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To be Hopeful is to be Strong

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1

After the Phantom Thieves change Kamoshida’s heart, they don’t quite escape official notice. No one can pin anything on them, but Akira was definitely cutting things close by showing up and causing scene after scene like he did, making friends with the stunning but cold Ann -- though the mere idea of anyone calling the girl who was practically a pyromaniac ‘frigid’ made him cackle every time -- and generally involving everyone and their sibling in his schemes.

So when the news station sent over a small crew to be investigated by someone they were touting as the Detective Prince, Akira honestly couldn’t have cared less. He wouldn’t be able to find anything, especially with the teachers working to cover up the details.

At least he didn’t care until a boy in a shitty suit with hair like a brown mop showed up and announced himself. Akira, forgetting it just wasn’t normal to be able to read people as easily as he did and sensing how uncomfortable this Goro Akechi was, snorted loudly in the crowd. Ryuji ducked his head and started snickering too, probably just because the whole ‘prince’ thing made his delinquent best friend laugh on principle.

Ann slapped him on the shoulder half-heartedly and Morgana spoke up, “Hush! You’re all acting suspicious!”
“Oh, like a talking cat is normal,” Ryuji hissed back, slightly too loud.
The ruckus drew the attention of the crew, and Ann, being blonde (naturally) and American and pretty, was called up to talk to them about her experience. “The worst actor of the team,” Akira said, but there was a smile playing on his lips.

He listened with one ear to Ryuji and Morgana bicker and with the other to the interview, but didn’t comment on either. He was watching the boy’s face. How was it a kid their age, possibly even younger than Akira, got into this job? Did he go to school and work full time at the station? Did he write his own stories? He tore his eyes away to do research on his phone, but it was almost all fan speculation and some interesting artworks that would probably make the real Akechi faint on the spot.

Akira was curious. And it was dangerous for everyone when Akira got interested in someone -- but it usually turned out alright. So Akira put on his most charming smile, straightened his uniform and ruffled his hair. He turned and winked at his friends, who immediately asked what he was planning. Then he raised his hand and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, I have a question.”

He didn’t have a question. Ann looked floored, then he could swear he saw the fire flare up behind her eyes. She had been doing a passable job of changing the subject entirely, and he was going to have hell to pay later. “Yes? What is it?” This came from the prince himself, in a completely polite tone that gave nothing away. How obnoxious. And curious. No one would judge him for being irritated with a heckler. . . Akira smirked.

Now he had another goal. Make the prince emote. He opened his mouth and let slip something that he hadn’t told the other Thieves, something he’d done as a backup plan in case they needed a paper trail, in case things went south. “I have the copies of multiple anonymous student reports that were made to the principal. They date back a long time before this stealing hearts thing. I want to know what the people in charge of this were doing.”

“What the hell are you thinking, dude?” Ryuji asked.
“Yeah, what he said!” Morgana agreed.
Ann, onstage, just looked baffled before schooling her expression.
Akechi met his eyes for a beat, then two. The detective’s red-brown eyes flickered with annoyance. “I’m afraid I do not have that information. I am quite sure everything that was possible was being done. If what you are saying is true, and --” he paused to chuckle with no real emotion behind it -- “I apologize if I doubt you, then it is likely this case would have been dealt with swiftly by the proper authorities.”

Akira’s smirk widened. Akechi was saying all this by rote, like he practiced. He probably did practice, in front of a mirror or something. Whatever way, the detective knew he was full of it. “Thank you, Akechi.”

They wrapped up the interviews shortly. His question, he knew, would never be aired. The air buzzed slightly with gossip, though, and a few times he heard it brought up -- did people report Kamoshida? Probably. So why wasn’t anything done?

