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With Mournful Tread

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The first time, he plays it safely. Accounts his journal every day, repeats every action, double checks every encounter. He leaves his umbrella at home. He walks into traps with his eyes closed. Every painstaking detail replays in front of him like a track on repeat. It's almost perfect.  

Ann dies in the casino.  

 

"Look like luck's not on your side," Sae laughs, emboldened.  

"Ah," Ann says, and falls silent.  

In the movies, there's always plenty of time. In the movies, he'd be able to run over to her and cradle her head against his lap. She'd have an elegant wound, perhaps in the ribs, and the blood would stain her lips a soft red as she spoke. Go on without me, she'd say, and close her eyes gently.  

In reality, the blade cuts straight through her throat. Her head crashes into the ground in a wet thud; her body follows.  

This didn't happen last time—what happened? Did he skip a meal, stay up an hour too late? Were his vowels too long when he spoke? His tone too harsh? There's a year worth of lost time bleeding out on the floor of this stage. Akechi has the gall to look shocked.  

It wasn't supposed to play out like this. But she got lucky and that was all it fell to and Ann is dead, Ann is dead, Ann is dead.  

He looks Akechi straight in the eye. There's a flicker of panic and understanding, deep in there, and he knows his intentions are lain bare.  

Sae has a family.  

Sae has Makoto. Sae has a life, a job, coworkers that probably care for her; hell, maybe a boyfriend for all he knows.  

Ann had a family, too. 

He doesn't say kill her; he doesn't say make her pay, he doesn't say I know, but the words bulge against his throat as clearly as if he had. It's a mistake too quick to regret.  

They take her treasure, for real, this time. It's not a notebook, it's a gun, six-chambered, too little for them all. Akira pockets it and blazes his way out and there are no reinforcements, no ambush waiting for him. There's no need for one—their days are over. This is punishment enough.  

Akechi says, "I'm sorry."  

Makoto says, "I'm sorry."  

He says "I'm sorry, too," and the Phantom Thieves are buried with Panther. 

 

 

The Takamakis had an investigation, of course, but nobody in the world could find hide nor hair of their girl. The school spluttered the best, half-assed explanation and promised results it could never hope to accomplish, but all the money and influence and anger in the world couldn't find where Ann had gone.  

They questioned him too, of course. He said she was vibrant; she loved her friends in unconditional ways, she fought for all her ideals, she stood by what she said.  

“I can't help but feel I've failed her,” Akira had told them. He didn't know what Ryuji or Makoto or Haru had said; whatever it was, it wouldn't be enough. The ceremony was short. The school was silent.  

Her parents asked, “Did she ever talk about suicide?” And he said no, never, he was the one to always flee—just as he does even now. 

The police asked, “Did she ever mention anyone by the name of Goro Akechi?” And he said no, never, they'd never met. Sae’s own handwriting signed the case closed and his stomach turned upon seeing it.  

He got a gift, sometime, some months after it had all ended. Back at his old (new) home, back in some backwater town where the Phantom Thieves were nothing but a celebrity stunt and the school was a quiet, one story run-down building.  

Thank you for remembering our daughter, it read. Chocolate bon-bons were always her favorite.  

There was no one to remember Akechi. 

 


 

The second time, he plays it quickly.  

He doesn't bother with pleasantries, maybe. He comes in with next week's lottery number and leaves with several million and has the city in his hand before his first day starts. There's a lawyer, from Okumura's own team, and he finds the school is much less bold when faced with thirteen accounts of negligence and abuse and sexual assault. Kamoshida is in jail without even setting sight on his treasure.  

He knows when the stocks crash and when exactly they'd peak. Yusuke is gone the day they raid Madarame's little shack. 

Kaneshiro's three million are slapped against the table casually. "Only three?" Akira asks. "Give me what you earned before I call in the police." Makoto stares at him in fear and awe. "No," he corrects. "My police."  

Futaba is brought to him by promises of experts and doctors and therapists. He says "The suicide note is a lie," and hires his own team to tear apart Medjet while she heals. Everything is set clear. If the pegs don't fit in their slots, well, make new slots. And new pegs, while you're at it. 

He's the one who dies, this time—alone in Okamura's palace in the sterile light of steel and omegas. The bolts tear through his skin and chest and he knows that for all the might and power he wields, his body is still flesh. It's exactly who he feared and expected it to be. The exits are all shut before them. 

