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Queen of Hearts

Chapter Text

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

Makoto sat at the interrogation room table, breathing heavily and shivering. The water bucket used to wake her earlier had thoroughly soaked into her uniform leaving the air biting and frigid to her. Every time she shifted, the wet clothes would rub painfully against the numerous unseen bruises.

The door opened and she forced herself to look up. Her left eye was swollen, and combined with the drugs still in her system, it was genuinely hard to tell who was approaching. Not until she heard her interrogator speak, anyway.

“So, it really is you,” Sae said. Her voice sounded completely void of emotion.

Makoto blinked to focus her eyes and stared up at her sister.

“You look terrible,” Sae said, sitting down across from her. She noticed the used needle left on the floor nearby and scowled, before turning her attention back to Makoto. “...Why? Did you think you’d be free from consequence due to your relation to me?”

“Sis…” Makoto said weakly. Consequence? Why am I even facing consequences right now?

“Don’t call me that!” Sae snapped. “You were read the charges you’re facing, right? Do you think after all that you can still call me your sister and act like things are okay?”

Makoto looked down at the table, feeling her eyes tear up slightly. Hearing that hurt more than the officers’ abuse.

Sae gave a pained look, before opening her folder, taking out some files and papers. She briefly looked over them, and when she spoke again, she refused to actually look at Makoto. “The earliest incident we could find on the Phantom Thieves is from April. Your former gym instructor. Do you remember?”

“Kamoshida, yes,” Makoto answered, her voice tired and quiet. Phantom Thieves? Is that why I’m here?

“I heard the reports on your arrest,” Sae continued. “You were apprehended in the midst of an odd phenomena, right? Is that related to how you steal hearts? How did you even come to the idea of doing that in the first place?”

“...what do you want me to say?” Makoto asked.

“I want you to tell me the entire story of your criminal behavior,” Sae said. "Tell me all about the Phantom Thieves."

Makoto’s mouth twitched slightly. Part of her wanted to refuse to talk, to not say anything. Another part of her wanted desperately to fill her sister in. Were the drugs or beatings responsible for one of those feelings? Which one did it cause? Which feeling should she listen to?

“I haven’t got all day,” Sae said. “Would you rather tell the story to me, or let the police come in again? I can't do anything to shield you anymore, and the sooner you explain, the sooner you’ll be able to rest safely in solitary confinement.”

Makoto shuddered as she suppressed a sob, and began speaking. “It… began the day… or rather night… after Shujin received a transfer student.”

~~~

4/11 - Monday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

It had been a long Monday. Mondays usually felt longer than most days, except Thursday, for some reason, but today had been the day a new second-year had transferred in from some town in the countryside. And said second-year happened to have been recently convicted for assault and was attending the school on probation.

Someone higher up appears to have leaked the record, as much as Makoto may try to deny that fact, as the school was filled with murmurs about this Amamiya from the moment he set foot inside Shujin.

Makoto felt drained from attempting to study and work in the library while tuning the rumors out. She did talk to people about keeping it quiet, but the whispers were rather insistent. She was utterly exhausted when she got home, so as soon as she finished the dishes dinner left behind, she began getting ready for bed.

“Going to sleep already?” Sae asked as Makoto left the bathroom in her nightgown.

“I’m feeling rather tired today,” Makoto said.

“I see,” Sae said. “You haven’t been staying up too late, have you? I want you to study, but if you’re up all night-”

“Don’t worry, Sis,” Makoto smiled. “I’ve been making sure I go to sleep on time. Today was just a long day. You heard about that transfer student we received, right?”

“I did,” Sae frowned. “Listen, with that probation of his, he won’t be trying anything. I don’t want you to pay him any mind. Just-”

“Focus on furthering myself. Don’t worry, Sis. I was going to be doing just that.”

“Alright,” Sae said, finally smiling back. “Goodnight, then.”

“Goodnight,” Makoto replied, heading into her bedroom while Sae returned to reading a newspaper.

She climbed under the covers, nesting the blankets around her, closing her eyes in an attempt to will herself to sleep. Part of her was wondering about the student those rumors concerned; if her, an unrelated party, was exhausted hearing them, what would he be going through?

No, Makoto thought. It doesn’t concern you. Just do as Sis says and focus on furthering yourself for now. Fretting about a criminal isn’t going to help her provide for you.

She frowned, turning over to her other side. Just thinking that made her feel a knot in her stomach. She hoped it wouldn’t keep her awake.

~~~

It didn’t. At the very least, she must have fallen asleep at some point, because the sound of dripping water and some chains bumping against a wall woke her up.

She slowly sat up, eyes widening as she found her arms were chained together. She felt her heartbeat start to increase as she slowly took in the room she was in. There were iron bars for a door, an ordinary wooden plank of a bed, chains everywhere… if she had to guess, she’d say she was in some sort of old fashioned prison or dungeon. Of course, neither of those explained why the walls were lined with some sort of calming blue fabric.

“You’re awake,” a young girl’s voice said.

Makoto turned to see two girls, each with one yellow eye, and an eyepatch on the opposite side of, she guessed, her twin staring at her. They were dressed in uniforms of a similar blue color to the walls.

“Get over here, already!” the other ordered.

“Who are you?” Makoto asked, slowly standing up and starting to walk towards them when she felt resistance with one of her legs. She looked down and gasped at seeing a ball and chain shackled to her ankle. She looked up again to see the girls had stepped aside, unobstructing her view of an old man with a long nose.

The man gave an unnervingly deep chuckle as he leered at her from his desk. “Welcome to my Velvet Room.”

“...Is this a kidnapping?” Makoto asked, approaching the door of her cell slowly out of a mix of caution and the chain slowing her. “How did you get into my apartment? Who are you?”

“Shut up and let him explain!” the girl with the eyepatch on her right eye snapped, slamming the gate with a prod of some sort.

“I am Igor, the master of this place,” the long-nosed man said. “And the one who snapped at you is one of your wardens.”

“Caroline,” she introduced herself. “You had better remember it!”

“And I am your other warden, Justine,” the other girl said, much more calmly than her apparent sister.

“That answers the who,” Makoto said. “But you’re still forgetting my other two questions.”

“We didn’t break into your apartment,” Justine said. “Your mind came here on its own accord.”

“What do you mean?”

“This place exists between the gaps of reality,” Igor said. “A world you experience as a dream, if you will. In time, you’ll come to familiarize yourself with it as you begin awakening to your power.”

“My power?” Makoto repeated, before shaking her head. “No, I don’t care about whatever nonsense you’re saying! Let me out of here!”

“Show proper respect, inmate!” Caroline snapped, slamming the bars again.

“We aren’t the ones who imprisoned you to begin with,” Justine said.

“Then who did?”

“You already know the answer to that,” Igor said. “The Velvet Room reflects the heart of its visitor.”

“...you’re saying this is what’s in my heart?” Makoto asked. “But, why is that? I’m… I’m not a prisoner or anything.”

“Apparently you are, in some way,” Justine said.

“I hope we’ll be able to guide you to rehabilitate yourself,” Igor chuckled. “After all, this place is rather dreary, and ruin fast approaches.”

“Ruin?” Makoto repeated.

“Take your time to grasp this,” Igor said. “The night is almost over, so our time together will soon end.”

“Grasp what?” Makoto asked. “Nothing you’re saying makes any sense!”

“I look forward to your return,” Igor said, ignoring Makoto’s remarks. “I’m interested in seeing what impact you’ll have on this game.”

“What game?” Makoto asked in vain. In the distance, she thought she could hear something.

“Until next time, Inmate,” Justine said.

“Make sure you learn some manners before you come back!” Caroline snapped, slamming the bars again, this time with the prod electrified.

Makoto flinched at the addition of electricity and, upon closing her eyes, felt the area around her melt away, replaced with the softness of her bed, and the alarm she set on her phone going off.

~~~

4/12 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Niijima Apartment

Her eyes slowly opened, blinking as she took in the sights of her own bedroom again. “A dream…?”

“Makoto!” Sae’s voice snapped as she pounded on her bedroom door. “Turn that alarm off and get up!”

“S-sorry!” Makoto stuttered in surprise, quickly grabbing her phone from her nightstand and shutting the alarm down. She paused as she noticed the addition of a strange app that she didn’t remember downloading. It looked like a red and black eye. “Sis, did your phone update?”

She heard her sister give an annoyed huff instead of answering, before she moved away from the door, presumably to eat breakfast or go to work.

Makoto frowned, deleting the strange app, before slowly gathering her school uniform and a towel. Judging by the time on her phone, she’d have to get dressed right out of the shower and eat breakfast on route to school. She hoped this wouldn’t make her sick.

As the water rained down on her, she closed her eyes, thinking back to the ‘Velvet Room’ she dreamt about. Is this because my last thought before sleep was of the criminal transfer student? But… they didn’t mention him at all. And none of the other things they said made sense, either…

She shook her head, turning the shower off. Of course it wouldn’t make sense. It was a dream. She could almost hear her sister in her head telling her off for fretting over it instead of focusing on her school work.

Which was apparently the only place she would actually hear her sister for the rest of today, as Sae had already left by the time Makoto got out of the bathroom.

~~~

4/12 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Makoto laid a hand on her stomach as she made the walk from the station towards Shujin Academy. She wasn’t able to grab breakfast in time. Now she was just hoping its growls weren’t audible.

“Hey, Ren!” she heard a peppy voice call.

She noticed the frizzy-haired student that was walking in front of her stopped and glanced back. Running past her to catch up to him was the familiar blonde twintails of second-year Ann Takamaki.

“Ann-san,” he said quietly.

“Hey, I couldn’t find you after school and wanted to chat before class,” Takamaki said, them stopping for a moment near a couple of vending machines.

Makoto felt a pang of hunger at seeing them, but decided against intruding, and kept walking. She was regretting that decision, too, as she saw the gym teacher, Suguru Kamoshida, greeting students at the gate.

“Good morning,” he said, the usual almost-fake smile on his face.

“Good morning,” Makoto replied politely as she walked by. She didn’t like putting stock in sheer rumors and hearsay, but something about him just made her uncomfortable.

“Niijima-san,” Kamoshida said in surprise, stopping her. “Your hair seems wet. Were you in a rush this morning?”

“I was, yes,” Makoto said.

“You know, I could give you a ride if you ever need it,” he said.

“That’s okay,” Makoto said. “My phone just updated and reset my alarm, that’s all.” Well, it’s more I didn’t hear the alarm, but he doesn’t need to know that.

“Well, if you change your mind, let me know,” Kamoshida said. “I’m always willing to help out Shujin’s star students.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Makoto said, continuing her way inside, hearing him greeting Takamaki in a similar false-sweet voice behind her. (“Looking good today, Ann-chan!”) Something about him made her very uncomfortable.

~~~

4/12 - Tuesday
After School
Shujin Academy

After grabbing a quick snack at the courtyard’s vending machines, Makoto made her way to her usual table in Shujin’s library, stacking all the relevant books she could. She had spoken with staff and students alike about the whisperings there yesterday afternoon, and was pleased to see the words had stuck and they agreed to keep quiet today. Hopefully that meant that she could get some work done even if she hadn’t been able to eat anything today.

Unfortunately, the quiet only lasted about ten minutes.

“Is that the transfer student?”

“What’s a delinquent like that doing in the library?”

“Wait, is that guy really going to sit down to study?”

Makoto glanced up, seeing the student from this morning in one of the study booths, his pencil working over some of the papers. However, every time one of the other students opened their mouth, she noticed his pencil would jerk slightly.

Makoto looked down. It wasn’t her business. Her studies were. She frowned, her stomach churning as she thought that. Somehow she knew that pain wasn’t related to hunger. The first Olympic games held by the International Olympic Committee was held-

“I heard he keeps a knife on him.”

-in 1896 in-

“Don’t stare at him! If you look him in the eye, he’ll probably kill you!”

-the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, bringing together 14 nations-

“Do you think it’s true that he’s a drug dealer? I heard some second-years saying that at lunch.”

Makoto shut her books angrily, shoveling them into her bag. The whispering students stopped their gossip, glancing at her in surprise as she stood up and approached the transfer student. “Excuse me?”

The transfer student looked up, his eyes obscured by the light catching on his glasses. His mouth, however, betrayed his confusion at someone actually talking to him, hanging slightly agape before he managed to speak. “...what?”

“Might you be the transfer student I’ve heard about? Amamiya-kun, I believe?”

He let out an annoyed sigh, turning back towards his books. “Yeah.”

“Is she crazy? She’s going to get stabbed!” Makoto heard whispered behind her.

She chose to ignore it. “My name is Makoto Niijima. I’m the Student Council President here. Could you pack your things and come with me?”

“Student Council President?” Amamiya repeated, turning around again. He stared up at her eyes for a moment. At least, she thinks that’s where his gaze was fixed. “...fine.” He obliged, packing his things and following Makoto out of the room.

“I heard Niijima-senpai’s sister is a prosecutor.”

“Think she’s going to try and get that criminal expelled?”

“I hope so.”

Makoto could almost hear the scowl forming on Amamiya’s face. It gave her brief pause when they were in the hallway as she looked back at him. He rather quickly put on a neutral expression when he saw her look at him.

She took a breath before opening the door next to the library, ushering him inside, and closing the door behind them.

“What is this place?” Amamiya asked.

“This is the Student Council Room,” Makoto answered. “Please, sit down.”

Amamiya gave her an odd look, before sitting at the cluster of desks in the middle of the room. Makoto walked over and sat down at the other side of the table, one chair down instead of directly across from him.

He looked at her as she picked her bag up, unpacking the many books she had stuffed inside of it. She looked back at him once she was done, clearly waiting for something.

“...what am I here for?”

“Listen,” Makoto said. They sat in silence for a moment.

“Listen to what?”

“Exactly,” Makoto said. “You can’t hear any whispers in here, can you? It was bothering me when I tried studying, so I imagine it would be much more difficult for the subject of the rumors, right?”

“...you brought me in here to study?” Amamiya asked.

“Are you not serious about your education?” Makoto asked. “If you aren’t, you are free to leave.”

Amamiya looked down, before taking his textbooks out of his bag. “Um, thank you… Niijima?”

“That’s right. Makoto Niijima.”

“Thank you, Niijima-senpai. I was having trouble focusing.”

“No problem,” Makoto said.

The atmosphere was still awkward and tense for a while, but eventually they both ended up enveloped in their school work. Makoto wasn’t sure how much time passed, when she suddenly heard Amamiya speak again.

“...Niijima-senpai?”

“Yes?” Makoto looked up.

“I was wondering…” Amamiya said awkwardly, before looking away. “Never mind.”

“No, go ahead and ask,” Makoto said. She set her pencil down and closed her notebook.

“Why did you bring me in here?” Amamiya asked.

“To study,” Makoto said.

“You know what I mean,” Amamiya said, looking at her. “I haven’t been treated nicely by anyone since my arrest.”

“Is that so?” Makoto asked. “You and Takamaki-san seemed to be getting along this morning.”

Amamiya narrowed his eyes at her. “...are you following me or something?”

Makoto blinked in confusion, before her eyes widened. “Oh! N-no, I’m not! Sorry, I… just realized it could be construed that way. No, you both ran past me this morning to chat by the vending machines.” Her face heated up as her stomach growled. That snack wasn’t as filling as she’d hoped.

Amamiya suddenly broke into a smirk, clearly trying to suppress his laughter.

Makoto coughed awkwardly. “A-anyway… my question?”

“Right,” Amamiya said. “Ann was talking to me about the rumors. She gets them a lot. Ryuji, too, come to think of it.”

“Are you referring to Sakamoto?” Makoto asked.

“I see you heard of him,” Amamiya said.

“Not favorably,” Makoto admitted. She gave a sympathetic frown. “I do see what you mean, though. Aside from those who are also victims of this school’s rumor mill, you’ve been met mostly with scorn, I take it?”

“Yeah, even from the guy that took me in,” Amamiya said, rubbing the back of his head.

“...I probably would have done the same,” Makoto said softly. “I was planning on ignoring you. I would just keep reminding myself you’re none of my business.”

“...but…?” Amamiya said when Makoto didn’t continue.

“But it made me feel sick whenever I thought that,” Makoto said. “You’re one of my peers now, and what kind of Student Council President would I be if I didn’t do what I could to help you?”

“I have no idea,” Amamiya said, gazing up at the ceiling. “The school in my hometown didn’t have a Student Council. ...or any club, thinking of it.” He looked back at her. “But you’re saying you felt sick thinking of it? Sure it wasn’t just hunger?”

Makoto’s stomach growled again and she gave a giggle in spite of herself. “Maybe it was. But at least it led me to doing something right. So I think I can excuse this day of poor eating habits.”

Amamiya nodded, packing his bag. He paused, looking over at Makoto as she opened her notebook to write again. “...Hey, senpai? Ryuji introduced me to a beef bowl shop in Shibuya yesterday and, except for when he dumped all that ginger in mine, it was pretty good.”

Makoto stopped. She felt her heart rate increase in a slight panic. “A-Amamiya-kun? You’re not asking me…”

“I just want to make it up to you,” Amamiya said. “I couldn’t study at all yesterday between the rumors here and my guardian at Leblanc, so this meant a lot. My town was small, and you always would return a favor someone did.”

“O-oh, that’s what you meant,” Makoto said, letting out a relieved sigh. “I appreciate the offer, but I was just doing what I needed to. Besides, I don’t want to be full before getting home. I make dinner for my sister and I, and-”

Makoto’s phone chimed, prompting her to stop mid sentence as she opened her message app.

Sae: Staying at work tonight. Won’t be home. Make sure you wake up on time tomorrow.

Makoto sighed, closing the app. “Never mind about my sister…” She paused in confusion, noticing the red and black eye again. Didn’t I delete this eye app this morning? She tapped it, getting ready to move it, when Amamiya spoke again.

“Is something wrong?”

“I’d rather not discuss my home life with people I just met,” Makoto said, looking back towards him.

Amamiya nodded, picking his bag up. “So, change your mind on food?”

“I don’t know,” Makoto said. “I could eat, but… if the two of us are seen in Shibuya together?”

“Right,” Amamiya said. “Rumors would probably drag down your reputation, huh? Being seen spending time with a delinquent.”

“I don’t mean it like that!” Makoto said.

“Sorry, no, I wasn’t trying to be mean about that,” Amamiya said. “I get not wanting rumors to get out. I’m shocked my criminal record was known before I even got to school. So anything about the Student President would probably spread lightning fast.”

“Your record…” Makoto mused.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Amamiya said. “Anyway, I’ll return the favor some other day, Niijima-senpai.”

“I wasn’t asking you to go into details,” Makoto said. “But I did wish to ask you… did you tell another student before coming to Shujin about your arrest?”

“Why would I?” Amamiya asked.

“I suppose that was a silly question,” Makoto said. She put her hand to her chin, musing aloud. “So that would mean… a teacher leaked it, after all? But, that can’t be… they’d be ruining a student’s life…”

“Do you think it was Kamoshida, too?” Amamiya asked quietly.

“Kamoshida?” Makoto repeated, not noticing the app that was still open on her phone pulsating. “Th-that’s a rather sudden accusation of yours.”

“It’s who Ryuji thinks did it,” said Amamiya. “And from how he treats me at the gate, I sort of see why he’d suspect him.”

“Kamoshida,” Makoto said, closing her eyes. “He does give off an uncomfortable aura, doesn’t he?” She opened her eyes again. “Still, he’s a teacher, and we shouldn’t speak about him like this.”

Amamiya's face twitched. “You know, even I heard the rumors about him. Couldn’t spend any time near Ann without hearing them.”

“Are you referring to the rumor that she and him are involved?” Makoto asked. “I thought you weren’t one to put stock in rumors.”

“Yeah, but I was there when he said hi to her this morning,” Amamiya said. “Commenting on her looks today, asking her to meet him after school… That’s not normal behavior for a teacher, and it was making her visibly uncomfortable.”

“...there’s also the volleyball team, as well,” Makoto mumbled.

“Volleyball team?” Amamiya repeated.

“Yes. Kamoshida is the coach of Shujin Academy’s famous volleyball team. It was him that brought them to the national level. All of them show signs of injury, but when I ask, they merely say it’s from his intensive training.”

“That sounds more like torture, to me,” Amamiya said. “ALL of them are hurt?”

“The evidence is just circumstantial,” Makoto said. “Besides, he's an adult, so we’re not in a position to question him.”

“I’m starting to see why Ryuji says he thinks he’s king of a castle, if even you’re making excuses for him. Aren’t you supposed to protect students?”

“I’m not making excuses!” Makoto snapped. Amamiya blinked in surprise, and Makoto immediately looked regretful. “I… didn’t mean to snap. Look, l-let’s just set this aside, okay? My hunger is getting to me, and you should probably be getting home to your guardian.”

“I guess,” Amamiya said. He opened the door to the hall and seemed to freeze in place, staring out at it. “Niijima-senpai?”

Makoto slipped her phone into her pocket, and adjusted her bag and skirt as she walked over to where Amamiya was staring out the door. “Remember, if you ever need a place to study, I’m happy to let you use-”

“Niijima-senpai!” Amamiya interrupted.

“Don’t shout!” Makoto said. “What is it?”

Amamiya pointed out at the hall and Makoto’s eyes widened. Rather than the usual halls of Shujin’s third floor, the two were looking out at an ornate, carpeted hallway that looked like it was ripped straight out of high fantasy.

The two cautiously stepped out, and the door to the Student Council Room shut behind them. Or, rather, a large door of white wood snapped shut behind them, and refused to open again.

Chapter Text

4/12 - Tuesday
After School
???

Amamiya quickly grabbed the door that used to be the entrance to the Student Council Room and tested it, but it refused to open. “Do you have a key, Niijima-senpai?”

Makoto took out her key and held it up near the keyhole, but quickly put it away, shaking her head. “It’s a completely different kind of lock now, too.”

“What’s with these windows?” Amamiya asked, looking past her.

Makoto looked over as well, tilting her head at the sparkles and bubbles that seemed to just generate in the light shining through them. She cautiously approached, taking care not to touch the bubbles, and peered out the window. She took a step back in surprise. “That… can’t be…”

“What is it? What’s out there?”

“We-we’re in a castle…” Makoto said. “A castle that’s in the middle of the city…”

Amamiya looked out the window as well. From their vantage point, he could see a stone courtyard, a drawbridge out to the alleyway he first walked to Shujin through, and part of the stone structure that the building was made of. He looked over at Makoto, who seemed even more lost than he was. “I take it this isn’t normal for the city?”

“This isn’t a time to joke around!” Makoto snapped.

Amamiya seemed surprised. “Niijima-senpai? Are you scared?”

“We’re in a castle that didn’t exist two minutes ago, of course I am!”

“Let’s just calm down,” Amamiya said. He took his phone out. “We can just call for help, or check an app to see where we are, right?”

“An app?” Makoto repeated. Why does that phrase sound so significant? It’s said almost every day…

Amamiya stopped, staring at his phone. “...there’s no service.”

“There’s not?” Makoto asked, checking her phone as well. Sure enough, there was no reception. She put her phone away, letting out a deep breath. Stay calm, like he said. A kohai is counting on me right now. “J-judging by the buildings I saw, this should still be where Shujin Academy is. All we need to do is find the exit.”

“Alright,” Amamiya said. “But, how did the school become a castle to begin with?”

“I’m certain your guess would be as good as mine at the moment,” Makoto said. Her stomach churned slightly. “For example; currently, I’m thinking that I’m hallucinating from hunger, and that you’re either just a delusion or you're humoring me. Or this could all be a dream.” Dream?

“I’m real, and I’m seeing this, too,” Amamiya said, frowning at Makoto.

Makoto nodded absentmindedly, thinking back to last night’s dream as well as the strange app that appeared on her phone. They rounded a corner and Amamiya stopped, Makoto bumping into him.

“What is it now?” Makoto asked, peeking out from behind him. Staring back at the two of them was a knight that towered over even the rather tall Amamiya.

“How did you get into the castle?!” the knight demanded.

“We're just as confused as you,” Amamiya said.

“A petty criminal like you dare talk back to the guards of the King’s castle?!” the knight snapped, advancing. Suddenly, two additional knights seemed to erupt out of the floor in a splash of what could only be described as liquid shadows.

Amamiya took a step back, when he felt Makoto grab his hand.

“Run!” she said, taking off down the hall, briefly dragging him as he scrambled to run with her. Despite having longer legs, Makoto seemed to be in slightly better physical shape, much to his surprise.

The two kept an even pace as they weaved down a confusing set of hallways before Makoto found a door around a corner. She burst through them, and Amamiya slammed them shut behind them.

Makoto swayed over to the other end of the room, leaning against the wall-sized bookcase as she gasped for breath. “Did we lose them…?”

“Sounds like it,” Amamiya said, pressing his ear to the door but not hearing anything on the other side. He looked around. “Is this a library? It doesn’t look like the one in the school.”

Makoto looked up at the shelves she was leaning on. She paused, staring at one of the books in confusion. Okumura, Haru? Isn’t that a student? She quickly began skimming the other titles.

“Niijima-senpai, what are you doing?”

“Reading…” she answered absentmindedly.

“You’re… reading?” Amamiya asked. “We somehow ended up in a castle that you think is where the school used to be, with knights literally erupting from the floor, and you’re reading? I know I said to calm down, but are you really not fazed at all?”

Makoto gave no response, continuing to scan the book titles. Finally, a particular one caught her eye and she froze. “...it can’t be…”

“Niijima-senpai?”

She took one of the books off the shelf, turning around to face Amamiya. “This book has my name on it.”

“Your name?” Amamiya repeated as Makoto walked towards one of the reading desks, setting it down.

She cautiously opened it and immediately clapped a hand over her mouth in shock.

“What’s in it?” Amamiya asked, starting to walk over.

“Stay back!” Makoto ordered.

Amamiya took a step back in surprise, briefly raising his hands in the air. “Okay. But what is it?”

“It’s me,” Makoto said, turning back. “My gym uniform’s measurements, pictures of me… bending over to pick things up…” She forced a swallow. “Me with my hair wet from the front gate this morning.”

“Someone’s stalking you?” Amamiya asked.

“Not just me,” Makoto said, glancing back at the bookshelf. “Those are all girls attending Shujin, I’m sure of it. I recognized Okumura-san, Takamaki-san, Takao-san…”

“Seriously?” Amamiya asked. He turned to look at the shelf next to him. “Are these also…?” He stopped, taking a book off the shelf. “Ryuji’s name is on this…”

“Sakamoto?” Makoto asked, shutting the book with her name on it. “Are… are the contents similar?”

Amamiya opened it, flipping through. “No, it’s mostly writing. Childish insults, and… talking about his leg…”

“Amamiya-kun? Could you repeat that?”

“I’d rather not,” Amamiya said, his face going pale as he replaced the book on the shelf. “The… the male students’ books are a lot different. Violent and abusive...”

“That’s-”

“What kind of school is this that someone can stalk the students like this?!” Amamiya snapped, turning towards Makoto.

Makoto took a step back. “A-Amamiya-kun, please don’t yell at me. I’m just as disgusted as you are about all this, but…”

Amamiya let out a sigh. “...sorry. These problems just…” He trailed off, walking to the far wall.

Makoto stared for a moment, before replacing her book on the shelf. If Amamiya didn’t want to talk about it, she wouldn’t force him.

“Niijima-senpai?” Amamiya asked. “Kamoshida’s name, how is it written?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I think these books are about him. Almost worshiping…”

In spite of the absurdity of their situation, realization started to dawn on her. “Are you saying-” Makoto was cut off by the back wall trembling, one of the bookcases shifting aside as a door.

“Such a racket,” a voice said, familiar-sounding despite being slightly distorted.

The two looked in shock as what looked like Kamoshida walked out to them, flanked by two knights identical to the ones from earlier. Aside from a heart-patterned cape, crown, and, most disturbingly, a pink speedo, he was wearing nothing.

“K-Kamoshida…?” Makoto said, taking a step back.

“Oh, so you’re the ones who broke into my castle?” ‘Kamoshida’ said, glaring at the two of them with yellow eyes as they cautiously moved closer to each other. “I’m not surprised this criminal transfer is making a mess of my kingdom, but-”

“Your kingdom?” Makoto repeated.

“So, you’re the one that’s stalking the students, huh?” Amamiya asked.

“Stalking?” ‘Kamoshida’ repeated, shaking his head. “Don’t make me laugh. The people here are my subjects. I have every right to stare if I want. Hell, I can touch them all I want, too. And those lucky chosen feel privileged.”

“Privileged?” Makoto found herself shaking slightly. “What’s in those books… Abusing the male students, ogling and… t-touching the female students… That’s a privilege?!”

“Oh?” ‘Kamoshida’ smirked. “I’m impressed, Makoto-chan. From how you behaved, I never thought you’d ever come around to my side of things. Seems I was mistaken about you.”

“I-I’m not coming around to anything…” Makoto said.

“And you, criminal!” ‘Kamoshida’ snapped, ignoring Makoto and glaring at Amamiya. “What makes you think I want to see you in front of me? Are you in here trying to steal my property away?”

“I don’t even know where here is!” Amamiya said.

“Are you stupid or something? This is my castle! Still, I’m glad you’re here. Since your leaked record didn't drive you off, I can correct the mistake they made in letting you come here in a much more entertaining way. For the crime of trespassing in my castle, I sentence you to be executed.”

“Executed?!” Makoto gasped.

“Are you insane…?” Amamiya muttered.

“Run, let’s get out and tell the police,” Makoto said, fear returning to her voice. “This castle- this is enough evidence to-”

“The police?” ‘Kamoshida’ laughed. “Makoto-chan, I thought they said you were smart? I’m King Kamoshida. I’m above the law, because I make the laws here!”

“Don’t listen, just run!” Makoto said, stopping as a third knight approached from the doors. “N-no…”

“Don’t harm the girl,” ‘Kamoshida ordered.

Amamiya gritted his teeth, before throwing himself into the knight by the door. He winced as he managed to knock it down, but the two that had flanked 'Kamoshida' quickly stormed past Makoto and pinned him to the ground, sword to his throat.

“Amamiya-kun!” Makoto screamed.

“Come on, Makoto-chan, don’t worry about criminal trash like that,” ‘Kamoshida’ said, walking up and wrapping an arm around her.

“B-but…” Makoto stammered. “Y-you’re a teacher… you shouldn’t harm s-students…”

“No, no, Makoto-chan. I am a King. But you know? I always was attracted to that backside of yours…”

Makoto glanced at the shelf where she put the book about her back. “...so I noticed…”

“Perhaps… if you’re willing to give it to me, I could consider sparing this criminal’s life? I don’t want to put you off too much before making you mine…”

“Niijima-senpai, don’t…!” Amamiya managed to cough out.

“Shut it! This is a private talk! Well, Makoto-chan? I know you always listen, so I’m sure you’ll see how generous your King is being…”

“...generous…?” Makoto asked. She felt her fist clench on its own accord. She wrenched herself out of 'Kamoshida'’s grip and punched him in the face, causing him to stumble back. “What is so generous about blackmailing a girl into sex by threatening her friend’s life?!”

Amamiya stared up at Makoto in shock as she began breathing heavily.

“Bitch…” 'Kamoshida' muttered. “You dare lay a hand on your-”

“You are NOT my king!” she snapped. “And I’m sick of doing what others tell me!”

So you’ve decided to tread the path of strife?” a voice in her head asked. “If so, let’s proceed with the contract at once.

Makoto’s eyes widened, turning yellow as a splitting migraine screamed through her head, the pain quickly overtaking her body. “Ngh…” She started writhing in pain, stomping the ground and clutching a nearby chair for support, her hand clenching hard enough to splinter it.

I am thou… Thou art I… Through this act of rebellion, you have found your true calling. Never lose sight of this justice… Today, you begin to finally graduate from your false self…

A mask of hard iron appeared on Makoto’s face, and it hurt. She instinctively reached up to grab it and, with a scream, she ripped it off, blood flicking off of her face. In a burst of blue flames, the wound she inflicted on herself seemed to burn away.

The light died down, revealing a silver and blue motorcycle, a mask of a serene woman’s face beneath the windshield on the front. Chains coiled around her and her rider, Makoto Niijima. She was no longer dressed in her school uniform, instead wearing skintight black leather adorned with spikes, and a long, flowing scarf tied around her neck.

She stared down in surprise at her silver gloves, and quickly looked over herself and the motorcycle. “Th-this is… me?”

“What the hell…?” ‘Kamoshida’ mumbled in shock. He turned to the guards. “What are you waiting for?! She assaulted me, so kill her!”

The guards trembled as 'Kamoshida' ran out of the room, bursting apart and seeming to meld together. No longer being held down, Amamiya scrambled up and retreated to the back of the room as three small, winged-women emerged from the dark sludge the knights had become, swiftly melding into one. This fairy-like creature was slightly larger than the original three, but that wasn’t saying much.

“For King Kamoshida!” the woman (for some reason, Makoto thought the name Prankster Leader?) proclaimed. She blasted a gust of wind into Makoto.

For her part, Makoto seemed largely unfazed in spite of the injury she was just dealt, her eyes gleaming red as she glared down the creature. “Get out of my way! Charge, Johanna! Frei!” She quickly spun the motorcycle in place by using the accelerator and hand break, and a burst of light spiraled down and exploded into the High Pixie.

The creature let out a screech of pain, falling to the ground.

“Again!” Makoto said, speeding forward and ramming into it with Johanna. The monster didn’t have time to even counter attack, burning away in black flame as it let out a death scream. Makoto pulled up next to Amamiya, giving him a smile. “You know, you could have run while I had that thing’s attention.”

“I think I was too stunned to move,” Amamiya said. “N-Niijima-senpai, what the hell is this?”

“I… have no idea,” Makoto admitted. “But I feel as if I understand what to do with it, if that makes sense? It feels like an extension of myself.”

“I can’t say I understand, but…”

“Do you trust me?”

“...yeah,” Amamiya said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure you just saved my life from… whatever those knight things were.”

Makoto opened her mouth to reply when she heard the sound of armor clanging echoing down the halls. “It sounds like more of them are on the way…” She winced as her body tensed up. “...let’s run instead of deal with them. Amamiya-kun, climb on!”

“Y-you don’t mind?” Amamiya asked, looking at her outfit for a moment. “I mean, I’d basically be-”

“Do you want to argue about this now, or do you want to live?”

Amamiya climbed on, gingerly wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Hold on!” Makoto ordered, speeding out into the halls.

The guards that had begun to congregate outside the library entrance were knocked down, Makoto drifting into them to turn and hurdle off down the halls of the castle.

~~~

Makoto collapsed to the floor, leaning against the wall as she gasped for breath. Her outfit returned to its usual state of her custom school uniform shortly after reaching the stairwell, her motorcycle Johanna vanishing as well.

“You alright?” Amamiya asked, sitting atop a box. They were hiding underneath the stairs inside one of the towers, even more lost than before as they didn’t have windows to judge their location by anymore.

“Not really…” she panted. “That… seems to have taxed me a lot…” She closed her eyes. “Of all the days to have missed breakfast…”

“Well, it’s not like we planned to end up… wherever Kamoshida’s castle is,” Amamiya said, the words seeming to disgust him. “How does he even have one? How did any of that happen?”

“...I actually have a theory, but… there’s no real evidence,” Makoto said, her breath starting to come back to her. She took out her phone, bringing up the strange app that had appeared that morning. “Yes, see?”

“Metaverse Navigator?” Amamiya read, walking over to look at Makoto’s phone. “And… here in the search history. ‘Kamoshida, Shujin, castle.’” He looked up at her. “What is this app?”

“I’m not certain,” Makoto said, putting it away again. “I thought it might have installed as part of an update, but…”

“I have the same kind of phone, and the app isn’t on mine,” Amamiya said, taking his out to double check.

Makoto frowned. “Well, regardless of where it came from, it’s the best lead we have on what brought us here, as illogical as that sounds.” She put her hand to her chin in thought. That dream about that Velvet Room place… They discussed having a ‘power’ and needing to break free or rehabilitate myself of being a prisoner… Was this what they meant?

“Should we try using that app to leave?” Amamiya suggested.

“I wouldn’t want to risk it,” Makoto said, looking up at him again. “We don’t know how it works if it was even what was responsible to begin with. Using it could result in our getting dumped into the concrete foundation as far as we know.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Amamiya said, sitting back down on the box. “...hey, can we talk about something else real quick?”

“Is it about that motorcycle or my outfit?” Makoto asked. “Because I don’t really know how to explain it better than I already did in the library.”

“No, that’s not it,” Amamiya said. “When Kamoshida threatened to kill me unless you… you know... ...you called me your friend.”

“I did?” Makoto asked. She thought back for a moment. “...I did. I’m sorry. I was just… worried for your safety. And after studying together with you, and how… easy I found it to talk to you, even in this strange situation…”

“You don’t need to apologize for it,” Amamiya said.

Makoto looked down. If she didn’t count her fellow student council members, she didn’t actually have any friends. Some of the students didn’t even seem to like it when she would speak to them. How should she handle this?

“Hey, while we’re in this situation, do you mind if I drop the whole honorific thing?” Amamiya asked. “If we’re actually in danger, it’s a bit of a mouthful to add 'senpai' to your name.”

“...of course,” Makoto said, slightly surprised.. “Be as casual as you like, Amamiya-kun.”

“Ren. You know, until we’re out of here. Keeping the whole professional student act up is really weird.”

“...Ren-kun,” Makoto compromised. She smiled again. “I think I’m rested enough to chance looking around. Shall we?”

“Lead the way... Makoto.”

Makoto closed her eyes as she stood up, opening them as they emerged from their hiding place and headed off down the hall. I’ve no idea if Ren-kun is trying to tell me he accepts us as friends with this or not, but regardless… I will get us out of this situation. And bring this perverted ‘king’ to justice!

Chapter Text

4/12 - Tuesday
After School
Shujin Academy

“How’s your leg, Shiho?” Ann asked gently, the two girls sitting in the courtyard.

“Um, a lot better than it was yesterday…” she said quietly. She shook her head, looking up at her friend. “Let’s not talk about that, though. Are you and the transfer student getting along?”

“Yeah, I talked with him yesterday at lunch and this morning,” Ann said, managing a smile. “He really is nothing like the rumors say, you know?”

“Neither are you.” Shiho smiled too, albeit only for a brief moment. “I saw him heading up to the library today to study.”

“Geez, I don’t envy having to study under all that muttering,” Ann said. “I hate it enough as is.”

Shiho giggled, quickly stopping as Ann’s phone buzzed. “...do you have to go?”

Ann checked the message and let out a groan. “Yeah. Hey, tomorrow, maybe we could-”

“Tomorrow is the volleyball rally,” Shiho said.

“...right… Well, I’ll be cheering you on!”

Shiho nodded. “Some other time?”

“Definitely,” Ann said, standing up. “See you, Shiho.”

“See you,” Shiho replied, looking down at the ground as Ann walked off.

Ann looked back at her text from Kamoshida, glaring at it for a moment, before giving a resigned sigh, texting her response and heading towards the main entrance. However, her private brooding was soon interrupted.

“Yo, Takamaki!”

“Sakamoto?” she asked, looking over to see that Ryuji was waving her down. She gave an annoyed huff, before walking over. “What is it? I have somewhere to be.”

“It’ll be quick,” Ryuji said. “Have you seen that transfer student? Ren Amamiya?”

“Not since class ended,” Ann said. “Why are you asking me?”

“You’re in the same class, ain’t you? I tried reaching him to see if he wanted to go to the arcade, but he’s been ignoring all my messages.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Ann said. “Can I leave now?”

“What? Yeah, fine. What, got a date with-”

“Don’t start that again,” Ann interrupted, before turning and storming off.

Ryuji stared after her, rubbing the back of his head. “I wasn’t gonna say Kamoshida…”

~~~

4/12 - Tuesday
After School
Kamoshida’s Castle...?

Makoto glanced out into what appeared to be the entrance hall. A large cluster of the so-called knights were gathered there, staring up at ‘Kamoshida’ as he delivered a speech.

“Until further notice, the entrance to this place is to be locked! That rebellious bitch and her criminal friend are to be killed on sight, and I don’t want them any chance of escape or-”

“I don’t think we’ll be getting out that way,” Makoto said, ducking back into the hall where she and Ren were hiding.

“Figures,” Ren said, leaning against a wall next to a door. “Surprised he managed to get here so fast, though.”

“I suppose he is an athlete, as much as he doesn’t look the part right now.”

“Anyway, I found a way further down,” Ren said, opening the door beside him. “Think maybe the dungeons have a tunnel or something?”

“Did you get that from a game or TV show?”

“...a fantasy novel, actually,” Ren admitted.

“Oh?” Makoto seemed surprised. “Well, once we get out of here, you’ll have to recommend it to me in more detail. For now… I suppose checking dungeons couldn’t hurt. It’s probably the last place they’d expect us to retreat to at the very least.”

Ren nodded, slipping down the hall ahead of her. Makoto quickly checked to make sure the guards in the entrance hall weren’t heading towards them, before following, gently closing the door behind her.

The two walked down the stairs, finding themselves in a rather deserted dungeon area. There were a few people with bags on their heads screaming from cages hanging above the water, and Ren noticed a couple of guards patrolling on occasion, but otherwise the place seemed completely empty.

“At least there aren’t many prisoners…” Ren said quietly. He stopped, looking back to see Makoto standing in place, staring at the cages. “Makoto?”

“...I can’t see any way to get them out,” Makoto said. She turned to see Ren still looking at her. “Oh, sorry. Yes, let’s keep moving.”

“Are you okay?” Ren asked.

“Not really,” Makoto said. “Not after seeing this place.”

“About this place,” Ren said. “If that app brought us here, what does that mean this place is?”

“Throwing aside all common sense? I still can’t figure it out. If the app was indeed what caused it, I would be forced to think along the lines of science fiction-type rules for how reality works now. The castle suggests otherwise, making me think fantasy. Hence our searching the dungeons. But then the city is still outside, and I still don’t completely understand what Johanna is.”

“You’re thinking about this in terms of fiction?” Ren asked.

“You did the same when you suggested we come down here!” Makoto said. “I’m just desperate in trying to understand this situation.”

“You’re overthinking it, red-eyed girl,” a boyish voice said.

“...Who said that?” Makoto asked.

“Was it that?” Ren asked, looking into the cell they were standing next to.

“You got that right,” the creature inside confirmed. It looked vaguely like a cat mascot of some kind.

“A monster cat…?” Makoto questioned.

“I’m not a cat!” the monster cat protested.

“Yeah,” Ren said. “You look more like a cartoon of one.”

“That’s only because of all these distortions!”

“So… you originally were a regular cat?”

“I’m not a cat!”

“Ren-kun,” Makoto said, rubbing her forehead. “And… whatever you are… please stop arguing. It’s giving me a headache.”

“Sorry,” Ren said.

“You should be,” the not-cat said. “Anyway, lady, like I said, you’re overthinking things. Which is better than not thinking about it at all, but still bad.”

“Alright…” Makoto said. “I think I understand now.”

“Oh?”

Makoto nodded. “It’s like what you see on the news, right? The stress of meeting my sister’s high standards must have caused me to crack and suffer one of those psychotic breakdowns. That’s why I lashed out at Kamoshida like I did in the library, why I think I have a motorcycle named after Pope Joan, and why I think that I’m in a castle.”

“Motorcycle?” the not-cat asked.

“Psychotic breakdowns are like what happened to that train conductor I heard about, right?” Ren asked.

“Exactly.”

“Um, you probably wouldn’t be able to hold a normal conversation like this if that happened to you,” the not-cat said.

“Maybe not,” Makoto said. “Though, thinking on it, no one's really sure what happens in a person’s head when people suffer from psychotic breakdowns or mental shutdowns, so...”

“I’m guessing by how you’re talking you know what’s going on?” Ren asked, ignoring Makoto’s continued musings on her sanity.

“Sure do, frizzy-hair. And I’ll gladly tell you, if you let me out. The key is right there, after all.”

“Let you out?” Ren repeated, frowning. “We’re more interested in getting out of here ourselves, considering…”

“I can do that for you, too! Please! Come on, red-eyed girl, you seem pretty smart when you’re not overthinking stupid stuff!”

Makoto stopped talking to herself at that, looking over. “...you can really explain everything AND lead us to safety?”

“I swear on my honor as a human being!”

Ren raised an eyebrow, glancing at Makoto. She glanced back before letting out a sigh and nodding. Ren picked the key up, unlocking the cell and freeing the self-proclaimed human-being.

“Ah, sweet freedom!”

“We aren’t free yet,” Makoto said. “We’re still trapped in this castle.”

“Palace.”

“That sounds rather pedantic,” Makoto said.

“No, no, I don’t mean palace in the usual definition you’re used to. A Palace is formed when a person’s heart, their desires, distort and twist enough around a certain place or idea that they project… well, something like this.” He gestured around them.

“A castle?” Ren asked.

“In this case, yes, but that doesn’t mean all Palaces would be like this. It’s just how… Kamoshida, you said? ...how Kamoshida views wherever this place is in reality.”

“We’re no longer in reality?” Ren asked.

“I thought we already reached that conclusion,” Makoto said.

“...true.”

The not-cat scratched his ear. “Yeah, we’re in a place called the Metaverse. A world in the human subconscious based on cognition.”

“Metaverse?” Makoto repeated, taking her phone out. “So… that’s it, then. The app on my phone is called the Metaverse Navigator. And Ren-kun, you pointed out the words in the search history yourself.”

“Yeah,” Ren answered Makoto. “Kamoshida, Shujin, castle.”

“So, Kamoshida really does view the school as a castle,” Makoto said. “When I moved to delete it, we started having a conversation about him. I must have accidentally opened the app and it picked up on those words. Then when we went to leave the Student Council Room…”

“It brought us to this Metaverse place instead?” Ren finished.

“That has to be it!” Makoto said.

“I’m… wow, you grasped that rather quickly,” the not-cat said. “Anyway, what’s this app thing you’re talking about? I didn’t know about that.”

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Ren said.

“Besides, that wasn’t the deal,” Makoto said. “You said you’d be getting us out of here, right?”

“Of course. Follow me, uh…”

“Makoto. And this is Ren-kun.”

“Makoto and Ren. Got it. I’m Morgana. Remember that.” Morgana set off down the hall, Makoto and Ren following close behind.

“So, um, Morgana…” Makoto awkwardly asked, “you said you were human…?”

“Yeah, but the distortions of people’s Palaces changed me to this form,” Morgana said. “Anyway, Makoto, what were you saying about a motorcycle earlier when you thought you went insane?”

“Oh, yes, that’s something we still haven’t had explained,” Makoto said. “You see-”

“Look out!” Ren suddenly shouted, leaping and shoving Makoto out of the way as a blade came slamming down from around the corner.

“A guard!” Morgana drew a small scimitar out of nowhere, leaping between the two of them.

“Ren-kun, stand back!” Makoto said, standing up from where they both fell, blue flames briefly enveloping her to return her to the biker outfit from before.

“Oh?” Morgana turned in mild surprise, a smirk on his face. “So you have this power too, huh?”

“You too?” Makoto looked down in surprise, not even blinking as the knight across from them burst apart into two flying, mechanical Jack-o’-Lanterns.

“Watch this!” Morgana said. “Persona! Zorro!” In a flash behind Morgana, a top-heavy masked man dressed in black appeared. He swiped his sword in the air in the same Z-shape as his belt buckle. “Garu!” Zorro swept the same kind of wind attack that Makoto was hit with before in the library, knocking down one of the Jack-o’-Lanterns.

“Zorro…?” Makoto questioned, blinking in surprise. “And that word… Persona…”

“It’s almost scary how good I am,” Morgana said smugly as a second and third Garu attack destroyed the other Jack-o’-Lantern. He looked at Makoto. “Well? I knocked it down for you. Show me how good you are!”

Makoto narrowed her eyes. Is this cat challenging her? “Persona!” She ripped her mask off, hopping up as Johanna appeared beneath her.

“Whoa!” Morgana gasped. “Y-you weren’t kidding about that. Your Persona is really a motorcycle?”

“Charge!” Makoto said, speeding forward and slamming into the Jack-o’-Lantern, destroying it. She let out a wince of pain as it burned away and Johanna faded.

“Makoto?” Ren asked, walking closer. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Makoto said, her clothes shifting back to her school uniform in another burst of flames.

“Hm…” Morgana hummed. “Your clothes aren’t supposed to change like that. Do you not have a good grasp on your rebellious spirit yet?”

“Rebellious spirit?” Makoto asked, wincing again. “Ngh…”

“That attack, that was a Lunge or something, right?” Morgana asked. “Don’t you know using a Persona’s physical abilities hurts you, too?”

“I only just found out what a Persona is…” Makoto said.

“Hey, can we talk somewhere else?” Ren asked, the sound of armor signalling the other guard’s approach.

“Right,” Morgana said. “Uh… here! In here!” He ran ahead, pushing open a gate they had passed by earlier. Ren and Makoto followed, the group rounding some corners and eventually came out to what looked like a waiting room with a banner across from them over a set of double doors.

“Kamoshida’s Training Hall of Love…” Makoto read, not attempting to hide her disgust. “Behind those doors… is that where he…?”

“It’s okay,” Morgana said. He paused. “Well, no, it isn’t. Uh, what I’m trying to say is, that aside from those of us who came from reality, everyone in here is just cognitive beings. Everyone from the Shadows we’ve been fighting, to the Palace Ruler himself. Though, that’s a different kind of Shadow. And the cognitions are different, too, actually.”

“You’re doing a horrible job at explaining this,” Ren said.

“Hey, I’m trying my best here!” Morgana snapped. “You can at least try to understand!”

“I’m pretty sure we do,” Makoto said. “Basically, the people that are in here are fakes based on how Kamoshida views them, right? So those students we saw in those cages are just people he’s made suffer, but not the actual people from our world.”

“Right, right,” Morgana nodded.

“But the guards aren’t people,” Ren said. “You said they’re Shadows?”

“Oh, you’re pretty smart, too!” Morgana mewed. “Yeah, they’re beings based on the collective human cognition. I’m pretty sure that the Shadow of the Palace Ruler draws them in through their distortion, and that’s why they protect the place.”

“The Shadow of the Palace Ruler is a different kind?” Makoto asked. She closed her eyes, hearing a voice in her head. “So… like our inner self, right? Like Johanna is to me?”

“Wait, your motorcycle is your inner self?” Ren asked.

“I didn’t even need to tell you what Personas are?” Morgana asked.

“Johanna explained it,” Makoto said, tapping her head. “In here, anyway.” She lowered her arm with a wince. “Ow…”

“Here, Zorro has healing magic,” Morgana said. “I’ll fix you up in a moment.”

“I’ll scout that room out,” Ren said.

“Be careful, Ren-kun,” Makoto cautioned. “You don’t seem to have a Persona.”

“I will,” Ren said. “Don’t want to put more pressure on you.”

“So, who is that guy?” Morgana asked as Ren pushed on ahead.

“Who, Ren?” Makoto asked. “He’s a fellow student of mine as of yesterday. He transferred here to Shujin and is in the grade below mine.”

“I mean to you,” Morgana said, pausing to talk between castings of a spell called ‘Dia’.

“I just told you,” Makoto said. “My fellow student. Classmate. Peer. We just happened to have met and studied together when this app brought us in here.” She took her phone out, bringing up the Meta-Nav. “See?”

“You’re right…” Morgana said in awe. “There really is an app to bring you to the Metaverse...” He stared at Makoto. “Now I’m wondering who you are.”

“I’m just the Student Council President,” Makoto said with an awkward smile. “It’s not like I downloaded the app on purpose.”

“Hmm…” Morgana frowned.

“Back,” Ren said, returning to the room.

“What was in there?” Makoto asked.

“Not what you thought,” Ren said. “It was… the boy’s volleyball team. Being abused and tortured as part of their so-called training.”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “Then… that means he's hurting them in reality, too, right? So they were hiding the truth from me in plain sight when I asked. They did get those injuries in practice, but only because of his abuse…” She scowled. “Why didn’t they tell me? I could have done something to help them! I’m the Student Council President, after all!”

“Well, you know to help them now,” Ren said.

“Yes, I do,” Makoto said, standing up as Morgana cast another Dia. “Thanks. I should be good to go now. Let’s actually get out of here already.”

“Right!” Morgana saluted, leading them back the way they came. Thankfully, the guard had moved on by now, so the three of them traversed the stairs back up to the ground floor. Morgana poked his head out the door first, looking both ways down the hall and out into the entrance area. “...coast is clear.”

“Morgana, where are you leading us?” Makoto asked as they entered the hall and Morgana began heading towards the main entrance. “We heard Kamoshida’s Shadow earlier, the doors out are locked.”

“Yeah, but I bet the windows aren’t,” Morgana said. “And if they are, there’s a room on the other side that I know will-”

Morgana was cut off by the flat of a sword slamming into him, knocking him off balance and sending him bouncing back across the floor.

“Morgana!” Makoto gasped, once again shifting into the biker outfit.

“There!” Ren pointed, drawing Makoto’s attention to an advancing knight.

“Gold armor, huh?” Makoto asked.

“Think he’s higher rank?” Ren asked, slowly retreating back.

“Probably,” Makoto said. “Though, in reality, gold would make terrible armor…”

“So, you were messing around in the dungeon,” Shadow Kamoshida said, standing above them at the top of the stairs, a massive portrait of himself behind him. “One of the guards informed me the cell with that weird cat was empty.”

“We should have silenced the other patrol, too…” Morgana muttered, approaching to stand beside Makoto.

“You just refuse to stop pissing me off,” Shadow Kamoshida spat. “Breaking in with that criminal, assaulting your King, freeing my prisoners… I don’t care how fine your ass might be, I’ll see to it that you’re put to death for this!”

Makoto’s eye twitched beneath her mask. “And I don’t care if you’re a teacher or not. For the various abuses you’re putting on my fellow students, I’m going to pound your face in!”

“That’s the spirit!” Morgana said. “Let’s get rid of this guard captain and get out of here!”

The gold-armored knight burst apart like all the others, transforming into...another knight. However, this one’s sunken face was visible under the helmet, and coupled with the red wings and religious garb on his armor, Makoto’s first thought was some sort of angel warrior.

“Ready?” Makoto asked.

“I should ask you the same,” Morgana said. “Zorro! Garu!” Morgana called out his Persona and struck the Archangel with a gust of wind. “Did that do anything?”

“This one’s definitely stronger than the others,” Makoto said. She paused in reaching for her mask. Physical attacks hurt me, too. In that case… “Johanna! Frei!” Makoto repeated her action from the library, hopping onto her Persona as it appeared and spinning it in place, calling down a burst of radioactive light that struck the opposing Shadow.

“Was that Nuclear magic?” Morgana asked in surprise.

“You struggle in vain,” the Archangel chuckled. He raised his sword, being briefly enveloped in light.

“What’s it doing?” Makoto asked.

“Let’s try not to find out,” Morgana said. “Hit it again!”

Makoto obliged, and she and Morgana repeated their attacks. And like before, the Archangel barely seemed affected.

The Archangel raised his sword again, and a blast seemed to pulse out of it.

“Gah!” Morgana was knocked down, and Makoto punched the ground to keep from getting completely knocked over, skidding back.

“Ngh…” she winced in pain, struggling to stand upright. “How is it this tough…?”

“Makoto!” Ren gasped.

“Ren-kun,” Makoto glanced back. “Try to unlock the door and get out of here. I’ll… do my best to hold it off.”

“You’re telling me to leave you?” Ren asked.

“At least let me protect one of my fellow students!” Makoto said, desperation in her voice.

Ren blinked, reaching back and grabbing the door behind his back, keeping his attention on Makoto as she and Morgana were stuck by the Shadow’s attacks again and again.

She’s in danger, you know. You’re not actually considering running away, are you?

Ren's eyes widened. Did that question just come from in his own head?

You did end up in this situation from when you helped that woman. Maybe running away is for the best?

“...no, it isn’t,” Ren said under his breath as Makoto and Morgana finally fell, unable to stand up again. He took a few steps forward. “Hey!”

“Who are you?” the Archangel asked, staring in confusion.

I am thou, thou art I…” the voice in his head chanted.

“Ren-kun?!” Makoto gasped.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Morgana asked, his voice weak. “You’ll be killed if you try fighting this thing without a Persona!”

Thou who art willing to perform all sacrilegious acts for thine own justice…

“Oh, what, the criminal wants to play hero?” Shadow Kamoshida sneered. “Hey, Makoto-chan! Since you threw away your chance to save both of your lives, how about I have you watch him die?”

Call upon my name, and release thy rage!

“No…!” Makoto’s voice caught in her throat, eyes wide. She struggled to stand again as the Archangel swooped over and slammed Ren in the head.

Ren was knocked aside, his glasses flying off as he skidded across the floor.

“Now to end this,” the Archangel said, approaching. He moved to stab his sword down, but Ren suddenly rolled out of the way, quickly standing again between the Archangel and Makoto. He looked up, a masquerade mask on his face.

He blinked in surprise, feeling it clinging tightly. Like Makoto did, he instinctively reached up, tightly gripping the edge and ripping it off his face with a scream of pain. Blood dripped down his face, his eyes glowing yellow through it. He glanced up with a smirk, a burst of blue flames enveloping him. His school uniform was burned away, replaced with a three-tailed trench coat and red gloves. Behind him rose a demon with large black wings, dressed in a matching black top hat and waistcoat, red leggings and sleeves accenting it.

“Him, too?!” Shadow Kamoshida gasped, quickly running out of the room.

“Coward,” Ren said, staring after him, before turning towards the Archangel. “But you’re not one, are you? You want to stay and fight. Come, Arsene! Eiha!”

Arsene seemed to laugh as he let loose a burst of darkness from beneath the Archangel. The Archangel let out a gasp of pain, dropping to the floor.

“Makoto! Morgana!” Ren stepped forward. “Can you stand?”

“Of course I can,” Makoto said, finally rising back to her feet.

“Well, I can’t let you rookies steal the show,” Morgana said, managing to hop back up. “Now, while he’s down! Go all out against him!”

“Wait!” the Archangel pleaded, but it was too late. Ren, Makoto, and Morgana all lunged forward, slashing and punching through it repeatedly with amazing speed. Finally, a burst of pressurized black blood shot out of it and the Shadow burned away.

The three gasped for breath for a moment, but before they had the chance to talk, more Shadow knights erupted out of the floor.

“Time to go!” Makoto said, calling upon Johanna again. “Ren!”

“Aim for that door,” Ren said, pointing to the one he had fiddled with earlier as he picked Morgana up by the head and climbed on behind Makoto.

“On it!” Morgana said, sending a Garu spell into it.

“Hang on!” Makoto said, revving the engine and speeding through the door. It offered enough resistance that she skidded upon breaking through, but it still was smashed open by their combined efforts.

As soon as they reached the other end of the drawbridge, their clothes returned to normal and Johanna vanished, the three of them crashing into the alleyway across from the school.

“We’re done for today…” Morgana groaned, closing his eyes. Makoto closed her eyes as well, a sudden pressure hitting her as the world seemed to shift.

~~~

4/12 - Tuesday
Evening
Shujin Academy’s Gate

“The school…” Ren said.

“Huh?” Makoto opened her eyes, slowly standing up and looking out the alley with Ren. Across from them was not the castle they had just left, but Shujin itself. “We’re back… Reality.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Morgana’s voice said.

“Oh, of course,” Makoto said, turning. “Thank you, Mor- Morgana?” She looked around. “Where are you?”

“Right in front of you,” a black cat said, staring up at the two.

“...the cat's talking,” Ren said, staring down.

“I told you, I’m not a cat!” Morgana complained. “I… this is all because of the Metaverse’s distortions!”

“If you say so,” Ren said, wincing. “Agh…”

“Your head…” Makoto said, gingerly reaching over.

“We’re all really worse for wear after that,” Morgana said.

“Not to mention how much time has passed,” Makoto said, checking her phone. “We should probably get home.”

“Niijima-senpai?” Ren asked.

“Yes?” Makoto looked up. And our first name basis is over...

“What are we going to do about Morgana?”

“Oh, good question,” Makoto said.

“I can take care of myself,” Morgana said.

“Not in that condition,” Makoto chided, reaching down to pick him up. “Look, you’re bruised just as much as we are.”

“Well, I did spend days in that creep’s dungeon…” he mumbled.

“Uh, could you take him?” Ren asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “Sis would never approve of me taking in a stray cat.” She frowned. “But, there’s also the position you’re in with your guardian.”

Ren frowned in thought, before reaching over to take Morgana. “It should be fine, actually.”

“Are you certain?” Makoto asked. “I don’t want you to get in trouble. Accidentally activating that app already kept you far later than you should have stayed here, in addition to injuring you.”

“Yeah, but he also was impressed that I went to school at all yesterday, so…” Ren shrugged. “Taking in a stray might earn some brownie points, you know? Especially if the Student Council President backs me up.”

Makoto stared for a moment as Ren shifted Morgana into his bag and took his phone out. It suddenly clicked. “O-oh! Are you suggesting we exchange contact information?”

“We were both dragged into that mess together,” Ren said. He gave a smile. “I’d like to see this through. I still owe you for letting me study in the Student Council Room, after all.”

“You saved my life, that’s more than enough to repay me,” Makoto said.

“You saved mine first,” Ren said.

“Hey, lovebirds, can you stop arguing?” Morgana asked. “It’s cramped in here and I want to rest in my new home already.”

“L-lovebirds?!” Makoto stuttered.

“It’s not like that at all,” Ren said, shifting the bag in retaliation.

“Ow! Hey, don’t mistreat me! That’s animal abuse!”

Makoto sighed. “Anyway, I don’t mind. We do have a lot to talk about in regards to this Metaverse thing. Tomorrow, during the volleyball rally, meet up with me in the courtyard when you get the chance, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Ren said, typing in Makoto’s number and chat ID while Makoto did the same with his.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Makoto said. “Same to you, Morgana. Good luck with Ren- I mean, Amamiya-kun’s guardian.”

“See you, scary biker lady!” Morgana waved as Makoto set off. A Persona that’s a motorcycle is pretty unique. But there’s something else about her, too… I should keep my eye on this. “Anyway, Ren, shall we?”

Ren stared after Makoto, frowning. “...did she still want to be on a first-name basis?”

“Hello? I’m hungry and weak, and I’m sure you are, too, after your awakening.”

“Right, yeah,” Ren said, setting off for the station. “Just stay quiet and let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

Makoto trailed off, rubbing her head. She looked up, only to see her sister was still refusing to look at her. Although Sae looking slightly to the side did nothing to hide the incredulous look on her face.

“A cell phone app ‘accidentally’ sent you into a castle?” Sae asked. “Where you met a talking cat and gained a magic motorcycle?” She closed her eyes. “...what did they inject you with?”

“Sis-”

“I said not to call me that anymore.”

Makoto looked down again. “...Prosecutor Niijima.” The words hurt to say, they were so… distancing and unfamiliar. “I’m not saying all this because I’m high… This really happened. I said myself how confused I was by it all, didn’t I?”

Sae managed to glance at Makoto again, but only for a moment. “You did say that. And I remember you asking me something about an update when you overslept that day. A new app appearing would explain why you asked me that.”

“I’m glad you remember,” Makoto said, managing a smile. “It was kind of insignificant, but-”

“You know we have near photographic memory in common,” said Sae. “You remembering minor details like that prove nothing.”

Makoto sighed. “...yes. Anyway, this is the kind of phenomena I was in when arrested… It wasn't Kamoshida’s distortion, of course, but-”

“Enough,” Sae interrupted, checking her watch. “Continue. So you entered this ‘Metaverse’ with the transfer student? Does that make him a collaborator?”

“...I don’t know,” Makoto lied.

Sae tapped the table impatiently. “...I hope you aren’t telling blatant lies to try and cover up any subtle ones. Because I’ll know for sure by the end what this rambling means, and each lie I hear will make me push for another count of obstruction.”

