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Paper Wishes

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Okay. So maybe a bag clean-out was way overdue. Like, you should have stopped carrying status ailment relief and smoke bombs with you after the Metaverse collapsed overdue. Only once the contents were spread out on the couch did Akira realize how heavy it was getting. Or how many colorful crumpled papers were hidden among his endless pile of receipts.

Upon further inspection, they looked like they were once folded into some kind of shape. Being in Akira’s bag for who knows how long with all of his crap hadn’t exactly been kind to them, but on some of them, he could make out creased beaks and wrinkled wings. Paper cranes.

Immediately Yusuke seemed like the obvious choice for the so-called culprit, but sneaking his work into a bag where it could be tarnished didn’t seem like his style. He would want to make an artistic statement, using the different colors to form a mosaic on a lake made from an expensive canvas. Besides, he would be devastated to see his meticulously folded birds trampled under Morgana’s paws.

The handiwork was clearly done with great care, despite its tragic fate. None of the cranes looked like they had ever been perfect in their lifetimes, but their creator sure wanted them to be. Small offerings, little tokens of affection left at his feet.

A thousand folded paper cranes were said to make a wish come true. It didn’t take any counting for Akira to determine that this was not that many, but it was probably the most he’d seen outside of charity events. Akira already knew what his greatest wish was, that revelation had been physically manifested before his very eyes. He couldn't ask for more.

For the next few days, Akira kept the paper cranes in the back of his mind. Insisting that Morgana check the bag every time they passed someone he knew did not count as an obsession, but merely an innocent investigation. He had a mystery on his hands. Part of him liked the sheer amount of irony that came with him of all people playing detective.

Speaking of the devilishly handsome beautiful angel, Akira was in the middle of racking his brain for the barcode placements on weird convenience store junk when a familiar face strode through the sliding doors. The soft, muted browns and beiges that made up Goro Akechi placed him in a different realm from the bright whites and pinks of 777’s interior. Within Leblanc’s four walls he blended in. Not to say Akira didn't notice him— that was as far from the truth as humanly possible— but he looked like a part of the homey atmosphere. Here his camouflage stuck out, he completely defeated the purpose of the flashy ads and their popping colors meant to draw the eye. Or maybe Akira just had a bit of a thing for him, dark brooding and all.

Akira couldn't observe the Crow outside of its natural habitat as much as he would've liked. A steady stream of customers buying too much crap kept him plenty occupied. His one opening was when they would sign off on their payments if they used a credit card and not cash. And thank god the woman lugging two large baskets chock full of snack food wasn't trying to hand him a wad of cash. While she fumbled for her card in her wallet, Akira zeroed in on his bird friend.

Goro pecked at an assortment of the snacks lining the shelves, plucking them with his gloved hands. His brow furrowed and his nose scrunched up looking at labels laden with words that held no meaning to normal humans. Akira wanted to slide across the freshly mopped floors and pinch his puffed up cheeks, just to see how it ruffled his feathers.

Double basket woman left with a receipt so long it could pass as a scarf. Her successor seemed to think it was trendy, judging from the pile accumulated in his cart. Akira borrowed Goro's television smile to smother his tired sigh. He opened the cash register and wished for a slightly faster death.

Whoever thought it’d be funny to not standardize barcode placement on different colored umbrellas was going on Akira’s list. This customer who decided to buy the whole rainbow for every person he knew was rolling his cart on thin ice. Akira shook his head, since when did he catalog mental hit lists? The human thundercloud lurking around in the corners of both his mind and his workplace had a greater effect on him than he thought. He once again let his eyes wander down the aisles away from the cash register. Despite all his scrutiny, Goro had left the snack section empty-handed. Akira made a mental note to inject some curry into his stomach on his next Leblanc visit. Nothing too spicy though, that would cause several more problems. As much as he loved Goro, he didn't know how he would deal with him holding up that stupid perfect smile and thanking him while fat tears rolled down his flushed cheeks. He thought about Goro's cheeks a lot, huh.

