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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.

Chapter Text

Worthless trash!!

Goro absolutely does not flinch when Shido’s palms slam down on his desk.

“This piece of shit went and turned himself in to the police! Do you realize how many of my people this will expose? Do you realize how much time and money I’m going to have to waste to clean up your mess?”

Goro didn’t think he would be here, in this moment. He’d started to think that maybe the Phantom Thieves failed, that something had gone wrong this time. Weeks had passed since they’d done… whatever it is that they do. Weeks.

And then, with exams only three days away, he was called into the office by a furious Niijima Sae.

And then he was called into the office by a furious Shido Masayoshi.

“Why, Akechi, do I keep you around if you keep failing me?”

His mind kicks into overdrive, boosted by adrenaline, but all it’s good for is think-think- thinking himself in circles. Circles: he thought he’d done well, he’s seen them in action, he has leads on their identities, he could have stopped them if he wanted to, he didn’t think he needed to, Kaneshiro was a small-time nobody, he’s seen them, he knows who they are, he thought he’d done well.

He should have done better.

“I’ll take care of them, sir, before they can–”

“No.”

…No?

Goro lives in fear of only one thing: Shido deciding he’s had enough. That Goro has stopped being useful, that Shido judged him to be more trouble than he’s worth, it all coming to an end anyway.

So of course, he immediately falls into the worst-case scenario, feels his heart stop as everything comes crashing down around him.

“Shido-san, I can fix this, please–

“How will you fix this, Akechi?” Shido demands more than asks, turning his chair away as if Goro is nothing. He is nothing, he’s nothing until he fixes it.

How will he fix this? How will he fix this… Goro hears the telltale snap of a lighter from behind the back of Shido’s chair, decides it’s safe enough to close his eyes for one second to think.

He could tell Shido that if they just waited for the Phantom Thieves to announce their next target, Goro could rush through whatever world again and take them out, for real this time. It would be no problem, it would be easy, there would be no trace of what happened to them, all eight of them. He could say that to his worthless father, but he knows it won’t be good enough.

For Goro to become useful again he’s going to have to elevate Shido’s status further, and faster, and… and he’ll have to sacrifice his own status in the process. Because Shido will want to see him punished.

He’s still sketching the plan out in his head when he opens his eyes and says to the back of Shido’s chair: “we can use them, sir– we can leverage the support they’re amassing for your gain…”

 


 

“Could I get more of the chocolate on top?” Goro asks, hoping his tone doesn’t come across as too desperate. The crepe stand employee obliges, pouring more chocolate drizzle on what is already a sugar-laden monstrosity and a metaphor for the mess that is his own life.

“Thank you,” Goro says through the white noise in his ears that has persisted since Shido’s office.

He congratulates himself on being conscious enough to remember to pay and grabs the crepe, carefully balancing its precariously-stacked toppings. He walks nine steps away from the stand and immediately collides with another human being.

“Oh my!!” The human being exclaims while Goro is still trying to process the disaster that’s just happened.

Besides the disaster he’d created for himself on the third floor of the National Diet Building.

Besides the disaster that is his life.

His shirt is ruined.

“My sincerest apologies!” This stupid girl has her hands up to her face, staring at him in shock. Chocolate would suit her expensive-looking mint-colored summer dress more than it does his white shirt. “Please, allow me to help you!”

Goro blinks. “I don’t see how you could even begin to–”

“I know just what to do,” she chirps too cheerily, running away to the nearest food stand. Goro just stands there, because he’s not sure what one is supposed to do when one is covered in chocolate and ice cream in the middle of the city.

The girl scurries back, shoves a bunch of napkins at him, and uses the rest to daintily pick up his murdered crepe from the ground. Goro wipes his collarbone where some stray vanilla ice cream settled, pats futilely at the mess on his shirt. Then the napkins are grabbed away from him and replaced with a tiny hand on his wrist, pulling him away. Goro barely remembers his briefcase before he’s dragged off to…?

“Dry cleaning!” The girl yells behind her as she marches forward, “your clothes will look brand new, trust me!”

It’s all he can do to stay on his feet as he’s dragged through crowds. The shock still fresh enough that his brain feels as if it’s running two minutes late on all responses. Before he can decide if he should pull his arm away from her grip, she’s leading him into a shop and running up to the counter.

“Take your shirt off, please!”

“E-excuse me?”

The girl smiles at him like she didn’t just ask him to strip, “can’t have your clothes cleaned if you’re still wearing them– I’ll pay, I insist!”

Now, this is the part where Goro would gracefully talk his way out of the situation, making sure all parties were satisfied while his shirt remained on.

But he’s had a day. And this all happened very quickly. And he doesn’t have a lot of summer shirts to spare. And he really likes this tie.

Goro sighs. Pauses. Then finally slides off his tie and unbuttons his shirt, careful to avoid the bits of still-wet chocolate syrup. Hands them all to the man behind the counter and tries not to feel self-conscious about standing in the middle of a shop with a random girl in his undershirt. His undershirt which isn’t an undershirt at all, but a ratty old commemorative t-shirt from a school musical production he danced in which used to be four sizes too large and is now one size too small, turned inside-out so the faded print doesn’t show.

His whole life is a joke.

“We’ll have this done in ninety minutes, sir,” the shopkeeper says, as if it matters.

“Hmm… do you have anywhere you need to be?” The girl asks him, “I can run out and buy you another shirt. There’s a shop just across–”

“Who are you?” Goro interrupts because he needs to regain some semblance of control here.

“Oh!” The girl exclaims (again, she does that quite a lot), and bows, short curls bouncing as she does. “Okumura Haru, I apologize for not introducing myself to you earlier. And I’m very sorry for everything else, of course.”

“Akechi Goro,” he returns, bowing slightly as well. The girl’s name might be familiar, but Goro can’t quite place where he’d heard it before. He doesn’t care. In fact, he’s already forgotten it.

Introductions over with, he collapses into one of the rusted folding chairs near the door and rests his head on his hands. He’d check his phone, but seeing the notifications makes him feel sick. They’re all going to hate him, abandon him. And that’s if his plan turns out well.

How is he going to fix this? Not the Phantom Thieves, he obviously already has a plan for that, a plan that will cost him the only thing that’s brought him a modicum of joy. How is he going to fix Shido’s opinion of him?

“Are you okay?”

Goro glances to his right, where the girl has made herself comfortable on the other folding chair. Great.

“Am I making a face?” He laughs her off, plays it like she’s an idiot for asking, “I get lost in thought when I’m working on a particularly tough case, don’t take it to mean anything.”

“A case? Are you a detective?”

“I am. You haven’t heard of me?”

“No,” she says. Her huge eyes and proper posture are reminiscent of a doll. Her skin is too perfect. It’s creepy. And Goro doesn’t believe her, his eyes narrowing in suspicion as she continues, “would talking through what you’re thinking help?”

Goro turns away from her again. Take the hint, he begs internally, and says, “I’m afraid I can’t share any details, so… no. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

Please take the hint.

“I thought I could keep you company while you wait! It’s the least I can do for causing you so much trouble.”

“That’s not necessary.”

Please, please, please take the hint.

“Oh, I insist!”

Motherfucker.

If this girl is, in fact, some sort of stalker attempting an extremely misguided plan to long-con him into a meet-cute romance… she’s long passed the “cute” part and instead gone straight into “torture.” Goro weighs how rude it would be to simply up and leave the shop.

But he really likes that tie, and he’d have to ration frozen dinners for weeks to pay for a new one…

“If you can’t talk about your case,” the girl says, undeterred by his silence, “may I ask for your thoughts on a little something that’s been bothering me? I think the viewpoint of a neutral third-party would be a great help, especially from someone my age.”

Goro sighs and waves a hand noncommittally for her to continue. She does, immediately.

“My father is the owner of a multi-country business empire and he has promised my hand in marriage to a man for the sake of his own wealth and political career. I have to find a way to break off the engagement despite my father’s wishes, not just because this man is everything I despise and because I fear for my safety around him, but because I’ve also accidentally fallen in love with another woman.”

That’s… wait.

What?

That… can’t be real. It’s a plot straight out of a ridiculous made-for-TV movie. Goro blinks at her. Her little brows are furrowed, dainty mouth a straight line. She looks serious. “You’re serious?”

She smiles at him again, and now that Goro’s paying attention he can see the cunning edge sharpening the corners, the glint in her eyes. Oh. Interesting.

He’s just beginning to figure out the depth to which he’s misjudged this girl while she elaborates, “I may have overshared a little– please excuse me if I’m wrong, but you seemed like you needed a distraction. And I trust you.”

“Trust me? You don’t know me at all, I’m a stranger to you,” Goro says as he puts a hand to his chin and leans forward to scrutinize her more closely. Her expensive outfit, perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails… they all corroborate her claim of being from a wealthy family. Shit, he wished he remembered her name. He needs to get better at that.

“You wouldn’t tell me anything about the case you’re working on. You’re good at keeping secrets… it’s part of your job, isn’t it?”

Goro stares at her in amazement as he puts the pieces together. He can’t believe he was so taken in by her facade, so thoroughly tricked– by a woman, no less. “You lied,” he says, awe plain in his voice. “You know exactly who I am, and you ran into me on purpose.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that…” she looks away, the picture of innocence and coyness, just like a femme fatale playing at damsel-in-distress. Just like one of those old black and white detective movies.

Goro is enraptured.

“You owe me a crepe,” he proclaims, satisfied enough. “So, your father promised you in exchange for political favor– is this written down anywhere? Any binding contract?”

“No,” she says with a small shake of her head.

“You’re certain?”

The girl nods, “very certain.”

“Well then,” Goro takes a moment to think, formulates an elaborate plan for the second time in one day, says “then here’s what we’re going to do–”

The two of them end up chatting in earnest, throwing ideas, questions, theories back and forth from rusted folding chairs in a dingy dry cleaners until, all of a sudden, Goro’s clothes are done.

They don’t manage to iron out every detail– this is a bit more complicated than a conspiracy to manipulate the masses into voting a particular man into the highest office in the country. There are family dynamics involved. And feelings that can’t be hurt. Goro was never very good at those things.

He leaves the shop with a sincere promise to stay in touch and a new name in his phone: Okumura Haru. Pleasant, proper, cunning, heiress to a fortune, puppet of her father, a third-year at Shujin Academy of all places. It might have been the longest conversation Goro’s ever had that wasn’t about work or “work.”

And he was fine with it. He’s even fine with the possibility of her following through on contacting him again. As long as she doesn’t get annoying about it. Plus, she owes him a crepe.

 


 

Goro takes a moment to yawn while the cut-rate journalist in front of him scribbles in her notes. He usually loves interviews, but it’s been quite a long day. Getting makeup done, trying on clothes, being poked and prodded into all sorts of different poses. He skipped lunch so he could study for exams, so he might be starving to death as well.

Another contribution to his exhaustion: Takamaki Ann is here, but not for the feature like he is. Not to be on the cover. Just for a little modeling.

But of course Goro would accidentally run into every Phantom Thief except the one he’s trying so desperately to find. The girl kept attempting to talk to him in between the few shoots they had together, but Goro managed to find an excuse to escape each time. 

“I have to admit, Akechi-kun, I’m surprised we could get you to agree to this! You could have a career in modeling if all that detective stuff doesn’t work out.” The journalist winks at him. She needs to practice that wink in the mirror, it isn’t as cute as she thinks it is.

“I’m simply such a fan,” Goro lies. “I couldn’t say no.” That part is the truth. Shido wants him to boost his image as much as possible before he falls. For the drama. Goro despises him.

He elaborates because that isn’t enough of an answer: “just because I work hard doesn’t mean I can’t also dress to arrest.” Goro winks as a gift to this journalist, to show her how’s it done. 

She blushes. “Akechi-kun, how about you tell us one surprising fact about yourself? Something our readers would never guess!”

Goro pretends to think, then recites his prepared answer: “I don’t believe many people know that I’m licensed to perform first-aid and CPR if required. I went through the training and got my certification just last year.”

“How heroic~,” the woman coos. “Does some fortunate soul out there owe their life to Akechi Goro, Detective Prince?”

“Oh, no!” Goro laughs, waving a hand. “No one has ever needed my assistance, thank goodness. I doubt they would be grateful, CPR is quite violent.”

The journalist chuckles back and marks something on her notepad. “Now Akechi-kun, I must ask– all your fans are clamoring to know– what is your type? Please, you must tell us!” 

Goro is going to kill this woman. That was not on his list of approved questions.

“That’s a private–”

“Just give us a hint! You’re oh-so mysterious~”

Fine. He has an answer ready for this sort of thing. Isn’t the first time an over-eager journalist has tried to pry his preferences out of him like he’s some sort of idol.

Though… he is kind of an idol now, isn’t he? How thrilling. 

“Alright, alright,” Goro chuckles amicably, “Though I admit I haven’t put much thought into this. I’m far too busy with school and my cases, which is why I prefer someone quiet, who knows when to keep their distance.”

The journalist’s placid smile turns predatory, and she says, “come on Akechi-kun, we’ve heard that line before. Give us something new!” 

Fuck. Caught. “I really can’t–” 

“Pretty please? Our readers are absolutely dying to know!” 

Goro’s mind goes blank, so when he blurts out, “they make a good cup of coffee?” he’s not even sure if it’s true.

And he immediately regrets it. Now he’s going to have random girls shoving coffee in his face for weeks. But at least this nosy journalist seems satisfied. She thanks him, asks for a five-minute break, then calls out for someone to grab her a snack. Goro’s stomach growls. Maybe he has enough time to run out to that food stand outside and–

“Akechi!”

One of the well-dressed managers that lurked around the studio grabs his shoulder, far too familiar. It isn’t until he smiles like a shark that Goro realizes he’s seen him before. This man is one of his.

“Good to see you again, kid! Turning into quite the lady-killer, eh?” Yes, wow, Goro mocks to himself as he laughs along with this overgrown moron, such a clever joke. The man leans in conspiratorially but stills says at a normal volume, “you’re coming out with us after we wrap up this up, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Goro immediately answers, because he can’t say no to this either. He can’t say no to anything.

“Excellent, excellent! Wouldn’t be the same without you,” the man claps him on the back, Goro is nearly knocked off his chair with the force of it.

His break is over, no food acquired. Goro is exhausted, but all he has to get through is just a few more questions, thank yous and farewells, and a brief appearance at whatever skeezy den of iniquity Shido’s Conspiracy will be occupying tonight.

He’s not going to do anything this time. His exams are starting in the morning and he has to be responsible. Surely they’ll understand.

 


 

So he had a few martinis.

He had to do something, Goro defends to himself as he meanders through Shinjuku. It’s not like Shido Masayoshi’s band of loser sycophants would want a sober person hanging around while they were getting all fucked up in various unseemly ways. 

The club didn’t have snacks, the kitchen was closed (so stupid), and he was starving. Martinis come with olives. Delicious olives.

Goro has nearly made it back to the station, almost home free, when a torrential downpour starts, of course. Way too hard of a rain for winter but whatever, just his luck. He ducks under the nearest covering he can find and plans to wait it out.

But then he gets bored, and he’s still so hungry, and there’s a bar right behind him! Now there’s some luck. He doesn’t have his people to bribe the waitstaff into serving him, but it’s midnight in Shinjuku, so it’ll probably be fine.

If it’s not fine, who gives a shit? He’s a celebrity now. 

Goro steps into the bar, absently combing through his slightly-dampened hair. It’s a fine place. Dark, not a lot of people. Perfect. 

He sits the mostly empty counter and thinks that actually, he feels like another martini instead of dinner. He’s feeling pretty damn good, and he wants to keep it going. 

Then a large glass of water is slammed down in front of him. Goro flinches in his barstool and hiccups.

“Drink up, kid. This is all you’re getting,” the bartender says, an imposing figure dressed in impressively coherent and tasteful drag. Goro is a little amazed, staring after her as she walks away and grumbles, “damn lucky the reporter isn’t here tonight.”

His stomach growls while he takes a sip of his water. Well, he could care less for the bartender’s attitude, but he does need to wait out the rain somewhere. For want of something to do Goro fumbles his phone out of his pocket and notices a few new texts from Oracle.

———
Oracle

sup
i need you to tell me if our guy has an external plugged into his comp
i don’t see any other volumes here but they could have hidden it and it’s a huge pain in the ass to figure it out myself
easier to get your eyeballs on the setup

do I have to right now?

wowww you’re up late
wasn’t expecting a response till morning!
whatcha doin?
exam studyin? sucks to suck 😝 

I’ll do it tmew.

well since you’re up anyway lemme find you some pics of external hard drives so you know what to look for

*Tnrw
*Tomorow
*Tomorrow

———

Fuck, his stupid keyboard is being so fucking stupid. Wait for one second before hitting send to check if it fucked it up, idiot. He wasn’t this much of a mess with Shido and the rest of them, was he? …Shit, was he?

No. No way, he was acting totally normal. Nobody could tell anything was different. It’s not like he’s drunk or anything. And it’s not like it’s possible to misspell stuff when speaking out loud.

Speaking… talking… what did they talk about? There was so much talking.

Hey, Goro-kun, remember Robin Hood? No no no, dude, I’m serious, it was the gayest shit I’ve ever seen– hey Goro-kun, remember ~Rooobin Hoooood~” He’d laughed with them, right? He has a reputation to uphold. Hadn’t he laughed?

He remembers now: he’d laughed, then asked that scientist very politely to call him Akechi… he thinks he was polite about it. He was probably polite about it. He’s always very polite.

They all think he’s so great too. He gets all the girls and doesn’t want any of them. Hands them off, like delicious bait on a shiny, sharp lure. That’s probably why those pieces of shit keep him around. Well, that and other reasons.

Goro stares at his distorted face, reflected in the glass of water in front of him. Contemplates resting his head on the disgusting bar counter. Wonders if it stopped raining yet.

And then remembers very suddenly that he’d been in the middle of texting someone.

———
Oracle

are you having a stroke

Haha.

no srsly
👀
is this akechi
did someone steal your phone
tell me something only we both would know

No

no what?
which part?
who is this?
hellooo????
i will turn on your camera and check i stg

———

FUCK.

Goro perks up in his seat, instantly awake again. He types as fast as he can to stop her– he’s not sure if Futaba can remotely turn on his camera but he absolutely cannot risk it. It’s embarrassing enough that she witnessed all those spelling errors, what if she saw him here, in a bar?

———
Oracle

No don’t.
It’s me.
I sweat.
Swear.
You think I’m as clown.
🤡🤡
See that’s the secret.

wtf is wrong with you???

Nothing I’m fine.
it’s just my keyboard.

it’s not your fucking keyboard

It is
I can do that.
No problem cause they think I’m so greta
So were good.

WHAT THE FUCJ
WHY ARE YOU IN SHINJUKU

———

The screen of his phone changes suddenly– messaging app replaced by a phone call. An unlisted number. It’s her

He growls and threads his fingers through his hair to do something with his furious energy. He wants to smash his phone on the ground. Or dunk it in his cup of water. Then he could throw it in the face of that rude bartender, storm out… no, he should just leave now before he ends up causing a scene.

God damn it.

Goro locks his phone screen even as it continues to vibrate and shoves it in his pocket. Why did he text her back in the first place? He should have kept to himself like he always did, then no one would know and no one could judge him and–

Goro looks up in horror as a phone behind the bar begins to ring.

She wouldn’t.

“Calm down, sweetie,” the bartender says after she picks up.

She would. Goro hates her.

The bartender tucks the receiver between her ear and shoulder, then chuckles low and raspy while she washes a glass and glances over at Goro. Goro wants nothing more than to disappear. “Him? Oh yeah, he’s here. Yes– yes he’s fine. No, no one’s trying to take advantage…” 

Goro crosses his arms on the bar counter and angrily rests his head on them, turned away so the bartender can’t see his face. He’s so pissed and tired that he can’t even think. Who the fuck does she think she is, anyway? 

He busies himself with coming up with names he can call Oracle, ways in which he can exact his revenge against them. All of his clever insults fly out the window when they text him again.

———
Oracle

i just had to talk to an npc on a PHONE i hope you’re happy

Fuck off

please go home

FUCK OFF
Leave me alone
I can take care of myself
You don’t have to pretend be worried about me were not friends
and stop stalking me
if you don’t leave me alone ill fucking make you

———

What are people good for, except nagging you and embarrassing you and weighing you down? Goro doesn’t need anyone, he’s doing just fine on his own.

He closes his text messenger, flips furiously and aimlessly around the other apps on his phone. Pouts and sips more of his water, pointedly ignoring the watchful eye of the bartender behind the counter. He’ll leave when he’s good and ready. He doesn’t have to be taken care of like a child. They can’t rush him out, he’s fine, he’s just taking his time.

He keeps checking his phone, but no more texts from Oracle appear.

He must have scared them off. Good. 

Goro does eventually make it back to his apartment, even if he doesn’t quite remember leaving the bar or most of the journey. He locks his door, manages to get himself out of his clothes, stumbles across the bathroom in his boxer briefs to brush his teeth. It’s somewhere between the bottom and top left molars that his stupid senseless brain makes tears pour down his cheeks in waves, and they don't stop even after he finally collapses into a heap on top of his sheets.

Goro rolls onto his side and blinks through the haze at his message history with Oracle. They still haven’t texted back. Which is fine, he reminds himself. This is what he wanted. He chokes on a sob, chucks his phone at the wall. 

He feels sick. He feels stupid and worthless and tired. He can’t shake the feeling of having fucked something up, messed up terribly and irrevocably, but his head is spinning too much to figure out what exactly it was that he ruined. Probably everything.

He curls into a ball. Clutches his pillow tight to his chest, buries his face into it. Tries to breathe carefully and evenly so he can stay in his bed, which is so much more comfortable than the bathroom floor. It works, and the tears stop too, eventually. 

His thoughts are so jumbled up, so scattered, that a voice that doesn’t belong to him slips in. A memory. An old heartache.

“Akechi…”

He shivers on his bed, or in an open doorway with a winter wind at his back. It keeps blowing his hair in his eyes, but he stays just a moment longer.

Just one more second.

“Akechi…”

It’s cold and lonely in his room, except for the feather-light touch of a hand around the bare skin of his wrist. He knows exactly what is being offered to him, knows what he could have if he could break the chains binding him and fall backward into wanting arms.

He doesn’t want to leave.

“Akechi…

He wants to stay here, stay forever, because the draft coming from the open window in his empty apartment is making him curl so tightly in on himself that his muscles are already growing sore. Because he didn’t know how alone he was before they met, and that knowledge ruined him. 

If they’d met before everything maybe it could have been enough. Maybe he would have stayed. Maybe, maybe, maybe doesn’t matter, because he has to win.

So he shakes his head, trembles against his sheets, pulls his hand away, walks out of Leblanc for the last time, alone again, alone, alone, alone, and that’s why–

That’s why–

That’s why.

Goro flails awake at the sound of a loud BANG!

He looks around his room to figure out what fell or exploded, and then immediately stops when the room continues to spin. His stomach lurches.

Fuck, he feels so fucking terrible. 

It’s just after 5 AM. July 13th.

FUCK, he has a fucking exam today! 

Goro flies out of bed, teeters and stumbles from room to room as he prepares for school. He takes a quick shower to wash off the club-smell, brushes his teeth again, swallows a handful of pills, covers up the circles under his eyes. Leans his forehead against his cold mirror and tries not to vomit. Wastes a good five minutes frantically searching for his phone before he finds it on the floor underneath his bed, for some goddamn reason.

And his phone isn’t working properly, at least not at first, because at some point last night Goro must have accidentally switched it to airplane mode. He flips the setting off and watches in horrified awe as messages roll in.

Oracle hadn’t left him after all.

He should have realized they were the type to never stop talking. That it wouldn’t be that easy to scare them off. The enormous backlog of texts told him they’d yelled at him for being a “stupid drunk idiot child dumbass,” an “ANGERY BOI i’m soooo scared bark bark bark you’re ALL BARK,” and a few others of the sort.

airplane mode doesn’t turn off your GPS you absolute fucking fool,” came before an insult-filled narration of his journey to his apartment, all the way from the bar. Especially after he’d apparently gotten off at the wrong station. 

Before he knows it Goro has read the texts through too many times. His eyes linger on some more than others: the gaps between insults where it seems like heartless, annoying, prickly Oracle was worried about him. It’s keeping him awake, he reasons, smiling wide and genuine even as the barista that serves him his terrible to-go coffee draws a heart and her number next to his name. 

And he doesn’t fail his exams– aces every single one, of course. Even half-conscious, over-caffeinated, and fighting back bile, Akechi Goro is a goddamn winner.

 


 

It wasn’t long after his exams finished that it happened.

Goro was at the office until nightfall, cataloging the locations of his victims when they went berserk for a report. He could have left it for the morning but he found it easier to do this sort of work when no one was around.

So it was late when he finished and left, and late when he was traversing Shibuya’s underground walkway to get home. And it was so crowded, filled to the brim with city folk and tourists, all celebrating the summer. This wasn’t the most impressive fireworks night of the week but Goro had seen the weather reports and tonight was supposed to be especially pleasant.

He was making his way through the crowds, doing his best not to brush against intricate updos or step on sandaled feet. He looked down, lifting his briefcase and maneuvering carefully around a woman’s small Shiba Inu, and that’s why he bumped into someone coming from the opposite direction.

“Excuse me–” Goro had said, tone not quite as polite as the words. He’d looked up to see what sort of idiot walked into him. And that’s when it happened.

To say that time stops, or whatever– it’s something worse than a cliche at this point. As is the idea that every other person in the room disappears. One of the most overused ones Goro has heard involves lightning strikes, thunderbolts, some sort of heart-stopping phenomenon. Anything that makes one say inexplicably and for no logical reason: this person. This person is something. 

Goro doesn’t believe in it. He never has. 

And yet here he stands. Time stopped.

He has evidence: he could feel the stuttering lurch of the ground beneath his feet when the Earth stopped turning. The sudden shift in gravity distracted him from whatever phenomenon occurred that made everyone else in the city vanish.

And the strangest of all, lightning had somehow found its way from the empty sky of a pleasant evening into the middle of a covered underground walkway, to strike him directly in the heart. It doesn’t hurt as much as he imagined it would. It doesn’t hurt, but the electricity from the bolt pours into every nerve ending, every cell, every molecule of his body. It tells him inexplicably and for no logical reason: this person. This person is something.

You… Goro thinks, then doesn’t think anything coherent at all. His eyes map out the person’s face, scanning it, memorizing it as fast as he can, even though… even though it’s missing something. Something around the eyes. And he knows something is missing because, because… you!  

It’s Ren.

It’s Amamiya goddamn Ren, right in front of him, close enough to touch. Just unrecognizable enough without his glasses, staring back at him, mirroring Goro in more ways than one: the shocked expression, parted lips, flushed cheeks, the rapid flickering of his dark grey eyes taking in as much of what he can see as quickly as possible.  

Amamiya Ren, you–  

Every nerve ending, every cell, every molecule of Goro’s body is screaming at him, his chest is tight, his hands are shaking. Something is leaking out of the vice holding his heart, a feeling: growing wild, out of control, even as he attempts to give it a name.

You–

Time restarts. People reappear. His heart is released. It all becomes too much.

Goro snaps. 

You!!” 

Heads around them turn, sharp eyes widen even further, and all Goro can think now is good, GOOD, because he wants a reaction, he wants him to hurt because the constant fury he feels under his skin has never been so close to bursting out. His briefcase falls to the floor with a thud, making one of the kids in the group Amamiya was leading jump and squeak. 

Amamiya himself is frozen. He stutters, “I–,” takes a step back. Retreating. Losing.

In his retreat he looks to his left, to his friends, Sakamoto, Takamaki, so many others, then barely glances back at Goro, like Goro isn’t even worth his attention. Of course not, not when he has so many friends. The unexplainable hurt Goro feels is the first thing to cut through his unexplainable rage.

“I have to go,” Amamiya finally says in a rush, so quickly that the way his voice cracks at the end is surely all in Goro’s imagination.

He can’t– he can’t leave. Why would he leave? Panic replaces hurt replaces fury, the snarl he didn’t realize was contorting his face melts away, and Goro tries, “no, wait–”

An unintelligible chorus of questions drown him out and the blonde, Takamaki, steps toward them. “Ren,” she says, and Ren retreats further back. 

“I have to…” Amamiya repeats. Brilliant eyes shine even brighter and then shut tight as he turns, rushes away, disappears into the crowd.

“Ren, wait!” Takamaki yells, following after him.

He’s gone. 

It all happened so fast. Goro stands stuck, rooted to the ground. He was there. He was right there. Goro could have– he should have…

“Akechi-kun?” 

It’s Okumura Haru in front of him now. Here too, because of course she is. Her presence in the same space that Amamiya Ren just occupied makes it seem all the more empty.

“We made a deal,” Goro explains, not to her, realizes that this is why he was so upset even as he speaks the words. “He promised.”

“Promised what?” Someone else asks as if it were their business. They were there anyway, all of them, why the hell are they asking–

“Akechi, what did he promise?”

... 

Oh good god, what the hell is wrong with him?

It was only a promise to speak more often, for Goro to teach Amamiya to make deductions in return. A thinly-veiled excuse for Goro to tabs on him, so of course the leader of the Phantom Thieves would do his best to get out of it. Why did that make him so fucking angry

Goro comes back to himself, realizes with horror just how many kids there are in this group, all looking at him. Realizes most of them are dressed in yukata, for a night out, which Goro has managed to completely disrupt. Realizes his unseemly outburst has also managed to gather the attention of some bystanders.

Shit.

Goro rearranges his face into a smile, as easy as breathing, fluffs his hair for bonus points. “Oh, it’s nothing!” He doesn’t know if his response makes sense in the context of their conversation, he just has to get out of here.

A few of the nosy bystanders seem to have lost interest now that order returned to the world. Now the rest of them– 

“Okumura, you should let your friend know that it’s awfully suspicious to run from a detective. I might think he has something to hide,” Goro says, with a wink. He suddenly remembers his briefcase, bends down to pick it up off the floor.

“Dude, you were the one bein’ kinda aggressive…” Sakamoto grumbles. Goro pretends he didn’t hear anything.

“I have important business to attend to, excuse me,” and with that, he turns, walks away before they can answer, away in a direction that isn’t where Amamiya went, away in any other direction, because he has no idea what he was doing or where he was going before… it happened. Whatever it was.

He walks the length of the underground, pushes his way past people without a care this time, climbs a staircase at random. He’s very carefully not thinking about anything in the entire encounter (if he doesn’t think about it he can’t be embarrassed by it), so it’s not until he takes two steps out into Central Street that he realizes. 

Amamiya, Sakamoto, Takamaki, Niijima, Madarame Ichiryusai’s final pupil Kitagawa Yusuke, and two others– Okumura and another girl. The Phantom Thieves. He’d just been speaking with the Phantom Thieves.

 


 

By his own admission, after their first real encounter in such a long time, Goro becomes… a little obsessed.

What began as a small search may have turned into a full-blown investigation. It isn’t his fault– Amamiya has almost no internet presence. No public social media accounts. No pictures.

No pictures, except the ones in the police’s database of mugshots. Poor little Amamiya. He looks so bewildered, so cute, so much less like “Joker” and so much more like that quiet guy who fumbled his way through a half-baked argument into a television studio microphone.

Goro does have a moment, glancing at the mugshots he’d saved to his phone while he waits in the darkness (because it’s quite dark at 5:30 in the morning) outside the probation officer’s contact address he’d also saved to his phone, where he wonders if maybe he’s going too far. But Amamiya never appears, not even as the sun rises and Goro opens his Third Eye to remain unseen. Not even after a man with a terrible goatee and an even more terrible hat walks out of the house, locks the door behind them, and ambles past Goro to who-knows-where.

He has another moment, glancing again at the mugshots displayed on his screen while he waits in the afternoon sun outside Shujin Academy, where he wonders if maybe he’s going too far. But Amamiya is still nowhere to be found.

———
Oracle

hey asshole
i need your vpn creds again

———

Goro huffs to himself when the notifications scroll down from the top of his screen, covering the top of Amamiya’s head.

His Third Eye may shield him from the ever-roving gaze of high schoolers including… yup, there goes Takamaki, strutting past him none-the-wiser, no Amamiya by her side… but it doesn’t affect Oracle.

———
Oracle

helloooooooooo
👀

Now isn’t a good time.

okay fine just approve the auth prompt when it comes up
it’s me i swear 🤠

———

He rolls his eyes but keeps his phone at the ready. A few more students pass by, none of them Amamiya.

Where the fuck is this guy? This was supposed to be Goro’s surefire last-resort option. There’s only one entrance and exit to the building. He’s wasting an entire afternoon to be here, and afternoons are very valuable times on his schedule.

There can’t be many more students left. Amamiya has to come out eventually. And there’s no way Goro missed him. Not after what happened last time…  

A notification appears on his phone and he quickly taps “accept” so Oracle will go away.

———
Oracle

tyyyy
so whatcha doin

I’m on a stakeout. So I need to concentrate.

ooooo a stakeout!! very detectivey
who are you staking
😏

Stop bothering me.
It doesn’t concern you.
And don’t make lewd assumptions. This is for work.
Obviously.

kk
well
you should check the roof

———

Goro blinks at Oracle’s last message. 

Looks up at the school building.

Closes his eyes and counts to ten.

Then silently moves from his post and starts walking up the steps to the school. The steady trickle of students out of the building has pretty much stopped by now, so it’s not as if he’s risking missing something by investigating the building itself. He can always come back another day.

Goro can walk right into an open door at the entrance. None of the stairwells have doors either, so nothing blocks him from remaining undetectable and unseen all the way up to the roof. Up until the roof.

There’s a door. Not even Goro’s Third Eye, the divine power granted to him by the gods, could hide a door mysteriously opening on its own. Goro crouches in front of it to listen, to see if Oracle was right. 

“…just like they said.” Amamiya. Obviously Amamiya, even muffled from the door separating them. Of course, fucking Oracle was fucking right. Good lord. “Even though we did it on a different day, it all happened exactly the same.”

“But we don’t know if everything will be like that.” Does that pleasant, chirpy voice sound like Okumura? Likely Okumura. “Maybe it’s just the important things? It’s not as if we’re forced into the same schedule every day…” 

They’re both silent for a while. Goro shifts, sits down behind the door, leans his head against it. Glances in disdain at the mop sharing his space.

Amamiya finally speaks again: “but that was important.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Yes, that’s Okumura. 

It doesn’t sound like they’ll be leaving anytime soon, which is beyond frustrating. The whole reason Goro’s here is to learn Amamiya’s schedule well enough so he can “run into” him again somewhere, properly this time. It’s not like they can “run into” each other on the roof of Shujin Academy.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“You’ll figure it out, Ren-kun. You always do.”

More silence.

Goro picks at a piece of lint on his tie. Thinks about taking notes and submitting the transcript to one of those trashy teen TV melodramas.

“The parsnips haven’t done anything to you, dear.”

“Sorry.” More silence from both of them, until Amamiya continues, “Futaba is worried about him.”

“Ren-kun.”

“Sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll stop.”

“No, we can talk about it, it’s just that the poor plants can’t take–” 

“I’ll go weed the ones over there.” 

“Could you? That would be so helpful, thank you.” 

Five minutes pass after that. Well, at least five minutes. Five minutes since Goro first checked the time on his phone, out of boredom. Then ten minutes pass and the only thing the two of them have said is “could I have the trowel?” 

He’s so bored. There’s nothing new from his fans (well, there are always new notifications– but nothing new -new) and he only has so long before he’ll have to leave for work… 

———
Okumura Haru

Hello, this is Akechi Goro.
I saw a mention of your father’s company on the news and it reminded me of your predicament.
Have you given any more thought as to how you’ll proceed?

——— 

He makes sure his phone is on silent, then waits. It doesn’t take long this time for something to happen: a little “oh!” from the other side of the door.

———
Okumura Haru

Akechi-kun! How lovely to hear from you!
I do have updates for you, thank you very much for asking!
Not to keep you in suspense, but I’m working in my garden at the moment so my ability to text is limited. I will get back to you as soon as possible!!

———

Goro barely glances at her response, enough to confirm that no one is likely to leave that roof anytime soon. The real reason he initiated contact is… 

“That was Akechi-kun! He asked after me.” Goro waits in anticipation, but it’s Okumura who continues after a few quiet seconds, “that’s good, isn’t it? …Ren-kun?” 

“Sure.”

“Ren-kun, could you–”

“–What do you want me to say?” Amamiya snaps, rather aggressively. “We’ve already discussed this. He’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be talking to him at all.”

Well, that’s it then. Goro stands up, nearly knocking over the mop to his right in his haste to leave. 

He hears a muffled “Oh stop it. You don’t mean that–” as he walks away and sneers at the half-hearted defense. As if he asked to be defended. As if it’s worth his time to listen to this, whatever the fuck this is. He certainly didn’t sign up to waste his entire day on an uncomfortable wood floor while a couple of teenagers rattle on about things they know nothing about.

He has work to get to. Better to leave now, in case his commute takes longer than normal. Better to leave.

 


 

“You’re in quite a mood today, Akechi-kun. Is this going to be a problem?”

Goro glances away from his backseat window to Sae across the taxi, like he’s not surprised by the accuracy of her observation. “I don’t like what you’re insinuating, Sae-san. I’ll perform my job admirably no matter my ‘mood.’”

“You’ll perform your job by staying quiet and letting me work. I said I didn’t need your assistance on this assignment.” 

“What makes you think I’m here for you?”

Hmpf,” is all the response he gets. Because he’s stumped her and she can’t think of anything to say. Goro goes back to looking out his window, unbothered. 

It was a stroke of good luck. The first bit of luck he’d had all day. Sae had mentioned, as she strutted her way out of the SIU, that she was on her way to Yongen-Jaya. So Goro tagged along.

How interesting, Goro ponders absently, that the contact listed in Amamiya Ren’s probation report, the man whose house Goro sat outside for hours, was also a frequent visitor of the very same lab he himself had “occupied” for years. The same lab that Sae is now investigating. And how interesting that this man is also the adoptive father to the lead researcher’s orphaned daughter.

They reach their destination with no further issue, walk in silence through crowded backstreets. Sae steps into a nondescript little café, Goro hangs back.

Akechi…

Now, Goro abides by logic, science, and reason as much as one would hope from a detective. He isn’t the sort to believe in childish ideas like heroes of justice or love at first sight (or… that would have been “third sight,” he supposes). But– Goro has also spent the last four years living a double life as a mercenary in a parallel world that shouldn’t exist. He has powers granted to him by a god, has conversations with that god on a semi-regular basis.

Cognitive psience is just what the name implies: a little science, a little supernatural.

So Goro looks at the door of “leblanc, coffee&curry” and knows he’s been here before. But only in a dream, one he can’t quite remember. And Goro allows his heart to pound harder against his chest once, twice, three times in anticipation, then steps inside to see what fate has in store for him this time. 

...It turns out fate is fairly boring.

That man, Sakura Sojiro, has a moment where it looks like he almost recognizes Goro. It’s easy enough to deflect thanks to his many television appearances. Sae does her “intimidating working-woman” play on him while Goro sips at a rather excellent cup of coffee.

And it’s all so boring, not at all what he imagined when he crossed a threshold torn straight from his dreams. 

When Sae emerges victorious, after going on and on about how good she is at prosecuting and how the miraculous recovery of Isshiki Wakaba’s daughter makes no difference, Goro decides to let her leave without him. He’s not quite finished with this place. There has to be something here.

“So… are you two partners or something? Cause I’ve got some words for–” Sakura is doing his best to seem intimidating, but Goro is a paying customer and he’s not finished with his coffee.

“Oh, no. We barely ever work together, thank goodness,” he lies. “You should listen to her though, she is quite good at her job.”

Hmpf,” he hears in response for the second time in an hour. Whatever. He doesn’t need to be liked. 

The door chimes. Goro smiles against the rim of his cup because he doesn’t have to look to know who has arrived. 

His fate. Finally.

“What’s with that look? You got something to say? And where the hell have you been?” 

“I stayed after school to help a friend.” 

“Yeah, right.” Sakura snaps in a sarcastic tone. “Stay out of trouble, whatever it is you’re really up to. And you’d better keep going to school if you don’t want me to throw you out of here.” 

His target huffs, approaches, and Goro makes sure to say, “good evening, Amamiya-kun,” as soon as he gets close.

Amamiya stops. Barely towards him. Now that Goro’s seen him without his glasses he can see right through them, at stormy grey eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Stop following me.” 

“I’m afraid I have no idea what you mean.”

At that Amamiya faces him completely, hoists his bag in a move meant to look intimidating. Got you

“Why are you here?” 

“No reason that concerns you. My colleague came here to intimidate this gentleman and I followed along to make sure all parties came out of the encounter unharmed. A needless gesture I see now, of course.” If Goro’s not mistaken he hears another hmpf from Sakura’s direction, this one much less harsh. “And such an interesting coincidence to find you here, too. Why are you here?”

“I don’t have to–”

“This guy lives here,” Sakura announces from down the counter. “He’s on probation for being an idiot.”

Goro can’t help but snicker. “It seems you’ve been sold out.”

Amamiya seems unphased. He gets a little glint in his eyes, leans forward. “Isn’t the first time. And I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Neither do I,” Goro says, leaning forward in turn, not giving an inch. Oh, this is fun. Each passing second shows more of the elusive “Joker,” all Goro has to do is keep him on his lure, keep him talking. “Could this perhaps be the workings of fate instead?”

Amamiya is quick to mirror Goro’s mocking tone, “you think ‘fate’ wants to bother with bringing an annoying detective to my door?”

“Oh but this coffee is excellent, Amamiya-kun. I can think of nothing more important than my discovery of it. Fate at work, undoubtedly.”

“Nothing to do with me, then.”

“I can’t imagine how you could possibly be involved, no,” Goro teases. “In fact, I can’t even recall what it was that I meant to discuss with you.” 

He takes an innocent sip from his cup, careful to not break eye contact.  

“You must be pretty bad at your job if you’re forgetting important details like that,” Amamiya says, the corners of his lips quirking up ever-so-slightly.

“Haha, so you admit that our deal is important? Because you haven’t kept your promise.” 

And just like that, on the cusp of victory, so close, Goro knows he’s made a mistake. That gleam in his eyes, the hint of a smile, the pinkish hue in his cheeks, everything that Goro worked so hard for– it all fades away in an instant. 

“I haven’t.” Amamiya stands up straight, hoists his bag behind him once again. “But I will.”

Shit

Goro stares after him, tries to think. Should he apologize? For what? Amamiya passes by Goro’s chair, heads toward the back of the shop, up some stairs.

It’s over. Again. Where did he go wrong? 

Goro places his cup back on the counter, hunches forward. Takes another sip. He’s finally accomplished his mission: he doesn’t just have a reliable place he can use to “run into” the elusive leader of the Phantom Thieves, he knows exactly where Amamiya lives. And yet, even with his victory, Goro can’t shake the feeling of failure. He places the money he owes on the counter, retrieves his briefcase, and says, “I must be going now. The coffee was delicious.”

 


 

A week passes and Goro doesn’t return to the café. He’s very busy. It’s not like Amamiya is his only job. He just returned from another one of his jobs, a demand from his father to prove his worth after his fuck-up with the mobster. 

It went great. It went so great, like it always does. Great. 

Goro trembles against his bathroom floor. Presses his forehead against the cold tiles. 

Okay, so maybe it didn’t go so great.

He’d been able to do it in the end, but it was close. And now he’s dealing with this, whatever this is, which is new. And horrible. Another wave of chills passes through him, feelings of regret and fury and just general undefinable pain, and Goro sits up quickly, grabs his hair back. Just in time. 

He collapses back down on the floor once it’s over. Shivers again, grabs his phone and scrolls absently through his notifications. “You just killed someone,” says one of his fans. “For what?” says another. “How many does that make now? Murderer.

Goro shuts his eyes tight, tight enough to see swirling matrices of colors within the dark. Digs his nails into his palms. Opens his eyes again because distraction, distraction, he needs a distraction. And there it is: the text messenger app buried on the second page of his phone, a bright spot (thank god thank god), a distraction as always: Oracle texted him a few hours ago.

———
Oracle

🚨 I FOUND SOMETHINGGG 🚨
IT’S GOOD
ARE YOU READY
INFO DUMP???

Yes, I’m available now.

yes!!! okay here we go
got into the db of a sister lab
they don’t share much so i wasn’t able to find any research BUT they did share a security contractor
basically i got the visitor logs
ran them all for the months that cog psi research was picking up
most of em were legit - gov employees checking in, local reporters, family visits, whatever
but my sick-ass custom background checker flagged one of em
whoever they are, they visited a few times near the end
but their name is fake for sure
i mean, there’s someone with that name, but it ain’t whoever this is
name is fake, employer fake, contact address fake, fake fake fake i checked em all

If everything about them is fake how are we supposed to find this person?

oh my god let me GET TO THAT
you’re so fuckin annoying
🤡

I get it.
I’ll wait patiently for the big reveal, then.

🤡🤡🤡

There’s no need to be irritating.

🤡🤡🤡🤡🤡

Fine.
Please?

there it is ☺️
they also put down a contact phone number. fake. but.
phonies usually set up fake number forwarding to their REAL number. that’s the info that people are most likely to check out and it’s untraceable
that’s what i do w all my fake numbers lol

So if we call this fake number, we might get the real person to pick up?
The real person who was pretending to be someone else to investigate cognitive psience?

bingoooo
1 point for akechi

Okay then. Have you tried it yet?

what? no?????
you do it

You can’t be serious.

i got us this far!
this is all you have to do!!
this is what you’re here for!!

Fine. Send me the number.

okay sending
tytytytysm
remember to BE NICE

I am nice.

😶

———

Goro flops over to lay flat on his back. Ponders his plan of attack.

This won’t be easy– he has no idea who he’s dealing with. For all he knows this could be some lackey of Shido’s. He brushes his bangs out of his eyes and decides to just go for it right now. If he can shoot a sleazy corporate executive in the head he can make a goddamn phone call. Don’t think about that

He dials the number and waits patiently. Imagines the person on the other end getting a call from a number that’s supposed to be dead. Wonders if they’ll even pick up. 

Hello?

Aha. Part one accomplished.

“Hello. May I ask whom is speaking?”

I would like to know the same.” They’re not giving him anything– Goro can’t even tell if he’s talking to a man or a woman, the tone is too ambiguous. They don’t sound like anyone he knows, which is probably a good thing. 

Best to be honest, he has nothing to lose. “I’m… looking into a facility that closed a few years ago. I thought you might have some information.”

Who are you?” 

“I would rather not say.”

I have no time for this. If you insist on playing games then we have nothing to discuss.

Fuck why couldn’t this just be easy?

“Wait– there was something more going on than just the surface-level research of cognitive psience that the police were able to recover,” he says in a rush. “You were investigating it too, you know something. I’m only trying to uncover the truth.” 

There’s a long pause, and Goro worries for a moment that they’ve hung up on him. Then: “I’m listening.”

Goro sits up in excitement, shakes his head to clear the lingering fuzziness. “Are you still close to Tokyo?”

I’m not disclosing that information.

“We could meet in person. In public– at the Buchiko statue. Surely that will serve as proof of my intentions?”

Come alone.”

“Obviously. How will I find you?”

You won’t. I’ll find you. Give me an identifying characteristic.” 

Goro thinks for a moment. Considers appearing in disguise, but that would only arouse more suspicion, and he’s likely to be recognized anyway. He can scope out any threats behind his Third Eye before revealing himself. 

“I’ll be wearing a black and white striped tie.”

Tomorrow, 7 in the evening. I hope you know what you’re getting into.”

Chapter Text

It’s a relief, falling into shadow. It always is. 

Maybe it’s a relief because Goro is tired of the superficial attention of his fans– the novelty wore off somewhere around June. Or maybe it’s because when he opens his Third Eye and fades away from the sight and mind of the public it’s his choice.

His mysterious contact told him 7 o’clock, so naturally Goro arrives at the Buchiko statue at 6 instead. He fiddles with his tie, weaves silently between shadows of students and salarymen. He means to get the lay of the land, to find a good place to watch for suspicious newcomers, to investigate anyone out of place and acquire any sort of advantage he can get. And he means to do it completely undercover, thanks to his divine ability to disappear. An ability never failed him before.

Well, it can never be that easy, can it? 

Someone grasps his arm, twists him and pulls him out of the shadows and into the sun.

Icy shock freezes his ability to concentrate, shuts down his Third Eye as well as any thought as he’s turned against his will to face– 

“Akechi. I should have known.”

His assailant: a petite figure sporting a serious expression and a pair of small blue glasses. 

Goro barks out a laugh because he really should have known as well. “Shirogane. What a pleasure to see you again,” he lies. 

“Hm,” the first “Detective Prince” (though, Goro’s the one who did the legwork on getting the title the recognition it deserves) grumbles and breezes on past him. Goro heaves a sigh, then follows through the crowds. 

No returning of pleasantries, no consideration of Goro or any plans he might have had. It seems Shirogane is just the same as he acted the first and last time they met: briefly, on set at one of his earliest interviews. Although…

Goro catches up, walks in step beside Shirogane towards wherever. “Shirogane. Are you… undercover? I thought you were…” he awkwardly trails off. How does one ask about a detective prince who is very clearly not– 

“A prince?” Shirogane responds, taking a social cue for once. “Some days. But not today. Let’s talk here.” She makes a hard left into a small park and takes up residence on the nearest bench. It’s such a cliche that Goro can’t help but feel a little giddy.

“I’m surprised to hear you’re involved in this case, Shirogane,” Goro says as he joins her on the bench, crossing his legs and making himself comfortable for negotiation, deduction, and general intrigue. “I would have thought that the SIU would bring you on in an official capacity if your– hm– brand of expertise were relevant.” 

Shirogane’s expression of blatant exasperation somehow becomes more blatant. “I’m not on the case. Your ‘psychotic breakdowns’ and ‘mental shutdowns’ are of no interest to me.” 

“Of course.” 

“Of course,” she echoes. Shirogane turns, rests an arm on the back of the bench and faces him completely. Watches him with an unsettling intensity. “But they’re certainly of great interest to you. And quite public interest, I might add. One might think you lived inside the television.”

Goro laughs lightly, trying not to sound as uncomfortable as he feels. “A request from the department, I assure you.” Shirogane seems disappointed by his response, so he moves on. “Now, you say this case is of no interest to you, yet you still visited this particular facility multiple times, just prior to it closing forever.”

“What I do on my own time is none of your concern.”

“It is when you may be withholding information pertinent to my investigation.”

She’s stalling, he knows that, but he doesn't know why. Besides the fact that if she’s this defensive about her intel then she surely has something good. And he wants it. “You agreed to meet with me. Why?” He pushes, carefully.

Shirogane sighs, looks away, seems to collect her thoughts. “Akechi. You know how particular detective work can be. It pains me to admit it, but even acquiring the few documents I did wasn’t easy. My team and I–”

“–Your team?” Goro interrupts. “I was under the impression that you worked alone.”

She rolls her eyes, “people always think that. No. I don’t work alone. It’s a romantic idea, the ‘lone detective.’ A fairytale I used to believe in myself when I was a child. Then I grew up and realized I can go much farther with capable teammates than I ever could on my own. Do you work alone, Akechi Goro?” 

This is the part where Goro would obviously say yes, he works alone, he always has, because he’s quite capable by himself and other people only seem to get in his way. But… ugh. He doesn’t want Shirogane to think he’s childish. And he supposes he did have Oracle’s help. If you can call whatever it is they do “help.”

Goro finally forces out a weak, “…no.” He feels gross about it.

“Exactly. Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted: my team and I found the facility you mentioned, but we were too late. The lead researcher passed and the laboratory closed. After that any further investigation was nearly impossible– our sources disappeared, all our leads dried up. It almost felt like…”

Shirogane trails off, staring unseeing past her glasses at the small pond in front of them. The two detective princes sit in an uneasy silence for a time. A duck lands on the water and swims toward a larger group near the edge of the pond.

Goro can’t help getting impatient, is just about to prod her to continue, when she finally settles her gaze on him once more. “I was able to pretend to be a scientist myself to gain access.” Shirogane continues slowly, deliberately, “it comes more naturally to me than others for reasons I’d like to forget, but it’s not a… persona that I often utilize.” 

Akechi Goro is a detective at heart. He may pretend at the role more often than not nowadays, but he has enough experience behind him to pretend well. There are times when his mind naturally latches onto a hunch, a pattern that isn’t really there. He’s been at this long enough to be able to tell when a coincidence is in fact just a coincidence.

This is not one of those times.

Shirogane, stern detective prince Shirogane, smiles at him. Shakes her head in disbelief, and laughs. “It’s true, then,” she exclaims as Goro fails to school his expression into something more impassive, as he attempts to process the implications of what she just said. “This whole time, it felt like this case wasn’t ours to solve. Because it’s not– it’s yours.”

She reaches into her bag, pulls out a folder, and hands it to him. Goro moves on autopilot to take it. His entire body feels numb.

“Cognition is an interesting subject,” Shirogane says while his brain reboots. “Everyone sees the world differently. We emphasize things that are important to us and completely block out others. To people with cognitive distortions, these worlds are their truth. And what is there in the world to make something true, besides belief?” 

“What?” Something about what she said kicks his thoughts back into gear, he’s not sure what it was… oh. Because she was wrong. “That’s nonsense,” Goro argues. “Truth is truth– what a person believes doesn’t change that.” 

Shirogane smiles again. It’s unsettling. “Not bad, detective. You’re right, of course.”

She stands from the bench, brushes imaginary dust off her legs. Goro hurries to follow, gripping the folder tight in his left hand.

“The cognitive worlds those scientists were exploring… they haven’t always existed. Or, if they did, we had no way to access them. Not until very recently. Access was given, somehow, for some purpose. Do you know what that is?” 

Goro shakes his head dumbly. He’s never… thought about that. Why hasn’t he thought about that? He’s thought of everything, why–

“Seek out the truth, Akechi Goro. You and your team. There you’ll find your answer.”

“Cryptic, Shirogane.”

“This isn’t my fight,” Shirogane replies. She lifts her bag to her shoulder, turns away, then pauses. “Akechi. The kid in those reports. Whoever they are… find them for me. Save them. Please.” 

Goro’s mouth goes dry, but he still manages to lie one final time, “I will.”

 


 

———
Oracle

gimmegimmegimmegimme
link plssss

Give me a moment. I have to take a picture of each file.

oh my goddd they aren't digital???
old school
gross
upload your pics [here]
that box is secure

———

The reports didn’t shed light on anything new. In hindsight, it was too much to hope for. He knew that the real research is Shido’s and they should be focusing their efforts on him, he’s always known that. Everything else is a diversion, a waste of time.

He’s gone through the files twice over, made sure there was nothing too incriminating or embarrassing for him. He did contemplate doing some censoring but… it doesn’t feel right. The scientific jargon puts a nice sheen over the more unsavory bits anyway, and Goro’s thoughts are too occupied with the questions Shirogane asked of him. Why it never crossed his mind before to look into answers.

———
Oracle

GOT EM
TYSM
i can't believe you actually pulled this off
have you read yet???

I skimmed as I uploaded them. There’s nothing in there I didn’t already know.

awww fuck really?
whoa
this is wild shit
way more than the police have
you knew all this???
Cognitive World persists no matter the conscious state of the progenitor. More extreme measures recommended for removal.”
sketchy af - this has got to be our guy’s doing right?

———

Right. Goro stands up from his desk, begins pacing like a caged animal in his tiny apartment.

That was one of the more tame experiments, he remembers. They had that one scientist with the distortion (the first one, the one whose name Goro refuses to remember) go to sleep, be put unconscious, etc, etc, while they had Goro enter his cognition to see if it was still accessible, and to see if anything had changed. 

He knows now in hindsight that Oracle is exactly right: this was the beginning of Shido’s influence. His worthless father wanted to learn how to shut down any possible attacks on his cognition. And bad news for him: death is the only way to stop Goro from attacking his mind if it comes down to that.

He looks down at his phone again, sees that Oracle is in the middle of typing something.

God, this is going to be a whole fucking ordeal, isn’t it? He should have just pretended he’d gotten nothing from Shirogane.

Goro steps out onto his balcony, picks up his bike helmet, cleans a little smudge off the embossed “A.” to do something with his nervous energy. 

———
Oracle

hey uh
what does this mean
“Physical injuries of the subject in the Cognitive World do not persist on return to the Real World. Physical injuries of the subject in the Real World do persist on return to the Cognitive World.”

If you get hurt in the cognitive world you’re not hurt for real. Injuries disappear as soon as you leave.
Only mental changes in the cognitive world are “real.”

no i mean the subject part

Subject?
Do I have to explain basic terminology to you?

so
they were experimenting on people?

How else did you think they would be able to learn about that world?

———

Oracle doesn’t respond. 

Goro stares at his phone, impatiently waiting for anything. He wonders what they’re thinking. He wonders if they’ve figured it out yet, and feels sick to his stomach. 

The abstract concept of sharing what he went through at that place with another person didn’t seem as horrible as it feels in reality, and it’s too late. It’s too late, and now this stranger knows about everything they put him through, why why why was he doing this? Why did he tell them anything?

———
Oracle

hey

What now?

sry
they keep talking about a “cognitive awakening”
like:
“Attempts at recreating Cognitive Awakening in the subject or in others unsuccessful. Recommended to find new subject ignorant of Cognitive World.”
and there’s
other stuff
did all the researchers know about this?

———

Oh yes. “other stuff,” what a pleasant way to describe how those pieces of shit pushed and pushed and pushed him to the brink over and over to try to recreate the near-death experience that brought Robin Hood to his side. What a shame, for those power-hungry researchers and poor poor stupid past-Goro, that a Persona is acquired through fury and rebellion rather than pain and death.

Goro leans over his balcony fence, contemplates dropping his phone over the edge and watching it fall the long way down to the unforgiving concrete. No more Oracle. That would end it. 

Fine. Fine. If they know they know. Better to rip off the goddamn bandaid now that he’s made this unbelievably egregious mistake anyway. “I’m going to assume you’ve figured out that I was the subject and breeze right past that,” Goro types and sends before he can overthink it, fingers flying across keys, doesn’t wait for a response as he explains the dynamic between the powerful force of Shido and his government cronies, the lead researcher trying her best but clearly in over her head, and the easily corruptible researchers who tore everything apart from the inside out.

When he’s finally done he shoves the phone in his pocket, storms back inside his apartment and slams the door behind him. The force of it rattles all his walls and knocks down Goro’s only decoration: a rare Featherman poster featuring only Red and Black.

He doesn’t pick up the poster. Just sits on his mattress, stares at the floor, tries not to remember. 

At some point his pocket vibrates. Goro’s curiosity gets the better of him.

———
Oracle

okay
that helps a lot
it sucks but
thanks
and sorry
can i ask something else?

Can’t stop you.

it says the subject died?
was there more than just you…?

No.

okay
i don’t understand

Physical changes don’t persist in the real world, remember?
As long as you can get out fast enough even death isn’t permanent.

oh.
OH SHIT
so like even if you get exploded
as long as the world immediately collapses you’ll be okay?

That seems like an extreme example, but sure.
It’s like waking up from a nightmare.

okay
sorry
ugh fuck
sorry i keep saying okay
and thanks
fuck this is so fucked up
i’m sorry
there’s a lot of bad stuff in here
i won’t tell anyone

It was a long time ago.
I barely remember it.

okay
shit i’m really not good with this kinda stuff

Neither am I, clearly.
But your discretion is appreciated.

———

Goro places his phone on his mattress. Resumes staring at the floor. Oracle doesn’t text him anymore. They probably don’t know what else to say, which is fine. Goro doesn’t know what he wants to hear. 

Eventually, his room grows dark as the sun sets, and he has a lot to do tomorrow, so he lays down and stares at his pillow instead.

 


 

“Aren’t you on summer break?”

Goro looks up from his notes. Sakura Sojiro stands just down the bar counter, side-eyeing him while he inhales more of his cigarette.

“I am. This is for work.”

“Hmpf.” 

Goro turns back to the papers on the counter, takes a sip of his coffee. He’s been neglecting it but it’s still warm, thank goodness. 

“You're here an awful lot. Always working,” Sakura says. Normally Goro would be annoyed with the interruptions, but something about this place… 

“I like it here. It’s comfortable.”

Sakura grumbles, finally walks over to stand across from him. “I don’t mean that– a kid your age shouldn’t be working so much.”

“My peers have high expectations of me,” Goro responds, pretending that the way Sae shoved this work at him before she stormed out of the office had anything to do with mutual respect. “I work hard to exceed those expectations. Besides,” he adds with a chuckle, “I have to pay my rent somehow.”

The usual look of pity passes across Sakura’s face. “You don’t have anyone taking care of you?”

“No.”

“Hmpf.”

Sakura falls into silence, so Goro resumes reading through his material. Kaneshiro Junya named names, but none of them were influential enough to lead the police anywhere close to Shido. Probably thanks to the Director’s influence. Sae managed to connect a few dots here– 

A plate is set on top of his notes with a little clink. A steaming bowl of curry. One that Goro certainly didn’t order.

“Sakura-san, I don’t think–”

“On the house.”

Oh, it’s pity again. “This really isn’t–”

“Don’t give me any of that. You need to eat, you’ve been here for hours.” 

Goro wants to protest more, but well. Sakura isn’t wrong. “I’ll pay.”

He barks a laugh past his cigarette. “You won’t. Just this once. Don’t expect any more freebies.”

Goro looks between Sakura and the tempting curry in front of him. Sauce the perfect color, fluffy rice… “Thank you,” he says, finally giving in.

“Kid.” Goro looks up just as he shoves the first delicious bite in his mouth. “Do me a favor: skip work a couple of times. Let those ‘peers’ of yours down a little bit. Go make some memories with your friends. Summers at your age are special, they shouldn’t be spent in an office.”

Sakura seems particularly stern about this, so Goro gives him a little nod. He has no intention of following the unsolicited advice, but pretending to agree is much better than proclaiming for the whole cafe to hear: I don’t have any friends.

 


 

To Goro’s great dismay, Okumura Haru continues to be just as shrewd and persistent as the first time they met. Ever since Goro made the mistake of using her to lure more information out of Amamiya on the roof of Shujin Academy she’s been texting him constantly about her struggles with her impending marriage, her father, and, for some goddamn reason, this mystery woman she’s so smitten with.

And now he’s gone and accepted an invitation from her to a little tea shop near Asakusa. He knows he’s being manipulated. Okumura plays the part of innocent damsel far too well. He just doesn’t know what the hell her goal is.

“Lift the cup higher!” Okumura directs from behind his phone. He does so, imagines leveling a gun at his father’s head and seeing the realization dawn on his worthless face, smiles a little brighter. “Perfect!”

“Thank you,” Goro says, taking his phone back. He flips through the pictures– they’ll make an excellent Instagram post.

“You’re welcome. Um, Akechi-kun, when you put up those pictures could you not mention I was with you? My fiancé is quite the jealous type…”

Goro wasn’t going to in the first place, but now he feels a little annoyed. “You haven’t managed to break off your engagement yet?”

“I’ve tried,” she says. “I thought that… I thought that if I tried to do things a little differently, or argued a little better, that maybe my father would change his mind. But he just won’t listen. It’s like I don’t even exist.”

“Fine, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep spending time with this man– what was his name again?” 

“Sugimura.” 

“Right, Sugimura.” 

“I’m not required to spend time with him, no. But I find it useful. You know what they say: ‘keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.’” She takes a pointed sip of her tea. “But, Ren-kun says I should stay away as well…” 

Okay, Goro thinks to himself as Okumura goes silent. Okay, a perfect opening.

Ask her. 

Just ask her, you goddamn worthless cowardly piece of shit–

“How is Amamiya!?” He blurts out. 

Fuck.

Then, to his horror, more comes spilling out: “I’ve seen him around his café several times now– Leblanc, out in Yongen-Jaya, maybe you’ve heard of it– but it feels like every time I try to speak with him he runs out the door. I’m not sure if I offended him in some way, maybe you would know, or maybe he’s just very busy, though I’m not sure what a high school student could be so busy with during summer break, so I think maybe he’s… avoiding me.”

Goro coughs into his fist. Clamps his mouth shut so he’s forced to stop fucking talking.

“Oh,” Okumura blinks at him, a perfectly valid reaction to whatever unintelligible garbage he’d just spewed out. “Um. Ren-kun is doing well, I think. I can never quite tell with him. He’s had a rough couple of months. Maybe that’s why?” 

Goro combs his fingers through his hair. Shifts in his seat. “I don’t think he likes me.”  

“Ren-kun likes everyone.”

It feels like a false platitude, a weak defense for a behavior she absolutely knows about. Goro heard them on the roof. He’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be talking to him at all.

Okumura picks up on his hesitation. “Akechi-kun, why don’t you hang out with all of us sometime? I’m sure you would fit in quite well. And… maybe you could get to know Ren-kun a little better.”

“I don’t know, my schedule–”

“–We’ll find something that works, don’t worry! Please join us, we have so many plans for the summer!”

“Well…” 

She waves a dainty hand at him, “I’ll message you the time we all get together. I’m not taking no for an answer!”

Goro sighs, gives in to her demands yet again, “alright. Since you insist.”

 


 

It’s only a few days later, on July 30th, Okumura makes good on her promise: she invites him out with her friends to a karaoke night in Shibuya.

And Goro knows those “friends” are in reality the Phantom Thieves. He knows it would be a smart move to meet them for real, to learn more about them and how they work. How they found out about the cognitive world, how they “change hearts,” what their goal truly is.

He knows it would probably be fine. He’s a celebrity, they’d be thrilled for him to join them. Maybe he would have fun. If he can force himself out to all manner of bars and clubs with Shido’s entourage then surely he can handle a few teenagers.

Goro declines. 

 


 

Two days later Okumura tells him they’re all going to the beach, and he should meet them there. 

Goro’s never been to the beach. He’s always wanted to go but never found the time. Plus, it’s not like “the beach” is a solo activity. This would be a perfect opportunity to take Sakura’s advice and make some summer memories.

Goro declines. He pretends he has to go into work that day. 

And then he ends up having to actually go to the office after he remembers that one of the Phantom Thieves is Niijima Sae’s little sister, and he doesn’t want them to catch him in a lie.

 


 

It’s the next morning when Okumura texts him “Akechi-kun, tonight we’re going to a jazz club that just opened up in Kichijoji and you must come with us! I simply will not take no for an answer!

And Goro has made excuses to avoid Okumura’s invitations twice now– three times in a row would be too much. So Goro tells her he’ll be there.

He spends his entire day scouting out the place, reviewing how to play darts and billiards, planning how he’ll introduce himself, coming up with the best ways to interrogate each of them.

Then evening comes too quickly, and Goro texts Okumura that something’s come up, and he’s very sorry, but he can’t make it after all.

 


 

On August 3rd Okumura doesn’t message him at all.

He has a productive day by himself: he cycles in the morning, does some reading for a summer assignment, schedules another television interview, posts a selfie with a lunch smoothie that gets a record number of likes, completes a new route at his rock climbing gym, formats a spreadsheet for Sae, and signs some autographs on his way to Yongen-Jaya.

Goro walks into Leblanc. Sits down in his normal seat. Nods at Sakura as the man begins preparing his usual and gets comfortable. Everything is just as it normally is, until– 

Until an earth-shattering CRASH rattles the entire building. Goro jumps in his seat, looks up towards the source in alarm, hears faint murmurs of annoyance from the other patrons in the booths behind him. 

“I’m gonna kill those goddamn kids–” Sakura says, as more crash-es and thump-s come from upstairs, getting closer and closer.

Sakamoto comes barreling out of the back of the shop, running at full speed past Goro with Amamiya Ren right behind. 

“Give it back!!” Amamiya shouts as he grabs unsuccessfully at Sakamoto.

“Ahhhnofinderskeepers!”

They both crash out the door, screams echoing as they continue past the window and vanish from sight down the street.

Keep it d– ah, they’re gone.” Sakura rubs a hand across his face, looks approximately 10 years older. “Sorry for the disturbance, everyone. Teenagers.”

“Hey!”

Goro, previously still focused on the bit of window where Amamiya was last seen, pulls himself away and focuses on the present. A girl is standing at the other end of the counter.

“Don’t lump me in with those idiots, Sojirooo~” she whines.

Ah. This is the girl he orphaned. Maybe he should leave…

“They become more juvenile when left together,” another voice says from Goro’s other side. “Mirrors, endlessly reflecting.”

Kitagawa Yusuke takes a seat next to him, continues without missing a beat: “Akechi Goro, it’s good to see you again. Are you no longer avoiding us?”

“Lay off him, Inari. People are stressful.” Sakura Futaba scurries to Kitagawa, hides behind him, mumbles “h-hi. Hi.”

Goro gives up all hope of escape now that he’s been challenged. He smiles brightly at them, says, “a pleasure to officially meet the two of you, though I suppose introductions aren’t necessary. As for the missed outings– no ill will was meant. My schedule is simply more busy than most high school students.” 

“Or maybe it’s your time management skills that are poorer than most,” Kitagawa replies, not even looking in Goro’s direction. Sakura smacks him.

“Haha, either way, I’m clearly free now. However, I never received a message about a gathering at this cafe.” 

And he’s being stupid, he knows he’s being stupid because he flaked out three times in a row and would have found another excuse to avoid today, but he can’t help but feel a little hurt that Okumura didn’t text him. 

“Haru’s not here,” Sakura says. “She’s out to dinner with her stupid fiancé.”

Oh. Well, that makes him feel better. 

“They’ve been gone an awfully long time. Perhaps they’ve killed each other?”

“What the fuck Inari, Haru would never do that! Probably!”

“Language, Futaba!” Sakura-the-older shouts from down the counter.

Kitagawa looks behind him, brows furrowed in confusion. “I was talking about Ren and Ryuji. What does Haru have to do with anything?”

Sakura smacks him again, then turns her attention on Goro. “S-so. You’re not doing anything right now?” 

Goro checks the counter but he hadn’t even had the chance to get his notes out before all this insanity started. “I suppose I’m not.”

“Okay. Um. Want to play a video game? With me.” Goro blinks at her. “It’s just that me and Ren were almost done with this level and it’s really hard but he’s off murdering Ryuji right now so I need another player cause we’ve been trying to beat this stupid boss fight forever and Inari here is total shit at–”

Language!

“–at video games!”

“I simply don’t see the appeal. They’re very repetitive.”

“And you’re shi– bad at them,” Sakura grumbles, glowering up at her much taller friend.

Goro brushes his bangs away from his eyes and clears his throat. “I can try. I can’t promise I’ve played this particular game before, but I’m a quick learner.”

