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The Count of Monte Cristo

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Haru was… somewhat annoyed.

Logically speaking, a wish to have a second chance, if granted, should have sent her back to when she encountered the Phantom Thieves — perhaps as far back as the beginning of the school year, when Akira had come to Tokyo and first encountered the Metaverse. Back to the start of her first year in high school made no sense. It was also highly inconvenient: most of the Phantom Thieves were still in middle school, and she had no idea where. Besides outside Tokyo, in Akira's case. And Ann and Ryuji were in the same middle school, she thought, but that didn't help her identify which middle school it was.

She knew where Makoto was, obviously, but it had quickly become clear Makoto didn't remember. Haru reached out to her anyway. They were both so lonely — it hadn't even been a year since Makoto's father died. And maybe some part of Makoto did remember, because they were friends fast, faster than they'd become friends before, even without the unifying force of the Thieves and the Metaverse. It was such a relief not to be isolated.

Haru hadn't tried to tell her the truth, though, because Mako-chan wasn't one to believe outrageous claims with no evidence. And Haru could provide no evidence, because the MetaNav was not on her phone.

(Some people might have questioned their own sanity, given the lack of evidence. Haru had no time for that.)

And without the MetaNav, which she could likely not acquire until Akira arrived, she couldn't go looking for Mona-chan — not that it would be easy if she did. She didn't know what Mona-chan had been doing, before he'd been captured in Kamoshida's Palace.

—She couldn't do anything about Kamoshida via his Palace, but she could cast her eyes down, use her softest, most delicate, most refined voice, and say Mr. Kamoshida made her… uncomfortable. No, she really couldn't say more… It convinced at least one fellow first-year girl not to try out for the volleyball team. It was better than nothing.

She knew where Yusuke lived, if not his middle school, but she wasn't sure how to approach him. If she understood correctly he had been illogically loyal to Madarame for quite some time. That didn't completely rule out contacting him somehow, just as a friend, if she could find a justification for it… Perhaps she could start visiting Madarame's exhibits — 'coincidentally' meet him there. It merited consideration.

She initially thought she knew where Futaba was, too, but when she went to Yongen-Jaya, she found an inferior coffeeshop with a different name, and no sign of Futaba or Sakura-san.

…Right. They hadn't been there forever. In fact, Futaba's mother probably wasn't even dead yet.


…Maybe she could get the MetaNav immediately, after all.

Haru was no Futaba, but she knew how to do basic online research. The "Second Detective Prince" wasn't — how would Ryuji put it? — A Thing yet, and no one was talking about "mental shutdowns". There was a little more to be found about "psychotic breakdowns", even after she filtered out articles obviously using the term more generically. The mentions she was sure about only went back maybe… five or six months, and they weren't common, and none of them were people who were particularly important. So, it looked like Akechi was active in the Metaverse, but without the extensive experience he'd passed off as natural aptitude; with everything she'd learned in her time as a Phantom Thief, she should be able to deal with him by herself if she had to.

She only found one mention of Akechi by name, and it was only from early March. Middle school student Goro Akechi had assisted the police in identifying a small-time drug dealer who had a psychotic breakdown. He wasn't described as a detective at all — not even a sleuth — just a concerned citizen (hah!). The article also mentioned Akechi had received a full scholarship to Jikken Academy.

Haru wasn't sure, but she didn't think that was where he'd been in the future. Maybe he'd transferred when his reputation took off.

At first she considered stalking Akechi until he went into the Metaverse, and she could slip in behind him and get the Nav. But she wasn't sure she'd be much better at stalking than Mako-chan (she'd heard plenty about that), and Akechi was undoubtedly more difficult — and dangerous — prey. Fortunately it didn't take long to come up with an alternative (and rather poetic) approach.

Haru left school early, staked out Akechi's school (by the drab gray uniforms, definitely not where he'd been in the future), and caught him as he was leaving. "Excuse me, Akechi-kun? Can I talk to you?"

When he turned, she caught a glimpse of his flat expression before it twisted into something… approximating his smarmy crowd-pleasing smile. She might have thought it was a real smile if she hadn't seen the change. "I'm sorry, have we met…?"

"Not yet." She stepped in closer than was strictly polite. "But we need to talk about how I'm going to be blackmailing you."

The plastic smile didn't slip. "I beg your pardon? And I didn't catch your name."

