Akira has a problem with saving everyone but himself, and I think that's very sexy of him.

aka, I played through the entirety of Royal in a month and gave myself far too many feels, so please enjoy what I'm sharing :D

Summary and opening lines are excerpts from a poem by heavensghost on tumblr.


You still hate and you still
hunger for revenge.
You didn't think you would
feel this way.

I've changed, but not into
something better.
I'm haunted by feelings of things

I can't remember
but what would I be without the ghosts?

・x・x・x・x・x・

Akira Kurusu failed to lead an honest student life the first time. He made friends and enemies - and sometimes the two are one and the same - and saved the world, but none that falls in line with what he was supposed to do with his life. Doing good isn't the right thing if he puts his own self at risk- or so he's told.

Akira Kurusu goes against everything he stood for and keeps his head down, weighed down with loss and regrets, until he graduates college. He's finally free of expectations and obligations and—

Akira Kurusu takes all his savings, a mix of his share of Metaverse treasures and years of playing pretend at being a good boy, and buys himself a home in Tokyo.

・x・x・x・x・x・

He's not what anyone would call superstitious, but Akira's dealt with enough supernatural mess in his life to at least entertain most myths. In this case, it comes in the form of a house purchased well below market value, purely because it's prone to hauntings. The real estate agent warns him up front - something about it being situated on a bit of land with a connection to the spiritual world - but doesn't shy away from showing it to him. As far as otherworldly experiences go, it's incredibly mild.

It's small and only so conveniently located to the places in Tokyo Akira is familiar with, but it's his, a shelter against everything the world told him to be, and the idea of ghosts can't scare him away from it.

Morgana shivers from his observational perch on a stack of boxes. "I know it's probably just rumors, but…don't you think it feels weird in here?"

"Just empty," Akira says, unwrapping a Featherman figure Futaba decided he needed, despite his only knowledge of the show coming from snippets of reruns and the Famidrive game he played once. Even so, it makes him think of her, and he carefully places it on the single shelf in the living room.

"Then get more furniture! Jeez, it's only gonna feel weirder the longer we're here," Morgana whines.

He nods. "Some of it's in those boxes," he explains, gesturing at where he's sitting.

"Ah…" Morgana almost looks embarrassed, tilting his head away to give his paws a few licks. "Well, good! You're making good progress setting it all up, too."

At least he has Morgana to see him as he is, for better or worse, and bully him into constructing as much furniture as possible. Akira's whole body aches when he finally collapses into bed, but he feels accomplished in a way he hasn't in too long to consider. It's starting to look more like a home now; there's more decorations and knickknacks in other boxes, waiting for another day of unpacking, and they're high on his priority list. For now, though…

Akira has two pictures on his bedside table: One of him and the Phantom Thieves in Leblanc, taken by Sojiro on one of the last days of his stay there, and one of him and Akechi at Jazz Jin, taken despite Akechi's protests during the month that never happened, somehow preserved on his phone after returning to their true reality. Next to those sit his key to the Velvet Room and a single glove; he keeps both of them on his person during the day, just in case, and he wants them just as close at night.

Maybe his new home is haunted. It'd be better company than the familiar loneliness that comes from grieving a past he can't bear to forget.

・x・x・x・x・x・

'—hate you, hate you, I hate you!'

'it's trivial, I'm trivial, why—'

'—useless, stupid sentimentality—'

'just forget already—'

Akira wakes up in a cold sweat, his head pounding with the ire of a god wronged, trying to destroy his skull from the inside. The last wisps of his dreams fade into the constant thrum of his temples making their displeasure known, and he forces himself out of bed despite the pain. He has more unpacking to do. He has to buy groceries. He has to look for employment; his savings won't last forever, especially since most of them went into the house.

He grabs what he needs from his bedside table and gets dressed, headache still trying to overwhelm his senses. That's fine- he doesn't need to be able to think. He just needs to exist.

It's not Yongen-Jaya, but the closest train station directly connects to Shibuya, and for the first time in years, he finally gets the reassuring calm of being lost in the crowd. No one pays attention to him; he's only another face in the sea of strangers, and that's okay. Everyone is.

"Akira!" Morgana says, lightly bapping his ear. "We've gotta get food. Maybe even fatty tuna…"

"Maybe after I get a job," he promises.

"You better! I'll be holding you to that," he says with a slightly maniacal chuckle. "You should see if anyone's around- maybe the chief will take you back."

Akira shakes his head. "He and Futaba are out of town this week, so we'll have to see them when they get back."

Morgana whines. "Well, don't forget. I wanna see them, too."

"I won't," he insists, despite his nerves. There's no reason to think they wouldn't want him around, and yet Akira hasn't been able to reach out to any of his friends in Tokyo yet. It's just that he's still getting settled and no one would want to come over to his half unpacked home.

He doesn't have time to muse on it for too long, anyway. He spends the afternoon looking into part time jobs around Shibuya. He could try calling Iwai, pick up some shifts at Untouchable, but the empty alley behind Central Street picks at the scabs on his heart. Maybe someday it won't be as jarring to see it devoid of the Velvet Room door.

Akira's house is small, but it's his, and coming home in the evening fills him with pride. It's not perfect yet, and may never be, but that's all right- he's carving his own path again, one day at a time.

・x・x・x・x・x・

Every morning, Akira wakes up with a murderous headache and no memory of his dreams. It's an escape from nightmares for the first time in years, but at the cost of…something. It scratches at the back of his mind, telling him it might not be for the best, telling him that forgetting is the same as running away, and he should try harder. He can't worry about what he can't remember, as much as he tries, and he has other things to focus on around the house.

