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ᚴᚱᚨᚴᚱᚷᚨᛚᛞᚱ (Krákrgaldr)

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Two days had passed since Ren faked his own death, and he was already sick of it.

He had no one but himself to blame, of course. The tales of his death being greatly exaggerated was all Ren’s idea, sure, but that "death" couldn't happen without someone else playing their role.

That someone was Goro Akechi.

Ren’s bait and switch with the grave wouldn’t be possible without Akechi pressing a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, pausing only long enough to smile. It wasn’t really Ren who ate the bullet, but the Cognition was just real enough to fool Akechi—which was the goal all along, sadly, truthfully, shamefully. Akechi was useful and used and never even knew.

Ren wanted to be sorry for pulling the wool over his friend-slash-rival-slash-attempted murderer’s eyes, just as much as he wanted to watch Akechi bare his teeth and snarl with barely contained fury when he learned how he'd been had. The brilliant Detective Prince, his mind sharp and bright like a diamond, still blissfully, brutally unaware of Ren’s betrayal. The thought of it made Ren laugh, but it was an empty sound, hollow and joyless.

He should feel triumphant. He should feel something, anything at all. He should at least pat himself on the back for belatedly evening the score when Akechi laid out the most blatant low blow Ren received since that basketball incident in junior high.

It happened one the last night before Sae's Palace. Akechi, as always, parked himself on the stool at Leblanc's counter, looking, as always, pensively preoccupied. When Ren worked up the nerve to ask about it, Akechi looked him dead in the eye and said, "How the Phantom Thieves view justice is none I'm familiar with. Whatever change they bring about is done through deceit."

Ren knew bait when he heard it, and he knew he wasn't going to take this one. "Bold words from a guy who runs a food blog but finds a way to burn boiling water."

Akechi's smile was tight at the corners, pinned in place and the furthest thing from true. "But neither of those things harm anyone—and as I recall, you said you'd keep an eye on the stove."

"Say that to Sojiro's scalded pans."

Ren should be proud of what he'd done, especially since the Metaverse and Cognitions were things he barely understood at best and all attempts to make them work in his favor complete shots in the dark at the very worst. But he wasn't proud. His heart got in the way of all the gloating he had to do; that pesky, hysterical little organ just didn't know when to call it quits.

A nagging, gnawing need still yawned inside Ren’s heart, its sharp set of teeth tearing the soft pulp. It was an old guest in the halls of his heart, invited in the moment he and Akechi became confidants. He’d felt it as far back as the TV studio where he and Akechi first met, when Akechi’s eyes glanced his way and did not waver, as if Ren were someone worth looking at and seeing. Ren felt this nagging and gnawing and needing even in the months they spent together, their friendship-slash-rivalry-slash-curious example a very specific and previously unknown urge inside of Ren that should probably be unpacked in therapy that was no different than careful dance on a knife's edge. And through it all, through their effortlessly barbed banter and late night texts and early morning coffee, Ren never felt like he had ever said enough. There was always something left unsaid, something more he wanted Akechi to hear.

A part of him—the same dark, grinning part of him that lovingly crafted the plan to die and yet live—wanted to thank Akechi for his assistance. There were times—times when the silence pressed against Ren the hardest, times when he would pace the attic in frantic circles, beating his steps into the well-worn wood that had known many burdens before his own—that he even thought of messaging Akechi to thank him.

Thanks for taking part in my con against mortality, sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but it was technically your idea to begin with since it was your plan to give me a dirt nap, and I would’ve made this message more formal but they don’t make a Hallmark card for our situation, soooo…

Of course he didn’t send the message. That would be reckless even by his incredibly flexible standards (standards so loose they had all the structural fortitude of a crêpe). But that didn’t stop Ren from picking up his phone, scrolling rapidly through his contacts, and hovering his thumb over Akechi’s name in his contact list.

He did so now, delighting in the thrill of it, his own dark secret. Just the thought of it made shivers ripple through his body, the hairs on his arms rising up along with goosebumps. No one would know. No one had to know. It's not like his friends asked much about him unless they spilled their guts first, questions that felt more like obligatory curiosity than genuine interest. But Ren was used to that. Most of his time in Tokyo not spent traversing liminal spaces and wondering just how he was going to scrape by with passing grades was spent picking up the broken pieces and bloody bits of his friends' hearts, diligently putting them back where they belonged.

Except for Akechi. Akechi, who had showed Ren all the split seams of his heart and never once waited for Ren to mend them. Look at my damage. See it? Feel it? It’s mine, not yours.

As he lay there brooding in his thoughts, Ren didn't hear the sounds of Mona climbing in from the fire escape until it was too late.

“Isn't it past your bedtime?” the not-cat asked.

Ren turned towards the sound, watching as Mona made a graceful descent from the window to the bed.

“Isn't it past yours?” he fired back.

Mona scratched the back of his ear and huffed. "I slept all day at Futaba-chan's, and got tired of it. So I came over here to check on you."

"You got tired of being tired?"

"That's what I said." Mona tilted his head and batted at Ren's phone with his paw. "Who are you messaging? Isn't it a little late to be talking?"

"Nothing—it's noth—"

Ren’s words stalled on his lips as Mona bumped his head against his arm and peered at the screen. Mona’s bright blue eyes quickly scanned the screen, taking in the open message. “Is it Ann-don—? Oh. … Oh.”

Neither of them moved. On the streets below, Ren could hear the distinct retch and groan of the neighborhood drunk.

Mona winced at the sound, his whiskers twitching. “You… still kept that?” he asked, his voice quiet. His tail swished against Ren’s arm, too soft to be a lash or a slap. The movement stung all the same.

There was no point pretending; Mona already saw the screen. And the dark, brooding, gleeful part of Ren that gloated about his deceit also wanted to air out his secret and wait to see the horror sink in.

“Sure did,” he said. After a moment, he leaned forward and set his phone on the ground. It’d be just his luck if he accidentally texted Akechi while in this conversation. A lap-text was slightly more dignified than butt-dialing, but only slightly.

Mona’s silence was like a weight on Ren’s back, pressing, pushing, crushing. Then, finally, the not-cat he asked, “… Shouldn’t you try to let it go?”

That. It. Ren scraped his teeth along the inside of his cheek at these words. As if Akechi weren’t a person at all, but an object, a thing.

Ren did not answer Mona’s question, and eventually Mona got tired of waiting. He left long before Ren knew what he wanted to say.

I can’t.

That was the only explanation Ren had for why he kept Akechi’s contact. He couldn't do it. He just... couldn't.

After Mona left to spend the night at Futaba’s, Ren picked up his phone and opened the last text message. The moon peered in through the window, its white, lidless eye witnessing his war between what he wanted to do and what he knew he should do. Minutes crawled by at a slow, mournful march before Ren tabbed away to a Memo app instead, his fingers shaking as he read through his previous confessions.

Half a dozen entries were tucked away in a folder titled “Sorry not sorry.” He’d written the first message mere hours after he got back to Leblanc from the police station, after his friends left him to maintain the silence necessary to play dead. All the others were written in the two days that followed.

The first message said: What I want: to rob Akechi of breath and words, make him speechless and breathless. I want to knock him for a loop and wait for the returning blow. What I should want: literally anything but the boy who thought he killed me (and I don't know why I can't stop thinking about how he must have looked).

The second, in the early hours of November 21st: In Western Lit we learned the meaning of the phrase “hoisted by his own petard” from Hamlet. It's something like a person sets themselves up for their own downfall. And I’m pretty sure that fits Akechi perfectly, as long as you change “petard” to “pancakes.”

The third, also on the 21st: That pun sucked and Akechi would kill me for real if I told him, and honestly I’d have to thank him for it.

The fourth, from this morning (22nd of November): There’s still so much I want to tell him.

The fifth, written at noon: I wish I taught him how to cook. He always looked too lean, too hungry.

The sixth, at twilight: Another Western Lit quote: “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” Said by Syl… something. Plath? Probably. Whatever. That's me. Who I want will ruin me—tried to ruin me—but I keep wanting him. I don't know how not to want.

All these words written but never sent, words whispered but never heard. He knew he couldn't talk to Akechi. Couldn't. Shouldn't. But he did want to, and could not bring himself to stop that wanting. Ren's good sense, rare visitor though it was, won out over his wanting each time, but the want still lingered, persistent like a pulse.

Ren watched as the clock on his phone changed to midnight. 00:00. The flat, endless circles stared at him like two sets of eyes.

November 23rd. A holiday. Specifically, Labor Thanksgiving Day. It wasn't one he celebrated; it was more of a way to teach children how to appreciate people who served society in times of peril and need. Back in elementary school, Ren and the rest of his class wrote thank you cards and sent drawings to the local firehouse, hospital, and police precinct, thanking the staff of all for their service and commitment to the community. Ren couldn’t remember each card he wrote, but the three he'd written in his last year at that school stood out in crystal, embarrassing clarity:

“Thank you for keeping our homes safe from fires. The only two kinds of fire I like are fireflies and fireworks, but Papa says they aren’t the same.”

“Thank you for keeping us healthy. I don’t like it when I’m sick so I hope I don’t have to visit you again. (Don’t tell Mama I told you.)”

“Thank you for keeping the peace and being an ally of justice.”

An ally of justice. Akechi had said the same thing weeks ago, when he and Ren met up at the arcade. Ren would never forget that moment; that was the only time Akechi spoke of his past with a smile. A sad smile, longing but lost. 

“She was happy when I pretended to be an ally of justice.” 

Akechi never said it, but Ren eventually guessed who "she" was. Who else could it be but his mother?

"Pretended to be an ally of justice." Pretended. Even as a child Akechi was performing, living and breathing and thinking all in the hopes of being what someone wanted. Ren didn't know what to do with this realization; it hurt to think about. It hurt even more to try to forget.

Ren wondered if Akechi had ever written letters like all those silly ones he did as a kid. How clearly the image came to him—a younger Akechi, bright brown hair and wide eyes, meticulously writing out his gratitude, carefully erasing his mistakes so that neither a smudge nor a trace remained. He could see as well how Akechi might hold the card out for his mother to read, waiting impatiently for her reaction.

“She was happy.”

Before he did anything stupid—well, more stupid than pining after the boy who tried to kill him—Ren opened up a new page in the Memo app and began to type.

I want to talk to Akechi. I want to tell him—something. Anything.

I want to tell him I saw right through him from the start.

I want to tell him how different it all could've gone if he just told me from the start.

I want to tell him I could've said something sooner.

I can’t talk to him. I can’t say anything.

Want to. Can’t.

Words and words and words rose up like drowned bodies on the back of Ren’s tongue, bobbing in the currents of his breath and filling his mouth with a foul, bitter taste. His tongue was a grave where all his unsaid words were laid to rest, and that, easily, was the worst part of this farce. Ren might be dead to Akechi, but Akechi couldn't stop haunting him.

Ren dropped the phone on the bed next to him and turned on his side to face to the wall. He didn’t notice his phone slide against his back, the movement activating the touch screen just long enough to swap out the Memo app for the MetaNav. Ren didn’t notice a thing at all, not with the words he so wanted to say clawing their way up his throat, sinking their hooks into the back of his tongue, and dragging themselves forward, over his teeth, against his lips, pushing desperately to be free.

He closed his eyes tight and spoke his dearest, foolish wish: “I want to come back to Leblanc and have Akechi welcome me home the way he used to. Us nonpersons gotta stick together.”

Nonperson was one of those funny words that Kawakami-sensei liked to put on the English tests to keep them on their toes. Ren had looked it up after the test (which he most certainly failed). Nonperson. Someone regarded as unimportant, or as having no rights; ignored or forgotten.

Ren didn’t expect a response to the wish, so he didn't mind the silence that followed, a silence soon broken by an all too familiar voice.

“Goro Akechi. Home. Nonperson.

Ren’s eyes snapped open just in time to see the world bleed in black and red, the way it always did when the Metaverse opened its mouth to swallow him whole.

Oh, hell.

Chapter Text

Entering the Metaverse was a bit of a misnomer. You didn’t “enter” it so much as you “sank into a spiraling, whirling void that eventually took some kind of shape.”

Ann once compared it to a nightmare when you can’t run fast enough, and Ren couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what the Metaverse was for her: a struggle against fear. Ryuji said it felt like sinking into a Big Bang Burger ballpit and hoping you didn’t suffocate. After Ren suppresses a laugh at the mental image (and made a quick sketch of it on a napkin), he couldn't help but assume that entering the Metaverse was a different experience for all his friends.

For Ren, entering the Metaverse felt like when an airplane took off, the constant rising and suspension, and the anxious waiting for the drop that you know should come.

He wondered how it felt for Akechi.

He never asked.


At first glance, Akechi’s Palace looked like a bleak, black monolith, all rigid angles and brutally precise geometry. Black and purple banners hung from the ramparts, with an emblem that was a familiar black circle with an A in the center. The sky behind the Palace was a deep, seething violet, like a bruise around an open wound. Ren couldn't help but think it an ill omen.

The bridge leading to the Palace was a long, jagged stretch of pure marble painted in a dull rainbow prism, and lay stretched over an endless darkness that yawned below. Ren's steps, which were once long, confident strides, grew soft and short, until he was dragging his heels along the rickety, narrowing bridge.

“Bad time to be afraid of heights, buddy,” Ren muttered, secretly relieved that he was alone. He could be himself now, masked but honest. If any of his friends were here, they would expect him to be Joker through and through, cool and reckless and brash. It took a lot out of Ren to act that way. Constant confidence required constant effort, and there were days—many days, more than he’d want to admit—where Ren just didn’t have the energy to be their hero.

The doors to the Palace were thick slabs of oak and iron, designed with etchings of runic text and a western alphabet. To his surprise, the doors opened at the slightest push, their well-oiled hinges swinging silently as they got to work. A warm, buttery light spilled out from inside, reminding Ren of how homey and inviting the lights of Leblanc looked after a long day. Ren stepped along the gleaming polished marble floor, checkered like a chessboard, and held his breath.

The moment Ren entered the hall, the door clicked shut with a hard thud. A deep, sonorous echo erupted across the hall, bringing with it a dozen bells magnified like the angelus of a Cathoic church. But those bells were usually gentle and steady; Ren and Hifumi often sank into silence as they played shogi, listening to the bells and the clear, crisp voices of the choir singing their devotionals. These bells were different, dreadful. They clanged mercilessly, rattling Ren’s teeth and summoning a sharp, pounding headache within seconds.

Ren clutched his head, clawing his hair hard enough to scratch the scalp. Pain upon pain pushed against him, but at least one was self-inflicted.

And then, just as quickly as they began, the bells stopped. Footsteps soon replaced them, and Ren forced himself to open his eyes.

A woman he did not recognize stood in front of him. She was tall, and dressed in normal, casual clothes. Simple blouse, khaki capris, dark green apron. It was the same apron Ren wore it at Leblanc every time he had a shift or practiced cooking on the small stove. He glanced at her name tag. Senna. Her handwriting was crisp and practiced, the black ink like slashes of shadow on the otherwise immaculate white.

Ren lifted his eyes to her face. Her eyes were a bright, bronze brown, and she speared him with a sharp glance that was strangely familiar.

“Speak your name.” Her tone was clear and strong, her words as polite as a command could be.

“… Joker.”

The woman—Senna—curled a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, Joker. What’ll it be?”

“Excuse me?”

“What are you here for?” she clarified. “You came to Lord Akechi’s castle with a quest in mind, yes?”

Lord Akechi? What, was “prince” not good enough?  “I’m here because… I want to know what’s inside.”

“So curiosity is what drives you.”

He nodded.

“I take it you know what they say about a curious cat?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “And knowing that, you would know yet more?”

If Ren didn't know any better, he would have sworn she was warning him—but that couldn’t be right. Even if she wasn’t a Shadow, she was still a part of Akechi’s Palace, a place Ren was most certainly not welcome. He tried not to think about how that stung. “I do. But there's more to the saying that most people forget: Curiosity killed the cat, and satisfaction brought it back.”

Something about his answer must have pleased her. When Senna smiled again, there was no doubting its sincerity.

Ren took his chances and asked, “So… are you gonna let me in?”

Senna regarded him for a moment, studying him with a familiar long, probing gaze. “Why don’t you and I make a deal, a trust? I will let you pass and make no move to bar your progress, as long as you understand that the moment you leave my view I’ll tell Lord Akechi that you’re here.”

“Sounds like I’m on the losing end here.”

“Oh, most definitely.”

Well at least she's honest.

“But you do have a point,” Senna continued. “You made your order and I’ve yet to deliver it. Consider it done.”

He stared at her.

“I know a first that can help you,” she said. Senna cupped her hands to her mouth and said two words in a language he did not understand. At the sound of her voice, two large ravens quorked from above and swooped down, their long black wings like dark smoke in the air.

Senna held out her hands and steadied the ravens as they landed on her palms. “These two will escort you through my lord son’s hall,” she said, extending her arms. “May they be of help.”

The floor dropped out from beneath Ren’s feet. “Your son’s…?”

The ravens landed on his shoulders, settling into their new place with a small stamps of their feet. Ren's shoulders stooped beneath their weight.

“Yes,” Senna said, noting Ren’s wide eyes and horrified expression. “My son.”

Bile rose up on the back of Ren's tongue. He was looking at a dead woman—not at her ghost per se, but close enough. Of course she wouldn’t be a Shadow. Of course she wouldn’t be a Shadow. Of course she would mean Ren no harm; the first and last violent act she had ever done had been against herself. But that violence wasn’t the only thing Akechi remembered about her. All the times he mentioned his mother, few though they were, painted the image of a patient, fair, and kind woman. Why would Akechi’s cognition of her be any different?

Senna stepped forward, her arms still extended. Ren tensed.

“I know a second that can help you,” she said.

Ren closed his hands into fists, pushing back all thoughts of fear as Senna approached. She placed two fingers on his forehead, and he flinched under her touch. Her hand was soft and cold, so painfully cold.

Senna closed her eyes, and said, “Unharmed go forth, unharmed return, unharmed safe home.”

There was power in these words, power that even Ren could feel. The skin where Senna touched seemed to go numb, a strange, heavy sensation that slid down his face and sealed around his head. He chewed on his bottom lip as the heaviness flooded down his neck and chest, through his arms, to the ends of his fingertips. It was the same, strange feeling when Makoto enhanced their teammates’ defenses, but where that magic felt like a shroud of smoke, this felt like bolts fastened to his very bones.

Ren straightened up as best he could, his heart leaping into his throat.

“So. Do we have a deal?” Senna asked.

How could he say no now? “As long as you do me one little favor. … Please.”

"What is it?"

“Tell him… Tell Akechi that he can’t stop me, no matter how hard he tries.”

The air in the hall grew cold and sharp. They gazed at each other with equal parts wariness and respect.

Finally, when Ren could barely take it anymore, Senna broke the silence. “You mean it, don’t you? You really are determined to get to the heart of him.”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”

One of the ravens shuffled its feet.

Senna gave Ren a sad, familiar smile. “And yet I can’t help but think you would be better off knowing that fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” she said.

“Good thing I’m gonna take my time,” he told her.

Senna laughed. She stepped aside to let him pass. “Welcome to my son’s castle.”


 The Shadows in Akechi’s Palace were… strange. All Shadows were strange by design, really, but there was something far more bizarre about these ones.

From his hiding place behind a statue of Robin Hood holding up scales of justice, Ren spent the first few minutes studying the passing Shadows as well as he could, feeling woefully out of his league. If Futaba were here, she could tell him their weaknesses. If Mona we here, he might provide some kind of insight into their nature and what to expect in a confrontation. But they weren’t here. None of his friends knew what he'd done, and he wasn't sure he even wanted them to. Ren was the one Akechi had tried to kill, which made him Ren's responsibility.

All Ren had to help him were the dubiously wise whims of pure instinct. He hoped it’d be enough.

Don’t let me down, Me.

Ren held his breath as another Shadow approached. He wedged himself further into the darkness, making himself as still as the stone statue that shielded him. The Shadow that passed wore a mask of bone made of human jaws and avian beaks, and its mouth was lined with sharp, craggy teeth. Its body was a blur of black beneath a patchwork approximation of clothes Ren knew all too well. It was Akechi's school uniform.

The longer Ren looked at the Shadow, the more his heart sank with dread. The Shadow looked… pathetic, ugly, a creature deformed and left to roam the endless halls alone.

The voice of the MetaNav app chirped in Ren’s head. Nonperson.

Mona’s voice followed after. It. That.

But it was the memory of Akechi’s voice, spoken months ago, that hurt the most. “It seems I’m unwelcome no matter where I go.”

Ren watched as the Shadow prowled and growled and loomed in the oak and iron halls, its long, beaked head hanging low. It lumbered like a great, weary beast on patrol. More than once it came within arm’s reach of Ren’s hiding place, but it didn’t seem to sense him at all. It didn’t even notice the ravens that hovered overhead him like spilled ink, their wings casting threads of darkness over the statue's face. It was only a matter of time before Ren's luck ran out. That was just the kind of luck he had.

Ren held his breath and waited for the inevitable. Even with the preternatural power his rebel clothes had when he hid, something in the back of Ren’s mind insisted it would not work this time. Not here, not with the Shadows that called Akechi’s Palace home. They would see through him no matter where he hid. They had to. Akechi knew how this Palace stuff worked by now, and the distortions in his mind would reflect that.

Right?

But they didn’t. Again and again the Shadow passed, and not once did it pause to listen to his rushed, panicked breath. Not once did it look at the ravens that circled over its head, as if whatever dangers lurked close by hardly mattered. As if it didn't even care.

As if it were too blind to see anything but the steps ahead of it.

Well, if the fight wouldn’t come to him, then Ren would just have to go to the fight.

As the Shadow once more marched past his hiding spot, Ren rose to his feet and stepped out from behind the statue. The Shadow thrashed as he leaped on its back, his fingers clawing at its face, groping for the mask. Overhead, one of the crows let out a loud, angry squawk. It almost sounded like a word. “Think! Think, think!”

Ren froze. So did the Shadow.

“Huginn? Muninn? Is that you?” the Shadow asked. Its voice was the rasp of a rusty hinge forced into use.

Ren held on as tight as he could, feeling exceptionally stupid as the Shadow straightened its back and peered up at the ravens.

“At least one of them remembers,” Muninn huffed.

“At least one of them thinks,” Huginn replied.

“Holy shit,” Ren said.

Birds. Talking birds. Eldritch manifestations of the suppressed, unchecked emotions seething in the darkness of a person’s mind was one thing, but talking animals? Talking animals that weren’t Morgana? A guy could only take so much.

Taking advantage of his hesitation, the Shadow bucked Ren off its back and hurled him down to the black and white marble floor. He landed with a graceless thud, his shoulder screaming in pain with the impact.

“Traitors!” the Shadow howled. Its voice echoed off the vaulted ceilings, creating a choir of fury. It swept one sinuous, inky black arm through the air, trying to snatch the ravens, before bringing the hand down to Ren’s neck. “How dare you turn your backs on our lord!”

Ren tried to duck, but the Shadow still grabbed him. Its fingers tightened around his throat, cutting off his air.

"Hasn't he suffered enough without your help?" the Shadow hissed. "Where's your pity? Where's your love?"

Ren's heart broke into a sprint. He kicked feebly, using all his strength to plant the heel of his boot against the Shadow’s gut. It connected, and he kicked as hard as he could, breaking its hold just enough for him to get back to his feet.

Once free, Ren didn’t hesitate. He rushed forward, leading with his shoulder to tackle the Shadow to the floor. He curled his fingers around the Shadow's mask, grit his teeth, and pulled. Slowly, viciously, the mask came free. Dark ichor and gore splattered across Ren’s parted lips and clenched teeth as he smiled, triumphant.

And the battle began.

Ren stood up. The twin ravens—Huginn and Munin—landed on his shoulders once again.

“You already know the Shadow's name,” Munin said, stabbing its beak in the air to point at the Shadow. “Remind her who she is and get it over with.”

“Kinda busy!” Ren dodged the Shadow’s attack before it struck true, the tails of his coat flapping like wings. He settled on his feet and pressed his hand to his face, lifting up his mask. “Chernobog!”

The Persona burst to life in a whirl of black and blue flames. Ren held his ground, alert but secure behind his newly summoned Persona’s tall, thin back. He took a quick look at the Shadow now that he had the time to study it. No more was it a black, shambling mass. Now it was a woman with golden hair and matching skin, mounted on a horse with a mane like a flickering flame.

Munin pecked impatiently at the side of Ren’s head. “Remember! Remember!”

Ren tried to shake the bird off, but it held on tight, talons tearing the collar of his coat. Not to be outdone, Huginn tugged on Ren’s hair, pulling a clump free and making him bleed.

“Make that brain mean something and think,” it said.

Despite her swift steed and dual blades, the Shadow was no match against Chernobog’s graceful, vicious swipes, never landing a blow no matter how hard she struck. He seemed almost bored of the fight, as if it required no more effort than it took to flip the page of a well-read book.

“What can the black god do against the chooser of the dead?” the Shadow cried, her voice icy sharp like a frozen dagger.

Ren stumbled back. A bead of blood trickled from his scalp, down his cheek, and into his open mouth. The taste of copper bloomed in his mouth as his blood met his tongue—and then he remembered.


“—I suppose it comforts them to do it, even if it accomplishes nothing.” Akechi said.

Ren looked up from his homework. Math had never been his strength, a subject he and Ryuji loathed equally (“I can add and subtract no problem, but once you start throwing in shapes and letters, it’s all over.” “Just wait 'til you learn about imaginary numbers.” “For real?”). So it was with a glad heart that Ren switched from math to philosophy, little though he understood that subject, too.

Glad for a distraction from his schoolwork, Ren was all to happy to settle his attention on Akechi instead. They sat facing each other in one of the booths at Leblanc, Ren’s back to the TV while Akechi sat facing it with vague interest. “Comforts who about what?” he asked.

Akechi shifted his eyes to Ren’s face. “Weren’t you listening?”

Ren’s heart skipped a beat, the way it always did when Akechi looked him in the eye. “Yes,” he lied. Guilt made him add, “… Okay, no.”

Akechi laughed. “I won’t hold it against you. You are supposed to be working.” He shot a pointed glance at Ren’s mostly incomplete homework.

Before Ren could speak in his defense, Akechi reached across the table and pulled the TV remote closer. The cuff of his sleeve brushed against Ren’s hand as he moved, making Ren hyper-aware of the small stretch of bare skin between Akechi's glove and his shirt.

They were the only two in Leblanc that evening, and so Ren didn’t object when Akechi turned the TV up loud enough so that the sound filled the café. Ren turned in his seat, slinging one arm over the back of the booth as he glanced up at the TV. The text crawl at the bottom of the scene made his heart sink.

Okumura Foods Offices Defaced, Former Employee Suspected.

The reporter’s solemn face was soon replaced by a slow panning shot of the building’s entrance, a mess of shattered glass and bright red spray paint. Ren could barely make out the words before subtitles appeared to clarify.

GOOD RIDDANCE TO BAD TRASH
PIGS GET WHAT PIGS DESERVE
AKU-MURA BURN IN HELL

The reporter’s face returned. “Along with the graffiti, an anonymous letter was left at the scene of the crime. It states that Okumura Foods' CEO, the recently deceased Okumura Kunikazu, was quote, 'chosen by God to die for his greed.' The letter further claims that his death serves as a message to all corporate CEOs should they think to meddle in quote, 'destroying the pride and integrity of Japan's values.' Police currently have no leads on who is responsible for the property’s destruction, and are asking anyone with information to please come forward.”

Ren frowned. “So by 'them' you mean whoever sent that letter?” he asked, turning to face Akechi again.

“Precisely,” he said, with just a touch of impatience. “And ‘they’ are very likely a former employee. The crime is too passionate to be done by a total stranger, but that only makes the crime more pitiful.”

“How so?”

Akechi spun the remote in a slow circle with his fingertips. “They waited until Okumura passed away before speaking out. If they truly believed he deserved punishment, why not act sooner, when he was alive? It's almost as if they could only find the courage to speak out when they felt they were safe from the consequences.” He smiled grimly to himself. “I suppose they would have to wait, since they believe he was chosen to die. And that’s where the pointless, pitiful comfort comes in.”

“And what about you?” Ren asked, desperate for a reprieve from the guilt and grief that tugged at his heart. They both whispered in his thoughts in Haru’s mournful, sobbing voice.

Akechi froze. “What about me?” he replied, his words short and sharp.

“Do you think that someone—God or a higher power or whoever—can pick a person to die just to prove a point?”

For a long, aching moment, Akechi’s face was as still as a corpse’s last expression. Then he blinked, and his face came back to life. “What a question!” he laughed. “You aren’t studying Theological Rhetoric by any chance, are you?” His eyes darted down to Ren’s notebook and that damned empty page. “Are you trying to trick me into doing your homework?”

“If I wanted you to do that, I would’ve just asked,” Ren pointed out. “I've done it before.”

“To which I’ve said no—and I’ll say it again now. No, I don’t think that some higher power would use someone's death to prove a point. That would first assume such a power exists, and also that it would care enough about human affairs to cast judgment on us. This would also assume they don't care enough to interfere or instruct us to be better...” he trailed off, sinking back into his thoughts.

Ren spun his pen in his hand and waited. An ad break came and went before Akechi spoke again.

“Humans commit crimes, and so it is only right that humans be the one to mete out the punishment for them. Waiting for a higher power insults the core idea of justice—not to mention the crimes' victims.” Akechi raised a finger. “However,” he said, his lips sliding up into a smile, “Should a higher power truly exist, it may also have a hand in choosing who answers the call to justice. Should that call involve punitive justice, then one could easily credit those acts to a higher power by association.”

Ren stared at him.

“What?”

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“I should hope so," Akechi laughed. "It’s a lot to think about. And it’s not like you’re the only person in history to ask that question. Whole religions were built around the idea of gods of justice, or powerful forces who choose what happens after we die. And while death is inescapable, knowing that a god—or even a demon—may have its hand in it can be… comforting. Especially to those who suffer. Thinking that a higher power exists to choose the slain might even take all the fear out of death.” Akechi lowered his hand and shrugged. “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”

Nothing about this conversation sounded hypothetical. “Right. Of course.”

Akechi picked up his now cold cup of coffee and took a thoughtful sip. “But this is all speculation. You and I only know one such higher power, but that only manifests within ourselves. It's born from us; we create it and control it. Gods and demons have no hand in what we are.”

“So God’s dead and we turned him into a Persona?”

Akechi’s laughter filled the room. It was a sweet sound; just listening to it pushed aside all of Ren's guilt and tangled nerves.

“Something like that,” he said, chuckling. “I take it you’ve read Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, then? He argues something similar.”

Ren flipped his pen around again, and tried not to smile. Got him. “It was assigned yesterday.”

“And how far did you—?” Akechi stopped.

Now Ren smiled. “Ah, so close.”

The coffee cup clinked sharply as Akechi set it down against the table. “I hope that wasn’t your best attempt at entrapment.”

“Why?”

“Because it was awful.”

“Well we can’t all be a perfect detective prince,” Ren said, still smiling.

Akechi laughed again, but there was no life in the sound. “No. We can’t.”

 

Later, with Akechi dozing on his shoulder and taking up half the bed, Ren picked up his phone and tabbed to the built-in search engine. Gods, chosen, slain.

One result came up. He struggled to make out the foreign word. Valkyrie. Women of Norse mythology who choose which souls of slain warriors will enter Valhalla.

Ren knew that name. He had a Persona called that once, before fusing her with Hua Po. He didn't feel too bad about forgetting her; there was only so many gods and demons and spirits and whoevers of global lore that REn could remember before his brain started to spring a leak.

Ren carefully set down his phone and leaned his cheek against the top of Akechi’s head. It didn’t take him long to fall asleep.

He dreamed he was in a meadow of the dead, flooded with days of rain and rivers of blood. Gleaming, golden women in horned oni masks walked on an endless row of corpses, pushing them into the earth like seeds to sprout. Here and there they stopped to pluck a body out of the dirt and cast them into the sky. Higher and higher the bodies rose, like a marionette’s limp ascent into their puppeteer’s hands.

Ren wasn’t alone in the field. Akechi lay next to him, his face pale beneath a splatter of blood and dripping mud. His hand clutched Ren’s own in a tight, trapping grasp, as if he could fuse their bones and never part.

One of the women stopped at Ren’s head and leaned forward. He felt her hands sink into his chest and seize his ribs, lifting him up. Him, and only him.

“Stop! Wait—I’m not alone,” he said, his nails scraping the back of Akechi’s hand.

“Some will be pardoned,” the woman said, her voice cold and quiet.

He felt weightless, helpless, but he couldn’t leave yet. He couldn’t leave Akechi behind. “You have two hands, don’t you? So take him, too. I won’t go without him.”

“Some will be punished,” she said.

But Ren refused to let go. “Then punish me, too!”

The woman dropped him. As Ren crashed to the ground, she lifted her leg and pushed her bare foot against his chest, pressing him into the dirt.

“You idiot,” Akechi wheezed, his voice thin and reedy like a broken twig. Even as he insulted Ren, Akechi pulled him back down into the blood and mud and death, into the desperation of his embrace. Akechi arms tightened around Ren; Ren was close enough to feel his pulse.

“I’m your idiot,” Ren said. To which Akechi only laughed.


As Chernobog parried another blow, Ren braced his hands on the ends of the black god’s rippling robes and pulled himself forward. “I know you,” he hissed to the Shadow, his teeth bared and lips sticky with blood. “I know your name!”

The Shadow cleaved through Chernobog’s chest just as Ren cried, “Valkyrie!”

“Oh, good,” Muninn sighed. “You remembered.”

Finally,” Huginn squawked.

The Shadow—no, the Persona—reared back on her horse, her blades bright and blinding like bursts of lightning. She gazed down at him, her face as cold and still as a grave. “Fool guest, with the courage to stand up to even death, why have you come here? What do you seek?”

The answer was simple. “Goro Akechi,” Ren said, breathless.

Valkyrie tilted her head. “You know my lord’s name, and you know his heart well enough to enter his hall. Would you know yet more?”

Those were the same words Senna said when she gave Ren the ravens and the blessing. There was power in these words, an old and patient magic that went beyond his ability to grasp.

Ren smiled. “Show me what you got.”

Chapter Text

Ren couldn’t help but feel confident after his recent success. Pulling a fast one on a figment of Akechi's cognitive mind a mere three days after faking his own death was just one more notch on his "things I can be proud of but not boast about on my CV" belt. He loved risks at the best of times, and this new victory over Valkyrie only made him more reckless and wild. He didn’t even hide or try to get the drop on any Shadows he came across after the first encounter. He simply ran up to them, looking for a fight.

The Valkyrie had said it herself: fool guest, with the courage to stand up to even death.

Deeper into the Palace he ran, skirting past Shadows who, at Ren’s call of “Valkyrie!”, all trembled and burst into their true form. Again and again he called their name. Again and again the women emerged from the rippling, devouring black, all of them gold and glorious, determined to prevail.

And he wasn't alone.

“Göll! Hrist!” The first Valkyrie called a greeting to her saved sisters, her clear, rich voice accompanied by the ravens' caws of, “Hail! Hail!” Even her horse seemed pleased; its bronze hooves stamped a bone-rattling beat with every Shadow reclaimed.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, Ren thought. He had never run a Palace by himself before, and though he missed his friends’ company, he quietly marveled at the proof that he didn’t really need them to succeed—not that he’d ever tell them that. Not that he wanted them to know he was here. As always, what he had with Akechi was Ren’s secret to cherish and keep.

The layout of this Palace was easier to remember than most. It was laid out in a grid, with halls that bisected each other like the streets of Kyoto, or a chessboard. The black and white halls were decorated with rows of tall, arched windows and statues, their faces grim and severe, their heads hanging low with crowns. The statues' sightless eyes seemed to watch Ren pass; he couldn’t shake the feeling they were truly seeing him.

As Ren and his newly acquired party passed another row of statues (someone called St. Shirogane and Simon Temple), two more Shadows turned the corner up ahead, their shoulders slouched low and listless. The first Valkyrie lurched forward, her teeth bared and eyes blazing. “Brynhildr! Grimhildr!”

The effect of her voice was immediate. The Shadows lost their masks and burst into perfect copies of their sisters.

“What's she saying?” Ren asked one of the ravens. Huginn, he thought.

“Her sisters’ names,” the raven replied as the Valkyrie all embraced. At Ren’s blank stare, the bird let out a squawking laugh. “You didn’t think they all shared a name, did you?”

“It’d be stupid to say yes now.”

“At least you admit it,” Huginn huffed.

The sound of their voices drew more Shadows to them. If Ren didn’t know any better, he might say they were curious. The first Valkyrie greeted them with a look of pride.

“Róta! Sigrún! Skögul!”

“That one kinda looks like Makoto,” Ren said, pointing at the latest arrival (”Thrúðr!”).

Huginn jabbed his beak into Ren’s wrist. “Be serious.”

“I am.” Ren turned to face the first Valkyrie, ignoring the stabbing pain in his hand. “I never asked for your name,” he said. "Sorry about that."

“Better to ask forgiveness than beg permission, yes?" she said coolly. Before Ren could reply, the Valkyrie inclined her head. "I'm Svanrand.”

“You can call me Joker.”

“A fit name for the thief of my lord’s stone of valor,” Svanrand laughed. “Only a fool would walk so boldly into my lord’s land of thought and covet his cherished prize.”

Ren shrugged. He wasn't sure what a 'stone of valor' was, but he picked up enough to know the gist. She knows I'm here to steal Akechi's heart. “I’ve been called worse than a fool. Plus I hear that Fortune favors the brave, or something.”

Ren cast an eye over the other Valkyrie. There were now nine in all, a glittering, swaying horde of implacable faces, golden hair, and bright blades. Some of the women looked half feral; swans’ wings arched from the sides of their head, or thorny antlers rose up from their hair. They were savage and beautiful.

“I'm here to help change Akechi's heart,” Ren told them. “You don’t have to join me, but you shouldn’t try to stop me.”

“Is that a threat?” Thrúðr asked.

“More like a fact,” Ren told her.

“Brave-boy.”

“Fool-boy.”

“He did free our sister,” Sigrún argued.

“She gave us back our names,” Róta added. “As long as she has a debt to you, then so do we.”

Perfect. Another bond built on a give and take. He was getting used to those by now. “Works for me,” Ren said, turning his back on the Valkyrie. “Let’s keep going.”

On they walked, on and on. Eventually the hallways narrowed, spilling into a small, square foyer decorated with stone shelves and a single statue set on an altar, a clear object of worship. Votive candles burned along the walls, their flames flickering in a restless dance that threw shadows across the statue’s anguished face.

He knew that face. It was Akechi.

“What’s eatin’ you?” Huginn asked.

Ren ignored the bird and walked over to the statue, studying it carefully. Akechi’s face was expertly redone to every detail. His head was thrown back, eyes half closed in agonized rapture. His arms were raised over his head, his elegant hands with the tapered fingers Ren so loved to kiss bound by chains and garrote-cords. Arrows tipped in gold and fletched in crow feathers stuck out of Akechi’s bare chest and naked hips, as if someone had used him as target practice. Under one heel was a crown fit for a prince, cracked and crumbling beneath his feet.

The statue was so realistic, so vivid and vicious, that it almost looked alive. Ren placed his hand over its ribs to see if it was real. His fingers trembled against the cold stone, and he held his breath.

“Who did this to him?” he whispered, sliding his hand up past the statue’s neck to cup the side of its face. “Who does he think did this to him?”

Neither the ravens nor the Valkyrie offered a reply. Ren wouldn't have heard them even if they did; he had ears only for the deep thunder of his aching heart, a beat that throbbed in time with his shallow, jagged breath.

Focus. Focus.

“What are you thinking?” Huginn asked.

“What do you remember?”

“… Akechi mentioned his past once or twice. I tried not to ask about it. Seemed too personal.”

“Pasts usually are,” Huginn said.

A cold breeze unraveled across the back of Ren’s neck, making him shiver. He stood up and glanced down the hall leading out of the foyer. Lightning illuminated the way ahead in sun-bright forks, the flashes lasting no longer than a blink. The same banners draped outside the Palace fluttered weakly from the rafters, damp with rain and rot, their tips skimming the broken crowns of other statues.

Svanrand leaned forward and placed her hand on Ren’s back. Her touch was as warm as a freshly-filled coffee cup. “Onward, fool-boy. Did you come this far only to stop here?”

“No.”

She gave him a firm, friendly push. “Then go.”

He went.

At the end of the hall loomed an oak and iron archway framing a set of matching doors. THE KNITTING FACTORY was carved in the stone along the arch’s apex.

“I didn’t think Akechi was into arts and crafts,” Ren said, hoping to fool himself into a laugh. He pressed his hands on the doors and pushed them open.

It was a factory, just as advertised. The only sound in the room was the muffled whirling of spinning wheels, and the quiet clatter of wooden doll limbs as they were sewn together. Seamstress surgeons sat in a circle in the center of the room, passing their work around until the patchwork figure was complete.

Ren’s heart sank as he saw what they made. Puppets—marionettes, more specifically. All of them Akechi.

A tall, blood-soaked Shadow stood in the center of the circle. Its face was the spotlight of a TV studio, and its skin and clothes—for they were one and the same—was the same garish, glittering color of that talk show that frequently called on Akechi to be a guest. It was clear this Shadow was the overseer to the others, but Ren was too surprised to make sense of whatever deeper meaning this scene might suggest.

He forced his eyes away from the Shadow to the rows of marionettes they made. There must be a dozen in all, each one wearing an identical wide, simpering smile. It was the same expression Akechi wore whenever he was on TV, an expression that was a mask that was a lie without words.

Crak! 

Ren jumped as a sharp sound erupted in the room. The ravens took flight, cursing bitterly. With a louder clatter, the nearest Akechi marionette crumbled, its segmented limbs akimbo, its sightless eyes open wide.

A tall, thin, black figure stepped gracefully from the rafters, and landed directly in front of Ren. It was Akechi, clad in that familiar, charmingly dramatic rebel’s attire.

Akechi kicked the side of his shoe against the marionette’s head and fired another round into its chest.

The Shadow in the center of the circle wailed. “My lord, you can’t! You mustn’t!”

“I can and I am,” Akechi said, but his voice was… strange. Warped and wavering, barely human at all. “I could use the target practice, and I have more than enough ammo to spare.”

The Shadow’s glass and metal head tilted with a screech. “But—but my lord—there is an intruder!”

Ren flinched as Akechi turned to glare at him with yellow eyes. At least it wasn’t the real Akechi. Ren didn’t think he was prepared to face him yet.

The gun in Shadow Akechi’s hand quivered. “You.”

Never had one word sounded so vicious, but Ren’s shiver had nothing to do with fear.

“I should have known you would find your way here,” Shadow Akechi continued. “You are nothing but a constant disappointment. You can’t even die right.”

Ren pushed his hands into his pockets. “Nice to see you, too.”

Akechi raised his gun and aimed it at Ren’s face.

“Do you mind not killing me yet?” Ren jeered with a smile. “It'd just get in the way of my plans."

"I don't care."

"Don’t you at least want to congratulate me on making it this far?”

“No.”

Huginn and Muninn quorked quietly, shuffling their feet as they landed on the edge of Ren’s shoulders. Shadow Akechi’s eyes flickered to them, and his grip on the gun tightened.

“I made a few friends,” Ren said, shrugging to indicate the birds.

Shadow Akechi laughed, cruel and miserable. “Of course you’d rely on others to help you. You have an endless need to be needed.”

“Says the guy who goes on TV four times a week.”

They say you don't hear the bullet with your name on it. Ren sure didn't, and he was standing about three feet away from the thing. Svanrand’s instincts—and mind—worked faster. She darted forward, thrusting out one arm to deflect the bullet aimed at Ren’s heart with the bracer on her wrist.

“Not today, my lord,” she said, her tone laced with regret.

“The third time will do the trick,” Shadow Akechi promised, his voice sharp and seething and bitter. “The Matron knows exactly what to do with troublemakers like you.”

No sooner did the words leave the Shadow Akechi's mouth did a roiling black mass erupt in the center of the sewing circle, directly where the lamp-headed Shadow once stood. He watched as the black gave way to a bronze clock-face framed by three winged women.

Stirred to life by the new Shadow’s arrival, the Akechi marionettes rose up from their neat rows, armed with senseless smiles and the strangling threads that kept them alive. They stumbled closer, all smiles and glassy eyes, and clashed against the Valkyries’ blades.

“Think hard about this one,” Huginn said to Ren.

“The name is buried deep in your memory,” Muninn said.

