Akira awoke without any throbbing headache, obviously thanks to whatever prescription Takemi made him swallow. The bottle wasn't even labelled, but he knew more than to doubt the doctor he came to call a friend. In the meantime, Morgana slept peacefully next to his pillow, his body rising and falling as he purred comfortably, a sight that put a smile on Akira's lips and made him momentarily forgot about the ache in his bones.
He opened the blinds behind him and let the morning sun stream into the room. It still stung a little when he moved, particularly his chest and stomach where he received most of his blows. As much as he would love to go to school and see Ryuji's silly mug again, it was probably wiser if he didn't. He was extremely lucky that he didn't encounter Sojiro last night and managed to slip to the attic unnoticed. He didn't even know where to begin if his guardian asked him where the hell those bruises came from. What a shame that injuries suffered in real life could not be healed in the metaverse, no matter how minor they are.
Well, if they could, Akira might want to consider quitting school and opening a shady hospital instead, maybe next to Untouchable for the extra creepy factor. He had to admit, that didn't sound too bad!
"Hey, kid! Some cops are here for you."
"Uh-oh," Akira murmured quietly as Morgana stretched his feline body and yawned. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire." He sighed before standing up and then proceeded to walk down the stairs where he saw Sojiro waiting for him. The bearded man raised his eyebrows when he saw Akira's purple eyes and swollen cheeks.
"What the hell—" He seemed at a loss for words, but before he could say anything else, the two detectives behind him tapped him on the shoulder.
"It's okay, Sakura-san. We just need his testimony regarding his kidnapping yesterday morning."
"Kidnapping?" Sojiro widened his eyes and crossed his arms, obviously surprised. Thankfully, he didn't interrogate Akira any further. Instead, he moved to the side to give the teen some space.
"Over here, Kurusu." One of the men near the door beckoned him to come closer and Akira complied without any protests.
"Uhm," He started as he scooped Morgana up from the floor. "Can I take this little guy with me? He was also a witness, maybe you can get him to testify too."
"Akira, what the heck?" Morgana cracked up at the sass.
"He said yes," Akira said flatly, his voice so monotone that it would've come out as serious had he not finish with a small grin. The detectives rolled their eyes at the cheeky comment but didn't say anything else. All of them walked out of Leblanc and hopped into a black car parked just outside.
The questioning was thankfully quite brief. He expected to be there for at least two hours, but they decided to let him go, no doubt thanks to the apparent injuries that he sustained. They even had a medical representative there to draw his blood and determine what kind of drug they injected the victim with. Oh, and also the calling card. Akira was tempted to steal it and frame it in his room when they weren't looking, but decided otherwise. That would just bring him a world of problem.
It was clear that the officers wanted to keep Akira there a bit longer to ensure that he wasn't the mastermind behind Kaneshiro's actions, most likely because of his false criminal record. Thankfully, there was nothing that could point to him as a perpetrator, so he was promptly let go.
As he walked home from the police station through Shibuya with his hands in his pockets, he saw the news regarding Kaneshiro on the screen.
"Now, for breaking news. Junya Kaneshiro has been arrested this afternoon with the charge of drug trafficking through minors, disruption of local businesses through forged documents and money, and the kidnapping and abuse of a student whose identity will not be disclosed. The man who will be facing trial has confessed all of his crimes to the police last evening, now, Kubota-san, do you think that this is yet another handiwork of the Phantom Thieves?"
Akira pushed his glasses with his fingers as he gave Morgana a discreet high-five at the job well done. With satisfied smirks, they retreated into the train station and towards Leblanc.
When Akira pushed the door open with a jingle, he immediately noticed a customer sitting on one of the stools, a steaming mug of hot black coffee in front of him along with a plate of half-eaten curry croquette.
"Iwai-san?" Akira blinked, taking the man's attention as he turned to face the teen with a troubled expression. He was exhausted if those bags under his eyes were anything to go by. He had abandoned his hat and ear protectors once again, leaving his silver hair on full display.
