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Like The Moon, We Borrow Our Light

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March, 2015

“Laaadies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, everybody all across Japan tuning in and, heck, even the 95% of Japan that’s probably watching game shows or Youcube instead, please give a warm welcome to Tokyo’s hottest up-and-comers, the high-school boys more famous than most Diet Politicians, the duo responsible for the ear-piercing shrieks of joy from their legion of fans across the city, the modern day Sherlock and Watson, The Detective Princes themselves, Akechi Goro and Amamiya Ren!”

The audience watching from the darkened bleachers went wild as the talk show host’s introduction reached its peak, and the two boys walked out from the wings of the soundstage to rapturous applause and cheers. They were dressed in complimenting, contrasting styles, Goro in his signature tan double-breasted jacket, Ren in an unbuttoned black blazer, the sleeves rolled up, over a print t-shirt with an old band’s logo splashed across it. Black- and red-gloved hands waved to their fans, Akechi giving them a charming, soft smile, Amamiya a sly little smirk. They walked with perfect confidence and poise over to the couch sitting opposite the host’s chair, and sat, Goro with perfect posture, one leg crossed over the other, Ren sprawling out and resting his hands behind his head, looking unconcerned and alert all at once.

The host chuckled at them, gestured to the audience, “Well, nobody can say we didn’t give you a warm welcome, can they?”

Both boys laughed a little at that, Goro speaking for the both of them. “We’re grateful as always to our supporters- and to you as well, Hibiki-san. You’re all the reason we’re able to do what we do!”

He gave a polite seated bow as Ren spoke up next to him. “Well, technically it’s the criminals who let us do what we do, if you think about it. So a big thanks to Japan’s criminal underbelly too- give ‘em a round of applause folks!”

The audience and host laughed, the host quickly waving his hands wildly at the audience, shouting with faux-desperation “Stop, stop, don’t applaud for the criminals, the network will take us off the air!”

As the laughter died out, and Goro rolled his eyes towards his partner, the host turned back to the boys, and pulled out his note cards. “So, again, welcome boys, we know you have a very busy life, juggling schoolwork with solving crime, so a big thanks for taking time out of your schedules to sit here with me!”

Goro chuckled and replied first, again. “Oh, it’s our pleasure, Hibiki-san, and don’t worry. Over the years Ren and I have learned to ponder our cases in the back of our heads while we’re in classes. Even now, relaxing on this soft couch of yours, we’re hard at work investigating crime.”

Ren laughed, loud and bright enough to startle Goro and the host, and he whacked Goro’s arm lightly. “Dude, you’re making it sound like we’re investigating him!” He pointed to the host, who put his hands up to his cheeks comically in shock.

Taking his signature pose, fingers framing his chin, Goro looked thoughtful, if teasing. “Hmm, well who can say? Maybe we are.” He let that hang for a moment, then broke into a smile, waving at the audience a little. “I’m only joking, don’t worry, we’re not investigating Hibiki-san.”

Ren peeked around Goro’s head, cupping his hands around his mouth and faux-whispering, “Though if we were investigating him, we’d have to say we weren’t anyways, to keep up our cover.”

He got a nudge to the ribs from his partner, who continued, looking a little pained now, “But we’re not, so please don’t start saying online that we are.”

“Though you’ll never know for certain...” Ren hissed dramatically, as he sank back into the cushions, acting grievously injured from Goro’s sharp elbows.

The host just smiled, amused and patient, and captured the show’s focus again as things calmed down. “Well, at any rate, we’re not here to talk about me and my vast criminal empire- I MEAN-” He posed again, let the audience laugh and his guests chuckle before continuing. “We’re here to talk about you two, and the great Detectiving Empire you’ve built for yourselves!”

Goro blushed, shaking his head. “Oh, we’re nothing like that, really. All the praise and nicknames and fans we’ve accumulated are extremely flattering, and we’re very grateful, but truly, we’re just two boys with a passion for justice. Certainly not the leaders of some grand crime-solving empire, we’re small-timers!”

Ren looked ready to make another goof off of that, but the host interrupted before he could speak. “Now I’m not so sure about that, boys. In the past two years alone, you’ve brought dozens of small-time criminals to justice, revealed abuses from horrifically corrupt teachers and bosses across Tokyo, and consulted with the police to first bring down the counterfeiting operations Ichiryusai Madarame was secretly running, and a handful more high-profile cases after that! With all that- yes, give them a round of applause for that, these heroes of justice deserve it, yes!” The audience rose to their feet at the litany of the two boys’ accomplishments, and Ren and Goro both blushed, and rose to bow in thanks. When things eventually settled down, the host continued. “With all that under your belts, you’d think there’d be no crime left to solve!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ren replied, chuckling. “Tokyo keeps pretty busy, you know. There’ll always be some industrious individual out there ready to make trouble.”

Goro nodded. “He’s right- our website, thedetectiveprincesholdcourt.org, where we get all our requests from, gets new cases everyday. Now, some of them are rather silly, of course. For the sake of everyone asking, no, we will not investigate who ‘blew your wig off,’ especially not when you accuse us of doing so later on in your request!”

He shot his charming-boy smile towards the cameras as he got the laugh he wanted, Ren barely holding back a groan at Goro’s always-mostly-awkward usage of memes, then continued, more seriously. “In truth, our cases are only so well-known because people often speak to us about crimes that the police are unable to investigate due to how unimaginably busy they are.” Next to him, Akira murmured a quiet ‘Or cause of how corrupt they are’ that only the most dedicated of fans going over the tape of their interview later would be able to hear. Goro kept speaking, anyways. “Tokyo is a wonderful, enormous place, but it has its dark underbelly that is just as large as it is.”

The host nodded solemnly, then perked up. “Ah, you mentioned the police, and I had wanted to ask- just how did two highschoolers end up working alongside the illustrious TMPD?”

Ren laughed, smirking cockily. “Actually, we were still in middle school when we first started working with them. All we did was report the crimes we heard about, and then when they laughed at us and told us to go do our homework, we did, and came back a week later with a box full of evidence we collected against the criminals.” He chuckled, stretched out on his seat like a contented cat. “They started taking us more seriously after that.”

A nod from Goro as he picked up the thread. “Indeed, we have much to thank the Department for- after all, it’s only thanks to them that the criminals we track down get brought to justice in the end! If they weren’t around, and if our court system wasn’t as wonderfully efficient as it is-” Another disparaging huff from Ren that Goro quickly spoke over. “-our work would be rather pointless in the end, wouldn’t it? It’s all well and good to bring the truth to light, but criminals are able to perform their crimes in the first place, by and large, due to the power structures they construct around themselves, to keep them safe from any consequences. Without the full force of Japan’s legal system on our side, we’d just be two more voices calling out aimlessly for justice.”

“Yeah, we only ever even hear about this stuff because of the people who have already been going unheard and suppressed by the world at large,” Ren continued. “It’s always less about finding people committing crimes, and more about finding out how to drag them out of their safe little bunkers and into the light, or preferably, y’know, into a courtroom. There are hundreds of people out there who know somebody that’s doing something awful, but who nobody will listen to. Lesson for today, kids, if somebody says they’re being hurt, listen to them, and if you’re being hurt and nobody’s listening to you, keep talking whenever you can. We’ll find you, eventually.”

“Or somebody like us will,” Goro finished. “The most wonderful thing about our work has been seeing how many people- like all of you in the audience today- have started thinking more about justice, and doing what’s right, and what they themselves can do to make the world a better place. It’s... well, heartwarming, really.” The audience and host (and Ren too, though more teasingly) all Aww’ed and applauded, and Goro blushed and gave a little bow again.

“Beautifully said, Akechi-san, beautifully said- and you as well, Amamiya-san, of course,” the host added when Ren gave him a faux-offended little ‘Hey!’ “Now, as we’re nearing the halfway mark of our little talk, we had some questions from your adoring fans prepared for you!” The audience all cheered and clapped wildly- clearly this was the part they were most excited for, and the two detectives gave amused little smiles, while holding back eye-rolls.

The host shuffled the cards in his hand, and beamed at them. “Now, this one comes in from Nobuko-chan, age 15. She asks, What kind of shampoo do the two of you use, and what kind of shampoo would you most like to smell on the hair of the girl you date?” He smiled out into the audience, teasing. “Not being subtle about what you’re really after, are you Nobuko-chan?”

He turned towards the boys, and the boys turned towards each other, took deep breaths, and replied.

---

“Piece of fucking trash!” Goro’s eyes swirled with rage, his gazed locked on his phone, his hands holding it tightly, his thumbs typing furiously, his foot recoiling from a truly vicious kick that had sent a metal trash bin rocketing off into the wall of the alleyway where he and Ren were standing.

Ren moved closer to Goro, putting a (hopefully) calming hand on his shoulder, smiling small and patiently, as if he had seen this happen dozens of times before, which he had. “Easy, Goro. I mean, technically that’s accurate,” he gestured to the literal pieces of trash Goro had sprayed across the alley with his kick. Goro didn’t look up from his phone, or stop typing. “But still. Even trash has feelings.”

“Like I give a shit. Letting those fucking teenyboppers barf all those invasive fucking questions at us- their questions took up almost twice as much of the damn show as the actual interview did! Stupid fucking piece of shit motherfucking...” Goro’s growls and curses trailed off into inaudible mumbling, his thumbs still hammering away at his phone. Curious, Ren peeked over Goro’s shoulder to look at what he was doing, finding Goro typing out an Instagram post, captioning a picture of the fruit basket the TV station had given them in their dressing room. He leaned in closer to try and read the text.

Hi everyone! Ren-chan and I just finished a taping at a certain television studio for an interview that ought to air sometime this week, so keep your eyes peeled! 👀👀👀 And for those of you who were there in the audience today, please don’t spoil how it went too badly! 😂😂😂 We had soooooo much fun at the filming, and all the questions from you all made us so happy~! More soon!

Ren side-eyed Goro as the detective finished hammering out a few more sparkly emojis to the end of the post, the murderous frown on his face twisting more as he thought for a moment, then went back up to change some of the other ones he had put earlier.

Ren rolled his eyes, giving Goro a little shove. Goro just growled back and let go of the phone briefly to swat back at Ren. “You are so weird, dude. I don’t know how you can write all that kawaii stuff all the time, you hate that kind of shit.”

With a huff of satisfaction, Goro finally whacked the Post button with his thumb and pocketed his phone with a immensely tired sigh. “I hate a lot of shit, but it’s important to our work to get our names out there, just like with the interviews, so I just have to...” He took a deep, deep breath through his nose, and let it all out in a hot whoosh. “...screw on the mask a little tighter. Tighter than you have to.” Goro’s pose turned cocky, a wave of pride washing away the last dregs of rage, as it usually was able to do for Goro. “At least you don’t have to listen to them all scream and cry your real name, Ren-kun~

‘Ren’ chuckled, and gave Goro a shove of his own. “Hey, not my fault that you never had the good sense to come up with a pseudonym, back when we started out.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Goro waggled his hands at his friend. “It will be one of my greatest regrets for the rest of my days, doubtlessly, and apparently an bottomless well for your endless teasing.” He crossed his arms, and leaned back against the alley wall, dirtying the grey hoodie he had replaced his detective’s suit for when they left the studio. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, in the end. People may recognize Kurusu Akira from whatever police reports your parents filed, way back when, but it’s not as if anyone’s going to remember the name of some runaway orphan trash.”

“Hey,” Kurusu Akira said softly, moving to grasp his best friend’s arm firmly. “You aren’t trash, Goro. You never have been and you never will be.” It was a name Goro called himself with worrying frequency, if less often as the years had passed, but one that Akira would always take the time to counter when it came up.

Goro let out a noncommittal hum, then looked up into Akira’s earnest grey eyes, and softened, a little smile playing on his lips. “Not in your eyes, at least.”

They stayed there for a bit, reveling in a moment of sincerity amidst a life of masks and pretense, then at the same time moved back, straightening their outfits out, brushing themselves off, pulling on the hoods of their hoodies and pulling out plain white facemasks from their pockets. Akira offered Goro his hand, and Goro took it, the gesture shielded from any intrusive gazes by the anonymity the two had now clad themselves in.

“Home, a bath, and then some dinner, perhaps from the diner?” Goro prompted.

Akira hmmed, nodded. “Yeah, but let’s stay in tonight, I’ll make us some curry if Boss doesn’t have any leftover for us to steal. Been around too many people today as it is.”

Goro nodded his assent, and the two headed out towards home.

◄◄⧗⧗⧗◄◄
January, 2012

In a sense, it all began about a month or two after Sojiro had taken them in. The school year had just barely started, and they were both 13, so over their first few weeks there, Sojiro somehow managed to pull some strings and get them enrolled into a nearby middle school, even managing to get them in the same class together.

They hadn’t been sure what to think of Sojiro, overall- no normal person would take two runaway kids in off the street, give them food and a room in his house, and get them schooling and school supplies, all out of, what, the goodness of his heart? Sure. In the backs of their minds, they were still scared that he was some sort of pervert, but they had dealt with perverts before, and were both surprisingly strong for their age, and Sojiro smoked two packs a day and looked like a stiff breeze could make him stumble, so overall they felt safe in his home, if passively nervous.

A couple weeks into their new school careers, there had been a big test for all the students in their grade, just a general sort of assessment of their skill levels. Akira and Goro both placed at the top of their class, their ranks separated by only a bare couple of points- Akira had gotten top billing, much to Goro’s chagrin.

Chagrin that was short-lived, however, as Sojiro seemed determined to come up with some sort of reward for their efforts, and, bowing to the norms of the day, ended up buying them a mid-tier smartphone each. It was the most expensive and cool thing either of them had owned in a long time, and they accepted the gift with sparkles in their eyes. It was still kind of a suspicious move, at least according to Goro, who read a lot of crime fiction novels in his spare time and knew that ‘Rich old man giving fancy gifts to little kids’ was a classic criminal profile. But Sojiro seemed earnest- or at least, seemed gruff enough and confused enough as to how to actually interact with the two boys that their suspicion of him started to subside, if slowly.

A few days later, Goro and Akira were enjoying their new gifts in the sunny warmth of a Saturday afternoon, strolling through the neighborhoods and lines of small-time shops near Yongen-Jaya together. Sojiro had said that kids shouldn’t be stuck inside on warm Spring days and had shoved them out of his house, telling them to call him if they ran into any trouble and shoving a bit of pocket money into their hands. They thanked him, and went on their way, Goro insisting that their first stop be somewhere that sold crepes.

There had been a bakery not far from Sojiro’s house, one that sold crepes stacked high with ice creme and fruit and cheesecake and sweet swirls of cremes and syrups, and Goro finished his in what was probably world-record time. Akira got something filled with dark chocolate and candy-coated espresso beans, which Goro wouldn’t even get close to, as if he could physically feel the aura of bittersweetness that the treat gave off. Akira laughed, and they ate, and were now walking around together, full and sated.

Their stroll took them past the Yongen-Jaya subway station. Akira was fiddling with his phone, looking it over, and mentioned idly to Goro that “Even if Sakura-san turns out to be a creep, at least we got those crepes and these phones as, like, little mementos of our time here, you know?”

Goro was about to agree, and then the world turned sideways, and curled and twirled and twisted around them, the bright yellows and blues of the afternoon distorting into inky black and bloody red.

Goro and Akira were tough, and had seen a lot of shit, more than thirteen-year-olds ought to have seen by that point in their lives, but this was straight out of a horror movie. They shouted, and screamed, and ran half-blindly, clinging onto one another as they headed down into the subway, barely remembering to shove their phones back in their pockets in their panic.

By the time they’d collected themselves enough to look around, the two had ended up several turns down a wide, dark, dank, twisting tunnel. Train tracks wove and curved at odd angles beneath their feet, so misshapen and useless for actual train travel that, at the very least, they didn’t fear being run over by a subway car. But the rest of their surroundings were so, so much worse. The walls of the tunnel looked soft, and moist, and red, like the inside of their mouths, except it moved and pulsed as if it was breathing. Massive rib-like bones arced across the curve of the tunnel ceiling, and black, deathly, meaty tubes ran across the sides, looking like what they imagined the interior of someone’s body looked like after a lifetime of smoking.

It was hellish, literally straight out of a movie or video game’s interpretation of hell itself, and while the two boys didn’t fear anything as relatively mundane as being splattered by a subway train, it was the more undefined horrors their surroundings implied that made them shudder and shake with a constant, low-grade terror.

Goro, having been subject to horrible shit just a few years longer than Akira had, was the first to recover enough to speak and act. He stood up as straight as he could, and tightened his grip on Akira’s hand. “We have to find a way out of here,” he said, his voice as stern and commanding as he could make it, which was about a 6.5 out of 10 on the Sternness and Commanding scale, as far as such things went. “C’mon, Akira.”

Akira took a deep, calming breath- or at least started to, before he realized that this place might not be too safe to breathe in, so in the end he took half a deep, calming breath, and was halfway calmed when he nodded back. The two set off, retracing their steps the best they could in what they hoped desperately was the right direction.

What felt like hours later, but was most likely only a few minutes, really, Goro proclaimed “I think we’re about halfway there,” going straight off of his gut and instincts.

“R-right. Good.” Akira nodded shakily, clutching Goro’s hand all the tighter. They rounded another corner in the tunnel-

-and all hell broke loose.

A massive, disfigured creature stood before them, halting mid-step as it caught sight of them. Akira and Goro froze, and the beast howled, and they screamed, and they screamed louder as it seemed to peel itself into sixths down the middle, the pieces falling to the ground and then reforming into each other as a burst of dark, shadowy haze surrounded the creature. The boys still screaming, the haze dissipated to reveal a smaller, but still massive mound of what looked like slime and sludge and snot in front of them, but it had a fucking face, and the face roared and snarled at them, and the blob lurched towards Goro.

It lurched specifically towards Goro, as if it could only attack one boy at a time, and chose him.

In Goro’s perspective, time slowed down. He saw the great, slobbering monster fly towards him, looking ready to tear him apart, and part of him, the part that called himself trash, and spat at his hope, and screamed that he should have joined his mother the dozens of times he had the chance, overtook the rest of his body and mind, and he froze. He closed his eyes, and Akira’s hand slipped out of his grasp, and he waited.

In Akira’s perspective, time slowed down. He saw the giant, slobbering monster fly towards Goro- Goro, the one good thing he had left in his life, Goro, the one person who had ever really, truly understood him, Goro, his partner through the best parts and the hardest parts of his short life, Goro, who he loved more dearly than anything or anyone else in the world-

He screamed “NO!” at the top of his lungs, and dove in front of his friend-

Time slowed down further, and froze, and Akira’s head erupted in a blast of pain.

He tried to clutch at his head, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe or speak or cry out. A voice, deep and dark and evil and yet full of a warmth Akira had no name for spoke through his mind.

“Aha... your resolve is so strong, for one so little... yet greater thieves have been made even littler yet. Tell me, you who would protect that which is most precious to you, even at the cost of all you know, you who would destroy the foundations of your world if it meant a year, a day, a lifetime longer with that which you cherish, you who would steal the very stars from the skies to sate your deepest desires...”

“Vow to me...”

Akira felt power, raw, overwhelming power flow through him, his entire being filled with something that made him feel as if he could do anything.

“Vow to me... I am thou, thou art I... let the wings of rebellion unfurl from your back, and claw out of this world the wretched cruelties that have seared endless burns onto your soul. Claim my power for thine own, and set the pious order of this world aflame with the fury of Hell itself!”

Movement returned to Akira, and, on instinct, he reached to his face, grasped the sharp corners of the mask that now layed across his eyes, and with a power not his own, and yet one that sprung from the depths of his soul at once, tore it bloodily off as he cried to the heavens-

“PERSONA!”

Materializing from nothing, a great demon burst into being in the space between the two boys and the Slime. Arsene, in all his red and black and white glory, cackled deep, harsh laughter that echoed through the tunnels. He looked over his shoulder, appraisingly, meeting Akira’s eyes. Akira smiled wickedly, and nodded, casting his hand forth and calling out, “Arsene, Eiha!”

Copying Akira’s movements, Arsene cast his own hand out towards the slime, and from it shot claws of pure shadow, black and red energy slashing straight through the monster, causing it to fall back and cry out a deathly, horrid scream. Arsene turned his clawed hand, drew it into a fist, and a cage of shadows encased and crushed the Slime, tighter and tighter, until with one final scream, it shattered and dissipated into black smoke.

Goro was stunned, both by his own pseudo-suicidal stillness, and the shock of what Akira had just done. Arsene turned to face the boys, and bowed deeply. Akira laughed, and turned to Goro, looking elated and concerned all at once. “Are you okay? Did it-”

Louder than anything, a gunshot shattered the silence of the tunnel, and from behind and above Goro, a dozen daggers of pure, harsh, cruel light flew towards Akira and the demon he summoned. They hit the demon square in the chest, and a few fragmented off and sliced into Akira, and they both went down like sacks of wet cement.

Almost mirroring Akira from before, Goro screamed out a “NO!” loud enough to ruin his throat, and whirled around to face-

Oh gods above. A monster, a demon greater than even the one Akira had summoned stood before him, a dozen feet tall, clad in blood-stained robes and bandages, faceless, headless, with two impossibly long pistols still smoking from when they shot Akira.

from when they shot Akira

from when they shot-

NO!!!!!!” Goro screamed again, more ragged, more vicious, full of all the pain and loss and horror of his 13 years of life. He looked up at the monster-

-and heard a weak, whimpered “Goro...” from the ground behind him-

-and time froze.

Pain, pain above pain split Goro’s head open, or felt as if it had, but he could not move, could not breathe or speak or cry out. A voice, clear and noble and proud, rang through his mind like a bell.

“My thief... such injustices that have been etched onto your tiny soul... The powers that rule this world, the hate and shame of the masses, the ice in the hearts of the greedy, the cruelty of those who would call themselves kings, they have stolen all from you, again and again and again...”

“...But no more.”

“Vow to me.”

Goro’s frame, covered in scars both emotional and literal, glowed with light as power rushed through him. He felt as if he could do anything, take and hold and treasure and keep whatever he wanted, steal it from whoever dared bar him from it, and clutch it to his heart for all time.

“Vow to me... I am thou, thou art I... Let the long arrow of justice fly true, from your hand and into the hearts of the wicked. Claim as yours the treasures of this world, whether they be gold or that which are only treasures when seen through your eyes. Claim my power for thine own, and etch your name into the legends of the world as he who brought kings and emperors to their knees!”

Movement returned to Goro, and, on instinct, he reached to his face, grasped the sharp corners of the mask that now layed across his eyes, and with the power of all the powerless of the world screaming out for justice, he tore it bloodily from his face and cried out-

“PERSONA!”

The massive, superhero’s bulk of Robin Hood formed in front of Goro, standing proudly between him and Akira and the Reaper. Goro cast his hand forth, shouted “Robin Hood, Arrow Storm!”

The persona drew his golden bow, and aimed it to the sky. He pulled back the string, and a dozen arrows of pure light materialized, before rocketing heavenwards-

-and then right back down around the Reaper. The monster staggered, seeming at least temporarily blinded, and Goro made his move. He wheeled around, and lifted Akira up from where he had fallen, his persona’s power giving him the strength to bridal-carry his friend. Robin turned around from where arrows were still falling around the Reaper, drew back his bowstring again, and shot a single arrow out above the boys’ heads, which arced and curved in a single glowing beam of light through the tunnel and curved around its turns, guiding them towards the exit.

Goro hefted Akira up, and ran to freedom.

But it was not the last time they visited Tokyo’s depths.

◄◄⧗⧗⧗◄◄
October, 2005

In a greater sense, though, it all began years and years and years ago, in a small town in the country, far from Tokyo. A town that felt far from anything and everything at all. It was surrounded by miles and miles of countryside- rolling hills, farmland, forests, huge swaths of land that the modern age hadn’t reached yet, making it feel totally disconnected from the world at large. It made the town feel all at once extremely small, and unimaginably vast- if the rest of the world was so incomprehensibly far away, didn’t that make this place a world all of it’s own?

That’s how it felt to a young Kurusu Akira, at least. Children tend to see things in huge, dramatic ways, especially those with active imaginations, and Akira’s imagination was Olympian in its activeness, or so he was told.

He saw the world differently than the adults did, differently than most of the other children in the town did, or so he was told. It wasn’t just in the way he conceptualized about the town, and the world and the like, but it was like he literally saw differently than others. A glow around certain, more well-loved parts of town, an empty, clawing feeling around shops that had been closed for decades, a bright blue hue around the edges of his closet doorframe, old toys and figures and animals and things Akira had no vocabulary to describe that he saw flitting about out of the corner of his eye, leaving only a vague impression of specialness when he peered closer towards where they had been, leaving the adults around him to shake their heads in befuddlement or amusement, leaving the kids he knew to call him weird and strange and creepy, leaving him to grow quieter and quieter as time went by.

He had lived in the town for almost three years when it happened. He was walking home from a friend’s house- they’d had had a birthday party, and their parent’s had made them invite Akira too. It was a very noisy party, but a very quiet one for Akira. He spent most of it by the window, staring outside.

Akira had been left to walk home by himself- it wasn’t far, and his Aunts didn’t like to go outside much, when they could help it, so they helped Akira memorize the thankfully small map of the town’s layout the first few weeks he was there. It was getting a little late in the afternoon, the sky starting to tinge into warmer tones, and he was about halfway home, give or take, when out of the corner of his eye, Akira saw something beautiful, something that didn’t shimmer and poof away into vague impressions and air when Akira looked its way.

A big, beautiful, sparkling blue butterfly was fluttering its way towards Akira. His mouth opened in a little ‘o’ in awe, and the bug paused in its approach, as if it noticed that Akira had finally seen it. It fluttered around the other way, and Akira heard a vague sound in his head, like a girl’s voice muffled by a dozen dozen thick blankets before it started to fly off down a road Akira had never walked down before, one that led to one of the other residential clusters of the town that he, as a child, had had no reason to visit before.

He followed, unable to look away, the small part of his brain that was sensible knowing that he’d still know how to get home, even if he took a small detour. The butterfly seemed to speed up as Akira followed, sparkling all the brighter, as if it was excited, and Akira started to feel excited too, pumping his legs all the faster to try and catch up with it, though it was far faster than a young boy could hope to match. It reached the end of the street and turned, heading down another, and Akira followed-

-to be met with a strange, beautiful sight. At the other end of the street he had turned towards, backed by the setting sun, there was another butterfly, the mirror image of the one Akira had been following, and standing right behind it, another boy, most definitely not the mirror image of Akira himself, but familiar-looking all the same. He was hard to see clearly, with the sun glaring from just above and behind him, but he looked around the same size as Akira, so he was probably the same age. His clothes looked a little baggier on his frame than Akira was used to seeing, and his hair was choppy and long and dazzling with the sunlight playing so directly on it, bringing out shades of brown and red and blonde that Akira could see more and more clearly the closer they drew to each other.

Wait, what? Akira looked down, and, yes, without his conscious volition, his feet had started carrying him towards the other boy. He looked back up, seeing his counterpart looking back up at the same time, seeming just as confused and mesmerized as Akira felt.

They reached each other, and stood a couple feet apart. Akira instinctively reached out his hand, smiled a little (more than he usually did, the warm feeling in his chest making this feel more right, more natural than just some ritual of manners his parents had hammered into his head before they dropped him off at his aunts’ house and left him for parts unknown) and introduced himself, his soft voice piping out a gentle “Hi. I’m Akira.”

The other boy seemed surprised at the hand offered his way, but slowly took it and shook, his own face shy, nervous, his voice just the same, responding with a quiet, flute-like “H-hi. I’m Goro.”

“Wh-”

Akira started to speak, then stopped, as the two butterflies that had led the boys here fluttered back between them. The one that led Goro fluttered over towards Akira, and the one that led Akira fluttered to Goro. Both landed on the opposite boy’s foreheads, right in the exact center, between and above their eyes, and it didn’t feel weird, like tiny feet, but soft, and right, and true, like the caress of the tips of the fingers of the universe, or something like that. The butterflies settled, and shimmered, and burst into glimmering fragments of light, bright blue shards that rained down around the two boys, the ones that landed on their hands as warm as a third pair of hands around theirs, clasping around them reassuringly, before slowly fading away.

Akira and Goro watched the display with eyes wide, lips parted, a murmured “Whoa...” coming from them both simultaneously. They stared at their still-held hands, then at each other, their expressions of awe slipping into smiles, slipping into beaming grins.

“Wanna go play? My aunts have this cool slide and stuff in their backyard,” Akira chirped, feeling emboldened.

“Y-yeah! Let’s go!” Goro stuttered a little, old habits not close to dying hard yet, but he nodded fervently all the same.

Akira beamed all the brighter, and, not letting go of Goro’s hand, turned and started running back towards home. He heard a little noise of alarm from Goro at the sudden speed, and he laughed, and Goro laughed back, and they ran together with their backs towards the setting sun.

Maybe this time... thought Akira. I finally met someone like me!

Maybe this time... thought Goro. I’ll finally have a real friend!

Maybe this time... thought the fates, and closed their eyes to rest.

Chapter Text

October, 2005

Playdates between Akira and Goro became an instant habit. After their first meeting, they agreed to meet up every day, as soon as their classes were done, and walk together to Akira’s house to play in the yard out back. On the third day, rain clouds started to hang low over the town, and while neither Goro nor Akira were deterred in the least by the promise of rain, Akira’s aunts, who on any other occasion would have been too nervous to invite another family’s child into their home, cracked open the sliding back doors and gestured for the two boys to come in, before they got soaked.

Akira’s aunts were kind people, if extremely tense ones. From what Akira knew, which wasn’t much, considering his age, they had fallen in love as young girls, weathering the scorn from the rest of their family as best they could, but mostly coping with it by isolating themselves from the rest of the world. The rest of the town didn’t seem to like them very much, gave them strange looks whenever they ventured out with Akira to shop for clothes or anything else they couldn’t order online. Akira didn’t understand it much, but he didn’t have to, at his age.

The two boys made their way inside, and when Goro seemed semi-frozen from nervousness, Akira took his hand, gave him a patient smile, and promptly yanked him inside, earning a startled admonition from his Aunts, and an equally startled, but infinitely brighter laugh from Goro himself.

Akira’s aunts wiped off what dirt had stained their clothes, and then let them loose to play. It was a lovely afternoon, as all afternoons had been for the two boys since their meeting, full of laughter and imaginary adventure and fervent talks about things that would be utterly nonsensical to anyone else.

Inevitably, night fell, and one of Akira’s aunts, a short, mousy woman named Itsuka, who had long auburn hair that rolled in waves down to the middle of her back, bent down to ask Goro where he lived, so they could walk him home. When she saw him hesitate, saw in his eyes a particular kind of reluctance to return home that she was all-too familiar with, her smile shifted slightly, and she asked for their phone number instead, so she could see if they’d be alright with him staying over for the night.

Goro lit up like the Christmas displays they set up in the small town’s center each year, and told her, and she went to call. Akira watched her walk off, then turned a mischievous look Goro’s way.

“Wanna go spy?” He asked, a sneaky grin curling his lips.

Goro looked confused, cocked his head to the side cutely (though most things he did were pretty darn cute, if you asked Akira). “Spy? How so?”

Akira gestured to Goro to follow him, as he got up and into a low half-crouch. “Just walk like I do. We’ll sneak over and listen in on the call, see what she says when she thinks we’re not there. It’s fun!”

He was halfway towards the hallway his Aunt had disappeared down, when Akira looked back to find Goro still sitting on the floor. Akira made a confused noise, and Goro just shook his head in response. All sneakiness instantly forgotten, Akira ambled back over to Goro, put a small hand on his knee. “What’s wrong?”

“I... I don’t want to have to hear them talk any more than I have to,” Goro whispered, his way of speaking so formal, always so formal, and so cute for it.

The cuteness was way less important this time, though, cause Goro seemed really sad about this, as far as Akira could tell, which confused him. “You don’t wanna hear my Aunt talk?”

Goro perked up in shock, quickly shaking his head and waving his hands. “No! No, your Aunt is really nice, both of them are. I meant my... parents, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“It’s...” Goro looked even sadder, if possible, gaze drooping to his lap. “It’s complicated.”

Akira could bet it was complicated, from the way his new friend looked. Sometimes, one of his Aunts would come back from getting the mail, or signing for a package too big to be delivered to their door, and they’d look sad and tell Akira that it was 'complicated,’ when he asked them what was wrong. They’d have almost the exact same look then that Goro did now, like their hearts got lost somewhere on their way back home, and their bodies felt really lonely without them.

So, Akira did the only thing he knew to do in these situations, what he had seen each of his Aunts do when the other one of them got this sad. He’d goof it up until Goro felt happy again. And the best way to start a goof?

“Hey Goro?” Akira started, gentle and warm.

Goro looked up, to find Akira wasn’t where he had been sitting before. He looked back and forth, confused, and was about to call out Akira’s name when he felt two small hands sneak onto his ribs from behind and begin to tickle him like crazy.

He went down in a fit of squeals and giggles, and the somber mood from before was quickly forgotten.

--

“Hello, is this the Mikoshiba residence?”

A sigh from the other side, a rough voice. “Yeah? You better not be some damn sales call, or whatever.”

“Oh, no no, this is Kurusu Itsuka, little Akira’s aunt. Your son, Goro, he’s come over to pl-”

“Huh? So that’s where the little shit’s gotten to. Hey, Aoi, the twerp’s out on a playdate!” Loud, disbelieving laughter sounded off distantly on the other end of the line.

Itsuka’s finger toyed nervously with the phone cord. “Yes, he’s here playing with our nephew, they’ve been playing together here for the past three d-”

“Yeah, yeah, we got it. Why the hell’re you callin’ us at this hour of the night, then? Did the little fucker break something? Huh?”

“No, he-”

“You can beat him for it if you want, would sure as hell save us the trouble of doin’ it when he gets back!” Raucous laughter from the other end this time.

Itsuka’s grip on the phone cord was very tight now. “Nothing has been broken, Mikoshiba-san. I called to ask if you would give him permission to stay over at our house for the night. He looks very worn out from playing-”

“Huh? Fuck, sure lady! Keep the lil’ twerp for all we care, one less mouth to feed, am I right honey?” A muffled ‘You sure are!’ rang out from the distance. “Less time he’s over here, the more yen we get to keep from the government for ourselves! Only reason we adopted the bastard in the first place, huh honey?”

Deep breath in. Slow release. Count to three. “I understand. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you our address and telephone number, if you l-”

“Ah, we don’t give a shit, lady- huh? What?” A sloppy sound, like a wet palm hitting a phone receiver, which was probably exactly what it was, muffled up whatever was said on the other end. Another wet sound as the hand was moved away. “Ah, actually, you might as well tell us. Those government people like to drop in at random, I guess, to make sure we haven’t killed the kid or whatever, so we might yank him from ya then. Just make sure you don’t leave too many bruises, alright? You know what they say, phonebook’s a parent’s best friend! No marks! Hahahah-”

Itsuka cut off the horrid laughter with a sharp, loud cough, and a rushed recitation of their address and number. She tersely wished them a pleasant evening, and slammed the phone down onto its cradle, then slid down the wall to bury her face in her hands and muffle a scream of rage. 

A few moments passed before she was able to collect herself, and get back to her feet. She brushed dust off from her skirt, took several deep breaths, and went to tell the children.

Gods above, Itsuka would need at least several metric tonnes worth of snuggles from Hikaru later that night...

--

A while later, after Goro had been thoroughly tickled and teased out of his dour mood, and the boys had gone back to playing with some sentai action figures of Akira’s, his aunt reappeared from the hallway with a big smile on her face. “Goro-chan? Wonderful news! Your parents said you can stay the night- and not only that, you can stay here any and every night, if you wish!”

Goro’s eyes sparkled, full of wonder. “R-really?”

Itsuka nodded, walking towards them and kneeling down to their height. “Really really. They may call you back to their house from time to time, just to check in and make sure you’re alright, but they said that you can treat our house as your home away from home, whenever you like.”

Akira let out a wild whoop of joy, tackled Goro in a victorious hug that sent the two boys laughing to the carpet. “Yeah! This is gonna be so great, huh Goro?”

Goro still seemed a little dazed, as if unsure this was really happening, but nodded. “Y-yeah. It really is, isn’t it?”

Akira hooted and hollered again, and Itsuka shook her head fondly at the noise. She moved to pat Akira’s head and tug him off of Goro with a soft admonishment. “Don’t suffocate him, Akira, honestly. Now, you go off to wash up for the night, and pick out a spare set of pyjamas for Goro-chan, alright?”

Akira nodded, fast as a jackhammer, and dashed off to the bathroom-

-then paused, and crept back to the corner of the hallway, spying back into the living room, curious.

He found Itsuka sitting next to Goro, a hand on his back, and muttering softly to him. Akira had sharp hearing, and was able to mostly make out what she was saying.

“...know what it’s like to have parents like that, Goro-chan. I promise, it’ll get better, eventually.”

Goro sniffled, face looking wobbly from what Akira could see. “They aren’t my real parents. They’re just the people who adopted me this month...” A loud sniffle. “They don’t care... they never do, they just- they just take me in and lie and say it’s gonna be okay but it’ll never be okay-”

Itsuka scooped Goro up into a tight hug, and he clung to her blouse as the waterworks began. “There there, sweetheart, there there...” she murmured, petting his hair slowly, the same way she soothed Akira when he got upset. “Akira and Hikaru and I are going to take care of you, I swear on my heart.”

Goro just sniffled and cried more, clinging tighter to Akira’s aunt. Akira moved away from the corner, and after wiping his eyes on his shirt sleeve, went to do as he had been told.

Goro was gonna get super snuggled tonight, if Akira had anything to say about it. He’d do anything to make sure nothing made his friend that sad ever again.

►►⧗⧗⧗►►
April, 2015

A couple weeks after their annoying-but-important interview taping, Goro and Akira’s names were on the lips of every twitter stan account, thedetectiveprincesholdcourt.org, which they used as a sort of digital office space for their burgeoning detective agency, was busier than ever, and they were heading back home from the first day of their second year of high school.

Akira was sending a last wave goodbye to the crowd of first-year girls (and some boys) who had rushed down to the entrance hall of the academy so they could give their regards to the famous duo, with still-ringing cries of “Hi, Akechi-san!” “Here’s to a great year with the Detective Princes!” and several “See you tomorrow, Ren-senpai!!!!”

As soon as they were out of sight of the school, turning down a street that led to the nearest subway station, Akira dropped his hand at long last and wiped it off overdramatically on his school blazer. “That... never gets any less weird, huh?”

“Not in the slightest, no,” Goro nodded awkwardly, one hand massaging his jaws from the ache of the big, fake smile he wore in front of the fans. Ache gone, he stretched his limbs out, letting loose an undefinable sound as he worked out the tension in his muscles. “Principal Isshin is just as much of an old fart as ever, isn’t he? That welcome speech felt at least a decade long.”

“You’re not wrong...” Akira nodded, before gesturing grandly. “As is said in the halls of the learned, dear Goro, the older one’s body becomes, so too does one’s farts.”

Goro snorted out a laugh in that inelegant way of his that Akira loved so dearly, and whacked him on the arm. “Idiot,” he chuckled fondly.

They got onto the train together, headed towards Shibuya, to relax a little before they went home. While on the train, their phones got a notification from the group chat they’d set up with the few genuine friends they’d made over the course of their detective work. Akira tapped through to the chat app, Goro leaning over his shoulder to watch the screen as he did so, and they both snorted as one when they saw what the message was about. Ryuji was complaining about a new uniform the Shujin students were assigned that day, and had attached a picture of himself wearing it.

“He... he looks like the world’s worst choir boy...” Goro barely managed to get out through his snickers. Akira nodded, fighting a losing battle against the grin on his face. It was mean to make fun of their friend like this, but Ryuji really did look like a choir boy in that outfit; a big, frumpy white smock over a white-collared black dress shirt, with baggy black slacks. All of the style of Shujin’s old outfit was completely gone, and it looked absolutely ridiculous. 

Akira scrolled through his phone’s emoji list, trying to find something that looked sufficiently sympathetic, failed to find anything like that, and just typed “That’s rough, buddy,” in instead, then closed out the app. Akira still couldn’t wipe the grin off his face for several minutes after that, and he and Goro riffed on making fun of it for the rest of the train ride.

When they finally got off at Shibuya station, they decided to grab some fries at the Big Bang Burger, as a reward for sitting through all those shitty speeches. They did so, and were munching on them side-by-side in one of Big Bang's booths, talking about nothing important-

-until something caught their eye outside the window, across the street. There was a strange, blue glow emanating from inside the sketchy-looking alley over there, but nobody passing by seemed to be reacting to it at all, even as it grew brighter and brighter and brighter...

Akira blinked, and found himself and Goro standing in front of the alley, with no memory of having walked there. He shared a confused look with Goro, before something tugged at them from the alley, like a twin harpoons had shot out and lodged themselves in the boys’ guts, and were now trying to reel them in.

They looked at each other, then towards the alleyway, and their mouths dropped open at the sight they beheld, a half-eaten fry falling from Goro’s lips to the ground below.

In the back corner of the alley stood a free-standing, glowing, bright blue door. The doorframe looked like something straight out of a horror film, clearly once having been intricately carved and polished, great swooshes and fleur de lises of wood spanning out from the edges, but looking as if the last time the thing had been cleaned was easily a hundred years ago. Now it looked chipped, worn, large chunks of paint having fallen off to reveal the rotting wood underneath. The door itself was no better off, hinges rusted, marked with dents and scratches as if it had just barely been able to keep out legions of wolves, desperately trying to break in. 

The door was cracked open, just far enough for a small, scared-looking young girl with floor-length, straight silver hair and an elegant-if-ragged blue dress to poke her head and arm out. When her bright yellow eyes had caught Akira and Goro’s, she perked up, looking relieved, and gestured furiously at them to come over.

Akira felt confused and more than a little scared. He and Goro had been using Mementos and all its strange, otherworldly magic for years now, to make their careers, but outside of the strange app on their phones that gave them passage to and from its endless depths, they had never seen a similarly magical manifestation in the real world. Even with all they had seen, this was different, it was... new, and probably not in a good way. 

The scepticism must have been clear on the boys’ faces, as the girl just sighed, looking deeply tired. She closed her eyes for a moment, focusing very intensely, and reached out her hand-

-to let a very familiar-looking blue butterfly flash into exitance atop her palm.

The boys gasped as one. It was smaller, and much weaker-looking than the twin butterflies they remembered so vividly from their childhood, but it was unmistakable all the same. Without a second more of hesitation, they walked over to the door side-by-side. The girl opened her eyes to see them very close indeed, and meeped audibly in surprise, before retracting herself back through the doorway and opening it up further from the inside, to reveal a mass of glowing blue energy- a portal.

The boys took each others’ hands, squeezed for reassurance, and stepped through as one, the doorway just big enough for them to walk in together.

The world shifted around them as they passed through, the same feeling engulfing their bodies and minds as whenever they passed into Mementos, and fading away just as quickly. They opened their eyes, and looked around their new surroundings.

They were inside what looked to be a large, grand living room, the kind you’d see in old American movies about wealthy southerners. Four walls surrounded them, lined with doorways and passageways and little tables topped with plants and busts. In the back was a large, sweeping staircase that led somewhere shadowed that neither of the boys could see. Directly in front of them was, well, a living room, in the western style. A circle of plush chairs and couches and loveseats took up the center of the room, upholstered in the same deep blue that colored everything else here. On the far side of the circle, there was a large, freestanding fireplace, the bricks and flame also blue, the blue metal chimney leading up into the shadowed, ceilingless heavens above. The most space was taken up by one large, high-backed loveseat, wide enough for two, an equally large table, and, in front of the fireplace, a grand armchair, in which was curled up a strange and sickly looking old man.

Somewhere in the distance, a piano accompanied a rousing, operatic solo sung by the most beautiful female vocalist either of the boys had ever heard. It would have all been almost intimidatingly grand, were it not for the thick coating of dust that covered everything inside the room, spiderless cobwebs and dead or dying potted plants accentuating the feeling of decay that permeated the air inside.

As Goro and Akira gawked at their surroundings, the old man in the armchair let out a wheezing, lurching series of coughs. The girl that had brought them in meeped again, and rushed over to him, patting his back and putting a small hand on his long, bony fingers as he reeled from the spasms. The moments he took to calm down were enough for Akira and Goro to gather themselves and walk further into the room, still cautious, but just as concerned. Whatever this place was, whoever these people were, they were clearly responsible, somehow, for the two boys meeting in the first place, all those years ago. That put them in the boys good books, and pretty damn high up in the rankings too.

The old man seemed to finally collect himself, patting the young girl’s hand before gesturing towards the loveseat sitting across from him, imploring the boys to sit. With a light, creaky voice, he intoned tiredly “Welcome to the Velvet Room, gentlemen. My name is Igor. Please, take a seat.”

They did so, and the man bowed his head slightly in thanks, his absurdly long nose making the movement look a lot bigger than it actually was. He looked them both in the eye in turn, the small smile on his lips softening what would have otherwise been a very intimidating gaze, his wide eyes framed by incredibly bushy eyebrows as they were. “Akira Kurusu. Goro Akechi. We have, as I am sure you are now aware, been watching over the two of you for some time. Long ago, I tasked my assistant, Lavenza,” he gestured to the girl standing by his side, who bowed to the boys, the bejeweled blue butterfly that they could now see on the headband she wore catching and reflecting the scant light from the fireplace. The old man- Igor- continued. “To orchestrate a meeting between the two of you as children. This was a carefully calculated action, one that has put Lavenza, myself, and the Velvet Room itself, into a state of near-constant danger for the past decade, give or take a few years.”

The boys’ faces twisted, unsure how to feel about that. On one hand, they were obviously grateful, but on the other... well, it was never good to hear that your fortune came at another’s expense. Igor kept speaking, however, after a short pause to catch his breath and rub his nose with a long, bony finger. “Despite that cost, after consulting every divination method allowed to us, we concluded that this was the best possible path we could have taken, leading, we hope, to the best possible future. One where, united, two fools and their allies will overturn the corrupted order of society and usher back the miraculous chaos of life.”

Akira grew thoughtful at that, pondering the old man’s words, but Goro just scoffed, pride first and foremost in his heart as always. “Two fools, you say? Is that supposed to ref-”

“Please,” Igor interrupted, raising a hand, which, as the boys looked more carefully, were shaking pretty seriously with the effort. “There is not much time. It was only now, as our enemy’s eye was turned towards another, that were were able to reach out to the two of you. It will be a great while before we are able to speak again, so I beg of you to listen carefully.”

Goro clamped his mouth shut, twitching a little in irritation, but soothed at the touch of Akira’s hand to his own. The dark-haired boy nodded, said softly “Go on.”

Igor leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “There is a danger approaching your world, one mightier than any of your kind have encountered before. It will bring with it a battle, one fought in the hearts of the many and with the hands of a very select few. You two shall be the flag-bearers of what little resistance there will be, the fate of far too many weighing down your shoulders. But I beg you to bear it, to overcome this burden and tear down the false sun that will attempt to drown the world with its light. You will not fight alone, and this will not be the last time we speak, but it will be a fight of a bare few, not even a dozen, against the wrathful armies of the powerful. I implore you to prepare as best you can for what is to come.”

That seemed to be all the old man, if he was a man at all, was capable of saying, and he sunk further into the cushions of his chair, wheezing lightly. The young girl, Lavenza, hesitated by his side for a moment, then strode over to the two boys, who were sitting in stunned silence at what they’d just been told. Softly, she took their linked hands in her own, and smiled at them in a very reassuring way. “I know what my master has said may seem unfair. Absurd, even, but I ask that you take his warnings to heart. This shall be a terrible battle, with terrible foes, but I know in my heart that you two will triumph over it all, together.”

Still shocked into silence somewhat from everything Igor had said, Akira sttruggled to collect himself enough to thank the girl for her kind words, or at least try. As he looked more closely at her, however, it was clear that Lavenza had her eyes locked on Goro’s other hand, not the one she and Akira were holding, but that was, Akira realized with a fair bit of amusement, still holding a small carton of Big Bang fries. 

Lavenza licked her lips, and, looking embarrassed as he put together the pieces too, Goro offered her the carton. “Uhm, here.”

The small girl meeped again, flushing deep at having been caught staring, and waved her hands in front of her face fervently. “Oh, no, I could never, I’m so terribly sorry for-”

Goro just shoved the fries into her waggling hands, forcefully closing her fingers around the cardboard. “Please, just take them. O-or, consider it a gift of thanks, for guiding Akira and I to one another, back then. I’d hate to think how my life would have ended up if we hadn’t met that day...”

Akira scratched the back of his neck, chuckling a little, then dumped his own fries into Lavenza’s box. “Yeah, honestly we owe you a lot more than some gross fries for that,” He said, nudging Goro, who sputtered testily at the implication that he gave a really shitty thank-you gift, which he had, but still. “But hey, you said we’ll see you again, right?”

Lavenza’s eyes were locked on the carton of fries, looking way more emotional than anyone should at a bunch of salty, greasy potato sticks. She looked back towards Akira when she processed what he had asked, though, and nodded fervently.

Akira smiled, soft and honest, the kind of smile he only used around people he truly trusted. “Well, then how about you consider these a promise of a lifetime’s supply of junk food, the next batch to be delivered the next time we see each other. Sound good?”

Both boys blushed at the sheer emotion welling up behind Lavenza’s eyes at Akira’s words, and she nodded furiously, a small gloved hand wiping at the tears in her eyes. “Y-yes! Thank you so much, my tricksters, I... thank you!”

Akira’s smile grew, and Goro smiled a little too, if moreso from a sad sense of familiarity with what he saw in Lavenza than anything else. In the orphanages he had stayed in, and in his own mirrors, Goro had seen that kind of look many times before, where someone was so starved for something, anything good to happen to them, that even the smallest thing, even a gift of fries and a promise of burgers upon burgers to come was enough to bring them to tears. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time, Goro knew that unlike most of the adults he and the other orphans had known, he and Akira would keep their promise, come hell or high water. 

The three kids stayed there for a bit, letting the softness of the moment linger, before there was a horrifically loud banging from the door they had entered through, loud and mighty enough to make the entire room shake, sending some of the busts toppling to the dusty blue carpet. Lavenza quickly collected herself and put her hand back on the boys’ hands. “For now, you must go. Be careful, my tricksters, and be strong. I believe in you!” 

Akira and Goro opened their mouths to reply, and a blinding blue glow enveloped them, and all noise and sensation faded-

-and their eyes snapped open, and the world faded back into place, and the stench of grease and low-quality meat flooded their senses. They were back in the booth they had sat in earlier, at the Shibuya Big Bang Burger. 

It took the boys a few moments to gain their bearings, but once they did, they exchanged looks, and raced out of the restaurant, over towards the alleyway from before-

-only to find it empty. The door was gone, with no sign left behind that it had ever been there to begin with. All they could see was a dirty, boarded-up storefront tucked into the corner of the alley, colored by the excess green light glowing from the sign of the model gun store from where the alley curved away.

They just stood there and stared at the empty space for a while, thoughts spinning around in their heads like the clothes inside a washing machine. Akira struggled to make sense of it all; everything they had seen, everything the strange old man had told them, the equally strange young girl, her connection to Akira and Goro’s first meeting, the implications of that, the implications of everything that had been said to them...

He groaned, ran his fingers through his hair before letting his arms droop tiredly to his sides. “C’mon, Goro,” he sighed, turning away from the alley. “We aren’t gonna achieve anything just by standing here.”

Goro sighed, but followed Akira as he led the way back to the train station. “You’re right, of course... what the hell was all that?”

Akira shrugged. “A warning, I guess, but it wasn’t like they told us anything specific. We can look into it after school tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed.”

“Mm, me too,” Goro agreed, sighing again. “Let’s stop by Leblanc on our way back to the apartment. I could really go for a coffee after all of that.”

Akira grunted assent, and continued to lead the way home, trying as best he could to muffle the whirring noise of the thoughts still spinning around in the back of his mind.

--

The two boys briefly considered stopping by the vending machine over by the bathhouse before heading into Leblanc, but thought better of it- it was always amusing to see Sojiro get so self-righteous about the ‘factory-made garbage you kids always love to swill,’ but they’d had a weird enough day already, and didn’t need any more drama. 

Akira opened the door to Leblanc, holding it open all classic gentleman-like for Goro, as he usually did. Goro rolled his eyes and whacked Akira’s arm lightly, as he usually did, and walked in, tossing a casual wave towards Sojiro. It was always fascinating to Akira, to watch Goro walk into Leblanc, the boy’s posture, voice, expression, mannerisms all changing, morphing- or perhaps more accurately, all the fake posturing and so forth that Goro layered onto himself throughout the day shleffing off of him like water as he entered one of the few places he and Akira could consider a true sanctuary in this city. Or anywhere else for that matter. Akira was sure the same thing happened to him, too, but Goro was always infinitely more fascinating to watch than any mirror.

He shook off his thoughtful reverie and followed Goro in, letting the door close. He made his way to his usual seat, (the one on the end, next to Goro’s) and tossed a wave Sojiro’s way too. “Hey Boss,” he grunted, clambering a little onto the stool. “How’s tricks?”

Sojiro just grunted noncommittally at them from behind the bar, having only looked up briefly from the mug he was drying to see who had come in. A more lively response came from a booth at the opposite end of the cafe, far in the back, a thin arm popping out from the cushions with a shouted “Hey-o!”

Goro jumped a little, twisting around in his seat to look towards the voice. “Futaba? What are you doing here?”

The girl in question scooted out from where she had been concealed- likely having been curled up into a weird little ball on the seat, like the gremlin she was, and scoffed at Goro, flipping him off. “Wow, rude? ‘What are you doing here,’” she mocked, doing a remarkably accurate impression of Goro’s voice. “It’s not like I never leave my room, you know!”

Still not looking up, Sojiro snorted at that. “I had to drag her away from her computers, told her to get some fresh air. Honestly, her first time outside of that room in three days-”

“Excuse me, I shower! I urinate!”

“Jesus Christ...” Sojiro muttered, thunking the mug onto the counter so he could massage his temples. “First time outside other that bathroom breaks, and does she go play outside, or go on a shopping trip or something?”

Futaba rolled her eyes and made an elongated groan. “Uuuuuugh, Sojiro, I’ve told you, this place is the only place in this sleepy little suburb, that actually has wi-fi, and that’s only because I installed it here in the first place!”

More grumbling from the Boss “Did it occur to you that maybe the whole point of me getting you out of there was to get you off of the internet? I swear, you’re gonna get worse vision than I’ve got, staring at all those screens all day...”

She didn’t seem to have a response for that one, so, after a few seconds of scowling, she turned back to her original griping target, Goro. “Okay, so maybe, yeah, I don’t leave my room much, but my room’s great! And besides, I have every right to be here- he’s my dad too, you know!”

Goro raised his hands (or at least the one that hadn’t picked up the mug of coffee Sojiro had passed to him earlier, while Akira had been oggling him) in defense, but Sojiro was the one who spoke first, seeming even more tired than usual. “I’m not the ‘dad’ of any of you punks,” he grumbled, then muttered more quietly, but still loud enough for the kids to hear. “Not legally, anyways...”

Futaba pshhhed loudly, a bit of spittle flying out from her lips as she did so. “Oh come on, Sojiro, you’re more of a parent for us than anyone else has been-” And before anyone could focus too much at how much more intense that particular sentiment had sounded, or bring up the exitance of Futaba’s very much alive, very much biologically-related mother, she barreled loudly and clumsily forwards. “-a-and besides, who gives a fuck about the laaaaw, anyways? Huh?”

“Futaba, language...”

She ignored him. “Why does some stuffy Pheonix-Wright-ass judge get to decide that stuff, huh???”

Goro raised an eyebrow, and mercifully chose to ignore Futaba’s first complaint, though he most definitely made a mental note to bring it up with her later, privately. “Wasn’t Pheonix Wright a defense attorney in those games?”

Akira nodded, now also equipped with rejuvenating caffeine. “Yeah, and a judge doesn’t decide the law, just the punishments for breaking the law. You want a lawmaker... actually I’m pretty sure there wasn’t ever a character in those games that was a lawmaker, unless you count the royalty in the last game-”

“Seeeeeee!!!” Futaba pointed overdramatically to Akira.

“-which wouldn’t really work as a comparison, since I think one of the major themes of that whole game was that royalty shouldn’t be above or in charge of the law, so-”

“Oh come on!!!!!!” Futaba flopped back into the booth seat, splaying her limbs everywhere in frustration.

Goro chuckled lightly, took a sip of his coffee, then chimed in chidingly. “Besides, more than half the people in this room work,” he gestured to himself and Akira, “or have worked,” he gestured to a tired Sojiro, “in law enforcement, Futaba. Are you really going to try and say the law doesn’t matter when it’s what puts bread on our table, metaphorically speaking?”

Futaba shot back up again, sticking an accusing finger towards Goro. “Mothefucker, you wouldn’t have a job if the law worked the way it should! You think anyone would complain on our forums if the cops actually gave a shit about them in the first place-”

Sojiro slammed his hand down on the counter, glaring at Futaba, who jumped and meeped loudly at the sudden noise. “Futaba, I swear I will pull our internet machine out by the damn wires if you don’t watch your language.” She waved her hands placatingly, faster than the eye could track, and mimed zipping her lips to Sojiro, who just sighed. All three kids ignored the fact that Sojiro just called a router the ‘internet machine.‘ Sojiro sighed again, twice in a row now, and Akira made a mental note to bother Sojiro about quitting smoking again, if his lungs were bad enough that he was doing shit like sighing noisily twice in a row. “Honestly, that’s half the reason I wanted to get you off the damn thing in the first place. I dunno where you go online, but it must have seriously warped your idea of what’s an acceptable way to talk in public, young lady...”

“Yeah, not gonna argue that one...” Futaba muttered instinctively, then zipped her mouth closed again, several times, at a glare from Sojiro.

Goro turned and smiled serenely at Akira, sarcasm etched into every other part of his face. “You were right, Akira, this is the perfect place to unwind.”

Akira just rolled his eyes and kicked softly at Goro’s leg. A peaceful quiet did finally fall on the cafe, and to the sound of Futaba’s fervent clacking on her keyboard, the two boys sipped their drinks, idly scrolling through their phones as Sojiro finished cleaning up behind the bar.

Eventually, Goro lifted his gaze from his screen and turned slightly over his shoulder towards Futaba. “Oh, by the way Futaba, has there been anything noteworthy posted on the site recently?” He had been planning to check in later that evening, but since she was here, there wasn’t any real point in waiting.

Mumbling something that could have been “Mmmidunno lemmecheck,” or could have been completely random gibberish, Futaba started clicking and typing more deliberately into her laptop. They checked in like this about twice every week, ever since Futaba had taken over moderating their website.

Or, more accurately, had stolen the role of moderator from Goro shortly after she built the site for them, because he was, quote, “slower than old turtles fucking when it comes to banning assholes or shutting down off-topics, and I’m not gonna let your shitty moderating ruin my perfect, beautiful masterpiece of coding,” unquote. Goro had only been moderating for a week at that point, but it was apparently enough for his skills to be deemed unredeemable. Now, over a year later, Goro could concede that she had made the right choice. thedetectiveprincesholdcourt.org was a decently busy, extremely well-organized hub for their business now, and without it, and the many well-encrypted venues for reporting crimes and illicit behavior that Futaba had coded into it, he and Akira would still be digging through the little wooden request box Akira had made for them and placed in the entry hall of their school, back when they first started.

Futaba’s scroll wheel grinded softly as she looked through whatever notes she had been making, then she let out a noncommittal “Meh. Nothing really alarming. Most of it’s garbage as usual, but there are a couple creepy stalkers and weird teachers for you to look into when you have the time. Doesn’t seem urgent, just annoying.”

“Hmm..” Goro demurred. After their last interview had aired, there had been a brief flurry of new activity on their site, as usually happened after they made a TV appearance, but after they had worked quickly through those cases, Mementos making quick work of getting evidence and confessions as usual, they’d settled into a nice lull. The peace was nice, but... well, they usually only got paid for cases that actually involved criminal actions, not just stalkers and shitty authority figures, and the private servers Futaba rented for them weren’t cheap. “Perhaps we should arrange another interview, as much as I dislike the idea.”

Futaba grumbled, but assented. “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I’ll put some feelers out, shoot some emails to our contacts, see if there’s a slot open soon-”

Her speech was increasingly becoming mumbled and incoherent, but was cut off all the same as the door opened again, bell jingling loudly to mark the new customers entrance. Sojiro turned, straightening up a little, towards the door, let out a gruff “Welco-”

His eyes adjusted to the sunlight streaming in, then, recognizing the customer, he trailed off into a grumbled “Oh, it’s just you. Come on in...”

Akira and Goro turned to look, just in time to catch Kitagawa Yusuke bow low in Sojiro’s direction. “My apologies, Sakura-san. If I am intruding upon a private family gathering, I can most certainly come back another time.”

Sojiro shook his head, gestured vaguely to one of the bar stools. “Nah kid, you’re fine, come on and take a seat. I’ll heat up some curry for you- and it’s ‘Boss,’ remember?”

Yusuke quickly straightened back up and hurried to the offered seat, the promise of free food overriding any of the formal politeness he had opened with. “Ah, yes, my thanks Boss-san. I will try harder to remember.”

Sojiro just mumbled and grumbled, muttering “Someday I’m gonna get an actual paying customer in this place...” to himself as he went to heat up the stove.

Getting seated, Yusuke turned to half bow at the two boys smiling amusedly at him. “Goro-san, Ren-san, a pleasure to see you.”

Goro bowed his head back, smiling, and Akira rolled his eyes, reaching over past Goro to bat Yusuke lightly on the top of the head. “You can call me Akira in here, Yusuke, nobody’s watching" After taking care of Madarame, about half a year ago, and subsequently helping Yusuke get out from underneath the corrupt old man’s thumb, the three boys had become fast friends, all weird outcasts in their own rights, and Yusuke had quickly amalgamated into their inner circle- and thus, had become trusted enough to be let in on Akira’s real name. After everything they’d gone through, it wasn’t as if he’d go running to the cops.

 Akira settled back into his seat, helped generously by a rough shove from Goro to get Akira the hell out of his lap, as Yusuke rubbed his head with a soft, slightly put-apon ‘ow.’ Reseated, Akira looked at Yusuke curiously, his observant eyes running over the boy’s features. He looked tired, but tired in that way where he was still buzzing with a creative energy that his body was starting to be unable to keep up. Akira hummed, then tested the waters. “Seriously Yusuke, first Boss, now you’re calling me Ren? You sleeping alright?”

Yusuke blinked a few times at Akira before the question seemed to register, then he nodded a little. “Hm, yes, I suppose I’m sleeping the requisite amount, more or less. I have simply... well, there has been a flurry of assignments given to me at school recently, all with rather tight deadlines. Thus I have been forced to chase the spark of inspiration as far as it will take me, whenever the opportunity arises.”

Akira nodded, taking a sip of his coffee. Yusuke’s art school had started a week or two earlier than his and Goro’s, and from what they had heard from Yusuke before, it wasn’t unusual for them to press him for submissions all at once, supposedly to simulate what it was like working for multiple commissions in the modern art world, or whatever. Akira privately thought it was bullshit, but Goro seemed to understand what they meant, so he let it go, trusting Goro’s judgment. 

A plate was put down gently in front of Yusuke, and a cup of coffee beside it. The lanky boy blinked curiously at the mug, then looked up at Boss for an explanation. He sighed. “It’ll perk you back up, long enough for you to eat and get back to your dorm, at least.” He nudged the cup towards Yusuke, seeing the boy hesitate- as far as Akira or Goro knew, Yusuke didn’t drink coffee, and they had never suggested it to him before, for fear of him becoming an easy addict to the stuff so he could paint 24/7. 

Sojiro just nudged the mug again, and barked a commanding “Drink,” which Yusuke quickly complied with. They let him eat and drink for a while, chatting idly to each other, before he spoke up again all of a sudden. “Ah, Futaba, I had forgotten to ask, had you-”

“I’m not modeling for you, Inari.” Futaba didn’t turn from her screen, and, as far as Akira knew, hadn’t introduced herself or otherwise announced her presence to Yusuke. Maybe they could just sense each other, two weirdos attuned to the same invisible frequency.

Yusuke seemed confused, though not offended. “Model? Heavens no. As interesting as your portrait would be, I’m sure, Sakamoto-kun is my muse as of late- speaking of which,” he turned to Goro and Akira. “Is he due to come by today? I had hoped to inquire about his availability to come by my studio, now that he has his class schedule for the semester.”

The two boys looked at each other, holding back snickers. When they had first introduced Yusuke to Ryuji and Ann, two outcasts they had also bonded with, earlier on in their detectiving careers, the artist had instantly become enamored with Ann- which made sense, after all, she did model professionally in her spare time, and theoretically at least, modeling was modeling, whether for a camera or a canvas. After her first ‘session’ with Yusuke, though, she had point-blank refused any further requests, finally admitting to the whole group that Yusuke had opened their session by asking her to strip naked, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, at which she had slapped him and stormed out.

He had explained later that he simply preferred drawing the naked human form first, both for its beauty, and because it was his habit to start any artwork he made of actual people clothesless, and build from there in latter works. Understandably, though, after what she had suffered at Kamoshida’s hands, Ann had no interest in being a part of any of that.

Ryuji, on the other hand, when Ann finally told them all the story, had laughed so hard he had actually fallen out of his seat, clutching at his sides and rolling on the floor of the mall where they had been talking. Something about that, perhaps the way Ryuji’s face lit up when he laughed, or how free he looked, or maybe just the hint of muscled physique that Yusuke had gotten a glimpse of as Ryuji’s shirt rode up from rolling around had caught the artist’s eye, and he had instantly switched over to badgering Ryuji instead of Ann.

In recent weeks, (though only after having lost a bet with Goro,) Ryuji had finally agreed, but had seemed skittish to go in for a follow-up session ever since, acting a lot more nervously around Yusuke when they all met up. Akira had been planning on bringing it up, worried that Yusuke might have done something that had made Ryuji not feel safe around him, unconsciously or otherwise, but after overhearing Yusuke commenting on how ‘stunningly beautiful,’ and ‘eye-opening’ he found Ryuji to be, the blonde’s sputtering and muttering for the artist to ‘shut the eff up, dude,’ he and Goro both realized that it was probably just a bit of goof old-fashioned embarrassment, and maybe Ryuji panicking about his sexuality, and let the matter go. They agreed to bring it up privately with Ryuji later, when he seemed calm enough to deal with that kind of talk, but for now, it really wasn’t their business.

 Goro turned back to Yusuke and shook his head, smiling. “He texted Akira earlier, complaining about a new uniform Shujin is assigning its students. I believe he’s getting fitted right now, or something, but I can ask him if he’s gotten his schedule yet, if you like.”

Yusuke shook his head, smiling back. “That’s alright. I’ll call him later tonight myself. With the help of this delicious coffee, I should have just enough energy to do so when I return to my dormitory, before collapsing face-first onto the sheets.”

Akira laughed at that, though to Goro’s ears it didn’t sound like a joke, but Yusuke chuckled along anyways, so it was probably fine. 

Overall, most things were probably fine, he thought as he turned back to his drink and Yusuke turned back to ask Futaba about some online business they were starting together or something. Yes, everything that had happened earlier in that strange blue room had been exceedingly alarming, but, well...

He looked towards Yusuke, now moving over to join Futaba in her booth, chattering away together. Towards Sojiro, giving his curry pot one last stir before he started to pack everything away for the night. Towards Akira, next to him, the lingering brightness of his laugh playing on his cheeks, in his eyes, as he looked right back at Goro.

Goro smiled, and Akira did too. They’d be fine.

Probably.

Chapter Text

April, 2015

It took about a year into their detective work for Goro and Akira to start making serious bank. Nothing absurd, they weren’t rolling in millions at the tender age of 13, but once the word of their competence and skill started getting around Tokyo, they began getting requests from people wealthy enough to give them rewards- bounties, really- for their work, in addition to the relatively meager payouts the police provided when they were able to apprehend someone who was already a wanted criminal.

After splitting their pay evenly between both detectives (and Futaba, for her tech support and general management skills,) the duo tried, every time, to pass on a cut to Sojro too, and every time, he refused. In their eyes, he had worked tirelessly to take care of them for years now, moreso than any adult figure in their lives, supporting them financially and emotionally, and he deserved something for everything he had done for them. In Sojiro’s eyes, he had only been doing what was right, and if he or any other asshole out there thought that they deserved a cheque for doing what any parent should, they could stuff it. When the duo reminded Sojrio that, by his own grumpy words, he wasn’t technically their parent, and wasn’t obligated to do any of that, he’d just get even grumpier and tell them to go outside and stop crowding his cafe.

So, eventually, the boys decided to give Sojiro their financial thanks in a different way, and dedicated part of their cashflow to renting an apartment, and fully living on their own dime. Well, Sojiro still insisted on feeding them at Leblanc whenever they came around, and insisted that they come over to his house at least once a week for dinner, claiming it was to make sure Futaba still socialized in-person with kids in her age-range. But other than that, they paid their own rent, took turns getting groceries, Akira cooked, Goro cleaned, and for the first time in a long while, they both had their own rooms to decorate and design as they wished. The apartment was still in Yongen, both because it was far cheaper to rent there, and because they didn’t want Sojiro to feel like they were up and leaving after everything he gave them (and, though neither would admit it, because they had both left home once already, and weren’t really ready to do so again, at least until college rolled around). 

So it was from there that, a day after the strange incident in the Velvet Room, Goro locked the door behind Akira and himself, and they headed off to school. He turned to start up a conversation with Akira, only to find that he had somehow made his way out the front door of their appartment building while Goro was busy with the door, whistling idly to himself. 

Goro sighed, rolled his eyes, and followed. What a troublesome guy. At least Akira was holding the front door open for Goro by the time he got there himself, and looked very faux-gentlemanly about the gesture. Goro whapped him softly on the head, and Akira chuckled, and they made their way to the Yongen-Jaya station.

The trip to school was a short one, and Goro busied himself with managing their twitter account during the ride, typing up a set of tweets he could save to drafts and publish quickly during his breaks or between classes. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Akira thumbing through a booklet of some sort- something about fishing spots in Tokyo, he believed, having caught a glimpse of it lying on their coffee table that morning. Goro shook his head fondly as he returned his full attention to his phone- he never understood Akira’s fascination with those types of touristy fluff-pieces, but Akira seemed to love the things, seemed to love absorbing as many random, potentially-useful-at-some-unforeseeable-point-in-the-future-maybe-potentially-kinda bits of information as he could get his hands on. Goro would mock him relentlessly for it, were it not for their mutual, and also very easily mockable love of schlocky, tropey paperback fiction. Goro adored pulp detective stories, Akira loved poorly-translated retellings of myths and legends from other countries, the more anti-hero the protagonist, the better, and neither brought up how trashy most of the stuff they read was. Before they met Sojrio, back when things were still bad, reading through cheap books like that was one of the few pleasures they had in life. Now, it still was one of their pleasures, but a guilty one, usually only indulged before bed, or on particularly long train rides.

The commute to their school was not a particularly long one though, only a few stops away, so travel guides and twitter it was. They soon made their way off the train, stuffing their respective paraphernalia into their pockets or bags, and headed off to school, chatting idly about the weather, what they expected from their classes this year, typical high schooler stuff. It wasn’t until they reached the gates of the school itself that they realized how... unusually quiet the rest of the students were today.

Goro and Akira attended a fairly prestigious high school, one of the best in Tokyo that a kid could attend without paying out the nose for the privilege. It was a big place, a multi-story, art-deco-looking building that housed 500 or so kids across three grades. The class sizes weren’t too stuffed, the uniforms were stuffy, but not uncomfortably so, and the teachers were... well, they had the temperament of what you’d expect from an overworked and underpaid high school teacher, but they were good at their jobs in spite of that.

More relevantly, though, the kids were not a bunch of fancy, finely-reared scions of nobility, they were as rowdy and ridiculous as most high schoolers were, at least as far as Goro had been able to tell during their first year here. So to see them now, gathered in small groups, whispering politely, sitting on benches near the front of the school, reading hefty-looking books, or just peacefully and happily making their way to their classrooms without a word... it was terribly disconcerting, to say the least. It wasn’t every student that was acting like that, a few of the more punk-type kids were still as punkish as ever, the otaku were chattering away about the new season of anime, a gaggle of Goro and Akira’s fans called out to the boys as they passed.

But those groups were in the vast minority. Goro looked at Akira as they entered the building itself, meeting Akira’s own look of confusion and concern.

Something was up.

They nodded at one another, then set their respective charming and rougish minor celebrity masks on as they made their way to the second story, and their homeroom, subtly taking note of any and every abnormality they passed by. They may have used Mementos to solve most of their detective jobs, but it still took careful observational skills and acting chops to investigate and gather evidence against the criminals, both in a more general sense, so they knew what they were getting into when they eventually confronted the person’s shadow. They had worked hard over the years to practice and refine those skills, and they were coming very much in handy now.

Their seats in their homeroom were, unfortunately, on opposite sides of the classroom from one another, so they had to try and surreptitiously text each other their findings after putting their things away for the day. Goro had spotted some odd posters, rambling vaguely about something he wasn’t going to be able to fully grasp after a casual glance while walking past them, and Akira seemed to have spotted some odd necklaces on some of the students, all sporting the same design on the attached charm.

Eventually, they had to stop comparing notes and theorizing on what the everloving fuck was going on, as their teacher arrived, a notoriously sharp-eyed hawk of a man named Kisaragi Nobuto, who, when Goro looked up to see, in place of his typical stern look and clenched jaw, was sporting a serene smile and easy, slightly-glazed look in his eyes. A reedy girl in the front row of desks called everyone to bow, but half the class didn’t sit back down again afterwards, which didn’t seem to surprise Kisaragi in the least. In fact, he smiled even brighter at the students still standing, and nodded to them before addressing the class in full. “Before we begin, if you’d be so kind, all Bound students please follow me outside for morning prayer.”

Goro and Akira glanced instinctively to one another at that, concern clear in their eyes, neither liking the sound of ‘Bound students,’ in the least, but all the students who had still been standing, and a couple more confused and nervous-looking ones who had uncertainly half-sat down all followed Kisaragi out the door. 

No teacher present to stop him from doing so, Akira rushed over the empty desks to join Goro by the window, his expression mirroring the deep concern on Goro’s face. “Okay,” he said, sounding slightly panicked. “So what the fuck was that???”

Goro shrugged helplessly, patted Akira’s arm soothingly on instinct as he looked around the class for anyone they could ask. The rest of the leftover students, though, seemed just as confused as they were, most having clustered into groups to talk about what happened, a couple seemingly unconcerned, typing away at their phones or adjusting their makeup in a compact, or just scarfing down the last of a breakfast they hadn’t been able to finish.

Akira tapped Goro’s shoulder, snapping him out of his thoughts and gesturing towards the window with a hotly whispered “Look.

Goro did, and didn’t like what he saw. Outside, the students who had left with their teacher were gathering in the sports field, along with the teachers and chunks of several other classes. They were all gathering into a large, incredibly precise square grid, and Goro thought he could recognize the Vice-Principal making her way to the front of the assembled mass to lead them in, as Kisaragi had said, what appeared to be morning prayer.

“I... very much don’t like this,” Goro said, watching the couple hundred-odd students gesture and pose and talk in tandem with the gathered staff. 

“Yeah, no shit Goro,” Akira quipped, just as unable to tear his eyes away. “The hell is all this...”

Goro stroked his chin as he watched, trying to pick up on any gesticulations or poses or symbols he could recognize as being associated with one of the major religions, but couldn’t pick out anything whatsoever. “It doesn’t seem to be an offshoot of any normal religion, from what little I know... we’ll have to ask Futaba to research this after school.”

Akira nodded. “That’s what I was thinking too. We’ll observe and document as much as we can til then, assuming they keep this up for the rest of the day.”

The gathered mass all spread their arms up to the sky and bent backwards slightly, shouting something to the heavens, all with matching looks of blissful idolatry on their faces. Goro frowned very deeply indeed. “I think it’s a very safe bet that they’ll do exactly that.”

--

It was. Beyond being absolutely insufferable in their general passive, smilely, doped-up attitude, the ‘Bound’ students and teachers also managed to interrupt classes two more times throughout the rest of the school day, for midday and home-bound prayer, at precisely the strike of noon and right in the middle of the last class of the day, respectively.

Not knowing what the hell was going on wore on the detective duo very much, Goro’s mask starting to noticeably slip by the end of the day, a few of his pent-up-rage-facial twitches popping up now and then, and Akira slipping back into several of his old nervous tics, twirling pencils far too quickly through his fingers and toying with his bangs when he didn’t have a pencil to twirl. By the time classes ended, they boys were absolutely desperate for answers, any answers at all, and flooded their group chat with Futaba with questions.

Which made it all the more frustrating that she didn’t respond to any of them. Frustrating and, after twenty or so minutes passed without a response, when she usually replied within seconds as soon as the last bell of the day had rung, very, very concerning. No response in their chat, no response to texts from either of them, no pick up when they called. Sharing looks of concern, they rushed to Leblanc as quickly as their feet and the Tokyo subway system would take them.

The lack of lights on inside the cafe only served to amplify their worry, and by the time they approached close enough and caught their breaths enough to look carefully at the door, the sign hastily taped onto the glass paneling of the door that read ‘CLOSED DUE TO FAMILY EMERGENCY,’ practically gave them heart attacks. As one, the duo rushed the short distance from Leblanc to Sojiro’s house and hammered at the door with simultaneous cries of “Boss!!!”

A few seconds later, Sojiro cracked open the door, looking sternly and disapprovingly out at the two of them. They nearly collapsed in relief that he was alright, leaning on each other a bit as he growled out “What the hell do you two think you’re doing?”

Akira was the first to regain his powers of speech, emotional distress always having affected Goro a little more roughly. He spoke, panting, and Goro let the words flow around him while he tried to get his heartbeat under control. “Sorry Boss, it’s been a really weird day, and when we tried to contact Futaba, she wouldn’t respond no matter what, and then we saw the sign at Leblanc-”

“-is Futaba-chan hurt, Boss?” Goro interrupted, recovered from the exhaustion of their mad dash and panic, but not from the worry that still ached in his bones. “What happened?”

Sojiro sighed, looking a little guilty, but mostly just immensely tired. “It’s... well, first of all, Futaba is fine. Seriously, it’s been, what, an hour since you got out of school,” he checked his watch and scoffed at what he saw. “Not even an hour! You can’t wait that long for a reply? I know Futaba’s usually attached at the goddamn cellular level to her computer, but you two can’t get so worked up every time a girl doesn’t respond to you right away! You’re sure as hell never gonna get a girlfriend that way, I’ll tell ya that.”

Goro rolled his eyes, huffing noisily. “That is so incredibly not what we’re worried about right now, Boss-”

“-or ever, really,” Akira added, almost to his own surprise it seemed, looking embarrassed and a little bashful when Goro looked over to shoot him a glare.

“...or ever, but that really isn’t the point,” Goro groused, now very much not being the time to discuss their sexualities with their guardian, before turning back to Sojiro, getting serious again.  “Boss, today at school... it was like a cult had brainwashed half the class and teachers. We were worried that something really serious had happened all over the city, and if they had tried to go after you two-”

“Now just hold on a minute, alright?” Sojiro held up a hand, and, still grumbling, Goro held up as requested. “Look, I don’t know anything about any damn cult or weird religion, but Futaba’s fine. And even if something serious like that happened, and we were cut off from communication, I’d make sure she was safe. I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve from the old days, not some withered old man just yet...” He grumbled, looking off to the side, mind having wandered a little.

Goro was going to start up again, but held it in at a touch on his arm and a steadying look from Akira. He nodded, took a deep breath, focused on calming down the rest of the way as Akira spoke for the both of them. “We’re glad you’re alright, then, Boss, and we trust you more than any other adult in this city, we just... worry a lot. Sorry.” He did that thing he does, where he scratches the back of his neck like an anime character to try and appear more meek, less threatening, then looked back up at Sojiro with earnest eyes. “Could we come in, then, and talk to Futaba in person? We really-”

He stopped at a silencing hand held up by the older man. There was a few beats of silence, and Sojiro drew in a big breath. “Sorry, kid, but... look, we’re safe here, but nobody’s in any state to talk about that stuff...” He looked back towards the inside of the house, which seemed dead silent from what Goro’s senses could tell, then back at the boys. “I’ll tell you what’s going on once... well, once things stabilize enough so I can get a clear enough picture myself. Right now it’s just a lot of family nonsense I don’t want you two getting caught up in, especially if there’s weird stuff going on out there that needs the full attention of those big detective brains you’ve got in there.” 

Sojiro gave Goro and Akira rough, if tender noogies, and the boys swatted his hand away, smiling a little. Sojiro was smiling too, fondly, but the expression only made his exhaustion all the more apparent. He stood up straight from where he had been slouching on the door jamb, and made little shooing motions at them. “Now go on, do what you two do best and I’ll... well, I’ll do my best here too. And I’ll make sure that Futaba knows to contact you, soon as things stabilize over here.”

Goro nodded, and Akira spoke for the both of them. “Thanks, Boss. Take care.”

The older man nodded, and closed the door as Goro and Akira started to walk towards their appartment. Goro sighed, spoke a little dejectedly, feeling bitter. “Family nonsense, hm? I suppose it’d make sense that he wouldn’t want us getting caught up in anything like that...”

Akira shoved him a little, kindly, gently, but a shove all the same. “Come on, he didn’t mean it like that. Actually...” Akira put his fingers to his chin, a habit that he picked up from Goro ages ago, much to Goro’s pride. “He probably meant that it had to do with Futaba’s family, not, well, Boss’s extended family of random children he’s extra-judicially adopted.”

Goro snorted at that. It was true, but still. “So, you think this has something to do with Isshiki-san?”

“Yeah...” Akira nodded, and Goro considered. It made sense, and considering how... remarkably absent Isshiki had been in her daughter’s life, at least in the time Goro and Akira had been in the picture, and how uncomfortable everything in the Sakura household seemed to get whenever she did deign to drop by, perhaps she just held a caustic, draining temperament that Sojiro wanted to shield them from. Akira continued musing, “The only thing I can’t figure out is what could have happened with her that would have been considered a ‘family emergency.’ If she’d gotten hurt, Sojiro would have looked a lot less put together, same if she and Futaba had a serious falling out or something. Other than that, though...”

“Hmm. She’s a scientist, right? I remember Boss mentioning her ‘always working in that damn lab all the damn time,’” Goro did an awful impression of Sojiro, never able to get his voice down quite that low, but it made Akira laugh all the same.

“I remember that too. No idea what kind of scientist, though.” Akira tapped his lips a couple more times, then broke into a smirk. “Maybe she’s been trying to Frankenstein some zombie up, and the one creature she brought to life was tragically burned to a crisp by a raucous mob of shithead interns.”

That broke a chuckle out of Goro, and he shook his head fondly, reaching into his pocket for their apartment keys as they neared the building’s front door, “That’s probably it, Akira, nice sleuthing.” He took a deep, slow breath, and let it all out in a slow whoosh as he went to open up the front door. “Come on, let’s go inside and compare notes from the day. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything we can do about the Futaba situation quite yet, and since that means we don’t have access to her information network, the old fashioned methods are all we’ve got.”

Akira nodded, following Goro in. “Right. Maybe there’ll be some article about it on Google, or someone else freaking out on our forum?”

“Hmm, perhaps...” They discussed their possible options for investigation, divvying up who would search ehere and start with what as they climbed the stairs to their apartment, a long, busy night unfolding before them.

--

By the time morning came around, both boys having gotten a meagre amount of sleep due to all the theorizing they had gotten into, they had come up with a couple possible explanations for what was going on the day before.

First, that somehow, without either Akira, Goro or Futaba’s vast information network picking up on it, a cult had slowly been forming throughout Tokyo over the past year, until they suddenly reached a critical mass (no pun intended) yesterday, and felt confidant enough in their amount of members or something to openly practice in public- in a public school, and a non-religious one at that. There had been some reports online that Akira had been able to dig up, mostly other students being weirded out by their classmates new behavior, or grumpy old people on social media complaining about a bunch of new, prayer-like noise their neighbors were making at odd hours. One person on Akira and Goro’s forums, claiming to work in the courts, had even said that the judge she transcribed for had interrupted a case to call the prosecution team and half the audience out to pray.

