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Purgatory

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The game spread through the group like a viral obsession--like most things that had a link with anything virtual, it started with Futaba. 

They had just completed Okumura’s palace, waiting for the change of heart to take effect, and they were meeting for a well-deserved debrief, in expectation for the celebration to come. 
It didn’t take long for the meeting to get completely disrupted, though. 

Futaba usually never had her sound notifications turned on, but this time, their chattering kept being interrupted by a clear crystalline ping! coming  from her phone, which had her scrambling to straighten her headphones on her head, before sticking her nose to the screen and excitedly tapping.

After three occurrences of them trying to pull her attention away from her phone, they gave up on the first purpose of the meeting and instead asked what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t like they had a big emergency anyway--waiting for a change of heart was nerve-wracking, but they didn’t even have Mementos requests to complete.

Despite all of them being turned to her, Futaba didn’t even hear them or looked at them, too engrossed in whatever was happening on the screen.

Annoyed at being ignored one too many times, Ryuji grabbed her headphones and pulled, and she squawked, trying to catch them back.

“I’m not giving them until you explain what the hell you’re doing on that phone and why it keeps pinging. Do you have a new boyfriend or what?”

Futaba snorted.

“Don’t project on me, dumbass. Not all of us are desperate.”

Ryuji groaned and gently smashed the headphones in her face, making her squawk again.

“Seriously, though, Futaba-chan, you really seem to be invested. What is it all about?”

Futaba grinned. 

“Get ready to give up on your real lives, losers.”

She put her headphones back and laid her phone on the table. She started by disconnecting the bluetooth so they could enjoy the strange, eerie and mesmerising tune that came from her phone, and then, with much hand gesturing and tons of foreign vocabulary, she went on about that new game she had found out, that was so basic in gameplay but so addictive.

The premises were rather simple: Hell and Heaven had mysteriously disappeared, and all their inhabitants had been sent to Purgatory, along with the lost souls that were awaiting their time to go to either place, making it a way too crowded place. Alas, as God and Satan both seemed to be missing, it was the duty to Angels and Demons to rebuild the ways up and down and try and find them, and understand what had happened.

“That sounds like a super easy story. What’s so exciting about it?”
“The gameplay, duh. Watch.”

She scrolled through menus, and a tiny avatar with horns got a small tambourine out and started jiggling it, adding a characteristic beat to the original eerie background melody. Soon enough, the phone pinged, and when Futaba tapped the screen, a small white character appeared on screen, holding a lyre in hand, and played an airy tune while colors popped on screen. The angel disappeared along with the final color fading.

“What was it?”
“The Angel I’ve been paired up with. I just told him I had to afk and he answered ok. Basically.”
“Wait, you’re partnered with an Angel? But wasn’t that a Demon on screen? And what’s the music for?” 

Futaba chuckled.

“Yup, all of these--that’s the catch of the game. You choose between being a Demon or an Angel in the beginning…”
“And you chose Demon.”
“Well, duh. Who wants to be a dumb Angel? It’s boring. So I have to build the path back to Hell and find Satan so we can all go back to where we belong and send the lost souls of Purgatory in Hell along with us. But! After the first puzzles on my way there, I was stuck with these.”

She pointed at a small piece on the screen that glowed a bluish hue, and tapped on it. Her character visibly recoiled after attempting to pick it up.

“See? There are pieces I can’t use: this one is a blessed piece, and only Angels are allowed to use them. I can use the cursed parts, though. The thing is, the way to Hell is paved with both good and bad feelings, so I need both kinds of parts. That’s where the game becomes interesting! The game gives you a partner to work with, you’re paired with a random, unknown counterpart, and you have to solve puzzles together, all the while trying to convince the other that your path is the right one.”

There was a new ping! . Futaba tapped on the notification, and the Angel on screen played a short, sharp lyre melody with a high-pitched tune that broke the atmosphere.

“Ugh. They’re making fun of me because I just touched a blessed part, I guess. The melody says something like “be careful of using only your parts” but honestly, it sounds more like a laugh to me.”

The other Thieves just gaped at her.

“You got all that from three notes?”
“Yeah, that’s the second nice thing about the game: you don’t have to speak! Angels use their lyre to express themselves and Demons have tambourines. Each tune has a colour, you can find them…”

She tapped, and soon enough, she was flipping through what looked like a virtual grimoire.

“...there, in the in-game encyclopedia! It explains the most common tunes and the colours that go along so you can communicate!”

Makoto still looked rather dubious.

“Isn’t that a bit… convoluted? It sounds like it relies mostly on intuition, but not everyone has the same thought process.”
“It can be a bit hard to understand at first but honestly, it’s so awesomely thought-out!”, Futaba chipped. “The tutorial steps get you through the whole music-understanding thing, and then it’s just a breeze. The puzzles are quite hard sometimes, though, but it’s all the more interesting!”
“That seems clever,” Haru pondered. “It allows the game to be international without any language trouble.”
“Hm hm!” Futaba furiously nodded. “And the best thing is, you don’t have to make conversation with the other! No struggling over words or anything, you just use the sample and that’s it. You get the nice part of teamwork without the annoying speaking part. And the music is sooooo good. Puts your mind in a nice space while solving those puzzles.”

Futaba tapped on the screen again, effectively activating bluetooth again so the music would be in her headphones and not on the speaker of the phone.

“But how do you convince the one you’re paired with to join your team if you can’t speak with them in the first place?”

Futaba raised her head from the reddish piece she had started to pick up and just frowned while shaking her pointer finger.

“Na-ha, I’m not giving away the whole plot. Listen guys, it’s easier if you try it. It’s on the app store, and it costs like, 500 yen. Seriously, y’all can afford it. It’s called Purgatory.” 

She dived back and left them looking at each other, still baffled, while they tried to make sense of what was happening on her tiny screen.

Ryuji was the first one to cave in.

“Ann, you still owe me these 500 yen from middle school, don’t you?”

Ann groaned.

“And you want me to repay you by buying you the app, is that it? Damn, they should give Futaba some funds for effective promotion.”

Ryuji laughed sheepishly, and Ann just sighed before nodding.

“Ok. But just so I don’t get thrown into this game alone--I’m the Angel, you’re the Demon, do we have an agreement?”
“But didn’t Futaba just say that you didn’t choose who you were paired up with?”

Yusuke’s objection was ignored, while Ryuji and Ann sealed the deal with a handshake.

“Agreed! There was no way I was going to be a stupid Angel anyway!”

Akira gave up on the idea to go on with the meeting, and they agreed to reconvene on the next day. There was no way he could get anyone’s attention again now that Ryuji and Ann were fiddling with their phones too.

They all filed away one by one. Ryuji and Ann were the last one to leave, engrossed as they were in their new game, while Futaba raised her head from her phone from time to time to encourage them with a few tips to help them move forward.
Once they were all gone (right after Ryuji and Ann had been disgruntled to discover that, indeed, you didn’t choose who you were paired up with and their plan had been foiled, though it didn’t prevent them from keeping an attentive eye on the game), Akira started cleaning the attic from the remnants of the meeting. 

“Won’t you try it, Akira?”, Morgana enquired. “It looked pretty fun. You usually like videogames.”

Akira shrugged.

“Nah. I don’t really like the idea of being partnered with someone I don’t know… I have enough real people to keep in mind as it is. I don’t want to add virtual people to the list… And there’s already so much to do, this game seems to be a bit too addictive to add to my daily tasks. Aren’t you the one always complaining about my schedule?”

Morgana would probably have shrugged, had he not been in his cat form.

“I don’t know. It seemed pretty interesting.”

Akira threw him a suspicious glance.

“Do you want to play the game, Morgana?”

Morgana sighed and curled up on the bed.

“Guess this will have to wait for when I’m human again. Let’s do our best, Akira, and quick! I can’t wait. I want to be an Angel too and play the lyre. These paws are dumb.”

Akira chuckled and ruffled his fur. Morgana growled, and then they didn’t think about it anymore.

It was hard to forget about the game though, as Ryuji, Ann and Futaba were constantly discussing it. Futaba had, it seemed, unlocked a way to customise her instrument and make up her own melodies, and described it as a form of soundpainting mixing sounds and colours. It didn’t take much more for Yusuke to express his interest in “discovering this new form of art”. Futaba ended up buying the game for the artist to be allowed to play without depriving himself from eating for a week. Haru and Makoto just giggled when Futaba struggled to help Yusuke through the first stages of the game, the artist visibly growing more invested in it all too, but paying more attention to his surroundings than to the actual puzzles.

