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hell take us, heaven can wait

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Dying was different as a demon. 

Goro remembered in that space of nothingness between worlds: a burning pain in his lungs, a cold lethargy and contemplative golden eyes gazing down at him. He remembered that nauseous, violating agony of the Magatama squirming its way through his eye socket, gnawing into grey matter and sinking its jaws into his brainstem, granting him an immortality that was as cruel as it was absolute. 

He died and came back. 

After that, he had experienced death from more mundane causes: stronger demons tearing him apart, landing in hostile dimensions when frantically leaping between worlds to search for his Tokyo, being yanked between powers higher than him like a half-blind dog on a leash - he had died, and died, and died and died and died and died-  

But he was immortal. 

Death’s edges were now blunt and tedious. How many times had he spasmed awake, watching his insides writhe as they put themselves back together? How many times had he drifted in a strange state of apathy, until his soul dipped low, low, low into the flow of Binah’s Sea and rebuilt its physical shell from scratch, starting again? How many times had he laid sprawled on his back, feeling his human heart seize and shudder as his Magatama forced it to beat? Too many. Too many. 

Too exhausting. 

It would be easier if he gave up this last little sliver of humanity he so tightly clung to. If he turned away from the pathetic scrap of Goro Akechi and fully embraced the monster that was born from his corpse - but he wouldn’t. So long as Akira walked the earth, Goro would endure this cruel fate of immortality until his impossible goal was realised. He can’t live, but he can’t die either - this was all he could do, a final act of rebellion in the face of the unyielding, omniscient Great Will. 

It was amusing to realise how he envied humans for their mortality now. They could never be trapped, not really. Eventually they would die, and their souls would join the grand flow of Magatsuhi that swept through Amala, reincarnated into a new shell with a clean slate. There were days where he loathed that demon for fishing him out of that quagmire before he could enter that cycle, no matter how viciously he had fought against his own inevitable death. But, sometimes… 

“Is something wrong?”

Sometimes, the side of him that was still human felt so pathetically grateful for this second chance. 

“I’m thinking,” Goro said.

“About?” Akira asked, leading him around a corner. They were heading to Futaba’s labs, something Akira felt anxious about for some reason - but it left Goro pensive, pondering over how delicate and fragile their lives were. He had murdered Futaba’s mother, and any sane person would want vengeance… though, Futaba had always been better than him in that respect. 

“Mm,” Goro picked up those thoughts and set them aside into the ‘unimportant box’, “I doubt Futaba would be pleased to see me.”

“Well,” Akira made a face, like he wasn’t sure whether to be honest or offer a white lie, “Maybe not. But she is… interested. I think she wants to grill you on how you survived in the Metaverse for years on end despite it being hostile to human habitation.”

Goro doubted Futaba would be pleased to hear that the answer to that was to allow a demonic parasite to embed itself in your body in a non-consensual symbiotic relationship. Not that he’ll tell her that.

In fact, it was curious how that wasn’t picked up by those ‘Demon Sniffers’ the CDF kept singing praises about. While Goro’s body was an unholy amalgamation of demonic and human flesh, the Magatama itself was pure demonic essence… and he was carrying it around in his skull. Surely such concentrated demonic energy would’ve been picked up by those sensors…?

“...unless that’s not something you want to talk about?” Akira continued gently. 

“What?” Goro startled out of his thoughts. “Do you honestly believe I would be shy about discussing my time trapped there?”

“Well, you keep spacing out with this big frown on your face,” Akira said mildly, boldly reaching out and poking Goro’s cheek. “See. You’re doing it now.”

Goro irritably swatted Akira’s hand away, “This is my resting bitch face.”

That startled a laugh out of Akira, “Your what?”

“You heard me.”

Akira shook his head, “You’ve changed a lot.”

“Is that bad?”

“No…” Akira said the word very slowly, “It’s just startling, I guess.”

Demons were static and unchanging, this was an absolute truth. Goro, however, used to shed his skin more frequently than a snake, twisting and contorting himself into different personalities and persona to suit his environment. He frowned contemplatively, realising he hadn’t done the same here - this persona of his was best suited for Amala, when dealing with demons and the trauma of dying and living and devouring his way back to this world. With humans?

Can he remember, how to even act? He thought he had, but maybe he was failing - too slow to change, a sign of his demonic corruption slowing an otherwise seamless process. 