It was wholly possible that all this had just been simmering under the surface for a long time now, and yesterday just happened to be the day it all boiled over, but both Akira and Goro doubted that possibility, all things considered. Even if the organizers of this group were being incredibly sneaky about their business, Futaba would have picked up something, something about groups of people changing their schedules all of a sudden, or going to new websites for recruitment, or even downloading recorded sermons or watching livestreams of prayer sessions, there would have had to have been some record, somewhere online of their activities, whether they were keeping things secret or not, especially if the group was as big as they seemed to be. And even if Futaba hadn’t found anything, Mementos would have had to have reflected that sort of slow change over time in the public consciousness, going by what they had managed to deduce about the nature of the place over the three or so years they’d been operating there. The spooky place was still mysterious overall, but it was pretty clear to the boys that the shadows and monsters within were reflections of various publicly-accepted ideas about what monsters and angels and concepts would look like, if given form. If that public consciousness had been getting more religious, they would have seen some symbolitry in the shadows down there, or caught somebody’s personal shadow mumbling about it.

The second possibility, which was less pleasant, but the one the boys were leaning towards the most, was that there had been some kind of brainwashing going on throughout the city. They didn’t know how- Futaba would have been able to do a more efficient search for information on the nature of that sort of thing in the darkweb- but from what little Akira and Goro had been able to find on their own, there were ways to brainwash a person, if not widely-understood ways. And of course the two were aware that if you talked enough with someone’s shadow in Mementos, you could alter the behavior of their real-world counterpart, but if that were the reason all these people were acting this way, it’d have to mean that there was someone else that could go into Mementos like they could, and that was a deeply scary thought after having free reign down there for all these years.

Third, of course, was that this was the ‘approaching danger’ that that Igor guy in the Velvet room had warned about the other day. That this was all the work of some otherwordly, super-powerful being that threatened the saftey of Tokyo as a whole, and Akira and Goro in particular.

They didn’t really want to think about that possibility too much. If that were the case... well, for all they could do in Mementos, they really didn’t have any sort of defense against a being that powerful, powerful enough to warp the cognitions of hundreds, if not thousands of people all at once.

So, basically, nothing was good, everything was probably very bad, and the boys needed more information. They agreed over breakfast (a hearty bowl of fried rice and veggies, with a bit of curry spice mixed in that brought a twinkle of joy to Goro’s eyes and a rush of warmth to Akira’s heart) to focus on talking with their affected classmates today, see what information they could pull out of them. Goro would focus on the upperclassmen, Akira on those in their year and younger. They’d reconvene at the end of the day, and over text messages when they could manage it, and compare notes.

So, it was with the determination of a clear goal and the trepidation of an unknown enemy that Akira led the way out of their apartment building and off to school that morning. He didn’t talk much on the train ride there, choosing to focus and plan out his day instead, knowing that he and Goro both would need their social masks on as tight as they could go today, taking advantage of all their charm points to milk out what details they could from these weird kids. When they arrived at the school gates, about half an hour before the first bell of the day rang, they nodded at each other, Goro flashing a quick, unmasked, reassuring smile, and Akira very briefly squeezing Goro’s arm in return, before resettling their faker, cheerier personalities back on and heading into the fray.

Akira decided to focus inside the building itself first, knowing that most first-years at their school tended to congregate closer to their classrooms, more in fear of punishment for being late to class than their older, lazier senpais. He honed in on any and every kid he could find wearing that glazed, peaceful smile, and tried to ask them what was going on, what was new in their lives, but each time, he was completely stonewalled. Every question he asked, they redirected back to him, turning each query into their lives to pointed questions and faux-concerned probes about any in securities he might have, any parts of his life he felt were lacking, any holes in his heart that ached with emptiness.

It was... really fucking disconcerting. To ask someone, someone younger than him, barely out of middle school, about their day, their weeks, and get told that he looked tired, that he must be working himself so hard, that he had a yearning, pining look in his eye. Hell, even the glazed first years that he remembered as some of his and Goro’s fans didn’t seem awed by him anymore- in fact, their responses were the most pointed of all, talking about how he looked at Goro when he thought the other wasn’t looking, how hard it must be to act professional around him all the time, how he must ache and ache for something closer.

Akira didn’t care for that shit whatsoever.

The one thing he did pick up on, though, in spite of the disconcerting replies he got, was that there wasn’t a whole lot of variation overall. Through all the first years he talked to, he got about three of the same question for every new one he heard, and more than that, they were repeated word for word, as if there was a set of questions they had all memorized from some book, pulling them out at random. The ex-fanboys and fangirls were less repetitive, but even then, while the wording was different and the questions more personalized, the themes they followed- doubt, emptiness, hopeless desire- all seemed to repeat, if in a more general sense.

He managed to get to class just in time, saving his inquiry of the second years for their lunch break, and shared a brief look with Goro across the room, who looked just as exhausted as Akira felt. Class started, and again, half the students and the teacher left for morning prayer, and did so again right before lunch. When the lunch bell actually rang, Akira and Goro wearily got up from their desks, following the plan they sketched out earlier to take half the second years each, assuming Goro was finished with the upperclassmen and Akira didn’t have more first-years to interrogate.

By the time Akira heard the same pointed, unsettling question redirected towards him for the fourth time in a row, however, he decided to call it a day. He texted Goro as much, chuckling to find that Goro had sent him an almost exact mirror image of his message, the text coming in right when he hit send. They headed back to class, ate what they had time to eat, and slumped through the rest of the day’s classes.

They were both way too exhausted emotionally from all of that to talk much on the train ride home, but Akira made the executive decision to get off a few stops earlier than usual and head to their favorite sushi place instead of the Shibuya diner or something like that. After a day like this? They deserved to splurge a little.

Akira led the way to the booth they were guided to, Goro too emotionally drained to keep up the pretense of proper manners, and instead following his instincts and sliding in on the same side as Akira, leaning wearily against his side. The warmth from Goro was enough to start to re-energize Akira, but it took until the first set of rolls and cups of green tea were delivered for Goro to perk up similarly. He straightened up, eyes starting to regain their glimmer at the sight of good food, and dug in without waiting for Akira, as usual. 

They ate the first course quickly- probably too quickly, chopsticks clacking against each other as they fought for pieces- but it was worth the indigestion they’d have to face later, energy returning to their hearts after the fun faux-battle for food.

They leaned back once the last piece had been downed, Akira’s hands on his belly, Goro’s on his warm cup of green tea, and rested a bit. Akira let his eyes drift shut for just a moment or two, taking a deep breath of the peaceful atmosphere between them before he started their debriefing of sorts. “So... that was pretty unsettling, huh?”

Goro snorted derisively. “To say the least, yes. It’s clear that they’ve all been trained to avoid questioning on the nature of their group, seemingly from some sort of instruction manual, going by the few instances of near-identical phrasing I caught, but...” He sighed, heavy and full of exhaustion.

Akira chuckled dryly, leaning forwards towards his own tea. “Yeah,” he agreed, and took a long sip of the earthy, aromatic drink. 

From the corner of his eye, Akira could see Goro still staring into his tea, looking a little incredulous. “We’ve never run into a cult before, but from the reports I’ve researched and the few times they’ve been the central feature in a book I’ve read, they’re almost always creepy like this, in one way or another. That kind of blind devotion, the inevitably idolatry of their leader, the slow corruption of their worldview, leading inexorably to total isolation, and thus total control by their leader...”

Akira smirked. “Though, I can name a couple major religions that could probably be described the same way, if they weren’t so...” He tried to come up with an appropriately Akechi-style way of saying it, to rile his best friend up. “...ubiquitously accepted by the overarching norms in the social consciousness.”

He turned to smirk shittily at Goro, who was giving him one of the driest looks known to mankind. “Are you done?” He droned, sounding almost more exhausted by Akira’s bullshit than what they’d faced at school. 

Akira nodded, still smirking proudly. “Yep!”

“Thank fuck for that...” Goro shook his head, mumbling, though Akira could see a tiny smile twitching at the corner of Goro’s lips. It disappeared as his their thoughts inevitably drifted back to the topic at hand. “Still,” Goro continued, grip tightening around his cup. “I didn’t honestly expect their deflection tactics to be so...”

“Disconcerting?” Akira ventured. “Unnerving? Finely-tuned to any and all insecurities we might possibly have?”

Goro rolled his eyes, scoffed. “I beg your pardon, I’ll have you know there is not a single insecure bone in my body, Akira.”

He smirked again, nodded overdramatically. “Oh, same for me, of course, of course.”

They held each other’s gazes for a few, silent moments, then broke out in laughter. They could joke about a lot of stuff and keep a straight face, but Akira knew that their mutually copious amounts of mental scars and vulnerabilities would always be a weak point for their particular brand of black humor. It wasn’t really a healthy thing to joke about, but, well, there’d be time for therapy later, when they could have a session and not have to delve down into a twisting hellscape in order to interrogate someone’s brain ghost the day after.

He opened his eyes as he laughed, making certain to catch Goro’s all-too-rare laughing face, bright as the sun and so... so pure, so innocent, like they were kids again playing in Akira’s Aunts’ backyard again. When Goro laughed, really heartily laughed, the sight of his best friend’s face just absolutely glowing always sent a burst of warmth through Akira, more warming and comfortable than any blanket could ever be.

Which... was something he was going to have to address, eventually.

Akira wasn’t dumb. He enjoyed playing the fool, and joking around, and generally being a little shit. It always got a reaction out of Goro, and even in the rare occasions where Goro wasn’t around and Akira was still comfortable enough to act like his true self, it felt freeing and right to buck societal norms and the rules of politeness and propriety and just be a goof. 

But, goofy or not, he wasn’t dumb, nor was he blind to himself and his own feelings. In the still of the night, when he and Goro were in their own rooms and the only sound was the humm of the AC and the faint rumbling of cars in the distance, Akira had a habit of carefully combing through his innermost feelings, the wants and desires that drove him, probing them, examining them, playing out little scenarios in his head of where his life might lead if he pursued them in this way or that. Most frequently, he’d waste an hour or two he should have spent sleeping pretending instead what it would be like if he and Goro... well...

All sorts of things, really. Anything and everything possible, between him and Goro. Sometimes bad potential futures, if he was feeling particularly angsty or depressed that night, but usually just variations on how their relationship could develop, grow, become something more. Tender. Loving. Intimate. Because that was what Akira wanted, what he had been wanting for a long, long time now, longer than he’d care to admit. 

He was head over heels for Goro. Each and every expression Goro made, all cataloged in Akira’s mind. The sound and timbre of Goro’s voice and every emotion that made it pitch higher or dip deliciously lower. Goro’s form, the shape and curves and bulk of his body, his muscles, the parts of him Akira wished he’d known to commit to memory more, back before it had become embarrassing to bathe or dress together, the parts he’d dream of, fantasize endlessly about now. The silk of Goro’s hair, the flame of Goro’s eyes, the heady addictiveness of Goro’s scent, the calluses on his hands, the way he held his book, wore his clothes, preferred his food...

Akira was in love with Goro, but he was smart enough to realize that he was obsessed with Goro too. 

Which was bad. Objectively, irrefutably bad. It was unhealthy in the extreme to have this much pure, unfiltered obsession over a single person, much less someone that you spent the overwhelming majority of your days alongside. To have his happiness wholly linked to Goro’s, to have no real desires beyond helping Goro attain his own and be able to stay by Goro’s side in the long-term, to be so utterly dependent on all that Goro was, was... bad. It was inevitably going to become more bad the longer it went on, the more their lives changed, the more they’d struggle, and grow, and perhaps inevitably grow apart, at least in some ways.

But that didn’t mean Akira was going to even try and let it go. He may not be a dumb man, but Akira was, through and through, a foolish one- and, mentally speaking, a pretty unhealthy one too. So, even though he knew it would invite destruction and despair later on, he clung to his obsession like a lifeline. Goro had been the only thing keeping him afloat for so, so long, and even now, when they were starting to find a bit of stability in their lives... in Akira’s heart, at least, Goro was still the only thing keeping him afloat. However far they made it onto dry land, Akira’s heart was still lost at sea, and Goro was the only thing he knew to swim for. The only reason he had to swim at all.

It was bad, but it was where he was.

Goro’s laughter died down, and he shook his head ruefully, still smiling a little, but the seriousness that the current subject matter demanded starting to return. Akira refocused on their present conversation as Goro spoke. “Honestly, though, it was like I was walking through a scene in a horror film, talking to those upperclassmen. They all had the same look on their face, the same replies to anything I asked of them, all of it so deeply disturbing...” He looked up at Akira, the last of his smile fading away, replaced by a deathly seriousness. “Akira I think they might actually be brainwashed, at least to some extent. I don’t know how, perhaps medically, perhaps through some new kind of hypnotism, perhaps some method known only to militaries and spy agencies, but... well, considering the warning we received the other day...”

Akira nodded, knowing what Goro was getting at. It was the conclusion he had reached too. There were still other possibilities, but with everything they’d seen and learned recently, it seemed almost certain that this had something to do with Mementos. After all, if someone else was down there, wandering its tunnels, and had discovered a way to influence people’s mental states to an even more extreme degree than Akira and Goro had discovered... well, the consequences would be dire, and would probably look exactly like what Akira and Goro saw at school these past two days.

He frowned deeply, locked eyes with Goro again. “Goro, I think-”

His phone buzzed- check that, both of their phones buzzed at the exact same time. Goro frowned as well, and they both dug their devices out, tapping through their lock screens to find notifications from the group chat they had with Ryuji and Ann. More specifically, from what they could see in the message previews, both Ryuji and Ann had just entered the two detectives’ profile names, trying to get their attention, with no words attached.

Akira shared a look of deep concern with Goro and opened up the messaging app.

Ryuji: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Ann: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Ryuji: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Ryuji: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Ann: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

You: We’re here. What’s wrong?

Goro: Ann, Ryuji. What seems to be the matter?

Goro: Ah, you beat me to it, Akira. Always with the agile fingers.

Ryuji: yo you can talk about how speedy akira’s fingering you later weve got an effing problem here!

Ann: Ryuji, oh my god

Goro: Eughh...

You: 😳😉 

Goro: Don’t.

Ann: Guys, ignore Ryuji, we’ve got a big problem.

Ryuji: some weird shit is goin on over here!!!!!

Goro: I have a sinking suspicion that I know where this is heading, but go on.

Ann: Oh god, you’ve seen it too?

Goro: The sudden appearance of what can only be described as a cult popping up seemingly overnight?

Ryuji: seriously?!?!?

Ann: Ryuji you have to stop shouting the same things you type, I can hear you getting yelled at, and we’re not even in the same classroom!

You: Wait, you guys are still at school?

Ann: That’s the problem we were talking about, yeah.

Ann: I think Ryuji’s getting yelled at right now, don’t worry if he doesn’t respond for a bit.

Ann: Basically, our Principal is trying to turn Shujin into a religious academy. worse, one that’s a boarding school too.

Ann: he called an assembly this morning and basically told all of us that, and that Shujin was going to be our new home, and that our parents had already been informed and had “given praise at the blessed news???”

Ann: That’s literally what he said.

You: Fuck...

Ann: Which was bs, obviously. My parents are still in Switzerland, and Ryuji’s mom wouldn’t trust this school as far as she could throw it, after everything with that bastard Kamoshida.

Goro: Indeed... have either of you attempted to call the police?

Ann: Second thing I tried, after checking in on Shiho. They said our principal had authority from the highest office to do whatever he wanted, so long as it was “for the church.”

Ann: He didn’t even say what church it was! Neither did Kobyakowa, he just said some vague bs and like half the other kids just agreed and clapped!

Ann: I’m really scared, guys...

You: Are they keeping you there by force?

Ann: No, we can still go home today, I guess they don’t have whatever dorms theyre gonna use ready yet. Right now were stuck in some bs religion lectures.

Ann: My class is lucky, my homeroom teacher doesn’t seem to know what the hell is going on either, same with most of the other kids.

Ann: Ryuji’s, though... 

Goro: I understand... We’ll look into this from our end, but for the moment, all I can recommend is to be as inconspicuous as possible. Groups like this are known to become violent very quickly when faced with disobedience. 

Goro: And that goes for Sakamoto-kun too, when he reads this. I know how hard it is for you to stay quiet with this sort of thing, but for all our sakes, especially your own, please try to keep your head down, at least until we know more.

You: We’ve got your backs. You aren’t alone against all this.

You: Don’t forget that.

Ann: Thanks, guys... we’ll hold on as best we can. If things get worse, though, I don’t know what we’ll do... Ryuji can only take so much bs from authority-types, and honestly same here.

Goro: Just do the best you can, and let us know the instant things change for the worse. We’ll be in touch daily, to check in, and we’ll let you know as soon as we find something useful.

Ann: Alright... I’m guessing Ryuji got his phone taken away til the end of the day, but I’m sure he’s grateful to you guys too. 

Ann: clkdfsg

You: Ann?

Ann: stupid student council suck-ups came by to make sure we were being “”“”pious enough”“”“ or some stupid bs, ugh!

Ann: gotta go for now, ttyl

You: Okay.

Goro: Good luck.

Akira closed out of the app and rested his phone on the table, sighing heavily, Goro seeming to do the same from what Akira could hear. “We’ve gotta figure this out, fast.”

Goro nodded. “Yes... but I have a feeling that regardless of what we figure out, things are only going to get worse-”

Their phones buzzed again. Worried that something else had happened with Ryuji and Ann, the boys scrambled frantically to open their phones back up-

-to find notifications from another channel, this time the one they had with Yusuke.

Yusuke: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Yusuke: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

Yusuke: @akechigoro01 @detectivehottie

You: What’s wrong?

Yusuke: Ah, thank goodness you’re here.

Yusuke: Something very strange has happened at my academy.

The boys looked at each other over their phones, despairingly.

It was getting worse already.

◄◄⧗⧗⧗◄◄
October, 2005 - September, 2010

Unsurprisingly, once Goro started spending the majority of his time living at Akira’s aunts’ house, the two young boys quickly became totally inseparable. Every day after school, they’d each walk as fast as their legs could carry them from their individual school gates, all the way to the small park that served as the most convenient halfway point between the two schools. 

For the first several weeks of this, Akira made a point to find some new way to surprise Goro whenever they met up like this, half because it was fun, half because Goro’s reactions were the best thing in the world to Akira. One day, he’d run all the way to the park as soon as the bells rang, then, upon seeing that Goro hadn’t made it there yet, he’d speed over to hide in the nearby bushes, waiting and watching for Goro to arrive, before leaping out with his tongue out, arms flailing, and his face in as goofy an expression as he could manage. It scared Goro to the point of falling onto his butt, then, when he finally registered what exactly Akira was doing and how goofy he looked, it sent him into a burst of bell-like laughter. Other times, Goro would arrive first, and catch sight of Akira approaching the park, waving happily at him, only to notice that Akira wasn’t slowing down in his run towards Goro. Goro’s wave would become more hesitant, more confused, and then he’d yelp in alarm as Akira tackled him into the grass with a wild bear hug.

It took a month or two of this for Goro to both acclimatize to the warm, loving, tricksy bouts of physical contact, and to also start pranking Akira back, at first copying much of what Akira had already done, then later coming up with his own, typically sneakier tricks. Akira never figured out how, but somehow Goro would find the time to set up a tripwire (just a long bit of string really, but a tripwire all the same) for Akira right in the path he’d run towards in the park, with a big paper plate covered in whipped cream right where his face would land as he fell. Or Akira would arrive at the park and not find Goro anywhere, and just as he’s looking around, about to call out Goro’s name, the slightly older boy would appear centimeters away from Akira’s ear and whisper a smiley, giggly “Boo,” that would send Akira yelping and jumping away while Goro laughed heartily.

Every day they’d meet up like this, have fun in the park, and then hand in hand they’d walk back to Akira’s aunts’ house, where they’d do their homework, have snacks and dinner, play board games and eventually, once Akira got a console for his birthday, video games too. When they’d get tired enough, or it got late enough, Akira’s aunts would send them off to bed, where they’d curl up against each other and snuggle their way to a peaceful, contented sleep.

Occasionally, every other month or so, Goro’s adoptive parents would demand that he go back to their house for a night, saying that they got a call from the government announcing a check-up visit, and they needed Goro there. Those were the only days that Goro’s smile would fade entirely, and the dark, lifeless glaze would return to his eyes. Those were also the days where Akira and his Aunts would put their heads together and think of something extra special to do for Goro when he came back. One time, they surprised him with a stack of fruit and honey-covered pancakes as tall as his head. Another time, Akira’s aunts summoned up their courage, picked the boys up early from school, and drove them to a big arcade an hour’s drive or so away from the town, to spend the day having fun there. Every time Goro had to go through the struggle of being around his adoptive parents again, Akira gave everything to make sure that Goro knew, as soon as he came back, that he had a home, a real one, where he was loved and cared for unconditionally.

It went like this for years and years. Eventually, they both graduated from elementary school, and Akira’s aunts arranged it so that Akira would attend the same middle school that Goro was going to go to. Their daily lives changed a little with the new school, but only in a positive sense. Now, they spent almost all of their days together. Somehow, they managed to get into the same homeroom, and Akira took advantage of their lazy, uncaring teacher to sneakily steal the desk right next to Goro, ignoring the pouty glare from the kid who was originally assigned to sit there.

They had all their classes together, spent every lunch and break together, and had the rest of almost every day all to themselves, side by side. Not every day was perfect, of course, and inevitably one of the two boys would get sad, or angry at a teacher, or they’d argue about something meaningless and irrelevant, but no matter what, they’d always come back to each other in the end, working out their problems and feelings and ending each day snuggled in one another’s arms. They were each other’s best (and, thanks to the stigma surrounding both their living situations, each other’s only) friends, and closest confidants. They introduced each other to the things each of them liked, and made fun of the things they didn’t, and discovered entirely new things to love together. They were as close as two kids could be, and they were happy.

On the day of Akira’s 12th birthday, about halfway through their first year of middle school, everything changed completely.

Goro, Akira, and Akira’s aunts had finished singing Happy Birthday, had gotten everyone a slice of cake, and were sitting in front of the TV, watching Akira’s favorite Featherman movie, when they door to the house opened without warning. For the first time in almost 7 years, Akira’s parents entered the same room as their son.

Hikaru shot to her feet in surprise as the door opened, and when she saw who was walking in, her hand shot to her mouth, covering a gasp. Itsuka took her other hand, seeming just as nervous, but steadfast next to her wife, and before her sister and brother-in-law. “H-hello, ‘kemi, Ran-san,” she started, bowing slightly. “What brings you here?” As soon as the last syllable left her lips, she clamped her mouth shut, bracing herself for the icy chill that would be their inevitable response.

Akemi and Ran Kurusu were not nice people. They weren’t horrible people, strictly speaking; as far as Itsuka knew, they had never harmed anyone, never abused Akira, never acted out of spite or hatred. They just weren’t nice, at all. They were the types of Highly Motivated Professionals that any corporate recruiter would wet themselves trying to sign to their company, and once they had, Akemi would have the recruiter fired while Ran told all his acquaintances at every other major company in Japan to never hire the poor soul again, just for the crime of being unpleasant for the Kurusus to be around. They would do anything to get ahead in business, sabotage anyone, sacrifice anything, including, most significantly, being able to be around their only son, Akira. As soon as the boy learned to walk, it seemed, his parents had deemed their regulation-required amount of parenting to be complete, and started looking for high-paying, travel-intensive work, shipping the boy off to live with his Aunts as soon as they were signed.

Itsuka had always felt a little uncomfortable around her sister. Well, not always, they had a fairly nice childhood together, had been close back then. But when their schooling started to become more career-focused, Akemi had packed her days with cram school and part-time jobs, while Itsuka had packed hers with long walks in the park and romantic dates with Hikaru. Once that started, it was as if Akemi had drawn a line in the sand between herself and her sister, and then started slowly laying a brick wall between them. She didn’t think that her sister was homophobic, Akemi’s distance never seemed personal in any way, she just became cold, wholly focused on achieving her goals, and discarding anything that wasn’t in service of them.

It had surprised Itsuka immensely when she heard that Akemi had gotten married, surprised her doubly so when she heard that her sister was with child. At the time, Itsuka had felt hopeful, that maybe Akemi was starting to relax, grow into a more well-rounded person. In retrospect, now, it seemed more as if Akemi had just met someone who thought along the same ice-cold lines as she did, and marriage seemed like the most socially-acceptable form of a two-person contract they could sign, a child simply what one did when one got married, a status symbol for a new couple, a conversation piece to break the ice before corporate mergers.

These days, Itsuka just felt shame towards her sister, shame at how coldly she had abandoned a wonderful boy like Akira, shame to how Itsuka never had any letters or calls to pass onto Akira from his parents, shame at how, after a few years, Akira seemed to give up on the concept of his birth parents ever really caring about him, deepest shame at having to watch that little bit of light fade from Akira’s eyes.

Akemi’s sudden, unannounced reappearance, then, was something to be feared, not welcomed. Whatever it was that had brought her sister here, Itsuka was certain that it would only be for something that would benefit Akemi, at the cost of what little stability they had been able to build here.

The couple seemed unfazed by Itsuka’s greeting as they stepped into he house, giving it a calculating one-over. “Our contract with Binta-Com ended last month, so we’ve made arrangements to rent a hotel room here while we hammer out the details for our next venture,” Akemi started, her speech eloquent, intelligent, but distant-sounding, as if she wasn’t really here emotionally, just passing by to check something off of her list. “We’re here to pick up Akira, naturally.”

Itsuka and Hikaru both gasped as one, and they could hear Akira and Goro following suit nearby. “Y-you...” Hikaru started, trying to take a deep breath. “What do you mean, pick him up?”

Akemi frowned, turning her gaze to Hikaru, who flinched. “He’s our son. He’s in middle school now, isn’t he? That’s old enough to come travel with his actual parents. And if he doesn’t take to hired tutors and moving from town to town, he’s certainly old enough for boarding school. Is there a problem with that,” she asked, though she wasn’t really looking for an answer, just issuing a challenge to Hikaru, to try and get her to shut up.

Itsuka wasn’t as easily intimidated, though, and she squeezed her wife’s hand even as she swallowed down her nervousness as best she could. “But, Akira lives here, ‘kemi. This is his home. He has friends here, he has Goro-cha-”

For the first time, Akira’s father spoke up, making a nasally little scoffing noise vaguely in Itsuka’s direction. “His home? You’re his aunt, Itsuka-san. Besides,” He crossed his arms, and there was a little light in his eye as he made eye contact with Itsuka. She got the feeling, even without having ever met Ran face-to-face before, that it was the same kind of glimmer that the man got right as he toppled a business empire out from under some poor sap’s feet. “You aren’t even legally his guardian, you know. Considering your living situations,” he glanced sidelong at Hikaru, then continued. “I doubt any judge would consider this the boy’s home, in the legal sense. In fact, I know a couple judges who would be very interested to hear about the whole situation, and what the law says about it... though, I’d only feel the need to... vent to these friends of mine if this situation became a problem.”

“Ran,” Akemi said, her tone clipped, and Ran quieted, his expression stilling back into a neutral, emotionless mask, but the damage had been done, the implications he had been making clear. Akemi and Ran intended to take Akira back with them, and if Itsuka and Hikaru tried to stop them, they’d bring the two women to court, and under the current laws, a gay couple had no legal right to raise a child, much less challenge a child’s birth parents for custody. In fact, Itsuka wouldn’t put it past someone who seemed as cold as Ran did to specifically bring their case to a court who’s judge was unfriendly towards LGBT people, and might even try to question the legality of their marriage, or separate them somehow. 

They’d destroy anything that would get in the way of their progress, after all. Itsuka just never thought she’d be one of those things, in her sister’s eyes.

She tried to open her mouth to speak again, to try and say something to protect Akira from the terribly lonely future Akemi had painted for him, but fount that her mouth wasn’t working, that her jaw was too tense, too tight to even open up. Hikaru, on the other hand, was unable to keep her feelings in, and burst out in a voice that sounded as if she had been crying for hours “You can’t do this! You haven’t been here for years! You haven’t seen him grow up, you don’t know anything about him! You can’t just sweep in and steal Akira away all of a sudden like this! Do you even know it’s Akira’s birthday today?” She shouted, sounding wrecked, tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Itsuka turned to hug her as tight as she could, arms shaking.

Akemi, however, only seemed to have heard the last thing Hikaru had said, either tuning out or ignoring the rest of it for the crime of being too emotional. “His birthday? Oh,” She said, as if she had been told that it was supposed to rain today. She started walking over towards Akira, reaching into her purse, and pulling out some bills, which she held out towards Akira once she was close enough. “Here, this should suffice as a present, shouldn’t it?”

This whole time, Akira had said nothing. He had just been watching everything play out in front of him, watching these people he had no memory of claim to be his parents, threaten his Aunts, who he loved as if they were his parents, and say that they were going to take him away forever. He had just watched, feeling very far away, one hand holding onto Goro’s very, very tightly, the other hanging limply at his side. 

He looked at the bills being handed to him, took them mechanically with his free hand. It seemed to be a small stack of ten thousand yen bills, more money than he had seen in his lifetime.

The longer Akira looked at the money, the more he felt his eyes burn, felt the inside of his head burn, felt his entire being burning with revulsion, with anger, with hate for these people claiming the power to dictate his entire life, these people who had never been there back when all he had wanted was to know who his parents were, who had the gall to think that years of abandonment and silence could be healed by stupid money?!?!

Of course, Akemi hadn’t been thinking about any of that- had barely been thinking at all, really. Giving gifts on birthdays was just what was done, and money was the most practical gift, after all. 

Akira, though, knew only anger and pain in this moment, and crushed the bills in his hands, looking back up at this woman who claimed to be his mother with tears and hate in his eyes. “I’m never going with you! You’re the worst people ever!” He shouted, and seemed like he wanted to shout more, but choked, and ran off to his room, dragging Goro limply along behind him.

The slam of his door was heartbreaking to Itsuka and Hikaru, but didn’t seem to faze Akemi in the slightest. She just frowned at where Akira had run off to, and said in a slightly mystified voice “What a strange boy.” 

Then she shrugged and turned back to face her sister. “Oh well. Itsuka, make sure he’s packed and ready to leave by the morning. We’ll be here to pick him up by ten.”

Without another word, she turned and left, her husband trailing out after her. As soon as the front door closed, Itsuka and Hikaru fell to the floor, unable to hold back their tears any longer, just clinging to each other for the moment, feeling helpless to stop the destruction that was coming.

--

In his room, Akira seethed, stomping back and forth across the floor, his hands balled into fists by his side. Goro just sat on Akira’s bed, a pillow held to his chest, staring blankly at nothing in particular.

For the tenth time in as many minutes since they had stormed in here, Akira let out a frustrated, enraged noise and kicked a plastic toy across the floor. “They’re the worst! Ugh, I’ve never hated anything more than this, who do they even think they are?!”

“Your parents, I guess,” Goro replied emotionlessly, automatically, too used to their banter to stay quiet, too dead inside to say anything but the most basic responses.

“Bullshit!” Akira shouted, stomping his foot. He and Goro had recently started learning about swear words, and how good it felt to use them when angry. Akira hadn’t been this angry before. “Sure, yeah, they made me, technically, but they aren’t any more my parents than the doctors in the hospital that delivered me are! Aunt Itsuka and Aunt Hikaru are my real parents, and if those-”

Goro sighed, long and loud, loud enough to interrupt Akira’s diatribe. He sounded truly exhausted. Defeated. Empty. “It doesn’t matter, Akira. None of it matters.”

Akira’s first instinct was to argue against that, but the rage inside him was slowly starting to be replaced with doubt and worry from how Goro was acting. Instead, he went over and scooted up onto the bed, next to his best friend. “...what do you mean, it doesn’t matter?”

The look that Goro met Akira with was one of the saddest things Akira had ever seen. His eyes looked so lifeless. They looked like Goro was watching his pet get run over in slow-motion, after having had to watch his last four previous pets meet their end the same way. “I’ve... I’ve had foster parents like them, Akira, before I came here. They aren’t the kind of people to care about what’s right or wrong, or how anybody else feels about their actions. They just want what they want, for whatever nonsense adult reasons they want it, and everyone else has to just fall in line. It doesn’t matter how anyone else feels, how you feel, how I feel-” He choked up a little, had to work to physically swallow down all the emotion he was holding back.

Akira couldn’t take seeing Goro like this- he scooted closer, took one of Goro’s hands in his own, squeezed it. “Screw that, Goro. If they don’t care about us, then screw them!”

Goro just shook his head, sadly. “You don’t understand, Akira. They have complete control over you and everything you do, as far as the law is concerned, and judging by the stuff they were saying to your Aunts, they’ll use the full power of the law to get their way, if they have to.” He shrugged helplessly. “What can we do against that? We’re kids, Akira. We’re just kids, and unfeeling, awful adults like them will always hold all the power over us, in the end.”

Hearing Goro talk like this was so, so much worse to Akira than having to hear any of the bull his parents had been spewing earlier. It was like watching all the emotional and personal growth Goro had achieved over the last few years slide backwards at high speed. Akira knew that if this happened, if his parents took Akira away and left Goro all alone, he’d end up just like he was when they first met; quiet, lonely, immeasurably sad, but worse, since he’d have to deal with his adoptive family treating him like they did, and probably sending him away, and then-

No. That wasn’t going to happen. Akira was not going to let that happen.

There was a pause, as the passion and fury and desperation slowly coalesced into a solid plan in Akira’s mind, then, quietly, he started out “...so let’s just leave.”

Goro blinked, confused. “Pardon?”

Akira could feel a weird, slightly unhinged smile starting to spread on his face. It was perfect. It was perfect. “Let’s just leave. Goro, my parents gave us, like, almost a hundred thousand yen, maybe more. We can just take that and go, go take a train to Tokyo, or Osaka, or any of the big cities we’ve always talked about going to. We can ditch my parents, ditch this town and just, just go, wherever we want!”

Akira’s excitement was as palpable as Goro’s caution in that moment, though Akira could see a similar excitement creeping around the edges of Goro’s practicality. “Akira, this isn’t some American movie,” Goro warned, shaking his head. “We can’t just run away like that- police will come looking for us, we’ll be found out and dragged back here, and it’ll end up even worse in the end for us both!”

“Then we’ll disguise ourselves!” Akira wasn’t having any of that. “We could get some hair dye, dress differently than we usually do, heck, we could put on makeup like the actors in the movies do, look like completely different people!” 

To the surprise of the small part of Akira’s mind that wasn’t overrun with excitement and still could think things through and analyze the world around him logically, Goro actually looked like he was being won over by that. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising- after all, Goro’s favorite pastime was reading through old, schlocky detective stories, which were chock-full of exactly these kinds of adventures. But it was more than that, too. Akira could see all the little gears in Goro’s head turning, calculating out all the little practicalities that Akira wouldn’t think to go through. He shifted on the bed, reached over to Akira’s bedside table, where he had tossed the crumpled-up yen bills earlier, and started counting through them.

His eyes went wide. “Akira, this... this is a lot of money. Not enough to get an apartment, or anything like that, but if we stayed in a capsule hotel, or one of those all-night cafes or something, we could probably make this last for a pretty long time, probably a year at most...” He looked up, met Akira’s gaze, his eyes glimmering with just the tiniest bit of hope. “This... this could actually work. Akira, this could actually work!”

Akira didn’t say anything, just laughed, giddy and excited, and threw himself at Goro, wrapping his arms around his best friend and tackling him to the sheets. They held each other, laughing and smiling, for a long time like that. Later, when the laughs and excess energy started to die down, they talked practicalities; where they’d actually go, what sort of food they’d be able to afford, how to find work, eventually, so they wouldn’t run out of money, how to actually disguise themselves effectively so they wouldn’t get caught, dozens upon dozens of different little aspects to the plan, until it was as perfect as they could make it.

Then, when the sun had gone down and they heard Akira’s aunts go to bed, likely not wanting to disturb the two boys for what was, in their eyes, the boys’ last night together, Akira and Goro slowly, silently crept out of Akira’s room, holding two big duffel bags stuffed with all the clothes and basic necessities they could fit. They made their way silently to the front door-

-to see Hikaru standing there, arms crossed, waiting for them.

They froze, bags in hand. There was about thirty minutes until the last train out of town, but it looked like they weren’t going to ever see it. 

Hope drained slowly from them, right up until Hikaru sighed, and rushed towards them, dropping to her knees to hug the two boys tightly to her. “I had a feeling you might do this,” she whispered, quick and breathy. “Itsuka did too, but I don’t think she wanted to say it.” She pulled back from the hug, just stared at the two confused boys with teary eyes. She shook her head, “This is going to be so hard for you two. Life is going to be so hard for you two, but... but I don’t think it’d be any better if you went with what those horrid monsters wanted for you. At least this way you have your freedom- you have each other.” She said the last part more passionately than anything either boy had heard from her before.

She gripped their shoulders tightly. “Don’t ever let go of each other, you hear me? People like us...” She looked away, towards the bedroom she shared with Itsuka, and the two boys had a feeling like she was talking about something they didn’t quite understand yet. “...people like us only have each other, in the end. This world will take everything else away from us, if it can, but if you hold tight enough to each other, it won’t ever be able to tear you apart.” She looked back towards them, a fire in her eyes. “Fight for what you two have together, fight with every last bit of strength you have, do you understand me?”

Akira and Goro looked at each other. They didn’t really understand what the hell Hikaru was talking about, not really. It was a pretty confusing speech, overall. But... as Akira looked into Goro’s eyes, he felt something, just a small something that resonated with the spirit of what his Aunt had said. He smiled, some part of his subconscious telling him all over again that yes, this was the right path, as long as it was by Goro’s side. 

Goro was making the exact same smile back at Akira.

They turned back to face Hikaru, and nodded. She smiled, sniffling a little. “Good,” she said breathily, nodding. She patted their shoulders one last time, then rose to her feet, dusting off her long skirt. “Well, come on then. The least I can do is drive you two to the station. There should still be a few late-night trains leaving. Oh, and I made sure to pack you some food, too. It won’t last you long, but at least you’ll have a few good meals with you.” She opened the front door, and gestured outside, to where her car was waiting for them, already turned on and warmed up for the short drive over.

The two boys nodded, and followed her out. 

The drive was short, and the second set of goodbyes at the station itself were very definitely not short. Eventually, Hikaru had to let them go, so they didn’t miss their train, and the trio exchanged final waves of farewell, Hikaru from the train platform, Akira and Goro hanging halfway out the train window, for as long as they could.

The train pulled out of the station, and Akira and Goro got back into their seats, settling in for the long ride to Tokyo.

Chapter Text

September 2010 - March 2011

In the end, the money from Akira’s parents lasted them almost half a year. Akira and Goro did their best to be frugal, planning and budgeting out each week as best as they could, and they were good at it, but a lot of things ended up getting in their way. First, of course, was the simple fact that compared to a countryside town in the middle of nowhere, Tokyo was just too damn expensive. Everything cost more than they expected, and even with sharing meals sometimes, sharing one-bed capsule hotel rooms, camping out in net cafes and the like, everything just added up too high, too fast. 

Second, of course, was that as smart and talented at planning and numbers as Akira and Goro were, they were also kids. This didn’t mean that they were inherently irresponsible or anything, just that they had never been exposed to a lot of the cool stuff they were inevitably faced with when walking around Tokyo, and never before had the sheer overwhelming freedom to do and buy whatever they liked, whenever they wanted. This isn’t to say that they were dumping yen on high-priced figmas and luncheons at fancy hotel buffets, just that saying yes to a cool outfit here, a sushi dinner there, all seemed a lot more harmless in the moment than it ended up being in the long run.

So, when the time came, and it was clear that their funds weren’t going to last them much longer, Akira and Goro were faced with a crossroads of sorts, several options to deal with their money problem, none of which were particularly appealing. One, they could return home and face the consequences for running away, in exchange for being cared for, rather than having to care for themselves.

They never even considered that as a possibility. It was enough that they promised to take care of each other and see their resolve through, but in the backs of their minds, they both knew that, were they to go back, it was very unlikely that Goro’s foster parents would take him in again, and even less likely that the notoriously heartless foster system would take Goro in again after running away like this. Goro would likely be out on the street, only he’d be alone this time, since Akira’s parents would definitely whisk Akira away somewhere and keep him under strict lock and key for as long as they were legally able.

So going back home was out. Option two was that they could seek out and find gainful employment of some sort here in Tokyo, to help fill their pockets. This was overall the preferred option, and the one that Akira and Goro had been planning to take eventually anyways, but when they went out and tried to find a job, they ran into a significant problem; they looked too damn youthful. Both boys, even at 13, still retained a youthful, somewhat cherub-like appearance, and no reputable store would risk breaking the child labor laws to hire them, at least not in any capacity that would actually help them pay the bills.

And so, with no reputable business willing to hire them, the two boys were left with Option three; find an irreputable business that would hire them.

It ended up being a lot easier than they thought.

It wasn’t good, not by any means. Akira and Goro both had a strong sense of pride, and inevitably finding work from the less-than-legal parts of Tokyo meant debasing themselves in some sense, hazing rituals always being an inevitable part of that kind of culture. They were never violated or molested in any way- any time that a small-time yakuza or dirty cop would look at one of the boys funny, the other would stamp on the man’s foot hard enough to break a toe before running as fast as they possibly could, which turned out to be very fast indeed. Akira and Goro were pleased to discover, through that kind of trial by fire and through less high-stakes situations, that they were both quite gifted, physically speaking.

In fact, they discovered that they were both gifted in a lot of ways. They could run fast, sure, but they also had a gift for sneaking around, for not being seen if they didn’t want to be seen. Akira found that he had very quick, nimble fingers, which came in handy for the odd pickpocket work, and Goro found that he could act more convincingly than some film actors, which helped them both get out of and into trouble when the situation called for it.

Most of all, they were both very, very smart. They could figure things out faster and more accurately than most of the criminal elements they took odd jobs from. Goro was easily able to deduce if an otherwise legit-sounding meeting was actually a sting operation, tipping off their employers in return for a fatter cut of that week’s take. Akira could tell with startling accuracy when someone was lying or hiding something, which came to be a remarkably useful asset for the minor yakuza groups trying to make shady business deals. 

And most importantly, both boys had a keen sense for when the clubs and gangs and dirty cops were about to try and pull them too deep into their criminal dealings, and were able to get out and skip town before they ended up trapped, or caught. They saw a lot of Tokyo during the seven or eight months they lived like that, and learned a great deal- a lot of things they’d rather have not had to learn in the first place, but a lot of useful stuff too.

It was hard, and it was very, very bad for the most part, but they had enough yen to eat and sleep with a roof over their heads, and they had each other. That’s what counted, at the end of the day- bruised and battered as they might be, as long as Akira got to curl up against Goro’s side, and Goro got to rest his nose in Akira’s messy mop of hair as they fell asleep, they could deal with it.

Plus, they had a goal.

A few days after they first came to Tokyo, sitting at the bar of an ice cream place they decided to treat themselves to, the boys had started talking about what they wanted to do while they were in the city, in a long term sense. Akira didn’t really have any ideas- outside of staying by Goro’s side, he had never really taken the time to dream up things that he wanted to do himself.

Goro, however, had a very clear vision in mind. After some time, and several long, contemplative sips of his milkshake, he started to speak, eyes on the countertop. “I... have a father.”

Akira blinked, put his small bowl back onto the counter. He knew, conceptually at least, that Goro had to have a father, biologically speaking, at least at some point, but Goro had never mentioned him before. A bit of nervous guilt crept up in Akira’s gut, as he realized that he had just sort of assumed that both of Goro’s parents had died in some vague, tragic fashion when Goro was very young.

Now, though, Goro seemed ready to talk about it, continuing on as Akira watched and listened. “I know his name, but not much else about him. He... I don’t know what happened between him and my mother, but he left us before I was born, I think. My mother was always very angry whenever she thought about him, or spoke about him. Said he ruined her life, was the worst man in the world, that sort of thing. I was...” Goro let out a tiny little laugh, devoid of humor, pure nervousness. “I was never really sure if she meant that he was a horrible person who hurt her, or if he ruined her life because he got her pregnant with me.”

Akira’s heart ached very sharply at hearing that, and he scooted his bar stool noisily across the tile floor to get closer to Goro, putting a hand on top of Goro’s own, giving a soft squeeze. Goro gave Akira a concerned look at all the violent screeching of metal-barstool-legs-on-tile, then a grateful smile at the squeeze. He turned his hand around to squeeze Akira’s back, then let go and turned back to the countertop, cradling his milkshake cup tenderly with both hands as he continued. “...eventually, it all got to be too much for my mother. I was very young at the time, of course, so I can’t be certain why she ended up taking her life, but...” 

Another ache, another series of noisy scoots towards Goro, until their chairs were pressed right up against each other and Akira’s arm was wrapped around Goro’s shoulders. Goro didn’t respond to the gesture this time, too lost in his memories. “...I suspect now that it was likely because of the shame and pressures of being a single mother in a small town. Japan, culturally speaking, isn’t very kind to single mothers, and that kind of social isolation and stigma, added onto the not-insignificant monetary and psychological costs of raising a child alone on a minimum-wage job... well, I can’t blame her for not being able to handle it.” He made a little noise, as if he was trying to let out a little laugh, but didn’t have the heart to do it fully. “Or maybe I do. I don’t know.”

He took a deep, long breath, and let it out very slowly, the same kind of calming technique Akira had  helped him learn back in their first couple years of friendship, when Goro’s bouts of anger were infrequent, but very intense. When he was suitably calmed, Goro looked up and smiled softly at Akira. “At any rate, my point was that I’d like to find my father at some point, while we’re here. His name is Masayoshi Shido- mother had a photograph of the two of them from when they worked together somewhere, with both their names printed on the bottom. I’m not sure where he is exactly, but I distinctly remember my mother calling him a ‘shitty, bald little creep trying to be some kind of Tokyo big shot,’ so it’s entirely possible he’s here.”

Akira squeezed Goro’s shoulder reassuringly, smiled warmly at him. “We’ll find him,” he promised, and swore to himself that he’d do whatever it took to help Goro find closure with this, no matter what.

---
September, 2011

Eventually, their luck ran out. It was inevitable, really, considering the way they had been living for more than half a year, but it still somehow came as a surprise to the two young boys.

They had been doing odd jobs in Asakusa for a while, helping small-time gangs evade the eye of the law, and the more dangerous eyes of the big-time gangs there, until they both started picking up hints that one of the small gangs was planning to sell them out to the big gangs as a sort of tribute. They snuck onto the first train out they could find, and after switching to several other random trains over the course of a couple stations, rode as far out as they could go, before getting hungry and tired.

In the end, they got off at a small station near a little residential district, one they hadn’t been to before. Akira swore a little at their luck- residential districts were easier to hide in, sure, but harder to find a cheap place to eat. Still, they had nowhere to go but onwards, and Goro was already heading out of the station, so he picked up his pace and followed.

They wandered side-by-side through random streets and alleyways until they came upon a little shopping area of sorts. It was still mostly places people lived, but there was a grocery store, some signs advertising some entertainment-based shops, even an old, closed-down movie theater. Akira was eyeing some of the produce on display in front of the grocery store, when Goro nudged him in the side, catching Akira’s attention and giving him a wry smile. He gestured to the other end of the street idly. “We’re right next to the train station. I think we passed right by this place and ended up walking in a big circle back around.”

Akira snorted, shook his head. “Just our luck, huh.” He stretched out his arms as Goro nodded, then looked up at the sky, already starting to get an amber glow with the fading daylight. “It’s getting late,” he reminded Goro, gesturing to the sky with his thumb. “We ought to get something before this all closes up for the day.”

Goro made a vague noise of agreement, and they walked over towards the grocery, browsing at the stuff on display in front idly. They had about enough on them to afford a decent enough meal, as long as they remembered to save enough for a ticket to Shibuya, and however much the cheapest net cafe  they could find there would be for the night. Akira eyed the door to the interior of the shop, wondering if they’d have a decently-nutritious protein bar or something-

A voice cleared its throat behind the boys, startling them out of their thoughts. “You boys’re out pretty late, huh,” the grating voice asked, sounding like the dictionary definition of ‘entitled asshole.’ “Your parents know where you are, kiddos?”

They sighed, and pasted on their most charming, endearing smiles as they turned around to meet this nosy stranger-

-before freezing dead still. Very, very close by, stood a tall, lanky man in a police uniform, wearing a very, very nasty smile on his face. Akira and Goro both recognized the man right away- this was one of the dirty cops they had worked for a few months back, planting evidence on people or collecting intimidation money for him. They had skipped out on the guy when he started getting touchy with them when they’d meet up for payment, and from the look in the man’s eyes, he was very pleased to have found them again.

The man opened his mouth to speak, and as one, Akira and Goro slammed their shoes into the bastard’s shins, sprinting away as he swore in pain.

Akira glanced behind them as they ran- clearly the dirty cop had been working out, because barely a second or two after the kick, he was already barreling towards them, baton out and at the ready, murder and something darker still in the cop’s eyes. Akira turned back around, eyes searching frantically for something they could use to escape. He and Goro both spotted a street to go down at the same time, Goro grabbing Akira’s elbow as they both turned on a dime and sped off-

-then braked to a halt as soon as they were out of the cop’s line of sight, and dove through the closest unlocked door.

They landed on a dark wood floor of what seemed to be a cafe, or a restaurant, or something like that. There was only enough time to process the thick smell of coffee and spices, the tinny sound of some old jazz standard playing out of a portable radio, before Akira caught his breath and scrambled to his feet, pulling Goro up with him.

He looked around as Goro righted himself, searching for a place to hide- perfect, there was a big counter bisecting the whole of the cafe that they could probably hide behind. The cop might peek his head behind it, but if they were lucky there’d be some shelving they could shimmy their way into. Akira grabbed Goro’s hand, and pulled him towards the open side of the counter, wheeling around it as fast as they could- it couldn’t have been more than ten or so seconds since they came in here, they’d likely have just a handful more to hide before the cop barged in. Akira rounded the edge of the counter, moved to dive down to the floor-

-and ran face-first into a tall, middle-aged looking man with a weird goatee and a cigarette hanging from his lips. His arms were crossed, and he was looking down at Akira- and Goro too, as he ran into Akira from behind- with a look floating somewhere between disdain and concern. “The hell is going on here,” he grumbled, taking a drag from his cigarette.

Akira clenched his teeth, they didn’t have time, that fucking cop was going to come in any minute and spin some story and take them away- “Sir, there’s a pervert cop chasing us,” Goro cut in from behind Akira, voice a desperate, frantic whisper. “We need to hide, please!

The older man frowned deeply, distant recognition flashing in his eyes, and hesitated just a moment longer before nodding. Akira let out a quick, tense breath, and ducked down as low behind the counter as he could go, whispering “Thank you!” as quietly as he could as he and Goro did so.

They were just in time. A second or two after they ducked down, the door to the cafe (or whatever the place was) slammed open, bell jingling in protest at the force of the motion. Akira could hear the cop heaving breaths noisily, the sound moving as the man cast his head around, looking for them. Akira closed his eyes, slowed his breath, silenced every part of himself that could make noise, and knew Goro was doing the same behind him- they were both way too used to stuff like this. Not that they had much of a choice but to get used to it, but still.

Directly in front of Akira, the middle-aged man with the odd facial hair made an audible “Hmph,” noise, and crossed his arms, started tapping his foot. “Officer Ueno. What do you want?” He didn’t sound friendly in the least when he spoke to the cop, and it occurred to Akira that Goatee-man might have had some bad history with the bastard too. Probably not as bad a history as Akira and Goro, but enough to make Goatee-man suspect him when two kids ran into his cafe talking about a perverted cop.

The cop- Ueno- sighed noisily, quipped back “Oh, great, Sakura. Had to be you, huh? Look, did two delinquents run in here, or did you hear someone try to hide in the bathroom or something while you were suckin’ on a coffee filter or whatever?” Akira could hear Ueno start to walk further into the cafe, probably towards the bathroom he mentioned, which wouldn’t be a problem, as long as it didn’t get the guy close enough to see Akira or Goro behind the counter, which it might, because they could hear him getting closer and closer, and Akira tried to flatten himself against the floorboards as much as he could but it wasn’t going to be enough-

The Goatee man- Sakura, the cop had called him- cleared his throat, loud and sharp enough to make the cop stop in his tracks. “You need a warrant to search a place of business, Ueno,” he said, with no emotion coloring his words, simple, direct, and commanding. This Sakura guy might run a cafe, or work in it, or whatever, but Akira had been around a lot of people who were used to other people listening when they spoke, and Sakura sounded exactly like they did. Who the hell was this guy?

There was silence for a few, extremely tense seconds, before Ueno puffed an extremely noisy breath out of his thin-ass little nose and growled “I don’t have time for this shit.” He started walking in the opposite direction, and a few short seconds later, the door slammed open again, then jangled shut.

Nobody in the cafe moved for a while, even after the cop had left. Sakura just kept staring at the door, silently daring the cop to come in again, or peek through the window, but nothing happened. After about a minute of silence, Sakura sighed, and gestured towards Akira and Goro. “You can get up now. Little prick won’t be coming back anytime soon.”

Akira let out the breath he had been holding and slowly got to his feet, hearing Goro follow suit behind him. Before anything else, Akira looked over his shoulder to make sure Goro was okay- his clothes were definitely dirty from the floor, and there was a bruise that Akira could see starting to form on Goro’s elbow, but other than that, he was okay. He nodded as much at Akira, gave him a small, reassuring smile, which Akira returned before turning back to their savior.

“Thank you for covering for us, sir,” Akira started, bowing. This wasn’t over yet- they still had to get out of here without this guy calling for a more reputable cop, which would still be just as dangerous to the two runaway boys, if in a different way. Layering on the respect and gratitude as thick as he could was probably going to be their only ticket out of here. “That man’s been bothering my friend and I for a while now. He was... touching us in a weird way, asking about our parents, and I got a bad feeling, so we ran, and...” he trailed off, looking to the side, trying to look as innocent and scared as he could.

Sakura puffed a breath through his nose, and leaned against the shelving unit that ran along the wall of the place. “I’m not surprised, frankly. That guy’s always given off some sketchy vibes.. I’ll make a complaint at the station tomorrow, try and get him transferred. Nijima should still work there, oughta still have some clout with him at least...”

“Thank you, sir, again, that would be wonderful,” Goro said, moving up to stand next to Akira, barely managing to do so in the tight space behind the counter, only managing due to their small frames. “Being able to go through here to the station in the mornings without having to worry about him... that would make our lives so much better.”

“Uh-huh,” Sakura drawled, puffing on his cigarette again. “So, since we’ve got that settled, why don’t you two tell me what you’re on the run from, exactly?” 

Akira and Goro looked at each other, not breaking their innocent masks, but communicating panic with their eyes. He knew. Somehow he could tell. Akira looked back towards Sakura, trying for innocent confusion, but the older man just chuckled gruffly, without much humor to the sound. “Don’t play dumb, I know what it looks like when someone’s an old hand at having to run and hide. You two brats were crouched down there quieter than some professionals I’ve known. So,” He took another drag, let the smoke out slowly, pinning them with a level, steady gaze all the while. “What’re you so used to running from?”

They exchanged looks again, letting the mask fall away this time, looking genuinely unsure, nervous. Akira knew that between him and Goro, they could still spin a decent enough lie to make this all sound believable and innocent, but from the way this guy was talking, it sounded like he was an ex-cop, or at least ex-something that had to do with the government and the law and all that shit. He’d likely see right through them if they tried another lie, and Akira and Goro both knew from experience how much worse being caught lying could make things, compared to just telling the unpleasant truth.

The two boys communicated with their eyes for a few more seconds, then, hesitantly, nodded at each other. Akira turned back to Sakura, taking a slow breath as he did so. “We’ve... been on the run from my parents for almost a year now,” he tried. Might as well start off with the less illegal parts. “They... didn’t care about me, just about using me as a status symbol. Were gonna send me off somewhere and leave Goro all alone... he’d have had to go back to his foster parents, and they hit him, a lot, so we ran away, and...” 

Akira choked on his words, not realizing how emotional he had been getting the longer he spoke. Goro’s fingers dug into the too-tight fist Akira’s hands had balled into, and he shakily loosened them, grabbed onto Goro’s hand tightly, a pressure in his chest he hadn’t felt for a long while now. Akira hadn’t really talked about his feelings towards his parents and that whole situation ever since he and Goro had come to Tokyo, hadn’t talked about them at all, really. Maybe he should have.

Right now wasn’t the time, though. He rose his gaze back to meet Sakura’s, hoping that his admittedly not-super-coherent story would be enough to sate the man’s curiosity and get him to let them go.

Sakura, however, had a strange look on his face, half-concerned, half-thoughtful. He wasn’t looking at Akira or Goro, just staring off into the distance in the general direction of the floor. “Huh,” he started, tapping a finger against his arm. “And I’m guessing you’ve both had to do some nasty stuff to survive here in the city since then?”

Akira blanched, but nodded jerkily. There wasn’t really any point in trying to deny it. “Yeah,” he said simply, squeezing Goro’s hand all the tighter- Goro letting out a little ‘Ow,’ at the pressure and whacking Akira’s arm a little until he loosened his grip.

Sakura took a deep sigh, taking his cigarette from his lips and putting it out in an ashtray nearby. He closed his eyes for a second, massaged his temples once his hand was free of tobacco, then looked towards the two boys tiredly. “You go back out there, alone, you’re gonna run into more people like Ueno eventually. My guess is that you probably did some dirty work for him, and there’s probably a dozen different guys just like him out there, wanting to shut you two up before you spill there secrets, right?”

Akira’s teeth clenched, and this time Goro’s hand was the one who squeezed his too tightly. They knew all that. Their life was shit, and was probably gonna be shit for a while. This asshole didn’t have to remind them of it. “Yes sir,” Goro gritted out, having an even harder time holding back his anger than Akira was. 

The man just nodded, the frown on his face deepening. He gazed contemplatively at them for a few tense, silent moments, then pushed himself off from the shelving, letting out another deep sigh. “Guess there’s nothing for it, anyways. Come on, follow me,” he gestured for them to move out of the way as he started undoing the ties on his apron, flicking off some switches on the fancy coffee machines sitting on the counter.

The boys blinked in confusion as they moved out from behind the counter to stand aimlessly in the middle of the room. “Follow you... where? Why?” Akira asked, nervous and uncertain of what exactly was going on. 

Sakura didn’t look at them as he continued what seemed to be his closing-up duties for the day. “I’ve got a spare room, bed should be big enough for the two of you to share. I’m already cooking for one brat that’s not mine, two more won’t make that much of a difference...” he grumbled, half to himself, then started speaking to them more directly, still not bothering to look their way as he did so. “I’ll set you up with some classes at one of the schools around here- you two are what, thirteen, fourteen?”

Akira and Goro looked at each other, still not sure what was happening. “Almost fourteen, yes,” Goro replied, frowning.

“Hmph, well, it’s not too far into the second term at the middle school here, they oughta still take you two in without much hassle.” He finished doing whatever it was he was doing behind the counter to close up the shop, and finally took a weird little hat off its peg, putting it on at an angle. This guy had some weird sense of fashion, almost as weird as how he was acting towards the two boys. He fixed them with that steady gaze again, looking deadly serious. “Long as you keep up your grades and don’t do any more sketchy shit, you’ll have free room and board, free meals, so on. Got it?”

Akira couldn’t take it anymore- this was too much, all at once. “Why?!” he shouted, desperately confused. “Where is all this even coming from? Why would you even want to do all this, why would you just... take in two random kids off the street?” It didn’t escape Akira’s mind that he and Goro had just escaped one likely pedophile, and that it was wholly possible they were talking to another, this time one who would use money and kindness to entrap them.

But when Akira looked up at Sakura’s face, all he could see was a deep sadness, some echo from a past he suddenly didn’t want to know much about, etched into hard lines on the man’s face. “Somebody ought to,” he said quietly, softly. There was something about the conviction, the dead seriousness in the man’s voice that somehow made Akira’s doubts vanish. 

Well, not vanish, not completely. It was possible that the guy was a really good actor, and was still going to try something, but he really did seem sincere, albeit in a gruff, stern way. Goro nudged Akira’s side, and met Akira’s glance with a nod, if a cautious one, that Akira returned. 

They both faced Sakura, and Akira nodded at the man, replying with a quiet but firm “...okay. Thanks.” On the whole, there wasn’t much harm in going with this for the moment, at least- or rather there wasn’t any more harm doing this than there was with any of the other options Akira and Goro had avaliable. If things started looking sketchy, they had enough practice running and fighting to get out of trouble, and if the guy really was being sincere? Well, they’d get free food and an actual bedroom to stay in, from what it sounded like, and they could certainly manage keeping up a decent grade in school, that had never been a problem for either of them.

It could be... nice. Good. They didn’t get a lot of nice or good things, these days.

Sakura nodded, serious, but relieved, and walked around the boys towards the exit of the cafe. “Good. Come on, then, I’ll show you my place and your room, then make something for dinner.”

The boys followed their new guardian, cautiously optimistic about where this could all lead.

►►⧗⧗⧗►►
April, 2015


Yusuke’s messages were, thankfully, not as alarming as Ann and Ryuji’s. Apparently, everything was pretty much normal inside the school, it was just a small gathering of what seemed to be protesters outside the school gates. Yusuke had spied them from his dorm window, and had privately worried that they might be there because of him- he had been passionately and publicly espousing the wonders of nude still lifes as his current artistic obsession, and had feared that word had gotten out to the masses, incensing them to call for his head. 

Goro put his phone down when he got to that part, burying his face in his hands, incredibly tired all of a sudden. Akira held back his chuckles as best he could, and soothed the artist, which didn’t take too long in the end. They finished gorging themselves on sushi after that, then went home.

The boys spent the rest of the night researching everything they could, everything they hadn’t looked up the day before, and ended up getting barely any sleep whatsoever. In the end, they found almost nothing useful, at least not at the present moment. They saved some articles on how to help a friend escape from a cult, which would doubtlessly be useful later, but nothing else was really applicable.

By the time morning rolled around and they headed off to school again, Akira and Goro both agreed that the only way they were going to find out anything useful was to go to the best source they had avaliable. So, after a long day of weird behavior from an ever-increasing portion of the school, they grabbed some food, coffee and energy drinks from the nearest combini, and headed towards the subway. Huddled in a shadowy corner of the subway platform, they stuffed everything into their pockets, downed as much caffeine as they could handle, pulled out their phones, and, as one, murmured into their phones.

“Mementos.”

The world twisted and warped and corrupted itself around the two as it always did when they transitioned there. As always, it was uncomfortable as all hell, if thankfully a brief experience, and as always, when vision returned to them, the two found themselves standing on a hellish subway platform, with endless, twisting tunnels branching out ahead of them in horrific, bloody colors.

Once they started walking through Mementos, however, the similarities with their previous visits there quickly vanished.

As they ventured further into the tunnels, Akira felt his chest tighten, anxious and worried. The tunnels themselves were shrinking, very noticeably in size, the farther they went. By the time they reached the first stairwell down, it had gotten so tight that had there been an actual functioning subway down here, it’d just barely have room for a single car to pass through without grazing the walls. There was enough space for him and Goro to walk side-by-side, but add a few more theoretical people to the mix, or, as they often wished on long journeys into the twisted subways, a vehicle, and they’d have a rough time of it.

Stranger still, they didn’t run into a single monster as they walked. That wasn’t a bad thing, strictly speaking, but it wasn’t really a good sign either...

“This is probably really bad, isn’t it?” Akira ventured as the walls kept constricting around them.

“Yes...” Akechi replied distantly. His voice sounded lost, deep in thought, and Akira glanced over at him. He had his Detective Prince expression on, concentrated, fingers to his chin, brow undoubtedly deeply furrowed behind his mask.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he nudged Goro, saying the phrase in full, Hollywood-dramatic English, both for humor’s sake and to make sure he got Goro’s attention, which he did. Goro looked at him, a little alarmed at the sudden change in language, blinking in a very bird-like way behind his bird-like mask.

“I’m sorry?”

Akira smiled, nudged his arm with his elbow again. “What’s on your mind, Detective?”

“Ah, yes, sorry,” Goro nodded. He didn’t speak for a moment, seeming to collect his thoughts so far, then gestured around them. “I was just thinking that the way these tunnels have been shrinking reminded me of what I’ve read happens to a person’s veins when somebody’s dehydrated.”

“Hmm,” Akira hummed, looking around them with that perspective added to his gaze. “Don’t like that.”

Goro chuckled a little. “No, neither do I. Worse still, I’ve started to notice the bits on the walls that had always looked like actual veins themselves are starting to look decidedly... unhealthy, to say the least.” He gestured at the nearby wall, and if Akira looked closely enough at it, something he typically tried to avoid doing in the interest of keeping his lunch, he could indeed see that the veins criss-crossing and running along the tunnel were looking even blacker and more necrotized than usual, like they were withering from too little blood-flow. Even the rib- and spine-like bones that gave the tunnel its shape seemed to be even more sickly-yellow, aging and decaying.

Akira felt the anxiety in his chest double. “...whatever’s going on really is coming from here, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to suss out...” Goro grumbled, sounding frustrated at that particular topic. He shoved his hands into his pockets as he spoke. “One possibility is, yes, that something is wrong with Mementos, and that’s somehow either affecting the populace of Tokyo to the point where they’d be susceptible to the kind of tactics used by predatory religious institutions, or that the cult-like ‘Bound’ group is somehow directly affecting this place, and altering people’s minds from here, and that in turn is somehow altering the landscape of Mementos.”

He groaned and tugged at his hair, a little roughly. “But those aren’t even the only possibilities. As we’ve seen, what happens in Mementos affects the real world, but it goes the other way too- the weather in the real world can alter how the shadows behave, the look of the shadows is based on humanity’s perceptions of various characters and concepts, so on and so forth. It’s entirely possible that this is simply a reaction to some aspect of what’s happening in Tokyo, that people being converted hurts Mementos somehow. It could be any one of those options, or a combination of them, or all three at once, or something completely different, and as far as I’m aware we have no way to tell!”

Akira put a soothing hand on Goro’s shoulder, rubbing softly. “Breathe, Goro.” He hadn’t been, and while he shot Akira a little glare, he did so, and seemed to calm down after a few seconds of just focusing on that. Akira continued after he’d done so, “You’re logically sound, though. We know that whatever’s going on, it’s serious enough to affect this place in one way or another, but I don’t think we’re gonna be able to figure out much more beyond that... hmm...” 

Akira grew thoughtful, focusing on his thoughts to chase down the spark of an idea he’d had while talking, speaking up when it started to more fully form in his mind’s eye. “Unless... we track down the shadow of someone who’s gotten fucked up by the Bound stuff and interrogate the hell out of ‘em, see what they know, or at least see if they know someone higher up the ladder in the cult’s ranks, and then go interrogate them?”

Goro was beaming at Akira when he turned to look, and Akira blushed a little, then a little more when Goro started to praise him. “Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, Akira.” He patted Akira firmly on the back, and Akira tried not to feel too good from the physical contact, still having to suppress a pleased little shudder anyways. Goro just smiled big and proud and impressed a few moments longer, then turned to pull out his phone. “I had noted down a few names here- good thing the Mementos app lets you access a notebook of sorts...”

Akira leaned over to watch Goro tap through his phone, sliding around the strange, otherworldly program that took over their phones whenever they came here. There was, in fact, a notes section to the app,  one where you could write down the names of people you planned to visit, or, as Akira and Goro had started doing, take actual notes, so long as they looked like the names of people. With the amount of investigations they had to run simultaneously in order to keep up their business, it would be impossible to keep track of everything they learned while down here without some kind of note-taking system, and it was way too dark in most of Mementos to use physical pen and paper- they had tried. 

So, in the place where the Mementos app let them note down a list of names to investigate, they just sort of... fudged things a little. Goro scrolled past several ‘Investigatehis Bankaccount’s and ‘Hersonisa Bassoonplayer’s, before finding the most recent saved entries, which Akira recognized as some of the affected kids from their school. Goro chose the name of one that was known to be a bit of a bastard, strong of spirit enough to manifest a shadow somewhere down here, and the navigator placed a marker down on their map, only a couple levels below where they were currently.

They smiled at each other, and headed off.

--

The trouble was, there was nothing there.

Or rather, nothing they could get to. Arriving at the destination the Mementos app had routed for them, Akira and Goro were faced with a large wall blocking them from the tunnel they needed to go down, thick and yellow-white, like a solid sheet of the same bones that bordered the tunnels. They just stared at it for a few moments, the Goro pulled out his saber and tried to hit the bone with all the strength he could summon, letting out a shout of fury as he did so.

It didn’t even leave a mark.

Goro just stared at the wall, mouth twitching in anger. Akira, silent, thoughts spinning a mile a minute, went over and reached into Goro’s pocket, which got him a confused, annoyed couple of thwacks to the arm, and pulled out Goro’s phone, swiping to the list of students he made in his notes. He set a route to another affected kid, on the same level they were currently on, and started walking off, gesturing for Goro to follow...

...only to be faced with another wall of solid, unbreakable bone when they arrived. Goro growled audibly in frustration, ripped off his mask with a shout of “Robin Hood!” and case the most powerful bless spell he knew at the bone wall. 

Nothing.

“Piece of shit!” Goro shouted, and kicked the wall, only to have to rub and nurse his foot afterwards. Akira just stared at Goro’s phone in his hands, trying to figure out what the hell was going on...

He had an idea, just a slight one. “Ryuji Sakamoto,” he said into the app, and got a ping. Goro looked at him, bewildered, and Akira shrugged. “Guy’s got the biggest spirit of anyone I know, other than you, and we know the Bound haven’t gotten to him. Come on.” He started off, and Goro followed, curious as to where his friend’s thoughts were headed.

They had to go up a few levels to get to Ryuji, his heart too uncorrupted to sink very low into Mementos’ depths. Back on the first floor, they backtracked, the tunnels starting to widen again around them, until they reached the dead-end tunnel where Ryuji’s shadow was waiting for them, kicking at some imaginary pebbles on the ground. He perked up as he heard them approach, eyes as yellow as his hair glowing eerily in the dim light of the subway, and his expression brightened immensely when he caught sight of them. “Dudes!” He shouted, walking over to roughly pull Akira and Goro both into a bear hug. “Man, am I glad to see you! How’re Tokyo’s sexiest guys doin’ huh?!”

Goro grumbled and shoved Ryuji off, while Akira just chuckled warmly and returned the hug. “Good to see you too, Sakamoto,” Goro grumbled. “Though I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to call us Tokyo’s ‘sexiest.’ Akira’s barely 16, after all.”

Ryuji’s smile grew smirkier, but also a little darker. “Hey, haven’t met an adult yet who wouldn’t hit up a kid our age, one way or another.”

Akira reeled back at that, looking very worried. “Wow. You... really need to meet more adults. Or less, I guess?” He shook his head, patting the shadow’s shoulder. “You really get me worrying, sometimes.”

“Also, have you really not met any decent adults, Sakamoto?” Goro challenged, arms crossing haughtily. “Even Sakura-san? Even your own mother? Even the Nijimas?”

Ryuji was starting to look bashful as Goro spoke, then perked up again at the mention of the two older Nijimas. “Hey,” he started, loud and poking a finger towards Goro. “The Nijimas are cops, dude! Okay, sure, maybe they aren’t molesty creeps, but I don’t care how buddy buddy you guys are with ‘em, you know they’d punch a kid if they thought the kid was guilty of somethin’!”

Goro didn’t really have a response to that, not having the highest opinion of cops in general, and frankly Akira didn’t either. Sae and Hoshino Nijima had earned his and Goro’s trust several times over since they met, but, well. Cops.

Akira shook his head slightly, then spoke up, trying to steer the topic back in a more useful direction. “Anyways, we came here to ask you some stuff. Have you noticed anything weird going on around here recently?”

“Huh? You mean here in Mementos? Uh...” Ryuji looked thoughtful, eyes casting around their surroundings. “Not much new up here, dude. It’s gotten a little tighter, but I think that’s just cause there’s so many new tunnels being built next door.”

That caught both of their attention, and Goro took a step closer, looking concerned. “New tunnels?  Next door? The hell does that mean?”

Ryuji nodded, pointing behind him with his thumb. “Yeah man, I’ve been able hear ‘em growing for a while now. Think whoever’s in charge of this place wanted to make some new passageways for all the new people that’ve been coming down here recently. Probably havin’ to close down some old ones too, to make room and all.”

“There’s been- you-” Goro cut himself off, having to reach under his mask to massage his temples, take a deep, slow breath so he didn’t get too frustrated. “You’ve heard new tunnels growing nearby, and there have been multiple new people running around Mementos, and that counts as ‘not much new’ to you?!”

Akira smirked a bit at how flustered and annoyed Goro was, but only a little, just as deeply troubled by Ryuiji’s words as he could tell Goro was. Ryuji just shrugged, shadow-gold eyes looking unconcerned. “Like I said, dude, nothing’s been happening over here. That’s all in the new parts of Mementos, I haven’t actually seen jack shit, outside of the tunnels shrinking a little.Just could hear that gross-ass growing noise and a bunch of footsteps in the distance every now and then.”

Goro didn’t have much to say to that, still grumbling to himself, but growing thoughtful all the same. Akira took over for him, turning more fully towards Ryuji. “How long have you been hearing all this, Ryuji?”

“Hmm... The gross growing stuff’s been happening for a while now, though up until recently it was all way lower down.” He pointed his thumb at the floor, then shrugged. “Least that’s what my gut’s saying. Footsteps’ve only been happening since, like, Monday, though. I think.”

Akira looked over at Goro, who seemed just as disturbed at all this as Akira felt, and then nodded at Ryuji. “Thanks, Ryuji, this is a big help.” He patted Ryuji’s arm, then smiled as Ryuji lifted his hand for a fistbump. Akira returned it, then turned to leave, as did Goro. “We’ll see you soon.”

Ryuji waved at the two of them. “Alright, see ya! Oh shit, and bring Yusuke next time, alright? He said I was hot, last time he painted me, but I was too nervous and kept covering up my crotch. I wanna see if he thinks my dick’s hot too!”

“Holy shit- alright Ryuji-” Akira started, laughing.

We’re leaving now,” Goro interrupted, sounding very much like he didn’t need to know any of that and would like to scrub the mental image from his brain as quickly as possible. Akira just laughed more.

They made their way back up to the entrance to Mementos, and Goro tapped his phone until they were warped back out again, standing right where they had been earlier, in a corner of the subway station. 

Both boys sighed deeply, almost simultaneously, and as Goro looked way more mentally exhausted than Akira, Akira took hold of Goro’s elbow and navigated them both out of the station, over towards a nearby park a few streets away. They plopped down on a bench in a relatively secluded area, and just sat there for a while, processing what they’d learned silently.

Eventually, Goro took a loud, long breath in and out, then hunched forwards on the bench, hands clenched together, gaze at the grass in front of them. “Let’s go over what we learned. First, Mementos is shrinking, or rather the parts of Mementos we’re able to access now start to shrink in size the deeper down we go.”

Akira nodded, having fished out his phone and started taking notes as they spoke. “Right. And not only shrinking, but decaying too, more than it already was.”

Goro nodded, grimacing. “Yes, I didn’t like that at all. Either it’s sick, or neglected- ugh.” He shook his head, frustrated with himself. “Save the analysis for once we have all the facts down. Sorry.”

“You’re fine, Goro,” Akira soothed, patting his best friend’s back. Goro shot a quick, grateful smile at him, then returned to his glaring contest with the plantlife.

“Right. So, Second, we’re unable to find the shadows of seemingly anyone who has been influenced by this ‘Bound’ cult, or whatever it is. We’ve only been able to test it out with a couple students from our school, but while we’re able to find where they should be in Mementos, we’re blocked off from getting to them by large, bone-like barriers.”

Akira nodded. He’d save this for their analysis session later. but after what Ryuji had said, he suspected that the parts of Mementos where those kids were had been absorbed into the new tunnel system that had been growing down there. “Right. The barriers are unbreakable, at least by any methods we have access to, though they might have an elemental vulnerability other than Light or Curse. We’d have to lure a shadow over to find out, but...”

“Yes, Third, there are no enemy shadows down there now. I... don’t know what that means, but all the monsters we’d normally have to fight while down there are just... gone.” They both processed that for a second, then Goro continued. “Fourth, we are able to locate and reach the shadows of those unaffected by the cult, or at least we were able to do that with Ryuji. All of these theories need more thorough testing...”

“I think it’s a safe bet,” Akira said, nodding. “If this was a case, we’d have to follow our normal procedures, yeah, but considering this feels more like an imminent emergency, I think we’re okay just making safe bets right now.”

Goro grumbled at that. “I suppose so...” Akira smiled, finding Goro’s dedication to being as much of a proper, capital-D Detective as was possible very, very endearing, as always. “At any rate, Fifth, Ryuji said he was able to hear what he believed was the sound of new tunnels growing in the distance, which I would extrapolate to mean entirely new subway systems that we have no access to, but, Sixth, that some person or persons unknown do have access to, and have been accessing with disturbing frequency ever since this Monday.” He paused, sighed as Akira finished typing that all in. “Anything I missed?”

Akira shook his head. “I don’t think so. I didn’t feel weaker than usual while we were down there, or physically affected in any other way, so I don’t think whatever’s happening is affecting us, at least. If we have time, we might want to prepare for a journey even deeper into Mementos, so we can see if this is exacerbated the farther down you go, though I’m not sure what exactly that’d prove, even if it were true.”

“Hmm, yes...” Goro looked deeply troubled, a new thought occurring to him. “I did realize something, though. Eighth, assuming that they’ve been affected by the Bound, we’re not going to be able to investigate all the requests that we get anymore, until we fix all this somehow, or figure out how to gain access to this new part of Mementos.”

“Shit, you’re right...” Akira grimaced, hands tightening around his phone. “I mean, from what we’ve seen, even the shittiest kids that were turned, back at school, all seemed eerily well-mannered these past couple days, so it probably won’t be too dangerous to leave them uninvestigated, and we’ve got enough saved up so that fewer cases shouldn’t affect us financially, but...”

“But if the cultists start abusing people, or bringing them harm in other ways- or forcefully trying to convert or brainwash others, we’re not going to be able to do anything about it,” Goro worried.

Akira nodded, feeling as depressed and pissed as Goro sounded. “Yeah...” They sat in silence for a minute, then Akira shook off the feeling and shot a jaunty smirk at Goro. “Guess this means we’ll just have to be actual detectives instead, huh?”

Goro snorted, rolled his eyes. “Obviously, yes. I just meant that if this is an organized crime type of situation, we're going to be extremely limited in our options, insofar as dealing with the problem ourselves.”

Another nod. “Right. I don’t really like to say it, but we’ll probably have to rely a lot on the Nijimas for this one.”

“Eugh.” Goro grimaced, as did Akira. Not at the thought of going to the Nijimas for help, of course. Sae was the sharpest lawyer Akria had ever met, through admittedly the pool of lawyers he had met was pretty small. She had an unflinching sense of justice, however, one heavily influenced by her father, Hoshino. 

Akira and Goro had gotten to know Nijima Hoshino back when they were first starting out, and none of the cops would believe them about the crimes they were trying to report- except for him. They had unraveled a conspiracy against his life a couple years ago, and since then he’d been elected the chief of the Tokyo Police.

The issue was that relying on those two inevitably meant relying on the cops under Hoshino’s command, or the justice system Sae struggled to make work properly on a daily basis. Neither were particularly appealing scenarios.

Still, they’d do what they had to do. Akira saved the notes he had been typing up to the secure server Futaba had created for them to safely store their work on without fear of being hacked, and navigated to his contacts list. “Let’s call him up, if he’s free, or try Sae I guess, if he’s busy, see if either of them have seen anything weird about this recently.”

Goro nodded, scooting close to Akira and pulling out a set of earbuds from his bag, handing the plug and one bud to Akira, and putting the other in his ear, so they could both hear what was going on at the same time, more or less.

Akira plugged the headset in, tapped Hoshino Nijima’s number, and waited as it rang.

Surprisingly, the Chief picked up on the first ring. “Hello?” He asked, sounding tired, but not angry. Hoshino had been a softhearted man, as long as they’d known him. Stern and absolutely focused on catching ne’er-do-wells, but kind to those on his side. “Kurusu-kun? What’s wrong?”

“Hey Nijima-san, yeah, it’s Akira. Goro’s here too.”

“Hello, Chief Nijima,” Goro piped up, waving a little at nothing as he spoke into the mic, which was cute as hell. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything important.”

The older man sighed deeply on the other end. “Not really, no. It’s just been a very trying couple of days.”

The boys looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “Our questions may have something to do with that, unfortunately.” Goro replied, sounding tense. “We were wondering if you’d experienced any issues with a group calling themselves ‘the Bound,’ these past couple days. They seem to be a religious group that, as far as we’ve seen, has drastically changed the personalities of a great number of students and teachers at our school and others.”

“Ugh, I’ve heard that, and yes, we’re facing the same problem here,” Hoshino replied, tired and a little disgusted-sounding. “It isn’t just schools and kids, there’s scores of businesses suddenly claiming religious-related status, massive prayer groups gathering without official city permission throughout Tokyo- hell, half the cops on my payroll have been taken in by these clowns, and whenever I try to report up the chain about it, the Commissioner just hushes the whole matter up, I’ve even called a couple of the big-wigs that the Comissioner reports to himself, and some of them seemed concerned too, but every time, the next day, I can’t get through to them at all. I think someone really high up the chain is firing or otherwise silencing anyone who makes a ruckus about this cult stuff.” He laughed humorlessly. “I think the only reason I still have my job is cause I was elected to it. Otherwise they’d have me out on my ear. I’ve got some teams still loyal to me looking into it on the sly, but we haven’t come up with much.”

The boys took a moment to process all this. “That’s... pretty worrying, Nijima-san,” Akira said, after a bit.

Another dry chuckle. “It sure is, boys. Look, you two are the best independent detectives I’ve met; you find out anything concrete about this, you tell me directly, soon as you can. Go through Sae or Makoto if you have to, but get the information to me without going through official channels, alright?”

Goro nodded, again, seemingly unaware that the man on the other end couldn’t actually see him. He was the greatest, and Akira was a gay, hopeless fool. “Understood, sir.”

“Hey, I’ve talked to you about that, Goro-kun,” Hoshino admonished, laughing genuinely a little. “No ‘sirs’ when you’re talking to me. It’s Chief, or Nijima-san, that’s it.” 

“Understood, s- Chief. Sorry,” Goro quickly apologized. He was so bad at this kind of casual stuff with authority figures, though he struggled with Hoshino for a different reason than he did with Sojiro, for example. He had told Akira once that he was always nervous that Hoshino was so casual with them that one day he’d ask them to call him ‘pops,’ or ‘dad,’ and then try and get them to date his daughters, not realizing that all four of them were gay as corkscrew rainbows. It was a terrifying scenario that Goro never, ever wanted to see, so he tried his hardest to keep things as professional with the man as was possible. 

Ugh. Dads. 

Goro coughed, then continued. “At any rate, we’ll get in contact as soon as we find something useful- and I would hope that goes both ways, within reason?”

“Of course. I was planning on calling you about all this once I got home tonight, actually,” he agreed. “Your perspectives are always enlightening, in one way or another.”

“Let’s do that anyway, if you have the time,” Akira joined in, eyes flicking to the time on his phone. “We ought to be avaliable from 6 until midnight tonight, it’d be good to go over everything both parties know, in case one of us can fill in some holes somewhere.”

“Sounds good, I’ll call you again tonight then. Til then, Kurusu, Akechi.”

“Talk to you tonight, Nijima-san.”

“Until later, Chief.”

They ended the call, and Goro retrieved his earbuds, putting them away silently as they both processed things. It was Goro who shook out of it first, this time, gently patting Akira’s knee (hell yes) and standing up, brushing himself off. “Come on, we might as well get a decent meal before heading home. It’s probably going to be another long night.”