Akira waited outside the backstage door of the auditorium for the prince to come out. “Good interviewing skills. What does being a detective prince pay?”
The brown-haired boy was startled into jumping slightly, though he quickly forced himself to relax. He chuckled again, and again there was no happiness there. Just a reflex. “Nothing, of course. We can’t have jobs and attend school where I live.” His eyes crinkled up. It was strange, most people that smiled had smiles that didn’t reach their eyes. Akira was a master at them. But Akechi’s smile was all strained eyes and cheeks, like he knew what to do but couldn’t quite manage it.

“Interesting. I was just wondering what made you reply with bullshit, when I, you know, brought up what you were trying to cover up with that news broadcast. But then you’re doing work that makes me think you actually want to make a difference. So if they aren’t holding money over your head, I just have to wonder what they are holding.”

Akechi’s lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. Akira grinned widely. “I am not sure what you are implying. Whatever you are thinking is beyond me, but I must ask you to desist. Goodbye.”
Akira shrugged. “If that’s how you want to play it. Take these anyway, though.”

He swung his bag around and pulled out a plain envelope, the big orange ones that held papers. He handed it over to the detective. Akechi looked at it for a long moment, face expressionless. Probably thinking about every possible outcome of his taking them. He reached out -- why was he wearing gloves? It wasn’t cold -- and took the envelope.

When they next made eye contact Akechi’s eyes held something like appreciation. Akira smiled genuinely, making the other boy flinch back a little. “Thanks, ace detective. Oh, and by the way,” his smile turned sultry, “that’s my number on the back. See you later, prince,” Akira said, and slipped back in the building, heading for his next class. He’d be late, but Kawakami would bail him out if they tried to get him in trouble.

2

A few mornings later, Kawakami got called out of the classroom. Akira and Ann shared looks of confusion, and Akira texted the group. They didn’t know anything either. When she came back, she called his name and told him to go to the library. Akira stood casually, like he’d been waiting for the call. He threw his backpack over one shoulder (carefully, for Mona’s sake) and bowed quickly in acknowledgement before leaving.

Ann already texted him with a line of question marks. He texted a quick ‘idk update you later’ before slipping into the library, empty during classes. He scanned the room for the librarian, but she seemed gone too, or maybe hadn’t come in for the day yet. Practically blending into the background, sitting at a round table, was Goro Akechi. The boy was looking down at some papers, frowning slightly. Akira wasn’t subtle in taking a picture and sending it to Ann. ‘the plot thickens’ he texted.

He had time to see Ann’s reply (‘!!’) before the boy cleared his throat. “Might I ask why you thought that was necessary?”
He immediately grinned and answered, “I’m going to forge your signature and sell it online for big money.”
Akechi sniffed. “That is not only distasteful, but illegal.”
“Are you copyrighted or something?” Akira asked in confusion before helping himself to a seat on the ground, carefully letting Mona slip out and off into an aisle to watch.
“Certainly not. Harassment is illegal. Why on earth would I be copyrighted?”
“A pretty face like that?” Akechi frowned, but also tinged pink, making Akira grin again. It was a pretty face, he thought to himself. Maybe with his hair up?
“We are getting off topic.”

Akira leaned forward, letting his real concern over what the detective had found shine through, arms crossed on the table and giving Akechi his full attention. The shift in atmosphere seemed to startle him, he adjusted his shirt and sat up straighter himself. “Is that a file on me? Really, you didn’t have to.” He slid it over to himself and skimmed it quickly. Akechi made a move to stop him but he’d already flipped the folder open. Criminal record, police report, even a credit statement on the card he opened when he got his job at the flower shop, for what little it was worth -- Palace treasure money he kept in cash and under the table through Iwai. “This is impressive.”

Goro looked at him through narrow eyes that shone with both accusation and confusion. “This says you assaulted a respectable citizen.”
“It does.”
“You plead not guilty all the way through, even though a plea bargain would have let you stay in your original school.”
“I like seeing new places,” Akira responded, grinning in a way that was more a baring of teeth.
Akechi could hardly hide his annoyance from coming through with, “That’s all you have to say for yourself?”

