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L’appel du vide

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It was a simple arrangement, even if the factors surrounding it were all on the bizarre side of fantastic.

“He doesn’t trust us,” Kirijo Mitsuru had told him.

“He’s the only one who can provide access to the realm our target is hiding. He’s encountered it before, developed a sensitivity to it, but he’s reluctant to work with us. He blames us for what happened to his family.”

“He needs someone to guide him. Someone close to his age, someone he can rely on, someone who knows what we know, but isn’t one of us. He needs you.”

It was supposed to be simple. And it was for a while. Akira’s life barely changed after their introduction. Tutoring four times a week, most of the time spent shooting the shit instead of encouraging any actual learning. But while Akira was getting paid to be someone’s friend, something was happening on a level beyond even the metaverse. Something he wasn’t privy to apart from the crumbs Mitsuru left him about her Shadow Operatives, her worrying moments of silence, her terse words as the kid she dumped into his life fell deeper into his own mind, even when it seemed Akira was making progress with him.

The manic gleam in his eyes as Akira leveled a gun at him with his right hand, left hand slick with blood as he tried to stop the bleeding from the hole in his abdomen

 


 

“Hey, you’re alright, relax,” an increasingly familiar voice coaxes Akira as he wakes. “You were having a bad dream.”

Akira shuffles up into a sitting position on his couch, leaning away from Akechi’s touch. He wipes the cold sweat from his brow. “When did you get here?”

Akechi catalogues the brusque greeting, withdrawing his hand and sharpening his eyes. “About an hour ago. I didn’t want to wake you, but maybe I should have.”

Moving his feet to the floor, Akira presses the knuckle of his thumbs into eyes, the comforting low grumble of Sojiro’s voice drifting up between the cracks in the floorboards as he indulges in the dance of phosphenes behind his eyelids.

“No work tonight?” Akira asks, his voice little more than a croak.

“There’s always work,” Akechi says, “but none I’m planning to do right now. Are you feeling well? I messaged you before coming over, but you must have already been asleep.”

A dread he can’t digest sits in his stomach while his heart can’t pick a beat to follow. “A little off, I guess. I’ll be fine.”

Akechi walks over to stand by the window, backlit by the sun. Akira flinches away from the light, molds his hand over the vein in his throat, feels his pulse through his palm.

“What were you dreaming about?” Akechi asks. “You looked like you were in pain.”

“Mm,” Akira clears his throat. “Someone was trying to kill me.”

A tense pause. “Do you have dreams like that often?”

“Probably more than I should,” Akira tries to add some humor to his voice. He doesn’t think he succeeds.

“The person in your dream, is it someone you know?”

“Why?”

“Dreams, nightmares – their content may indicate a source of stress.”

If Akira has a source of stress he has yet to identify, he is begging it to stay unidentified.

Akechi asks, “Was it me? In the dream, was I trying to kill you?”

Akira looks towards him, squinting his eyes as they adjust to the light boring in. It’s unnaturally bright. Akechi’s back is to him, but he doesn’t miss the tightness to his shoulders.

He almost wants to confront him. It’s not the right time.

“Why would you ask that?”

He sees the answer in Akechi’s face when he turns to him, takes a heavy step closer. He’s been waiting for the right time, too. “You know I wouldn’t hurt you, right? Not again. Things are different now.”

“It wasn’t you in the dream,” Akira placates, trying to swallow other, more distant memories down. “Not to say you don’t stress me out, but I don’t think you’re going to stab me in my sleep or anything.”

There’s a gloved hand directing his chin, a leathery thumb grazing his jaw, a voice low in his ear.

“Then what are you so afraid of?”

 

Akira wakes within the darkness of night on Akechi’s living room floor, met by the glow of a muted TV, and the pitter-patter of fingers gliding across a keyboard.

“Good morning,” a wry voice greets him. Not that low, dangerous voice left behind in a dream within a dream.

“How long have I been asleep?” Akira asks.

“A few hours. It’s almost nine,” Akechi says.

“Oh.”

“How was your nap?”

“I think I’m stressed out.”