“Yeah,” Akira agreed, getting to his feet and following Goro out of the park. It was probably going to be a lot of long nights, for quite some time.

---

The all-too bright Spring sunlight glared through the shutters in Goro and Akira’s apartment, just at the right angle to hit the closed eyelids of both boys, where they had fallen asleep on the large dining room-style table that functioned as a mutual work desk for the both of them.

Akira jolted awake at the caustic feeling, flailing slightly and whacking Goro’s shoulder in the process as he grumbled blearily awake himself. They looked at each other, blinking slowly, a tired, rueful smile on their lips as they went through the motions of dealing with the aftereffects of another full night of research.

Then they realized, almost at the exact same time, that it was Friday, and they still had school, and rushed out of their chairs to get ready for the day.

Classes were just as tiresome and unsettling as they had been throughout the week so far, but Akira managed to get through it alright, only looking slightly more sleep-deprived than Goro, having allowed Goro earlier that morning to slap some concealer onto his face when the bags around his eyes were too much, even for him. Goro usually wore at least some makeup, a light,  mostly healthy smattering of vanity being his sin of choice, but Akira never liked how gunky it made his pores feel. Still, they were technically on an investigation site whenever they were at school now, and for the sake of being subtle and getting information wherever possible, Akira had to do what he could to blend in, even if it meant gunky pores.

Everything stayed mostly normal, or at least normally abnormal throughout the school day itself, but, as soon as the last bell of the day rang out and everyone was dismissed, Akira felt the hairs on his skin stand up as an almost physically palpable sense of... buzzing excitement, it felt like, started filling the classroom. He looked around, surprised, and found all the Bound students with tight, eager smiles on their faces, their hands gripping their bags just a little tighter, almost bouncing on their feet in anticipation.

He shared a look at Goro, who had also frozen in putting his things away to look around, tension clear in every part of his body as he looked back at Akira. Whatever this was, it wasn’t good.

But, for better or worse, it didn’t seem to be immediate either. Excited as they were, the Bound students left the campus peacefully alongside everyone else, and nothing weird seemed to have happened elsewhere in the city, according to the news sites Akira checked and the lack of alerts from any of their more reliable information sources waiting on Goro’s phone. Still, they both agreed that caution was wise today, so instead of heading home or to another investigative trip into Mementos, the two headed to the diner they liked to frequent in Shibuya, ordering parfaits and teas as they slid into a booth.

For a while, they just ate and talked about less important matters- shows they watched regularly, entertainment news they’d read online, bullshit from the gatcha Akira was hooked on or idiots from the forums Goro liked to frequent, the softer, more everyday aspects of their too-often frenetic lives. They hadn’t had time almost this entire week to really just relax and shoot the breeze like this, so it was really nice to take the opportunity they had and enjoy themselves.

Naturally, of course, it didn’t last long. Just as Goro was in the middle of a lengthy diatribe against someone who had been particularly wrong in their opinions online, both of their phones rang at the exact same time. Akira frowned at his, lying on the table next to Goro’s, after he had shown him how to do a raid fight earlier, and frowned deeper when he saw both phones were being called from the same number. 

It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but whenever it did, it was bad news.

He sighed and picked up the still-ringing phone, sharing a nod with Goro as he did the same before they both answered at once. 

They didn’t have a chance to say anything before a high, nasally teenage girl’s voice blared out from their phones. “Holy shit! Guys, you have to stop picking up at the same time, it sends this loud-ass click on my end, I almost had a heart attack, jesus...”

Goro smiled across at Akira, who was already smirking fondly. “That’s hardly our fault, Futaba-chan. Perhaps-”

“Dude, it is literally, specifically your fault.”

Goro frowned, tsked his tongue. “Well, if you don’t want that sort of thing to happen, perhaps you should just call one of us, and then add the other to the call afterwards, like a normal person, instead of insisting on showing off your tech skills at every avaliable opportunity.”

“Did you just tsk at me? Did you really just click your tongue like some edgy-ass anime protag, Goro? Seriously?”

Akira was chuckling into his phone quietly- they really did bicker like siblings, it was really cute. “Okay, knock it off, guys. Futaba, it’s really good to hear from you. Sojiro said something had happened when we went to check in on you earlier this week. Are you alright?”

“Ugh, yeah, that’s why I’m calling,” Futaba groaned on the other end, and Akira could hear the loud groaning of her bedsprings in the background as she probably flopped down bonelessly onto her bed. “And it’s the reason I’m calling using my super cool encryption tech, instead of ‘calling like a normal, easily hackable person,’ mister Detective Prince.”

Goro groaned and put his elbow up onto the table so he could massage his temples. “Whatever. I take it that this is something potentially dangerous, then? Akira and I are in the Shibuya diner, should we relocate to somewhere more private?”

“Nah, you should be fine, long as you don’t just repeat everything I say verbatim like dumbasses.” Another groan from Goro, but Futaba ignored it and continued on. “It’s nothing dangerous, either, just could get us in trouble if we were caught talking about it openly. It’s, uh... about my mom, actually.”

That got Goro perked up again, and he and Akira shared a very concerned look. “She works in a government lab somewhere, right?” Akira clarified. That was probably why this had to be secretive- government info was pretty tightly regulated, and with wiretapping laws as loose as they were these days, it wouldn’t be surprising if an unencrypted call about that sort of stuff would be picked up and traced.

“Hah, that’s kind of the issue, yeah,” Futaba laughed dryly, sighing. “She worked for a government lab. She got fired as she was clocking out, Monday night.”

“What? Why on earth...” Akechi grew thoughtful, brow furrowed as he tried to deduce any potential reason from what he knew of Futaba’s mom’s business. Akira decided to take the more direct route and just wait for Futaba to explain.

“Exactly what I wanted to know, but I guess they just... didn’t tell her. Didn’t even give her a chance to clear out her desk, just threw her out the damn building. Literally, they had armed guards grab her by her jacket and toss her out on her ass,” Futaba recounted, starting to sound a little shaky. “She got home after Sojiro and I were already asleep. Tuesday morning, we found her just... sitting in her chair in the living room, shaking a little. I don’t think she slept. When Sojiro asked what happened, she just kept repeating how they threw her out, how she didn’t know what she did wrong, how they didn’t have the right...” She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, wobbly. “When she said that they didn’t even let her take her research home with her, she broke down crying. I’ve... never seen my mom cry before. It was weird.”

Akira didn’t know what to feel about this. One one hand, the detective in his mind was wondering if this had something to do with everything else they’d been investigating this week, on the other, one of his best friends was distressed, clearly, and he wasn’t quite sure what to say. “That must have been rough to see,” he said softly, trying to settle for something halfway soothing, halfway casual. Futaba probably wouldn’t appreciate anything too emotional right now.

What he didn’t expect was for her to practically explode in anger in response. “It sure was, Akira!!!” She shouted, voice loud enough to shock Akira’s head away from the speaker for a second, seeing Goro do the same. “She cried over losing her research. Her research! Not cause they didn’t let her take home any pictures of us she might have had, or because they were assholes to her, or anything, I dunno, fuckin’ human? Just mom being obsessed with her fuckin’ lab work as usual...” 

She sighed loudly, wetly, and Akira could hear her grab for some tissues and rub them noisily across her face and nose. “Sorry. I shouted at her, too, when it happened. She barely even responded. Just blinked at me, like a confused, greasy cat. Nobody’s been doing very good since then. Sojiro’s just trying to get my mom to calm down, help her figure out what to do next, Mom’s doing her best to function around the house, but she’s really out of it. I’ve just... been cooped up in my room, mostly. Sorry I didn’t call you guys sooner, I just... needed to not be around anyone for a while, I guess. Played a lot of games, tried to distract myself, but it didn’t really work...”

“Futaba-chan...” Goro started, then shook his head, sighing. “You weren’t wholly out of line to respond that way. Akira and I both have dealt with... distant parents in the past, to put it mildly. Regardless of what they’re going through to create that distance, it’s never easy on a kid to deal with that, especially as long as you’ve been dealing with it.”

“Yeah,” Akira agreed, finding his voice a bit rough. Hearing all of that... it brought up feelings Akira had been burying for a long time. He knew this wasn’t the right time to be projecting like that, though, so he tried to shove it all back down where it belonged. “We’re glad you’re feeling good enough to talk to us, at least.”

Another loud sniffle from Futaba, and if she noticed how affected Akira sounded, she didn’t mention it. Goro gave him a look, though, concerned, but kept whatever he had to say to himself. “Thanks, guys. If I didn’t have friends like you and the rest of the dork-harem you’ve managed to collect, I dunno what... actually, I’d probably just still be isolating. Yeesh, how sad is that, huh?”

She was trying to joke, but Goro wasn’t having any of it. “It isn’t sad, Futaba, it’s a very understandable response for someone dealing with abandonment, loneliness, and your own personal battles with mental illness. It isn’t healthy, and you really should get in contact with one of the therapists I’ve sent you information about, but debasing yourself about it isn’t healthy either.”

“Pfft, yeah, okay Mister Perfect-Mental-Health-Icon Akechi,” she snorted, derisive and teasing, but not in a mean way. “Tell you what, I’ll set an appointment for myself soon as I hear you and Akira doing the same, okay?”

“...touche,” Goro grumbled.

Akira just shook his head fondly, smiling a little. “We’ll work on it. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about? We can come over later if you wanted to just hang out and relax, Goro and I are on a sort of stakeout right now, but assuming nothing weird happens, we can probably make it over there by 6.”

“Mm, yeah, that sounds nice actually. I’m gonna try and start to catch up with all the shit I’ve missed this week, but I’ll prep some Featherman episodes for us to watch.” Akira could hear her get up from her bed and start to noisily flip the various switches that would turn on her PC rig. “Haven’t even had this thing on all week, just burning through old-ass SNES games on the Switch.”

“Be careful getting too deep in the news online,” Goro advized. “Since Tuesday, there’s been something strange going on all over Tokyo, whole groups of people suddenly claiming membership of a new cult of sorts and acting oddly. Best not to go too deep down the investigative rabbit hole while you’re still recovering from everything to do with your mother.”

Futaba scoffed, but she wasn’t dismissive when she responded. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll keep it in mind. I’ll try to look into it tomorrow, I’m sure you two have been completely helpless without my mastery of the datascape to help your poor, feeble minds~”

Goro’s glared at his phone, and Akira laughed. “Tomorrow, yeah, thanks Futaba. See you soon, okay?”

She chuckled, and Goro grumbled something along the same lines as what Akira had said into his phone, which only made Futaba laugh all the harder. “Alright, see ya soon, dorks!”

She hung up, and Akira and Goro put their phones back on the table. They were quiet for a bit, processing everything that had happened. Akira broke the silence first, running his hand through his hair. “I’m glad we were able to make her laugh, at least.”

Goro nodded, and started stirring the straw in his drained glass of Frui-tea idly. “Me too... I’m certain she’s still feeling far more pain than she would admit to harboring. Familial drama is...”

“A lot.” Akira finished simply for him, nodding.

“Yes, it’s very much... a lot.” Goro agreed. “Especially at her age. She’s very fortunate to have a support group, as she said. Not to sound too cold, but I’ve no doubt she would have regressed very seriously without anyone else her age to rely on.”

It was a scary thought. Futaba had grown a lot in the time Akira and Goro had known her, but as they were both all too aware, life will always try and find a way to uproot any stability a person had, and without something or someone to lean on when the hit inevitably came, it was all too easy to crumble down again. “Mm. Is it wrong that I kind of see her as a little sister, these days?”

Goro barked out a laugh, shook his head fondly. “Don’t worry, I do as well. Frankly, even had Sojiro not taken us into his family so thoroughly, that would have probably happened. There’s something about Futaba that just screams out ‘little sister.’”

Akira smirked, nodding. “She definitely fits the type. Not to, like, a cliche level, but it is kinda like she walked out of an anime sometimes.”

Goro opened his mouth to reply, but snapped it shut when their phones started ringing simultaneously again.

Akira frowned, reaching to pick his up. “Wonder what happened now...”

Again, they picked up the call at the exact same time, but Futaba apparently didn’t have the time to lambast them for it a second time. Instead, as soon as they could hear her, she started speaking, voice tight and nervous. “Guys, get to the Scramble as soon as you can, or anywhere with screens. Something’s happening.”

They looked at each other, but complied, having learned long ago to trust Futaba implicitly with this sort of thing- her urgent calls to go and do a thing right away had helped them catch someone in the act of a crime more than once. “Any more details than that, Futaba?” Goro grated out as he fished in his pocket for a decent amount of yen to cover their meal, while also trying to get his bag back onto his shoulder.

Futaba replied almost immediately again, professional and polished. “Not really. Started looking into the cult shit we were talking about, apparently there’s some big press conference about it starting in, like, a minute and a half, and literally every TV station is broadcasting it.”

Akira shot Goro a worried look as they made their way out of the diner and started jogging back towards Shibuya Scramble. “Every station?” Akira asked, very worried, reasonably. “They can’t have their claws in ev-”

“Yeah, I checked Akira, it’s every station. They haven’t hacked in or anything, there’s no sign of streams online being messed with or anything like that, they just interrupted whatever was playing for one of those Breaking News bits with whatever news hosts the station has, and they’re announcing it right now, guys, hurry!”

“We’re hurrying!” Goro barked, breaking into a full run down the street. He and Akira hung up and shoved their phones back into their pockets as they got closer, not wanting to risk dropping them if anything bad happened. His vision had tunneled in to focus on where he was running to, but even with that Akira could feel how weirdly empty the street had gotten. He didn’t like it.

As they approached the Scramble, they could hear the tail end of the newscasters talking. “-the sun shining down on them, it makes for a perfect day to announce the beautiful new direction they’re going to lead all of us towards, isn’t that right?”

“It’s truly an inspiring scene, Yuki-san. Oh,” The newscaster was putting a finger to her ear as the two boys finally arrived, stopping at the edge of a truly massive crowd that filled the Scramble completely, all staring in anticipation at the large screens hooked onto the buildings around them, each of which displayed the same news program, the same two anchors, their voices amplified loud from every angle. The woman on the screen continued, her face lighting up in an eerie sort of glee. “It seems as if it’s starting. We bring you now, Live, to the Diet Building, where our wonderful leader is making his announcement to all of Japan, and the world itself!”

The camera cut to what looked like a mix between a political rally and an outdoor religious service. The shot the channel was showing was from a little ways back in a tightly-packed crowd of reporters, seated in front of a large stage that was covered in a huge, pure-white cloth, large enough to cover the entire thing and drape over the edges. The stage itself was backed with another pure-white curtain, with wreathes and chains of flowers hung artistically along the top edge, and a row of sweating, slimy-looking politicians in all-white suits seated in a long row at the bottom. At the forefront of the stage, the cameras were all centered on a beautiful wood-carved podium, intricate curls and whorls carved on every part of it, the tip of it opening up like a flower, where notes or arms were meant to rest. 

On the front-facing side of the podium, right in the middle, was carved an emblem of sorts; a goblet, with a halo made of wings floating above it, and four arms sprouting out from its sides, each holding a gun, a bell, a book, and a sword respectively, the whole image encased in a large, diamond-like shape.

That emblem was everywhere on the stage.

After a few moments, a man walked onto the stage from the side, to rapturous applause from the audience of reporters and the men at the back. He was tall, dressed in something halfway between papal-looking robes and a military general’s outfit. Beyond that, his only noticeable features were a completely bald head, and beady eyes hidden behind stylish, amber-colored sunglasses.

Goro reached out and gripped Akira’s hand, tight enough to hurt. Akira gripped the same amount right back.

They knew who that man was.

When he reached the podium, he raised his hands, benevolent-looking, and the applause ceased immediately. He smiled, snake-like, and began to speak.

“My children,” he began, and next to Akira, Goro had to physically hold himself back from retching in revulsion. “We are gathered here today, on this most holy of days, for a most holy of beginnings. Today, we see the fruit of our long labor, our passion, our family, growing across this blessed country, and growing still today. Today, we announce ourselves proudly to the world, as its true future, its true leaders, its true people!” The crowd burst into applause, as did the crowd in Shibuya, in front of Akira and Goro, and the two boys flinched away from the sudden cacophony, backing away a few steps in case things kept getting progressively weird.

The man raised his hands again, and both in Shibuya and in front of him, the applause ceased at once. He smiled, wider now, showing his perfect teeth. “My children, I thank you, now and forever, for all you have done, all you have given and sacrificed, and all you will do to support us in this next phase we are entering today. Together, we will steer Japan onto the right course, the truest and holiest of courses, and then, soon after, the world itself.”

His gaze shifted from those in front of him to look directly at the camera, gaze burning out from the screens all around them, and Akira felt his heart go cold at the power, the confidence, the menace in that gaze. “And so, to all of my children gathered here, to every single one of the ten million children who have joined our flock all across Japan, and to all of those who have not realized they are my children yet, but will very soon...” He paused, the threat in his voice clear, but not seeming to deter the excited energy radiating off of the crowd in Shibuya. “...it is with immense pride and joy that I, Masayoshi Shido, announce the founding of the Bindings of God Party, with myself as our leader in the Diet, and our glorious proclamation of The Bindings of God as the official religion of Japan!”

The crowd went wild, at the Diet building, in Shibuya, and, Akira was beginning to realize, at dozens, if not hundreds of other places all across the country.

Akira and Goro slunk backwards into the shadows of a nearby alleyway as Masayoshi Shido gazed out, lording over them all.

Chapter Text

April, 2015

Goro and Akira managed to slip away from Shibuya Scramble before Shido’s broadcast ended, and it was a damn good thing they did, because the instant the feed cut back to the newscasters, the gathered crowd of cultists went nuts.

Goro could only hear it distantly, having made it a good couple blocks away via several small alleyways by the time it all started, but the sheer density of noise and chaos from the direction of the Scramble was terrifying. However he did it, Shido had these people wrapped so tightly around his finger that were they to be wrapped even an iota tighter, they’d burst.

Shido. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard the man’s name since coming to Tokyo- hell, it wasn’t even the first time he had seen his father’s face. Being the ambitious politician that he was, Shido did his best to be as visible as was tolerable for a politician to be, and so inevitably Goro had seen him in passing on the odd TV interview or online ad, not to mention all the clips and videos of a more dubious nature that he and Akira had found over the course of their research into the man.

But seeing him like this, his horrid face projected onto multiple stories-tall screens, surrounded by an adoring crowd cheering his every word and following his every command... it was enough to make Goro sick. It was literally enough to make Goro sick; as soon as they made it far enough away from the crowd to be safe, Goro fell against the nearest alley wall, his side pressed limply against the brick, body bent almost in half, breaths heaving as he tried to hold back everything he and Akira had eaten at the Diner earlier from coming up again.

Shido. Masayoshi Fucking Shido, leader of a fucking cult- not just that, but a cult that had, fuck, how many members did the bastard say? A million? Multiple millions? Goro felt himself start to hyperventilate, a manic, horrified rictus of a smile etching itself onto his face. Millions of people all over the country, all following his deadbeat, shithead father without question, likely via the influence of Mementos.  Ha, oh, that was the richest part- the one thing that made Goro special, the one fucking thing that he had that gave him power and agency in the world, and Shido was taking it away from him, strangling his access to it and using it for his own twisted ends. Honestly, it was a perfect kind of irony- no, not even irony, irony would imply that Goro wouldn’t expect it to happen, and of course this would happen, of course he’d lose this too. Ha, or even better, perhaps this was all his fault! Perhaps his accessing Mementos was what led Shido to discover it himself, perhaps this was all his fault, just like always, just like he ruined Akira’s life and dragged him into homelessness and poverty, just like he ruined his mother’s life by the sin of existing and drove her to slit her own neck, just like-

“Goro!”

A shout that Goro passively realized must have been very loud indeed, but to his overwrought senses only seemed just barely loud enough to register at all, cut off Goro’s train of thought. He blinked several times until his vision and perception of the world around him returned in full, until he could see the dingy, garbage-filled alley surrounding him, the sticky, slick cement of the ground that he had sunk down to curl into fetal position on at some point, the panicked, frightened face of Akira a few inches away.

Goro swallowed dryly, coughed, feeling his breathing and heartbeat start to come back under control. “S-sorry, I don’t-”

Akira cut him off again, this time by hugging Goro’s head against Akira’s chest, running his fingers through Goro’s hair soothingly. Weakly, Goro leaned into the touch, the contact, the sensation of Akira’s hands on him seeping away the tension and pain from his skin and muscle and bones and heart. Part of Goro was so, so enormously thankful he had a friend like Akira to help him when something like this happened, which was depressingly often, though he was just as guilty for putting Akira through it as he was thankful.

A smaller part of him recognized, again, just how weak he was to this man. Akira could smile at him, and Goro would go weak in the knees and warm in the cheeks. He often did- and thank the heavens that they were so accustomed to putting foundation and concealer on each morning, or Akira would see the whole embarrassing mess.

For now, Goro just took several slow, deep breaths of Akira’s soothing natural scent, trying to calm down fully, thankful that his face was hidden in Akira’s chest, so Akira couldn’t see how much inhaling his scent affected Goro. “Thank you, Akira,” he said, knowing that the words would be muffled, knowing through this all happening many times before that Akira would understand him anyways.

Akira just kept petting his hair, and holding him close, making a little noise of acknowledgment, but nothing more. They stayed like that for a minute or two, Goro realizing that it was likely helping Akira calm down too. Goro was starting to feel like he should end the hug, before the warm feeling in his heart and the exhaustion from everything that had happened just a few minutes ago made him say something stupid, but was beaten to the punch by the loud buzzing of his and Akira’s phones ringing in tandem.

They broke apart from each other, gave each other an appraising look in the eyes to make sure each was as alright as they could be at the moment, then, after a reassuring smile, pulled out their phones, ready to focus again on the catastrophe at hand.

“-kira? Goro? Fuck, don’t wait so long to call back after something like that, I was worried you got trampled or something!” Futaba started as soon as they picked up.

“Ah, sorry Futaba,” Goro said, embarrassed. That probably took far longer than it felt. “We had to... ensure we weren’t being followed, and I...”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it, I’m just glad you nerds are safe...” she cut him off, relief and nervousness clear in her voice. “You saw all that, right? Guys, this is big- tons of official, corporate sites are changing their design to match the same weird, cult-y shit they had going on in the broadcast, people are talking about irl stores putting up banners and shit, this is bad, this is real bad!”

“Breathe, Futaba,” Akira’s deep voice commanded. “Let’s focus on what we can do. First, you make sure that your mom and Boss are safe, and that they stay indoors, in case any of this stuff is going on in Yongen-Jaya too. Then start contacting the people in our network- Ann, Ryuji, Yusuke, the Nijimas and all the other adults that have helped us out. Make sure they aren’t in trouble. Okay?”

Futaba took a deep breath, and there was a short burst of static, as if she was nodding so vigorously that her face rubbed against the mic she was talking into. “Got it.”

“Thanks,” Akira said, nodding as well, which was both cute and, with the look that was on his face when he took the lead like this, pretty cool too, in Goro’s eyes. “Goro and I will try to find out what we can out here, then head back home once Shibuya Station is safe to get to. Put what you find into the chat, and if anything urgent comes up, call us, we’ll pick up or call back as soon as we can.”

“Understood. Stay safe you guys, don’t do anything too risky, okay?” Goro and Akira murmured that they wouldn’t, and they ended the call.

For a few moments, they just stood there, gazing at their phones, until Goro spoke up. “Akira, I... I don’t know where to find anything reliable out about this. Futaba can likely hack her way into the records of these people in a few days’ time, but...”

Akira made a noise of agreement, twiddling his phone through his fingers like he sometimes would with pencils and pens. “Yeah...” 

They were silent another few moments, minds moving a mile a minute, trying to figure out any lead. In the distance, Goro could still hear the faint, chaotic noises of the crowd of cultists going wild around them. It wasn’t the most conducive backdrop for critical thought. Eventually, Akira sighed noisily, leaning against the alley wall, tossing one hand up in frustration, shoving his phone back into his pocket with the other. “Okay, let’s start from the beginning. We can’t think of anyone who can give us a lead on what’s going on here. Why?”

Goro sighed, standing up fully and mirroring Akira’s position. “Because outside of rumors, nobody but the cultists themselves has shown any sign of knowing what’s going on this entire week, and interrogating the cultists has proven to be beyond useless.” They played this ‘game’ of sorts fairly frequently, whenever they got stuck on a case. One of them would state their problem, ask a basic question about it, the other would answer, and follow suit, ad nauseum. It helped them focus on the actual problems and conundrums they were stuck on, and focus specifically on solving them, when a case got too overwhelming or confusing. “No matter where we look, who we talk to, nobody knows anything concrete about any of this. Why?”

Akira hummed in thought, his fingers stroking his chin in that way he had picked up from Goro, which sent a little burst of pride running through Goro’s chest. “Probably because beyond keeping everything extremely close to the chest, the cult has only been interacting with people who are already members... or people who they know they can brainwash onto their side.” He looked troubled as he said that. “Because they’ve been using Mementos to mess with people’s minds and convert them, or at least that seems to be the case. Which means...?”

“...that they have some way to access that place. Or, to put it another way,” Goro started, connections clicking together in his head. “Using Mementos is the only way they’ve been able to function at all. I’m sure that they’ve used typical recruitment methods as well, but they’d only get this kind of unthinking loyalty by brainwashing people, likely via Mementos. They certainly wouldn’t have a strong enough backing to launch an apparently widley-supported political party without that kind of rock-solid, unwavering support...” He frowned, a certain conclusion making its way into his mind. “And if that’s the case...”

“...then the only way we’re going to get a real lead on figuring this out is from a source that knows about Mementos itself.” Goro could tell Akira was frowning too, from the tone of his voice. “That’s... a problem. We could try and interrogate some shadows, but from what we got talking with Ryuji’s shadow, it doesn’t seem like they know anything concrete, at least not in the parts of Mementos we currently have access to. And the only other source we’ve found that knows about Mementos is gone...” The blue room Akira and Goro had been pulled into, back at the start of the week, though it felt like years ago now, had completely and throughly vanished. They had checked, once a day since their encounter with the strange room and its ominous inhabitants, but no matter how hard they looked, not a single trace of ethereal blue could be found anywhere near that dingy little back alley. It was gone. “So, if we don’t have a lead we can go after... what the hell do we do?”

Akira asked the last question directly to Goro, gazing at him with very lost-looking eyes. Goro bit the inside of his cheek, frustrated. “Suffer, I suppose, at least until Futaba finds something we can use.” 

They were silent for a couple minutes after that. It was awful, but sometimes there really wasn’t any way you could get further information on a case, at least not until one of your more specialized resources found something you wouldn’t be able to find out yourself, and you caught a breakthrough. It was the way of things, but it was also extremely frustrating, especially when they case was as big as this was.

Eventually, Goro levered himself off of the alley wall, started brushing himself clean of dust and residue, only to give up when the leather of his gloves kept catching and sticking on the tacky, gross stuff that had stained all over his uniform. Mentally, he made a note to visit the dry-cleaners this weekend. “For now, let’s see what’s going on back on the main street. The station’s likely still too crowded for us to safely get to, and... well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to check that alleyway one last time. I doubt there’s been any change, but, well...”

“Yeah, it’s kinda all we’ve got at this point,” Akira agreed, straightening up as well, but not bothering to try and clean himself off, gloveless as he was. “C’mon.”

They made their way out of the alley and back towards the main shopping street, coming out on the far side of the street, closer towards the movie theater. It was a bit of an adventure making their way to the alley where they had seen the blue door, a combination of Bound cultists and people trying to avoid the Bound cultists managing to completely clog the street several times. After way too many minutes of pushing and shoving and avoiding the gaze of anyone they pushed and shoved by, lest they be recognized or evangelized to, the two boys finally made it to the alley in question. More accurately, after fighting through a crowd milling around the Big Bang Burger, decorating its storefront with signs and banners and posters praising all the bullshit from earlier, Akira and Goro were bodily shoved out of the way and into the mouth of the alley, hip-checked by some busybody cultists.

They took a few moments to catch their breath. For Goro, that had genuinely been one of the worst experiences he had gone through in a while. Overcrowded orphanages and overcrowded schools had given him a virulent disliking for big crowds, one that would probably last his whole life, or at least until he could get a couple solid years with a good therapist. Akira’s hand found his shoulder as he panted and stared unseeing at the ground, a gentle squeeze bringing him out of the dark memories his mind had sent him spiraling towards. 

Goro looked up and gave Akira a small smile of thanks, Akira taking back his hand and smiling in return. Goro took one last steadying breath, then straightened up and started looking around for something, anything that might even just give them a clue as to where to start looking for the blue door and its mysteriously knowledgeable inhabitants.

He didn’t need to look far. The door, previously, had stood right near the corner of the alley, standing in front of a boarded-up old shop of some sort. Now, seemingly overnight, the boarded-up old shop in question had transformed so completely as to be unrecognizable, planks and dust and grime traded away for an intricately-carved wood door frame and molding, all painted a deep, luxurious blue, with a long, floor-to-ceiling glass window next to it, long blue curtains inside the building blocking the generous view of the inside that they’d otherwise provide. On the glass of the window itself, a large, elegant logo had been hand-painted on, labeling the new business as The Velvet Room.

Goro blinked at what he saw, traded incredulous looks with Akira, and approached. 

The closer they got to the front door, the more they could hear music and voices coming from inside. Someone was singing a beautiful, belting jazz standard, accompanied by a piano. Goro and Akira looked at each other again, as nervous as they were excited, and Goro pushed open the door.

The place was big. Way bigger than Goro could have possibly expected it to be- bigger than should have been possible, probably, but after everything that he’d experienced over the last couple years, that barely phased Goro. Most of the room was occupied by a veritable sea of tables and chairs, each table anointed with a deep blue, silken tablecloth, each chair with plush blue upholstering. Along the left wall ran a long, long bar, packed with bottles of alcoholic drinks and supplies and machines to make any non-alcoholic drink you could think of in equal measure. Just past the bar was a wide area cleared out for games of all sorts- a couple pool tables, tables with boards for chess and checkers and shoji painted directly onto the wood of the table, even some arcade cabinets, and spaces to play any kind of card game you could think of.

Along the back wall was a modest stage, where the singer and pianist they heard earlier were performing- the singer with odd hair and the piano player totally blindfolded, both dressed in odd shades of lavender- and there was even a space cleared out for a dance floor right in front of the stage itself.

What ended up catching Goro’s eye the most, however, was an area off to the right that looked incredibly incongruous with the rest of the jazz-club-aesthetic of the place, in part because it looked so very familiar. A living room’s worth of couches and love seats were arranged in a circle, cleaner and less dusty now than they had been the last time Goro had seen them, along with a large blue armchair, now scooted slightly off to the side to sit directly in front of the free-standing fireplace, it’s long-nosed inhabitant fast asleep, cheek resting on a fist.

The other occupant of the little living space seemed to notice Goro and Akira’s entrance as soon as the door swung shut behind them, head perking up from where she had been staring at the ground, with what could only be described as an exhausted sort of excitement. She was quite a ways away from where Goro stood, but even at that distance, he could see the droop of her shoulders, the hunch of her posture, the general messiness of her long, silver hair. As her eyes caught on the two boys, she tried to straighten up, made to get up from where she was seated, but didn’t seem to have the strength, plopping back down onto the middle of the couch where she sat halfway through the motion. Instead, she just made a gesture for Goro and Akira to come to her.

Goro exchanged a concerned look with Akira, then started to lead the way there, weaving around the tables and chairs as efficiently as he could. He let his gaze wander as he walked, taking in the grandeur and luxurious design of the club- a place that, were it not probably some weird metaphysical space between dimensions or whatever, would easily near the top of the lists of places you had to visit while in Shibuya. One thing stood out most prominently to Goro, however, as he walked past the long bar- there was an open door behind the bar, and while the area it led to was too dark for Goro to make out, he could distinctly hear two different voices talking somewhere back there, as well as the sound of cutlery on plates. Curious, but something to save for later, Goro supposed.

After a pretty hefty walk, the boys finally made it to the circle of couches and armchairs, taking a seat directly across the circle from where Lavenza was situated, on the same comfy loveseat they had used the last time. Lavenza smiled at the two as they sat, clearly very pleased that they were there, just as clearly far too tired to express it any more properly than with a sleepy, wobbly little smile. “My tricksters,” she started, voice as charming and bell-like as they remembered, if just a little slurred. “It brings me great joy to see you again. Please, make yourselves comfortable, I’m sure you have questions.”

Goro nodded, noting that Akira was taking the girl’s advice more literally, scooting his butt down and leaning back appreciatively into the soft cushions, really making himself at home. Goro rolled his eyes, noting that, humorously enough, he was in almost the exact opposite pose, leaning forwards, elbows on his knees, hands folded in front of his chin, perched on the edge of the loveseat itself. 

Opposites attract, he thought idly, then refocused on what was most important here. “It’s good to see you again as well, Lavenza. After our last meeting, Akira and I were... understandably worried. We looked for you every day, though I don’t think either of us quite expected to find you under our current circumstances, nor in this particular location.” 

He left the comment open-ended, clearly inviting an explanation. Lavenza just kept smiling, nodding slightly. “Of course. It was.. .a challenge to make it here. After our last meeting, a great deal happened for those of us of the Velvet Room, much of which I would not be able to explain properly, as it was... very confusing, even for me. Master Igor was so focused on trying to maintain the safety of the Room, while also making preparations for our escape, should his defense fail, that he was unable to explain much to me. Though,” she chuckled a little, though there was little humor in the sound. “Our master has never been one to explain matters clearly, even on the best of days. Riddles and metaphors and implications... that is all we have ever really gotten from him, and so my ability to explain much of anything to you two is very, very limited. I can tell you about this place, about what I personally have observed over the past several years, in regards to the foe we all now face, but anything specific is... beyond me, unfortunately. I apologize, my tricksters.”

She bowed her head towards them, deep regret evident in her voice and movement, and Akira quickly scooted towards her, waving his hands. “Hey, no, it’s okay, really. I’m not sure what’s been going on for you, but it sounds... really tough. If anything, we’re more worried for you right now.” 

Lavenza looked up at Akira with wide, wondering eyes, apparently and heartbreakingly unaccustomed to someone being more concerned for her welfare than for how well she could carry out her duties. Akira just smiled reassuringly, and Goro tried to do the same. Akira wasn’t completely right with what he said- they very much needed any and all information they could get on the bullshit that was going on outside, and hearing that even someone directly connected with Mementos wouldn’t be able to offer much insight was deeply frustrating, but... well, Akira always suffered from an overabundance of empathy, for better or worse, and while it usually fell to Goro to keep them focused on the practical side of things, Akira’s empathy was something he admired too, so he tried to emulate it a little, as best he could.

Goro nodded, smiling as genuinely as he could manage, given the stress from earlier he was still battling. “Akira’s right, of course. We would very dearly appreciate any information you do have to give, but your well-being is naturally our highest priority.”

Lavenza looked at Goro, and smiled in a way that said she saw right through him, which Goro did not care for in the least, but she nodded all the same. “Thank you, my tricksters, truly. I will do what I can to alleviate your burdens, even if it is not much.”

She took a deep breath, straightening her posture as she did so, which had the overall effect of looking as if she was reinflating herself, then started to speak. “Firstly, you should know that, as opposed to the Velvet Room where we first met, this place fully exists within your physical world. Once, decades ago, we used to operate from places such as this; clubs and art galleries and other sorts of businesses, all done up in Velvet Blue, and enchanted with a glamour that made them appear as decaying, boarded-up old stores to those without a connection to the Metaverse. For those like yourselves, we helped manage Personas, taught spells and skills, and offered what advice we could provide. Eventually, Master Igor became powerful enough to offer sanctuary to our Wild Cards by transporting them to the Metaverse itself, small rooms like that where we first met, instantaneously accessible from many, many places, so long as there was a door. We thought it wise, however, to leave these physical bases of operation avaliable for use in the future, should something unexpected occur... as now it has.”

Her gaze grew distant, her voice a little haunted as she went on. “Master Igor... he did everything he could to keep us safe, these last several years. Our foe was unable to break into the Velvet Room itself, thanks to this generation’s Wild Cards- the two of you,” she gestured to Goro and Akira. “-being safe and loved within each other’s care. However, from what Master Igor told me, our foe still tried everything it could to do so, sending wave after wave of shadows under its control to try and bash down the doors of the Room, endlessly, for years and years... time is different in the Metaverse than it is out here, but it still felt as if we were under siege for an age. The constant sound of spells and vicious cries of enraged shadows, blocked out only by the music of Lady Belladonna and Nameless,” she gestured to the two performing on the stage nearby, “And by the ever-thinning walls of the Room and Master Igor’s own ever-weakening defensive magic...”

She shuddered. Goro’s heart ached at her words, and Akira looked like he was in physical pain... no wonder she looked so tired, so drained. Still, she smiled a little as she continued on. “When Master Igor said that we would soon have to flee the Room itself, it almost came as a relief- even more so when he said that we would have to speak to the two of you beforehand. Ever since I first guided you to one another, you two have always felt... very precious to me.” Her smile grew in size, if also in nervousness. “Master Igor said that almost every Attendant has felt that way towards the Wild Cards they guide, but that did not make me any less joyful to see you once again, grown into such wonderful young men.”

Goro found himself blushing, and moved his fist to his face, looking away a little to try and hide it. Lavenza’s voice was so warm when she spoke about Akira and him... despite how young she appeared physically, the affection in her voice felt very much like what Goro would imagine a loving mother’s voice would feel like. It reminded him of the distant memories of his own mother, but without the ever-present tension and stress, reminded him of Akira’s aunts, but without the nervousness, the ever-present caution and worry. It was nice.

Lavenza just chuckled at Goro’s reaction- at Akira’s too, most likely, which Goro wagered was pretty similar to his own, then continued on. “After our meeting, Master Igor spent most of the remaining time we had preparing for our escape. He spoke very briefly of where he would send us all- those attendants whose Wild Cards had already completed their journey, he would transport close to the towns where once they operated. As for myself, Lady Belladonna and Nameless, and our two other guests, who I’m sure you overheard eating in the kitchens back there,” she gestured towards the bar, looking a little exasperated at the thought of the two people in question. “He transported us here, telling us where the physical Velvet Room would be, and to do what we could to take care of you two, as you would be the ones fighting this battle. What the battle would be, who our foe is, what they were planning... he did not say.”

The sting of disappointment hit Goro at that, and again, Lavenza apparently could tell that it did almost immediately, no matter how well Goro thought he masked it. “I can still tell you what I have observed, however, even if it is not very specific. I know that our foe is incredibly powerful- not a fact that needed clarifying, I’m sure, but what I mean to say is that our foe has enough power to control and warp the fabric of the Metaverse itself. In normal times, there would be no Mementos, no distorted pocket spaces of any sort. Our foe has influenced the shadows of humanity, both the personifications of various concepts and ideas, which you two have fought against, and the avatars of the hearts and minds of humanity, which you two have spoken to and gained information from. Our foe has twisted and corrupted both, until the Metaverse, the dimension which reflects the hearts of humanity, has become the twisted, sickly thing you see now. Clearly, our foe’s influence has now spread even further, their control over the Metaverse warping the hearts of mankind in reality as well.”

She paused, lacing her fingers together, clearly trying to rack her brain for any information she could give. “I can tell you that our foe is indeed directly controlling and warping the minds of many people, but too, our foe is also simply empowering and enabling the corruption that already existed in the hearts of others. You will inevitably clash with both groups, and will have to determine which is which. I can tell you that Mementos will very likely soon become totally closed off to you, as our foe gains control of more and more of the population, and will remain closed until that control begins to weaken. I can tell you that you will be able to weaken it, the more you fight against the most powerful of our foe’s minions, the spark of rebellion that lies in the hearts of all humans catching alight as they become inspired by your own rebellion against this corrupt order. I can tell you that you will need many allies to stand against the overwhelming power of our foe, and that you will find them, the magnetism of your passion inevitably drawing in those of a similar spirit.”

“Lastly,” Lavenza lifted her gaze from the coffee table, making sure to make direct eye contact with both Goro and Akira. “I can tell you that this will be, in many ways, a war, one that you and your allies will wage against the most powerful members of your society, and, inevitably, one of the most powerful foes ever to come from the Metaverse, too. It will be tremendously difficult, and your lives, as well as the stability of your minds and hearts, will be at risk, many times over. I am so, so dearly sorry that it must be that way, my tricksters. But I know that you have the strength and the power to emerge victorious, and that the love that binds you together will hold strong against any assault our foes might send your way.”

Goro felt himself blush furiously at the end there, embarrassment over how easily and assuredly she spoke of ‘their love’ overwhelming all the pressure and nervous tension that had been crushing down on him from everything she had said prior. He tried to hide his face again, prayed to the gods he didn’t believe in that Akira was doing the same, and wouldn’t see his reaction. Lavenza just chuckled, light and airy again, and Goro’s view of her as a sweet, incredibly motherly kind of person solidified even more. 

“I hope that provides, at the very least, some guidance as how to proceed, my tricksters- or rather how you will be forced to proceed, I suppose,” she said, as the embarrassment and amusement faded from the respective parties. She yawned a little, then yawned a lot, the little noise growing very loud, very quickly, as she lost control of it, seemingly startling herself as she did so. “Aha, I think I might need to rest a little, now. I am not accustomed to that... it seems it will take some getting used to, being in the physical world.”

Goro chuckled a little, Akira doing the same next to him. “You’re probably pretty hungry too, after everything you went through. Make sure to get those guys in the kitchen to make something for you, when you wake up, okay?” Akira pestered, though kindly. “Next time we come, we’ll bring you a burger, and some more fries, like you had last time. Sound good?”

Akira was clearly seeing Lavenza in more of a little-sister light than Goro was, but Lavenza seemed charmed by it, so maybe he was more on the correct path in regard to her character than Goro. She perked up, smiling a lot, and nodded. “Thank you, I would enjoy that a great deal- and I will remember to do so. We did not have to eat, back when we were in the other Velvet Room, so that will likely take some getting used to as well. For now, you should check on your friends, and get some rest as well, when you can. I will be here, whenever you need me- oh, oh!”

She hopped up to her feet all of a sudden, looking around herself, patting on her dress, and eventually finding a pocket, where she pulled out a long, archaic-looking cell phone, colored the same shade of blue as the rest of the place. “Our bartender, Red Hawk, said I should give you my telephone number, so you can contact me when you are unable to easily get to Shibuya- here, give me your phones.”

Goro and Akira got out their phones and handed them over, Goro feeling very confused again all of a sudden. “Your... from Featherman? Your bartender is Red Hawk from Featherman?”

Lavenza just waved at them as she tapped rather awkwardly away onto Goro’s phone, then Akira’s. “I shall explain the next time you come, or he will- oh!” Akira’s phone started buzzing in her grip, just as she seemed to finish entering her number. “I, uhm, uh...”

Akira leaned over and took his phone back, grabbing Goro’s and handing it to him, as it started buzzing too. “We’ll go outside and answer this. Thanks for all of this Lavenza, we’d be really lost without you.”

“Indeed,” Goro agreed, standing up and starting to walk towards the door. “We’ll look forwards to when next we can come here- hopefully tomorrow, assuming nothing else incredibly strange happens between now and then.”

Lavenza just waved at them, looking sleepy again, and the two boys waved back as they made their way out of the club, answering their phones in tandem as they neared the front door. 
 
“Hello-”

“Guys, get over to Shujin, right now!” Futaba’s always-pleasant voice shouted nasally at them as soon as she had the opportunity.

Goro looked tiredly at Akira, who looked exactly as tired as Goro felt. “What’s wrong now?” He asked for both of them.

“Ugh, I can’t get in contact with Ann or Ryuji- not like, ‘Oh, they aren’t answering their phones, guess they’re jerking off in the bathroom, dum de dum,’ I literally can’t call them. Something’s blocking their phones from getting any cell service!”

That... was worrying. Akira took Goro’s arm, probably seeing him drift off into deep-thought analysis mode, and guided the two of them towards Shibuya station, which hopefully was less insanely crowded with commuters and cultists now. “Curious... you think that they’ve wandered somewhere dangerous?”

A noisy sight from Futaba. “No, dummy, they’re still in school! Shujin started having longer hours on, like, Tuesday, according to their website, and yes, I checked and the entire fucking school and, like, most of the surrounding area has all gone dark. Something’s wrong over there guys, so move your asses!” 

Goro bit back a pissy Well excuse me for not checking the official websites of my friends’ High Schools, and let Akira reply instead with a short “Got it. We’ll update you once we’re there.”

They hung up, and, worried, made their way to the subway station, and from there, to Shujin Academy.

◄◄⧗⧗⧗◄◄

January, 2012

Excerpts from the diary of Akechi Goro, Junior Detective

January 12th, 2012 - I’ve decided to start keeping this diary, as a means to record all of the strange things that my partner, Kurusu Akira Amamiya Ren and I have encountered within the strange realm known only to us as “Mementos.” It does not escape me that, should another find these records, they will likely be taken as the ravings of a lunatic, or merely the bizarre fantasies of a young chuunibyou (we are the right age for it, after all), but perhaps that is for the best. It would likely be... problematic, were another to become curious of this place, and attempt to follow in our footsteps, exploring into its seemingly endless depths. Problematic, and, considering what happened on our first expedition, potentially deadly. Besides, considering how surprisingly polite and considerate of our privacy our current Guardian has proven to be, I rather doubt anyone will end up discovering this, save perhaps for Amamiya-kun, if he gets too nosy for his own good. 

A small, chibi-like drawing of Akira’s face is scribbled in the margins next to that last sentence, cheekily holding up a V sign with its fingers.

At any rate, I shall begin with a summary of our findings thus far. A week ago, while returning to our caretaker’s home from school, an app opened itself on both mine and Amamiya-kun’s phones. Neither of us remember installing such an app, but I doubt we would be able to find such a thing in the wild anyways, as even the icon for it seems to pulse unnaturally and warp the space around our screens. It seemed to enable the microphones on our devices, with rather suspicious timing as well, as the English word “Mementos,” an extremely rare thing to say in everyday conversation, just so happened to be spoken by one of us just as we were passing by the subway station.

Instantaneously, we were transported to what seemed to be an alternate dimension of sorts, the sky and the very air itself, it seemed, bathed in bloody reds and blacks. At the time, we were far too terrified to make any real observations, and fled without thinking into the subway entrance, only to find it, too, had been warped into a sickening hellscape, the typical concrete tunnels of the Tokyo Underground now made of bone and meat and veins. Blinded still by fear and panic, we ran into the tunnels themselves, only to run head-first into what could only be described as a monster. A huge, hulking beast, that, after spotting us, made a horrific cry before violently bursting apart, reforming into a disgusting mound of slime with a distorted, almost cartoonish face. 

I was knocked to the ground almost instantly, and somehow, in the process of defending me, my partner seemed to awaken to an incredible power. An outfit straight out of the most stylish modern anime wrapped itself around him, and a towering, demonic creature, wholly under his command, burst into being behind him, destroying the slime monster in one fell swoop. 

Doubtless, I would have been ecstatic to investigate my dearest friend’s newfound transformation, his mysterious powers, had he not soon been felled himself by an attack from an even more terrifying monster. He was not killed, but I could tell almost instinctually that he was very close to death. 

I stood in the path of the beast, directly in front of the barrel of its strange, too-long pistol, ready to, if not defend my partner, at least go down with him. However, a voice spoke to me, a searing, overwhelming pain splitting my head open with each word it intoned, and I too awoke to my own version of the power Amamiya-kun obtained. Where his was darkest black and red, my outfit was like that of a Prince’s war attire; where Amamiya’s demon had massive wings and elegant red clothes, mine was an almost perfect replica of my favorite hero from the niche tokusatsu show I had been so obsessed with as a child, Robin Hood himself.

I could not defeat the monster threatening us, but I managed to distract it with a rain of arrows from Robin, and escaped, Amamiya-kun in my arms. I raced to the exit of the subway, navigating almost on instinct, and when I finally reached the surface again, after several tense moments trying to figure out what to do, I deduced the connection between our phones and our traversal into that strange realm, and returned us to the real world.

Both Amamiya-kun and I required several days rest and recuperation after what we went through in there, telling our Guardian that we had been sneezed on by a sickly classmate earlier that week, and caught terrible colds. I am not sure if he bought the excuse, but it doesn’t matter too much, I suppose. Neither of us retained any wounds or visible injuries from our battle in the depths, the harm inflicted on us seemingly carrying over as pure mental, physical, and dare I say spiritual exhaustion.

I realize, of course, how absurd this all sounds. Writing it down, I found myself questioning the reality of what I had experienced. But I cannot deny the clarity of my memories, nor the undeniably otherworldy presence of the new app on our phones. Nor can I deny the immense curiosity that has haunted my waking hours since we escaped from that hellish place. What is it? Why were we transported there in the first place? How did we come to have the strange powers that saved our lives, and what were the bizarre monsters that threatened our lives in the first place? Perhaps it is my proclivity to obsession, perhaps it is my nature as an amateur Junior Detective, but I must find out. Amamiya-kun has expressed much the same sentiment to me, as well. He’s a good partner. The best I could ask for.

Tommorow is the last day of school for this week. Amamiya-kun and I have gathered what supplies we have been able to get our hands on; energy bars, bottles of water, even a small camera, in case the app prevents us from accessing the one in our phones.

Tommorow, we are going back. 

January 14th, 2012 -  Our second expedition into Mementos proved both enlightening and frustrating in equal measures; enlightening from all that we were able to learn, frustrating from all the new questions that those discoveries have opened up. I’ll begin by listing our discoveries, I suppose, in what will likely prove to be a futile attempt to keep my notes reasonably organized here.

1. Crossing into Mementos itself. We haven’t experimented a great deal with this, but as far as I can tell, the process for entering that realm does seem to be fairly simple. All one must do is have the app open, speak the word “Mementos” while within range of the phone’s microphone, and we’ll be transported there. Unfortunately, we seem to be unable to return to the Mementos-version of the world beyond the subway-  Amamiya-kun and I were transported instantly to the Mementos-version of a subway station’s ticketing floor, with the stairs leading back up completely shuttered and locked down. I’m curious to experiment at a later date and see if there are other methods to entering that upper part of this Mementos realm, perhaps by using the app while far away from a subway station, but that is for another time.

2. Food. Over the course of our second expedition into Mementos, there were several times where Amamiya-kun or I became lightly injured- just bruises and scrapes, really- or became remarkably exhausted, in an almost spiritual sense. However, upon finding a safe spot and digging into the supplies we brought with us, the exhaustion and wounds seemed to fade almost instantaneously. The energy bars seemed to serve to mend our wounds, while sips from the thermos of coffee that Boss our Guardian gave us seemed to restore our spirits, so to speak. More experimentation on this later.

3. Our Powers. Upon entering Mementos, we found ourselves dressed in those strange costumes we were given last time, and I could feel the power that came with the transformation flowing through me. It’s hard to describe, I’ve no real-world analogue to compare the sensation to. It was as if, instantaneously, my body knew that it was capable of doing ten times as much, physically-speaking, as it could before. Additionally, we were able to summon the beings who had fought under our command fairly simply- I hadn’t noticed the last time, but our costumes included masks, in the style of extremely well-crafted Italian Carnivale masks, carved from wood and coated in paint and lacqeur. They weren’t tied to our faces in any way either of us could notice, seemingly staying on through some magical force. Upon removing them, they burst into blue flame, and the instant the flame, and all remnants of the masks vanished, our Personas appeared, floating ominously in front of us. More on this in the next section.

4. Personas. Somehow, summoning these beings instantly flooded my mind with remarkably detailed knowledge about them. I knew that the term for them is ‘Persona,’ for starters, and gained instant knowledge over the skills, or spells I suppose, that they could use. Robin Hood seems to be gifted with several spells dealing with ‘light magic,’ as silly as that feels to write, as well as some non-elemental spells related to bows, arrows, and the subject of archery in general. I don’t know yet whether Robin can actually shoot arrows from the absurdly large bow he has, or if he can effectively punch anything with his bulging musculature, but again, I suppose it’s up to future experimentation to see if I can command him to do anything that isn’t specifically on his ‘skill list,’ so to speak. He doesn’t seem to be able to speak or communicate with me- I vaguely recall a rather lengthy speech from him when I was first awakening this power, but now all he seems to be capable of are these knowing looks, or occasionally flooding my mind with a burst of emotion that I know didn’t come from me. I’ll make similar notes on Amamiya-kun’s Persona at a later date, when I can properly debrief him in detail. He’s sleeping extremely soundly at the moment, and I intend to do the same once I’m finished recording all this.

5. Shadows. The name of the monsters we fought the first time we were here- another bit of knowledge gifted to us by our Personas. 

Personae? I’m going to stick with Personas for the moment, as I doubt there are accurate dictionary entries on any of this. 

 At any rate, the monsters are referred to as ‘Shadows,’ and seem to come in many forms. We didn’t encounter the large, dual-pistol-wielding one that almost killed us, thankfully, but in the course of our exploration, we encountered several other types. I’ve been having a hard time thinking of an accurate real-world analogue to describe what I’ve noticed about their habits, so I’m just going to go with silly, if accurate comparisons instead.

 They seem to move about in the same manner as those old cartoons, where several children would stand atop each other’s shoulders and disguise themselves as older adults with a long trench coat and hat. In the same vein, shadows will group together, appearing as one large, intimidating, hulking beast, then splitting apart into their individual forms when agitated or alarmed. So far, we’ve encountered more of those mounds of Slime, an American jack’o’lantern in a witch’s costume, complete with broomstick, and a fairy that looks exactly like one would imagine an English-style fairy to look. 

 Indeed, cartoonish as they are, all the Shadows we’ve encountered seem to look right out of the pages of any fantasy manga you might find, and I am not yet certain if that is either happenstance, due to our personal experiences and the things Amamiya-kun and I have seen, or something to do with society’s views and perceptions as a whole. I doubt it is mere chance, and while I have confirmed with Amamiya-kun that the Shadows looked the same to him as they did to me, I am not sure that either of us would have dreamt up anything that looks like these creatures. I only theorize the last one, because some of the things the Shadows shouted at us gave me the impression that they were, so to speak, playing the ‘character-type’ that someone would automatically assume a being that looks like them would play.

 That’s the other thing. During the fights Amamiya-kun and I endured against these creatures, only occasionally, the Shadows would speak to us. Nothing more than jeers and taunts shouted to us in the midst of battle, but unique enough and with unusual-sounding voices that each shout lent a distinct character to each shadow. The jack’o’lanterns, for example, sounded very childish and peevish, as one would imagine a trick-or-treater to sound. The fairies were more distinctly feminine, almost flirtatiously so, as if out of one of those distasteful, sexist fantasy shounen manga, and the Slimes sounded as brainless and idiotic as one would expect a sentient mound of slime to sound. Thus, I believe that not only do these Shadows reflect what an average person might assume about them, but that they may indeed, quite literally, be shadows of humanity’s own perceptions and imaginations.

 If that is the case, what does that say about the nature of Mementos as a whole? What is this strange place we’ve discovered? Why were we given access to it, for what purpose? Is there even a purpose to this place, or are we just wasting our free time, delving into a disgusting, violent, cartoonish hellscape?

 I don’t know, but I must find out. I intend to propose to Amamiya-kun suggest to Amamiya-kun that we explore every day we get the chance. It is.. .remarkably exhausting, going into that place and fighting as we must, which isn’t wholly surprising, so I’d wager that at best, we’ll be able to explore every other day, homework permitting. I’ll continue to record my findings here.

January 29th, 2012 - Something completely unexpected happened today, during our expedition. I realize how that must sound- all these bizarre, incredibly strange things we’ve encountered in Mementos, and now something unexpected happened? But truly, both Amamiya-kun and I were taken wholly by surprise.

We were exploring a few levels down, close to the door we’ve been unable to pass through. Our focus had faded for the day- we were on our way back to the surface, just chatting casually, Amamiya-kun fiddling with his phone, trying to see what else he could get the app to do. The name of a certain person came up in the conversation- a sketchy tabloid photographer that Amamiya-kun and I had the displeasure to work with, before we met Boss. 

Suddenly, the App made a noise, as if in response to the man’s name, and a compass of sort appeared on the screen, pointing down a side-tunnel nearby. Curious, though cautious, we followed the compass’ directions, only to find that, where there had only been a blank wall before, now the tunnel ended in a strange, portal-like structure, a curling vortex of energy that seemed to warp the walls and floors of the tunnel itself. 

Summoning our Personas, Amamiya-kun and I passed through the portal, only to find ourselves in a small, self-contained area. In front of us was the photographer himself- or rather, what I’ve decided to call the Shadow Self of the photographer. Literal whisps of shadows were rising from the man’s body, his eyes glowing yellow, and he spoke in a way that neither of us had ever heard the photographer speak before. He seemed agitated at our arrival, recognizing who we were instantly, and berating us over and over for running out on him. 

He wasn’t wrong, I suppose. We used to take photos for him, our small frames and natural gifts for sneaking around undetected enabling us to get shots he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get. When, one day, he started giving us requests to get photos of children at the pool, instead of buisnesspeople and actors going about their days, we got on the nearest train and never looked back. 

Strangely, his Shadow-Self seemed incredibly enraged at this. He began ranting and raving at us, justifying his actions and perversions, cursing us for ‘betraying’ him, even speaking about misdeeds he committed that we were completely unaware of. I became incensed, deeply angry about his entitled nonsense and disgusting lifestyle, and my words seemed only to drive him into an even greater frenzy. He burst into shadow, much like the larger monsters we encounter in the regular parts of Mementos, and transformed into a demonic-looking, horse-like monster.

He attacked us, and we managed to defeat him with only a bit of struggle. Shadows consumed the monster, and left behind his Shadow-Self once again. He seemed defeated, and disgustingly self-pitying, and I found myself unable to hold back my feelings towards the man. I spoke at length, telling him how disgustingly he had acted, how shameful he was, how much harm he did to the reputations of photographers everywhere. 

Strange as it may seem, the man seemed to take my words to heart. He did nothing but nod, and accept my judgment. He said he’d return to his real self, and reform his ways- and then vanished completely, leaving behind a small, expensive-looking camera where he had been standing.

We left Mementos after that, bringing the camera with us. I’m not sure if it’s worth it, but Amamiya-kun and I are going to go looking for him tomorrow, in the real world, and see if our actions today truly had any effect. In truth, i’m not sure whether I want them to or not. The idea of having that kind of power over others, to potentially be able to change the ways of criminal scum through Mementos... it’s both exciting, and deeply disturbing to me. I want to make an effective, genuinely positive change in the world, and I want very deeply to destroy the lives of those disgusting motherfuckers that used Akira Amamiya-kun and I for their own sick purposes, but... 

Well, there’s little use theorizing about it yet. I’ll report back tomorrow with what we learn.

January 30th, 2012

I think I’m going to burn this journal. The thought of someone discovering all of this and somehow doing what we did the other day... I can feel my insides churning and roiling at the mere idea.

We found the photographer. He was barely recognizable. The man was crawling on the pavement outside the shabby little ‘studio’ he had worked from, covered in dirt and bruises and bits of glass. Apparently he had spent most of that night destroying everything he owned in the studio, all while howling his shame and self-hatred for all the world to see. When the cops were called on him by his neighbors, they just hauled him out of the building and beat him to a pulp. He couldn’t even stand, he just lay there, muttering over and over about how horrible he was, how disgusting he was. 

I heard him repeat the same things I had shouted at his shadow yesterday, and ran to a nearby alleyway to vomit.

Amamiya-kun and I agreed that we’re not going to visit that place again. Three weeks, and all we’ve seen are monsters and grime, and now this. Nobody should have this power. We’ve tried deleting the app several times since we got home, but it keeps reappearing on our home screens, and neither of us know enough about technology to try and delete it more fully- even if we did, I’d wager it’d prove futile. I’ve chosen to see its continued presence as a warning, a reminder of what can happen when you meddle with powers you don’t understand.

I feel dirty. Sick. Boss said that there’s a public bath and sauna nearby, and Amamiy- fuck it, I’m burning this tomorrow anyways. Akira’s taking me there later tonight, once my stomach has settled down. I just want to go back to the relative normalcy and peace that Sakura-san’s generosity has given us. I want to forget all the horrid things we’ve seen since discovering that place and be normal teenagers again.

I think I’ll be having nightmares about all this for years and years and years.

Chapter Text

February-April, 2012

Time passed in a relatively peaceful way for the two young boys, after they swore off revisiting Mementos. Days of classes came and went, nothing in Middle School proving particularly challenging to either of them, save for the couple of times where they were forced to team up with some of the other students for a ‘group project’ of sorts, which was always annoying. Both Akira and Goro had learned very well over the years that other kids their age would never be kind to them, would always try to bully and tease them for their unique living situations. That never happened here, thankfully- Goro supposed that Sojiro must have used whatever influence he had on the staff here to ensure that their situation remained unknown to the student body- but that didn’t mean the other kids weren’t still annoying. They’d pester the two boys about where they came from, why they joined the school year late, or, more irritatingly to Goro, they’d try to lead the project in an objectively wrong direction, or they’d be painfully ignorant of the classwork and subject matter, and waste time.

Most annoyingly, some of them would occasionally try to hit on him or on Akira. They’d always get rebuffed, but it made Goro’s teeth grind with anger every time it happened. He wasn’t entirely sure why. 

That said, these were pretty simple concerns, all things considered. For a time, they never had to worry about going hungry, or where they would sleep for the night. They didn’t have to worry about making money to live on- hell, Sojiro even started giving them a modest allowance a few months after they started living with him. They didn’t have to worry about risking their lives, whether that risk was from being around criminals in backalleys or being around supernatural monsters in Mementos. They could just be kids, simple teenagers living simple lives, with simple worries and concerns and joys and thrills.

They even started getting to know the other inhabitant of Sojiro’s house, a young girl by the name of Futaba Isshiki. She was one or two years younger than they were, and, initially at least, very shy. She didn’t seem to have any problems being around Sojiro, or going about her business around the house in general, but the instant that Goro or Akira walked into the room, or someone knocked at the door to deliver a package, she would freeze up, or scurry over to hide behind Sojiro, like a scared rabbit convinced that anything and everything it didn’t recognize was a hungry, slobbering predator.

So for the first few months of their time at Sojiro’s house, neither Goro nor Akira saw much of Futaba at all, Goro deducing from the way she acted during the few times they did run into each other that she was likely trying to avoid them purposefully, and doing a very good job at it. 

It wasn’t until shortly after the boys had sworn off of Mementos that they ever broke through the barrier Futaba had put up between them. Goro and Akira were flopped on one of the couches in Sojiro’s living room, one Saturday afternoon, lazily scrolling on their phones and talking idly about whatever crossed their minds. Goro’s head was resting on a pillow propped up against one arm of the couch, Akira mirroring the pose on the opposite end, their legs tangled together on top of the cushions in the middle.

Across from Goro, Akira made a little noise of alarm- not a bad kind of alarm, just surprise mostly- as he scrolled through some site or app or something. He nudged Goro’s feet with his own as he spoke up. “Hey, looks like they’re reviving that Robin Hood tokusatsu you liked so much.”

What?!” Goro dropped his phone onto the carpet and scrambled around, crawling over a startled Akira to grab his phone and read whatever announcement Akira had seen. Akira let the device slip from his fingers, and Goro scrolled fervently through the news article Akira had been reading from, seated now in Akira’s lap. “Holy shit... they’re really bringing it back! It’s not the same cast, obviously, and I suppose this is mostly due to some executive preferring to reboot an old IP rather than make the effort to launch a new one, but!! Still!!!!” He whacked Akira’s arm a couple times, practically bouncing in excitement, Akira having to balance his enjoyment of Goro’s enthusiasm with physically scooting Goro out of his lap, so the bouncing boy wouldn’t crush his nuts.

“Akira, it’s starting up this summer!!! This is perfect- how did we get this lucky?!” Goro flopped back against the cushions, holding Akira’s phone to his chest. “This is going to be the best summer... we can wake up early and watch it every weekend, maybe even go to one of the cons Tokyo has for this sort of stuff, if we can save up enough for the tickets! I can’t believe they’re bringing it back,” Goro laughed giddily, relaxed enough to give in fully to his more childish side. “This show started in 1988, and it only even ran for 3 years or so. I can’t believe they’d bring back something so old-”

“1987!” A small girl’s voice piped up from a few feet away. Goro yiped at the sudden interruption, surprise and embarrassment colliding together in his head and making him fall off the couch itself. From the floor, he could see Akira peek his head up around the back of the couch to look at the newcomer to the conversation. The girl made an alarmed noise, but managed to keep speaking nevertheless. “U-uhm! Robin Hood s-started in 1987, technically. Th-there was an episode of the original Featherman series wh-where he was a side character, and they gave him his own series a year later.”

Goro scooted around the side of the couch himself as the girl spoke, peering at her curiously from the carpeted floor. It was Futaba, as he had guessed, standing half-hidden by the doorway that led from the living room to the kitchen, hiding herself less and less as she kept speaking. “I never knew that...” Goro mused, making sure to speak softly enough that he wouldn’t startle the girl, and only partially succeeding, Futaba still jumping a little bit anyways. “I only ever watched the show as a kid through my mom’s VHS’s...”

Futaba nodded a lot at that, enthusiasm carrying her further out from behind her cover. “Yeah, they never advertised the connection to the Featherman series on any of the merch or tapes. Well, I think they did at first, but after they sold the Featherman series to those dumbasses in America and started re-airing it as Talon Rangers or whatever, they started cutting ties. I think that’s why they canceled Robin Hood in the end, actually- the Americans couldn’t use any of it, since Robin Hood is a pretty well known character over there already, and I guess they thought it’d be too confusing for their stupid American audiences.” She took a deep breath in the span of half a second, then continued her rapid-fire nerd rambling, which Goro would have thought was adorably silly if he hadn’t been doing practically the exact same thing just before she came in. “It was still pretty popular over here, but the execs were hungry for money, and since they couldn’t make double the cash with it like they could with Featherman proper...” She made a thumbs-down motion, and a raspberry, which said it all, really.

“Motherfuckers,” Goro muttered, unable to stop himself. He realized what he said a few seconds later, looking to Futaba in a mild panic, worrying that he’d done something wrong by swearing in front of someone younger than he was, but the girl only snorted and grinned wider.

“They really were motherfuckers, yeah,” she agreed, the curse sounding disconcertingly natural in her voice, as if she swore like that pretty regularly. “Far as I know, you were right earlier, they’re only bringing it back cause they’ve got a slot in their schedule to fill, now that the Black Vulture spin-off series wrapped, and it’s cheaper to bring back Robin. Still, works for the fans in the end, I guess- as long as it’s any good.”

Akira chuckled from the couch above Goro, Goro looking up to find him smiling serenely right back at him. He looked back over to Futaba (before he saw Goro’s blush, thankfully), and spoke to the younger girl. “Hey, I found a place to watch the Featherman movie from last year online. You wanna watch it with us?”

For a second, Goro thought that it might be too much, the nervousness that he’d seen on Futaba so many times starting to come back in full force, but after what looked like a short but intense internal battle, she broke into a cocky grin instead. “Hmph, I’ll do you one better than that. Guess who has a hi-def rip of the whole movie on her hard drive- the same file they play on the fancy projectors in the theater!”

Goro felt his jaw drop a little, speaking before he could stop himself. “What?! How... where did you even get that? How is that... what?!?!?”

Futaba just beamed and laughed more than a little evily, then turned to speed off towards her room, shouting over her shoulder. “Don’t go anywhere, nerds! And prep some popcorn- if you think that’s cool, some of the other stuff I’ve got is gonna pop your eyes out of your skulls!”

Goro just stared after her, blinking, feeling like he had just been hit by a hurricane. Eventually, more soft laughter and a tap on the side from Akira jolted him out of his stunned state. “C’mon,” Akira smiled, offering Goro a helping hand off the floor. “You heard the lady, let’s pop some corn and strap in our eyeballs.”

He rolled his eyes and batted Akira’s hand away, getting up on his own and brushing off whatever carpet muck that might have gotten on him. Akira led the way into the kitchen, and Goro followed, getting out the fancy little popcorn maker machine while Akira got the bowls and butter. This... could be fun. Neither of them had really had another friend before, but Futaba seemed to fit really naturally into their dynamic.

This... this could be a lot of fun.

--

Peaceful weeks turned into peaceful months, full of unremarkable school days, very remarkable and intensely energetic afternoons and evenings and weekends at home, with Goro and Akira’s new family making every moment all the brighter.

It wasn’t until April that life hurled yet another wrench into the gears of their lives.

Goro and Akira were on their way home from school, and overall their day had been fine. It wasn’t great- it was school, after all- but it wasn’t really bad in any real sense. Goro had gotten his classwork praised by one teacher, and had gotten told he needed a haircut by a classmate. Akira had finally managed to run a good handful of miles on the school’s elliptical without falling flat on his face, but had also gotten back a draft of an essay from another student who was peer-reviewing it, only to find they had marked up almost every inch of the damn thing in bright red marker. 

Overall, an average day; one made better, as always, by the intimate rapport the two boys had, sharing their victories and bitching about their defeats to one another on the walk back home. They decided, on a whim, almost, to stop at Leblanc before heading back to Sojiro’s house, feeling in the mood for a warm, caffeinated drink- they’d ask for coffee most of the time, wanting to try Sojiro’s legendary skills, but more often than not their caretaker would refuse to ‘wire-up two boys who were still in middle school, damn it,’ and just made them some hot chocolate instead, which was still extremely good.

Akira was in the process of opening the door to the cafe, shoulder pressed against the glass, but not pushing enough to fully open it yet, when it all started to come crashing down.

He froze in his movements, his face twisting up as he listened to the voices inside- voices that, now that he was paying attention, Goro could hear arguing quite loudly within the cafe. Akira gestured to him, and Goro nodded, both boys taking up position on either side of the door, pressing their heads close to listen in on what was going on inside. Straining his ears, Goro could just barely make it out.

“...don’t care what the hell you’ve got to say, Ueno. You aren’t welcome here, and you sure as hell aren’t laying a finger on those kids.”

“Oh I think I can change your mind on that one, Sakura,” the all-too familiar nasal whine of Officer Ueno’s voice drawled in response. Goro felt his hand tighten into a fist instinctively, felt the desperate need to punch the fucker in the jaw so hard it’d get dislocated. What the hell was this asshole doing back here? 

Goro took a deep breath through his nose, trying to calm himself enough to listen, at least. “See, I’ve been followin’ you all around- haha, yeah, look down on me, Sakura, I’ve had my eye on you for months. Only problem is I’ve never seen you let those damn brats out of your fuckin’ sight. When they’re comin’ home from school, there’s always a gaggle of other runts comin’ home too, makes it too noisy to grab em. Whenever they’re around here, they’re either holed up in that shitthole house of yours, or you’re all out on a fuckin’ Sunday stroll together, like some picture-perfect family outta a goddamn movie.”

The horrible man chuckled, a sound like a wet police baton being dragged down the edge of a chalkboard, and his voice grew a little harder to hear, as if he was moving closer to Sojiro. “Thing is, it ain’t a perfect lil’ family, is it, Sakura? You got a lil’ girl in there, in that house a’your’s, her mommy nowhere to be fuckin’ found. Ain’t that funny?” He laughed again, and Goro’s teeth clenched together so hard it hurt. He glanced towards Akira, saw him almost mirroring Goro’s position, looking like he was barely holding himself back from storming in there and stomping the bastard’s balls in too. 

“Unless you’ve got a goddamn point, Ueno, I suggest you get the hell out of my sight, before I ca-”

“Hey, hey, listen, buddy, I get it! She’s a cute kid! I’m sure she’s real important to ya, huh?” More laughter, but distinctly malicious this time, slimy. “I’d feel the same way. Thing is, I’m not certain the law would see it like I do- and I’m sure as hell certain the law wouldn’t see it that way for the two little shits you just took in, huh? It’d be a real shame if someone called you in, caught ya with your pants down, so to sp-”

There was a loud bang, as if Sojiro had slammed his hand or his fist down on the counter, and he sounded very angry indeed when he spoke up. “If you don’t shut your goddamn mouth, Ueno, I’ll shut it for you. Don’t bullshit me about reporting my personal life. You and I both know you’re one complaint away from being fired, yourself. You’d be lucky if your boss would believe you about a house you saw burning down. You don’t scare me.”

Another loud noise, Ueno likely slapping his thick, wet palms on the countertop, hard enough to rattle the mugs on their saucers. Goro almost tore the door open at the sound, holding himself back by the smallest of threads. “Oh yeah, fucker? How about the thought of someone breakin’ into your lil home sweet home when you ain’t there to protect your little kiddies? You scared of that? Big Boss Sakura’s gotta keep busy at his shitty little cafe, leavin’ that poor little girl all alone most of the day. Be a real shame if someone broke in and something happened to her, huh?”

There was silence for a few beats, before Sojiro spoke in a very calm, extremely deadly voice that sent a shiver down Goro’s spine. “Are you threatening my family, Officer?”

It seemed to rattle Ueno too, at least enough for the man to audibly back up a few noisy steps from wherever he had been standing, almost sounding like he growled in response. “Just give me the damn brats, Sakura. They ain’t yours, they’re mine, and the longer you keep ‘em from me, the worse shit’s gonna get for you and yours, I promise.

Loud footsteps started coming towards the door, forcing Goro and Akira to leap for the nearest cover, Goro squatting down behind Leblanc’s chalkboard sign, Akira likely diving into the alleyway next to the building. They hid there until they heard Ueno’s footsteps completely fade, and then a few seconds longer, before rushing inside the cafe, almost knocking each other over in their haste and panic.

“Boss-”

“Sojiro, we-”

Sojiro jumped at the sudden noise, a little bit of Futaba’s mannerisms showing up in him for the first time. When he saw who it was, he relaxed, but there was still some serious tension in his posture, in the way he held the mug he was cleaning. “Jesus, you two. Last thing I need right now is a heart attack.”

Akira spoke before Goro could. “Sojiro, we heard everything. Look, don’t risk that guy doing anything crazy for our sake, okay?”

“I agree with Akira,” Goro cut in, jaw tense, but determination flowing through his veins not to ruin anyone else’s lives with the bad luck that followed him like a plague since birth. “We’ll find somewhere else to hide out. You can tell that bastard that we ran away or something- we can even fake a note saying where we’re going, get him off your back-”

“Quiet!”

The boys quieted.

Sojiro put the mug down, and leaned forwards to rest his elbows on the counter, taking off his glasses with one hand and rubbing his temples with the other. “You aren’t going anywhere, damnit. I don’t give a damn what that little weasel says, I’m not gonna let him hurt my goddamn family!” Sojiro whacked his fist down onto the counter, having put his glasses aside. “I’ve got training for shit like this. We can file a report against the bastard easily enough, and with his rep, the captain I know will believe it, easy. I’ll secure the house and cut down my hours here for a month or two, however long it takes for them to investigate the bastard, then he’ll be out of our hair for good.”

“And if they don’t believe you, Boss?” Goro pressed, still tense all over. “Or if they do, and he gets fired, but he still keeps coming after us? After you?”

“Then we call the cops on him, and he goes where he belongs.” Sojiro was glaring at Goro, though not with anger, more just looking like he knew exactly how hard and trying this was going to be, how long it could theoretically take for it to end, and while he was determined to see it through, that didn’t mean he liked being reminded of all that.

Goro didn’t say anything else, didn’t feel like there was anything he could say, just stood there and seethed. After a few moments, he felt Akira’s hand on his shoulder, a gentle squeeze from his best friend doing wonders to soothe his nerves- even if it didn’t do so completely. “Boss... thank you. You shouldn’t have to go through all this, but...”

Sojiro waved the thanks away, going back to cleaning up the cafe. “Don’t worry about it, kid. You two are under my care and under my roof. I’m not letting anything happen to you. Got it?”

Goro nodded, Akira replying “Got it,” for the both of them. He steered Goro back out of the cafe by the shoulder, Goro following Akira’s commands on autopilot, mind still spinning and buzzing. When he regained his senses enough to look around, he saw that Akira had led them to the small collection of laundry machines across the street from Leblanc, about as private a place as they could get without going to their room at home.

Akira hopped up to sit on top of one of the machines, having already sat Goro down in the small room’s lone chair. There was silence between them for a few minutes, as they just thought about what just happened.

“...we don’t have much recourse for dealing with this, in the end,” Goro spoke up, feeling and sounding thoroughly defeated. “Before, we could just run somewhere new when things got too hot, but... I don’t want to run anymore, Akira.”

He looked up, meeting his best friend’s eyes, and finding the same mixture of sadness and fear and emotion he felt welling up in Akira’s eyes too. Akira nodded, sighing. “Yeah... same here.”

There was silence for another few minutes, and Akira was the one to break it this time. “...it’s not... strictly true that we can’t do anything about this, though-”

“Akira, no.” 

“I’m just saying-”

“We promised not to go back there, Akira. We swore that we-”

“What other choice do we have, Goro?!” Akira shouted, jolting up to his feet. “That bastard is gonna keep terrorizing all of us until he gets what he wants, or we get him in jail. The first one sure as hell isn’t gonna happen, and the second one could take months and months, if not longer! You know as well as I do that we can’t trust the fucking cops,” He spat the word. “To do their job, much less do it quickly. You want to see how much repeated break-ins will traumatize Futaba? You wanna see how ugly this guy will make it for everyone, before he gets taken down?”

Goro’s fists were clenched hard enough for his nails to start to break the skin of his palm. He let his gaze fall to the dirty cement floor, body curling up a bit. “...I’m not doing that again, Akira. What we did to that guy... if we do that to anyone who crosses us, what the hell does that make us? Where does that end? I...” He shuddered, curling in on himself even more, and he soon felt Akira lay a hand on his back, start rubbing slow circles into the tense, hard muscle. “I don’t want to see what kind of person I’d turn into if I let that kind of power go to my head, Akira. What kind of person you’d turn into. It’d... it’d destroy us both, corrupt us as much as power corrupted all the other horrid people we’ve had to be around since we came here.”

When Goro looked up, he could see Akira’s face twisted in just as much painful conflict as his own surely was. “...he called us his family, Goro. We can’t just do nothing.”

“Yes, I... caught that as well. Even so...” Goro grimaced, deeply torn.

Silence lasted longer this time, as both boys contemplated the awful, twisting situation they were trapped in. Eventually, after what felt like a very long time indeed, Akira spoke up. “You know.. we don’t have to wreck the guy’s mind, going back there.”

Goro waited a few beats, then, when Akira didn’t seem inclined to elaborate further, prompted him with a sigh. “What are you talking about, Akira?”

He looked over to where Akira was standing, leaning against the wall next to Goro, hand on his chin, stroking it in a weak imitation of the way Goro sometimes would pose like the detectives in the manga he loved as a kid. Slowly, he spoke, working out his idea as he said it. “I was thinking back on when we fought the Shadow of that guy. Before we fought- hell, even during the fight, really- he kept shouting all this stuff at us, ranting about all the shit he’d done. All the shadows down there were like that, actually- the little monsters always said whatever was on their mind, without any filter, and you theorized they had something to do with the beliefs and thoughts of society as a whole, right? If a person’s shadow is all that, but specified to just one person, then...”

“...then we could get a confession from the man’s own lips, without having to destroy his mind afterwards,” Goro finished, mind starting to kick back into gear. “If we could record his voice somehow, that would be enough to send him down the river on its own. If not... that might be more difficult, but at least we’d have a more specific account of his crimes. If we could get names, dates, places, that sort of thing, it’d speed the investigation into him up tremendously.”

“Yeah!” Akira was nodding furiously, looking extremely excited. “As long as we stop before anything bad happens, we can definitely get enough to get rid of this guy!”

Goro nodded back, still thinking through all the various outcomes and contingencies they’d need for this to work properly. “We’ll have to be extremely careful. If his Shadow shows even the slightest sign of doing whatever the last guy’s did- you’ll have to help me write down everything we remember about last time, so we’re as prepared as we can be- we’ll have to back off immediately, whether we got the information we need or not.”

“Agreed,” Akira pushed himself off the wall, offering Goro a hand to get up, which Goro took. Akira was bouncing a little on the spot, clearly eager to get to work and do something about all this. “And even if we have to retreat early, we can probably go back later and try again.”

“In all liklihood, yes... come on, let’s get home and start planning this out. I’d wager we don’t have much time before Ueno starts causing trouble...”

They headed back towards Sojiro’s house as quick as their feet could take them. They had a path forwards. They had a plan.

--

Mementos was just as horrible as Goro remembered. Honestly, even if it weren’t for the inherent danger in the place, or the potential for extreme levels of power abuse, or the dozen other horrible things that could happen there that Goro and Akira probably hadn’t even discovered yet, Goro wouldn’t have wanted to return here just from the aesthetic alone. It was all very... well, it was very hellish. Intense colors and meat and bone and rock, just all the things you’d associate with a hell-like realm. It sucked. But a lot of important means to even more important ends sucked, so it was a gross, hellish pill Goro was just going to have to swallow.

Ew.

Akira led the way down to the first floor, and they waited on the platform while Goro fished out his phone and started the navigator. “Eito Ueno,” he said, clear and purposeful.

The navigator found a result instantly, and an arrow popped up on the screen, leading them forwards. “Well,” Goro said, pulling out and flicking on the cool laser sword that Mementos had supplied him with as a weapon. “Let’s see where this leads, I suppose.”

Akira nodded, and followed Goro into the depths.

They did their best to avoid as many fights as they could on the way down, wanting to conserve their energy in case, like the last time, Ueno’s shadow transformed into a type of beast neither of the boys had seen before. He was pretty far down, the nav leading them all the way to the deepest level of Mementos they had access to, right before the large door that blocked them from going any further. As they walked, Goro and Akira both tried several methods to see if they could get a voice recorder app to run at the same time as the Mementos one- even the phones’ built-in camera function taking video would suffice to get them some way to record whatever crimes the shadow would admit to. In the end, though, their efforts proved futile- the app truly took over their entire phones, without any way for them to cancel it out, and none of the battery-powered cameras they brought with them would even turn on, made inoperative by some strange magic of Mementos or other.

In the end, as usual, they only had each other to rely on. Goro didn’t like it- he was fine with relying on Akira, sure, but he was very much not fond of having to rely on something as nebulous as memory, particularly memory in the heat of battle, for something this important. But it was all they had.

It’d have to be enough. If it wasn’t... well, there really wasn’t an alternative left to them. If it wasn’t enough, life was just going to be really shitty for several months.

Finally, they arrived at the part of Mementos the navigator had been leading them towards. It shut down with an incongruously pleasant little series of beeps, and Goro stuffed the device back into his pocket. He turned and exchanged a glance with Akira, asked “Ready?”

Akira just responded with a nod, both of them having gone through the plan more than enough times already. Goro turned back to face the swirling vortex of the portal in front of them, and walked forwards, removing his mask as he did so to call forth Robin Hood.

The world twisted and lurched around them as they passed through into the pocket-dimension-like area of Mementos. Before them, Ueno’s shadow paced back and forth at the back of the room. 

It took only a few seconds for the shadow to realize that Goro and Akira were there, its glowing yellow eyes widening in surprise. The shadow let out a delighted, terrible-sounding laugh, pointing a stubby finger their way. “Hahahaha! Look who it is! Come back to play with me at last, huh?”

It licked its lips disgustingly, and Goro couldn’t stop himself from flinching back, his face twisting up in revulsion. “Don’t make me sick,” he spat, the towering figure of Robin Hood behind him straightening up, crossing its arms intimidatingly at its full, towering height. “We’re here to take you down, you worthless pile of filth.”

The shadow’s smile vanished, replaced instantly by a furious sneer, jabbing its finger accusatorily at them. “You can’t do shit, jailbait! I’ve handled noiser brats than you, and besides, haha,” The cockiness returned in a heartbeat, the rapid-fire mood changes almost dizzying to Goro. “I’ve got the ultimate trump card against you two. You think I can’t get to that little girl Sakura’s got locked up in his place? Bet you two are reaaaaaal fond of her, huh?” Another morph, this time to a twisted, deranged sneer. “Back off, or I’m gonna mess her up so bad, none of you will ever wanna put your hands on her again!”