His goal clicked in Akira’s mind. He took a moment to think things over. Would this detective be a good ally? Yes. Loyal? He wasn’t sure. Would the team funcion with him as a unit? Unknown. Was he trustworthy? Definitely not. But. There was a reason he was digging for this particular bit of information, and having someone smart on the inside of the media would be a huge asset.

“You want me to admit to you that I’m innocent -- plead with you to believe me, maybe? You’ll judge my character based on that. Then you’ll try and get what you really want from me. What is it? I’m curious. What information could I have that you couldn’t get more easily elsewhere?”

The flash of emotion that crawled over Akechi’s face was unnervingly vicious. Akira sat up straighter and by the time he had the detective’s face was schooled into cold politeness once more. He still wished he had his weapon. “Your jumping to conclusions could get you trouble one day. Perhaps it already has, as you claim not to be guilty of a crime, but the evidence. . .” he tapped on the file, pulling it back to his side and sliding it into his bag.

Akira tilted his head. “You can just ask. I’m not going to be uncooperative. I assaulted a politician because he was drunk and was about to rape a woman who was walking home. He could afford a lawyer and my parents couldn’t afford a scandal, so here we are.”

Akechi’s lips thinned. “And who was this politician?”
Akira laughed once. “That’s the kicker. I never learned. Not even in court. He had a lot of money. So that doesn’t help my story.”
“It really does not.”

Akira shrugged. “You can look deeper into it, if you want. It stopped bothering me when I realized it didn’t really matter who it was. And then I got pretty busy here.”
“Yes, you decided to do some investigating of your own.”
“Of course. Being new I could ask taboo questions and being a delinquent, no one wanted to question me too much.”
“You seem to have made friends with another student considered a delinquent as well.”
Akira’s face fell into determination. “Leave my friends out of it. They’ve done nothing wrong. What was it you wanted me for?”

The detective put his bag on the table and pulled out his phone. “Nothing yet. I suppose I was just curious,” he said with another fake smile.
Akira smirked back. “Then the sentiment is returned,” he said with a wink. The detective tried not to look flustered at the obvious flirtation by opening up something on the phone.
“I would like your contact information.”
“Sure. You still have my number, but I’ll add the address. It’s also the best coffee and curry shop in Japan so stop by anytime.”

Akechi stood up and Akira took his cue. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“For me at least,” Akira grinned. The genuine tone might have thrown him off, but he nodded and was about to leave the room when Mishima entered, the bags under his eyes still pronounced and posture still frightened. Akira ignored whatever Akechi said completely and walked over, pulling out a chair and flipping one around for himself. “Hey, what’s up?”
Mishima startled, he hadn’t thought anyone was there. “Oh, Kurusu, my apologies --”
“You’re fine, Mishima. Is everything alright? It’s. . .” he looked at a clock. “Ah, time for the new volleyball tryouts, right?”
“Yeah. You know how they’re redoing them then? I’m being stupid. . .”

Akira looked up quickly to see Akechi looking on, seeming unsure if he should stay or leave. He returned his gaze to Mishima. As long as the detective wasn’t gathering info, he didn’t care. “Tell me why you’re being stupid.”

Akira’s tone couldn’t have been mistaken for anything other than kindness, which made Mishima blink a few times and smile self-deprecatingly. “I keep thinking I’m going to go in and see him standing there, like nothing ever happened. We were talking in the locker room. Everyone feels like they’re going to face a firing squad or something. It's worse than when he was here, isn’t that dumb?”
“No.” Akira’s answer made Mishima look up at him in confusion. “It makes sense to me. At least with Kamoshida you knew what would happen. Now everything is new. But you’ve got a team that’s bonded a lot and you’re really good at volleyball, Mishima. I’ve seen it and you were playing with injuries. The new coach probably won’t even do anything competitive today. Hey, you want company? Ryuji and I could come.”