“Can’t you just tell me?” Ren asked.

“No.”

Huginn jabbed his beak against the crown of Ren’s head, making him wince. Ren took one last look at the Shadow, closed his eyes, and sank into his thoughts, his memory—


“Do you believe in fate?” Ren asked.

A pair of crows squawked outside Ren’s window. He tilted his head at the sound. They were up early today.

“Oh, are we exchanging pick-up lines now?” Akechi asked, buttoning up his shirt. “You’re a bit late for that, don’t you think?”

Ren leaned the side of his head against his knuckles and watched Akechi finish getting dressed. “It’s more like a pick-your-brain question than a line,” he said. "And you're the guy who said meeting me was like fate."

Akechi adjusted the fit of his gloves and turned to peer at Ren on the bed. “And by fate I take it you mean an unseen force that dictates how one lives, for how long, and for what purpose?” His smile was humorless. “Of course I believe in fate.”

That was a surprise. “Really? You weren't just flirting back then?”

“I wasn't flirting," Akechi scoffed. "It was a statement of fact. Fate decides what sort of luck one has, good or bad. Ergo, fate must control bad luck.”

"Which one am I?" Ren asked. He'd opened up this Pandora's Box of a conversation topic. The least he could do was sit through while it all poured out, just in case something hopeful showed up at the very end. "Am I good luck or bad luck?"

For a moment, Akechi didn't move. He stood frozen to the spot, locked in his thoughts. Then, moving with a quickness, he strode back to the bed and pushed Ren against the limp mattress with one hand.

Ren’s heart leaped into his throat. “Well, hey there.”

“Quiet.” Akechi pinned one of Ren’s hands next to his head. He reached out to hold Ren's chin with the other hand, and stroked it with his thumb until Ren shivered.  “Didn't you hear what I said?” he murmured, leaning in.

It was getting increasingly difficult to think clearly with the chill of Akechi’s gloves and the warmth of his breath. “Uh, about what?”

“About you.” Akechi’s lips grazed Ren’s mouth as he spoke.

Ren licked his lips. The tip of his tongue flicked against Akechi's smirk. “What—about me?”

Akechi tilted Ren’s head up and angled his lips against Ren's throat, pressing his mouth over the part where Ren’s pulse beat the strongest. “You are living proof of fate. You are good luck and bad luck. I was destined to meet you. I was doomed to meet you.”

Ren opened his mouth to reply, and was silenced with a kiss. Akechi’s teeth led the kiss, which was more bite than caress, as if he could tear the air from Ren’s lungs with his teeth.

“Thanks, I guess,” Ren said when Akechi let him breathe again. “It’s not every day a guy says I make him believe in destiny.”

“I believe an apology would be the better response,” Akechi murmured against Ren’s mouth.

“Make me sorry,” Ren hissed. It was a dare and a beg in the same breath.

Akechi traced his tongue along Ren’s bottom lip and wedged his knee between Ren’s legs, parting them. “Gladly.”

Later, after a visit to the bathhouse across the street and anxiously sneaking back into Leblanc without Sojiro noticing, Akechi and Ren retreated up to his attic room again to get started on some long-delayed schoolwork.

Akechi placed the toe of his shoe behind the leg of Ren’s chair and gave it a quick nudge. “I thought you had a paper to write.”

At the sudden loss of balance, Ren wheeled his arms and leaned forward. Morgana, who had been dozing quietly at his feet, now sprang to life with an angry hiss.

Ren glared at Akechi, who looked as guiltless as a saint. “I did, and I still do.”

Unmoved by Ren’s glare, Akechi gestured at the TV. “So why are you watching a movie? Not that I object to you broadening your cinematic horizons, of course. Kurosawa’s films may as well be national treasures, but I can’t sit idly by while you give in to your bad habits.”

Ren shifted his leg, hooked his own foot around Akechi’s ankle, and swept it off the chair before Akechi could tip it further. “Two things—no, three. One, you can just sit there quietly. You just choose not to.”

Akechi clicked his tongue. “And deprive you the chance to hear my advice? No.”

Ren ignored him. “Two, if I didn’t give in to my bad habits, I wouldn’t let you spend the night here for like, half the week.”  He didn’t give Akechi time to reply. “Three, I need to watch this movie as research for a Film Studies essay.”

“Fair enough,” Akechi relented, always needing the last word.

Ren plucked up the remote and hit Play.

Kumonosu-jou was as harrowing and haunting as Ren expected, given the subject matter. Historical adaptations of Macbeth weren’t exactly prime material for lighthearted drama. When he wasn’t privately ogling Toshiro Mifune (who Ren preferred slightly younger, and beardless), he was scribbling notes in the margins of his diary. Sojiro was sure to peruse it later with a speculative eye and a disapproving grunt, but at least the man couldn’t deny that Ren was keeping busy.

Akechi proved to be an attentive audience, moving only to rest his elbow on his crossed arm and rest his chin in his hand. His bronze-brown eyes stayed fixed to the screen with more avid interest than Ren, who found it difficult to look at anything else when Akechi was in view.

All that changed when the spinning woman appeared. She was the whole reason he wanted to watch the film, and he leaned forward, pen poised and ready on the page.

His notes were half mad scribbles.

 

 

Spinning, spider, spirit.
The old woman=fate? A song of the curse of human life.
Web and threads. Life? Fate? Both?
Mortality is a trap like a web. Or a wheel set in a cycle.

Ren felt Akechi’s gaze on him as he wrote. He held off the urge to flash him a wink. They could have a nice flirt later.

When the movie ended, Akechi tapped Ren on the leg with the toe of his shoe and asked, “So what did you learn?”

“I’m not sure that kind of movie has a lesson to learn,” Ren admitted.

“Of course it does.”

Ren scratched the back of his head. “Well… if I had to guess I’d say it’s ‘Don’t betray-murder someone to further your ambitions.’”

Akechi smiled. “Truly words to live by. Is that the topic for your paper? Murderous traitors?”

Morgana bumped his head against Ren’s leg. He leaned forward to scratch the back of Mona’s head . “Actually, I’m going to write about fate.”

“That explains your earlier question about destiny.” Akechi pointed at Ren’s notebook and the nearly illegible list of points written there. “Read that to me.”

Ren did as he was told. When he was done, Akechi nodded thoughtfully.

“How clever of you. The motif of fate as a thread exists across different eras and civilizations in both east and western history. The Greeks had Moirai—which the Romans stole and called Parcae. Norse mythology had the Norns, which I always found especially interesting. Their names are so harsh and strange. Even the gods were at their mercy.” Akechi shrugged. “Make of that what you will. What is your thesis?”

“How prophecy fulfills itself based on fear and not fate.”

Akechi raised his eyebrows. “Fear?”

Ren nodded. “You tell someone they’re destined to do something and they panic and do what they’re told," he said. “I think that fear is just an excuse for people to accept what they’re given and not push back against it. Fear is what keeps people chained down. They're so scared to go against what they're told to do that they never stop to consider what's right to do.”

A muscle in Akechi’s forehead twitched. A crow yelled from the power-lines outside Ren’s window.  Ren wasn’t sure how to read the expression on Akechi’s face. It was a look both empty and aching at the same time. “Some people truly are chained to their lots in life, Ren,” he said.

“Maybe. But I’m not writing about those people. I’m writing about Washizu and Macky B.”

“Macky—?” Akechi didn’t get the name out before he burst into a laugh.

Ren smiled, relieved. He could always count on himself to cut any tension that simmered between him and Akechi. It was a skill often rewarded with long-suffering sighs and bruising kisses.

“Did you know that some actors consider the name Macbeth to be cursed?” Akechi said, shaking his head. " I t’s an old superstition. They believe that if you speak the name 'Macbeth' or quote the play outside of rehearsals or performances, then you'll bring about some kind of misfortune.”

“You should probably stop saying the name, then.”

“No.” Akechi stood up. “And since I’m feeling generous today, here’s three quotes to use in your paper,” he said, and held up a finger. “One, ‘Sometimes when we are labeled, when we are branded our brand becomes our calling.’ Two,” he held up a second finger, “’Things without all remedy should be without regard. What’s done is done.’ Three,” a third finger, “’Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earthbound root?’”

Ren watched Akechi get ready to leave with a heavy heart. “I’m guessing you don’t want to stick around and watch me write?”

“Not particularly. I have my own studies that require my attention.”

“I could always go back to your place and help you,” Ren told him.

“That won't be necessary.”

Ren shook his head. “One day you’ll let me in.”

Akechi peered at him, curious. “Is that your wish, or your prophecy?”

“Both—which makes me your Norn.”

Akechi adjusted the fit on his gloves and did not meet Ren’s gaze. “Perhaps I like it better here,” he said.


  Later, in a text message:

Me: I aced that essay btw.
Akechi🤴💖: You’re welcome. :)


 

When the nearest marionette—Akechi closed his hands around Ren’s throat, he rasped, “Not yet—not—today.”

Huginn cleaved the puppet’s hand with a flash of his beak. Ren took in a long, desperate breath just as the marionette let out a joyful, boyish laugh.

“Do you remember now?” Muninn asked as Ren hid behind Grimhildr.

“I… I think so.”

“Then say it! Now!”

Ren heard the howl of the Shadow’s magic before he felt the wind rush against him. The marionette that tried to strangle him was on his hands and knees now, and crawling closer. The strings in the marionette's back tensed as the Shadow in the center of the room swept her six arms wide, giving the marionettes free rein to rush at the Valkyrie.

Say it, Ren begged himself silently. The marionette's fingers slid up his ankle and pulled itself closer. Say it. Say it!

“I know who you are!" Ren screamed. Fear made his voice ragged and vicious. "NORN!”

The roaring wind became an exaltation of triumph, like the keen kulning of a cattle call Ann once sang for him (”My mom’s mom grew up in Sweden. I used to spend the summernight months on her farm, calling the cows home.”). The call was a gentle, haunting sound, formed by three layers of pure, clear voices as crisp as the lung-chilling air in winter.

“Who has come to my lord’s hall?” Norn asked in her three voices, her three mouths moving in unison.

The Valkyrie stepped aside to reveal Ren, laying in a graceless lump on the ground. “It’s me, your boy, Joker,” he said.

Behind him, one of the Valkyrie sighed.

Norn gazed at him in silence. “To you with the mask, I will do more than wish you good fortune. I will grant it.”

“Oh, good.” Ren pushed himself to his feet and tried to smile. “Now you can join the team.”

Three sets of unblinking eyes fixed themselves on Ren’s face. “You know my lord well enough to face his darkness like an old friend. Would you know yet more?”

The answer was easy, simple. “Hit me with it."

Fate smiled on him, and the now threadless Akechi marionettes stared at him from their heaps on the floor. Ren stepped over them, his heart heavy with guilt. But he couldn’t stop now. What was done was done.

Chapter Text

The hall beyond The Knitting Factory was a cavern of roots and dirt, cloaked in wisps of a fog that cast cataracts over the path ahead. Tangles of tree roots cracked beneath Ren's feet with every step he took, sending sighs of dust out to stain the air.

Ren stumbled as he walked further into the twisting tunnel, one arm extended catch himself should he trip. More than once was he spared the indignity of a true fall by the swiftly moving hands of the Valkyrie. The third time one of them grabbed Ren safely by the collar of his coat, like a mother cat lifting her kitten by its scruff, he turned his head over his shoulder and offered a brief, bashful, “Thanks.”

Huginn impatiently cuffed the side of Ren’s head with his wing. “Eyes front, kiddo. Unless you want to trip and fall on a twig and lose an eye.”

“You don’t think I’d look good in a jaunty eye patch?” Ren countered. Even so, he took the warning to heart and moved more cautiously.

When the roots grew too thick to let them pass, one of the Valkyrie rode forward to clear the path. With each hewn root and broken branch, the smell of ash and iron filled the air, flooding Ren’s tongue with the taste of blood and the soot-soaked cinders of a faded fire.

How could a tree be burning on the inside and not crumble to dust? How could a thing made of wood hold the one thing within that was sure to destroy it? Ren felt certain there had to be some other meaning here, but damned if he knew how it was tied to Akechi.

For the first time since he crossed the bridge and entered the Palace, Ren began to doubt his ability to see this journey through to the end. What did he really know about Akechi, beyond their barely half a year’s courtship-rivalry? What did Ren truly know about the full fathoms of Akechi’s heart, or how deep his cognitive distortions went? And would any of that allow him to break through to the truth?

As it turned out, Ren knew quite a bit. His heart kept the score, even if his mind stayed clouded in doubt. The answers came to him as he walked, as if they were waiting for this very weak moment to strike.

I know he thinks he’s unwelcome, unwanted, and unloved.

I know he kept his abilities a secret before approaching us with a blackmail ultimatum.

I know he sighs in his sleep and kisses me with his eyes closed tight.

I know he has a head full of folklore and facts he can bring up as easily as some people memorize the JR schedule.

I know he laughs at me for not being able to memorize the JR schedule.

I know he wrote me a list to break it down, and said to stick to the Loop if I ever got lost.

I know he refuses to admit when he makes a mistake, yet smiles whenever he catches me in one.

I know he looks so tired after all those forced, cheerful smiles he wears on TV.

I know his masks—TV Akechi, Leblanc Akechi, Phantom Thief Akechi—and I know him well enough to guess there’s another he keeps hidden under all the rest.

I know he would kill me without hesitation—and I know I’m not afraid of him, despite the warning signs.

“Did you know about that place?” Ren asked, shaking himself from his thoughts. “The Knitting Factory,” he added to clarify.

“We remember when it appeared,” Muninn said.

“Exactly nine years ago,” Huginn added. “When our lord first met the orphanage matron.”

Ren winced. Akechi had a Palace for nine years? "But I thought..."

Huginn blinked at him. "Thought what?" he asked.

"I thought Palaces were fixed to one place," Ren said. "Akechi didn't know about Leblanc nine years ago. So how come I could access his Palace from there?"

Muninn jabbed his beak into his feathers and preened himself. "Our lord is different. Our lord is unique. Our lord is solitary in his wonder. Where our lord walks, his Palace follows."

"Our lord's hall marches behind his every step, shielding his heart and back," Huginn said.

Ren let that cold fact sink in. Finally, when he could speak again, he cleared his throat and said, “That other room didn’t look like an orphanage to me. It even said it was a factory.”

“And what would you know of orphanages, fool-guest?” Huginn asked.

“… Not much, I guess,” Ren admitted.

“Still, you’re wiser than you seem,” Huginn continued bitterly, as if saying the compliment came at a great personal loss. “The strings of Lord Akechi’s heart have been pulled and plucked by hands under many roofs. He looks at all ties that bind and sees them as they are: tethers for a noose.”

“Then why would he bother with me?”

Even as he asked, Ren knew his answer. Akechi had said it himself. “I was destined to meet you. I was doomed to meet you.”

Nonperson. Home.

“That,” Huginn said with a soft, crackling croak, “is what he’d like to know, too.”

Lost in the thorns of thought, Ren followed the curve of the cavern, his eyes ahead and mind far behind. The tangled, ember-burning roots cloaking the walls soon gave way to the exit, their gnarled layers falling flat to form a grove of ash trees.

Ren glanced around the grove. The sky overhead glowed with the warm orange tint of sunset, illuminating the clearing and casting faint shadows over the trees. The scene was almost too peaceful to be believed. Ren took a closer look, eager to see the seams of deceit.

There were nine trees in all, decorated in clumps of mistletoe that glinted like newly sharpened knives. Toys dangled from nooses strung up on every bough, creating a gallows for stuffed dogs worn threadbare by being grasped so often in a child's clutching, lonely hands. Joining them on the burdened, groaning branches were dolls dressed in horned helmets and black and blue cloth. 

Ren didn't need to step closer to see the dolls' faces. He recognized them at once: they all looked like Akechi, their smiles wide and sweet, their eyes gleaming with the borrowed light of the sun.

As his stomach tightened again, Ren shielded his eyes with his hand and peered into the sky. There was no sun or sky at all: it was just a collection of spotlights, the kind used in TV studios to illuminate the stage.

Neither the ravens, the Valkyrie, nor the impassively silent Norn, made a sound as they spilled into the grove and arranged themselves in front of the nine trees. The grisly sight had no effect on them, as if it were as common and unremarkable as a pillar passing in a subway’s blur. One blink, and it would be gone.

Huginn and Muninn flew in circles over his shoulders as Ren marched into the clearing and inspected the trees one at a time. On each of the trees was a round door marked with one of nine symbols: ᛟ ᚱ ᚲ ᚷ ᚹ ᚾ ᛁ ᛈ ᛏ. No two symbols were the same, and they belonged to no language Ren recognized on sight, though a few of them looked similar to letters of a western alphabet.

“What are they?” he asked, tracing the symbol that looked like an X.

“They are runes,” Grimhildr supplied, her voice as crisp and precise as a twig snapped beneath the heel. “Old tokens of an even older magic.”

“There’s gotta be more to it than that,” Ren insisted, digging his nail into the black X. The rune burned bright beneath his touch. “Akechi doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who believes in magic.”

“What would you know of magic, fool-guest?” Brynhildr challenged, her voice like the crack of a whip. “What do you think magic is?”

Ren walked from one tree to the next, tracing the runes with his fingers. As he watched the shadows of Huginn and Muninn blur across the burned bark, he asked himself the same thing. What is magic?

He thought of the rush of power and glorious fury that coursed his veins the first time he summoned Arsene to come to his aid. He thought of the electric frisson of delight that ricocheted through him when he cast his first spell, and watched as darkness, both black and red, tore at the Shadows in front of him. He thought of the smell of fire singeing Ann’s fingertips, and how she conjured an inferno at a simple wave of her hand and cry of her voice. He thought of Yusuke and how the world seemed to freeze at his command. He thought of them all, Akechi too, armed with nothing but their own minds and might and will they pushed into their words. If magic was anything at all, it was that: a will given a voice.

Ren did not bother to answer her question. Instead, he held out his arms and crooked his fingers until Huginn and Muninn returned to roost on his wrists.

“So what’s the catch?” he asked then, glancing between their keen, bright eyes. The Valkyrie were uncommonly quiet at his back, and Norn did nothing else but hover in the air, her wings casting a warbled shadow across the trees.

Huginn and Muninn cocked their heads and shared a look.

“What do you mean?” Huginn asked, his tone cautious.

Ren held back a smile. “This place is almost pure nightmare fuel,” he said, glancing at the Akechi dolls that hung heavily inside their slipknots. “But there’s nothing else here. Not even a Shadow. So it’s either a trap, or there’s a trick to this that I don't see yet.”

The crows and the Valkyrie stayed silent.

Ren continued. "Anyone got any ideas about what I should do? Feel free to speak up."

“What is the first thing you learn in school without needing to be told?” Huginn replied. “Think on it.”

“Remember it,” Muninn said.

After a long while, Ren thought he found the answer. “You ask a question, and then you listen.”

“Precisely,” Muninn said, giving Ren’s hand a friendly peck. “You asked, now listen.”

So Ren listened. He put an ear to his heart, and heard what it said with every thump of blood. What should I do?

He wished his friends were here. All their minds put together would lead to the mystery being solved in no time. Plus Futaba’s scanning skills were second to none, and she would have no doubt detected any threats to help keep Ren on his guard. Beyond that—and even more important than that—Futaba was like family to him. And Ren would love nothing more than to hear Mona’s take on this Palace and its distortions, and what the treasure at the end of it all might be.

The longer Ren thought of his friends, the more his heart ached. Their assistance would be more than valuable in his current quest—but it was this very quest that made their help impossible. Well, that and Ren’s habit of leaping before he looked. Mona had never trusted Akechi from the start, and maintained a polite distance whenever he and Ren spent time together in Leblanc, and Futaba held Akechi at an even greater distance than she kept the rest of their crew.

(“Actually, I keep Akechi at the exact distance of nine times nine inflatable flailing arm tube men when laid flat on the ground,” she said when Ren brought up the whole “keeping people at arm’s length” issue. He did not ask her to repeat this charmingly bizarre unit of measurement.)

No matter how much Ren wished they were here, he knew that reality operated on a set of rules different from his desires. He got into this by himself, and would have to get out of it that way, too.

Ren sighed, his shoulders sagging beneath the weight of this realization. “All right. I've gotta figure this out on my own.”

Before his companions could reply, something moved in the corner of his gaze. He turned to track it, his neck tightening with the sudden movement. The air shifted on the other side of the grove and Ren watched as the familiar doors of a Safe Room rippled into existence.

"It's about time," he sighed.  He could use the rest, and there was no telling how much more of the Palace he had to explore.

The door to the Safe Room trembled like water under Ren’s touch. He stepped inside, seeing both the room and the real world in a dizzying haze of colors and shapes. He blinked and waited for his vision to settle on the cognition instead of the truth.

The Safe Room was a garden of ivy-choked stone and a single, mossy well. The scent of fire and blood filled the air, much like it did back in the cavern before the grove, yet Ren took in a deep breath regardless. He walked closer to the well, and just at that moment, someone stepped out from its other side.

Ren stopped. Stared. “Senna.”

Senna waved at him. “Hello again.”

The Safe Room seemed to tremble at her words. Ren felt the air in the room clench as if it were folding itself into a solid, stable shape, all the better to hinge itself around her every word and move.

“You lasted longer than I thought you would,” Senna added, scanning the blood and cuts on Ren’s face. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m honestly surprised.”

Ren thought of how often he disappointed Akechi by exceeding his (admittedly low) expectations, and couldn’t help but smile. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. "Letting people down the best way I can."

I’m looking at a dead woman, he thought, and his smile froze hard. But no, that wasn't right. The truth even more awful than that? This was just Akechi’s cognition of her, a specter born of memories and an orphan’s lonely wishes.

But that didn’t make Senna any less real.

“I also had help getting this far,” he added.

Senna folded her hands in front of her stomach and regarded Ren with a careful, measuring gaze. He stared at her, unable to stop himself from ogling quietly. Akechi didn’t just have her eyes, their color and their shape, but the same clever look that cut to the quick. All that was missing was Akechi’s sharpness, that sense of having a figurative knife ever at the ready to hurt or defend.

Maybe he gets it from his father.

The longer Ren gazed at her, the more Senna’s expression tightened. “You look like you have a question,” she said.

“Good guess.”

“You’re easy to read,” she replied.

Ren shrugged. “Where should I go next?”

He didn't expect her to answer. What he did expect was a riddle, something all twisty and tricky for him to untangle on his own.

But it seemed Senna was in a good mood, or at the very least feeling merciful. “Go to the door marked Isa—it’s the rune with the single vertical line,” she said, seeing Ren’s puzzled expression. She drew her finger in the air in one long, swift stroke.

Well, that was easy. “And what’s behind the door?”

“Answers. Insight. The eye sees what cannot be said.”

“You're not gonna make this easy for me, will you?”

“No,” she said simply, her voice brimming with fierce pride. “No, I won’t. Knowing that, would you know yet more?”

Now it was Senna’s turn to stare at him, a fact Ren wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for what she just said. The eye sees what cannot be said.

He turned to leave. Ren felt Senna’s hand on his shoulder before he knew she moved.

“Wait.”

He waited. So did his breath; it sat crouched low in his lungs, and settled down with anxious roots.

Senna turned Ren back around until she could reach up and hold his face between her hands. Her touch was cold, like snow. Her eyes were as calm and impossible to know as a sky smothered in clouds over a storm. Her words, when she spoke, were brisk and quick, like a brook breaking free of winter’s ice. “I can’t tell you what’s ahead, but I can tell you the shape of it.”

Ren tried not to shiver under her touch. “... I’m listening.”

“Ice is the bark of rivers, the roof of the hardened waves, and destruction of the doomed.” Senna pressed her nails against the front of his mask, and for one dreadful moment, Ren was afraid she would tear it off. But the moment passed, and so did his fear.

“Ice is beauty," she continued, her words picking up in a frantic race. "Ice is treachery. It can crack under the smallest step, yet has the patient strength to cleave the earth."

Ren's voice crept to his mouth, and then slowly crawled across his tongue. "I don't understand."

"I know, but I and my son will forgive you anyway."

Senna let go of Ren’s face and spun him around with a graceful twist of her hands. “You can go now.”

He went.


 Ren found the tree with the door marked Isa and held his fingers over the handle.

“Let me do this alone,” he said to Svanrand and her sisters as they crowded in close.

The Valkyrie and Norn backed off, but Huginn and Muninn weren’t so easily convinced.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Huginn demanded, pecking Ren’s fingers before they could make a fist.

“We’re your gift, remember?” Muninn said, landing on the top of his head. He stamped his feet against the messy waves of Ren’s hair as if settling into a nest.

“You can’t get rid of thought and memory, kiddo,” Huginn warned, sitting on Ren’s knuckles and kicking one foot out so that it pressed against the rune on the door.

“I’m not,” Ren said, carefully lifting Muninn from his head. He cast Memory into the sky with one hand and shook away Thought with the other. “But I can ignore them for a little while.”

He opened the door and slammed it shut before the birds had time to follow.

“Fool-guest,” he thought he heard Róta say.

Thrúðr—the Valkyrie who reminded him of Makoto—cut in with a short laugh. “Bealdgast,” she said. And then, as if she knew Ren could hear and would need it, she added, “Bold-guest.”

Baring his smile in the dark, Ren stepped forward. Behind the door was a long, gray hall, and at the end of the hall was a small, flickering light. He walked towards the light, his back stooped and hunched, until the hall grew taller and wider, allowing him to stand up straight. The flickering light stayed as dim and faint as it had when he first walked through the door; Ren didn’t know he was close to it until he saw its source: a single, flickering light-bulb, swinging slowly inside a small, narrow room.

As Ren approached the room and its dying light, he heard a hard, low thump as something hit the ground. Water sighed in tiny waves out of the room and down the hall, pooling around the toes of his boots. In the water, Ren thought he heard a woman’s voice—Senna’s voice.

“Never meant to be…”

“… my son’s fault.”

Ren’s stomach heaved. Gathering what remained of his courage, he took a breath, told himself to be brave, and looked up from the floor—

—just in time to see Senna’s head, her face swollen with water, her skin as pale as snow, and with lips as blue as ice, peek out from inside the room. Her hair was a dark, black helmet plastered to her skull, but he could feel her eyes digging into him.

“Would you know yet more?” she asked. Water trickled down her mouth as she spoke, bringing with it another wave of whispers.

“Mistake… mistake…”

“… deserves better than…”

Ren dragged back the urge to be sick as Senna stepped into the room, moving with all the fluid grace as the water that crowded out the air in her lungs. She disappeared from sight, and for one thrilling moment of cowardice, Ren told himself to go, to run. Now was his chance—

And then he heard another voice.

“Mom—mom, please.”

Ren moved without thinking, without even needing to think. He stepped into the flickering gray light, and knew who would see.

Senna’s corpse lay on the bathroom floor, as still and quiet as the grave she gave herself. Her kimono clung to her water-swollen body—but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst was the boy kneeling at her side. A boy, barely past nine years old, whose small hands pushed as hard as he could over his mother’s heart. He wailed as he worked, his eyes closed tight to keep in the tears.

“This has to work,” Ren heard him say, his voice low and fierce with the vicious determination fear can bring. “It—has to—”

The boy pushed his fists over his mother’s heart in an ever-quickening rhythm, as if her heart would imitate his movements as long as he kept trying. Overhead, the light swayed to and fro, casting the boy and his mother’s body in shadows, then the pale shades of a devouring, deathly gray.

“Please—please please please. Get up, mom. Get up—get upbreathe!”

Ren scraped his teeth against the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be seeing this. He knew Akechi's mother had died, but he had never wanted to know the how of it, or that Akechi had been the one to find her.

“Would you know yet more?” The Shadows had warned him. Senna had warned him of the same. Again and again they told him there would be a price to pay on this quest for truth, and again and again Ren met each with a grin and a laugh. They had asked, and he didn’t listen.

The only sound in the room were the boy’s breathless, broken voice and the wet thud of Senna’s body as her son pressed his hands against her chest. The faster the boy’s hands moved, the faster Ren’s heart began to beat, until each press and push of that tiny fist became the drumming in Ren’s chest. His heart knocked against his ribs in a desperate staccato as if standing at the door of death, demanding entry.

Ren couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He knew he should, and certainly wanted to, but his body could not obey the simple command. Help him. Do something—do anything.

But what could he do? What could he possibly say to help?

Nothing. Nothing.

Slowly, carefully, Ren took a step back. His foot disturbed the puddles on the floor.

The boy on the floor looked up, his eyes drawn to the ripples.

Ren stopped. Shivered.

“Who are you?” the child cried, his wide, yellow eyes drowned in a fresh wave of tears. “Why are you just standing there? Help me!”

Helplessly, worthlessly, Ren stared into the eyes of the Shadow that took the shape of Akechi as a child, and said nothing. There weren’t enough words in the world to soothe the pain that spilled like a wound across the boy’s face. But even if Ren didn’t know what to say, that didn’t mean he couldn’t listen.

Akechi asked, demanded, and Ren heard him.

He crossed the narrow room in a single stride and knelt down next to the Shadow. He looked again at Senna’s corpse, dreading what he might see now that her face was in clearer view. The light swayed overhead, and he waited with mounting impatience for the darkness to give way to gray and reveal its secrets.

Ren blinked. Drew back. Then stared.

There was a mask on Senna’s face, the same twists of bone and teeth that masked the Shadows prowling the Palace.

What happened next happened too fast for Ren to process until it was too late to act. Senna’s corpse, or the Shadow of her, darted to her feet in a flash. Her blue lips split into a vicious grin as another swell of water spilled from her mouth.

“… Not my son’s fault…”

“I never meant to be a mother.”

“I’m all he has, but he deserves better than that.”

The Shadow of Akechi as a child stared up at the monster that was his mother. At the sound of her voice whispering in the water, his face turned a matching, bloodless white.

The Shadow that wore Senna’s corpse turned to her son and hauled him to his feet, dragging him up by his wrists. He didn’t struggle as the Shadow cradled him against her ribs, his weight pressing her kimono flat against her body. The colors on the kimono stood out even in the near darkness of the room: Blue, white, and gray, like the sky stretched over a field of fresh snow.

With her free hand, the Shadow of Senna’s corpse hooked her wet, dripping fingers beneath her mask and gently, ruthlessly, lifted it. For one wild, horrifying moment, Ren saw her eyes—bright and glittering like shards of ice filed into spears, eyes that saw and saw and saw, through him, into him, deeper than his bones and beyond his blood and marrow. He crawled backwards, retching as he moved.

She tore her mask free just as a calm, clear voice spoke from the doorway.

“I know who you are: Skadi.”

Ren turned at the sound, hardly daring to hope.

Akechi’s Shadow stood in the doorway, his bright, yellow eyes glittering in the devouring gray shade beyond the scope of light. He watched with the same impassive patience of a saint as the Shadow that was his mother’s corpse howled and shivered, her body contorting around her child. Her body soon gave way to a shapeless, endless black. The space where her body should be was covered in a stiff, perfectly symmetrical black and gold cloak, and her eyes, when she opened them, were as red as blood.

“My lord remembers,” she said, her tone apologetic.

“He does,” Akechi’s Shadow said—and then he shot Skadi through the heart.

The younger version of his Shadow fell to the floor with a cry. Ren moved once more without thinking, holding out a hand to help, but the younger Akechi shoved his hand away. “Don’t touch me!”

Ren drew back, his hand falling limp in his lap.

Akechi’s Shadow lowered the gun to his side. Something flickered in his face when he looked at the child version of himself. When he spoke again, his voice was cold, but not unkind. “Stop crying and stand up.”

“What did you do?” his younger self asked.

“Gave her what she deserved.” His tone was almost a plea. “She tricked you, tricked us. She set up this little scene to spill our secrets to our guest, and for that, she had to be punished.”

For a moment, the younger Akechi seemed convinced. Then, he shook his head, his expression defiant. “You didn’t have to shoot her.”

“Of course I did. It's called justice.”

“It's called murder!”

Ren glanced between the two halves of Akechi, his mind blank of all thoughts but a wordless howl.

Akechi’s Shadow shook his head, breaking the stare and thus losing the glaring contest with his child self. He looked down at Ren instead, and laughed. “You just can't leave well enough alone, can you?” he jeered, his golden, gleaming eyes armed to the lashes with a cutting glare.

Even here, even now, with all that happened, Ren couldn’t help but give in to his best-worst habit: teasing Akechi into a smile. “Guilty as charged,” he replied. His grin was a gauntlet cast between them, and he had a half-crazed desire to see Akechi’s Shadow cover his smirk with a kiss or the palm of his hand.

Ren rose to his feet, and the child version of Akechi’s Shadow stood as well. His small fists were clenched bone white, his eyes pointed mercilessly at Ren’s face. “Stop smiling! You look like an idiot!”

“He’s right,” Akechi’s Shadow said, tilting the hand that held the gun in a little quirk. “You do look like an idiot.”

“Of course you’d agree with yourself,” Ren told him.

“Enough. I’m tired of listening to you.” Akechi’s Shadow flexed his hands, his fingers curling around the trigger. “I'm so... fucking tired. I’m tired of looking at you. I’m tired watching you drag yourself through my home, as if you have a right to be here.” His shoulders shook, heaving up and down as he breathed. “I’m sick of you and your bullshit savior complex. I didn't ask to be saved. I didn’t ask you to help. I didn’t ask you to be here. I don’t want you.”

“That’s not true.”

“The hell would you know?”

“I know it isn’t true.” Ren’s voice was neither pleading nor pitying. It was a simple, hard truth. “You know how the Navi app works, right? You need a name, a place, and a distortion. Do you want to know what yours were?”

“No.”

Ren told him anyway. “Nonperson, and Leblanc.”

Akechi’s Shadow grit his teeth and shook his head. “Shut up. Shut up!”

Don’t look away from him. Don’t look away.

The eye sees what cannot be said.

“You think you don’t matter. You think you don’t have the right to exist. But that’s not the whole truth.” Cautiously, carefully, his arms at his sides, Ren slid his foot forward. Not quite a step, but close to it. “There are things you enjoy doing, even if you hate living. You like being at Leblanc. You told me so yourself. It’s comfortable. It’s the one place you feel like you belong—the one place that feels like home.”

Akechi’s Shadow wrenched his eyes open. His face contorted with agony. “Don’t… don’t you fucking pity me!”

“I don’t.” Ren moved closer. He lifted his hand in full view of the Shadow’s glare, and placed one finger on the gun. “I never pitied you.”

“Bullshit! Don’t lie to me!”

“I won’t.” Ren’s hand slid up the gun and kept moving. It stopped on the Shadow’s wrist, his fingers hovering over the skin. "I never lied to you." Not about anything that mattered.

Even this small, slight touch was enough to make the Shadow flinch.

"I know you like to play chess and read philosophy and solve crossword puzzles. These little things add up, and if they make you happy then don't you think they make life worth living? I know you like being with me. I know you said it was fate that we kept crossing paths. I know you probably set it up so that our paths would cross in the first place, but I'm fine with that."

"Stop... just stop. Talking."

But Ren couldn't stop, not now that the words were flowing freely from his heart. "I know I'm grateful that you took the time to talk to me. I know I'm glad you walked into my life—even if you also want me to eat a bullet. I know you've changed me, and I can't help but hope I've changed you, too."

"I said stop!"

Ren listened. He didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t blink. He let Akechi’s Shadow stare at him full in the face, let those yellow eyes, swimming with tears and hurt, see everything that Ren could not say.

Akechi's Shadow shuddered, his lips trembling around a strangled moan as he dropped the gun to the floor. Before Ren could move, Akechi’s Shadow kicked the gun across the room. Teeth bared and eyes blazing, he grabbed Ren by the wrist and squeezed. “I hate you—I hate you.”

“I know,” Ren said, and he saw as plain as the pain on the Shadow’s face what went unsaid. I hate you, but I don’t want to.

Akechi’s younger Shadow elbowed his way between Ren and his older self and gave Ren a withering look. “I’m leaving, and you’re coming with me.”

The misery of the moment shattered like a spell, broken by the interruption. Ren stared down at the smaller Shadow in a daze. He'd almost forgotten the kid was here. Despite his size and the difference in their heights, Ren had no doubt that Akechi of any age would put up a decent fight. “... And go where?”

“Back to the grove,” he said, giving Ren a shove. “Now move.”

Both of Akechi’s Shadows followed behind Ren, marching him down the hall back to the door ahead. The hallway seemed shorter now that Ren knew he was leaving. Perhaps the was the relief of putting that awful, aching memory behind.

Ren stooped with the ceiling, and heard the older Akechi let out a quiet curse as he bumped his head.

“Watch out,” he said.

“You’re useless,” Akechi’s Shadow hissed.

“No talking!” the younger Shadow said. “I don’t want to hear another word until we’re at the Tiwaz Tree.”

Before Ren could disobey the order and ask what that meant, the younger Shadow stepped passed him and rushed to the door, leaving the other boys behind.

Akechi’s Shadow jabbed Ren in the back. “Keep moving.”

Ren glanced over his shoulder. “Can I ask something?”

“No.”

“Too late. I just did.”

Akechi’s Shadow huffed. “Fine. What?”

Ren steeled his heart and spoke fast, before his doubt could make him think twice. “Is that how it happened? Is that... how your mother died?”

The question was merciless, but the truth, no matter how painful, must be said as such, especially between lovers as thorny and strange as they.

Akechi’s Shadow reared back, his face a perfect picture of hate. Ren waited for his hands to dart out, to claw, to strike, to pull—and he kept waiting. The Shadow didn’t move.

“Yes,” the Shadow said, his voice a small shred of agony let loose in the dark. “It was exactly like that, with one crucial difference.”

Ren reached into the dark, feeling for Akechi’s hand. “What was different?”

The Shadow smacked Ren’s hand away, and then snatched out to hold on again. He pulled Ren close, close enough that Ren could feel the Shadow’s breath on his face. He breathed in deep, smelling blood and cinders.

Akechi’s Shadow peered into the hearts of Ren’s eyes and said, “She didn’t stand up.”

A wave of nausea roiled in Ren’s belly. His throat tightened, choking back the bile and the rasping, gasping breath that rose inside.

Akechi’s Shadow noticed. His eyes were too keenly attuned to pain to miss even the most carefully concealed agonies. The eye sees what cannot be said.

“And now you know,” he whispered to Ren. “Would you know yet more?”

Ren knew exactly what he had to say. “For you? Always.”

Chapter Text

Goro Akechi knew his days of visiting Shido's office were numbered, and was glad for it. There was little he'd like more than to never walk through those doors and take that elevator and sit in that waiting room to be summoned in to stare at that hateful, hideous face that he (mercifully) saw no trace of in the mirror. But until the happy day of their eternal parting, he would simply have to suffer in silence and smile.

And that's what he did, as he walked through the doors and took the elevator up and sat down on the hard, unyielding leather couch in Shido's waiting room. Suffer in silence, and smile. Nothing new there. That had been Goro's modus operandi for the past nine years. What was new was the gnawing, nagging, needy little bite of doubt.

Suffer in silence, and smile. Yes, that's what he had to do—but it wasn't all he could do. Someone else had proven that much.

Too bad that didn't matter now.

Goro set his briefcase down on the floor and closed his hands over his knees. The feeling of bone and tight skin reminded him that all that flesh and bone and blood was his. He tightened his grip, and in his mind heard the quiet click of a cocked gun.

I killed him. I killed him. I put my gun to his head and pulled the trigger and I killed him. Goro had reminded himself of this fact on the hour, every hour, for three days now. He repeated the words as if they, too, were a bullet aimed to his third eye. The repetition didn't have quite the effect he intended. By the ninth saying, it didn't hurt anymore. But the hurt was still there, as persistent as a dog begging to be let in from the cold.

Goro knew better than to show mercy to that weak, needy self. He would just have to keep that part of him outside his heart and wait for it to starve.

He sank back against the hard leather cushion and peered out the glass wall opposite from where he sat. The late afternoon sun was a dull, burning gold, casting long shadows along the Tokyo skyline. Goro stared at it, stared and stared, and saw exactly what he felt: an emptiness that wanted so desperately to call itself nothing.


 

Akechi’s Shadow stepped in front of Ren and opened his arms. “What do you think of the decor?” he asked, gesturing to the clearing.

Ren kept his eyes carefully fixed to a height that would allow him to see where he was going, but not high enough to see the horrors that hung from the trees. “It’s not my taste,” he said.

The Shadow smiled, bitter and sharp. “Does it bother you?”

“Yeah, but probably not for the reason you think.”

“‘Might think,’” the Shadow echoed, his smile sliding off his face. “How kind of you to acknowledge that you don’t know my mind at all. I could have told you the same, had you asked.”

Ren didn't believe that for a second. “And if I did, you'd just give me what you think is true instead of what actually is,” Ren pointed out. He moved his gaze to the Shadow and stared deeply into those eerie yellow eyes. "You're pretty biased as far as sources go."

Akechi’s Shadow took the insult in stride. He stood up straight, proud and preening. “Yes, but I am the best source. No one knows my own mind better than I do.”

Ren didn’t believe that, either. “You also aren’t the only one,” he said, dragging his eyes from the Shadow’s face to the younger Shadow that walked ahead of them.

“He won’t tell you anything worth hearing,” Akechi’s Shadow snapped.

“Says you.”

“Keep up!” Akechi’s younger Shadow called back, his voice cutting across the grove like a scythe. His commanding tone, paired with the grisly shades of swaying animals and strangled dolls, sent a chill slithering down Ren’s back.

It was a long, miserable march from the Isa tree to where the younger Shadow stood beneath the boughs of another. When he was close enough to see the trunk, Ren peered over the top of the boy’s head to the rune burned into the wood. ᛏ—or Tiwaz, Ren thought the boy had said. He wondered at its significance. Why were they at this tree, and not any of the others?

As if in answer to the unspoken question, the younger Shadow reached up to run his fingers along the rune. It flared bright at his touch, its inner cinders kindled to burn again. Embers flickered in the wood before leaping off the tree, singing the air in streaks of gold and scarlet.

Ren watched, awed and amazed, as the embers and ash in the air turned solid, warping and twisting until they hardened into the shape of a judge’s courtroom stand. The ashes left behind by the cinders wrapped in spirals around the younger Shadow’s shoulders and chest, coating him in a sinuous, smoky robe.

Akechi’s younger Shadow held out his arms, and the cinders dipped under his feet, forming an arrow much like the rune’s symbol, lifting him up high into the air until he sat upon the stand.

“Tell me why you’re here,” the younger Shadow said, staring imperiously down at Ren.

Akechi’s older Shadow marched forward and turned to face Ren. The pillar of embers at his back crackled and hissed, sending small flecks of fire into the air.

“Am I on trial?” Ren asked, stunned.

“It’s only fair,” the younger Shadow said. “I can’t punish someone if I don’t know what they did.”

A burning, blistering ache bubbled up inside Ren’s chest. The pure sincerity of these words, and the open, honest expression on the boy’s face, brought Ren no comfort. Is this what Akechi could have been? Is this how he was, years ago?

What changed you? Ren wanted to ask. What hurt you?

“Answer me,” the older Shadow demanded.

Ren knew better than to push his luck. “I got here by accident. I didn’t mean to come here at all, but once I found out where I was, I knew I couldn’t leave.”

“Why not?”

As Ren carefully arranged his answer, Huginn and Muninn’s shadows grew larger on the ground as they descended. Their weight was a comfort as they landed on Ren’s shoulders. He let out a breath at their touch, and reached up to stroke Muninn’s chest.

“This place is a part of you—it belongs to you. How could I not want to be here? How could I walk away from something close to your heart?” Ren directed his answer to both Shadows, doing his best to pare down the riot of his thoughts and the thumping of his heart into the bare, essential truth.

Akechi’s younger Shadow lacked his older self’s ability to mask his expressions with ease. Ren saw a flicker of confusion dart over his round face, before it settled into resolve.

“Did you come here to fight me?” the boy asked.

“No. I don’t want to hurt you.” He decided to leave out any jab about Akechi not returning that favor, neither in his Shadow form, nor his real one. But did it really count as murder if he only killed an idea of me? His friends sure thought so, but Ren was fairly sure that cognitive murder wouldn't hold up in any court of law. Which, of course, didn't mean it was forgivable. Just... not punishable.

Akechi’s younger Shadow shook his head. “Then why did you take control of the Valkyrie? Why are they helping you?”

“Why don’t you ask them?” Ren countered. It was safe to make this suggestion now that the gun was gone.

Before she could be summoned, Svanrand stepped forward, her expression stern. “Your fool-guest fought back, and not first. He came armed only with ravens, who were help-meets given by your seneschal. Through their counsel, your fool-guest freed me with my name.”