Makoto closed her eyes. Cold threats… so that’s how Sis works…

~~~

Makoto opened her eyes at the sound of chains and dripping water. It seems she was in the Velvet Room again. She stood up, noticing the ball and chain was still on her leg, and the door was still shut.

“Step forward, inmate!” Caroline snapped.

Makoto obliged, narrowing her eyes at the three outside her cell.

“It would seem you’ve awakened to the power of Persona,” Igor chuckled. “Now the steps toward rehabilitation can begin.”

“That’s only the beginning?” Makoto asked. “But… wasn’t awakening to my power what you asked me to do? Isn’t that that rehabilitation you’re talking about?”

“The rehabilitation we speak of is not yours alone,” Justine said.

“It isn’t?” Makoto asked. “But then-?”

“You’ve also gained an ally today, did you not?” Igor asked. “Another rebel with the same power as you. An interesting one indeed.”

“You mean Ren?” Makoto asked. “I mean, Amamiya?”

“I shall bestow him with the same privilege I gave you,” Igor said. “May you seek rehabilitation together.”

“You’re never going to answer any of my questions are you?” Makoto asked.

“Until your next visit…” Igor said, once again ignoring Makoto’s comments.

“Back to bed, inmate!” Caroline snapped.

“May you continue to achieve new power,” Justine said as Makoto sat down again.

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Niijima Apartment

Makoto’s alarm woke her up. She rolled over, grabbing her phone to turn it off. Yawning, she sat up, staring down at her apps. The Meta-Nav was still there. So that wasn’t a hallucination yesterday.

On the subject, she opened her IM app, checking to see her total contacts. Two. So she really did add Ren last night. Bringing his up, she hesitated at sending a message. Would he be awake yet? Is it weird to send messages to a person you just met yesterday? Then again, after traveling to a castle in someone’s heart, societal norms probably aren’t in play between them right now. Maybe.

Makoto: Are you awake?

Ren: Yeah. Couldn’t sleep well with Morgana on my chest.

Ren: Good morning, Makoto.

Makoto: Back to first name basis again?

Ren: Am I not supposed to be? When you left yesterday, it sounded like you wanted to stay like that.

Makoto: I’m not sure. On the one hand, it’s not entirely proper considering our status difference at school.

Makoto: On the other hand, after our mutual near-death experience in the Palace, I think we can assume we’re friends now. And friends are allowed to be familiar with each other.

Typing...

Ren: You’re not really used to having friends, are you?

Typing…

Makoto: Is it that obvious?

Ren: It’s fine.

Ren: So, what’s up? We’re meeting at the courtyard today, aren’t we?

Makoto: We are. I just wanted to check on some things before school.

Makoto: First; your guardian wasn’t upset about the cat or your lateness, was he?

Ren: He was pissed at first, especially about the bruises, but when I said I got them from the ‘stray’ and that I was studying with you, he seemed to be okay with it.

Ren: Seems more okay with Morgana than me, come to think of it...

Makoto: That’s a little… unfortunate. Regardless, I’m glad things went well for you.

Makoto: Second question. Should we even go to school today? Kamoshida’s Shadow seemed intent on killing us yesterday.

Makoto: I didn’t really think about it from how exhausted I was, but he won’t remember that, will he?

Typing...

Ren: Morgana says it should be fine. That was his subconscious, so he shouldn’t recognize us as anything other than students.

Makoto: That’s a relief. I was worried we’d have to skip school over this. With entrance exams coming up for me, I’d hate to have any absences on my record.

Makoto: That, and the risk our lives would be in if he held his Shadow’s propensity for violence.

Makoto: Well, he’s already violent based on his abuses, but you know what I mean.

Ren: Yeah. If I get kicked out of this school, I’ll be back in juvie.

Ren: So even if he didn’t kill us, my life would basically be over.

Typing…

Makoto: Third question; do you have the Meta-Nav?

Ren: The Meta-Nav? Let me check…

Typing…

Ren: Oh crap.

Makoto: What’s wrong?

Ren: Oh, it’s really nothing major. I just… apparently got a lot of messages from Ryuji yesterday.

Makoto: Ah, I see. Yes, I suppose being in an alternate reality with no service would have kept you from noticing.

Makoto: If that’s all, I should get ready. Don’t want to miss breakfast again today.

Ren: Okay.

Typing...

Ren: Oh, Makoto-senpai?

Makoto: Yes?

Ren: Sorry if I made you worry just now.

Typing…

Makoto: It’s not a problem. See you at school, Ren-kun.

She set her phone down, gathering together her uniform and gym clothes. Someday I’ll ask him about the specifics of his record. An assault just doesn’t make sense with how considerate he’s being...

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Makoto stood on the platform, waiting for the next train to Aoyama-Itchome, when she heard a soft-spoken voice speak up behind her. “Um… good morning, Niijima-senpai.”

“Hm?” Makoto glanced back. “Oh, Suzui-san. Good morning.” She paused, noticing the bruises on Shiho’s face and leg. So he physically abuses the girls’ team, too. “...today’s the rally, isn’t it?”

“Um, yes,” Shiho said.

“Are you sure you’re feeling up to it?” Makoto asked. “You seem to have a few bruises on you. I could speak with Kamoshida or the principal to get you to sit out.”

“N-no, I want to play…” Shiho mumbled. “...thanks, though, Niijima-senpai.”

Makoto paused. It was clear that it wasn’t just her that found this conversation awkward. Was Shiho trying to tell her something? “...I’m always willing to help my peers, Suzui-san. If you need to tell me anything, please feel free to.”

“Oh, um…” Shiho trailed off, her lip trembling. “...I’ll keep that in mind if something comes up…”

Makoto struggled not to sigh out loud, forcing a reassuring smile. “Please do. Good luck today, Suzui-san.”

“Thank you…” Shiho said, the train pulling up. She quietly flinched when Makoto turned around, mentally chastising herself for staying quiet as they boarded.

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
Morning
Shujin Academy

“Amamiya is still here…”

“Wasn’t Niijima-senpai trying to get him expelled?”

Ann narrowed her eyes at the whispers as Ren sat behind her, shifting awkwardly as he moved things into his desk.

“Give it time. Niijima can’t be that incompetent that she can’t even root a criminal out.”

“Okay, listen up everyone,” Ren's homeroom teacher, Kawakami, announced, interrupting the gossip. “As you all know, today is the volleyball rally. Head to the gymnasium once you’ve changed, got it?”

There was mumblings of agreement and confirmation, which seemed to be enough enthusiasm for Kawakami, as she turned her back to them to write something on the board.

“Hey, Ren?” Ann asked, turning around to whisper to him.

“Yeah?” Ren asked.

“Well, my friend Shiho is playing today, and… well, you’re going to sit with me and cheer her on,” Ann said.

“Oh, uh-” Ren began.

“Hey, who’s talking?” Morgana whispered from inside Ren's desk. “I can’t see!”

Ren lightly flicked Morgana’s nose in an attempt to shut him up, but luckily Ann was too distracted to hear him.

“Hey, are… are you okay?” Ann asked, leaning closer. “Your face looks a little bruised…”

“I’m fine…” Ren said.

Ann frowned. “Are you sure?”

“No more talking,” Kawakami said. “You do still have some classes today, we didn’t give you the whole day to slack off.”

Ann turned forward, still frowning. First Shiho, now Ren… Why can’t anyone honestly tell me why they’re hurt?

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
Afternoon
Shujin Academy

Makoto was sitting on one of the benches in the courtyard alcove, checking the time on her phone, when she heard footsteps. She looked up to see Ren approach, his school bag slung over his shoulder.

“Sorry, Makoto-san, Ann wanted me to stay while her friend was playing,” Ren said.

“That’s alright.” She looked at her IM chat with Ren that morning. “'Makoto', 'Makoto-senpai', and now 'Makoto-san'… are you experimenting with different ways to say my name?”

“He’s trying to make you comfortable,” Morgana said from Ren's bag. “We were talking last night about it and-”

“Ahem,” Ren cut Morgana off, setting the bag on the table.

“Ah, right,” Morgana said, emerging. “Private talk. Anyway, we didn’t keep you waiting too long, did we?”

“Not at all,” Makoto lied. Truthfully, she had been sitting here for almost an hour now, but she didn’t want to form a rift between her new friend already.

Morgana seemed to nod, before stretching in the dramatic manner that cats do. “Ow, this will take some getting used to…”

“So, what should we start with?” Ren asked, leaning on a vending machine nearby.

With the private talk, Makoto thought. It sounds like it concerned me, after all… “Let’s start with the big issue of making Kamoshida answer for his crimes. I’ve been running over various scenarios in my mind about this.”

“Oh?” Morgana sounded amused. “Well, let’s hear it, then.”

Makoto looked down. “So… my first hope was that someone would talk about it. But, after this morning, despite chatting with someone in safety, they still didn’t seem willing to come forward.”

“He might have some leverage on them,” Ren mused.

“I find it hard to believe he has something on all of them,” Makoto said. She paused, remembering the library back in his Palace. “Or… I would, if not for what we’ve seen in the Metaverse…” She shook her head. “That leads to my next idea. My older sister is a prosecutor that works with the SIU.”

“A prosecutor?” Ren repeated in shock.

“Yes,” Makoto said, looking at him. “Is something the- oh, yes, your record… Don’t worry, she’s a good person. I’m sure she-” Makoto cut herself off. Sae had specifically said not to pay attention to the transfer student. Would she actually take issue with him if they met?

“Makoto?” Ren asked, snapping her out of her thoughts.

“Sorry,” Makoto said. “Anyway, she would still need evidence to convict, so I was thinking… with our Personas, could we not protect her and any accompanying officers on a trip to the Metaverse? There they’d have all the evidence they’d need for-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Morgana interrupted. “You want to bring police into someone’s Palace? That’s a really bad idea.”

“It is?” Makoto asked.

“You noticed, didn’t you? How the Shadows seemed to burst out of the floor? That’s because we kept getting seen. As a Palace Ruler becomes more cognizant of the threat in their Palace, the security level will start skyrocketing. That means more Shadows will appear. And they’ll be on far higher alert and guard. You two seem tough, sure, but against that many?”

“I get it,” Makoto said, sighing. “But if that’s too big a risk for us, what can we do? We’ve seen what’s in his heart, but we can’t do anything about it?”

Morgana let out a laugh that sounded a lot like a meow. “Well then… you said your sister needs evidence to convict? How about a confession? Would that be good enough?”

“A confession?” Ren repeated.

“I can’t imagine him confessing to this,” Makoto said.

“Well, of course he wouldn’t,” said Morgana. “Not as he is now. King of this school, where he’s free to abuse the students however he likes… But what if he was no longer King? What if he no longer wanted to hurt anyone? Could you imagine the guilt he’d feel? He’d probably turn himself in.”

“Well, doesn’t that sound ideal.”

Makoto put her hand to her chin in thought. “...wait, are you saying there’s a way to make that happen?”

“But of course,” Morgana said. “Figured you’d catch on. All we need to do is steal his Treasure.”

“Treasure?” Ren repeated.

“Yep. The source of his distorted desires. The core of his Palace. Take that, and he’d no longer have those distorted thoughts, now would he?”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “A way to make him confess…” That must be what Igor meant by rehabilitation for others… Change him so he’s no longer a criminal, but a repentant man…

“So, what do you say?” Morgana asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ren said, standing up straight, and looking down. “...if we get caught-”

“In the Metaverse, there would be no evidence,” said Makoto. “And, strictly speaking, it wouldn’t even be illegal. Ren-kun, I promise you, you will not be going to jail at the end of this should something go wrong. But, this is our chance to protect people. Isn’t that what you did with me?”

Ren looked up, staring over at Makoto, who stared back. Her eyes seemed to be pleading with him. “...if you’re for it, senpai, I’ll help.” He gave a smile. “I said I’d pay you back by seeing this through, right?”

“Ren-kun,” Makoto smiled.

“Ren?” Ann’s voice asked.

Morgana quickly leapt off the table, hiding beneath the bench Makoto was still sitting on.

“Ann?” Ren said, blinking as she approached them.

“I was looking for you,” Ann said. She looked over at Makoto and crossed her arms. “What are you doing here, Niijima-senpai?”

“I’m talking with my kohai,” Makoto said. “He just transferred, and given his leaked record leading to these unsavory rumors, I feel the need to take it upon myself-”

“You’re interrogating him?” Ann interrupted.

“-to make him feel welcome,” Makoto finished. “I have not, nor do I plan on, asking him about his criminal record. If he ever wishes to talk about it, I expect him to bring it up himself.”

“So, what, are you trying to trap him, or whatever it’s called in legal speak?” Ann asked.

“What do you mean?” Makoto asked.

“Um, I’m right here,” Ren said. “Can we not talk like I’m-?”

“Stay out of this!” Ann snapped.

“Yep.” Ren meekly looked down again.

“I haven’t a clue what you mean by trap,” Makoto said.

“I heard some of what you said,” Ann said. “Protecting the students by having him do something that’s “totally not illegal,” right?”

“I don’t believe I said ‘totally,’” Makoto mumbled.

“You going to make him go after Kamoshida?” Ann asked.

“Interesting that that’s where your mind went,” Makoto said evenly. “Is he doing something to you or others that makes you think that’s who I intend to protect the students from?”

Ann hesitated.

“Takamaki-san, I’ve heard the rumors about you,” Makoto said. “I place no stock in their validity, but there is a reason for them. Is Kamoshida blackmailing you into-”

“Shut up,” Ann said, shaking. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, Niijima-senpai.”

“Takamaki-san, I’m trying to help you.”

The rumors from this morning echoed in Ann’s head as she stared at Makoto. “Then leave my friends alone.” She gave a glance to Ren, before walking off.

“...well, she was rather assertive, wasn’t she?” Morgana asked, emerging from hiding and leaping back up on the table. He stared off in the direction she left in. “Rather beautiful too, huh…?”

“Please stay on topic and don’t leer at my classmates,” Makoto said.

“Right, sorry,” Morgana said. “So you two are in, then?”

“I believe so,” Makoto said, standing up. “Ren-kun?”

“You touched a nerve with Ann,” Ren said.

“That was not my intention,” Makoto said, looking down. “I… know she’s one of the few you can count as being a friend, so I’m sorry that-”

“I know,” Ren interrupted. He stared for a moment. “Shiho…”

“Suzui-san?” Makoto asked.

“She plays volleyball,” Ren said. “And she couldn’t really hide the bruises during the game. Ann dragged me to cheer for her, so they’re obviously close.”

“That’s his leverage on her, then,” Makoto said. “Takamaki-san’s probably worried if we do anything against him for what he does to her, Suzui-san will be hurt.” She put her hand to her chin. “And… it might be leverage for Suzui-san, too… Threatening Takamaki-san to keep her from talking…” Is that what she wanted to tell me this morning?

“Let’s do it, then,” Ren said. “Let’s take Kamoshida down.”

Makoto nodded.

“Alright, once you’re ready, we’ll head on in for a crash course in the Metaverse,” Morgana said. “Can’t have incompetency ruin our heist!”

“Don’t worry,” Makoto said. “I’m a quick study. Shall we change and head out, Ren-kun? School is basically over as it is.”

Ren nodded, picking Morgana up in his bag, and heading out.

Ann stared after them as they passed through the classroom building, but they didn’t seem to notice her. Narrowing her eyes at Makoto, she set off after them.

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

“So we’re here again,” Ren said, looking up from his phone to glare at the castle.

“Seems it was the Meta-Nav after all,” Makoto said. “And you have it, too, now.”

“That app is really weird,” Morgana said.

Makoto bit her lip. Would they understand if I told them about Igor and the Velvet Room?

“Well, no matter," Morgana said, seemingly brushing the issue aside. "Check it out. You have a firmer grasp on your rebellious spirit now that you have a goal.”

Ren looked down, noticing he was once again in the trench coat. He glanced over to see Makoto wearing her biker outfit again as well, her scarf seeming to blow on its own.

“You mentioned that before,” Makoto said. “So, these outfits represent…”

“Your rebellious spirit, that’s right,” said Morgana. “And since the Palace views you as a threat, your being here is an act of rebellion. Hence, your clothes change.”

Ren and Makoto both looked at Morgana, staring for a moment before he reacted.

“Hey, this is just because of what the distortions did!” Morgana snapped. “It’s not like my rebellious desire is being a cat!”

“This isn’t my rebellious desire, either,” Makoto mumbled, looking down. “Why is it skin tight leather and spikes?”

“It isn’t that bad,” Ren said awkwardly.

“...What.”

“I don’t mean it that way,” Ren said, tugging at his hair a little. “The scarf is really cool, and… I’m just trying to reassure you.”

“Well, I do actually like the scarf,” Makoto said quietly. “Still would have preferred an outfit like yours, though. The way the coattails flutter when you move is...”

“Can we stop wasting time?” Morgana asked. “I have a lot to cover.”

“Right, let’s get our training over with,” Makoto said.

“Alright, first… infiltration route,” Morgana said. “We need a discreet way in and out of the Palace proper.”

“How about the window?” Ren suggested. “You said yesterday that it’s unlikely to be locked, and we already started out on the upper floors, so…”

“Good idea,” Morgana smiled. “You’re almost a natural at this.”

“Almost alarmingly so,” Makoto said. “But no matter. Those crates and scaffolding should provide us a way up. Let’s go.”

“Lead the way!” Morgana said, the three of them setting off.

Slowly from behind, a trembling Ann made her way out of the alleyway. “Wh-what…?” She slowly walked forward, eyes fixed up on the castle, and the people that sounded like Ren and Makoto leading a strange cat monster in through the windows. “Where… am I? What happened to the school?! And… was that… Ren and Niijima?”

She rubbed her eyes, shaking her head. “Geez, what the heck’s going on?”

Chapter Text

4/13 - Wednesday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

“Alright, we’re inside,” Morgana said, leading the group through a door. They found themselves in a similar hallway to where Makoto and Ren found themselves on their initial arrival.

“These bubbles just seem disgusting now that I know what this Palace is,” Makoto said, staring at one of the windows at the end of the hall.

“Wait, do you hear that?” Morgana asked, perking one of his ears. There was a slight sound of clanging of metal around the corner.

“A Shadow,” Ren said.

“Press yourselves against the corners or behind furniture,” Morgana said. “As long as you’re not too obvious or already noticed, their cognition should pass over you.”

Makoto obliged, crouching down at the corner, and peering out at the hall. “...there’s one pacing the area.”

“Doesn’t look like we’ll be able to sneak past,” Ren said, peeking as well.

“Alright, then we have two options here,” said Morgana. “The first, just hit it so it’s aware it’s under attack and fight.”

“And the second?” Ren asked.

“You noticed while they’re in these false forms they have masks on, right?”

“...just like we do,” Makoto said. “To call our Personas, we tear our masks off. So, to call a Shadow’s true form…?”

“Rip the mask off,” Morgana said. “The forced change should disorient them and give us a chance to strike first.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ren smirked. “Want the honors?”

Makoto waited a moment as the knight approached. Like Morgana said, it didn’t notice them and turned around to continue its patrol like before. The moment it did, Makoto leaped out, managing to grab the pauldron to pull herself up and grip the edge of the mask. It offered some resistance, but she was able to quickly tear it off, dropping off the knight as it crumbled.

“Nicely done!” Morgana said, he and Ren running up to join Makoto as a Pixie emerged from it.

“Isn’t that what you fought earlier?” Ren asked. "When you gained your Persona?"

“No, but I’d see where you’d make that mistake,” Makoto said. “Anyway, shall we?”

“First blood is yours,” Morgana said.

Makoto rushed forward, delivering a series of punches and spinning kicks to the Pixie. It let out a yelp of pain, especially when Makoto managed to hit her throat with her last punch. The Pixie immediately dropped to the ground.

“All-Out Attack now, right?” Ren asked, joining Makoto and Morgana in surrounding it.

“W-wait!” the Pixie begged. “Please, don’t kill me!”

“Why shouldn’t we?” Makoto asked. She briefly paused. Where did that murderous aggression come from?

“We don’t really have a way to hold her up for cash or items right now,” said Morgana. “Not worth the risk sparing you. Prepare to die.”

“Ahh!” the Pixie screamed. “Please! I promise, I won’t hurt you!”

“You’re helping guard an abusive ‘King’,” Makoto said with disgust. “I’m done wasting time with this.”

“Wait, I get that!” the Pixie said. “I’m really impatient and disgusted, too, you know? I’m… I’m not a knight of this castle…”

“What?” Makoto asked, slightly lowering her stance in confusion.

“I come from the sea of humanity’s souls. I am thou, thou art I… I, Pixie, will assist you from here on!”

Makoto just stood there as the Pixie dissolved into strands of light which flew into and merged with Makoto’s mask. She blinked her eyes a few times to clear her vision.

“Uh, Morgana?” Ren asked. “What just happened to Makoto and that Shadow?”

“I… have no idea,” Morgana said.

“Makoto, you’re okay, right?” Ren asked, frowning.

“Y-yes, I believe so…” Makoto said quietly.

“Uh, well, anyway, now that ambushes and stealth seems down, I think I should talk to you about-” Morgana began, getting cut off by another knight erupting out of nowhere beside them.

“Were we spotted?” Makoto asked, taking a fighting stance again.

“I don’t see how we could have been,” Morgana said, frowning. “Just… be careful!”

The Shadow turned into a two-horned beast, digging at the floor before charging at them, hitting Ren.

“Ngh…!” Ren stumbled slightly.

“Ren!” Makoto narrowed her eyes, reaching towards her mask, when she paused. It wasn’t Johanna’s voice she heard calling to her... “Pixie!” She ripped it off, the same ‘Shadow’ from earlier appearing behind her in a burst of blue flames.

“Pixie?” Ren questioned.

“Wait, that’s…!” Morgana gasped.

“Zio!” Makoto said, Pixie calling down a swift jolt of lightning into the Bicorn.

“Electric magic?” Morgana questioned. "Not Nuclear like before?"

“Now, stop wasting time!” Makoto said.

Ren nodded, nudging Morgana to break him out of his surprise. The three of them swiftly tore the Bicorn apart.

“Ren, that didn’t hurt too much, did it?” Makoto asked as the Bicorn burned away.

“Not really, no,” Ren said. “Did you claim that Pixie as your own?”

“I… suppose so,” Makoto said, frowning. “Is that not normal?”

“No, it isn’t,” Morgana said, crossing his arms. “Coming to terms with your inner Shadow is how you awaken to a Persona. So if you manage to become a Persona-user, you’re usually restricted to the one…”

“But… this isn’t bad, is it?” Ren asked.

“Not at all, this is… fantastic!” Morgana’s eyes lit up and he let out another laugh. “Yes, I think things will work out just perfect… Two Persona-users, one of which can use multiple? My plan might just-”

“You know we can hear you, right?” Makoto asked.

“Oh, uh, pay me no mind,” Morgana said.

“Saying things like that really gives off a bad impression,” Ren sighed.

“Ah, right, um…” Morgana scratched his ear. “Hey, let’s just find a place to talk, okay?”

“Sure,” Makoto said. “We could hide under the stairs of one of the towers, or-”

“I have a better idea,” Morgana said. “Uh… this way!”

He quickly ran off, Makoto and Ren following close behind, until they reached a doorway that seemed to be fading from view a little.

“This door…” Ren mumbled.

“The cognitive distortion is weak here,” said Morgana. “It’s a place where the Palace Ruler’s control is weak.”

“If it’s weak, does that mean Shadows aren’t likely to be here?” Makoto asked.

“Exactly,” Morgana said. “Quick, inside!”

Makoto opened the door, and they walked into what appeared to be a fancy sitting room. The room briefly flickered, showing a normal classroom, before fitting the castle motif again.

“A classroom?” Makoto asked.

“Well, this is a school in reality,” Ren said.

“This is what I call a Safe Room,” Morgana said. “We can rest here all we need to without worry of being detected. And it’s easy to just pick up an infiltration from here, if needed.”

“I see,” Makoto said. “It makes sense that someone wouldn’t be entirely aware of every aspect of their distortion.”

“So, can we talk about how that Shadow showed up out of nowhere?” Ren asked.

“Yeah, I don’t get it,” Morgana said. “We were stealthy enough that it shouldn’t have mattered.”

“Maybe the Palace is still on guard after yesterday?” Makoto suggested. “Morgana escaping his cell, two intruders awakening to their Personas, and attacking Shadow Kamoshida himself.”

“Maybe,” Morgana said. “But the Palace wasn’t giving off any noticeably increase in security. Usually you can sense how paranoid the Palace Ruler is.”

Makoto sat down, thinking. “...Back at the courtyard, you told me the dangers of bringing people into the Metaverse, right?”

“Yeah, why?” Morgana asked. “Do you think someone else is in here?”

“How would they have gotten here?” Ren asked.

“The same way we did,” said Makoto. “When you used the Meta-Nav.”

“That could be it,” Ren said. “Even if we were knowingly using it this time, we still don’t actually know how it works.”

“What’s the range on that thing?” Morgana asked.

“At the very least the entire length of the Student Council Room,” Ren said.

“It’s just a theory of mine, anyway,” Makoto said.

“We should still look into it,” Ren said. “If I accidentally pulled in some random student, there’s a chance the Shadows could kill them.”

“Yeah, I can’t see that weighing well on the conscience,” Morgana said. “What do you think, Joker?”

There was a pause, Ren and Makoto glancing at each other.

“Um, who are you talking to?” Makoto asked.

“Well, even if the Palace Ruler does know who we are, constantly using our real names could maybe cause an issue with their cognition, and possibly reach to the real one if we aren’t careful.”

“Maybe?” Ren repeated.

“I thought the real Kamoshida could never learn what his Shadow self experiences?” Makoto asked.

“That’s the theory, anyway,” Morgana said.

Makoto sighed. “I don’t want to waste too much time discussing this if my guess is right, but fine. We can use code names, then. So, who were you calling Joker?”

“I was thinking it could be you,” Morgana said.

“Me?” Makoto asked. She shook her head. “No. That doesn’t fit me at all.”

“What do you mean?” Morgana asked. “You’re basically the trump card of us with being able to use multiple Personas!”

“It sounds too whimsical,” Makoto said. She gave herself a quick look-over, taking in the spikes and dark leather. “My outfit and personality don’t lend themselves to that.”

“Come on, I don’t want the name to go to waste!” Morgana complained.

“Then how about we call Ren-kun that?” Makoto said.

“Me?” Ren asked.

“You certainly seem more knowledgeable and fit for this kind of thief work,” Makoto said. Her eyes widened. “Uh, not to imply you’re a criminal! I don’t mean offense, I-”

“It’s fine, I know what you meant,” Ren said. “But Joker… I guess I kind of like it, yeah.”

“I’m glad,” Makoto said. "Your outfit sort of lends itself more to that sort of name, as well."

“Fine, I can accept him as Joker,” Morgana said. “So long as my idea still gets used. Now what about you?”

“Just pick one fast,” Makoto ordered. “We’re wasting time in here, and you were the one that was in a rush until now.”

“Y-yes, ma’am!” Morgana said. “Um, let’s see…”

“Queen,” Ren suggested quietly.

“Queen?” Makoto repeated, frowning.

“Uh, well, you’re sort of the leader, both of the Student Council as their President, and of us due to you having multiple Personas. Also, we’re overthrowing ‘King Kamoshida’, so…”

“That’s… nice reasoning,” Makoto said, smiling. “Very well, Queen it is.” Her smile dropped and her tone suddenly got authoritative. “Now, can we finally get a move on?”

Morgana jumped in surprise. “Uh, y-yes, Queen!”

~~~

Ann tried the doors to the entrance of the castle, but they wouldn’t budge. She looked at the scaffolding that Ren climbed earlier. “How were they acrobatic enough to do that?”

She looked around, including back out to the alley. “Nobody’s around…” She took her phone out, checking it. “And no service… But, wasn’t Ren just using his-?”

“Princess!” a strange voice called out.

“Huh?” Ann looked up, eyes widening as what appeared to be two knights were running straight at her. “AHH!”

~~~

The downed Incubus turned into light and merged with Makoto’s mask. She immediately made an uncomfortable face. “I… wish I didn’t go for that one…”

“It was rather disgusting looking,” Ren said.

“Rather fitting for this Palace,” Morgana said. “But that was risky going for it to begin with. Queen, I recommend holding off on hold-ups until we have a better way to threaten them.”

“Alright,” Makoto said, stretching her arms. “I just wanted to diversify- do you hear something?” She cut herself off, pressing against the wall to check around the corner. There, Shadow Kamoshida was talking with one of the knight Shadows.

“What do you mean, the princess is acting weird?” Shadow Kamoshida asked.

“She’s been in a panic since we found her outside. We tied her up in the usual room for now, but-”

“Is that so?” Shadow Kamoshida asked. “But, my Ann is right here…”

“What?” the guard sounded stunned.

“Like… what’s goin’ on…?” a voice that sounded similar to Ann’s said, only far more vapid and flirty than anything Makoto heard Takamaki say before.

“We have more criminals breaking in,” Shadow Kamoshida said, reaching out to pull the speaker closer to him. She looked like Ann if Ann started wearing nothing but cat ears and a tiny, purple bikini.

Makoto repressed an instinctive gag as Shadow Kamoshida and the Cognitive Ann left, Kamoshida not even attempting to keep his speedo hidden as the knight led them down the hall.

“Did you hear that conversation?” Makoto asked quietly once they were alone again.

“It was hard not to,” said Ren.

“Ann was the one that confronted you in the courtyard, right?” Morgana asked.

Makoto nodded.

“Then she must have followed us to see what you were up to,” Morgana said.

“Then, when I activated the Meta-Nav-” Ren began.

“She was dragged in with us,” Makoto finished, closing her eyes. “...did you see how Kamoshida views her? If he decides not to execute her like he seems fond of doing to those who enter his Palace, then he’ll-”

Ren's fist tightened. “Let’s not waste time. We can still save her, right?”

“Of course,” Makoto said.

“They went this way!” Morgana said. “Let’s roll, team!”

~~~

Ann found herself strapped to an x-frame in what she could only describe as some red-light district’s BDSM dungeon. Of course, just because it had dungeon in the name, it doesn’t explain why actual medieval knights would be there.

She strained again as she heard a door opening. “Hey! Uh, I didn’t agree to any of this, so could you let me go?”

“Let you go?” Shadow Kamoshida asked, approaching with the Cognitive Ann still clinging to his arm. “After the crimes of breaking into my castle and impersonating my princess?”

“K-Kamoshida?” Ann stuttered. “And… is that… me? What are you both wearing? No, wait, how are there even two of me?!”

“And you thought she was my Ann?” Shadow Kamoshida asked the knights in the room. He shook his head. “What a joke. Now then, how should I punish you?”

Ann struggled again. “L-look, I don’t get any of this perverted stuff of yours, but if-if you let me go, I promise I’ll keep quiet…”

“Promise?” Shadow Kamoshida repeated. “I seem to recall you making a promise before… dating me for your friend to get on the team. Now, didn’t you skip our date yesterday?”

“I…” Ann swallowed. “Are you kidding me? Wh-what are you going to do to me? Force yourself on me? Hurt Shiho? You… sick bastard…”

“Such a mouthy slave,” Shadow Kamoshida said. “Ann-chan? What do you think I should do to punish her?”

“Like… why don’t we kill her?” Cognitive Ann suggested in the same airy voice she always spoke in. “You already have me, y’know…?”

“Such a great suggestion,” Shadow Kamoshida smirked.

Ann’s eyes widened. “Y-you’re going to kill me?”

“Ann!” Ren's voice called out.

“Ren?” Ann looked over towards the entrance of the room to see Ren and Makoto rush in with a strange cat-creature, the two still in the odd costumes from earlier.

“Takamaki-san!” Makoto gasped. She narrowed her eyes at Shadow Kamoshida. “Let her go right now, or I’ll-”

“You’re not going to pull the same stunt as yesterday,” Shadow Kamoshida said. He dramatically raised his hand, and the two knights in the room placed their swords against Ann’s neck.

Ann let out a sharp gasp.

"Ann!" Ren gasped.

“He has the upper hand,” Morgana muttered.

Makoto nervously chanced taking a step forward.

“Oh, you don’t care if I kill her?” Shadow Kamoshida asked.

Makoto stopped. “...so, what now, Kamoshida? We’re at an impasse here. The moment you take her life, nothing will stop us from attacking you. Is that risk worth it?”

“Is that so?” Shadow Kamoshida asked. “And what’s to stop me from calling in another knight?” As soon as he said it, a Shadow erupted from the ground beside him. Like the one from yesterday, this one was clad in golden armor.

Makoto instinctively took a step back.

“I’ll just kill you first,” Shadow Kamoshida said. “You’re not going to risk fighting back while her life is in danger, right?”

“What can we do?” Ren asked quietly.

“Nothing that I can see,” Morgana said. “With Lady Ann as his hostage, we’re unable to fight back.”

“So he has complete control over us right now,” Makoto muttered, ignoring the honorific Morgana gave Ann.

“You finally caught on,” Shadow Kamoshida laughed. “Like I told you before, I’m the king of this place.”

“Complete control?” Ann repeated. “King?”

Makoto’s eyes briefly narrowed in thought at Ann’s words. “Takamaki, are you fine with this? Where’d the girl that confronted me a few hours ago go?”

“What?” Ann asked.

Ren's eyes widened for a moment as he caught on. “Ann, this is who Kamoshida really is. Please, don’t let him win. Stand up for yourself like you stood up for me and Shiho!”

“You and… Shiho,” Ann repeated. Her eyes narrowed. “You’re right… I… I refuse to let myself be toyed with anymore!”

My… It’s taken far too long,” a voice in Ann’s head chided.

Ann’s eyes turned yellow and her body began to convulse as pain tore through her head. She tried desperately to break the restraints, if just to attempt to relieve the pain with her hands.

For a dominant soul like yours to let yourself be trampled on for so long… are you finally ready to speak for yourself? I am thou, thou art I… Let us finally forge a contract…

Ann stopped struggling, slumping forward. “Yes… Carmen.” A mask flashed onto her face in a burst of fire. “I’m done being an obedient plaything for this pervert!”

There you go…” the voice continued, flames erupting from Ann’s hands to break her restraints. “Let’s hold nothing back.

Shadow Kamoshida began backing away in fear again as, for the third time, he witnesses someone rip a mask off their face and erupt in blue flames.

The flames died to reveal Ann dressed in a red latex bodysuit, behind her a woman in a beautiful dress, stepping on and tugging the leash of two men with their heads obscured by heart-shaped boxes.

Ann used the whip that had appeared in her hand to lash out, grabbing her Cognitive self by the neck and tugging down, causing her to burn away in black flames as the neck broke.

“Ooh, how daring…” Morgana commented in awe.

“Looks like I’m in control, now,” Ann said to Kamoshida. “Ready? For everything you’ve inflicted on me and my friends to be thrown back on you?”

“G-guards!” Shadow Kamoshida stuttered an order. “Kill these criminal already!”

The knights burst apart into liquid, pooling together before rising up as a large, purple demon sitting on a toilet. Shadow Kamoshida took the opportunity to flee the room.

Makoto gave a small, smug smile as Ann kept her cool. As I thought. I knew if anyone else could have a Persona, it would be someone like Takamaki.

“Ready, Ann?” Ren asked, leading Morgana to stand beside her and Makoto.

“Do you think we’d be alive right now if I wasn’t?” Ann asked.

“Oh… my heart…” Morgana said in a stunned tone.

“You who dare oppose King Kamoshida-” the Shadow began.

“Shut it!” Ann snapped. “Carmen! Agi!” She sent out a burst of flames, striking and knocking down the former Guard Captain.

“Quick, beat it while it’s down!” Makoto ordered.

Ann nodded, joining the others in tearing into it. Though that wasn’t enough to finish it, the rest of the fight was similarly short. It attempted to charge up a planned magic attack, but with Ren using Arsene to Cleave, Morgana hitting the flames Ann left on it with a burst of wind, and Makoto using Incubus to leach it’s health, the Belphegor didn’t get the chance to use it.

Ann was breathing heavily after the fight as the demon burned away. “Ow… I feel so drained now... What… happened…?”

“You okay, Ann?” Ren asked, offering his arm for support.

“Y-yeah…” Ann said, taking it. “I think…” She looked up at him. “Um, what are you wearing, Ren? And…” She looked over at Makoto. “Niijima-senpai, that is you, right?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Makoto confirmed.

“Lady Ann, this isn’t the place to talk,” Morgana said.

Ann stared in confusion. “I… don’t know who you are. Or… what you are…”

“We’ll explain later,” said Ren, hearing the sounds of more Shadows beginning to amass in the halls. “For now…”

“We should retreat to reality,” Makoto finished. “Takamaki, can you still run? Johanna and I can give you a ride if needed.”

“Johanna?” Ann repeated in confusion, before shaking her head. “Um, no, I… I’ll be fine…” She trailed off, noticing her outfit and quickly trying to cover up her cleavage. “Ahh! What the hell am I wearing?!”

Makoto sighed. “I feel the same way about my clothes, trust me…”

~~~

4/13 - Wednesday
After School
Shibuya Station

“Here,” Makoto said, handing Ann a bottle of water. “It was a bit expensive, but you could probably use hydration after all that.”

“Um, thank you, Niijima-senpai,” Ann said awkwardly as she took the bottle. She glanced at Ren and the cat slumped over his shoulder. “So that castle is how Kamoshida views the school?”

“That’s right,” Morgana said. “And we’re planning to take his Treasure to get rid of that view. We do that, and-”

“He’ll stop blackmailing me, and stop hurting Shiho and the rest of the volleyball team,” Ann finished. “The other students he harmed will get justice too, right?” She looked at Ren.

“That sounds like the case,” Ren said.

Ann sighed, looking forward. “Honestly, even after seeing that, and getting my Persona? None of this makes any sense to me.”

“It is pretty fantastic sounding,” Makoto agreed. “If I didn’t see it myself, I’d never believe it.”

Ann awkwardly hesitated, avoiding looking at Makoto. “So… uh, it’s weird to ask, but do you mind if I help you out? I… I want to get out of Kamoshida’s grip myself, y’know?”

“I’d be fine with that,” Ren said.

“Makoto, you have to let Lady Ann join the team!” Morgana said.

“Why are you ordering me like I was refusing?” Makoto asked with a sigh. “Takamaki-san, Ren-kun trusts you. And I know he needs support right now with his record getting leaked. It’s why I’ve been helping him. It’s how we became friends. I’d be more than happy to count you as one, too.”

“You would?” Ann asked. “Even after I yelled at you at the courtyard?”

“Were you expecting me to hold a grudge?” Makoto asked, giving a small smile. “I’m your senpai. It wouldn’t be proper of me to be that petty. Especially when it’s justified to be angry. I did let myself get pushed around by the faculty long enough for Kamoshida to hurt you. And Ren-kun.”

Ann managed a small laugh. “Geez, way to make me look like the petty one.”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “Oh! Sorry, Takamaki-san, I didn’t intend to-”

“No, it’s fine,” Ann laughed, standing up from where she was sitting. “Anyway… we’ll all talk tomorrow, yeah? I’m pooped after today.”

“These two were the same, yesterday,” Morgana said. “I completely understand your needing rest, Lady Ann.”

“Uh, thanks, Morgana,” Ann said, awkwardly.

“We’ll meet in the Student Council Room after school, okay?” Makoto asked.

“Sounds good,” Ann said. “Talk to you later, Ren.”

“Get home safe, Ann,” Ren smiled, as Ann ran off.

“Three Persona users in two days…” Morgana mused aloud. “You’re something else for finding them, Makoto.”

“I don’t think I deserve any credit for that,” Makoto said awkwardly. “Anyway, I should probably get home myself. Sis doesn’t like it when I stay out too late.”

“Same with us,” Morgana said. “And I have quite a bit to discuss with you guys tomorrow. A way that should make trying to negotiate with Shadows less dangerous for you, Makoto.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Makoto smiled. “See you tomorrow, then.”

“Oh, Makoto, can I talk to you for a second?” Ren asked.

“Of course,” Makoto said, stopping as she started to leave. “What’s up?”

“Like…” Ren paused as Morgana hopped out of his bag to give them a bit of privacy. “I don’t want to keep picking at everything you say, but you said I’m not a criminal earlier when we talked codenames.”

Makoto paused. “...yes, I did. Ren-kun, I may not know your whole story about your record, but I know you. After the time we spent together studying, fighting for our lives, trying to help our fellow students? That’s not the actions of someone bad. You don't need to keep second guessing our friendship.”

Ren paused. “Thanks. Again.” He gave a brief laugh. “I feel like I keep thanking you for just being yourself.”

“I don’t mind it, personally. Like I told Takamaki, we’re friends. And it feels… nice, that someone likes me for who I am.”

“Of course I would,” Ren smiled. “You’re a good person, Makoto.”

“As are you,” Makoto smiled back. Even if we already called ourselves friends, it feels much more real to hear us discuss it like this. To hear that I’m valued… As she thought this, a soothing, feminine voice rang out in her head. She didn’t recognize it completely, but at the same time, it seemed familiar enough that she didn’t question it.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Fool Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

FOOL CONFIDANT: RANK 1

Ren nodded at Makoto’s words. He waited a moment, before looking away. “Uh, so about my record…”

“Yes?”

Ren paused. “...um, never mind. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

“If you’re sure,” Makoto said.

“I am,” said Ren. “I want you to hear it. I trust you with it. But I need time to prepare myself, okay?”

“I understand,” Makoto said. “See you tomorrow.” She waved goodbye again, and began setting off towards home, Ren and Morgana doing the same in the other direction.

Chapter Text

Makoto opened her eyes, finding herself once again in her cell in the Velvet Room. She made her way over towards the door, where Caroline and Justine were waiting patiently. Well, at least Justine was patient.

“You kept us waiting!” Caroline snapped.

“Our Master would like a word with you,” Justine said calmly.

“Is it about my ability to use multiple Personas?” Makoto asked.

“Indeed,” Igor replied in his unsettlingly deep voice. “That is a key power that marks you as a Trickster.”

“Trickster,” Makoto repeated uncomfortably. “That title sounds as unfitting for me as the name Joker…”

“Perhaps you feel you aren’t suited for this role?” Igor asked. “But alas, this is what fate has dealt you. The bond you’ve begun to awaken today is proof of that.”

“The bond I’ve…” Makoto began to repeat, trailing off as she remembered the sensation she felt with Ren back at the station. Her face started to heat up, and she instinctively tried to pull back into her cell in an attempt to hide it. “Wh-what do you mean…?”

“Stay where you are, inmate!” Caroline slammed the bars for emphasis.

“I hope this bond will be the first of many for you,” said Igor. “Forging chains of trust between those you can call allies will assist in your growth.”

“It will?” Makoto asked. Also… first of many? I guess it’s a relief that he meant bond in a friendship sense...

“We will be opening our services to you,” Justine explained. “Services to manage and strengthen your Personas.”

“The strength of your bonds determines the strength you’ll receive,” said Igor. He gave an unnerving chuckle. “I have faith in what you’ll show us.”

Makoto frowned. Navigating these vague conversations is rather frustrating, but… their offer of help and faith in me seems genuine… Like before with Ren, a voice rang out in her head as she thought this.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Moon Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

MOON CONFIDANT: RANK 1

“This sensation…” Makoto mumbled.

“Have you discovered a bond between us?” Igor asked with a chuckle. “Do you feel that potential strength surging within you?”

“I… believe I do,” Makoto said.

"Excellent. Caroline, Justine, bring out the guillotine.”

“Guillotine?!” Makoto gasped.

“Fear not,” Justine assured her, “it isn’t meant to claim your life.”

“This is one of our services,” Caroline said. “Persona fusion through execution!”

“Execution?” Makoto repeated, still in slight shock as Caroline and Justine left to bring out matching blue guillotines, the same V on the carpet beneath Igor’s desk emblazoned on the blades.

“Parts of one’s personality constantly die to give rise to new ideals and feelings,” Igor said. “We apply that process to the Personas you obtain. Through their execution, another will rise in place. Now, with what you currently have, let’s conduct a demonstration.”

“Choose two of your Personas!” Caroline ordered.

“We’ll handle the rest,” Justine added.

Makoto looked down. This place was strange enough already, but now... She looked back up, swallowing. “Okay. I’m ready.”

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Makoto made her way upstairs towards the Ginza Line, her head still reeling from the previous night. Even if the twins put the Incubus and Pixie into bags before their execution, she still witnessed their deaths. Essentially, watching parts of her dying.

She was broken out of her grim thoughts by the sight of Ann waiting on the platform. She smiled and started to approach, when she noticed Ann talking on her phone.

“I’m busy this afternoon,” Ann said. “It was sudden and I can’t cancel. ...I know I promised to make up for the other day, but I can’t- leave Shiho out of this!”

Kamoshida… Makoto reached the easy conclusion. She stood a little ways back, debating whether or not to intervene.

“Her position doesn’t have anything to do with my availability today!” Ann said desperately. She looked up at the sound echoing down the tracks. “I have to go, the train’s coming.” She hung up without another word, crossing her arms.

“Takamaki!” Makoto called, trying to make her way towards Ann. Ann didn’t give any signs that she heard her, and boarded the train. Makoto stopped, letting out a sigh, before following. Apparently she won’t be talking with her this morning.

"Makoto!" Ren ran up behind them, but only reached the platform as the train pulled away. He let out a huff.

“Looks like we missed it,” Morgana said.

“Yeah.”

“This won’t make you late, will it?” Morgana asked.

“It shouldn’t,” Ren said, checking the train schedule. As crowded as it could be, the city sure had a lot of conveniences.

“Yo, Ren!” Ryuji called out, grabbing his attention.

“Oh, hey,” Ren said, staring at him as he gasped for breath beside him. “Uh, if you were running for the train, it just left.”

“Damn,” Ryuji said, straightening his back.

“Who is this?” Morgana asked.

Ryuji looked around. “Uh, did you just hear a cat?”

“No."

“Eh, whatever,” Ryuji said. “So, what’s been up with you? I haven’t seen you since Monday and you’ve been ignoring most of my messages.”

“I’m really sorry about that,” Ren said. “Ma- uh, Niijima-senpai and I have just been busy in our study sessions.”

“Dude, are you really hanging out with the Student Council President?” Ryuji asked.

“I am,” Ren said. “I know it’s hard to believe-”

“I’ll say,” Ryuji said, crossing his arms. “Someone like Niijima would never give us delinquents the time of day.”

“What makes you say that?” Ren asked.

“Right, you weren’t here last year,” Ryuji said. “Uh, not that I really got to know her all that well, but after the track team… broke up, I went to the library.”

“You went to the library?” Ren repeated, almost laughing.

Ryuji burst out laughing, too. “I know, right? But they actually got some manga in there. Well, they did last year anyway. I had one borrowed while my leg healed and shit, and when I went to return it, I see her just sitting there by herself, studying.”

“That does sound like her,” said Ren, frowning at Ryuji’s mention of his leg healing. He didn’t mention any injury back when they chatted on Monday. “But I don’t see the point.”

“I’m getting there!” Ryuji said. “So, the girl at the library desk started chewing me out for keeping it so long, and I sort of-” He broke off, waving his hand as he tried to find the words.

“Lost your temper?” Ren suggested.

“Yeah, something like that,” Ryuji mumbled. “Anyway, the now Miss Prez suddenly just pops up between us and tells me to shut up. She didn’t even hear my side of things before pushing me out of the library!”

“I… well, maybe it was just a noise complaint?” Ren said. “I can’t really see her doing that.”

“You callin’ me a liar?” Ryuji snapped.

“No,” Ren said. “It’s just after… studying with her, I don’t see her like that.”

“Yeah, studying,” Ryuji repeated, crossing his arms. “Guess you’re doing that again, today?”

“We were planning on it, yeah,” Ren said. “Sorry. I swear, I’m not trying to-”

“Sunday, okay?” Ryuji said. “We're hanging out this weekend. I mean, after we chatted and stuff, I figured we were…” He trailed off as the next train pulled up. “Eh, let’s just go to school.”

“Right,” Ren said, following after him while Morgana made disapproving sounds in his bag.

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

“So, you keep Morgana in your desk?” Ann asked, leaning back to talk with Ren while they ate lunch.

“Yeah,” Ren said.

“It’s terrible and cramped,” Morgana complained. “But I can’t stay in that attic all day.”

“Even if Sakura-san allowed it, I don’t think it would be good if Makoto came by on her own,” Ren said. “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about her.” He thought back to his earlier conversation with Ryuji, and frowned. “Anymore than people already have of her, anyway.”

“This isn’t about me accusing her of trying to trick you yesterday, is it?” Ann asked.

“Oh, no, sorry,” Ren said. “It had nothing to do with you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ann said, shaking her head. “I mean, I guess I only thought that because of the rumors about her…”

“Some guy named Ryuji was badmouthing her this morning,” Morgana tattled.

“Can you not spread gossip?” Ren asked.

“Ugh, figures it was him,” Ann said. “He jumped on the whole ‘I’m Kamoshida’s girl’ bandwagon, too.” She stuck her tongue out in disgust after finishing her brief valley girl impersonation.

“Did he?” Ren asked, frowning. “When we had beef bowls together, he seemed like a nice guy.”

“Yeah, I thought so, too,” said Ann. She shook her head before checking the clock. “I’m going to go see if I can see Shiho for a little bit. I’ll see you after school, right?”

“Yeah,” Morgana confirmed. “The Student Council Room, Makoto said.”

Ann nodded, before walking off. Ren watched her go, and looked down at the bread he had grabbed at the school store.

“The transfer student is still here.”

“Should we eat somewhere else?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to be alone in a room with him.”

Ren simply ate, trying to ignore the loud whispers of his classmates as they left. Soon, it was just him and a rather bruised up boy who had apparently decided against wearing the school blazer.

“Do you want to go see if Makoto’s free?” Morgana asked, oblivious to the quiet boy’s presence. “Or would it be weird to eat lunch with her? I mean, eating lunch alone like this already feels weird, but-”

“A cat?” the bruised student asked weakly, looking around. He froze when he noticed it was just him and Ren in the room. “O-oh… A-Amamiya, um…”

“Nishima, right?” Ren asked, frowning as he tried to remember what the teacher called him.

“Uh, no, it’s Mishima…” he corrected him, before shaking his head. “But, uh, that’s not important. I’ll just get out of your hair…”

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Ren said. “I’m just eating lunch.”

Mishima seemed to consider Ren's words for a moment, but then left all the same.

“...sorry,” Morgana whispered when the door shut. “I thought everyone already left.”

“So, they hear you as a cat, right?” Ren asked.

“Seems so,” Morgana said. “Probably has to do with cognition. If it still bugs you, we can run it by Queen. She seems good at piecing things together.”

“I was more just pointing it out,” Ren said, finishing his bread and looking out the window at the sunny skies.

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
After School
Shujin Academy

Makoto sat down at the table they had set up in the Student Council Room, placing her bag beside her, and setting her phone in front of her. She then folded her hands, and waited. Then she unfolded them. She was spared having to figure out what to actually do while she waited by a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Makoto said, standing up.

The door opened, and Ann led Ren inside, the boy shutting the door behind them before placing his bag on the couch to let Morgana climb out.

“We didn’t keep you waiting, did we?” Morgana asked.

“Not too long,” Makoto said. “The day only just ended, after all.” She returned to where she was sitting before, and gestured to the others. “You can sit down wherever you like.”

“I’m fine standing for now,” Ann said. Her phone buzzed. She quickly checked it, scowled, and tossed it onto the couch next to Ren's bag.

“Kamoshida?” Ren asked as he sat across from Makoto.

“Yeah,” she said, crossing her arms. “I’m so sick of him.”

“He’s blackmailing you into dating him, right?” Makoto asked. “If you don’t mind my asking-”

“He hasn’t made me do anything sexual yet,” Ann said. “Though he’s been asking a lot lately. Threatening to take Shiho off the team if I don’t.”

Ren said nothing, turning away to try and hide an angry look on his face.

Makoto glanced at him, before returning her attention to Ann. “I promise he won’t get away with this for much longer. Just ignore his pestering for now, okay?”

“Yeah,” Ann said. “I know to do that.” She looked over. “Ren, are you doing okay?”

He hesitated as if trying to find the words to say. “Well… I promised Makoto I’d talk about it today. ...I never told you why I was arrested, did I?

“Oh, uh, I guess not,” Ann said. “But, your record was leaked online already, so-”

“What happened, Ren-kun?” Makoto asked softly.

“I was walking home one night and saw a man forcing himself on a woman,” Ren said. “So I stepped in…”

“Ren…” Ann said, giving a sympathetic frown.

“So that’s why you’re so bothered by Kamoshida, huh?” Morgana asked.

“Yeah,” Ren said. “I don’t care if he leaked my record or not. I just hate those kinds of people.”

“As one should,” said Makoto. I’m not sure he’s telling the whole story… but, regardless, this is the issue that’s been weighing on him. Assaulting someone to protect another… no, I can think about the morality of that action when we’re not busy. “Thank you for sharing, Ren-kun. I… know that must have been tough to say.”

Ren tugged at a lock of his hair. That’s not the whole story, but… I’m not sure if I can say it now that Makoto thanked me like I was already done.

“So, are we going in today?” Ann asked. “I don’t really understand all this Metaverse stuff yet, but…”

“First, I believe Morgana said he wanted to talk to me about something,” Makoto said.

“Glad you remembered,” Morgana said, hopping up onto the table. “So, Lady Ann aside, most of you notice Shadows sometimes become a little panicky when you knock them down? It’s how we got those two to ally themselves as Makoto’s Personas, after all.”

Makoto looked down at that. Hearing that after executing them last night for fusion was making her feel guilty.

“But that Pixie was the only one that went quietly,” Ren said. “The Incubus lashed out the first try.”

“Yeah, because we weren’t enough of a threat,” said Morgana. “And it’s not just claiming Shadows for Makoto that we’re missing out on. We could be getting items or even money from them if we could hold them up properly.”

Makoto looked up, frowning. “I admit I’m willing to act as a thief for stealing Kamoshida’s Treasure. That’s what Morgana said we need to do to destroy the Palace, after all. But this is starting to sound more…”

“They’re just Shadows, though, right?” Ann asked. “You guys said that aside from Kamoshida or us, everyone in there is fake, right?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Morgana said. “You’re so smart, Lady Ann.”

“Um, is there a reason you’re calling me that?” Ann asked.

“Well, when you phrase it that way…” Makoto said, ignoring Morgana's interjection. "But still..."

“I get that you’re uncomfortable about the idea,” Ren said.

“That said, we all have some aggression we need to get out, don’t we?” Morgana asked. “It’s why you were able to awaken to your rebellious spirit in the first place.”

“And you looked really aggressive in that outfit,” Ann said.

Makoto sighed. “Alright, I relent. So, how can we threaten them? A hold up would suggest we’d need a firearm of some sort, but given our age and the legal regulations on them, we’d never be able to obtain one.”

“Especially with my record,” Ren said. He tried to speak lightly, but some of the heavy tone from earlier still bled through.

“So we just need a toy or something,” said Morgana.

“A toy?” Makoto repeated. “But… that wouldn’t do anything.”

“In reality, maybe,” Morgana said. “But if it looked real enough that the Shadows would believe it’s an actual gun? Then in the cognitive world, it would work. After all, Ren's knife isn’t real.”

“It’s not?” Makoto asked, seemingly surprised.

“Nope,” said Morgana. “Same with my sword.”

“Huh…” Ann said, also surprised. “I mean, a whip’s a whip, so I just sort of assumed your stuff was real.”

“My brass knuckles are real,” Makoto said. “Truthfully, I was given them to help with self defense even before discovering the Metaverse. Sis wanted me safe in case I was near someone when they suffered a psychotic breakdown.”

“Wait, you actually own brass knuckles?” Ren asked.

“They’re hand-me-downs, and it’s just the one set, but, yes, I do.”

“That’s… kind of scary,” Ann said.

Ren seemed to be struggling not to smirk over something.

“Is something the matter, Ren-kun?” Makoto asked.

“N-nothing,” Ren said. “So, we need fake guns that look real, right?”

“Oh, I think that’s airsoft or something, right?” Ann asked. “Ryu- uh, Sakamoto showed me a place back in middle school as if I'd be interested in it. We could try to find it again, see if they have anything interesting.”

“Sounds good,” said Ren.

“So, today will be meant for collecting supplies, then?” Makoto asked.

“Yeah,” Morgana said. “I know it’s going to be tough, but just hang on until tomorrow, okay? We’ll tackle the Palace again then.”

“Alright,” Ann said. “So, Ren, wanna head out?”

“I… think Morgana and I should look into something,” Ren said. “Why don’t you take Makoto?”

“Oh, um, sure, I don’t mind,” Makoto said. “Takamaki?”

Ann frowned, looking at where her phone lay. It had stopped buzzing. “...okay.” She turned back towards her. “Let’s go, then.”

“Oh, Lady Ann, we should get your contact info,” Morgana said. “I tried to get Ren to ask you something last night, but we didn’t have it.”

“Oh, yeah, sure thing,” Ann said. She grabbed her phone from the couch, and the three traded numbers. “And, done. Well… let’s head out, then. Before Kamoshida realizes I’m still at school.”

Makoto nodded, grabbing her bag. “We’ll talk later, Ren-kun. Let me know what you and Morgana are looking into when you get the chance.”

“If it pans out,” Ren said.

Makoto nodded, and followed Ann out of the room.

“I don’t remember anything we were going to look into,” Morgana said as he climbed back into Ren’s bag.

“Yeah,” Ren said, picking the bag up again and gently moving it over his shoulder. “I mostly just said that to see if Ann and Makoto would start getting more friendly with each other. Ann still seems a bit uncomfortable around her.”

“Well, that's an idea,” Morgana said. “Guess we’ll clean that attic up, then. Maybe I can teach you some more thieving tricks, too.”

“Sounds good,” Ren smiled.

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
After School
Central Street

“Let’s see…” Ann said. “I think it was… um, where was it?”

“Do you remember the name?” Makoto asked. “We could try searching on our phones.”

“It’s been a few years, give me a break!” Ann said. “Do you remember where you were three years ago?”

“Um, April 14th of three years ago would have been a Sunday, right?” Makoto said, placing her hand to her chin in thought. “I think I was actually stuck in bed from food poisoning. Sis didn’t have time to cook after work, so we tried a nearby take out place. It didn’t go over well.”

“Wait, you can actually remember?” Ann asked in surprise. “That’s kind of cool, actually. I mean, not the food poisoning part, but remembering that. Like, I suck at remembering things.”

“I can’t say I know you well enough to refute that,” Makoto admitted.

“Yeah,” Ann said. She bit her lip. “Hey, look, Niijima-senpai, I want to say sorry about yelling at you yesterday.”

“I don’t believe you were yelling,” said Makoto. “And that aside, I don’t need an apology. You were right to be angry, and it was fair to point it at me. It’s not as if I was doing anything to actually help before now.”

“Geez, I don’t care if you think I was right, I still feel bad about it!” Ann whined.

“O-okay,” Makoto stuttered in surprise. “I… accept your apology, then. Let’s just move on, okay? I want to help you, but I need your cooperation to do it.”

“Right, yeah,” Ann said. She paused as they passed the arcade. “Wait! I think it was in that alley, actually!”

“That one?” Makoto glanced across the street from them, spotting the Protein Lovers sign. “It looks like that’s a gym of some sort.”

“No, the alley we walked past,” Ann said, taking Makoto’s hand and pulling her back a little. “This way! I know where I’m going now!”

“Ah! Slow down, Takamaki-san!”

They soon found themselves in front of an airsoft shop, a neon sign with the name ‘Untouchable’ above the entrance. If Makoto felt uncomfortable about being in a back alley shop to begin with, it got worse when they entered. The store clerk and only customer gave a reflexive glance at the bell chime, and ended up staring in surprise as Makoto and Ann entered. It gave the distinct impression that not many girls end up visiting this store.

“Um, it’s rude to stare,” Ann said softly. The customer looked away. The shop owner had already turned his attention back to a magazine he was reading before Ann said anything. Ann frowned, glancing at Makoto. “I guess we should ask the guy at the counter?”

“I suppose,” Makoto replied, following behind Ann and glancing at the various model weapons lining the walls and shelves.

“Hiya,” Ann said, forcing a cheerful tone.

“What do you want?” the man grunted out.

“Um, so…” Ann trailed off. “I don’t really know…”

“Doesn’t seem that way,” he said.

Makoto sighed. Time to make something up. “You see, a friend of ours is having a birthday soon, and he’s kind of… well, not obsessed, but really into airsoft guns…”

“Oh, an enthusiast?” he asked, looking up. Makoto couldn’t tell if he was buying the excuse or not.

“Yes,” Makoto said. “We both had the same idea of buying him something, and decided to come together and… buy… something.”

He stared at her for a moment. “...alright, I don’t mind helpin’ you out.”

“That would be great, thank you,” Makoto said.

“Y-yeah, totally,” Ann said in an unconvincingly happy voice.

He raised an eyebrow as he glanced at her, before picking up a catalog of what was in stock for them. “Here’s what I got, then. I recommend going for the ones on these pages. Don’t want to rip you nice girls off.”

“Oh, y-yeah!” Ann said, her voice now in a sing-song.

Makoto was struggling not to facepalm as she turned a page.

“Oh, that looks good!” Ann said, her tone returned to normal as she pointed at what resembled a machine gun.

“You think so?” Makoto asked, surprised at Ann’s shift back to a genuine tone. “Uh, well, if you think he’d like it.”

“Yeah, I’ll take that one,” Ann said, fishing some money out.

“Take care of it,” the manager said as he grabbed her a box and took the cash.

“I will!” Ann said. “What about you, Nii- um, Makoto?”

Makoto closed her eyes. And back to the fake tone as we pretend to be closer than we are… “I’m still looking… I’ll meet you outside, okay?”

“Oh, sure thing,” Ann said, waving and heading out the door.

Makoto let out a relieved sigh.

“I find it hard to believe you put up with that peppy attitude,” the manager said. “You really friends?”

“Uh, y-yes, we are,” Makoto said, turning the page. “Oh… I could see him liking this handgun replica…” She paused, glancing at the other page. “But revolvers don’t jam…”

“They aren’t real, you know.”

“Oh, I know!” Makoto said quickly. “I was just… um, I’ll take both of those, I suppose.”

The manager gave a short, rough laugh as he got Makoto’s choices for her. “What, tryin’ to outdo blondie? You both fighting over this guy, or somethin’?”

“I don’t believe so,” Makoto frowned. Then her eyes widened in realization. “Wait, you mean, in a romantic sense? N-no, no, we’re all just friends, and-”

“No need to take it so seriously,” he said, setting Makoto’s purchase down. “¥6,500.”

“Yes, of course,” Makoto said, paying him with a cringe. That’s more expensive than I expected… I really hope Sis never finds out I’m spending money like this.

“Have a good day,” he said. “Let your friend know where I am if he wants more.”

“I’ll be sure to,” Makoto said. Though, Ren-kun in a weapon shop, even if it is only model guns, would probably worsen his reputation around school. If that’s even possible…

“Get anything good?” Ann asked as Makoto returned to meet her at the alley.

“I hope so,” Makoto said. “With how pricey that ended up being, I would hope they’ll do the trick Morgana said they would.”

“Yeah,” Ann said. “But, wow, that was a good cover story you came up with. Unless… is Ren’s birthday actually coming up soon?”

“I have no idea,” Makoto said. “I’m just glad you played along.” Though your acting needs a lot of work…

“Yeah,” Ann said. “Sorry for using your first name in there, but I wanted him to think we were good friends, y’know?”

“I understand,” Makoto said. She paused in thought. “Though… for the record, I wouldn’t mind it if you did use my given name. Ren-kun and I already do, and we’re all in on the same secret, after all.”

“You sure?” Ann asked.

“If you’re uncomfortable, we don’t have to,” Makoto said.

“N-no, I don’t mind, M-Makoto,” Ann stuttered out. Her face turned red. “That’s going to take some getting used to…”

Makoto smiled. “Well, hopefully we’ll have plenty of time for that, Ann.” She paused in thought before giving a small laugh. “Do you think this was Ren-kun’s idea? Make us spend time together so we’d act more friendly?”

“Huh?” Ann blinked in surprise. “You don’t think he’s that devious, do you?”

“Calling him devious makes him sound almost evil,” Makoto said. “Anyway, let’s not loiter around in this alleyway.”

“Right,” Ann said. “Hey, there’s a crepe place near her, if you wanna split one!”

“I suppose I could use a snack,” Makoto said, checking her phone. “And I don’t need to be home anytime soon, so… lead the way, Ann.”

“You got it!” Ann said, taking Makoto’s hand again to pull her along Central Street. As she did, Makoto heard that voice in her head again.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Lovers Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

LOVERS CONFIDANT: RANK 1

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
After School
Shujin Academy

Shiho stepped out of Ann’s classroom, looking at the floor. She was hoping to catch her before she left school, but seems to have missed her chance. As she made her way down the hall, she heard Mishima calling out to her.

“Suzui…” Mishima said. His voice sounded tired and nervous. “Are you leaving…?”

Shiho turned around to look at him. The bruises on his face made her cringe. He always seemed more beat up than the others, even including herself. “What is it?”

Mishima looked away, seeming to force the next words out of his mouth. “Kamoshida’s asking for you… He wants you to come to the P.E. faculty office.”

Shiho immediately felt dread creep through her. “What did he say?” She already knew the answer.

“...I don’t know,” Mishima said. “Well… I have to go.” Immediately, he turned and ran off.

Shiho stood in place, staring at the hallway floor. She felt her phone buzz in her pocket.


Ann: Sorry I ran off so soon, had somewhere to be.

Ann: I know lunch and after school plans keep failing.

Ann: But maybe we’ll have time this weekend?

Shiho felt tears stinging her eyes as she put her phone away. “Ann…” With her friend in mind, she made her way to the P.E. faculty office.

~~~

4/14 - Thursday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto and Sae were sitting at their kitchen table, eating the dinner Makoto had prepared while the news was still talking about the recent psychotic breakdown that led to the train derailing.

“The Minister of Transport is going to be resigning over this,” Sae said. Makoto had a feeling she was talking more to herself than her. “If there is a culprit behind these incidents, who would benefit from him stepping down?”

“A politician?” Makoto suggested. “Or maybe it was a personal thing, and he didn’t want to make too obvious a connection?”

“Perhaps that would explain one incident,” Sae huffed. “But it wouldn’t explain the mental shutdowns of business executives or activists.”

“Maybe that means there is no culprit,” Makoto said, taking a bite. “Or, if there is one-”

“Makoto,” Sae interrupted. “It’s my job to be investigating this, not yours. Your job is to focus on your school work. And no offense, but the useless advice of a naïve high schooler is not something that will help me.”

Makoto stopped talking, staring down at her food. Sae continued to eat as well, her free hand placed on her chin. Seems she decided any further speculation of hers was to be done internally.

Suddenly, the silence that had fallen between the two sisters was broken by Makoto’s phone chiming.

Sae looked over, her face a mix of surprise and suspicion. Or, maybe the second part was Makoto’s anxious imagination. “Who’s contacting you?”

Makoto took her phone out, seeing a new message from a group chat between herself, Ann, and Ren. “O-oh, just the Student Council…” The phone buzzed again from another few messages. Makoto stood up. “I’ll go answer these in my room. Don’t want to disturb you.”

Sae gave no verbal response, simply returning her attention to the television, her eyes narrowed in thought.

Makoto walked as calmly as she could until her bedroom door was shut behind her, before checking her phone in a near panic.


Ann: Shoot, I just remembered!

Ann: Makoto, did you get a model gun for Ren? I was too focused on getting one for myself.

Ren: Oh, you two on given-name basis now?

Ann: Yep! That’s the power of crepes for you!

Ann: Anyway, Makoto? You there?

Makoto let out a sigh, typing her response.


Makoto: Sorry, I was eating dinner with my sister.

Makoto: And I wouldn’t hold crepes in such a high regard. All those calories…

Makoto: But to answer your question, yes, I did. It’s a simple handgun model, but it should look real enough.

Ren: Thanks, you two.

Ann: So, what did you and Morgana do today?

Ren: Cleaned the attic up and worked on some lockpicks.

Makoto: Lockpicks?!

Ren: He says it might come in handy in the Metaverse.

Ren: I wouldn’t use them in real life.

Makoto: Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest you would.

Makoto: I’m just a little on edge from being around my sister right now.

Ann: Ah, yeah, sorry to interrupt your dinner.

Makoto: It’s fine. Just, for future reference, try to aim for later in the evening for messaging me.

Ren: Sure thing.

Ann: We’ll all talk tomorrow. Same time and place?

Makoto: It’s worked out so far. See you all then.

She put her phone down, taking a few breaths to calm herself, before heading back out to her sister.

Chapter Text

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

“I suppose your explanation of why you have model weapons in your possession makes sense,” Sae said, brushing some hair aside. “At least, in terms of the rules you’ve explained thus far of this ‘Metaverse’.”

Makoto nodded, feeling her eyes drooping. So tired… My eyes feel heavy...

“Hey!” Sae snapped, slamming the table.