“...” Goro dug deep for those memories of Before, when he was a vengeful idiot and so thoroughly and flawlessly human. It felt wrong, clumsy - he looked at who he had been and didn’t understand his thought process. Why did he say that? Why did he do that? It was like looking at an alien creature with his face, and it unnerved him, to lack an understanding of who he had been. 

This was the person who Akira expected him to be, though. Goro floundered. 

“I don’t…” he began awkwardly, and almost lost his nerve when Akira regarded him with those intelligent, grey eyes, “I don’t remember how to act like… the person I was before.”

Akira’s gaze softened, “You’re still the person you were before, just different. I’m happy so long as you’re comfortable.”

Goro blew out a short, unnecessary breath, “But you want me to be the same as before.”

Akira frowned at him, but Goro could taste it - the minnow-flash of guiltrightyesbutnotreally that was so contradictory and akira he couldn’t feel mad about it. Akira wanted human Goro, but instead he was making due with this… this piss-poor copy of a dead man. It was strange, to feel so inadequate to what should be an inferior version of himself - past-Goro had been a fool, but a human fool, and he was, now he was… what was he, really? What was he, if he couldn’t claim Goro Akechi as himself?

“I didn’t really survive,” he said, and elaborated when Akira gave him a puzzled look, “The Metaverse.”

“You mean in a metaphorical way or…?”

Literal. Magatama squirming through his eye-socket and through soft grey matter. Goro had died many times, enough for it to be boring, but that one, that death, from human to the abomination he was now, that one he remembered in hyper realistic detail, vivid, bright, the ghost of pain flitting across his nerves and a twitch of something inside his skull-

(‘crnnchhgkkktkt’ went the parasite burrowing through his eye)

-the jumble of emotion, that memory caught forever in amber - the Magatama fed off that, the pain and fear and nausea, and Goro endured that fossilised seed, the memory lurking on the edges of his thoughts, its spiked barbs hooked into his subconsciousness. The secret to a successful symbiotic relationship with a Magatama: finding a host capable of enduring their last moments forever, on repeat, until the universe itself died out. Cultivating that sunburst of animal terror and agony until it grew into a farm of morbid crops, the bounty plentiful enough to keep the Magatama fed and content and strong. 

It took a strong soul to survive this. It took a demon to endure the strain. It took someone like Goro Akechi to spitefully tolerate such a wretched existence.

“...yes,” Goro said, “Metaphorically.” 

In his periphery, Akira frowned.

“Goro,” his friend said in a slow, careful voice, “What happened there?”

“It’s vast, that place,” Goro told him with a sliver of honesty, “It places things into perspective. I told you this before.”

“You said it was meaningless,” Akira said quietly, “The things you cared about before.”

“In retrospect, my plan for Shido was ill-thought out and poorly executed,” Goro said candidly, and couldn’t help but smile at Akira’s guilty grimace - he agreed, but didn’t want to verbally admit it, “Though Shido’s actions contributed to my earlier misery and my mother’s death, the same could be said for a myriad of things. He was no more to blame than the clients my mother serviced. A multitude of factors converged to create that moment where she took that final choice… myself being one of them.”

It was mildly funny, how Akira looked a little startled and alarmed at the turn of conversation. If this had been the Akechi of Before, this conversation never would have happened - or at least, not so calmly. The Akechi of Before had loathed Shido, had heaped all of the blame at his feet for his circumstances and misery, because it was easier than acknowledging the reality. Goro understood that - some aspects of himself hadn’t completely escaped him - but he had enough distance from Akechi of Before to know he had been petty, and childish, and angry. 

Typically human. Short-sighted. Weak.  

Now, however… “I wasted precious time on a pointless revenge. I lied to myself about my motivations. I had craved acknowledgement almost as much as vengeance, and that doomed my plan from the start. I was a fool. That’s the perspective I gained.”

“That’s… some perspective,” Akira said faintly. He looked comically floored, sparks of bewilderment tinging the air. It almost made Goro laugh. “How did you… what, uh, gave you that?”

Goro thought. When was the moment he had realised that? He had spent a small eternity after his first death roaming the guts of Amala in a grief-stricken insanity. He had lashed out at everything, howled and screamed his despair at the new fate shackled to him, had frantically clawed for the surface, wishing desperately to escape the hell he’d been tossed into, his face turned towards the flashes of light that was tokyo and akira. The time after his rebirth was not spent in contemplation or self-reflection. He had been furious, and tragic, and destructive.