Honestly, Akira paid it no mind. It didn’t prevent their team from moving forward--if any, it only brought them closer. Sure, it was a bit disgruntling to see them fall one by one while he pushed onward with his daily activities trying not to get into the game, but---

---well, after the shock of Okumura suddenly passing away instead of having a change of heart, it was nice to be able to see Haru smile again in a way that wasn’t too forced, even if it was only for a game. When they met up again a few days after the fateful evening to hang out in Leblanc and try and cheer everyone a bit, Haru’s phone ping! ed. Akira expected her to excuse herself for business reasons, but she just tapped on the screen with a serene smile, and he realized the notification sound was not the same as her usual ringtone.

“...You started playing too?”

Haru’s face was angelic.

“I’m a Demon.”

She gave him a quick, sweet smile, and explained:

“Mako-chan bought me the game. Futaba-chan was right, it’s surprisingly light-hearted and addictive. I find the Angel’s melodies very soothing, too! I can’t wait to get mine to build the path to Hell with me.”

Makoto frowned, adding:

“I’m an Angel. We tried like Ryuji and Ann, but we’re not paired up. We didn’t manage to understand how the algorithm worked. We looked it up, but we couldn’t figure it out in the end. I’m not sure about what the factors are. Surely you get paired up according to the times you played so there’s no timezone troubles?”

Futaba shrugged.

“Maybe it’s really just random, y’know. I think they have a way to make new pairs if the one you were paired with uninstalls the game or something, which means they’re probably gathering data from your phone, but honestly all apps do.”
“And you’re okay with that?”

Akira was baffled. This was not like Futaba at all. Futaba who had tried to crack the Metanav to make sure of its safety--coming up empty handed, but still, she had checked at least. Had the game brainwashed her in the end?
He frowned, but the dangerous smirk on her face promptly put him at ease. That was his Futaba alright, not a brainwashed one.

“I’d like to see anyone try anything on my phone. I’m using an internal proxy to run the app, so they think it’s a completely different device for someone totally different. I just didn’t dive too much into the code of the app because it’s nice to keep the magic of not knowing who you’re paired with, y’know?”
“From what you know, it could be someone different every time, couldn’t it?”
“Mh, I don’t think so. Some custom made tunes really have a personal touch, I think I’d recognize it if someone else tried to communicate.”

Akira shrugged. He still refused to install the game, despite Morgana’s growing curiosity. Ann had offered to take him with her from time to time so he could watch her play, but as excited Morgana was at the idea, they had never tried yet, too caught up in the whirlwind of their life after the latest events.

Evening came and with it, the end of their gathering. They politely bowed to Sojiro and left one by one; only Futaba remained to eat with Akira at the counter—spoon in one hand, phone in the other. She was frowning at the screen, tapping it antsily. Akira tried to catch a glimpse of what was on screen, to no avail.

“Something wrong?”

Futaba sighed.

“I’ve been stuck on this level for over twenty-four hours now. I’m not used to being that frustrated with a game, but there’s no way I’m letting the game win . I will manage.”
“Can’t you ask the Angel?”
“I can’t communicate anymore. My tambourine is gone! It broke during the latest level. I need to find another one, but now I’m stuck and there are those damn blessed blocks everywhere. I can’t move.”

Morgana jumped on the counter. Sojiro tried to shoo him away, but the cat was fast to point at the screen and tell Akira:

“I know you don’t want to play for yourself, but maybe we could try and help Futaba? That would be a nice way to give a chance to the game.”

After a bit more tapping, Futaba groaned and set her phone back on the table, focusing on her curry instead. Akira tentatively held out his hand over the phone, trying to see if Futaba would let him touch her precious device. She didn’t bat an eye.

“...do you mind if I try?”
“Yeah, just go ahead. The game is still running, it’s not like you’ll find anything incriminating anyway, it shuts down everything else since I run it on an emulator.”
“You haven’t had any notification from the Angel?”
“Nah. I think they have the same trouble as I have now. Probably their lyre is broken. It must be a scripted event.”
“And you can’t interact with the blue blocks, right?”
“Yup. Just try it out. You’ll see.”

Futaba unplugged her headphones and the game music filled the room. Akira awkwardly tapped, making the tiny figure of the character move on screen.
Futaba’s Devil seemed to be trapped in what was a maze of blue blocks, indeed preventing her from getting anywhere, and since she couldn’t pick them up to create an opening, there was no way out.
Akira wandered aimlessly among the weird corridors of blue blocks, trying to figure out the commands.

“Double tap to open the encyclopedia.”

Akira double-tapped. Most of the virtual book was focusing on the meaning of the tunes, but one part was talking about rhythm and colors, and the hue of blue that was used was familiar…

“Futaba? Have you tried this?”
“Uh? I’ve never seen this part of the book. Where did you tap?”
“I just… read it. To the end?”

Futaba’s mouth made a perfect “O” shape before she grabbed her phone back. Akira let out a startled yelp at the suddenness of the motion. She zeroed on the screen, her grin slowly coming back to her face.

“Of course! They added new parts along the tutorial, but I never thought to check afterwards. If I check the initial prophecy--there must be something about a broken instrument--and then the rhythm—”

Akira watched her ramble, fascinated by the intensity with which she was scrutinizing her screen.

“...and so if I tap there , three times, and then…”

She tapped a bit more, and suddenly, a ping! came from her phone. Futaba quickly checked the notification, then threw her arms in the air.

“YES! You’re the best, bro! I can’t believe you figured it out so fast!”

Akira had no idea what he figured out, but he had to confess he was slowly getting invested. What had Futaba in such a state of elation?

“Look! There’s no need for instruments! I already have the colour, and if I just…”

Futaba’s Devil suddenly jumped at a block, and was quickly repelled by it with a crystalline sound.

“...and now if I do it with this one…”

The sounds was different.

“So if I just put these together…”

It took the phone pinging again for Akira to finally understand that the blocks were making the same sound as the lyre.

“It’s a nice twist! We traded our sounds! I have to communicate using these blocks and the lyre sounds so they can help me remove them.”

As expected, the two notifications were notes letting Futaba know that she could now use lyre recordings to send the Angel, who probably hadn’t found out how to get out yet.
Futaba tapped, and it took a while before another notification ping!ed.

“YES! MY ANGEL ANSWERED! MY ANGEL ANSWERED!”

Akira wasn't sure how, but the screen showed the Angel playing a tambourine. Futaba started jumping up and down and Sojiro merely chuckled behind the counter. It was a good thing the cafe was empty.
All focused that they were on the screen glowing in the evening light and the tiny sounds coming from it, none of them paid attention to the more present, real-life sound from the bells above the door until they found themselves shadowed by a rather wide-eyed Akechi standing in front of them.

"Oh. I'm not used to seeing LeBlanc so... Lively. I’m sorry if I’m intruding, I thought you were still open."

Sojiro promptly straightened his position and welcomed the unexpected guest.

“Oh, no, don’t mind those kids and their games. We’re still open indeed. You’ll have the usual?”
“Yes, please, if it’s no bother.”

Akechi slowly crossed the space between where his stood and the counter, throwing a curious glance at Futaba and Akira before seating at his usual seat. 
Futaba recoiled at the proximity.
Akira couldn’t help but notice Akechi had his most pleasant smile on his face when he turned to Futaba, who had plugged back her headphones and was now focusing on the screen.

"So, what's all the excitement about?"

Futaba squeaked, shrank and hid behind Akira.
She put her phone back in her pocket and turned to Sojiro, who was holding out a cup of coffee to Akechi.

"Sojiro, I think we need to go. I...forgot something. At home."

Sojiro sighed.

"Futaba..."
"No, I really did! It's very very much really super-duper important!"

Akechi raised an eyebrow when Sojiro deflected and held out his apron to Akira.

“Alright kid, you're in charge tonight. Don't burn anything, don’t make weird culinary experiences for our guest, and don’t forget to flip the sign before you go upstairs."

Sojiro put an arm around Futaba and led her out, leaving Akira and Akechi alone in a suddenly very silent coffee.
Akechi looked ill-at-ease.

"What was it? Did I say something wrong?"
"You’ve already met Futaba, but she is... Very shy. She may have a bit of social anxiety, and she didn't expect anyone to show up. I think she’s just embarrassed to have shown her excited self in public. Don't worry, you didn't do anything wrong."
"Oh."

The silence that followed was awkward. Akira tried to fill it by making himself his own cup of coffee, still whiplashed by the sudden change of mood in the cafe. He’d gone from the unexpectedly fulfilling rush of excitation at finding out how to communicate with a complete stranger through a weird mobile game to the bland activity of pouring coffee in a cup.
He set his cup on the counter and sat in front of Akechi, who seemed lost in thought.

“Your friend… I already met her once, right? She’s Wakaba Isshiki’s daughter, Sae told me. She seems… happy here. She was certainly excited when I got in.”