"It's a shame," he says. "You were a great threat. You almost figured it out, actually."  

"Shido's going to kill you," he seethes, Satanael flashing in and out of existence. His chest is blooming black flowers of warmth. Say it, say it quickly. "He's just using you, he has no intention of letting you live—"  

"Shut up! How did you-? Nevermind." Iron out the wrinkle. "So you did know. It doesn't matter. You were worrisome, getting in the way so much.” 

It's ironic—he has plenty of time to drown on dry land now and curse his every overlooked detail. Crossbow bolts, no less. How archaically effective. He's going to die in the idea of space and nobody will ever know. Nobody except- 

The airlock was closed ahead of him. 

Oh. 

“We wondered, of course, how you managed to get so much money. It wasn't hard to convince them that you were taking requests.”  

They wouldn't believe you,” he says, but this is evidence enough. He's been sold out. 

“It's a shame you had to die,” Akechi says. “But don't worry. I'm sure I'll be heralded by the Thieves for stopping the black mask.” A stunning smile. “And I'm sure they'll need new leadership now that you're gone.”  

No point in words. But he can't resist.  

“I'll do better next time,” he says, and watches confusion flash upon the boy’s face. 

 

 

He'd traded in his briefcase for a book bag, nowadays. Morgana liked it better, and if his supervisor noticed black cat hair on his case files, he never mentioned it.  

"Hey, how are you feeling?" The girl leaned over, brushed her fingers on his shoulder.  

"Oh, I'm fine," the automatic response fires off before he remembers who he's talking to. "I'm sorry. It's been a long week at work." 

"Ya gotta stop working yourself like that, man," the boy says, leaning over the side of his seat. "You'll end up collapsing in the middle of a palace, or somethin'."  

"Indeed. And where would we be without our esteemed leader?"  
 
"Oh, there's no need to call me that. Work has been keeping me...busy, after all." His hesitation is only half-faked, but they believe it more easily that way. 

"You're worried about Shido, aren't you?" Haru reaches out, puts a hand on his arm in a comforting gesture. "It'll be alright, Akechi. If father had a change of heart, then surely Shido can too."  

"Yeah, don't worry! Nothing can take us down when we're all together," Ryuji says. "We're here for you, man."  

He clutches the bag on his lap a little tighter, pulls it to his chest a little closer. "Thank you," he says, and his smile is genuine this time.  

 


 

 

"I can do a better job than your son does." He still remembers Shido's phone number. He dials the numbers with steady fingers, and within fifteen minutes, he stands at the top of Japan. 

"You're being careless. Inefficient. I can get rid of them without a body. I can make them take the fall." It doesn't convince the jaundiced gaze. He's taking a dangerous, dangerous chance here.  

"You can't hide anything in the Metaverse. You're powerless there. But I'll be your puppet." And here's the question he's been preparing for. 

"I want to stand by the winning side. And I want one life in exchange. Whichever life I claim, to be mine. I'll choose what happens to them."  

Deal.  

There's another boy waiting in the hall. Akira tries not to meet his eyes when they pass.  

 

It's cathartic, the way he tears through the palaces of complete strangers. It helps wring the pain from his frayed hands. He understands what Haru says about shadows and begging and fear, and there exists some hollow imprint where guilt should be. But these people deserve it. And he's not really killing them as much as he is....doing whatever it is he's doing.  

"Confess," he says with the shadow underneath his heel. "You want to live, don't you? Admit it," ah, how pathetic. It cries. "Say you were the one behind the it all."  

"Please!" Who was this again? Some politician, some deputy chief, some big business CEO? Shido had a very long list and he had about four more targets for this week alone, so it'd be nice if he could get back before the laundromat got closed. His jeans still had turmeric stains from last week.    

"Don't make me come back," Joker warns, and then he's gone as well.  

It works. Good job. Another name. 

"You're sure going out a lot at night, huh?" Sojiro asks. "Don't get into trouble." He won't, he won't. He's going to the gym, he says. Or the movie theatre. Or the bookstore. He's got some DVDs to return. He has a late night craving for matcha flan. Helps him study, y'know? 

"Whatever," Sojiro grumbles back. 

Well done.  