No. 

He had realised when...

It was when he had tumbled headfirst into the blasted tokyo. A world that could be, will be, once was. The date had been earlier than 2016 there - 2001, instead, an alternate divergence. A timeline severed short and left to rot on the edges of Amala. Goro had seen the destruction that humanity teetered towards in every reality, dimension, iteration, in that bombed out hellscape and...

The potential for that to happen here was just as high. Humanity was continuously one step away from being obliterated off the map, or subsumed, or enslaved - Akira was continuously one step away from that. A dog on a leash between the higher powers that peered down at humanity, in every world, in every dimension, in every diverging timeline. The petty squabbles between humans were meaningless in that context. The true enemy was above them, omniscient and cold and complacent. 

That was the perspective Goro had learned.  

He did not say this, however. 

“I had an interesting chat with Lucifer,” Goro said, utterly straight-faced, “He offered alternative perspectives that helped me in realising the pointlessness of my revenge.” 

Akira stared at him for a solid minute. 

“...haha, funny,” he finally snorted, his stilted laugher trailing off when Goro simply stared ahead, not saying anything, “Wait- you’re serious? You spoke to Lucifer? As in, King of hell?”

“He’s very good at making tea,” Goro said absently. 

It wasn’t even a joke, the tea had been good. Lucifer had been an impeccable host, was always so affably polite, and soft-spoken, his words as piercing as a knife sliding between your ribs. The tea was always sweet and lovely, but it did nothing to numb the sting of having your purpose stripped down to their bare, pointless bones. Lucifer was merciless, and could wound with a gentleness that made one weep.

“...and baking,” he continued, mentally brushing aside such meaningless thoughts, “He knew I liked custard creams. Though, thinking about it, he probably store-bought them…”

Akira made an interesting expression at imagining his idea of Lucifer shopping for custard creams. 

“Why were you… having tea with Lucifer?” he asked slowly, “How did that even happen?”

Goro couldn’t help it - there was something so sinfully tempting about winding Akira up, to crack his unflappable facade, that he said, without thinking; “It was a date. He thought I was pretty and I was curious.” 

“What-”

“Oh, is this Futaba’s lab?” Goro interrupted cheerfully, their walk ending at a set of large sliding doors. On the front was ‘BUSY - DO NOT DISTURB (unless Akira)’.

Akira was not deterred, “What do you mean Lucifer thought you were pretty?”

Goro ignored him and entered Futaba’s labs, a potently jealous Akira on his heels. 

“Goro.”

Futaba’s lab was - loud. In the visual and psychometric sense. It was cramped and crowded with various technological marvels and criss-crossing pipes and wires, the hot-flush of magatsuhi and raw magnetite buzzing in the air. Goro could taste/sense/smell human blood and demonic essence, so abrupt and intense he salivated a little, his stomach doing a sharp, agonising cramp of sheer hunger. It took effort to squash down the starvation into something more tolerable, blinking very slowly as he compartmentalised his thoughts into something a little less hungry.

Futaba and Morgana were both closeby. He could sense Morgana’s fresh toothpaste spirit cloistered with that small sunburst of - ambitionirritationsmugiamagenius lurking out of view, behind a stash of piled machinery. Music thrummed - Featherman, rusted old memories identified - and Goro slowly gravitated towards it, Akira huffing and puffing behind him. 

“You can’t just say you flirted with Satan and walk off,” Akira was saying, his voice bordering on a whine, “Did you go all the way? What?” 

“Why are you so interested in my sex life, Kurusu?” Goro asked mildly, his mouth curving into a little grin at the spike of jealousy that filtered through the air, followed by that raw, hot spice of long-buried attraction and lust. While Akira was Akira, he was still so thoroughly human. “Also I said Lucifer not Satan. Satan has too many heads for my tastes.”

“Wha- huh?”

They reached the pile of machinery Futaba was squatting behind, and Goro curiously leaned over it. Futaba was sitting on the floor, her back to them, headphones on with the music blaring through them - she’ll go deaf at that rate - with Morgana clearly asleep on her lap. Futaba was fiddling with the inside of one of the machines. Goro didn’t know what it was. 

