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it takes a village

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“Ren, I–!”

Goro!!

Akechi Goro prides himself on his calm. On his plans, accounting for all possible scenarios. His cool head in the face of… almost anything. But this: everyone he’d accidentally come to care for– disappearing before his eyes. His own body beginning to vanish as well. Ren crying out to him, reaching for him under a blood-red sky.

He just doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know, he can’t move, he can’t think, he can’t think, he can’t think.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The vanishing doesn’t last long, of course it doesn’t.

He can’t die now, he’s not allowed to, not yet. Not when there are still strings trying to wrap around his neck, to hold him up so he can keep playing this game, whatever it is. So Goro does exactly what he does best: he takes his trembling hands and clenches them into fists.

“What the fuck is going on!!” He screams as soon as he has a voice.

“I-Inmate?” The twins whisper frantically, “you shouldn’t be here.

And there’s the figure at the center of the room, past the bars keeping him imprisoned. The one he hasn’t seen in weeks. Igor. “How… disappointing,” he says. “This world will soon see its ruin. You have won the game… humans are far more apathetic and–”

“No!” He can’t take it anymore. “No, shut. Up!” Goro slams his shackles against the door again, rattles the bars with all of his strength. “I’m done with this, I’m done with all of it!

He has to get out of here, this fucking room that’s haunted him for years, the purgatory-hell he was trapped in after he died. He has to find out what happened to the Phantom Thieves. He has to find Ren, he has to open this door, open this door, open this door–!!

Ah.

Just like that, the cell door explodes off its hinges toward the desk in the center, disappearing to light and vapor before getting the chance to collide with Goro’s brand new greatest enemy. And the mask on his face, the epaulets on his shoulders, the pistol and sword at his side– he expects those too. He’s not surprised to see them again here, now. The twins were right to keep him away for this long.

“I-insolent prisoner!” Caroline yells in surprise. “Get back in your cell!”

She seems a little half-hearted about it, both of them do, so Goro ignores them. It’s just him, those two, this manipulative piece of shit in front of him, and no way out. He’s won against worse odds.

“Where are they? What have you done with them?”

Igor is unbothered. “The game is over,” he responds, as if that’s an answer. “My experiment has come to naught. How… disappointing.”

“The game is over,” Goro repeats back to him, drawing his sword. “It’s over, so bring them back. I know you can, I know you did this.”

“Is that your desire?”

“My… desire?”

“Inmate…” Justine quietly warns from behind him.

Wide, bulbous eyes begin to glow. Ah, shit. “I hoped to see you vanquished by a righteous thief, yet my experiment was tampered with… and so the thief failed without my guidance. This world is over. In accordance with the game’s rules, you are the victor, and the victor may claim a prize.”

Inmate…!” Caroline hisses their warning this time. Goro gets it, thank you very much.

“You’re the Holy Grail, yes?” He asks through gritted teeth. So obvious, so obvious.

‘Igor’ abandons his seat at the desk, instead choosing to hover imposingly above the ground. Fine. Whatever.

“I am a god borne of desire who holds dominion over man. Whether the human world is left as-is or destroyed and rebuilt… it is all sport to me. All that remains is for you to speak your desire, and God shall make it so.”

When I become Prime Minister I’ll grant whatever wish you want.

“Go fuck yourself,” Goro responds easily, trading his sword for his gun. The weight feels better in his hand. “I’ve heard this shit before, you’re all the same.”

“Your bonds have made you weak. Your desires are plain. The world can be returned to its previous state, escaping ruin, all that which you have lost can be restored.” The horrible thing stretches his horrible mouth into a horrible grin. “Akechi Goro, famed Detective Prince who chases after the Phantom Thieves– with his father under his heel, and his mother by his side.”

“My…” His mouth is dry, his voice small. He’s ten years old again, and his mother is dead. “You could… you could bring her back?”

“God’s decree is absolute.”

“Ren– Joker, the Phantom Thieves…?”

“All that which you desire can be yours. What say you?”

Igor is right. The damn Holy Grail, whatever this thing is… it’s right.

His bonds have made him weak. 

They’re not warm, not comforting. They’re constricting around his heart. They’re suffocating. They hurt. And what are they worth? Here he is anyway, alone. Alone.

It’s just him here, and no way out. He has no idea what happened to the Phantom Thieves when they vanished, he doesn’t have a clue what happened to Ren… what if this is the only way to bring them all back? What if he loses this chance? His bonds have made him weak, he can’t go back to how he was before, not again, he can’t lose them all now, not all of them– he couldn’t survive it.

He could see his mother.

He could see her face again. He could give her anything she wanted. He could make his father beg for her forgiveness or… or. He could make it so he never left. Goro could have a family, a real one. He could fix everything, everything, for everyone.

He won. He won the game. He won. The world is unfair, unjust. Humans are trash. All they want is a cage. Goro is different. Goro is better: he won.

He can have this, right?

Right?

He won.

He won.

And Ren… Ren wouldn’t do it.

“No,” Goro says, shutting his eyes tight to block temptation. “Get out.”

So, he won? What the hell did he win?

Some bullshit rigged game he barely understood, a game he had no real control over. It ruined him, ruined his life, ruined so many lives. What’s the point of winning something like that?

“Get out, I’ll…” he opens his eyes again, conviction growing stronger by the second. Goro knows this part: “I’ll kill you for this.”

The Holy Grail chuckles at the shaky threat. “Humans shall be met with ruin: you brought forth that answer. This fate is unavoidable, you cannot fight it.”

“I can. I can, I’ve already fought it. I saved myself from your bullshit fate, I saved Ren’s too, and I can do it again,” Goro’s voice cracks as he shouts, he’s ashamed he was ever tempted to take its deal. “This power, this place– it’s not yours, it’s mine. Get out!!

He shoots at the man-turned-thing in front of him, because that’s what he does. The rounds fly right through him, ineffective, useless.

“Such irredeemable foolishness,” the Holy Grail’s voice booms. “You have chosen death, then.”

And then he’s gone.

Goro chucks his gun across the room.

“Our master… has forsaken humanity,” Justine says softly behind him. He’d honestly forgotten they were there.

“You resisted his deal,” Caroline adds, a hand to her head and a pained look on her face. “For some reason I’m… glad.”

“Well, great,” Goro turns away, trudges to the other side of the room to collect his pistol. “I’m stuck here, again, with no one else and no way out, but I’m glad I have your approval.”

“You’re stronger than you think,” says one of them.

“Humans are stronger than you think,” says the other.

Goro sighs. “Humans are… well, certainly something.” He’s certainly met enough exceptions to his previously established ‘all people are trash’ rule. Maybe it needs some revisiting.

“Our master has forsaken humanity, but you haven’t. So we won’t either.” Justine looks to Caroline, who nods. “We need you to do us one last favor.”

“You owe us for helping you along and not ratting you out!”

Goro gestures helplessly at the empty room, the barred cages, the stone walls surrounding it all. “Okay then.”

Two guillotines appear in the center of the room.

“Okay…” Goro says again, more wary this time.

“Ha! Don’t get cold feet on us now, prisoner,” Caroline smirks, tapping her little baton against her little foot. “We never got to show you this, but we remembered how to fuse personas.”

“And we also remembered how we were torn apart,” Justine says. “We were originally one, torn in halves by a malevolent intent.”

“So, we need you to fuse us!”

Goro decides he might as well approach this problem the same way he’s approached every other strange thing that’s happened in his life. Alternate universe accessible through an app on his phone? Fine. Fated rival who cosplays as an infuriatingly attractive thief of hearts? Fine. Fusing his two twin wardens via guillotine?

Fine.

Instead of horror and viscera (thank god), the twins vanish into light and butterflies– beautiful, small, fluttering things, like something out of a dream.

“My name,” the butterflies speak, swirling and spinning and well, fusing , until they form a single small girl– two eyes and a blue dress. She bows to him daintily, “is Lavenza.”

Lavenza… Lavenza? Goro has heard the name before, she’s Ren’s… and his, too?

What exactly is going on here?

“I am so glad to see you here, alive and well,” Lavenza says with quiet sincerity. “Please, excuse me for a moment–”

She turns to the center of the room, which changes once again. The guillotines disappear and a desk coalesces in their place. A very familiar desk, with a very familiar figure testing his head on its surface. Goro rests a cautious hand on his holstered pistol.

The (Holy Grail? Igor? Something else?) being lifts his head, blinks a few times. “Oh my. Have we come again to this point in time already?” He says to himself, then turns his attention to Goro. “Welcome to the Velvet Room. My name is Igor. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.

