Actions

Work Header

Guts Zero, Charm Five

Chapter Text

"Ugh," Akira threw his head back at the realisation that today was the day, the day that he had been dreading for the past week, because for once in a while, he had free time that he wasn't spending hanging around Yoshida, Ohya, Takemi or his school friends. "You do it."

"I'm a cat!" Silence. "I mean, I'm not a cat, but I'm a cat! No one's going to understand me."

The teen scowled, now feeling even more light-headed than before because he would prefer to be put in a near-death experience in the metaverse over standing face-to-face with the single most terrifying adult man that had ever walked the earth, Iwai. "It's a shame that our weapons and medicine don't pay for themselves. At this point, I'm considering selling my body to pay for them."

"You should ask for a discount, then." Morgana quipped back.

"Easier said than done. You know how terrifying Iwai-san is. I can barely slide our loot to the register when he stares at me with those sharp eyes." Akira sighed, cursing himself for not being a brave enough leader in the face of a supposed Yakuza member. In the metaverse, it was a whole another story since he didn't have to think too much about the impression he made, but in real life, he would sooner turn tail and run the other way before daring himself even to ask what was inside the paper bag that Iwai gave him six months ago. Speaking of the paper bag, he also never found out what was inside. It had been sitting under his bed, collecting dust.

"You're such a Ryuji. Just admit that you have a big, fat crush on that scary shop owner."

"Morgana, what!?" Akira gasped at his partner's suggestion although he didn't completely deny the accusation. From what little time he spent looking at Iwai's face, yes, he was an attractive older man, but it didn't help that the solid five minutes he spent every visit, Akira merely looked at Iwai's boots instead, that at this point he was confident that had memorised every single crease and sign of defect on the soles.

"And leave that sweet boy out of this. I wish I could just talk my way to getting Iwai-san to sweeten the deal, but I freeze up whenever I'm an arm's length away from him." Akira wanted to facepalm himself at the memory of him, clad in school uniform, shakily setting down a few model guns for purchase on the counter right next to Iwai's heavy-duty boots. It took everything in his power to not yelp when the man scowled at him from behind his magazine to process his order. Everyone around him always complimented Akira's charm and looks (courtesy of hanging out with Ohya and Yoshida one too many times. Oh, not to mention all those nights he spent soaking in the hot spring to ensure that his skin was healthy and tight), but what good were they when he could hardly stop himself from wetting his pants? Well, he was getting a little better at handling Iwai's attitude, but he still didn't think that he was nearly brave enough to start throwing out honeyed words to soften the shop owner up.

"Well, go on then! Get some money for your hard work." Said Morgana as Akira grabbed his bag and put it on his shoulder.

"Would you look at that!" Akira all but beamed when he noticed that the shop's sign was flipped to closed and that all light inside was turned off. "What a shame."

"You're grinning..." Morgana protested. "Fine, let's just sort out Mishima's newest request. You've finished studying, right?"

"Hey, what do you think I do during classes? I wasn't about to waste Kawakami's offer to slack off in any class, you know?" Akira said as he whipped his phone out and pressed on the navigation app that transported them into the metaverse.

"Such rebel you are, studying maths while in English class," Mona said, amused, his ears twitching. "Doesn't seem like it's going to be a hard mission. We should be able to grab some more medicine after this if we don't get too absorbed with grabbing junk."

Joker laughed in response before he fixed his eyes towards the railroad where he noticed a small movement in the corner of his eyes. He quickly turned his head, only to see silence and emptiness. That couldn't be his imagination... but whatever it was, it disappeared, so Joker shrugged. "Path of Aiyatsbus, right? That shouldn't be much of a problem, then."

.

Wrong. Joker sighed as he clutched his sides. He was fresh out of items and this blasted shadow wasn't letting up despite its grave injuries. Just a few more blows should do the trick, but he was running out of steam and the same could be said about Mona. The damn thing used too many underhanded tactics that he didn't account for. If his calculation was right, about three more melee blows should do the trick, but the question was: would he be able to stand two to three more blows when they only had the energy for one diarama left in them?

"It seems that the great Phantom Thieves are mere children not worth stepping on, after all!" The shadow of a man who had been threatening students and minors in shibuya echoed, mocked, its voice edged with an utter lack of respect that made Joker's blood boil. What an inexcusable blunder he made, how uncharacteristic it was of him to let his cockiness got the better of him.

"Should we run?" Mona muttered quietly, voice slightly cracked from fatigue as he stood in front of their foe who was not without injuries.

Joker pursed his lips in frustration. If he turned back now, everything would be for naught, but if he didn't, that was the same as suicide. Swallowing his pride, he glanced at Mona and nodded yes, escaping was the better option for now. Regroup and try again next time. They had just enough money to make another medicine order. Now they only had to find an opening. The shadow was getting cocky, getting careless, Joker thought as he braced himself for another attack while Mona sought for the opportunity to flee. 

It never came. Joker felt something whipping past him, almost scratching his cheek but never made contact. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the shadow had melted back into a pile of black goo that revealed a very apologetic man. He exchanged a puzzled look with Mona, but didn't shy away from taking the treasure glimmering in front of them. Mission accomplished, yet the two warily surveyed their surroundings. They were only met with silence even as they emerged out of the distortion and back in the middle of the railroads. What was that? 

"I think," Mona, now a bus muttered. "Someone else is here with us. I'm picking up a slight movement that isn't a shadow."

Joker nodded as he placed his gloved fingers on the steering wheel. "I suspected that too when we entered this floor, but I thought it was just my imagination." The curly-haired teen narrowed his eyes behind his mask. There didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary even when he fell back into his third eye, but he could still feel like another persona user was there with them, somewhere. However, Joker could hardly sense it. And now, not at all. All footprints seemed to have disappeared.

The two drove in silence towards the closest platform, being extra careful as to not engage in any meaningless battle while keeping their eyes peeled for a potential threat. The supposed persona user had saved them, but they still didn't have a grasp of their identity. Joker kept his fingers at the ready on his phone. He sensed a presence on the platform which most likely belonged to whomever it was in the metaverse with them. As soon as they ascended to the fourth floor and had a peek at the unexpected guest, they were to leave, he decided. No more heroics. Once was enough to almost get them killed.

"Joker, wait!" Mona whispered when they were halfway up the elevator, his ears twitching. 

Joker held his breath and clenched his fists. There was someone in the rest area and he was sure that they had been noticed, expected even. Without so much as a word, he took another step, ignoring Mona's complaints, then another until he reached the fourth floor where he could see a figure sitting down inside the glass box with a sniper rifle on his side. Not a combat stance, so Joker decided that this man wasn't hostile - yet. So much for no more heroics, Joker mused. Someone who saved them surely wouldn't have any ill intent, right? Besides, he had never seen another persona user in the mementos or palace before, so this was something that he badly needed to investigate, and he was certain that despite Mona's warnings, he, too, thought the same. 

"The fabled Phantom Thieves, eh?" The man started when Joker stopped just outside the glass box, one of his hands behind his back, ready to exit the metaverse if the situation called for it. "Never thought that I'd see you lots here." With a gravelly, smoky voice that was slightly distorted with static, the stranger stood up with his rifle in his hands. He had a dark red scarf around his neck that covered the lower part of his face while the upper half was clad in helmet visor in the shape of a four-horned bull adorned with magnifying lenses and a light blue glow. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt that was covered with what Joker assumed was a bulletproof vest. His pants had camo-pattern that led to his familiar-looking high leather boots. He would know because that was all he ever looked at when he tried to sell his mementos and palace loot at Untouchable because one glance at the shop owner's eyes sent him to a state of panic. 

But this couldn't possibly be Iwai. Right? What were the chances of that? 

"Your assistance was much appreciated," Joker answered, his fingers twitching around his phone at the presence of the gun.

The man seemed to notice the tense body language Joker employed. And as if to confirm Joker's belief that he didn't wish any harm, a blue flame enveloped the weapon and it disappeared. It looked like the gun was a persona. Could the visor be a part of it as well? How curious.

"Uh-huh," He shrugged before extending his hand, palm facing the ceiling and fingers moving in a front and back motion, completely ignoring Mona who was standing next to Joker as if he saw a talking bipedal cat at a daily basis. Well, he couldn't be faulted. This was the metaverse that housed many unexplainable creatures. "Give it to me."

"Whatever do you mean?" Joker hummed softly as he shifted his weight in an attempt to play dumb despite knowing exactly what this persona user wanted. The keys that he procured from his target, the very same one inside his pocket which was a vital bargaining chip that he wouldn't give up easily.

"Don't play dumb with me, thief," He grunted. Despite the visor, Joker could envision a glare that didn't faze him, mostly because he couldn't see the man's eyes. "Give me the keys."

"And if I say no?" He asked despite Mona's cries for them to leave right now. Like hell they were leaving without learning this man's motives, be it good or not.

"Then I'll put a bullet through your skull." He scowled, visor glowing brighter blue and Joker could've sworn he saw the three lenses blinking. Upon closer inspection, he noticed two more sides to the visor that made it resemble a three-headed bull.

"You will, will you?" The teen tilted his head, a smirk still plastered on his lips. The metaverse was his playground, and he refused to be outdone in his own field, injuries or not. Besides, he could easily escape if everything turned awry, so that was not an issue. Well, not like the man wished to harm him regardless. If he did, then he wouldn't have gotten rid of his weapon.

"I didn't know the high 'n mighty phantom thief was such a brat. Now, I helped you, so it's only fair if you return the favour," He said impatiently. "Don't force my hands, thief, or I swear, I'll take you out."

"Ah, thought you'd never ask. What about dinner, then?" Joker muttered while twirling the set of keys in his fingers by the ring then threw it up in the air only to catch it as if dangling bait in front of a predator.

"You fuckin' brat," Came the half-amused, half-frustrated response. "Come on, give it to me. You've no need for 'em anyway."

"I'd have to say that you're not sweetening the pot enough," Joker shrugged as he walked closer to the man once he decided that he was not a threat. "What about some sushi?"

"Joker, we have to go!" Mona cried out only to suddenly quiet down when the stranger glared at him. Well, whatever expression he had behind the visor anyway.

"Or maybe if you give me your name and your reason for being here, I'll consider it..." Joker sighed dramatically with his fingers still hovering over the screen of his phone. In real life, he wouldn't dare play with fire like this lest he got burned, but this wasn't real life, and he had the upper hand as well as a secure, unobstructed escape route.

"Brat, I saved your damn life. You should be grateful."

Joker twitched at the second sentence that came out of the man's lips. His head jerked towards the man's only to meet with the unreadable, a rather eerie visor that seemed to stare into his soul. He really wasn't a fan of this persona, he decided. If only he could see more of this man's face, then he would be able to tell if this was Iwai or not, and if he was going to die of shame when he walked into Untouchable next because god fucking damn if he just tried to hit on the mortifying shop owner to get his way. Alas, his whole face was obscured by his get-up, with the only part of silver hair he could see was the portion that Iwai always covered with his hat. And then there was his voice. It was muffled, almost like he was speaking through a microphone.

At this point, Mona was silent but still stood firm behind Joker in case things went south. Of course, it went beyond saying that he wanted to find out more about the strange man who seemingly appeared out of thin air. 

"Sure," Joker finally replied with a light shrug. No need to overthink it. What were the chances that this would be Iwai, anyway? Very thin. "But that begs the question of why. Why did you save me, a complete stranger? What's in it for you?"

"What's in it for me is to not watch the Phantom Thieves die and my target slippin' out of my fingers," The man reached out all of a sudden to seize Joker's hand, but the smaller male nimbly sidestepped the approach and avoided the attempt. "You're not plannin' on makin' this easy, are you?"

"Where would be the fun in that?" Joker chuckled before backing up a few steps then proceeded to play with the keys in his hand. "Name and reason."

"Like hell I'm revealin' my identity. That's pure recklessness and you should know it too, brat."

"Mm, I see that you're not an amateur then," Said the teen with a shrug. "Let's see," He proposed, catching the keys and pocketing it. "What about we make a deal? You scratch my back, I scratch yours?"

"I don't need no scratchin'," The taller man scoffed. "I just need my damn keys, I swear to god, brat." This time, he materialised his sniper rifle that appeared from a wild blue flame. Upon closer inspection, he could see that the rope that wrapped around the barrel and ran all the way back to the recoil pad looked like a tail. Some sort of an ox persona, it seemed.

"Joker," Mona muttered as he jumped next to the leader. "Don't do anything stupid."

With a chuckle, Joker whispered in a voice to not be heard, "Come on, I have an exam tomorrow. Kawakami's going to kill me if I don't show up." Then, he cast his eyes back at the stranger.

"I ain't gonna repeat myself, brat," He said sharply as he lifted but not quite pointed his weapon at the unarmed Joker. "The keys. Now."

"Is that smart?" The phantom thief cocked his head with a confident, smug smirk despite the predicament that he was in, all while Mona was sweating bullets.

There was a momentary silence before the man sighed and for the gun to disintegrate once more. Looked like he understood that Joker could and would leave if he was pressed to, never to return. "All right, let's hear this deal of yours, then." He sighed, voice tinted with frustration, knowing that he had no other choice but hear it out unless he wanted to seriously injure or kill the teen.

"I knew we'd be able to see eye to eye," Joker smiled and Mona breathed his relief. He tossed the key at his partner who immediately caught it, then he stepped forward, flow swift and light. In one motion, Joker pressed his body against the man and gloved fingers moved to tug on the scarf around his neck. It was rewarded with a surprised gasp and a tumble back into the glass surface of the shelter, a movement that Joker gladly followed.

No dice, Joker sighed in defeat. Even the lower half of the man's face was covered with the extension of the visor, leaving his nose as the only visible skin. It didn't take long for him, however, to regained his bearing before he could be forcibly removed from the personal bubble he just invaded.

"Tomorrow, same time," He started as he let go of the man's scarf and let his fingers glide down to his bulletproof vest. "Don't stand me up." Then, he pressed the metaverse app on his phone, sending both him and Mona straight back into the backstreet of Shibuya.

"Home sweet home." Akira sighed as he leaned against the wall next to Untouchable and inspected his arms to see that the cuts from his fight remained. He'd need to explain himself to Sojiro, he grimaced.

"I didn't expect us to run into another persona-user." After jumping into Akira' s bag on the floor and dropping the keys inside, Morgana muttered thoughtfully, adrenalin still sky high.

"He didn't seem like he had any ill intent," Slipping his phone into his pocket, Akira shrugged. "You never know, maybe we'll get a third man in our lonely entourage."

"I guess an extra pair of hands would be good in case we need to infiltrate another palace..." Morgana acknowledged, then the two exchanged a thoughtful nod.

Before anything else could be muttered, however, the door was pushed open and Akira jolted on the spot, especially when he saw Iwai emerging with his heavy boots thumping against the ground and fatigue apparent even without Akira having to look at the man.

Akira felt the heavy weight of Iwai's eyes even when he was busy admiring the piece of dried gum on the ground. He slowly shifted to the side as if to make way, but the man never did go past him. Instead, he stood there, arms crossed.

"What're you doin' here, kid? Shop's closed." Oh yeah, he was his usual grumpy self, and Akira considered bolting.

"Uh... g-guns." Instead, he murmured unintelligently as he rubbed the back of his neck followed with Morgana rolling his eyes.

"What?" Iwai frowned, then he sighed, making Akira sink further into the wall thinking that he had somehow managed to offend the shop owner. "Kid, can you do me a favour?"

"Y-yes!" Akira stiffened on spot, his shoulders almost squeezing his neck.

"Hey, relax, I ain't asking you to go kill anyone. Just go buy me some of these. Anything'll do," He said, waving a plastic stick leftover from a lollipop. "I'll make sure to give you a small discount from your next order. Oh, and a large coffee as well. Black."

"Uh, y-yeah, okay," The teen nodded, then scurried off.

Iwai went back into his shop and sat on his usual spot on the counter, then he picked up one of the many magazines in his drawer and opened it, not forgetting to put his feet on the desk as he waited for the squeamish teen to return with his requested items. What an interesting boy. For a gun enthusiast with great eyes for quality, he sure was spineless.

Generally speaking, Iwai hated those who couldn't stand for themselves, but he couldn't find it in him to truly dislike the high-schooler. Those eyes. Those weren't the eyes of someone who fright easy. Iwai might not look like it, but he watched every single move his customers took in his shop, and Akira was anything but a scaredy-cat. There was a certain gleam in his eyes that screamed that there was more to him than the blabbering mess he presented himself with.

"U-um," Came the nervous, fidgety tone from the door as it was pushed open slowly, revealing none other than Akira with a steaming coffee in a takeaway cup and a plastic bag full of sweets.

"Thanks, kid," Iwai said idly with his eyes still focused on the magazine even when the two items he requested were placed on the desk. It was only when Akira was about to leave with that noisy cat of his that he perked up and closed the reading material. Seemed like that was enough to make the teen jump in surprise. "Do you have something for me?"

"W-what?" Akira stammered and whispered, "Morgana!" when his pet jumped out of his bag and left the shop.

"You haven't been selling me any more of those strange treasures." Iwai cut, distracting the boy from complaining to his cat.

"O-oh, right. Yeah, I've got some..." Before he could set his bag down, however, his phone rang, making the teen yelp as he picked it up. "Yeah, I'm in Shibuya... no, not really. I'm just doing some shopping. I'll be back before dinner. Yeah, I'll be right there."

Akira spoke into the phone unaware of Iwai's observant eyes on him. With his arms crossed, Iwai thought back to his encounter with the Phantom Thieves just a few minutes prior. The boy and the strange catlike creature left just moments before he did, and now he had a high schooler with the exact same hairstyle who happened to own a black cat appearing in front of him to sell strange treasures that Iwai didn't know the origin of. This couldn't possibly be a coincidence. However, their attitudes were so vastly different that he couldn't bear to think that they were the same person.

"I... I'm sorry, I have to leave now. Goodbye!"

"Huh?" Iwai only had time to blink once before the boy bolted past the door, leaving him once more to his own devices. Well, at least that cemented Iwai's assumption that Akira wasn't Joker. That thief was far too smooth with his words. With a scoff, Iwai unwrapped a strawberry lollipop and popped it into his mouth.

Still, that damned phantom thief. He had guts, for a brat. Although he was on the verge of passing out, he still found the strength to blackmail Iwai into returning another day even without the knowledge of how he would react when pressured. Well, luckily for him, Iwai didn't wish death upon anyone, not even when the keys he badly needed was being held captive. For now, he had no choice but to play into Joker's hands and see what was in store. It wasn't like the Phantom Thieves were causing anyone harm, despite their label as a vigilante, so Iwai wasn't too concerned.