Akechi spares him a glance. “Admitting it is certainly a step in the right direction. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Is there a way to unwatch Inception?”

“Major head trauma might do the trick. Why?”

“My dreams are evolving; I don’t like it.”

Akechi raises a brow. “Would you prefer to be hit in the head with a frying pan or a briefcase?”

“Your frying pans are so thin and cheap, my head would give them trauma.”

“I apologize for not having cookware up to the standards required to bash your head in,” Akechi drawled, reaching up to pull the screen of his laptop down with a click, banishing the artificial blue that had been highlighting his face. “Is there anything you really want to talk about?”

Akira’s heart leaps when he has Akechi’s undivided attention, and it worries him that he’s unsure if it’s because of the Akechi in his dream or the one he’s sort of dating. He wonders if there’s any difference between the two at all.

“I’ve been vision free lately, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“I’m glad to hear it, but I really only meant in general.”

Akira instinctively wants to say no but thinks better of it. “Where’s Mona?”

“He went out on his own.”

“He’s been checking the metaverse almost every night,” Akira tells. Akechi doesn’t look surprised, but a crease between his brow develops. “Something’s happening in there.”

“He’s voiced some concern before, but I haven’t heard anything about it for a while. Has he told you anything?”

Akira shakes his head. “Only that something’s changing in Mementos.”

“With how little we know about the metaverse, it could be a normal change.”

“What, like the change between spring and summer? If Mona’s worried, I think we should be too. There could be something other than us messing around in there.”

“Something? Or someone?”

Akira thinks back to his dreams, his memories. “Either, both. I don’t know. But I don’t think Mona should be looking into this on his own and you know there’s not much I can do right now. I just… don’t think this is something we should hope will go away on its own. Mementos, the metaverse, it’s bigger than us. We’ve been treating it like a pool to play in, but it’s more like an ocean.”

“I know,” Akechi says. “Perhaps better than you think. I’ll try to arrange a meeting with the others soon to get back into exploring mementos. If I can get Sakamoto to cooperate, that is.”

“Is he still harassing you online?”

“Sakamoto? Of course not. However, it’s a different story for username CaptainSkull027 and the many similarly named recently created accounts.”

Akira laughs. “Thanks for putting up with him. I know you two don’t get along, but he’s my best friend, so.”

“Your best friend? I hope he’s only earned that title now that I’ve assumed a different one.”

“You’ve always been something different than a friend to me.”

“Something more, I hope?” Akechi asks, shifting closer.

Akira’s eyes find Akechi’s lips. “Yeah. Something more.”

 


 

“You’ve finally ditched the turtlenecks, huh?” Ann asks, a tropical blue drink in hand as she slides in next to him on a bench at the mall. She rests her sunglasses atop her head.

Akira rolls his eyes. “You were doing so well not saying anything this week.”

She leans in for a better look. “Ditched the turtlenecks but picked up some concealer. You did a good job finding a match for your skin tone, but I know a few tricks that will make anything you want disappear completely.”

“Even my criminal record?”

Ann pulls a face, offering him a sip of her drink with a shake of her hand.

“No, thanks,” he says.

“To the drink or the tricks?”

“I won’t need either.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Ann mumbles. “So, are you going to ‘fess up or what?”

“No,” Akira says.

“Why not? It’s not hard to pinpoint who tried to write their name on your neck with their teeth.”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Akira.”

“Ann.”

“Ugh, boys. I miss having Shiho around. I can’t wait until she can go out again. She’s been doing a lot better recently, you know.”

Akira smiles, glad to hear it even if he already knows Shiho and Ann’s friendship will keep growing stronger with every year. “Tell her I said hi. Someday we can all grab a bite to eat, and you can both trash talk me together.”

“We’ve already started.”

Akira laughs, steals the cup from her hand and drinks right from the straw, disappointed when he discovers it’s just lemonade.

Ann says, “Don’t tell Goro-kun we’re sharing a drink. He’ll get jealous.”

“Sounds like his problem, not mine.”

“It will be your problem when he gets to your neck again.”

“That’s not happening.”