"Disgusting," Crow spits out, whips the hilt of that distorted blade against the shadow's face. "You should be begging for mercy. Cry, you pathetic—shameful—unwanted!" Flesh like ribbons and tornado fries.  

"Stop." He puts a hand on the other's shoulder. "I said stop." The colors flicker, black and red, white and purple, caught between curved lines and swooping points. "Shido wants him alive."  

"...Right." It's half snarled as Crow jerks away from his hand. "Anything for our dear leader."  

They continue in silence. They stand feet apart. Akira doesn't bother to help Akechi stitch his broken skin back together, and Akechi pretends not to hear when Akira ducks into station bathrooms and gags on yesterday's meal. No semblance of courtesy, no pleasant conversations, no talks of fate and coffee. They meet in odd locations and he watches as Akechi drives a screw into a shadow's eye with surgical precision.  

In another life, Akechi would've made a good doctor.  

Take care of this. The last name, of course, is theirs. 

No love lost, no blood spared. Chalk it up to petty rivalries, fuse-blown tempers, short-sightedness, whatever you want, but he's not even thinking about Shido; he's thinking about bits of skin getting caught under his nails and crescent moon cuts pressed into skin. In a safe room, no less. Forget about the weapons. He lunges out of the seat, hands tearing into scalp, feet scrabbling against the slick concrete ground. 

"You took everything from me," Akechi hisses. A scene on repeat gets tiring after the third time, let alone the fourth—but it has to play before advancing. 

"You didn't have anything for me to take," Joker's full faced, with a grin that pulls his lips taut over gums. "You never had anything from the start." Hands twisted in the cloth at their collarbones; the scent of jealousy in the air, thick as summer mornings.  

He wants to hit him and hit him and hit him and hit him. He wants to stop dreaming about violence. 

Akechi's face is cold, but his hand tremors violently, knocking the bones of his knuckles against Joker's sternum, drumming dully. The words are on both their lips. 

"Do it," Akira says. "I don't want to think anymore. Cut the strings. Call for him."  

A brief jerk, a sharp pull, and his chest burns with liberating, beautifying freedom. 

"Loki!" 

Ah, he can hear the call. Like bells ringing home. Like a hand in his hair, combing gently. Where is his mother, his father, now? Where has the ache gone? They sing to him in foreign tongues. They sing about the rain on his skin and the joys of red-heat and working hands to the bone. There's something curling its tongue across his marrow, syrupy-sweet and soothing.  

When he comes to, the sun had long set. In the darkness and gloom of a fabricated reality, he can make out the barest silhouette of the still body underneath his blade, and the saber wounds bursting against his skin. 

 

 

The thing about playing a traitor, is that usually you're supposed to betray something eventually.  

"Your son's dead," he tells those bared teeth. "There's nobody to protect you, you know? You have a palace too."  

"This isn't a threat. Don't get me wrong. I’m all you have left. And you still have names on that list, don’t you? You still need me.”  

He killed someone. It doesn’t quite sink in the way he expected it to—it doesn’t quite sink in at all; it floats on his skin like fat on the water’s surface. Take a spoon and skim off the top and you’d have what’s left of him. 

Haru never really betrayed her father, did she? She was never really on his side. And Yusuke knew all along about his, anyways. So he's got no excuse for himself, really.  

You’re far more useful than that worthless child ever was.  

It was dumb. He shouldn’t have. But he kept thinking about Ann’s head rolling off her shoulders or his teeth clattering against metal or, or—shit, he couldn’t even be mad for Okumura’s death! Who cared about such a selfish man? God, this was never about Shido’s victims; it was all just for his own sake! Otherwise, he wouldn’t have deviated from the script—otherwise, he wouldn’t be out here, doing Shido’s dirty work for him, ruining lives and feeling good about it, because he beat Akechi and made him pay and he won the damn, petty pathetic little game.  

It felt good to be angry. It felt good to be feared and needed and it felt good that people knew what he could do, and there was no need to scuttle about from school rooftops to hideaway attics.  

It's only a matter of time now. 

He gets carried away, kills a target too soon. Shido’s men stamp their displeasure with hematoma ink into his chest; it takes him an hour to drag himself from there to Crossroads. 

“Shit, you look absolutely terrible! The hell happened, kid?” Ohya sips at her drink in between concerned glances.  

“You really shouldn’t be here, boy,” Lala, responsible as ever.  