And now he was getting sidetracked from his sidetracking. Almost impressive, though Ushimaru-sensei and his chalk of fury were prone to disagree. Goro was looking at cheapo hair clips now, which just painted an odd picture given his clearly high-end clothes. Come to think of it, he had no idea how much money Goro had. What did his house look like? Did he ever have visitors? Who on the black market would Akira need to appease to get Goro to invite him over? Even with all they'd been through and all the facets Akira had seen of the teen detective, some things stayed behind pointed masks and impenetrable leather gloves.

Akira faced the greatest moral debate of his life (minus the whole stealing hearts vs brainwashing thing, the Yaldabaoth bullshit, and Maruki's false homoerotic dream reality) deciding whether to try to grab Goro's attention when he joined the line or maintaining his professionalism as an extremely dignified convenience store employee. His sneaky side-eyes proved ineffective with Goro staring down at his phone. From his finger movements, he didn't seem to be texting someone. Good, Akira wouldn't be able to scan all this crap without dropping something if he was starting a secondary investigation on who Goro had miraculously befriended.

In the subtle verbal equivalent of a child poking someone to make them pay attention to them, Akira tried intentionally projecting a bit more than usual, but not to the point of being rude or suspicious. Each time he spoke his eyes flickered to his left to see if Goro's head popped up at all. Nothing. He cleared his throat and asked the girl carrying every available metallic shade of nail polish— Akira knew from having browsed a bit himself— if she was using cash or credit.

Goro was three people away from checking out when his head finally perked up at the sound of Akira's voice. He resembled a baby deer in the headlights with his big doe eyes and caramel color palette. The singular brain cell still kicking in Akira's skull stopped him from winking at him. He settled from letting one side of his mouth quirk up just enough to be recognizable as a little smirk. Goro blinked at him like a gaping fish for a moment before returning to his body and rolling his eyes. Cute.

Black leather hands placed a pack of multi-color hair tries, fruity chapstick, and a thin cardboard box on the counter. "Microwave meal for one?" Akira asked, "But that doesn't leave any left for me!"

Goro suffocated a snort with his sleeve. Akira loved the way his eyes crinkled with the unfamiliar sensation of amusement. His eyelashes were so feathery. "Inviting yourself over now, are you?" Goro goaded, "I'm no expert in socializing but even I know that's not proper etiquette."

If only Goro had bought nearly as much as every other customer today, who seemed to be stocking up for the incoming apocalypse. Sometimes Akira wondered what ordinary people thought that whole metaverse-fusing-with-reality thing was about. He saw the card in Goro's wallet, but also saw the glint in Goro's eye as his fingers brushed past it in favor of taking out cash. Stalling. Only they would ever see such a simple choice as something calculated and deliberate. Chess pieces moving not to end the game, but to see how the opponent would play. Akira opened the register and pretended to forget basic math while counting out the change. Even though the register had a calculator ready for his use.

"You look like a strawberry," Goro stated. His tone carried no mirth, but a smile played on his lips.

"And apparently you taste like one," Akira retorted, making a big show of bagging the pack of flavored lip balms. The pink that overtook Goro's cheeks made them look like a pair of round juicy cherries. That fit him more than the strawberries did anyway, adding a twinge of bitterness and an impenetrable pit to that fruity sweetness.

"Here is your change," instead of leaving it on the counter or dropping it into his open hand, Akira made direct contact, placing the money right into his palm. He didn't miss Goro's Adam's apple bob in his throat. "Have a wonderful day."

"You as well. Oh, before I go," Goro added, "is there a restroom here that I can use."

"Sure thing." Akira casually placed a hand on his shoulder and pointed towards the back. Goro stared at that hand like it was an alien that climbed onto him. "Right through those doors. If you get lost scream my name."

Goro scoffed, "I'm not going to get lost looking for the bathroom, you imbecile." Akira's updated internal Akechi translator took that as a thank you. His squeaky clean loafers walked off, plastic bag bouncing against his leg with each step.

