biggest heartbreak. It was set on his right wrist, no less, visible to everyone, and the day he had done the maths and realised that he wouldn't be of age to cover it with a thick black tattooed line before it reached 0, he had almost broken a chair out of frustration.
(Note, Akira was very level-headed, with a quiet temper. Except when it came to the whole “bound by fate” bullshit.)
On the other hand, it was also what had allowed him to make friends, so maybe bound-by-fate bullshit had its perks.
It took only a few hours, on the first day he landed in his new high-school, for a boy with a bleached hair to come and tell him in a nonchalant voice:
“Yo, dude. So, low-number timer too, right?”
Maybe it was a bit shallow as a basis for a friendship, but it was a start. The start of the band of misfits--the cursed ones.
Timers were fuel for many urban legends. Everyone had a story, and then they had friends who had a story, and then friends had other friends who also had a story--and people had stories of a story, and it went on.
For all these storytellers, timers counted down to the moment their heart break--the exact second when their biggest treasure was stolen--the pinpointed time when their reason to live was smashed into irreconcilable shards.
All the stories agreed on a point: when the timer reached zero, the pain was so strong it could kill you on the spot. It was like someone ripped your heart from your ribcage, and if you survived, you only lived in emptiness.
Because of that heart-ripping feeling, most of the stories came with the notion of soulmate. Actually, almost everyone agreed on that point: the biggest heartbreak you ever experience in your life is the moment when your most loved one, the one you were destined to spend your life with, died.
It was beautiful, it was romantic, and if only Romeo had been able to see Juliet’s timer, he’d have noticed it was still ticking for a few minutes when his reached zero.
Urban legends and romanticism often went hand in hand.
The matter with these stories was that it didn’t leave much room for low-number timers.
It was unusual, having an early timer. There was this strange misconception that it meant you’d die young: how else could you experience such a heartbreak when you weren’t even 18? Wasn’t it a bit early for you to even have met your soulmate when you weren’t even legal?
Some low-number-timer people, the ones lucky enough to have it on a body part that was hidden by clothes, preferred to keep the time left a secret, because it meant they were cursed .
With his timer on his wrist and a poor watch to vaguely hide it, it went without saying that Akira was super, duper, ultra cursed .
That’s why he just stared, dumbstruck, when the bleached-hair boy who just addressed him didn’t even waited for him to answer, but rolled up the leg of his jeans and showed him the timer on his knee.
A perfect line of 0s.
“Sucks, uh? I’m Ryuji. You should meet Ann, too. Hers is like, ten days from now. She’s a mess.”
Ann was, indeed, a mess, but a cheerful one, bubbly, sweet, and doing her best to make life easier on everyone despite the asshole of a teacher that was trying to ruin her.
Days went by and he came to learn that said teacher was the reason for Ryuji’s 0s, somehow.
“Asshole snapped my leg, and it hurt like shit, man. But then we went to the hospital, and when the doc told me I’d never run tracks again--that’s when it struck. He was examining me and suddenly he spoke and the numbers blinked and the pain was ten times worse, like I would never ever breathe or something? I collapsed, they had to reanimate me. Took me completely by surprise. Maybe running was my soulmate, uh? I’d be alright with it. Means I don’t have to worry with that anymore and I can date anyone. I’m down.”
It was uncanny how easily Ryuji told his story, grinning enough that it almost hid the sparkle of sadness in his eyes.
It only fueled Akira’s convictions that the whole “the worst heartbreak happens when your soulmate dies” was bullshit.
Then Ann’s timer reached 0. She’d done everything she could to prevent it, she’d given everything, she’d fought, she’d given up… and then they caught her as she was gripping at the border of the open window, her left arm reaching as far as she could as if to catch the girl on the roof, and her right foot was dangling in the air.
Akira grabbed her by the shoulder, pressing strong and hard on the cursed timer that was blinking 0s and Ann yelled and fell back into the room, and howled in pain at the same time as the body of her closest friend hit the ground.
No one knew when Shiho’s timer was set to end; no one even knew where it was. She was a secretive girl.
Ann’s life went on. She found the means to take a trip abroad to get a tattoo. Now, Ann wore proudly on her shoulder the graceful figure of a girl, arms spread wide, looking like she was a bird ready to take off and Akira wondered if Shiho was Ann’s soulmate.
“Getting the tattoo was painful, getting heartbroken probably almost killed me, but you know what hurts most? Knowing that I never managed to get in her life enough to make it better. I had to trust her to do the right choice. And look at me now. Learning to let go.”