“Hmm…” Goro tilted his head this way and that. Her back was to them, and she hadn’t noticed their presence, “Let’s scare the shit out of her.”

“No, don’t,” Akira said, “Trust me. Don’t. She’ll retaliate.”

Goro grumbled. He wanted to have a brief taste of fear to take the edge off his hunger. 

“Before we bother her,” Akira said, “Lucifer?”

Goro turned to him, blinking placidly as Akira frowned intently. He looked both curious yet agitated. Goro didn’t know why it was bothering him so much. 

“What about Lucifer?”

“You’re not normally this obtuse,” Akira huffed, crossing his arms over his chest, “Look, you said you were stuck in the Metaverse, right? With only demons for company, and… I guess you had to make alliances and deals to get by…”

Goro stared at him, utterly blank, before the meaning clocked him over the head. 

“Oh. Oh- you thought,” Goro leaned back on his heels, unsure whether to laugh in his face or play along. It would be amusing to see how far he could push the misunderstanding, and - the less human side of him craved a bit of negativity, just a little, to skim off the top. And Akira would be angry, angry for him, and nothing burned hotter than protective, jealous rage…

no, Goro told himself, stop that.

“...you misunderstand,” he said reluctantly, “It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t coerced into such… deals.” 

“Are you sure?” Akira said with a painful sort of gentleness, “I won’t judge or anything. I know people… have to do things to survive. I already learned from Kazuki that you, uh, ate demons, so...”

More like Futaba hacked into the logs of Goro’s interrogation and told him. 

“Hmm,” Goro tilted his head a fraction, “So, if I confessed to eating demons, and fucking demons, to ensure my survival, you will be… fine with it?”

Akira nodded, but internally - oh. Yes. Goro could taste it - protective jealous rage. It was just a tiny spark, ruthlessly squashed so it didn’t show on Akira’s face, but it was there. Goro couldn’t help but smile, pleased. 

“...” he sighed fondly, “Akira, you’re a dumbass.”

“Hey,” Akira’s solemn frown shifted into a pout, “I’m being very understanding here-”

“Can you guys talk about your sex lives somewhere else?” Futaba’s voice cut in, “I don’t wanna think about Akechi bumping uglies with demons.”

“I’m surprised. I thought such things would be right up your alley,” Goro drawled, shifting his attention from an embarrassed Akira to a very unimpressed Futaba. Her headphones were pushed down to hang around her neck, music still blasting, and she was still sitting on the floor. Despite her impressive poker face though, Goro could sense her… apprehension and uncertainty. 

She was uncomfortable around him. 

“It’s weird when it’s someone you know,” Futaba replied flatly, “Anyway, what do you want?”

“We, uh, came by to see how you are,” Akira took control of the conversation, giving Goro a look that screamed ‘behave’. Goro gave him an innocent ‘who, me?’ look. 

“Uh huh,” Futaba was still squinting suspiciously at Goro. 

“...I also offer myself as a guinea pig,” Goro said, “I heard you’re curious about my miraculous survival.”

“If you’re okay with it, Goro,” Akira quickly added. 

Futaba’s cold demeanor thawed considerably at that, “Guinea pig, huh…”

“I draw the line at vivisection,” Goro laid down his terms, “Or any other strange experiments that will result in drawing blood. I had enough of that shit with demons.”

“That’s… fair,” Futaba grumbled, looking disappointed at the ‘no bloodletting’ rule, “Okay, gimme a moment.” 

After rousing Morgana, they relocated to what passed as Futaba’s break room - a collection of crates surrounding a bigger crate, with an electric kettle and an assortment of instant coffee and snacks perched on top of the big crate. Goro sat delicately on the very edge of his ‘seat’, keenly observing the two humans plus the cat arranging themselves across from him. It felt like an interrogation. 

The kettle gurgled loudly as it boiled, filling the awkward, tense silence as Futaba all but dissected him with her stare alone. 

Itching to break the standoff, Goro said the first thing to cross his mind: “Why are your glasses still ugly as shit?”

Futaba blinked, her expression briefly dumbfounded. 

“Oh my god,” she said, and turned to Akira, “Did you hear that?”

“I heard,” Akira sighed.  

It served its purpose: the ice was thoroughly broken, and Goro relaxed when the tension ebbed out of the murky, writhing emotions bundled up tight inside Futaba. She turned back to him with a scowl, her gaze still shrewd and scrutinising - but not as piercing. Goro tried not to fidget under the scrutiny. 

