Coming out of the Metaverse is never as easy as coming out of a dream. The world of cognition grants them power in the way of thrumming energy, grants them abilities that do not carry over to reality; Goro can hold his own in a bare-handed fight well enough, punching and scratching and aiming for groin and eyes with a viciousness he knows no one suspects of him, but he cannot pull off the elegance or inhuman strength necessary to defeat Shadows. He knows without needing to ask that neither do Sakamoto or Okumura. Or any of the other, except maybe Niijima.
He wonders, sometimes, whether Kurusu does. He wonders what Kurusu would look like, sweat dripping from his face and blood spilling out of his split knuckles, under the light of day. The Metaverse doesn’t approximate it well enough.
Coming out of a Palace, not simply the never-ending haze in which he usually finds his targets, is a whole new sort of pain.
He’s too sore to manage more than a walk. He’s too sore to lift his bag. He does it anyway, his back straight despite the aches, watching as the others slump and stumble under the weight of real-world gravity.
“Fuck,” Sakomoto expels, never one to miss an occasion to be crass, “I’m fucking beat. Why the hell is a casino so hard to run through?”
Takamaki engages him with a retort that Goro doesn’t listen to. He’s watching Niijima from the corner of his eyes—she’s standing behind Sakura Futaba, as exhausted as the rest of them but carrying it with more grace than most. She is pale, though. Visiting a loved one’s psyche, warped as it is beyond recognition, would do that to a person.
Kurusu is looking at her too; in the second that follows his eyes catch Goro’s, looking knowing and looking not, and Goro turns his head away.
He still feels the weight of the saber on his arm and shoulder. He shakes it by closing his hand into a fist briefly, masking a wince as pain flares up his arm. He’ll be sore in the morning.
There’s an awkward shiver in the air around him. He knows it stems from the fact that his face is unmasked now, that his teammates neither know nor trust him, not after a single day. He can feel them staring at him while he takes his phone out of his pocket and scrolls mindlessly through messages. It doesn’t seem to matter to most of them that he allowed Kurusu to involve him in every fight without protest, not even as their leader purposefully gave the others rest by making them switch from time to time.
He doesn’t complain. Kurusu was part of every fight too, after all. And Goro always knew it would take more than a day to secure a semblance of trust.
“Good thinking with that last one, Sakamoto,” he says amiably, once he’s looked up from the cover of his phone.
It gives the other boy a startle that Goro finds more amusing than pitiful for once. “Thanks,” Sakamoto replies after a second. His reluctance is almost enough to make Goro smile. “You too. You know.”
It drags images to Goro’s mind that he would much rather forget, but at least Sakamoto relaxes a little. The others do as well. None of them bring up what he did, but then, it must not be something they find weird, even from him.
They’re used to having each other’s backs.
“I think I’ll head straight home,” Niijima says in a faint voice. “I’ll—make sure Sis doesn’t suspect anything.”
“Good night, Ann,” she cuts in. “And everyone.”
She parts from them with a curt nod. Takamaki looks pained, but she doesn’t insist.
“This sucks,” Sakura lets out from her crouch on the ground. “Makoto’s not gonna let us talk to her, is she.”
Takamaki’s lips thin before she answers. “She’s just… got a lot on her plate. We should leave her alone for now.”
“It seems rather foolish. Sharing with us would lighten her burden.”
“Yeah, Inari, you’re a real expert at emotional stability.”
It’s interesting, Goro thinks, to get to visualize the dynamics within the group unfold like this. He hadn’t bothered to think of the Phantom Thieves as individuals beyond knowing Niijima through Sae and Sakura through her mother. Kurusu is different. His position as leader makes him Goro’s target for once; and Goro had met him first before knowing, had exchanged words and looks and not once felt as though the one standing before him was less than frightfully human.
Sakura and Kitagawa bicker with an energy that comes and dissipates in a blink of the eyes, no matter how hurtful their words. Sakamoto and Takamaki argue almost every minute. So do Sakamoto and Morgana. And Sakamoto and everyone, really, except Kurusu.