・x・x・x・x・x・

One morning, Akira wakes up to find every book pulled from the shelves and thrown about, and it takes him a moment to grasp the depths of how messed up this is because he can't think through the pain of his headache.

"What happened?" Morgana exclaims, standing in the middle of the mess.

Akira shakes his head. "I don't know."

Morgana sniffs a book, his tail held high with nerves. "I should have heard this…I'm sorry, Akira."

"I didn't hear it either."

"I'm a cat! My ears are much more sensitive than yours," he insists.

Akira holds a hand to his head, hoping it will somehow stop the splitting pain. He should sit down and wait for the worst of it to pass before cleaning up the mess; if he bends over right now, he's pretty sure he'll throw up.

Morgana peers up at him, worry in his bright blue eyes. "Hey, Akira. Are you okay?"

"Just another headache," he answers softly.

This doesn't dispel the concern on his face. "Again? Shouldn't you see a doctor? Maybe Takemi-san can help."

"It's okay," he says, he can will that lie into reality. "If it gets worse, I'll reach out. All right?"

He doesn't look fully convinced, but doesn't press further. Eventually, the pain clears, and Akira spends his morning putting everything back in its places.

・x・x・x・x・x・

The next morning, every cabinet in the kitchen is open, with most of their contents strewn across the counters and on the floor.

"Akira," Morgana begins, worry weighing down his name. "Something weird is going on."

"Maybe it really is haunted," he suggests, leaning against the doorway into the kitchen for support.

"Don't joke about that!" Morgana says, gingerly walking around the mess on the floor before hopping onto an empty section of counter.

"Sorry."

"You don't sound very sorry."

He shrugs. "Could be fun to make a new friend."

Morgana's fur stands on end and he shivers. "It doesn't seem very friendly," he points out, edging away from a knife to prove his point.

Akira doesn't have an answer to that. He's not the best at judging friend or foe, so all he can do for the time being is clean up and go on with his day.

・x・x・x・x・x・

The next morning, Akira wakes up to a gun in his face.

He can't move, he can't scream, he can't look away, he can't do anything but lay there, useless and out of control. He can't see who or what is holding it; there's just enough light to shine off the metal of the barrel and nothing more. Someone is holding it unflinchingly, and Akira is rapidly starting to believe in ghosts.

But—

Who—

"Akira?" Morgana calls out sleepily, and it vanishes, leaving him with his persistent headache.

"Yeah?" he manages, finally able to move again.

"Just thought I felt something," he murmurs.

So did Akira, but he saw it, too. Was it the last remnant of the dreams he can't remember? Or something else entirely? The thin light of sunrise provides no answers. All he can do is begin his day and try to find further clarity later.

・x・x・x・x・x・

'What do I have to do to make you give up on me?'

Akira wakes up in the middle of the night, his home pitch black and silent, save for the gentle sound of Morgana breathing in his sleep. His dream hasn't fully faded yet, for once. He can just barely grasp the memory of a familiar voice, harshly asking—

"Stop it," he hears. Akira's blood runs cold, and he can't—

won't—

He must still be sleeping—

"Stop dwelling on me. I told you- my life isn't that important. Death hasn't changed my opinion."

"Akechi—"

"Stop it," he snaps again. "You're the only one still idiotic enough to hold onto me, so I can't—"

His voice is coming from his left side, and Akira forces himself to roll over and look. Silhouetted in pale light is Akechi, looking surprisingly well for a ghost. "You're dead."

"We've gone over this. Not all of us are as stupidly lucky as you."

Akira had never stopped hoping, even as weeks turned into months and years, even as others had given up. Despite all evidence—

"I can hear you," Akechi says, frowning. "So spare me the pathetic litany of misplaced hope. Perhaps now that you have your answer, you can finally move on."

A beat passes, the silence an uncomfortably new sound between them.

"Why do you want me to forget you?" Akira asks. He's not sure if there's any answer that will give him peace, but he wants to know why Akechi so desperately tries to push him away.

"You should have forgotten me a long time ago," he says, venom fading into something like regret. "I didn't want you to keep hurting for my sake. I don't regret my actions, but—"

His voice cracks, the air shimmers, and Akechi vanishes, leaving Akira grasping at empty air.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"You saw a ghost?!" Morgana screeches, jumping backwards. "How can you explain this so calmly?"

Akira shrugs. "We were told it was haunted."

"Can't believe ghosts are real, too," Morgana whines, shaking his head. "Okay, okay. I'm ready to hear the rest."

"It's Akechi."

"Nope, I take that back- I wasn't ready," he moans, laying down on the counter. "Are you sure it wasn't a dream?"

He nods. "Yeah. It felt different- almost like a Velvet Room visit, but I was still in bed."

Morgana frowns, worry in his eyes again. "But…why would Akechi be haunting this house? I thought ghosts were tied to something from their lives."

"I don't know." Akira shakes his head, wracking his brain for ideas. "But it's him. And I'm going to save him."

"Uh, Akira…if he's a ghost, I'm pretty sure he's…" Morgana trails off, the way everyone does when they talk to him about Akechi, like he'll break if he has to hear the truth. Too bad- he's not running this time.

"I know," he says firmly. "He told me. But his ghost is still here for a reason, and I'm going to make things right."