He emerged sometime later, catching Akira's eye with a small wave before leaving. Akira watched his retreating back, the little pivot of his heel as he turned out the door.

Several customers later, Shibuya-senpai appeared in the doorway in a ring of heavenly light. Beneath her boots flowers bloomed through the cracks between sticky tiles. The sea of equidistant shelves parted to heed her arrival. She stood before him, ponytail rippling in the gust of an invisible wind, clad in a uniform most befitting of a legendary warrior.

“Your shift is over,” she proclaimed, “you can go home.” Those eight words purged all the darkness plaguing Akira's life.

In the back of the store, Akira shed his strawberry look in favor of colors not meant to scorch people's eyeballs. When he went to grab his jacket from inside his bag, he saw it. A crane folded from lined notebook paper rested on top of the fabric pond.

Akira picked it up, careful not to break its fragile wings. He looked around the break room for a sign of another person, or a secret back entrance that someone could've snuck through. Shibuya-senpai just arrived, so it couldn't be her. That seemed unlikely regardless, they didn't know each other outside of work. It could be a workplace thing set up by the manager to boost morale, but that was just absurd. This was a convenience store. Morale didn't exist here, and nothing could ever make it manifest. Well, minus seeing your favorite grumpy pants while working.

Oh. Duh. The bathrooms were also back here, and Akira was the only human being Goro interacted outside of a strained professional setting. Well, maybe he and Sae had gotten closer post-Metaverse— with her doing her best to support him in subtle ways he wouldn't misread as the dreaded pity— but that still wasn't an "I wished you back to life" kind of bond by any means.

So Goro was folding origami birds and sneaking them into Akira's bag. And he probably had been for a while given the sheer quantity Akira uncovered the other day. When did it start? When they first started meeting and having their little intellectual chats over cake and billiards? It was possible, he could see Goro imprinting on the first person who spoke to him on his level and understood him.

A confrontation about it would undoubtedly lead to Goro denying his claims, blushing furiously, and leaving scorched earth in his wake as he stormed out ablaze with bashfulness. He had to be subtle. Or just wait until he caught Goro in the act. Then the detective couldn't deny tangible evidence. Asking to search for fingerprints out of pettiness was tempting, but futile given his culprit's penchant for gloves. That was another mystery, didn't his hands get sweaty trapped in their shiny leather straight jackets?

When Akira emerged from 777 he looked for a sign of Goro, maybe a flash of crimson eyes of honey-colored hair, but found nothing. Akira's shoulders slumped. He'd just have to wait until the next time their paths crossed. Or he could text Goro as a functioning person would.

Me: hey, I'm off tomorrow evening

Me: come hang out with me

Goro♡: Are you ordering me to spend time with you?

Me: uh. yeah.

Me: don't disobey orders, crow ;)

Me: if you're busy it's fine

Me: but at the very least you could be busy at leblanc instead of in your apartment

Goro♡: I'll be there. You can decide what to do with me from there, I suppose.

Me: you're giving me too much power

Goro♡: Do not make me regret agreeing to see you.

Me: got it :))))

Sojiro came up behind him while he was brewing a cup of fresh, hot coffee. "Kid, didn't you just have a cup?" he asked.

Akira held up his own mug, which he placed down next to his workspace. "It's not for me," he replied, "Goro's supposed to be here soon."

"Thank god. If you started taking your coffee with that much sugar, I might not be able to let you use my equipment any more in good consciousness." Akira laughed at the prospect.

He placed the finished cup in front of Goro's usual spot. There weren't any other customers to tend to, so he propped his elbow onto the countertop and waited. The thin wisp of steam rising from the placid surface of the cup willowed in the empty air. Maybe if Akira stared at it long enough, Goro's tired face would appear behind it.

Minutes passed by, maybe forming an hour, who was to say. The coffee wasn't hot anymore. Akira turned his head to face the entrance. His neck ached and popped a little; perhaps he shouldn't have spent so long leaning like that. Shadows danced outside the glass windows, but no silhouette held any familiarity. Akira unpocketed his phone to see if Goro had messaged him at all. He tended to be quite punctual, even at his own expense. This was...weird to say the least.