“Oh. Oh! Okay!” Sakura steps out from her Kitagawa shield, fire lit behind her eyes. “Don’t worry! I’ll teach you everything! It’s gonna be so much fun! Come on! Come on come oncomeon!!

She races past him, beckoning him towards the back of the shop. Goro grabs his briefcase, congratulates himself on already winning over another member of the Phantom Thieves, one he thought would be particularly painful no less, and follows. 

He’s certain he hasn’t played this game before because he’s never played a video game in his life. The closest he ever got was when a kid from his school smuggled in a handheld device and was promptly disciplined for it. They’ve been something of a white whale for him since– appealing, tempting, but always out of reach.

He doesn’t realize what a huge mistake he’s made until a full three hours have passed. 

“The hell was that!? Damn it…” 

“Get behind it, we need the advantage!”

“Easier said than done– ugh, how dare you–”

“Akechi! Power up! Left side!” 

“Hahahaha, now this is what I was waiting for!”

All out attack!

Eat this!!

Goro successfully lands his character’s combo– triangle, triangle, down-square, circle, up-triangle, and the boss screams, vanishes. Finally!

Yes!!” Futaba holds up her hand for a high-five, Goro obliges with more force than necessary. 

Now that the adrenaline rush is over he realizes how sweaty his hands are. He lets out the breath he was holding, wipes his palms on his slacks. Futaba collapses onto the floor. Goodness, video games are dangerous.

“Oh my god, I’m so hungry,” Futaba groans from the floor.

“Yeah, you dumbasses should eat something,” Sakamoto says from behind them.

Wait. Sakamoto? 

Goro turns in his creaky chair, is surprised to find Sakamoto, Kitagawa, and Amamiya. All sitting on a sad mattress in the corner of the attic, all sharing a bag of chips. Amamiya’s cat is on his lap, sound asleep. How long have they been there?

“You missed dinner,” Amamiya teases.

“It was delicious,” Kitagawa adds and grabs the chips from Sakamoto.

“Worth it,” Futaba sighs, then pouts in the direction of the bed. “Thanks for all the help, Ren.”

“You’re welcome. It was more fun to watch anyway.” The way Amamiya eyes briefly meet Goro’s makes his entire face heat up. “Hi.”

“H–” Goro has to stop, clears his throat, “hello.”

“Whatever. Akechi’s better than you anyway.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“There’s an easy way to find out, if you desire,” Goro challenges, holding up his controller and shaking it.

He can see the conflict behind Amamiya’s glasses, in the way he leans forward ever so slightly. Their eyes meet again, it almost looks like he’s about to accept, but–

“Uhhh– this guy probably wants his room back so he can go to sleep,” Sakamoto blurts out in a hurry, nudging Amamiya with his elbow. His rival looks away, the connection is broken once again. Goddammit.

The Goro realizes what was just said. His face flushes even hotter. Oh. This is Amamiya’s bedroom. He checks his watch. Oh. “Ah, I apologize. I completely lost track of the time…”

 


 

When Okumura messages him next, Goro accepts. And follows through.

And it turns out to be worth it, even though Goro arrives at the park late, leaves early, and stays on the edges of the group the entire time in-between. He learns a lot by just observing.

He learns that there are distinct groups within the Phantom Thieves: Takamaki and Sakamoto. Kitagawa and Futaba. Okumura and Niijima (which is interesting, Goro files that away for more investigation). He learns that Amamiya flits around the edges of each group, always toting his cat, never quite participating fully. 

He learns that they are indeed trying very hard to include him, which is suspicious. He learns to be a bit more cautious, because if he has ulterior motives then he can’t discount his enemies from having the same. 

 


 

The invitations keep coming. He can’t attend all of their gatherings, he does have a life of his own to live. 

As the days of summer go by Goro learns that Sakamoto’s father walked out on him and his mother. He learns that he and Futaba make a good team at a great many games, including darts. That Amamiya’s assault charge was falsely earned. That Niijima misses her sister. That Okumura desperately wants to spend time with her horrible father, even if it means also spending time with her horrible fiancé. That he and Amamiya are the only good poker players in the entire group.

He learns that maybe spending time with people his age isn’t so annoying. Provided, of course, that they keep giving him new things to learn.

 


 

He still works. Still meets with Shido. Still hatches plans with Oracle, though sometimes they end up discussing the currently airing season of Featherman instead.

He’s still interviewed about the Phantom Thieves, and because he’s been spending so much time with them, he's able to make his remarks and arguments a little more pointed. “How can they be so cavalier about the possibility of this country being torn apart?” He asks with a falsely righteous tone, knowing full well that yesterday, instead of worrying about Shido’s fake hacker attack, the Phantom Thieves were shopping for swimsuits.

Goro still spends most evenings at Leblanc, though Amamiya still hurries out of the cafe soon after he arrives.

And Goro learns that his apartment feels cavernous. Too empty, too quiet. He wonders if that’s because he also learned how alone he was before now.

 


 

August is nearly half over when Shido asks him to cause a psychotic breakdown in another of Okumura’s father’s competitors. He’s a greedy CFO, skimming money away from the company on the side and using it to fund his addiction to drugs and prostitutes. The world is better off without trash like him.

After he does the job Goro walks back to his apartment. It’s not a panic attack this time, nor the nausea of the last shutdown he caused. He feels nothing.

He sits on his mattress, stares at his empty wall. Has enough mind left to lock the door to his balcony, hide his pistol somewhere inconvenient, call in sick to work. He ignores his phone until the battery runs down, ignores everything. Watches the colors of his apartment change from light to dark to light and doesn’t learn anything for a while.

 


 

“You look horrible,” Sakura says as he walks into Leblanc for the first time in days.

“Haha, I’m afraid I caught a bit of a summer cold. Gone now though, don’t worry.”

Goro orders a bowl of plain rice and manages to eat three spoonfuls. Which is something, at least. 

 


 

“I’m not going to tell you to stop coming here, because at least I can keep an eye on your idiot ass,” Lala-chan the bartender says, “but you’ve got to stop with the drinking. This is a dangerous town, especially for a cute kid like you.”

Goro glares at her. He can take care of himself. Besides, “they wouldn’t dare.”

He’s not stupid, he’s seen the looks some of them give him when the night drags on a little too long. But he also knows they’re too chicken-shit to try anything.

There’s a certain brand of careful comradery with which they handle him. Those vile men, some of whom he’s known for years now– they may tell jokes, clap him on the back, call him Goro-kun even when he demands they stop. But Goro can see the fear behind their eyes. The self-preservation driving their interactions, the small hope that when their time comes, Goro will be merciful.

You’re a force of nature, Akechi. Unstoppable, Shido had said tonight.

I’m meant to rule, to steer this sinking ship of a country– the gods have demanded it of me.  

You understand, don’t you Akechi? 

He does.

 


 

One morning he and a few of the others are browsing books at a local library, trying to find a particular copy of a guide on getting into the police academy for Niijima. Futaba instead seems to decide it’s her mission to make them laugh.

While he, Takamaki, Okumura, and Amamiya do the hard work of scanning shelves, peering at worn down words on cracked spines, Futaba disappears into the depths of the library and returns with treasures such as The Big Book of Horse Stories, Sex in the Afterlife, and Invisible Dick.

Some get reactions out of the others, most just make him roll his eyes. It’s not until Futaba runs up to him and solemnly holds up a small book titled How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety that Goro absolutely loses it.

He’s still hiccuping, wiping away tears, being shushed by one of the others for interrupting the quiet of the library when he realizes he’s being watched.

Amamiya Ren– staring unabashedly, open-mouthed like he’d witnessed something spectacular instead of a thoroughly embarrassing meltdown in a public setting. Goro is reminded of a night underground, when time stopped and fireworks lit up the early summer sky. 

As soon as their eyes meet Amamiya turns away, hunches in on himself, finds the shelves behind him incredibly interesting. Goro’s breath is knocked out of him for a second time that morning as he learns that Amamiya’s ears can turn bright red.

 


 

Part of the problem, Goro decides, is that it’s just so easy to imagine kissing Amamiya Ren.

There’s something about him, about the combination of cheekbones, nose, lips, that seems like they could fit perfectly against his own. Something about his long fingers that tell him they belong buried in Goro’s hair.

It’s easy to imagine– daydreaming at the office, spacing out on his commute, or now laying in bed, that maybe the two of them are… playing a game of chess. In Leblanc, of course, when the cafe is empty and the quiet night air makes the world feel just a little too unreal.

And maybe Goro wins their game (Goro would always win) and stands from their booth, and thanks Amamiya for his time. Maybe he accidentally lingers for too long, because maybe he doesn’t want to leave quite yet. Maybe then, all of a sudden Amamiya is there– impossible, forbidden, warm. Maybe Goro freezes for a moment. A kiss from his rival would be a surprise, after all. But maybe he catches on quick, makes sure he’s quick enough to grasp at Ren, at any part (he thinks it was his arm?) to keep him exactly where he is. No– closer.

Maybe it’s easy to imagine because Goro is trying so hard to stay in this moment. Maybe he pulls Ren closer still, kisses him again, again, inhales coffee and the chocolate they’d been snacking on just a few minutes ago, bites at Ren’s plush bottom lip just like he’s wanted to for so long because this is wrong but it’s happening anyway.

Maybe, Goro imagines as he presses his face harder into his pillow, maybe he feels fury coiling in his stomach alongside fire. Because how– how could Ren do this to him? Goro could have just left and never known what this felt like. Ren could have let him go– he has to leave now, because he can’t stay and also do what he has to do tomorrow– maybe Goro breaks away from their embrace just as Ren sighs further into it, makes for the door, escape so close before chains close around his wrist and stop him–

What? No.

No, this isn’t fun anymore.

Rewind.

Goro turns to face his other side, kicks off his sheets. Returns to how Amamiya, stoic and flighty Amamiya, might feel pressed against him. Clutching him tightly, pressed against Leblanc’s bar counter, running his long fingers through Goro’s hair: combing through strands, twisting, pulling like he couldn’t decide which he liked best. Those same fingers wrapped warm against Goro’s wrist as the cold winter wind messes his hair even further, the longing and pleading way his voice curls around his name, “Akechi…” but Goro shakes his head, because they can’t

No, god, what is wrong with him?

Why can’t he just fantasize like a normal person?

Goro turns again in his bed, flips his pillow over with a little more force than required. Decides the scenario is the issue. Skips over the preamble, goes straight to the two of them in this apartment, in this bed.

It doesn’t feel quite so real, but since when did fantasies have to be realistic? Amamiya sighs against him once again. He sounds just like he did in Leblanc, and this time Goro doesn’t run.

 


 

On the night of August 18th Goro goes too far.

The Medjed deadline is in only a few days. Okumura and the others asked him to hang out with them tonight, actually sounded a little desperate about it. But Goro had to decline.

He was required to meet his “compatriots” at a casino to celebrate, to celebrate his own imminent fall. And Goro doesn’t have money to gamble, so he drinks from the open bar. He walks the floor, watches the others play and win and lose. And he drinks, and drinks, and drinks.

He doesn’t remember how many he had. He doesn’t remember getting to Crossroads. His eyes can’t focus properly. He’s already spilled one glass of water, though the bartender is being awfully nice about it.

“Sorry,” he says, though he might have already said it. 

“It really is okay,” the bartender tells him as he wipes the counter dry, “the glass didn’t even break. I’ll get you another one.”

“’s fine.”

“You need to drink water or you’ll feel sick in the morning.”

Oh. Oh, fuck. He feels sick now.

Goro stumbles off of his stool, he blinks–

–and finds himself sitting in a large restroom stall, leaning back against a cold wall.

He’s being careful about moving because he feels like he’s half a breath from hurling his guts out. Though maybe he should. Maybe he’d feel better.

The stall door swings open (he hadn’t locked it?) and Amamiya joins him on the floor, hands him a glass of water. Amamiya is here? Wait– didn’t he already know that? “You should still drink this if you can.”

“I didn’t want to,” Goro tells him, because he wants Amamiya to like him and being drunk at his bar past midnight isn’t a good way to accomplish that. “I had to.”

“I know you had to,” Ren says, quietly. “Akechi, can you please drink some water?” 

The thought of drinking anything, even water, makes his vision sway and twist.

Goro blinks–

–and finds himself leaning against the toilet. “Need to throw up.”

“Then you should throw up.” 

He hiccups and trembles. He’s never felt so horrible in his life, but Ren brushes Goro’s hair away from his face with a sort of careful tenderness. And it makes him feel a little better. Makes him forget what he was doing and stupidly ask, “Do you like me?”

The hand near his face freezes. “I…”

Oh. That’s enough of an answer.

“Nobody likes me,” Goro whispers. Unwanted, unloved. He’s so miserable all the time, he doesn’t have anyone who cares for him. He’s so tired and he misses his mother. Goro swipes at his eyes, hopes Ren doesn’t see, still aware enough to feel self-conscious about the wretched state he’s in.

“I– I like you, Akechi,” Ren says, and the lie only makes Goro feel more like the piece of shit that he is, “everyone does– Ryuji, and Futaba, and–”

“You’re nobody,” Goro snaps at him, just to make him hurt too.

It works. Amamiya pulls his fingers out of Goro’s hair. Places the glass of water on the ground with a clink. “I’m going to see if Lala has any medicine,” Goro thinks he says. And– no, nonononono– Ren is standing up, he’s leaving–

No!” He angrily rubs his eyes again, chokes on his stupid emotions, hides his face in his hands. He’s such a fucking mess, useless trash, cursed, of course he’s alone, of course everyone leaves him, of course Joker would leave, after all the horrible things he’d said to him, after everything he’d done–

Goro blinks–

–and finds himself clinging to his enemy, shuddering in the cage of his arms in an awkward hug on the bathroom floor. So he holds him tighter, pulls at Joker’s jacket and buries his face hard into the crook of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” Joker whispers in his ear, stroking his back, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know if I can.”

“I don’t care,” Goro says, pushes the words past his aching throat. His only consolation is Joker sounds just as upset. He tries to memorize how warm he feels against him even as consciousness slips away again. “Just don’t leave me. Please.”

And then he doesn’t remember anything at all.

 


 

Goro wakes up in his bed.

He throws off his sheets, runs for the bathroom, slams the door, and violently hacks up the entire contents of his stomach. The only thing that makes him feel slightly okay is that he might still be a little drunk.

He’s such a fucking idiot.

He quickly catalogs the events of last night– anything he still remembers– though he was such a fucking idiot that he can’t remember much. But he stayed out of Shido’s way, didn’t talk much to his entourage, didn’t text anyone… Goro flushes away the evidence of his mistake, clutches his aching stomach, breathes a sigh of relief, slouches down on the floor.

And then someone knocks on his bathroom door.

“Are you alright?” That voice– Amamiya. Amamiya– Amamiya Ren. Amamiya Ren is in his fucking apartment. “Can I come in?”

Bits and pieces of his memory return, and oh god, he saw Amamiya last night. Amamiya saw him last night. Goro pulls at his hair, screams in a panic: “go away!” 

“Akechi–” to Goro’s horror the doorknob starts turning. He launches himself at the door, slams it closed again, locks it.

Leave me alone!!

There’s no coming back from this. He doesn’t remember much but he does remember his rival, his stupid obsession, shoving water at him. Watching over him in a dirty bar restroom. Sitting next to him on the train back to his apartment. God, did Goro fucking cry in front of him? He only cries when he’s drunk or asleep, when he’s alone, he’s never cried in front of another person in his life. He can never come back from this.

Goro is so overwhelmed and furious with himself that– motherfucker, he really must still be drunk. He sits down against the door, rubs his leaking eyes, says, “don’t you think I’ve been humiliated enough?” 

“I’m not leaving.”

“Then neither am I!”

Goro wipes his nose on his sleeve, sniffs as quietly as he can. Rips off the tie that he’s somehow still wearing.

He’s wracking his brain to find a way out of this, any way to regain his dignity or justify his actions. Or a way to make all of it go away before Amamiya runs off to all his little friends and tells them how pathetic Akechi Goro is.

Haha, maybe he could just kill him. As if that were an option. 

He rubs at his aching head. Tries to remember exactly what happened last night, but the details keep slipping away. 

“Can I tell you a story?” The door asks, breaking the silence just after Goro started to wonder if Amamiya had actually left. The sound comes from right next to him, so he must have sat down on the other side of the door instead.

“Go away.”

Silence stretches between them again. Goro pulls his knees up to his chest and rests his forehead on them.

“You know I’m here on probation,” Amamiya finally says. “My parents… my parents didn’t send me. I sent myself.”

Goro lifts his head, can’t help his curiosity. He turns a little towards the door to hear better.

“I’m from a pretty traditional small town. It’s– well, you can probably imagine. My family is well known there, and they have an image to maintain.”

Goro recalls bits of this from his initial research spree on Amamiya. Articles upon articles on his mother and father, none of them interesting beyond touting their accomplishments in this field and that, none of them mentioning any children at all. 

Amamiya continues, “well I, um… I drank too much at a classmate’s party. Ended up– uh– kissingsomeoneIshouldn’thave,” he says in a rush, like he’s hoping no one will hear, even though Amamiya is the only one talking and Goro is the only one listening. “And word got out… my parents were beyond pissed. Couldn’t take the scandal of it, all their stupid friends whispering, said if it ever happened again they’d disown me.”

Oh. Goro knows what’s coming even before Amamiya barks out a mirthless laugh and says, “and then a month later I was arrested and sued for assault.” 

He knows exactly what Amamiya is doing here: he’s trying to make Goro feel better, trading humiliation for humiliation. He’s annoyed at how well it’s working, as he shifts so his ear is pressed up against the door. 

“It didn’t matter that I didn’t do it. They paid to settle the lawsuit, handed me a big box, told me to pack my things and get out. I had to beg one of my teachers to let me stay with her, and even then she only gave me a few days to sort out my shit and find somewhere else to go.

“I didn’t want to just find work and be a high school dropout– cause that would mean that bastard won, that all of them won– so I called schools all over the country pretending to be my dad, begging them to take my ‘delinquent son.’ Good thing I’ve got a deep voice, I guess,” Amamiya explains, though that same voice seems to keep failing him now. “Finally Shujin said yes, and the woman I was staying with told me about Leblanc, and… here I am. No one knows the truth. Not even Sojiro.”

Amamiya pauses, then says, “well, maybe Futaba does. She’s good at finding out stuff she shouldn’t.” 

Goro sits in silence. Wonders what he should say, if he wants to say anything at all. He’s not good with this sort of thing. And it’s not like he owes Amamiya sympathy or any reaction.

But to his surprise, Amamiya just keeps going. “You know, I thought about staying here next year too. It hasn’t been so bad. But… I’ve been saving up some money– that’s why I work so much, that’s why I was at the bar last night– and soon I’ll have enough for a year’s rent on an apartment. Cause part of me wants to go back, to that stupid school in that stupid town, and show my parents and all those assholes that they couldn’t make me a failure.”

Ah.

Something clicks into place in Goro’s mind, a missing piece that he needed to finally complete this puzzle. Now he knows why he’s been so drawn to Amamiya from the start. 

He was abandoned, thrown away like trash and left to fend for himself. Amamiya– always hovering on the edges of the group he’d accidentally fallen into, reflecting whatever personality he needed to fit in but never sharing himself completely. Holding a grudge in his heart, a stupid plan for vengeance to pretend he has any control over his life even as he’s held prisoner due to circumstances outside his control. 

Of course he’s drawn to Amamiya Ren. Of course he had no choice in the matter. The two of them are the same. 

Goro smiles, “that’s a very dumb plan, Amamiya. Your town is trash. They don’t deserve you.”

The door chuckles, sniffs. “I know.”

“How will you sign a lease on an apartment? You’re not even legally an adult.”

“Hey, I’m almost eighteen. I’ll figure it out.”

Goro sighs. Comes to a decision easily, too easily for his own good. He’s still embarrassed, mortified by last night but…

He combs his fingers through his hair, adjusts his collar, stands, opens the door. Amamiya scrambles to his feet, and Goro is relieved to see that he also looks like complete shit. Still wearing yesterday’s wrinkled clothes, fluffy hair twice its normal size, eyes red beneath those damn glasses he always wears. And if Amamiya was unfortunate enough to spend the night on Goro’s futon– which, yup, the pillows are arranged differently– then his back must be an absolute wreck as well.

“You and I… we’re more similar than I realized,” Goro mumbles. He’s trying to thank Amamiya for looking after him without actually having to mention the ordeal, he never wants to think or speak of it again. But it doesn’t feel like enough yet, so he awkwardly adds, “I’m sorry about your family.” 

“Thanks,” Amamiya says, also awkwardly. He clears his throat. “Uh– you wanna come with me to Leblanc?” Goro’s surprise must have shown on his face, because Amamiya quickly continues, “to steal some curry. I’m kinda starving. And I need my phone charger.” 

Goro’s stomach turns, and he groans dramatically, “please don’t mention curry again. But if I don’t get some coffee soon I think I’m going to die.”

Amamiya smiles at him, and it’s such an incredible sight that Goro can’t help but reflect it. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Goro thought that he’d finally made some progress in getting his opponent to open up to him. Completely unplanned progress, at great cost to his dignity and general health and well-being, but progress nonetheless.

So why is he once again sitting in his chair in Leblanc, sipping at a coffee, and scrolling bored through social media notifications, alone?

Two entire months of work, one of the most difficult and frustrating projects he’d ever taken on. One spent searching and researching, watching, waiting. Another wasting his precious little free time dealing with stupid teenagers so in over their own heads they don’t even know they’re about to drown. And it was worth it, to have Amamiya Ren finally, finally within his grasp.

Well, so much for that. After a quiet train ride to Yongen-Jaya, an even quieter walk to Leblanc, and a quickly stuttered, “I– um– forgot about something. See you later,” Amamiya disappeared upstairs. Without even glancing at the curry he’d apparently wanted so badly. What the fuck?

Goro nurses a coffee, cradles his still-aching head, absently moves pieces around a chess board set up on the counter. He’s only playing himself but it feels like he’s losing.

“The hell is wrong with that kid,” Sakura eventually grumbles, staring in the direction of the stairs when morning turns into afternoon. “Did anything happen last night that I should know about?”

“No,” Goro sighs, and he doesn’t have to feign his confusion while he sticks with Amamiya’s lie: “we simply walked back to my apartment after we heard about the issue with the trains. I had my eye on him the whole time. Maybe it was my futon that put him in a poor mood?”

Hmpf,” Sakura says. He scrubs at the mug he’s holding a little harder, then turns to Goro again with suspicion clear in his eyes, “I couldn’t believe it when Futaba told me, but the website matches his story. You’re not all… covering for him, somehow, are you?”

Goro skips right over the embarrassment of the truth being the other way around, that Amamiya was in fact covering for him, and instead goes to the horror and indignation that Sakura Futaba was brought in on this never-ending mistake. How the hell did they manage to fix up a government website?

“I assure you that I take the law as seriously as you do, Sakura-san. It was only a case of bad luck.” Goro takes his own rook, tosses the dead piece on the table. Then immediately sees a better move and feels like an idiot.

Hmpf.”

Goro loses to himself twice more before the soft creaking of wooden steps finally announces a reluctant presence.

He’s used to this part: Goro will turn in his chair, make an attempt at conversation. Amamiya will say something rushed and non-committal and then will escape out the door, off to who-knows-where. Rinse, repeat.

This time Goro stays silent, because he’s pissed and he has a headache and he really thought they were past this.

Hey!” Sakura shouts, “where do you think you’re going?”

Amamiya turns, already halfway out the door. His cat peeks its head out of his bag. “Ryuji wants to go for a run at Inoka–”

“–Ryuji can wait. You need to eat. Sit down.” Sakura makes his way to the kitchen, grumbling, “idiot kid… running on an empty stomach…”

“Good afternoon, Amamiya-kun,” Goro offers as his rival reluctantly hovers at the bar counter. A few seats away.

“Hey,” Amamiya mumbles. “I thought you’d be… aren’t you usually really busy?” 

“Strangely enough, my schedule is completely open today,” Goro says, crosses his legs and leans casually against the counter.

It isn’t. He’s lying. He’s skipping… so much. Just, all of it. Everything.

He doesn’t want to think about it right now.

“Oh,” is all Goro gets in return.

God, this is just excruciating. What happened to the attentive Amamiya of last night, the talkative Amamiya of this morning? The tension between them feels even worse than it was before, something he didn’t believe was possible until now.

However, thanks to Sakura’s interference, he also has Amamiya trapped for just a little longer. Goro isn’t one to squander an opportunity.

“Amamiya-kun, play a game with me while you eat. I’ve been losing to myself all day and would like a change of pace.”

Amamiya narrows his eyes in suspicion, glances at the board. “If you’re playing yourself wouldn’t you also be winning?” 

“One would think. Do you know the rules?”

Goro thinks he sees the ghost of a smirk. “Yeah. I think so.”

“Excellent.” 

Before Amamiya can protest he grabs the board, definitely doesn’t think of his most frequent fantasy, walks it over to that open booth. As he makes himself comfortable and begins setting up a new game, Amamiya follows.

Goro takes white. After some deliberation he makes his move.

Amamiya follows.

And after two short games, played in silence, Goro is fucking sick of it.

“Amamiya-kun, I’m curious,” he says, his tone drenched in false pleasantness, “what exactly have I done that makes you think I would enjoy this?”

Amamiya hides under his glasses and curls. “…I don’t know what y–” 

“–you’re not playing the game,” Goro immediately interrupts. Challenge flickers in Amamiya’s eyes (finally). Goro needs to draw it out. “You know how to play, you clearly have some knowledge of strategy. You’re just not using it.”

Amamiya sits back in his booth, pets the cat that sits next to him, still in his bag. The picture of unaffected boredom. Too good– he’s trying too hard. 

“Maybe I’m just bad at chess.”

“You started the last game with a Bogo-Indian gambit.”

“I was just moving the pieces around.”

“In a perfect counter to my Nimzo-Indian? Which, by the way, you immediately squandered, on purpose.” Goro sneers, fully aware that his mask is slipping. He doesn’t care. He wanted real opponent, a rival, not a weak-willed spineless coward. “‘Just moving the pieces around,’ is actually an apt description for whatever the hell you’re pulling. I’m not an idiot, Amamiya, and neither are you. Stop wasting my time.”

He finishes setting up a new game, makes his move, and waits.

Amamiya doesn’t follow so quickly this time, leans forward instead. Caught on Goro’s lure once again. “I’m playing the game. Sorry if it’s not exactly how you want to play.”

“You’re not playing the game,” Goro repeats.

“Then what have we been doing?” 

“Why don’t you tell me?”

Amamiya opens his mouth. Stops. Closes it. Glances at the cat in his bag, as if it could provide him any help.

“You…” Amamiya stops again. Then finally moves a pawn. Says clearly but quietly, as if he’s talking about the weather: “you’re the smartest person I know.”

Goro blinks.

“You do so much. You work with the cops. You work within the law,” Amamiya continues, (Goro will have a good laugh at that, later). “You’re always following orders, following the rules. Even when they’re not fair. Even when you know they’re not fair.”

Goro moves a piece. “Everything has rules, Amamiya-kun.”

“I hate them,” Amamiya mumbles and makes a move in turn. “I used to like playing games like this. It was fun. Now…”

Oh, the poor thing just looks so sad. Hunched shoulders, downcast eyes, morose tone, pathetic. This won’t do.

Goro has a flash of inspiration, remembers that they’re the same. Remembers that he’s had a two year head-start on this sort of feeling. Remembers death, betrayal, screaming and crying for vengeance and then, for the first time, Loki.

Sad as Amamiya’s story from this morning was, Goro has a hunch he’s alluding to something far more consequential than a simple probation.

“You used to like playing games because they weren’t serious. You used to be fine with rules because you could break them without consequence.” Goro captures a black pawn, “and now you find yourself trapped in a situation which is very serious, with rules that cannot be broken.”

Amamiya doesn’t make a move this time, just rests on his elbows and examines the board. After a moment he says, “your bishop is going to take my knight. I’ll have to sacrifice this pawn to stay in the game. But then your queen can take my rook, and you’re three moves from checkmate again. I might have a chance, but that’s still the game, no matter what. There aren’t any other plays. I’m just following the plan, following the rules.” He moves his knight, resignation coloring his actions.

His summation of their game is actually quite impressive. Goro had a hunch Amamiya was more intelligent than he let on and it’s nice to see it confirmed.

“I like rules,” Goro offers, as his white bishop does indeed take Amamiya’s black knight. “The thing about rules is: once you know what they are, you can bend them. Breaking is far too obvious and crude for my taste.”

He points at the play Amamiya laid out earlier, taps the head of the pawn he mentioned, “you’re saying you’ll have to sacrifice your pawn. You’re saying this is certain. It’s a rule you cannot break, not if you want even the smallest chance of winning this game.”

“Yes,” Amamiya says quietly. His gaze is right where Goro wants it: fixed on him.

So Goro uses that attention to direct it at another piece. A little hidden, not quite so obvious. Easily missable. He taps it. “There are two pawns in play, Amamiya-kun.” 

“Two pawns…” he repeats back.

He looks like he still needs some help.

“Bend the rules, see? You said you have to sacrifice a pawn, but you don’t have to sacrifice this specific pawn…?” Goro trails off, hoping Amamiya will respond or move in any way. He doesn’t. “You can see that many more plays have opened up to you now. You just needed to view your situation from a different angle. Or find a loophole…?” 

Amamiya still doesn’t react.

Well, he does a bit: whispers something completely unintelligible. Puts a hand to his mouth, completing the look of his cute little shocked face.

Becomes a statue again.

Goro’s getting bored.

“I’m not going to continue to pretend this is about chess, but I hope I’ve managed to help anyway.” He grabs Amamiya’s black king off the board, waves it in front of his frozen opponent. “Now, would you like to play a game? A real one, this time?”

That finally gets him to move. Amamiya locks eyes with Goro, takes the king, shaking fingers tracing fire against Goro’s steady ones, clearly not quite over whatever little revelation he’s reached. Until– 

“Yes! Yes. I–” Amamiya stops. He sounds a little out of breath, looks a little wild. “Sorry. Sorry. I just– I can’t–” he stops again, takes a moment to settle.

But Amamiya clearly hasn’t settled enough, because the next words out of his mouth are “you’re incredible.”

As if that were something he could just… say. As if he were allowed. As if he’d really meant it.

“I mean it,” Amamiya says.

???

Goro’s one remaining brain cell pulls its weight, reflexively responds: “haha, flattery will get you nowhere, Amamiya-kun,” thank god, thank god. He picks up a piece, any piece, puts it down and hopes where it lands makes sense. “Your move.”

They play a game.

Halfway through it Amamiya haltingly asks him what he’s doing tomorrow, and Goro tells him he has another interview to tape in the morning and work in the evening. Goro wins.

Amamiya eagerly sets up another game. He asks Goro if he’s ever been afraid of public speaking, and Goro tells him that yes, he used to be, but gaining a lot of experience in the matter has helped and it no longer bothers him. He reminds Amamiya that he did quite well when he was put on the spot a few months back, and Amamiya chuckles, and they end up trading stories of embarrassing fuck-ups for a while. Goro wins.

Another game. Their conversation moves from public speaking to, somehow, the best kinds of sushi. And then to Amamiya’s upcoming school trip. To the Phantom Thieves, to the latest Star Wars movie, to Hegel’s philosophy of history and what it means for the future. Goro wins. 

Another game.

Goro wouldn’t say his opponent is necessarily easy to talk to. Easy implies no effort is required. Easy implies Amamiya is like other people: bland, boring, simple.

Amamiya is not like other people.

He can make a point in three words that would take Goro thirty. He cracks stupid worthless jokes with no expectation of laughter– seemingly just for his own amusement– which, to Goro’s great annoyance, makes him… a little funny. Just a little.

And Amamiya is constantly wrong. Constantly. Refuses to concede his ridiculous opinions, even as they argue and argue and argue.

It’s the most fun Goro’s had in months. Years. 

“Checkmate.”

Goro wins.

Damn it!” Amamiya’s cat jumps awake from its nap and makes a little noise. Goro chuckles as his opponent immediately starts setting up another game. “I was so close. This time– oh.”

Goro follows Amamiya’s eyeline, notices Sakura is idling nearby and wearing a ridiculous hat. “I’m heading out early,” he says in their direction, tipping the hat which unfortunately calls even more attention to it. “Gotta grab some groceries. Don’t forget to lock the place up.” 

Goro furrows his eyebrows. Looks around the cafe– empty. Looks outside– dark? Checks his wristwatch– 8 o’clock!?

A ringing bell signals Sakura’s departure and Goro quickly stands from their booth. “I should get going as well. I apologize, I didn’t realize it was so late.”

Amamiya scoots the cat bag, exits the booth as well. “It’s fine.”

He fidgets with one of his perfect little curls and for a moment Goro remembers the guy he thought he met at the television station. Unkempt, he’d thought. Funny. Delinquent. Even funnier, in a sad sort of way.

Anyway, this part is easy: “would you mind if we exchanged numbers?” Goro asks. Amamiya stops his fidgeting, so he explains, “for our next game. My schedule is quite packed for the next few weeks and I’d hate to rely on a chance encounter to continue.”

“Oh, sure. I think there’s an app for that.” 

That isn’t what Goro meant, but okay.

All it takes is a moment. Goro sends, “Hello, Amamiya-kun.

“Call me Ren,” Amamiya says, taking him by surprise, “everyone else does.”

“Oh. Alright, then. Ren it is.”

It’s an easy transition, easier than he thought it would be. He hadn’t realized until now how difficult it had been, sticking with Amamiya and Amamiya-kun.

So… maybe that’s why he says it: reciprocity. Maybe because, with this one person, he feels like he isn’t pretending to be someone else. Feels like he doesn’t have to.

Or maybe because he wants to linger here, next to this booth while the cafe is closed, just a little too long. To wait until Ren, Ren steps forward with fire behind his eyes, gingerly places a warm hand on his cheek, and– and this is more realistic. Less complicated. Less terrifying.

Maybe there doesn’t have to be a reason.

“You can call me Goro,” he says for the first time in his life. 

This is easier than he thought it would be as well.

The cat decides to choose this moment to start coughing up a hairball and Ren eloquently adds, “…huh?

“Oh. That’s not to say– um, unless you’d prefer otherwise. I don’t mind either way, of course. I know I’ve built a sort of ‘brand’ around the name so I–”

“Goro.”

Oh. Goro carefully suppresses a full-body shiver, clears his throat. “So. You’ve decided?” 

“Yeah. I… I like it.” 

Ren is twirling that curl again. It’s temptingly bouncy, holds its shape no matter what he does to it. Goro wants to touch it (wants to put it in his mouth– what? No. What the fuck, stop it), so he clenches his hand into a fist, says “well, I should –uh. Really be going.”

“Thanks,” Ren blurts out, right as Goro awkwardly turns to leave. “For today. Goro.”

There’s the shiver again. Is this going to happen every time? “Likewise, Ren,” he says quietly, not quite able to meet his eyes. 

It doesn’t take long for his phone to vibrate, after he walks on clouds out the door of Leblanc. “Hi Goro

On his commute he ponders the dangers of excessive inebriation, the reluctant confessions of an enemy, and lively conversations over chess. He can’t stop grinning like an idiot, can’t stop replaying the better parts of the day in his head, over and over. He almost can’t believe how well it all went, in the end. 

What changed? How had Goro finally cracked the most obstinate and guarded Phantom Thief? What was it that finally brought down Amamiya Ren’s walls? A single moment? Or was the day a sum of its parts, everything combined in a perfect storm until– 

Call me Ren.

Goro arrives back at his apartment, dark and quiet as usual. Slips off his shoes, drops his keys in a bowl by the door, sits carefully on his futon. Looks at the rearranged pillows but doesn’t touch them. There’s still a little indent there where Ren’s head had rested.

———
Ren

Hello Amamiya-kun.

Hi Goro
[Ren has invited you to play Chess Online Plus. Start the game!]
Get ready to lose :)

———

He’s alone once again but… he doesn’t feel alone. 

Ren’s presence is here with him– on his phone, in this apartment, on this futon. In the lingering burns where their fingers brushed. In his heart. 

That night when Goro whimpers and writhes against his sheets, it’s Ren– yes, Ren Ren Ren– there too. Whispered breathes, imagined against his overheated skin, sound just like “Goro.” Just like “you’re incredible.”

 


 

“You disappoint me, Trickster.”

Goro can’t believe they’ve brought him back again. Can’t believe he’s being scolded. He hates this place, hates these “people,” doesn’t care what they think.

“You continue to manipulate the hearts and minds of the public, and yet,” Igor’s huge eyes narrow at him from across his desk, “you have allowed yourself to be manipulated as well.”

He doesn’t care but– ugh– he’s also never done wrong in their eyes, either.

“What the hell are y–”

Whap!

Fuck, Two Buns’ baton on the bars makes him jump. She stomps her little foot, says, “you made a bond, you incompetent prisoner!”

A bond? What the fuck does that even mean?

“Our master is reprimanding you. Do not speak out of turn,” Long Braid adds.

“Your rehabilitation determines if this world can be restored from its ruin,” Igor says, breaking Goro’s concentration. Just more shit he’s heard before, over and over. “Such a feat must be accomplished by you alone. Involving yourself with others will only weaken your resolve to do what must be done.”

“Personas are the strength of heart. The stronger the bonds that attach themselves to you, the weaker your Personas will become,” Long Braid adds.

Is this– is this why he’s been having such a difficult time in the cognitive world? A bond, attaching itself to him like a parasite, messing with his head? But… 

Something feels wrong about this.

They’ve summoned him now, tonight. This bond– whatever it is– it’s with a person.

It’s with Ren.

Of course it’s Ren.

That’s why he can feel him now, hidden somewhere deep in his heart, even here. Ren, goddamn him, Ren is the reason why–

Goro’s chest aches, painful and tight, at the thought of him. Of seeing him, of never seeing him again, of returning to the way he was just yesterday, completely alone. 

What he feels– what is it? It’s bad, right? It hurts, but it’s… somehow not a terrible hurt. And it’s undoubtedly a new hurt.

New, but his Personas have been growing weaker for months now. Not only weaker in battle– weaker in the ways that matter. Weaker in ways that make him doubt his resolve, his justice, make him think he’s going insane, make him…  

What the hell is going on? 

“Return to your rest now. And take care in who you trust, Trickster…” 

Wait!” Goro yells, even as his vision begins to dim. The chains on his wrists clang against the bars, keep him fixed in the moment.

This is all a distraction. Something doesn’t add up, but– goddamn it, he can’t quite grasp it.

Shirogane– Shirogane said something, something important, something that he forgot, again. So many questions, thoughts, memories, all slipping away, impossible for him to hold in his mind. He’s better than this, he’s better than this.

Access was given, somehow, for some purpose. Do you know what that is?

“The app, the navigator– you gave it to me. Why?”

Igor just tilts his head, as if the answer were obvious. “I bestowed it to you as a means to train you.”

“The Metaverse Navigator is a gift from our master!” One of the girls adds, “You better take care in using it, inmate!”

He’s heard this before, he’s heard this all before, it’s useless. “But they have it too– the Phantom Thieves– how do they have it?”

“That is beyond my knowledge.”

Bullshit!” Goro yells, slams his fists against the bars. The two guards share a look but he doesn’t care about them, they’re nothing. 

“How can they travel to the cognitive world,” he asks desperately of the god before him, even as his vision begins to fade once again against his will. “Why them?”

“May the devotion to your rehabilitation return to you…” Igor rumbles distantly in the rapidly encroaching darkness. 

“Why me!?

“…I have high expectations for you…”

I want the truth!!

Goro flails awake, though he was already more awake than he’d felt in a long time. He throws off his sheets, shivers from the sheen of cold sweat that covers his body.

They’re hiding something from him. This god, these beings– they’re hiding something. He can feel it, it’s the strongest hunch he’s ever had.

It’s four in the morning. He has a busy day ahead of him, as he always does  He needs a shower, he needs breakfast, and then he needs to find some answers.

 


———
Oracle

you’re really sure about this? 

Yes.
I don’t see how there could be any further risk.
You’ve looked at my data before.

oh god
pls dont remind me 

Why are you asking my permission anyway?

too late

You had no problem blackmailing me in excruciating detail earlier this year.

💀💀💀
my innocent eyes
forever tainted

Can you take this seriously?

———

Goro huffs, crosses his arms, ignores his phone for a little bit.

He kicks his heels against his favorite perch in the jazz club– a ledge near the front window which gives him a good view of the entire establishment. The ledge is small enough that no one else can easily join him.

Sakamoto and Takamaki are still in a tiff over where Sakamoto’s accidentally pocketed cue ball should be placed. They’re both wrong. Kitagawa, Niijima, and Okumura are at the “bar” by the window, sipping Shirley Temples like children. Futaba and Ren play a casual game of darts– extremely casual, judging by the amount of times Futaba is pausing to look at her phone. 

Maybe he should heed Oracle’s warning, unleash their insanely thorough data gathering ability on one of these poor bastards instead.

It wouldn’t be so hard to walk up to Futaba, put on his sweetest smile, say oh what a coincidence– your phone is the model I was thinking of upgrading to, could I please see it for a moment? And then have Oracle work their magic. After all, how long could it take?

It’s not as if getting a more in-depth look at a Phantom Thief’s phone would be useless to him. It’s not as if Sakura Futaba could possibly have anything more embarrassing than “gay facefuck bdsm” in her goddamn internet search history.

Good lord

Goro coughs into his fist and shoves that incredibly embarrassing memory back where it was, deep down in the depths of his psyche. Where he’ll hopefully never find it again. 

He uses incognito tabs now. 

———
Oracle

i AM taking this srsly i was never the same
great blackmail material tho
thx for that btw lolllll
heyyy you still there? we still doin this? 

Yes. I said I was sure.
Can you do it now? This is the best lead we’ve got.

oh
uhhhh no
i’m away from my comp rn
but i can tonight
you don’t want me to do it now anyway
i’ll need to make an exact copy all the data so it’ll take a while and your phone will be outta commish for a bit

How long is “a bit?”

like… 30 mins. probly.
it’ll be fine i swear

Can’t you just do what you did last time? I didn’t even notice anything.

that’s why i asked if you were sure!!
for Blackmail i just scrap the logs of the places that are most likely to be embarrassing
cough chrome search history cough
but this is freezing your phones state and making an exact copy of it so we have the best shot at preserving the entire app
and honestly w all the weirdness w it who knows if this’ll work

———

Fuck.

This plan is half-baked. An act of desperation, too risky. If it even works he’s essentially handing over access to the Metaverse Navigator to someone he’s never met. What if Oracle decides to try traveling to a cognitive world on their own? What if–

“Hey, Akechi!”

Sakamoto is waving him over. The group seems to have convened around one of the billiards tables. “Get over here, we’re playin’ teams!”

Goro puts up a hand, shakes his head. “I was about to get myself a drink, thank you.”

“C’mon man, don’t make me play with Yusuke again…”

“I thought you enjoyed our games,” Kitagawa says with affront.

Sakamoto groans, but still hands Kitagawa a pool cue. “Against you, I like playin’ against you. You’re always tryin’ to make the table ethically pleasing or whatever– you gotta learn the actual rules of the game, dude.”

“The term is ‘aesthetically pleasing.’”

“Whatever, same thing.”

Goro shakes his head, starts to head for the bar, and is stopped in his tracks by a heavy weight on his shoulder.

“Hey.”

Ah. It’s Ren.

Ren Ren.

Ren, who he’s been half-heartedly trying to avoid, just in case, after that mess in the Velvet Room. Ren, whose hand is extraordinarily warm and still hasn’t left his shoulder.

Ren.

“Hello,” Goro says, raises a completely unaffected eyebrow.

“Would you mind grabbing a water for Futaba while you’re up there?” Ren finally removes his hand, thank god. “The bar makes her nervous.”

“It would be no trouble.”

“Thanks, Goro.”

Oh, there’s the shiver, more powerful for its two-day absence. He hopes no one notices the goosebumps covering his arms. Winter uniforms can’t come soon enough.

“Hold up–” Sakamoto yells, apparently not quite done with him yet. “‘Goro!?’”

Motherfucker.

“Goro?” Futaba echoes from her seat on an unused billiards table. A few others do the same, like a particularly dimwitted breed of parrots.

“How come this guy’s callin’ you ‘Goro?’”

He’s special, Goro thinks furiously at Sakamoto.

“He kicked my ass in chess a million times and gave me his name as a consolation prize,” Ren responds instead, throwing a secret little smile Goro’s way.

Of course that can’t be the end of it– Okumura is quick to clap excitedly and jump in. “Oh! Akechi-kun, it would be so lovely if we could call each other by our given names!” She bares her teeth oh-so-innocently and flutters her eyelashes at him.

“Oh! Would it really, though?” Goro asks, mocking her sweet tone and smiling just as innocently.

“It would make things easier…” Niijima mumbles, traitor.

The rest of them start chattering in agreement and Goro does some quick calculations. 

Increased trust and familiarity with these kids in exchange for his name isn’t a horrible deal. He supposes that after a month of these occasional get-togethers they could technically be called friends. Even if it’s all just pretend, just another role for him to play– well, this is what “friends” do, right?

“…Fine.”

Goro has a moment of panic right after he says it, realizes that this could be what makes a bond, braces himself, flinches–

“Alright, Goro!” Sakamoto– Ryuji shouts. “Whoa. Oh man. Weird. Gonna take me a while, sorry, heh.”

–and feels no different.

No new bonds. Which makes sense. But, in his defense he only has one data point on the matter.

“I wanna try!” Ann exclaims, strikes a stupid pose to point right at him, winks, and says, “Goro~. Whoa. You’re right, I’m so used to Akechi! Haha, don’t get mad at me if I mess up!”

Haru sidles up to him, bounces on her heels, smug victory tainting the edges of her dainty smile, “I’m so glad you agreed, Goro-kun.”

Goro-kun.

He snaps. “No!

Everyone stops.

Oh, that was too harsh, wasn’t it.

…Does he care?

He takes a breath, has to remember where he is, who he’s with. “Just Goro.”

“Just Goro,” Ren immediately echoes to the group. No, not Ren. What had they called him? Joker?

This is a command from their leader, the first Goro has seen since their fight with the mobster, the first he’s seen up close. And the effect is immediate, impressive. Scattered affirmatives, Haru quietly apologizes, seems completely sincere.

Joker nods to him. Goro nods back, keeps them on a level playing field. Commander to commander, though Goro is an army of one.

The group settles again into normal conversation and Goro makes a retreat to the bar. A common tactic of his, unfortunately.

———
Oracle

We’re still doing this. I need to know how it works.
Just please don’t activate it. You know how dangerous it is.
Please.

you don’t have to worry about me
promise
tho it is nice of you to worry I guess
and weird

———

“Here’s your water, Futaba,” Goro says, taking a slight detour on his way back to his perch. He accidentally startles her– she fumbles with and nearly drops her phone. Goro awkwardly waits for her to collect herself, adds: “You know, you can ask me directly if there’s something you need. There’s no need for Ren to be a middle-man.” 

“Oh. Okay. T-thanks.” 

Hm. The stuttering again. Goro hasn’t managed to figure this one out yet– somehow this girl manages to be both the shyest and the most outgoing person he’s ever met.

Futaba takes a deep breath, finally snatches the glass of water from him, gives him an unwarranted evil eye and sneers, “you’re nice.”

“Um.” 

She gets close, too close, wags a finger in his face and stares him down (or rather, up, she’s very small) and says with determination, “You’re nice and I know you’re nice. You can’t hide it from me. Mwehehehe…” and then shuffles away as if she hadn’t just ended a real life conversation with a poor imitation of a television villian’s cackle. 

Goro blinks. Takes a sip of his own drink. Misses the familiar bite of gin.

He finally returns to the safety of his ledge, and tries not to descend into dread and despair when two girls walk past the window and exclaim: “didn’t that guy in there look like Akechi-kun?” “The Detective Prince!? He’s sooo amazing~ I still believe in him!” “A true hero of justice!

———
Oracle

so uhhhhh
we haven’t really talked about it but
this app
it’s gonna have a history of all the places you’ve been to
all the people
how do you know i won’t just…
you know

———

Goro knows his answer without thinking.

He knows exactly what that means. 

This is how it feels to make a bond with someone. It’s different than with Ren, and it’s the same. 

He’s never met this person in real life. He has no idea what they look like, or even what their real name is. But he still knows them, worries for them, and… 

———
Oracle

Because I trust you.

——— 

Goro swallows heavily, looks out at the Phantom Thieves as they play games and chatter aimlessly amongst themselves.

Looks to Ren, hovering on the edge as usual, on the opposite side of the room. Accidentally catches his eye. Quickly looks away.

Another person has found their way into his heart, so soon after the first.

What is happening to him? Why can’t he stop this… why doesn’t he want to stop this? 

Was it only Ren’s walls that were torn down that afternoon in Leblanc?

 


 

Well, the day still comes.

In a funny twist of fate (haha, so funny), the fake Medjed attack is scheduled on the same day as the anniversary of Goro’s second murder.

So Leblanc is closed. 

Ren texts him a few times. Pointless chatter. He doesn’t respond. It’s Goro’s turn in their latest chess match.

He sits alone in his apartment.

Scrolls through news articles. And scrolls through social media. And scrolls through posts and comments and blogs and articles and comments and comments and 

Scrolls and scrolls and scrolls and scrolls and scrolls and scrolls and

 


 

He must have death on his mind, because Goro dreams that Amamiya Ren is going to die.

He doesn’t know where, how, why. Dreams aren’t made more convincing by details like these. He knows it will happen soon.

He dreams that he sits at Leblanc’s counter. He dreams that Ren arrives– and he dreams that it’s just like those early days, when it was a struggle to get two words out of his rival before he was out the door. Except this time… their roles are reversed.

It’s Ren who approaches Goro. It’s Ren who just won’t leave him alone. It’s Ren who pries some small talk out of him and it’s Goro who leaves the cafe at the first possible moment, though he’d been waiting all day for Ren to appear.

He knows Ren is going to die. He doesn’t want to get too close. He can’t. 

But he still returns to Leblanc every single day. 

 


 

So, everyone hates him.

So what. 

It’s fine.

So he can’t step outside without someone openly staring or making some sort of comment or shouting at him. So he’s been stealing food from the SIU break room because every person at every shop and every restaurant wants to debate with him about The Glorious and Noble Phantom Thieves of Justice. So his teachers keep pulling him aside after class and giving him “advice” to “just shut up for once.” 

So what. So what if the only fucking place he has left where he doesn’t feel unwanted and hated is with those very same Phantom Thieves, because at least they don’t fucking talk about themselves every two goddamn seconds. So what

Phantom Thieves this, Phantom Thieves that, heroes, amazing, perfect Phantom Thieves, oh Akechi was so wrong about them wasn’t he, turns out he was only some stupid kid who didn’t know what he was talking about, and who ever really liked him anyway, wasn’t he so annoying–

Goro swings the bat, swings it hard.

Connects. Crack!

Ding!!

YES!!

He realizes a little late that’s he’s screamed far too loud but can't bring himself to care. He needed this.

He swings and flips the bat, a nice little trick he first learned with his sword and announces, triumphant, “a perfect hit to close out our game.”

Damn, dude.”

“Good luck, Ren…” 

“Yes, good luck, Ren,” Goro echoes as he returns to his seat, making sure to flash a taunting look at his rival as he walks by.

On rainy days like these they don’t have a lot of options. Not only is their group very large, but Akechi Goro is now a public menace and general punching bag, so if they want him to join in they need to find somewhere private. So they’ve been spending a lot of time at the batting cages.

They keep telling Goro it’s fine, even though it’s not fine.

Anyway, anyway, they’d broken into teams this time, made a little competition out of an activity that was becoming very boring very quickly. Their teams had each taken turns at the top of the scoreboard and now, in the finals, Goro’s team pulled ahead. 

Ren’s team will need a home run to win. And Ren is up.

He grabs a bat, swings it around, mimicking Goro just a little bit. He looks like he’s ready to step up to the plate (and lose), and then he stops.

“You guys seen Star Wars?” Ren asks the group, pushing up his glasses. 

A chorus of groans come from Ren’s team while Futaba starts cackling. She holds out her hand to Goro for a low-five, says in a stage-whisper, “he’s gonna do something really stupid.”

Goro smirks, obliges her, then leans back, crosses his arms, and gets ready to enjoy the show. Their exchange lures Ren over, and Goro raises an eyebrow up at him.

“Goro,” Ren says seriously as he stands in front of Goro’s seat, extending a hand, “give me your tie.” 

He’s not sure if this is a joke, a challenge, or some poor attempt at intimidation, but if Ren thinks Goro’s going to back down while he’s on top he’s sorely mistaken.

Goro holds his gaze, pauses just for a moment, to build suspense. 

Then uncrosses his arms and sits up, to juvenile hoots and jeers from their group. The hollering only increases in volume as Goro loosens the knot, slips the back of it out, and ever so slowly slides the tie out from his collar, all while staring down his opponent. He finishes by unbuttoning the top button of his shirt and offering the tie just out of Ren’s reach.

Your move.

Ren wets his lips, snatches the tie out of his hand, stalks away without another word.

“My goodness,” he hears Makoto say down their bench.

Haru glances in her direction, then leans into Goro, whispers quietly, “please teach me how to do that.”

“Do what,” Goro mumbles idly, not that he really cares– something much more interesting is happening at bat.

Ren has slipped his glasses into his shirt pocket and is busy wrapping Goro’s black-and-white striped tie around his face, securing it in the back– essentially giving himself a makeshift blindfold. 

Ren’s team doesn’t seem to be having it. 

“This is no time to be messing around, dumbass!”

“Ren, what on earth are you doing?

Goro leans forward to watch more closely as his opponent digs his feet in, swings the bat around. “I’m using the Force,” Ren replies. 

And then Goro feels it.

His Third Eye opens involuntarily. He knows it’s his Third Eye– he’s been using it a lot lately– but it’s not the same. It’s two vibrations in resonance, harmony and discord, amplifying until the feeling (what is this feeling?) becomes almost unbearable. Everything still fades into deafening quiet and shadow, but Amamiya Ren shines.

Crack!  

Ding!!  

Goro returns to the world again. Ren’s team is screaming, celebrating, and Ren himself has whipped off the blindfold and is spinning his bat– swinging and flipping it exactly like Goro had after what was supposed to be the winning hit.

He’s doing it on purpose, and Goro hates him.

It’s not long before Ren saunters over to Goro’s team, bat resting on his shoulder, looking exactly like the cocky cheating bastard he is. Goro stays silent, he refuses to give him the satisfaction of any reaction.

“You’re full of surprises, Ren. That was truly impressive” Yusuke says. Suck up. 

Futaba stands, shoves him a little. “And full of midichlorians too, apparently! What the fuck!” 

“Ren-kun, must you be such a show-off?” Haru says. 

“Style matters,” Ren says, taking Futaba’s now-vacated seat. Next to Goro. Goro will never forgive her.

He can’t resist any longer, not when Ren’s sycophants are all over him. “Some would argue that substance is more important,” Goro says, idly examining his nails. 

“Don’t worry, I’ve got that too.” He looks up just in time to see Ren smirk. Then he holds up Goro’s tie, waves it a little in the air, teases, “can I keep this? It’s my trophy.” 

Goro’s faster though, so he snatches his tie back, says with barely restrained fury, “you don’t get a trophy until you win.”

“But I did win.”

“Best two out of three.” 

“Changing the rules, Goro?”

Goro stands, grabs the bat that Ren was still carrying around with him. “Bending them, Ren. Just you and me this time, let’s go.” 

He doesn't have to wait long. Ren’s eyes narrow in that way that means Goro’s caught him on his lure. “You’re on.”

 


 

“Sae-san… do you believe in fate?”

“What kind of stupid question is that?” Sae snaps, not even looking behind her as they both walk down the steps of the SIU. It’s harsh, even for her– she seems to realize that. Sae gazes uncomfortably at something in the distance and continues, “I’m afraid I won’t be much for conversation today, Akechi. I have some calls to make that just can’t wait until tomorrow.”

Goro wants to say are you truly ever one for conversation, Sae-san? but he’s distracted by a sudden flash of light. A flash of light which stops him in his tracks and ruins any prospects of a free dinner.

“Actually Sae-san, go on without me. I’ve just remembered some urgent business to which I must attend.” 

Sae turns the corner without a word, puts her phone to her ear as promised. Whatever.

The prison door is… uncanny. It connects to nothing and leads to somewhere, yet connects to something and leads to nowhere.  

“Hey, inmate,” one of the wardens grumbles.

“We were waiting,” says the other. “We must speak with you.” 

Goro sighs. Whatever this is, it must be urgent if they couldn’t even wait until tonight. 

He starts to head for the door, but Two Buns blocks the entrance with her baton.

“Not there! Um, I mean–” 

They both look… a little nervous. Long Braid is fiddling with the pages of her clipboard. “What Caroline means is, there is a matter we wish to discuss with you that does not concern our master.”

Oh shit, Caroline– that’s what Two Buns’ name is. He kind of forgot they had actual names, after all this time. “Fine. What is it.”

“We… well…”

Goro waits patiently through an extended awkward pause until Caroline finally blurts out: “it’s about your bonds!”

“My bonds.”

“See, inmate, we know a lot about bonds. We know their arcana, the Personas in each type– we even know how to get fuse Personas from two different bonds to get a whole new one!” Caroline’s eyes widen, “n–not that we would ever do that!” 

“But it is strange, isn’t it?” Long Braid says quietly, like she’s afraid someone might overhear, “that we know so much about bonds, yet should never make use of that knowledge? I wonder… have your bonds truly made you weak?”

“Justine!” 

And there’s the other name. Goro puts a hand to his chin, can’t help but recall once again the counsel of another Detective Prince. Then I grew up and realized I can go much farther with capable teammates than I ever could on my own.

He says carefully, “I’ve heard testimony that may argue otherwise.”

Justine nods, says, “then we have a request for you. We’re not asking you to make another bond or strengthen your current ones, because that would go against the direct orders of our master. But if that does accidentally happen… we would you to return here so we can examine you.”

Haha, Goro’s had enough of that for one lifetime, thank you very much. “Pass.”

“Wha– don’t think you can skip out on this cause it’s not a request from our master, inmate!” 

“Don’t expect my cooperation to come so easily,” Goro sneers, “I have no reason to submit to your orders.”

“Insubordinate prisoner! Do not underestimate us,” Caroline sneers right back, flips open her baton. Goro doesn’t move an inch. 

“A deal, then,” Justine says, more directed at Caroline than him. She waves her clipboard temptingly, “you want to know about your bonds, we can tell. We have the knowledge you seek.”

Goro deliberates. It doesn’t take long– he is curious. “Tell me about them, then. I can’t very well avoid ‘bonds’ if I have no idea what they are.” He’s reminded briefly of a story involving a snake and an apple, then waves that thought away.

Justine reads from her clipboard in a monotone: “the Fool arcana has the wildcard ability, the power to forge bonds. Each bond made corresponds to a different arcana, which represent waypoints on a journey to enlightenment.”

“That means nothing to me.”

Justine holds her head, “it… doesn’t make sense to us either. Something is… missing.”

Worthless. Goro huffs, combs a hand through his hair. “Anything else?” 

Justine flips through her clipboard, pulls out a small card stuck from between pages. It shines red and black, one side printed with an image of an old man petulantly sticking his tongue out. It reminds him of someone. “One of your bonds: The Hermit,” she says. “Represents isolation and a search for truth. This bond is new, but solid,” 

Caroline scrunches her little face. “That sound like anything to you?” 

“Yes… yes it does.” 

Justine pulls out another card. This one is different. It’s still red and black, but the image on it shifts, flickers, like it’s alive. So much so that he can't get a clear view of what it is. But somehow it feels like– 

“The Justice,” Caroline says. 

“The Aeon,” Justine says. 

Ren. 

Goro moves to look more closely at the card, but Justine is quicker– tucking it away and out of sight. “Those two– what do they mean? How is it both?” 

“We’re not sure.” 

“This bond, it’s… strange. It’s new and old at once… I feel as though…”

“The Justice is fairness and karmic retribution,” Caroline says with a worried glance at Justine, picking up for her while she has some sort of crisis.

Okay. Doling out punishment, actions have consequences. Sounds like Ren, though he wouldn’t call what the Phantom Thieves are doing “fair.”

…It also kind of sounds like Goro. That’s just how things tend to be with the two of them.

“And the other?”

Justine comes out of her reverie at his question, stares into his eyes in a way that feels like she’s seeing more. “The Aeon represents resurrection, and the reconciliation of a past self.”

 


———
Ren
Sept 7, 11:43 PM

Heyyyy we landed!
[Open image attachment]
Wish you were here :) 

Haha, you all look very tired.
Who is that other person that you’re with?

Lol Mishima
He saw us takin the pic and we were too sleepy to shoo him

Ah, so one of those?

Yeeup
Hey why are you still up anyway?
Don’t you have boring old not-Hawaii school in the morning?

I do. I’m finishing an essay.

Oof 

Indeed.

———


———
Ren
Sept 8, 12:18 PM

I disagree with the very basis of your question.

Sounds like it was a good question then :)

The opposite, in fact.
Objective truth exists. There’s no debating that.

But who decides that truth?
Truth doesn’t exist without people to believe in it 

Objective truth isn’t something that’s decided, or believed in. That’s why it’s “objective.”
Gravity is not made more true or real due to your belief in it.

Yeah but does it matter if no one’s around to perceive it?

The perception isn’t the point.
Truth exists in the world regardless of human cognition or belief systems. Right and wrong are not subjective.

Right and wrong are defo subjective
Just cause society says something is right or just doesn’t make that true

You’re being ridiculous.
And we’ve gone off topic.
This isn’t about what cultures or societies define and bringing up that point muddies the discussion.
You can convince anyone of anything if given enough time and pressure. This is why cognitive dissonance occurs.

How are you typing so fast

Humans cannot be trusted to define objective truth but that doesn’t mean there is none.
Hold on.
I’m going to take longer than normal to respond because I’m looking up an exact reference. Not because I’m conceding.

No fuck goddammit
Ffff the wifi is terrible here
You have access to sources you’re cheating
Gorooooo
Come backkk

——— 


———
Ren
Sept 9, 2:36 PM

Morgana says hello.
[Open image attachment]

Hi!!!!
Uh oh he looks super grumpy 

Yes, I’m afraid we may have been a little late with his lunch.

Oh no
Did Futaba happen to recruit you for pro golfer too? 

Level 43 is very difficult.

——— 


———
Ren
Sept 10, 5:16 PM

Sounds like fun. I wish I have seen it myself.
*could have

There’s plenty of them Goro, and Hawaii isn’t so far away

Haha, I believe we have different definitions of distance.
Shouldn’t you be getting to bed?

Uhhhh probly :p
Btw if you really do want to see a beach sunset we can make that happen even at home 

If you were anyone else I would think you were being insincere.

I took lots of pics, I can at least show you those when we get back

I appreciate that.
Goodnight, Ren.

Nite Goro :)

———


———
Ren
Sept 11, 2:28 AM

[Ren missed a call from you. Call again.]
Sorry.i

? What’s up?
You ok?
Hellooooo
Isn’t it super late there?
Goro?
[Ren called you. Call back.]
[Ren called you. Call back.]
[Ren called you. Call back.]
Goro I know you’re there answer the goddamn phone

———

He means to hit “Decline” again, he really does, but his hand is trembling so hard that he accidentally presses “Accept” instead.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Goro drops his phone, watches it clatter the short distance to the pavement. He curls up tighter to the stone wall he’s huddled against and tries to block out everything.

It’s not enough, of course, because he can still hear “Goro?” from the ground. The sound is tinny, wrong, distant, but still enough to paint the world red once again. Because it’s him, no– not again– and he hates, he hates, hates, hates

Goro grabs his head, buries it in his arms and between his knees.

Hello? Goro?

Shut up!!” Someone that is not Goro shouts, though the sound is muffled due to how he’s sitting.

Wait– oh, no, nonono, that was his voice. That was him that said that, he’s going crazy, going insane, going

Hey! What’s going on?

He clamps his mouth shut because all he can see is red and he wants to yell and scream and rip and tear and

Are you okay?” No, no, no, no, no, “can you talk to me?” no, no, no, no, nononono, “Goro if you can say ‘no’ you can talk to me.

“I can’t,” Goro says, instead of “I’ll kill you.”

What? Goro, you won’t– can you tell me where you are?” Where he is? Why the fuck is Joker asking when he’s here too? “Look around and tell me one thing you see–” 

“Metal,” Goro barks out, “pipes,” though it doesn’t make sense for there to be so many of them outside Ren’s school. “You.” His vision flashes red again, stronger than ever. This is the power he needed, this is how he’ll kill him, kill this worthless piece of shit for good, he hates him, him and all his fucking friends, he hates you, you ruined everything!” 

He’s the reason why Goro couldn’t– Couldn’t. Couldn’t…? Couldn’t finish his fucking job and take out the principal like Shido asked. Goddamn him, him and his worthless bond– Goro was right there, he could have pulled the trigger, could have ended it, and instead he’s sitting outside a high school at three in the morning being driven psychotic by his own broken Persona–

No, wait, but Joker… doesn’t know. About him. Does he? Aren’t they fighting?

Something… feels… wrong… 

Goro shakes his head, tries to blink away the haze coating his surroundings. Joker– Ren is on his phone, right now. Ren can’t know, he can’t know what Goro is really doing, who he really is, so he has to get his fucking act together. Pretend everything is fine for just a few minutes, at least. Just a few minutes.

He looks around, finds one thing to focus on. There’s a vending machine next to him. It’s blue? Not red. He’s outside. There’s no metal, no pipes, no…?

–remember?” The phone is saying now, “Akechi, goddammit, would you say something, please–

Goro picks it up, brushes some debris off the back. Feels proud of how little his voice wavers when he cuts him off and says, “Ren? Ren– hello.”

Hey! Hey, are you–

“Feeling better,” he says. The vending machine is blue, not red, and he can breathe, and he can think. “I apologize, I–” shit, he hadn’t thought of an excuse yet. “I– how embarrassing– I’m afraid I got caught up in a nightmare and forgot where I was.”

That sounds… believable. 

Goro,” Ren’s voice sounds so relieved, so soft, so tender, for lack of a better word, that his chest aches and his throat tightens. “Goro, are you alright?

“I am,” Goro reassures him, just as soft. “Ren, you– ah, keep catching me in… embarrassing circumstances.”

It’s fine,” the phone says, “I’m glad you called.

“Did I wake you?”

Nah, I was on my way to get breakfast.” There’s a pause, then Ren continues, “um, that dream you had… do you… remember anything?

Goro grimaces, feels his heartbeat kick up, nervously fiddles with a pebble on the ground. No, he’s not going psychotic, he’s fine. The vending machine is blue. “I’d prefer not to think about it.”

Right. Sorry.” 

“I’ll let you go eat your breakfast now– I should… get back to sleep.”

You’re sure you’re okay?

Goro smiles, “quite sure, Ren. Thank you for your assistance. Again.”

I would say don’t mention it but I assume we won’t, ever again.

“Absolutely not,” he chuckles. 

Healthy.

“I believe it’s called a ‘coping mechanism.’”

Ha, well… dream better dreams this time, will you?

“I’ll do my best. See you soon, Ren.”

Ren chuckles too, then responds in his confoundingly sincere way: “I can’t wait.” 

Goro swallows past his throat, tight once again. He looks out into the eerie darkness of the early morning, hears only crickets and the buzzing of distant streetlamps. He feels okay now, he really does, as if pretending had somehow made it true. He knows it won’t last. 

He wishes he could talk to Ren forever, because when they stop the sun will come up, reality will set in, and Goro will have been too weak to complete his mission. He wishes he were someone else, someone who was allowed to feel the way he felt. He wishes he’d met Ren earlier. He wishes for a lot of things. 

Goro presses the warm phone to his cheek a little harder and says, “neither can I.”

 


 

“He didn’t have one?”

“I was surprised as you are, Shido-san. I’m afraid we’ll have to find another way to make it look as though a change of heart was what killed him. A suicide, perhaps?”

Shido stands from behind his desk, fixes his blazer. “Inconvenient, but doable.”

Goro nods, relief flooding through his veins. He won’t have to do it, and it’s fine.

He tried, he tried so many times after his call with Ren. Each attempt ended worse than the one before it until the latest, when he shook so hard upon just entering the Metaverse that he couldn’t even keep a grip on his pistol.

But it’s fine, he got away with it, he won’t have to do it. 

Shido walks around his desk, asks: “you’re still keeping an eye on those children?”

“I am,” he says, putting on his sweetest smile, “they’re nothing– as ignorant as the rest of the masses. Their ideals will lead them to ruin just as assuredly as ours will lead us to victory.”

Shido smirks, nods. “Soon I will see my patience rewarded, when this country turns against their fallen ‘saviors.’”

“And I will once again be recognized as the true hero of justice,” Goro adds, his grin growing wider without any effort.

Shido chuckles a little at that, condescension clear to anyone who isn’t a simpering sycophant. Goro laughs as well, because he’s supposed to, finally turns to leave.

“Akechi. Before you go…”

Oh.

Goro knows. 

He knows immediately that he has not, in fact, gotten away with it. 

“…open the Metaverse Navigator.”

Shido steps closer as he does so, towers over him. Takes his phone from him and says clearly, “Kobayakawa Kinshiro.” 

Candidate found.

Goro’s mind, which never failed him before, doesn’t seem to be working. He can’t formulate any excuses or plans but opens his mouth nonetheless, because maybe–

It happens so fast.

Goro manages to stay on his feet. His pride allows nothing less. Still, he hates himself for every millisecond spent stumbling and regaining his footing, hates himself for reflexively bringing his hand to his cheek, hates himself for the way his eyes water. 

Hates himself because his eyes might be watering not from the pain, the fury, the humiliation, but from feeling betrayed by Shido of all people.

“Don’t cross me, Akechi,” Shido sneers down at him, “don’t make me handle you like everyone else. I thought you were better than that.”

“I am,” Goro says. He is better, he is, he’s better than everyone else, he’s supposed to be– 

“Okumura Kunikazu.” 

Candidate found.

Shido doesn’t even glance in his direction when he tosses the phone to the floor, far enough away that Goro will have to fetch it like a dog. He does.

His balance is thrown off, ears still ringing, so Goro stumbles again when he straightens up. More humiliation. It doesn’t matter, it’s all over anyway, Shido will never see him the same now that he failed.

Oh god, he failed.

He failed. 