“Well, why’re you dressed like an escaped supermodel?” Futaba asked him, pointing quite rudely at the exposed skin of his hip, “You’re not even wearing underwear.”

“...it chafes under the bodysuit,” Goro admitted awkwardly. 

Akira coughed loudly when Futaba opened her mouth to respond; “So! As you can see, Goro’s fine. He’s still sane and sassy, just the way we like him.”

“And apparently he picked up a fashion tip or two while slumming it with the demons,” Futaba finished, slouching into her oversized hoodie. Unlike Akira, who was dressed in those grey military fatigues, she was dressed more like a civilian, with a large, baggy hoodie that was more pouch pocket than clothes, and cosy looking tracksuit bottoms designed for long periods of lounging. She was also…

There wasn’t as much puppy fat clinging to her cheeks - she looked leaner and had hit a growth spurt to boot. She was still gangly, though, knobbly knees and elbows and scrawny limbs, her skin pale in a way most shut-in’s were. The biggest change was her hair - it was cut into a short bob, her bangs longer in the front, and it made her look so much like Wakaba that an uneasy feeling pitted in the bottom of Goro’s stomach. 

Akira’s differences had been minor. Futaba’s were… alarming. This stark evidence of passing time was more unsettling than witnessing a half-ruined Tokyo or Akira having morning shadow when he woke up. Futaba in his mind had always been this bug-eyed shrimp of a girl, not this… woman. 

“You grew up,” he told her without thinking. 

“Congratulations on observing the linear nature of time,” Futaba said blandly, “Yeah, it’s been five years, remember?”

“I keep forgetting,” Goro muttered, and he didn’t miss the concerned look Akira gave him, “Time moved strangely in the Expanse…”

“Is that why you look like that?” Morgana asked curiously, “You haven’t aged a day.”

“I... have good genes,” Goro deflected. 

“Hmmm, I’m not so sure,” Futaba said, holding up her phone. On the screen was a very, very old image of Goro back during his Detective Prince days, in the dorky argyle sweater and fake smile firmly in place. He looked like a different person - too plastic and stretched thin, the flaws disgustingly artificial. Goro wrinkled his nose at it. 

“I compared this old image of you to the mugshot the CDF took when your arrival into the facility was processed,” Futaba barrelled on, “And both images are identical. Akira said you were in the Metaverse, trapped there so - maybe there was a time dilation effect? It does exist in a higher dimension, right, so its relationship to time would be vastly different to us lowly 3D beings-”

“Futaba,” Akira interrupted, “Maybe ease into the interrogation about dimensional physics.”

Futaba vibrated in place, thrusting a dramatic finger at Goro, “Akira! Akechi is living proof that humans can move to a higher dimension and survive! Kind of. I might need to run some tests to see what physiological effects prolonged exposure to the Metaverse caused-”

The mention of ‘tests’ instantly put Goro on edge. He jerked in alarm; “I’m not a labrat for you to experiment on.” 

“It’s for your own good!” Futaba protested, crossing her arms over her chest, “Who knows what weird debuffs you picked up or- or what could be happening to you internally! I mean, what did you even eat in there - aside from demons? Did the Metaverse have a cognitive version of food? And if it did, what effect would eating it have on you-”

Desperate to derail her rant - because Akira was beginning to look like he was agreeing with her, and last thing he wanted was to fend off both of their attempts to strongarm him into a physical - Goro blurted a sharp; “I only ate demons.”

Futaba stopped, her mouth hanging open. Even Akira stared at him. 

“Only demons?!” Morgana yelled. 

“It was that or starve,” Goro said flatly. 

A strange tension fell on the room. All three of them were staring at Goro with varying levels of horror, and he wondered if he had made a mistake. Kazuki had such an underreaction to his confession that he thought admitting demons were his sole diet would be taken in stride, but instead… he could taste worryconcernagitation , emotions and thoughts zipping fear-minnow fast in the murky undergrowth of their souls. 