“That’s a statement that won’t age well if I ever heard one…” Ann grabs her drink back. “Now that you two are together, or whatever you’re calling yourselves, Akechi hasn’t been telling me anything. I guess I was just the emotional support that got dumped as soon as he didn’t need me anymore.”

“Wow, that’s rough. Wouldn’t know what that’s like.”

Ann hops up, slurping down the last of her lemonade and tossing it into a trashcan like a basketball, cheering for herself when she makes it in. “But at least we’ll be heading out to Mementos soon! It feels like ages since we’ve been. I can’t wait.”

Akira buries the bitterness. “Take care of yourself in there. I’m not going to be around to back you up this time.”

Ann deflates a bit as if the memory of what happened the last time they were all together hit her. “Sorry, I almost forgot. It won’t be as fun without you there. With Ryuji and Goro-kun both there it might not be any fun at all.”

“I’m just sorry I can’t be there for you all. I’ll try to catch up with everyone as soon as I can.”

“Don’t force yourself. Me and Ryuji… we were at our lowest lows when we awoke, or whatever you want to call it. When we got our persona. I mean, we were literally about to die. We’ve been treating everything lightly the whole time since, but… I wouldn’t want to relive that moment. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you feel like there’s no way out. Take your time and put everything together on your own terms. And don’t be afraid to talk to us!” Sheepishly, she continues, “Um, sorry if I sound preachy. I’m just trying to think of what I would say to myself from back then. Mostly I just wish I’d have talked to Shiho more. That we didn’t even give that piece of shit Kamoshida the chance to corner either of us the way he did. We would’ve been stronger together, but we were both too ashamed to say anything…”

Akira stands up, throws an arm over Ann’s shoulder and pulls her into an almost hug as he walks them in the direction of the movie theaters.

“Thanks, Ann.”

“Thanks to you too, Akira.”

 


 

It’s Saturday when the group goes back to Mementos. Akira sees Akechi and Morgana off from Leblanc, settling for messaging the others a good luck in the group chat. He didn’t want to go with them to the station, didn’t want to watch them from a distance as they left him behind for another world.

“If you’re going to sit around looking depressed, do it somewhere my customers won’t see. You’re killing business,” Sojiro says as he slides a cup of hot chocolate in front of him.

Akira almost smiles, cradling the cup in his hands. It’s too hot, both the cup and the air around him despite the fans running desperately at maximum speed overhead, but he relishes the sweet scent of cocoa while he can.  

“You’d need to have a business to kill first.”

“Can it, kid. Why did Akechi take the cat with him again?”

“We got a divorce and he won fifty percent custody,” Akira says. Sojiro sighs. “I’m kidding.”

“You don’t say,” Sojiro says, turning his attention to the TV. “Hm. Another one.”

“Another what?” Akira asks while Sojiro turns the volume up. A mugshot flashes across the screen, and Akira doesn’t need to read the scrolling text beneath it to understand what happened.

“Hey, where are you going?” Sojiro calls out behind him as he exits the café, fists curled at his sides as rage tears at his insides. Akira doesn’t answer, barely registers the sound of the bell as the door hits it, of Sojiro shouting “Hey!” at him from the patio as he rounds the corner.

He walks until his legs beg him to stop, until he’s not sure where he’s ended up.

Kaneshiro Junya, hospitalized in an unresponsive state, suspected to be the latest victim in the ongoing string of mental shutdowns.

Akira doesn’t know what he expected. Or rather, he knew exactly what to expect, but fooled himself with hope that anything else would happen.

That night of green falling from the sky in a world only he could see. Akechi at the door, exhausted, claiming to have been working late. Akechi, in his bed, comforting Akira – taking comfort in Akira after having murdered a man. Or something close enough to murder.

Akira witnessed the destruction of palace from afar, felt the echo of it detonate inside of him, and didn’t even recognize it for what it was.

He places his hand over his heart and prays the heart locked away in his palace is better guarded.

 


 

“It’s him this time!” Ryuji shouts up from halfway down the stairs to Leblanc’s attic. “Jeez, man, we ran all the way over here when we got back, and you weren’t even here.” There’s a fresh bruise coloring the meat of Ryuji’s arm, clashing with the orange of his shirt, a slight swell to his ankle that puts a wince on his face when he takes another step down.