“I don’t know why you’ve suddenly decided to become so troublesome and I don’t care. You’ll get this done, just like the others, and when the time comes you’ll take out Okumura as well.”

“I will, I’ll do anything to achieve your ideals, Shido-san,” Goro says as quickly as he can. Every syllable hurts, his jaw is clicking in a way it hadn’t before. He bows, “please, wait for the good news.”

His father still doesn’t even look at him. Doesn’t even look at him, like he’s nothing (he is nothing). He just turns away, walks back behind his desk. Sits down and lights a cigarette. 

“Get out of my sight, Akechi. Do the job.”

This time, he does.

Chapter Text

26 minutes.

It takes them 26 minutes to cook and completely demolish their dinner. Ren knows it was exactly 26 minutes because he accidentally left his stopwatch app running after Ryuji shouted, “bro, time me!!”

And bro, he timed him. And bro, Ryuji almost choked to death on some noodles. It was hilarious.

Anyway, anyway– 26 minutes later, dinner is over. He’s here, in his musty gross attic prison, same as usual, but this time all of his friends are here too.

Morgana, Ryuji, Ann, and now Yusuke– him and his new friends against the whole goddamn world. They have these insane powers, they have anonymity, and they’re on the side of justice, no matter what that arrogant idol detective says on TV.

So, the world better watch out.

“I’ve learned so much from you all,” Yusuke hums, clearly feeling as content in this moment as Ren does.

In fact, the feeling is so perfect, so right, that it’s almost like he’s rewatching a scene in one of his favorite movies. Ren even knows what’s coming next: Ann is about to wake up.

“What’re you guys getting all excited about?”

He smirks as Ann sits up and stretches. Enjoys a secret little rush of nonsensical power – the kind of stupid power that’s on par with accidentally predicting the results of a coin toss. Unfortunately, it also makes his head throb.

“Oh, sorry… did we wake you up?” Ryuji shifts in his seat, makes the wood creak under the pressure. The noise jabs right into Ren’s burgeoning headache like a knife, signaling that it’s here to stay. Awesome. He was having such a great time, too.

Ann shakes her head. “Nah, not really. I’ve been up for a while now.”

Ren tries to remember if he’d gotten himself more pain medication the last time he was at that hot doctor’s office. His vision feels off… migraines have some sort of visual component, right? Is this what a migraine is?

“Still, this weird feeling came over me–” the words pop into his head. Uh–

“Still, this weird feeling came over me while I was listening to you guys,” Ann says. Ren wants to ignore whatever this is, because it’s just a headache, but realizes he shouldn’t when he sees her expression.

She looks confused too. Wait– hadn’t Ann… said that already? Again?

It’s… just a coincidence, right?

There’s a saying about that, isn’t there– someone told him once… ugh, he can’t remember.

Ren’s vision jumps, flickers again, and suddenly– holy shit– he’s looking at two Anns. And it’s not even like he’s seeing double– the Anns are different.

One Ann is sleepy and content, picking absently her plate. The other Ann is rubbing at her head with her fists, somehow occupying exactly the same space. The sleepy one– she’s going to say something about how she feels like she’s known them all forever.

“It almost feels like I’ve known you all forever.”

“Three times is a pattern,” he says. He’s walking Ren through one of his tougher cases, but Ren is more impressed by how proficiently he twirls his pen around his gloved fingers.

The other Ann, the one that his freaky deja-vu can’t predict, rubs her head. She sounds like she’s reading out lines from a script she hasn’t studied: “it almost feels like... I’ve known you all... forever?”

Ren rubs at his eyes under his glasses, tries to concentrate past his pounding headache. Okay. Okay. That makes three. Three times that he knew exactly what was going to happen before it happened. He remembers the saying now: once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern. So this is real. Something is wrong, very wrong.

Is it the Metaverse? Something new? He has to ask Morgana, if he could just clear his head for a second–

Ren blinks, and the horrible, unnameable feeling coalesces into something even worse. He’s seeing two of everyone now: two Anns, two Ryujis, two Morganas, and two Yusukes all in front of him. Ren even feels two of himself, which is officially the weirdest goddamn thing… ever. He’s calmly listening to an Ann talk about their backgrounds at the same time that he’s sitting here, seeing double, fighting back panic and attempting to hold his mind together.

A Ryuji drops his head into his hands. “Man, my head is killing me…”

“Mine as well,” one of the Yusukes adds. “Ann, I believe you were supposed to say something else?” He puts a hand to his head, grimaces, “I apologize– I meant to say– last time you also mentioned us having similar backgrounds?”

Ann tilts her head, her voice still a little rough around the edges from sleep. “Do you think it’s because our backgrounds are so similar?”

“Well… it sure ain’t cause of anything good,” Ryuji says, the sound so familiar but wrong, because Ryuji is staring at him now, terrified, like Ren has any answers (he should, he’s the leader), and his mouth hasn’t moved at all?

And Morgana’s voice, far away, but becoming clearer: “wait… didn’t we already do all this? Where’s everyone else?”

Last time…

Everyone else?

This isn’t the whole team.

This isn’t happening now.

This already happened months ago.

He’s– he’s reliving a memory. They officially welcomed Yusuke to the team with this meal, but they’ve been friends for months… and– and they’re missing people. Who are they missing?

Focus.

He has to retrace his steps. The last things he remembers: Yusuke asking to stay, all of them coming to Leblanc. Mementos– almost endless. Almost. That shitty school trip to the television station. Makoto’s sister (Niijima Makoto? The student council president?) told them they were all going to be arrested (arrested?).

It’s the end of December, it’s the middle of June, yesterday he talked to that guy with the hair, that detective, and there’s something about him, too. Something important, so important–

Ren’s head is throbbing, he feels like Haru’s axe is splitting it right down the middle. And besides the pain… there’s something terrible. Some horrible truth lurking in the corners of his mind. Something he doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to remember, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he does.

“Oh my god, we all disappeared,” Ann whispers from the couch.

“We gotta go find the others! What day is it? What month?”

Everyone else is standing, yelling, frantically pulling out their phones, but Ren can’t move. If he moves his mind will fall apart, he’ll lose everything. He’ll lose–

“Holy fuckin’ shit, it’s June 11th. It’s June! It’s six months ago!”

That detective. That terrible feeling– is it about him? They just met but… he’s their enemy?

No, that isn’t it…

Oh.

Oh, oh no. No, please–

Ren finally moves, lurches forward in his chair to dig through his bag on the floor. Finds his journal, much more worn than it was just a few minutes ago, pages filled far past today’s date. Finds an expensive pistol. An even more expensive knife. A book he was reading, a balled up scrap of paper, an energy bar he forgot about, digs and digs and digs, more frantic with every passing second, please, please, please–

Feels it– finds it, finally– pulls it out of his bag. Cradles it carefully in the palm of his hand. 

The black finish on the king is worn around its edges, revealing light wood underneath. It has a small crack on one side.

Of course it isn’t December anymore. Not after what they’d done. Of course it’s June.

And Ren remembers everything.

 


 

You won’t say no, will you?

 


 

When Akechi Goro died Ren didn’t mourn him. 

His friends sort of did, in their own way. They awkwardly exchanged their thoughts on him, what they’d learned about him. If they could have done anything to save him. If they should have done anything to save him.

Ren stayed quiet (he’s good at that), and their mentions of Akechi petered out after a while, which was just fine with him. Because Ren knew the truth: Akechi Goro wasn’t dead.

It was an amazing trick, it really was. Almost as good as his own trick in the interrogation room. He even believed it himself, for a bit. But on their way out Shido’s Palace he realized– it just didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense. Akechi, his friend, his rival, his… whatever– Akechi Goro, just going out like that?

How convenient, that Akechi put up that wall. How convenient, that it blocked their view of him. How convenient, that the only way for them to check his status was poor Futaba’s scanner. How convenient.

So Ren stayed quiet (he really is good at that) when his friends mentioned Akechi. Smirked at the “missing” posters that popped up around Shibuya. Was kind of surprised that he didn’t make some sort of dramatic reappearance when they confronted Shido’s Shadow, but was also kind of proud that he’d moved on.

He missed Akechi, of course he missed him. He missed him a lot. Thought about him constantly, though that was nothing new.

He wondered what Akechi was up to. Wished he’d hurry up and come back, because their game was more fun when he was around. Definitely wanted to see if he could kiss him again. Maybe more, if he was lucky.

He carried the black king with him everywhere, every day. He wanted to be ready when Akechi finally showed up.

And then everything went to shit.

He started to get pissed at Akechi when it became clear that Shido’s change of heart and confession had done nothing to change the public’s opinion. Wondered where the fuck he was, what the fuck he was doing when all the rest of them were fighting and losing against that stupid cup. Panicked when he couldn’t find him alongside the rest of his teammates in the cells of the Velvet Room. Didn’t understand why Igor and Lavenza, these beings who saw and understood everything…

He didn’t understand why they were talking about Akechi in the past tense.

As if he were… as if he were really–

Because Akechi wasn’t. He couldn’t be–

He was standing in a dream, with his friends in a representation of his own heart. Everyone else around him was discussing a game, and gods, and pawns, and all he could think was that…

That Akechi was all alone behind that wall.

He was shot, by an evil thing wearing his face, an evil thing conjured up by his evil father. His body stayed behind that fucking wall on that fucking ship and sank with it, disappeared with it.

Everyone else around him was discussing fate, and rules, and time, and… and no one ever mourned Akechi, not really. There was no ceremony, no grave, no flowers, nothing.

He was the most incredible person Ren had ever met. He was just the same as the rest of them: torn apart, cast aside, left behind by this fucked-up society, just like them. He gave his life for Ren and his friends, he really did, and Ren was such a piece of shit that he didn’t even have the decency to believe him.

Akechi Goro was dead. He was dead, and it was all Ren’s fault.

 


 

Let’s make a deal, okay?

 


 

That first night, after gathering all together at Leblanc and after disbanding again for the night, he asks Futaba to contact Akechi. Time travel was a weird enough experience when he was with his friends, when he knew what was going on (well, part of him knew). He can only imagine what Akechi is going through, wherever he is– and all alone too. Ren doesn’t want him to be alone.

After a few minutes she messages him back: “sorry ren, i don’t think it worked for him. probly had to be in that room with us and not be dead, Ren’s stupid brain finishes for him.

But– but it’s hard to read a person’s tone over text, and Akechi– ha, Akechi is notoriously difficult to read. So he asks Makoto to do some in-person recon.

He doesn’t remember anything,” Makoto texts him the next day. “Not even Akechi can pretend that well. Sorry, Ren.”

But– but how well does Makoto know Akechi? Certainly not as well as Ren does. Akechi could be fooling her, could be fooling everyone. He’s a trickster, a wildcard, he’s just like Ren, it’s what he does.

Ren flips through his journal, finds a stupid comment his asshole dipshit past-self left about Akechi’s show that very same night. He turns on his garbage television, flips to the channel.

And there he is.

It’s a live show. It’s him. He sits prim and proper. Does that ridiculous “thinking” pose. Smiles perfectly. Winks at the camera. Makes a terrible joke, the same exact one that Ren made fun of in his journal the first time around. He’s exactly the same.

Ren pulls the black king out his pocket. He holds the small chess piece, the only memento he has left of Akechi, the only sign that his Akechi ever existed, and he finally mourns him.

Akechi doesn’t remember anything. He’s gone.

 


 

Your heart is always free… the exact opposite of mine. To be honest, I’m envious.

 


 

Makoto shakes her head, like he’s being ridiculous for asking a simple question. “They said we won’t be able to change things, Ren. It wasn’t a warning, it was a fact. It’s not one of those rules that you can just break.”

“What harm could it do?”

“Oh my god!” Futaba groans. “Have you seen any time travel movie, ever?”

“This is for our own good, remember? We need to be able to reach the Holy Grail at the end of all this,” Makoto says, “we’re only supposed to be using this time to improve ourselves.”

“But… but it’s time travel,” Ryuji whines. “When the hell else are we gonna get a chance like this? What if we could get stronger, and fix some of the stupid shit we did, and still get to the bottom of Mementos?”

Ryuji is a good friend.

Futaba draws her knees up to her chest. “I mean… I don’t have a Palace anymore. I checked. So it’s not like this year can be exactly the same anyway.”

There’s a contemplative silence, broken only by the sound of Yusuke crunching on a snack.

“I want to try,” Haru finally says, yes, yes. She and Makoto share a look, and that’s that.

They steal Kaneshiro’s heart on a different day. A whole eight days early, according to Ren’s journal.

And it’s just like Igor and Lavenza said it would be. None of it matters. Kaneshiro’s Shadow says exactly the same bullshit, disappears in exactly the same way, and turns himself into the police on exactly the same day.

 


 

This deal we made– it was a great experience for me.

 


 

So, he knows three things now: Akechi Goro is dead, Akechi Goro is alive, and Akechi Goro is, in all likelihood, going to die.

But he doesn’t know what to do.

He doesn’t know what to do.

 


 

Considering this is you we’re talking about, I’m sure you’ll come to a favorable reply.

 


 

Ren kind of has a history of kissing people he shouldn’t. He’s stupid that way.

First there was Lunch Girl and her very obvious crush. He didn’t like her but he still kissed Lunch Girl during, well, lunch, because he thought that’s what he was supposed to do. It was gross, so he made a blech! sound, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and she never spoke to him again. She wasn’t wrong.

Then Guy at Party. Oh, Guy at Party. Yikes. Ren thought he’d be fun, thought he’d be worth the risk. He was hot, they flirted all night, and then Guy at Party shoved his tongue down Ren’s throat in a way that he knew was bad even while completely wasted. And then his whole life got ruined. Not really Guy at Party’s fault but also… not super great.

He kissed Takamaki Ann on the roof of Shujin Academy– that one was supposed to make sense. She was so cute. Their romance leading up to the kiss was beautiful. It should have been perfect. They both pulled apart after a couple of tries and, thank fuck, had the same thought at the same time. Which was: “nah.”

So Ren was surprised when he kissed Akechi Goro, the guy who wanted to murder him, two nights before the aforementioned murdering.

But he wasn’t surprised that he’d done it in the first place.

No, what surprised him was that it was… it was good. It was really good.

Ren thinks about that night a lot.

Time makes everything fade, so all he has left to hold onto are vague feelings. A few bits and pieces. Like the cute little growl Akechi made before he nipped at Ren’s lip. The soft way he whined against him, backed up against the counter. Fluffy hair falling through Ren’s fingers, tickling his cheeks. Leather hot against the back of his neck.

He thinks about how it felt more like sparring than making out, and how that made it perfect. He thinks about how he could turn those little growls and whines into something more. He thinks about what could have been, in his weaker moments can’t help but think about what still could be.

But mostly Ren thinks about how Akechi left, and how he shouldn’t have let him go.

 


 

I feel as though I can tell you anything during our conversations.

 


 

Tokyo has a population of over nine million people.

It takes less than a month.

Ren runs, because he isn’t ready.

Ann follows him. She finds him in the underground, steers him to sit him down somewhere, gets him a water, listens to him as he finally talks about everything, about everything, for the first time. Listens even after he becomes completely incoherent. It feels familiar.

 


 

It’s strange, but… talking to you is thought-provoking.

 


 

He’s angry, so angry, all the fucking time.

This isn’t the wild, righteous anger that he used to feel. It’s not fun, not useful, not good for anything. He sneaks away from Mona sometimes, goes to Mementos by himself. He goes to Mementos because if he doesn’t enter the Metaverse there then he’ll just keep riding the train until he reaches the Diet Building.

He’s angry all the time, but he’s gotten pretty good at hiding it. The problem is– the problem is he’s just not very good at hiding when it comes to Akechi. He doesn’t realize how much of that anger he’s been directing towards him, at him. Not until Akechi is choking back tears on the floor.

Ren was never mad at him for the lies, the schemes, the betrayals, the fights– those were all part of the fun. He was mad that Akechi just… gave up. That he took the first out with no hesitation. He was mad because he was pretty sure Akechi wanted to die, and he didn’t understand why.

He still doesn’t understand, but sitting on that bathroom floor, holding him close as he shakes… he wonders if he would, if his life were a little bit more like Akechi’s.

He manages to get him up. Get a little more water in him. Messages Futaba to get the address of his apartment.

Akechi is so drunk that he falls asleep on Ren on the train.

The rest of the car is empty. He breathes softly against Ren’s chest. He’s warm. Ren presses his lips to the top of his head, so light that they barely touch, and for a moment, for just a moment, he’s his Akechi.

“You said ‘your heart is always free,’” Ren whispers, letting out long-held confessions to a dead friend. “You were wrong. I’m trapped, just like you.”

Akechi twitches, and Ren pulls him closer. Tucks his hair behind his ear. “And even if my heart were free… it doesn’t belong to me anymore.”

“I’m going to save you,” Ren tells him. He’s angry, but it’s not the wild, righteous anger that he used to feel. It’s simmering, protective, it settles just under his skin, closer to the surface than ever before for its restraint. “I don’t know how yet, but this time I’m going to save you.”

 


 

You always find a way to rise above my expectations. You really are an intriguing one.

 


 

The problem is that Akechi is exactly the same.

“I don’t get why you like him so much,” Mona says while Ren hides in the attic. “I mean, I get it, I feel bad for him, but he’s kind of annoying.”

“You're just saying that cause you have to stay quiet while he’s around.”

Mona’s tail twitches but he doesn’t argue.

Ren sighs, flops down onto his pillow. “I dunno… it’s like… there was something Caroline and Justine said, right before I fused them.”

Your right eye, and my left. It’s as if they’re the same, yet mirrored.

He fiddles with his hair awkwardly, stares at the stars on his ceiling. “It doesn’t really make sense but… sometimes it feels like that.”

“Huh.” Mona tilts his head at him, but doesn’t question it.

They’re both silent for a while. Ren wonders if Akechi has left the cafe yet.

Akechi is exactly the same, and Ren wonders if he’ll ever be able to look at him without remembering their past and his failure. He wonders when he became such a fucking coward.

“Would you turn into one big human?” Mona asks out of the blue.

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothin’. Just thinking about what a fusion of you and Akechi would look like.”

Ren chokes.

 


 

I feel like our discussions could prove quite fruitful. Would you mind… talking with me again?

 


 

There are two pawns in play, Amamiya-kun.

He’s been so stupid, so selfish– of course Akechi is exactly the same. Who was he to think that Akechi would ever be anyone besides Akechi. So selfish to think that a few forgotten memories, a few erased months, would have any effect on Akechi Goro.

Ren has been stewing and moping and overall having a terrible fucking time when all he had to do was open his goddamn eyes and see that Akechi is here. He’s alive. He’s been sitting right in front of him, playing their game just like always, waiting for Ren to get his shit together and play with him.

There are two pawns in play, Amamiya-kun.

It takes him half a second to realize that Akechi, brilliant Akechi, has given him the answer. He doesn’t even know what Ren is talking about, doesn’t even know the problem that’s been plaguing his thoughts for months, and he still gives him the answer.

And suddenly there are too many plans, too many thoughts, too many ideas popping into his head, too fast to process.

There are two pawns in play, Amamiya-kun.

If the two of them are the same–

If they’re both tricksters, wildcards, pawns in this game–

If Akechi has to die–

If the two of them are the same

If Ren can’t break the rules, but could bend them instead–

If this is what Ren was meant to do all along–

If this is how he could repay him–

If they’re here to get stronger, better, if they have to fight a god, an actual god, at the end of all this then–

Then–

Then– then isn’t Akechi the strongest of them all? Isn’t he stronger than Ren?

His friends would never forgive him. Akechi will never forgive him.

…But that’s okay.

Ren is their leader. Besides anything else, besides how he feels, besides what his friends would think (his friends can never know), it just… it just makes tactical sense. It makes sense.

If he could save Akechi, if he could sacrifice himself instead, he’d be giving the rest of them their best shot at surviving. His friends could live. Akechi could live. This is why Ren is here– it all makes sense now.

It’s the end of August. He has barely four months, four precious months left.

Now, would you like to play a game? A real one, this time?

Ren’s hand shakes as he takes the black king from Akechi. Its worn and cracked twin is nestled safely in his pocket like always. Ren smiles, and laughs, and finally feels like himself again.

Because he finally knows what to do.

 


 

Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your uniforms. Are you students of Shujin Academy?

 


 

Chapter Text

Goro does the job.

It’s easy. Turns out the answer was right in front of him all along. His bonds are the problem. He was gifted the divine power to break the chains on a human heart. What are bonds, besides more chains?

So Goro does exactly what he feared most these past few months: uses Loki’s berserker power on himself. Laughs and screams sees only red as he rips the bonds around his heart to shreds. If he tears his heart in the process… what does it matter? What does it matter!? He doesn’t need it anyway.

With the bonds gone, with his mind and heart twisted into something that can comply, it’s easy. Why did he ever bother with those people, with friends, with teammates– what was the point of them, besides to hold him back? How could he let them taint him, ruin him, make him into something so weak?

Oracle– just a pest, an annoying little gnat that lives on his phone. What was their relationship besides blackmail, coercion, failed plots, and mindless chatter?

And Ren.

Why the fuck was Goro so fucking enamored with the concept of having a ‘rival?’ So excited by the idea, like a child, he chased and chased so mindlessly after this cocky piece of shit– he can’t believe he wasted so much of his time on someone as naive, as misguided, as just plain worthless as Amamiya Ren.

Ren, who thinks himself some sort of noble hero, who the public praises endlessly, when Goro is the one pulling the strings, Goro is the one doing the work, Goro is the one making the sacrifices that need to be made.

Ren, traipsing around these worlds, Goro’s domain. Everything works out for Ren, everyone loves Ren–

Ren, Ren, Ren, he hates him, hates him, hates,

Goro walks up to the twisted version of Shujin Academy’s principal. Shoots it in the head.

The ceiling collapses in on itself while he strolls away, and Goro welcomes the brief, sweet respite of pain and death and nothing.

The destination has been deleted.”

He arrives back at his apartment, dark and quiet as usual. Slips off his shoes, drops his keys in a bowl by the door, sits on his futon. Stares blankly at an empty wall. He calls Shido, tells him the job is complete.

Impressive how quickly you’re able to do your work when you put your mind to it.” Goro thanks him.

I’m glad to see you come to your senses– it was such an undesirable position that you put me in.” Goro apologizes. 

Plant a calling card in the man’s office when the opportunity arises.” Of course.

Keep speaking out against the Phantom Thieves, though it would be wise to stop your little photoshoots and interviews for a while.” Of course, haha.

Wait to remove your next target until the public frenzy against him reaches its peak.” Yes, of course.

The call ends and Goro still sits on his futon. Stares again at that empty wall.

After a while the silence becomes too loud.

———
Ren

I’m back!!!
That was the longest flight ever

[Open image attachment]
Gorooo you should come to leblanc 
Promise I won’t fall asleep
Maybe 
I’m v tired
But I’ll stay awake for you :)

———

Goro glances over the messages. The most recent one is from a few hours ago. He opens the picture.

Amamiya Ren is flat on his back, on his bed, making a peace sign and smiling a genuinely stupid-looking smile at the camera– probably in the middle of laughing, because his cat’s tail is on his face.

Goro has never received a picture like this before. A selfie meant just for him.

If he wanted to, if he cared about that sort of thing, this is probably where he could reciprocate.

If he cared. If Ren–

Ren. Ren is so…

Goro stares at the photo. At Ren’s goofy smile.  

He can see himself in the glossy reflection of the screen. He traces the pads of his fingers across his left cheek. Feels the puffiness, the heat radiating off the myriad of colors blooming across his face, follows the shape of the jagged cut under his eye.

Ren– he’s– he–

A bond he thought he’d torn apart wraps itself back around his ruined heart. It holds tight, fills a space that should be empty– warm, solid, strong, as if it had never been broken at all. Goro clutches his phone to his chest and crumples to the floor, uncontrollable sobs wracking his frame so suddenly and violently that he feels like he’s drowning.

 


 

———
Oracle

you gonna answer me or what
copying the app didn’t work out but there’s loads of other shit we can try 

HEY
i know you’re there you fucking clown
and i know you know i know!!
🤡!!
message me back!!!

srsly can you say something you’re freaking me out??

———

 


 

———
Ren

But I’ll stay awake for you :)

Glad to see you’ve returned safely.

Heyyyyy
You comin by soon?? I wanna show you pictures :)

I’m afraid my availability will be limited for a while. I’m very busy.

Oh. Sorry :(
That sucks
Wanna talk about it?
No pressure obvs

Thinking of you
Hope you’re doing okay

———

 


 

Life goes on.

He purchases some bandages for his face. Of course bruises don’t just disappear after a few days, like they do in the movies, so he has to be prepared. He tells school he was caught unawares by a perp at work. Tells work he was caught unawares by a delinquent at school. Every single adult that asks accepts his answer without question. As expected.

Whatever. People get hit all the time. Goro gets hit all the time in the Metaverse. He’s had to deal with this before (though no one was ever quite as strong as Shido). Whatever. It’s nothing.

The days pass slowly this time.

It’s not like this is anything new. His life was like this before, he was alone before, it didn’t bother him before. He can be alone again. He’s better by himself. It’s better this way.

If he’s tired, it’s only because he’s constantly using his Third Eye to hide from a city that hates him. And all the coffee he drinks to push past his exhaustion tastes like shit. And his face fucking hurts. His bonds have returned, he can’t seem to keep them off for long, but his heart still aches.

Hey, doesn’t that guy look like Akechi Goro?

The Detective Prince? Talk about an obnoxious little bastard…

Goro makes a sharp turn to the right, mentally maps out a short detour to his route back to the station. He doesn’t realize he’s walked past Haru until she’s running in front of him, waving her little hands in his face.

“Goro! Hello! It’s so good to see you, we’ve all–” Haru exclaims when he stops walking. Then, of course: “oh– oh my. What happened?” 

“This?” He points to his face after a moment, as if he’s forgotten about it. School or work? Work, it’s closer to the truth. “Haha, a hazard of my job, I’m afraid. Nothing serious.”

“Could I see?”

Goro deliberates, then decides a normal person would have no issue showing off a normal wound. He peels the tape securing the bandage up from the bottom and awkwardly holds it there.

“Oh,” Haru says.

Goro swallows.

His heart rate does not increase, because there’s nothing strange or wrong about any of this. He stands there and waits patiently for her to ask.

“You should let that cut breathe a bit, Goro,” Haru says instead. He’s not sure if he’s grateful or disappointed. She only examines him closer, puts a dainty hand to her chin. “It won’t heal as well as it could if it’s always under a bandage, and you have such a symmetrical face.” 

“Well, I–”

“Come with me, we’ll pick up just a few things for you– you’ll be good as new, I guarantee it!” She grabs his hand, starts dragging him off somewhere– the fourth time this has happened since they met. Goro has learned to accept it.

They end up in the underground mall this time, bouncing from store to store while Haru gives him updates on everything and anything.

“Everyone is doing well, we miss you so very much,” she says while she compares two different ointments.

“Hawaii was lovely, but it’s so good to be back home,” she says while she grabs new bandages, ones with a more mesh-like covering.

“My fiancé is the same as ever,” she says while perusing aisles upon aisles of makeup.

“And your father?” He asks.

(Goro is the worst, he always does this. He couldn’t help but blurt out the story of his own dead mother within 24 hours of meeting Futaba. Sae has been badgering him about his “theory” that “someone else is pulling the strings” with the mental shutdowns because one afternoon she looked at him like he was an idiot, just like everyone else was looking at him these days, and he went and proved her right. And god forbid he stops to listen to himself for even a moment whenever he talks to Ren.

So, why not ask how his future murder victim is doing? Why not ask his daughter? Just another fucking regret to throw on the ever-increasing pile. God, Goro, just shut up for once.)

“My father…” Haru says anyway, “my father is dealing with a lot right now. Some truly terrible news has been coming out about Okumura Foods, and with the public demanding a change of heart… it’s been difficult.” She looks genuinely sad, though that piece of shit she calls a father doesn’t deserve a second thought. “He was a good man once, Goro. I think he could be again, if he were given a chance.”

“And you think the Phantom Thieves will give him that chance?” Shut up

“I hope so. I can’t help but root for them, though I know you have your own misgivings… honestly I’m…” she trails off and, oh. Oh no. Her little bottom lip is quivering. Her eyes are watering. “I’m scared for him.”

What– what is he supposed to do here? Should he… hug her? He doesn’t want to do that. He should not do that. There’s no way she wants him to do that. Goro stands awkwardly, wishes he could sneak in a quick internet search for instructions.

“There are… too many forces out of my control,” Haru continues in a trembling voice, “I thought this would be good, I thought this could work, but sometimes– sometimes I wish I’d never tried. Which is just so horrible of me…”

Oh fuck, she really is crying now. Goro hates this, hates this, can’t stand idly by anymore. He tosses all the items they were carrying on a random shelf and grabs her gently by the elbow, steers her out of the store. She follows, so maybe he’s doing something right.

“I’m sorry,” Haru whispers, after they’ve settled at a little table outside the mall, “how embarrassing.”

“It’s okay,” Goro mumbles back, fidgets with the bandage on his face so he doesn’t have to look directly at her. She’s still sniffling, so he continues, “I’m… sorry too. I wish I could have helped. I’m afraid these kinds of problems aren’t really my forté. Still, I’m not accustomed to failure…”

Haru actually laughs at that– a kind of wet, pathetic laugh. “Remember,” she says, stops, laughs again, “remember when you told me to make a powerpoint presentation with all the reasons I shouldn’t marry Sugimura?”

Okay, well. His face heats up. It seemed like a good idea in his head.

Haru pats him on the arm, laughs and sniffs again. She seems better, somehow. As if Goro had actually done something besides offer insincere apologies and awkward platitudes. 

“You’re a good friend, Goro,” Haru says quietly. And Goro isn’t sure how to respond to that.

 


 

“The Empress,” Justine says, holding up a new card. “Represents understanding, and a desire to maintain peace.”

“Great,” Goro chokes out. He tries to stay calm. He fails. “H–how. How do I stop this.” 

“Stop what?”

“The bonds, the bonds!” He grabs desperately at his hair, “how do I stop making them, how do I get rid of them– get rid of them forever? You say I shouldn’t have them, you have to know!!” 

They both look alarmed by his outburst. Caroline stomps her foot, “wh– don’t blame us for your own mistakes, inmate! You weren’t supposed to be the one to make them in the first place!” 

Goro opens his mouth to protest. Parses what she said. Stops. “What did you just say?”

So does Justine. “Caroline, what…”

“Huh?”

“You said– you said ‘I wasn’t supposed to be the one to make bonds.’ So who is. Who. The fuck. Are you talking about!?

“Er– uh– ugh, I don’t know!” She shouts, grabbing at her own head as if that will help.

Goro throws his hands up in frustration, paces in a circle. There’s something going on here, something really fucking suspicious, but he can’t deal with this right now.

“Inmate!” Justine shouts, causing both Goro and Caroline to pause their respective meltdowns. “You have kept your end of our deal, and for that we are… grateful.”

Tch,” pouts Caroline, “remember, prisoner, we don’t have to do any of this. So whatever we may or may not have said– keep it to yourself!”

“Obviously,” Goro says with a little over-dramatic huff. Hm. They’re kind of amusing, the two of them. Once you get past their prickly exterior.  

Oh, wait– oh fuck.

“Ah,” Justine exclaims. She shakes her clipboard, catches a card when it falls out the bottom. “The Strength Arcana–”

Goro leaves.

 


 

———
Oracle

oh what am i doing while you pout and ignore me?
just taking down the most basic bitch hackers ever
just working against Our Guy all ALONE
he better hire some better hacker stooges if he wants to take control of this site from me
jk no one’s better than me get wrecked 

would you answer me???? I HAVE IDEAS
i’ll hack your shit again i stg i will
i’ll post everything on the internet 
akechi goro callout post: has terrible taste in porn, semicolon, desperately needs a boyfriend

———

Goro knows Oracle won’t. Even if they do… whatever. It’s not like his reputation can get any worse. Yes it can, murderer.

Shido Masayoshi is not so easily defeated, obviously. He finds other ways of spreading hate for Okumura. He has connections everywhere. He has eyes, ears, mouths– everywhere. It’s not long before Okumura reaches the top of the Phan-site’s requests again, this time legitimately.

Goro keeps an eye on Okumura’s Palace. Learns the layout. Practices against the demons inside. Keeps himself in shape outside. Maintains perfection at both school and work. Ignores everything else. 

It’s been his turn in chess for almost two weeks now. Goro knows exactly what move to make, knows what Ren would do next, has plotted out the rest of the game a thousand times in his head. He knows it ends with himself as the winner. It always does. So, it’s not worth making that move in the first place.

But Amamiya Ren always manages to surprise him.

Goro is working late one evening– partly because Sae asked him to catalogue every mention of hypnosis or brainwashing in every law on the books, partly because he just doesn’t want to go back to his dark and empty apartment. It’s dark and empty here too, in Sae’s little office at the SIU, but at least it’s not his.

He’s working late one evening, and there’s a quiet little knock on the office door. So quiet that Goro thinks he might have imagined it, hesitates in even getting up to answer. Until he hears an equally quiet and oh-so-familiar, “Goro?” and suddenly learns the upper limits of how hard a human heart can pound. He flies across the room before his brain catches up and when it does he barely has enough time to hide half his face behind the cracked door, in darkness.

Ren,” he says, a little too out of breath. Get a grip, Goro. “What are you doing here?”

His cute little smile (Goro missed his smile) pulls up more at the corners and he tugs at a curl (god, that ridiculous untamable mop) before holding out a takeout bag in front of him (hands…).

“Makoto said her sister said you’d be here,” Ren explains. “This is for you, Detect-y Akechi.”

Detect… y…? “Was that supposed to be something?” Goro teases, raising an eyebrow.

“Couldn’t get the rhyming right. Can I come in? I’m… kinda not supposed to be here.”

No. “Oh, um–” Goro ducks a little more behind the door. “I have classified materials here, so I’d have to put everything away.” He eyes the bag that Ren is still holding out. “What is that, anyway?”

“Curry. Boss was worried about you. And don’t bother with your stuff, I’ll get out of your hair.”

Oh. That’s… very nice. Goro takes the bag gently, precious cargo. “Sakura-san was worried?”

“Yeah, he was. He misses you,” Ren says, perfect smile growing wider and louder, belying the softness of his words. Until that smile catches. “What’s that on your face?”

God-fucking-dammit. He was so close to getting away with it. 

“This?” He points to his cheek after a moment, as if he’s forgotten about it. He’s gotten good at this part. “Haha, a hazard of my job, I’m afraid. Nothing serious.”

Ren‘s smile is gone, replaced by an expression that is… completely unreadable. “I don’t understand. How did you get that?”

“Oh, I was investigating a lead for one of our cases– a smaller one, not the Phantom Thieves, of course– and the man I was interrogating caught on. Not one of my finer moments, haha! But I was able to catch him after I regained my bearings, so the joke is on him after all, isn’t it?” He finishes with a wink.

“But… but this never happened to you before,” Ren says. He looks like the world is ending– it’s only a fucking bruise.

Goro swallows, feels his pleasant mask slide off his face. What the fuck does that even mean, this never happened to you before? “And how would you know?” He sneers. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.”

“No, Goro, I–,” Ren cuts himself off, takes a moment to breathe. Why couldn’t he have just accepted the lie like everyone else? Goro hates this, hates this, hates him, hates him– “is this why you’ve been avoiding us?”

“I told you I’ve been very busy. This Phantom Thieves case has become quite complex and now I’m also studying for entrance exams–”

“You’re always busy,” Ren interrupts.

Goro stares him down, takes full advantage of the bit of height he has on Ren. Says quietly, “you know what? I don’t like what you’re implying, Amamiya.”

“What am I implying?” Ren immediately challenges. There’s a fire burning behind his eyes. Goro burns right back.

“…Nothing,” Goro says after a moment. “Thank you for the curry.” He pointedly looks away from Ren, tries to shut the door in his face.

But Ren slaps a hand against it, stops the door from closing, says– pleads, “you can talk to me, Goro.”

Goro blinks.

And he realizes he’s so angry, so fucking furious, that he might actually be able to summon Loki in reality. He’s fine, he doesn’t need to “talk” like he’s some sort of child. He’s in control, he’s handling this, he wanted this, and he doesn’t need anyone’s fucking pity, especially not– 

Ren steps forward. “You don’t have to–”

“Get out!!” Goro shouts, uses his full strength to take Ren by surprise and slam the door shut.

The sound echoes in the quiet room, down the quiet hallways, but that’s it. And he doesn’t hear anything more from Ren either.

 


 

Goro stops at the store the next evening to get more bandages for his face. The same kind Haru ended up buying him but smaller, finally. He absently paces the aisles because there aren’t a lot of people here. It’s quiet and peaceful and not his apartment, his classroom, or his office, which is a nice change of pace.

He checks his phone, nothing new from Shido. Or anyone else. 

Shido hasn’t invited Goro out since his failure, which is fine. It’s fine.

As long as Goro doesn’t fuck up again everything will go back to normal in no time. He just has to remind Shido of how indispensable he is. His plan can still work. It’s fine.

Goro checks his phone again. Still nothing. Obviously. Only like, five seconds have passed since the last time he checked. He shoves the phone angrily back into his pocket, frustration mounting to a boiling point… before something familiar down the aisle catches his eye.

 


 

This isn’t good, right? He probably shouldn’t have done this. Probably.

But… what’s the problem, really? He left enough cash on the counter to pay for the bottle before sneaking it out of the store with the help of his Third Eye. It’s expensive bourbon too. Goro doesn’t have money to throw around, he didn’t have to do that.

So it was a victimless crime. So whatever. He’s tired and lonely and everyone hates him and thinks he’s a child or an idiot and he hasn’t had a drink in like, a month. He deserves this (he’s such a stupid fucking mess, no wonder he’s getting drunk alone in his apartment– this isn’t healthy at all, Goro, stop trying to explain away your own shitty behavior, you can’t lie to yourself).

Goro takes another swig of his fancy stolen bourbon. It’s getting dangerously low, damn. He should have grabbed more.

He does his usual rounds: checks mentions of his name in the news. Re-reads old texts. Scrolls though his notifications. Opens his few precious pictures of Ren and wallows in the usual frustration and misery.

Misery. Ren. He’s lost even the ability to properly hide in his fantasies. Not that he should have been doing that in the first place, but. Well.

The usual soft touches, the romance, the whispered praise… they don't feel right anymore. Goro can’t have it, he was a fool to imagine he ever could. He could think more about what he deserves (and there Ren is, at his service once again: cold, detached, demanding) but he doesn’t quite have the energy tonight. Or the functioning brain cells– this bourbon is good.

Instead he ends up laying on his floor, scrolling down his own grid, because of course he does. Trendy foods and landscapes turn into photos of himself performing various activities with carefully cropped Thieves turn into selfies turn into reposts of photoshoots and interviews turn into… nothing. Goro deleted everything from before a long time ago.

There’s nothing but hate and fights in the comments now. Mostly in the new pictures, but reaching even the oldest ones. Even the ones he used to like. 

lol why is his hair like that? this isn’t the 70’s goro-chan

attention whore

cant wait for the phantom thieves to steal ur heart u stupid prick” 

Goro empties the bottle.

 


 

He can’t avoid all of them forever, despite how large this city is. And of course, out of all of them, it’s Kitagawa Yusuke who catches him by the arm one afternoon in the underground walkway. 

Goro never really liked Yusuke. The rest of the Phantom Thieves were tolerable, had their uses or otherwise redeeming traits. But Yusuke… he always thought Yusuke was kind of dumb.

Yusuke has a full scholarship to a prestigious high school. He doesn’t have to worry about rent. He’s annoyingly skilled at what he does– he wins competitions constantly. And yet, he still stayed with Madarame. For years.

He didn’t have to. He could have left, at literally any point. He could have not involved himself with Madarame’s scheme in the first place. He practically asked that old piece of shit to take advantage of him. Goro just doesn’t get it.

And besides all that… okay. Fine. Fine! He doesn’t like how pretty Yusuke is. He doesn’t like the way he looks at Ren. Goro can be petty too, like everyone else in this messed-up world, he’s allowed.

So his frustration is a little closer to the surface than usual when he says, shrugging off the grip on his arm, “I can’t chat, I have things to do. Tell Ren I’m fine.”

Yusuke frowns at that. “Ren and I are not speaking right now.”

Well, if there were anything to make Goro stop in his tracks– that’s it. “What?” 

“You’ll have to tell Ren yourself. In fact, I recommend it,” Yusuke says simply, brushing his perfectly coiffed hair aside as he does so.

“You’re… not speaking?”

“I’m waiting for my anger with him to abate, otherwise I fear I would say something I would come to regret.”

“It seems unlike your group to fight,” Goro immediately prods, curiosity consuming him whole, “what could possibly have happened, may I ask?”

Yusuke is silent for a time, staring off into the distance. Goro wonders what he‘s seeing.

“Have you ever heard the story of how Ren and I became acquainted?” He finally responds.

“No, but I don’t see how–”

“He and his friends stalked me, surprised me at my home, attacked my master’s character to my face, and threatened to destroy my life,” Yusuke says.

Goro is both completely surprised and isn’t surprised at all, but this doesn’t answer his original question. He’s a good detective, a damn good detective, but even the Detective Prince can’t see how these two threads are connected. “So, did he do that again, or…” Goro trails off, hoping Yusuke will pick up. Yusuke does not. He prods further, “I’m afraid you’ll have to help me.”

Yusuke glares at him like he’s stupid, and Goro mentally tallies another reason not to like him. “Ren cares greatly for his friends. You are one of his friends. You are one of our friends. That is a responsibility I hope you do not take lightly.”

“Do you have a problem with me?” Goro challenges with a pleasant smile, hoping to add another tally mark already. Or, shit. Would he actually like him more?

But Yusuke seems astonished at that, “of course not! I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

“Are you?”

Yusuke blinks at him. “Yes.”

Unbelievable. 

“What happened between you and Ren!?” Goro blurts out, at his wits end. “Why aren’t you speaking?”

Yusuke looks taken aback by his outburst. Goro has never been so frustrated in his life.

“Ren’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. He saw a friend in need and did something brash. The consequences would have been dire had we not intervened in time.” Yusuke puts a hand to his chin, closes his eyes in contemplation. “I am upset by his actions, but I do not wish that he change them, for he would then be changing himself. I could not accept such an outcome. So, we are not speaking. For now.”

That’s all the pieces he needs to put the puzzle together. Goro doesn’t want to talk about this with Yusuke. He doesn’t want to talk about this in the middle of an underground walkway. He doesn’t want to talk about it, ever. He doesn’t know why these random people keep wanting to talk about it, doesn’t know why this one simple mistake haunts him, over and over and over again.

“Ren is mistaken. We’re not friends.” 

“I thought the same.”

“…I didn’t ask for this,” Goro mumbles, more to himself.

“And yet, here we are,” Yusuke answers anyway.

Goro stares a moment longer at him. Swallows past his dry throat. He still doesn’t like Yusuke, but he thinks he understands him a little better now. Thinks maybe he isn’t as stupid as Goro first assumed.

The Emperor, he realizes, feels the answer on his own this time. Structure, authority, and wisdom.

 


 

He’s been keeping an eye on them through Okumura’s spaceport world. The Phantom Thieves make their moves late in the night. They trawl through the cognitive world slowly, carefully, taking their time as if dreading reaching its end. Goro carefully notes each of their strengths and weaknesses, their attacks, their patterns, their Personas. Wonders why, and he’s fairly certain this is the case after so much observation, why most of them only use one Persona at a time. In fact, Goro thinks it’s only Ren (Joker) out of all of them who bothers with more.

Sure, Goro doesn’t use Robin Hood very much– it’s a weak Persona, and reminds him of times he’d prefer to forget– but sometimes it’s just good tactical sense to switch. Is Ren the only one of them with a brain?

After Goro’s run-in with Yusuke he decides he’s bored with all the passive, secret observation. Decides it’s time to take a more active role when it comes to his adversaries. He won’t join in their little outings or parties again, certainly can’t risk making his job even more difficult. However, Goro is always up for some light intimidation.

He arrives at Café Leblanc for the first time in close to a month: October wind at his back, winter uniform finally returned, new gloves for the year shining and delightfully un-creased. It’s not until he crosses the threshold and hears the bell ring that he remembers the sense of otherworldly comfort and nostalgia this place has.

Sakura breathes out some smoke from his cigarette, puts it out and greets Goro with a classic, “oh, it’s you.”

“Hello,” Goro says, taking his seat. Perfectly valid strategic reasons for visiting aside, he really does like it here.

“The usual?”

“Yes, please. I’ve missed it a great deal.” 

“Missed more than that, lemme tell you. These kids are gonna be the death of me.” Sakura taps his own cheek with a finger and asks, “that wasn’t him, was it,” tilting his head up toward the attic.

“Ren? No, of course not. Work, I’m afraid, and a rather embarrassing story as well.” 

Hmpf,” as expected.

“Is Ren… around?” What’s the point of intimidation if there’s no one around to intimidate?

“Oh, he’s around alright. Kid is upstairs on house arrest. They didn’t tell you?”

House arrest? Yusuke didn’t mention that detail– oh, this keeps getting better and better. Goro understands now why the Phantom Thieves have been operating at such odd hours. “No, I haven’t heard a thing.”

Sakura gently places a steaming cup in front of him. Lifeblood, elixir of the gods, finally.

“Turns out this guy got it in his head one way or another to go harass someone. Refuses to tell me why. Luckily he’s got good taste in friends– that Niijima girl spotted him and brought him back here before he actually did anything. Told me to keep an eye on him, and so I am.” 

Goro hides his sneer behind his fist. So, how should he feel about this? Is this supposed to feel good? Should he enjoy becoming some sort of… damsel in distress, some sort of pathetic thing to be saved, so Amamiya Ren has an excuse to make a fool of himself?

No.

“Goodness, it seems I really did miss quite a lot. Perhaps my return will encourage better behavior?” Goro finally takes a sip of his coffee. It tastes like nothing. “This is delicious.”

That satisfies Sakura, who retreats down the bar counter and starts cleaning a glass. Goro scrolls through his phone, tries to distract himself. Fucking Ren, can’t leave well enough alone…

“Strange that it was him, though, of all people.”

“Hm?” Goro is barely listening now, more occupied with a notification that reads: 486 people liked a Tweet you were mentioned in: @AkechiGoro_Official havent seen your prissy face around in a while did the PT finally get you.

“The guy he was pissed at,” Sakura grumbles anyway, “just some lowlife politician.”

Goro goes very still.

The sudden rush of adrenaline is white noise in his ears, a distraction. And oh, this is important– far too important to be distracted. 

“It was… the Diet Building, that Ren was heading towards?” He confirms quietly. 

Ren knows.

It’s obvious. As soon as Goro thinks it he knows he’s right. Ren discovers Goro’s injury, immediately runs off somewhere to the great ire of the rest of the Phantom Thieves, and that somewhere just happens to be…

A loud CRASH sounds in the attic above them, rattles the building, too perfectly timed to be a coincidence.

But how would Ren know?

Sakura chuckles, still cleaning that glass, none the wiser. “Now you see why I’ve got him under house arrest,” he says, answering a question Goro asked a lifetime ago.

Well, who else knows about Goro’s double life?

More noise from upstairs. Thumping, rustling. Goro doesn’t have much time. The café must be bugged. Of course the café is bugged, obviously the café is bugged.

Oracle knows.

“May I ask– which politician?” 

And how would Ren learn about Goro’s ties with Shido from Oracle?

Boss!” Ren shouts from the top of the stairs. Too late.

Because Oracle is a Phantom Thief.

Sakura’s answer: “Shido Masayoshi,” is just a confirmation. Goro doesn't need it anymore. Not after Ren, stupid stupid Ren, has shown his hand so clearly.

Boss!!

Goro turns in his seat just as Ren reaches the bottom of stairs, nearly skids into the opposite wall in his hurry. He looks like shit. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. And he’s too late

They lock eyes, and Goro remembers why he always wanted a rival. 

Ren’s lips tighten into a thin line. Goro allows his own to twitch upward. He always wanted a rival because now he gets to win

Let us start the game.

Sojiro scolds Ren, something like, “what are you doing, get the hell back up there,” but Ren is on his way back anyway. Flying up the stairs, off to tell his army to prepare for battle. 

Goro picks up his neglected cup, drains it in one sip. “Coffee was delicious as always,” he says, a little more rushed than he’d prefer to sound. He stands from his seat and leaves some cash on the counter. 

Sakura looks surprised. It’s kind of funny, how completely oblivious he is. “You’re leaving already?”

“Oh, I’ve just remembered I have some important business to attend to. Someone I simply can’t keep waiting,” Goro taunts to invisible ears, collects his briefcase, smiles perfectly for the cameras as well, wherever they’re hidden. He only allows his excitement to get the best of him after he’s turned away from any witnesses– lets it pull at the corners of his mouth until his grin practically splits his face in two.

It was obvious in retrospect, of course it was obvious, Goro muses as he heads off to war. Sakura Futaba played her game well, but she left a trail of clues in her wake. Oracle first contacted him only a day or two after he met Ren. She knew too much about the cognitive world, the workings of the Metaverse Navigator. Of course she would be obsessed with finding the research Shido stole, her mother’s research.

Oh, this is good, too good. Ren will see the grave mistake he’s made, assuming Goro is something small and weak. Assuming he’s better than him. They’ve shown their hand now, and Goro is going to force them to play it. If Ren and his friends want to change Okumura Kunikazu’s heart they’ll have to do it tonight.

 


  

The Phantom Thieves are operating without their leader. Grounded, can you believe it? Absolutely hilarious.

Goro follows close behind the group, always just out of sight. He knows they know he’s there. He catches them looking over their shoulders, growing more jittery and panicked the closer they get to the innermost part of this cognitive world, until they finally confront their foe. 

His Walther PPK has eight shots.

He lets them do the dirty work for him. Why waste his energy when he can waste theirs instead? The Phantom Thieves defeat robot after robot, a seemingly endless onslaught, while Goro watches from above and waits. They’re still strong, impressively so for only having been active in the cognitive world for a few months. But they’re weaker by magnitudes for the loss of Amamiya Ren– of Joker. And, of course, they’re nothing compared to Goro. 

Okumura falls in defeat. It’s time. Goro reaches for his pistol, and he– after all this, he still has a moment, a moment of doubt. Feels his bonds wrapped securely around his heart like always.

But he can’t stop now. He won’t allow himself to fail, not after coming so far. He has to win.

He has eight shots.

Goro summons Loki to rip apart his heart, erase all doubts from his mind. He flies down from his perch and fires his first shot before they have a chance to regroup.

His aim was perfect, would have found its mark in Okumura’s head if Haru hadn’t blocked it with her Persona. She glares at him beneath her mask, porcelain face turned to stone through the force of her resolve. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, she’d told him once, and now he knows she was talking about him. He should have remembered not to underestimate her. 

Seven shots. Goro runs.

They won’t use their guns against him. If they were going to they would have already tried. Fools. So the Thief with the longest range, the strongest spells– that’s Ann. Goro knocks her off her feet, flings her whip somewhere across the room. Haru is distracted, whispering to her father, so Goro–

–shoots the ground, aim thrown off by a wind spell from the “cat.” Loki takes care of the thing for him, it’s small, sends it flying. Six shots.

Ryuji has a bad leg, he told Goro the story. So Goro uses that, takes him down on the way around Haru’s blockade. This time he takes advantage of the wall encompassing the area, runs up it to fire from above.

But Haru stops him, again, fuck. Five shots. Goro takes aim at her, stupid, stupid, but she’s pissing him off. She blocks that as well, barely. It looks like she’s getting tired. Four shots.

He lands solidly on his feet. Dashes to the side and opens his Third Eye, cloaking his movements in shadow. It’s a tough thing to keep up while he’s fighting, but if he can just stay out of Haru’s sight long enough… 

Makoto was within striking range, but falls back with a “what the–” when Goro vanishes. 

“Navi!” Ryuji yells, still on the ground somewhere to his right.

“I can see him– Yusuke!

The wide sweep of a sword throws him off, closes his Third Eye at just the wrong moment. Three shots. Shit shit shit.

Goro roars, summons Loki and pours himself into the strongest attack he has. The room crackles with energy and all the Thieves are knocked off their feet, but Haru still manages to push his target out of the way just as he fires.

His target: starting to shimmer, starting to disappear.

Two shots.

He sprints forward, draws his sword and gives himself an opening with another of Loki’s spells. Haru collapses, reaches desperately out to her father as she falls. Her father, her piece of shit father who is just using her, who never gave a damn about her anyway– the man turns to look at him, Goro can see the whites of his eyes through that shitty knock-off Vader costume, can see the fear now that he finally has to face his choices, face the consequences of his actions–

FUCK. Again, again they get lucky: Makoto surprises him with a ranged attack, she should have been too far away to reach him in time, how the fuck did she cross the room so fast, he must have miscalculated–

Okumura is out of range, becoming less corporeal with each passing millisecond. Goro doesn’t have much time left. This is it.

One shot.

“Navi! He disappeared again!!” One of them shouts, too far away to matter.

“Shit! I lost track– hold on!”

One shot. With his Third Eye open he can see a path around them, can slide past Ann, Makoto, Ryuji unimpeded. They can’t block him if they can’t see him–

Another screech, “Navi!!

So close, so close, so close

Goro raises his gun as he runs–

One shot.

So close.

There–

Every single one of his senses, his Third Eye– they all flare out of control in a familiar way. A shining force slams into him and the world turns sideways. Goro’s eye shuts as he and Ren fly across the room together, landing hard on the metal floor and skidding apart.

He scrambles to his feet fast as he can, cocks his gun, aims down the barrel at–

At only Haru. 

Okumura is gone.

Okumura is gone?

He doesn’t understand.

Goro stares at the empty place he’s still aiming at, holds his position even as Makoto pulls Haru out of the way.

He doesn’t understand. Okumura, he… he can’t be gone. Because that would mean.

That would mean. 

That would mean–

“He’s going to kill me,” Goro says, just as he realizes it himself.

Okumura dying via mental shutdown is the crux of Goro’s entire operation. He needs Okumura to die, so the public will turn against the Phantom Thieves, so Shido can use that frenzy to fuel his campaign, so he’ll remember how vital Goro is, so he’ll remember how much he needs him, so–

He hasn’t just failed. It’s everything. Everything is over. All his work, his sacrifices, all his plans up to this point, years and years. His life. It’s over. 

It doesn’t feel real. 

Ha– this, this can’t be real.

This isn’t how it was supposed to go. This… isn’t how it went last time. The last time he killed Okumura–

Crow!!” 

Goro breaks out of his reverie, whips around to face the source of the shout: Amamiya Ren, just a few feet away, just out of reach. Realizes the entire world is shaking around them, has been shaking for a while. 

“Crow, come with us!” Ren says, probably not for the first time.

Goro… doesn’t care.

It’s going to collapse, just like it always does. He doesn’t care. 

All the rest of them, the Phantom Thieves, are piling into a van. A van. They have a getaway car, of course they do, they have everything. They can escape and leave him behind. Goro stares at Ren, stares at all of them, and it– it finally, finally hits him. He was too preoccupied with taunting them before, with his mission, with the surety of his win, that it never really sunk in.

They know everything.

They all do. They know the truth about him. They know everything he’s done.

His gaze is naturally drawn to Futaba– to Oracle. They know… they know everything.

“I’m not leaving him– go, I’ll be fine!” Ren shouts to his friends, all his fucking friends.

I’ll be fine, Ren says. He’ll be fine, because physical injuries don’t persist outside the cognitive world, so even death can be avoided if the world collapses in time.

Goro knows this. 

Goro knows this. 

I won’t tell anyone, she’d told him, after he poured out everything he had and everything he was to a deceiver, a fake hiding behind the screen of a phone. I won’t tell anyone. Lies.

“How do you know,” Goro asks, his voice transformed into something quiet and raspy and unfamiliar, “that you’ll be fine, Joker?”

Goro tightens his grip on his gun as he stalks past Joker toward the lot of them. The world is shaking, his hand is shaking, his body is shaking, shaking too much. He summons Loki to tear his bonds apart once more, to cloak his mind in a familiar red haze. Feels wildfire climb him, surround him. His aim is steady once more when he screams, “how does he know, Oracle!?

She looks terrified. Funny, he’s seen her face before, down the barrel of a different gun.

“Crow, stop!” Joker shouts, scrambles to block his shot. “Go, get her out of here!” he says, throwing the words back toward the rest of them. 

The van starts to move, towards them instead of away. Goro holds fast, prepares to fire on it, but it swerves to the right. He sees why almost immediately: a huge chunk of the ceiling slams onto the platform, directly where the van would have been, and the floor quakes so violently that Goro and Joker each stumble on their feet. By the time he’s finally regained his footing Goro finds the rest of the Phantom Thieves gone as well, driving away into the distance. Just like Joker wanted, off to freedom from this place.

Just him and Joker, then.

One shot left. 

He moves to direct his aim at the real culprit, the person who ruined everything, but Joker seems to have anticipated that. Goro stupidly allowed him to get close earlier, close enough now to knock the gun out of his hand with a slice of his dagger. 

“I’m not going to fight you, Goro,” he says, barely audible above the deafening sounds of destruction all around them.

Fine, “then DIE!!

It seems he didn’t anticipate Goro’s sword, hahaha. Joker shouts in surprise, stumbles away from the slice just in time. So Goro swings again. And again. Again, again, again.

It’s not enough, it’ll never be enough, but he likes the fear in Ren’s eyes, beneath Joker’s mask, as he barely lurches out of the way of each strike. An explosion to his left nearly knocks Goro off his feet, a reminder that neither of them have long in this world. So he calls upon Loki again, channels his desperation into more fire–

Stop, stop doing that, you’re killing yourself!” Joker pleads, attempting to dodge another swing, not fast enough: Goro catches him in the arm, draws blood, “we’re on the same side, we can help y–”

“Don’t give me that cliched bullshit!” Goro shouts at him again, because he doesn’t get it, after all this time he still just doesn’t get it. Goro was doing fine on his own, all alone, he didn’t need help, help was what ruined him in the first place. If the Phantom Thieves never existed he could have stopped Shido, would have gotten his revenge, would have saved the world, everything would have gone perfectly, “Loki!

Joker sends up a physical barrier in time but the force of the strike still blows him across the room. “Damn it, Goro!” He yells from the floor, “would you just listen to me?

Shut up!!

He’s preparing another attack, one that Joker won’t be able to deflect, when– oh. Something behind Joker catches his eye. There’s an enormous crack splitting the wall and the ceiling above his enemy. It’s all going to fall. How convenient. Goro doesn’t even need to attack, because Joker is going to die anyway. Crushed by this collapsing world, in just a few seconds. 

Joker limps to his feet, completely oblivious to what’s about to happen to him. 

It doesn’t even matter anyway. They’ll be kicked out shortly. It doesn’t matter. 

Ren is going to die in just a few seconds.

Fuck– he only has a few seconds.

Goro runs, crosses the distance between them as fast as he can. Tackles Ren, stupid Ren, uses his momentum to propel them both out of the way of the collapsing structure and away from danger. Goro holds tight, doesn’t let him go even as they both slam to the metal floor for a second time today, even as debris rains down on his back.

And then… there’s a moment of peace and silence. As if by avoiding this one disaster they’d managed to stop the collapse of the world entirely. Goro slowly extracts himself from around Ren, pushes up on his hands and knees above him, means to stand but–  

But, Ren is close. So close, staring up at him, eyes wide beneath the stark white of his mask, breathing heavily just like Goro. And for the first time Goro notices flecks of red hiding amongst the greys of Ren’s irises. Ren’s eyes– they were already striking, all long lashes and sharp edges.

“Goro,” Ren breathes out. He doesn’t seem afraid, or even angry, which is… incomprehensible. “You–”

An earth-shattering sound interrupts whatever Ren was about to say. Goro feels strong winds, blazing heat, white-hot pain envelop his body.

Feels nothing… 

… 

…and wakes up with a gasp. Shit, that was a bad one.

Ahh–!

Ren is awake now too, clutching at his throat and thrashing on the cobblestoned ground next to him. He doesn’t seem to be handling this very well. Amateur.

Goro stands, legs admittedly a little shaky, drags Ren to cover: behind a raised flowerbed on the edge of Okumura Food’s outdoor plaza. Ren is panting, shivering, coughing like he might actually throw up, but he’ll survive, so Goro drops him and turns to leave.

But Ren grabs at his hand from the ground, nearly pulls his glove off in his… desperation? Why? “Goro,” he says, “Goro, please–” He tries to shake Ren off– it should be easy, the guy honestly looks like he’s two seconds away from passing out– but Ren still manages to hold fast, “please, don’t go. Come with us.” 

Goro can hear the others now too. It doesn’t seem like they’ve noticed yet that the two of them are back. In public– it’s a wonder the whole city hasn’t found out they’re the Phantom Thieves by now– Makoto and Ryuji, shouting in the distance over having left Ren behind. Inexplicably, over having left Goro behind.

Right. They left them behind, because they succeeded in their mission and escaped. Because Goro failed. 

God, he is so completely fucked.

Goro doesn’t look back at Ren, finally yanks his hand free, though he loses a glove in the process. Walks away from all of them.

Ren can’t help him. He shouldn’t want to, anyway. He’ll come to his senses soon enough. His friends will see to that. And even if they’re stupid enough to truly want to help, after what he’d done… well, it’s too late for him anyway.

 


 

This “game” is not over yet…

 

There are still things that must be done.

 


 

This morning Okumura Kunikazu woke up and announced a press conference, to be held in just a few days time. 

This morning Goro woke up, after another ominous dream in the Velvet Room, to a call from Shido Masayoshi. Telling him to come to his office.

———
Ren

We figured you out at the television station.
The day we met.
Come to Leblanc and I’ll tell you how. :)
Please.

You blocked Ren. You’ll no longer see any messages from them.

——— 

 

Ren isn’t usually one for punctuation. They’ve texted enough for Goro to know his patterns by heart. He’s fairly certain the only reason Ren capitalizes anything is because his phone takes care of it for him. 

So he can imagine Ren, sitting alone somewhere, phone up to his face, a little furrow in his brow, plotting out exactly what he should say and carefully typing it out. Something about the image hurts.

———
Oracle

hey
i didn’t tell them anything i promise
well i told them what a fucjing mess you are but they already knew that
cogpsi stuff stayed between us
snitches get stitches duh

You blocked Oracle. You’ll no longer see any messages from them.

HEY????
you can’t be fucking serious w that shit
do you know me at all??????

You blocked Oracle. You’ll no longer see any messages from them.

jfc
you’re so stupid
incredible 

Stop messaging this number.

You blocked Oracle. You’ll no longer see any messages from them.

make me, dipshit

——— 

There’s part of him– a scared little part that he hates, that he thought was gone– that just doesn’t want to die. A part of him that easily conjures endless nightmares, nightmares of facing down the barrel of a gun and finding nothing but regrets. A part of him that’s still looking for a way out. But there’s no way out. Goro knew this when he started. He knows it now, at the end. The only thing worth doing with his worthless life was getting revenge on the person responsible for it in the first place, and he failed. 

So here he is, standing outside Shido’s office, ready to report the success of his mission. 

So here he is, standing outside Shido’s office, ready to face the consequences for his failure.

Goro puts a hand to his head as it throbs, a sharp pain slicing his skull right down its center. Fuck, he doesn’t have time to have a goddamn psychotic break or whatever this is– he shakes his head to clear it and the ache subsides. Good enough. He opens the door and steps inside.

“You’ve seen the news, haven’t you? The last act of a desperate man,” Shido mumbles as soon as the door closes, gaze fixed on some papers on his desk.

The last act of a desperate man, indeed. Goro swallows. Says nothing.

He waits.

Shido signs something. Flips a page to look at the one beneath it. Signs something else. Flips another page. Goro thinks he might actually pass out.

Shido finally looks up at him, raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. Sighs.

“I’ve been too hard on you, Akechi,” he says. Gets up from his desk and slowly pours a drink, then another. “We’ve been partners in this game for nearly three years now, and your assistance has been very influential in making my plans proceed smoothly.”

Oh god. This is so much worse than he ever imagined.

Shido ambles over and hands him one of the glasses, which Goro accepts without a second thought. It’s the same bourbon he stole a few weeks ago. Shido’s favorite.

“This press conference complicates matters considerably, but we have people who can deal with it. Your methods are excellent, but a little too… imprecise,” Shido drawls. “After all, there’s no guarantee a shutdown would occur in time.”

Goro’s heart beats all the quicker for the prospect of having been handed a way out. Then he remembers what happened last time he thought he’d gotten away with something and takes another sip of his drink to calm the tremors in his hands.

“Though, this wouldn’t be a problem at all if you’d gotten to him earlier.”

Goro swallows quickly, feels the fire travel down his throat. “Sir, the public hadn’t–”

But Shido cuts him off with a condescending chuckle. “I’m only kidding, Akechi. Lighten up, will you?”

He can’t… he can’t believe it. He can’t believe, after all the melodramatic worrying and moping and all the certainty he was going to die here, now… he can’t believe this is what’s happening.

It’s not that he’s relieved. Goro literally can’t believe it. Shido is up to something.

“Our work will change the world, Akechi,” Shido simpers, grinning like the shark that he is. “When I become Prime Minister, I’ll grant whatever wish you want.”

His heart pounds at the thought.

I want you begging, groveling, pleading for forgiveness, for mercy. I want your regret and misery to consume you whole. I want you to live your life cowering in fear of death, I want your terror to chain you to my side, under my feet where you belong. And I want this victory to be mine and mine alone. I want it all to be because of me.

But…

That will never happen, will it?

It’s… just a childish fantasy, Goro realizes. They aren’t partners. They aren’t equals. Shido doesn’t respect him, he never will, no matter what Goro does. The faded mark on his cheek is a testament to that.

He was going to get rid of you after the election anyway, his own voice taunts in his head, emotionless, brutally honest, punctuated by another sharp ache. Inspiration perhaps, or just his conscience: either way Goro knows the voice is right. He’s still on borrowed time. Shido is planning something, and that plan certainly involves Goro’s death. After all, that’s what Goro would do.

Goro plasters a smile on his face, “when the public turns against the Phantom Thieves I’ll be seen as a hero of the people once again. I believe I’ll lay low and devote myself to my studies.”

Shido chuckles, condescending as ever. “I suppose with your age you wouldn’t come up with debauched desires.”

Goro despises him. 

 


 

October 11th, 20XX

Controversial ‘Foods’ CEO found dead; Phantom Thieves of Hearts suspected  

———
Haru

I’m sorry about your father.
Though I’m sure I’m the last person you want to hear that from.
Or hear from at all, I suppose.
Please, ignore me. I won’t contact you again.

———

Goro huffs into his pillow, throws his phone across his mattress and throws his arm across his face. 

Stupid, stupid of him to contact her. She hates him. He tried to kill her father. He even tried to kill her, he thinks– though the whole thing is a bit of a blur now.

These past few days have been… better. Death is further away, though still ominously present. His cheek is nearly completely healed now. Nothing he can’t cover up easily with a bit of makeup. He’s already seeing messages and posts of bewildered anger against the Thieves, tentative support for Goro. The tides are turning. 

But for the first time in his life, Goro doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to work for Shido. He doesn’t want to pretend to work for Shido. He doesn’t want to kill him or change his heart. He certainly doesn’t want to let him walk free. For the longest time he had only one path to victory, and now even that path is gone.

And he’s not about to join the Phantom Thieves either.

Goro turns on his side, stares out his window at the setting sun. He wonders what they’re doing. If they’re all together. If they’ve gathered at Leblanc like usual. If they’re talking about him.

He feels his phone vibrate from the other end of his mattress and launches himself toward it, fumbles to open the latest messages with a pounding heart.

Stares at the words. Reads them again, and again.

She’s… so stupid.

All of them, fools. Idiots.

They’re… they’re completely beyond his comprehension.

———
Haru

Thank you Goro. I do appreciate it.
Would you please join us at Leblanc tomorrow evening?

———

Chapter Text

So.

They know. 

He knows they know.

They know he knows they know.

So…

“Pass the sugar, will you, Goro?” Haru asks, her attention fixed solely on the open book in front of her.

Goro squints in suspicion. He slides the sugar canister down the bar counter.

“Thank you, dear.”

Your father was killed yesterday, Goro thinks at her. He does his best to project the words directly into her skull, unabashedly staring all the while. Why are you here. What are you doing. What the fuck is wrong with you.

Sakura keeps puttering around awkwardly behind the bar, cleaning this and that, glancing between the two of them. Honestly Goro can’t blame him, knows he’s been shifting restlessly himself. He glances down at his watch and–

–yes, it’s been only twenty-three seconds since the last time he checked. Of course. Obviously.

It took the better part of a day and night, a list of pros and cons, and four coin flips, but Goro did eventually come to the decision that he should meet with the Phantom Thieves. He’s fairly certain, even with all his deliberation, that his decision was the wrong one. Unfortunately for Goro, he’s still a detective. And the Phantom Thieves are an irresistible mystery.

He checks his watch again, wonders how many seconds have passed this time–

–and has never been so simultaneously relieved and terrified to hear Leblanc’s door chime. Here they are, finally: the cohort of children who can’t get away with skipping a single day of high school. Not even to meet with their nemesis. 

Shoes shuffle and scuff to his side, behind his back. The group is… uncharacteristically quiet. Goro swallows, regrets everything, takes a shaky sip at the dregs of his coffee, and does not give them the satisfaction of looking in their direction. A shape that looks like Makoto appears in his peripheral vision, whispers quietly with Haru and gives her a little hug.

Something soft lands on the crown of Goro’s head. He flinches down in his seat, grabs at it before it can fall.

Ah. It’s his other glove, the one he left after…

Amamiya Ren stands next to him, expression unreadable beneath his glasses. He tilts his head meaningfully towards the stairs.

Well. He’s come this far. Might as well see whatever this is through to its end. 

They end up crammed into Ren’s terrible little attic, Goro seated front and center on his disgusting couch, alone. The rest of them, including the (talking) cat, scatter on various mismatching chairs, on the floor, on Ren’s mattress. 

And after all this, after begging him to come, none of them seem to know what to say.

Funny, they’d previously given off an aura of being so well-coordinated, so prescient. Did they not think this part through? Well, obviously they didn't, they’re sitting in a room with a murderer.

“Goro–” Makoto starts, awkwardly.

“I’ve killed people,” Goro cuts her off, rips off the bandaid for them. “A lot of people.”

(This is easier than saying the exact number– the stupid little part of him that wants to hold onto his bonds with these people is scared it will be too many. That knowing will shock them back to their senses and they’ll finally reject him. Or worse, it will be too few, and they won’t.)