In the back of his head, Goro was sure that, next to him, Akira was looking deeply revolted. Akira probably had reeled back and gripped his knife tighter, probably had all sorts of reasonable, normal responses to that sort of horrifically perverse, irredeemably corrupt talk.

Goro had no way of checking what Akira’s exact reactions were, however, because his vision had gone almost totally red. Passively, he could feel his body shaking with rage. Passively, he could feel a blazing, white-hot energy radiating off of Robin Hood behind him.

Actively, he cried with a twisted, broken voice, “I’m gonna tear you to fucking pieces!!!

Goro leapt towards the shadow, his sword already swinging, and Ueno cried out and transformed into a monster-like beast just in time to get hit with the full force of Goro’s blow.

The monster, something Goro could only barely make out through his rage as being some tentacled, towering thing sitting in a wooden cart of some sort, cried out a piercing scream, and started to fight back.

The next several minutes went by in a blur. Goro traded blow after blow, spell after spell with the beast, having just enough presence of mind to coordinate his attacks with Akira’s, just enough self-control to remember to toss back a bite of an energy bar or a swig of coffee when he needed to. All the while, the shadow continued to shout out horrible, terrible things at them- threats against Futaba aplenty, but also saying how doing this was nothing to him, how he’d done worse to more people than he could count, even recounting the specifics of several of his past crimes. Again, Goro was only able to process this in the very back of his mind, relying on Akira and his memory to sort out the details later. All his active attention was on the battle, on making this bastard hurt as much as he could possibly make it, on striking with as much force as he could possibly manage, while holding back just barely enough to keep his hits from being lethal.

Eventually, finally, the beast crumbled, the mass of tentacles and pale green flesh falling to the ground, then reforming in a cloud of shadows back into Ueno’s crumpled, shitty body. The man wept and whimpered on the filthy floor of Mementos, and Goro had to put in a hell of a lot of effort into stopping himself from putting the fucker out of his misery. Out of both of their miseries, really, the whining and mewling was unbearably loud.

As his senses and his awareness returned to him, Goro looked towards Akira, feeling deeply apologetic all of a sudden. In the end, Akira had to carry most of the burden of their investigative efforts. The feeling must have been clear on his face, as Akira just waved his hand, as if brushing the concerns aside, and flashed him a quick, comforting smile. Goro took a deep breath, let it out, then gave a little smile back. “Did we get enough,” he asked, hoping the meaning was clear to Akira, not knowing whether saying their whole plan in front of the shadow would somehow tip Ueno’s real self off to their efforts.

Akira’s expression turned equal parts contemplative and grim. “I’m not sure. He said a lot of stuff we can look into, but... most of it sounded like he was abusing people the law wouldn’t pay much attention to- people like us, mostly. Even if we did go out and get what evidence we could ,found people to testify...” He trailed off, looking helplessly at Goro. Goro said nothing, biting his lip, Akira continuing to speak for the both of them. “Goro... if we let him go, he’s liable to do some seriously bad shit- not just to us and Futaba, but to a whole lot of other kids too. The cops won’t be able to take him down before he hurts someone again..”

“We...” Goro looked at Akira warningly, knowing what he was about to say already, but Akira continued on anyways, steel in his eyes. “We might have to do what we did last time, brainwash him into changing his ways and all that, in the end. If we leave him like this, he’s just go-”

“NO!!! GOD NO!!!” 

Akira and Goro both jumped, incredibly alarmed at the sudden scream from the whimpering, broken shadow on the floor in front of them. Its demeanor had changed completely again- it was still splayed out in the grime, but its eyes were wide and wild with panic, consumed by fear. “YOU CAN’T, PLEASE! I CAN’T LOSE CONTROL OF MYSELF, NOT NOW! IT’LL TAKE ME, IT’LL EAT ME UP AND FLUSH MY BRAIN, YOU CAN’T, PLEASE YOU CAN’T, I’LL DO ANYTHING!!!”

The boys exchanged wary, deeply nervous looks. Neither of them had any idea what the fuck that was all about, but it was sure alarming as all hell! 

That said... Goro’s gaze drifted back to the shaking shadow, crossing his arms in front of him as a thought occurred. If the shadow was that scared... “You can’t honestly believe we give a shit about what happens to scum like you. What my partner said was correct,” he gestured at a surprised Akira. 

“A beast like you has to be put down, one way or another. If you really don’t want us to warp your mind and leave you a hopeless, defenseless husk,” He leered forwards at the shadow, who yipped and cowered away. Goro smiled. Got him. “Then you’re going to have to give us something. Something that will convince the cops to send your worthless ass to prison. If you can’t manage that-”

“Wait! Wait, I can, uhm, I can...” The shadow tossed its hands up defensively, screwing its eyes shut as it concentrated briefly. A few moments passed, then its eyes shot open, and it nodded fervently. “Yes! I can give you what you need! Here, wait, just- here!”

A beat, and then a strange, horrifying mix of pure black, blinding white, and bloody red light started flooding out of the shadow’s eyes and ears and mouth- only it didn’t behave like light did. It looked like beams of light, but it drifted and swayed like smoke, swirling around the shadow’s head, then coalescing down into a single point on the ground in front of it, forming a hazy, murky, tricolored orb of swirling something.

More and more of the haze-light poured out from the shadow, the orb on the ground growing and growing in size, until the flow finally stopped, the shadow’s body flopping limply to the ground, the orb growing and glowing brighter, until it shrunk and morphed and reformed into... into what looked like...

Akira stepped forwards and, hesitantly, picked the object up, turning it over in a gloved hand curiously. “A... portable hard drive?” He asked warily.

The shadow barely seemed to have enough energy to speak, but it managed, somehow, nodding weakly. “Yes, it... ugh, it should have everything you need, all the things I saw and heard and said when I was... doing what I did to those kids.” The shadow shuddered, looking deeply ill. “I.. I really should change my ways. This... this is all so fucked up.” It started to weep, shaking and spasming, but Goro interrupted it with a harsh bark.

“Don’t bother,” he sneered, then reconsidered, the sneer shrinking about 5% in intensity. “Or rather, don’t bother all at once. You’re going to have plenty of time to reform yourself in prison- hopefully a life sentence’s worth, if we’re lucky.”

The man shivered and sputtered, but nodded. “I’ll... okay. I’ll stay here, and... and... just go back to myself in bits, I guess.”

“If you’re really as remorseful as you say, going back all at once will destroy your real self’s mind,” Akira said, tone stern and emotionless. “It’s what you deserve, but... consider this the only mercy you’ll see for the next few decades. Work to change your own heart. If you don’t...” A small, deeply evil grin spread across Akira’s lips, and Arsene loomed impossibly tall behind him. “We’ll be back.”

Akira somehow, without having noticeably moved to pull it out, had his dagger in the hand that wasn’t holding the hard drive. He was gazing admiringly at it, turning it back and forth so that the blood-red light of Mementos gleamed and glimmered on the metal of the blade. It looked very sharp. His voice deepened, his gaze, full of malice, returned to Ueno, and his grin grew. “You don’t want us to come back, do you?”

The pathetic shadow sputtered and shook its head, but Akira didn’t wait around to listen, turning his back on it and gesturing to Goro. “C’mon. We’re done here.”

Goro nodded, something funny and warm and admiring and... and something more spreading through his heart. He had always known it in the back of his mind, he guessed, but this was the first time he fully, consciously realized that Akira could be really fucking cool when he wanted to be.

It was kinda hot.

The warping of reality as they crossed back into Mementos proper washed his mind clean of any of those sorts of thoughts, though he didn’t forget them. Akira toyed with the hard drive, a little plastic-and-metal block, with his hand, then straightened up. “Let’s see if Futaba has the tools to get the data off of this, then we’ll check out what’s on it.” He shuddered a little, grimacing. “Hopefully we won’t have to look through much to tell if its enough to take Ueno down... all the shit he was talking about... I really don’t wanna have to see that.”

Goro shuddered as well at the thought. “No, neither do I.”

They started to walk out, and after a couple of moments, Akira turned to Goro again. “Hey, are you okay, after all that?”

Goro frowned deeply, shame washing over him. It wasn’t the first time Goro’s anger had spiked out of control like that- he knew he had a problem with managing the emotion ever since he was a little kid. Even when he and his mother were still together, he was still prone to fits of deep, blinding anger, from what little he could remember of those days. This had been the first time it had led to actual violence against another person, though. “Yes, I’m... well, I’m not fine, per se, but I think I worked it all out at least. What he said, it... struck a nerve, I guess.”

Akira just walked closer, took Goro’s hand in his own and gave it a little squeeze. Goro felt warm all over again, the feeling from before sparking a little back to life. He squeezed back.

With determination, and a not-insignificant amount of trepidation in their steps, the two boys headed out of Mementos, and back home.

►►⧗⧗⧗►►

April, 2015

Thankfully, even with all the chaos going on around the city in the wake of Shido’s public announcement, it didn’t take long for Goro and Akira to get to Shujin Academy.

Except that wasn’t entirely accurate. It didn’t take them long to get to Aoyama-Itchome, the subway ride was mercifully short, the train itself pretty empty, overall. It didn’t take long to get from the Aoyama-Itchome station to where Shujin Academy was located, and it didn’t take long to get to the front gates of the school.

It was at that point, however, that problems started to crop up. 

The entire campus was locked down, in a very obvious, literal, flashy manner. The brick walls that surrounded the school had been upgraded, now topped with gracefully arching, looping metalwork that was absolutely doused with big metal spikes. The front gates to the school were resolutely closed, with a big, ostentatious lock holding them shut, and in front of the gates themselves stood two security officers that looked more like plainclothes cops, or maybe enforcers on loan from some organized crime ring or other. 

When the boys stopped in front of the gates, staring in shock and more than a little intimidated awe, they were spotted very quickly by the guards, who took one look at the two boys, a look at the computer tablets they had, another look at the boys, and promptly shooed them away in the most intimidating manner possible, shouting that they weren’t allowed here, weren’t welcome here, and to get lost, all while having their hands unsubtly resting on the butt of the very real-looking pistols attached to their belts.

So getting to the school itself was going to be a problem, to put it lightly. After all that, Goro found himself pressed against the wall of an alley across the street from the school, peering at it, searching for any way they could possibly get in and see what was going on in there without getting the actual cops called on them, Akira doing the same while pressed against the opposite wall.

After a few minutes of silent, focused analysis, Goro sighed as loudly as he dared, with the guards still nearby, and flopped his head gently back against the brick of the alley wall. “This is pointless. There’s no way we can safely scale that wall, and there’s absolutely no way we can get rid of those guards, much less whatever other guards they’d have called on us if they so much as saw us again.”

Akira grimaced, still desperately casting his gaze over the obstacles before them, but nodded nevertheless. “Yeah... you noticed how they seemed to know who we are? Or rather they knew our faces, I guess.”

Goro made a small noise of assent. He had been troubled by that as well. “The only conclusion I can draw from that is that, somehow, whoever is commanding them knows about us, and knows that we’re a threat to them.” His words hung in the air for a few moments, ominous as pitch-black stormclouds on the horizon, but Goro soon shook his head a little, clearing it of all the implications that bit of deduction held. 

“We can save that for later, though, when Ann and Ryuji aren’t in danger.” Goro’s fingers went subconsciously to his chin as he had an idea, then slipped into his pocket, towards his phone. “I’m going to call Futaba and see if she’s found anything, or if there’s another way in. Keep an eye on the school, in case they send someone out on a patrol or something.”

Akira nodded, and Goro tapped a couple times at his phone to call up their hacker. Unsurprisingly, she answered before the first ring had finished. “Hey dorktective. Find anything?”

Goro sighed a little at the stupid nickname, shook his head. “Exactly what I called you to ask. The school’s completely locked down- spiked fences that we won’t be able to scale and armed guards who somehow know who we are. Is there another way inside, other than the main gates?”

Futaba sucked in a noisy static-burst of air through her teeth. “They knew your faces? Seriously? This is some fucked up shit- it’s like we walked into some freakin’ irl Metal Gear game-”

“Futaba, please. Focus,” Goro begged, a slight tinge of desperation and anger in his admonishment.

“Yeah, I am,” Futaba snarked back at him, her voice just as sharp as his. “I’ve been trying to hack into Shujin’s network since I called you dweebs- still am, literally as we speak.” Now that Goro knew to listen for it, he could hear some very rapidly-tapped keyboard keys clacking in the distance on her end. “Somebody upgraded their security since the last time I checked. Not impossible to break, just time consuming- and I’d bet that whatever updated blueprints they’ve made since the place got this new high-security makeover you’re talking about are probably stored in there too. Can’t help you til I break through, sorry.”

Goro sighed again, but nodded pointlessly anyways. “Fine. Message us with what you discover, don’t call in case-”

“In case blah blah blah, infiltration sneaky stuff, got it. Good luck.” Futaba ended the call, too concentrated to wait for Goro to wish her the same, apparently.

He stuffed his phone back into his pocket, shook his head at Akira’s questioning eyes. “Nothing yet. She’ll have more for us once she’s done hacking into their system.”

Akira grimaced, but didn’t have anything else to say to that. A minute passed, both of them keeping an eye on the school gates now, before Akira made a little hmm noise, an idea apparently occurring. 

“What is it?” Goro whispered.

“...it’s a stretch, but Lavenza gave us her number back at the Velvet Room, didn’t she? She might know something useful, especially if this is all related to Mementos stuff,” Akira theorized.

Goro was already getting out his phone as soon as Akira mentioned the girl’s name, navigating to where Lavenza had entered her information. “Metaverse was the term she used to describe this, I believe. Probably a term for the entirety of that realm- perhaps for the rest of the world above the subway itself? We’ve never been able to go back up there and inspect it.”

“Huh... probably, yeah,” Akira agreed, Goro half listening as he scrolled through his contacts and confidants, until he found an entry labeled, rather ostentatiously Your Attendant, Lavenza, the text bordered by a faint blue glow, similar to the eerie red glow that surrounded the Mementos app, or the Metaverse app, or whatever the hell it really was. 

Goro tapped it, and held the phone to his ear, Lavenza taking far longer to answer than Futaba did, likely unfamiliar with how to use this kind of technology, judging from how she acted earlier. 

Finally, she picked up. “Trickster?” She panted, sounding out of breath, exactly as if she spent several very frantic seconds trying to figure out how to answer a modern phone. Actually,  on second thought, Goro could tell she sounded even more out of breath than frantically fumbling with a phone could make someone, regardless of how nervous they were. “Are you alright?”

Goro chuckled a very small amount. “Exactly what I was about to ask you, actually. You sound very exhausted, Lavenza-chan. Did something happen?”

“Hm? Oh,” she peeped, clearly embarrassed. “My apologies, Trickster, it’s nothing. There was... well, one of our room’s newer occupants was causing a bit of a scene, but he’s calmed down now. It’s nothing to worry about.”

It certainly sounded to Goro like something to worry about, but later, he supposed, more urgent issues taking precedent. He made a mental note to bring it up later, and to also ask why she kept calling him and Akira her ‘Trickster,’ whatever that meant. For now, though, “Alright. I called because Akira and I are in a bit of a bind. Two of our friends are potentially in danger, trapped in their school with no way to communicate to us if they’re safe or not. We’re near the school ourselves, but can’t get past its gates or guardsmen in order to check on our friends. We... well, we were wondering if you had any ideas, since there’s probably a Metaverse aspect to all this madness today.” 

Lavenza hmmed softly, thinking for a few seconds, then audibly nodded- audibly, as in when she spoke, her words kept fading in and out slightly, as she physically nodded her head and moved her mouth away from and closer to the microphone over and over. “I might have a way for you to get closer, depending on a few things. I’ll need more information to be sure, however- what else do you know about your friends’ current predicament? Why are they trapped, and who trapped them?”

“Their school seems to have been caught up in this wave of Bound people going extremist all of a sudden,” Goro explained, sighing. “From what I remember them saying earlier this week, their Principal, as well as most of the staff have all been converted, most of the student base likely following. They were called into a meeting on Monday, I believe, to announce some changes to the school, given new uniforms and the such, but I don’t believe any of them knew this was going to happen, that their school would become locked down.”

More hums and other thoughtful noises from Lavenza. “I see. So, from what you know, their Principal is the one leading these changes?”

Goro frowned, considering. “I’m... not entirely sure. That would be the most logical conclusion, certainly, but it’s easily possible that while he is technically the leader, someone else there could be manipulating him.”

“I see... well, it’s somewhere to start, at least,” she said decisively. “Open the Metaverse application on your phone, or perhaps on Ak- on the other Trickster’s phone,” she corrected, sounding deeply embarrassed- another thing for Goro to address later, though if Akira heard her do that, he’d likely try and help her speak more casually and more comfortably there and then, regardless of how long it’d take, the damn sweet-hearted fool. “Speak their Principal’s name into the device, if you know it, and tell me what happens,” Lavenza continued.

Goro was confused as to where this was heading, not having tried doing this sort of thing in the real world before, but he followed her instructions all the same, tapping Akira on the shoulder and gesturing for him to give Goro his phone, which he did, looking mildly confused. Goro opened the app, thought for a moment to try and remember Shujin’s Principal’s full name, then said clearly, “Kobyakawa Keiji.”

The metaverse app made its pleasant ding, a woman’s voice saying “Match found.” The screen now displayed three entries, similar to a profile creation page on a normal website. One line asked for a ‘Target,’ which was alarming, and was now filled in with Kobyakawa’s full name. The other two...

“The app said there was a ‘match found,’ for Kobyakawa,” Goro relayed. “Now it’s asking for a Location and a... Distortion? Lavenza, what is this? When we’ve used the app to locate criminals in Mementos before, it never acted like this.”

“Ah!” Lavenza sounded excited. “You see, in Mementos, you were asking the app- a navigator, it seems- to locate a person’s shadow within the distortion of Mementos itself. Here, you are asking it to find a person’s own, personal distortion- their ‘Palace,’ as it’s colloquially ref-”

“A PALACE?!?!?!” A voice on Lavenza’s end, youthful and high and very excited-sounding suddenly shouted out, interrupting what Lavenza was saying.

“Yes, Morgana, please, I am trying- wait- no-” There was the sound of scuffling on the other end of the phone, as if this new Morgana person was trying to wrestle Lavenza for something- access to the phone, most likely, though Goro could’t fathom why this new person would be so excited about a Palace, or whatever.

Several seconds passed before the tussling stopped, though from the grunting Goro could hear from the other end when Lavenza spoke again, it sounded like she was only barely restraining this Morgana character. “My apologies, Trickster. Our new associate can be very... rambunctious...”

“Is everything alright?” Goro asked, concerned. He didn’t really have any way of helping if things weren’t alright, but still. 

“Everything is fine, Trickster,” she replied, sounding half like she was trying to convince herself with the answer too. “He’s just a bit of a handful. As I was saying, this Principal seems to have a Palace, our name for when someone’s view of the world, or a certain part of it, is so corrupted and distorted that they manifest a small realm of their own within the Metaverse, a pocket dimension of sorts totally under their control. Remember that the Metaverse is nothing more than a physical manifestation of humanity’s beliefs. If someone’s deepest-held beliefs and desires become distorted enough and powerful enough, those distortions will be reflected there as well.”

Goro’s frown deepened. This was all very interesting- legitimately interesting to Goro, he loved this kind of semi-magical, somewhat psychological analysis, it was something he’d love to discuss at length later. For now, though, “That’s all very interesting, Lavenza-chan, but how does this Palace business help us?”

“Because!!!” The other voice- Morgana’s- piped up from nearby Lavenza, and there was more struggling noises, Morgana seeming to come out the victor this time, now speaking directly into Goro’s ear. “Because, a Palace isn’t just a reflection of someone’s corrupt heart, it’s a manifestation of it! The stuff you do in there can affect the real-life person’s views and beliefs, depending on what you do, and vice-versa! If you infiltrate the Palace and steal his heart, he’ll break down and free your fr-”

Morgana’s voice was suddenly muffled as the struggle for the phone began again, much to Goro’s relief. He passively suspected that was where this was going, and didn’t like it one bit. If defeating someone’s shadow in Mementos was enough to turn them into a groveling, sniveling mess if they weren’t careful, messing around with a physical manifestation of someone’s actual heart... 

Lavenza finally got control of the phone back, breathing a sigh of relief into the mic, sounding like she finally got someone else to help hold Morgana back. “My apologies again, Trickster, for Morgana. He’s very easily over-excited, and apparently did not listen,” her words were briefly directed away from the phone there, likely to Morgana nearby. “When I told everyone that the two of you are opposed to stealing hearts.”

Morgana made a loud, ugly noise of distress in the distance. “Huh?!?!? But why?!!?!?!?

“At any rate,” Lavenza continued, blessedly ignoring the high-pitched weirdo. “My purpose in bringing up Palaces was that the realm is, as Morgana said, both a reflection and a manifestation of someone’s distorted views, yes, but also of reality itself. If you can get into the Palace, you may find it easier to infiltrate than the school is in real life, assuming his distorted view are indeed of the school itself. Inside, you will likely find clues as to the state of your friends, or at the very least a metaphorical representation of what’s going on inside the building. Also, if there is a weak point in the school’s defenses in the real world that Kobyakawa knows of, it is likely to be much more obviously represented in his Palace, and thus can point you towards an easier way in once you return.”

Goro hmmed himself, taking a few moments to process this before responding. “That... sounds like our best bet right now, yes. I have to ask though, is there any risk of harming or mentally corrupting Kobyakawa by entering his Palace?” Goro hoped there wouldn’t be, or if there was a danger, that it’d be avoidable. Otherwise... 

Lavenza was quiet for a few moments, which Goro didn’t like, then sighed. “I’ll have to pass that question over to Morgana. He is the expert on all things Palace-related, whereas my knowledge is more... general. One moment.” 

She covered up the mic this time, muffling whatever discussion was going on over there, and Goro was left staring into the middle distance for a few minutes as he waited for everything to resolve over there. Eventually, the phone was handed over to Morgana again, willingly this time.

“Hey!” The new boy chirped. “Lavenza said you were worried about messing the guy up by going into his Palace?”

“Yes. If exploring his Palace would damage his mental state irreparably, then I’m going to have to refuse-”

“Oh, nahhhh,” Morgana interrupted, Goro gritting his teeth a little at the rudeness. “You can definitely change his mind and his heart from within the Palace, that’s kinda the whole point of going in there in the first place, but you’d have to do a lot of really specific stuff in there for there to be much of any effect. Worst case scenario, if you get spotted too many times, or if you infiltrate too deep inside, he’ll start acting more paranoid in the real world, but not permanently”

“Ah,” Goro sighed, relieved. “That’s alright then.”

“Yeah!” Morgana agreed. “Just be careful not to kill his shadow, if you see it! If you do that, he’ll definitely die in the real world too, and that’d suck!”

Goro gripped the phone about 500% tighter than he had been the instant before, teeth gritting painfully together again. “That’s... exactly the sort of thing you should have said first, Morgana-san.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” Morgana didn’t sound the least bit sorry. Goro decided he didn’t like this boy. “You should really consider changing the guy’s heart, though, or at least infiltrating his Palace to where his Treasure Room is. This Bound stuff sounds really serious, and he’s only gonna get worse if you leave him be- definitely won’t let your friends go if you don’t- mmf!”

Morgana’s mouth seemed to have been covered up by a hand, the phone taken away from him again, and Goro silently promised to buy Lavenza and whoever was helping her a dozen Big Bang Burgers in gratitude. “My apologies yet again, Trickster,” she said, sounding tired. “He promised not to talk about that sort of thing, but...”

“It’s alright, Lavenza-chan,” Goro soothed, then sighed as well, straightening up off the alley wall. “At least we have a path forwards now. I take it that in order to get into his Palace, we need to say where his distortion is centered, and what he sees the place as, to fill in the other two blanks on the navigator?”

“Precisely,” Lavenza agreed. “The navigator will likely warp you inside the Palace realm as soon as you enter the last bit of information, however, and typically when warping to the Metaverse, there is a small bubble around those traveling, where others very close nearby will also be warped in, so be careful.”

“Understood. I’ll call you again if we need more help with this,” Goro said, all business. Lavenza made a sound of assent, and after saying a final thanks, Goro hung up. He turned to Akira, asked “Did you catch any of that?”

Akira nodded. “I got the gist, yeah. That high-pitched kid was pretty loud- not loud enough to attract the guards, if that was what you were worrying,” Akira soothed, that having been exactly what Goro feared at Akira’s words. “Just loud enough for me to hear most of what he said.”

“Right.” Goro sighed, then focused on the navigator again, thinking. “Well, in all likelihood, considering he’s shut himself and all the students in there, Kobyakawa’s distortion is likely that of Shujin Academy.”

The app on Akira’s phone dinged again, the name of the school filling itself out under Location, and Goro felt a little burst of warm pride in his chest. “As to what he sees the school as...”

Goro fell into thought for a few seconds, before Akira spoke up. “Well, this is all happening cause of the Bound religion thing, right? Maybe he just sees it as a religious school now?”

Nothing from the app. Goro sighed,” I suppose that’s just what it literally is, now, in the real world. We likely have to get more metaphorical. A monastery, perhaps?” Nothing. “A nunnery? Or a temple?” 

Nothing on either. “Maybe it’s simpler than that,” Akira ventured. “Like a church, or a cathedral.”

The app dinged yet again, and the robotic, feminine voice spoke up. “Location found. Beginning Navigation.”

The world started to twist and distort around Goro and Akira, just as it did when they traversed into Mementos. The last thing Goro could see before the world went briefly black was the last line filling itself out on Akira’s phone.

 ‘Cathedral of Control.

Chapter Text

The sensation of entering the Metaverse took longer than usual to fade away, leaving Akira’s body all tingly and uncomfortable for a minute or two as he worked to gain his bearings. Eventually, he was able to pull himself more fully upright, taking a deep breath as he did so. Next to him, Goro was already looking around, always having had a slightly stronger constitution than Akira did, so Akira quickly joined him.

They were still standing in the alley where they had been before, only it was significantly different now. Instead of brick walls spaced barely a meter or two apart, now on either side of the boys lay two identical, squat houses- hovels, really. They looked exactly as someone would imagine Medieval, European-style peasants’ houses to look, with clay-like walls and thatched roofs, a stout little chimney poking out at one end. The houses were barely taller than Akira himself, and for some reason, perhaps due to the way the Metaverse was connected with the human psyche, they gave off the impression that even the houses themselves were bowing their heads in reverence to what lay before them.

Akira turned to face what lay before them, where Shujin Academy was previously standing, and let out an involuntary whistle, impressed. He was never one for subservience, but nobody could deny the thing looked impressive enough to earn a bowed head or two, if only out of respect.

Where once stood the relatively modest, three-story high school, now lay a towering, sprawling cathedral, tall enough so Akira had to crane his head to see the topmost spire. Shujin’s front gate was now the front edifice of the cathedral, a massive structure of pure-white stone and intricately-cut glass windows, topped with four pointed towers that looked as if they were reaching plaintively up to the sky, their tips just brushing the bottoms of the clouds.

Behind and beyond the front edifice sprawled a massive compound, stretching farther back than Akira could see from his current position, stretching out far wider to either side than Shujin Academy did, great eastern and western wings, all white stone and glass, the roofing tiles giving off an opalescent sheen in the softly fading light of the late afternoon- which didn’t make a lot of sense, as the skies above them definitely seemed to be tinged deep red and filled with clouds, but pure logic rarely held a place in Mementos, so Akira reasoned it was best to not worry too much about it here, either.

When Akira looked, Goro was still casting his eyes over the grandeur before them, a little transfixed- understandably so, if Akira was honest, but also a little adorably. Akira was just as much of a small-town kid as Goro was, but Goro always had just a couple more stars in his eyes for the skyscrapers of Tokyo, or the towering height of the Skytree, or anything along those impressive lines. Even hidden now as it was by Goro’s red plague-doctor mask, it was extremely endearing to see the childlike wonder show in his face and his eyes again, when they were so often wrinkled and shadowed in thought or frustration these days.

“Looks like Lavenza was right,” Akira started. “We’ll definitely have an easier time getting in now.” He gestured with his thumb towards the entrance to the Cathedral, and Goro blinked his awe away to look over to where the front doors to the Cathedral stood, a long train of faceless, featureless human-like shapes filing inside.

“Hm, quite,” Goro agreed, tugging on his gloves a little. He shot a tight smile at Akira. “Shall we?”

Akira nodded, and they headed towards the front doors of the Cathedral- of the Palace.

Getting inside the place wasn’t difficult, as Akira had guessed, though it was incredibly disconcerting. The closer they got to the towering, twenty-foot-tall double doors that led into the Cathedral, the clearer they could make out the details of the faceless crowd slowly making their own way inside. Their forms were human, sure, but besides their clothes, everything about them was just a vague, indistinct haze, a mass of greyish, blackish shadow in the shape of what a human kind of looks like. They were dressed in rags and faded, scraggy clothing, the kinds of things one imagines when one thinks of Medeval peasants, but the closer Akira looked, he could tell that the scraps of cloth looked more like torn-up graphic t-shirts, tied together with patterned tights. 

The shadowy figures were more or less in an orderly line, walking with slow, plodding, ceaseless steps into the contrasting grandeur of the Cathedral, and when Akira craned his neck to see how far back the line of people went, he could only see it trailing far, far back into the shabby village that surrounded the palace, before disappearing from view into a thick, ominously red fog.

Akira swallowed hard, feeling even more uncomfortable than before, and turned away to head into the palace itself, Goro at his side. As expected from the Cathedral’s grandiose exterior, the interior was mind-bogglingly grand. The double doors led into a capital-G Grand Hall, a huge, colum-lined space leading forwards and, with just slightly closer-together walls, towards the Cathedral’s East and West wings on either side in a T-shape. Faceless people, mostly the peasantry still filing their way inside, but also some faceless shadow-people in Priest robes and other clothes of the lower-ranking gentry, filled the space, walking every which way. The floors and walls were the same pure-white stone as the outside of the place, and where the walls weren’t stone, they were taken up by towering windows full of intricately cut glass and spiraling, gold-coated metalwork holding the glass together. 

As Akira and Goro walked further inside, their legs taking them in mostly on autopilot as they gawked at the scenery surrounding them, they could also see the occasional, somewhat out of place bulletin board hanging on pegs hammered into the stone walls, modern-day push-pins pressed into corkboard, holding up posters drawn in a sort of Ye Olde style, but, from what Akira could make out from the curly, flowy hiragana, advertising things like upcoming Youth Dances and Bake Sales. Upon closer inspection, there were a lot of posters like those, on the bulletin boards, but also taped up (with actual tape) clumsily on the curving, carved surface of the floor-to-ceiling columns and arches that dotted the Grand Hall’s massive floorspace. 

It was all very Catholic, though Akira really only knew what ‘Catholic’ things typically looked like from memes online and the occasional architecture-based magazine he’d rent out from the Yongen library. He continued to wander idly around the space, until he realized suddenly that Goro was no longer at his side. Akira cast his eyes frantically around the Hall, instantly panicked, then instantly soothed when he finally caught sight of Goro a ways further down the larger part of the hall that stretched out directly in front of the entrance. 

It was a long walk from where Akira had ended up to where Goro’s distinctive costume and shaggy brown hair signaled his presence, giving Akira a more physical perception of how truly vast this palace was, and as he got closer, he could see that, still a ways away from where Goro stood, this part of the Hall ended in another set of double doors- smaller than the ones they had come in through, but still at least a dozen or so feet tall. They were cracked open, just slightly, and the closer Akira got, he could hear what sounded like singing coming from the other side. 

He finally reached Goro’s side, finding his partner staring up at a large scroll hanging off of the wall, the design of which was much more consistent with the rest of the setting than the posters and stuff had been. The paper of the scroll was yellowish, faded either with time or with the cheapness of the materiel, and though Akira couldn’t make out the clearly handwritten script that took up most of the scroll’s space, he could clearly see a weirdly photorealistic drawing of a very plump man’s face at the very top of the scroll. The drawing was only from the shoulders up, but even with that Akira could see that the man was dressed in incredibly fancy robes, with what Akira thought was a Bishop’s hat resting on top of his large, bald head.

After a minute or so of Akira inspecting the scroll, Goro jumped and made a little noise of surprise, which made Akira jump and make a little noise of surprise too, Goro apparently only just then realizing that Akira had joined him. They both calmed down quickly, smiling and breathing out a little laugh at the brief moment of slapstick, then Goro gestured to the scroll- or more accurately to the picture atop it. “That’s Kobyakawa. I looked him up back when we were investigating that molester coach. From what I remember, he knew about what the man was doing, but turned a blind eye due to the coach’s reputation and the prestige it gave to Shujin as a whole.” Goro turned back to stare at the scroll, sniffing derisively, the corner of his mouth curling up in a little snarl. “It doesn’t surprise me that a man like him would become one of Shido’s little lackeys, gobble up whatever line of bullshit that bastard is selling.”

Akira hummed in agreement, looking around them again with the new context Goro’s words provided. “Makes sense that this place is a Cathedral, then, if he’s just feeding off of the power that being a part of that Bound cult is giving him. I guess he sees himself as one of the leaders of the thing, and sees the school as where he... I dunno, spreads the good word or some shit?”

Goro rolled his eyes, but gestured to the doors at the end of the hall. “I’d wager that’s precisely what’s going on in there.  Care to take a look?” 

Akira nodded, and they walked over towards the end of the hall, weaving around the shadow-people still filing inside. The double doors were open just wide enough for people to walk through, and the two boys took up position on either side of the entrance, peeking their heads around the side of the doors so they could get a good view of what lay beyond without being swept in by the crowd. 

Had Akira not already been swept off his feet by the Grand Entry Hall, the room before him would have sent his country-boy head spinning. As it was, he felt his jaw drop open a little at the sight he beheld. Rows and rows and rows of pews spanned out like the grandest theater, each bench filled to capacity with shadow people. The room was vast, and from where he was standing, Akira could just barely see the walls, covered with stained-glass windows, all depicting scenes of some colossal, weirdly geometric figure with four arms giving gifts to hoards of people worshiping below it, gentle, tinted light flowing through the glass and casting the whole room in a soft, somewhat rainbow-y glow. 

In the distance, backed by a huge pipe organ currently blasting out a wheezy accompaniment to the singing of the parishioners and what Akira thought to be a choir off to one side, was a grand, ornately carved altar and podium, both looking very, very similar to the podium Shido had given his announcement from earlier that day, carved with similar shapes, and were he close enough to see, Akira assumed the details on the crest adorning the front of it would be just as similar. This time, though, standing behind the podium was a large, roundish man in flowing white robes and that same half-oval hat that Akira recognized from both his reading materiel and the chess games he and Goro would sometimes play.

Akira exchanged a worried look with Goro, who looked more than a little sick behind his mask. He was about to offer Goro some words of comfort, or encouragement, or something, but before he could even think of what to say, the singing stopped, and their attention was called back to the scene in front of them, to see what would happen next.

The Bishop- Kobyakawa- raised his arms up to the sky, and opened his mouth-

-and...

....an  d....

Akira blinked a few times, then a few times more, trying to clear his vision of the haze and dizziness he suddenly found himself with. When his vision cleared, he found himself several dozen feet away from the doors he had been standing at before, and on the floor too. In front of him, Arsene hovered, arms cast out to either side as if to shield Akira from some threat. Akira looked around, finding Goro in a similar position, with Robin Hood also in a protective stance in front of him.

“What happened?” Akira asked, groggily making his way to his feet.

Goro tried to get up as well, stumbling a bit, but catching himself as Akira started to move to help him, holding out a hand as if to say he could handle it. “I’m.. not sure. Something happened when Kobyakawa started to speak... I don’t remember exactly, but... hm, I’m getting the impression from Robin that it had some sort of hypnotic effect that put the two of us in danger, or something along those lines.”

Akira frowned, closed his eyes to focus on his bond to Arsene, and got a vague, wordless impression pretty much along the same lines that Goro had said. “Yeah, me too... I guess that’s not surprising. All the Bound people we’ve seen so far were acting like they were brainwashed. If this place is based off of perception, and Kobyakawa thinks that he can control people like that- or worse, if he actually is controlling people like that, it’d make sense that his shadow would have more literal hypnotic powers.”

Goro frowned, nodding. He gestured for Akira to follow him, and they both made their way back down the Great Hall, away from where Kobyakawa was still giving his sermon. When they were a decent ways away, far enough that they couldn’t make out any of the sounds from that room anymore, Arsene and Robin vanished, the familiar weight of his mask reappearing on Akira’s face. Goro hesitated only briefly as his mask reappeared, then led Akira over towards where they had first come in, where the hall branched off in three separate directions. The two boys gathered at one of the corners of the space, huddled together to speak behind a column.

As soon as they were as secluded as they were going to be able to get, Goro drooped, leaning his shoulder against the wall as he took off his masks so he could massage his temples. “Akira, we need to focus. This is going nowhere.”

Akira grimaced, looking embarrassedly off to one side. “You’re right... after skulking around in Mementos for so long, the chance to explore this kind of place is hard to pass up. But...”

“To be honest, I feel the same way,” Goro agreed, though he didn’t sound happy about it. “There’s several layers to this kind of place, and puzzling out its secrets, the symbolism and what it might mean about Kobyakawa’s psyche...it’s an opportunity to do a level of detective work that you can’t really find anywhere else.” He sighed, sounding like he was trying to exhale as much of the immense mountains of stress that had been piled onto them throughout the day as he could. “But, as you say... our goal right now is to figure out if Ann and Ryuji are safe, and what our options are for freeing them are, depending on the situation. We aren’t going to make any progress on that just by poking our noses around the pretty scenery here.”

“Yeah...” Akira closed his eyes for a moment, then shook his head, clearing his mind of spare thoughts as best he could. This was important. “So, we’re looking for information on their whereabouts, or something like it. Do we go through one of the other doors leading out of this Great Hall area, or do we leave and see if there’s somewhere else we can break in from, that might lead us to like... a library or something, I dunno.”

Goro stroked his chin idly as he was prone to do while thinking, tapping his index finger against his (very plush-looking and generous, okay, shut up Akira, jesus) bottom lip. “Hmm... I don’t think a library will be necessary. I’m not sure if you noticed, but among all the faceless shadows packed into the pews back there, there were several figures scattered about that looked like actual people, too- faces, different hair styles, the works.”

Akira’s frown grew deeper, confused. ‘Huh. So... are these faceless things just part of the scenery, like, Kobyakawa’s mental image of the kind of people that would file into this big Cathedral of his, whereas the actual people-people are like... what?”

“I’d wager those are Kobyakawa’s mental projections of people he’s actually met and can identify in-person. Students, staff, maybe even parents and the like. If we’re to extrapolate everything we’ve seen in here as metaphors, those sitting in the pews, listening to his sermons, are likely those students he already knows to be Bound, converted. That said,” Goro turned to look down the thinner hallways leading off to either side of the front doors. “Shujin Academy has a student body in the hundreds. It only stands to reason that there would be less obedient students, or at the very least less pious ones that he’d be aware of. If we can find the cognitions of those students, and they, unlike the faceless shadow people, can respond when spoken to, we’ll likely find out everything we need to know from them.”

Akira nodded, smiling wide as he always did when Goro was all cool with his deductions like that. He patted Goro’s back, stretched his arms a little. “Sounds like a plan. Hm...” As Akira looked down the thinner passage of the hall, he noticed a small door standing at the end of it, affixed with a large, very obvious ‘KEEP OUT’ sign. “Looks like we’ll have to be more stealthy while we look, though. I assume that thing means that there will be guards of some sort, his brain trying to protect his secrets or whatever.”

“I noticed that too, yes,” Goro fiddled with the pommel of his laser sword, hanging in its sheath at his hip. “Morgana did say something about being caught or spotted by shadows, and that directly leading Kobyakawa to become more paranoid in the real world. We’ll have to be careful.”

Akira nodded, and they moved out. They were closer to the left-side hall, or at least the one that was to the left from where they were standing, so when Goro gestured with his hands for them to head that way first, Akira shrugged and followed- had to start somewhere, after all. Goro took the lead as they walked over, moving inconspicuously through the crowd of shadow people with practiced ease. Goro had always been into detective and spy novels and films, and seemed to sap practical knowledge from them like nobody’s business. They rarely had a need to sneak stealthily around somewhere, in the real world or in Mementos, but sometimes they’d have to pickpocket a piece of evidence out of a tagert’s coat, or tail someone they were suspicious about, and Goro’s talent for staying undetected and invisible when he wanted to always managed to impress Akira. It also made him imagine Goro watching all those movies and reading all those books, then play-imitating the characters in them around the house when he thought nobody was looking, which was probably exactly what happened.

So it was that Goro led the way through the crowd of shadow-people, towards the door at the far end of the Hall, Akira copying his movements and attitude as best he could. When they reached the door itself, Goro turned around to face away from the door, positioning himself just so, to give Akira some physical cover as he slunk back and tried the door handle- locked, as he kinda expected. He quickly took out his lockpicking tools- Akira always made sure to have them on him, whether he was in Mementos or just at school- and made quick work of the obstacle, silently opening the door and pulling Goro inside once he was finished.

Beyond the door was much more familiar territory. The whole thing was still made of carved, gleaming white stone, with those same fancy-ass windows along the side, but the shape of the area, the overall design of the place, felt a lot more like the hallways of Akira and Goro’s school, instead of some weird church stuff. Standing in front of the door, Akira looked around carefully, curious as to what e-

Suddenly, he felt Goro’s hand grab the back of his jacket, and haul him into the shadow of what seemed to be a set of waste bins, though much fancier and olden-days-style than the type you’d usually find in a school hallway. As soon as he got his feet properly under him, crouched down behind the bins, Akira sent a confused look Goro’s way.

Goro pressed a finger to his lips, gesturing with his thumb around the bulk of their cover- and now, listening for it, Akira could hear footsteps approaching, the soft but distinctive sound of polished boots clacking across stone.

The boys hid there, quieting their breath, as the footsteps got closer and closer to where they were hiding. They were pretty close to the door that had led into this area, but neither knew how thorough the guards inside here would patrol this place. From what Goro said, and what he overheard from that loud, high-pitched kid on the phone, Morgana or whatever, Akira knew it’d probably be really, really bad if they got spotted, so he pressed himself as close as he could to the shadows of the bins, all senses on high alert as the steps got closer, and closer still...

...they stopped, a foot or two away from where the boys were hiding, paused for a few seconds, then turned around and started walking away. Goro visibly relaxed, deflating enough so that his posture slumped slightly in his crouch, but... something in the back of his head made Akira curious. Knowing that they were safe from being seen now, he peeked his head up over the lip of the bin, trying to get a look at their foe.

What Akira saw was absolutely not what he expected to see, though in retrospect, perhaps he should’ve. Clad in what looked like Holy Paladin armor, a hulking, bulging figure ambled down the hallway away from Akira and Goro. It was vaguely humanoid in shape, had two feet, two arms, but its body was misshapen, bulbous, with pitch-black, shadowy flesh peeking and bulging out between the armor plating here and there, and it walked with an odd, disconcertingly inhuman gait.

Shadows,” Akira whispered, just barely loud enough for Goro to hear, if he was listening for it. “Just like in Mementos.

Goro didn’t react audibly, and Akira’s eyes were glued to the monster before him, but he could feel the buzz of Goro’s thoughts starting to race as he analyzed what this meant, both for what they’d have to deal with as they infiltrated further, and in a more general, overarching way. 

Akira, however... he wouldn’t call himself an impulsive person. He could, he absolutely could call himself impulsive, he’d done a lot of impulsive things in his life, top of the list being running away from home with Goro all those years ago. But considering the outcome of those impulses, and how being ‘an impulsive person’ felt like a negative thing to be, Akira didn’t consider it a label worth affixing to himself. He just listened very closely to his heart, whenever he could, and, like now, followed its suggestions and ideas when it, for example, told him to sneak silently, invisibly up behind the shadow guard, just close enough to reach its helmet, which looked very similar to the strange masks the shadow-blobs wore in Mementos, and, just when the moment was right...

He leapt upwards, infinitely more agile and acrobatic in this realm than he ever could be in the real world, hands latching onto the small wings sticking out of the sides of the shadow’s helmet, his jump carrying him further, further up, until he could plant his feet on the thing’s shoulders, and haul the helmet off the monster’s head. It screamed out in rage at the loss of its cover, and Akira just had time to launch himself back off of its shoulders, backflipping off, back onto solid ground as the shadow morphed, and grew, and deformed, and burst apart, just as they did in Mementos. It reformed into a couple familiar-looking creatures- two Jack Frosts and what looked like a strange, BDSM-take on what an angel would look like, all three of whom turned towards Akira with murder in their eyes. Well, the Jack Frosts just looked cute as always, but their posture looked like they were about to hee-haul the hell off on Akira.

Akira got his balance back pretty quick once he landed, and drew his knife out just as Goro rushed over and took a defensive position next to him, laser sword humming and at the ready. He physically felt Goro glare at him, knew he was in for a lecture after the battle was over, but for the moment, Goro just tore his mask off, calling up Robin Hood, and Akira followed suit.

The battle was quick, both of them very used to this kind of fighting after over three years of doing it regularly, and both boys made quick work of picking up the yen and couple items the shadows left behind upon defeat. Goro handed what he had grabbed to Akira, who braced himself for a lecture as he sorted the loot into the various pockets of his coat, but it never came. Instead, Goro moved to the far end of the hall, where the shadow guard had come from, peeking his head around, looking like he was trying to confirm a suspicion. He sighed at what he saw, then turned around to gesture at Akira to follow him. Akira did so, and they turned down the new hallway together.

“Normally, I’d be angry with you for a stunt like that,” Goro said dryly, after a few excruciating seconds of silence. “But whether you knew this at the time or not, you were right to do so. There wouldn’t have been enough space here to sneak around the guard, and if you hadn’t snuck up on it while it wasn’t looking, it likely would have spotted us later. The fight was quick, efficient, and quiet enough not to attract any attention. You did well.”

Akira blushed a little at the praise. It wasn’t exactly a rare thing, for Goro to tell Akira he did a good job with something, they were very affirming of each others achievements, minor or otherwise, but head-over-heels as he was, Akira was incredibly weak to it every time, savoring the warm, buttery feeling blooming in his chest at Goro’s approval. “Thanks, Goro.”

He heard Goro give a little, amused snort, and he shoved Akira’s shoulder lightly as they walked. “That said, I very much doubt you did know all that going in, which means you were just being a reckless idiot acting solely on instinct again, which, while it hasn’t backfired as of yet, absolutely will get you in some dangerously hot water one of these days. At least communicate to me, somehow, what you’re planning before you do it, so I can back you up or stop you if need be.”

The warm feeling shifted into what was honestly some fairly earned guilt, and Akira nodded. “Sorry. It can be... hard not to just move, as soon as I feel it’s the right time to, but I’ll try to be more clear about what I’m thinking in the future.”

“That’s all I ask,” Goro nodded, patting his shoulder. “For now, though, you ought to take the lead as we navigate through here. I may have a knack for moving through crowds, but you were like a.. well, not a shadow in the, uhm,” he gestured around them. “This sense, but a literal shadow, uhm... you were very stealthy, and you should take the lead. Ugh.” Goro huffed, peeved at not being able to say what he was trying to say in an elegant and cool way, and Akira laughed softly, patting Goro’s shoulder.

“Got it. If you see something I don’t-”

“I’ll let you know, one way or the other,” Goro promised, sounding like he was smiling again. “Let’s move out.”

It would be very generous to say that their infiltration ran smoothly from that point on- as much as Goro was gifted with moving unnoticably through crowds, and Akira gifted with natural stealth, maneuvering through tight, bright-white corridors filled with murderous shadow-guards was a lot different than stalking a CEO through a crowded shopping district, or charging down every obstacle they saw in the dark, shadowed tunnels of mementos. There were a pretty fair number of times where, after getting caught up in the heat of a battle, the boys would charge recklessly around a corner, only to run face-first into a shadow’s breastplate, or Akira would try to crouch-walk out from behind a garbage bin, only for his leg to cramp up from the unusual position, or Goro would try to replicate the cool surprise-demasking-from-behind thing Akira did earlier, only to accidentally whack his hand against some part of the shadow’s armor and tumble clumsily off its shoulders.

By and large, things went well enough, and their fighting and sneaking instincts worked out for them, but in comparison to when they fumbled about, it was more of a 60/40 split than anything.

That said, when their attempts at stealth worked out, it paid off dividends in ways that neither boy had expected. At a couple points, hidden away in the shadows, they overheard the shadow guards talking to one another, something they had never encountered in Mementos. One pair spoke of how relieved the were that all of the Bishop’s flock were behaving well, other than the damn heretics they had to lock up. After taking care of the guards, Goro theorized what Akira had been feeling hopeful about through the battle- the ‘flock’ in question was likely how Kobyakawa saw his students, meaning that the heretics were likely those few students who weren’t Bound yet, Ryuji and Ann likely among them. Even hearing a hint that they might be able to find the two of them buoyed the boys spirits, and they pressed on with renewed energy and determination.

There were a couple more times where Akira and Goro were able to overhear some of the shadows talking. On one occasion, they mentioned rumors that the leader of the youth ministers might be harboring doubts, or worse, might be a heretic in disguise, a wolf among the sheep. On another, a shadow was complaining about being forced to act as an honor guard for the Arch-Bishop, when he came over to take one of the heretics into his own personal custody. 

Neither Goro or Akira could make heads or tails of any of that, not having enough information or context to figure it out, but they tucked it away in the back of their minds all the same, in case it turned out to be important later.

Overall, the infiltration was rough, but alright for all that. There were fuck-ups, and the boys got down on themselves or bickered occasionally when things didn’t go the way they planned, but none of it was hard, heartfelt anger or irritation, Akira knew. Both boys simply cared a hell of a lot about the safety and well-being of each other, and very desperately didn’t want things to go badly. 

But, again, it went alright overall. Though they got spotted a couple of times, it seemed as if the almost physically palpable heightening of Kobyakawa’s paranoia that resulted each time they fucked up was jsut as easily soothed back down to nothing the next time they managed to successfully sneak up on and take out a shadow guard. It was confusing, and definitely a strange experience, but as with most things, the longer they spent sneaking about, the more natural it felt.

That said, luck had never been something Akira or Goro had a very deep supply of, and it was kind of inevitable that they’d eventually run into something they couldn’t overcome, no matter how hard they tried.

After what felt like hours and hours, but was probably only a fraction of that, Akira and Goro came to the end of the long, maze-like series of hallways and dead ends. In front of them, at the very end of the corridor they had just turned down, was a modest staircase leading up to the next level. Progress, at last. Goro had theorized earlier, while they were making their way through the maze of corridors and hallways, that much like an actual palace, anything that Kobyakawa viewed as valuable would be stored deeper inside, through several layers of security like this. It was unlikely that he thought of rebellious teens like Ann and Ryuji as treasures to protect, or anything like that, but if he had locked them away, they’d probably be in a new area, further within- beyond, for example, a staircase like this one.

Now, finally, they would be able to get closer to their goal.

As soon as they could get past the two very severe-looking kids blocking their path.

The closer Akira got, the more details he could pick out from the kids- they weren’t the faceless shadows from the Grand Hall, or the deformed guards they’d run into before, but looked fully, wholly human, like Goro had seen in the pews earlier. Their arms were crossed tight in front of their chests, and they were dressed in the same kind of black, robe-like clothes Ryuji had sent a picture of himself wearing earlier in the week. They looked about as stern and unflappably cold as two 16 or 17-year-olds could possibly look, and their eyes were locked onto Akira and Goro as they approached.

Akira heard Goro whisper a quiet “Ah boy...” that sounded remarkably like Sojiro when he was forced to deal with a particularly shitty customer, but before Akira could comment on it, the two kids spoke up.

“Halt!” Shouted the one on the left, a deep-voiced, tall girl whose muscles made the floppy sleeves of her robes look tight and constricting. “I don’t recognize either of you two masked weirdos. Identify yourself, in the name of the Church!”

Akira and Goro looked at each other, feeling deeply tired at having to deal with this already. Goro took a short, deep breath, and turned on his Charming Boy persona as bright as it could go, taking off his mask as he did so, trying out a sheepish smile. “Hah, sorry about that. We’re students of a performer’s guild nearby. The Bishop’s assistant sent a missive to our Guildmaster, asking for two youths to entertain His Excellency this afternoon- as a surprise, I believe.”

It was a decent enough cover, as far as Akira was concerned- fit the era this Palace seemed to exist within, just vague enough for the kids to, hopefully, let them pass without any questions or fuss.

It wasn’t. If anything, the two kids widened their stance, physically trying to block more of the stairway from their access. The one on the right, a short but stocky boy with big round glasses spoke this time, voice nasal but serious. “His Excellency has made it very clear that no one is to pass this point without official identification. You’ll show your card now, or you will leave!”

Card, huh? Akira had an inkling that they were talking about a student ID card, or something equivalent to it, which would make sense. Visitors to schools, whether they were students from another school or adults, usually had to have some form of admin-approved identification before being allowed near the classrooms, at least from what Akira had heard from the various school staff he’d spoken with throughout his detective career. 

He looked over at Goro, whose pleasant-boy mask seemed to be slipping already, clearly unsure of how to proceed. Akira leaned over, whispered into Goro’s ear, “These two aren’t going to let through, and we don’t have any way to get an ID. I say we take them out and move on, we don’t have the time for this.”

Goro’s eyes instantly widened in alarm, and he grabbed Akira’s arm, which had been moving towards where he kept his dagger sheathed. “No! Look at their eyes, Akira,” he hissed, frantic, and Akira did so, only now recognizing the bright, glaring yellow of the kids’ irises. “It’s just like the shadows we’ve encountered in Mementos. I don’t know how, or why they’re here in Kobyakawa’s Palace, but I’m certain these are the actual, personal shadows of whoever these kids are in the real world.”

Akira grimaced, but put his hand back at his side. It was still possible that these kids would just burst into some shadow monsters, like all the Shadows typically did down in Mementos, but for some reason, Akira doubted it. The kids looked ready to physically fight Akira and Goro, and while Akira was confidant that they could take them, he wasn’t sure what a physical fight with somebody’s personal shadow would do to the person themselves- any physical altercation the boys had with a shadow thus far was just with the monster the shadow morphed into when agitated, they never so much as touched the actual human-looking ones. Going by their past experiences, it probably wouldn’t end well if they tried it, even if all they did was knock them out or tie them up. And regardless, it wasn’t likely they’d be able to do any of that without raising an alarm.

As Goro told the kids that he and Akira must have left their identification back at the guild and would be right back, Akira tried to think of something, anything they could do to make this trip not be a total waste. Goro led the way back through the twisting halls they had come from, guiding Akira by the arm after seeing how deep in thought he was.

But by the time they reached the Great Hall again and slipped back out the massive front doors, Akira had only one idea on how to proceed, and he didn’t like it at all. First, he’d have to check something...

Once they were fully outside, Akira gestured for Goro to follow him silently, and started walking along the fence that ran along the perimeter of the Cathedral. He had overheard Lavenza say something about faults in the fence within the Palace reflecting faults that they wouldn’t have been able to see in its real-world equivalent...

It took a while, but they found it- on the opposite side of the Cathedral that they had started on, several of the spike-topped metal poles that made up the Cathedral’s fence were bent badly out of shape, as if someone had come in the middle of the night and taken a sledgehammer to the things.

Akira gestured at the hole to Goro. “This is our only shot, I think. We get out of here, break through the fence here, in the real world, then find where Ann and Ryuji are...”

Akira took a deep breath, not wanting to say the next part, and judging by Goro’s deep frown, he didn’t like where this was going. “Assuming we can even find them, I suppose. But if we can, then what?”

“...then we find a way to bring them into the Palace with us,” Akira finished, sounding very unhappy about the idea.

Goro blinked, confused. “Why on earth would we do that?”

Akira sighed, slumping down against some of the less-mangled bars of the fence. He took his mask off and laid it on the ground next to him, ran his gloved hands across his face. “Here’s my idea; you told me that Lavenza  warned us about people nearby getting warped into the Metaverse along with us, right? In theory, at least, if we can press right up against the walls of the classrooms where Ryuji and Ann are being held, we can break them out just by warping here. After that, we can make our way back to one of the alleys nearby and warp back out, and they can get home from there.”

There was a pregnant pause, Goro looking calculatingly in Akira’s direction, tapping his lip with a finger. “That’s very clever, Akira... but you have more to say, I assume?”

Akira sighed again, louder this time, and nodded. “Yeah...”

Before he could start, Goro sighed as well, and sat down on the ground next to Akira. “You want to go after Kobyakawa’s shadow, don’t you?”

Akira didn’t rect for a few seconds, then nodded slowly. Goro just breathed out a quiet, tired sounding “Akira...” as he took off his own mask and massaged his temples.

“I’m not saying we should change his heart or anything,” Akira reasoned, trying to soothe his friend. “All things considered, I don’t think that’d end well if Kobyakawa’s got the whole school under his thumb, and with what Nijima said the other day, if there are Bound people shutting down cases agaisnt other Bound people in the cops’ higher-ups, getting him to give us evidence of his wrong-doing isn’t gonna do us much good either. It’s just... ugh!” Akira let his arms fall limply at his sides, stared up at the swirling clouds above them. 

“...you’re worried about the other students we heard the shadows talk about?” Goro asked, sounding less tired now, more intrigued. Akira nodded, and while he kept his eyes on the clouds, he could hear Goro hmm thoughtfully in response. “I’m concerned about that as well, naturally- beyond this being a generally horrible place, it seems ripe for abuse- especially after hearing about one of the ‘heretic’ students the shadows mentioned being carted away by some other Bound person, supposedly. But as to how to actually... do something about it, I...”

Akira nodded, returning his gaze to the hovel-town in front of them. “Yeah. Me neither.”

There was silence for a few moments, then Akira let out a rough, noisy, frustrated burst of air as he got back to his feet. “Either way, we need to get out of here and see if we can get RYuji and Ann free. Hopefully Futaba’s finished hacking into their mainframe or whatever and can tell us where they are. After that...”

Goro got up as well, grabbing onto Akira’s longcoat and using it to pull himself up. “After that, we might as well make our way back to those guards and see if a Shujin Student ID actually will get us through. We’re going to have to show the Metaverse to those two anyways, we might as well give them a proper tour while we’re there.”

Akira groaned. “Ugh, we are gonna have to explain all of this to them, aren’t we... Goro, I’m so tired.”

He got a pat on the back for all his whining. “So am I, but there’s no way to get around it. Hopefully it won’t take long... but knowing those two, it probably will.” Akira groaned again, and Goro gently kicked his leg to get him to stop. Akira just gave him a dry look, and Goro snickered a little, tiredly. “We’ll free them, then give a primer on the Metaverse, then sneak in again, try out their IDs, then finally go home for the day. I think that about covers it?”

Akira nodded, starting to make his way back towards the alleyways in front of them. “Yeah, I think so. Assuming nothing else goes horribly, surprisingly wrong today.”

“Thanks for the jinx, Akira, good job,” Goro snarked, then sighed. “But yes. Always assuming that.”


◄◄⧗⧗⧗◄◄

April, 2012

The hard drive Goro and Akira got from the corrupt police officer’s shadow ended up being both more and less difficult to deal with than they expected. It was more difficult because it turned out the thing was encrypted, all the files locked away behind passwords and weird filetypes that neither boy recognized, and several other types of data manipulation on top of that, Akira suspected. What made it even more frustrating was how incredibly huge the thing was- not in physical size, but in the amount of files it held, almost ten terrabytes of data, according to the bare-bones scans the computers in Yongen’s library were capable of doing on the device. Akira hadn’t even heard of hard drives that could store that much, at least none that were avaliable to buy commercially. To have so much evidence, or, Akira supposed, so much potential evidence be so close and yet so wholly out of their reach was frustrating beyond belief.

Thankfully though, dealing with the hard drive became much, much easier as soon as they got home that night. After running into so many roadblocks while investigating the drive at the library, both boys spent the majority of their evening complaining about it to one another as they sat in their room at Sojiro’s house, door open to let a bit of warm air circulating into the chilly room. They made sure to whisper when talking about Mementos or the kind of crimes they expected the drive to have proof of, but when they started talking about the encryptions, it was as if they summoned Futaba out of thin air. Without either of them noticing, she popped into exitance at their doorframe, and after some badgering from her and several repeated promises not to look at the files themselves when she cracked it, they agreed to let the young tech wizard have a go.

It took her a couple hours, but she did it. Seemed to have fun doing it too, telling the boys that she rarely, if ever, had run into encryption like this, relishing the rare test of her extensive skillset. Both boys congratulated and thanked her profusely, promising that they’d come to her again if they found something unusual like this. Futaba waved off the thanks, but welcomed any additional challenges with a bright, sadistically eager gleam in her eye.

She also lent the boys one of her older, spare laptops (they had never been in her room before, and were both absolutely staggered by the unbelievable amount of high-end tech she had squirreled away in there, spending a not-insignificant amount of the following weeks theorizing where exactly she got it all from), and downloaded a more efficient file explorer onto it, one more specifically designed to go through a lot of large files.

They got back to their room, sat down on their bed, took a deep breath, and started to comb through what they had before them.

As Akira had theorized, back in Mementos, they didn’t have to go through much to tell how truly, revoltingly horrible a person Ueno was.

What was remarkable about the incriminating files, though, was how they were presented. All the files seemed to be ripped directly from what Ueno had sensed while committing the crimes; the videos were shown as if Ueno’s eyes were the camera, the audio files from what he had heard, even the various documents and records detailing how and where and when he went about erasing evidence of his crimes seemed to be ripped straight from his memories, the timestamps and geo-coordinates of when and where he accessed various files and data servers more precise than anything Akira had seen before, even in the spy movies he and Goro loved to watch.

Neither of them had any earthly idea how to present this all to the cops in a way that they’d believe- hell, if the cops asked them where and how they got the evidence, their only option was to remain silent and hope for the best as hard as they possibly could. 

But they had to try.

The Yongen-Jaya police station was a pretty modest place, resembling a modified doctor’s office more than anything else. The front doors opened into a small waiting area with some moderately plush chairs scattered about, and a long desk that stretched from wall to wall separating it from the main area of the station, where the cops’ desks and other resources were. Akira didn’t know what else was back there, but from a fairly critical, somewhat stressed-out first glance, it really just looked like any other work space you could think of, easily plucked from any number of office sitcoms or dramas of the past five or so years. 

Goro led the way to the front desk, where a tense-looking young woman sat, her eyes trained on one specific part of the waiting room. Akira followed her gaze, finding it locked onto an elderly man with an overexcited small dog of indeterminate breed sitting on his lap, looking very excited. From the way the woman at the front desk looked, that dog had been causing her no shortage of headaches for some time now.

Still, instinctive sympathy for the woman or not, they had a job to do here, more or less. Better with dealing with authority figures, for the most part, Goro took the lead here, catching the woman’s attention with a gentle “Hello,” and a calm, if serious smile.

“Hm? Oh, sorry,” she apologized, the new arrivals finally catching her attention. “Welcome to the Yongen-Jaya Police Station. How may we be of assistance?” She spoke formally, clearly an old hand at her job, but her eyes kept twitching over to the man with the dog, as if fearful that as soon as she looked away for more than a couple seconds, the little monster would come barreling through the station and pee on all the evidence they kept here.

Goro’s smile looked just the tiniest bit more strained the less attention the woman was giving him, but he maintained it nevertheless. “Yes, my friend and I have some highly important information we’d like to pass on. It’s... rather sensitive, however.” Akira’s jaw clenched a little at that- sensitive was one word for it, yeah. Beyond being proof that one of their fellow officers was a horrific criminal many times over, the kind of stuff that was in those videos... Akira had only seen a short clip of one of them, and he knew he’d be having nightmares for months, if not longer. Goro continued, “Is there somewhere private we might speak to an officer about this?”

The woman frowned, but nodded. “It’ll take a couple minutes to set up, but of course, sir. If you and your friend would take a seat somewhere, we’ll call you over when we’re ready.”

Akira didn’t know what exactly they’d have to ‘set up,’ but once Goro thanked the woman for her time, he followed his friend to a pair of almost-comfortable chairs and waited all the same. It ended up taking an inordinately long time for the cops to do whatever it was they were doing, but eventually a tired-looking cop walked over and said something to the woman at the desk, and she turned to wave over Goro and Akira.

They walked over, and the tired-looking cop moved to unlock and hold open a part of the desk that turned out to be a small, swinging wooden door. “Officer Tanaka will take your statement, boys.”

“Thank you again,” Goro bowed, and led the way yet again. The sleepy cop- Tanaka- held the little swinging door open just long enough for Goro to get there and take over holding it open for Akira. As they passed, the woman at the desk moved, doing a remarkable job of closing the apparatus again, all while keeping an unblinking stare going on the little dog, still panting up a storm.

Tanaka led them through a small maze of desks, only about a third of which had people sitting at them, the rest presumably out on patrol. He stopped at what seemed to be just another desk near the back left corner of the room, except that it had a couple sizable hunks of plastic attached to either side of it, providing a pretty pathetic ‘barrier’ of sorts to those trying to listen in on what was going on there, or rather, to those doing so directly to the left and right of the desk.

Akira sighed, and Goro sighed a little more quietly than Akira did, but the officer didn’t seem to notice either way, simply taking a seat on one side of the desk and gesturing vaguely for the boys to sit as well, the cops at least having gone to the effort to get them each a chair.

“So, what seems to be the problem, boys?” Tanaka asked, shifting to prop an elbow up on the desk so he could rest his cheek in his hand. He looked tired, but also pretty overworked too, and while Akira still felt an instinctual pang of sympathy for someone being ground down under the heel of the powerful, it was a pretty small one, considering that this was a guy whose job it was to grind other people down under his own heel, as far as Akira was concerned.

Goro smoothly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the hard drive they had brought with them. It was a fairly innocuous-looking device on the face of it, about the length and width of a brick and about a fourth as tall, with a USB cord sticking out of one end. Goro placed it gently on the desk, keeping his hand on top of it protectively. “My friend and I have come across evidence that one of your officers has engaged in repeated criminal activity. This hard drive contains several terrabytes of video and audio documenting-”

The cop cut Goro off with a loud, long sigh, massaging his face with both of his hands now. He dropped them onto the desk, face somehow looking even more exhausted now than it did before. “This is about that creep Ueno, right?”

Goro’s mouth twitched in annoyance, and Akira held back the instinct to put a comforting hand on his knee, nervous about how a gesture of affection between two guys would be taken by a building full of cops. “Yes, and as I was saying, we have a hard drive here containing-”

“Look, I’m gonna tell you guys something confidential, okay?” Tanaka leaned forwards, or more accurately slouched forwards over the desk towards them. “It’s an open secret anyways, doesn’t really matter. Ueno’s got more complaints from the locals about his ‘behavior problems,’” he made finger quotes around the words. “Than I could fit in a single folder. The guy’s on his way out. The force’ll let him go within the year. I know, I know, he’s a pain, and an asshole, but he won’t be a cop much longer. Why don’t you two just go home, keep your heads down for a while, and soon enough he’ll be out of all of our hair, yeah?”

Goro’s whole face was twitching now, unable to conceal his irritation even in the slightest. “I’m sorry, Officer Tanaka, but this is not some ‘complaint,’ as you say. We have indisputable proof of Officer Ueno committing several very serious crimes, and-”

“Yeah, yeah, sure you do kid, listen,” Tanaka sighed deeply, spreading his hands wide, as if helpless. “All I hear from that is that you’ve got one hell of a lot of paperwork for whatever schmuck here in the station is assigned to deal with your complaint- probably me, going by my luck. We’ve got a lot of work backed up here, hell, its probably gonna take until the guy’s already fired for your stuff to even get looked at. Why don’t-”

“Are you kidding me?” Akira stood up from his chair, snapping his words out at the officer, mind and body feeling hot as hell. “We’re saying one of your officers has been caught committing multiple, horrible crimes, and you’re worried about paperwork?

Tanaka was starting to look irritated now too, shooting an exhausted glare up at Akira. “Look kid, being a cop is a busy job. I’m just telling it like it is; whatever you’re accusing the guy of, it’s gonna take a while to get processed, and by that time, he’s already gonna be fired, so who even cares? We’re swamped here on the daily-”

Bullshit!” Akira shouted. He pointed a finger behind him, towards the street in the distance. “There are cops out there every day, bullying teenagers for the crime of walking around with dark skin or being outside after school hours, and you say you’re too busy to look into one of your own people abusing and hurting the people you’re supposed to protect? What the hell-”

A hand suddenly landed on Akira’s shoulder- at first he thought it might be Goro’s, trying to get him to calm down, but as his rage ebbed and his senses more fully returned to him, he could tell the hand was much larger than Goro’s, with a stronger grip to boot.

Akira looked over, and felt the rest of his anger almost instantly vanish, replaced by intimidation from the man the hand belonged to. He was a tall man, somewhat muscular, with enough scars on his hands and face to display his years of police work without having to say it aloud. He had long, silver hair tied back in a ponytail, and a stern face that, were it not wrinkled with age and stress, could have easily belonged to a handsome film star.  He had brownish-redish eyes, sort of like Goro’s, but they were currently staring daggers not at either of the boys, but at Tanaka.

He didn’t look away from the cop, who Akira could see cowering slightly out of the corner of his eyes, but when he spoke, it was to Akira and Goro. “Why don’t you two gather up that evidence of yours and come join me in my office. We can discuss what you’ve found there.” His voice was rough, gravely, but kind-sounding enough for all that.

Goro put the hard drive back in his pocket, and the intimidating man let go of Akira’s shoulder to point his thumb back in the direction of a door on the back-right side of the station, leading to what looked like a private office. Akira scooted out of and around his chair while Goro said a soft “Thank you,” to the man.

As they worked their way out of their chairs, the man finally addressed the cop squirming under his gaze. “As for you, Officer Tanaka... I suggest you remember that this is a Police Station, not a Cainz. Whether you’re overworked, or just spent the night out drinking with the other officers and didn’t get to sleep until some ungodly hour,” Takaka withered yet further under the glare, and Akira felt the last dregs of sympathy for the man evaporate away. “You do not show your exhaustion to the citizens, especially not the ones who risk their own safety and well-being to come here and do our damn job for us. You understand?”

Tanaka nodded a whole bunch, and the new cop, who Akira was now suspecting to be the station’s Captain, finally looked away. “Good. You two, follow me. Tanaka, make some tea for our guests, and remember to knock before you come in this time.”

Tanaka squeaked something that could have been a “Yes sir!” and the boys followed the older cop over to his office.

The cop led the way inside, holding the door open briefly for Akira and Goro before striding over to sit behind his desk. As they made their way inside and took seats of their own, the older cop snapped open a little tin sitting on his desk and popped something small from inside it into his mouth, sighing relaxedly through his nose as he chewed it, as if it was taking away all his stress.

Akira hoped very dearly that this guy wasn’t on something right now, but bowed his head a little all the same. “Sorry for shouting so much out there, by the way...” he apologized, still feeling pretty nervous.

The man waved, grunting a little as he swallowed whatever it was he had been chewing. “Don’t worry about it. I have a hard enough time refraining from yelling at Tanaka on a daily basis myself.” He reached his hand across his desk, offering it to shake to the two boys. “My apologies for not introducing myself earlier; I’m Captain Nijima Hoshino.”

Goro took the man’s hand first, looking uncertain for a brief second, before seeming to give up. He smiled a little, bowed his head. “A pleasure to meet you, Captain Nijima. My name is Akechi Goro, and this is my friend...”

He looked towards Akira, who had a very brief, extremely serious panic attack at the thought of giving a cop his real name. It had been some time since he and Goro left home, at this point, but the fear of his parents somehow finding them and ripping Akira away from the life he’d worked so hard to build for himself was always there, just simmering under the surface...

“Amamiya Ren!” Akira half-shouted as he took Nijima’s hand in turn, choosing a name he had used for a villain he played a number of times when he and Goro used to make up their own stories and adventures as kids. Goro looked at him, clearly recognizing the name, his expression half confused, half alarmed that he unintentionally put Akira into such a state to begin with.

Nijima, at least, didn’t seem that surprised, just looking a little patiently tired, probably used to intimidating kids without meaning to, considering the battle-hardened, almost-ikeman look he had going on. “Pleasure to meet you both. Now then,” he let go of Akira’s hand and settled back in his chair, taking another bite-sized thing out of his tin and chewing it quickly. In his suddenly hyper aware state, Akira could almost swear the thing looked like a cookie of some sort...

Nijima swallowed, then continued speaking, jolting Akira out of his reverie. “You said out there you had evidence of one of my officers committing several crimes, yes?”

Akira turned to look at Goro, who nodded, carefully taking the hard drive out again and putting it on the desk. “Yes, sir. This hard drive contains video and audio files documenting Officer Ueno Eito’s crimes, as well as several text readouts of security systems he’s altered to cover his tracks. As a warning, the footage is...” Goro looked uncomfortable, glancing off to the side. “...deeply unpleasant.”

Nijima sighed as he reached across the desk to take the drive and started plugging it into his computer. “I’m a career cop, Akechi-san. Whatever it is, I’ve probably seen worse.”

The boys spent the next half hour or so trying to distract themselves on their phones while Nijima skimmed through some of the files they had collected, a set of old-timey over-the-ear headphones plugged into the computer and secured on his head. Akira glanced up every so often from his social media feed, still incredibly on-edge, only to see Nijima’s expression grow progressively more and more serious the longer he watched. About ten minutes in, Tanaka knocked and came in with the tea Nijima had asked for, but the atmosphere in the room didn’t change a bit, despite the traditional ice-breaker, and it was starting to really get to Akira. Goro must have noticed how antsy Akira seemed, as he sent Akira a barrage of apologetic texts for earlier, and, once forgiven, another barrage of soothing ones, full of pictures of cute cats and dumb memes to help Akira cool down.

By the time Nijima took his headphones off, it was as if all the tension in the room had psychically transferred from the two boys to the older cop. Slowly, he took his bulky headphones off and laid them on the table, then just as slowly pressed the button that turned his computer monitor off. One hand moved to drum his fingers restlessly on the wood of the desk, while the other went to grab a couple more of the things (snacks?) in the tin he had and toss them into his mouth.

Once he swallowed, he spoke, sounding very tired indeed. “That’s... some very damning stuff, to say the least. I honestly have no idea how you two would have come about all this...” Nijima fixed each of them with a steely, hard gaze, but Akira and Goro had prepared for this particular line of questioning ahead of time, and only reflected the man’s look back at him. He sighed. “But I suppose it’s a fool’s errand to try and figure it out. Cops have come across evidence like this in stranger ways, and I’m not dumb enough to look a gift horse in the mouth. As I’m sure you both gathered from Tanaka out there, we’ve been trying to wash our hands of this creep for a while now, but police work is a government job, and firing someone from a government job takes time... This, though,” he pointed his thumb at the hard drive, giving it an unreadable look. “This’ll be enough to convict the bastard for the rest of his days, no question. I’ll file a case against him tonight, take him into custody as soon as he comes into the station tomorrow morning. Rest assured, the only thing he’ll be touching for the foreseeable future is the cold steel of prison bars.”

Akira and Goro exchanged looks, cautiously excited. Things had started off pretty rocky, but was it really going to be this easy? Goro turned back to Nijima and bowed his head. “Thank you, sir. As long as Ueno is unable to harm anybody else, and his previous victims no longer have to hide their pain... that’s all we ask.” Akira bowed his head in thanks as well. Of course, excited or not, Akira was pretty pessimistic overall when it came to cops in general, and wouldn’t be surprised if Nijima dropped the ball on this one as soon as they left. But... well, the man looked serious, Akira couldn’t deny that, and even if he worked for a group that was inherently bad, as far as Akira was concerned, he might just be the type of person to put in the extra work to get something genuinely good done once in a while, despite the nature of the system.

The boys stood up to leave, but Nijima spoke up.“Ah, wait a minute,” he said, somewhat gently, raising a hand to ask them to stop. Akira and Goro both tensed up instinctively, not liking where this was going.

But Nijima just smiled a little, and actually looked sheepish, his expression becoming several times softer in an instant. “This is a pretty embarrassing thing for a cop to ask a couple of kids, but... well, I’ll gladly toss aside dignity if it means booking more creeps like Ueno. I don’t know how you two got all this evidence, and considering how theoretically impossible it would have been to record and compile over the several years it seems to span, I’m not even going to ask. The fact is that it’s airtight, all of it- even if Ueno wasn’t already drowning in complaints, even if he was being protected by a boatload of money and the patronage of some politician, this would be more than enough to book him for life.”

He drummed his fingers on his desk again, and sighed. “Point is, we’re in desperate need of stuff like this. There’s a lot of horrible people out there, hurting everyone around them, as I’m sure you both know, and a lot of them are just out of our reach. They’re too well hidden, or well-connected, or just plain smart for us to nab.” He put his hand on the hard drive, tapped at it, and the look he gave the two boys was as serious as can be. “If you come across more evidence like this, that’ll help us get these guys... the entire city of Tokyo would be in your debt. Heh, and hell, if that isn’t enough to motivate you, there’s a whole database of crooks that the city’s put bounties on, in one form or another. Rewards for information on their whereabouts, rewards for bringing them in... we try to dissuade any sort of bounty hunting when it comes to modern policing, but as long as fishing this stuff up doesn’t put you two in danger, well...”

Nijima spread his hands, and Akira could almost hear the gears in Goro’s head spinning. Hell, Akira’s weren't sitting idle either- as far as they could tell, the way they dealt with Ueno’s shadow in Mementos hadn’t had any adverse effects on the man himself, certainly nothing close to what had happened to the first guy they stumbled upon. Before they left for the Police Station that afternoon, Sojiro had mentioned that Ueno had come by again that morning, trying to order a cup of coffee and acting slick as sludge. If they could do this again, and actually take some horrible people off the street just by getting records of their deeds from their shadows...

“We’ll consider it,” Goro said, after a few moments. “And if we do come across any information like this again, is it safe to assume that we can bring it to you again, specifically?”

“Of course,” Nijima agreed, seeming to get what Goro meant. “Lots of cops out there with egos bigger than the stations they work in, too proud or too dumb to accept help and put in work to make the world a little better. I’ve dealt with bullshit like that for almost twenty years in the Tokyo PD. Don’t plan to emulate it any time in the next twenty.”

“I’m very happy to hear it,” Goro said, bowing his head again, and Nijima smiled, reaching again for his little tin- but this time, seeming to catch how Akira’s eyes followed the movement of his hand as he grabbed whatever it was he was grabbing. 

He looked confused for a moment, then a little embarrassed, and picked up the tin, offering it to Akira. “Ah, forgive my manners, should have offered you two some when you came in.” 

Inside the tin was... what looked like little... panda cookies? They were tiny little things, about the size of a small mint, shaped like a panda’s face, with chocolate where the ears and nose would be, and biscuit everywhere else. Seeming to notice Akira’s stunned look, Nijima smiled, even more embarrassed now, but amused all the same. “A gift from my daughters. Their mother and I used to take them to all the zoos to see the Pandas they had there, and the things have sort of become the mascot of our home ever since...”

Nijima was smiling sheepishly and blushing a lot, which Akira thought was very endearing, but Goro had the most uncomfortable-looking smile in the entire world pasted on his face. Akira almost bust out laughing as soon as he set eyes on Goro, he looked so distraught with the sudden, unasked-for bit of ‘heartwarming backstory’ from this career cop.

“That’s... adorable,” Goro said flatly, then got to his feet and bowed again. “Thank you again for your time today, Captain Nijima. If we find anything else of this nature, you’ll be the first to know.”

Goro started making his way out of the office, and Akira smiled, bowed as well, and took one of the little cookies before following Goro out. Nijima chuckled a little as they left, and called out once last “Thank you again, boys,” before they closed the door and made their way out of the station.

It was a few minutes into their walk home  before either of them spoke- Goro starting things off. “I know what you’re going to say,” he quipped, not sounding too upset about it.

“You were thinking it too, Goro. It’s not a bad idea- we could stop more people like Ueno from hurting more people like... well, like Futaba and Sojiro, for starters,” Akira reminded, nudging Goro a little with his elbow. 

Goro nudged back, but sighed and nodded. “True... My initial fear, of course, was that doing that sort of thing on our own would inevitably lead to us becoming as drunk on power as... well, as most cops are. But if all we’re doing is gathering evidence and then leaving things to the legal system...”

“Yeah, technically, all we’re doing is acting as, like... consulting detectives,” Akira pulled a phrase out from one of the shows Goro introduced him to in the past few months. Goro gave him a look, but Akira laughed a little and nodded. “I’m serious! Like, okay, we’d definitely be beating up more otherwordly monsters in a subway-themed hellscape than the average detective, but as long as we’re solving cases at the end of the day, why split hairs?”

Goro snorted at that, shaking his head in amusement. “You’re absurd.”

“Not wrong, though,” Akira nudged him again with his elbow, and Goro slapped the offending joint away this time.

“Not wrong, no. Not specifically right, either, but not explicitly wrong, I suppose,” he quipped, grinning jaggedly. The boys laughed together, jostling each other for a bit until the laughter died down and they grew a touch more serious again. “In all honesty, I was thinking... if we’re going to go down this road, a good place to start might be some of our other former employers, like Ueno was. None of them were anything remotely approaching what I’d call ‘good people,’ and even without that subjective judgment of their character...” Goro frowned, unpleasant memories swirling behind his eyes. “Considering that they hired pre-teens to help them commit crimes, and often were all too willing to send those pre-teens up the river at a moment’s notice, they’re probably the types to habitually prey on kids like us. Even beyond the crimes we helped them commit, they’ve likely got rap sheets several meters long.”

Akira’s excitement for all of this grew more and more the more Goro spoke. “Yeah! It’d definitely make things safer for us, and I’d bet that whatever evidence their shadow-selves give up, it’ll probably lead to identifying a bunch of even worse people they were working for. Hell,” an idea occurred to Akira, and he looked off into the distance as he thought. “We could probably help a lot of other kids too. Not just by taking down our old bosses, I mean, like... we can’t be the only kids who have some creepy authority figure making their lives hell, right? What if we put, like, a complaints box or something up at our school, see if any of our classmates put anything worrying in there and help them if they do!”

“Akira...” Goro’s eyes were wide, a genuinely impressed smile playing on his lips. “That’s a wonderful idea.” The two boys shared a smile for a few moments, Goro’s of pride in his friend, Akira’s warm and reveling in the warmth Goro’s approval always filled him with. The moment passed gently, and Goro’s gaze grew thoughtful again. “Practically speaking, it’d need a little tweaking, of course- we can’t expect students being abused to so readily admit it to an unknown observer, but...”

The boys continued to iterate on various ideas of how to move forwards throughout the rest of the walk home, and though neither could identify the feeling in the moment, both felt the curious sensation of a new, fateful door opening in their lives wash over them.

--

Futaba perked her head up from where she was slouched on the living room couch as the front door opened, and Akira and Goro walked in. “Yo, nerds,” she waved at them, going back to the DS game she was playing. “How’d it go with the feds? You break up any drug rings, bust any pedos?”

“One of those, I guess,” Akira said, audibly smiling as he and Goro ploppepd down next to her.

She could feel their eyes still on her though, and groaned as she snapped the handheld shut. “Okayyyyyy, what’s up?”

Goro smiled, a scheming look in his eye. “We have a proposition for you.”

 

Chapter Text

April, 2012 - June 2012...

...and beyond

Nijima Hoshino turned out to be a greater ally than either Goro or Akira could have ever expected.

Neither were accustomed to adults being... well, any good at all, really. It had been years since they lived in the pleasant, warm, not-too-serious atmosphere of Akira’s Aunts’ home, and it was barely over a full year since they moved in with Sojiro, so the majority of their memories were of the many, many awful adults they had the misfortune to run into time and time again in the time between their two homes. However, despite having what Goro privately believed for a long while to be a curse when it came to any older people they’d meet, Nijima turned out to be honestly just a genuinely good person all around.