"It's Haru Okumura, and I should mention that if anything happens to me I've made arrangements for the release of allegations that you are Masayoshi Shido's bastard son and are engaged in illegal errands for him." Her smile was entirely real. "Very vague, yes, but more than enough to make Shido think you're a liability, not an asset. To say nothing of other things you might want him not to know."

"How do you — what do you want?" The fake smile had vanished, to be replaced with… was that a hint of real fear?

Best take care of that, Akechi wasn't very smart when he got upset, and his getting irrational would be counterproductive. "Oh, nothing terribly much… I just need you to access the Metaverse for me. Just the once, I expect."

His eyes widened. "How— Who are you?"

She'd already told him her name, but— "You can call me Noir. Now, the Metaverse? I'm sure you have business you'd like to get to."

"And if I don't, I suppose you'll share those allegations."

"Oh, no," she said earnestly. "That would probably end up a bit permanent, considering Shido's temperament, so I'll save it for if you turn on me. For not doing what I want, I'll… drop a few words about your background and untrustworthiness — make sure they get to law enforcement." Where he still didn't have the reputation to deal with even the most unsubstantiated rumors — not with where he was coming from.

Akechi's face went completely flat for a good five seconds before he said, "Fine. You asked for it." Before she could reply, he pulled out his phone, unlocked it, and hit the app. "Matsu Ishikawa. Jikken Academy. Laboratory." The world melted around them, and reformed to find them standing outside a barbed wire fence surrounding a blocky building with slit windows.

Well then.

Well then, Astarte said in her mind. Her mask was cool against her face.

Excellent. Since her Persona depended on her, she'd thought she would keep it, but it was nice to be sure.

"Happy now?" Akechi said, voice brittle. He was in his "Black Mask" costume. Almost, at least — the helmet didn't stick out as far, closer to a normal mask.

Haru checked her phone, to see the Nav had indeed appeared. "Yes, thank you." She looked around. "This is all very ugly. Is it the work of a teacher or a student?"

"The principal," Akechi said after a moment. "Why?"

"Are you planning to steal his Treasure — no, you're planning to do something to his Shadow." Obviously. "You're challenging a Palace alone?"

This wasn't a large Palace compared to the three she'd seen; even so, tackling it alone seemed like a terrible idea. He must have soloed the space station to kill her father, but that was after another two and a half years of experience.

"Yes," Akechi gritted out. "You're in the Metaverse, all right? You got what you wanted. Now stay out of my way." He turned away.

"Akechi-kun," Haru said sweetly. "If you kill Wakaba Isshiki's Shadow, I will find out, and I will make you pay for it."

"I have no idea who you're talking about."

"And we should exchange phone numbers!"

Haru took pity and let him leave after that. For someone like Akechi, having a total stranger show up and start throwing his deepest secrets around must be very distressing. She couldn't deny it was satisfying to see him squirm, but as long as she had the upper hand, taking advantage of it too much felt like bullying.

She really wanted to go beat up some Shadows in the institution-Palace, but responsibility won out. Haru went back to the real world, and headed home.

Except for how she somehow found herself on the route for Okumura Foods corporate headquarters instead. Funny how that happened.

She tried the same keywords, and then she was there in the vestibule of her father's Palace.

It might be smaller than it had been — would be? — in the future. It was hard to tell. There wasn't any good place to view the entire space station. But it made sense to her, that her father was already distorted now, but got worse after more involvement with Shido (even apart from dehumanizing his employees he'd hired a hit man). Maybe if—

Wait. Akechi hadn't seemed to recognize her name at all. Was her father not involved in Shido's conspiracy yet? Or was it Akechi who wasn't in far enough yet to know all the players? So many questions…

But she had the Nav now, and Astarte. She could do something, now. She could look for Mona-chan.

Maybe she could tell Mako-chan. Haru certainly owed her some sort of explanation, after giving her a sealed envelope to give to her sister if Haru died, disappeared, went insane, had a sudden personality change, or was otherwise incapacitated.

"It went fine," she reassured Mako-chan the next day. "I wouldn't say the risk is completely over, and you should hold on to the letter, but hopefully it won't be needed."

"What have you gotten into, Haru?" Makoto asked.

Haru didn't hesitate. "Something necessary. I can tell you, but — it's not safe, Mako-chan. And you would end up lying to people."

Makoto didn't hesitate, either. "Tell me."

"For the first part, it's — easier to show you."