“We know,” says Ren.

Goro continues as if he hadn’t heard, “the ones who were unlucky enough to survive are hospitalized with little chance of recovery.”

Ryuji scratches his head– it’s an awkward gesture, another sign of unease from the group. Good. “We know, dude,” he mumbles.

“I’ve ruined countless other lives by–”

“–Goro, we know, and it’s okay,” interrupts Ann.

Okay? It’s not okay

Fine. They don’t understand, but he knows who will– he looks to Haru, “I would have killed your father,” he says, desperation creeping into his voice. But she only stares at him like he’s something small, something sad.

So he turns to Futaba, “and your mother is dead, because of me!

Futaba looks away, draws her knees up to her chest.

Their silence is unbearable.

What the fuck is wrong with them? They’re reacting, they’re bothered, obviously, but it’s not right. It’s not enough. Is Goro insane for thinking they’re being completely unreasonable? Is he insane for being the only sane person in the room? 

“Goro, we know,” Ren’s unmistakable timbre rumbles, as the seat cushion dips to his left. A warm weight presses against his shoulder, and Goro comes back to himself, realizes at some point he’d curled in on himself, shoved his hands into his hair like a child. “But… did you want to do any of it? Really?”

Oh. Oh– is this what this charade is all about?

Goro shrugs off Ren’s hand, stands. “I did,” he snarls back, because he did. “Of course I did, did you all think I was some sort of–”

puppet? his thoughts finish for him.

“Goro–!”

He ignores their shouts of protest, crosses the horrible little attic and escapes down the stairs, growling, “you’re all idiots,” behind him as he goes. He manages to make it five steps outside of Leblanc’s door, into the chill October air, before he feels a little tug at his sleeve.

Goro whirls around, shouts, “what!?” and watches with satisfaction as Sakura Futaba flinches away. 

“You told me the story. About my mom,” she still says, a determined furrow in her brow.

Goro sneers down at her. “Wouldn’t you rather hide behind your phone, ‘Oracle?’”

“No. Well, yes. But. I made a promise. I w-wanted to talk to you in person,” Futaba stutters, not quite able to look him in the eye. “You lied up there. You didn’t want my mom to die. You didn’t know what would happen.” 

He didn’t know what would happen? Maybe, maybe not. He does remember it, remembers Isshiki’s Shadow very clearly. On the ground, her terrified face down the barrel of his gun, begging for anything and everything– for her life, for mercy, her unfinished work, her daughter. He remembers how he imagined himself such a righteous and noble hero for seeing through it and destroying the thing anyway, just as he was instructed. 

“I knew. I’m cursed. Everyone who cares for me…” he remembers a smile too, so like and unlike his own, full of warmth and love and life and lies . Remembering her hurts more than anything else, so he pushes the memory away. “Your mother was kind to me, and for that she paid the highest price.” 

“Wait!” Futaba runs in front of him and blocks his way out. “I-I had a Palace. Sorry– a cognitive world– cause I thought it was my fault too.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know that now, it was him. Him and all those evil, manipulative adults. You’re the same as me, so we have to stop him. We can stop him together.” 

God, they just don’t fucking get it. “I’m. Not. Like. You. Do you know how I know?” Goro mocks, reaches into his blazer pocket to pull out his phone, taps at the screen while he says, “because I killed your mother. Her death is my fault. Akechi Goro.” 

No candidate found,” the Metaverse Navigator responds.

“No distortion, see? It’s the truth.” He waves the phone in her face, then leans in close in its place, says as cruelly and authoritatively as he can, “stay away from me. All of you. For your own good.” This time when he steps around her she doesn’t try to stop him or follow.

But that doesn’t mean Futaba is done with him, like he wants. He really should know better by now.

———
Oracle

no you know what
you’re stupid
just because you don’t have a palace doesn’t mean you’re right about everything
shido killed my mom
shido stole her research
i’m giving you a chance to start over and help me take him down for good
that’s what she would want
i’m sure of it
and don’t give me that self sacrifice woe is me stay away for your own good featherman black bullshit you fucking dramatic clown
we’ve been friends for months and i’m FINE

——— 

God damn her.

Goro massages his temples, continues to ignore the two girls excitedly whispering about him down the other end of the train car. He yearns for the days when all he had to deal with was himself and people he hated, which kind of included himself anyway. 

Admittedly, he’s been having a… bit of a time, these past few days. It turns out discovering that his entire raison d’être is unquestionably unachievable, that his father has been fattening up his ego just so it will be easier to kill him, and that his rivals or friends or enemies or whatever have in fact known his darkest secrets for months is, well.

Well. 

Well, fuck. It’s a little fucking stressful.

He has no fucking clue what to do now, but he knows he doesn’t need help to figure it out. 

He doesn’t need help. He doesn’t, he doesn’t, he doesn’t.

If he really wanted to he could just hide in some worthless trash’s cognitive world for months, until the election is over. For years, even. Fuck it.

If he really wanted to he could walk up to Shido Masayoshi right now and put a bullet in his head. Give those girls over there and everyone else in this country something to really whisper about.

If he really wanted to he could just end it, save himself and everyone else the fucking trouble. Not that he wants to. Not that he’s like that, like her. He’s not sure he can win this game anymore but he certainly doesn’t want to lose.

He doesn’t need help.

———
Oracle

Tell me your ideas and I’ll think about it.
Only because I don’t want you doing something stupid on your own. 

impossible you’re the stupid one

And don’t tell the others.

——— 

After contemplating for a moment, while his phone is open to his messenger app anyway, he also quietly unblocks Ren. 

Just in case he gets into trouble again. And needs Goro to assist him. Or whatever.

 


 

———
Ren

👀
Check out this album I think you’d like it
[Open link in app]
Music vid is out for the first song and it’s sick as hell

I don’t understand you.

———

 


 

“Even though my opinion has been met with criticism, I’ve held fast that the Phantom Thieves are not just.”

“So noble, Akechi-kun! You have a real sense of justice, sticking to your beliefs even when everyone tells you you’re wrong– though, this station certainly never supported the Phantom Thieves, haha!”

Liar.

“Haha, I may not have been the most popular person in the country for a while. But I knew the truth would come to light, just as I know those people that are trying to destroy this country will be brought to justice.”

“Well said, as always! Now, we have some questions from the audience, if you wouldn’t mind…”

 


 

After a week he has no plans. No leads. No ideas, besides Futaba’s.

No way out.

All he has is a tangled web of conspiracy, mystery, and confusion. All he has is a list of his opponents, a list that he mulls over and over and over, searching for anything that could possibly help his situation.

Akechi Goro’s current vexations, in order of least concerning to most: 

The Phantom Thieves. Something about them, about the way they operate, about their motivations, about their attempts to “befriend” him– it doesn’t sit right with him. Plus, they’re annoying. They keep texting him.

The Velvet Room residents. More specifically: his warden, by the name of Igor. Goro never gave the place much thought before, didn’t even care what they were, demons or gods or whatever, only that they gave him the power to achieve his goal. But, learning more from the twins is enough to make him finally pay attention.

Shido Masayoshi. He hasn’t given Goro any new targets. He’s extending invitations to nights out with his co-conspirators once again. He drunkenly spins elaborate lies about the world they’ll rebuild together. The cloying, simpering praise he lavishes upon Goro has reached a frequency that would be almost comedic if it weren’t so incredibly concerning.

And finally, Goro’s fans. Because they’re just fucking unbearable.

Goro carefully slides open a drawer– finds some miscellaneous files. Perfect. Takes the fake calling card out of his briefcase and slips it underneath the first folder. Shuts the drawer just as carefully. 

Goro breathes in deep, exhales slowly, and appreciates this moment of quiet and solitude.

The masses are still milling around Shujin Academy’s school festival. His fans, who love him so much– so many of them, pushing and poking and prodding and taking pictures and selfies and asking him so many goddamn questions. Celebrity: he doesn’t know how he ever enjoyed it, before.

So he takes a few detours on his way out of the principal’s office. 

Fine, more than a few detours.

Fine, he’s looking for them. 

He hasn’t seen any of them in person for a while, not since that disastrous meeting at Leblanc. He figured they’d be out of the way of the rest of the school festival as well. And so they are: gathered around a small table in an empty hallway, intermittently talking too loud about their Phantom Thief troubles and shushing each other for talking too loud about their Phantom Thief troubles. Goro wonders, not for the first time, how they’re all still alive. Especially with the frankly enormous bounty on their heads…

“Hello, Goro,” Makoto says politely when he approaches. “Thank you again for agreeing to all this.”

“You say that as if I had a choice in the matter,” Goro responds cheerily.

Yusuke huffs. “There is always a choice. You chose to help us. We’re grateful.”

Goro scowls, dropping the act and his briefcase to the floor, “this has nothing to do with you.” He’s only here because of the damn principal he killed, because he needs to keep up his cover with Shido while he figures out how the fuck he’s supposed to survive past the election. As if the world revolves around– 

“Uh, anyway!” Ryuji laughs awkwardly, shoves a little plate of food in his direction, “Gorooo, you wanna try some of this takoyaki? It’s real good, I swear– ow!

Too obvious, stupid,” Futaba whispers, smacking Ryuji on the head again.

He pointedly ignores the two of them. Looks to their leader. “You’re all obviously up to something. Are you going to tell me what it is or am I going to have to find out myself?”

Ren stares blankly at him. He’s flipping and spinning his phone on one hand in a precarious way that he should probably be paying more attention to, if he doesn’t want it to break. Show off. He finally asks, “which one means we get to see you again?”  

Goro clenches his jaw in frustration.

“Ren-kun, don’t tease,” Haru says on Goro’s behalf, which is somehow the worst possible outcome. “We’re stealing the heart of Mako-chan’s sister because she has become a target of your employer. What are you up to, Goro?” 

Hmm… interesting. He wonders for a moment how concrete their information, how they found out. 

This was an old plan of Shido’s, one he was always fond of. Goad their enemies into going after their own investigator, set a trap somehow, catch them in the act. Such a plan would certainly paint a flawless picture of the Phantom Thieves being on the wrong side of justice, but luckily for these dumbasses Shido could never quite figure out the “trapping and arresting” part.

Unluckily for Goro, it looks like he’s officially out of the loop regarding Shido’s plans. Not a good sign.

“Wasting my time, it seems,” Goro sighs, picking up his briefcase again. He can’t give away the fact that he’s out of Shido’s favor, he’s in deep shit, he has no idea what the fuck he should do… 

“Hang on–” Ann says when he turns to leave. “Aren’t you gonna, like, blackmail us or something?” 

“Why on earth would I blackmail you.” 

Ann looks at the rest of the group for help. “Uh, cause you know we’re the… you know.”

Makoto speaks up before he can say anything insulting, “but we also know about what Goro is doing. It’s mutually assured destruction: if one of us revealed the true identity of the other, we’d both go down. So we’re at a–”

“–stalemate,” Goro finishes. 

“–impasse. Sure,” Makoto agrees.

“Oh. Right,” Ann says, in a tone that implies that she understands maybe half of what they just said. Ren is still flipping his phone around, silently watching Goro, being no help at all. 

“Sooo how’s about you get off your ass and help us with this Palace then,” Ryuji drawls, tipping his chair backward. 

“Believe it or not I have better things to do with my time than babysit you morons.”

Hey!” A high-pitched noise comes from the direction of Ren– Ren’s bag. Right, the… cat.

Ren himself leans forward on the table, adjusts his glasses. “We’ll be there every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Niijima Sae, courthouse, casino.”

“I know what her codewords are,” Goro protests, rolling his eyes, because…

Because…?  

 


 

“Excuse me Sae-san, could we–”

Sae walks right past him, so fast he can barely catch that she says: “I don’t have time to deal with you today, Akechi-kun.” 

And then she’s gone.

Right.

He isn’t sure what he wanted from her, to be fair. Maybe he wanted to warn her that she’s about to be brainwashed, because even though her sense of justice is corrupted beyond belief she deserves to come to that realization on her own . Maybe he wanted to ask her if she’d looked into his “theory” that someone else is pulling all the strings, because maybe she could have found something that can get him out of this fucking mess he’s in. Maybe he just wanted to have dinner with her, like they used to. 

Because she hasn’t had time to “deal with him” for months, even though they’re working on the same investigation. Even though his little makeshift desk is in her office. Even though he’s the one she’s looking for, and he…

He doesn’t need help. 

He certainly doesn’t need her help.

So he occupies himself in other ways.

And Goro has to hand it to Sae. This is one of the more interesting and impressive cognitive worlds he’s explored so far. Leave it to her to create something unique, inspiring, clever, and yet still deeply horrible.

He perches on top of a chandelier, observes from above as the Phantom Thieves explore the expansive first floor, battle the occasional demon, chat and joke amongst themselves. He’s far out of sight here, and has his Third Eye open as well, just in case. He’d rather they not know he’s around.

Watching them feels… nostalgic, in a way. Against his better judgement he finds himself wishing things had gone differently. He did have some fun, occasionally, that summer they were all together. Goro can feel his bonds with all of them– yes, unfortunately all of them now. Sae isn’t the only one to have transformed into something unrecognizable.

The Thieves make a final circle of the floor and, finding no more demons, only cognitions, slowly file into a safe room near the back. Goro sighs, sets his helmet’s zoom function back to normal and takes it off, just for a moment. The thing is stifling. He notices it now more than he used to.

He combs his fingers through his hair, stares off into nothing. What the hell is he even doing here?

“You know I can see you, right?”

Ah. Caught.

Ren stands outside the safe room alone, leaning casually against the wall with his hands in his pockets, looking up in Goro’s direction.

Goro puts his helmet back on, jumps down from his perch. “But they can’t,” he says simply, taking his place at the wall beside Ren.

Ren hums, seems totally content to just stand with him.

It’s kind of nice. Goro missed him.

“They’d all love to see you,” Ren says after a bit. “It’s not the same without you around.” 

He’s lying, Goro tells himself out of habit, he’s lying for some reason. It doesn’t feel like he’s lying, though. He doesn’t think Ren would lie about something like that. 

Goro changes the subject, “you called me ‘Crow.’ Before.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s your codename.”

He looks at Ren in surprise and is met with a blinding grin. It makes him almost too handsome to bear.

“Childish,” Goro scoffs and looks away.

“You like it.”

Okay, maybe a little. He’s not going to tell Ren that, though. “Why ‘Crow?’”

Ren makes a big show of pretending to think, puts a hand to his chin and poses just like Goro’s Detective Prince persona. He’s so obnoxious. “Hmm… cause you’re smart and you bring me little gifts.”

“No I don’t.”

“Well, maybe you should.” Ren winks, his hand still at his chin, and Goro realizes this is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of his own charm. No wonder everyone who interviews him ends up acting like a lovestruck idiot. 

Ren kicks off the wall, turns to place a hand on the safe room door. Pauses. “Hey. I’m glad you’re here.”

“I didn’t come to help you,” Goro mumbles in an admittedly weak protest, “I deal with Sae-san frequently, it’s useful to see how her mind works.” 

But Ren is still smiling, as if he expected Goro to say that. “Okay. Well, it’s still nice to see you,” he says quietly, in his usual too-sincere way.

He finally disappears into the safe room with the others. Goro hates how desperately he wants to follow.

The longer he stares at the door, the more the ache in his chest grows, until it moves to his head, becomes sharper. Goro closes his eyes tight to clear it, though it doesn’t really work, and when he opens them again Joker is… back. Leaning casually against the wall once more, as if he never left.

“…impressively well for a first-timer,” he’s in the middle of saying– but Goro can’t remember the start of Joker’s sentence, or what they were even talking about.

Still, he adjusts his fake mask, carefully tempers the thrill of being complimented on such an elementary performance. “You should know me by now,” Goro… says? with a plastered-on smile, “I accept nothing less than perfection.”

Ah, and there’s that trademark Joker smirk. Curls wild and untamed, mask just so. Carefree and unburdened. Such a cocky shit.

“In all things?” Joker asks coquettishly, with a raised eyebrow, as if he’s clever.

Goro doesn’t have to respond to it but, well, it’s not a game of cat-and-mouse unless he gets to play with his prey. He easily conjures a retort, blinks–

–and when he opens his eyes Joker is gone. 

Disappeared. As if he were never there.

“In all things,” Goro still recites, to no one.

 


 

The problem, Goro decides, is that it’s just so easy to imagine kissing Amamiya Ren.

There’s something about him, about the way he smiles, the way he laughs, the way he looks at Goro, that seems like he was made just for him. Something about his smartass jokes, his sincere praise, their easy banter, tells him the answer couldn’t be anyone else, that he wouldn’t want it to be anyone else.

It’s easy to imagine– daydreaming at the office, spacing out on his commute, or now laying in bed, that maybe the two of them are… playing a game of chess in Leblanc. Or fighting demons together in the Metaverse. Or listening to a jazz singer in Kichijoji– the setting doesn’t matter. What does matter is finally, finally being close to him, in that way. Feeling his warmth, the soft beat of his heart against Goro’s chest, hands caressing him as if he were a treasure, smile clear even against his lips because in Goro’s dreams of course Ren has wanted this for so long, too.

Goro doesn’t have a schedule that lends itself well to chasing connections. When he did have to deal with other people by necessity those people were adults, because adults are the ones with power. The ones most useful to achieving his goals. How could he justify wasting time on the tall kid in his math class, or a handsome model from his photoshoot, or even that unkempt-looking delinquent who argued with him on live television? 

So, Goro has never kissed anyone before. He hasn’t so much as hugged another person in… well, he can’t even remember. 

But when it comes to Ren, somehow, it’s so easy. Somehow, he can imagine it perfectly.

 


 

“They’re weak to fire, by the way.”

“Yeah, I know that,” Ren yells through his dodge, just barely avoiding a bolt of lightning from above. Haru tosses him a healing item which he catches while he quickly elaborates, “forgot to grab a Persona to cover fire and Ann’s taking a rest back at the safe room.”

“Is– that– Crow!?” Ryuji shouts from the floor, breathing hard through the words. Goro closes his Third Eye to reveal himself, gives him a little wave. “Wha– would you help!?” 

Goro tilts his head at him in mock confusion. “Why would I do that?”

“Why not!?” Ryuji shrieks, jumping to his feet, his eyes wide beneath his skull mask as another shadow approaches. 

Goro chuckles, “but this is so much more entertaining.”

“He can’t help anyway, doesn’t have any fire moves,” Ren says dismissively.

Hm. Wrong.

“Incinerate them, Loki.” Goro’s mask briefly erupts into flames as their enemies do the same. Nearly all of them go down– they’re nothing, after all– but the things are also annoyingly quick. One still manages to escape his attack. Ren is an excellent shot, so Goro holds up a hand and hopes he’ll get the idea– “do it.” 

And Ren beams. “Roger,” he says with a wink, high-fives Goro, unholsters his gun and fires on the final demon, downing it as well. A flurry of attacks and six dead demons later Goro realizes that he was, in fact, successfully baited into helping. Shit.

“You knew I could do that,” he sighs, sheathing his sword.

Ren chuckles, “yeah. But wasn’t this fun?”

Fun? You were surrounded, your situation was dire, your defense was pathetic– what would you have done if I wasn’t there to save you?”

Haru seems to take issue with that, because of course she does. “Joker always figures something out. That’s why he’s our leader.”

Goro squints at her, because he still doesn’t understand why she’s bothering with the person who tried to kill her father, and turns to continue his assault at the one responsible for the safety of the rest of these idiots. “Are you always so blasé with your lives? How did you manage to get even this far?” 

Another member of Joker’s team comes to his defense. “We’re tougher than we look, ya know,” Ryuji says, patting his bat weapon affectionately.

Goro scoffs, which is finally enough to get a reaction out of his rival. Ren slowly steps forward, crowds into his space. He can’t get very close thanks to the sharp points of Goro’s helmet, but those damn heels he’s wearing still give him an edge on intimidation. “You wanna see for yourself, Crow?” 

Interesting. Stupid, but interesting.

“Is that a challenge, Ren?” Goro asks, knowing full-well that it is.

The hidden flecks of red in Ren’s flint-grey eyes make them seem as if they’ll spark to light and fire at any moment. Especially now, when he smirks and says, “name’s Joker. And it’s whatever you want it to be.” 

“Don’t tempt me, Joker. You’ll regret it.”

Hey!” Ryuji budges in to join their little party which very quickly puts an end to it. “Can we quit the dick-measuring contest and get a move on?”

“Skull!” Haru shouts in affront.

What!? My ma’s makin’ dinner tonight and I’m not missin’ it!”

“You should go, Joker,” Goro mocks, and doesn’t move. “Things to do, people to see.”

So Ren is the first to step away, (so Goro wins), “so, see you later then, Crow.”

 


 

It’s sometime near the beginning of November that Goro finds himself forming a new habit: eating his lunch outside the SIU, close to the door to the Velvet Room. It’s cold, but he likes how no one can see him here. Well, no one but the twins. They aren’t terrible company.

“I’ve had something on my mind, maybe you two could help me clarify this– what exactly are bonds?” Goro asks, kicking his heels casually against the ledge he’s sitting on. He elaborates when Justine gives him a look: “why, for instance, do I have bonds with some people and not… others.”

He would prefer to ask his real question: why does he have so many bonds with a horde of teenagers he just met and not one with his worthless, good-for-nothing father, who he’s worked with for nearly three years?

…But that might be a bit much.

Caroline shrugs. “Dunno. They’re different depending on the person.”

“Some represent the forging of a lifelong friendship, others are simply blood oaths,” Justine finishes for her.

Simply?” Goro asks behind his hand, through his food.

“They’re often something that would otherwise be difficult for the individual, and they always involve making connections with others. Does that answer your question?”

“Not really,” Goro grumbles. He wants to ask how they know all this, but bringing attention to their constant contradictions didn’t go so well last time. “Want an apple?”

“Ew, no!” Caroline sneers.

“We don’t eat,” Justine says.

Sure, whatever.

Goro bites into it himself, wonders what his bonds could be about. Is this some sort of mystical thing that he should just… know? What is it that makes Ren and the others so different? What is it about their connection…

“You’re pretty good at manipulation, prisoner. Our master believes your power would be diminished by your bonds, and so you’ve been strongly encouraged to avoid them. Fat lot of good that did…” Caroline grumbles, spinning her baton around.

Goro stares at his bitten apple. “So… these people… they know me? The real me?”

He thinks on it longer, tries to feel what it is that makes his heart reach out to others to form these bonds. What he’s missing, what he yearns for.

It’s kind of obvious, in hindsight. A bond goes two ways, after all.

“No, it’s not just that,” Goro says, quietly. “It’s that I want them to know me, too.”

“Perhaps,” Justine hums.

He doesn’t feel quite so hungry anymore.

 


 

“She’ll surely have some sort of trump card to block your progress at the end of this world, you know,” Goro says, standing hidden in the darkness beside Ren as the rest of the group watches Futaba hack into a wall panel. “I hope you have something prepared.”

Ren rolls his head against the wall of look over at Goro. His eyes are crinkled up at the corners in a way Goro knows is affectionate, for some reason. “Worrying about us, Crow?”

Tch,” Goro replies, though a corner of his mouth turns up despite himself. 

Ren leans in closer, murmurs so only Goro will hear, “we’ll be just fine, I promise.”

With that, Ren bumps their shoulders amicably and saunters away, hands in his pockets like always. As Goro watches he passes a copy of himself approaching from the opposite direction– though neither of them seem to notice the other.

“You’re still mad about last night,” Joker teases when he walks by. Goro catches up quickly, walks in step with him.

“I’m not angry,” Goro responds. Obviously. He should probably leave it at that, but he just can’t help himself. “I’m not. I simply don’t respect this so-called ‘win’ you’re claiming, especially because you cheated with–”

“Cheated?” Joker gasps in mock outrage, places a dramatic hand to his chest.

“–cheated with that knight, which I know for a fact I’d already removed from the board.” 

“You’re getting your games mixed up, detective. You never took that knight and I won fair and square.” Joker stops, leans in close to his face, a surprise move which makes Goro’s heart beat faster against his chest. “Deal with it.”

“Rematch.”

“Rematch!?” Joker steps away again (thank god, thank god). “But I finally beat you.”

Rematch,” Goro growls.

Joker puts his hands back in his pockets, regards him with a tilted head and sparkling eyes. “This is just like Asakusa,” he says after a moment, and bursts out into laughter.

Goro’s jaw drops. Unbelievable. “This is nothing like Asakusa, Joker. And you swore you would never bring that up again.”

“I did no such thing.”

“You said, and I quote: ‘buy me a smoothie and I’ll never say anything.’”

Joker snickers, continues, “I said: ‘I’ll never tell anyone.’ That you tripped and totally ate it while chasing that guy. And I didn’t tell anyone.” 

Goro glares at him and his stupid face, imagines shutting him up with his mouth. A moment of weakness– he quickly imagines shutting him up with his gun instead, imagines the look on his face when he realizes that he’s lost the game, that Goro has beaten him. He takes a deep breath that’s meant to be calming and says, “you know, you didn’t have to remind me–”

“Why do you wear nice shoes like that if you might have to apprehend a suspect?”

“Style matters,” Goro says defensively. His face feels hot. It’s probably not noticeable under his red mask.

“Some would argue that substance is more important,” Joker says with a wink… or… had Goro said that?

Wait– hadn’t they had this conversation before? 

Goro flinches backward, away from Joker, as his head throbs. When he opens his eyes through the pain Joker is gone again– everything is gone again.

There’s something about this place, Sae’s world, there has to be something about the cognition here. It has to be the world, because if it’s not the world then it’s Goro who keeps hallucinating, and…

Is that it? Is he going crazy after all? Did he drive himself psychotic one too many times and now some of it has stuck?

Goro takes a shaky breath, still alone in this empty casino hallway. He closes his eyes and concentrates. Imagines himself in his old outfit, the one he wore when he was a naive child obsessed with truth and justice. And it’s easier than he thought: when he opens his eyes his mask is red. He runs his white-gloved hands along the high neck of his dress coat, the epaulets adorning his shoulders, the shining belt buckle emblazoned with an ‘A.’ 

It’s just like it used to be, but it’s also wrong. Though no longer visible, he can still feel the stifling protection of his helmet, the tight bodysuit and belts chaining him to his past and his mistakes. This proud prince, so certain he’s a hero: that’s not who Goro is anymore.

He lets it fade away, because it’s fake. Just an illusion, just a memory…

Memory…?

 


 

Goro hiccups.

Shido is rambling on about something or other, about how he’s going to rule the country, blah blah blah– no, take it seriously, Goro, you have to be serious. Yes, like that.

He’s drunk again– both of them are drunk in Shido’s office again– drunk for a reason? The reason is– plan?

The plan.

His father wanders off mid-rant because he has to piss, because that’s what happens when you drink so goddamn much, and Goro hiccups again, takes the opportunity to rest his entire upper body on top of his desk. 

On his desk, on his laptop.

On his laptop, on its USB port.

On its USB port, which he can– yes, shove Futaba’s keylogger into. The plan.

It slides in, hidden under his head, and looks just like the other ports too. This tiny thing is going to copy everything Shido types, all of his usernames and passwords, and transmit them straight to Futaba.

God, Futaba is so talented. She’s so fucking great. What would he do without Futaba? He should tell her how great she is.

Shido walks back in, cackles at the pathetic state Goro is in, none the wiser.

Goro’s eyes won’t focus and and he keeps hiccuping and he’s overdone it again and he knows he’s a fucking worthless piece of shit drunk just like his father, but.

But.

He got the keylogger in just like they planned. And that’s worth something. He did it, and Futaba is going to be so excited, and all the cameras in Shido’s office will see is a stupid teenager who couldn’t hold his booze.

 


 

The Phantom Thieves have made good progress in this world without his assistance, he has to give them that. They’re nearly done with Sae’s high-limit floor, essentially one step away from the innermost part of the casino. It’s been educational to observe how they work. Or, in this specific case, fail to work.

“Man, I wanna do it this time! How come Joker gets to have all the fun?”

“Cause you’d mess it up,” Ren’s weird cat says, sticking his little tongue out at Ryuji.

“Can it, cat, I don’t see you volunteering!”

That sets the cat off and the two of them start arguing in earnest. Honestly, Goro just doesn’t get it sometimes. Wrangling all these people seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Though, they are entertaining… 

“We may be strong enough to complete the challenge, but Joker is adaptable,” Yusuke says, “what would you do if your weakness was revealed and they sent out an opponent that could target it?”

Makoto nods. “We shouldn’t take any unnecessary risks. Joker is the only one of us who can use multiple Personas, so Joker should be the one to fight.”

Hold on–

What?

Goro closes his Third Eye and jumps down from his latest vantage point to land next to the group. “What did you just say?” He tries to ask, but is drowned out by the startled yelps of everyone except Ren and Futaba. 

Ann actually slaps him in the arm and whines, “don’t scare us like that, Crow!”

Goro gives her a look, but ignores her otherwise. “What did–”

“Dude, how long have you been there?” Ryuji immediately interrupts.

“A while,” Ren and Futaba say at the same time. Of course, the only two people capable of seeing him while he hides in the shadows. Kind of embarrassing that they’ve been keeping such a close watch on his movements… anyway.

“You said,” Goro growls, turning to face Makoto directly, “Ren is the only one of you that can use multiple Personas?”

“Oh,” Makoto intelligently says. “Well, yes.”

“Joker is special!” The cat exclaims.

Goro puts a hand to his head, tries to think of what to do with this new information, “I don’t understand. How can you only use one Persona?”

“Well…” Makoto says, trails off awkwardly. Goro’s gaze naturally gravitates to Ren– Ren with his hands in his pockets, smirking at Goro like he’s got him all figured out. “Personas represent your true self, right? So…” 

“You’ve been observing us for a while, Crow,” Haru says lightly, “did you not realize this was how it worked?”

Honestly? He thought everyone else was tactically stupid and generally incompetent. He never imagined it wasn’t a choice. But he can’t say that. “So, you’re special,” Goro directs toward Ren instead, careful to put an air of derision on it. He’s not that special, after all. You’re not better than me.

Ren‘s smirk doesn’t budge an inch. “So are you,” he says, because of course he does.

Goro is reminded, for the first time in a long time, of when he attacked a classmate for pointing out a hole in his uniform. He knew back then that he was about to do something completely irrational and impulsive and stupid. And he did it anyway. 

“I accept your challenge.”

Fuck it, it was already worth it for the surprised look on Ren’s face. “Huh?”

“Your challenge. You haven’t forgotten, have you? We have an arena right here,” Goro gestures casually to the entrance. “I’d like to see how ‘special’ you really are. Or were you perhaps all talk, Joker?” 

Some of the Thieves glance at each other in confusion.

Ren hesitates for half a second, but the familiar glint in his eyes tells Goro he’s already won. “You want to fight?” 

“Just you and me. No healing. Until one of us concedes,” Goro says. “Think you can handle it?”

Ren spins his dagger, tilts his head to the side, and says, “I accept.” 

Ann looks back and forth between them, as if she’s watching a tennis match. “Wait– hold on– you’re seriously gonna fight each other? Like, really fight? Right now?”

PVP duel boss,” Futaba whispers, for some reason. 

He leaves the rest of them, ignoring the further protests which Ren is taking care of anyway, like oh, isn’t that dangerous and why are we wasting our time on this, and walks over to the shadowy cognition manning the front desk.

“We require the use of your facility before the match begins. For a warmup,” Goro says. These things are usually easy to manipulate if you show enough conviction.

The cognition shifts, obviously a little uncomfortable. “You… will still have to pay the fee. And you will be rewarded no coins for–”

“That’s fine,” he says dismissively, placing his own card on the table to pay, and the thing nods. The door to the arena opens and Goro immediately strides forward with confidence, heart hammering in his chest.

Screw chess, this is the battlefield he and Ren were meant for. He takes his place on the field opposite the door and waits.

“One more condition,” Ren announces when he finally struts into the arena after Goro, flipping and spinning that expensive-looking dagger. “No making yourself psychotic.”

Goro rolls his eyes. “I don’t actually want to kill you,” he says. An undignified snort that sounds a lot like Ryuji comes from behind the barrier surrounding the two of them. Good: Goro has always performed best with an audience. 

“Consider it a handicap,” Goro taunts when Ren remains silent. “You’ll need it anyway.”

He starts to walk the perimeter of the field and Ren follows his lead, steps as careful and silent as expected from a thief, until they’re slowly circling each other.

Watching, waiting for the other to pounce.

Goro’s heart pounds in his head, a drumbeat marking the passing time, while he contemplates his strategy. He has Loki and Robin Hood, his two steadfast allies, with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Come out strong with Loki, or start easy with Robin Hood? Ren has already seen Loki– 

Ren flicks out the tails of his coat as he prowls, the motion makes Goro tense.

“Jumpy, detective?”

Goro glares at him. Continues circling… not yet… but he does let his hand twitch at his side in turn, notices the equivalent falter in Ren’s step.

“Nervous, thief?” 

Considering the no healing rule and their powerful abilities, once the battle starts it likely won’t last long.

Every second will count. Especially this first move…

Boooo, do something!” 

Ren’s gaze flickers momentarily to the side, towards their audience.

Away from Goro.

White moves first.

His gun is in his hand even before Ren’s attention returns, and he’s treated to an adorably stupid look of shock.

Goro shoots twice as he runs, crossing the short distance between them: first safely to the side of Ren’s head and then in front of his feet. The horrified screams of their audience are satisfying, but not quite as satisfying as using the opening he created for himself to land a clean “Laevatein!!

Then, black.

“Thor,” Ren yells in turn, jumping to his feet in a quick recovery as Goro flips backward, “Ziodyne!

You little shit, Goro growls to himself– he wasn’t able to dodge the enormous bolt of lightning. Of course you’d counter with Thor.

Goro doesn’t attack this time, gambles his turn by summoning Robin Hood and charging his strength for later. It turned out to be a good move, Ren is thrown off by the appearance of Goro’s second Persona and misses his next attack.

So this one has to hit– Goro switches back to Loki, runs forward with both his and his Personas’ swords raised to strike, and–

–Yoshitsune!” Ren switches his Persona just in time. Null physical, what the hell. Both of their blades glance off, and Ren switches again–

“Raphael, Sword Dance!”

“Tetrakarn!”

“Satan, Ice Age!”

Makarakarn!

Black Frost, Miracle Punch!

Tetrakarn!!

Trumpeter, Mafreidyne!!

God-fucking- DAMN IT, how the fuck does he have so many of them!? Goro can’t survive if he’s put on the defensive forever– he roars in frustration, manages to dodge out of the way of the nuclear attack and takes aim directly at his foe to finally strike back: “Loki, Eigaon!!

Metatron!!” Ren screams this time, eyes widened in panic, obviously thrown by Goro’s recovery, and brings his arms up to shield his head. And Goro stumbles away, loses his footing as an enormous metal angel erupts into being behind Ren’s back, because–

Let’s make a deal, okay?

–because, because its face, its face looks like–

You won’t say no, will you?

–it almost looks like– 

I promise.

–the angel disappears when Ren takes the hit, both of them weak to curse attacks. 

Goro scrambles to his feet, shakes his head to clear it. This game is almost over, they’re both completely exhausted, but he can still win–

Rangda!” Ren shouts this time, his voice hoarse, and Goro is knocked to the floor with the reflection of his own attack. He does manage to stand again, but–

–Ren helps him up the rest of the way, and by ‘helps,’ well. He’s got Goro in a solid hold from behind, and Goro can feel the sharp point of Ren’s dagger pressing close, even through the thick material of his neck guard. 

“Checkmate,” Ren taunts in his ear.

Not yet.

Goro may be out of stamina but he can still brawl with the best of them. He grabs at Ren’s arm and pulls it down hard, hard enough to get the dagger just far enough away from his throat. Then he uses his remaining strength to throw his entire body weight forward.

The dagger clatters to the ground, likely dropped out of fear of doing actual damage (fool) and Ren flies over Goro’s head, yelping in surprise. Goro follows him down, makes sure to snatch the dagger from the ground before he launches himself back to where Ren landed, prone and open on his back.

He shoves a knee into his opponent’s ribs, forces him down into the floor again before he can come to his senses. Braces his other knee on the ground beside his chest, traps both of Ren’s wrists above his head with his right hand, and holds Ren’s own dagger with his left. “Checkmate,” he mocks back through his exhaustion. Ren struggles, so Goro presses the point of the dagger closer to his neck. “Concede, Ren.”

Ren makes an attempt at a roguish smile. It only works because he has a dagger to his throat, as rogues often do. “Not my name,” he tries. 

“Concede, Joker,” Goro growls in annoyance. “You’ve lost.”

Ren deflates, whispers, “damn it” to the ceiling. But he still smiles when he finally groans, “I concede. You win.”

Goro lets out the breath he was holding, laughs out loud in relief. He won. It was closer than he wanted, but he still won.

The dagger clatters to the floor above Ren’s head, Goro releases his wrists and rolls lazily off him to lay on the ground beside him. He’s so fucking tired. He feels completely gross and sweaty and he doesn’t care at all. That was… fun.

“I, ah– almost had you,” Ren says, sounding just as exhausted and satisfied as Goro feels.

“Ha… maybe next time.”

Ren snorts, “next time?”

“Best two out of three?” Goro asks, only mostly joking.

Ren rolls his head on the floor towards Goro. He blinks at him a few times, really gives Goro a good show of his improbably-long eyelashes, and bursts out in a kind of manic, over-tired laugh that Goro’s never heard from him before. “You’re amazing.”

Oh. Goro really has missed him. Why was he staying away, again? “As… are you,” he mumbles, averting his eyes in embarrassment. “Your ability to coordinate so many Personas is impressive. I… wish that–”

Are you guys done yet!?

Fuck. Right. The rest of them. Goro groans petulantly from his spot on the ground. Ren waves a red-gloved hand in the air, but doesn’t move otherwise. 

Soon enough, a few of the Phantom Thieves come into view above them. Goro should probably get up.

“So, who won?” Futaba asks excitedly.

Ren pouts up at her, “you weren’t watching?”

“Joker,” Makoto puts her hands on her hips, “did you not notice?”

More join in to look down on them now. Goro isn’t a big fan of all this– liked it more when it was just him and Ren. He really should get up.

“Buncha effin’ Shadows came and tried to ambush you while you were fighting! We had to fend ‘em all off– did you seriously not see it?”

Ah. Shit.

That’s embarrassing.

 


 

Even with a round of healing and some truly excellent curry, Goro is exhausted by the time midnight comes around.

It doesn’t help that he can’t stop thinking about their fight, about Ren’s face at the end, flushed and sweaty, about how it felt to have him completely at his mercy, how it felt to be at his mercy–

–essay, Goro, concentrate

Though, Goro is a celebrity now. He’s famous. Not just famous in the idol-adjacent sense, like before– even people in other countries know his name. Just today he got a request to be interviewed for a foreign publication’s yearly special on the “hottest man alive” or whatever. So, why the fuck is he wasting any of his precious time writing an essay for his goddamn history class.

He wants to message Futaba about his success in setting up her keylogger and plan out their next steps. He wants to visit the twins and demand they tell him how to acquire more Personas, so he has a better shot of defeating Ren again. He wants to grab one of the fancy stolen bottles in his kitchen, because he hasn’t had a drink in like, a week. He wants to– oh god.

Ren messaged him.

———
Ren

Hey
You awake?

Hello. Yes, I’m still awake.
I believe at this point it would be safe to make the assumption that I’m always awake and then go from there.

Hmm that doesn’t seem healthy 

Well, not all of us are graced with your empty schedule or natural ability to sleep.

Ngl I do consider sleeping to be one of my greatest talents
Once I fell asleep on an escalator

How is that even possible.

Easy. Just have to get real tired out first
Maybe I could show you how :)

——— 

Goro stares at the screen.

He tries his best to figure out how the hell else he’s supposed to interpret that besides: I, Ren, will tire you, Goro, out via any and all possible meanings of the phrase. Smiley face.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Ren, Goro is kind of fixated on one particular thing.

He takes a deep, steadying breath. Glances at his half-finished essay and decides the rest of this night was a bust anyway, decides to give this conversation his full attention. Why does Ren have to be so goddamn distracting?

———
Ren

Very funny.
What you doing up anyway?

Nothin much
Was just thinkin about you ;)

Hasn’t your cat usually bullied you into bed by now?

———

His last message sent as soon as he got Ren’s: “Was just thinkin about you ;)” The words burn into his retinas, rocket his heart rate right back up again, and the, the– the wink face? What the fuck does that mean? (He knows what it means.)

Goro’s fingers fly across the keys and hit send before his brain can catch up to warn him about the implications of poking this particular bear. “About me?

Milliseconds drag on for days while Goro shifts uncomfortably in his chair, waits and hopes for more.

Finally, “Yeah about our fight

Oh, okay. Right. That makes sense.

He shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions– made an assumption from what was probably just a typo. The colon and semicolon keys are right next to each other, after all.

And, of course he shouldn’t feel disappointed. He enjoys the little game they’re playing. At least, the game he thinks they’ve been playing. Any escalation, any real confirmation– it would be so complicated. Terrifying. Thrilling…

You always have to be on top don’t you” pops up under Ren’s last message.

Goro inhales sharply, a strangled, deeply embarrassing half-squeal trapped in his throat.

The wink was not a typo.

He quickly fumbles with his belt and wonders if Ren is… if Ren is doing the same. Just the thought sends a warm shiver down his spine. Especially because Ren probably is. He definitely is. Fuck, he definitely is.

Fuck.

Okay. Okay, if Ren wants to play…

———
Ren

I prefer it that way, yes.
Is that a problem?

Definitely not
As long as I get my turn sometimes

Hm, I’m afraid you’ll have to earn it. 

You know I’m always up for a challenge
Tho I don’t mind being beneath you in the meantime

———

“Holy fuck,” he groans, as if Ren could hear him. He can’t believe this is happening, and yet… yeah, he also can.

Goro carefully types out a response with his free hand, “Quite used to the position now, aren’t you?” as an image of Ren coalesces in his mind. An old favorite, made more potent by Ren all but confirming the fantasy could become reality: beneath him indeed, gasping out his name, with Goro’s tie wrapped around his head as a makeshift blindfold.

His phone vibrates almost immediately. An answer from Ren, written and sent without hesitation: “Only for you ;)

And, well.

 


 

Maybe… maybe Goro is just stupid.

Goro is stupid. Because he let this go too far. Because he didn’t realize the extent of it, the intensity of it, the depth of this hole that he’s been quietly digging himself into for months. Not until he hit the fiery heat of the earth’s core and found there was absolutely he could do but be consumed by the flames and his own hubris.

It isn’t even the first time something like this has happened, Goro reminds himself, surrounded by Shido’s usual cohort of co-conspirators at a dimly-lit bar. It’s kind of a pattern for him. 

He and Ren ended up talking for hours last night about absolutely nothing, and Goro is stupid because a not-stupid person would have finished their essay. Or gone to sleep. Or would be fucking paying attention to the evil assholes they’re currently trapped with if they want to live past the election, instead of thinking about Ren, again.

Pay. Attention.

So. Futaba’s keylogger netted them some logins, which is good. But each of those logins have a second authorization layer which will take time for her to crack.

So. Goro’s trying something new tonight. He’s trying to not drink (or, not drink a lot) and instead use his Third Eye ability to eavesdrop on the assorted worthless adults in the room while their guards are down.

…think she’s pregnant, so I’m going to have to get a new assistant soon. What a pain in the ass…

…payout was nothing compared to last year, fuckin’ bullshit. I was counting on that money to redo the kitchen in my vacation home…

…working tonight? Fuck me, now it’s a party! Heard she’ll do anything for a line…

Ugh. This is why Goro usually tries to be drunk for these things.

He meanders around their private room some more, tries not to breathe in too much smoke. Wonders what Ren is doing. Tries unsuccessfully to stop wondering what Ren is doing. Pay attention.

…after the election? Think I’m gonna ask for a tenured position, really stick it to the old man…

…off the deep end, huh? Course it would be Niijima, can’t trust women with anything except fucking up…

Goro freezes, ducks around a corner to eavesdrop on the conversation in earnest. Two middle-aged bastards in expensive suits: one of the higher-ups at the cognitive psience research facility and an administrator at the SIU, just under the Director. Goro’s old chains and his new ones. 

You’re gonna be the new Director though, eh? Grats, man.”

Shoo-in after that old fuck bites it, yeah. Can’t fuckin’ wait.” 

Should be soon, right? I mean, they got the pro-hic-procedures to go through and all but–

Yeah we got our eyes on the courthouse and Niijima, gonna be any day now. Can’t wait to make that fuckin’ arrest, lemme tell ya.

God, what a-hic-pain in our asses.

Don’t have to tell me. Leader of the Phantom Thieves arrested, only to steal a guard’s gun and blow a hole in his own prissy head– headlines are gonna to be wild. Story of the year.” 

You ready for the cameras?

Been ready for years.

Goro has never run so fast in his life.

He flies out of the bar, maps out the fastest route to Yongen-Jaya as he goes, texts Ren to gather his teammates at Leblanc as soon as possible. Ren, the leader of the Phantom Thieves– god, it wasn’t Goro who was in danger this whole time, it was Ren.

This is all Goro’s fault.

If he’d just done what Shido asked, if he hadn’t been such a fucking failure, if he’d stayed on his good side for just a little while longer… he could have known already, could have given them weeks notice, instead of days.

Stupid, so stupid.

By the time he arrives at Leblanc all of the Phantom Thieves have gathered around the booths already, in various states of day wear and sleepwear. And Sakura… is there too, leaning casually behind the counter. They stare at each other for a moment, then Sakura turns to Ren (Ren…). “Don’t tell me he’s involved in all this, too?”

“You told your guardian!?” Goro sputters, “is there anyone left in your city who doesn’t know? Do you even realize the consequences–”

“Hey, it’s okay. Calm down,” Ren says. It works, but only because he isn’t wearing his glasses and Goro needs to devote brain space to parsing that.

“Goro here is our double agent,” Yusuke explains.

“Our man on the inside!” Ann adds.

Goro growls in frustration– they have no fucking clue, still. “I am not involved with you,” he protests, then realizes that sounded childish. This isn’t going at all how he imagined it would. “Could I have a coffee, please?”

“Coffee? At eleven?”

Goro glares at Makoto.

“Your heist is a setup,” he announces to the room, turning to Ren. “They have people watching you and as soon as it’s finished they’re going to have you arrested and killed.” 

“Whoa, whoa– wait just a second. Just who are ‘they?’ Who exactly are you kids up against?” Sakura asks, which is particularly annoying because he stopped brewing Goro’s coffee to do it.

The Thieves look at each other and Goro realizes that… they hadn’t told Sakura the true extent of his involvement with their enemy. “Shido Masayoshi,” Goro says, because he’s never been one to run from the consequences of his actions, and the Phantom Thieves should know that by now.

“Shido?” Sakura’s eyes widen– ah, he does know then. Goro suspected as much, given his former occupation and the way he absconded off with Futaba in tow. Finally, someone with some sense.

“My worthless father,” he confirms, “and the man I’ve worked with to perpetrate all the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns using the Metaverse.”

Goro finally takes a seat at the counter, crosses his legs, and basks in the quietest, most awkward silence he’s ever caused.

Sakura (the Hierophant) puts a hand to his head in disbelief. “Hold on…”

“Goro?” Ryuji laughs nervously, “uh, what the hell are you doin’?”

“More importantly,” Makoto says, her voice quiet, “this plan… Goro, did you just find out about it tonight?”

The cat gasps. “Oh! That’s right, because–”

“No, wait a damn minute!” Sakura bellows with the god-given authority of a man who frequently deals with too many teenagers. “You mean to tell me Shido is the one behind all this?”

Goro examines his cuticles, bored and frustrated with how long this is taking. “He’s going to be the Prime Minister, and you’re all going to be dead unless you listen to me.”

“Um, Sojiro…” Futaba jumps up from her seat, runs over to her adoptive father. “Maybe we should… talk about this outside?” 

It takes some coaxing, but she does eventually get Sakura out the door so the rest of them can concentrate on the present. Goro watches the process impatiently and mourns the loss of his promised coffee. He turns to Ren and says, “I can’t believe you told him.”

Ren moves his hand to his face like he means to adjust glasses that aren’t there, very smoothly transitions into combing his fingers through his mess of hair. “It was kind of an accident…”

“Ren-kun,” Haru says, pointedly sipping her coffee as if she knows how badly Goro wants it, “it’s getting awfully late. Shouldn’t we discuss the heist?”

“Right,” Ren says. “Sorry.”

They end up with… an okay plan.

Well, it’s the best he can hope for, considering that they still insist on carrying out their heist despite his many pleas to the contrary.

Goro’s going to join them. Just this once, just to keep them safe. He knows the faces of all of Shido’s conspirators, after all. He’ll be able to spot them from a mile away. With him, Futaba’s scanner, and a calling card delivered personally to Sae tomorrow, immediately before they head into her cognition… well, it’s as safe as they’re going to get. 

Still, he can’t help but linger in the quiet café, even after everyone else has left, mulling over all the details, anything he could have missed…

“You really are worried, aren’t you?”

Goro sighs, “I’ve been dealing with these people for a long time, Ren. Your…” Goro tilts his head, tries to come up with words that fit. As if words could describe Ren. “Your relentless will to achieve your goals… it’s commendable. It’s also dangerous.”

“We’ve gotten pretty good at this, you know,” Morgana says from his seat at the bar counter.

“That doesn’t mean complacency is an option,” Goro throws back.

The cat scratches at his ear. “You’re just hard to please.”

He glares at him for a moment, then switches into Detective Prince Akechi. “What could you possibly mean? I love nothing more than to gamble my life on a meaningless gesture.” The smile slides off his face just as quickly as he put it on.

“It’s not meaningless,” Ren says. “Makoto’s sister is out of control.”

“So is the rest of this country’s justice system– do you mean to change all of their hearts?”

Ren shrugs. “Have to start somewhere.”

There it is again– that determination. Maybe this was what drew him towards Ren in the first place, so long ago, when they were argued for their opposing sides on camera. 

Or, maybe it was his face. Probably both.

Goro clears his throat, still full of nervous energy. His eye catches on an old, familiar cardboard box. “Play a game with me, Ren. It’s been a long time, and I doubt either of us will be getting much sleep in anticipation of tomorrow.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ren says, but he still grabs the box from its shelf and blows some dust off the top. He places it on the table in their usual booth, and they each occupy themselves with setting up the pieces for their respective sides.

“Wait, seriously? You need to rest up for the heist!” Morgana jumps down from his chair, looks up accusingly at the two of them.

“I’ll be up soon, Mona. Goro usually beats me pretty fast.”

Of course, because Goro always wins. Because–

He freezes, and makes a huge mistake. He allows his eyes to wander from the board up to Ren across the table. Because he can’t help but remember their… “conversation” from last night.

You always have to be on top don’t you

And Ren is looking at him, too.

“Fine, but if you fall asleep on the train again I’m not waking you up!” Morgana starts trotting away, bounds up the stairs, grumbling something about how Ren needs to be more responsible.

Goro quickly goes back to setting up his remaining white pieces and… tries not to panic. So, exchanging extremely thinly-veiled innuendo over text was one thing– he didn’t have to confront the fact that he doesn’t know how to do anything because they, in fact, didn’t actually do anything. They were each hidden behind the barrier of distance and plausible deniability.

But now they’re alone.

And Goro hasn’t done enough research. He’s completely unprepared. 

He wonders, not for the first time, how experienced Ren is. He’s awfully flirty. But Goro is older– doesn’t that mean he’s supposed to take the lead on these sorts of things? And if their messages from last night are anything to go by… fuck, is Ren expecting him to make a move tonight?

“Having a hard time?” Ren asks, a little teasing edge to his tone, and Goro startles in his seat.

Ren looks totally relaxed across the table, regarding him with a fond sort of amusement. He’s so pretty like this, soft curls and pajamas contrasting his sharp features.

Oh. Oh, right, he should start the game.

Goro moves his white pawn and thinks about how there is absolutely nothing stopping him from kissing Ren after this game is over. Ren likes him that way. He knows that. He could kiss Ren. It could happen tonight.

“So what do you think of the plan?” Goro blurts out, “even with our new measures in place it seems quite risky to me, and I can’t imagine the consequences of not changing Sae-san’s heart are higher than what could happen to you all if you fail here.” 

“It’ll be okay,” Ren says and makes his own move.

Okay.

Goro manages to stay quiet for another round before his nerves get the best of him again.

“But how can you know for certain? We never did make a contingency plan for if an arrest did happen… shouldn’t we have thought about that possibility?”

“Mm,” hums Ren. “Maybe.”

“I’m only saying,” Goro explains further, keeps talking as his heart beats somewhere around his ears, “that we should explore all possible outcomes. Plan for everything and everything, correct? Even if we lose tomorrow, that doesn’t have to be the end of it.”

Ren moves a piece, but doesn’t say anything.

“Rooks can’t move diagonally, Ren.” 

“Right. Sorry.” 

“The information you all managed to find that revealed Shido’s plans… did you perhaps hear anything about how they would plan to carry out the murder-suicide after the arrest? Such an act in a police station, even with the control that the conspiracy holds, would take quite an effort.” 

Goro stares at the chess board, feels a little calmer now. He always enjoys stepping through a plan, finding all the little contingencies. It’s a good distraction from his Ren-related nerves. Maybe this will be alright after all. “I imagine we might have time to stage a rescue operation should one of you be captured. Especially since I could– are you alright?”

When Goro looks up after his turn he realizes that Ren is no longer the picture of easy relaxation from earlier in their game. Instead breathing hard, clutching at the side of his neck, staring blankly at nothing.

“Ren?”

“Yeah! S-sorry, I–” Ren takes a few more gasping breaths, says “I’m fine.”

And then says almost immediately after, “I can’t breathe.”

Goro stumbles out of his side of the booth, game completely forgotten. “Wha– you can’t breathe!?” His mind inexplicably goes to a million different crime and thriller films he’s watched and how enemies can strike from anywhere–

“Can’t–” Ren whispers, gasps unevenly once again.

Goro recalls the first aid training he went through, crouches on the floor next to Ren’s seat and grabs his frozen arm to measure the pulse on his wrist. Somewhere between hearing the way Ren is breathing and feeling how fast his heart is beating, Goro realizes. He’s felt these symptoms before. In himself.

“Ren,” Goro says carefully, because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, “you’re okay. Just breathe… slower?” Better? Should he say that? That can’t be helpful.

“I think I’m gonnapassout.”

Okay, but he’s not, because Goro’s been here before and he knows how this goes. How did he get through these before?

Goro releases Ren’s pulse, holds his hand in a firm grip instead. Squeezes hard. Ren looks down at him in surprise– distraction, distractions help. That’s what Ryuji did for him so long ago, and Ren himself as well.

“Ren, you’re fine, I promise. What’s your favorite color?”

“F-favorite color?” Goro raises his eyebrows to prompt him to answer. “Um. Red.” 

Goro huffs out a laugh, “that’s mine as well.”

Ren gulps in some more air, but still manages to say, “I didn’t– I never knew t-that.”

“Well,” Goro squeezes his hand again, “maybe we should ask each other more stupid questions.” Ren smiles weakly, and Goro has never felt a sweeter victory. “Cats or dogs?” He asks this time.

“Cats. Obviously.”

“Mm. Not after meeting your cat, I’m afraid.”

“Rude.”

“I could be persuaded,” Goro says with a twist of his lips, “you’re awfully cat-like, after all. Quiet, sleepy, a penchant for getting into places you shouldn’t.”

“Flatterer,” Ren says, breathing easier, still smiling. “Favorite game?” He asks on his own this time.

Goro’s favorite game… well. “Anything with you,” he answers honestly. 

“Me too,” Ren says, squeezes Goro’s hand back this time. Exhales slowly, carefully. “Sorry I messed this one up.”

“Chess doesn’t expire, Ren.”

“You know what I mean,” he responds with a roll of his eyes. He must really be feeling better, because he explains in a small voice: “last time I was arrested it went… bad. Really bad.”

“Ah. Then I suppose the fault is mine.”

“No… you didn’t know,” Ren says, almost at a whisper. He looks so sad, now. But sad is still better than a panic attack. “Sorry. I feel better now, thanks.”

“Mm, you’re sure?” Goro asks, gives Ren’s hand one last gentle squeeze and lets it go.

“Yeah. That was really embarrassing. Feel like an idiot.”

Goro stands up, winces when his knees crack. “Well, all we have to do now is get you drunk and I’ll call us even.”

“Ha– I thought we weren’t talking about that.”

“We aren’t,” Goro says sternly. He packs up the board, set on getting Ren and himself some sleep now. There will be time enough for the two of them to figure out whatever it is that’s between them after the heist.

Ren slowly slides out of his side of the booth, watches Goro and runs a still-shaky hand through his hair. “Thanks. Again,” he says. 

Goro nods, but doesn’t want to leave on that note. He has a spark of inspiration before the game is fully packed, grabs his white king and tosses it Ren’s way.

“Here. A ‘little gift.’”

Ren catches it but stares at Goro, and his face is unreadable, even without his glasses to hide behind.

“It’s… a good luck charm. For your safe return, because we can’t play our next game without it,” Goro explains, feeling a little embarrassed.

Ren breaks their eye contact, looks down at the piece, cradles it as if it were something precious instead of a nonsense gesture from a game they’ve played hundreds of times before.

“Thank you, Goro.”

 


 

They do the heist.

Haha, a heist– like they truly are thieves. It’s actually kind of fun. Goro could see the appeal, if he didn’t disagree with the methods on a fundamental level.

He stays with them the whole way up through the cognitive world, all the way into the inner sanctum. He keeps a vigilant watch for anyone suspicious, anyone out of place.

But… nothing happens.

Sae is defeated, as planned. They find her “Treasure,” which is only a rather unremarkable briefcase. She and Makoto have a very sweet little heart-to-heart. And then they all split up, as planned, in case they were tailed into the world.

Goro easily makes a clean getaway, though he waits to leave the world until Futaba confirms that everyone else is out. He finds it strange that the world isn’t collapsing as it usually does but… everything about this place has been strange. He’s happy to leave it behind.

He opens his Third Eye for extra security when he returns to the real world. Feels like something is missing, something is off, but chalks that up to his very well-earned paranoia. He carefully makes his way to the nearest Ginza line, where they planned to meet up again. Doesn’t see anyone suspicious, doesn’t see anything.

Doesn’t see anything, until he sees Ren.

Goro!” Ren yells, collides with him in a violent sort of… tackle? Hug? Goro freezes, can literally feel his nerves overload with feeling, from touch. Ren lets him go just as quickly– he’d only had one arm around Goro’s shoulders after all, because his other hand is still holding the briefcase they’d smuggled out.

The rest of them are here too, gathered amongst the crowds of commuters. All accounted for, even the cat. Safe and sound. Goro lets out the breath he’d been holding since… since forever.

“So, this confirms it?” Yusuke says over the din of the station noise and their barely-contained celebration, “it’s only the changes of heart?”

“Only the changes of heart!” Ren laughs, “Can you believe it!? Never been so relieved– Goro, Goro, you're gonna be okay–” Ren hugs him, hugs him again, and so Goro shuts down again. And then someone hugs him from behind. And then another– oh god. Oh god. So many of them. All of them.

He can hear Futaba’s cackle in their pile about how she’s unstoppable. Makoto says something about a memento, Ryuji’s grumbling about someone stepping on his foot, and Goro is trying to figure out what he should do with his hands, arms, face, while being… hugged.

They eventually fan back out again, granting him his freedom. Ren is the last to go and Goro immediately wants him back, he was so… a lot. Much. And there. Warm.

All of their excitement is infectious, or maybe it was the shock of the most human contact that he’d… ever had? But Goro finds himself smiling too, laughs for no reason and he feels like– he feels like he belongs here. With them.

They end up loitering around the station for a while, as a group. Every few minutes Goro remembers to look over his shoulder but… there’s only the usual evening traffic. No familiar faces. It really does seem like they got away with it. 

Not all that surprising, to be honest. Goro was Shido’s most competent asset and Goro is on his own side, now.

“I wonder how it will happen, if we didn’t… you know,” Haru says to Makoto.

Makoto puts a hand to her chin, “I just don’t understand. It has to happen, that’s what they said. Maybe–”

“Hey, Goro,” Ren says quietly, standing next to him again, and so Goro stops paying attention to anything else. “I dunno if you had plans but… would you want to, maybe, stop by Leblanc? Later?”

Goro blinks at him.

Is this…

Ren spins one of his curls around his finger. Says carefully, “I, um. I picked up a new blend and I want to get your opinion on it.”

Goro blinks again. Ren must have cast some sort of spell to make him an idiot, because the only thing his usually brilliant and coherent brain can think is: yesyesyesyesyes–

He can’t just say that though, so Goro glances over at the rest of the Phantom Thieves– still chatting excitedly amongst themselves, far enough away. “You know me, I’m always up for trying new things.” He tries not to sound too enthusiastic when he continues, “I’ll drop my equipment off at my apartment and be over in… an hour?”

“Yeah– yeah, perfect. Okay.” Ren nods a few times, shuts his mouth tight, draws the corners of his lips down as if he’s trying not to smile. Fails almost immediately. It’s adorable. It’s the cutest thing Goro has ever seen. Which– oh shit. He’s been staring at Ren’s mouth for way too long.

He quickly redirects his gaze up higher and feels his face heat up at Ren’s knowing look. Goro coughs awkwardly into his fist.

“See you then,” Ren whispers conspiratorially, before he can recover.

“See you,” Goro confirms just as quiet, his own voice nearly drowned out by the drumming of his heart.

It’s so stupid– they have thousands of secrets between the two of them. Deadly, society-shattering secrets. But this tiny, mundane, inconsequential secret is the one that excites him the most.

So, he does his best to act normal for the others. He waves them off as they break in their separate directions, tries not to stare specifically at Ren when the train doors shut, while his mind wanders to what exactly they could do tonight.

Tonight, tonight, in just one hour, just the two of them, after closing– all night? Is that a possibility? Oh god. He shouldn’t speculate, shouldn’t jump to conclusions… fuck, he has so much more to research, what if Ren wants to do–

The train disappears and Goro spins in place, walks as quick as he can in the opposite direction without breaking into a jog. Makes a quick plan for what he needs to do– drop off his briefcase definitely, quick shower, brush his teeth… should he change? Would that be too much? That would be too much. Is it possible to die from excitement?

His phone buzzes and Goro’s heart manages to somehow beat even faster until– oh. Just Futaba.

———
Oracle

hey
great job today go team blah blah
anyway
i have to ask you for one super little tiny small favor and then you need to promise me we will never speak of this ever again

———

Futaba could ask for literally anything right now and he would give it to her. He could never let on to that though, tries to keep his usual level of decorum as he types a response.

———
Oracle

What is it?

do you promise????

Yes, I promise we will never speak of it again. Now what is it?

pls pls pls
pls remember i have the first floor of leblanc bugged
pls PLS i am literally on my figurative knees begging you pls

———

Goro’s face feels progressively hotter as he reads her last message.

Wha– what does she know? He starts typing out a defensive response, completely ignoring his promise to not talk about this further. But this is different, because she has the completely wrong idea, and how would she have found out anyway? He turns the corner to reach his apartment building, continues typing his message which is… maybe getting a bit too long, and–

–feels a sharp pain in his knees as they hit the pavement, hard.

The ground rushes up to meet him, his phone clatters out of his hands, and Goro doesn’t think about anything for a while.

 


 

!!!

Goro jolts awake, shivers and sputters and gasps and shivers.

Water– cold water– so fucking cold all over… what? Why? 

“…drug was a… …strong, huh?” 

…What?

Goro blinks the water away from his eyes, but they stay blurry. 

His head is blurry. He’s– he’s…? Handcuffs? What… 

“Akechi Goro,” someone says… his name. That’s his name, right? 

Why– does he feel like this? Images flicker in his head– flashes of a camera, holding a board in front of him, pain, needles, needles, needles–

A shine catches his eye, a discarded needle on the floor. They did something to him, what did they do, why? Why is he handcuffed… in a chair, in this room, what did they do to him?

“Detective Prince,” that same officer says, reading off a clipboard, “and Leader of the Phantom Thieves. The very same Phantom Thieves you pretended to be so against.”

What?  

The man chuckles, “what a twist, eh? The media’s gonna have a field day.”

This isn’t right, he’s not the one who’s supposed to be in here. He’s not– he’s not the leader of the–

Goro searches the room in a panic, tries to get his mind to focus but– the walls, closing in, countless officers, grey, concrete, hazy, red lights, nothing makes sense.

“Always go right for the cameras, don’t you? Well, no one’s watching this time.” The officer leans in closer, close enough that Goro’s able to focus, and he realizes– he knows him, he’s seen him before, he’s with… “Actions have consequences, Goro-kun. You really thought your master would let you cross him like that and get away with it?”

He moves faster than Goro’s drug-addled mind can parse and then Goro is on the cold, hard floor, gasping desperately for the breath that was so violently kicked out of him.

It’s there, with his face pressed against concrete, that he remembers, he realizes– ha, hahaha, he realizes he got his timeline all wrong.

Shido isn’t going to wait until after the election to dispose of him. This is it. His deadline was moved up, and he’s going to die here. They’re going to kill him.

Something is shoved in his face and Goro flinches away. 

“You know how this goes, detective,” the officer says, tossing the clipboard at him and laughing. “Sign the confession.”

He was such a fool.

Chapter Text

“It’s nothing more than a logic problem, you see,” he explains into the quiet. “And each piece of unique information uncovered narrows the set, until only one possible answer remains.”

Goro likes the sound of his own voice, he’ll be the first to admit that. He likes to reason through his problems out loud, likes to share his knowledge and process with others, especially likes the blank looks he gets when he goes past the threshold of what whoever he’s talking to can follow.

And he especially likes his voice here. The ambient noise isn’t so quiet that he feels he has to whisper or hold himself back. But, it’s just quiet enough that he knows he’ll be heard.

Heard, but not listened to, Goro grumbles to himself.

Amamiya Ren is alone behind the counter today. A special occurrence. Rare enough that Goro knows not to squander it, though likely (hopefully) more common now that the early-October weather is turning crisp. His face is pinched in concentration, pouring a stranger’s coffee from a French press as if it were important. And he’s not listening to Goro.

“The discovery of the close ties of several of the victims narrowed the set by a significant factor.” Look at me. “So significant, that by the time we’d gone through all our options only a few suspects matched the profile.”

Ren still doesn’t look at him. Goro frowns. He grabs his pen, starts flipping it between his fingers to do something with his irritated energy, and quickly plasters a cute smile on his face.

“Then all we had to do was watch and wait.” Look at me, I’m intimidating you. “You see, if they’d only been connected to one victim, it would have been much more difficult to find them. But that’s the trick when it comes to these lowlife criminals: they always have a pattern.”

Goro doesn’t say: just like you, but it’s close. He’s starting to feel a little desperate when he realizes Ren is looking at him after all… sort of. Glancing away from his pour and at Goro’s left hand, every so often. Watching the pen as it spins.

Well, Goro can work with that.

First, knock the pen against the counter to make a noise, to draw even more attention. Next, say something that he can’t ignore: “interesting how similar this case is to the Phantom Thieves, is it not?”

He does a neat little trick, just for fun. A flashy one he taught himself back in the days when he had nothing to do and nowhere to go and no one to talk to. “They’ve struck three times now. Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern… so now all we have to do is find that pattern.”

Look at me.

Ren does this time. And surprisingly he doesn’t seem startled or lost, as if he’d just now discovered Goro was speaking. He’s just… there. Steady. Not too quiet but just quiet enough, and Goro realizes that Ren had in fact been listening to him this whole time.

He quickly takes a sip of his coffee to hide his delight. He’s here to intimidate, after all. Can’t be accidentally giving the wrong impression to the enemy.

When Goro chances a glance away from his cup Ren is already on his way to deliver his hard work to an ungrateful customer. Goro watches him as he goes, notices for the first time that beneath his unruly mop of black curls Ren’s ears are bright red.

And he feels like he’s won something, though he isn’t quite sure what, yet.

Bang!

Goro jumps in his seat, the warm and comfortable reds and oranges of Leblanc vanishing in an instant, replaced by… cold. Metal. Concrete.

Oppressive silence, not comfortable quiet.

Right.

“A– Akechi-kun!?”

That loud noise, echoing through his pounding head even in this silence– it was only the door opening. It wasn’t heralding the arrival of his death, not yet. Only Niijima Sae.

Goro blinks at her. She’s sitting down opposite him already, though he doesn’t remember her moving.

He decides he’s not going to say anything. Whatever they gave him is messing with his head, his words feel too close to truthes right now, and nothing matters anyway, so there’s no point–

“Is– is this some kind of joke?” 

“Yes, you’ve figured it out,” Goro slurs immediately. Ah, well, so much for shutting up. “An elaborate joke, for your amusement. Stupid woman…”

Sae looks properly offended and confused. She glances around the room, probably looking for the rest of the prank or whatever.

So Goro spreads his arms wide. “Welcome, Sae-san. Do you like the decorations? I worked on them myself. Though, haha, hahaha,” he starts cackling, can’t seem to stop, “I did– haha– I did have some help with the blood over there.”

The officer’s face when Goro attacked him was just… fucking beautiful. He hopes that man is the one who kills him, just so he can take one more look at the enormous gash he’d managed to open in his head with a leg of the chair they’d foolishly left behind. He’s probably in the hospital getting stitches though, too bad, so sad. A small win, even amongst the greatest of all losses.

And then they’d called for more reinforcements and more drugs. But that’s fine too. At least he won’t have to remember that part for long.

“Those bastards…” Sae says after scanning the room. She shakes her head, clearly switching herself into autopilot. Takes out a manila folder from her bag, takes out her phone, takes out a clear plastic bag full of his phone. Shattered to pieces from its impact with the ground when they’d knocked him out. “They didn’t tell me it was you. You need to tell me what’s going on, this is… highly irregular. I can help you–“

“–Oh, spare me the bullshit,” Goro groans, rolls his head back to stare petulantly at the ceiling. “I know the routine, I know what you’re doing, I know what they’re doing.” He sits up again and gestures vaguely toward the door, toward his death.

Sae turns around as if he were pointing at something real. Turns back. “Akechi-kun, what are you–” 

“Go fuck yourself.”

Hey!” Sae slams a fist on the table, stands up oh-so-imposingly. Classic Sae. Goro wants to be unaffected but the noise makes his vision blur. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but since you ‘know the routine’ you also know that as soon as I leave the people who were here before me are going to come back, and I can’t stop them unless you talk to me. What the hell is going on!?”