Lavenza smiles, though it doesn’t do much to calm his nerves. “He is the rightful master of this Velvet Room, the true aid on your journey. I would explain further, as I am sure you have questions, but I’m afraid we no longer have the luxury of time. You must hurry and release your teammates.”

Teammates…!? “The Phantom Thieves, they’re here?”

“This place exists between dream and reality, mind and matter,” the new, possibly even creepier Igor chuckles. “It is a reflection of your heart, so they are not necessarily gone.”

Not necessarily… and Ren? Goro stops himself from asking. This is his heart, after all: Ren is here too. He has to be.

Two paths are opened with a snap of new-Igor’s fingers: one to the outside where his enemy awaits, and one to a shadowy place deeper in his heart.

Goro doesn’t hesitate.

 


 

The rows of cages go on… seemingly forever. He’s not quite sure what that says about his heart. He’d rather not think about it too hard. Goro peers carefully and dutifully into each cell, getting his hopes up and then dashed as he finds it empty.

Until he sees her.

Of course it’s her.

He takes a moment to contemplate his clean white outfit. Ah, well. Sacrifices must be made. He sits down cross-legged on the dirty jail floor, right in front of the closed jail cell door, right in front of Sakura Futaba.

She doesn’t respond at all. She’s crouched on the floor too, her arms wrapped around her knees in a tight ball. Just… staring at a spot on the floor.

“Hey,” Goro tries.

“Hey…” Futaba repeats back in a similar cadence. She sounds like she’s asleep, and she doesn’t say anything else.

Goro clears his throat awkwardly. He doesn’t like this quiet Futaba. She should be making fun of him– calling him a clown or something. What did they do to her? “Do you know where you are?”

She shakes her head.

“Do you know…” oh– oh wouldn’t that just be perfect? “Do you know who I am?”

She shakes her head.

Ah. That hurts. That really fucking hurts, it turns out.

…What if this is the best he can get? What if this is the price he has to pay, what if she never remembers, what if none of them do… what if Ren–

(He should have taken that deal.)

No. Stop. He can do this. Goro remembered, after all. He remembered when none of them expected him to. One step at a time.

“Do you know who you are?” He asks.

She shakes her head.

Okay. “Can I tell you?”

She shrugs.

“Your name is Sakura Futaba. Does that sound familiar?”

“Kinda…” a few blinks, eyes slide lazily to a different spot on the floor. “Maybe…”

Two more words, brand new ones. That’s good, hopefully. This is the only lead he has, the only lifeline he’s got, so Goro takes it. And he starts talking.

He tells Futaba which Featherman episodes are her favorites. He tells her how she enlisted (blackmailed) him into helping recover her mother’s prized research and how they finally succeeded. He tells her how annoying she is, how she texts him too much, how frustratingly helpful she is in the Metaverse– to the point where he can’t imagine how he ever managed without her.

And it does work, a little. She stares at the floor, then another spot on the floor, then the bottom of the cell door, and finally gazes blankly at Goro himself.

“I think I remember…” she mumbles. It’s an improvement but Goro doesn’t believe her, thinks she might be faking, lying for his sake. “Um… who are you again?”

“I’m Akechi Goro. I’m– I’m… your friend.”

“Oh. Okay,” she smiles politely.

Wrong. Wrong, it’s all wrong.

He needs to trigger a reaction. Dig into an emotion– she can’t have forgotten everything. There’s always something that stays: strong feelings, memories mistaken for dreams, connections to important people, bonds.

How can he elicit a strong reaction from Sakura Futaba? Easy. “I killed your mother.”

Her drifting eyes snap back to his, corners of her mouth turn down sharply. “What? You… you killed my mom? I–” she holds her head in her hands, just like Goro did, just like the twins did. “What? Why?”

“I’m sorry. There’s no good answer I can give you. I wish I hadn’t.”

“Why?” Futaba cries, tears beginning to spill over her cheeks. “I… I love my mom. She– it’s not right, you– who are you!? Why are you doing this? Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“You know who I am– I’m not going to leave you here. You didn’t leave me when I needed you, not once,” Goro pleads, getting as close to the bars as he can. “You’ve fought so hard, you’ve been so brave, you traveled through time just to beat this damn thing so you can’t give up now. And I know you won’t give up, I know because you’re my–”

“–Oh!!

Futaba jumps up from her crouch like a coiled spring, thief outfit forming around her as she moves. “Oh! I remember!”

Oh holy shit, thank fucking god. It worked.

Goro is slower to stand, relief and pure emotional exhaustion weighing him down. By the time he’s upright, knees cracking unappealingly, the jail door between them has disappeared as well.

“Wow, that was weird,” Futaba says, wiping at her eyes under her goggles. “Were we talking about something? Felt like I was under some sort of status effect, like despair and forget had a baby. A really gross, confusing baby. Where’s everyone else?

Goro gestures to the scenery around them. Cages, cages, cages. “Probably like you.”

“Oh… oh yeah! This happened to us last time too, kinda.” She scratches her head. “Though that one was more like plain ol’ despair, haha. Uh… I’ll stay here, you go get them!” She gives Goro a shaky salute.

Goro returns a weary salute of his own. Well then. He turns to face the line of cages, heaves a deep, heavy sigh. Time to do this… seven more times…

 


 

Five more. Six total. Futaba, Haru, Yusuke, Makoto, Ryuji, and Ann.

No Morgana.

Don’t worry about Mona-chan,” Haru had said, while Goro tried to recover from her shockingly powerful punch to his face (she’d been very apologetic after she regained her memories). “He’s special, so he won’t be in here– did we never tell you about that?

No Ren.

Joker ain’t with you?” Ryuji had said, as he admired the rapidly-forming black eye beneath Goro’s mask. “That’s weird… he was the one to get us out last time. But this is his room, or whatever, so he probably won’t be stuck in one of these cages.

This place isn’t his, it’s mine,” Goro had told him.

Huh, really…? Coulda sworn Joker’s looked just like this…

When they return to the main room, after filling Goro on the rest of ‘Yaldabaoth,’ Igor, Lavenza, Morgana’s origins, everything that was explained to them last time– it’s only Morgana that appears. He looks more like a mascot than ever before, he heals Goro, and he asks: “where’s Joker?”

Joker doesn’t appear.

Ren isn’t here.

“Does anyone recall if he disappeared with us?” Yusuke muses, concern plain in his voice.

Ann looks toward the door to the outside, “do you think… maybe he’s still out there?”

Still out there– alone!? Goro is out the door before his thoughts catch up to his legs, head on a swivel, taking in this new world and trying desperately to find something, some one familiar. The street outside the Velvet Room, where they all disappeared: empty. The space Ren had run to, the entrance to his own Velvet Room, where his own Lavenza had presumably stood: still empty.

There’s only a structure in front of him, a horrible thing, twisting into the sky, where the Holy Grail lies in wait.

He wouldn’t.

Goddammit, he wouldn’t.

He would.

He promised.

Goro runs back inside, empty-handed and desperate in front of so many worried eyes. “He’s not– wait. Wait here, I’ll– I’ll check again.” Then dashes toward the back again, not bothering to stick around for their confused protests. He runs up and down the dark halls of his heart, peers into the same cages over and over. He’s here, he has to be here, Ren has to be here, or Goro is going to go completely– he just… he just has to look harder–

Wait.

As soon as Goro has the thought, he stops dead in his tracks, skidding hard against the stone floor.

He’s been here before.

Goro has been here, exactly here, on this day. Events repeat… he was here, in the Velvet Room, with Ren and all of them after he’d died the first time– no one could see him, but he was here.

Ren could be halfway to the Holy Grail by now, fighting a god on his own. He could be dead already. Or maybe, just maybe, he kept his promise. Maybe he’s waiting for Goro. Maybe he’s here too, just like Goro was.

He sprints back to the main room.

“So… you didn’t find him?” Ann asks nervously. “What if… he went to fight by himself? We have to–”

“Shut up,” Goro snaps. Harsh, but.

“Wh–”

Sh!! Give me– let me try something. Please.”

Goro is here, in the middle of the Velvet Room, with the Phantom Thieves around him. He’s here, exactly in the spot where Ren had stood. And Goro was right in front of him, screaming desperately for Ren, someone, anyone to see him.

He closes his eyes.

This is my heart, he thinks, tries to project the words into… somewhere. You’re here. You have to be.