Every time the two boys brought in evidence they had gathered from a trip to mementos, Shadows of their past employers passing the data off to them, begging to just be let alone and keep their free will, Nijima would accept the evidence without a single question. Goro was certain that after the fourth or fifth time, he’d finally break, snap at them, demand that they tell him their secret so he could use it, for the good of Japan or some bullshit. Yet, every single time, Nijima just shook his head admiringly at the two boys, complimenting them on another job well done, purely impressed, no trace of envy anywhere in his features or voice that either boy could detect.

Then, as if to erase any other doubts they may have had, he went and started helping them in return. 

Goro and Akira had, under the cover of night, put several posters and stacks of business cards up in the lobby of their school, advertising their services and their website. At a suggestion from Futaba (which Goro immediately gobbled up,) they styled their business personas after the famous Detective Prince Shirogane Naoto, who had been extremely popular among their age group a handful of years back. Nowadays, the former Detective Prince styled themselves as a sort of 007 type, a James (or Jane, depending on the day) Bond for hire, an image that was extremely popular with the high schoolers of the day, and Goro personally had no doubt that in a few years’ time, Shirogane would do something that’d make them the hero of the collegiate world, like have a stable income or a decent sleep schedule or something like that.

For now, Goro and Akira advertised themselves as The New Detective Princes, winning out over Futaba’s nerdy-ass suggestion of collectively calling themselves Detective Prince Neo. They stayed anonymous as much as possible, their advertisements simply detailing their skills and how to contact them if someone needed help, their website much of the same information, if a bit more detailed, and an email address. For the first few months they spent their spare time wrangling criminals, thedetectiveprincesholdcourt.org didn’t get much traffic at  all, the few emails they actually got mostly just pranks and ‘jokes’ from their classmates. Every blue moon or so, though, they’d get a more serious message- for example; “my mom is an abusive, drunk asshole. every time she comes home from work, she shouts at and hits my dad and me for hours. i’m so tired.”

They only got one or two messages like that, but Goro was both incensed and alarmed by the content- incensed for obvious reasons, alarmed because, for the first time since he and Akira started this little home business of their’s, they didn’t have a name or literally any information, really, about their target. Still, deeply worrying or not, they had styled themselves Detective Princes, and hell, if Goro hadn’t picked up a thing or two from all the years of Detective-themed media he had inhaled, he’d... well, he’d be very depressed and ashamed, but, thankfully, he and Akira both turned out to be naturals.

They scoured their school as subtly as they could for clues, asking for identifying info from all the students; who had a working mom and a stay-at-home dad, who came to school looking bruised, or, more likely, looking like they were hiding bruises, who seemed defeated and tired all the time, so on and so forth.

They managed to narrow their list of potential students who had sent them the request, and thus potential abusive parents, down to a small handful. The tricky part, or course, was actually getting the full names of the parents themselves- Futaba was able to track down the info of the few kids who had online profiles, but for more than half the list, she found nothing. Yongen Jaya Middle School had, somehow, still not shifted their records to any digital format, and while Futaba could do a lot of things, hacking into a file cabinet wasn’t one of them.

Thankfully, this was where Nijima came in. Goro and Akira were still running down their old criminal bosses in their spare time, in addition to all that research, and the next time they came to his office to hand in new evidence and accusations, the older man must have noticed how fatigued they looked from burning their respective candles at several ends.

They explained their situation, the fact that they were trying to help their classmates in addition to bringing down small-time criminals seeming to impress Nijima to no end, and he offered something that perhaps they should have thought to ask for in the beginning, but, again, were far too unaccustomed to having helpful adults in their lives to so much as think of it; the resources of the police department.

None of the potential abusive parents on their list had any history of complaints of violence or anything like that. Still, Nijima was able to help them find the names that were still missing on their list, and very sincerely wished them luck in solving the case. Were Goro and Akira normal detectives, just getting the rest of their suspects’ full names would only be step one. Thankfully, Goro and Akira were very much not just normal detectives.

After that, all that was left for Goro and Akira to do, in a manner of speaking, was grind it out.

Mementos was big and horrible, but as the boys were discovering, it rewarded those who tried to search through its endless depths for several people all at once. Goro had unintentionally entered the names of several of the parents they were going to hunt down and interrogate at the same time, and while he and Akira hadn’t had a reason to test this out before, the navigator feature of the app seemed to handle multiple targets just fine, showing which level of the subway each was on, and giving out nice, orderly directions once they reached the appropriate floor. After that, it was a simple matter of fighting their way through the shadow-monsters until they found each of the parents’ shadow-selves, and hammering the things with questions until they either confessed, or turned out to be the wrong ones.

Interestingly, most of the parents had at least one ‘corrupting’ feature or deed that their shadows seemed to obsess about; one embezzled some money from the office they worked at, another habitually forgot their family’s birthdays, some had affairs, some were having sexuality crises and not talking with their partners about it, so on and so forth. Most of the stuff wasn’t especially bad- it wasn’t good, and some of the stuff the shadows confessed to wasn’t particularly legal, but outside of being jerks, very few of the parents seemed to be actively abusing anyone else, and the boys had decided at the start of their Detectiving venture that they’d only ever go after people who were actively making the choice to hurt others and were, for whatever reason, untouchable by the law. The weird part was that, harmful or not, all of the shadows seemed to be extremely defensive about what they were up to, or at least wholly convinced that they were in the right, regardless of the stuff they were openly confessing to. It was strange, and very annoying, but it wasn’t really very important at all, so Goro and Akira moved on.

Eventually of course, on one of the deeper levels of the subway the boys had access to, they found the parent they had gotten a request for in the first place, and after a deeply unpleasant fight, the shadow hurling verbal abuse at them the whole time, they got the woman’s shadow to cough up some recordings of her doing exactly what their classmate had accused her of. Just as they had been doing since Ueno, they left the shadow to its own devices, warning it not to return to its host and make everything worse, just to sit tight and await the repercussions of its actions.

They brought the evidence to Captain Nijima later the following day, and the very next week, he reported back to the boys that he and a couple other officers had confronted the woman, and gotten her to agree to a rigorous course of counseling and therapy, or else have charges brought against her and, very likely, be banned from seeing her husband and child again. She agreed, and Nijima said he’d have regular, private check-ins with her, as well as separate, private meetings  with her husband and child as well, to make sure the woman was actually getting better at home.

It wasn’t long after that that the Captain contacted Goro and Akira with a proposal, one they agreed to enthusiastically.

The boys quickly realized, after ‘solving’ their classmate’s case, so to speak, that actively helping people get out of bad situations, while a lot less flashy and lacking much of any monetary reward for their effort, felt exponentially better than just hauling in evidence against a seemingly-endless stream of small-time crime lords. They’d still do the latter, of course, it was inarguable that they were doing some genuine good by giving those horrid fuckers their just deserts, but on an emotional scale... well, having tangible proof that you were truly helping someone with your work was a feeling like no other.

So, when Nijima offered to do a joint press conference with the boys, with the dual-purpose of both celebrating their victories against the slew of previously untouchable criminals that the Yongen Station was now hauling in regularly, as well as advertising the boys’ services to a much wider range of people. They’d lose their anonymity in the process, of course, but both boys agreed that it was a decent enough trade if it meant that more  people who were suffering felt able to come and talk to them about it.

(The only real worry they had in regards to the conference was publicly broadcasting Akira’s face to anyone who happened to come by with a camera. However, he had been using that vaguely cool-sounding pseudonym ever since they first met Nijima, and he had grown to look pretty significantly different in the years since they run away from home. It was still a gamble, a risk that someone out there might see Akira’s face and be reminded of a Missing Child poster they saw at the post office or something, but it was one that they felt confident in taking)

When it came time, the conference itself ended up being pretty fun, in an utterly exhausting kind of way. Nijima gave them a pretty stellar introduction, full of praise and open admiration for their achievements and dedication to taking on crime, and while the two boys were still instinctively cautious of any adult heaping praise onto kids their age, it did feel good to be so clearly appreciated for their hard work. When it came time for them to step up at the podium themselves, there was a short period where it felt like everyone gathered there, both those watching them from the small crowd in front of the steps to the Yongen Police Station and those behind them, various police officials seated on fold-out chairs arranged at the back of the small stage they set up, were all holding their breath, waiting to see if these kids really were all that Nijima had said they’d be.

A few minutes later, and there seemed to be no more questions as to their worthiness. Well, no, there were a lot of questions, this was a press conference after all, the whole point of it was for Goro and Akira to field endless questions from the reporters. But after a quick, serious-but-charming introductory comment from Goro and a quick, snarky-but-serious intro from Akira, everyone gathered seemed infinitely relieved that these kids could handle themselves, public-speaking wise.

The Q&A session both went by faster than Goro could keep up with and dragged on more than Goro could stand at the same time, but he still felt good about it all the same. The reporters would usually start out with something banal, like where they went to school, which adult in their life inspired them to pursue justice, what they wanted to be when they grew up, shit like that, to which Akira would snark back with an answer that, while joking, was very blatant about how demeaning and condescending the questions were, then Goro would swoop in and turn the question on its head, make his answer a statement on an overarching problem in society that the trivial question spoke to.  It was a combination of some of the boys’ favorite things; indirectly telling adults to fuck off, and shedding light on the fucked-up underbelly of this world.

As the articles about the presser came out over the course of the following week, the boys were a little dismayed, but not surprised to find their write-ups to be positive, but bland, the reporters either too uninterested or too offended to write anything very deep, or perhaps the paper’s editors not thinking that the story was worth more than a couple of paragraphs at the most.

However, in a rather surprising twist of fate, the articles from the reporters themselves turned out to be a pathetically small portion of the coverage their appearance had gotten. Somehow, someone had recorded the entire conference from somewhere in the middle of the sea of reporters, and uploaded a nicely edited video of the whole affair to an anonymous YouCube account. After discovering the video (tipped off by Futaba, who spent much of the week somewhat obsessively checking on the public response to the boys’ first public outing), Goro rather suspected that Nijima had something to do with this, and after a bit of digging Futaba confirmed that one of his daughters seemed to have been responsible for it.

That wasn’t all that important though, in the end, because the video went viral.

It wasn’t some international hit overnight or anything, but something about two kids expertly picking apart the Tokyo media while simultaneously making some really good points about Japanese society as a whole seemed to really resonate with the denizens of the city itself. According to Futaba, who hacked her way into the video’s statistics and did some technical nastiness to increase its reach in the recommendations tab of the site’s userbase, there were a decent amount of views from across Japan as a whole, particularly its other major cities, but the majority of its couple-hundred-thousand views were right from the heart of Tokyo itself.

The sudden, exponential increase in web traffic the video directed towards Goro and Akira wasn’t exactly an unintended side effect of their press conference, but Goro had a feeling that neither he, Akira or Futaba had any idea just how many people would start asking the Detective Princes for help.

Because it was a lot.

A lot.

“Futaba?” Goro called out, tiredly tapping the F5 button, refreshing his email for the seventh time that minute. “Do you have a spare minute?”

“Help, please,” Akira added on, trying for the seventeenth time that minute to refresh their homepage on his phone, to no avail.

A couple minutes and several disconcertingly loud noises from the direction of Futaba’s room later, and the Hacker Queen popped her head into the living room. “What’s up?”

The boys just gestured helplessly, listlessly at their respective devices. Futaba crept over and took a look, then whistled low through her teeth. “Daaaaaaamn, you guys got popu- wait, hold on a minute,” She shoved Akira to the side, which sent him sprawling into Goro’s lap, which sent Goro’s laptop sliding off onto the couch cushions, which sent Goro half-falling over in an attempt to grab the laptop back, which sent Akira’s face sliding into a far more awkward place in the vicinity of Goro’s lap, and so on. The boys flailed and tried to get themselves righted while fighting off frustration and blushes in equal measure, but Futaba didn’t seem to notice, tapping away at Akira’s phone with a sour look on her face.

“No way... no way!” She grumbled, then, upon seeing that it was, in fact, yes way, she tossed the phone back onto Akira, who had just managed to get upright again. “You guys are still using that site I made you!”

“What?” Akira blinked, confused. “Uh, of course we are, Futaba. What else would w-”

She made a weird, vaguely human noise and waggled her hand at him, plopping down on the arm of the couch. “No, I mean, yeah, of course you’re using it, I meant you’re still using it! That thing wasn’t meant for...” She waggled her hands again, this time seemingly in the direction of the universe as a whole. “All this! It was a test, just something to tide you nerds over while I made the real thing!” She groaned and gave Akira a light whack on the head. “Why didn’t you guys switch over to the new one?”

Goro had been glaring at her for a bit now, and he sighed, hot and frustrated, while Akira rubbed his head. “What new one, Futaba?”

“Yeah- ow, jeeze,” Akira agreed, definitely overreacting to the pretty gentle thwap just for the sake of attention, as far as Goro was concerned. “You never told us about a new version of the site.”

She frowned, cocking her head to the side. “What? No, I definitely told you guys about that, like, a week or two ago! For sure!”

The boys just shook their heads at her, giving her long, dry looks as her face grew more confused and more contorted as she racked her memory, until all at once it suddenly cleared, and she bopped her open palm with a fist. “Ohhh, that’s right, that was a dream. I didn’t even start making the new...site...yet....ehehe...” 

The cadence of her words slowed, more and more, as she realized and remembered more and more, and the last thing the two boys saw of her was a quick, sheepish, deeply embarrassed grin, before she flew off almost faster than their eyes could track, back towards her room, her door slamming loudly as she got to work.

Goro shot a tired look at Akira, and Akira shot a tired look back at Goro, and they both closed down their respective devices and turned on an episode of a magical girl anime Futaba had gotten them hooked on a couple weeks back. This would take her a while, and they probably wouldn’t be able to get any work done until she was finished.

In the end, it did take her a while to fully code and prep their website- about a week and a half, total. To be fair, a week and a half is pretty damn fast when it comes to coding a fancy website from scratch, and it was a fancy one that she made, but it still felt like an unbearably long time to Goro and Akira, forced to haphazardly sift through the mountain of sand that their email had become to find new requests that weren’t jokes or weren’t frivolous, and try to investigate them while trying to manage the still-growing mountain.

When Futaba finally finished, however, their lives very quickly became, and stayed, immeasurably easier and more efficient. The new thedetectiveprincesholdcourt.org was fully furnished; a fancy homepage with a detailed description of what they do and their more well-known accomplishments, a forum section where people could talk about the duo’s doings and the kinds of justice-oriented subjects the two had brought up during their presser, even a fully secure, well-encrypted submissions form, where people could send in lengthy, detailed reports and requests of what they were going through, without having to worry about leaving any kind of trace for their abuser to find later. Futaba was even prototyping an extention of the encrypted request form, where people could privately DM Goro or Akira and talk more directly about what was going on, give the boys more specific information about their request.

The best gift Futaba gave them, though, was her own services- namely, in exchange for a modest cut of whatever they earned from their work, whether it be police bounties or rewards from the wealthier private citizens they helped out, she’d manage and moderate the whole site herself, with a look towards programming some automated moderation tools to help her out as the site expanded- it was feasible for now, for one person to take care of the generous-but-not-overwhelming traffic they got, but likely wouldn’t stay that way for long. Goro realized in the moment they agreed to her proposal, and only re-discovered the realization more and more as time went on, that without Futaba’s help, they’d have crashed and burned in their attempt to make their Metaverse Detective work into a semi-stable job almost as soon as they started. With her help, though, they were able to lend their unique talents to more and more and more of Tokyo’s desperate, silenced, oppressed people.

Work went smoothly for quite some time- weeks of information gathering and trips to Mementos and warm, impassioned messages of thanks turned into months of the same, each of their cases unique, but the general method used for gathering information and evidence on the perpetrator remaining pretty much the same.

All the while, Goro and Akira kept their ears to the ground, looking for any information that might help their more personal objective; tracking down Goro's absentee father. They were really only able to start properly looking into him once they had managed to find their feet with their new workload, a good few months after Futaba launched their new website. After that though, while there wasn’t a huge amount of news pertaining to the man, they caught hints and whispers here and there- a man by the same name working in various sectors of the government, someone that looked similar to the photo Goro had testing a political campaign in this district or that, whispers and rumors from the shadows in Mementos. Nothing concrete, but reassuring tidbits nevertheless that showed they were on the right track.

And in the meanwhile, the two boys managed to find a bit of a purpose in life, more or less. Whether it was helping Nijima track down minor mob and yakuza chiefs or shedding light on abusive family dynamics, working with groups of employees to reveal illegal union-busting by their bosses, or even just tracking down artwork stolen from private collectors, or stolen by private collectors from various indigenous groups, Goro and Akira were without question genuinely helping people. They weren’t changing the entirety of Tokyo overnight or anything, and their workload was still limited by how many real-world information-gathering trips and visits to Mementos they could fit around their school schedule, but even so, they were making a difference. they were helping people who felt helpless, silenced, kept down by the bulk of society, just as they themselves were not that long ago. Work was plentiful, and the work was good.

Though that wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few cases that, even by those standards, stood out a great deal...

---

May 2014 - June 2014

The Case of Kamoshida Suguru


A few months into Goro and Akira’s first year of High School, a somewhat unusual request landed on their metaphorical desks with very few details attached to it. This wasn’t wholly out of the ordinary- over the two years they had been properly running their business, the boy’s jobs, and therefore their clients, had become as diverse as the city itself, and so it wasn’t too unusual to get a request without much meat on its bones. What was fairly unusual was that the requester- a first-year High School girl from Shujin Academy were the only identifying details she gave- requested a face-to-face meeting with the two boys before she’d explain the job fully. In truth, this annoyed Goro a pretty fair amount- with the new level of schoolwork that came with the advent of High School, plus all the other requests they were simultaneously working on, it was difficult enough to find free time as it was, much less cram an in-person meeting with a client into their schedule.

Still, it wasn’t an unreasonable request. Several of their older clients had asked for the same, expressing a nostalgia for the days when things weren’t so impersonal and digital, et cetera. This was the first time someone in their age group had asked for this sort of thing though, which intrigued Goro just enough to outweigh his annoyance- though in the end, annoyed or not, they would have taken the job, the same as they took any job Futaba deemed to be a legit request.

Futaba still hadn’t managed to work out the kinks of the chat feature she had promised, way back when their site first launched, but the girl had given the two boys a place and time to meet if they were willing to help, so the following Tuesday, Goro and Akira headed off to Shibuya, pushing open the doors to the Big Bang Burger, crowded with students in the typical rush that took up the hour or two after school let out.

They found their quarry sitting in a corner booth- the requester had said the boys would recognize her by the big, blonde twintails she wore her hair in, and Goro had to admit that he felt a small pang of envy when he saw them in person; full, luxurious, flowing locks draped over the back of a girl hunched over her phone. He had always envied Akira for his big, poofy head of hair, had always wanted to grow his long and elegant, but somehow no matter what he did, it always just ended up looking thin and charmingly choppy at best.

What Goro was less pleased to see was the unexpected guest sitting next to the girl, a punkish-looking boy with his arms crossed in front of his loud, art-pop shirt and hoodie. The boy seemed to notice Goro and Akira’s approach before the girl did, and nudged her with his elbow, too busy giving the boys a harsh, almost-intimidating-if-the-guy-didn’t-have-the-softest-baby-cheeks-Goro-had-seen-in-a-long-while glare to turn and look at her.

Internally, Goro rolled his eyes and let a long string of curses and insults towards this pain in the ass play on loop in his head. Externally, ever the professional, he just smiled and bowed slightly to the duo as he and Akira reached their table. “Hello. My name is Akechi Goro, and this is my partner Amamiya Ren,” he gestured to Akira, who was currently leveling a serious, curious gaze at the two blondes. Goro sighed, just enough for it to not be noticeable, then turned back to the two. “Is it safe to assume that you’re the one that sent us the request, miss?”

Goro was addressing the girl, but the first response he got was from the punk, an unimpressed, noisy scoff of derision. Goro felt his eye twitch, but kept his irritation safely locked away inside himself, managing to maintain his genial smile. The girl nudged her companion, a quick, sharp elbow to the ribs that had him reeling and letting out a shout of annoyance that she ignored as she nodded to Goro. “That’s me, yeah. My name’s Takamaki Ann- you can just call me Ann, if you want. This blockhead next to me is Ryuji. Uh, Sakamoto Ryuji, sorry.” She paused, as if waiting for Ryuji to add on to her introduction, and jabbed him again with her elbow after a few seconds of silence.

“Ow! Shit, Ann, chill out with the elbow!” The boy groaned, still looking vaguely serious and harsh for how whiney his voice sounded. He turned back to face Goro and let out a quick, grunted “Hey.” Goro had a hard time keeping his laughter in, the instant shift from the boy’s (probably natural) whiney teenager voice to an attempt at deep, gruff roughness striking Goro as deeply comical.

Before Goro could say anything to cover up the snicker that was threatening to escape his lips, Akira spoke up next to him, somehow still sounding serious, emotionally removed from the display in front of them. “Is there a... better time for us to talk?” He directed his question to the girl- Takamaki- but his eyes were on Sakamoto.

Takamaki blinked at Akira, confused, for several moments, until the implication seemed to click for her. “Ohhhhh, no, don’t worry about Ryuji, he isn’t the reason I asked you guys for help,” she reassured them, the boy in question letting out a confused little ‘Huh?’ at his name being mentioned. 

Takamaki just patted him on the head, more than a little condescendingly, and continued. “I didn’t really expect him to want to come along, honestly, but maybe I should’ve... this does affect you as much as it affects me and Shiho, huh Ryuji?”

The boy bristled, turning away from Takamaki as if to hide the blush that was spreading on his cheeks, which was a pointless gesture, since Goro and Akira were still standing next to the table and could see the boy’s cheeks coloring regardless, but he didn’t seem to realize that. “It-it’s nothin’ like that! I just wanted to make sure Cop Cadet Junior here wouldn’t brush you off and snitch on you to Kamoshida like those assholes at the station did!” He gestured with his thumb to Goro and Akira collectively as ‘Cop Cadet Junior,’ and Goro felt his opinion of the boy’s intelligence drop another several dozen marks at the poor grammar and inane nickname.

Still, wording aside, the concern he expressed was a legitimate one, one that explained Takamaki’s hesitance to reveal her name or any other potentially identifying details online, and one that they faced fairly frequently, considering their partnership with Commissioner Nijima. Goro focused on making his smile seem more gentle, waving his hand soothingly. “You have nothing to worry about regarding that, Takamaki-san, Sakamoto-san. Our partnership with the Tokyo Police Department only exists so that we can ensure the criminals we catch can be properly prosecuted. They have no influence over our work, nor do we have any connection to them or their biases.”

Akira nodded next to him, expression having softened since asking about Sakamoto. “We’ll uncover the truth about whoever’s been causing you pain, no matter how powerful they may be, and we’ll ensure they’re punished for their crimes. Whatever it takes.”

There was a brief pause in the conversation as Takamaki and Sakamoto looked at the two detectives, as if scanning their faces for any hint of a lie. The two blondes looked at each other briefly, nodded in a way that they probably thought was subtle, but very much was not, as far as Goro was concerned, and turned back to them, Takamaki smiling and Sakamoto... well, Sakamoto looking a little less constipated, at least.

Takamaki gestured for them to sit, and once they had, she took a deep breath, and started explaining her problem.

Apparently, working at Shujin Academy, in Aoyama-Itchome, was a Volleyball coach by the name of Kamoshida Suguru. The man was a respected former athlete, once having led Japan’s volleyball team to the Olympics themselves, and his name being attached to the school’s was both a point of pride and a very effective fundraising tactic for those running the place.

Behind closed doors however, according to Takamaki, the man was an absolute bastard. He was infamous for leering and acting skeevy around all the girls at the school, and for physically abusing the members of the sports teams just as much, regardless of gender. Takamaki told Goro and Akira that even with Kamoshida acting gross around her, she didn’t really understand how seriously bad things were until an incident between Kamoshida and Sakamoto happened a month or two ago.

Sakamoto took over the story there, and while his... almost coherent manner of storytelling left a lot to be desired, Goro was able to gather this; jealous over the success of Shujin’s track team (which Ryuji had been a star member of) compared to their lackluster volleyball team, Kamoshida had connived with Shujin’s principal to get the track coach fired. With the coach gone, Kamoshida had taken over his position, and took up a habit of pushing the boys far, far past their limits, farther than their bodies could take them, all while hurling verbal abuse at them as they ran. When Sakamoto finally had enough, snapping and shouting back at Kamoshida, the corrupt coach had baited Sakamoto into taking a swing at him with a dig at Sakamoto’s mother, and in what could barely qualify as ‘self-defense,’ had broken Sakamoto’s goddamn leg in response, then disbanded the whole track team, as if to rub salt in Sakamoto’s shattered bone.

Goro realized, very briefly, that with the table as cover, he hadn’t been able to see Sakamoto’s legs, nor notice the crutch balanced subtly in the corner of Sakamoto’s booth seat.

After that, apparently Kamoshida’s behavior had only gotten worse, now feeling invincible after not even being verbally told off for breaking one of his student’s limbs. He had started hurling even more abuse, verbal and physical, at the volleyball team, had started getting uncomfortably touchey-feely with the girls, had even started outright flirting with Ann herself, causing a rumor to start that she was sleeping with him for good grades. Takamaki said she even suspected that he was doing something horrible to her best friend too, and some of the other, more easily-scared girls on the volleyball team, threatening their position in exchange for... favors.

By the time the two finished with their story, Goro felt genuinely sick, deeply repulsed by the smell of fried food suffusing the restaurant. He and Akira had dealt with a lot of scumbags over the two years since they started, but most of their work had either been against shitty criminal-types, shitty familial-types, or the overall power of a business or organization. This was the first time they’d be up against someone so disgusting and so entrenched within their own little world, protected by people in power profitting off of their bullshit.

The silence at the table, in the wake of Takamaki and Sakamoto’s story ending, apparently lasted too long for the blond boy, as Goro and Akira thought over the situation. He whacked his palm on the table, gruffly barking at them “So? You gonna help us out? Or maybe now you’re thinkin’ twice, since he’s all ‘influential’ and crap, huh?” Sakamoto smirked, though it wasn’t in amusement, more in a sickened acknowledgment of how awful and hopeless the world was at large. “I knew you two were all talk-”

“As it happens, Sakamoto-kun,” Goro interrupted, straining every muscle in his body to try and keep his tone somewhat polite. He mostly succeeded. Mostly. “My partner and I were simply mentally reviewing the information you both have provided us with. It isn’t often that we meet in person with our clients, much less so for a case this... well.” Goro waved his hand, frowning. “There are a lot of angles to this case; who exactly knows of this Kamoshida’s abuses, how are they profitting off of him, are they participating in the abuses somehow behind the scenes, how far does his influence and web of enablers spread beyond the school walls, that sort of thing. Ak-Amamiya-kun and I have to be certain of exactly who we’re going to be investigating and searching for evidence on, and, well...”

Akira cut in, smiling just a very small amount, leaning across the table and covering his mouth with one hand, as if it’d hide what he was saying from Goro. “What he means is we’re taking your case seriously, we’re just still kinda awkward around people in-person, sometimes. Sorry.”

Goro gave Akira a glare, but he was right, on the whole, so he let it slide. Both of their responses seemed to have the desired impact, at any rate- Takamaki was smiling, seeming both endeared to them and reassured, while Sakamoto just looked half-embarrassed, half-impressed. The blonde boy scratched the back of his head, shot a nervous kind of smile at them. “Ah, sorry then... nobody’s ever taken this shit seriously before, ‘sides my ma, so...”

Goro smiled soothingly, though internally he was still looking down at this very simple, bull-headed punk. “Your caution is understandable, Sakamoto-kun, especially when you’ve been struggling within an abusive environment for some time, as Shujin Academy so clearly is. But rest assured,” Goro stood up, and bowed a little to the blonde duo, looking very serious now. “We will unveil the crimes of Kamoshida Suguru for all the world to see, and bring him to justice. You have our word.”

Akira wasn’t bowing, but he stood up alongside Goro and nodded in agreement at Goro’s vow, looking just as serious. 

Sakamoto and Takamaki exchanged looks, and while Sakamoto’s smile was definitely more cautious and less blindingly beaming than Takamaki’s, they both looked back towards the boys with hope clear on their faces- hope that Goro already knew he and Akira would follow through on.

He was already mentally preparing a list of what they’d need to buy for their next trip to Mementos.

--

It had been a while since Goro and Akira had accumulated enough fame in Tokyo to unlock the Path of Kaitul, the fourth layer of Mementos, according to their navigator, though not many of their targets’ shadows had resided that far down yet. Most of them- business people, bankers, teachers and principals and cops and the like- were only well known enough to inhabit the first two floors or so, or at least that was the theory Goro had been formulating over the years. 

Kamoshida, on the other hand, was on the absolutely lowest floor of Kaitul, which Goro didn’t think possible at first, convinced that the navigator was malfunctioning for the first time, as according to Goro’s memory, the lowest floor of Kaitul was just one of those interstitial platforms with the big door, meant only to block their path until more of the city knew of them. 

Still, the two detectives made their way down, punching Kaitul’s name into the navigator so they could warp to the Path’s first floor, then making their way down, Goro choosing to take the better part of valor on any shadows they could manage to avoid, in case something weird was going on.

It turned out to be a very good thing they did so, as something weird was very much going on.

Embedded in the brick wall to the left side of the gate blocking them from proceeding downwards was one of those red-tinged portals that usually led to a small pocket-dimension version of Mementos, where people’s shadows made their homes. This time, though, the thing was less of a cool, video-game-esque portal and more of a whirling, roaring vortex, sucking in bits of nearby stone and debris as it raged. 

Goro gave Akira a look, and Akira gave Goro a look right back, and they both drew their weapons and summoned their Personas and went inside.

Alarm bells rang, both literally and metaphorically, the instant their feet hit the ground after passing through the portal, and a wild, rough shriek sounded out from the far distance. “INTRUDERS! THIEVES AND PEASANTS, HERE TO SABOTAGE MY GLORIOUS CASTLE! KILL! KILL! KILL!!!

Goro barely had a chance to look around himself and take a protective step in front of Akira before a raucous, deafening wave of sound flooded over them as countless shadows cried out in fury- Goro could see a dozen of the monsters, easily, spread out around the small courtyard he and Akira found themselves in, and there was only enough time for Goro to think, confusedly, 'Courtyard?' before the monsters were on them.

From behind Goro, Akira had Arsene cast out a wave of curse magic, slicing into all of the monsters leaping at them, staggering them just long enough for Robin to cast out Mahamuon, Goro’s panicked attempt to off as many of the bastards in one go.

Three of the dozen shadows cried out and burst into nothingness, and then the rest were on them, and tactical thought vanished in place of a vicious frenzy the likes of which Goro had never encountered before. Goro’s saber parried claw strikes and batted away charging skulls and hooves, Akira ducked and wove around monstrous bodies, slashing with his dagger wherever and whenever he could, Robin and Arsene trying to put up as much protection around both humans as they could, but it was barely enough. Goro managed to duck beneath a roaring, too-many-eyed creature and rip his lazer sword up through its body, only to get staggered by a barrier-weakened Zionga. Akira dodged a cleaving sword, bending back so far his hair almost brushed against the cobblestone beneath them, pulling out his pistol and filling his opponent with lead, just for another shadow to send him to the ground with a swing of its hammer-like arm.

Eventually, through equal parts fortune and skill, the boys managed to fell enough shadows to buy them some breathing space, make it so that they were no longer totally surrounded, the remaining monsters gathered in a clump in front of them, poised and ready to strike again as soon as the tension broke.

Goro took the brief moment of respite to look around. They were in some kind of courtyard, as he had noticed before, but now that he had a few seconds to properly look, he could see that it was more accurately a courtyard under construction. Rickety wooden scaffolding was arranged around them in front of half-built brick walls, massive burlap tarps covering the interior of the building being built around them- the castle, as the mysterious voice had called out upon their entrance. It did kind of look castle-ish, or at least it fit what Goro could extrapolate what a medieval castle would look like half-finished. 

More importantly, though, directly in front of them, standing in front of what appeared to be a golden throne, was a human with brightly glowing yellow eyes, dressed in a majestic red King’s cape, a wifebeater, boxer briefs, and nothing else. The human had oily hair, styled in a weirdly triangular shape, and the immense punchability of his mushy, weird face was only accentuated by the distorted, perversely furious expression twisting his features.

Kamoshida Suguru. Without a doubt.

“I suppose its futile to tell you to surrender,” Goro shouted, voice rough and ragged from the vicious fight he had just barely survived. 

The caped bastard just laughed- guffawed, more specifically, crossing his arms and tossing his head back like a children’s anime villain. “Idiot! You charge into my realm, planning to destroy my precious castle before it can even be completed, and you expect mercy? Hahahahaha!!!!”

“I mean, he literally said that he knew it was futile to say it,” Akira snarked, sounding just as out of breath as Goro, but also more pissed off, somehow. “But whatever, I guess.”

The shadow cast its arm out towards them, and the shadows arrayed before it, apparently under its control, bayed and cried in fury. “I am King Kamoshida, ruler of this realm, and you pathetic, measly peasants have committed the ultimate sin of pissing me off. I herby senten- OW!!!!

Without Goro, or Kamoshida, apparently, noticing the movement, Akira had pulled out his pistol while the shadow was monologuing, aimed at its leg, and shot it right in the knee. “Just shut the fuck up and transform already, asshole,” he complained, hand tight where he was holding the gun, teeth clenched. Goro’s worry for his friend doubled, but there wasn’t time to do much of anything about it, as an instant later Kamoshida very kindly obliged Akira’s request, buckling and howling and bursting into a roiling whirlwind of shadow. A moment later, it broke apart, revealing a lager, more multi-tentacled version of the same phallic monster too many of their more perverted targets tended to transform into when confronted.

The monster shrieked out a terrible, horrible sound, and the lesser shadows cried out in turn and, more worryingly, started glowing a horrible, bloody red, and the battle began anew.

Goro had very little memory of how exactly the fight went down, only knowing once it was over that it was more intense, more deadly, more terrifying than any fight he had been in yet. More than he had since the first few times he and Akira had braved Mementos’ depths, Goro took hit after hit, ending the fight bloodied and bruised and clutching his side from at least one broken rib. Akira didn’t fare much better, each red gash on his face and dark stain from beneath his black cloak filling Goro with a vengeful rage he hadn’t felt in some time.

It would have been so, so easy, then, to take out his fury on the now-cowering form of Kamoshida. It had been so horrifically hard to beat the dick-shaped monstrosity into submission, had cost them their entire supply of healing items and almost every last point of spirit power Arsene and Robin had to give. Kamoshida deserved pain, deserved to suffer and hurt and feel what he had made Akira feel, and Goro could sense the same violent animosity radiating out from Akira too.

But looking on the pathetic, cowering form in front of him, covered in blood and tears and snot, Goro couldn’t help but to think back on the first, unintentional victim he and Akira had created from their fumbling initial outings in Mementos, and stayed his hand.

“Proof,” he spat, his voice cruel and hateful. “Of your crimes against your students, and anyone else your worthless hands have touched,”

“Goro,” Akira warned, his mind clearly just as full of memories of the past, and how even verbal abuse could lead to a destroyed, shattered psyche if done carelessly.

Goro seethed and simmered, but held his tongue and just shot Kamoshida a furious, withering glare. The shadow sputtered and sniffled and nodded, bending down low to the ground and, after focusing for a few moments, letting a torrent of black and red and darkness flood from his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, the substance forming and congealing into a number of USB thumb drives and a couple stacks of folders. 

“Th-that’s all there is,” Kamoshida’s shadow sniffled. “Recordings, and all the camera footage I erased, and m-my emails with the other teachers to qu-quiet the brats up and have them punish-”

“Shut up,” Goro snapped, sending the pathetic shadow meeping and yipping like a wounded dog. “We’ll look into it ourselves. You just stay here, and...” Goro’s mouth twisted. He considered telling the shadow to spend its time tearing down the foundation of whatever the hell was being built here, whatever reflection of whatever power the shadow had that let it control other, lesser shadows, but messing with something this unknown and dangerous in Mementos...

He glanced over at Akira, saw the same temptation and hesitance mixed in his partner’s eyes, and both boys shook their heads in unison. “You will stay here and reflect on your crimes,” Akira commanded, voice deep and dangerous. “But you will not scurry off to the safety of your real self like a coward, fruitlessly attempting to avoid the punishment to come.”

The shadow nodded and bowed and scraped and wept, just as most shadows tended to do at this point. Akira sighed out the last of his rage through his nose, then turned around and started walking back to the portal with a final “We’re done here.”

Goro couldn't agree more.

They rested for a while at the platform outside, the portal closing up behind them as they stepped through and made for a nearby bench. They had unfortunately run out of healing items while they were fighting, and while they had both been hoping that one of their Personas would learn some kind of healing magic for a while, neither had. All they could do was sit and wait for their breath to come back to them, and hope to hell and back that their wounds wouldn’t be as serious when they returned to the real world.

“...what the hell even was that...” Akira asked, a few minutes into their rest. Goro sighed and shook his head, leaning heavily against Akira’s less-injured side.

“I have no earthly idea... perhaps the more social power a person holds over other people, the stronger their shadow becomes?" Goro was most definitely not at the top of his game right now, when it came to having the mental wherewithal to theorize how Mementos functioned, but he tried his damndest anyways.

Akira hummed. “Makes enough sense. I guess at some point, if people are powerful enough, they get control over other shadows too? And... and their own, weird, themed realm?"

“No fucking idea," Goro shook his head, sighing deeply and leaning more against Akira, resting his head against his friend's shoulder, more defenseless and tired than he had been since they were young children. A few minutes passed like that, silent and peaceful, almost sleepy, before a thought returned to Goro. “Mmm, hey," he tugged at Akira's sleeve.

The dark-haired detective blinked and made a curious noise, turning his head to look towards Goro, and suddenly their faces were very close together, but Goro was frankly too tired to be flustered about it. Instead, he asked, voice and face and heart concerned, “You looked really angry in there. Are you okay?”

Akira seemed thrown a little off-guard at the pure honesty in Goro’s words, something Goro was sure he’d be embarrassed about later but couldn’t help right now. A few moments passed before Akira responded, tight and nervous, “I just... you got pretty scratched up in that first fight, and... and you wouldn’t have, if you hadn’t stepped in front of me like that. I was angry at the shadows and at Kamoshida and just angry in general, I guess...”

“And at me?” Goro felt a little nervous, knowing his heart was too open right now, too unguarded, but was too weak to be any other way.

Akira frowned, but after a couple seconds, nodded. “A little. You... you don’t have to defend me like that. I can take care of myself, and...” His face twisted up more, regret and pain carving lines in his skin. “If you got hurt, like really, really badly hurt while you were trying to protect me from something... I don’t think I’d ever forgive myself.”

Goro thought on this for a bit, only moving to reach a weak arm up and rub circles in Akira’s back, like Akira sometimes did for him. Akira shook a little, sniffling, clearly fighting to hold back tears, and Goro just kept rubbing, knowing that anything more than that would break the dam that Akira was fighting so hard to keep up.

He wasn’t wrong, really. Goro knew the feeling Akira had tried to express all too well himself- Akira was his everything, had been his everything for as long as he had anything worth having in his life, other than those scant few years with his mother. If Goro lost Akira, and if Goro was the reason he lost Akira... well.

He nudged Akira with the side of his face, looking up at him again. “You know, you took more than your fair share of hits trying to protect me back there, too.”

Akira frowned, blushing a bit. “Well...”

“If you want me to... well, to not be such a protective worrywart, you’ve gotta do the same too, ‘kira.”

His blush grew even deeper, doubling from the accurate admonishment and doubling again at hearing Goro’s childhood nickname for Akira for the first time in a long while. Still, he nodded. “Just... stay safe, okay? Promise me you won’t... just promise me.”

Goro knew he couldn’t very well promise he wouldn’t get hurt, or even that he wouldn’t get hurt badly, not in the line of work he and Akira were in, and he knew that Akira knew that too. Still, knowing that both of them knew he was only promising to do the best he could, Goro very softly murmured “I promise,” into the sleeve of Akira’s coat.

Akira shakily lifted his arm up to wrap around Goro’s shoulders, and they stayed like that, half-holding each other, for some time. Eventually, when their butts started to get sore and their internal clocks told them it was probably getting too late in the day, they stood up as one, still leaning on each other to keep their balance. Goro fished out his phone and clumsily tapped and swiped at it until he got to the Navigator’s exit screen. “C’mon,” he slurred tiredly. “Let’s go home. 

--

Goro and Akira took a few days to themselves, to heal and rest and emotionally recover, before messaging Takamaki and Sakamoto that the job was done. They set up a time to meet later that day, after school, and headed over to drop off what Kamoshida had given them with Nijima, making sure to head out early, so they had time to make their way through the maze-like hallways and bustling foot traffic surrounding Nijima’s office at Police HQ.

When they arrived at the Big Bang Burger an hour or so later, the two equally-anxious looking blondes were already there waiting for them. Takamaki had an extra-large milkshake attached to her lips, and it looked as if Sakamoto was currently on his third sheaf of fries. Both looked anxious as hell.

This was gonna be a long one...

Goro and Akira walked over and sat down on the opposite side of the booth, both barely able to return Takamaki’s nervous wave of welcome before Sakamoto jumped down their throats.

“So,” he slurred, challengingly. “You take care of the bastard?”

Goro was already so exhausted from having to deal with all the unexpected bullshit in Mementos and the fricken cops already today, but he did his level fucking best to keep a polite, pleasant mask on as he nodded to Sakamoto. “As I said to Takamaki-chan in my text message, we’ve just delivered the evidence we’ve gathered against Kamoshida Suguru to the police. He’s-”

“So what, he’s gone now?” Sakamoto seemed unconvinced, or perhaps he just couldn’t believe that his suffering was really over yet. Goro had a feeling that someone this boneheaded probably had several dozen people take advantage of his questionable intellect and con the pants off of him over the course of his short life, so there was probably reason for the boy to be this cautious, but still, he was being an asshole, so fuck him.

Goro’s smile stayed stable, but it was strained, as was the tone of his voice. “We’ve finished our investigation, yes, and the police will-”

“Yeah, but is he gone?” The blonde barbarian pushed, head jutting forwards across the table towards Goro. “Like, I don’t mean gone, I mean, like, gone gone, y’know?”

Goro’s face was twitching. He felt a hand on his leg, Akira probably trying to calm him down, but it really wasn’t doing much to help. “Yes, I do know what the word ‘gone’ means, Sakamoto-kun. Ka-”

“Okay, so is he gone or isn’t he-”

“Will you shut up for once?!?!?” Goro slammed his palms on the table, only retaining just enough of his self control to make sure that his voice and the motion wasn’t too loud, didn’t attract any outside attention. He leveled a slightly-unhinged gaze at Sakamoto, who looked just slightly scared shitless in surprise at the sudden change in attitude. Good. “Nobody is just gone, dumbass! The cops have enough evidence against the bastard to lock him up for decades, they’ll send a squad to cuff his ass before the start of the school day tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean he’s ‘just gone.’” 

He mimed fingerquotes and did a dumb-sounding voice, not even a mocking imitation of Sakamoto’s noisy cadence, just a dumb, childish voice to emphasize how dumb and childish the blonde fuck was. “Even when the worst people in the world are blown to smithereens so they can’t do horrible things anymore, their influence is never ‘just gone,’ the marks of their crimes linger on the bodies of those they abused and the countless conflicts that inevitably fill the vacuum of their evil. No story in the real world has a clean, sparkily ending, and neither will yours. Kamoshida will rot in prison for decades, assuming another inmate doesn’t kill him for sexually assaulting children, which isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Your school, and those who enabled Kamoshida, will still have to heal, somehow, or it will inevitably spawn even more evil motherfuckers like him. Someone will have to take on the responsibility of protecting the students. Your leg will take a long time to heal. Takamaki’s heart, and the heart of her friend will take a long time to heal. Your problem is not gone, Sakamoto.”

Goro stopped talking, because he had said his peace, and also he had to breath, and also because he was more than slightly mortified at having lost his temper like that. He kept his eyes trained on the table in front of him, not wanting to look up at whatever disgusted or repulsed expressions the two blondes were undoubtedly giving him, just like everyone else he had lose his temper around, outside of Akira. 

Akira, for his part, had transitioned at some point into straight-up rubbing circles on Goro’s back, the side of his hips and legs pressed close and comforting against him. Goro took as deep a breath as he could, trying to absorb not just oxygen but also as much of the heat and comfort that Akira was lending him as he could. Before the silence became too long, he raised his eyeline just slightly, just enough for the two to know he was speaking to them again, and added contritely, “But, uhm, yes... neither of you will have to see or hear Kamoshida again. Beyond...” he waved his hands, trying to gesture in a way that referred to everything he had just been saying. “...all of that, he can not and will not harm you, or anyone else ever again.”

Several tense moments passed after Goro stopped speaking, until he couldn’t take the waiting any longer, and looked up to see Takamaki and Sakamoto’s reactions-

-only to find them both staring at him and Akira, awed little smiles on their faces, sparkles in their eyes. A beat, then two passed, then Takamaki broke the silence first, squealing in joy and lurching across the table to toss her arms around Goro and Akira, barely managing to avoid spilling her milkshake across the entire table in the process. Sakamoto was quickly behind, not with a hug, but he slapped the table with both hands, drumming a little rhythm against the plastic as he whooped and hollered. 

“Hell effin' yeah!!!” Sakamoto shouted, drawing the attention (and ire) of the other customers and staff of the burger joint. “Holy shit- holy shit you guys!” He could barely say anything coherent with how much he was laughing. “I mean, shit, yeah, that was one effin’ badass rant dude- mean, but badass, but holy shit!!!

Takamaki laughed, high and melodious and very loud and right in Goro’s ear, christ, “Yeah!!! Who knew you had such a mouth on you, Akechi-kun!”

Goro was blushing bright red, and he could feel Akira’s shoulders shaking in laughter next to him, which only made him blush brighter and valiantly struggle to hold back from thwapping his friend on the face. “Y-yes, my sincerest apologies, that was unbe-”

Sakamoto barked out a laugh, tried to reach across the table to pat Goro on the shoulder, then, unable to do so without the use of his leg, just tapped Goro’s leg with his crutch instead. “Dude, don’t worry about it, I was being kinda an asshole to you guys for a while, I deserved it. Uh, sorry about that, by the way.” He scratched the back of his head, clearly embarrassed now that the stress and worry was gone. 

“It’s okay,” Akira chimed in from the other side of Takamaki, putting it a lot nicer than Goro would have. “You’ve both been under a lot of pressure and stress from all this shit for a long time now. It’s natural to not trust people who say they’re gonna just fix all your problems all of a sudden.”

Takamaki finally released them from her wiggly hug, and Goro briefly had the intrusive thought that his gay ass was as thankful as it was possible to be that the table was there separating them, and she hadn’t been able to smother him or Akira with her chest. He’d had quite enough dumb embarrassment for one day, thank you kindly. “He’s right, Ryuji,” Takamaki added. “Like, no offense guys, but going to you was a super last resort. If I hadn’t seen you guys on the news the other week, and you hadn’t been talking about a case that sounded so much like what we seemed to be going through... I probably wouldn’t have risked getting my hopes up again like this. I’m pretty sure Ryuji only came along cause he was pissed off as all hell at Kamoshida. And worried about me, like the big dumb goof you are.”

Sakamoto blushed a little, shoving Takamaki away as she tried to pinch his cheeks. “Eff off, dude! I just... didn’t want some skeevy high schoolers calling themselves fricken’ Princes doin’ somethin’ weird to you!”

Takamaki rolled her eyes just as Goro blushed and rubbed his temples. He knew that stupid nickname would come back to bite them at some point, but Futaba and Nijima had insisted on playing up their similarities to Shirogane... ugh.

“Well, thanks for coming to waggle your crutch at them for me, Ryuji,” Takamaki snarked, shoving him back. “I’d have been sooooooo totally helpless without you.” Sakamoto looked like he was gonna complain some more at that, but Takamaki returned her attention to the two boys across from her. “But anyways, all that worrying was for nothing, I guess! You guys are super cool- and way less stuck-up than you looked on TV. Uh, no offense, ahaha...”

Goro sighed, embarrassed again, but Akira just laughed next to him. “None taken- if we seem stuck up or anything, its mostly just because we’re nervous. Goro gets all news anchor-y when he’s nervous, I snark like an asshole.”

That got Akira a light shove from Goro, who meant to object to being called ‘news-anchor-y,’ whatever the hell that meant, but his exhaustion and flusteredness got the better of him, and instead instead said reassuringly “You don’t sound like an asshole, Akira, don’t think of yourself like that.”

It took a moment for Goro to notice his slip-up, a moment more to panic like hell- so stupid, he wouldn’t have messed up like that had they been in a conversation with any other two, more sensible people, but they weren’t and so almost as soon as Goro stopped talking, Sakamoto burst out in a loud and confused tone “Huh? Who’s Akira??”

Goro’s eyes went wide with panic, and he turned to Akira, desperately trying to think up some excuse, Akira clearly trying to do the same-

“Oh can it, Ryuji, let the guy call his boyfriend whatever he wants,” Takamaki cut in, and Goro suddenly got a lot more panicked and a lot more flustered for an entirely different reason. “That’s probably his real name- hell, if I’d have known how crappy my life would get from being known as ‘the high schooler who’s also a model,’ I’d have used a pseudonym for my public stuff too.”

Goro had no fucking idea how to respond to any of that, or even which part to respond to first, but somehow what came out of his mouth was “W-we’re not dating yet, Takamaki-chan, don’t be, uhm, we’re childhood f- that is, he’s not, uhm...” His face felt hotter than it ever had before in his entire life, he was stuttering again like he was still in elementary school, he was saying things he didn’t mean to say- Goro couldn’t handle the embarrassment any more and just covered his face completely with his hands, tried to just focus on the feeling of his eyes swirling in their sockets.

Takamaki, mercifully, didn’t say anything about the yet part of Goro’s response, and it was at least half because of that act of grace that he accepted her next request.

“Oh man, you guys are the best- don’t worry so much, Akechi-kun, sorry for assuming. Makes an ass out of you and me, blah blah blah.” She laughed lightly, the confidence in her tone somehow very soothing to Goro’s rattled nerves. “Hey, let’s exchange numbers! Ryuji and his mom and Shiho and I used to always throw parties whenever we’d get something big done, we should organize one for this! And, y’know, hang out more too, you guys seem super chill when you’re not working.”

Goro looked up from his hands, remarkably surprised for how mundane a thing it was to ask- somehow, nobody he and Akira had helped before had asked to stay in contact with them afterwards. Not that Goro would have accepted anyways, but somehow... somehow, as much as Sakamoto seemed to be just a big, lumbering, annoying puppy in a human suit, and Takamaki seemed to be a gregarious, overly-empathetic, nosey type, Goro felt more comfortable around these two than he had around any other kids his age he’d met in a long, long time. Futaba felt like a little sister, or a cousin, or an aunt that’s inexplicably younger than you, somehow, but these two...

These two felt like they could be friends. Nothing weird, nothing familial, just... some really nice, good friends.

Goro hadn’t really had that before. Akira was his friend, of course, but that was way, way different and way more complicated than just the word friend could encapsulate. This...

This could be nice.

He looked at Akira for confirmation, finding his friend already looking at Goro for the same, and smiled, and turned back to Takamaki, pulling out his phone and swiping his way to his address book.

“Alright.”

►►⧗⧗⧗►►
April, 2015

By the time the real world finished forming around them again, the exhaustion had started physically thrumming inside Goro, like the vibrations of the bass inside your bones when you stand in front of a too-loud speaker at a concert. A full, weird school day, the trauma of seeing Shido’s announcement, their reunion with Lavenza, the failed infiltration of the school and the successful infiltration of Kobyakawa’s Palace... and now, their mission to bust Ann and Ryuji out of Shujin by way of bringing them into the metaverse. 

By the time this was all over, Goro was going to need several consecutive, hot, relaxing, peaceful baths, and preferably a visit to a masseuse of some sort.

Fuck.

For now, though, Goro simply did his best to push all of his exhaustion to whatever parts of his body and brain were the easiest to ignore, and gathered his bearings. They had warped back inside another alleyway, on the opposite side of Shujin from where they had been previously- from where it opened onto the sidewalk, Goro couldn’t quite see the damaged part of Shujin’s gate that they were looking for, but it was likely pretty close by.

Next to him, Akira was brushing himself off and pulling his phone out from his pocket, checking the time. He made a scrunched-up looking face at what he saw. “It’s still around six-ish... if we’re actually gonna break into this place, it’d be nice to not have to do it while there’s still sunlight, but...”

Goro held up his hand, shaking his head wearily. “Frankly, Akira, if I have to wait until nightfall just to start this next set of tasks we’ve got, I’m going to pass out right here in this alley. We do this now, or we save it for tomorrow.”

Akira sighed, but nodded. “Yeah, that’s honestly how I’m feeling too.” He craned his neck to look up at the sliver of sky visible above them, shook his head and turned back to face his phone again. “Let’s check in with Futab- oh, she’s messaged us.”

Goro frowned, pulling out his own phone. Lo and behold, a sizable flurry of texts had fallen from their young hacker while they had been galavanting in Kobyakawa’s Palace. Goro opened the secure texting app Futaba had designed for them and scrolled through what she had sent.

Futaba: I sure as hell hope you two get back from whatever you’re doing soon, cause we’ve got a pretty teensy time-window here.

Oh. Good.

Goro looked at his phone’s clock- a little over a half hour had passed since she sent that message. Hopefully that would be enough. He read more.

Futaba: Short version is I managed to hack my way in, but shit’s more fucked up in this school than we thought.

Futaba: Guys.

Futaba: They are switching back

Futaba: To paper only.

Futaba: I mean seriously?!?! I get y’all are some crazy cult wackjobs or whatever Sojiro would say in his weird old man voice

Futaba: Seriously like, life lesson for why you shouldn’t smoke, dude is barely 50 and he sounds like a motorcycle gijinka 

Futaba: Fuck, sorry dsfhslhk

Futaba: Anyways, point is, Shujin is switching to all-paper, and they seem to be making quick work of it too, most of the stuff a school’d usually keep on their servers is gone.

Futaba: Once they’ve switched over fully, assuming this is some weird anti-technology crusade bs, they’re probably gonna search the school tip to toe and toss any tech into the trash

Futaba: Including Ann and Ryuji’s phones

Futaba: So yeah, get back quick. Once you send me a reply to this (doesnt have to be long, youre busy sneaking and whatever, just enough so I know you’re online and ready to talk to em) I’ll shut off the cameras at the front of the school and punch a hole in their jamming so you can talk to those dorks

Futaba: But the timing will be tight, especially if they’ve got a tech expert over there working around the clock

Futaba: Which I doubt they do, but still, if there’s one thing your anal butt (heh ‘anal butt’) has gotten into my head over the last few years, Goro, it’s that you oughta always think of the worst-case scenario and prepare for that

Futaba: ...okay that whole sentence was just a trainwreck

Futaba: In too many ways

Futaba: Get back soon guys.

Goro sighed. This girl was... so much, all of the time. He looked up at Akira, who, unsurprisingly, was holding back laughter at Futaba’s absurdities. 

“If you’re quite ready,” Goro piped up, a little snippy, but not really. Akira jerked his eyes away from the screen, blushing a little. Cute. Also not the time. Fuck. Goro gestured at his phone, “We ought to start talking with Ryuji and Ann. It seems we’ll be on several timers between the jamming going back online and the limited time we still have in the day, and who knows how long it’ll take them to notice a message to their phones...”

“Talk fast, got it,” Akira nodded. He took a deep breath, and Goro followed suit, then Akira started tapping on his screen, sending a quick message to Futaba.

Akira: We’re ready. Patch us through.

Futaba: Rodger rodger

There was a few moments of silence, then a message from Futaba saying simply ‘Go!’ 

And they were off.

Akira: Ann. Ryuji.

Akira: Respond with something as soon as you see this.

Akira: We don’t have much time to talk and we need to ask you guys something important.

You: Akira is right.

You: This is a surprising situation, naturally, but please don’t be too alarmed.

Ryuji: HOLY SHIT

You: Unfortunately we simply don’t have time for any nonsense today.

You: Ah.

Ryuji: Fuck dude, idk how you guys broke through but its real friggin good to hear from you

Ryuji: uh but i guess that shit can wait

Ryuji: whats up?

Ann: Oh my god!!!!

Ann: Uhh, what Ryuji said!

Akira: It’s good to hear from you two too. We’ve been worried.

Akira: Basically, we’re gonna try and break you out, more or less.

Ryuji: OH SHIT

Ann: OH SHIT!!!

You: Focus, please

Ann: *quieter* oh shit

Ryuji: *quieter* o- aw goddamnit ann stop stealing my jokes!

Akira: Seriously guys

Ann: Sorry! We’ve been locked up all alone all day, it’s kinda hard to not get excited about talking to someone for the first time in like ten hours!

You: We understand, but there isn’t much time until we might be jammed again.

You: Can you tell us where in the building you are?

Ann: Uhh... The first floor, I think?

Ryuji: Yeah, like it was a while ago and all but I’m pretty sure they dragged us to the left side of the school

Ryuji: And first floor, yeah

Ann: Ryuji that’s so not helpful

Ann: Whose left?

Ryuji: Huh?

You: Left from what perspective, Sakamoto-kun?

Ryuji: Jesus christ

Ryuji: They dragged us to the left, okay?!!!!

Ryuji: Effin “perspective,” left is left!

Ann: Left is not left!!!

Ryuji: What?!?!?!

Ryuji: Ann are you high?!?!?

Akira: Ryuji, did they drag you to the classroom you’re in right as you got to school, or was it from somewhere once the day started?

Ann: I am not high, I mean that your left might not be their left!

Ryuji: We all have the same hands Ann! Left is left, holy shit, is there a friggin gas leak in your room or somehting????

Ryuji: Oh

Ryuji: Uh

Ryuiji: I think it was as soon as we got through the gates, dude

Ann: Oh, yeah, they checked our IDs, and were like, “Uh, everything looks in order, uh, ma’am,” and then like, five seconds after we walked past they checked their dumb little clipboards and we’re like “oh shit!!!” and hauled butt to grab us and drag us away

Ann: Us being me and Shiho, I’m guessing Ryuji was almost late as usual

Ryuji: Hey!

Ryuji: I mean, yeah, but still!

Akira: Shit, they got Shiho too?

As soon as Ryuji finished giving them at least a very general sense of direction to follow (first floor, to the left of the school’s front doors), Goro stowed his phone away in his pocket and gestured for Akira to follow him. Akira kept typing every so often, and Goro checked in when they were in a safe position, both to make sure that the jamming was still down and to keep the two soft-hearted idiots talking in case they needed more information from them. For the most part, though, Goro was fully focused on beginning their break-in.

After peeking out of the alleyway they were in, making sure that the guards at the front gate weren’t looking their way, Goro led the way out and over towards Shujin’s fence, and started following it away from the front entrance. It took only a minute or so to find what they were looking for- two of the metal fence poles had been bashed to either side, probably with a metal baseball bat or something similar, judging from the roundness of the dents. Likely it was just from some kid or drunk alumni trying to break in and vandalize the place, and Shujin hadn’t had the time or budget to fix it up, but it suited Goro and Akira’s needs perfectly. It looked like the hole was just big enough for Goro to crawl his way through... and it was a tight squeeze as he did so, but not tight enough to stop him.

The other side of the fence was protected from view by a bunch of bushes, so while he waited for Akira to make his way through, Goro checked in on their chat with Ryuji and Ann.

Ann: Yeah...

Ryuji: I walked in with Mishima, they tossed his ass in the slammer too

Ryuji: Or I guess they did, they took him up the stairs to the second floor I think

Ryuji: Yesterday, there were only like a few of us who were still resisting this weird-ass Bound shit, so I guess they decided to just toss us somewhere where we wouldn’t make problems for their prissy asses

Ann: I’d guess they got me and Shiho, Ryuji and Yuuki, probably Kawakami-sensei, she seemed pretty weirded out by all this bs...

Ann: Maybe some of our senpais too? That one with the cute poofy hair seemed pretty out of it recently...

Akira: Fuck... they really aren’t messing around, huh?

Ann: No kidding.

Ryuji: Might have gotten lil’ miss President too. She’s been real nosey this week, askin’ a bunch of questions to all the staff all over the place

Ann: Really, Ryuji?

Ryuji: What??

Ann: Ugh, she was obviously checking for loyalty and stuff! It’s classic stuff, the right-hand stooge always interrogates people to see if they’re loyal or not right before the big coup!

Ryuji: Dude you watch way too much spy shit

Ann: I don’t just watch spy stuff!

Ryuji: And those weird, sexy live-action magical girl shows...

Ryuji: Your view of how stuff works is super warped, dude

Ann: There it is!

Ryuji: What?!?!?!

Ann: “weird, sexy live-action blah blah blah”

Ryuji: Ok, rude??

Ann: You’re always thinking with the wrong end of your body, Ryuji.

Ann: You just defend Makoto-senpai because she’s hot, admit it.

Ryuji: What the fuck?!!

Ryuji: Look, what I saw, she seemed straight-up confused about stuff, that’s all!

Ryuji: She has a nice ass, sure, but I was being serious!

Ann: See!

Ryuji: Oh come on, you of all people can’t deny that, Ann

Goro very quickly turned his phone screen back off and shoved it in his pocket, desperately not wanting to see discourse about Makoto Nijima’s ass on top of everything else today. Thankfully, Akira had just managed to make his own way through the tight squeeze of the fence, and they could continue on their way to the ‘left’ side of the school. 

It wasn’t too hard to sneak around, thankfully- they took the most direct route, not wanting to risk going around the back and potentially getting spotted by any security cameras Futaba hadn’t managed to shut down. Luckily, however, there didn’t seem to be any other guards patrolling the area inside the school fence, and the two muscleheads at the front gate seemed almost catatonic, definitely not alert enough to notice motion behind them. Within just a couple of minutes, Goro and Akira made their way to another patch of bushes just below the windows of the first-floor classrooms.

Hoping desperately that the idiot squad had finished talking about girl butts- or rather, frantically scrolling past the way-too-lengthy discussion about girl butts until he got to the most recent messages and desperately hoping they had moved onto another topic by now, Goro rejoined the chat.

Ryuji: Ann, half our texting is just you screaming about Shiho 

Ryuji: And a lot of it is pretty nsfw dude!!!!

Ryuji: I am so not the horny one out of the two of us

Ann: Oh bull shit 

You: Fucking christ

Akira: Hey, fascinating as this all is guys, we need more info if we’re gonna break you out

Akira: You can both go back to being horny disasters once you’re free

You: Or not. Not doing that is an incredibly good option to take too.

Ann: Heh, sorry guys

Ann: Ryuji is just very dumb and I am just very gay

Akira: Mood for both

You: Pardon?

Ryuji: Hey!

Akira: Hoooooookay, moving swiftly along

Akira: Either of you know where exactly on the first floor you are?

Ryuji: Huh?

Ryuji: Uhh... A few classrooms in, I guess?

Ryuji: I dunno man, left was about as good as I could do 

Ann: Yeah sorry Akira. I’ve got the train system down pat, but not so much for on-foot stuff

You: Ann, if you could, head to the back corner of your classroom and press your ear to the wall.

You: Ryuji, knock three times on the front-most wall of the
room you’re in, then do so again on the back-most.

Ryuji: Uhh

You: If Ann hears you knocking, we’ll know that you two are being held next to one another

You: That’ll help narrow down where you could be, at least.

Ann: Oooh, clever!

Ann: Uh, I think?

Ryuji: Uh, okay dude, here goes

Ann: Oh- getting into position, aaaa

There was a short pause, then the pause got longer, and Goro growled a little, frustrated.

You: Ann, did you hear anything?

Ann: Huh? Uh, no, sorry, I wasn’t sure if Ryuji had did it yet or not.

Ryuji: Uh, I did it like twice, dude!

You: That’s fine- Ann, press your ear to the front of your classroom

You: Then Ryuji, you do it again.

Ryuji: Aw man

Ann: Gotcha!

Another pause, but Goro got a reply before too long this time.

Ann: !!!

Ann: Ryuji, stop!

Ryuji: Yeah yeah I hear you

Ryuji: Shit you knocking back all of a sudden nearly scared me outta my skin!

Ann: Sorry!!

Ann: So, I guess Ryuji is in the classroom ahead of mine?

Ann: Or, uh, more to the left?

Ann: Directions suck!

Akira: Can either of you see what it looks like outside your windows?

Ryuji: Nah dude, they blacked out those things before they even brought us here

Ryuji: Like literally, shit’s covered in black paint or some shit

Ann: And if you’re thinking of us using those to break out, I tried, they reinforced the glass or something.

Ann: I’d have tried throwing a chair at it or something but they’d probably have tied me up if I did

Akira: That’s okay, we’re planning something else

You: When you knock on the windows, do they still make noise?

Ann: Yeah, sounds like normal glass, but thicker.

You: Good. Both of you, go to the window closest to you and
start knocking on it, just enough to produce some noise

You: Keep knocking until we say stop.

Ryuji: Uh, alright dude

Ann: Oooh, this is straight out of a spy movie!! 

Ryuji: Dude what dumbass spy movie has people knocking on their own windows

Akira: Guys, please

Ryuji: Shit, sorry, omw!!!

Goro stowed his phone away yet again, feeling more tired after trying to herd these dumbass cats than he was from sneaking around the metaverse earlier. After taking a deep breath, he nodded at Akira, and, after giving Ann and Ryuji enough time to start knocking, the started creeping along the edge of the school, keeping an ear out for any sound coming from the windows above them.

After a few minutes of slowly crawling along and stopping to make sure they didn’t hear anything, Akira held out a hand in front of Goro, then pointed up above himself. Goro snuck up to Akira’s side and paused to listen, and though it was faint, he could definitely hear a knocking from above, sort of like a bootfall on dense, wet sand. Goro crept ahead, just to double check, and sure enough there was knocking coming from the next window up too.

Perfect.

The two boys met as close to the exact middle of the two windows as they could, then pulled out their phones one last time.

Akira: Okay guys, you’re good. we found you.

Ryuji: Holy shit!!!

Ann: Yesss!!!!!!

Ann: Uh, but now what?

You: Go back to the corner you were just in, and wait there.

You: And get as close to the wall as you can, please.

Ryuji: Uh, okay dude, but like

RyujiL Shouldn’t we get away from the wall? 

Ryuji: Usually in movies when they bust through a door, they’re always like “get away from the door!”

Ann: Insightful as always, Ryuji

Ryuji: Oh eff off

Akira: We’re not busting down the wall, or the door or anything.

Akira: We’ve got our own plan, trust us

Ryuji: Okay...

Ryuji: Alright, shoved myself against the corner

Ryuji: Now what?

Ann: Same!

Goro sighed. This was... going to be a whole other thing.

You: Just stay there.

You: We’re going to get you out, but...

You: Well, it’s going to be very confusing for the both of you.

Akira: You’re gonna feel really weird for a bit, then you’re gonna

Akira: Actually, it’ll be better to just do it and explain once we’re there

Ann: Uh...

Ann: This is sounding really weird...

Ryuji: Yeah, like...

You: Please, just trust us.

You: I never wanted to have to do this, but desperate times and so forth

You: We’re... going to show you how it is we’ve been doing our detective work

You: More or less

Ann: !!!!

Ryuji: Holy shit... alright man, sweet!!

Akira: Just stay still and stay calm

Goro tapped out of the text app and into the Metaverse one. He glanced up at Akira, who looked just as tired as Goro felt, but also just as serious, and just as determined. Akira nodded, and Goro nodded back, and he pressed the bookmarked button for Kobyakawa’s Palace.

Beginning Navigation...

Chapter Text

Thankfully, as Akira expected, warping into a Palace was more or less just like warping into Mementos, and instead of ending up in a roughly equivalent position inside the palace to where they were at real-world Shujin, they instead just warped directly back to the same little alleyway by the row of straw-thatched hovels they started out in last time. 

Less thankfully, but playing just as much to Akira’s expectations, it took about a half-hour to calm Ann and Ryuji down, then explain to the two of them what the hell was going on, why Akira and Goro were in cool anime costumes now, why the sky was like that, what’s with the big-ass church, and a lot of general, non-specific, very loudly shouted WHAT THE HELLs. At the very least, none of the shadow-people trailing into the Cathedral seemed very attentive to anything going on around them, so they didn’t have to worry about Ryuji’s near-constant volume spikes, or at least they didn’t have to worry about it yet

Small mercies.

Theorizing that it’d probably remain safe enough for Ryuji and Ann until they all entered the back hallways, where all the shadow guards were, Akira and Goro led the way into the Cathedral’s Main Hall once they had finished explaining as much as they could about the Metaverse and their history with it. As the blonde duo gawked and pointed at the grandeur around them (and Akira couldn’t really blame them for it, he and Goro had done more or less the same thing when they first came here) Goro rummaged around in his pockets, pulling out the last two cans of canned black coffee they had left. He cracked one open, moved to hand it to Akira, then paused, then took it back and chugged it himself.

Akira sent Goro a dry-as-the-moon glare until Goro finished the can with the same kind of puff of air and high-pitched exclamation an anime character would make after chugging a beer, his glare only lessening slightly in intensity at Goro’s cuteness, then lessening a lot more when Goro finally gave him the other can of the blessed elixir.

Akira decided to sip on his rather than down it all at once, letting his eyes roam across the Hall as he drank. Ann and Ryuji were still dashing about the place, pointing at all the shadow-people and their period-accurate outfits, at the weird modern-day anachronisms mixed in with all the Ye Olde shit posted on the wall, at the big double doors at the far end of the Hall and the cool stained glass windows beyond it-

Oh shit.

“Hey, guys!!!” Akira shouted, earning a lot of glares from the assorted shadow people in-between him and the two doofuses at the other end of the hall. Ann and Ryuji paused in their headlong rush, looking back at Akira, confusion clear in their faces even at a distance. Akira waved them to come over, and the two looked a little put-out about it, but still skittered over obediently.

“What’s up dude?” Ryuji asked as they got close, elbowing his way through a group of huffy priest-types.

“Sorry- we didn’t get to it before, but when Goro and I tried to get in there last time,” he pointed at the doors that had led to Kobyakawa’s sermon room. “We, uh... I guess we were almost hypnotized by some weird magic stuff? I don’t really know what happened, just that our Personas had to come out and save us, so it’d probably be pretty bad if you guys went over.”

Ann scratched at her cheek nervously, shooting a weirded-out glance back towards where they had just been. “Yeesh... this place is so cool, I keep forgetting it’s some kind of... weird, mental magic prison-hell?”

Goro snorted aloud at that, and didn’t get embarrassed by the unfiltered, genuine reaction, which was the first sign that he was far too tired to be doing this right now. Akira was too, though, so it was okay, probably. “That’s about it, more or less.”

Ann hummed nervously at that, but Ryuji just let out a weird, unidentifiable-but-definitely-discontent noise and whapped Akira on the arm. “Eh, whatever- I still can’t believe you guys kept all this shit from us! We’ve been friends for almost a year, and all this time magic has been real, and you’ve been having secret magic adventures through cool-ass magic places?!?!” Ryuji whapped Akira on the shoulder a bunch each time he said the word 'magic,’ and Akira didn’t feel too bad about somewhat-gently shoving him away after the fourth or fifth whap. 

Ryuji didn’t seem to mind either, barreling forwards with his whining. “Man, I knew you guys were cool as shit for taking down all those assholes, but now you’ve been takin’ down assholes by being cool magic anime heroes!!!” He flopped against a nearby pillar, tossing his hands in the air. “You dudes literally could not be cooler and it’s unfair as hell!”

Akira rolled his eyes, smiling in spite of himself. Ryuji was a hyper-active whiney puppy of a guy, but he was also just as sweet and genuine as a puppy too, most of the time. “This is actually a lot nicer than our, uh, ‘magic stuff’ usually is, though,” Akira corrected, looking around at how starkly different the spotless marble and elegant glass-and-gold windows were to, well, Mementos. “Until today, the only place we’ve done our adventuring was this horrible, gross subway full of monsters and nasty embodiments of people’s souls.”

Ryuji raised his eyebrows at Akira. “Not gonna lie, dude, that sounds metal as hell.”

Akira thought for a moment, then nodded, shrugging. “I mean, yeah, it is.”

“Hmm... it is true that it’s aesthetic certainly resembles the album art for a lot of the metal albums I’ve seen,” Goro added, looking both intrigued by this new angle and kinda grossed out at the same time.

“Oh yeah, I forgot you had a metal phase,” Akira smirked, flashes of the year-and-a-half spanning the end of their elementary school years and the start of middle school where Goro had gone full-punk and more than a little chuunibyou. Goro was giving him a look that promised horrible things if he told Ann or Ryuji any more about it, though, so Akira smoothly changed the subject after one last cocky smirk sent Goro’s way. “Anyways, we should probably head on into the, uh... I guess it’s the classrooms?”

Goro thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Going by Shujin’s real-world layout, its the area that lies where Shujin’s classrooms would otherwise be- though it resembles a long series of narrow, twisting hallways more than anything else.”

“Shujin feels pretty close to that sometimes,” Ann quipped, then grew worried. “This is the part you guys said was, uh... dangerous, right?”

“Deathly so, yes,” Goro grew serious, trying for a stern, authoritative look that was undone slightly by the bags under his eyes and the ever-present pompousness of his outfit. “Once we enter the next area, and presumably for the rest of our time here, there will be shadow-guards prowling all over the place. As Akira and I attempted to explain earlier, if they see you, they will transform into strange, violent monsters that will not hesitate to maim and kill you. Akira and I can handle fighting them easily enough, but in order for us to be able to concentrate on sneaking up behind these guards and fighting them to the best of our abilities, we need the two of you to stay back, as far out of the way as you can. Are we clear?”

Ryuji looked a little annoyed, seemingly itching for a fight, and for a brief moment Ann looked the same, even more so, but they both swallowed their pride. “As much as I want to kick something’s ass for imprisoning Shiho... I don’t wanna get in your guys’ way,” Ann nodded, grimacing. “I don’t wanna get you two hurt.”

Ryuji frowned, but nodded too. “Yeah, what Ann said, basically. Uh, but...” he scratched the side of his headm frown turning from a grumpy one to a confused one. “Not that I’m ungrateful for the jailbreak, but why didja drag us here with you guys if we’re just gonna be hiding like wimps in the back?”

Akira frowned too, trying to think of how to explain this. “Basically, from what we know, the only way to free all the students Kobyakawa’s got locked up is to get to his Shadow, or something like that. We, uh...” he scratched at the side of his head, feeling himself flush with embarrassment. “We don’t have all the details, and it’s not like we have the energy to do it all today anyways, but whatever we have to do, we have to get further into the Palace to do it, and the only way for us to do that is to have Shujin Student ID.”

“Huh,” Ann pursed her lips, then shrugged. “I’ll take your guys’ word for it, for now- you took care of Kamoshida and all those other guys, I’m sure you can whack off Kobyakawa too!”

Goro winced, “We’re not ‘whacking off’ anybody, in any sense of that phrase...”

Ann thought for a moment, then realized what she said and winced too. “Oh... and also, ew... “

Ryuji didn’t seem to get it, sending a questioning look at Akira, who just patted his shoulder and shook his head. Ryuji sighed, but pushed his way off the pillar he had been leaning against, stretched his arms back behind his head. “Well, sounds sorta like some dumb video-game fetch quest, but I’m in too.”

Goro nodded, then gestured for the others to follow him as he headed towards the same closed-off dorrway he and Akira had snuck through before. “You aren’t wrong... from what I’ve been able to reason out, a Palace is built precisely to be just like an overly-complicated, quest-laden video game, with multiple, seemingly pointless layers of security in place to protect the Palace-owner’s shadow, or whatever it is that lies at the heart of this place...”

Ann and Ryuji quieted at that, seeming to need a few minutes to digest everything, which was just as well, really. Goro pressed a finger to his lips as Akira slipped behind him, pulling out his lockpicking tools to open the door again- only to find it still unlocked. Huh. Maybe whatever progress they made through the Palace would just... stay there, whenever they came back? If true, that’d be amazingly convenient, especially if they were gonna have to come back through here multiple times- it might even mean that once they got past those guards that needed a Student ID, they wouldn’t have to bring Ann and Ryuji for the next run.

Feeling a lot more confident, and with a weight off his mind, Akira opened the door, and gestured for Goro and the others to follow.

The start of the hallways was just as it had been before; white stone walls pressed a little too tightly together, with an assortment of wastebins and corkboards scattered about to serve as cover and decoration respectively. Akira took a deep breath, and started forwards-

Almost the instant that he took his first step, the sound of clanking armor on stone started sounding off from around the nearby corner, and Akira gestured hastily for Ann and Ryuji to hide. They scrambled into the cover of the first couple wastebins in the hallway, and Akira followed Goro’s lead to scurry towards the next two. A second after he was relatively hidden, the disfigured Paladin that served as one of the Palace’s guards rounded the corner, marching with no discernable rhythm down the hallway. Akira waited until it walked past his hiding spot, then a second more, then pounced on the thing, finding footing on the metal plates protecting its hips, hands finding purchase on its helmet and yanking up. He let the energy and sudden rush of adrenaline flow through every part of him, felt the impulse to shout out as he tore the shadow’s mask off “Show me your true form!” He let the momentum of the tug carry him backwards, pushing off the guard’s hip plates into a little backflip, all of his maneuvers way, way easier to perform than they were in real life, and as he landed on his feet, the monster roared and exploded and reformed into roaring, snarling shadows.

And the fight began.

As before, these were fairly basic shadows, the sort that Akira and Goro had cut their teeth with back when they first gained entrance to the topmost layers of Mementos, so taking them down didn’t take too long. There were definitely more of them than was exactly typical, four now from a single shadow guard instead of the usual one to three, but it was still pretty easily manageable. As the last shadow fell, Akira put his mask back on, Arsene disappearing into nothingness behind him. He turned back around to gesture towards Ann and Ryuji that it was safe to come out now-

They were already out of cover. Of course they were. Slightly more surprisingly, they were staring at Akira and Goro totally slackjawed, stars dancing in their eyes. A few moments passed where they just stared and stared, and then they both seemed to break at the same instant, simultaneously shouting out.

HOLY SH-

HOLY SHI-

SHHHH!!!!!” Goro cut them both off, glaring sharply at the two of them. They shut their mouths, having the grace to look a little embarrassed at their loss of volume control, but they were still vibrating about, totally in awe of what it actually looked like to fight a shadow. 

Akira couldn’t honestly blame them. He usually wasn’t super egotistical or anything, but yeah, they were pretty damn cool.

The rest of the re-infiltration to the hallways went pretty smoothly, as it did before. It was less annoying than it had been two or so hours ago, all the shadow guards being stationed roughly in the same places, all the fights familiar and simple, the layout blessedly the same as it was before, instead of Mementos’ ever-changing bullshit. They made it to the stairs, and more importantly, to the two student council members’ personal shadows guarding the stairs within about ten or fifteen minutes, easy.

The council members glared at them all with their bright yellow eyes, arms crossed, looking unimpressed and annoyed already. Goro gestured to Ann and Ryuji to hopefully just go ahead and do as they had discussed earlier, Goro having given them the basic rundown while they were sneaking about.

Ann cleared her throat as she approached the boy and girl, rummaging in a little fanny pack she had on her for her student ID. She pulled it out gracefully, and bowed forwards, handing it over to the girl. 

“‘Ello, guvnah,” she said as she did so, and Akira would have fallen face-first onto the floor if he had even an iota less self control. “‘Ere’s me ol’ identification papahs,” she continued, carrying on with the brutally awful and inappropriate accent with the same dogged determination a serial killer would have for their seventh murdered puppy in a day. 

Ryuji blinked at her, clearly not having expected the voice, but he just sort of shrugged, opened his mouth and let out a single sound before twisting up his face and clearly abandoning the idea of trying to follow Ann’s lead on this one. Instead, calmly, he just pulled his own card out of his pocket and handed it over. “Here’s mine,” he said evenly, and Akira had literally never in his life been more thankful to hear Ryuji’s plain, nasally drawl than he was in that moment.

The girl took both cards, giving Ann a quite reasonably wary-as-fuck look, and looked them over. “Hm... these seem to be in order, yes,” she said, handing them back after a good look over. She then looked past the two blondes, her critical gaze much less welcomely landing on Akira and Goro. “What about those two?”

“Oi, well now me lubbly jubbly-”

“Ahaha, yeah, holy shit, uh,” Ryuji mercifully cut her off, looking very nervous at having to make something up on the fly but being a damned good trooper about it. “Those guys are our, uh... apprentices? They wanted to see how, uh, super cool it is here in the Cathedral, so we’re leadin’ ‘em on a tour n’ shit.” He ended the not half bad lie with his best, beamingest grin, the little guy having to flinch back a bit at how bright it was.

The girl just stared and stared at Ryuji for a full minute, everyone getting deeply uncomfortable as it went on, then she just shrugged and stepped to the side. “Very well, you may proceed to the second floor. But, do mind your tongue, Sakamoto Ryuji. It does not do to sully our church’s reputation with caustic wording.”

“Uh, heh, yeah, thanks!” Ryuji clearly was not listening at all, booking it up the stairway as soon as she let him past, just in case she changed her mind. The rest of them were right on his heels, Akira bringing up the rear and shooting an instinctual, thankful little smile at the girl as he walked by. 

She didn’t return it.

The stairwell itself wasn’t anything basic, just a single flight leading up to a single, long, long hallway, longer than probably made sense architecturally. There were several doors scattered along the sides of the hallway this time, and Akira crept cautiously up to the closest one, peeking inside through the tiny little mini-window embedded in the thick wood. 

The room beyond was filled to capacity with people’s personal shadows, very likely the same ones Goro had spotted earlier in the massive sermon room, now all packed into just a few classrooms. They were staring attentively, almost rapturously at the personal shadow of an adult woman at the front of the classroom, probably one of Shujin’s teachers that had been roped into the Bound cult just as neatly as the kids had been.

Akira moved away from the window, feeling both sickened and a renewed sense of resolve to take Kobyakawa down in equal measures. Goro and the others took turns peeking inside too, all of them having similar expressions to Akira afterwards.

They needed to move quickly, before this got any worse.

Thankfully, after the dozen or so fights they had back on the first floor, there were barely any shadows in here at all, and most of them were already facing away from Akira and Goro as they crept forwards. The hallway was long, but they made it about halfway through it in easily under five minutes-

“Hey, uh, not for nothin’,” Ryuji spoke up, stage-whispering very loudly now instead of his usual brash shout. “But doesn’t that door look super weird?”

Akira frowned and turned around, searching for what Ryuji was talking about- his eyes landing on a door that absolutely did look super weird. He frowned and crept cautiously towards it, unsheathing his dagger as he got close. There was no window in this one, and in fact the door didn’t even have a consistent shape, morphing from a rectangular piece of oak to a rusty metal to a typical classroom door to all metal and glass and back again. The handle seemed to not be warping along with the door’s appearance, though, so, with extreme caution, and one of Goro’s hands on his shoulder in case he needed to be hauled backwards, Akira cracked the door open, then flung it open the rest of the way.

Inside was... well it was sure something. It was roughly the shape and makeup of a lounge of sorts, a lot of places to sit and some basic amenities, but the contents of the room were constantly shifting- or rather, the specifics of the contents stayed the same, chairs and couches and tables and the like, but the details of the room were constantly in flux, one moment looking like a modern day teacher’s lounge, the next looking like a guards’ room from a medieval prison, the next like a very sizable broom cupboard and back again. 

It was all a little nauseating, but it was also kind of cool- though to be fair, most new things Akira and Goro had discovered since discovering the Metaverse could be described like that. Akira walked in, looking around, hearing the others follow suit. Ann and Ryuji both seemed super weirded out and awed again, but when Akira looked back, Goro looked very deep in thought. Akira imagined that he could see little lines of code and mathematical formulae scrolling in front of Goro’s eyes as he scanned the place over, coming up with different theories and ideas as to what this place could be.

Eventually, he spoke up, startling Ryui and Ann out of some little game they seemed to be playing by putting their fingers to the walls of the room as it shifted and changed form and making little excited, weirded-out noises at the sensation. “My guess is that for whatever reason, the integrity of the metaverse is especially weak here, or perhaps Kobyakawa’s distortion itself simply doesn’t have a solid grasp on what this room is... most curious.”