After school, she brought Makoto to the exterior of Kamoshida's Palace. Not past that, though, because Makoto's clothes hadn't changed and she didn't seem to be hearing Anat — or Johanna — at all, and while a sufficiently stressful situation could trigger an awakening… Haru wouldn't feel right, leading a friend into danger just to get help. Astarte was her ultimate Persona. She'd be fine on her own.

So she told Makoto about the Metaverse and Palaces and Treasures and changing hearts and Shadows and about Astarte and about the other, highly untrustworthy Persona-user in Tokyo — and neglected to mention that many people could summon a Persona, if they tried, or that Makoto in particular was a very likely candidate, or that she probably had the Nav herself now.

That night, Akechi texted her.

GA: What is a treasure and what happens if you steal it

Haru raised an eyebrow. She hadn't really expected him to contact her.

HO: Very abrupt, Akechi-kun! You should be more polite when you're asking for a favor.
GA: What would you accept for the information?

There probably were some things Akechi knew which she would like to know — for example, whether her father was involved with Shido yet, and what exactly Akechi was doing at this point, and the state of things in Mementos. Whether Akechi would go along with it was another question.

HO: We may be able to arrange something.
HO: Meet me in your principal's Palace Saturday at 3:00.

Oh, and before they got any farther—

HO: How secure is your phone? Does anyone else have access to it?

GA: It's pay as you go, so I wouldn't think so.

Hmm. Pay-as-you-go phone, less-than-illustrious high school — Akechi might be working for Shido, but Shido had yet to really invest in him.

Maybe she could keep it that way.

It felt a little mean, contemplating how she could prevent Akechi from attaining the comfortable life he'd had in the future, but his association with Shido had ultimately gotten him killed. It was for his own good really.

And anyway, Akechi's comfortable life had been bought with many other people's lives or futures. Put that way, she didn't feel sorry at all.

Haru woke up.

"You're all right!" Queen said. No, Makoto. No, Queen, there was mask and scarf and—

"Her health is half back, but not her magic," Akechi said, somewhere off to the left. "We need to get out of here now."

Haru sat up, a little unsteadily. What on Earth (or not) had happened? Makoto had awakened her Persona? Akechi was in Kamoshida's Palace? The last thing she remembered was—

She'd decided she had plenty of time before she had to meet Akechi. She'd gone into Kamoshida's Palace with the intention of looking for Mona-chan — she wasn't worried about it, all the Shadows she'd spotted were fairly low-level, and none of them seemed to have Nuclear. She'd blazed through them easily en route to the dungeons.

But, she remembered now, there were a lot of them. And sometimes they got lucky. And some of them could Confuse, and she threw that off fast but not immediately, and the elephant ones could do a lot of damage when she didn't know to immediately get them with Psy, her health had been getting worryingly low, and…

And then the Heavenly Punishers had showed up, and started throwing Bless attacks at her, one after another, and—

Haru looked at Akechi. He was still Black Mask, but it was Robin Hood hovering behind him.

Haru felt cold. "Did you have to Samarecarm me?"

"…Recarm, and you're damned lucky I don't use Robin Hood much, or I would have ditched that for something more useful by now. Not like I could revive myself."

Right, Robin Hood would also be much lower level now — and he'd only learned Samarecarm while he was pretending to be a Phantom Thief. "…Thank you. For the revival. What… how did you come to be here?"

"Akechi-san came looking for you when you missed meeting him," Makoto said. "He found me waiting for you. I — told him where you'd gone and that you were late—"

"And that your informational deadman switch was still active—"

"—And he agreed to go looking for you."

"I was blackmailed. Again."

"Maybe that should be 'blackmailed, still'?" Haru asked, accepting Makoto's help to get to her feet. "It's the same information."

"Different person makes it again," Akechi huffed. "Then she insisted on coming along into the Palace — does every damned school in this city have an associated Palace? — even though I told her she would be completely useless—"

"He didn't think I was useless after those horseman-Shadows threw off his spells and set him on fire and he was knocked off his feet—"

"Yes, that would be easily half an hour after I had to jump into a completely avoidable nest of owlmen after you charged in screaming at the top of your lungs to rescue a cognitive double—"

"Not that you bothered explaining cognitive doubles until considerably later even though you had ample time to before I attacked—"

"After I had to sacrifice two of my very rare Snuff Souls to get you mobile again after you refused to be sensible and leave after you awakened your Persona—"

"Which reminds me, you were less than helpful during that—"

"I was trying to set up an attack, and I would have stepped in before you got permanently damaged! And if I'd stepped in sooner you might not have gotten your Persona, I don't know what you're complaining about!"