Akira was about to walk past him, but he stopped short when the man dug his hand into his pocket to retrieve an object, then slid it along the counter towards Akira who could only look at his phone with absolute confusion, wonder and amazement that soon turned into a loud sigh as he took the object and smacked Iwai on the shoulder, all semblance of intimidation disappeared just like that.
"You're an ass, you know that?" He grunted, not noticing the confused look that Sojiro employed.
"Hey, ow, okay, I deserve that." The gun dealer groaned at the pain that shot through his body. All of his bruises might have disappeared without a scar, but it didn't mean that the pain wasn't there. He was damn sore.
"Come upstairs when you're done." Muttered Akira while giving a nod towards Sojiro who shrugged and continued cleaning the cutleries in his hands.
"Woah, you actually hit him, Akira!" Morgana laughed at the unexpected reaction.
"Not hard enough," The teen growled as he threw himself onto the bed with a sigh. Iwai still terrified him, but now he knew the truth, he could finally relax around him. "So, Ox is really..."
"Yeah, I was really surprised," The cat added. "Well, you'll get the full recount of the event when he comes up here, so just wait a bit longer." Not long after he said it, they heard footsteps on the creaky stairs, and soon enough, Iwai was there, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Sorry to keep it a secret, I just didn't know how to—"
"You're a coward," Akira scoffed as he leaned back on the bed with both of his hands propping him up. "If you regret having sex with me that much, you can just say it to my face."
"That's not—" Iwai exhaled, then ran his hands along his wiry hair, all while ignoring Morgana's scandalised expression. "Look, that's beside the point. Are you... are you okay, kid?"
"I got beaten up black and blue, dragged to the police station but aside from that, I'm absolutely cheery." Akira hissed, his expression contorted as evidence that he was indeed, annoyed.
As if to calm him down, Morgana placed a paw on Akira's hand and shook his head. "Akira, don't be too harsh on him, he did save you, after all."
Akira rubbed his temple with his palm before nodding, knowing that Morgana was talking sense. "Thanks. How did you know I was in trouble and if the treasure was going to manifest at all?"
"Morgana texted me. Just 'help', that's it. I didn't know what else there is to do without wasting precious time, so I went blindly into the palace."
"And I did too because I couldn't wait around for Iwai's response and do nothing," Morgana added. "I knew someone else was there, but I didn't realise that Ox already cleared a path towards the treasure and was fighting Kaneshiro."
"Yeah, I did that the day before you got kidnapped. I thought I owe you an apology, so I wanted to help. Somehow."
"By yourself?" Akira raised one of his eyebrows in disbelief. Even with Morgana, he would've struggled through, but to think that Iwai managed to accomplish that, well, it was unreal and only served as hard proof of the man's abilities. At the shrug that he received, Akira nodded. "Impressive work."
"That's the least I can do," Iwai smiled, obviously a little proud at the compliment from the leader of the Phantom Thieves. "And apparently Kaneshiro's behind the dramas in Shibuya too, huh? I knew that there was someone else besides my target."
Akira recalled the news report and crossed his arms in understanding. "He had forged documents against Untouchable?"
"Yeah, threatened me to pay up or risk getting sued. Breaking into his underling's place was no big deal but then you had the guts to withhold those keys to the documents from me. You almost cost me my business, y'know?" The man laughed at the memory.
"So that's why we could enter his palace. You were his customer," Akira gave Iwai a grin after knowing that they hit two birds with one stone, seeing how the two cases were related. "Tell me, then. Why did you keep your identity a secret? Did you enjoy seeing me being a nervous wreck in front of you that much?"
"I didn't know what to say. I mean, I took advantage of you in my moment of weakness. I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry. Besides, you were starting to warm up to me, so I didn't want to break the news like that."