“Just give me a moment to catch my breath.” She slides him a glass of water, at least. The choking cigarette smoke reminds him of Sojiro's own habit. Perhaps Leblanc could use a neon sign of its own. 

"You shouldn't stay out too late. Between the disappearances and the confessions, it's dangerous for a kid like you out here." 

"I'll be fine. It was just...a mistake."  

"You in high school? That one kid went missing a while ago, the detective. He was about your age, too."  

“I know what happened to him.” Her eyebrows arc in interest. “He was involved with crime anyways. It’s only natural he’d have enemies.”  

“What, like yakuza?”  

“Maybe. Or maybe he was digging deeper than he thought.”  

“So they killed him? He’s a high schooler.” 

Akira shrugs. “It sends a message.” The cut on his rib never quite fades, even after everything was said and done. It puckers the surrounding skin, looking almost like a smile alongside the freckles splayed on his chest. 

“Got it all figured out, huh? Quite the Detective Prince yourself.”  

I'll have you done away with too, brat.  

He hides his expression behind the rim of the glass. “Yeah. I’m his replacement.”  

 


 

He's got two new scars and the flesh is pink and warped on his chest;  his sole proof of life and death. Every morning hurts a little more, every night is superimposed with words he can't assign to speakers. April is the cruelest month, indeed. 

"I'm a time traveler," he tells Sojiro first thing. His caretaker stares back with equal parts derisiveness and exasperation. "I can tell you who killed Wakaba." That gets his attention. 

"How do you know this?"  

"I told you, I'm a time traveler."  

"Don't you joke with-" 

"It was the Detective Prince, if you were wondering." Leblanc is far more home than his house home: and if snow be white, why then his skin is dun. "Futaba, I know you're listening."  

"Don't you dare drag Futaba into this!" 

"She's got the place bugged, anyways. And her mother's responsible for the mental shutdowns. In a way. If you need me, I'll be in my room." The app isn't on his phone yet. Curious.  

See, planning never worked. Recreating the past never worked. Blazing forward bought him nothing but mistakes. So why not sit back and let the world come to him? He's been special before; why would it be any different now? Think of it as time off. Surely inaction has to be better than being a catalyst for worse; bystanders never get charged for crimes they were unlucky enough to witness. 

"People's lives aren't a joke," Sojiro snarls. Well, it's not that they're a joke, it's more that they won't matter a year from now, when he's gone. 

Christ. It sounds even more ridiculous out loud.  

"Can you save-" 

"No, I can't save Wakaba. But I can save Futaba." She's a clever girl, she'll find something out. Or maybe she won't, it doesn't matter in the end. 

The app doesn't come tomorrow or the day after or the week next or by the end of the year, even. Doesn't matter to him. He gets top scores in school. He gets a letter of recommendation from Mr. Hiruta, a part time job at the florist's; he perfects his key lime pie recipe, picks up recreational photography. It's calm. It's quiet, it's nice, it's as if he's pulled the blanket over his head and in the bunker of his bed, nothing sharp or gold can stay. Sojiro and Futaba have long stopped hounding them for answers he refuses to give out, so he spends his afternoons spoiling TV shows before they air and his evenings learning to mix cocktails at Crossroads. 

"You really shouldn't be serving alcohol," Lala says, but he's determined.  

"Besides," he says. "I'm wiser than my years."  

His pecan pie is a hit with Leblanc's locals, but they claim his macarons are too salty, still.  

"You're really not going to help us. You're insufferable." Sojiro spits. Akira shrugs, stirs, chills the dough for 30 minutes before mixing. 

"I've helped you enough already."  

Ann sits in front of him all year and they don't speak once. Makoto congratulates him on his grades and they don't meet again. Shiho still jumps. That's fine.  He's got a thousand years and ten thousand second attempts. Take your time.  

 

"I'm really glad Boss decided to hire a part timer," Tae sips are her coffee with a sly smile. "Your lemon loaf is addictive."  

"The secret is dousing it in glaze," he tells her. "Oh, and how is your medicine coming along?"  

"I never said anything about medicine. How did you know about that?" 

"Lucky guess," the mirth doesn't quite reach her eyes. It never has.  

She leans into the counter, all sharp elbows and smoky eyes and pursed lips. "What aren't you telling me, hmm?" 