“Huh,” Ann commented adroitly. “So, uh, what does that mean for us?”

Goro hummed in surprise, as if he hadn’t thought that far out yet, and grew thoughtful again, though he spoke as he thought this time. “I’d wager that since this room seems to be closer to the border of the Metaverse and reality, that either shadows will be unable to come in here and attack us, or if they do, they’ll be significantly weakened, since they can’t exist within the real world. And... I wonder... it was too dark to tell, but if that alleyway we keep warping in to was similar...”

He pulled out his phone and tapped about a bit on the Navigator app before letting out a victorious cry. “Hah! I thought so. Akira, this place functions as a bookmark, just like the rest stops in Mementos.”

“No way...” It sounded too good to be true, almost, but Akira’s navigator said the same thing. They were going to have to leave pretty soon, Akira had been feeling his energy lagging for the past several minutes, but knowing that they’d be able to warp up here and not have to deal with that long-ass hallway or those stuffy guards again took several tonnes worth of weight off of Akira’s mind.

He reveled in the comfort that revelation gave him, then took a deep breath, let it out, and straightened back up again, shoving the phone in his pocket. “We’ll come back here once we’ve gotten as far in as we can, then. If we can warp to here, we ought to be able to warp back to the entrance from here too. For now, we should get moving.”

Goro had said a couple of times, when it was late and they were both tired enough to talk more openly about their feelings, that he was envious of Akira for how deep and commanding he could get his voice to get, and Akira didn’t really understand that for the longest time, but now, watching Ann and Ryuji instantly abandon their silly little messing around and nod like the world’s most earnest soldiers at Akira’s words, he was starting to appreciate the ability a little more. They made their way back into the hallway and continued down.

After a couple more shadows and a few more minutes, they finally arrived at the end of the corridor, and not a moment too soon. Akira had noticed Ryuji getting progressively more and more antsy, bit by bit, after every battle, looking like he was raring to jump in and join them, and in the past couple minutes Ann had started to get that look in her eyes too. Now though, with an authoritative, nerdy looking guy guarding the next staircase, their end goal was in sight, or rather, they’d be able to figure out whatever the hell they were going to have to do to get past this new barrier, and they could take a break with that knowledge in mind and come back tomorrow, after Akira and Goro had gotten some blessed, blessed sleep.

Ann and Ryuji shot a glance at the detectives, then strode up to the scrawny, yellow-eyed boy, confident as can be. Ryuji spoke first this time, bless him.

“Uh, hey. We're Shujin students- uh, and faithful followers of, uh... Bishop? Kobyakawa?”

Maybe it wasn’t so great that Ryuji spoke up first.

The tiny boy looked up at Ryuji with very skeptical, very critical eyes, a frown twisting the whole of his expression. Frankly, he looked more natural frowning than he did with a neutral expression- it was probably how he looked most often. “I am aware of who you are, Ryuji Sakamoto,” he droned, and Akira felt his stomach drop to his knees. “Just as I am familiar with you, Ann Takamaki.”

His bright yellow eyes trained their gaze on Ann, who gasped in shock, which was a bit much, if Akira was being honest, but it was a high-tension situation, he guessed. “You.... you know our names?”

“Of course,” he sniffed, pressing his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose. “I’d make a rather poor secretary for the Youth Minister’s Council were I not to have the names and faces of our fl-”

“Uh, is that the student council?” Ryuji whispered loudly to Ann, clearly trying to be subtle, clearly failing from the way the Secretary cut off his sentence.

“...yeah Ryuji, I’m pretty sure it is,” Ann assured him, nervous frustration coloring her voice, even as she tried to send a soothing smile towards the angry little man.

The angry little man was not soothed. “As it so happens,” he tapped his fingers on the clipboard he was holding. “The two of you have been deemed Heretics to the blessed teachings of the Bound, and should currently be relegated to your cells. Which begs the question...” he looked up from his clipboard at the two of them, eyes glowing much brighter now, an aura starting to emanate from him. “Why is it that you two are here, instead of in your cells, and accompanied by two masked, costumed strangers no less?”

There was a heavy pause in the air. Ann and Ryuji looked towards each other, eyes full of panic, clearly unable to think up a good excuse- but even if they had thought of one, it wouldn’t have been of any use. The Secretary sighed, raised his hand high above his head, and snapped his fingers-

Behind him, Akira heard a cloudy whooshing sound, and he spun around to see over a dozen of the shadow-guards appear from clouds of black-red smoke. As one, the guards twisted their helmets to stare directly at Akira and Goro, let out a horrible, furious shriek, and exploded into shadows.

Exploded into three or four shadows, each.

“Fuck,” Goro swore quietly. He drew his saber at the same time Akira drew his knife. The shadows finished forming in front of them, all different sorts, knights on horseback, angels and devils, Pyro Jacks and Jack Frosts and more that Akira wasn’t familiar with. They all cried out, and Akira tore off his mask, summoning Arsene just as Goro summoned Robin Hood, and the shadows charged, and there was nothing else to think of but battle.

He could tell, in the back of his mind, in the few seconds every so often when his senses weren’t overwhelmed by the chaotic everything of a life-or-death battle, that behind them, Ann and Ryuji were trying desperately to talk some sense into the Secretary, to get him to call off his attack.

Akira kicked away a charging, phantasmal horse, and Ryuji shouted “-can’t just try and kill anyone who-”

Goro cast a light spell to stun an entire row of charging shadows, and Ann cried “-murder us?! How is that a rational response to-”

A knight swung his broadsword where Akira’s head was just a second ago, only to topple off his horse as Akira slashed its front legs to pieces, and dissipate into smoke as Goro took the chance to stab his saber through the eye-slots of its helmet, and Ryuji groaned, “Come on, man, just call them off already!!!”

The shadows cried out as one at their fallen companion, and redoubled their attacks. For a few minutes, Akira could focus on nothing but staying alive, taking what openings there were to strike back, and making sure that Goro stayed standing. 

Eventually, with a couple more shadows down, the intensity of the attacks lessened, but only barely. The sounds of the braying, snarling shadows almost drowned out what was going on behind them, but Akira could still easily hear Ryuji’s long, loud roar of frustration at the Secretary’s shadow’s stubbornness.

“Man, eff this shit!!!” He growled, whirling around to face Akira and Goro. “You two sure we can’t just get rid of this lil’ asshole or somethin-”

“Very sure!!!” Akira shouted back, too focused on managing Arsene’s spells and his own defenses to say much more than that.

“If you hurt him here, Ryuji, he’s going to get hurt in the real world,” Goro added, which wasn’t strictly true, they didn’t know that for certain yet, but now was not the time for nuance. “Just talk to him or something!

Akira’s heart ached at the desperate fury in Goro’s voice, but he was barely holding up himself, the fatigue from the absolute disaster that had been today wearing on his muscles and bones and brain. It was the most he could do to keep fighting and listen to what was going on around him, trying to help anyone else was out of the question, and that fact just made him angrier.

“You can’t just hit and shout every problem away, Ryuji!” Ann snapped, clearly just as annoyed and angry as the blonde boy was. “You always do this, seriously!”

Ryuji let out a loud, annoyed, honk-like “Huh?!?! At least I’m better than you, just sittin’ around and runnin’ away to make out with Shiho whenever anything you’d actually have to deal with comes up!”

“What the hell, Ryuji!” Ann shouted back, sounding deeply offended, but Ryuji wasn’t deterred.

Akira was kind of not sure what the fuck was going on at this point, but they were kind of in a life or fucking death situation here and now was very much not the time for this shit. “Uh, guys-”

His interruption went unheard, Ryuji plowing forwards with his frustration venting, bull-headed as ever. “You heard me! Ever since that shit with Kamoshida, soon as you two started dating, you just... gave up! You don’t fight for shit anymore, Ann, you don’t know what it’s like to have to fight against this shit every day-”

“Oh, so what, I’m supposed to shout at everything that pisses me off like some dumb chihuahua?” Ann sounded pissed, more angry and honestly more lively than Akira had heard her sound in a long while. “You aren’t some shounen protag, just able to solve everyone’s problems by butting your head in and making it all about you!”

“Will you two shut up and get us past th-” Goro tried to interrupt, growling and shouting back at Ann and Ryuji, but they were totally in their own world now, Ryuji shouting over the rest of what Goro was going to say.

“At least I’m fighting for something, Ann!” He sounded just as angry as Ann did now. “Better to say something about all the bullshit around us than to just pretend it doesn’t exist ‘cause you’re lucky enough to have a girlfriend and you can just be happy all the damn time-”

“You aren’t fighting for anything!!!” Ann snapped, and Akira was really worried now, because she sounded about two seconds away from slapping the hell out of Ryuji, and Akira (and Goro too, probably) was literally on his last legs here, they did not have time for this, but Ann continued anyways, blind to the world. “I’m not ‘happy all the damn time,’ Ryuji- and I’d say don’t be an idiot, but it’s way too late for that! All you do is vent your dumb, masculine, pent-up aggression on everyone around you! I try hard as hell to be happy despite all the bs in the world, and I try to make Shiho happy too, ‘cause you know what, she deserves it after everything she’s been through!”

“That doesn’t mean you can just give up on everything else!” Ryuji shouted, voice furious and high.

Ann‘s voice was just the same. “I haven’t given up on shit!”

Akira turned his head around just slightly, enough to look and shout at the two of them, “Guys, please-”

Next to him, Goro did the same, eyes away from the battle for just a half-second, snarling, “Stop fucking fighting each other and-”

It wasn’t either of their faults, or maybe it was both of their faults, or maybe it was because they had spent so long around each other that their habits and impulses had amalgamated together to the point where they would inevitably have the same general reaction in high-tension situations. Neither of them could really be blamed for it, in the end.

But it happened nevertheless.

In the half-second that Akira and Goro weren’t looking at the horde of shadows, the monsters slipped past the defenses of their weakened, drained Personas and hit both of them, hard enough to send them to the floor. Akira’s vision was filled with stars and red light, his mind suddenly congested with smog, until he was able to pull himself together a few seconds later. 

In the interim, some of the shadows must have piled onto him, because he was totally pinned to the ground, painful weight, heavy as boulders in some spots and sharp as the corners of Legos in others, weighing down his arms and back and legs. He had just enough control to move his head slightly, enough to look around and see Goro in a similar position next to him, his entire body, save for his head, hidden from view by the heaving bulk of at least six monsters.

Goro looked around to see what was going on too, and their eyes met. Equal amounts of panic and fear and shame were reflected in each of their eyes. They had fucked up, and fucked up pretty goddamn seriously. Unless something unexpected happened, or one of them was able to somehow regain their strength, both of them, and Ann and Ryuji too, were all about to be killed.

Ann and Ryuji must have gotten shocked out of their bickering when Akira and Goro had gotten knocked down- Akira must have been too stunned from the force of the hit to have noticed. He could only just barely see them if he craned his head and stretched his eyes, but Ryuji was on his knees facing him and Goro, one hand shakily covering his mouth, the other clenched tight in the fabric of his pants. His expression looked horrified, and over the panting and snarling of the shadows pinning him down, Akira could just barely hear Ryuji muttering to himself, “Oh shit... oh no, oh shit, not again, no, no...”

Ann had managed to stay on her feet, but she didn’t look much better off. Her eyes were wide with fear, a hand covering her mouth in shock and horror too (the two blondes were childhood friends of a sort, Akira thought blearily, it’d make enough sense for them to share physical habits like that), but rather than being locked up in terror like Ryuji was, the rest of her seemed like a live wire, her whole body twitching back and forth in little movements, her hand grasping and releasing at her side, as if she was desperately trying to find something to grab, something to attack the shadows with, some way to act.

Behind them, the stuck-up little prick of a Secretary crossed his arms and let out a petulant huff, “Well then,” he sniffed. “If you all are quite finished with your little display here, perhaps we can wrap this up? His Excellency keeps a very tight schedule after all.”

He snapped his little fingers, and a couple shadows broke off from the rest of the pack holding Akira and Goro down. From his spot on the floor, Akira couldn’t see them too well, but it looked like the horse-mounted knight-type shadows were slowly approaching Ann and Ryuji, unsheathing their swords. Akira clenched his teeth, redoubled his efforts to get free, but he was just too drained and there were too many shadows holding him down, the best he could even manage was a pathetic little wiggle.

While he struggled, Akira heard a gasp of outrage from Ann. “What?! We were just trying to talk to you, you jerk! You can’t jus-”

“Oh do shut up,” the petulant boy quipped, fingers drumming on his clipboard. “You were trying to bluster your way past my post, and you failed- not that you had any chance of success in the first place, of course. Only those of the Youth Minister’s Council are to be admitted past this point, a post that you heathens could never so much as dream of achieving. Now," The drumming of his fingers grew louder, as if he was trying to come off as even more impatient, but the act was undone by the tight, victorious smirk he wore. “I have a very busy schedule, and considering that the only two of you with any real use have been contained, I certainly have no interest in listening to a couple of useless imbeciles like you two.”

“We’re not useless, you little shit!” Ryuji snarled, not rising from the floor, but twisting around from where he was kneeling to face the Secretary. “We’re-”

“You can’t fight, you can’t talk your way out of a paper bag,” the boy leveled a cold, heartless glare, first at Ryuji, then at Ann. “And now, you can’t do anything to stop yourselves from getting your just deserts. If that isn’t a perfect portrait of two utterly pointless wastes of space, I don’t know what is.”

Ryuji looked like he was clenching his teeth harder enough to crack them, but as hard as he was clearly trying, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say back to any of that. He twisted back around, slamming his fist against the floor with a vicious cry. “Dammit!!

“You can’t be serious!” Cried Ann, both fists clenched at her side. “You can’t... urgh!!!” She turned away from the Secretary to stare down the oncoming shadows, and as they crept closer and closer, she sunk down to the floor, just like Ryuji, the fire in her eyes slowly giving way to despair.

“Don’t just give up, damn you!!!” Goro shouted from the floor, eyes pinned to the two blondes just like Akira’s. The shadows pinning him down put even more pressure on him as punishment, and he grunted in pain from the weight, but didn’t stop talking in spite of it. “You idiots always have something to say, and you’re just going to let- agh!”

One of Goro’s guards cut him off with a vicious cuff to the back of the head, and he fell silent- not unconscious, but too stunned from the pain to keep speaking. 

Ryuji spoke up in the silence, eyes trained on Goro’s pain, but his face drawn and drained, hopeless. “The hell can we say? He’s fuckin’ right... we can’t... I can’t...” 

Fury boiling in him from seeing Goro hurt and his friends brought so low, Akira took over for Goro. “The whole world’s gonna try and make you feel useless! Kamoshida did, Kobyakawa tried to, but you guys never gave in! Don’t let these motherfuckers decide f-”

Stars burst into supernovae in front of Akira’s eyes, pain flooding his senses as he was hit with the same blow Goro had gotten for his insolence. Somewhere in front of him, the Secretary was speaking again, his tone arch and full of disdain, but Akira couldn’t make out the words. 

The ringing and deafening rush of blood in his ears faded just barely in time to hear Ann start to speak. “No... no, to hell with this! I’m not letting more bastards like them control me!” Her voice was gaining life again, and a new edge to it, one Akira hadn’t heard from her before, something angry and genuinely dangerous-sounding.

“You’re right... nobody’s gonna make me helpless again!” Ryuji shouted, regaining his energy in a matter of seconds, brash and bright and for the first time, sounding fully, wholly confidant in himself. “Like hell I’m gonna just take this lyin’ down- you think I can’t do shit, asshole? Watch me-

At the exact same time, both Ann and Ryuji cried out in pain and collapsed noisily back to their knees. Akira wrenched open his eyes, fighting against the pain from the hit he took to see what happened, but through the slight blur still distorting his vision, he could make out the two of them just kneeling there, clutching their heads, panting, grunting, wailing, sounding in more pain than Akira had ever heard someone be in before-

No... no he had heard this before... it was just out of his own mouth the last time-

A burst of blue flame sprouted from both Ryuji and Ann’s faces, leaving fresh, shining masks in its wake- a crimson red mask that looked like the upper half of a cat’s face for Ann, a vicious, steel-gray mask like the top half of a skull for Ryuji.

The secretary seemed deeply intimidated by all of this, but his fear only seemed to fuel his anger more, and he pointed a shaking finger at the duo, shrieking to his shadows “Get them!!!”

The shadows approached, raising their blades high. Ann and Ryuji were still doubled over, but they were scrabbling at the edges of their masks, desperately trying to claw the things off of them. Their fingers found purchase, and they pulled, and cried in pain, then pulled all the harder-

Blood, as much of it as there was flame earlier, burst out from their faces, as if they tore off their skin along with the mask, but Akira didn’t have much time to gawk in horror, because an instant later they both cried out louder and more vicious than any of the cries before-

Torrents of blue fire flooded the hallway, both Ann and Ryuji an epicenter for a tornado of fire that tossed the Secretary back onto the stairwell and sent the shadows pinning Goro and Akira flying off to crash in the distance or smack hard enough to crack bone into the walls. Akira instinctively closed his eyes, only daring to open them when the heat had passed, and what he saw...

Ann, now swathed in a leather catsuit as deep, bloody red as her mask, was standing in front of a towering woman with bubblegum-pink skin and a huge, flowing blood-red ballgown- a Persona. Both Ann and the grand Opera Prima Donna radiated power, strength, a burning determination to tear down any poor bastard that got in their way.

Ryuji, now decked out in a leather jacket and outfit that would fit in a biker gang as well as it would in a punk rock band, was standing in front of a great skeleton Pirate Captain, riding a cartoonish pirate’s ship like it was a surfboard- a Persona. Both Ryuji and the Captain radiated energy, confidence, a cocky, bone-deep knowledge that if any dumb motherfucker tried to pin him down, he’d blow them to smithereens

“Ho-holy shit!” Ryuji chuckled, looking himself over with a slightly warped, cocky grin baring his teeth. “This is bad-ass! Might not look like some hero of justice like Mister Princely over there,” he gestured to Akechi, and Akira heard an annoyed, tried groan from the detective in question. Ryuji didn’t seem to notice, his grin tightening, a fire lighting in his eyes, and he punched a fist into his hand. “But when it comes to protecting the weak and kickin’ ass, this’ll ‘effin do!”

Next to him, Ann scoffed, looking up from where she had been checking herself out to shoot an amused, mocking half-glare Ryuji’s way. “I dunno, Ryuji...” A smirk, just as confident, but far more cutting and sharp-edged than Ryuji’s, spread across her face, and she strode forwards, giving the blonde Pirate a gentle shove to the side. “I don’t think I see anyone here that needs protecting. Except maybe them.” She gestured with a nod to the shadows sprawled out across the hallway.

She reached her hand out to the side, and in a burst of blue flame, a coiled whip appeared in her grip, the same red as her suit, like it had been coated in fresh blood. She cast it out to the side, her Persona copying the movement behind her, only with a lash of fire held in its claws. Eyes sparkling with energy, Ann shouted at the shadows that had been scattered across the hallway, “Who’s first?!

There was a moment or two of silence, and then Ryuji cleared his throat, sounding meeker than before. “Uh, that was badass and all, Ann, and, uh, like you definitely don’t need protectin’, don’t get me wrong, but uh,” Ann looked over, and he gestured at Akira and Goro’s boneless, crumpled bodies on the floor in front of them. Akira tried to wave an arm, and just got a burst of pain from his everything for his trouble.

“Oh, uh, yeah! Right!” Ann laughed nervously, and did a quick, acrobatic hop over Goro’s body, Ryuji following her, trying to creep as delicately as he could around Akira. Akira couldn’t see them now, but he could still hear their voices, and feel the whoosh of power as their Personas were summoned above him. “Okay, now who’s first?!”

The shadows groaned weakly, and there were a lot of noises that Akira couldn’t exactly identify, but that he guessed were a lot of hooves and armored feet and other unusual appendages struggling and stumbling to get upright again.

“Yo!” Ryuji shouted, and suddenly there was a very loud clanging noise, like Ryuji had hit the stone wall of the hallway with whatever his weapon happened to be. “The lady asked you assholes a question!” 

Above Akira, there was a noise as Ryuji’s Persona moved, and suddenly the hallway behind him was filled with energy and violent noise, the telltale, burnt-something smell of a Persona’s magic flooding Akira’s senses.

He felt a tap to his arm, and fluttered his eyelids back open, not having noticed them fall closed at some point. Goro was propping himself up on one arm, the other having tapped at Akira, and when he was sure that Akira was alert and paying attention, he gestured to where the blonde duo had been standing before, and started crawling that way, making pained little groans with every movement. Akira sighed, and followed, and it was a goddamn effort to get over there with how wrecked his body felt, but somehow he managed to get far enough away from where the battle was starting to recommence to be relatively safe.

He let his arms fall out from under him, and a second or two later, felt a familiar warmth soothe his tired body as Goro laid an arm around his shoulders before collapsing as well. Akira took in a deep, soothing breath of Goro’s scent...

...and........................

---

When Akira’s eyes fluttered open next, they were met with a wholly unfamiliar scenery- no, wait, not wholly unfamiliar, just not what he expected to see based on what he remembered before passing out.

He was in the strange room they had found earlier, the one Goro had said they could use as a checkpoint of sorts, if they had to leave and come back. It was constantly changing shape, its walls fluctuating from the texture of stone, to cracked plaster, to an ugly wallpaper and back again, but its interior at least seemed to have settled on that of a teacher’s lounge, all couches and spinny desk chairs, coffee machines and vending machines, all the niceties you’d expect from a typical, proper business’ employee lounge, but stripped down to the most bare-bones, cost-effective version possible.

More importantly than that, Akira’s friends were all grouped around him, sitting in various states of disarray. Ryuji and Ann were sprawled out in two relatively-comfy-looking desk chairs, Ryuji spinning around in a little circle, arms outstretched to either side, holding something in one of his hands that Akira couldn’t identify while Ryuji was whirling about. Ann was seated more properly, if only slightly, her whole body and spine molded to the shape of the chair, head tilted back on the headrest, eyes staring listlessly up at the ever-shifting ceiling. She was holding something too, a small coffee mug that looked like it was steaming, clutching it tightly to her chest, as if trying to absorb the mug’s warmth through the weirdly exposed-to-the-elements upper part of her costume.

Most importantly, though Akira kinda hated himself for thinking that way, Goro was laying down on the same couch Akira was, his head resting on a pillow propped up against the couch's other arm- Akira only realizing now that he too was resting the same way. Their legs were sort of sloppily arranged on top of each other, their boots stretching up to the other’s thighs due to the small size of the couch itself. Goro seemed like he was awake- his mask wasn’t on at the moment, and again, just realizing it now, neither was Akira’s- but only barely, still blinking his eyes slowly and frequently, gazing about the room just like Akira was. When his eyes landed on Akira, and he realized that Akira was awake and okay too, a weak-but-heartfelt, lazy, sloppy little smile spread across his lips.

Akira realized he was mirroring that too.

After a few shared, private moments like that, Akira looked off to the side and decided it was time to try out this whole “speaking” thing again, see if it was worth all the hassle. He wet his lips with a tongue that felt far drier and thicker than it should, and tried to speak. “Wha’ happen’?” He managed, voice deeper and rougher than usual, and far less capable of forming syllables correctly.

Both Ann and Ryuji jumped, to varying degrees of disaster. Ann’s coffee sloshed dangerously over the edge of her cup, and it was only thanks to her model’s grace and instincts that she was able to move the cup and her body along with the sloshing to prevent it spilling all over her skin and really testing the mettle of her new Fire Elemental status. Ryuji, on the other hand, just sort of full-body jerked and jolted and just straight-up fell out of his chair, the thing he was holding in his hand- another mug of coffee- spilling all over the thin carpet on the floor.

“Aw dicks,” Ryuji groaned, glaring at the spilled coffee for a few moments before shrugging and sighing and slowly working his way back to his feet. Halfway through the struggle, he froze, and his eyes snapped to Akira and Goro, his brain belatedly putting the pieces together. “Oh dicks! You’re awake... thank fu- uh, thank ‘eff? Ah, whatever...” He got himself back to a standing position, looking and sounding deeply exhausted, and trundled over to the coffee maker in the back.

Ann, however, just smiled at Akira and Goro, her usual beaming shine dimmed significantly by obvious exhaustion. “Hey guys,” she greeted them with a little wave. “Glad to see you’re awake.”

Goro made a weird little grunty noise as he tried and failed to push himself into a more respectable upright position. He sent a similarly-tired smile back at Ann. “‘s... good to see that the both of you are alright too...” he tried, speaking very precisely and much slower than usual, likely to make sure he didn’t sound as drunk and slurred as Akira did earlier. Akira thought that Goro kinda deserved a friendly kick for being so silly and pompous, but he didn’t have the strength to move his legs, and he couldn’t move them anyways, what with them being all tangled up with Goro’s. “What happened? How did we get here?”

“Mm, yeah,” Ryuji started from over on the opposite side of the room, fiddling with the coffee maker. “You two passed the hell out after we... uh, ‘awoke,’ I guess? That’s what the Captain’s callin’ it...” He tapped the side of his head. “...anyways, we were super tired after we fought all those shadow guys off, definitely didn’t have the energy to try and shove past that ‘effin lil’ prick again, so we just had our Personas pick you guys up and carry you back here. Plopped you on the couch n’ shit, ‘n we’ve been just kinda chillin’ here since then.”

Ann nodded along with Ryuji’s story, lifting her mug at the end of it and adding on, “We thought it’d be smart to try and recharge a little, for whatever we’ve gotta do to get out of here.”

“Hm, I suppose the journey home won’t be particularly easy for the two of you...” Goro mumbled, half to himself, then he cocked his head to the side and looked back up at the others. “Wait, is that real coffee? How does that...?”

Ryuji snorted, loud and gross. “It’s real bad coffee, yeah. Caffeine though, so whatever I guess.”

Goro looked deeply lost. “But... we’re not in reality, how... how is that real coffee... I...”

“And can we have some too?” Akira added on, earning a weak little glare from Goro. He smiled.

Ann shrugged, as Ryuji shot Akira a thumbs up and started preparing two more mugs. “No idea, honestly. We got here like, an hour ago or so, and we were super out of it, like, no thoughts, head empty-levels of out of it, so we really didn’t think much of it when the coffee and the vending machine stuff was... uh, real? It is pretty weird, now that I think about it...” She grew quiet for a moment, then made a sudden, high-pitched noise of realization that made both Akira and Goro jump and have little minor heart attacks. “You said earlier that this place was safe ‘cause it was like, a weak point in the meta-whatever, so reality and the magic realm kinda crossed over, right?”

Goro hummed to himself in thought, and Akira nodded along with what Ann was saying. “That sounds about right, yeah... guess these just sorta.. .crossed through along with the furniture and stuff?” 

“Sounds about as likely as anythin’ else,” Ryuji hazard, clumsily trying to hold three mugs of coffee at once and mostly succeeding. He started making his way back over towards the others, shouting as he moved. “Hey, you two sit up properly, I’m not gonna have you try’n drink all my hard work only to choke on it and spill it everywhere ‘cause you’re too lazy to sit up.”

Akira and Goro groaned simultaneously, but followed Ryuji’s instructions, spending a good minute or two weakly trying to lever themselves into a reasonable approximation of a sitting position. Ryuji was already standing by and waiting for them by the time they were done, and he muttered something unintelligible to himself as he handed over their mugs of low-quality elixir. Goro took his greedily and started slurping it down with an uncharacteristic, if unsurprising lack of grace, and Akira at least tried to mutter a quiet “Thank you,” to Ryuji before doing the exact same thing.

Ryuji plopped back into his chair, and the four of them just sat in silence for a little bit, sipping and gulping at their drinks. After a while, Akira started to feel the life return to his body again, sending out a heartfelt mental message of gratitude towards whatever trick of biology decided that humans would have such a wonderful reaction to this caustic bean juice.

The room was peaceful and quiet and the couch was surprisingly comfortable, and Goro’s legs, still mostly on top of and underneath Akira’s were warm and pleasantly weighty. It was a perfect atmosphere for Akira to relax and unwind for the first time since that morning, before he and Goro had arrived at school and had to instantly switch to alert mode at all their suspicious classmates, which all felt like decades ago at this point. He sighed, slow and soft, letting the tension drain out of him, while still trying to maintain enough energy inside of him so that he wouldn’t just fall asleep.

After a few minutes, his mind started analyzing everything that had happened before, when things had gone so dangerously wrong. After a few moments of that, he let his gaze drift over to Ann and Ryuji, back in their poses from when he woke up, and he cleared his throat to get their attention.

“So, uh... are we gonna talk about what happened earlier?” Akira tried.

Ryuji blinked at him owlishly, then broke into a childishly excited grin. “Oh shit, you mean us gettin’ our mother-’effin Personas? Dude, it was so sick-”

Goro shook his head, enough for Ryuji to notice and pause in his effusive retelling. He lifted a hand placatingly and added “That was pretty... well, it was pretty badass, I’ll admit. But I think what Akira was referring to was what happened just before your dual awakenings. The, ah...”

“Life-endangering, shouting argument,” Akira finished for him, then instantly winced at how blunt that had been. “Uh, sorry...”

Ann and Ryuji had winced too, but Ann gave Akira a nervous smile afterwards. “That’s alright, you aren’t, uh, wrong at all... yeaaaaaaah....”

Neither of the blondes said anything else after that, both just staring into their mugs, looking uncomfortable. Eventually, Goro sighed noisily and tried to start things off. “It seems you both have some unspoken feelings towards one another?” More silence. Another, more agitated sigh. “Feelings that might be healthy and wise to voice to one another? Now, for example?”

“Jesus, alright, we get it,” Ryuji grumbled, glaring at Goro, who glared right back. Ryuji withered first, and Goro looked very smug at winning. Akira gave him a little teasing nudge in the leg, and Goro shot him a warning look, but before they could devolve matters into an easily-distracted foot-fight, Ryuji spoke up, having turned towards Ann during all of that. “Uh, so, uh... sorry, first of all. Didn’t mean to shout at ya, ‘specially when we should have been focusing n’ stuff.”

Ann smiled weakly, nodding. “Same here... I seriously can’t believe I lost my cool like that, haha...”

There were a few beats of silence, then Ann continued. “I kinda... meant what I said, though.”

Ryuji let out a short, sharp little laugh. “Yeah... me too, honestly.”

“Mmm...” Ann thought for a moment, then started “I’ve been... kinda super annoyed at you for a while now, if I’m being honest. You really have been super shouty recently, Ryuji... you just... it’s like every time you see something that’s even slightly not okay, like a teacher being kinda snippy at a student, or someone not getting an equal portion of miso at the cafeteria, it’s like the end of the world with you! You go around and you try and rile everyone up, and you just get everyone all pissed off at you in the process... I keep trying to think of excuses for you, to why you’d be doing all that, but I just can’t anymore. It really just seems like you’re stirring up shit for no reason!”

Ryuji listened to what she was saying, genuinely, straight-up listened, and Akira could tell it was really hard for him not to interrupt or snap back at her, but he was putting in the effort. Rambunctious as he so infamously was, Ryuji could tell when something was genuinely important- maybe a lesson he had been taught by his mom, Akira guessed. 

Once Ann was done talking, Ryuji let out a long, low whistle. “Wow... yeah, woof. I guess I get what you mean... I’ve felt like I’ve kinda been a walkin’ hair-trigger for a while now, you’re right. But... y’know, I was kinda the only one talkin’ about it when Kobyakawa started warpin’ the school and converting a ton of the kids to that freaky cult. Like... I know me speakin’ up about how shit around the school is, like, actually wrong and messed up and everything can be kinda annoying when I’m the only one who gives a shit, but...”

He trailed off, and Ann picked up, nodding. “No, you’re right too, like, to be fair, you speaking out about Kobyakawa’s bs definitely helped me see what was so messed up about what he’s been doing- and I think you helped a bunch of other kids too. Remember how you texted me about how you even lectured Little Miss President about it? I was thinking, I’m pretty sure she only started poking around at the students and teachers about it after you talked to her. Maybe she was legit worried about it, who knows?”

“Yeah, yeah see!” Ryuji was starting to get excitable, be he deflated at what Ann said next. 

“But... as for all the other stuff... it felt more like you were causing a fuss about all that stuff just for your own sake, Ryuji. Like, it’s good to get mad about stuff that’s messed up, but it was like you were getting mad for other people. Not, like, I mean yeah you were mad because of the stuff that was happening to them, but you were mad even when they straight-up didn’t care, when they didn’t ask for your help. You were getting offended and angry and stuff on their behalf, for people you barely even knew, and honestly it never came off as you trying to be heroic and good-hearted and stuff, it just came off like you were a kind of self-important blowhard, who thought that everyone’s problems were about you and how mad it made you.” She paused for a few moments, not to catch her breath, she had been speaking pretty calmly and level-headedly the whole time, but more to collect her thoughts and let everything sink in- and to give Ryuji a chance to respond, too.

He took a bit longer to unpack everything that Ann had said, a minute or two of silence, then nodded slowly. “Yeah... I guess... man, okay this is gonna sound really shitty, but... I guess I kinda... missed Kamoshida?”

Ann and Goro and Akira all made confused, slightly alarmed noises at that, and Ryuji waggled his hands about to try and quiet them down. “No, no, like, shut up, like... I didn’t miss him, I just like... when he was around, it was like everyone knew how shitty he was, it was a totally open secret, and so when I ran my bigass mouth and tried to get people to talk about it ‘n stuff... it was like, it mattered, y’know? Like... all this anger and frustration I always gotta deal with when shit’s messed up, it mattered, it had a purpose... and yeah, kinda cliche, but it felt like I mattered too.Most of what I feel never makes a damn bit of difference to the world, to anyone other than my ma’, I guess. When that bastard was around, I had a purpose, a reason... or like, an outlet and stuff. Afterwards, though...”

He grew grim, frustrated, face twisted. “Right after he got put away, things were pretty sweet, sure. You and me were better friends than we’d been in years, Ann, and we started hangin’ out a bunch with these two dorks,” he gestured with his thumb at Akira and Goro. Akira smiled, and Ryuji continued. 

“Hell, I even started chillin’ with Mishima too... but, like... Akira ‘n Goro are busy most of the time, with all their detective shit, and you started datin’ Shiho, like, a month later... then it was just Mishima and me for a while, and then even he started gettin’ all confidant in himself after we... uh, after a while, and like...” He cleared his throat, blushing super hard all of a sudden, which confused Akira a bit, but Ryuji kept talking before he could think too deeply on it. 

He tried to send a big smile to everyone in the room, and it was a valiant effort, but it was only an effort, in the end. “Like, I’m happy for all you guys. Ann, you ‘n Shiho deserve to be happy together, ‘specially after all the shit you went through, and Mishima’s got his ‘effin YouCube channel and his social media shit and he’s happy now, and you two guys... you’re makin’ a serious difference for a shitton of people... I dunno if that makes you happy, but it’s really ‘effin important!”

His smile faltered, and fell, and he looked down. “...but I was kinda left in the dust, y’know? We hang out and stuff, but most of the time, I was just... alone. Just dumb, lonely, angry Ryuji, eatin’ outside by the bushes so he wouldn’t be a dumb third-wheel for anybody...”

“Oh, Ryuji...” Ann sounded deeply sad, and she wheeled her chair over towards the slumped-over blonde boy to pull him into an awkward kind of side-hug. Akira reached a hand out too, still too physically drained to go over and join in, but his heart aching at Ryuji’s words enough to make him very much want to. Ann saw, and even more awkwardly tried to wheel herself and Ryuji closer to the couch, Ryuji grumbling as she scooted the two of them, not letting go of the hug for a second, until they were close enough so that Akira could put a hand on Ryuji’s knee, and Goro could put his on Ryuji’s shoulder, if they both lifted up from the couch and leaned a little. 

They managed it for about five seconds before they had to flop back down, even that amount of movement was too much. Ryuji chuckled wetly, audibly all choked up from the sudden affection.

After a few moments, Ann spoke up quietly, a little hesitantly. “I’m sorry, Ryuji... You’ve been really, really important to me for a long time- heck, you’re one of the only people who’s stood by me basically the whole time I’ve known you... but I really fucked up on showing that, huh?” Ryuji tried to speak up, moving a hand like he was gonna try and wave it off, but she bapped him softly on the head before he could talk. “No, don’t be nice, I was a jerk... I’ve been so caught up with Shiho...”

She trailed off for a few moments, her brow furrowing, looking to Akira like she suddenly realized something. After a bit, she let out a soft “Huh,” and then a rueful chuckle. “You know what... I think I envied you too, a little bit...”

What was visible of Ryuji’s face, where it was still pressed against Ann’s shoulder, looked very confused at that. “Huh?” He said, muffled. “I ain’t envious of you-”

“Oh come on,” She flicked his head, and he whined a little. “You basically said you were envious of me and Shiho being all romantic, and of the guys being all cool and heroic, and of Yuuki being all popular and Very Online and stuff, I’m just saying, like... I was too, I guess. Or, uh, I am, too, I guess.”

Ryuji’s face scrunched up more. “You’re... envious of yourself and Shiho?”

Ann groaned, and Goro did too, annoyed enough at Ryuji’s denseness to put in the effort to untangle one of his legs from Akira and give the back of Ryuji’s chair a good kick. He whined more as Ann continued. “No, dummy, I’m envious of, like, all my friends, is what I meant...” She sighed, then grew more serious again. “...you guys know that kids have always kinda... well, just kinda dumped on me for looking different, or for having my parents always away in different countries and being raised by a housekeeper and like... I never had any friends until you and Shiho, Ryuji, and I definitely never had any confidence until we got rid of Kamoshida that I could keep my friends without them getting ripped away from me by other shitty kids or my parents forcing me to move without any warning or just life being awful in general...”

“Oh yeah, your parents made you move to friggin’ Iceland or some shit like, the year after we met, right?” Ryuji added, remembering. He had levered himself back out of Ann’s grip as she had been talking, relaxing back into his chair.

Finland, Ryuji,” she groaned, but it was a half-hearted attempt at amused annoyance, sad introspection winning out. “...but... yeah, after you guys got rid of Kamoshida,” she gestured to Akira and Goro. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a shot at some kind of stability, you know? Like, we were all safe from any abusive assholes, Shiho wasn’t going anywhere, you werent’ going anywhere Ryuji, things were peaceful and happy for the first time in, like, ever.” She swallowed hard, face turning into a grimace. “I guess I kinda overreacted and, uh... went really hard with trying to make sure I didn’t lose my shot at keeping that happiness. I was all excited and self-confident and stuff after things went so well, and so I kinda... really suddenly and awkwardly asked Shiho out, and when she said yes, I guess I just kinda........ clung to that, so nothing could take her away from me. God, I hope I haven’t been too clingy with her...”

Ryuji shook his head. “Nah dude, she always looks really happy around you. She told me once while you were pissing that she thinks it’s super cute, how you’re all soft and gentle and needy and shit... buncha cutesy bullshit...” He looked grumbly, but he was also blushing a little, Akira very easily deducing that Ryuji wished he could be soft and gentle and needy too, which wasn’t surprising in the least.

Ann smiled a little at that. “That’s really sweet... I mean, there were some super unnecessary, bathroom-oriented details there, but thanks...” She and Ryuji shared a little laugh at that, and Akira smiled along with them, saw Goro doing the same out of the corner of his eye. Ann soon quieted though, and continued. “So yeah, I uh... I guess I’ve been super worried- subconsciously, but like, still worried that I’d lose what I had if I didn’t spend all my time with Shiho... but at the same time, I guess I was really envious of all of you guys too? Being able to kick ass and take names like you two do all the time, and standing up to unfair bastards like you do Ryuji.. I wanna do that, I wanna be that, I’ve always wanted to be that ass-kicking femme fatale with her boot on the neck of any guy that says she’s dumb or weak or useless...”

Ann had a very wild, slightly crazed grin on her face now, the same one she had worn when she awakened to her Persona earlier. Akira thought it suited her just as much as the happier, warmer smiles she usually wore. “Good guy or bad guy or whatever, taking down stuck-up assholes who think they can tell me what my life’s gonna be... that’s been my dream since I was a little girl, I think. I only really realized it recently, with Shiho’s help and now with Carmen’s voice in the back of my head.” 

Akira guessed that Carmen was the name of Ann’s Persona, and was gonna ask to confirm that, but Ann was on a roll and kept talking before he could. “So... yeah. You were envious of me, and I was envious of you, and I guess I kinda just... dropped the ball pretty hard on our friendship for a while there, huh?”

She seemed very embarrassed, but Ryuji did too. “Nah, like... well, not nah, but I did too for sure. All that... I guess it was envy, yeah, all of it sorta grew into a kinda resentment after a while, and even when you and Shiho reached out, I kinda pushed you guys away to be on my own instead... ‘m sorry, Ann.”

Ryuji and Ann were both looking halfway to tearful at each other, lips wobbling. “I’m sorry too...” Ann said, sniffling a lot.

“We... should apologize as well,” Goro spoke up, sudden and unexpected enough to startle the two blondes out of their sniffles, briefly. “Akira and I are really busy all the time, yes, but... well, if we were more attentive to you all, we would have understood how serious these problems with Principal Kobyakawa were becoming long before the Bound started showing their heads. And, I suppose just as importantly, we probably would have picked up on the problems between the two of you much earlier as well... and would have been able to help you two work it out before a life-or-death situation forced the issue.”

Akira smiled a little, just as regretful and ashamed as Goro was, though a little amused too. He nudged Goro’s leg with a foot. “You’re putting an awful lot of confidence in our abilities to pick up on social cues, my guy.”

Goro pouted a little, nudging Akira back. “Well, I’m sure I would have picked up on their body language at least, had I more time spent face-to-face with them, and you likely would have picked up on some incomprehensibly subtle edge to their tone or something like that.”

Ann snorted a little. “You guys are such dorks...”

Ryuji was chuckling, too, moreso with every word he said. “Fricken... what, we’d be out at Big Bang Burger, and you’d be starin’ at us like it was some cop interrogation room?”

“Ahem, excuse me, waitress,” Ann chimed in, doing a crappy but unmistakable impression of Goro’s polite, cheerful-boy persona. “Might you bring our table a few dozen cups of water? My friends here are acting mysteriously awkward, and I’d like to attempt some Advanced Interrogation Techniques-”

She couldn’t even finish the sentence before bursting out laughing, Ryuji laughing even louder, and even Akira couldn’t help but giggle a little at the mental image. Goro was still looking very huffy at the teasing, but he was biting his lips, and Akira could see a telltale shaking of the boy’s shoulders from holding his own giggles in.

After a bit, their laughter died down, and while they all still looked very tired, both physically and emotionally now, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. Akira was the first to break the pleasant silence, making sure his voice was as warm and gentle as he could get it. “Let’s all do our best to be better friends to each other from here on- and more honest with each other too, yeah?”

Everyone nodded, Ann adding in an energetic “Agreed!” Things were quiet again for a few moments until Ryuji jumped a little in his chair with a sudden, alarming yelp, and pointed right at Akira. 

“Hey, we’re gonna have to be closer now anyways!” He shouted, toning his volume down only like two thirds of the way through his sentence as he realized how loud he was being. 

Goro frowned, alarmed and confused and grumpy again. “We ought to anyways, but why do we ‘have’ to, Sakamoto?”

Ryuji just grinned like a piece of shit. “Cause weee got Persoooonaaaas now!” He sing-songed. “Now you gotta bring us along on all your crazy magic detective shit!”

“Well, probably not all of it,” Ann cautioned, though she looked just as excited as Ryuji did. “A lot of the time, they go out investigating stuff when I definitely couldn’t make it. But, like, when we’re all free, we totally gotta go together!”

Goro and Akira looked at each other nervously. On one hand, neither of them wanted to put the blonde duo in any more danger, they really, really did not want to do that. On the other hand... 

“You... are right, I suppose,” Goro hedged, looking uncomfortable. “More people on our team would undoubtedly make our investigations a great deal smoother, and you both do need training, in case something bizarre happens and you end up in the Metaverse alone for some reason... but...”

“We’d really rather you guys not be in life-threatening danger, if we can avoid it,” Akira explained, hoping very hard that they’d understand.

Ryuji looked pretty unimpressed though. “Uh, dude, this whole city’s gettin’ taken over by a crazy cult that doesn’t have any issue with lockin’ kids up in their schools and brainwashin’ em and kidnappin’ em and shit, like, we’re gonna be in a lotta danger til all this is done.”

“...point,” Akira conceded. “I don’t like it, but you’ve got a point.”

Goro nodded, then sighed and got his arms under him, trying to get himself back into a sitting position. “At any rate, we can work out the details once we’re all out of here and safe. Are we all ready to move out?”

“Wait,” Akira held up his hand, only wincing a little at the very tired look Goro was giving him now. “We should at least agree on a plan of attack for tomorrow. We’re all probably gonna have to split once we get back to the real world, especially if its already night time.”

Goro hummed in thought, and Ann and Ryuji looked at each other nervously. There was a brief silence as everyone gathered their thoughts, then Ann spoke up. “Uh... I know it’s probably gonna sound crazy, but I think Ryuji and me oughta go back to where they were keeping us before.”

Goro slowly swiveled his head to blink at her, like an exhausted, bewildered owl. “...I’m sorry, what?”

“Think about it, dude,” Ryuji joined in, his face all scruntched up in frustration, but seeming resigned to what Ann said too. “If we bust outta here and go missin’ and shit... they’ve still got Shiho and Mishima and whoever the hell else they locked up in there. You think they’re not gonna do some weird hostage shit to try and get us to come back?”

Akira frowned. It wouldn’t make sense for Shujin to try and coerce escaped students back into their cells, there would be no easy way to communicate the threats to Ann or Ryuji for starters, especially if the school was in the process of going fully offline as Futaba had said earlier. Still, the fact was that they were still holding other kids prisoner, and even if the purpose wasn’t to get Ann and Ryuji back, it wouldn’t be surprising if they lashed out at the other kids...

“...I understand your point of view.” Goro managed through clenched teeth. “But it is a stupid, self-sacrificing decision to make. You are putting yourselves back into danger, and while Akira and I will be able to bring you back here easily enough tomorrow... there is no telling what might happen to you in the interim.”

“Hey, it’s just day one of this bs,” Ann said jovially, trying to reassure Goro and probably also herself, a little. “I know these guys are some wacky cultists and stuff, but they’d have to be pretty dumb to pull some weird stuff on their prisoners while they’re still probably trying to get everything settled for their, uh, brainwashed kids and stuff.”

Akira nodded. “Point. Unless they’re really spiteful, any sort of punishment or torture or whatever is gonna be a way lower priority than securing their authority. Besides,” he frowned, drumming his fingers on his leg. “As far as what we need to do to move forwards here... that Secretary guy said that only Student Council members can get up to the next floor, right?”

“...uh, I think so, yeah?” Ryuji cocked his head to the side, the little pupper, crossing his arms as he thought back. “Like, I was pretty pissed off when he was talking, but I remember something like that.”

Akira nodded. “So we’re gonna need a Student Council ID to get up there- and considering that he recognized your faces, we’re probably gonna have to bring an actual Student Council person with us.”

“...and we heard those shadows talking about the leader of the ‘youth ministers’ being confined to her chambers earlier, didn’t we?” Goro added, eyes clouded with thought and exhaustion in equal measures, his fingers stroking his chin. “...that’s probably the younger Nijima, isn’t it?”

“No way...” Ann murmured, looking a little lost. “They... they locked Makoto up too?”

Akira shrugged. “We don’t know for sure, but that’s what we overheard from some of the shadow guards in here when we were sneaking in earlier today. They said something about her harboring heretical thoughts or whatever... my guess is that Kobyakawa got uncomfortable with her asking a bunch of questions like you guys said she did, and had her confined somewhere.”

“Huh. Probably the Student Council room, yeah?” Ryuji hazarded. “She spends so much time in there, it might as well be where she lives, from what I’ve heard. You really gonna try and bring her in too?”

Goro’s frown deepened. “I remember Commissioner Nijima saying that she’d been spending more time at school recently...” He shook his head, taking a deep, long breath and letting it out all at once. He looked over at Ryuji, “I don’t think we have much choice, if we want to get farther into this place and actually solve this nonsense. I don’t know. Akira and I will sleep on it and contact you two again sometime tomorrow morning or afternoon with what we come up with.”

“Okay...” Ann said, sounding more nervous now than when she proposed staying in enemy territory, but still determined for all that. “Just be careful, okay?”

“We should be saying that to you guys,” Akira shook his head ruefully. “And, uh, we are. Be careful too, you two.”

Ann nodded, but Ryuji looked a bit more quiet and thoughtful before giving a nod as well. “One other thing, uh,” he started, looking a little embarrassed. “Could you guys let my ma’ know that I’m okay?”

Akira felt himself smile warmly on instinct. Ryuji really was a soft as hell boy under all the punk shit. “Of course, Ryuji. Just give me her number before we warp back and I’ll send her a message when we get home.”

Sighing in relief, Ryuji walked over to where Akira was sitting and helped him type the number into the notes section of the Metaverse app- the only place they could really write anything down at the moment, and Akira definitely did not want to rely on his memory when he was in this state. He felt like he was doing a little better than Goro, but perhaps he was just better at hiding his own exhaustion from himself. Some weird brain shit, it wasn’t important at the moment.

He turned to look towards Goro when Ryuji was done, finding him tapping away at the app. He scooted over closer to him, peeking over his shoulder. “What’s up?”

Goro didn’t look up, only grumbled a little. “I’m trying to see if we can get the app to warp us back to reality exactly where we came in, as opposed to going back to that little alleyway from earlier.”

“Huh,” Akira hadn’t realized it yet, but that would be pretty important- they had no way of getting Ann and Ryuji back into their classrooms otherwise.

It was the work of a handful of minutes to get the app to do what they wanted, but they managed to get it set up to warp them back there in the end. “We’re ready,” Goro reported to the others, and Ann and Ryuji got to their feet, looking more than a little unsteady, but stable enough. “Are you two sure you’ll be alright?” Goro asked one more time, still skeptical.

Ann waved her hand at him, smiling tiredly. “Don’t worry so much, Goro. They gave us cots to sleep in, the classrooms are pretty warm, we’ll be fiiiiiiine.”

Goro was still looking skeptically at all of that, especially since Ryuji seemed too drained at this point to even manage words, but he sighed and shrugged and nodded all the same. “Alright. Just be careful, then. We’ll be in touch when we have a plan for how to handle things tomorrow.”

The blonde duo nodded, and with one final cautious look from Goro and an encouraging thumbs-up from Akira, they warped back to reality.

After the flood of black and red and the watery, wavey sensation in Akira’s brain had faded, he found himself and Goro back in the bushes they had been hiding in earlier. It was completely dark outside now, the only light around them coming from the outdoor lamps on the school itself, and the distant haze of streetlamps beyond Shujin’s fence. 

When Akira looked over, Goro was fiddling with his phone- or rather, he had just finished fiddling with his phone, sliding it into his pocket and looking over towards Akira with a tired smile. Akira smiled back, muttering a quiet little “Hey.”

Goro’s eyes crinkled amusedly. “Hey yourself,” he replied, then gestured towards where he had stowed away his phone. “I messaged Futaba, the cameras should still be offline.”

“Thank fuck,” Akira muttered, then gestured for Goro to lead the way. He did so, and within a handful of minutes, they had snuck out of Shujin’s grounds the same way they had come in. A minute or two later, and they were far enough away from the school to not have to worry about any patrolling guards either. Akira sighed loudly in relief, a sigh that quickly turned into a yawn and a stretch as the weight of the day started fully settling in. He looked around as he finished yawning, and asked blearily, “You think the trains’re still running?”

Goro had just finished yawning himself as Akira spoke, and shrugged bonelessly. “No idea... might as well find out.” He cracked his neck a lot, groaning a little at the release of pressure. “What a fucking day...”

Akira nodded. “Seriously...”

 They stood there for a few minutes, leaning against one another’s shoulders, letting their minds be numb and tired for just a little bit, before they had to start moving again. Eventually, still half-slumped against one another, supporting each other’s weight as always, the Detective Princes headed back home.

 

 

Chapter Text

Goro woke up first the next morning, far earlier than he should have, given how utterly exhausting the previous day was. He couldn’t help it though, brain and body sore in equal measures after just a few hours of restless tossing and turning. He stared up into the middle-distance, mind numb and thinking of nothing and everything for what felt like hours and hours and hours, until he found the motivation to haul himself out of bed and head to the bathroom for his daily ablutions.

After he was finished at the sink, he sat on the toilet, staring blankly and thinking, until his butt got sore from the hard porcelain, then he finished his bathroom business and moved to the couch, where he sat, staring blankly and blinking, but more comfortably now.

Some interminable amount of time later, he heard Akira’s bedroom door open, some rummaging and rustling about as Akira (presumably) got himself ready for the day, then a pause as Akira (presumably) spotted Goro, sitting motionlessly and listlessly on the couch.

A few seconds, then a few footsteps later, and a familiar weight plopped itself down onto the plush cushion next to Goro, with a half-yawned “Mornin’...” 

Goro made a general sort of noise of acknowledgement back, and a few seconds of silence passed, before Akira sighed very quietly, and scooted closer to Goro, close enough so that their legs were pressed against one another, and put his hand on top of the one Goro had resting on his thigh. He felt the cushions shift a little as Akira let his head loll slightly back into them, his head tilted just close enough towards Goro so that when he murmured a very gentle, very kind “What’s up, Goro?” Goro could feel a warm puff of minty breath ghost across his cheek.

It was all very intimate, and were he more awake, Goro probably would have gotten flustered to the point where the flusteredness would have overwhelmed the depressed fugue clouding his brain, jerking away from the touch, all red and hot and bothered. Goro wasn’t very awake, though, so while he very definitely blushed, could feel the heat in his cheeks and the sweat on his palms, the only reaction he had physically was to sigh, long and from someplace deep in the numb void inside him, and loll his head back into the couch cushions too.

“...I suppose I’m mostly thinking about Shido,” Goro murmured, eventually, heart too tired for him to speak up very loudly. He got like this sometimes, where the weight of everything going on in his heart felt like it pressed so hard against his lungs and his vocal cords that he couldn’t manage more than the gentlest, barest murmur. “Yesterday was... a lot, in general, but... to see him again like that...”

“...yeah.” Akira agreed. “We’ve been chasing his trail for so long now, to have him just... pop up like that...”

Akira trailed off, but Goro nodded, knowing even better than Akira what he meant. Ever since they started their work as the Detective Princes, years ago, they had spent any free time they had in-between cases looking for information on Goro’s absentee father, with nothing but a name and a photo and Goro’s memories of his mother’s angry ramblings to go on. They found out he was a politician pretty early, of course, before they even met Sojiro. But it wasn’t until much later that they became skilled enough detectives to dig up the loose connections between Shido’s associates and various shady characters, then utilize their connections with the police to find the full names of those characters, then prowl through Mementos and beat any relevant information out of said characters’ shadow selves.

What they found was pretty rough stuff- Shido’s fingers stuck deep inside more illicit, deeply criminal pots than they could have imagined, from general financial crimes and bribery to gun-running and drug dealing- or rather, it wasn’t Shido’s fingers stuck in those pots, but the fingers of those directly and indirectly connected to him, within his inner political circle and orbiting just outside of it, and that was the problem. 

Legally, to even the most careful, critical eye, Shido was nothing more than an outspoken, shiny-headed firebrand of a politician, rabble-rousing from the edges of his chosen party for years now, widely speculated to be making a play to fragment the party into a new one that he himself would lead, but nothing more sinister than that. Even the evidence Goro and Akira did manage to dig up on Shido’s associates wouldn’t stick in court, all of them far too powerful and influential to be brought down by a handful of evidence coughed up by a random criminal and brought in by some random, moderately famous kids.

The thought did occur for Goro and Akira to just go after the shadows of Shido’s advisors directly, or even the shadow of Shido himself, but all of the advisors were either listed as farther down in Mementos than they were able to reach yet, or, like Shido himself, unable to be found entirely. Not being able to find their shadows had been a frustrating, infuriating dead-end for a long time now, but after everything they learned and saw yesterday, Goro had a feeling that they must all have their own Palaces, or were hiding out in Shido’s Palace, like the shadows of Shujin’s students inside of Kobyakawa’s.

Goro took a deep breath and slowly, slowly let it out through his teeth, trying to rid himself of all the frustration and anger that built up just from remembering all of that, just from thinking about the bald bastard. “It isn’t just that it was so sudden, though,” he finally replied to Akira, feeling his eyes burn a little as he spoke. “It’s the realization that you and I are the only people who could possibly deal with him. That after all these years, the fucker finally shows his face in something more than a stupid campaign stump speech, and it’s all to announce his plan to take over the country via a method that literally nobody else but us can do anything to counter.”

“We... hm,” Akira sounded like he was about to counter that, but he stopped himself just as he began. “I was gonna say we don’t know for certain that he’s using the Metaverse to brainwash people into his cult, but I guess with all the stuff we saw in Kobyakawa’s Palace, we kinda do, huh? He was basically using some weird Metaverse-hypno-powers to control all the kids in that sermon hall, almost got us too...”

Goro nodded tiredly. “Yeah. So not only do I have to see the stupid face of the shithead who abandoned my mother and I to poverty and despair,” He felt his throat close a little as he spoke, voice getting all squeaky and croakey and his eyes burning until he coughed and blinked the feeling away. “But I’m gonna have to keep seeing him, all-powerful and taunting, until you and I specifically work our asses off to destroy him and his shitty cult. I have no idea how long any of that is going to take, but easily at minimum we’re looking at months of having our entire lives revolve around taking down that bastard, and frankly I can’t go a full five minutes thinking about him before I want to slam my head through this damn table!

Goro felt himself breathing heavily, and nothing at all else, until his other senses returned to him slowly over the next minute- his sight, blurred from painfully hot liquid, his hearing, a blaring, deafening ringing, his taste, mouth dry and dead, his smell, hot and wet and snotty, his touch, hunched forwards, bent halfway between the couch and the glass coffee table, one of Akira’s arms wrapped around him, across the front of him like a seatbelt, Akira’s other hand petting his hair, fingers dug into his locks and running across his scalp. As the ringing in his ears faded, he could hear Akira murmuring senseless, soothing nonsense, short little calming phrases and noises in no particular order.

Goro felt his expression crumble, face breaking into something ugly and twisted and horribly, deeply sad, and while he managed somehow to avoid openly sobbing or anything as mortifying as that, he did twist around and bury his face into Akira’s shoulder and hung onto the boy for dear life as the torrent of built-up feeling flooded out of him as silently as he could keep it. Akira, bless him, just adjusted his hold on Goro, arm across Goro’s back, hand still petting his hair, cheek pressed up against the side of Goro’s head so he could keep murmuring gently into Goro’s ear.

It was humiliating, and awful, and horrible, and deeply, down-to-the-soul cleansing, like all the gunk that had built up from years of chasing the one lead he had on the source of his mother’s misery and the source of Goro’s own miserable little life was being washed off with a power hose, leaving Goro raw and sore and aching, but clean.

However long they spent there passed in the blink of an eye and tortuously slowly all at once, until Goro was able to lift himself off of Akira and sit up properly again. He felt awful and disgusting, but better for all that. “S-sorry...” he managed, still sniffling a little.

Akira just smiled, very soft and warm, though his eyes looked deeply pained in that empathetic way Akira always had whenever Goro got like this. Humiliating. Kind as a saint, but humiliating. “Nothing to apologize for. You good?” He asked, after a little pause.

Goro took a deep, shuddery breath, then let it out all in one big whoosh. “Yes... I think so.”

“Good,” More smiling, and a pat on the shoulder as Akira got back to his feet. “Get yourself clean and more comfortable, I’ll make us some breakfast.”

Goro nodded, and made his way back to the bathroom to wash his face, then to his room to find a new, less tear-and-snot-drenched shirt. As he was changing, he heard Akira laugh lightly to himself in the kitchen, then shout across the apartment. “Also, it isn’t just us who have the ability to take down Shido anymore,” he yelled, Goro finishing changing and coming out of his room to head back to the couch just in time to catch the end of the sentence. He sat, sending Akira a curious look, and Akira sent him a smirk over his shoulder. He chuckled again, his grin only growing, and added “We’ve got Ann and Ryuji too, now.”

“Oh god,” Goro groaned, tilting his head back to stare up at the ceiling in despair again. “Don’t remind me...”

“Hey, it’s not all bad,” Akira admonished lightly, turning back to whatever he was cooking on the stove. “They’re dorks, but not any more than we are, and considering that they were able to off a whole hallway full of shadows while we were passed out on the ground, seems like they’re pretty strong too.”

Goro grumbled wordlessly, and Akira chuckled again. It would likely be a boon to them overall, to have two more people to help them deal with whatever other Metaverse bullshit they were going to have to deal with before this nightmare was over. But still. Ann and Ryuji were his friends, sure, but that didn’t mean that they were the first people Goro would think of when coming up with his Top 10 People I’d Be Cool Fighting Against Deadly Monsters With. 

A few moments passed, then another thought occurred to Goro, and he groaned again, bending over forwards to bury his face in his hands. Akira made a confused noise, closer this time, and clanked two plates full of something hot and appetizing down on the table as he sat next to Goro. “What’s up?”

Goro looked up tiredly from his hands, and it was only the sight of the fried egg and breakfast sausage that gave him enough energy to tell Akira “It isn’t just Ann and Ryuji. We’re going to have to bring Makoto Nijima of all people in with us- and with our luck, she’ll probably awaken to a Persona too.”

“...ah,” was all Akira had to say to that, and it was enough, honestly. They both reached for their plates and dug in, mulling over that little nugget of information. Makoto Nijima wasn’t a bad person, strictly speaking, she just hated Goro and Akira’s guts. 

Well. That may be overstating it a little, but Goro was self-aware enough to know that he was nothing if not dramatic, so whatever. Every time they were together, usually only meeting up due to Goro and Akira’s work with her father, she either stared at them with the most emotionless, dead-eyed mask of a face a human could have without being actually dead, or, when her father wasn’t looking, glared at them with an anger Goro had no idea how to characterize. 

It was intense. She was an intense person, and it was always intense around her, and Goro and Akira were going to have to somehow convince her to come into an alternate dimension with them and help them break into the manifestation of her Principal’s psyche.

Hoo, as Sojiro would say, boy.

They finished up breakfast, and made plans as Goro took his turn washing the plates and the pan Akira had used. They’d need some time to prepare for the next leg of their infiltration before they got down to business, but it’d probably be smart to talk to Makoto first, so she’d at least have most of the day to consider whether to help them out or not, then meet back up with Ann and Ryuji in the early evening. 

That meant their first stop was Shujin Academy, so once they were fully dressed and ready to go, Goro led the way to the Yongen-Jaya subway station, and they headed off. He had a thought, while they were traveling, and once they made it to the school itself, he brought it up to Akira.

“I have an idea, for how we can get to Nijima,” he murmured, craning his neck to look over what they could see of Shujin itself from the alleyway they had ensconced themselves within again.

“Thank fuck for that,” Akira muttered, sounding relieved as all hell. “I’ve been trying to think of something the whole train ride.”

Goro smirked and gave Akira a quick little condescending pat on the head, which Akria batter away like the huffy cat he was, then Goro continued. “Those shadows said she was being held in the Student Council room, right?” He gestured towards the top floor of the building, towards the general area the Student Council room was at, from the blueprints and data Futaba had sent them. “We managed to warp out of the Palace at roughly the same real-world location we warped in, last night. Who’s to say we can’t warp out at the real-world equivalent of that safe room we found too?”

“Huh...” Akira grew thoughtful, stroking his chin. “Makes sense to me, I guess. The Metaverse and the real world were kinda mixing and melding in there, makes enough sense that the walls of reality or whatever would be thin enough for us to cross over.”

“It’s worth a try, at least,” Goro nodded. “Shall we?”

Akira gestured towards him. “After you.”

Goro tapped at his phone, breathing out slowly as the weird, uncomfortable wash of sensations passed over him while they warped into the Palace, then, once they were inside, tapped at his phone again to warp them back to the safe room. Another uncomfortable wash, and they were there.

He looked around, the room still looking like the teacher’s lounge he had woken up in yesterday, though with slightly different decor. The walls were still warping and changing, and if he looked closely enough, he could see the murky haze that stuck to the walls of the Palace fade slightly and look more real, more physical every so often.

“Well, here we go,” he muttered, mentally crossing his fingers, and tapped at the app until he got to the screen that let them return to the real world. It seemed confused at first, taking a moment to process before asking if they wanted to warp back to the Palace entrance. He tapped no, then it processed some more, and, seeming a little confused, asked if they wanted to exit here. He tapped yes, and yet more time passed before the authoritative, feminine voice piped up an affirmative, and the world washed and shifted and warped around them again-

-Goro opened his eyes, and looked around. They were in a teacher’s lounge for sure, but one that didn’t look like it had been used in a while. The lights were all off, the room only lit by the faint glow of sunlight stretching through the cracks in the blinds covering the room’s windows. Goro looked over at Akira, who seemed just as surprised as Goro was that it worked, then, after a few seconds, the surprise faded, and they grinned victoriously at each other.

Perfect.

It had been a hot minute since Goro and Akira had to sneak about in the real world, where the consequences for getting caught were... well, not more severe than the life-or-death consequences in the Metaverse, but certainly threatened to be more life-destroying in the long-term. That said, out of practice as Goro may be, he and Akira were naturals at this sort of thing, both from instinct and their time spent working illicit jobs way back when.

They made their way slowly through the halls of Shujin, but in the end, it took easily half the time, if not less, to get to the third-floor room Makoto was in as it did for them to navigate the first floor of Kobyakawa’s Palace. They had to keep quiet and stay low, but for whatever reason, Shujin’s halls were almost totally empty, everyone apparently having been stuffed inside the school’s classrooms like tins of evangelical sardines.

So, after not that long, they arrived at the student council room- or rather, they arrived at a door on the third floor of the school that Futaba had pointed out to them as the student council room on the school’s blueprints. They probably would have been able to tell that this room was different than the others anyways, though, because attached to the door itself was a big, ugly-looking padlock, large and thick enough to keep the door handle from turning unless it was removed.

A lot of thoughts went through Goro’s head at the sight of that, none of them good, but he moved to the side all the same so Akira could work his magic on it. A minute or two later, and the thing gave a satisfyingly weighty click, and popped open. Akira gently, carefully maneuvered the thing off of the door handle, and after briefly debating whether to put it on the floor or bring it in with them, he seemed to settle on a middle path of sticking the thing in one of his pockets for the time being.

All that settled, Goro leaned up next to Akira, and after triple-checking that nobody else was around, knocked a few times. For a few seconds, there was silence- or, not perfect silence actually. If Goro strained his ears, he could hear some cluttering around inside the classroom, likely Nijima maneuvering her way towards the door. Eventually, the door opened to reveal a confused and slightly grumpy-looking Makoto Nijima- though, as soon as she took in Goro and Akira standing there, her face morphed from confusion to deep, deep annoyance.

“What-” She started to shout, then cut herself off to shift to a hissing, scathing whisper. “What in the world are you two doing here?!”

“We need to talk,” Goro said simply. He didn’t want to deal with this back when they first realized they’d have to bring Makoto onto the team, but now, face to face with her, he really didn’t want to deal with it. Nijima was the epitome of every privileged, spoiled-sour, youngest child trope Goro had always hated, and it didn’t help matters that she held some blinded, envious grudge against Akira and him for their working relationship with her father. It was absurd, she was absurd, and if Goro had no other choice but to go to her for help, at the very least he sure as hell was going to keep things short and to the point.

Akira, on the other hand, somehow had a seemingly infinite well of forgiveness and second chances to dole out to the people in his life who treated him like dirt, with a few notorious exceptions, and so he just gave Makoto an apologetic, embarrassed smile, put his hands together plaintively. “Could we come in? It’s really, really important.”

For a good half minute, Makoto just stood there and stared at them, a war of several unpleasant-looking emotions playing on her face. After a bit, Goro wondered if she was going to refuse, and they would have to have this entire conversation in hushed, hasty whispers, looking over their shoulders every few seconds, but thankfully she wasn’t a complete asshole, and finally stepped aside. “Fine. Just make it quick.”

“Thanks, Makoto-senpai!” Akira whispered cheerily as he scuttled past her, which was very kind of Akira to do, as it gave Goro the opportunity to see the deeply annoyed and pissed-off expression that twisted Makoto’s face at the tone and the somewhat-teasing honorific, which was deeply satisfying. Goro gave himself a good second to take in the stuck-up jerk’s brief moment of misery, then snuck in himself.

The room Makoto had been kept in was, at this point, not much more than a glorified storeroom, all the shit that Kobyakawa and his brainwashed followers didn’t need piled up on desks or chairs or even just spread out on the floor. Makoto seemed to have managed to clean a spot for herself, a lone desk in the sea of chunky computer monitors and textbooks, mostly clean, save for a stack or two of paperwork.

After closing the door as quietly as she could, Makoto quickly brushed past Goro and Akira as they looked around, and settled back behind her desk, getting right back to doing whatever work she had been doing without so much as giving them another look. Head bowed to the paper, she spoke to them, her voice a mixture of annoyance and preemptive exhaustion. “So, what did you have to say that is so important, you two were driven to break into a Private Academy and sneak your way up to the third floor like common thieves?”

Goro felt his face and his gut twist in annoyance, and was immensely grateful to Akira for speaking up first. “It’s... a lot of stuff, really, but I guess, uh... well, overall, we need your help to bring Principal Kobyakawa down.”

That got her to jerk up from her paperwork and give them a confused, almost angry look. “What? Why on earth would I help you do that? Why would you want to do that?”

Goro frowned more. “If you haven’t noticed, Nijima-chan,” and oooooooh Makoto looked even more annoyed at being called ‘chan’ than she had at Akira’s ‘senpai.’ Aggravating her like this probably wasn’t helping matters at all, but it was very satisfying to poke at the nerves of someone who had treated Akira and him like shit since the first day they met. After everything Goro had gone through recently, he’d take the satisfying route over the safe one in an instant. “This school has transformed from a typical academy to a conservative, dogmatic prison within a matter of days.”

“That’s overdoing it a bit, don’t you think, Akechi-kun?” She scoffed, and put, as Futaba would say, ‘a little bit of stank’ on the ‘kun’ at the end there. Asshole. “I’ll admit, the sudden shift to running Shujin as a religious academy was... surprising, but Principal Kobyakawa was acting wholly on the wishes of the students, all of whom had converted to this Bound religion over the course of the last few weeks. As has most of Tokyo, from what I hear.”

Goro cocked his head to the side in confusion at that, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Akira cock his head to the other side at the same time. “You can’t honestly believe that practically the entire student base converted to a cult’s imbecilic religion over such a short time, and that a toad like Kobyakawa would simply change the structure of his entire academy at the behest of his students, can you?”

“And how have you ‘heard’ about what’s been happening in the rest of the city,” Akira added, and Goro turned to face him, his forehead creasing further at his friend’s words, because that was a very good point. “From what our ha- uh, from what we’ve heard, Shujin’s gone dark, cut off all access to the outside world, no phone calls, no internet, no going home for the students, nothing.”

Akira’s list was phrased very pointedly, partly to emphasize his point, partly to emphasize how fucked up all of that was. Makoto looked a little uncomfortable, but not enough to change her tune, apparently. “As I said, the sudden change of Shujin’s rules caught me by surprise, but removing one’s self from the corrupting influences of society is one of the central tenants of the Bound religion... or so I’ve gathered from the reading materiel Principal Kobyakawa has provided me with on the subject.” 

She looked a bit troubled, for a moment, but then her face fell back into its familiar stern grimace as she turned to face Goro. “As for your other points... no, I have not heard anything from beyond the school walls myself, but Principal Kobyaakwa keeps us all updated on the day-to-day goings on of the city. It’s part of his morning... announcements, shall we say.” She looked uncomfortable again, and Goro wagered that the ‘announcements’ were more like a preacher’s sermon than anything else. “But... while I myself do not subscribe to the belief system of the Bound, I respect what Principal Kobyakawa is trying to do here, and I’d appreciate it if you two didn’t cast aspersions against him in my presence.”

The emotional ping-pong Makoto had been playing since they walked inside kind of undercut the stern, authoritative look she was giving them, but Akira seemed determined to treat her with a respect she very much had not earned, in Goro’s eyes. “Makoto, I don’t see much that the guy is ‘trying to do,’ besides consolidate his power and control over the whole school. Don’t you think it’s kind of weird-”

“Principal Kobyakawa has a noble goal with the changes he’s made to our curriculum, Amamiya-kun,” She cut him off sternly, harshly, a veritable verbal lashing that was, again, weakened in effectiveness, this time by the fact that she was unknowingly calling Akira by his pseudonym. “As I said before, the religious aspect of the school was enacted at the wishes of the student body, but the Principal sees the changes as something more significant than even just that. The tenants of the Bound religion, in his eyes, fight against the most toxic aspects of Modern Japanese Schooling, and instead foster a spirit of community and cooperation amongst the entire student body.”

Goro’s eyebrow raised very high at that. The girl was right in that schooling in Japan was fucked up in a lot of ways, but to think that Kobyakawa was somehow spinning this cultist bullshit as a magnanimous fight against all that? He had to hear how the bastard was running that con. “Go on,” he said, trying his best to hold back his morbid amusement.

Makoto didn’t even look at him as she continued, her gaze off to the side, staring into the middle-distance. “Principal Kobyakawa laid out his goals to the entire Student Council yesterday morning. He follows the teachings of the Bound himself, but he sees their teachings in a more transformative light. To shield our students from the toxic and unhealthily competitive environments of today’s internet, he cuts it off. To make our lessons more relevant to the day-to-day lives of the students, he has our curriculum taught through sermon and readings of the Bound’s Holy Book. To foster a sense of community and cooperation, he has our students eat, sleep, and spend their free time together, either in their classrooms or in the gymnasium for our daily Sermons. To counter bullying and inter-student abuse why are you laughing, Akechi-kun?” She cut herself off, and quite rightly too, Goro absolutely couldn’t keep in his chuckles any longer, this was all so stupid. “Do you find something about our school’s noble goals funny?

Goro wiped a tear from his eye, knowing that the smile on his lips was his more honest, more cruel-looking, but not caring to fix it at this point. “It’s just all so... moronically transparent. You can’t tell me that you actually fell for that garbage, Nijima-chan?”

She looked stung, and more than a bit offended. “Excuse me? You’d have to be pretty blind to the state of our society to not see how pressing and real the problems Principal Kobyakawa is fighting against are-”

“Yes, yes, we all know that the world is shit, Nijima,” he waved his hand dismissively at her. “But all of that, all of what you were regurgitating there... it’s just very funny, honestly! He’s so blatantly co-opting the type of language used by people who are genuinely fighting to make the world better... but, wow, if that’s how he phrased it, he really is barely trying to pretend like this is anything but a power grab.”

Makoto took a sharp breath, ready to fight back against that, but Akira spoke up first, purposefully cutting her off before she could join Goro in digging this fighting pit even deeper. “Goro’s right, Makoto. Isolating the other kids here, keeping them cooped up all day, only ever talking about the Bound religious stuff while making them not trust the outside world... that’s pretty classic cult shit. You’re smart, Makoto, you must have realized that.”

She frowned at Akira, face all twisted up and grumpy. “I... you both are entitled to believe whatever it is you believe,” she finally said, after a lengthy pause. “But I have full faith in the mission our Principal has started to carry out, and no matter what you say, I will continue to support him in whatever way he asks from here. I will most certainly not be assisting you in ‘taking him down,’ whatever that means, and the two of you ought to be thankful that I haven’t called the-”

“Oh whatever, Nijima,” Goro cut her off, groaning and exhausted. Somehow, he had known that this would be exactly how she would react, always the eager servant of the powerful. “Look, if you want to stay locked up in your cell, doing... whatever it is that your jailer has you doing, fine, whatever.” He propped a fist up on his hip and gestured towards the door behind them. “But whether you like it or not, out there, the students of this school are suffering.”

“They aren’t ‘suffering,’ Akechi-kun,” she shot back, a little mockingly. “And I am certainly not ‘locked up’ here. I-”

“Uh, there was literally a lock on the door, Makoto,” Akira cut in. “Like, an additional lock on top of the door’s built-in lock. Did you.. not try to open the door yourself?”

She looked surprised, and more than a little ashamed and embarrassed. “I... the paperwork Principal Kobyakawa gave me was remarkably complicated, so I... and someone always stopped by to bring me food, or remind me to use the facilities, so....”

“...if that’s how its been for you since yesterday, you’re probably just as ignorant to the fact that there are others just as locked-up as you are,” Goro sighed. This girl really was the perfect little stooge- or she would be, he supposed, if she hadn’t grown up around a high-ranking cop and a Prosecutor, and thus absorbed some of their need to ask questions and get answers. “Not all of the students here are happy little cultists, Nijima, and even if they were, they’d still need your help. As would we.”

Akira nodded in agreement, and the shame coating Makoto’s expression grew more confused and concerned. “Who... who else have they... ‘locked up,’ as you said?”

“We’ve spoken directly with Ann and Ryuji, from the second year,” Akira said, holding up a finger for each of them. “They told us that Mishima and Shiho got taken away too, also from the second year.”

“Beyond that,” Goro added. “We’ve also heard that they got one of the teaching staff here, though we don’t know who, exactly.”

Makoto was staring at the ground, her brow furrowed, thoughtful. “...I haven’t seen Kawakami-sensei at the sermons yesterday or today...”

“Probably her, then,” Akira shrugged- then straightened up, remembering something. “Oh, and we even heard that Kobyakawa let one of the other kids here hauled away by some visiting Bound official. Goro and I did a bit of research on the way here, we think it might have been a Haru Okumura-” 

“They took Haru-chan?!” Makoto said- though it was inaccurate to describe it as her just ‘saying’ it. Her voice got all high and nervous all of a sudden, her volume level rising too, just barely staying quiet enough to not catch the attention of anyone outside. For a moment, and for several moments after that as the panic and fear settled in, Makoto looked less like a stern servant of authority, and more like a regular, if very scared kid. It was the first time Goro had ever seen her let her guard down like that, and with no small amount of private embarrassment, he wondered if he hadn’t been misreading her all this time. To be fair, she hadn’t exactly been very eager to correct any negative impressions she left on Goro and Akira over the years they had known one another, but still, Goro was supposed to be a detective, for fuck’s sake...

Not seeming nearly as surprised by Makoto’s sudden change in demeanor, Akira nodded gently. “From what we’ve heard, yeah. I’m guessing you haven’t seen her around at the sermons either, have you?”

Makoto grew pale, and shook her head just a little, eyes cast down to the floor as she quickly became lost in thought.

Goro watched the storm swirl behind her eyes for a few moments, then sighed and spoke up. “Look... you should have enough information to not trust Kobyakawa now, but there’s even more that we... frankly can’t talk about here.” He looked to the side- the reason they couldn’t talk about it here was that Makoto would absolutely throw everything they had been saying out the window if they started talking about Metaverses and Palaces and all that shit, but it did no harm to leave that little fact more mysterious for the time being. “If you want to know more, and better, if you want to do something to help the situation-”

“-and get Haru-chan back,” Akira added on, helpfully.

Goro nodded at him. “And get Haru-chan back, go to Classroom 1-C tonight, around 5.” He had checked the floorplan Futaba had given them last night, memorizing the names of the classrooms Ryuji and Ann were held in, just in case ‘third in from the left if you’re facing away from the door’ sounded as stupid out loud as he suspected it would. “That’s the classroom where they’re keeping Ann-chan. Meet up with her inside- ah, though I suppose the door would be locked, wouldn’t it?”

He hadn’t thought of that little potentially ruinous crinckle in their plan, but Makoto just waved her hand and rummaged around in a bag near her desk, pulling out a small set of keys attached to a panda-shaped keychain. “That shouldn’t be an issue. As Student Body President, I was entrusted with a set of master keys to the whole school. That’s... likely why they padlocked my door, I suppose. Otherwise I could unlock it myself whenever I wanted...”

She grew grim again and trailed off. Goro took a deep breath, and continued. “Right... well, in that case, make your way to Ann tonight, and we’ll... show you the rest of the problem, and how you can help. Deal?”

A minute passed, then two, as Makoto thought about it, the storm raging behind her eyes again, a battle between her ‘duty to the school’ and her ‘duty to the students,’ Goro guessed. It sounded like the sort of thing the littlest Nijima would have a moral war with herself about. 

After a couple minutes further, she finally looked up, a grimly determined expression on her face, and nodded. “Alright. For the sake of ensuring the safety of the students who elected me-” Hah, Goro totally called it. “-I’ll hear you two out. But the instant I detect anything funny going on, or if you lie to me even once, I’m out. Understand?”

Goro was pretty skeptical that she’d be able to tell whether he and Akira were lying to her or not, but they didn’t have any intention of doing so anyways, so he just nodded. “Got it. 5 PM, Classroom 1-C. Don’t forget.”

He turned and headed for the door, opening it just in time to catch Akira waving and stage whispering cheerily to Makoto, “Thanks, Makoto-senpai! See you tonight!”

She got that hilariously annoyed look on her face again, and Goro hurried out of the room before she could see him smirk and chuckle. Akira followed him out, and shut the door as silently as was possible. Goro looked back, confirming wordlessly that Akira was ready, and then led the way back down to the second floor teacher’s lounge.

When they were safely inside, Goro let out a long, exhausted breath, massaging his temples with his fingers. “Well, that was a nightmare...”

“Oh, come on,” Akira patted his shoulder, just a little condescendingly. Goro shot him a heatless glare. “Makoto’s all bark, always has been. She’s got some issues, and issues specifically with us, sure, but...” he shrugged. “Deep down she just wants to be respected by her dad and big sister. Pretty relatable desire, don’t you think?”

“Meh.” Akira shook his head at the lackluster response, full of faux-exasperation, which got Goro to chuckle, just a little bit. “I suppose she is harmless, for the most part, she just rubs me the wrong way, all that self-righteousness and faith in authority... and I wouldn’t underestimate how much of a grudge she has against you and I, Akira. That girl is definitely the type to take her resentments to the grave...”

Akira just gave Goro a cocky, teasy little smirky smile, which never spelled anything good and nodded. “Ah, just like you, then.”

“...I will toss you out of this window, Akira Kurusu.”

He laughed, not loud enough for someone outside to overhear them, but loud enough. Goro grimaced, then frowned as Akira’s chuckles suddenly gave away to a thoughtful look, if still a pretty smiley one. “Huh... you know, that’s not a bad idea?”

“...throwing you out the window?”

“Huh? Oh, no, sorry, had a thought but only said the last part of it. C’mere, lemme check something...” Akira walked over towards the closest window, and slowly, so nobody who might be patrolling outside would notice, pulled open the blinds. As Goro reached his side, he peeked out of the now-open window, looking as straight downwards as he could. “...hah, called it. Here, help me get this open quietly.”

Goro complied, trying to peer downwards as he did so. He could sort of see the rest of the building, the wall beneath them, and a first-floor window directly under them. There didn’t seem to be anything too special to it, just a window, a small windowsill jutting outwards, some fancy-pants molding above it-

“Ah, of course,” Goro murmured, more conscious of his volume, now that there was a direct path for the sound to travel outside. It wouldn’t work at the moment, but were they to infiltrate into the school again at night, they’d be able to clamber up onto the windowsill below, from there climb up onto the molding running along the top of the window, and assuming it held their weight, use that to boost themselves up into the now-open window on the second floor. It wasn’t a completely safe bet, either the windowsill or the molding could break, or somebody could notice the open window and come up to close it, but they’d be able to see if anyone did, and test how much weight the things could take beforehand. On the whole, a very clever move on Akira’s part.

He patted his friend on the back, Akira looking very excited and proud of his idea, and once the window was securely open, and wouldn’t just slide closed again on its own, they retreated back to the middle of the teacher’s lounge and warped back into the Palace, then out to the street in front of the Palace, then back to the real world. After catching their balance from all the rapid-fire warps, Goro shaking his head and Akira steadying himself with a hand on Goro’s shoulder, they straightened up, and headed towards the train station.