How long is this going to last? How many forms of torture must he endure before they finally let him die?

“I did. Talk to you. I talked to you, I tried,” Goro finally sneers. “And talking to you is pointless. Because you don’t want to help me, or anyone else, other than yourself.”

“That’s not tr–”

“You were supposed to be my mentor. We haven’t had a real conversation in months. You don’t care about me, you never have,” he says.

And he’s definitely veering into ‘pathetic’ territory here, definitely feeling unreasonably sorry for himself, acting like a child, but he was supposed to be spending the night with the guy he likes and instead he’s… this. 

His whole life is this and he’s so. Beyond. Sick of it.

Sae ignores him, carefully opens the folder in front of her, fans out photos of the Phantom Thieves’ victims like they’re a deck of cards. Kamoshida, Madarame, Kaneshiro, Okumura.

“You were investigating the Phantom Thieves, same as I was. Tell me what you know about their methods,” she says in a clipped tone. 

“Didn’t you hear, Sae-san? I am the Phantom Thieves.”

She regards him in her careful way, the way that says, I don’t believe you, but I’m not going to tell you that and risk shutting you up. “Are you?”

“I am the Phantom Thieves, and I’ve been perpetrating all the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns and changes of heart, all on my own,” Goro says anyway, because he honestly doesn’t care if Sae believes him. “And you made it so easy, because you were too busy and too brainless to notice.”

She looks so much like Makoto when he hurts her. Same little frozen expression, like she’s having an emotion and doesn’t know how to deal with it. 

Sae takes some time to flip through her various papers and materials. As if she doesn’t have everything in that folder memorized. 

“I don’t understand… how,” she demands more than asks, in the same way Makoto does when she’s trying very hard to be brave and in control. “Why did you do these things?”

“Go fuck yourself,” Goro spits out, then shivers in his seat. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, so we can judge you fairly in the eyes of the–”

What!?  

He bursts out laughing again, “don’t– ha, don’t give me that cliché bullshit, hahaha– judge me? Fairly? Do you really think that any of this is fair? Do you even want it to be fair!?” Goro leans forward, says with a wild grin, “Sae-san. I could spin some insane tales of secret worlds and grand conspiracies and talking cats, and you could leave here with my worthless stories and your worthless evidence, and some corrupt piece of shit is still going to walk in here and put a bullet in my head. And that– that will be fair.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Believe what you will.”

Goro hunches forward, rubs his forehead with the heel of his hand. He’s tired of fighting, tired of tricking himself into thinking he deserves anything more than this. He’s tired of wishing and wanting and hoping and never learning not to, because his life was over from the moment it began and he was a fool to forget that.

He wonders if Ren will mourn him when he hears of Goro’s suicide. He wonders if Ren will believe it.

Ren.

God damn it, his heart hurts

“Akechi-kun… what happened to you?” Sae asks him quietly, a tone he hasn’t heard from her in a long time. Not since he was freshly recruited to the department. Back when Sae would offer to take him out for lunch and dinner because he was always hungry and not good at hiding it yet and she would politely ask him about his life and his dreams and his family and he would lie and lie and lie. “You really…”

Goro stares up at her. She looks away.

“You were so irritating, you know,” Sae says after a moment. “This sixteen year-old kid who had such strong convictions about ‘civic duties’ and ‘moral obligations,’ and kept solving all my cases before me…” She takes a moment, sighs. “My superiors don’t want me here long, and I obviously can’t conduct an impartial interrogation anyway. They must have known that when they allowed me in.”

Sae leans forward, does her best impression of a person who cares, “I know you, Akechi-kun. You can talk to me. You can tell me how you did this, and why, and I might be able to strike a deal for you.”

Lies. Goro avoids her gaze, stays silent.

He wants to go back to daydreaming about Ren and Leblanc. He doesn’t want to think about staying here any longer, or prison, or the death penalty he’d surely be rewarded. There’s no point. He’s going to die in this room.

Sae clutches her phone tight, picks at its ridiculous panda case, eyebrows drawn together in a way that, again, reminds him just so much of her sister. He misses Makoto, inexplicably. He misses all of them. He wishes he could have met them earlier, before he was trapped and ruined forever.

“My actions have consequences,” Goro forces out past his tight throat, because he’s a coward who still doesn’t want to die despite all the evidence that he should. “I have to face the consequences.”

“Then tell me what you did. So we can determine those consequences.” 

“I told you what I did.”

“All the mental shutdowns. The psychotic breakdowns, the changes of heart…” Sae shakes her head. “That’s… so many people. And you’re telling me you did this all alone?”

“Yes,” he lies.

Changes of heart, obviously not. Some shutdowns and breakdowns faked by Shido’s conspiracy, with poisons or blackmail, when Goro’s app turned up no distortion.

It doesn’t matter.

“You’re not protecting anyone? Phantom Thieves is plural, you know.” Sae frowns at him, takes a sheet of paper out and turns it towards him. Ah, he recognizes this. A record of all his victims, which he himself put together for her back in July. “Some of these happened at the same time, in different places. Want to tell me how you pulled that off by yourself?”

“I have to leave some mysteries for you to solve, Sae-san,” he says with a facsimile of his usual pleasant smile, trying and failing to act unaffected.

It wasn’t anything special, really. Just some sloppy yakuza.

He’d been in the room when Shido confronted them about it, standing silent to the side like a good guard dog while Shido warned his incompetent compatriots what exactly he’d have Goro do to them if they messed up again.

Sae sighs, shakes her head, tries another tactic: “one of the first shutdown victims, Isshiki Wakaba. It was your theory that she didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered like the others after her. You told me you knew her. And you killed her?”

“…I did,” Goro says into the silence.

Why?” 

“I didn’t–” he stops himself before he can start making excuses for his behavior. He killed someone, that’s it. He’s guilty.

Nothing else matters.

“You didn’t what?” Sae leans forward. “You didn’t kill her after all?”

He’s guilty. It doesn’t matter.

“You didn’t want to?”

He did it. He has to face the consequences. Nothing else matters.

“Didn’t think you’d be caught?”

“I didn’t know!” Goro shouts, “they told me what to do, she was out of control, they said it would help, and I-I was a fool and– they had me locked up in that goddamn lab and I just wanted to get out and I was so tired all the time and– and then she was dead and it was all my fault,” he buries his face in his hands, completely lost to regret, “and I had to stand there and pretend that I wanted to do it, I meant to do it, that I did it for him and his goddamn precious research, or I would have ended up dead too, but here I am anyway! I’ve only managed to succeed in prolonging the inevitable, he always. Fucking. Wins!!

“Who is ‘he!?’” He hears Sae shout at him in turn, “who was behind this!?”

“No one,” Goro groans, shakes his head frantically, “no one, no one no one no one no…”

“Akechi-kun, you have to tell me!

“No, no, nonono–”

“You can’t be serious– someone else was involved in the death of Isshiki Wakaba and you’re protecting them?” 

“It was me, I did it–”

“Were the others the same? You couldn’t have have accomplished this on your own, tell me who you were working for!”

“There’s no point,” he says, “there’s no point in telling you anything.”

“God damn it, Akechi…”

Sae goes quiet.

Goro regrets everything.

It’s these goddamn drugs, messing with his mind, making him say shit he’d otherwise have known to shut up about… 

“There’s something that’s been bothering me for some time now,” Sae finally says, slowly, quietly.

Goro leaves the cover of his hands to look at her. 

“Recently I was removed from my post as head of this investigation and was told to remain on standby. A short while later, I received word that you were caught in the act, within some bizarre phenomenon. But, that was all I was told.

“Last month you mentioned a theory that someone else was behind the Phantom Thieves, pulling the strings. This is too much for you alone, no matter your methods, and now you’re saying that the murder of Isshiki Wakaba–” 

“–I killed her,” Goro mumbles.

“Akechi-kun.” Sae closes her folder, leans forward and tries her best to make eye contact with him. “If you’re pretending you did this all on your own to protect someone, or because you’re afraid of retribution… you have to tell me the truth, don’t you understand that? What happened to your sense of morality? Don’t you want to see the true culprit brought to justice?”

Goro grimaces, digs his nails into his palms to stop himself from saying anything else. He is the true culprit. And so are a lot of other people. Terrible people. He wants to see them ruined more than anything in the world, but he’s trying his best to stop wanting. 

Sae continues carefully, “if there were extenuating circumstances or coercion then your sentence could be–”

“–death. That’s all. That’s it.” 

“And you believe that’s just?”

“It’s not about what I believe,” he snarls back at her, “it’s the way it is. I’m not the one to decide truth, or justice, or fate, or morality, or anything about my fucking life. And you–” he chokes up and strangles out half a laugh at once, briefly mourns his last scrap of dignity, “you, who are you to talk about justice to me? Sae-san, it’s no wonder you got a calling card– you’re out of control, you’ve lost your mind, and for what? For a little praise? For a promotion? I… I used to look up to you, and…”

He’d forgotten.

She was brilliant. She was meticulous, powerful, and listened to his bullshit when everyone else looked down on him.

He tried so hard to be like her at the start. He copied her mannerisms, asked her countless questions, sought out her praise more than any others. And then, eventually, she had more important things to worry about, just like everyone else. She couldn’t make time for him, not this day, not this week, not this month. But it was fine, because Goro was used to being alone. 

He’d forgotten, and remembering makes it hurt all the more that this is where they’ve ended up.

Ah, the Judgement arcana. He should have known. 

Goro rubs at his eyes, tries to be subtle about it. Sae isn’t paying attention anyway, seems to be lost in her own thoughts. She’s staring at her phone case again, a ridiculous bulky thing that he’s surprised she would choose. 

In fact. It grates at him a little. 

Sae is always so put together, so sharp and modern. That panda case isn’t her style at all, it looks more like something… more like–

Hold on.

Goro leans forward carefully, tries to get a better look at it without Sae noticing.

He’d thought something about her mannerisms was reminding him of Makoto, but maybe– 

“Sae-san,” Goro says as he’s putting it together himself. “Your phone…”

Sae looks up from it, then glances back down as if she hadn’t been staring at the case for the past minute anyway. She flips it over and displays the black and white Buchimaru design for him to see. “Yes, um–” she says a little sheepishly, “Makoto– my younger sister, you remember– she was doing the dishes, and my phone somehow got all mixed in. I’m borrowing hers for the day while mine sits in a bowl of rice.”

Sae has Makoto’s phone. That’s ridiculous. That’s… that’s important. That’s important? God, if he could just think– 

“I got so angry with her…” Sae trails off.

Goro’s mind is so foggy that when he tries to grab at a deduction just out of reach he ends up with a different one instead: that daydream. It wasn’t a daydream after all.

He hadn't been just imagining that day at Leblanc, earlier, when Ren was pouring from a French press and staring at Goro’s hands. He’d been remembering it, remembering it for a reason. 

He knew something, he’d figured out something important before all this started. What was it? 

Something important. Something off, something strange.

There was always something strange about them, about all this– too late now for him, no point in speculating, but. Well. He’s got a ridiculous hunch, and what is there to do in here but follow it through? Eliminate the impossible, and so on.

Goro presses at the sore spots on his neck, still comes away with a few errant dots of blood. He likely only has a little while longer of lucidity– or, ha, maybe the drugs have already started working, and that’s why he’s willing to entertain this preposterous idea.

But, Sae’s cognitive world didn’t collapse. Kaneshiro and Okumura’s both did, even after their changes of heart. Goro remembers that very clearly.

So, maybe he’s right about them. Goro shifts against the concrete floor, the metal wall, tries to find comfort that doesn’t exist. Maybe he’s right, and they can… they’re going to–  

The handle of the door in front of him turns down. Goro curls his hand around the broken leg of the chair next to him in preparation.

If they can pull this off he needs to give them all the time he can possibly manage.  

And if this is where he ends, well. He’s not going to make it easy.  

“Akechi-kun, I know I’ve been–”

“–Wait.”

Goro holds up a hand, puts the other to his head, concentrates, concentrates– 

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern.

Why? What had happened three times? What was the pattern he’d already discovered? 

Do you remember?  

Last time I was arrested it went… bad. Really bad.

I know what her codewords are.

Akechi, you really don’t…?

“What’s wrong?”

“My–” oh, he’d been about to say ‘friends.’ “There’s something… I can’t…”

There too much, too many pieces and not enough time. He’d solved this before but his head is spinning and everything hurts and he’s going to die.

“…better things to do with my time than babysit you morons.”

“Hey!”

“We’ll be there every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Niijima Sae, courthouse, casino.”  

“I know what her codewords are,” Goro protests, because…  

Because…?

Because he… really does know them. Knew them before Ren told him what they were.

Which is strange, because he hasn’t given Sae a second thought in a long time, not since she’d apparently decided he wasn’t worth her time either.

But he knows the keywords, can picture the casino: nestled in the city where the courthouse should be, tall and garish and bright.

He’s never given it a thought, has never been there before, but he can imagine it perfectly.

And… this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either. Once is chance, twice now a coincidence. He’ll need to pay more attention now, just in case. To find the pattern if one appears, to uncover this mystery.

…what was the first time?

“Akechi-kun!” Goro startles to consciousness again, “if you’re going to tell me something about the true culprit you need to tell me now, I can help you–”

True culprit? Help him. His friends are–

“Your phone.” Sae picks it up again, looks at him for more. It’s not her phone. It’s Makoto’s phone. “Are there… are there any messages?”

Sae gives him a look, but opens it and checks. Good, she’s still willing to listen to him after everything. That means– that means he hasn’t lost her completely. “There’s nothing,” she says after a moment. “You know we don’t get service down here.” 

Okay, okay, right, he remembers thinking that himself when he was trying to figure out their plan. 

Their plan? Why does Sae have Makoto’s phone? Why does she need to be able to receive messages?

“They can activate it,” Goro says out loud.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“The phone, the navigator…”

Sae looks at him like he‘s gone insane, and maybe he has. “Why are you saying such strange things?”

Follow the logic. Follow the story. Narrow the set. Basic deduction, Goro, the drugs can’t have taken even that away from you.

Facts: he was texting Futaba. He was going to meet Ren. His phone isn’t just off– the fall to the ground completely shattered it. Futaba is able to see into his phone somehow, so she’d know. His Metaverse Navigator is gone. The app is impossible to copy. Sae has Makoto’s phone. His friends are going to save him.

His friends are going to save him.

The realization rocks him to his core, is no less impactful for it being the second time he’s figured this out. His friends are going to save him. Of course they’re going to save him, of course they know how. They can save him because…

…because they’ve done this before.

Goro sways in his seat, feels the black edges to his vision encroaching in, growing larger. He leans forward to cradle his heavy head in his heavier hands.

“The drugs must be wearing off… Akechi-kun, I don’t have much longer here, you have to keep talking to me.” 

He’d figured out their plan, how they could have pulled this off before, back when he was more lucid. They’re going to try to save him, and Goro can help, has to help, even trapped in this room. 

Does he want them to save him? Does he deserve to be saved? 

He’s not sure.

He’s not sure, but… he doesn’t want to die here, he knows that. 

Not alone, surrounded by cold metal, at the hand of a puppet controlled by his piece of shit father. He doesn’t want to look down the barrel of a gun and find only regrets, and he knows right now regret is all he would feel. 

Unless he gets out.

He has to get out of here.

Goro sits up, digs his nails into his palms again, presses against the throbbing bruise on his leg to shock himself back to something resembling awareness. “They were… controlling me,” he admits to Sae, admits to anyone for the first time. It’s humiliating, but necessary for her to trust him. “They have people everywhere. You have to be careful.”

“What does that mean? Who exactly are you talking about?” Sae slams her fist on the table, “you have to be clear with me!”

“I can’t. Tell. You,” Goro grits out through his teeth, glances to the camera which isn’t recording. But might be.

Sae follows his eyes and turns back to him, barely-disguised hope shining in her eyes. Alright, he’s got her.

“The elevator… it’s the only way into this basement,” he says, repeating a plan he’d figured out earlier and forgotten. “You’ll have service up above, at the entrance.” 

“What does that have to do with anything… someone will send a message to this phone? Is that… …saying?” 

Consciousness slips away and back again. He digs his nails in harder under the table, feels blood drip down his fingers. “Just… wait. By the elevator. Please…”

Loud pounding on the door echoes through the room. They both flinch at the sudden noise, and Sae sighs, “it appears my time is up. This is as far as our conversation can go.” She packs up her things as Goro sits and shivers and fades. “You know… I used to think we were so alike, back then. You and your justice. And, I think you’ve changed less than you’re pretending,” she says, staring down at him with a sort of sad smile, and Goro realizes how much he missed her. “We’ve worked together for a long time, so… I might as well see this through to the end. I just need to wait near the elevator, right?”

Goro nods. 

Sae nods back, “I’ll be going now.” 

“Sae-san,” he chokes out as she turns the handle. “I’m…” these could be his last words, and he still can’t– 

“Me too,” she responds. 

And then she’s gone.

And Goro is alone.

He closes his eyes. Waits for his death or his rescue.

They might actually save him. Goro hopes they do, he really does. Hopes even though he’d promised himself he’d stop hoping. He isn’t ready to die yet, doesn’t want to, doesn’t think it would be quite so fair after all.

He sits at the table and waits and fades and dreams. 

He dreams of Ren, just on the other side of that metal wall. Dreams all of his friends are there too, his stupid, stupid friends.

He dreams that the door opens. That Niijima Sae is there again, bag on her shoulder and Makoto’s ridiculous panda phone to her ear.

He dreams that he follows Sae through the door to freedom.

He dreams that on his way out of the interrogation room he walks right back into it. A Shujin Academy student is sitting on the opposite side of the table, bruises and cuts mottling every inch of skin not covered by that familiar uniform. Ren looks up at him, defiance still clear in his eyes despite everything they did to him, despite what they both know is about to happen.

Goro collapses.

Akechi-kun–!!

 

 


 

 

For a while all he knows is the rumbling of Sae’s car, the swaying start-and-stop of midday ( day? ) traffic. She’d pushed him into the backseat and told him to stay hidden, so hidden he is, flat across the seats with his face shoved into pleather. It smells terrible.

He’s half asleep, half awake, and half in some sort of stupor. Goro thinks he might be half still in that fucking interrogation room too, imagining all of this as some sort of fever dream before he dies.

Come on,” Sae mumbles quietly, above and behind him, and Goro…

Goro closes his eyes and concentrates.

It's easier than he thought: when he opens his eyes his mask is red. He runs his white-gloved hands along the high neck of his dress coat, the epaulets adorning his shoulders, the shining belt buckle emblazoned with an ‘A.’ 

But, he can still feel the stifling protection of his helmet. The tight bodysuit and belts chaining him to his past and his mistakes. This isn't who Goro is anymore.  

He lets the prince fade away, because it’s fake. Just an illusion, just a memory…

Memory…?

Hadn’t he… just been remembering something?  

Isn’t that why he’s standing here in this hallway, all alone, Ren and his Phantom Thieves long gone? Hadn’t he and Ren been… talking about something?  

It’s on the tip of his tongue, the edge of his grasp, slipping away like a dream, so he cloaks himself in the illusion of his prince outfit once again. Imagines Ren– Joker, by his side. Easy banter, teasing each other over… something…

He’s been here before. In this outfit. With… the Phantom Thieves? Yes, he was here, exploring and fighting alongside them.

If he closes his eyes he can imagine it perfectly.

He’s been here before, they all have. He knows it, somehow, even though it’s impossible. He knows it as clearly as he knew Sae’s codewords at the Shujin school festival. The festival– this is the third time this has happened now. The codewords, the cognitive world and…

…what was the first time, again?

 

“Sae-san,” Goro mumbles, “what day is it?”

“The 20th. We’re almost there– you’re going to have to walk some of the way.”

Goro rubs at his eyes, sits up just enough to get a peek out the window.

Ah. Of course. Where else could he go?

“That’s alright,” Goro says, voice still raspy from sleep, “whatever they gave me must have finally worn off, I’m feeling…” well, yes, aches and pains are categorically preferable to that mindless, tasteless haze, “better.”

“Good. Because you’re heavier than you look.”

Goro narrows his eyes at the back of her seat, but considering she’s saving his life… fine, he’ll let it go this once.

Sae puts the car in park as Goro attempts to comb through his hair, though looking presentable is probably a lost cause at this point. Damn it.

“Here,” she says, tossing a face mask back at him. “Take off that blazer too.” He doesn’t argue, too tired to bother with his Third Eye anyway.

Oh, and there would be the small matter of explaining to Sae why he’d suddenly disappeared. Whatever.

It’s a short walk from the car to Leblanc. The afternoon sun is unreasonably bright, he can’t put a lot of weight on his right leg, and the middle and ring fingers of his left hand aren’t moving like they should, but otherwise. Honestly? Even with all of it, Goro feels pretty okay.

It’s over, so he can put the whole experience behind him, and that’s that. 

He probably even looks half-normal, to a passerby.

“You look terrible!!” 

Of course that’s the first thing he hears when he steps into Leblanc, wailed at a high pitch somewhere to his left before a small orange blur magnetizes itself to his side and clings. “You’re so stupid I hate you,” might be what Futaba says, muffled into his chest. Her skinny little arms feel like sticks around his torso.

Goro looks past her (she’s short, it’s easy) for help, for him and, of course, he’s the first person he finds. Even concealed amongst the shadows, all the way back near the stairs, Amamiya Ren’s hunched-over posture and careful gaze is unmistakable.

The rest of the cafe is about as empty as usual. Sae managed to scoot around Futaba and Goro to talk quietly with Sakura behind the counter. Morgana sits on a chair by the bar counter, tail twitching from side to side.

And Ren. What is he doing all the way back there?

“Futaba, leave the kid alone,” Sakura grumbles, “I’m sure he’s had enough of being manhandled for the day.”

“A lifetime, more like,” Goro jokes back, because he’s fine. Though, he still isn’t quite sure what to do with his hands.

Stupid,” Futaba mumbles as she extracts herself from him, solving that problem for him. She runs over to the chair next to Morgana and pokes him in the head before sitting down herself, curling her knees up to her chest and staring unabashedly at Goro.

Ren still hasn’t moved. So, Goro awkwardly takes a seat in the nearest booth, takes off his face mask, tries to avoid looking in Ren’s direction again.

Does… he really look so terrible? Goro fiddles with his shirt collar. Needs to be ironed. And washed. Duh. Combs his fingers through his hair again. Also needs to be washed. Oh, and there’s blood on his sleeve. Shit, he’s a fucking mess.

Ding!  

Goro jumps a mile in his seat, turns around just in time to catch the back of Niijima Sae disappearing out the door. She hadn’t even said goodbye. Where is she– 

“We’ve got a local doctor coming by to take a look at you, she should be here soon,” Sakura says from next to him. The man looks imposing for the first time in his life, towering over him in a way that shouldn’t feel threatening, but…

But Goro is still startled, again, when Sakura places a plate of curry in front of him. He tries to calm himself down, concentrates on his breathing, puts a hand to his neck to check his pulse, but only finds raised and irritated skin where they’d, fuck– 

So he tries the other side with his other hand, the hand that works, but he can’t seem to concentrate, and he forgot to say thank you to Sakura for the food when he’s almost certainly on extremely thin ice with the man, and– 

“Hey.”

Goro looks up.

“Goro,” Ren says, from the seat across the table. “You’re okay.” He reaches forward slowly, scoots the plate a half-inch closer to Goro. “It’ll help. You don’t have to eat all of it.”

He looks back down at the plate. Sauce the perfect color, fluffy rice… it’s never looked so unappetizing.

Now that he isn’t dead, now that Sae has left him here alone, he can’t help but think through the implications of his situation. Best case scenario, Shido thinks he’s dead. Worst case scenario, they’ve discovered he’s escaped. Either way his life is over. His name, his apartment, his things, his job, his perfect record in school, his public image… he doesn’t even have enough money to pay for this goddamn curry that he can’t eat.

Goro has never felt more pathetic in his life, sitting across from Ren with a concerned audience of three more trying not to be obvious about watching him, while he struggles with the most basic of foods because his hand and his stomach won’t cooperate with him. Destitute and alone. Again.

Maybe actually dying in that room would have been the better option. At least, a more dignified one.

“You were right, I am feeling much better,” Goro lies when he puts his spoon down in the mostly-full plate.

Ren just stares at him silently the way Ren does. He seems so far away, across the booth.

For a while the only sound in the cafe is Futaba typing away on her laptop.

“Everyone’s really glad you’re okay,” Ren says after a beat, “we just… didn’t want to overwhelm you when you got here. You know how they get.”

Goro manages to jerk his head up and down in some sort of a nod.

He wants to check the news, wants to see what they’re saying about him, or “the leader of the Phantom Thieves,” if they haven’t leaked his identity yet. But he doesn’t even have a phone anymore.

No Metaverse Navigator. What is he without that?

“I’ve got a change of clothes for you, and I– I figure the bathhouse will be safe enough if you wear a mask.” Ren takes a breath, his voice strange and… wobbly. “The bed upstairs is made up for you too– we can figure out what to do next w-when you’re feeling better.”

“Ren,” Goro starts, but he’s interrupted by two separate things which should not be happening. 

First: Ren taking off his glasses, rubbing at his eyes, and sniffling, of all things. Goro stares at him, frozen in panic when– 

Second: the door to the extremely closed cafe opens and a woman wearing some sort of “punk doctor” Halloween costume struts in like she owns the place.

“Sorry, I…” Ren whispers, brilliant eyes shining and red in the worst way. He looks just like the day Goro saw him in the underground, before everything. And Ren gets up from their booth, disappears to the back of the cafe, retreating just the same.

“W-wait–!” 

“What’s up with the Amamiya-kun?” The newcomer says, striding forward and closing the door behind her.

“Crushing guilt,” Futaba responds, without looking away from her laptop screen. 

Morgana hops down from his chair. “I’ll go check on him.” 

“So…” the woman looks around, finally spots Goro, “aha! Interesting.” Says a bit louder: “should I just go ahead and assume that any teenager I see is involved in some sort of grand conspiracy?”

“Yup,” Sakura responds immediately.

“Great.” Then she drops an enormous bag onto the table in front of him, scoots his cold curry plate away with it, and sits down next to him. Way too close. “Akechi Goro. You look much more handsome in person. I’m Takemi Tae, your doctor for the evening.”

Oh. Oh no. They can’t be serious. Goro glances at either Sakura. “Have they…”

“I know everything, pretty boy.” Fucking of course. Who doesn’t at this point? “Now give me the rundown, everything you can remember.” She turns around, glares at Sakura and Futaba both, “and you two, get out.”

The whole ordeal is miserable, but mercifully quick. Goro hasn’t seen anyone resembling a doctor since his days at the cognitive science research facility. He still doesn’t like any of it, but it helps that Takemi’s manner and methods are… unorthodox. 

“And I was injected with a few things here,” Goro says, carefully tapping his neck.

“You wouldn’t happen to know what they were, would you? They give you a script while they were kicking you around?”

Goro glares at her. He’d have words, but he’s feeling… defanged, for lack of a better word, after duking it out with Sae. 

“Hm, too bad for you, pretty boy. Unknown drug means blood work and no other drugs allowed, and boy do I have some good drugs in here,” she says, patting her bag affectionately.

He’s pretty sure she’s not actually a doctor. 

She does clean his cuts, though. Bandages him up, pricks his finger for blood as promised, diagnoses the issue he’s having with his hand (“it’s called Trigger Finger– tendon must have gotten a little messed up. You’ll be back to normal in no time, nothing to do about it.”), and his limp (“if it still feels bad after a couple days come to my office, but I bet you it won’t.”)

And then, before he knows it, she’s packing up her things. “I’ll stop by Sakura’s house and tell him you’re sorted. Looks like you got pretty lucky. Swing by my office tomorrow for the results of your blood work and… keep your head down. I don’t want to see you again besides that, Detective Prince. You were annoying enough on my television,” she says, before giving him a little wave and strutting out of the cafe the same way she entered, with her fifty-pound bag and her six-inch platform heels. Where does Ren find these people? 

Goro leans back in his booth, scratches absently at a new bandage on his face. He’d just finally stopped wearing these fucking things too. At least he doesn’t have a public image to worry about anymore, haha.

His solitude doesn’t last long– it doesn’t ever seem to, these days. Ren reappears from his attic safehouse, ambles over to Goro with a small stack of clothes and reclaims his seat across the table. His eyes still look a little red.

The cat follows close behind, of course.

“Impeccable timing as always,” Goro greets them with a raised eyebrow, “if I didn’t know better–”

“Futaba gave me the all-clear.”

“As I suspected. Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?”

“Navi can see everything,” Morgana announces, jumping up on the table, “don’t underestimate the kind of team you’re working with here!”

“Actually, I think she just wanted an excuse to remind me that this floor is bugged,” Ren says, waving at a small green light in the far corner. Goro’s brain skips a thought and his cheeks feel oppressively hot underneath his new bandages. 

“Your doctor was interesting,” he says quickly, to change the subject. “Are you quite sure she’s qualified? And she’ll be able to keep a secret?”

“Yup.”

“You’re awfully trusting, you know.”

“It usually works out for me,” Ren says with an easy smile, which falls down his face just as fast. He taps nervously on the table, hunches over. Says very quietly, “I’m… I’m really sorry, Goro. About everything. It should have been me in there.”

Hm.

“No apologies necessary. I’m in your debt for my rescue and,” Goro gestures to his own general state of being, “subsequent care. A plan impressively pulled off, I might add, considering no one unsavory has stormed this cafe yet.” It’s causing him a bit of anxiety, actually. He’s sure Futaba has been keeping an eye on things but the last time he let his guard down, well. “Has there been any word…?”

“Everyone thinks you’re dead,” the cat says, and then licks his tail. Lovely.

Ren glances at Morgana, elaborates: “it was announced on the evening news that the leader of the Phantom Thieves shot a guard and then commited suicide in police custody. They haven’t released a name yet.”

“I suppose I’ll get the full story tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Though I’m guessing you already figured out most of it. I…” Ren looks like he’s about to grab one of his curls and decides to pet Morgana instead. He still looks unnervingly distraught. “We were totally caught off guard, had to cobble together a plan from– well… I don’t think we could have pulled it off without your help with Makoto’s sister. I was really worried.”

“Mm, I’m sure you would have figured out something. My hero~” he bats his eyelashes, impersonates Ann doing any impersonation, really cheeses it.

“No way,” Morgana pipes up right as Ren might have been about to smile. Goro’s getting really sick of him. “This guy was one step away from storming the courthouse and getting himself killed in the process.”

“I wasn’t–”

“It didn’t work with Shido last month and definitely wouldn’t have worked for this!” Morgana stops cleaning himself (thank god) and sits up primly on his hind legs to announce, “we’re the Phantom Thieves you know– we have to work against our enemies in the shadows, in secret!”

“Your cat has a point,” Goro drones while he examines his cuticles, tired of this little lecture.

“I’m not a cat!!”

“He knows. He’s just messing with you because he’s bored,” Ren says, throwing a look Goro’s way. The look isn’t you’re an asshole, as he expected. No, it’s more… you’re an asshole, and I like it. Goro smiles back easily.

It feels like nothing has changed between them.

Ha, of course nothing would have changed. After all, it was only yesterday (yesterday?) that they’d planned to secretly abscond to Leblanc together, and now here they are–

Goro clears his throat, tucks some errant strands behind his ear and winces at the texture. He’s too dirty to deal with this right now. Too actually, physically dirty. It’s unprofessional.

“The bathhouse is just across the way, correct?” Goro asks, standing and gathering up the pile Ren brought down from the attic. He’d even thought to give Goro the cash to enter, which is sweet of him.

“Yeah,” Ren says, stumbling a bit on his way to stand as well. “There shouldn’t be many people there at this hour, so you should be fine. Want me to come with you?”

“No!” What the fuck, Goro. “Um.” Use your words. “That’s quite alright, I know how to wash myself.” No!! Goro squeezes his eyes shut as soon as the words leave his mouth, “I mean–”

When he opens his eyes Ren is grinning ear to ear, clearly enjoying how this goddamn endless day has kneecapped Goro’s ability to flirt without completely embarrassing himself. Fine. At least he’s smiling again. “Alright. Well, let me know if you need anything.”

“Yesthankyou.”

“Especially if you forget how to wash yourself,” Ren winks.

Goro whips a pair of balled-up socks from his pile at Ren and hits him square in the chest with a solid thump. The last thing he hears from the cafe, other than Ren’s laughter, is Morgana saying: “it’s easy, you just lick till you’re clean. Duh.”

 


 

Goro walks out of the bathhouse just as the sun is setting. It’s with a sort of quiet triumph that he makes his way back to Leblanc. He’s feeling much better– more alert, stiff joints and bruises soothed by the steam, anxieties calmed by the seclusion and familiarity of his temporary hideout.

And time alone also gave him time to think.

He can get by on his own. He’s done it before, he can do it again. Goro managed to hash out the basics of a plan for tomorrow, once the hemming and hawing over him is done. And he’s also got a backup plan in case that fails, in case his old hideouts from years ago have been cleared out. And a backup plan for his backup plan.

He’ll be fine. He’s alive, he’s hidden from his enemies, and. And.

And he’s figured out something else too. Something that by all accounts should be impossible.

But, he figured it out in that fucking room, eliminated all other possibilities and explanations. He’s figured it out again here, checked his work, and he has everything he needs to confirm or deny it, tonight.

He’s alive, he’s hidden from his enemies, and tonight he’s not going to be a fucking coward.

Goro knocks on the closed cafe door, greets Ren (no glasses, wide-neck pajama shirt, fuck) casually and normally when he lets him in. Steadfastly ignores his racing heart as they head toward the back and climb the stairs.

He’s been up in Ren’s sad little attic a few times before, but it’s been a while. There are more trinkets on the shelves, star stickers on the ceiling, a plant in the corner which he doesn’t remember being so green or so large.

And Morgana, prowling on the floor near the couch. Shit, he forgot about the cat.

“Glad the clothes fit,” Ren says, “I was worried cause you’re a bit bigger than me.”

Goro chokes on nothing, coughs.

Oh. Oh, this is just going to be unbearable, isn’t it? Is this just how he is now, mind firmly inside the gutter? Goro plants himself awkwardly near the shelves, pretends as hard as he can to be very interested in whatever junk is on them. “Yes, thank you,” he remembers to say after probably too long a pause, but Ren isn’t looking anyway. He’s too occupied with digging through a large box on the opposite side of the room. “They’re not my usual style, but they’re quite comfortable,” he continues, courage bolstered by Ren’s inattentiveness.

“What’s your usual style?” Ren asks behind him, pulling a blanket out of the box with his back to Goro.

“Just boxers.”

Ren freezes.

“Don’t you get cold sleeping like that?” Morgana pipes up from the couch.

Goro glares daggers at the small fluffy bane of his existence. “No.”

When Ren stands up, he can’t quite look at Goro and his ears are red, so Goro counts that as a small win. Ren tosses the blanket and an extra pillow on one end of the couch and Goro hears him quietly say, “Mona, can you give us a minute?”

Ah, a much larger win then, he realizes. The drumming in his chest grows stronger.

“Hmm,” Morgana hums, as if he has any say in what two actual humans do with their lives. “Alright, but I’ll be back soon. You both need sleep, especially that one,” he says pointedly in Goro’s direction as he jumps off the couch and heads for the stairs. “Somebody’s gotta be the responsible one around here…”

Ren sits in the spot Mona vacated, motions for Goro to join him on the couch.

Okay. Okayokayokay.

There isn’t a lot of room left, thanks to Ren being in the middle and the blanket and pillow taking up a good third of the available space, but Goro is not a coward and can certainly deal with sitting right next to another person.

He does so, and immediately wonders if humans usually give off this much ambient heat, or if Ren is just special.

Their shoulders are touching.

Ren fiddles with one of his curls.

“I wanted to apologize,” Ren says, his voice low and heavy, with a quietness that only works when everything else is still. But… this doesn’t sound right. This isn’t what Goro wanted. “Again. If we’d been more careful–”

“–Ren,” Goro interrupts. “It’s fine. Honestly, I’d rather we didn’t talk about it more than we have to.”

Another one for the ever-growing pile of horrible things that have happened to them that they don’t talk about. It’s fine, right? Goro doesn’t think about a lot of things that have happened to him, and he’s fine. Right?

“Right. Sorry.”

Goro turns to regard his profile. Still a little hunched over, looking forward, slowly twirling that curl. “You understand,” Goro murmurs.

“I do,” Ren says, facing him immediately, with such sincerity in his voice and expression that the pain Goro felt in his heart back in that horrible room returns tenfold. Ren searches his eyes for a moment, Goro frozen and entranced at the flickering back-and-forth, before he asks, “can I give you a hug?”

What? “What?” Why? “Why?”

“That’s all I wanted after, you know, and… I wasn’t sure if you were feeling the same way,” Ren shrugs.

Goro’s mind tries to kickstart itself back into gear. He isn’t feeling that way… he doesn’t. Well. He supposes he has been hugged now, technically. Futaba’s boney little arms, the pile-on at the train station. It was. Nice. He can see the appeal, maybe. Ren certainly seems warm, judging by the frankly excessive amount of heat he’s giving off.

“Sorry,” Ren says, looking away from Goro awkwardly. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it again. We can just–”

“Okay.”

He’s on him before Goro can think about what he’s agreed to, and then Goro can’t think at all. 

Ren is solid, everywhere, arms wrapped tight around his back and head right there, right next to Goro’s, tucked into where his shoulder meets his neck. And he’s so. He’s so. Warm.

It does. It does feel–

Goro tries to relax. He’s exhausted with himself, tired of freezing up constantly when faced with anything resembling basic human interaction. If– if Futaba, of all people, can do this, then so can he. He takes a shaky breath and carefully copies what Ren is doing: leg tucked further up on the couch, arms around his back, head nestled in that perfect little spot… Ren smells so good– like clean shampoo and comfort, though Goro thinks that maybe only one of those things qualifies a real scent.

He lets himself sink, breathing out the tension in his shoulders. It’s nice. It really is. He can see the appeal. He feels… safe. Feels cared for, somehow.

Goro nuzzles in more, and Ren squeezes him lightly in return, and Goro thinks that maybe he could stay here all night. Maybe longer. Maybe forever.

But he has something he needs to do.

And– ha. This time he’s not nervous at all.

Goro pulls himself away, just a bit, just enough. He lets the realization dawn on Ren’s face, lets his sharp grey eyes widen just a little, lets his lips part in a half a gasp. Perfect.

Goro kisses Ren and, astoundingly, Ren kisses him back, hard and with no hesitation, inhaling harshly through his nose, the hands still wrapped around Goro’s back clenching into fists in the fabric of his borrowed pajama shirt. Goro can’t help but mirror him: breathing out a sigh of relief, relaxing further into his embrace.

It’s just like Goro remembers. It’s better.

They fall into each other easily, lips meeting over and over in a pattern they’d already practiced. Goro recalls how the tip of Ren’s nose was icy cold the first time and still is here, learns how much closer he can get when he doesn’t have Ren’s glasses to deal with, wonders how the hell they could ever have stopped back then.

Resonance. It’s the only explanation for their hearts seemingly beating in sync: Goro’s in his throat and Ren’s against his chest. And sounds which should be quiet– little gasps and hums coming from one or both of them, the soft shuffling of fabric, fingers carding through hair– the sounds echo thunderously loud in the quiet of the attic.

Goro has never felt quite so alive, and. And–

“I’ve… finally pieced it all together,” he murmurs when he gets a chance, smiling against the warmth that keeps chasing him with such perfect desperation, “we’ve done this before, haven’t we?”

“Mnh?” Ren responds.

Goro chuckles low in his throat, nips at Ren’s bottom lip. “And you– you and your friends…” then leans back to look at Ren clearly, tries to catch his breath and fails. “you’ve lived through all of this before.” He hopes Ren was paying attention, though, haha, perhaps it’s a little bit Goro’s fault for bringing this up right now.

But, as always, Ren was listening to him the whole time.

“Wha– h-how–”

It turns out that with enough effort Ren’s rare blush can indeed spread from his ears to his cheeks. Cute. “I’m kind of a detective, Ren. Perhaps you’ve heard?”

“But– but you figured out– but it’s completely ridiculous–”

“I’m quite used to the ridiculous.” Metaverse, sure. Personas, whatever. Talking cat? More ludicrous than anything else, to be honest. “And you were all being kind of obvious about it.”

“But,” Ren flails his arms around a little wildly, dangerous with how close they still are, before landing on: “you figured out time travel?

Yes.

“Ah, so that’s how you think of it? You’ve physically traveled back in time? How interesting.” Goro grins, “does that mean there’s another, younger version of you running around that I should be worrying about?”

“What? No. What?”

He can’t help but snicker at Ren’s expression, and it quickly turns into a sort of undignified gasping thing despite himself because, well. It’s been a bit of a day. Ren kissed him back.

“Oh. You’re kidding.”

“I would have noticed two of you, I hope. Unless…” Goro wiggles his eyebrows up and down.

“No!” Ren covers his face with his hands, laughs, “this is ridiculous.”

“So you’ve told me,” Goro laughs along with him, “isn’t– ha– aren’t we doing this all wrong?” Goro pokes Ren in the chest a few times. “Aren’t I supposed to be the surprised one? Haven’t you had some time to come to terms with this?”

Ren blinks at him. “Huh. Yeah, hey, why aren’t you all shocked and amazed? I time traveled!” His expression turns hopeful in a way that breaks Goro’s heart a little and he asks: “do you… remember?”

“I don’t. Not really.” And yeah, the way Ren’s face falls– it hurts. Goro wishes things were different, too. “I get these feelings, sometimes. Deja-vu. Sometimes I think I remember something, but the details slip away from me… like waking from a dream.”

Ren nods.

“But, I knew I’d been to that casino before.” Goro holds up his pointer finger. One. “I knew I’d been there with you.” Two. “And I knew we’d… well.” Goro glances down at Ren’s lips, flushed. Three.

Ren blinks at him. “You kissed me.”

“Yes.”

You kissed me.”

Goro smiles, “yes.”

“You’re…” Ren searches his eyes again, cups his cheek, and Goro leans into the gentle touch. His thumb swipes a careful arc, barely enough to feel through the bandage on Goro’s cheek. “Can I…?”

Yes,” Goro whispers back.

They meet each other again, and Goro has a quiet realization that Ren has ruined him forever. 

He never knew how lonely he was before, and now he’ll never be able to get enough of this. He needs more– even now , when they’re together anyway– Ren’s warmth, his touch, his kindness–

Goro has a thousand questions about time and fate and, and whatever, but all of those can wait. He has a new mission: to make up for lost time, to re-learn every bit of Ren he’d been lucky enough to discover in another life.

And so he does.

Time passes, theoretically, and it’s just as he’s starting to discover the sweet sounds Ren makes when Goro mouths at his neck when–

“I’m coming back upstairs!”

Goro snatches his hands out from under Ren’s pajama shirt and Ren dives off of Goro’s lap, whipping around in a 180 to reclaim his seat on the couch and ramming his elbow into the wall in the process. Ren cradles his arm, hissing out a quiet “ow” while Goro quickly combs through the back of his hair to fix it.

“So you better be asleep! And not doing anything else!” Mona appears over the top of the stairs, immediately makes the most disgruntled face he’s ever seen on a cat. “Ugh.”

What?” Goro snaps.

“You’re so obvious, pretending makes it worse.”

Goro narrows his eyes. “Well then,” he turns, captures Ren’s face in his hands, kisses him hard.

“No! Wait! Go back to pretending!”

Ren pushes Goro away, laughs: “Goro, Mona’s right, we should get to sleep. I’m sure you’re exhausted–”

“I’m not.”

“Just… one sec–”

Ren stands up from the couch, walks over to a table by the stairs, and Goro follows, already missing his warmth. After digging around in that bag he carries around every day Ren turns to face him with a small, clearly well-used journal and two chess pieces: kings.

He recognizes one of them: the white king he’d tossed to Ren just a few nights ago. But the other… a black king from the same set, but it’s different. Chipped, worn down to display lighter wood on its edges, and it has a large crack running down its side. Goro takes them all carefully.

“We kept the things we had on us when we were sent back. Tomorrow you can read through this,” Ren pats the journal, “and we’ll talk about everything.”

Goro nods. He wonders who he was in this other life. If he was better. Or worse.

“No, Mona, we’re on the couch tonight,” Ren says to the cat on his bed.

“Man, I hate the couch.”

“You sleep on top of me anyway.”

“Yeah, but it’s different.”

Goro shuffles to Ren’s bad, carefully places the journal and chess pieces close by on the shelf, next to a cute little swan boat. He slips under the covers and is surrounded by a scent that is unmistakably Ren. It’s strange and comforting all at once.

This was one of the longest days of his life. He survived an interrogation and an assassination attempt, he finally solved a mystery that had bothered him for months, and he had his first kiss… kind of. So much more uncertainty awaits him tomorrow, and Goro wonders how he’ll ever be able to–

But he’s asleep by the time Ren turns around to say goodnight.

 


 

“It would seem as though you have been killed.”

Goro peers carefully out from behind the bars of his cell, flanked as always by Caroline and Justine. He stays silent for once, listens closely.

The Phantom Thieves, Igor, Shido. His old list, his mysteries that he’d had yet to solve.

Well, he knows now how the Phantom Thieves were always one step ahead of him. He certainly knows why Shido was buttering him up. So, this long-nosed bastard is the only one left.

“A tremendous plan, made capable by the bonds you have forged. However…” Igor raises a long finger, “one can’t help but wonder. Would you have found yourself in this situation in the first place, had these bonds not made you weak and inattentive?”

Goro blinks. He… hadn’t thought of that yet.

In his defense he’s had a very long day, hasn’t had the time to think of everything. But if Ren was the one arrested the first time around, rather than Goro, which he almost certainly was… well. What was Goro doing, in that timeline?

“Do not forget the strength and freedom that comes from isolation, Trickster. This world is on a path to ruin, but you are chosen. At the end of all things, you alone will be faced with a choice.

“How would you remake this world?”

Chapter Text

He wakes quietly.

His mattress is uncomfortable. His blanket feels and smells different. His face itches, his leg is killing him…

Goro blinks up at the ceiling, dim in the glow of the early morning, but knotted wood beams still clear enough. Still foreign enough.

Right.

He turns on his side, reaches blindly to check the time. Connects with nothing.

Right. No phone either.

Goro rolls to lay flat on his back once more, closes his eyes for two additional seconds, and decides that– nope. He’s up.

So he leaves the warm cocoon of Ren’s horrible lumpy mattress, shivering against the cold morning air, and grabs the journal from the shelf. He glances briefly at the two chess pieces before deciding to leave them, shivers again, and makes his way carefully across the attic, avoiding the louder-looking floorboards with the sort of practiced ease that comes from working as a hitman for years.

Ren and Morgana each look endearingly stupid in their sleep. Curled up tight on the small couch, but their expressions relaxed and vulnerable. There’s a small mark on Ren’s exposed collarbone, new and out of place, and now Goro remembers that too.

Shit. Fuck. Shit.

Fuck.

He scurries his way across the attic and down the stairs, a little quicker and a lot more red in the face than before.

Routine is good. Necessary. It makes him feel a little more in control of this preposterous situation. He swishes some water around his mouth, combs through his hair with his fingers, washes his face, changes his bandages. The small bruises scattered across his checks are, frankly, pathetic compared to the… one he’d dealt with previously. He imagines they’ll be cleared up in a week, maybe two.

But, the red pinpoint pricks, scabbed over, sore but barely visible… he remembers the way Ren grabbed at his own neck during his panic attack. The same side, the same spot.

He leaves the restroom and his reflection behind.

Sakura’s machines are needlessly complex but Goro does eventually manage to make himself something resembling coffee. It’s not very good– not good at all, actually– but that’s probably because his fingers are stiff. And he’s frozen from the cold. And because he keeps getting distracted by. Well.

Well. He just doesn’t know what to do now. Now that they’ve done this.

And it’s not like he even has a phone to search for “does this mean I’m in a ‘relationship’ now?” or “how to kiss correctly just making sure” or “I’ve gone and made out with the guy I had a stupid childish crush on because I had a very long day and I was so caught up in proving a theory I had that I didn’t think through would happen next or what it would mean so what the hell am I supposed to do now I have much more important things I need to be spending my time on but this is the only thing I can think about.

He sips his coffee again. Grimaces. Takes his cup and Ren’s journal to a nearby booth and begins to read.

My new caretaker has given me this journal to record my probation. If you are reading this, thank you very much for your kindness and hospitality.

Ren speaks, sure. He can even talk quite a bit, when the occasion calls for it. But this, seeing his inner thoughts, laid bare in such a quantity… well, when Goro reads entries like:

I keep getting lost, this city is bigger than I imagined.

 

The water tastes gross wierd weird.

 

I have to pay to go to the bathhouse all the time because there’s no shower? Guess I’d better find a job…

All he can picture is that cute Ren from his mugshots. The ones he’d had saved to his phone ever since his slightly over-obsessive internet stalking phase. His phone may be gone but Goro could never forget that look: wide-eyed, innocent, utterly confused, utterly adorable.

Okay I don’t think anyone is ever actually going to read this. And if someone is then from here on out is totaly totally a short story I’m working on.

So the most WILD shit happened to me today.

And it’s fascinating, reading the experiences of a newcomer to the cognitive world. Goro has lived this life for so long that he sometimes forgets that yes, it was quite jarring at the start, having one’s entire world and worldview turned on its head. And that even Ren, who exudes such confidence and proficiency as Joker, had to go through the exact same thing Goro did.

But when he gets to the end of his first day…

Also I’m sitting behind the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen so maybe this won’t be so bad?

Oh. He has to stop.

Because he feels physically ill. And feels ashamed for feeling that way in the first place. He knows why, and knows why he shouldn’t, and it doesn’t help in the slightest.

Goro once traversed a cognitive world of a man consumed by his need to possess the women he slept with. All of them, so many of them. The cognitions were shaped like dolls, kept in cages. They were grateful for their warden’s special attention and protection. And the warden, mad with jealousy, sacrificed all of them in his battle with Goro, because he believed death was better than letting his dolls be freed.

He reads as Amamiya Ren pines over Takamaki Ann, as he takes her out on dates and makes nervous plans to kiss her, and is very careful not to build his own cage.

School trip sucked. Can’t believe we have to go again tomorrow. Fell asleep like 20 times. Not sure if I was dreaming but I'm pretty sure this random dude we met understood Mona? It was wierd weird.

Finally, something good.

Though… okay. Hm. Maybe not so good.

Goro thought his first impression might have been something a little bit more spectacular than “random dude.” And especially wishes he’d had even one functioning brain cell that day– the entry is dog-eared and circled with a different colored pen, clearly from some other point in time, with one annotation: SUSPICIOUS.

Shit I should have asked for his number. When am I ever gonna to see that guy again this city is stupid big.

 

“If indulging in too many sweets is a crine crime then I suppose you’ll have to lock me up” holy shit are you kidding me? They ate it up. Akechi Goro give me your number and teach me how to be fake as hell.

 

Stupid idiot forgot to ask for it again dumb!

Coffee orders are marked down in the margins, undeniably his own. Chess strategies to try the next time they play and later, the winning counter-moves Goro made against them. Riddles and not just their answers, but why Ren thinks Goro thinks they’re interesting.

He’s not right at first, not even close. But, as the weeks go by, Ren starts to slowly figure him out.

Futaba did indeed have a “Palace.” Haru’s father died via obvious mental shutdown. 

Goro feels nothing.

Of course he would have won this time as well, had the game been fair. But it’s never fair. Not for anyone.

I think he’s avoiding me.

The little notes in the margins slow and then stop altogether. Ren’s surprisingly colorful voice turns bland and functional. Goro scours the pages for anything that could even resemble a mention of him, but there’s nothing.

Nothing, until the nearly inherent scribbles of November 19th, crossed out so thoroughly that Goro has to hold the page up to the light to read the words beneath:

I did it I shouldn’t have done that am I the dumbest person in the world? Yes. Oh my god. I didn’t even mean to it just happened because I’m an idiot! Stupid!! What if this throws off everything

I’m so screwed

Heist tomorrow. Big plan tomorrow. Makoto is handling the calling card so at least something is guaranteed to go right.

But he kissed me back? So?? What does that mean??? He’s so confusing he’s perfect

If I die can whoever’s reading this please be cool and ignore this page. I live in the 21st century I’m used to being able to delete stuff.

A few days are missing after that. Goro knows why.

And it’s not the last time either. Ren used to run over his pages, would doodle Morganas, Phantom Thief logos, even a sparkly little Goro. The emptiness of December is jarring.

Still, Goro is able to recognize that they’ve set their sights on Shido Masayoshi himself, because of course, of course, of course they would.

Wonder what he’s doing.

 

He knows, right? He has to know.

 

Had another dream about him.

There’s nothing past December 23rd so he has to assume that’s around when they were sent back. However that happened.

With nothing else to do, Goro continues choking down his poor excuse for coffee and flips back to revisit some of the more interesting entries. He likes November 19th the most. Until…

“Hey,” interrupts a quiet voice near the stairs. 

The author himself: hands in his pockets, hair properly disheveled, blinking drowsily in the soft morning light. Goro can still see the mark on his collarbone, can recall vividly how it got there.

Ren has never looked more intimidating.

“Good morning,” Goro answers.

“I’m gonna make myself some coffee. Want some?”

Goro raises his still mostly-full cup and says as politely as he can, “I’ve taken care of myself. Thank you for the offer.”

Ren stares at him for a bit, then nods and shuffles behind the counter. Goro flips to a random page in the journal and fails to read any of the words. His heart is beating too fast for such an early morning– and without his usual amount of caffeine, no less.

“Can I sit next to you?” Ren asks before long. Goro wordlessly makes room in the booth, closing Ren’s journal as he goes. “How are you feeling?”

Goro’s new spot in the booth is cold and stiff. He steadfastly ignores that the sun is sitting right next to him, curls his hands around his cup to leech off any lingering heat from that instead, and responds, “quite alright, considering the circumstances. I’ve had some… ‘entertainment’ to keep my mind occupied.” He pats the journal, feels a little more powerful at Ren’s flinch and grimace.

“There were probably better ways to tell you about the other timeline than basically giving you my diary.”

“Oh, but it was so enlightening,” Goro grumbles, his tone more hostile than he maybe means it to be. “‘Random dude?’”

Ren shrugs, unrepentant. “You kinda came out of nowhere.” Goro bites his lip, forces down an unnecessary retort about Ann’s first impression. Ren seems to notice, embarrassingly enough, and continues quietly, “but… obviously I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since.”

“Mm.”

His non-response gets no response. Ren taps his fingers on the table and takes a drink of his coffee. Goro looks at anything else.

He’s doing something wrong. Ren is also doing something wrong. And he doesn’t know what, because he doesn’t know the rules to this new game. He feels bad for no logical reason and he hates it.

“Your journal was quite thorough,” Goro says onto the uncomfortable silence, trying to turn their focus on a topic more pressing than not-talking about whatever impending disaster is looming between the two of them, “I was able to piece together most of the details… this first timeline, it ended about a month from now?”

Ren nods. “Christmas Eve.”

“And to what point were you returned? I’m assuming it happened to all of you at once, considering your coordination as a group.”

“Yeah. Sometime in June… it was almost right after we met, actually.”

Ah. So Ren and his friends were sent back in time and then either started their own flavor of surveillance on Goro or actively avoided him.

Lovely.

There Goro was, stumbling around in the dark the whole time, completely ignorant, making a fool of himself at every opportunity. All while his ‘friends’ watched and laughed.

“Hey,” Ren says. “I was… really stupid, you know.”

Goro doesn’t look at him. He means to take a sip of his coffee as well, to seem normal and unaffected, before he remembers the taste and thinks better of it.

“When we came back. I thought you would be different. We knew you didn’t remember anything from before, so I thought I would see you again and you would be someone else and it would…” Ren shakes his head, smiles softly, “but it wasn’t like that at all. You were just you. I was stupid to think you’d be anything less.”

“You think you know me that well?”

“I do.”

That earnest look again… it’s almost unbearable.

“Well. I also noticed, additionally– um,” Goro coughs into his sleeve, curses that his body has chosen now of all times to finally kick on its internal heater, “it also seems as though history is repeating itself. Which should be categorically impossible. The idea that, how many– eight people could be sent back in time and have almost no effect on these certain events… you must have all been either meticulous in repeating yourselves, something I find extraordinarily unlikely, or.”

Ren nods, staring pointedly at his own cup of coffee. “It was the condition of us being sent back. Some things are just going to happen, no matter what we do. Otherwise we won’t get back to where we need to be.”

An outside force, then. That at least makes more sense, though…

“It does make one wonder about free will, doesn’t it?” Ren glances at him in surprise, (which makes Goro realize the extent to which Ren has been avoiding eye contact throughout this entire stilted conversation. Shit.) “Say I walk up to Shido Masayoshi today and empty a clip into his face. He’s clearly your next intended mark. How would your phenomenon handle that?”

“Are you… planning on doing that?”

“Only if several other plans fail. Nothing to worry about.” Goro smiles cheerfully.

“Well, I went to his Palace last month and Makoto tackled me two steps in and told on me to Boss, so…”

“So, fate finds a way.” Of course. It’s fucking fine, it’s just how this fucking goes. “Except. It was you, in that room last time, wasn’t it?” Ren nods, but doesn’t say anything further on the matter. Infuriating, considering the blank entries in his journal. Goro prods, “not exactly the same, but similar enough…” And Ren finds the floor very interesting.

Hm.

He might not want to think or talk about his arrest and interrogation, Goro can certainly sympathize. But this feels like something else.

He needs more information.

“How did you manage time travel anyway?”

“Oh right,” Ren sits up, definitely far too eager to leave their other conversation behind. “Have you heard of the Velvet Room? Or Mementos?”

Fuck fuck fucking fantastic. He needs to consult with Justine and Caroline as soon as possible. “What is ‘Mementos?’” Goro asks carefully.

Ren taps on the table again. “Actually… it might be easier to show you. We can go out once everyone else gets here.”

“Is that wise?”

“It should be fine, as long as we disguise you. They, uh. Leaked the story this morning,” he says with a grimace.

“Oh.”

“I was hoping they wouldn’t. They never released my name last time, but…”

Goro heaves a sigh. It’s not as if he didn’t anticipate this. Still. “Believe it or not, you have fewer enemies than I do, Ren.”

So. Akechi Goro is dead. Officially. How the fuck is he supposed to feel about that?

This isn’t the first time this has happened. He’s died before. In little ways: his name, his entire identity changing for and then inevitably disappearing from the lives of the distant relatives he was passed around. He’s died in the Metaverse, over and over in the name of research or revenge. He even probably… Goro can’t help but wonder why these kids have insisted on including him in their group when he’d obviously not been involved in whatever it was that sent them back in time. He can think of a few explanations for it, and none of them are good.

“Hey.” Ren’s hand covers his own on the table and Goro suppresses a shiver. “You’re not alone. We’ll figure this out together.”

Goro nods. He should be doing that now, figuring it out, but the heat seeping into the top of his hand seems to be rendering him an idiot. Again.

Ren’s fingers squeeze lightly. “So. Last night.” 

Oh. Oh god.

Ren continues on as if every single one of Goro’s muscles hadn’t just tensed, “your comment about a younger version of me got me thinking so I did some math, and– your birthday is June 2nd, right?”

He has no earthly where Ren is going with this, but judging by his shit-eating grin it’s nowhere good (but… still better than expected?). He answers carefully: “yes. It is.”

“I’m one day older than you.”

“Noyourenot,” Goro responds without a second thought, successfully distracted. Damn him.

Ren scoots a little closer, “so, you can call me senpai.”

“You’re lying,” Goro scoots away.

“I’m not~” Ren teases, invading his space even further.

“You’re a fucking liar.”

“Me? Never.”

This is a new game, one Goro didn’t think he’d get to play for a second time, but he’s always been a quick learner. He knows what that look in Ren’s eyes means. His heart pounds in anticipation, even as he protests, “you are.”

But he also returns Ren’s smile, because that should get him to–

“Okay, I am,” Ren admits, lacing their fingers together before he gently presses their lips together for the first time on a new day.

And once again, even for all his worrying and the leftover tension still coiled in his shoulders, Goro is surprised by how horribly easy it is. The well-brewed coffee coating the inside of Ren’s mouth gives him every good reason to deepen the kiss, to explore as much as he can, and heat blooms comfortably across his skin to ward against the early morning chill.

Ren melts, groans, and Goro triumphs. Take that, Takamaki Ann.

Booths aren’t set up properly for making out, it seems, but Goro doesn’t let that stop him, climbing closer to Ren and steadfastly ignoring the edge of the table digging into his side. It hurts, and it’s perfect.

That is, until a buzzing distracts the both of them. Ren’s phone, lit up–

———
👓 glasses gang 👓

hey
hey ren
HEY REN
HEY
REN
I ASKED FOR ONE FUCKING THING REN

———

“Oh. My god,” Ren says, snatching it off the table as it continues to vibrate.

Goro sits back down with a huff, crosses his arms against his chest self-consciously and looks around. “What the hell is she doing, constantly watching the place?”

Ren chokes, staring at the latest message on his phone, then recites: “and tell Akechi ‘Clown Shoes’ Goro that if my innocent eyes ever have to witness you two eating face again I’m sending you both each other’s internet search history so you can be just as traumatized as I am holy fucking shit.”

Oh god. “So Sakura-san will be here to open soon, correct!?”

“Yeah I should go! Go unlock the door for him!!” Ren shouts back at an equally high pitch, and stumbles out of the booth in his haste to appease Futaba.

 


 

“…but we couldn’t sneak anyone in, not even Makoto, so we had to just hope that somehow Niijima-san would pass the cleaner on the way–” Futaba explains excitedly to the room, just a few hours later.

“Thankfully, it turns out Goro was one step ahead of us,” Makoto continues, “and managed to convince my sister to stay near a choke point long enough for us to activate the app when Shido’s man appeared.”

“Whew, but it was real close for a while there,” Ryuji adds in-between sips of his soda, “Futaba was gettin’ ready to blackmail Niijima-san into stayin’ in place somehow.”

Futaba points at him accusingly, “hey it might have worked! When has blackmail ever gone wrong for us?”

“Constantly,” Yusuke sighs.

“Speak for yourself!”

“Wait– hold on,” Sakura says, “so they didn’t… check for a body?”

“The coroner just signed off on the paperwork,” Sae mumbles, clearly still processing everything. “This conspiracy is more extensive than I imagined, and now with the sudden death of the Director the entire force is in disarray.”

Sakura turns to Goro with narrowed eyes, “another one of yours?”

There are only two adults in this room, two adults that know he’s alive, and he needs both of them on his side. So Goro narrows his own in turn but only says, “no.”

Someone coughs behind him.

Well, that’s just great, then. Another one of his alternate self’s successful marks. Is he responsible for the actions of this other Goro now too?

“Well…” Futaba says, awkwardly kicking her legs in her chair, “it was really all thanks to Goro that we were able to come up with this plan in the first place. If he hadn’t gotten my bug on Shido’s computer I wouldn’t have been able to track down all his evil henchmen.”

“She was typing like crazy to break into their systems, you should have seen it!”

Futaba scratches Morgana’s head as she cackles, “mweheheh, and now I’ve got full access! Had to come up with a whole new algorithm to do it in time too, RSA git fuckin’ gud.”

“Language, Futaba!”

“Oops, sorry.”

“Oh, Boss–!” Makoto exclaims, pointing up at the television. There’s an image of Goro, filtered in black-and white with the usual news scroll beneath.

“Ah, hell,” Sakura grumbles, grabbing a remote from behind the counter and turning up the volume.

–late Akechi Goro: Detective Prince, high school prodigy, media darling, and alleged leader of the infamous Phantom Thieves. A rising star hiding a terrible secret, and an arrest which ended in tragedy yesterday evening with four hospitalized, one dead, and the death of the ‘Prince’ himself. Stay tuned for our exclusive full coverage.

“Four? Excellent,” Goro mumbles to himself. Too loud, apparently. Heads turn, so he rolls his eyes and says “oh relax, they’re probably fine. Just like the guard that isn’t really dead. Playing it up for the story.”

Maybe. It was all kind of a blur.

Most of them don’t seem to buy it, but turn back to the television regardless. Goro doesn’t miss the rosy tint to Ren’s ears.

“Damn dude, your mugshots are badass,” Ryuji says with awe, elbowing him in the ribs.

“He looks like a wild animal,” Makoto answers, clearly disapproving.

And Yusuke’s got those ridiculous finger frames up, as if the television weren’t already providing its own frame. “Fury, personified… fascinating.”

“Hey, so where’s Goro gonna stay now that everyone thinks he’s dead?” Ann shouts out for no goddamn reason.

“I don’t see how that concerns you,” Goro replies with narrowed eyes. He has a plan, he figured it out last night. There are places he can go to escape the cold, he can find himself a cognitive world to earn enough money for food. He’s done this before.

“No, she’s right, Akechi-kun,” Sae says, “we should discuss–”

What the fuck.

“We are not ‘discussing’ anything,” Goro interrupts, “I can survive on my own, I know how to take care of mys–”

He’s immediately interrupted in turn by overlapping shouts of dissent from every single person in the cafe.

 


 

“I still don’t understand how this happened,” Goro grumbles in the elevator on the way up to Ann’s apartment.

“Shh, just go with it,” Ann says cheerfully, tapping away on her phone. “Ryuji says they need a list of stuff you want from your place.”

“Oh, for the love of–”

“It’ll be fine~! They’re sending Mona in, no one will suspect a cat.”

Goro glares at her. Deliberates. Then holds out his hand to take her phone.

He’s just finishing up an embarrassing list of all the different places he hides his cash when the elevator reaches the highest floor and opens directly into an impossibly grandiose penthouse. It’s something out of a magazine come to life. Floor-to-ceiling windows, polished wood floors, expensive-looking modern furniture laid out in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not one, but two Eames chairs, the leather stretched and pristine as if they’d never once been touched.

Prettiest girl he’s ever seen’ and also she’s loaded. Fantastic. 

Goro closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and types a few more of his most precious possessions into the list on her phone.

“So, here we are! Haha…” Ann twirls one of her pigtails, a nervous tic. “My parents’ bedroom is just down the hall. They won’t be back till next year so don’t worry about messing with stuff. Just, uh, make yourself at home I guess?”

He raises an eyebrow at ‘next year’ but decides not to comment. “So, it’s just you here?”

“Just me. Um. And you. B-but that doesn’t mean you should get any ideas, mister!”

Now both of his eyebrows are raised. “Ideas?” Goro asks, finally handing her phone back to her. He’s pretty sure he remembered everything. The list was getting too long anyway.

“Oh, don’t pretend you didn’t think about it– you put on a good show but I know all you guys are the same underneath.”

Good lord. He’d laugh if she didn’t look so genuinely nervous. Ann was the one who suggested this arrangement in the first place, did she not think it all the way through?

Who is he kidding, of course she didn’t.

“I can go elsewhere.”

“What!? No! You’re my friend, you’re staying with me!” Goro blinks, taken aback by how adamant she is.

He’s… her friend?

Ann rambles on, her smile somehow growing larger with each word: “it’ll be fun and totally not weird! We’ll be like roommates, sleepovers every night! We can order takeout, and watch movies, and go shopping, and–”

“I’m gay,” Goro blurts out.

Ann freezes mid-sentence. Then screams at an absurd volume: “what!?

Goro sets his jaw, stares off somewhere to her left. Grits out: “so you don’t have to– so there will. Be no problems. Not that there would have been. Anyway. Obviously.”

Ann seems to be completely ignoring him, instead muttering to herself, “oh my gosh so much stuff makes sense now.”

“Excuse me?” Goro snaps.

“Uh– um, nothing~!” She laughs too loud, twirls her pigtail even faster. “Sooo… does that mean you like any of–”

“No.”

Ann drops whatever strange act she's been putting on for his benefit, says with dead eyes and a straight face: “you’re kind of a dick, aren’t you?”

That’s better. He smirks, “regretting your offer, Ann-chan?”

“Nah, you’re not getting out of this that easy,” Ann grins again and shrugs, “my best friend, Shiho, well… we only became friends in the first place cause she told me my art was terrible. She’s kind of a dick too, if she likes you.”

“Really?”

That’s a strange way to befriend a person. And that worked? With someone like Ann?

“Yeah! Everyone’s always so fake-nice to me cause of the way I look, but Shiho was just… honest.” Her eyes light up as she gushes, “plus, she had this amazing deadpan expression on her face that reminded me of this kickass villain character on a show I used to watch.” Ann claps, points at Goro like he’s on a game show. “So, why not make this a tradition! Gimme your best shot: tell me what you think of me, honestly, and then we’ll officially officially be friends!”

Goro stands, frozen.

And he realizes that he hasn’t just disliked Ann since he read Ren’s journal… he never really liked her at all before that, either. For no logical reason. He’d completely written her off, just like she said everyone else did.

And that doesn’t seem fair, not when she’s been kind to him, welcomed him into her home, called him her friend.

“Come onnn, do your worst!” She wiggles her hips in anticipation.

“I…” Goro swallows. Says honestly, “I think I’d like to get to know you better.”

“Oh.” Ann frowns, then breaks out into a huge smile. “Oh! Okay!”

“And then I’ll insult you properly.”

“It’s a deal! I’ll be counting on it!”

 


 

Goro stifles a yawn behind his fist, watches from afar as the Phantom Thieves catch up and gossip over this and that. They’re still waiting on Haru and Ren, and then they can finally get whatever this is over with.

He’s exhausted.

He hasn’t done anything for an entire day, for the first time in years, and he’s exhausted.

Okay, so he did deal with Ann all evening (“ugh I always end up scrolling through movies forever and never finding anything, you pick! …Oh my god, no I’m not watching Star Wars you dork”), and dealt with Ryuji and Morgana when they arrived with his things (“cops ransacked the place but security was real low so we got almost everything. Why the hell d’ya keep money in so many damn places!?”), and then dealt with Ren.

(Well, not really. He hasn’t seen Ren since he left Leblanc with Ann. He doesn’t even have a phone to message him. So Goro was left to his own thoughts and devices, spinning his wheels round and round on every interaction they’ve ever had, worrying over whether he was doing this all wrong, if this was just another mistake, another failure, if he was imagining the way Ren looked at him, if he was imagining his presence, his joy, his desperation when they kissed.

And he imagined, couldn’t stop imagining, Ren appearing today with a clear mind and saying, “I wasn’t thinking,” or “I’ve realized this is a bad idea, obviously,” or even “it was all just a ploy to get you to play nice with us, and look at you. You fell for it, you fool.”)

So he barely slept at all last night.