"He called me a — a — a — and you just stood there!"

"It's a rude world, grow up and get used to it!"

"Grow up?! I'm not the one using a lightsaber—"

"It fucking works you prissy little—"

They had slowly progressed to actually screaming in each other's faces. Haru felt very old. "Maybe we should get out of the Palace before we attract more Heavenly Punishers," she suggested.

Both of the others agreed with alacrity. They must have run into some of those, too.

They managed to avoid all but one fight on the trip out. It was enough for Haru to observe that Makoto had a simple revolver and brass knuckles, and Akechi was using a beam sword and laser gun, which looked rather odd with his Black Mask getup. (…Though they hadn't looked exactly normal with his 'good guy' suit, either, now that she thought about it. …Then again she wasn't sure anything would have looked normal with his 'good guy' suit with the possible exception of a drum major baton.)

When the three of them tumbled out into the street outside Shuujin, it was getting dark. Makoto yelped and snatched out her phone. "Oh, no, Sis is going to—" She stopped, looking at the phone. "Sis has to work late, and won't be back for… at least two more hours."

Haru checked her own phone, not surprised that no one had remarked on her absence, either. They'd notice if she kept this up, though.

Akechi just checked the time, and huffed again. "And I've missed curfew, what a perfect end to the day." A beat. "Dorm curfew."

Since Akechi seemed to have given up on his curfew, Haru directed the group to the nearest Big Bang Burger and paid for everyone's meals. It was the least she could do. She didn't even really mind paying for Akechi's second burger after he more or less inhaled the first one.

She had been careless, plain and simple — too used to Akira taking care of recovery items and pacing things and watching everyone's health and magic levels, too used to having a team to help if things went bad. She hadn't even looked for loot beyond checking a single treasure chest which turned out to be locked. If Makoto hadn't stuck around waiting for her — if Akechi hadn't come looking for her—

She bowed to both of them. "I am truly sorry for putting you to so much trouble. I will not allow this to happen again."

Akechi fake-smiled at her, but his eyes were hard. "It better not. You can't just set things up so I'll be destroyed if you die and then try to get yourself killed in completely unrelated ways." (Both the charm of the smile and the menace of the gaze were slightly undercut by the smear of mustard beside his mouth. It matched his uniform tie.)

That was a fair complaint. "I'm sorry about that, too, Akechi-kun."

"Maybe if you got rid of whatever arrangements—"

"I don't trust you nearly enough for that, Akechi-kun," she said demurely. Besides, while it wasn't fair to ruin him if she died in some unrelated way, it was still the right thing to do. Separating Shido from his Metaverse assassin would improve a lot of things about the future. "But I do think you've more than paid for an explanation about Treasures. The person who creates a Palace—"

"No," Akechi interrupted. "I want to trade information for information for that — you can ask me… whatever you're thinking of, I can find out. I have… sources."

Hopefully those sources didn't involve hurting anyone. "And in exchange for this… incident?"

"You help me with the Palace at Jikken. There are some parts that are proving… difficult to overcome alone. Enemies which inflict ailments. That sort of thing."

"Just Haru, or both of us?" Makoto said before Haru could say anything.

"Either. Up to you."

Makoto leaned forward, eyes narrowed. "Even though I'm useless?"

"…You're a complete novice, but the healing is useful — and you have differently-natured attacks, that's useful. So I wouldn't say no to either of you."

And Makoto, Haru could tell, was not going to be put off doing this. "One trip into the Palace at Jikken Academy," she said. "Any additional ones to be negotiated at a later time."

"Fine," Akechi said. "I'd be open to working on targets of your choice in return."

"I'll think about it. As for information… to start with, I want to know whether and to what extent Kunikazu Okumura is involved with the people you work for."

"How is Kunikazu Okumura involved with Shido's people," Akechi repeated. "Your father, right?"

"Yes." Was he really ignorant of any involvement of her father's, or just faking it? "Can you do it?"

"I'll need a few days, but yes." Akechi slid out of the seat. "I should be going."

"'The people he works for'?" Makoto said. "Who would they be?"

"Very bad people, Niijima-san," Akechi said in a tone of voice that might have been serious or might have been mocking. "I'll be in touch about Jikken." He flashed another very fake smile and loped out of the restaurant. He never had gotten rid of the mustard.

Makoto turned to Haru. "Haru?"