No one seems to have a relation of opposition with Kurusu.
Except me, Goro thinks—and when he flicks a glance to Kurusu again, he finds him looking back.
In light of how the evening went, he wonders if that still holds true for Kurusu. He surprises himself with how much he wants it to be. Goro doesn’t look away from Kurusu’s eyes until he feels his phone buzz in his pocket.
Take care of this tonight, the unknown number tells him.
There is the picture of a man attached to the message. Youthful and bright and surrounded by wife and child.
Goro inhales slowly from his nose as he snaps the case of his phone shut. He forces himself out of the stillness that has tightened the line of his shoulders and in which the strap of his bag digs like a blade. Then he lifts his head to address the group and says, “I should go as well.”
“We should all go home,” Okumura agrees readily. He barely has the strength to mimic the politeness of looking at her, and she smiles at him a little awkwardly, one side of her mouth lifted higher than the other. “We probably shouldn’t go in for so long next time—right, leader?”
“Right,” Kurusu replies evenly.
It could be mocking just as it could be sincere, but Okumura beams either way.
Goro can feel the weight of the others’ looks as he turns his back and walks away. The need not to leave himself exposed like this runs under his skin and sets each of his nerves alight, but he forces it down, paces himself into the most nondescript walk he can achieve, and turns around the corner of the courthouse with his breath caught between his teeth.
He opens the message again—the picture fits itself into the shape already imprinted in his eyes. This time he reads the rest of the instructions carefully, pushing away the inevitable crawl of exhaustion up his back and down his throat.
He’s not getting any sleep tonight.
He’s in the process of deleting the message when someone says, “Akechi,” behind his back.
Goro’s left hand has gone weak from hours of grasping a sword, no matter that the sword is light as a feather from lack of an actual blade; his fingers feel blistered, swollen and slow, and the phone slips from between them in the immediate surprise. Numbness stills him until the time it reaches the ground. Then a jump, a flash of panic at the sound it makes—a phone is an expensive thing to replace no matter how well off he is now, and replacing it would mean potentially replacing the numerous disguised contacts in it that are in fact Shido and his associates—
“Sorry,” Kurusu says, walking around him.
“It’s nothing,” Goro replies out of habit.
Kurusu isn’t looking at him. He crouches in front of him, and Goro stares in silence at the top of his head, at the dampness in his hair from the exertion of the day. He only realizes what is happening once Kurusu’s hand is on his phone.
For a second he can do nothing but stand and look, his tongue drying in his mouth, apprehension gripping him by the chest.
Kurusu turns the device around in his palm until the screen faces up. The past few seconds have felt like eternity, but they were not enough for it to turn itself off; and Goro is almost too tense to look down and check, but he does. He has to.
The message is deleted. Only an empty conversation sits under Kurusu’s watchful eyes.
“I’m really sorry,” Kurusu says again. He folds the case back around the phone and hands it over with a small smile. “At least it looks like it’s working okay. Not even a scratch.”
“They did sell it to me as one of their most solid models,” Goro replies, taking it.
“You’ll have to give me the reference, I’ve broken two this year already.”
The numbness in Goro’s fingers isn’t enough to mask the feeling of Kurusu’s own, dry and warm against his knuckles. He took his gloves off earlier when they fell back into reality, because he had felt overheated in them. Kurusu lets go after barely a second.
Goro clears his throat. He slips the phone into his pocket. “Did you need something?” he asks, shifting on his feet to face Kurusu fully. “This isn’t your way home.”
“It’s not. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Couldn’t you do it in front of the others?”
Kurusu’s smile turns amused. “No,” he answers.
For all that Kurusu’s forehead is constantly brushed by soft, messy hair, for all that his eyes are hidden behind useless glasses, he never shies away from looking someone in the eye. His scrutiny feels to Goro like being watched by a cat’s gleaming eyes. It feels a lot like wanting to broaden his shoulders and brace his strength.