But that’s nothing unusual for him. He doesn’t need sleep. What he needs is something to do.

Goro checks his watch again, taps his foot impatiently. They’re late. They’ve been arrested. They’re dead. Stop it.

“So you really figured out that we were from the future? All on your own?”

Goro jumps, startled by Makoto’s sudden appearance by his side. Ugh. A lot of them are over in his space now, actually. He needs to wake up and pay more attention.

“It wasn’t hard,” he grumbles back, takes a deep breath to hold another yawn at bay. “I’m not stupid.”

“Meh, I thought you’d get it sooner,” Futaba taunts. Goro glares at her.

“Mako-chan~!”

Makoto gasps, “oh!” and scurries away to meet the latecomers, finally arrived in this strange empty train station. Goro suddenly feels very self-conscious about his appearance. 

He’s wearing Ann’s father’s designer hoodie of all things– a purposely torn-up garment he could easily have found in the trash behind a thrift store but probably cost thousands of dollars, for some reason. Goro saved all of his clothes from before he was Detective Prince , even asked Ryuji to grab a few of them for his disguises, but none of them fit him anymore.

And the goddamn ponytail. He’s not sure he got it right at all, undid and redid it over and over in front of the mirror until Ann had to physically drag him away. That’s what he gets for having nothing better to do with his time. And for refusing to cut his hair. Goro tugs at his sleeve, adjusts the hood behind him. Horrible.

Over by the entrance Haru and Makoto are still hugging and chittering excitedly, as if they hadn’t just seen each other at school, and Ren seems to be walking directly. Toward Goro. So directly, with that certain look in his eyes, that Goro actually has a moment of terror that Ren is about to kiss him in front of everyone.

But he doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. 

Goro blames the ponytail.

“Here,” Ren says, holding out a phone. “Haru got you a burner.”

How many times does he have to tell them– “I don’t need charity.”

“It’s not charity, Goro,” Haru says as she and Makoto join them. “I’m expecting you to take me out for coffee sometime in return. Is that a fair deal?”

Goro looks again at the phone, still held out temptingly in Ren’s grasp. It’s clearly not a fair deal, and he’s obviously the one getting the shit end of it, so… “fine,” he says, snatching the phone and shoving it into his pocket. “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome!”

“Now, can we go wherever it is we’re going?”

Ren takes a moment to glance around at the group, spine a little straighter than before. “Yup, everyone’s here. Let’s head down.” And takes a quick second to whisper: “you look really cute.”

Goro waits for everyone else to descend the steps ahead of him so his blush has some time to fade.

The Phantom Thieves explain Mementos: the collective unconscious of the entire city. The source of every cognitive world Goro has ever explored. Access into its depths granted through fame or infamy. He can practically sense Isshiki and Shido’s fury, that they never suspected nor discovered such a place on their own. Or maybe that’s his own relief: because if either of them had known, Goro would have made a much more effective killer.

“And at the bottom there’s this friggin’ giant cup–”

“The Holy Grail,” Makoto corrects Ryuji. “It’s the Treasure of Mementos.”

“–whatever, and it was like, invincible, and it sent us to this room–”

Makoto slaps a hand to her face. “No, Skull, you’re telling it all wrong. It didn’t send us to the Velvet Room, it merged Mementos with the real world and made us disappear, because we ‘lost’ its game, even though we never could have won anyway.”

“Oh right. And since we were all kinda dead but not really that little girl was able to send us back in time?”

Futaba taps her nose, “it was technically the weird old nose guy that did it.”

Fuck fuck fuck. Goro really needs to talk to Justine and Caroline. “So, you’re in a game. For the fate of the world. Against a cup.”

“Hey! Don’t act so arrogant,” Morgana shouts from the floor, “you’re in the game too!”

“Am I,” Goro deadpans in return.

“Should we really tell him?” Haru asks, leaning against the handle of her ridiculous axe.

Yusuke says, “he has a right to know.”

“It was supposed to be you and me, Crow,” Ren tells him, eyes burning beneath his domino mask. “Your conspiracy versus the Phantom Thieves for the fate of the world.”

“It’s not my conspiracy,” Goro sneers.

“We know.”

Goro looks around at all of them. “So. All of this. Cognition. Personas. It was all some sort of cosmic game?” He crosses his arms. “Sure. Why not.”

The rest of them are silent in response. Until Morgana says, “wait… that’s it?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Goro snaps, clenching all the muscles in his jaw. “You want to reach this Holy Grail again and defeat it, and I’m supposed to… help it? To try and stop you? I have no reason to do that.” He waves a hand aimlessly in the air while the other shakes in a fist at his side. “Do whatever the fuck you want.”

“Uh–”

Eight pairs of eyes on him, all still looking for some sort of response or reaction.

“So…”

What!? What did you expect from me? That I would be surprised?” He snarls at all of them, fury boiling over under his skin. “Some ‘higher being’ using me, making me a pawn in its game… you idiots think I should be shocked by this? You think this is news to me!?

“Crow–” someone’s hand falls on his shoulder and Goro violently shrugs it off.

“There are Shadows down here, correct?” He asks, walking away without waiting for an answer. He unholsters his pistol, feels the familiar weight in his hand, busies himself with loading a new clip. “Don’t follow me.”

 


 

Ren follows him.

He doesn’t follow immediately, nor does he try to interrupt Goro’s little fit. He just appears at some point, standing silently off to the side, hands in his pockets. Watching.

Goro dispatches a few lesser demons with excessive force, can’t help but acknowledge him: “it’s the same, Ren. It’s always the same.”

Ren says nothing.

“My mother, her horrible relatives, Isshiki and her research, Shido and his conspiracy, now this,” he growls, missing an attack on a surprisingly nimble Pixie. Ren shoots it as it moves to strike back at Goro, exploding the thing back into melted shadow, but otherwise doesn’t step in or say a word.

“And now I’m dead, everything I fought for and made for myself is gone, my name and reputation is destroyed, and I still,” Goro chokes out, swings his blade to connect with and kill whatever blurry demon is in front of him, “I still… it was never mine in the first place!

“And I was– haha, so fucking stupid, I was starting to think that maybe– maybe it was worth it, because at least, even though I’m no one now, at least I’d be free! But it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t fucking matter, it’s still all the same goddamn motherfucking shit!!

“Crow–”

“Why the fuck do you insist on calling me that stupid name!?” Goro yells at Ren, for want of anything else to attack. “There’s not even anyone else here!”

“It’s your codename,” he answers.

Goro stares at him, panting from over-exertion. “Codename,” he mumbles to himself, voice gone hoarse from screaming, and collapses down onto what seems to be a gravestone. Some goddamn real-life symbolism, probably. Because his entire life is one cosmic joke.

Ren walks over and quietly sits next to him.

“Crow. The Phantom Thieves are going to change Shido’s heart,” he says. “Because we want to, and not for any other reason. He’s our next target. Will you join us?”

Goro grimaces. Feels, as he always does, that he’s just playing along with someone else’s game. “Do I have a choice?”

“Of course you do.” Ren lies.

He takes Goro’s hand, the dull metal of the gauntlet made even more so by the brilliant red of Ren’s glove. And Goro just… looks at him. Ren is so gorgeous, so frustratingly beautiful, that he can’t believe there was ever a time he could look at him like this and not be astounded. Even here, even now. He wishes their hands were bare. He wishes they were anywhere but here. He wishes…

Ren continues quietly, “you could stay safe at Ann’s, never set foot in the Metaverse again, and no one would try to stop you. I wouldn’t stop you.” Ren turns Goro’s hand over, idly traces the sharp points of his claws, “you could even leave the country, finally see that Hawaiian sunset.”

Goro smiles even as his heart twists, “it wasn’t the sunset that I wanted.”

“I know.”

“Was I that obvious?”

Ren’s chuckle rumbles low in his chest and he nuzzles his cold nose against Goro’s cheek, in the small open space between his mask and his neck guard. “You’re really pointy,” Ren mumbles instead of answering.

Goro trembles. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath in. And out.

There’s just no point to this, sitting around and wishing things were different. They both know it.

“I don’t want to change Shido’s heart. But what I want isn’t possible, either.” Goro stands, lets Ren’s hand slip away, adjusts his mask. “He has to be stopped. I won’t allow him to continue on like this, with no consequences for what he’s done.”

Shido first. First they pull this off, first his father’s crimes are put to an end, first he finally finally witnesses that piece of shit brought low and repentant. Then they can see about Ren’s Grail, whatever it may be, and remake this world into one where they can finally be free.

Ren stands alongside him, gives Goro a single nod. Because of course neither of them would ever choose anything else.

And that’s that.

 


———
The Phantom Thieves

Navi: announcing…
Navi: drumroll please…
Navi: drumroll please!!!!

Skull: why

Noir: 🥁

Navi: pathetic
Navi: whatever it’ll have to do
Navi: CROW has officially joined the chat!!!

Panther: woooooo!! 🎉

Fox: Welcome, Crow.

Navi: crow say something
Navi: crowwww
Navi: CROW
Navi: I CAN SEE YOU’RE ONLINE YOU ASSHOLE

I’ve changed my mind.

Panther: nooo navi you scared him off!!

———


 

He finds his way to the Velvet Room door as soon as he‘s able. It’s incredibly inconvenient now, still sitting pretty directly outside the SIU, but thankfully the combination of Goro’s Third Eye and his Takamaki-fashion-disaster disguises are enough to see him there safely.

“Who else knows about the Velvet Room?” He demands of the twins as soon as he arrives.

Normally Goro might be a little more subtle with an important topic such as this, but he’s learned that the twins tend to act like a reflection of himself. If he’s too cagey, they’ll be cagey right back.

It’s infuriating.

“Why do you care,” Caroline says, then sticks her tongue out and taunts, “what, you want our master’s attention all to yourself?”

Ugh. Okay, so he has been feeling especially jealous lately, he’s been trying to work that out, but it has absolutely nothing to do with this shit. “Call it idle curiosity.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.”

“Fine. Yes. I want to make sure my contract is receiving the attention I was promised.”

“Aww, you hear that Justine?”

Justine just sighs, clearly having none of this. “There are a few people out in the world that have knowledge of the Velvet Room’s existence. Mostly former residents. But I can assure you that you have our undivided attention.”

“So… I’ve been your only resident, all this time?”

“Yeah,” Caroline laughs, “you’ve been a real pain in our asses.”

“The state of the Velvet Room reflects the heart of its current contract holder. One contract, one heart, and so one Velvet Room.”

Fuck, none of this makes any sense. How could the Phantom Thieves have entered his Velvet Room and convinced Igor to send them back in time without Goro present as well? Maybe… “alright then, who were the previous contract holders?”

“The Velvet Room has been in operation for a long time,” Justine says.

Caroline adds, “we’re not just gonna stand here and list off names for your amusement, inmate!”

Goro reaches for his hair out of frustration, connects with nothing because it’s in another shitty ponytail. “Fine! What about Amamiya Ren?” He asks, as desperate as he usually gets during these ridiculous encounters, “was he one? You can tell me that, can’t you!?”

The twins look at each other.

“Nope.”

“I don’t recall that name.”

Goro turns on his heel and walks away without another word. Behind him he hears Justine sigh, “such rudeness.”

 


———
Ren

Hey :)

Hello.
Are we going to the Palace today? I’m eager to begin.

Not yet have some stuff to take care of first
You free tonight?
I rented the running dead

Didn’t that movie get terrible reviews?

Yeah it’s really bad
Come watch it w meee

Well I can’t say a better option has presented itself to me, being dead and all.
So I suppose I’ll see you later.

Nice

———

Once again they’re on the musty old couch in Ren’s attic, the room illuminated only by the soft glow of the street lamps outside and the harsher flickering of an ancient television.

Once again their limbs are contorted every which way, wrapped around each other, clothes bunched up in awkward ways, for the singular purpose of getting as close as possible.

Once again Goro mumbles, “you meant for this to happen,” against Ren’s lips.

He feels like he’s borrowing someone else’s life whenever he’s with Ren like this. A thief, the same as the rest of them, stealing someone else’s story and making it his own. Cutting out paragraphs from some trashy, thoughtless romance novel and glueing them over top the disaster that has always been his life.

So, of course this was Ren’s plan all along. The forgettable film, the convenient absence of the cat, the clever placement of his arm around the back of the couch, ready to pounce before the opening credits finished rolling. Of course it was, because that’s what a boy would do, in a story.

Ren says, “duh,” and kisses him again, so Goro decides he should stop thinking.

It’s obviously not doing him any good. Just go with it. Stop thinking.

Stop thinking. Just. Stop–

“Ren,” he says.

The low vibration of Ren’s chuckle is a part annoyingly patronizing, part annoyingly attractive when he responds, “yeah, Goro?”

“What exactly did we… do? Last time?”

“Oh. Hm.” There’s a mischievous look in Ren’s eyes as he extracts himself from around Goro, stands from the couch, pulls Goro up with him. “Stand… here.” He says, shuffling him around by his shoulders. “No, here. Hmm…”

“Ren,” he growls.

“Ha, fine. Okay. So, we were downstairs. And I kissed you, like this:” a gentle hand cupping his cheek, warm and soft. Goro kisses him back but carefully, as if this were the first time. “Mmhm.”

Ren pulls away after a moment, grasps his shoulders again and directs him backward, slowly shoving him up against the table by the stairs. “Then we, uh,” he smiles too shyly, as if words had more meaning than action, “we made out for a while.”

“Like this?” Goro teases, eager to move on to the next part of the story.

After a while he decides he wants more, he’s tired of the way the bar counter is digging into his back, tired of letting Ren push him around like he’s–

“Then you…” Goro surges forward even as Ren says the words, flips them around to reverse their positions. “Yeah,” Ren moans against him, buries his hands in Goro’s hair. And it’s good, it feels so good– they’re breaking the rules, but this… isn’t this worth it?

Goro’s having a hard time keeping any embarrassing sounds from escaping his throat, having a hard time staying in control of himself (but isn’t this all out of control anyway?), having just a… hard time in general. Which is fine, until he hears Ren say something, something from far away in another life, or maybe this one: “then we got closer,” and there are hands on his ass, grinding their hips together, leaving them both breathless and it’s the best Goro’s ever felt, he needs more, but can’t–

Can’t.

Fuck, fuck, what is he doing!?

He can’t, they can’t, can’t, not with him.

He can’t be doing this with him. It’s against the rules, the rules so carefully set up for their game to avoid this exact scenario and now Ren’s gone and he’s fucking broken them–

And then…

Ren’s hand snakes around Goro’s front, comes to rest gently against his trousers, and Goro loses his goddamn mind. He moans helplessly against Ren, hates him, despises him, despises himself with every ounce of his being, feels fury coiling in his stomach alongside fire. Because how– how could Ren do this to him? Goro could have just left and never known what this felt like. Ren could have let him go– he has to leave now, because he can’t stay and also do what he has to do tomorrow–

Akechi…

Ren’s hand catches his wrist right as he reaches Leblanc’s door, and Goro turns to face him, to tell him–

The attic. They’re in the attic.

“Goro.”

He’s by the stairs, not the door.

Ren is there too, looking the most concerned Goro’s ever seen him, still holding his wrist, still trying to catch his breath, “I’m sorry.”

He swallows past his suddenly dry throat, blinks to try and clear the fragments of nonsense he can still see on the edges of his vision– stained glass ceiling lights, a wall of coffee beans.

“That’s all we did, Goro. That’s it.”

Goro nods.

He knows where he is. He’s in the attic. He remembers who he is, feels the other slipping away, fading to nothing, as the memories always do.

The way Ren approaches him carefully, slowly, like Goro is some sort of skittish animal, is almost as big a blow to his ego as realizing he just had a completely disproportionate freakout over one simple touch. “Ren,” he starts, slides his wrist from the feather-light grip to intertwine their fingers, and realizes he doesn’t know what he meant to say.

“Hey,” Ren smiles softly, reassuringly, “it’s okay. I still can’t believe I get to kiss you. Do you… wanna go back to the movie?”

Ugh. He’s being so nice. “Are we going to watch it this time?”

“Do you want to watch it?”

“No,” and Goro presses their lips together again. To convince both himself and Ren that he’s fine, that everything is normal, even as he ignores the dissonant feeling of cold wind from Leblanc’s open door at his back.

Ren smiles, none the wiser, so Goro wins. And that’s all that matters. “Alright then.”

 


 

It takes them days to finally enter Shido’s cognitive world.

Days.

Days, of Goro slowly going insane for lack of things to do.

He can work out. He can train in Mementos. He can read through cognitive psience research with Futaba, can read every book in Ann’s apartment, every book in Leblanc, can read until his eyes fall out. He can sneak peeks at social media when no one is there to stop him and he can regret doing so every time, wasting even more time wallowing in misery over whatever new secret of his the vultures unearthed.

And that’s about it. That’s his whole life now. It’s miserable.

Well, besides one other thing.

“You spend a lot of time at Leblanc,” Ann says as they walk towards the Diet Building.

“Mm,” Goro responds.

“Like, a lot of time.”

“Mm.” He glances at her. She’s waiting for him to explain himself. “That cafe is one of the few places I can go now that my face is plastered on every television as the fake and more importantly dead leader of the Phantom Thieves. Of course I would spend time there.”

Ann goes quiet at that, lets them walk in blessed silence for a few steps.

“Okay, yeah,” she speaks up again after not long enough, “but you stay out super late. Like, past closing.”

Caught. “Yes, I go to Leblanc and then when Leblanc closes I go to Mementos and I beat the shit out of demons and nosy girls.”

“Hey!” She punches him in the shoulder and laughs, “asshole.”

“Oh look, we’re here,” Goro says cheerfully.

After the necessary greetings and loitering, they finally enter Shido Masayoshi’s cognitive world as a group, huddled over their phones in the late November chill. Goro’s new Metaverse Navigator, which of course appeared immediately on his new phone, didn’t have any of his old keywords saved. But that doesn’t mean Goro’s never been here before.

No, he thinks, staring out at the vast red sea and the sunken skyscrapers. It’s just been a long time.

…wanted to be acknowledged didn’t you? To be loved?

“We’ll get to the first safe room and go over the plan again,” Ren announces over the whispers in his head, over the sickening sound of the ship chugging along. “Seeing the place should jog our memories of…”

You’ve been nothing but a puppet from the very beginning. 

“…Crow, are you alright?”

Goro takes his hands off his helmet, grits his teeth through the nearly unbearable ache in his head. Everyone is looking at him– he hates this fucking place, hates it, hates it, hates it.

“I’m fine. Let’s get this over with,” Goro growls past through his headache, through the sharpening pain between his ribs, and strides ahead of the Phantom Thieves into the ship.

The demons may be easier to kill, the cognitions may be more smug, and the bars may be more plentiful and stocked with higher quality bottles, but it’s all the fucking same underneath. Exactly the same as when he came here three years ago in a fit of rage and nearly got himself killed, when he found Loki within his heart and tore the trickster out with rage and fire.

The rocking of the boat makes him feel nauseous.

“Can we review our targets?” Yusuke asks after they reach the first safe room, so temptingly close to where Shido’s worthless other self is hidden. “My memory is failing me.”

“Perhaps we should ask around again?” Haru says.

Futaba groans dramatically from where she’s taken over an entire couch for herself. “How can you guys not remember? There’s only five of them: the politician in the restaurant, the former noble by the pool, the TV station president in the gambling hall, the IT company president holed up in his hotel room, and the cleaner.”

“That’s so many people,” Ann whines.

Goro counts off on his fingers: “politician, noble, media man, hacker, cleaner. Restaurant, pool deck, gambling hall, hotel, engine room.”

Ryuji scratches his head, “well, I guess as long as someone remembers… man, you two are scary sometimes.”

Ren turns his sharp gaze on Goro while Ryuji grumbles, the singular attention a relief as always. “They were tough to beat, different from other Palaces,” Ren tells him, “shadows fused with cognitions.”

Goro doesn’t think he’s encountered such a phenomenon before. He’d ask more about it if his head weren’t pounding. God, he hates it here…

Makoto speaks up for more context anyway, as she usually does: “Shido is observant and, though we despise him, we also have to admit he’s very intelligent. Considering his knowledge of the cognitive world and his attack on Crow earlier this month, we should proceed with caution. We can’t expect things to be exactly like they were the first time around.”

Ren nods. “So, let’s break for the day.”

What!? “What!?” Goro shouts in protest, “we just got here, we should cover more ground than this.”

“We have time. Trust me.”

Goro bites his lip. See– this, this is why he works alone. They don't have time, the election is in less than a month. “Fine,” he grumbles, tries to play along, “but don’t–”

Don’t forget your promise.

-agh!” Goro grabs at his head, tries to stay on his feet through the doubling of his vision, the pain arcing down his skull, splitting him in two. It’s blinding, white-hot, and not even the worst part, the worst is–

–just as quickly as whatever it was started, it stops.

Goro throws off whoever ran forward to keep him from falling– there were a few of them– shouts nonsensically: “fuck!” Their concerned looks and words just piss him off more, they don’t have time for this, he doesn’t have time for this. “god damn it, I fucking hate this place!!” 

He storms out of the safe room, slams the door behind him before any of them can follow.

They find him later, sitting on a ledge in the real world with his head in his hands.

“I apologize,” Goro says without looking up. “I… don't think I’ve been handling this very well.”

Oh, what does he mean by ‘this?’ Maybe it’s the idea of spending weeks trudging through his worthless father’s entire subconscious. Or it could be the isolating exile of his supposed death. Could be half-remembering and mis-remembering and forgetting over and over again another life for months, could be the looming question about his other life that he’s afraid to ask but is fairly certain he already knows the answer.

Hell, it could even be whatever’s happening between him and Ren: terrifying, confusing, perfect and amazing in ways that he knows, oh he just knows, will all come crumbling down one day. Because it always does.

Ren sits next to him on one side, Ryuji on the other. 

“Is there… anything we can do to help?” Makoto asks.

Goro shakes his head, embarrassed that they’ve seen him in such a haggard state. “I’ll be fine, really. I’ve dealt with worse,” he says, flashing a quick smile at them, folds his hands together to hide how they’re shaking. “Please, don’t worry about me.”

‘Don’t worry?’ Alright, you,” Ryuji grabs his arm, drags him to his feet, and pokes Goro aggressively in the chest. “I know exactly what’s goin’ on here. You’re hungry!” 

“I’m not–” Goro stops. Thinks about it for a second.

“Goro! You told me you ate something before we left!” Ann shouts at him. 

“Aha!” Ryuji jeers, annoyingly excited that he seems to be right for the first time in his life. “Come on then, we’re goin’ for ramen, my treat.”

Futaba pumps her first in the air. “Score!”

“No, nope, nuh-uh!” Ryuji says, slapping her arm down and hooking his elbow with Goro’s. Goro stumbles a little bit. God, he’s actually so fucking hungry, he can’t even think. “Just me and Goro. I ain’t rich, get your own dinner.”

“Aww…”

Ryuji starts leading him away from the group, cheerful as ever, and Goro manages one last look back at Ren for help.

Ren just smiles, raises a hand in a poor imitation of a salute.

Goro hates him.

 


 

“Oof, dude,” Ryuji tips his chair back, wipes his mouth with his sleeve, “tell me you’re not feeling better after that.”

Goro picks up his bowl, drinks every last drop of the remaining broth. He doesn’t usually care about the taste of the food he’s eating, would only choose his meals out of cost efficiency, for how photogenic they’d be, or for topics of conversation. But this is just goddamn delicious.

Goro slams the bowl back down on the table when he’s done, like Ryuji had moments ago. He could play it off that he’s acting unlike himself to throw bystanders off his trail, but really– it looked kind of fun. Ryuji’s vulgarity might be rubbing off on him. For better or for worse. 

Probably worse.

“It turns out you’re good for something, Ryuji,” Goro says with a smirk.

“Come on man, don’t be like that,” Ryuji kicks Goro’s leg under the table but still smiles sunnily back at him, more than Goro deserves. “I’m telling ya, food fixes everything. Problems look a lot smaller on a full stomach.”

“I’m afraid my problems still look fairly big.”

“Guess we better order another round then,” Ryuji jokes, then takes a long sip from his soda. Or, at least, Goro hopes he’s joking. He doesn’t think he could possibly eat one more bite.

“Uh, okay, so.” His companion coughs, looks away, looks… nervous? “I’ve actually been meaning to talk with you about somethin’ and– you’re really feelin’ better?”

“Yes…” Goro says with apprehension. What is this. It couldn’t be– ?

“Okay. Good. Cool.” Ryuji scratches his head aggressively. “Actually you know what? Never mind.”

“Ryuji.”

“Nah you got enough on your plate, you don’t need–”

“Would you just fucking say it!?”

Ryuji startles backward, nearly tips his chair over. “Jeez, fine! Might as well get it over with,” he mumbles, and Goro thinks the anticipation of whatever this is might actually kill him.

“…Are you okay?”

Goro frowns, confused. “I just told you I was fine. Is this what you were so nervous about?”

“No, I mean… arghh, look–” Ryuji sighs, “I went into your apartment with Mona. To get all your stuff. I didn’t plan to, but no one was watchin’ and you sent this crazy long list so…”

He’s barely able to keep his attention on Ryuji’s words, too busy cataloging what he remembers of the state of his apartment as he last left it, and trying to figure out what could possibly be–

“…and there was, like… a lot of alcohol in there.”

–the most incriminating. Fuck.

“And dude, I’m not tryin’ to judge or anything, I know your life is kind of crazy. But.” Ryuji rocks back and forth awkwardly in his chair, looking anywhere but at Goro. “It’s just… it reminded me… my dad was the same way. And he was definitely. Not. Okay.”

All the blood that drained out of him at the revelation of Ryuji’s discovery comes rushing back at once, pounding in his ears. Goro sneers, “is that really it?”

“Well…”

“Do you drink, Sakamoto?”

Ryuji finally looks at him. “No.” Then looks away again. “Uh. Well. Once.”

“Once?”

“Was a long time ago…” Ryuji bites his lip, pushes his empty bowl away and leans down onto the table, mutters to Goro like he doesn’t want anyone in the restaurant to overhear. “My dad was still living with us and being, well, the usual. And I couldn’t fuckin’ take his shit anymore, so I decided to clean out his booze best I could.”

Oh no. “And I’m guessing you didn’t just pour it down the drain?”

“Ha! I wish, man. Well, after that I promised myself I’d never drink again. So, uh, that was it.”

Aw, that’s cute. Goro rests his head on his palm, tips his head to the side, “hangover was that bad?”

But Ryuji sits up straight at that, shakes his head vigorously. “It was, but… but it wasn’t about that. I…” He grabs a napkin, starts twisting it in his fists, looks the most angry Goro’s ever seen him. “I-I really liked it, okay!? I liked it way too much. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I’m not endin’ up the same as my dad, I’m not, so I’m effin’ done. I ain’t riskin’ it.”

Oh. Goro sits up too, puts his hands in his lap. 

He’s not sure what to say to that.

All he can think about is the endless bars in Shido’s cognition today, and how they’d reminded Goro that he hadn’t had anything to drink in a few days, and how he’d immediately, thoughtlessly, made plans to remedy that as soon as possible.

Goro swallows. “I’m fine.”

“Eh?”

“You asked, earlier. I’m fine. Really.”

“Okay. If you’re ever not, just… lemme know. I got tricks,” Ryuji holds up his soda, shakes the glass a little. “And uh, don’t tell anyone about me bein’ an idiot, yeah?”

Goro doesn’t think he’s an idiot, but nods just the same.

 


 

“Your bonds are strong,” Justine says, holding the excessive number tarot cards representing the people he’s accidentally let into his life out in an even fan. “How do you feel?”

“I don't know.”

“Stronger or weaker? It’s not a hard question, inmate,” Caroline growls.

“I. Don't. Know,” Goro growls right back.

“Have you awakened to any new Personas?” Justine asks.

“No,” he grumbles this time.

“Come on! Aren’t you trying at all!?”

“He is on a journey,” Justine says to Caroline, closing the fan of tarot cards and placing them back inside her clipboard… somehow. “It’s not the journey our master intended, but a journey nonetheless. Do not forget your rebellious spirit, prisoner.”

Ugh, he doesn’t want to deal with the cryptic bullshit right now, even though cryptic bullshit is all he ever gets from them. He came here for a reason. “Wait. That double arcana.”

“The Justice: fairness and karmic retribution,” Justine says.

“The Aeon: resurrection and the reconciliation of a past self,” Caroline says.

“Yes, that one. Tell me more about it.”

Justine gives him a look, then pulls out the card and peers it closely. The image still flickers and changes in an unsettling way, just like it did back when he first made this bond with Ren. The same bond for the second time, he understands now.

“The Justice is the strongest of all your bonds. You’ve reached a deep understanding with another person, an understanding which can only come from sharing one’s self completely, and having that trust returned in kind.”

Okay. Judging by the description of the Justice arcana that’s the first bond. Great, his strongest bond and he doesn’t even remember it. “And the Aeon?”

And this would be the Ren he knows.

“Hmm,” she deliberates for a moment, then says: “this bond is strong, but not as strong as it could be. It seems… there is something being withheld.”

The Ren he thinks he knows. Goro huffs. Fine.

Caroline taps her baton against the ground. “Anything else?”

Actually– “everyone I meet has an arcana attached to them, correct? And I have one as well?”

“Ugh, obviously” Caroline rolls her eyes, “we told you this the first time we looked at your bonds, pay attention!”

“The Fool,” Justine says, holding up the corresponding card. “this arcana has the wildcard ability, the power to forge bonds. Each bond made corresponds to a different arcana, which represent waypoints on a journey to enlightenment. The Fool itself represents new beginnings, innocence, and freedom.”

Goro can’t help but make a face at that. It sounds… wrong.

It sounds completely wrong. In fact–

“Wait, Justine…” Caroline says. “You’re holding that card upside-down.”

Her twin blinks, turns the card around to check for herself. “Oh. I am. It seems I was… mistaken. How troubling.” She faces the card toward Goro again, says solemnly: “The Fool, Reversed. A new beginning which was corrupted, an innocence lost, and chaos instead of freedom.”

 


 

Every second of Shido’s Palace is miserable. A special hell designed specifically for Goro.

Shido himself, his image plastered everywhere, his voice echoing everywhere.

The cognitions, reminding him of who Goro had to deal with, who he had to pretend to be, who he was.

Being a fucking rat.

And the migraine, of course the migraine. This ever-present sharp pain in his skull, growing worse the deeper they go, as if his body was literally rejecting being in this world. The inconsistent doubling of his vision is affecting his accuracy and getting more difficult to hide. There’s a metallic taste in his mouth that won’t go away, no matter how many of Ryuji’s terrible sodas he drinks. He knows why. He knows why, he knows why, and he desperately wants to be wrong.

Every second here is miserable, which is why when Goro slams his fist down on the table in the safe room, shouts, “no!! We’re not done yet!” He thinks he’s being perfectly. Fucking. Reasonable.

“Crow,” Ren growls from the other side of the table and repeats, “we’re leaving.”

Fine,” Goro spits out at him, “then go. Leave. I’m staying.”

“You’re not staying. It's too dangerous–”

“If you think I’m going to sit around and do nothing–”

“–you have no idea what’s out there and–”

“–and wait for your orders like a good little soldier–”

“–I’m not letting you stay here by yourself!”

–fuck you!” Goro bangs on the table again, watches all the other Thieves flinch, “you think I need your help!? I’m doing you a favor, I could tear this whole place to the goddamn ground in a night!!

Ren stares him down, doesn’t glance away once as he demands quietly to the room: “can you all give us a minute.”

Shit. Goro holds his head in his hands, tries to breathe past the stabbing pain in his chest, tries to calm down. Shouting like a child is no way to win an argument. And he has to win this argument. Ren understands, he has to understand.

“Uh, yeah.”

“No problem.”

“Bye~! Gogogo–”

Ryuji is the last one of them to linger in the safe room, throwing Ren a meaningful look. Goro’s petty jealousy flare up unchecked, “something to say, Sakamoto?”

They both ignore him. Ren nods to reassure his friend that it’s fine to leave. So, “don’t kill each other,” is all Ryuji grumbles, shaking his head on the way out.

“It’s already. December,” Goro grits out as soon as the door closes behind the last Thief, “and we only have two letters of recommendation.”

Ren stalks around the table toward him, hands out of his pockets like he’s ready for a fight.“Our deadline is the 18th. There’s no need to rush.”

“No need to…?” Deep breaths, stay calm. “Ren.”

“Joker.”

Goro throws his hands in the air. “Joker! This is Shido Masayoshi. There is every possible reason to rush,” he explains, which is frustrating as all hell because he really thought they were on the same page. “As long as he’s free to do what he wants people will suffer. Every second we wait is a second he wins!”

“That’s no reason to risk the safety of the team. We’ve been here before, we know how this ends–”

“You’ve been here before,” Goro can’t help but interrupt, “you’ve done this before! What is the risk, why– why is this place different?”

Tell me, because I know you’re hiding something, and I think I know what it is.

His opponent is silent.

Goro wishes he could see inside Ren’s head, just for a moment. He would give anything, literally anything, to know what he's thinking.

Instead he has to stand and watch as Ren takes his hand, gently unfolds Goro’s fingers from where they were clenched in a fist, one by one. “The Phantom Thieves are going to change Shido’s heart, Crow, I promise.” Ren says quietly, “I just want… I need a little more time.”

“Why? What are you afraid of?” Goro asks, knowing he won’t get an answer.

Ren steps closer, too close if he were anyone else, runs his hand slowly up Goro’s arm. It makes him shiver. “Do you trust me?”

Goro fixates on a point to his left, tries to ignore the heat settling in his stomach, and grumbles, “you’re not playing fair,” instead of answering. 

He knows exactly what Ren is doing. He hates that it’s working.

“I never play fair.” Puffs of hot air against his cheek, so close, so temptingly close. Fuck, they’ve only just started and the tension is already killing him. For the thousandth time Goro curses his ridiculous helmet and bodysuit. And Ren seems to read his mind, “can’t you switch to the other outfit?”

“It’s only an illusion. I don’t think it would work for what you obviously have in mind.”

“What do I obviously have in mind?”

Goro raises an eyebrow at the challenge. 

“Not,” he answers. “Playing,” reaches up to take Ren’s mask off. “Fair,” and tosses it somewhere behind him. And he decides to amend his earlier wish: screw reading Ren’s mind, all he wants is to kiss him.

Hands slide around his helmet and neck as Ren growls in frustration, “damn it, how do you–?”

Oh thank god, he’s not the only one.

“It’s got hooks,” Goro breathes out, “on the inside.” But Ren is already pulling it apart, slicing away the points where the bodysuit is attached with his knife, sharp edges achingly close to Goro’s neck.

The helmet, finally free, is wrenched over the top of his head and Ren follows his lead, hurls it across the safe room where it collides solidly with a lamp– one Goro recognizes, currently sitting in his father’s office in the real world. The thing shatters to pieces on the floor as Ren finally finally crashes their lips together.

This is a game– it’s a game just like everything else. Goro knows the rules now, knows Ren is weak to a bite of the lip just like Goro is weak to bless spells.

He growls, pushes Ren up against a wall, and Ren lets him, allows him to do so, as if this were his plan all along.

He’s so annoying, so fucking infuriating, and Goro can never get enough of him. His head is pounding, his ribs are shattered, he can taste blood in his mouth around Ren’s tongue, but this is still a game. And Akechi Goro is a goddamn winner.

He feels possessed by something, feels like he’s watching himself from afar as he tears off his left gauntlet, tosses it to the floor, and shoves his hand down the front of Ren’s pants. And Ren lets him do that too, reacts exactly as he hoped, looks better than he’d ever imagined. Immediately rendered powerless: weak, trembling, red-faced and open-mouthed. Gloved fingers flutter aimlessly and twitch against Goro’s shoulders, his back, his hair.

Goro–” Ren stops, tries and fails to choke down a whimper, his eyes flicker to look somewhere behind Goro, away from him. Unacceptable. “Goro, the door– the door, someone might–”

Goro shoves him harder, knocks his breath out and pins him against the wall so he’ll stop talking about the fucking door and pay attention to what matters. “What, would you rather I stopped?”

Ren groans incoherently, shakes his head and collapses forward to press against into Goro’s shoulder. Aw, he’s gone and broken him. Goro likes this game.

“Ren~” he taunts, letting the clawed tips of his other hand graze lightly against Ren’s scalp, “do you want me to stop?”

Ren shudders against him, his gasp of “don’t stop, please,” hot against Goro’s bare neck.

“Then,” he grabs a handful of Ren’s perfect curls and yanks, wrenching him back to a position where Goro can see his face, “look at me.”

Ren does, finally. Surges forward to give him a bruising kiss. And Goro wins.

 


 

Goro loses. They still leave the Palace.

He feels like an idiot.

“He’s just worried about you, you know,” Ann says after their takeout arrives. There’s some random stand-up routine playing quietly on the television. The food is… fine.

“Who,” Goro says to be difficult.

After all that Ren still insisted they leave the Palace. He still refused to tell him why. So Goro did leave, stormed off after saying some… words. And sat outside the door to Ann’s apartment until she arrived to open it.

His phone sits next to him, too quiet, because he’s not sure who should text who first in this situation. He doesn’t want it to be him. It should probably be him. Goddammit.

“Ren, duh.” She tosses a balled-up napkin at him. “Seriously, we’re all worried. You really don’t like being in there, do you?”

“It’s not my favorite place, no.”

“Yeah…” Ann picks at her food. She looks like she wants to say something else, and Goro realizes–  (stupid, idiot, dumb, of course) Ren isn’t the only one with knowledge of the past.

“Ann. What happened in that world? Why is he being so…” Goro waves his chopsticks in the air, glares at his silent phone, “frustrating about this.”

“Augh.” Ann drops her chopsticks completely, flops backward to lay on the floor. “It’s. Really. Complicated.”

“Everything is complicated,” Goro sighs, “I assure you that anything you can tell me will be helpful.”

“That’s the problem though! We don’t… we don’t really know what happened.”

God fucking

“But you. Um. Am I really the first person to tell you this? You died.”

–damn it.

Goro takes a deep breath.

Exhales slowly, lets out the air that’s been trapped in his lungs since the day he discovered he was the only one of them who wasn’t present at the end.

“I thought so,” he says.

“Sorry.”

The audience on the television laughs at some worn-out joke. His food is growing cold. His phone is still quiet. He died in another life. The usual.

He decides to join Ann on the floor. Thinks about the guy he likes too much and his stupid savior complex. Thinks about whether he’s stronger or weaker for having all these bonds.

“Why didn’t he just tell me?” Goro mumbles to the ceiling. “He has to know I would have figured it out.”

“Ren is dumb.”

“Ha, I knew you were the only one in the group with any brains.”

Ann flashes him a smile, then heaves a very dramatic groan, covers her eyes with her forearm. “Okay, I’m gonna tell you something. And you have to promise not to tell Ren I told you, okay?”

“I’m quite good at keeping secrets.”

“Yeah, uh, not really though,” she says with a tone that, okay, doesn’t feel totally earned here. Though. He supposes he wouldn’t be in this situation at all if he hadn’t let a few things… slip. She continues on regardless, “Ren had this theory, he told me back when he was freaking out over seeing you again… he thought that because you died last time it means you’re going to die again this time.”

Goro’s blood turns to ice.

Oh.

Oh, Ren is right.

“And I tried to tell him it didn’t make sense,” Ann continues on, “like, listen. You died, and it sucked, but– it didn’t have anything to do with the change of heart. It was just a really terrible, really shitty thing that happened, but it didn’t have to happen. Not like all the other stuff has to. So it’ll be fine.”

Goro swallows. He doesn’t want to say that death is usually a terrible, shitty, senseless thing that happens for no reason. He’s pretty sure she already knows.

He’s been so stupid, made stupid again by these distracting bonds. He should have figured this out already. He should have known. Ren should have told him.

Do you trust me? Goddamn hypocrite.

What a pair they make.

This is why Ren avoided him for months. Why he kisses Goro with such desperation, like every time could be the last time. Why he’s been shuffling them through Shido’s Palace at a snail's pace as if he never wants to reach the end.

Ann clearly doesn’t believe it, is still rambling on about how the rules can’t apply here, but Ann hasn’t lived Goro’s life. He knows Ren is right, can feel it in his bones, because of course, of course even his death would be decided for him. This is Goro’s fate, the end of his story. Completely out of his control, just the same as the rest of it.

It’s the beginning of December. He has barely two weeks, two precious weeks left.

So… Goro thinks, grabbing his phone and finally typing out a message to Ren, why not make the most of it?

Chapter Text

Amamiya Ren, Justice

The days before Goro’s mother died were perfect. It was strange, unexplainable, like a switch was flipped– suddenly she could get out of bed, she could play with him again, she was so energetic and kind and forgiving and joyful.

At the time, he’d imagined this meant she was keeping some sort of incredible secret, some amazing news that she couldn’t quite tell him yet. He’d thought that maybe they’d won the lottery, or some distant relative had died and left them a fortune. One night Goro dreamt that his father finally returned from wherever he’d been, said he was very sorry for making them wait for so long, and whisked them away to live in his castle.

Then that morning… well.

Ring!

The familiar bell signals the departure of another customer, the last besides Goro if he’s been counting correctly. And he has.

Sakura sighs, looks around the place, shakes his head. It’s December, it’s cold, it’s a slow time of year for an already too-slow cafe. Magazine pages are flipped closed, cigarette put out, dirty dishes slowly collected from the counter, and an announcement toward the back: “need to head out for a bit. Watch the place while I’m gone.”

Goro sits and waits, buzzing with sudden and uncharacteristic nerves, as Sakura ambles around the counter, flicks Goro softly on the head, chuckles to himself, and then continues on his way outside.

The bell chimes again. Goro counts off one… 

Two… 

Three seconds is long enough.

He slides out of his chair, scurries toward the kitchen, carefully brushes his hand inside his pocket to make sure its cargo still present and intact. He reaches his target quickly, frizzy black curls hunched over a pot of curry, everything different and the same.

“Hello, Ren.”

Ren stops stirring, places the spoon down. It’s twenty years later when he finishes turning his full attention on Goro. “Hi,” he finally responds, thank god.

“I–” Goro starts, and then stops.

He’s forgotten what he planned to say.

Idiot!!

He knows the idea of what he means to say, but has completely forgotten the careful script he planned out earlier. Damn it, this is all Ren’s fault– the stupid hold over Goro that he has, with his stupid face and his stupid eyes, which Goro is, for once in his life, having a hard time looking at directly. Holy shit, get it together.

“I– I wanted to apologize. Again. In person. My conduct yesterday was unprofessional and–”

“Goro.”

“–I trust your judgement. You’ve been doing this long enough, though obviously not as long as I have… and I do wish you were more up-front about your motives because it’s frankly unreasonable to expect–” Wait, shit. Goro huffs at himself, taps his foot impatiently. He’s an experienced liar and performer, why is a simple real apology so hard? “What I mean to say is…”

Ren chuckles, takes one of Goro’s hands (…he does that an awful lot. Does Ren have a hand thing? Shut up, focus, be a person), and he says in his earnest way: “I know you’re not used to working on a team, but I can tell you’re trying, and I appreciate that. So, it’s fine.”

“You’re sure?”

Yes. Besides…” Fingers lace together and Goro’s world narrows to the small span of skin on the back of his hand, where Ren’s thumb traces careful arcs, back and forth, back and forth, “you’re not… sorry about all of it?”

Oh god. “No. No, of course I…” he manages to say, focusing very intently on a shiny ladle hanging on the wall behind Ren. “Unless you–?”

“No! I mean, yes, I liked it. You. Obviously.”

“Obviously. Good,” Goro swallows. He wonders how it’s possible to be turned on and combust from awkwardness all at once. The hand still holding Ren’s is hot and sweaty and Goro isn’t sure if that’s him or Ren or both of them. He misses his gloves. The two of them are hopeless. Being alive is excruciating.

And Ren only seems to be determined to make everything worse as he leans in close and murmurs, “maybe next time you can have some fun too?”

“Mgh,” Goro responds (?) as he backs away, searches desperately for a way to get them off this subject– oh, thank fuck: “I– ah, I forgot, I got you–”

He reaches into his pocket with his free hand and holds out his final apology before he can think better of it: a single red camellia. He knows the name because he spent twenty minutes at a flower stand waffling between different types and then colors and then blooms and then the whole damned idea in the first place.

“For yesterday. I’m aware a full bouquet is more traditional for an apology, but this felt…” shit, okay, now he’s wondering if maybe the bouquet would have been better after all. Or nothing. Is this weird?

Their fingers brush as Ren gently takes the stem. “Another little gift from my Crow.”

…???

“Thank you,” Ren says, not missing a beat, and tucks the camellia carefully behind his ear, securing it with his glasses. He strikes a pose, dramatic and confident as always. “How do I look?”

My Crow?

“It suits you,” Goro chokes out when his words return to him.

Ren beams, kisses him easily, chaste and tender, and somehow the last of Goro’s lingering anxiety fades along with it.

He returns to his seat after a bit, after Ren realizes he’s left the curry unstirred for too long. Goro sits, waits, watches him and the little flower for the rest of the evening, his cognition tinted nostalgic and joyful thanks to a pair of thick rose-colored glasses that he hadn’t realized he’d inherited until now. Amazingly, Ren doesn’t remove the camellia– not when Sakura returns, not when other customers arrive, not for the rest of the evening, not until the cafe closes and the two of them stumble upstairs like idiots as usual.

Not until he tucks it carefully behind Goro’s ear instead, whispers, “red is your color.”

And Goro rolls his eyes, places it on the desk, pushes Ren down onto his couch as he laughs.

Goro hated those final, perfect moments with his mother for a long time. Those last days of hope made the following despair all the more unbearable, and he was angry with her first before he learned to be angry with everything else. She knew the whole time exactly what she was going to do to Goro by leaving him. She’d been completely, entirely selfish.

But now he understands. Knowing there’s an end, knowing it’s so close… well, it does change everything.

Goro isn’t quite his mother’s son. It took him until now to know that for certain: he doesn’t want this to end, not ever. If he had a choice he would choose to stay. But he doesn’t have a choice, he never does. All he has is two weeks.

 


Morgana, Magician

“Ha!” Goro breaks the comfortable silence of Futaba’s room, but for good reason: “listen to this. ‘The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.’”

Two sets of eyes narrow in his direction, Futaba from the computer chair above him and Morgana on the floor next to him.

“So?” Morgana asks.

“George Orwell,” Goro explains, though he really shouldn’t need to.

“Yeah, duh,” Futaba says, rolling her eyes. “Why are you bringing it up? Will it help?”

Goro looks between the two of them. “Well, no. But–” he displays the page text forward so they can both see. “They haven’t properly cited it.”

All he gets in return are exasperated groans and a solid thwack of an irritated tail against his thigh. 

Well, it’s not his fault some of these idiot scientists don’t know how to write a simple paper. Passing off someone else’s words as one’s own points to a lack of rigor and authenticity, so they should examine any conclusions by this particularly shitty scientist with an equivalent amount of skepticism. But, he doesn’t have to tell Morgana or Futaba that.

…He doesn’t, does he?

Goro’s phone lights up on the floor next to him and his heart flutters a little. Embarrassing. But, he’s earned a break.

———
Ren

Stupid question!
Can you whistle?

Of course. Can’t you?

Nope only the super loud type
Wait hold on
Yeah damn still can’t do the regular kind
Teach me senpai

———

He laughs a little under his breath, imagines Ren wherever he is right now sputtering and failing at a whistle. Hopefully in public.

“What are you texting about all the time?” Morgana asks, and Goro freezes as the cat pads over and plops himself down on his lap. He looks up to Futaba for help but she doesn’t seem to be paying attention, flipping through a different set of printed notes instead.

Goro clears his throat. “Just asking ‘stupid questions’ so we can get to know each other better,” he responds normally, like a talking cat who isn’t a cat isn’t resting his paws on his thigh.

“Like what?”

“Like ‘can you whistle’ or… ‘what’s your favorite color.’”

Futaba wrinkles her nose at him. “Gross. Stop texting your boyfriend and do your homework, you jock.”

“He’s not my–” Goro starts to protest, then finally notices the paper Futaba is looking over. He holds out a hand for it and makes a grabbing motion, because he can’t move with this cat on him. “Give me that. I looked into those sections yesterday so I’ll be able to find the relevant work quicker.”

Futaba releases her grip without a word, lets the packet drop unceremoniously to the floor in a heap.

“Why.” Goro reaches over, stretching a little to pick it up.

“Cause it annoys you,” Morgana answers for Futaba. Morgana who is now licking himself on Goro’s lap.

“You take this,” Goro grumbles and slaps the other poorly-cited paper down in front of the cat.

“Aw man! But my eyes are tired…”

“Do you want to become a human or not?”

Morgana grumbles but doesn’t protest any further, not even when Goro gingerly rests a hand on his back. Futaba gives them a look, grabs a new paper off the pile, and they all settle in to read.

All the findings in these papers, in some way or another, stem from the hell Goro went through all those years ago at the cognitive psience research facility. Back when he was homeless and helpless after running away from his last ‘family,’ too smart and too stupid for his own good. He just wants all this shit to be useful now, hopes it will be good for something when he’s gone. Even if that something happens to be transforming a very soft, very warm, still very strange little creature into an actual person.

 


Kitagawa Yusuke, Emperor  

He still doesn’t understand. “Can’t you just repaint it?” Goro asks.

“You know nothing of art,” Yusuke responds, again. “A simple copy could never have the same meaning or worth as the original. It would be criminal to try.”

Goro frowns, crosses his arms. Watches people pass by in the underground. They all look the same.

“What was it about?”

Yusuke glances his way again. “What are you talking about?”

“What am I–” Goro starts to growl, then takes a deep breath. “The ‘masterpiece’ we were discussing before, your painting that was lost when you time traveled. What was it about?”

“It represented a great many things.”

“Like. What.”

“Hm… what I see in the heart of humanity.”

The heart of humanity? What the f– sure. Fine.

Yusuke is always so direct, truthful to a fault, the least consciously manipulative person Goro’s ever met– so what does he see in all these people? Why does he want to capture them in his artwork, why does he care, after everything Madarame did to him?

Goro sighs. He stands still at his post, gaze drifts aimlessly from person to person, feeling nothing but disconnected. Like he always has. He leans a little closer to Yusuke for want of someone familiar, sneaks a peek at his latest sketch, and– oh. “That’s me.”

“You’re human, are you not?”

It’s a simple rendition of his profile. The image is flattering, handsome, of course it is. Though, there’s something in the eyes, something Goro’s never seen before…

“So, what do you see in my heart?”

“Desire and hope,” Yusuke explains, like it’s obvious, and then starts humming along to a tune only he can hear.

 


Okumura Haru, Empress

She finally captures him at his weakest, directly after another dismal jaunt inside the psyche of his father. She was smart about it, like she always has been. Goro is sure it’s only taken so long because she wanted to see him squirm.

“Here you both are,” Ren says, placing a cup and saucer in front of each of them. “And I’ll be in the back if. Uh…”

Goro is too tired to care about being subtle. “What, do you think we’re going to start a brawl inside your cafe?”

“Don’t be silly, Ren-kun,” Haru adds. “We’re perfectly capable of being civil.”

Ren looks between them, expression unreadable. “I’ll be in the back,” he repeats.

And Goro was fine with it. He was perfectly fine, besides the usual Metaverse exhaustion and the unusual migraine that has started to follow him even outside of Shido’s godforsaken ship. But he was ready to deal with Haru, he was handling it, until, until–

A light touch grazes the back of his hair, fingers threading through strands, and then Ren ambles away.

What the fuck.

He’s immediately overcome with a baseless sort of panic, because– did Haru see? How could Ren just… aren’t they trying to keep this a secret? What the fuck even is ‘this,’ what are they–

“You killed my father in the other timeline,” Haru says outright, bringing Goro crashing back down into the moment. “We both know why we’re here. I thought it would be cruel to keep you in suspense any longer.”

Goro subtly combs the back of his hair with his fingers (what the fuck) and takes a long sip of his coffee to steady himself.

“I killed your father,” he confirms. “I’d have done it twice if I were able. Are you expecting an apology?”

“I agreed to all this because I wanted to see him again,” Haru says, completely dodging his question. “I knew the terms of the deal meant I couldn’t save him, but… I couldn’t help myself from trying. And, I suppose I also wanted to learn more about you.”

“Are you telling me you destroyed a 1700 yen crepe and ruined one of my best shirts on purpose,” Goro drawls in mock-shock.

“I paid for the dry cleaning,” Haru fires back innocently. “You’ve always been interesting to me, Goro. Sometimes I feel as though I can understand you completely, and sometimes you make no sense to me at all.”

“I would be quite boring otherwise.”

“You would be easier.”

“Easier doesn’t mean better. And you’re stalling,” Goro counters. He wonders if she’s been stalling for longer than just this conversation, if that’s the truth behind why it’s taken them so long to have it. “If you’re going to put me through your play at judge, jury, and executioner then please just skip to the end and tell me what you’ve concluded.”

“I haven’t reached any sort of conclusion, Goro. And I don’t intend to be any of those things…” 

She looks so conflicted and small, her wide eyes reddening in a way that’s… actually familiar to him. It was only two months ago that he’d attempted to console her as she sobbed in a public space over her father’s impending murder, and she knew. And she let him.

“I did enjoy the time we spent together, despite myself,” Haru says in a wobbly voice. “We’re more alike than I realized.”

“Lucky for you,” Goro teases, but doesn’t disagree. That gets Haru to smile… and then she immediately starts crying. Ah, shit.

“I have such a difficult time separating the two of you,” she chokes out through her tears. “I know you’re not the you that k-killed my father, and I know– I know that even if you were… oh, it’s all so complicated!”

Well, time travel tends to be that way, in every manner and method it’s ever been explored. Haru should have known what she was getting into. At least she has her memories.

…None of that would be worth saying, so Goro silently hands her a napkin instead.

“Thank you,” she says as she takes it, daintily pats the corners of her eyes. “This would all be so much easier if you hadn’t saved us, or if you hadn’t tried so hard to help with all of my silly problems, or if… I don’t know Goro, sometimes I wish I could hate you and be done with it, which is so horrible of me…”

“I saved you?”

Haru nods. “You sacrificed yourself to save all of us. I was so furious with you.”

“That doesn’t sound like me,” Goro says.

She giggles a little, sniffles, but seems to be mostly done with the crying, thank god. “We were all very surprised.”

Haru takes a moment to drink from her neglected coffee cup, and Goro does the same, wondering as always who this other version of himself was. He saved them? He never imagined himself as the self-sacrificial sort… it honestly sounds more like something Ren would do which. Makes him feel weird.

“Why did you do it, Goro?” She asks once she’s ready. He was expecting this.

“You said yourself that you weren’t sure if you wanted him to be saved,” Goro says. “You know exactly why. Why did you want to brainwash him?”

“Please don’t turn this on me. I asked you a question.”

It seems she was expecting his answer as well. Fascinating. Fine, then: “your father was responsible for the crimes of his company and his ambition, which both you and I know are far more severe than the public is aware. Any man who siccs a dog on his enemies should be mindful of who is holding the leash.” Goro spits out, the truth of the words leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.

“You’re not a dog, Goro. You had a choice too.”

“That’s not–” he clenches his jaw. “I don’t mean that to dodge my part in all this. I only mean that actions have consequences and your father faced his.”

“But that doesn’t mean you get to decide his punishment!” She shouts, looking more like her Metaverse counterpart than Okumura Haru.

Goro crosses his arms. “And you do?”

“He’s my father.”

Ha! “Oh, I am entirely aware.”

Haru takes a deep steadying breath… and then laughs, of all things. “Of course. I apologize for raising my voice. I’m afraid I’m not sure what to do.”

“I can’t help with that. Though, you are stuck with me for… a little longer.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Haru nods. “A little longer.”

He wonders if she’s figured out what fate has in store for him too. If she knows that he’s destined to die, just like her father was. She probably does. He’s learned not to underestimate her.

They sit in silence for a while. Goro enjoys his coffee, perfectly comfortable with being uncomfortable. His scalp still tingles where Ren touched him.

“You know… you didn’t do it this time,” Haru eventually says. Quietly, as if she were talking to herself though he knows she’s speaking to him. “You tried your hardest, and you failed. I may not have been able to save my father… but I was able to save him from you. And that makes me feel strong.”

Of all of them, all of them besides Ren, she’s the one who surprises him the most.

“You’re a formidable opponent,” he says, and can’t help his nonsensical smile. It matches hers.

 


Shirogane Naoto, Fortune

“I’m glad to hear that, Akechi.” Shirogane smiles softly, nods in approval, and he doesn’t ask anything further, thank god. Or, maybe he’s known this whole time that it was Goro in Isshiki’s research, Goro he wanted “saved.” He is a detective, after all.

Goro nods back, takes one more look out at the pond in front of them. There are fewer ducks than the last time they sat on this bench, surely escaped and flown somewhere better than this godforsaken city during the cold winter months. 

Shirogane chose this place at first for its exposure to the public– useful back then, a bit more dangerous these days. Best for Goro to make his exit now too.

He stands, brushes a few snowflakes off his trench coat, adjusts his scarf. “The last time we met… how is it that you were able to see me?” Goro asks, because just can’t help himself from seeking out the answer to one final mystery.

He’d had his Third Eye open, a divine ability to hide in the shadows which only two people have managed to counter in the real world. Ren is obvious– his fated rival, his antithesis, his… something. But, Shirogane?

The first Detective Prince stays seated and taps his glasses as an answer. “A gift from a friend. Sometimes one needs a little help to see the truth.”

 


Takamaki Ann, Lovers

“Oh my god!” Ann yells, throwing her hands in the air dramatically, “okay, fine, I don’t know anything and nothing is happening and you’ve never met a person named Amamiya Ren in your life!”

“Now you’re being ridiculous.”

“This whole situation is ridiculous!” She grabs his shoulders, shakes him a little, which is awfully undignified and familiar, since when did– “You. Need. To. Talktohim.”

“No. I don’t.”

“How long has this been going on?” Goro glares at her. “Oh my g– how not-long has not-this been not-going on!?”

19 days. “Three weeks,” he sighs.

“Goro.” Ann says, very seriously. “This is obviously bothering you. Why won’t you just ask him?”

He won’t ask him because it doesn’t matter. He has just over one week left. It doesn’t matter. He’s fine. He’s fine with how things are. Fine.

Fine! He won’t ask him because he’s a fucking coward, okay? He’s Akechi Goro: Detective Prince, high school prodigy, media darling, alleged dead leader of the Phantom Thieves, double-crossing hitman, and coward.

What if asking changes things? What if giving whatever it is they’re doing a name changes it for the worse? What if examining it too closely makes it disappear, like some sort of dream? He only has a week left, one precious week, and god, what if Ren wants to tell people? So many of them know already: Futaba, Morgana, now Ann, and Sakura has to have picked up on it by now which is absolutely mortifying–

“Come on,” Ann says, interrupting his spiral, “why is this so hard for you. I bet you used to get confessions all the time! The next time you see him, all you have to do is say: ‘hey, Ren, are we official? Are we dating? Are we–’”

Goro cringes, “–don’t–”

“‘–boyfriends?’”

“Ugh,” he sneers, “so juvenile.” He escapes the iron grip she has on his shoulders, finally continues on his way to the penthouse elevator.

Ann follows him. “If you don’t talk then bad things happen. That’s the plot of like, every rom-com ever. What if he doesn’t think you’re exclusive and he’s dating someone else too?”

Just the thought makes him want to vomit. “Then I will kill him,” Goro manages to grit out as he ties his scarf maybe a little too tight.

“Yikes,” Ann deadpans back. “Or, you know, you could–”

Holy fucking shit. “ –yes, yes I know! Fuck!”

And that’s why just a few hours later, when he should be very much otherwise occupied, Goro keeps getting distracted by how best to… ugh. Talk about it.

He hates Ann.

One week left. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it. They can just do this, and it can be fine, and if Ren has misunderstood Goro and the unspoken nature of their not-relationship so fundamentally that he’s gallivanting around Tokyo kissing other people as well, then he’ll just have to–

“Ow,” Ren says, breaking their kiss momentarily and tapping Goro’s grip on his hair.

“Haha, oops.”

“Do it again.”

Fuck, he’s perfect. Goddammit, goddammit, fuck fuck fuck just do it, coward–!

“Ren,” he blurts out. “You enjoy this, don’t you?”

“Mm, what gave me away?”

Goro sits up higher on his elbows to get a better view of what’s beneath him: half-lidded eyes, lips swollen and red, Ren just looking thoroughly kissed and comfortable on his pillow. Thanks to Goro. Unbelievable. “You’d like to continue this, with me?”

“Yes please,” Ren smiles a little like he’s humoring him, lifts himself up to quickly peck Goro on the lips.

“And no one else?”

There’s no kiss in response to that.

Instead Ren gives him a look and shifts beneath him, sits up, which forces Goro to do the same. He’s silent as he moves, and while it likely only took a few seconds, a few seconds is all Goro needs to jump to a hundred different conclusions, each worse than the last. A horrible knot forms in his stomach, and he imagines the worst is actually true, imagines Ren with– with any of them– stupid, stupid of course–

“No, of course not. What’s this about?” Ren says from far away.

“Nothing.”

“It’s never nothing with you.”

He’d… said no, right? Right. Right. Ha, here Goro was, jumping to conclusions with no evidence like some sort of amateur. “It was nothing this time, believe me.”

“Hmm…” Ren peers at him, cranes his head around to try to get Goro to focus on him too. Annoying. Goro avoids him. “Are you… Akechi Goro, were you trying to trick me into confessing?”

“Do you have a reason not to?” Goro fires back aggressively. “Ah– sorry, that was uncalled for.”

“Don’t apologize,” Ren says, wrapping his arms around his waist and squeezing, seemingly unbothered by Goro’s outburst. “Maybe I’ve been waiting for you. Maybe I wanted to hear you say: Amamiya Ren, you’re so handsome and hot and sexy and–”

“I would never say such a thing.”

“Rude. Please~?” He kisses Goro lightly on the cheek.

Goro rolls his eyes. “No. It’s poorly constructed and redundant.”

“You’re poorly constructed and redundant.” Goro smacks Ren on the shoulder, which earns him a laugh and another kiss. “I deserved that~”

“Mm…”

There’s something inside Goro that needs Ren, always needs more of him, calls out to him, even when they’re as entangled in each other as they are now. Ren continues kissing further up his cheek and Goro tries desperately to concentrate. He’s not making it easy.

Talk to him.

Goddammit. Fuck you, Ann.

He didn’t… he didn’t really get an answer, did he? He can– god, Ren’s breath near his ear is going to kill him– he can deduce that they’re together, probably, obviously, but is that enough? It can be enough for one week. Maybe he should–

“Date me,” Goro’s mouth says, out of fucking nowhere. Well. That’s that, he supposes. In for a penny, in for a fucking pound. “Would you go out with me,” he demands more than asks. “Officially.”

“Like, boyfriends?”

“I don’t like that word,” he mumbles as Ren resumes his exploration of Goro’s neck.

“That’s too bad, because you’re my boyfriend.” Goro’s already-flushed face grows even hotter but maybe… it doesn’t… sound so bad when Ren says it… “Of course I’ll date you, Goro. I’m surprised you asked.”

“I’m afraid I want you all to myself.”

“I’m yours,” Ren says, and fuck, god, that’s the best thing he’s ever heard. He’s giving Ann a medal the next time he sees her. Now is not a good time to be thinking about Ann. Goro rips his hands from under the usual rumpled turtleneck and goes for Ren’s belt instead, fumbling with the buckle in his haste to have more of him.

“W-wait, wait–” surprisingly cold hands clasp over his, “you first. I’m not letting you trick me again.”

Haha, yes he will.

“But I want you,” he purrs the way he knows Ren likes. He nuzzles their noses together, listens to his heavy breathing. Ren: his, all his, only his.

But Ren stops his work on the belt again. “Please Goro, I feel bad for always letting you– you know.” He nuzzles right back, uses Goro’s tactic against him, and murmurs, “I want to make you feel good too.”

Goro swallows. “But, you do.”

“You know what I mean,” Ren pulls away, peers at him with a careful sort of scrutiny. Goro tries to avoid him and seem totally normal all at once, which is. Not working. “Do you… want me to? It’s okay if you don’t.”

“I want to,” Goro says, his voice smaller than he’s ever heard it. “I do, it’s just…”

God knows he’s imagines it enough times. Every nerve in his body is screaming at him, he wants this so badly , but his stupid goddamn brain seems to reject the idea when the opportunity is presented to him in real life, in an uncontrolled environment. It’s past embarrassing. It’s humiliating. Especially in front of Ren, who’s so perceptive, so–

“Hey, it’s fine,” Ren squeezes his hands hard, snaps him out of his shameful little pity party. “I might have an idea, if you want to try?”

“You’ve thought about this?”

All he gets in return is a look. Okay, well, yeah. That was a silly question. God.

“Come here.” Ren maneuvers him gently to sit on his lap, facing forward. Light kisses appear on the back of his neck, a nip on his ear, and Goro can’t suppress his shiver. It’s a little weird, having Ren behind him, but… it feels nice. Feels safe, for no logical reason.

“Is this okay?” Ren asks, his deep voice rumbling against Goro’s back.

He arches into him, gets more comfortable. “Yeah.”

“Pretend I’m not even here– you do do this on your own, right?”

“Shut up.”

“Hot,” Ren says, hands skimming softly everywhere, including– fuck, “how about this?”

Good,” comes out too breathless, too genuine– embarrassing, embarrassing. “F-fine, I mean,” Goro stutters.

Ren chuckles, “you know, you were my first too, Goro.”

“I’m not–” …Wait. Hold on. “In– in the safe room. That was–?”

“Yup.”

…What? Seriously?

He had no idea. He’d just assumed. Ren always seems so confident and experienced. He hadn’t given any indication, hadn’t said anything, had just… not at all like Goro, who apparently requires an immense amount of coaxing and fanfare and–

No, fuck this.

Goro swats Ren’s hands away, only so he has room to turn himself around. He settles again firmly in Ren’s lap, basks in the surprised look on his face and kisses him hard.

“I want to see you,” Goro says when they break apart, as an explanation. And, okay, it may not be the whole truth– the whole truth may be something more like Goro has Issues when it comes to competition and rivalry and he absolutely knows it, but it’s also not wrong by any stretch. This is better anyway.

He’s rewarded with one of the brightest smiles he’s ever seen. “Oh? I am very handsome. And hot. And sexy.” And Goro means to reply with something clever and cutting but Ren’s hand finally slips inside of his boxers, and oh– oh holy fuck–

———
Ann

I won’t be returning to the apartment tonight, I’m spending the night elsewhere.

AAAAAHHHHHHHH
💘💞💗💛💘❣️💞🧡❤️💜💛💘💓❣️❣️💗🧡💘💞💗💛❤️💘❣️💖💜💗💘💖💜🧡💘💞💗💛❤️💘❣️💞💘💖💜💛💘💓❣️💗💘💞

———

Goro flips his phone to Do Not Disturb and drops it carelessly off the bed, hears it thunk against the wood floor. Now his arm is free and he can hold Ren tighter to his chest, so it was no great loss anyway.

Ren chuckles, squeezes him back. “Would’ve tried this way earlier if I’d known you’d get so cuddly.”

“Shush,” Goro grumbles, and kisses the top of Ren’s head. Of course some hair finds its way into his mouth, “blech,” but it’s a small price to pay. He smells incredible.

“Stop eating my hair.”

“No. Go to sleep.”

Ren mumbles something about his cat but quiets down anyway, giving Goro the silence he needs to properly memorize the warmth of Ren’s body against his, the weight of his head against his chest, the hair tickling his chin, everything, everything.

How the fuck did he get here? In a horrible little attic, on a horrible excuse for a bed, waiting for sleep to take him while he holds his fated rival, his antithesis, his– his. His… boyfriend? This wasn’t the plan. He never meant for any of this to happen, not really. He’s had to fight tooth and nail for everything else in his life, but this… 

Goro extracts his hand from Ren’s messy curls and traces a path down his back. Smooth, warm, soft, perfect. Another on the long list of reasons Ren has ruined him forever.

Whatever. Let him be ruined, then.

“I can’t believe you bought yourself custom-branded boxers,” Ren whispers, like it’s a secret.

“Fuck you…” Goro mumbles into the darkness of his closed eyes, “I like them.”

“I like them too. Can you get me a pair? Amamiya starts with an A, you know.”

Kind of funny. “Mm, stupid.”

“So mean.”

“Mm…”

“Okay, sleepy.”

“Mhm.”

He still wakes long before the sun rises, still manages to extract himself from an adorably out like a light, dead to the world Ren and leave the cafe before it opens. Still maintains some level of dignity and decorum. He is still Akechi Goro after all, even after everything.

Unfortunately–

Walk of shame~!” Ann hoots at him from the couch as soon as he steps out of the elevator.

–it seems that Ann is having an early morning as well.

“I am incapable of feeling shame.” Goro turns up his nose, head still happily in the clouds. He struts to the kitchen to get himself some caffeine and Ann joins him, wrapped up in the cocoon of a fluffy blanket.

“Did you do it?” She asks immediately. “Uh, did you talk to him, I mean!”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” And he used to be a good liar, he really did, but it’s difficult to lie when his face keeps disobeying his commands.

“You did!” She bumps his shoulder, making him spill a bit of the instant coffee grounds, “look at you. You’re like, actually happy. It’s weird.”

“I don’t have to stay here, you know.”

“Gorooo, this is huge! You’ve changed so much, seriously,” she says, ignoring him completely and pouring herself a bowl of cereal.

“Have I really?”

“Oh yeah. Come on, you hated Ren.” 

He hates Amamiya Ren.

“I… did?”

Hazy feelings, thoughts and words and faces slip away.

Ann pops one of marshmallow cereal pieces into her mouth. “Hm, no, that’s not right. You hated how much you liked him. So yeah, you hated him. But not really. You were basically in mega-denial. A mess.”

Okay, that unfortunately sounds like him. “You know I don’t remember anything, right? It’s awfully annoying that you keep assuming I do.”

“Don’t you?”

“I really don’t,” he confirms for the millionth time, and steals one of the marshmallows out of her bowl for the trouble.

Ann sticks her tongue out at him, pulls the bowl away from him. “I think you do. I think the other Goro is in there, somewhere deep down, whispering in your ear.” She reaches up, knocks him lightly on the head. “And he says, ‘hang out with the Phantom Thieves, they’re super cool’ and ‘your terrible revenge plan won’t work’ and ‘go kiss that guy with the frizzy hair cause I was too stupid to figure out I liked him.’”