Morgana sighs, standing back up to stand closer. "I can't stop you," he admits. "And I'm really worried you're setting yourself up for more misery, but I'm not gonna let you do it alone, either. So…count me in! If anyone could do it, it'd be you."

Akira feels a smile tug at his lips. "Thanks, Morgana," he says, and the warmth of Morgana's support is a welcome comfort.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"Do you delight in frustrating me?"

"We're rivals."

"Don't get smart with me, Akira," Akechi says with a sigh. Ghosts can sigh even though they don't breathe- now he knows. "I told you - multiple times, I may add - to forget about me, and yet you're still stuck on stupid sentimentality."

Akira sits up in bed and stares straight at him. "Is that your only argument?"

"What?"

"You keep saying the same things: I'm an idiot for caring and I shouldn't have gotten attached. If you don't regret your actions, you can't tell me not to regret mine." These aren't necessarily the exact words he wanted to say to Akechi in the fantasies where he allowed himself to believe they'd meet again, but he's emboldened by the stunned look on Akechi's face. "I'm glad we met, and I regret we didn't have more time together, and I've missed you since the last day of Niijima's Palace, because I knew it would never be the same between us."

Akechi's mouth opens and closes, but no sound comes out, and Akira is almost proud of himself for managing to shut him up so completely. It'd be better if it wasn't so bittersweet.

"I've replayed watching that door close on you so many times, trying to figure out how it could have gone differently and trying to figure out how you could have gotten out of there," he admits. All his anger and pain and regret have been a knife in a wound, held deep within, and Akechi's reappearance yanked it free until they all bubbled up. "Having an extra month with you, with the promise of more to come, made it hurt so much worse afterwards. I don't regret our decision, because no matter how much I wanted a future with you, I couldn't be selfish enough to live in a fake version of it. But I'm still allowed to miss you."

Akechi finally composes himself enough to respond. "You always know how to frustrate me," he says, crossing his arms. "I can't control you- no one can truly tame that rebellious streak of yours. I'll admit it's part of what draws me to you and I'd find you far less interesting without it. But that doesn't change the facts: I'm dead and you still have a life to live. You can't keep holding onto the ghosts of your past, Akira."

He wants to reach out. He wants to either put a hand on his shoulder or punch him in the face, and settles on neither, for fear of it sending him away. "That'd be a lonely existence. What would I be without them? I've changed because of what I went through and who I met, and I'm not going to pretend none of it mattered."

"I hate you so fucking much," Akechi snaps, losing any calm he had left. "How dare you still make me care about you?"

"Akechi—"

He reaches for Akira, eyes flashing with anger and maybe something more, and—

Akechi's hand passes through him with a chill, like a memory of winter's breeze, and he vanishes before Akira can say anything else.

・x・x・x・x・x・

Leblanc looks the same; it's a place of stability and comfort, no matter what else is going on in Akira's life. The smell of coffee fills his nose and his heart until it drowns out the incessant buzzing of worry.

"Glad you made it by," Sojiro says, placing a cup in front of him. "Sorry we couldn't help you with the move itself. If you have anything left, I could probably find some time to swing by."

He shakes his head, taking a sip and letting it engulf him. "It's pretty small, so I've gotten everything unpacked already. But thank you for the offer," Akira says softly. Warm nostalgia envelops him, a comforting blanket of a simpler time. He knows it wasn't actually that simple, but nothing quite beats the times they all gathered here. At least they were all in the same place at the same time, stressing and laughing together through all of it. He knows he's clinging to the ghosts of the past again; he just misses the sense of belonging.

"Yeah, you should come with us next time!" Futaba insists, sitting next to him at the counter. "Tons of fun! But I guess you had to be responsible or whatever, so I'll just have to come see your sweet new digs!"

"It's not that impressive."

"Probably still better than the dusty attic you got stuck with here," she teases. "C'mon, I want a coffee, too. Hurry up!"

Sojiro chuckles warmly. "Greatness takes patience," he reminds her.

Futaba rolls her eyes in response. "Whatever, don't make excuses for your slow service," she shoots back, grinning the whole time. "I've gotta finish a few things before the semester starts, but then I wanna come over. I've got a housewarming present for you, too, so you better be looking forward to it!"

Akira nods. "You know it."

She pumps the air excitedly. "I told Inari to get you something, too, but I dunno how well that went…"

"It's really okay," he insists. Yusuke's finances are rarely in a good state, and he doesn't need to make them any worse.

"Nonsense," she chides. "He should still bring you something I figured you'd get yourself boring practical crap, so what I got is way better."

He tilts his head inquisitively and Futaba waves her hands in his face. "Don't look at me like that! It's a surprise! I'll bring it over when I visit, promise," she says, grinning mischievously.

Morgana hops out of his bag and onto the counter, much to Sojiro's displeasure. He sighs and returns to cleaning, muttering about cats in a cafe, without making any move to actually stop them.

"Mona!" Futaba exclaims, scooping him up gleefully. He whines in protest before settling in her arms and allowing her to fuss over him.

"It's good to see you, too, Futaba," he says, leaning up as she scratches behind his ears.

"Akira's been hogging all the Mona-time," she complains, nothing but mirth in her voice. "But now I'll finally be able to steal you…mwahahaha!"

"Hey!" Morgana swats her lightly and she cackles, before letting him go.

"Don't worry, I'm just kidding! I'm just excited to you again."

"Me too," Akira says, and it feels even more like the fog is clearing from his life.