Makoto jolted, eyes wide again. “No dozing off!” her earlier interrogator’s words echoed in her head. She remembered the handcuffs digging into her wrists, and feeling the fresh bruises on her. Did they do that, or was it when she was first arrested? “Did you think we’d go easy on you just because you’re a girl?” She could feel them tugging her hair to get her to look up at them-

“Try to stay awake so I can hear the whole story,” Sae said, bringing Makoto’s focus back to the present. “Just because I’m acknowledging the story as consistent doesn’t mean I’ve accepted your word as fact yet. You could have memorized an excuse to use in case you were caught.”

“...Does that seem like something I’d do?” Makoto asked.

“With how much you like to think things through and prepare?” Sae asked. “Yes.”

Makoto closed her eyes.

“Are you passing out again?” Sae asked.

“No,” Makoto said quietly. “...I’d… think of a more realistic sounding excuse for if I was caught. Right?”

Sae paused. “...perhaps you would. But after learning you've been keeping all of these secrets for eight months? I have no idea what you’d do anymore.”

Makoto opened her eyes, but kept her focus on the table. “Where was I…?”

“You’re up to April 15th,” Sae said. She paused again, though this one seemed more from recalling a painful memory than from processing her thoughts. “...you remember what happened that day, I’m sure. It may be difficult to recount, but please do so. And quickly.”

Is Sis showing me sympathy? Makoto looked up in surprise. She was met with Sae continuing to avoid looking at her. Makoto stared for a moment, before looking down and speaking again.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Makoto was making her way towards Shujin, frowning as she saw Kamoshida greeting students at the gate as usual, when someone called out to her.

“Oh, Niijima-san!” a rather high voice said.

Makoto turned to see a girl wearing a pink turtleneck over her uniform jogging up to her, her rather fluffy hair bouncing with each step. “Yes, um…?”

“R-right, we’ve only ever walked past each other,” the fluffy-haired girl said. “I’m Okumura? We’re in the same year.”

“Okumura-san,” Makoto said, putting a hand to her chin in thought. “Oh, yes, I remember seeing you around. What is it?”

“Well, I know you’re in charge of the Student Council, so I was hoping to get your permission on something,” Okumura said, the two girls resuming their walk into the school. “I have some plants I was asked to take care of, and was wondering if-”

“Good morning,” Kamoshida interrupted, giving the two the same, fake greeting as he did everyday.

“Oh, yes, good morning, sir,” Okumura said.

Makoto settled for a simple nod, not even looking at him. She immediately resumed the conversation once they were inside. “Well, if you’re asking me for gardening advice, I can’t say I’d be of much help.”

“Oh, no, that wasn’t what I meant,” Okumura said. “I was just wondering where I could plant them that wouldn’t be a bother to the school staff.”

Makoto frowned, checking her phone. “Class is about to start. And... Well, I do have a… tutoring session this afternoon, but maybe I could squeeze in time to talk to you before it starts. Would that work for you?”

“That would be wonderful,” Okumura said happily. “Thank you, Niijima-san!”

“It’s no problem,” Makoto said, giving a small smile in spite of herself. Okumura’s joy was rather infectious. “I’ll speak with you after school, then.”

“Mhm,” Okumura nodded. “See you then!”

The two girls turned away from each other, walking to their respective classrooms at the opposite ends of the hall.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
Morning
Shujin Academy

Makoto was leaving the library, some of the third years’ teachers asking her to bring up a list of books to remove from the shelves. She was immediately met with a commotion in the hallways, a group of first year students crowding around the windows.

“What are you all doing out of class?” Makoto asked. Her question was ignored, but the whispers were enough to reach her ears.

“Isn’t that one of our senpais?”

“I saw her playing volleyball on Wednesday.”

“Me too! Why would she jump is she’s that talented?”

Makoto felt her blood run cold at the words. She immediately turned and ran up the stairs to the roof. If she’s still up there, then I can-!

The students in the hall let out various screams of shock and Makoto stopped in her tracks. No... She felt herself shake slightly before running back down. The first years were crowding the stairs down, so she made the choice to cut across to the Practice Building.

By the time she made it out to the courtyard, an ambulance had already arrived. She jumped up a little to try and get a clear view, but found herself too short to see over the crowd. Their constant chatting with each other made it hard to hear what the teachers or paramedics were saying.

Makoto felt her heart beating faster as she began to try and push her way into the crowd. Please… I need to know…! She didn’t make it far before the ambulance pulled away. She stopped moving, feeling an empty feeling running through her. That feeling was broken by a second-year shoving his way past her and running into the Practice Building.

She stumbled slightly, looking up to see the dyed-blonde head of Ryuji Sakamoto run into the Practice Building as well, Ren’s familiar frizzy hair following close behind. Do they know something? She stared after them for a moment before following.

After wandering the halls for a while, she finally heard the faint, angry shouts of Ryuji from the hall leading to the Classroom Building and the main entrance. Was the student they were following trying to run out of the school?

“So, the physical punishment thing was for real…” she heard Ryuji mutter.

Makoto gently pushed open the doors that separated the two buildings, making her way towards them.

“Yesterday, he called Suzui out of the blue,” the bruised boy from earlier, Mishima, was saying.

Makoto blanked on the rest of his sentence. They’re discussing Suzui-san…? Then, the girl that attempted suicide was…!

“That son of a bitch!” Ryuji yelled, snapping Makoto out of her thoughts. He turned to run, stopping as he saw her. “Out of my way!”

“...No,” Makoto said, staring at him. She took a breath to steady herself. I have to be calm. People are expecting that of me… “Sakamoto, if I understand the situation right, then I don’t blame you for being angry. However, acting on that anger-”

“When have you ever understood my situation?!” Ryuji snapped.

“Ryuji, calm down,” Ren said, his voice sounding tired.

“How the hell do you expect me to be calm?!” Ryuji snapped. “Kamoshida drove Suzui to try and kill herself!”

“And what were you planning to do about that?” Makoto asked. “Were you going to shout at Kamoshida for it? What would that accomplish?”

Ryuji scowled at her.

“Listen, I’ll talk with the principal about this,” said Makoto. “And…” She paused. “If Kamoshida is behind this, and Suzui-san is okay, her testimony will make sure he answers for this.”

“Oh, you’ll talk with the principal, huh?” Ryuji asked.

“That’s right,” said Makoto.

“Yeah, tell me, why weren’t you chatting with him earlier about all those injured kids, huh?” Ryuji asked. “You’re supposed to be the smartest student in this hellhole, so how could you not figure out all the injuries were from his ‘practice’?”

She looked down. “If someone doesn’t speak to me about something-”

“You never let people speak!” Ryuji snapped.

“Um, Sakamoto, maybe let her speak?” Mishima suggested in a mumble.

Ryuji gave no sign he heard him. “What about my side of things? You really think my leg was broken by Kamoshida just ‘defendin’ himself’?!”

“What…?” Ren blinked in surprise. “Kamoshida broke your leg?!”

“Yeah,” Ryuji said. “He pissed me off and when I finally fought back, just snapped it. Shut down the track team over it, too. And all this bitch cared about was a manga being overdue at the effing library!”

“Your language is uncalled for,” Makoto said.

“Oh, shut up,” Ryuji said. He glanced next to him. “See, Ren? This is who Miss Prez is. Cares more for school rules than a girl’s life. A useless tool for those damn adults. The more time she wastes chewing me out for swearing, the more time Kamoshida has to come up with some bullshit excuse.”

“Useless tool?” Makoto repeated softly. She offered no resistance as Ryuji forced his way past her, nearly falling over from the shove, while Ryuji slammed his way back into the Practice Building.

“Sakamoto!” Mishima called after him.

“Makoto, are you okay?” Ren asked.

“...just go after him before he does something stupid,” Makoto said.

Ren stared at her, before nodding. “Mishima, let’s go.”

“R-right,” Mishima nodded, giving a quick glance at Makoto, before following Ren in their pursuit.

Morgana stared after them from his spot atop the lockers, apparently having wormed his way out of Ren's bag at some point. He then hopped down, walking up to Makoto. “Hey, are you alright?”

“...no,” Makoto said. “If I had pushed harder to get Suzui to talk to me back on Wednesday… or if I actually paid any attention to all the volleyball players being injured…” Her voice caught in her throat. If Ann wasn’t with me yesterday, maybe she could have spent time with Suzui and stopped this…

“Hey, Makoto, stay with me!” Morgana said. “We’ll go talk with the principal like you said, right? And if that doesn’t pan out-”

“Morgana?” Makoto interrupted, her voice still quiet. “Could you do me a favor and give me some time to myself?”

Morgana blinked. “...if you’re sure…”

“I am,” Makoto said, walking off through the classroom building.

“Niijima-san?” Okumura asked as Makoto reached the stairs.

Makoto looked over to see her staring at her, a concerned look on her face.

“Um…” she bit her lip, seemingly unsure of what to say. “I… I know with what happened it probably wouldn’t be a good time to talk about my plants today. So… can we make a promise to discuss it sometime next week?”

“A promise?” Makoto repeated.

“Just so… you won’t do anything scary,” Okumura said. “You… have that look in your eye.”

“I do?” Makoto asked.

“Y-yeah,” Okumura said. “I’ve seen it before when…” She trailed off.

Makoto looked at the stairs. “...next Tuesday is a Student Council Meeting. ...I’ll invite you in…”

“Oh, um, okay,” Okumura said, still staring in concern. “Niijima-san?”

“I promise,” said Makoto. “I’ll be there.” She made her way upstairs before Okumura could reply. She paused once she reached the second floor, staring at the door to the principal’s office. She took a deep breath before walking over, knocking on the door. “Sir? It’s Makoto Niijima, the Student Council President. I was hoping to have a word with you?”

She could hear an exasperated sigh from the other side of the door, and frowned at that. “Yes, come in, Niijima-san…”

She opened the door and gently closed it behind her, approaching his desk. “I’m sorry to bother you, but-”

“Is this about the suicide attempt?” the principal asked. Makoto could see he was sweating and seemed rather flustered. “Yes, terrible tragedy. I just had to tell Kamoshida that his prize player has fallen into a coma.”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “S-Suzui-san is in a coma?”

“Yes, it’s rather unfortunate,” he said, though he didn’t sound as invested as his distressed appearance suggested. “I’m trying to find a way to save face over this, as it’s not the image Shujin needs right now.”

“Image?” Makoto repeated.

“Niijima-san, as you can see, I’m quite busy,” he said. “Is there something in particular you wanted to talk about?”

Makoto paused. “...I’ve been told by some students that Kamoshida was likely the one who drove her to this.”

The principal sighed, shaking his head. “Niijima-san, I understand you’re shaken, but buying into these rumors is beneath someone of your status. Just ignore those comments and do your best to ensure another student doesn’t give in to stress under your watch.”

“Under my-” Makoto began.

“As Student Council President, you said you’d look out for the wellbeing of your peers,” he interrupted. “Now, if that’s all, I’ll ask you to return to class. We both have work to do, after all.”

Makoto looked down. “Is continuing class today really the best idea? With how… upset some people may be, I-”

“Suicide is an unfortunately common occurrence,” the principal said. “If society ground to a halt every time it happened, we wouldn’t function. And as a school meant to prepare young minds for their role in the workforce, we must work through this.”

Makoto found herself trembling slightly, and tightened her fists in an attempt to calm herself. “At the very least, might I recommend… speaking to them on the matter?”

The principal looked down, seemingly considering it. “Very well. I’ll plan for an assembly on the 25th. Give the faculty time to coordinate around it, and myself time to prepare remarks. Does that satisfy you?"

"...yes, sir."

"Good. Now, back to class, Niijima-san.”

Makoto gave a slight bow. “Thank you, sir.” She turned, and walked out into the hall, hands immediately flying to her mouth to stifle an angry sob.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Ren, Ryuji, and Mishima were walking down the hall from the P.E. faculty office as an announcement rang out over the P.A. system.

“Classes will be resuming as normal after lunchtime. Please take this opportunity to calm yourselves. Thank you.”

“Bouncing back rather quickly, huh?” Ryuji muttered.

“I’m sorry, everyone,” Mishima said quietly. “It’s all my fault that-”

“You weren’t the one who tried to punch him,” Ryuji said.

“Maybe. But, I'm still at fault for Amamiya's record...”

“You only did that because he made you,” said Ren, keeping his gaze straight ahead. Truthfully, he was angry about it, but that was rather petty in comparison to their current problem.

“...still, I…” he shook his head. “I… guess we should get back to class, then…” Mishima walked off without another word.

“Class, huh?” Ryuji asked. He kicked at the floor. “I’d say what’s the point, but my mom would only freak out if I stopped coming in to school.” He let out a laugh. “Might as well let her stay happy for a few more weeks, huh?”

“...our expulsion isn’t a guarantee yet,” Ren said quietly.

Ryuji let out an annoyed sigh. “Don’t tell me you still believe in Niijima."

“I do,” Ren said. “Look, I’ll admit you were right that she was being inattentive before. But she’s definitely not a 'useless tool'. She’s trying now.”

Ryuji stared at him. “...I think I get it.”

Ren started to smile before Ryuji continued.

“You have the hots for her or something, don’t you?” Ryuji asked. He let out a groan. “Dude, f’real? You’re not supposed to sell out your friends for some girl you have no chance with.”

Ren sighed. “I think you’re completely missing the point I’m trying to make here.” He adjusted his bag. “I’ll go talk with her. I promise, Ryuji. Next month, we’re still going to be students here. No matter what Kamoshida claims.”

“I ain’t holdin’ my breath,” Ryuji said. “Just… we’re still in the same boat, so when you realize she’s not going to do anything, I’ll be waiting to hear from ya.”

“I’ll be doing the same for when you realize you have the wrong idea about Makoto,” Ren said, walking off.

Ryuji stared after him. “‘Makoto?’”

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Shujin Academy

Makoto sat on the couch in the Student Council Room, staring at her hands. The rest of her classes had passed in a blur. She wasn’t sure anyone actually retained what they were being taught.

She felt her phone buzz, and forced herself to check it.


Ren: Ann’s back from the hospital. Are you in the Student Council Room?


Makoto considered not replying, starting to move her phone away, before stopping and letting out a sigh. No… I shouldn’t do that to them.


Makoto: Yes.

Ren: Okay. On our way.


She dropped her phone on the cushions beside her, and leaned forward to stare at her hands again. She didn’t look up when the door opened.

“Hey,” Ren said.

“Hey,” Makoto said.

“Are you doing alright?” Morgana asked, pulling himself up to Ren's shoulder to look at her.

“I… am, yes,” Makoto said, forcing herself to look up. “How about you?”

“Shiho’s in a coma,” Ann said.

“I heard,” Makoto said. “Ann, I’m sorry that-”

“I don’t want to hear sorry from you,” Ann said. “It’s not your fault.”

“You can say that, but-” Makoto began.

“I’m the idiot that didn’t take Kamoshida’s threats seriously!” Ann interrupted, sitting down at the table, and banging her head down onto it. “Ugh, I’m so stupid! Why didn’t I just do what he said?!”

“Lady Ann, don’t blame yourself,” Morgana said. “You would have ended up in a similar situation, if not for-”

“If I didn’t follow you guys on Wednesday, maybe you would have already stolen his heart and stopped this,” Ann muttered. “All I did was slow you down.”

“That’s not true,” Ren said.

“We wouldn’t be any closer, Ann,” said Makoto. “If anything, we’d still desperately be trying to find fake weapons if not for you. I’m the one that never did anything for the other students.”

“Don’t start doing this,” Ren said.

“I agree,” Morgana said. “Blaming yourselves is a waste of energy that could be spent on our heist. We’re on a time limit now, after all.”

“Right,” Ann said, pulling herself to sit up again. She wiped her eyes and gritted her teeth. “I’ll make him pay for driving Shiho to do that. Before he hurts anyone else, too.”

“That’s not the time limit I meant, but good motivation!” Morgana said.

“Huh?” Ann looked over. “It wasn’t?”

“What other time limit is there?” Makoto asked.

“I wanted that kept quiet,” Ren muttered.

“Oh, like Kamoshida wouldn’t make some student leak it,” Morgana muttered back.

“Excuse me?” Makoto asked.

Ren sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “Ryuji ran off to Kamoshida after we found out he made Mishima bring Suzui to him. Mishima and I followed to stop him from doing something stupid, and Kamoshida decided us being in the room was enough of a 'threat' to expel us.”

“Expel you…?” Makoto repeated, her voice breaking off.

Ann said nothing, simply looking down at the table.

Ren shrugged. “He said it would be talked about during the next faculty meeting.”

Makoto looked down. “I believe they meet the first Monday each month…”

“That’s… how many days from now?” Ann asked.

“17,” Makoto answered.

“Then we’ll get this bastard in 7!” Ann snapped. “I’m not letting him take another friend from me!”

“Ann…” Ren said, seemingly surprised at her sudden outburst.

Makoto looked surprised as well. “Ann, I thought you’d… need more time.”

“Waiting is what caused Shiho to feel so trapped,” Ann said. “Do you want Ren to go through the same? Don’t you actually care?”

“Of course I care, and of course I don’t want… anyone to…” Makoto choked up.

“Makoto?” Ren said. “If you’re still upset about what Ryuji said to you, don’t be.”

“Huh?” Ann looked curious. “What… what did Sakamoto say to her?”

“Just the truth,” Makoto said. “I’m useless. I couldn’t help anyone. Even after talking with Principal Kobayakawa, I wasn’t able to make any impact. And Sakamoto’s story? Of how I didn’t listen to him? Also true. I’m-”

“Trying to make a difference now,” Ren interrupted. “Aren’t you?” He managed a small smile. “I mean, you’re friends with a criminal like me. That doesn’t sound like the Makoto Niijima from Ryuji’s story, does it?”

Makoto looked down.

“Hey, Makoto?” Ann said quietly. “I’m… sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you again. Especially if you’re feeling like…” She trailed off and gestured vaguely. “We’re still friends, though, you know? Ren’s right that you’re not like you used to be. You’re actually talking to us now.”

“And even if you’re useless out here, you can still do something in the Metaverse,” Morgana said.

“Not the best way to word that, but yeah,” Ann agreed.

Makoto wiped at her eyes a little. “...I’m failing as your senpai by needing you to comfort me.” She stood up. “Okay then. If everyone feels ready, let’s go. We have a Treasure to steal.”

Chapter Text

4/15 - Friday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 17
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

The four of them looked up at the castle, having entered from further back in the alley this time. “First thing’s first,” Morgana said. “Let’s avoid a repeat from last time and make sure we didn’t accidentally bring anyone in with us.”

“Oh, yeah, good idea,” Ren said.

“I don’t think we’ll be lucky enough that another Shujin student could use a Persona,” Makoto said. “And we don’t want another hostage situation like with Ann.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t fun,” Ann said, rubbing her neck. “Feel like I can still feel those swords.”

“Oh, and Lady Ann needs a code name!” Morgana said.

“A what?” Ann asked.

“Morgana believes we should use code names as a precaution,” Ren shrugged. “I’m Joker, and Makoto’s Queen.”

“Queen?” Ann questioned, looking at her.

Makoto could feel her face blushing beneath her mask. “It-it was Joker’s idea…” She cleared her throat. “Joker, Morgana, you search the area to see if anyone else was dragged in by the Meta-Nav. Ann and I will work on her code name.”

“Got it,” Ren nodded.

“Yes, Queen!” Morgana saluted, the two of them walking out of the alley.

“...did you send them both off on purpose?” Ann asked.

“I just want to confirm that you’re okay,” Makoto said. “You and Suzui were close, I know, and I know you’re hurting, but-”

“Makoto- I mean, uh, Queen,” Ann said. “I’m fine, okay? Like, yeah, I… I just want to go home and cry, but if I just sat around feeling sorry for myself, I couldn’t look Shiho in the eye. I’ll let myself feel sorry for what I could have done once we stop him from driving someone else to this.”

Makoto bit her lip, before nodding. “I’ll do my best to make sure that we do.”

“Thanks, Queen,” Ann said, managing a small smile. “So… how about we think up my code name, huh?”

“Let’s see…” Makoto put her hand to her chin in thought. “What kind of name do you want?”

“I dunno. Um…” She looked herself over and noticed the fake tail attached to her outfit. “Maybe some kind of cat? What do you think?”

“Well, most of the big wild cats have more pattern to their appearance,” Makoto said. “For the ones that don’t… maybe Lion?”

“That sounds too masculine,” said Ann. “Is there any others?”

“Um, there’s the Puma,” Makoto said. “Other names for it include Cougar-”

“Um, no…” Ann said.

Makoto blinked in surprise at the interruption, before she let out a small giggle. “Sorry, I… just realized the implications of that one. Um, maybe… Panther? I believe there’s a fictional gem called the pink panther in a foreign film series, so that ties into the thief motif we seem to be developing.”

“Ooh, yeah, that’s a great name!” Ann laughed. “Thanks, Queen.”

“Didn’t find anybody,” Morgana said, returning with Ren.

“That’s a relief,” Ann sighed. “Anyway, Queen and I came up with my thief name thing, so we’re good to go.”

“Oh?” Ren asked.

“She’s Panther,” Makoto said.

“Panther…” Morgana said, sounding entranced. “I like it!”

“Of course you do,” Ren sighed under his breath.

“So, shall we, Morgana?” Makoto asked. “We’ll pick up from that Safe Room we found.”

“Sounds good!” Morgana said.

“Wait, why doesn’t Morgana have a code name?” Ann asked.

“Well… everyone just thinks he’s a cat,” said Makoto.

“But I suppose it would only be fair he has one,” said Ren.

“...how’s Mona sound?” Ann asked.

“It sounds like it’s just a nickname,” Makoto said.

“Hey now, Panther might be onto something,” Morgana said. “Yeah, Mona. I like it!”

Makoto and Ren just looked at each other before rolling their eyes. “Well, let’s go then, Mona.”

~~~

“So, this place is a classroom?” Ann asked as they reached the Safe Room from Wednesday.

“Well, since the whole place is the school, everything here is just a distorted aspect of it,” Morgana said. “Like how the entrance hall is much grander here than the normal main entrance.”

“Oh, I think I get it,” Ann said. “So, where would the Treasure be, in that case?”

“That’s a good question,” Makoto said. “For all of our excitement in taking this Palace down, we don’t actually know where we’re going.”

“Don’t worry, Queen,” Morgana said, a smug smile on his face. “I’m a natural at this sort of thing. I can just sort of sense the Treasure.”

“So, where is it, then, Mona?” Ann asked.

The smile dropped. “Oh, um… Deeper. Deeper in the Palace.”

“That’s not as accurate as you made it sound,” Ren said.

“Well, at least I’ll know if we’re going the right way!” Morgana said hastily.

“That’s true,” Ren admitted.

“How about we return to the library for now?” Makoto suggested. “Kamoshida’s Shadow first confronted us from the hidden doorway in there. It’s possible that might be a path to the Treasure.”

“Ah, excellent idea!” Morgana said. “So, uh… well, you two would know where the library is, right?”

“A vague idea,” Ren said. “Queen was speeding us out on Johanna at the time, so we weren’t paying too much attention.”

“It shouldn’t be too difficult to find again,” said Makoto. She opened the door and checked the hall. “The hall is clear. Ready?”

The other three nodded, and followed Makoto out into the hallway. After looping around a corner, the came to a branching path.

“Left or right?” Ann asked. “I don’t see any tracks or anything.”

“Well, I’d be more surprised if tracks were left behind this many days later,” Ren said. “Especially considering the whole…” He tapped his foot, gesturing to the odd ripples that seemed to go out from it. “Liquid cognition thing.”

“You know, now that you point it out, that is really weird,” Ann said.

Makoto bit her finger in thought for a moment, before mumbling to herself. “Right turn from the library, right turn immediately, then left, left, right, right, left?”

The others shared a look that was a mixture of impressed and utterly baffled.

“Or was it only one right after the two lefts...” She shook her head. “I can’t remember. My focus was on keeping Joker from falling off.”

“Sorry I didn’t have a tighter grip,” Ren said. He awkwardly fiddled with a lock of his hair. “Uh, how about we just check each path?”

“Yeah!” Ann agreed. “And even if we’re wrong, maybe we’ll still find something!”

“Let’s try the left,” Ren said.

Makoto nodded, and the group made their way down an abandoned hall, finding a door at the end.

“The lack of guards is actually a little unnerving,” Ann said as Ren opened the door.

“That just means they aren’t too aware of us just yet,” Morgana explained.

“This being a dead end might also explain it,” Ren said.

“Hm?” Makoto looked over Ren's shoulder into the room. “A sitting room?”

“Looks that way,” he said, leading the group inside.

“I know it’s a castle, but it’s still Kamoshida’s distortion, right?” Ann asked. “What’s with all the books and stuff?”

“I suppose he doesn’t seem the type,” Makoto said, looking around the room. “Well, there doesn’t look like there’s anything relevant here.”

“Yeah,” Ren said, before pausing. “Wait. Panther, that book behind you.”

“Which one?” Ann asked, turning to the shelf.

“The one that’s just propped up against the others,” Ren said.

“Oh, got it,” she said, picking it up. “‘The Slave Book?’”

“Slave?” Morgana repeated. “That’s what Kamoshida was calling you the other day, right?”

“Don’t remind me,” Ann said, making a face.

“Hmm…” Makoto frowned. “Panther, are any of the other books on that shelves titled similarly?”

“Uh, let’s see,” Ann said. “Not really… None of them really have any titles at all.”

“Interesting,” Makoto said.

“So why does that one?” Morgana asked.

“I’m thinking it doesn’t belong to this room,” Makoto said. “Panther, can you take it with us? It might be relevant.”

“Sure thing,” Ann said. “Nice find, Joker.”

“It wasn’t anything special,” Ren said quietly. “I just noticed it wasn’t put on the shelf right, so figured it meant something.”

“If there’s details to it that other things are lacking, that must be the case,” Morgana said. “Let’s get mov- whoa!”

“Mona?” Makoto asked as Morgana suddenly retreated back into the room and hiding against the wall.

“Uh, guess the Shadows are back from their break,” Morgana said.

“If they’re patrolling this hall, then that book must have some importance,” Makoto said.

“Then let’s silence it and move on,” Morgana said. “So we can find out what the book does.”

Makoto nodded, rushing out and jumping, grabbing the mask on the knight before it reached the room and ripped it off, stumbling slightly as she landed behind it. Two Jack-o’-Lanterns emerged from the collapsing armor.

“Hee-ho-who are you?” one of them asked, trying to observe both Makoto and the three now exiting the room on their other side.

“Ooh, can we test out those guns?” Ann asked as she approached with Ren and Morgana.

“Oh, yeah, we should see if they work like Mona said,” Ren agreed.

Makoto gave a glance at the replica revolver in her hand, before pointing it at the two Jack-o’-Lanterns and firing a shot at each of them.

“Ow!” the two Shadows reeled from the hit and dropped to the floor.

“Wow, it really did work!” Ann said.

Makoto coldly stepped forward, resting the barrel on her hand to steady her aim.

“Ah! Don’t shoot! I promise, I won’t tell King Kamoshi-hee-da!”

"How do I know you won't betray us?"

"I... I just promise that I won't, ho!"

“Then prove it and join us,” Makoto said. “Are you willing to make that commitment?”

“Hee! I-I will! I am! I am thou, thou art I, ho!” The Jack-o’-Lantern turned into a burst of light and flew into Makoto’s mask. The other one seemed to take advantage of the distraction to flee. At the very least, it wasn’t around anymore.

“Not bad,” Morgana said.

“That was really cool, Queen,” said Ann. She shivered. “Though, that expression of yours when you had those Shadows knocked down kind of scares me.”

“Ah, sorry,” Makoto said awkwardly. "Um, at least we know the guns work now. That was definitely a lot easier than dealing with that Incubus was."

“Speaking of guns," Ren said. "Uh, I hate to bring it up, but you never actually gave me mine."

“Ah, sorry!” Makoto said again, quickly pulling out the handgun she bought for him. “Uh, here you go, Joker…”

“Thanks,” Ren said, taking it and giving her a small smirk.

“Is something funny?” Makoto asked.

Ren just shook his head.

Makoto sighed. “Let’s try the other direction.”

Looping back through the halls, they found themselves in a familiar straight-away. Yet another Shadow was blocking the door at the far end. The four of them quickly retreated back around the corner, Makoto and Ann peering out to watch its movements.

“It’s back is to us,” Ann said after a moment.

“Joker, go,” Makoto ordered.

Ren obliged, rushing around the corner and leaping up to tear off its mask. “Show me your true form!”

“You know, Queen isn't saying one-liners,” Ann said as a Bicorn and oddly human-looking plant emerged, clearly in a slight daze.

Makoto didn’t comment, instead tearing her mask off. “Succubus!”

“Succubus?” Morgana questioned as a scantily-clad woman with bat wings rose up in the blue flames that surrounded Makoto.

“Zio!” Makoto ordered, and Succubus obliged, calling down an electrical strike and knocking down the Bicorn. “And again!” Another Zio attack struck the Mandrake, but it barely seemed to phase it. “Huh?”

“It’s strong against it,” Morgana explained. “A lot of Shadows have resistances like that.”

“Arsene!” Ren said, calling out his Persona while Makoto contemplated what Morgana said. “Eiha!” The curse attack rose up beneath the downed Bicorn but didn’t do much.

“Curse resistance,” Makoto mumbled while Morgana blasted the Bicorn away with a Garu spell. So, the two-horned beast is weak to electric magic, resists curse, and is normally affected by wind... The flower creature resists electric…

“So, it’s just a flower, right?” Ann asked. “Agi!” She summoned Carmen and quickly blasted the Mandrake with flames, the Shadow burning away with a scream.

“...And is obviously weak to fire…” Makoto finished her musings aloud.

“What are you mumbling about, Queen?” Morgana asked.

“Just trying to keep track of what affects which kind of Shadow,” Makoto said. “Maximize effectiveness.”

“Where did you get that Persona you used?” Ren asked. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“Oh, um,” Makoto hesitated. Is there a way for me to tell them about the Velvet Room without sounding like I’m losing it?

“Do you come here on your own or something?” Morgana asked.

“Ah- no, of course not,” Makoto said. “I… I have these dreams, where I…” She bit her lip and shook her head. “Basically, I’m organizing my different Personas in my head and fused a couple together.”

“Oh, wow, Queen!” Ann said. “Your head is really organized, huh? My mind’s always thinking about different stuff like sweets, or movies, or…” She trailed off and frowned. “Um… never mind about the last one.”

Ren looked at Ann for a moment, giving her a sympathetic frown.

It must be her friend Suzui she’s thinking about, Makoto concluded.

“That sounds a little strange that you’re capable of all that,” Morgana said.

“Does it?” Makoto asked nervously.

“Do you know another person that can use multiple Personas to compare her to?” Ren asked.

“Ah, well, no,” Morgana said. He gave an embarrassed look. “Sorry, Queen. I’m not doubting you, I guess your power is just still a mystery to me.”

“I feel the same way,” said Makoto. “Anyway, shall we?” She walked forward, with an air of finality to the conversation, and opened the door at the end of the hall. On the other side was what seemed to be yet another branching hallway. At the far end across from them was a blocked door, and the path to the right appeared to reach a dead end. However, Makoto could see that there was a branching path at both points; by the other door for the straightaway, and at the midway point for the right-hand path.

“This place seems familiar,” Ren said.

Makoto nodded in agreement, making her way to the door at the other end and glancing around the corner. Another straight path, with a visible intersection midway down. “Right side should connect back that way…” She vaguely pointed the way they came as. “Meaning the left side should reach the library.”

“If we’re in the right area, of course,” Morgana said.

“That part goes without saying,” Ann said as they walked over towards the intersection.

As soon as they rounded the corner, Morgana’s eyes lit up and he ran down to the far end of the hall. “Ah! Look! Treasure chest!”

“H-huh?” Makoto was briefly stunned. “Mona! Wait!”

Ren quickly took off to drag Morgana back.

“So… what was that all about?” Ann asked.

“No idea,” Makoto said. “I’ve never seen Morgana- look out!”

“Huh?” Ann turned just in time to see a knight that had snuck up on them slam her into Makoto, the two falling to the floor. “Ow! Q-Queen, are these spikes real?”

“Sorry…” Makoto winced as the knight burst apart into a green skinned woman, flanked by what appeared to be two ghost horses.

“Shoot!” Morgana gasped from down the hall. “They were ambushed!”

“Don’t run off like that next time, then,” Ren said, grabbing Morgana and dragging him back to help.

Ann and Makoto strained to get up as they were whipped with Garu spells from the horses. Once they managed to stand, a blast of ice was shot into Ann and she quickly dropped again with a scream of pain.

Makoto gritted her teeth as the woman conjured another ice shard and flung it at her. Makoto quickly sidestepped and the ice harmlessly shattered against the floor, shards flying past her face as she glared at the Shadow.

“Oh, that was rather impressive,” the Shadow admitted. “Still, I can’t let you intruders leave King Kamoshida’s castle alive!”

“You don’t have any way to stop us,” Makoto said. “Persona!” She called Succubus out again, shifting her glare to each Kelpie as she targeted it. “Zio! Feel my rage!” The Kelpie’s dropped easily from the blasts of electricity.

“Uh-oh…” the woman mumbled, wilting slightly under Makoto’s gaze.

“And for you…” Makoto muttered. She suddenly spun on the spot, her scarf fluttering from the movement. “Jack-o’-Lantern! Agi!”

“Agh!” the Silky dropped and Ren, Morgana, and Makoto drew their weapons, making sure each Shadow had someone targeting it.

“I’m okay…” Ann said pulling herself back up.

“Ah, h-hey…” the Silky stuttered. “Look, um, I know you’re mad, but-”

“Get to the point,” Makoto ordered.

“Ah, yes!” the Silky said. “You… have a lot of powers that seem familiar. If I… help you, will you spare my life?”

Not for long, thanks to how fusion works… Makoto thought, feeling a pang of guilt run through her. “...deal.”

“Oh, thank you! I’m Silky! I am thou, thou art I!” And like the others before her, she dissolved into light and flew into Makoto’s mask. Makoto stumbled slightly from the new Persona.

“You’re handling a lot of this, Queen,” Ren said. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Makoto said. “I need to be useful to you, after all.”

“Hey, you’re not still on that, are you?” Ann asked.

Makoto seemed to ignore the question. “Mona! What were you doing running and shouting like that?!”

“Ah, sorry, Queen,” he said. “I saw a treasure chest and got excited.”

“A treasure chest?” Makoto repeated, looking to the end of the hall. The four of them approached, slowly this time, and Morgana hopped up onto of it.

“This thing,” Morgana said. His voice got a dreamy tone to it all of a sudden. “See how it shines…?”

“It does seem… enticing,” Makoto admitted. “But it’s locked- oh, wait!”

“Yeah, this is what I figured we would need lockpicks for,” Morgana said. “Joker, can you do the honors?”

Ren nodded, and Makoto approached, peering around him to observe his movements. He fumbled for a moment, but was able to surprisingly quickly pop the lock and open the chest. He pulled out a couple of odd trinkets.

“This was in a locked chest?” Ren said, sounding disappointed.

“Well, maybe that means it’s special junk!” Ann said optimistically.

“Not everything in this Palace would be useful, Panther,” Makoto sighed. She took the items from Ren's hand; a Bead, and something she couldn’t even identify. “...but you might be right about this.”

“Oh, really?” Ann asked. “Cool. I was just trying to cheer everyone up!”

“Um, uh, that’s okay, Panther!” Morgana said hastily. “It’s hard to notice the value of things in the Metaverse sometimes!”

“Uh, thanks? I wasn’t really feeling bad about…” Ann trailed off and shrugged.

“Anyway, those work as medicines,” Morgana said. “At least, I think. I’ve never actually seen them before. Though, that reminds me that we should probably invest in some sort of medicine…”

“Aside from that, are you both okay after that ambush?” Ren asked.

“I feel fine,” Ann said. “I mean, it hurt a lot, but…”

“Perhaps we can continue this discussion in the library?” Makoto asked, walking back down the hall and opening the doors Morgana had run past.

“So we found it again,” Ren said, leading the others in following Makoto inside.

“Geez, look at all these books,” Ann said.

“I’d really rather not,” Makoto said.

“So, Joker, Queen, you were the only two here that day, so can you walk us through what happened?” Morgana asked.

“Sure,” Makoto said. “I accidentally activated the Meta-Nav back in the Student Council Room. As Joker had been discussing what Sakamoto had told him that morning about Kamoshida, the app reacted and sent us to the Palace. We fled from the Shadows we encountered and ended up here.”

“The shelf over there had a bunch of girls’ names on it,” Ren said. “Including Queen’s and Panther’s.”

“Oh, ew…” Ann said, taking a step back from the shelf.

“The one behind me had the boys’ names on it,” Ren said, looking over. He stopped, staring at the shelf.

“While the girls’ books detailed Kamoshida’s perversion, the boys’ books went in depth on his abuses,” Makoto said. “And when Joker approached a shelf detailing Kamoshida himself, Kamoshida’s Shadow emerged from a hidden door in the back wall.”

“Were you able to see anything about that door?” Morgana asked as he looked around the shelf in question. “Hinges? What was behind it?”

“I was more concerned with keeping Joker and myself from being executed,” Makoto said. She looked over to see Ren was now wandering the room, staring at the other shelves. “Joker, what are you doing?”

“Oh, there’s a book missing from each of these shelves,” he said.

“A missing book?” Ann asked. “Like that one we just found in that other room?” She took out The Slave Book, waving it around a bit.

“...let’s find the other books,” Makoto said slowly, clearly lost in thought.

“Uh… Queen?” Ann asked. “It’s not a real library, we don’t need to return the books.”

“Library etiquette is not why I’m suggesting this.”

“Do you think it has to do with the secret door?” Ren asked.

“At the very least, I don’t remember there being missing books when we were here a few days back,” she said.

“I guess it’s worth a shot,” Morgana said. “I can’t find any other way to open this door, anyway.”

Makoto led the group in a more cautious exploration of the hallways around the library. The blocked door refused to open, even as they tested an apparent switch to unlock it. Eventually, though, they managed to stumble across two rooms at the apparent dead ends and, after fighting a couple of Shadows lurking inside (Makoto handling most by herself with Zio spells, now knowing that Kelpies and Silkies were weak to Electric magic), they made their way back to the library with two more books; The King Book and The Queen Book.

“So, The King Book is obviously meant for the shelf with stuff on Kamoshida,” Ren said, sliding it into the shelf.

“Ugh, then The Queen Book goes on the shelves with all the girls?” Ann asked, a disgusted look on her face as she put it back into the empty space. “Geez, some of these girls are in our class, Joker…”

“Try not to think about it too much,” Ren said.

“And that leaves The Slave Book for the boys’ shelf,” Morgana said. “Figures, since he seems to especially love hurting them…”

Ann turned away to look at the back wall, but it was clear from her posture that she was getting angrier the longer they were in the room.

As Morgana struggled to reach the shelf to slide the book into, Ren approached Makoto, who hadn’t said anything since the last fight.

“Queen? Are you feeling alright?”

“...huh? Oh, yes, I…” Makoto shook her head. “Sorry, I suppose my mind is wandering right now…”

“Ah, Joker, can you get it for me? You’re the tallest here!”

“Yeah, coming, Mona,” Ren said, frowning at Makoto before walking over to put The Slave Book on the shelf.

Ann leapt back in surprise as the back wall shook and one of the shelves shifted to reveal a hidden room.

“Easy, Panther,” Makoto said, making her way over.

“Sorry, it was kind of sudden,” Ann said, rubbing her arm. “So… you first?”

Makoto nodded, stepping inside. She repressed a gag at seeing the state of the room. It was much like the room Ann was being held in the other day, including an x-frame. Unlike Ann’s room, however, this one had decorations dotting the walls. Dozens of pictures of-

“Shiho…” Ann said softly as she entered the room behind Makoto.

“...Panther, maybe you should wait in the library,” Makoto said softly. “This room doesn’t look like it’ll move us forward, but we’ll still need to search.”

Ann nodded, her face looking pale, but her fists still tightly balled up. “Y-yeah… Thanks, Queen…” She left into the other room and the three that stayed behind could hear her apparently punch a wall.

“...let’s not spend too much time here,” Morgana said.

“I feel terrible for not realizing this could be the kind of room he’d be in,” Makoto said. “I should have thought-”

“Hey, it was a hidden room in the library,” Morgana said. “It’s fair to think it’d be something different than what we can find elsewhere.”

“It’s weird that it would be hidden in this Palace,” Ren said. “...unless he was hiding it from Ann.”

“You mean Panther,” Morgana corrected.

“No, Ann,” Ren said. “There’s a cognitive Ann in here, remember? He calls her his princess.”

“And he knows that the real Takamaki wouldn’t have any idea he had lust for Suzui,” Makoto mumbled. And maybe this room is also hiding what he did to her. She shook her head, feeling the room slowly spin at the thought. “Let’s search quickly. There’s some shelves in here, right?”

Ren and Makoto walked over to a small shelf, random trinkets and even a volleyball scattered over it. And, held down beneath a medal, was what looked like a map of the castle.

“Well, that’s certainly useful,” Makoto said, picking it up along with the medal. “And… I don’t know what this is, but might as well take it.”

“Maybe sell it?” Ren shrugged, taking the medal.

“Let’s meet up with Panther again and look over the map,” Makoto said. “Mona! Are you done over there?”

“Yeah, just looking around to make sure,” Morgana said. “Don’t want to overlook something, but there really isn’t much in here for such a big secret.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Makoto said, walking back into the library and unceremoniously knocking everything off of one of the reading desks to spread the map out.

“Geez, Queen, make a mess, why don’t you?” Ann said.

“Please, we’re going to end up destroying this Palace, aren’t we? Why should I care about messing with it?”

“Fair point,” Ren said.

“So, let’s see what’s left for us…” Makoto mused.

“Well, let’s count ourselves lucky that Queen and Joker first arrived nearby,” Morgana said. “Looks like by cutting our way right back to here, we managed to skip half of this place.”

“Oh, neato!” Ann said.

Neato? Makoto questioned in her head.

“That looks like a throne room,” Ren said, pointing at a place atop one of the towers on the map.

“And behind that looks like where the Treasure would be!” Morgana said excitedly.

“So we just need to make our way to the top of that tower?” Makoto asked. “But it looks like the path there is past that blocked door outside, and we couldn’t unlock it.” She frowned. “Mona, it should always be possible to reach the Treasure, right?”

“Yeah,” Morgana said. “Palaces may be trying their hardest to shield the source of their owners’ distortion, but no human heart is ever beyond reach. It’s always possible someone may be able to reach them.”

"I see..." Makoto said softly, staring down in thought.

“Even if that's true, this theft way sounds a lot easier and faster,” Ann said. “Let’s check that lock again!”

“We may have missed something the first time,” Ren agreed. “Queen?”

Makoto blinked, having found her attention wandering again. “Y-yes. Let’s go.” She picked up the map and led the group out of the library, not noticing the confused and concerned looks Ren and Morgana gave her.

Chapter Text

4/15 - Friday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 17
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

“It’s a perfect fit!” Ann said as Ren slid the medal into an impression in the wall beside the blocked door.

“So it was part of a mechanism,” Makoto said as Ren pulled the chain and the gate blocking the door lowered.

Ren tested the handle and the door opened without any resistance.

“So it should be a clear path to the Treasure now, right?” Ann asked.

“Why would you say that?” Makoto sighed.

“Oh, shoot, I didn’t mean to jinx it, I just…” she sighed. “I want this to be over already.”

“I agree,” Ren said. “So let’s keep moving. Queen?”

Makoto nodded. “Stay close behind me.” She quickly, but quietly, darted through the door and down the stairs. She slowed to a stop at the bottom, noticing a door fading in and out of view. “Safe Room.”

“Oh, that’s sooner than expected,” Morgana said, the others catching up. “His Palace must not be as strong as we first thought.”

“Well, he is just a gym teacher, right?” Ann asked.

“As much control as he may have in this school, it’s still quite a step down from being an Olympic athlete,” Makoto said.

“He was in the Olympics?” Ren asked.

“Doesn’t look like it, huh?” Makoto asked, before opening the door so they could slip into the Safe Room. “Let’s rest here for a moment.”

“Yeah, you look like you could use it,” Ren said.

“I do?” Makoto asked.

“Queen, your focus has been kind of off since the library,” Morgana said. “I think you’re taxing your mind too much by handling all of these fights.”

“Oh, yeah, I haven’t used Carmen much, but I could always feel a little pressure in my head when I did,” Ann said. “Though, I thought it was just because of the whole ripping our mask off thing.”

Makoto sat down at the table, tapping her fingers against the surface. “I know it’s taxing on me, but… if I didn’t handle the Shadows as fast as I did, they’d stay up longer. And that would give them the chance to hurt you.”

“Well, that’s a valid concern,” Morgana admitted. “But I know healing spells, so-”

“That would tax you, though, wouldn’t it?” Makoto asked.

“Well, it would be split more, right?” Morgana asked. “Joker, tell her.”

“Actually, I have to admit I’d be doing the same thing in Queen’s position,” Ren said.

“Yeah, same here,” Ann agreed. “Especially after today.”

“I, well-” Morgana huffed. “Yeah, fair points. Maybe we should cut off here for today.”

“You want us to stop?” Ren asked.

“I feel fine, Mona,” Makoto said. “And the others are more than capable of continuing.”

“I just feel it might be better for us if we have some medicines on hand for future Palace raids,” Morgana said. “Something to keep us all revitalized and healthy, you know?”

“Well… I can’t deny the appeal of that,” Makoto agreed. “But until we have access to them, I don’t wish to just stand by. As we are now, we can get a lot further in.”

“Aren’t you eager to take the Treasure?” Ren asked.

Morgana tapped his foot before grinning. “Yeah… I really, really want that Treasure!”

“Then let’s keep going!” Ann said.

“Mona, I’ll admit I’m not handling today as well as I should as a leader,” Makoto said. “We did dive in here in a rush of emotions and are unprepared. But we’re learning as we go. And to give up early just because we learn one new strategy would be a foolish decision when there’s more we can learn.”

“Spoken like a true study-holic,” Ann said.

“I hear you,” Morgana said. “Okay, we’ll keep going. At least get us to the next Safe Room. Maybe further with how close these last two were to each other.”

“When you’re ready, Queen,” Ren said, adjusting his gloves.

Makoto nodded, stretching her arms as she stood up. “Let’s continue.”

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Shujin Academy

Ryuji walked down the stairs, heading for the exit. He had been turning the conversation he had had with Ren earlier over in his mind for the entire latter half of the day. Which, on the one hand, did keep him from stressing over the impending expulsion or Suzui’s condition. On the other hand, the only part of the conversation he was thinking about was the final word Ren said.

Makoto.

Why the hell is he using her given name? Are they really that close? I mean, I guess he and I started usin’ ours kinda fast, but… Did I ever really get him? Is he so desperate that he thinks he’s besties with anyone that spends a minute with him? God, why are things so-

Ryuji’s thoughts cut off as he noticed Kamoshida standing by the main entrance, talking with a couple of first year girls.

“I know things were rough for everyone today,” Kamoshida said as if providing sympathy, though his tone sounded exactly the same as always. “But if you girls ever need someone to talk to, I’ll gladly lend an ear. Besides, sports could go a long way on college apps, right? And I am down a player now…”

“Don’t listen to him,” Ryuji spat as he approached. The first year girls gave a startled gasp, and quickly darted off.

Kamoshida glared at him. “And what do you think you’re doing, Sakamoto? Talking a big game now, as if your life isn’t about to end. Tell me, you still going to be a cocky hothead once you’re expelled and have no future?”

Ryuji said nothing, and just moved to storm past him.

“You should take a page out of Amamiya’s book,” Kamoshida said, smirking. “I can't help but notice he seemed to just up and vanish at the end of the day. Why don’t you do the same instead of loitering like this? That way I don’t have to look at you anymore.”

“Maybe I will,” Ryuji muttered. “Don’t wanna look at you, either, asshole…” He walked out of the school, trudging off towards the train station. Geez, Ren really just up and left? He's really not doing anything after giving me that little speech today?

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

“Persona!” Ren shouted, calling Arsene. “Ravage them!” The Eiha spell tore up into the Archangel that confronted the group in Kamoshida’s cognition of the gymnasium; a chapel for worshiping him.

Ann dropped down into one of the pews, gasping for breath as the Shadow burned away. “Man… that was a rough one.”

“I’ll help you, Panther,” Morgana said in concern, hopping up beside her and giving a few castings of Dia.

“What about you two?” Ann asked.

“I should be okay,” Ren said, cracking his neck. “But who knew Kamoshida would care so much about you messing up that library desk?”

“I think the Shadow was more concerned about us opening the secret room,” Makoto said. “That, or our initial foray into the the Palace.”

“I know. I was joking."

“Oh,” Makoto frowned. “Sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“It’s fine,” Ren said. “We’re not really used to each other’s humor yet.”

As Ann stood up, more Shadows erupted out, patrolling the outer areas. “Geez, the big one wasn't enough, he needs to drop like… four more guards in here?”

“Well, if he’s putting himself up for worship like this, he obviously thinks highly of himself,” Ren said.

“I’d hate to see a Palace based entirely on a self-worshiping religious type,” Makoto sighed. “At least this chapel is just somewhat typical behavior of a despot.”

“Already thinking ahead to potential future Palaces?” Morgana asked. “We haven’t even finished this one off yet.”

“Ah, no, that’s not what I…” Makoto trailed off and shook her head. “Regardless, we should take cover and think of a plan. I don’t see any way forward down here.”

“The map makes me think the exits are on the upper balconies,” Ren said.

“Then we’ll need a way up there,” Makoto mused.

“If there’s any way up, it would be on the right side of the room,” Morgana said. “The left side is completely beneath the balcony, after all.”

“Great, the side with more guards,” Ann sighed.

“I thought you’d love to be working out aggression on the Shadows,” Ren said.

“Not when they can fight back as well as that last one,” Ann said.

“Agreed,” Makoto said. “But I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that with these ones. We should be able to avoid them and, if not, handle them with far more ease. Let’s get going.”

True to Makoto’s theory, the Shadow that did notice them as they climbed a set of boxes to the second floor went down easily enough to their gunfire and Agi skills, and they were able to traverse the architecture and decor to reach both a treasure chest and an unlocked door that led onwards.

“Great, I don’t have to look at that creepy statue anymore,” Ann said as they left the chapel to enter another hallway.

“The map says if we follow this hallway until it branches and take the left path, we should find stairs to the tower,” Ren said, taking it from Makoto to check.

“Ah, we’re definitely getting closer,” Morgana said, twitching a little. “I can feel the Treasure…”

“You’re enjoying this a bit too much,” Makoto frowned.

“Hey, you said you were willing to act as a thief,” Morgana said.

“To stop Kamoshida,” Makoto said, an exasperated tone to her voice.

“You’re the most terrifying when we’re holding the Shadows up, though!” Morgana pouted.

“That’s-!”

“Okay, okay, let’s not argue,” Ann said, interrupting Makoto’s retort.

“The sooner we move through the better,” Ren agreed.

“Yes, you’re right,” Makoto nodded. She checked around the corner and waved the group on upon seeing it was clear. As they moved forward and started their trek up the stairs, she find her thoughts straying again. Mona is right, though… I do rather enjoy holding up and killing these Shadows. What does that say about me?

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Public Prosecutors’ Office

“Sae-san?” a polite voice asked from the door to Sae Niijima’s office.

“Akechi-kun?” Sae looked up from her phone to see the young detective smiling at her. “What is it?”

“Oh, I was just on my way out for the night,” he said. “Had some evidence to drop off for a case I assisted with. Remember that jewelry store robbery from last month?”

“I do,” Sae said. “The culprit had suffered a mental shutdown, didn’t he?”

Akechi’s smile dropped. “Yes, apprehending a defenseless man from the hospital was not how I’d hoped that case would end.”

“I doubt any would,” Sae said. “So why deliver evidence for it now?”

“I was looking it over again and developed a theory that there may have been an accomplice in the security guards at the store,” Akechi explained. “The case prosecutor agreed and asked to look the evidence over.”

“I see,” Sae said, complete disinterest in her voice as she returned her gaze to her cell phone.

“I’m going to guess you aren’t too busy?” Akechi asked.

“Not at the moment,” Sae said, rubbing her forehead as she glanced at her laptop, where she had been reviewing a document that mentioned a term she felt might be significant; cognitive psience. “I feel as if I’ve made some headway into my investigation, but staring at this computer screen is starting to get to me.”

“Oh, is that so?” Akechi asked with a slight chuckle. “Maybe you could use a break, then? Perhaps we could grab some sushi or…?”

“Are you unable to afford your own dinners?” Sae asked, closing her eyes in exasperation. "It hasn't even been a week since last time."

“Ah, it’s not that I intend to mooch off of you!” Akechi said, raising his hands in mock panic. “I just thought it would be nice if we didn’t have to eat alone.”

Sae looked down at her phone at those words, at the one-sided text conversation she had been observing for the past few minutes.

Sae: I need a break. And I know you don’t like eating alone all the time.

Sae: Would you like me to treat you to a restaurant tonight?

Sae: I could also bring home takeout if you’d prefer we save a restaurant for your birthday.

Sae: Makoto? Respond.

She let out a sigh, and began packing her things and shutting down her laptop. “Very well. Nothing too expensive, though.”

“Of course not,” Akechi said, smiling.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

“Ow…” Ren groaned as they jumped through the window higher up on the tower and into what appeared to be a storage room, or perhaps part of the watch tower. Makoto was too tired at this point to care.

“I’m sorry,” Ann mumbled, sitting down on the floor to rub her leg.

“It’s not your fault, Panther,” Morgana said. “We couldn’t have known there would be that many Shadows out there.”

“Is your ankle okay?” Makoto asked.

“Yeah, I just tripped on that box back there,” Ann said. “What about you, Queen?”

“You really strained yourself in that last fight,” Morgana said.

Makoto nodded, sitting down as well. “I do feel completely worn out…” Most of the Shadows that confronted them on the roof were, while not as powerful as the Archangel was, much stronger than everything they’ve fought thus far. While they were weak to her recently acquired Silky’s Bufu spell, they were accompanied by Pixies that kept her from finishing them quickly.

“There’s just a couple of rooms to the next Safe Room,” Ren said. Makoto noticed that his gaze was unfocused as well. Understandable, since he and Arsene were the ones that had to take care of the Pixies for her. “Let’s just get there and leave.”

“Never again,” Makoto said, pulling herself up. “Never again will we dive blindly in like this.”

“Yeah, I was about to say the same,” Morgana said, casting a Media spell. “I’m at my limit for magic, too.”

“But we’re almost there now, right?” Ann asked.

“We should be,” Makoto said, opening the door. The room on the other side had a bunch of holes, unknown particles flaking out of it, and chunks of the tile and stone levitating. “...um…”

“I see it, too,” Ren assured her.

“The distortion is getting pretty strong,” Morgana mused. “This confirms we’re on the right path to the Treasure!”

“This is normal for Palaces?” Makoto asked.

“It is for people who don’t have a more solid grasp on their distortions, yeah,” Morgana nodded. “I’m sure there’s people out there without this mess near their Treasure, though.”

“They’d have to be pretty twisted, huh?” Ann asked, frowning.

“What do you mean?” Ren asked, as they cautiously began trekking through the increasing distortion of the Palace.

“Well, I mean, Palaces are because their view is all distorted or something, right?” Ann asked. “But if they have more control over that and still have a Palace?”

“I think I see what you’re saying,” Makoto frowned. “Knowing that they're twisted, but embracing it. But that’s just speculation. And my focus isn’t there enough to think about it.”

“Yeah, I was sort of just talking to talk,” Ann said, giving an awkward laugh.

The most immediate door towards the Safe Room was locked, so they started heading down the hall. They immediately stopped at seeing a set of statues of women lining the room. Of course, the only parts of a woman these statues showed was the breasts and butts, the structure set up so they were sticking both out in a way nobody actually does.

“We’re definitely in the most twisted part of his heart,” Makoto said quietly.

“I feel sick,” Ann mumbled.

Ren said nothing, turning to open a side room the map showed. He stopped in the now open doorway. “...well, there’s more of them in here, so, I wouldn’t look if you don’t want to see.”

“There’s a room just of these statues?” Morgana asked.

“Actually, it looks like it might be an elevator.”

“An elevator?” Makoto asked, walking over and looking into the room. “...let’s see where it goes.”

“Um, weren’t we going to the Safe Room?” Ann asked.

“First sign of trouble, we’ll return to the elevator to do just that,” Makoto said. “But the map we have doesn’t show any signs of an elevator, so it’s left me curious.”

“I have to agree,” Morgana said. “My phantom thief instincts are telling me something.”

“I see,” Makoto said slowly. She proceeded to step onto the elevator, Morgana following.

“Joker, Panther? Are you coming along?” Morgana asked.

“...yeah,” Ren relented, following.

“I mean… I guess it can’t hurt,” Ann said, cautiously following.

Makoto took a breath, trying to stabilize herself, and pulled the lever, the elevator slowly lowering them down. After a few minutes, it stopped, a short staircase leading down in front of them.

“Okay, this is kind of weird,” Ann said as they walked down to find themselves in a small hallway. "Why would it bring us here? Wherever here is."

Ren glanced around the corner. “Looks like another elevator might show up over there? It’s not there now, though.”

Makoto was preoccupied with the longer hallway that stretched away from the elevators, staring at the painting of Kamoshida surrounded by roses and sparkles that marked the apparent end.

“Queen, why are you staring at that?” Ann asked.

“Okay, I’m thinking it’s definitely time to make our escape,” Morgana said. “We’re all far too tired to stay focused.”

“I am focused,” Makoto said quietly, walking down the hall. She gently poked the painting as if making sure it was safe before brutally punching it. Instead of breaking, it swiveled on a stuck point in the middle, revealing the entrance hall behind it. “...a secret passageway.”

“Are you kidding?” Ann frowned. “We could have just reached the tower from here?”

“I wouldn’t have chanced it earlier,” Makoto said. “Besides, we had no idea it was here or where it would lead.”

“Neither of the elevators would have been there, too,” Ren said. “But maybe this is how Kamoshida’s Shadow gets around here so quickly.”

“Ah, castles with secret passages!” Morgana said happily. “Such a cool aesthetic, right?”

“If it wasn’t Kamoshida’s castle?” Ann asked. She managed a small smile. “Yeah, it is kinda cool, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Makoto said, hopping down into the entrance hall. “...hey, can we just leave from here? We have a shortcut back…”

“Yeah, let’s do it,” Ren said. “Before we pass out.”

“I’m good to leave,” Ann said. “Mona?”

Morgana stared at the painting before nodding. “Yeah, let’s do it. The incident on the roof boosted the security a bit too, so the Palace could use some time to cool down.”

“Then let’s go and convene at the vending machines in reality,” Makoto said, leading the way to their window exit.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
After School
Shujin Academy

“I’m so exhausted…” Makoto mumbled as Ren passed her a soda.

“It feels like the incident with Shiho was days ago now,” Ann said.

“Morgana, you really think medicines will help with this?” Makoto asked.

“That, and maybe not using our Personas so liberally,” Morgana said, stretching.

“I don’t really get how,” Ann said. “Unless it’s like one of those capsules people take to stay awake?”

“The effects of the Metaverse probably changes how it works,” Ren said. He took out the model handgun. “This is definitely a toy again, after all.”

“Then we’ll make obtaining medicine our priority,” Makoto said, forcing herself to stand up. “We should make sure we’re stocked for next time. Use the pain we were met with today to learn better for the future.”

“That sounds rather... hardcore, Makoto,” Ann said uneasily.

“Oh, I trained in martial arts,” Makoto said. “My instructor said something similar once. ...admittedly, it was for stretching wrong, but…”

“We get it,” Ren said. He took out his phone. “I should really get home. I’ll see you later, everyone.”

“See ya!” Ann said as Ren picked Morgana up and walked off to the station. “How about you, Makoto? You used your Persona the most. Need me to walk you to the station?”

“I should be okay…” Makoto said, trailing off as she looked at her phone. “...Sis was trying to reach me.”

“Oh, geez,” Ann frowned. “Did she hear the news about the suicide attempt? She's not panicking about you not answering, right?”

“It doesn’t appear that way,” Makoto mumbled, skimming the messages. “But… I shouldn’t keep her waiting. I’m going to go home now.”

“...alright,” Ann said. “Um… see ya later, Makoto.”

“Get home safely, Ann,” Makoto said, managing a small smile before heading off to the station.

Ann stared after her for a moment, before closing her eyes. Now that she was relaxing, the sight of Shiho falling from the rooftop, the view of her bent limbs in the courtyard, was playing through her mind again. She choked back a sob, wiping her eyes, before making her way home as well.

~~~

4/15 - Friday
Evening
Leblanc Cafe

Sojiro looked over from the TV, where a news interview with some politician was being broadcast, to see Ren stagger in. “You’re finally home, huh? You look terrible.”

“Are you ill?” a customer in a booth, a woman dressed like a punk rocker, asked him.

“Oh, uh, no,” Ren said, staring at her in surprise.

She stared back for a moment, giving off the impression she was daring him to look away first. Sojiro soon ended the impromptu staring contest by chastising Ren.

“Don’t stare at my customers.”

Ren looked away, a slight scowl on his face.

“Thanks for the coffee,” the woman said, standing up. “I left the money on the table.”

“Thank you for stopping by,” Sojiro said as the woman left.

“Who was that?” Ren asked.

“Dr. Takemi. She runs the local clinic. Why? You have a crush on her?”

“...no,” Ren said. “Just curious.”

“Geez, you’re in a mood tonight,” Sojiro grumbled. “You sure you don’t feel sick?”

“I’m sure,” Ren said. “...was she really a doctor, though? Didn’t look like one.”

“Well, she already has a shady reputation,” Sojiro said. “Guess she decided to dress the part.”

“A shady doctor?” Morgana asked from Ren's bag. “Ooh… lucky us!”

Ren said nothing, but did glance back in surprise.

“Now, why don’t you answer one of my questions?” Sojiro asked, grabbing his attention. “What’s bugging you?”

Ren paused. “...a student tried to kill herself today.”

Sojiro’s eyes immediately widened. “My god… Is she alright?”

“She’s in the hospital,” Ren said. “Ann- I mean, one of my classmates knew her, so it… sort of hit me hard, too. I was talking with the Student Council President about it.”

Sojiro frowned. “...here, why don’t you put the cat upstairs and have some coffee? You look like you could use a pick-me-up.”

Ren blinked in surprise. “Oh… um, thanks, Sakura-san.”

“Don’t mention it, kid,” Sojiro said, grabbing Takemi’s payment from the counter as Ren made his way up into his room.

He set his school bag down, staring at Morgana as he hopped onto the bed. “...what should I do?”

“This is your chance to win him over a little more, so go for it,” Morgana said. “We’ll tell Makoto and Lady Ann about that clinic tomorrow.”

Ren nodded, taking off his school blazer before heading back down to the cafe.

Chapter Text

4/16 - Saturday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 16
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

Makoto stood on the platform, waiting for the train as usual. She had been too tired to stay up until her sister got home, and Sae hadn’t ever answered her apology texts. Judging by the note she was left this morning, Sae didn’t seem particularly angry with her over missing her texts, but at the same time, it felt like this would probably become fodder for a later argument.

“Niijima-san!” a frazzled girl’s voice called out to her.

Makoto turned around to see one of her fellow Student Council Members and fellow third-year student, Secretary Kyoko Suzuki, rush up to her, pausing to catch her breath.

“Oh, Suzuki-san…” Makoto said softly. It was odd, with how similarly pronounced Suzuki and Suzui’s names were, to say it out loud after yesterday.

“Geez, Honda-kun was looking all over for you yesterday,” Suzuki said. “Where did you vanish to? You weren’t in the library.”

“Oh, I… I was rather upset yesterday, so I left early,” Makoto said. At least only half of that was a lie.

“I guess that makes sense,” Suzuki sighed. “It was… really painful to see a kohai do something like that. And our names were so similar that a few of my classmates thought it was me. So seeing me after lunch caused them to scream. Gave me a headache.”

“Ah, sorry that happened to you,” Makoto said.

Suzuki gave a shrug. “So, yesterday aside, what have you been up to all week? I didn’t see you in the library for the last few days, either.”

“Oh, I’ve just been… busy,” Makoto said.

“With the transfer student?” Suzuki asked. "What's his name... Amano?"

"Y-you mean Amamiya-kun?" Makoto stuttered. “Wh-what do you mean, was I busy with him?”

“Well, I mean, he has an assault record. Did you not hear that?”

“N-no, I’m aware he has a record,” Makoto said. "I'm not sure what that has to do with my schedule, though."

“Thought maybe you were thinking of ways to protect the students or something,” Suzuki shrugged. “At least, I remember hearing a rumor you were trying to get him expelled.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, before I forget! The reason Honda-kun was looking for you.”

“Oh, yes?” Makoto asked.

“Well, rather than wait until Tuesday, given both Amamiya's record and Suzui-san’s attempted suicide causing such a stir around Shujin, should we hold a meeting today?”

“Oh, um…” Makoto frowned. I can’t imagine they found a lead on medicine yet, but just in case… “Sorry, I’m busy this afternoon. We can wait. I could use the time to get my thoughts on the subject in order, too.”

“Alright,” Suzuki shrugged. “You’re the President, after all, Niijima-san.”

Makoto nodded, turning forward as the train pulled into the station.

~~~

4/16 - Saturday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

“Did you hear a group of second-years are going to be expelled?”

“Sakamoto, Mishima, and Amamiya, right?”

“I get those two delinquents, but Mishima, too?”

“I heard they bullied him into helping them attack Kamoshida-sensei.”

“Good riddance, I say. Can’t wait until they’re out of this school.”

“I know I’ll breathe a lot easier with Amamiya gone.”

Makoto forced herself to stay quiet as she took her seat in her homeroom. Already, Suzui-san’s suicide attempt is forgotten? Is this Kamoshida’s doing? Leaking that he plans to expel Ren-kun so he can-

“Settle down,” her homeroom teacher said as he stepped inside, putting an end to both Makoto’s building rage and the rumor mill’s movement. “Good, everyone seems to be here, today. Niijima-san, can you handle roll call?”

“Yes, sir,” Makoto said, standing up. I’ll make sure Kamoshida suffers for this. "Please stand when I call your name."

~~~

4/16 - Saturday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

“I’m surprised Amamiya is still showing up.”