Akira ignored the question and merely nodded. Akechi’s thoughtful gaze seemed to pass over him, before his face suddenly turned to his usual, pleasant boy facade.
Akira averted his eyes. He didn’t need more emotional whiplashes. Akechi’s behaviour was a constant puzzle and he had already solved one puzzle for Futaba that evening.

“What was it about an angel who answered? Is it a new teenage trend I missed because of my workload?”
“Oooh, Akira, tell him about the game! It would be great if he played it too! It would probably do him some good to loosen up a bit. Maybe he’ll stop acting all weird around you.”

Akechi’s eyes widened and he almost spilled his coffee when Morgana jumped on the counter. 

“Oh, my. I always forget how chatty your cat can get.”
“Yeah, he’s a good conversational partner if you learn to listen to him, though he can be stubborn at times.”
“Hey!”

Morgana swatted Akira’s hand away when he tried to pet him. Akechi let out a chuckle. Morgana jumped from the counter.

“He does seem to have his own temper.”
“That’s enough! Come on, Akira, tell him about the game! Show him, maybe? I want to see the game!”

Akira sighed and got his phone out, browsing the gaming section of the Applay Store. A tiny icon featuring a set of stairs going from dark to light caught his eyes, seeming to lure him. He tapped to get to the details and put his phone down on the counter to show it to Akechi.

“There. It’s called Purgatory.”

The abrupt non-sequitur in the conversation took the detective aback.

“Uh?”
“The angel thing. It’s a mobile phone game called Purgatory. It’s not super expensive so all of my friends bought it, but I just watch them play. I can’t commit that much time to one game… I think.”
“Oh, I understand. Games can be rather time-consuming. I have a hard time fitting them in my schedule too. What is it about?”

Akira scrolled through the preview images, trying to explain the unusual gameplay through screenshots and comments on the page. From time to time, Morgana tried to add details he had seen from when the others were playing, that Akira translated for the detective.

“Tell him about that last puzzle! Tell him about the Angel and Demon switching sides! It was awesome!”

Akira ignored the not-a-cat and concluded his explanation. No way he would tell everything he knew about the plot: the gleam in the detective’s eyes betrayed his interest. It would be a shame to spoil the experience for him if he ever decided to try it.

“...it does require dedication, since there’s someone else involved in the game who depends on you. It seems rather nice, though. That level we just beat with Futaba before you arrived was a bit tough, but really satisfying to crack. It was like solving a hard riddle with someone waiting for you to find them… Maybe your detective mind would like it.”

Akechi looked lost in thought, his eyes dragging on the picture of the angel and the demon and the flight of stairs on the phone without seemingly seeing it.

“Well, it does sound rather interesting and uncommon. Purgatory, uh? I’ll see if I have some free time to check it out. It could be a nice way to free my mind from my usual work and it seems like it’s on sale at the moment.”

Akira picked his phone back and quickly checked the page again. Sure enough, there was a 50% off sale going on. His eyes lingered at the bright red “Buy now!” button, the memory of Futaba’s relief and happiness when she’d heard the notification still fresh in his mind, but he ended up putting the phone on sleep mode to focus back on his coffee.

Meanwhile, Akechi, still lost in thoughts, silently finished drinking, and set the cup back on the counter. He then took his phone out of his pocket and checked the time.

“It seems I’ve overstayed my welcome. I’m sorry for making you work overtime; I shall take my leave now. Thank you for the coffee and for the conversation. As always, I am grateful for the distraction from my everyday work, and this place really is the haven I seem to need.”

Akechi got up, picked his wallet from his briefcase and paid before heading for the door.

“I bid you goodnight.”

The detective gave a small wave and took his phone out of his pocket to check it again while he pushed the door.
The bells jingled behind him and Akira’s attention went back to the phone he still had in hand. He tapped the screen to get it out of sleep mode, and found himself faced once more with the details page for Purgatory.
Again, he pondered a little, his thumb hovering on the red “Buy now!” icon, the memories of Futaba’s excitement still clear in his mind.
Mmh...

“Well, I’m waiting for you upstairs, Akira! Don’t linger too much. It’s almost time to go to bed.”

By the time Akira was done cleaning up his workplace, preparing for sleep, and laying down in his bed to join Morgana who was already happily snoozing, the game was installed.

And if Akira didn’t sleep that night, surely it was a mere coincidence. 
Nothing to do with the fact that he kept his earbuds all night, entranced at finally experiencing the reason why his friends were so addicted to their phones lately.

Building the first steps by himself was easy enough. The story was simple but compelling enough, the encyclopedia delivering a very basic “prophecy” about Heaven and Hell disappearing and having to rebuild the place--he already had seen most of it on Futaba’s phone.
The controls were intuitive and reaching each new level left him with a sense of satisfaction that was not unlike the rush he felt after beating a strong shadow in the metaverse.
It was weird to feel so impacted. It was just a game after all. It wasn’t like he had never beat a videogame before. 

Except each new step brought new creative sceneries to depict the Waiting Room of Heaven and Hell, and despite it being a mere mobile game , he did stop once or twice to appreciate the way the levels he reached were built and how well the music mixed with the pastel colors on screen to create a strange, out-of-this-Earth atmosphere. 
It made it even more satisfying when the game gave him the choice between baby blue and sharp red blocks, and he picked the red one, witnessing his avatar take the shape of a Demon ready to break perfectly clean blocks to build his own path to Hell and reach levels of brighter, more dangerous colors.

The tutorials ended with the change of shape of his avatar, though, and he soon found himself faced with a deadend in a strange, neutral white marble level that made it seem like he had made a mistake and gone back to the top of the stairs he had built. 

He was growing increasingly frustrated at all the blocks he couldn’t move, unsure of what to do, when he almost jumped at the sound of a lyre echoing from afar. It took him aback. Engrossed as he was in the game, he had to remind himself that the sound was actually coming from the earbuds he was still wearing and not from behind him.

Talk about a compelling game, uh.

The lyre kept echoing from afar, and he couldn’t understand what the tune meant, because, unlike what he’d seen on his friends’ screen while they were playing, his encyclopedia didn’t contain any pages about the sound streams. 
He tried to focus on the melody and see if he could reproduce it by tapping on the blocks--but it would have been too easy. The solution of Futaba’s puzzles wasn’t his, and he still wandered aimlessly in the zone that wasn’t blocked, trying to get closer to the sound. 

Finally, he found a zone he hadn’t explored, and soon enough, clouds of colors filled the screen along with the lyre notes. Akira felt his heart starting to beat louder in his chest at the promise of what was to come. He knew what would happen--it was part of the reason why everyone was playing after all--but he was so curious . After weeks of refusing to launch the game, he was getting it. The music was entrancing, way more rich now with an added instrument, and filling him with expectations of what he would find at the end of that path.

When the sound grew loud and clear in his ears, he finally saw them--the Angel.
His own Angel. 
The unknown person he’d be paired with for the rest of the game.

The pixelated creature stood on the other side of the blessed blocks that were preventing him from going through. His heart beating, Akira tapped the block closest to the creature. They seemed to understand what he wanted, because soon enough, the block was removed, and he finally went through and found the tambourine on the other side.

His encyclopedia eventually updated with pages of melodies to play, and from then on, level after level, the notifications started to come. Akira muted his phone not to wake Morgana up, but every time he thought the other player had gone to bed, his phone lit up with a notification announcing a new melody.

Their first communications were tentative. Akira kept checking the encyclopedia to try and decipher the sounds and colors, associating them with easy symbols. “Up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “wave”. It was tedious, but he soon came to learn the melodies after hearing or playing them enough times, and they started building together.
Before he knew it, as his character moved step-by-step further away from Purgatory, helped along by someone he only grew to know through pre-recorded sounds he deciphered with a fictional encyclopedia, the dawn broke through the window.

When Morgana woke up to find Akira still awake, the cat looked like he was about to claw the boy’s eyes out.

“You didn’t sleep at all ? And you played without me?

Akira tried to give a sheepish smile, but it ended up being more of a tired smirk.
When he managed to reach school, his other friends were nice enough not to make fun of his sleep-deprived self for finally caving in and jumping in the bandwagon. 
Ryuji patted him on the back with a large grin while taking a peek at his phone.

“Hell yeah, dude, Team Demons alright! We got a Highway to Hell to build and Angels to corrupt!”

Morgana’s moody voice rose from Akira’s bag.

“I still can’t believe Akira chose to be a Demon! This is treason!”

Ryuji chuckled.

“Mona, you’ve seen this guy in the Metaverse, like hell Joker would be an Angel!”
“Angels are good too, though. I like seeing the sky become clearer and clearer as I go up”, Ann commented, tweaking a strand of hair on her finger while browsing her own phone.
“See? Lady Ann agrees! I wanted to be an Angel too...”