They have a connection. They’re so similar– interchangeable in the eyes of fate. Ren kept him in his heart, his thoughts, after his death. He’d kept him ‘alive,’ in a way, safe in his heart.

They’re the same. Wildcards, fools, prisoners, pawns, mirrors.

Find me, come back to me.

What happens when two mirrors face each other?

I can feel you. 

Goro reaches out with his left hand–

I love you.

–and opens his third eye.

Ah.

Found you.

“Goro,” Ren breathes, takes him in his arms, and dips him backward into an extraordinarily overdramatic kiss.

What an asshole.

By the time they come up for air the Phantom Thieves seem to have gotten most of their surprised shouting out of the way– though Futaba can’t help herself from throwing out one final “get a room!

“Joker!” Makoto exclaims, “what happened to you, where have you been?”

“Oh, you know,” Ren swirls a finger in the air. “Around. Waiting on you guys.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, won't take his eyes off Goro, looks so… happy.

“Two wildcards who share the same heart,” Igor chuckles behind them. “Torn in halves by a malevolent intent into the Fool and Fool Reversed. Clever, clever– the only way such a game could be played.”

“Same heart? What does that mean?” Ann asks for them.

Lavenza only replies, oh-so-unhelpfully: “whatever they would like it to mean.”

Ren shakes his head, and he’s right. Now isn’t the time for this. They’re all here: there’s no reason to delay. “Lavenza. Are we ready?”

She smiles. “You and your teammates were sent back in time because if you continued as you were, you surely would have lost. You were given the gift of time to become stronger… my Trickster,” Lavenza faces Ren directly now. “Have you found the hope you had lost?”

Ren returns her smile, glances unsubtly over at Goro. “I have.”

 


 

Thesis: the first idea. Akechi Goro.

Antithesis: a second idea, to challenge and negate the first. Amamiya Ren.

And now synthesis, fusion, cognitive resonance: the conflict between the two ideas resolved. 

The Phantom Thieves make their way up to the Holy Grail, striking down their enemies as a unit. When they face the final angel, the last one blocking their way to Yaldabaoth, Ren turns to Goro. He winks, and calls out: “come, Loki!”

Ren strikes down the Shadow with a perfect Laevateinn and Goro nearly faints on the spot, like some sort of Victorian woman succumbing to ‘the vapors.’

They enter the chamber of the Holy Grail without incident– they’d been training specifically for this battle for the better part of a year, after all. And it all goes well and good and fine, their carefully laid plans work, until.

Until. Until.

Well, that’s the law of these things, isn’t it? There’s never just one form. And Goro stares up at the enormous god with a sort of out-of-body hilarity. Like… if they can face this, this building-sized behemoth of a thing, then surely they can do literally anything. He has a moment of doubt– just a moment, because thankfully Yaldabaoth can’t keep his mouth shut.

I must guide mankind toward proper development, the god says.

If left to humanity, the world would slowly meet its demise.

I am the entity which governs this world. Its future depends wholly on my leadership.

And Goro has heard all of this shit before too. His father, the conspiracy, this so-called god– oh, they’re all the same and oh, Goro is so. Fucking. Sick of it.

So he fights his hardest, alongside his friends. His teammates. And amazingly… it works . Their battle galvanizes the people below, shocks them out of their stupor, gives them more power to fight back even harder. They battle and battle against new status effects, against attacks which could take them out for good with one wrong move, against– oh.

Oh.

Goro collapses to the ground alongside the rest of the Thieves, pain coursing through his limp body. That one… that one got them. 

Fuckfuckfuck, that really fucking hurts.

He gasps for breath, just another breath, the side of his face pressed hard against the cold ground. His swimming, twisting vision clears just enough for him to grab his lifeline, his anchor, the red glove in front of him.

Ren squeezes back.

He’s still alive then, too. Good. Good, alive just a moment longer.

Goro wishes… he wishes it all didn’t have to end here. But if this is it… he recalls his days of rebellion, of short sided anger, self-destruction. If this is it, at least he’s here, by the side of the people who saved him. They showed him a future he never thought he could have and now at the end, that same future quickly slipping out of his grasp… well, he wouldn’t change a thing.

But the cat–! The goddamn cat of all of them is standing up now, Morgana alone against this god who seeks to bring this world, Goro’s world, Ren’s world to ruin.

“Joker…” Goro rasps, holding onto that red glove, his lifeline, his future, as hard as his waning strength allows. “Ren… we’ve come this far. We can’t lose now.” Grey eyes, with those perfect little specks of red in them, stare hazily back at him as Goro’s voice is added to Morgana’s, to the other Thieves, to the chorus of people below. “You have to get up!”

He’s struggling, they all are, and Goro can’t do this, not without him. “Goddamn it!” He shouts with all his remaining strength, “I love you! You’re not allowed to die here! So, GET UP!!

Ren stands, and pulls Goro up to stand beside him. Goro does the same for Haru, who gets Makoto standing… until all the Phantom Thieves are facing Yaldabaoth again, this god of control who doesn’t, in fact, seem to be in control of anything.

Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

When Ren and Goro summon Satanael from their shared heart it feels more like a beginning than an end. But that’s what an awakening is, isn’t it?

Goro has pulled the trigger of his pistol too many times, for all the wrong reasons. He’s glad this last time will be in his terms, for himself, for something and someone he believes in.

 


 

Morgana’s little speech was actually kind of moving. Though Goro would never, ever admit it out loud.

After all that, all of it, they end up on the street. In their normal clothes. People around them chatter away like usual, like none of it happened. It’s cold out, with a slight breeze creating more of a chill.

The app on Goro’s phone is… gone. The game is over.

“Mona-mona!!” Futaba calls out, shocking all of them out of their misery. She’s pointing in the distance, at a small Morgana-shaped mascot with an enormously unwieldy head, attempting to sneak away through the crowds. She runs after him, shouting all the way: “I see you, hey! Hey!! Get back here!!”

Ann and Ryuji look to each other, then follow to help, leaving the rest of the group behind.

In fact, all of them leave eventually, making their perfectly valid excuses. As if they hadn’t just defeated a god, saved the world. But there’s still homework to finish, family dinners to get to… and the promise of a celebration on Christmas.

That sounds nice. Normal. Something normal people would do.

Goro tells Ren he’s going for a walk, he thinks. That he’ll see him soon, probably. It’s been a long many years, the Metaverse is gone, and he can’t seem to stop staring at his phone.

 


 

———
Ren

Hey
Would you mind coming back to Leblanc tonight?
Only if you want to
I need to talk to you about something
And spending Christmas Eve with you would be a nice added bonus :)

———

 


 

He knows something is wrong as soon as he opens the door.

There’s a nervous energy in the air, a quietness where there should be celebration. Sakura isn’t around. Ren won’t look at him. And then the evidence compounds: Ren quietly asks him to sit in one of the booths, Ren makes them both an especially expensive blend of coffee, Ren joins him in the booth but doesn’t touch him, doesn’t say a word, still doesn’t look at him. By the time he finally opens his mouth to talk about whatever the fuck is going on Goro is certain that in the hour they’ve spent apart Ren has learned he has some sort of incurable disease and will be dead before the next morning.

But of course it wouldn’t be that, not while Goro’s worthless father still draws breath.

“They don’t have enough of a case against Shido,” Ren bluntly says, finally. “Sae asked me to–”

“Haha, no.” Goro chuckles, because this cannot be happening. “No. You are not doing this.”

Ren immediately gets defensive, and Goro is so tired. “If I do this one last thing–”

“You promised me you would stop–”

“Goro, you don’t understand–”

“I can’t believe after everything–”

“I knew you wouldn’t like it but I promised, so that’s why I’m telling you–”

Goro throws his hands up wildly in the air, nearly hitting himself in the face in the process. “Oh! Oh, I’m so grateful to be blessed with your confidence! Thank you Ren, I feel much more at ease with you submitting yourself to the fucking cops because at least you told me you were doing it!

“I’m telling you so you can help me.”

“Yes, yes you’re right. I can help you, I can do it myself, I can–” Goro stands up in the booth, though Ren still blocks his way out. And pushes him back down in his seat with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“You can what, Goro?” Ren smiles at him for some stupid reason. “You’re going to turn yourself in just so I don’t have to deal with a little jail time?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Goro says, attempting to stand again before Ren shoves him back down again. Goro smacks his hands away, “stop that– why are you laughing!?”

“Because you’re a ridiculous person. Just sit for a second and have some coffee.”