Ann became this strange balance of bubbly and bitter. The grin and the sad sparkle in her eyes mirrored Ryuji’s.
Getting weird, otherworldly powers that allowed them to settle the score with the asshole teachers didn’t drive the sad sparkle away. It did help relieve the pain, though.
The band of misfits became the Phantom Thieves.
They met Yusuke, and they unwillingly witnessed his timer reaching 0 too. Yusuke’s timer was peculiar, creepy: it was like it was tattooed on his eyes, as if he always would see something different.
They were here when Yusuke confronted his sensei and learnt that the masterpiece he’d always admired was a fake that had been painted over.
The timer blinked the minute when he learnt that he would never be able to witness the real beauty of the Sayuri, because the original had been destroyed. Yusuke would never see his mother again.
Yusuke had collapsed, his eyes clearly burning and the eery timer blinking behind them.
They thought he’d gone blind, but he didn’t. He just saw the world differently. Art was a lie, and he had to rebuild everything.
Maybe art was Yusuke’s soulmate, Akira mused, before catching himself. It was so easy to fall back into the whole soulmate/heartbreak popular way of thinking.
One member after another, on target after another, one terrifying palace after another, the band of misfits grew.
There was Makoto--whom they found in tears in the bathroom, holding the time on her neck, repeating over and over again “I’m a burden, I’m a burden, I’m a burden”, because apparently the person she looked most up to had just told her so and it was all she had left, but she’d tried to toughen it up.
Somehow, getting a badass cognitive motorcycle helped. Akira doubted Makoto’s sister was her soulmate, though.
There was Futaba--whose timer was already on zero when they met her, and absolutely refused to discuss it with them even after they saw her palace, but they could have an idea of what happened, and again, surely, Futaba’s mother was not her soulmate.
There was Haru--Haru’s timer had blinked to 0 the minute she had realised her father had no cognition of her, as if she didn’t exist anymore in his mindset. It was impressive, actually, the way she’d burst: it was enough pain to fuel her Persona.
Haru’s father was not her soulmate, neither was her fiancé--far from it.
With all these observations, Akira was almost confident to call bullshit on popular beliefs. The greatest heartbreaks on your life didn’t mean you were losing your soulmate, because for most of the people around him, soulmates didn’t even exist. The timers just ticked down to a radical change of life, a huge betrayal, the saddest realization you could have.
Screw romanticism, it had nothing to do with love.
Akira’s timer was still ticking when all the others’ had stopped, but he could see it get lower, and lower everyday. The sense of impending doom grew stronger every time he woke up in the blue room, when his jailer would speak in unclear words of rehabilitation and ruin.
Despite that unpleasant sword of Damoclès upon his head, he couldn’t help but be somewhat grateful. After all, the low numbers, the imminence of the blinking 0s, was what had brought them together and allowed them to be strong enough to face the inner demons of human minds.
Not bad for cursed people.
Akira was almost content with this answer he found: contrary to popular beliefs, life went on after the 0s, and he wasn’t doomed to: 1. Fall in love with someone for the rest of his life, and 2. Almost die of heartbreak when said someone would die.
And then Akechi happened.
Akechi was different. He had a thick black line on his left wrist, as if mirroring Akira’s timer. He also had wits and charm, and he was a pain, but a pleasant pain in Akira’s life, who’d have had a hard time denying he enjoyed the boy’s company despite the blackmailing.
And through his time of playing cat-and-mouse with the Detective, and flirting, and is-it-dating-I-mean-we-did-kiss-once, Akira could have been driven mad at the idea that he would never know what was beneath that black tattoo on Akechi’s wrist.
It’s easy to rebel against popular opinion when you’re 17.
It’s also easy to fall back into the usual patterns, and suddenly, the idea that maybe, just maybe, his first love could be his soulmate seemed very appealing.
If maybe, just maybe, there was such a thing as a fate that was already written, if maybe, just maybe, there was such a thing as losing your soulmate, then surely the hidden timer beneath the tattoo would tell of Akira’s end.
Except he would never know, and now they were on a cognitive ship and his own timer was coming to an end.
It was almost funny how Akechi had known he had made it out of the interrogation room because his timer was set for
the date he was meant to be killed.
It was even funnier that it was what had prompted Akechi to dive into the cognitive world the precise day when Akira’s timer was set to reach 0 to confront the Thieves.
It was downright hilarious that, when his cognitive self had told him to shoot the Thieves, Akechi had grabbed Akira by his wrist instead and checked how much time remained.
Damn, if there was such a thing as soulmates and Akechi really was his soulmate, then Akira had been given a really twisted soulmate .