Akira broke the taut silence by abruptly standing from his crate, taking a short half-stride to Goro’s side. Wary and confused, Goro stayed perfectly still and docile when Akira gently cupped his chin and tilted his head from side to side, intensely staring at his eyes. The contact was warm, agonisingly warm, and Goro had a fluttering yet intense urge to turn his head and sink his teeth right into the meat of Akira’s forearm, to taste that warmthumpheat of blood and the give of muscle and- 

The urge quivered in him, yanked taut like a pulled bowstring, but he swallowed it down like a jagged, sharp-edged lump. 

Instead he raised his eyebrows questioningly, his expression flat with irritation.

“His eyes look normal,” Akira said.

“Yeah, and he’s not a mindless, slavering ghoul, either,” Futaba added, “That’s a big sign too.” 

“‘He’ can hear you and is sitting right here,” Goro said peevishly, roughly yanking his face from Akira’s too-gentle grip and baring his canines, “What the fuck are you two on about?”

“When humans eat demon meat in excess,” Morgana explained carefully, “They undergo transformations sometimes, or turn… weird.”

“Zombie weird,” Futaba elaborated, “Like, craving meat all the time, and it goes from craving demon meat to human meat, and then, well, yeah. They go crazy and start trying to gorge themselves on anything warm and living nearby.” 

It sounded like a horrifically failed demonification. Humans didn’t digest demon substances well, and they either died, mutated into starving ghouls, or… well, sometimes they succeeded in becoming actual demons, but Goro felt like it was a bit of a downgrade, in all honesty. Demons were weak, unchanging creatures - humans were also weak, but they possessed a bottomless potential, a brilliant molten well of worm’seyeviewambitionchange that made them simultaneously the weakest and most powerful entity in this fucked up universe.

Goro himself was...

“Well, I don’t want to eat you,” Goro lied through his teeth, turning his nose up into the air for good measure, “First of all, Morgana is all fur which is disgusting-”

“Hey!”

“Secondly, you’re just bone and gristle.”

“Wow,” Futaba deadpanned, “Rude.”

“And thirdly,” Goro slanted an unimpressed look Akira’s way, “You’ll be too chewy.”

“Chewy?” Akira looked like he wasn’t sure if that was an insult or not, “Chewy? What does that mean?”

“Fatty meat that wasn’t properly cooked down-”

“Oi, listen here, I’d make an amazing steak-”

“Can we stop talking about eating each other?” Futaba interrupted, “It’s weird.” 

Akira mumbled an apology and Goro relaxed. The strange tension was gone.

“Hm. I guess it is documented that Persona-users like us are resistant to the corrupting influence of demons,” Futaba mused, half to herself as she cupped her chin and resumed her ‘bug under the microscope’ scrutiny of Goro, “Your Persona were always on steroids, so maybe you were extra-resistant?”

Goro just gave her a bland smile, “Probably.”

“What forbidden secrets is your reality-defying body hiding…?” Futaba mumbled, wisps of curiosityconcerniwantto know coiling like faint smoke. It was ambition, raw human ambition, bubbling white hot and snarled with too many gordian knots of emotion. 

Goro wondered if Wakaba had felt like this, when Shido had handed her a living Persona-user as an asset to her resource. That hungry, overwhelming euphoria of finally yes a means to know twisted with but doesn’t this cross the line…?

He looked away from her. 

“My ‘forbidden secrets’ will remain as such for the time being, I’m afraid,” Goro said lightly, and his words were followed by the ‘clck!’ of the kettle finishing its boil, the contraption vibrating angrily as the water rumbled inside of it, “I’m not interested in playing labrat.” 

“Like that’s new,” Morgana commented, and flicked his tail when Goro gave him a questioning look, “You always have a secret, Crow.”

That was true. 

“Fine, your body’s forbidden secrets will stay safe. For now,” Futaba said firmly, “But you are gonna tell us what happened to you after Maruki, right?”

“Futaba…” Akira whispered. 

“Sure,” Goro said, “I can do that.”

He didn’t launch into his tale immediately though. They took a pause to make cheap instant coffee ( “man, I miss dad’s coffee,” Futaba lamented) and settled back down on their respective crates. Goro idly turned his warm mug in his hands, the acrid scent of burnt coffee dulling even his insatiable appetite. 

“After the collapse of Maruki’s reality,” he began, “The Metaverse crumbled with it. You are aware of the Expanse, yes?”

“The dimension where demons come from, yeah,” Futaba answered, “We’re aware the Metaverse is linked to it in some way.”