No. “That piece of shit is my responsibility, I won’t have you cleaning up my mess, this is unbelievably stupid, why the hell didn’t Sae-san come to me if– stop laughing!!

Ren covers his mouth, “sorry,” he chokes out through his hands, “sorry, you’re so… you would really go to prison forever to keep me from going for a few days?”

“It’s not going to be ‘a few days,’ idiot.”

“Ah… I know,” Ren goes back to tugging on one of his curls, uncharacteristically chastened. It’s so much better and worse than before. “Yeah, I know.”

Goro takes a shaky sip of the coffee in front of him in want of something to do. It’s annoyingly delicious. Hearty and warm. He places the cup back in its saucer and nearly jumps out of his skin when Ren’s hands cover his own.

“Listen,” he tells Goro, “I want to do this. I really do. And I love you but… this isn’t for you. It’s for me. You’re not the only one with a grudge to settle.”

Okay, well, Goro doesn’t believe him for a second. There has to be a solution, any solution, that doesn’t involve Ren doing his bullshit sacrificial hero act again. But how could he help, when even the act of revealing himself would doom him forever? How could he not help, after everything he’s done?

How is it that the two of them can topple a god, but can’t put away one meager, pathetic man without sacrifice?

“God damn it!” Goro shouts as he slams a fist down on the booth table, rattling their cups. “Why are you like this? You drive me insane, you piss me off… why can’t you leave well enough alone?”

“You’d do the same if you were in my position,” Ren chuckles, “you just tried to do worse, hypocrite.”

Goro groans, makes an honest attempt at scrying his coffee, peering deep into the murky liquid inside. He feels like there’s a solution, (there’s always a solution), that it’s on the tip of his tongue, just out of reach.

His coffee provides no answers. He has no answers. He needs more time to think. He has no time. Ren is waiting.

“How long?” Goro asks, the question itself an admission of defeat.

“I don’t know,” Ren says. “I didn’t ask.”

Idiot. Fool.

“I’m going to get you out. Somehow. I don’t care, this is so fucking stupid,” he repeats softly, no bite behind the words this time.

Ren cups his face in his hands, peppers his mouth and cheeks with light kisses even though Goro refuses to respond out of spite. “I know you are. You’re unstoppable. Who knows– with everything around Shido getting scrutinized you might be able to get my original charges cleared.”

Ugh, the last thing he wants to hear while his stupid boyfriend is kissing him is…?

Goro pulls away, confused. “What does Shido have to do with that?”

Ren blinks at him. “My arrest.” Furrows his brow. “Last year. The one that… you know it was him, right?”

“Who?”

“Who…? Shido! You didn’t…?” Ren puts a hand to his head. “You knew, right? He was in my hometown, it was him– he fell and…”

Ah, that explains it. Goro is trapped in some sort of fever dream. “What,” he says, choking out half a laugh.

Ren stares at him, completely flabbergasted, before he starts laughing too. “You didn’t know!?

“You never– fucking– talk to me!” Goro wheezes, both of them cracking up now in earnest, “how was I supposed to–”

“In either time– you never–”

“Shut up! He was the one who–”

“Yes!”

“How!?”

“I thought you– you’re a– haha– Goro, you’re a detective!”

“Shut up!!” Actual tears are starting to run down his cheeks and Goro finds he’s discovered some sort of brand new emotion, somewhere between hysterical laughter and hysterical sobbing. They killed a god, Ren is going to be gone tomorrow, again, Goro’s own father was the one who brought him here in the first place– it was Shido, it was Shido!? What the fuck.

“Goro– hey,” Ren says between giggles as he calms down. He’s calming down? Goro should too.

He hiccups, laugh-sobs even harder. Oh, oh no.

“Goro?” Ren is grabbing his shoulders, trying to get him to look at him. “Goro, hey, stop.”

Oh no. “I– you’re– he was–” he chokes out as something breaks inside him and his face crumples, “I’m so tired.”

Ren envelopes him in a tight hug, which isn’t very smart of him considering Goro is having a hard time getting air in his lungs.

“This is– hic– so stupid,” he repeats like a broken record, like a pouting child. “So stupid. It’s not fair.” Is Ren– is Ren petting his hair. “I hate you.”

“I know.”

“I am not. A cat.”

Ren laughs against the side of his face, keeps petting him. “I know.”

It feels nice.

“I’m… I’m glad you told me. About your moronic plan, not about my– him. Even though I feel like shit,” Goro mumbles, sniffs. “…why do I always do this around you.”

“Do what?”

Goro would answer with silence but he hiccups again instead. Goddammit. He used to have dignity. Kind of. Other people thought he did, at least. He hopes.

“Everyone cries, Goro.”

“I don’t.”

“Sure,” Ren’s chuckle rumbles against his chest.

“You don’t.”

“Yes I do,” he pulls back just enough to rub his wet cheek against Goro’s. “See?”

“Disgusting.”

He nuzzles their faces together even more, tilts his head to place a soft, chaste kiss on Goro’s lips. “I’ll have it easy, you know,” Ren murmurs. “Sitting and waiting in my tower for my prince to save me.”

He’s so irritating. Goro huffs, brushes the tears from Ren’s cheeks with his thumbs and finally kisses him back. “The role of damsel doesn’t suit you either. I’ll be half-expecting word of a jailbreak.”

“Don’t take too long,” Ren teases and winks. 

With that he finally slides out of their booth, unblocking Goro as well. He holds out a hand for Goro to take and offers with a surprisingly jaunty little smirk: “what do you say to one last night before they take me away?”

“Really?” Goro gestures between them. At the general state of things. “Now?”

Ren shrugs. “Honestly I thought you’d have stormed out already.”

“Haha, how hilarious, that you’d think I would let you out of my sight after what happened last time.” And besides, he needs to be here when Ren tries to leave. He’s got some words to say to his esteemed former colleague who can’t seem to do her fucking job.

“So, that means my secret plan worked.”

Goro squints in suspicion, disbelief. “Your secret plan to… betray my trust and put your life in danger on purpose? So that I would then not leave you alone for fear of you doing the same thing again? That secret plan?”

“Yup,” Ren says with a blinding smile.

Good god.

How could he refuse?

Goro huffs out an exasperated growl, pushes Ren towards the back of the cafe. “You’re such a nuisance. An absolute brat, you know that? Joking at a time like this, about the worst moment of my life–”

“Aw, that was the worst moment?”

“I hate you,” Goro repeats, kicking at Ren’s legs to get him up the stairs. “I despise you.”

Ren dances around his attacks gracefully, seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. “You love me.” 

Hmpf.

“You love me~” Ren continues in a song-song voice. “You said it in front of a god, god was a witness, no take-backs.”

“God is dead,” Goro announces when he reaches the landing. He strides confidently across the room, towards that old shitty mattress, stripping off his sweater as he goes.

If this could be their last night together for a while, because he’s fallen in love with the most stubborn and selfless and stupid person in the world, he’s going to make it fucking count. He’s going to make Ren regret leaving.

(He’s going to convince him to stay.)

Goro settles on the bed and takes a moment to relish in the familiar feeling of Ren’s sheets, his pillow, the comforting scent of it all. He stretches out as temptingly as he can, letting his hair out of its ponytail to fan out beneath him.

But Ren has his back turned. He missed the show.

He’s gathering supplies hidden in his work desk, which is fine, whatever. Goro changes gears and hurriedly unbuttons his slacks as well, wiggles to settle them just low enough on his hips before Ren turns around, settles back down in time– phew. Perfect. (Look at me.)

Ren nearly drops everything he’s holding at the sight, and that deliciously low “holy shit, Goro” sends a pleased shiver all the way down his spine. (So then, stay.)

Goro raises his eyebrows in a wordless challenge– one that’s immediately accepted. (Of course it is. After all, how could you leave.) Glasses are tossed carelessly on the desk, lube and a box of condoms thrown to Goro, sharp eyes never leaving him all the while, raking up and down his bare chest like a predator. (When I’m clearly so willing to give you anything, anything.) Ren prowls onto the bed above him just the same. (To make you st–

Climbs… on top of him. Straddles him. Oh.

He grasps Ren’s hips hard as his mind goes blank, holds on for dear life.

“Last time we did this we were a little… stressed,” Ren purrs from his perch, the understatement of the century. “But I liked it. And I like this view, too,” he punctuates the words with a few gentle taps on Goro’s suddenly-heaving chest.

“I like it more,” Goro says brainlessly.