"You already know what will happen to Miwa. So, nothing."  

"...Sojiro did say you were insufferable." 

"Thanks. Another slice of lemon loaf?"  

She asks, "Do you feel good, living the way you live?" 

He says "When have feelings changed anything?" If you felt more, would that have saved them? Would that have saved you? Would you be far, far, off in your own heavy and hardened home, separated from everything that ever hurt you, if you cared more? "Do you think feelings are going to cure Miwa?"  

"No. But I'll keep going until I do. You, on the other hand, seem content to wallow." 

"And you seem to think you know a lot about me, doctor," he slices the soft rich meat of the cake precisely, tops it with just a dollop of whipped cream. "Why should I be responsible for others? I don't want to be guilty of negligence just for existing." 

"Well, like it or not, but other people are out there. Suffering." Like a snake, her words are lined with scales. "I didn't become a doctor just so I could sit back and watch them. Stay in your little bubble if you like. See where it gets you." 

"...It keeps me alive, doctor." He cared too much about a stranger on his way home, and now he's paying the price. So let him stay inside his bubble. It'll break in a year's time, as it always does. 

"You're old enough to make your own decisions. So be it. I'm not your mom; I'm not going to bother telling you what to do. But you have a second chance, and that's more than what others can ask for." She pauses at the door, as if to say something else. "Thank you for the food. It was delicious," and the bell signals her departure. 

Like a mirror, like dripping silver and nickel and clear blue waters, he can see the reflection of his face clearly. Every split-end and pore and freckle all stitched up in the countenance they call Akira—the schoolboy, the delinquent, the server, the pleading party. The witness to it all. 

Guilt twists through his chest like a red-hot coil, and he doubles over as the pearls grind themselves to dust inside his throat.  

 


 

He's tired, he's sick; they've dug their twisted roots into his lungs so deep that he feels it in every breath. No illusions this time, he goes straight for the source. He knows all of Akechi's favorite haunts, grabs him by the wrist, hisses "I know about Shido, I know about the Metaverse," before he can react. To the boy's credit, the shock only shows on his face for a second.  

"What do you want?" Akira could ask for anything—obedience, submission, his very own little list of names he'd like to see erased. He has the boy by the throat.  

He thinks about bleeding out on the floor of Okamura's palace and the cold steel against his skin. He thinks about lemon loaf. 

"I want to help you," he says.  

It's not bad at all. In fact, it's almost nice, this intimacy—he's spent time with his would-be-killers before; this is no exception. But he makes a mistake; he lets Akechi over too many times, stays up too late talking to him, doesn't see the smile on his own face.  

"How did you find out about me?" Saw you, in the Metaverse. Followed you for a bit. 

"Why do you want to help me?" Heard what the shadows said.  

"Even after all I've done?" Yes. Even that.  

There's Akechi, bandaging his wounds in the dusty summer evenings with gentle hands; Akechi, reading the English aloud for his sake; Akechi, with undue viciousness, tearing at the shadow that had threatened them. 

"Don't worry," he said. "I won't let them touch you." But oh, they're not the ones he's afraid of.  

There's no Haru, this time. No Makoto or Yusuke or Ann or Ryuji or Morgana to tell him that he's making a mistake (again) and he'll regret this (eventually) and this won't end happily (or peacefully); no, it's just him and Akechi and a list of palaces to rip through in record time. What did they call it? Thick as thieves?

Akira tries to remember what he's here for. 

 "I'm glad I met you." Crow had told him. He needs to end this, quick. And then...what? What comes afterwards, happily ever after?  

They decide a secret for a secret's only fair, so Akechi tells him about his mother, his foster home, his future. He says he doesn't intend to live past twenty; he says it makes him sick to eat, some mornings. He doesn't like the look of his own hands. He prefers hazelnut to chocolate.  Akira tells him about his hometown, how his parents wanted him to become a doctor, his brief interest in violin in middle school. He doesn't mention the traitor, doesn't mention the Phantom Thieves— and in the cold, dark afternoons of winter, he sits with Akechi in the sanctity of his room and they talk about regular things, normal things; school and the weather and Sojiro's cooking. As if they were simply kids and not young killers.  