"I was the one who forced your hands and correct me if I'm wrong but," The teen grinned as he pulled his legs up to the bed and rested an arm on his knee. "You enjoyed it, didn't you?" Had they been in the metaverse, he would've done a bit more. Maybe approach Iwai and press their hips together, but it was like his restraints chained him down. Not to mention that he had been terrified of the man before his secrets were laid bare. There was still something on the back of his mind that tried to convince him that he was going to get himself killed if he tried anything.
Akira knew that wasn't the case, though. Iwai was Ox, and if they didn't have a split personality, he was perfectly safe to do anything he wanted and would get away with it too. Now that he looked at it, he wondered how he missed it. They moved in the exact same manner, talked in the same pitch with the same mix of warmth and distance and exuded the same aura that would push strangers away, but drew those he cared about closer.
Why he wondered. Oh, probably because of all he ever focused on when it came to Iwai was his boots.
"That's not the point here, kid," Iwai shook his head as he leaned against the table in the other corner of the room. "It's just, I should've been a more responsible adult and not defile you that way."
"Responsible adult, huh?" Akira murmured softly. The darkness in his tone took Iwai completely by surprise that he failed to say anything despite wanting to know what he meant by that. "Well, anyway," The teen inhaled, this time a smile bloomed on his lips as he looked at Iwai. "I've seen what you can do, Ox. You've got a good heart and you were willing to take care of a stranger, even fight for him. I believe that the Phantom Thieves can benefit from someone like that."
Iwai scoffed. "You're no stranger, kid. I could really care less about those who I'm not involved with. You don't know anything about me."
"Perhaps that's right," Akira admitted. Iwai was spot on and he wasn't about to refute the statement. "Just as I don't know anything about you, you also don't know me, but that didn't stop you from trying to correct the wrong you thought you did," Finding the strength to stand up, Akira approached Iwai and stood an arm's length away from him. "Taking responsibilities for your mistakes is not something that everyone can do, much less admit their errors; not even adults who are supposed to teach us everything about it."
Iwai held his breath as Akira slowly drew closer. There was an edge to his voice that sent a shiver down Iwai's spine. He had been through a lot, he could tell. Why else would he desperately fight for his own justice, otherwise?
"Don't get me wrong, Ox. I'm not blaming you for anything. This wasn't your business, to begin with, but you helped us plenty, and for that, you have my gratitude," Akira gave Iwai a smile. "And I'd understand if you refuse my offer."
There it was, yet another mask of Akira that he discovered at the most random of time. Although he was acting authoritative, there was a certain vulnerability in his voice, a silent cry for help that Iwai didn't know how to react to, or where it originated from.
"Sheesh," Iwai laughed as he shifted his lollipop from left to right. "Fine, I'll join you guys. Who knows what kind of deep shit you two are gonna stick your noses into next."
There was a glimmer in Akira's eyes that soon was obscured by his bangs as he chuckled, half-purring. "Oh yeah, I do need an alpha male to take control of my impulses and spank me when I get out of line." That was the cue for Morgana to jump off the bed and ran off down the stairs as quickly as his little feet could take him.
"You two are gross!" Was the last thing he said before he disappeared downstairs.
"Are you gonna do that, daddy?"
"Hey, now," Iwai cleared his throat when he realised that he had been backed into a corner by someone who, until a few days ago, couldn't look him straight in the eyes without pissing himself. "Come on, kid. Don't do that."
Instead of pressing any further like Iwai half-expected the teen to, he merely laughed and took a step back. "Okay, let's have a celebration, then, to welcome you to the Phantom Thieves. What was Kaneshiro's treasure, by the way?"
"A gold briefcase. It's worth a lot, I can tell you that."
"Oh great, that means you can pay for our sushi. Come on, let's go!" Akira all but grabbed Iwai's wrist and dragged him down the stairs where Sojiro eyed the pair questioningly. The teen quickly withdrew his hand as a result. "Uh, we're heading to Ginza."
"What for? You should rest up." The older man said as he eyed Iwai up and down. However, it seemed that after the many times Akira called for Kawakami, he seemed to understand that the boy he was in charge of had many peculiar friends.