“He’s getting expelled in a few weeks, right?”

“Same with Mishima, I heard. You’d think they’d just stop coming in.”

Mishima looked down, looking even more miserable than he usually looked.

Ren, meanwhile, kept his gaze focused solely outside. At least, until Ann turned around to talk to him.

“Hey, do you wanna get outta here? We could go eat in the courtyard or maybe text Makoto to get into the Student Council Room.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Morgana said quietly from within Ren’s desk. “Get away from these rumors before you really snap.”

Ren gave an annoyed sigh at Morgana’s words.

“Mona, stop phrasing things so badly,” Ann said quietly. “Well, Ren?”

“Yeah, let’s go eat in the courtyard,” Ren said, carefully slipping Morgana into his bag and standing up. “I could use fresh air with lunch.”

Ann started packing as well, pausing to glance at Mishima, who hadn’t moved to even eat. “...Should we ask Mishima to come with us?”

“I’d rather not,” Ren said. “Don’t feel like hanging out with the person who leaked my record.”

Ann blinked in surprise as Ren left. “...wait, what?!” She didn’t notice all the other students that remained in the room giving her an odd look at her outburst, and instead chased Ren out of the classroom.

~~~

4/16 - Saturday
After School
Shujin Academy

As soon as class ended, Makoto left her desk and rushed up the stairs to the Student Council Room. As soon as she did, she tossed her bag onto the couch and slammed her hands on the table.

“Geez, Makoto, chill out,” Ann said.

“Oh, A-Ann… Ren-kun,” Makoto stuttered, blushing as she turned to see her friends enter the room. “S-sorry… I’ve been suppressing my temper all day.”

“Tell me about it,” Ren said.

“We just couldn’t catch a break about Ren’s expulsion all day,” Ann complained.

Makoto frowned, leaning back against the desks slightly. “I’m so sorry you had to deal with that.”

“I’m surprised it spread so quickly, since Kamoshida only threatened it yesterday,” Morgana said.

“Well, thanks to Mishima, everyone knew my record before I even got here, so…” Ren shrugged. “Not to surprising the rumors spread that fast.”

“Mishima?” Makoto repeated.

“You know him, right?” Ann asked. “He’s in the same class as me and Ren, was on the volleyball team…”

“He was there yesterday when Ryuji chewed you out,” Morgana added.

“Oh, yes,” Makoto said. She paused, processing what Ren said. “...Mishima leaked your record?”

“Kamoshida forced him to, apparently,” Ren said.

“...I see,” Makoto said, taking a few breaths. Of course he made a student post it. It was on the student message boards, after all. Why didn’t I connect those dots earlier? But… if I did, would I have indulged Ren-kun’s story? Would I have even ended up in the Palace? No, I should focus more on how to handle such a breach in a student's privacy...

“Makoto?” Ren said softly, grabbing her attention.

“Um, yes, Ren-kun?”

“It’s okay. You don’t need to go after him if you were planning it.”

“Ah, that wasn’t actually what I was...” Makoto trailed off, having locked eyes with Ren’s. They’re so… calming to look at. Ah, I shouldn’t think that about my friend! “Um… if you’re sure, Ren-kun. A-anyway, has anyone made headway on medicines that could help in the Metaverse?”

“Oh, we have a lead!” Morgana said excitedly.

“Oh, wow, that was fast,” Ann said. “I didn’t really expect us to need stuff done that quickly.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Lady Ann,” Morgana said in an attempt at a charming voice. “It was pure chance that Ren and I-”

“We were going to look into it today,” Ren interrupted. “Makoto, did you want to tag along?”

“Huh?” Makoto blinked in surprise at the offer. “Oh, um, I suppose I should… I did check out the airsoft shop with Ann, after all.”

“Cool,” Ren said, giving a small smile.

“Um, should I do anything?” Ann asked.

“You can look into medicines and supplies yourself, in case this falls through, if you want,” Makoto suggested. “Otherwise…”

“...I think I’ll spend today with Shiho,” Ann said quietly. “I… I feel like I need that.”

“You do need time to adjust and feel, yeah,” Ren said.

Makoto looked down and nodded. “Go to Suzui, Ann. And tell her we’re fighting for her.”

“I will,” Ann said, nodding and giving a smile. “Good luck with your lead, you three!”

“Thanks,” Ren said.

“We’ll text later,” Makoto said. “See you.”

Ann nodded, and ran out of the room.

“So…” Makoto clapped her hands together as she straightened up and went to grab her bag. “You and Morgana know where we’re going, so lead the way.”

~~~

4/16 - Saturday
After School
Yongen-Jaya Backstreets

"Yongen-Jaya," the announcement rang as they debarked the train. "This is Yongen-Jaya."

“Yongen-Jaya…” Makoto echoed.

“Something wrong?” Ren asked.

“Ah, no, it’s just… I’ve never been to Yongen before.”

“Me neither, until last week,” Ren said. He frowned as they began making their way up from the station. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been one week so far…”

“A lot has happened,” Makoto agreed. She paused. “Five days ago, I didn’t even know you as anything other than a transfer student.”

“With a criminal record,” Morgana added.

“I’d rather not vocalize that part,” Makoto said.

“Alright,” Ren frowned as they walked forward. “I’ve only really explored this place my first day, but I think I remember the clinic being a left from here.”

Makoto paused in examining a second-hand shop to glance at him. “Say… this neighborhood wouldn’t happen to be where you live, is it?”

“Well, yeah, that’s how we heard of this doctor,” Morgana said.

Makoto followed them around the corner to find a sign on a rather rundown looking building advertising the Takemi Medical Clinic. Across from them was a boarded up movie theater.

“...you’re bringing me to a back alley doctor,” Makoto finally realized, letting out a drawn out sigh. “Oh my god, what is happening with my life?” Is this what Igor meant by rehabilitation? Turn myself into some delinquent or criminal?

“Makoto?” Ren frowned. “Hey, if you’re uncomfortable, we can try something else.”

“Where else would we try, though?” Morgana asked. “Besides, the chief seems to be cool with her.”

“Who?” Makoto asked.

“That’s what he calls my guardian,” Ren said.

“...well, if your guardian trusts her,” Makoto said, straightening up. “It might not be as bad as the outside makes it look…”

Ren gave an awkward smile as Makoto led them inside. Contrary to the dirty and graffitied outside, the interior was actually fairly clean. The chairs in the waiting room were organized, albeit also empty, and the floor shined as if it was cleaned recently.

Behind the reception window was a bored-looking woman wearing a white lab coat. Ren frowned at noticing that even on the job she still wore punk-ish clothes. He and Morgana both gave Makoto a nervous look, but she didn’t seem overly phased. At the very least, she wasn’t letting her surprise show on her face.

“Um, excuse me?”

“What is it?” Takemi looked up at the two. She briefly looked over their school uniforms. “You both just get out of school?”

“Um, yes,” Makoto said. She looked around awkwardly. “Uh, this is your clinic, right?”

“It is.”

“I see,” Makoto nodded. Okay… It’s not like you’re asking for drugs. Just some medicines to help stay focused, right? “I, uh, was hoping to ask-”

“You’re looking for condoms, right?” Takemi asked. “No need to be so nervous about it.”

“Wh-wh-what?!” Makoto gasped, stuttering. “N-n-no, that’s not-! I-I mean, we, we were h-hoping…”

“Okay, I think you need to tag in here, Ren,” Morgana said softly.

Ren swallowed, hoping his face didn’t show even a fraction of the embarrassment Makoto was now displaying, and approached. “Uh, we aren’t a couple.”

“Oh, is that right?” Takemi asked. “Well, I suppose bringing your date to my clinic would have been a stupid idea. So, what are you here for, then?”

“Well, we both have... exams, and are having difficulty staying focused on the studies and… stuff,” Ren said, clearly just making it up as he goes.

“I see… college entrance exams, you mean?”

Makoto decided to assist with the lie, but was only able to nod.

“Sure, I have something that could help you stay focused,” Takemi said. “All my medications are originals here, so finding just what you need shouldn’t be tough.”

“Originals?” Makoto repeated, the potential illegal activity managing to bring her down from her flustered state.

“I have a license for them, so it’s not a big deal.” Takemi stood up from her chair and led them both into the exam room. She brought out some basic capsules for them and soon sent the two on their way.

Makoto paused on the way out. “Um… by the way, I’m not from this area myself. Would it be okay if I asked my friend to pick these up for me, or-”

“It’s not like they're a prescription,” Takemi said. “Whatever.”

“Ah, thanks,” Makoto said, putting her purchase into her bag. As she and Ren started to leave, a man walked in, almost knocking Makoto over. “Ah, excuse me.”

The man nodded at her, but didn’t apologize or say excuse me back. He instead glared at Takemi. “May I have a word with you?”

“...you kids were leaving, right?” Takemi asked.

Makoto and Ren both nodded, heading out the door. Morgana shifted around a bit, hopping out to stay behind and listen in.

“Morgana!” Makoto snapped in a whisper. “Get back here!”

“I’ll catch up later!” Morgana hissed back. "This could be important!"

Makoto tried to retort, but Ren just shook his head and they walked back out into the alleyway. While she waited for Ren to put the medications he bought away, she glanced around. There was a grocery store nearby, and a few people and kids milling about, but as far as she could tell, Ren and her were the only high school students in the area.

“So, that was something, huh?” Ren asked.

“For how embarrassing that was, these had better work,” Makoto said, glancing at her school bag. “Do we really look like a couple?”

“I think people just make assumptions,” Ren said. “Boy and girl hanging out alone together, obviously they’re dating. That kind of thing.”

“Ah, I’ve never really spent time alone with a friend before this week, so I wouldn’t know,” Makoto said. “Though I suppose it does happen in media enough…”

“Hey, sorry for keeping you waiting,” Morgana said, walking back to them.

“Was there a reason you had to listen in on those two?” Makoto asked.

“Well, I got some good information,” Morgana smiled, climbing back into Ren’s bag.

“Care to share?” Ren asked.

“Let’s just say for now that we’re very lucky to have stumbled across this doctor,” Morgana said.

“Care to share more details?” Makoto asked.

“...the guy was complaining to her for hiding some sort of miracle cure or something,” Morgana said. “A medicine that strong sounded perfect for our operations, so…”

“I already feel this is shady enough, even if we are buying this legally,” Makoto frowned.

“It does seem like it might be a risk, yeah,” Ren frowned. He paused at seeing Morgana looking let down. “...but I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Really?” Morgana asked, looking somewhat happy.

“Ren-kun?” Makoto asked. “What are you thinking of?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just something to keep in mind.”

“Ren-kun, I don’t want you doing anything illegal that could jeopardize your probation,” Makoto said.

“Hey, I’m not trying to get him arrested, either,” Morgana said. “I just want us to be as prepared as we can be in the Metaverse!”

“Yeah, I just said it as a precautionary thing,” Ren said. “In case we do decide to keep handling Palaces, keep the potential for better medicine in mind.”

Makoto bit her lip. “...well, I suppose that’s fair. But this could always end up being a one-time thing for us.”

“What?!” Morgana gasped, sounding outraged. “But, why? You have Personas! You have an app built for entering the Metaverse! This is the perfect opportunity!”

“Opportunity?” Makoto repeated. “You mentioned something like that before. How we fit into your ‘plan’. Morgana, I want to believe in you, but are you just using us?”

“Ah, no, of course not!” Morgana said. “I… look, um, how can I explain this?”

“I’d suggest just saying what you meant by plan,” Ren said.

Morgana sighed. “Fine, yeah… I want you guys to help me dive into the depths of the Metaverse. Not only so I can get my original body back, but so I can… remember.”

“Remember?” Ren repeated.

“The Metaverse didn’t just turn me into a cat,” Morgana said. “It also stole my memories.”

"Oh..." Makoto hesitated, before reaching over to gently scratch Morgana’s chin. “I’m… sorry to hear that. And if making you recall that was painful.”

“It’s no big deal,” he said. “I don't mind sharing, I guess. I mean, with how proper you are, Makoto, I gotta realize you aren’t really for me being cryptic all the time.”

“Well... how about we make a deal, then?” Makoto suggested. “You be more forthcoming, and we’ll help you with the Metaverse.”

“Both of you?” Morgana asked.

“If Ren-kun wishes, of course.”

Ren nodded, before letting out a small laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Makoto asked, both she and Morgana looking over at him.

“My senpai just asked to make a deal with my cat,” Ren said. “Even if I know the truth, the mental image…”

Makoto blushed, but managed to giggle as well. “I… suppose someone negotiating with a cat is a funny thing to picture.” She briefly had a mental image of her sister negotiating with a cat pop into her head, and her giggling got worse. “Ah, now I can’t unsee that!”

“I admit the idea is funny,” Morgana huffed. “But you’re all forgetting something. I. Am. Not. A cat!”

“I know, sorry,” Ren said.

“Y-yes, I do apologize, Morgana,” Makoto said, catching her breath.

“...apology accepted, Queen,” Morgana said, getting that sly cat smirk on his face again. “And I accept your deal, too.” As soon as he said that, a voice echoed in Makoto’s head again.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Magician Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

MAGICIAN CONFIDANT: RANK 1

Makoto looked over and saw some of the passersby glancing at them. “Uh, perhaps we shouldn’t loiter in front of the clinic here…”

“It’s not too late,” Ren said, checking his phone. “And there’s no school tomorrow, too. Want to drop by my guardian’s cafe?”

“Ooh, Makoto, you should!” Morgana said. “I can’t eat it, but the curry and coffee smells so good!”

“It was really tasty,” Ren said as they began walking away from the clinic. “He made some for me last night after I got back.”

“Well… that is tempting,” Makoto admitted. “But I probably should get home early. I think Sis might be mad at me for missing her messages last night, and I should try and make up for it before next weekend.”

“Why then in particular?” Morgana asked.

“It’s my 18th birthday,” Makoto said offhandedly.

“...it is?” Ren asked.

“Mhm,” Makoto nodded. “Anyway, I’ll message you and Ann after dinner tonight, alright?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ren said. “See ya, Makoto.”

“See you,” Makoto replied, giving a small smile, before heading off to the station.

“Her birthday, huh?” Ren frowned.

“You wanna get her a present or something?” Morgana asked. “It doesn’t seem like she’d be used to that sort of thing.”

“I’ll think about it,” Ren said, heading back towards Leblanc. “It’d probably be weird of me to give her something, though. We didn't meet that long ago.”

“If you say so,” Morgana said, before retreating back into Ren’s bag.

~~~

4/16 - Saturday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto poked at her food, not eating much. Did I speak too soon? I already agreed to continue exploring Palaces before we’ve even handled Kamoshida.

“Makoto?” Sae asked from across the table. “You’re not eating.”

“Ah, sorry,” Makoto said, taking a small bite.

“Do you feel sick?” Sae asked. “You went to bed rather early last night, after all.”

“Oh, um, no,” Makoto said. “I’m just thinking about… it’s not important.”

“If it’s not important, don’t dwell on it,” Sae said. She paused, taking a sip of broth. When she spoke again, it was about a different subject. “...I won’t be home next Saturday.”

“You won’t?” Makoto asked, looking up.

“I’m sorry,” Sae said. “Work came up. Did you hear about the psychotic breakdown that happened earlier today?”

“No, I didn’t,” Makoto frowned.

“A prosecutor, one of my younger coworkers, in fact, suddenly snapped and attempted to attack people on the bus to work this morning.”

“Is everyone okay?” Makoto asked nervously. “He didn’t manage to-”

“Thankfully nobody died,” Sae said. “However, as psychotic breakdowns are something I’m looking into, his case and previous workload has fallen to me.”

“Oh…” Makoto frowned. “I understand why you’d be prosecuting him, but… why do you need to handle his old cases as well?”

“It was what the Director said,” Sae replied. “Whoever wanted to sentence him should also handle his cases. That’s all it is. I accepted because handling this could lead to a raise. And you know we’re tight on money this year.”

“...I know,” Makoto nodded. She remembered the disappointment of having to sell the family car right after Makoto earned her license, but Sae was right that public transportation was cheaper.

“I know this is probably disappointing to you,” Sae said. “...but perhaps we could make up for that on the 24th?”

“The 24th?” Makoto repeated.

“It would only be a day late, after all,” Sae said. She gave Makoto a smile. “How about it? We could go see a movie together.”

Makoto felt her eyes tear up a little and returned her sister’s smile. “That sounds great. Thank you, Sis.”

Sae nodded, and let her smile drop.

Makoto’s smile dropped as well, and they proceeded to eat dinner quietly for a moment. Finding it to be getting uncomfortable, Makoto broke the silence. “Did you know the man you’re now prosecuting?”

“I’ve seen him around before,” Sae said. “Not well enough to say any of those cliches about how he’d never do something like that.”

Makoto nodded. She started to return to her food when Sae spoke again.

“Still, it’s his response in interrogation that bothers me,” Sae said. “It’s normal for psychotic breakdown victims to act like they have no memory of what they’ve done, but when I informed him of who was hurt, he broke down crying.”

“...maybe it was regret?”

“If he was soft enough to feel such regret, I can’t imagine him brandishing a knife at people in the first place.” Sae put a hand to her chin in thought as she sat back. “It’s as if he, and every psychotic breakdown victim, assuming their memory lapse isn't all an act, are doing a complete 180 in personality.”

“A 180 in personality?” Makoto repeated.

“Ah, don’t mind me,” Sae said. “I was just musing to myself. You should focus on your school work instead of my job. I’m sorry I mentioned it.”

“Ah, r-right,” Makoto stuttered. “Um… if you’re done eating, I’ll do the dishes.”

“You aren’t going to finish?” Sae asked.

“I’ll save it for tomorrow,” Makoto said.

“...alright,” Sae said. “Just remember to eat properly.”

“I will,” Makoto nodded, gathering her and her sister’s plates and carrying them to the kitchen. She let herself process her thoughts as she put her leftovers away and scrubbed their dishes. A complete change in personality. Why didn’t I make that connection before? Isn’t that exactly like the change of heart that Morgana described? Wouldn’t forcing Kamoshida to atone for his crimes and feel guilt be similar to this?

She shook her head, drying the dishes off as she put them away. No, it’s the opposite. We’re forcing him to repent for crimes, not commit them. But… we’d be stealing his desires. If he doesn’t desire anything anymore, wouldn’t that make it similar to mental shutdown? Mental shutdown victims just stop caring for themselves, after all...

She quickly made her way to her bedroom, taking out her phone. She’d just ask about it directly.

Makoto: Good evening.

Ann: Hey. Dinner with your sister go okay?

Makoto: Yes, for the most part. Though it left me wishing to ask something.

Ren: I want to ask something, too.

Ren: Ann, how was Suzui?

Makoto felt a twist of guilt run through her. It was a feeling she’d had too often this past week. She hoped it would stop soon, rather than her getting used to it. Why didn’t I think to ask that? That would have been the polite thing to do.

Ann: Oh, yeah, she’s doing fine.

Ann: Well, no, that’s a lie. She’s still asleep.

Ann: But she’s stable and stuff, so it sounds like she might recover?

Ren: Well, that’s a relief.

Makoto: Yes. I do hope she wakes up soon.

Ann: Thanks, you two!

Ann: So what did you want to ask, Makoto?

Ren: Yeah, your sister reminded you of it?

Makoto froze, her finger hovering over her phone. What should I say? I feel like asking now would be self-centered...

Ren: Makoto?

Makoto: Ah, sorry. I was thinking things over.

Makoto: It might be better to ask the team in person.

Ann: Alright. Though now I’m going to be curious until tomorrow.

Makoto: Monday, actually.

Makoto: I have to study tomorrow, as well as prepare for a Student Council meeting.

Makoto: Are you okay with waiting until then?

Ren: I can wait.

Ann: Me too. I kind of forget you have a lot on your plate, Makoto.

Ann: Guess I’ll accept that modeling gig tomorrow, then.

Ann: What about you, Ren? Things to do tomorrow?

Ren: I’m sure I’ll find something.

Ren: Maybe a part-time job? Medicine was pricey.

Ann: Oh, yeah, that went well, then?

Ren: It seems to have.

Makoto: I’ll speak with you all after school on Monday, then.

Ren: See you Monday.

Ann: See ya!

With the conversation apparently over, Makoto set her phone on her nightstand, and grabbed her Buchimaru plushie. “Tell me I’m just overthinking things. Tell me I can trust my first ever friends and that we aren’t about to make a mistake.”

Her plushie was silent, as inanimate objects typically are.

“...I don’t think we’re wrong,” Makoto said softly. “But I want to be sure.” Monday. I’ll get my answer on Monday.

~~~

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

“The 17th was spent working on schoolwork and preparing for the Student Council Meeting on the… 19th?” Makoto trailed off, looking unsure of herself.

The look on her face went unnoticed by Sae, who was keeping her gaze either in her notes or on the wall behind Makoto. “It sounds like you reached a similar conclusion to the investigators. Forcing a change like that does sound similar to the incidents that have dominated the news cycle, doesn't it?”

“Similar, yes…” Makoto mumbled.

“You’ve been expressing nothing but reservations and concerns in your story thus far, so I’m starting to find it hard to believe you’re actually the leader,” Sae said, finally looking at her sister. “Is someone putting you up to this? Are you being blackmailed or coerced?”

“No,” Makoto said.

“Be truthful,” Sae said. “If you answer honestly, I can help-”

“I’m not being coerced!” Makoto shouted, starting to rise to her feet for emphasis. Immediately, pain shot through her right leg and she let out a sharp cry, before collapsing back into the chair.

“Makoto?” Sae asked, frowning. She stood up, walking over to examine Makoto’s leg, finding a hasty-looking bandage, some rough stitches showing from beneath it. “...were you shot?! Was this from when you were arrested?!”

“Shot…” Makoto mumbled, closing her eyes. The wall of police that greeted her when she fled that building was in front of her, armed. If she was fast enough, they shouldn’t be able to identify her. Even with their spotlights, it’s still dark. Johanna is with her. She reached for her mask-

“Eyes open,” Sae ordered, and Makoto obliged, finding Sae had returned to her seat. “So, if I have this right, despite the reservations you had at your dubious methods of gaining supplies, despite realizing that a connection could be made between what you were planning to attempt and the mental shutdowns or psychotic breakdowns, you still chose to go through with it?”

“...I had reservations and questions,” Makoto said. “I didn’t think we were wrong. But I was worried about what would happen to my friends. On the 18th, I got the answers I wanted and decided it would be best to continue.”

“That it would be best?” Sae asked. “It led to you being shot and arrested! It led to the death of-”

“I know what happened,” Makoto interrupted, clutching her head. “Just… stop…” A death... That didn't happen in April, right? It was... more recent? What day even is it right now?

Sae seemed to be debating whether to continue shouting or not. Finally, at seeing how confused Makoto seemed, she let out an angry sigh, letting her aggression subside slightly. “Fine. Let’s just handle this in order. Tell me what convinced you to continue this in spite of your reservations.”

Chapter Text

4/18 - Monday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren's Expulsion: 14
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

Makoto walked through the main entrance, heading towards her classroom, when she heard the person she least wanted to encounter call to her.

“Oh, Niijima-san,” Kamoshida said, walking up. “Can I have a word with you?”

“O-oh, um…” Makoto hesitated. I arrived too early to claim I’ll be late to class… “Of course, sir…”

“Great!” he smiled. “We’ll talk in the P.E. faculty room, if that’s okay?”

“I… suppose that’s fine, yes,” Makoto said, following him upstairs and over to the second floor of the Practice Building. She kept giving nervous glances, hoping a student would speak up, but few seemed to pay them any mind. If worse comes to worse, I know aikido, I have my brass knuckles, and if I can run far enough, I can use the Meta-Nav to hide in a Safe Room in his Palace. I’m fine. He probably won’t even do anything, especially so early in the day.

“Niijima-san?” Kamoshida asked, staring at her as she just stood in the hall. “You coming in?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Makoto said, walking inside.

Kamoshida grinned. “Not much of a morning person, are you, Niijima-san? Maybe we could have some morning workouts together to get your blood pumping?”

“Oh, I think I’ll pass, thank you,” Makoto said.

“Suit yourself,” Kamoshida shrugged. “I just thought it a shame how little I’ve been able to interact with the Student Council President.”

“Is this what you wished to talk about?” Makoto asked.

“No,” Kamoshida said, his smile dropping. “I’ll get to the point, Niijima-san. I’ve gotten word that you’ve been spending quite a bit of time with that Amamiya kid.”

“I… suppose,” Makoto said, frowning. “I’ve been assisting him with his studies.”

“That’s real admirable of you,” Kamoshida said. “But it’s not a good idea to waste your effort on a lost cause, you know?”

“I don’t see how it is a lost cause, myself,” Makoto said, trying to keep her tone polite.

“He’s going to be expelled in two weeks.” Kamoshida shook his head. “The principal has spoken very highly of your talents, Niijima-san. As well as those of your elder sister. A talented prosecutor at her age, if I remember right?”

Makoto felt an odd chill rush through her. She couldn’t tell if it was anger, fear, or a mixture of both. Either way, she noticed her hands had started shaking, so she tightened the grip on her bag.

“That’s right, sir.”

“Then why don’t you let the criminal get kicked out of here, and focus, huh?” Kamoshida asked. “No use giving trash like that false hope, right?”

“...of course,” Makoto said, bowing politely. “Thank you for your concern, Kamoshida-sensei.”

“Of course,” Kamoshida said, smiling. “And please consider joining me for exercise, some time. You’ll be less sleepy in the morning.”

Makoto nodded, and left the room. She let out a sigh of relief as she cut her way back to the Classroom Building. As she reached the stairs down to the first floor, she paused, frowning. Should I just message Ann and Ren-kun? Or do I show Kamoshida how little I valued his suggestion by checking their classroom directly?

“Hey, you’re blocking my- oh. It’s you.”

Makoto turned to see Ryuji had started climbing the stairs, and the two were now staring at each other. It’s expected of her to be polite, so Makoto stepped aside and broke the silence. “Good morning, Sakamoto-kun.”

“Yeah…” Ryuji muttered, finishing walking up to the second floor. “Ain’t your classroom downstairs, senpai?”

“It is, yes,” Makoto said. “I had business in the Practice Building, however, and it was faster to cut back this way.”

“Practice Building, huh?” Ryuji said, looking down the hall past her.

“Is it so strange that I’d be there?” Makoto asked. “I’ll let you get to class now.” She walked around him, heading down the stairs.

Ryuji stared down after her, before turning around to head to homeroom.

~~~

4/18 - Monday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Ren felt his phone buzz almost immediately after the bell rang. Judging by Ann’s surprised reaction, her phone vibrated, too. Checking the notification, they saw a message from Makoto in their group chat.

Makoto: Would you both be willing to meet me directly in the Palace after school?

Makoto: I’ll wait in the Metaverse’s alleyway if so.

“She seems to be in a rush today,” Morgana said.

“I don’t blame her,” Ann said. “All day yesterday I could only think of wanting to go to the Palace. Finally get it over with.”

“I understand that,” Ren said. He frowned. “Still, Makoto’s not really the reckless type. She spent the time we were getting medicine worrying over the details.”

“You don’t think something happened, do you?” Morgana asked.

“I think she’d tell us if it was anything major,” Ren said.

“Anyway, I’m for it,” Ann said. “...should one of us reply to her or…?”

“Right, yeah,” Ren said.

Ren: Ann and I are fine with that.

Makoto: Alright. I’ll see you there, then.

Morgana frowned. “What happened to asking that question, though?”

“It’s been a couple of days, she might have forgotten what it was,” Ann suggested.

“Or figured it out herself,” Ren said.

“Maybe,” Morgana said. “Either way, eat up, you two. We’ve got to be ready as soon as the day ends.”

~~~

4/18 - Monday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

“And both eyes should mean…” Makoto mumbled, sticking the two stones they had gathered into the bust of Kamoshida. As soon as Ann, Ren, and Morgana arrived, she led them on their continued run through the Palace. Though they ended up taking a few more hits for it, the group had been more conservative in use of their Personas’ spells. They had managed to maintain their focus, so it didn’t take long for them to cut a path forward and back through the tower to solve the bizarre puzzle that currently blocked their way.

An uncomfortable look on her face, Makoto pulled down the jaw and the swinging blades that were blocking their path earlier stopped.

“That wasn’t a fun experience,” Ann said, crossing her arms. “Why does he have to be such a creep?!”

“Just be glad we were able to handle all of those Shadows without too much trouble,” Ren said.

“I am relieved Dr. Takemi’s medicine worked so well,” Makoto said, a slight smile on her face. “Honestly, a part of me didn’t believe it would work. But then, if model guns can function as real firearms-”

“Hey, on the subject,” Ann said as they proceeded across the pit and up the stairs. “Mona’s using a slingshot. But it works just as well.”

“Slingshots are actually painful,” Ren said.

“Joker, you say that as if you have experience,” Makoto frowned.

“Not really,” Ren said. “I just sort of know.”

“Mm,” Makoto pursed her lips. “I suppose that’s fair. They are actually classified as a weapon, and in mythology-”

“Um…” Ann interrupted the conversation as they entered the next room of the tower. The room was lined with busts of Kamoshida, all of them staring directly at them.

“Okay… disturbing,” Makoto said quietly as they walked along, the statues’ gazes following them.

“And I thought those butts a few rooms back were bad enough,” Ann said. “Agh, I am so done with this place!”

“I see now why you were so impatient, Queen,” Morgana said.

“That wasn’t the only reason,” Makoto said. “Earlier, he- oh, the stairs!” Noticing the various landings in an indent along the wall, she cut herself off and led the group over. Unlike earlier in the tower, though, where the stairs would suddenly rise into place, there was no reaction upon their approach.

“Why isn’t it working?” Ren asked. “Did we miss a mechanism, or-”

“As if we’d let petty thieves up to King Kamoshida’s throne room,” a voice behind them said.

“A Shadow!” Morgana said, whipping around to face the golden knight that had appeared behind them.

“Let us go upstairs,” Makoto said, turning around to glare, her eyes gleaming red beneath her mask. “I promise, if you stand in our way, it won’t be pleasant for you.”

“There’s a reason we got this far, after all,” Ren said, a cocky grin on his face.

“Yeah!” Ann agreed. “So why don’t you-” The knight collapsed, shifting into its real form, which could only be described as a penis-shaped mass of puke-green slime. Ann’s face immediately paled. “...I think I’m going to throw up…”

“Careful!” Morgana cautioned. “It’s coming!”

“...don’t say it like that,” Ren said, before ripping his mask off. “Persona! Eiha!”

The slime was barely impeded, and it quickly managed to slam into Ren, causing him to double over.

“Johanna!” Makoto screamed, leaping up as her initial motorcycle Persona sped out of the flames she conjured. “Frei!” Skidding around to pull Ren out of reach of more attacks, a burst of Nuclear magic slammed into the Mara Slime. Like Arsene’s curse attack, however, it had little effect.

“Are you kidding me?” Morgana asked. “Garu!” Hopping up next to one of the Kamoshida statues, Morgana called out Zorro and sent a gust of wind, managing to grab the slime’s attention, but barely seemed to harm it.

“I see why this guard is so high up,” Makoto commented. “None of our magic seems to be working…”

“Then just hit it normally!” Ann snapped, spinning to build up momentum and cracking her whip against it.

The slime seemed to let out a pained groan, and seemed to turn its attention towards Ann. Though it had no eyes, they all felt the impression it was leering at her.

"...I think it enjoyed that..." Ren said quietly.

“Ew, ew, ew!” Ann said, cringing at the sight of it. She quickly drew her machine gun and wildly fired into it, Makoto, Morgana, and Ren leaping back in surprise.

“Uh, Panther, calm down a little,” Morgana said as she exhausted her gun’s magazine, the slime seemingly having slumped over from the pain.

“That seems to have had quite the effect,” Makoto said, an impressed tone to her voice. “Everyone! We can end this right now! All-Out Attack!”

“Ah, right, Queen!” Ann said, the two of them rushing through to tear into the slime while Ren and Morgana stood to the side, cringing slightly. Once the girls stopped their assault, the slime burned away. “OMG, we are so awesome!” She jumped and held her hand up for a high-five.

Makoto hesitated, an uncertain look to her face, before she awkwardly met it. “Nicely done, Panther.”

“That looked… painful,” Morgana said.

“Huh?” Ann looked confused. “Uh, since when did we care about inflicting pain on Shadows?”

“Well, it’s not so much that as it is…” Morgana trailed off.

“Can we just move on?” Ren asked, slumping slightly as he stood up.

“Are you okay?” Makoto asked. “You didn’t partake in the All-Out Attack. Do you need healing or anything? Johanna recently learned Dia."

“No, I’m good,” Ren said, straightening up and flashing a smirk as the stairs clinked into place. “Shall we get going, Queen?”

“...Yes, let’s,” Makoto nodded, leading the way up the stairs.

~~~

4/18 - Monday
After School
Shujin Academy

Kobayakawa hung up the phone, letting out a sigh. “That woman is far too stressful to talk to…” His mumbling were cut off by a knock on his door that caused him to nearly jump out of his seat. “Ah, come in.”

“Sir, I wanted a quick word,” Kamoshida said, a smile on his face.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Kobayakawa said. “But aren’t you currently running practice in the gym?”

“That’s why I said a quick word,” Kamoshida laughed, though it came off as forced. “Just wanted to check that you made the call like I asked.”

“I just got off the phone with her now, actually,” Kobayakawa said, dabbing a handkerchief against his sweating forehead. “She’s far more intimidating than her younger sister's personality would suggest.”

“Well I’m glad I’ll never have to deal with her then,” Kamoshida said, giving a fake laugh. “Still, it’s alarming that a student you value as much as Niijima-san would decide to associate with someone like that criminal.”

“I hear your concerns,” Kobayakawa said. “And believe me, maintaining Shujin’s good image is my priority. I’m certain her sister will be able to get her onto a shorter leash now.”

“Great!” Kamoshida said. “Well, I have practice to return to. Someone needs to whip these students into shape.” He turned, and walked out of the office, Kobayakawa letting out a relieved sigh once the door was closed.

~~~

4/18 - Monday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

Shadow Kamoshida stood in front of his throne, addressing the gathering of Shadows before him. “How have you not captured the intruders yet?! These petty thieves keep waltzing through my castle, having their own way. Aren’t you supposed to protect your king?!”

“Apologies, my liege!” one of the Shadows remarked.

Makoto glanced down from the balcony of the throne room that she and the others had climbed up to, before crouching back down on the floor with the others. “All of the Shadows are focused on Kamoshida. We should be able to sneak past them into the backroom.”

“The Treasure is definitely back there, too…” Morgana said. “Ah, I can barely contain myself!”

“Keep it down,” Ren muttered, following Makoto along.

“I bet he’d never imagine we’d be so close to him,” Morgana commented as they slipped through the door behind the throne and into a rather dark hallway.

“This seems different from the rest of the Palace,” Ann said, straightening up now that they were out of sight.

“It is rather dark, isn’t it?” Makoto said nervously, subtly shifting closer to Ren. “Let’s be cautious.”

“I don’t think we’ll run into anyone here,” Ren said. “Shadow Kamoshida is right outside, after all.”

“That’s true, but…” Makoto hesitated, trying to think of something. “There could be a trap?”

“That’s a fair thing to worry about,” Morgana said, leading them forward to a set of sturdy, wooden double doors. “We’re here… This is it!”

“Behind these doors is the Treasure?” Ann asked.

“I’m positive!” Morgana said.

Makoto took a breath, and moved forward, shoving the doors open. Behind them was a room filled with gold, a metal gate leading to a balcony directly behind it, leaving the room illuminated by the moon in the Metaverse’s sky, as well as an odd, shimmering haze directly in the room’s center.

“There it is!” Morgana said excitedly, rushing up. “This is it!”

“What is?” Ann asked, a confused frown on her face.

“This!” Morgana said, hopping up and down to point at it.

“This fog?” Makoto asked. She walked forward and swished her hand through it. “I don’t see how it’s possible to steal it. I can’t even touch it.”

“That’s because he’s not actively thinking about it,” Morgana said. “He needs to be cognitive of his distorted desires, and specifically that they’re in risk of being stolen.”

“Wait, we need to tell him we’re going to steal his Treasure?” Ren asked. “But isn’t he clueless about the Metaverse?”

“True,” Morgana said. “Normally, a distorted person would have no idea they have a Palace. However, knowing about it or not, they’d still be aware if you’re threatening them in reality. Their Shadow is always cognizant of what the real person experiences, after all.”

“So…” Makoto put a hand to her chin in thought. “If we inform Kamoshida that we’re going to steal his Treasure, the source of his desires, then this cloud will become tangible? A solid object that represents what caused his heart to become this twisted?”

“Exactly,” Morgana purred.

“So, how do we warn him?” Ann asked. “If any of us walk up to say that to him, won’t he just hit us?”

“A calling card,” Ren said softly. “Like a phantom thief, right?”

"Yep!" Morgana laughed.

“Oh, that sounds fun!” Ann said.

“...but that would be evidence against us,” Makoto said quietly. “The pros of the Metaverse was that we could change his heart without leaving evidence behind. If we do this, won’t it put all of us, Joker in particular, in legal danger? I don't want that to happen.”

“Queen…” Ren said quietly.

“What’s more, my sister made me realize something on Saturday…” Makoto said.

“Oh, yeah, that question of yours…” Ann said. “I thought you might have forgotten.”

“I chose to come here immediately after Kamoshida threatened me this morning,” Makoto said. “I felt at the very least reaching the Treasure would give me more options, with the no evidence aspect in mind. But…” She sighed. “Mona, if we take his heart, and he no longer has these distorted desires, won’t he just… stop altogether? Would we not be risking triggering a mental shutdown?”

“Mental shutdown?” Ren repeated.

“Like, what they talk about on the news?” Ann asked.

“I… well, I admit, that’s a possibility,” Morgana said awkwardly, looking down at the gold they were standing on. “I know how this is supposed to work, but it’s not like I’ve ever done it before.”

“Well, if anyone deserves a mental shutdown, it’s this bastard,” Ann muttered.

“That may be true,” Makoto said. “But if there’s a link between it happening to him, and us?”

“Well, yeah, I guess that’d be bad,” Ann said.

“I think the risk is worth it,” Ren said.

“Joker?” Makoto looked over in surprise.

Ren put his hands in his pockets, looking down. “You just said he threatened you this morning, Queen. And even if he didn’t, we don’t have time to not take a risk with what he’s already done to Suzui or Ryuji or the rest of the volleyball team.”

“But Joker-”

“I agree,” Ann said. “Come on, Queen, weren’t you the one that was all ‘help and support’ or whatever?”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Makoto sighed. She looked up at the ceiling. This does seem to be what’s expected of me from the Velvet Room… “We have a route to the Treasure, yes? Let’s leave for today. I have a Student Council Meeting tomorrow, and I think we can use a day to think about how to handle this calling card.”

“You aren’t backing out, are you, Queen?” Morgana asked.

“Of course I’m not,” Makoto said. “But I need time to plan a proper strategy about this. I refuse to let any of you get in trouble for our actions.”

“You’re such a good person,” Ann smiled.

“So, we’ll meet up on Wednesday to discuss our heist,” Morgana summarized. “Okay. I can wait. But if Kamoshida’s getting bold and aware enough to threaten you, Queen, we should all be careful.”

Makoto nodded.

“Let’s head home, then,” Ren said. “My stomach still hurts from when that slime thing hit me.”

“Please don’t remind me of that thing existing,” Ann said, looking pale again.

~~~

4/18 - Monday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“I’m home,” Makoto said. “I picked up that takeout like you asked me to.”

Sae stood there with her arms crossed, staring at Makoto. “Sit down.”

“Sis?” Makoto asked, setting the bags of food on the table. “What’s wrong?”

“Sit.”

Makoto nervously sat down, Sae taking a seat across from her.

“I received a call from Shujin today,” Sae said.

“Wh-what about?” Makoto asked.

“You’ve been seen spending an abnormal amount of time with a fellow student lately,” Sae said, arms crossed.

“I don’t believe that’s any reason to make a call home,” Makoto said.

“If it was someone in your class or the Student Council, maybe,” Sae said. “But when it’s someone with a criminal record?”

Makoto looked down. Did Kamoshida call here? Did he ask the principal to? Or was it another teacher by coincidence? I’m not under suspicion before I’ve even done anything, am I?

“I believe I told you not to pay him any mind,” Sae said. “This is an important year for you, and I do not need you to throw your life away by associating with a criminal.”

“...even if his crime was justified?” Makoto asked quietly.

“...what did you just say?” Sae asked coldly. “Justified? He broke the law, nothing more.”

“And he’s on probation to show that he’s not just a criminal!” Makoto said. “Isn’t that why the justice system does that? To show he can maintain good behavior?”

“Even if he can reform, people like him don’t usually have bright futures,” Sae said. “I don’t care how well his probation goes, you choosing to associate with him is far more likely to damage your reputation and, in turn, my own.”

Makoto choked back some words. She grabbed her arm underneath the table to try and steady herself. “...I want to help him with his studies. I want to make sure his probation goes well. Is there really something wrong with that?”

Sae clicked her tongue. “Your studies are more important. Don’t get wrapped up in some childish idealism, Makoto. The real world doesn’t treat that kindly.”

“But-”

“Don’t argue with me,” Sae said. She frowned. “Makoto, I am not trying to upset you. But you’re going to be an adult soon, so you need to realize how the world actually works. Looking out for yourself should be your top priority.”

Makoto remained quiet, letting go of her arm.

Sae huffed. “Let’s just eat dinner before it gets cold. Thank you for picking it up for me.”

“Anytime, Sis…” Makoto said quietly, standing to help Sae sort their food out.

~~~

Makoto woke in the middle of the night, finding herself in the Velvet Room once again. She blinked her eyes a few times before making her way over to the door.

“You’ve been quite busy this past week,” Igor said. “You’re already come to the moment of truth of your first Palace.”

“I’m still working out the details of the calling card, but I suppose you’re right,” Makoto said.

“It’s been quite a hassle trying to keep up with you,” Caroline said. “We had plans for assistance that had to be scrapped because it became irrelevant.”

“Oh… I’m sorry I wasted your time, then.”

“No need to apologize,” Justine said, giving a tiny smile. “It’s refreshing to see you so eager to reach your goal.”

“Do you mind if I ask what the assistance is?” Makoto asked.

“Not at all,” said Justine. “Only the part involving the castle has been excised.”

“It’s probably a pain for you having to wait until we drag you here, right?” Caroline asked. “So we’re setting up entrances for you to access on your own time!”

“Entrances? To the Velvet Room?”

“We were going to position one at the entrance to the castle, but that seems unnecessary now,” Justine explained. “However, the idea may come in handy in the future.”

“So expect to see us waiting in front of any and all future Palaces you visit!” Caroline said in a boastful voice.

“We’ve also set up one at a place known as Central Street,” Justine said.

“Th-thank you…” Makoto stuttered. “That’s… very considerate of you.”

“But of course,” Justine said. "We wish to see your rehabilitation through."

“You had better visit us often!” Caroline snapped.

Are they lonely? Makoto questioned in her head.

“I hope you’ll make use of this kindness,” Igor said. “We will speak again when you’ve passed this trial. May you continue to work towards your rehabilitation…”

Chapter Text

4/19 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren's Expulsion: 13
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

Makoto kept her head down as she walked towards the school. Someone is suspicious of me. Does Kamoshida think Ren-kun is trying to convince me to do something? He did confront me the same day Sis was called…

A limo pulled up beside her as she walked along the street, Okumura climbing out. “Niijima-san!”

If Sis is going to be suspicious of how I’m spending my time now, and Ren-kun is stuck on probation, should Ann handle the calling card?

“Niijima-san?”

No, but she has more a motive than anyone to target Kamoshida after what happened to-

“Niijima-san!” Okumura said again, finally grabbing Makoto’s attention.

“Huh? Oh, um, sorry. Good morning, Okumura-san.”

“Good morning,” Okumura replied, smiling sweetly. “You seemed lost in thought today.”

“Oh, yes, I… was just thinking about today’s Council meeting. Are you still free to come by and discuss your…”

“Plants.”

“Yes, your plants."

“Of course I am free,” Okumura said. “I’m so glad you remembered our promise!”

“Ah, well, I didn’t want to let you down,” Makoto said, forcing a smile. “I’ll see you after school, right?”

“Of course!” Okumura said. She then frowned. “Um… Where is the Student Council Room?”

Makoto managed a small giggle. “It’s next to the library on the third floor.”

“Right! See you then, Niijima-san!”

“See you, Okumura-san.”

~~~

4/19 - Tuesday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Alright, everyone,” Makoto said, placing some folders on her desk. “Shall we start the meeting?”

“Shouldn’t we take roll call?” Historian Kuro Honda asked.

“There’s only five of us,” Suzuki sighed. “That’s just a waste of time.”

“There is someone waiting to speak with us, after all,” Vice President Tadao Tanaka said.

“Yanagi-san, can you go get her?” Makoto asked.

“Mhm!” Treasurer Aoi Yanagi nodded, getting up and opening the Council Room door. “Okumura-senpai? We’re ready to talk to you.”

“Oh, thank you for taking time to speak with me today,” Okumura said, bowing as she entered.

Makoto nodded. “Okumura-san, if I remember correctly, you were given some plants to be in charge of caring for by some teachers?”

“That’s right,” Okumura nodded. “But the school grounds are rather limited in garden space. And I wouldn’t want to interfere with anything the school staff might have planned…”

Makoto nodded, opening some folders. “Well… the staff gave us no clear idea of their plans for the school grounds, but I do know the courtyard wouldn’t work out.”

“Perhaps the roof?” Tanaka suggested. “My uncle could sell some planters-”

“I imagine she already has planters if teachers gave her these plants,” Suzuki interrupted. “And is the roof really a good idea…?”

“Right, that incident…” Yanagi said, looking at the floor.

“Not to mention it being off limits…” Honda added.

“I think we can make an exception,” Makoto said. “If we only permit Okumura-san a few days each week to check on them, in any case. Not to mention the roof would have good sunlight and rainfall to assist with the plants’ growth.”

“But, Niijima-senpai,” Honda began to protest.

“She already explained her reasoning for it,” Suzuki said. “And hearing it, I have to agree that the roof would be the least bothersome to fellow students or staff. I second Niijima-san’s opinion.”

“Oh, a rooftop garden!” Okumura said, sounding entranced.

“I don’t think it’ll be allowed to grow that big,” Tanaka said. “But it certainly can’t hurt, especially if we add restrictions.”

“We’ll consult with the principal for formal permission,” Makoto said. “For now, I’ll allow you to put them up there. It’s going to rain tomorrow, after all, so even if permission is denied in the end, they’ll still get water and sunlight.”

“Thank you!” Okumura said in an incredibly sweet voice. “I’ll get to work on doing just that!”

“Do you have any other business, Okumura-san?” Suzuki asked.

“No, I’m okay,” Okumura said, bowing. “I’ll take my leave now. Thank you all again for your time!”

“Thank you for consulting with us,” Makoto said politely as Okumura left the room.

“While we’re on the subject of the roof, should we talk about-” Tanaka began.

“So, Niijima-san,” Suzuki interrupted with a snap of her fingers. “I actually heard some interesting news today.”

“Oh?” Makoto asked.

“Yeah, so, I told Honda-kun you weren’t available Saturday,” Suzuki said. “So he decided he’d just drop off some papers in the room, then, and-”

“I saw that Amamiya and, um, what’s her name, Takamaki? I saw them heading to the Student Council Room. I thought they were going to the library at first, until they followed you in. Then I thought I heard you shout before the door closed.”

Makoto hoped the brief jolt of panic that ran through her didn’t show. That was my mistake. Bringing people the school actively avoids and ostracizes up to the Student Council Room so often was too obvious...

“Oh, you’re having parties in here, Niijima-senpai?” Yanagi asked.

“N-no, I’m not,” Makoto said.

“Niijima-san, those two are delinquents!” Tanaka said in surprise. “Wh-why are they following you in here? They aren’t harassing you, are they?”

“That’s not it, either,” Makoto said, feeling her mouth dry slightly. “Um… I took it upon myself to tutor them. We’ve been using the Student Council Room since the rumors and whispers made it difficult for Amamiya-kun to focus in the library.”

“I… wow, that’s rather like you, Niijima-senpai,” Honda said. “But… is that an appropriate use of the Student Council Room?”

“Especially since Amamiya is going to be expelled?” Tanaka added uncertainly.

“Tentatively,” Makoto said. “It’s a decision that hasn’t been finalized and I doubt will go through. Even if it does, I believe he still deserves an education while he’s here. Besides, I can handle myself. If I notice I’m in danger, I’ll put a stop to it.”

“I think you’re great, Niijima-senpai,” Yanagi giggled. “Um, maybe I could be tutored, too?”

“If you feel you need it,” Makoto said carefully.

“Well, I guess it’s fine,” Suzuki said. “Niijima-san is the President, and has full right to using this room how she likes.”

“Well… if we’re sure,” Tanaka said. “Moving on, Suzui-san’s suicide attempt last Friday?”

“Right,” Makoto said. “I’ve already spoken with the principal on that subject. There’s going to be an assembly next Monday. Though I do think we should make more of an effort for students to know they can come speak with us if they feel upset.”

“I’ll spread the word!” Yanagi said.

“Thank you, Yanagi-san…” Makoto said, slightly unnerved at the first-year’s exuberance.

“Shouldn’t you worry more about the budget?” Suzuki asked. "Since you're the Treasurer?"

“Oh, right, Principal Kobayakawa gave me his proposed budget plan!” Yanagi said, taking a folder from Makoto and opening it. “He wants our input as students, though.”

“Most is going to the volleyball team again this year,” Tanaka remarked.

“...Disregard that,” Makoto said quietly.

“Niijima-san?” Tanaka asked, glancing at her.

“We’ll devise our own budget proposal completely unconcerned with his advice,” Makoto said. “After what happened to Suzui-san, in addition to the rumors, I don’t feel comfortable indulging Kamoshida-sensei’s ego.”

The rest of the council, except Yanagi, who had started taking notes, stared in surprise.

“N-Niijima-san?” Suzuki managed to ask.

“What is it?”

“Uh, we’re just not used to you having such strong opinions about a teach-” Tanaka began, before Yanagi interrupted.

“Okay, so how about we put in more money to the Cooking Club!” She happily held up her notes that she was taking. “See? With the added money, we could afford new cookware for the Home-Ec room!”

“...that sounds lovely,” Makoto smiled. “But perhaps we should examine the needs of every club and team first.”

"I agree," Honda said. "Though the new cookware sounds like it could benefit more than just Cooking Club..."

Suzuki and Tanaka shared a glance across the table at each other while Makoto, Yanagi, and Honda moved on in the discussion.

~~~

4/19 - Tuesday
After School
Tokyo Medical University Hospital

“Hey, Shiho…” Ann said softly, stepping into the girl’s hospital room.

Shiho continued to lie comatose, the various machines hooked up to her beeping softly.

Ann looked around awkwardly, before moving a chair closer to the head of the bed, sitting down and looking at her.

“How are you doing, Shiho?”

Beep, beep.

“Um, things don’t seem to be as easy as we first thought on our end,” Ann said. “We need to send a calling card or something? Makoto’s kind of nervous about that. And since Ren’s on probation, I don’t blame her.”

Beep, beep.

“...we’re still going to do it, though,” Ann said. “Makoto’s really smart, so I’m sure she’ll come up with something. He’ll pay for his crimes, Shiho. For what he drove you to do...” She turned to look at her, frowning. The sunlight peeking through the window seemed to illuminate her cheeks. She looked almost lively, even though she was still asleep.

Beep, beep.

Ann hesitated for a moment, before she leaned forward and gently kissed Shiho on the forehead. Immediately, she pulled back, face red. “Ah, I can’t believe I just did that! Sorry, I…” She shook her head. “I, um, thought doing something silly and weird would help wake you up!”

Beep, beep.

“...why am I coming up with excuses when you can’t even hear me?” Ann asked quietly. “God, I’m such an idiot…”

Beep, beep.

“Shiho, I…” Ann shook her head again, standing up. “I gotta go. I’ll come back with good news, okay? And when I do, I want you to promise me you’ll be awake to hear me. Please?”

Beep, beep.

Ann sighed, and gave a small smile. “See ya later, Shiho.” With her face still red from self-embarrassment, Ann ran out of the room.

Beep-beep, beep-beep.

Shiho’s finger twitched.

~~~

4/20 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Leblanc Cafe

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 12
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

Ren’s phone suddenly started ringing, causing Morgana to jolt in a panic.

“Gah!” Ren gasped, Morgana’s claws having briefly dug into his chest before the cat jumped off. “Mona…”

“Sorry,” Morgana said. “Who’s calling you so early, though?”

Ren blindly felt around for his phone, blinking the sleep from his eyes as he checked the caller ID. Makoto Niijima.

He sat up, clicking the answer button. “Hello?”

“Good morning, Ren-kun,” Makoto’s voice said. “Um, it’s me… Makoto.”

“I know. I have caller ID.”

“Right, of course,” Makoto said. “I… I hope it’s not too early, but I needed to discuss something with you and didn’t want to chance Kamoshida catching wind of us meeting at school.”

“Is he still on your case about that?”

“Not exactly, no,” Makoto answered. “But… at the Student Council meeting yesterday, Honda-kun… um, our Historian, he noticed that you and Ann followed me on Saturday to the Student Council Room. I managed to pass it off as just tutoring sessions, but…”

“Oh, yeah, I kind of get why you might be uneasy,” Ren said. “After Kamoshida spoke to you and all.”

“It wasn’t just that,” Makoto said. “He had the principal call my sister. It’s why I didn’t contact you at all yesterday.”

“Oh…” Ren said, frowning. “I thought you were just wrapped up in thinking about the calling card…”

“Ah, sorry, I don't mean to worry you so early,” Makoto said. “You have more important concerns right now, anyway.” She paused for a moment, and Ren could faintly hear her conversing with someone in the background. When she spoke again, she was speaking much more quietly. “...um, you and Ann are in the same class, right?”

“Yeah,” Ren said.

“Alright,” Makoto said. “Could you ask her to come meet us at the rooftop after school today? I’ll leave the door open for you.”

“Oh, sure,” Ren said. “Talk to you then?”

“Indeed,” Makoto said. “Have a good day, Ren-kun.”

“Same to you, Makoto,” Ren said. He heard Makoto hang up on the other end and set his phone down, yawning.

“That was Makoto? What did she want?”

“Just talking about some concerns,” Ren said, rubbing his eyes and standing up. “We’ll meet her on the roof today.”

“The roof?” Morgana questioned as Ren gathered his uniform. “But isn’t it going to rain today?”

Ren shrugged. “I don’t pay much attention to the weather. I’m sure it’ll be fine, though.”

~~~

4/20 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Okumura took a few breaths, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror. The love mark she didn’t ask for was still on her neck, but after adjusting her sweater’s collar enough, and experimenting with different positions for her head, she found that not looking up too much would keep it from showing.

Quietly wiping her eyes, she made her way out into the hall, heading towards her classroom.

“Oh, Okumura-san!” Suzuki called out, running up to her. “Good news, the principal approved of your new garden space.”

“Oh, really?” Okumura asked, feeling her mood lifting.

“Well, sort of? He just kind of brushed me off and said ‘fine, fine,’ but he didn’t say no.” Suzuki huffed. “Honestly, it kind of bugs me that he doesn’t seem to even know who I am. I’m a third year student! I’m pretty consistently behind Niijima-san in grades! Top five, typically!”

“Oh, I’m sure he was likely just busy,” Okumura said, an uncertain look on her face.

“Maybe?” Suzuki shrugged. “Anyway, you moved them up there yesterday, right?”

“Mhm. Right after I left the meeting.”

Suzuki nodded. “I don’t know much about plants, but it’s supposed to rain all the way into tomorrow, too. So maybe check that they won’t get too flooded with water. I remember trying to raise a plant once, and I think I ended up drowning it…”

“Oh, I’ll keep that in mind,” Okumura nodded. “Thank you!”

“No problem,” Suzuki said, a bit startled at the affectionate cheer shown towards her. “Um… have a good day, Okumura-san.”

“To you as well,” Okumura nodded, before walking off to class.

~~~

4/20 - Wednesday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Geez, it’s really coming down outside, huh?” Ann asked, staring out the window at the rain pounding against the glass. She glanced back at Ren, lowering her voice to a whisper. “You sure Makoto wants to meet on the roof in this?”

“There better be an overhang or umbrella or something,” Morgana said. “I don’t want to be drenched through the bag.”

“Let’s just get going, in case she’s waiting for us,” Ren said, standing up and walking out of the classroom.

Ann took a minute to gather her things as well, before running after him. Mishima weakly glanced up as she passed, but quickly returned his attention to staring at his desk.

Ann quickly made her way up to the third floor, looking around for a moment. Confirming there were no teachers to complain, she proceeded on up towards the roof. She stopped just before the door, staring. Ren and Makoto were barely visible outside through the window.

I shouldn’t keep them waiting… But… This is where Shiho went to… No, stop thinking about it! We’re talking about the calling card thing today! We’re going to make that bastard pay! Just… go outside.

Slapping her cheeks for motivation, Ann stepped forward, sliding out the door to stand beside Ren. “Geez, it’s pretty wet, huh?”

“At least there’s an awning,” Ren said, looking above them. “Or are awnings only fabric?”

“That’s not important right now,” Makoto said. “I’ve spent the last few days thinking over how to handle the calling card. Initially as I rode the train home, I considered making it myself. Unfortunately-”

“Thanks to Kamoshida and the principal talking to you and your sister, that’s not an option, right?” Ren asked.

“Wait, Kamoshida talked to your sister?” Ann asked.

“Not quite,” Makoto said. “I believe he told the principal separately after I didn’t give him the answers he wanted. Or given how obvious our Student Council Room meetings have been, it’s entirely possible the call was completely unrelated. Either way, my sister is keeping a closer eye on me.”

“Maybe I could do it, then?” Ann asked.

“You stand out too much, Lady Ann,” Morgana said, sticking his head out of Ren’s bag.

“Not to mention you have the strongest motive of our group,” Makoto said.

“Then it’s up to us, right?” Morgana asked.

“...I’m thinking it might fall to that,” Makoto said, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry to ask you to take a risk, but-”

“I can make it, no problem,” Ren said.

“You can?” Ann asked.

“There was a bunch of old newspapers and magazines in my room when I first moved in,” Ren said. “I could use that to make it without leaving evidence.”

“Oh, like in the movies!” Ann said. “Cutout stuff, right?”

Ren nodded.

“...that might work,” Makoto mumbled. “Ren-kun, would you be able to complete them tonight? And meet me at the station really early?”

“I could try, yeah…” Ren said.

“Planning a trade-off?” Morgana asked, sounding amused.

“I’ve been arriving extra early lately,” Makoto said. “And given my reputation, it goes without notice. The rain tomorrow will also help in obscuring who exactly is sticking the calling cards to the notice board. I could wear a raincoat or something over my uniform.”

“Oh, yeah, any student could reach the notice board, huh?” Ann said.

“You both stagger your arrivals to be later, and we should all have alibis,” Makoto said. “That way, if a mental shutdown does occur, we’ll be safe.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with that risk?” Morgana asked.

“Of course I am!” Ann said. “I hate Kamoshida for what he’s done!”

“I know,” Ren said. “But that’s not who Morgana’s asking.”

Makoto stepped forward slightly, staring out at the rain falling on the planters across from them. “...I appreciate your concern, Morgana, but I’m completely okay with this. For him to have done these acts of abuse in the first place is one thing, but to drive a girl to attempt suicide and just continue on as if everything was okay? To threaten someone’s future for standing up to him, and then try and keep him isolated? To-”

“Okay, calm down, Makoto,” Ren said. “We get it. We’re all for this risk.”

“Relax, team,” Morgana said. “Everything will go fine, I stake my humanity on it!”

“Well, I’m much more confident, now,” Makoto said in earnest.

“Can we go, now?” Ann asked. “The rain is getting to me.”

“Of course,” Makoto said.

“Rest up for tomorrow, because the calling card has a limited effect,” Morgana explained. “If no move is made in about a day after the target gets it, the panic will subside. He won’t think his desires can be stolen anymore.”

“Understood,” Makoto said. “Tomorrow it is. Rest up, everyone.”

Ren gave a small smile, and opened the door for the others.

At the sight of the door beginning to open, Okumura retreated from her position crouched near it and ran down the stairs. She fled into the girls’ bathroom, hiding in one of the stalls. She tried her hardest to steady her breathing as she gasped for breath. Mental shutdown? Tomorrow? Are… Are they going to attack Kamoshida-sensei? Are they going to…?

~~~

4/20 - Wednesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“I’m going to go to bed early tonight,” Makoto said, closing her textbook. “I got stuck in the rain earlier and don’t want to catch a cold.”

Sae looked up from her laptop. “That sounds like a good idea. Goodnight, then.”

“Goodnight,” Makoto replied, carrying her stuff down the hall. Taking a quick stop in the bathroom to brush her teeth, she soon made her way into her bedroom. Her phone buzzed just as she was pulling on her nightgown.

Ren: Finished.

Ann: Oh, wow, already?!

Ren: Uh, should apologize in advance…

Ren: I’ve been reading that book from the school library, The Great Thief.

Ren: It might have made me act a bit too theatrical.

Makoto: That should be fine.

Makoto: Theatrics fits your Metaverse attire, anyway.

Makoto: And you’re quiet enough at school. Few would connect the dots.

Ann: Yeah, even I have difficulty seeing you as theatrical.

Ann: Even if I was there for that whole ‘show me your true form’ thing.

Ann: That was still kind of hilarious. Queen let’s you take lead one time…

Makoto: Don’t tease him.

Makoto: Ren-kun, I for one thought that was cool.

Ren: Uh, thanks.

Ren: Is four copies enough?

Makoto: That should be plenty.

Makoto: See you tomorrow.

Ren: See you.

Ann: Goodluck, everyone!

Makoto sighed, closing the chat out and setting her phone down to finish pulling her nightgown on. This time tomorrow, if all goes well, Kamoshida’s Palace will be gone. Will this stress get any easier in the future? Can I keep living up to my promise to Morgana and Igor’s wishes?

She lay back on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Dad… what I want to do is just, right? Please… watch over me.

~~~

4/21 - Thursday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 11
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

Ann was met with a large crowd of students filling the entrance. She closed her umbrella and began shoving her way through the crowd. “Ah, hey, move! People are trying to get in!”

“What’s with this posting?”

“Someone’s going to rob Kamoshida-sensei?”

Ann’s eyes lit up at that, and she pulled her way to the front. There, on the board next to the school store, posted directly across from the entrance, was four red cards. Two of them displayed a small sketch of a red eye peering out of a gap between a billowing black scarf and a black and red top hat. The other two, which presumably showed the other side, displayed a rather flowery message.

Sir Suguru Kamoshida, the tyrannical sinner of lust. You’ve let your fifteen minutes of fame from your Olympic past go to your head and now see yourself a king, venting your rage and forcing your sexual advances on innocent students who can’t resist you. To liberate your victims, today we will steal away those twisted desires. From, The Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

Ann stifled a giggle. Wow, Ren, you weren’t kidding about it being dramatic.

She moved her way out of the crowd, to where Ren was standing by the stairs.

“That sure was a surprise to see first thing at school, huh?” Ren asked with a smirk.

“You’re such a dork!” Ann laughed. “But wow, you’re kinda a decent artist, huh?”

Ren shrugged. “I guess. I just hope Makoto doesn’t mind me borrowing more from Arsene than her or Johanna for the design.”

“She did say she liked your look better,” Morgana commented.

“That aside, it’s good to see people are being more open now,” Ren said, looking up at the crowd.

“Momentum has definitely swung against him,” Morgana said.

“‘Rage and sexual advances?’ Is that why the volleyball team is so bruised up?”

“Then, the rumors about Kamoshida-sensei are true?”

“Hey, that girl that tried to kill herself… Do you think he forced himself-?”

“What’s all this commotion about?” Kamoshida asked, looming over the crowd as he approached from the Practice Building.

“Ahh!” one of the girls near him gasped at his sudden approach.

“What’s this you’re all staring at?” Kamoshida asked, glancing to the notice board. His glare was noticeable, even from down the hall. “Who is responsible for this?!”

The crowd immediately scattered, retreating past Ren and Ann upstairs or down the halls as Kamoshida hurled accusations. He stopped, staring over at the two.

“Uh-oh.” Morgana quickly retreated into Ren’s bag.

“It’s probably you, right?” Kamoshida muttered as he stomped up to them. “...Amamiya, you little shit, you think you’re being clever? Think you’ll scare me off from expelling you?”

Ren had a noticeably nervous look as he stared up at the former Olympic athlete. “N-no… it was there when I first showed up today…”

“Hmph, is that right?” Kamoshida sneered. “How much you wanna bet you’ll tell the same story after a few punches?”

“You can’t!” Ann said.

“Get to class, Ann-chan,” Kamoshida said. “This doesn’t involve you.”

“But-” Ann began.

“Is something the matter?” Makoto asked, walking down the hall from her classroom. “Some of my classmates seemed in a panic, and I heard shouting…” She looked up in mock surprise. “Kamoshida-sensei? You seem upset about something. Is Amamiya-kun bothering you?”

“...Niijima-san,” he almost seemed to spit the words. “No, I’m not bothered by worthless scum like him.” He turned around to return to the practice building. He paused as he did, glancing back towards the three of them.

When he turned to glare at them, the three swore it was Shadow Kamoshida standing across from them instead.

Come, steal it if you can!

The moment was soon over, and the real Kamoshida said, “Beginning of May, and you’re out of here, Amamiya. Play all the games you like with your little crushes until then.” And with that, he stalked off back to the Practice Building, tearing down one of the calling cards as he passed.

Once the three were alone again, Ren let out a breath. “That was surprisingly terrifying.”

“I know what you mean,” Makoto said. “I was struggling to keep a straight face the whole time…”

“But this definitely shows we’ve had an effect on the Palace,” Morgana said. “You all sensed his Shadow’s rage, right?”

“It seemed like he challenged us,” Ann said. “Geez, that made me uncomfortable…”

“Well, we did challenge him first,” Morgana said. “We still have a school day to go through.”

“Take that time to steady your nerves,” Makoto said. “I have a sinking feeling our theft won’t be as smooth as our previous Palace excursions. And we’re going right in after school.”

The others nodded, Ren and Ann heading upstairs as Makoto returned to her classroom. From her position in the cafeteria, Okumura watched Makoto walk past. After school… If I talk to her, can I stop them from…? Her phone buzzed and she glanced down.

Sugimura: Your father wants us for a dinner with an investor today.

Sugimura: I’ll pick you up in the limo as soon as your school let’s out.

Okumura trembled, before letting out a sigh, responding with an affirmation and heading off to homeroom.

Chapter Text

4/21 - Thursday
After School
Kamoshida’s Palace

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 11
Steal Kamoshida’s Heart

As soon as they arrived, they could feel an immense pressure radiating from the Palace. The air itself seemed to be pulsing red as if in time with a heartbeat.

“Whoa, what is this?” Ann asked. “It’s like when he was glaring at us this morning, but worse…”

“This is what a fully alert Palace is like, isn’t it?” Makoto asked.

“That’s right,” Morgana said. “Kamoshida’s Shadow knows we’re coming for the Treasure, after all.”

“Let’s stop wasting time,” Ren said.

“Right,” Makoto nodded, glaring up at the castle. “Let’s destroy this twisted Palace already.” For the last time, Makoto led the other three on a charge inside the castle.

