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it takes a village

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26 pages.

Goro is 26 pages deep into a required reading on the ethics and practices of safely conducting research on humans. He’s 26 pages deep into an absolutely ludicrous 41-page assignment. He’s 26 pages deep and he’s managed to already fill one page in his study outline and go onto a second, ruining the cadence he’d established earlier in the year for one page per reading assignment.

It bothers him more than it should.

27 pages now. Goro is 27 pages deep into a required reading on the ethics and practices of safely conducting research on humans, and his neglected frozen dinner is quickly reverting to its natural state: not warm. His apartment alternates between mercifully quiet and far too quiet as Goro alternates between being thankful there’s nothing here to distract him and wishing that something, anything, could distract him from reading about “benefits and risks” for what has to be the hundredth time. It’s such bullshit.

Goro sighs into the silence, flips to the next page, picks up his chopsticks, and pokes at a lukewarm gyoza. It squishes back in an unappealing way. He’s not even sure why he made them. He’s not hungry at all. 28 pages.

Justice!, this textbook says now. One of the three pillars of ethical research. Sure. He can see it in his mind’s eye: some withered old man put up in an enormous office and collecting a paycheck to match, writing about how “children should not be unfairly coerced into participating,” and fooling himself into thinking that anyone would follow that decree in the real world. If only these musty academics knew how–

how

Goro chokes, gasps

how much it hurts

it hurts, his mask tumbling off his face as he clutches at his chest. His chest– wet, warm, broken, his mask– it’s never done that before, does that mean…? That means–

means he’s alone, again, always alone… he doesn’t want to be alone, it hurts, he wants–

–it’s over, right? This time– this time it’s real? Trapped in a Palace which won’t collapse soon enough to save his life, alone because of a wall he put up himself, trapped, alone, trapped, alone. He wants– he wants– he gulps in air like he’s dying and it’s not helping because he is, he is

he wants… if only they’d met–

Goro gasps loud and long, one final time, and just as abruptly as the episode started–

It stops.

He’s fine.

Well, he’s coughing a lot, but he’s mostly fine. It’s not like he’s dying or anything.

Goro breathes cautiously as his heart stutters back to an even rhythm. It’s still racing, as he carefully coughs a few more times and presses on his chest to make sure there’s no–? No…?

…what was it again?

There was something. Something, while he was freaking out for no reason. But he can’t quite recall… was there something?

How embarrassing. Probably a one-off arrhythmia caused by stress, Goro’s read about those. Not that he’s stressed.

He coughs once more for good measure and sets his discarded chopsticks to the side of his desk, wiping away the few drops of soy sauce they’d spattered across his textbook. No major damage done, thank goodness.

Goro glances back at the chapter before deciding to take a little break. Breaks are necessary to allow new material to sink into long-term memory, after all. Even if what he’s studying is bullshit, it’s the bullshit that society requires of him.

Ah! And speaking of bullshit– Goro checks his phone, resting quietly this whole evening on silent, and… notifications, hundreds of them! Reruns of his television interviews don’t usually garner as much attention as the first airings, but judging by how his Twitter app keeps crashing he may be getting popular enough for it to no longer matter.

Goro eats up everything he can see, bouncing from one app to the next. Comments, mentions, new followers– he can’t imagine he’ll ever tire of it. One remark, “how old is this kid anyway what am i doing with my life,” is particularly satisfying, though Goro doesn’t care for the given moniker of “kid.”

The rest of his fans prove their devotion to him in similar ways, each more creative than the last. “end him PRINCE,” is attached to a screenshot of his thinking pose, with heart stickers placed around his head. He’s glad it’s obvious even to bystanders that Goro was the one to win that little impromptu debate between himself and the “Phantom Thief” in the audience. And by impromptu, he means completely planned of course, like everything else on those shows. He’d asked the showrunners to single out the too-quiet one from the day before and just like that, Goro had a read on every single one of his new adversaries: blonde ditz, blonder loudmouth, unkempt delinquent. Too easy.

He continues reading, indulging in the attention maybe a little more than he should, when one more notification catches his eye. It’s a single alert from his text messaging app. The timestamp is from just a few minutes ago.

———
Unknown

do you remember?

———

Goro stares at the message. Looks again at the number it was sent from. It doesn’t ring any bells. Not that Goro ever gets texts, anyway. (Not that that’s an issue.)

So, does he remember? Remember what?

Is this what happens when you reach a certain level of media presence– random messages from internet sleuths and stalkers just appearing on your phone?

This doesn’t feel like that though, Goro reasons out. As excited as he is about his burgeoning celebrity, he can’t be getting ahead of himself. This is more likely to be some moron lackey of Shido’s thinking it’s prudent to contact Goro directly. Or maybe just a wrong number.

——— 
Unknown

Who is this?

oracle
do you remember?

———

The replies came almost immediately after he hit send. They’d been waiting for him.

Goro leans back in his desk chair, wracking his brain for anything related to an “oracle.” Was this a code he was forgetting? What was he supposed to remember?

Hm.

———
Unknown 

I’m afraid you may have the wrong number.

———

He’s sure that’s the wrong response, but he can’t bring himself to care. Goro wants to hurry and get back to reading his fans’ comments about him.

Besides, if this contact really needs him for something they can suck it up and ask directly. Or, more likely, they’ll ask his worthless father to demand it from him in return for some stupid political favor. Adults love to be cryptic and mysterious until the moment it becomes inconvenient for them.

It takes the mystery person longer to reply this time.