・x・x・x・x・x・

Akira wakes up alone. It's still night, the world engulfed in darkness, and he doesn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary this time.

"Wrong," Akechi says, and pulls the trigger.

His world explodes into shards of pain and red, red, red, so much red, splattered impossibly across every surface. The gunshot rings in his ears with the screams of everything that's ever begged him for death, insistent and growing with every second. Everything is loud and red and somehow— lonely. Death is so very lonely. His head is nothing but the memory of being whole, useless, and yet he forces words out of nothing.

"Akechi—"

"Snap out of it, Akira," he says. "You're so easy."

How…?

"Do I have to spell it out for you? This is a place between dreams and reality, and it's only as real you believe it is."

He shakes his head to try to remove the claws of illusions, and when he reopens his eyes, all he sees is Akechi.

"Better yet?" he asks, harshness in his voice tempered by a hint of genuine worry.

"Thanks," Akira says, because what else can he say? How many times is Akechi going to pull a gun on him before it actually sticks?

Akechi sighs. "I can still hear most of your thoughts, Akira."

He shrugs. "Okay. Share yours, then."

"I've told you."

"Tell me more."

"Must I?"

Akira shifts, trying to get a better look at Akechi. He's still prickly but he's still here, talking to him, and—

"Stop that," he interrupts. "I'm tied to this place- it's that simple."

"But this is just a house," he argues, frowning. "It's been years. Why here? Why now?"

"I don't know," he admits, scowling, his discomfort from the uncertainty slashed across his face. "I've been…here. Not this house, but with you. I don't know why, or why I've finally gained the ability to confront you. That's all I know; anything else is just conjecture. I have no reason to lie to you at this time."

"I believe you." He might trust Akechi too much, too frequently, but this time he's sure he's right to. "The real estate agent said the house was haunted."

Akechi looks at him incredulously. "You know there's more to the world than most, and you still bought a haunted house. On purpose."

"It was really affordable."

"I hate you."

He shrugs. "I wanted somewhere to call mine," he explains, and Akechi's expression softens.

"I can understand that. Feeling like you can't dictate your own life is miserable," he agrees, nodding. "But I do have trouble imagining you feeling that way. Even in the worst situations, you've made the most of it."

Akira doesn't have a good answer. His life is one event after another: it feels like very little ties them together and even less get a satisfying conclusion, and it's easiest to ignore the worst parts until he finds a way to escape them. "Not always," he decides on.

"That's my tragic back story, not yours." Akechi doesn't look upset; it's more like an inside joke between confidants. He reaches out, a lifeline in the dark, before his hand drops like lead in an aborted gesture of comfort. "Akira, I…" Akira leans forward, but Akechi shakes his head. "You shouldn't stay so attached."

"You already know I'm not going to listen."

Akechi chuckles. "Frustrating as always," he says fondly, and Akira's room is empty again.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"Leader of the Phantom Thieves" isn't something he can put on a résumé, but Akira gets by. Iwai has him fill in a few shifts, much to Kaoru's delight, and Lala-chan is more than happy to take him back, especially now that he's legal. Nothing is set in stone, and maybe he should be worried about that, and yet…he's finding he prefers the freedom it brings. Maybe it's something about breaking free from the chains of society, or maybe he wants to see the world on his time, not in the pockets between responsibilities. No matter what it is, it's working for him.

"You promised me fatty tuna," Morgana reminds him, waiting for him at the door after a shift at Crossroads.

Akira toes off his shoes. "I said when I got a job."

"Yeah, and you have a bunch of jobs! Find a better excuse!"

"I was thinking more along the lines of a full-time one," he admits, making his way to the kitchen to start dinner.

Morgana follows behind him, padding along until he jumps onto the counter. "That's a stupid plan- you wouldn't like having just one job anyway. Bring me the tuna!"

He chuckles, ruffling the fur on Morgana's head. "Okay. I'll get some tomorrow. Promise."

He swats Akira's hand away fondly. "You better not be lying this time."

"Do you want me to invite someone over and make a party of it?"

Morgana looks thoughtful, tilting his head and swishing his tail. "Hmm…I'll think about it. I don't want anyone stealing my share."

Akira raises an eyebrow and returns to chopping vegetables. Morgana isn't entirely immune to his ability to silently draw more out of people, so sometimes it's best to wait for him to volunteer the rest of what's on his mind. Tonight's curry needs carrots and onions still, and then a marinade…

"It's really just that," Morgana insists, flopping forward. "And…well, you should invite people over because you wanna see your friends, not for me. Or, um, not always for me. I still need you to get me most places…"

"I do want to see them. I just don't want to bother them if they're busy." He slides the last of the vegetables into a bowl and opens a cupboard. His spices were organized before Akechi decided to upend his kitchen, and now they're significantly less so. He should really fix that…

Morgana makes a distressed noise. "Hey. Hey, Akira, you don't really think you're bothering them, right?"

Maybe he shared too much. He shakes his head. "I just know how busy everyone's schedules are."

"And you should also know that most of your friends don't even know you're back in town yet! How are they supposed to invite you out if you don't reach out to them first?"

"Well—"

"Nope! As your closest friend who also sees you basically all day, I think I know what's good for you! And that if you want it, it'll happen…but you gotta start it."

He knows Morgana is right. It didn't seem as difficult when most of them went to school together or were at least on the same schedule. Now, it involves guessing and hoping he's not bothering anyone.

"C'mon, Akira. Futaba wants to see the place- you should invite her over before she just shows up unannounced," he points out.