~~~

“Uh, the doors are open…!” Ann said nervously as they approached the deserted throne room.

Makoto slowed her run to a halt, glancing around at the balconies as they approached. “That is rather worrisome...”

“He’s probably concentrated his effort to try and keep us on the lower levels,” Morgana said. “Like I said, I don’t think Kamoshida ever expected us to manage to sneak all the way to the Treasure room.”

“Still, I doubt he’ll leave this place empty for long,” Ren said.

“Right, let’s hurry,” Makoto said, breaking into a run again, booking it past the throne and throwing open the backroom door. She paused for breath and to let the others catch up, before shoving open the doors to the Treasure room.

Floating where the shimmering fog once was was a glimmering crown, almost as large as Makoto herself.

“Is that it?” Ann asked.

“I think so,” Makoto said. “Let’s hurry, and-”

“TREASURE!” Morgana proclaimed at the top of his lungs, making a leaping hug onto it.

“Ow…” Makoto said, rubbing her ear, clearly stunned.

“Wasn’t he acting similar over that first treasure chest?” Ann asked in an exasperated tone.

“Mona!” Makoto snapped, storming forward and yanking Morgana off the crown.

“Ah!” Morgana said, getting a surprised look to his face. “Oh, um, s-sorry… I don’t know what came over me…”

“I told you not to act like that anymore,” Makoto scolded, setting Morgana down.

“Sorry, Queen…” Morgana said, looking up at her sadly.

“...please don’t look at me like that,” Makoto sighed.

“I guess I can’t blame him for getting excited,” Ren said, walking around the crown. “We’re finally here, after all.”

“After everyone he hurt, it ends today,” Ann said in a dangerous tone. It soon returned to her normal, light and easygoing tone. “So… how do we get this out of here?”

“We’ll have to carry it,” Makoto said.

“Seriously?” Ann asked.

“That’s just how it is,” Ren said, grabbing the back end. “Can you two handle the front?”

“I believe so,” Makoto said.

“Sure thing, Joker,” Ann said, grabbing it with Makoto.

“Mona, we’ll rely on you to navigate us safely out,” Makoto said.

“Roger!” Morgana said. He started leading the way back down the hall to the throne room. “Say, Queen? Thanks. For helping me steal this.”

“Of course,” Makoto said. “Thank you for giving us the chance to make Kamoshida pay for his crimes.”

“Aw, it wasn’t that big a deal,” Morgana said arrogantly. “But, you’re welcome.”

Rank up!

MAGICIAN CONFIDANT: RANK 2

As they reached the throne room, what sounded like a more vapid Ann’s voice began cheering. “Go-go, let’s go, Kamoshida!”

“Huh?” Ann stopped in confusion, when they saw Shadow Kamoshida leap up, delivering his famous serve. The volleyball slammed into the crown, the impact yanking it out of the group’s hands.

“Ah!” Makoto winced at the tugging sensation.

Shadow Kamoshida leaped over them, landing to stand behind them at the throne, Cognitive Ann clinging to him. The crown shrunk down to a manageable size and floated up into his hand.

“I thought I killed the creepy fake!” Ann said. "Why is it back?!"

“He’s obviously cognizant of you being alive,” Makoto said, not breaking eye contact with Shadow Kamoshida. “Hand over the crown, Kamoshida!”

“As if I’d take orders from a stuck-up bitch like you,” Shadow Kamoshida said. “I’m above you, and this crown is proof of that! It’s the core of this world that proves that I’m the king of this castle!”

“Someone’s sounding paranoid,” Ren commented.

“Were you just lying in wait for us?” Morgana asked.

“You outright said you’d be coming here,” Shadow Kamoshida said, an angry glare still on his face. “This just made it easier to find you. Now I can finally carry out your sentence and execute you trash.”

“That’s rich, coming from you!” Ann said. “You’re just perverted garbage! Sexually harassing students in secret, beating anyone you didn’t like… I am so sick of you!”

“Sick of me?” Shadow Kamoshida sneered. “Why? I wasn’t the one keeping it a secret. The adults that wanted to share in my accomplishments, the students who had the drive to become winners… They’re the ones that anointed me king. They let me get away with anything I wanted so they could share in the profits!”

“...he’s right,” Makoto said softly. “The way Principal Kobayakawa brushed me off… there’s no way he didn’t know what Kamoshida was doing. This whole time, I was…”

“That doesn’t matter now, Queen,” Ren said softly. “This asshole is only still here because the bastards protecting him deceived everyone. It’s not your fault.”

“...you’re right,” Makoto said, giving a brief smile, before returning to glare angrily at Kamoshida. “Just because there were some selfish adults who acted as your shield does not excuse your crimes.”

“You imbeciles just don’t understand,” Shadow Kamoshida said, shaking his head. “People like you and that stupid girl that tried to kill herself are the only ones acting like I’m in the wrong. But I’m the one that brought Shujin to such famous heights, aren’t I? I’m a hero, I’m your king. I’m always in the right!”

“Shut the hell up!” Ann said. She looked down. “Yeah… yeah, I’ll say it. Shiho was stupid for trying to kill herself. And I’m an imbecile for never realizing she was considering that… But to blame us when you’re the one that put us in that situation? You’re the one who’s in the wrong!”

“You’re no king,” Ren said. “Just a perverted demon wearing hideous human skin.”

“Let’s stop humoring him with this conversation,” Morgana said. “We outnumber him, so we’ll just take the Treasure!”

Shadow Kamoshida suddenly broke out into laughter, clutching both the crown and Cognitive Ann tighter, red and black flames seeming to envelop them as the room quaked. “Outnumber me? Didn’t you just say it?! I’m a demon! The demon that rules this world! No matter how many shitty brats come at me, I’ll always come out on top!”

“What’s happening?” Makoto asked, taking a step back.

They all watched in shock as Shadow Kamoshida’s body twisted around and grew. Two curled horns sprouted out of his head, framing the Treasure he now wore as a crown. Two more arms sprouted out of his now-pink flesh, grabbing a giant, golden fork and knife. He dropped Cognitive Ann into a large glass of wine to free his fourth hand for a riding crop. And finally, a large, blue tongue stuck out of his mouth as he flailed around, saliva splattering across the throne room, and the four enslaved creatures chained to his new throne.

“I can do whatever the hell I want!” Shadow Kamoshida laughed, his tongue writhing as he did.

“Ew, he’s so disgusting!” Ann said.

“Is this his heart’s true form?” Makoto asked. “What Kamoshida’s Shadow is really like?”

“We have no choice,” Morgana said. “We’ll have to subdue him!”

“Fine by me,” Ren said, adjusting his gloves. “Queen?”

Makoto glanced at Ren and nodded, before returning her attention to Shadow Kamoshida. “We’re finishing this, you perverted asshole!” She reached up, tearing off her mask. “Persona!” Silky rose up out of the blue flames enveloping her. “Bufu!”

The ice chunk hit Shadow Kamoshida in the chest, the shards raining harmlessly over the trophy placed between his legs. Moans could be heard echoing as it hit the girls’ legs jutting out of it.

“I should have expected they’d be ‘alive’,” Makoto said, a disgusted look on her face.

“Don’t underestimate me!” Shadow Kamoshida snapped in a surprisingly whiny voice, cracking his riding crop. The slaves suddenly served a salvo of volleyballs into Makoto, battering her head and stomach.

“Ngh…” Makoto stumbled.

“Queen?” Morgana asked.

“Don’t mind me, stay focused on the enemy!” Makoto snapped, steadying herself in time to see Ren get close enough to deliver a few dramatic blows with his knife.

“Off of me, you worthless scum!” Shadow Kamoshida said, countering Ren's knife with his own, slamming him with the flat of it to send him flying into one of the statues supporting the second floor balconies.

“Joker!” Makoto gasped.

Ren’s groan could be heard from across the room, as he gave a slightly dismissive wave.

“Agi!” Ann said, Carmen hitting Shadow Kamoshida with a burst of flames.

“Ahh… Ann-chan…!” Shadow Kamoshida turned to stare at her.

“...um, make him stop looking at me!”

“On it, Panther!” Morgana said, firing off a few shots from his slingshot, hitting near Shadow Kamoshida’s eyes.

Shadow Kamoshida barely reacted, instead making lewd groans.

Makoto’s eyes narrowed. “Panther, get to cover!” She pulled her gun as well, firing off six shots into Shadow Kamoshida’s torso.

Ann quickly looked back and forth for a moment, before nervously holding her arms in front of her face. Shadow Kamoshida’s tongue whipped out, slathering over Ann and knocking her back, sending her skidding across the floor.

“I got you,” Ren said, running over and catching her. “Are you okay?”

“I’m going to kill this bastard…” Ann groaned as she sat up.

Ren gave a slight smirk, before standing, stepping forward as he ripped his mask off. “Arsene! Dream Needle!” Arsene dramatically gestured, laughing as a short rain of needles fell, piercing Shadow Kamoshida’s tongue.

“Gah!” Shadow Kamoshida reeled back.

“Did that hurt, you son of a bitch?” Ann asked. “Carmen! Agi!” Once again she blasted Kamoshida with a burst of flames.

“That’s it, Panther, use that anger!” Morgana cheered, sending a Garu spell into Shadow Kamoshida as well.

Shadow Kamoshida let out a noise of anguish, before using the fork to stab one of the pairs of legs sticking out of his trophy. He then hungrily slurped up the disembodied legs, letting out a sigh. “Ahh… Come at me, you pieces of shit! I ain't lettin' you sleep tonight!”

“What the hell…?” Ren muttered.

“Is... this the kind of stuff he fantasizes about?” Ann asked, looking like she was going to throw up.

“...he healed himself,” Makoto said softly.

“Huh?” Ann looked over.

“Healed himself?” Ren questioned.

“The scorch marks Panther’s Agi spells were leaving on his cape and medals are still there,” Makoto said. “But the scorch marks on his skin aren’t.”

“That’s disgusting!” Ann said.

“And dangerous,” Morgana commented, barely dodging a barrage of volleyballs Shadow Kamoshida knocked his way.

“...destroy the trophy,” Makoto ordered, tearing her mask off. “Obariyon! Sukunda!” A small orange demon with a dark bowlcut sent a green, misty blob out of the blue flames enveloping Makoto, Shadow Kamoshida twitching as it burst on him.

“What was that?” Ann asked.

“Kamoshida should be a bit slower now, so you can get to the trophy,” Makoto said, glancing at Ren. “Well?”

Ren responded with a smirk, before running up, delivering a series of cuts to the trophy with his knife, before backflipping out of the way of Shadow Kamoshida’s knife as he attempted to stab down into him.

“No touching!” Shadow Kamoshida snapped. “This thing is worth more than your criminal trash life, got it?!”

“Ooh, he didn’t like that!” Morgana laughed. “Garu!” Zorro appeared to cast another wind spell, shaking the trophy.

“What the hell did I just say?!” Shadow Kamoshida snapped.

“Who cares what you said? Haah!” Ann ran up and cracked her whip against the unstable trophy, finally knocking it over and shattering it along the cracks Ren’s knife left in it.

“No!” Shadow Kamoshida cried out as the group surrounded him guns (or in Morgana’s case, slingshot) drawn. “That was from when I won the national... You think you can get away with this? Do you realize who I am?! I am Kamoshida!”

“And?” Makoto asked. “What makes you think that matters to us?”

“After sexually harassing the girls, and physically abusing all the students you could, your name is just dirt to us!” Ann said.

“Former Olympian or not, you’re just the scum of the earth,” Ren said, glaring intensely.

“You’re completely misunderstanding!” Shadow Kamoshida yelled. “I haven't sexually harassed anyone! They came on to me because they wanted to-!”

“Shove it!” Ann interrupted. “Let’s beat this pig!”

“All-Out Attack!” Makoto ordered, the group leaping back and forth quickly to cut into him. Once done, they landed across from him, still eyeing him warily. “Are you done yet?”

“Slaves!” Shadow Kamoshida snapped. “Bring out you-know-what!”

“You-know-what?” Makoto repeated as the four chained to Shadow Kamoshida’s throne were unhooked. They ran off, their chains still dragging behind them.

Shadow Kamoshida laughed. “Time for my killshot from when I was active and rockin' it!”

“Killshot?!” Ann gasped.

“...take cover,” Makoto said, her voice trembling slightly. “Now!”

The four of them scattered, crouching and trying to shield themselves as the four slaves returned, setting up a large volleyball. With remarkable agility, Shadow Kamoshida leapt into the air, spiking it down right at Ren.

Makoto’s eyes widened and she broke out of her guard. “Look out!”

“Queen?!” Ren gasped as Makoto shoved him out of the way.

The volleyball slammed into her directly, and gave off an enormous explosion, briefly knocking the other three aside and sending Makoto skidding across the floor, her shoulder spikes tearing the carpet and scratching up the tiles.

“Queen!” Ren ran over to her, briefly looking back towards Morgana and Ann. “Cover for us, okay?”

“Roger that, Joker!” Ann said, blasting Shadow Kamoshida with an Agi spell.

Ren dragged a groaning Makoto over to behind one of the statues. “Queen, you okay?”

“Yeah…” Makoto said weakly. “Kamoshida prefers physical beatdowns, and Obariyon resists that kind of thing.” She shook her head. “I’ll have to thank the twins for setting up an entrance on Central Street…”

“Twins?” Ren repeated.

“Huh?” Makoto blinked. “Um, disregard that.”

“...here, you sound like you still could use this,” Ren said, giving her some medicine. “Sorry, Arsene doesn’t know any healing spells.”

“That’s alright,” Makoto said, quickly gulping the pills down. “That aside, Joker… you’re rather acrobatic here in the Metaverse, so… can I ask you to get up to the balconies? Without him spotting you?”

“...what do you have in mind?”

“The very thing we came here for in the first place,” Makoto said, chancing a glance out from their cover. Ren looked too, staring up at the crown atop Shadow Kamoshida’s head.

“The Treasure…”

“He was a sniveling coward when confronted before, wasn’t he? But once he has his dirty hands on the core of his Palace, he gained this confidence to fight back, unsupported.”

“So, you want me to get it off his head, huh?”

“Please?”

“Gladly,” Ren smirked. “Go distract him, Queen.”

Makoto gave him a brief hug as she pulled herself up. “I owe you, Joker.”

“You saved my life again, so I think I’m further in debt, actually…” Ren laughed.

Makoto smiled, before tearing her mask off. “Johanna!” Speeding out on her motorcycle, she slammed Shadow Kamoshida with a burst of Nuclear magic.

“Bitch!” Kamoshida winced. “You didn’t get enough earlier, huh?”

“Not used to girls fighting back?” Makoto asked, eyes narrowed and gleaming red.

“You want more punishment, I’ll give it to ya!” Shadow Kamoshida laughed, cracking his riding crop again, and sending the slave creatures running for another giant volleyball.

“He’s hitting us with another one?” Morgana asked.

“Just remain calm,” Makoto said, switching her Persona back to Obariyon. “I’ll keep his focus, if you need to take cover.”

“Queen, don’t-” Ann began.

“I can take the hit just fine,” Makoto smiled. “So, get going already!”

“...thanks, Queen,” Morgana nodded. “Come, Panther!” He hopped up to grab Ann’s hand, tugging her along to cover behind a statue.

Makoto took a defensive fighting stance, standing directly in front of Shadow Kamoshida. "Give me your worst!"

He laughed as he leapt up, eyes focused directly at her as he delivered another spike.

Makoto waited a moment, before leaping back out of the way, the resulting explosion just grazing her.

“Think you’re so clever, huh?” Shadow Kamoshida asked.

“Yes, I do,” Makoto said, shooting her last six shots in his chest.

“Agi!” Ann said, running back out to stand beside Makoto.

“Garu!” Morgana said, leaping off Ann’s shoulder to stand on Makoto’s other side. The wind served to bolster the flames’ intensity, resulting in a large, fiery blast burning into Kamoshida’s face.

“Gah! Damn it! You three think- wait…” Shadow Kamoshida’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s the other one? Where’d that delinquent scum run off to?!”

Ren let out a whistle, and Shadow Kamoshida turned just in time to see Ren take a flying leap off the balcony, slamming his shoulder into the crown and knocking it down to the floor, where it quickly shrunk back to its normal size.

“NO!” Shadow Kamoshida screamed, grasping at air in the direction of his crown. "My... my precious..."

“We can end this right now!” Makoto said. “One more time!” And at her command, the four of them engaged in another All-Out Attack, Shadow Kamoshida continuing to scream in disbelief as he burned back down to his normal, albeit still distorted, appearance.

“...is it over?” Ann asked.

"Yeah," Morgana said. "He's finished."

“Ow…” Ren groaned, grabbing his shoulder.

“Joker?” Makoto asked, giving him a nervous glance.

“...I’m fine,” Ren said. “Just… my body still isn’t used to doing that sort of thing.”

“Here,” Morgana said, calling his Persona. “Media!” A soothing light shined off of Zorro’s sword, enveloping the four of them.

“Ah…” Makoto breathed out a relieved sigh. "Thank you, Mona." She turned, making her way towards the crown. “Now, all that’s left is to-”

“Mine!” Shadow Kamoshida said, frantically scrambling over to grab it. “It’s mine! This is what makes me a king!” The group watched as he frantically and nervously darted back and forth, slowly advancing to corner him at the window out of his throne room.

“Nowhere to run, is there?” Morgana asked.

“Hand over the Treasure,” Makoto said. “Put an end to this sad display already.”

“I deserve this…” Shadow Kamoshida said, staring out at the red sky. “I’ve done so much for these leeches, gave them all of my talents… I deserve some sort of reward, don’t I?!”

“And that reward is making people suffer?” Ren asked.

Shadow Kamoshida said nothing, continuing to tremble.

“...scary, isn’t it?” Ann asked coldly, stepping forward. “So high up, feeling so trapped… This is what Shiho felt. In the end, she felt jumping was the best option. How about you? What do you want to do?”

“Panther…” Makoto said slowly. “Careful.”

Ann removed her mask, Carmen appearing behind her, flames in hand.

“Do you want to die here?” Ann asked.

Shadow Kamoshida turned around, sweating and eyes wide in fear.

“It’s your call what happens to him,” Morgana said. “But still… consider it carefully.”

“P-please, forgive me…!” Shadow Kamoshida begged. “I… I don’t want to die! If I go down, my real self will-”

Ann stomped her foot to cut him off. “AGI!”

“Ann!” Makoto gasped, stepping forward futily as Carmen obeyed and sent the flames blasting forward.

Shadow Kamoshida squeezed his eyes shut as the flames slammed the walls on either side of the window he stood in front of. His eyes opened once he realized he wasn't just burned alive, and he dropped to his knees, whimpering.

“...you don’t want to die?” Ann asked, Carmen fading and the mask appearing on her face again. “Then give. Us. The Treasure.”

Shadow Kamoshida nodded, tossing it over. Makoto caught it, staring in surprise.

“Go,” Ann said. “Go and answer to what you put Shiho through. To what you put everyone through…” She trailed off, tears welling up in her eyes.

“...I will,” Shadow Kamoshida nodded. He looked up, tears dripping down his face. “But… who would listen to a loser like me?”

“Anyone would listen to an admission of your guilt,” Makoto said, regaining her composure. “Don’t bother trying to weasel out of this with those kinds of excuses. You said people already know, remember? So bring it to light in front of everyone.”

Shadow Kamoshida nodded again. “You’re right. I’ll go… I’ll make sure that I…” He trailed off, fading away in a burst of light.

Once he was gone, Makoto let out a nervous, shuddering sigh, gently lifting her mask up to rest it above her hairline and gingerly massaged the bridge of her nose. “That was too stressful.”

“But we have the Treasure now, right?” Ren asked, glancing at the crown in Makoto’s hand.

“It appears that way,” Makoto said, holding it up. “...Ann, are you alright?”

“If this ends up working, I will be,” Ann said, taking her mask off as well and wiping her eyes.

“Then, we should get going before-” Morgana began, getting cut off by the room shaking beneath them, parts of the ceiling falling around them.

“Wh-what’s happening?” Ann asked.

“...the Palace is collapsing,” Makoto said softly. “Of course, stealing the Treasure destroys it, so…”

“Deduce later, move now!” Ren said in a panic. He grabbed Morgana and led the way in their running out of the room.

“R-right!” Makoto said, tapping Ann’s arm to knock her out of her surprise, and get her running as well.

They stopped, bracing themselves against the stairway as the tower shifted beneath their feet. They moved with its tilt, soon standing partially on the wall.

“Oh god, are we about to die?!” Ann asked in a panic.

Ren didn’t seem able to say anything, until Makoto tapped his shoulder, having conjured Johanna. “Shoot out the glass and be my eyes.”

“Your eyes?” Ren repeated in confusion.

Makoto huffed, and yanked Ren on in front of her. “Ann, Mona, get on back!”

“R-right!” Ann said, quickly climbing on and wrapping her arms tightly around Makoto’s waist.

“You sure you know what you’re doing, Queen?” Morgana asked as he clung to Ann’s shoulder.

“I am,” Makoto said, revving Johanna’s engine as the tower tilted more. “Ren-kun, now!”

“G-got it,” Ren said, his face red from how closely Makoto was pressed against him. He drew his handgun, firing three shots to shatter the glass. The tower tilted further as it began to completely topple over, the roof of some of the castle’s lower levels getting closer. “...now!”

Makoto’s hands tensed up and she peeled out of the staircase, falling out the open window and making a skidding landing on the rooftop beneath them.

“Oh, god, we’re going to die!” Ann cried desperately as Makoto barely kept them from falling off the roof. “I’m so sorry, Shiho! I love you!”

“Ann, could you stop screaming in my ear?!” Makoto snapped.

“Left side!” Ren directed, Makoto speeding over, jumping to yet another lower roof.

“G-Go right!” Ann said when they landed, noticing a nearby window as Makoto skidded again.

Makoto obliged, Ren shooting the window out so they could drive inside the hallway not too far from library. Makoto winced in pain, a migraine starting to shoot through her, causing her to drop Johanna’s tangible form and crash into the wall in a daze. “Ah… I can’t…”

“On foot from here, then!” Ren said, giving a grunt of effort as he lifted Makoto up and took off with Ann down the hallway.

“Ah!” Ann gasped as the ceiling began dropping behind them. “Faster, faster!”

Ren gritted his teeth, struggling to keep up while keeping hold of Makoto.

Noticing him slowing, Makoto wriggled out of his grasp, falling to the floor and breaking into a run beside them. No longer burdened, Ren was able to catch up with Ann and the three kept even pace as they quickly navigated the crumbling halls. Soon, the window they used for their entrance was in sight as part of the ceiling ripped the door to the entrance hall down.

“Almost there!” Makoto said desperately.

Ren shakily drew his gun, firing two more shots to crack the glass, before squeezing his eyes shut and jumping out to shatter it, spinning in the air to land on his feet.

Ann and Makoto jumped down beside him, Morgana in his normal cat form scrambling to not fall from Ann’s shoulder as they left the courtyard, dodging bits of stone as they fled into the depths of the alleyway.

~~~

4/21 - Thursday
After School
Shujin Academy

“The destination has been deleted,” a voice from Makoto’s phone said as she steadied herself against the wall, gasping desperately for air.

“Ow…” Ann groaned, Ren catching her before she collapsed into a puddle.

“Ah, hey!” Morgana hissed as some rain drops hit his head, quickly ducking beneath Ren’s legs.

“Rain…?” Ann said, looking up.

Makoto straightened up, turning to look behind them. “...Shujin Academy.”

“We made it…” Ren said, letting out a relieved sigh.

“Ah, the Treasure!” Morgana gasped. “Where is it?!”

Makoto fished around in her pocket, before pulling out an Olympic medal.

“...is that it?” Ren asked.

“I thought it was a crown, though,” Ann frowned.

“...that’s merely his cognition of this,” Makoto said softly. “The thing that shot him to fame and made him feel like he deserved to get away with anything. An Olympic gold medal... his crowning achievement.”

Ren let out a laugh.

“Huh?” Makoto looked up.

Ann groaned. “Makoto, that pun was awful.”

“Pun?” Makoto repeated, a confused look on her face.

“It was accidental, huh?” Ren asked, holding a hand to his mouth to stifle his laughter. “S-sorry… that kind of makes it better...”

“...oh, wait,” Makoto said. “...crowning achievement, and he saw it as…” She gave a brief giggle. “I get it now. S-sorry, I’m just… really tired…”

“Same here,” Ann said, rubbing the back of her neck.

“I think we all are after that,” Ren said, taking his phone out. “...the Meta-Nav.”

“What about it?” Morgana asked.

“Kamoshida’s Palace isn’t listed anymore,” Ren said, turning his phone towards them.

“So it’s really gone now,” Makoto said. She looked at the gold medal in her hand. “And since we have this… his heart changed, right? He’ll confess and you won’t be expelled, right?”

“I hope so,” Ren said.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Morgana said. “Kamoshida’s Shadow sure sounded repentant at the end there." Drops falling off the sides of the buildings surrounding them started hitting him despite his attempt at cover and he shuddered. "All this aside, can we get out of the rain already?!”

“Right, of course,” Makoto said.

“Yeah, it’d really suck if we caught a cold in the end,” Ann said.

Ren leaned down to pick Morgana up in his bag, before straightening up again. “So… see you at school tomorrow?”

Ann giggled. “Guess so.” She glanced at Makoto, and felt her face heat up. “Uh… keep us posted, I guess? You kind of know more about faculty stuff than we do.”

“Will do,” Makoto said. “Get home safely, everyone.”

“Great work, team!” Morgana said, as they all set off for the station.

~~~

4/21 - Thursday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto was putting away the dishes, when she felt her phone buzzing in her pocket. She quickly slid it out to check, and saw she was receiving a phone call. Ann Takamaki.

“Hello?” Makoto said as she answered.

“Um, hey, Makoto,” Ann’s voice said, an awkward tone to it. “Uh, sorry, I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“No, not at all,” Makoto said, going to lay down on the couch while she talked. “It doesn’t seem like Sis will be eating dinners with me for the rest of the week. Which considering the state I was in after the Palace is a good thing. Helps avoid too many questions.” Though it made my paranoia over the calling card a little unnecessary in hindsight…

“That’s good, I guess,” Ann said. “Um… I wanted to, uh, talk about something. When we were leaving the Palace, and you were using Johanna to get us out of that tower and… I shouted something in your ear.”

“Did you…?” Makoto asked, closing her eyes for a moment. “Oh, right, you did. I’m sorry for snapping at you, but I was struggling to maintain Johanna at that point, and if I dropped it when we were speeding along the roof, we might have died.”

“Oh, no, I totally get that!” Ann said. “But I… geez, how can I put this? It’s about… what I said.”

“...I see,” Makoto said. “Um, Ann, I don’t mean to upset you since you’re already stressing over this, but I have no idea what you were shouting.”

“You- you don’t?” Ann asked.

“No,” Makoto said, sitting up. “Sorry, I don’t remember. Could you remind me, or-”

Ann cut Makoto’s question off with a laugh. “Oh, thank god! I was scared about how to explain it to you!”

“Explain…?” Makoto repeated.

“Never mind,” Ann said, an odd laughter still to her voice. “It’s fine, it’s fine. Uh, just don’t think about it, okay? Alright, see ya later!”

“Ah, wait, Ann!” Makoto said, but Ann already hung up. She pulled the phone away from her ear, staring down at it with a frown. “...what did she say that had her so upset…?” She sighed, putting her phone away, and pulling the gold medal out of her pocket. “More importantly, what do I do with this?”

She lay back, staring up at the ceiling. “Does it get easier after the first time? Because I feel like the stress of this is going to kill me.”

Chapter Text

4/22 - Friday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 10
Await the Change of Heart

Makoto was making her way up the steps, when Okumura nervously called her name.

“Niijima-san?”

“Hm?” Makoto stopped, glancing back over her shoulder. “Oh… Okumura-san, good morning.”

“Good morning,” Okumura said, looking at the ground as they walked inside. “Um… I wanted to ask you something about yesterday…”

“Yesterday?” Makoto frowned.

“Um, I… I don’t know how to ask this, but…”

“Oh, Niijima-san,” Kawakami, Ren's homeroom teacher, said, walking over to them from the school store. “Good timing. Since you’re the Student Council President, I was asked by the principal to pass some information on to you.”

“Oh?” Makoto asked, confused.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t know your name,” Kawakami said, frowning at Okumura. “Could you give us some space?”

“If it pertains to the students, she should have a right to hear it,” Makoto said.

“Eh, whatever, I’m sure rumors will spread anyway,” Kawakami sighed. “Kamoshida-sensei has called in saying he won’t be teaching class for the rest of the week. Study hall will be held instead of any of his lessons.”

“Kamoshida-sensei is absent?” Okumura asked, looking shocked.

“Did he sound alright over the phone?” Makoto asked.

“I don’t know, I didn’t take the call,” Kawakami said. “Why do you care? You get to study more. It’s probably just stress after that prank from yesterday, or maybe just a cold. He’s a normal man, after all.”

“...I suppose so,” Makoto said. “Thank you for passing this on to me, Kawakami-sensei.”

Kawakami nodded, before walking off, muttering something to herself.

“Well, I should get to class and… organize what I need to study today,” Makoto said. “Have a good day, Okumura-san.”

“Oh, um, you, too, Niijima-san,” Okumura said, frowning as Makoto rushed off to class.

She took her seat at the front of the room, carefully arranging her books so the few people already there wouldn’t see her slip her phone out and send a text.

Makoto: Good morning, everyone.

Makoto: I have just been informed that Kamoshida isn’t at school today.

Typing...

Ann: He isn’t?

Ren: Were you told a reason?

Makoto: Just that he called in for the rest of the week.

Ann: That’s not what we told him to do at all!

Ren: Do you think it’s a mental shutdown?

Makoto: I don’t know.

Makoto: I want to say it’s just he’s in pain over suddenly gaining a conscience.

Makoto: But it’s entirely possible we did make a mistake.

Ann: I’d prefer if he confessed so Shiho could have closure…

Ren: I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Ren: Morgana is, too.

Makoto: Either way, I think we should be cautious over the next few days.

Makoto: My sister is busy with work, but I’ve still been gaining attention at school.

Ann: Got it, lay low.

Ren: Your sister is busy?

Makoto: Um, yes?

Makoto: I don’t think that has any significance to our situation, though.

Ren: Right, yeah.

Ren: Never mind.

Ann: Well, let’s just text when we know more?

Makoto: Indeed. Just keep behaving as normal.

With the conversation over, Makoto put her phone away. Upstairs, as he sat down in homeroom, Ren did the same, Ann turning to look at him.

“What was with that question of yours?”

“About her sister?” Ren asked.

“Yeah, that was the only weird one,” Ann said.

“Well… last weekend, Makoto said she wanted to patch things up with her sister after missing her messages.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that,” Ann said.

“Well, she said she wanted to patch things up with her before-”

“Oh, yeah, it’s her birthday this weekend, right?” Morgana interrupted from Ren’s desk.

"Yeah, before that," Ren said.

“Wait, seriously?” Ann asked in surprise. “She didn’t mention it at all!”

“Yeah, she’s really not used to friends,” Ren said. “She only brought it up offhand to me.”

“...y’know, we used getting you a birthday gift as an excuse with the airsoft shop guy,” Ann said. “So, I think she does know friends give gifts. Maybe she was dropping a hint?”

“A hint?” Ren repeated.

“Look, she just told us her sister is going to be busy!” Ann said. “Treat her to a meal or bring her to… I don’t actually know what she likes to do for fun, but I’m sure you can think of something!”

“It couldn’t hurt,” Morgana said. “You’ve seen how stressed the girl can get. I’m sure a distraction like this would help.”

Ren looked down at his desk, frowning. “...Ann? You free after school today?”

“I guess?” Ann shrugged.

“Can you help me brainstorm something, then?” Ren asked. “Makoto gets flustered if people mistake us as a couple, so I want to make sure I don’t weird her out with a gift.”

“Got it!” Ann said.

“Geez, you’re considerate, aren’t you?” Morgana asked.

“It’s just common courtesy, it’s not a big deal,” Ren said, turning to look out the window.

Ann smiled. “You say that, but it doesn’t actually seem so common, huh?”

Ren glanced at the students in the room, listening to the various muttered conversations.

“So how long is it until Amamiya is out of here?”

“No idea. End of the month, hopefully?

“What was that calling card all about yesterday? The ‘Phantom Thieves of Hearts?’”

“That doesn’t even make sense. How can you steal a heart?

“I know it’s out of the way, but there’s a supermarket in Yongen-Jaya that sells a rather delicious assortment of fruit cups each spring! It’s incredibly revitalizing, and I highly recommend you look into it!”

“That does sound pretty good. I’ve never been to Yongen-Jaya before, though. It’s kind of out of the way, isn’t it?”

Ren blinked in surprise at the last exchange, but shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Yeah… I mostly agree."

~~~

4/22 - Friday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Yo, Ren,” Ryuji said as Ren approached the stairs.

“Ryuji,” Ren said, looking up.

Ryuji rubbed the back of his head. “...you headin’ upstairs? Going to see Niijima again?”

“No, I was actually going to be heading somewhere with Ann,” Ren said. He sighed. “Ryuji-”

“Hey, did you notice Kamoshida ain’t here today?” Ryuji asked. “Ever since that thing was posted yesterday?”

“...I noticed, yeah,” Ren said. He gave a wry smile. “Think that scared him or something?”

“Man, I don’t know what to think of it,” Ryuji said. “It was so… weird, y’know? Like, who talks like that?”

“...Maurice Leblanc?” Ren shrugged. "At least, in the translation I read."

“I don’t know who that is,” Ryuji said. “Still… whoever they are, glad someone seems to be doin’ somethin’, even if it’s just weird pranks.”

“It is nice, huh?” Ren said.

“...dude, I was ragging on you just now,” Ryuji sighed.

“You were?” Ren asked.

“The day Kamoshida threatened us, you just up and left the school,” Ryuji said. “And your precious Student Council President went and hung out with Kamoshida a few days back, to.”

“...hung out?” Ren repeated, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, she came walking back from the Practice Building,” Ryuji said. “On this floor. What else would she be doin’ over there?”

“There’s a lot of rooms in the Practice Building,” Ren said. “And I think she works out, too, so-”

“Come on, dude,” Ryuji said. “I get it, you know? She acts all smiles and friendly to you, and you need shit like that after your whole record thing…”

“She needs kindness, too, Ryuji,” Ren said. “She made a mistake with handling your situation, and she admits that. But she’s human, just like we are.”

“Then why was she with Kamoshida?”

“Maybe the same reason a lot of people see him?” Ren asked. “She could have been threatened to back off, or-”

“If he can just tell her to back off, then how’s she goin’ to do anything about him or our effin’ expulsions?” Ryuji asked.

Ren sighed. “Can we not talk about that? Ryuji, I don’t want to constantly argue when we see each other now.”

“And you think I do?”

“You’re the one that keeps starting them, so you tell me,” Ren said.

Ryuji scoffed, looking to the side.

“Hey, Ren!” Ann called, jogging up. “Were you waiting for me, or- oh. Sakamoto.”

“Takamaki,” Ryuji said, the two staring at each other.

Ren gave a slight cough, the tension starting to feel suffocating.

“Right, we should get going,” Ann said, smiling at him. “You know the way, right?”

“Yeah, just follow me,” Ren said. “See ya, Ryuji.”

“...see ya,” Ryuji replied, staring at Ann. “Hey, Takamaki-”

“Save it,” Ann said dismissively, before following Ren downstairs. I don’t want to hear anything from him after brushing me off as ‘Kamoshida’s girl’...

~~~

4/22 - Friday
After School
Leblanc Cafe

Sojiro sat on one of the stools, flipping through a newspaper, when the bell chimed. He glanced up. “Welc- oh, it’s you. You’re back early.”

“Hey,” Ren said, glancing around the empty cafe. “Uh, I brought a friend, if that’s-”

“A friend?” Sojiro repeated, almost skeptically.

“Hey, this place smells nice,” Ann said, walking inside behind Ren.

“A girl…” Sojiro blinked in surprise.

“Are you Ren’s guardian? I’m Ann Takamaki. We’re in the same class.”

“Uh, nice to meet you,” Sojiro said. “I’m Sojiro Sakura. You can call me Boss. Most of my customers do.”

“Boss, huh?” Ann laughed. “Okay.”

“Kid, why don’t you put the cat outside or upstairs for now,” Sojiro said. “No one’s around, so you two can sit down here.”

“Oh, thanks,” Ren said. “Where would you rather be, Morgana?”

“Outside, I think,” Morgana said, sticking his head out of the bag. “I need to stretch my legs after being stuck in a desk all day.”

“Outside?” Ren said, stepping out the door.

Sojiro stared after him, chuckling. “You ever wonder if some animals can really understand what you’re saying?”

“Oh, um, never really thought about it!” Ann said, sitting down in the booth closest to the door.

“So, Ann-chan,” Sojiro said, a serious tone to his voice. “I think the kid might have mentioned you before. Last week, at your school…”

“Oh, yeah,” Ann said, looking down. “Hey, sorry, but I don’t really want to talk about what happened to her, okay?”

“Of course, yeah,” Sojiro said. “I just… I sort of understand what it’s like when someone tries that, so if you need to talk, my cafe is open every day.”

Ann blinked, looking up. “Th-thank you…”

Before they could say anything else, Ren walked back in, spotting Ann and moving to sit across from her.

“I’ll make you both some coffee and get outta your hair,” Sojiro said.

“Oh, you don’t need to leave on our account!” Ann said. “We’re just brainstorming gift ideas.”

“Gift ideas?” Sojiro repeated as he got down a couple of cups.

“Tomorrow’s our friend’s birthday, and her sister is busy, so I wanted to do something with her,” Ren said.

“Another girl…?” Sojiro said softly.

“What was that?” Ann asked.

“Nothing,” Sojiro shook his head. “What kind of coffee do you want?”

“Oh, um…” Ann trailed off and leaned over towards Ren. “...what kind of coffee is good here?”

Sojiro laughed. “I’ll find you something you’ll like.”

Ren frowned slightly, before turning back towards Ann. “So… what do you think she’d like?”

“I dunno,” Ann said. “Did she ever say what she likes to do for fun?”

“...we’ve never really talked too casually, did we?” Ren said.

“You sure you’re friends with this girl?” Sojiro asked.

“She was the one that said we were,” Ren said.

“Well, it’s a safe choice, but maybe just try treating her to a meal,” Sojiro said.

“Like, a snack, or early dinner?” Ann asked. “That’s what I thought, too.”

“See?” Sojiro asked.

“Okay, dinner, then,” Ren sighed.

“So, what kind of food does she like?” Ann asked.

“...good question,” Ren said.

“You don’t know that either?” Sojiro sighed, bringing over the coffee.

“Thanks,” Ann smiled, taking a sip. “Uh, let’s see… to avoid misunderstandings, it should probably be somewhere that isn’t too crowded, right?”

Ren frowned, glancing around the empty cafe. “Um, Boss?”

“What’s up?” Sojiro asked.

“...mind if I bring her here?”

~~~

4/23 - Saturday
After School
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 9
Await the Change of Heart

“Here’s your book, Niijima-san,” the student librarian said, handing Makoto a copy of The Illusory Popess. “Enjoy it.”

“I will,” Makoto nodded. “I won’t keep it for too long, either.” She turned to leave, pausing briefly to look out over the library. The study booths are so crowded… If there were this many students here last week, would I have ever seen Ren and how the rumors affected him? Or would I- Her phone buzzed, prompting her to step out into the hallway, and take it out.

Ren: Hey.

Ren: If you aren’t too busy today, did you want to hang out?

Ren: Thought I’d treat you to some food for your birthday.

Makoto put a hand to her mouth in surprise, feeling her eyes tearing up slightly. A… birthday treat…? She quickly typed out a reply.

Makoto: That is so nice of you to offer.

Ren: Cool.

Ren: Meet you at the school entrance?

Makoto: I'll see you there!

Makoto fought to keep the smile off her face as she slid the book into her bag and rushed off downstairs. Standing outside by the alleyway, looking at his phone, was Ren. Makoto took a breath, before walking outside, heading over towards him.

“Oh, hey,” Ren said, looking up. “That was fast.”

“I didn’t want to keep you waiting,” Makoto said. I'm not coming off as desperate for arriving this fast, am I?

“That's fine. Gives us more time to relax." Ren gave a tiny smile. “So, is it today, or tomorrow?"

“Today,” Makoto answered.

“Happy birthday, then,” Ren said. “Are you in the mood for some curry?”

“Is this at that restaurant you invited me to last Saturday?” Makoto asked.

“Wow, good memory,” Morgana said from the bag.

“I’ve actually been thinking about curry for a while after that,” Makoto laughed, following Ren to the station. “You made it sound rather tasty, Morgana.”

“I sold it well, huh?” Morgana said in a boastful voice. “Hey, Ren, you should tell Boss to make me the cafe’s mascot!”

“I really don’t see him going for that,” Ren said.

~~~

4/23 - Saturday
After School
Leblanc Cafe

“Welcome,” Sojiro said, looking up from the customers he was tending to as Ren entered. He straightened up slightly as Makoto followed. “Ah, this your friend?”

“Yeah,” Ren said.

“Sojiro Sakura. Call me Boss.”

“Ah, nice to meet you, um… Boss,” she said awkwardly, trying to avoid looking at the customers. “My name is Makoto Niijima. I’m the Student Council President of Shujin Academy and your… ward’s friend.”

“No need to act so uptight,” Sojiro said.

“Yeah, missy, this is a more casual place,” an elderly customer said. “Oh, Boss, could I get another coffee?”

“Say, why don’t you bring her upstairs?” Sojiro asked. “I’ll bring up some food once things settle down.” He turned to the customer. “Coming right up.”

“Upstairs?” Makoto repeated, looking at Ren.

“Uh, sorry,” he said. “This way.”

He led her through the surprisingly crowded cafe and up to the attic.

Makoto looked around, noting the plant and bookshelf on one side, and a table and couch on another. She also gave an odd glance to the mattress in the corner, put quickly put it out of her mind.

“Uh, sorry, it’s kind of dusty…” Ren said.

“Only kind of?” Morgana asked.

“It’s not so bad,” Makoto said, sitting on the couch and taking a breath of the coffee scent. “It’s rather relaxing, actually…”

“Glad you think so,” Ren said.

“Certainly puts the mental shutdown thing out of mind, huh?” Morgana asked.

Makoto frowned. “...it did…”

“Morgana,” Ren sighed.

“Ah, sorry. Hey, don’t fret, I’m sure things are going fine!”

“Well… there hasn’t been any bad news yet,” Makoto said. “And I was told it would be the rest of the week he’d be out…”

“That’s the spirit!” Morgana said.

“...hey, could you, um, give us some time alone?” Ren asked.

“Huh?” Morgana looked surprised. “Uh, sure. Happy birthday, Queen. Guess I’ll see you later?”

“See you later, Morgana,” Makoto said, giving a small smile.

Morgana nodded, before carefully climbing out the window.

“...you aren’t stressing too much, are you?” Ren asked.

“No, I’d like to think I’m not,” Makoto said, closing her eyes and letting out a breath. “The gold medal is weighing heavily on me, though. I feel like it’s burning a hole in my pocket and the instant something goes wrong someone will find it.”

“I could hold onto it if you want,” Ren said, moving the table out in front of the couch, and dragging a chair over to sit across from her.

“I couldn’t do that to you,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “You’re already in enough trouble. Does Boss know of your impending expulsion?”

“He only finally started to like me, so I’d rather not give him a reason to yell,” Ren said, looking down at the table.

“Oh, I’m… I didn’t mean to-”

“Let’s… not discuss anything too rough today, okay?” Ren asked. “It’s your birthday, after all.”

Makoto nodded, just as footsteps sounded on the stairs.

“Here you are,” Sojiro said, setting down a tray containing two plates of curry, and two cups of coffee. “I don’t know what your taste is like, Niijima-san, so I made you a mocha.”

“Oh, that sounds good,” Makoto said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Sojiro said. He turned towards Ren. “Once she leaves, I expect you to do the dishes.”

“Got it,” Ren said.

Sojiro nodded, and headed back downstairs.

“...he’s not too strict with you, is he?” Makoto asked.

“He’s fine,” Ren said, taking a bite. “Try some.”

Makoto looked down, poking at it a little before taking a small bite. Her eyes instantly widened, and she quickly swallowed. “...that’s delicious.”

“Yeah,” Ren said. “I’m surprised it's not always crowded.”

Makoto took a small sip of her mocha. “The coffee goes surprisingly well with it, too.”

“Ann said the same yesterday,” Ren said.

“Oh, you brought her here?” Makoto asked.

“Yeah,” Ren said. “Sorry, it wasn’t as crowded then, so I thought we’d have more privacy.”

“That would have been nice,” Makoto said. “I feel like I made a fool out of myself in front of those customers earlier with that introduction.”

“I’m sure they forgot already,” Ren said.

“...maybe,” Makoto took a bite. “...thank you, Ren-kun. You didn’t have to do this for me.”

“It’s your birthday, and we’re friends,” Ren said. “...though, as much as we say that, when Ann and I were brainstorming gifts yesterday, I realized I don’t know much about you.”

“...that’s true for me, as well,” Makoto said. “All I know about you is your assault record.” She froze for a moment. “Um, and that you’re a really good person!”

“You say that a lot,” Ren laughed.

Makoto felt her mood lift at hearing the laughter and took a sip of coffee. “...Why don’t we get to know each other better?”

“Gladly,” Ren smiled. “It’s your birthday, so let’s make today all about you.”

Makoto giggled. “That almost sounded like a pickup line from a movie.”

Ren felt his face heat up a little, and quickly took a bite of curry to disguise it. “Let’s start with that. What kind of movies do you like?”

“Oh, um… all-all kinds. I’ve watched some romance, some drama, some fantasy, or action…”

“What’s your favorite kind?”

“...you’re going to laugh,” Makoto said.

“I swear I won’t.”

“Yakuza movies.”

“I’ve never watched those kinds myself,” Ren said, taking a sip of coffee.

Makoto blinked in surprise. “You didn’t laugh.”

“I said I wouldn’t,” Ren said, almost sounding indignant.

Makoto smiled. “Sis always said people would laugh or avoid me if I talked about that.”

“I’ve seen you fight, so it really doesn’t surprise me,” Ren said.

“I suppose I do get rather into our battles, yes,” Makoto admitted. She took another few bites of curry, before speaking again. “It was my dad that got me into yakuza movies.”

“Your dad?”

“Yes,” Makoto said, a distant smile on her face as she stared into her coffee cup. “He would love watching them to help unwind after work. ...of course, he was a police officer, so in hindsight, I’m not sure how that helped, but anyway… the first time was when I was six years old. It was stormy and I… found him when I walked out to be comforted.”

“He let you watch a yakuza movie with him?” Ren questioned, an amused smile on his face. “When you were six?”

“Mhm,” Makoto said, taking a sip of coffee, and looking towards the window. “Sis wasn’t happy about it, but I don’t think it ever affected me negatively. I… I feel like I have a more solid grasp of justice thanks to him. He taught me a lot.”

“...you keep speaking in a past tense,” Ren frowned, taking a sip.

“...he died before I was accepted into Shujin,” Makoto said after swallowing her more recent bite, setting her fork down.

“...I’m sorry,” Ren said. “I was the one who didn’t want to discuss this kind of thing today, either…”

“Oh, it’s fine,” Makoto said, smiling up at him. “It doesn’t bother me too much anymore. I do miss him, yes, but… I’ve moved on, I think.” She shook her head, picking her fork up again and taking another bite. “Um… other hobbies of mine include reading. And, well, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with motorcycles. My Sis used to have one, but we had to sell it and the family car a while ago. ...I’m a really boring person, aren’t I?”

“I don’t think so,” Ren said. “I mean… I enjoy spending time with you. But that might just be because you don’t hate me…”

“That won’t do,” Makoto frowned. “I’m sure we have something in common.”

“Well, I do like reading, too,” Ren said. “And… I guess I can maybe try and get you into some of my other hobbies? Ann could do the same with hers.”

“...that sounds nice,” Makoto smiled. “Something to help broaden my horizons could really go a long way for me. Sis had me so focused on studies that I… kind of forgot there’s other things to do.”

Ren briefly frowned as Makoto finished her meal. Once she was done, he stood up. “There’s some batting cages near here. Want to work off dinner?”

“Batting cages?” Makoto questioned. “Don’t you have to do the dishes, though?”

“Only once you leave."

Makoto finished the last of her coffee and smiled. “In that case, I’d love to.”

Ren smiled back. “Follow me, then.”

Makoto giggled, and followed Ren downstairs and out to the backstreets. Even if she only managed to hit the ball once, it was one of the more enjoyable birthdays she’s had in the last few years.

Rank up!

FOOL CONFIDANT: RANK 2

~~~

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

“So despite my requests to stay away, you not only continued to contact this criminal, but you spent your birthday with him as well,” Sae said.

“It’s not as if I did it to spite you,” Makoto said.

“Really?” Sae scowled. “How else am I supposed to take your lying and disobeying me?”

“I was doing what was right!” Makoto said. "Ostracizing him would have been-"

“Enough!” Sae snapped. “Just… move on. Talk about the 25th.”

“The 25th?” Makoto repeated, her face dropping. “But… Sunday was… our time together.”

“And I was obviously there for that, so I don’t need it repeated to me,” Sae said, checking her watch. “Besides… I’m more interested to hear how you reacted to the school assembly.”

Makoto frowned, looking down. But… I liked that memory… I liked our time together.

Sae closed her eyes, trying to keep composure. The entire day we spent together… was she even thinking about me? Or just about that criminal and the Phantom Thieves? Just how much of my sister's time with me was she lying?

Chapter Text

4/25 - Monday
Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Ren’s Expulsion: 7
Await the Change of Heart

Makoto and the rest of Shujin’s Student Council stood on the upper walkways of the gymnasium, the rest of the student body standing below while Principal Kobayakawa took the stage, clearing his throat.

“Let’s begin this school-wide morning assembly,” Kobayakawa said. He briefly glanced up to where Makoto was watching, before turning his attention back towards the main crowd. “As you all may remember, about ten days ago a tragic event took place on school grounds…”

“Did he seem mad to you?” Tanaka asked.

“Maybe he’s just emotional?” Yanagi shrugged.

“Shh,” Honda hushed.

“Thankfully, her doctors have informed us that they’re optimistic that she’ll make a full recovery,” Kobayakawa continued. “But this brings me to the purpose of this assembly. All of you have bright futures…”

Makoto briefly narrowed her eyes at the principal’s blatantly rehearsed remarks, before turning to scan over the crowd. Spotting Ann was easy enough, her large, blonde twintails sticking out in a sea of black and brown. Ryuji was loitering not too far back.

Standing in the assembly, not loitering, Makoto mentally corrected herself, before continuing to scan for recognizable people.

“You need to think more carefully about your decisions-”

Both the principal’s words and Makoto’s search were cut off at the sound of the doors being shoved open.

“What’s going on?” Suzuki asked as everyone below turned in surprise.

“Kamoshida-sensei?!” Kobayakawa gasped. “What are you- are you alright?”

“I am…” Kamoshida’s voice said, the man himself walking into view as he headed up towards the stage. “I’ve been reborn… That’s why I need to confess to you all...”

“Is this…?” Makoto couldn’t help but say, leaning forward.

“Ah, careful, Niijima-senpai!” Honda said nervously.

“I have repeatedly performed acts… unbecoming of a teacher…” Kamoshida said, his voice carrying across the gym, but still somehow sounding weak. “I verbally attacked students… Physically attacked my team, and…” His voice caught in his throat, and Makoto thought she saw tears on his face. “...and I sexually harassed the female students.”

“Did he just say…?”

“That explains why everyone was so scared of him…”

Kamoshida dropped to his knees, briefly silencing the crowd’s mutterings. “I… The girl that attempted suicide… Shiho Suzui… I drove her to that with my harassment. No… I sexually assaulted her.”

“Sexual assault?!”

“He… raped a student?”

“I’ve never hated someone more than I do right now…”

“Kamoshida, get off the stage!” Kobayakawa hissed, a mixture of anger and fear on his face.

“I used Suzui-san as leverage to try and force Ann Takamaki into sleeping with me!” Kamoshida continued. “When Takamaki-san refused, that’s when I… when I…” He trailed off, falling further forward and sobbing.

“A teacher did that something like that?”

“He’s the worst!”

“I feel so bad for Takamaki-san now…”

“I thought of this school like my own castle…” Kamoshida said, managing to look up. “I thought I could do anything I wanted. I even tried to get some students expelled just because I didn’t like them… Because they actually stood up to me! I… take back my request for that… I wish I could… take everything back.”

“He feels remorse now?”

“What a disgusting person.”

“Hey… do you think that calling card had anything to do with this?”

“I am nothing but an arrogant, perverted, shallow man…” Kamoshida continued. “No… I can’t even say I’m that much. I… The only thing I can think of to make it up to everyone is… to kill myself.”

“Kill himself?!” Tanaka gasped.

“Kamoshida, let’s go and rest, you’re clearly still… ill,” Kobayakawa said, desperation in his voice.

“Everyone, p-please return to your classes!” a teacher could be heard shouting desperately over the crowd’s murmurings. The person who shouted next was far louder, though.

“Don’t run away, you bastard!”

Everyone stopped talking and turned towards Ann, who had forced her way forward, glaring at Kamoshida.

“Shiho… Shiho’s still holding on, despite everything you put on her, everything that made her want to die…” Ann muttered. “For you to try and take the coward’s way out is insulting! You don’t deserve that right!”

“...you’re right, Takamaki-san…” Kamoshida nodded, dragging himself up. “I… I deserve to suffer. I deserve to be punished by the law. I hereby resign as your instructor and seek only to turn myself in. Someone! Anyone! Please, call the police!”

“The police…?”

“The-the assembly is over!” Kobayakawa said anxiously.

“Please, re-return to your classes for now!” another teacher said desperately.

“Niijima-san?” Tanaka asked, noticing how still Makoto had been as she stared at the scene down below.

“...you heard what they said,” Makoto said, finally pulling herself back from the railing. “I… I’m going to go down there and try and get a better grasp on this situation.”

“Niijima-san, are you sure?” Suzuki asked. “Should I come with you, or-”

“I’m certain,” Makoto nodded, before running off. “Council meeting on Thursday!”

Suzuki stared after her for a moment, before turning her attention back to the crowd below. “...a teacher really did all that?”

“Liberating us…” Tanaka said. “That’s what the calling card said, right?”

“That’s… that’s a coincidence,” Honda said. “Anyway, Niijima-senpai and the teachers told us to get to class, so…”

“Mhm,” Yanagi nodded, frowning. “...is it really a coincidence, though?”

~~~

Makoto reached the gymnasium in time to see Kamoshida be led past her in handcuffs by a pair of police officers. She stared at him, but he gave no reaction to her.

Of course… In the real world, the only issue he had with me personally was Ren-kun and I talking to each other… She shook her head, making her way into the gymnasium, her eyes searching the thinning crowd, until she saw Ren, leaning against the wall.

She smiled, and started to approach him when she noticed Ryuji reach him first.

“So… that was something,” Ryuji said.

“Yeah…” Ren nodded.

“...that callin’ card thing was for real, huh?” Ryuji asked.

“Looks that way,” Ren shrugged. He paused in thought. “...bet your mom will be happy you get to stay at Shujin.”

“...I never told her I was goin’ to be expelled,” Ryuji said. He frowned, and shook his head. “...but y-yeah, thanks. Bet you’re relieved you don’t gotta deal with that whole probation arrest thing.”

“Very,” Ren said.

“Hey, um… I guess I should’ve known Takamaki wasn’t willingly with that creep, but…” Ryuji awkwardly kicked at the floor. “I dunno… I just…”

“I get it,” Ren said. “You kind of just… act on impulse.”

“You can just say I’m a jackass, y’know,” Ryuji said, giving a wry smile.

“I was trying to be nice,” Ren said, giving a smirk.

Makoto hesitated, before turning and starting to leave the gym. Standing by the door was Ann, brushing off some girls that were apologizing to her.

“It’s okay, I forgive you,” Ann said awkwardly. “Um, hey, I gotta go, okay?”

“Right, of course,” one of the girls said.

“Have a nice day, Takamaki-san!” the other said, before they left.

Ann let out a relieved sigh, before looking up. “Hey, Makoto. ...we really did it, huh? This really happened.”

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” Makoto said. “I… don’t really know how to feel about all of this…”

“I know how I feel,” Ann said. “I’m… happy. He’s actually feeling regret. Regret he’ll have to live with as he rots in a cell. His acts will haunt him forever.”

“...yes,” Makoto smiled. “That is rather comforting. I’m… I’m glad we were able to help bring him to justice.”

Ann smiled. “Um… hey, I know you might not approve, being an honor student and all, but… I don’t think I’ll be able to handle the rest of school today. I… I need to tell Shiho, y’know?”

“...I understand,” Makoto nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure we have a study session to help you catch up at some point.”

“Thanks, Makoto,” Ann said. She looked over to where Ren and Ryuji were still talking. “When Ren's done with Sakamoto, can you let him know where I went?”

“Sure,” Makoto nodded. “Spend as much time with Suzui-san as you need.”

“I plan on doing just that,” Ann nodded, giving a brief wave before running out of the gym.

Makoto leaned against the wall, waiting for Ren to finish up to pass on the message.

~~~

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

Makoto stopped talking, taking a few breaths of air, before looking up at her sister.

“Happy to have helped bring him to justice, huh?” Sae said, giving a short, harsh laugh. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any other reaction from you. You're childish enough to believe that.”

“...do you believe me, though?” Makoto asked quietly.

“...it does match up with the nature of his arrest,” Sae conceded. “On the afternoon of April 21st, Suguru Kamoshida announced to the faculty of Shujin Academy that he would take a leave of absence for the rest of the week. Witnesses described him as looking pale. On the 25th, the day of the previously announced assembly, he did indeed burst in and announce his crimes to the entire student body. He brought his crimes to light like you instructed his ‘Shadow’, and the students were ‘liberated’, to borrow the wording of the calling card.”

“Sis-”

“Don’t.”

“Prosecutor Niijima, please,” Makoto begged, her voice pained. “Look at me. If you’re going to interrogate me, if you’re going to determine if I’m lying or not, then please. Look at me.”

Sae trembled for a moment, before finally turning, locking eyes with her sister. “...I suppose I’d have less doubt that way…”

“...thank you,” Makoto said, a small smile flickering on her face.

“The next major confession attributed to your group wasn’t until the start of June,” Sae said, briefly consulting her notes, before returning her attention to Makoto. “I understand you wishing justice for your friends and classmates, but you have no connection to this person.”

“Is it wrong to still seek justice?” Makoto asked. “You don’t know any of the victims that you prosecute the criminals of.”

“It’s my job to prosecute people,” Sae said, shaking her head. “I want you to explain what kept you from acting for so long. Were you having second thoughts again about continuing with this? Or was it something else?”

“...major confession,” Makoto said, shaking her head to try and steady her swaying vision. “That’s what you said, right? That wasn't all we did...”

“Were the rumored minor incidents online your doing as well?” Sae asked. She looked down in thought for a moment. “...please, tell me. They aren’t included in your charges, so if you volunteer the information, I… I’ll try and see if I can lighten your sentence for your cooperation.”

Makoto looked up. Sis is a lot kinder now that she’s looking at me again… Maybe I can… Maybe I can reach her…?

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Judgement Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

JUDGEMENT CONFIDANT: RANK 1

~~~

4/25 - Monday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Okumura-san, could you help us clean up?”

“Oh, I’d love to,” Okumura said, smiling. “What should I do?”

“Just bring the trash can out to be emptied, thanks.”

Okumura nodded, picking it up and heading out into the hall. The whispers and rumors that the morning assembly started were still in full swing.

“Kamoshida sure was a sick bastard, huh?”

“I’m so glad he’s gone now…”

“Can you really steal a heart? Isn’t that what that calling card said?”

“Phantom Thieves of Hearts, yeah… I wonder if that was what really happened?”

The Phantom Thieves of Hearts… Okumura thought as she made her way to the trash chute. That has to be Niijima-san and those other two. So I misunderstood and they weren’t going to make him have a mental shutdown…

She disposed of the waste basket and made her way back to her classroom. If they can change people’s hearts like that, maybe they can help- “Oh!” Okumura almost fell off balance as someone walked out of the stairwell. Before she could fall, the person she almost bumped into caught her.

“Sorry…” Ren said.

“O-oh, um, that’s quite alright…” Okumura said, staring up at Ren in surprise. He was with Niijima-san. He's… one of the Phantom Thieves?

“I’ll get out of your way,” Ren said, frowning at the look Okumura was giving him.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to stare…” Okumura mumbled, quickly darting down the hall.

Ren stared after her, Morgana sticking his head out of his bag.

“What was her deal?”

“Stay in the bag when I’m in school,” Ren whispered, continuing on to head outside.

Makoto stood at the entrance, checking her phone, when Ren approached. She looked up. “Ren-kun.”

“You weren’t waiting for long, were you?”

“Not at all,” Makoto shook her head. "Ann is still at the hospital, so it looks like we'll have to spend our time this afternoon ourselves."

“Let’s go to Shibuya, then,” Ren smiled. “See if we can find some of my interests there to get you into.”

“Let’s,” Makoto smiled back.

~~~

4/25 - Monday
After School
Tokyo Medical University Hospital

“Hey, Shiho,” Ann said, sitting down by the head of Shiho’s bed again, the sounds of the machines monitoring her still going. “Uh, sorry again about how I left you last time…”

Beep, beep.

“Uh, I have great news though!” Ann said in an excited whisper. “We did it! Last week we managed to steal his heart, and today he confessed and was arrested!”

Beep-beep, beep-beep.

“I… I got him for you, Shiho,” Ann said. “I really didn’t want to spare him, but the thought of making him suffer for the rest of his life for what he did was too good to pass up…” Ann shook her head. “Makoto agreed, by the way. She’s not nearly as uptight as you’d think from seeing her in the library.”

Beep-beep, beep-beep.

“...hey, Shiho?” Ann asked. “Remember our promise? How I said I’d come back with good news, you’d be awake to hear it? So… I fulfilled my end.”

Beep-beep, beep-beep.

“...Ann…?”

Ann froze, looking down. “Sh-Shiho…?” Tears formed in her eyes, as Shiho managed to give a weak smile, her voice faint and raspy.

“Why are you crying, Ann…? Didn’t you say you had good news…?”

“Shiho…!” Ann openly started crying as she hugged the other girl. “Thank god you woke up! I’m… I’m so happy…! And I’m so sorry for-”

“A-Ann… you’re hurting me…” Shiho mumbled.

“Sorry, sorry!” Ann said, sitting back. “Wait, you need to be checked on, right? Doctor?! Nurse?!”

Shiho gave a weak attempt at a giggle as Ann frantically ran out to get the medical staff.

~~~

4/25 - Monday
After School
Central Street

“There’s a lot of shops here, huh?” Morgana asked.

“Mhm,” Makoto nodded. “The airsoft shop is down the alleyway if you’re ever interested in going yourself. But at the same time…”

“I don’t want an even worse reputation at school, yeah,” Ren said.

“There’s karaoke,” Makoto commented. “Though… I’ve actually been before…”

“We are allowed to go to places you’ve been before,” Ren said.

“I… I just feel uncomfortable singing in front of people,” Makoto blushed.

“Everyone finds their own voice weird, I’m sure,” Morgana said. “I find mine to be too feminine.”

“I like your voice, though,” Makoto said.

“That’s my point,” Morgana said. “Others will like your voice, I’m sure.”

“You both just want to see me sing something, don’t you?” Makoto sighed.

“We don’t have to,” Ren said.

“What other hobbies do you have?” Makoto asked. "Anything here strike your interest?"

“Uh… bookstore, but we both read already,” Ren said, frowning. “...movie theater? But we both already watch movies.”

“Sis brought me there yesterday, anyway,” Makoto said.

“Oh… how was it?”

“It was fun,” Makoto smiled. “The movie was rather silly, but it’s rare I can spend time with her.”

“Glad to hear it,” Morgana said. “So not a bad birthday weekend, huh? Once I regain my memories, I expect you all to start celebrating my birthday, too.”

“Of course,” Ren said.

“Oh, an arcade!” Makoto said stopping in front of the Gigolo Arcade, the lights catching her eye. “I’ve never been to one of these before.”

“I don’t usually see them either,” Ren said. “My hometown doesn’t have any.”

“You mentioned your school was small, too,” Makoto said. “You’re from a small country town, right?”

“Yeah,” Ren nodded. “Doesn’t even have a train station. Does have three bars and some hot springs, though.”

“The timetables here must be very confusing for you,” Makoto said. “Um! Not to suggest you aren’t smart enough to-”

“Relax,” Ren sighed. “They were a bit of a mess to figure out my first few days. Crowds are kind of stressful, too.”

“You’re telling me,” Morgana said. “The countryside sounds so much more relaxing.”

“I’ve only ever been out of Tokyo once,” Makoto said. “During last year’s school trip, actually. When your probation ends, you’ll end up going back there, right? Would you mind if I visited? Or would that be too presumptuous?”

“I’d love it if you visited,” Ren smiled. “It would give me something to do.”

“Bring Lady Ann, too!” Morgana said. “I want to see her in the hot spring!”

“I don’t think cats are allowed,” Ren said. “So, Makoto, want to give the arcade a try?”