Ren’s smirk gains power. “Good. I have to make sure you don’t forget me while I’m gone,” he says a little too sincerely before moving to discard his own shirt.

The brief lapse in eye contact jolts Goro out of his hypnosis. Forget… forget him!? What a– what an idiot, thinking Goro could ever– that he needs to… to put on some sort of show… for him to…

Ah. They really are similar, aren’t they?

“As if I could ever forget you. Come here,” he says, rolling his eyes at himself while he grabs at any part of Ren to pull him down.

They’ve kissed hundreds of times now… or so half of Goro would have him believe, sometimes more of a separate entity than not. There’s another part of him, however, that’s still reconciling that it’s Joker on top of him, willingly. It’s Joker’s thumb tracing gently around the curve of Goro’s ear, along the line of his jaw to tip his chin up higher, Joker’s deep baritone hum of pleasure sending shivers down his spine, Joker– …and then Joker becomes Ren once more, and his lips feel like relief, like comfort, like coming home.

They’ve kissed hundreds of times now, but it’s not enough, never enough, not when something is always trying to tear them apart.

“You’re mine,” Goro says when they break apart for air, “and I’m yours. Nothing has changed that, so nothing will. Understand?”

Ren chuckles against his lips. He’s beautiful, all dark eyes, flushed cheeks, shallow breath, all because of Goro. He nuzzles their noses together– the way he always does. It makes Goro feel… adored. Wanted. Even…

“I love you,” Ren whispers.

“I… I love you too,” Goro murmurs back. They’re only words but they feel foreign on his tongue. They have a strange, heavy shape to them. “I love you.”

He’ll just have to keep practicing.

 


 

Goro. Goro~

Mmh.

Roll over, I can’t get to your other braid.

Hnmgh.

Such a baby.”

Fuck you.

Your hair is so soft.

Mm… don’t stop…

 


 

The next morning is quiet. Most of the night was quiet, though Goro doubts either of them got much sleep.

There’s really nothing to say.

Goro sits on the edge of the bed, taps his foot nervously against the floor as he watches Ren flit from corner to corner of the attic, cleaning up, organizing, just looking. A small light in the corner tries its best to illuminate the room for them, the streetlamps outside helping as well, but it’s still dark. Still quiet and dark and cold. Neither of them can stop checking the time.

And then, suddenly, time runs out.

“Hey,” Goro pleads, pulling at the sleeve of Ren’s shirt. It doesn’t take much convincing– Ren is always there to meet him.

Don’t, is what he wants to say next. Don’t go, you shouldn’t have to.

Don’t leave me.

But he can’t stop Ren from making his own choices, can't fault him for choosing this, can’t hold him prisoner in this room, can’t chain him to his side forever. If he did he’d be no better than… well, the shitty god they just killed.

They’ve gone through worse, they’ll get through this too.

So Goro gathers up his courage, kisses him one final time, and shoves him toward the stairs. “Go on. Hurry up so I can save you.”

“Pushy,” Ren chuckles and sneaks back to peck him on the cheek before he heads down the creaky steps. Goro takes another look around their dusty old attic before he follows behind. They manage to reach the cafe door, preparing to say just one more last goodbye, again, when–

The lights turn on.

Good morning!

“Ah–!”

Fuck–!!

Sakura Sojiro reveals himself behind the cafe bar, bellowing out his laughter at the same unimaginably loud volume with which he’d greeted them. “Aren’t you two supposed to be master thieves or something? Watch that language, Akechi.”

“Boss, why are you here so early?” Ren asks while Goro tries to swallow his pounding heart back down into his chest.

“Now that’s a funny story,” Sakura says, taking a long moment to light a cigarette even though it’s five in the morning. “It turns out my daughter has a few more eyes and ears than I thought she did.” He points lazily to various corners around the cafe, presumably where Futaba’s hidden cameras lurk.

The hidden… cameras…

“So, my daughter wakes me up last night, very late might I add, because those eyes and ears told her that one of her best friends was about to do something very stupid.”

Goro’s heart has made its way back into his throat.

“Boss–” Ren starts.

Sakura holds up a hand. He digs around in his pockets, and places a small object on the counter in front of him. A flash drive.

“New evidence has been uncovered against Shido Masayoshi. Should be enough to put away him and all of his followers. Names, direct orders, research, corroboration– everything those prosecutors need to move forward in their case.”

Unbelievable. Goro pushes past Ren, ready to fight this very similar brand of idiocy as well. “You testified to Niijima Sae that you didn’t have Isshiki’s research, and you didn’t,” Goro growls, because if Sakura had then he and Futaba would absolutely have found it. “If you hand in evidence that is discovered to be falsified in any manner you’ll be charged– and you’ll likely face consequences anyway for not coming forward when you were originally told to.”

“Then that will just have to be my problem, kid.”

God, Sakura and Ren deserve each other. “Did Futaba set this up for you? Does she know what could happen to you, to all of you, if you mess up even a single thing?” Goro glares pointedly at a random corner, hoping there’s a camera there as he addresses her directly. “You’re really going to hand over your mother’s work to the government? After everything you went through to find it?”

“She knows. They all know, actually. Word gets around fast in your group.” Sakura takes another long drag from his cigarette, blows the smoke out towards the ceiling with an accompanying sigh. “Listen. I didn’t want all this to fall on my doorstep. I thought I’d be able to take Futaba and hide away from the past forever. But you kids– you come in here with nothing, you face the same damn conspiracy I was running from, you help my daughter– yes I’m talking about you too, Akechi.”

Goro scoffs.

“It’s too dangerous,” Ren says.

“Sorry, but it’s already done,” Sakura replies, taking the flash drive and putting it back in his pocket. “Knew you’d be stubborn about it, so I met with the Niijimas an hour ago. We told you the adults would handle things from here. Let us handle it.”

He goes back to calmly smoking his cigarette.

Ren and Goro look at each other. They try to silently communicate some kind of argument but Ren’s eyes are hidden behind his infernal hair and glasses and Goro is too pissed to stop scowling so it doesn’t work at all.

Is this… it?

They’re going to let Sakura just… do this? For them? They have to, he’s already… Sakura wants to do this for them?

Ren isn’t going to jail? He’s staying?

Goro’s frown deepens as he tries to solve this new puzzle. So then… now what? What’s the next crisis to solve? What’s the next grand scheme that will try to hurt them, kill them, separate them from each other again?

What’s next?

“Since you’re up, you can make yourselves useful and help me get the shop open before your little gang tramples in here,” Sakura chuckles, thoroughly amused by himself. “I’ve got a few dishes in the back that need doing. Floors to mop.”

Silence hangs over the cafe.

Sakura waits expectantly.

“I’ll… mop?” Ren asks Goro, with a dazed look on his face.

“I suppose I’ll… take care of the dishes, then?” Goro says slowly. He’s not sure how he’ll get to the sink, with every muscle in his body frozen solid with tension, but menial, repetitive work will at least provide him with good cover so he can think through–

Good!” Sakura bellows as he claps his hands together. Both of them jump again at the sudden sound– Goro knows he’s fucking doing it on purpose. “Go on, scoot. Time’s wasting… and Merry Christmas!”

 


 

———
The Phantom Thieves

 

Navi: top 10 pics taken before disaster:
Navi: [Open link to view image]

Panther: omg look at goro’s face 😂😂😂

Skull: that’s what they get for trying to keep this from us

Navi: Operation FREE HIM complete
Navi: commence Operation FREE HIM 2: Electric Boogaloo

Skull: wait what’s that one again?

Panther: getting Ren’s probation lifted dumbass 🙄

Noir: Oh! Ann!

Panther: OH WAIT
Panther: 😳🤭

Skull: ANN WTF!!

Navi: F

Panther: was that supposed to be a secret??????

Navi: not anymore…

Skull: hey DUMBASS

Panther: shut up!!!!!!
Panther: why did you ask!! you set me up!!
Panther: sryyyyy everyone 😓

———

 


 

Nothing happens.

The case proceeds as normal.

Goro has never felt so tense. It’s torture, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Things can’t just… work out. They never do. Not until Goro himself pours enough blood, sweat, tears, and sanity at a problem to solve it on his own. Is this how Ren feels when other people try to save him? God, no wonder he always acts like a moron.

“Hey, grump.”

Goro turns his attention from his coffee to Futaba, successfully distracted. The envelope she’s shoved in his face also helps. “Got a present for you! Open it. Right now.”