“And just for that you turned against me?” There was pain in the younger Shadow’s voice, pain and the first glimmers of bitterness that burned eternal in his older self.

“Yes.” There was not a trace of regret in Svanrand’s voice. “Call me traitor if you must, my lord, but know I act only out of love for you. As I always have, and always will.”

Love? Ren hadn’t expected that. He glanced up at the Valkyrie, and was startled to see her expression. Golden, gleaming, glorious—and so wretchedly sad.

She continued. “Your fool-guest has a heart as true as yours once was, my lord. He is here to know you, to see you, to understand. I cannot punish such curiosity, I can only reward it.”

You can’t,” the older Shadow said, his voice as cold as any grave. “But I can.”

Svanrand did not move, did not blink. Ren stepped in front of her, well aware of how small he was in comparison to the converted Shadow. He was soon joined by the other Valkyrie as they moved forward, their blades drawn at the ready, waiting to strike. Norn rose up higher than any of them, her bronze wings thrown out wide, casting a shadow over Akechi’s Shadows.

“No, you won't,” the younger Shadow insisted. He kicked the back of his older self’s head for good measure. Ren coughed to hide his laugh. “Now stop interrupting me.”

The Valkyrie lowered their weapons, but stayed huddled around their sister.

“How did you get in here?” the younger Shadow asked Ren.

“I told you, it was an accident. I stumbled on your code words, and next thing I knew I was at your Palace.”

“And that’s when you broke in.”

“I didn’t break in. All I did was open the door.”

“—Said the thief to his mark,” Akechi’s older Shadow scoffed. “Is that all this little adventure is for you? Something you can laugh about later with those idiots you call your friends?”

“There’s nothing funny about any of this,” Ren argued gently. “And they were your friends, too.”

The older Shadow grit his teeth. “They certainly didn't act that way. They had their guard up before I ever opened my mouth.”

“They kept their guard up because you opened your mouth, remember?” Ren challenged.

The older Shadow narrowed his eyes, pinning Ren with a sharp glare. The long arc of his crow mask cut through the air as he raised his head.

He’s really gonna make me say it.  Ren sighed. Fine. 

“Pancakes,” was all Ren said.

He saw a tinge of pink burn to life in the Shadow’s cheeks, a sure sign of wounded pride and shame. Sorry not sorry, Akechi. That was fast becoming the motto for their entire bond.

But then soon—too soon—Akechi’s Shadow shrugged. He waved his hand as if Ren’s words were nothing but smoke in the air and so easily scattered. “So you were smart enough to remember my mistake and used that as the root of your suspicions. I suppose I’ll have to give you that.” His tone made it brutally clear that he did so with the utmost reluctance. “But that doesn’t explain your behavior, Amamiya.”

Ren’s throat tightened as if Akechi’s words were a fist bent on strangling him. He knew this was bound to come up eventually, but the knowing and the dreading had not carried over into any form of preparation.

There was only the one explanation for why Ren did what he did—bring Akechi as close to his heart as the other boy allowed himself to be, all the while aware that there was a secret lurking beneath their long hours together. There was only one reason why Ren kissed and held and whispered and cradled and opened his life to the boy who lived in masks and kept himself carefully cloaked. And it was a reason Ren knew he could not say out loud. Not yet—no matter how much he wished he could.

“You want to know what I think?" Akechi's Shadow continued, his voice soft and delightfully wicked. "I think you tricked me. You thought if you got past my guard with kisses and kindness and tender words, that you could then get away with fooling me.” Akechi's Shadow smiled, and it was a miserable thing to see. "I'm glad I was able to disappoint you."

“That’s not true,” Ren insisted. "I wasn't tricking you."

“No?” the Shadow sneered. “So what were you doing? Please, enlighten me. Because the way I see it, you were either stupid enough to think you could seduce me, or you were stupid enough to actually fall for me. Which is it?”

Ren didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The longing was as painfully clear to see as it was to feel.

The older Shadow’s eyes widened. A few moments passed in silence, and then his lips split into a wide, vicious grin. His shoulders shook as a burst of laughter erupted from his mouth, loud and brutal. It echoed in the clearing, rebounding back to create a choir of voices, all of them cruel.

“You did, didn’t you? You—you actually did!” he crowed, one hand clawing at his chest as if to catch his breath and push it back into his lungs. The Shadow's laughter cleaved through his words, breaking up his sentences into jagged shards. “And I thought I was the one acting out a romance! But—no! You—you did it too!”

Ren stared at the Shadow, waiting with mounting impatience for his gleeful gloating to pass. Acting out a romance? Had Ren heard him right? Did… did we just confess our feelings to each other? It figured that a love confession with Akechi would happen while on trial in a liminal space reflecting the teenage prodigy’s deepest psychological distortions. Par for the course, really. Nothing between them was pure or simple. Never had been, never would be.

The older Shadow eventually regained his composure, and reached up beneath his mask to wipe the tears out of his eyes. All during his laughing fit, the younger Shadow hadn’t said a word.

Finally, Akechi’s older Shadow took a breath and spoke again. “But it was pointless in the end, wasn’t it? Your feelings didn’t change a thing, did they? You still turned your back on me. All of you did.”

“Listen, Han. You were the one who shot first—literally,” Ren said, knowing that the Shadow would both recognize and probably begrudgingly appreciate the Star Wars reference. “I mean, I guess you shot first. I’m not sure how you took out my cognitive self, but I doubt it was with a knife or something. You’d probably want to keep your hands as clean,” he added with a pointed look at the Shadow’s gloved hands. “And my friends had a reason to keep you at a distance before you turned on us. We’ve covered that already.”

“Turned on you? So you think I’m a traitor?” Akechi's Shadow looked truly surprised by this, as if Ren had just argued that no, of course the sky was not blue and fire was not hot. “You do know that you can only betray someone who was truly on your side, yes?"

He stepped closer, and Ren held his ground, even when the edge of the Shadow's mask scraped the side of his cheek.

Akechi's Shadow bared his teeth and hissed, "Look me in the eye and say you were on my side. Go on. Say it.”

Ren said nothing.

Akechi's Shadow snatched his chin and pulled, hard. "Say it!"

Ren froze, his gaze caught in the Shadow's yellow glare. The eye sees what cannot be said. But the eye could also see what wasn’t truly there. Self-deception and the hazy cloud of perception was as blinding as any shroud.

Akechi’s Shadow looked at Ren and saw only a shard of the truth—just like Ren had only ever seen small, scattered pieces of who Goro Akechi truly was. But the fragmented truth was not the same as an outright lie, and Ren knew in his heart, no matter how his doubt might argue against it, that the loneliness and longing and quiet determination he had seen in Akechi’s eyes, heard in his words, felt in his touch, had been just as true as all his bitterness and fury.

All those ugly emotions were alive and well in Akechi’s Shadow—and so was his sorrow. It hang heavy and muted like a millstone around his every word, and clung to the edges of all his sickle, wicked smirks. His scathing venom wasn’t effortless; he had to decide himself to expressing this anger as if it were nothing more than another mask to hold in place.

Ren pushed the Shadow's hand down and shook his head, freeing himself from the Shadow's grasp. “I wanted to be on your side,” he confessed, putting all the hurt in his heart into the words. “And maybe we could have been if…”

He couldn’t say it.

But Akechi’s Shadow could.

“If things were different.”

Ren held his breath. Nodded.

“But things aren’t different.” The Shadow’s voice was low, but not soft. It cut like a dagger to the gut, and Ren held a hand to his side as a phantom frisson of pain rippled through him. “We are what we are.”

“I know. … I know.”

The Shadow’s expression warped into something viciously tender. “So what do you want to do about it?”

Anything. “Fight it. Change it—change our fate, however I can.”

Akechi’s Shadow huffed. “You would endorse reformation instead of remaking?” he scoffed. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to destroy fate, instead of change it?” He glanced up at Norn. “No offense, of course,” he added, without a trace of regret.

“Nothing you say can hurt me in any way,” Norn told him.

Akechi’s Shadow and Ren shared a look.

“Isn’t she sweet?”the Shadow asked. “But back to the point: If something can’t be reasoned with, then there’s no point trying to play by its rules. The smartest thing to do after that is to make your own rules, and live by them. That’s the only way you can make a change.”

Ren took this in, saying nothing. After a long moment, he glanced over at the younger Shadow. “You’ve been quiet for a while,” he said. “What do you think about all this?”

“He’ll agree with me, of course,” the older Shadow insisted.

Ren raised an eyebrow. “Earlier you said he wouldn’t say anything worth hearing. Now you think he’ll agree with you. So which is it?”

“Both. I am a person of multitudes.”

Ren tried not to sigh.

“Stop arguing,” the younger Shadow said, his tone sharp and demanding. “I think both of you are right and wrong. If something can’t be fixed, then you shouldn’t waste your time on it. But you have to at least try to fix it. You can’t give up on something without giving it a chance.”

Akechi’s older Shadow tensed. He turned to glare up at the boy—and stepped out of range of another kick.

Ren counted nine seconds until both sets of piercing yellow eyes glanced his way again.

“He’s right,” Ren said to the older Shadow. “You’re right. And it’s not too late to change your mind. It’s never too late.”

“You don’t… know… anything.” Akechi’s Shadow clenched his left hand, clinging to a phantom gun. “I won’t stop now. I can’t.”

“You can.” Ren stepped forward. The ache in his heart was made all the more powerful by the space between them. He wanted to touch Akechi again, to reach out a hand and grasp the Shadow’s own, no matter how unwelcome he was. He had to at least try. And he would keep trying, no matter how often he met with failure. He couldn’t live with himself otherwise. “I don’t know who you’re working for and what else they want you to do, but they aren’t your only options. Being with us… with me… is proof of that.”

Akechi’s Shadow showed his teeth—and stayed silent. In contrast to his other self’s stillness, the younger Shadow squared his little shoulders and folded his hands in his lap.

“So the real reason you broke in was to rescue me?” the boy asked.

“Yes.” Such a small word that hid deep fathoms of truth.

“I don’t want your help,” the older Shadow hissed.

I know you better than to believe that. At last, after these words, Ren finally held out his hand. It hung like a wound in the air, his scarlet glove as bright as blood, as a heart. “I want you to have it anyway.”

For a long, lingering, aching moment, Ren was dreadfully sure Akechi’s Shadow would slap his hand away again. He could handle that rejection. The past nine months of his life had been nothing but rejection, a sequence of quiet judgments and bitter ridicules all strung together like the beads of a rosary. What he couldn’t handle was knowing Akechi felt just as low and lonely and unwelcome as he did, too.

Nonperson.

Home.

All Ren wanted, more than the truth, more than justice, more than freedom, was to feel like a person again, to feel like he mattered. All he wanted was to go back home, to be safe, without the shroud of suspicion and judgment and ridicule darkening his every step. All he wanted was to look at the world and know he had a place there.

So what stopped Akechi from feeling like he belonged in the world? He was popular and well loved; he was smart and successful, the envied darling of daytime TV and criminal justice. He was wickedly brave and ruthlessly determined enough to commit murder—but for what purpose? For what goal? And for whose sake, if it wasn’t just his own?

There was something else lurking in the cellar of Akechi’s heart, some other point of pain and sorrow besides feeling unwanted by the world. And Ren didn’t have a clue what it could be.

Sensing his despair, for there are no ears better trained to hear silent pain than fate, Norn ghosted forward, her bronze wings open wide. “Permission to speak, my lord,” she said in her three voices.

“I’m listening,” the younger Shadow said.

“Why not grant your fool-guest a task? Something to prove he is as capable as his convictions would have you believe.” Ren felt one of her hands skim the top of his head, and heard Huginn’s beak plunk off her metal hand as he pecked it. “If he truly came here to help you, then let him help you. All heroes must prove themselves, after all. And if our thief would turn savior, then he must make that transformation himself.”

“You really don’t listen, do you? I said I don't want his help,” the older Shadow snapped at her—then he stumbled forward as his younger self once again kicked him in the head.

“That’s a great idea,” the younger Shadow said, his expression hopeful. The sight of it sent a fresh wave of pain through Ren’s heart.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, speaking to the sweet sincerity in the child’s face.

The younger Shadow beamed with pride. “You mean it? You really will help?”

There was no way Ren could say no now. “Yes, I mean it.”

Akechi’s younger Shadow leaned forward. He lowered his hands from his lap to the edge of the stand and held on tight, even as the embered wood sizzled beneath his touch.

“I want you to kill my monster,” he said, his voice cracking on the word kill. “Find him. Kill him. Make him pay.”


 

Goro Akechi looked up from his battered copy of De Anima and blinked. He had no memory of taking out the book, but even as he thought this, he watched as he set the book down, reached into the pocket of his coat, and withdrew his journal. He flipped to the most recent page, uncapped his favorite pen, and quickly scribbled out a sentence. The movement was automatic, graceless, and his mind, like his eyes, went blissfully, brutally blank.

The pen was capped and returned to his pocket, and the book shut and tied, before Goro blinked once more. His mind was now his own again.

A bolt of suspicion arced through his thoughts, but just as he began to pull the book out once more, the phone on the desk let out a ring. He jumped, startled—and then went still.

What's  wrong with me?

The secretary pressed the phone to her neck. She raised her chin to peer at Goro over her desk. “Shido-san will see you now,” she said, her eyes like iron shields.

Goro put on a familiar smile as he stood up. “Thank you.”

Every step he took from the waiting room to his father’s office door was harder than the last. Again, he wondered what was wrong with him. It wasn't like he hadn't been expecting this meeting with Shido. It wasn't even the most uncomfortable meeting they ever had. That coveted place belonged to their encounter after Isshiki Wakaba's passing—a day Goro did his utmost to forget for reasons that had nothing at all to do with guilt or regret.

The last time Goro felt this way—too anxious, his nerves like the third rail of a train track, his heart racing and mind floating too far above his body—was the first time he’d ever looked his father in the face. That Goro hadn't felt this way in years wasn't exactly a positive thing. It wasn’t that constant exposure to Shido improved one’s impression of him, but rather it created a callous to keep out the ache.

No… that’s not true, Goro thought, reaching out for the gleaming black handle on the office door. He’d felt this way one another time, and more recently. When was it? Where?

The answer came like a kick to the head.

Leblanc. The first time Ren invited me upstairs.

The name cut through Goro's thoughts like a knife. The pain of that name was no beast that Goro could starve, nor could he keep it out.

Ren. Ren.

I killed him.

I killed him.

I put the gun to his head and I killed him.

Goro's fingers convulsed around the handle as he leaned forward and stumbled into his father’s office. He retched, gasped—and then splattered the carpet with vomit.


 

Ren did not remember the way back to the Palace entrance, neither how to get there nor how he managed the returning journey. He had a vague impression of Svanrand’s hands plucking him off the ground, as well as the sensation of Huginn and Muninn pecking at his head, but they were nothing more than vague blurs.

The Shadows watched him leave with opposite expressions, one blank, the other bright and hopeful. Both hurt to look at, and soon Ren turned away with a heart now a close kin to cowardice.

The only company Ren had on the trip back to the front doors were the crows and Svanrand. Her sisters stayed behind, along with Norn, in that dreadful clearing. In the hallway past the Knitting Factory, Huginn and Muninn cawed quietly and took flight. If they said their goodbyes, Ren did not hear them. He heard nothing but his own mind.

“I want you to kill my monster.”  Every beat of Ren’s heart drove the younger Shadow’s words further into his thoughts. 

"My monster."

Who could that be? Who, in both the Palace and in reality, could Akechi’s “monster” be? And were they the one pulling Akechi’s strings?

Soon, much too soon, Ren looked up and saw the oak and iron doors he’d first passed through. He didn’t move. How could he leave this Palace, cruel and cunning and eerie as it was, and return to the world where all the answers would be far from his grasp?

But the choice wasn’t his to make.

“It’s time for you to leave, bold-guest,” Svanrand said, her tone kind.

“Yeah… I know.” Ren turned in the saddle to peer up and back at the Valkyrie’s face. “I’ll come back,” he said, his voice a lost, little sound.

“As you should.” Svanrand picked Ren up by the back of his coat and set him down on his feet. She placed one of her golden hands on the top of his head and gave him a friendly pat. “You may go now.”

He went—or at least, he tried.

Each step Ren took away from the Palace was harder than the last. By the time he reached the bridge, he could move no further. He stopped, held his breath, and turned to look over his shoulder.

Svanrand was still there, waiting, watching.

“Do you know who the monster is?” he called out to her. He had to ask, he just had to.

“I do,” she said, her words like tearless sobs. “And I know a second thing, too.”

“What’s that?”

“I know there are enough pieces that sit before you, waiting to be gathered and glued. The truth has shown itself in shards and parts. You know enough, but not all. Would you know yet more?”

Ren’s heart clawed up the back of his throat and bled over his tongue. “I told him I would. I gave him my word, and I won’t break my promise.”

Svanrand’s smile was small, little more than a faint flicker at the edge of her lips. “I was glad to meet you, Joker,” she said, and waved her hand in farewell. “My lord could ask for no better rival-mate than you.”


 

Goro didn’t get a chance to read from his journal until after he left Shido’s office. Which was after the carpet had to be cleaned, which was after Shido kicked some of the sick with the toe of his shoe and scattered it across Goro’s leg—which was after Shido marched over from his desk to stare down at his bastard son half-collapsed on the ground.

Lucky for him, Goro didn’t hear everything Shido said, only small snippets. Shido’s disappointment was clear, as well as his disgust, but Goro had long since learned not to fear the sound of either. Their familiarity bred comfort, and not contempt.

“Didn’t you hear what I said?” Shido asked, drawing Goro from his thoughts.

Still fighting to catch his breath, Goro wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. He leaned against the doors, using them as leverage to stand up. “No, I didn’t,” he admitted.

Shido sneered. “I asked if it was finished. Judging by this sorry state, I take it your nerves have finally caught up with you.” A small, thin eyebrow arched up on his forehead, tightening his skin. “I must say I’m surprised. I thought you would’ve been used to this by now.”

Images bloomed and burst like cysts in Goro’s mind. Wide gray eyes—Ren's eyes. A bruised and bloody face—Ren's bruises, Ren's blood, Ren's face. That same face split under the shadow of a gun and the silencer attached. The splatter of blood like a stain of red ink. Ren's blood, Ren's splatter—Ren's corpse.

Goro retched again, yet his stomach spasmed in vain. There was nothing inside him but bile and bitter breath. “Yes… It’s finished.”

He watched as his father looked him over with ruthless precision. “Good. Now get yourself cleaned up. You will tell me the details tomorrow.”

The world kept its distance as Goro dragged himself from Shido’s office, down the hall to the bathroom, and to the merciful relief of cool water and a locked door. It took only nine minutes, a new personal best as far as breakdowns were concerned, for Goro to compose himself, meticulously arrange his appearance, and head out to the elevators. It was over—for now. He was leaving—for today. But he would be back. He had to come back.

It took nine more minutes for Goro to reach the subway station. It was only when he descended the last step to the underground did he feel safe enough to take out his journal and read what he’d written there.

Goro read the page seven more times, and missed precisely three trains.

As the fourth train arrived, Goro snapped the book shut and crossed the divide from platform to train car. He held the book tight, his gloves groaning with the effort to maintain that choking grip. The world was still at a distance, muted and strange and vague. He didn't want to let it back in again.

Eventually, the train doors opened. “Yongen-jaya,” the mechanical voice chirped. “Yongen-jaya.”

Still in a daze, Goro felt himself walk off the train and up the stairs to the streets above. Once at the top, he opened the journal once more and read the sentence a ninth and final time. It was written in a childish scribble, the crooked hiragana pressed into the page with enough fervor to bleed through to the page beneath.

Joker promised to kill my monster and save me.

A pair of crows called out from overhead, sharing a conversation only they understood. Goro tightened his tie and adjusted the fit of his gloves before he folded his journal under his arm and set off down the familiar path to Leblanc.

Chapter Text

Goro knew what he expected to see when he went to Leblanc: a handwritten sign citing the café’s sudden closure due to a “personal emergency.” Proof that Goro’s actions had, indeed, irreparably effected someone beyond himself.

He also knew what he wanted to see: Ren. Ren.

With well-practiced haste, Goro dismissed this hope as nonsense, a companion to all wishes and prayers and heartborne desires.

As he fell back into the habit of killing off his hopes before they could set down their roots, he came to a stop just short of Leblanc’s front door. A Sawada Kenji ballad wailed from the antique shop up the block, filling the narrow street with the horribly compressed rendition of a rich, mournful tenor. The sound set Goro’s teeth on edge, turning the hinges of his jaw into hard, metal traps.

He looked down. The ground at his feet rippled with black shadows as the crows overhead took flight.

Why did I come back here? Why bother?

Why bother?

The ballad called out in a cry up the street. “Dakishimetai, dakishimetai.”

Goro closed his eyes. Took a breath. Bile burned the back of his tongue like a lick of fire, a vicious reminder of his newly woken weakness. His stomach trembled, ready to clench and heave at the slightest provocation from his thoughts.

… Newly woken? Goro pinched the bridge of his nose. The movement sent his journal clattering to the ground. He didn’t care. Let it lie there in the dirt and dust. Let it be a stained, filthy, ugly thing. Let it look the way he felt.

“Newly woken” implied that the weakness was always there inside, lying dormant, patient, like a tumor waiting to devour its unwitting host. And maybe that’s all weakness ever was: a cancer, quiet and careful, crouched in the shadows of every cell. Easy to ignore until it went out of control, eager to be seen, to be felt, to be acknowledged

Goro opened his eyes. He leaned forward and scooped up the journal in one long swoop, not bothering to dust it off before he crammed it back into his pocket.

Sayonara,” Sawada Kenji crooned again. “Sayonara, sayonara. Sayonara.”

He looked up again. The late afternoon sun could not break free from the buildings that surrounded this little alley of shops and homes and niches full of vending machines. As a result, the lack of light cloaked the streets in long, lurching shadows. Only Leblanc defied the darkness, helped in part by the vibrant colors of the overhanging tarp and the rich, verdant plants that lined the doors.

As expected, the café was closed. And somewhat haphazardly at that; Sakura-san hadn’t even drawn the shutter down to cover the front window. Goro noted the ghost of his reflection in the glass, and filed away his expression for later castigation: chalky, vexed, strained.

Hopeful.

Weak. Weak.

Something moved behind the glass. Goro watched as his reflection bled into the shifting shadow then faded away, replaced by the one thing he truly wanted to see.

Ren.

 

Ren’s plan, after he got dressed in three day-old clothes and raced downstairs, was a very short list of dire decisions.

One: run to Futaba’s.

Two: Confess everything. Everything.

Three: Wait until she stopped raking him over the coals before he called up the others and confessed to them, too.

That holy trinity of a scheme fell to pieces the second he approached the front door, and saw Akechi on the opposite side.

Ren stared, eyes going wide. His glasses slipped down his nose, and he caught them with a flinch.

“Impossible” was the smallest word to describe this turn of events. “Miracle” didn’t quite fit either. Honestly, Ren didn’t think there was a word for this. As always, he and Akechi's particular problems defied common descriptors.

Ren heard his shoes hit the floor before he processed his desire to take a step. Just the sight of Akechi made his body move on pure instinct.

The lock on the door clicked with a heavy snap between his fingers. Not even the gentle chime of the bell overhead brought him back to himself; he moved as if a stranger to his own body.

Ren opened the door—and stopped.

Akechi reeled back. “You’re alive,” he hissed. There was a tangle of emotions in those two little words: longing, disbelief, devotion—and even anger.

Ren made a quick note of Akechi’s appearance. Immaculately dressed, though with a slightly crooked tie and faintly damp collar, as if he'd recently spilled water along his throat. He also looked a little pale; a fine sheen of sweat crowned his forehead, and made the pale brown hair that hung around his face draw together in clumps.

“You’re not here to change that, are you?” Ren asked. A question, not an accusation.

Akechi’s already ashen skin blanched to a bloodless white. His ruby-brown eyes went wide enough for Ren to see the whites.

Ren took that as a no. He opened the door wider and stepped back. “C’mon. I’ll put on some coffee.”

The small, constantly neglected voice of exasperated reason began an immediate protest in Ren’s head.

He tried to kill you!

It’s Akechi.

He betrayed you! Betrayed your friends!

It’s Akechi.

You never knew him at all. He lied to you for months.

So what? I lied, too.

Ren held his breath and turned from the door. The steps he took to get behind Leblanc’s counter were some of the longest of his life, comparable to the walk to and from the courthouse at his sentencing. He felt the same way then as he did now: breathless, anxious, powerless against the unknown that greeted him moment to moment. But that was the story of his life these past nine months. He dangled helpless, hopeless, suspended in the mouth of justice, praying it had enough mercy not to bite down.

Ren ducked down to pick up his apron from the bottom shelf just as he heard the bell chime, and the door close. He let out his breath, his shoulders easing with relief.

Time for the moment of truth. No point in keeping their masks on now.

Ren turned around.

Akechi stood in the doorway, his expression an open wound of bitter yearning. If Ren were anyone else, he might be frightened at this look, frightened to see it, frightened to know he was the cause. But Ren wasn’t anyone else. He was himself, and he could not deny the little flicker of pride that burned in the back of his mind, turning his doubts to ash.

Every breath I take is like a knife in his heart. That’s all Ren wanted to be: the ache that mattered, the ache that left Akechi’s heart irreversibly changed.

“Sit down,” Ren said, tying the apron around his waist. “Feel free to make yourself comfortable.”

Akechi’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the apron, as if that crisp bit of fabric stood as a personal insult. He didn’t move, didn’t blink.

That was fine. Ren could be patient. He kept his eyes fixed to every inch of Akechi’s expression: pinched, pale, with a ferocious vigilance. It was a look better suited for a deer in the path of a bullet instead of a boy asked to relax.

That was the downside of being the ache in someone’s heart: they placed your every act of tenderness under a cloud of suspicion, using disbelief as a defense.

The clock on the wall ticked on, filling the silence. Half a dozen ticks and tocks went by, and Akechi still did not move.

Ren reached back to rub the twitching muscle in the nape of his neck. “Hey… can you do me a favor?” he asked.

Akechi’s mouth thinned. “… What do you want?”

A lot of stuff that I probably shouldn’t want at all. Little though he wanted to do it, Ren forced himself to turn away from Akechi and strode to the back of the shop. “Do you mind locking the door?” he asked, filling one of the siphon coffee maker’s bowls with water. “The café is technically closed for the next few days, and I don’t think Sojiro would appreciate anyone else walking in.”

Silence fell again. Ren fell into the easy steps of preparing the coffee, taking comfort in the familiar movements. He returned the now full bowl to the bottom of its holder and carefully adjusted the heat. When he walked back to the counter and grabbed Akechi’s preferred blend off the shelf, he sneaked a quick glance towards the door.

Akechi was staring at him with a look of fascinated disgust. “You actually want to be alone with me.”

Ren’s heart skipped a beat. He lifted one shoulder up in a listless shrug. “It was sort of a ‘kill two birds with one stone’ request.” He turned around, trusting Akechi at his back. “I don’t want anyone interrupting us, and I don’t want anyone else to see me.”

The water began to boil in a slow, decisive simmer. As Ren scooped a generous portion of the coffee grounds into the upper bowl, he heard the front door’s lock click into place. It sounded like a cocked gun—but that wasn’t what made his heart start to race. That wasn’t why his blood sang in his veins, as if his body begged for danger the way the lovesick crave a kiss. That wasn’t why he took a breath, and then another, as if he were a drowning boy and Akechi were his much-needed air.

They were alone. They were together, alone. There were here, together, alone in the one place they both had to call home.

Ironic, considering.

“Tell me why you’re alive,” Akechi demanded.

Ren tilted his head. “That’s a pretty big question,” he mused. “Like, primal existential nightmare big. Have you been rewatching Evangelion again?”

For just a moment, a small moment and no more, Ren had the distinct pleasure of seeing Akechi’s mouth lift into a hint of a smile. At least, he hoped it was a smile. It could very well just be a twitch.

“Don’t try to be funny,” he said as he approached the counter. He set his briefcase down on the ground and slid into his preferred seat, his eyes never once wavering from Ren’s face.

That was the third time today he was told not to tell a joke. Ren thought about telling Akechi his Shadows had already beaten him to it, and had a rare moment of good sense. Better not tell him. Not yet, anyway. Not until the shock of Ren's continued existence wore off, just in time for Ren to nudge Akechi across another despair event horizon.

Hey, yeah, not only am I definitely not dead, but you also have a Palace and you also have not one but two Shadows, so lucky you, you cognitively distorted overachiever. Your heart and mind are a mess and I kind of love it because mine are, too.

Akechi placed his hands on the counter and closed them into fists. “You survived. Now tell me how.”

Ren chewed on his lip. He took another breath, and let it out in a long, slow rush.

The coffee gurgled happily, ready to be enjoyed. He picked up Akechi’s preferred cup—a bright white and gold cup—and carefully poured out the brew right to the brim.

“All right,” he said, his heart racing fast again. The idea of confessing to Akechi, of spilling out the tangled snarls and skeins of his scheme to the one boy it was meant to fool, was… exiting. Almost as thrilling as being caught red-handed and craving punishment.

Ren gently lowered the cup next to Akechi’s left hand. His fingers grazed the back of Akechi's hand as he pulled away. “I talk, you sit, sip, and listen,” he said.

Akechi lifted his cup and paused. “So get on with it,” he said. There was no mistaking his smile this time: it was wicked, crooked, sharp. And Ren loved it.

 

Barely two blocks away, at that precise moment, Futaba slammed her hands down on her keyboard and smashed out a string of garbled text.

ALERT, ALERT! Her brain blared, filling her thoughts with flashing black and red. Her mind shifted to Defcon 2, threat level: Akechi—

And then she froze.

She had, up until exactly two seconds prior, been poring over her mother’s research like a dragon happily hording her gold. This gold in particular was a document she only recently decrypted, and though there were still at least a half-dozen other docs listed that she had yet to crack, Futaba would not deprive herself this one victory. It was an accomplishment that made her spin in her chair while digging up a playlist full of every Final Fantasy’s victory theme. When her head—and the chair—stopped spinning, she settled in to read the text, her mind devouring every word with every quick flick of her eyes.

One section soon stood out from the rest, its red ink clashing with the otherwise crisp, clinical black. Red words written with a small, cramped hand. A familiar hand. One Futaba had seen on birthday cards and napkin notes in her school bento.

Mom’s handwriting.

Futaba blinked. Paused. Leaned back, then in again.

Note: After six weeks of synchronization testing, harmonics resonance, and pscientific analysis, Subject Unit 01 spoke for the first time today. Introduced himself as Akechi Goro. Name different from the one on file. Did not bother to correct him.

Futaba read the note nine times through before an alert trilled on her computer. The bugs she placed in Leblanc—bugs she had considered removing before deciding that they were better off where they were just in case—were brought to life.

At first, the sounds were familiar: the opening door, the chime of the bell, the click as the door shut. Nothing new there. Futaba heard this, processed it, and waited as her thoughts began to sprint against each other.

Mom’s research included test subjects. That wasn’t new information. If the Metaverse grew and sustained itself off the distortion in people’s minds, it could only be accessed through a mind. Or minds, plural.

Someone opened the door to Leblanc. Ren, maybe? Probably? Hopefully?

Mom’s research included test subjects, one of which was threat level: Akechi. That was, unfortunately, very new information.

Someone opened the door to Leblanc, and it better not be Ren because he absolutely should not be outside right now.

At that moment, since bad luck relied on perfectly precise timing, Futaba’s ears buzzed with the voice of none other than Subject Unit 01 himself.

“What do you want?”

Futaba threw her phone over her shoulder and heard it thump on her bed. Threat level: Akechi used Psywave! It’s super effective! She curled her hands on the arms of her chair and slumped down, shoulders darting up towards her ears.

Akechi was in Leblanc.

Akechi was in Leblanc, with Ren.

What should she do?

What should she do?

Her mind was moving, but her body wasn’t—couldn’t. Wanted to, yes, but couldn’t.

Akechi was in Leblanc. Subject Unit 01, would-be killer of the boy who was the closest thing to a brother Futaba had ever known, was at Leblanc right now, this instant, breathing the same air as Ren.

Futaba dragged her nails down the arms of her chair and shook her head.

What should she do?

What would Mom do?

The answer came without delay. Mom would get up. Mom would move. Mom wouldn’t hesitate.

I am Mom’s only daughter. I’m the only one who can make her proud.

And that was precisely what Futaba would do.

Pausing only to slip on her shoes, Futaba snatched up her phone and sprinted down the hall. Sojiro was currently having dinner at the Niijima sisters’ apartment. He had promised to bring leftovers. Factoring in stoplights and early evening Tokyo traffic, Futaba had forty-two minutes to get to Leblanc, find some way to diminish threat level: Akechi before he could initiate Third Impact on her (first) best friend, and then make it back home to have a quiet panic in peace.

Futaba’s pace slowed to the smallest, tentative steps as she opened the front door and stepped outside. She couldn’t run, shouldn’t run. Didn’t need the attention. Bad enough her dyed hair made her stand out like a fire.

Clinging to her phone like the lifeline that it was, Futaba marched the two blocks separating her house from Leblanc. It was a long, awful walk. She was tired at the end of it; even the pavement looked as comfortable as a bed.

She lowered herself into a crouch next to the potted plants by the door, hiding in the shelter of the notched ferns. If she held her breath and told her mind to be quiet, she could hear them speak.

“—convoluted scheme to cheat death.”

Subject Unit 01—Akechi. Futaba’s stomach did a somersault low in her tummy. Now was not the time to be at the mercy of a vasovagal response, thank you very much.

“It was more like a convoluted—yet very successful—scheme to cheat you,” Ren replied.

Futaba nodded. Good. He was alive. Breathing—

—and massively stupid for letting Akechi in, what was he thinKING?

The sudden silence in the shop made her heart sink. Silence was bad. Sounds were good, until they were not. Futaba perked up, pressing her eyes to the glass for a second, just a second.

Akechi nudged his coffee cup aside. “No jokes, please. I asked you that once before.”

Futaba scowled. Asking Joker not to joke was like asking a kettle not to boil. They were both designed with that single function in mind. She ducked under the window again and leaned her shoulder against the wall beneath it.

“I wasn't joking. I tricked you, and survived to tell you about it.”

“Indeed. So you’ll understand why I won’t you offer my congratulations,” Akechi said. He sounded the way Futaba felt: exactly half a gasp away from screaming like a Lothric Corvian at the sight of an intruder.

“I don’t want your praise,” Ren said, his voice heavy and heated.

“So what do you want?”

Futaba held her breath. I shouldn’t be listening—I shouldn’t be listening.

I have to listen. I have to. What if it gets worse than this?

“Half of what I want happened already,” Ren said. “I wanted you to walk into Leblanc—which you have. Clearly.”

“... And what else do you want?”

“I want to welcome you, Goro Akechi, home like how you used to do for me, back when things were—well, different. Back when we were just two boys desperate to prove our existence to the same society that treats us like we’re, I dunno—a nonperson or something.”

Futaba shivered. I really did not want to hear this. It's getting worse, it's getting worse, it's—

“Beginning navigation,” a familiar mechanical voice chirped.

Oh no. No no no no no.

Futaba held up her phone in time to see the Navi-App activate. The Metaverse unfurled in a spiraling haze, taking her, Ren, and threat level: Akechi down into the deep, scarlet darkness.

Chapter Text

The oak and iron doors swung open when Akechi was nine paces away. He stopped, stared, silent.

Ren waited for him to speak. Waited and waited to hear his voice—a word, a laugh, a scream. Anything but silence.

As they stood at the doors of the Palace, a loud choir of bells rang out overhead just as they had when Ren first entered. The sound raced overhead like a clatter of hooves. Startled, Akechi’s shoulders jerked up before he froze again.

Ren held his breath and walked forward, his eyes fixed on Akechi’s back. They both had their rebel attire on, a fact that made his heart tremble with a knife-sharp ache. Akechi’s clothes were different, distorted. The normal white, red and gold outfit was sewn in an asymmetrical motley, attached to something darker black and purple-blue cloth, striped like a prisoner’s uniform.

What could be so twisted, so hurt, so bitter and angry, inside Akechi’s mind that he’d view himself as a threat?

Carefully, gently, Ren closed his fingers around Akechi’s shoulder. He felt the muscles tighten, relax—then tighten again.

“I’m ready when you are,” he said, pressing his fingers down tight.

Akechi rolled his shoulder back, not to throw off Ren’s grip, but to test the strength of it. When Ren’s hand stayed in place, he let out a small, sharp huff of a sigh. But was it a sound of relief, or grief?

“Let’s see if you can keep up,” he said. His voice was flat, limp. He pushed Ren back and broke into a run.

Ren didn't hesitate. He chased after him, refusing to be left behind.


Entering the Metaverse felt like swallowing a clump of natto without any seasoning to soften the sickening silken taste. Futaba, who regarded natto as an enemy of tongues everywhere, quickly realized she had to learn how to cope with the graceless descent from one layer of reality into the next. And whatever method she chose had to be fail-proof.

So she thought about food.

Mom’s curry. Sojiro’s replica curry. Crepes and scones. Nissin Men Shokunin Soya Sauce bowl. The seasonal releases of Kit Kat flavors. Over and over she passed the words through her head like weighing out a stone before throwing it across a lake, seeing if it would skip. Mom’s curry. Kit Kats. Scones.

Anything but natto.

Anything but natto.

Anything but here, now.

This method never failed—how could it? She was the one to make it—and it didn’t fail her now, despite her mind’s best efforts to keep her panicked. Futaba had a system for that, too. Lay out every awful terrifying thing in neat little lines, look at them carefully, learn their shapes and sharpness, as well as the space where she could cram in hope.

She couldn’t see any such spaces now.

Mom’s research included threat level: Akechi. Akechi went to Leblanc, Ren invited him inside, and now I’m in his Palace.

His Palace.

His.

By the time the real world bled and darkened and gave way to the shifting, warping shapes of the Metaverse, Futaba’s mind was like a coat pocket crammed full of stones. Heavy, weighed down, perilously close to a Virginia Woolf-like drowning. Stones like anchors, instead of stones to skip and stroke and press your worries into.

Futaba pulled her black and red scanner specs over her eyes and looked up. Ren and Threat level: Akechi were already far ahead of her, rushing towards the Palace doors. She took a moment to inspect the Palace herself. Sharp angles and carefully sculpted layers of stone, forming a looming, pale monolith against a swirling bruise-dark sky.

Futaba’s first thought was of a mausoleum, a shrine to the dead as pale as the moldering bones within. The taste of sand filled her mouth as memories of mock desert heat marched into her mind. She wiggled her toes in her boots, her skin tingling in remembrance of sun-baked stone.

Does Threat level: Akechi want to die, too? She didn’t want to think about that. Didn’t know what to do with the thought. She laid it down carefully alongside the rest of her worries and hoped it wouldn’t move.

Futaba puffed out her cheeks and breathed in deep. Mom’s curry. Crepes. Kit Kats. Time to be brave. Time to be brave.

“Necronomicon,” she whispered, and held up her arms.

Summoning her Persona wasn’t as loud and showy and glitzy as when the others did it. Necronomicon arrived with all the quiet precision of turning on a computer, its lights emerging from the darkness to give it shape. Necronomicon reached down for her arms, curling its kraken-Cthulhu limbs to hold her hands, her elbows, her shoulders, and lift her gently into its shell. She settled into the seatless cock pit with a smile.

“Navi-Nomi joined the party,” Futaba whispered, drawing her knees up to her chest. Necronomicon welcomed her with a low purr, glad and grateful for her company.

The display blinked to life in front of her, zeroing in on the Palace front doors and the two figures standing there. Ren was there, in his rebel attire—a fact that made her heart skip a beat.

Threat level: Akechi sees him as a threat. No surprise there. Akechi’s clothes did surprise her, however. He was wearing his rebel attire too, but it was all wrong, distorted. Patches of white and gold were sewn to slanted stripes of black and deep, bruise-blue. Half of his head was closed in a shattered black mask, and if she looked close, she could see the blood-red smear of his crow’s mask hanging off his nose.

She frowned. “His own mind thinks he's dangerous?” she said, tilting her head.

One of the stones in the pocket of her mind shifted its weight. That was familiar, too.

Futaba tapped the display and swept her finger in a half-circle around the back of Akechi’s head. A string of green and blue lights blinked to life around him, forming a list of data. Height. Weight. Heartrate. Blood pressure. Apoptosis pattern. His vital signs matched her own: fast, frantic, guarded.

Curious, Futaba dragged her finger down the display and drew a circle around Joker. His data appeared with a familiar chirp.

She scowled. His vital signs were normal, far below the range of panic. Was that just Joker being Joker—calm, collected, incapable of being rattled by the world no matter what status effect it tried to inflict? Or was he so calm because he knew what to expect?

Futaba jabbed the back of Joker’s head on her display. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” she demanded, knowing full well he couldn’t hear her—which was precisely why she found it so easy to speak. “Is this a co-op session or a gank squad, huh? Huh?”

Necronomicon murmured in a familiar, comforting hum, like a mecha-Mona-Mona designed solely for her support. This fact, as bizarre as all facts involving the Metaverse were, brought a fresh gulp of air through Futaba’s lungs. She sat up straight, unfolded her legs, and shook her hair back.

“Stay low and quiet, Nomi,” she said, her words newly armored with determination. “We’re gonna ghost ‘em.”



Akechi said nothing. Not to Ren, not to himself, not to the Shadows who passed and hailed him with voices of aching relief.

“Welcome home, Lord Akechi!”

“Welcome home! Welcome!”

Their greetings faded into echoes before they died in the quiet.

Ren didn’t trust the Shadows' supposed delight, not while Akechi’s rebel garb stayed on. If the Shadows didn’t see him as dangerous, then who—or what—did?

Akechi said nothing. Not to Ren, not to himself, not to Huginn and Muninn who perched in the rafters above the Knitting Factory. Not even when they both greeted Ren, speaking as clearly as humans.

“Oh, good. You’re back.” Huginn said.

Muninn’s words weren’t far behind. “That didn’t take long at all.”

With a blank face and dull eyes, Akechi watched as Huginn and Muninn took flight and circled slowly, their wings casting his face in a rippling black shade. He turned with their movement, head craned back as if to track the stars. His silence was as loud as any scream.

Ren held out his arms and smiled as the ravens settled on his wrists. Their heads bobbed as they marched up his arms and settled on his shoulders.

Akechi stared at this. Stared and stared. Dull eyes, blank face, a new mask that Ren did not know how to crack.

“They were a gift,” Ren said as he gestured to the birds, just in case Akechi’s frown held even a small shred of envy.

Silence.

Ren curled his hands into fists. Talk to me. Say something, anything. He didn't expect this, all this silence and muted stares and a blank, empty expression. He expected Akechi to be vibrant and viciously excited, like any detective would be when given a new mystery to solve. He expected Akechi to lash out—at him, at the Shadows, at everything and anything he could lay his hands on. Ren would have gladly met every strike of Akechi's fists if it meant he would give any sign of life at all. Anything but this emptiness.

A glimmer of life returned to Akechi's eyes. He blinked, his gaze tracing a line between the birds and Ren's face. “A gif from who?” he asked.

Your mother, who might be a memory or a ghost or both or nothing. But Ren knew better than to say that.

As Ren struggled to get his answer in place, Akechi’s eyes tightened behind his misshapen mask. Ren forced himself to look into those wounded eyes and not look away. One side of Akechi's mask was the familiar red of a crow’s beak. The other was a strange shell, like cracked armor, black and binding and as sharp as shards of glass. It hurt just to look at it.

“Well?” Akechi pressed, showing his teeth. Even this reaction seemed mechanical, a motion as automatic as a machine's.

Was all of this too much for him to take? Had the second coming of the Detective Prince met his match in his own damaged mind?

Ren wasn't sure how to make sense of that.

“Are you going to answer me?” Akechi asked.

The doors to the Knitting Factory creaked open with a hushed groan, like a trembling step that makes a floorboard creak. Ren heard the clicking of plastic and sewing needles, heard the rattle of doll-like limbs, and he felt fear tear through him like a hook in his gut pulling up. He turned.

The marionettes that were left behind in the Factory now swarmed the entrance, armed with grasping hands and cheery, witless smiles. Their painted mouths and bright, sightless eyes were cracked in a web of bloodless wounds, revealing the careful tangle of threads that acted as vein, bone, and sinew. Tufts of hair fell in clumps at Akechi’s feet as they reached for him, he in whose image they were made.