Mishima nodded quickly. “But don’t you have classes?” Akira stood up and helped the boy to his feet, putting an arm around his shoulders.
“Sure, but you’re more important. I’ll text him now.”
They walked out of the library together. Akira felt eyes on him from the back door as Akechi exited another way.

3

Akira walked into Sojiro’s one day after his shift at the flower shop was over, in the middle of a yawn. “You’re back,” his unofficial uncle greeted.
“Welcome home,” came another voice.

Akira’s teeth clacked back together as he saw the detective at the bar, reading a schoolbook and holding a cup of coffee. He raised his brows in surprise at seeing him, but broke into a smile. “Honey, I’m home,”
Akechi’s look of surprise made him laugh, passing the counter to throw his bag and apron upstairs. “Don’t drive away my customers!” Sojiro grumped. Akira laughed again and weaved back behind the counter.
“I’ll have you know I invited this customer. So what beans are good with cocoa powder?”
“Hmph,” Sojiro replied. “You aren’t allowed to just take over the bar like this,” he said. He also pulled down a few kinds of beans for him to choose from and let him grind them and make a cup of coffee.

He leaned his elbows on the counter while it brewed. “So, Ace Detective. Solve any cases lately?”
“I still find I’m particularly drawn to the issue of the Phantom Thieves. I would like to be the one to solve it.”
“You think they exist? It’s some far-fetched stuff people are theorizing.”
“You don’t believe in them?”
Akira shrugged. “It’d be nice if they were around.”
“Even though what they do is illegal, and possibly fatal?”
“Sorry to disappoint, but illegal doesn’t mean much to me. And I doubt fatal is their intention, pretty sure shooting someone is easier than getting in their brain or heart.”
Akechi’s eyebrows shot up. “Interesting. A surprisingly callous point.”
“Don’t misinterpret, I’m glad Kamoshida is in jail and not dead. But Shiho would have been dead because of him if not for sheer luck. And I’m only bringing that up because I know you know about it.”

Sojiro looked up at this. “Shiho, Shiho. . .you mean that nice American’s girlfriend? He hurt her that bad?”
Akira looked at Akechi, who spoke quietly. “She jumped from the roof of the school in order to avoid the threats he gave her.”
Sojiro let out a long breath through his nose, looking more furious than Akira had seen since he sneaked out to go to Mementos one night. “Then maybe the bastard should be dead.”
Akira shrugged a shoulder. It was hard to disagree, he just couldn’t justify taking a life. Akechi looked between the pair before Akira took pity on him and spoke up.

“This can’t just be a social call, you’re a busy guy.”
“O-oh. Yes. You got back later than I thought, however.”
“Well, you’re welcome anytime.” Sojiro said.
Akira nodded once in agreement. “Let me walk you back to the station. Anything important you can ask then.”
“I wouldn’t want to be a burden, especially after you just got off work.”
“It’s no problem.”

He swung Akechi’s bag over his shoulder in a smooth motion and started towards the door.
“I’m going home, then. Close up when you’re back.”
“Got it, Boss.”

The majority of their walk was in companionable silence. Akira wondered if he had a reason for coming at all, or just wanted to see if Akira was telling the truth. Maybe even just get a cup of coffee.

Akira turned to face Akechi when they reached the station and held out his bag. “Ah. Thank you for carrying that. You didn’t have to.”
Akira gave him a real smile. “No worries. Hey, I could’ve been stealing stuff the whole time, you never know.” He winked.
To his credit, Akechi laughed at that, and it sounded genuine. Goal: Make Akechi Emote was a success. Too bad he’d gotten too invested in the boy. “I will see you again, then, Kurusu.”
“Call me Akira,” he said with a smile, and turned to go before making the other give permission to call him Goro out of politeness. “And call me!” he called a few steps farther.
He didn’t look back, but he hoped the boy was blushing.