———
Unknown

guess i do
i’m sorry

———

Goro heaves a sigh and slams his textbook closed. He stands, stretches, and coughs one last time, chest still sore from earlier. It’s getting late, and he knows plodding through any more of his reading tonight is a lost cause.

It’s so tempting to drop it entirely, to fake his way through the entire unit. To march up to his teacher and defiantly hand in blank notes and homework, just like he used to back when he subscribed to a more juvenile form of rebellion.

…Ugh. No. He would be no better than the lowlifes of his class. Akechi Goro, Ace Detective, is better than that.

So he sets an alarm on his phone to wake up early, to finish his assigned reading then. Even if the only item on tomorrow’s schedule is cram school in the afternoon, it’s better that he keeps himself to a schedule. He can’t afford to let anything slip, after all. He can’t be anything less than perfect for this to work.

 


  

But his alarm doesn’t stand a chance. It’s the harsh vibration of a phone call that jolts him awake too early the next morning, rather than the soft and soothing tones of his music.

BZ-BZZZZ! BZ-BZZZZ! BZ–

Goro’s hand shoots out into the freezing air, outside the cozy confines of his bundle of blankets. He slaps blindly around his nightstand until he manages to find the offending phone, still loudly vibrating as Goro drags it, charging cord and all, back into his cocoon.

I need you to come in,” the phone says as soon as he accepts the call. “I can’t find anything thanks to the way you’ve organized these files.

“Good morning Sae-san,” Goro responds, then covers the microphone and clears his throat. His voice came out scratchier than expected– he hopes she didn’t notice.

Are you coming in or not?” Good, she didn’t notice. “I’ve got a meeting with the Director this afternoon and I can’t afford to waste time doing work any part-timer could take care of.

Goro glares at his bedside clock. 5:48 AM. Unbelievable. “They’ve picked a new Director already?”

A new… are you still asleep? Did you hear anything I said?

He groans and sits up, throwing his blankets off in a lump to wake himself up. “Yes, of course, Sae-san.” Checks the date on the clock as he stands… June 12th, Sunday, no classes, only cram school. Ah, right, he’d planned on finishing that reading this morning. So much for that. “I’ll be in the office as soon as possible to help you out.”

Goro starts toward his bathroom, but is immediately pulled back by the charging cord still connecting the phone in his hand to the wall.

How soon is ‘as soon as possible?’

Goro whips the traitorous cord away after he unplugs it. The free end bounces off the wall with a small ping!

“6:30,” he says, trying not to sound as disheveled as he feels. His voice still won’t cooperate. His entire face feels gross. He can already tell it’s going to be one of those days.

Make it 6:15.” The tone of Sae’s voice and the increasingly loud rage-clicking coming from the phone speaker tells him he needs to get his act together quick, “this is ridiculous, I can’t find anything.

“The system is really very simple if you just–“

Beep.

“Augh…” Goro holds up the phone to look and, yup, she hung up him.

Well. A realistic 6:15 arrival time means he has barely ten minutes to prepare for his day. He scurries to his bathroom, calculating which parts of his morning routine he can keep and which parts he’ll need to drop. Goro’s actually starting to feel like he could pull it off, like it might have worked, he might have been able to do it, until he makes eye contact with his reflection in the mirror.

He looks like he ate something spicy and then rubbed it into his eyes and nose. He looks like he’s been out in the cold for three hours too long. He looks like he’s been crying all night. He looks like a mess.

Goro frantically splashes water on his face, washing away the evidence of the tears soaking his cheeks and providing some relief to his dry eyes and nose.

What the fuck.

Is he sick? No. Did something happen last night? No… a dream?

A dream– there might have been something, now that he thinks about it. Whatever it was, it’s now all messed up and jumbled into something vaguely Bad and Sad, and when he tries to grasp it again, or define it further, his chest feels tight in a foreign way that– Goro sniffs, coughs, wipes his eyes, takes a deep breath– won’t help his situation at all.

The water isn’t fixing the redness or puffiness of his face. He’s not fit to be seen by another human, so he multitasks by brushing his teeth with one hand and searching “how to quickly get rid of puffy eyes” with the other.

And that’s how Akechi Goro ends up standing in the middle of his kitchen rubbing ice cubes on his eyes at six in the morning.

He wondered what the hell could have caused such a reaction. Or if, instead, this was a strange bodily phenomenon that no one told him about– like a wet dream, but less fun and equally pathetic. Goro can’t even remember the last time he cried.

And now he’s going to be late. Sae is going to be so mad at him.

 


 

Sae was so mad at him.

Thanks to his uncooperative face and the even more uncooperative traffic lights on what had to be his most frustrating bike to work yet, Goro didn’t get into the office until 6:40. He then spent his morning re-filing all the documents he’d already meticulously filed for no reason other than Sae’s mood. His entire morning, gone.

When he stopped at his favorite bakery they were all out of not only all the melon pan, but everything fresh. So Goro had to choke down a decidedly un-flakey croissant for his first meal of the day, at 2 PM. It would have given him great material for his blog if he weren’t too busy to update the damn thing. On his day off!

Cram school was even worse. The instructor seemed to have some sort of allergy or sickness because she sniffed after every other word. Niijima Sae continued to haunt him here: her stuck-up little sister stole the best seat, front-and-center, and then wasted it, choosing instead to spend the whole class texting. Goro tried to project his annoyance in the direction the sick professor so she would notice and punish her, but nothing happened. Of course. The seat-thief just tapped away on her obnoxiously bright phone screen and intermittently glanced in his direction, like she was daring him to tell on her.

He almost did. Almost. But he had better things to do with his time.