"Hey, Boss?" Akira said, "What's Futaba doing right now?"

Sojiro sighed, "I'll send her over."

The green and orange ball of energy that was his surrogate little sister zipped through the entrance and perched on an empty booth table with her laptop. The keys clicked rhythmically under her flying fingers, like a pianist dragging his hands down all the keys in one swift stroke. Futaba leaned in to the screen and her glasses slid down her nose. She didn't stop typing as she pushed them back up. Akira had no idea what on earth she could possibly be doing.

"What on earth are you doing?" he asked.

Futaba's tongue stuck just slightly out of her mouth as she worked. "I still have some of the data saved from when we bugged Akechi's phone back in October. All I need to do to find his address is to find a commonality in his GPS data," Futaba explained. "Of course that means sorting through all the seedy phone calls and trips to Leblanc first. Maybe I should've organized this all a bit better..." She bit her lip.

A cartoony chime blared a bit too loud from her computer's tiny speakers and she jumped six feet in the air. Akira chuckled at her antics, "Did you program your computer to make video game achievement noises when you get a hit on something?"

"Duh. Because I'm awesome," she responded. Akira's phone pinged. "Here's the address, you stalker."

"You're the one who has his GPS data, not me."

"He was plotting to murder you. I think I'm justified," Futaba said in a way that indicated she was very much questioning his decision to go to the house of someone who plotted to murder him. That was fair.

"You're the best." Akira ruffled her hair, to which she very adamantly protested, and embarked on the quest to find his would-be murderer. Which sounded like a mission fueled by revenge on paper, instead of checking on someone with a pesky tendency to be very-much-not okay and not tell anyone about it.

Akira didn't know where he expected Goro to live. Somehow the blatantly plain apartment complex his GPS led him to was both underwhelming and surprising. The muted whites went with neither 777's flamboyant fuschias or Goro's cozy caramels.

His destination was at the end of the hall on the top floor, an isolated island even among the rows of identical doors. Every other apartment had a doormat or some simple decor on the door to set it apart. Goro's had none. He was home, the lack of doormat allowed Akira to see the yellow light seep through the sliver under the door. Akira softly knocked the hardwood with his knuckles in an attempt not to startle the antsy detective inside.

That didn't quite work, but the little yelp he heard inside was both bizarrely adorable and confirmed that Goro heard him. Through the thin walls, Akira heard rustling paper and the quiet footsteps of Goro stumbling to answer the door. The locking mechanism clicked and Goro opened it only enough for his body to just fit through.

"Akira!" he exclaimed, voice cracking on the second syllable. This Goro looked like he was from an alternate dimension. His usual sweater vest, button-up, khakis combo remained, but the top two buttons were undone. His hair was pulled into what could best be described as a knot on top of his head, loose pieces falling into his face and framing his cheeks. But perhaps strangest of all was the pair of wide framed glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. They kind of fit him though, the piece no one knew was missing from his nerdy grandpa aesthetic.

"You wear glasses?" Akira asked dumbly as if the evidence wasn't right in front of him. The tips of Goro's ears flushed pink and he tucked the glasses into his neck of his sweater vest. Removing them revealed a sprinkling of freckles Akira had also never seen before. If not for the clothes, Akira would've second-guessed if this was the right address. Just when he thought he was starting to learn everything about Goro Akechi, the brunette accidentally broke his nose with a curveball.

"What do you want," Goro mumbled.

"To see you. I got kinda worried when you didn't show up to Leblanc." Behind Goro's shoulder, Akira could make out a tiny table covered in haphazardly tossed bits of paper. Reject cranes. "Were you trying to make me something?"