"You're right," Akira agrees, setting aside the bowl of marinade and pulling out his phone. He has to text her before his needless anxiety gets the better of him, and then he can return to dinner. One thing at a time, one day at a time, and eventually it'll feel right again.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"Woooooow!" Futaba exclaims, standing in the doorway of the house to take it in. "Looking cool!"

"You are blocking the way into Akira's home," Yusuke says from behind her, elegant features twisted into an artful scowl.

She cackles, elbowing him before scampering inside, shedding her boots along the way. "Bring in the presents!"

He grumbles, but doesn't argue. Yusuke follows her, carrying a large box in his hands with a wrapped canvas strapped to his back. "Apologies for taking so long to visit your lovely new dwelling, Akira. I have been swamped with the weight of society's minutiae since graduation, and I lost track of time."

"He means he had to move out of the school dorms and has way too much art crap," Futaba teases, making herself comfortable on the couch.

"It's fine," Akira assures him. "I've been only been back for a couple weeks."

"Still…it would have been better to give you a more exciting welcome back to the city! Hopefully our paltry gifts will suffice for now."

Morgana follows Yusuke until he sets the box down and looks it over, investigating the wrapping. "So, what'd you bring?"

"Open it!" Futaba excitedly rocks back and forth from her spot on the couch. "It's something fun, I promise!"

Akira sits on the floor in front of it, eying it up. Futaba has hyped it up so much that he doesn't want to disappoint her by being underwhelmed. He makes quick work of the wrapping paper, revealing the newest FamiVerse, complete with a few games.

"Ta-da!" She's still grinning at him, and even Morgana looks sufficiently impressed. "No more retro gaming for Akira! Er, I mean you still can, but now you can finally catch up with the gaming world."

"The art of video games is drastically different than my own, and yet they still touch people deeply, awakening new feelings in their hearts. I must observe them more," Yusuke declares, leaning down to inspect it as well. "A worthy present!"

"Thank you so much," he says, genuinely touched. It'll be good to play something new again, and he knows he'll have Yusuke's company, at the very least.

Morgana looks between it and the TV that Akira hasn't gotten around to hooking up. "Hey, now that you have an excuse to use the TV again, you should set it up!"

Futaba follows his gaze, eyes narrowing as though she has just noticed it for the first time. "No…please tell me this isn't the same shitty TV you had in high school…"

"It still works."

She groans. "Akira!"

"Perhaps he has merely decided to spend his money on less frivolous things," Yusuke points out thoughtfully. "However, I had always hoped you'd get something nicer…it never did justice to the films I brought over."

He shrugs, unperturbed. "Sorry?"

"You need a new one," Futaba says, shaking her head. "But not for stupid Inari reasons. One- you're moving up in the world! You've got a house and everything! Two- I don't think there's any way to plug this into a TV as old as yours. Seriously, how is it still functional?"

"Yusuke is closer to the answer than you are," Morgana tells Futaba. "Akira can't exactly run out and buy a new TV. How much do you think houses cost?"

Futaba shrugs, reaching down to poke Morgana. "Dunno, I'm still free-loading."

"And Sakura-san has graciously allowed me to store my paintings above Leblanc while I search for better accommodations," Yusuke admits. "Everything I can afford is so…minuscule, even compared to dorms."

"You're making it sound like you aren't also storing your whole self there, too," she says, rolling her eyes.

"Whaaaat? You're living at Leblanc?" Morgana asks, hopping out of Futaba's reach and closer to Yusuke.

"Yes, but hopefully only for a short time. I do not wish to take too much of his hospitality."

Futaba inches forward to poke Morgana again. "You're worrying about it too much. Just keep him company sometimes and he'll be fine! He's missed having help ever since Akira moved out."

Yusuke shakes his head and clutches his chest. "As if I could fill the spot Akira left behind!"

"Don't be so dramatic. And stop stalling! You brought him something, too," Futaba reminds him.

"Of course, of course." Yusuke holds the covered canvas in front of Akira. "I must warn you- it was not created with your space in mind, since I have only just now become acquainted with it. In the future, I will paint something marvelous to match the energy and shape of your home. But for now, I hope it speaks to you enough to be acceptable."

Akira has to stand up to unwrap it from the top. He's sure it will be more than fine; no matter the subject, Yusuke's paintings evoke something strong within him. His hands carefully remove the covering, revealing sharp streaks of contrasting colors, swirling into a central sprawl. It's bittersweet and welcoming, much like the messiness of farewells bleeding into new beginnings. It's fitting. It wasn't made for his home but it feels made for him, and Akira is touched by Yusuke's thoughtfulness.

"I thought it was an appropriate welcoming gift- a farewell to a life of college classes, far too distant from Tokyo for any of our tastes, to usher in this new chapter of your adventure."

"Thank you." Akira doesn't have the words to fully express his gratitude, but he trusts in his friendship with Yusuke. He should understand. Sometimes, words aren't as simple as they sound, much like solutions aren't what most people would think of first. He has to figure out where to hang this painting; other than their calling cards, Yusuke primarily works with large canvases, and this is no different. And then…

Somehow, the beginning of inspiration has begun.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"I never asked you to save me," Akechi reminds him, staring directly at him. A warm sliver of yellow light from the street lamp cuts across the floor, separating them. "I've told you many times now."

"You like it when I disagree with you."

"Don't simplify it. I like discussing opposing view points, not arguing about meaningless wastes of time."

"I don't think it's a waste of time."