Akira poked at the bag.

“And I’m the one playing. You’ll have to deal with me a bit more until you get opposable thumbs to play on your own, Morgana.”

Morgana let out a disgruntled noise and went back to sulk in the depths of Akira’s bag, not even deigning get out during the next period to hide in the text--it was Kawakami’s lesson anyway. She’d understand. Akira slept through most of it, only checking his phone from time to time to see if he had received any new notifications.
By the end of the day, he still hadn’t received anything. It didn’t keep him from checking his phone all throughout his time working at the cafe, trying to make it as discreet as possible so as not to get caught by Sojiro.
He gave up at midnight and went to bed, hoping to move forward in the game the next day.
It was two in the morning when the notification finally came, breaking his light sleep, and Akira’s heart beat a bit faster.

As the days went by, Akira grew to learn that he couldn’t predict when the notifications would come: the Angel he was teamed with seemed to have the strangest schedule. That only made him happier, his heart always beating stronger when he finally received the clue that would allow him to reach the next step, when he managed to send his own clue to his counterpart for them to successfully complete a level together.
The tune for “high five” they often traded after each puzzle was not unlike the thrill of an all-out attack, Akira thought. It was a great, fulfilling feeling, and he didn’t mind going on like this for hours no matter the time of the day.

It did help that the Angel he was working with was brilliant . Despite their struggles with communication, most puzzles were solved faster than he would ever have done alone. Sometimes he had to play alone for a while, but as soon as the Angel showed up online (mostly at night, at impossible hours. That probably proved Makoto’s theory of being paired up according to time zones was wrong), Akira was hooked to his phone, the rush of solving puzzles with someone from the other side of the world keeping him up until daylight came.
Akira knew the game was addictive. He’d seen the effect it had on his friends. He still didn’t expect it to work so well. It was amazing the link you could develop with someone without even talking to them. He understood Futaba’s fascination a lot better now--this new mode of communication was definitely a nice break from the usual conversations he had to hold in his real life.

It was awfully frustrating not to be able to move blocks when you should manage, though. Akira had figured out that the Angel might have been a little bit too brilliant: slowly, through the levels, his Demon had strayed away from building the path to Hell, instead helping the Angel to build the path to Heaven. Now that he had finally figured out the pattern, he was trying to get back down, but despite the messages he attempted to send and the notifications he received, they were at a stalemate. There was a choice to make, and Akira, frustrated at trying to figure out how to solve the puzzle while satisfying everyone, ended up falling asleep with his phone in the hand a few hours before daybreak.
Morgana chided him the next morning.

“You played all night again, didn’t you? Keep it up and you’ll have an airport’s worth of bags under your eyes. You promised you’d help Sojiro with the cafe today!”
“It’s alright, Morgana. The glasses hide the damage and I can do my work very well.”

Morgana harrumphed and went down the stairs after a dry “Hurry up and get to work.”
Akira swallowed his temptation to remind Morgana that he was the one who insisted he’d play the game and prepared for the day.
When Akira finished getting ready and reached the final step of the stairs, he found Sojiro and Futaba at the counter. The bells at the door were still jiggling. 

“Ah, you’re finally up. You just missed that detective kid.”

Futaba blew a raspberry, muttering “Good riddance”. 

Sojiro shrugged and went back to the kitchen. Futaba’s eyes narrowed at the closed door, then turned to Akira.

“He’s probably on a case, he looked dead tired and kept glancing at his phone. Do you think he’s onto us? We haven’t pulled a heist in a while though. When’s our next mission?”

Akira shrugged. 

“We’ll have to see if Mishima has some intel for us. For now… It’s probably too dangerous, after what happened to Haru’s father…”

Futaba’s face darkened, but a notification coming from her phone caught her attention. From the kitchen, Sojiro grumbled “Not that stupid game again”. Morgana nodded. Futaba didn’t care and tapped her way through her level, her cheerfulness back. 
Akira checked his phone.
No news from his Angel. Well. Seemed like they hadn’t found their way out of their current dilemma yet either.

Throughout his whole day of work, Akira tried to sneak some glances to check if he could move further in the level without the Angel, but Futaba ended up catching him.

“So you’re stuck, uh?”

Akira couldn’t repress a small frown, and he noticed when Futaba hold back her laughter. His face was answer enough to her question--it wasn’t like him to show such an open expression.

“Do you need some hints? I’m pretty sure I’ve already completed the level you’re on. I think my game is almost over… I successfully dragged my Angel down to Hell.”

With a proud smirk, she held her hand to pick his phone, but Akira brought it closer to his chest instead of giving it to her, as if protecting it.

“No!”

His cheeks grew warm when he realized that he may have been a little overreacting at her mere offering for help.

“I just… want to find the solution by myself. Right now, I have to find a way to keep on building the way to Hell. The Angel wants me to build the path to Heaven only, but there’s no way I’m doing this, so we have a hard time communicating.”
“Oh… Yeah. It’s not fun if I tell you everything. I think I see where you’re stuck. It’s okay, you can still drag them, but you will have to make choices later. Be careful.”

Akira nodded and went back to work. His phone remained silent all day long.

After his night curry and a short trip to the bathhouse, Akira laid down on his mattress.

“Put that damn phone away right now.”

Akira gave up on diplomacy.

“You were the one adamant that I tried the game.”
“But I can’t even play it!”
“You should have thought that through better before getting me into it.”
“It’s not fair!”

Akira laughed and playfully shoved Morgana, who went to sulk at the end of the bed. He then focused back on the level and--oh. Right. 
Sometimes leaving a puzzle for a while made the answer obvious. They just had to trade blocks. If only one of them caved in so they could keep up with the game.
There was no way he’d help build a way to Heaven, though. He’d have to complete his own path without their help, then.

When he finally reached the point he aimed at, he sent a short message to the Angel, to which his phone ping ed immediately. He almost thought it was an automatic message--it was so unusual for the Angel to answer as soon as they got a message. Maybe they were expecting it after waiting for him to make his move?
Akira’s heart beat a little faster and he opened the notification.

He listened to the lyre melody blending with the background music twice, taking note of the colors on the screen, before opening the encyclopedia to try and make sense of this new, unknown stream of notes. It turned out it translated as a pictogram of a watch and ended on an exclamative note, and Akira could only translate it as “Took you long enough!” 

He would probably have felt insulted if he didn’t think the same. Still, how could someone be such a cheeky bastard through mere sound sentences?

Akira chuckled and answered with the sound he elected translated best as a “meh, don’t care”. He repressed the urge to stick his tongue out at the white-winged pixelated avatar on the screen, who had just moved a block to trap his Devil in a box made of blessed blocks.

Well, he knew a threat when he saw one.
He sent a “praying” message.

The Angel freed him, and Akira playfully got his Demon to send the tambourine sound that meant “kiss”.

The Angel didn’t answer, instead keeping on moving blocks. Akira was pretty sure they were deliberately ignoring him, but he worked alongside them and together, they finally managed to complete the level without having to choose where they’d head to yet.
It was about 1 am when they completed their task. Akira received a new notification.

The lyre sounds simply meant “night”.

Despite himself, Akira felt warm inside at what he understood was his Angel wishing him a good night.
How was it possible to get so easily attached to a bunch of pixels and a few digital sounds?

The fascination only grew the more levels they completed. As school days passed, and with them the growing expectation of something bigger and unpleasant to come in the more shady aspects of his life, Akira couldn’t help his mind from wandering to his Angel. They were a mere mass of pixel, just a programmed avatar, but with someone holding the reins from behind, a very real person clinging to their phone just like he and his friends were doing, and it allowed him to free his mind from all his current bothers. Akira revelled in the escapism it provided him.
He owed a lot to the Angel. He wanted to thank them.

One day, curiosity finally got the better of him, and he tried to find a way to com municate more directly than with prerecorded strings of sounds.
They couldn’t create sentences though. It would have been too easy. He had to make do with pictograms, or codes.
Pictograms didn’t really allowed for idle chatter, even though they had already managed to banter through the levels more than once with them.

Akira ended up looking up the morse code on the internet, to try and send notifications timed so as to string a whole sentence.
After much pondering, he started with just aiming at saying T-O-K-Y-O.
Just to check, who knew? Maybe the timezone theory was right. It probably wasn’t, but it would be nice to have a confirmation.

It turned out it wasn’t a really good idea. Surely the Angel was not amused at suddenly receiving almost fifteen notifications at once, because not only did they not answer--they even disappeared from the game for days.

At first Akira thought they were just busy, and he almost sent another message to question the reason, before he realised adding fuel to the fire may not be the best course of action. So he just waited.
He felt empty every time he looked at his phone and found it void of any notification.