"Don't worry, I'll take care of him," Said Iwai as he placed money on the counter. Akira quickly said his goodbye and scuttled out of the door with Morgana. "He's way stronger than he looks. Thanks for the coffee, it was great."
"Woah," Setting down the chopsticks, Iwai murmured. "Damn, the support for the Phantom Thieves just skyrocketed."
"Did it?" Akira hummed in contentment next to Iwai who was busy scrolling through his phone, then placed the last piece of fatty tuna into his mouth and purred as it melted on his tongue. He would never understand people who didn't enjoy sushi. This is the food of the god. "Are you second-guessing your decision now? Being in the spotlight isn't easy."
"Hah! And what 'bout you? You don't give a rat's ass about fame." Iwai rolled his eyes in response. Morgana's head was poking out of the bag, wolfing down the pieces of fish that Akira offered when the chef was a safe distance away from them.
"Nuh," The teen shrugged in confirmation as he moved on to the next piece of the masterpiece and admired its beautiful gleam. He wasn't an artist, but it was like his inner Yusuke was out to play. "Fame's superficial. Once you fall into its grasp, you'll lose sight of yourself."
"If not for fame, what are you fighting for, then?"
Akira sucked on his chopsticks as he thought of an answer. A second later, he threw a grin at Iwai and said, "The promise of more sushi in the future?" making the man burst out laughing. "If you're expecting me to say something noble, you might as well go home now."
"Yeah," Iwai nodded with one of his elbows resting on the counter, body tilted towards Akira. "I know that you're not that stupid to think that you can change the many skewed perceptions of justice single-handedly."
"I'm fighting for myself," He said. "Everything I've done might look like it's for someone else, but ultimately, it's always been for myself. It just so happen that my goal and Morgana's align that we're travelling together."
Interest piqued, the shop owner leaned forward and observed Akira's pensive, vulnerable eyes behind his glasses.
"Kamoshida was an asshole, there's no doubting that. He hurt my friends, Ann and Ryuji, even drove Shiho to commit suicide. However, it wasn't until I was threatened with expulsion that I took action," Akira sighed, setting his chopsticks down as he rubbed his hand over Morgana's head like it brought him comfort. "And Madarame... Yes, he was abusing Yusuke's adoration of him, but I only decided to change his heart when he said that he'd report me to the authorities for snooping around his place. I have a criminal record so that trespassing would probably be enough to send me to the juvie."
"Wait, you have a record?"
"A false charge. Tried to stop harassment, maybe a potential rape attempt, hurt the perpetrator and got arrested for it." Akira shrugged. In his bag, Morgana was about to say something but held his tongue because he knew as soon as he meowed, they would be kicked out of the premise.
There was an attempt for him to look as nonchalant as he possibly could, but Iwai could see pain even when his eyes were closed. "There's more to it than an arrest." He mumbled.
"Supposed men of justice having a field day drugging and beating up innocent citizen. Ironic, huh?" Akira let out a dry laugh as he popped the last piece of sushi into his mouth and stood up before Iwai could say anything else. "I'll wait outside."
Iwai remained rooted on his seat for a few more lingering seconds, his brain now playing catch-up. Akira truly had been through that? It was hard to believe that he had been through such rough time, but now he knew, he wondered if that was what fuelled him to make his own justice even if he said that everything he did was only to exact his revenge.
When Iwai snapped out of it, he paid for the meal and walked outside where Akira was fiddling on his phone disinterestedly. The news from the local electronic store was blaring, everyone talking about the Phantom Thieves, not knowing that all of the members were standing in the vicinity.
"Why Kaneshiro, then?" Iwai muttered, and his question was met with a bewildered expression that was soon replaced with a smile.
"I just had a hunch that he's connected to the person who gave me a record. And for your information, my gut feelings are usually right. This time though, no dice," Admitted Akira as they walked towards the station. "I'm trying to get revenge, maybe give some adults a slap on the hands while I'm at it."
Once again, the older man laughed. It had been a while since he felt so free like this.