Akechi's cheeks flush crimson, brighter than the street light's glow, and Akira holds this brief moment of honesty on his face in his heart. "Besides, you don't think I'll succeed. What's the harm?"

"The harm is you letting it engulf your entire life," he argues, shaking his head.

"I'm not."

"You are. You try to fix everyone else's problems to hide from your own," he snaps. Akira stares, unable to disagree, unable to put together any sort of response, because Akechi has twisted the situation into his favor. "You're such a selfless hero: always willing to lend an ear or a shoulder to cry on, always there to help out when a friend can't do something alone, always willing to shut up and set aside your needs for someone else's sake. Spare me the sad face- I can see right through it because I've done the same damn thing, just in my own way. You can't be sad if you're focused on something greater; how disgusting. At least own up to it! I'm someone you care about, so you just can't resist trying to fix me."

He tipped his hand and now Akechi has ammo to fight back with. His accusations cut right to the core; they're born from someone willing to see the problems in Akira's life and lay them out plainly. "That's not why." As right as Akechi is about him, he can't see why Akira is trying to help him.

"Oh? Then what is it?" He sounds so smug, so frustratingly sure of himself and his conclusions, every bit the confident detective that first drew Akira in..

"I miss you. It's selfish." Akira will never tire of surprising Akechi; his face is so, so open when it happens. "I think your fate was unfair, but I know it was your choice. I just miss you and want you in my life. Sorry."

"You're unbelievable!" The air in the room is heavy, an oppressive weight of Akechi's frustrations. "You can't just say these sorts of things—"

Akira stands up, out of bed and ever closer to Akechi. He stops short, however, of that band of light, that arbitrary line between them. Akechi might bolt, might vanish if he goes too far. "Is there anything I can say that won't upset you?"

"If there is, you haven't found it yet!"

"Then I'll keep trying—"

Akechi closes the distance between, stepping into the light and grabbing at him fruitlessly. His hands are icicles sinking into his chest, sharp and cold. "Of course I wish I had more time! I'll never regret what I did, but I hated every second of borrowed time because I knew it wasn't real, and I hated knowing we could have kept going together. I hate that you make me want to keep living, you selfish bastard, I— I can't make peace with all of this if you keep reminding me how much I wanted you!"

Akechi's shaking and the house shakes with him, resonating with his desperation. Akira's chest is still cold, so very cold from Akechi's hands, and if he tried to snatch his heart out of it, Akira wouldn't be able to resist surrendering. Akechi's eyes flash with anger and hurt and regret, and he yanks himself back.

Akira gasps for breath he didn't realize he was denied and the fresh air in his lungs warms his chest. Akechi stares at his hands, then at Akira, and backs up even more.

"I'm sorry, Akira. I—" He shakes his head, cutting himself off.

"Akechi, wait—"

He vanishes and the air in his bedroom lightens, leaving Akira with nothing but his lonely breath once again.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"What are you working on?" Morgana asks, peering over his shoulder. "It looks…kinda like a calling card, actually…"

"Bingo." Akira opens the drawer on the side of his desk to pull out a pair of scissors, carefully cutting up the individual characters to spell out his calling card. He lacks Yusuke's artistic flair, but he's pretty sure he can still come up with something good.

"Akira, you can't just say that like it's no big deal," Morgana says, sighing. "Are you gonna hang it up or something?"

He shakes his head. "I've got an idea."

Morgana jumps onto his desk to get a closer look. "You gonna clue me in on it or what? We're supposed to be a team! All targets must be unanimous…or at least between the two of us, for now."

"Sorry. I just started on it." He frowns, trying to figure out how to word it. "We stole distorted desires, usually from people who didn't realize how fixated they were. I think I can do something like that with Akechi."

He looks at the mostly blank card and back up at Akira. "Uh, sorry Akira. I don't follow."

"He's hung up on his death and can't move on. If I can steal that from him, I can trick him into being alive." This explanation does nothing to dispel Morgana's confusion. "It's simple."

"No, it's really not," he disagrees. "I hear what you're saying, but you can't bring someone back from the dead just by tricking them."

Akira shrugs, getting back to work. "No, you just have to believe, like how a toy laser gun can be the strongest thing in the world if your imagination is good enough. I've done enough impossible things already- this shouldn't be that hard."

"Your confidence is remarkable. What's next up next, tricking me into being human?" Morgana shakes his head, settling onto the desk to watch Akira work.

"Maybe."

"Akira!"

He chuckles and pets Morgana's head affectionately. He's not sure he's as confident as everyone else seems to think, but he's faked it for long enough- what's once more? If it doesn't work…no, it's going to work. He doesn't need to come up with a backup plan; he's never worried about it before. Faked confidence is just as good as real confidence if you've pretended long enough. "Just trust me on this one."

Morgana sighs fondly. "Got it, Joker."

・x・x・x・x・x・

Akira adds something to his bedside table: a black and red calling card with Akechi's name on it, resting on his glove. It's the only thing of Akechi's he has and he's placing all his bets on it being meaningful enough to work.

It's showtime.

・x・x・x・x・x・

Akira wakes up in a pitch black room, the adrenaline of a fight pulsing in his veins, a thrilling rush he's not ashamed to admit he missed. It drowns out everything but his single-minded goal and pushes him out of bed, ready for anything, and—

"'Goro Akechi, the Puppet of Wrath who has allowed his flames to go out: Your self-sacrifice did much to clear your own conscience and make it easier for people to forget the evils you did to them, however, true atonement comes through living and moving forward. Therefore I, the leader of the Phantom Thieves, shall steal your death from you so that you might step into the light and truly make right was set wrong. I'm coming for that rematch.'" Akechi stands next to the bed, holding the calling card in his hands as he reads it. "What the hell is this shit?"