After finding out the reason for his sudden, unexpected brooding in their latest gatherings, Futaba endlessly made fun of him.

“Do you really think no one ever tried before?”

Akira shrugged and kept poking at the screen aimlessly, trying to find his way out of the level by himself. It was definitely not working this time--he really needed the other side’s help, no compromise. 

“You know if they don’t answer, it may be that they gave up on the game? A lot of people do that after a few levels. Maybe you should ask for another partner. There’s an option for that.”

Akira almost shuddered at the idea.
He wanted his Angel. The one who sent him stupidly cheeky colorful songs and tried to block his path with blessed blocks just to annoy him. They had found a nice rhythm of gaming, and good ways to communicate.
Why did he have to go and ruin everything with trying to figure out if the Angel was in the same time zone as him?

“I don’t want another Angel.”
“Mh. I get you, I was the same. How long has it been?”
“...three days.”
“That’s a lot of time for this game, y’know. It really hooks people up, but when they drop, they drop for good.”
“Maybe they had… A problem with their phone? I’ll give them one more day.”
“Hang onto that hope, bro. Ah, shame... You can still do the Daily Challenges, though. They partner you with random players, so you won’t lose your touch with puzzles.”

In the evening, Akira tried the Daily Challenges. He completed them easily, and he did not like them as much. Being partnered with many people, all different, was just not the same. The tunes were the same, but the music seemed to blend differently, and he was missing the link. The connexion.

He considered again trying to send another notification to maybe mend the broken link, but didn’t dare despite days of silence. The Angel was likely still pissed off, or they would have already showed up, wouldn’t they?

The next day, Akechi came to Leblanc, and playing chess with him was a nice way to take his mind off the missing Angel, even if only for an evening, since despite giving them twenty-four hours more, the counterpart to his Demon seemed really intent to refuse to play the game. 

Pondering on his next move, waiting for the detective to play, Akira mindlessly tapped his fingers on the wooden counter. Akechi threw him a surprised look--it wasn’t so common for Akira to fidget so much, but he still had in mind the string of sounds that built up the morse code. He had learnt it by heart so as to time his messages.

“I didn’t think you were into morse codes, Kurusu-kun.”
“Ah, uh. Yes. I find cryptography fascinating.” 
“Oh, I can see the appeal of sending messages that only some people can understand. It’s an interesting thing to focus on.”

Sending messages that only some people could understand… Well, so much for taking his mind off the game. Even when he was trying to focus on something else, Akira did seem to always come back to it.
Was that addiction?
Purgatory really was true to its name. A place you found yourself trapped in for ages, uh, yearning for redemption.

Akira lost the chess game. Again. As expected , Akechi said. Akira swore he would win next time. It made Akechi laugh.

“It was really easy to make you lose focus tonight, Kurusu-kun. I hope whatever is on your mind won’t stay for too long. I like games in which you’re giving your all a lot better than half-hearted games.”

Akira almost apologized, but he ended up merely shrugging. The detective was always trying to rile him up anyway. He took the money the other boy gave him for the coffee, and focused on cleaning the place while Akechi picked up his belongings and headed to the door.

“Maybe you’ll win the next game, who knows? I bid you goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Akechi.”

The bells jingled behind the detective. Akira sighed and went back to closing the place. The detective was right. He should have been focusing more, he should have paid more attention to the present situation… He usually genuinely enjoyed his time with Akechi, the boy was a nice challenger (if a little too pleasant and overtly opposing him sometimes). Plus, it was not like Akira to let his mind wander so much--his current situation required him to concentrate.

Akira wallowed in guilt at having missed a nice opportunity to grow his bond with the other boy while cleaning. He pondered giving up on the game too, but his thought train was suddenly broken when he finally took his phone out for the first time since the beginning of the evening, after being done with his work.
He almost jumped at the insane amount of notifications.

Not only had his Angel answered at long last--they had literally flooded him with notifications .
Just in the same way he had.

Akira’s eyes narrowed. He tried to decipher the time code of each notification, to see if the Angel had opted to follow the same pattern. When he managed to put all the messages together, they also read T-O-K-Y-O in morse code.

Well.

Akira took a deep breath (his heart was not fluttering at the idea of a random stranger playing with him being in the same city, it was weird) and erased the notifications. He could be petty too--he’d waited three day, the Angel had ruined a perfect evening at playing chess and made him lose because he wasn’t focused . It was his turn to make the other wait for a bit. 
He only played the Daily Challenges for that night. 

They ended up patching things up the next day. At lunch break, Akira tentatively sent a tune that could translate as a pictogram of two people shaking hands. 
It took until his bedtime for the notification to come.

“Not again! And here I thought you’d finally stopped. Akira, if you won’t sleep, I’m going to go to Lady Ann’s! At least she lets me look at her screen when she’s playing, and she’s an Angel too! Just go ahead and play all the night through, see if I care.”

Akira playfully flicked Morgana’s nose.

“Ugh! Don’t come and complain if you fail your next exams because you fell asleep on your table!”

Morgana jumped through the window and Akira quickly sent a message to Ann to let her know he was coming. Ann just answered with a cheerful emoji, and with that, Akira knew Morgana was in good hands. 
Once this was settled, he finally opened the game notification. The Angel had sent a tune he didn’t know, he opened his encyclopedia to look it up.
Oh.
Pictogram of a wink.
Alright then.

They started playing together again until another inane time. 
The first definite choice came a few levels afterwards. Heaven or Hell. Both of them seemed very intent on having the other follow. None would stop.
Their exchanges became more and more heated (to the point of Akira sending direct “Fire” melody messages). They almost reached another stalemate, but suddenly, after a “Time” melody, the Angel disappeared for a few hours.

Akira understood and played the Daily Challenges, waiting for them to come back--they did that sometimes. It had been a surprise the first time, but he had grown used to it happening and he knew the meaning of this tune now. The Angel would come back.
When he got the next notification, around 3am, he was surprised.
It only translated as “Down” and “Fire”.

Akira wasn’t sure he understood well. Usually the Angel sent a tune that could be a greeting, to show that they were ready to play, but they’d never displayed such an abrupt behaviour in their communication.
He answered “Down” with a questioning final note. The Angel just played the tune that meant “Yes”.

Faced with the fact that he appearingly had somehow managed to convince the Angel that they would build the path to Hell, Akira wondered for a while if maybe he hadn’t been partnered with someone else. It was not like his Angel to go without a fight.

There was a weird lull in the game as Akira wasn’t sure how to react, while the Angel was clearly waiting for him to take the lead.
Akira tried the same message again, just to be sure. “Down”, questioning final note.
The Angel immediately answered with a tune that meant (Akira had to check the encyclopedia, as it was the first time the Angel used it) “pictogram of a hand giving the middle finger” then “Yes” three times. 

Alright. So that was still the same cheeky asshole, alright.

They did start building the path down. The puzzles got more and more tricky, the sceneries growing darker and darker, reminding Akira of Mementos somehow. The game built an amazing atmosphere, with a deeper music, and it would have felt uncomfortable if it wasn’t so familiar, merging so well with his Demon’s tambourine…
...maybe Hell really was his place after all?

When Akira checked the encyclopedia after an automatic notification that it had been updated, he found out that some tunes could translate as complete sentences, and not only pictograms. Were those custom-made? One of the Demonic messages he discovered could read as “thank you” and another one was something akin to “I missed you” or “I wish to see you soon.”
He decided to try and send both.

The last notification he got that night was containing lyre sounds that could read as two pictograms: “night” and “heart”.
Akira felt fuzzy inside.

Even more than before, his gaming nights were a nice respite from his daily life. It wasn’t only that school had picked up; the Thieves were in a tense situation and none of them enjoyed it. Haru was barely ever available, trying to patch things up at her father’s company, not even given time to grieve. Makoto helped the best she could. Akira’s list of people to visit in Mementos grew longer. Ann and Ryuji were restless. Morgana complained. 
The police had a huge amount of money on their heads.
Akechi was going to be invited at the school festival and they were going to try and get some intel from him.

Ugh.

Akira sometimes wished he wasn’t the leader, because no matter from which angle you looked at the plan, it was a terrible one, and he still had no better idea to figure out where to head with their investigation on the Black Mask.

The day before the beginning of the school festival, they all went to Mementos to blow up some steam while trying and doing at least a little good to the society that seemed so intent to make them pay for exposing its vileness. 

The ride in the Mona-bus was as chatty as always, undisturbed by notifications since the endless, uncanny corridors had no access to any network; it didn’t prevent them from figuring out where everyone was stuck, how successful they were in luring their partners to their side, or how different Hell’s side was from Heaven’s.