“So,” Akira asked as they walked. “What should we do between now and 5?”

“I had a thought on that,” Goro nodded, pulling out his phone again. “We ought to go check out Futaba’s cosplay container, see if she has anything useful for Ann or Ryuji in there.”

“Ah, smart smart,” Akira agreed. Once they had become friends, years ago, Futaba revealed to the two boys that she rented a storage container just outside Shibuya, and had hired someone trustworthy to look after it, and more importantly, to store all the cool merch and cosplay shit she saw online and bought with her seemingly endless supply of hacking money. Acting on the (later on proven to be correct) idea that something that looked like a weapon would be useful in a realm like Mementos, where the public’s perception of reality was reality, Goro had asked her if they could borrow some of her stuff from there, and she had agreed surprisingly easily, saying that with how much she made from the webtraffic to their Detective site, plus her cut of their earnings, she’d be able to replace anything they took, easy peasy.

So, in a roundabout way, for the past few years, Goro and Akira had a private armory, of sorts, and had used it to get cooler-looking (and thus more deadly in Mementos) fake guns, daggers, space blasters and laser swords as they needed them. 

Which meant that now, for as long as Ann and Ryuji worked alongside them, it was their private armory too, assuming that Futaba consented, of course. “I’ll ask her if it’s alright,” Goro volunteered, already tapping over towards the chat he had open with her. “As long as you don’t mind guiding me to the station?”

“Aye aye, Captain,” Goro caught Akira’s tiny, mocking salute out of the corner of his eye, and shook his head, a little amused. Akira wrapped a hand around Goro’s arm, and Goro let Akira’s tugs and pulls guide his feet, while the rest of him focused on messaging Futaba.

You: Futaba? Are you there?

Futaba: I mean, is that even a serious question

You: No, not really

You: But unlike some people, I try to be polite and open
each conversation I have online with a proper greeting.

Futaba: lolololololololololololol

Futaba: dude, the day someone can genuinely call *you* polite is the
day I shapeshift into a majestic sphinx and fly out my window, soaring
gracefully through the skies on a romantic trip to see the beauty of egypt

You: ...

Futaba: you got a problem, punk

You: ...a sphinx?

Futaba: Sphinxes are cool!!!

You: It’s just not the first thing I would think of as far as animals that fly

You: Though I suppose it matches the weird, Yu-Gi-Oh-ass
egyptian aesthetic you love so much

Futaba: you start talkin smack about egypt or yugioh and i start leakin
your Most Frequently Visitied Porn Sites to twitter my dude

You: ...let’s move on

Futaba: damn right bitch

You: Okay

You: Relax, first of all

Futaba: impossible

You: Second

You: Jesus christ

You: S e c o n d ,

You: Is it alright if we go and raid your cosplay container again?

Futaba: Huh? Sure dude, why not

Futaba: Though I better be gettin an explanation to why you
keep taking shit from there sometime soon

Futaba: Three years of “oh dear, sweet, innocent futaba, these
plastic anime swords are vital to our investigations in ways a gentle
child like yourself couldn’t possibly be prepared to comprehend” 

Futaba: is about two years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days too many

You: we actually might have to tell you, if things
continue going in the direction they’ve been going

Futaba: really?

Futaba: holy shit

You: Yes...

You: Its not something I’m looking forwards to, frankly

You: At any rate, thank you for the permission

Akira nudged Goro’s shoulder suddenly, shocking a startled “Wha-?” out of him as he blinked away from the phone screen.

They were at the train station now, from what Goro could tell- it was less crowded than it would usually be, just after noon on a Saturday, but crowded enough for Akira to have to lean close and murmur quietly to Goro to avoid being overheard. “Ask Futaba if the hole in Shujin’s security is still there, so we can update Ann and Ryuji on the plans for today.”

Goro nodded, it was a good idea. He turned back to the phone screen, only taking a brief moment to silently revel in the warmth of Akira’s hand, still holding onto his arm protectively.

You: Also

Futaba: ?

You: Is Shujin’s security still down?

Futaba: oh shit, lemme check

Futaba: whoa, yeah they haven’t fixed shit

You: Take your time

You: Oh

Futaba: time? pshhh. taking time is for baby losers with grandma fingers

You: ....what

Futaba; yeah, ignore that one

Futaba: anyways, you’re still clear

Futaba: guess their tech guy must have weekends off or some shit

Futaba: If you wanna talk to Ann and Ryuji, now would probably be the time

Futaba: or uh, in a couple minutes

Futaba: from what i can tell, they’re on lunch break in a bit here

You: They still had classes on a Saturday?

Futaba: yeah dude, now that its a live-in school, Shujin’s
got classes *every goddamn day of the week*

You: Fuck...

Futaba: Yeah its pretty messed up

Futaba: I’d say to whack their fuckin principal just for that, tbh

You: Nobody is whacking anybody

Futaba: You sure?

Futaba: Pretty sure I could hire a hitman or three if you need

Futaba: Some bald motherfucker with black leather gloves and no sense of humor

Futaba: Hey, I’m just describing you!

You: ...I’m not bald?

You: And I have a sense of humor, thank you very much

Futaba: Uh-huh, keep tellin’ yourself that, bud

You: What the hell are you even talking about at this point...

Futaba: come back in ten or twenty years, you’ll be beggin
me to let you borrow some of my cosplay wigs instead of your
lazer swords n shit

You: Futaba, if I go bald, you can dress me up in your most
horrendous Hatsune Miku cosplay and I’ll dance on live TV

You: and then jump in front of a goddamn train

Futaba: really? oh shit now i got something to look forwards
to aaaand you ruined it, no sense of humor, just like i said

You: fuck off

Futaba: Mmhm

Futaba: Go talk to the blonde dorks, I’ll see you later

You: not if i see you first

Futaba: See! Hitman, just like I said

Goro navigated away from the psychological hellscape that was talking with Futaba Isshiki, and leaned back in his seat, rubbing his temples yet again- then shooting forwards, sitting more upright as he realized he was sitting down now??? Apparently???

Akira’s hand- which was no longer squeezing Goro’s arm reassuringly- patted him on the shoulder instead. “Got us a seat on the train while you were texting. You really get into a laser-focus with that stuff, huh?”

Goro grimaced. “...apparently I do. It’s quite disconcerting, frankly...” 

Akira shrugged, patted him again, then stretched out in his seat next to Goro. “Eh, you’ve always been the type to get lost in thought. Least you aren’t all alone while you’re stuck like that.”

Sighing, Goro grumbled some more as he looked back down at his phone, tapping over to Ann’s name. “Futaba said we’re clear to raid her cosplay things, and that the hole in Shujin’s security is still down.”

“Really?” Akira frowned, getting his own phone out of his pocket. “I thought she said we had a tiny window to talk to them last night, or something.”

“Hmm, maybe just an overabundance of caution on her part?” Goro shrugged. “She seemed to assume they had a tech expert working full time at the school, she could have easily been wrong.”

“Maybe, yeah...” Akira was focused on his phone now, though less so than Goro had been. “I’ll tell Ryuji what’s up, you tell Ann?”

Goro smirked. “I was about to say the exact same thing.”

That got Akira to look up from the screen and give Goro a surprised look, which quickly melted into a warm, familiar smile. “Great minds share the same brain cell.”

“Hah, I don’t think that’s quite the phrase,” Goro chuckled, mirroring Akira’s expression. “But you aren’t wrong, I suppose.”

They shared a few more moments, just smiling at each other, then, nudging each other’s shoulders, they went back to their phones.

You: Ann? Are you there?

Ann: !!!!

Ann: Holy shit, I didn’t think you could still send messages!

You: Neither did we, but Futaba said your school
has been quite lax on the technological front.

Ann: No surprise there...

Ann: Even before all this bound bs, they had us using computers
from the 90‘s or something

Ann: So what’s up?

You: We’ve spoken with Makoto Nijima 

You: She’s agreed to join us tonight and at least hear us out

Ann: Woo hoo!

Ann: Nice going, Goro!

You: It was more Akira that managed to convince her,
but thank you

Ann: No, I mean nice work not biting her head off the
instant she opened her mouth

Ann: It’s a serious challenge!

You: ...you really have a grudge against her, don’t you?

Ann: You mean against the girl who heard the entire student
body complaining about how horrible that mashed-potato-faced
bastard was and did jack crap about it?

Ann: Yeah, I do

You: Fair

You: Hopefully having her along tonight won’t be a problem, then

Ann: Oh, I’ll be fine

Ann: Strutting around in that badass catsuit, whipping and
burning shadows to death?

Ann: That girl’s jaw is gonna hit the floor so hard she
won’t be able to pick it back up again.

You: ...I’ll take your word for it.

You: We’re going to try and meet up at 5 tonight.

You: Nijima will unlock the door to one of your rooms and
join you there.

You: Akira and I may be able to do the same, but that’s dependent
on several other factors, so unless you see us there, assume we’ll be
just outside the windows again, like yesterday.

Ann: Rodger doger!

Ann: Sooooooo

You: ...?

Ann: How’re things going between you and Akira?

You: ...fine?

You: Is there something I don’t know that would
be making things difficult between us?

Ann: Ugh

Ann: No, dummy, I mean have you asked him out yet????

Goro’s fingers spasmed slightly upon reading that last message, and he fumbled a bit in his seat as he tried to avoid dropping his phone. Akira gave him a concerned look, but Goro, putting on as calm of a face as he could manage right now, waved him off, so Akira just patted his shoulder again.

Fucking hell.

Ann: Hellooooooo?

Ann: Uh oh, hope I didn’t make you drop your phone out
of big ol flustered gay embarrassment

You: shut up

Ann: There he is!

You: You are just insufferable sometimes, you know that?

Ann: Ohhh come onnnn

Ann: Having a crush on Akira isn’t -that- embarrassing!

Ann: Heck, I probably would have crushed on the guy myself,
if me and Shiho hadn’t got together

Ann: Dude’s hot!

You: ...I thought you were gay?

Ann: Well yeah, but I didn’t know that before Shiho!

Ann: Up until then I was all like, yep, guys, pretty cute,
girls, pretty hot

Ann: And then she and I kissed and I was like WELP

Ann: THATS IT

Ann: THATS MY THING

Ann: THATS ME

You: hm..

Ann: But we aren’t talking about -my- big gay crush, we’re
talking about -your- big gay crush!

Ann: On Akira!

You: Do you have to keep saying it........

Ann: Mmhm!

Ann: The more you get used to talking about it, the
easier it’ll be to actually do something about it

You: Ann, you’ve been pestering me about this for
practically the entire time we’ve known each other

You: It hasn't gotten any easier.

Ann: And it would have been literally the entire time we’ve
know each other if i hadn’t been so busy making out with
my girlfriend for the first month or so

You: tmi, Ann...

You: again...

Ann: I’m not shy about it dude, and you shouldn’t be shy
about wanting to get your smootch on with Akira either!

You: He’s my best friend Ann!!!!

You: He’s been the only one there for me for years!
He’s supported me, and helped take care of me, he’s
practically my adopted brother after everything we’ve
been through!

You: I can’t just turn around and say “Oh, by the way
Akira, the entire time you’ve been so incredibly kind and
generous to me, and taken care of me like I was your family, I’ve
been harboring a huge, disgusting, perverted crush on you!”

You: How the hell do you think that would come off?!

Ann: Okay, first off, cool down

Ann: Specifically cool down with the -intense- self hate there, and also just take some breaths in general

Ann: Slow, steady, then when you’ve done that, keep talking.

Goro huffed a frustrated breath out his nose, but followed her instructions- at least the part about breathing, the self-hatred thing wasn’t something he could do much about at the moment. 

You: Fine. I’m slightly calmer now.

Ann: Good!

Ann: But seriously Goro, your feelings for Akira are
suuuuuuuper natural

Ann: What’s more natural than love??

Ann: You two have been about as close together as
two people can be for years and years

Ann: From the bits and pieces you guys have told me,
you two went through some pretty serious stuff together!

Ann: AND you went through some serious -life or death-
stuff together pretty frequently ever since you discovered
that meta-whatever place!

You: Metaverse

Ann: ty

Ann: But yeah, of course you’d be in love with him after all that!

Ann: I’m pretty sure he’s in love with you too

You: d;slg

Ann: ...did you almost drop your phone again?

You: Yes!!!

You: You can’t just

You: Say things like that out of the blue!

Ann: you get flustered over the silliest things, Goro, oh my god

Ann: I bet you’ve got a super cute blush on right now

You: shut up!!!

Ann: quick, try and see if Akira’s looking at you rn

You: ann

Ann: do it!!!!

Holding back a sigh for the sake of stealth, Goro tried to focus on his peripheral vision without shifting his line of sight- just out of the farthest corner of his vision, he could see a bit of Akira’s face. Goro was looking down too far to catch where Akira’s eyes were, but he had a tiny little smile curling up the corner of his mouth. His detective’s curiosity taking over briefly, Goro straightened up a little in his seat, using the movement to cover him properly casting his eyes over towards Akira, just in time to see his eyes flickering almost purposefully to the other side of the train.

But the little smile was still there.

You: ...he was looking

You: and smiling a little

Ann: see!!!

You: that doesn’t prove anything you know

Ann: oh come On

You: We are best friends, Ann

You: It’s fairly normal to be amused by your
best friend being blushy and flustered

You: Oh god, he knows I’m texting you, he probably
thinks I’m blushing because of that

Ann: huh? dude he knows im gay too

You: Yes but

You: ugh.....

Ann: Goro

Ann: Chiiiiiiilllllllllll

Ann: You get freaked out so damn easily

You: You wouldn’t understand

Ann: dude ive been friends with Ryuji for years

Ann: That guy’s even more hair trigger with freaking out than you

Ann: especially about gay stuff

You: can we please not talk about Ryuji’s closeted
bullshit while I’m still freaking out about Akira

Ann: fair

You: Look, Ann

Ann: no, you look, buddy!

Ann: you and Akira have been dancing around this shit for
the whole year we’ve been friends, and probably a ton more
time before that too!

Ann: take the leap my dude!

Ann: Take a deep breath, summon up all your confidence,
get that Determined Goro Look going, and ask Akira out to
the movies, or to dinner or something

You: ...he’d just think that I want to see a movie,
or eat out that night

Ann: oh my god!!

Ann: then ask him to go to a shitty movie that nobody’s
gonna come to so you can make out in the back row!

You: Ann!!!!!!!!!

Ann: idk Goro! Just ask him out! Say you like him and you
wanna be boyfriends and kiss a bunch and Be Happy!

Ann: I don’t wanna see my friends be all angsty about
something that should be super simple!

Ann: It makes me sad

You: ...not all of us can have the confidence you have, Ann

Ann: You think it was confidence that let me ask out Shiho?

Ann: It was fear, Goro, pure fear of something else happening
and losing my chance

You: ...sorry.

Ann: It’s okay, but like

Ann: There’s a lot of scary stuff going down!

Ann: idk what’s gonna happen after we deal with Principal
Kobyakawa, but it’s probably gonna be more dangerous bs
for a while

Ann: Take your shot while you can, Goro

Ann: I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Goro looked over towards Akira, who was still studiously looking out of the opposite window of the train, or maybe up at the little scrolling LED display of all the upcoming stops, or something. Goro couldn’t quite see his face, but somehow, even under the shitty lighting of the subway car, Akira’s hair still looked perfect, generous and curly and black and everything Goro had dreamed a thousand times of running his fingers through since he was a pre-teen. His long, slim legs and arms looked somehow even longer and more delicate in the bone-white light casting down on them, and he instinctively moved with the rumbles and jolts of the train so he wouldn’t get shaken back and forth, cat-like grace to his core... a grace that Goro knew could totally, absolutely abandon Akira, usually at the most hilarious times, like when he was trying to show off how good he’d gotten at rock climbing at the gym they went to, only to fall off the wall with an undignified, adorable, high-pitched yelp. 

Goro could think of a dozen dozen times where Akira ended up acting unintentionally, hilariously adorable like that, and just as many times where he was unbearably cool and hot as hell without even trying to be. 

He thought, briefly, of what it would be like, if they were closer while all of that happened. What it would look like if Akira tried and flubbed some smooth line just as he was going in for a kiss, and they ended up just smooshing their lips messily together while they tried to hold back their laughter. Or the sight of Akira, standing at the edge of a rooftop, backed by the orange-red glow of a Tokyo sunset, a hand outstretched towards Goro, pulling him close so they could stand, side pressed against side, arms around each other, enjoying the gorgeous view and the perfection of each other’s company in equal amounts.

He thought, briefly, of losing even the dream of those moments, and the right to see any of the more common day-to-day ones, all because he confessed to Akira, and Akira didn’t feel the same back, and everything was awkward and ruined because of it, forever.

He thought, briefly, of the sight of Akira, held down by a horde of shadows next to Goro, a dozen swords and axes and worse ready to end both of their lives at a moment’s notice. 

He thought, for a while, of the sheer panic that had come to him then, not of dying, but of dying without having ever told Akira how desperately, terribly he loved him. And oh, the realization that he truly, in every inch of his soul, loved Akira so very much.

You: ...I’ll think on what you’ve said.

Ann: Yesss!

You: But no promises

Ann: Oh come on!

---

You: Yo, Ryuji

Ryuji: oh shit, hey akira!

You: we talked to Makoto, meeting up with her
tonight at 5 to head into the palace

Ryuji: sweet!

Ryuji: im bored as dicks in here

You: yeah, i feel you

Ryuji: how the hell are you bored dude, youre with your boyfriend

You: still not my boyfriend, Ryuji

Ryuji: oh come on

Ryuji: it cant be that effin hard to tell a guy how gay you are for him

You: yusuke?

Ryuji: ...what about yusuke

You: 👀

Ryuji: Man, shut up!

You: am I wrong, though

Ryuji: ...shut up

You: yeah, thats what i thought

Ryuji: UGH

Ryuji: Man, whatever!

Ryuji: gay shit is confusing... 

Ryuji: and hard

You: mood

Ryuji: big mood

You: mmm

Ryuji: yeah...

Ryuji: anyways, see you guys at 5?

You: yep

Ryuji: cool

 

 

Chapter Text

It took a little longer than usual for Akira and Goro to raid Futaba’s cosplay storage, since they had to look for weapons for Ann and Ryuji too, but after a little digging, they found a neon orange whip that looked pretty cool, and what looked like a baseball bat with nails driven through it, though the nails turned out to be made of rubber. They grabbed a couple prop guns that looked suitable for the blonde duo, and by the time they had gathered everything and organized their haul enough to fit in their bags, it was already about 4 in the afternoon. Quickly as they could, they hopped on a train to Aoyama-Itchome, sending off a couple messages saying they’d be a little late.

Still, they managed to reach Shujin pretty close to the arranged time, and after checking in with Futaba to make sure the security cameras were still off, they snuck in through the busted hole in the fence and headed back towards the classrooms Ann and Ryuji were in.

Once they were in position, Goro nodded at Akira, and they both pulled out their phones.

Goro: We’re here.

You: Are you guys ready?

Ryuji: sheesh finally

Ann: Yeah like not to be rude guys
but you really took your time, huh

Goro: ...our apologies

Ann: its fine just

Ann: ugh

You: Oh yeah, we gave Makoto
your room number, didn’t we?

Goro: Ah

Ann: Yepppppppppp

Goro: Sorry about that... 

Ann: It’s fine, she’s gonna be coming
with us today anyways, might as well
get used to her now

Ann: shes just... ugh shes just been
sitting here, staring at me ever since
she came in

Ann: its so awkward!!!

Ryuji: whoa... creepy

You: She’s probably just uncomfortable?

Ryuji: dude you dont gotta cover
for her yknow

Ryuji: chick’s an asshole

Ann: seriously

Goro: Can we focus, please?

Ann: sorry! just... god it just feels
like shes a little android pointing
her security camera eyes at me

Ann: so, so weird

You: Hopefully we’ll all be able
to relax a bit once we’re in
the Palace.

You: Are you guys in position?

Ryuji: sure am

Ann: omw

Goro: ...is everything alright?

Goro: It’s been a couple minutes.

Ann: alright, stuffed in the corner
with president-chan

Ann: sorry she took

Ann: some convincing

Ann: i dont wanna talk about it

Goro: How very ominous

Ann: not like that! shes just a jerk!!!

Goro: Ah. 

You: Bringing you guys in, hold on.

Akira tapped over to the Metaverse app, already feeling exhausted with how the next couple hours were going to go, and after checking in with Goro one last time, who looked the exact same, he hit the button. The world warped and shifted...

...and they were back in the otherworldly alleyway, four costumed heros, plus one deeply confused-looking student body president.

“What... I...” Makoto looked back and forth across her new surroundings, before her eyes caught on the sliver of the Cathedral she could see in the distance, and grew wide and amazed.

“Welcome to the Metaverse, Nijima-chan,” Goro said cockily, striding in front of her line of view, his hands on his hips. “I’m sure you spent many a night racking your brains to try and figure out how Akira and I were able to gather all the evidence we handed over to your father. Well,” He gestured grandly at their surroundings. “Here you are.”

She blinked a lot, seeming even more confused now, and also a little pissed off, so Akira decided to step in and add to Goro’s half-explanation/half-taunt. “Basically, it’s an alternate dimension created by people’s perceptions of the world around them. Goro and I usually hunted down bad guys in a different place, with everybody in Tokyo in it, but this place was made just from how fucked-up Kobyakawa’s view of the world around him is.”

Makoto was starting to look less confused, her mind clearly going a mile a minute processing all of this, but she was still looking at Akira oddly. He frowned, wondering why she was giving him such a weird look, then he remembered a certain part of what Goro had said. “Oh! Yeah, Ren Amamiya is a pseudonym, Akira Kurusu is my real name. Ran away from home, hiding from my parents, no big deal.” He paused for a beat, then realized one other reason why she might be looking at him like that. “Hah, and yeah, the costumes just sort of... come with the territory, I guess? You get one when you get a Persona and- it’s a whole other thing, you’ll figure it out as you go.”

The look she was giving him grew even more intrigued and weirded-out, but she sighed and shook her head, as if deciding to let it rest for now. Her eyes went back to the Cathedral, visible over Goro’s head, and took a step forwards, murmuring, “So... this is how Principal Kobyakawa sees the wor- oh!”

Her shoe caught on an out-of-place cobblestone, and Makoto tripped, falling face-first towards the ground- only to be caught by Ann and Ryuji, one holding onto each of her arms. “Careful there, Miss President,” Ryuji cautioned, pulling her back up to stand on her feet properly. “This ain’t the real world, but I can tell ya, it still hurts like hell when you hit the dirt.”

“Ah- thank you...” She turned to bow her head a little at Ryuji, but stopped halfway, clearly alarmed and put-off by how garish his costume was compared to how he looked usually. She looked the other way, and her eyes shot wide, her mouth dropping open a little before she could get a single word of thanks out at the sight of Ann’s costume.

Ann smirked, and shot a wink at Goro, which Akira didn’t understand, but Goro rolled his eyes at, so it was probably some private joke or bet or something. She turned back to Makoto and patted her on the cheek. “My eyes are up here, Makoto,” she teased, and Makoto blushed furiously, very very purposefully looking up at Ann’s face and only at Ann’s face.

“I- I am aware, Takamaki-chan.” She dusted herself off unnecessarily, and rubbed her face, taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out, clearly overwhelmed. When she moved her hands away, she was still slightly flushed, but she looked a hell of a lot more in control of herself. She turned back to look at Akira and Goro. “You said you were going to show me why you wanted to ‘take down’ Principal Kobyakawa... and show me how I could help, if I choose to do so.”

It was clearly an invitation, or a command, Akira couldn’t tell which, but he nodded, and turned around to walk towards the grand building. “Come on, then.”

Akira and Goro led the way to the Cathedral’s entrance, Makoto right behind them, eyes casting over their surroundings, Ann and Ryuji taking up the rear. Makoto’s curiosity seemed to grow exponentially as they stepped inside the Cathedral itself, though unlike the blonde duo, she didn’t go running off to poke and peer at every corner, instead just looking around with wide eyes at everything she could see.

After a couple minutes like that, she spoke up, slowly. “...you said that this place was created from Principal Kobyakawa’s perception of his surroundings, didn’t you Amami- er, Kurusu-kun?”

Akira smiled at her little misstep there, said a little teasingly, a little comfortingly. “It takes some time to get used to, don’t worry. But yeah,” He gestured around them, a little grandly. “This is how he sees the school, from what we’ve gathered. A great big Cathedral for the Bound, with all the students as his followers and himself as the Bishop.”

“I see...” She cast her gaze around, bringing a hand to cup her chin. “I suppose it’s more in-line with the general theme of the Bound than, say, a castle would be, even though in the end it has the same general meaning. What is a Bishop if not a King to the religious, after all...”

“Hm, you have a point, but it isn’t quite the same,” Goro spoke up. “At least in Catholicism- which is what Kobyakawa must think of when he thinks of an authoritative, hierarchical religion- while a Bishop is the leader of a large portion of a country’s religious populace, it is the Pope who reigns as the true analog to a King. Since Kobyakawa himself is serving under Sh... under the leader of the Bound, it makes more sense that he would see himself in a subservient, if still authoritative role.”

Makoto nodded, eyes catching on some of the stained glass windows lining the entry hall. “Then I suppose he doesn’t seem himself as a leader so much as a... teacher? Or I guess a leader of teachers, since it would be the Bishop’s staff of priests and such that would do the actual religious instruction.”

“An organizer, then- or perhaps not even something with that much direct influence over things, perhaps the grandeur of this place and the innumerable villagers and priests wandering about implies that he seeks only the ego-boosts from his underlings working in his name, without having to do any of the actual labor himself.” Goro was in his trademark fingers-to-chin pose now, his eyes lit up, energized, as he and Makoto delved further into theorizing the implications of the Palace around them.

As Makoto and Goro continued to shoot theories back and forth, Akira felt a strange, unfamiliar, uncomfortable feeling settle inside of him. There was something about seeing Goro talk so easily with someone else, specifically about a topic that Akira mostly enjoyed listening to Goro talk about rather than add to himself... something about that really made Akira’s stomach turn. Jealousy was the obvious answer, of course, Akira had a crush on Goro and a crush getting close to someone else was as cliche a sparker for jealousy as anything could be, but that couldn’t be right. Akira had always hoped for Goro to be able to make more friends- hell, Akira never felt jealous or uncomfortable about Goro and Futaba getting closer, or the rapport Goro had built with Ann, and to a lesser extent, with Ryuji too.

So why was this feeling flaring up now? Akira couldn’t figure it out... all he knew was that the more Goro smiled at ideas Makoto came up with, the more his eyes twinkled with curiosity at her added insight, the more Akira felt his chest constrict, his breathing quicken, his heart ache.

He tried to distract himself by calling Ann and Ryui over and passing out their new weapons and guns, but even the excited cries of his friends could only distract him so much. A couple minutes later, and he couldn’t take it anymore.

“So, not to interrupt,” he said, perhaps a bit too loudly- oops, definitely a bit too loudly, both Goro and Makoto were giving him odd looks now, but he couldn’t stop, so he barreled forwards anyways. “But we don’t have an infinite amount of time here. What do you think, Makoto? Seen enough to want to help us out?”

Her expression sank slightly, the mild excitement she had been wearing from exercising her brain deflating out of her all at once as the realities of their current situation came back. “I... well, what do you want me to do, exactly?”

Goro gestured towards the door off to the side, that led to the twisting hallways they had first passed through. “Higher up in the Palace, the Shadow of your Student Council Secretary is blocking the way to the heart of this place, whatever it is. He beat us back pretty effectively yesterday, and said that the only people who can pass beyond are Student Council Members themselves.”

“...I see.” She didn’t seem too pleased by that answer. “So I’m a keycard, effectively speaking?”

“It’s not like that,” Akira waved his hands placatingly, his focus on the task ahead of them overriding whatever weird feelings had come over him earlier. “The only way we can fix this mess is by getting to the heart of Kobyakawa’s twisted cognition of the world, or something like that.” He hoped Makoto didn’t notice any manga-esque sweatdrops popping up on Akira at that bit. He still didn’t know exactly what would await them at the core of this place, only that Lavenza had apparently told Goro that it was their best bet. “The only way for us to get there is to have a Student Council member help us, sure, but you probably know more about this guy than all of the rest of us combined.”

Goro nodded and took over for Akira. “Your insight into his psyche could prove invaluable, if the Palace continues to change the further we get inside. And beyond that, there will undoubtedly be a great deal of real-world fallout whenever we do complete what we have to do here. Your expertise and authority in Shujin itself will be an incredible asset, I’m certain.”

Makoto seemed a little pacified by that, but only a little. “...alright. He certainly doesn’t seem to be as benevolent as he makes himself out to be. I might as well come along and learn what I can.” 

“Thanks, Makoto-senpai,” Akira beamed, half out of genuine appreciation, half because he knew the cheery, sing-song tone annoyed her, and she was pretty amusing when she was annoyed. Mischief managed, he pulled out his phone. “Everybody, gather near me, I’ll warp us up to the second floor, and we can catch you up on what you’ve missed while we head towards that asshole Secretary.”

The group clumped together, and Akira hit the button. Once they arrived, Makoto poked and prodded around the saferoom a bit, and everyone took a drink of water before they headed back out into the dangerous parts of the Palace, back in the same formation they had been in earlier. As they moved, the four Persona-wielders took turns relaying what had happened so far, at least in regards to the Palace and why they were doing this in the first place; Shido’s announcement, the frenzied almost-riots Akira and Goro had witnessed in Shibuya, how Ann and Ryuji had been captured, and a summary of all the messed up things they had seen in the Palace during their visits so far, from the brainwashing sermons Kobyakawa’s shadow delivered, to the rumors about just how many people Kobyakawa had locked up, to almost dying to vicious, over-enthusiastic guards.

It wasn’t long before they encountered a wandering shadow-guard, though, and had to pause their story, Akira slinking forwards to creep up on it and unmask it from behind. Once he did so, and the guard twisted and burst into four smaller shadows, Akira, Goro, Ann and Ryuji lined up in front of Makoto, Ryuji patting her shoulder as he passed her to join the line. “Just hang back. We got these assholes.”

The blonde punk swung his arm around a bit, stretching as he moved to stand between Akira and Ann, and murmured more quietly to him. “So, uh, how’re we gonna do this thing?”

Akira frowned a little- he had been too busy and too preoccupied to think about it earlier, but it was definitely going to be a different kind of affair, fighting with a four-person team rather than as a duo. There were probably more thoughtful strategies for managing that many teammates attacking something at once, but they didn’t really have time to go over any of that, so Akira just shook his head and replied, loud enough so that Goro and Ann could hear too, “We attack one at a time, starting with Goro and ending with Ann. If one of the shadows looks weak to the magic you’ve got, use that, otherwise, just hit the things as hard as you can til they go down.”

“Aye aye, boss!” Ann acknowledged jauntily, sounding very excited and a little bloodthirsty too. 

Akira turned to Goro, and got a nod of agreement from him too, and then the first shadow attacked, and there was no more time to think.

It was a fairly simple battle, all things considered, but it definitely felt weird fighting with so many allies. Not bad, just weird, like when you had to use a different keyboard than you’re used to using, at the library or something, and all of the keys take a little more or a little less pressure to register a tap. 

Akira moved up to gather the items the shadows left behind, Goro collecting the yen, and the blonde duo fell back behind Makoto again, everyone starting up their retelling once more. Getting through the rest of the hallway was pretty much the same, though the fights got easier and more comfortable as they went on. By the time they reached the grumpy-looking little Secretary, Akira felt like they could even try some four-person variants of the team attacks he and Goro had perfected over the years, or at least test it out on some of the weaker shadows, if they had a chance.

For now, though, it was time for Makoto to work her magic. Akira moved out of her way, sketching a little bow and gesturing grandly for her to proceed. He heard her scoff, but she started to walk fairly calmly towards the Secretary all the same- stopping after a few steps when she seemed to recognize his face. “Oh my god, that really is Wataro- you were all held up by Wataro?

When Akira looked up from his bow, Makoto was giving the group a scathingly harsh look, as if her assessment of how capable and cool they all were had fallen a couple dozen notches all of a sudden. He tried for a slightly embarrassed smile, though he didn’t quite know why he should feel embarrassed about this- the Secretary had been a huge asshole towards them. “...I guess he has a hidden dark side? He was pretty nasty-”

“Oh, please,” she scoffed, then turned back around and strode purposefully towards the Secretary- Wataro- gesturing for the rest of them to follow her.

“Wataro,” she barked as she approached, and the Secretary physically jumped in surprise, at least a good foot into the air. His shadow-yellow eyes shot to her, and every inch of visible skin grew pale as he saw whatever harsh expression she was shooting him. “Did I hear correctly that you’ve been harassing these students?”

His eyes flickered between Makoto and the four kids gathered behind her, looking even more panicked and surprised with every passing second. Akira gave him a cocky little wave. He didn’t seem to notice. “Uh- uhm, that is, His Excellency said that-”

“That only we are to be allowed access to the third floor, I’m aware, Wataro,” Makoto’s voice was tired, deeply exhausted, acting as a perfect counterpart to the high-pitched, squeaky mess Wataro’s voice had become in the last couple seconds. “I sent them here personally for a task His Excellency had given me.”

He sputtered more, his eyes flickering around even faster as he struggled to put his thoughts together. “B-but- they didn’t say- and you were being held upstairs, I-”

“Which was exactly why I needed them to come up and let me out,” she groaned, and Akira had to admit, for someone he had always seen as uptight to a kind of silly degree, Makoto was improvising remarkably well throughout this whole confrontation. Maybe she had picked up some of the mental athleticism her dad and sister must possess for their own day-to-day work. “His Excellency had sent me a missive, saying he was too busy to come and release me himself, so I sent a messenger bird out to ask my friends here to do so instead. Thanks to your meddling, I had to figure something else out myself. Are you pleased with yourself, Wataro?”

The poor guy was falling apart at the seams by now, and Makoto just scoffed and physically moved him to the side, out of the way of the stairwell behind him. “It doesn’t matter. Take some time to gather yourself, somewhere quiet and peaceful. It seems you need it.”

The boy just nodded a whole bunch and scurried off as fast as his little feet could take him. When he had gotten far enough away, Makoto deflated slightly, sighing. “Ugh... that took more out of me than I expected.”

“You were remarkably quick on your feet, Nijima-chan,” Goro commented, as he and the rest of them got closer. Akira felt another sickly little pang in his heart, which was even stupider than what he was feeling down on the first floor, since he had been thinking the same thing just earlier. Gay shit truly was, as Ryuji had said, confusing and hard. 

“Yeah! Way to go, lying hottie!” Ann cheered and slapped Makoto on the back. She didn’t seem to be totally sincere in her tone, and the slap on the back was a lot firmer than most congratulatory back-pats usually were, but she didn’t seem totally malevolent either. Perhaps she was just as conflicted as Akira was, though in a different way.

“I- I wasn’t lying, per se,” Makoto objected, blushing furiously- though despite how hard Ann had slapped her on the back, she didn’t seem to notice very much. She must be tougher than she looked. “...well, I was lying a little bit, I guess. Ugh...”

“Hey, no worries there, Miss President,” Ryuji drawled, walking at a lazy enough pace that he was last to join the little circle of people gathered around Makoto. “Lying’s just a part of the game, ‘specially when you’re a bona-fide Detective like we all are!”

Akira looked over in amused confusion at Ryuji, and noticed Goro doing the same out of the corner of his eye- though Goro’s expression looked a lot less amused. “I don’t recall you or Ann-chan becoming Detectives, Sakamoto.”

“Huh? Well, I mean, we’re gonna be workin’ with you two now, right?” Ryuji scratched the back of his head, an embarrassed little grin playing on his lips. “Only makes sense that we’d be Detectives too, seein’ as you two are the Detective Princes n’ all.”

“Ooh, ooh, wait,” Ann chimed in, raising up her hand absurdly, as if she was in class. “If they’re the Detective Princes, we could be, like, their Detective Vassals or something!”

“No way!” Ryuji sputtered, aghast- and Akira had to admit, he didn’t like the idea either. “Ain’t vassals, like, the servants-for-life of royalty or some shit? No efffin’ way I’m callin’ myself somethin’ like that!”

“He’s quite right,” Goro cut in- or tried to, as Ann looked like she was already gearing up for another idea of what they could call themselves. “Now, if we could-”

“Well, what if we were all, like, working for the same Detective’s Agency, or something like that?” She hazarded, ignoring Goro. He looked quite put-out at being talked over, and Akira patted his shoulder soothingly, though he only got a glare for his efforts. Sheesh. “Like, we’re the Princely Detectives of the Royal Detectiving Agency!”

“Nah, that sounds dumb as shit. C’mon, Ann-”

“Okay, fine, how about you try to come up with something, huh Ryuji?”

“What? Dude, I ain’t-”

Quiet!” Makoto shouted, sounding even more exhausted than she had before. “Honestly... could you all save this for when you’re back in the real world?”

Ann and Ryuji had the decency to look embarrassed at least, and nodded. “Well, thank you for getting us back in order, Nijima-chan,” Goro sighed, then shook his head. “Shall we proceed, now that the way is no longer barred?”

He gestured up the stairs, and the group nodded, getting back into their protective formation around Makoto and starting to climb up to the next floor.

Akira didn’t notice it at first, more focused on a lot of other things as they climbed the stairs- his still-developing feelings about Makoto’s place in the group and how well she worked with Goro, what they were going to actually do once they reached the top of the Palace and found Kobyakawa’s shadow, the always enjoyable sight of Goro walking just a few steps above him, the detective’s considerable assets right in front of Akira’s eyeline. Most embarrassingly, he found himself still trying to come up with cool, catchy names for the four (or five, potentially) of them as a group, though most of the ones he thought of sounded pretty silly.

That said, as distracted as Akira was, the rest of the group must have been even more distracted, because Akira was still the first to notice that things were starting to get rather... strange around them. It was subtle when he first picked up on it, the vertical parts of the steps they were climbing slowly growing translucent, until they vanished completely, leaving them climbing lone, floating, plank-like platforms. The walls on either side of them, too, started to grow transparent the further they climbed, showing a seemingly infinite, reddish void beyond them.

He managed to voice a soft, shaky “Uh, guys,” snapping the others out of whatever trances they had been in, right before the walls vanished completely. The whole group shouted and cried out in alarm, moving as close to the center of whatever step they were on as they could, in fear of falling off. Akira almost ran into Goro’s back, feet still climbing on auto-pilot, and Goro pinwheeled his arms slightly to keep his balance. Akira grabbed onto the back of his jacket, keeping him upright, and a few seconds later he stilled.

Goro shot a glare over his shoulder at Akira, though it was lessened in intensity from the nervous fear streaked throughout the expression. “...you had no way to know, but you almost just shoved me to my doom, Akira,” he growled.

Akira frowned, and climbed up onto the step besides Goro, looking around him to see- oh. Yep. There were just... no more steps after the one Goro was on. In fact, there was absolutely nothing beyond the step Goro was currently on, just an endless, bloody red void in every direction.

“Huh,” Akira said, voice much higher than usual. “That’s... bad.”

“What’s bad? The hell happened now?” Ryuji piped up from behind them, sounding nervous and a little squeaky.

“It appears we’ve reached a dead-end,” Goro replied, sounding the stablest out of all of them, Akira being the only one close enough to see how Goro’s face gave away his true feelings. “There’s... nothing past the step I’m on. Literally nothing, no floor, no platforms, no- wait. What... is that...?”

Akira checked to see where Goro was looking, and peered in the same direction- and lo and behold, there was something, something long and marble-white, drifting towards them from somewhere in the distance. The closer it got, the more things started appearing behind it, all drifting towards their location.

“Guys, get as close up here as you can, we might need to move fast in a second here,” Akira shouted over his shoulder, eyes still tracking the incoming platform- and it definitely was a platform, just a long, solid block of white marble. “A whole bunch of stuff is drifting towards us, and if it doesn’t stop, we’re gonna need to jump on pretty quickly.”

“Are you certain that’s wise?” Makoto worried, though she climbed up behind Akira and Goro as instructed all the same. “We don’t know where this thing is heading, or if it’s even safe to climb on, or wh-”

“We either jump on and take the risk, or stay stuck here with no way forwards,” Akira snapped, and he regretted how harsh he sounded as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it, the platform getting closer and closer. Makoto didn’t verbally respond, but she did climb the final step up behind where Akira was standing, so hopefully she’d take the leap with the rest of them when the time came.

Akira could hear Ann and Ryuji climbing up too, though he didn’t take his eyes off the platform to look. He felt Goro tense up next to him as it got closer, and closer still. “Ready, guys?” Akira shouted.

“Ready!” Makoto barked, sounding grimly determined.

Ann and Ryuji responded at the same time, which made it difficult to tell what exactly they said, but it didn’t matter, because then the platform was within jumping distance, and they had to move.

Goro leapt first, Akira moving only a half-second behind him. Thanks to their years of moving about Mementos, keeping active and fit, they were able to land pretty stably, keeping their balance and moving forwards several steps, to leave  room for the others to land behind them. As Akira turned around to watch for the others, he felt the platform shake slightly as Makoto landed, rolling artfully out of her jump like she was in some cool action movie, then dashing over to join Goro and him. Ann was next, Ryuji right on her heels, and they both landed a lot messier, but landed all the same, managing to stay on top of the platform before it drifted too far away. 

“Nice work, guys,” Akira praised the team, trying to keep his eyes purposefully on Makoto, guilt from how he had been acting and thinking towards her since they got here driving him to talk a little more gently, smile a little more, even with his eyes. “And nice roll, Makoto, that was pretty badass.”

“O-oh. Thank you...” She didn’t blush, but she did look pleased at the praise all the same. Akira gave one last smile, then looked away, though right before he directed his attention fully at their surroundings, he did catch Goro giving him an odd kind of look out of the corner of his eye.

As everyone gathered themselves, Akira looked around, trying to figure out their next move. The rest of the objects that had been following the platform were starting to catch up, and float into a sort of loose alignment with the block of marble. They were all definitely still moving, drifting farther and farther away from what was still visible of the staircase in the distance, but the farther they floated away from that one stable point of reference, the harder it became to tell whether they were moving at all. There was no rush of wind as they moved, no sense of vertigo or odd shift in gravity, the platform didn’t move under their feet, nothing. It was all very, very strange. 

“Dude... this is weird as balls,” Ryuji murmured, which summed everything up pretty well, honestly. 

“No kidding,” Akira nodded. He looked back to check on the others- Goro was looking around them, like Akira had been, clearly trying to piece everything together. Makoto was a few steps behind them, looking flushed, but excited all the same as she glanced about, sort of like despite her worries, she was really enjoying the new, more adventurous turn their ascent had taken. Behind her, the blonde duo were casting their gaze all over the place, eyes wide and mouths slightly parted, and Akira couldn’t tell if their expressions were awed or intimidated. Probably a mix of both.

As he looked back towards their surroundings, Akira could see that the rest of the floating debris had settled more or less into place around them, or rather, in relation to them. All around them, there were free-standing, floating parts of the Cathedral they had seen so far- pillars, stained glass windows, pews, bulletin boards, and so forth- though they seemed slightly different than they had before. It was like... Akira wasn’t sure how to put it, but it was like they were all charged, infused with some kind of power, or importance, where they had just been scenery before.

Akira moved to get a little closer to the edge of the platform they were on, trying to get a better look at a nearby bulletin board, when Goro suddenly spoke up. “There! In the distance, look.”

Everyone abandoned what they were doing, Akira included, and turned to look where Goro was pointing- and though it was pretty far off, Akira could see what Goro had found; a big, wooden double-door, attached to a small stone base.

Akira looked over his shoulder at the others, who were peering at it too. Makoto was the first to speak up as she frowned at it. “...I don’t like any of this, but that’s probably our best bet, yes.”

“...right. Let’s head over then,” Akira nodded, frowning a little. “It isn’t like we could go back, anyways...”

There were some discomfited noises from the rest of the group, but nobody dissented, so Akira headed forwards, towards the edge of the marble platform closest to the door in the distance.

It wasn’t particularly complicated for them to make their way through the new, abstract set up of this floor of the Palace, per se. From where they started, there were a series of pretty clearly laid-out places for them to jump to, all leading towards the doorway in the distance. The tricky part, however, was that as one might expect when traversing magically floating platforms in an endless void, not all of the platforms were particularly stable. One long, empty bookcase that seemingly laid flat in front of them would tilt and shift with the weight put on it, threatening to toss them off if it got too out of balance. A huge statue of some holy being, all angular and sharp and with too many arms, rotated and spun slowly in place, making crossing it sort of like walking along a spinning log in one of those obstacle course shows on TV. A classroom’s worth of desks and chairs spanned one gap, all tilted at odd angles, forcing everyone to jump quickly from one desk to the next. It was, frankly, pretty goddamn exhausting as far as Akira was concerned.

And, of course, just maneuvering through the path to their destination was only a part of their problems. There were still shadow-guards up on this level, too, but unlike the huge, lumbering, misshapen paladins from the lower floors, now there were small, statue-like cherubim flying about the place, the innocence of their baby-like bodies and faces and their tiny little stone wings belied by the massive bows and arrows they carried in their hands. The bows weren’t just for show, either; as they were crossing what seemed to be a long, crumbling piece of ceiling, one of them spotted Ryuji, let out a horrible scream of rage, and shot a great arrow right at the boy.

He barely dodged out of the way in time, leaping to the side right before the bolt hit where he had been standing, hard enough to crack the stone beneath it. As the rest of the group rushed over to help Ryuji back up, though, Akira noticed that there was a long rope still attached to the arrow that the guard had shot. His eyes widened, and he looked up at the little monster just in time to see it start to crack and glow, then rapidly pull itself towards where the arrow landed, like it was a harpoon, or a very sharp grappling hook. 

Akira managed to shout for everyone to be on guard just in time, as the cherubim crashed into the ground, bursting apart into five powerful-looking shadows, all winged, all looking slightly crazed and ready to tear the group limb from limb.

It was a rough fight, but an important lesson on caution for all of them.

Worse than that, though, worse than all the acrobatics required to just maneuver through the space, worse than the deadly, terrifying little guards floating around the place, worse than anything they had run into in the Palace so far, was the god damned singing that grew louder and louder and louder the closer they got to the doors they were heading towards.

“Man, the hell is this shit?” Ryuji moaned, once they found a relatively safe spot to rest for a few seconds, inside an oversized confessional booth that had been floating about.

“The weird-ass music?” Ann asked as she flopped down on a long bench. “If you can call it that, I guess.”

“It definitely is music, but frankly it’s been getting on my nerves too,” Makoto sighed, leaning against the wall of the booth. “I suppose it makes enough sense, considering how deeply connected he is to the Bound, and the whole cathedral theme of this place, but somehow I never expected Principal Kobyakawa to be a fan of Gregorian chanting.”

Akira hummed in agreement. Even though they were relatively enclosed within a single room, the thick wood paneling of the XXXXL-sized booth hiding them from the weirdness outside, the chorus of voices outside was still audible. After a few seconds more listening to it, Akira had an idea. “Hey, they’re chanting in Latin, aren’t they?” He asked, turning towards Goro.

“...yes, and I don’t like where this is going.” Goro gave Akira a very dry, very unamused look. 

Akira just smiled at him more. “Say, didn’t you spend a couple weeks learning Latin a year or two ago-”

“-yes, I did, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to-”

“-just because some random dude online said he didn’t think you were as smart as you acted on TV, and you wanted to show him up?” Akira’s grin was reaching shit-eating levels now, in proportion to how annoyed Goro was looking. 

“It wasn’t just because of that, Akira, I had been wanting to learn it for some time, as it happens,” Goro huffed.

“Mmmmmmmhm, yeah, I remember all the times when we were kids where you’d go up to me and say, ‘Gee, Akira, I sure wish I had the time and the gumption to learn a dead language that’s mostly used by a religion I don’t care about,’” he snarked, and Goro was annoyed to the point where he was baring his sharp little teeth at Akira, and they probably would have kept going to the point where they’d be wrestling, which would have been fun as hell and a much-needed chance to blow off some steam, but Makoto spoke up before they could get to that point.

“Does that mean you can translate for us, or not, Akechi-kun?” She sounded deeply exhausted by the teasing, which really only managed to make Akira’s feelings towards her shift a couple notches lower, though he was really fighting against those instincts as hard as he could. 

Still, the annoyance in Goro’s face dissolved, his smart-boy mask slipping back on as he turned towards Makoto. “...I suppose I can try. Give me a couple minutes...”

He closed his eyes in concentration, the rest of the group staying as silent as they could while he listened. It was kind of cute, if Akira was honest, Goro’s lips moving a little as he mouthed out what he was hearing, or however it was he was processing this. Akira made a mental note to find some other songs in languages Goro knew, and get him to translate those later, when they were back home. 

A few minutes later, Goro’s eyes fluttered back open, his expression not very pleased. “I won’t repeat it word-for-word, but essentially, it’s a song about how beloved Kobyakawa is by the powerful figures he respects, and how grandly he’ll be rewarded for his efforts on their behalf.” His face twisted in distaste the more he spoke. “Disgusting little toady.”

Most of the others made similarly grossed-out noises, except for Makoto, who just hummed in thought. “...that lines up with what I’ve been able to take from the stained-glass murals we’ve been passing,” she thought out loud. “Most of them seem to depict him being granted some blessing from a god-like figure, or speaking to an adoring crowd with some holy figure near him. It’s all been along those lines, from what I’ve been able to tell.”

Akira was surprised, and a little impressed at Makoto’s analysis skills, especially since he himself hadn’t been paying much attention to them.

Though, Akira’s feelings towards Makoto dropped back down as Goro made an intrigued little noise at this new information. Man, this jealousy made Akira’s mental space like a goddamn roller coaster he just could not get off of. Maybe he could talk to Ann about this later, see if she knew how to deal with any jealousy she felt towards Shiho’s friends. “...curious. One would think that, considering how his Palace has been laid out to emphasize the power structures that he’s set up beneath himself, that he’d idealize being at the top of the Bound’s chain of command himself. Perhaps he’s simply replicating how he enjoys being treated onto those beneath him...”

“Eugh,” Ann grunted, which pretty accurately summed up Akira’s feelings on the subject too. “No offense guys, but can we stop talking about this guy’s weird, twisted point of view and stuff? He’s a controlling jerk who’s brainwashing and hurting everyone around him. That’s kinda enough for me, I don’t need to know all the extra junk.”

Ryuji nodded, raising up his hand for a fist bump, which she gave. “Same here. Assholes are assholes. Don’t need much more info than that to go in and eff ‘em up.”

“...agreed, Ryuji, but the imagery...” Akira flinched.

“Wh- I didn’t- ugh, eff off man!” Ryuji sputtered, and Akira and Ann couldn’t help but laugh at his embarrassment.

Even Goro was smiling a little when Akira looked over, though he was still more focused than they were. “Ignoring that last bit, the both of you do have a point. Koyakawa’s twisted view of the world is intriguing, since it is quite literally what this place is created from, but ultimately irrelevant.” 

He stood up, dusting himself off unnecessarily. “Shall we continue on?”

They all nodded, and got up too, and headed out.

The rest of the journey across the strange series of platforms and floating scenery was exhausting, but not particularly difficult. Thanks to the enhanced athletic ability their Personas provided them, Akira, Goro, Ann and Ryuji were able to traverse the place easily enough, troublesome though it was. What worried Akira, initially at least, was whether Makoto would be able to keep up, unawakened to any sort of Persona as she was.

His worries were pretty quickly allayed, though. If anything, Makoto was more athletic than any of them, Ryuji included. She leapt across wide gaps between platforms like it was nothing, climbed up over large stairways and across oddly-shaped statues as if it came totally naturally to her, and even managed to crouch down and hide from patrolling shadow-guards with ease. Akira wagered, internally, that she must have some sort of sports background, or something similar to that. If she did end up awakening to her Persona while they were in here, she’d be quite the powerhouse.

Regardless, they managed to make it the rest of the way to the door without much incident. Ryuji was the last one to jump across from the floating colum to the stone base the door was mounted on, and Akira caught his hands as he landed, pulling him on the rest of the way. 

The group looked over one another, making sure everyone was alright, then nodded as one. Without another word, Akira turned, and started to push open the door- though it was a hell of a lot heavier than it looked, and after a few seconds of futile pushing, first Goro, and then the rest of the group joined in on the effort. They grunted and groaned, putting all their muscle into it, until there was a surprised little “Oh,” from where Ann was pushing.

“Hey, it looks like there’s a little lock hereaaaAAAAA-” There was a small click as she spoke, Akira only having time to guess that she was undoing the lock she spotted, before they all tumbled over one another as the door suddenly slammed open.

It took a few seconds for him to catch his breath, then Akira rolled away to one side, until he was off of whoever he had landed on top of, and took a few moments to rub the sore spots on his body while he laid on the cold tile beneath them. Once he was marginally more comfortable, Akira pried his eyes open and tried to get a look around, as he levered himself back to his feet

Akira had been up to see the attic of Leblanc several times since he and Goro met Sojiro- for a while, instead of going out and getting their own apartment, they had thought of moving up there, to get a little bit more out of Sojiro’s hair. Considering how dusty Akira remembered the place being, it was a good thing they hadn’t, for the sake of their lungs, but the point was that Akira was pretty familiar with rooms that looked like the one they had just entered, wooden beams criss-crossing above them, the ceiling itself above that angled upwards in an A shape.

The rest of the room, however, was totally foreign to Akira, unlike anything he had seen, outside of the odd Western movie he and Goro had seen that took place in a Castle or mansion or something like that. The room was totally circular, big wooden doors placed at regular intervals on the gently curving walls, each with a big, brassy metal plate next to them. In the center of the room, strangest of all, was a thin spiral staircase, metal steps sticking out spoke-like from a central metal pole, leading upwards to what was presumably the very top of the Cathedral. Judging by the way the ceiling looked here, it likely led to a Tower of some sort. Akira didn’t remember seeing anything like that from the ground, other than the bell tower, so they were likely farther towards the back of the cathedral, whatever tower they were beneath hidden from street view by the massive bulk of the building itself.

“It seems we’re near the top,” Goro commented, speaking Akira’s thoughts out loud. Akira looked back to see the others looking around the place too, having picked themselves up while Akira wasn’t looking. “Hopefully that means we’re almost done with this absurd place...”

“Yeah no effin’ kidding, man- oh shit, hey, it’s one of those weird doors like we found earlier!” Ryuji shouted, pointing towards the door right next to the one Akira and the others had tumbled through. It was indeed as strange as the Safe Room they had found earlier, the door itself shifting from solid wood to metal to stone to flimsy-looking plastic and back again. Looking closer, Akira could see that the metal plate next to the door read ‘VICE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE’ in large, ornate font.

“Oh thank god- I could definitely use a break after all that jumping and stuff,” Ann sighed, relieved, as she went to push the door open. The rest of the group followed her in, the room beyond looking pretty much exactly like what it said on the box; there was a desk, several shelves filled with books and files and folders, a big, comfy-looking desk-chair, and a few other seats scattered about the place for guests to sit in. It was also totally empty, which made Akira curious.

He looked around for the three of them who actually went to Shujin- Ann and Ryuji were fighting over who got to sit in the big comfy chair, while Makoto had slumped down onto a similarly plush-looking loveseat off to the side, looking more relaxed and unguarded than Akira had ever seen her. Exhaustion made honest folks out of everyone, he supposed. “Hey guys, should we keep an eye out for the Vice Principal’s shadow or something coming back here at any point?”

Makoto perked up at that. “Hm? Oh, no, our Vice Principal quit last year, after... after everything with Kamoshida came out.” She looked uncomfortable, mentioning that incident, which was fair in Akira’s eyes, she kind of deserved to. “Quit in protest, I believe. It seemed as if she was one of the only upper staff members who had been kept purposefully out of the loop in regards to his... behavior.”

“And the position hasn’t been filled since then?” Goro asked, head tilting to the side from the less-plush, but still comfortable-looking guest chair he had taken for himself. Akira hurried to take the one next to him, only realizing then that he was still standing, despite feeling just as drained from the acrobatics-fest back there as everyone else probably was.

Makoto shook her head. “No. According to Principal Kobyakawa, it’s been quite difficult to find staff who want to work here, after all of that. Though of course whether he was lying about that or not is in question now, considering how twisted his mental state has clearly become.”

“Dude was pretty twisted already, coverin’ for that shithead,” Ryuji reasonably pointed out.

“...yes,” was all Makoto had to say in response to that, starting to look very much like she didn’t want to be here any more.

“...but, the Vice Principal still has stuff they’re responsible for, right?” Akira chimed in, guilt and nerves driving him to speak up. While Makoto definitely deserved to confront her part in the Kamoshida business, Akira didn’t want to torture the girl with it. Well, if he was honest, he kind of did enjoy seeing her squirm, but that was mostly just the jealousy from earlier, which he was really, truly trying to squash out as completely as he could before they finished up in the Palace for the day, but goddamn his brain was fighting him like nobody’s business on this one. “If there hasn’t been a VP for a year, who’s been doing the work?”

“Me, mostly,” Makoto admitted, seeming half-prideful, half-resentful about it, which was a hell of a combination of feelings. “Some of the teachers have taken on more duties as far as organizing their schedules and workloads, but I’ve been handling most of the paperwork and reports and such. I-”

“That’s pretty messed up,” Ryuji butted in, frowning. “Kobyakawa makin’ you do all that on top of bein’ Class Prez, and all the Third Year shit you’ve got already... and I bet he sure as hell ain’t been payin’ you for it either, huh?”

Makoto looked down, shook her head. “...no, he hasn’t. It’s... nice to feel useful, I suppose, but...”

“...but there’s a fine line between ‘useful’ and ‘used.’” Goro finished for her. She didn’t respond. 

Goro sighed, got up from his chair. “I think we should finish scoping out this place as soon as we can. Akira and I have some energy bars and bottles of water, if any of you want some, but as soon as you’re done, we should get moving.”

Pretty much everyone took Goro up on his offer, but they ate and drank pretty quickly, all of them ready to get this over with as soon as they could. Once everyone finished, they headed back outside, splitting up briefly to check out the rest of the doors in the room they were in. Unfortunately, other than the door they came in through (which was helpfully labeled CATHEDRAL, MAIN) and the safe room, everything else was locked. It wasn’t a huge loss, as most of them were apparently just offices for the rest of Shujin’s staff, but it still ate at Akira and Goro’s detective instincts to not be able to investigate this place fully, when they had the chance.

After that, all they had left was the spiral staircase in the center of the room. Before they started climbing it, Goro tried to arc his head around the steps themselves, trying to get a look at where they led. Unable to do that, he gestured for the rest of them to wait, and snuck up to a point in the staircase where he could get a proper look.

When he came back down, his expression was displeased. “It seems as if these lead directly to another room, without any doors or antechambers before it. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that we’re going to have a fight on our hands with whatever’s up there, so Makoto, you stay just out of sight on the stairwell itself until everything is safe. Alright?”

When Akira looked, Makoto did not seem very pleased with that- in fact, she seemed like she was holding back a whole monologue’s-worth of vitriol and displeasure at the very idea. Akira thought back to the handful of times he had glanced back while they were going through the Palace, checking in on Makoto, and realized that while she had been trying to hide it, she had been looking pretty displeased the whole time- or rather, she had been looking almost... left out?

With that in mind, Akira took another look at Makoto’s current expression, and realized very suddenly that the way she was looking at the four of them, all getting ready for a fight, was almost an exact replica of how Akira had been feeling earlier, when she and Goro had discovered their easy, natural rapport while theorizing about the hidden meanings and metaphors behind the Palace.

After a few seconds of thought, Akira reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to startle her like nothing else. She blinked at him, confused, and he smiled as soothingly and gently as he could. “You’re the only one of us who knows Kobyakawa personally. If he’s waiting up there for us, it’d help out a lot to have you secretly keeping tabs on what he says, checking for any inconsistencies or lies that the rest of us wouldn’t pick up on.”

She didn’t seem very soothed at the idea, but seemed to accept it all the same, objections visibly deflating out of her. “...fine. I’ll keep out of sight and listen.”

“Thank you,” Goro bowed his head a little, then looked at the rest of them. “Everyone else, follow me.”

With Makoto now taking up the rear, the group started to climb the staircase, the stairs only wide enough to allow them to go in single file. It wasn’t a long climb, but it was still longer than Akira had thought it would be, his legs aching just a little bit as they finally reached the top.

The staircase opened up into a room that was, frankly, an absolute nightmare in terms of design. The room was shaped, overall, like a small chapel, a few rows of pews leading up to what would normally be an altar, or a dias for someone to speak at, or something. Instead, the pews, and the carpet that ran between the rows, led to an obnoxiously large and ornate desk, with large bookcases and a couple stained-glass windows behind it taking the place of what Akira guessed would be an organ or a stand for a choir in a normal chapel. The walls of the place were also strange, lined with framed pieces of paper and certificates, more than any one person should or could logically have, and more offensively than the rest of it combined, the whole room was done up in a rich, reddish mahogany, accented with overly ornate silver and gold carvings, along the corners of the walls, the edge of the pew benches, the pointed, circus-tent-like top of the ceiling, and all over the absurd desk at the front.

And behind the desk itself, seated in something that was halfway between a padded desk chair and a throne was the white-robed, corpulent form of Kobyakawa himself.

Chapter Text

“Welcome, my children, welcome,” Kobyakawa waved at them from behind his massive desk, as the group (minus Makoto, still crouched down, out of sight on the steps leading up to the room) filed in. “You must be the ones who have been causing such a ruckus recently. Please, have a seat. Let us talk.”

“I think we’ll stay standing, Principal Kobyakawa,” Goro said, his stance a little low, a little wide, ready to move at a moment’s notice and dodge any sudden attacks, though subtly so. Akira took up a similar stance next to him, Ryuji to his left, Ann on Goro’s right. The blonde duo were definitely less subtle about their battle-readiness, but hopefully it wouldn’t be a problem.

Much like the other shadows Akira and Goro had run into in the past. Kobyakawa’s emotional state seemed really unstable- in an instant, he shifted from the calm, magnanimous leader to a sneering, almost growling expression, glaring at them with fury dancing in his eyes. “You will refer to me as His Excellency here, child! Not that any of you would know the first thing about basic decency or manners. You are scoundrels, vagrants, thieves- I will go so far as to say you four are enemies to the entirety of the Bound, vile heretics seeking our ultimate destruction!”

Akira looked at the others, a little unsettled at how furious and spittle-flinging Kobyakawa had become, though again, it wasn’t like he’d never seen a shadow get this intensely tweaked out. Ryuji and Ann and Goro seemed unsettled too, though outwardsly they were all just shrugging, projecting an air of confidence and disinterest. Akira did the same. “I mean... yeah, pretty much,” he replied to Kobyakawa’s accusation. “I don’t know about the vagrants part, and we don’t really steal stuff, but the rest is pretty much on point.”

The shadow hissed at them, teeth bared. “How dare you speak so casually... you know nothing about the glory of the Bound, how we have struggled- how I have struggled to create something magnificent!”

Goro sighed, just quietly enough for Akira to hear it, but stayed looking as professional as he could manage towards Kobyakawa himself. “No, I suppose we don’t. Though I have the strangest feeling you’re about to t-”

“With these hands,” the shadow started, grandly, casting his eyes to the heavens as Goro’s expression fell to a simmering glare at being interrupted like that. Akira patted him on the arm. It only helped a little. “I have earned my place at the side of the very leader of the Bound. With these hands, I have turned this academy, this foolish relic of the old ways into the perfect staging ground for the Bound, now and forever!”

“Staging ground?” Ann quirked her head to the side, confused. “What do you mean?”

Kobyakawa turned his gaze on them at Ann’s question, and the fire in those beady little eyes was almost enough to make Akira take a step back. The shadow looked very unnerving, and far too confident. “My school, my academy, my Cathedral to the Glory of the Bound will be the one true, perfect way of ensuring that the Bound’s legacy lasts for generations! Just as I sought acceptance and comfort and a place to serve in the loving embrace of our glorious leader, so too shall my students learn the importance of service. The wonder of bowing one’s head to a higher authority, the joy of following those who are destined to lead, the beauty of finally, truly belonging, like a proud foxhound, filled with happiness and peace at the touch of its master’s leash around its neck... this, I shall impart to my children, and to their children, and on and on throughout eternity!”

The more the shadow spoke, the more Akira felt his stomach turn and twist inside him. “You’re brainwashing them to be slaves,” he spat, snarling more than Goro had been.

“No effin’ kidding,” Ryuji growled. He lifted up his baseball bat, pointing the tip at Kobyakawa’s gut. “Just cause you can’t go a day without gettin’ a pat on the head and bein’ told you’re a good widdle boy from some jackbooted jackass in a cheap suit don’t mean that anyone else deserves such a shitty excuse for a life.”

Akira internally whistled, not having seen Ryuji speak so bodly before, but his admiration was interrupted by another almost feral snarl from the shadow. “And what would a worthless little punk like you know?! That fool Kamoshida should have broken your jaw as well as your leg while he was at it, saved us all a lot of trouble!”

Ryuji was about to get a hell of a lot more angry, but Goro raised his hand, and with one look, Ryuji deferred to him. There was a cold fury burning in the red of Goro’s eyes, contained but strong enough to melt steel. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing that this cretin says matters. We will unveil your crimes to the world, Principal Kobyakawa, and then you will be arrested, and the rest of your pathetic little cult along with you.”

He kind of expected Goro’s taunt to start a fight of some sort, or push Kobyakawa over the edge in rage, but what Akira didn’t expect was for the shadow to toss his head back and laugh, hearty and from his gut. “Arrested? Me?! Us?!? You truly know nothing... while you galavant about in your sad, childish little costumes, my allies have been securing our hold over this country. Most of those in the Diet have joined us, and the entirety of Tokyo’s law enforcement agencies have been under our thumbs for some time now...” The shadow’s eyes flickered off to the side for a moment. “Except for that horrid Commissioner and those few still loyal to him... but he will be dealt with soon enough. By this time next week, all those in positions of authority will have either bowed their heads in glorious subservience, or will have bowed their heads to the executioner’s axe. Your threats are meaningless.”

Akira heard a small, soft gasp from behind him at Kobyakawa’s threats to the elder Nijima, and had to physically stop himself from looking back to see if Makoto was okay, not wanting to give away her hiding spot. The others seemed to have heard her too, attention slipping away from Kobyakawa just long enough for him to gather himself again and rise up from his desk. When Akira focused again on him, he was standing upright, behind where his chair had been, his flowing white robes giving a strange, sort of eerie grandeur to his frame.

“It matters not. In the end, even with your disturbances to my precious Cathedral, your existences are as meaningless as those of a lowly beetle. I thank you for showing yourselves to me, and saving me the trouble of sending my agent to hunt you down myself. Now, I can simply have her deal with you here and now.” He snapped his fingers, and there was a sudden, loud grinding noise as the bookshelf directly behind Kobyakawa started to slide to the side, revealing a passageway behind it. Kobyakawa smiled at them, showing off all of his teeth, looking like a horrible, evil Cheshire cat. “I will leave you to my most trusted servant. Farewell, wretches.”

As Kobyakawa stepped aside, Akira could hear Ann gasp and Ryuji swear out loud, but he only barely noticed over the rush of confusion swirling around his mind like a tsunami. From within the secret passageway stepped the unmistakable, red-eyed form of Makoto Nijima.

“...the hell is Miss Prez doin’ here?” Ryuji muttered next to Akira, though he barely heard him, mind racing as he tried to figure out what was going on. Makoto’s expression was as stern as ever- sterner, even, but everything else was completely different. He was clad in armor, dark steel covering every part of her but her head, decked out with scaled terraces of metal and horribly sharp-looking spikes. It clearly wasn’t the same Makoto they had traveled with through the Palace so far, but it couldn’t be her shadow either, as the Dark Knight-looking Makoto didn’t have the telltale glowing yellow eyes. Was this the real Makoto, then, somehow having snuck into some secret corridor below them and swapped outfits in some rapid-fire costume change? Was it-

“Akira,” Goro murmured from next to him, jolting Akira out of his half-daze. He blinked, and realized that he was in a battle-ready half-crouch, arms raised up, ready to block or attack the instant that Makoto moved- and saw that she was in the same sort of position, as were Goro and the others. 

Akira made a confused little hum, inviting Goro to continue, and he did. “Kobyakawa’s gone. He ran away through the passageway Nijima came out of.” Akira blinked and darted his eyes around the room, but Goro was right, the asshole was nowhere to be seen. Goro huffed through his nose. “For all his grand talk, the little fucker ran away the instant we were all distracted. Coward.”

“Yeah, that checks out,” Ryuji murmured from Akira’s other side. “Whenever there’s been a problem at Shujin, that dickwad’s always tossed someone else out to deal with it while heHOLY SHIT!!!

Akira damn well near jumped out of his skin at Ryuji’s sudden scream, and actually jumped a good couple of feet to the side, angling his body to face Ryuji and the threat at the other end of the room as much as he could at the same time. He heard similar bursts of movement from Goro and Ann’s side of the room, but he couldn’t spare much attention to focus on them, too busy trying to keep an eye on everything-

“Jesus christ, Makoto, you scared the shit outta me!” Ryuji groaned, as Makoto Nijima walked past him- the real one this time, dressed as she had been throughout their journey through the Cathedral so far, in a normal Shujin uniform. She gave Ryuji a dry glare as she walked up next to him.

Goro spoke up before she could though- or more accurately, hissed at her. “What are you doing? We told you to stay back where it was s-”

“You said that Kobyakawa was gone, didn’t you?” She sniped back at him, tone harsh, though her gaze was trained on her doppelganger on the opposite side of the room. “I took that to mean the threat was gone; then you said something about a Nijima being here...”

She trailed off, staring at the Knight version of herself, seeming deeply unsure of what to do. The Knight just smiled, a sweet, unnerving kind of smile that did not suit Makoto’s typical sternness at all, and spoke. “You came, just as His Excellency knew you would. Wonderful.” 

Confused, Akira’s gaze snapped back to Makoto, just in time to see her clench her teeth more tightly than was probably healthy for her jaw. She breathed in deeply through her nose a second later, wiping the expression away with whatever calmness that brought her. She tilted her head slightly towards Akira, Goro and Ann’s side of the room, still keeping her eyes trained on the Knight, and asked, “What exactly am I looking at, here?”

Akira was about to tell her that he didn’t know, that he hadn’t seen anything like this before, would have turned to Goro to ask if he had any idea, but the Knight spoke up first, all beaming smiles and sunshine wrapped in midnight-dark steel. “His Excellency knows you down to the very depths of your heart- knows us, that is,” she corrected herself, her bright and helpful tone deeply unnerving in Makoto’s voice. “Just as you serve him, and are his most trusted servant in the world beyond this one, I do the same here.”

Makoto didn’t seem to have anything to say to that, though Akira could see her jaw clench again- and while it was irrational, he knew it was irrational, a small, paranoid part of him felt a twinge of suspicion at how uncomfortable she was looking. He shoved it down quickly, as deep as it could go- and felt a wave of shame quickly afterwards, as Ryuji barked out a hostile, unflinching, slightly confused sounding “Whaddya mean by that?”

The Knight’s gaze didn’t shift from Makoto, nor did Makoto’s shift from the Knight, but she replied nonetheless, still cherry, still unfazed. Her tone almost reminded Akira of some of the poorly-written, barely developed girls in the shittier anime Futaba forced him and Goro to watch, the characters that were, in her words, ‘pure waifu-bait,’ whatever that meant.

Still, the not-Makoto piped up. “As he sees you, so I am. You silence those who would speak out against His Excellency Kobyakawa or against those who are blessed enough to count themselves among his allies; so do I. You ensure there are no doubtful or traitorous thoughts buzzing in the heads of his flock; so do I. You keep an open ear and an open eye out for those who may be whispering heresy or plotting rebellion in the dark corners of his Cathedral; I do the same.” The Knight’s smile grew even wider, even brighter, purer, and she closed her eyes, tilted her head to the side. looking like an idol trying out her cutest pose.  “You and I are one, in our hearts and in our service to our beloved Bishop.”

Akira heard a soft, almost inaudible crack next to him, looked down in time to see Makoto flexing her fingers out, though they were still white-knuckled enough for Akira to guess that she had been clenching her fist pretty damn hard there- though as to why...

“That’s bullshit, and you know it!” Ryuji shouted, startling Akira out of his seditious thoughts. The pirate-ish looking punk pointed a finger accusingly at the Knight, shouted “Miss President would never do anything like that shit!” He sounded certain, totally assured of what he was saying, and Akira thought for a moment he could see Makoto’s tight, strained expression relax slightly... before Ryuji’s own expression fell, doubting himself, and he finished with a weak, unconfidant “...right?”

“Y-yeah!” Unlike Ryuji, Ann’s attempt at countering the Knight’s claims did not sound even the least bit confidant, more like she was putting on a show for the sake of keeping up appearances, and a pretty bad show at that. “Sure, Makoto probably ignored a bunch of complaints about Kamoshida, but it wasn’t her fault that people were so scared to speak up about him, o-or that the police brushed me and Ryuji off when we went to report him, kind of like...” Her gaze fell, her voice too, a thought clearly occurring. “...kind of like they knew we were coming.”

Akira slowly looked back over at Makoto as the gears turned in his head, hoping to see something, anything that might paint doubt on the picture that was starting to come together here, but only saw her eyes closed, her lips in a tight line, the cords of her neck tense and sticking out. 

Obviously, it wasn’t enough to draw any sort of conclusion by- Ann and Ryuji were definitely doubting Makoto a lot, and her silence and expression weren’t doing her any favors either, of course... but Akira had gone through enough false accusations and presumptions and waves of anger that he had to bottle up over and over, back when he and Goro were working for the horrible criminals they made their living with all those years ago.  He knew that Makoto could easily just be burying her rage at being so mischaracterized, not trusting that she’d be believed if she claimed otherwise, not wanting to be that vulnerable in the first place around people she didn’t trust. Akira knew the feeling and the expressions it caused all too well, and Makoto’s behavior could easily just be that...

...but the little voice in his head, the one that had been feeding his jealousy all this time, the one that he heard when he got paranoid about his parents finding him, or Goro finding someone more interesting, or Sojiro getting too tired of taking care of them, or a dozen other things... it whispered that Makoto’s attitude could just as easily be rage at being so plainly unmasked as a mole for Kobyakawa. 

A few seconds of silence passed after Ann spoke, then, once Makoto’s eyes were open again, her doppelganger reached out her hand, eyes sparkling. “Come. His excellency has left a gift for you.”

Makoto paused, just for a second, took a breath, then stepped forwards, walked towards her other self. As soon as she did so, Ryuji and Ann cried out at the same time, shouting for her to stop, demanding what she was doing, but Makoto ignored it all, her only response a slight shake in her arms as she strode over. The Knight lowered her arm, walked around Kobyakawa’s desk to meet her, and once they both reached the front of the desk, the Knight took Makoto’s hands in her gauntlets. Makoto twitched away at the touch, but the Knight didn’t budge, barely reacted at all. She seemed more like a doll, or a puppet, some obedient, pure-hearted little android more than a person. 

“His Excellency is so, so proud of you, Makoto,” The Knight said, voice clear and bright over the continuing noise from the blonde duo.

“Don’t listen to this crap, Prez!” Ryuji shouted, anger and fear mixing together horribly in his voice.

Ann didn’t sound much better, crying out, “What are you doing?! You’ve seen what he’s like, you can’t just-”

“-You have done so well,” The smiling robot continued, as if nobody had spoken a word. “Finding those plotting to bring harm to our master, following them here, learning their weaknesses so that you and I may destroy them, together, for His Excellency Kobyakawa’s continued glory.” She squeezed Makoto’s hands, and tough as she was, Makoto couldn’t help but flinch a little at the tightening of metal around her skin- or at least that’s what Akira assumed the look of pain on her face was from. 

“Now, His Excellency has one final test for you, to prove your loyalty once and for all,” The Knight released Makoto’s hands, moving back to walk around the desk, still speaking up over Ann and Ryuji’s cries. “He feared for a time, as we weak mortals are all prone to, that your devotion to him may be slipping. But now, with your actions today, and with this final act, you shall secure your place at his side, and all that comes with such high honor.”

She continued walking, moving behind the desk again, over to the back wall of the room, next to the secret passage she had come out from earlier. Akira could only barely see it from where he was standing, but there seemed to be some kind of pedestal back there, or an altar maybe.

Whatever it was, what the Knight picked up from it was far more important, and infinitely more alarming. Holding it reverently in both hands, the Knight raised up a huge Greatsword, and carried it back around the desk. It was truly massive, easily four or five feet long, and the blade looked deathly sharp, like it could cut through stone and steel as if it was butter. It was bright silver, but pure white, gleaming, with some kind of runic inscription carved into the steel. It was the kind of weapon a fantasy hero would get right before a climactic battle, or as a reward for service to their King.

The Knight returned to where she had been standing, opposite Makoto, and presented the sword to her. “For you,” she chirped brightly, and, hands shaking, eyes wide, Makoto took it.

Ann cried out an ear-piercing “No!!!!”, Ryuji shouting out “WHAT?!?!?” in a tone that was somehow even higher and more eardrum-shattering, but Akira ignored them, looking quickly, sharply over to Goro.

He had been so silent, so motionless, even, ever since Makoto and her other self started talking, that Akira had no idea what he was thinking. Even know, he was just standing there, one arm crossed against his chest, the other up so he could stroke his chin thoughtfully, his eyes unreadable behind the bright red of his mask. “Goro,” Akira hissed, seeming to startle him, Goro’s focus instantly snapping over to Akira, who asked, desperate for some of his friend’s trademark insight. “What should we do?”

Goro's face twisted, uncertainty painting his features. He looked back towards the two Makotos, and Akira did too. Makoto was holding the sword by the hilt with both hands, eyes glued to the blade as she tilted it, the light from the torches in the room casting off of it in gleaming rays. She seemed almost deaf to the world as she gazed at it, though she definitely wasn’t, Akira could still see her twitch and react as Ann, Ryuji and her other self continued to talk over one another.

“Pres!! What the hell are you doin?!” Ryuji screeched. “This ain’t right-”

“Prove your loyalty, and through service to His Excellency, you will gain everything you have ever wished for,” the Knight soothed, voice full of promise and adoration for the glories of service to a grandiose croney like Kobyakawa. “Your dreams of college-”

“Don’t listen to her!!!!!” Ann yelled, sounding half-enraged, half-desperate. When Akira glanced over, she almost looked tearful, and Akira suspected that her feelings towards Makoto had started to mend as they went through the Palace, only now to shatter again. “He’ll just use you and use you, just like he always has-”

“He will open the doors to the finest institutions in the country,” not-Makoto continued, smile growing wider. “His word will be your ticket in. Your dreams of a successful career-”

“You can’t be believin’ this shit!”

“With his influence in the Bound’s new order, you shall fly through the ranks of the police like a bird through the air-”

“Because he’s gonna kill or jail your dad and all his allies! You heard him, this i-”

“With the glory you shall attain through your service to him, and to the Bound-”

“You’re better than this, Prez!”

“-you might even finally earn-”

“Don’t just be someone’s stooge all your life!!”

“-the love and approval of your sis and dad...”

Flames burst out from the blade of the greatsword, Makoto’s grip tightening as hard as a human hand could tighten around the hilt. The Knight’s eyes lit up both in joy and from the glow of the fire, her smile growing to a grin, to something wild and lost in a religious-looking fervor. “Yes!

NO!!!” Ann and Ryuji shouted as one, and Akira was surprised to hear himself shout it too, caught ankle-deep in the intensity of the moment. 

He felt a hand on his wrist, glanced over to Goro, who shook his head, quick and sharp. “Look,” he implored, and Akira did.

Makoto’s head was turned down, almost bowed, so her bangs were shading most of her face, but from what he could see past the shadow and the glare of the fire, her teeth were gritted and bared. As her doppelganger and the blonde duo continued to shout over each other, teeth still closed, she took a deep, hissing breath-

“Will you all...” the tint on the flames took on a pale blue hue. “...just shut...” They grew in intensity, the torrent of fire expanding to twice the width of the blade itself, and turning totally blue now- more than that, a very familiar shade of it. She raised the sword high into the air, and shouted- almost screamed, “...tHE FUCK UP!!!!!

Akira saw the Knight open her mouth to speak, looking deeply shocked, and an instant later, the blade cleaved her clean in two, so fast and so brutally that she still looked whole, were it not for her frozen expression, and the line of blue fire bifurcating her down the middle. Makoto’s attack was so forceful she couldn’t even fully stop the blade as it swing down and back- and more than that, the flames shooting out from the swords edge were so intense, so powerful, that they cut through everything in the blade’s path, a line of glowing fire etched in a clean circle on the floor, walls, and ceiling of that part of the room.

The not-Makoto stumbled back, waddling towards the four onlookers, mouth and eyes frozen wide in shock. She fell to her knees, somehow managing to reach out her arm towards them, as if to-

-Makoto raised her blade again, point facing the ground, and with a ragged, guttural cry of rage plunged it down through her false self, with enough force that she buried the sword two or three feet into the stone floor.

The Knight lay flat on the ground, and did not move or speak another word.

Nobody spoke, or even breathed as Makoto let go of the hilt, staggering forwards slightly. The blue fire from the sword seemed to lose its stability as she released her grip on it, flooding downwards from the blade and into the floor. The room began to shake, and as the glowing blue line marking where Makoto had cut through the tower’s walls flared up with fire, bits of stone and dust started to fall to the ground every so often.

The flames spread to Makoto, too, arcing out from where the blade was buried in the ground until they found her shoes, and started to climb up her body. She let out a humorless, bitter cough of a laugh, raising a hand to her face to shove back her hair. “I am so goddamn sick,” she started, her voice raw, like she injured her vocal cords a little. “Of playing by the fucking rules, for nothing. Of being everybody’s perfect, flawless, precious little girl without getting any of the goddamn respect I deserve!”

She spat her words out, swore like a kid who had been repressing their curses for years and years, and now that it was all spilling out, took a vicious, immature, from-the-heart childish joy with every fuck and damn that came from their mouth. Makoto laughed again, wilder this time, Akira worried that she might be losing it a little- though since she was awakening, maybe this was her true self, deep down. “I’m done. Done with all of it. Fuck all the weak-kneed shitheads, thinking they’re better than me, fuck all the self-obsessed bastards, looking down on me... I’m going to do what I know is right, and I am going to do it perfectly, and if any motherfucker like Kamoshida, or Kobyakawa, or anybody else gets in my goddamn way, I’m gonna slam my foot into their balls so haRD IT’LL FLY OUT OF THEIR GODDAMN MOUTHS!!!

Her words bled into a scream of rage and pain, and Makoto collapsed to her knees, hands shooting to her face. She arched her back almost painfully far, turning her face to the sky as she screamed and clawed at herself, until her fingers found purchase on the mask that suddenly was covering her eyes, sharp and plain and metal, deadly and straight-to-the-point. Her screaming stopped, and a dangerous, intense grin spread across her lips. She whispered something, some oath, some promise, and with a spray of blood, tore off her mask.

Blue flame flooded the room, knocking Akira off of his feet and tossing him back across the floor, into a knocked-over pew bench. He managed to prop himself up, just slightly, in time to see the wall of flames tear through the remaining foundation of the back part of the room, then blast it off in a shower of stone and wood and paper, exploding out into the sky and the roof beyond.

Cast in the red light now flooding the room from outside, and backed by a continued, slow rain of debris, Makoto rose from the floor. Where once she was wearing the standard Shujin uniform, now was an outfit sitting somewhere between the dark-grey Knight’s armor her doppelganger wore and a classic biker’s suit. She looked like something out of a dark fantasy apocalypse movie, all dark blue leather and spike-clad steel and, if he looked hard enough, Akira even thought he saw brass knuckles on her hands. She looked like she should be riding a souped-up motorcycle through a desert at midnight-

-and just as he thought that, Makoto crushed her mask in her hand, and in a swirl of blue flame, a motorcycle appeared next to her. She looked towards it, a flash of unmasked, surprisingly pure awe and joy streaking across her face. She ran her hand along its polished steel, and as she reached the back of the bike, she looked outwards, towards the newly-revealed roof of the Cathedral, and the bell tower in the distance.