And that brings him to the present: in a booth in the back corner of the school’s library (to avoid the distractions of jealous stares and whispers of his less-famous classmates) finally back to the reading from last night. He’s… 38! 38 pages into this ludicrous 41-page assignment.

He’s learning so much too, about “ethical research.” About the wonderful dream-world these adults have concocted.

For instance, Goro mocks in his head, did you know that if a human subject is going to be a part of your research, you need their informed consent? Informed… isn’t that cute? As if that were possible. As if they’d even bothered to try. As if anyone was informed about anything. As if she had any idea of what forces she was messing with when she–

–snap!

Oops.

Goro shoves the broken pencil into his suitcase, grabs a fresh one, brushes the scattered wood shavings off his textbook. He sure is some sort of mess today, isn’t he? He can’t wait for this unit to be over.

Anyway. 39 pages. Once he’s finished with this he can grab a milkshake from that place around the corner. Topped with extra whipped cream. Maybe they’ll have a new flavor–

“Um–”

Goro manages to not jump out of his skin, but it’s close . Years of practice sneaking around demons in sprawling mazes pulled straight from hell apparently did not prepare him for the terror of an unexpected teenage girl.

“Excuse me,” Niijima Sae’s sister continues, standing right next to his booth, as Goro wonders how the hell she was able to sneak up on him, “Akechi Goro, right?”

“Yes, hello.” He pauses just long enough to not be obviously impolite. “You’re Sae-san’s younger sister?”

“That’s me. Makoto. …Niijima!”

She’s just standing there, staring at him and fidgeting with her collar. So awkward. Good lord. If he has to deal with a confession on top of everything else today he’s going to go absolutely fucking ballistic.

“Can I help you? I’m in the middle of something, as you can see.” Goro gestures to the study materials, organized perfectly in his private booth.

Niijima coughs lightly into her fist, then stands a bit straighter. “Yes. You know we have exams coming up– I’m putting together a study group, and I was wondering if you’d like to join us. Seeing as we’re the top of our class.”

It’s the most unappealing proposition Goro’s ever heard. He almost feels offended that he has to deal with this right now when he could have just finished studying alone. No, scratch that, he does feel offended.

“I’m afraid I have to decline, Niijima-san. I have a system of studying on my own, and seeing as I currently hold the top rank of the class, I don’t think either of us should mess with perfection,” Goro fires back with a chuckle.

“I see.” To her credit, Niijima looks like she wants to punch him.

Goro twirls his new pencil between his fingers, proficiently flipping it from side to side, “if you’re struggling with your studies I can pass a word on to your sister. I’m sure she’d be happy to assist you.”

She wouldn’t. They both know it.

“No!” Niijima shouts, looking expectedly stricken. She collects herself again, and stutters out, “t-that won’t be necessary. I was only looking out for our fellow classmates. I thought it might be nice to–”

“How noble of you.” Goro cuts her off, turning pointedly back to his notes. He’s still going to say something to Sae. Call it revenge for stealing his seat.

“I’ll, uh. I’ll leave you alone, then.”

Except she doesn’t go. She takes one step away, then turns around and says, “Akechi– you really don’t…?” He blinks up at her. She averts his gaze and turns back, after saying quietly: “Never mind. I’m sorry.”

Goro rolls his eyes once she’s out of sight. 40 pages.

It takes him another few minutes to plod through the last of the ludicrous 41-page assignment, but the matcha chocolate milkshake with extra whipped cream and sprinkles almost makes it all worth it. Almost.

 


 

The days pass as they usually do: quickly, in a dull and endless haze of activity. School, cram school, work, cycling, rock climbing, blogging, interviews, until he collapses onto his mattress each night for his one indulgence. His one respite. His coveted few hours where he can just stop.

Which means his rest is overdue for an interruption.

“Get up, inmate!”

Motherfucker.

“I thought we were done with this,” Goro groans from his cot.

The thing is uncomfortable in a way that reminds him of the thin mattresses in his least favorite group home– the one in between being handed off from his uncle to his mother’s second cousin, with the roommate who had no control over his bladder. He’s been in and out of this nightmarish place for long enough that he knows the connection is no accident.

Goro blinks up at the ethereal blue ceiling, rattles the cuffs around his wrists for good measure. Yup. Still there. Still the same, even after all these years.

Whap!

That must be– if he’s remembering correctly, it has been a while since he last was here– Two Buns. Yes, it was always Two Buns with the baton.

“Our master has summoned you. Do not show disrespect,” says the voice of the other one. Long Braid.

Sure. Fine. They won’t let him sleep for real until this is over with, and he has shit to do in the morning. Better to get it over with, Goro grumbles to himself as he gets up from the sagging cot and shuffles over to the prison bars.

Whap! “Stand up straight!”

“I am,” he sneers back, in absolutely no mood. 

Two Buns turns towards him to make some sort of retort, but quickly stands to attention as the warden of his heart’s prison makes his presence known.

“How easily the hearts and minds of the public are swayed,” Igor drawls from behind his desk. Still deeply unsettling. Still the same. “See how they long for guidance, for the direction you have so gracefully provided.”

“Can I leave?” Goro deadpans back.

Igor continues as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “And as you continue to lead the masses will continue to follow. But do not become complacent, Trickster. There is now another.”

Another… “what, you mean the ‘Phantom Thieves?’” Goro scoffs.

“One who would mean to use the bonds of the weak to increase their own power and further their own goals, bringing ruin along with them.” Igor raises a long creepy finger and continues, “My sight has grown clouded of late… I presume our game has changed. I can no longer see this adversary nor the effect of their malicious intent on this world. Be wary, Trickster, for a chance encounter with them may prove fatal.”