“I am totally dragging my Demon to Heaven! The sceneries are sooo beautiful there.”
“I like how you can still complete some levels even without help. It’s quite a challenge. My Demon and I are racing to our own goals, it seems. I wonder who will have to choose to follow the other first.”
“Ugh, I gave up on level 50. I’ve gone so far, but I realized it ate up too much of my time. I feel guilty for my Angel though…”
“Did you send them a notification to apologize?”
“I did, but they’d already disappeared. They didn’t seem very patient.”
“It’s weird, thinking you went through 50 levels with them and like it, it’s over…”

It was weird, indeed. Akira hated this thought. He didn’t dwell in it for too long.
He tried to change the tone of the conversation, and suddenly realised--Futaba was way more quiet than usual. He frowned and noted to talk to her about it later. Something was clearly wrong.

  They completed their missions successfully, and it took until after they got out of Mementos and the walk back to Yongen Jaya for Futaba to finally let slip:

"They’re gone.”

Akira didn’t say a word, only turned his eyes on her to show her he was listening as he usually did. 

“My Angel is gone. We completed the game. 101 levels, precisely. And once it’s over… It’s over. They went to Hell with me. It was… nice. I won, I suppose. But it’s so strange. It feels so empty.”
“You still have the Daily Challenges, though?”
“It’s not the same thing. You know, you tried it too, you have to understand. They’re played in teams, so I’m not paired up with my Angel anymore. It’s weird. I kinda wish I could still play with them? It feels like the ones in the Daily Challenge don’t know how to communicate, their melodies are all over the place. It’s infuriating. I have a hard time believing it’s… just over like that.”
“Maybe you can play it again and be an Angel this time?”
“I don’t know… I might just need to take a break. It was a very taxing game after all. I have other things to try out before. I’m just… not used to feeling so empty. I mean, I sure as hell am not alone, I have all of you guys but... it’s not the same? Maybe I really liked the idea of communicating with someone without having to use words. It was relaxing...”

Akira nodded, at a loss for words. He was stuck at level 45 at the moment, so he still had a long way before reaching that point, but he would have to let go of that random encounter one day too.
It felt weird and uneasy.
Akira didn’t like the feeling at all.
He took out his phone and sent a urgent notification to his Angel to see if they’d be up to play that night--a stupid impulse just to make sure they were still there, they were not gone yet--just as they reached Leblanc.

When he opened the door to the cafe, the sound of the bells was covered by a very distinct ping! from a phone that wasn’t his, and the loud chatter of teenagers sitting in a booth, and he was suddenly greeted with the surprised face of a detective who seemed about to put his own hand on the doorknob from the other side.
Futaba winced and rushed to hide behind Akira.
Akechi gave her a thoughtful gaze, before turning a cheerful smile to Akira.

“Ah, Kurusu-kun--I was just about to leave. I’m sorry, I won’t have time to play chess with you tonight, there’s a lot to do…”
“It’s alright. You probably have interviews to prepare. You’ll be coming to Shujin for the festival, right?”
“Ah, yes, Nijima-chan asked me. I will definitely be here. It will be a pleasure to meet you there, if I get the chance. It has been a while since I last got to enjoy a school festival.”

Akira wordlessly nodded. Futaba tried to push him out of the way, clearly wanting to get rid of Akechi as fast as possible. He got the message and cleared the path for the detective.

“Ah, I’ll be going now. I bid you good night.”
“Yes… Good night, Akechi.”

Akechi passed them by and headed for the metro station. Akira and Futaba finally stepped in the cafe, only to find out the chattering was even louder in the inside.

“Wow. It’s very lively in here.”

Sojiro grumbled.

“Don’t tell me. These teens made enough noise that my older regulars had to leave. Damn game got them way too excited, if you want my opinion.”

Sure enough, a very familiar ping! echoed again throughout the cafe.
One of the girls took her phone out and squealed.

“Aaaa, my Demon is so dreamy! Listen, they sent me a full melody made of heart sounds!”

Futaba frowned and didn’t even try to hide her disgust.

“Please tell me I wasn’t like this.”
“You were a little like this”, Akira deadpanned, thinking maybe I am a little like this too without saying it loud.
“Honestly, from an old man’s point of view, you did act a bit similarly, though, Futaba.”

Sojiro chuckled at Futaba’s outraged face and gave them each a plate of curry.

“You look exhausted, the both of you. Try to get a good night’s sleep--it’s your school festival tomorrow, right?”

Akira nodded. They ate in silence while the teens who were sitting and still excitedly talking about Angels and Demons finally stood from the booth they were in, paid for their drinks and left. Sojiro closed the cafe, Akira and Futaba helped him clean, and once the two Sakuras were gone, Akira went upstairs and let himself fall on his mattress.

Sojiro had been right. Akira was exhausted.

“You’re going to sleep this time, aren’t you?”
“I promise I will get some rest. It was an intensive day in Mementos and tomorrow’s a big day after all… Let me just complete this level first.”

Morgana sighed and caved in, settling in a ball at Akira’s feet. The boy plugged in his earbuds and checked his phone. He had a new notification: the Angel had answered the notification he had sent earlier in the day when he panicked about the ineluctability of their link being severed.
The answer contained only a questioning tune, as if wondering what had brought up that sudden urgency of Akira’s earlier message.
Akira felt no need to justify himself: he just sent a cheerful tune and dived into the level. He was happy he could see his Angel, play with them.
Even more so now they had chosen to build their path to Hell together.

Although reluctant to give up on the game for the night, Akira held his promise to Morgana and ended the gaming session earlier than usual. He quickly browsed the encyclopedia and used his Demonic tambourine to play the tunes for “Thank you” and “I wish to see you again”.
So maybe that whole “they’re gone” speech had really got to him and he was scared of seeing the Angel disappear in turn. 
Well. Worse came to worst, the cheeky Angel would make fun of him for his sentimental messages. It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to the other’s sass by now.

But when the notification came in, he didn’t even have to check the encyclopedia to understand the lyre sounds that came back at him--he knew them by heart.
“Night” and “heart”.
Akira sighed, closed his eyes and let the hand holding the phone fall down beside his pillow. 
He really didn’t look forward to the moment he would reach the level that would make it so he would never receive this kind of musical well-wishes again.
Maybe they should head back; go to Heaven instead.
Or maybe it was already too late.

The Angel’s melody remained stuck in Akira’s head as he desperately tried to fall asleep. On the other side of the bed, Morgana was snoring in a blissful ignorance of his friend’s current turmoil.

Not that this specific turmoil had anything to compare with the one the Phantom Thieves found themselves in a few days later.

“Damn! How could we get played this way! I hate that guy!”

If Purgatory had brought a nice and welcome lift in the team’s mood, Akechi force-joining their party had thrown it all down. Akira gritted his teeth.
He didn’t hate the detective. Really. He had appreciated their time together. Sure, the other boy was… suspicious as hell, but he also seemed like he genuinely needed the company of other teens his age.
And his gaze was a disturbing, fascinating mix of cold calculation and deep yearning at the interactions the Phantoms had between themselves.
Akira wondered if the others noted this yearning too, or if they never went past the pleasant but cold facade.

“We don’t have a choice, Ryuji. As much as I dislike his methods, he was right about Sae’s palace and our imminent arrest. Maybe he can be a useful asset in the team for our last heist.” 
“Psh, he’s gonna drag us down is what he’s gonna do!”
“What do you think, Leader?”

Akira shrugged.
Ann twisted a strand of hair around her finger.

“I don’t hate him, but I don’t like this situation… I don’t trust him.”

Haru threw a worried look as Makoto remained quiet at Ann’s words, clearly lost in thoughts.
The silence grew heavy among them, until a clear and familiar ping! suddenly broke it.

Ann’s face went from a frown to a very bright red color. She scrambled for her phone, quickly muting it.

“Ah, sorry, I just forgot to put it in silent mode… I’m so close to completing the game, it’s thrilling…”

Futaba’s face fell. Ryuji’s went dark. They noticed each other and shared a knowing look of pain. 

“Don’t look too forward to completing the game.”
“Uh?”
“Guys, can we focus back on the topic?”

Akira had grown used to Morgana’s annoyed tone, after hearing him way too many times when he was complaining about not being able to hold a phone, but this time it was more welcome than usual. He nodded to Morgana’s words.

“Do we all agree that Akechi is now a part of our group and a full member of the Phantom Thieves, and as such, will not miss any of our gatherings again, so this is probably the last time we meet this way?”

They all grimly nodded.

“And…”

Akira smirked.

“Do we agree that we are not that oblivious and that we shall become the Demon Thieves for a while, leaving the Phantom Thieves to operate with Akechi and doing things that Akechi must not know about?”

They all watched him in confusion. Futaba suddenly jumped to her feet and pumped her fist in the air.