If Joker refused to part with the keys, however, Iwai feared that he would need to rough him up a little. Not outright kill him, but gave him enough damage to reconsider his decision to mess around with a stranger in the metaverse.

.

Akira threw himself into his uncomfortable mattress. The worst thing to do after his mementos adventures was to help Sojiro in the cafe. He didn't mind spending time with his caretaker but after a rough, near-death experience resulting in countless cuts and bruises? Not fun. Sojiro eyed him with scepticism even when Akira claimed that no, he didn't get in a fight with anyone. Well, no one real anyway.

And tomorrow was the first day of the exam. Not to mention, he had to go check on the strange persona user to uncover more about him. Ah, he just hoped that he'd be able to get enough sleep tonight because he'd need every ounce of energy he could get.

.

True to his word, when Iwai entered the metaverse, Joker was sitting in the rest area, his legs crossed and one arm around the backrest of the seat next to him. His cat was sitting on the opposite side. Joker was seated in such a relaxed stance it made Iwai chuckle. Yeah, looked like the kid spent too much time in this hellhole if he was able to lounge like that with the moans and groans of shadows echoing all around them.

Iwai said nothing, but he knew that Joker already noticed him the moment he stepped foot inside this universe. Instead of greeting him, he stood in front of him with his arms crossed in hope that that would be enough to frighten the teen. Expectedly enough, it achieved nothing. Joker twirled his hair as he looked up at Iwai with his infuriating smirk and playful red eyes like he already knew the outcome of their discussion.

What a fucking brat.

At the same time, Iwai had to give him some props for not flinching even for a second. It didn't look like unwarranted confidence either. The kid had seen a whole lot of battle in the metaverse, he could tell. His gaze fell towards his mask and combat attire that wrapped his lithe yet muscular figure nicely. He had seen a few men with that outfit on, especially teenagers running around Harajuku and whatnot, but he had to admit that Joker wore it best. Perhaps it was the catlike aura full of mystery he emitted. Not to mention his occupation as a phantom thief, a group revered by the society as vigilante heroes. 

"Good of you to not keep me waiting," Joker started, his voice rich. "Do you have a name I can call you with?"

"Anything." Iwai shrugged, honestly finding it a bit difficult to stay frustrated at him, especially when the pair of red eyes, bursting with conviction and honesty, were staring into his. 

"Interesting choice of nickname, but sure."

"Uurgh, Joker!" The cat groaned in distaste while Joker kept his smirk intact.

"Hah!." Iwai snorted, having not expected a joke in this situation. 

"You find that funny? Really?" It cried out, but Iwai chose to ignore the remark and instead focus on Joker whose eyes twinkled with mirth.

"So, what do you want from me, Joker?" Iwai asked before they got completely sidetracked.

"Ox," He said. "Can I call you that?" At the shrug, the thief nodded, pleased. "How long have you known about the metaverse?"

"A while, but unlike you two, I can't say that I've been here a lot. Yesterday was the first time I've stepped foot in here in a couple of years." Answered Iwai honestly. It wasn't like he had anything to hide, and besides, he somehow had a feeling that this Joker wasn't someone he could fool.

"Are you familiar with the concept of palaces?" He continued as he gestured for Iwai to sit, a sign that they would be there for a while. With a tired sigh, Iwai could only comply. The plan was to give this brat a beating or two, but now he was here, he felt unmotivated to be the aggressor. He was in the mood for listening now, but he still couldn't promise anything.

"Yeah, but I've got no reason to go there," He crossed his arms, then frowned behind his visor. "Wait, are you askin' me to come along with you?"

"Hm, you're a sharp one, aren't you?" Joker leaned forward, smirk refusing to budge, and Iwai felt like he was being pushed into a corner despite their distance from each other. "If you'll help me to complete this expedition, then I will give you your keys, no questions asked."

"That's a no, brat," Iwai stood up, took a sudden step forward and whispered his persona's name to make his sniper rifle materialise in his hands with a warm blue glow. As he pointed the barrel of his weapon against Joker's face, he hissed. "You will give me those keys right now." He might have played the role of a passive listener for a second, but he wasn't about to get patronised by some kid.

"Joker!" The cat yelled out but did nothing in fear of endangering his friend further. Wise.

The damned kid's smirk slowly faded away although he did nothing to move away from harm's way. His sharp red eyes pierced through Iwai with the strength of a thousand needles. It prickled his skin, making him twitch. Why wasn't he backing away? Instead, Joker pressed his forehead against the tip of the gun and slowly stood up, bringing the weapon along with him until his back straightened.

A few seconds of pregnant silence passed with neither party moving. It wasn't until Joker's smirk returned that his hand, covered with tight, red leather gloves reached towards the barrel and slid it down ever so slightly so it was pressed against his lips.

"What's wrong, Ox? Aren't you going to fire?"

This fucking brat. He knew that his life wasn't in danger. He saw through Iwai's scare tactics and wasn't afraid to mock him. As if to add a cherry on top, he darted his pink tongue across the metal and gave the barrel a kiss before he yanked and threw it across the floor before Iwai could react.

Toying with the keys in his fingers and slipping a digit into its keyring to spin it, Joker smiled. "Sleep on it, Ox. I'll see you in a week." He bowed lightly while keeping eye contact. Then, he vanished.

Iwai stood there for a whole minute even after Joker and his strange cat left. Tried as he might, he couldn't get the fresh memory of Joker handling his gun out of his head.

"Oh? What's wrong, Ox?" Asked his persona with a teasing emphasis on his new nickname, with a tinge of amusement that he hadn't heard in a long, long while. "Cat got your tongue? Or should I say, a trickster did?"

"Shut it, Hakutaku." Iwai glowered at the comment that he couldn't deny.

Fucking. Brat.

.

"That was crazy! What if you get yourself killed?" Morgana's screamed at Joker as soon as they were back in the real world, not afraid to slap the boy on the foot. 

"Relax, he wasn't going to kill me." Akira shrugged off Morgana's protests nonchalantly as he picked his bag up. 

"It'll be so helpful if you'd stand up to Iwai-san the way you did him. We'll be drowning in cash. " Said the cat with a humanlike sigh that never ceased to amuse Akira.

"Unlike Ox, Iwai-san would kill me if I do so much as a peep. Maybe. I don't know," Retorted Akira. "Don't look at me like that. There's something reassuring about the mask, okay? And if things go south, I can still defend myself in the metaverse. In real life? Psh. The loss of a limb is permanent."

"You know, maybe, just maybe you can discern if he's going to kill you or not if you look at his eyes for more than one second!" 

"He's totally going to kill me if I look at him for more than one second! Can't you feel his all-seeing eyes crawling all over you, mentally undressing you? It's like he knows your deepest, darkest secrets without you having to spell it out."

"You're a coward. What good is hanging out with that politician and journalist if you can't charm yourself out of hairy situations?" Quipped Morgana in frustration. 

"Morgana, you can't look me in the eyes and say that Iwai-san would take kindly to me flirting with him."

"Point taken." 

"Thank you."

"You still don't know until you try, though. Seriously, just wear a mask and slap on some trenchcoat, then walk up to him. Maybe you can not wet yourself then." Morgana added after a few seconds of silence of watching Akira putting some books into his schoolbag. 

"Walking up to Untouchable dresses up all shady? I'll get arrested before I can touch the knob of that shop. Even if I get in, Iwai-san would kick me out anyway."

"You're hopeless." 

"Just watch this hopeless guy scoring first on his exam." Akira replied as he reached out to pinch Morgana's cheeks firmly, making the cat squirm and scream.

Kurusu Akira. He was an interesting boy. In the shop, he was nothing but a puddle of fright, much like how most kids his age reacted in front of him, but Iwai knew firsthand that it wasn't the case when he wasn't within Akira's sight. It was curious since he assumed that such a horrified reaction would carry across to his social life outside Untouchable.

It was just a coincidence that he saw Akira the one times he went to Shinjuku, enough to draw the conclusion that damn, the kid loved the risk of being caught inside a bar hanging out with an older woman. To boot, he sauntered the street of the red-light district with his casual wear like he wasn't a day younger than eighteen, and that he had the full right of alcohol consumption. That wasn't the look of a demure, weak kid who always seemed like he was going to piss himself when checking something out from his shop. One of these days, he'd have to drop by to visit Lala and ask her about what kind of mischief the timid, almost nerdy boy was getting himself into.

Well, that was in the backburner. His interest might have been piqued, but he wasn't going to go out of his way to find the latest gossip on one of his most valued customers. He had a much more pressing issue at hand here with Joker, infuriating, frustrating, smirky Joker whom he would love to knock out. He was far too charismatic and recklessly gutsy for his own good, more than Iwai could handle. It had been a while since anyone outside of his 'family' dared to confront him like that, and while it made his blood boil with excitement, it was also irritating.

Even as he was busy stocking up the shelves with new shipments of models, he could feel his persona, Hakutaku bubbling within him, ready to tease him if given the opportunity. It was a mighty good thing that its influence was faint outside of metaverse, or he was concerned that he would never hear the end of it.

It wasn't supposed to be a complicated mission, darn it. All he needed were those damn keys to get access to a pain in the ass's stash of forged evidence against his business that if were to be leaked, would destroy him. He might dislike his job, but he wasn't about to let some asshole fuck him over. For now, there had been no words of lawsuit but Iwai wasn't about to tempt chance. It was either cooperate with Joker or kill him, and both options were equally distasteful.

Playing right into the trickster's hands. He didn't have a choice, did he? He should've been faster at pursuing his target, but after years of not fighting in the metaverse, it was difficult to adjust, especially with his persona screaming at him about being abandoned for so long. What a headache.

He glanced at the clock on the wall and sighed. It was almost time for the confrontation. Iwai had everything planned out, granted that it wasn't an elaborate one, but a plan nonetheless. He doubted that it would mean much against a natural schemer like Joker who probably already read him like an open book, but one was better than none, especially when he knew so little about the man aside from the obvious heroism that the public had branded him with.

With a tap of his phone, he was immediately transported to the entrance of the metaverse where he quickly made his way to the rest area of Path of Aiyatsbus where he saw Joker sitting in the exact same spot as last time, twirling his hair idly still with that godforsaken smirk. This time, the cat wasn't there, strangely enough.

"Evening, Ox," Said the phantom thief without turning his head. "I thought we would benefit from a little privacy."

"Not bringin' your pal? You're awfully cocky, aren't ya?" Iwai muttered, his arms crossed as he leaned against the glass.

"I prefer the term optimistic, or maybe self-assured," Joker's eyes twinkled with playfulness as he threw a smile Iwai's way. "So, what will it be, will you be scratching my back for the keys?"

Iwai inhaled. Straight to business, huh? He could respect that. "Hakutaku," He whispered, and a rifle soon materialsed in front of him, floating in the air before he took it in his hands. "On one condition," He said, pointing the weapon at the curly-haired male who blinked slowly as if uninterested, but Iwai knew that it wasn't the case. "Beat me at your own game."

As soon as those words left Iwai's lips, he knew that he fucked up.

"I thought you'd never ask." The words came out almost wistful, full of ecstasy.

Joker's smirk turned into a grin, a bloodthirsty grin of someone who knew what the outcome would be before it even happened. His eerie red eyes glimmered in the dark as bright red flame enveloped his body, and six different personas appeared behind him, growling and hissing at Iwai simultaneously like they were starving caged beasts ready to pounce on a slab of fresh meat. So, this was the leader of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

God, Iwai swallowed. Seemed like he picked a fight with the wrong opponent.

Chapter Text

 "What's with the cuts?" Ryuji scrunched his brows, fingers on his chin as he tried to come up with a wild reason behind the graze on his friend's palms. "Did you get in a fight or something?"

"Yeah, you don't want to lump him together with you." Ann snarked, making the blond gasp at her.

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Knowing Akira, it's probably something to do with his part-time jobs. Just sayin'." Ann shrugged as she twirled her pigtails, food wrapper rustling in her other hand.

"I guess you can say that..." The bespectacled male chuckled while paying close attention to his ravaged fingers, a product of yesterday's battle with Ox. He could've healed himself, and they would've disappeared, but he would like to cling to them a bit longer. He had a blast, after all. "It's a battle scar of sorts."

"Battle scar? Geez, what do you do at work anyway?" Ryuji frowned, sceptical but had no basis to call Akira out on his lie. "More importantly, did you hear!? The Phantom Thieves are back at it again!"

"Oh, tell me, tell me!" Ann's eyes widened in anticipation and she leaned forward as if that would help her to hear better. Ever since the even with Kamoshida, it seemed that the school had been paying close attention to any gossip surrounding the Phantom Thieves. If only they knew that the members were right in front of their eyes, Akira mused. Well, ignorance was bliss.

"Do you think Lady Ann will find me cool if she knows I'm a phantom thief?" Mona meowed from inside the bag, and it was only answered with a shrug and amused chuckle by Akira.

"Do you remember that guy who's been threatening Nishiyama? Apparently, he came up to him and one day, got on his knees and straight up apologised! How wild is that?" At Ann's eager nods and excited squeals, Ryuji sighed dreamily. "Man, they're so cool. What do you think, Akira?"

"The Phantom Thieves?" Akira cocked his eyebrows like he had no interest in them. "They're okay."

"You're way too calm about this, dude. They saved our asses from that asshole, remember?" Ryuji smacked his friend on the shoulder. "Anyway, I can't wait to see what they're up to now. They've been helping out with people's requests on the Phan-site. I wonder what the next big thing is gonna be! First, it was Kamoshida, and then it was Madarame. The next one's gotta be huge!"

"Ooh!" Ann giggled enthusiastically while Akira sat there, listening to her friends fawning over him. If only they knew... oh no, the inner sadist (also known as Joker) within him was breaking loose again. He couldn't help wanting to see the embarrassment on their faces. But no, he wouldn't want to involve them in his problem. He loved them too much.

"So..." Morgana stared at Akira after school finished, Ryuji and Ann out of earshot as they talked to Yusuke in Shibuya.

"No." The boy answered curtly. "No, Morgana. I'm not mentally prepared for this."

"You gotta sell the loot, Akira! We literally have two cardboard boxes filled to the brim with gold and gems! What will boss say if he finds out, huh!?"

"And what will Iwai-san say if we sell those to him at once, huh!?" Akira returned. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Let's just hop into the metaverse and steal some money from the shadows. That's so much easier than walking into Untouchable."

"You're such a scaredy-cat," Morgana grumbled. "You should take the Big Bang Burger challenge. I bet that's gonna help you become gutsier."

"I don't see a connection between burgers and courage, but whatever," Akira rolled his eyes. "Come on, I promised Ox that I'll meet him today."

"You like him," Morgana said, half-amused, half-frustrated. "You're gross."

"What? He's a great fighter. Don't you think he'll be a helpful ally?" The curly-haired male glowered as he admired the scars on his fingers. Yes, the duel yesterday evening was exciting indeed. Ox's battle sense surpassed that of his, and the way he moved was so precise, calm, controlled. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he wasn't shaken in the slightest during the battle, not even when Akira's personas jumped at him one after another.

Akira sighed, his chest warm when he remembered how each bullet Ox fired was aimed with the intent to incapacitate him instead of to kill. The memory of the stinging pain on his shoulder, arms, feet as those bullets whizzed past him. Ox didn't miss, Akira could tell. He was merely showing that he was capable of lethally wounding Joker if he was forced to, but he didn't. He could've seriously injured him and steal the keys from his body especially when Morgana wasn't there, but he didn't. A rough, impulsive, fiery man with a heart of gold. What was there not to like?

.

Iwai stared at his reflection in the mirror and sighed.

Joker's movements were catlike, so agile and efficient. He didn't seem to have any problem withstanding and avoiding the curse and physical skills thrown his way. And his personas, what was up with them? That was an unfair advantage since he was able to choose one that was resistant to his elements and swap them in and out of combat as necessary. Cheating at its finest.

There was no sign of bruising from the duel. The thief was kind enough to heal him after he wiped the floor with Iwai. Seriously, what was with that power? He had six different personas with him, all capable of doing different things. It was terrifying. It was a mighty good thing that he was using such overwhelming power to protect the weak, otherwise, he wasn't sure who could stop the phantom thief, because he certainly wouldn't be able to.

Well, not like he traversed into the metaverse much anyway. He got his power when he was sixteen, and that was the reason why he left the Yakuza, to begin with. Back then, the group was getting tangled into more and more illegal, questionable issues so volatile, Iwai feared that his life would be in danger if he stayed for a day longer. He heard that even now, they were still recovering from it, but he was glad that he wasn't a part of that life anymore.

But still, palaces, huh?

The leader who was responsible for that mess had one. Somehow, Iwai was thrown in there, and that was when he met Hakutaku who helped him fight his way out of the strange place filled with shadows. It was an experience, one that he didn't want to get involved in. He didn't have a choice now, did he? Joker wasn't asking nicely. He was blackmailing him into submission.

That damned brat. Not only was he charismatic, intelligent, gutsy and overwhelmingly powerful, he was also damn fine and Iwai was sold. He acted high and mighty like he owned the place, and god fucking damn he did. His movements were so mesmerising, so hypnotising and Iwai couldn't rip his eyes off him especially after such dominating display of power. Who gave a brat the right to be so infuriatingly perfect?

Iwai exhaled again as he ran his fingers through his hair. It was almost time to get this show on the road. Their target was Junya Kaneshiro, a man Iwai knew was doing shady, illegal activities even from his days back in the Yakuza. No one really liked him. He was nosy and up himself. Joker did mention that Kaneshiro got some colleagues involved in some nasty drug distribution business and that the cops were having problems finding evidence.

Why the hell would a bystander involve themselves in a messy underground politics like this was beyond him. Joker must be a special case of nuts.

"So... how does this work?" Iwai took out his phone and pressed on the metaverse navigation app. "Junya Kaneshiro, Shibuya, bank."

One moment he was inside his shop, the next, he was in a ruined building where Untouchable should be. He quickly emerged out of an empty doorframe into Shibuya of Kaneshiro's mind. He spent a few minutes walking through the eerie alternate reality when All of a sudden, he felt a presence behind him, quickly followed with a rustling noise and an exhale on his right ear. "Boo."

Iwai jumped in surprise, and when he turned back, Joker was there, hanging upside down from a piece of wood extruding from a building.

"Brat, don't fuckin' do that again. You'll give me a heart attack." Iwai scowled as his partner did an impressive backflip and landed quietly on the ground, his cat next to him.