“Don’t touch me!” Akechi hissed as he struggled. He twisted his arms, and aimed a kick behind him, knocking one marionette down. Another soon took its place.

There were more marionettes, dangerous in numbers than they ever could be alone. Their shattered hands prevailed over Akechi’s best efforts.

But Ren wasn’t about to let him go without a fight of his own.

“Hold on, Goro!” The name that burned on Ren’s lips now burst free, a plea and a cry for victory. He put a hand to his mask and pressed down, hard. “Siegfried!”

The Persona answered his call without delay, bursting to life above his head. Blade at the ready, sunset-colored skin glittering like gems in a wound, Siegfried cleave through the first wave of marionettes, his sword flashing through the air like an arc of lightning. No sooner did those puppets fall than another half dozen took their place, pulling and tearing and lifting and twisting at any part of Goro they could find.

Ren grit his teeth. Help him save him protect him. The words tumbled through his brain. “Go down!” he roared.

Siegfried raised his sword again. He thrust it forward, stabbing a marionette through the head as it rose over Goro’s shoulder. Ren swept his hand to the side with fury, with force, and Siegfried pulled. The marionette’s head snapped off its shoulders with a loud click before the Persona threw it across the room. The marionette fell down, twitched—and then stood up again.

Ren shook Huginn and Muninn off his shoulders and screamed. “Help him! Do something!”

For once, the ravens kept their comments to themselves, and did just as Ren asked. Their great, dark wings fanned out as they swept down on the attack, pecking and stabbing the already fractured faces. More of the marionettes’ insides were visible with every chunk of plastic skin torn free. They had no veins, no blood, no bones within. Only threads held them together, gathered into tangles and twists and knots of red, glimmering like a web of chains. They looked as well like the roots of a tree starved for rain, withered and bent back on themselves, strangling their own thirsty throats.

A memory burst unbidden through his mind. Muninn would be proud. “'Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earthbound root?’” Leave it to the Bard to know just what to say about an impossibly painful situation. Leave it to Goro to have the words memorized like a prayer.

Panic makes the mind move fast, and Ren’s mind was no different. As Siegfried stabbed and slashed and hacked his way with every commanding scream that left Ren’s lips, his mind was churning fast. He thought about the conversation he and Goro’s had about the skeins of fate, of the spider-woman at her wheel in the Kurosawa film they had watched together. He thought and remembered, remembered, the twitching muscle in Goro’s forehead as they spoke about destiny, a power that even the gods could not fight against.

“Some people truly are chained to their lots in life, Ren.” Goro’s words, remembered with crystal clarity. Goro’s words, a belief as grim as a prison sentence, spoken from experience. Ren hadn’t wanted to believe it at the time, but now he saw the proof of that with his own aching eyes.

Three marionettes darted forward and seized Siegfried in their broken limbs. The Persona stumbled back as Ren dropped to his knees, wincing, screaming.

At the sound of Ren’s scream, Goro twisted around, his body moving on instinct. He tore one hand free of the marionettes’ grasp, and pressed his hand to the fused masks on his face. “Robin Hood!”

Nothing happened.

Ren spat out a wad of blood and swayed to his feet.

Goro tried again. “Robin Hood!” Nothing. Nothing.

Goro closed his eyes. “Loki! LOKI!!

Nothing.

Goro’s voice tore through his mouth like a wolf at the throat of its prey. He opened his eyes, his gaze studded with tears. Fury blazed in his eyes, yet when Ren rushed forward, fingers groping in the air for Goro’s hand, that fury seemed less like anger, and more like an ache.

“Goro, hold on!”

“I—am!”

Ren’s fingers grazed the tips of Goro’s fingers. So close, they were so close. Just a little more—!

Something laughed. It was as harsh as a crow’s croak, as weak as a whimper, and as painfully persistent as the defiant gasps pulled into a punctured lung. Just the sound of it made Ren’s blood turn cold—and then he saw it.

Behind the waves of marionettes, a bulbous, rippling mass of what might have been a tumor or a head—or both—rose up to tower over them all. Glassy replicas of Goro’s eyes were fixed to every flat space in its twitching, gray flesh, a contrast as startling as the white, veiny shell of a hozuki with the bright, bloody fruit locked within.

This creature was no Shadow Ren had ever seen. It had neither a mask nor a face on which to put one. It was only skin and eyes, seeing, watching, waiting, witnessing.

And then one of the eyes opened, its pupil parting like a mouth—and it began to sing.

“Kimi ga yo wa. Chiyo ni yachiyo ni. Sazare-shi no iwao to narite. Koke no musu made.”

Ren watched enough baseball playoffs to recognize the national anthem when he heard it. But the familiarity brought no comfort, especially not when it was warbled out by a shifting, seething array of wide, glassy eyes, eyes that could and did become mouths, murmuring a patriotic devil’s paternoster. The voice was a wet, guttural thing, more noise than pure sound. Just to hear it was to be hurt by it; Ren’s entire body flinched the moment the first note struck his ears. The wince lowered his hand by the tiniest of inches.

Goro’s arm went limp as if the sound were a weight meant to break him. Ren watched, sick and viciously afraid, as the marionettes gathered Goro in the shards of their arms and pulled him closer to the many-eyed, tumescent mass to which they’d been fused. The creature stood up straight, revealing half of its body. It actually wore clothes; the bloody tatters of a suit were visibly beneath the patches of swollen skin and rows of open, waiting eyes.

The creature reached out with two fingerless appendages. They were red like wounds, swollen with ganglion cysts.

The marionettes knew what to do. With the quiet clatter of their shattered jaws, they cheered, “He’s all yours, sir!”

Ren’s stomach heaved.

The eye that spoke now sealed shut again. The iris dried out, the deep, rusty brown becoming a pale yellow-orange husk of a sun-dried camellia. Ren knew those eyes, just as he knew the voice that broke free from another open eye.

“This boy belongs to me,” the voice croaked, cruel and gloating in its victory. "I'm in his blood, I'm in his bone—he owes every breath to me. His life is a debt I will gladly come to collect."

Ren gagged. He clapped a hand to his mouth and wrapped his other arm around his stomach, fighting the urge to be sick. He knew that voice. Knew it, knew it, hated it. He remembered a dark night, the feeling of stone beneath his feet. He remembered the burning beat of his heart and the sound of a woman screaming, begging, pleading. He remembered reaching out to help, to help, that's all he wanted, that's all he really tried to do, so why didn't it work, back then and here, now?

Ren coughed into his hand as he remembered, remembered, remembered a trickle of blood and a bitter glare and a man's voice, laced with the poisonous promise of a threat. "You damn brat! I'll sue!"

Goro's monster was the same man who ruined Ren's life.

The black and white tiled floor was hard beneath Ren's knees as he collapsed, coughing, gagging.

"Ren!"

Goro's voice, calling to him, screaming, pleading.

Ren looked up. He reached out again, and fell forward, his chin crashing to the ground and sending his teeth scraping along his tongue. He tasted blood. Help him. Help, help

But it was too late. Goro’s monster closed its hands around his face and neck, and slithered away like a spool of thread unraveling in reverse. And then they were gone.

Gone.

Ren dropped to his knees and slammed his fists against his knees. Again and again, over and over, as if the bones were a glass wall he could break if he tried hard enough.

That was how Futaba found him moments later, his body swaying forward and back, his throat raw from screaming, his face flecked with spit and blood.

Ren was distantly aware of the familiar hum of Futaba’s Persona, but he didn’t realize what happened until he felt her hands on his shoulders, shaking him, clawing at him.

“Joker! Joker!”

Ren didn’t move.

“Calling Joker, over. Answer, ASAP! What happened? Where’s—where’s Akechi?”

The name made his stomach heave. Ren reached up and closed his hand around his throat, pulling, scratching, squeezing. “He’s gone—he’s gone.” His words were like the wounded edges of broken glass. He's gone and I couldn't help him, I couldn't, I couldn't. The monster took him and left me behind.

Futaba’s face grew fierce. “Did he hurt you?” she hissed.

Ren bared his teeth at her. “No!”

Futaba flinched. Guilt flooded his mouth with bitterness.

“… I’m sorry,” he said. His vision clouded over with a swell of tears. He shut his eyes and shook his head. As he raised his hands again, Huginn and Muninn hopped over to sit on his fists, weighing them down before he could hurt himself once more.

Futaba waited until the tears were gone before she broke the silence. “You want to get him back, don’t you?”

He nodded. “I have to. I promised.”

Futaba’s expression flickered with a feeling he could not name.

Ren blinked as his senses slowly returned. “… How did you even get here?”

Futaba gave his shoulder a hard shove. “You pulled me in.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“You should be! But we can argue about it later. Right now we’ve got other awful things to take care of.”

He took a breath. She was right. Thinking fast, Ren turned his pain into a plan. “I want you to go back and get the others.” He paused. “You know the code words to get back in, right?”

Futaba nodded. “Home. Nonperson.” Her face flickered with that unnamed feeling again. Ren wondered if it was sympathy.

She stood up. “I’ll see you soon.”

Ren waited until he couldn’t hear her footsteps before he drowned his eyes in tears again. 


[Futaba is typing…]

Futaba: EMRGNCY
Futaba: CME TO LBELNC NOW PLs

[Several people are typing...]

Makoto: What’s wrong?
Futaba: E
Futaba: V
Futaba: E
Futaba: R
Futaba: Y
Futaba: T
Futaba: H
Futaba: I
Futaba: N
Futaba: G
Ryuji: dude
Ann: omw!!!
Haru: Please be safe, Futaba-chan. ♥
Yusuke: I will be there soon.

Futaba crouched down in the street and held her phone over her head. Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic! Don’t!

Her rescue squad arrived in bursts. Ann came first, her face flushed from the rush over to the café. She lowered herself next to Futaba, her shoes scraping against the concrete.

“Deep breaths in and out, Futaba-chan,” Ann said, stroking her hair. “Breathe. Breathe. Okay?”

Futaba nodded. “Breathing!” she squeaked.

Ryuji and Yusuke arrived next. Futaba heard their voices at a distance, and lowered her face to hide it against her knees.

Can’t talk. Conserving energy. Social abilities at 46.2%.

Haru came next, with Mona in one of her designer bags. Makoto wasn’t far behind.

“Boss should be home soon,” Makoto warned, her eyes tense with concern. “He and Sis wanted to speak in private. I used that as an excuse to step out.”

Mona wriggled out of Haru’s bag and jumped to the ground. He marched over to Futaba’s ankles and nudged them with the top of his head. “What happened?” he asked. “And where’s Ren?”

Social abilities at 72%. Not the best, but it would have to do. Futaba could only work with the brain she had, not with the brain she wanted. Mom gave me this brain. I can be brave.

I can be brave.

Futaba stood up and lifted her phone to her mouth. She pressed her thumb to the Metaverse app, took in a short, sharp breath, and spoke the code words like a hex. “Goro Akechi. Nonperson. Home.”



“I can explain,” Ren said as his friends approached.

“Damn right you will!” Ryuji snapped. He didn’t look as angry as he sounded, and Ren knew better than to think Ryuji was mad at him. Loud outbursts of emotion were just Ryuji’s default mode of expression.

Ren explained, as best he could, between his panic and lack of patience. He left out certain parts—Goro's mother, the talking birds, the Shadows he’d turned into friends—while keeping in all the necessary, pressing bits of information. Goro had two Shadows and a monster that was a threat to them both, and Ren promised to kill it.

The silence that followed Ren’s words was mercifully short.

“So… lemme get this straight,” Ryuji said, kicking the ground. “You’re here to help Akechi—Akechi, the guy who thought he offed you and made it look like a suicide, that Akechi—cuz one of his Shadows asked you to?”

“Yes.”

Ryuji stared at him. “Dude.”

Ren put that through his Ryuiji-to-Broader-Vocabulary translator. This could mean anything from Why are you like this? to Please rethink all your life choices. Ren decided to answer the second option.

“I know how this sounds, okay? It all happened so fast, I honestly didn’t have time to think about it.”

Huginn grumbled at the lie. Ren glared at the bird in warning.

“There’s always time to think,” Makoto countered in her graceful, brute force precision.

Huginn flapped his wings and let out a squawk that sounded dangerously close to a, “Yes!” Makoto stared at the bird in surprise before she look at Ren again.

“How long have you know about Akechi's Palace?” she asked.

Ren shrugged. “Not sure. What time is it?”

Futaba answered. “We left Leblanc at exactly 7:32:56 PM.”

“So I’ve known for about…” Ren counted off on his fingers. “Nineteen hours.”

Makoto crossed her arms. “And you chose to risk your life here, alone, instead of immediately alerting us because…?”

“… Because it was midnight and I didn’t want to wake you up?”

She sighed. “Oh, Ren.”

Ann tilted her head, her pale blonde hair shifting with the movement. “You didn’t… come here for revenge, did you?” she asked quietly.

A muscle tightened in Ren’s jaw. “No.”

Ann’s shoulders eased down as she sighed. “Okay… Good. But if you don’t want to hurt Akechi, what do you want to do? I know what his Shadows want you to do, but what about what you want?”

Ren studied her, forcing himself to be patient. She of all people would understand this feeling, this responsibility to protect someone, to feel that need in every drop of blood and as the force behind every breath. But no matter how much she might understand how Ren felt, it was clear she didn't yet understand why. 

“I want to help him," he said. "I want to keep my promise. And I really, really do not have the time to get into why.”

After a moment, Ann nodded. "All right, Joker."

“And you made this promise without consulting us first,” Haru murmured. If Makoto was graceful brute force, Haru was as gentle as smashing a delicate teacup against the wall, splattered tea, porcelain shards and all.

“I’m sorry,” Ren said. He didn’t feel all that guilty, but he knew he should be. That should be good enough.

Morgana’s too large, too wide, too intelligent eyes scanned Ren’s tear-and-blood streaked face. “Akechi really means that much to you, doesn’t he? Despite everything he did?”

Ren’s throat clenched like a fist. He swayed where he stood, fighting for the relief of one little gasp. He nodded.

“And you truly believe that helping Akechi is the right thing to do?” Yusuke asked.

Ren didn’t have to think long for the answer. Not when he remembered the tears on the young Shadow Goro’s face as he begged for help. Not when he remembered the heartachingly hopeful look on that same face when Ren made his promise. Not when he remembered the real Goro’s guarded eyes and crooked smiles and the press of his lips and the cool, smooth touch of his bare hands. Not when Ren remembered the words, “You are living proof of fate. I was lucky to meet you. I was doomed to meet you.”

Ren looked at each of the Thieves in turn, saving Futaba—safely ensconced in her Persona—for last. “I do,” he said. Two simple words for an impossible vow.

Morgana nodded, his expression bright with a glint of wickedness. “I’m with you, Joker.”

“Me too!” Ann chirped.

“Let’s see what Akechi does with his second chance,” Haru said.

“He’s far from innocent,” Makoto said, “but he still has his side of the story to tell. I say we hear him out.” She rolled her shoulders as if stretching for a fight.

“Agreed,” Yusuke murmured, raising his hand.

Ryuji twisted his head until a crick in his neck released with a quiet pop. “Well if Ren-Ren’s all for it, I dunno how I can say no.”

They all glanced up at Futaba.

Ryuji broke the silence—again. “What’s our Oracle gotta say about this?”

She didn’t answer right away. “Threat-level Akechi has two Shadows, a monster, and a mind that sees himself as a threat,” she said, speaking fast. Her voice filled the hall and tumbled down in echoes, nine layers in all. “I don’t want to say I know how that feels but I know how that feels and I don’t like knowing it, which is why I want to do something about what I know. It’s what—what Mom would do.”

Ren heard the tremble in her voice, heard the iron will beneath the wavering words. He knew what she was thinking of, what she remembered, because he thought of and remembered it, too. A tomb in the desert, a beast with a mother’s face, screaming her daughter’s name. A heart desperate to change, a heart she offered and begged to be healed.

Haru lifted her hand as if she could reach through Futaba’s Persona and touch the girl within. “Futaba-chan…”

Mona raised his paw. “Then it’s decided. I don’t think we’ll have to send a calling card this time. Akechi’s Shadows know what Joker’s here to do, so the Treasure should have manifested by now.”

“Let’s hope,” Makoto said.

Mona’s expression grew stern. “This mission isn’t like the others. Akechi pretended to be on our side and betrayed our leader. We’re not here to punish him—we’re here to help, whether he likes it or not.”

Ren silenced his sigh of relief.

“So the cat doesn’t just know things,” Huginn grumbled, puffing out his feathers. “He even thinks things, too.”

“It’s about freakin’ time,” Muninn croaked.

The Thieves’ reactions to the talking birds was about as Ren expected. Some screamed, most of them flinched, and Yusuke chuckled as his eyes glittered with delight.

“Dude,” Ryuji deadpanned.

Ren knew what that one meant. What the everloving eff?

“Yeah, they do that.” He offered his friends a grin and turned on his heel. It felt good to have them here.

Ren clapped his hands and made finger-guns with his hands. He pointed ahead, took aim, and pretended to take a shot.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Chapter Text

The path to the grove of trees was a smear of ash and blackened, withered roots. As far as destruction went, this was too gentle, too fragile. Just looking at the damage made Ren feel in danger of adding to it.

Ren and the rest of the Thieves stayed quiet as they entered the grove. Darkness greeted them, lit in only the smallest flickers of dying embers. The glaring orange floodlights that once hung like glass suns in the rafters had now faded down to the dull glimmer of stars.

“This looks familiar," Makoto said, loud enough to be heard by the group but quiet enough so her voice didn't carry into the darkness.

Ren knew where her thoughts had turned. She was thinking of her sister's Palace, of the darkened halls and the tense game of hide and seek.

“Stay close," he said. “I was just here, and I doubt the layout's changed."

They didn't argue, and so Ren led the way into the darkness. Each step he took was a reminder to stay brave no matter how frantically his heart raced.

Makoto kept pace with him, and Mona marched at her heels, his large blue eyes narrowed with determination. Haru was just a half-step behind Ren, her axe resting on her shoulder, ready to strike. Ann, Ryuji, and Yusuke stayed in the back, as was their usual formation. No one would get the drop on the Thieves with Panther, Skull, and Fox watching their backs. Futaba, safely ensconced in Necronomicon’s hovering haven, loomed overhead.

They reached the edge of the ring of trees when Futaba's voice cut into the darkness. “Stop!” she hissed.

They froze.

“I sense nine figures ahead,” she continued, keeping her voice low. “And they look like Shadows!”

Ren’s heart gave a small, hopeful lurch. “Svanrand?” he called out. His voice echoed around them and doubled back.

Joker!” Makoto tapped her knuckles against his arm, as if she could nudge some sense into him.

Too late. Ren offered her a short-lived smile before he glanced at Huginn, who perched on his left shoulder. “Please tell me I’m right.”

A familiar clear, strong voice answered instead. “We must move fast, bold-guest. The game has begun, and our lord’s monster took the opening move.”

Svanrand and her sisters approached the Phantom Thieves with ease. The tension that ran through the group, and the way Ryuji and Ann settled into a crouch, ready to spring, barely earned a reaction. Their faces stayed calm and still. Ren envied them.

“Then we’ll take the next eight moves,” he said. “There’s only one of him and eight of us—well, eighteen,” he corrected, including the Valkyrie in the tally. He counted Huginn and Muninn as one entity put together.

“Twenty,” a voice spoke from the burning darkness.

Ren turned to the sound, his heart once more stumbling towards hope.

Goro’s Shadows stepped forward, their yellow eyes scanning through the crowd gathered in the grove.

Ryuji swore under his breath. Haru clapped her hands to her mouth, her eyes fixed on the younger Shadow.

Only Yusuke knew what to do. "Hello, Akechi," he said, bowing his head to the older Shadow. He turned to the child and added, "Akechi," before bowing again.

“You brought your friends,” the younger Shadow said, glancing up at Ren. His eyes were wide with awe.

The older Shadow was less impressed. He glared at them all, but saved his sharpest look for Ren. “Are they here because they want to help, or because they’re simply following your orders?” he asked, his words coated in venom.

“Both,” Ren said. “We took a vote on it, and they all agreed to help.”

“How very generous of them,” the older Shadow drawled. “Seeing as you made the decision without them and forced their hand.”

Goro's Shadow wasn’t as subtle as Goro himself. Ren knew he was trying to sow seeds of discord between them. What he couldn’t figure out was why? Why ask for help, only to drive a wedge between yourself and the help being offered?

Why is he so afraid of what he wants?

Before Ren could speak, Makoto lifted one shoulder in a short shrug. “If it doesn’t bother us, then why should it bother you?” she asked.

Goro’s Shadow twisted his mouth into a bitter sneer.

“We can argue about this later, dude,” Ryuji cut in, displaying a rare moment of sound judgment. He gestured to Svanrand. “That golden lady said we had to haul ass, so let’s go.”

The Phantom Thieves nodded. Even Goro's younger Shadow looked ready to move, but the other Shadow refused to budge. He whirled on Ryuji fast enough to make his black and gold cape flutter.

“There won’t be a later for us," he snapped. "At least, not for me. I won't survive what you do here, so I’ll gladly voice my complaints before you destroy me.”

"Wrong, wrong, wrong." Necronomicon dipped closer as Futaba spoke. "You know what Akechi knows, so you know better than to say that."

"That's right!" Mona piped in. "We're here to steal Akechi's Treasure and fix his heart. You won't be going anywhere, you'll just—"

"Be made powerless as you force me to change." Goro's Shadow bared his teeth. Coupled with the dark arch of his crow's mask, he looked positively feral. "You're killing me without actually murdering me."

Ren's blood went cold. He'd heard this argument before, or something similar. Goro had made no secret how little he thought of the Phantom Thieves' methods. It wasn't a subject he and Ren often spoke of when they were alone together, first as tentative friends, then as thrillingly secretive boyfriends. But Ren knew it was there, sitting between them all the same.

Goro's sense of justice could think of no greater crime than forcing a change in a heart rather than allowing the guilty party to change on their own. "Looking beyond the possibility that they might not feel true remorse for their actions, there's the far more pressing fact that this was forced onto them."

"Some people have it coming," Ren had argued, thinking of Kamoshida, of Madarame. Kaneshiro, and the vicious ambition of Okumura also came to mind. "Some people need to break apart before they can change."

"And who gets to decide that?" Goro had hissed, his hands curled into fists, dark eyes livid. "Who are you to say who has to break, and who isn't worth that effort?"

"Everyone deserves at least one chance to be forgiven."

"How can you forgive someone who isn't sorry to begin with?"

Ren shook his head, clearing his mind of that argument. He didn't have an answer then, when Goro first asked the question, and he didn't have an answer now.

“Let’s just put a pin in that,” Haru chimed in, and just like that, the conversation turned from a tense standoff to a carefully controlled meeting. She turned to Ren and Svanrand, business-like and efficient. “Do you know where the monster went?”

Svanrand’s horse stamped a hoof, sending up a smear of burning blood that lit the air like embers. “He took my lord down to the cellar of the hall,” she said. “Down and down, nine layers in all.”

“We’re not gonna have to dig our way there, are we?” Ann asked, alarmed.

Ryuji groaned. “That’ll take forever!”

Svanrand shook her head. “There are nine layers with nine doors, bound by nine locks. Through there we will find the pieces we need before the cellar can be reached.”

“That sounds like a task best divided between as many groups as possible,” Yusuke said. “I say we break into pairs.”

Svanrand nodded her approval. “One of my sisters will join each of you in the search.”

Ren did the math and glanced over at the Shadows. “You can follow whoever you want,” he said.

Goro's Shadow rolled his eyes. “I don’t need your permission.”

Ren shrugged. “So pick whichever one of us you hate less.”

The younger Shadow carefully examined the group again. He lifted his eyes to Necronomicon and paused, his face freely revealing his delight.

“I’ll go with that,” he said, pointing at the Persona.

“Then I suppose I have no other option but to choose you,” his older counterpart said, striding forward to stand by Ren.

Ren smiled. “Why Goro, I’m flattered.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“Too late.”

The rest of the group broke up easily after that. To Ren’s private amusement, Thrúðr picked Makoto—as did Huginn.

“I didn’t think you’d want to separate,” Ren said, gesturing between Huginn and Muninn as the latter settled with Skögul and Morgana.

Huginn leaned forward and let out an angry squawk. “Don’t say ‘didn’t think’ around me again.”

“How are we gonna find the pieces we need?” Ann asked as Göll reached down to shake her hand.

Svanrand pointed to the grove that smoldered with burning blood. “One piece lies behind each of the rune doors. It hides, but will be easy to find.”

“Why?” Ann pressed. “Akechi doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who would just hand out something personal without putting up a fight.”

The Valkyrie bent her head. “He isn’t. But the shards of my lord’s wound-gold scream to be heard.”

“Wound-gold?” Haru repeated. She looked at her Valkyrie—Róta—for an explanation.

Róta’s face was as solemn as the speaker of a eulogy. “You might call it a Treasure,” she said.

Wound-gold. The word made Ren's heart ache. Is that what Akechi's Treasure was, something painful and precious? He hadn't thought of it much before—didn't have the time to spare, in between all the panic and screaming—but he couldn't help but wonder just what Akechi's Treasure would be. What did Akechi value so much that it sat at the heart of his tangled, twisted, thorny distortions? Ren had to know. He had to.

"Would you know yet more?"

That was all the reason Ren needed. “Pick a tree, pick a door, and hop on through,” he said, leading Svanrand to a tree marked with what looked like a flag, all sharp points and one precise horizontal slash. Goro’s Shadow followed close behind, darkening his every step.

“I’ll see you guys at the bottom,” Ren added, turning to wave to his friends. They began the awkward ascent through the doors (Mona needed a boost to reach his), murmuring their hellos to the Valkyrie accompanying them.

Goro’s Shadow passed through the door first, and Ren gestured for Svanrand to follow behind. She did not.

“Your choice bodes well, friend-guest,” she said, gesturing the door.

“It does?”

“You chose Tiwaz—justice.”

Justice. Ren tried not to smile. Akechi would like that.

“Let’s hope that’s how it all works out,” Ren said.


 

ᛟ - OTHALA
Inheritance, ancestry, family.


Haru and Róta opened their rune door and arrived in an unfamiliar office.

They weren’t alone.

Akechi stood in front of them, though all they could see was his back. His posture was as rigid and still as the fence stretched over the Shujin Academy rooftop, and Haru could not help but wonder if that’s precisely why he stood that way. As hard as steel, designed to protect, to guard, to prevent a fall.

Haru knew how that felt. She was used to standing just so—back straight like a sword, her spine sheathed by nerves and sinew. That's how she stood in front of her father in the last months of his life, and the lawyers after he died, and the board of executives after they called her in for a meeting. That's how she stood while watching the lines of corporate mourners march up to her at the funeral, all of them handing over their condolences like business cards.

Sympathy took the reins away from her common sense. Haru lifted her hand, reaching for Akechi's back.

Róta's bronze fingers closed around Haru's wrist and held on tight. “We must watch and not touch, friend of our fool-guest,” she said.

"Right. Sorry." Haru held the Valkyrie’s hand instead.

As they lapsed into silence, the sound in the room rose louder, determined to be heard. Haru heard the tick of a clock on the wall, the quiet hum of an air conditioner, and the gentle, muted sound of voices on the other side of the door.

“You should not make a habit of questioning me,” a man’s voice said.

Haru drew back with a start. She didn’t know there was anyone else in the room with them. She took a small step around Akechi to see the rest of the room.

A bald man seated at a large, dark desk stared impassively at Akechi. A wall of glass revealing the jagged angles and disjointed horizon of the Tokyo skyline stretched out behind him, as if he were a part of the city itself.

Haru did not know his voice, but she knew the tone he used. She shivered. Her father had spoken to her that way sometimes.

Is that who he is? she wondered, biting her lip. Is he Akechi’s father?

“I was only curious,” Akechi said. She recognized that tone, too. Strained thin, desperate to be nice and so eager to please. “How else can I know your standards if I don’t ask?”

“You’ve been doing this long enough to know exactly what I expect out of you,” the man countered with ruthless precision. “That’s exactly why I’ve relied on you for so long.”

Oh, no. Haru knew this tactic. The cool voice and quiet scolding, followed by the smallest cinder of warmth. She’d heard it before. Heard it, hated it—missed it.

“Do as you’re told, Haru. I’m counting on you.”

“No daughter of mine will destroy the hard work I’ve put into making the Okumura name mean something. You used to make me so proud, Haru. I’d hate for you to let me down.”

“Don’t disappoint me, Haru. You’re better than that. You know better than that.”

Akechi turned to leave. Haru braced for the moment she would see his face—and worse, be seen by him. Instead, the room turned with him, keeping her and Róta fixed at Akechi’s back.

The room wobbled before it settled in again. The same office, a different day. The sunlight that filtered in through the glass walls was bright and buttery.

“Are you sure?” Akechi asked. Haru heard the small thread of unease in his voice, though he struggled to hide it.

So many of these moments—his voice, his posture, the tension in the room—were brutally familiar to her. She understood now what Futaba had meant. “I know how it feels and I don’t want to know.”

“Of course I’m sure,” the man snapped.

“It’s just… what happened with Okumura was so violent,” Akechi continued.

Haru clapped her other hand to Róta’s and held on tight. Her knees did not get weak. Quite the opposite. They felt too strong, too hard and harsh, as if the bones in her body strained to be free.

Róta leaned forward and whispered into her horse’s perked ear. “Kneel if you would, Hugrekki.”

The horse did as was asked. Róta curled her bronze hand around the soft curls framing Haru’s (pinched, pained) face. “Sit with me, girl-guest. You don’t need to stand alone.”

Haru heard herself murmur a shaky thanks as she climbed into the saddle in front of the Valkyrie. She leaned back against Róta’s chest, easing gratefully into the strength she found there. Her mind darted to the nearest comforting thought. She closed her eyes and thought of another pair of toned, steady arms and warm chest at her back. She thought of Makoto, of her quiet strength and gentle determination, and hoped her girlfriend was safe.

“Thank you for helping me," she said.

"I am here for helping, as are you."

Haru considered this. She didn't mind missing out on the conversation the man and Akechi were having, not if it involved her father's death. "How is it that someth—someone so kind can live inside of Akechi’s mind?” she asked, catching herself as she spoke. It didn’t seem right to call Róta a “thing” even if, technically speaking, she was not really alive.

“My lord must be cunning and crafts only the most keen defenses. Whatever he has done to offend you was likely done by necessity, and not choice.”

Haru wasn’t sure about that. It couldn’t all be a lie; there had to be something Akechi had said or done during his time among them that came from the true depths of his heart.

Róta continued. “The root of every emotion is always its opposite,” she said.

Haru reflected on that. “Now that does sound like Akechi,” she murmured.

By the time Haru emerged from the fog of her thoughts, the conversation in the room had drifted into even more troubling topics.

“Okumura’s death was no true loss,” the bald man continued. Every word was like a knife to her heart, cutting it to pieces, then hacking those pieces apart. “He’ll be more useful dead than he ever was when he lived, especially if it can work against the Phantom Thieves.”

“I can’t imagine his daughter would agree with that,” Akechi said. Haru couldn’t tell how he felt about that. His tone was too careful, too flat. “He was certainly a loss to her. And he was useful to you at one point, Shido-san.”

“Is that right?” the man said, barely containing his sneer.

“He might have worn out his welcome for you,” Akechi said, lifting his broad shoulders in a heavy, tense shrug. Haru felt the weight around him, even if it could not be seen. “But Okumura did help you up until very recently, and it will be difficult to find someone to fill that gap.”

“I had no idea you thought so highly of him.” The man—Shido—lowered his voice by the smallest of tones.

Haru shivered. She wished she could see Akechi's face. How could he stand there so quiet, so... so brave, and look this man in the eye? Haru could hardly stand to be in the same room as him, and he wasn't really there.

“I wouldn’t go that far. This is all just speculation.” Akechi’s voice was near the breaking point where politeness became viciousness. Haru knew that sound well, having heard it creep into her own mouth enough times these past few mourning months.

“I have no time to waste on people who let me down,” Shido continued. “Even if they were once useful. I’m not interested in bearing the burden of dead weight. I’ll leave that thankless task to Kannon—she’s got enough arms for it.”

Of all the names Haru expected to come out of a man like Shido’s mouth, the Bodhisattva of compassion was certainly not one of them. She wasn't particularly religious, but one of her most cherished memories involved Kannon, and their temple in Kyoto.

On Haru’s ninth birthday, her father took her along on a business trip to Kyoto. While they were there, they visited the Sanjuusangen-dou temple at her request. Haru preferred the quieter places on vacation—museums and local landmarks, parks and shrines. She hadn't been to an amusement park since her grandfather died.

Haru and her father walked up and down the rows of gold and cypress statues that framed Kannon’s altar. She craned her neck to study each face, eager to see the smallest flaws and differences.

“They say you can see yourself in one of the faces,” her father had murmured, his eyes gentle and kind. He crouched down next to Haru and asked, “What about you? Can you find your face?”

Haru hadn’t understood this question. Her face was her own, patched together by the threads of genes and cells, every feature a piece of her lost mother and living father. She looked at the faces anyway, studying row after row of their placid expressions and gentle smiles. She eventually joined her father at the dais holding up the statue of Kannon, moved by the search but unable to articulate why.

Her father lit two incense sticks and handed one down to her. “Well? Did you find your face?”

Haru shook her head. “I think I saw myself in all of them,” she said, turning the thought over in her head as she spoke. There was something familiar and soothing about all the statues; looking at them had been like looking at a wall of mirrors reflecting the peace that she, even as a child, craved to find at home.

Her father smiled at that. “Then you’ll never be alone, because you’ll find yourself wherever you look.”

The memory faded like smoke in a breeze. Haru twisted her hands in her lap and hung her head. Is that why she felt like this? Is that why she recognized the hidden feelings lurking under Akechi’s words? She did not need to see his face to see a part of herself in him, and with that seeing came understanding.

The thought made her stomach do a graceful flip. Never before had sympathy been so unwelcome in Haru’s heart.

No, unwelcome was the wrong word for it. It was more that she didn't expect it, as if the ache in her heart that bore the shape of Akechi was a stray cat that climbed in through her window and refused to budge until it was fed and cared for.

Akechi turned away from the man, and the room turned as it had before. It shook, and then tilted, twisting into a new shape.

Haru glanced around at the windowless walls, dreary and gun-metal gray. They matched the steel table set in the center of the room, although that had small flecks of color on it—a color that clearly matched the rusty red of dried blood.

The scene unfolded with a graceful violence. Haru barely had time to blink. Akechi shot the police officer without batting an eye, and then turned himself—and the gun—onto Ren.

No, not Ren. Haru had to remember that. This wasn’t really her friend sitting there. It was just a cognition, just an invention of the Metaverse. It’s not him. He’s safe, he’s safe—

All the mantras in the world could not prepare her for what happened next. It didn’t matter that she knew it was coming. Seeing a horror racing to meet you only meant you wasted time dreading the collision instead of thinking how to avoid it.

Haru jumped when Akechi pulled the trigger. The sound was sharp and soft—the silencer did its job and did it too well, just like the boy who held the gun in his hand. She turned away, burying her face in the warm feathers that hung from Rota’s cloak.

But Róta would not allow her to hide. This, too, reminded Haru of Makoto, who never failed to look a hard truth in the eye and give it a name.

“The truth is for seeing, girl-guest,” Róta said, gently grasping Haru’s chin and turning her face to the front.

Haru closed her eyes, rolled her shoulders back, and took a breath. Look. You have to look.

She opened her eyes.

Time had stopped. The bullet sat suspended, half embedded in the cognitive Ren’s forehead. Haru forced herself to look at it, forced herself to look and look and see, see the smoke, see the frozen splatter of blood—fake blood, fake, not real, not real. She blinked, held her breath. Look, look at it and see.

Something dark and shimmery caught the light. Haru tilted her head but the glimmer remained, a dark, warbling stain that wreathed the bullet and the blood spray.

The room turned just enough for Haru to see Akechi and cognitive Ren in profile. She forced her gaze away from their faces, fixing it on the bullet and blood instead. Both continued to shimmer darkly, bending as they blurred from black to gray and back again.

“Is that a piece of the Treasure—the wound-gold?” she asked.

“Just so.” Róta nudged her horse closer, close enough for Haru to touch the bullet and the blood.

She did not want to do it—but she had to do it. Not just for Ren, but for Akechi too. Akechi, and the part of herself she had found in him.

Haru reached out to close the bullet in her hand. The blood came with it, pouring itself into the bullet and filling it like a phylactery. Once it was done, the bullet sat warm and heavy in her hand.

She turned in the saddle to peer at the Valkyrie. "Can we leave now?" she asked. She wasn't too proud to beg.

Róta nodded. She nudged Hugrekki with her knees, and the horse stamped its front hooves. Haru heard the floor splinter beneath them like a snapped twig, and then the ground gave out, unfurling like a slide.

Down they slid, down and down, winding further into the darkness. This time, when Haru turned to hide her face in Róta's cloak, the Valkyrie wrapped her arm around Haru's shoulders and held her tight.

One piece down. Eight more to go.

Chapter Text

ᚱ - RAIÞO
Action, movement, freedom from self-imprisonment.

Ryuji followed the Valkyrie into the tree, and came to a dead stop. "Whoa!"

The darkness behind the door burned away in a burst of light and color, trapping them in its whirling haze. The glitz and gleam of Tokyo’s various restaurants and eateries spun around them like the panes of glass in a revolving door. Ryuji turned in place, trying to make out their shapes before they spun away. Pastry cafés, sushi restaurants, diners that served nothing but breakfast—all of them spun around and around in a dizzying blur.

Ryuji’s stomach growled.

Hrist cast him a curious glance, her starry silver and gold eyes as bright as embers.

“I’m missing out on dinner,” he explained, rubbing his stomach. Something about the Valkyrie’s gaze made him feel like a kid again, small and fumbling, uncertain of how best to behave.

“Then we should move fast,” Hrist replied. Ryuji hoped he wasn’t imagining the little uptick of her lips, forming a faint crescent of a smile. “Bad enough that my lord should go hungry and starve.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Ryuji muttered, looking at the revolving panes of glass again. “I figured he was a foodie, but this is kinda over the top.”

Hrist shook her head. She reached out to skim her fingers across one of the spinning walls of glass, and it slowed long enough for Ryuji to read the shop’s name.

Kyubey Ginza HontenHo-lee shit. Ryuji had only seen that name on TV, but he knew it by reputation. It was some ritzy place where people dumped out buckets of yen on a plate and ended up with meals smaller than their fists.

“You all have a hunger,” Hrist told him, spinning the glass again. Ryuji studied each name as they moved past, ticking them off on his fingers. Sarabeth’s, Trattoria Dai Paesani; Towers, K’shiki, and Honey Toast café. “There’s a mouth in your hearts that mimics the gnawing of a belly.”

“Gross,” he grumbled. He studied the glass walls, forcing his mind to move past that grisly imagery.

Akechi soon came into view behind the glass, moving like the sketches in the corners of a flipping picture book. He walked up to the doors of the shops, pausing briefly at the host’s podium where he disarmed them with that simpering, pleasant smile. Ryuji watched as that smile fell and Akechi marched to his tables. It was a dizzying thing to witness the same posture, the same face frozen into a carefully guarded mask as the world spun around him. Only the locations changed, their colors blurring together in a smear that left Ryuji feeling sick.

Ignoring his heaving gut, Ryuji nodded to the spinning doors of glass, eager to chase away the image of mouths where they should not be. “How the hell can Akechi afford all these places?” he asked. “And why does he look so bored? I’d be freaking out if I were him. Some of these places charge six months' salary for one plate!”

Hrist blinked at him. The horns that arched like branches from the side of her head shifted as she turned to peer down at him. “You have answered your own question by asking it.”

“Uh, what?”

“How can my lord enjoy a meal when all he can taste is the cost?”

Ryuji scratched the back of his head. He glanced over at the walls of spinning glass, his stomach straining with a familiar pang as food arrived at the tables. No matter at what pane of glass Ryuji looked and no matter what Akechi ate, he did it all with mechanical precision, as if there were a cog in his jaw that he wound up before tucking into his food.

“You wanna run that by me again?” Ryuji asked the Valkyrie.

The revolving doors of restaurants shifted and once again Hrist held out her hand so that Ryuji could read the names. This time he was more interested in Akechi’s expression: unchanging, lifeless, hollowed—hungry. He took a moment before he noticed the names: Ben Fidditch, Mokushundo, View & Dining The Sky; La Bisboccia, Lubina, Arva, and The Oak Door. Akechi entered and sat and ate at them all, alone and blank-faced, every motion as precise as a wind-up toy.

“The same man who gives my lord the means to eat is the same monster who feeds on him,” Hrist replied. "My lord must pay for every little thing he needs to live."

The doors turned in time with Ryuji’s stomach. Hunger wasn’t the only thing clawing its way through his gut now. “That creepy fleshy eye thing Ren mentioned is actually real?”

“Not in the way you might be thinking.”

“Oh. Right.” Ryuji chewed on his lip, tearing off bits of it in small, bloodless strips. “So… who is he in real life?”

“Who do you think?”

Shoulda known something in Akechi’s head would throw me a pop quiz. Ryuji scratched the back of his head and adjusted his mask, taking comfort in the hard, smooth replica of bone. “I dunno. Akechi and I never really talked, so I'm kinda shootin' in the dark here.”

“Hardly.” Hrist reached down and prodded Ryuji in the forehead. “You wear a skull over your own. The bones of the head are seats of the brain, the hall of thought and reason. Think and speak from your throne of bone, and I will listen.”

The skin beneath Ryuji’s mask flushed as if it felt the warmth of the Valkyrie’s touch. No one ever asked him to think before—not like this, with the expectation not only that he should but could, and that he was more than capable of doing so. Ryuji didn’t really mind not being the planner in the Phantom Thieves. Futaba and Makoto were better suited for that, and he was happy to be the brawn to their brains (even if Futaba preferred to call him a “tank running a pure strength build”). He’d paired up with this Valkyrie expecting things to more or less follow that pattern: the lady born from a part of Akechi’s brain would do the thinking, and he’d do the—well, doing.

Ryuji’s hunger opened its mouth a little wider and gnawed at the back of his throat. He looked at the spinning walls of glass once again. Think. C’mon, put it together. Don’t be a dim bulb.

“I think… whatever Ren saw—whatever took Akechi away—is probably someone pretty powerful in real life,” Ryuji said slowly. "And he probably scares Akechi shitless."

Hrist nodded, and waved her hand. "Continue."

Ryuji frowned. He did his best thinking when he could bring his thoughts to life with his voice, a habit that did not go over well in places like exams or confrontational conversations with teachers who wondered why he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class.

Hrist stayed quiet, as attentive as she promised. Ryuji shoved his hands into his pockets and slumped forward, chewing on his lip again. He wasn’t used to someone giving him room to speak. Before he met Ren and the rest of the Thieves, too many people treated Ryuji's voice like a noise to be hushed instead of heard.

“And if he’s someone powerful, then that means he could have some kinda hold on Akechi—like how Kamoshida tried to blackmail me and Ren and Mishima.” Ryuji’s mouth twisted around that hated, hateful name. He checked the urge to spit.

Hrist nodded again. “Just so.”

Ryuji didn’t like this thought. Didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know how it weighed up against all the shit Akechi pulled with them (blackmail at the least, attempted murder at the absolute worst). So what if Akechi had some asshole breathing down his neck? He was still benefiting from that arrangement in some way—right?

Hell yeah he is. Ryuji glared at the walls of glass and the spinning array of plates filled with food. Ryuji had spent too many nights of his life aching with hunger—too many nights watching his mother, her face pinched with worry beneath the yellowing bruises, carefully digging up as much spare cash as she could to buy food. These memories were too fresh to overlook something like a bottomless wallet for fine dining. As far as he was concerned, Akechi’s sullen face total lack of interest in all this food just meant he was taking the damn thing for granted—

Ryuji blinked. That thought put into those words became a little penknife that slipped into a long buried memory and dug it free.

“You ungrateful little shit. I put food in your mouth and a roof over your head, and this is the thanks I get?!”

Ryuji kicked his foot on the ground and took comfort in it. It wasn’t often his dad’s voice flowed back into his thoughts. These days, Ryuji had far more pleasant memories to drown out all the years of endless spite and abuse. But just because the memories were buried didn’t mean they had died, not completely. Especially not when they’d become a part of him, creeping like stains of dark ink into the edges of his heart.

Sliding his hand from his pocket, Ryuji reached out to run his fingers along the spinning doors. They whirred in the air beneath his hand, the slipstream of their movement like a sharp and cold slice against fingers. He looked at Akechi’s face again, looked and thought and thought and looked, until he saw more than just the pretty face of a traitor.