"You're the first person who didn't give me a look of pity at the mention of my past."
"The past is what makes you, you. It can be fuckin' ridiculous and people would say that one's past doesn't define 'em, but I beg to differ," Iwai threw Akira sideways glance. "I used to be a Yakuza, y'see. I awoke to my persona when I was in my teenage year and that was what pushed me to leave that life behind. Tried runnin' away for years until I admit that without 'em, I would be nothing. No life skills, no persona, definitely no airsoft guns."
There was a pause as the two cut through a bunch of people in their way to get to the nearest stairs. Akira had always had the feeling that Iwai was part of a gang of sorts, so that didn't come as a surprise.
"Don't think I'm underminin' what happened to you, though. It's pretty fucked up," He added. "But there's no use dwelling in what's already happened. I'm sure you know that."
"You're a weirdo, Iwai-san." Akira laughed, in turn, making Iwai snort.
"Look who's talkin', Mr I-only-do-this-for-myself." The two exchanged grins while Mona fell asleep in Akira's bag. They boarded the train and stood next to each other in the rather crowded Akira was in the corner between Iwai and the door. Not the best position, he soon realised. Because whenever he inhaled, he could smell traces of Iwai's cologne mixed with sweets. And when the side of his face bumped against Iwai's chest when the train made an abrupt movement, he swallowed.
Akira glanced at the man's face to admire his sideburns, long jaw, rough stubbles and sharp eyes that were cast outside the glass pane behind Akira. So this was Iwai. He regretted not daring to look at him closer all those months ago. He might seem intimidating to those who didn't know any better, but Akira could see a hint of warmth in his grey eyes. This was the man who risked his life to atone for a mistake that shouldn't even be considered such.
He didn't know what to do with himself now. All his life, he had never been the one to be saved, and to suddenly have someone willing to go to such an extent for him was... confusing.
"All that thinkin' is stressin' me out, Akira. I can smell it from here." Iwai teased, echoing what Akira had said to him a week or so ago.
Hearing his name coming out of Iwai's lips, Akira felt a sense of affection blooming inside his heart and he only managed a soft chuckle as he tilted his head down, in turn bumping his forehead against Iwai's hard chest.
Iwai didn't know what to expect, but a flustered, blushing Akira wasn't it. "Are you sure you're the same Joker who blatantly hits on strangers?" He chuckled, making Akira's cheeks burn even more.
"Well, that's... different. In the metaverse, I have my mask and... it's not as scary." He sighed, looking away, but froze when he felt Iwai's warm hand on his head.
"That's bullshit and you know it."
"Yeah," Akira choked out, this time chuckling to himself. "Half-bullshit. That's true. You look and act like the officer who beat me up when I first saw you, that's why I got a bit squeamish. Now I look at you more closely, I don't know what I was thinking. You two are obviously different."
Iwai's eyes softened when he noticed that Akira's grip on the handlebar next to him tightened. Instead of responding to his statement, the older man asked, "So you think that if you keep doing what you do, you'll find the answer you're lookin' for eventually?"
"Something like that," Akira smiled. "And you, Iwai-san? Why did you decide to humour me?"
"Hey, someone's gotta make sure you don't get yourself killed." He scoffed. They spent the rest of the trip in a comfortable silence. Iwai finally got the answer he was looking for, though he had no doubt that the surprises weren't about to end any time soon.
It had only been a week since Iwai's decision to join the Phantom Thieves and they still hadn't made a trip to the metaverse. And as far as he was concerned, Akira hadn't either. Good, the kid needed a break after all that heroics. He might claim that he was trying to save his own skin, but he also saved many others in the process. Akira was a lot kinder and sympathetic than he claimed to be.
Nothing had changed, really. Akira hadn't made a stop at Untouchable after their sushi outing, but they did keep in touch using their phones. This time, though, Akira hadn't responded in over an hour which made Iwai a little antsy. Was he in the metaverse? No, he promised to let Iwai know when he wanted to go and the kid wasn't the type to go back on his words. And there was the whole mess with Medjed that Akira said he'd ignore, for now, hoping that it would blow over.
