It’s a hot summer afternoon when a customer Akira doesn’t recognize leans over the counter at Untouchable and says, “You come here often, kid?”
Akira looks up from his dusting, blinking. He looks down at himself behind the counter, and at the man grinning at him.
“I work here,” he says guardedly.
The man raises his hands, still grinning. “Easy, easy. I won’t bite. Unless you’re into that,” he says, digging into an inside pocket, and Akira blinks again; he might have expected this in Shinjuku, but not in the middle of Shibuya, even in an out-of-the-way shop down a back alley. He hears the door to the storeroom swing open, but he doesn’t take his eyes off of the man in front of him.
“Face like yours could get plenty of work, if you’re looking for it. No more slumming it in dirty hole-in-the-wall places like this one.” The man pushes a business card across the counter, and Akira is searching for the words to politely tell him to go to hell when Iwai’s hand slams down on the card.
“Thought I told you not to come back here, Joshima-san,” Iwai says flatly, but the man - Joshima - just chuckles.
“Just following up on a promising lead,” he says, nodding at Akira. “Can you blame me?”
“Get,” Iwai growls. “Out.”
“All right, all right, I’m going,” Joshima says, backing away from the counter. “Think about it, kid,” he says over his shoulder as he pulls the door open and Iwai makes a frustrated noise in his throat.
“Sorry about that,” Iwai says, crumbling up the business card and tossing it in the garbage. “Guy’s a real asshole. Followed Kaoru in here once with the same offer. He’s lucky I’m living a different kind of life now, or else he wouldn’t be following anyone anywhere.”
Iwai peers at him. “You okay, kid? Would think it would take more than some jerk to rattle you.”
Akira draws in a breath. “I’m fine. Thank you,” he says.
Iwai doesn’t look convinced, but he lets it go. “Don’t mention it. Just, you know. Keep your head down. You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah,” Akira says as Iwai turns away. “Sure.”
Keep your head down.
It had been the second thing he’d learned, in the aftermath. The best response - the safest response - was a non-response: quiet and non-threatening, the antithesis of everything they said he was. He had learned to ghost through conversations, a silent presence as his future was discussed and decided. As if he wasn’t even there; as if he didn’t even matter.
That was first thing he’d learned, of course: how little he meant - to the justice system, to the people he’d called friends. To his parents.
In the end, it was easier to not say anything at all.
Don’t stand out.
When his Shujin uniform had arrived, Akira had made himself try it on immediately. He had studied the dress code carefully, and made sure that every piece was in place before he looked in the mirror.
It hadn’t been enough. He still looked like himself - a little foreign in the new uniform, but still too close to the person he was supposed to be leaving behind. Akira had turned, checking the fit of the blazer - close, but not too form-fitting - and his eyes had fallen on a pair of cheap sunglasses left behind in the flurry of packing for Tokyo. One box , his mother had said, and that didn’t leave a lot of room for non-essentials.
Akira had balanced the lightweight frames in his hands, and then put his thumbs on the lenses. It hadn’t taken much pressure to pop them out, and when Akira slid the frames onto his face and faced the mirror, a near-stranger had looked back at him.
That young man could have been from anywhere, in his neatly pressed school uniform and unassuming glasses. Harmless, affable. Definitely not some kind of juvenile delinquent.
Akira had ordered a pair of fashion glasses that night, rush delivery.
Don’t make trouble.
His parents hadn’t even seen him off at the station. At the time, it had been a relief; the ride there had been excruciatingly silent, his father staring straight ahead, hands fixed on the steering wheel. His mother had stayed at home. Akira had stared out the window and tried to tell himself it didn’t matter.
As the car had come to a stop in front of the station, Akira’s father had cleared his throat.
“Don’t make trouble.” Akira had waited a moment, dutifully, but nothing more had been forthcoming, just his father’s knuckles whitening on the wheel. Akira remembers that part clearly.
There had been a thousand things Akira had wanted to say to that, but suddenly none of them seemed worth voicing; and anyway, none of them were part of his new directives.
Keep your head down. Don’t stand out. Don’t make trouble.