The memory of his father’s voice dug up more buried bitterness, scattering it like seeds to root and rot in Ryuji’s thoughts. He looked at Akechi’s face and remembered how hopelessly broken Mishima had looked, his face a collection of scrapes and bruises and bandages, yet trying so desperately to hide all the hurt.

Is that what he’s doing? Ryuji wondered. Hiding what hurts?

He looked at Akechi’s face and carefully laid it over the memory of his mother’s on those hungry nights, or seated at the dinner table, her head heavy and shoulders tense. He thought of all the times she flinched at a sudden movement made by Ryuji’s father, and then cowered back, dreading the moment he would notice and give her another reason to wince. Ryuji thought of his mother crouched next to his futon, her hands shaking against his hair, mindful of the gash in his forehead.

“We’ll just have to pretend, honey. Okay?”

Pretend. Lie. Hide the hurt. Hide the hurt.

Ryuji pulled back his hand and curled it into a fist. “It’s his dad, isn’t it?” he asked, bile burning in the back of his throat. "That thing he's afraid of. His monster."

“Just so,” Hrist said, her voice quiet.

Ryuji flexed his fingers as an old, hated ache knocked on his knuckles, waiting to be let in. He’d broken two of them on his thirteenth birthday, the day he threw his first punch. He cracked the bones against his father’s jaw, and they never quite figured out how to heal.

Hrist slid her bronze fingers along the back of Ryuji’s hand, undoing his fist finger by finger. His glove glimmered where she touched him, like a stain of starlight. His pain dimmed just a little.

“… Thanks,” he muttered, looking up.

Hrist held out her hand and slowed the doors again. Ryuji recognized the new setting at once.

So is Leblanc special to Akechi, too? It had to be, right, if Leblanc was the foundation for his Palace?

Great. Just another thought Ryuji wasn’t sure what to do with.

Each pane of glass continued its flip-book animation, creating a jumpy sequence of images. Ryuji trained his eyes on Akechi's face and studied him closely. Everything about Akechi looked different. His posture was relaxed, his expression less guarded, and he wasn't wearing that stupid pretty boy smile anymore. Even the way he walked was different, his steps no longer empty and automatic. Almost like something about Leblanc set him free.

Akechi took a seat at the counter and set down his briefcase. He peered around the café, his expression cautiously expectant. That look faded as the bell chimed over Leblanc’s front door. He turned to the sound.

Ryuji turned as well.

It was Ren.

“Welcome home,” Akechi said, smiling at Ren.

Ren didn’t even hesitate. “Honey, I’m home.”

Akechi laughed. “You were out late,” he said, keeping up the joke.

Or was it a joke? Ren was pretty easy to read, and he didn't look like he was kidding.

Huh. Weird.

Ryuji watched as the image behind the glass shifted, time warbling and bending as it slid forward. When the image settled again, Ren was behind the counter, leaning slightly forward as he spoke to Akechi. Akechi was half slumped in his seat, his prim, precise posture all gone. He looked about ready to sleep even as he nursed a cup of coffee, his smile hidden by the mug’s brim.

Ren's eyes dipped down to Akechi's mouth each time he spoke, only to dart up to his eyes when it was his turn to speak. Akechi did the same, and soon their gazes rose and fell like sugar cubes bobbing in a cup of tea, from their eyes to their lips then back up again.

Weird, Ryuji thought again. He wondered what it meant.

Ryuji watched as Ren took the mug from Akechi’s hand and poured a fresh cup of coffee into it. He watched the way Ren handed the cup back to Akechi, and how gently their fingers brushed against each other.

… Oh. Ryuji’s gaze raced up to Akechi’s face again. His smile flickered, faded, all its softness draining away—no, not away, up. All the gentleness Ryuji had seen in Akechi’s smile was now locked in his gaze as he looked into Ren's eyes.

Ryuji had never felt more desperately uncomfortable than he did right there, right now.

“I don’t think this is any of my business,” he said, turning to give the boys their privacy. Even if they were just a memory, just a fragment of a past piece in time, he had no right to ogle it.

Hrist poked Ryuji’s cheek. He felt a flutter of warmth whisk across his face, and wondered if she had smeared starlight there, too. “You made it your business when you entered his Palace,” she said.

“That wasn't my idea! And aren’t we supposed to be looking for pieces of Akechi’s Treasure?”

“We are, and you did.”

“Huh?”

Hrist smiled, the shadows of her horns angling over her cheeks as she tilted her head. “Did you miss it? Look again.”

Ryuji steadied his breath and turned back to the walls of glass. As he moved, Hrist reached down for his wrist and pulled his arm forward. He flinched as his fingers passed through the spinning glass. He expected resistance or pain, but found instead something gentle and cool, no more solid than a stream of water.

The image behind the glass froze. Neither Akechi nor Ren moved. Keeping his gaze politely pointed away from Akechi’s face, Ryuji lowered his eyes to the mug again. There was nothing too special about it. He’d seen dozens of them on the shelves behind the counter at Leblanc. But this mug had to mean something to Akechi—why else would this memory be singled out?

And that’s when he saw it. “Oh—hey, it’s glowing!” Ryuji pointed at the mug and its glimmering, shimmering edges. He’d seen Treasures do the same in other Palaces before they took on a full, complete shape.

"Take it," Hrist said.

"You sure?"

She nodded.

Carefully, slowly, Ryuji held his breath and reached further through the glass. His fingers brushed over the mug from where it sat frozen between Ren and Akechi’s hands.

“Sorry guys,” he muttered, knowing he could not be heard. Still, it had to be said anyway.

The piece of Akechi's Treasure came loose from the memory with a gentle click, a sound no louder than a porcelain mug placed on its matching saucer. As Ryuji pulled his hand back through to his side of the glass, Hrist let go of his wrist and stomped her heel on the ground. The floor unfurled like a spool of thread beneath them, forming a chute that slid into the darkness.

“Whoa, what the—?!”

Ryuji’s words faded into a spluttered cough as he felt his feet leave the ground. He let out a grunt as his stomach slumped onto Hrist’s shoulder, leaving him to hang down her back. He tried to speak again, and got a mouthful of feathers, white and gold pinions that fluttered like wings on the mantle of her cloak.

Hrist patted Ryuji’s back and steadied him on her shoulder. “Time to go, friend-guest,” she said, and sat on the slanted floor to slide down to the blackness below.

Seven pieces left.



ᚾ - NAUDHIZ
Necessity, doing what must be done; resistance.

Huginn pecked at the spikes on Makoto’s shoulders and let out a squawk. “These aren’t very bird friendly, you know.”

Makoto shooed him off her shoulder. “I’m not wearing it for you,” she said.

As Huginn took off to circle around her head, Makoto cast a quick glance over to the Valkyrie who accompanied her. Thrúðr’s grin brightened the darkness, a clear sign of approval.

A small knot of tension in Makoto’s back eased loose. She let out a breath, and tried not to hate herself. She couldn’t stop chasing after approval, not even here, in Akechi’s mind. But that was a bitter fact to be unpacked later, in kinder company than two figments of Akechi’s cognition. A company with a soft voice and a brave smile and honey-sweet kisses as warm as the spring she was named for.

Makoto let the thought of Haru burn in her mind as she forced herself to focus. They had all come to Akechi’s Palace for one reason, and she would not lose sight of that goal.

The long, dark corridor blinked and shrank around their feet, forming the bright, blinding white walls and floors of a TV studio’s dressing room. Makoto shielded her eyes against the light as it pierced her eyes and took a step back.

As Makoto waited for her vision to clear, she felt Huginn land on her head, his claws sinking into her braided headband. He spread his wings and leaned forward, casting darkness over her eyes like a shroud, keeping the light at bay.

“Oh… Thank you,” Makoto said, lowering her hand. She hadn’t expected this small bit of kindness, and wondered if there was some other purpose lurking behind it.

She didn’t have to wonder for long.

“You can’t find the Treasure if your eyes don’t work,” the raven croaked.

Ah. There it is.

Thrúðr sighed so Makoto did not have to.

Huginn kept his wings wide as Makoto studied the new scenery. Akechi was in the room, seated in front of three panes of mirrors. He did not react to the other reflections that joined him in the mirror, a clear sign that they were unseen intruders.

That's good, Makoto thought, nodding. She stepped forward to examine him closer. There was nothing else in the room besides Akechi and the mirrors, so their significance must be hiding in plain sight.

There was nothing unusual about Akechi’s face. He wore the same bright smile she had seen again and again on TV, or in selfies shared on his blog, all of them staged to look as casual as could be. There was nothing wrong with the smile per se, but there was something so... vague and empty about it, like the default expression of dolls: harmlessly pleasant, vacant and sweet.

A muscle in Makoto’s jaw twitched. She rubbed her knuckles against it and lowered her eyes.

Akechi’s hands—gloved and tense—lay flat on the white shelves that ran beneath the mirrors. His fingers flinched on the bone-white wood in the same short, sudden twist as the muscle in her face. But instead of soothing it away as she had, Akechi turned the flinch into a gesture. He his hands to take hold of his face. Makoto saw the thread of tension move through his arms before she understood what it meant.

Akechi pressed his thumbs behind his ears and snapped his own neck.

Makoto jumped back, covering her ears just a moment too late. That harsh, horrible crack still rang in her ears, demanding to be heard and understood.

“Eh, he’s fine,” Huginn said, tapping one foot on the top of Makoto’s head.

I’m not,” she said, lowering her hands. She took a breath, held the weight of it in her chest with all her might, and looked into the mirror again.

Akechi’s face was different. The same features were all there—eyes, a nose, a mouth—but the vacant doll's smile was gone completely. With that one vicious act, he transformed his face into something else, as if his expressions were so deeply rooted they could only change through self-inflicted violence.

As Makoto studied his new face, she ran her fingers around her wrist, turning friction into warmth. Akechi’s new expression—his new “face”—was also familiar. It was the same crafty smirk she saw at reconnaissance meetings in Leblanc, the look of a boy happily hording secrets and baring none of his own.

“What does this have to do with his Treasure?” she asked.

“Wait and see,” Huginn told her.

“I thought we didn’t have time to wait.”

“There’s no time to waste,” Huginn corrected, stomping lightly on her head again. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have to wait.”

Akechi reached up to cradle his face again. Makoto tensed, preparing herself.

Thrúðr leaned forward, the antlers of her helmet adding to the shadows of Huginn’s wings. “Three… two… one,” she counted down, pressing her hands over Makoto’s ears.

Makoto closed her eyes. A second later, she heard that horrible snapping sound again. But it was distant, muffled by the press of the Valkyrie’s hands.

Thrúðr lifted her hands off Makoto’s head and stepped back. Makoto opened her eyes.

“Is the missing piece of his Treasure tied to the faces he wears?” she asked.

“Now you’re thinkin’,” Huginn crowed happily. Even Thrúðr smiled, and Makoto privately mourned just how good it felt to win their approval.

Her sense victory was short-lived. Akechi grabbed his face and twisted it once more. This time, Makoto did not flinch or close her eyes, not even when the room around them spun violently with his movement. The dressing room was gone, replaced with the familiar dreary, dusty walls of Leblanc’s attic. Only Akechi and the mirrors remained.

Makoto tore her eyes away from the glimmers of light bleeding through the windows and looked at Akechi’s reflection, steeling herself for what she might see.

His face was gone. Blank, empty. No eyes, no nose, no lips. Nothing.

“He doesn’t have a mask here,” Makoto murmured, her voice raw and faint. She shook her head as she spoke, as if the motion would free the answer from where it sat. “But… that can’t be right.”

“Why can’t it be?” Thrúðr asked, closing her hands around the spikes on Makoto’s shoulders. She fit her fingers between their sharp points and held on tight. “Isn’t it nice to kick off your shoes after a long day outdoors? Don’t you, too, change your face to something new when you’re safe at home?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?” Thrúðr pressed, tilting her head. Makoto saw the reflection of Huginn as he climbed onto one of the antler’s on the Valkyrie’s helm and marched down the stem. “You have your own collection of faces, friend-guest. Yes? Yes. You wear them where is necessary, where you must. You wear them to resist. And so does he.”

No. Makoto wanted to argue, but she knew it would be a lie. Yes, she had her own masks to wear. Masks of obedience, masks of subdued respect; masks of prim and proper control; masks that were weaker than the rest, not because they were flawed but because they had not been frequently used. Masks named Queen, senpai, and the new, adored mask called Mako-chan, a face she wore around Haru alone.

Yes, Makoto had her own hidden faces. But still…

Makoto shook her head again. “It is different. Akechi lied to us for months. That’s all he ever did.”

“To you, yes,” Huginn said, plucking at her braided headband again. “To you and all the other friend-guests Joker dragged here—with one glaring exception.”

“Who—?” the word left Makoto’s mouth just as the answer arrived in her mind. She closed her lips and pressed them down tight.

Who else would be privy to Akechi’s blank face and empty mask, a space he did not need to fill with anything except what he wanted to be?

“Oh…” Makoto’s heart tapped against her ribs, sending out pangs of sympathy to shake at her bones. She pushed it back, refusing to feel it. Not now. Not yet. “Oh, Ren.”

Her eyes came into focus just as Akechi grabbed his face once more and twisted it, replacing the blank face with that cheerful, harmless smile again. Makoto blinked, and then that face was gone, replaced by his sickle smirk and clever eyes. Again and again Akechi twisted his head, faster and faster, the motions hard and swift. He lingered the longest on his empty face, the face free of all lies, the face free to be nothing at all.

The third time Akechi snapped through his faces, Makoto noticed something strange. She leaned closer and saw a familiar faint, glimmering haze. It was the same shimmering effect that ringed the empty space where a Treasure would soon be. But there was no empty space this time; the only thing shimmering here were the edges of Akechi’s blank mask, his true face, the face he showed only to Ren.

Something sharp clawed at the back of Makoto’s throat. She chewed on her bottom lip, her jaw tense.

“Take it,” Thrúðr said, carefully lifting her hands from Makoto’s shoulders. She stood up straight, reaching up to pluck Huginn off his roosting spot on her helm. “It’s what we’re here for.”

"You don't mean—"

"Yes. I do."

They want me to take his face. Makoto held her breath. “Will… will he feel it?” she asked.

The Valkyrie shook her head. “These are just echoes, girl-guest. Like ripples in the water, like a drop of blood pushed up from the vein. Echoes, faint, reflective. An image of what's real without being so.”

That was worse somehow. “Yes, but…”

Thrúðr shook her head with dagger-sharp quickness. “Finish what you started. Take what you came to claim.”

As Makoto stood there deliberating, Huginn took flight and cuffed the side of her head with his wings. He hovered out of reach, circling like a dark halo around her hair. “Let’s make this quick,” he said.

Quick and painless. Makoto rolled her shoulders and lifted her chin. Like ripping off a bandage.

Makoto stepped forward, surprised at how steadily she walked. A part of her mind stayed back, standing next to Thrúðr under the shadow of Huginn’s wings, gladly detaching itself from what came next.

Akechi did not resist as Makoto reached out to turn his face to hers. She studied that smooth, featureless stretch of skin before she slid her fingers to his hairline. The shimmering was brighter there.

Take it. Go on.

But what if he bleeds?

Makoto didn’t move. She couldn’t move. Not yet.

“I think I need help,” she murmured, staring into Akechi’s empty face.

Huginn landed on Makoto’s left wrist and quickly hopped to stand on her knuckles. “We’ll do it together on three,” he said, leaning forward. He placed his thick black beak against the peak of Akechi’s forehead and waited. “One.”

“Two,” Makoto breathed, sliding her fingers to frame Huginn’s beak.

“Three,” they said as one.

There was no blood. Akechi did not move when Huginn’s beak pierced his skin. He did not flinch, did not wince, did not move at all as Makoto’s shaking fingers pulled blindly at his face, carefully tearing it here and there, making sure both sides were even. He did not stir at all as Huginn and Makoto peeled his face away and left him even emptier than before.

Makoto wished he would fight back, or show the littlest sign of resistance. She would gladly welcome a struggle instead of this passive, hopeless surrender.

Huginn twisted his beak and tore the last bit of Akechi’s true face off his chin. He laid it carefully across Makoto’s hands as she turned away. She’d seen enough.

Thrúðr placed her hand on the top of Makoto’s head and stroked her hair, smoothing down the strands Huginn had stirred up. “What’s done is past,” she said. “Now here comes the rest of it.”

Makoto understood what she meant. You have to keep going. You can’t stop here.

“Let’s go,” she said, and pressed the piece of Akechi’s Treasure against her heart, warming it with every beat.

Thrúðr slammed her heel on the ground. The world gave way with a sigh, revealing a tangled twist of roots that stretched down, down, down. Huginn took a seat on one of Thrúðr’s antlers as the Valkyrie curled her arms around Makoto’s waist and tucked the girl into her side.

Makoto looked up as they fell. It was a gentle act, like flying in reverse. She watched the dull gray light of Leblanc’s attic fade as she slid further into the darkness, her fingers closing tight around the piece of Akechi’s Treasure. She closed her eyes and ran her thumb around the edge of the piece. It was so smooth and thin; the slightest pressure could tear it to ribbons. Something so easily broken by the world, and forced to endure it anyway.

A pang of sympathy knocked once more on the doors of Makoto's heart. It rattled her from sternum to spine and up the stem of her neck, shaking her to the roots of each tooth. She closed her eyes, whispered Haru's name for courage, and let it in.

Six pieces left.

Chapter Text

ᚷ - GEBO
Gift, magical exchange, divine vision.

The darkness behind the Gebo door waited patiently for Yusuke and Grimhildr to settle in before it changed. What was once still, starless shadows soon burst to life, fluttering like the pages of a well-thumbed book. Colors seeped into the darkness—reds, blues, golden-yellows.

As Yusuke watched the world take shape, he took in a long breath in hopes of clearing some of the tension that had closed its jaws around his chest. He breathed out, then in again. He could smell parchment and canvas, an earthy, fusty scent that reminded him of Madarame’s home.

Slowly, gracefully, the darkness formed into a frame, the corners rising and falling to meet in sharp angles. A splash of white splattered inside the frame, blotting out the darkness so other colors could bleed through. These new colors—the red, the blue, and the golden yellow—swirled and twisted, taking on a familiar shape.

Yusuke raised an eyebrow and tilted his head back. Robin Hood?

Akechi’s Persona wasn’t really there, of course. It was merely an image, like in an art gallery. Or reading a comic book. Yusuke could still smell the paper, still hear pages fluttering.

He stared up at the Persona and tried not to smile. There was always something charmingly pulpy and boyish about Robin Hood’s design, as if it were a lost concept for Phoenix Ranger Featherman R.

Yusuke took a step back, nudging Grimhildr’s side. She lifted her arm, her gold and black fur cloak fluttering with the movement.

“Keep watch, friend-guest,” she said, pointing at the walls again.

Even with the riot of colors, the darkness had not faded completely. It crept across the walls, pulling some of the red closer to it, like ink and blood brought to life. Another frame took shape around a new figure that burst into being with the hiss of a candle wick. It was striped black and white, with a face split by a red seam. Red burned like embers in every sharp angle of its body, from its antlers down to the golden cloven hooves framing its feet.

But is the red seam for its mouth, or its eyes? Yusuke could not tell. He reached up to stroke his chin. An old habit, borrowed from all the years he spent at Madarame’s bony elbow, watching, learning, living.

Yusuke was not afraid of this new creature. There was very little about the Metaverse that truly scared him. He pored over it with a fascination that was a close kin to sickness—powerful, toeing the borders of painful, and stricken silent with awe.

“Could this be another Persona?” he asked Grimhildr.

She placed her hand on his shoulder. It was smooth and strong and warm, like tempered bronze. “Just so.”

How intriguing. A second Persona—a hidden Persona. A creature made of shifting shadows, barred in white and black like the stripes of a prisoner’s garb of old. And that red seam—was it a wound or a smile? Was it both?

Yusuke studied the new Persona carefully, his thoughts buzzing like hornets. What was its name, its purpose, its power? What did it whisper in Akechi’s thoughts, and did it fill his mind the way Goemon’s power pressed like a hand at Yusuke’s back? Did its fingers also sink into the notches of Akechi’s spine and command ever nerve to heed? When did it answer Akechi's cry for help—and what were the words of that cry?

“That would make Akechi a Wild Card as well…” Yusuke wished Mona were here, or Joker. Yusuke could not imagine their reactions to this news, and he did not quite trust his ability to convey the weight of this realization in words.

Yusuke glanced over to Robin Hood again. His fingers bent in slowly, cradling the phantom weight of a paintbrush. He wanted to draw this, capture it, preserve it for longer than the time he had to witness it. But that was impossible. He had a Treasure piece to find, and a mission to complete.

Speaking of.

Huh. Yusuke blinked and tilted his head. “That’s... strange.”

“What is?” Grimhildr asked. There was a faint touch of exasperation in her voice, as if her patience were one of the stretched-too-far elastic bands Ann used to keep her twintails in place.

Yusuke gestured to the Persona in their frames. They hovered expectantly, bobbing like a yo-yo in a game of yo-yo tsuri. “Neither of them look like a piece of Akechi’s Treasure. I would have thought they would be special to him. After are, they are clearly symbols of power and truth, and the glory of defiance.”

Grimhildr’s hand tightened on his shoulder. He wondered what it meant. “My lord clutches and cradles something infinitely more precious to him,” she said.

“Then I hope to soon see it.”

As soon as Yusuke spoke, the frames shattered. White erupted across the walls, which turned like the pages of a comic under an invisible hand. Yusuke winced, briefly blinded by the strobe-light effect. He turned his head to the side and closed his eyes.

Sensing his need, Grimhildr opened her cloak—a gleaming coat of mythril and feathers, with an inner, extra layer of honey-gold silk sewn inside—and cast it around Yusuke’s shoulders. She stood well over a meter taller than him on foot, having dismounted from her horse after they entered the tree. Her cloak hid him from head to toe.

Despite his throbbing headache, Yusuke peered around the fold of Grimhildr’s cloak, not wanting to miss a moment of the pulpy profusion of colors and scenery. It truly was like a manga, the images unfurling from right to left, their borders haphazardly shaped, with no true definition beyond what each specific image needed. There was no color on these pages save for red, blue, and golden yellow.

Eventually, the page-walls soon settled on the image of a boy with messy hair that was the faded, rusting color of blood. The boy was kneeling in a bathroom next to a water-soaked woman, her lips painted a wintry-blue. Her wrists were open like the smallest parting of a theater curtain, dull and dark and red.

Yusuke’s headache slipped down his face, into his throat, before it slashed across his heart. He tore his eyes from the first page-wall, and looked at the second that sat opposite to it.

That same boy was seen again, kneeling beside a pile of ashes laid out on a long, pale blue bier that looked like an altar and a gurney both. In his hands were a pair of chopsticks, bone white and twig-thin. They were almost as long as his arm. The boy leaned forward, carefully picking out small bits of bone from the pile of ash. A woman in white knelt across from him, holding a golden urn in her hand. She extended the urn each time the boy found a chunk of unburnt bone. The boy—Akechi, of course it was Akechi—held his breath as he dropped each piece into the urn.

The pain in Yusuke’s heart turned itself into a weight, pulling, tearing. “Who was that woman?” he murmured, glancing at the first page-wall again. His mind whispered suspicions he did not want to accept. “Could she be—?”

Grimhildr did not hesitate to answer. "His mother," she said.

The page-walls turned impatiently. This time, Yusuke could see the hand that made them move. He recognized the gloves that covered the hand—gleaming black and thin, made of supple leather. Akechi’s hand.

A new page settled into the frame. This one showed Akechi, still a child, holding the urn from the previous page. He pressed it to his chest with one small, thin hand. In his other hand he held a white and red memorial tablet, the kind given to the next of kin after a death. A dufflebag—black and red—sat at his feet, blotting out the bright yellow warning lines of a train station’s platform. Two women stood before him, one old, one young. They wore matching aprons, starched and newly washed, decorated with sunflowers whose yellow petals framed the black sun-circle within.

The old woman leaned forward to pick up Akechi’s dufflebag. The younger woman crouched down and held out her hand for the urn. Akechi stepped back, shaking his head. The woman dropped her hands.

The page turned. Akechi again, standing with the two women in a long sitting room. The tatami floors were a bright, buttery gold in the sunlight that reached in through the windows.

A white bubble popped up over the young woman’s head. Words appeared as she opened her mouth, as if written by a shaking hand.

“We’ll keep your mother on our butsudan, Akechi-kun,” she said, taking the memorial tablet from his hand. “That way you can visit her whenever you like.”

Yusuke noticed something strange about Akechi’s name. A dark scribble appeared over the characters, hastily filled in by white, precise strokes. As if the true name were hiding beneath.

Is Akechi not really his last name, then? Yusuke wondered. Just how many lies was Akechi living, beyond pretending to be a temporary ally of the Phantom Thieves?

Akechi followed the woman over to the household altar. His hands tightened around the urn holding his mother’s ashes as the woman set down the memorial tablet next to two others. Yusuke could not read the names.

“My sister and the Matron’s father will keep her company. See?” the woman added, gesturing to the other tablets that were already there.

The weight in Yusuke’s heart became a tear, both a wound and the proof of weeping. The memory of Madarame’s home altar drifted to his mind. The butsudan in Madarame’s home was a small, simple, but beautiful thing. Yusuke visited it often when he was a child. He even learned to read on his mother’s death certificate. On rainy days or when he had nothing else to do, Yusuke would set down his toys and books, his crayons and scraps of paper near the altar and hoped she would appear to keep him company.

She did not. Yusuke's mother’s memorial tablet had sat on Madarame's home altar for years, along with a butsuzou, candles, flowers that were always freshly bought from the shop in Shibuya’s underground, and a little bronze bell that was far older than Madarame himself. Madarame sometimes let Yusuke ring that bell at the start of his prayers, smiling patiently as Yusuke shook his wrist from side to side, scared of the sound.

“Don’t be afraid, Yusuke. When you ring the bell, your mother will answer its cry. That’s how she’ll find you.”

But Yusuke didn’t understand. “Why can’t she just hear my voice?” he asked. “Why can’t she hear me when I cry?”

Madarame did not have an answer for him.

Yusuke cherished this memory the same way a tongue cherishes a sore in the side of the mouth, an abscess that aches just to exist. But that was before Madarame became a vicious, stunted thing. He shut up the home altar for good on Yusuke’s thirteenth birthday, long after the flowers had dried and withered to ash and dust.

Grimhildr lifted her cloak higher so Yusuke could see the next panel-wall as it flipped into view. Akechi was there once again, still a boy, but with a lean, hungry look that Yusuke recognized. He saw it each time he looked in a mirror.

Yusuke’s eyes drifted to the next panel. It cut into the page at a sharp, piercing angle. Akechi knocked another boy to the ground. At their feet lay the urn holding his mother’s ashes. It was tipped over, the lid lost, all ashes gone.

Akechi kicked the boy on the ground before he knelt on his chest, mauling him with fists and fingers and bared teeth. The only color on the page was red—red of blood in the dirt, red of blood in their hair, red of blood on the boy’s face and Akechi’s wrists and lips.

The page-wall turned. Colors came back to the page: the yellow sunflowers on the young woman’s apron, faded from being in the wash; the blue of the tears on Akechi’s cheek—vivid blue, electric blue, blue like a bruise and unopened vein; the red of the gloves the young woman slid over her hands as she picked up the clumps of Akechi’s mother’s unburnt bones.

“That’s a pebble,” Akechi said, his face a blank stretch of white taking over half the page. He stared at the little white speck in her hand. Yusuke could not tell what it was—a tooth or a stone?

The woman couldn’t, either. She lowered it back to the dirt.

“How’s your hand, Akechi-kun?” she asked.

“… Hurts,” he said.

“I’ll give you some ice to put on it when we go back inside.”

“I want to go in now.”

The woman shook her head. “Not yet, Akechi-kun. I’m almost done here.”

“No, you’re not.”

The woman paused, sitting back on her heels to stare at him.

The page turned.

“Shinsuke threw the—the ashes two days ago,” Akechi continued. The words shook violently over his head as he spoke. “It rained all day yesterday, and was windy this morning. The ashes aren’t here anymore. All that’s left is mud and dirt.”

“I know how hopeless it looks, but we can’t give up just yet.”

"Why not?"

"Would your mother give up on you?"

Akechi did not answer. A small square panel nudged itself closer. It was the woman again, drowned and dead, her wrists slit and her mouth full of water.

The page turned.

Akechi, still a child, still bruised, still kneeling. That young woman was still with him, still wearing that faded apron. The sunflowers on it were now dimmed to the faintest blush of canary-yellow.

The young woman put the cap on a tube of antibiotic ointment and set it down in the first aid kit. “If Shinsuke ever hurts you again, I want you to cry for help. Okay?”

Akechi said nothing.

“Cry out as loud as you can, and I will find you. I promise.”

The young woman spread a Featherman bandaid on Akechi’s cheek. Her fingers lingered there, casting a faint shadow on Akechi's hard, empty expression.

“And… next time you throw a punch, keep your thumb outside your fist. Don’t tuck it in.”

Akechi blinked. He tilted his head back to meet the woman's eyes. Slowly, he smiled.

The page turned.

A woman with dark hair in a precise, chin-length bob was kneeling at the low table in the tatami room. The older woman—the Matron—sat next to her, their heads bent together as they spoke.

Yusuke stepped back. His stomach slid down to his knees. He recognized this new woman. He’d seen a younger replica of her face often enough to trace it perfectly from memory. “Is that… Futaba’s mother?”

Grimhildr pressed her thumb to Yusuke’s mouth, hushing him gently. “Pay attention, friend-guest,” she whispered.

The only colors in the panel were the red of Akechi’s Featherman shirt, the blue pen in Wakaba Isshiki’s hand, and the red chrysanthemums in a vase on the butsudan. The sunflowers on the women’s aprons had faded completely to a cheerless, bloodless white.

Wakaba placed the pen on a small pile of papers and slid it over to the older woman next to her. The Matron signed the papers without delay, then passed it down to the younger woman, who sat on the opposite end of the table. The younger woman stared at the papers, her brows creasing as she frowned.

“Is there a problem, Miyazaki-san?” Wakaba asked.

The younger woman—Miyazaki—shrank down where she sat. She glanced away from the Matron's small, piercing eyes and turned to gaze at the back of Akechi's head.

“He means a great deal to you, doesn't he?" Wakaba said. Her expression was blank, but not empty. Whatever thoughts stirred in her mind were kept closely guarded.

Miyazaki shrank even lower. "He's the only orphan we have," she murmured, hiding her voice below the noise of the TV.

"That's right," Wakaba said. "The Himawari Children's Home currently has twenty-seven children as their wards. Twenty-six are in foster care—thirteen boys, and thirteen girls—and only one orphan." She relayed the numbers as if she were reading the time off a clock. "Quite frankly, I'm surprised you let yourself get attached at all."

A muscle flickered in the edge of Miyazaki's cheek. She pressed the back of her hand to it. "He's... special. Different."

Wakaba smiled. It did not reach her eyes. "That is precisely why you reached out to us, isn't it? He's special. Different."

"Yes, but..."

The Matron sighed. "For pity's sake, Anri. Just sign the papers and get it over with."

Anri Miyazaki lowered her hand from her face and let it fall to her lap. A strand of hair came loose from her bun, sliding like a black sickle around her thin, shallow chin. She tucked the strand behind her ear before reaching out to pick up the pen.

A news bulletin broke across the TV, drawing Wakaba’s attention to the screen. A bald man appeared in the center, standing behind a podium; his yellow-tinted lenses brought another splash of color to the room.

Yusuke studied the man carefully. He looked familiar somehow, but no name came to mind. He wore a sly, self-assured smile, the kind Yusuke had seen countless times on Madarame’s face over the years.

Wakaba’s eyebrows arched over the rims of her glasses as she watched the news broadcast. Yusuke gave it a cursory glance; some scandal in some branch of government, implicating dozens. He didn't have the head or the patience for politics. Too much noise and grief.

As the man on the screen began to speak, Wakaba glanced from him down to Akechi, and then back to the screen again.

The Matron picked up her tea and took a long sip. “Would you like to speak with him, Isshiki-san?” she asked, her voice low. Akechi did not seem to hear her.

Wakaba shook her head. “There will be time for that later,” she said.

The younger woman pushed the pen and papers over to Wakaba, who picked it up as she rose to her feet.

“We’ll send a car to pick him up tomorrow morning at seven,” Wakaba said to the two women.

Anri’s small eyes widened. “Tomorrow morning?”

“That’s what I said.”

“But he has school—”

Wakaba dropped her pen into her purse and adjusted the strap on her shoulder. “Speak with the principal. Refer him to us if you must. We will be discreet.”

The page turned.

It was the same scene, but no longer was Akechi a small accessory to the room. Now he was in the center of the panel, the clear focus. Smaller squares ringed where he sat, all of them bearing the face of the bald man on TV. Ribbons of words—red and black and glittering—unfurled across the man’s throat as he spoke. There were thorns sticking out of every word, sharp and jagged.

“No more will our great nation’s cry for help go ignored by those in power. The people of Japan deserve leaders who will fight for them, and help usher us all into a new age of prosperity.”

Akechi’s eyes narrowed at the words “cry for help.” He tightened his hands in his lap. The stark white bandages on his knuckles began to bloom with the red blood that burst out beneath.

The page turned. And turned. And turned. For a moment, nothing more than one brief, determined flash, Yusuke caught a glimpse of Akechi wearing a strange mechanical device—it looked like a crown made of brass and wires and needles. The page was red and black, nothing else: a red page, a black frame; red in Akechi’s eyes and red sliding down from his hair and red in the corners of his mouth, bleeding into the black shadows within. Yusuke had just enough time to think of that other Persona, the one with the red slit like a wound or a mouth, before he closed his eyes and turned away.

Grimhildr closed her cloak around Yusuke again, shielding him from the strobe flash of whirring pages. He caught only the smallest trace of colors: bone white, snow light, simply Chantilly and dove lace, milk cream and misty heron. Blue like the waters’ edge, blue like a berg of ice; blue of the mists of Avalon, of the Shinano River under the first cloudless sky in spring. Red like a bull’s eye, lavish, exotic, cherry and wine and blood, blood, blood. Yellow glimmered briefly, in the smallest touches of lemon and gold, as small as a furled daffodil, as tiny as a mustard seed, as thick as yolk dripping from the broken edges of an open egg.

A cold, sharp wind picked up as the pages turned in a fury, dancing a piercing pirouette demi-pointe around Yusuke’s thin shoulders. He shivered and leaned back into the shelter of Grimhildr’s cloak. “I have yet to see anything that looks like a Treasure piece,” he said, lifting his voice to be heard over the wind. “Have you?”

“No. Not yet.”

Yusuke paused. “Could it be hiding in these pages?” he asked, pointing to the whirling walls. How many pages were they skipping? How many years were passing by?

Grimhildr shook her head. “You will know the piece when you see it, friend-guest.”

“Your confidence in me is… flattering, though I do not know what I have done to deserve it.”

Grimhildr’s hand was warm and steady as she pat him on the head. “You are part of a promise to my lord, and for that you have earned my faith.”

Yusuke smiled.

The pages stopped, and the wind died with them. A two page image spread out across the walls, and not a single speck of color was within it.

Akechi was there, no longer a child, but a teenager. He wasn’t alone. Ren was there, too. They were shaking hands and speaking softly, too soft for the words to take shape. The words blurred in a haze over the boys’ heads, reminding Yusuke of the smudges on his fingers after he worked with charcoal. Smoky, indistinct, and soft.

As Ren and Akechi pulled back their hands, a tremor moved through the air, rising off the page like a droplet of water disturbing a still pool. The ripple drew Yusuke’s eyes to the dark space over Akechi’s shoulder. Black and white stripes were twisting to life, forming a familiar angular, eyeless appearance. It was Akechi’s second Persona again.

No, not his second, Yusuke corrected. His first. Robin Hood was nowhere in sight, which suggested this other Persona had been the first to answer Akechi’s cry for rebellion. But then… how did Robin Hood form? And from what?

Akechi stepped back, and the air around him swirled and pulsed again. Ren did not notice. Yusuke counted the pulses as they moved through the air. There were nine in all, each one in perfect sync with the steps Ren took as he turned away from Akechi and walked off the page, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

The page turned—and it, too, was dark. Dark and dark. Deep black and open-wound red—the colors of the Metaverse.

Akechi stood alone in a corner of Mementos. There was red on his face in the shape of a beaked mask, a mask long and sharp and glistening like a new wound. There was red dripping into his eyes (eyes that turned golden as they opened wide), eyes that were angry and aching and hurting and hating. There was red on Akechi’s hands and from his torn, ripped nails as he clawed the mask off his face and let out a scream.

And oh, what a scream. A wordless, raw, primal cry of fury. A cry meant to scrape the ears of God and make Him hear.

The page turned. Robin Hood appeared before Akechi, who had collapsed, breathless and bloody, on the ground of Mementos. He held one hand over his face—scraped raw, bloody, his left eye swollen shut—and clawed a hand through the air, clutching at one of the toes to Robin Hood’s boots. Tears slipped down Akechi's face onto the black and red ground, filling them with small puddles of blue.

The page turned.

White walls of bone and mist and snow filled the page-frame, separated in three jagged pieces. It was a triptych of memories: a waiting room, empty of all but one dark velvet blue desk and two chairs set to face each other. One of the chairs was plush and throne-like, while the other was small, rickety, burned black like cremated bones. A single piece of paper was taped to the desk. The words CRY FOR HELP were painted across the page, along with an arrow pointing at a slim, black French cradle-styled telephone that sat next to the note on the desk.

The second panel showed Akechi, maskless and wearing a tattered gray hospital gown, sitting in the burned, blackened chair. He looked as wispy as a ghost, barely a person at all. He was lowering the phone back into the cradle, his eyes peering up at something Yusuke could not see. Whatever it was cast a faint blue glimmer across Akechi’s face, illuminating his wide eyes and an expression torn between the teeth of disgust and hope.

The last panel oshowed a butterfly, pale and blue and delicate, like a sigh given shape. A black and blue tarot card spun in the air below the butterfly; on the back of the card was that same star-pupil eye of the Metaverse app.

But that wasn’t why Yusuke frowned. The card shimmered at the edges, hazy gold and smoggy silver.

“Is that a piece of the Treasure?” he asked.

“Just so.” Grimhildr threw back her cloak and nudged him forward.

Yusuke stumbled. She was so strong. “Please be careful,” he murmured.

Grimhildr grabbed the back of his shirt and picked him up by the scruff, holding him up to the glimmering, spinning card. “Take it so we can leave, friend-guest,” she said.

Yusuke kicked his feet. He must be two and a half meters off the ground—quite a drop for someone of his size, all skin and bones as he was. Yusuke adjusted his mask so that it did not slip off his face, and reached out to the piece of the Treasure with his free hand. It was cold to the touch, sending shivers down his arm until his elbow locked. Yusuke rolled his shoulder and tried again. On the third attempt, Yusuke managed to close his hand around the glittering card. He snapped it out of the wall as if it were an icicle, and lifted it up to his eyes for study.

There was a picture of Ren and Akechi on the front of the card, a scene no different from when they greeted each other a few pages earlier. Between them, like a priest overseeing a wedding, was Robin Hood. He held up the scales of justice in one hand, and in the other, a small, black book. Yusuke squinted to make out the title.

Born from a Crow's Cry for Justice: the Origins of Robin Hood.

“So it was Joker who Awakened Akechi to his second rebellion—and his second Persona.” Yusuke ran his fingers along the front of the card, as if by touching the image he could learn the shape of its secrets. “But who was the first Persona? And what caused that first rebellion?”

Grimhildr did not answer. She carried Yusuke back to her horse and set him on the saddle. She took the reins in her hand, her lips pressed into a firm, thoughtful line.

Yusuke reached out to take hold of her hand. He looked like a child against her, this tall, proud woman, brimming with strength and grace. “Do you know the truth?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Then will you tell it to me?”

She scowled. “Why? We have what we came to claim. Now all that must be done is move forward.”

“Because I want to know more about the things I’ve seen,” Yusuke insisted. “How can I help Akechi if I don’t understand him?”

Grimhildr pointed to the Treasure piece in Yusuke’s hand. “You have what you need to help.”

Yusuke shook his head. “This might be what I need, but it’s not what I want.”

Grimhildr’s jaw tightened. She looked him over carefully, scrutinizing him from his scalp down to the small, smooth curve of his chin. A few moments passed, tense and hushed, before the Valkyrie let out a sigh and nodded her head.

“You want the truth,” she said.

He nodded. “Please.”

Grimhildr tapped her foot. Little sparks of embers flickered off her toes when they touched the ground. “Loki first answered my lord’s cry for help. And like my lord, Loki rebels against one thing only.”

“And that is?”

Grimhildr’s golden eyes peered into the slits of Yusuke’s mask, examining him down to the roots of his soul. “Power. Those who have it, those who use it, and those who throttle the world with it.”

Yusuke sat back in the saddle, stunned. That couldn’t be right. Something like an abuse of power mattered to Akechi? The boy who lied for months, who plotted to—and very nearly did—murder Ren? The boy who carefully carved out the truth from every word Yusuke had ever heard him say? The boy who used his own media influence, his power, to smear the name of the Phantom Thieves every chance he had?

Grimhildr narrowed her eyes. “You do not believe me.” It was not a question.

“I would like to,” he said, embarrassed.

“Try.”

Yusuke looked down. He stroked the front of the card again. The Treasure piece was still cold in his hand, impervious to the warmth he tried to press into it. Perhaps I don’t know Akechi as well as I thought, he wondered. Perhaps none of us did... He slid his gaze to the painted replica of Ren on the front of the card. Except maybe for Ren.

“Are you ready?” Grimhildr asked, her voice straining to stay soft.

"... Yes."

Yusuke lifted his head in time to see Grimhildr stomp her heel on the ground, where it unraveled like a cape’s train. She wrapped her horse’s reins around her wrists, and spared Yusuke a quick glance before she dragged them all into the abyss.

There were only six pieces left now.

Chapter Text

The small, uncheatable corner of Goro's heart that clung to the truth carefully dug out a space for him to crawl inside and hide. If it must be described, think of a dumbwaiter—a small square of darkness in a sharp, precise shape, big enough only for the smallest of children to fit comfortably. Goro, who had never felt like a child, and certainly did not feel like a teenager, and most especially did not feel like an upcoming adult, folded himself as carefully as he could into this sliver of darkness carved out by his heart, and hoped it would be enough.

But what was the point? Shido already won, already had him. Any resistance now would just put off what was inevitable.

That's what his father was. Inevitable. Inescapable.

Shido's presence, even as a cognition, was an impossible thing. Impossible to ignore, impossible to deny, impossible to escape for long. Goro could feel the cognitive, monstrous distortion of his father leaning into the darkness, searching for any trace of the son he had smothered, fully intending to devour him. Goro felt it, and wasn't afraid. How could he? He was hidden, folded in and flattened within some small shadow in the cellar of his heart. Here he was safe. Not forever, no, of course not. And maybe not for long. But for now.

Something cold and sharp sliced the air over Goro's chest, groping in the dark for the shape of him. He held his breath, held it and held it, as if he could fold his body in with his breath. The small, uncheatable corner of Goro's heart pushed against him, shielding him in its smothering shadow. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't. He didn't know how to be afraid anymore.

The sheltering shadow of Goro's heart closed him in its dark embrace, and buried him in the grave of a kinder memory. It was a strange grave, more of a gap than a closed space, a small sliver of a shelter, an interstice with the sole purpose of making much-needed breathing room.

Goro closed his eyes and breathed.


September 20XX

The five days Goro spent without Ren were… troublesome. Troublesome in that this small gap of time they spent apart, with half an ocean between them, bothered Goro more than he felt it had any right to. It didn’t help that his mind couldn’t stop dragging up thoughts of Ren at the most inconvenient times—at school, on his morning commute, at the TV studio for another round of interviews. The worst was at Shido’s office. Goro didn't lose his composure, of course, but the simple act of having Ren fresh in his mind as he entered Shido's office was... disgusting. He did not want to bring Ren where his father was, not even in a memory. He did not want to carry Ren in his heart while he became the cruel creature his father needed him to be. Goro was already Ren's creature, cunning and clever and hopelessly devoted.

For those five days when Ren was in Hawaii with the rest of his class, Goro saw Ren everywhere he looked—saw where Ren should be, but wasn’t. Saw where he wanted Ren to be, but would never admit to it. He wondered if this was how it felt for people who believed in ghosts and swore they were haunted. Missing someone and searching for them and clinging to them in your memory must be a kind of haunting on its own.