Makoto seemed to pause there, and Akira shook his head, clearing it as best he could, then started to climb to his feet. He looked around as he scrambled back up, seeing Goro do the same, next to him. They caught one another’s eye, looked over each other to make sure they were okay, then nodded, Goro turning to help Ann up and make sure she wasn’t hurt, Akira doing the same to Ryuji on his left.

Once the group was back up on their feet, they made their way to join Makoto.

“...holy shit, Miss Prez...” Ryuji said as they got closer to the edge of the room. “That’s... I mean, I’ve seen some badass shit since those two brought us in here, but that was badass!!!

“Yeah...” Ann didn’t seem hesitant, per se, to join in complimenting Makoto, but she did seem very embarrassed to. “That... You’ve really got a rebel’s soul, deep down, huh? Guess having to deal with all these bigwigs all the time just sorta squashed it down and all?”

Both of the blondes were looking at Makoto with varying degrees of eagerness, impressed at her awakening and anxious from their guilt over doubting her all at once. She didn’t respond to either of them. She didn’t even look at them. Hell, Akira couldn’t even tell if she had heard them or not.

Makoto was staring out at the roof of the Cathedral with incredible intensity and focus. Akira realized that she must be looking for something, and he tried to follow her gaze to its endpoint, ignoring for the moment the wave of disappointed, defeated energy coming off of his two other friends.

The closer Akira looked, the more he realized why Makoto was so fixated on the new area now revealed to them. The roof was massive- which was obvious, he supposed, it did cover the entirety of the huge complex they had been traipsing through since yesterday. What made it appear truly gigantic, however, was the fact that it was absolutely covered in shadows- not shadow-guards, but the strange, kind of unnervingly cartoonish monsters themselves. There were easily several dozen of them, if not more, spread out across the slightly sloping shingles like a herd of prey animals grazing in the savahnah.

Except, they weren’t all spread out, exactly. It was more like they were spreading out, moving to cover more territory from a central point. The shadows closest to the tower that Akira and the others were all standing in (and whooooooo boy, looking straight down was not a good idea, they were very high up off of the roof’s surface, and Akira didn’t even want to think about how high up they were from the street itself) were the most spread out, and the further away from their tower you looked, the more bunched together the shadows were, all the way until-

“There!” Makoto barked suddenly, next to Akira. He jumped a little, turned to see her pointing, turned back to follow her aim-

-it was hard to see, far away as he was, but nearing the foot of the bell tower at the other end of the roof was the unmistakable form of Kobyakawa, white robes flapping as he ran towards a door nearby. As he ran, every so often, he would reach into some pockets in his robes, and toss a handful of something back into the air behind him- the somethings instantly starting to grow and shift into the forms of the Paladin and Cherubim shadow-guards they had fought through on their way here. As soon as they were fully formed, the guards burst into groups of monsters, then started to spread out to cover as much territory as they could.

Akira was about to speak up, say how much of a fight this was about to be, and that maybe they should come back the next day, since there was a safe room back where they came from, but before he could open his mouth more than an inch, there was a deafeningly loud VRUMMM VRUMMMMM from just next to him, and he leapt in surprise to the side, bumping into Goro as he did so. He spared a second to give Goro an apologizing look, his friend looking just as alarmed at the sudden noise as he was, spared another second to reach inside himself for the calm, unaffected facade that Arsene always wore, kind of managed to collect himself through that, then turned back towards the source of the noise.

As he looked, Makoto had just finished getting settled in the seat of her bike- or rather, her Persona. She revved the motor again, louder this time, then turned briefly to look at Ann and Ryuji to one side of her, Akira and Goro to the other.

“If you want to break this self-assured bastard’s kneecaps as much as I do, follow me, stay close, and melt anything that gets in your way!” She revved her bike again, and Akira only noticed that within the windshield of the bike, there was a weird, floating, ghostly-white face just in time to see its eyes snap open, blindingly glowing white light, like headlights, burning where its pupils should be.

Makoto shouted “Hyah!” as if she was commanding a horse to gallop, and she rocketed forwards. Ann and Goro both shouted out in alarm as Makoto drove straight off of the edge, and the four of them watched, terrified and transfixed, as Makoto and her bike arced gracefully through the air, down, until she hit the tiles of the roof, the bike bouncing on its suspension to take the impact, the impact itself sending up scattered shingles and a frankly terrifying cloud of blue-white energy in a ring around her. The energy and tiles washed over all the nearby shadows, tossing them aside like so much newspaper in a storm. By the time they landed, their bodies were broken and burning with that same blue glow, before they twitched and faded away into dark mist.

Makoto turned in her seat to look back up at them, seemed to deflate a little, annoyed, as she realized that even if they did want to come down with her, it’d take them significantly longer, considering they didn’t have any sort of magic bikes. She turned back to the roof around her, to the mass of shadows, recovering from her surprise entrance and now creeping towards her. She shook her head, then revved her bike again, and started driving in slow, wide circles, firing off blue-white spell after blue-white spell at any creature that got too close, as well as all the ones between her landing spot and the shattered tower the rest of them were in.

Akira looked to either side of him, still pretty stunned. “So...” he hazarded, doing his level best to keep his voice steady, Arsene doing a lot of legwork for that, again. “Anyone have any ideas how to get down there?

There was a laugh inside his head, and Akira wondered briefly just why Arsene was choosing now of all times to be so active, but his thoughts were interrupted by his mask burning away on its own, and the red-clad demon bursting into life behind him. Akira blinked at the strange, mask-faced Persona for a few minutes, before he noticed the huge, black wings stretching out from its back. “Oh shit,” he exclaimed, a little excited. “I didn’t know this was an option, but I guess maybe Arsene could fly us down there?”

Goro seemed delighted by the idea, his eyes lighting up, then the light dimming almost instantly. “That... would probably work for some of us, but I doubt there’s enough room on him to carry all four of us.” He looked downcast, and Akira got the impression that Goro really wanted to be one of the ones Arsene carried.

“Yeah, proba-OH SHIT WAIT A SEC!!!” Ryuji shouted suddenly, excitedly. He took his mask off, crushed it, and his Pirate friend burst into life behind him- riding, Akira now remembered, a floating, miniature Pirate ship. “Captain Kidd kinda surfs through the air anyways, right? Maybe he can take me and Ann, and the cool demon bird guy can take you two!”

Ann didn’t seem too sure about that, opening her mouth, only to shut it again as the Captain reached out a gentlemanly hand to her, an offer of help to climb aboard. She took it, nervous, but seemed to instantly gain her sea legs as soon as she stepped onto the small wooden deck. “Whoa... I kinda expected this to be really unstable from how much the guy floats around while we’re fighting, but this is awesome!”Ryuji laughed, and jumped on too, Kidd pulling him close against his chest, much to Ryuji’s blushy embarrassment. Ann, standing solidly on her own two feet behind them, laughed in a startlingly similar pattern to how Ryuji had just a second ago.

Akira turned to Goro, unable to wipe the excited smile off his face. “Shall we?” 

Goro was smiling just as much, and before he could do so much as nod, Akira felt a warm arm with a taloned hand wrap around his waist, and carry him up a foot or two into the air. He blinked a bunch, regaining his bearings, saw Goro being held similarly, across from him. Akira had just enough time to shoot him a thumbs up, and then they were flying.

It would be impossible to express how unimaginably freeing it felt as they sailed through the air, Arsene’s wings flapping every so often, but mostly gliding along idly. Akira twisted his head around to look to their left, and saw Ryuji and Ann grinning like crazy. They started whooping and hollering as they flew, and Akira felt pretty damn tempted to do the same.

“Huh?” There was an alarmed voice below them, and Akira looked down (almost instantly regretting it, then just as instantly realizing that for some reason, the height didn’t scare him right now. Arsene’s influence, perhaps?) to see Makoto, alarmed, looking for the source of the sudden shouting. When she saw the probably pretty bizarre sight of the four of them above her, she deflated, shook her head, and turned back to the shadows around her. “Come on,” she shouted up at them. “Follow me!”

Without another word, she wheelie’d her bike around until it was facing the bell tower again, then rocketed off towards it, bursts of energy and light shooting off the Persona every so often to clear her a path. Akira opened his mouth to tell Arsene to follow her, but the Thief started moving on his own before Akira could say a word, perhaps sensing adventure ahead. To their left, there was a shout of alarm, then more whoops and hollers as Captain Kidd apparently did the same.

Akira turned back to face Goro, who was looking around himself kind of like an excited puppy, taking in as much of the sights and the experience of them flying as he could. Akira couldn’t help but smile at the sight, his heart warming up, unable to hold back a soft, deeply appreciative “Cute~”

Goro must have heard him, somehow, over the explosions below them and the shouting next to them, and he twisted back around towards Akira, face red as pickled ginger. “Wh- I’m-”

Akira just grinned all the more, and reached over to ruffle Goro’s hair. “You’re allowed to be cute, you know.”

“Well- ugh, you’re always so embarrassing.” Goro huffed and pouted, clearly flustered at being caught.

“And you’ve always been cute, since we were kids,” he teased, Goro’s flusteredness only egging him on further. “Every time you see something that makes you happy, or that you think is cool, its like the sun breaking out from behind a bunch of grey clouds. It’s adorable.”

Goro was more of a beet-like hue now, sputtering and desperately trying to find some way to defend himself against Akira’s torrent of praise, which was incredibly silly and also just incredibly Goro. “I- that’s- f-flattery and flirtatiousness will get you nowhere, Akira.”

Akira felt himself getting a little red at that, and yeah, as he went over what he had just said, that did kind of sound like flirting. Feeling a little bold thanks to Arsene, and a lot nervous thanks to every other part of him, he replied, “I’d never just say something to flatter you, you know.” He swallowed, took a steadying breath through his nose, felt a reassuring, slight squeeze from Arsene’s claws, and continued. “The, uh, the other part, though...”

Goro blinked at him, his blush not going away, but taking on a different nature, as he realized what territory they were entering. “So, not flattery, but... were you...” He was having a real hard time getting the words out. Akira empathized so goddamn much. Goro swallowed like Akira had, though his looked drier and more uncomfortable. Still, it seemed to work, and with steadier eyes, he looked right at Akira and asked, “...are you flirting with me, Akira?”

“Uhm, not consciously,” Akira blurted out, then instantly continued speaking as he caught Goro’s nervously hopeful expression going crestfallen. “-but! If that’s... if that’s something that you’d like, then...”

He took a deep breath, and their eyes met again, nervous and hopeful and-

Sickly green wings burst into view like a halo behind Goro’s head, and around the side of him, Akira could see bird-like arms holding a deadly-looking spear. They pulled back-

Goro!!!” Akira reached out an arm desperately towards Goro, and in mid-air, Arsene twisted around, so that he was properly facing his new attacker, a winged shadow with a bird’s head and an anthropomorphic body. It cried out, then cried out a hell of a lot louder as Arsene’s mask glowed and an explosion of curse magic tore it to shreds.

“Uh, guys!” Ryuji called out from their other side, and Arsene swept around again to face them- finding them also surrounded by flying shadows, the small canons on Captain Kidd’s boat just managing to hold them off. “We’re in trouble!”

Akira had Arsene shoot another blast of curse magic at the shadows closest to him, but got turned around again as his Persona twirled back around to fire off more blasts at more winged bastards coming towards them from the other side. 

They fought like that for a minute or so, Kidd’s canon blasts and bursts of lightening mixing with bursts of dark energy throughout the sky around them. Soon, though, Goro spoke up, sounding tense. “This isn’t working! There’s no end to them from what I can tell, and Arsene and the Captain can’t move while they’re busy shooting at our enemies!”

Akira gritted his teeth, noticing now that they were indeed just hovering in place, not making any progress towards the tower, Makoto’s glowing blue form rocketing further towards it and further away from them by the second. He racked his brains for a solution, for something, anyt-

Worry not, my little Thief,’ a familiar voice boomed inside Akira’s head. He looked up at Arsene’s mask-face, saw his eyes glowing as he spoke again. ‘Little Prince, if you would be so kind as to summon your attractive, muscular, Superhero-like friend to watch our backs,

Akira’s eyes went wide as he realized that Arsene was talking not just to him, but to Goro too, Goro looking stunned at the new voice echoing in his thoughts. He gazed up ar Arsene, eyes wide, then shook his head, refocusing- then his eyes went wide in realization. “Superhero... of course! Come, Robin Hood!”

He grabbed his mask and crushed it, and from a burst of blue flame, fists outstretched as if he was coming right out of one of those old American comics, Robin Hood rocketed forth, colliding fist-first with a shadow, bursting it into shade from the impact alone. Reaching out a huge, white-gloved hand, he summoned a more compact version of the greatbow he usually wielded, and started firing bolts of light at the enemies around them.

Free from the burden of defense, Arsene turned back around towards Captain Kidd and his besieged crew. He gestured towards the skeletal Persona, Akira realizing that he must be speaking to him too. The Captain straightened up, then turned around briefly to face Ann, and a few seconds later, standing on tip-toe on top of the pirate ship’s mast, Carmen burst into life, the shadows around them bursting into fire as she did so.

Captain Kidd shot Arsene a bony thumbs-up, and with a deep, satisfied chuckle echoing through Akira’s head, they were off again, faster than before. 

There was practically no time to think as they flew, no time to focus on anything except keeping their flying stable and staying out of the worst of the maelstrom around them. Even so, Akira felt something special as they flew and fought, something he had only brushed up against before. As a shadow roared towards Arsene, Robin would swoop in and hip check it out of the sky just in time. As another came up towards Robin from his blind spot, Arsene would blast it with darkness, sending it twitching and falling to the roof below. Twin arrows would pierce through a shadow’s wings, only for Arsene to send a spear of curse energy through the struggling creature. A fleeing monster would find themselves flying face-first into a wall of shadow, only to become a pincushion for Robin’s arrows a moment later. 

More than covering for one another, it felt like Akira and Goro’s minds were performing an intricate, intimate dance, perfectly in synch with one another, from their thoughts to whatever parts of their soul their Personas came from. It was something Akira had never experienced, even in the heat of the innumerable battles he and Goro had been in during their years trawling Mementos.

It almost made up for being cockblocked before he could confess. Almost. But, for better or worse, thanks to the intensity of the melee they were caught in, there was no time to think about that, for now.

Eventually, they made it through to where Makoto was waiting, at the base of the clock tower. With a final blast of shadow and light and fire and electricity, Arsene and the Captain set their guests down onto the shingles, then floated over to join Robin and Carmen, guarding the group from the still-oncoming horde.

“Took you long enough,” Makoto growled, only dismounting from her Personabike now that she wasn’t the only one defending against the army of monsters. Without looking at it, she spoke to the motorcycle as she turned to the large, wooden clocktower door. “Johanna, go guard us with the other Personas. This shouldn’t take long.”

The bike made a double-beep, the kind of noise cars make when you lock them, and even Makoto jumped a little in unexpected surprise at that. The bike- Johanna- wheeled around and curved a tight line around the rest of them to join the defensive line. Once she had resettled herself, Makoto tried the door handle, to no avail. “Locked. Of course.”

“I got this-” Akira raised his hand, but before he could take more than two steps towards Makoto, she had stood up, taken some kind of martial arts stance, raised her leg, and with a blueish glow surrounding her, slammed it into the door. 

It flew clean off its hinges, rocketing back into the belltower, taking some of the stones it had been attached to with it. Ryuji and Ann whistled low at the same time, impressed.

Regaining her footing, Makoto walked inside without another word, and the rest of them scrambled to catch up with her. The five of them stopped once they were inside, taking a few moments to look around.

The bell tower wasn’t huge; the interior was roughly the size of a classroom, square, with plain stone walls, a stairwell running up the sides. There were four big, thick wooden pillars planted into the ground, and when Akira followed them up (swallowing thickly at the intense vertigo he got as he did so), he saw that they led all the way up to the top of the tower, presumably keeping it and the bell itself hung aloft.

If they listened closely, ignoring the sound of the continued battle outside, they could hear a thick, sweaty-sounding panting echoing down from the tower’s peak.

Upon registering the sound, Makoto turned and started towards the stairs lining the tower walls, and Goro started to move too, on a path to intercept her. “Nijima-chan, I wouldn’t advise confronting him right now-”

“Shut up, Akechi,” she grunted dismissively. Goro didn’t stop, but he did stumble a little at the blunt distaste in her tone. “I don’t need you to tell me what I can and can’t-”

Almost the instant her foot hit the first step, Makoto froze, and started to sway in place. Goro rushed over, but Ann was faster, and caught Makoto just as she fell backwards. Outside, there was a loud whoosh, and the sound of spells being cast grew a bit quieter, Johanna likely having vanished.

“N-no, I can-” Makoto mumbled, struggling weakly in Ann’s arms, but the blonde shook her head, the tips of her twintails brushing across Makoto’s face, tickling her enough to distract her from her efforts to escape, switching instead to brushing them weakly away.

“Awakening to a Persona takes a lot out of you, Makoto,” Ann said, playing the wise, learned senpai even though she herself had only learned that yesterday. “Ryuji and I almost passed out after we got ours. You’re a lot tougher and uh, buffer, apparently, than we are, but you have to recover just like the rest of us.”

“Precisely what I was going to say,” Goro added, a little snippy, as he joined the two of them. “Not to mention all the spells you were casting back there- that we all have been casting today.” He looked around the room at them all, and Akira had to admit, he did feel pretty tired himself at this point. “From what we know, a Persona’s magic comes straight from its wielder’s spirit- or put less mystically, our energy. We feel more drained and exhausted the more we fight physically, as a matter of course, but the effect is amplified exponentially the more spells we cast-”

“Hey, uh, real cool lesson, Professor Detective, but can we move the lecture somewhere else?” Ryuji was leaning against what remained of the doorframe, looking outside. “I dunno how, but there’s still more of those shadows, and we’re all gonna run out of energy if our Personas haveta keep fightin’ em off!”

Ann, Goro and Akira started to look around for an exit, for somewhere to retreat to, noticing even as Ryuji spoke that they were feeling weaker with every passing moment. Akira found it first- a stone sticking suspiciously far out in one of the walls, a rectangle-shaped seam, and when Akira looked closely enough, the color of the stones around it was shifting every couple of seconds. “There!”

He rushed over and whacked the stone with his fist- then recoiled with a groan, holding his fist in pain, the stone barely having moved an inch. Goro gave him a pitying, amused kind of look, and patted his shoulder as he swept past him, slowly pushing the stone in. It slid forwards, and after a few seconds, a loud click echoed throughout the tower, and with a shower of dust, the hidden door swung inwards, revealing the safe room beyond it. “Everyone, inside!” Goro shouted, holding the door open with one arm. Akira went in first, then Ann, still cradling a displeased-looking Makoto in her arms, then Ryuji, a loud whoosh sounding outside the tower as each of them passed the threshold, and their Personas vanished in turn. Goro dashed in last, and he and Ryuji quickly worked to shove the heavy door shut again, the growing roar of approaching shadow-monsters going totally silent when it finally closed completely.

Akira took a deep breath, and sank down onto the floor as he let it out. He gave the safe room a quick look-around; it was much smaller than the others they had been in so far, and seemed to be the equivalent of some sort of rooftop gardening shed. Akira was too drained to give it a much more detailed inspection than that, though, and took off a glove to rub at his eyes.

Nearby, Makoto was still struggling, though with how drained she was, it wasn’t very much of a struggle, really. “Let me go... that bastard is going to get away if I don’t-”

“He’s not going anywhere, Makoto-senpai,” Akira said, exhausted. “This is his Palace, he can’t escape from here or anything like that. Besides, we cleared out most of the Cathedral itself, then you blew up half of his office, remember? It’s not like he has anywhere else to go except this belltower, anymore.”

“Indeed,” Goro agreed. “From everything we’ve seen, he’ll still be stuck up there the next time we come back. I wouldn’t wait a week to return, it’s entirely possible that his mental state could recover by then, but we’re likely safe for the next day or two, at least.”

“...flimsy assumption,” Makoto mumbled. Akira opened his eyes to shoot a glare at her, but couldn’t muster it when he saw her, head resting in Ann’s lap on the ground. Ann flicked her forehead, and Makoto scrunched up her face, but withered a little under the blonde’s stern glare. “...but reasonable enough, I guess. We’ll... rest tonight, and go in tomorrow.”

“Uh, I dunno about you, but I’m gonna need more than one night after that shit,” Ryuji said, and Akira really couldn’t disagree. “This Palace shit’s cool and all, but it’s exhaustin’ as balls.”

“Seconded,” Akira said, raising his hand.

“Thirded,” Ann joined in.

“...I’m not saying ‘fourth-ed,’ that sounds idiotic,” Goro grumbled, bur raised his hand all the same. “But Sakamoto is right. Rest tonight, rest as much as Shujin will let you tomorrow, beg off with a sickness or something if they try and make you attend class, and then we’ll finish this Monday morning. Understood?”

Everyone but Makoto nodded, and then after a few seconds, she sighed and lifted her hand in a thumbs-up. “Fine. It’d be humiliating for that bastard to win against me just because I didn’t get enough sleep, anyways.”

Akira rolled his eyes, but nodded. “Right. So, you guys ready to get back to reality, or do you need a bit to rest, first?”

“Rest, please,” Ann said, drooping a little. “Just long enough til I can stand up again... too long and I’ll fall asleep right here.”

“I’ll set an alarm,” Akira agreed, and pulled out his phone, before remembering that he couldn’t access anything other than the Metaverse Navi app. “Uh... I’ll say when it’s been a few minutes, I guess.”

Struggling to keep his eyes open, Akira counted off the seconds in his head while the others rested. After ten minutes or so, he told everyone that it was time to go, and with a chorus of groans and grunts, they all got to their feet, Makoto included. After checking that everyone was ready, Akira warped them back out to the front of the Palace, then back into the real world, following Goro’s instructions to get the App to put them back exactly where they came in.

A swirl of red and black and shadow later, and Akira and Goro were in the bushes outside of Ryuji and Ann’s classrooms. Akira shot the blonde duo a quick text, told them to take care and that he’ll contact them tomorrow to check in- and asked them to get Makoto’s number too and pass it onto him. That done, he and Goro snuck back out of Shujin’s grounds, through the fence, and started back towards the nearby train station.

Akira was barely able to keep putting one foot in front of the other as he walked- it wasn’t as if he was unaccustomed to fighting in the Metaverse, he and Goro had been doing it regularly for years. But the sheer intensity of the fighting, the sheer amount of shit they had been doing without much of a break, two days in a row... it was draining. He felt truly, fully drained.

“Akira...” Goro spoke up suddenly, and Akira turned his tired head to face his friend. Goro looked exhausted too, but also troubled, deep in thought. “There’s... something we ought to talk about. Something I feel we’ve been putting off for far too long now.”

Akira’s energy levels, his heartrate, his excitement and apprehension and anxiety all spiked up, high as hell, in the space of an instant. He remembered their near-confession earlier, wondered if Goro was actually ready to talk about their feelings towards each other- wondered if, from the way Goro said it, he had noticed Akira’s feelings for a while now, or maybe, if Akira was very lucky, realized his own feelings for Akira a long time ago too.

He felt his mind slowly spinning out of control, but Goro spoke up again, and Akira’s entire being focused on him, his whole world shrinking to one single person. “If we don’t talk about it now, or at least decide what we’re going to do about it, it’s only going to get more difficult later.” He sighed, ran a hand through his hair, then looked up at the stars. Akira stopped breathing, stopped thinking, the whole world was silence as Goro gathered his words together.

“...Kobyakawa’s heart...”

...ah. Right.

“We’ve been avoiding the issue of how we’re actually going to deal with him since... well, since we were preparing to go into his Palace for the first time, yesterday.” Goro sounded deeply tired, though not nearly as tired as Akira was now feeling, emotionally cockblocked twice in one night, each blocking barely an hour apart. Goro kept talking. “But it seems like the next time we go in, we’re going to have to fight him, and finish this, and frankly part of the reason I supported giving everybody a full day to rest was so we could figure out exactly how we should go about doing that.”

Akira sighed- took a really, really deep breath, and sighed, letting all the tension that had built up in him, all the anticipation, all the hope flow out through his mouth. This wasn’t the time for that. Goro was right to focus on Kobyakawa right now, they would have time to figure out each other later, when their friends weren’t being kept in lockdown under the thumb of an obsessively servile religious tyrant. “I’m guessing you still don’t feel okay with changing his heart?”

Goro’s face scrunched. “I can’t say I’d feel terrible about it, at this point. The man has made a lot of people’s lives hell, or enabled other scum to make people’s lives hell. He deserves punishment... but frankly, I still have nightmares about what that ‘change of heart’ did to that bastard photographer, years ago. Even if Kobyakawa deserves punishment... I’d feel disgusted with myself if I subjected another human to that kind of torture. Bastards like him deserve punishment, deserve to suffer for how much they have made others suffer, but that doesn’t mean they deserve torture.” His expression grew grim, and a little ashamed. “That doesn’t mean I’m ready to become a torturer.”

Smiling gently, Akira reached over and gave Goro’s arm a squeeze, just as gentle as his smile. He didn’t know quite what it said about him, but every time Goro got honest and vulnerable like this, it made Akira go all soft and warm inside. “Wouldn’t want you to be. Woudln’t want you to get to the level of anger and pain and fury required to want to torture somebody.”

Goro smiled back at him, reached up to squeeze Akira’s hand on his arm in return. “Thank you, Akira.” They shared the warmth of each other’s care and approval and appreciation for a bit longer, still heading towards the train station, before they let the moment, and each other’s hands go. Goro grew serious again, though he was still smiling, just a little. Akira realized as he saw the expression that even if the world conspired so that they’d never get the opportunity to talk openly about their feelings towards each other, he’d still be okay, as long as he got to see Goro be that content, that comforted, that reassured that he was cared for. 

“We do still need to figure out how to stop him, and more importantly stop his brainwashing of Shujin’s students and staff. Additionally...” Goro put his hand up to his chin. “While it was very cool when it happened, our Personas spoke to each other today, and to the both of us, didn’t they?”

Akira frowned, thinking back to that part of their fraught flight. “Yeah... that was pretty awesome, I’ll admit, if a little confusing. What about that is bugging you?”

Goro frowned too. “Hopefully I’m worrying for nothing, and its just a side effect of all of us getting closer, but... if it isn’t, then it might mean that the Metaverse is changing in more ways than we thought. That whatever is causing Mementos to close up and change is also affecting our Personas as well, somehow.”

That... sounded pretty bad, yeah. “I hadn’t thought of that... and you know what, I think Arsene talked to Ryuji’s Persona in there too, didn’t he?”

“...I hadn’t caught that, but that would definitely be a point in favor of something being significantly different now.”

Akira hummed at that, thinking. “...I’m guessing you want to ask Lavenza about all of this?”

“She’s the only source we have for information about... well, about any of this, really,” Goro nodded. “Hopefully she’ll have come up with an alternative to changing Kobyakawa’s heart by now- and she seemed to have at least some insight into the nature of the Metaverse as a whole. With any luck, we can get all the answers we need in just a could hours of talking.”

“And with our usual amount of luck, we’ll at least get a couple clues to follow up on after about half a day in that weird blue nightclub,” Akira snarked.

Goro tried to glare at Akira, but he also snorted out a laugh, so it really wasn’t much of a glare at all. “...that isn’t inaccurate, but it doesn’t hurt to go into this with a positive outlook.”

Akira just gave Goro a flat stare at how absurd it was for Goro of all people to say that, and Goro’s glare melted away to a teasing, shitty, self-aware little smirk within seconds. Akira chuckled, and bumped Goro with his shoulder. “Jackass.”

Goro barked out a laugh at that, and bumped Akira right back. “Idiot,” he said, half-teasing, half with deep fondness. Akira stayed steady through the shoulder bump, didn’t bounce away, and shoulder-to-shoulder, the warmth of companionship and gentle affection spreading through them from the point of contact along their upper arms, the two boys headed home.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning came, and Goro was gently awoken from a night’s exhausted, dreamless sleep by the scent of freshly-made baked goods coming from somewhere outside his bedroom door. 

It was kind of silly how quickly the unmistakable aroma got him from total unconsciousness to full alertness, but it did. He rushed through his morning routine, quickly running through his bathroom ablutions, tossing a decent set of clothes on, flinging his hairbrush through his messy locks, all while fighting back the constant low-level salivation in his mouth.

Akira Kurusu did not bake often, but when he did, it smelled like the most god damned delicious thing in the fucking universe. Hikaru and Itsuka had done an amazing job of teaching their nephew the fundamentals of making wheat and eggs and milk into something delicious, and the occasional tutoring session from Sojiro over the last few years had turned that base knowledge into a finely-honed skill. A finely-honed skill that Goro was very much appreciative of.

That said, when Goro was fully cleaned and dressed, he really did not expect to be greeted by the sight waiting for him in the living room. Akira was sitting at their dining table, staring unseeingly at his phone, absolutely surrounded by plates of hotcakes and waffles and other pan-baked stuff, and at least a dozen of their tupperware containers all filled to capacity with muffins and cookies and all sorts of little treats.

Akira raised his dead gaze from his phone and gave Goro a listless little wave. “Heyaa~”

“...what happened?” Goro asked, reeling from the sight in front of him and from the very strange combination of feelings inside him now, utterly stunned and ravenously hungry.

Akira gestured vaguely at nothing in particular, blinking a lot as he did so. “I woke up at 5 AM and couldn’t fall back asleep so I made all these goddamn pancakes...” His gaze drifted to the feast around him. “...and waffles and monburan and cookies and muffins and anpan and mochi an-”

“Got it.” Goro cut him off, rubbing his temples. He went over to where Akira was sitting and patted his head, something they had done habitually since they were kids, whenever one of them would have a nightmare or wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Old instincts kicking in, Akira instantly melted at the touch, flopping his head and body against Goro’s side, leaning needily into the contact.

“Bad dreams?” Goro hazarded, running his fingers through Akira’s messy, barely-brushed curls, trying to focus more on comforting his friend than on how pleasant it felt to pet him like this.

“Mgh,” Akira replied eloquently. He took a deep breath, let it out in a loud whoosh, then took another deep breath and tried again. “Brain couldn’t stop thinking about all the bullshit this week... got to sleep at like, 3 or something, then had a nightmare and woke up like two hours later, heart beating like I ran ten fuckin’ marathons...”

“Oh, Akira...” Goro sighed. He intensified his pets, more firmly massaging Akira’s scalp with his fingertips. Akira made some very pleased noises at that, and Goro had to look away for a few seconds to control the blush that covered his face.

They stayed like that for a minute or two, then Akira sighed noisily again, and moved away from Goro’s touch, stretching overdramatically in his seat like the big cat he was. “Welp,” he groaned as his muscles and joints cracked and popped. “We might as well eat... some of this.”

Goro nodded, taking a seat next to Akira, and pulling over a plate of what looked to be chocolate and butterscotch-chip pancakes. “The hot ones, at least. Perhaps we can bring some of the leftovers to Lavenza and the others, when we visit.”

Akira smiled tiredly. “That’d be nice... man, today’s gonna be real rough, huh?”

“On two hours of sleep? Definitely.” Goro shook his head ruefully, and Akira groaned. “Don’t worry too much about it. I can take notes for the both of us and lead the conversation...” He grinned slowly, shooting a devious little look Akira’s away. “In exchange for, say, a week of you doing the dishes?”

“What?” Akira looked scandalized, eyes wide. “No way, I can fake being awake enough for a quick little chat about weird metaverse shit-”

“Four days of dishes.”

“Done,” Akira nodded, and they took each other’s hands to shake on it... then burst out laughing a few seconds later. Wiping a tear from his eye, Akira looked back at Goro, smiling fondly. “Asshole.”

“Idiot,” Goro said, the same fond warmth coating his voice and his heart.

They turned back to their food to finish up their plates, but as Goro ate, he felt a bit of a sinking sensation in his gut. Yes, there was a lot they had to talk about with Lavenza today, and none of the answers they were likely to get were going to be ones they wanted. But...

...his mind flashed back to the comfortable, strangely familiar weight of Arsene’s arm around his waist, of the nervous glimmer in Akira’s eyes, of the way both their voices shook as they started to approach the subject they had been avoiding for years... only to get interrupted.

There was a lot of serious issues that needed to be addressed, and soon... but it wasn’t just Metaverse stuff.

The memories from that harrowing flight continued to loop in Goro’s head as they finished their food and stuffed the boxes they thought Lavenza might like into their bags, and only started to repeat louder and brighter as they left the apartment and headed for the train to Shibuya. Eventually, settled into their seats, Goro couldn’t take it anymore and pulled out his phone, opening a text chat with Ann.

You: Hello, Ann?

You: Are you available to
chat, or are you still
in classes?

You: Though I suppose you
wouldn’t be able to
answer the second one,
if that were the case.

Ann: Oh shit, hey Goro

Ann: Keep forgetting this
thing works for texts rn

Ann: Futaba couldn’t have
given us the internet back
too???

You: I’d wager that seventy-eight
Youcube cat videos in a row
would bring more attention
from whoever’s managing
Shujin’s firewall than a few
texts here and there

Ann: Well, yeah, I guess...

You: You were able to talk
your way out of classes
today, I take it?

Ann: Eventually, yeah

Ann: I tried telling them I
was sick when they came
to haul me off to sunday
school or whatever but they
didn’t seem to buy it

Ann: It ended up being
pretty sweet that they didn’t
though, cause I got to see Shiho
and Mishima while they were
bringing all of us to our classrooms!

You: Ah, excellent.

You: Did you see the teacher
they’ve imprisoned as well?

Ann: Nah, Ms. Kawakami wasn’t there

Ann: I’d guess they’re probably
keeping her isolated for now, too
much to deal with on top of like,
restructuring the whole school in
just a few days

Ann: She’s kinda lazy and awful
sometimes, but I’ve always thought
she could probably get pretty hot
and fiery under the right circumstances....

You: Please control yourself

Ann: Hey, I’m taken! I’m just saying.

Ann: I’m just saying...

You: Say something else then.

You: I am begging you.

You: How are the others?
Suzui-chan and Mishima-kun

Ann: Pretty good, all things
considered. Mishima’s pretty
scared, understandably, but
Shiho is pissed as hell

Ann: her eyes were all on
fire and stuff and she was
talking shit about the Bound
right in front of the student
council dorks that were escorting us

Ann: it was pretty hot

You: jesus

Ann: It was! Come on, you
can’t tell me you don’t think
its sexy when Akira gets all
hot and bothered over some
big injustices of the world and stuff?

You: ...we’ll circle back around
to that later

Ann: Oh we definitely will

You: ...anyways.

You: How did you end up
getting out of classes?

You: Oh, wait, I have to go
for a few minutes

You: Go ahead and respond,
though, I’ll be back shortly.

Ann: alright! Good luck with
whatever you’re doing

 

The subway train slowed to a halt, and Goro stowed his phone away into his pocket as he rose from his seat- only to find Akira still staring at his own, looking confused and a little concerned.

“Akira?” Goro nudged him, and Akira did a little jump in his seat in surprise. “What’s wrong? We’ve arrived.”

“Huh? Oh shit,” Akira quickly scrambled to his feet and shoved his phone into his own pockets. With an apologetic grin, he grabbed Goro’s arm and led the way out of the train. “I tried to text Lavenza to tell her we were coming to talk about... well, everything we’ve gotta talk about, but it seemed like she was having some trouble responding? The last three messages she sent were all garbled text and numbers.”

Goro frowned, concerned, and put his spare hand to his chin in thought (and also to try and distract himself and anyone who was looking his way from the blush spreading over his face, Akira’s hand on his arm burning like an iron). “Hm... on the face of it, that does sound worrying, but given our last conversation with her on Friday, I’d wager it’s likely just her and that Morgana character wrestling over the phone again.”

“Probably, yeah,” Akira nodded, and let go of Goro’s arm once they climbed out of the train station and into the Shibuya daylight. “I hope they don’t end up a problem. Didn’t you say they were being super gung-ho about changing Kobyakawa’s heart?” 

“Yes... well, we did call it, this is going to doubtlessly be just hours of nonsense before we get to what we actually mean to talk about...” Goro poked Akira’s arm, his tone exhausted already. “Are you going to be alright, what with the lack of sleep and everything?”

Akira waved his hand dismissively, and made a messy pshhhhh noise with his lips that sounded very stupid and very endearing all at once. “I’ll be fine. I got a bit of a second wind while we were on the train, so I should be pretty good to go.”

Goro gave him a skeptical look at that, but said nothing. Akira glanced over at Goro, saw the skepticism, and stuck out his tongue. Goro rolled his eyes- Akira really became quite childish when he was this exhausted, didn’t he? Though, to be fair, Goro was probably the same, though he couldn’t remember any such occasions on his end.

They made their way through the still eerily-empty-for-a-Sunday Shibuya streets until they got to the small alleyway where the Velvet Room sat. There didn’t seem to be any shouting or alarming noises coming from inside, so with an ardent hope that whatever nonsense that had led to the garbled text messages Akira mentioned was over and done with, Goro pushed open the door and led the way inside.

The Velvet Room was just as grand and honestly pretty cool looking as it had been when they visited before, all rich-blue decor, rows and rows of empty tables and games, the stage in the back with the pianist and opera singer, still going at it with the same song as before, and the incongruous miniature living room set, off to one side. 

Lavenza was sitting on the loveseat Akira and Goro had sat in before, facing away from them and seeming to argue with a figure seated next to her. At the sound of the door opening, a little set of bells jingling as it did, she twisted around in her seat and shot the two boys with a relieved smile and a dignified little wave.

“Hello, my Tricksters,” she greeted them, sounding a little tired, but otherwise very dignified. “Welcome once again to the Velvet Room. Please, c-”

“Oooh, is that them? Let me get a good look at em!” The figure next to Lavenza spoke up, Goro instantly recognizing the voice as the annoying youth that had barged into his call with Lavenza the other night. The youth- Morgana- twisted around in the loveseat to look at them too-

Goro stopped in his tracks, Akira doing the same, their mouths falling open, just slightly, in shock. “What the fuck...”

Propped up on his knees, a young, dark-skinned boy shot an eager grin towards Goro and Akira. He had short, permed black hair, bright blue eyes, was dressed in a fancy little dark-blue suit with a yellow ascot, and wore a devious, sharp-edged smile. That wasn’t what alarmed Goro, though. No, what stopped Goro dead in his tracks were the large, pointy cat’s ears poking out of the boy’s hair, twitching and swiveling just like a real cat’s would. In fact, now that Goro was looking more closely, he could see that Morgana’s eyes had vertical, slit-like pupils, and his arms, propped up on the back of the loveseat, were also like a cat’s, though in a much more viscerally unsettling way. Starting around the middle of his forearms, the boy’s human body started to shift to a feline one, white hair sprouting where dark skin should have been, the hands themselves a strange, weird combination of human hands and cat’s paws, fingers too long to be that of a cat, but too stubby and hairy to be human, with one fewer knuckle than there should have been and a significantly shorter thumb. Distantly, Goro wondered if the kid had toe beans too, under the fur.

As they stared, a white-tipped tail swished into view around the edge of the couch, then darted back out of sight again, and Goro felt his knees start to go weak a little, because this was really too much for this early in the fucking morning.

Morgana just grinned at them all the wider, lapping up their shock like a tall glass of milk, the little bastard. Spite at the kid’s expression drove Goro to regain his balance, both physically and mentally, and he turned slightly to help Akira recover from his own. 

As they dealt with the mental hurdles they had to mantle over in order to accept the sight of what seemed to be a living, breathing catboy in front of them, Lavenza sighed loudly and started to explain. “My apologies, I should have said something beforehand. Tricksters, this is Morgana. Morgana, the Tricksters.”

“Hey!” Morgana piped up, full of youthful exuberance as ever. Goro felt a muscle in his forehead twitch. “Great to finally meet you guys in person- whooooah, what’s that smell coming from your bags? Did you bring us food?!”

Goro frowned, having wanted to do the reveal on that himself, but nevertheless moved over to a nearby table and put his messenger bag on it, gesturing for Akira to do the same. They unloaded their tupperware cargo, Morgana whisking it all off to that room behind the Velvet Room’s bar. When Goro looked over, Lavenza smiled at the two of them understandingly, gesturing to them to come over.

“Morgana is... like myself, a creation of our master, meant to guide and aid the two of you in your fight against your enemies. However, while I was created purely from my master’s own power, Morgana w-”

“I’m hope!” Morgana interrupted excitedly, returning from where he had stored the baked goods, bounding over towards Goro and Akira just as they started moving again. 

“You’re... what now?” Goro felt drained already; he expected to deal with a fair amount of Metaverse bullshit today, but this.... this was just... a lot. 

“I’m hope!” Morgana repeated, reaching the two of them, then quickly turning around so he could walk at Akira’s side as they continued towards Lavenza. He must have noticed how absolutely lost Goro and Akira looked, so he started to actually give an explanation, thank fuck. “The Metaverse comes from humanity’s collective unconscious, all the thoughts and dreams and beliefs and everything that Humanity shares, right? Well, there are a lot of different emotions humans have, and they’re all super powerful forces that can change the world, but I’m the coolest and most powerful of them all, the embodiment of humanity’s collective Hope!”

“...and Humanity’s collective hope is...” Goro gave the young furry a critical once-over- and oh, yep, he had cat paws for feet too, just as unnervingly proportioned as his hands were. Great. Cool. “...a catboy?”

“I’m not a catboy!!!” Morgana hissed, though hissing the words didn’t really do much for his argument. “I’m just as real and as human as you tw- well, I guess not human like you two, but I’m just like her,” he pointed at Lavenza, who looked incredibly done with this absurd child’s bullshit. Goro empathized so, so very much. “So I’m basically human! I just have some cat parts too! Doesn’t make me a ‘catboy’ or whatever!”

“...right.” Goro really did not have the shits to give or the time to waste on this nonsense, so he decided not to argue it further, turning instead to focus on Lavenza, ahead of them. He opened his mouth to speak-

-but apparently Akira, sleep-deprived as he was, thought this was an excellent subject to stay on. “Yeah, okay but why would Humanity’s Hope end up with cat bits? Like...” He scratched his head, looking deeply puzzled. “I don’t see the connection between hope and cats.”

Morgana shrugged. “Meh. People like cats, I guess? Master Igor was almost out of energy when he made me, right after he talked with you two that last time, so maybe he just likes cats and it sorta slipped in?”

“He... made you?” Akira sounded very uncomfortable at that mental image, an image that Goro was fighting with every last ounce of energy he had left to avoid imagining. “Uh...”

“Yeah!” Morgana seemed oblivious to the discomfort surrounding him, and bulldozed forwards. “He has the power to tap into Humanity’s collective unconscious and channel it into different forms, like different abilities for you guys, or guides like Lavenza, or embodiments of, uh, stuff. Like me!” 

The catboy lost a little bit of steam towards the end there, but got his enthusiasm back right away. To Akira, this all seemed to be incredibly endearing, because Akira was a soft-hearted saint (and he really liked cats for some reason that Goro, a reasonable dog-lover, could not comprehend). To Goro, sensible, logical Goro, the more Morgana spoke, the more gallons of coffee he craved to be poured directly down his throat, like the world’s most scalding and yet most wonderful waterboarding. 

As they reached Lavenza’s miniature living room, Morgana bounced over into one of the more plush-looking armchairs and settled snugly into the cushions. Goro and Akira went for the loveseat Lavenza had just vacated, the silver-haired girl settling for her usual seat too, smiling at them gently. “Akira mentioned in his messages that you wished to speak with me about the fate of your foe, Kobyakawa Keiji?”

“Exactly, yes,” Goro nodded, deeply grateful to be back on track, finally. “We’re likely to face him directly in combat tomorrow, and we’re still very uncertain as to how to bring matters to a close once he’s defea-”

“You gotta steal his heart!!!” Morgana piped up, and Goro couldn’t stop himself from shooting the little shit a death glare. The catboy did not flinch in the slightest, nor was his enthusiasm dented. “That’s how you collapse a person’s Palace and return their heart to the collective unconscious, so they can heal and recover! Though, you’d have to find his Treasure first, and then-”

“We are not ‘changing their heart,’ or whatever its called,” Goro stated flatly. “End of story.”

“And need I remind you, once again, Morgana, that you prom-” Lavenza tried to reprimand the youthful jackass in as patient and motherly a tone as she could, but even she couldn’t keep a scowl from her face when Morgana interrupted her again. 

“Yeah, but why?” He whined, befuddlement clear on his face. “I don’t get why you two are so against changing people’s hearts, its totally natural and just to steal a villain’s twisted desi-”

“Because we are not torturers, jackass!” Goro snapped, unable to deal with the kid’s bullshit on top of everything else that was weighing on his mind and his heart. “We changed somebody’s heart once years ago, when we first stumbled into Mementos, and it turned the guy into a slobbering, mindless wreck! He could barely form a sentence, much less stand on his own two legs, much less stop from sobbing and crying for more than a second at most.” Goro’s gaze grew dark, distant, as he stared down at the coffee table in the center of the circle of chairs unseeingly. He felt Akira squeeze his arm comfortingly, but it was a distant sort of feeling. “We checked on him again, a week later. He killed himself in an incredibly violent and public way, burning his photography studio to the ground and leaving behind only a lengthy, disturbingly detailed manifesto of all his crimes and his endless sorrow for committing them.”

There was silence for a few minutes in the wake of Goro’s words, even the singing and piano music from the nearby stage becoming more hushed, more somber and respectful. Eventually, he looked up, and locked gazes with Morgana, who at least had the decency to look incredibly troubled by Goro’s words. “We are not doing that again, not to a single other human being. Do you understand me?”

“That’s...” Morgana looked distraught, but he sounded absolutely devastated, as if his entire world was falling apart. “That’s not how it should be. Changing a heart was never a violent thing... sure, the bad guys felt guilty when they realized their crimes and had to rebuild their lives around less dangerous and twisted desires, but stealing a treasure and destroying a Palace was always a healing thing...”

“...well, it wasn’t for us.” Goro stated flatly. “So you can s-”

“You don’t understand,” Morgana interrupted, almost pleadingly, his bright blue eyes swimming with confusion and distress. “That isn’t how changes of heart are supposed to work! I know everything about that- I’m Hope! I’m humanity’s potential for change and growth towards a better future, changing somebody’s heart is my thing, and it is not supposed to be like that-

Lavenza put an arm on Morgana’s shoulder, having gotten up out of her chair to soothe the boy. He sniffled loudly and leaned into her touch limply, looking lost. Lavenza didn’t look much better, though her distress was more resolute, more focused. “Morgana is right. Changing one’s heart through direct action within the Metaverse is meant to simply be an expedited method of changing one’s heart naturally- through therapy, or a significant life event, or something similar. All it is meant to do is remove a toxic fixation from one’s soul, and allow one’s shadow to merge back with one’s self and heal. It is not a pleasant process, but... what you described, Goro-san, is not what a change of heart is supposed to do to a person.” She frowned, looked down. “Something is terribly wrong- moreso than we thought.”

Goro looked over towards Akira, feeling more lost and confused than when he came in, Akira looking exactly the same, only way more tired than Goro on top of it. His eye shadows had shadows, the guy looked miserable. Goro patted his head, and he made a soft, inaudible to everyone but Goro, plaintive little whine and leaned into the touch. Briefly, Goro thought that if Morgana’s personality was even the slightest bit different, he’d likely have taken to the kid instantly, since Goro had basically been living with Akira’s catboy-ass for years now.

“Tricksters,” Lavenza spoke up, and Goro glanced back up at her. She was looking less troubled than before, as was Morgana after speaking with her while Goro and Akira were distracted. “Morgana and I are going to investigate something briefly, to try and discover what exactly is wrong- or rather whether my suspicions are correct, and the Adversary who chased all of us out of the Metaverse has his claws deeper into humanity than I previously thought. Excuse us for a few moments- ah, and feel free to help yourselves to the Velvet Room’s amenities, of course.”

With that, she stood up, bowed to them, and with Morgana following her, headed off towards a dark-blue door in the back wall of the Room.

Goro looked at Akira again, who was still nuzzling into his hand, then around the Room as a whole. “Amenities, huh?”

There really was a lot for them to occupy themselves with in here- all the card and game tables Goro had noticed when they first came here, but also the large bar, the door behind it now lit up to reveal a kitchen, or what Goro assumed to be a kitchen from the familiar appliances he could make out through the doorway. 

Not feeling up for anything too active, Goro moved his hand from Akira’s head to wrap around his friend’s shoulders instead, hauling him up to his feet. “Come on, Akira,” he murmured in as soothing a tone as he could, trying to quiet the discomfited groans from the sleepy guy. “Let’s see if that bar has some coffee, or at least something caffeinated.”

They headed over towards the bar, and as they approached, a man stepped out from the kitchen door- or at least Goro assumed it was a man. He couldn’t really tell, because the person was in a full Feather Red cosplay costume, helmet and jumpsuit and everything.

Lavenza did say they had Red Hawk working here, didn’t she? 

The Featherman-themed bartender didn’t seem to be interested in speaking to them, just staring Goro and Akira’s way, picking up a glass from the bar counter and starting to wipe it down.

Goro shook off the remaining shock coursing through his system, unwilling to fixate over a second impossibly absurd thing today, and finished moving to seat himself and Akira in the surprisingly comfortable barstools. “Do- ahem,” Goro had to clear his throat as he tried to address the cosplaying bartender, still pretty off-balance. “Do you serve coffee, or anything similar?”

Feather Red nodded, and put down the glass, walking several steps down the lengthy bar, towards a set of machines that looked even more complicated and fanciful than the ones Sojiro had in Leblanc. They got busy with the dials and knobs and heated water, and Goro turned away, letting them do their thing. 

He felt Akira sag against his arm, and after sparing him a fond look, Goro pulled hs phone out of his pocket with his free hand. Might as well continue his conversation with Ann while they waited.

 

Ann: but yeah that was
the best part

Ann: They put us all in the
same classroom, it was way
overstuffed, like fifty kids in there

Ann: But like five minutes in,
I thought I might as well try
to get out of it again, so I stood
up and started fake-coughing,
asked the teacher if I could be
excused

Ann: They didn’t seem to know
what to do, but then Shiho

Ann: Beautiful Shiho

Ann: My big strong jumpy
volleyball wife

Ann: But yeah, she stood up
and started coughing too, said
she thought she might be sick too

Ann: The teacher was looking
lost but then she coughed more,
and I kid you not

Ann: Right in front of everyone,
she said she thought she might
have caught what I had when we
were making out the other day

Ann: It was great

Ann: She’s great

Ann: I love her so much

You: Oh my god

You: I’m only back for a few
minutes, but that was...
pretty badass of her.

Ann: RIGHT???!?!!?!?

You: That girl really has
guts, doesn’t she?

Ann: I’m so fucking proud of her

Ann: Once she got out from
under that bastard Kamoshida’s
thumb, she hasn’t taken any shit
from anybody

Ann: It’s so great

Ann: The teacher and all the
brainwashed bound kids got
super flustered at that and hauled
us both back to our rooms

Ann: Idk if ryuji got out too, but
I saw Mishima looking like he was
gonna try something when i was
leaving so maybe they got out
together too

You: Perhaps they used the same tactic

Ann; OMG???

You: They have spent an awful
lot of time together since
the Kamoshida incident

You: Two lonely idiots, no love
life to speak of, wondering
what, perhaps, it might be
like to feel the touch of
another?

Ann: DUDE

You: I could see it happen

You: I could certainly see Mishima
or Sakamoto try lying about
it to get out of class, even
if it didn’t

Ann: Oh god I hope it did happen
though that would be *perfect*

You: Agreed.

You: Afk again for a bit, though

Ann: Oh! Alright!

Ann: Don’t think you’re getting
out of me picking on you about
Akira, though

Goro closed out his phone just as that disturbing little message popped up on the screen, and put the conversation out of his mind. Red Hawk, or whoever they were, had just placed two very large, very delicious-smelling cups of coffee in front of him and Akira, the scent perking the sleepy boy right up. A few seconds later, the bartender put down a fancy-looking little set of dark-blue porcelain containers of milk, cream, and sugar cubes down as well.

“Thank you, this looks lovely,” Goro smiled. The bartender just nodded, and turned around to head back into the kitchen, reaching to grab something from their pocket as they disappeared into the room beyond. Goro turned back to his drink, starting to doll his up with his usual, copious shares of dairy and sugar. Akira, meanwhile, just started gulping the stuff down black- or tried to at least, then had to cough and go much slower, as the coffee really was piping hot. Goro didn’t even spare Akira a sympathetic look for that, the dumbass always went too fast when it came to hot drinks or food.

The boys had a few minutes to themselves to enjoy their drinks (and the energy boost the drinks provided) in peace and quiet before the dark-blue door Lavenza and Morgana had vanished into opened again, and the young duo returned. Goro turned around in his seat, tossing them a wave as he did so. Lavenza gave him a smile in return, though she looked far too serious for much else, and was also carrying a frankly huge book in her arms.

She reached the boys and set her book down on a nearby table, Morgana settling into one of the nice, plush chairs nearby, looking just as serious as Lavenza did. The platinum-blonde girl opened the tome to a bookmarked page, and spoke.

“A Change of Heart involves three aspects of the Metaverse: A given person’s shadow, their treasure, and, in the most serious cases, a Palace. As the two of you know, a shadow is a person’s truest self, their deepest, most hidden feelings given form, whatever the nature of those feelings are. When the feelings that shadow is made from are particularly twisted, when the person’s view of the world, or a part of it, is distorted from how reality truly is, the shadow produces a treasure; a manifestation and symbol of that which has twisted their worldview. For example, an addicted gambler’s treasure might be be a pair of dice, or if their addiction came from something further in their past, a more personal item, perhaps.” She paused, took a breath, and from seemingly nowhere, the Feather Red guy came over and placed a glass of water next to her on the table. She nodded her thanks, and the bartender nodded back... then hesitated, and with a more cocky stance, put a glass of milk next to Morgana, too. The catboy gave him a withering stare, but his tail swished happily about. The bartender left.

After taking a lengthy sip, draining half the glass, Lavenza continued. “A Palace, as you’ve discovered these past two days, is in essence a treasure gone out of control; a person’s distorted views and desires have completely eclipsed the rest of their being, and taken complete control of their every waking moment. Their metaphorical view of a specific, important place to them becomes so intense and distorted that it forms its own pocket-dimension within the Metaverse. Our gambler from before may have been addicted to dice or cards, but they still could maintain a home life, could still manage their money on groceries and rent at the very least. Upon a Palace spawning, however, their obsession would become more absolute, and more harmful; they would ignore almost all of their other needs to fund their habit, would take and borrow and steal any money they could find, all in pursuit of their distorted desires. The metaverse version of their favorite gambling den, or the place they get their money from perhaps would become a jungle predator’s feeding ground, or a watering hole, or some other metaphor for how twisted their view of realty now has become.”

“A change of heart is pretty much the only cure, once it gets that bad,” Morgana took over, his voice still childish and youthful, but infinitely more focused and professional now. Goro realized why the catkid had been so fixated on this shit before, if he cared about it this deeply. Gesturing with his little paws, Morgana continued. “Usually it happens naturally- well, if it happens at all, I guess. There are a lot of distorted people in the world, but typically if they do get better, its through a lot of love and support and guidance from the people around them. Tough, but doable. When that isn’t possible, though, when the person has no friends, no support structure, nothing containing their destructive obsession, that’s when my kind of change of heart comes into play!”

Lavenza nodded, picking up the thread. “Throughout human history, Persona-welders have utilized their powers to bring down corrupt tyrants and villains, those who became so distorted and so powerful that there would have been no other feasible way to stop their destructive rampages- and more personally-devastating villains too, like your Kobyakawa,” she gestured to them, and Goro’s eyes went wide, not having realized how long this metaverse stuff had been a thing. Lavenza must have noticed, as she smiled and explained, “It is quite a complicated process, to change a heart through the Metaverse, and throughout all ages, Persona-users have required and received at least some form of guidance. Master Igor only began actively helping Persona users like yourself very recently, since the turn of the millennium. Before, what little guidance Persona-users had was given to them by Master Igor’s own master, a far more capricious and calculating entity, but one with humanity’s best interests at heart, always.”

Goro raised his hand, and Lavenza paused. “This is... all deeply fascinating, and I mean that very genuinely, but if I may... what does this have to do with our current dilemma regarding Kobyakawa?”

Lavenza nodded, and opened her mouth to explain, but Morgana beat her to it. “It has to do with him cause things are super messed-up now! For centuries, Persona-users would jump into a Palace, rob the place blind, take the Palace-ruler’s treasure, and then everything would be fine!” Goro gave the catboy a skeptical look, but he only grew more plaintive-looking, more earnest. “I mean it! Look, everyone has a shadow, right? It’s basically a human being’s way to protect their mind against all the bad stuff the world throws at them, it lets them live normally and be at least kinda stable, while their shadow processes and deals with all their repressed bad thoughts and feelings and stuff! Usually, the only two exceptions to that are when people get Personas, and they wholly and fully accept the sad and twisted parts of themselves, becoming one with their shadow, or the dark stuff they’re repressing gets so big and bad and powerful that they spawn a Palace.”

“So, Palace happens, change of heart happens, the bad guy’s shadow is forced to merge with their real self, right?” Morgana got blank looks from Goro and Akira, who had genuinely no idea if that was right or not, and the catboy sighed. “Right! Normally, its not a great time, the bad guy’s are forced to recognize how messed up all the stuff they’ve been doing is, as all their repressed feelings and thoughts and truth hits them in the face. But they get over it! They’ll need a lot of therapy and probably jail time and stuff, but they get over it and they recover! But that’s not happening anymore!”

Lavenza nodded, but she looked more thoughtful than before, as if an idea was slowly hatching. She continued to explain anyways. “As the two of you said, the last time you witnessed a change of heart, it was catastrophic. What I’ve managed to interpret from that,” she put her hand on the book. “Is that merging with one’s shadow has become far more violent a process, for some reason. Normally, the thoughts and feelings sequestered away in a shadow would merge seamlessly with the thoughts and feelings of the person’s own mind. Now, there seems to be some conflict... and I can only assume that this is due to our Adversary somehow altering the shadows of everyone it can affect.”

Goro frowned, and turned towards Akira. His friend looked far more alert now, though the bags under his eyes were also more highlighted and intense, but the caffeine was doing its job all the same. “We’ve assumed that this Bound cult has been gaining its members by some force brainwashing people’s shadows-”

“-and we’ve basically seen that happening in smaller batches in Kobyakawa’s Palace too,” Akira added. “He’s got almost all of Shujin’s students’ and teachers’ shadows held captive inside his Palace, and he seems to have some kind of mind control power in there too.”

Lavenza’s thoughtful expression grew darker. “...so not only is our Adversary able to warp and distort the shadows of the people, but it can kidnap their shadows, and pass that distorting power along to its servants as well...”

“...Lavenza, what is this Adversary?” Goro asked, unwilling to admit it or show it, but feeling pretty fucking scared at the scope of what they were up against.

Lavenza didn’t answer, too lost in thought, but Morgana took over for her, shaking his head. “We don’t know. There’s a lot of really strong entities deep within the Metaverse, forces and concepts and monsters that humanity created by believing in them really really hard en masse.” He frowned too, and seemingly on instinct brought his cup of milk close to his chest, cradling it gently. “But they usually stay where they are, content to feed off the beliefs of the masses. It takes something really bad for one this powerful to come up and start trying to get even more power than it already has. It’s like its taking control of whatever shadow it finds and twisting its essence to b-”

“Oh!!!!!” Lavenza shot straight up in her seat, clapping her hands together, a look of strangely joyful excitement on her face. “Oh! Oh I just had the most wonderful idea- wait here, all of you! Oh goodness-” 

And with that, she rushed off from the table, leaving Goro, Akira and Morgana to blink slowly after her, as she popped back into the blue door.

“Huh. Well, that was weird,” Morgana opined, and Goro rolled his eyes. “But uh, yeah. It’s bad, guys. Don’t give up, though! Any being that comes from the Metaverse only exists because of human beings like you guys, so human beings like you guys can definitely defeat it too!”

“Sorta ‘I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out of it,’ kinda deal?” Akira asked lazily, and Goro couldn’t help but snort out an inelegant little laugh at that.

“Yeah, basically!”

A strangely comfortable silence fell over the group after that, and they busied themselves as they waited for Lavenza to return. Akria went back to his coffee, Red Hawk having somehow silently refilled it while everyone was talking, and Morgana started in on his milk, furtively looking over at the other two boys to make sure they weren’t watching how incredibly happy and content he looked drinking it.

Goro rolled his eyes, took another sip of his own coffee, and pulled out his phone. Might as well catch up on where he left off with Ann.

 

Ann: Don’t think you’re getting
out of me picking on you about
Akira, though

 

Ah. Right. That’s where he left off with Ann. Goro gritted his teeth, but started typing his reply all the same. There was no avoiding it at this point...

 

You: ...well

You: Funnily enough, that
was exactly why I
messaged you

Ann: Oh ho?

You: Yes...

You: As mortifying as it is
to admit, I’m... kind of
lost, and could use
some advice

Ann: That’s nothing to be
embarrassed about, Goro!

Ann: Romance is confusing
stuff! Especially with the
history you guys have

Ann: I know I was picking on
you about it the other day,
but it is kind of a mess, huh?

You: To say the least...

Ann: So what’s up?

You: Something happened yesterday,
during our infiltration of the Palace

You: Or almost happened, I suppose

You: When we were flying over the
Cathedral roof, Akira and I
started talking

You: He called me cute out of
nowhere, and I got embarrassed,
tried to embarrass him back by
accusing him of flirting with
me, and he... didn’t deny
that he was.

You: Well, in a roundabout way

You: He said he wasn’t flirting
intentionally, and I think he
was about to say that he’d
flirt with me if I wanted
him to, but got cut off
by the Shadow attack

You: I tried to bring it up after
we got back to the real world,
but I chickened out, and
now neither of us have
mentioned it since, and
I have no idea how to
handle this

You: Oh, she’s back... I’ll
respond to your response
to all that once I’m fully
done here...

 

Just as Goro was typing, Lavenza burst through the blue door again, holding two thin-looking folders this time. Goro wrapped up his conversation, did his best to bury his irritation at himself after having to go over all of yesterday’s nonsense again, and looked over to the girl as she came back to the table. Morgana quickly scooted aside the big book she had been referring to earlier, and she spread out the folders she brought in the empty space.

“It has been bothering me for a while, but I’ve only just put the pieces all together in the correct order now. You two,” she gestured to Goro and Akira. “Are supposed to be far more powerful than you currently are.”

Goro looked at Akira, who was looking at him too, looking as mildly annoyed with that comment as Goro felt. Akira turned back to Lavenza and gave her a little shrug and a confused-sounding “...sorry?”

Lavenza blinked in confusion, then blushed and shook her head. “Oh, no, I did not mean that you are weaker through any fault of your own. I mean that you have not shown an integral power that is inherent to you as wild cards- and moreso, as Tricksters.”

“What does that mean, exactly,” Goro pressed, this having been bugging him for a while too. “You call us Tricksters and Wild Cards all the time, but we don’t quite know what that means. Or don’t know at all, really.”

Lavenza nodded, and started scanning her folders. “All Persona users are unique, and carry unique traits. The vast majority of them are Confidants, those who gain access to the metaverse, and thus bond with their persona, through the powers of a Wild Card, such as yourselves. Wild Cards are special Persona users, chosen by fate, whose bond with the metaverse is so naturally powerful that they can exert a moderate amount of control over it. You can come and go as you please, you have access to guidance from those such as myself and Master Igor, and, most importantly, you can forge bonds with the shadows of humanity.”

Goro frowned, and Akira sounded like he was frowning too when he asked, “Forge bonds?”

She nodded. “Every wild card can, after either a strenuous battle, or a particularly convincing conversation, gain the trust of the weaker entities that spawn from humanity’s collective unconscious- the smaller, bestial or cartoonish shadows you’ve fought against in Mementos all these years. Like the more powerful entities we spoke of before, they are much weaker manifestations of things humanity believes in en masse, whether that be concepts, feelings, famous fictional characters, or even famous figures from history, given form and voice through the belief of the people and the power of the Metaverse.”

“You, as wild cards, have the ability to bond with these beings. Your minds are adaptable and reactive enough to perform whatever social role you must in your day-to-day life in order to get by, and that same adaptability and reactiveness allows you to bond with and summon these shadows to fight for you, just like the Personas that spawned from your own hearts.” Lavenza tapped at her folders, and Goro leaned over to see two pages in each; a picture of him and Robin Hood, with a short profile attached to each, the same in the other folder for Akira and Arsene. 

“And yet, you have not bonded with a single shadow since awakening.” She frowned, shook her head. “This bothered me for a long while, but I believe that whatever our Adversary is doing to Mementos and the shadows of the people, it is doing to the shadows themselves as well, controlling them for its own purposes, and severing their ties to humanity’s collective unconscious- and thus, to you two.”

“...so, that’s bad, obviously.” Akira commented after a short silence. “What was your big revelation just now, in relation to all of this stuff?”

Lavenza smiled, a slightly malicious look that would have unnerved Goro if it wasn’t so similar to the look he and Akira both had when they came up with a particularly devious scheme. “What indeed. You see, the control our Adversary is exerting on these normal shadows is so extreme that it is only lost when they are defeated in battle, vanishing before you would have a chance to forge a contract with them.”

“The same cannot be said, however,” she raised a finger, her little malicious smile spreading intoa full-blown grin. “For the shadows of the people themselves.”

Goro frowned, feeling confused, and this time even Morgana shared the same befuddlement. “What do you mean, nee-san?”

Lavenza blushed a little at that, shot Morgana a frustrated, silencing look, then took a deep breath and collected herself again, her smile spreading back up quickly. “What I mean, is that our Adversary has made a fatal error. It can influence and manipulate a person’s shadow, worsen their impulses, control their mind and convert them to this Bound religion, as you said,” she gestured at Goro. “But it can only do so by weakening and fraying a person’s shadow’s bond to their true self. And, that control and influence vanishes once a person’s shadow is defeated in battle. It must, otherwise their treasure would not be able to be stolen, and the shadows would simply fight to the death.”

Her golden eyes lit up. “This gives us an opportunity that I had not thought possible before... in theory, at least. Once you defeat them in battle, and they are weak enough for you to steal their treasure, you should be able to instead use your Wild Card powers to forge a contract with that person’s shadow, binding it to your will.”

Goro... frowned..... “That... doesn't sound very... good, Lavenza-chan."

“Yeah..." Akira sounded just as uncomfortable as Goro felt. “Binding someone’s soul or shadow or whatever to our will... actually sounds kinda evil. Like we're just doing the same thing that the Adversary guy is doing."

Lavenza shook her head, seemingly having already thought about it from that angle. “The possibility for abuse is there, of course, but you are not gaining direct control of the person's shadow and mental state. You do not warp a shadow's being to your own point of view when you forge a contract with it, you simply co-exist and fight together- or rather, that is how it is supposed to work.” She looked a bit bashful, but quickly regained her steam. “Making a contract with Kobyakawa’s shadow, for example, would simply bind him to this compendium, just as he is bound to his real self. With that, I would be able to summon his shadow here, to one of the other areas of the Velvet Room, and work to heal him of his corruption more gently. I would wager that Kobyakawa himself would experience it more as a series of haunting dreams, telling him of his wrongs, showing him his crimes, and what he must do to atone.”

“...so you’re gonna Christmas Carol his ass?” Akira said, and Goro barked out a surprised laugh, Akira said it so bluntly and so suddenly. Lavenza and Morgana didn’t seem to get it, but Akira was grinning sleepily at having made Goro laugh, so it was alright.

“...I do not know what you are referring to,” she hedged, sounding only a little weirded-out. “But in practice, he will fall asleep the night after you forge a contract, his mind will be transported here, to a space within the deepest parts of the Velvet Room, close enough to the boundary with the Metaverse that time is somewhat distorted, and go through many trials that will teach him the error of his ways. All that is within my powers to accomplish, just as in normal times, Master Igor and I would appear to you in your own dreams and assist you in strengthening yourselves and your shadows.”

“...well,” Goro turned to Akira, who looked pretty deep in thought. “It sounds a hell of a lot better than our other options.”

Akira nodded, still lost in thought. “...yeah. I don’t really like the idea of us becoming Kobyakawa’s shadow’s captors, that seems kind of messed up, but...”

“If it helps assuage your worries, Akira,” Lavenza piped up. “We would only hold him here until he has properly recovered enough to start helping himself more naturally. The contract would still exist, so we would be able to call him back if he fell again, and our Adversary would not be able to exert control over him again, but so long as he stays rehabilitated, we would have no influence on him whatsoever.”

Akira still looked troubled, though definitely less so than before. Goro spoke up for him, “It’s still quite uncomfortable, to have that kind of power over another, however...”

“...it’s probably the best shot we’re going to get to make this right, yeah,” Akira sighed, nodding. “I’m in. Goro?”

Goro nodded too, patting Akira’s arm comfortingly, knowing that his friend was still going to be troubled over this for a while. Akira was so wholly fixated on helping and supporting others that having total control over somebody’s fate, or just being that dominant in general probably sat really weirdly with him.

...aaaaaaand now Goro was thinking how that rejection of taking a dominant role might express itself in other parts of Akira’s life. Fucking hell.

Morgana spoke up thankfully, his high little voice enough to shake any lewd musings from Goro’s mind. “Well, it isn’t really stealing their hearts, but I guess it works...”

He seemed like he was pouting, and gumpily mumbled something about some kind of thieves stealing people instead of treasure like they ought to, but Goro really did not care enough to pry into that, and Akira was way too out of it and troubled at the same time to notice. Lavenza did pat his arm, though, and he gave her a grateful look.

“Then it is settled,” she said authoritatively. “Tomorrow, you shall fight Kobyakawa, emerge victorious, and forge a contract with his shadow, so that he may be rehabilitated here. After that, while his Palace may not collapse, it will at least release its hold on the shadows trapped there, and shrink slowly over time.”

Goro nodded, standing up from his seat, Akira following suit a few seconds afterwards. “Indeed. Thank you, both of you,” he nodded at Lavenza and Morgana too, because as annoying as the little guy was, he really did help work this solution out. “We are in your debt, as always.”

Lavenza shook her head, smiling gently. “We are here at your service, Goro, Akira. It is our pleasure to help, and to see you go forwards towards victory and growth. Until next we meet.”

“See ya!” Morgana added, and waved at them as they turned to head back outside. Akira waved back with a big, soft smile, and Goro couldn’t help but return it too.

Once they were outside, and back on Shibuya’s main street, Akira turned to Goro with a distraught expression on his face. Frowning, Goro instinctively put a hand on his arm. “What’s wrong?”

Akira frowned even further, and Goro noticed that he was hunched over a little. “Uh, sorry, but that coffee really went through me faster than I thought. Mind if we stop at Big Bang’s bathroom before hitting the train again?”

Goro rolled his eyes and whacked Akira gently on the arm. Akira looked a little offended, and Goro scoffed. “Making me worry like that. Go use the bathroom Akira, christ...”

The black-haired dork stuck his tongue out at Goro, then raced off towards the restaurant nearby. Goro followed him, and settled his back against the wall next to the burger joint to wait for Akira- then instantly swore to himself. They had forgotten to grab Lavenza some food from Big Bang this time! Ugh. Hopefully the baked goods would make up for it, but still...

Goro whipped out his phone to make a note to bring her enough food for several meals next time, then, sighing, navigated back to his texts with Ann, to see how she responded to what he had confessed to, earlier.


Ann: Whoa

You: ...”whoa?”

Ann: That was a lot to take
in! I’m still processing it

You: Right. Take your time.

Ann: Hm, okay

Ann: So, for starters, you
definitely know that he
likes you too now

You: But he said he’d flirt
with me ‘if I wanted
him to,’ or something
like that

Ann: Oh my god

Ann: Don’t even go down
that road Goro, its so dumb

You: That’s what he said, Ann

Ann: Goro, buddy, I don’t
know how to tell a
Tokyo-famous genius Detective
this

Ann: But if you can’t tell by
now that Akira is just as
nervously flustered about you
as you are about him, you’re
less perceptive than *Ryuji*

You: ...You take that back

Ann: He’s noticed it too!
We’ve talked about you
two a bunch of times!

Ann: Well, not a bunch I
guess, since our friendship
was kinda fucked up til the
other day but like

Ann: We did talk about it before

Ann: Are you honestly gonna
say that you’ve noticed less
about how Akira feels than
Ryuji Sakamoto?

You: ...damn you

Ann: Well???

You: Alright!

You: I’ve... noticed things.

You: I’d have to be an idiot
to not notice how... romantically
charged a great deal of our
interactions are

You: Well, an idiot or purposefully
blinding myself to the
reality of it, which is exactly
what I’ve been doing,
I suppose.

Ann: See???

You: It’s not that simple, though

Ann: Dude that is so not
the point

Ann: You like each other!
That’s a huge first step!

Ann: Do you know how many
books and manga about pining
dumbass teenagers waste hundreds
of thousands of words just on
getting over that hurdle alone?

You: I do read, Ann

Ann: Uh yeah, murder-mysteries

You: Okay, well I watch a lot
of trashy romance anime
thanks to Futaba, so

Ann: ...yeah alright, same diff

Ann: Point is, now you know
for sure, triple-confirmed, that
you both feel the same way, right?

You: ...right.

Ann: Great!

Ann: Now all you’ve gotta do is
talk about it with him!

You: That part is definitely not
that simple, Ann

Ann: It totally is though!

Ann: Look, I know there’s a
whole bunch for you two to
worry about, but seriously,
you guys are really good for
each other!

Ann: You like each other and
care about each other and fight
for each other and support each
other’s dreams and all that sappy
stuff that the best, cutest marriages
are built on!

You: Marriage?!?!

Ann: Chill dude I’m making a point

Ann; If you two are *already* so
compatible that you’re better off
than most married couples, you’ll
work this stuff out!

Ann: It’s suuuuuuuper easy to
worry so much about something
by yourself that you never end up
doing anything about it

Ann: I mean that was like half the
reason why I never talked shit out
with Ryuji

Ann: Or why I had a hard time talking
to Shiho about stuff that bugged me
between us!

Ann: But when two people care about
each other and want the best for each
other and really, really want things to
work out

Ann: Then whatever the subject is,
you’ll work it out!

You: That easy, is it?

Ann: Maybe it won’t be an “easy”
convo but like

Ann: What the hell is easy in life?

You: That’s fair

Ann: No, like, I wasn’t being rhetorical
or anything like

Ann: Conversations aren’t easy, living
and working isn’t easy, but like

Ann: When you've finish the convos and
settled all this worry and are alive and
together, like...

Ann: There’s nothing  in the world that's
easier or better than turning towards
someone you love and kissing them,
and knowing they’ll kiss you right back

Ann: A lot of people don’t get that
kind of trust in their relationships

Ann: But you guys have it already,
honestly

Ann: Isn’t it worth going through
whatever hard stuff you have to
go through, if it means you get
to have that once it’s over?

You: ...yeah.

You: You’re right, I...
I very much want
that with Akira

You: As scared as I am
about all of this, deep
down, I think... if what you
say is true, fighting that
fear will be worth it

Ann: Exactly!

Ann: Now, ask him out on a date!

You: What?

Ann: Ask him out!

Ann: Right now!

Ann: Do it

Ann: Do it

Ann: Do it

Ann: Do it

You: Fuck, alright!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Akira had emerged from the Big Bang Burger as Ann had started to pester Goro, and with a burst of frustration and a mild amount of panic, Goro shoved his phone into his pocket and quickly turned towards Akira, who just gave him a confused look. Goro could already feel how hot his face was, but Ann had goaded him on, and he was physically unable to turn down a challenge like this, and just, fuck. 

Looking Akira dead in the eyes, Goro asked with an only slightly wavering voice, “Akira. Would you like to go out with me?”

Akira’s attentiveness rose exponentially in a matter of moments, and a little, wondrous expression took over his face. Goro couldn’t take it. He threw his gaze off to the side and, quieter, tacked on a hopefully-less-embarrassing addendum to the question. “...to the arcade?”

Goro wasn’t looking at Akira, he was very purposefully not looking at Akira because if he did he would explode and then Akira would have to pay for the damages to a chain restaurant and nobody wanted to have to deal with that. That said, the brief silence after Goro’s question was infuriating, and he desperately wanted to look over and see Akira’s reaction, but he couldn’t, but he wanted to, but just, fuck! 

Thankfully, Goro was saved from his slowly-mounting existential panic by Akira’s soft response a few seconds later. “...as a... date?” He sounded just as nervous about the concept as Goro felt, but also just as cautiously excited.

That said, Goro absolutely could not go down the straight-up-asking-akira-out-on-a-date road again without detonating, so he just crossed his arms and shifted his gaze slightly closer to Akira. He felt his face burning up, but he tried to maintain at least some dignity in his posture and voice as he responded with a huffy (and slightly squeaky) “Well???”

There was just silence to that, and impending Goro-centric supernova or no, he couldn’t hold his curiosity back any further, and glanced over towards Akira-

The happiest, littlest smile Goro had ever seen was playing on Akira’s lips, as he looked at the ground and twiddled with his bangs. He was blushy, as flustered as Goro was, but clearly really happy too. He looked back up after a few more seconds, and his smile grew when he saw Goro looking at him. “Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. Which, ah, which arcade did you-”

But Goro was getting embarrassed again at Akira accepting the date, so, quickly as he could, trying to cover his flusterdness with boldness, he reached out and clumsily took Akira’s hand, then started leading him off towards the arcade over by the diner.

A few seconds into their walk- well, into Goro dragging Akira along, whether that counted as 'walking’ or not Goro didn’t really give a fuck- Akira shifted the hand Goro was holding, twisting it around until he could lace his fingers with Goro’s.

Goro felt like he was going to burst into flames, and also felt happier than he had in years at the same time. Love was such a strange, contradictory mess.

They got to the arcade and stepped inside, Goro faltering in his headlong charge forwards for a second as he briefly realized he had no idea what to do next. He and Akira had visited the Arcade a few times, before they became too busy to have enough free time to do so, but frankly as fun as he was sure those visits were, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what games they played. The machines all looked different now anyways... panic slowly started to settle in as his eyes flashed around from game machine to game machine, knowing the longer he waited, the worse the date was going to be, the less Akira was going to think of him, the more he’d ruin everyth-

Laughter, sudden and deep, burst forth from his side, and Goro twitched to look at Akira. The dark-haired detective smiled at Goro and pointed to a machine in the center of the room. “Wanna see who can get the highest score on that?”

Goro followed Akira’s point to see what seemed to be one of those light gun game cabinets. There were two guns and two screens on the machine, apparently set up with competitive play in mind, and the game itself seemed to be running some sort of special event, as all the enemies popping up on the preview on screen looked like absurdly buff Jack Frosts and Pyro Jacks and the like.

He couldn’t help but snort out a laugh too- it was kind of perfect, in a stupid way. They had spent so much time shooting at those exact monsters in their day-to-day lives over the past few years... it would be very interesting to see who could do it better in a faker, less high-stakes setting.

He shot a grin at Akira, tight and fierce, and nodded. “You’re on.”

After exchanging some yen for tokens, they headed towards the gun cabinet, put in enough coins for several extra lives, and Goro settled in to absolutely crush his ridiculous, wonderful, unbelievable crush to his right.

--

Akira flopped sweatily onto the bench Goro was sitting on, groaning loudly. Goro scrunched his face up in displeasure, moving the crepe he was holding away from Akira, absurdly but absolutely genuinely worried that the boy would splatter it with some of his sweat.

...Goro started to think about what Akira’s sweat smelled like, and how it might go with food, and was thankful to every star in the fucking universe that Akira spoke up before his mind could tumble down that rabbit hole any further.

“I can’t believe you won...” Akira moaned, still splayed out on the bench.

Goro chuckled, a little maliciously. “Are you really that surprised? You’re  going on two hours of sleep, and technically, I have been using a kind of ‘light gun’ ever since we found Mementos. I’d wager it’s considerably different than getting accustomed to pistols like yours.”

Akira just made a huffy, grumbly noise, and Goro chuckled all the more. Akira straightened up just barely enough so he could bring his own crepe close enough to his face to take a bite, and sighed contentedly at the taste of the strawberry-and-cream-themed treat. 

Goro picked a chocolate pirouette cookie off of his own and munched on it to hide his smile. Akira really was cute as hell sometimes, or rather it was incredibly endearing when he put down the hero-to-all-who-need-him mantle for a bit and let himself be a lazy, grumpy big cat of a teenager.

Over his mouthful of ice cream and cheesecake, Akira made a noise, and Goro glanced over as he took a bite of his own mocha-flavored delight. Akira swallowed, which was distressingly fascinating to watch, then gestured over in the general direction of the Shibuya train station, across the Scramble from where they were. “You mentioned when we first found Mementos; we had crepes back then too, didn’t we?”

Goro frowned, thought back, and yes, they did, actually. “Huh... you’re right actually- didn’t we say there were mementos of some achievement we had made, and didn’t realize the nav had turned itself on, or something like that?”

Akira nodded, smiling. “Yeah... what a dumb way to start something that important to our lives.”

“Fair...” Goro chuckled, shaking his head. To think of how different their lives had been back then, how absurdly, incredibly, unbelievably different everything was now...

...aaaand Goro’s thoughts circled back around to Shido and his plans and Kobyakawa’s bullshit and the life-threatening danger they were likely to be in for the next several months. He sighed.

“...I had a lot of fun, this afternoon,” Goro admitted softly, staring off into the middle distance, not really watching as the Shibuya foot traffic trailed by in front of him. “...but...”

“...I did too, though I don’t know how I feel about the sound of that ‘but’ there...” Akira responded, cautious.

Goro snorted softly, glanced over towards Akira with a smirk. “Quick, call the papers, stop the presses, Famous Kid Detective Akira “Ren Amamiya” Kurusu doesn’t know how he feels about a butt. We finally have a headline that will get people to come back to print newspaper-”

Akira flicked a bit of strawberry at Goro, and he leaned out of the way, laughing. Akira couldn’t seem to hold back a smile, huffy though he was at Goro’s teasing, and Goro basked in the rare privilege he had of a joke well told.

Or maybe Akira was just smiling because Goro was laughing. That’s what Goro would have done.

Either way, what he had to say had to be said. He sighed the last of his laughter away, though he kept his gaze on Akira this time. “Akira, we... really should probably wait until we at least deal with the Kobyakawa thing before we go any further with... well, this.” He gestured between them, hoping Akira would get what he meant.

There was a little bit of a playful sparkle in Akira’s eyes, just enough to cover up the melancholy. “We ‘really should probably,’ huh?”

“Oh, shut up,” Goro scooted over towards Akira just close enough to shove him a little, and got a soft, brief laugh for his trouble.

“...you’re right, though. After he’s dealt with, we’ll probably have a little bit of time to ourselves, at least, but...” He sighed, softer this time, through his nose, then turned to give Goro a gentle, earnest smile. “I had a lot of fun today too. I’d like to do it again... a lot of times, if we could.”

There were a dozen possible ways Goro could respond to that; get all flustered and embarrassed at Akira’s honesty, get all smiley and blushy at how forwards Akira was being, tease him for being so eager to get his ass beaten again at the arcade, so on and so forth.

What his body ended up deciding to do for him, though, was grin, big and soft and a little messily at Akira, and say in a warm, unusually genuine voice “I’m really, really happy to hear that, Akira.”

Akira got very, very blushy at that, very quickly, and reached out to grab Goro’s hand again, hauling them both up off the bench and towards the train station, muttering something inaudible about “...embarrassing...too damn cute...soft and...”

Goro laughed again, high and soft, following Akira home-

-then, just to rub his total, overwhelming victory today in Akira’s huffy little face, he dashed forwards to catch up with the dark-haired boy, just fast enough to walk at his side-

-and planted a soft, small kiss on his cheek.

Akira froze for a moment, face caught in the middle of something he was muttering, looking absolutely ridiculous and wonderful and perfect all at the same time.

Goro laughed again, louder and freer and full of life and raced forwards, dragging Akira along as they headed off to their home.