Akira saw Akechi next on a Sunday morning, and he was sitting in the cafe looking miserable. He didn’t have anything in front of him, so Akira came down the stairs and got to making them both breakfast. The detective didn’t even say hello, or offer the reason he was here without the watchful eye of Sojiro. Honestly, Akira was pretty sure he hadn’t noticed Akira wasn’t Sojiro.

He slid a plate and mug in front of him and handed him silverware and a paper towel. “Eat.”
Akechi looked up, startled, and would have knocked over his mug if Akira hadn’t caught it. “I am deeply sorry for not greeting you, Ku- Akira.”
Akira smiled at the use of his name. “I didn’t greet you either, so we’re even. Want to talk about it?”
Akechi looked at him with a closed expression for a few moments. “Are we friends, Akira?”
“I’d like to be.” Another long pause filled the room with silence. “You’d have to drop whatever game we’re playing, though. You can imagine honesty is important to me.”
“I see.”

The lack of answer to the affirmative made Akira frown and take a long sip of his coffee. Akechi did the same. “This is delicious. What kind is it?”
“I’m glad you like it. I just made it myself, I adjust some people’s blends to what I think they like. Let me know what you do and don’t like about it and I can change it.”
“I will have to do that sometime, then.” He took another sip. “Akira, have you had to do something you don’t have a choice in? Something that changes everything?”
Akira looked at him and was thinking about the Phantom Thieves, not getting expelled, when he answered, “Yes.”

It could be information digging, but he doubted it. Akechi looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “How did you cope?”
Akira thought about the times he had a gun against a cognition’s head. About when he could have killed Kamoshida without breaking a sweat. About what choice was presented to him and which he took. “I made my own path anyway.”
“And if you can’t? If there isn’t a way?”
“There’s always a way, Akechi. It’s a matter of whether or not you can handle it. And whether or not you can handle it is usually a matter of who you know. Do you need somewhere to stay? The attic has enough room for two.”
“You really mean all that.”

Akira looked him in the eye and a bit of Joker bled through into his words. “It’s your choice, Akechi.”

Goro Akechi got to his feet somewhat unsteadily. “I have to go.”
“Akechi --”
“You look worried. Don’t, I can take care of myself,” he said with a small chuckle that sounded almost watery.

Akira caught his shoulder before he could leave, resting his hand there a long moment until Akechi relaxed out of his frozen stance. “Come back when you can. You’ll have people on your side.”

4

Weeks passed.

Akira met Yusuke and visited the planetarium with him after everything had happened. Yusuke, who never thought about what subjects were normal to talk about. “Sometimes, you look into the distance the same way people here look at the stars. What are you looking for?”
Akira looked up at his friend and was startled into laughing. “You know what, let’s wait and I’ll tell the whole group at once.”

He did, and they all realized at once what Akira had been watching every day -- the detective prince seemed to have vanished. There would be a few updates given about him, then say he was taking time for school. He never appeared on camera. “Man, this is some alien abduction shit.” Ryuji declared.
“It sounds like he could be in trouble,” Ann said in worry, ignoring Ryuji entirely.
“But he was trouble himself, right? Aren’t we happy about this?” Morgana spoke up.
Yusuke stayed quiet, but shook his head in the negative when Akira didn’t respond. He got up to get them some water -- they had to drink something that wasn’t coffee occasionally -- and he heard Ann talking in whispers. Something about the incident at school those few weeks ago.

They met Futaba, who they didn’t directly tell about Akechi but the name was brought up a few times and she looked pensive, so Akira wasn’t entirely surprised when she showed up in his room one morning, dumped cold water on him to wake him up (“Come on, it’s literally eleven in the morning!”) and told him that Goro Akechi had left Tokyo the night they had their chat in the cafe. There were some big grocery purchases on his credit card, then the account was frozen and the trail went cold two days later.

Futaba knew what it was like to search for answers and come up with nothing, so when she curled up in his lap, still warm from the bath he'd had to take,, and he held her, he knew it was her comforting him.