"Sorry, couldn't resist," Joker chuckled with mirth as he beckoned at Iwai to follow him and look at the sky. The older male paused, his lips agape when he saw the floating building. "Doesn't look like there's a way in unless your persona can fly?"

"It's a goddamn bull," Iwai muttered while he felt his persona protesting.

"Hm," Joker pressed his fingers against his chin thoughtfully. "Customer access only, huh?"

"What are you thinking, Joker?" Mona frowned, his eyes still fixed on the floating bank.

"We have no other choice but offer ourselves... huh?" The teen blinked his surprise when the building approached them slowly and descended until it was low enough for a path to form in front of them, leading to the bank. "That's... convenient." He said, then glanced at Iwai with calculating eyes.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Iwai was the first to ascend the platform, followed with the two members of the Phantom Thieves.

"Ox, are you acquainted with Kaneshiro?" As he caught up to the man, Joker suddenly asked with a low, quiet voice.

"What's it to you?" Grumbled Iwai while he inspected his sniper rifle. Although Joker seemed like the all right type, Iwai was still hesitant about disclosing any information regarding his identities.

"I thought we'd be able to work better as a team if we know a bit more about each other, that's all," Joker shrugged. "Oh, and I forgot to introduce Mona. He's... he's my partner in crime, part-time navigator, a part-time informant and full-time car."

"A full time what?"

"Joker, you don't just go up to someone and tell them I'm a car." Mona hissed, although it didn't sound intimidating in the slightest.

"But you are a car." The teen laughed.

"Lay off me!" Mona scowled as he hit Joker on the leg.

"I ain't gonna ask," Iwai shook his head lightly. This damn brat. Sometimes he acted like he was twenty, other times, he sounded like he was fifteen. Regardless, it was clear that age didn't dictate his ability as a thief and a fighter. Moments later, Iwai blinked. "Wait, so that bus in the metaverse was... this guy?"

"Yup. Pretty sweet, right?"

Iwai snorted at that. "You're a weird one, so's your cat. C'mon, let's just get this over with." They advanced forward, ignoring Mona's protests that no, I'm not a cat, damn it!

Iwai got the jist of everything a few hours into their exploration. What made a palace, how to destroy it and why the calling card was necessary. It was a little difficult to wrap his head around the whole concept although he was familiar with metaverse. So, this wasn't something that one person could do by himself, and Joker was having problems running it with only Mona by his side. It made him wonder how exactly the two managed to complete Kamoshida and Madarame's palace, and he would've pondered over it more had he not seen them in action. They had a certain chemistry and fluidity to their moves that could only develop from fighting side-by-side for a long while.

He also had the pleasure of inspecting Joker's movement closely, how he switched persona quickly depending on the intel they gathered regarding the enemies. The cat wasn't a slouch either. His memory was impeccable, considering he could remember how each of the shadows reacted to an element. He had to admit that without Joker's ability to handle multiple personas, the palace run would be excruciatingly difficult - impossible even. Well, at least now he knew why Joker pressured him into doing this. Kaneshiro wasn't a kind man, after all.

Speaking of Kaneshiro... Iwai still didn't understand why this palace would react to his presence like that. Joker claimed that it only opened for people whom Kaneshiro considered customers, but Iwai hadn't made contact with him for years. Even during his time in Yakuza, they weren't particularly chummy either. What could this possibly mean?

"All that thinking is stressing me out, Ox," Joker said, snapping Iwai back to reality. He had his back facing the older man as he fixed something that sounded an awful lot like a gun. "I can smell it all the way from here."

"You're too observant for your own good, y'know that?" Iwai scoffed, then he brought his feet up on the table. "Show me your gun." He said lazily. He still had a lot of stamina to spare thanks to the bracelet that was given to him.

"It's nothing special," Joker answered as he snapped the magazine into the grip and racked the slide with a satisfying click. "Not worth fussing over, honestly. It's been a few weeks since I last purchased a new one. I'm kind of overdue."

"Yeah, if you'd stop crying in—mmph!!!" Mona flailed as Joker put the creature into a choke hold.

Iwai cocked one of his eyebrows at the reaction but ultimately brushed it off. "Well, let me know if you want a rec. I know a thing or two 'bout 'em."

Joker slipped the handgun into his coat and turned around to face Ox who had his feet on the table just like a certain someone he knew. He swore that if he put a magazine into Ox's hands, he would look exactly like Iwai, and that made Joker sweat a bit. "I appreciate the offer," He said at last before sitting in front of Iwai's feet and crossed his arms, body angled towards the man. "So, what's going on in that pretty head of yours?"

Iwai scoffed at the question. "You talk to everyone like that?"

"Only the special ones."

"Well, ain't I one lucky man."

"Gross," Mona muttered from behind them, and Joker threw an empty bottle of medicine at the cat without even sparing him a glance.

Iwai burst out laughing but decided to answer Joker. "I was just thinkin' 'bout what you said earlier. Y'know, about this palace and Kaneshiro's customers," He muttered and he could see Joker's eyes widening slightly in interest. Iwai sighed. "I used to deal with this guy. It was years ago, though, so I'm not sure why I'm still considered one."

"Oh?" Joker raised his eyebrows.

"Mm," Iwai mumbled. "A nasty guy. Slimy."

"Fat too."

"Fat too." Iwai nodded, then chuckled along with Joker

"Hey, Ox," The phantom thief started. His eyes were fixed on the visor wrapped around his partner's face. "Do you ever take that off? Aren't you stuffy under there?"

"Curious to look at my mug. Ain't you a nosy one?" Iwai's throat rumbled at the sudden question.

"What can I say? I can smell good looks from miles away."

"Really, now?" Iwai smirked although his lips were concealed by his jaw protector. "How old are you, brat?"

"Old enough to get in trouble." Joker shrugged, his red eyes taunting and it made Iwai burn.

"You know what, if you guys keep that up, I'm going to leave this safe room and charge head-first into those shadows," Mona interrupted from behind them, and he walked towards the door, arms crossed. "Let's get moving. I don't wanna hear any more!"

The two exchanged looks before laughing and pushing themselves off the table to get to their feet. Time to get a move on, indeed.

.

Akira all but threw himself on his bed that evening. His back was sore but not as bad as it would've been had Ox not been there to help them. That man was damn good, he hit extremely hard and precise, knocking shadows down left and right despite their resistance. Closing his eyes, Akira pressed a hand against his chest. What tarot was Ox? He was still missing a few, he could feel. He tried to recall everyone whom he had formed bonds with, all accessible thanks to Igor and that strange Velvet Room. Empress, hermit, tower, star... no, none of them sounded right. Hanged man, perhaps?

"Do I want to know what you're thinking about?" Morgana mumbled on Akira's chest, slightly creeped out by the content look on his friend's face.

"Come on, Morgana. You can't tell me that Ox wasn't impressive," Akira sighed wistfully. "Phantom Thieves can use someone like him."

"He' s strong, I guess, yeah..." The cat sighed as he hopped off Akira and sat next to him on the edge of the bed. "But we don't know anything about his motivation."

"I think he's a nice guy. I can tell from his attitude. You can learn a lot by fighting someone, after all. He might seem crass, but he's got a good heart."

"Are you sure that's not your infatuation speaking?" Morgana replied flatly, then sighed when Akira didn't answer him. "And he said he used to deal with Kaneshiro, remember? Wouldn't that mean he was, or still is, part of the mob?"

Akira tapped Morgana's head and proceeded to rub his fur aggressively. "But he looked sincerely keen on helping us take him down. You can't fake that."

"You're sure about this, aren't you?" Morgana grumbled and jumped off the bed, not wanting to have any more of those head rubs.

"I wouldn't be defending him if I wasn't. Besides, I'm curious to see what he's hiding behind his mask," Akira mumbled with a small smile. "His attitude and body language... they remind me of Iwai-san."

At that, Morgana widened his eyes. "Huh? Really?"

Akira nodded softly, then turned his head to look at his friend. "But I don't want to start throwing around baseless speculation, so just ignore that," There was a short silence that was only interrupted by the breeze coming in from the open windows, then Akira swallowed. "Though, I could bring you to Untouchable tomorrow and see if he can hear you talk..."

"And maybe sell your loot so we can get money and celebrate over sushi." Morgana jumped excitedly at the suggestion.

"Ugh," Akira rubbed his temple. "I hate to admit it but our equipment's getting trashed. We badly need a wardrobe update. I guess I'd have to grab some on the way home..."

"YES!" Morgana all but leapt on the bed and laughed in satisfaction. "Now, what are you waiting for? Go to sleep!"

"Yeah, mum." Rolling his eyes, Akira pulled his blanket and closed his eyes as he started to mentally prepare himself for tomorrow's shopping trip. He really wasn't looking forward to it.

The next day, Akira grabbed a handful of treasures from the stuffed cardboard boxes and tucked them neatly inside a pouch that he slipped into his bag. They clanked and rustled inside as he made his way towards the school, but Morgana seemed to be more than happy to help dampen the noise by stepping on them, making sure that they were tightly bunched up inside the pouch. The day went by in a blink of an eye, much to Akira's dismay.

"Hey, we're grabbing some convenyor belt sushi. Are you coming, Akira?" Ryuji asked as he rounded his arms around his friend's shoulder playfully. Next to him was Ann who was in a phonecall regarding her modelling job, and Yusuke who had a few plastic bags filled with art supplies.

"I'd love to, but..." He sighed. He really shouldn't delay his trip to Untouchable any more. "Morgana, stay still!" Akira groaned when his cat became worked up at the word 'sushi'.

"Hey, I heard that they serve some sushi for cats over there. Should we take Morgana with us?" It seemed that Ann had finished her phone conversation, and was now giving Morgana a quick rub on the head. He purred at that. Ann was the only person who could coax a positive reaction out of that action.

"Hey, hey, I'm going with Lady Ann!"

At that, Akira took a few steps back and turned around, then forcibly shoved his cat in his bag "Morgana, you're supposed to be my emotional support. Don't bail on me! Besides, how am I going to find out if Iwai-san is Ox without you?"

"Just ask him! I don't wanna see you getting all chummy with that shop owner anyway. Cut that out! Let me go! Lady Ann, save me!"

So that was how Akira ended up in front of Untouchable with a pouch filled to the brim with gems, alone and scared like a kid losing his mother in a grocery store. He pressed his bag tighter into his body as if that would give him a courage boost as he took a deep breath and pushed the door open, revealing an empty store manned by Iwai who was on his usual position behind the display cabinets, feet crossed over the counter and magazine in hands. The man gave Akira a glance and nodded at him.

"H-hello," Akira stammered, then scuttled inside only to turn his back and face the shelves as to avoid any unecessary contact.

"What're you lookin' for, kid?" Iwai asked, his voice so gruff and masculine that it made Akira that much more tense.

"I... uh, s-some blades and... uh, new protective shirt and s-scarves." As he muttered, his chin was tucked tightly into his chest, back facing Iwai who closed his magazine and placed it on the wooden counter. Akira's heart thundered in his chest when he heard the telltale rustle signifying Iwai's movement towards him. By the time the shopkeeper stood next to him, arms crossed, Akira was sweating bullets, fingers clenched tightly on the straps of his bag that his knuckles turned white. "...P-please."

"Hey," Iwai scowled and Akira instinctively raised his shoulders defensively, too afraid to move. "Why're you so nervous around me?"

"N-n-n-n-nervous? P-p-p-perish the th-thought." He cursed himself mentally. Without Morgana to tell him how silly he looked, he couldn't even stop his whole body from shaking. Iwai was close. Too close. Akira could smell his strawberry-flavoured lollipop mixed with a light scent of cologne that was, okay, it was kind of attractive.

"I've seen you in Shinjuku, kid. You're nothing like this when you walked into that bar," Iwai scoffed before moving to the stand in the corner of the shop and procured a replica knife and falchion. "Our newest shipments."

It was like all semblance of nerve dissipated into thin air the moment Akira's fingers made contact with the weapons. His eyes narrowed as his fingers ran along the length of the coated carbon steel blade and inspected it closely, admiring the fine details on the grip. He faced away from Iwai to slice the air in front of him to have a feel for it before doing any purchase. The knife was light and had a comfortable grip. It swung nicely with satisfying, melodic woosh that made Akira nod. Morgana would like the falchion too.

Iwai had his arms crossed, teeth nibbling on the lollipop handle as he observed Akira closely. It was like his switched was flicked and he was a whole different man.

"That's the look," He commented, snapping Akira back to reality. The teen fidgeted on the spot and turned around, his eyes cast to Iwai's boots, cheeks puffed and red and his lips pursed. Iwai had to mentally punch himself for thinking that this high-schooler looked absolutely ravishing with that expression. "So, you're buying or what?" He said after clearing his throat.

"Please!" Akira bowed deep with his hands stretched in front of him holding the two weapons Iwai showed him.

"Whoa, okay," The shopkeeper scratched his head. "Come to the register, then," The teen complied and he shuffled towards the mentioned area, all while keeping his head low like some sort of puppy being scolded by his owner. Iwai shook his head, unsure of how to speak to the teen without making him withdraw further into his shell. Normally, he would just scowl and go about his days, but at this point, he was far too curious about Akira to just let matters slip by. "Where's that cat of yours?" He asked.

"Morgana... he's... uh, he's with my friends. Sushi."

"You spoil that noisy thing." Iwai chuckled deep, and Akira blinked, slowly tilting his head up to look at the shop keeper who was working to scan the items as if not expecting a conversation, which was true.

"You can say that again..." Akira whispered, amazing even himself that he was able to stare at Iwai for more than two seconds without the urge to throw up because of the nerves. Then, as if on cue, Iwai lifted his head, and their eyes met. Akira made a noise that could only be described as a 'meep' as he reflexively turned away.

"You know, kid," Sitting down, Iwai sighed. "I'm not gonna kill you or anythin', y'know?"

"I-I know. Sorry." Akira rubbed the back of his neck. He wasn't sure why he was so shaken either. 

"Whatever. That's 40,000 yen. I gave you a ten percent discount for the errand last time."

"Oh, yeah..." The teen quickly grabbed his bag and rummaged through it to retrieve a pouch. "I, uhm, I've got this to sell."

"Let's see," Iwai took the small bag and opened it to see the familiar gleam of gold and silver, then he frowned at Akira who was busy fidgeting and twiddling his thumb. There was no mistaking it. These were items littered all over the mementos. Iwai didn't bother taking every single one, but he saw enough to come to a decisive conclusion. "Kid, you're..." He sighed, unsure of how to put it.

Akira tensed once again.

"Are you..." Iwai leaned forward, dragging his chair along with him and he glared daggers at the poor teen. "Look, another customer of mine also sells me these." He lied.

Akira's eyes widened at the statement, his mind suddenly going a thousand miles per hour. Was Iwai acquanted with Ox, somehow? His lips parted slightly as he looked into Iwai's eyes in anticipation, expecting any and all explanations that would point him to the mysterious persona user.

Seeing the reaction, Iwai scrunched his brows and pressed his fingers against his chin. Their gazes remained fixed on each other and Iwai crossed his arms, his voice firm but quiet. "And he won't stop going on and on about a guy named Joker. You know him, don't you?"

"Ah, well... that's... I..." Akira stammered at the intense stare he received. "I... suppose." He said at last, unable to spout a lie in front of the terrifying shop owner.

"Who are you, kid? Some sort of middleman? Those guns and blades you buy, you gettin' them for him?"

There really was something about Iwai that could easily fluster Akira, making his brain short-circuit. Instead of saying anything smart, he stood there like an idiot, then pulled out four ten thousand yen notes so he could just escape the shop and breathe again.

Iwai scowled when his question fell on deaf ears, and the moment he was about to take the money, he stopped.

"Ack!" Akira gasped, and would've fallen on his chest above the counter had it not been for his left hand cushioning him. When he regained his bearing, he noticed that Iwai had yanked his wrist, and now was staring at his palm intently. Oh, god. The scar. Akira swallowed.

The man all but hissed, making the teen flinch and draw back as he weakly tugged on his hand to no avail. Iwai soon relaxed, however, and loosened his grip, then watched Akira's body trembling in fear as he hid his hands from Iwai's sight. "Sorry, that wasn't cool of me. I get worked up whenever I see cuts, but then I remember I only sell you replicas. I don't want any issues with the cops because some punks decided to use my goods for wrongdoings, y'know?" He exhaled while reasoning to himself. "You haven't been getting yourself in trouble, have you?

During the fight in the metaverse, Joker had caught Iwai's knife with his gloved hand, and Iwai clearly remembered it slicing through the fabric, resulting in a bloody palm that spilled thick liquid onto the ground. No, he didn't intend to injure the thief, merely to scare him off a little, but all that did was excite him even more. Iwai had to admit that the sight of Joker and his red eyes twinkling with adrenalin, right hand holding his knife by the blade as blood coated the steel was fucking hot and it haunted him at nights, way more than he was comfortable with.

He knew that the weapons he brought were replicas but became real due to some cognition shenanigans, as explained by Joker, but for a fake knife to actually cause an actual wound... was Joker taking the fight a little too seriously? Just what went on in that head of his whenever his adrenalin got the better of him?

But no, Joker could not possibly be Akira. Knowing Joker, he probably healed the wound right after Iwai left the metaverse.

"Don't - don't worry about me," Akira answered weakly, then took the brown bag filled with his purchase and 30,000 yen back for his treasures. "Thank you, I-Iwai-san."

Iwai continued watching Akira's back as he left Untouchable with one question gnawing on him. Who was Akira? Was he a mere acquaintance of Joker's or was he Joker? Iwai already established that there was more to the teen than the frightened mess he displayed himself as, but, could he really be Joker? The infuriatingly charming and charismatic Joker?

He hated leaving mysteries unsolved. It seemed that Akira was far too afraid to talk to him, so he needed to take the initiative and get to the bottom of this. Their next meeting, aside from today's, was scheduled in three days and for now, Iwai decided that he would go to the Crossroad Bar to visit his old friend for some information about Akira tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Judging by how much time Iwai spent outside his shop lately, he might as well close it down. The palace runs with Joker was always so time-consuming, leaving his whole body battered and exhausted as soon as he got back. At this point, he started to seriously consider hiring a part-timer, but then again, he didn't trust anyone to man Untouchable.

He sucked on his orange-flavoured lollipop as he parked his motorcycle in Shinjuku. The two-day break from the metaverse was something he badly needed. He didn't know how Joker and Mona always had any energy left even after they wasted their stamina, they even claimed that they would be doing some memento runs today to finish the requests on Phan-site. Poor buggers. Iwai took some time in the afternoon to browse through that site which had blown out of proportion. Sceptics were there, of course, but the support the Phantom Thieves received was so overwhelming, Iwai wondered why Joker was so willing to play babysitter, solving small, insignificant requests that had nothing to do with him.