“Mm,” Goro responses noncommittally.

Those kids certainly didn’t seem intimidating when they were proclaiming how “being a Phantom Thief was so hard” in the middle of a random television station hallway for anyone to hear. Just a couple of airheads who’d stumbled upon power by accident and managed not to fuck it up completely so far.

“In the time we have spent apart you’ve done well to cast aside the grasping bonds of the weak in the course of your rehabilitation, and have honed your power by your own merit as a result. And so, I shall grant you an ability befitting of your growth,” Igor drones on, “consider it a gift.”

Goro feels something awaken inside of him. A new power, granted to him by this god to further his own goals: more proof that he’s on the right track. That his cause is just. Maybe this visit wasn’t such a waste after all.

“May you continue devoting yourself to further rehabilitation,” Igor chuckles in his trademark thoroughly creepy way, and says, “it’s almost time.”

Goro opens his mouth to ask what the hell that’s supposed to mean, but he’s whisked off to sleep once again.

 


 

The new ability granted to him turns out to be more of a cheap parlor trick than anything else.

Goro takes a deep breath and activates it, does what he’s only able to describe as “opening his Third Eye.” Psychic mumbo-jumbo, but that’s what it feels like. The scenery around him sinks into shadow and quiet, and Goro knows he does as well. Eyes slide right over him as he maneuvers silently across the train station, his presence somehow shielded by this divine power.

It’s not as if he’s truly invisible or incorporeal– more like he’s ignored. Forgotten. Useful for sure, especially as he becomes more famous and recognizable, but it seems to have its limits as well.

One limit: there’s no point in sneaking around if there’s no one to sneak up on.

It’s so fucking frustrating. Goro knows that guy uses this station. He’d seen him here before, time and time again. There’s no missing those hideous uniform pants, and Amamiya Ren was one of the few Shujin students to transfer on this line at this particular station. He was consistently at the platform at 6:45 in the morning for the 6:50 train, with his unbrushed bedhead, his dollar store glasses, and his cat. Until he wasn’t.

It’s been over a week since he last saw Amamiya at the television station, since he “promised” to talk to him again. Goro should’ve just sucked it up and asked for his stupid number.

He didn’t think he needed it. He didn’t think Amamiya would be able to avoid him as well as he has. It’s a little embarrassing, to be honest.

And Goro has absolutely no desire to ingratiate himself with the two blondes that he does see here from time to time, not when there’s a higher quality target for him to pursue. He’ll just have to step it up… which probably means staking out Shujin Academy, since he has no other leads on Amamiya Ren. What a pain.

Goro closes his Third Eye and feels himself become known by the public once again. It doesn’t make much of a difference for these sheep on their sleepy morning commute, but it does feel… indescribably disgusting. Like a fine layer of dust has settled over his skin. He didn’t realize how much the eyes of other people on him grated at his soul until he had the power to turn them off.

Someone to his left coughs. Goro fights back a sneer and scrolls through his phone to distract himself while he waits for his own train to arrive. Social media is slow due to the early hour, but luckily for him, a distraction is still granted:

———
Oracle

you’re a fuckin idiot
🤡

———

Well. That’s disappointing.

Goro was really hoping they’d find something this time. He taps out a quick response as a distant rattling signals the approach of his train.

———
Oracle

Blaming me for your own failure?

no!!!!!
i got in!!
it wasn’t there!!
your intel was BAD

I think you’re just incompetent.

🖕
i’ll hack you again you pos fuckin clown

I doubt it. My accounts are quite secure now.

because of me!!!!!!

☺️

I HATE YOU

☺️☺️☺️

———

He chuckles at his phone and brainstorms more ways to get a rise out of Oracle as he boards his train. Goro has to admit: even with this recent setback, the whole thing was turning out much better than he expected.

It felt very clandestine, working with an international hacker. This wasn’t how he normally operated, and he may or may not have been blackmailed into it at the start, but it felt… fine. James Bond worked alone and still used Q for technology and gadget stuff. It was annoying, but fine.

As long as Q did their fucking job.

Oracle certainly seemed competent enough shortly after their first contact, when they sent Goro an info-dump about most of his past, his suspicious connections to a well-hidden political conspiracy, and his… unsavory internet search history. And then told him how to lock up his accounts so he wouldn’t be hacked again. And then told him they’d recovered the sparse remaining records of research on cognitive psience held by the police, and that they wanted his help to steal the rest, held by the very same conspiracy with which he was involved.

How could he refuse? That research is rightfully his.

———
Oracle

fine. FINE
he has a secret home server like you said
see
[disgusting.zip]
but NOTHING on cog psi

I’m not opening that.
Damn it. Then it could be anywhere.

no
moron
idiot
useless
lvl 1 noob
it could be anywhere
THAT HE HAS ACCESS TO
WHICH IS NOT
“ANYWHERE”
GET ON HIS COMPUTER

Don’t you think I would have done that already if I could?
Isn’t this what you’re here for? What exactly is the point of you otherwise.

🔥🔥🔥
🤡 <— YOU
🔥🔥🔥

———

He should probably be more careful around a hacker, especially as a full-fledged celebrity living a double life as a glorified hitman, but really… Oracle seems too socially inept to hide any dark secrets or betrayals from him. Call it detective’s intuition.

They’re not getting anywhere until Oracle comes up with a new plan (a more feasible one than “get on his computer” at least) so Goro closes his text messenger app and scrolls through his social media notifications instead. His fans are starting to wake up, thank god.