“Linked? It is the Expanse,” Goro said, “Or, part of it. It was Yaldabaoth’s domain, a big knock off copy of the Labyrinth of Amala that ended up bloating beyond its original purpose with its master out of the picture. I mentioned it to you before, Akira, the abscess it formed.”

“Yeah,” Akira said, and said as an aside to Futaba’s questioning frown; “I’ll tell you later.”

“In any case,” Goro continued, “The Metaverse crumbled and I was carried along its flow. I fell into the Expanse itself, where I clawed out my means of survival through sheer grit and determination. Eventually I managed to find my way back here, through the half-destroyed pathway that linked the Expanse to the Metaverse.”

“Sorry but…” Futaba shook her head, “How did you survive that? Being surrounded by demons 24/7 for five years? With only demons to eat? What did you drink? When did you sleep? Just… how?”

Goro kept turning his mug. 

“...to a certain point, the Expanse isn’t real,” he murmured, his words slow and careful, trying to phrase knowledge that came instinctive to demons, “The Metaverse was a physical manifestation of cognitive thought, biological computations fed into an abstract processor that could craft it into interactable constructs. The Expanse is the same way but… bigger. Far more complex. It draws upon the entirety of humanity, whereas the Metaverse drew only on Tokyo. You can consider it a mass data repository of human ideas and Observation, but beyond actual human conceptualisation. It’s too vast.”

“But, in that case, it is real,” Futaba pointed out, “It might be born of cognitive thought and exist beyond our means, but it still has a shape and form - ergo it’s real.”

“Do you get what they’re talking about?” Morgana whispered to Akira. 

“Kinda,” Akira muttered back. 

“It isn’t real,” Goro refuted, “but there is a point where the line between ‘not real’ and ‘real’ blur, and this distinction rests within the cognition of the observer.”

After all, Amala wasn’t ‘real’, but it was ‘real’. It existed beyond the boundary of human interaction, beyond their conceptualisation - cognition - but it existed for the demons, and Goro, and their minds ran the computations that ran on something higher than biological. The processor crafted these computations into interactable constructs, nudged and aligned to the administrator’s will. Where did the line blur here? Amala, Tokyo, Metaverse - they were simulations within simulations, running concurrently and within each other, a mobius strip that fed inwards and outwards. 

How to explain this to a human, to have them understand? Goro found it difficult to conceptualise it himself, and he had the luxury of instinctive knowledge from the Magatama. As one demon told him before, his thoughts were still too ‘human’ to fully comprehend.

“What do you mean?” Futaba asked.  

“Imagine a scientist were able to simulate pain by inducing only a few neurons to fire,” Goro said, “No physical harm occurs. ‘I am in pain!’ the subject says. ‘No, you only believe you are,’ says the scientist. To the scientist, the pain is not real, to the subject, it is real. Who is right?”

“The… subject?” Morgana said hesitantly.

“The scientist,” Futaba said decisively. 

“I’d say both?” Akira suggested. 

“There is no right answer,” Goro said, “There is no wrong answer, either. Simultaneously, all are true and false, depending upon the perspective and cognition of the person answering the question.”

“Okay…” Futaba said very slowly, “What’s this got to do with the Expanse being supposedly ‘not real’ and you surviving in it?”

“The Expanse exists outside of human conceptualisation,” Goro said, “Humans cannot perceive it in the way that it is in reality - therefore, it does not exist. Demons, however, can conceptualise it, and perceive it - therefore, it does exist. The subject says they are in pain. The scientist says they are not. Do you understand?”

“I… don’t get it,” Morgana said, sounding utterly stumped. 

“Yeah, I’m… confused too,” Akira admitted. 

“It obeys the laws of the demons whose cognition dictates its existence,” Goro sighed, “Demons are just raw information, you know. Their minds run the computations. This, in turn, crafts the laws and physics of the Expanse. The laws and physics I had to obey while trapped there, no matter my human origins.”

“So, you’re saying… you weren’t bound by the laws of human reality,” Futaba said, her voice rising as the revelation came to her, “You existed on demon rules!”

“Eh?” Morgana blurted. 

Impatiently, Futaba waved her hands and turned to the clueless duo, “It runs on its own rules and those supersede the ones Akechi would’ve followed in reality.”

“Ahhh…” Akira said in the exact tone one use when they are lost but unwilling to admit it. 