Well, regardless of that, Iwai was certain that Joker would be fast asleep right about now. He was half-tempted to join the Thieves today just in case they got themselves into a pickle again, but his shoulders and back protested. He could only trust in their abilities now. Besides, it wasn't like Joker was an irresponsible kid. Iwai had seen first hand how shrewd and manipulative he could be. Honestly, it frightened him sometimes, to think that someone that age was so willing to dive head-first into danger. He was most likely not a day older than twenty, Iwai was about ninety-percent sure.

Fixing his coat, Iwai walked into Crossroad. It was still quiet, which was understandable. He intentionally chose to come in when that place was just opening, after all.

"Mune!" Came the familiar voice of Lala, her purple hair was just as vivid as ever.

"Hey, Lala-chan," Iwai gave the barkeeper a wave before he plopped down on the stool in front of her. "Give me the usual."

"Coming right up," She giggled before turning her back and deftly picked up a few different bottles of alcohol and started pouring them into stainless steel shaker. "Haven't seen you around lately. I'd begun to think that you'd forgotten me."

"Would never dream of it." Iwai scoffed, then the two fell into a comfortable, small-talk topic conversation about their respective businesses and even hopped into a few nostalgia trains as they talked about those few years that Iwai had frequented the bar. Lala, she was still as chipper and charming as ever.

"Oh, it's about time for my cute little part-timer to come," Lala said as she cleaned some cocktail glasses while Iwai took a sip of his beverage. "The minx everyone loves him."

"Hm?" Iwai perked up at that. Like him, Lala had always been the type to be rather distrustful of anyone when it came to how she ran her business, and would rather do everything herself. It was fine since she was extremely good at what she did, never once making a mistake while maintaining a swift, satisfactory service.

"It's hard to believe that someone as magnetic as him is only sixteen years old. He's always willing to lend an ear to anyone and everyone, and you can just tell that he's actually listening, instead of feigning interest. I think he'll get along with you just fine too, Mune."

"A shot in the dark but, is his name Akira Kurusu, by any chance?" 

Lala widened her eyes, and her movements ceased momentarily. "You know him?"

"Goddamn," Setting his glass on the countertop with a soft clink, Iwai crossed his arms. "Kurusu, that wimp? He always looks like he's about to piss himself in my shop," Interest piqued, Lala set the glass in her hand back down in its place before leaning forward, face fuelled with curiosity. Iwai took it as a sign to continue, so he did. "Look, I know there's more to him than that. I've seen him in Shinjuku. He walks like he owns the damn place, but in front of me? It's like I kicked his cat or something."

"Fascinating," Lala hummed. "So, even Akira-chan has that side to him too. Well, Mune, it's about time he comes in here. Perhaps you'd like to see him in his comfort zone?"

"That's why I came here 'nyway." Iwai muttered, then finished the rest of his drink in one chug. After handing Lala some money, he moved to the corner of Crossroad and sat on the most concealed location. Far enough so Akira wouldn't notice him, but close enough for him to observe him. He pulled up his coat hoodie to conceal his hat and then, he waited.

.

"Ugh," Akira tapped his shoulder and stretched his neck. "I know I keep saying this, but Kawakami's upper body strength is ridiculous."

"Hey, it does the job. Now you're not too sore to work." Morgana replied as they walked into Crossroad.

"All I do is work..." Akira sighed, shaking his head but still didn't stop himself from stretching his spine. "I need time to have fun too."

"You've only got yourself to blame. Why do you insist on taking request after request anyway? You should take a break after this whole mess with Kaneshiro is sorted out."

"Amen to that. I can go for some sushi too... But we won't have any money left after we defeat the guy." The teen muttered, now rubbing his neck as he approached the entrance of Crossroad Bar. 

"You need to loosen up, Akira!"

"Did you just suggest that I go have sex?" He chuckled. He was far from a blushing virgin, but that implication still amused him.

"I did not!" Morgana clawed him on the shoulder, making the teen yelp in pain.

"Hey, do you think Ox would be—"

"La la la! I'm not listening!" The cat loudly meowed as they entered Akira's workplace.

The first person Akira saw was Ohya who waved at him and tapped on the barstool next to her excitedly.

"Akira, just the man I'm looking for! Come, come!" She grinned, and Akira glanced at the clock on the wall. He still had time before his shift started, so he shrugged and plopped down on the seat. Ohya was quick to fling her arm around Akira's shoulder and pulled the boy close until their bodies touch. She then said about his chief's change of heart.

Akira nodded along with the story because that was exactly what he was doing in mementos before anyway. He smiled in delight upon seeing Ohya's bright expression, and after a few more minutes of quiet conversation about Kayo, she let him go. Akira moved behind the counter, suddenly noticing that the bar was already packed. So, he put his apron on and started his shift.

It went smoothly as usual. A few customers here and there who wanted to talk to him and spill their dramatic, complex life stories that Akira always revelled in. It felt strangely cathartic to hear about complaints that were as far away from the metaverse as possible. He might not be able to offer them any noteworthy advice, but sometimes a pair of ears went a long way, and he could tell that the sentiment was true.

It was about two hours into his shift that he noticed someone leaving the premise, closing the door softly behind him. Akira paid it no mind and continued going about his business, not wanting anything to distract him from his job.

By the time Akira collapsed onto his bed, he felt his phone vibrating with messages from Mishima. He glanced at it and scrolled through it sluggishly before putting his phone aside. He had no energy left to spare, so he slept just like that.

The next day was reserved for relaxation. He hung out with Ryuji, Yusuke and Ann all day and spent the night with Takemi, purchasing some more medication while he was at it. He was fully booked the day after by palace expedition, so he already gave Kawakami a head's up that he would need that massage. And then...

"I-I can still fight!" Morgana moaned weakly as he flopped to his belly.

"You're staying here." Akira glared, signifying the fact that his decision was final. Takemi seemed to agree with the decision and promised to take care of his guinea pig's pet.

Damn Morgana had the audacity to get an allergic reaction from the baby octopus he ate in the cheap sushi place they went to. Leaving his friend at the clinic to rest, Akira jumped into the metaverse alone. They wouldn't be making much progress today, but some were better than none, especially when he started to feel that he was being followed during the day. He came into Kaneshiro's turf peacefully, but it looked like the man wasn't about to leave Akira to his own devices. There was no telling when he would make a move, so Akira needed to make all the progress he could.

.

At this point, Iwai was almost certain that Akira wasn't Joker's middleman, but Joker himself. He might not look like it, but he had one hell of an observation skill thanks to all those times he spent with his family plus his experience manning Untouchable, trying to see who was a potential troublemaker. Akira was so damn comfortable in his skin that night in the bar. He talked to the customers, nodding and smiling fondly even though he wasn't given a break at all. As soon as one person finished, another would come to take their place. It was amazing how much social interaction he was able to handle without batting an eyelash. Despite that, Iwai could see how he would roll his shoulders back and forth subtly and stretching when he got a millisecond of break like he just came home from a long, strenuous activity, which was most likely his travel to the metaverse.

In Akira's stead that night, he saw Joker. Charismatic, charming Joker capable of softening even the hardest of heart, always carrying himself with a hypnotising aura Iwai had never seen fashioned by anyone before. Unlike the Akira in Untouchable, Akira in Crossroad was sharp, quick-witted and slick. It was no surprise that everyone flocked to him, and Iwai feared that he was slowly being reeled in.

What am I doing? Iwai berated himself at the impure thought clouding his head. Even though Akira could easily pass as an adult despite his looks, it still wasn't right to look at the boy in that light. However, he couldn't help but sucking his lips when he pictured Joker in Akira's place. He was so damn good with his words, always so decisive, so recklessly brave and so sincere that it was almost impossible for anyone to not feel the slightest hint of affection for him.

And then there was Akira Kurusu. Meek, shy and a blabbering mess Akira Kurusu. The difference between him and Joker was so startling it took Iwai hours to come into terms that Akira was Joker. Iwai didn't think that he was any more kind in the metaverse, but how come Joker seemed to be okay with Ox, while Akira was scared shitless of Iwai? The sheer contrast was not only laughable but fascinating as well. He even patted himself on the back for coming to this conclusion, because who in the world would have guessed that someone could have two sides to them like that?

Well, he was just lucky that Akira was his customer who happened to purchase replica weapons, sell him strange treasures only found in mementos and owned a too-talkative black cat with a yellow scarf. And then there were those damn scars on his palm. Iwai couldn't rip that out of his mind, tried as he might. Of course, he might be completely wrong, and Akira was just an innocent high-schooler, but...

"As much as I love the attention, Ox, we must discuss our next move."

"Uh—" Iwai's train of thought suddenly derailed. It looked like he had been staring at Joker for a second too long, but instead of looking uncomfortable at the stare he received, Joker smirked and set down a vial of medicine. "Yeah, sorry." The older male cleared his throat and took the item offered.

"Ox," Akira started as he walked around the table and leaned on the edge of the table, next to Iwai's feet. "It appears that we go to the same airsoft shop."

"Huh?" Iwai blinked at the sudden statement, then went silent momentarily as he gauged what he should say next. It didn't seem like Akira knew his identity yet. If he did, he would probably be sitting in the corner of the room right now, as far away from Iwai as humanly possible.

"Untouchable?" At the question, Iwai grunted. It was probably for the best that Akira didn't know his partner's identity, lest it ruined their already-slapdash teamwork. To make that work, though, he needed to be extremely careful as to what information he should let slip. Joker might be unaware, although a little suspicious but Iwai knew just how perceptive the kid was. If he started saying anything unnecessary, everything might fall apart.

Akira slipped his fingers inside his coat idly and took out a gun, then handed it over to Iwai who took it without a moment of hesitation. Yes, this was the older model he sold Akira last month. Ever since then, he already received four more recent models. He inspected the well-used item thoroughly and nodded.

"Why're you showin' me this?"

"You said you know a thing or two about guns, don't you?" Akira smiled softly, although Iwai knew that it was anything but. The boy was trying to see what reaction he could garner.

He needed to tread a tightrope here. Say too much and that would blow his cover, say too little and Akira might still get suspicious anyway. Iwai did a quick check on the rack, grip, trigger and muzzle to first see if there was any damage, then he handed it back to Akira. "Someone hasn't been takin' care of his weapon."

Akira laughed at that, then he glanced at the handgun. "It's seen better days. Do you think I should get a new one or get this modified?"

"You can't mod that shit," Iwai grumbled, suppressing his customer-service tone (that wasn't all that tasteful, he knew) and hoped that it didn't sound weird. "Why don't you ask Iwai?" He said.

"Hm," Akira hummed as he gave the weapon one last look before slipping it back into his coat. "Maybe in the near future." For now, it seemed that Iwai managed to deceive Akira. The tension in the thief's shoulder disappeared as he pushed himself away from the table and took the medicine vial on the desk. "Bottom's up."

Iwai scoffed, but before he could pull on his jaw protector to drink the medication, Joker took off his gloves, shook his hands and stretched his arms. The older man narrowed his eyes at what little skin he could see. Then, he set the vial back on the desk and reached out to take Akira's hand. The boy seemed surprised at the sudden contact but allowed Iwai to inspect the scars on his right hand with a cattish smile. There was no mistaking it. Those were the exact same ones that Akira had. Just like that, all semblance of doubt in Iwai's head cleared.

"You should get this healed."

"I refuse," Akira purred as he took a step forward. Even standing up, he was only barely taller than Ox and that made his heart race. "Why would I want to erase a reminder of such a wonderful battle?"

"You're a few nuts loose on the head, brat," Iwai laughed, then paused when Akira pressed a hand on his thigh as he leaned forward. Reflexively, he flinched. "What?" He scowled when he was met with red eyes full of mischief, along with the signature smirk that Iwai suspected was a permanent fixture on the teen's face.

"I'd like to meet you in person, Ox." Akira sighed wistfully.

Iwai was silent for a few seconds, not knowing how to answer the sudden request. Instead of letting amusement got the better of him, Iwai tore the eye contact. "You're not gonna like me."

"Try me," Akira boldly placed his other hand on the man's cheek and angled his face so they once again looked into each other. "Call me presumptuous, but you're not here only for your treasure, are you?" Akira removed his grip on Iwai's firm thigh to rummage his pocket and retrieved a set of keys that he dangled next to him.

"You know nothin' 'bout me." Was Iwai's response.

"I beg to differ. I know enough about you to see that you're not the kind of person who would stand to see the weak being taken advantage of. You might be a bit boorish at times, aggressive and testy—"

"Right, keep going." Iwai snapped, cutting Akira mid-sentence, a little annoyed that he was being described in such a negative light.

"—But despite that, you've got a good heart. You remind me of a close friend of mine," Akira finished as he took Iwai's hand and placed the key on his open palm, then stroke his fingers so they curled around the object, all while keeping their eyes together. "What do you say if we continue this masquerade, hm?"

"Hah!" The older man chuckled as he put the keys in his pocket. "You're either an idiot or a wise idiot, sometimes I don't know which one's which," Iwai paused and leaned forward, now closing the distance between them until he felt his visor making contact with Akira's forehead. They were practically nose to nose, and like hell if Iwai was going to lose this staring contest. "But I ain't one of those shadows you can sweet talk, love, and I ain't stayin' if there's nothin' chainin' me down."

Akira's smirk only grew at the provocation and his eyes now gleamed with mirth. In such close proximity, he could see Ox's grey ones staring back at him through the blue-tinted lenses. They were razor-sharp, intense, just like the owner and it made his whole body burn. Morgana was right. He badly needed to loosen up. "Then, would you like to take the reins?"

It took Iwai a few seconds to realise what Akira was hinting at, but when it came down on him, he felt a strange warmth brewing inside his stomach. Even the usually composed Joker had a tinge of red on his pale cheeks while his hair moved along with the teen's head, obscuring the glowing maroon eyes burning with lust.

"Commendable courage," Iwai grinned, now even more amused because he would have never imagined that the Akira who always looked like he was going to cry in his shop was so blatantly flirting with him. If his moral was any lower, he would've thrown the teen on the table and fuck his brains out, but he was a better man than that. "But I've got no interest in brats."

Ox put his feet on the ground, but before he could stand up, Akira slammed his foot, covered in a polished leather pointy-ended shoe, right on his chest hard enough to make him flinch, but enough to push the chair. "But this brat is interested in the older brat," Akira purred, grateful for his mask and getup. In real life, he would never dream of doing something as bold as this, but it definitely helped that Ox didn't know who he was, and he didn't know who Ox was. "And this brat happens to know that you have been staring."

Iwai froze on spot, then swallowed thickly. He shouldn't find this hot, but he did. It didn't help that he hadn't had any sexual gratification lately. And yes, he did stare, but it was because he was in awe of Joker's power, definitely not because he found such dominating display of strength very, very sexy.

"Come on, Ox," Akira behind the Joker mask now with more pressure on his foot. "It'll be our little secret. No one will know," He leaned forward, still with a smirk. "Or you can say no, and we'll forget about this. Is that what you want?"

Iwai curled his fingers around Akira's thin ankle and squeezed firmly all while he glared daggers at the teen. "Get off me."

Akira tilted his head sideways and was quiet for a few moments before he shrugged and pulled away, planting his foot on the ground once more. Without a word, he put on his gloves and fixed his cloak. "Let's get moving, then."

Sucking in a disappointed breath, Iwai nodded and followed Akira out of the safe room, not forgetting to gulp down the almost-forgotten medicine. As they made their way deeper into the palace, Iwai tried to not stare at Akira when he leapt forward and somersaulted above the shadows in an ambush, or when he summoned one of his many personas—wait was that a new one? Or the excited look on his face when they encountered a particularly powerful enemy, and most importantly, when they were pressed together, faces so close as they hid behind a small pillar, waiting for the opportunity to stealthily strike a shadow.

"You know," Akira whispered quietly, and as if mocking him, he said. "You should be more honest with yourself and take what your heart desires."

Iwai glowered at the teen.

"I don't kiss and tell, Ox. Your secret will be safe with me. Of course, ultimately it's up to you, but know that my offer still stands." Akira murmured into Iwai's ear, sending a shiver down his spine. Not a second too soon, Joker slipped away and attacked the shadow that was about to walk past the pillar.

.

Four hours. It was almost the end of their palace run. They were nearing the treasure, Akira could feel it. If only Mona decided to not have food poisoning, they would be there by now, for sure. By the fifth hour, they returned to the safe room to regroup and discuss their next move, as per usual. Although Ox still seemed distracted, that didn't compromise his combat, so Akira decided to brush it off. He was disappointed that his move was left unanswered despite the man's apparent interest, but there wasn't much he could do.

Akira took his time fixing his gun and knife on the desk while Ox idly threw the set of keys in his hand up and down. It must be nice having a gun as a persona, no maintenance needed. His eyes might be obscured by his visor but Akira could tell that he was deep in thought. His breath was slightly laboured as a result of the fighting and a bead of sweat rolled down from beneath his headgear down to his chin, making Akira swallow. He was so damn curious as to what was underneath that helmet.

Initially, he highly suspected that Ox was Iwai due to all the coincidences. The similarity in their defensive body language, how he spoke and the fact that he also frequented Untouchable. Then, there was Iwai's interest in the scar of his palm. He did brush it off with a sound argument but Akira didn't believe in coincidences. And... well, that was about it. There was nothing else for now. Ox's response to his light prodding was generic at best which didn't help Akira's case.

Akira sighed as he played with the replica knife in his hand, throwing it up lightly just like what Ox was doing with his keys. The teen glanced at the man sitting on the opposite side and quietly cursed that persona of his for being so concealing. The only skin he could see was the middle of his face and his nose, nothing else. He also knew that Ox was muscular thanks to a couple of hours ago when he caught Akira in his arms. That was... quite an experience.

What else could he pick apart at this point? Ox's thief uniform looked like a military attire, so that made his rebellious side being this heroic individual of sorts. How ironic, Akira mused. That meant that Ox in real life was nothing like this. Still, that was too vague of a hint.

Before Akira's mind could wander anywhere else, he suddenly felt a hand roughly yanking him by the back of his cloak, followed by another on his waist that roughly spun him around and slammed him on the table. Above him now was Ox, hunching over him, both hands pinning Akira's wrists firmly before the mouth guard disappeared and their lips crashed against each other.

Oh.