Goro takes it and Futaba doesn’t wait for him, dances away instead. She’s heading for the kid sitting in one of Leblanc’s booths, the one they found trying to hide from them inside a mascot costume on Christmas Eve. He’s around ten years old, probably. Unnaturally bright blue eyes with familiar sharp edges hide beneath even more familiar long lashes and even more familiar unkempt black hair, and– no one’s mentioned it yet if they’ve noticed, thank goodness– but, well… he’s pretty sure Morgana’s new human nose, mouth, and chin more closely resemble Goro’s than Ren’s.

It’s a little horrifying if he thinks about it too much.

“Got one for you too, Sakura Morgana! Come get it!” Futaba waves her second envelope in Morgana’s face. 

“What!? No, I wanted to be Amamiya! Change it,” he pouts. Definitely Goro’s mouth. Stop thinking about it.

“Sooo, what’s in the envelope,” Ann asks from the seat beside him, in between too-large scoops of curry.

Goro displays his brand new, magnificently realistic, and completely illegal ID to her.

“Whoa!!” She snatches it out of his hands. “Oh my gosh– Niijima Goro? Really!?”

“I’ll be playing the part of Makoto’s distant cousin for a while. It’s a… mutually beneficial arrangement,” Goro says carefully. “I’ll be able to keep a closer eye on the case if Sae-san ‘technically’ has custody of me.”

“Sounds more like she’ll be able to keep a closer eye on you,” Ann teases, tossing the ID back to him. Rude.

“Sacrifices must be made.

“Mm,” Ann mumbles through another large scoop of rice. “I’m gonna miss you, roomie.”

“I’ll miss you too. Honestly I’m… unsure about living with Sae-san and Makoto.”

She grimaces in understanding. “Maybe figure out that job situation asap. And uh, Niijima Goro… what are you gonna do with all that stuff with your little logo on it?”

Oh. Right. No more Akechi. “I suppose I’ll have to get rid of it… discreetly.” More sacrifices.

Ann’s sad little smile turns… into something else. Something evil. “Maybe you should hold onto it. After all, someday you could get that initial back~” she sings.

“I don’t see how tha–agck–!

“Aw, Ann, you killed him,” Futaba snickers as Goro tries to calm his coughing fit. It takes him a while. They’re all so rude to him.

“So this–” Goro turns away to hack once again as he does a magnificently bad job of changing the subject. “This is it, then? I have a new identity now?”

“Yup, birth certificates will be here in a few days and that should be… hm… oh!” Futaba snaps, like she’s just remembered something. “What score do you want on your entrance exams?”

Goro blinks at her in astonishment. “I think I’d still like to take those myself, thank you.”

 


 

———
Haru & Makoto

Haru: Are we studying today?
Haru: I need some help with the practice problems we started last time.

Makoto: Sure! Aikido just finished up, I can head over now.
Makoto: Goro are you free?

Yes.
I still have the textbook, I can bring it over.

Haru: Thank you! ✨

Makoto: Grab the physics one as well, please! Its on the kitchen table.
Makoto: *It’s

Got it.

———

 


 

It takes him until the middle of January. He’d just finished the entrance exams he’d insisted on taking himself, like an idiot, and the stress of it all made him stupid. Stress of studying, of doing too well and outing himself (Akechi Goro always got top marks on the mock exams, Niijima Goro didn’t exist one month ago), stress of doing poorly and ruining his future, of outing himself anyway if he was recognized, stress, stress, stress, idiot, stupid, dumb, moron, idiot.

He saw it on his new and uncurated Twitter feed. Which he shouldn’t have created in the first place. Especially because it brought him here, now: sitting in the Niijima’s living room, alone, watching a recorded video of his father’s change of heart confession, back from the election.

Shido Masayoshi’s case is closed. He’s been sentenced to be executed. So, of course his name would be all over social media right now.

Goro watches it again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

I will confess everything!

He has the whole thing memorized by the time he makes it to Leblanc and collapses into his usual chair, which means he can repeat it verbatim in his head without having to bother to find the video again. But he knows he’ll find it again.

The reason President Okumura passed away is… I am the one who killed him.

He’s furious. With everything. Everything. Himself for watching. Himself for failing his original plan, twice. Furious with Shido. The Phantom Thieves. Ren. He wants the confession to be better. To be worse. He wants him to hurry up and die, to live forever with this guilt, to have never done any of it at all. He wants him to have cried harder, begged more, to have mentioned Goro at all. Even his name, even. Fucking. ONCE!!

If I could atone for all I’ve done with my life–!

Ren hovers, just nearby, while Goro seethes and sulks. He ends up blurting out (confessing) all of his fucking neuroses to him eventually, like he always does, rambling on and on and on until his jaw hurts, until he barely knows what’s coming out of his mouth.

I will confess everything!

“Hm,” Ren finally says, while Goro grinds his teeth and digs his nails into his palms. “Want to go hit some stuff?”

“Fucking– please.”

Channeling all of his rage into cheap baseball bats turns out to be surprisingly effective, extraordinarily satisfying. He barely even hits any balls– too in his head to swing properly– but he likes the way the flimsy wooden bats shatter and splinter on the ground, over his knee, against their own already broken pieces. After a few hours he’s managed to sweat all the way through his shirt, achieve one surprise home run, murder seven bats, engage and win a bat vs. bat “sword fight” with Ren, and possibly sprain his wrist for an unrelated reason. But the real victory is Goro’s complete physical exhaustion, and his weak plea for one more favor.

So, they leave some extra cash for the unreasonable amount of equipment they’d destroyed and hurry back to Leblanc so that Goro can get railed into the floor by his generous and very enthusiastic participant of a boyfriend.

And the next day is better.

 


 

———
The Phantom Thieves

Panther: i can’t believe you dumb nerds got me into this show

Don’t listen to her.
She’s been screaming at the television for three hours.

Panther: FEATHER PARAKEET AND FEATHER ARGUS ARE IN LOVE
Panther: I HATE THIS SHOW

Queen: Let me guess: season 4? Or 4b?

Panther: LET THEM BE HAPPY!!!!!!!!!

Season 4.

Skull: lucky
Skull: wish i could watch for the first time again

Panther: 😭😭😭😭😭

———

 


 

“I’m your guardian, not your mother,” Sae had said.

“Two nights a week,” Sakura had said, “so long as Ren keeps up his grades.”

On the fourth night that week, sometime in early February, Goro wakes up. The night is quiet and still and Ren is beside him, facing him, clearly sound asleep. It feels like something is wrong.

Goro shifts, careful not to disturb the sheets too much. He does a cursory scan of the darkness as if there could be a second assassin hidden somewhere in this room. Waits. Watches. Nothing.

He’s just about to chalk it up to some sort of forgotten dream-induced paranoia when he takes a second look at Ren– this time a little more awake, a little more aware.

He’s crying.

Ren?” Goro whispers tentatively.

No answer.

He’s crying… in his sleep? Ren’s brow is pinched together, jaw tense, pupils dancing frantically under his eyelids, and tears spilling over the bridge of his nose, dropping quickly onto his pillow.

Ren,” he says again, placing a gentle hand on his bare shoulder to wake him. “Ren, hey.”

Ren wakes, but he immediately falls apart. Goro tries, but he can’t reach him. He curls in on himself, shuts down completely, won’t talk, just stares into space and shakes his head.

And then he doesn’t say anything all day. He goes about his Sunday like usual– brewing coffee for customers, working on homework, fidgeting with his hair. His expression is blank, unreadable. He doesn’t say a goddamn word.

So Goro tries absolutely everything. He stays silent too. He asks questions. He tells some terrible jokes. He tries silence again. He rambles about nothing. He invites Ann and Ryuji over, because he thinks that might help, then pretends he’s doing Ren a favor as he chatters their ears off by himself because Ren still. Won’t. Fucking. Talk!

The day comes to an end, high in the running for the longest of Goro’s life, and he’s just starting to wonder if maybe it would be better if he left Ren alone too when he hears a hushed, stilted: “I’m… sorry.”

Ren!” He exclaims as he runs to his side, never so relieved to hear a sound in his life. “Don’t apologize,” Goro says quickly, trying to take advantage of precious time, precious words. “Tell me what I can do– I don’t know how– I’m not as good at this as you are. Not yet, anyway.”

A weak little smile crawls across Ren’s tired face, but he still shakes his head.

“Ren,” Goro says, “please.”

“Can you stay over again?” Ren finally mumbles, more to the curl he’s fiddling with than Goro. “I’ll tell you tomorrow. Promise.”