Makoto joined their group and when they brought up the name Akechi she looked determined and came back the next day with information from her older sister. Sae looked. . .broken. It seemed when Akechi disappeared, a politician named Shido had recruited her and she was doing her best to fend him off but. . . but. She had a palace of her own.

They changed three hearts before Goro Akechi came back. He showed up one day when the cafe sign said closed because they were all discussing their last trip to mementos and he opened the door. He stepped in, and looked injured in a way that seemed all too familiar.

Akira took one look at him before he slumped to the ground. He checked the injuries on him, and was digging through the supplies bag when he called “Activate the Nav.”
Futaba was the one to comply fastest, and Akira began administering the healing items they had that worked in safe points in a Palace. “I see, healing is more effective here with these items.” Yusuke contributed.
“We might not have made it to Dr. Tae,” Ann breathed out.
“Is this for real?” Ryuji added. “Shit man. How do we help?”

Morgana had taken over for Akira, adding what magic he could. Akira looked up at them all and broke into a sincere, if strained, smile. “You all already have.”

5

Goro Akechi woke up safe and warm in Akira’s bed. He had a moment of panic, unsure where he was and what the unfamiliar weight on his chest was, and launched himself into a sitting position.

Morgana made the cat equivalent of a yelp as he fell off the bed, barely managing to twist around and land on his feet. “Oww. Oh hey! Everyone wake up! Akechi’s awake!”

Akechi looked around to see who everyone was and noticed the room full of people, two of which he had never seen before. Only then did the fact that a cat was talking register with his sluggish brain. “I must be dreaming,” he muttered to himself.

“No, you’re finally awake. I’m Morgana. We’ll explain all that later, but you’ve been out for three days. And don’t worry, it was Yusuke who undressed you since he’s not into all that.” The cat tossed his head at a tall, blue-haired boy who was blinking into awareness. Akechi was more distracted to learn he’d been stripped to his boxers. He was also healed. Everything except for old scars that he’d always have, from his first trips to the Metaverse. . . he began breathing rapidly. They all knew far too much. He thought it would just be Akira here, but that was foolish. He shouldn’t have trusted --

“Akechi. I am so glad to see you awake.” That was Akira. The boy was coming up the stairs with the blonde girl, carrying food. Akira was by his side in an instant, food deposited on a nearby folding table. “You scared us.”
“I am afraid I don’t know your friends.”
Akira looked at him a long moment and laughed lightly, running a hand through his hair. He looked a little more disheveled than usual. “No, I guess not. Akechi, this is Ann, Ryuji, Morgana, Makoto, Futaba, and Yusuke.”

“We’ve all been awaiting your awakening.” Yusuke spoke up.
“Yeah man. Akira told us all about you so it’s like we know you already.” Ryuji said, then dug into the food.
“We were all so worried when we didn’t know where you were.” Ann exclaimed, glaring at the other blond for his seeming callousness.
“I was pissed that I couldn’t track you at all. No phone, no bank activity -- you hid yourself well, Akechi.” Futaba spoke. She picked up Morgana who hissed halfheartedly, plopping the not-a-cat into her lap to settle into eating as well.

Makoto had been watching him. “Yes, you worked with my elder sister, Sae. She is also worried about you, and helped us find what little information we could.”
Akechi froze. “What kinds of things did you find? I’m a normal student, except for the detective work.”
Akira sat next to him on the bed and briefly rested a hand on his shoulder, then withdrew it when he remembered clothes. “Here are some clean clothes. Once you’re up and have eaten and drank some water we can talk.”

Akechi eyed them all with a mixture of fear and suspicion, but retreated to the bathroom to change quickly, and then ate a plate of curry. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until his first bite, then he finished his plate before anyone else had.