The rest of his day passes mercifully quick, and soon Goro is on the same train back into Shibuya.

Good days at work are starting to become a rare commodity, what with Sae growing more and more frustrated as the pressure to solve the unsolvable psychotic breakdowns increases. Her tempers and moods are annoying to Goro in the moment, but promising for the long-term.

He pushes Sae’s harsh words and thinly-veiled attacks on his character out of mind as he departs the train car and makes his way towards Central Street.

These fast food peons are a welcome break to his ridiculously packed schedule as well. The stakes are refreshingly low– it’s not like anyone needs to die for Shido’s most recent endeavor to work. All the others were taken care of with simple blackmail or manipulation by Shido’s other connections.

And now after an evening in the Metaverse, Goro approaches his target: a low-level employee of Wild-Duck Burger. The man’s cognitive world is of the “lust” variety, of course, which officially makes lust the most common type of distortion in Goro’s anecdotal experience. Common, petty, usually disgusting. He’ll have to update his spreadsheet when he gets home.

In fact, it’s best that he try to think about the spreadsheet rather than the scene in front of him. He’s arrived at some sort of. Nude beach. On a deserted island. That is, if the demons and the twisted version of his target are anything to go by.

“The world is so prudish,” a yellow-eyed and completely naked man exclaims, “I just want to be myself!”

“Mhm,” Goro replies, concentrating very hard on the cognitive sun which is currently setting above the cognitive ocean to his left. Maybe if he stares at it long enough he’ll go blind.

“Don’t you want to live in a world where you can be free ?”

“Yeah. Sure,” he says because he supposes they should just get on with it. “Loki–” Goro calls out as he rips off his black mask, “don’t you think we should give this man the freedom he so desires?”

With that, he reaches within himself, finds his divine power to break the chains on a human heart.

It’s easy, it’s always so easy, which is why it’s strange that–

C-Call of Chaos!

–that he had such a hard time forcing out the words to activate Loki’s spell.

And it’s strange that, feeling the power flow from his broken and twisted heart, through his body, and out, out, OUT, it feels like– maybe… maybe some of it has stayed behind?

And even stranger that– that watching the man turn berserk, watching the red power and flames engulf him, swallow him up, something– something he’s done before, so many times he’s had to do this– it’s. He can’t watch it.

He can’t watch. He can’t be here. He has to leave.

Goro turns, catches himself when he stumbles. He’s fine, he thinks as he walks away from the scene he just created. It’s the man behind him who’s screaming, cackling, going psychotic. His mission is complete. He’s done this plenty of times before. It was easy. It’s always easy. It’s always fine. Goro is fine.

His footing fails again on the uneven sand beneath his feet– this time he falls, hard, because he can only use his right hand to catch himself. Because his left hand is still holding his mask– how did he forget to put that back on? Haha, maybe Goro is the one going crazy.

Fuck, is he going crazy?

He shoves the mask onto his face and scrambles to stand back up. A demon to his right was alerted by the commotion and Goro needs to move, he has to move , even though his vision is going dark around the edges and he can’t seem to breathe.

Goro does make it out, runs at a full sprint out of the horrible beach-world and back to Central Street. He’s outside the entrance of the Wild-Duck Burger where the man’s distortion was held, which means he’s close to the subway, which means– oh god, people are looking at him.

He ducks into a tiny alley at the side of the building and takes a moment now that he’s back, he’s safe. He’s fine– he’s not going crazy– he’s never gone crazy before– that’s not how his power works– but his heart won’t stop racing and he can’t seem to remember how to breathe and he’s so far away from his apartment and there are so many people here, so many people who will see if he goes psychotic or throws up or passes out or dies–

What if he’s not fine?

The subway. The subway is close. He got all the way out of that world, he can make it down this one street to the subway. Then to his apartment. But, subway first. Down the street: past the bookshop, the beef bowl place, the arcade, the convenience store.

Goro puts two fingers to his pulse as he steps out of his semi-safe haven in the alley and begins his walk down the street. Bookshop. He can’t seem to think about anything other than how his heart is beating too fast, and how he can’t stop shaking, and how none of this has ever happened to him before so something has to be seriously, seriously wrong with him. Beef bowl place.

His vision starts to go again, crawling darkness closing in on all sides, so he tries to subtly take a huge, gasping breath behind his hand as he walks, but none of it seems to reach his lungs and his hand is really shaking a lot and– arcade– and– and he’s definitely going to pass out.

He can’t do this. Fuck, he can’t do this.

Goro makes a sharp stop after the arcade and collapses down on a ledge like a puppet with cut strings. Leans forward with his head in his hands. Tries to concentrate on keeping the concrete below him in focus, tries not to pass out or throw up and tries to remember how the fuck he’s supposed to breathe.

He should look up his symptoms on his phone. To find out what to do. He should use that power– the new one he got, so no one can see him. He has to get to the subway. But he can’t move. He can’t move. He can’t–

“Akechi!?”

No, no no no no–

“Akechi! Hey man, are you alright?”

Nononononononono–

It’s the blond one. He can tell. The bright blond one. The– the, whatever they’re called– the thief. The Phantom Thief.

Goro has to answer, but he can’t move, so when he says “I’m fine,” it doesn’t sound like anything at all. He gulps in air like he’s dying and it’s not helping because he is, he is

“Akechi!!”

Goro looks up, manages break out of his trance for the first time in what feels like hours. There are still people– so many people– and even with this guy standing in front of him a lot of them are starting to look this way which cannot–

“I’m f-fine. You can go, I have to–” Goro stops for breath. None comes. Fuck, fuck, “I can’t. Be. Here.”