And so Goro spends their fifth night together that week with Ren on him like a koala on a tree. It’s unbearably hot. He can’t move an inch. He’s sweaty, uncomfortable, Ren keeps breathing right up against his neck– he barely gets any sleep. But still Goro realizes again, like he realizes every day for some stupid reason or another, that he really does love Ren. So he holds him closer.

And the next day is better.

 


 

———
Oracle

[Open link to view image]
how bad is it 😰😰😰

You look terrified.

school is scary!!!!

Okay, two things.
First: you’re only trying your uniform. That does not count as “school.”
Second: you’ve killed a god, how are you still afraid of a few smelly teenagers?

[Open link to view image]
not helpful

I beg to differ. You don’t look quite so scared this time. Much improved.

what so i should flip off everyone in school then??
that’s your Sage Advice???

How do you think I got through high school?
Just do it mentally. Or behind their backs.

———

 


 

“Since your ‘gift’ is still awfully far away, whatever it may be,” Goro taunts playfully while he digs around in his bag. “Why don't you open mine now? We have a certain amount of privacy afforded to us here.”

He gestures to the state of the train car they’re currently occupying as it rumbles smoothly down its tracks. The only other occupant is on the opposite end with headphones on.

Ren shrugs, so Goro pulls out an elaborately wrapped gift box and shoves it into his lap. Ren raises an eyebrow, then tears into it immediately with the speed of a cat… well, a cat ripping up paper.

“You put a newspaper in a box?” He teases when the gift is finally revealed.

“Shush. We had a deal not to spend any money on our presents.”

Ren smiles, and waves some of the ripped wrapping paper in Goro’s face. “So how much did you spend on the present-ation?”

“You didn’t specify that as a constraint,” Goro says, quietly pleased that Ren noticed the effort he’d put in. “That is your own fault.”

Ren sticks the big red bow on Goro’s head.

“Would you look at the goddamn present!?” He snaps, ripping the bow off and smacking it on top of Ren’s unruly mop instead.

The Daily– oh,” Ren reads. “This is my hometown paper. Stalker.”

Goro has always been a patient sort of person, but this is ridiculous. He growls in exasperation, jabs his finger into the story just to the side of the main feature:

Local teen’s conviction overturned following new evidence in Shido case

“I know you already decided not to return to your old school next year,” Goro says while Ren peers at the article, expression obscured. “But I thought you might still like a little revenge– which, if I may boast for a moment, is one of the many proficiencies I have acquired over the years.”

Ren carefully takes the paper out of the box, holds it up to his face. “They’re going to hate having this dug up again,” he murmurs, an extraordinarily vindictive, wicked grin spreading across his face. “Even if they don’t believe it. Which they won’t. You really didn’t have to pay money for this?”

“Oh, I have my contacts,” Goro preens. 

Specifically, Lala Escargot, who knows a reporter by the name of Ohya Ichiko, who apparently is enamored of Ren (as most people are) and would do anything for him, pro bono. But he’s certainly not about to admit that Ren did most of the work for his own gift.

“Thank you, Goro. I love it,” Ren says, placing the paper carefully back in its box and pulling Goro into a kiss just on this side of wildly inappropriate.

Goodness.

“Ah, ahem, you’re welcome.” Goro clears his throat again and tries to control the heat in his face and his… well, the person down the train car is either very polite or asleep. “Are we anywhere close to wherever it is we’re going? Are you ever going to tell me?”

“Nope,” Ren pushes up his glasses, expression pleased yet back to frustratingly unreadable besides.

The sun is low in the sky the time they reach their destination– the Miura Peninsula– and depart from the train. Ren drags him down streets and past shops and restaurants, hurrying along to somewhere else. Somewhere mysterious, just for Goro.

He keeps a firm hold on his hand the entire time. 

It’s nice.

Solid ground and asphalt melts into wooden planks, their shoes echoing and thumping across a boardwalk as they make their way closer and closer to the beach.

…The beach?

“Hey. Sit.” Ren tugs Goro down to the edge of the platform with him. Water– real ocean water, saltwater, waves– splash beneath their dangling feet.

He’s never been to the beach before. Not really. There have been cognitive worlds, mockeries and distortions, the ways in which Goro could pretend to be worldly without ever having left the city. He’s always been… too busy.

“I’m glad we made it in time,” Ren says. “I know it’s not Hawaii, and it’s kind of cold, but. I hope you like it.” Goro blinks at Ren in surprise– Ren with the ocean behind him, the fiery and brilliant colors of the sunset– and is struck with deja vu, for the first time in a long time.

In one of his lives, Goro just couldn’t help himself. He hate-stalked the members of the Phantom Thieves relentlessly, all of them, ever since they met in June, and no more frequently than that hellish time after the Medjed Op. He furiously pined (let’s be honest) after their leader who, from what he could glean from the others’ social media, was apparently having the time of his life on a beach in Hawaii with his friends, all while Goro was jeered at in the streets.

In another of his lives, Ren sent him those pictures himself. They were his lifeline back in those days, when he tore apart his mind and his heart every day just to stay alive and then stared at his phone and miserably and painfully healed those self-inflicted wounds every night. He’d clung to texts, photos, memories to keep some semblance of sanity– and that too-short glimpse of summer, with friends that he was still pretending weren’t friends. With Ren.

If you really do want to see a beach sunset we can make that happen.

“You broke the rules. You had to pay for the train fare,” Goro says quietly, as if raising his voice too loud would shatter the moment.

“Haru had extra tickets.”

She probably didn’t. He’s probably lying.

Or maybe she wanted to help, and he isn’t.

The sunset on the ocean (the ocean, the real ocean!) is beautiful… indescribable. Ren’s curls are fluttering gently in the breeze. The pictures he’d memorized so many months ago hadn’t revealed that part.

“You remembered,” Goro says. “That was… kind of you.” He’s finding it hard to swallow, hard to breathe. Why is Ren doing this? Why, why is he still here? Goro’s intelligent enough, self-aware enough to know what he is– he’s certainly not easy. He’s plotted against him and his friends, attacked them, been a drunken mess, cried in front of him like a child, and still Ren– god, holy shit, and now he’s fucking doing it again.

Goro’s eyes sting as he refuses to let his emotions get the better of him. “If you say. Anything. I will kill you. Again.”

“Hot,” Ren says immediately.

Goro glares at him, best he can under the circumstances. They shuffle closer together, taking comfort in their embrace against the cold ocean winds whipping around them.

Ren kisses him on the cheek as the sun disappears below the horizon. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

 


 

———
The Phantom Thieves

Fox: Does anyone remember what color paints I bought last week?
Fox: Morgana, Ryuji, Goro, you were with me at the time.

Mona: NO ! 😀

Why are you asking us?
Don’t you have them with you?

Skull: no they’re at my freaking house still
Skull: you left them here to obsorb the aura or whatever remember?

Absorb

Panther: turn your spellcheck back on omg

Fox: Ryuji what color?

Panther: how did you spell aura and not absorb

Skull: how about you spell shut up!!

They were yellow, if I remember correctly.

Mona: 🟨🟨🟨🟨🟨 LMOA

Fox: Oh! Yes. Excellent. Thank you.
Fox: Ryuji I need those today.

———

 


 

There comes a night, sometime in March, when Goro has a strange dream.

In his dream, he blinks up at an ethereal blue ceiling. He’s on a cot, in one of many open cages in a round room. He dreams Ren is there too, standing opposite him, hands in his pockets, just outside his own cage on the other side of the room.

Ren is looking at him. Waiting for him.

Goro is grateful.

He slides off his own cot and they walk toward each other, until they’re standing side by side in front of an ornate desk.

Goro dreams of a long-nosed man, a familiar face which haunted his nightmares for years, now turned benign. He dreams there’s a petite girl in a blue dress standing attentive to his side– this girl he knows.

“Magnificent,” Igor says.

“My dear Tricksters,” Lavenza says.

A shining card floats down between them before it splits into two copies– the same, but mirrored. Ren raises his right hand to take it. Goro raises his left.

“The last arcana you have taken hold of is The World. It is the willpower to stand in this world on your own, unswayed by no one. It’s hope toward a future, along with your friends and confidants who share the same belief– now, you will no longer be an existence that wanders alone…”

Goro takes hold of his card as Ren takes hold of his. He feels no different.

It’s only a ceremony: they already had it.

“You were truly remarkable guests.”