It was easier somehow, in Tokyo, to figure out what the adults around him wanted from him. Maybe because he was just one in a crowd; maybe because they didn’t have time to waste on disapproval. A back-alley doctor, a washed up politician, a down-on-her-luck journalist; they were all using him, but at least they were up-front about it. The trick was to leverage that into something he could use in return.
Iwai is - Iwai should have been no different.
Iwai should have been more straightforward than most, in fact. Access to Iwai’s workshop in exchange for help around the store - Akira’s done more for less, and the fact that Iwai seems to enjoy it when Akira talks back doesn’t hurt, either. It’s a good deal all around, and the first time Akira cuts down a shadow with one of Iwai’s custom models, he grins wide underneath the mask.
The business with Tsuda is - well, it’s fairly straightforward, even if it’s the shadiest thing Akira’s done outside of the Metaverse. Iwai needs him, first as a fly on the wall, then as insurance, and when things get a little too real, Akira doesn’t mind hopping into Mementos to straighten Tsuda out. Iwai’s earned it.
But it’s the other stuff that Akira can’t quite get a handle on: spending time with Kaoru; being treated at the diner and for sushi; being taken care of , in a way that Akira has learned not to expect. Iwai acts like he gives a shit about what happens to Akira, beyond ensuring that the part-time help comes back, and that - that isn’t part of the bargain.
He’d stepped in between Akira and that Joshima. He hadn’t had to do that. Iwai acts like Akira means something to him and that’s an itch that Akira just can’t leave alone.
It doesn’t make any sense. There must be something else, something he’s missing.
The fall air is brisk against his back when Akira rounds the corner in a back alley in Shibuya and sees a young man fiddling with the chain on a bike that is very clearly not his.
Akira’s footsteps slow. He could call the police, although they probably won’t get here in time to do anything, and anyway Iwai’s not the only one who prefers to avoid a police presence. He could turn around and head back to Central Street, or push on into Untouchable, and pretend he never saw anything. Akira glances through the window as he comes abreast of the shop; Iwai is sitting in his customary spot, boots up on the counter, reading the paper.
He’s never going to get a better opportunity than this. Akira continues past the door to Untouchable and comes to a stop in full view of the shop window.
“What do you think you’re doing?” He says loudly and clearly, and doesn’t look to his left.
Morgana shifts in his bag. “What are you doing,” he hisses, but Akira ignores him.
The guy - and he’s barely older than Akira, really - starts and looks up. His features set in a scowl and he pushes up, closing the distance between them and leaning close, getting right in Akira’s face.
“This ain’t your business, man,” he says with what’s probably an attempt at menace, but Akira has seen what a real threat looks like up close, and this guy isn’t it. The guy looks Akira up and down and sneers. “Just keep walking, kid. This don’t concern you.”
The store door jingles behind him and Akira permits himself the smallest smile. “I think it does.”
“All right, break it up,” Iwai says, coming up behind Akira. “Akira, get in the store. You,” he says, directing it at the other guy. “Get out of here before I call the cops.”
“You got lucky,” the guy says to Akira. He reaches out like he’s going to shove Akira back -
- but the movement is arrested when Iwai’s hand clamps down on his wrist before he can make contact.
“I said,” Iwai says very evenly, and Akira can see the shadow of the clan member Iwai used to be. “To get out of here. Or else you’ll be dealing with a broken wrist on top of the cops.”
Iwai’s fingers tighten and the guy’s face blanches. “Fine, fine!” he sputters. “Just let go, man. I’m not looking for trouble.”
“Good,” Iwai says, dropping his wrist. “Better leave before it finds you.”
The guy doesn’t waste any more time; as soon as Iwai lets go he steps back, shaking out his wrist. He detours carefully around Akira, and then as soon as he’s clear breaks into a sprint toward the alley mouth. Akira can hear his footsteps picking up speed even as they fade into the background noise of the city.
Iwai sighs irritably and turns to Akira. “You want to tell me what the hell you were doing?”
Akira feels something inside him tear open. “What were you doing?” He retorts. “You can’t just -” he manages to clamp his teeth shut on the rest, but Iwai’s already raising his eyebrows.
“Can’t what? Look out for you? What’s gotten into you kid, this ain’t like you,” he says, as if he knows anything about what Akira’s like , as if he knows anything at all .