Goro glanced behind himself and sighed. He didn't reply, just spun around and approached his workspace, leaving the door open for Akira to follow him. Akira did so, making sure to lock it shut. The table only had two chairs, the one Goro didn't slide into was caked in a layer of dust, along with a few cranes that got pushed away. Akira tried not to make a big deal out of wiping it off before he sat down. Goro wasn't paying attention to him anyway, his fingers plucked at the keys of his laptop at a snail's pace compared to Futaba. Though, part of that may have been due to his refusal to put his glasses on with a witness present. His red eyes squinted trying to decode the blurred text he was reading. Akira scooted the chair over so that he was next to Goro instead of opposite him. The black gloves signature to Goro's look rested next to the computer, but his hands still weren't bare. Instead, he wore the cheapest fingerless gloves Akira had ever seen. There had to be a reason for that.

"Why do you wear gloves indoors?" Akira inquired.

Goro closed his computer. "Are you just going to sit here asking me questions."

"Well," Akira replied, "in my defense, in the past minute you've given me a lot to ask about. Unless you'd rather I skip to the elephant in the room and make you tell me about the cranes." That caught him off guard. Akira couldn't help but think he would've looked even cuter with his big eyes framed by his glasses. Goro uncrossed his legs and turned to directly face Akira.

"Yes, I need glasses," Goro began through his teeth. "I hate them so I wear contacts instead. Next."

"Why do you hate them."

"They look bad."

"I disagree. I think you're cute."

Goro scoffed. "Inconsequential. Next."

"Your gloves." Akira rested one of his own hands on the table, a queen on a chessboard where all the pieces were made of paper. Far away enough to not pose an immediate threat, but close enough that he could take Goro's black-clad king in only a few moves. "You wear them even in summer. I don't think it's just a fashion statement, especially if you wear those budget Halloween biker gloves inside."

"I usually don't, I just needed to fold-" Goro cut himself off and shook his head. "You don't want another one of my sob stories. I’ve burdened you enough with my past as is. Just ask about the fucking cranes already."

Before he could stop to think about it, Akira pressed, "Goro, I want to get to know you better, even if that means hearing all your 'sob stories.'" He inched his hand closer to Goro's. "I almost lost the chance to. Twice."

Goro bit his lip and decided he would rather count all the threads in his socks than be emotionally available. Akira didn’t know what his lack of surprise said about both of them when Goro actually started doing it. He didn’t even have interesting socks like all the goofy ones Akira had from Ryuji or the argyle ones Goro occasionally sported himself. Each black stitch was indiscernible from all its neighbors, a blank void with no meaning or personality. His covered feet were dual pawns working as a barrier to protect the king resting on the table.

Akira reached out and took it. “Goro, please.” The hand he cradled trembled like a single leaf caught in a storm. Behind Goro’s downturned eyes were raging winds and a constant downpour. Akira wished Goro would let him stand in the rain with him, ready to pull the detective out if the storm became a flood. Or at least offer an umbrella.

The voice that came from Goro’s barely parted lips was soft enough to get lost in the breeze. “When my mother died,” he began, those four words enough to snuff out any anger Akira had directed towards his hesitance, “I was the one who found her. I was too foolish to realize what was happening-”

There was that typical self-centered self-deprecation, even as he recalled probably the worst day of his life. “You weren’t foolish, you were what, nine? Ten?”

“Do you want me to finish or not, because I’ll gladly stop!” Goro snapped. The fingernails on his shaky hand dug into Akira’s skin. Akira murmured a quick apology. Goro softened his grip and put his glasses back on before he resumed. Akira knew why. The light glinting off the lenses hid the puddles forming in the corners of his eyes. “I didn’t know what was going on so I attempted to wake her. When I looked down at my hands they were red. Since then I simply haven’t been able to break the association, though I suppose obtaining a body count didn’t help.” His laugh was like the crunch of dead leaves being trampled under rows of hiking boots.