“Sorry,” Akira says, offering no excuses.

Sojiro peers at him from over his glasses. “Everything alright?”

Akira tries to smile, but it turns up as more of a grimace. “Just wanted some air,” he says. “I forgot my phone when I left, is it still down here?”

Sojiro pulls it out from where he stashed it behind the counter, deciding against pushing any more questions on him. “Go entertain your friends, they’ve been causing a ruckus.”

Ryuji beams, flushed skin giving away his embarrassment. “Sorry, Boss. We’ll try to turn it down a notch.”

Sojiro doesn’t believe him, going by the way his hand immediately finds his temple as he sighs.

“How’d it go?” Akira asks Ryuji when he reaches the stairs, hand gripping the smooth wooden rail too tightly. He glimpses the notifications on his phone, recently missed messages from the people waiting for him in his room.

“Weird,” Ryuji says, voice hushed in case Sojiro was listening in. “Went down about six new floors before we even found any shadows. Felt like we were in a horror movie, waitin’ for somethin’ to pop out at us. Doesn’t help the place gets creepier the lower we go.”

“Welcome home, Akira,” Yusuke greets from the couch next to a dozing Ann, sketchbook perched precariously on a knee.

Akechi and Morgana are at the desk, the two of them looking away from each other and towards Akira in synchronicity at his entrance.

Akira’s eyes don’t linger on Akechi. He reminds himself he knew what he was getting into the day he pushed their relationship forward.

“You all look like you’ve been shoved through a woodchipper,” he says, taking in their appearances. The best one off was Ann, and he can already figure that’s because she spent all her energy healing everyone else instead of taking the hits. They also must have run out of items if they’re still this scraped up. “You weren’t gone that long.”

Yusuke tries to flatten his hair as if that would make up for the shiner decorating his eye.

“We, ah,” Morgana says, looking like he’s been busy rolling in a puddle of oil, “We ran into some complications.”

“More like one nasty complication…” Ryuji groans. “When we finally did find some shadows lurkin’ around, they were way stronger than what we’re used to. Then some bigass thing comes screamin’ at us from nowhere when we’re tryin’ to patch up before moving down another floor, took me ‘n Yusuke out with one hit and then had these three runnin’ around playin’ a long game of tag and heal. We called it a day after that. We’re gonna need to go in better prepared next time.”

“Couldn’t run away?” Akira asks.

“We tried,” Morgana admits. “It was persistent.”

Akira finally lets his eyes rest on Akechi. Other than the exhaustion set in the lines of his face and posture, he seems to have managed to avoid any visible injuries. Akechi doesn’t notice the attention, mind elsewhere as his brows meet while he glares somewhere between Akira and the wall.

Ryuji shakes his head and shrugs when Akira shoots him a questioning look. “He’s been like that since we got out,” he says.

Morgana coughs and moves the conversation along, “So, where’ve you been while we were out?”

“I went for a walk around the neighborhood to kill time.”

“It is a nice day out there,” Ryuji gripes. “Too bad I rolled my ankle, it’ll probably be a few days before I can go for a run.”

“How bad is it? It already looks significantly better than it did prior to leaving,” Yusuke asks, trying to get a closer look. Suspicious Yusuke is planning to immortalize his injury on paper, Ryuji hides it behind his other leg.

Morgana trots over. “It shouldn’t be that bad. I did use the last of my power on it.”

“Yeah, you did alright, Mona. It’s jus’ a little tender now. Not bad for a cat.”

Morgana raises his hackles but doesn’t take the bait for once.

“Now that Akira has arrived, isn’t it the ideal time to eat?” Yusuke asks, already shifting his priorities.

“The Boss probably started cooking as soon as he saw you,” Akira tells him, jerking a thumb downstairs. “Go ahead and give him your saddest face until he feeds you.”

Morgana beats Yusuke to the stairs at that concession, Ryuji following them with a limp. “Comin’ down?” he asks when Akira doesn’t move to follow.

“I will in a minute,” Akira answers.