He can’t look Blond Guy in the eyes, can’t believe this is actually happening to him (maybe it’s not, maybe it’s a nightmare) so he leans forward again and buries his hands in his hair.

I’m okay, I’m fine– Goro repeats over and over in his head while a solid hand wraps around his arm, guides him up and a little way down the street into another alley. I’m okay, he thinks as the noise of the street and people fade enough that he deems it safe to sit himself down on a new ledge. I’m fine, as long as he keeps his head tucked down and he keeps staring at the ground and he keeps breathing.

“Hey– uh, d’ya know… d’ya know what’s going on with you? I don’t really–”

“Nothing!” Goro shouts, looks up again at him, “I’m fine. This is nothing.”

“No offense dude, but you do not seem fine.” Blond Guy squats down, at Goro’s eye level now. Goro can’t bring himself to be annoyed by the gesture. “Um. Do you need some food or water? My ma’s blood sugar gets real low sometimes and she–”

“I don’t know,” Goro interrupts, though… he’s feeling better? He doesn’t want to jinx it, but the distraction of hearing someone talk at him seems to be helping, a little. “This h-has never happened to me before. I don’t know.”

Was it all in his head? 

“Do you need to go to a hospital? Sorry, I prolly shoulda asked that a long time ago…” There’s another light touch on his arm, and Goro suddenly feels completely overwhelmed by the kindness this guy is showing him. And he can’t even remember his name. He should, but he can’t.

Goro swallows past a lump in his throat and shakes his head. “I think it’s– I think I feel better.”

“Are you sure? Cause I could try texting some people– I think my friend knows a doctor if you don’t want–”

“No! No, please, don’t tell anyone about this. It’s nothing– I really am feeling better.” His chest hurts from overexertion and he’s still shaking but he no longer feels like he’s one step away from madness or death. So that’s good.

The bad: embarrassment is starting to set in. Goro grimaces at Blond Guy in front of him, still knelt down and looking oh-so-concerned, and says, “I apologize… I can’t quite recall your name.”

Blond Guy’s eyes widen in surprise, which makes Goro feel even worse. “Oh,” he says, “right. We only met real quick during that school trip.”

Goro waits. Raises his eyebrows.

“Sakamoto Ryuji!” the guy, Sakamoto, says in a hurry. “Sorry. That’s me.”

“Right, I remember now,” Goro says while he puts on his brightest smile. It’s easier than he thought it would be. He bows as deeply as he can in his seated position, “thank you very much for your assistance, Sakamoto-san.”

To his credit, Sakamoto now looks as embarrassed as Goro feels. It’s… actually kind of cute. “I, uh– I really didn’t do nothing. Nothing to thank me for. Though, I think you’re right, you are looking better.”

Goro nods, starts calculating how quickly he can get out of here and never interact with this guy ever again. He wants to put this little incident behind him, forever.

“Are you okay to sit tight for a second? I’m gonna run to the machine around the corner and grab you something to drink,” Sakamoto doesn’t so much offer as proclaim when he stands, stretching one of his legs out behind him.

“Oh, that’s really not necessary–”

“It’s nothing! It’ll fix you up right, I swear. Prolly low on electrolytes or something.”

Goro vehemently shakes his head, not in any hurry to be in more debt to this guy than he already is, “no really, I’m feeling much better now–”

“Be right back!” Sakamoto shouts before he jogs lightly around the corner, “wait here, don’t move!”

Goro waits. For one second.

Then he stands, fixes his collar, adjusts his tie, combs through his hair with his fingers, and hurries out of the alley in the opposite direction.

It’s not that he isn’t grateful, he is. But if Sakamoto comes back with that drink Goro will be obliged to endure more concern, to spend more time with him, to continue to be something helpless and pitiable.

And Goro is grateful. But he’s not that grateful.

The next day a television news anchor reports that an employee of a local fast food chain went berserk and stripped naked in the restaurant, and Wild-Duck Burger’s stocks plummet to an all-time low.

 


 

The first time he killed someone, he didn’t realize what he’d done until months later. Not until the second time he killed someone.

Maybe that’s what made it easy.

Five years ago, Akechi Goro was thirteen and full of anger. He was tired of being passed around between distant relatives, between group homes, between strangers. He knew he was unloved and unwanted, had known it for years, but he didn’t yet know how to deal with that inexorable fact.

So he skipped school assignments, talked back to his teachers, and punched another kid in the face when they pointed out a hole in his uniform.

Four years ago, Akechi Goro was fourteen and full of anger. He decided the only thing worth doing with his worthless life was getting revenge on the one person responsible for it all. He found records of his dead mother, dead for many years already, which led him to her work history, which led him to a lab in Tokyo where she’d interned, which he knew would lead him to his father, a “prominent government official who is far too busy and important to bother with us, Goro-chan.”

He donned the persona of Detective Prince, borrowed from someone he’d seen adults admire, for the first time in that lab. He was brilliant, precocious, just asking some questions for his school’s newspaper because the work this lab was doing was so interesting, so who in the government was responsible for it? But the lead researcher was very good at dodging his questions especially considering, looking back, her research wasn’t going so well at the time.

Isshiki Wakaba was giving him a tour of the facility, introducing him to the other researchers who worked there, remarking on how even though the lack of light in the building made it seem like a dungeon he shouldn’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in–

And then, very suddenly, the two of them were inside the cognitive world of the man who would become his first victim. Goro doesn’t even remember his name.