"It's… I don't know as much as I'd like to. There's a… conspiracy, a corrupt group of people centered around a particular person… The strange thing is, Akechi wants to destroy that person, too, he's just working for him - doing his dirty work, mostly — because… I was never entirely clear on why, exactly. I think he comes up with terrible ideas and then just refuses to relinquish them no matter how obvious it becomes that they're terrible."

Makoto nodded slowly. "You said not to trust him, but I didn't have any chance of getting far enough to find you without him. Is visiting this — other Palace with him going to be all right?"

Haru bit her lip. "I think so. I won't ask you to go if you're worried, though."

"Being worried is more of a reason for me to go."

Makoto very kindly did not call Haru out on not telling her she could awaken her own Persona, but Haru knew Mako-chan was on to her, all the same.

Haru was more than half expecting Akechi would want them to go to his principal's Palace immediately, on Sunday, but there was silence on his end. That was a relief. Makoto could do with a little more experience, and Haru wanted to do more prep.

She wasn't sure where Akira had picked up his more esoteric medicines, but some of the healing items had looked like they came from a regular drugstore, and Ann had mentioned some of the lower-level ones were just… vending-machine type drinks. Haru needed to look into that. And she needed to get her garden started as soon as possible, and try to replicate her special restorative vegetables. Weapons and armor were mostly from the airsoft store in Shibuya; Haru had visited there herself, out of curiosity. She'd see what she could afford.

She could not afford nearly as much as she was hoping, as it turned out, not and keep anything left for all the healing items she wanted to look for. Haru evaluated priorities, and eventually settled on getting a better model gun for Makoto. Makoto could probably do with some more combat practice before punching too many Shadows, and Haru had the better Persona to make up for worse weapons (not to mention, hers were even more expensive than Makoto's). At least she got Mr. Iwai's acknowledgement as an acceptable customer — he had initially been even more nonplussed by a first-year high school girl than by a third-year high school girl.

She'd sell some jewelry, maybe. And pay closer attention to money drops from Shadows. And look for loot.

In the afternoon, she and Makoto went back to Kamoshida's Palace for some random Shadow-fighting and looting. It wasn't as good as being on a team, but it was better, with both of them. Makoto even came up with Queen as a code name without any prompting. If only they would find Mona-chan! Then they'd really be on their way to being Phantom Thieves again…

Maybe she should be staking out Shibuya Station watching for cats? But he could be going in or out of Mementos at any time! The only time-place combination she knew was Kamoshida's dungeons almost two years in the future, and what if they did something that changed that? Stealing Kamoshida's Treasure would certainly change it — would change everything — but how in good conscience could they let the Palace stand?

Or should she even be considering stealing Treasures at all? Thinking about the Shadows they'd found in the depths of Mementos…

Being the leader was hard.

Haru dreamed she was having coffee with Akira and trying to ask him about medicine, but somehow everything she said ended up being about luak coffee, and everything he said was something about papal robes of all things.

They didn't hear from Akechi on Monday, either, or Tuesday. Wednesday morning, a news story broke about a government worker of some description being arrested for disorderly conduct after abruptly announcing his intention to 'fight' everyone else in his subway car, screaming profanities and verbal abuse, and tearing people's shoes off to hit them with. He was currently hospitalized, but had already resigned. So at least she knew what Akechi had been up to!

He texted that afternoon.

GA: Jikken Palace tomorrow afternoon?
GA: I have the information you wanted.

When Haru mentioned the need for code names to Akechi he tried to name everyone after colors — or possibly after Featherman characters — but he didn't argue when she told him they were already decided, and he would be Crow. Then it was time to face his principal's Palace.

Apparently Akechi had already made it through the yard and in the back door of Matsu Ishikawa's laboratory and through the physical plant in the basement. But he hadn't made it much farther, because the back hallways were roamed by men in biohazard suits who turned into swarms of Confusion-inflicting Gallows Flowers.

"They go down easily enough with Loki's fire spells," Akechi explained as they peered around a corner. "But if they get me…"

"It's hard to do anything while Confused," Haru agreed. "I have a spell to cure that. And I think there are some armor types that will reduce the chance of getting it to begin with, but I'm not sure how to obtain them…" Why, why had she never asked about these things?

"Recovery should be enough," Akechi said.

"Unless they get all three of us," Makoto pointed out. "Which isn't impossible if there are enough of them."