Ryuji glances back at Akechi with a complicated expression. “Right. Well, good luck with that, I guess.”

Akira checks on Ann first, still curled into herself on the couch, hair undone and Akira’s pillow hugged tightly to her chest. “One shadow really beat you guys up this bad?” he asks Akechi.

Akechi’s eyes flicker from the wall to Ann to Akira, narrowing with the memory. For a moment, Akira doesn’t think he’s going to say anything at all. “I can’t confess to being incredibly familiar with Mementos, and I did have my doubts regarding yours and Morgana’s concerns about something happening in there – but I’ve changed my mind.” Akechi looks at his phone, scrolling through something. “I’m sure Morgana could give you a more detailed overview later, but from my own observations from every time we’ve been there - Mementos seems to be degrading.”

“Degrading?”

“Perhaps decaying would be a better word. It seemed…sick. For lack of a better word. And –” he cuts himself off, looking at his phone one more time before putting it in his pocket. “Nevermind. I’d rather not jump to conclusions.”

“Nothing wrong with speculation.”

Akechi shakes his head. “The last time we went to Mementos, shadows were scarce as well, but they were still there. It was disturbingly empty this time. And the ones we did find, I can’t help but feel as if they were originally from much deeper within. As if they were only where we found them because they were trying to get away from something.”

Akira stays silent, the anger simmering beneath his skin regarding Kaneshiro temporarily cooled as he absorbs this new information.

Akechi rises, pushing the chair back into the desk. “And I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’ll have to leave early tonight.”

“Work?” Akira asks.

Akechi’s clenches his teeth, the muscle of his jaw jumping painfully under his skin. “I’ve miscalculated,” is the only explanation he gives.

“Must be bad if you’re not even going to scold me for running around the neighborhood without supervision,” Akira jokes to ease the tension, surprised and disappointed with himself for how easily his anger slips away when Akechi’s in front of him. He wonders if Ryuji’s right and he’s been brainwashed. If Akechi’s already cut his way across Akira’s palace, found his shadow, manipulated it to make him like this.

Akira bites the inside of his cheek, reminds himself he did all of this to himself and now he needs to crawl out of it himself.

Akechi cracks a smile, but it seems forced. “It’s bad,” he says. “And I’m trying not to be ‘overbearing’, as you put it. I’m going to trust that you have enough self-preservation and positive regard for me and the rest of the people around you to take proper care of yourself when we’re not here. And that you talk to me if you ever feel that you don’t.”

Akira doesn’t respond, watches Ann as she mumbles slumber induced nonsense into the pillow.

“Hey,” Akira says when Akechi passes by him to leave, briefly brushing their hands together in lieu of farewell. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“I’ll be fine,” Akechi says, leaving Akira behind to wonder between the two of them who the bigger hypocrite is.

 


 

Akira doesn’t see Akechi all week. Not in person, not on TV. With Kaneshiro’s hospitalization, the news explodes with renewed interest in the mental shutdown cases, covering every topic from the first presumed case to Kaneshiro himself, the crimes accredited to him, the outlandish conspiracies that try to connect him to the other victims. Conspiracies likely written and propagated by Shido and his ilk to keep the world off their scent.

And the more Akira thinks about it, the less sure he is that Akechi’s to blame for what happened. Kaneshiro was an asset to Shido – would Akechi really go to these lengths to ensure the already neutered Phantom Thieves wouldn’t get involved in another palace? As far as Shido is aware, Akechi is the only one moving in the metaverse. Killing off Kaneshiro would do nothing but put a spotlight on him, and unless Akechi has been manipulating far more than Akira originally assumed, antagonizing Shido so openly, so early is not something he would do.

And all of this is operating under the assumption that Akechi remembers at least some the original timeline – something that Akira believes to be true, but occasionally stumbles upon something that gives him pause. But much the same way Akira drops hints of vague memory and déjà vu to see Akechi’s reaction – Akechi may be sowing those same seeds of doubt within Akira.

Confrontation is the only solution, but only viable when Akira can at least guarantee a mutually assured destruction.

“You’ve been staring at her for a while now,” Morgana says, disturbing his thoughts. “Everyone’s going to think you’re a creep.”