A year's almost past, and come December, Akechi's eager to sink his teeth into Shido's palace. He says "Let me deal the last blow." He says "Thank you, for everything,” and Akira knows he's gotten too close. So that's why he lets him go ahead; to catches his own breath for a moment, calm his racing heart. It's his fatal mistake, this time. When they reunite, the boy is bolder than ever; taking his hand, beaming at him, saying he found- 

"-a safe room," he’s tugging at his hand in earnest eagerness. But there's already a body on the bed, a body in reds and whites and— 

—there's a rapier in his chest, some cheap 99 cent plastic toy brought to painful, violent life. And just like before, he collapses; the carpet is gracefully soft against his body, the rumbling of the ship hypnotic, but how did he- 

"-not notice? Guess you didn't know me as well as you thought," the imitation of Akechi laughs. "You shouldn't have let him-" 

-go alone,  he let him go ahead and go alone and there was no gunshot, no ringing cry, but the copy has his blade and his mask and his camel pea coat, even now—an obvious giveaway and Akira was still distracted by an inviting smile and a light hand.  

"Don't worry,” it says. He can't see the body fully, can't see the wounds or his face, a small mercy. “I didn't let him suffer." The cognition sinks to its knees over his body.  

"The Captain was suspicious, of course. His son had never been so busy before." Was that it? A matter of a handful of seconds and that's all it took to slit the knife across Akechi's throat, to grab the saber at his side and leave?  

"It was only natural he'd investigate. And what did he find?" He'd found an easy target. "I'd made an interesting friend."  

Ironic that even now, he's still killed by the same person.  

He shouldn't have let Akechi leave his sight.  

The cognition's expression softens; it strokes Akira's cheek with a tenderness he can't put into words. "I wish things had turned out...differently," it says, voice low.  

"It will. Next time, it will." Akira speaks. It doesn't understand him, but it nods anyways. And raises the sword again.  

 

There was no news, no case, nothing. A woman stopped by, once, twice, three times; she asked for his room on the first visit and a plate of curry on the last.  

With the election drawing close, the rate of approval for the Liberal Co-Prosperity Party sits around- 

"I don't get it," she said. "There's no trace of them whatsoever, and the director is closing the case already. Have his parents said anything?" 

"They said he might've killed himself." Sojiro says, and leaves out the nonchalance and indifference in their tone. 

The top running candidate, Masayoshi Shido, seems a clear winner for the- 

"Akechi, too, though? Why would they choose to do so now? This just reeks of corruption. I need a drink." 

"I don't serve alcohol here."  

Preliminary polling shows that the public is currently 97% in favor for chairman Shido's- 

"Well maybe you should," she snaps, checks her phone, sighs. "I'm just so frustrated. These two teenage boys are missing, probably dead, and nobody cares about it. You know what they said on TV? That the Detective Prince is retiring from future appearances. Not that he's disappeared. Or lying in a ditch somewhere. Retiring. Turn off the TV, it's bothering me."  

"Nothing but Shido talk these days." 

"I don't have time to be worried with the election." Sojiro restrains himself from recommending her water instead of coffee. "By the way, your cat wants in." 

"Cat? This is a café, I don't own any pets."  

"Somebody's cat, then. Thank you for the coffee." She gets up to leave, fishes the yen out of her purse to leave upon the counter. It's too quiet without the drone of the television in the background. "Hey," she pauses by the door, interrupts the bells. "Is it possible they just...ran away?" 

Maybe that's what they were whispering about, up in that attic. Maybe they talked about life in the countryside or fleeing by sea or crossing to America. Maybe they were practicing their English and setting aside money and packing their bags all the while. 

"Forget it," she says. "They wouldn't have." He has to agree. They wouldn't have. 

 


 

Tae says he's perfectly healthy. 

"A clean bill of health," she scribbles something down on that clipboard of hers. "There's nothing wrong with you."  

There's nothing wrong with him. Doctor's diagnosis. Straight from the horse's mouth. Well, tell that to his stomach, his head, his lungs, his chest that still stings with a throbbing pain on rainy days. When he heaves, the bile burns like fire in his throat.  

"Why does a student like you," she asks, "need painkillers?" He unbuttons his shirt, points to the skin long ossified into scars.  

She says no, anyways.  

"And what if I could help you with Miwa's medicine?" It's a cheap card to play, he knows, but he's done with playing fair.  

"Dragging that up's not going to help you.”  