“Yiiiisssss! Demon Thieves! Now this is a group no one will know about, especially not Akechi, and we can keep on working on finding out who the true culprit is this way!”
“Demon…”
“Wait!”
“Why Demon Thieves? Where does it come from?”
“Come on, Ann, you didn’t want to call us the Angel Thieves?”
“Ugh, yeah, no, that wouldn’t fit at all. Have you seen our personas? Definitely not Angels .”
“I thought all decisions had to be unanimous!”

Akira just gave them a slow smile. He was glad to see the fighting spirit back in his team.
Soon enough, the group chat of the Demon Thieves found its way in his phone, beside the one for the Phantom Thieves, which Akechi had obviously joined.

A few days after the meeting, Akira was still set on taking his mind away from all this mess, and though he stopped spending his whole nights playing Purgatory (much to Morgana’s contentment), there still wasn’t an evening he would conclude without playing the “Thank you” melody to his Angel, and having the usual answer.
Heart. Night .
The two tunes had fused and they were almost constantly stuck in his head now.
It made Akira’s heart beat fast enough that he almost managed to convince himself he was just a regular teenager hooked to a silly mobile game fantasizing about a tiny character with pixelated wings, and not a nationally wanted criminal.

Akira was surprised to find Akechi sitting alone at the counter of Leblanc when he went home after hanging out with a very upset Ann a few days later (“It’s over,” she’d said. “Why did I even play this stupid game? It hurts now. It hurts so much!”). 
There was no meeting planned, and after the stunt he pulled on all of them, the detective had made himself discrete. 

“Ah, good evening. I’m sorry to bother you tonight, I just… needed a place to gather my thoughts. Would you mind a game of chess?”

Akira minded very much. He dreaded the moment when Akechi would checkmate him again, for real this time.
And yet, Akira found, he didn’t mind so much. A chess game was a good way to dive into his opponent’s way of thinking, and to try and make sense of his logics.
It also was a good way to take his mind away from other, more unpleasant topics.

Sojiro left him in charge--he had a tendency to do it more and more when Akechi was here. Akira didn’t have it in him to tell the adult responsible for his behavior and well-being that Akechi was not exactly like the others , just not as safe to remain with, and he instead focused on preparing coffee while Akechi set the chess board.

“I play white, you play black, as usual?”
“Of course.”

Akira couldn’t picture playing white. There was a reason why he had barely hesitated when he'd chosen his colour in Purgatory, and headed towards Hell...

He had a hard time focusing on the chess board, his mind always lost in what was going to happen in the days to come. He still put in his all to try and make sense of his opponent’s moves,  to foresee them… To try and make sense of Akechi .

He lost twice, again. It put him in a sour mood. Akira didn’t like bad omens. The third time, he thought. The third time he would make it, he would understand , and he was already setting the pieces back on the board when Akechi suddenly stood.

“I’m sorry; nature calls.”

Oh. Right. What an elegant way to put it.
Waiting for his opponent to come back, Akira took his phone out of his pocket. The Demon Thieves group chat was active as always, but he focused on the notification from his game instead. He hadn’t noticed he’d got a new message from his Angel--maybe it had arrived when he was in the metro? He was so surprised at seeing Akechi that he hadn’t checked his phone when he’d opened the door home.

Akira put his earbuds on. The Angel’s tune was questioning, as if wondering why Akira was barely online lately. He just answered the melody for “time” and the other for “night”. Maybe the Angel would understand. They had learnt to understand a lot from each other and their communication was way more efficient now than it was in the beginning.
The ping! was almost immediate. Akira watched his phone, surprised. Despite the sounds, its screen was still black.
It finally lit up with a notification a minute later. Chained lyre melodies for “no” and “night”.
Oh well. 
Akira couldn’t even count on a late level of Purgatory to escape from his thoughts tonight, it seemed. He answered with the most basic tune, a half-hearted “ok”.
Akira almost jumped at the close ping! That really, most definitely didn’t come from his phone.
Akechi had gotten out of the bathroom, his phone in hand, and Akira narrowed his eyes.

“I know this sound.”

Akechi’s face showed a nice mix of bashfulness and surprise.

“So you’re playing Purgatory too?” 
“You too?... Oh, yes, it’s true that all of you are… Well, I mean, I do play. I… did try it out in the end. I didn’t expect to get so engrossed in the game, but it is a nice change from my usual train of thought.”

If Akira had learnt anything about Goro Akechi during their long hours playing chess (and maybe it was the real reason why he kept indulging him in games he never won), it was that the detective had a strange--and somewhat cute--way to suddenly find himself oversharing facts about his life despite his usual aura of secrecy.
Thus Akira was not exactly surprised when Akechi suddenly opened up and shared his thoughts about his experiences. 
...or maybe he was actually surprised for once. Akira always had a hard time figuring out which parts of the detective’s speech were said in earnest, but he still took in all the feelings Akechi seemed to have about a mobile game.

“Ah, to be honest… I don’t really like what’s happening in real life... The blackmail… I am going against my ideals to join you, but it is also against my ideals to blackmail people to be successful. The game… the game is a nice respite from my everyday work and the constant moral struggle. Actually, it’s funny how this game places me exactly at the place I seem to be in my life… in Purgatory, trying to redeem myself, and then heading… Well, choosing a team was hard but I don’t regret launching the game. I confess I was curious after seeing how happy it seemed to make Futaba-chan and… Mh. It’s nice.”

Akechi remained silent, his eyes lowered on the black screen of his phone.

“It’s almost comforting to know I will never be able to find out who I am playing with. It’s an enjoyable link, I can’t help feeling a sort of kinship with my partner, despite not even using language to communicate. I love the mystery. I love trying to figure out what they mean, without knowing them, with barely any hints, only tiny quirks I managed to gather through our game. You were right when you said it might be a game nice for my detective mind. I know it’s only images and sounds, but… this feeling of ambivalent distance and proximity is truly fascinating. I used to think I wasn’t one for mobile games, but this one is different.”

Akechi put his phone back in his pocket and beamed at Akira, who was at a loss after such a speech. How had the detective managed to put words on everything Akira was feeling about his Angel?
Except that, contrary to Akechi, he kind of didn’t like the mystery. At all . He kind of wanted to meet his Angel--his Angel who lived in Tokyo, if the tentative morse from when they started playing meant anything.

“I guess I have you to thank for the discovery, Kurusu-kun. Although I confess it has probably ruined my sleep schedule.”
“Oh, yeah. I feel you, mine too. So which way are you hea…”

Before Akira could complete his question, Akechi’s phone ping ed from his pocket. 
The ringtone was not a familiar one this time. Akechi’s face darkened and he took his phone out again.

“Ah. I am afraid I have to go, there seems to be an emergency to deal with. Oh well… Our third game of chess will have to wait. It’s already quite late, isn’t it?”

Akechi stood and gathered his belongings. Akira merely nodded, having a hard time hiding his disappointment. He would have liked to have a chance to checkmate Akechi, if only on a board. He also would have liked to discuss the topic of Purgatory more--it wasn’t so easy now, with most of his friends having already completed the game and being more concerned about him staying alive than about the link he shared with his Angel. He would have to know which faction Akechi had chosen, and why. 
He needed information about the boy, and seeing him so open about a game could have maybe, maybe…

But Akechi was already at the door.

“I bid you goodnight, Kurusu-kun.”
“Yeah… the same to you, Akechi.”

Akira closed Leblanc behind the detective, prepared himself for sleep, and once in bed, he frowned when he noticed he had missed the last notification from his Angel, sent about an hour before, a clear indication that the Angel wouldn’t be online this night. 
Maybe he would be stuck on level 60 a little longer, but these two melodies mixed into one, custom-made picked him up. At least he still had this. A tune a stranger he’d never met had made for him. Heart. Night.
Akira held the phone to his heart and sighed. 

It was fine.

He still had a little more time--a few more levels left before bidding adieu to his Angel. 
Not that he had a lot more time to spare, considering how uncertain his future was--he hated himself for getting into this train of thoughts.
Even with the melody going round his head once more, Akira had a hard time finding sleep that night.
He would have liked to see what Akechi’s face looked like if he checkmated him for good. 

When he drifted in dreams, Akechi had wings, the chess board had turned red and the winged detective was dragging him to Hell. He startled Morgana when he woke up gasping.

It took the first trip to Mementos with the complete group for Akira to realise that despite having broken most of his friends’ hearts, Purgatory had actually been of very good help for the whole team. They all seemed even more in tune than before, some of them going so far as to hum some melodies that were familiar enough for the others to pick up even without noticing it.
Akira not only caught Skull when he stood immediately to baton pass with Panther right after she sang a tune. He also caught how Queen and Noir worked even more in tandem than before. Only Mona seemed to be left out, a little at a loss at the sudden, unfamiliar way they all were unconsciously using to communicate.