Of all the things that he expected to happen, that certainly didn't make it in the top ten. Well, he wasn't about to look at gift horse in the mouth, so instead of wondering what caused a change in Ox's heart, he decided to push back against the chapped lips and let himself be devoured by Ox's searing hot kiss.

Rough lips. Stubbles. Strawberry-flavoured breath.

Akira didn't have much chance to think because the next thing he felt was that gloved hand pressing against his crotch and stroking it to life. There was nothing tame about this interaction. He could feel the frustration and hastiness in Ox's every move that was only made apparent when he roughly flipped Akira around so he was lying on his stomach on top of the polished wooden desk.

Akira heard a rustling sound from behind, followed with a bare hand unbuttoning his pants with surprising agility and accuracy, and soon, the fabric slipped down, leaving his erection in the cold open air. He didn't have to wait for long. Ox's hand returned to curl around his cock, and Akira's breath hitched at the sudden stimulation that soon became overwhelming. The teen curled his fingers so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and with his cheek pressed against the table, he moaned.

Calloused fingers. Rough palm.

Iwai pushed Akira's cloak, bunching them above his waist and let his other hand wander on the thief's round ass before he experimentally plunged a thumb into the quivering hole. That rewarded him nicely with a melodic whimper and a jerk as if Akira was begging for more, which he was.

"Fuckin' brat," Came the gruff voice that belonged to Ox, to Iwai. "You shouldn't play with fire, y'know?" He mumbled as he uncapped a small container of gel and dipped his hand into it and rubbed it around Akira's entrance.

"Mm," Akira purred at the cool sensation, then he opened his eyes and smirked at Iwai from the table. "Then you should use Nohar-M, not Relax Gel."

"Shut up," Iwai hissed, then raised his hand to land a blow on Akira's ass. The teen gasped at the sudden spike of pain that left him mewling on the hard, wooden surface of the desk. "Like that, do you?" He grunted before he gave the other buttcheek a slap, harder this time. The reaction was immediate. Akira panted, his cock becoming harder by the second and the table becoming wet from the drool.

Brusque, surly voice.

Akira was sure he wouldn't remember the information that he gathered, but it didn't stop him from trying to commit them into memory anyway. Nope, not happening, he thought when he felt two fingers plunging into him and rubbing against the walls until he made a particularly embarrassing squeal that only encouraged further assault on his prostate. He didn't know how much he needed this. It was one thing to do it himself, but it was a whole another thing to have it done to him. By someone who knew what they were doing, to boot.

"Ah!" Akira heaved when he felt another blow against his ass, followed with the withdrawal of the fingers that had been working him open. It was promptly replaced with something thicker.

Big, generous cock.

Yup, that one he could definitely remember. Then, the sizeable hardness that Akira had somewhat memorised pushed into him, slowly filling him up, stretching him out. Akira bit his lower lip at the intruding pain that soon faded away, making way for some waves of pleasure as the cock became fully sheathed inside him. It hurt, it hurt so damn good.

Akira let out a loud moan when his partner started moving. It was slow at first, but out of nowhere, Akira was practically slammed against the table as Iwai moved at a breakneck speed, his fingers tangled in Akira's soft, curly hair as he aimed for the teen's prostate over and over. Akira could do nothing but melt, his legs turning into jelly as he screamed out cries of pleasure, sending tears all over the table, making his cheek wet with the combination of tears and drool.

He felt a rough tug of his hair that made him twitch. It was something that he didn't know about himself; how he loved being manhandled, loved being treated like this, love having his ass filled with a thick cock that mercilessly violated him until he was nothing but a crying mess.

If at one point Iwai thought this was a terrible idea and that he should turn himself in for sexually touching someone of Akira's age, it all disappeared. The noise that came out of those smooth, soft lips were so sweet. The way Akira's slim body reacted to his touch mesmerising, and the look of pleasure in his eyes too arousing for Iwai to remember what was illegal and what was not. What morals? What conscience? He scoffed at his better judgement and continued abusing Akira's twitching, tightening ring of muscles. He was so tight. His ass coiling around him like a vice grip ready to milk him until the last drop.

Iwai leaned forward and pulled Akira by the hair until their faces became as close as they could be. "Call me Mune, you dirty fuckin' slut."

"M-Mune," Akira cried out, louder when Iwai curled his fingers around his throbbing cock, ready for release. "I'm gonna cum, Mune!"

"Cum for me, then." Iwai muttered with a voice fuelled with passion. It was replaced with a repressed groan when Akira tightened around him even more and clenched him so tightly, it made everything cloudy. Iwai let go of Akira's head to press his hands on the boy's hip and kept abusing the teen's ass even when Akira spilled his seed all over the floor, some droplets dripping down his thighs. Iwai found his completion soon after. He flooded Akira's tight ass and pulled out. His eyes glazed as they saw how red, puffy and gaped Akira was, especially with his cum leaking out.

Neither men moved for what seemed like hours although that was not at all the case.

Iwai's chest tightened at the realisation of what he had done, and he berated himself for losing control. However, holding himself back was impossible, particularly when he wasn't known for self-control.

Akira regained control of his brain a couple of minutes later. He turned around sluggishly, expecting to see Ox, but the man was nowhere to be seen.

"Running away? How rude." The teen grunted, hoping that this mess wouldn't translate to the universe outside the metaverse.

It didn't. Thank god.

Chapter Text

 It was always the post-sex blues that made Iwai's brain rush a thousand miles per hour. Not saying that he had it often because he had been far too busy operating his shop to have any sexual interaction, but that was beside the point. Yes, he knew that he was a jerk for not helping the guy he just had sex with clean up, but honestly, how could he ever face Akira again after that? He was so young, only a tender sixteen years of age.

He shouldn't have done that. He liked Joker, and in turn Akira because of how multi-faceted he was, how vulnerable he could be when deep down, he was a roaring lion ready to prey on anything he could sink his claws into, and Iwai almost fell victim to his unforgiving grasp. Yes, Akira wasn't entirely at fault when he said that there was something else behind Iwai's motivation to help him. The concept of palaces was too much trouble for him, but with Akira and that cat of his, he thought he would be able to do some good. Correct the wrongs that he might have done back when he was a Yakuza. It embarrassed him to admit that for a few seconds, he thought about joining the Thieves.

Well, he couldn't do that now, could he? He messed up big time. Even if Akira brushed what happened off, Iwai could never. Honestly, he didn't have any experience with dealing with this situation, and he didn't have any to turn to either. Hm, although he supposed that Lala would be more than happy to listen to his rambling, she had a connection with Akira, so that was also risky. Not to mention that he could walk in at any given time without notice, and Iwai didn't trust himself to keep his dick in his pants if he saw that curly hair again, especially after feeling how silky smooth it was, how soft his skin was, how adorable his whimpers were.

Iwai glanced at the keys on his counter and tapped his fingers against the wood. He managed to extract all the forged documents against Untouchable, but he still couldn't get his head off the case. He only managed to destroy the shadow of one man, but he was sure that he was only a pawn because even now, he still heard rumours about this very same threat haunting other businesses around Shibuya. Who was doing this and for what?

He looked at the time that pointed at nine. Akira should be finishing up his memento or palace run by now, but he wouldn't know because it had been a week since he last jumped into Kaneshiro's bank. For all he knew, a calling card had already been prepared, and the kid was now getting ready for the final battle. Iwai sighed. When did he become such a baby? No, this cowardice was warranted, he assured himself. It was probably for the best that he stopped showing up in case Akira regretted what happened. Or worse, if he'd want a repeat of it. This would serve as nothing but a hindrance in their sloppy teamwork, and he didn't want to hold Akira and Mona down like that. They were experts while Iwai was an amateur trying to play hero. There was no place for him in the Phantom Thieves. As the saying goes, 'leave it to the professionals'.

Iwai chewed on his lollipop stick as he closed the shop and headed to his room located in a small space behind Untouchable's back area complete with a humble kitchenette. He would be going to a second-hand shop to do some shopping for parts tomorrow. He was running low on that, and that place in Yongen-Jaya always seem to have something that he wanted at a very low price.

The next day couldn't come fast enough. Still yawning, Iwai decided to take the subway that day because it was a Sunday. The trip was a short one without many passengers on the train, and he exited Yongen-Jaya train station and adjusted his hat as he walked the narrow passage. Glancing sideways, he saw a coffee shop that he committed to memory. He went past it a few times before but never had the time to enter. Today might be a good time.

Iwai finished his shopping in about half an hour and ended up with two bags full of parts that would last him a couple of weeks if people kept storming his shop like that. It was inconvenient but business was business, and he could never refuse the money. The man pushed open the door into Leblanc and was immediately greeted with the salivating smell of coffee he couldn't get from the chain he frequented. He might not be a connoisseur, but he knew a great coffee when it was served.

"Welcome," Came a deep voice from behind the counter. Iwai nodded and took a seat in the corner just next to the door. He took off his ear protector and hat, then glanced at the menu written on a board hanging from the ceiling. "What would it be today?"

"Just a black coffee's fine," He said, leaning back. "And maybe two of those curry croquettes too."

"Coming right up. Can you handle it?" Looking into the kitchen, the shopkeeper asked. It wasn't answered with anything but he looked pleased. A nod, then.

"Hey, Akira, Iwai's here!"

Hearing a squeaky voice coming from somewhere in the vicinity, Iwai narrowed his eyes and saw a black cat in the corner just underneath the stairs. It had a yellow scarf around its neck and Iwai swallowed. Did it just talk?

"Hey, get that cat out of here. We have a customer!" Said the bearded man as he gave Iwai a small apologetic sigh. "Sorry, that thing's real noisy, huh?"

"It's fine," Iwai shrugged, then his breath hitched in his throat when a bespectacled curly-haired teen emerged from the kitchen. He had a pale green apron tied around his waist and god, that did a number to Iwai's sanity.

"Get back upstairs, Morgana!"

"Wait, isn't this a good time to see if he's Ox—"

"Up!" At that, the cat relented and leapt up the stairs and disappeared, leaving Akira scuttling back into the kitchen while throwing Iwai a side glance as if to gauge his reaction. Before he managed to hide back in the kitchen, the shopkeeper stopped him.

"I'm going to go get something from the shop. Can you handle the order?"

"Uh, sure," Akira quickly answered although it was tinted with hesitation. When the man left, Akira cleared his throat and went behind the counter. "Sorry about that."

"Doesn't bother me," Iwai shrugged then observed the teen turned around to grab a bag of beans from behind him and started tinkering with the equipment. It was clear that he knew what he was doing. "So, kid, how many jobs do you have?" Iwai scoffed.

It wasn't until a few seconds that Akira looked up at him incredulously that it made Iwai wonder if he'd said something wrong.

"What're you lookin' at me like that for?" He grimaced and then crossed his arms, in turn making Akira flinch.

"N-Nothing, sorry. I just..." He took a deep breath as he steadied his hands. "I just didn't think you were interested in small talks."

Yeah, the kid wasn't wrong. Under normal circumstances, Iwai would rather steer clear from small talks due to how mundane it was. Seriously, who in their right mind enjoyed talking about the weather anyway? Instead of replying, the older man just chuckled.

"Aside from the bar, I work at the beef bowl shop, convenience store and flower shop. I help out in the clinic too sometimes, and here in Leblanc. I don't get paid, though," Akira said what was probably the longest sentence Iwai had ever heard him speak, outside of his Joker getup. "Well, not in the last two. I get... uh, benefits instead."

"Benefits, huh?" Iwai snorted, in turn making Akira's face beet red. Such a different reaction to what Joker would have.

"N-no, not like that! I live here in the attic, so I want to help Sojiro out when I can. And the clinic... well, I buy a lot of medications, so..." Akira trailed off as he finished off the coffee and put the cup on a saucer.

Sounds about right, Iwai thought. He must have purchased all those medications somewhere, and most likely got a discount from this clinic he worked at.

"You live in the attic? Talk about shitty."

Akira laughed at the comment and Iwai ended up staring at the teen's face a little too long that he had to mentally hit himself in order to look away. That was the first time he ever saw him laugh so genuinely.

"It's not that bad. Pretty spacious, if I say so myself. I'm free to decorate as I want and Sojiro's kind enough to let me keep Morgana."

"That cat of yours?"

As he moved around the kitchen to grab another plate, Akira hummed in confirmation. He emerged out with two curry croquettes that Iwai ordered and immediately set them down in front of the customer, along with the coffee. "Uhm..." Akira muttered. "Did you hear..." Iwai tried his damnedest to not let anything show on his face, and that seemed like it worked because a split second later, the younger male shook his head. "No, nevermind."

"Shit!"

Akira once again flinched at the exclamation.

"This coffee's amazing, kid. I knew you know what you're doing, but seriously."

"O-oh, thanks." Said Akira sheepishly.

"Come, si'down." Iwai motioned to the empty seat in front of him. After a few tentative seconds, Akira nodded and sat, his shoulders squeezed together as he stared at the wooden surface of the table. "How're the stuff you bought?"

"They're great, I love how the knife feels in my hand. It's so lightweight and the paint quality is a lot better this time around."

"Yeah? I mixed some paints on my own. I thought it had this vibrancy to it that the last batch doesn't have. Glad that you like it," Iwai grinned, his chest suddenly full of pride. "If you want, I can custom paint your orders from now on."

"You'd do that?" Akira's eyes all but twinkled behind his glasses at the offer, leading Iwai to look away. He started to think that he could handle Joker a lot better than he could Akira. Because it was one thing to constantly have someone flirt on him, but it was a whole another thing to face someone he fucked in an uncalled burst of libido, someone who was blissfully unaware that the man who left without a word sitting in front of him. It was almost humiliating and Iwai felt undeserving of that smile.

"Yeah." Answered Iwai as he took a bite of the finger food. Delicious.

"Would you like something in return then, Iwai-san? Perhaps I can help out in your shop from time to time?"

"'s all good, kid. I'm sure you've got enough on your plate."

"No," Akira said. "That's not fair. I'll pay extra, at the very least."

"I'll tell you what. If you give me a cup of coffee every now and then, we'll call it a deal. How about that?"

"That's too generous of an offer." Akira grinned as he rested his face on his hand.

Iwai scoffed at the reaction, then took another sip of the coffee. "Well, I'm not a very good businessman, ain't I?"

Akira let out a laugh, then shooed Morgana who came down the stairs at some point and was now standing next to the booth seat.

"Let him. I don't mind cats." Iwai shrugged.

"I'm not a cat!" Morgana quipped a claim that went straight through Iwai's ears unregarded. He then jumped onto the seat and in turn, the table. "You can understand me, can't you?"

Iwai stared at Morgana momentarily. Should he keep going with the secrecy? Akira looked like he was finally beginning to get comfortable around him, so perhaps he should keep this up a while longer. "Your cat's noisy."

"I'm not a cat! And that's beside the point, Ox."

Iwai once again ignored the statement. Instead, he tapped Morgana on the head and looked at Akira who seemed to be observing the scenario very closely, the lenses of his glasses glinting under the sunlight streaming from the glass panes on the door.

"What do you think, Akira?" Morgana asked while he looked at the teen who seemed pensive. Akira shook his head lightly and smiled at Iwai.

"You're not what I expected, Iwai-san, although..." Akira intertwined his fingers together and rested his chin on top of them. Suddenly, all semblance of sheepishness faded away like it never existed to begin with. "How did you know that Morgana is a male?"

Well, shit. He must've let that slip somehow. Well, no use trying to beat himself up over it. "Huh? An educated guess?" After a few seconds of silence, the old Akira returned. He untangled his fingers and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.

"I don't like this... it's all too convenient." Morgana muttered, eyes full of scepticism fixed at Iwai.

"Iwai-san," Akira said, this time leaning back in the chair as he fixed his glasses then crossed his arms. "I... uhm, are you in a hurry?"

Akira almost let his inner joker slip, so Iwai felt it right to be a little cautious. Withdrawing might be a bit jarring, so he decided to narrow his eyes. "Nope, somethin' wrong?"

"Do you have any experience with dealing with the mob?"

Iwai raised one of his eyebrows at the odd question while the teen took a deep breath and looked at the man straight in the eyes. Was this about Kaneshiro? Iwai's mind immediately jumped to the worst baseless conclusion. Did something happen in the one week that he was away?

"Oh, are you telling him about Kaneshiro's men that have been hounding you? Good idea. He might be able to do something about it."

After hearing what Morgana had to say, Iwai's heart skipped a beat. His fingers tightened into a ball, and he was sure that Akira noticed the reaction. His senses were high as if he was in the metaverse. "Well, whaddya wanna know, kid?" He asked with his arms crossed.

"Actually, never mind. It's not really your problem. Sorry for taking your time." Akira immediately stood up and walked behind the counter while Morgana walked up the stairs to the attic. It didn't look like Iwai was about to say anything else regarding him being Ox, so he decided to leave matters be for now. There had been no concrete evidence that he could hear Morgana talk. Knowing his gender was one, but as said, it could just be an educated guess. Then, there was Iwai's reaction to Morgana talking about Kaneshiro's men. That could also be a coincidence as well. Perhaps Iwai had been in his shoes before and was remembering something about it? It was a long shot, but so was assuming that Iwai could understand what Morgana said.

It frustrated him that even after all this time, he still couldn't come to a decision about Ox's identity. One second he would think that it was Iwai, but the next second, the logical part of his brain begged otherwise.

Akira felt his stomach tightening at the thought of the other persona user. There had been no words from Ox since that day they had a quick fuck in the safe room. If he had known that it would come to this, he would never have done it. Ox would make an excellent phantom thief. Not only was he damn powerful and resourceful, but Akira also loved talking to him. There was a certain softness that would surface between all of his rough edges, something that he didn't let show very often. Ox was a great company.

He wanted Iwai to be Ox but Akira knew that he was grasping at straws. It was just that there was nothing else for him to work with. His astute observation skill had rarely ever failed him, so why now?

As if to distract Akira from his thoughts, a voice came from behind him. "Keep out of trouble, 'kay? Don't bite more than you can chew." After saying that, Iwai put on his hat, followed with his ear protectors, then he left Leblanc.

It took Akira a few minutes to walk back towards the seat that the owner of Untouchable had been sitting on and took the dirty dishes back to the sink. As he let them soak, he grabbed the money Iwai left and smiled. Behind the thousand yen bill was a phone number, written on the back of a receipt.

Sojiro returned to the shop soon after Akira finished cleaning up, and he was given the green light to go. So, he retreated back into his room and sat on the edge of his bed to quickly record the number on his phone. Morgana tilted his head in curiosity at the quick actions that his friend executed.

"Whose?"