He does remember being attacked by demons, telling himself, “I can’t die here,” and transforming into a hero of justice, like something out of the stories he and his mother used to love so much.

Three years ago, Akechi Goro was fifteen and full of anger. It had all started out so well– a way to earn some money and to help that nice woman with her work. Every day after school he escaped his life to explore a dungeon full of monsters and demons as a hero, his weapons straight out of his favorite movie (“borrowed” from Isshiki-san’s nerdy little daughter), and he felt invincible.

But the other researchers kept pushing, and pushing, and asking Goro to try things he didn’t want to try, and do things he didn’t want to do, but it was important for their work, the government was putting pressure on them, they could close the whole lab if we don’t and Goro-kun, you’re the only one who can help us.

So he took his borrowed lightsaber and ray gun and he defeated the evil version of one of the researchers on the team. Like they asked him to.

And then that researcher went on an extended vacation to France.

Two years ago, Akechi Goro was sixteen and full of anger. He’d been lied to, manipulated, used. He couldn’t be a hero of justice, not when he was a just a fool: stupid, worthless, cursed. Not when he’d killed people. Two people.

After Isshiki died, Goro’s suspicions about the request and its effects far too late to save her, he decided the only thing worth doing with his worthless life was getting revenge on the one person responsible for it all. Convenient that the person turned out to be his own father.

He walked into Shido Masayoshi’s office as a Trickster, Robin Hood discarded and Loki by his side. He signed up to be a willing prisoner because his only other option was to be an unwilling one. Goro had lost sight of his goal once, had underestimated Shido once, had forgotten the heart of who he truly was once, so he vowed then to do whatever it took to bring this man to justice.

One year ago, Akechi Goro was seventeen and full of anger. But this was nothing new, and he’d become very good at hiding it.

 


 

After the little incident with the fast-food employee, Goro decided (understandably, he thought) that he should take a little break from his side-job for a while. He decided that the next time Shido gave him a target he’d lie and say they didn’t have a cognitive distortion, even if they did. It wouldn’t be the first time. He could get away with it now and then.

So he’s (understandably, he thinks) absolutely, completely fucking beyond furious that the goddamn “Phantom Thieves” had to pull their bullshit this week. Because he can’t pretend this fucking random doesn’t have a fucking cognitive distortion to his fucking father if a bunch of fucking children scribble that he does on fucking index cards and throw them all over fucking Shibuya!

Damn you!!” Goro screams as he slices clean through an enemy with his sword. He’s not sure who he’s yelling at, but he’d bet it isn’t the bits of demon which are now melting into the floor. He doesn’t bother to take a breather before he breaks out into a full sprint down the now cleared-out bank hallway.

An entire cognitive world in an afternoon. Fine. Sure. Great! It’s not like he had other plans. It’s not like– even though this world is full of baby demons for children– it’s not like it’s easy to run through an entire world in an afternoon.

And what should he do once he reaches wherever those kids are? Take them out?

That’s probably what Shido would want. Anything to keep his goons from spilling his secrets, especially if the Thieves are able to pull off their miraculous “change of heart” for a third time. Though, how does a small-time mobster like this really know? Goro’s never even heard of the guy before today.

He growls in exasperation as he peers around a corner and spots what can only be described as a veritable herd of demons blocking his way.

It’ll take forever to clear them out, time he doesn’t have– oh.

He could clear them out. Or…

Goro concentrates, just like he does in the real world, and opens his Third Eye. Just like in the real world, the scenery around him sinks into shadow and quiet, and Goro knows he does as well.

There’s no better time to try this out, he reasons as he tightens his grip on his sword. Worst-case scenario he gets to slaughter a fuckton of cocky demons, and best-case scenario… 

Goro runs, footfalls as soft as he can make them, down the darkened hallway. Darts between hiding places and around shadowy demons, a silent shadow now himself. He finally reaches the end, unharmed, sliding around the corner and chancing a peek back at what sort of mess he’d left behind.

Oh. Oh, he’s absolutely going to use this power more often. The demons clearly weren’t completely fooled. A few of the larger ones are looking around in confusion. But being able to breeze by low-level wastes-of-his-time with barely any repercussions? A gift indeed.

Goro grins to himself and continues on his way, quickly reaching the inner sanctum of this world: an enormous safe.

His adversaries were already here if their trail of battle-scarred floors and hastily-swiped treasures is anything to go by. It’s bizarre to see clear evidence of another human’s presence in the Metaverse like this after so long on his own– like an invasion of Goro’s turf. It makes his skin crawl.

But the mechanism to reach this world’s inner sanctum has also already been solved, which is a nicer side effect.

Goro climbs into an elevator shaft in the middle of the lock and sneaks his way down. It’s with a little more care and quiet that he approaches the nebulous sounds of battle below, even while his Third Eye remains open.

He couldn’t spare the time to think about the actual confrontation before, but now that he’s here his heart is racing. His old investigative instincts, dormant for so long, are coming back with a vengeance. What are his adversaries like, in this world? How do they operate? What do they know? And seriously, what the hell should he do with them?

Goro drops out of the elevator shaft, completely silent even with the cacophony of noises below to mask his presence. He’s able to find a good place to perch on an exposed vent, close to the extremely high ceiling. He can see them, they can’t see him, and–

Holy shit.

There are so many of them.

Goro counts once, twice, three times for good measure, because they keep moving around, but– yes, eight. There are eight Phantom Thieves. Eight, not three like he thought.