“So. What do you know about me?”
“You’re a Persona-user who has the Nav app on their phone and can go into the Metaverse with it. Same as the rest of us.” Akira answered bluntly. Akechi flinched back in surprise. “Only the team here knows about that, of course.”
“Persona users. . . so you were the ones behind those people having a change of heart. I suspected Akira, but I wasn’t sure. . .”
“That’s us. We have one last target, though. . . and we could use more help.”
“Who?”
“You know who.”
“It's impossible. I’ve tried.”
“Alone. We’re a team, and we can all help.”
“I’m not like you. I don’t change people’s hearts.”
“We looked into that, too,” Futaba said grimly.

The others all looked to Akira to explain. He was their leader, it seemed, and yet he blended in without seeming to occupy a higher plane than them. “We checked everyone we could find whose cognition you affected. They still exist in Mementos, somewhere, and we plan on finding them and restoring their. . .heart, I guess.”
“They do?” Akechi gasped softly before realizing he’d spoken aloud and ducked his head. “I see.”
“I’m able to see it, somewhat. I don’t know how, or who I even am. . .” Morgana trailed off. Futaba patted him lightly.
Yusuke had been absentmindedly playing with Ann’s hair but looked up. “That can be a blessing as well as a curse. I am often told by strangers how strong they believe me to be. It is very disconcerting.”
“Yeah, Shiho’s been getting told stuff like that too, she has to screen visitors now. How shitty is that? Like, the stuff they are complimenting you guys on shouldn’t have existed in the first place,” she said, raking her hair back into its springy ponytails angrily.
“Yeah! And people have been giving me sympathetic looks who wished I was expelled before the whole thing. It's weird as hell, I keep thinking they wanna fight me.”
“What we’re trying to say, and as the socially anxious one I should not be able to voice this the best, is that we understand why you would want to run off and start a new identity. We’re just really glad you came back. But why did you come back?”

Akechi looked around the room at all of them and shook his head quickly, shooting a look to Akira pleading him to understand that this was all too much he didn’t understand how strangers could be looking to him like this, why were they on his side, was this a trick? -- Akira came to stand by the bed and faced the others, right hand on his left shoulder. The point of contact gave him something to focus on and he took long, steady breaths. His expression was still blank, showing nothing of his turmoil within.

 

“That’s enough for now guys. Let him recover. You guys want to go on that supply run? Come back after the cafe closes tomorrow for a debrief,” Akira said, no-nonsense.
With various levels of protest they all got up and filed out of the room, each one calling well-wishes to him on the way downstairs. The redhead picked up the cat on the way out.

There was blessed silence for a long moment before Akira softly added, “I know it’s. . .rough, to say the least. To believe them. None of us did at first. We all kind of hated whoever was introduced to our group next, but we all fit somehow.”
“Am I your next stray dog?”
“Is that what you think of me?” Akira asked, a wry smile on his face.
“No.”
Akira shrugged, the question apparently answered. He supposed it was.
“I’m terrified,” Akechi said with a slightly hysterical laugh. “I came back because Shido sent people to look for me and here is the least likely place. But they’ll find me eventually. I should just go back to him. He’s closed off any other option I have. He’ll kill me if I don’t kill who he wants, I’ve stalled long enough. I’m going to cause a train crash for him. Just for one passenger. He says it's the least suspicious. Akira, you can’t -- none of you -- can’t be on that train,” Akechi warned.

Akira climbed up behind him on the bed and wrapped his arms around him. He hadn’t realized he was shaking until Akira had stilled it. “You’re not going to cause a train wreck. You’re not going to die. I’ll protect you.”

Akechi let out a sob and Akira drew him closer. He was getting Akira’s shirt wet from crying like a child, but Akira didn’t seem to care. “You don’t even know me.”
“Not yet. We watched all your interviews, though. The ones you did on your own. So that’s a start.”
“I. . . I don’t know you either. I don’t understand,” he lamented.
“That’s okay. We’ll all figure it out. You’ll be safe.”
“How pathetic is it that I actually believe you?”

Akira squeezed him lightly. “That’s what makes us strong.”