She ends up prescribing him water, rest, and the advice of a mental health professional.  He’s wearing down thin and fraying on the ends and they tell him to drink more water. 

Nothing is by-the-book; more so a loose improvisation of what it was originally. But the picture at the end is the same, so that’s fine, isn’t it? Nobody’s paying that much attention. He’s slowly rotting away on the insides, ok, that wasn’t in the original script. Call it artistic freedom. The fine details don't matter. What matters is that for the first time in ages, everyone’s been reunited again in their motley band of misfits and liars. And in between the quiet, joking hours of the afternoon and the intimacy of evening, Akira comes to the realization that these are not his friends anymore.  

Maybe he’s changed too much, maybe he’s caught up in the ghosts of cycles past, maybe it’s punishment for his blatant bystander effect, but the people in front of him do not welcome him with warm smiles and earnest words. He is their friend, yes, but not their trustee, not their be-all end-all, and nothing close to their leader. There are no late-night calls on his cell phone, no invitations to new restaurants or quiet moments together in Leblanc. That just makes him all the more desperate—clinging to sugared strands of their kindness like a starving man, begging for pearls of their time. It's as though the artery had been severed and the limb is cold and listless in its wake.  

He thinks they might know, somehow. The truth probably rises off him like steam and drips off his words like oil; it stains his mouth so black that his tongue looks less like silver and more charcoal. They can all see it, can't they? They talk behind his back in clear voices; unabashed, unashamed, with their low voices and soft laughter. There's no sympathy for him here— not when he finds himself gripping the handrail so hard the blisters flare, not when the world swims beneath his feet, not when confides in them every flaw and failure and insufficiency he finds with himself.  

He's not trying to fool Akechi, not this time. Genuinely. Honest to God, cross my heart, swear on his grave, all that ritualistic sentimentality to the moon and back. Nobody trusts him, anyways, so what's the harm? Let them be traitors together; Antenor didn't open the gates of Troy alone. And Akechi upholds his word—he comes to every conference, meets every time Akira asks, spends those quiet nights together day after day after day. And at the end of a month, he is no less distant than he was at the beginning. 

Akira tells him about his parents. He says they meant their best—truly, but they were young and inexperienced too; they handled porcelain with concrete care and left when they discovered cracks. Akechi looks back with his hawk-eyed stare, smiles something placating and passive. He's offered those gilded sympathies and nothing else and Akechi never, ever speaks to him about his own mother and father. He tells him about his faults and fears, every mistake that burns its way out of his throat and flutters about his temples, and finds that Akechi is a good listener and a warm body and that there is nothing, nothing at all the boy wants to confide in him.  

“I think I might be in love with you,” he tells Akechi, face pressed into the other boy’s shoulder. There’s no point in looking up.  

“Oh.” Akechi says, carefully neutral. “That’s very kind of you.” Yeah, that’s the kind of response he deserves, isn’t it. “I’m flattered. Really.”  

Calling it love is misleading, because it isn’t love. Call it sick infatuation.  Call it interconnectedness. Call it whatever you want, but it isn’t love. And maybe he was in love with one or some or all of them some long time ago, but that boy is long gone and the Akechi in front of him is not the one that died in the ship is not the one who shot him in the back is not the one that murmured kind words to him in the long, carpeted hallways of a cruise liner. Those boys are dead and he should be too and this was never about a second chance so much so it was about seeing all his lost opportunities slip through the gaps in between his fingers again. And maybe Akechi had been in love with him, too, all that time ago; it doesn’t matter now. He’s not who he was. That Akira has died as well. 

Akechi offers to get him Percocet; fishes a Zoloft out of his briefcase.  

“No thanks,” Akira says, winces, clutches at his side, “But bring me an ibuprofen.”  

 

There's a reservation for his name at the Ristorante Elite.  

"Joker, it says here," the maître d' tells him. "Ah, apologies, but that seems to be the only name on the list. Your companions will have to wait behind." The whispers erupt behind him and he pretends not to notice. As if they were gossipers at a slumber party. Doesn't matter now; t-minus five shadows till Akechi's death.  

Blue orchids at his seat, how extravagant. Akechi wears a tuxedo, something in all violets and golds with curling designs and cuffs at the wrists, something fitting for a prince. Because he's a guest of honor, of course—the singular reason for Shido's success, the single catalyst for this all. God's chosen. 