The haunting followed Goro all the way back to his apartment. Without any outside noise or stimuli to distract him, Goro’s heart dug in deep, drawing up little bursts of memories he could not shut out. A shared glance that lingered. A careful exploration of fingers along the back of a hand. Early morning murmurs and late night muted yawns, whispers for sweet dreams beneath the glittering lights of the Tokyo skyline. Waking up to see that same skyline form out of a jagged horizon of shadow. Falling asleep while counting the false stars of glittering steel and neon lights, and stroking Ren's hair to watch it catch the light.

Goro hardly slept those five nights when Ren was away. He lay awake until one of the witching hours, keeping his dreams at bay with thoughts of the boy who he was determined to like and have and know and crave without ever putting it into so many words. These were thoughts that more often than not left Goro turning from side to side in his narrow, cold, too empty bed. Thoughts that made his palms itch and his throat tighten. Thoughts that, when he did manage to sleep, gave him dreams that were too vicious to be purely sexual, and too sensual not to be that, either.

All Goro wanted was to wrap his hands around Ren’s throat and hold his mouth between his teeth so that each time they kissed, Ren could feel the fury in him. This fury was a viciousness Goro did not know how to beat into the far more lovable shape of tenderness. He wouldn't do it even if he could figure out how. He wanted to be seen as he truly was—raw, seething, feral, vile, bitter—and still be kissed hard enough to see stars.

Was that so much to ask?

Was it?


 


11th September
Ren: Hey. Just landed.
Goro: Welcome back.
Ren: Thanks
Ren: So
Goro: Yes?
Ren: I missed you
Goro: You were only gone for five days.
Ren: I know I was there.
Goro: And you were hardly alone. You had your friends to keep you company.
Ren: yeah
Ren: That sleepover with Ryuji, Mishima, and Ann was a night to remember to forget
Goro: My sympathies. What does this have to do with missing me?
Ren: idk
Ren: I guess I got used to having sleepovers with //you//
Goro: Is this your way of asking me to spend the night?
Ren: ;)


 

When Goro arrived at Leblanc under the cover of the newly fallen night, he came prepared with a change of clothes and an opening statement.

“Making someone read between the lines is a pointlessly convoluted way to communicate,” he said once Ren let him inside. This remark was only slightly hypocritical. Just because Goro had a habit of layering everything he said and reversing the truth so that it hid in plain sight didn't mean he approved of it. Not everyone enjoys what they have to do to survive.

Ren shrugged. “I knew you were smart enough to understand, even if I didn't spell it out for you.”

The compliment brought a touch of warmth to the cold vise closing around Goro's chest. "Yes. Well."

He trailed off, hating himself and Ren's patient smile.

Still sulking in silence, Goro followed Ren to the back of the shop and the narrow stairs that led to the attic. His heart skipped a beat, as it always did, the moment he took that first step. There was something so final about the action, as if they were crossing the threshold into a secret sanctuary hidden in plain sight.

When they reached Ren's room, he turned to face Goro with bright, expectant eyes. Ren examined him for a few moments before his grin shrank down to a tiny quirk of his lips.

“I missed you,” he said, his voice soft.

A muscle in Goro’s neck pulsed. He set his briefcase on the floor and pulled off his gloves, finger by finger. He took his time with it, not wanting to look at Ren.

Once the gloves were off, Goro set them down on the bookshelf near the stairs, next to Ren’s school bag. “So you’ve said.”

Without missing a beat, Ren stepped forward and undid the cuffs on wrists of Goro’s coat. “You wanted me to spell out the truth, right?” he asked, taking Goro's coat and gently laying it down on the couch.

Goro held his breath. All the better to keep still, to savor every movement Ren made and every frantic beat of his own heart. “I did,” he said, exhaling. "... I do."

“Good,” Ren added, pulling Goro gently towards the bed.

It was a warm September night. Summer had yet to hand the seasonal reins over to autumn, and so the heat of the day lingered in pockets. Even so, Goro still shivered when Ren touched the side of his neck, first with a feather-soft kiss, then with a slow press of tongue and teeth. A knot tightened in Goro's chest just as Ren’s hands slid down the front of it, as if the slow, smooth movement cinched the knot rather than eased it free.

Intimacy and vulnerability came so naturally to Ren, as if it were as easy as breathing.

Goro hated him.

“How’d you sleep while I was away?” Ren asked as they settled under the tangled sheets, breathless and flushed and weak at the knees. "Is work still keeping you busy?"

It was, but not in the way Ren thought.

“I slept the same way I did before I met you,” Goro said, his lips skimming the messy waves of Ren’s dark hair. The knot in his chest didn’t feel as painfully tight anymore. Rather than a noose, it felt more like the tangled lump at the end of a sewing needle, holding together the thin threads of him. “Although... I can't deny that it’s much easier to sleep here than it is at my apartment.”

Ren held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. “I’ll take credit for that.”

Goro huffed. “More like the blame. You’re a hard habit to break.”

Ren opened his mouth to reply, but a yawn came out instead. This unexpected silence gave Goro a burst of courage. His bravery leaped ahead of his tightly-laced logic, taking off at a full sprint and carrying one question with it.

“What did it feel like to miss me?” Goro asked, his voice creeping carefully into the late night. He didn’t think anyone had ever missed him before. He wondered if Ren felt as haunted as he had these past five days. Am I a ghost to him, too?

Ren turned to face Goro. There wasn’t much room in the bed, so Goro leaned towards the edge to give him space. As always, any empty space around Goro was a space Ren was quick to fill.

“It was kinda like…” Ren drifted off, his brows creasing as he tried to arrange his thoughts. “Okay I’m like, half asleep here, so don’t judge me for sounding like a knock-off Yusuke—”

“I make no promises.”

Ren waved his hand. “—but missing you was like… when you see something move out of the corner of your eye, and you’re dead sure something’s there, but it’s not there when you go look.”

Goro frowned. “Explain that.”

“I'm trying to. It’s like… I know something should have been there, but it wasn’t. But I kept looking for it anyway.” Ren fell silent. Then, softer, softly, he brushed his fingers along the side of Goro’s arm. “That’s what it’s like to miss you. I know you’re gone, but I look for you anyway. I can’t help it. I know better, but I don’t act like it.”

Goro went still. The hammer keeping time against his heart made his ribs ache. What could he say to that? What should he say?

Why couldn't there just be one fucking thing Ren was bad at? He just had to be good at half-conscious heartfelt confessions, too?

“I don’t think me being there would have gone over well,” Goro said eventually, focusing on the one part of Ren’s confession he could safely digest without paying attention to his feelings. “How would you explain that to your friends? I’m hardly welcome among their company.”

“Easy. I’d say it was part of an exchange program.”

“For what?”

Ren’s answer came so fast that Goro was half sure Ren had this exact conversation before in his own head. “I’d say it’s an exchange program for a juvenile criminal to engage in courtship-ordered interactions with an ace detective. The time we spend together will all be part of the rehabilitation process.”

The hammer knocking against Goro’s heart was now starting to hurt.

Ren waited until Goro looked him in the eye before he winked. “And that process is all in the hopes that one will rub off on the other,” he finished.

Goro laughed. “As always, you have terrible taste,” he said.

“Didn’t stop you from laughing.”

To stop Ren from making any more suggestive double entendre, Goro turned on his side and angled himself so that he was half laying on Ren. Ren welcomed the intrusion with raised eyebrows and a slanted smile.

"Stop that," Goro muttered, trapping Ren’s face between his hands. He wasted no time smothering Ren’s wicked grin with a hard, toothy kiss, covering that stupid smile so he wouldn’t have to look at it.

Despite the late hour and his obvious need for sleep, Ren kissed Goro back at once, eager and needy and greedy. Goro shivered as the tip of Ren’s tongue met his, a gentle counter to the steady, warm glide of Ren’s fingers as his touch moved from Goro’s chest down to his stomach.

When Ren traced the tip of his fingers around Goro's navel, Goro bared his teeth and broke the kiss. “It’s late,” he said, twisting his head away so that all Ren had was the warm, empty air.

Ren skimmed his teeth along Goro’s bottom lip. “And we’re awake,” he said, keeping his fingers poised, frozen, on Goro's stomach.

Goro reached beneath the sheets to hold Ren’s hand. “Is this what you missed?” he hissed, teeth bared. He pressed his fingers down hard enough to feel the bones of Ren's hand. “Be honest. Give me the truth.”

For one awful, aching moment, Goro wasn’t sure Ren would give him the truth. They stared at each other, eye to eye, flushed cheek to flushed cheek, sharing a silence that moved from tense to terrible.

As he waited for Ren to speak, Goro studied him as carefully as he could. He noted the small blotches of a tan from where Ren sat in the Hawaiian sun for too long, and he could also see a constellation of freckles dotting Ren’s cheek. Goro checked the urge to lean down and lick them. That would defeat the whole point of asking his question to begin with.

Ren's dark gray eyes widened as Goro examined him. Something about the intensity of this silent, sharp moment must have thrilled him; his pupils were wide, large and dark. Before he spoke, he licked his lips. “Yeah... it is. I missed touching you. Being with you. That’s kinda what missing someone means, Akechi. You miss everything about them, and everything you do with them.”

There was a pleading note in Ren’s voice, as if he were a defendant on trial. Their conversation had taken the turn from heartfelt confession to rough interrogation, and Goro didn’t regret it for a moment. Goro so rarely had a chance to ask questions that weren’t in cross examinations or crime scenes, so if some of the harshness from those experiences found their way into his conversations with Ren, then… well, so be it. At least Goro didn’t do it at school. He rarely spoke up in class unless it was to give an answer he ruthlessly checked and rechecked to make sure it was correct, so he had no need for questions there.

But this? Here? Now? This was different. Talking with Ren was always different and new and strange, and something Goro liked just as much as he hated. He didn't know what to do with either of those feelings.

Goro counted Ren’s freckles as he made Ren wait for his reply. There were nine in all. He leaned down and set the very tip of his tongue to the lowest freckle, tasting the warmth of Ren’s skin. “Well if… that’s the rubric by which we’re meant to determine what it means to miss someone…” he began.

Ren sighed. “I love it when you talk all smartypants to me.”

Goro lifted his head and scowled. “Let me finish.”

Ren mimed locking his lips and placed the key over Goro’s heart. Before Ren could move his hand away, Goro held Ren’s hand to his chest, refusing to give it up.

“If that’s what missing someone means, then… I missed you too.”

Ren smiled. When they kissed this time, Goro kept his eyes open up to the instant they touched lips, not wanting to miss a moment of that smile.

They didn’t get much further than that; another yawn from Ren interrupted again. Taking that as good hint to stop, Goro lay on his back and threaded his fingers through Ren’s, both in the hand over his heart and the other that lay low on his stomach.

“Go to sleep,” Goro said, his eyes sliding around the pale silver glint of streetlights in Ren’s hair. It looked like a halo of starlight. “There will be time enough tomorrow.”

“Time enough for what?” Ren asked, laying his head on Goro’s shoulder.

Goro leaned his cheek against Ren’s head. “Anything we want,” he said, wishing it would come true.


 

That sharp, cold thing scratched along Goro's chest again, drawing him from the memory. The breathing room and its shelter was gone now, gone gone, taken, ripped open, destroyed.

Goro held his breath and pulled himself down, down, wishing he were thinner, smaller, bloodless and boneless and made of nothing breakable.

"Found you," the monster that was his father said in a grating, guttural voice. Proud and vicious and vain with his own glory.

The small, uncheatable corner of Goro's heart that clung to the truth folded itself into a pin-thin shape and threaded through Goro's mind and the one memory that brought him comfort. He can't get all of you, no matter how hard he tries. There's always a part of you he can't take or touch.

At least this was true. There was some small, hallowed part of Goro's heart he treasured enough to keep safe, treasured enough to let haunt him through lonely hours and bitter days and in the breathless space between kisses. A piece that bore the sound and shape and sharpness and sweetness of one boy's name.

Ren.

Chapter Text

ᚹ - WUNJO
Joy, the pleasure of friendship, bonds of love.

“To tell you the honest truth,” Ann said, placing her hands over Göll’s so they held the reins together, “I need like, half a reason to help Akechi-kun. Well. A reason and a half.”

“How… generous of you?”

“Aw, you think so?” Ann leaned forward to pat the horse’s front shoulder. It whinnied happily. “I mean, it’s not like I’m doing it just for him.”

“Ah. I see. Is it for yourself, then?”

Ann shook her head and steeled herself for the words that came next. “Not really. It’s for him and for Shiho.”

“You speak of the Girl Who Survived,” Göll said, surprised.

Ann turned her head. One of her twintails whipped Göll across the metal plating on her chest. “How do you know Shiho?”

Göll raised her arm, and pointed straight ahead.

Worrying her lip with her teeth, Ann turned to face the front again.

The hall, once dark and empty, was now lit bit by bit with a familiar fluorescent gleam. Pale white lights like a hospital; buttery golden yellow, like a theater marquee; bright red, bloody red, like the glare of an alarm clock. The darkness took the shape of what in all honesty looked like an Instagram feed: a wall of white interrupted by color and motion and life. A dull roar of voices began to fill the silence, bringing with it the mechanical chirp of a pre-recorded voice and the squealing shriek of a train car jolting to a stop.

Ann watched as the hall changed from a starless dark to a slowly scrolling replica of the Shibuya Underground. It wasn’t a perfect recreation; even with the carefully defined borders, the scenery still looked as if someone had dunked a still wet painting into water. The colors and shapes ran together in smears, turning the precise geometry of shops and stalls into wavy squiggles. The crowds of people in the Underground were nothing more than gray and black blobs with stick thin legs, bobbing and swaying as they walked.

“Who are you pointing at?” Ann asked.

Göll leaned forward. The hall moved with her, as if it were a camera lens slowly zooming in. “Just there,” she said, pointing again.

The smoky crowd parted, allowing Ann to see.

Shiho! Ann's heart lifted and spun happily, the way it always did when she spoke to or saw or even thought of her girlfriend. There was something about Shiho that was like a fresh burst of air. Ann wondered how she ever breathed freely before they met.

Shiho wasn’t alone in the crowd. Ann was with her, as were Ren and Akechi. Ann—the real Ann, the one sitting astride a horse with Göll—marveled at the sight. It was a memory she knew well.

“This is when Shiho came to visit for Autumnal Equinox Day,” she said, her eyes fixed on Shiho’s face.

It was also the day she had been outed to Ren and Akechi-kun.

Just as the memory drifted to her mind, the scrolling feed of images came to a stop and then raced back to the bottom, refreshing itself. Ann watched as she and Shiho walked backwards, away from Akechi and Ren, towards the Purikura photo booth tucked into the corner near Ann’s two favorite shops.

“Uh, what’s happening?” she asked, startled. "Why are my memories here?"

Göll gave Ann’s head a comforting pat. “This is the Wunjo rune door. A place of joy, of love, of friendship.”

“Okay, cool, but how come I’m seeing my memory here? Akechi shouldn’t know about this.”

“Hmm.” The Valkyrie paused for thought, combing out a tangle in one of Ann’s twintails. “Tell me, friend-guest: where do you keep your heart?”

“In my chest? The same place as everyone else?”

Göll clucked her tongue as she laughed. “And do you ever let it show on your face? Do you ever pin it to your sleeve to see and be seen?”

Ann chewed on her lip. The taste of her peach lip balm flickered across her tongue. “Well… Shiho says I do.”

“And if there were anyone with eyes keen enough to see a heart, it would be her. The Girl Who Survived.”

Ann ran her fingers along the reins. They were smooth in her hand, like new silk. “Why do you call her that?”

“That is how my lord thinks of her,” Göll said.

Something poked against Ann’s heart like a tack pinning a poster to the wall.

“Is any of this gonna help us find the piece of Akechi’s Treasure?” she asked when she found her voice again.

“It should, yes.”

Ann shook her head. “But… why would he hide a piece in a reflection of my memories?”

“A theory.” Göll continued. She held up a finger; Ann could see its shadow across her lap. “You carried your heart into my lord’s hall, brought it through the door where joy lies, and let your own heart’s joy be seen.”

“My heart’s joy?” Ann asked.

“Your Shiho.”

Ann didn’t know how to argue with this. It made some kind of sense, even if she couldn’t fully understand. But that was the Metaverse all over, wasn’t it? “So… this is like a mirror of my heart? And the Treasure piece is hiding in the mirror, because Akechi... put it there?”

“Just so. A mirror turned to looking-glass turned to window, yes,” Göll said. “First you reflect, then you witness.”

“Oh. Okay.”

While her mind still reeled from what she heard, Ann returned her attention to the scene—no the memory—playing out in front of her. It was a funny memory. Well, funny now. She and Shiho were taking pictures in the photobooth, pulling all sorts of dopey poses and picking the silliest backgrounds, until it came time for the last photo.

The present-Ann watched as Shiho turned to past-Ann and ran her fingers through her hair. “Let’s take this one seriously, okay?” she whispered.

Present-Ann felt her heart do a flip.

“Uh huh,” her past self said, her expression sliding into a lazy, dreamy smile. She would have agreed to anything Shiho asked, no matter what.

With a small, shy smile, Shiho leaned in for a slow, lingering kiss.

Even here, in the shifting shambling horror that was Akechi’s Palace, Ann’s lips tingled at the memory. It wasn’t their first kiss, but it was their first kiss in public—or as public as a photobooth with a thick curtain could get. There was something so thrilling about it, about sharing a tender moment with the girl she loved both right under the public's nose and yet just out of sight. It was taking a risk without any chance of a consequence.

“We should get going,” Shiho murmured, her voice so soft that Ann held her breath just to hear it. She held it now too, watching the memory unfold. There was nothing weak or fragile about Shiho; her softness was the sort of deceptive resilience that outlasted anything cruel enough to hurt her.

Past-Ann kissed Shiho once more—then three more times—before she jumped to her feet and adjusted her skirt. She turned to the photo booth panel, scanning the front for the slot where the photos should have come out. “Um…”

Shiho stood up. “Is it outside?” she asked. “I didn’t think to check when we came in…”

Ann’s heart skipped a beat. She reached out to pull the curtain back—and that’s when she heard it.

Plik. Thunk.

Someone had picked up their photos.

Ann grit her teeth and yanked the curtain open. “Hey! Those are ours, you ass—oh! Ren?”

“Ann?” Ren blinked at her from behind his glasses. “I didn’t know you were still in there. I saw the photos and thought you forgot them.”

Something buzzed in the back of Ann’s head. Panic? Probably. Maybe. She watched as Ren’s eyes searched her face before he glanced over her shoulder at Shiho—a Shiho who was definitely still wearing Ann’s Canmake Terra Cotta Red lipstick on her lips. And cheek.

And the side of her neck.

Ren blinked again.

Ann squeezed her eyes shut. I am so freakin’ screwed.

Something clicked on the ground—the distinct sound of men’s cap toe Oxfords. Ann knew those shoes, and knew exactly who wore them.

Crapcrapcrapcrap. She opened her eyes and flashed her widest smile at Akechi. “It's—uh. It's nice to see you two!”

Ann knew that Ren had made it his personal mission to keep an eye on Akechi until the truth of his double life came out. She just didn’t know how devoted he was to that task 'til now.

“Takamaki-san, right?” Akechi asked, interrupting her thoughts.. He smiled at her, harmless and sweet. It didn’t reach his eyes. His gaze flickered over her shoulder. “I’m afraid I don’t know your friend.”

“This is Shiho!” Ann squeaked, reaching behind to tug her girlfriend out of the booth. “Ren knows her!” Is my voice too loud? I think it’s too loud. Ann pictured a volume dial in the side of her neck and imagined it turning from ten to a modest six.

“Nice to meet you,” Shiho murmured, bowing at Akechi, who nodded in turn. She glanced over at Ren next. “It’s been a while.”

Ren waved at her, still holding the photos in his hand. Evidence - Exhibit A of Ann’s sapphicness.

Ann held out her hand. “Can I have that back now?” she asked.

“Sure.” Ren dropped the photos in her hand, his eyes flickering down to the last in the panel. He smiled again, the sort of smile he saved just for his friends. “You two look nice together,” he added, his voice low.

Ann took a breath. She held it, held it, squeezing the photo in her hand. “Really? You sure?”

Ren’s gaze flickered to Akechi, who was studying Ann with a look that was nothing like the vaguely polite mask he wore on TV. This was a new face, an honest face. Patient, attentive—just like Ren, only with an edge to it that Ann could not place.

Akechi’s rusty brown eyes darted from the lipstick on Shiho’s cheek, to Ann’s lips, and then to Ren’s own mouth. Something wordless passed between the boys, a message that made Akechi’s lips press down tight.

Ren grinned, turning back to Ann again. He nodded. “Positive.”

Present-Ann blinked, squishing her tears until they studded her eyelashes.

Being outed was nothing like Ann had dreaded it would be. There were no screams, no bitter laughs, no horrified silence. There was nothing but a smile from Ren, and a politely curious glance from Akechi. As far as coming out went, this was probably the best she could’ve hoped for.

It also helped that Ren and Akechi treated them to crêpes and coffee at Miel et Crêpes. Ren said it was a special treat for Shiho’s visit, but Ann knew better. Well, she hoped better.

Ann didn’t at all mind that Ren knew she was gay. Ren wasn’t just good company, he was a good person. Patient and loyal and caring and so freakin’ understanding. His effortless sweetness was so much that Ann wondered if it were possible to crowdfund canonize him as a living saint. Plus she figured if anyone was going to understand what it was like to be quietly queer, it’d be Ren. She picked up enough signals between Ren and Akechi to guess that of all the people she knew in Tokyo, these two would be the least surprised to know she preferred girls.

Well, one girl. Singular.

The memory around them faded like the dying flash of a camera after taking the perfect shot. Present-Ann rubbed her hands into her eyes, chasing away the white spots. When she opened them again, it was to see a new scene from the same day, same memory.

Ren and Akechi stood side by side on the train, their elbows and shoulders bumping gently with the sway. Ann and Shiho sat on the bench in front of them, their hands barely touching. Akechi and Shiho were talking quietly, lamenting the struggles of balancing grades with the pressing necessity of, well, life. Ann had never heard Akechi say so much to someone who wasn’t Ren. She shouldn’t be surprised; Shiho had a way of drawing even the most sullen person out of their silences.

Present-Ann’s eyes jumped to Shiho, carefully overlooking the memory-reflection of herself. She had seen enough of her own face in articles and covers and headshots and haphazardly blurred out photos in gossip mags that were still circling like vultures around Shujin Academy.

But Shiho. Shiho. Ann would never get enough of those big doe eyes (like Sonoya Mizuno and Gana Bayarshaikhan and Vita Khan and Nana and—). She would never get enough of Shiho’s little upturned nose and small, Cupid’s bow mouth. Ann would never tire of Shiho and the way she pulled her sleeves down over her wrists, pinning the cuffs to her palms with her fingers. Not a day went by when Ann didn’t sigh dreamily at the thought of the cords of muscle running up Shiho’s arms and across her shoulders, and how her short black hair was thin and glossy and always smelled of strawberry parfait—

“Did you speak, friend-guest?” Göll asked, drawing Ann back to the present.

Ann jumped in the saddle with a little yelp. “Uh! Nope. Not me!”

She was a terrible liar. Leave it to a cognition in Akechi’s head to have ears like a dang bat.

Carefully tucking her bruised pride in for an early nap, Ann settled in to watch the memory-scene again. A question bubbled to the surface of her thoughts. What about this memory could be significant enough to show up in his Palace? All they did that day was hang out and take selfies and do stuff that kids usually did on double dates and—

“Oh!” Ann pumped her fists in the air. “Oooh, I get it now!”

“What do you... ‘get?’” Göll asked.

Even the Valkyrie’s horse seemed interested. His ears flickered back and he tossed his head, golden mane shimmering around his neck.

Ann turned in the saddle and grinned up at Göll. “You said this place was a rune… joy… whatever door, right? That it was a mirror and a window into Akechi’s heart and mine?”

“… More or less,” Göll said, in a tone Ann understood to mean “what you said only skimmed the surface of what I said, but I’ll allow it because you seem so proud of yourself.” She’d heard Makoto use that same voice during study sessions.

“Well I think I finally know why that is. I might’ve had a hard time keepin’ my eyes off Shiho that day, but I remember thinking that Ren and Akechi-kun were having their own kinda fun, too.”

As she spoke, the memory-scene blurred, shifted, and adjusted to fit Ann’s own thoughts. She smiled as she looked at them, feeling like a narrator bringing her heart to life. First there came the feeling, then the seeing, then the being. Göll waited patiently for Ann to finish laying out the pieces.

“That was the first time I really hung out with Akechi-kun. He looked so happy, and not the kind of happy that he pretends to be on TV. He and Ren would bend their heads and share some private joke, and one of them would lean away with a smirk or a laugh. And I remember thinking me and Shiho weren’t so different before we started dating.”

The scenery scrolled up slowly, allowing new memories to take center stage on the feed of images. First it was their walk through Ueno Park, where Ann and Shiho walked arm and arm, framed on either side by Ren and Akechi. Then it was Ikebukuro Marui. Ren and Shiho hung back with faint smiles as Akechi and Ann posed for photos or signed autographs for a small gaggle of fans that clustered around them.

Once their fans were out of earshot, Ann and Akechi shared a look.

“I think my face is gonna cramp up from all this smiling,” she’d grumbled with a sigh, patting her cheeks.

“You could always tell them no,” he said, speaking in that Pleasant TV Show Guest Akechi voice.

“Nope,” Ann said, smacking her lips on the end of the word. “What if running into me is like, the highlight of their day? How could I turn down a chance to make someone happy?”

Akechi stared at her. “Even if it inconveniences you and causes you pain?”

“Uh, I dunno if it’s as serious as being in pain or anything, but… yeah.” Ann's eyes flickered over to Shiho. “I can put up with a lot if it means someone else will be happy.”

“I see.”

When Ann glanced at Akechi again, she was relieved to see he wasn’t looking at her. That relief turned to delighted curiosity when she noticed where he was looking.

Ren slumped forward in his usual casual, slouchy walk. “You ready?” he asked, returning Akechi’s long, lingering stare.

Akechi’s expression hovered between polite indifference and a valiant attempt at a non-Pleasant TV Show Guest Akechi smile. “Yes. And… thank you for waiting.”

“No worries,” Ren said.

The scene scrolled up again, showing a sky that was a little darker, with city lights there were a little brighter against the gloomy twilight. Ann watched as the scene came into focus on the four of them again. Akechi held a door open for Shiho, Ann, and Ren as they piled into Ikebukuro Pastakan for dinner.

“Whose treating us this time?” Ann asked, digging into her purse for her Hello Kitty wallet.

“I am,” Ren said.

“We are,” Akechi corrected.

From the corner of her eyes, Ann saw Shiho’s shoulders relax.

“You guys are too sweet,” Ann said, smiling at the boys. “Next date’ll be on me and Shiho. Deal?”

“Deal,” Ren said.

Akechi stared at her, eyes wide. Ann grinned at him.

The Ann of the present, watching this scene, let out a quiet giggle. “Oh I really got him with that one, huh?”

“Quite,” Göll said.

Ann shook her hair over her shoulder and took a long, proud look at the Akechi in the memory-scene. If there was anything in this memory that was a high candidate for a Treasure piece, it’d be that look: wide eyes, slack face, tense shoulders.

“Not to humble-brag or anything, but you three are lucky that I’m here,” Ren said when they got to their table. He took the seat by the window. “I make a mean okonomiya.”

“Then we’ll leave our tummies in your capable hands, Chef Ren,” Ann said, sliding into the booth next to Shiho. She very pointedly looked at the only empty spot left at the table—a snug little space right next to Ren.

Akechi tensed, paused, and then very slowly, as if he were lowering himself into a scalding bath, sat down next to Ren.

Present-Ann leaned forward in the saddle, resting her elbow on the back of the horse’s head. “This is the weirdest stakeout I’ve ever been on,” she mumbled, watching the memory unfold. “And when’s that Treasure piece gonna show up?”

As if summoned by her words and eager to please, the scene changed, scrolling almost to the very top of the feed. They were back at Shibuya Underground again, in front of the Purikura photobooth. Ann steered Akechi into the booth and followed soon after, stepping on his heels. Shiho ducked quietly behind them, with Ren not far after that.

“Is this really necessary?” Akechi asked.

“Yes,” Ren said.

Ann nodded. “You’ll thank me for the memories some day,” she said, opening her wallet and jamming her charge card in the slot under the checkout screen. She hummed as she worked, adding in things like Featherman R and Haunted Halloween Hospital and White Wedding as special backgrounds.

“Just how many of these photos do we have to sit through?” Akechi asked, his voice strained.

“Well I was gonna stick with one but now I think eight'll be better,” Ann said. “That way all of us can pair off evenly.” She shoved her wallet back in her purse and fixed Akechi with a hard look. “And this is not going on your food blog.”

Akechi looked a touch indignant. “Why would it? There’s no food here.”

Ann ignored this. “This is just for the four of us, got it?”

Shiho smiled. “Of course.”

Ren made an X over his heart. “Swear.”

Only Akechi stayed silent. Ann pursed her lips and frowned at him.

“If you insist,” he said eventually.

Ann nodded. “Sure do. Now start posing.”

It didn’t take long for the tension to break. Ann and Shiho were all smiles, followed quickly by Ren, who crouched a little to squeeze into the frame. Akechi did his bare minimum best, managing to somehow lean in and away from Ann and her voluminously thick hair. He was clearly not comfortable being crammed into a small space with so many people.

“Okay, time to split up,” Ann said when the first set of pictures were through. “Me and Shiho will go first.”

Akechi all but sprinted out of the booth. Ren ducked his head to hide his smile.

When the boys were gone, Ann and Shiho wrapped their arms around each other and bent their heads together for the photo.

“Are Amamiya-kun and Akechi-kun like… like us?” Shiho asked quietly.

Ann kissed her girlfriend on the cheek. “Might be. I definitely think so.”

“I wonder if they know,” Shiho added.

Ann laughed. She reached over and tugged the curtain aside. “Your turn, Ren!”

Shiho squeezed past Ren as he slouched into the booth. He gave Ann a look.

Not dealin’ with that right now. Ann turned around. “Hurry up! Before the timer runs out.”

They stood back to back, folding their hands into finger-guns.

“We have to talk,” Ren said after the flash went off.

“Later, okay?” Ann hissed. “C’mon in, Akechi-kun!”

Ren shook his head and left the booth. Akechi hesitated at the curtain before stepping in.

Ann folded her arms across her chest. “Remember what I said earlier?” she asked him. It came out like a warning more than a proper question.

He raised his eyebrows. “About what?”

“About doing something you may not like to make someone else happy.”

“And how does that apply here?”

Ann rolled her eyes. “I’m not blind, Akechi-kun. You look totally bummed out to be here, and that’s fine for you, but… If you’re not happy this, try to think about who else might be.”

“Like who?”

“Like Ren,” Ann said. “I bet Ren’ll be happy to have a picture of you.”

Akechi’s TV Show smile flashed across his face, as automatic as a flinch. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Sure you do,” Ann said, flapping her hands. “Now point that smile at the camera and think of your boyfriend.”

The photo didn’t come out too terrible. The nicest thing to say about the picture was that it was in focus. Ann had one arm resting on Akechi’s shoulder, the other hand raised with her first two fingers spread in a wide, triumphant V. Akechi looked like a deer in the headlights of a train.

Ann shoved Akechi out of the booth as they left to make room for Ren and Shiho. Once they were outside, Akechi spun on his heel, his movements wooden and stiff.

“Yes?” Ann asked.

“Ren isn’t my…” Akechi began, his voice tight. He cleared his throat and tried again. “That is to say, we aren’t…”

“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to,” Ann cut in, guilt shifting in her stomach. “And I’m not gonna say anything either, okay?”

Akechi said nothing.

Ann rocked forward and back on the heels of her ankle boots. “Buuuuut before I take a vow of silence on the subject, I just wanna say that you two look good together.”

She meant it, too. Well, she meant it then. Ann wasn’t really sure how she felt about the whole thing now, what with Akechi trying to kill Ren and all. Attempted murder was pretty high on the list of relationship ruiners.

Ren tapped Akechi on the arm as he left the booth. “Your turn,” he said.

Akechi rubbed the space where Ren touched and strode through the booth.

Ren and Ann stared at it each other, like two gunslingers in a duel. Ann tried to look as casual as she could, but her horrible habit of being the worst of liars came back to bite her. She didn’t even have to talk to be bad at lying.

“I know what you’re up to,” Ren said, adjusting his glasses.

Ann thought for exactly half a second if she could play dumb and get away with it. Nope. There's no foolin' him. Ren knew she was smarter than that.

“Look. I don't mean to be pushy. I just want us all to have a nice day with nice memories and a nice sheet of pictures to cheer us up in the future,” she admitted. “Or use as a bookmark. Or maybe pin up on the wall.”

“I’m not accusing you of doing anything bad here, Ann,” Ren insisted. He scratched the back of his head and shot a quick glance to the photobooth as the flash went off within. He only had a few more seconds before Akechi appeared again. “I’m trying to say thanks. I don’t think Akechi’s ever done stuff like this before.”

“What, like, hang out with other people?” Ann echoed. “Never ever?”

Ren nodded.

Before Ann could press him for details, Shiho stepped out of the booth. “Your turn, Amamiya-kun,” she said.

Ren disappeared into the booth.

The scene changed with all the gracelessness of missing the last step in a staircase. Ann jumped, startled, as the memory skipped ahead, scrolling up to reveal one final frame of memory. It was Akechi, alone in his bedroom. The look on his face was dark and heavy; his hair hung in his eyes, hiding them from Ann’s sight.

Akechi sat down on the edge of his bed and reached into the pocket of his coat, taking out a small brown book. He wedged his thumb between the pages, prying it open so it lay flat on his lap. The photosheet they'd taken that day slid out. He caught it before it fell to the ground. The dim golden light from his bedside lamp fixed like a spotlight on the very last photo on the sheet, leaving the other slides in darkness.

Ann held her breath as Akechi lifted the photosheet closer to his eyes. His hand tensed on the picture, creasing it with his thumb.

Please don’t rip it up. Please please please.

As she made her silent pleas, Ann kept her eyes locked on the photosheet. There was something odd about it, the sort of odd that didn’t seem—well, real. It was hazy at the edges, and kinda shimmery.

Akechi folded the photos over until the only frame that showed was the picture he took with Ren.

Ann sighed.

Göll tapped her fingers on the top of Ann’s head. “Please look carefully, friend-guest.”

“Huh? Oh!” Ann clapped her hands and pointed at the photo. The glimmering shimmer was brighter now, twinkling like diamonds. “That’s the Treasure piece, isn’t it?!”

“It is,” Göll said. She nudged her horse with her heels and urged him into a trot, closing the distance between where they stood and where the memory sat paused.

They skimmed the side of the memory-scene, now frozen in place. Ann stood up in the saddle and leaned forward, gleefully ignoring the possibility she might fall off the horse and onto the ground.

“Come home to Panther, little Treasure,” she crooned, curling her fingers around the photosheet and snatching it out of Akechi’s hand.

“Sit down and hold on tight, friend-guest,” Göll said, nudging her horse again. She steered them away from the frozen memory slide and further into the curtain of darkness that framed the walls.

Ann returned to the saddle and tucked the Treasure piece into the collar of her rebel suit. “Where to now?” she asked, wrapping her fingers around the reins and holding on tight.

Göll placed her hands on top of Ann’s and gave them a small squeeze. “The darkness beneath,” the Valkyrie said.

Her horse reared back before planting his hooves on the dark ground. The world shifted, angling itself like a hill. Ann leaned back against Göll’s breastplate and closed her eyes as they took off at a gallop.

Almost there, Akechi-kun. Just hold on!


Five pieces left until Goro Akechi's Treasure would be known, and his heart hopefully made whole.

Chapter Text

ᛈ - PERÞRO
The flow of fate and unknown, uncontrollable forces of the universe.

The door of the rune tree closed behind Mona with a ringing finality. He glanced up at his companions—Muninn the crow, and the placid-faced, wide-cheeked Skögul—and felt a stab of envy. What he wouldn't give to be taller. Or on a horse. Or blessed with wings.

Skögul turned her tilted, golden-brown eyes down to Mona and leaned sideways in her seat. After a moment, she plucked him off the ground and set him on the saddle in front of her.

"Appreciated," Mona said, nudging his head against her hand in thanks. He then crossed his arms and tapped his tail against the golden bracer on Skögul’s wrist. “Goro Akechi… Leblanc… Nonperson.” He closed his eyes. “You know, I never thought I’d say such a thing, but… I think I know exactly how Akechi feels.”

Muninn landed on Mona’s head and tapped it with his talons. “You don’t sound too happy about it,” he said.

The tip of Mona’s tail flicked like a whip. “Because I’m not!” he cried, little teeth clicking.

“Now, now, you two.” Skögul curled the reins around one of her hands and used the other to gently shoo Muninn away. She offered her wrist as a perch instead, and held her arm up to keep Mona and the crow away from each other.

“So what’s the problem?” Muninn asked, cocking his head to the side and casting a beady black eye down on Mona.

“The problem is that Akechi betrayed us! We almost got caught because of him, and Joker—Joker could have died!” Mona’s voice was strained thin, as it always was when he found himself in an argument. Why couldn’t people just listen to him the first time? Was it really so hard to just say “yes” or “okay,” and not pick a fight?

“But Joker didn’t die,” Muninn pointed out.

Mona clicked his teeth again. “He came close enough! If any step of that plan went wrong, then Joker would've died by Akechi's hand. Why would I be happy to understand someone like that?”

That point should have been enough to shut anyone up, as far as Mona was concerned. But Muninn was as determined to pick a fight as Mona was to win it. “All that didn’t stop Joker from coming here, though.”

“I know that.” Were all Akechi’s cognitions going to be this difficult? Mona cast a wary glance at Skögul, wondering if her silence was simply her waiting her turn. “And that was a terrible idea. He should have told us. The Phantom Thieves never take a job alone.”

"And who made up that?"

"I did!"

"Well obviously it wasn't a rule Joker wanted to follow," Muninn said dismissively. He cast a speculative little eye on Mona and asked, "Are you sure you're not jealous that your leader picked Akechi over you?"

Skögul let out a weary sigh. It was a sound Mona recognized. It was the same sigh Makoto made whenever Ryuji and Mona fought about—well, anything.

Guilt nudged at the back of Mona’s thoughts. He also thought of Haru, whose own patience was constant and sharp, like a piece of glass wedged under the skin. Try to be more like her, he told himself, and less like you.

Mona took in a breath and tried again. “It’s just… a lot to take in at once. That’s all.”

As a reward for this tentative olive branch, Skögul scratched behind his ears. Her touch sent warm shivers through Morgana’s neck, drawing out a quiet purr from the bottom of his throat. “Sit back and still and watch, friend-guest," she said. "Quiet the mind with open eyes.”

“I will if he does,” Mona grumbled, glaring at Muninn.

Muninn clicked his hooked beak. “I’m just here for moral and memory-based support,” he said.

“Hush.” Skögul cupped her hands behind Mona’s ears and guided his head to face forward.

At the end of the hall shone a pale gray light, like the flicker of a film projector. Skögul’s horse stamped a hoof on the dark ground, and the light swept forward to meet them, bringing with it a comforting blanket of gray shadows. Black and white perforated borders framed the light and formed a movie screen to cage the scene that unfolded within.

A countdown appeared on the screen, along with a scratchy white circle torn through faded black. 3... 2... 1... The circle faded, throwing the hall into temporary darkness.

The scene opened with a descent into the Metaverse. Black and red shifting, seething slashes cut violently into the monochrome. When the colors faded, and the monochrome scene returned, the camera panned down slowly to focus on a small, thin boy crouched on the ground.

Mona's tail darted up. Akechi!

This Akechi was far younger than the one Mona knew. He was barely more than a child. Lank, light brown hair hung over his eyes, and was plastered to his face by a thick sheen of sweat.

Akechi hugged his knees to his chest, his long, knobby arms wrapped tightly around his legs as he rocked back and forth. “It’s just a mind,” he whispered, his voice frantic. “You’ve done this before, you can do it now.”

"What's he talking about?" Mona asked.

"Ask your friend in the spaceship when you see her again," Muninn said. "She's the one digging into the part of our lord's past."

"I'm asking you!"

"And I'm answering."

Skögul snapped her fingers and then pushed one of them to her mouth, silently shushing them. Mona and Muninn grumbled, and fell silent. They returned their attention to the screen.

Akechi closed his eyes. His lips trembled around his shallow, shaky breath. “You can leave if you’re good. You can leave if you’re good. Do what you’re told and then you can leave.” He took no comfort in the mantra; tears swelled in the edges of his wide eyes and slid down his thin cheeks, whose bones jutted sharply up from the bruises in his face.

Mona curled his paws, his nails flashing as they scratched the reins to hold on tight. “This is hard to watch,” he said.

“You’re not even at the bad part yet,” Muninn squawked.

"What could be worse than this?" Mona asked.

Muninn's talons clicked on Skögul's bracer as he shifted his weight. "Tenderness," he said.

The film reel skipped ahead with a stuttering jump and a small, warp shriek. Akechi was standing up now, gazing overhead at something out of view. Mona got a good look at the scenery: it was Akechi’s Palace, a lonesome dark monolith of a castle looming over an empty pit.

“It’s all in your head,” Akechi murmured, small fists clenched and held to his head, fresh tears glittering in his eyes. “That’s all it is. It’s all in your head.”

“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” Mona murmured, thinking of the nightmares that plagued his sleep for months. The mind was home to more than hopes and dreams. It was a haven for fears as well, fears with familiar faces, fears with teeth, fears with eyes that never stop seeing, and sometimes fears with no shape that could be easily—willingly—understood. Nothing in the mind was more terrifying than a mind that does not know itself.

The film skipped forward again. Mona was ready for the warped, shrieking audio to return, but he still winced to hear it. The scene settled. Akechi was standing up now, his face in profile, blank and pale with shock.

“... Mom?” he whispered.

Mona drew back with a quiet hiss. What?!

A woman with light brown hair and wide, watchful eyes stared down at Akechi. “You can call me that if it’ll make you feel better. I don’t mind.”

Akechi's jaw clicked shut. He spoke through his teeth. “It doesn’t make me feel better! I want the truth!”

“You know the truth. Would you know yet more?”

Akechi opened his mouth, but whatever he had to say was lost to a silent scream. He clutched his head and dropped to his knees, teeth grit and jaw locked to keep in the sound that tore through his throat.

"What's happening?" Mona asked, looking helplessly on as Akechi collapsed face first on the ground and began to sob.

And then he understood. It's an Awakening.

A gleefully wicked voice echoed in the hall as if booming from speakers hidden all around. Mona jumped, then sank his claws into the saddle before he fell off the horse.

“How does it feel to know your desire for the truth isn’t enough? " the voice asked as Akechi writhed in pain. "You don’t even know your own mind! Look what it hid from you, right in plain sight! What more truths are out there, unseen, unknown? And how far will you go to find them?”

Akechi let out a moan of agony, and retched. Bile and spit and vomit splattered on the floor around his face, sticking to his hair. The woman Akechi called his mother simply watched, her face tight with worry.

“Tell you what," the voice continued, completely unmoved by Akechi's pain. "Let’s make a deal. I’ll give you the power you need to uncover the truth, and you get to come back here whenever you want. Think of it like your home away from the home you don’t have. Your… Palace. Only you have the code, and it can be whatever you want. All you have to do is say yes.”

“Give it—to me—” Akechi panted, his lips caked in sick. “I want it. I want it.”

The scene slid up into a darkness so sudden and thick that Mona struggled to see. Muninn clicked his beak, drawing Mona’s eyes over to the sound.

“What do you make of that?” he asked Mona.

Mona shook his head, his tail still tall, still straight, and slowly puffing out. “From all the intel we’ve pieced together about Palaces and the Metaverse, two things have always been true. One: a Palace collapses when the cognitive distortion is resolved. Two: Persona users can’t have Palaces—let alone have Palaces for years.”

“And yet,” Mona continued, before either Muninn or Skögul could launch a counterpoint, “Akechi proves both of these things wrong.”

“Technically they were never true,” Muninn said, jabbing his wing out to punctuate his words. “Akechi’s Palace and first Persona came around years before you and your merry band of marauders trundled into the Metaverse."

Mona tapped his paw against Skögul’s other wrist to get her attention. “That voice I heard, the one talking to Akechi… That was his first Persona, wasn’t it?”