"You don't recognize it?"

"I know what a fucking calling card is, you idiot. Don't play coy with me!" Akechi grips it so hard it starts to crumple in his hands. "Am I a joke—"

Akira takes a step forward, his confidence made manifest as Joker, and he knows without any doubt that he can do this. "You've never been a joke; you should know by now how I feel."

Akechi takes a step back, only to be cornered by the bedside table. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Stealing your heart," Akira answers simply, reaching for Akechi's hand. In the realm between dreams and reality, his cognition is powerful enough to do anything he believes, Calling cards work. Akechi's cognition is distorted but changeable. And—

Akira's hand closes around Akechi's, solid and warm and full of life.

And—

Akechi punches him in the face with his other hand, hard enough that Akira sees stars.

"I can't fucking believe you!" he yells, shaking his hand before balling it into a fist again. "There's no way—"

"Hey, Akira—" Morgana's sleepy face stares between the two of them. Their conversations never woke him before, and the pain blooming on his face can't stall Akira's excitement. "Is that— no way…Akechi?"

"Ah," he pauses, saving Akira from another bone-crushing punch. "Morgana. Apologies for waking you."

Morgana hops to his feet and rushes to the edge of the bed, any desire to go back to sleep long gone. "You're really here?" His tail swishes, poofing slightly in agitation as he takes in Akechi and Akira.

Akira gives him a thumbs up with one hand, the other still tightly gripping Akechi's. His face feels…sticky. Maybe if he doesn't think about it, it won't be covered in blood…

"I guess Joker's plan worked! Though, what the hell are you doing beating him up like that?! You know he's the one that just saved you!" Morgana sits and wraps his tail around his body to try to restore his cool facade. " Nice one, Akira."

"Don't congratulate him," Akechi snarls, turning his attention back to Akira. "This isn't— you fucking asshole, I hate that you can do this sort of shit and actually have it work." Akira shrugs and the scowl on Akechi's face almost softens into worry. "Don't tell me that actually broke your nose."

He shrugs again.

Akechi yanks his hand away and grabs Akira's chin - oh, he really can touch him, just like he already did, just like it's nothing - yanking his face to the side to stare at his nose. "It's bleeding, but that's what noses do. You're probably fine," he declares, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to clean some of the blood away.

"Did you do this?" Morgana asks, swatting at one of Akechi's legs. "Seriously, Akira tries to help you and you punch him in the face? What gives?!"

"It's fine," Akira manages. His mouth tastes sharp and metallic as a gunshot, and he gets distracted thinking on that.

Morgana looks unconvinced. "Akira—"

"He said it was fine." Akechi's handkerchief is stained burgundy and pink, and he tosses it on the bedside table. "If it's broken, there's nothing you can do at this time of night. I'm sure your doctor friend can fix it if it still hurts in the morning."

He nods, feeling the fog of sleep creeping up on him now that the adrenaline is wearing off. "I can wait."

Morgana glances between them, expression unreadable. Shouldn't there be more celebrating? Akira has so much he wants to say and so much they should talk about, and he isn't sure he can make himself sleep- but he's not sure he can ignore the bone-deep exhaustion, either. "Welcome back, Akechi," Morgana finally decides, sitting back down calmly.

"Thank you." Gratitude, or honest gratitude, at least, never sits quite right on Akechi's face, but he's trying. "Despite my own disagreements and doubts, it seems Akira pulled it off."

"That's 'cause he's the best," Morgana says with an energy Akira can't match. He wants to believe this, he really does; he can't take his eyes off Akechi, or else he'll…

Akechi waves a hand in his face and Akira jolts. "Akira, are you listening?"

"Yes," he answers automatically, and Akechi frowns.

"Don't lie to me. Seriously, at this time, after everything, I'd expect better from you." He sighs, crossing his arms. "You should get some more rest. Whatever bullshit you pulled off must have drained you."

No, not yet. This might be a dream, it might still be fake, the fear of loneliness and failure clings to him, and— and—

"I'll still be here," Akechi promises, gripping one of Akira's shoulders tightly. "You seem hellbent on keeping me in your life, so I'm not going to run off."

Despite the fear, despite his desperate want to keep Akechi in his sights, Akira allows himself to be led back to bed. The moment he lays down, he knows he's done for; this is what his body needs more than anything.

"I'll keep an eye on him," Morgana says, hopping off the bed. "Make sure he doesn't trash the house again."

Akechi looks scandalized. "I was trying to get his attention so he'd leave me alone."

"And you made huge messes in the process! You're lucky Akira has such a soft spot for you…"

The last thing Akira hears before passing out is Morgana and Akechi bickering, and the lack of true venom in it is enough to fuel his hope for the future.

・x・x・x・x・x・

"I can't cook," Akechi says. Akira stares at him, the bright morning light revealing the stark proof of his existence. He's not sure why they're discussing his cooking abilities first, but he guesses they have to start somewhere.

Akira takes a seat at the small counter that divides the kitchen and living room - perfect for breakfast, the real estate agent insisted - and shrugs. "Good morning, Akechi."

Akechi sets a plate and a pair of chopsticks in front of him. Oh. That would be why he brought up cooking. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

Morgana jumps across the counters to sit next to him. "Don't do it Akira. I've been watching him all night."