It feels like a challenge.
“I wanted to thank you,” Kurusu says, his words slow and his eyes unfaltering, unblinking, as they peer into Goro’s. “For earlier.”
“You could’ve done it in front of the others,” Goro says again.
“I didn’t think you would want me to.”
He can feel his smile faltering, can feel himself strengthen it in place through the rush of adrenaline that shakes him then.
Earlier, Joker made a mistake. The attack he attempted to land on an enemy missed and made him fumble, breaking him out of poise for the barest second; and Goro had jumped forward to tug him out of harm’s way with his hands, taking a glancing blow to his shoulder in the process, with no thought at all. His body had moved on its own. Joker had turned to look at him with wide eyes, still caught in that moment of inelegance that had made him looking nothing at all like a thief and made Goro feel very far from what he truly was.
Sakamoto had broken the hazy quality of the moment by rushing out of turn to punch the Shadow through the guts.
“It can’t be the first time this happens to you,” Goro says. He adds, quickly: “All of you. I’m pretty sure I saw Kitagawa drag Futaba-chan into hiding while she was too busy looking at numbers to look around.”
“She does get distracted.”
“I can’t fault her at all. Her skillset is dreadfully convenient.”
Kurusu’s grin is sudden and feral. “The others and I’ve had some time to get used to each other,” he says. “I can’t say the same about you and I.”
You and I. He voices it so easily, as if the words weigh nothing at all.
“It was nothing,” Goro manages. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt.”
Kurusu drags a hand out of his pocket and extends it between them, crossing the distance too fast, or too slow, for Goro to do anything. He doesn’t move at all when it touches the strap of the bag pressed into his aching shoulder, right above his collarbone.
“How’s your shoulder?” he asks.
Goro unsticks his voice from the hollow of his throat. “Fine,” he says. “Injuries don’t cross over into reality, right?”
“Not injuries, no,” Kurusu replies lowly. “But fatigue does.”
“I can definitely feel that.”
The humor in his tone is weak. He feels as though something in him is shaking, right below his chest, warm to the point of queasiness; he shifts on his feet again, catches himself before he takes an actual step backward.
Kurusu lets go of his shoulder. “I have something that can help, if you want.”
He doesn’t wait for Goro to answer. His hand is busy with his bag, now, though the weight of it lingers on him like glass pressed onto paper. Goro watches him drag a thin vial full of blue liquid out of an inner pocket of the bag, through what he gathers to be a mess of school things and other, less legal items. He gives it to Goro without a word.
“What is it?” Goro asks.
“Medicine. The one I use in the Metaverse.”
Goro glances at him with, he hopes, no visible wariness. “It doesn’t look like this in the Metaverse,” he says carefully.
“Cognition’s tricky like this.”
“Kurusu, this looks like poison.”
Kurusu’s laughter is a rarely-heard thing outside of the thrill of battle. There it is driven, weaponized, something that runs up Goro’s back and makes him swallow back shivers; here it is a rumble that makes the air between them sizzle with unspent energy, that makes Goro’s face flush with blood.
“The doctor I get them it is a bit of a tough love kind of person, but she wouldn’t poison me,” Kurusu says, making no comment of his blush at all. “Here.”
He flicks the stopper off with his thumb and takes a sip. The vial is tiny enough that half of its content is drained in a single go, but Goro isn’t looking at it anymore.
He’s looking at the lopsided turn of Kurusu’s lips when he grimaces from the taste, and he’s still warm from hearing him laugh, still shaking through all of himself without allowing it to show.
This time, when Kurusu places the vial in Goro’s hand, he doesn’t let go.
“It feels awful going down,” he says. His fingers are wrapped around Goro’s closed hand, the pad of his thumb at the heel of Goro’s palm. “But you’ll feel better after drinking it.”
“Thank you,” Goro says numbly.
He doesn’t try to take his hand back.