“...I might watch,” Makoto said. “I’m not one for video games, really.”

Ren shrugged. “Morgana, you want to stay outside? It can get loud in there.”

“Yeah, I don’t really want to deal with loud noises and flashing lights,” Morgana said, climbing out of Ren’s bag. “Have fun.”

Ren nodded, and led Makoto inside.

She winced at the sudden wave of music and chatter, taking a moment to scan the various games set up, and the people playing them. “There’s more girls in here than I was expecting.”

“See, it’s not weird for you to have hobbies like this,” Ren said.

Makoto nodded as she continued to look around. “Oh… a motorcycle racing game.”

“Want to try that?”

“Hm… no, I don’t think anything will compare to Johanna,” Makoto frowned.

“True,” Ren said. He glanced at the game they were standing near, a group having just finished playing it. “Gun About…”

“It looks rather new,” Makoto said, examining the machine. “And those gun controllers look rather detailed…”

“You shoot from the hip, so how about it? Might help with your aim.”

“...I appreciate you thinking of excuses for me,” Makoto said. “Okay. I’ll play.”

Ren paid for a couple of credits, and helped Makoto set it up. She seemed to weigh the controller in her hand a bit before pointing it at the screen.

“So, do I need to shoot the enemies that show up, or…? Oh! It’s starting. Ah! They’re already shooting at me! Ah, stay calm, stay calm, just- oh! I hit it, Ren-kun!”

“Nice shot,” Ren said awkwardly, feeling eyes of some of the other arcade-goers staring at them as Makoto narrated her game.

“No! Ah, how do I reload?! Oh, there we… ah! I missed! No, no, I’m dying, aren’t I? I… oh, wait, I think I… yes! I did it, Ren-kun!”

“Great job,” Ren smiled as Makoto set the controller back into its holster.

Makoto giggled. “Thanks. That was really fun… We should play together next time!”

“Maybe,” Ren said. “You were pretty into it, though. Doubt I could beat you.”

“You don’t need to flatter me, I’m still a far way off from being skilled with it,” Makoto said. “Anyway… there seems to be a bit of a crowd, now, so we should get going.”

“Yeah…” Ren said, tugging at his hair as Makoto obliviously made her way out. I won’t tell her they gathered to see who was yelling so much…

“Oh, you’re done already?” Morgana asked from where he sat by a bar’s entrance.

"Yeah, it got... surprisingly crowded," Ren explained, glancing at Makoto.

“It’s definitely a popular hangout for people around our age,” Makoto said. “I imagine many students wanted to unwind after school here. Still, it was fun. Do you own any games, Ren-kun? Maybe we could play in private some-” I just asked for an invite to his house… “Ah, uh, never mind. I don’t wish to impose…”

“If I ever get my hands on some, I’ll let you know,” Ren said. “All my video games are back in my hometown.”

“Perhaps we could talk about it next time,” Makoto said, checking the time. “For now, though, Sis will likely want me home to tell her the news of Kamoshida's arrest before the actual news does.”

“Okay,” Ren nodded. “See ya, Makoto.”

“See you later,” Makoto nodded. “And… thank you again for today.”

“Anytime,” Ren said as Makoto headed off towards the station.

Rank up!

FOOL CONFIDANT: RANK 3

~~~

4/25 - Monday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“I’m home,” Sae said, walking through the door.

“Welcome home, Sis,” Makoto said, looking up from her homework. “Should I get started on dinner?”

“I won’t be long,” Sae said. “I’ll be staying at the office tonight, so I need a change of clothes.”

“Rough day?” Makoto frowned.

“I imagine yours was just as rough,” Sae said. “One of your teachers was arrested today, confessing to various crimes such as abuse, harassment, and… rape.”

“Y-yes,” Makoto said. “The student in question attempted to kill herself over it. I was actually hoping you'd be home so I could tell you about that.”

“Well, I’m relieved that student wasn’t you,” Sae said. “But what interests me more is… what made him confess?”

“...I wouldn’t know,” Makoto said.

“True,” Sae said. “Well, don’t let this-”

“Get in the way of my studies,” Makoto finished. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“Good girl,” Sae smiled, before walking off to her bedroom.

Makoto looked back at her homework, frowning. ...that’s the choice I made. To hide it from her.

“Don’t forget to eat, too,” Sae said, walking back out with a bag and heading out the door. “Goodnight, Makoto.”

“Goodni-” Makoto started to respond, but the door snapped shut. She sighed, looking down again. Sis… She glanced at her phone sitting on the table. It can’t be possible, but with how Sis is acting, seeming to care more for how Kamoshida was arrested as opposed to why, it can’t hurt to check...

Just as Makoto unlocked her phone, her messenger app chimed. She opened it up, seeing a multi-exclamation point message from Ann in the group chat.

Ann: SHIHO’S AWAKE!!!!

Ren: She is? That’s great news!

Makoto: How was she?

Ann: She’s still bedridden and her voice is all weak, but…

Ann: She’s awake! And talking!

Ann: I couldn’t see her much today because the doctors needed to check on her.

Ann: But she’s recovered. And I can visit tomorrow. I’m so happy!

Ren: I’m happy for you. It’s a relief she’s recovering.

Makoto: Agreed.

Makoto: Ann? If it wouldn’t be any trouble, could I accompany you tomorrow?

Makoto: I… I feel the need to apologize to Suzui-san for everything.

Ann: Um, sure.

Ann: Honestly, I need to say sorry to her, too.

Ann: We’ll head out after school together, then?

Makoto: That sounds great.

Ann: Oh, we need to celebrate everything going well, too!

Makoto: I also need a way to get rid of the Treasure.

Ren: I’ll look into that while you’re with Shiho tomorrow.

Ann: Okay. But leave the celebration to me! I know the perfect place!

Ren: Is it open for Shōwa Day? We have that off this week, after all.

Ann: I’ll double-check, but it should be!

Makoto: Then our week is decided then.

Her thoughts now elsewhere, Makoto proceeded to pack her studies up and make herself a quick dinner, the idea to check the Meta-Nav forgotten.

~~~

The sound of dripping water woke her, and she found herself in the Velvet Room. Standing up, she made her way to the door.

“I would like to congratulate you on expelling the sinner of lust so quickly,” Igor commented. “Motivation like that is exactly what I’d expect from you as you seek rehabilitation.”

“Thank you,” Makoto said. “And thank you for your Velvet Room entrances, Caroline. Justine. Some of those fusions really helped me.”

“Huh?!” Caroline seemed stunned at being thanked unprompted. “I mean, uh, y-yeah, inmate, you should show gratitude!”

“We are happy it came in handy for you,” Justine said.

“I’m pleased at the way this has transpired,” Igor continued. “It has proven most entertaining. I believe you’ve begun to capture the hearts of more than just your Metaverse targets.”

“Capture hearts…?”

“I am referring to the public’s cognition of you as a thief,” Igor, surprisingly, explained. “Continued acts of heroics will continue to draw attention. Become a picaresque hero for the modern age. This is the path I’d like to see your rehabilitation take you.”

“Continue… as the Phantom Thieves, you mean?” Makoto asked. “I… believe we did intend to, but now I’m not certain what my friends are feeling…”

“I’d consider convincing them if they think otherwise,” Justine said.

“Of course, you’re free to do what you want,” Caroline added. “Whether you crash and burn this early is up to you!”

I’m suddenly feeling a lot less thankful.

“I look forward to seeing what choice you make,” Igor said. “And once again, congratulations on your first success.”

Rank up!

MOON CONFIDANT: RANK 2

Chapter Text

4/26 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

“Amamiya!” Mishima called, jogging to catch up with Ren.

“Huh, oh, hey…” Ren said, not really looking at him but continuing to walk alongside him.

“Uh, you’re still mad at me, aren’t you?” Mishima asked, frowning.

“...look, Kamoshida’s the only one I was really angry with,” Ren said. He shook his head. This mood is not how I want to start the day. “Did you hear Suzui woke up?”

“She did?” Mishima seemed surprised. “That’s… that’s great! I…”

“Yeah, it’s great,” Ren managed to smile. “Ann told her the news of Kamoshida’s arrest and it help motivate her to wake up, I guess.”

“That arrest was weird, wasn’t it?” Mishima asked. “The Phantom Thieves, they called themselves? Do you think they really exist?”

“It sounds too good to be true,” Ren shrugged. “But, well, it did lead to Kamoshida leaving the school. Either way, I'm relieved.”

“Yeah,” Mishima said, frowning in thought. “Uh, you go on ahead. I’m going to grab a snack.”

“Sure,” Ren said, walking off as Mishima stood there, staring after him.

“It can’t be…” Mishima mumbled. “But it was after Amamiya came that something was finally done about him. And he never seemed too concerned about the expulsion. There's no way that was just from faith in Niijima-senpai, either...”

~~~

4/26 - Tuesday
After School
Tokyo Medical University Hospital

Makoto stopped walking as Ann was leading them down the hall, letting out a nervous sigh.

“Makoto?” Ann asked, glancing back. “Um, I kind of need to lead you the way…”

“I feel awkward being here…” Makoto admitted. “I had no personal connection to Suzui-san. The only thing I did was turn a blind eye. And when she came to me, I didn’t push enough to help her.”

“Well, how do you think I feel?” Ann asked indignantly. “I’m her best friend, and I never did anything for her! I… she was right there beside me a few days that week. Her eyes were… empty. They didn’t have her normal twinkle. And I didn’t think anything of it. That’s why I’m here to apologize.”

“But Suzui-san and I don’t even know each other personally…” Makoto said. “I’m just intruding on your time with your friend.” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have come.”

“You asked to be here,” Ann sighed. “...you need this, too, right? Besides... I think Shiho will appreciate it. At the very least, she’ll be happy to see someone other than me for a change.” Ann gave an awkward laugh at the end, but her face quickly fell.

“...thank you, Ann,” Makoto nodded. “...and I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you, too.”

“Y-yeah…” Ann nodded, smiling. “Of course. Let’s not keep her waiting. She’s been lying in bed all day, y’know?”

“Of course,” Makoto nodded.

Rank up!

LOVERS CONFIDANT: RANK 2

Ann continued leading Makoto down the hall, before they reached a patient room with Shiho’s name on it. Ann gently knocked before opening. “Hey, Shiho.”

“Ann,” Shiho smiled. Both of her legs were currently in casts, and one of her arms was in a sling. The heart-rate monitor was still connected, but she no longer had a breathing tube attached. “It’s good to see you.”

“Hey, I brought our Student Council President, if you’re cool with that,” Ann said.

“Niijima-senpai…” Shiho frowned as Makoto stepped in.

“Suzui-san…” Makoto frowned. “I… I want to start by saying-”

“Thank you,” Shiho interrupted. “Ann told me… while I was sleeping, anyway. She told me that you were helping her. You and Amamiya.”

Ann’s face heated up. “You… you could hear what I said?”

“Some of it?” Shiho tilted her head in thought. “Um… I was sort of drifting. A lot of it was almost like a dream…”

“Well… I hope it was a nice one…?” Ann said weakly.

“The parts where you were here were very nice,” Shiho said. Her eyes briefly lost their luster. “Almost makes me forget what happened…”

“Shiho… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” Ann said. “If I wasn’t so caught up in myself, or… or if I took his threats more seriously that day-”

“Ann, I was doing it because he threatened you,” Shiho frowned. “I… If you had been there, that could have been you. That’s not something I want to think about.”

“Shiho…” Ann mumbled.

“It seems there was miscommunication on both sides,” Makoto said. “Kamoshida likely made sure that was the first bit of leverage he got to-” She stopped as she noticed the other two girls looking at her. “S-sorry… I shouldn’t have spoken. This was your conversation…”

“No, it’s fine,” Ann said awkwardly.

“It sums it up nicely,” Shiho said. “So… let’s stop the self-blame game?”

“Yeah, let’s… let’s move on!” Ann said. “Shiho, uh, are you allowed to eat and drink things?”

“I am,” Shiho nodded. “But…” She gestured to her legs. “I can’t really… stand yet. Um… are there vending machines here?”

“I believe I saw some back near the elevator,” Makoto said.

“Oh, yeah, I remember seeing them!” Ann said. “Makoto, you want anything?”

“Uh, coffee if they have any,” Makoto said.

“Got it,” Ann nodded. “I’ll grab your favorite if I see it, Shiho!”

“Thank you,” Shiho smiled.

Ann nodded, and quickly left the room, a nurse chastising her for running almost as soon as she entered the hall.

“...did she leave us alone on purpose?” Makoto mused aloud.

“Ann’s not that smart,” Shiho giggled.

Makoto paused, before smiling. “I hate to agree, but…” The two looked at each other and shared a brief laugh.

“Why don’t you sit down, Niijima-senpai?” Shiho asked, gesturing to the nearby chair.

Makoto nodded, adjusting her skirt as she sat beside her.

“...I know I said to stop self-blaming, but I’m sorry I didn’t come forward when we met on the train platform,” Shiho said. “That might have saved us all a headache.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “I know how difficult it must have been for you, with both Ann and yourself being threatened. And… I hate to say it, but as Student Council President, I’m starting to realize I’m not really much help. I try to offer assistance when I can, but some students apparently don’t even know where the Student Council Room is, if they would even want to talk to me.”

“But that’s different now,” Shiho said. “Ann sees you in a new light, or she wouldn’t befriend you. And… I’m starting to see you in one, too. You’re just so… shy. It’s kind of cute.”

“C-cute…?” Makoto stuttered.

Shiho giggled. “Sorry, I just wanted to see what teasing would do.”

“This is how you usually are, huh, Suzui-san?”

“Of course, being friendly isn’t the only thing that changed,” Shiho said, her voice getting a serious tone to it.

“What do you mean?” Makoto asked.

“I told you I could hear Ann when she spoke, right?” Shiho asked. “I know I’m not the smartest student, especially when compared to you, but… from what Ann said, it’s not a challenge to realize you have something special to you. You… stole that bastard’s heart. Right?”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “...yes. We did. Uh...”

Shiho smiled. “Thank you for that. And don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. Though, I don’t really see the need for it to be one.”

“It’s… complicated,” Makoto said. “I mean, we did advertise ourselves as thieves…” Not to mention the potential connection one could make to the mental shutdown incidents...

“True, stealing is against the law,” Shiho said. “Not really good for an honor student's reputation." She looked down. "Um… Niijima-senpai? Um, since Ann addresses you that way, can I…?” She trailed off awkwardly.

“Call me Makoto?" Makoto finished the question for her. "If… if you like. Shiho-san.”

“Makoto-senpai,” Shiho replied. “I want you to visit often, too, okay? I want to hear about how you and Ann took him down!”

“...sure,” Makoto nodded.

"Thanks," Shiho smiled.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Sun Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

SUN CONFIDANT: RANK 1

“I’m back!” Ann said, returning with three drinks in hand. “Sorry, they didn't have what you usually get. But I do have something called Starvicks! It's claiming to be a spicy coffee? Thought we could all try it!”

“...I think I’ll end up regretting asking for coffee,” Makoto said quietly.

“I already regret it for you,” Shiho said, face turning pale.

~~~

4/26 - Tuesday
Evening
Public Prosecutors’ Office

“Sae-san!” Akechi said, greeting Sae as she got off the elevator.

“Akechi-kun?” Sae seemed surprised. “What brings you here?”

“I was in the area when I saw the news story of that gym teacher’s arrest,” Akechi said. “The interviewee’s uniform was of Shujin Academy, wasn’t it? I remember your sister goes there, and it had me concerned.”

“News story?” Sae repeated, taking her phone out. A broadcast, with various students in Shujin uniforms being interviewed, was airing. The interviewees were explaining various abuses Kamoshida had dealt them or on their friends. Sae’s eyes narrowed. “Why is this being broadcast?”

“Well, it is a rather big deal,” Akechi said.

“I know that, but his case isn’t anywhere near finalized yet, and this will just have uncalled for scrutiny and distractions for the students,” Sae said.

“Oh, I’m surprised to hear you care for their wellbeing,” Akechi smiled.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sae asked.

“Ah, I meant no offense by it,” Akechi said. “I just find it admirable.”

Sae rolled her eyes, putting her phone away. “Even if they try and keep the identities under wraps, Shujin’s uniform is rather distinct. People will be talking about this, and it will just make my investigation harder.”

“Oh, I wasn’t aware you were assigned to Kamoshida-san’s case,” Akechi said.

“I’m not,” Sae said. “You know full well what investigation I mean.”

“Ah, the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns?” Akechi asked. “I’m interested in hearing why you think there’s a connection.”

Sae narrowed her eyes at Akechi. “You seem entertained. I take it you’re already at the same conclusion? Kamoshida’s change of heart was far too sudden and contradicts the nature of these crimes. Just like the psychotic breakdowns turning ordinary citizens into lunatics, or why people with no diagnosis of depression or heart disease suddenly experience mental shutdowns and heart attacks.”

“So you believe this ‘change of heart’ is the start of a related third trend?” Akechi asked. “I admit, that is a possible outcome. But at the same time, it’s entirely possible it’s all coincidence? This is the only case of this occurring thus far, after all.”

“That’s true,” Sae said. “It’s entirely likely that this ‘calling card’ I’ve heard the case investigators mention was just a prank. That the mere threat of someone actually standing up to him drove him to panic.” She shook her head. “I need a coffee. I’ll be working late tonight.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard, now,” Akechi smiled as Sae walked off. He frowned once she was out of sight. “Of course, if this does become a trend…” He slid his cell phone out, quickly dialing a private number. “Good evening, sir. I take it you’ve heard the news by now? Perhaps we should discuss how to handle this in person... ...everyone, huh? ...Of course, I can be there Friday. I do have Shōwa Day off from school, after all.”

~~~

4/26 - Tuesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto found a note from Sae pinned to the fridge when she got home.

‘Working late tonight. Go to bed on time.’

She sighed, deciding to just heat up some leftovers, turning the TV on in the background as she ate dinner alone.

“My friends would come back from practice with bruises all the time…” a young male’s voice said.

Makoto glanced over, eyes wide as she clearly saw the Shujin Academy uniform the interviewee was wearing. The news soon cut to an interview with a female student.

“He would touch me and stuff all the time… I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that sexual harassment anymore…”

Makoto’s phone chimed, and she quickly checked the group chat.

Ann: Are you two watching the news right now?

Typing...

Ren: News?

Makoto: Yes, they’re interviewing Shujin students about Kamoshida’s arrest.

Ren: Wow. I should really get a TV in my room.

Ann: Forget that for now!

Ann: Makoto, did they mention Shiho’s name?

Makoto: I don’t think so. They seemed to make an effort to keep everyone’s identities confidential.

Ann: That’s a relief.

Ann: She actually looked happy after today.

Ann: If this ended up dragging up some bad memories for her…

Typing...

Ren: So things went well today? Glad to hear that.

Typing...

Ann: Yeah. She was smiling and laughing again. It made me so happy!

Makoto: Ren-kun, how were things on your end?

Makoto: Did you find a way for me to get rid of the Treasure?

Ren: Maybe? I heard rumors that the airsoft shop on Central Street buys trinkets sometimes.

Ren: Of course, rumors also say I assaulted a police officer during a drug bust, so…

Ren: Take that with a grain of salt.

Typing…

Makoto: They’re still talking about you like that?

Ann: Makoto, you really need to get out of your own head sometimes.

Ann: The rumors at school are awful.

Makoto: I know they are, I just imagined that with recent events, they’d die down a little.

Makoto: I’m sorry you have to still deal with it, Ren-kun.

Typing...

Ren: Are you going to check it out tomorrow?

Makoto: Oh, the medal? I suppose getting that done before our celebration would be for the best.

Ren: Cool.

Ann: Please do, the place I booked us is kind of pricy…

Makoto: It’s already booked?

Ann: Yep! And they are open this Friday!

Makoto: In that case, I’ll have to handle this tomorrow since there's a Student Council Meeting on Thursday.

Ren: Good luck.

Makoto closed out of the chat, returning her attention to her dinner. The news had moved on by now to discussing the weather for the next week. This counts as stolen goods, doesn’t it? Even if it was from the Metaverse… How far into thievery is this going to take me?

~~~

4/27 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Makoto entered the school to find a small crowd gathered around the notice board across from the entrance. She approached, standing on her toes to see what they were all staring at. What she saw was a printed out announcement.

‘Students, in light of the recent arrest of Suguru Kamoshida, I ask that you refrain from talking with the media. Increased scrutiny from saying the wrong thing could lead to a negative impact on the school’s reputation and, in turn, your own education. Principal Kobayakawa.’

“Is he for real with this?”

“People were hurt by that bastard Kamoshida, and he cares more about the school’s rep?”

“It’s a little late to say this sort of thing, too, isn’t it? You saw that news story last night, right?”

"Saw it? I was one of the people they talked to!"

“Oh, Niijima-senpai,” Yanagi said, grabbing Makoto’s attention.

“Yanagi-san?” Makoto frowned as the first-year fought her way through the crowd over to her.

“You saw the notice the principal put up, right?” Yanagi asked. “About the media?”

“I just finished reading it, yes,” Makoto said. “Um, here, let’s talk away from the crowd.” She led Yanagi over to the bottom of the stairwell.

“I was so worried when I first saw the crowd,” Yanagi admitted. “I thought it might have been another Phantom Thieves calling card.”

“Do you believe in them, then?” Makoto asked.

“Mhm,” Yanagi nodded, taking out her phone. “Look, there’s even a website now asking that very question!”

“The Phantom Aficionado website?” Makoto read, noticing a poll at the bottom. “'Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?' ...looks like you’re in the minority, Yanagi-san. Only 7% are saying yes.”

“Well, he confessed to his crimes right after that calling card, so…” Yanagi mumbled.

“If you believe in them, why would another calling card scare you?” Makoto asked.

“I was worried someone else at this school might be bad,” Yanagi confessed.

Makoto frowned, noticing the youngest of her fellow Student Council members was trembling slightly. “...don’t worry, Yanagi-san. If there really is another person that bad, I’ll do my best to protect you. And, if not me… then the Phantom Thieves will.”

“Niijima-senpai…” Yanagi said, looking up and giving a smile. “Th-thank you.”

“Of course,” Makoto nodded. "It's my job to care for you and the other students."

“Hey, is that the Student Council President over there?”

“She’s buddy-buddy with the principal, isn’t she?”

“She must have known what Kamoshida was up to.”

Yanagi glanced back at the muttering students, a nervous look on her face again.

“...Why don’t you get to class, Yanagi-san? We’ll be having a meeting tomorrow after school, so we can talk more later.”

“Okay,” Yanagi said, forcing a smile again. “Have a good day, Niijima-senpai!”

“You, too,” Makoto said, watching Yanagi walk off and head upstairs. She let out a sigh, and slowly made her way to her own homeroom, as well.

~~~

4/27 - Wednesday
After School
Central Street

Makoto checked her phone as she approached Untouchable. The selling price for the Olympic medal was listed at around ¥30,000. She sighed. That’s just online. It’s possible pawn shops might have access to different- what am I saying? This isn’t even a pawn shop! This is cutting it close to shady, illegal dealings!

She paused at the entrance. Which means we might get even more than expected… I don’t know exactly how expensive Ann’s planned celebration will be, but… having more yen couldn’t hurt.

Stepping inside, she found the store clerk in the exact same position as last time, lazily reading something behind the counter. Makoto could feel her heart racing as she approached. “Um, excuse me…?”

“Hm?” he grunted and looked up. “Oh… you again. Your boyfriend like your gifts better?”

“Huh?” Makoto asked. “Um… no, that’s not what that purchase was…” I’m already so embarrassed to be here. Why does he have to make it more difficult?

“Figured as much,” he said under his breath.

“What do you mean?” Makoto asked.

“You seemed interested in the revolver for yourself,” he shrugged. “Your girly companion might have bought that gift excuse, but I get the feeling you’ve got more of a gun nut side to ya.”

“G-gun nut…?” Makoto asked. I mean… the shooting game did spark my interest back at the arcade, but…

“So, what are you here for today?”

“Oh!” Makoto was snapped out of her thoughts. “Yes, I heard a rumor that you are willing to buy… trinkets?”

He narrowed his eyes at her, glancing around for a moment. “...what kind of trinkets are you thinking about?”

Makoto reached into her pocket, pulling out the Olympic gold medal.

He narrowed his eyes at it for a second. “...what’s your name?”

“Makoto Niijima, why?”

"Niijima?" There was an odd look to his face before he chuckled. “Well, that tells me you ain’t working for the cops. You revealed that far too quickly.”

Makoto felt her face heat up. “S-sorry. I..." Try and stay in control of this conversation... "I try not to engage in this behavior typically.”

“Then why start now?”

“...can you buy this or not?” Makoto asked with a huff.

“...sure,” he said, taking out a laptop and typing something. After a moment of silence, he spoke again. “How’s ¥30,000 sound?”

“It sounds interesting,” Makoto said, adjusting her bag. “That’s the exact price listed online.”

“And what’s that tell ya?” he glanced up, his face inscrutable.

“It tells me you want to skip the haggling and get the sale over with,” Makoto said. She paused in thought for a moment. “And also that you know a way to get more for this.”

He glared at her for a moment before letting out a laugh. “You’re a rather ballsy girl. Maybe you’re more cut out for ‘this behavior’ than you let on.”

Makoto stared for a moment. ...did I say too much? I was so caught up in the moment that-

“Tell ya what,” he said. “¥35,000. That enough for ya?”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “That… would be great, thank you.”

She handed the medal over and took the bills from him. As she started to put them away, the shopkeeper grabbed her hand.

“Now then, in exchange for my generosity, I’m expecting something from you in return,” he said.

“...do you wish for more of my business?” Makoto asked nervously.

“Knew you were a gun nut,” he smirked, letting go. “Sure. We’ll trade whatever little trinkets you keep coming across for your fancier guns. In exchange?” He looked her up and down. “You’re plain enough that I think you’d be overlooked. So I just might ask for your help from time to time.”

“My help?” Makoto repeated.

“What do you say, Niijima?” he asked, eyes narrowed.

Makoto froze. I did overstep myself… But… if the models are higher quality, would they be more impactful in the Metaverse? Will we even need to keep pawning off- Ahh, he’s waiting for an answer! Okay, stay calm. If this situation does get to be too bad, we have the means to change his heart, right? A criminal would surely have a Palace. I’ll just need…

“I’d like to know the name of who I’m working with,” Makoto said, working to keep her voice level.

“Working for,” he corrected. “Munehisa Iwai. Take it we’ve got a deal?”

“...we do,” Makoto said. A deal I’ll be extremely cautious with.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Hanged Man Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

HANGED MAN CONFIDANT: RANK 1

“Great. Here’s a quick lesson. Unless you’ve got legit business with me, once our little ‘sales’ are done, you might want to make yourself scarce. You really don’t look like you can chance wrecking your reputation hanging out here in the middle of the day.”

“...I understand,” Makoto nodded. “Good day, Iwai-san.”

“...good day,” he said, watching her go. Once she was gone, he let out a sigh. “Niijima, huh? Why's that name ring a bell?”

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.1%

Chapter Text

4/28 - Thursday
After School
Shujin Academy

Makoto once again set down a folder and a notebook, before clearing her throat. “Now then, let’s begin. As you may remember from Monday’s assembly-”

“Did Kamoshida-sensei really do all of that?” Honda asked, interrupting.

“Wow, you’re not usually one to interrupt,” Tanaka said, genuine surprise on his face.

“You’ve been holding in that question for a while now, haven’t you?” Makoto sighed. “To answer your question, yes. Kamoshida committed many crimes of abuse and harassment on our classmates.”

“Considering he confessed, that much was obvious already,” Suzuki sighed.

“Can we talk about his confession?” Yanagi asked nervously.

“Are we allowed to?” Honda asked.

“We’re only being asked not to tell the media,” Makoto said.

“Which was too late to try and silence it,” Suzuki muttered. “So much for this school’s prestige…”

Tanaka closed his eyes, before glancing over to Yanagi. “What’s bothering you, Yanagi-san?”

“Um… it’s not really something that’s bothering me...” She stole a glance at Makoto, before taking her phone out. “I want to talk about the Phantom Thieves!” She set it down at the center of the table, the Phan-Site displayed prominently on it.

“...what is this?” Tanaka asked.

“The Phantom Aficionado website! Phan-Site for short.”

“I mean, I can see that, but…” Tanaka frowned.

“There’s a website based on that prank now?” Suzuki asked.

“It wasn’t a prank,” Yanagi frowned. “He confessed, didn’t he?”

“That was just a coincidence, though, wasn’t it?” Honda asked.

“I think it’s too much to be a coincidence,” Tanaka said softly. “The calling card called him a ‘king’ that the ones who posted it would ‘liberate’ us from. And then Kamoshida says he saw the school as his castle. Doesn’t that suggest-”

Suzuki interrupted with an overblown sigh. “Those metaphors are common enough that it proves nothing! They called themselves ‘the Phantom Thieves of Hearts’, right? So, what, they steal hearts? That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s possible you’re just getting held up on the name they chose,” Makoto said.

“Then they allegedly made him confess some other way,” Suzuki said. “Either way, they claimed to steal desires, which is impossible. He probably just panicked that someone stood up to him for the first time since that Track Traitor incident last year.”

Makoto looked down at the folder in front of her. Right… the incident that put Sakamoto onto the map of troublemakers at school…

“Niijima-senpai believes in them,” Yanagi said.

“What?” Suzuki turned to look at Makoto. “You believe in them?”

“I don’t remember actually saying-”

“I was talking to her yesterday about the incident,” Yanagi said. “About how… there might be more people like him at school. And she said either she or the Phantom Thieves would protect me. It... gave me courage to keep coming in to school.”

Suzuki seemed stunned for a moment. "Y-Yanagi-san..."

“...I guess if they give you courage, then…” Honda mumbled. “But, Niijima-senpai, is it right to-”

“The rumors about the so-called Phantom Thieves isn’t meant to be the focus of this meeting,” Makoto sighed. “Particularly us arguing about them. I was hoping we could discuss putting up a notice more thoroughly directing students that are troubled, especially in light of Kamoshida’s arrest, to the Student Council Room and assure them we’ll help with their issues the best we can.”

“...seconded,” Suzuki said, still staring at Yanagi. “If there are students, especially our first years, who may think this behavior is typical of Shujin Academy, we should do our best to assure them otherwise. Let them know we can help.” She turned to look at Makoto and muttered to her, “Don’t put me on the spot like that. You made me look bad in front of our kohai.”

“That wasn’t my intention,” Makoto replied under her breath.

“Well, I suppose Honda-kun can work on the posters,” Tanaka said, nervously eyeing Suzuki and Makoto.

“Oh, yes, I can,” Honda confirmed.

“Great,” Makoto nodded, turning away from Suzuki to write something down. “Next order of business, submitting our finalized budget proposal. Given the recent staff change, I feel confident the principal will be more accepting of our suggestion. First, we should all review it. Yanagi-san?”

“Yep!” Yanagi said happily, taking the folder from Makoto and opening it. “Let’s see… we’re agreed to allocate only 5% of the budget to the volleyball team…”

Makoto found her mind wandering as Yanagi and the others went through the formality of reviewing the budget. We give people courage…

~~~

“So, where is this restaurant?” Ren asked as he and Ann headed out the front gate of Shujin. He glanced at the message Makoto had sent the group early that morning, confirming that she had sold the medal and asking to meet at Buchiko statue tomorrow morning.

“It’s actually not far from where we’ll be meeting,” Ann said excitedly, the discussion renewing her vigor after they had to handle the cleaning themselves. “Shiho and I found out about it a while ago after hearing another model at one of my shoots, and-”

“Hey!” Ryuji’s voice called out, and Ann’s smile immediately dropped.

“I’ll just surprise you all tomorrow,” Ann sighed. “See you, Ren.”

“Uh, Ann-” Ren began, but Ann already stormed off just as Ryuji caught up.

“...Takamaki left, huh?” Ryuji sighed.

“Yeah,” Ren sighed as well.

“This guy again…” Morgana muttered from the bag.

“Well, if she doesn’t wanna talk, I won’t try to apologize,” Ryuji muttered.

“Ryuji-” Ren began.

“She wants the space, so I’m givin’ it to her,” Ryuji interrupted. He shook his head. “Anyway, man, tomorrow's your first holiday here in Tokyo, huh? And only two school days left ‘til Golden Week, too!”

“Kind of hate how they’re peppered between days off, but yeah,” Ren smiled. “I’m pretty excited for the break.”

“Any plans yet?” Ryuji asked as the two walked to the station together.

“Ann’s bringing me somewhere tomorrow,” Ren said.

“Oh, yeah, I guess… that’s fair,” he sighed. “How is she, by the way?”

“She’s been a lot happier after Kamoshida was arrested,” Ren said.

“Figured,” Ryuji said.

“Then why did you brush her off as Kamoshida's girl?” Morgana hissed.

Ryuji blinked at the sound, and stared at Ren's bag. “Is… that a cat in your bag?”

“...I can’t leave him unattended at home,” Ren explained.

“So you bring him to school?” Ryuji asked.

“He’s very well behaved,” Ren said.

“Well, if the school ain’t caught you yet,” Ryuji shrugged, reaching over to pet Morgana.

“Back off!” Morgana hissed, scratching at Ryuji’s finger.

“Ow! Hey, I thought you said this thing was well behaved!”

“...most of the time,” Ren sighed. “Mona, don’t scratch people!”

“He upsets Lady Ann!” Morgana complained. “Besides, I know you don’t like how much he dislikes Makoto!”

Ren sighed. “He’s… probably just mad about being cramped in my desk and bag all day.”

“Well… guess I would be, too,” Ryuji said, holding his finger where Morgana scratched. “Still, do something about those claws, man. That effing hurts.”

“Will do,” Ren said.

"Oh, no you don't," Morgana muttered.

“That damn cat aside, you wanna hang out today or something?”

“I would, but…” As if waiting for Ren to say that, his phone chimed. He reached into his pocket, pulling it out to check.

Dr. Takemi: Guinea pig, didn’t you say you wanted better medicine for you and your 'classmate'?

Dr. Takemi: Don’t keep me waiting.

He sighed. “Doctor’s appointment.”

“Ah, yeah, I hate those, too,” Ryuji said. “Well… later, I guess.”

“See ya,” Ren said, waving as he ran off to the train station.

Ryuji stared after him, before leaning against a wall of a nearby building, staring back at Shujin Academy. Easy to spot thanks to her use of a vest instead of a blazer, he saw Makoto walking down the steps, look down at her phone as she made her way to the station as well.

“...doctor’s appointment, huh?” Ryuji muttered, glaring at the cell phone as Makoto obliviously walked past. He spat, and stared up at the sky. I finally met someone that gives me the time of day, and Miss Prez turns him into some weird pet project of hers... Why's she so interested in taking up his time?

~~~

4/29 - Friday
Daytime
Station Square

“Hey, Ren!” Ann called, running up. As it was a holiday, she was dressed in casual clothes, atop which she wore an open, red varsity jacket. “Sorry, didn’t keep you waiting too long, did I?”

“We only just got here,” Morgana said from where he stuck out of Ren’s bag.

“The jeans don’t make me underdressed, right?" Ren asked. "I don’t know anything about this place other than it's pricey.”

“Uh, it should be fine,” Ann shrugged. “I mean, I’m wearing this.”

“You still look like an elegant model, Lady Ann,” Morgana remarked.

Ann opened her mouth to reply, pausing as she noticed who was approaching. “...not as elegant as Makoto...”

“Sorry I’m late,” Makoto said as she ran up, brushing her hair back behind her ear as she caught her breath.

“It’s fine…” Ren said, looking over Makoto’s blue suit jacket. “Um…”

“Is something wrong?” Makoto asked.

“You’re making us feel underdressed, senpai,” Ann said. “I mean, it’s expensive, yeah, but there’s no dress code listed online.”

“Oh, um…” Makoto adjusted the bag on her shoulder as she avoided eye contact. “This is what I… usually wear outside of school.”

“Oh, those are your casual clothes…?” Ann frowned. “Makoto, I think we should go clothes shopping some time.”

“I don’t have money for that,” Makoto said. Her eyes suddenly focused on them. “Though, on that subject, I do have the cash from the medal’s sale on me. We can split what we have left after the celebration’s expenses.”

“Sounds good,” Ren said, standing up. “Ann, can you show us the way?”

“Sure thing,” Ann smiled. “So, have either of you heard of the Wilton Hotel before?”

~~~

4/29 - Friday
Daytime
Wilton Hotel

“Maybe you had the right idea to dress like that,” Ann said as they sat down at the table, looking around at the other patrons at the buffet.

“It’s more that I didn’t have any other clothes,” Makoto said.

“Same here,” Ren said. “Even if the situation is the exact opposite.”

“So, we still have ¥11,000 left over,” Makoto said. “Should we split that four ways, each getting ¥2,750? Ren-kun, you can hold on to Morgana’s share, considering-”

“While you work all that out, I’m going to grab myself some food!” Ann said happily, jumping up now that she had set her bag down. “We only got one hour, after all! Ren, you coming?”

“I guess…” he said. “Makoto, do you want me to get anything? Or-”

“I’ll look around when you’re back to watch our belongings,” Makoto said. “Thank you for the offer, though.”

Ren smiled, before walking off.

Makoto leaned forward, glancing at Ren’s bag on the sofa as Morgana stuck his head out.

“You’re actually considering me in sharing the profits?” Morgana asked in surprise.

“You were as excited as anyone for getting the Treasure,” Makoto said. “...besides, there’s no way to evenly divide 11,000 by three. We’d still have two yen left over.”

“Well, I guess I could make Ren get me some sushi with my share,” Morgana said. “It’s less the profit for me and more the thrill of obtaining the Treasure, of stealing the distorted desires in someone’s heart. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do,” Makoto nodded. She gave a wry smile. “Truthfully, I feel the same. Securing the route to the Treasure, and tearing down the Palace were rather enjoyable. Invigorating, even. But holding on to the Treasure after that was stressful, and I’d rather not discuss the sale of it…” Especially if that shopkeeper drags me into something illegal…

“We’re back,” Ren said, walking between Makoto and Morgana to sit down, a large pile of food on the plates he was carrying.

“They have so many good things!” Ann said, setting down several desserts in front of her chair. She took a bite. “Mmm… so good.” She took another bite and spoke again as she chewed. “Also! We’ve really made a big wave with people!”

“We have?” Makoto seemed surprised. “But, please don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Ann nodded, forcing a swallow. “I overheard a TV executive talking about the Kamoshida story. He was going on about how it seemed to push the repeated coverage of that train accident off the air. Boosted ratings with something fresh.”

“It’s sad that that is what he took away from this,” Makoto said.

“Ooh, what else?” Morgana asked, seemingly more excited about hearing the rumors.

“That can wait for after Makoto has some food,” Ren said.

“...thank you,” Makoto nodded. She frowned at the food piled up in front of her two friends. “Though… the calories…”

“You don’t need to fret about that so much,” Ren said. “You look fine, and this is meant to be celebrating.”

“Yeah, don’t let that eight grand go to waste,” Ann said.

“...very well,” Makoto relented, standing up. “I’ll be right back.”

“It’s kinda weird to hear she cares about that sorta thing,” Ann said, taking another bite. “Y’know, with how she has no friends outside of us.”

“I mean, the same applies to us,” Ren said. “Uh, barring Shiho for you.”

“You don’t have friends in your hometown?” Ann frowned.

Ren paused for a moment, before proceeding to eat, seeming to ignore Ann’s question.

~~~

Makoto carefully balanced two plates in her hand; one was plated up with a salad, topped with some of the fish and meats. The other, she filled with various desserts.

“...I am going to regret this tonight,” she mumbled to herself.

“News travels quick. It’s already all over the internet. You know, about how Kamoshida got his ass kicked by some world-reforming heroes…”

Makoto froze, glancing over to see a thin man in a suit talking with a young woman in a garish, glittering dress. She set her dessert plate down and quietly added more as she listened in.

“It doesn’t sound like a serious story to me," the woman said. "Some of the details are pretty far-fetched.”

“Don’t worry about it. We just have to do what they tell us to do. It’s all rumors made up by school kids, anyway. If it’s gripping news, who cares if it’s not true?”

Makoto heard a faint beeping from the man who was speaking.

“Oh, the meeting will start soon. We should get going.”

“Aw, already?” the woman whined as she followed him.

Makoto stared after them as they left the buffet area, picking up her plate again. Do as they tell us? What’s he talking about? Is someone asking him to spread the Phantom Thieves story?

She shook her head. I'm overthinking this. He probably has higher ups that just want more attention. That TV executive Ann mentioned had said something similar in regards to high ratings. More importantly… She stared at her dessert plate, now piled higher than her main course with various chocolate covered sweets. I… am really going to regret this.

Sighing, she returned to her seat with the others.

“Wow, Makoto, you really like chocolate, huh?” Ann laughed.

“I-I do enjoy it, but…” Makoto trailed off, her face heating up as she began eating her salad. Once she swallowed a few bites, she spoke softly again. “I was listening to someone that seems to be involved in online media. He’s also using the Kamoshida story to his advantage.”

“Geez, everyone here is talking about us, but about how it benefits them,” Ann complained. She took another bite. “Mmm… sweets make it all better, though.”

“Are you just going to eat dessert?” Morgana asked.

“I want to eat my way through their whole dessert menu!” Ann proclaimed. “I can’t fill up on other stuff if I want to pull that off!”

“At least break it up with some vegetables,” Makoto chided. “Too much sugar will make you sick!" She smiled. "If it helps motivate you, you can dip the carrots or celery in chocolate.”

“That sounds gross!” Ann complained.

“Well if you ate properly to begin with, I wouldn’t need to suggest alternatives like that.”

Ren snickered, coughing slightly as he accidentally spat out a little bit of coffee. “Ow…”

“Serves you right,” Ann said, sticking her tongue out. “How can you laugh at her bullying me?”

“Telling you to improve your diet is not bullying!” Makoto pouted, before letting out a giggle.

“Can you children keep it down?” a woman walking by snapped at them.

“Honestly, I’m surprised they let them in at all,” the other woman added in a stage whisper. “Look at the food they piled up; they clearly can’t usually afford something this high class.”

“Perhaps the desk only saw the play adult of the three?” the first asked in a haughty voice, nodding in Makoto's direction as they walked off. “She may have lucked out on a lottery ticket and wanted to make herself feel special.”

The three teens stared down at their food, the light-hearted mood evaporating under the other patrons’ scorn.

"Geez, they weren't even trying to keep quiet," Morgana frowned. "Hey... you all doing okay?"

“...let’s just finish our meals and go,” Makoto said quietly, resuming picking at her salad.

“...don’t shut down like that,” Ren said softly.

“...huh?” Makoto looked up.

“Don’t let them shut you down,” Ren said, staring at her. “You were having fun. We were laughing. And like Ann said, there’s no dress code or age restriction to the damn place.”

“...yeah,” Ann said, looking up, determination in her eyes. “This is the kinda thing we didn’t want, right? Kamoshida controlling me, the whole school staff pushing you two around.”

“...of course,” Makoto nodded. "I hated that, and don't want to keep enduring that for the rest of my life."

“So, while the mood is for it, you’re all in on continuing with the Phantom Thieves?” Morgana asked, having finished off the small plate of fish Ren had given him.

“Continue?” Ann asked.

“Ren-kun and I already promised we would continue to assist Morgana with recovering his body and memories,” Makoto explained. “And after seeing what kind of adults are here, I’m filled with… renewed vigor in seeing that through. I don't care how many Palaces we need to take down.”

“That’s the spirit, Makoto,” Ren smiled.

Makoto smiled back. “Thank you. For motivating me.”

“...I’m cool with keeping going,” Ann nodded. “Shiho only made it because the school isn’t that tall. If anyone else…” She shook her head and suddenly spoke indignantly. “And of course I wanna help Morgana, too. I can’t believe you guys didn’t tell me that yet! He has no memories?!”

“Sorry,” Ren said. “It just never came up.”

“The distortions of Mementos took them,” Morgana said.

“Mementos?” Makoto questioned. “You mean the Metaverse?”

“Sort of,” Morgana said. “I’ll explain it later if the opportunity ever comes up.”

“...if you say so,” Makoto said warily. Even after our deal, you’re still hiding things?

Ann frowned. “Still… I know we’re doing it for others, but it sucks we still aren’t getting real recognition.”

“...actually, we are,” Makoto said, taking her phone out. “Aoi Yanagi, our Student Council Treasurer, brought this website to my attention.”

“The Phantom Aficionado Website?” Ren read.

“It’s possible this is what’s helped spread our story online,” Makoto said. “The man I was listening in on sounded like he might be involved in IT or online journalism, and mentioned our takedown of Kamoshida is spreading across the internet.”

“Still not very far spread,” Ann said. “The poll asking if people believe in us is really low.”

“But someone still made this site,” Ren said. “And people are asking for help on it.”

“Yanagi-san said we gave her courage,” Makoto said. “We can offer people freedom and security from those terrible individuals that look down on or seek to control people like us.” I promised my friends, my kohai, and the Velvet Room. I won’t let injustice stand. “Shall we make this official? And formally declare and found ourselves as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts?”

“You don’t have to keep my name choice,” Ren said awkwardly.

“Well, people know us as that already,” Morgana said.

“It’s easier that way, yeah,” Ann agreed. “Besides, I like the name!”

“It’s a nice name, Ren-kun,” Makoto smiled.

Ren twisted a lock of hair, ducking slightly to try and hide the blush forming on his face.

“Well, I’m looking forward to this,” Morgana said, giving a meow like laugh. “Don’t let me down, fledglings!”

Ann giggled. “Don’t worry about us! No way our senpai will let us down!”

“...no pressure, Makoto,” Ren added with a wry smirk.

Makoto sighed, but was still smiling. “I’ll do what I can to live up to everyone’s expectations of me.” ...no turning back. Embracing my role as a thief... This is my final decision. She picked up her drink. “To the Phantom Thieves.”

“To the Phantom Thieves!” Ann, Ren, and Morgana chimed in with a laugh.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Death Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

DEATH CONFIDANT: RANK 1

Makoto paused, staring into her drink after taking her sip. ...what was that? Why did that give me… a chill?

“Makoto?” Ren asked. “You okay?”

“Huh?” Makoto blinked and looked up. “Oh, I’m fine.”

“Good, because there’s still stuff on our plates, and we’re running out of time,” Ann said. “Let’s make this buffet be our first official conquest! What do you say, Queen?”

Makoto stared across the table at Ann for a moment before giggling. “...let’s do it.”

~~~

“...Ren-kun?” Makoto asked, her voice tired. “Never let Ann goad me like that again.”

Ren nodded, seeming to be too full to verbally answer.

“...my teeth hurt,” Ann said. “Actually, my whole body kind of hurts.”

“I warned you about too much sweets…” Makoto said. She felt her stomach churn, a pained twist running through her. “...ow, and I had way too much chocolate.” She gave a slight hiccup, shuddering slightly. “I think I might about to be sick actually…”

“Uh oh,” Morgana said.

“Um, Ren, can you lead her to the bathrooms?” Ann asked. “I feel too bloated to move right now.”

Ren stood up. “Come on, Makoto. I’ll help support you.”

“...thank you,” Makoto said, gently closing her eyes for a moment as Ren helped her up and they made their way out of the restaurant.

As they neared the hallway, a group of bodyguards surrounding a bald man with orange-tinted glasses walked up, the bodyguards rudely shoving Ren and Makoto aside.

“Ah!” Makoto gasped, stumbling in an attempt to keep balance.

“Watch where you’re going!” Ren spat. He gently turned to look at Makoto. “You alright?”

“I believe so,” Makoto nodded. "May I ask for an apology for nearly knocking us to the floor?"

“We’re in a hurry,” one of the bodyguards said.

“We posed no threat to you,” Makoto said, straightening up, and narrowing her eyes at them. “As fellow patrons of this restaurant, you should-”

“I wasn’t aware the quality of this place declined enough to allow mere high schoolers to go here on dates,” the bald man remarked coldly. “I’m a busy man with more important matters than yours, so why don’t you two leave so I may enjoy my meal?”

Ren blinked, feeling his head sway slightly. He leaned slightly against Makoto, closing his eyes.

“We paid to be here,” Makoto countered.

“Does it look like that matters?” he remarked. He turned to glare ahead. “Move. Let’s not dawdle on these children any longer.”

“Yes, sir,” one of the bodyguards said, his procession moving ahead.

“...so entitled,” Makoto said. She looked to Ren. “...are you alright? They didn’t hurt you when they pushed you, did they?”

Ren shook his head. “I… just must’ve overeaten. Might be feeling a little sick, too…”

Makoto frowned. “Let’s not waste time, then. Here, I’m starting to feel slightly better, so I’ll support you this time.”

“Thanks,” Ren nodded, continuing to lean on her as they walked.

~~~

4/29 - Friday
Daytime
Central Street

“Can’t believe the nerve of that guy,” Ann said.

“At least our time was just about up by the time he showed,” Makoto said. The three of them met up outside the hotel and made their way back towards the station, Makoto recounting her and Ren’s recent run-in as they walked.

“Sorry we didn’t make it back in time,” Ren said. “It took me awhile to recover.”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Ann said. “Morgana aside, your bags weren’t really that tough to carry.”

“...Lady Ann, did you just call me fat?” Morgana asked, sounding scandalized.

“Just bloated,” Ann said.

“Anyway, I feel rather exhausted after all that,” Makoto said. “Shall we part ways for the day?”

“Sounds good,” Ren said. “We can talk more after school tomorrow or something.”

“Yeah, I want to look over that Phan-Site thing some more,” Morgana said. “I think that might be an opportunity for us…”

“Alright,” Ann smiled. “So… rooftop or Student Council Room?”

“The Council Room should do fine,” Makoto said. “After all, Ann, you missed a day of school this week that I need to help catch you up on. And since Ren-kun is in the same class as you…”

“We’re studying, too?” Ann frowned.

Ren shrugged. “It shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Anyway, see ya.”

“See you later!” Ann said, and the three split up as they made their way to their respective homes.

~~~

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

Makoto closed her eyes, shivering. Why do I feel such a chill?

“Makoto?” Sae asked. “Are you falling asleep?”

“No…” Makoto said, opening her eyes again.

“Are you feeling alright?” Sae asked. “You’ve been shaking for a while now.”

“I… think I’m just cold,” Makoto said.

“...well, you aren’t stuttering like you usually do when lying,” Sae said. “I haven’t noticed any of your other tells…”

“They… woke me with water when the drugs knocked me out,” Makoto said, breathing heavily as she stared at the table. “...that’s why I have a chill…” My memory must just be confused. It was all the way back in April, after all... I didn’t actually feel any chill back at that buffet. I couldn’t have.

“Moving on, your abridged recap of your celebration conversation was interesting to me,” Sae said. “You said that the…” She paused, letting out an exasperated breath. “...that the ‘cat’ mentioned something called ‘Mementos’. Is this related at all to the smaller targets you mentioned?”

Makoto gave a brief giggle, but stopped as it sent a jolt of pain through her body.

“What’s so funny?” Sae asked. “Is my hypothesis based on this absurdity so-”

“I found it funny that you figured it out so quickly,” Makoto interrupted, giving a weak smile.

“...is that so?” Sae asked. She almost had a surprised look on her face, but quickly put on a professional expression again, brushing some hair aside. “Then elaborate on it further.” She checked her watch. “And quickly, please.”

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.2%

Chapter Text

4/30 - Saturday
After School
Shujin Academy

The end of the day bell chimed and Ann immediately stretched. “Ow… my back has been killing me.” She turned back to look at Ren. “I hope Makoto doesn’t want us to do anything too strenuous today.”

“She said we’d just be studying, remember?” Ren asked.

“Oh, right,” Ann frowned. “I forgot about that…”

“It shouldn’t be too difficult, Lady Ann,” Morgana said as he slipped into Ren’s bag. “Besides, I think what I need to show you will need a full day, so we'd have to wait either way.”

“This about what you mentioned yesterday?” Ren asked.

“Oh, yeah, Mementos, or whatever?” Ann asked.

Morgana gave a snicker. “Patience. I’ll tell you in due time.”

“I thought Makoto said to stop the cryptic behavior,” Ren said.

“She’s not here now!” Morgana protested. “Besides, it would take too much time to-”

“Um, Mona, shut up,” Ann whispered as Mishima approached.

“H-hey, uh, T-Takamaki…” Mishima stuttered. “Um, I h-heard Suzui is doing good? That’s something, huh?”

“Uh, yeah, it’s great,” Ann said, frowning. “Did you need something, Mishima?”

“Oh, yeah, but uh…” he cleared his throat. “Sorry, I was hoping to talk to Amamiya, and didn’t mean to intrude or-”

Ren sighed. “Ann, can you go on ahead? Tell Makoto I’ll be right there.”

“Got it,” Ann nodded, standing up and heading out of the classroom.

“So, um, Amamiya…” Mishima said quietly, seeming to be slightly calmer now that Ann had left. “Uh, could I ask you something?”

“If it’s at all about my record, I’d prefer not to talk about it,” Ren said.

“Oh, no, that wasn’t it at all!” Mishima said. “And…” He coughed. “Again, I can’t apologize enough about that. But I think I can make it up to you.”

“You think?” Ren asked, a slightly curious expression on his face as he finally turned to look at Mishima. He hoped his glasses kept too much of the surprise on his face from showing. I’ve never seen him without those bruises… He looks so much more… lively.

“I need to ask you something first,” Mishima said, not showing signs that he noticed Ren’s surprise.

“Make it quick and ask already,” Ren said, standing and carefully moving the bag with Morgana over his shoulder.

Mishima gave a quick look around. The only people left in the classroom aside from them was a couple of girls gossiping about limited time items (“Big Bang Burger is offering a limited time Earth Burger for the spring season!”).

He turned his attention back towards Ren and asked in a whisper, “You’re the Phantom Thieves, aren’t you? You and Takamaki?”

Ren froze.

“How did he figure that out?” Morgana asked in a whisper.

“You are, aren’t you?” Mishima asked excitedly. “I owe you so much for dealing with Kamoshida! I- I want to help if I can. To make it up to you. Please, Amamiya?”

“Hey, say something!” Morgana hissed. “He’s waiting for you to react!”

“...what do you mean?” Ren finally asked, narrowing his eyes at Mishima.

~~~

“Aw, your pencil case is kind of cute!” Ann smiled. She and Makoto were unpacking their study materials while waiting for Ren, and Ann noticed Makoto carefully adjusting hers.

“Huh?” Makoto seemed surprised. “Oh, yes, it’s a Buchimaru-kun pencil case. Um… do you remember Buchimaru-kun?”

“Not really?” Ann frowned. “I traveled a lot with my parents, so I don’t really know about mascot characters or whatever it is.”

“I see,” Makoto frowned. And here I thought I found someone I could talk about him with.

The door opened and Ann let out a sigh. “Geez, Ren what kept- why is Mishima here?”

“Hm?” Makoto looked up in surprise, staring at the former volleyball team member as he entered the room.

Ren mouthed the word sorry as he closed the door behind himself and Mishima.

“I made him bring him here,” Morgana explained. “He has something to tell you guys.”

“W-wow,” Mishima stuttered. “I didn’t know Niijima-senpai was also… so, m-most of your group is made up of girls? You’re so lucky, Amamiya.”

“Please don’t say it like that,” Ren sighed.

“Can you explain why you are here?” Makoto asked. “You’re interrupting a study session.”

“Oh, r-right, yeah,” Mishima said, taking his phone out. “Um… what you guys did for me was really, uh, m-meaningful. Like, you girls are really-”

“What did we do for you?” Ann asked.

“Ah, of course, I mean what the Phantom Thieves did for the school,” Mishima said, bringing up the Phan-Site. “I made this so others could show their appreciation and get your help. I mean, I have no idea how you did it, but-”

“What makes you think we did anything?” Makoto asked. “You said you made this ‘Phan-Site’? Then the Phantom Thieves are the ones you should be thank-”

“Oh, Amamiya already told me,” Mishima said.

“...did he now?” Makoto asked, narrowing her eyes at Ren, who was staring at the wall as if it was a famous work of art.

“I get it, I’ll keep things quiet,” Mishima said. “You probably don’t want all the attention being a hero might bring, huh?”

“You got that right,” Ann said.

“I’ll do my best to support you guys with my Phan-Site, if you… you know, don’t mind,” Mishima said. “And, uh, m-maybe one of you c-could talk with me? You know, sometime? About the site, of course. And how best to-”

“We’ll consider it,” Makoto interrupted. “Thank you for your consideration, Mishima-kun.”

“Oh, uh, n-no problem,” Mishima said. “I’ll… see you later, Takamaki. Niijima-senpai. And, uh, of course you, Amamiya.” He quickly left, his face red.

Once the door was shut, Ren sheepishly turned towards Ann and a still glaring Makoto. “I am so sorry… He wouldn’t stop pestering me, and Morgana started pestering me too-”

“Hey, don’t drag me into this,” Morgana complained, hopping out of Ren’s bag.

“You already said you made him come here!” Ann complained.

Makoto sighed. “It’s fine, Ren-kun. Shiho-san blindsided me as well when I met her at the hospital. And it’s not like we’re actually doing wrong…”

“Still, he kind of creeped me out,” Ann said. “Who hits on someone when basically asking for a job?”

“Ren-kun, I know I already ask a lot of you for getting our medical supplies,” Makoto said. “And that Mishima-kun was the one who leaked your record to begin with. But he approached you, and is in your class, so… could you deal with him for us if he needs anything?”

“...he was just as much of a victim, I suppose,” Ren said. “And, well, he did go through the trouble of programming a website for us…”

“Which is exactly what we need,” Morgana said. “Those requests could lead us to some big targets. And the more we explore the Metaverse…”

“The more people we’ll be able to help?” Ann shrugged.

“And we may get closer to helping you, right?” Makoto asked.

“That’s the idea,” Morgana said. “You don’t have to come here tomorrow, right? I think we can take a request then. Introduce you all to what you questioned me on yesterday, Makoto.”

“You mean that… Mementos thing, right?” Makoto asked. “...I can make time. Is that okay with the rest of you?”

“I have no life outside of this,” Ren said.

“That’s so sad,” Ann frowned.

“I meant it as a joke,” Ren frowned as well. “I’ll be there. Ann?”

“If everyone else is, sure,” Ann said. “I’m all for helping.”

“Great!” Morgana laughed. “But for now, play the part of good students, okay?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Makoto said. “Now then, Ren-kun, you were in class the day Ann missed. Do you remember what was taught?”

“Something about right and wrong,” Ren said, sitting beside Makoto as he took his homework out. “I think… believing you’re right, but people think it’s wrong…?”

Makoto put her hand to her chin, staring at Ren’s notes but not really reading them. “I believe you’re talking about kakushinhan? Kawakami-sensei discussed that early last year for me.”

“That was it!” Ren said. “Most people think it’s about knowing you’re wrong, when it’s really thinking you’re right.”

“Makoto, I said it before, but your memory is just wow,” Ann said, sounding utterly impressed as she took notes.

“Which is real good for us,” Morgana said. “Means I don’t have to keep repeating my lessons for you, like I do with the lockpicks for Ren.”

“I messed up once,” Ren sighed.

“Mona, please don’t interrupt our studying with teasing,” Makoto said. “There is a time and place for that.”

“...sorry, Queen,” Morgana said, meekly retreating from the table to the couch.

“Let’s move on,” Makoto said, reaching over to turn a page of Ren’s notebook.

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Daytime
Station Square

Makoto was making her way back to the station from Central Street, a bag of takeout from Big Bang Burger in her hand, when she heard a shout.

“This country is twisted!”

Makoto briefly turned to see the speaker, an elderly politician, speaking to a rather small crowd.

“There have been far too many incidents lately to ignore…!” he continued to say as Makoto walked past, approaching Ren and Ann where they were leaning by the gate to the Ginza Line.

“I got you what you asked me for,” Makoto said, reaching into the bag and pulling out two burgers. “The Earth Burger for you, Ren-kun.”

“Thanks,” Ren said, taking it.

“And a regular one for you, Ann.”

“Thank you so much, Makoto!” Ann smiled.

“So,” Makoto said, carefully opening her salad and taking a bite. “Morgana, care to finally share?”

“Yep,” Morgana said. “Step one; we need a decent request off of the Phan-Site.”

“Okay,” Ann said, carefully taking her phone out, and looking between it and the burger in her other hand. “Um… someone will need to scroll for me so I can eat.”

Makoto sighed, putting her salad back into the bag and taking Ann’s phone. “I’ll eat later. Let’s see here…” Ren and Ann both moved to look over Makoto’s shoulder as she scrolled through the Phan-Site’s forums.

“'My friend won’t return my game…'” Ann read. Her face fell into a bored expression. “Um… that’s kind of your own problem, isn’t it?”

“'My girlfriend’s parents don’t like me…'” Ren read. “...I guess I feel bad, but…”

Makoto paused, frowning. “...Shujin’s Student Council President?”

“Huh?” Ann blinked. “Where do you see that?”

Makoto opened the forum page, reading the original post.

Anon (Topic Creator): Shujin’s Student President helped cover up that shit with Kamoshida.

Anon (Topic Creator): She acts like she cares about people, but it’s only when it benefits her.

Anon: Oh, I second this! She’s the worst!

Anon: Her name’s Niijima. C’mon, Phantom Thieves. If you’re real, she’s a prime target!

“Oh, geez…” Ann frowned. “Hey, Makoto? Don’t listen to them, okay?”

Makoto gave no sign of hearing her, her gaze still focused on the forum.

Ren hesitated for a moment before gently reaching over, placing his hand over Makoto’s and gently taking Ann’s phone from her. “Makoto.”

“Huh?” Makoto blinked, looking up into Ren’s eyes.

“It’s just a few people,” Ren said. “We know the truth about you.” He gave a small smile. “Besides, I get the feeling I’ve got more people asking for my heart to be stolen. So… you’ll be okay.”

“...Ren-kun…” Makoto said softly, before nodding, returning his smile. “...thank you.”

Ren nodded, removing his hand from Makoto’s and taking over the scrolling, letting Morgana finish off his burger. “Let’s see…”

“It’s kind of funny some people are asking the Phantom Thieves to steal the hearts of the members of the Phantom Thieves,” Ann said, an awkward smile on her face as she tried to lighten the mood.

“Mhm,” Morgana gave an amused purr as he looked up. “Especially since we couldn’t do that even if we wanted to.”

“...we couldn’t?” Ann asked.

“We’re Persona users,” Morgana explained. “You remember, right, Makoto?”

“I do,” Makoto nodded. “Ann, you weren’t there when we discussed this, but our Personas are our inner selves. And the Palaces the Meta-Nav takes us to are ruled by people’s Shadows, or their inner selves.”

“Oh, I see,” Ann said. “So, like, Carmen is Shadow me? And Arsene is Shadow Ren.”

“Essentially,” Makoto said.

“Found one,” Ren said, breaking the conversation and showing the forum he selected.

Anon (Topic Creator): I don’t know what to do about my ex who’s stalking me. His name is Natsuhiko Nakanohara.”

Anon: Isn’t that a teller at City Hall?

Anon (Topic Creator): That’s why I feel there’s nowhere else to turn.

Anon (Topic Creator): Please don’t let this just be a silly rumor…

“A stalker…” Ann said, quiet anger in her voice.

“...a fitting target, I’d say,” Makoto agreed.

Ann brushed her hands clean on her jacket and took her phone back, opening up the Meta-Nav. “Okay, so… I just say the name, right?”

“Wait, not so fast!” Morgana said. “Step two; follow up his name with the keyword: Mementos.”

“Mementos?” Ann repeated. “Um, okay… Natsuhiko Nakanohara. Mementos.”

“Candidate found,” the Metaverse Navigator chimed.

“Oh, neato!” Ann smiled.

“So what is Mementos?” Ren asked.

“Let’s navigate in and find out, shall we?” Morgana asked.

“Uh, are we ready?” Ann asked.

“We should be fine, yes,” Makoto said.

“Beginning navigation,” the app chimed again.

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Daytime
Mementos

The brief wave of pressure that they usually felt quickly washed over them, and they found themselves in a now empty Station Square, the various screens around Shibuya glitching out with static.

“We’re here,” Morgana said.

“Mementos,” Makoto repeated. “But what is it? And how did you know it would be relevant before we found out about Nakanohara?”

“I didn’t know he’d be connected,” Morgana said. “Didn’t even know he existed.” He looked around. “Come on, let’s head downstairs.” He ran out across the square, going downstairs to where the Underground Walkway would be in reality.

Makoto and the others stood up, following. As they climbed lower, their clothes suddenly ignited in blue flame, the three now in their usual Metaverse outfits.

“So, is this a Palace?” Ren asked.

“One that sees us as a threat already?” Makoto asked. “Perhaps Nakanohara saw the post?”

“Probably,” Morgana said from up ahead. “But he has no real control on security levels here.” They stopped as they reached a platform, the start of a set of train tracks stretching out into the dark tunnel. There was an odd, shadowy wind blowing, giving off the impression the darkness was trying to suck them in.

“It’s still a subway,” Makoto remarked, trying to shake off the unease the place gave her.

“Yeah, I can’t explain why that is,” Morgana said. “Anyway, forget that detail.” He turned around and made an attempt to gesture dramatically. “Welcome to Mementos; everyone’s Palace!”

“Did you say everyone?” Ren asked.

“Only those whose hearts get truly twisted form a Palace of their own,” Morgana exposited. “Most of the public isn’t as bad as Kamoshida was. But their hearts are still ripe for the taking. And this is where we can do it.”

“...so this is where the Shadows of everyday people usually reside?” Makoto asked.

“Think of it as the collective unconscious or something…” Morgana shrugged. “Either way, doing minor stuff like this guy without having to wait for him to get to Palace levels of bad is good for us.”

“And good for others,” Ren said.

Makoto took out the Meta-Nav, noticing it now displaying information on Mementos. “...it seems I was meant to come here.”

“Did you say something, Queen?” Ann asked.

“Oh, no, it’s nothing,” Makoto said. “Um… our target doesn’t seem to be too far away, but…”

“Yeah, the people here carve out their only little… let’s call them mini-Palaces? ...out on the tracks,” Morgana said. “It shouldn’t be much bigger than a large room.”

“It’s getting there to begin with that’s the issue,” Ren said.

“Hey, so if this is the Palace of everybody, why is it so… what’s the word?” Ann asked.

“Uniform,” Makoto said. “The public seems to have a consensus on their cognition. Why is that?”

“I’m not so sure it’s exactly the same cognition,” Morgana said. “I mean, Mementos changes all the time.”

“Great,” Ren sighed.

“So it’ll be even more annoying to get to this guy?” Ann asked.

Morgana laughed. “Nope! Once again, the amazing Mona will assist you!” He leapt into the air over the tracks and, in a puff of smoke, turned into a bus.

“...okay,” Ren said.

“Mona!” Ann gasped. “You can transform?!”

“Yeah, but only into a bus,” Morgana replied. His tone suddenly got very confused. “No idea why… the public weirdly shares that cognition.”

“I’m thankful for it,” Makoto said. “This will make getting through Mementos actually doable. Thank you, Mona.”

“Anytime, Queen,” Morgana replied.

“Hey, when Kamoshida’s Palace collapsed, why didn’t you do this then?”

“That would have taken far too long to explain, I think,” Morgana said. “Besides, if we took Queen’s exit strategy in a bus, do you think we’d actually get out alive?”

“...that’s true,” Ann admitted. “Well… I don’t think I’ll ever get over how weird the Metaverse is, so let’s just get going!”

“Yeah, let’s not waste too much time,” Morgana said. “Climb aboard! Oh, but one of you is going to have to drive me. Buses kind of need drivers, you know.”

“Oh, uh…” Ann stopped just before getting into the Mona-Bus. “I don’t actually know how to drive.”

“Me neither,” Ren said. “But Queen might. I know Johanna is an extension of herself, but-”

“Yeah, that’s still far more experience than we have,” Ann said. “Queen?”

“I do have a license…” Makoto said softly. “But I never was able to drive after getting it. We had to sell the family car to afford some expenses.”

“Well, here’s your chance!” Ann said.

“My chance…” Makoto smiled, climbing inside and sitting behind the steering wheel.

“Let’s go, then,” Ren said, sitting beside her while Ann took a seat behind them.

Makoto scanned the dashboard until she found the switch to start it up, a slight purring sound mixing with the noises of an engine. “Let’s.”

“...this is so weird,” Ann said as they set off down the tracks.