At first, Akira's not sure why he should be worried, but the longer he looks at the plate, the more apparent it becomes. He has no idea what it is. Some sort of breakfast, ostensibly. Beyond that…nothing. It's a pile of slightly burnt mush. But he's not rude enough to say no to food.

Akechi leans against the opposite counter, watching him with an unreadable expression. He can't tell if it's worry, frustration, or perhaps embarrassment.

Akira takes a bite, and much like he couldn't recognize what he was about to eat, he also can't recognize the flavors. It has too much and too little going on at once, and all Akira can take from it is that it's not good. It might not be bad, either, but it definitely isn't good. He sets his chopsticks down, finishes what's in his mouth, and makes eye contact with Akechi. "Thanks for breakfast. It's not good."

"I have told you on multiple occasions that I can't cook," he says, reaching for the plate.

He holds a hand up, keeping Akechi from grabbing it. "It's fine," Akira assures him, continuing to eat it. The more he has, the further from the truth he gets. It's almost impressive.

"You're so weird," Morgana whines, watching him with thinly veiled disappointment in his taste. "How does your nose feel?"

Akira drinks the whole glass of that water that Akechi was gracious enough to provide him with. "Sore. Not as painful as before."

"It didn't feel like I'd broken it."

Morgana rolls his eyes. "You're lucky you didn't! I don't care what Akira says- I'm still upset you punched him."

Akira shrugs, eating around what might be eggshell or a tiny shard of bone. "I kinda expected it, so don't worry too much."

"Then you should have blocked," Akechi grumbles, refilling his cup. "And you really don't have to eat that. I know it's terrible."

"But I'm hungry."

Akechi throws his hands up. "Of all the idiots in the world, you had to be the one I'm stuck with."

"Yep."

"You should be more grateful!" Morgana says, jumping back to the other counter to swat at Akechi. "Akira's done a lot for you—"

"He is," Akira interrupts. "He made me breakfast."

Morgana looks confused and Akechi's cheeks flush a warm pink. It's only visible for a brief moment before he turns his head away, but Akira saw it. Akechi tried to cook, despite his lack of skills, because he trusts Akira enough to show him something he might fail at. It's an immeasurable amount of trust and fondness, and Akira treasures every bite of his indecipherable food.

"I'll never understand you," Morgana says with a sigh, jumping down. "I'm gonna go take a nap- don't try to feed me any of that later!"

Akira nods. "I guess it's no fatty tuna."

"It doesn't even compare to cheap kibbles!"

"No one said you had to like it," Akechi snaps, swearing under his breath. "If Akira likes it, what does it matter?"

"Oh, I don't like it."

"Traitor!"

"But I like that you made it."

"That's even worse!"

He polishes off the last of it as Morgana wanders off, shaking his head. "Thanks, Akechi."

When Akechi reaches for the plate, their fingers brush. It's solid. It's real. It's the mundane act of clearing dishes away that finalizes it in Akira's mind; Akechi's here now, real and in the flesh, and Akira's breath catches, heart swelling like he might just burst into tears.

"Hey, was it really so bad you have to cry over it? Pull yourself together, Akira, it's just food," Akechi chides with a start. He must actually be crying, somehow, and he can't figure out how to stop. He never cries. He's the one who holds it together despite every setback. What does he even have to cry about? He fixed the problem. Akechi is standing in his kitchen, baffled by Akira's tears, and that's enough. That should be enough. He just has to make himself stop crying.

Akechi leans in and wipes away some of his tears with the back of his hand. "Hey, Akira- look at me."

He looks up at him and Akechi dries his face. "There. You're fine. I— Look, I'm not a very comforting person. I don't know what to say to help you feel better, and I can't promise I'll ever be good at it. But I'm here, despite all known laws of reality, and I hope you're crying because you're excited. I don't plan on fucking off now."

"You can't." Akira swallows thickly, phlegm dripping down the back of his throat from crying. He pushes past how undignified he feels to remind Akechi of what's important. "We're rivals."

"Good," Akechi says, one hand still on his face. There's something in the air between them, something new, something that's always been there. Akechi shifts his hand to rest under Akira's chin, angling his face up, and kisses him.

It's the final missing piece - so small and so significant - and Akira leans up into it, grabs Akechi's shirt with one hand to hold him close, and revels in how much this feels right. It gives a name to every time he wanted Akechi to invite him back to his place or follow Akira back to his, and it seems so obvious now that it's happening. What took them so long?

Akechi pulls back first, cheeks ever so slightly dusted pink. "You—" he tries, and shakes his head before continuing. "You get it."

He nods. "I like you a lot—"

"Don't you dare—"

"—and I also hate you." Akira talks around Akechi's complaints; sometimes, that's the best course of action. "I don't feel the same way around anyone else."

"I would fucking hope not."

Akechi is pouting and Akira shamelessly appreciates how cute he is when he's unguarded. "Promise. That's why I had to bring you back."

"Obsessive much?" Akechi teases, trying and failing to tuck a wayward strand of hair behind Akira's ear.

"You started it."

"How did I—?"

Akira grins at him. "You gave me your number first."

Akechi doesn't even dignify him with a response. He snatches his chopsticks up and grumbles something about not making that mistake again while furiously washing the dishes.

It's better this way, where they can finally be honest with each other and try to move forward. Why should he have to give up his ghosts when he could stand by them and face the future together?