"I haven't died here, obviously," Akechi replied. "It's always worn off before that point. I just get low enough on health that I have to fall back. And you have healing. It should be fine to at least try it."

Part of Haru felt it would be smartest to listen to Makoto, who was the strategy person, but the rest of her rebelled at the idea of retreating from Gallows Flowers. They hadn't even shown up in any of the Palaces the Thieves had hit during her tenure — she'd only encountered them when they'd done a little raiding in the upper levels of Mementos to get more experience for her. "Let's do it."

It wasn't easy. Fighting was harder without someone to assess their enemies' numbers or reel off their strengths and weaknesses; happily Akechi had memorized many of the ones he'd encountered before, but that didn't cover everything. Similarly, there was no one with an intuitive grip on their location — much less the Shadows' locations. Setting up ambushes was challenging, and the Palace's security level kept creeping up despite use of the "stealthanols" Akechi was carrying. Haru's health was high enough that she was riding it through with minimal healing, but the other two ended up wearing dozens of adhesive bandages, in order to preserve Makoto's magic. They ducked into storage rooms to smash open crates, but had no way of knowing which of them contained anything beforehand. They found two treasure chests, one of them only because Makoto tripped on the stairs, and the other one locked and only accessible because Akechi had lockpicks. The decrease in accuracy from the grenade launcher she'd been using and this new-old one was frustrating.

Just as they were closing in on the doors marked PROCESSING, which had to lead to the next area, and a safe room just before it, the Gallows Flowers came in even more numbers and brought a pair of fire-resistant Brutal Cavalrymen along, who for some reason kept targeting Makoto. Through a haze of Confusion, Haru saw Akechi knock Makoto to the floor, bolt in a half-circle around the fight, and hit one of the Cavalrymen with what she realized had to be his unique Shadow-frenzying spell. It immediately took out its fellow and half the Gallows Flowers before hurtling away down the hall, still screaming in rage. Unfortunately, on the way out it took down Akechi with a Gallows Flower to the face (what sort of skill was involved in that?). Fortunately, the Confusion wore off and Haru was able to take out the rest of the enemies and hustle everyone into the safe room.

"What was that?" Makoto demanded as soon as she was done with the healing.

"You mean knocking you down? I had to make sure it wasn't paying attention to you when I cast the spell," Akechi said reasonably.

"I meant the spell. You sent that horseman into some kind of — berserker rage—"

"So it would turn on the others. I never would have made it this far without that spell, it's extremely useful."

Put that way it sounded all very reasonable — no different from using Confuse or Brainwash on an enemy — but Haru still couldn't dissociate the frenzying spell from Akechi using it on himself, there in the engine room, just before his death. She tried not to let it show on her face, but wasn't sure how successful she was. "I can see how that spell is useful for you, Akechi-kun, working alone, but it is risky, and might throw battle plans into disarray. As long as we're working together, could you be sure to consult us before making use of it?"

"…Fine." He muttered something which might have been "it's a really cool spell". Haru begged to differ.

"We should probably leave off here," she said instead of pursuing that. "We're all pretty tired." Makoto nodded.

"Fine," Akechi said again. "Information exchange now?"

Well, it was a safe room, and they could all probably do with a breather even before heading back. "All right. You first."

"Actually," Makoto broke in, "before that, could I ask a question? Haru, you seem to have more experience, but — as far as you've mentioned — you only have one Persona, while Akechi-kun has two? Why is that? Should I expect to get a second Persona?"

"No," Haru said. "Well, actually — it's possible your Persona will evolve, eventually. But most people, almost all people, have only one Persona at a time." She glanced at Akechi. "Do you… know why you have two?" By the time she'd joined everyone had just taken it for granted that Akira had multiple Personas, so she'd never asked. Maybe Ann or Ryuji would have known, or Mona-chan. "Did you… recruit either of them, from somewhere?"

Akechi frowned deeply. "No, I didn't. Most people just have one?" And there was the smug smile she hated.

"Where did the second one come from, though?" Makoto pressed.

"Are you jealous?" Akechi's smile got even smugger.

"I'm curious."

"You'll just have to stay that way."

Makoto glared, and then suddenly she smiled kindly. "Oh, I understand. You could have just said so — this is all very complicated, neither of us is going to judge you for not knowing why you have two."

Akechi apparently decided to just pretend the whole exchange never happened, and turned to Haru. "Shido's representatives have not yet made any contact with Kunikazu Okumura," Akechi said. "But they are looking to bring in more businessmen in the next few months, and he's on the short list of candidates. Unless something changes they'll send someone to talk to him in maybe July."