Akira ducks further behind the book he grabbed in the school’s library. He shushes Morgana. “Don’t talk, everyone can hear you in here.”

“Ugh, why are we –”

Akira pushes Morgana’s head back into the prison of his bag and resumes his watch of Makoto in a reverse parody of how they originally met.

She looks up, catching his stare.

Akira looks down, taking significant interest in his book of choice, grateful he at least had the mind to open it right side up. When he thinks it’s safe to look again, he jumps when he finds her slotting herself into the seat across from him.

“We haven’t officially met, have we?” she asks him. He can hear the uncertainty in her voice, like she was already reconsidering the conversation.

Akira shakes his head, two chapters ahead of her, regretting setting foot into the library at all even as he was doing it.

But what other choice was there without Kaneshiro driving them to meet? Leave her behind in this life completely? That felt cruel.

“You’re the transfer student, Kurusu Akira, correct?” she asks, knowing full well that’s exactly who he is.

“And you’re the student council president, Niijima Makoto?” he lobs back at her.

“Yes. I’ve heard about some of the trouble that happened when you arrived. I apologize if that’s colored your view of Shujin Academy in a negative light…I should have – That is – have things improved since then?”

Akira lies his book flat on the table. “Kamoshida was the only trouble. Things are as good as I could expect them to be for me.”

“…Right,” Makoto says, awkwardly trying to talk around the fact that he has a criminal record. “Um,” she starts before catching herself, straightening her shoulders and speaking with more confidence. Akira sees more Sae than Makoto in the act. “Is it true that you’re friends with Akechi Goro? I don’t know him well, but I’ve always been under the impression that he’s…difficult to befriend.”

He chokes on a laugh. “You don’t have to be so polite. You can call him a dick.”

Makoto’s eyes go round, the confidence she borrowed vanishing as her shoulders hunch up as she looks around to make sure no one else heard him say such a vile word within her library sanctum. “That wasn’t what I wanted to say.”

“But it’s what you meant,” he says. She doesn’t voice any disagreement, wary, but starting to relax. “But to answer your question, I know him pretty well, yeah. And yes, he’s difficult.”

“I see,” she says, then says nothing else, even as Akira watches the questions bubble up her throat. She eventually clears her voice and asks, “Is the novel you’re reading any good?” Akira turns the cover to her, watches as her face turns from forced curiosity to skepticism. “The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud? Are you interested in psychology?”

“I’m not sure I’d call this real psychology,” Akira says. “I just thought it’d be funny.”

“Is it?”

“No,” Akira says. But at least it’s giving him more ammunition to annoy Akechi with. And unfortunate conclusions about what his own dreams are saying about him.

A surprised laugh leaves her lips, a smile flitting over her face. “You know, you’re not how I thought you’d be.”

“People usually aren’t.”

“You’re right,” she says, self critically. “I’m too presumptuous. This year so far has proven I lack many of the qualities I should have developed by now. I need to work harder as the student council president.”

“Do you want to develop yourself or develop being the student council president?”

“What do you mean?” she asks, with a hint of suspicion.

“Throwing yourself even farther into work you’ve already been doing won’t give you what you want. If you want to improve yourself, you need to expand your experiences.”

Not convinced she should be taking worldly advice from someone even lower than her on the social ladder, she looks back at the table she was originally sitting at. “While you have a point, I still have my responsibilities. The experiences from those are hardly worthless. I apologize for interrupting you, but I need to get back to studying.”

“Wait,” Akira fumbles over what he should do. “I know people have been giving you a hard time about not trying to stop Kamoshida. I just wanted to say, as someone he spread rumors about and tried to expel – I don’t hold anything against you.”

Makoto tucks her chair neatly under the table. Voice quiet even for a library, she says, “Thank you, but maybe you should.”

She ducks away before Akira can attempt to throw something else at her in hopes that it sticks, but he still counts it as progress. She ignores him when he leaves.

Taking off his glasses, Akira takes a deep breath before setting off downstairs, going over names in his head.

Makoto.

Futaba.

Haru.