“What do you want from me?” Akira grinds out. “You don’t - why do you care so much? There must be something else that you want, so just tell me .”
Iwai swears under his breath, rubbing a hand over his face. “Okay, let’s - let’s just go inside, we can talk about this there -” He reaches out and puts a hand on Akira’s shoulder. It’s large and warm, and something in Akira’s stomach flips as Iwai pulls, ready to guide him inside.
Akira looks down at Iwai’s hand, and back up at Iwai’s face, and something inside him says oh.
Akira grabs Iwai’s coat and jerks him in close, pressing his mouth against Iwai’s. It’s sloppy and uncoordinated, and Akira gives it a few seconds before pushing Iwai away again.
“ Jesus , kid.” Iwai stumbles back, putting a hand out against the wall to steady himself.
“Is that it?” Akira’s breath is coming short in his lungs, and he takes a deliberate, deep breath. “Is that what you want?”
Nothing else makes sense. And if it is - he just needs Iwai to tell him, to get all the parts of their bargain out on the table so he knows. So he can go into this with his eyes open.
“ Jesus ,” Iwai says again, but he doesn’t deny it, and something inside Akira clicks together with grim satisfaction. He was right. There was an ulterior motive here, and next Iwai is going to straighten and tell him to go inside the shop, and then -
Iwai does pull himself upright, but the next words out of his mouth are. “Akira. Go home.”
Akira blinks. “What -”
“You heard me,” Iwai says. “I don’t know what’s gotten under your skin, but you need to cool off.”
“I -” Akira doesn’t have a response for this. This wasn’t anything he’d anticipated. “Are you cutting me off ?”
“Just for today,” Iwai says matter-of-factly. “If you feel better about yourself tomorrow, we’ll see.”
Morgana shifts inside Akira’s shoulder bag. Akira had almost forgotten he was there.
“Akira,” Morgana says quietly. “Let’s go home.”
Akira shifts the bag, pulling it up further on his shoulder. He breathes in and out through his nose.
“Fine,” he says tightly. “I - fine.”
He turns on his heel and stalks back up the alleyway, pretending he can’t feel Iwai’s eyes on his back the whole way.
Things are...busy, after that.
November is what it is. Akira doesn’t have time for much outside of drawing the net closed around Akechi, and in a way he’s vaguely grateful; he visits Untouchable once for armor and weapon upgrades, and the transaction is businesslike. Impersonal. Iwai takes his money and shows him the merchandise and never gives any hint that he’s been thinking about the fact that Akira had kissed him.
December is...well. He’s supposed to be dead. He’s got a bit of time. He could find himself in Shibuya, try to patch things up.
He’s honestly not sure what there is to patch up, the more he thinks about it. He’d offered. Iwai had turned him down. There doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that.
He checks his texts regularly - he gets a surprising amount of them, for a dead man - but Iwai doesn’t text or call. Akira tells himself it’s fine. That it’s better this way. They’re making their way through Shido’s palace; he can’t afford the luxury of being distracted, of spending energy where it’s clearly not wanted.
(Except Iwai hadn’t denied it. He’d sent Akira home but he hadn’t denied it, and Akira thinks about that sometimes, late at night when he can’t sleep; about the difference between denial and omission.)
Then the year is ending, and so is the world, and Akira doesn’t have time to think about it anymore.
And then it’s over, and they’re on the other side, and Akira’s never felt this exhilarated, this exhausted in his life and he has one more choice to make. But if it’s for his friends - his family - there’s really no choice, is there?
Keep your head down. Don’t stand out. Don’t make trouble.
He’s broken every single one of those directives into tiny pieces and set them on fire over the last nine months, but they might serve him well one last time.
The bell jingles over his head as Akira pushes the door to Untouchable open, bringing a gust of cold February air in with him. For a moment he pauses, overcome with vertigo - the shop looks almost the same, still as dimly lit and empty of customers as ever, but there are small changes that throw him off: the goggles display is now over on the south wall, and the pellet boxes have been rearranged by caliber instead of manufacturer. Akira had recommended that, once. It seems like a lifetime ago.