When Akechi's bullet flew close to his ear and shot the switch, the timer said 50 seconds.
Then there was a wall between them, and the timer said 40 seconds.
Then Akechi made him promise to take down the asshole who ruined his life and Akira swallowed his tears and promised.
Then there was a beat of silence, as if everything had stopped, until Akira’s wrist indicated 20.
“Akira… Don’t be sorry. I was cursed since the beginning...”
“The timer beneath my tattoo…”
“...since my birth, it has always been set to 0.”
“You’ve figured it out, right? It has nothing to do with soulmates. It has to do with figuring out where your place lies once the thing you relied on most changed.”
A small chuckle.
“I never had anything to rely on.”
“Go, now. Find your place.”
A pained moan, a motion on the other side of the wall.
0. 0. 0.
Akira howled when the scorching feeling of emptiness seized him. He threw himself against the wall and hit hit, and shook, and then fell, and threw up.
He then turned to the others, and he smirked, and he could feel that sparkle in his eyes--the sad sparkle.
"So that's how it felt for you all, uh."
Then Akira collapsed.
So maybe destroying Shido had been a bit satisfying.
He’d kept his promise, after all. Had it been worth a heartbreak? He wasn’t sure.
He’d nursed his grief, too, and tried to overcome it. Maybe Akechi was his soulmate and seeing him die had broken something within him, but he had to move on: everything was said and done, after all.
Except it wasn’t--it wasn’t at all--and when they’d gone to the depths of Mementos, and found the fake Velvet Room, and found
a very much alive Akechi chained in said fake Velvet Room
, Akira had almost lost it to the nonsense and bullshit of the situation.
What, exactly, had he almost lost his mind over if his pseudo-soulmate he was meant to be heartbroken over was still alive?
It took a while for Akira to understand that his heartbreak had nothing to do at all with Akechi and everything to do with the fact that he was seventeen and wishful and maybe a bit too influenced by romantic stories after all, even if he hated it.
It took at least all the way back up to where the fake god was trying to control Shibuya to piece together that everyone was wrong. It wasn't about finding your place, it wasn't about losing an important part of you, and surely it had absolutely nothing to do with love or soulmates. It hadn’t been losing Akechi that had made him almost lose his mind.
The heartbreak was not romantic at all. The heartbreak was personal.
That moment when he thought Akechi died, he felt what he thought was the pain of someone losing the person they were meant to share their strongest link with ever, and he realised that he wasn’t different. He was just like the others.
Maybe he didn’t believe in any god, maybe he could host as many personas as he wanted, maybe he had very strong ideals--but he was no better than those following the popular beliefs.
He was just a regular teenager, just as easily influenced, and he had given the timer the meaning he wanted it to have, because that was what the timer was for--creating expectations.
And with his expectations, he had been his own source for a heartbreak.
Just like the others.
When the bullet went through the fake god’s head ( Akira knew there was no god after all ), when the cognitive word collapsed, when their personas disappeared, they felt the sickening feeling of emptiness as all their timers suddenly accelerated, went back to 999999, then brutally reached 0, and the whole group collapsed, heartbroken again--over losing the cognitive representation of their rebellion this time.
When they came back to their senses, in the middle of Shibuya, thoroughly ignored by the people passing-by, the Thieves all came to the same conclusion: they had stolen their fates back. The spark in their eyes was back, not sad anymore, but resolute..
Nobody noticed the fact that this strange group of teenagers didn’t have a timer anymore. The Thieves had cracked the code. They had experienced two heartbreaks instead of the only one in their lifetime. And surely there would be a thousand tinier heartbreaks that would maybe feel less visceral, but would hurt no less. They didn’t need a timer for that.
Other people still had their timers, it seemed. Hopefully, without a malevolent fake-god to mislead their desires, maybe people would be less inclined to believe that it was so fateful, that you could do nothing against it.
The timers were neither a curse nor a blessing, and most of all they were certainly not something to base their lives upon: their fate was not something that had to be decided for them. The timers only had the meaning you wanted to give them, and would only impact you as much as you’d let them.
But popular belief would always be fueled by romantic ideas, wouldn’t it, Akira mused as his newly unmarked wrist reached for Akechi's, where the black line was not hiding anything anymore. He grabbed it, and squeezed.
He didn’t know what would happen in the future, but
maybe, just maybe
, he could deal with the romantic implication that a boy who had indirectly taught him that he was the master of his fate could be someone he'd call his soulmate.
Maybe, just maybe, he really wasn't different from everyone else.