Distantly, he wonders what Kurusu would say if he knew what Goro plans to do with his evening. If he knew of the murder that Goro will use the medicine’s added strength for. The weight of the air feels unbearable, his clothes smothering, his bag a chain trying to trap him to the ground.
He thinks of Robin Hood’s bright, physical energy thrumming through him as he wields a child’s toy in his hands, as he fells monsters come out of a dream; he thinks of watching Kurusu’s back as they run through the halls of Niijima Sae’s twisted self, and he thinks of never letting go of the sight.
“Akechi,” Kurusu says.
He feels so much closer now than he did a second ago.
“Yes,” Goro replies. He can’t look anywhere but in Kurusu’s eyes.
“You once told me that you felt you could tell me anything.” The hand around his doesn’t move, but Kurusu’s other hand comes up slowly, his fingers wrapping around the thinnest of Goro’s wrist, right where he knows his shaken pulse beats. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
There’s nothing but kindness to read out of him. His touch is gentle, his words slow, his eyes open. Kurusu is someone Akechi knows in layers; the charismatic leader, the awkward, hunched boy with his hands in his pockets, the person who once met his eyes across a television studio and gave him antithesis. And Goro is used by now to feeling pulled two different ways around him, to wanting to run into him as much as he wants to run from him—but in that moment there is only the pull, only the touch, only the fatigue of the day resting heavy on his shoulders.
He thinks, He knows.
He thinks, Steal Shido’s heart for me.
He looks at the gentle curve of Kurusu’s lips in the dark of fall, out of light and out of sight, and he doesn’t think at all as he leans forward and presses their mouths together.
Kurusu falters for the second time that day. The exhale he lets out is hurried, perhaps a little shaky; it breaks warmly over Goro’s face in the second he takes to tilt his head sideways. He collects bitterness from the medicine just at the inside of his lips, gathers heat and nerves inside his throat once Kurusu breaks out of surprise and kisses back, soft and closed-mouthed. Neither of them closes his eyes. He doesn’t dare breathe at all through it, afraid that air will come as smoke out of his lungs, like it does out of the lungs of beasts. He doesn’t dare burn him.
He thinks, I’m going to kill him, and it is like a spear between his ribs, like a sword at his neck.
He was never meant to be the prince. He has always been the monster.
“Forgive me,” he says, pulling away. Kurusu lets go of his wrist without a word, and the vial slips from him and shatters on the floor, spilling its blood between their feet. A fleck of liquid lands at the hem of Goro’s pants. “I’m—tired, I think. I should go home.”
“Sure,” Kurusu replies.
He sounds grave. Resigned. Goro doesn’t question it as he turns his back on him—this time with the certainty that he will not be attacked.
“I’m truly sorry if I—”
“Akechi,” Kurusu cuts in. “It’s fine. I didn’t mind at all.”
There’s a hint right here that Goro could grasp with both hands if he wanted, but the wish from earlier is gone already, the pull faded in their separation. All that’s left is the cold night around him. Shadow melded into shadow as far as the eye can see.
When he straightens his back, his only thought is for the aches through his body, and how to navigate them to accomplish his second job of the night. He should have expected that Shido would still make use of him like this even while he carries on his mission alongside the Thieves, but he’s never had to go twice through the Metaverse in a day. He isn’t looking forward to the way Loki swallows all of his strength and leaves him, afterward, feeling like no more than a child.
“Tell me when we need to go again,” he says, walking away.
“I will. Good night.”
It makes him smile faintly.
Goro’s life would be simpler if Kurusu Akira were no more than the boy who stood up to him by chance in the bright-lit television studio that day. It would be simpler if he were only the Phantom Thieves’ Joker.
It would be simpler if he were only the open smile behind the café’s counter whom Goro talked about his mother to, whom he could truly share truths with, whom he could afford to kiss at night away from passersby. His lips wouldn’t have tasted of sharp and bitter medicine then.
He’s lived that long without anyone of the kind in his life, though. Goro licks the taste away from where it sits at the wet inside of his bottom lip, and he thinks, I can live a little longer.