Skögul nodded. “Loki,” she whispered, her voice hushed and heavy with pride.

“All this, and he’s a Wild Card too?” Mona shook his head. “Akechi has a charmed life for all the wrong reasons.”

“No argument here,” Muninn said.

Skogul tilted her head. “How do you mean, friend-guest?”

“A Persona should be a source of power and comfort,” Mona said. “By accepting it into your heart, you're free from falling prey to masks of self-deception and doubt. But Akechi’s heart only seems to have gotten worse over time. The longer he has his powers, the more damaged and twisted he became.”

“Can you blame him?” Muninn asked. “It’s not like he had anyone holding his hand the way you offer your paw to anyone who looks at you twice.”

“Hey!”

“Don't,” Skögul cut in before they could continue the argument.

As the three of them lapsed into silence, the flickering gray light returned again. Mona watched a new scene unfold, his nerves tangled and tight.

Akechi stepped into view. Slightly older than he was before, he was now dressed in drab clothes that were several inches too short at the wrists and ankles. He held a few clothesline pins in his hand and stared at them with a scowl.

“Nervous?” that raspy, wickedly gleeful voice spoke up. Akechi’s shoulders tensed, but his expression did not move. “You came too far to let a little fear hold you back now. You even stole some clothes so you could look your best! Now that’s dedication.”

Akechi closed his hand around the clothespins and threw them into a trashcan tucked in next to a recycling bin and two brightly glowing vending machines. A tinny, mechanical voice spoke from the speakers overheard, announcing the oncoming train.

"Dr. Isshiki's always telling you to be brave, and look at you now. Being brave. You should be proud."

The film skipped—and skipped—and skipped. It returned to focus on a medium sized, sparsely decorated office, whose brightness had all the blinding glare of hospital lights. A man with thinning dark hair and golden-yellow glasses stared at Akechi from behind his desk. He had a grim expression, the sort of look that made Mona feel like sand squished under a shoe.

The sound cut in and out with the abrupt drag of a needle gouging across a record.

“—one of Isshiki’s—”

“—what brings you—”

“—prove your claim, here and now, or I’ll have you thrown out of here faster than you can beg.”

“I can prove it,” Akechi insisted, his smile tight and tense at the edges. “Give me a name, and I’ll give you results.”

The man behind the desk gazed at Akechi for a long while. Then he said, "Wakaba Isshiki."

Akechi's face turned a sickly maggot white.

Mona howled. "What did he do to Futaba-chan's mother?!" he said, his voice low and furious. "And who was that man?"

The screen skipped to Akechi again, dressed in those too short and small clothes again, and to that blank, sparse office from before. The man's expression was no longer grim and dour; he had replaced it with a vicious smile.

“—must say I’m surprised,” the man began.

Skip. “—Isshiki never even guessed her little patient would—”

Skip. “Perhaps you can be useful to me. You certainly are ambitious enough, and uniquely skilled. What was your name again?”

Akechi’s tight, tense smile appeared. A muscle in his cheek began to tremble. “Goro Akechi.”

“You can expect me to keep in touch,” the older man said. Mona wondered if Akechi could hear the threat laced in the promise as well as he did.

Akechi closed his eyes. His shoulders eased, its unseen weight evaporating. He leaned forward in a low bow. “I look forward to working with you, Shido-san.”

Skip. Skip. Skip. The film rattled to a stop again. Even in the darkness, Mona could see the ghost of that smile: wide and toothless, tight-lipped, not yet effortless. It would take years for Akechi to learn how to wear that mask without straining himself.

Goro Akechi. Leblanc. Nonperson. Akechi never smiled like that when he was in Leblanc. He hardly smiled at all, unless Ren was around to see or inspire it. Those smiles, the ones Akechi gave Ren, were gentle, and almost warily sincere, as if a smile was like making a wound and waiting for it to bleed. There were times when, after Akechi smiled like this, Morgana held his breath until the expression faded. They were so fragile, so thin, it seemed like even a breath would break them beyond repair.

A crackle of static broke the silence like a shattered egg shell. The film reel burst to bright life again, revealing a familiar setting and scene: Shibuya Station, and the ebb and flow of placid faces and hazy eyes brought on by early morning rush hour. Akechi was clear in front, dressed in his summer uniform, his gleaming, gun-metal gray briefcase clutched tight in his hand. Ren was there too, dressed for school and standing in that slouchy, half-hunched posture that he used to shrink into crowds.

“I didn't think we used the same station. Meeting here must be fate.”

Ren’s reaction was as understated as Mona expected it to be. He was in Ren’s bag at the time of this conversation, and could only go on how Ren sounded, not how he looked. The boy barely did more than raise his eyebrows and flash a small, crooked grin.

“Maybe it’s destiny,” Ren replied. His playful look spared his words the indignity of sounding too cheesy, but even Mona couldn’t deny that it was a pretty solid line. A line Akechi had been the first to cast out himself.

Mona fixed his eyes on Akechi just as the scene slowed to a crawl. He saw the subtle shift from Akechi’s bland, doll-like, pleasant mask to that wound-frail sincerity. The scene flickered, tensed like a jaw holding in a bite, and then began to blur. A burn bloomed on the screen like an oozing sore, tearing through Akechi’s eyes. The burn widened, devouring his face in a black and brown charred blisters, leaving only the smile untouched.

A quiet crackling hum joined the hushed click of the stuttering film, and soon it seemed the sounds tore the scene apart. They rose as more blisters burned across the scene, leaving a too white, too bright wall behind. But this film, and the memories they revealed, took a pinion from the tail feathers of a phoenix. A new scene rose from the ashes of the old, dusty gray and clumpy black ribbons fusing together to bring another familiar sight to life.

Mona’s ears twitched at the small chirp of a familiar bell. Leblanc!

The café and all its details—the sights, the smells, the sounds—was the only home Mona had ever known. His brief time away from Leblanc had caused a sharp, tangled ache that took hours to set in and weeks to fade. He felt the pang of it even now.

Akechi stepped forward, armed with that TV polished smile that did not reach his eyes, and stood in front of the counter. He ignored Futaba's nervous gaze and Sojiro's steady, disapproving glare. He only had eyes for Ren.

“Oh! You're...” he said, his eyes pinned to Ren’s shocked face. “I didn't expect to see you here.”

The scene skipped.

"This place is more than I imagined it to be," Akechi said, gazing fondly around Leblanc. His smile changed at once. Gone was his prim and proper princely grin, and in its place was a small, almost boyishly sweet smile. "The atmosphere is wonderful."

The scene skipped.

Akechi folded his hands on the counter and slumped forward in a decent imitation of Ren's own terrible posture. "It seems I'm unwelcome no matter where I go," he sighed.

Still hiding behind Ren, Futaba shuffled her feet. Ren's eyebrows pulled together tightly behind his glasses as he gazed at Akechi, whose face was almost pitifully miserable.

"That's surprising," Ren said. "You don't seem like bad company to me."

A jolt passed through Akechi, making him hunch lower in his chair. Before Mona could turn a more critical eye on the scene, it skipped forward, becoming a silent montage.

The first scene had Akechi at Leblanc, setting up a chessboard as Ren looked on with reluctant interest. It skipped forward as Akechi plucked Ren’s king off the board with a proud smile.

It skipped again. Now Akechi and Ren were sitting in a booth at Leblanc, two cups of coffee set between them. Their eyes were bright, glittering with a focus that reduced the world to only two crucial points: the other’s face, and the silence between each breath. Mona recognized those looks. He saw it when Ann and Shiho spent time together, when Ryuji was gushing about an idol, when Yusuke got a new set of paints—

... Oh. Mona tensed in the saddle and hunched low, dropping to all fours. There was a pattern here, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see the rest of it.

But he had to. Mona couldn’t look away now. Not to mention he had seen much worse secrets hidden in a Palace owner’s heart. Second-hand embarrassment from watching tenderness bubble up between two boys—two boys who were secretly enemies—was pretty damn tame, all things considered. It was a nice change from peering into the hearts of Palace owners plagued with things like suicidal despair caused by abuse, on a slow downward spiral into unwilling moral decay, or reveling in unfettered avarice and cruelty. The raw vulnerability of desire unspoken and entirely forbidden was a breath of fresh air by comparison—plus, it's not like Mona could say he hadn't expected it. The tension between Akechi and Ren had been a poorly kept secret, all things considered. It’s not that Mona didn’t know Akechi was spending more nights at Leblanc than not. He just didn’t know the smaller details of what led to those nights until now.

The memory reel skipped forward to show Ren and Akechi share long, lingering looks and shy, short smiles. It showed Akechi hesitating on the stairs leading up to Leblanc’s attic, and Ren turning around to offer his hand. It showed Akechi stare at that hand, before he slowly slid his fingers across Ren’s palm.

The scenes sped faster, as if the hand on the projector gave in to its own racing nerves. Mona had to keep his eyes open, unblinking, in order to see every memory that passed.

Akechi chewing on his lip. Ren wetting his own lips with a nervous flick of his tongue. The two of them leaning in, eyes half-lidded, breath held as their lips hovered closer, closer—and then pressed together.

The scenes continued. Crumpled bedsheets. Ren’s glasses fogged by steamy breath. Fingers swiftly undoing the buttons of a shirt. Those same fingers hesitating before they slid down a bare chest. Parted lips, a flash of teeth. A slant of moonlight glinting over a bare back, and the small dusting of freckles on a broad shoulder.

Mona flattened himself against the saddle as if he could dissolve into it. If he could blush, his face would be flaming.

The scenes continued. Hands tensed on a pillow. The same hands running through dark, wavy hair. Two hands clasped together, one hand pale and smooth, the other rougher, with little patches of burns and short fingernails chewed to the quick. Both hands’ knuckles were pale and white as they squeezed each other tight.

Mona’s eyes began to water. He closed one of them to relieve the ache.

A neck bruised with kisses. That same neck, beaded with sweat. Bright blue veins in a flexed wrist. Eyelashes clumped with tears. And through it all, there was silence—deliberate silence, the sound of stopped up lungs and a tight chest. Mona didn’t hear any of the kisses, or the words that were whispered, or the movement of the bed as the weight upon it shifted. He didn’t have to. His imagination filled in the blanks.

“This is… makin’ me a little dizzy,” he said, and lowered his face to the saddle to hide it in the soft leather.

“It’s almost over, little-guest,” Skögul reassured him.

He shook his head again, faster this time. “I don’t think I can watch anymore.”

“Why not?” Muninn asked.

“Because! It’s… it’s so weird. Seeing all these pieces of time in someone's life, instead of the full thing."

"That's how memories can be," Muninn said. "Trust me. I'd know."

"That doesn't mean I have to like it. Memories aren't meant to be cut up like this and put on display."

"Why not?"

"Because!" Mona was almost screaming now. The echoes of his voice scattered and fell around him. "Because memories belong to the people who have them. They're special! They mean something—they're not just—just—"

How could he explain the way the memories made him feel, when his mind could hardly string together a coherent thought about it? Still, he had to try.

Mona did his best to examine his thoughts, though there was only so much distance he could take from them. What was so bad about these scattered pieces of Akechi's memories, anyway? Apart from the painfully awkward fact that he was playing some kind of retroactive peeping tom and most definitely did not want to add this to the list of things that kept him anxiously awake at night.

No, it wasn't what Mona saw that was the problem. Not really. It was how they were presented, as if these moments in Akechi's life, moments he kept close to his heart for one reason or another, were nothing more than pieces of confetti. So easy to scatter and lose. And so easy to call trash.

Mona knew he had a thing about memories, and how uncomfortable they were to see taken out of context. It had been just as hurtful back in Futaba's Palace, looking at those murals of her pleading for her mother to pay attention to her. Those memories belonged to Futaba and Futaba alone. They were just a small part of her image, just a tiny piece of her whole life. There was so much more to Futaba than her grief-scarred mind—just like there was so much more to Akechi than the lies and the secrets and the bittersweet something he had with Ren.

"Memories should be private," Mona said, his voice fumbling its way out of his mouth. "That's why this is bothering me. A person's mind isn't just something for other people to pick apart like a meal."

"Says the cat burglar who breaks into people's minds all the time," Muninn said.

"That's different!"

"Is it?"

Mona couldn't speak. It wasn't often at all that he was knocked speechless. He supposed if anyone was going to have the honor of temporarily besting him, it would make sense for it to be something in Akechi's mind.

Skögul slid her thumb around Mona's chin and stroked it gently. "What is it you think memory and a mind should be?" she asked. "Whole? Perfect? Complete?"

"Yes! That's the whole reason the Phantom Thieves steal hearts in the first place. Cognitive distortions need to be removed so the mind can change."

"And humans," Skögul continued, "is that what you think they should be? Whole. Perfect."

The hairs along the ridges of Mona's spine stood up. He could sense some kind of trap waiting in the Valkyrie's words, but didn't know exactly where it was. "Not exactly. Maybe we don't have to be perfect, but—"

"We?" Skögul's voice was polite and calm. It set Mona's nerves on edge. "Are you human?"

"I am!" Mona's voice cracked as he shouted, turning his declaration into a plea.

Muninn and Skögul shared a look.

"You are like no human I've ever seen," the Valkyrie said.

"And now you have seen me!"

Was it just his imagination, or did they not look convinced? Why would I want to imagine that? I want them to listen to me and understand!

"If... If I'm not human, then what am I?" he whispered.

Skögul ran her finger down the top of Mona's head, but he was too miserable to find comfort in her touch.

"Perthro," she said.

Mona stared at her. "Excuse me?"

"Perthro," she said again. "That is the name of the rune door you chose. You selected a space where you could see my lord's heart give its weight to a force beyond himself. Fate, chance, doom—all these things hold the threads of my lord's life in their hands and pull them as they will."

Mona was still at a loss. "What's that got to do with my question?"

"You said when we first passed through the door that you understood how my lord felt. A part of you is bound to the pain that Perthro inspires. You, too, feel the pull of an unseen hand at the laces of your life."

"Are you trying to confuse me by talking in riddles?"

Skögul gave him a look between Makoto's strained patience and Haru's aggressive compassion. Fierce and gentle all at once. "What you recognized in my lord is a uniquely human suffering. You ask if you are human. I ask how could you be anything but?"

Mona said nothing. From the corner of his eye, he could vaguely see the scene on the screen freeze in place, showing a small part of Ren's bed and the legs tangled on it. Just pieces of a body, and not the whole person.

Mona closed his eyes, his stomach churning. If Akechi's mind was a mirror through which Mona could see himself and see to Akechi, then he would just have to keep looking. 

Goro Akechi. Nonperson.

Mona tried to put together the intel he'd gathered so far. A piece of Akechi's Treasure was hiding here, just waiting to be discovered. And it had something to do with Ren, and the code to his Palace.

Goro Akechi. Nonperson.

Nonperson. A thing, just a piece, a part, either broken off or defective from the start.

Nonperson. Not human. Barely that, and far beneath.

That sounded familiar. How many times had Morgana woken in the night and comforted himself, quiet, alone? How many nightmares had left him frantic and yowling, haunted by the image of his body bursting from the Metaverse’s primordial darkness, eyes wide and yellow, his voice nothing more than a mindless monster’s wheeze?

Nonperson. Not human. A cat that was not a cat and did not know if he was the human he so desperately wanted to be. A cat that was not a cat who did not know what he really was.

Was that so different from a boy who was a thief and a liar and a detective and a would-be murderer and a rival Ren treated like a lover? A boy who was all these things and none and least of all not known to himself? A boy and a cat who was not a cat forced to perform, constantly conscious of being seen through another’s gaze. The only difference with Mona was he couldn’t help but push against what others assumed him to be (a monster, a creature, subhuman, nonhuman), whereas Akechi leaned into it.

Mona heaved as large a sigh as his little lungs would allow. “I really do feel sorry for Akechi—and by that I mean sympathy, not pity.”

Skögul scratched the top of Mona’s head again, petting him until he purred. “Explain.”

Mona arched his back to meet her hand. He turned his eyes to Muninn and kept them there. “Pity is what you feel as an outsider looking in. Sympathy is what you feel when you recognize a part of yourself in someone else.”

“And what do you recognize in Akechi?” the crow asked, landing on the saddle horn so he could look Mona in the eye.

The memory reel began to move again, rewinding in a blur before it stuttered to a halt. Akechi and Ren stood in profile, the late summer sun like a halo’s corona around their heads. They were leaning in close, eyes shut and lips parted in anticipation of a kiss to come. Mona could almost see the threads tying them together, red cords and tangled, barbed stems, thorns and twine and nooses. That was exactly how he felt about the Phantom Thieves: bound to them, tangled and threaded through and twisted into knots. His life was defined by his space in theirs, and whether they knew it or not, he relied on them for everything.

“I know what it's like to put all of what you are in someone else's hands,” Mona whispered. “I know how that makes your life feel like its scattered into pieces. A life you don't understand, and have to put back together like a puzzle without knowing what it's meant to be.”

Muninn leaned forward and gave Mona's shoulder a small tap with the bottom of his beak. It took Mona a moment to realize that the bird was trying to comfort him.

Something glimmered on the screen in front of them, drawing Mona's attention back to the frozen memory. The edges of the memory shimmered with a familiar prism facet, like sunlight seeping in through a crystal.

The Treasure piece!

Before Mona could ask, Muninn took flight, tore the piece free from the screen, and dropped it on Mona’s head. It happened so fast that Mona didn't have time to blink, let alone duck. Skögul caught the Treasure piece before it could fall, and tucked it inside of Mona’s collar for safekeeping.

“I'd say that's a success,” Mona said, turning to jump onto Skögul’s shoulder and hold himself there. "We should keep going, and find the others."

Muninn settled on his head again, talons clutching tight as if to hold him in place. "Done and done," he cawed.

"You did well, friend-guest," Skögul said with a warm smile.

Mona was really glad he couldn't blush. "I do have a pretty good eye, don't I?"

"Just so."

As Mona preened with pride at his newly soothed ego, Skögul set her heels to her horse’s sides. The horse took off at a steady trot that soon became a gallop, and they leaped through the torn memory into the darkness beneath.

Three more pieces left.

Chapter Text

ᚲ - KENAZ
Cognition, clarity of thought, knowledge.

The hall behind the rune door lost the heavy shroud of darkness once Futaba and her Persona walked through it. The Akechi-Shadow and the Valkyrie followed close behind, both of them sharing the saddle.

Even before they entered the rune door, Shadow-kechi couldn’t stop staring at Necronomicon. Now his head was craned up and tilted back, allowing his large, unnatural yellow eyes to stay fixed in place.

Futaba didn’t see what the big deal was. There were far more weird things in this Palace than Navi-Nomi, including the Shadow himself. Not to mention the miniboss that sneaked up on Ren and Akechi and griefed him. Navi-Nomi was cuddly in comparison.

To make it worse, Necronomicon wouldn’t stop looking at Shadow-kechi either—in its own way. The screen far to the right, closest to where the Valkyrie and Shadow-kechi stood, had a steady stream of stats scrolling by—most of it unknown, since a Shadow was not real enough to exist. No heartbeat or heartrate to keep track of, because he had no pulse. No apoptosis pattern to determine, because he had no cells to commit programmed cellular suicide. No blood, no pressure, no problem.

What was even more strange—and was the one thing that really made Futaba put up her guard—was that Navi-Nomi didn’t register the Shadow as a threat. No weaknesses were popping up as a warning; no strengths to watch out for, no immunities to avoid. There was no info at all but a long string of question marks and the occasional ((゚□゚;)). Almost like Navi-Nomi thought he was a friend.

Futaba scowled at the screen. “I hate new types,” she grumbled. What was the point of Metaverse omniscience if that all-encompassing enemy knowledge came with an asterisk slapped on top? Some Shadows may slip through the cracks, so get good and good luck with that.

“What’s it like in there?” Shadow-kechi asked, prodding Futaba from her thoughts.

“Cozy,” Futaba said.

“I wanna see.”

“You’re better off sticking to your own party,” she fired back. Tact? What tact? Who had the time when there was a Treasure to steal? “I’ve got Navi-Nomi, and you’ve got the golden lady.”

“My name is Brynhildr,” the Valkyrie corrected coolly.

“Right. You.”

Shadow-kechi frowned. “What are you hiding in there?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

Brynhildr shook her head. “Nothing apart from herself. She is the type.”

“Five points docked for an ad hominem fallacy!” Futaba said, in what she guessed might be in a tone just a touch loud. It was hard to tell; Navi-Nomi was a great sound equalizer.

Shadow-kechi’s frown became something even worse: a smile. Just looking at it made Futaba feel like she shotgunned nine cups of kakigori one after the other. She shivered.

“I think you’re right,” Shadow-kechi said to Brynhildr. “People get angry really fast when they don’t like hearing the truth.”

“Five more points for backbiting,” Futaba warned him, keeping a mental tally. “Keep talking back and I’ll bail out.”

To make good on this promise, Futaba spun to face Navi-Nomi’s rear console. What she saw there stopped her hopes in their tracks.

The door out of the rune tree was gone. No exit, no entrance. No way out but through. Nowhere to go but forward.

This didn't deter her for long. “Pause!” Futaba said, twisting to face front again. Shadow-kechi and Brynhildr were watching her with what was probably smug patience. She quietly docked nine points and asked, “Now what do we do?”

“We walk,” Brynhildr said, nudging her horse to a trot. Shadow-kechi clutched the reins tight, lifted his chin, and looked ahead.

Futaba didn’t move, nor did she tell Necronomicon to either. All she could do was stare.

The hall changed with each step Brynhildr took, as if the world assembled itself in bursts beneath her horse's feet. A bone white tiled floor rose up to cover the once empty darkness, and was soon joined by a ring of lights descending from the ceiling like unraveling spools of thread. Another step, and three walls appeared, boxing them in. These too were white, crisp and clinical. Door frames yawned open into the darkness, and were quickly filled by a half-dozen heavy steel doors slamming into place. Small square windows sat at the top of the door, the thick glass cut in diamond patterns.

Futaba had done enough challenge runs of horror games to know where they were. Hospital.

The double doors at the end of the hall opened with a shriek of old hinges. Futaba winced—then froze.

“Mom!”

Necronomicon zeroed its sights on Wakaba Isshiki and the assistant who walked at her side. Mother♥ was written on the screen next to Mom's face, and the assistant was apparently called Maruki Takuto. He looked a little like Ren, aged up twenty years and given a soft, somber look instead of watchful patience. Futaba did not recognize the name; her mother didn’t name any of her assistants in her research notes. Only Akechi's name appeared, and that had been in passing, almost lost in a footnote.

They stopped in front of a door marked E179A. Maruki pulled a keycard from his lab coat pocket and held it to the thick gray panel on the wall. A loud, tinny buzz growled into the silence, and the door swung open.

As Mom and Maruki passed into the room, the perspective in the hall shifted. The hall turned, and Futaba’s view moved from behind her mother to the side, in profile.

They walked into a room—not a cell, this isn’t an asylum—that was painted a drab, grayish blue. The only window in the room was barred by a thick iron grate. A thin trickle of sunlight cast a pale glow on the scuffed floor, illuminating particles of dust. There was no other furniture in the room except for a bed, which was little more than a mattress strapped to a gurney, its wheels worn from use, the locks dull from consistent wear.

Maruki cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. “Goro-kun?” he said, his voice warm and calm.

The Akechi in the memory lifted his eyes from the book he held open on his lap. His face—pale skin stretched over sharp, hungry bones—wore a familiar look of nervous defiance. Futaba often saw it on her own face in the years before Sojiro. Despite the sound they made when they entered, Akechi had been ignoring them, a display of will he both wanted them to know and didn't want to be punished for.

Don’t think about that, Futaba told herself as another wave of kaomoji blipped across Navi-Nomi's screen. Don’t think about how you know that face, don’t think that there’s any kind of thread between you at all. Look at the book. Look at the book. Look.

A battered paperback copy of A Wrinkle In Time sat limp and weak in Memory-kechi’s hands. He closed the book and set it down on the bed.

Shadow-kechi crossed his arms over his narrow chest. “I never finished reading that,” he said. His expression was… vague, as if he couldn’t really see his own memory.

Brynhildr placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

Memory-kechi swung his legs off the side of the bed and hunched forward. “Can I go now?” he asked.

Maruki’s smile did not waver. Futaba shivered. She had seen smiles like that before: sad and sympathetic, but ultimately useless. It was a kind of pity that hurt worse than outright cruelty.

“Not yet, Goro-kun,” Maruki said. “Isshiki-sensei and I have a few more tests we need you to take.”

“You’ve been very good so far,” Mom said. “You’ve already taught us so much.”

Shadow-kechi hunched in the saddle, his shoulders lifting as he slumped.

That’s Mom’s work voice, Futaba told herself, taking comfort in this fact. Her work voice isn’t a mean voice, because Mom wasn’t mean. Mom worked hard and loved her job and believed her research would change the world. She wasn’t mean. She wasn’t. She says a nice thing and means it.

The scene changed. The floor dropped from beneath their feet, and the three of them fell into what looked like an examination room. Memory-kechi sat on a half-reclined chair ringed by an IV stand, a heart monitor, EEG readout, and a rolling table set with medical tools. Maruki was attaching electrodes to Memory-kechi’s scalp, his face shadowed with the dark cloud of his thoughts.

“Deep breaths, Goro-kun,” Maruki said. "It might help if you tried to smile."

“He always said that. I don’t know why,” Shadow-kechi said. “I had no reason to smile. He knew that. He knew it and said it anyway. Fake smiles on a mouth spitting empty words is just waste on top of waste.”

“That’s important for a kid to know,” Futaba said. It was not entirely unkind.

Shadow-kechi glanced up at Necronomicon again. Futaba shivered in the cockpit and sank down far enough until her nose was level with the lowest holo-screen. She knew Shadow-kechi’s eyes couldn’t see her, she knew they weren’t X-ray specs or psychic scanners, but that didn’t stop her from feeling seen.

“You know what it’s like to learn things when you’re too young, don’t you,” Shadow-kechi said. Said, not asked.

“Don’t try to know me,” Futaba said.

Shadow-kechi ignored her. “Is that why you’re hiding in there? You don’t want people to know you?”

Direct hit!

Navi-Nomi let out a small, churning groan, like the creak of a wooden floor unhappy with the weight it has to hold. A gentle pressure, solid and true, curled around Futaba’s back and shoulders, lifting her up until she was eye level with the holo-screens again.

“Pay attention, friend-guest,” Brynhildr said, her dark gold fingers curling around Shadow-kechi’s other shoulder, holding him steady. “Fast-gained truths help kindle quickly-moving minds.”

As Futaba turned her attention to the memory once again, the scene fell once more, dragging them with it. Gone was the examination room with its tools and machines, gone was that Maruki man and his sad lying smile, gone gone gone was the stark, simple comfort of the pale walls and the too-bright polished floors. The room they were in now made Futaba feel like her ribcage had taken a running dropkick. The shield around her heart may have tanked the hit, but it was forceful enough to make her stagger.

It’s just chip damage, she told herself, her eyes forward and jaw clenched. Don’t let it stack, and you’ll be fine.

The room they were in now reminded Futaba of a dentist’s office: a leather chair, scuffed and limp from use, with a high headrest, too-thin armrests, and a complicated array of overhead lights and mirrors. This was bad enough; Futaba, after an encounter with a dentist who tried to pull out a back tooth sans anesthetic, harbored a lifelong distrust of all things dentistry. It only helped a little to see her mother there.

“We’re going to take things a little further this time, Goro-kun,” Mom said, adjusting the chair so Memory-kechi could sit back comfortably.  “I’ll walk you through it as far as I can, just like before.”

“’Up to the starting line, so I can take the next step,’” Memory-kechi said, his small, thin fingers clawing the armrests.

Mom’s eyes flickered to his tense hands before returning to his face. “Just so. You’ve done very well so far. Your determination has helped a great deal.”

“Determination?” Memory-kechi repeated, frowning at the unfamiliar word.

Mom took a seat next to Memory-kechi’s chair and gently tilted it back. “Just so,” she said, a smile faintly lifting the edges of her lips. “It’s a kind of strength that only the mind can use. Like willfulness, or hope. I'd say you're a very willful boy, Goro-kun. More than most your age. And that's what makes you special.”

Memory-kechi watched as Mom wheeled over a steel tray full of medical tools—some of them sharp—and shrank back in the chair.

Mom lifted a web of wires—electrodes—off the tray, and held it out for Memory-kechi to see. “You remember this, yes?”

Memory-kechi nodded. His hands relaxed, but only a little. “You said it’s like a crown,” he replied, his voice small.

Mom smiled. “That’s right. A crown fit for a prince.” She separated the electrodes into careful lines. Her hands moved with slow, elegant precision, the same way Futaba remembered from what few years they had together. That’s how she moved when she cooked, that’s how she brushed my hair, that’s how she folded our futon before setting it aside.

“We’re going to count our breaths together, Goro-kun,” Mom said, leaning forward to attach the first electrode to Memory-kechi’s scalp. “Three seconds in, six out.”

Memory-kechi closed his eyes as Mom set more electrodes in place. A long steel band held them together, looping around the front of his head like a diadem.

So he was a Patient Prince before he was ever a Detective. Futaba almost preferred him as a pompous seeker of justice. At least then he was easier to dislike.

Mom settled back in her seat and gave Memory-kechi a long, searching look. “Let me know when you're ready.”

Memory-kechi opened his eyes and nodded. His small chest lifted—one, two, three—just as Mom’s did the same. They exhaled together—one, two, three, all the way up to six—before starting the process again.

“Well done,” Mom said between breaths. She turned to the tray again and picked up an IV set—cannula, clamp, and sealed spike. She broke the seal with a twist of her fingers, and as the small needle glinted in the light, Memory-kechi squirmed in his chair. He held his breath.

Mom’s eyes flickered to the small gap of silence in the heart monitor. “Take a deep breath, Goro-kun,” she said, scolding him gently. It was her I know you skinned your knee and it hurts, Futaba-chan, so just hold still while I take care of you voice. “I’ll wait as long as you need me to.”

Reluctantly, Akechi began to breathe again, both the memory and the Shadow that shrank into Brynhildr’s touch. 

Mom held Akechi’s left hand steady as she pushed the IV spike into the back of it. Akechi grit his teeth—

—and then the room changed. The three of them—Futaba, the Shadow, and the Valkyrie—dropped again to another version of the examination room. Mom wasn’t there this time. Maruki was.

“Before we begin, I want to ask you a question, Goro-kun,” Maruki said, adjusting his glasses. His smile was kinder this time, and far easier to believe. Futaba wondered if he’d been practicing it. “Is that all right with you?”

“… Is that one of the questions?” Akechi asked.

Maruki laughed. It was a warm, gentle sound. “You caught me there. I’m sorry but no, it isn’t.”

Shadow-kechi crossed his arms again and scratched his elbow. “… No one else ever said they were sorry,” he mumbled. “Not even Dr. Isshiki.”

Futaba’s mind cracked like an egg as two answers formed, the same words separated only by the difference in tone: Why should she be? One was a dismissal, the other a quiet, timid demand. Why... should she be?

The heart monitor tracking Akechi’s pulse tripped, then picked up at a faster pace. The EEG monitor that noted of his brainwaves continued to shiver, its squiggly, needle-thin lines spiking and skittering across the screen.

“My question to you isn’t one you have to answer. Not right away, or ever,” Maruki said, leaning forward as he spoke. “I just want you to think about it, all right?”

Akechi nodded, his expression blank.

Maruki continued. “You said you found a fortress in that other world—what Dr. Isshiki calls the Metaverse. And you said a woman who looked like your mother was there.”

The heart monitor fell silent, then began to blip faster.

Maruki’s expression fell, weighed down by misery. “Here’s what I’d like you to think about: what if that fortress could be with you wherever you went? Say, when you leave the institute and head back to Himawari, or go to school. What if that place, that... Palace in your mind, never left you? What if you could hold it in your heart? That way, you would never have to leave it.”

Akechi stared at Maruki in silence. He opened his mouth to speak—and the room fell again.

And again.

And again.

Nine times it did this. Futaba kept track of each drop.

The first drop: Akechi’s Palace, with an endless, glittering void where a white and black checkered floor rose up. It snapped together to form a solid base, but the halls stretched onward, making a path to an empty void. No destination, no exit, just one long, endless road into nothing.

The second drop: the hospital room again, still small and pale. There was blood on the gurney now. A pile of bandages, sweat-stained and rusty-red with blood, lay on the bed like the cast-off skin of a snake.

The third drop: small, bare feet striking the black and white floors of the hospital. Thin, needle-bruised hands slammed into the swinging doors that separated different sections of the hospital ward. Shallow, sharp, rapid breaths and distant, deep shouts—a child running, and adults giving chase.

The fourth drop: a spiral of rosy pink water circling the drain in a bathroom floor. Small feet—the same feet from before—slid back from the bloodstained water, but it was no use. You could never be without your own body, or your wounds. Not until you died, anyway.

Futaba drew her knees up to her chest and tried not to whimper. A body is a body and the mind is the mind. One is in the other, but they aren't the same, they aren't. She had long fought to make her mind into a shelter against what made her body ache. Struggled, tried, failed, tried again.

What if Akechi did that, too?

What if Mom taught him how?

Hair joined the water, which darkened from pink to cherry red. Thud went a pair of bruised, knobby knees, and gasp, gasp, gasp went a pair of lungs caught in the jaws of fear.

The fifth drop: an old, puckered mouth pressed thin over a set of crooked teeth. “Hair grows back and cuts always heal,” the mouth said—a woman’s voice, sharp as a crow’s squawk. “Neither of those things should stop you from doing your chores—and a boy’s hair shouldn’t be long, anyway.”

A smaller mouth replaced the first. A child’s mouth, missing a tooth, marked by a brown scar that split the top lip. “I heard you crying again last night. What are you, a girl?”

Another mouth. Futaba recognized this one. Mom!

“Squeeze my hand when it hurts, Goro-kun. Let go when it stops. I’ll wait until you’re ready.”

The imagine blinked out, then came back in. It was still Mom’s mouth, slightly chapped and bearing the recent indent of her teeth. “Is it a wound, or is it something worse? If you ask me, these... things seem more like tumors. And a cancer isn't something you just patch up. In order for the victim to survive, we have to remove it. Why should these things—these Shadows—be any different? The Kirijo Group certainly didn’t think they were.”

Mom’s mouth vanished. It was a man's mouth now, one Futaba did not recognize. “I didn't realize you were so inspired by the Kirijo."

Mom again. "Only a little. What I do here significantly different, of course."

The man. "Of course. And is that where you got the idea to search orphanages?” the man asked. “Because of what the Kirijo did in Iwatodai?”

Mom. “Yes. I’m lucky that I found Goro right away—lucky that I knew what to look for.”

“Lucky that the Kirijo Group never knew you were looking,” the man said.

Mom’s mouth flinched. “You can compare us all you like, but there is one crucial difference in our methods.”

“And that would be...?”

“My patient knows what he is—and at least we look after him.”

The man’s mouth returned. Gone was the scowl, replaced now by a softer, faint smile. “I’ve brought you some books I think you might enjoy, Goro-kun. You said your guardian called itself Loki, right? Well, as luck would have it, I found some stories about him…”

Another mouth, angled sharp like a blood-painted knife. Skin mottled in black and white slashes appeared around it. It was not human, that was clear—but it was like no Shadow Futaba had ever seen. “One day they’ll push you so far that they can never bring you back again. And whatever you do after that will be their fault. No one makes a boy into a wound and gets away with it.

Another mouth—human—then another. Another. They all only spoke one word, but they were saying the same sentence. “Nice—to—meet-you—Goro-chan. I’ll—be—taking—care—of—you—from—now—on.”

“... What was that?” Futaba asked. She hadn’t meant to speak out loud; the words just slipped out.

“Foster mothers,” the Shadow said.

Futaba did not want to speak again. She was too busy trying not to remember.

The sixth drop: a cycle of beds—futon, western, gurney; chrysanthemum sheets, plain and starched and stiff; a Featherman pillow set; Star Wars, black and red plaid. Each bed lay in a different room, with walls of all colors colors, but they stayed bare, untouched. No pictures, no posters, nothing to make the rooms feel lived in. The same suitcase was always set next to these beds, a small, gray satchel with a peeling black “A” sticker set in the center.

House after house after house, but no home. Futaba did not want know how that felt. But she knew, she knew. She did not want to remember it, but open memories are open wounds are raided tombs. Once open, twice closed, no longer safe.

Futaba’s mind slid open like the old screen in her uncle’s home, the one with the flaw in the paneling. House after house of family who hadn’t even earned the right to call themselves that. House after house with the same blank walls and dusty ceilings. House after house owned by people who only wore pieces of Mom’s features—the length of her nose, the space between her eyes, the shape of her jaw. Futaba didn't feel connected to them at all. Family was just the parts of a model kit with all assembly required. These people owned these homes and owned her but she was not their daughter, not their family, not theirs in any way that mattered.

As Futaba struggled to do the bare minimum of existence such as breathing, one tiny, clear voice slid through her thoughts.

“Let’s go on living bravely,” Shadow-kechi quietly sang. “And with style. Even if the two of us are ever separated…”

Futaba recognized the song at once. She had 1.6 GB of 1990s anime OSTs on its own external hard drive; she knew Rinbu Revolution when she heard it.

She spoke without thinking, but did not mind it this time. “Even though we dream, even though we cry, even though we hurt ourselves, and reality approaches frantically—”

“—I can’t lose my place,” Akechi’s child Shadow said, his wide, yellow eyes fixed into hard, sharp points. “The worth of my existence.”

“In order to protect myself,” Futaba finished for him.

The seventh drop brought them to the Palace again. Futaba recognized The Knitting Factory, and got her first unwilling look at the Matron and the Akechi-Doll Assembly Line. Akechi—the real one in the memory—stared at the glassy, sightless replicas of himself with a look of half-hidden hate. He was older than the boy from the earlier memories, but not by much. His hair was a little longer than before, unbrushed and hanging around the ends of his ears. Small blotches of his scalp was shaved, revealing the newly-healing scabs from the points of needs.

“How can my mind be mine if I can’t control it half the time?” Memory-kechi asked to someone Futaba could not yet see.

The cognition of Akechi's mother stepped into view and held out her hand. He did not take it, and eventually she let it drop.

“It was your mind first,” the cognition said, “and it will be yours to the last, no matter what anyone does to you.”

Memory-kechi turned to look at the cognition, his bottom lip trembling—

The eighth drop brought back Mom’s face, but the eyes were all wrong. Yellow eyes, vicious eyes, stuck in a face with a wicked look. A face on a body cloaked in darkness that danced and twirled.

“Do you know how much time I wasted on comforting you?” Not!Mom said, her voice warped and cruel. “Wasted time, wasted breath, wasted effort. And all that for what? So you could run away and throw it all back in my face!”

Not!Mom’s Shadow bared her teeth and turned her hands into fists. “I knew I should have tied you down.”

Memory-kechi, almost totally hidden in a sharp, black mask with hooked horns and red eyes, tightened his grip around the hilt of a serrated red blade. He was taller than before, lanky, and shaking with rage.

“You should have been grateful,” Not!Mom’s Shadow continued. “You were a nobody from nowhere with nothing when I found you. My work made you matter. I made you matter. And you let me down!”

“You’re the one wasting time on regret,” Memory-kechi said. “No one told you to do that.”

“It’s your fault I feel it in the first place! All my work! All those years of research wasted on you. You were always too willful! Too stubborn!”

Futaba covered her ears and tried not to scream. Not Mom, not Mom, not not not. Just a Shadow, just a sliver of darkness in her heart—not the real thing, no. 

Not!Mom’s Shadow trembled and twisted, turning itself into a Hua Po—blonde, peach-skinned, held aloft by prismatic, hair-thin wings—

—until Memory-kechi, with three swipes of his sword, cut those wings to pieces.

Hua Po (Not Mom’s Shadow, not, not, not) let out an agonized scream, but the cry was cut short by another swipe of the blade. Off came one hand, then the other. Then an ear. A Shadow couldn’t bleed, but that didn’t stop Futaba from knowing all the places where blood ought to be.

Finally, when Akechi ran out of strength and breath, he collapsed to his knees and vomited on the red and black floor of the Metaverse. Futaba had barely registered it before, but it look like a small platform floating in what could have been Mementos.

As Akechi got sick again, spilling bile onto the floor, Hua Po collapsed to the ground. She groaned from torn lips and a throat split nearly all the way around. She shivered and writhed, and eventually became Not!Mom’s Shadow again.

“Ungrateful…” it—not her, not her, no—gurgled. Black tar as dark as a starless night oozed from its mouth. “Will…ful…”

Memory-kechi lifted his sword in both hands, and held the point over the Shadow’s heart. He drew in a breath—one, two, three—then released it. Futaba counted the seconds: six, just as her mother had taught him to do.

“Take a deep breath, Goro-kun. I’ll wait until you’re ready.”

Memory-kechi bared his teeth and said, “That’s what you told me to be.”

Futaba slammed her eyes shut and pressed her face to her knees, but she could still hear. Memory-kechi’s laughter was harsh and sharp, like a blade sliding on steel, before it  crumbled into half-retching sobs.

“It’s not her,” Futaba heard him snarl in between each hard sob. “Not her, not her, not, not, not. It was inside her, but it wasn't her."

Akechi's voice splintered into a warped, keening wail. "Shadows are bad and dangerous. Heroes protect people from danger. I helped. I helped. I did what I was told.”

A man’s voice echoed in the memory, cruel and clever and too well-equipped with unshaken confidence. “Don’t even think of backing out of this now. You gave your power for me to use, remember?”

“But not like that,” Akechi’s Shadow said, scratching his arms again. The nails caught the skin, creating scrapes that could not bleed. “I thought he’d be proud of me. I thought he would—he would—”

Silent and solemn, Brynhildr gently steered her horse so that the Shadow would not have to look at the memory anymore. Her dark, tilted eyes lifted up to Necronomicon. Futaba felt the warmth of the Valkyrie's stare like a hand cupping her face.

“Only one more drop to go, friend-guest,” she said, her voice strong like music. “Let us see how brave you are.”

Futaba held her breath, because it was the only thing keeping her together. She opened her eyes.

The ninth drop brought her almost face to face with Ren. Memories of him fanned out in a kaleidoscopic array, tumbling and turning. Ren at the counter of Leblanc, Ren with his hair wet from the rain, Ren blowing gently on the stream from a fresh cup of tea. Ren with a crooked smile, Ren with a wide, wicked grin that made his eyes glint like a knife; Ren with his head bent to the side, resting against Akechi’s broad shoulder. Ren in the moonlight in Ueno Park, sketching a blooming lotus on the corner of a page in Akechi’s little black book. Ren in the sunlight at Sensou-ji, hands clasped, eyes closed, saying a silent prayer. Ren in the dark of Leblanc’s attic, his face half-lit by his phone, one arm curled around Akechi to hold him as comfortably close as the too narrow bed would allow.

Futaba looked down, and Navi-Nomi tilted to accommodate. There was nowhere else to fall after this drop; they were at the absolute bottom of the memory now, the foundation, the roots—the lowest possible point in Akechi’s mind. If the Treasure piece was going to be anywhere, it’d be here.

Futaba looked up again to see the scene had shifted from the Leblanc attic to Akechi's apartment. He sat on his bed, loosening his tie with one hand, and holding his phone to his ear with the other.

“People don’t know what I’m really like,” Memory-kechi said, his head bent to hold his phone against his shoulder. “If they could have seen me today, they certainly wouldn’t think of me as some detective prince.”

Ren’s words flowed from the phone’s earpiece like cream meeting coffee: rich, smooth, sweet. “It’s fine if you’re not really like that,” Ren said. His voice was low but firm, with a warmth that made Futaba blush.

Second-hand embarrassment would not stop her for long, though. A familiar, glimmering shimmer drew her eyes to Ren’s words as they took shape in the air, bright red and black, like wounds. “It’s fine if you’re not really like that.” “It’s fine if you’re not really like that. “It’s fine…”

“So you prefer it when looks are deceptive?” Memory-kechi laughed, clearly pleased. “You truly are unusual.”

The earlier words—“It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine…”—lingered in the air, shiny and bright. Futaba didn’t want to touch it, didn't think she could ever move again. So Navi-Nomi did instead.

“Can we go now?” the Shadow asked, watching as one of Necronomicon’s tentacles curled around the Treasure piece.

“When our friend-guest is ready,” Brynhildr said.

Futaba took a deep breath. One, two, three. She held it in. Held it, held it. Held it until her heart hurt.

"Why did you do it?" she asked the Shadow. It was the one question she had always wanted to ask the person who killed her mother.