Akira looked at their hands, thin fingers threaded together, one digit of pale skin after each of dark fabric. They made a pattern. “I’m not sure how to respond to that,” Akira admitted, “because I know you’ll take anything I say as pity, and you’ll think I think you’re weak, even if none of that is true.” Akira reached out for his other hand and squeezed them both gently. “You’re the strongest person I know. You always find a way to adapt when the whole world wants you to fail. You don’t like looking at your hands but you still persisted and used them to make me all these paper cranes. That’s really sweet of you.”

One of the thieves— Akira couldn't remember who now, as much as he loved them— said Akechi was like a robot trying to blend in with all the real humans. Which was a terribly mean thing to say, though given the tense circumstances around the casino heist Akira couldn’t really blame them for their resentment. That didn’t mean he approved of it though, he often wondered if Goro might have reconsidered his plans if he’d been offered companionship by more people than just Akira. Regardless, once the idea had wormed its way into Akira’s head, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He swore someone must’ve forgotten to code in the ability to recognize compliments, every time Joker commented on Crow’s performance in battle or his wit in the puzzles, Goro blue screened behind his red tengu mask. His programming had an even bigger gap when someone put in the command that he was good in any way. Akira recalled Sumire thanking Crow-senpai (a nickname which in itself indicated that he was someone she looked up to and respected) for his concern for their well being and him immediately clamoring to backpedal, vehemently denying any care for them outside of the mission objective.

Granted, this was all an incredibly rudimentary way to explain what Akira knew was childhood neglect and abandonment issues. Akira could see the loading screen even behind Goro's glasses. Astonishing how quickly he could turn anything into a mask, but this was one Akira knew well. Beneath the mask was a notification being spammed until Akira could read it right off of his lips. I don’t deserve this.

“You know, with all the rejects here, I think you’ve probably folded a thousand,” Akira observed. The embarrassment pulled Goro out of his own head. With his hair up, Akira could see the tips of his ears turn pink. Some of the cranes were almost the same color. “Does that mean you have a wish or me?”

Goro tilted his head to the side and scrunched his nose up like a rabbit. That made Akira want to kiss it. “What do you mean. You have the wish. The cranes are for you.”

Ah, so that’s how to get Goro to admit to doing an act of charity, try to imply that it benefits him so he can deny. “But you folded them. The legend says the wish is a reward for having the patience to fold a thousand cranes.”

Goro huffed and probably would’ve crossed his arms if Akira wasn’t still holding his hands. “Well, my wish is for you to have my wish. There, you happy? Now make a wish.”

“You already know my wish.”

Goro’s face screwed up even more as if he’d just swallowed a lemon. “No, I don’t.”

“Should I text Maruki then? I’m sure he could tell you,” Akira offered.

“Why do you still have that man’s number after-...?” It clicked. Memories of a cold February night and dimmed lights. The looming threat of the next day’s trial. One previously omitted detail shaking Akira’s resolve until his mighty fortress crumbled into sand at the touch. Goro slapping it together again with the same wet cement that constructed his own steep walls, shooting down any insistence Akira had that his life was worth something. So stuck in his old ways that he couldn’t comprehend why his death might bother anyone. Akira snapping and yelling at him, perhaps for the first time ever. Not even when they dueled had Akira ever gone so far as to raise his voice and shout in anguish, while Goro screamed himself hoarse.

This isn’t trivial.

“Oh.”

“You’re the one who gave me a wish. So…” Akira locked eyes with Goro. “My wish is to be with you. The real you, whoever he may be. Can you let it come true?”

Goro bit his lip. Then he exhaled, tension falling out of his shoulders. “I suppose I owe it to you to try. Don’t expect too much though, you’ll only be disappointed.”

“I don’t think so. You’ve never failed to go above my expectations before,” Akira replied. He wanted to kiss him. Watching Goro’s perfect teeth worry at his slightly chapped lips just filled Akira with the urge to bombard Goro with all his affection.

But he could be patient. He waited so long for a chance to spend time together, no strings attached or looming threats. If hand-holding was Goro’s comfort level, he could live with that. Akira squeezed his hands tighter and brought one up to his mouth to press a kiss to the covered knuckles.

“Now, how about we start with that coffee date?”