That was… He'd been recruited just to get more businessmen? He'd joined with no particular personal stake? And she'd never realized the dark places he was walking into, hadn't noticed for two years how far he was gone?

But he hadn't joined yet. Rejecting Shido's overtures would just make an enemy of him, but— "What if, before they made any contact, he were to suddenly have a change of heart and rearrange all his business practices to be kinder and more considerate of worker welfare?"

Akechi blinked. "Uh… I expect they'd think he'd lost his mind and steer clear. That doesn't seem very likely, though."

"That's where my answers come in." Haru explained as best she could about Palaces and Treasures and how Treasures could be stolen to cause changes of heart. Makoto had already heard it all, but she listened just as intently as Akechi did.

When she was done, Akechi looked deeply troubled. "That's… I need to think about that. That doesn't strike you as… as… killing parts of someone just because…?"

Huh, maybe Akechi hadn't just been making up all his supposed moral qualms about stealing hearts? "If he gets involved with the conspiracy, sooner or later all of him will get killed."

"Sooner or later everyone gets killed," Akechi said. "Okay, information traded. We should go. But first, can we just go far enough to look past the door?"

Haru had never claimed to be the most sensible member of the team.

Past the door, the walls and floor went from gray to white. The Shadows in biohazard gear were mixed with Shadows in white labcoats. And there were three clear plexiglass boxes, each on a pushcart, each containing a snarling, feral… wolf-man? ape-man? They had short leashes tied at the top of the boxes, and clawed futilely at the plexiglass.

As they watched, a biohazard-suited cognition pushed one of the boxes down the hall. As it passed their vantage point, Haru saw that the 'leash' was a piece of dull yellow cloth. Huh.

"Oh, I don't like that at all," Makoto breathed. Akechi didn't say anything.

Back in the real world, there were stilted goodbyes, a three-way split of the money and two-way split of the other loot (Makoto waived her share), and subdued agreements to text later about future Palace-raiding. Riding the train to Makoto's (where she'd claim to have been all afternoon), Haru considered what they'd seen further. "What kind of school is Jikken?"

Makoto had her phone out. "Jikken Academy is a college preparatory high school for students with high potential and 'suboptimal' backgrounds. Its graduates have a decent acceptance rate, considering — but it also has relatively high dropout and expulsion rates."


"It actually does have dorms. I admit I was anticipating otherwise."

To Haru's mingled relief and shame, Makoto agreed that they should prioritize her father's Palace over Kamoshida's without Haru having to ask. There was no time limit with Kamoshida, after all. In return, Haru insisted Makoto couldn't neglect her scholastic responsibilities, and had she considered student council? (She couldn't be what diverted Mako-chan from being student council president!) Haru spent some time getting her garden started and looking for more medical supplies.

And thinking. Mostly thinking.

Taking Akechi to her father's Palace was the last thing she wanted to do, but even Kamoshida or Ishigawa's Palace would be challenging at best for a two-person no-navigator team, and in the future her father's Palace had been much worse than either of them. Akechi would be one more competent fighter, and while he obviously wasn't a natural team player he'd adapted fairly well over the course of the joint excursion. If she could rely on the security of her blackmail, bringing Akechi could help a lot.

If she couldn't rely on her blackmail, they were in deep trouble, but she wasn't sure bringing Akechi to her father's Palace would make things any worse.

She did not like this.

Akira would have known how to deal with all this.

Group chat:

HO: Would you be interested in trading Palace assistance? At a two-to-one ratio, since there are two of us.
GA: I would. That ridiculous castle?
HO: No. Somewhere else.
GA: Your father's Palace, then. All right.
MN: I'm trying to come up with equitable terms for this that will accommodate the vagaries of everyone's schedules.
GA: Understood.
GA: Evenings and nights are difficult for me.
MN: I'll take that into account.

GA: Are you open to further information exchanges, Noir?
HO: I'll think about it.

The Shadows in the space station were, on average, weaker than she remembered, and safe rooms seemed more frequent. They still almost died on the first day due to Haru failing to remember Awakened God-type Shadows reflected gun attacks until after she'd already fired several grenades at one. She avoided having to get revived this time, at least, but she had to use the Life Stone she'd found in their trip to Ishikawa's Palace, and two doses of a drug from the drugstore that restored health but played hell with her aim. She ran into the wall while they were retreating back to the nearest safe room. Twice.