What the hell is he supposed to do with eight of them? He can’t take out eight kids. He doesn’t even really want to deal with one, not when they haven’t done anything wr–

Is one of them a cat!? Some sort of monster cat? What the actual fuck.

Goro zooms in on the field with his helmet, but it’s still tough to make out details when they’re so far away and they keep moving. Before he knows it Goro is completely sucked into observing the battle and its participants. In his defense, it’s fascinating. They’re battling this mobster’s other self as a unit: one commanding the group from the field, one hovering above it all providing support, and the rest following orders as if they’re soldiers rather than teenagers.

Eat this!!

“Beautiful hit, Skull!” The leader exclaims in an impressive baritone before high-fiving one with bright yellow hair– Sakamoto! It’s Sakamoto Ryuji for sure.

And the leader. Goro zooms in a bit more, follows him away from Sakamoto and across the battlefield. Deep voice, messy black curls– that would be Amamiya Ren.

Finally.

He’s completely different than Goro remembers, moving with a sense of confidence and style of which he displayed absolutely none in the real world. And, he’s dressed exactly like Goro. Well, not exactly like him. The style is a little flashy and old-fashioned in a way that reminds Goro more of his princely getup, the one from his first Persona. But, Amamiya has a mask on his face exactly like Goro does. It’s a cute little domino mask, Goro notes as he zooms in even further. It frames his face well, and disappears into his wild mop of curls that in the real world seem so unkempt and ridiculous but here…

“Shit shit shit SHIT! Oh my god!!

Goro hurriedly snaps his helmet’s viewport back out, once again scanning the scene as a whole to find the source of the screeching.

“You guys– aces are wild! Aces are wild!!

It’s the support, zipping around above the battle in what Goro is assuming is their Persona.

“Wha– here??” One of them, wearing some sort of post-apocalyptic getup, shouts back up at the support while they scan the battlefield. Wait a second, is that–

No. No way.

Whatever “aces are wild” means, it’s stopped every single one of these kids (and monster cat!?) in their tracks, despite the looming threat of their foe. Even Amamiya, the apparently oh-so-confident commander, looks lost.

“Joker!” The support inexplicably shrieks. And again: “Joker!!

“Right,” Amamiya says. Ah, so they’re using codenames. Joker: Amamiya. Skull: Sakamoto. How cute. “Any danger?”

“I don’t… I don’t think so.”

Amamiya turns back to his group, announces: “we planned for this, remember? Nothing changes, let’s get back to work.”

Shit, Goro should concentrate, now that they’ve all remembered how to fight and are back in the fray. It looks like it won’t be long before they finish up.

The rest of them are easy enough to commit to memory. “Panther” is the other one he met at the television station (he wishes now that he’d cared enough to memorize their names). “Navi” is the support, though she seems more like a cheerleader and professional shouter from Goro’s vantage point. There’s also “Fox,” “Noir,” “Queen,” and the mysterious monster cat, “Mona.”

Eight of them. All wearing masks, all with powers, all with preternatural speed and grace in this world not unlike Goro himself. Eight of them.

They (eight of them!) veritably swarm over Kaneshiro Junya until he’s lying prone on the floor, pouting and weeping like a child. Now, this is usually the point where Goro puts them out of their pathetic misery, so he’s interested in how these kids are going to pull off their miracle. Interested enough to stay hidden for a little while longer, at least.

But it’s nothing special. Nothing flashy. It looks like all they’re doing is standing around and talking. Which is boring. Especially because Goro’s so far away that he can’t clearly hear voices talking at a normal volume.

He shifts his position, rolling his neck to loosen up, and–

The demon version of the mobster is disappearing.

That’s it. He’s gone. Goro missed it, whatever they did… shit!

Not only that– now the world is rumbling in the telltale way that means imminent collapse, the same way worlds crumble after Goro takes out a target. The herd of children below him is running now, trying for some reason to accomplish the futile task of escaping before it all comes tumbling down on top of them.

They must be new. It’s nearly impossible to escape the inner sanctums of these places before they collapse in on themselves and vanish. Goro knows. He tried. He tried so many times. Sometimes he was successful, but most of the time the exit was just too far, and Goro was just too slow.

He closes his Third Eye and drops down from his hiding place in the ceiling now that the kids are gone. Looks around the empty space and pile of gold where Kaneshiro Junya once sat in defeat.

Tries not to wonder how he’ll be kicked out of the Metaverse this time. Tries not to wonder if this will be a bad one.

Does it anyway.

He didn’t even kill the guy, Goro whines to himself as he kicks a gold bar and continues the agonizing task of waiting for the end while the world quakes beneath his feet. There’s no penance he has to serve, he wasn’t supposed to be here toda–

Goro’s eyes fly open, bright lights blinding him and honking, yelling, a million sounds of the city all hit his eardrums at once. He coughs into his fist as he scrambles to his feet, quickly, before anyone notices.

That wasn’t so bad. He’d barely felt anything. Fantastic.

Goro ducks around a corner when he hears the sounds of a rowdy group of kids and holds his breath as they pass by. They move quickly, with convenient cover in the form of Shibuya crowds shielding them from view, but Goro knows it’s them. The Phantom Thieves: in good spirits, celebrating a success, undeterred by battles, by demons, by death, by alternate worlds existing, unknowable and unexplainable, parallel to their own real one.

He has eight adversaries. Goro knows the true identities of three, has a hunch about another two. He knows how they operate… mostly. He does know he’s the only one who can stop them, and he knows that they have no idea he’s on their tail.

Goro can’t keep a smile off his face as he dials the usual unlisted number and mentally prepares his report. This is going to be fun.