"Iwai-san."

"Woah, he gave you his number!?" Morgana asked with a voice full of surprise. "What gives?"

"Maybe he's just worried. I don't know. Regardless, I think it's good to have him as a contact in case we get into anything awry. I doubt my power will help me outside metaverse."

"Yeah, but... aren't you concerned, Akira?" Morgana narrowed his eyes. "We don't know if Iwai's affiliated with Kaneshiro..."

"That's a possibility." The teen shrugged nonchalantly as he put his phone in his pocket and stood up to grab his bag.

"Then, why are you so relaxed about this!?" The cat followed his curly-haired friend and jumped into the bag.

"Do you really think Iwai-san's part of the mob, though?" Akira sighed as he walked downstairs and outside of Leblanc. "I mean, I had that assumption too in the beginning, but after today's talk, I don't think he's involved in anything unsavoury."

"Oh yeah, you didn't look like you're about to cry talking to him. Way to go, Akira."

"Hush!" Akira pushed Morgana into the bag playfully. It was replied to with a frustrated meow as Morgana poked his head straight out and shook it left and right. "Do you think he understood what you said?"

"I don't know... He didn't let anything slip."

Akira nodded. He suspected Morgana to answer as such, but it didn't hurt to ask regardless. Falling into a comfortable silence, they made their way towards the train station and got off at Shinjuku. He wanted to see what was playing at the cinema while taking his time to grab some gifts from the shop next to the florist when a soft, feminine voice called out his name.

"Afternoon, Chihaya," Akira pulled the empty seat in front of the fortune teller and made himself comfortable before looking at the card arrangement on the desk. "This spread..."

"Hm? You know it, Kurusu?" Chihaya blinked, clearly a little surprised.

"It's love, isn't it? Whose is it?"

"You're right!" She smiled as she moved her hands to start clearing the table. "Actually..." Chihaya laughed awkward as she ran her fingers along her hair as a nervous gesture. "I kinda did yours without asking. Sorry. Just when I was about to open them, there you are!"

"Well, then let's do the reveal?" Akira grinned. They had only known each other for a couple of weeks but it was clear as day to him that Chihaya had a fixation towards his ability to 'change fate' as she put it. It wasn't odd to hear that she had been trying to get as much information as she could about him.

"Okay, but you have to pay! 5,000 yen, please."

"That expensive?" Akira sighed but decided to take out his wallet and gave her the bills anyway. "This better be good."

"Hey, are you doubting me?" The female curled her lips and crossed her arms in an adorable scowl that made the bespectacled teen laugh.

"Of course not. I was just kidding. I know you're a great fortune teller."

"Hmph," Chihaya sulked but hovered her hand over the card on the bottom right closest to her. "Let's see, an upright sixth of wands... I see."

The fortune teller explained in great details regarding each of the card she drew and how they related to each other. From the pyramid spread, she told Akira that he would meet this potential love interest where he was the best version of himself, a place of achievements, as Chihaya put it.

"That's vague," Morgana commented on their way home. In Akira's right hand was a bag full of gifts he purchased. "I mean, you do pretty well at school and like, all two hundred of your jobs."

"Hey, I need money, okay? I told you that our weapons aren't free. I doubt you'd approve of me selling my body." The teen rolled his eyes.

"If it gets me sushi, why not?" Morgana gave Akira a shit-eating grin before laughing. "I'm kidding. Use condoms. Hey, now that you're buddy-buddy with Iwai, why don't you—"

"You're eating paste for the rest of the week."

"I was kidding, obviously! Anyway, back to the topic, didn't Chihaya said something about dishonesty as well? Does that ring a bell?"

"Ah yes, that was about the so-called challenge that would arise in the relationship. Seems like my soulmate will be an irresponsible liar who runs away when things get a bit inconvenient. I don't know who fits the bill. Doesn't sound like a very nice person and I don't see how I would come to love anyone like that."

Morgana snorted at that. "Maybe it's Ox. I mean, he bailed after the unthinkable you did with him."

"You can say sex, you know? And what do you mean unthinkable? I only did what I feel was right and he was the one who made a big deal out of it and left. I mean, it wasn't like I was taking advantage of him or anything," Silence. "...Right?"

"I don't know, Akira... you do flirt with him quite a bit. It was kinda disgusting, actually."

"Hey, it's not often that I see anyone who's not you in the metaverse. Besides, I don't think he was opposed to the idea of me doing just that. And I don't know what got into him. One second I was playing with my knife, the next, he jumped me. Hear me out, he was the one who jumped me! Moreover, if I'd known that he would just disappear off the face of the earth, I wouldn't have done that."

"Okay, okay! Don't be so defensive! I'm sure he'll come back one way or another."

Akira groaned and pressed his hand on his forehead. "I hope so. I mean, he'll make our palace runs so much easier. But we can't whine now. We need to take the treasure fast before Kaneshiro's men make any move."

"Yeah. Honestly, it's getting worrisome. They're getting bolder by the day."

"Let's go tomorrow, then. We're getting really close, I think we'll be able to secure a route next time. Then calling card's all that's left."

.

Iwai was damn exhausted. The customers had been pouring non-stop into his shop that evening that he really started to seriously consider hiring a part-timer. He hoped that it would go down soon but what could he do? At this point, the parts that he ordered would only last a week.

Just a few seconds after he closed the shop, his phone buzzed on top of the glass display cabinet, and Iwai walked to pick it up only to see a text message flashing.

Good evening, this is Kurusu. Thought you'd like my number too.

Iwai stared at it for a few moments before he took off his hat and sighed. Yeah, he still felt awful for ditching the teen like that, especially when he looked like he was in a bit of a pickle in regards to his palace expedition. And more importantly, he was being followed by Kaneshiro's men? That alone made the metaphorical alarms blare in his head.

Iwai unwrapped a new lollipop and popped it in his mouth as he glanced at the message one more time, for one second longer. Since when did he become such an ungrateful ass? Not only was he lying to Akira about his identity, but he also took his trust and threw it right back at his face. Sighing, Iwai curled his fingers into a fist, then felt his persona throbbing inside his head. It seemed that one week of rest was far too long for Hakutaku who had been lying dormant for a few years. Well, Iwai also knew that he was going to get an earful the moment he stepped into the metaverse at this point.

Still, Iwai felt his resolve slowly becoming firmer by the second, and before he knew it, he was transported to the entrance of Kaneshiro's Bank. Well, looked like Untouchable would be closed tomorrow. He didn't think that he could get very far with a couple of hours. This most likely would take five hours if he wanted to secure a route to the treasure alone.

"Ow!" The man groaned when he felt something slapping him on the back. It was his persona's tail.

"You're a coward. You should be ashamed of yourself." It grunted, obviously just as miffed with Iwai's decision to run away.

"You don't gotta rub salt on my wound like that. That's why I'm going to repay him tonight. Listen, we're not gettin' out until we can clear a path for him, 'kay?"

"Good, because I don't intend on letting you leave before then." The persona quipped, voice tinted with an edge as opposed to its usual playful self.

So began Iwai's solo expedition. To keep himself as healthy as humanly possible, he avoided all enemy encounters at all cost. He didn't come stocked with medicine as Joker usually did, so he needed to be extremely careful as to not overspend his supplies. It certainly wasn't easy, especially when he couldn't summon different personas as the thief could. All he had to go with was his sharpshooting ability to snipe the enemy's most vulnerable parts in hope to kill them before they could kill him.

The further in the palace he managed to get, the more impressed of Joker he became. The kid might not think much of it, but damn, he danced with death every single time he walked into this place crawling with monsters. All for what? Fame? No, that couldn't be it. The only thing revered by the society was the Phantom Thieves, not Akira Kurusu. What was Akira's motivation to go through hell? What drove him to try so damn hard to fight for justice in a world as twisted as this one?

Iwai didn't understand Akira's way of thinking at all. He knew a lot about Akira at this point, he could say. He had seen the masks the high-schooler wore in the metaverse, in Untouchable, in Leblanc, in Crossroad. Akira was complicated, enigmatic, enchanting, and it was close to impossible to decipher him. It was as if no matter how many layers Iwai shed, there was always more and more. A true trickster, indeed. Which one was his true face?

"Hey!" Hakutaku screamed out as Iwai collapsed on the ground only with his rifle to support him from fully toppling. His body was giving out. That last fight had burned every last drop of energy in his bone, and he found it difficult to keep his eyes open. "Get yourself together!"

"Yeah, yeah," The man muttered through his gritted teeth, his fingers shaking around the barrel of his weapon. "I ain't quittin' yet. We're so close." With that, he took a deep breath and forced himself to an upright standing his position. His last medicine. Hopefully, this was enough to clear the road to the treasure.

Iwai swallowed the bitter liquid and immediately felt his body coming back alive. His previously numb fingers now could be flexed again. Yeah, his muscles could complain later, but right now, Iwai didn't want to hear any of it. With a renewed vigour, he took a step forward with a firm grip on his persona to take on the last enemy he could see blocking his way to the console. This was it. Well, hopefully.

The fight dragged on much longer than he anticipated, but by the time it was over, he collapsed on the ground, ready to sleep right there when he felt his persona slapping him across the face with its tail.

"Come on, you need to get back before anything jump you." It said.

"Shut up, give me one minute," Iwai grumbled, exhausted. He felt like death itself at this moment. "I deserve this moment of solace." It was a mighty good thing that the floor was far too uncomfortable for him to sleep on, so he sluggishly made his way towards the nearest safe room and left the palace from there. He managed to secure a route to the treasure for Akira. A job well done. Hopefully, that was a sufficient enough apology for what he had done. Seeing how antsy Akira was today in Leblanc to the point of almost asking for his help made him think that he would be going into the metaverse tomorrow. If his body didn't feel like lead by then, maybe he would come along and give him a hand.

Well, that was something to think about tomorrow. For now, he was too damn tired to even do anything else aside from falling asleep. So, he did just that.

Damn biological alarm.

Iwai woke up at exactly seven in the morning even though he wanted nothing more than to crash until lunchtime. His body was still so damn sore as he begrudgingly dragged himself into the shower. Thanks to his decision to not wash himself after the metaverse yesterday, his bedsheet was sticky and gross although he just did his laundry three days ago. Way to make more work for himself.

Iwai emerged out of the shower with his white singlet and a towel around his neck. Now feeling slightly more alive, he made himself a cup of coffee. It was when he was finished that his phone buzzed a couple of times. With his right hand holding the beverage, he picked the noisy object up with his left.

"Ugh, who is it so early in the morning?" Irritated, the man huffed. More refunds to be processed? Faulty goods? Delayed shipments? The poor sod in the other line was in for a bad time if they dared to approach him when he was not in the healthiest headspace.

Akira? Iwai blinked, then he opened the message. It read,

Help.

Chapter Text

"Nice going!" Morgana said as he stretched his feline body. In front of him was a stack of calling cards that Akira had painstakingly created for two hours before bed. It was a great thing that Leblanc never had any shortage of magazines and newspapers to be scrapped.

"I need to get a printer so I can just skip this tedious part. Sometimes I feel that it's even harder than our palace runs." Akira flopped on the desk like he was just about ready to fall asleep like that. Had it not be for Morgana pawing the back of his head, he probably would've.

"Come on, you have school tomorrow. Go get packed up and then rest up." He muttered then pushed the ravaged papers off the table in an attempt to help Akira clean up.

The teen let out an exhale before he stood up and collected everything in a plastic bag, ready to be thrown out tomorrow. After putting some sanitiser on his hands, Akira then moved to collect the books he let pile up on his workshop bench and put them into his bag before nosediving into his bed where he rolled and let sleep overtake him.

Unfortunately for Akira, life went on, and Sunday turned into Monday in a blink of an eye. It was a good thing that he didn't have a massive day, but making fifty calling cards certainly took a toll on him. If only he had someone to help him out. Unfortunately, his partner was a cat and the other one bailed on him. What a lonely life being a phantom thief was.

One, two, three.

Akira quickly flicked through the cards. It didn't really matter if there were fifty or not, but he liked things being precise. Besides, he still had a few minutes before he had to leave, so not like he had anything else to do.

"Forty-nine?" The teen frowned at the uncomfortable odd number even though he made sure to prepare the right amount yesterday. He peered under his desk and moved his tools aside, but there was nothing.

"Come on, you're missing one. That doesn't matter. Who's keeping count?" Morgana said, his voice muffled because of the yawn that suddenly escaped from his throat.

Akira shrugged it off and then decided to grab his bag and walk out of the door, not forgetting to say goodbye to Sojiro who was busy cleaning some coffee cups. Inside his bag, Morgana nestled comfortably as he looked left and right, still sleepy. Good thing he could just sleep in Akira's desk at school. Sometimes he wondered how he hadn't been caught yet.

As usual, the train station was bustling with life. He only managed to squeeze between the seas of bodies inside one of the carriages and clutched his bag tight into his chest as they started moving. Akira got off at his station just a few minutes later and surprisingly enough, didn't encounter any of his friends on the way. Brushing it off, he made his way towards the shortcut that Ryuji showed him on his first day.

"Ow!" Akira flinched when he felt a nip on the back of his neck. "Don't do that, Morgana."

"Do what?" The cat narrowed his eyes at the accusation.

"That wasn't you?" Before he could add anything else, however, Akira's eyes tightened warily.

It wasn't obvious at first due to how many people were on the train with him, but now that he was alone, there could be no mistaking it. Someone was tailing him. Morgana seemed to notice this too, because all of a sudden, he was silent, not disrupting Akira from counting his footsteps. Walking down such an abandoned road couldn't be good, Akira decided. He needed to confront his stalker now and retreat back into the crowd.

He opened his mouth to call his follower out in the hope of scaring him off, but suddenly, his mind became hazy, and his sight flickered. That was when he hovered his hand on the back of his neck to find a needle sticking out of his skin. He pulled it out, then cursed himself for not realising it sooner — Tranquiliser needle. Akira tried his damnedest to say awake, but it was like his bones turned into jelly, and his muscles suddenly weighed a tonne. No longer able to support himself, he dropped to his knees with his entire body trembling.

"Hey, Akira! No, you can't pass out here!" Morgana struggled to get out of the bag but managed to do so after a good three seconds of effort. "Get your hands off him!" The cat leapt towards the attacker and desperately clawed on his leg only to be kicked to the side. He crashed against the wall and his body throbbed with stinging pain that caused his eyes to become disoriented. When he heard Akira's soft groans, however, he forced himself up although it was far too late. Akira had been dragged far away and his body thrown into a black car that drove off in a speed that Morgana could not hope to follow.

"Damn it!" Morgana cursed his powerlessness as he ran towards the end of the alleyway to see that the car was almost out of sight. In one last ditch effort, he ran as fast as his legs could take him, but he slowed down when the vehicle disappeared. "There must be something I can do..." He muttered to himself, head turning left and right as he walked back towards the alleyway.

That was where he found a familiar object on the ground. It was Akira's phone with its screen cracked. He must've dropped it at some point. Morgana jumped towards it and pressed his paw to unlock it only to be greeted with a wallpaper of him sleeping on top of Akira's blanket in the bed. "You're so lame." He laughed but quickly regained a sense of haste when he remembered that he shouldn't be dilly-dallying around when his friend's life was in danger.

Wait. Akira's friends. He could send them a text message... No, no, that wasn't an option. Akira wouldn't want any of them to be involved in this, and as painful as it might be Morgana had to agree. This wasn't a helpless thug they were dealing with, it was the damn mob, and like hell he would involve innocent students in their mess. That only left one man.

Morgana scrolled through Akira's contact list and sent a short message to Iwai.

.

Iwai paced around the room as he waited for Akira to pick up, but there was nothing except the frustrating connecting sound from the other line. What did he mean by help? Did Kaneshiro's men get to him this early in the morning? There was nothing else attached along with the message which made him assume that Akira was in no condition to say anything else. So, instead of potentially endangering the kid's life further, he hung up and stuffed his phone into his pocket.

He had no clue where Kaneshiro was and if Akira was taken by him in the first place. Time was of an essence. The longer he wander around aimlessly through Shibuya, the worse-off Akira would be and like hell if he'd let that happen.

"It's my damn fault. My fuckin' fault." Iwai stormed towards his bathroom and opened the drawer under his sink so quickly they came off their hinges. He took three bottles of painkillers as he thought about the time he bailed on Akira for a stupid reason, for his stupid ego. If he'd helped, they might already steal Kaneshiro's heart, and this would never have happened. Just when he thought he was protecting someone, he was only sending them to their death. How could he ever live with himself if Akira got injured?

It was no doubt that he was on his wit's end. In his guilt and desperation, Iwai transported himself into the metaverse. He'd kill that motherfucker himself if he had to. Kaneshiro might be an idiot, but Iwai knew that the man would undoubtedly destroy someone's life for his own safety. Akira still had so much life in him, so much justice left to give, and he wasn't going to die because of Iwai's blunder. He was the leader of the Phantom Thieves revered by everyone as the defenders of the weak. He had to live.

"Munehisa, calm down. You can't go into a fight riled up like this." Hakutaku warned his owner, but it was obvious that his words were left unheeded. Not even the slapping of his tail against Iwai's back had any effect on the man as he cut through the bank and into the elevator in the middle of the area. While it took its time to ascend, Iwai tapped his foot against the metal floor impatiently, his head was running a thousand miles per hour. He so badly wanted to bash Kaneshiro's head in for laying his filthy hand on Akira.

"God fuckin' dammit!" Iwai yelled out in frustration as his persona dematerialised from his face, leaving his eyes naked. He looked at the shimmer in front of him where the treasure was supposed to be. The calling card hadn't been delivered yet, of course. How was he going to do this now? Kaneshiro was nowhere to be seen now that his treasure wasn't being directly threatened. "Come out here 'n fight me, you fat pig!" Iwai yelled out, his voice echoing inside the spacious room 

There was no response.

Iwai swallowed thickly. He was lost. What was he supposed to do now? He wasn't the phantom thief, he had no idea what he could or couldn't do now that his only plan was foiled. If it were Joker, he most likely would have a plan B to Z up his sleeves. Absolutely furious at himself, Iwai sprayed the large metal safe in front of him with bullets, screaming, yelling for Kaneshiro to come out.

"How the great Munehisa has fallen," It was a voice that Iwai recognised. He snapped his head to the side to see Kaneshiro, white suit and all standing there mockingly. "You used to have it all. Respect, a home, now you have neither. The only person you call a friend is now at gunpoint. Kurusu Akira, wasn't it? A pretty little thing, he is."