Without Kaneshiro, with Akechi – everything’s out of sync. No Kaneshiro means no Makoto. With Akechi means no Phantom Thieves infamy which means no Futaba, and Haru – Haru might as well exist on Mars in context of the Phantom Thieves right now. He’s going to have to find a way to meet her without anything related to the metaverse. He severely doubts the situation that led to Morgana and Haru meeting is going to find a way to repeat itself.

And without access to the metaverse navigation app he couldn’t even force anything to happen if he became desperate enough. But, he thinks, remembering the incident at Madarame’s shack, but what if he didn’t need the app?

He chides himself, still not convinced that was his fault despite everything suggesting it, let alone how he would replicate the event. If he would want to replicate it. This is the best he can do until he figures out how to get his shit together, but even then, he doesn’t know what the new situation with Mementos is and then, of course, there’s still Akechi.

He pinches the bridge of his nose, whispering, “fuck, fuck, fuck,” under his breath, wanting to slap himself for letting everything get this bad. For watching it happen as he sat around feeling sorry for himself.

“I don’t know how to fix this.”

 


 

“You look like shit,” Akira cuts to the chase, dropping a bag of groceries on Akechi’s counter.

Akechi’s face scrunches up, not helping his appearance as he already looks as if he’s been busy indoctrinating himself into believing sleep was a word created for a high fantasy novel rather than being a necessary part of human existence.

“He’s right,” Morgana quips, already waiting for the cheap, store-bought sushi Akira grabbed off the shelf for him.

“I warned you I wouldn’t be good company today.”

Akira spares him a glance as he stocks Akechi’s empty cupboards. “Then enjoy my company while I suffer yours.”

“You know I can do my own shopping,” Akechi says, taking something Akira already put away and putting it somewhere else.

“I can tell,” Akira says, opening the fridge and finding a shelf full of water bottles. He grabs one, enjoying Akechi’s bitter scowl as he twists off the lid and guzzles it down.

“While I the appreciate the concern you’re attempting to demonstrate -”

“Hey, shut up and sit down,” Akira orders. From the shock of it, Akechi accidentally obeys even as his face screams about the audacity! “You’re stressed out, I get it. I’m not here to grill you. Just go back to doing whatever you were doing before I got here while I make dinner.”

Akechi stews in his own silence as Akira oils a pan and slices some vegetables.

“Sorry,” Akechi eventually scrounges up. “It’s been a difficult week.”

Akira adds seasoning to the pork. “They’re really working you into the ground, aren’t they?”

Akechi huffs, shakes his head. “That’s nothing new.”

They sit and listen to the sizzle of the pan.

Hesitant, Akechi says, “I went back into the metaverse this week. Alone.” Morgana’s ears perk up in interest while Akira taps his fingers against the cutting board, trying to figure out where this was going. Clearing his throat, Akechi continues, “You’re intuitive so I’m sure you’ve already considered it, but I believe mental shutdowns occur when someone’s shadow dies in the metaverse.”

“It fits,” Morgana says. “When a person’s shadow dies, so would all of their desires, their reasons to live.”

“What about the psychotic breakdowns?” Akira calmly asks, using the knife to sweep the unused bits of vegetables in the trash.

Face pinched, Akechi answers, “Those are linked too, I suspect.”

Akira asks, “Where’d you go when you went in there? Mementos?”

“I went there, yes, but I wanted to verify a few things that required me to visit a few other places.”

A little smug, Morgana says, “And by other places, you mean palaces.”

Akechi sighs. “I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine to open the nav app to try and find names for it to lock onto.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” Akira says, letting the knife clatter in the sink. They watch each other for a moment before Akechi breaks away. “Whose palaces did you go to? And why?”

“I went to my coworker’s, Niijima Sae-san’s palace, a politician’s, as well as a criminal’s that was recently taken into custody. And Akira, I’m sorry, but after what I saw, I was concerned so I had to check.”

The pork cooking on the stovetop is in desperate need of being flipped over, but Akira’s muscles are tight under his skin, pulling in ways he can’t control. He lets it burn.

“Had to check what?” he asks.

“Your palace.”