“Either come in or out,” Iwai says from behind the counter, not looking up from his paper. “But make up your mind.”
Akira steps inside and lets the door jingle shut behind him.
“You come here often?” he says lightly, and he doesn’t know why that of all things is what comes to mind - except that it had been a time when Iwai had stepped between himself and (an admittedly minor) danger.
The first time, perhaps, but not the last.
Iwai snorts. “What kind of -” Whatever he’d been about to say dies as he finally looks up. He sits frozen for a moment, and then his boots thunk to the floor and he’s rounding the counter and taking Akira by the shoulders, squeezing as if to check that he’s real. Akira can’t help the way his mouth pulls up, or the way he leans into it; after months in solitary, being touched is still a luxury he revels in.
“Akira,” Iwai breathes, and then he’s pulling Akira into a hug and Akira shivers, pressing his face into Iwai’s coat.
“Shit, kid,” Iwai says as he pushes Akira back again, hands still on his shoulders as if he’s reluctant to let go. He peers into Akira’s face. “You scared the Christ outta me, getting hauled off like that. Are you - how are you -”
“I’m fine,” Akira says, cutting him off. It’s not entirely true, but Iwai doesn’t need to hear that, not now at least; and anyway, that’s not what he came here to say. “I’m fine,” he repeats. “Thanks to you.”
Iwai’s expression doesn’t change at all, and Akira knows that he knows exactly what Akira’s talking about.
“The guards talked, sometimes,” he says. “I don’t think they knew I could hear. They said I was under protection , and I don’t think they were talking about Sae Niijima.”
Iwai’s mouth pulls up crookedly, but he doesn’t deny it. “I mean. What good are clan connections if you don’t use ‘em, right?”
“You didn’t have to,” Akira says. “That wasn’t part of our bargain.”
Iwai huffs, and his hands drop from Akira’s shoulders. “Still hung up on that, huh?” he says, turning away, and Akira reaches out to tug at his coat, pulling him back.
“You didn’t have to,” he repeats. “But you did.” He trails his hand down Iwai’s arm until he can catch Iwai’s fingers with his. “Thank you.” He lifts Iwai’s hand to his mouth, pressing his lips to Iwai’s palm and rolling his eyes up so he can see Iwai’s face.
Iwai’s breath hitches, but he doesn’t make Akira stop, and Akira grins against his palm.
“Kid,” Iwai says. “Akira,” he corrects himself, sliding his hand up so it cups Akira’s cheek. Akira hums and leans into it, eyelids sinking closed. “You don’t owe me shit, you know that?”
Akira’s eyes open again. “I know that,” he says. “I know that now. I was - I was so angry , before. At everyone. I didn’t -”
Iwai’s thumb slides over his lips, stopping the words. “Don’t you dare fuckin’ apologize to me for what this world has done to you,” he says fiercely. He shakes his head. “I know I probably don’t know the half of it, but - don’t apologize to me, okay?”
“Okay,” Akira says. He reaches out and pulls the lollipop from Iwai’s mouth, and then leans in slowly.
Iwai doesn’t stop him.
His lips are warm and firm against Akira’s, but entirely still, and for a moment Akira thinks he’s somehow misjudged this again -
Then Iwai’s hand slides around to the back of his neck and he tilts Akira’s head just enough that good becomes incredible . The barest hint of stubble scrapes against Akira’s skin and he can’t help the noise he makes, low and wanting.
Iwai chuckles, pulling back. His thumb rubs along Akira’s hairline and Akira shivers.
“You good?” Iwai says, and Akira is better than good, Akira is amazing , he feels like gravity is something that happens to other people entirely.
“I was better before you stopped,” he says, tugging on Iwai’s jacket until he leans back in.
“Pushy,” Iwai says, but he’s grinning as his lips meet Akira’s again.
It might not be so bad, Akira thinks as Iwai’s arm slides around his waist, to have someone to stand between him and the world. He’s done keeping his head down. And maybe there’s room for more between him and Iwai than just a bargain; maybe there’s room for kissing Iwai because he wants to, for no other reason than that he can.
Iwai reaches up behind him and flips the Open sign to Closed , and Akira grins into his mouth.
It’s a brand new world. There’s room for all kinds of possibility.