Igor disappears in a flash of light. Lavenza smiles fondly at them both, and then she’s gone as well. The room itself shines, bright white, shifting– changing into something new– and if he holds on just a little longer he could see what it–

Goro wakes up.

He reaches out for Ren but– ah, not tonight.

Tonight Goro is in his own room at the Niijima’s.

He turns over onto his other side, stretches his legs, pulls up his sheets, snuggles further down into his pillow. It’s nice to have a bed to himself sometimes, especially a real bed, but he thinks tomorrow night he’ll steal away to lumpy pillows, worn sheets, and flimsy milk crates.

Tomorrow night, he’ll be with Ren.

It’s been five months since Goro’s last assignment. Four months since his last drink. Three months since his last trip to the Metaverse, three months since he fought anyone or anything, three months since life or death, three months of waking up, passing his day, and falling asleep.

His justice, his actions, his mistakes, the consequences of it all– he’d carry them with him always. But amazingly, for three months, life has been… calm.

It’s just another night, sometime in March, and Goro drifts off again.

He dreams of a butterfly.

 


 

———
Ren 🖤

The plan is to drive out around noon
Ann and Makoto are running a little late
But you should still come over now cause I miss you :)
Are you ready?

———

 


 

“24, 25… yes, 26 pages!”

Goro pauses for dramatic effect, grinning at reactions he’s garnered from the others strewn about the cafe. Morgana is laughing so hard he’s hiccuping. “That makes twenty and six total pages on the laundry services of this very fine institution!”

“How does–” Ryuji hacks, sounds for a moment like he might actually die, “who the eff’s thinkin’ about laundry when choosing a college!?”

Haru giggles, clearly more affected by the reactions of the others than anything else. “Goro, do they offer dry-cleaning?”

He diligently flips through the glossy, full-page photographs– the thing is honestly closer to a coffee-table book than a brochure– depicting students cheerfully pouring detergent and carrying baskets. And holds up, of course, a two-page spread on the available dry cleaning lockers and their connected app.

Why!?” Ryuji yells.

“Oh lovely, be sure to add that to your list.”

There exists between them an unspoken agreement that if Haru asks Goro to jump, Goro will not ask how high. He will simply, immediately and with no questions asked, jump the highest he possibly can.

So he writes “dry cleaning” in the pros column and feels kind of stupid.

Ryuji and Morgana start arguing with her that there are certainly more important things to consider– such as the dining halls, and the vending machines, and the dining halls. Yusuke sighs wearily at it all and curls further into his sketchpad.

“Hey,” Ren murmurs, leaning over the counter with a conspiratorial air. He’s not wearing his glasses today, which is new and… distracting. “Are you getting any closer?”

“I’m afraid not.” He’s still entirely undecided on both majors and colleges. The mountain of acceptance letters and enticing pamphlets to his side are no help at all. “Sometimes I wish I were a more ordinary candidate. Having so many options is beginning to cause me some anxiety.”

Ren gives him his you’re full of shit eyebrow twitch. “The paradox of choice, poor poor Goro.”

“I am allowed to complain,” he grins back, all teeth.

“Well you have plenty of time for that. You’ve got a whole year to waste while you wait for me to finish up at Shujin.” Ren’s wink is so powerful without the fucking glasses– who the hell has eyelashes like that in real life?

“And when did I say anything about waiting for you~”

Ren slaps a hand to his chest in exaggerated affront. “Well, I suppose you won’t want to escape to my fancy new apartment then.”

Oh god. “Don’t joke, the Niijima’s are relentless,” he grimaces, glad for a moment that Makoto hasn’t yet joined them. Goro can deal with their tight and regimented schedules– loves them, actually– but they also have him… taking breaks . To eat meals. With them. At the dinner table. It’s such a waste of time. And Makoto asks him about his day. And if Sae catches him up too late she makes him go to sleep . “I can’t believe my high school boyfriend is going to have his own place and I’m stuck living with my former coworker.”

A bright bolt of orange appears– apparently bored with bothering the others. “Sojiro will never be over Ren’s betrayal,” Futaba says. “No more sad attic boy at his beck and call.”

There’s a noncommittal grunt from the direction of the kitchen. They all freeze, and wait.  

“…I’m still working here!” Ren yells towards the back to appease the man currently allowing them to take over his cafe. “Mementos money won’t last forever, after all.”

“Yeah but you know that’s different from literally living upstairs,” Futaba adds unhelpfully.  

“Isn’t Morgana taking over the attic?”

“Mm, but–”

“Damn cat is useless!” Sakura shouts. “Can’t even wash a dish properly!”

I’m not a cat!

“Mwehehe…”

Ah. He sees what she’s trying to do now. He leans over to her as she cackles and mutters under his breath, “it’s not going to work.

Sh!

You can’t keep him here forever. Sometimes change is good,” he tries.

“Shut up, no it’s not!” Futaba stomps her foot. “Ugh! You’re so annoying. Stop trying to brother me.”

…Critical hit.

“Wha– I–!?”

He’s been knocked down by friendly fire, he needs someone to help him up. His teammate just sticks her tongue out at him, clearly pleased with her work, and then slips away, back to the kitchen where her adoptive father is still stooped over a large pot of curry.

That’s the first time she’s ever even alluded that whole… thing. The first time either of them, any of them, have broached their topic since that first difficult week.

Okay. Okay, so it’s on the table now. Interesting. Good to know.

Shit, Ren is smiling at him.

“I’m– ahem, I’m glad Morgana will have a more permanent place to stay. Though I’ll miss that dusty old attic,” Goro says quickly to change the subject, snatching up his pen so he can flip it around his fingers.

Eyebrow twitch. Caught. “No you won’t.”

He chuckles, and is surprised by the truth when it slips out: “well, maybe a little.”

No eyebrow twitch this time.

Ren is called over by Ryuji to settle some sort of bet, so Goro resumes his idle browsing through brochures and pondering and scrolling through social media. Not much worth paying attention to there.

———
Shirogane 

Have you received docs Y/N
Respond ASAP pls

Yes, I got them.
You should have received a notification that they were downloaded so you don’t have to confirm with me every single time.

Send thoughts by EOD

———

Goro rolls his eyes– always the same with Shirogane. Whatever. Freelance (secret) detective work pays enough for him to not have to beg Sae for an allowance of all things, which makes putting up with the idiosyncrasies of the lesser Detective Prince entirely worth it.

“Oh!” Haru yelps, standing from her booth and holding up her phone. “Ann-chan and Mako-chan are here!”

Ann and Makoto have arrived indeed– with an absolute travesty of a van. Goro and the former Phantom Thieves pile around the thing, parked a few blocks away from Leblanc. It’s smoking horribly.

“Mona-chan, do you think you could take a look?”

“Why me!?” Morgana pouts. “Just because I could turn into one doesn’t mean I know anything about the insides!”

“Sooo ya can’t fix it?” Ryuji jeers.

Ten minutes later they’re on the road. Nine of them, piled into one small van, alongside all the gear they need for a day at the beach. They put on some truly terrible music, and proceed to shout and laugh and screech over it at each other anyway.

It’s perfect.

Goro watches them all from his seat to the side, squished up between Ren and the window. By the time they get out of the city he’s started quietly laughing at it all, and he can’t seem to stop.

Ren pokes him on his side, then points up silently to a panel on the roof of the van.

The two of them can just fit in the opening, with a little wiggle room to spare. The view outside the window was good but this– the rolling hills, the sparkling water, sun on his face, wind whipping around them as they speed down the road… someone inside the van is doing a bad job of sneakily tying his shoelaces together and Goro bursts out into laughter again, loud and hard.

“I haven’t felt like this since…!” Since? Since the height of his fame. Since he put a gun to Amamiya Ren’s head. Since he felt so powerful and free– spiraling wildly out of control, with no one to catch him when he inevitably fell. He thought that was the only way to achieve true freedom. He thought relying on other people would hold him down, hold him back. “I never wanted this,” Goro tells Ren, the trees, the wind. “I would never have let myself want this.”

Freedom, true freedom– it’s terrifying, in a way. Ha, the paradox of choice indeed.

Ren takes his hand, gives it a reassuring squeeze.

“This world is what we make it,” Goro says. “The future too, right?”

His friends, his family, the bonds in his heart. The world– inside the city and out, all of it waiting for him to explore. And Amamiya Ren, his unkempt curls flying in the wind, clear eyes fixed on the horizon, standing beside him.

“I finally know what I want mine to be.”

Ren turns to him and smiles. “Tell me.”