Once in the safe room, Akechi pulled out a little black notebook and pen from somewhere in his costume (which did not look like it should have space for carrying stationery) and started scribbling furiously, not even waiting for healing.

"Are those notes on Shadows?" Makoto asked, trying to look over his shoulder.

Akechi twisted away. "Yes. Some of these I haven't seen before."

Makoto paused. "Could… we maybe see the notes on Shadows?"

"…Let me know which one you're wondering about and I'll tell you if it's in here."

"It seems like it would be much more practical to make copies of the notes for everyone," Makoto prodded.

Akechi pulled the book in defensively, but his eyes were calculating.

In the end, in order to get custody of the notebook for forty-eight hours, Haru had to explain about navigator abilities, which she didn't mind, and about what she'd meant by recruiting Personas, which she did mind. They did not want an Akechi with access to all Akira's powers.

It did pay off in an unexpected way, though. Makoto stayed up all night photocopying the entire notebook. The second two-thirds was all painstakingly neat notes on Shadows — descriptions, strengths and weaknesses if known, observed attacks, strategies, and even some attempts at sketches. It would be useful, especially since Mako-chan seemed intent on memorizing it immediately. The first third, though, appeared to be a rather stilted 'starship log'.

"This is a code," Makoto said, showing Haru the copies. "Or possibly some very awkward creative writing, but I think it's a code."

Haru flipped through a few pages. Was Akechi really encoding assassinations and… whatever else Shido was up to as shipments and shore leave and crew commendations? "Can you break it?"

"Not immediately… and I don't want to make any promises, I've never tried this before… but I can certainly try."

Akechi never mentioned the part of the notebook not on Shadows, hadn't asked them not to look at it when he handed the book over and never offered an explanation for it, but later, the next time she saw him writing in the notebook, it looked like the earlier pages had all been torn out.

The laboratory Palace was probably a little easier than the space station in terms of enemies, but it was difficult in other ways. At first, it was just grotesque and off-putting, full of labcoat-wearing cognitions carving up snarling beasts and sewing them back together different, to lurch around like Frankensteins. It was weird and disgusting and made Haru awkwardly grateful for the bloodlessness of robots.

Rather embarrassingly, it wasn't until halfway through their third trip in that Haru realized the snarling beasts were Ishikawa's cognitions of the students. Once you knew that, the laboratory turned from grotesque and unpleasant to horrific. Any qualms about taking on a Palace at Akechi's request disappeared rapidly.

(She was pretty sure both Akechi and Makoto had known since that first look. Those mustard-colored leashes were Jikken's uniform ties.)

(Haru wondered what had happened at Jikken, in her future. Had Akechi stalled out on completing the Palace, until Shido transferred him, leaving Jikken behind? Or had he made it through on his own, and given Ishikawa a mental shutdown? Honestly, she… wasn't sure how much she would blame Akechi, for that.)

Group chat:

MN: Akechi-kun, I want you to teach me how to make lockpicks.
MN: And that Stealthanol substance.
MN: And Goho-Ms.
GA: Why?
MN: Because we are obviously going through them faster than you can replenish them.
GA: True.
GA: I'm not sure how to work this logistically.
HO: We can take an afternoon off from the Palaces if we really need to. These are valuable tools.
MN: Oh, but the safe room is IN SIGHT!
GA: You might be able to reverse engineer the tools given examples, Niijima-san.
GA: That's how I started making them to begin with. I'll pass you some tomorrow.

They were making progress, it was just so slow. Sometimes they didn't even make it to the next safe room in one go, so they'd have to cover all the same ground again. It was exhausting. Mako-chan could apparently keep up relentless Palace exploration and stellar scholastic performance simultaneously, but Haru was struggling. Fortunately she'd had all of this before, even if she didn't remember everything, so she was — managing. More or less.

Akechi was somehow finding time for school, the two Palaces, the occasional psychotic breakdown — some unfortunate unnamed-in-the-news high school student abruptly melted down in public and broke both hands punching a statue in the face before being subdued; a hostess club employee went berserk and seriously injured several customers with wine bottles — and whatever other dirty work he was doing for Shido. Haru didn't know how he did it. There was still no public detective work. She wondered when that would start.

The loot from the Palaces improved some, but she still ended up tapping her own resources to upgrade her grenade launcher. It wasn't as if she wore the more ostentatious jewelry anyway.

Hopefully no one would ask where any of it had gone.