~~~

The other side of the swirling vortex they had found was a room, red fractal designs apparently being projected off of the odd, red pipes that extended down an even odder tunnel made up of a series of octagonal cutouts. Staring down that tunnel, muttering to himself, was a man wearing an everyday business suit.

“That’s that guy, right?” Ann asked as they got off the bus, Morgana returning to his, for lack of a better word, normal self.

“Nakanohara’s Shadow,” Morgana confirmed.

“Let’s get this over with,” Makoto said, leading the group forward.

At the sound of their approach, he spun around, his yellow eyes gleaming behind his glasses. “Who are you people?!”

“Your ex sent us,” Ren said.

“You’ve been stalking her, haven’t you?!” Ann snapped. “Have you thought about how scared that must make her feel?!”

“I’m just treating her like she treated me!” Shadow Nakanohara whined. “I was nothing but a plaything to her. What’s wrong with me treating her the same way?!”

“So you felt mistreated in your relationship and decided following her against her will was the solution to that?” Makoto asked. “Following her after you’ve already broken up? That sounds like you’re just trying to come up with an excuse.”

“I hate people like you, who treat women as beneath them,” Ren muttered, his eyes narrowed into a glare.

Makoto gave him a brief glance. "Joker..."

“As if there aren’t people worse than me out there?” Shadow Nakanohara replied angrily, grabbing their attention again. “You want someone that treats people as beneath him? How about Madarame?! That man stole everything from me, but he gets off the hook? I’m sure he treats women just the same, you know!”

“Madarame…?” Makoto repeated, frowning. Where have I heard that name before?

“Look out!” Morgana warned as Shadow Nakanohara transformed into an Obariyon.

I can worry about that later, Makoto thought, narrowing her eyes. “Let’s subdue him and get this over with.”

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Daytime
Kosei High School

“Please, I insist you let me inside!" a rather attractive, albeit rather thin, high schooler begged. "It is a matter of life and death!”

“Whoa, s-slow down!” the guard stuttered in shock, reaching back towards the closed school gates. “Someone’s life is in danger?!”

“Well, no, but an artistic idea may be about to die, and I see that as being just as dangerous,” the high schooler replied.

The school’s guard let out an annoyed sigh. “Listen… what was your name?”

“Kitagawa. I’m a second-year here under an art scholarship. I happened to leave an incomplete canvas inside and if I don’t return to it while the muse is with me, it may as well have not had anything on it!”

“I’m sorry, but the school is locked for a reason,” the guard said. “And after your lie about someone’s life being at risk-”

“My muse is at risk!” Kitagawa protested.

“-I’m not inclined to make you an exception,” the guard finished. “Just pick the canvas up when school’s open tomorrow.”

Kitagawa gave a frustrated sigh, turning around and returning to the waiting limo.

“Didn’t go well, Yusuke?” the elderly man asked with a smile.

“I’m afraid not, sensei,” Yusuke sighed. “I can feel that spark of inspiration for that piece dying…”

“Well, I suppose there’s nothing to do about it,” his sensei said. “It’s probably for the best, anyway. Artwork about flash-in-the-pan idols is very overdone and wouldn’t at all be timeless.”

“...I suppose that is true,” Yusuke said.

“Let’s go back to the atelier. Perhaps you’ll find a new muse in the meantime. You still have a month, after all. Maybe spend your Golden Week on that?”

Yusuke nodded, a frown forming on his face as he got into the limousine.

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Daytime
Mementos

Shadow Nakanohara turned back to normal, dropping to his knees.

“I… I’m sorry,” he gasped. He shook his head. “I was just… I was desperate for something after my teacher disposed of me like that and…” He looked up. “...can you forgive me?”

“I feel sorry for you if you were truly used like you said,” Makoto said. “However…”

“That doesn’t give you the right to drag other people into it,” Ann frowned. “You should really apologize to her.”

“...I will,” he nodded. “I’ll… I’ll stop following her and let her go…” He stood up. “...can I ask a favor? You… can you do to Madarame what you just did to me? Change his heart? So others don’t end up like me.”

And in a burst of light, Shadow Nakanohara vanished, a glowing orb drifting where he once stood.

“If he actually told us who that was, maybe we could have helped,” Morgana said.

Makoto said nothing, looking down. I know I’ve heard the name Madarame before… Was it on TV?

“...is that a Treasure?” Ren asked, staring at the orb.

“The start of one, yeah,” Morgana said. “If we didn’t do anything, it’s likely his distorted desires towards that girl could have gotten worse.”

“And then it would become the core of his very own Palace,” Makoto said, walking up and plucking it out of the air, the light fading to reveal a small part of a pearl necklace in her hand.

“I’m glad it didn’t grow that big,” Ann said. “I don’t think I could take another Palace with a creepy fixation like that.”

“Well, by nature, all Palaces involve a fixation of some sort,” Morgana said. “But I understand what you mean, Panther.”

“So, what now?” Ren asked. “Should we bother to continue exploring?”

“Mementos does constantly change,” Makoto frowned.

“Yeah, but practice couldn’t hurt, right?” Ann asked.

“I suppose not,” Makoto said. “And it’s not like that took too much time or effort. Still, I’d like the chance to eat my salad.”

“Let’s just go down another floor or two, then,” Morgana said. “I think there was a wall here before. I’d like to see if it’s gone now.”

“Very well,” Makoto nodded, turning back towards the vortex. “Let’s get going, then.”

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Daytime
Station Square

The group returned to reality, sitting down with Makoto as she finished her salad.

“So, the door moved because cognition or whatever?” Ann asked, Morgana having finished his explanation. The immediate next floor down was another train platform, various Shadows even hitching a ride on the subways. And, until the Phantom Thieves approached, there was a wall set up between them and the escalators down.

“That’s the best answer I have,” Morgana said. "People are talking about us, so we can go deeper into their cognition."

“Regardless, we have plenty of time to look into that further,” Makoto said. “I’m just happy to learn we have the means to actually help people deal with those that don’t have Palaces yet.”

“Yeah, that is a relief,” Ren agreed.

“Still, what was with that guy?” Ann asked. “Like, yeah, it sucks someone treated him bad, but he starts stalking someone because of that? I mean, who does that?”

Makoto suddenly sneezed.

“You okay?” Ren asked.

“I am,” Makoto said. “Just a tickle, I think.”

“Hey, it is May now, isn’t it?” Ann asked. “Pollen can get pretty bad this month.”

“I don’t think I have any allergies,” Makoto frowned. “But just in case, maybe I should pick up some allergy medication at some time.”

“I could see if Takemi has any,” Ren said. “Bring you some tomorrow if she does.”

“Oh, that’s rather considerate,” Makoto smiled. “Thank you.”

“In that case, let’s go home for today,” Morgana said. “See if we get an update on that request.”

“Good work today, everyone,” Makoto said, standing up.

“See you tomorrow!” Ann waved.

~~~

5/1 - Sunday
Evening
Okumura Residence

“Haru-chan…” a brown-haired man in a white business suit smirked as Haru walked into the main sitting room.

“S-Sugimura-san…” she stuttered in surprise. “Um, I wasn’t expecting you tonight…”

“Oh, I won’t be long, I’m afraid,” he said, closing the gap between them and stroking her cheek, ignoring the flinch she gave at his touch. “Your father asked me to accompany him and the Okumura Foods executives on a business retreat to Hawaii.”

“Hawaii?” Haru repeated. “Why there?”

“If you must know, we plan on expanding Big Bang Burger overseas,” her father, Kunikazu Okumura said, walking in, two servants carrying his bags behind him. “As your fiance will likely inherit the company when I run my campaign, he should be involved in such affairs.”

“I see,” Haru nodded. “How long will you be gone?”

“We’ll be back after your Golden Week holidays,” Kunikazu said. “Take the time to recover from that nasty business I saw happened at your school.”

“Yes, father,” Haru bowed.

“I’ll bring you back something nice,” Sugimura said, stepping back. “Perhaps one of those hula skirts?”

“...that would be nice,” Haru mumbled.

“Well then, we’ll be off,” Kunikazu said, not even looking at Haru as he turned to leave.

“See you next weekend, Haru-chan,” Sugimura sneered, forcing a kiss on her before following Kunikazu out the door.

Haru stood in place until the door closed behind them, before letting out a shudder and quickly wiping her sleeve against her lips, spitting slightly.

Sighing, she sat down on the sofa, taking out her phone, and bringing up the Phan-Site, operating as if on auto-pilot. Suddenly, she froze, noticing one of the request forums had the word ‘*Update*’ added to the title.

Anon (Topic Creator): I heard from Nakanohara today. He apologized! He said he’d stop following me!

Anon: Oh, congratulations!

Anon: Does this mean the Phantom Thieves changed his heart?

Anon (Topic Creator): I think so! Oh, thank you, Phantom Thieves!

Anon: Pics or it didn’t happen.

Anon (Topic Creator): Um… I don’t usually take pictures of random encounters on the street.

Haru stared in surprise, before quickly adding a comment of her own.

Anon: I believe you, OP. Glad to hear things worked out for you! It gives me courage they can help me as well!

Haru put her phone away, smiling. So they are still doing changes of heart. And if father and Sugimura are gone… She stood up, a determined look on her face. I have a chance! This is the perfect opportunity for me! Tomorrow, I’ll finally be able to ask Niijima-san herself! I’ll get her to change my fiance’s heart!

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.7%

Chapter Text

5/2 - Monday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

“Tomorrow’s Golden Week. Why did we have to come in for a single day like this?”

“It would be cool if they actually gave us a full week off.”

They do realize that would mean another break later on would just end up being shorter, right? Makoto questioned in her head as she walked past the chatting students and up into the school.

Ryuji was leaning at the corner by the school store, looking up from his phone as Makoto entered. “Yo! Niijima-senpai!”

“Hm?” Makoto glanced over. “Oh, Sakamoto-kun. Good morning.”

“Yeah, good morning,” he said. “Hey, I, uh, wanted to talk with you, if I could?”

“I suppose?” Makoto frowned, walking over and following Ryuji to the doors to the Practice Building. Remember, he was a victim, too. Ren-kun considers him a good person. Don’t lose your temper if he says something stupid, especially if he’s trying to make amends.

“Here’s fine,” Ryuji said, turning and narrowing his eyes at Makoto. “Uh… how you feelin’ today, senpai?”

“How am I feeling?” Makoto asked. “I suppose I feel fine. May I inquire as to why you are asking me that?”

“Just curious,” he said, scowling down at his phone. He looked up again. “Uh… you seem to like spendin’ time with my friend. What’s that all about?”

“...are you attempting to interrogate me?” Makoto asked, walking forward and wrenching the phone out of Ryuji’s hand.

“Ah, hey!” Ryuji snapped. “You can’t just steal someone’s phone! I don’t care if you are the Student Council President!”

“Are you looking up a prompt on what to ask?” Makoto asked, looking at the screen. She froze, noticing the forum post she had seen on the Phan-Site last night was open. ‘Shujin’s Student Council President.’

Ryuji snatched it back, muttering to himself. “Guess that’s a no on a change of heart…”

“...it was you?” Makoto asked, narrowing her eyes. “You asked the Phantom Thieves to steal my heart?”

“...well, what do you expect?” Ryuji asked. “No one likes you, Niijima. You didn’t give a damn about anyone but yourself last year, you covered up Kamoshida’s shit-”

“I did no such thing,” Makoto said, her plan to keep her temper under control completely forgotten. “And if no one liked me as you claim, then your so-called friend wouldn’t be spending so much time with me, now would he?”

“You doin’ this on purpose, Niijima?!” Ryuji snapped. “Why are you so interested in Ren, huh? Criminal record delinquent doesn’t seem to be Miss Honor Student’s type.”

“I’m interested in him because I’m a nice person and want to help him get through his probation and school life while he’s here,” Makoto said. She glared at him. “And if keeping him away from you helps with that? So be it.”

“So it is a problem with me, huh?” Ryuji asked.

“It is now,” Makoto said. “The rumor mill has made school life quite difficult for Ren-kun. As it has for you, as well. And yet, you’re an active participant in it. You treat Takamaki poorly because she was rumored to be sleeping with Kamoshida. You treat me poorly because I’m rumored to have helped cover his crimes up to make myself look good. I actually am happy he’s gone and, in case you haven’t noticed the posters now hanging up-” She jabbed a finger over to a notice board around the corner, the sign directing people to the Student Council Room now hanging up. “-I only wish to help my fellow students. Tell me, what do you do with your time other than lash out and act the part of a loner delinquent?”

“It was you and this damn school that decided I was an effin’ delinquent!” Ryuji snapped.

“Don’t shout, we’re in school.”

“And you wanna know what I do?” Ryuji asked, giving a harsh, forced laugh. “I actually try reachin’ out to people like me. Like I did with Ren. Tell me, if he didn’t give a damn about studyin’ or whatever the hell you do together, would you spend any time with him? At all?”

“I-” Makoto’s voice caught in her throat. ...I’ve wondered that myself. If I never saw Ren-kun having such difficulty in the library- If he sat in a study booth out of my sight, or never went into the library at all…

“Figured,” Ryuji said. “You’re so fake, and people like you are what’s wrong with this effing school.”

Makoto opened her mouth to retort when a gentle voice spoke up from behind them.

“Niijima-san?” Haru asked, cautiously approaching. “I was hoping to ask you for some help. Um, I’m not interrupting, am I?”

“...not at all,” Makoto said, letting out a breath. “Sakamoto-kun and I were just making small talk. Anyway, as Student Council President and a decent person, I would be more than happy to assist you, Okumura-san. Shall we go talk in private somewhere?”

“Oh, yes, I was hoping for that,” Haru nodded.

“Then let’s make our way to the Student Council Room,” Makoto said. “We still have some time before class, after all.” She turned, narrowing her eyes at Ryuji. “Good day, Sakamoto.”

Ryuji scowled. “You wanna see who’s a good person? I’ll show you who helps people around here.” He stormed off into the Practice Building.

“...please do?” Makoto said after him, the anger in her voice now replaced with confusion. “I… don’t know why you think helping people would upset me.”

“...um, Niijima-san?”

“Yes, of course,” Makoto nodded. “Sorry, I may have let myself get too riled up there.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” Haru said. “He seemed to have a bit of a short temper in regards to you. I would be upset if I was in your position, I think.”

Makoto frowned. “Well, if you say you’re alright with it…” Though whether Ren-kun would be is another story... She sighed. “Right this way, Okumura-san.” She quickly led Haru back through the Classroom Building and up to the third floor. She unlocked the door and held it open. “After you.”

“Thank you!” Haru smiled, stepping inside.

Makoto followed, closing the door behind her. She quickly took out her phone, checking the time. “Alright, we aren’t too pressed for time.” She put it away. “You can sit down if you want.”

“I’m fine,” Haru said. “Thank you for offering, though.”

Makoto nodded. “Now, what can I help you with?”

Haru nervously cleared her throat, rubbing her arm, before looking up into Makoto’s eyes. “...I’d like to ask you and the Phantom Thieves to steal my fiance’s heart.”

“...huh…?”

~~~

Ren and Ann felt their phones buzz as they were settling into homeroom. Taking them out, they saw a surprisingly frantic message from Makoto.

Makoto: Meet me in the Student Council Room as soon as school ends.

Makoto: Do not reply to this message.

“Um…” Ann frowned. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“That’s an understatement,” Morgana said, peeking down at Ren’s screen.

Ren remained quiet, gently sliding his phone back into his pocket.

~~~

5/2 - Monday
Afternoon
Shujin Academy

Makoto was staring blankly at the blackboard as the teacher gave a lecture. That morning's argument with Ryuji was completely forgotten, her mind entirely on Haru’s request. She overheard us. I was too careless. What if this man she’s asking us to go after isn’t reachable? Will she go to the police? The only law we’ve actually broken is intimidation, but that’s enough that Ren-kun would be-

“Niijima-san?” the teacher asked, staring at her. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Huh?” Makoto blinked, staring up at him. “O-oh, yes, I’m fine. Sorry, sir.”

He shook his head. “I guess even the top student at school has her mind on Golden Week.”

Makoto tightened her grip beneath the desk as she heard a few chuckles in the back of the room.

“I’ll repeat the question, then,” the teacher said. “What is the real name of the subject of da Vinci’s masterpiece, the 'Mona Lisa'?”

“I believe it was Lisa del Giocondo,” Makoto answered. “Her maiden name was Gherardini.”

“Correct, as expected of you, Niijima,” the teacher nodded. “Yes, the name this famous painting is known by isn’t actually her name. 'Mona Lisa' has taken a life outside of its original subject. On a similar artistic note, many people debate whether or not the subject of the famous 'Sayuri' is actually named-”

Makoto found herself tuning out her teacher again. I need to stop overthinking things. She hasn’t actually made such a threat yet, after all. I'll try and learn more of her motives after school.

~~~

5/2 - Monday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Thank you all so much for seeing me,” Haru smiled as Ren and Ann arrived in the Student Council Room.

“Uh, I didn’t know we would be,” Ann frowned.

“Is she what your text was about?” Morgana asked quietly.

Makoto nodded. “Everyone, this is Haru Okumura. She’s a fellow third-year. And she has a garden up on the rooftop.”

“Oh, uh, nice to meet you,” Ann said, still confused.

“...the rooftop?” Ren asked quietly.

“I take it you’ve realized,” Makoto said.

“Realized what?” Ann asked.

“Lady Ann… remember when we were on the roof?” Morgana asked, realization also on his face. “Talking right by the door?”

“...oh, geez…” Ann said, looking down. “Um…”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m blackmailing you,” Haru said sweetly. “But, um, the day before Kamoshida received a calling card, I heard you talking on that same roof. About the calling card and something about mental shutdown.”

“We aren’t causing mental shutdowns!” Ann protested.

“Oh, no, I’m fully aware!” Haru hastily said, a nervous look on her face. “I didn’t mean to suggest-”

“We get it, don’t worry,” Ren said reassuringly.

“Oh, um, thank you…” Haru said, letting out a relieved sigh. “So, um, anyway…”

“Okumura-san knows we are the Phantom Thieves, and wishes to detail a request for us,” Makoto finished. She looked down at the table, almost in shame.

“A request?” Ren repeated.

“I saw last night that you did something on the Phan-Site,” Haru said. “You stole a stalker’s heart, and made that woman very happy.”

“Well, good to hear feedback,” Morgana said. “That’s the bright side to this.”

“Shush,” Ren whispered to Morgana.

“So I realized since I knew who you were, maybe I could get help, too,” Haru continued. “My father and fiance are out of town this week, which gave me the chance to talk to you. I’m sorry if it’s stressful or if you need to wait until he gets back on Saturday, but I needed this off my chest before Golden Week.”

“...did you say fiance?” Ann repeated, eyes wide. “O-Okumura-senpai, you’re already getting married?!”

“How old are you?” Ren asked. “I mean, you’re still in high school, so-”

“I’m 17,” Haru answered. “But… love is not the reason I’m engaged. My father arranged the marriage. Do any of you know about the Sugimura family? I’m engaged to a young man, Daiki Sugimura, because his family is well entrenched in politics, which my father has become interested in after those recent scandals.”

“Essentially, it’s an arranged political marriage,” Makoto summarized.

“Father is…” Haru hesitated, before shaking her head. “I’d like to believe he’s simply too busy to notice how Sugimura-san treats me. My… personal space is violated, he doesn’t let me voice my opinions or…” She trailed off, her gaze now distant.

“...I’m so sorry,” Ann frowned. “I… I was in a similar place with Kamoshida, but… it wasn’t like I’d be forced to marry him.”

“...so you want us to change Sugimura’s heart?” Ren asked.

“If you could,” Haru said. “...I know you’re good people. Niijima-san was ever so helpful with my garden. And Amamiya-kun, you helped catch me that one time even though I bumped into you.”

“Um, so do you need it done by a certain time?” Ann asked.

“The sooner the better,” Haru said. “I’ll be hanging around the Big Bang Burger on Central Street during Golden Week if you need more information? Like, when their flight comes in? I’m… not sure how you do these changes of heart, after all.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Makoto said. She tapped the table for a moment. “...out of curiosity, what would you do if we refused this request?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’d never do that,” Haru said innocently. “But… if for some reason you did refuse, I’d tell the school at once.”

There was a tense silence at Haru’s threat, despite her tone not having changed. She gave them a polite bow. “Well, good day, everyone!” And with that, she left the room.

They waited a few moments after Haru had left before talking again.

“Wow, all of the girls in this school are scary, huh?” Morgana said. “Someone as sweet as her getting all threatening like that.”

“I’m fine with it,” Ren said.

“You are?” Ann asked, a surprised look on her face.

“We can’t let her end up in a relationship like that,” Ren said.

“Oh, you meant her request, not girls intimidating you…” Ann mumbled.

Ren rubbed the back of his neck.

“I do agree,” Makoto said softly. “Though, it sounds more like her father is the problem here, forcing her to marry a man such as that…”

“She said he might just be too busy to notice,” Ann said.

“What does he even do, though?” Morgana asked.

“...it could be Okumura Foods,” Makoto mumbled.

“Okumura Foods?” Ann repeated.

“Oh, I think I heard mention of that on the news the other night,” Ren said. “They’re behind Big Bang Burger, right?”

“Oh, wow, so… Okumura-senpai’s family is rich, huh?” Ann asked.

“That all aside,” Makoto said, “I… need to apologize. It was me and the Student Council that sent Okumura-san to the roof. I assumed that the rain that day meant she wouldn’t check on the garden up there, but…”

“She might have wanted to make sure the plants weren’t going to flood or something,” Morgana said.

“Or she might have noticed us going up and thought it had to be moved,” Ren suggested. “Either way… it’s out there now. It’s not your fault, Makoto.”

“Hey, so… that guy she told us about isn’t here right now, right?” Ann asked. “Okumura-senpai said he was out of town or something, right?”

Makoto put her hand to her chin. “Morgana, if an individual leaves Tokyo, can we still reach their heart?”

“Maybe?” Morgana frowned. “I don’t know which humans’ Shadows are in Mementos, but if they ever were there, they’d probably stay there until a Palace or Persona happens.”

“And a Palace Ruler wouldn’t need to be where their Palace is, correct?” Makoto continued to muse. “After all, Kamoshida didn’t spend all of his time at school.”

“That’s right,” Morgana said. “I think, anyway.”

“Let’s just assume it is right,” Ren sighed, taking out his phone. “We all agree to change his heart?”

“I know I did even before Okumura-senpai’s threat,” Ann said. "It... I can relate a lot..."

“The sooner we can complete this, the better, I’d say," Makoto said. "We'll all be a lot less stressed, Okumura-san especially. Is the Meta-Nav open?”

Ren tapped his phone’s screen a bit before nodding.

“Daiki Sugimura, Haru Okumura’s fiance. And let’s first try… Mementos.”

“Candidate found,” the Meta-Nav chimed.

“Alright,” Ren said. “So it’s doable, then.”

“I’m so sick of dealing with these womanizing types,” Ann sighed.

“Just be glad he doesn't have a full-on Palace yet,” Morgana said. “So, when do you want to do this?”

“I’m open all of Golden Week if you are,” Makoto said.

“Then we’ll tackle this then,” Ren said. “Tomorrow okay?”

“Works for me!” Ann said.

“Alright, team!” Morgana said. “We’ll steal this perverted paramour’s heart!”

“...what?” Ann frowned.

“Hey, if I need to sit in on all of these classes of yours, I’m going to use the words I learn, dammit!”

“I think you still got it wrong,” Ren frowned.

“...let’s just break for today,” Makoto sighed. “Sis wanted me home after school, but Okumura-san wouldn’t let me drop this topic, so I’m starting to run late.”

“Okay,” Ren nodded. “See ya tomorrow, then.”

“We’ll meet at Station Square or something, yeah?” Ann asked.

“Mhm,” Makoto nodded. “Have a good evening, you three.”

“Same to you, Makoto,” Morgana said as Ren picked his bag back up and left the room, Ann following.

Once alone, Makoto leaned against the table, letting out a sigh as she stared up at the ceiling. If what we’re doing isn’t wrong, why does people finding out about us fill me with such unease and dread?

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Leblanc Cafe

“Do you think they’ll be up and about this early in the morning?” Morgana asked while Ren finished getting dressed.

“Makoto probably is,” Ren said.

“But Lady Ann might want beauty sleep!” Morgana said.

Ren shrugged, grabbing his bag, when Sojiro called from downstairs.

“Hey, kid, need some help in the cafe today!”

“...damn,” Ren sighed, setting his bag down. “I’ll be right down!”

“Can’t really refuse him when he’s your guardian, huh?” Morgana sighed as Ren sent a text to the group.

Ren: Bad news. Boss wants me helping out at Leblanc today.

Makoto: I see. That’s a little unfortunate that we can’t handle Mementos today…

Ren: Sorry.

Makoto: Oh, no, it’s quite alright. He is your guardian, after all. You do have some obligation.

Makoto: Okumura-san likely doesn’t expect us to be able to handle it until the weekend, anyway.

Ren: I’ll make sure I’m free tomorrow.

Makoto: Since we’re delayed a day… Ann, are you awake?

Typing…

Ann: Ah, sorry, I overslept!

Ann: I’m here, I’m here!

Makoto: Shall we go visit Shiho-san today? She did express a desire that we come back.

Ann: Sounds good! I’m sure she’ll love seeing us!

Ren: Have fun, you two. Sorry again.

He slid his phone into his pocket, and headed downstairs, leaving Morgana alone.

“Guess I’ll just… take a nap, then,” Morgana sighed.

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Daytime
Tokyo Medical University Hospital

“His words angered me, and I just… snapped, and punched his Shadow in the face,” Makoto admitted. She and Ann had begun telling Shiho the story of Kamoshida's Palace, Makoto having just reached the moment of her awakening. “That’s when my inner self spoke to me and I awakened to my Persona, Johanna.”

“Oh, wow, I didn’t know that part,” Ann laughed. “I just knew Ren said he was sorry he didn’t have a tighter grip as you sped out.”

“Grip?” Shiho questioned.

“Oh, right, Makoto’s Persona is a motorcycle,” Ann said. “Forgot you didn’t know that.”

“Are you following the story okay?” Makoto frowned. “It’s actually hard for me to know how to talk about all of this with someone that hasn’t experienced it themselves.”

“Yeah, and even I still get a little lost sometimes,” Ann said. “It’s really weird.”

“It is,” Shiho agreed, frowning. “But… I think I get it a little.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, breathing heavily.

“Shiho?” Ann frowned. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” Shiho said, forcing a smile. “So after punching him, what happened next?”

“Probably the most unbelievable part of the story,” Makoto said. “...we found a talking cat in the dungeons.”

Shiho giggled. “Is it weird that that’s the part I find most believable so far?”

“Even if I told you we learned he can turn into a bus?” Ann asked.

“Really?”

“In the Metaverse, anyway,” Makoto said.

“Oh, like in that movie!” Shiho smiled.

“That’s probably the source of that cognition, yes,” Makoto nodded.

“Oh, we should all have a movie night when you get out, Shiho!” Ann smiled.

“That… sounds nice,” Shiho said, frowning again.

Makoto frowned as well. “...Shiho-san, are you-”

“How are we on time?” Shiho interrupted, looking at Ann.

“Um… it’s still pretty early, but I’m not even in the story yet, so...” Ann said, checking her phone.

“Let’s hurry to where you come in, then,” Shiho said, a small blush on her face.

“Totally! I have a lot I want to say! Makoto, keep going!”

“R-right…” Makoto stuttered, clearing her throat before she continued. Is Shiho-san hiding something from Ann? She doesn’t seem as happy as last time…

Rank up!

SUN CONFIDANT: RANK 2

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Daytime
Central Street

Ryuji made his way out of the arcade, walking down Central Street back towards the station, when he heard a voice come out of the alleyway.

“Hey, you look like you need a job,” an overly friendly voice said. “We pay pretty well if you’re willing to deliver some packages for us.”

“If that ain’t suspicious…” Ryuji muttered, looking down the alleyway. A man in what looked like workout clothes was slightly leaning in to the personal space of a girl around Ryuji’s age, her hair tied up in a side ponytail, and her outfit consisting of a somewhat gaudy skirt.

“How much dough we talkin’?” the girl asked.

“Hey, what’s this shit about a ‘job?’” Ryuji asked loudly, walking up.

“Oh, you interested, too?” the man asked, unfazed. “Just a simple delivery job, nothing too-”

“And it’s bein’ offered in an effin’ alley?” Ryuji asked.

“NTYMI, that’s real shady,” the girl said.

“NT… what…?” Ryuji mumbled, before shaking his head. “Anyway, we ain’t interested.”

The man shrugged. “Whatever. If you don’t need my cash, than piss off. Stupid kids.” He shoved past them and walked off into Central Street.

“Hey, you scared him off!” the girl said.

“Come on, even I know that was way too good to be true!” Ryuji said.

“I guess…” the girl mumbled. “Thanks, then… Sakamoto?”

“You know me?”

“Duh?” the girl said, giving him a look that made him feel stupid. “Everyone at Shujin’s heard of ya! Only person more famous than you there is that criminal kid.”

“Oh, you’re a fellow Shujin student, huh?” Ryuji frowned.

“Takao,” she introduced herself.

“Takao, huh? Never heard of ya.”

“That’s Takao-senpai!” She stuck her tongue out.

“Oh, geez, sorry,” Ryuji muttered.

Takao laughed. “Jk, man. I don’t care. Anyway, uh, thanks for helpin’ me out there or whatever.”

“Eh, no biggie,” Ryuji said. “I mean… I got money problems, too. I’d love it if that shit there was legit, but-”

“Mhm,” Takao nodded, taking her phone out and apparently texting someone. “So! Meetin’ some friends for some beef bowls. You in?”

“Huh?” Ryuji blinked. “Uh… s-sure! As long as you’re paying, anyway.”

“‘Kay,” Takao said, leading the way out of the alley and down towards Orenobeko. “Then we’re even, though.”

Ryuji gave a small, self-satisfied grin as he followed her.

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Sae sat at the kitchen table, typing at her laptop, while Makoto was sitting on the couch, watching the news. The two had been quiet since dinner, so Makoto jolted when Sae suddenly broke the silence.

“You were out rather late today,” Sae said.

“Oh, yes, I was visiting my kohai at the hospital,” Makoto said. “She… wanted to know about the events at school after she tried to…”

“I see,” Sae said. “...that was kind of you.”

“Thank you,” Makoto said, looking back at the TV.

“...this photo…” Sae mumbled slightly, looking back down.

“What was that, Sis?” Makoto asked.

“Nothing to concern yourself with,” Sae said, keeping her gaze on the documents on her laptop. “I… might have a lead that I should start looking into.”

“Oh, that’s good,” Makoto smiled.

“I might be busy the rest of the week, though,” Sae said. "We won't have any time together."

“Oh, that’s… too bad,” Makoto frowned.

“...we’ll get to make up for it some day,” Sae said. She checked her watch. “You should get to bed soon. Just because you have a few days this week off doesn’t mean you can change your sleeping schedule too much. Especially with exams next week.”

“Yes, Sis,” Makoto said. “Do you want me to leave the TV on for you?”

“If you could, thanks,” Sae smiled. “Goodnight, Makoto.”

“Goodnight, Sis,” Makoto smiled back as she headed down the hall. After getting ready in the bathroom, she returned to find some messages in the group chat.

Ren: I noticed Sugimura’s name has been requested on the Phan-Site.

Ann: Do you think Okumura-senpai’s getting anxious?

Ren: Probably. She’s in a bad spot.

Ann: And since she knows who we are, she’s eager for us to do something, huh?

Ren: I can’t blame her.

Typing...

Makoto: Nor can I.

Ann: Hey, Makoto! You’ve been quiet for a bit!

Ren: We aren’t bothering you, are we?

Makoto: No, I was just busy.

Makoto: Ren-kun, were you able to keep tomorrow clear?

Ren: As far as I know.

Makoto: That’s good.

Makoto: Even if she thinks we need him back in the city to steal his heart…

Makoto: If she feels we’re taking too long, she may tell on us.

Ann: That would be bad, right?

Makoto: Most likely. It’s leaving me somewhat nervous, I’ll admit.

Ren: Calm down, girls. We handled Nakanohara easily enough, didn’t we?

Makoto: True. It’s highly unlikely someone without a fully formed Palace could pose a threat.

Makoto: I’ll see you all tomorrow, then.

Ann: See ya then!

Ren: Goodnight, you two.

Makoto switched her phone to silent and set in on her nightstand. In the glow of her Buchimaru nightlight, she pulled herself under the covers and snuggled up to her pillow, her mind turning over her stress for an hour before she finally fell asleep.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.6%

Chapter Text

5/4 - Wednesday
Morning
Leblanc Cafe

Ren finished doing the dishes and quickly grabbed his bag, starting to head towards the door.

“When do you plan on coming back?” Sojiro asked, stopping him. “I may need you to help out later this afternoon.”

“I don’t know,” Ren said.

“Well, call your friends and find out already. Your smartphones can still do that, right?”

“They can, but-”

“Don’t argue and just do it!” Sojiro ordered.

Ren opened his mouth to try and retort, but was cut off by the cafe door opening, a woman stepping inside and making her way to the counter.

“Welcome,” Sojiro said, glancing over. “What can I get you?”

“...the house blend, please,” Sae said curtly as she sat down.

“Coming right up,” Sojiro said.

“Quick, while he’s too distracted to argue with you!” Morgana whispered.

Ren adjusted his bag and started to leave again, when Sae suddenly looked at him, causing him to stop once more. Th-those eyes… They’re just like-

“I’m surprised to see someone so young at this place,” Sae commented. “Especially this early in the morning. You seem to be around the age of a high school student.”

“Y-yeah,” Ren said. “I go to Shujin.”

“Hmm… I know a student that goes there.”

“Hey, you aren’t bothering my customer, are you?” Sojiro asked.

“She talked to me first,” Ren said.

“He’s not a bother to me,” Sae said, not removing her gaze from Ren. “We’re just making small talk.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Shujin Academy was the school that the disgraced Olympian worked at. Perhaps you could tell me some details about his arrest?”

“Details?” Ren asked. What is happening here? “Couldn’t you ask the person you know?”

“I did,” Sae said. “One perspective isn’t everything, though.” She put her hand to her chin. “Rumors have it his crimes were listed on a posting shortly before his confession, and that the way he acted when listing his crimes suggests his personality completely changed.”

“Is she interrogating you?” Morgana whispered.

Ren and Sae’s eyes locked, the look on her face causing his mouth to dry out. After a moment, Ren backed down.

“I don’t know what other people are thinking,” Ren said. “Anyway, I should get going.”

“Of course,” Sae said, shifting back to face the counter. “Enjoy the rest of Golden Week. Sorry to bother you.”

Ren nodded, quickly heading out the door.

Sae stared out the door after hm, eyes still narrowed.

“Here you are,” Sojiro said, setting the cup in front of her

“Thank you,” Sae said, turning forward and grabbing the cup. “...surprised this place is attracting younger customers.”

“Oh, he’s not exactly a customer,” Sojiro said. He gave a slightly wistful chuckle. “Though… I suppose I have recently made coffee for some kids now that he’s here.”

“Is he a part-timer?” Sae asked. “He left rather early in the day if so.”

“That’s not exactly the case, either,” Sojiro mumbled. He shook his head. “Want me to put the news on?”

“If you’d like,” Sae said, taking a small sip, a contemplative frown on her face.

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Central Street

“This evening is our meeting,” Sugimura’s voice said over the phone. “We’re going to be dining with the executives first.”

“That sounds fun,” Haru said unenthusiastically.

“So since I’m stuck killing time until then, perhaps you could tell me your sizes?” Sugimura asked. “Have you managed to get any slimmer yet?”

“I’ve… been busy,” Haru mumbled.

She could hear him scoff on the other end. “Then I’ll make sure to bring you a gift that’s a suitable target weight for you.”

Faintly in the background Haru could make out a few girls giggling.

“Hmm, I may be getting ideas,” Sugimura said. “I’ll talk to you later, Haru-chan.”

Haru let out a shuddering sigh as she put her phone away, looking around Big Bang Burger sadly. Niijima-san and the others haven’t shown up at all. Do they not need any information? Or do they not plan to...?

She looked down at her copy of Woman in the Dark, taking a few breaths. Don’t cry. Not in public. They’ll change his heart when he returns to Tokyo. I’m sure they will.

“Two burgers,” Ryuji’s voice said.

Haru looked up again, easily spotting Ryuji at the front of the line thanks to his dyed hair, where he was chatting with a girl she recognized from her class. He’s the one Niijima-san was arguing with. If he’s here, would she bother showing up even if she needs information?

She let out a breath, putting her book away and standing up to make her way out to Central Street. She barely managed to smile as she waved goodbye to the staff. I’ll see if I can catch her at the station. If she even decides to show up...

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Station Square

“Oh, here comes Ren,” Ann said, nudging Makoto to grab her attention.

Makoto glanced up from her phone, and slid it into back into her pocket.

“Hey, really sorry about yesterday,” Ren said.

“It’s no trouble,” Makoto said.

“We almost were caught up again today,” Morgana said. “Until a sort of scary customer came in to distract Boss.”

“A scary customer?” Makoto repeated, frowning.

“She just made me a little uncomfortable,” Ren said, looking right into Makoto’s eyes.

“I see…” Makoto said. Why is Ren-kun looking at me like that?

“Anyway, let’s not waste anymore time,” Morgana said.

“Just imagine how happy Okumura-senpai will be when his heart is changed this early,” Ann said.

“I hope it doesn’t come back to bite us,” Makoto frowned. “If it leads to her to start asking more of us.”

“I don’t think it will become a problem," Morgana said.

“Don’t stress over nothing, Makoto,” Ren said. He gave a wry smile. “Remember, she didn’t threaten us until we actually asked her to.”

Makoto giggled. “You make us sound masochistic when you say it like that.”

“Anyway, this guy is in that area that’s past where that wall was, right?” Ann asked.

“That’s what the Nav says,” Ren said, taking his phone out to double-check the app.

“Then let’s go!” Ann said.

“I’m loving your enthusiasm today, Lady Ann,” Morgana said.

Makoto shook her head. “Ready, everyone?”

Haru had just finished crossing the street during their conversation, carefully squeezing her way through the crowd, when Ann’s blonde twintails acted as a beacon, drawing her attention to the three of them. “Oh, Niijima-san!” She quickly started to jog over, when the air seemed to shimmer around her. She slowed to a stop, frowning. “...huh?”

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Mementos

Makoto and the others began making their way down to the tracks, stopping as they reached the ticket gates before the last set of escalators.

“Inmate,” a gentle voice called.

“Huh?” Makoto glanced over, noticing Justine standing in front of a blue, translucent cell door in the corner.

“Queen?” Ann asked. “You okay?”

“Oh, uh, yes,” Makoto said. “This floor is the last one free of Shadows, yes?”

“That’s right,” Morgana said.

“Then can we take a moment to prepare before heading down?”

“Sure?” Ren frowned. “You doing alright?”

“Y-yes, just… give me a moment,” Makoto said, before walking over to the Velvet Room entrance. “Justine?”

“Hello,” Justine said, looking up at her. “I have to say, I’m a little surprised you found out about Mementos.”

“Was I not supposed to?” Makoto asked, speaking quietly so the others couldn’t hear. “The Meta-Nav seems to-”

“No, it’s just once again you’ve beaten our expectations,” Justine remarked. “You’ve reached this place earlier than we would have thought. Anyway, as Mementos is a Palace, I’ve placed an entrance to the Velvet Room here, as promised.”

“Thank you for that,” Makoto said. “So…” She glanced back over her shoulder, noticing the others were looking at her with bemused expressions. “...I’m the only one that can see these entrances, aren’t I?”

“Of course,” Justine said. “You’re the only one of these people who has entered the Velvet Room.”

“I see…” Makoto said. “Do you have a need for me right now?”

“No,” Justine said. “And if you don’t need our services at the moment, either, I suggest you return to your friends to continue working towards rehabilitation.”

"Right,” Makoto said. She let out a breath and walked back over to the others.

“Were you just talking to yourself?” Ann asked.

“Oh, um, y-yes!” Makoto said. “I… picked it up from my sister. Sometimes she muses aloud about work when at home.”

“Your sister,” Ren repeated, looking off to the side as if in thought.

“You sure she’s not just talking to you?” Morgana asked.

“I’d know if she was, trust me,” Makoto said. “Anyway, let’s stop wasting time. Shall we get going?”

“Uh, you were the one that held us up…” Ann frowned, before she, Morgana, and Ren followed Makoto down to the lower levels.

Cautiously making her way down now that they were gone, Haru looked around at the veiny growths over the signs and floors. “What is this place? And…” She looked down the escalators. “Was that Niijima-san? Did… she bring me here?”

She froze, the sounds of the wind down below echoing up to her.

“...are those… voices?” Haru frowned. “The underground. I’ve never actually seen it…” She stood still, as if debating with herself. She managed to bring herself to look away, taking a few steps back towards the way up as she took out her cell phone. She stopped, staring down. No service. I'm alone here...

The wind whispered up to her again. She stared at her phone for a moment, before putting it away, and turning to walk down into the depths.

~~~

Ren stared at Makoto after their latest battle, as she sat down behind the wheel to continue their drive through the Path of Aiyatsbus.

“You alright, Joker?” Ann asked.

“Yeah, why?” Ren asked.

“You’re just staring at Queen,” Ann said. Her eyes widened. “Unless… were you ogling... sorry, forget I said anything!”

“Panther, what are you talking about?” Makoto asked, glancing back at Ann for a moment, before looking forward again. “Joker, is something wrong?”

“Uh, there is no way to ask this without sounding creepy…” Ren said, giving an awkward laugh.

“Is it… a personal issue?” Makoto asked, giving a nervous glance.

“Wow, I guess I made it sound worse,” Ren said. “It can wait until later. Can we talk about this Sugimura guy?”

“Okumura-san’s fiance,” Makoto frowned. “I did try and look more into the Sugimuras.”

“Did you find out anything?” Morgana asked.

“Not much more than what Okumura-san already told us,” Makoto sighed. “A family of wealthy politicians. Representative Sugimura was embroiled in a scandal recently with rumors saying he had an affair, but he’s entrenched enough that it didn’t affect him.”

“He cheats on someone and gets away with it?” Ann asked.

“Wonder if that’s why his son treats Okumura-senpai so poorly,” Ren said.

“Undoubtedly,” Makoto said. “His family is rich and his father can get away with such behavior. So he follows that example.”

“Why would Okumura’s dad pick this guy, then?” Morgana asked.

“Especially since it sounds like they’re out of town together,” Ren said. “There’s no way he doesn’t know how Sugimura treats his daughter.”

“And I’m certain Okumura-san know this,” Makoto said, pulling up alongside the stairs to the lower level. “Let’s move on.”

Ren hopped up first, helping the others up off the tracks.

“Maybe we should consider taking her father’s heart, too?” Morgana asked once they were all up on the platform.

“I think Okumura-senpai should decide if we do that,” Ann said. “I mean, we are just guessing, here. Nobody knew Kamoshida was treating me like garbage, y’know?”

“Some people are good at hiding their distorted thoughts from the public,” Morgana said. “It’s in private when they show their true colors.”

“...can we stop our conversation, now?” Makoto asked as they headed downstairs.

“Uh, sure,” Ann said.

“Queen?” Ren glanced back.

“I’m fine,” Makoto said. “I’d like to think to myself for a little bit.”

Ren nodded, turning forward again.

Makoto said nothing as they passed through the rest area, keeping her gaze ahead.

~~~

Haru was pushed slightly towards the red-tinted windows as the train slowed to a stop. She glumly gazed out the window, when she saw the Phantom Thieves passing through the rest area on the other side of the tracks.

“...Niijima-san…” Haru mumbled. “The Phantom Thieves.”

You’re blackmailing them for help, aren’t you?” an oddly familiar voice seemed to whisper in Haru’s ear.

“Huh?” Haru blinked, jolting slightly. “Wh-where am I?

You’re finally aware of your surroundings, princess?

“Princess?” Haru repeated, looking around the train for who was talking.

You’re running, Haru.” Haru looked and saw what looked like herself wearing an outfit reminiscent of a musketeer, staring into the train from the platform.

“...is that me…?” Haru mumbled, managing to fight her way through the crowd that was boarding and out to the platform. She fell to her hands and knees as she broke free, the train pulling away. The Shadows on board staring at her with an expression almost like disgust.

You asked for help because you couldn’t bring yourself to break free on your own.” The other Haru no longer was visible. There was no sign she was ever actually there.

“I… I can’t betray father’s wishes,” Haru said, looking around frantically. “He needs me so that he get into politics.”

You know that that is not true. Using you is just faster and easier than working hard. It’s always been like this, hasn’t it?

“...not always,” Haru said, staring across the tracks to the rest area. “When I was little, he still…”

So it’s for those memories you’re running away?

“...Sugimura might call off the marriage if his heart’s changed,” Haru said. “I didn’t think it through-”

You’re running to avoid repercussions of betraying father. You won’t find happiness like that. You may have to take the plunge, my dear.

“Take the plunge?” Haru asked.

Come clean with your motives. Stop running, stop turning a blind eye over the past. Do not err any longer. Tell him what you think of him using you like this. Tell the Phantom Thieves exactly what you want your fiance to do! If you ever wish to get exactly what you want, you must speak up!

“...I will!” Haru said, standing up again. “Thank you so much… but who are you, exactly?”

Haru heard a slight, high-pitched, noblewoman laugh in her head, pain shooting through her at the sound. “I am thou, thou art I…

~~~

Makoto drove Morgana through the vortex, the group pausing to observe Shadow Sugimura at the other end of the room.

“That’s Daiki Sugimura, huh?” Morgana said, turning back to his normal Metaverse form.

“I feel like he’s condescending us from here,” Ann said.

“I guess he’s good at something,” Ren said.

Makoto gave a slight giggle in spite of herself. “Let’s help Okumura-san already.”

The four slowly approached, the smug smile on Shadow Sugimura’s face growing.

“Hello, commoners. Here to beg for money?”

“As if!” Ann said.

“You’re the one sexually harassing Haru Okumura, right?” Ren asked.

“You can’t sexually harass your fiance,” Shadow Sugimura said.

“I think you’ll find you still can,” Makoto said.

“Says who? The law? Father can just rewrite it or buy off those who can. Or do you think Okumura-san cares at all what I do to Haru-chan? She’s my property. And soon, Okumura Foods will be given to me as well.” Shadow Sugimura laughed. “I have it all, don’t I? This is what it means to be an elite member of society. You in your trashy clothing aren’t even worth my time.”

“That’s all you have to say for yourself, is it?” Makoto asked.

“If you don’t like it, we can make him sing a different tune,” Ren smirked.

“Let’s just beat this arrogant jerk!” Ann said.

“You brats are so noisy,” Shadow Sugimura said disinterestedly. “What are you even babbling about?”

“We’re going to steal your heart, of course!” Morgana said.

Shadow Sugimura looked up, a brief look of surprise on his face, before he burst out laughing. “Oh, but of course you’re thieves! Why else would you be here? I’m loaded, I’m about to score a trophy high school wife, and my parents are so well loved in politics that I’ll be forever out of your dirty reach!” He shook for a moment before bursting in a splash of liquid shadows, a large, orange, winged demon now hovering in front of them.

“Just like last time!” Morgana said. “Are you ready?”

“Let’s go,” Makoto said, narrowing her eyes.

“Arsene!” Ren said, tearing his mask off as he called out his Persona. “Ravage him!” Arsene sent the Curse spell, Eiha, blasting up, only for it to harmlessly glance off him. “Didn’t work…”

Shadow Sugimura seemed to just sneer at him.

“He’s immune to Curse, then,” Makoto said. “Succubus!” She tore her mask off as well, the summoned Persona calling down a Zio spell that Shadow Sugimura easily avoided. “I missed?!”

“Queen, get a hold of yourself,” Morgana said, calling Zorro out to attempt a Garu spell, which Shadow Sugimura also evaded. “Wait… what?!”

“Can none of our spells touch him?” Ren questioned.

“Bet he can’t dodge a gun, though!” Ann said, pulling hers out and opening fire. Every single bullet, even the ones that looked to be about to make contact, failed to impact him. “That’s not fair!”

Shadow Sugimura laughed. “You losers will never have what I do. And I’ll kill you if you even try to take it from me.” He glared down at Morgana. “You were the boastful one, right, you goddamn cartoon cat?!”

“His cognition that commoners can’t touch him…” Morgana said, taking a cautious step back. “Because he sees us as jealous thieves-”

“Mudo,” Shadow Sugimura said, a straw doll radiating with curse magic appearing in front of Morgana. A series of needles quickly stabbed into it before Morgana could move, and he quickly dropped to the ground.

“Mona!” Ren gasped.

“In one hit…?” Makoto said in shock.

“Queen, what just happened?!” Ann gasped.

“...this is a world of cognition,” Makoto mused.

Ren gritted his teeth, futilely attempting to slash his knife into Shadow Sugimura.

“Even if it’s not a full Palace, if they truly believe in their cognition, it will be true,” Makoto continued. “He sees himself as untouchable. So…”

“We can’t even touch him?!” Ann gasped, as she tried waking Morgana up.

“Obariyon!” Switching to another Persona, Makoto attempted a Sukunda spell, only for it to not even reach Shadow Sugimura. “I'm afraid so, Panther... we can’t do it.”

“No way…” Ann said.

“Eyesore pests,” Shadow Sugimura said, readying another Mudo spell. “Get out of my sight already.”

“Queen!” Ren said, rushing forward as the straw doll appeared in front of her, barely managing to avoid the spell himself as he knocked her out of the way.

“Ah!” Makoto gasped as they hit the floor. “J-Joker…”

“We need to run,” Ren said.

“But if we don’t do this… Okumura-san will tell-” Makoto began.

“I rescind my threat,” Haru’s voice said.

“Okumura-senpai?” Ann asked, glancing over.

“What…?” Morgana said weakly, looking over. “How is she here…?”

“Her clothes…” Ren said softly.

Makoto turned to look, seeing Haru adjusting a feathered hat as she approached, adorned in a pink and black musketeer outfit.

“Haru-chan, is that you under that mask?” Shadow Sugimura asked in a lustful voice.

“Wait, you’re… Sugimura-san?!” Haru gasped, surprise on her face.

“She doesn’t know about this sort of thing?” Morgana asked. “But… she’s in the Metaverse and-”

“We dragged her in by accident, didn’t we?” Ren sighed, helping Makoto to stand.

“Your outfits are all different, too,” Haru said.

“We’ll, uh, explain later,” Ann frowned.

“Okumura-san, the only thing you need to know right now is this demon before us is your fiance’s inner self,” Makoto said.

“His inner self…?” Haru repeated, returning her attention to him.

“Haru-chan, stop wasting time talking to these thieves,” Shadow Sugimura said. “Head on over to my place, okay? Clean the place up, make me a nice meal… Something to welcome me home in a few days. Can’t you do that for me?”

“I absolutely refuse!” Haru said. “Sugimura-san… I do not wish to ever see you again! Regardless of my father’s plans and ambitions, I want you out of my life!”

“Okumura-san?” Ren blinked.

“Do you think you have any right to call things off?” Shadow Sugimura asked.

“...I wanted it to work out when I first asked you all,” Haru said softly. “For my father’s sake. But… more than that, I want to be happy! And being with a man that was ever like him would not make me happy!”

“So we just tell him to beat it instead of be nicer to you,” Ren summarized.

“After how he treated us just now, I like that plan!” Ann said.

Shadow Sugimura scoffed. “You do remember your place, don’t you, you damn pests?! I’m untouchable by people like-”

“I don’t care about what you think!” Haru interrupted. “I asked them to do this because of how you treat me, but if they can’t, then I’ll gladly do it myself!” She reached up, tearing off her black domino mask. “Milady!” A feminine Persona in a large, pink and black ball gown rose up behind her, a mask in hand serving as her face. At Haru’s gesture, parts of the dress pulled back like a curtain, a large ordinance of Gatling guns and other assorted weapons jutting out, aimed directly at Shadow Sugimura.

“Haru-chan, you dare-” Shadow Sugimura began, before a blast from the guns cut him off, striking near his waist and knocking him to the ground. “Gah!”

“Gun skills…?” Makoto mumbled.

“Hey, she hit him!” Ann said excitedly.

“He did want her to touch him, after all,” Ren said. “Though I'd guess less… violently.”

The three still standing Phantom Thieves drew their weapons, aiming at their downed opponent. Haru cautiously approached as well, staring down at him apprehensively.

“H-Haru-chan, you dare throw me into the dirt?!” Shadow Sugimura snapped, struggling to rise up again. “You’re worthless without me! Your father said as much! Crawl over and beg on your hands and knees before I discard you like the useless trash you are!”

Haru let out a breath and looked around. “Ph-Phantom Thieves? Please let me help you here. I… I need to do this.”

“I was just about to formally request your help, as a matter of fact,” Makoto smiled, turning towards Shadow Sugimura. “Let’s wipe him out!”

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Evening
Ala Wai Harbor

Hm, quite the cuisine you have here,” Kunikazu said, speaking English. “It may be something to consider incorporating into our restaurant at some point.

Glad you're enjoying it,” one of the businessmen he as dining with, a native Hawaiian, said as he set down his drink.

It isn’t too dissimilar to some of Japan’s food,” Sugimura said lightly, subtly glancing off at a nearby waitress who had bent over to picked up a dropped fork. Oddly, though, the sight made him feel a pang of guilt. He quickly looked away. She wasn’t trying to show her ass off, I shouldn’t look. ...what am I thinking…?

Mr. Sugimura?” another of the businessmen, a white man, frowned. “Are you alright?

I… yes,” he said, shaking his head.

“Are you certain?” Kunikazu asked, a slightly dangerous look in his eyes as he stared at Sugimura.

Well… maybe I could use some air,” he said, standing up. “Don’t mind me.

In that case, shall we get down to business?” the first businessman asked as Sugimura made his way outside, resting against a nearby railing as he stared out at the water.

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Mementos

Shadow Sugimura’s Belial form burned away, returning to his normal appearance as he gasped for air.

“Sugimura-san…” Haru said.

“Haru-chan…” he looked into her eyes.

“Don’t use the ‘-chan’ honorific with me!” Haru said.

“...Haru-san,” he said, averting his eyes. “...you’re actually pretty strong, I suppose, aren’t you? You beat me, you know these people that can traverse this world... As expected of an Okumura, I guess.”

“It had nothing to do with my family name,” Haru said, shaking her head. “I… don’t really know how this all happened other than chance. And I don’t know if having to ever deal with you was worth it.”

“...did I really make you feel that awful?” Shadow Sugimura asked.

“You objectified her!” Ann snapped. “Getting into her space, not letting her talk!”

“Even if you aren’t letting them talk, it can’t be that hard to realize how you’re making people feel,” Ren said.

“Nobody, regardless of gender, appreciates being treated that way,” Makoto said.

“...I’m so sorry,” Shadow Sugimura said. “My father- my family made me feel as if the only one that really mattered was number one. Me.”

“...fathers aren’t always right…” Haru said softly.

“Haru-san…” Shadow Sugimura said again, looking at her again.

“Get out of my life, Sugimura-san,” Haru said. “I do not love you. I don’t want to marry you. Tell my father the deal is off. And never treat anyone the way you treated me.”

Shadow Sugimura nodded. And, in a flash of light, his Shadow vanished, a glowing orb floating where he once stood.

Haru immediately gasped. “He-he’s gone?!”

“Okumura-san, it’s fine,” Ren said with a slight laugh.

“People’s Shadows tend to do this when we change their hearts,” Makoto said.

“Niijima-san…” Haru said, looking around. She groaned, stumbling slightly.

“I got you!” Ann said, catching her.

“I’m… so confused right now…” Haru said.

“We should explain things to her better,” Morgana said, groaning.

“And properly treat you,” Ann said.

“You were struck rather badly, Mona,” Makoto said as she took the bud of Sugimura’s Treasure. “Is this… an apron?”

“Probably something the maids wore when tending to him,” Ann shrugged. “He was rich, right?”

“Maids, huh?” Ren asked.

“It’s not important,” Makoto said, leading the group out. “Let’s start heading back to rest. We’ll… explain what happened to you, Okumura-san.”

“Thank you so much…” Haru smiled, following them back out to the tunnels.

~~~

5/3 - Tuesday
Evening
Ala Wai Harbor

Sugimura’s hand drifted up to his face, feeling dampness on his cheek. “...I’m crying?” He scoffed. “Is it this… tropical air that’s getting to me? This place is… too rural for a c-city...” His hands tightened as he sniffled a little. N-no, that’s not it… I… what have I been doing to Haru-san?

“Sugimura-san, we’re going to scout our potential unit at a local strip mall,” Kunikazu said, almost disdainfully, as he and the businessmen left the restaurant. “Let’s get going.”

“Okumura-san!” Sugimura said, desperately turning around. “I am so sorry for what I’ve done to your daughter!”

“...what?” Kunikazu asked, frowning.

What are they saying?” the second businessman asked in a whisper.

Something about Mr. Okumura’s daughter,” the first whispered back, frowning at them.

“I’m treating her like property, like she isn’t even her own person,” Sugimura said. He gave a forced laugh. “I don’t even like her! I just find her attractive because she owns a school uniform! You know how many women I’ve leered at. You didn’t even care, though.”

“...I wasn’t aware of this, no,” Kunikazu said, giving a nervous glance back at the businessmen before approaching Sugimura. “Go back to the hotel this instant!”

“Why aren’t you acknowledging this?” Sugimura said. “Do you really care more for your company than your daughter? I… I can’t marry her after all of that, and I refuse to help you with this business deal until you say something! Well, old man?”

Mr. Okumura?” the second businessman asked as the first whispered the conversation into his ear. “I believe it’s more prudent you look into your family matters if what your daughter’s… fiance is saying is true.

He’s simply confused,” Kunikazu said evenly. “He likely had too much to drink and-

He’s had one drink at dinner,” the first businessman interrupted. “Please don’t make this more awkward than it is. We’ll be in touch with your company when we have a final decision.

Are we not going to inspect the open space at your mall?” Kunikazu asked.

It’s already late,” the first said.

Enjoy the rest of your stay, and have a safe flight home,” the second said.

Kunikazu watched them walk off before rounding on Sugimura. “You spoiled imbecile. You chose now to make a fool of me? Do you realize how much work went into getting ready for foreign expansion?”

“How uncomfortable has our treatment of Haru-san made her?” Sugimura asked.

Kunikazu huffed. “I will be speaking with your father about this… change of yours.” His eyes narrowed, looking over Sugimura suspiciously. “...to help keep potential scandals under wraps, I will also be paying for your flight home. Tomorrow. Afterwards? I do not expect nor wish to see or speak with you again. Nobody makes a fool of Kunikazu Okumura.”

“Go ahead,” Sugimura said as he walked off. “I have words for my father as well, for encouraging my… disgusting behavior.”

Kunikazu glowered after him, before taking out his phone and dialing. “...I have a request to make. ...no, not of that sort. I need to know how seriously you’re taking that Phantom Thief nonsense. ...because I believe I just witnessed something that was their doing.”

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Mementos

“...so this place is where people who aren’t as bad as Kamoshida have their hearts changed, and the people we see here are their Shadows and not actually them…?” Haru summarized, frowning.

“That’s the gist of it, yes,” Makoto said.

“We have to fight them and still end up taking a sort-of Treasure thing like with actual Palaces, but it’s a lot less of a hassle,” Ann said.

“But I still don’t understand the… cell phone app?” Haru frowned.

“This,” Ren said, taking his phone out and showing it to her. “And, uh, sorry about taking you along for the ride.”

“You keep doing this, Joker,” Ann said, shaking her head.

“What can I say?” Ren shrugged. “I like company, I guess.”

Haru finished looking at it and turned towards Morgana. “And how are you feeling?”

“Much better, thank you!” Morgana said.

“I am so sorry,” Haru said. “I wouldn’t have troubled you if I knew it was this dangerous.”

“Well, the blackmail wasn’t that appreciated, but it wasn’t any trouble, Okumura-san,” Makoto said.

“We’re happy to help!” Ann said.

“Even if you did most of the work for us,” Ren smirked.

“I… need to repay you, still, I think,” Haru said. She frowned. “Um… do the rest of you hear chains?”

“Ch-chains?” Morgana stuttered, ears perking up.

“...I do,” Makoto frowned, staring down the hall.

“Hey, uh, team?” Morgana said, turning back into a bus. “We need to go. Now, now!”

“Oh my, you became a bus!” Haru said in surprise.

“Mona, what’s got you so freaked out?” Ann asked.

Makoto’s eyes widened as she saw a glowing red Shadow, somehow shambling while it floated, round a corner far off down the tunnel, and began making its way towards them. She quickly shoved Ann and Haru onto the bus, Ren following behind.

“Go, now,” Ren said, the air seeming to pulse red with murderous intent as the chains grew louder.