Seriously, what was that kid doing? He sure liked living his life on the edge. If it was Iwai, he wouldn't be able to sit still sucking his thumb while someone else threatened him.
Iwai spat out the coffee that he was about to swallow right on his magazine and watched as Akira leapt over the counter with one hand as a pivot point. He landed quietly next to Iwai, and the man reflexively pulled back his feet that had been slouched on the counter for the past couple of hours. He then swivelled on his chair to face the unexpected guest.
"Can't you just walk around the counter like a normal hu—oof," He grunted when Akira dropped on his lap and rounded his arms around his neck. If the teen had a tail, it must be wagging left and right by now. "What are you doing?"
"Sitting," Said Akira lazily, breaking the hold only to grab his phone and stole the lollipop dangling off the corner of Iwai's lips, ignoring the older man's protests. Once he did that, he returned to his original position and started scrolling away.
"There's a stool right there. And a sealed lollipop just in the drawer." Iwai grumbled, one hand pressing Akira's shoulder in an attempt to push him away.
"What's the fun in that? I'm a thief, I take things." Akira hummed as he typed a reply on the group chat between him, Ryuji, Yusuke and Makoto.
Knowing when to admit defeat, Iwai just sighed and dropped the drenched magazine on the floor. Didn't seem like Akira was going to budge any time soon. He just hoped that no customers would be coming in to see a high-schooler perched on his lap.
"So, what're you gonna do about Medjed?" Asked Iwai, his voice fuelled with curiosity. He might be a part of the Phantom Thieves now, but Akira seemed content to be as enigmatic as ever, never sharing his thoughts and schemes unless asked.
"Nothing. They're not attacking us directly." Muttered Akira lazily, his feet by Iwai's sides now swinging back and forth like he had made himself right at home.
"I knew you'd say that," Iwai sighed. "Can you get off? What would people say if they walk in and see you like this?"
"They'll be jealous."
"What if it's someone from your school? Gossip spreads quickly, y'know."
"They'll still be jealous," Akira snorted. "Besides, it's not like I haven't been labelled already."
"You're impossible. Do you act like this with everyone?"
That was enough to make Akira pull back and frown at Iwai. "I'm hurt that you'd think that."
Shaking his head, Iwai lifted his hand and landed a flick on Akira's forehead, making the younger male flinch. "Don't even try to guilt trip me, kid."
"Hah, you got me," The curly-haired teen chuckled before he leaned in to steal a kiss only to have Iwai move his head to the side. "Come on, you're acting like we haven't had sex already."
"That was..." Iwai closed his eyes. "...different, okay?"
"What? You'll only have sex with me if I'm Joker?"
"I didn't say—hold on!" Iwai yelped when his surroundings suddenly became distorted and he fell on his rear against the hard and cold concrete of the metaverse. "Hey, wait, I've got a shop to mind!"
His complaints died in his throat when a pair of gloved hands rubbed the back of his neck, sending a tingle down his spine. This didn't help Iwai's already weak resolve to not taint Akira in this manner, especially when his damn persona refused to materialise as a visor.
"Ah, youth." He heard Hakutaku whispered in his head with a low chuckle before it went completely silent, leaving Akira to completely devour Iwai's lips in that intoxicating, masterful kiss that made Iwai's head spin.
Pulling away, Joker smirked and darted his tongue across his lips, his hands now gliding along Iwai's waist before he tore the velcro that secured the bulletproof vest in place with a lout zzt. "Can we now, Mune?"
Iwai was silent for a few seconds as Akira continued undoing his vest, all while looking into his eyes. He felt all of his restraints snapping one by one under the intense gaze. The last flimsy string then was completely cut when he saw Akira pulling out his gun and taking a blind shot at the shadow that started to creep towards them just on the left.
He inhaled sharply at the sight.
"...Fine. Make it quick."