Akechi's Shadow scratched the back of his neck, over and over, compulsive. Futaba knew he would have made himself bleed if he could. She was sorry he couldn't.

"She said Shadows were bad, so I thought... it was hurting her."

Hurting her. Hurting her.

Futaba's mind only had one answer for that. "I hate you. What you did. Why you did it." She hid her face against her knees again and said in a louder voice, "I hate that you didn't know what you were doing."

"You can hate me," the Shadow said.

"I wasn't asking for your permission!"

"... You can hate me," the Shadow repeated.

It took a while for Futaba to understand what he was saying. It's fine if you hate me. It's fine. You should. It's fine.

Slowly, well aware of the pain in her heart and the way it made her body heavier than lead, Futaba stretched out her legs and sat up straight. She made them wait a few minutes more, made them wait until she was sure her tears had left her eyes and her voice would not waver.

“I’m ready,” she whispered.

Brynhildr’s horse stamped its foot, cracking the darkness to reveal another layer beneath. She held the Shadow against her chest and dove into the abyss. Futaba had no choice but to fall again.

 

Only two pieces of the Treasure were left, one to be stolen, and one to be saved.

Chapter Text

ᛏ - TIWAZ
Justice, honor, fairness; truth and balance.


A familiar mahogany door waited for Ren, Shadow!Goro, and Svanrand at the other end of the hall inside the Tiwaz tree. Three dark bronze numbers were bolted to the front of the door: 502.

Ren, who had only seen the door once before yet would never forget it, felt his face flush with blood and came to a stop. Svanrand, attuned to his movements, stopped as well.

Goro’s Shadow kept moving. He reached out for the doorknob—gold, gleaming—and closed it in his grip.

“Not yet!” Ren said, clamping his hand around the Shadow’s wrist.

The Shadow narrowed his eyes at Ren’s hand, but did not shake him free. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your nerve,” he sneered, his voice firm and sharp. “You’re not backing down, are you?”

Ren shot a glance to Svanrand and rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “Not exactly, no,” he said.

Goro’s Shadow let go of the knob and twisted his arm free of Ren’s grasp. “Not exactly? Or no? Pick one; you can’t do both.”

Ren looked into the Shadow’s lamp-like yellow eyes and held his breath. The eyes might be different, but he knew that look, a look as vicious as it was sincere—a look Ren adored as much as he did the boy who wore it. Goro’s eyes, beautiful, clear, fierce, never failed to cut to the truth no matter how much Ren worked to keep it hidden. Goro saw him, knew him, understood him, and it seemed this was a skill shared with his Shadow.

“No,” Ren said, letting out the tightly held breath and hoping that one word wouldn’t open the door to future regrets. “No, I’m not backing down.” And to prove it, he put his hand on the door and waited for Goro’s Shadow to move.

The Shadow smirked, pleased. He nodded.

“You can wait here,” Ren said to Svanrand. “I know what I’m looking for.”

Svanrand glanced at Ren from the corner of her tilted, golden eyes. She raised her eyebrows, her expression calm but curious. “How confident.”

Ren ran his fingers along the wooden door and smiled. “That, and I’ve got a pretty good idea what I'll find behind this door,” he said. He shifted his eyes to the side, caught the Shadow’s gaze, and winked.

Goro’s Shadow cleared his throat. Ren chose to believe he was embarrassed, even if only a little. Goro’s Shadow was too proud to let Ren keep the upper hand for long.

Svanrand watched them open the door and enter the memory that waited beyond.


Stepping into the memory was like entering the Metaverse. Ren’s stomach twisted pleasantly, his chest lifting higher, higher, sending a strange jolt through his body. Like a balloon full of too much air, like a pair of lungs sucking in much-needed breath, like a head racing with desperate thoughts.

Ren licked his lips, took a breath—

—and had that breath stolen by a kiss.

Ren—the one in the memory, and the one watching it—let out a soft, eager moan, and was rewarded with a harsh laugh and harder kiss.

Ren recognized that kiss; it could only come from one person. Goro’s kisses were more passionate than they were practiced and precise, quick to deepen and an almost sinfully sweet mix of tenderness and a coy press of teeth. Goro liked to use his hands as they kissed, too. In this particular memory, one hand was curled into a loose fist at the back of Ren’s head, and the other was sliding down his chest, plucking playfully at Ren’s school uniform suspenders. The harder each strap struck his chest, the more Ren’s moans turned to breathless gasps, until he whined against Goro’s lips in a wordless demand for more, more.

The Ren watching the memory closed his eyes and shivered. When he opened them again, he was both in the memory and outside of it, watching himself. He lay flat on his back on a plush, soft couch, with Goro stretched over him. They lay tangled on the couch in Goro's apartment on a night Ren would never forget.

November 11th. The day Goro finally let me in his apartment—and the first time we slept together.

They had gone as far as they could in stolen moments and secret nights in Leblanc's attic, but the thrill of the moments were always undercut by the constant fear of an interruption (especially in the form of Mona, who was known to come skulking back from Futaba's house late in the night with little warning). It wasn't until after they traveled to Mementos together—alone, as per Goro's request—did they decide to go back to Goro's apartment and make up for all that lost time.

Which led Ren to this particular moment, pinned beneath Goro's weight, with his knee wedged between both of Ren’s own. Goro straddled Ren’s thigh and rode it with slow, lingering thrusts, tracing the tip of his tongue along Ren's bottom lip as it quivered with each moan.

It was strange and sweet and eerie, reliving a memory with all your senses. Ren was both aware of his body and current thoughts, but at the same time was vividly aware of the memory unfolding around him. Ren was both inside himself and witnessing himself—two divisible states that hung in tentative balance.

Breathless and wide-eyed, Ren watched as Goro’s eyes shifted from their rusty bronze-brown tones to eerie yellow and back again. He waited until the yellow eyes returned before he spoke.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. It was the same question he’d asked Goro that night in his apartment.

Goro, the memory and Shadow, tilted his head and smiled. “I wouldn’t do this if I had any doubts,” he—they—said. “Do you?”

Goro stopped moving as he waited for Ren’s answer, not wanting to tempt him away from the truth.

Ren shook his head. “No—no doubts here,” he whispered, his voice an eager, husky sound scratching in his throat. “I want this. I want you.”

A short tut of laughter clicked between Goro’s teeth. “You say that so easily,” he said, straddling Ren’s thigh once more. “You don’t even know what you’re begging for—or what I want to do.”

Ren shivered. Considering the hard length he felt moving against his own, he had a pretty good idea. “So show me,” he challenged.

With a low growl, Goro grabbed Ren's face between both gloved hands and kissed Ren for so long they both saw stars.

When Ren opened his eyes again, it was to see Goro’s Shadow once more. His eyes danced between Ren’s gray gaze before dipping down to his half-parted lips. There was a mournful longing in his look Ren did not understand. He reached up to stroke the Shadow’s face—

—and the memory changed.

Even before Goro put a bullet in the forehead of Ren’s cognition, Ren knew what it was like to stare down a barrel of a gun with Goro at the other end.

It happened in Mementos. They were alone. No Thieves, no Shadows (as they’d been quickly dispatched and sent screaming to wherever Shadows went when they died). They had nothing but each other.

“I win,” Goro said, his rebel’s raygun aimed at Ren’s head.

Ren smiled, unfazed. “You win this round,” he panted, holding a stitch in his side. “I’ll get you next time.”

“Oh? You think you can keep going?” Goro grinned, pleased. “You look like you need some rest. How about we take a break?”

Ignoring the insult and taking Goro up on this generous offer, Ren tried to hide his limp as they headed towards the imitation train platform and settled down in the waiting room. Ren's schoolbag was propped up on one of the plastic chairs, kept company by the briefcase Goro brought with him everywhere. Ren unzipped the bag and quickly pulled out a tupperware of food, small plastic bowls, and flimsy, plastic spoons.

Homemade food in the Metaverse had a bizarre magical effect, restoring not just stamina but any damage done to the body that any good Dia spell couldn’t cure. Ren wouldn't say it, not for all the money in the world, but he really did need to rest. He devoured his curry with gusto, sighing in relief as the pain in his side began to fade.

Ren wasn't the only one enjoying the meal. He made sure to heap a generous portion into another bowl for Goro to share, too. He ate it slowly, pushing the food around with the tip of his spoon.

“... It's delicious,” Goro grumbled, scowling.

Ren wasn't quite convinced. “You don’t look too happy about it.”

“Would you be happy to learn yet again that your sworn rival has one more talent to add to his too-long list?"

Ren shrugged. "If you wanna learn how to cook, all you have to do is ask."

"Noted," Goro said, and began to eat again.

Once the pop-up bowls were scraped clean and Ren earned a half-hearted sigh after licking the brim of his, Goro set down his bowl and stood up. “Ready?” he asked.

It was not a rhetorical question, but an offer. Ren could say no if he wanted to, but the glint in Goro’s eye and the expectant expression on his face made it clear that he knew Ren would say otherwise.

Ren grinned and adjusted his mask. “Are you?” he fired back, rising to his feet.

Goro smiled, fondly and fiercely. “I won’t hold back—and neither should you,” he said, stepping lightly off the platform to land on the tracks beneath. The ground of the Metaverse rippled beneath his feet, splashing up in a splatter of red and black.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Ren said, joining him.

Fighting Goro was no different than kissing him. Goro waited for Ren to make the opening move before quickly countering each of Ren’s decisions until he gained the upper hand. His eyes even had the same bright glimmer of excitement Ren usually saw before they leaned in for a longer, deeper kiss.

That’s a relief, Ren thought, darting forward to feint a slash at Goro’s left. Nice to know he wasn't the only one getting something out of all this.

One of the best things about Goro? He never let Ren down, and he never gave Ren the chance to disappoint him, either. Every step, every swipe, every breath, every pause to choose or react—none of it could be half-hearted or careless. Every moment mattered, and was far too precious to be wasted. This calculated precision and passionate devotion to violence wasn’t a death wish, no. Quite the opposite. It was a need to live, to feel, to know and control.

“Now, Robin!” Goro cried, lifting his ruby red mask to bare the faceless, burning black and blue self within.

Ren and Arsene braced for the hit. A shield of blue and black flames spiraling in front of Ren just in time to take the brunt of Robin Hood’s attack. Arsene did not flinch from pain—he leaned into it, ready to embrace and consume. A dark, gleeful laughed rattled through Ren’s skull, shaking him down to the roots of his teeth. He clenched his jaw and grinned. His heels clicked against the metal tracks, and the sound drew Goro’s eyes down for a few crucial seconds.

Taking advantage of the moment, Ren lifted his gun and aimed it at the hilt of Goro’s Guillotine Saber. The cognition of their weapons made the tools as lethal as toys, sure, but one shot from a toy gun hurt enough to draw a bruise or a welt. Ren had a few already blooming on his chest from Goro’s raygun, in the very same places Goro usually decorated with lovebites.

Ren curled his finger around the trigger and fired a shot. Goro stumbled back and briefly dropped to a knee. He was up before Ren could blink, his lips split by an ecstatic smile.

“Yes, excellent,” he hissed, resuming his battle stance. “You’re just full of surprises tonight.”

“Flirting won’t do you any good here,” Ren said, flipping his dagger in the air with a flick of his wrist. “But you can keep doing it, by all means.”

“Hmph. Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Sure thing," Ren said, grinned. "I’d rather you do it for me.”

Goro was already moving before Ren finished his sentence. Ren parried the next attack as well as he could, forming a crossguard combining his dagger and pistol, and dug his heels into the ground. Bracing the weight of his back leg against the solid metal track, Ren pushed with all his strength against Goro’s attack. They both groaned with the effort, bearing the other’s weight and determined to outdo the other. If Ren was going to win this, he'd have to do something ugly.

Ren felt his toe hook around Goro’s ankle before he knew he wanted to do it. Arsene crowed in delight as Ren swept Goro’s foot out from under him, sending him sprawling to the ground.

Beautiful! " The Persona cried, filling Ren's thoughts with the echo of his voice. "Oh, just look at him lying there, under you. That's right where he belongs, don’t you agree?

Ren shivered as a flutter of warmth passed through his body. Every nerve seemed so much more aware and awake now; he practically moaned when Goro grabbed onto his forearm and dragged Ren down with him.

They fell together, as they often did on the couch or into bed, in a tangle of legs and groping hands. Unlike most of those times, Ren was on top now. Bracing his hands on the ground, forming a bracket on either side of Goro’s shocked face and tousled brown hair, Ren held himself over Goro’s body until only their chests were touching. One of his knees was wedged between Goro’s thighs, with the other angled lower, holding himself steady.

“You—” Goro gasped. His throat bobbed as he breathed.

Ren smiled. “I win this round,” he said with a breathless laugh.

Goro licked his lips, and that little flutter of warmth moved through Ren again. It was a warmth he knew well, a warmth that began when he and Goro first met all those months ago. The warmth of kisses, shared breath, and yearning looks. The warmth of blood bidden to run faster and hotter than it ever had before.

It was Goro's turn to take advantage of the moment and play ugly. He scooped up Ren’s dagger from where it had fallen on the tracks and hooked his leg around Ren’s hip. Quicker than a blink, Ren was flipped onto his back with Goro above him, holding the knife at his throat.

“Unchecked confidence can be dangerous,” Goro said, holding the tip of the blade to the apple in Ren’s throat. "One of these days, it might even get you killed."

Ren swallowed noisily, his throat bobbing up to bump the blade. “Good thing we’re just pretending,” he said, his voice raspy with excitement.

Goro pushed the blade down a fraction more. “Who said I would be the one to kill you?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“Who better than you?” Ren countered, half a tease, half a plea. “No one else could even come close.”

Goro’s face warped with a look of pure pain. “Now who’s flirting?” He spat the final word as if it were a rotten tooth forced from the socket.

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Stop. Talking.

Ren fell silent. Something was wrong, or getting very close to it. Goro wasn’t one to turn down a joke, even if it was only to sandbag Ren’s attempt at humor. But he never got angry like this; Ren must have touched a nerve without meaning to.

Slowly, carefully, Ren reached up to push Goro’s mask to the side, freeing his face to be seen. Ren's heart let out a painful pang when Goro winced away from his hand. For nine long, aching seconds, they both held their breath.

Goro, still straddling Ren, now settled down to sit on his thighs. His grip on the dagger slipped, but he did not pull it back from Ren’s throat.

“What’s wrong?” Ren whispered.

“Nothing,” Goro lied. The answer came too quickly, and Goro knew it. His nostrils flared as he breathed, and he lowered his eyes to Ren’s throat. Bare. Exposed. Vulnerable.

Ren waited until Goro's breath returned to a slow, steady rhythm before speaking again. “Best two out of three?” he offered, his voice soft.

Goro laughed, surprised. As he laughed, he shifted on Ren’s body in short, slight jerks. Ren steadied one of his hands on Goro’s narrow hip, moving the other to gently dislodge the dagger from his grasp. Goro let go of the weapon, but he grabbed Ren’s hand once it was free and pinned it to the ground. The ground pulsed from the impact, rippling out in little waves of red and black.

“You’re oh-and-two now,” Goro said, squeezing his hand. “Even if you do win next time, you’ll still be one behind.”

“Depends on who’s counting,” Ren said, settling his hand on Goro’s hip with a tighter grip. The crisp white rebel’s clothes, almost garishly pristine in the dark, gloom-tainted word, reminded Ren of a beacon of light at the end of a long, black hall, like the tiniest glimmer of hope defying the darkness. None of the other Thieves had clothes quite as bright as Goro. His were bold and clear to see, highlighted with gold and red, as if his idea of rebellion was through purity and pristine perfection—which only made Ren wonder how Goro really saw himself.

“Nobody knows the real me.”

I want to know you. I do. Let me try.

“I’ll be the one counting, of course,” Goro said, drawing Ren from his thoughts.

Ren rubbed Goro’s hip in small, lingering strokes. Goro shivered; Ren felt it move through his thighs, and suppressed a groan as Goro pushed down against the front of his trousers, drawing the fluttering warmth from Ren’s stomach down lower, until it pooled between his legs.

“What will you do if you lose?” Goro asked in a whisper. He tilted his hips forward again, back and forth, slow and steady.

Ren’s eyes fluttered shut. He caught a glimpse of Goro’s grin—wide, wicked, hungry. The same hunger Ren felt gnawing on the roots of his heart.

Goro squeezed Ren’s hand again and leaned forward. Gripping the hair at the crown of Ren’s head in a tight fist, Goro bent Ren's head to let his lips hover over his ear.

“Would you lie back and take it?” he hissed. “Would you just let me win?”

“No,” Ren moaned, lifting his hips to meet Goro’s thrusts. This only made Goro press down harder. “You know me better than that.”

“I do, don’t I?” Goro purred. Each word he spoke caused his lips to slide over Ren’s ear in the whisper of a kiss.

Ren felt Goro’s teeth skim the bottom of his ear in a not-too gentle nip. “And even if you did win, I’d come—come back for a rematch.”

“You promise?” Goro whispered.

Yes.”

“Tell me. Say it.”

“I will if you do.”

Ren didn't expect Goro to answer, let alone answer right away. “… I promise.”

Before Ren could boast about this little victory, Goro kissed him, fierce and desperate.

The kiss was not like any of the other kisses shared between them before. It was a kiss of total balance, a kiss shared by a pair of boys that craved the same comfort. Their hearts shared a sequence of strong, steady beats like the steps in a dance only they knew, and their lips parted at the same moment, just the same distance apart. Their eyes slid half-shut, and their joined hands squeezed tight like two sides of the same coin fused together. The same strength, the same pressure, the same need to feel and be felt.

Ren and Goro moaned as their lips touched, the tips of their tongues flicking playfully against each other before they eased gently into each others’ mouths. The kiss was so whole, so equal, so right. Ren’s heart ached to look at it. It didn't help that this was the last kiss he and Goro shared before the ruse in the interrogation room, before the betrayal, before the attempted murder.

“He still owes me a rematch for trying to put a bullet in my head,” Ren said, watching as the memory froze in place. The borders of the memory bloomed with black and red roses and lycoris, thorny stems twining with spindly petals that forked like a hungry, thirsty roots. “I guess I’ll get my chance once we’re done with the Treasure hunt.”

Goro’s Shadow crossed his arms and glared at Ren, his yellow eyes narrowed in disbelief. “I tried to kill you. I successfully killed something like you. What makes you think I wouldn’t do it again?”

“Would you? Would Goro?”

“If we had to.”

“Why would you have to?”

“We all don’t have your luck, Joker. Some of us can’t stand up and just say no.”

“Why not? And why not you, of all people?”

The Shadow's hands bent into tight fists. “Maybe we have someone’s hand around our throat, or pulling our strings like we're a little puppet to play with." He spoke low and fierce, as if poison spewed from his lips. "Or maybe we’re saving our breath to speak out at just the right moment, and won't waste a word until then.”

Ren's heart ached. It was a pain he knew well, and could not help but cherish. “I'll speak for you.”

Goro’s Shadow blinked. His head snapped to the side, his eyes pinned to Ren's face. “What?”

“I said I'd stand up and speak for you. I'll find whoever's pulling your strings, cut you down, and not shut up 'til the time comes when you can speak out. That way you can save your breath for what you really want to say.” He held out his left hand. “Deal?”

The Shadow looked at Ren’s hand for approximately nine seconds before he reached out with his left hand—his true hand—and took hold of Ren’s grasp.

“Make sure you say that to the other me,” he said, squeezing Ren’s hand tight. "The real me. He needs to hear it more than I do."

“I will," Ren said. "I promise.”

There it was: the magic word. Or more truthfully, the Treasure word. Ren watched the word take shape in the air, swirling and shifting in the hazy, prismatic glimmer. He reached out with his free hand and ran his fingers through the glittering haze, scattering the echoes of his voice until the words were nothing but twinkling smoke. Promise, promise, promise. Goro’s voice joined in from before, when he made his own vow, until the sounds of their voices twirled and twisted, tangling together in a single thread.

Words spoken from the heart were worth more than the Dresden Green or the L’Incomparable Diamond (a name so on the nose that it almost hurt). Honest words spun from the thread of truth were cherished by Goro like a drowning man gasped for air; it only made sense that their shared promise would be part of Goro's Treasure.

Carefully, carefully, as if he were holding Goro’s heart in his hand, Ren closed the Treasure in his grasp and held it to his chest.

“Let’s go,” he said to the Shadow. He held the shimmering shape of his and Goro’s voice up to his lips and kissed it, drawing it onto his tongue to hold it like a sacrament.

Goro’s Shadow said nothing. He turned his eyes away, but did not let go of Ren’s hand.


As the door opened and they returned to the hall, Svanrand turned to greet them. “Is it done?” she asked, her keen eyes searching them for signs of trouble—or a Treasure.

Goro’s Shadow nodded. “It’s done,” he said. Then, softer, so only Ren could hear, “Save your breath.”

Ren didn’t need to be told twice. He nodded, the Treasure piece still sitting warm and safe on his tongue. 

With the Treasure between his lips and his breath creeping gently in and out of his lungs, Ren let Svanrand lift him onto the saddle behind her. Goro’s Shadow climbed up to settle at his back, and he held onto Ren's waist with a strong, firm grasp. Ren watched as Svanrand’s horse reared back and leaped through the dark, formless floor, plunging them to the depths that waited beneath.

Only one piece of the Treasure remained, and he didn’t even know it yet.

Chapter Text

The roots of Akechi’s Palace were a blasted heath of ashen ground ringed all around with a jumbled, crumbling mass of doors, walls, towers, statues, and warped, bleeding glass. Ren recognized some of the buildings from the districts he walked through since moving to Tokyo. Akihabara, Kichijoji, Yongen-jaya—all of them were here, and all of them were reduced to molten, melted ruins, dark as ash and rendered useless.

“It looks like Tokyo,” Makoto murmured, arms folded tight across her armored chest. Huginn sat perched on one of her shoulder spikes, his beetle black eyes fixed to the desolate horizon.

“Tokyo-post Conception,” Futaba corrected. Her voice was toneless and strained as it leaked out of Necronomicon’s hidden speakers. “Guess the Threat-Level sees himself as the Demifiend.”

Ryuji scratched the back of his head. “Uh, translation?”

Haru tapped her chin. “I think she’s referring to a video game. Nocturne, right, Futaba-chan?”

Only Makoto didn’t look surprised.

“You could speak Futaba-ben all this time and didn’t tell us?” Yusuke asked with a pained expression, no doubt thinking of all the times he struggled to interpret.

Haru smiled and nodded, her soft, pale brown hair swaying gently beneath her feathered cap. “She’s making a truly apt comparison as well,” she added. “Nocturne’s primary conflict is having the power to remake the world after its complete annihilation, and how that power will manifest. Will you choose endless conflict? Self-preservation? Restore the world to how it was, flaws and all?” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Those are our motives as well, and… I suspect that Akechi-kun may feel the same way.”

Makoto took hold of Haru’s hand and stroked her knuckles with a gentle sweep of her thumb. "Well said," she murmured.

"Aww, cute," Huginn croaked. Makoto batted him away with her free hand.

Ann pulled at the bottom of one of her twintails and frowned. “That’s what we’re here to do, right? Kinda?”

“Define ‘kinda,’” Ryuji said, with a quick glance at Ren.

“Each time we go to a Palace and steal a target's heart, we've changed their lives. That’s sorta like changing the world, isn't it?” Ann tossed her hair over her shoulder and propped her hand on her hip.

“Sure,” Ryuji laughed. “We’re just doin’ it one effed up person at a time.”

Makoto glared at him. Necronomicon grumbled like the dull hum of a computer fan. Pretty soon, the atmosphere darkened enough that even Ryuji could tell it had changed.

“Oops. Uh, sorry.” Ryuji glanced at Ren again, desperate for an interruption.

Thoroughly tired of hearing Ryuji's mouth outpace his thoughts, Ren turned to Svanrand instead. The Treasure piece sat heavy on his tongue. He shifted it to the side of his mouth and asked, “So what do we do now?”

“There is only the one winding way for you to walk,” Svanrand said, slowly extending her arm to point with her sword. As she moved, clusters of primroses bloomed along the ashen path, tiny clumps of buttery yellow and bruise blue petals lining the winding road to the end. A small path forked gently off the left of the path towards a crumbling stone archway. There was a small distorted ripple in the air beneath the archway, visible even at this distance.

“Must be a Safe Room,” Mona said, crossing his paws. “We should reconvene one more time before going after the target.” His large, watchful eyes peered carefully around the ground. “We should head there and share any intel we’ve gathered up to this point. There’s no telling how it might help.”

Ren had the distinct impression they were all trying not to look at him. He felt his cheeks flame hot. Just what had they seen behind their rune doors?

To avoid looking at the rest of his team, Ren led the way to the Safe Room, flanked on either side by Goro’s Shadows and the Phantom Thieves following behind. The Valkyrie stayed back, their horned and winged heads bent to confer with each other in private.

“So—who wants to go first?” Makoto said once they were all through the archway.

No one spoke.

She sighed. “Okay… Why don’t we put our pieces of the Treasure on the table and move on from there?”

Ryuji placed his down with a hard plunk. Ren's throat tightened. He recognized that mug—and the bullet, once Haru set it down carefully, standing upright. Ann moved forward next, holding a sheet of Purikura photos in her hand.

And then Ren understood.

“It’s me,” he said, his tongue moving clunkily around the piece tucked against his cheek.

“It’s you,” Mona said with a nod. “Every piece of Akechi’s Treasure has one theme in common: the trail all leads back to you.”

Ren looked at the pieces on the table without seeing them. His head was buzzing, loud and determined, all his thoughts determined to grasp his attention first.  Only one thought rose up above the din of the rest.

The pieces of Goro's Treasure are all memories of me. Me.

He scraped his teeth along the inside of his cheek to stop from crying, and felt his teeth click against the piece hidden there. He wasn't ready to relinquish it. Not yet.

“What do we do with them now?” Haru asked. “Shouldn’t the Palace collapse?”

“Normally I’d say yes,” Morgana said, “But this is no normal Palace. It defies every rule we’ve learned so far.”

“Don’t make it sound so hopeless,” Ryuji groaned. “You’re all forgetting the obvious thing here.”

“Which is…?” Yusuke asked, tearing his eyes away from the blank, eerily serene Akechi Mask.

“Crow's Shadows are still around,” Ryuji said, jerking his head towards the two in the room. “Plus we still got that monster to take care of.” He crossed his arms, his leather coat creaking with the movement. “We can worry about all that other shit later, when it matters.”

“That’s not quite how I would phrase it, but Skull does have a point,” Makoto said. She glanced at Ren, her cheeks paling as they met eyes. “Did any of us learn anything that might help us prepare for the battle ahead?”

A sharp silence fell over the group. None of them looked at Ren, who still felt carefully examined regardless.

Haru took a long breath and raised her hand. “I’ll go first,” she said, her voice soft but strong. “Akechi-kun is secretly working for a man called Shido. No doubt he's the same as that politician: Masayoshi Shido. However powerful this connection may no doubt be for Akechi-kun, I’m... not sure how much he enjoys it.”

“Quite a bit, actually,” the older Shadow said with a sneer, before the other Phantom Thieves could react. “Especially since it's useful to me. The ends justify the means.”

Makoto drew in her breath with a hiss, but Haru didn’t even blink. She turned her eyes to the Shadow, impassive, cold—and completely unmoved.

“You can’t trick me,” she said, her voice still low and sweet. “I saw you in his office. I heard your voice. You didn’t want to be there at all.”

“Don’t project your pathetic feelings onto me,” the Shadow snapped.

Haru raised her eyebrows. “I'm not projecting. I'm recognizing. My father could scare me sometimes just as much as yours scares you.”

The Shadow huffed, but said nothing. His face looks mutinous, murderous—yet he stayed silent.

“The blouse-lady’s right,” the younger Shadow said, speaking up for the first time. “I don’t want to do it. I never want to do it. I have to.”

“But why?” Ann asked.

The younger Shadow's pinched, nervous face wore an expression torn between pleading and insisting. “Mom wanted me to be a hero, and that’s what I wanna be, too. A hero does what he has to do, even if he doesn't always like it.”

Ann winced. Ren recognized the look on her face. It was the same look she got before she darted forward and threw her arms around someone in a back-breaking hug. He tensed, expecting her to rush to the child Shadow and swoop him up in a hug. But she stayed rooted to the spot, and contented herself with giving the younger Shadow a look of pure sympathy.

Ryuji spoke up next. “That Val-chick who was with me said Akechi's always gotta pay for what he needs, and even if that Shido guy supplies it, it's just not enough. Plus Akechi’s scared shitless of the guy.”

“How charmingly crass,” the older Shadow mused.

The younger Shadow kicked his shin. “Stop trying to pick a fight.”

Makoto cleared her throat, disguising a laugh. Out of the corner of Ren’s eye, he saw the older Shadow discreetly rub his shin when he thought no one was looking.

One by one they spoke, revealing what they had learned during their infiltration of the Palace. For the past five years of his life, layered behind masks that coated his every thought and look and word, Goro Akechi lived a quintuple life: as his father’s—Shido's—secret accomplice, as a crime-fighting idol, as a traitor to the Phantom Thieves, as a bastard orphan looking to drag Shido down—and as just Goro Akechi. Just himself, for one person and one alone. The person he hated and treasured most out of anything in this world.

Me. The Treasure piece stung the side of Ren’s cheek.

Finally, they reached Futaba. She stayed silent, and after a moment, Necronomicon let out the loud blare of a computer driver’s failure.

“Futaba-chan?” Ann cried, startled.

“Oracle.exe has stopped responding,” Futaba said, her voice flat and unyielding as steel.

“Was what you saw truly that unbearable?” Yusuke murmured, horrified.

“It was a visceral attack plus one hit kill plus three-sixty no scope sniper shot,” Futaba gushed.

“I will assume that is a yes.”

“Is it something we should know for what lies ahead, Oracle?” Makoto asked. Ever practical, ever focused.

The older Shadow heaved a long-suffering sigh and rolled his flame-yellow eyes. “I know what she saw,” he said, glancing up at Necronomicon. “Do you want to drop that bombshell or should I do it?”

“… It’s fine if you do it,” she rasped.

Fine,” the Treasure on the table echoed. “Fine. Fine. Fine.”

The older Shadow glared at the Treasure before squaring his broad shoulders and folding his arms over his chest.

“… Years ago, Shido also sent me after Wakaba Isshiki. Or more specifically, her Shadow.”

Haru was the first to react. She clapped her hands to her mouth, her dark eyes open wide.

The Shadow noticed, and nodded in approval. “I figured you would get it.”

“Uh, I don’t get it,” Ryuji said.

Ann rounded on him before the Shadow could speak. “Can you at least try to think, or are you afraid your brain might break from the strain?”

“Hey! What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you, Ryujidiot?” Mona fired back. “Did you forget what happened to Futaba-chan’s mother?”

Ren’s heart seemed to take a nose dive down to the heels of his boots. He should have known, should have suspected. There was no way that he was Goro's first kill. For some reason, that almost made him sad.

Goro had been so heart-breakingly calm that night in the interrogation room, and his skill with a gun in the arcade was less from his natural, effortless ability to do everything perfectly, and more from actual experience pulling a trigger.

When did he learn? How young was he? Does he like it? Does he ever get sick of it?

Ren’s trigger finger began to ache. He thought of all the times he pointed his gun into a terrified Shadow’s face, thought of all the times he’d pulled that trigger without hesitation. Even the targets they found in Mementos hadn’t made him hesitate. They were cruel, callous, vicious people, monsters walking in human skin, preying on the weak, believing they deserved to cause pain. It had been easy then, so easy—and sometimes it was even fun.

Makoto rounded on the older Shadow, shifting her stance so that she stood between him and Haru. “Did you know what you were doing?” she demanded.

“Before or after I killed her?”

Necronomicon let out the driver failure sound again, loud and deafening as a foghorn’s distress call for help.

Haru let out a quiet hiccup as she fought back tears. Ren was the closest to her; he put a hand on her shoulder and held it tight. She tolerated this for a moment before shrugging him off, gently.

“Before you murdered her,” Makoto hissed.

The Shadow turned his eyes up to Futaba’s Shadow and said, “No. No, I didn’t. Dr. Isshiki usually sent me after Shadows that were mindless—I can’t even say they were like animals. They were shapeless, all eyes and teeth and primal violence.” The Shadow shot a look down to Mona. “Dr. Isshiki’s Shadow was the first human Shadow I ever met.”

“So why did you go to Shido and offer to make a deal?” Mona demanded.

If Mona thought he was going to take the Shadow by surprise with this question, he was only going to be disappointed. “Dr. Isshiki said her work on… with me would be the discovery of the century. It was through me she could see the Metaverse, and know it was real, tangible, and better still, accessible. I thought that I should share such wonderful news, made possible by yours truly, with the man I hold responsible for my life—my father.”

“He’s not my father!” the younger Shadow cried. “He’s my monster!”

“Sometimes they ain’t so different,” Ryuji grumbled, his teeth clenched as if to hold back a grimace. He took in a long, deep breath and turned to Ren. “Anything you wanna add, Joker?”

Ren felt the Treasure in his mouth shiver with fright, like a baby bird pushed too soon from the nest. He carefully moved it between the side of his back tooth and his cheek. “… I came here for one thing,” he said, his voice firm and full of heart. “I made a promise, and I’m going to honor it. No matter what.”

“Still?” Ann whispered, her voice thick with the tears in her throat. Ren thought he knew what was on her mind, what other promise haunted her thoughts like a lovely ghost. Stay strong, and get stronger. To be proud of her body and realize its power and its beauty. To be a model with a voice and a heart, instead of just a pretty face.

Ren shifted his gaze from Futaba—still safely encased in her Persona—and Haru, whose gaze was steady behind her tears. “I made a promise,” he said again. “To me, it’s just that simple. I’m not expecting any of you to accept that, or even to understand. I won’t even ask you to join me; I won’t make decisions for you. If anything you saw here changed your mind, and you want to leave, then go. I won’t stop you.”

I might not even blame you, he wanted to say. Wanted to, but wouldn’t. Ren was no saint. He was just a boy with an aching heart, desperate to help the only boy that heart had ever loved.

“I’m staying,” Haru squeaked, suppressing them all into silence. “I—I wouldn’t be able to face myself if I left now.”

“That is my feeling as well,” Yusuke said. “I would find it hard to justify devoting only half of my heart to this cause.”

“I’m all in,” Ann said, pumping her fist.

“Well said, Lady Ann,” Mona chimed in.

Ryuji nodded. “Damn straight.”

Makoto paused. She glanced at the Treasure pieces on the table—all seven of them. She took her time before turning her eyes to Ren, her gaze relentlessly clear.

“Let’s finish what we started,” she whispered.

All their eyes were on Necronomicon now.

“… For mom,” Futaba said. Two little words full to burst with all the furious love in her heart.

The were ready—all of them, for their own reasons. And that was all that mattered.

One by one, they began to file out of the Safe Room. The older Shadow caught his eye as they passed each other by.

“You can all tell yourself whatever it is you need to hear,” Goro’s Shadow said, shrugging. The golden tassels on his shoulder pads swayed as he moved, streaking garishly against the black fabric of his tunic. Ren hadn’t paid too much attention to the Shadow’s clothing before, but it was a dark inverse of Goro’s usual Robin Hood-inspired attire.

The Shadow’s eyes narrowed into hard, flinty points, and fixed themselves on Ren’s face. “As long as you keep your promise.”

“You promised,” the younger Shadow echoed, his large, golden eyes fierce and pleading. “You have to kill my monster.”

“I will,” Ren swore, offering the child a smile.

The older Shadow waited until they were the last two in the Safe Room before he moved. He stepped forward, closing the distance between them with one decisive step.

Ren blinked and felt the crash of a familiar pair of lips against his own half-open mouth. He felt the swipe of a warm tongue and felt the quiet, growling hum of approval he recognized from his nights with Goro. He shivered, and slowly curled his hands around the Shadow's back, his fingers twisting in the fabric.

And then the kiss was over, as fast as it had begun. Ren opened his eyes in a daze, gasping for air.

“Put your money where your mouth is, Joker,” Goro's Shadow sneered, stroking his thumb along Ren's bottom lip.

His body moved on instinct, as it always did when Goro was involved. Ren tapped the side of his mouth and smiled. “You know I’m good for it,” he said.

The Shadow's eyes glinted with a warmth that could have been hope, and kissed Ren hard on the mouth again.


The path to the pit where Goro's monster lurked was narrow, as weak as ash, and angled in a downward slope that almost made the Phantom Thieves trip. By the time they arrived with their pride mostly in tact, the monster was waiting for them.

So was Goro.

The monster was taller than the last time Ren saw it. It was once roughly the size of Leblanc from basement to rooftop, but now it was double in height. It was also more humanoid now, its long limbs heavily emaciated, mottled with dark purple and blue skin as hard and durable as a callus. Its bulbous, pulsing head bore no difference from a swollen carbuncle, like a cluster of pus-filled bumps that was painful to behold, the way some wounds can inflict echoes of its hurts upon any and all who see it.

Behind Ren, one of the Phantom Thieves retched. Another groaned, feeble with fright.

“Take heart, friend-guests,” Svanrand said, her rich voice spilling like liquid gold through the tense, terrified air. “Courage carried you this far. Let it carry you further still.”

Ren’s eyes honed in on Goro and did not waver. He checked the urge to run to Goro's side, defying all danger, consequences be damned. He had to think clearly; Goro would never forgive him if he didn't.

Ren took a breath, and then another. Another. Think. Look.

It hurt to look.

Goro's face was marred by scrapes and swollen welts that were on their way to bruises. A deep cut over his left eyebrow poured a thick drop of blood into his half-shut eye and down his cheek. Worse than the damage done to his body was what kept his body imprisoned. The thick tendrils that writhed from the arm-stumps of the monster curled like chains around Goro’s wrists, waist, and ankles, binding him completely.

Like a prisoner.

Hate burned in Ren’s mouth, hot and bitter. He dragged his teeth along the inside of his cheek and crouched, preparing to move forward—

Goro’s Shadow, the older one, stuck out his hand and flattened it against Ren’s chest. “Don’t take the bait,” he said.

“Bait?” Ren stared at him in horror. “He’s holding you hostage.”

“Exactly. Bait.” The Shadow lowered his hand. “Look for a weakness to exploit, instead of revealing your own.”

“I’m not weak.”

“You love to play hero and wear your heart on your sleeve,” the Shadow sneered. His tone was bitter, but his smile was true. “That’s two weaknesses in one.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, you know,” Ren said. He took out his knife and flipped it, taking comfort in the familiar weight and glinting blade. “You’re going to get the only kind of help I know how to give.”

The Shadow’s smile widened into a look of pride. “Make sure it’s good enough,” he said, lifting his imitation of the Guillotine Saber from the hilt on his right hip and slicing it through the air.

A scream like a buzzsaw whirring to life erupted from the monster’s unseen mouth. The ground trembled with the force of its cry. A few of the Valkyries’ horses whinnied nervously, but were quickly soothed by hushed, husky words Ren did not recognize the language, but their tone of voice reminded him of a lullaby.

Huginn and Muninn took to the sky and circled around Necronomicon. "Six eyes are better than two!" Huginn cawed.

"Nomi-nomi can see in all directions!" Futaba argued, offended by the wrong assumptions about her Persona's specs. "I don't need you!"

"Yet we'll give our help all the same," Muninn said, pecking his beak against Necronomicon's hard shell.

The monster howled again, raising its bulbous head—and that’s when Ren saw it. The mouths—mouths—in its head were small and tightly clustered like plague sores, all crammed full of sharp, thin teeth. It planted its feet—long, thin, plated with bruised skin stretched near to splitting over claws and bone—and raised its many-limbed arms as it reared back to scream. The movement lifted Goro higher, and he struggled, of course, but even Ren couldn’t see how he could find a way out of this.

“Careful!” Futaba shouted. “Here it comes!”

“Queen! Panther! Skull—with me!” Ren shouted. They sprinted forward, drawing their weapons with matching fierce expressions. He turned in time to see the others cluster together, ready to flank the enemy or act as support. He nodded in approval.

Svanrand and several of her sisters moved forward, one for each Thief left behind. The others flattened against their horses’ necks as if preparing to move at a full gallop.

With a wet splatter and a loud crack, sinuous wings grew from the horses’ shoulders with a span so broad it split down nearly to their bellies. The wings unfurled, dripping ripped sinew and severed veins before the wounds closed, flesh and bone knitting together like a patch under thread.

With a pained, proud cry, the horses reared back, gave their new, not-yet feathered wings a determined flap, and took to the sky. Shortly after this, the other Valkyrie, those closest to the Thieves acting as support,  likewise urged their mounts to transform. They extended their hands down to Yusuke and the rest.

“Join us,” the Valkyrie said, speaking out of unison. It creaked out an echo, layered without the overlap. “Against one he may win. Against all, he cannot.”

“Hell yeah!” Ryuji cheered. “All of us versus whatever the hell that thing is? I like those odds.”

“Don’t get cocky, Skull!” Mona called down from his place under Skögul’s arm. “Joker! Make sure he doesn’t lose his head!”

“Look out for your own, y’mouthy cat!”

Skögul rose higher on her winged horse, too high for Ren to hear Mona’s no doubt furious reply. He looked to Goro—the real Goro—and his heart sank. Bile burned on the back of his tongue, and he clamped a hand over his mouth, fighting back the urge to vomit.

Eyes began to open up along the translucent carapace covering Goro like a cocoon. Cruel eyes, cunning eyes. Vile orange ooze seeped through the shell, landing in thick globs along Goro’s head and arms. Ren couldn’t hear the scream. He didn’t have to. What he saw was more than enough.

As the ooze burned through his sleeves and skin, Goro’s eyes opened so wide that Ren had no trouble seeing the whites of them. Goro’s hands, one covered in a glove, the other sheathed in a spiky iron claw, scratched at his face and neck, knocking his mask askew. The scrapes turned into wounds, into ribbons of blood—then into eyes, eyes lined around the lids with rows of teeth.

The monster’s eyes.

“My father’s eyes,” Goro’s older Shadow said, his voice warped, vicious.

Ryuji swore. “Shit just gets from bad to worse.”

Makoto rolled her shoulders and clenched her fists. “It’s time to move. Ready, everyone?”

“Joker! Be careful!” Futaba cut in. “Those eyes are scanning us for weaknesses!”

“Hey! Knock it off, you creepy peeper!” Ryuji yelled, swinging his spiked bat at the hideous fiend.

Ann sighed. “Oh, Skull.” She turned to Ren and nodded. “Ready when you are, Joker.”

Ren pushed his hand against his mask and flashed a devil’s grin. “Arsene! Come!”

His first and finest Persona arrived in a burst of blue and black flame, laughing maniacally. Time to catch our thief, yes?

Yes.

“Let's take back whats ours,” Ann said, snapping her whip and standing proud and tall. “Crow’s one of us, and we won’t let him go without a fight.”

“No… Not yours,” Ren whispered, fierce with a feeling he craved to call love. “Goro’s mine. All mine.”

Goro’s Shadow laughed, tossing back his head to bare his throat. “Prove it, hero. Save me. Claim me. Steal me.”

“Your demand, my command,” Ren said. He flipped his dagger in his hand and pointed it at Goro’s father. “Think fast!”

Ren threw the knife at the withered vein that held the shell containing Goro. The knife sank into the pulsing brown blue flesh with a wet squelch, but did not cut clean through.

But Ren wasn’t done yet. He flattened his hand to his mask and growled, “Pillage them!

Arsene’s laughter cracked like a clap of thunder. The Persona rushed forward and swept the points of his horns through the vein, severing the cocoon-prison from the bough.

Goro fell, cursing Ren’s name—but Arsene was there, curling one long, black wing to catch Goro before he hit the ground.

As Ann and Ryuji charged in to fight, flanked by their Valkyrie, Ren took off at a dead sprint to where Arsene and Goro lay crouched on the ground. He ran faster than he had ever done in his life, his mind occupied by one single thought. Save him. Save him. Save him.

“Goro! Look at me—look at me!

Goro looked at Ren—with all six of his eyes. His two large, bloodshot rusty brown eyes were exactly where they should be, but there were now four small blister-like clusters around his left eye. They grinned with teeth as small and sharp as glass shards. Each time they blinked, Goro bled.

“Give him back!” the monster-father said.

“Over our dead body,” Goro’s Shadow growled.

“Allow me to accommodate you,” the monster said.

With blades raised high to the ashen, molten sky, the Valkyrie bared their throats, and began to sing. “Krigsgaldr! Harigasti Teiwa!”