“I feel like you’re being disrespectful to the memory of myself.”

“You can deal,” she hums and shuffles away in her blanket to sit at the expansive kitchen counter. Goro stays, stares unseeing at the coffee maker.

When was it that he’d started getting those panic attacks in the Metaverse? It was around the same time Futaba first texted him as Oracle, wasn’t it? And… he does remember some things, sometimes. That’s how he was able to figure out that they’d done all this before in the first place. If he remembers some things, sometimes, then those memories have to exist– does that mean Ann is right? All of his memories are there, his other self is there, just locked away? Suppressed somehow, only leaking out when…

That voice in his head, emotionless and taunting, the one he’d heard standing outside Shido’s office on the day that he realized none of this was going to work. At the time thought he’d thought it was simply inspiration, but maybe…

Goro’s pocket vibrates, pulling him out of his reverie.

———
Ren

Stupid question
Do you talk in your sleep? ;)
<3

———

Oh. Oh no. Does he?

“I might be spending more nights away,” Goro says to Ann when he joins her with his finished coffee, still in a daze over the stupid little text-heart.

“You must really like him if you’re willing to trade my parents’ cushy bed for that.”

“Mm,” he hums noncommittally. He can’t wait to go back.

 


Lala Escargot, Death

“–and, um, thank you again for looking after me,” Goro bows slightly, tugs his hood up a little higher. He hops off his bar stool and finishes the last bit of water in his glass.

“Yeah yeah, I get it kid– now get out of here,” Lara whispers conspiratorially, “I’ve got a drunk reporter down the bar who’d love nothing more than a scoop on a dead teenage celebrity.”

Goro does, leaves Crossroads for the last time, scurries off into the night and feels a little lighter for it.

 


Sakura Futaba, Hermit

“I literally wish I was dead.”

“Would. You. Please. Hurry. Up.”

“It’s been, like, an hour!

Goro and Futaba pay the rest of them no mind, huddled together and carefully deliberating over their cards. “So, we play these–”

Futaba nods, murmurs back: “and then, yeah. Yeah, that’s good. Should take care of–”

“Exactly. Ready?”

“Yesss, mweheheh.”

Goro cackles along with her, then places his hand down. “Game over.”

“We win,” Futaba announces.

Makoto’s jaw drops, ever so satisfying. “No!!”

“Are we done then?” Yusuke sighs.

“Finally,” Ren says from his spot on the ground. He gave up on the game a while ago, cards laying in a heap next to his head. Well, that’s what he gets for having Morgana as a teammate.

“Two roads here and here make longest road, which is two points,” Goro places the pieces down, “we have a dev card which is another, and…”

Futaba takes over for the kill: “and two wheat and three stone make a city. That adds up to ten points, so we win again!”

They’ve won every single game so far.

It’s a rare occurrence, having all of them together for no real reason, something they haven’t truly managed since the summer thanks to their busy schedules (and Goro’s… everything). But, Ren insisted on it, made it all work somehow. So of course Goro was going to take the opportunity to pair up with the only other good player and dominate.

“I propose we ban the two of them from being on the same team,” Haru sighs.

“No. Stay mad.” Futaba sticks her tongue out.

“Git gud,” Goro adds, and high-fives her as per their tradition.

 


Niijima Makoto, Priestess

Goro misses school. He likes exploring new topics. He likes the mind-clearing monotony and repetition of assignments. He really likes getting top scores– and learning each of his teachers’ preferences and patterns to game the system so his supremacy is assured.

Makoto is brilliant, but she never quite got that last part and that’s why she always lost.

———
Ren

Stupid question:
What’s your best subject?

Lunch

Be serious please, we agreed to answer these truthfully.

Lol okay fine
I kinda like everything but I guess science is my fav

———

His stomach flips around for no reason, as usual. 

Messages are all Goro’s had of Ren today; they’ve both been surprisingly busy. It turns out his bucket list is longer than he thought, and Ren’s schedule is even more of a mess than usual, his excuse always the same: Phantom Thief business. And it’s fine, Goro has never been one to cling, he appreciates the space. It makes the times when they are together all the more special.

At least, that’s what he keeps telling himself.

But Ren still makes him stupid, makes him want stupid things. He wants to sit in silence and study with him. He wants to help him out with second-year subjects, see how he learns, see how he thinks. He wants to fast forward to later today, skip over time that he already has precious little of left, just so they can both be finally free and alone and– and fuck, he really just can’t stop thinking about last night, the last time they were together. Even at the most inappropriate times, even now, Ren’s mouth on him, wet and hot and tight and–

“Okay, I think I’ve got it now,” Makoto says, eyes still solidly fixed on the completed problem they’d been working on together, thank god.

“Good,” Goro says, shifting in his seat a bit. “What’s next?”

“Hm…” she flips through her planner, “I’ve got a physics test that–”

Science! “Excellent! Then I can–”

Goro’s thoughts stop in their tracks as he remembers that no, no he can’t study with Ren. Because Ren isn’t going to get to physics until next year, and… Goro will be long gone by then.

“–see if there are any concepts I haven’t covered yet,” he recovers quickly.

New concepts for the entrance exams he’s never going to take. For the colleges he’ll never attend. Right.

It’s so completely unfair. Fate. Destiny. Death. He’s fought so hard and so long, and this is his reward? Sometimes Goro just wants to scream and cry and rage against it all, against everything and everyone. But he’s familiar with this sort of fury, knows it better than anything, so he only surreptitiously snaps his pencil into pieces under the table and grabs a new one.

“We’re working on fluid dynamics now,” Makoto says, turning her textbook to face him. “You could read through this and quiz me– that should uncover any gaps in your knowledge as well.”

“Sounds good to me.” Goro breaks his new pencil in half.

 


Justine and Caroline, Strength

Something about today’s visit to the ship was especially awful, something about it followed him out, hanging over his head through the streets of Shibuya. He reaches them quickly, stumbling like he’s drunk from his exhaustion and the migraine splitting his head. But this is

important. This is so. Fucking. Frustrating!!

“How do I get more Personas!?” He shouts at

one of them, whatever her name is. Two Buns.

“Not even gonna say hello? You’ve got a lot of nerve, inmate!”

Goro presses against his forehead to alleviate the ache, tries to get his eyes to focus even though he keeps seeing double– double twins, two of them, four of them. “He has so. Many,” he grits out. “He makes it look so fucking easy, but I’ve tried, and tried, and it just doesn’t fucking work!”

He’d gone to that place, Mementos, on his own, held up so many demons just as he’d seen Joker do a thousand times.

“We told you that every person’s bonds manifest uniquely,” Long Braid says.

What did that piece of shit have that Goro doesn’t? What made him so special!?

Goro massages his temples some more. “So tell me how!

Tell me!!

“How many times do we have to say this you till you get it through your thick skull!? We. Don’t. Know!”

Long Braid glances at her twin, wavers for a moment before she finally admits: “we should know. However, something is… blocking us.”

If he didn’t know any better– they look scared. He’s never… seen them like this before…

“Blocking you? How–” Goro stops, finally shakes off the pain in his head, the double vision, that baseless frustration and fury that always follows him out of his father’s cognition… 

Follows him out… he’d headed straight here, but… why? To get more Personas? He’s– he’s going to die in less than a week, why had that just felt so important to him?

Was that–?

It had to be.

He’s felt this before, in dreams, in Sae’s casino, he can– and he can still feel it now, stronger and closer than ever, something, just under his skin, just there, yet somehow completely unreachable. His memories are there, it’s all there so why, why can’t he remember?

Goro kneels down in front of the twins to see them more clearly. Two of them as well, confused, scared, memories and knowledge blocked by something. And maybe, just maybe, they’ve been going through the same thing he has.

“Wh-what’s with that look? What are you, worried about us!?”

“Yes.” Goro says. “Obviously.”

What!!” Caroline shrieks and covers her mouth while Justine giggles. It’s the most emotion (besides anger) that Goro’s seen out of either of them, ever.

“Please excuse Caroline, she’s wanted this sort of attention from you for some time now.”

Justine!” Caroline stomps her foot, squeezes her eyes shut. “This means n-nothing, prisoner! We’re more than capable of handling ourselves, so– so wipe that smirk off your face!!”

 


Niijima Sae, Judgement

“I forgot how much you eat. Are you even stopping to taste those?”

Goro shoves a few more nigiri in his mouth, gives Sae a look. “No.”

She sighs.

“I’m on a fixed income,” Goro explains after he finishes. “And my income is zero. Grab those salmon ones for me?”

She does, which is nice of her.

He’s been maybe a little more rude than is warranted, considering she’s buying him dinner and also not turning him into the police. Yet. But Sae also ignored him for months and seemed perfectly content to let the SIU’s dirty cops beat him if he didn’t cooperate with her, so. Call them even.

“About that, Akechi-kun…” Sae stacks her plate neatly on top of Goro’s five, “what’s your plan? Considering we all come out of this in one piece. Do you have one?”

Does he have a plan? Yes, in a way. “No.” He looks at her carefully out of the corner of his eye. He knows why she asked him here. “Do you?”

Sae tucks her hair behind her ear, a nervous tic she shares with her sister. “I looked you up in the system. After everything. There wasn’t much there, but…”

Goro turns away from her and busies himself with his newest plate instead. He honestly has no idea what they have on him, no one thought or cared to look before. But he knows they can’t have everything.

“You know, there’s a saying–” Sae stops again, shakes her head. “Never mind. You don’t want to hear platitudes.”

“Mm,” Goro confirms.

“I know you’ve been busy, helping out those kids with their mission. Saving this country,” she laughs a little at that, like she still thinks it’s a made-up story. “You say you don’t have a plan, but I don’t think I believe you.”

“And you never answered me either, Sae-san.” Even again. They smile at each other, just for a moment. He’s pretty sure she hates him.

“What would you do, Akechi-kun? If none of this,” Sae waves her hand in the air, understatement of the century, “was happening. Who would you want to be?”

 


Sakamoto Ryuji, Chariot

Arghh– die die DIE!!” He screams as he empties his pistol into the charging Forneus. It swims forward through the air unimpeded, bullets hitting but not doing much damage thanks to its creepy-as-fuck thick skin.

Of course the demons hiding in Shido’s cognition would be so disgusting, unpleasant, stubborn–

That feeling, again–

Goro loses his footing, stumbles as the familiar migraine hits him. The Forneus is clever and swims forward to take advantage, but the hit comes from Goro’s right side instead, pushing him out of harm’s way.

“Eat this, Ziodyne!!

Blinding flashes lightning in front of them, carnage and screams as Ryuji hits the Forneus’ weak point. It’s exactly what Goro needs to snap out of his haze. He unsheathes his sword and cuts the mutated manta ray apart, revels in its shrieks and the way it melts away to shadow and nothing.

“Hell yeah, dude!” Smack!

Goro jolts forward and just barely swallows a surprised shriek. “Teamwork makes the dream work, Crow!” Ryuji shouts, ambling away with his weapon on his shoulder as if he hadn’t just slapped Goro on the ass.

Smack! Ah!” He actually yelps this time, because someone else followed up their much more forceful slap with a fucking squeeze and–

“Great job, Crow,” Ren chuckles in his ear.

Not fair, not fair. Goro glares at Ren and Ryuji, walking ahead and bro-ing out over something as if they hadn’t just– he can’t even come up with a proper retort and. And. Ann standing next to him. She giggles at whatever his face is doing and then–

Smack!

 


Sakura Sojiro, Hierophant

Goro startles awake first from the clatter of a pan, and then from the familiar smell of…

…curry?

He sits up slowly, gathering his bearings and rubbing his cheek where– yes– he’d fallen asleep on Leblanc’s bar counter. How embarrassing. At least… it seems he’s slept away most of his migraine.

Today in the Palace was the worst one yet, by far. He knows he’s going to die but these headaches are almost more concerning, considering they still have one more letter of recommendation to collect. And then Shido himself… shit.

Well. On the bright side, Goro probably isn’t going to make it that far. It’s painfully obvious, with the way Ren’s been acting. His plans for the two of them tomorrow.

The election is in just a few days. His time is almost up.

Sakura walks over, places the dish he’d prepared in front of Goro. “On the house,” he grumbles quietly. “Kids say you’re working yourself to death.”

“Thank you. But I’d prefer to pay.”

“Well, we can’t always get what we want.”

Okay. Don’t engage with that. He’s still not sure where the two of them stand but banter around that subject is not it. Goro drags the bowl closer to him, rubs his eyes and begins to eat. 

“Seems to be a pattern with you,” Sakura says, out of nowhere. “Working,” he answers to Goro’s quizzical look.

“Ah. It’s… not so bad anymore.”

Hmpf. You believe in what you’re doing?”

“I do.” He stares on his bowl of half-eaten curry. Decides to admit: “but, I did before, too.”

Sakura sighs, shakes his head. “Hindsight is 20/20, kid. Just,” he stares at Goro like he wants to say a thousand different things. “Take a break once in a while.”

Goro fiddles with his spoon nervously. Debates for a while… Sakura knows already, doesn’t he? He has to by now. “Ren is… taking me out tomorrow. No work allowed,” he admits quietly.

The whole day, just the two of them. Ren insisted. Their first real date.

Sakura nods. “Good.”

 


Amamiya Ren, Aeon

“Today was great,” Ren says, not for the first time. 

“It was.”

“Really great.”

“Mhm.”

“But, not quite perfect.”

“Is that so.”

Ren stares at him. Goro stares back and says nothing. He refuses to be baited. Ren continues anyway: “you know what would make this date perfect?”

“I am not letting you win.”

“Goro!” Ren whines dramatically, and collapses down on the booth table next to his pile of dead chess pieces. It would be embarrassing if there were anyone in the cafe besides the two of them. Goro just pats him on the back. “I can’t believe it. Three games in a row.”

“Could it be that you’re distracted?”

“Obviously,” Ren says, sitting up again. “You’re incredible.” Goro rolls his eyes. “I mean it.”

“I wasn’t disagreeing with you,” Goro smirks.

“Good,” Ren says earnestly, flipping from comedic to sincere in a way only he can. He looks at Goro a while, for too long, flickering between his eyes like he’s searching for something. “I’ve known you for a long time now, Goro. Almost a year for me.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Yeah, ha. So, this might seem a little fast to you, but…” he turns around, digs into the bag he’s been carrying around all day and… he returns with a flower. A red camellia. No– “I wanted to tell you–”

Goro panics, “stop–

“I love you.”

“Why– why, why would you say that!?” There’s metal on his tongue, his ears are ringing, his heart is gone, chest seizing up absent of any beating.

“Because I love you.” Ren has a sad sort of smile on his face, like he expected this. Of course he had to expect this– no sane person would– he can’t–

“You don’t,” Goro manages to choke out. He tries again, because Ren has to understand: “you– you don’t. I’m not. You don’t know… me,” he finishes quietly…

But he does.

“Maybe I don’t. But I’ve learned a lot about you and I've loved all of you so far. Those odds are pretty good, I think.”

He’s still holding that flower between them, an offering that he’s copying from Goro. This really is all Goro’s fault– he must have given the wrong impression at some point. He let his guard down too much. He let this go too far.

“I’m not the other– I don’t remember anything from before, not really.” Goro explains as he searches Ren’s dark eyes carefully. He knows those eyes so well. It’s terrifying that Ren might know his the same. “I’m reminding you now because people seem to keep forgetting that fact.”

Ren mimics the pose Goro hadn’t even realized he’d assumed, hand to his chin. “Hmm doesn’t matter, sorry detective. You’re still Akechi Goro, so I still love you.”

God, why does he keep saying it? Maybe Goro does hate him after all. “You have terrible taste.”

Ren laughs at him, which unfortunately makes Goro laugh a little too. The whole situation is absurd. He finally gives up on the flower and places it carefully on the table, taking Goro’s hands instead. “Goro. I’ve always been the kind of person who changes for other people. I can’t help it. Like, how I get super dumb and rowdy around Ryuji.”

“No more stupid than usual.”

“Okay, fair.” A light squeeze around his fingers, his heart. His heart– returned to him, it seems. “When I’m with you… for some reason, there’s just me. You make me feel like myself, and I’ve never had that before. I didn’t know who I was before I met you.”

“You’ve practiced this,” Goro grumbles, intent on being difficult if Ren is going to do this to him.

“I’ve got a tough crowd, can you blame me?”

Goro bites his lip. He picks up the camellia, examines it slowly, from every angle, until he can’t hide from the truth any longer. “You love me,” he says softly. “Bad things happen to people who love me.”

“I’m sorry.”

He’s going to die soon. Probably tomorrow, considering the way Ren is acting.

He’s going to die soon, but he has a night and he has a– a boyfriend. A boyfriend who loves him. He’s going to die soon, but his time isn’t up quite yet.

So he kisses Ren, lets Ren kiss him back. They stumble upstairs, as usual. They forget the flower on the table, forget to clean up the chess board, forget to turn the lights off in the cafe, forget everything but each other.

And Goro never thought it would go like this, always thought he’d be the one to take charge, but it turns out he just doesn’t feel like following a fucking script anymore.

“I want more.”

“Mm,” Ren hums happily against his neck, presses deeper.

“No–oh, fuck, Ren had found a particularly good spot before he stopped. Goro curses himself, turns his head to bury his nose into unruly curls, repeats, “Ren, I want more. I want you.”

Ren makes a cute little confused noise, wipes his fingers on the sheet and sits up above Goro just enough for him to get a clear view of his face. Sharp and handsome, the faint street lights reflecting in from the window only making him more so. “Oh. Oh. You–?” Goro raises his eyebrows. “Oh! Okay, okay, yeah, we can– I have– I have stuff, just, gimme a sec–”

Ren tumbles off the bed, landing on the wood floor with a crash that sounded like it hurt immensely. So, Goro looks over the edge and laughs in his face.

“I do hope you didn’t break anything important.”

“Shut up,” Ren snorts, standing and adjusting the A. boxers he’d insisted on stealing from Goro. He’s so embarrassing.

“I’m only saying, it would be such a shame,” he continues to tease as Ren limps over to his work desk and rummages in one of its drawers.

“You’re so mean to me.”

“Do you not deserve it?”

“Mm, I plead the fifth,” he says, returning to the bed with his prize: an actual condom. Goro’s heart beats a little faster. He tries to calm his nerves while Ren finally removes the last bit of clothing between them– those damn boxers which Goro refuses to regret.

“God, you’re so beautiful,” Ren says to his silence, and it would be romantic but goddammit, thanks to that cocky smirk Goro knows exactly what’s coming. “So–”

“Don’t–”

“–Goro-geous.”

Why does Goro like him so much? He covers his face with his arms to hide his smile. “I’m having regrets, Ren.”

“No you’re not~” comes a teasing voice above him.

“Ren-grets,” Goro says after he reveals himself again, carefully keeping a straight face.

“Oh my god, you did it. That was really bad.”

“I learned from the worst.”

They both laugh, obviously a little nervous now that it’s come to this. Finally, finally. Ren presses their foreheads together and asks quietly, “you’re sure?”

“Ren.” The rest he leaves unsaid: does Goro look like he’d even be unsure about anything?

He arches up from the bed, captures Ren’s lips again, and that’s it. All the build up, the wondering and worrying and waiting, the fanfare around The First Time– it’s only a blur of heat, sweat, pain, pleasure and then, ha, suddenly it’s over. It’s over– well, saying two minutes later would be generous. They just lay next to each other for a while, gasping for breath, and Goro tries to kickstart his brain so he can process what the hell happened. So he can figure out how they can do it again.

“Holy shit,” Ren says, sounding just as exhausted and satisfied as Goro feels.

“I, ah– ha, suppose we should have expected that.”

Ren bursts out into laughter for no reason, high, giddy, ridiculous, stupid, stupid, and Goro feels so dazed and brainless that he can’t help but join him. He doesn’t fucking care how he looks, not after that.

Certain things become unignorable very quickly so Ren rolls to the shelf beside his bed, tosses a collection of tissues Goro’s way, makes an adorable little disgusted face at the condom he’s still wearing. Goro’s just finished wiping off his stomach when another colorful plastic packet falls on his face.

“Can you go again?”

God, yes, please. Goro glares at Ren, throws it back and hits him square in the nose. “Don’t underestimate me, Amamiya. Can you?”

His grin widens, “hell yeah. Just… gimme a couple minutes.”

“Hm, whatever shall we do with ourselves,” Goro teases, pulls Ren down on top of him into another easy kiss.

All the build up, the waiting, the nervous wondering and fanfare around The First Time– and Goro doesn’t really understand until the second time.

Now he understands why people make such a big deal out of this. Why they go insane, build their lives around getting more, shape their entire cognition around it. Because this isn’t just fooling around, it isn’t anything like what they were doing before, isn’t even just sex. Of course it isn’t, not when it’s with Ren, Ren, Ren, everywhere around him, inside him, the person who knows him best, knows everything and still… this is…

Ren,” Goro gasps into his mouth, the first words spoken between them either time, but he needs– “Ren– what you said, downstairs– say it again.”

Ren slows their pace, nuzzles his nose to Goro’s. “I love you.”

Goro understands now why this is so dangerous. It’s dangerous and it’s perfect– clichéd and stupid and perfect and Goro doesn’t… he doesn’t want this to end, he doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t want to go. Ren kisses away tears he hadn’t realized were falling, repeats over and over, “I love you, Goro– I love you, I love you…”

“I love you,” Ren murmurs later, low vibrations of his chest rumbling against Goro’s head as they fall asleep. Goro listens to his breathing, rolls the words around in his head, and it’s horrible because this time, just like every other time, Goro believes him.

It’s everything he wanted.

He got everything he ever wanted, so it’s okay that this is the end. He’s been selfish these last two weeks, spending this time with Ren. Spending time with all the people he’s grown attached to, bonded with– accidentally at first, and then completely on purpose. He even managed to push Shido and his bullshit out of mind, for the first time in years. After all, Ren and his friends will take care of it when Goro is gone.

He promised.

It’s okay that this is the end, he tells himself when he wakes up first, as usual. When he stares at Amamiya Ren’s peacefully sleeping face and his heart feels so full, too full to function.

This is the end and it’s okay, he tells himself when Ren wakes up despite Goro’s attempts to stay quiet, insists on walking with him in the cold to the station.

“Palace later?”

“Palace later,” Ren confirms. “I have some stuff I have to take care of first– just meet everyone outside the Diet Building at the usual time.”

“As you command, Leader~” Goro mocks lightly.

This is the end so it has to be okay, he tells himself when Ren pulls his face mask down and they kiss, in public. “See you later.”

Ren nods, mirrors his smile. “Bye, Goro.”

You have to be okay because this is the end, he tells himself when he walks through the ticket gate and heads down the stairs.

You have to be okay, he tells himself when he makes a sharp turn, a detour to the nearest restroom. Goro locks himself in one of the stalls, collapses onto the floor, and cries as silently as he can manage. This is the end.

———
Ann

hey loverboy
you gonna be around for breakfast?
me and yusuke are going out for waffles
join ussss

That sounds lovely, but I’m afraid I have to decline. I’ve made other plans for the day.
I’ll see you later at the Palace.

woof i totally forgot we were doing that today
see you then! 😘

———

Goro is a liar.

He never actually made plans for this day, the last one. He doesn’t know what to do.

He ends up wandering the streets of Shibuya, losing himself in the crowds of people, alone amongst millions. The heart of humanity. He thought he’d have figured out Yusuke saw in them by now.

He walks down Central Street. Goes into random shops. Hovers near the Buchiko statue. Half-listens to the politician giving a speech nearby, and then ends up accidentally giving him his full attention.

Goro is weary of politicians, obviously, but… something about this man and his conviction– it reminds him of Ren. Or maybe, it’s just everything that’s reminding him of Ren. Goro tries to picture him on the stand instead, preaching his values to an audience… hm. Maybe not.

Maybe Ren would be a better fit running campaigns behind the scenes. Speechwriting. Or maybe politics wouldn’t fit him at all, and he’d more suited for a career as a–

Goro is suddenly struck by the fact that… that for all the things they discussed, he and Ren never talked about the future. Goro didn’t have an answer when Sae asked him, shouldn’t have an answer for obvious reasons, but Ren– he doesn’t know what Ren wants to do, who he aspires to be, what he dreams of doing with his life. They never talked about it, and now it’s the last day and Goro doesn’t know.

He has to know.

———
Ren

Stupid question:
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]

———

That’s… never happened before. Goro presses the link to resend.

Maybe the cell towers are down or something. 

Unlikely. But maybe.

Or, maybe…

“If you don’t turn off your phone the Phantom Thieves might change your heart!”

That voice! The music, the lights, the audience– Goro spins around in place to find them, but nothing is there.

Of course not. He’s not in the studio. He’s still standing outside. His phone is in his hand.

…a phone?

———
Ren

Stupid question:
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]

———

Goro stares at the screen. Something in his gut twists. He taps the link again.

Could it be…?

Maybe he’s being paranoid but

if he’s right then–

“Agh–!” Goro winces, shouts in pain as his head throbs and the world doubles in front of him. 

People pass by, crowds of them, ghosts walking through each other, and he realizes he has no idea where he is. He’s dressed for television but he’s cold like he’s outdoors, and he just can’t focus–

“Young man, are you alright?” That politician. People are looking at him. Goro pulls his face mask higher up, shrugs off the hand on his shoulder. “Do you need assistance?”

“No, no!” He needs to get away, away, away, he needs to get to Ren.

Joker–!

“Wait!”

Goro runs through the streets, shoves his way past the crowds in his path. His heart is racing so fast that he’s not even sure it’s beating anymore, he’s still holding his phone,

the phone– get it together, stop this useless panicking and

solve the fucking problem! Because he doesn’t have time, not if Ren is–

Ren is–

They never talked about the future.

Ren knew Goro was meant to die and never told him, and they never talked about that either. They’re the same, they switched places in the interrogation room and they never talked about it, all this time and they never fucking talked!

Goro thought he was the one being selfish but it was Ren, it was Ren the whole fucking time, he told him he loved him. Ren saw Goro with a bruise on his face months ago and the first thing he did was charge into Shido’s Palace by himself, and Goro hates him, he hates him, he’ll never forgive him for this!!

———
Ren

Stupid question:
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]
[Message failed to deliver. Try again?]

———

As soon as he enters the Metaverse his mind splits apart, the horrible, unnameable feeling he’s had for weeks, months, coalesces into something even worse. He’s seeing two of everything now: two ships, two doors, two of every masked cognition in the crowd. Goro even feels two of himself, which is the weirdest goddamn–

A shadow notices him, bursts apart to attack and Goro screams in wordless fury.

He charges at it, tears into it until it screams too and finally melts away,

he doesn’t have time for this shit!

Because it’s so fucking obvious. Ren hasn’t covered his tracks at all.

Goro knows Joker is here.

He’s going to find him,

and he’s going to kill him.

Chapter Text

Goro lazily swung his bottle around by its lip, watched the reflections and lights dance around the curved glass. He stretched out lazily on the floor of his apartment and watched the room swing around too. Fun. Boring. Dizzy.

Hm. He pondered his schedule for the next day, in want of something to do. An interview, a taped show, a photo shoot… oh, probably school at some point. He didn’t go to many classes today. But the election would be in just a few days. It was practically over. His victory was assured. Nothing stood in his way. So, what did school matter? The interview, the show… what did any of it matter…

Ugh. He should probably stop.

Just another stupid show…

Fuck it. He took another drink, grimaced at the taste. Who cares. They love him so he can do anything he wants. They love him so much.

Goro spun his bottle a little faster then, round and round, enraptured by the shine, the lights, the reflections, his reflection, love him, love him, love Akechi Goro, perfect Detective Prince, hero.

He’s a hero.

That’s what they thought he was, so that’s what he was. And nobody knew the truth, nobody knew he was an unwanted child, nobody knew his real plan, nobody knew the things he’d done, things that were necessary, because he’s a hero, he’s THE HERO!!

His reflection disappeared, shattered into beautiful colored shards against the opposite wall of his apartment.

The sound was loud, louder than he expected, echoed and echoed throughout the small room. Not quite as loud as a gunshot but still, someone else in this apartment complex might have heard, must have heard.

Goro sat, the room spun, he watched the glass scatter across the floor, the rest of the bourbon drip down the wall. Drip, drip, drip, viscous, disgusting, ruined, gone, over, can’t be undone, he wouldn’t want it to be undone, he had to do it, he’s glad he did it, he’s so fucking glad he did it!

Another glass followed. Exploded. Then his long-abandoned shot glass. And a can, then two– they didn’t burst apart but they did make more dents in the drywall, more noise. Noise, loud, good, ha, haha, someone must have heard. Someone might come check on him now, knock on his door, ask what all the noise is about so late at night. Maybe they’d even call the police out of concern for his well-being. He’d ward any visitors off with a smile and a lie but it was fun to imagine– imagine, if word got out, if he was discovered, if his fucking fans who love him so much saw him now: perfect prince Akechi Goro, playacting like he was some sort of… like he was just like his goddamn good-for-nothing–

Papers flew off his desk in a chaotic flurry, followed by pens and pencils and index cards and textbooks and then the whole desk itself went, landed on its face with an enormous crash. His side table, drawers flying, alarm clock smashed under his foot, his bed ripped apart, his bookshelf overturned, everything, everything, everything–!!

Until there was nothing left to ruin. Goro stood in the middle of it all.

He breathed. The room spun.

Well then, what will it be, he thought to himself in a manic daze. Someone calling his name? Footsteps, then knock on the door? Will his phone ring? Police sirens outside? Anything? Anyone? Anyone!?

Goro waited.

And waited.

And waited.

 


 

Where is he?

Where is he?

“Where is he!? Tell me!!” Goro shouts at the Titania and presses the barrel of his gun harder into its head.

“Why would I–”

Bang!

The demon jumps and flinches from the shot at the ground, and Goro once again aims at its head. “Tell me now!!

“In-intruder spotted on the side deck, headed toward the engine room!”

He doesn’t bother watching it explode into dust with the squeeze of his trigger, just runs. 

The engine room, of course! Idiot! That’s where Futaba had told them where the final letter of introduction would be, with Shido’s yakuza cleaner. And now because of Goro’s inability to recall the simplest information he’s lost precious time– time, time, how long has it been, how long has Ren been in here, how much time did Goro waste moping around the entire fucking city feeling sorry for himself–

He bursts through another door, tries to figure out if the way was left or right… goddammit!! Ren is out there somewhere, all alone, trying to get himself killed by whatever stupid bullshit managed to off Goro last time and Goro is stuck here, useless, in an empty hallway trying to remember basic navigation!

“Left… no, right? Left!

Left!”

That’s right– Futaba had this same dilemma and scanned ahead. It’s left, left gets him there quicker. Goro turns on his heel, dashes down the hallway without hesitation, using his Third Eye to slip by enemies whenever possible. Fucking hell, he never realized how difficult it was, playing every role in a Palace, fighting every enemy alone, until he had other people to–

Difficult? Bullshit, he doesn’t need to rely on anyone! Sae’s casino was a fluke, none of them were even approaching competency at their pathetic little jobs– shut up “shut up

shut up shut up SHUT UP!!” He screams at his own mind as he runs, because it’s bad enough dealing with seeing double, the pain in his chest, and what has to be an honest-to-god hangover. He doesn’t need a psychotically lonely sad sack hijacking his thoughts every two goddamn seconds–

Wait.

Wait.

There’s a shortcut.

The utility walkways above the engine room. Perfect for an ambush.

Blurry feelings and experiences half-remembered reveal a path forward. Goro follows, races down a hallway, through a set of doors, up a service stairwell. He spirals up higher and higher as his hurried footsteps create booming echoes up and down the shaft. Concentrate on the sounds, on breathing, on the present– not what could be waiting for him at the end. Whatever the challenge, he’ll meet it. He has to, he has to,

he has to win this.

Goro finally reaches the top of the stairs. He gives himself half a second to catch his breath– sprinting up five flights of stairs isn’t easy, not even in the Metaverse– reaches for the doorknob and…

He hesitates.

His hand is shaking.

He’s frightened.

It’s a visceral fear, clawing at his throat, making his heart pound past his chest. He doesn’t want to go in that room. He doesn’t want to face what’s waiting for him, he doesn’t want to, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.

I don’t want to remember.

I don’t want to die.

He doesn’t want to go in that room.

He wants to rewind time to five minute ago, to live just five minutes longer. He wants to rewind it ten minutes, an hour, to last night, back to a scene he’d made sure to memorize: the two of them cuddled together as tight as possible, deep breathing and quiet city sounds, the heat of Ren’s body somehow too much and not enough.

(But the thought also kind of makes him sick now, knowing now what Ren was plotting, his lies, his betrayal.)

I don’t want to remember.

I don’t want to die.

And these thoughts in his head, this chokehold on his heart– they aren’t just vague memories now, aren’t just echoes of the past. There really is someone else in his head. Another Goro. And this is where he died.

He doesn’t want to remember, and maybe that’s part of why he hasn’t.

He doesn’t want to die, not if he could turn around and live.

Well. “We can’t always get what we want,” Goro mumbles to himself.

The half-second passes. He steadies his hand and pushes open the door to meet his fate. 

Familiar sounds of battle immediately greet him: clanging of weapons below him, demon chatter and taunts.

Ren.

Joker.

That idiot is still alive, still fighting. Goro made it in time. He runs across the utility walkway, not bothering to temper the sound of his footfalls against metal. The scene below is barely visible in the spaces between the grating, but he can make out enough– there are a lot of enemies. Not dangerous on their own, but with this many of them and their tactical advantage… well, it’s a good thing Goro’s here. The walkway ends and he vaults off its railing without hesitation, flipping in the air before landing gracefully on his feet.

No!

Goro turns to face Ren. Amamiya Ren, Joker, leader of the Phantom Thieves. Not a leader now– now he’s alone, he’s surrounded, ragged and hurt. It’s wrong, all wrong, the world set off-balance from its natural order. Goro’s fault, and now he has to fix it.

“No, goddamn you,” Ren continues to shout at him as he weakly fends off a demon, “god damn you, get out of here!!

Goro snarls and runs forward without thinking. Go fuck yourself, he’s not taking any fucking orders anymore. A Shadow bursts apart to attack and Goro charges, rams his sword into it before it can take shape. All he has to do is get Ren to safety and–

“Norn, Garudyne!”

“Ah!” He’s caught by surprise, thrown backward by the blast of wind and slammed hard against the set of stairs behind him. “Joker, you stupid piece of shit!”

“Go– argh– you have to go!”

Goro scrambles to his feet but that fool, that absolute fucking moron used the last of his energy to attack Goro and got himself fucking knocked down by the Shadows surrounding him for the trouble. They have Ren trapped, under their heel, but Goro is still free, he can still pull this off, he can still make this work–

Click.

Goro stops.

I don’t want to die.

“Not paying attention to your surroundings again,” his voice says from across the room. His face laughs, practiced and mirthless, aims a gun steady at Goro’s heart. “Shouldn’t you have learned, after the lesson Captain Shido so graciously taught you?”

He should have known. He should have realized. Of course this would be his father’s final defense, of course this would be what kills him. What a horrible place to die.

“Let him go,” Ren snarls, struggles in vain against the Shadows holding him down.

“Don’t worry, I’ll deal with you later,” the cognition responds, its dead eyes never leaving Goro’s.

This cognition– it’s expression is blank, doll-like, barely even human. And it lacks a mask, unlike every other cognition in this world, because Goro’s own father thinks he was too stupid to have something to hide or another face or motive or anything besides this empty, psychotic devotion.

It’s exactly what Goro wanted him to think. He’s sickened by the magnitude of his success. His success: this Palace, the demons, Shido’s election, and Ren, leader of the Phantom Thieves, reduced to a pathetic suicide mission. All of it Goro’s fault, all because

you wanted to be acknowledged didn’t you? To be loved?

“He killed you,” Goro says, even though he knows it’s no use arguing with a cognition, “you know Shido had you killed, why are you still doing this?”

A plan, a plan, he has to come up with a plan. Could he reach for his gun in time, draw quick enough to kill this thing before it pulls the trigger? …Not likely.

“I’m happy to die for him,” the twisted Goro responds with a fake smile. “It’s what was always going to happen– the captain just had to move the plan up a little.”

Even going for his mask would take too long. All the cognition has to do is squeeze the trigger and Goro’s done.

The partition wall.

No, fucking useless! he tells the voice in his head. The controls are behind him and he’d only end up trapping Ren on the other side with that horrible cognition and all its demons. Goro is on the wrong side of the room, the wrong side of the wall, wrong, all wrong.

“Besides,” the cognition talks and talks and talks, oblivious to Goro’s internal struggle, “I was a rabid dog, biting at the heels of my master. It was past time for me to be put down. He doesn't need me out there, not as long as I’m in here. And he doesn’t need you either.”

“I’m not a dog,” Goro says. “I’m the leader of the Phantom Thieves, so you can take me and release him.” He chances a glance over at Ren. Ren, beaten and bloody, silently watching, but fire and determination in his eyes. He’s… planning something too…

“Don’t play games with me,” the cognition says immediately. “That was a lie the captain made up to fool the public, you’re not the leader of the Phantom Thieves.”

“No, I am! Arsene!” Ren bursts away from the Shadows holding him, hits them with a weak attack to give himself just enough time to stand, draw his pistol, and fire off two shots. One at the cognition, and one past Goro, at something behind him, at–

The partition wall!

You–!

“–bastard!!” The cognition shouts, doubling over as Shadows rush to cover it.

The watertight bulkhead–

Alarms blare. Lights flash. Goro sprints forward toward the other side of the room, toward Ren.

–door has closed. All personnel–

“Stay back!!” Ren shouts desperately, takes aim at him as if Goro would believe Ren could ever actually shoot him.

–within the partition wall–”

Ren seems to realize that too, aims at the floor in front of Goro instead and fires pointlessly in his path.

–evacuate at once.

Goro kicks off, leaps and flips over the markings on the floor in anticipation of the wall rising beneath him. He just barely makes it over in time– metal connects with his foot in midair and throws off his landing, sending him skidding out of control, across the floor, away from Ren.

Ren, now uselessly firing an empty chamber at Goro’s cognition before he’s once again attacked and held back by demons. “No, Goro–!” He struggles helplessly against their grasp, defeated and broken, his last ditch effort to sacrifice himself a failure.

Well, self-sacrifice was never Ren’s fate.

Goro turns away from him, ignores his pleas to save himself. He manages to draw his weapon in time, aims his pistol at his twisted mirror image as it grimaces in pain and does the same.

He’s been here before, the double vision that’s haunted him through this entire damned ship is finally coming into focus.

This is it. This is the end.

His hand is shaking.

Goddammit, goddammit! He’s here, he has the cognition trapped, it’s injured, all he has to do is fucking shoot it and it will shoot him and it’ll all be over. It’s over. The Shadows it’s controlling will weaken, Ren will figure out some miraculous way to escape, he always does, and Goro will be fucking dead just like he’s meant to be.

Just like he’s meant to be, because after all this, after everything, everything he’s done, everything he’s been through, his father is going to kill him. Because whatever god or demon pulling his strings decided it. Because it’s his fate.

I don’t want to die.

The cognition senses his hesitation, contorts and snarls at him. “Look at you, incapable of following simple orders, even after all the attention the captain lavished upon you. Still you fail him, you can’t even die properly!”

I don’t want to die!

Shut up, shut up!!” Goro screams, struggles to keep his aim trained on himself, “he took everything from me, everything!!

It isn’t fair!

It isn't justice!

I don’t want to die!

He’s had a taste of life, real life.

He was so certain of the inevitability of his own death that he accidentally let himself be free. Free from his father, free from the expectations of society and his peers, even free from himself. He accidentally made allies, teammates, friends, people who depend on him, people he depends on in return and it was hard, it was so fucking hard and confusing and terrifying but he’s only gotten started, he’s just now learning to live and he doesn’t want it to end– not here, not now, not because it’s his goddamn fate, and not because of him!

“I’m not Shido’s puppet any longer,” he says, conviction in his choice growing along with the fury rippling under his skin. “I’m not his, he can’t have my life!”

“Don’t misunderstand your position,” the Goro sneers at him. Its face twists into a cruel, inhuman smile. “You know what it means to cross the captain.”

And then the cognition aims at Ren.

No!

No!

“No!!”

Fire, fury made physical, erupts around Goro, flares out uncontrollably. The other Goro stumbles as it fires, kills one of the demons holding Ren hostage instead. It melts into shadow and nothing as Ren struggles again, screams for him, and Goro lurches forward in shock, the sound

of the gunshot still ringing in his ears. He presses a hand to his chest and finds

nothing. Nothing? But–

“You bastard! You’re nothing! Nothing!!” His own face shouts, turning to Goro once again, spitting and frothing at the mouth. “Nothing but a puppet that’s outlived its use! You have no purpose, you have no life, your only fate is to curl up and die!”

Goro sees red.

“My fate? Fate!?

Keep that shit to yourself,

I’m sick of it!!” Goro screams, rages at it, every part of him alight with fury and rebellion. This is his choice, he’s making it his choice by the force of his will, and it’s the easiest decision he’s ever made: “I’m done with fate, I’m done with being controlled, I’m no one’s puppet, this is my life, and you can’t have it! You can’t have him!!

He takes hold of his mask as new power surges beneath it, lashes out and destroys more of the Shadows surrounding Ren.

And he laughs, because he’s not dead. Not anymore. And now he gets to have his revenge. “I’ve died before–

so many different ways!

I clawed my way out of hell itself

and you think you can pull me back down!?”

Goro laughs turns loud and wild, because he’s alive, he’s free,

he’s finally free

and he knows exactly who he is.

He remembers everything.

I am thou.

Thou art I.

“Rise, Lazarus!!”

Blinding light floods the room as Goro unmasks and accepts his new self. The Shadows holding Ren melt away and he collapses to the floor. His father’s cognition of him screams, cowers in fear in a way Goro never has, never will, before it too finally vanishes.

The light dissipates.

It’s quiet.

It’s over.

That… ha, haha. Well, that wasn’t so hard.

Goro limps over to Joker, the familiar exhaustion of a new awakening settling into his mind and body. Joker looks to be in even worse shape, struggling and failing to get to his feet now that he doesn’t have captors to hold him upright. Goro helps him up, throws one of his arms around his shoulder to steady him.

“You’re prince ‘gain,” Joker mumbles, almost completely incoherent. “Cause I kissed you?”

“Shut up.”

He stares at the partition wall blocking their exit, at a loss for how to proceed. He didn’t think he’d survive after he shot that button, didn’t think this far ahead. Crawling back through ducts or climbing up to the walkway would be miserable in their current state… ah.

“Lazarus,” Goro calls out to his new Persona once again. And there’s the spell, one he’s never seen before. But he knows exactly what it will let them do: escape from hell. “Traesto.

Goro and Joker let out simultaneous sighs of relief as they instantly return to the real world. The bone-deep exhaustion stays but their wounds heal, which is good because Goro was just starting to realize that he might have broken his ankle on that stupid wall.

“Goro,” Joker begins to say, stops when Goro shrugs him violently off and away.

Goro– Goro? Since when did Joker call him–

“Don’t,” Goro steps backward, away from him. They’re safe, the danger is gone, and he’s devastated because now he has to come to terms with the fact that Joker… did something. Meant to do something, meant to… he’d said… “don’t.

“Wait,” Ren says. “It wasn’t supposed to go like that. Goro, you weren’t supposed to be there.”

Goro shakes his head, backs away further. He wasn’t supposed to be there because Joker meant to– but he’d said–!

“We made a deal, you… you promised,” Goro wrenches out the words from the depths of his broken heart, screams them so loud that they only come out as a hoarse whisper until he finds his voice: “you promised me!!”

He– he hates him.

“You lied to me! You betrayed me, you abandoned your fucking friends, your cause, your life – for what!? You were supposed to carry on for the both of us, you were supposed to take him down in my stead, you were supposed to live, you promised and I trusted you!!

“Goro stop!”

Goro jolts, comes back to himself, realizes he has one of his hands curled into the front of Ren’s shirt and the other reared back in a fist to– just like his–

He pushes Joker away as hard as he can, away from him, because Ren isn’t safe around him because Goro is just like… just like…

But Shido never–?

No, no, nonono, yes he did, and Goro spent a month hiding his face in shame, or… did he? Did he!?

The adrenaline is wearing off now, thoughts and memories old and new mix and fight to surface. He clutches at his head, shuts his eyes tight because he’s just remembered, he remembers everything now and it’s not fading away this time. It’s too much, it’s too much– two of this day, two of himself, two of everything in his head and he doesn’t know what came first or second, what’s real, what’s fake, if everything, anything is real–

“Akechi…?” Joker-Ren whispers, still splayed out on the ground, staring up at him in shock with those eyes, those eyes, those eyes.

Goro runs.

 


 

It took getting shot in the heart for Goro to realize he didn’t want to die.

It took dying for Goro to admit he’d been lying to himself about more than just that.

Turns out having a complete mental breakdown, losing three battles in a row against his very much alive rival, and then being shot by himself… well it gave him some clarity on some things. 

Embarrassing, for someone who claimed to value truth above everything. And too late, of course.

He woke up in the Velvet Room, in the same cell as always. Awake, but not alive. Present, aware, but not really, not always. In a dream-space, in purgatory, in some form of solitary confinement, because none of the other residents were there anymore. Not the entity behind the desk, not the twins guarding his cell, no one.

No one, except Amamiya Ren.

That was something new: Joker in the Velvet Room. In prison garb, chains and stripes exactly like his own. He wasn’t there all the time, and even when he was he was nothing more than a flicker, a mirage, as if he were the ghost rather than Goro.

Maybe Goro had finally gone insane and was imagining it all. He was trapped there alone, in limbo in that cell, for hours, days… weeks? There was nothing for him to do but think and remember and regret. Of course Joker would be the one he’d imagine.

“Did you do it?” Goro asked the image of his rival when he appeared one day, when he shuffled through and past Goro to stand at the cell door. “Did you stop Shido?”

Joker didn’t respond.

“Does anyone miss me?” Goro cried to him on a particularly bad day, “do you miss me?”

Joker didn’t respond.

“They told me you and I had a bond,” Goro said another day. He wasn’t even sure if Joker was there at that time, but he talked to him anyway. “Is that why I see you? Is that why I’m still here?” He hesitated for a moment, then asked: “is that why you kissed me?”

It was hours, days, weeks, and Goro started to worry in earnest that he would be stuck there forever, that this was in fact the full extent of his afterlife and he was in hell, not purgatory.

And then his cell door just… opened.

It took him a while to step outside. He wasn’t sure if it was a trick or a trap. And then he remembered he was dead so he rolled his eyes at himself and left.

He explored the circular room, walked around its edges, looked for anything interesting, looked for a way out. There was nothing interesting. There was no way out.

…and Akechi Goro was the other,” Goro jumped at the sudden sound, a small and strangely familiar voice that didn’t belong to himself or Joker. It faded away again, but there, standing in the middle of the room, just like he’d last seen them in life, were the Phantom Thieves.

“Joker!” Goro called out.

Joker didn’t respond.

…an unjust game,” that voice came again. Goro looked around but couldn’t find its source. “…continue as you are… …chances of winning are almost none.

“Joker, I’m here, look at me!!” Goro screamed in his face.

Amamiya Ren was right in front of Goro, clearer than ever before, but his grey eyes stared off somewhere in the distance, distracted and… upset.

Upset?

His chest ached, throbbed, a dull pain not unlike the mortal wound that put him here in the first place. Goro reached up, hovered his hand carefully next to his rival’s cheek. Something shifted then, and for a moment it seemed like Joker could see him, like he was staring right at him, and for the first time Goro noticed flecks of red hiding amongst the greys of his irises.

If Goro still had a beating heart, that’s when it would have stopped.

“Joker?” One of the other thieves called out. “Joker!”

Joker looked away. Goro pulled his hand back. A coward, even in death.

They all continued to discuss something Goro couldn’t ascertain, he didn’t have enough pieces of the puzzle. He didn’t care. He was dead, and no one could see him.

There was a vote, a unanimous agreement, and then–

Goro fell to his knees, screamed as his mind split open.

He watched in horror as all of them, as Joker fell too, and he felt like he was dying, dying all over again. Pain in his chest where he was shot, pain in his head as he saw double, he saw a desk– a desk?

He saw his desk in his apartment, then the Velvet Room again, then the apartment– he clutched at his heart and it hurt, it hurt just like it hurt the first time. He didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to relive his death, didn’t want to die again. All the others were disappearing completely, one by one, until only Goro and Joker were left, and Goro reached out to him because he didn’t want him to go, he didn’t want to be alone–

“No. You are mine. Forget.”

Glowing eyes appeared before him, attached to an unmistakably malevolent, floating form which completely blocked his view of Joker, Joker–!!

And then Goro gasped his first and last breath, on June 11th at his desk in his apartment. And he forgot.

 


 

Goro sits at his desk in his apartment.

The room is a mess. Drawers are on the floor, their contents scattered everywhere. Papers crumpled, personal items broken, other furniture upturned.

Goro sits in his ruined apartment and tries to figure out what the hell happened to it. Did he drink himself into a rage last night and destroy everything in a tantrum more fit for a two year-old than an eighteen year-old? Or was it the police that did it, almost a month ago now, after Goro foolishly distracted himself from the danger of his greatest enemy with the idea of fucking his second-greatest enemy?

Goro slides off his desk chair, sits on the floor amongst the rest of his ruined bullshit and hugs his knees to his chest, hides his head. It’s a comforting position. Futaba would be proud.

What the hell is he going to do?

He has to do something. He can’t sit here and hide forever. It’s been too long already. Should he go to Shido? To Leblanc? Ann’s apartment? Where is he, who is he?

“Goro?”

Goro perks up, lifts his head and then immediately buries it again, heart rate skyrocketing.

Fuck!

“Goro, are you here?” He hears Ren ask, hears the door creak open, hears careful footsteps, shuffling of fabric. “Goro,” whispered tenderly, carefully, right in front of him.

“Judging by the layer of dust that covers everything it must have been the police,” he mumbles to himself.

His slowest, most obvious deduction ever.

“Are you–”

“How dare you,” Goro snaps. “How dare you come here– come to me– after what you–” Joker doesn’t react at all, just stares at him. Goro wants nothing more than to strangle that look off his face, to push him down and kiss him into the floor, so he clenches his fist at his side and digs his nails into his thigh. “Why. The fuck. Are you here.”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” Ren says quietly. “You seemed really out of it.”

Fuck you. He forces out a laugh, empty and cold, despises how much it sounds like his destroyed copy. “Enlighten me, Joker: what exactly was your plan? To just… disappear? Without a trace, without a word? Were your teammates not supposed to notice the goddamn leader of the goddamn Phantom Thieves was missing? Were they supposed to go into the Metaverse without you and retrieve the last letter of introduction from your fucking corpse–!?

He chokes on the last word as he imagines Ren dead, the image ready and waiting and horrible, and grabs at his hair in want of something to ruin. Ren reaches out to stop him. Goro slaps his hands away. “What the fuck did I do to make you think I wanted this,” he hisses frantically. “How could you think so little of me?”

“I made my choice,” Joker replies as if rehearsed. “I’m not going to apologize.”

Rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. “How long were you planning on killing yourself?”

He flinches at that. A reaction, a victory. “I wasn’t–”

“How long?”

“…I made my choice and you’re still here. I’m not going to apologize,” Ren repeats.

“Don’t you– we’re both alive because. Of. Me! You tricked me,” Goro says, “you lied to me. You didn’t tell me anything.”

No response.

“You didn’t tell me I died, you didn’t tell me what was on that fucking ship, you didn’t tell me–” the memory hits him, so clear that it could have happened just now, right in front of him. “You didn’t tell me I killed you.”

Ren’s eyes widen at that. “Goro–”

“I killed you, it was you in that room and I was the one who killed you,” he wails, “and you didn’t tell me!!”

Ren lurches forward, Goro backs away. “Goro, do you remember the other timeline?”

He squeezes his eyes shut, tries to block him out. It was Ren in that room, right? Or was it Goro? Was Goro even there? Was he sitting at the table or standing above it? Executioner or victim? Which side was he on? Which side is he on!?

“Goro, please!”

“I don’t know!” He tucks his head behind his knees again, rocks backward and forward. “I don’t know, I don’t know what’s real, I can’t– I can’t trust my own mind, I can’t–” concentrate, he can’t think, he’s supposed to be a goddamn detective but nothing is making any sense and–

“Akechi!” Joker barks, and Goro stops, looks up just in time to flinch away from a warm touch on his shoulder. Joker pulls his hand back, continues with a pained expression: “can you just– can you tell me what happened yesterday?”

“I don’t–”

“Don’t think about it. Tell me what happened yesterday. Only yesterday,” he says, a quiet command.

Goro swallows, closes his eyes again and holds onto Joker’s words like a lifeline. Yesterday, only yesterday.

“I… I went cycling in the morning… someone asked for my autograph while I stopped for water.” He can’t help his smirk, even now, “I’m so well-known they’re recognizing me in workout gear. Then… then school… but I didn’t stay for long. I had to film some stupid show… I can’t recall which one, there are just so many, haha. Then…” Goro opens his eyes to look carefully at Joker, wavers for a moment. “Then… then I went back to my apartment and drank myself into a fit and fell asleep on the fucking floor. Are you fucking happy?”

Joker doesn’t react to any of it. He nods like Goro told him the weather, says quietly: “Goro, what happened yesterday?”

“I just told you, you idiot.”

Fear, real fear creeps into Ren’s eyes when he asks again: “please, Goro. What happened yesterday? Do you remember that too?”

Right, something about time… two times, two yesterdays. Goro closes his eyes again.

“I went cycling… no. I had breakfast with Takamaki Ann? And she managed to toss five marshmallows in my mouth in a row,” a new record. “Then I met you in Kichijoji. I won our game of billiards and you managed to win at darts. We had crepes for lunch and we were chased by ducks. You dared me to sing ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ at karaoke and I performed admirably.”

“You were terrible,” Ren says, a familiar tone to his voice. Goro opens his eyes, eager to see the smile that matches it.

“Then we went back to Leblanc. You cooked us dinner and we played chess. And… then you–” his throat tightens. “You said you. You–”

“I love you,” Ren finishes for him. “You remember, Goro? You remember both days?”

Goro bites his lip, nods.

Ren’s smile widens. His shoulders fall, losing a tension Goro hadn’t even noticed before now. “You remember… you’re only confused because you got your memories back just now. It’s not in order for you, but you can–”

“You love me?” Goro whispers. “How could you say that?”

Ren freezes. His expression falls. “Goro–”

Shut up!!” Goro shouts, “you love me!? You call this love– you didn’t trust me at all!”

Ren doesn’t say anything. He expected this too, then?

“I thought we were friends, I thought we were–” He chokes again, his chest aches so much that he might as well have been shot. “What did we have? Some mockery of a relationship, a fake, nothing, nothing, you were going to kill yourself and you didn’t talk to me, we didn’t talk about anything, just meaningless stupid bullshit!!

“I–”

“Oh, you love me,” Goro interrupts, mocks him as cruelly as he can. “I shot you in the fucking head and was glad I did it, what the fuck is wrong with you!? I hate you, I hate you, I despise you, the sight of you makes me fucking sick–!!

Goro could say more, but he’s already won: a tear rolls slowly down Ren’s cheek. But Ren stays silent, doesn’t beg for his forgiveness or defend himself or rage back at him. He just reaches out and gently brushes his thumb against the wetness under Goro’s eye instead.

Goro wrenches Ren’s arm away from him, snarls, “don’t touch me.” He stares furiously into grey eyes speckled with red, squeezes the wrist in his grasp, digs his nails into the skin, feels too much, so much that it has to be hate. “Why, why are you… whatever you thought we were doing– it’s over, don’t you get that? Why are you still here?”

“I love you,” Ren says, quietly meets his gaze, defiant and shining.

Goro is furious and hurt and confused and exhausted so he should tell him to leave, should tell him to go. He should tell him to get the fuck out of his sight. He shouldn’t kiss him, but he does.

It’s just like Goro remembers. It’s better.

He shouldn’t shove Ren to his dirty apartment floor, shouldn’t help him tear off their clothes, but he does that too. His skin feels too cold and too tight and too itchy like he hasn’t been touched in years, and Amamiya Ren is so warm and desperate and here and his and Goro hates him, he hates him in a way he’s never hated anyone before, but he can lose himself in this, can forget about his past and his mistakes and which yesterday is the real one and just bury himself in Ren, in Joker, finally, finally, finally.

“You’re mine, mine,” Goro growls, even though he shouldn’t. “Say my name.”

“Goro, Goro,” Ren breathes.

“No–”

“Ah– Akechi–!

 


 

He shouldn’t have done that.

Fuck that was such a huge mistake.

How could he be so stupid? So extremely extremely extremely extremely stupid.

He managed to sneak away after it all. Ren was practically snoring while Goro dressed and stole the final letter of introduction from the inside of his jacket. It was easy.

He travels to the Diet Building in a thoughtless, miserable daze until he sees them, and they see him, and he remembers all that too.

“Goro, there you are!” Ann says as she runs up to meet him. “We’re almost ready to go, just waiting on Makoto, Haru, Ryuji, and Ren. So, haha, maybe not almost ready to go I guess!”

Goro says nothing, keeps walking toward his destination as he pulls out his phone.

“Hellooo~? Rude,” she prods, throws a concerned glance at the rest of the group. “Are you okay? You look pale.”

“You look like shit!” Futaba adds cheerily, not even glancing away from her laptop.

Goro activates the Nav.

The Phantom Thieves all shout in surprise as their costumes appear and their surrounding shift, and that goddamn cat is quick, hops in front of him, tries to block his way. “Whoa, hey!”

“What are you doing, Crow?”

“Navi, bring us back!”

Goro growls in exasperation as the world changes again. He pulls the last letter out of his pocket, waves it in their stupid faces. “We have all the letters. I’m going in. Come with me or don’t, I don’t care.”

“How did you– you know that’s not how this works,” Morgana huffs, “we have to send the calling card first!”

“We don’t have to,” Goro explains, and is surprised when he has to pause to gasp for breath, “because… I’m going to…”

“Whoa! Goro! Hey,” Ann appears in front of him again, places her hands gently on his shoulders and steadies him. He hadn’t even realized he was swaying on his feet. “What’s wrong?” She asks, soft and careful. “You look like you’re about to collapse. Can you sit down with me for a second?”

“Uh, is he okay?” Futaba asks quietly from behind her, sounding genuinely concerned. Shit, he must be in bad shape if Futaba of all of them is worried.

Black edges and pinpricks begin to creep into his vision, so Goro lets Ann and Yusuke steer him to a nearby bench. He sits down, puts his head in his hands and tries to catch his breath. He fails. Fuck, fuck, he’s a fucking mess. Ann rubs gentle circles on his back as Goro uses everything trick in his arsenal to keep his eyes from watering.

“Is he ill?” He hears Yusuke whisper above him.

Morgana hums in thought. “He has the fifth letter– Crow, did you go into the Metaverse alone?”

“No,” Goro says, speaking shortly because it’s safer. “Ren did.”

“What?”

“Wh-what do you mean, Ren did?” Futaba stutters.

“Your leader,” Goro swallows, “lied to you– us.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Where’s Ren!?”

“Fine, he’s fine,” he manages to say. “Asleep. My apartment.”

Goro dugs his hands further into his hair, pulls at the roots. Fuck, he’s so fucking stupid. He hates Ren, hates himself, hates himself twice, he’s so tired.

Ann shakes him a little, pulls him up. “Hey. Hey, come here.” She wraps her arms around him in a tight hug which Goro immediately reciprocates as if it’s second nature. Inexplicably, it is. He hides his face in the crook of her neck, distantly aware of the others’ concerned muttering around him.

“He broke his promise,” he explains to Ann’s shoulder when he can trust himself to speak.

Ann hugs him tighter. “We’ll figure it out,” she says, completely confident even though she can’t have any idea of what he’s talking about.

He lets them lead him to the nearest station. Heading to Leblanc. To meet with everyone.

All of them.

The white noise of the rumbling train and idle chatter of the public make for the perfect backdrop as he sits, and he thinks. Thinks about time, two times, and bonds, and fate, and death, and life, and definitely doesn’t think about Ren or Joker at all.

———
Oracle

you okay?
you got a face like
😔+🤡
there’s no sad clown rip me

———

Futaba is sitting across from him on the train, staring silently. After noticing his attention she draws her knees up to her chest and hides behind her phone.

I’m fine.” Goro answers and sends automatically.

———
Oracle

I’m fine.
I’m not fine.

that sucks
wanna come over and play video games after the meeting?
always makes me feel better

I should probably get some rest.
Maybe tomorrow?

———

His heart races as he sends his last reply. But, as usual, he has nothing to worry about.

yissssss” is her immediate response, along with a “got something great to show you anyway so get ready!!” for extra reassurance.

And he remembers today, just earlier today after kicking his ass with all the rest of them, she stood there as the victor and told him he could join them, that it was never too late to start over. 

She was right.

He had to learn it twice. Slowly over months of patient coaxing, all at once after his death. He had to be taught the same goddamn lesson twice. A first, for him.

“Kitagawa– Yusuke,” he says, turning to the quiet presence next to him. “You think of yourself as an honest man, correct?”

“Well, honesty is–”

Goro puts up a hand and Yusuke blinks, stops. “I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer me truthfully. Understand?” He doesn’t wait for an affirmation before he says, “I fought you all. And tried to kill you. Multiple times.”

Goro raises his eyebrows. Yusuke tilts his head. “I’m not hearing a question.”

“That happened? It happened and it happened months ago?”

Yusuke takes a moment, counts on his fingers. “Six months ago, I believe.”

“Six months…” that makes sense, aligns with all the evidence he has so far… it’s really all true? Both timelines in his head…

“Did you have other questions for me?” Yusuke interrupts his thoughts and Goro waves him off. He has enough, has everything he needs: every piece of this puzzle and the order in which those pieces should be sorted.

So he sits and he thinks about time, two times, and bonds, and fate, and death, and life, and definitely doesn’t think about Ren or Joker and he’s so wrapped up in his thoughts that he doesn’t think to strategize until he’s staring at the entrance to the cafe.

His first mistake: he looks at Ren, immediately. And Ren is looking right at him. His second: he averts his eyes, practically gifting him the advantage. And third: he takes a seat at the farthest bar stool, which causes Ryuji to huff and physically drag the chair in closer to the group, while Goro still sits on it. Mortifying, all of it.

“Is there even a point to this?” Ann asks after they all settle. “They both look dead.”

“We should talk about what happened,” Ren says. His voice sounds a little hoarse. Goro doesn’t look at him. “Tomorrow is our deadline, we don’t have time to wait.”

Just like that, the leader of the Phantom Thieves takes command.

Goro plays Joker’s usual role this time: he watches carefully, silently, with morbid fascination as Joker dances around the truth, explains everything in his succinct way but doesn’t tell them anything. It’s so obvious now that Goro knows exactly what he’s capable of. He’s clever enough, secretive enough to have pulled off a long-con on Goro– twice. Ren is a trickster, a liar, even here amongst people who are supposed to be his closest friends, his confidants.

Are they just going to let him get away with it? Can’t they see how messed up he is? They’re just sitting there, listening… the only one whose expression seems remotely close to anger is Yusuke, of all people.

“That was extraordinarily dangerous, Ren,” Makoto scolds, as if what he did was a small slight, after he finishes telling his story. “Worrying over Goro’s safety doesn’t excuse trying to take on the cleaner without us– you could have gotten yourself killed.”

Goro rolls his eyes. No shit, getting himself killed was Ren’s entire fucking plan.

“We’re Phantom Thieves, and Phantom Thieves work together!” Morgana adds. “That goes for you too, Crow.”

“Ren was the one being reckless, once again.” Yusuke’s frown deepens. “If Goro hadn’t intervened I imagine things could only have gone worse.”

“No, Morgana is right,” Goro says. He’s better than that, better than Ren. “I should have stopped and called for the rest of you before going in. I wasted time mis-navigating and fighting Shadows on my own. It would have been faster and safer as a group.”

Makoto nods in approval (ha) turns to Ren (ha) “So no more solo missions, right?”

“Wasn’t any fun bossing myself around anyway,” Joker says with a little smirk, to mixed groans and laughs. Unbelievable.

Haru isn’t laughing– she makes a little face, elbows Makoto in the ribs before speaking up herself. “If you went to that place… does that mean you saw the. Um,” she looks around the room for help. “The you-know-what?”

“That poor excuse for a cognition? Yes. It’s dead.” Goro says, examining his cuticles as if he were entirely unaffected by the whole thing. And… does he really need to admit it? None of them know, except for Ren. Ren wouldn’t tell. It’s none of their business.

No, Goro is done lying.

“There’s no need to be coy and cute about it,” he casually continues. “I remember everything now.”

The room is beautifully silent. 

Goro doesn’t regret his choice. He feels every eye on him, and he doesn’t look at Ren.

“Ah,” Yusuke finally says. “Now I understand.”

Haru blinks at him. “E-excuse me? You–”

“Wait,” Ryuji interrupts, “you’re sayin’ you–”

“Yes.”

“Even–”

“Yes. I remember you swinging your goddamn bat at my face so hard it cracked my mask.”

Ryuji grimaces, rubs the back of his neck. “Ahaha… my bad.”

They fall quiet again, exchanging extremely obvious looks amongst each other. Goro wonders which part they’re reminiscing about: when he faked being their ally for a month? When he threw an excruciatingly embarrassing tantrum in front of them? When he assassinated their leader?

Goro swallows and breathes slowly past the usual nausea.

“So…” Haru finally speaks up again, her dainty little eyebrows drawn together, peering at him carefully. “How does this work? Which one are you?”

“He’s Akechi Goro,” Ren says.

Goro looks at him. Damn it.

Tch,” he crosses his arms. “What does it matter? I’m here, aren’t I? Why don’t we just leave it at that.”

“No, hold on,” Makoto says, of course. “I don’t understand. How can your memories have returned? Why now? Lavenza said only those of us in the Velvet Room–”

“I was in the Velvet Room.”

Ren’s reaction is immediate, manic. “You were there? Goro, I looked for you, I couldn’t find you.”

“Well you should have looked harder!” Goro snaps, just to be cruel. Ren’s genuinely stricken expression is the worst and best thing he’s seen and Goro regrets it immediately. He turns his attention to Makoto, clears his throat and moves on because he feels awkward and horrible: “as for why now… I have reason to believe there was something blocking me. Or someone. Whatever it was, its influence is gone now.”

I’m free.

“Man, that’s freaky… having somethin’ mess with your head,” Ryuji muses, rocking his chair backward.

Goro squints at him. “You… you do know what we’re doing tomorrow, right?”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Okay!” Makoto groans, putting her face in her hands, “I think it’s time for bed. We have our plan for tomorrow already– calling card, change of heart, and no solo trips.”

Ren gives a little mock salute. The Thieves pull chairs back, shuffle out of booths, chatter about nothing. Goro leaves with Ann. If she has questions she doesn’t ask them, for once.

He doesn’t look at Ren.

And Goro is tired. He’s so tired, too tired to sleep. Ann’s parents’ room is too quiet. The bed is too cold, even under four blankets. It’s too uncomfortable, even after he hugs a pillow tight to his chest.

He slept alone for years. He’s slept in a dozen different houses, in the Metaverse, at his desk, in bars, parks, cafes, on top of warm grates in this cold and unforgiving city. And after all that it was Amamiya Ren who ruined him.

“Stupid question,” he whispers like they used to, imagines himself not quite so alone in this big empty bed, “why did you think your life was worth less than mine? Why didn’t you talk to me?”

There are so many more layers to Ren than he realized. After all, how fucked up could a person be to… to…

Goro sighs, groans into his pillow. He was going to stop lying to himself, wasn’t he?

“Why didn’t I talk to you?”

What did he do, after he found out what fate had planned for him, after he deduced he would die in two weeks time? He accepted it. He hid it. He didn’t talk to anyone about it. He didn’t talk to Ren about it.

They were the same. They didn’t talk, either of them. They didn’t talk…

I love you, Ren had said. You’re still Akechi Goro, so I still love you. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Fuck you, criminal trash, I hate you, I despise you, piece of shit, die, you make me sick, Goro said in return, over and over and over.

How much does Ren hate himself? How messed up is he, really, to think he’s in love with someone like Goro?

He wonders what Ren is doing right now. If he’s lying awake on that terrible mattress, wishing Goro were with him, wondering if he should text him. Or maybe he’s sound asleep. Or maybe he’s already with someone else… Goro rubs at his eyes, his nose, huffs out a pathetic sob-laugh into the dark.

His silent phone bursts to life, makes a noise, and his heart seizes up in hope and terror. But it’s not Ren, of course not.

———
Ann

 

hey are you still awake?

———

Goro texts back “Yes.” without thinking. He quickly wipes his face, tries to make himself presentable.

The door opens a crack, letting light spill into the room. Ann clears her throat. “Wanna come sleep out on the couches with me? I’m gonna put on a movie,” she whispers.

“Yeah, okay.”

Goro shuffles out of the bedroom, decides to leave his phone behind. He burrows into Ann’s absurdly huge couch in her absurdly huge blanket cocoon and steals the best spot: the corner.

“So this is my life now,” he grumbles. “Presumed dead, blamed for the crimes of the Phantom Thieves, penniless, cast out of my home, dressed in someone else’s clothes, relying on Takamaki Ann for shelter.”

“I made popcorn,” she says.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” She tucks herself in under the blankets with him and starts the movie: some historical thing set in 19th century England. It’s extraordinarily inaccurate and boring and stupid.

“This is terrible.”

Ann yawns. “That’s the point. Supposed to make you sleep.”

“I want to text Ren,” he admits, still high on his earlier bout of truth-telling.

“Then you should text him,” she responds, completely unhelpful.

He could say: I can’t because I can never forgive him for what he did so we broke up but then I fucked him so clearly I can’t be trusted to act rationally.

He could say: I can’t because I miss him so much that my heart feels like it’s gone, and I don’t want to think about what that could mean.

He could say: I can’t because I wanted to be wanted but not like this.

“I can’t,” he says.

The movie drones on. All the characters look the same. Someone’s having trouble with their horse.

“I remember everything now. I awakened to a new Persona,” Goro mumbles to Ann, and to himself. “So why do I feel the same. Why do I still feel like shit.”

The horse breaks free, gallops away from the man trying to hitch her to a carriage. Good for her.

“Mm… well, it’s an awakening, so like… you woke up. It’s the start, right?” Ann shrugs, tosses popcorn at her mouth and misses. “At least, that’s what it felt like for me.”