"Get your hands off him, pest or I swear to god," Iwai spat, and as soon as those bitter words left his mouth, his visor returned. "I will drive a bullet through your skull."

"Ooh, scary!" Kaneshiro taunted, his palms pressed together. "How convenient. I only wanted to kill that brat, now looks like I can kill you too."

"Kill me? Don't make me laugh, pig. You couldn't even land a hit on me without fallin' over." Without warning, Iwai pulled the trigger of his sniper rifle to shoot the ground next to Kaneshiro, intentionally aiming so that the bullet made contact with the corner of his shoe. The shadow flinched and moved so abruptly he dropped on his rear. He could've killed him. Just one shot on his vital organs and that would've done the job. However, would Akira approve of such brutish method? No. Kaneshiro might be a criminal, but Iwai understood where Akira stood in the matter. Besides, if this scum died now, how would he confess to his sins?

"Insolence!" Kaneshiro screeched as he got back to his feet. "You will pay for this with your life!"

"Don't be stupid, Munehisa. You have to run. There is no point in fighting when the treasure isn't here for you to steal!" Warned his persona.

"No. I need to do this. If it's Akira, I'm sure... I'm sure that he'll find a way to escape," Iwai grunted. "You've seen him on the battlefield. Kid's damn resourceful. If anyone can slip away, it's him."

"The rebellious side of you burns bright," Hakutaku whispered, its voice now merely am amused chuckle more than anything. "You will no longer be swayed by words, it seems. Such resolve is commendable, Munehisa."

"Lend me a hand, Hakutaku. We'll off this sorry excuse of a shadow, treasure or not." He said, then allowed himself to be engulfed in the cool blue glow of his persona as it blazed to life, more powerful than it had ever been. Iwai's heart was set aflame due to his determination of incapacitating Kaneshiro so Akira could finish the job effortlessly. He needed to trust the phantom thief at this point to do his side of the job. "You better not die on me, Akira." With his rifle on his shoulder, Iwai scowled.

Time to go all out.

.

The hanged man.

Akira's head seemed so far out of this world, so detached from his body that he recalled what happened just yesterday, more specifically, what Chihaya had said to him during the silly love reading that was not at all what he'd expected.

"Reversed three of pentacles. Your partner will soon be overtaken with a restlessness that would lead to him making an unwise, brash and impulsive decision that he will not be able to achieve on his own. It looks like this ties in with the reversed Justice card. They have been lying to you in one way or another. You have to keep an eye on this person, Akira."

Akira saw it. The tarot card of the hanged man at the top of the pyramid spread. When he was in the velvet room fusing his persona, he noticed the increasing strength his hanged personas gained. There was no doubt in Akira's head that Ox was his hanged man confidant who was apparently, his soulmate if Chihaya's readings were to be trusted. And yes, Akira had the utmost, unshakeable faith in the fortune teller's ability.

Could it be that the reason he hadn't been showing up to the palace runs because of what Chihaya had said? Akira would like to think so, but she used a future tense in her readings, and he didn't think that was a mistake.

Akira was limp even when he was thrown across the floor right in front of Kaneshiro's feet, his bag sliding along the ground with him, sending books scattering on his side. His fingers were so useless and his mind so hazy, he couldn't resist even if he wanted to, not when it took him his all to not completely collapse. A fruitless effort because slowly but surely, his consciousness was slowly slipping. He didn't dare shut his eyes, however, in fear that if he did, they would not open again.

He could only manage a soft groan when he felt a pressure on his head, followed with Kaneshiro's gloating and a kick on the side of his body to flip him over so he was lying on his back. The room was foggy. He was seeing doubles. His head throbbed. He could scarcely stay awake, let alone listen to what everyone around him was saying. It couldn't be just tranquiliser that they injected him with. They must've used some other drugs to make him docile.

He couldn't breathe. Something was putting pressure on his lungs. It was then that he realised a foot on his chest, slamming repeatedly into him until he was groaning, coughing mess who could hardly do so much as a wheeze. With his fingers clawing uselessly on the cold ceramic tile under him, Akira reached for anything, anything. Anything at all. He met the straps of his bag and pulled on it weakly, dragging it closer to him as if it would protect him.

Suddenly, Kaneshiro stopped.

He reached towards Akira's bag and spilled its content. His books, his lunch and his stationary all fell to the ground, and Akira's eyes widened. Amidst all the books was a red slip of paper. Akira laughed pathetically at himself.

So that was where it went.

.

"There is nothing you can do alone, Iwai. Nothing!" Kaneshiro's shadow howled at the persona user from inside the Piggytron. "It was like this in the family too. You always had someone cleaning after your mess. You're just a child, incapable of wiping his own ass! I don't know what the kumicho saw in you. A pathetic rat, that's what you are!"

"Shut up... shut up!" Iwai's voice was cracked, broken, exhausted. He was on one knee, both hands desperately curling around his gun as to not fall over and admit defeat. However, he might be reckless, but he wasn't dumb. This fight was lost. He was out of stamina and healing items even if his persona was screaming at him to stand up and finish the job.

"You can't go down like this. Not on your knees in front of this scum!"

"I know... ugh!" The man flinched when the automaton landed a blow, sending him sliding back across the floor. "Fuck..." He coughed, one hand clutching the open wound on his shoulder. Half-lidded in pain, he shot Kaneshiro a glare. Yes, the shadow was badly wounded. Just a few more blows should do the trick, but he no longer had any fight left in him.

That should be good enough for Akira to easily finish the job, he grinned with blood slowly trickling down the side of his lips, his whole body covered in cuts and bruises that would make its way to real life if left untended. Maybe a broken rib too.

A split second later, Iwai felt a gust of wind blowing inside the closed room, all seemingly absorbed into one spot in between him and Kaneshiro. Then, he widened his eyes in shock.

"The treasure!" He held his breath when the said object slowly materialised in front of Kaneshiro. The faint shimmer from earlier had now been replaced with a glimmering golden suitcase hovering mid-air that made a rush of second wind stir inside of him. With a newfound strength that fuelled his entire veins, he charged and leapt forward towards the treasure in one last ditch effort to have any sort of upper hand in the lost fight. He was, however, quickly and very roughly swatted away with one blow from the Piggytron that once again sent him tumbling across the room. He could hear something crack, followed with stinging, intense pain that jolted through his bones.

Oh, yeah. Legs definitely weren't supposed to bend that way.

"Heh," Iwai grinned even as he coughed out blood. "Looks like the fun's over."  He could no longer run even if he wanted to now, and he doubted that Kaneshiro would allow him the luxury of crawling away. Not that he'd give such a despicable man a show as pathetic as that. So, even when the looming shadow of the monstrous automaton covered him, he didn't even flinch or look away. Instead, he spat on the ground. "He'll get you. I know he will."

Slowly, he felt his persona fading away as the last of his strength slipped out of him. He was foolish for thinking that he had a winning chance fighting inside this foreign territory, but what else was he supposed to do? If the treasure had materialised, it only meant that Akira and Morgana were going to come and finish the job that he couldn't.

"Scumbags like you who would dare hurt innocents won't ever get the last laugh." Iwai scorned, still with a challenging grin even if his body was betraying him. His vision was blurring, his voice now mere echoes without anyone else to hear him.

Then suddenly, he felt warmth blazing from the core of his body. When he glanced at the torn sleeves of his shirt, he noticed that there was a faint green glow surrounding him, his wounds closing and all pain subsided like someone just hit the rewind button.

"Well said, Ox!"

"Cat!?" Iwai got to his feet, now feeling a lot livelier than before. Next to him was Mona, in his thief attire armed with a slingshot and a falchion.

"I'm not a cat," Mona frowned in protest before it died down upon seeing Ox's naked face. "I-Iwai? So it is you!"

"Let's save that for later," He grunted when he realised that Hakutaku still hadn't returned. With a snap of his fingers, a blue flame emerged, and his visor returned as well as his rifle. "We have a fly to squash. Let's go, cat!"

.

Akira didn't know what to expect, nor could he begin to think about it when he was put on a gunpoint, What kind of drug was injected into his system? It felt like one of Takemi's clinical trials that left him feeling woozy and disoriented. The only reason he had yet to pass out was most likely his increasing immunity to odd medications. He had Takemi to thank for that. However, he could feel some tingling sensations on his fingertips as a sign that the drug was slowly wearing off.

He couldn't quite make out what Kaneshiro was saying to him, but he briefly recognised the word 'three million yen' as he was being firmly held up by the hair. Despite all the numbness, he could smell Kaneshiro's bad breath and it was absolutely disgusting. Just a little longer. He had to hold on a little longer and he was sure that Morgana would do something because there was absolutely nothing he could do in this drugged state. His partner might seem a little carefree at times but he knew that Morgana could be extremely resourceful when the situation called for it.

In a matter of seconds, Akira was dropped from mid-air and he only just managed to cushion his fall with his elbow. Groaning in discomfort, he glanced up at Kaneshiro who had already disarmed himself. Instead of looking smug, he trembled as he looked at his hands, his lips quivering before he shot a palm against his forehead and slumped into his seat.

"What... what have I done?" He stammered. "Let this boy go! I'm... I'm going to turn myself into the police. I'll go right now!" Like a man possessed, Kaneshiro ran towards the exit and slammed the door open, leaving all five people in the bar staring at his back in bewilderment.

"No, someone stop him!" One of them yelled out as they charged after their boss.

"I'm outta here. You guys better do something about this!" The female who had been dangling off Kaneshiro's shoulder grabbed her bag and sped off.

"What did you do to him, you little shit!? Huh!?" A dark-haired man with a scar on his cheek spat as he grabbed a fistful of Akira's hand and dragged their faces close so they were eye-to-eye.

Akira smirked even through his battered eyes and cracked glasses. "Guess he had a change of heart." He said mockingly, then finished it off with a spit on Kaneshiro's underling's face.

"You... fucker..." With teeth grinding against each other in fury, he swung his fist back to strike the smug teen who had, unbeknownst to him, regained half of his strength thanks to his body's high tolerance to drugs.

Instead of the hit that the criminal hoped, his hand was caught mid-air by Akira who choked out a snicker as he slammed their heads together, causing the older man to release his grip on Akira's hair and stumble backwards in pain.

"Get him, get him! Kill him!" He screamed, and immediately, three men jumped on Akira who swiftly rolled away and got on his feet.

He cracked his fingers in an attempt to test his strength. He had yet to fully recover, but against a group of men obviously untrained in combat with pathetic teamwork at best, this should be plenty. Besides, he missed out on all the fun in the metaverse. He deserved some in real life, for sure. His bloodthirstiness must've seeped out a little more than he intended to because as he licked his lips and spat blood out of his mouth before proceeding to take a step forward, all four men in front of him took one step back.

"What's wrong?" Akira purred teasingly, almost seductively. "Are you afraid?"

"Fuck... kill him!" One of them ran forward, jabbing a knife towards Akira. It was an assault that Akira avoided quite easily, only a sidestep to the left and he managed to knee the attacker on the stomach. As he heard the grunt of pain, Akira quickly grabbed the man's arm and threw him to the nearest table where he crashed loudly, the vase and candle on top of it fell and burnt the corner of his clothes. That must hurt.

Ignoring the panicked yelp from behind him, Akira leapt forward and very easily put all the others on the ground until everyone was nothing more than a groaning mess, none of them daring to move even their fingers.

Akira patted his hands together as if to clean the germs that might've lingered before fixing his glasses, tapping his hair back to its original position and putting the books back inside his bag. Without so much as a word, Akira glanced back, smiled at his handiwork, and left the room.

.

"Akira, you're back!" Morgana jumped towards his friend when he saw him in front of the Shibuya station just walking past the Buchiko statue. "Ooh, those are some nasty wounds. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Akira laughed nonchalantly before scooping the cat up and putting him inside his bag. "Thanks to you. I can't believe you managed to take down Kaneshiro."

"As much as I'd love to take all the credit, I can't," Morgana sighed. "Ox, that sneaky bastard, decided to waltz into the metaverse and almost downed shadow Kaneshiro by himself. Well, he would've died if it wasn't for me, though!"

"Ox?" Akira's eyes gleamed behind his cracked glasses. "What was he—nevermind that, why at such a convenient time?"

"You should ask him yourself," Morgana sighed in exhaustion. "But I think you're right, Akira. He's not a bad guy. I mean, he risked his life to save you."

"Risked his life... to save me? How did he know I was in danger?"

"He—ugh! I said too much already. I'm not gonna say any more!"

"And how am I going to contact him? Metaverse?" Akira scratched his head in confusion as they walked into the station. "And I lost my phone too..."

"Oh right, he has your phone. Don't worry about it, he said he'll come to see you tomorrow at Leblanc. He almost ran off to Yongen once we jumped out of the metaverse, too... didn't get too far, though. He almost passed out on the door," Morgana chuckled, shaking his head at the memory. "In the meantime, you should focus on getting your wounds healed. Let's go see Takemi after this!"

"Hey, are you going to leave me hanging after what I went through? You found out who Ox is, right? Just tell me!"

"My lips are sealed. I can't risk you running off now. You need to get a good night's sleep, you hear me? And you should take tomorrow off too."

"You're not my dad, Morgana," Akira sighed but flattered at the concern displayed by his good friend. "You're right, though. I do need to sleep and let the drug wear off."

"Say, how did you manage to get the treasure to manifest?" He finally decided to ask.

"Remember how I only counted forty-nine calling cards this morning? It appears that one of them somehow found its way wedged under my textbooks and into my bag. I guess I just got lucky that Kaneshiro spilled the content of my bag and found it."

"Hah! Seems like the gods really do favour you, Akira. You seem to always somehow cheat death."

"And I hope it keeps happening because there's no way I'm going to die any time soon." Akira grinned and Morgana followed the playful gesture as the two exchanged waves of laughter that only they understood.

Tomorrow he would finally find out who Ox was. He couldn't wait to thank him in person, and also maybe give him a good beating or two for bailing on the Phantom Thieves like that. If he was lucky, maybe they'd be able to recruit him to join their cause.

Chapter Text

Akira awoke without any throbbing headache, obviously thanks to whatever prescription Takemi made him swallow. The bottle wasn't even labelled, but he knew more than to doubt the doctor he came to call a friend. In the meantime, Morgana slept peacefully next to his pillow, his body rising and falling as he purred comfortably, a sight that put a smile on Akira's lips and made him momentarily forgot about the ache in his bones.

He opened the blinds behind him and let the morning sun stream into the room. It still stung a little when he moved, particularly his chest and stomach where he received most of his blows. As much as he would love to go to school and see Ryuji's silly mug again, it was probably wiser if he didn't. He was extremely lucky that he didn't encounter Sojiro last night and managed to slip to the attic unnoticed. He didn't even know where to begin if his guardian asked him where the hell those bruises came from. What a shame that injuries suffered in real life could not be healed in the metaverse, no matter how minor they are.

Well, if they could, Akira might want to consider quitting school and opening a shady hospital instead, maybe next to Untouchable for the extra creepy factor. He had to admit, that didn't sound too bad!

"Hey, kid! Some cops are here for you."

"Uh-oh," Akira murmured quietly as Morgana stretched his feline body and yawned. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire." He sighed before standing up and then proceeded to walk down the stairs where he saw Sojiro waiting for him. The bearded man raised his eyebrows when he saw Akira's purple eyes and swollen cheeks.

"What the hell—" He seemed at a loss for words, but before he could say anything else, the two detectives behind him tapped him on the shoulder.

"It's okay, Sakura-san. We just need his testimony regarding his kidnapping yesterday morning."

"Kidnapping?" Sojiro widened his eyes and crossed his arms, obviously surprised. Thankfully, he didn't interrogate Akira any further. Instead, he moved to the side to give the teen some space.

"Over here, Kurusu." One of the men near the door beckoned him to come closer and Akira complied without any protests.

"Uhm," He started as he scooped Morgana up from the floor. "Can I take this little guy with me? He was also a witness, maybe you can get him to testify too."

"Akira, what the heck?" Morgana cracked up at the sass.

"He said yes," Akira said flatly, his voice so monotone that it would've come out as serious had he not finish with a small grin. The detectives rolled their eyes at the cheeky comment but didn't say anything else. All of them walked out of Leblanc and hopped into a black car parked just outside.

The questioning was thankfully quite brief. He expected to be there for at least two hours, but they decided to let him go, no doubt thanks to the apparent injuries that he sustained. They even had a medical representative there to draw his blood and determine what kind of drug they injected the victim with. Oh, and also the calling card. Akira was tempted to steal it and frame it in his room when they weren't looking, but decided otherwise. That would just bring him a world of problem.

It was clear that the officers wanted to keep Akira there a bit longer to ensure that he wasn't the mastermind behind Kaneshiro's actions, most likely because of his false criminal record. Thankfully, there was nothing that could point to him as a perpetrator, so he was promptly let go.

As he walked home from the police station through Shibuya with his hands in his pockets, he saw the news regarding Kaneshiro on the screen.

"Now, for breaking news. Junya Kaneshiro has been arrested this afternoon with the charge of drug trafficking through minors, disruption of local businesses through forged documents and money, and the kidnapping and abuse of a student whose identity will not be disclosed. The man who will be facing trial has confessed all of his crimes to the police last evening, now, Kubota-san, do you think that this is yet another handiwork of the Phantom Thieves?"

Akira pushed his glasses with his fingers as he gave Morgana a discreet high-five at the job well done. With satisfied smirks, they retreated into the train station and towards Leblanc.

When Akira pushed the door open with a jingle, he immediately noticed a customer sitting on one of the stools, a steaming mug of hot black coffee in front of him along with a plate of half-eaten curry croquette.

"Iwai-san?" Akira blinked, taking the man's attention as he turned to face the teen with a troubled expression. He was exhausted if those bags under his eyes were anything to go by. He had abandoned his hat and ear protectors once again, leaving his silver hair on full display.

Akira was about to walk past him, but he stopped short when the man dug his hand into his pocket to retrieve an object, then slid it along the counter towards Akira who could only look at his phone with absolute confusion, wonder and amazement that soon turned into a loud sigh as he took the object and smacked Iwai on the shoulder, all semblance of intimidation disappeared just like that.

"You're an ass, you know that?" He grunted, not noticing the confused look that Sojiro employed.

"Hey, ow, okay, I deserve that." The gun dealer groaned at the pain that shot through his body. All of his bruises might have disappeared without a scar, but it didn't mean that the pain wasn't there. He was damn sore.

"Come upstairs when you're done." Muttered Akira while giving a nod towards Sojiro who shrugged and continued cleaning the cutleries in his hands.