"I wanted to save you," Joker tells him.  

"You were always the idealistic type." He cuts at the dish in front of him, some odd ruddy-red mass rapidly being reduced to paste. There's a piano refrain in the back that makes Joker's fingers twitch in his lap.  

"What did you think?" Joker asks.  

"They don't seem very fond of you."  

"Nor you." They didn't bother to hide it, of course. But they all knew Akechi's plan from the start, and they never raised a hand. Because they were sacrifices and executioners both.  

Akechi says this is the last time they'll meet. He does not take a bite of his food; he cuts until the plate is coated in a thin pink layer of liquid.  

"You'll die here," Joker says, but they both know already. There's no point in fighting it, fate hangs heavy and sharp over their heads. This is what they were meant to do; from the start, there was no chance. It took him long—longer than it should—for him to realize. But he does, now, and so does Akechi and so do the others and that's why, even now, even knowing all the crimes he's done, that they welcome him. That they walk into the lion's mouth and pretend that the boy they split dinner with is not the one that made them an orphan. 

"I suppose. Maybe it won't be the first," and there's nothing else to say. Akechi leaves his meal untouched. "Farewell, then."  

"Wait," Joker says. Calls, even. "Leave me something to remember you by."  

Akechi looks back, and for a brief second, Joker thinks he will refuse. But he unfixes the cufflinks from his wrists, hands them into an awaiting palm. "They're just cognitive," he tells him. "But I'm sure you'll find a use for them."  

Lovers, brothers, family, are all too intimate a title to describe them. But 'friends' isn't quite right either. Rivals didn't offer one-sided stunted confessions. Acquaintances didn't discuss their incoming death. What are they, then? Too distant to be meaningful, too personal to ignore. 

The rhinestones on the cufflinks are much too shallow and brilliant to be anything but fake. 

 


 

He's been Icarus and Iscariot and an encyclopedia of people in between and if he turns the page once more, he'll reach the end.  

It was foolish; he realizes this now. It was foolish and dumb and inane of him to assume he could change anything; to assume that everything would stay nice and static and set in place while he fooled around and squandered all his opportunities again and again.  Some things are simply unavoidable. Like fate set in motion, death in the cards, the scissors of the Moirae. No matter how much you struggle in your hole, you still end up digging the same grave. There was never a chance for change. It was all just to make him realize.  

Violence is inescapable. Death is inevitable. 

If it wasn’t going to be Akechi, then it would be him or Ann or Futaba or Yusuke or somebody. It didn’t matter the actor as long as the role was filled. And he wasn't so much a playwright as he was a tragedian, anyways. All the world's a stage and all that. 

Even if the words were the same, it would be better if his hands held the pen. Even if the destination was identical, he should be the one to carry it there. The illusion of control makes it more bearable—so, so, it should be his hands, his will, his moon and stars above, his voice singing the sun into flight. Oh, he'll mourn and  grieve it on its way, but he'll be the one to send it off. Better him than Shido. Better him then- 

Violence is inescapable.  

He knows the name of the victims, and from there it’s simply a matter of time and guessing and playing patiently, patiently, in the doorways of foreign slaughterhouses. He crosses his legs and pockets his gun and scratches tic-tac-toes into the floor of the palace thirty-three times over and wins none of them.  

It was a train driver, remember that? Remember this? It was all on the news and the television; blasted across the sky in neon letters and abandoned the second after, but it doesn't matter. He can't recall those early days, not here. Can't distinguish the first from the second from the last to the now. But he doesn't need those, not anymore. There's a boy approaching with a rapier at his side and a draconic helm and Joker sits and waits eight hours for two seconds of gunshots. 

"Oh. Akira," Akechi breathes, and the bubbles of blood against his lips burst and his eyes roll upwards. There. It's done.  

Death is inevitable.  

It feels as though a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. It feels like a great relief. It feels like the opening night had been a resounding success, it feels like the roses are falling at his feet, it feels as if he should take a bow and all the thunderous applause will cradle him home to his bed, to his rest, to his curtain closing.  

Better his hand than anyone else's. Better his than anyone else's. Better him, better this, better now. Akechi had a role to play and so did he and they stand back to back to back to back to- 

The cufflink crystals; those diamonds glitter like false-stars on his wrist.  

It's April 9th. 

Akechi knew his name.