Goddammit. The start!? Goro thumps his head repeatedly against the back cushions of the couch, whines dramatically.

Ann yawns again, completely unbothered, “it’ll get better, dummy. That’s the point. Stop stealing the blanket.”

“No.”

She grumbles, shimmies her way closer to him. Goro closes his eyes, listens to the sound of her breathing, feels the comforting, subtle warmth of another human, the soft thrum of his bonds ever-present. And he finally falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Who are you?

Goro bares his teeth. Arches his neck. Tilts his head. Leans forward, peers into red eyes.

Who are you? he asks the mirror again.

He’s Akechi Goro, Ren’s voice echoes back.

He heaves a sigh, falls forward on his elbows. Examines his reflection even closer. Fine, fine, then who is Akechi Goro? Not an ace detective. At least, not an employed one. Not a celebrity. Not a high school prodigy, not a thief, not a hitman. Not a virgin anymore, in either the usual sense or the performed-a-real-world-assassination sense. Normal teenage rites of passage, haha.

Well he is dead, that’s something. A living ghost. Functionally a NEET.

Not… ideal.

Goro turns his face from side to side. The bags under his eyes aren’t quite as prominent as they usually are. His hair is too long even though he remembers trimming it himself for an interview last week. The faintest hint of a bruise from his stint in the interrogation room is still visible on his cheek. Astoundingly, somehow, after all of it, he looks the same.

It’s an awakening. It’s the start, right?

So he takes a shower. He indulges himself, lets the warmth seep into his skin longer than necessary. He conditions his hair twice, dries it methodically, watches a few tutorials and manages to work two small messy braids back into his usual low ponytail. It’s different. He always liked Loki’s braids.

He’s going to exact vengeance upon his father today. Shido Masayoshi is going to pay for his crimes. Goro’s lifelong grudge fulfilled, his mother’s ghost put to rest, countless victims avenged. He’s going to do this job today because for years he thought his life was worthless and this was the only thing worth doing with it.

Stealing a heart in secret, forcing his father to wallow in guilt for the rest of his life without knowing it was Goro who caused it… this is all he can do now. It will have to be enough. And then he’s going to move on to the next job.

“You look weird,” Futaba says as soon as he enters her room.

“You have Cheeto dust on your sweater.”

“Uh, I meant for that to be there!”

She tries to subtly brush off her clothes as Goro fiddles with his turtleneck. This was the only remotely acceptable piece of clothing he could find, buried in the back of Ann’s father’s fashion-disaster wardrobe, but the neck is tight and annoying. How does Ren wear–

“You had something to show me?” Goro asks.

“Yeah yeah, one sec,” Futaba swings her chair to face her monitor, starts typing furiously. “Sooo… do you really remember everything?” She glances at him out of the corner of her eye, doesn’t even try to be subtle about it.

“Mm.”

Her little smile morphs into a gremlin-esque grin. “How mad were you when you figured out we tricked you.”

Goro glares at her.

“Mweheheh…” she cackles, unaffected. “Okay here it is!”

Oh god, there it is indeed: a recording of Morgana as he appears in the Metaverse but… not. Not quite.

“Looks good, right? Even though the kid Ren found to wear the mascot suit was a real annoying little weasel.”

How is Ren? “So then the suit worked out?”

“Oh yeah it was like… professional. Weirdly detailed. Creeps me out actually, I made Sojiro keep Mona 2.0 in his closet. Where did you get it made?”

Goro shrugs. “Shirogane knew someone. I didn’t ask questions.”

“Hmm, Detective Prince secret network.” Futaba spins her chair in a quick circle, nearly kicking him on her way around. “Anyway! Besides our plan to change the public’s perception of Mona… there’s another reason I gathered you all here today,” she says, steepling her fingers.

“There’s,” Goro looks around just in case, “no one else in this room.”

Futaba stares at him. Blinks. She takes a deep breath, then launches into: “so last time Ren was the one everyone thought was dead and we used the calling card as this ginormous flashy reveal that he was actually alive– you know, surprise! Get the public talking, scare the shit out of that dumb-dumb conspiracy, hack the planet. Three birds, one stone.”

His heart nearly stops. “If you are in fact implying what I think you are–”

“Picture it, on screens all across Japan!” Futaba interrupts as she spreads her hands in front of her: “Akechi Goro lives! Hero of justice returns as a Phantom Thief! Shido Masayoshi and other evildoers beware!”

“I’m… I’m not a Phantom Thief,” he half-heartedly protests, heart racing now as images form themselves behind his eyes. Fuck, he can see it… fuck, it’s almost too good to be true.

”Sure sure,” Futaba says, rolling her eyes at him. “Are you in?”

Fuck. Fuck fuck shit, it’s too good to be true. Is it? Isn’t it? This obviously isn’t as simple as he wants it to be, but he can’t seem to think of why. It’s a beautiful, perfect idea.

He’s not thinking clearly. He wants to talk to Ren. He’s not being rational. He can’t talk to Ren.

So Goro manages to slowly grit out, past the resounding YES! caught in his throat: “let me. Consult with someone. First.”

 


 

She doesn’t immediately say it’s a good idea.

She never would, of course, even if it were the best plan in the world. But that doesn’t mean her keen stare and lack of immediate response isn’t frustrating.

“So. You reveal you’re alive,” Sae says from across the table at last, expression still revealing nothing. “Why?”

His name in lights once again… the look on Shido’s worthless face when he realizes it was Goro who outplayed him… he and his entourage scrambling in fear even as the inevitable occurs… the images play in his mind over and over, too tempting not to take.

“It’s… the right thing to do.”

Sae clasps her hands together, taps a carefully manicured nail in thought. “Everyone thinks you’re dead. There’s forged evidence and documentation. No one is looking for you. If you go public you would either have to spend the rest of your life on the run from the law, which– I know you, you wouldn’t do that. Or, you turn yourself in.”

“You act as though this wasn’t inevitable either way. I was under the impression that you were keeping a close watch over my movements for a reason, Sae-san,” he teases and winks.

She doesn’t buy it. She never has.

“It’s true, your crimes are severe and must be dealt with accordingly. Once the truth is exposed you’ll likely get the death penalty, or life in prison.” Sae tilts her head and examines him with the practice of an experienced interrogator. “Akechi-kun, do you believe that judgement is fair?”

Fair? What the hell is she getting at? “I made my choice,” Goro says before the familiarity of his words, not his words, make him stumble over the next. “I’m not going to– I knew the consequences when I started down this path.”

Once thing at a time, he thinks to himself as he shoves Ren forcefully out of mind once again.

Sae begins to respond, then thinks better of it and sits back in her chair. Goro notices too, and so they both watch carefully and silently as a man passes by their table.

This hotel lobby is as good a place as any to meet in secret, especially on Sae’s ‘busy schedule,’ but one could never be too careful.

The man leaves without incident. Sae turns her full attention to him again, for better or worse. “I read your file, Akechi-kun. I’d like you to help me fill in some blanks.”

For worse, then.

“The system lost track of you around the time you turned fourteen years-old, after you’d been transferred to your aunt’s for the second time. They kicked you out?”

“I chose to leave. Making it on my own was better than staying with them,” Goro responds more petulantly than he should. Old habits.

Sae nods. “So you were homeless.”

He narrows his eyes at her. Looks away from her judging gaze and sneers. She doesn’t have to say it like–

“And that’s when Isshiki Wakaba offered you–”

Stop,” Goro snaps. He knows exactly what Sae is trying to do. “No. It was I who approached them. I was looking for information on my parents, I volunteered.”

“In order to have a place to sleep at night.”

“That’s not– I volunteered. It doesn’t matter why,” he says frantically, barely able to keep his voice at an acceptable level. “I left that shit family myself, I volunteered for the research, I approached Shido Masayoshi–”

“But you shouldn’t have had to do any of that, don’t you see?” Sae leans forward, trying to catch his eyes. “You were fourteen, you were a child. You’re still– the adults who should have been looking out for you failed you at every turn.”

“You are completely removing my agency–”

“What will happen if you turn yourself into the system!? You know this as well as I do: if they decide not to hang you– unlikely even given your age– you’ll be sent to prison and solitary confinement. You’ll waste your life away behind bars, a waste.”

Goro crosses his arms and sits back, frustrated with the way Sae has been able to steer this conversation for her own ends. “I wouldn’t be the only one. Why should I receive special treatment?”

Goddammit!!” Sae shouts, entirely too loud, as she slams her palm on the table. “Because I have to start somewhere so I’m starting with you!”

He blinks at her, doesn’t dare risk antagonizing Sae further while they remain in this public space. Thankfully she collects herself quickly, puts the heel of her hand to her head and breathes. “Akechi-kun… I asked you what you would do with your life if you had a chance. Do you have an answer?”

“I… I don’t.”

The last time she asked he was a dead man. Now he’s…

They sit in silence for a while, at a stalemate.

“I’m thinking of becoming a public defender,” Sae announces eventually, to Goro’s immense surprise. She chuckles a little at whatever his face must be doing. “This system is unjust. It was you who helped me see that, you know.”

Sae stands and slings her bag over her shoulder, the picture of confidence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Do me this favor, if you can: don’t turn yourself in just yet.” She holds up a hand in anticipation of his protest, as visions of his father pleading for forgiveness vanish once again. “Think about the future. Your case isn’t as simple as you think, and the debt you owe isn’t to a corrupt system.” Sae smiles, softer than he’s seen in a long time. “Maybe you could help me fix it.”

And then she’s gone.

And Goro is left alone with his thoughts.

God damn it all.

———
Oracle

A Phantom Thief doesn’t take the credit for their crimes, correct? They operate in the shadows.
I’ve decided to play at being a Phantom Thief just a bit longer.

aw man really?
thought you’d go crazy for the grand reveal

I won’t lie, it is a tempting offer. But I’m afraid I must decline.

———

Goro locks his screen with a heavy sigh. Someone who looks like him stares back in the dark reflection of the glass screen. Someone who isn’t Akechi Goro, can’t be Akechi Goro anymore.

Even his name is gone.

Who are you?

For the first time in his life there are months, years, decades stretched out before him. If they could make this work, if he could somehow assume a new identity, then what if… what if he took his entrance exams? Really took them, and finished high school? Went to college? Got a job, got married, a house, children? What if he died of old age, instead of ‘probably soon?’ What if… what if…

Oh god.

He has to live now, doesn’t he?

 


 

“Hey, guys?”

“Mm, it looks like it fits better,” Ann muses, prowling around him like her namesake in this world and tugging absently on one of his epaulets. “Less ‘kid in a costume’ and more ‘actual prince.’ Mostly the same though. You’re really back to this outfit?”

Goro nods. What exactly transpired in the bowels of this ship may be a fog of mixed memories and high emotions, but he’s sure of what he chose.

Yusuke hums, his fluffy tail flipping behind him… somehow. “I always thought Crow wore the prince style well. Much better than that frankly atrocious bodysuit, at the very least.”

“Guys?”

“Thank you,” Goro grouses with heavy sarcasm. He flips his hair, reveling in the absence of that horrible cage of a helmet. “I suppose I’ll take the compliment.”

“Still got a beak!” Futaba exclaims and yanks at his mask. “HONK.”

He bats her arm away. “Excuse me. I happen to like my–”

“Hey!!” Ryuji shouts this time, finally getting their attention. He points at Morgana, wide eyed behind his skull mask. “Wh-what the hell is goin’ on with Mona? Ain’t he… bigger?”

Aha! Excellent. The cat is indeed a little taller than before– not so different as to be extreme, but enough to confirm that his and Futaba’s theory is working. Thanks to the video calling card the public’s perception of whatever the hell Morgana could be is changing: not an odd monster-cat, but a mascot for the Phantom Thieves. A mascot with, hopefully, a person puppeteering.

Hopefully.

“I see no difference,” Goro drawls.

Futaba cackles and follows his lead: “yeah, maybe you’re shrinking, Skull.”

“Yeah, Skull!” Morgana echoes excitedly, eager to hop onto any dig at Ryuji.

Shrinking!?

“Can we please focus,” Makoto sighs. “We need to move quickly. This isn’t any old Palace, remember?”

As if Goro would ever forget.

They move out, take the ship by storm, for the last time. He’s ready. He’s not ready. He just wants it to be over.

And he feels Amamiya Ren’s quiet, heavy gaze on him the whole way.

Goro doesn’t look at Ren, hasn’t been looking at Ren despite being all too aware of exactly where he is at all times, because if he looks… if he looks he’s going to feel something. He’ll admit that much. And that something might be an old familiar anger that simmered for so long. Or an unstable fury that made him want to hurt–

Or, it might be.

He can’t.

He can’t think about it, can’t examine it too closely. He doesn’t look, he doesn’t look.

Reaching the chamber is easy, entering it even easier. He’s here, against all odds. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, none of it, but here he is anyway.

Goro finds himself trailing behind the rest of the group, the last to enter and last to approach. Ren keeps throwing him concerned glances, he can feel that too, but he doesn’t look.

Shido Masayoshi reveals himself and for a moment it’s just like every other cognitive world. Just the final step before his task is complete, just another blight on this world for him to strike down.

But it’s also only Shido himself here: no stupid outfit, no Shadows or cognitions or anything. Just him.

Goro knows exactly how dangerous ‘just him’ can be.

“Where the hell did you lowlifes obtain this power?” Shido sneers from his podium. “Not that it matters. If you have a complaint, I’m willing to listen.”

“We’re not here to listen to your bullshit. We’re taking you down!” Ryuji shouts up him.

“My reign is the will of God and man, you will not find such an action so simple, fool. Akechi!” Shido bellows. “Don’t think you can hide yourself from me!”

Shit, fine then. This is what he gets for ditching the helmet. Goro steps forward and pulls out his pistol, the weight of it in his hand a comfort. Just like all the others he took down, just another one.

“Are you done with this pointless pontificating, then?”

Shido chuckles, unbothered. “I thought I’d had you killed. And yet here you stand, delivered to me once again. Look around,” he says as he spreads his arms wide. On cue the chamber fills with faceless representatives, clapping with blank and blind enthusiasm. It’s horrifying. “Look at what your hard work has wrought. Our plans fulfilled… isn’t that right?”

Oh.

No.

Shido’s smile has a cruel, knowing tilt to it, and Goro’s world tilts and shifts along with it. The clapping stops– or maybe it doesn’t, but he can no longer hear it.

“You… knew.” He shouts, or mouths, or whispers. “You knew I planned to–”

“Oh Akechi,” Shido simpers at him, as if Goro is some sort of idiot (he is, he IS). “What an ‘ace’ detective you are. I knew you from the moment you approached me.” That horrible smile returns as he strikes directly at Goro’s heart: “and how poetic, what divine providence, that the bastard child of one of my dalliances at that damned facility appears just in time to rid me of another!”

The world tilts again.

He thinks he might vomit.

Ann runs forward, her arm held out as if to shield the rest of them, as if she could protect any of them from this. “W-wait. What are you talking about? You and–”

“It was when Isshiki fell that I knew my path was destined, that such a thing could only be ordained by God,” Shido announces, and Goro can’t seem to wrap his mind around the full extent of his mistake.

He never had the upper hand. He truly was only a puppet. He failed. He failed himself, failed the country, failed his mother.

“My… my mom–? You–?” Futaba whispers somewhere behind him, small and broken. “No… you can’t be…”

“Sacrifices are inevitable in the path of reform,” Shido says with a smile, a smile, because he isn’t the one whose hands are soaked in blood.

This is wrong, all wrong, so wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“You knew?” Goro repeats. “The entire time? That I was your–”

“Of course I knew, you foolish child!” Shido shouts down at him as the world turns red.

“I’m going to kill you,” he decides. “I’m going to”

“Even if you weren’t a carbon copy of that wretched woman I would have known!”

“tear you apart, slowly, as you watch,

“That stupid, pathetic, clinging, bitch.

break every bone in your body, pull your eyes from their sockets,

“Begging for any scrap, any morsel of my attention…”

until you beg for my bullet in your filthy skull!!

“Of course you couldn’t be anything but hers!”

I’ll rip you to pieces!!” Goro screams over the deafening sound of his pistol as he pulls its trigger, again and again and again. “And then I’ll hunt down your empty husk and I’ll do it all over again!!

He doesn’t stop to see if any of his shots hit– it’d be a miracle if they did, through blurred vision and unstable aim. He throws the spent gun to the floor and draws his sword as the chamber transforms, launching himself at his greatest enemy without hesitation.

The battle is a blur.

Haru gets a particularly good hit in with her axe and gifts the follow-up attack to Goro. Ann and Ryuji team up and destroy one of Shido’s forms almost entirely on their own. Makoto defends their front line, Morgana keeps them healthy.

Ren grabs Goro when he makes a stupid mistake, throws him back and takes the hit for him, and Goro can’t look at him.

Futaba is completely out of commission, somewhere out of the way with Yusuke looking after her, and Goro can’t think about why.

The battle is a blur, they usually are. And then it’s over, and Goro has won, because he always wins. Even when it costs him everything.

“How could I… lose?” Shido groans, lying prone on the floor at Goro’s feet.

He stares down in blind fury. The rest of them are quiet too. Red and black and white to his left, in his peripheral vision.

“I’m so sorry for what I’ve done…” Shido whines.

Shut up!

Ren is standing beside him, Goro always knows exactly where he is, so he steals his gun from his holster and places its barrel against Shido’s forehead, perfectly in the center.

“Crow, don’t!” Someone shouts. “Noir– N-Noir!?”

Goro glances to his right and finds Haru holding Makoto back from interfering, her porcelain face turned to cold steel.

Good.

“You know. You know what he’s done. You know he’s better off dead,” he says to her.

Haru’s silence speaks for itself.

“You don’t have to dirty your hands,” Goro assures them as he presses the barrel harder against skin and bone. “Mine are already bloody enough.”

“I must… steer this country…” Shido mumbles now, still speaking for some reason. “if I don’t, who will?”

Goro has to do this. He has to do this, now. He wants to do this. They’re all quiet, watching, waiting for him to do it.

Why the hell are they just standing there?

“Aren’t you going to stop me?” Goro asks Ren, though he can’t see anything but his father kneeling on the ground, ready to be executed, just like all the others.

“This is your choice,” Ren murmurs.

Goro tries to catch his breath as he scans the faces around him. Fury, disgust, worry, and yet none of them move. Even Makoto has stopped trying to escape from Haru’s grasp. Even Futaba… Oracle…

He catches her eye and she flinches away.

“You ruined everything,” Goro says to Shido. He clasps his left hand with his right, to steady his shaking. “She loved you. You were supposed to be… why couldn’t you have been… you. Ruined. Everything. For what!? For nothing!!

Shido opens his mouth, as if to respond, and then his eyes roll back into his head instead. “No–” he collapses down backwards, fades into nothing before Goro can stop it, even as he scrambles to the floor to follow. “No!!

He’s too late?

“No– no, nononono…”

Please!

“Come back,” Goro says to the empty floor. Someone tries to pull him to his feet and Goro wrenches himself out of their grip, claws at the ground. “Come back!!

Please!

“Please…”

“…”

A flash of light blinds him, a crash deafens him. Goro wipes at his eyes under his mask, wipes again, wipes his entire fucking face.

More lights, more crashes, more destruction.

Shit.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he tells Ren.

“I know,” Ren says.

Goro swallows, shudders. He looks around and finds that the two of them are alone now, sitting on the floor of a sinking ship.

“I told them to get Futaba out,” Ren explains quietly. “They know the way, they’ll be alright.”

“What about you,” Goro rasps, already knowing the answer.

“I’m not leaving you,” Ren says, lifting up his mask so Goro can see him plainly.

And Goro doesn’t feel that old familiar anger at all. No fury, no hate. Not even a little. The absence is shocking– all the more so because something else has settled in its place.

What a stupid time to realize he’s in love.

Ren reaches towards him slowly, slow enough for Goro to stop him like he should, and slides away Goro’s mask as well. He lightly caresses his cheek, as if Goro were something precious instead of what he is. Goro leans into the touch despite himself, lets Ren even more carefully pull him into his embrace. He missed him, misses him even now.

“I should have done it,” Goro hears himself say, mumbled into the soft, warm curve of Ren’s neck, the curls poking his eyes, his nose. “I wish I’d done it.”

Ren responds by clutching him tighter.

Goro lets himself fall for a while, lets himself forget and just be held by his–

By his…

Not his.

The ship thunders and groans. Explosions bloom below. The incline of the floor grows more steep.

How far would they allow this to go? Would Ren really stay, through fire and destruction, while the world crumbles beneath them, until they both meet their end in the cold, unforgiving sea below?

Of course he would.

Well, one of them has to have some sense.

“Stop hurting yourself for me,” Goro says. He unentangles himself and wipes his eyes a final time, stares up at the blood-red sky. “I can’t fucking stand it. Traesto.

They land back in reality a stone’s throw from the others.

Goro doesn’t feel anything. He doesn’t know what he expected to feel. He never really thought about this part, the after.

He’s tired. He wants to go home. (Home? And where would that be?) But still this horrible day refuses to release him. After everything, everything that’s happened, the blow that strikes Goro hardest is the look on Futaba’s face when she spots him.

She turns and runs away. A few of the others shout in surprise and run after her. Ren takes a step forward to follow, then stops in his tracks. “Goro–”

Goro shakes his head. “Go on. I’d… prefer to be alone right now.”

Ren frowns, hesitates again, so Goro quirks one side of his mouth up, relaxes his eyebrows, and narrows his eyes– just the inner corners. It’s the most genuine and reassuring he can be without seeming like he’s trying too hard.

This day may have taken everything from him, but he’s still a liar. When he calmly says: “go, Ren” and his voice doesn’t break– that’s the greatest performance of his life.

 


 

Goro turns around, paces down the same backstreet alley he’s been pacing in for an eternity.

He didn’t fail, in the end. Mostly. And he can just leave, and no one would ever know he was here. Why is he even here in the first place? Don’t be a piece of shit, don’t be like him, go home.

He turns again, paces again. But he is here, and he doesn’t have a home to return to, not really. It would… only be one drink. It’s a celebration. Normal people celebrate, he deserves to celebrate– he finally got his revenge today, even if it didn’t go exactly according to plan.

Another turn. More pacing. That is exactly why he shouldn’t do this– he’s not celebrating, he’s miserable. He failed, failed for three years, failed for his entire pointless life. He shouldn’t have ‘one drink’ because he’s going to fail at that too, he always does.

Turn. Pace. How much goddamn alcohol has he had in his life? A little more wouldn’t destroy him. He needs this.

Turn. Pace. Yes it would and he doesn’t.

“Excuse me?”

Goro stops.

“Would you like to sit down?”

He turns one more time to look behind him, at a young woman sitting behind a cheap-looking folding card table. She tilts her head, stares blankly at him with eyes just on this side of too wide. “You seem tired.”

Brilliant deduction. “I’m always tired.”

The woman gestures to the metal folding chair opposite her. “You can have a seat, if you’d like.”

“No,” Goro says. “Thank you,” as an afterthought.

Well, he can’t stay here any longer, not now that this scam artist or whatever has identified him as a mark.

So, which bar should he hit? Or maybe he should go to a store like he usually does. Or he should go home, go home, you worthless pathetic–

“You remind me of someone,” the fortune teller says, because he hasn’t left yet because he’s a piece of shit and a failure. “He taught me how to change my fate,” she continues on with a dreamy look, “but then winter turned to summer, and he disappeared…”

“And let me guess: you’ll teach me to change my fate now, for the low price of…?”

“Oh, no,” she says with a cute little laugh. “You already know how to do that, silly.”

Hm. Goro meanders closer, humoring this strange woman against his better judgement. “What’s your name?”

“Mifune Chihaya,” she answers. “Who are you?”

“I’m…”

Who are you?

Goro’s jaw slams shut with a click.

She smiles, for some reason. “Could I draw a card for you?”

Ah, there it is.

“Free of charge,” the fortune teller adds with a little smile. “For keeping me company this past hour.”

A long, drawn-out sigh escapes him. Well. What the fuck else is he doing with his life.

“Cut the deck for me?” After he does so she takes the two halves, performs some sort of impressive flourish, and holds a selection of cards out to him. “Concentrate on a question please, then select your card.”

“I don’t have a question.”

“That’s alright,” she says cheerfully. “Then, simply choose whichever one you need.”

Goro examines at the cards, though they’re all the same of course. It’s with a resigned sort of air that he draws the one directly in the middle. It reveals a person in a carriage, two horses in front of them, and a star above.

“Ah, the Chariot,” the fortune teller explains as she takes the card from him, though Goro already knew exactly what it was, who it was. “Represents willpower and self-control. Though I do not know of your situation, I would take this as a sign of encouragement–”

Willpower and self-control? Fuck this, fuck this, fuck all of this.

He pulls out his phone before the fortune teller can say anything else, unlocks the screen to view the app he’d opened last. It’s still there, from a low point in his pacing: his messenger with an unsent text already typed out to Sakamoto Ryuji.

Could I ask for your help with something?

Goro closes his eyes. Hits send. Immediately feels shame and regret.

Why is he like this?

“Thank you, Mifune-san,” Goro says.

And then two seconds later Ryuji calls him.

Relief crashes down on him like a wave. Goro digs into his pockets, drops too much yen on her table, shouts “thank you, Mifune-san!” behind him as he accepts the call and strides out of the alley, out of Shinjuku.

“You’re welcome! Come back anytime!”

 


 

———
Oracle
Dec 18, 2:13 PM

Your biological father doesn’t define you.
You’re no different from who you were before you knew this. You haven’t changed.
You were raised by your mother and Sakura. They are your parents.

———

———
Oracle
Dec 18, 4:38 PM

you really believe that?

I do.
I have to.

———

 


 

“Heya, inmate!” Caroline calls out to him as he approaches the door to the Velvet Room that still sits outside the SIU. “Finally, I’ve been so bored.”

“It seems the city is deserted,” Justine adds.

“Not deserted,” Goro tells them, “everyone’s off watching the results of the election.”

“Ah. Not you?”

“No,” he shakes his head. He can’t think of anything he’d rather do less. Goro strides forward towards the jail cell door, “I need to–”

Wait!

Halt!

Goro stops in his tracks at the twins’ shouts, and the two of them scramble in front of him to block his way to the door.

“Oh? What’s this?”

They share a shifty look.

“You’re, um– not worthy of seeing our master!” Caroline shouts.

“It is not safe for you to enter,” Justine says at the same time.

“Not safe?” Goro asks. Oh, this is already going so much better than he expected. All he wanted was a distraction and these two are certainly delivering.

“Justine!” Caroline hisses, glances warily at Goro. “We weren’t going to tell him!”

“Prisoner or not, he is our resident. We are responsible for him,” Justine argues back. “There would always come a time when he’d wonder why the dreams stopped and sought out answers.”

“Are you…” Goro tilts his head, ponders the two of them. “Are you keeping Igor away from me?

“Well, yes.”

“No! Of course not! Justine!!

Justine clutched her clipboard to her chest. “It is only until… only until we can be certain you will be safe. Our master’s powers are weak in this area but we can see your heart, prisoner, and–”

“And something happened a few days ago,” Caroline grumbles. “Something we weren’t expecting. You shouldn’t go back in there until we figure it out.” She whips her police baton, points it up at his face. “But don’t think that means you’re not our prisoner anymore!!”

”I would never,” Goro humors her with a smile.

 


 

“Goro. Would it be impolite for me to ask after your current mental state?”

He turns his attention from the crowds of the underground to Yusuke, and can’t help but laugh at the question.

“No, no that’s fine. I’m feeling… hm. Bad. Definitely bad.” Goro smiles genuinely at his usual people-watching companion. “But at the same time, probably the best I’ve ever been.”

“Ah, this is familiar to me,” Yusuke muses. “The paths we walk are not simple ones, frustrating as that may be. I’m glad you feel you’re improving.”

“Well, having lived two lives, and being able to objectively examine each of those lives as if I were an outsider…” he chuckles, “if I wasn’t sure that I’d be the first and only person to suffer from such a phenomenon I’d love to study the psychological implications.”

Yusuke blinks. “You’re very strange.”

“As are you, I’m afraid.”

They stand in companionable silence for a long while. Goro watches the people of the city pass by and wonders what they’re doing, where they’re going, who they are.

“I understand now,” Goro decides to say. “What you said about Ren back in… October, was it? That saving others is fundamental to who he is, and yet–

“He’s taking it too far,” Yusuke interrupts, handsome features twisted into a scowl. “It’s dangerous. I tried speaking with him, but he’s so…”

“I know.” All too well.

Yusuke shakes his head. “I feel as though my eyes have just now been opened, but I fear it’s too late. We face our greatest foe in a week and our leader’s behavior grows ever more incomprehensible and reckless. I’ve… been a terrible friend,” he trails off with a sad sort of laugh.

“You haven’t. Ren hides himself from everyone.”

Goro thought, in one life, that they were complete opposites. That their differences were irreconcilable. In another life he thought they were the same, that they understood each other better than anyone. Maybe the truth is he doesn’t know Ren at all. Or maybe he knows him better than he knows himself.

Maybe it’s all bullshit.

Either way, he’s hid from this for too long.

Goro kicks off the wall, adjusts his coat. “Well, I’m not giving up on him. He and the rest of you are the reason I’m still here, after all. I’ll see what more I can do.”

He bids Yusuke a pleasant farewell and ponders his approach on his way to the station.

You’re an idiot

I miss you

After my mother died I

Goro groans, massages his temples. Closes his messenger app entirely.

He honestly has no idea how to do this. He’s a detective– he can interrogate, he can deduce and he can reason, but this is something else entirely. This isn’t logical, it’s…

Ah.

Goro opens his app again.

———
Ann

😬😬😬
okay so best i can tell
you gotta talk in person
for sure
he’s terrible at texting obvs
i got him to open up ONCE and i literally had to sit through a million jokes and deflections and awkward silences
and it still didn’t feel like he was telling me everything!!! ugh!!!!
does that even help???

Yes. You’ve been very helpful, thank you.

———

He got Ren to truly talk to him once as well– on opposite sides of Goro’s bathroom door after one of the most embarrassing nights of his life. He’d prefer not to repeat the experience.

It was the silence.

Ren had no choice but to talk. Goro’s childish behavior had given him no other option. So in order for this to work, in order for him to learn about Ren, to listen, to dig into his psyche and find out why he feels his life is worth so little and to convince him otherwise… Goro is going to have to shut up.

Fuck.

 


 

Fuck.

Goro realizes he’s made a critical error in judgement as soon as he and Ren begin the climb up to the attic. The creaking of the steps alone triggers an embarrassing Pavlovian response in him, and suddenly he’s traveled backward in time to just a few days ago, to cold nights spent under a warm blanket, heat and sweat, careful work eliciting the most delicious sounds–

The sight of the attic itself certainly doesn’t help matters either.

Fuck. He’s allowed his opponent to choose their battleground, that was his mistake, and Ren made an expert play.

“How is Futaba faring? I haven't heard much from her,” Goro immediately starts talking at Ren’s back.

This bodes poorly for the rest of his plan.

“Obviously I’d expect she’d be more likely to reach out to you than me, given the circumstances. Though, we can’t be exactly certain unless…” he trails off when he catches a familiar sight: two chess pieces sitting on the shelf next to Ren’s bed.

“She’ll be fine,” Ren says. “She talks about you a lot. That if you turned out the way you did then she’ll be okay too.”

Goro laughs on his way over to the shelf. “What nonsense. You don’t have to lie to spare my feelings, Ren.”

“I’m being serious.”

He carefully picks up the black king, the one he threw in Ren’s face before sealing his fate, or so he thought. At the time he just wanted to be remembered. He was desperate for some part of him to remain in the world, and this was all he could think of.

“You kept it,” Goro says, his throat tight.

“Of course I kept it,” Ren’s voice rumbles behind him, closer than he thought. “You gave it to me.”

Goro has to close his eyes for a moment to regain his bearings. He places the king back on the shelf and turns, and then realizes he’s made yet another critical error.

Ren is standing close enough for Goro to feel the heat of him– his jacket off, his glasses off, his sleeves rolled up. Ren has his own plan, of course he does, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Goro dances around him.

The couch is dangerous, the chairs are dangerous, the bed is completely out of the question, so he stands stock still in the middle of the room like an idiot. “We need to talk about–”

“Goro,” Ren interrupts softly. “Why won’t you look at me?”

His hands ball into fists. He keeps his eyes fixed on a point on the wall in front of him. Silence, silence, that’s what he needs, that’s what will work, that’s what will save him from his desires.

He hears movement behind him, hears the floor creak and braces himself. But there’s only a rustling of fabric as Ren presumably sits on the edge of his horrible, horrible mattress.

“Goro…?”

“You terrify me,” he blurts out in a rush. “You seem to have no regard for your life and I don’t know what to do about it.”

And I think it’s my fault.

And everything I do only seems to make you worse.

He turns to face Ren, because he can’t afford to turn into a coward now. Ren’s expression reveals nothing. Of course. “I can’t forgive you for what you did. I can’t trust you not to do it again. And yet I…”

I can’t stop thinking about you.

“What happened to your rebellion? I’ve never known you to back down from a challenge and yet there you were, ready and willing to die over nothing.”

Ren stands at that, furrows his brow ever so slightly. “You’re not nothing.”

God damn it. “That’s not–” he puts a hand to his forehead, tries to steady himself.

Silence, silence. He bites his cheek, gulps down a million different arguments.

He waits. Waits for Ren to talk. Waits for his chance to listen.

“I… couldn’t risk it,” Ren finally murmurs. “I tried, I tried everything, but…” he huffs in frustration, crosses his arms against his chest, showing off those fucking bare forearms. Goro is fairly certain the inside of his cheek is going to start bleeding soon. “You told me to bend the rules. So that’s what I did.”

“You–!” All plans abandoned now: he’s so furious he seems to have lost all capacity for thought or language. “You stupid asshole!!

Goro stalks away, pulls at his hair, stares up at the ceiling for guidance. It provides none. He stomps back in a rage.

“How dare you–” he hisses, gets up close in Ren’s face. “You got this idea from me? You’re putting this idiocy on me!?

“Get off your high horse, Goro,” Ren growls back, not backing down an inch. “If you were in my shoes you’d do exactly the same thing.”

“And now you insult me! As if I would ever stoop so low.”

“I know you would,” Ren’s eyes snap meaningfully to the shelf behind Goro. “I was there.”

He was there– Goro flashes back to a dismal metal coffin. The last time he’d ever see Ren’s face, the last time he’d ever hear Ren’s voice, the wall between them. Separated forever.

And then Ren is on him.

He tastes like Ren, smells like Ren, feels like Ren. Three days and a lifetime without him. (There’s a reason for that, remember?) Goro kisses him back first out of instinct, out of habit, and then because he needs this, doesn’t know how he survived so long without him.

Ren moans into his mouth, the best and rarest of sounds, as he hoists Goro up by the back of his thighs. Goro doesn’t even care about being manhandled, he hooks his legs around Ren and takes the opportunity to claw at every part of him he can reach– he’s so solid, so alive.

They back their way into the corner of the room, trinkets and tools swept away and toppled to the floor as Ren unceremoniously shoves Goro onto the surface of his work desk. Goro would have half a mind to worry about the laptop if it weren’t a piece of junk or if, well, if he had half a mind at all. (This isn’t why you’re here, stupid. Stop!)

But it feels so good,

(you were supposed to talk)

all of it feels so good,

(you were supposed to listen)

and he doesn’t ever want to stop.

(Stop!!)

“Stop–” Goro manages to gasp out, surprising even himself, “stop!”

He uses every last vestige of strength and willpower in his body to push Ren away, causing him to nearly trip over the chair behind him.

Silence settles again over the attic, unplanned and pointless and miserable. Cold rushes to cover on all the empty places where warmth was just a moment ago.

“I– you’re– this isn’t–” Goro pants uselessly while Ren stays still as a statue, stares at him in open misery.

So he runs. He barely remembers to grab his coat on the way out of Leblanc, uses it to cover the disheveled state of his sweater, his undershirt, his pants, just. God, fucking, everything.

Idiot.

Goro rests against the cold brick of a closed storefront down the block, watches his breath form in front of him in short puffs of condensation.

He failed. Fuck, he failed completely. He was supposed to listen, not argue, and certainly not do that.

God damn it. God damn it, Ren.

He looks up, seeks answers now from the stars dotting the night sky. They remind him of the stickers scattered across the ceiling of the attic, the ones Goro stared at through his tears while Ren whispered in his ear, over and over:

I love you. I love you, Goro, I love you, I love you.

A setback.

Just a setback, then. He failed here, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still win.

This isn’t a game at all, he knows that. Not when the health of someone he cares for… someone he loves (loves loves loves), is at stake. This isn’t a game, but Goro is a winner, and so he’s going to win.

“I’m going to save you,” he promises quietly in the cold December air. “I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to save you.”

Chapter Text

Ren doesn’t move when Leblanc’s door slams shut.

He doesn’t move when the building shakes from the force of it, when the bell rings and echoes and finally settles.

He doesn’t move for a while after that. Not until a strong gust of wind shudders against his flimsy attic windows, blows freezing cold against the right side of his face.

And then he blinks, stares at the desk in front of him, the empty space Goro left. Pulls down his shirt. Fixes up his pants. How long was he… standing like that? Embarrassing.

He sits down in the chair behind him. Puts his head in his hands.

He let him go… he let him go again.

The phone comes out on instinct– he’s almost done typing a message before he thinks better of it and deletes it.

Can you send mona back

Mona would have questions. Futaba would have questions. She’d respond with something like oof or F and Ren… just doesn’t want to deal with any of it.

He gets up from his chair, starts methodically picking up all the things that had been knocked off his desk and putting them back in place. Wipes his eyes when it gets hard to see.

He should probably go lock up too.

So he does.

When he’s all done he climbs back up the stairs (alone), changes into his pajamas (alone), and gets into bed (alone).

He stares at the attic wall next to him, curls up on his side as tight as he can. To stay warm. The windows keep shaking, letting in more cold air.

He just doesn’t… understand. What the big deal is. He was helping. Goro is alive (for now, for now). Everything turned out fine. It didn’t have to, but it did.

He doesn’t understand.

Ren turns to his other side, pulls his blanket up further, curls into himself again. He’s so tired but he can’t seem to close his eyes. That at least makes some sense– he has bigger problems than Goro being unreasonable. Christmas is barely a week away.

He used to be good at sleeping, a long time ago.

Ren stares at the grey wall in front of him, tries not to think about anything.

It’ll be fine, they’ll see. Goro will see.

Ren will make sure of it.

It’ll be fine.

He’s fine.

He’s fine.

 


 

The first time Ren kissed Akechi he realized, just a little too late, that his brain was on vacation. Still in Hawaii. Or maybe that he never had a brain in the first place.

Kissing Akechi on November 19th was the dumbest, stupidest, most idiotic thing he’d ever done, which for Ren was really saying something. It felt like taking a full-speed running leap into a stained glass window. It felt like falling into an ambush and blindly trusting in his luck to see him through. It felt like spitting in the face of a cop while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

The problem was… Ren hadn’t done any of those things yet. He had no idea what could be waiting for him after the fall. On the ground. In that windowless room. He had no concept of exactly what kind of game he was playing– or even what kind of game Akechi was playing, not really.

No, Ren’s game was life or death, but the fun way. Where everyone lived, and nobody died.

So he figured this probably wasn’t a good idea. He probably shouldn’t be making out with the questionably-evil guy who wanted him dead. But he was also a little too occupied with figuring out which he liked more: that addicting, abstract thrill of danger, or Akechi’s tongue in his mouth.

His brain definitely wasn’t around to decide for him, so Ren picked both.

 


 

Another day.

Hold on a moment, Sojiro says. I need to talk to you about something.

They’re on good terms, or so Ren thinks. He’s extremely aware of exactly how far he’s pushing Sakura Sojiro’s kind heart and hospitality. He knows it only takes one missed cue, one bad day, one mistake.

Another sex talk? Ren half-heartedly jokes to gauge exactly how serious this will be, how much trouble he’s in.

Sojiro sputters. Ren can breathe again, probably. That was just as painful for me, you know, Boss manages to mumble to his coffee beans.

Ren doubts that.

He waits for more, fiddles with the strap of his bag. It feels heavier than usual, though Mona is still away.

Futaba’s feeling much better now, Boss says.

You’ve done so much for her, Boss says.

A pause. Jaw clenching.

Something will come if Ren waits. Something usually does.

So has the kid, Boss says.

There it is.

Ren is still surprised when the name is spoken aloud, unprompted, without resignation or even barely-concealed malice. It still hurts when he hears it, a dull ache in his numbed heart. Akechi.

She told me, Boss says, all chastened and gruff, she told me he talked to her. He didn’t have to do that. It was kind of him. He’s… trying.

It feels like Sojiro might be saying something else too. Ren isn’t sure. He has to get to school, or whatever. So he nods, and he leaves.

 


 

The first time Goro kissed Ren, Ren wasn’t surprised in the slightest. He’d engineered the situation, after all. A quiet, intimate moment in the attic? Little touches here and there– a hug to make Goro comfortable? Ren manipulated everything. He was responsible for it all.

The guilt didn’t come until later, when Goro was sound asleep and Ren lay flat on his back, on his couch rather than his bed, Mona on his chest.

Staring up at the ceiling.

Exactly like he had all through the night before, while Goro was being beaten in that interrogation room. Because Ren put him there.

Same ceiling, different spot.

There he was again, taking anything he could from a person who’d already given him everything. Goro’s faith, his trust, his life: everything Ren had yet to give himself. And he was such a piece of shit that he just couldn’t stop taking more.

Ren knew he was going to be dead in less than a month. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t do this. He couldn’t do this. It was selfish, irresponsible, cruel, stupid.

And then he went and kissed Goro the next morning.

So began the cycle: a promise to not get too close, to not go too far. An enthusiastic and gleeful breaking of that promise at every and any opportunity. Guilt, shame, disgust. Rinse, repeat.

He didn’t mean for any of it to happen, didn’t mean for it to get so serious, and yet he absolutely did. Days passed, weeks. Making out turned into more. Goro asked him to be his boyfriend. Trust me, Ren said, as if he deserved that trust at all. Ren was going to die, he had to die, he was already dead, but Goro was– he was–

That last night it was almost like Goro knew. And he was saying goodbye. He was offering Ren one final, perfect night. So Ren broke his promise to himself one final, perfect time and took that too. 

Which, of course, made everything worse.

 


 

Another day.

The Thieves seem to be in high spirits, chattering away around him as they dive deeper into Mementos to train. Goro has stopped avoiding him, has even tried talking to him, and Ren finds a way to be miserable about that too– it’s as if nothing happened between them at all.

Futaba is out of her room and her navigation is better than ever.

Makoto finally figures out the new move she’s been working on.

Goro walks up to an Oberon, says a few words, and steps back in shock as it flies into his mask.

It– it reminded me of Fox! Ahaha– magnificent, don’t you think!? Look, Skull, watch me, now I can use electric spells just the same as you!

And Ren has a moment, as Goro excitedly shows off to the other Thieves, where he thinks he must really be broken. Because he can’t even feel happy for him. He doesn’t feel anything.

 


 

The first time he and Akechi Goro kissed was a complete mess. It was a disaster. A quiet psychotic break, a bloodless mental shutdown. A mistake from start to finish.

It felt incredible.

Until Ren woke up and found that he was a person again. He was still alive. He had to keep going now. And he was cold and sore and alone and tired, so tired, always so tired, on Goro’s ruined bed in Goro’s ruined apartment, with nothing but the echoes of Goro’s bitter words to keep him company.

 


 

Another day.

Yusuke finds him while he’s working at Leblanc one afternoon.

How are you, Ren, Yusuke says again, again, again, his voice low and careful like Ren is something skittish. Are you alright?

Is there anything on your mind?

Is there anything I can help you with?

Fine, yes, no, and no, Ren responds with his words or his silence.

He’s more worried about Yusuke nowadays– he seems worried and anxious, more so than the rest of them. They have to fight that damn cup again soon, they have to be prepared, and Ren needs to make sure Yusuke will get through it alright. That all of his friends will get through it, safe and sound.

Ren’s the one who got them involved, he’s responsible for them, and he won’t be like the adults that used them and threw them away. He won’t allow it.

He’ll do anything.

Ren waits and something comes, something always does. Yusuke eventually sighs, reveals that he needs to pick up some groceries for his dorm. So Ren helps him out.

 


 

Another day.

Kawakami pulls him aside after school. Asks him how are you holding up?

You look pretty tired, you’re not taking on too many… extracurriculars, are you?

Any way I can help out?

How are you feeling about your exams?

Ren answers, fine, no, no, fine.

He’s so tired of people asking.

 


 

Another day.

It was Lavenza who’d said, in their current state they would almost certainly lose. That’s why they were sent back. To prepare, to train. She’s the only one from the Velvet Room who remains now, thanks to her connection with his heart. She’s here with him as they all take a break at the top of Mementos, still at the door to the empty Velvet Room, always available to talk but…

Are we ready? Ren always asks.

I cannot answer that, Lavenza always responds. Remember your bonds, my Trickster.

When he returns to the group Goro is staring at him, head cocked to the side in curiosity like his namesake.

The Velvet Room? Goro asks.

Ren nods. The others aren’t as interested– they’d already seen plenty of it themselves.

I wish I could see it, Goro hums, hand to his chin, cute without trying (is he trying?) You were speaking with someone?

Lavenza.

Lavenza, of course, you’d mentioned her before. What were you talking about?

Ren answers, bonds, with a carefully nonchalant shrug and then manages to dodge any further interrogation by ending their break early. 

It’s a relief.

This is what he was always meant for, only meant for– to fight and fight and fight and fight, to wring out every last bit of rage from his heart and push it out through his mask. To not think about the past, the future, anything, anything other the enemy in front of him.

But he should have known Akechi Goro, Detective Prince, wouldn’t be so easily deterred.

———
A.

You mentioned bonds earlier.
The bonds you make with others increase the strength of your Personas, correct?

———

Oh, so they’re texting again?

What… does this mean? Is it good? Bad? Should he respond?

Ren shifts in his seat at Leblanc’s counter. Looks around the silent, colorless cafe, feels something that could be hope or panic or literally anything before it dissipates and leaves him empty again.

He doesn’t decide to respond because he has no choice. Not when it’s Goro.

———
A.

Yeah
Same with you?

I haven’t tested the theory yet, but I suspect the process would be similar.
I was told bonds are different for different people. What sort are yours, may I ask?

I dunno
People help me I help them

How fascinating.
I like to think of mine as mutual investigation: I discern a person’s true self and offer mine in return.
To the best of my and their ability, of course.

Makes sense

I apologize, I didn’t mean to go on so much about myself.

It’s okay

So your bonds are deals?

Yeah I guess
It was hard to get used to at first
Now it’s easy

You didn’t used to think this way?

No that’s what got me in trouble

In trouble?
Do you mean your false arrest?
Or after that?
It was the residents of the Velvet Room who taught you this “correct” way to form relationships with people, wasn’t it?

It’s not what it sounds like
Nvm you wouldn’t get it

———

Ren shuts off his phone, shoves it in his pocket and stomps upstairs.

Well, this is what he gets for oversharing. Idiot. He flops down on his bed with a huff, rolls onto his side. He can’t help but fall into old habits– he wonders where exactly Goro is right now. What he’s doing in between these meaningless texts. What he’s wearing. If he misses him at all.

How wouldn’t I get it, Ren? Could you explain it to me?

Stop, stop, stop.

Ren shuts off the phone again, shoves it under his pillow as if he could smother it.

He wishes everyone would leave him alone, that everything would just stop for a moment, or for a while. He traces meaningless paths with his eyes, grey shadows along grey ceilings beams between grey star stickers, and wishes he could sleep.

———
A.

I’m only curious, I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything. I apologize if my tone came off that way.

Fine then, don’t answer me.

Could we speak in person? This is ridiculous.
No need to respond, I’m on my way to Leblanc regardless.

———

 


 

Five years ago, Amamiya Ren was thirteen. He realized his parents didn’t want him. It was obvious once he figured it out– but what he couldn’t figure out was why. So, he acted out. He cried for their attention, stopped doing his homework, sassed his teachers. None of it worked. They didn’t care. It was his fault.

So he tried to become the perfect son instead. He aced all of his tests, learned to cook them dinner, and was quiet while they were home. None of that worked either. They didn’t care, and it was his fault.

He was blunt with them, pleasant with them. He was vulgar, kind, silly, anything, anyone, everyone at once, all to get his parents to love him.

Four years ago, Amamiya Ren was fourteen. By now he knew that nothing worked. He stopped trying to be anything, anyone, everyone for his parents. He would always be no one to them, so no one he became.

Three years ago, Amamiya Ren was fifteen. He found he had a knack for helping people. He liked solving their little problems. He could become anything, anyone, everyone at once, after all, which was a very useful trick. He did it to feel like his worthless life was worth something, if only for a moment.

Two years ago, Amamiya Ren was sixteen. He learned there were consequences to helping recklessly. He lost everything, had no more reason to pretend to be someone he wasn’t. But when he tried to drop the acts, tried to return to whoever he was before, he found he’d been hiding so long that there was nothing underneath. He was no one once again. No one, alone, in the biggest city in the country.

It wasn’t until he was trapped in a cell in a dungeon in a castle in a world that made no sense that he realized– this wasn’t ever going to stop. This injustice, these horrible adults using him, changing him as they saw fit and throwing him away, stepping on him and people like him just because they could. There was nothing stopping them. No one stopping them.

And he realized there was in fact something inside of him after all. Something he’d repressed and buried for years and years and years. So he finally let it out. He became fury incarnate, let flames roil over his skin and catch on anyone who stood in his way. He decided that the only thing worth doing with his worthless life was getting his revenge.

One year ago, Amamiya Ren was seventeen and full of anger. And then he met someone.

 


 

–ways to help without isolating yourself and getting hurt or killed! You have to stop–

Goro, Ren interrupts, again. Goro.

They’ve been at it for a while already, arguing and arguing their way around Leblanc’s cafe, deep into the night. Goro is pissed, Ren is tired, and they just can’t keep going on like this. Goro, you need to eat something, Ren realizes. I’ll teach you how to make curry.

Goro eyes him like it’s a trap. Then his stomach growls.

He doesn’t know how to cook at all, not even the basics. It turns out to be the perfect distraction. Ren shows him around the kitchen and for a while they just chat, banter about stupid meaningless things like they used to.

Until Ren nuzzles the back of Goro’s neck. 

Stop it, he sighs.

Why, slips out as Ren steps away.

You know why.

But you keep coming back to me.

Goro turns away from the spices he’d been measuring far more methodically than required. Because I’m trying to make sure you won’t do anything stupid when we fight this ‘great and powerful’ enemy of yours. That’s all this is.

Ren tilts his head. He doesn’t buy it.

And then Goro launches into it again, curry preparation immediately forgotten. All of Ren’s careful work undone. He explains and explains, and Ren understands, he knows all of this already, he’s heard all of this already, over and over, from Goro, from Yusuke, from Mona–

I’m not some damsel in distress, none of the Phantom Thieves are, Goro says.

You’re acting as if you’re responsible for us but we chose to be here, we’re equals, Goro says.

I don’t need or want you to save me. That’s not what this is, Goro says.

Ren knows all this. He gets it. I want you to be okay, he repeats.

But that doesn’t work, only makes Goro more upset, makes his eyes flash in fury. So, what does he want to hear? What will fix this? Ren always knows, he always knows, he should know, but nothing is working–

How could you possibly expect any of us to fight alongside you like this? The battle with that no-good– I could have taken that hit, I would have been fine, but you jumped in front of it anyway!

That wasn’t. How it went?

How did the fight with Shido go again? He had to save Goro, that’s all he cared about. He has to save him, has to keep him safe and alive and so blissfully happy just like he used to be.

But instead Goro is struggling to speak, like he’s close to tears.

We could have figured this whole mess out together if we had just talked to each other. And I know it’s my fault–

I know it’s my fault–

“I know it’s my fault–” Goro says.

And for some reason, that is what does it.

The words slam into Ren’s chest like an arrow, a bullet, a goddamn mallet. The sheer wrongness of them starts his heart beating again.

“What…?” He chokes out.

A fog, heavy and constricting and undetectable until this moment, rushes out of his lungs. He blinks to clear away the rest of the haze, and realizes… Goro is shining. White and gold and brilliant red– Ren’s favorite color… color, colors that he hadn’t realized were missing. How long had they been missing?

“I’ve been cruel and selfish,” Goro is pleading, standing in front of him right here, right now, reaching desperately out to him, “and-and just horrible but I’m trying to be better, and I need you here with me, please, please.”

Ren is so shocked by the return of clear sound, breath in his lungs, that he just says: “okay.”

Okay? Wait– what is he agreeing to? What had Goro been talking about? What the hell has Ren even been doing, these past few days? Weeks? Months?

“Okay?” Goro asks, eyes searching him like he’s looking for more. “You mean that? Truly?”

He’s not– he doesn’t–? “It’s not your fault,” Ren has to say. “How could you think–”

Goro’s face falls. Wrong answer. Wrong answer, again, again.

“Ren.”

“It’s not your fault,” Ren repeats. “You– it’s not your fault.” He backs up a step, collapses down into the booth behind him. He’s so tired.

Goro follows, stands above him, gritting his teeth, “I don’t understand, Ren. I am not going to understand unless you talk to me.

The corner of Ren’s mouth pulls up automatically, “ha, you’re acting like– I never thought you would–” just in time to fall into a miserable grimace once more.

Never thought Goro would… what? Never thought Goro would care? That he would be kind? That he would try to be better, and leave Ren behind in his wake?

Self-loathing materializes as a full body shiver when Goro sits down to join him. What kind of friend is Ren, really? Why does he always doubt him, always think the worst of him? No wonder Goro is upset, Ren has messed up so badly that he’s managed to make him think all of this is his fault–

“Ren,” Goro says quietly, firmly, “please.”

He has to fix this, there’s only one way, only one correct answer, he can feel it, he’s always known it but– he can’t.

He can’t.

He can’t say it, he can’t tell him.

Goro puts a hand over his with a tenderness Ren doesn’t deserve.

“It’s my fault. You said we’re equals,” Ren whispers past his burning throat. “We’re not. You’re so much… I’m not worth–”

Ren yanks his hand away, slams it on the table instead. He doesn’t know why– that was stupid. Stupid, stupid, because he can’t control himself, he doesn’t know what the hell he should do.

“You’ll hate me,” Ren explains.

“Possibly,” Goro says.

Oh god. He can’t tell him. He can’t tell him.

If he tells him he’ll lose him, but… Ren turns his gaze from his lap to the waiting eyes of the person he loves, loves so much. The one who believed in him, trusted him, gave up everything for him and wouldn’t even let Ren do the same in return.

“I didn’t believe you,” Ren explains quietly. That's not enough of course– a raised eyebrow, directing him to continue. “When you died. That you died.”

Goro says nothing, doesn’t seem like he understands.

“You asked me to promise you, those were your last words. And I didn’t believe you,” Ren says. Now that he’s started he can’t seem to stop– Goro has to understand. “I didn’t mourn you at all. I just went back to Leblanc and went to sleep like any other day, but you were– you were d-dead, because of me, and you were… your body was still in that horrible ship and–”

Red eyes still staring at him, still watching and watching and watching silently.

Ren wonders, for the thousandth time, how Goro looked as a corpse.

“I didn’t try to stop it,” he tells him, babbling out of control, “I didn’t– I didn’t do anything. I didn’t trust you, even though you saved me, my friends. You were– I couldn’t even give you the decency of– we escaped the ship, we left you in there, and it sank and disappeared and-and you were a person, the most incredible person I’d ever met, and no one cared that you– I laughed at the missing posters, I was mad at you for taking so long to come back, you were my friend, you were– you weren’t supposed to die– but you were just gone, forever, forever!! And I didn’t even know, I didn’t even care, because I didn’t believe you!”

He’s tried not to think about it at all since the night he realized Goro had died, which makes remembering now all the worse. Ren collapses forward onto the table under the weight of his guilt, overwhelmed with the memories of regret and shame and despair and more fucking regret.

Strong arms pull him up. Ren fights them and ends up stuck in a clumsy embrace anyway. He doesn’t understand, but clutches Goro tight just the same. He makes a complete mess of his shoulder. Just, a wreck. The most embarrassing he could possibly be.

It’s not until Ren calms down that he realizes the shoulder he’s occupying is moving, ever so slightly. He realizes–

“What,” Ren asks as he tries to collect himself, “are you doing.”

“Oh. Oh, no,” Goro hides another chuckle, and fails, and waves a hand at him. “It’s simply–” a heavy sigh. “That’s… that’s all? Ren. You do recall I had you arrested and shot, right? You really feel such guilt over the simple act of assuming I’d tricked you once again?”

“That was different. That was part of the game.”

“The game…” Goro says. He blinks. Stares at him with something like disbelief. “You are the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Ah! I’m not, I’m not. I do wish I’d had something up my sleeve, I really…” Goro shakes his head. “Here I was, blindly thinking only of myself. I never considered the possibility that this entire time you’ve been… Ren, have you ever lost someone before? Someone close to you?”

Ren blinks. “Uh. Not… Haru’s dad?” Which rightfully earns him a glare. “Well, my parents kicked me out.”

Goro’s concerned expression cracks for an almost imperceptible moment into unbridled rage, then returns as he mumbles: “a very different type of loss, I’m afraid. What you’re–” he huffs, seems to become very interested in the ceiling. “Motherfucker, I’m going to sound exactly like one of those goddamn doctors.”

Ren sits quietly, wary and fascinated. Goro takes Ren’s hands in his, warm and soft, always so impossibly soft. He seems to still be undecided on whether he’d rather look at the ceiling or at Ren.

“When my mother died I was devastated. Of course,” Goro says slowly, like he’s carefully considering every word. “But what I remember most was… being upset that I would have to miss that day’s episode of a television show I enjoyed.

“I was so angry with her for that. It was an awful thing for me to think, and I knew that, but I still thought it nonetheless. My mother was dead, my future uncertain, and there I was pouting over the smallest inconvenience. Hell, for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to shed a tear until at least a week after the funeral,” he grimaces, “and then a month later I couldn’t seem to stop. And those tears weren’t even all for her– I felt so ashamed of myself– it was nonsense. I still have days…

“Ah, I’m rambling again. I can’t seem to help it,” Goro says, though Ren wouldn’t mind if he rambled to him forever. “What I’m trying to say is– it’s normal. What you did, how you felt. The dead aren’t around to judge how we mourn them.” He smirks, “except for me, haha. And I say you’re fine. Of course I don’t hate you. I think you’re very stupid, but I don’t hate you.”

Ren smiles back at him, tries to hide one last sniffle. “You know… next time something like this happens I’m gonna be seriously messed up.”

“I’ve ruined you, haven’t I?”

“Yup.”

“Mm, that’s a shame.”

Ren leans against Goro’s side, exhausted, and rests his head on his shoulder– that perfect spot just before his collarbone, a space made just for him. It was automatic, he didn’t realize until after he’d done it, but Goro doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything besides: “it must have been awfully strange, to see me again. After all that.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Ren mumbles. “Okay, it was. But you’re nothing if not yourself. That helped,” he tilts his head up just enough to get a clear look at Goro’s face. “I’m glad you got your memories back.”

Goro nods. Ren nuzzles back into his spot.

He still feels pretty terrible.

He still thinks that maybe Goro is being a little unreasonable in brushing off what Ren did. He still thinks that maybe Goro is overreacting to Ren trying to save his life.

But… maybe that’s okay?

Maybe it could be okay.

Goro leans his head against Ren’s. “Remember when you smacked that poor girl on the ass with your cue stick?”

Come on. “Why,” Ren deadpans as he sits up and adjusts his crooked glasses.

“It was your own fault,” Goro laughs, “trying so desperately hard to impress me with a trick shot when you could barely pull off a clean bank.”

“I wasn’t ‘desperate.’ You were impressed this time around when I got it right.”

“Well. You had an excellent teacher,” Goro coughs into his fist, which means he’s embarrassed, which means he really was impressed. Awesome.

“Remember when you ate that takoyaki?” Ren teases, high on his victory.

“Hmpf. Of course you would– wait… did Ryuji try to get me to do it again?”

“Yup. They had a plan but it didn’t work at all.”

If Goro had feathers they would be proudly puffed, as if it were an achievement to catastrophically embarrass himself only once instead of twice. He’s adorable, and Ren’s hand ends up on his cheek.

Ren watches as Goro’s expression morphs from misplaced pride into the one he always wears right before Ren kisses him– like a deer in the headlights, if the deer was really into being hit by cars. But Ren turns into a coward– clasps his hands in his lap, turns his head to the side. He’s not sure he could handle another rejection right now.

“I love you,” Ren tells him anyway. He watches out of the corner of his eye as Goro freezes, swallows, takes a shaky breath–

“And I’m sorry,” Ren cuts him off, still a coward. But he knows what to say now. He means every word. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault at all, I… I should have talked to you. I shouldn’t have put you through that. You’re perfectly capable– I was… I’m sorry.”

“Promise me,” Goro’s eyes turn determined, red, sparkling, alive, demanding nothing less than Ren’s full attention. “Promise you’ll treat me as your equal. Promise you’ll accept that I stand on my own two feet, no matter what the future may bring.”

“I promise,” Ren says. “And I promise I’ll be there beside you.”

“…Alright then.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I’m satisfied. That’s all I needed, Ren.” Goro sighs. “I can’t speak for the rest of your friends, but I imagine they wouldn’t mind hearing the same.”

Ah, crap.

Ren grimaces and nods. With the fog in his head cleared away he can see the past few days, weeks, months for what they really were. He misses his friends, his confidants. He hopes he’s failed at pushing them away enough that they miss him too.

“I’ve been so stupid,” Ren groans, drops his head into his hands.

Now you realize,” Goro chuckles. Ren smiles weakly back at him.

 


 

He sleeps fitfully that night, but he sleeps. He’s still tired when he wakes, but a little less than he was before. And when he opens his eyes he finds his heart is there next to him.

Goro is still in a deep sleep, eyelids twitching and mouth open ever so slightly. His chestnut hair is frizzy and wild near the crown of his head, his shirt collar rumpled, twisted. Akechi Goro: fragile and beautiful and trying, he really is trying to be better. So Ren will just have to try as well.

The longer Ren looks at him, the more certain he is. He wants to wake up like this again. Hope burns low and careful in his chest– he is going to wake up like this again. Tomorrow morning, Christmas morning, the day after, the next day, forever.

He’s going to win, they’re all going to win, together. It really is going to be okay.

Many pages…” Goro mutters nonsense in his sleep. Ren smiles wide, wonders what he’s dreaming about. “Have some…? Hm…

He can’t resist any longer– he reaches out, strokes soft hair and tucks a lock behind Goro’s ear. He doesn’t touch the frizzy part. It’s too cute.

Ren,” Goro murmurs, before he blinks his eyes open. “H’lo.”

“Good morning.”

“Good… morning,” Goro blinks some more. Ren takes the opportunity to scoot closer, until they’re nearly nose to nose. “What time is it?”

“Not time to get up yet.”

“Mm…” Goro closes his eyes again, intertwines their fingers, snuggles a little further into Ren’s blanket.

“What were you dreaming about?” He asks quietly.

“Can’t recall…” Goro murmurs as he opens his eyes, more awake now. “I think I was doing homework.” He clears his throat, fixes his twisted-up shirt, combs through his hair with his fingers. Ren tries not to look too disappointed.

“You miss school that much?”

“Distraught without it,” Goro smirks. “Ren, I’ve meant to ask you this for a while now, but… do you have any plans for after you graduate?”

“Uh. I haven’t thought about it.” He was always so focused on the present. First on getting some sort of nebulous revenge on his family, then on the Phantom Thieves, then on saving Goro. The two of them stayed up for hours last night, talking until they both fell asleep, but their conversation never turned to the future. Ren has… never really imagined he had one. “What do you think?”

Goro’s eyes light up. “I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, actually! You have talents that would lend well to espionage, or any type of related work, for obvious reasons. Though I admit to enjoying the thought of you behind a counter as well, helping out any poor wayward soul to come your way. Or perhaps you could be some great adventurer– I’m sure you would excel in anything you put your mind to, really.”

Embarrassing. Ren fiddles with his hair to try and cover his surely bright-red ears. “What about you?”

“Me? Well I know the decision is closer for me, given that I’m a year older than you–” Ren feels such a strong burst of affection that he’s surprised actual hearts don’t pour out of his eyes. Goro is such a dick. “But I… haven’t thought much on it either. Do you have any ideas for me?”

“Sweater model,” Ren offers immediately. Goro chokes. “Umpire. Saxophonist. Clown,” he adds just for Futaba.

“I told you I only like to listen– I’ve never touched a saxophone in my life!”

“Well, when you do you’ll be great. And I can’t wait to see it,” Ren says as he moves the slightest bit forward to touch their noses together.

“Ah,” Goro responds softly.

“You’re smart, and unstoppable, and really hot. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“Ren.”

“Goro,” he murmurs, an answer, a question. His heartbeat kicks up, his palms sweat. He feels nervous for this, as if they hadn’t already kissed a thousand times before.

They’re still too sleepy to put any heat behind it. Their mouths are too dry, morning breath terrible, position horribly awkward to sustain for longer than a moment.

Out of all of them, this kiss is Ren’s favorite.

 


 

Ren pulls all of the Phantom Thieves aside before they head into Mementos for the last time.

This is absolutely the hardest thing he’s ever done, even harder than being a messy idiot at Goro last night. There’s a reason he usually lets Mona or Makoto deliver their hype-up speeches and lay out their heist plans: Ren hates the spotlight. Hates it, unless he’s putting on a show.

But this isn’t a show. This is important. So he shoves his hands in his pockets, stares firmly at the floor, takes a deep breath, and talks.

There’s a moment of silence when he finishes. Then Ryuji punches him in the shoulder.

“What the hell, man! No need to apologize so much, we all get grumpy sometimes.”

“Ryuji! Don’t make fun, he’s being very serious,” Haru whispers loudly.

“I wasn’t making fun!”

“Well I for one am glad Joker’s finally come to his senses,” Mona pipes up from his shoulder. “But you should be less worried about my safety in there and more worried about me out here! Futaba feeds me Doritos!”

“You asked to try them!!”

“I did not! Don’t listen to her, Joker!”

Ren covers his mouth, tries not to laugh too loud out of relief. They’ve devolved into ridiculousness so quickly that they might have set a world record. He loves them so much, missed them so much.

Ann steps between Mona and Futaba, a hand on Futaba’s head. “I’m really glad you’re feeling better, Ren,” she says calmly, as if she weren’t holding back a cat and a twig from ‘fighting.’ “You know we’re all here for you, right?”

“We’ll get through this together,” Makoto adds solemnly.

“As a team,” Yusuke says. He looks meaningfully over at Goro, something passing between them, and then Goro claps his hands.

“Right. Shall we get a move on, then? If I have to hear another sappy word out of you all I’m going to vomit.”

Ren smiles at him, at all of them. His friends. His team. “People in this city have grown a little too comfortable in their cages. Let’s go free them.”

 


 

“Are we ready?” He asks Lavenza out of habit. His heart is thundering in his ears. Anticipation, fear, danger.

“I cannot answer that,” Lavenza responds. “Remember your bonds, my Trickster.”

They dive deep into Mementos, as deep as they can possibly go. They pass by people on trains, in jail cells, hurrying on their way to be imprisoned. They reach a large cell full of their former targets and Ren watches proudly as Goro marches past Shido Masayoshi without so much as a glance in his direction.

And the grail, The Holy Grail, that big dumb dirty cup, is just the same as last time. They expected this too: in order to truly defeat it they would need to let it do what it wants, to merge cognition with reality.

One final gambit.

“So this is it, right?” Ryuji asks, staring up at the bones and viscera filling the red sky above them. “Eugh, forgot how gross this was.”

“Certainly more unpleasant than I imagined. You neglected to mention the blood rain aspect of this, Ren,” Goro sneers in disgust, combing through his hair even though nothing was actually getting wet.

“Cause I knew you’d react like that,” he snickers. “Now let’s–”

“Ren?” comes a small voice behind him. Ren turns.

Futaba is staring at her hand. Her lack of a hand.

Futaba doesn’t have a hand.

“Ren!?” She cries out in alarm, tries to grab him. And then she’s gone.

Futaba is just… gone.

“Ren?” Haru asks next, while he’s still frozen in shock. “I don’t under–” and then she’s gone too.

Haru!!” Makoto yells before she falls to the ground, starts disappearing too.

“Joker,” Goro barks at him, grabs his shoulders. “What is this? What’s going on? You didn’t tell me about this!”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen again,” Ren says, finding it hard to breathe. “This can’t be– Lavenza.” He runs to the entrance of the Velvet Room, where she’s just standing there, watching. “Lavenza, you said– you said we’d be protected this time!”

She shakes her head. “You are protected.”

No–

Futaba, Haru, Makoto– now Yusuke, Ryuji, Ann, Mona, all of them, all of his friends, his team, shouting, crying, disappearing. Ren’s worst fear, happening again in front of him, and he can’t do anything–

“Ren?”

Goro’s standing just a little ways away, his hand held in front of his face.

No.

No, no, no, not him.

“Ren,” Goro says again. His eyes are wide like he’s afraid, Goro is never afraid. “Ren, I–”

Goro!!” Ren screams, tries to reach him, but Goro is.

Gone.

He’s gone.

Ren is.

Alone.

Again.

He can’t be gone. They can’t be gone, not without Ren too. Not again…

Again–! This happened before. There’s still hope, he can still–

Ren runs to the Velvet Room, races past Lavenza and inside, feeling himself transform into Joker as he goes. The cell door is still open, the desk in front of him is still unoccupied, just like it has been ever since they were sent back.

Ren found them here last time– if this is happening again then he can find them again.

Except all of the cells are empty.

He runs up and down the dark halls of his heart, peers into the same cages over and over. They’re here, they have to be here, Goro has to be here, or Ren is going to go completely– he looked so scared, Ren just got him back, he promised. He just… he just has to look harder!

He hits stone walls, overturns Igor’s desk, rips the carpet off the floor, but he can’t find them.

He can’t find them.

They’re not here. How are they not here– if they’re not here then–

His vision narrows in a rage, back toward his own cell door, out to his messed up city, where that fucking piece of shit is sitting, waiting for him.

If he can’t find them, if he can’t save them, then there’s only one thing left for Ren to do.

…But he can’t.

He can’t do this alone. He promised he wouldn’t.

“Lavenza,” he begs. “Please, please.”

“Remember your bonds, my Trickster,” is all she tells him.

Chapter Text

“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.”