"Woah, you actually hit him, Akira!" Morgana laughed at the unexpected reaction.

"Not hard enough," The teen growled as he threw himself onto the bed with a sigh. Iwai still terrified him, but now he knew the truth, he could finally relax around him. "So, Ox is really..."

"Yeah, I was really surprised," The cat added. "Well, you'll get the full recount of the event when he comes up here, so just wait a bit longer." Not long after he said it, they heard footsteps on the creaky stairs, and soon enough, Iwai was there, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Sorry to keep it a secret, I just didn't know how to—"

"You're a coward," Akira scoffed as he leaned back on the bed with both of his hands propping him up. "If you regret having sex with me that much, you can just say it to my face."

"That's not—" Iwai exhaled, then ran his hands along his wiry hair, all while ignoring Morgana's scandalised expression. "Look, that's beside the point. Are you... are you okay, kid?"

"I got beaten up black and blue, dragged to the police station but aside from that, I'm absolutely cheery." Akira hissed, his expression contorted as evidence that he was indeed, annoyed.

As if to calm him down, Morgana placed a paw on Akira's hand and shook his head. "Akira, don't be too harsh on him, he did save you, after all."

Akira rubbed his temple with his palm before nodding, knowing that Morgana was talking sense. "Thanks. How did you know I was in trouble and if the treasure was going to manifest at all?"

"Morgana texted me. Just 'help', that's it. I didn't know what else there is to do without wasting precious time, so I went blindly into the palace."

"And I did too because I couldn't wait around for Iwai's response and do nothing," Morgana added. "I knew someone else was there, but I didn't realise that Ox already cleared a path towards the treasure and was fighting Kaneshiro."

"Yeah, I did that the day before you got kidnapped. I thought I owe you an apology, so I wanted to help. Somehow."

"By yourself?" Akira raised one of his eyebrows in disbelief. Even with Morgana, he would've struggled through, but to think that Iwai managed to accomplish that, well, it was unreal and only served as hard proof of the man's abilities. At the shrug that he received, Akira nodded. "Impressive work."

"That's the least I can do," Iwai smiled, obviously a little proud at the compliment from the leader of the Phantom Thieves. "And apparently Kaneshiro's behind the dramas in Shibuya too, huh? I knew that there was someone else besides my target."

Akira recalled the news report and crossed his arms in understanding. "He had forged documents against Untouchable?"

"Yeah, threatened me to pay up or risk getting sued. Breaking into his underling's place was no big deal but then you had the guts to withhold those keys to the documents from me. You almost cost me my business, y'know?" The man laughed at the memory.

"So that's why we could enter his palace. You were his customer," Akira gave Iwai a grin after knowing that they hit two birds with one stone, seeing how the two cases were related. "Tell me, then. Why did you keep your identity a secret? Did you enjoy seeing me being a nervous wreck in front of you that much?"

"I didn't know what to say. I mean, I took advantage of you in my moment of weakness. I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry. Besides, you were starting to warm up to me, so I didn't want to break the news like that."

"I was the one who forced your hands and correct me if I'm wrong but," The teen grinned as he pulled his legs up to the bed and rested an arm on his knee. "You enjoyed it, didn't you?" Had they been in the metaverse, he would've done a bit more. Maybe approach Iwai and press their hips together, but it was like his restraints chained him down. Not to mention that he had been terrified of the man before his secrets were laid bare. There was still something on the back of his mind that tried to convince him that he was going to get himself killed if he tried anything.

Akira knew that wasn't the case, though. Iwai was Ox, and if they didn't have a split personality, he was perfectly safe to do anything he wanted and would get away with it too. Now that he looked at it, he wondered how he missed it. They moved in the exact same manner, talked in the same pitch with the same mix of warmth and distance and exuded the same aura that would push strangers away, but drew those he cared about closer.

Why he wondered. Oh, probably because of all he ever focused on when it came to Iwai was his boots.

"That's not the point here, kid," Iwai shook his head as he leaned against the table in the other corner of the room. "It's just, I should've been a more responsible adult and not defile you that way."

"Responsible adult, huh?" Akira murmured softly. The darkness in his tone took Iwai completely by surprise that he failed to say anything despite wanting to know what he meant by that. "Well, anyway," The teen inhaled, this time a smile bloomed on his lips as he looked at Iwai. "I've seen what you can do, Ox. You've got a good heart and you were willing to take care of a stranger, even fight for him. I believe that the Phantom Thieves can benefit from someone like that."

Iwai scoffed. "You're no stranger, kid. I could really care less about those who I'm not involved with. You don't know anything about me."

"Perhaps that's right," Akira admitted. Iwai was spot on and he wasn't about to refute the statement. "Just as I don't know anything about you, you also don't know me, but that didn't stop you from trying to correct the wrong you thought you did," Finding the strength to stand up, Akira approached Iwai and stood an arm's length away from him. "Taking responsibilities for your mistakes is not something that everyone can do, much less admit their errors; not even adults who are supposed to teach us everything about it."

Iwai held his breath as Akira slowly drew closer. There was an edge to his voice that sent a shiver down Iwai's spine. He had been through a lot, he could tell. Why else would he desperately fight for his own justice, otherwise?

"Don't get me wrong, Ox. I'm not blaming you for anything. This wasn't your business, to begin with, but you helped us plenty, and for that, you have my gratitude," Akira gave Iwai a smile. "And I'd understand if you refuse my offer."

There it was, yet another mask of Akira that he discovered at the most random of time. Although he was acting authoritative, there was a certain vulnerability in his voice, a silent cry for help that Iwai didn't know how to react to, or where it originated from. 

"Sheesh," Iwai laughed as he shifted his lollipop from left to right. "Fine, I'll join you guys. Who knows what kind of deep shit you two are gonna stick your noses into next."

There was a glimmer in Akira's eyes that soon was obscured by his bangs as he chuckled, half-purring. "Oh yeah, I do need an alpha male to take control of my impulses and spank me when I get out of line." That was the cue for Morgana to jump off the bed and ran off down the stairs as quickly as his little feet could take him.

"You two are gross!" Was the last thing he said before he disappeared downstairs.

"Uh... y-yeah."

"Are you gonna do that, daddy?"

"Hey, now," Iwai cleared his throat when he realised that he had been backed into a corner by someone who, until a few days ago, couldn't look him straight in the eyes without pissing himself. "Come on, kid. Don't do that."

Instead of pressing any further like Iwai half-expected the teen to, he merely laughed and took a step back. "Okay, let's have a celebration, then, to welcome you to the Phantom Thieves. What was Kaneshiro's treasure, by the way?"

"A gold briefcase. It's worth a lot, I can tell you that."

"Oh great, that means you can pay for our sushi. Come on, let's go!" Akira all but grabbed Iwai's wrist and dragged him down the stairs where Sojiro eyed the pair questioningly. The teen quickly withdrew his hand as a result. "Uh, we're heading to Ginza."

"What for? You should rest up." The older man said as he eyed Iwai up and down. However, it seemed that after the many times Akira called for Kawakami, he seemed to understand that the boy he was in charge of had many peculiar friends.

"Don't worry, I'll take care of him," Said Iwai as he placed money on the counter. Akira quickly said his goodbye and scuttled out of the door with Morgana. "He's way stronger than he looks. Thanks for the coffee, it was great." 

.

"Woah," Setting down the chopsticks, Iwai murmured. "Damn, the support for the Phantom Thieves just skyrocketed."

"Did it?" Akira hummed in contentment next to Iwai who was busy scrolling through his phone, then placed the last piece of fatty tuna into his mouth and purred as it melted on his tongue. He would never understand people who didn't enjoy sushi. This is the food of the god. "Are you second-guessing your decision now? Being in the spotlight isn't easy."

"Hah! And what 'bout you? You don't give a rat's ass about fame." Iwai rolled his eyes in response. Morgana's head was poking out of the bag, wolfing down the pieces of fish that Akira offered when the chef was a safe distance away from them.

"Nuh," The teen shrugged in confirmation as he moved on to the next piece of the masterpiece and admired its beautiful gleam. He wasn't an artist, but it was like his inner Yusuke was out to play. "Fame's superficial. Once you fall into its grasp, you'll lose sight of yourself."

"If not for fame, what are you fighting for, then?"

Akira sucked on his chopsticks as he thought of an answer. A second later, he threw a grin at Iwai and said, "The promise of more sushi in the future?" making the man burst out laughing. "If you're expecting me to say something noble, you might as well go home now."

"Yeah," Iwai nodded with one of his elbows resting on the counter, body tilted towards Akira. "I know that you're not that stupid to think that you can change the many skewed perceptions of justice single-handedly."

"I'm fighting for myself," He said. "Everything I've done might look like it's for someone else, but ultimately, it's always been for myself. It just so happen that my goal and Morgana's align that we're travelling together."

Interest piqued, the shop owner leaned forward and observed Akira's pensive, vulnerable eyes behind his glasses.

"Kamoshida was an asshole, there's no doubting that. He hurt my friends, Ann and Ryuji, even drove Shiho to commit suicide. However, it wasn't until I was threatened with expulsion that I took action," Akira sighed, setting his chopsticks down as he rubbed his hand over Morgana's head like it brought him comfort. "And Madarame... Yes, he was abusing Yusuke's adoration of him, but I only decided to change his heart when he said that he'd report me to the authorities for snooping around his place. I have a criminal record so that trespassing would probably be enough to send me to the juvie."

"Wait, you have a record?"

"A false charge. Tried to stop harassment, maybe a potential rape attempt, hurt the perpetrator and got arrested for it." Akira shrugged. In his bag, Morgana was about to say something but held his tongue because he knew as soon as he meowed, they would be kicked out of the premise.

There was an attempt for him to look as nonchalant as he possibly could, but Iwai could see pain even when his eyes were closed. "There's more to it than an arrest." He mumbled.

"Supposed men of justice having a field day drugging and beating up innocent citizen. Ironic, huh?" Akira let out a dry laugh as he popped the last piece of sushi into his mouth and stood up before Iwai could say anything else. "I'll wait outside."

Iwai remained rooted on his seat for a few more lingering seconds, his brain now playing catch-up. Akira truly had been through that? It was hard to believe that he had been through such rough time, but now he knew, he wondered if that was what fuelled him to make his own justice even if he said that everything he did was only to exact his revenge.

When Iwai snapped out of it, he paid for the meal and walked outside where Akira was fiddling on his phone disinterestedly. The news from the local electronic store was blaring, everyone talking about the Phantom Thieves, not knowing that all of the members were standing in the vicinity.

"Why Kaneshiro, then?" Iwai muttered, and his question was met with a bewildered expression that was soon replaced with a smile.

"I just had a hunch that he's connected to the person who gave me a record. And for your information, my gut feelings are usually right. This time though, no dice," Admitted Akira as they walked towards the station. "I'm trying to get revenge, maybe give some adults a slap on the hands while I'm at it."

Once again, the older man laughed. It had been a while since he felt so free like this.

"You're the first person who didn't give me a look of pity at the mention of my past."

"The past is what makes you, you. It can be fuckin' ridiculous and people would say that one's past doesn't define 'em, but I beg to differ," Iwai threw Akira sideways glance. "I used to be a Yakuza, y'see. I awoke to my persona when I was in my teenage year and that was what pushed me to leave that life behind. Tried runnin' away for years until I admit that without 'em, I would be nothing. No life skills, no persona, definitely no airsoft guns."

There was a pause as the two cut through a bunch of people in their way to get to the nearest stairs. Akira had always had the feeling that Iwai was part of a gang of sorts, so that didn't come as a surprise.

"Don't think I'm underminin' what happened to you, though. It's pretty fucked up," He added. "But there's no use dwelling in what's already happened. I'm sure you know that."

"You're a weirdo, Iwai-san." Akira laughed, in turn, making Iwai snort.

"Look who's talkin', Mr I-only-do-this-for-myself." The two exchanged grins while Mona fell asleep in Akira's bag. They boarded the train and stood next to each other in the rather crowded Akira was in the corner between Iwai and the door. Not the best position, he soon realised. Because whenever he inhaled, he could smell traces of Iwai's cologne mixed with sweets. And when the side of his face bumped against Iwai's chest when the train made an abrupt movement, he swallowed.

Akira glanced at the man's face to admire his sideburns, long jaw, rough stubbles and sharp eyes that were cast outside the glass pane behind Akira. So this was Iwai. He regretted not daring to look at him closer all those months ago. He might seem intimidating to those who didn't know any better, but Akira could see a hint of warmth in his grey eyes. This was the man who risked his life to atone for a mistake that shouldn't even be considered such.

He didn't know what to do with himself now. All his life, he had never been the one to be saved, and to suddenly have someone willing to go to such an extent for him was... confusing.

"All that thinkin' is stressin' me out, Akira. I can smell it from here." Iwai teased, echoing what Akira had said to him a week or so ago.

Hearing his name coming out of Iwai's lips, Akira felt a sense of affection blooming inside his heart and he only managed a soft chuckle as he tilted his head down, in turn bumping his forehead against Iwai's hard chest.

Iwai didn't know what to expect, but a flustered, blushing Akira wasn't it. "Are you sure you're the same Joker who blatantly hits on strangers?" He chuckled, making Akira's cheeks burn even more.

"Well, that's... different. In the metaverse, I have my mask and... it's not as scary." He sighed, looking away, but froze when he felt Iwai's warm hand on his head.

"That's bullshit and you know it."

"Yeah," Akira choked out, this time chuckling to himself. "Half-bullshit. That's true. You look and act like the officer who beat me up when I first saw you, that's why I got a bit squeamish. Now I look at you more closely, I don't know what I was thinking. You two are obviously different."

Iwai's eyes softened when he noticed that Akira's grip on the handlebar next to him tightened. Instead of responding to his statement, the older man asked, "So you think that if you keep doing what you do, you'll find the answer you're lookin' for eventually?"

"Something like that," Akira smiled. "And you, Iwai-san? Why did you decide to humour me?"

"Hey, someone's gotta make sure you don't get yourself killed." He scoffed. They spent the rest of the trip in a comfortable silence. Iwai finally got the answer he was looking for, though he had no doubt that the surprises weren't about to end any time soon.

.

It had only been a week since Iwai's decision to join the Phantom Thieves and they still hadn't made a trip to the metaverse. And as far as he was concerned, Akira hadn't either. Good, the kid needed a break after all that heroics. He might claim that he was trying to save his own skin, but he also saved many others in the process. Akira was a lot kinder and sympathetic than he claimed to be.

Nothing had changed, really. Akira hadn't made a stop at Untouchable after their sushi outing, but they did keep in touch using their phones. This time, though, Akira hadn't responded in over an hour which made Iwai a little antsy. Was he in the metaverse? No, he promised to let Iwai know when he wanted to go and the kid wasn't the type to go back on his words. And there was the whole mess with Medjed that Akira said he'd ignore, for now, hoping that it would blow over.

Seriously, what was that kid doing? He sure liked living his life on the edge. If it was Iwai, he wouldn't be able to sit still sucking his thumb while someone else threatened him.

"Hi, handsome."

Iwai spat out the coffee that he was about to swallow right on his magazine and watched as Akira leapt over the counter with one hand as a pivot point. He landed quietly next to Iwai, and the man reflexively pulled back his feet that had been slouched on the counter for the past couple of hours. He then swivelled on his chair to face the unexpected guest.

"Can't you just walk around the counter like a normal hu—oof," He grunted when Akira dropped on his lap and rounded his arms around his neck. If the teen had a tail, it must be wagging left and right by now. "What are you doing?"

"Sitting," Said Akira lazily, breaking the hold only to grab his phone and stole the lollipop dangling off the corner of Iwai's lips, ignoring the older man's protests. Once he did that, he returned to his original position and started scrolling away.

"There's a stool right there. And a sealed lollipop just in the drawer." Iwai grumbled, one hand pressing Akira's shoulder in an attempt to push him away.

"What's the fun in that? I'm a thief, I take things." Akira hummed as he typed a reply on the group chat between him, Ryuji, Yusuke and Makoto.

Knowing when to admit defeat, Iwai just sighed and dropped the drenched magazine on the floor. Didn't seem like Akira was going to budge any time soon. He just hoped that no customers would be coming in to see a high-schooler perched on his lap.

"So, what're you gonna do about Medjed?" Asked Iwai, his voice fuelled with curiosity. He might be a part of the Phantom Thieves now, but Akira seemed content to be as enigmatic as ever, never sharing his thoughts and schemes unless asked.

"Nothing. They're not attacking us directly." Muttered Akira lazily, his feet by Iwai's sides now swinging back and forth like he had made himself right at home.

"I knew you'd say that," Iwai sighed. "Can you get off? What would people say if they walk in and see you like this?"

"They'll be jealous."

"What if it's someone from your school? Gossip spreads quickly, y'know."

"They'll still be jealous," Akira snorted. "Besides, it's not like I haven't been labelled already."

"You're impossible. Do you act like this with everyone?"

That was enough to make Akira pull back and frown at Iwai. "I'm hurt that you'd think that."

Shaking his head, Iwai lifted his hand and landed a flick on Akira's forehead, making the younger male flinch. "Don't even try to guilt trip me, kid."

"Hah, you got me," The curly-haired teen chuckled before he leaned in to steal a kiss only to have Iwai move his head to the side. "Come on, you're acting like we haven't had sex already."

"That was..." Iwai closed his eyes. "...different, okay?"

"What? You'll only have sex with me if I'm Joker?"

"I didn't say—hold on!" Iwai yelped when his surroundings suddenly became distorted and he fell on his rear against the hard and cold concrete of the metaverse. "Hey, wait, I've got a shop to mind!"

His complaints died in his throat when a pair of gloved hands rubbed the back of his neck, sending a tingle down his spine. This didn't help Iwai's already weak resolve to not taint Akira in this manner, especially when his damn persona refused to materialise as a visor.

"Ah, youth." He heard Hakutaku whispered in his head with a low chuckle before it went completely silent, leaving Akira to completely devour Iwai's lips in that intoxicating, masterful kiss that made Iwai's head spin.

Pulling away, Joker smirked and darted his tongue across his lips, his hands now gliding along Iwai's waist before he tore the velcro that secured the bulletproof vest in place with a lout zzt. "Can we now, Mune?" 

Iwai was silent for a few seconds as Akira continued undoing his vest, all while looking into his eyes. He felt all of his restraints snapping one by one under the intense gaze. The last flimsy string then was completely cut when he saw Akira pulling out his gun and taking a blind shot at the shadow that started to creep towards them just on the left.

He inhaled sharply at the sight.

"...Fine. Make it quick."