“Y’all are being weird, today.”
“Maybe that’s because we’re testing our new recruit.”
“More like you’re trying to impress him…”

Akira had to confess there might have been a part of it, but if he had to be honest, he’d say that he was more impressed at how Akechi--Crow--was doing.

He was clumsy when it came to teamwork, antsy when it came to summoning his persona, as if unused to calling its name, unsure of what he was doing, but his overall behaviour clearly proved there was no way it was his first steps in the Metaverse. Crow was a lot better than he let show. They all knew: Crow had to be sure of what he was doing. Crow had a terrible, terrible plan.
Still, the way he stuttered when trying to call his persona’s name was almost adorable. 

Then Crow had the opportunity to work in tandem with Joker, and the others remained baffled when they hit a shadow at the same time, crushing it, not giving it a chance.

“How are you both so in sync?”

Even Mona was baffled.

“Not fair, dude. Us Thieves have been battling as a group for months, how come you two work together so well when it’s Crow’s first time in Mementos?”

Joker made a mental note to spend a little more bro time with Skull later. The loud boy had a point, though. He really did feel in line with Crow, as if able to expect how he was going to play his move. Was it playing chess with him that had taught him how to foresee what would come next from his ally-rival? Or was it…
Lost in thoughts, Joker hummed a familiar melody, just like the other Phantom Thieves tended to do during the fights. It was mindless, just a habit… That is, until Crow hummed something too.
Behind his mask, Joker’s grey eyes widened, but Crow didn’t notice: he was already springing from the ground, ready to land the final blow. 
Joker followed suit.
The shadow didn’t stand a chance and collapsed as soon as both their weapons hit it at the same time. 

They tried to talk some sense to the weakened shadow before it faded out and they snatched the small treasure. Their job done, they all jumped into the Monabus to make their way to the entrance and commute back to Leblanc for a post-operation meeting.

They ended up all bundled in the attic with warm drinks, debriefing over the changes of hearts they had just completed and the potential strategies for Sae’s palace. Makoto was pondering over how to build their teams according to each’s power, and Futaba was summing up what she knew about their personas.

“Oh right! No wonder you two make a good pair, with Akira being strong to curse and weak to bless, and Akechi being weak to curse and strong to bless…”

She frowned. 

“There was definitely something else though…”

Akira smirked. 

“Oh, there sure was.”

He turned to Akechi and said in a low, dangerous voice.

“Of course you’re weak to curse and strong to bless, Angel .”

Akechi’s eyes widened while the others fell into a stunned silence.

“Wait, do you mean Akechi is… Akechi plays Purgatory too?”
“How do you know… I never told you my clan!”

Akechi let out a nervous laughter.

“My deductive skills finally rubbed off on you, or was it only a lucky guess?”

Akira shrugged, got his phone out and all the others watched him in quickly tap on his screen.
He put his phone back in his pocket at the precise time when Akechi’s phone ping! ed.

The silence in the room fell heavier than ever when the detective got his phone out, tapped, and Akira’s pocket ping! ed in reaction. His eyes betrayed his mirth.

“So tell me, have you found the way out of level 65 already, or are we still stuck because you still haven’t figured out you just had to do exactly the same as in level 3? Sometimes it’s good to go back to how you started and see past the walls the game built for you.”

Akechi blanched. Behind, the silence was broken by the rest of the team erupting in exclamations.

“No way!”
“You’ve got to be effin’ kiddin’ me!”
“We all tried to get paired up and failed, and you guys got partnered without knowing you both were playing?”

Akechi ignored them and just kept his eyes locked on Akira’s, whose smirk had softened into a shier smile. 

“You were… You’re… How long have you known?”
“I’ve been wondering since your last evening in Leblanc… But this trip to Mementos really sealed it.”

When Akira hummed the usual “good night” melody his Angel had made for him, Akechi’s face showed a storm of feelings--anger, shame, disgust, dizziness, wait, was that relief ?
Fondness?

The meeting was abruptly ended when Akechi suddenly excused himself and the other Thieves were too stunned to focus on anything else.

Once everyone was gone, Akira cleaned the attic and flopped on the bed.

“Are you really going to keep playing now?”

From the side, Morgana was gauging him with a judgemental eye.

“I think I will. It’s a good game, and you’ve seen how it helps us communicate faster in battles.”
“But you’re playing with--”
“I know.”

Akira sighed and Morgana slightly huffed at the abrupt dismissal.

“Why do you enjoy playing with fire so much?”
“Eh. I’m the Demon. I’m not afraid of a little fire.”

Morgana didn’t even try to hide his discontentment this time.

“You’re our leader and I trust you, but I’m sorry I have to tell you have terrible life choices, and I’m not talking about your sleep schedule for once.”

The cat left the room to try and grab something to eat downstairs, leaving Akira alone with his thoughts. The boy sighed and, in a low voice, admitted to no-one:

“I know. I know.

Akira felt the exhaustion of fighting in the Metaverse finally overtaking his body. As he remained laying down, his mind drifted to the game, to the notifications. It had been his safe haven for so long, a way to keep his brains from cooking worst-case scenarios, and now it turned out he couldn’t even rely on it anymore. What did you do when the person you’d been yearning to learn the identity of turned out to be someone you really did not want them to be?
Akira pondered for a while, trying to figure out how his clever, sassy and careful Angel could be the same person as the one who planned to kill him.

He didn’t know.

He sent me good night messages every night and he didn’t know it was me.

I wonder what he’s thinking now. Will he still play?

Will he still send me the same songs?

The idea of not being able to play anymore crushed Akira. He could ask for another partner, but…
But…

Akira sighed and picked up his phone. It was 9:30pm--not even late enough to sleep, but he didn’t think he could do anything more today. His eyes caught on his last notification, still displayed on the home screen since he hadn’t opened it upon receiving it more than an hour ago. His Angel’s answer--no, Akechi’s answer.

He tapped.
The lyre melody translated as “question mark”. It played three times.
Akira browsed through the menus to try and check level 56. He couldn’t help but smile when he noticed the Angel had finally managed to complete it. Avoid the walls from the game, go back to the initial learnings… The Angel had even gone so far as to almost complete level 57 by themselves, and the small avatar had their arms crossed, as if waiting for the Demon to finally make their move.
Akira didn’t suppress the smile blooming on his face. His emotions were tearing him apart and he was not able to figure out what he felt about it, but at least his Angel was still playing. At least Akechi would still…
Akira shook himself and opened his messaging app. 

“Don’t get too engrossed in you descent to Hell, Angel. You still owe me a match of chess.”

He didn’t have to wait long for the answer. Soon enough, his phone ping! ed--but the notification was not one of a new message.
Purgatory was showing the Angel playing the lyre. Akira recognized the tune as one that had been played some time ago…
He opened the encyclopedia and--oh, right.
The middle finger melody.

Akira chuckled and moved on with the level to complete it too so they could play further. Their only interactions were the short tunes to explain what they were doing, and how to find the solution to each new puzzle they encounter. They were fast, efficient, they communicated with ease, and Akira couldn’t help but feel his heart grow three sizes every time they completed a new level successfully and the screen displayed the two tiny characters hand in hand, ready to tackle the next step.

Damn.

When they reached level 75, though, the Angel disappeared from the screen without a sound. Akira frowned. He wasn’t used to seeing the other leaving so abruptly. He didn’t like the idea of calling it a night without…
Akira sighed and pondered sending a direct message to Akechi, just a cheeky “Good night, Angel”--but he opted out of it. The other boy had made it clear he didn’t like it when Akira cheated and contacted him directly. Instead of a message, he weaved a tune with his Demonic tambourine, something that mixed the tunes for “night”, “thank you”, “I am happy”.

For a little while, the new melody hung in the air as Akira waited, hoping for an answer. He’d almost given hope when the Angel reappeared on screen at the same time as the notification of an answer. 

He tapped, but he almost didn’t have to listen to this one--he already knew it by heart. It would linger in his mind until morning.

Heart. Night.

Akira swallowed his smile, and felt his eyes burning. It was fine, they still had twenty-five levels to go. Twenty-five levels in which they could keep communicating this way, before it…
Before…

It was fine. It would be fine. Twenty-five levels and a chess match, and… It would be only a matter of time before Akira managed to have Goro talk to him for real.

Until then, the lyre melody would do.
Humming, Akira let himself drift away until sleep overtook him.
In his dreams, Angel-Akechi was playing the lyre in a chaotic scenery, his eyes burning with repressed emotions when Demon-Akira watched him, a fond expression on his face, his tambourine in hand.

I bid you goodnight. ♡