“So, you functioned as a demon in the Expanse,” Futaba said, turning back to Goro, “And demons don’t get corrupted by eating other demons. They get stronger.”

Goro felt like they were stepping into dangerous territory now, skirting the truth of his existence, but he boldly kept going. Futaba would, eventually, figure it out on her own - better to seem partly cooperative to the revelation to avoid unnecessary suspicion, and to shape her hypothesis into something less… damning. He needed Akira for his plans - Futaba was a threat to his trust because of her understandable dislike of him. He needed her on side. Or, at least, not actively hostile. 

“Mm, it’s a bit more complicated than that but… yes,” Goro shrugged carelessly, “Sleep wasn’t needed there. To be honest, I didn’t need to eat either - but you do gain a bit of a power boost from devouring demons, power which I needed to survive. As a human, you’re a shining beacon of ‘all you can eat!’ to any demon within range. Almost every moment was a fight for survival.” 

The silence that followed his words was sombre.

“So…” Futaba broke it first, “If you existed like that in the Expanse, what does that mean for you here? Do you… still need food and sleep and stuff?”

“The moment I stepped back into this world, I felt starved,” Goro said with absolute, emphatic honesty, “And exhausted. I exited out of Mementos’s old entrance in Shibuya station and I… think I crawled into the nearest bit of shelter and crashed for several days. The days were a bit of a blur, in all honesty.”

“The shock of transitioning from a higher dimension to a lower one?” Futaba mused, “Your body probably struggled to adjust to returning to a different set of ‘rules’ after obeying the demon ones for so long. You’re lucky you didn’t die on the spot.”

“Probably,” Goro said mildly.

“So, wait,” Morgana said, “Are you a demon now then? Or… not? I’m confused…”

“He’s not and he is,” Futaba answered before Goro could, “Isn’t that right? I thought it was weird, your readings from the Demon Sniffers. They said you were human with signs of low-stage demonification, but that’s because it couldn’t understand what they were reading. What are you, Akechi?”

The big question. 

Goro looked at Akira. Akira looked back at him, his gaze intense and inscrutable. He could sense the relief and acceptance inside of him though - relief that his suspicions were confirmed? Had Akira already harboured suspicions that Goro was no longer completely human?

He hummed. 

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I still feel human. But I spent so long in the Expanse, I don’t know if I can trust that feeling anymore. I know I’m… not the Akechi of Before. I don’t feel the same, or think the same. I don’t…”

He looked at the mug in his hands. Somewhere inside his skull, he could feel the Magatama twitch.

“I don’t know,” he lied and admitted. 

“Crow…” Morgana said softly. 

“...we can find out,” Futaba said, “If you let me do tests-”

“No.”

“There’s no rush to find out,” Akira said firmly when Futaba looked ready to argue, “Goro’s fine right now, isn’t he? He’s eating normal food, he’s sleeping, and he hasn’t tried devouring anyone so… there’s no rush.”

“I suppose…” Futaba grumbled, and pinned Goro down with a stern look, “I know you’re hiding something, but for now… I guess I can trust you to not, like, go on a psycho rampage and kill everyone in here.”

“Thanks,” Goro said dryly. 

“Anyway, since you won’t let me cut you open…” Futaba hopped off her crate, leaving behind her untouched coffee, “You gotta show me your Persona! I want to see if it’s undergone any changes since your time in another dimension.”

Goro hesitated, but he supposed that would be fine. Loki was Loki, Robin Hood was Robin Hood and his other one… well, they didn’t need to know about that one. 

“Fine,” he sighed, and put his shitty coffee down, “But there’s nothing new to learn. You’ve seen Loki and Robin Hood before.” 

Akira frowned, his eyes worried and his mouth downturned. Goro gave him a curious look, but Akira said nothing and looked away from him, standing up to follow Futaba. Even his emotions were inscrutable, a complex knot of something tangled up in something, and it was… confusing. 

What was wrong?

The seeds were sown for Goro’s potential acceptance - any strangeness explained away by his consumption of demonic meat and his long stint in the Expanse. Even if his lack of humanity was discovered, this slight bit of dishonest honesty should ensure their trust in his good intentions remained. Why did Akira seem so… grim, then? Like he had caught Goro out in a lie and was disappointed in him?

humans, Goro mused, are so irrational.

“C’mon, hurry up, Akechi!”

He’ll worry about it later.