“I’m going!” Makoto said, speeding off back towards the entrance, the malicious Shadow firing a shockingly powerful Gun attack after them that only barely missed.

~~~

5/4 - Wednesday
Daytime
Station Square

“That was scary…” Ann said as the Meta-Nav announced their return to the real world.

“I feel tired even though I wasn’t running…” Haru said weakly.

“That’s just a normal effect of awakening to your Persona, actually,” Makoto said.

“It is?” Haru asked. “I… guess I still don’t understand.”

“We can get back to that,” Ren said. “Morgana? Aside from horrifying, what was that thing?”

“It’s a powerful Shadow called The Reaper,” Morgana said. “It sometimes shows up to act as... security, I guess. Spend too long on a certain floor, it’ll come to kill you.”

“Oh, are you a talking cat?” Haru asked.

"I'm not a cat!" Morgana snapped.

“...oh boy,” Makoto sighed. “Okumura-san, I think you could use some rest after everything. Maybe go home for today? I can meet you here tomorrow so we can talk more about anything still concerning you.”

“Are you sure it’d be alright to talk in public about… that sort of thing?” Haru asked nervously. "Shouldn't we meet in private like you all did at school?"

“Hey, Leblanc has some good privacy!” Morgana said.

“Sure, just volunteer it,” Ren sighed.

“Leblanc?” Haru repeated.

“A cafe his guardian owns,” Ann explained.

“Oh, a cafe sounds pleasant!” Haru said.

Her cheer is ridiculously infectious, Makoto thought. “Then we’ll meet here tomorrow to go visit. If that’s alright with you, Ren-kun?”

“I’ll let Boss know,” Ren said.

“Thank you,” Makoto smiled.

Haru’s phone buzzed, prompting her to take it out. “Oh, I have a voice mail. Um… excuse me.”

“Hey, so…” Ann frowned as Haru walked a little ways away. “What are we going to do about this?”

“We were only successful today because of Okumura-san’s assistance. Even if she was the one to initially put us there with her request, it would have been the same thing if we had simply taken it from the Phan-Site’s forums. If anyone's earned being our confidant, it's her.”

“What’s done is done,” Morgana agreed.

“Everyone!” Haru exclaimed, returning to them “You-you really did it! That voicemail was Sugimura-san… he was saying he told my father and the marriage deal is over.” Her eyes teared up slightly as she smiled at them. Quietly, she said, “Phantom Thieves… thank you so much!”

“We should really thank you, Okumura-san,” Makoto said. "See you tomorrow around... noon, okay?"

“I’m looking forward to it,” Haru said. She looked down awkwardly. “Um… I’ll see you all tomorrow, then.” And with that, she left.

“This all feels so sudden and weird,” Ann said after Haru was gone.

“I’m sure she feels the same,” Makoto said. “...I’m still curious as to how she ended up that deep within Mementos.”

“We’ll ask her tomorrow,” Morgana said.

“Mhm,” Ann nodded. “I’ll see you all then!”

“See you, Ann,” Ren said as she left. He turned towards Makoto who was looking around at the crowds. “Makoto?”

“All of these people see this station that way, don’t they?” Makoto asked. “A place where The Reaper stalks them through the dark…”

“It is an odd distortion for the public to have,” Morgana admitted. “The tracks almost look normal, but then they twist into a maze.” He got a determined look in his eyes. “I need to know what’s down there.”

“I’m curious as well,” Makoto agreed.

“There were Shadows getting into trains to go down, right?” Ren asked.

“Trains…” Makoto repeated. “That might be how…”

“Hm?”

“...we made a mistake again,” Makoto said, changing the topic. “Okumura-san being pulled into the Metaverse, assuming that people’s cognitions wouldn’t still pose issues in there…” She let out a sigh. “Will we actually be able to keep going like this?”

“Hey, you aren’t getting second thoughts about this, are you?” Morgana asked.

“...not exactly,” Makoto said carefully. “I do want us to continue, as we’re doing some good. But…”

“I’ll be more careful in the future,” Ren said.

“Oh, no, I’m not blaming you!” Makoto said.

“Still, it’s good advice for us all to follow,” Morgana said. “Makoto?”

“...yes, let’s all be more careful from now on,” Makoto said. She put her hand to her chin in thought. “It’s possible Okumura-san would know more about Mementos, if my idea on how she got down to us is accurate…”

“She really came in handy back there,” Morgana said. “Should we ask her to join us?”

“She may very well ask that herself,” Makoto said.

“Well, in the end it’s up to you and her,” Morgana said. "Anyway, we shouldn't keep Boss waiting."

Makoto nodded. “I'll see you both later, then.”

“Uh, y-yeah,” Ren said, seemingly distracted. “See you later, Makoto.”

Makoto frowned slightly, but said nothing, just nodding a goodbye as Ren walked off. I hope Ren-kun is alright. He’s been acting a little oddly today. But that all aside, it’s nice to see Morgana and I are starting to understand and converse more now. This incident with Okumura-san may work out very well for us.

Rank up!

MAGICIAN CONFIDANT: RANK 3

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.5%

Chapter Text

5/5 - Thursday
Daytime
Station Square

Haru anxiously scanned the crowds until she spotted Makoto approaching, quickly waving her down. “Niijima-san!”

Makoto looked over at the shout and ran over. “Okumura-san, I haven’t been keeping you waiting, have I?”

“No, not long,” Haru said, shaking her head. The two stood there for a moment. “So, um… where’s Leblanc?”

“Yes, right, follow me,” Makoto said, leading the way. “Let’s see… I believe the train was downstairs…”

“Have you not been often?” Haru asked.

“I’ve only gone to Yongen twice in my life,” Makoto said. “Both within the last month. I hadn’t had a reason to go before.”

“Oh, Amamiya-kun lives in Yongen?” Haru asked. “I’ve heard that’s a rather expensive place to live. A lot of coffee shops and restaurants, too.”

“I suppose so,” Makoto said. “I’ve mostly only seen the backstreet neighborhood Ren-kun is staying in. Though now that you mention its housing market, I have to wonder how Boss affords to stay there.”

“He owns a cafe, you said?” Haru asked.

“Well… a small one,” Makoto gave a wry smile as she looked up to check the signs. “...this way.”

Haru nodded, continuing to follow.

“The rest of the team seems to believe it’s not that popular,” Makoto continued. “Though on the one day I’ve been, all of the booths were full…”

“I’ve been wondering about the others,” Haru said. “Amamiya-kun seems so nice, but he is on probation, isn’t he? And then there’s Mona-chan being able to speak…”

“There’s details about you I’ve also wondered about,” Makoto said, leading Haru over to one of the walls so they weren’t standing in people’s path. “For example, your Persona’s awakening and how you managed to get as deep into Mementos as you did so quickly if you entered the Metaverse at the same time as us.”

“...I was hoping you would be able to explain it better,” Haru frowned. “When I ended up there, I was all alone. I was realizing that if the change of heart worked as I first asked, I’d be stuck with Sugimura forever. And if it went how I really wanted, father’s plans to get into politics would be ruined. I didn’t want to deal with that pressure myself. I wanted a way out and… then I found myself on that train.”

“Desiring a way out led you to…” Makoto mumbled. So those people’s Shadows board the trains to get out…? Are they seeking a shelter from the dark maze of Mementos? I’ll have to run this story by the others sometime to-

“Um, from the train I saw all of you,” Haru continued, interrupting Makoto’s thoughts. “You all looked cool and confident in those outfits. I especially liked your biker gang style.”

“Ah, let’s not go that in depth…” Makoto interrupted, a faint blush on her face. “In fact, never bring up my clothes again.”

“Okay,” Haru frowned. “And… then my inner self… my Shadow, I guess? She started speaking to me. Then I saw an image of myself as a Phantom Thief, just like you all, standing on the platform.”

“She must have been urging you to get out,” Makoto nodded. “To fight for yourself.”

“Even if I had to ruin father’s plans, yes,” Haru said, smiling again. “Wow, Niijima-san, you really understand me!”

“I was in a similar spot myself,” Makoto said. “I believe all of us were. To stop letting the desires of others push us. According to Morgana, that spirit of rebellion is what awakens our Personas.”

“So… does this make me one of you?” Haru asked.

“I think it does,” Makoto smiled. “We were even wondering if you would ask to join us. But the finer details can wait until we’re with the others.”

Haru giggled, and pulled Makoto into a hug. “Oh, thank you so much! I promise I’ll do my best to support you!”

“Well… we won’t be lacking cheer with you and Ann, I suppose,” Makoto said awkwardly as Haru released the hug.

“Oh, right, we’re still keeping them waiting, aren’t we?” Haru said. “Let’s hurry, Mako-chan!”

Makoto paused. “...Mako-chan?”

Haru seemed shocked. “I am so sorry, that just slipped out. We… you probably don’t want me to be so presumptuous, huh?”

“Um… it just took me by surprise,” Makoto said, resuming their walk. “But… it’s… not too bad.”

“I’m glad,” Haru said. “I’ve never had a friend my own age before. Or… around my age, anyway.”

“It is nice, yes,” Makoto agreed. I didn’t expect to have so much in common with her. “Come on, let’s go so we can get you and the team properly introduced.”

Haru nodded and followed her to the train platform.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Empress Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

EMPRESS CONFIDANT: RANK 1

~~~

5/5 - Thursday
Daytime
Public Prosecutors’ Office

“Yes, I’ve spoken with him,” the SIU Director said into the phone. He was leaning back at his desk, watching the sunlight illuminate his office furnishings. The previous night he was informed of a change of heart affecting the son of Representative Sugimura. And that topic was now the focal point of his current conversation.

“There is no doubt now that these ‘Phantom Thieves’ are legitimate,” he said with disgust. His eyes suddenly widened as the man on the other end said something. “...oh? That’s an interesting direction we could take this…” He smirked. “Of course. We have someone at the school this started at; I’ll contact him to investigate this.”

There was a knock at the door, prompting the director to frown. “Back to business, I suppose. ...yes, of course, sir. I’ll keep you apprised of this situation.”

He hung up and straightened up slightly. “Enter.”

Sae opened the door, walking over to the front of the director’s desk. “Sir, I had some questions regarding the case files I recently received?”

“Which case files in particular?” the SIU Director asked in a bored tone.

“The prosecutor who suffered a psychotic breakdown,” Sae said. “I was going over his files and there were documents that appeared to be deleted from his computer-”

“It’s standard operating procedure here, Niijima,” the SIU Director said. “Those files were unrelated to the incident, so we removed them out of respect for the work he had put in for us.”

“And whose decision was it to deem it irrelevant?” Sae asked. “His personal life could very well be the reason he had a-”

“People who have worked and investigated for far longer than you have, Niijima,” the SIU Director huffed. "They deemed it irrelevant."

“...apologies, sir,” Sae said, though she seemed more annoyed at being interrupted.

“I understand you are eager to pursue this case and may feel cheated, but believe me when I say we have a vested interest as well,” the SIU Director said. "The continued failure of finding a lead on these shutdowns is reflecting poorly on us, you know."

“...I’ll be returning to work, now that I know what became of those files,” Sae said evenly, turning on her heel and heading out the room.

The SIU Director waited a few moments after she left before letting out a breath. “Her ego is starting to become a nuisance. It might do good to remind her of where she stands…”

~~~

5/5 - Thursday
Daytime
Leblanc Cafe

“Oh, Makoto just messaged me!” Ann said. “She and Okumura-san just got on the train.”

“So it’ll be a few minutes, then,” Morgana mewed from one of the booths.

“Hey, make sure he doesn’t get cat hair all over the place,” Sojiro said.

“Yeah,” Ren said, dropping his bag on the shelf next to one of the booths. “Morgana, stay near the bag, okay?”

“Ugh, I can’t wait until I’m human again,” Morgana muttered, hopping up to sit next to the bag. “I don’t deserve this treatment.”

“So, who is this other girl you’re bringing over?” Sojiro asked, giving Ren a suspicious look.

“It’s not like that,” Ren sighed. “She’s a… friend of Makoto’s.”

“They’re both in the same year,” Ann explained. “Makoto helped her set up a garden on the school roof.”

“A garden on the roof, huh?” Sojiro said. “Sounds pretty fancy.”

“I think it’s just a few planters,” Ren said. "Not like an actual, big garden."

There was a knock at the door, Makoto and Haru visible through the glass.

“Uh, why’s she knocking?” Ann frowned.

“The sign’s still flipped to closed,” Sojiro said, waving Makoto inside.

She nervously opened the door, leading Haru in. “Sorry if I kept everyone waiting. Um, we’re not imposing, are we? The sign still says closed.”

“Not at all,” Sojiro said. “Thursdays are usually slower days around here.” He looked past Makoto. “So, you’re Okumura-san, yes?”

“Oh, yes, I am! Um, Haru Okumura. It’s nice to meet you, um… Boss?” She gave a polite bow, though it didn’t hide the slightly confused look on her face.

“If it’s uncomfortable, I don’t mind an exception to be called that,” Sojiro said.

“Oh, I just wasn’t sure if I should or not,” Haru said, straightening up.

“It’s fine,” Sojiro said. He picked his hat up, putting it on his head. “I’m heading out. Need to get a new printer or something. Store’s all yours. But there better not be a mess when I get back!”

“There won’t be,” Ren said.

“W-wait, you’re letting us spend the day in your store?” Makoto asked, surprised.

“That’s why the place is still closed,” he said. “No offense to your taste in friends, but he does have a record. Not about to let him bring three young ladies up to his room.” He headed out the door.

“What did he mean by that?” Haru asked, frowning.

“I’m pretty sure he was joking,” Ren said. “Sit wherever. I’m not that good at making coffee, but if you want some, I’ll try.”

“Oh, a cup of coffee sounds lovely!” Haru said, sitting beside Ann in one of the booths. “I think I’ll try it black, please!”

Ren nodded.

“Hey, but, what did he mean by ‘up to your room’?” Ann asked.

“He sleeps in the attic upstairs,” Morgana said.

“The cafe’s attic is your room?” Makoto asked in surprise. “Then… for my birthday, we were…?”

“Uh, you didn’t notice the bed?” Ren asked, looking slightly amused.

“I… I think I just assumed that was for resting between shifts,” Makoto mumbled. I even said it was relaxing up there. Did he think I was patronizing him or did he think I was suggesting…?

“Makoto?” Ren asked, snapping her out of her thoughts. “Do you want a mocha or something?”

“Oh, yes, a mocha would be nice,” Makoto said, finally sitting down, taking a seat across from Ann and Haru.

“So, um, I was talking with Mako-chan on the way over about-”

“Mako-chan?” Ann repeated. She had a slightly envious look on her face “Wow, that’s… a bit bold of you to be so close already...”

“Do you think so?” Makoto frowned.

“Oh, was I actually being presumptuous?” Haru asked.

“No, not at all,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “Haru and I were talking on the way over. About her awakening, and her joining the Phantom Thieves. We simply decided to act friendlier like the rest of us already do.”

“Oh, so you’re joining us, then?” Morgana asked.

“If it wouldn’t be any trouble,” Haru said.

“We’d love to have you!” Ann said. She let out a laugh. “Hey, Ren, you might get a different reputation around school now if people just see you hanging out with the three of us.”

Ren looked up to give a brief smile, as if only to acknowledge the joke, before returning his attention to the coffee drip, frowning.

Makoto hesitated for a moment, but Haru spoke up before she could say anything.

“Um… Amamiya-kun, may I call you by your given name?”

“Sure.”

“Ren-kun, if you don’t mind my asking…” Haru seemed to regret saying as much as she did, and closed her eyes as she finished the question. “Could you tell me about why you’re on probation?”

Ren looked over at her, his eyes seeming to be distant.

“Ren-kun, if you’d prefer, I could answer-” Makoto began.

“I was walking home late one night,” Ren said, interrupting Makoto. “The others already heard this part, but I came across a drunk attempting to force himself onto a woman. She was calling for help, but he was saying things like ‘the police are my bitches’ and the like. So I decided to intervene.”

“These are some new details,” Ann mumbled, frowning.

“I pushed him off of her. He stumbled and, because he was drunk off his ass, fell over. He hit his head and was injured. So he threatened to sue me. At least, I think that’s what happened.”

“You think?” Morgana asked. “What, do you have memory loss, too?”

“He told the woman to tell the cops I randomly attacked him,” Ren said, his voice getting quiet. “Threatened her. So… when the cops showed up, I was the one taken away. He gets off scot-free and I’m the one everyone says is a criminal.”

“Ren-kun…”

“So you’re starting to think maybe they were right, huh?” Morgana asked. “How pathetic that you’d be misled by lies and distortions like that.”

“Morgana!” Ann snapped.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Haru frowned.

“He’s right, though,” Ren said with a choked laugh. “I mean, if I wasn’t really a criminal, why would I be stuck living in an attic away from my family and friends? Why haven’t any of them contacted me even though it’s been almost a month?”

“...Obviously because they’re the ones who have been misled,” Makoto said, standing up again and walking over to him. “Ren-kun, look me in the eyes.”

Ren turned, staring at her.

“Why did you save my life back in Kamoshida’s Palace? You could have run away, right?”

“...I couldn’t leave you,” Ren said. “Not when you were in trouble.”

Ann also stood up, hitting the table as she did. “Ow." She gingerly rubbed her knee before looking over. "Ren, why did you help us take Kamoshida down? Why are you helping the Phantom Thieves, or helping Morgana?”

“Why’d you add me at the end as if I wasn’t a part of this?” Morgana asked indignantly.

“Shush!” Ann said.

Morgana looked down in a pout, prompting Haru to reach around behind Ann to pick him up, gently petting him.

“I mean, Kamoshida caused me problems, too, but… I just want to help, I guess.” He shrugged. “I don’t really need a deep reason, do I?”

“No, you don’t,” Makoto said. “Because that’s just the kind of person you are. Someone who wants to help just because.” She reached over, and painfully grabbed his shoulder. “So don’t start saying things like you deserved it or that you’re a criminal!”

“Ow, okay, I won’t!” Ren said. He immediately rubbed his shoulder as soon as Makoto let go. “Wow, didn’t think you’d get that upset.”

“Of course false charges upset me!” Makoto said. She let out a breath to calm herself. No, don't yell at him. He's the victim in this. “I'm sorry, Ren-kun. Do you need help carrying over the coffees? I did just hurt your arm.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Ren said.

“Probably not the best introductions you’ve been getting, huh, Haru?” Morgana asked, purring slightly as she pet him.

Haru shook her head. “Oh, no, I don’t mind. It’s very real. It helps me feel less nervous about all of you.”

“Yeah, don’t be nervous,” Ann said, smiling as Makoto and Ren brought the drinks over.

“We kind of stumbled our way into things just like you,” Ren said as he and Makoto sat across from Ann and Haru.

“Hey, that actually reminds me,” Ann said. “Um, how did you get dragged into the Metaverse with us? Didn’t you say you were going to be hanging out at Big Bang Burger or whatever?”

“Oh, I was, but then that second-year that was arguing with Mako-chan showed up,” Haru said. “I thought if you were to come by to ask me something but saw him there, you might leave.”

“Sorry, which second-year?” Ren asked. “Do you mean Ryuji?”

“I believe that might be his name, yes,” Haru said.

Ren glanced at Makoto, who had lifted her cup up to take a sip.

“Later,” she mouthed to him.

He frowned, turning back towards Haru. “So, senpai, are you going to actually try my coffee?”

“Oh, sorry!” Haru said. She set Morgana down on the floor and grabbed her cup, gently blowing on it and taking a small sip. Immediately, her face lit up, as if it was possible for her to light up even more. “Oh my! That’s really good, Ren-kun!”

“You think so, huh?” Ren asked, almost amused.

“Mine could use a bit more sugar, but yeah, it’s pretty tasty!” Ann said.

“I do agree,” Makoto said. “It may not be as good as what Boss made for me last time I was here, but you definitely undersold yourself.”

“Maybe that was his strategy,” Morgana suggested.

“You weren’t trying to fish for compliments, were you?” Haru asked, seeming to be genuinely concerned about it.

“If it bothers you so much, I’m going to say no,” Ren said.

“Wait, you really were?” Morgana asked. "I was joking."

“Wow, Ren,” Ann said, a disappointed look on her face.

Ren gave a slight laugh, before taking a sip of his own drink. He paused before nodding. “Yeah, I guess it came out well this time.”

“Your self-assessment seems real,” Makoto said.

“Wait, now I’m confused,” Ann frowned. “Were you actually trying to fish for compliments, or just kidding about-”

Ann’s confusion was interrupted by Haru erupting into a fit of giggles, the rest of them soon joining her in laughing.

Makoto tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, giving a small smile. “It’s nice to get to laugh once in a while. It feels like we’re actually good friends.”

“Makoto, of course we are!” Ann said.

“We’re happy to call you one, too, Haru,” Ren said.

“Oh, thank you,” Haru smiled. “I’m looking forward to being friends with you all. And… I hope I can help out with the Phantom Thieves.”

“Again, you kind of already did help,” Ann said.

“Hey, she’ll need a code name,” Ren said.

“A code name?” Haru asked, entranced. “Just like real phantom thieves!”

“Yeah, it is cool, huh?” Morgana asked, hopping up onto a stool to see everyone better.

“What are all of yours’?” Haru asked.

“I’m Panther, Ren is Joker, Morgana is Mona, and Makoto is Queen.”

“Queen?” Haru questioned, looking over to her.

“Uh, don’t ask…” Makoto sighed. “Anyway, we all had some input. Do you have any ideas?”

“Hm…” Haru looked down. “I mean… I did ruin my father’s political aspirations when we dealt with Sugimura. And…” She seemed to flinch for a moment before looking up. “Is anything we do actually illegal? I mean, we are thieves, but we aren’t actually taking real things.”

“At the very least our calling cards violate intimidation laws,” Makoto said. She frowned. “And now that I’m dwelling on the difference between real and the Metaverse, I’m wondering if we’re committing some sort of fraud or counterfeiting…”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Ren said.

“So we’re on the darker side of the law, then?” Haru asked. “Then… could I call myself Noir?”

“Noir…?” Ann repeated slowly, looking confused.

“The French word for ‘black’?” Makoto asked. “It would match your mask and… the reasoning isn’t something I can argue with either.” She gave a small, amused smile. “It’s rather elegant sounding as well. I approve.”

“Oh, I’m glad!” Haru smiled. “It’s a name I’ve had in mind for a while!”

“You only found out we existed a couple of weeks ago,” Morgana said.

“Well, I’ve… just always sort of had a fascination with heroes like that,” Haru said, taking her book out.

“You, too, huh?” Ren asked. “I recently read a book called The Great Thief.”

“‘Woman in the Dark’,” Makoto read. “Both of these books are based on French novels, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Oh, are you also into French culture?” Haru asked.

“Oh boy,” Ann said, sighing down at her coffee before turning towards Morgana. “I have a feeling we’re going to feel lost for a while.”

“Just hope they don’t start conversations like this very often,” Morgana replied. “Noir’s our new teammate, after all.”

“And she’s a bigger dork than I was expecting,” Ann said, glancing over at the girl next to her as she and Ren excitedly conversed about their favorite French novels, Makoto dissecting the various translations.

~~~

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

“You gained a new ally off of one of these ‘Phan-Site requests’?” Sae questioned.

“In a sense,” Makoto said.

“Daiki Sugimura…” Sae mused, crossing her arms. “Like the rest of the Sugimura family, he would dodge scandals of affairs or sexual harassment with his family’s influence. Until around the start of May, when he went public with it and a falling out he had with the Okumura family. His family's lawyers couldn't get around his insistent confessions to harassment.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t make the connection to us earlier,” Makoto said quietly, closing her eyes with a wince. My leg still hurts from trying to stand… How badly did that bullet damage it…?

“There wasn’t a calling card for this event,” Sae said. “Then again, there weren’t any for most mental shutdowns, either.” She turned to look at Makoto again. “This new member you mentioned isn’t someone I had considered a possible Phantom Thief, but with this testimony…”

Makoto opened her eyes again.

“Is the identity of ‘Noir’ Haru Okumura?” Sae asked. “I can’t think of another who Daiki Sugimura could have potentially wronged that would have had the opportunity to contact you in person. And as a fellow student of Shujin Academy, she had plenty of chances to reach out to you.”

“...I could have also spoken to an employee somewhere…” Makoto weakly suggested. "A place he happened to go to..."

“...so you don’t plan on selling her out right now,” Sae said, sounding completely unconvinced by Makoto's excuse. “I suppose it will become clearer the more you tell your story.”

“You think I’m being truthful, then?” Makoto asked, a tinge of hopefulness in her voice.

“You volunteered this information, after all,” Sae said. “And if the Metaverse is real, the existence of this ‘Mementos’ would explain how there were victims that didn’t seem overly ‘distorted’.”

“Victims…?” Makoto repeated. She let out a small sigh, the action causing a sharp pain through her chest. “...mental shutdown and psychotic breakdown victims. You don’t fully believe me yet.”

“Of course I don’t,” Sae said. “You’ve kept things from me since at least April, and still aren’t being forward with your allies’ identities. Not to mention the Metaverse still sounds unbelievable.”

Makoto looked down at the table, her vision becoming blurry again.

Sae’s face softened for a moment. “Although... as unbelievable as it sounds, I will say… I’m more willing to accept this may be exactly what happened.”

Makoto felt her heart skip a beat as she looked up at her sister. She’s… starting to believe me. Sis…

Rank up!

JUDGEMENT CONFIDANT: RANK 2

“Let’s move on,” Sae said, her face hard again. “I’d like you to keep me apprised on these minor incidents as we talk about your next big target.” She leaned forward slightly. “Ichiryusai Madarame. Was the off-hand mention of him from Nakanohara really all it took to send you after him?”

“You wouldn’t accept it if I just tried to say yes, would you…?” Makoto asked.

“Is it another collaborator, then?” Sae asked. “Someone harder to try and handwave away than Okumura? Tell me about them.”

~~~

5/5 - Thursday
Daytime
Leblanc Cafe

“Oh, so there is something I’ve been wondering about everyone’s Personas,” Haru said. After the conversation on books had concluded, Ren had heated up some leftover curry for the team. With their meal now finished, as well as Haru and Makoto’s relaying of their earlier conversation, Haru had brought up a question of her own.

“What is it?” Morgana asked. “Details about our own awakenings?”

“No, it was about all the different abilities they have,” Haru said. “Like, during our fight with Sugimura-san, Ren-kun used physical attacks like that Dream Needle thing?”

“Arsene also has Curse skills,” Ren said.

“But as Sugimura’s Shadow didn’t bother dodging, it’s likely he was immune to those,” Makoto said.

“So you have two types of attacks?” Haru seemed interested.

“Well, you had that Psi thing on top of your Gun abilities,” Ren said.

“Gun based skills are already rare,” Morgana said. “It’ll be a great asset, I’d say. And your Psychokinetic spells work well off of some of the status effects Lady Ann or Ren can dish out.”

“So, Ann-chan has…?”

“Fire, mostly,” Ann said. "I also have a spell that can put things to sleep, kinda like Ren."

“That’s very fitting,” Haru nodded. “And, what about you, Mako-chan?”

“Queen can pretty much do anything,” Morgana said. “She’s our biggest asset.”

“I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Makoto said, though her tone didn’t sound too upset. “But I’m apparently capable of holding multiple Personas. So I’m able to adapt to most any situation and cover the team’s shortcomings.”

“Why, Mako-chan, that sounds amazing!” Haru said. She gave a nervous smile. “I hope I can keep up with you all.”

“You will, trust me,” Makoto said.

Haru smiled and opened her mouth, when the clock above the door let out a chime, preemptively interrupting her.

“Yow!” Morgana hissed. “That thing is so much louder down here!”

“Oh, my, is it that late already?” Haru asked, looking over at the time.

“Oh, huh,” Ren seemed surprised. “I guess we have been talking for a while now, huh?”

“I should probably get going, then,” Haru said. She frowned. “Oh, um, could one of you walk with me to the station?”

“Yeah, I don’t mind,” Ann smiled.

“Oh, thank you, Ann-chan!”

“No problem! I should be getting going soon, too. Kinda put off all my homework until tonight.”

“Why would you procrastinate like that?” Makoto frowned.

“Sorry!” Ann said, standing up. “I’m going to do it, don’t worry! Anyway, Haru, shall we go?”

“Oh, wait!” Haru said. “Um, I don’t know how to reach you in the future. Should I look out at school, or...?”

“Oh, yes, let’s exchange contact information,” Makoto said. “That way we can all be in touch should something come up.”

“Alright!” Haru smiled, taking her phone out. After a few minutes, everyone had traded information. “Thank you all again! I look forward to stealing hearts with you all!” She let out a giggle.

“Same here with you,” Makoto said, giving a nervous smile. Is theft something to be so eager about? Well... I suppose it is still for a good cause.

“See you at school tomorrow, Haru,” Ren smiled.

“Mhm!” Haru nodded.

“Later!” Ann waved, leading Haru out of the cafe.

“Rare to find someone that excited,” Morgana said.

“I’m fairly certain we are the first friends she’s had,” Makoto said softly.

“Reminds me of a certain someone,” Ren said, looking at her.

Makoto looked away, a faint blush on her face. “We do have a lot in common, yes.” People like us... Will we find keep finding them as we continue this? Will we continue to grow in numbers? I... don't think I'd mind that.

Rank up!

DEATH CONFIDANT: RANK 2

“It’ll be good for you to have friends in your grade, too,” Morgana added. “It will make the group less stand-out.”

“That’s a fair point, yes,” Makoto nodded. I suppose standing out is a downside to having a friend circle like this, though. She quickly finished the last of her coffee and stood up. “Ren-kun, would you like it if I helped you clean up? I did hurt you earlier, after all. Not to mention we dirtied quite a few cups and plates with our coffee and lunch.”

“No, it’s fine,” Ren said. "And my shoulder doesn't really hurt anymore."

“If you’re certain,” Makoto said, sitting at the bar as Ren began cleaning up. “Morgana, you’ve been awfully quiet. What are your thoughts on what Haru told us? About Mementos calling out to her?”

“It’s definitely an interesting thought,” said Morgana. “Humans traveling to the depths for safety or something. Of course, we won’t actually know until we reach the depths, so I’m counting on you all to get to exploring that place. Find more targets so we can keep going further!”

Makoto nodded. “And on that note, I suggest we propose a new rule for our team. To avoid scenarios like with Sugimura, we should more thoroughly look into our targets. Know about any risks their distortions might pose and make sure we have a way around them.”

“We should also come to a unanimous decision, too,” Morgana added. “Like you said, people just asking us to do whatever could be bad.”

“You’re not doubting Haru, are you?” Ren asked.

“Her, no, not at all,” Morgana said. “But you know how it is when people say things could go wrong. Jinxes and whatnot.”

“I suppose black cats would know about jinxes,” Ren said thoughtfully.

“Hey, do I have to hammer it in to you? I’m not a cat!”

“Calm down,” Makoto sighed. “You know that wasn’t what he meant.”

“Ah, I… yeah,” Morgana said.

“Hey, Makoto, can I ask something?”

“Of course,” Makoto said. “Feel free to ask me anything.”

“Haru mentioned seeing you fighting with Ryuji again,” Ren said.

“...ah, a part of me hoped you’d forget to bring this up,” Makoto sighed. “I’ll admit, I may have been a bit too cruel with him. I lost my temper with him after he told me he requested my change of heart. But it looks like it’ll lead him to help others, so-”

“Wait, he did what?” Ren asked, stopping in the midst of washing the dishes to stare at the wall.

“...Ren-kun?” Makoto frowned.

“I tried telling him he's wrong about you, but…” Ren muttered.

“Please don’t speak with him about this,” Makoto said. She sighed and stood up. “At any rate, I suppose I should head home as well. We’ll all meet up tomorrow after school.”

“Yeah,” Ren sighed. “Get home safe, Makoto.”

“Of course,” Makoto nodded. “See you both later.”

“Bye, Queen,” Morgana said as Makoto left the cafe.

Makoto kept her head down as she walked to the station. Is Ren-kun upset with me or Sakamoto-kun over this? I just hope they don’t cause more drama at Shujin. Even if Igor wants the Phantom Thieves to be well known, I’d prefer us to not be under too much scrutiny.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.8%

Chapter Text

Makoto opened her eyes, finding herself in her cell in the Velvet Room. As if on autopilot, she pulled herself out of her bed and moved to approach the bar doors.

“It seems you have gained another new ally,” Igor remarked in his typically unnerving deep voice. “And under rather intriguing circumstances.”

“Intriguing circumstances?” Makoto repeated.

“He’s referring to your friend’s awakening within Mementos,” Justine explained.

“You didn’t find that strange?” Caroline asked abrasively. “I thought you were supposed to be intelligent!”

“I am intelligent,” Makoto said indignantly. “And I did find what she told me strange.” She looked out towards Igor, a frown on her face. “What is in the depths of Mementos?”

“Who knows?” Igor replied with a chuckle. “The distortions of the public’s Palace runs deep. It may be a mystery beyond your reach.”

Makoto frowned, staring at Igor for a moment, before he suddenly changed the topic.

“That aside, it’s a pleasant surprise to see you’ve continued your actions as a thief,” Igor said. “After your earlier reservations, I half expected you to drop out of this game. Continuing along this path, bringing together a group of fellow thieves, even recruiting more to your cause. This is exactly what I want to see from someone striving towards rehabilitation.”

“Right…”

“Our Master is praising you,” Justine said. “You should be more excited.”

“I just feel uneasy about being praised for thievery,” Makoto said.

“Well you had better get used to it!” Caroline snapped. “This is your role in this game!”

What game?

“Perhaps you need some motivation?” Igor asked, snapping her out of her thoughts. “As a reward for your accomplishments thus far, I shall increase the amount of Personas you can carry. A suitable reward for one who is expanding her collaborators.”

Makoto hesitated before giving a small nod. “Thank you.”

“Don’t disappoint me,” Igor said. “I have great expectations for you.”

Rank up!

MOON CONFIDANT: RANK 3

“Our business is done for now,” Igor said.

Makoto nodded, and began to turn to return to the cell’s bed when Caroline suddenly slammed the bars. “Stop right there, inmate!”

“What is it?” Makoto asked, turning back to face them.

“We have some expectations about your rehabilitation as well, you know,” Justine said.

“I’m aware,” Makoto said. “Trust me, I’m doing my best to live up to-”

“Your heart is a prison, what makes you think you’ve earned our trust?!” Caroline snapped.

“Calm yourself, Caroline,” Justine sighed. She turned to face Makoto. “We simply wish to ensure that you’re not simply rushing through things. That you are taking full advantage of everything we offer you.”

“And that you’re not trying to half-ass your rehabilitation!” Caroline added.

“So what do you want me to do?” Makoto asked.

“Properly utilize and train your Personas,” Justine said. “We’ll give you some challenging requests that will require some thought and foresight.”

Makoto put a hand to her chin. “...thought and foresight into my own powers…”

“You’re not scared, are you?” Caroline asked. “Do you just want to brute force Palaces like you did with the first one?”

“That’s not exactly a viable strategy,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “Okay. To help keep my mind sharp on how Personas and the Metaverse works, I’ll gladly accept your requests.”

“That’s just what we wanted to hear,” Justine smiled.

“Hmph, good luck with this,” Caroline said.

“So, what’s the first request?” Makoto asked.

~~~

5/6 - Friday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Ren was making his way towards Shujin, when a familiar voice caught his ear, bringing him to a stop.

"Can you stop shaking me?" Ryuji's voice asked.

“I will if you just say okay!” a girl’s voice was whining.

Ren looked over to see Ryuji talking with a third year near the vending machines. He was leaning against the wall of the alcove while she was stomping her foot impatiently in front of him.

“I dunno, Takao...” Ryuji scratched at his head. “I don’t think my mom would be cool with me havin’ a job in Shinjuku…”

“Don’t leave me hanging like this, ISTG.”

“At least give me the weekend to think about it!” Ryuji protested.

Ren frowned, starting to turn to walk towards them, when he heard a different third year girl call out to him.

“Ren-kun!”

“Oh, Haru,” Ren turned to see his fluffy-haired senpai jogging towards him from where a limousine had dropped her off. “Good morning.”

“Good morning to you, as well!” she smiled. “Mind if we walk the rest of the way together?”

“Of course not,” Ren said, cracking a smile.

“Hey, Haru,” Morgana said from Ren’s bag.

“Oh, good morning, Mona-chan!” Haru replied. The two walked in silence up until they reached the steps. “Um, Ren-kun? I had a question. Um…” She lowered her voice. “Am I allowed to make suggestions for who we should target?”

“Yeah, of course,” Ren replied.

“Really?” Haru seemed surprised at how readily Ren answered. “But… I already made you all go after my former fiance. Wouldn’t it be selfish of me to make a suggestion?”

“You’re worrying way too much,” Morgana said. “These guys have no clue what they’re doing, remember. Any help they can get is welcome.”

“I wouldn’t say we have no clue…” Ren mumbled softly. “But yeah, he’s right. If you have a big target for us in mind, feel free to tell us.”

Haru bit her lip and opened her mouth to reply when she noticed they reached the foot of the stairs. “Oh, you’re upstairs, right, Ren-kun?”

Ren nodded. “See you after school, senpai.”

“Y-yes, see you,” Haru said, watching Ren head up the stairs. She looked down and let out a sigh before heading towards homeroom. Not today… Even if it’s okay with them, I can’t be too spoiled and selfish.

~~~

5/6 - Friday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Makoto pulled out a bento box, setting it down on her desk with a slight sigh. I already have a Jack Frost fused… It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume it would learn Mabufu naturally. This is hardly as challenging as they made me believe. Was my earlier hesitation all it took to break their faith in me?

A bell suddenly chimed, an announcement ringing out. “Makoto Niijima, please report to the principal’s office.”

“There goes teacher’s pet.”

“Don’t say things like that. Niijima-san really helped my club out with the Student Council’s new budget proposal.”

“Well I heard she helped cover up what Kamoshida was doing.”

“Hmm, I dunno…”

Makoto sighed, putting her lunch away and heading out into the hall, deciding to ignore the whispers. He had to have a school-wide announcement for this?

Reaching his office on the second floor, she gave a knock, Kobayakawa almost immediately giving a frantic response.

“Yes, come in, Niijima-san!”

Makoto let out a breath to steady herself, before opening the door, closing it behind her and approaching the desk. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“I did,” Kobayakawa said, seeming to be attempting to steady himself with breathing as well. “I’m not entirely sure if you’ve noticed over your break, but the students of our school seem to have gotten into a bit of an uproar over that Phantom Thieves prank from a few weeks ago.”

“No, I wasn’t aware they were still talking about it,” Makoto said carefully. “Is it really such a big deal?”

“It’s a distraction and brings unwanted attention to our school,” Kobayakawa said, shaking his head.

Makoto nodded. “Yes, I remember the postings you put up shortly after Kamoshida’s arrest saying as much. Is there a reason it needs to be reiterated to me?”

“Honestly, Niijima, you of all people should know how dangerous a poor reputation can be right now. If I’m not mistaken, your sister is still rising up as a prosecutor, isn’t she? If the school her sister went to was to go under because of her mistakes…”

Makoto felt her throat tighten. When she spoke, however, it still came out in a calm tone. “What do you mean by ‘her mistakes?’ Are you suggesting an error of mine is harming Shujin?”

“Not presently, but…” Kobayakawa cleared his throat and sighed. “I’ll be blunt, Niijima-san. With the timing of Kamoshida-sensei’s ‘change of heart’, it can only be assumed that these Phantom Thieves are students at this school.”

“So you believe they really exist?” Makoto asked.

“With the other changes of heart I’ve been hearing about this past week, I do,” said Kobayakawa. “And if we don’t have a solid grasp on the cause or their motives, it could lead to Shujin developing an unshakable negative reputation. And any recommendation letter I’d write for you would lose all worth, as well.”

“...I’m not entirely certain I follow,” Makoto said, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice. “You want to know how these ‘changes of heart’ happen? Why tell me this?”

“Could I ask you to investigate it?” Kobayakawa asked, surveying her. “I see you continued to tutor the transfer student, as well as another problem student, so it's clear to me just how much maintaining the school’s reputation means to you. Think of this as just another aspect of that. And in exchange, that letter of recommendation I write you will be good for any college you desire.”

Makoto felt herself froze. Is… this real? Is he testing me? He’s asking me to investigate the Phantom Thieves… Does he know I’m a part of them and he's testing me? Or could it be…! She let out a breath and gave him a determined nod. “Of course, Principal Kobayakawa. I’ll be sure to look into this for you. I’ll find out who the Phantom Thieves are and how they perform these acts.”

“As expected of our Student Council President,” Kobayakawa said, giving an extremely slight, relieved-sounding laugh. “Keep me apprised on this.”

“Of course,” Makoto said, giving a slight bow, before turning to leave the room. As soon as she was in the hallway and out of his sight, a slight, smug smile crept onto her face. So he doesn’t know he just asked their leader to look into this. That’s a relief. Still, if the school is going to be under more scrutiny now…

She shook her head, returning to class. I can worry about this when I’m with the others. For now, I need to see if I have enough time to keep my lunch from going to waste.

~~~

5/6 - Friday
Afternoon
Shujin Academy

Ushimaru was standing at the front of Class 2-D, giving a lecture. Most of the students were attempting to keep their attention on them. Ann and Ren, on the other hand, were subtly pulling their phones out of their pockets to check the group chat, a new message from Makoto having alerted them.

Makoto: Apologies for sending this during class.

Makoto: About our plans to meet up this afternoon, could we meet in Shibuya instead?

Makoto: There’s something I need to talk to you all about, and Shujin isn’t the right place for it.

Haru: We could all meet up at Big Bang Burger!

Haru: Also, I love the chat icon! I’ve been meaning to ask who drew it?

Ren: Not bad, huh?

Makoto: Um, I know I started this particular chat, but we are in class. A simple yes/no response would be fine.

Ann: Sounds good to me!

Ren: Yeah, Morgana and I will be there.

Makoto: Thank you. See you in a few hours.

Ann slid her phone back into her pocket after Makoto’s last message. Ren began to do the same, when it buzzed again, this time from Mishima.

Mishima: Hey, I heard something interesting during lunch.

Mishima: Thought you guys could maybe handle it?

Typing…

“Amamiya!” Ushimaru snapped, causing Ren’s eyes to snap up towards him just in time to be pelted by a piece of chalk Ushimaru had whipped at him.

“That’s gonna leave a mark…” Morgana said, giving a sympathetic wince.

"Pay attention next time I’m lecturing you!” Ushimaru barked.

“Got it…” Ren said, putting his phone away before rubbing his head.

“Sorry!” Mishima mouthed at him from across the room before turning forward.

“Tsk, kids these days…” Ushimaru muttered.

“Ooh… that looked like it hurt.”

“Pfft… It hit him right in the forehead...”

Ren fought the urge to sigh, as he turned to keep his focus on the front of the room.

~~~

5/6 - Friday
After School
Central Street

“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat, Mako-chan?” Haru asked.

“I’m certain, thank you,” Makoto said, taking a sip of her water. The four of them, five counting Morgana, had made their way to Central Street’s Big Bang Burger location as soon as school ended and were now sitting at a small table together.

Haru nodded in response to Makoto's answer, setting down everyone else’s orders before sitting down beside Makoto.

“So, what was it that had you texting us in class?” Ren asked, rubbing his head where the chalk had hit him earlier.

Makoto paused in thought for a moment, before speaking in a slightly quiet voice, the din of the numerous customers drowning her words out from going past the table. “Remember that prank from a couple of weeks ago?”

“Huh?” Ann looked confused.

“Do you mean the calling card…?” Haru asked, slight confusion in her voice as well.

Makoto nodded. “Well, the principal feels, and I have to agree, that that prank combined with the timing of Kamoshida’s arrest has led to a lot of rumors among the student body that the media might take advantage of. It’s painting the school in a negative light.”

“...I see,” Ren said carefully.

“I’m glad you understand,” Makoto nodded. “As Student Council President, I’ve been asked to look into this.”

“Look into it?!” Ann almost gasped.

“Keep it down, please,” Haru said, frowning. “Um, Mako-chan, does this mean…?”

“Yes, though I’ll gladly still tutor you all, I don’t think I’ll have enough free time for us to meet up at school,” Makoto said. Please tell me you all understood that. I’d rather not discuss my fake investigation into us in public.

“You, um, won’t be too busy, will you?” Haru asked nervously.

Makoto gave her a slight smile. “I shouldn’t be. Though I’d ask for you all to cooperate with me, please?”

“Yeah, no problem,” Ren said, looking like he was trying not to laugh.

“Wow, Makoto, I’m almost impressed,” Morgana said. “You’re being exceptionally subtle.”

“Oh, I get it now!” Ann exclaimed in realization.

“Ah, that’s good, Ann,” Makoto said, cringing slightly as some of the other customers gave them odd looks.

“Hey, so, uh… if Shujin’s out, where are we going to meet up?” Ann asked, lowering her voice.

“How about here?” Haru suggested.

“...Haru, fast food is hardly healthy,” Makoto said.

“But it’s cheap and convenient!” Haru protested.

“Y'know, it wouldn’t be strange for students to be seen here,” Ann added.

“...Haru, doesn’t your family own Big Bang Burger?” Ren asked with a raised eyebrow.

Haru seemed stunned for a moment. “Oh, um… That’s not at all the reason I suggested it… Is it coming off that way?”

“Uh, no, sorry,” Ren said, looking down to take a bite of his food. “I was kidding, anyway. I don’t mind here. We’re staying in shape enough, anyway.”

Makoto let out a slight sigh. “Alright… we’ll meet up here for our study sessions, then.” She smiled. “On the subject, how does Sunday work for all of you? We do have midterms next week, after all.”

“Don’t remind me…” Ann sighed. “Still…” She pulled herself up out of her slouch and smiled. “At least the smartest girl in the school is offering her help! I’m in for Sunday!”

“I should be free,” Haru said pleasantly.

“Same here,” Ren said.

“Excellent,” Makoto smiled. “And don’t worry, Morgana, we’ll continue helping you once tests are behind us.”

“Oh, on the subject,” Morgana said. “Ren, you going to tell Queen about the intel Mishima passed on to us?”

Ren paused, poking at his food before looking up to see Makoto surveying him. “...so there’s a bully at Shujin…”

Makoto frowned. “While that does sound worth it, I’m trying to get the suspicion of us being Shujin students to go away, Ren-kun…”

“...sorry, yeah, bad timing,” Ren said. “...did already agree, though.”

Makoto sighed. “I’ll deal with it as Student Council President. Not as Queen. Just… text me about him later, okay?”

“Yep.”

“I told him to ask everyone first,” Morgana said.

“No you didn’t,” Ren said. “You told me ‘you should take it.’”

“I think all subtlety is gone when people think you’re arguing with a cat,” Haru chimed.

“...we just need to endure this until our next big target,” Makoto said quietly. “Once I can convincingly argue the Phantom Thieves aren’t associated with the school, we should have a lot more freedom.”

“I’ll look forward to that,” Haru smiled.

~~~

5/6 - Friday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

The mood when she got home was far different than it was when out with her friends. As she made a light dinner for herself and her sister, the apartment was quiet. The only noticeable sounds being the knife’s impacts on the chopping board, the sizzling pan from the kitchen, and the clicking of keys from Sae’s laptop.

“...rough day, Sis?” Makoto finally asked as she began plating.

“That’s putting it lightly,” Sae huffed, closing her laptop and moving to sit across from Makoto at the table. “The prosecutor that had a mental shutdown hasn’t been able to say anything since my initial interrogation of him. There’s no obvious leads in his personal effects, either. And despite the urgency of this case, I’ve been asked to look into a misappropriation of government funds on top of every other case I need to handle. It’s unlikely I’ll even be home this weekend if I want to stay on top everything. That’s but a taste of my current workdays.”

“I-I’m sorry to hear that,” Makoto said.

“It’s just how it is for women,” Sae said. “We need to do ten times the work a man does for someone to acknowledge us.” She briefly glared at her plate. “I don’t care what it takes, I will successfully see all these cases through.”

“Um, I’ll be rooting for you,” Makoto said cautiously.

Sae seemed to pick up on the caution, as she let out a breath as if to will herself to calm down. “You don’t need to hear all of this. How was your day? You didn’t let Golden Week distract you too much, did you?”

“Today was fine,” Makoto said. “Some of the student were still rowdy from the break, but I was able to concentrate just fine for the most part.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Sae said, flashing an extremely brief smile before picking at her food. “You could stand to cut back on the salt just a little.”

“Oh, sorry,” Makoto said.

“It’s fine, just a difference in taste.”

There was another awkward silence as they continued eating. Makoto soon stopped, staring down at the table. “...um, Sis?”

“Yes?” Sae asked.

“I've been meaning to ask... what are the statistics- no, I mean, um… what could someone do to fight against…”

Sae stared across the table at her, a slight frown on her face. “Just ask, Makoto. What is it?”

“...do you know what someone can do if they’ve been arrested under false charges?” Makoto asked quietly.

“False charges?” Sae repeated coldly.

“N-not that I’m suggesting you-”

“Is this about that transfer student?” Sae asked with a huff. “You were told several times not to associate with him.”

“I’ve been asked to be his tutor,” Makoto said, her voice slightly stressed. “If his grades are high, it will reflect well on the school. The principal wants me to help repair the school’s reputation for my letter of recommendation.”

“Damage control shouldn’t be your job,” Sae said. “Especially if it leads to you asking foolish questions like this. Criminals are liars, Makoto. Don't take what they say at face value.”

“That’s not-” Makoto choked back her words slightly. “...you’re dodging my question. It doesn’t matter why I’m asking. A conviction under false charges is a serious problem.”

“I don’t like the implication that I’d have experience with that,” Sae said.

“N-no, that wasn’t what I was trying to-” Makoto began.

Sae stood up, cutting her off. “I need to calm down if I’m to get any sleep tonight. Do you need the bathroom at all?”

“No, go ahead…” Makoto said softly.

Sae walked off, the faint sounds of the tub filling with water reaching her ears a few minutes later.

Makoto crossed her arms and rested them and her head on the table. Why did I have to ask her that?! Of course it’d upset her! I’m such an idiot…!

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Slowly, she sat up and pulled it out to check her messages.

Ren: That bullying student Mishima told me about is named Daisuke Takanashi.

Ren: Sorry to saddle you with this. I know you’re already doing a lot to help us.

Makoto frowned, turning to stare down the hall towards the apartment bathroom. If only I actually could help…

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.7%

Chapter Text

5/7 - Saturday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Makoto was making her way towards the entrance, when she noticed her target pulling a slightly overweight student aside to a lot across the school. Daisuke Takanashi. Picking up her pace slightly, Makoto made a beeline towards the two.

“Hey, Hippo, glad I caught ya early,” Takanashi said.

“T-Takanashi-san…” the other student stuttered.

“So, my friend and I were going to go out somewhere after exams next week. You’ll be able to get together enough cash to help with that, right?”

“I don’t-”

“Daisuke Takanashi, correct?” Makoto interrupted as she finished her approach.

“Huh?” Takanashi looked over, confusion on his face. “Uh… Niijima-senpai, right?”

“That’s correct,” Makoto said, putting an empty smile on her face. “I’m glad I caught you early. I was hoping we could talk in private. Could you follow me?”

Takanashi seemed to freeze for a moment at Makoto’s choice of words before shaking his head. “Nah, sorry. I was busy chatting with-”

“Allow me to rephrase myself,” Makoto said. “Follow me.”

Takanashi hesitated before shrugging. “Sure.” He turned back to glare at the student he was just threatening. “See you after class, okay?”

The other student gave a nervous nod before staring after Takanashi and Makoto as they made their way into Shujin.

Makoto said nothing until they were in the Student Council Room and she had closed the door behind her. “Please, have a seat. We don’t have much time before classes, after all.”

Takanashi did as instructed, sitting on the couch. Makoto grabbed one of the chairs, pulling it to sit directly across from him, where she proceeded to glare.

“Wh-why am I here, senpai?”

“I’ll be blunt, Takanashi-kun,” Makoto said. “I’ve been informed that you’ve been witnessed bullying fellow students. Blackmailing them into giving you their money. Are these allegations true?”

“...you’re interrogating me?” Takanashi scoffed. “I’m busy.”

“Sit down!” Makoto ordered as Takanashi started to stand up.

Takanashi flinched and immediately sat again, shrinking back. “Who- who said I was bullying?”

Makoto frowned. “I’m not at liberty to disclose that. But enough believe it that I need to follow up. And your attitude with your ‘friend’ a few minutes ago gives it added weight.”

“I haven’t been bullying anyone!” Takanashi protested.

“...are you familiar with an internet address known as the Phantom Aficionado Website? It would seem you’ve been requested to have a change of heart on there. That leads me to believe a number of people do think you’re bullying them.”

“That Phan-Site thing?” Takanashi asked. “That’s your evidence? They requested your name, too, Miss President. Maybe you’re the bully, huh?”

“I am aware of how people perceive me around here,” Makoto sighed. “But this isn’t about me. You’re acting awfully panicked and defensive, Takanashi-kun. This deflection certainly doesn’t strike me as normal behavior of someone who is innocent.”

Takanashi glared at her. “...what are you even doing, Niijima-senpai?”

“Helping your victims,” Makoto replied.

“You’re just allowed to pick and choose who you help as Student Council President?”

“I try to help the whole student body.”

“Then where were you when it happened to me, huh?” Takanashi asked. “I’m teaching these people to stand up for themselves. It’s their own fault if they get pushed around!”

Makoto twitched slightly, catching one of her hands in the other. Don’t rise to that. Stay calm. “...when it happened to you?”

Takanashi breathed heavily for a moment, staring up at Makoto in a mix of confusion and contempt. “...you’re in the same year as Sakoda, aren’t you?”

“Sakoda? I believe he’s in my homeroom. What does he have to do with this?”

“Yeah, figured you wouldn’t know,” Takanashi said. “You never noticed people’s issues before-” He stopped himself, blinking in surprise. “...wait, Niijima-senpai?”

“What is it?” Makoto asked, frowning slightly.

“...nothing. Uh, Sakoda, he’s… he’s blackmailing me, too. I’m… I’m going along with what he’s telling me because then he doesn’t do it to me.”

“I see. Does continuing that cycle of bullying really sound appealing to you? How do you feel about being blackmailed?”

“...I hate it,” Takanashi admitted.

“That’s not so hard to admit now, is it?” Makoto asked with a small smile. “I’ll look into what Sakoda-kun is doing. However, if I catch wind that you’re still picking on and abusing others, I won’t hesitate to bring you to justice. The school is still on edge in regards to troublemakers.”

“Uh, r-right,” Takanashi stuttered. He stood up. “I… can go to class now, right?”

“You’re free to leave, yes. Thank you for your time. We will follow up at some point to make sure you’re genuinely on the level.”

Takanashi swallowed nervously. “G-great. Thanks.” He made his way to the door, before pausing. “Niijima-senpai?”

“Yes?” Makoto asked.

“...did you have a change of heart? I haven’t heard of you paying attention to anyone like this before.”

Makoto sat there, silently.

“...never mind,” Takanashi said, heading out into the hall.

Makoto felt her throat tighten. A change of heart…? If a rumor like that gets out, there’s no chance I could convince the principal with my investigation’s ‘findings.’ She clasped her hands together and leaned forward, staring at the floor. Why do people find it so strange that I’d want to help?

~~~

5/7 - Saturday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Makoto looked up at Sakoda as the bell for lunch rang, staring after him as he left the room. Is he going to intimidate someone? How can I investigate someone without people talking about me being helpful? Why is it I have to damage my own reputation?

She let out a sigh, standing up and heading out into the hallway. Sakoda seemed to be long gone. The only student she personally recognized was a fellow Student Council Member.

“Suzuki-san!” Makoto called.

“Huh?” Suzuki glanced back in surprise. “Oh, Niijima-san. I was about to meet Yanagi-san and Honda-kun at the courtyard." She seemed to get a slightly hopeful look on her face. "Did you want to eat lunch with us?”

“No, that’s okay,” Makoto smiled. “Actually, I was hoping to ask a favor. Would you be free this afternoon?”

“You mean after school?” Suzuki asked. “Can't. I have cram school on Saturdays, remember?”

“Ah, right, you mentioned that on our first day,” Makoto frowned. “Hmm… would Monday be alright?”

“I work on Mondays,” Suzuki said.

“You do?” Makoto couldn’t hide her surprise.

“What’s this favor, anyway?” Suzuki asked, her face briefly flickering in annoyance.

“Oh, if you’re too busy, I’d rather not say,” Makoto said. “I wouldn’t want to spread hearsay, after all.”

“Niijima-san, we’ve been on the Student Council together for three years,” Suzuki frowned. “If you want my help, you can tell me and I’ll try to make time.”

“I appreciate that, but it’s a little time sensitive,” Makoto said. “I’ll check with Tanaka-kun instead. Have a good lunch.” She turned, and walked off down the hall.

Suzuki stared after her for a moment, before giving a small huff and making her way to the courtyard.

~~~

5/7 - Saturday
After School
Underground Mall

“Ooh, that looks pretty good, huh?” Ann asked, holding up a jacket in front of her. “What do you think?”

“You look amazing, Lady Ann,” Morgana purred.

“Uh, thanks, but it’s not for me, you know,” Ann frowned. “Ren, what do you think? Would this make Makoto look more… approachable, I guess?”

“Maybe?” Ren frowned. “I’m not an expert on fashion.”

“Hrm,” Ann pouted, and put the jacket back on the rack. “It might be more fitting for me than her…” She trailed off, staring out into the crowd. Is someone watching me?

“Then why not buy it?” Morgana asked.

“Oh, I only brought enough yen to buy a gift today.” Ann turned back towards them and gave an overblown sigh. “Window shopping when you have no money is the worst!”

“I have to agree with that,” Ren nodded, staring at the watch store across from them.

“Ooh, I know!” Ann said, taking her phone out.

“Uh, you’re not going to ask Haru for money, are you?” Ren asked.

“Ren, why would you even suggest that?” Ann looked offended. “I’m asking Makoto to sell some of that Treasure we got in Mementos. Then we can go on a shopping spree!”

“Uh, Lady Ann, those are battle funds, not-”

“And sent!” Ann said. “Sorry, Mona, did you say something?”

“...you break my heart when you ignore me like that.”

“Anyway, let’s make a wishlist today, Ren!” Ann pumped her fist in excitement. “Splurge our earnings on gifts for the team!”

“I doubt those trinkets got us that much,” Ren laughed. “Let’s go, Mona.”

“Only if you’re making a list for me, too,” Morgana complained. “Shopping is so dull!”

~~~

5/7 - Saturday
After School
Shujin Academy

“...but I’ll need evidence to bring to the teachers,” Makoto finished explaining.

“Well, I mean, Takanashi’s confession to you sounds like enough,” Tanaka frowned.

“Not enough to get Sakoda punished, if he is indeed in on this.” Her phone buzzed.

Ann: Hey, could you sell some of that stuff we got in Mementos?

Ann: I could use my share for some shopping.

“Well, I don’t really know what to do other than others coming forward,” Tanaka began. “Do you want to set up a camera or something? My uncle could maybe sell something.”

“Several things wrong with that suggestion,” Makoto said, quickly sending a response.

Makoto: Selling it might be for the best if we’ll be meeting at Big Bang Burger from now on.

Makoto: I’ll get you your share at our study group tomorrow.

Makoto looked back up at Tanaka, sliding her phone into her pocket. “Surveillance like that would be highly shady, borderline voyeuristic and illegal. And aside from that, I thought you said your uncle sold planters?”

“He sells a lot of things,” Tanaka said, scratching the back of his head.

Makoto shook her head. “Just forget it. I didn’t feel comfortable asking, anyway. I’ll try brainstorming ideas on my own time and hopefully get this resolved before exams. For now, I should get going.”

“Okay.” Tanaka hesitated. “Niijima-san, you can rely on me and the others, you know. We’re all Council members.”

“I appreciate it, but I’ll be okay,” Makoto said. “I’ll see you Monday.” She turned before Tanaka could get another word in and headed out the entrance.

~~~

5/7 - Saturday
Evening
Central Street

Iwai looked up as Makoto entered the store, giving a brief shrug as he returned to flipping through a magazine. “Thought you were scared off.”

“I was simply busy with school,” Makoto replied, approaching the counter.

“School, huh?” Iwai asked. “Guess you’ve got nothing to sell if you’ve been busy with that.”

Makoto felt her face briefly heat up. “I didn’t say that.” She reached into her purse, pulling out a bag of the various knick-knacks that they’ve been finding littering Mementos. “Is it alright if I sell these?”

“Depends.” He looked up at her. “Are you free to work tonight?”

“Tonight?” Makoto repeated, frowning. “Um, I have a study group I need to prepare for tomorrow.”

Iwai briefly took the lollipop out of his mouth. “Study group, huh? Are you a tutor?”

“...in a sense,” Makoto answered, an uncomfortable frown on her face.

Iwai returned the lollipop to his mouth. “Then maybe get to that instead of selling this crap, huh?”

Makoto narrowed her eyes. “Alright, I’ll bite. What would I need to be doing tonight?”

“Eat dinner,” Iwai said, sorting through the loot Makoto brought in.

“Dinner?” Makoto repeated. A disgusted expression made its way onto her face “You aren’t… asking me out, are you? I’m still in high school.”

Iwai blinked in surprise before letting out a laugh. “Heh, you’re pretty funny, Niijima. No, it ain’t anything like a date. You’re not even allowed at the same table as me.”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Makoto mumbled.

“I’m meeting a… friend at the diner,” Iwai said, pulling out about ¥2000. “Just sit nearby and when I cough, call my phone.” He quickly jotted down the number on a piece of paper before handing it and the yen towards Makoto. “Deal, right?”

“That’s it?” Makoto asked, confused. “Just call you when you cough?”

“Not that hard, is it?”

Makoto let out a sigh. “I’m not listening in on an illegal deal, am I?”

“Yes or no.”

Damn it, Ann. You had to have me sell this tonight? “Deal.”

~~~

Makoto stared down into the coffee she had ordered. In the booth behind her, Iwai and a man she could only describe as a thug were chatting. For the most part, it sounded like a light conversation. Mentions of a gang aside, she wouldn’t think it out of place if they really were two friends just catching up at a diner. Until the name Tsuda came up, anyway.

“Hold up, didn’t you two cut ties when you left the family? Why’re you askin’ about him now?”

Family? Makoto questioned in her head.

“I just figured it’s about time we bury the hatchet,” Iwai replied.

Maybe I’m just reading into this too much.

“Ooh, I getcha. Still tryin’ to uphold the old code of honor, huh?”

Okay, I am definitely not reading into this too much. Code? Family? Rival gang? There’s only one thing I can think of.

Makoto’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Iwai coughing. Ah, that’s the signal! Should I have been listening more closely? She subtly slid her phone out, dialing the number he gave her.

“You sick or somethin’?” Iwai’s companion asked.

“Nah, just a small cold,” Iwai shrugged. His phone started ringing. “Ah, hang on.” He took it out and Makoto now heard him speaking through both the receiver and from the booth behind her. “Hello? Yeah, how’s it going?”

Faking a conversation. He's done this before.

“What? Your order’s all wrong...? My bad. I’ll get back to the shop and fix it right away." His voice on the phone was briefly muffled, as he spoke away from the transmitter. "Sorry, I gotta run. Work shit.”

“See ya,” the thug replied, Makoto hearing Iwai standing and leaving the diner.

“Don’t hang up,” his voice ordered through the phone. “I wanna hear what Masa’s doin’.”

Masa? Makoto leaned back slightly, hearing the man behind her tapping at his phone.

“Tsuda-san. It’s me. Iwai was askin’ about you. Did just what you told me to, though. I'm thinking he heard about that deal of yours. He might try and squeeze cash outta you… Oh, sorry! Yes. Sorry. I understand, yeah.”

Masa hung up and moved to stand, stopping to glare at Makoto. “...were you listening to that?”

Makoto felt a chill run through her. Was I too obvious?

“Think of something,” Iwai said.

“Hey, girl, I asked you a question!”

“Uh, h-hold on, Ren-kun,” Makoto stuttered into her phone, before turning to face Masa, trying to feign innocence. “Were you talking to me, sir?”

“...no, forget it,” Masa shook his head and made his way out of the diner.

Once the door was shut, Makoto closed her eyes and let out a sigh of relief.

“So, is this ‘Ren-kun’ your boyfriend?”

Makoto’s eyes snapped open at hearing Iwai’s voice still on the phone. “He’s not my- oh, forget it. Did you hear all of that?”

“I did,” Iwai confirmed. “A deal, huh… Sounds like somethin’s going on. Thanks, Niijima.”

“Right,” Makoto bit her lip. “Hey, I have a question-”

“Bring me the receipt from today next time I see ya,” Iwai interrupted. “Get whatever you want, and I’ll pay you back for it. For a job well done.”

“Oh, you don’t need to,” Makoto said, taken aback. “Um, we already had a deal going on.”

“Just take the offer of free food,” Iwai laughed. “See you next time, Niijima. Think I’ll have plenty of work for you to do.”

Makoto sighed as Iwai hung up, and pulled the diner’s menu back towards her. Well… if I’m right in thinking this is connected to yakuza, he is surprisingly nice for one. Makoto gave a brief, nervous laugh in spite of herself. Meeting with yakuza, stealing hearts… my life doesn’t sound real anymore.

Rank up!

HANGED MAN CONFIDANT: RANK 2

~~~

5/8 - Sunday
Daytime
Central Street

“Mako-chan, are you okay?” Haru asked as Makoto stifled another yawn.

“Ah, sorry, I’m just tired,” Makoto said, spreading some books in front of her and setting down her Buchimaru pencil case.

“Were you up late last night?” Ren asked.

“I hope you weren’t stressing over something,” Haru frowned. “Is this study session too much to ask?”

“No, that’s not it,” Makoto shook her head. “I was just out at the diner last night for a meeting with someone. And I think the coffee I got wasn’t decaffeinated like they claimed.”

"I know just how you feel," Morgana said sympathetically. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to fall asleep with the smell of coffee all around you?"

"That sounds rather pleasant, actually!" Haru said.

"If I'd be allowed to taste some, it probably would be, yeah," Morgana sighed wistfully.

“Well, hope you aren’t too out of it today,” Ren said.

“Speaking of being out of it,” Makoto glanced at the girl sitting beside her, who was staring out the window behind them. “Ann? Are you alright?”

“Huh?” Ann jolted at suddenly being addressed, and turned back towards the table. “I’m fine! Sorry. Just feels like I’m being watched today.”

“Morgana, stop staring at Ann,” Ren said.

“It’s not me!” Morgana snapped. “Ren, if you want to talk about staring at girls, should I tell Ma-”

“Hey, I was joking!” Ren suddenly said in a panic.

“Can you keep it down?” Makoto asked, giving another yawn. "We're in public..."

“I’ll get you a coffee,” Haru said sweetly, standing up and heading over to the counter.

“Alright, let’s see,” Makoto mused. “Ren-kun, you missed the first four days of school due to the timing of your transfer.”

“I don’t think there was enough covered during that that you’ll need to give any attention to it,” Ren said.

“Are you certain?” Makoto asked. “Reviewing it might be good for Ann, too.”

“Do you think it’ll be on the test at all?” Ann asked.

“Hmm, I’m actually not certain,” Makoto frowned as Haru returned. “Oh, thank you.”

“Of course,” Haru smiled as Makoto took the coffee from her.

Makoto shuddered slightly as she took a sip.

“...not as good as Leblanc’s?” Ren asked, an amused smile on his face.

“Is it that obvious?”

“You shook your whole body.”

“Oh, hey, what was that thing on color theory about again?” Ann asked, interrupting the banter.

“Color theory?” Haru repeated.

“Like… how many colors it takes to paint or something?”

“How many-” Makoto began to repeat.

“Anything flat can be painted in only four colors,” Ren interrupted to explain.

“Oh, four-color theorem,” Makoto finished.

“That was it!” Ann said, taking a note. “I keep getting confused on that.”

“I don’t blame you,” Haru nodded. “I never understood it myself. I think the artist Madarame has a piece that’s only done in various shades of one color, so-”

“Madarame?” Ren repeated.

“Oh, are you a fan of his?” Haru asked. “Because I have an extra ticket to his upcoming-”

“That’s not it,” Ren said. “It’s more that…" He leaned in closer to the others. "We heard that name before, didn’t we?”

“...do you think that’s the Madarame that Nakanohara mentioned?” Makoto asked quietly, leaning forward as well.

“Oh, right, I completely forgot about that,” Ann said.

“Um, what are we talking about?” Haru asked.

“...we can explain later,” Makoto said, shaking her head and leaning back. “It’s possible that we’re mistaken, anyway. Or that it was just bitter rambling on the Shadow’s part. For now, we should probably get past this week's midterms.”

“Oh, um, okay,” Haru said, sitting back and looking let down. “I guess my ex-fiance’s ticket will just go unused, then…”

"Cheer up, Haru," Ann frowned.

“Let’s, uh, get back to it,” Makoto said, giving Haru a brief, sympathetic frown. “Four-color theorem is about map regions, and how no two adjacent regions would be colored the same if you only use four colors. It’s not entirely related to paintings and art. It’s more related to mathematics”

“Oh, see, our teacher did a horrible job explaining that,” Ann said, jotting down some notes. “You’re such a big help, Makoto!”

“Ah, th-thanks…” Makoto stuttered, looking down in embarrassment. “Um, Haru, do you have any questions about our midterms?”

“Oh, we can help our Ann-chan and Ren-kun first,” Haru smiled. “My education isn’t that important.”

“Don’t say that, of course it is,” Makoto sighed. “Well, we’ll get to what our grade will be covering later, then. Moving on for the second-year’s...”

~~~

5/8 - Sunday
Evening
Station Square

“Wow, that ran really late, huh?” Ann asked as they all headed towards the station.

“I apologize for keeping you so long,” Makoto said.

“No worries!” Ann smiled. “I think I might actually remember some of this stuff for the tests!”

“I’d certainly hope you would.”

“Well, I should get going,” Ann said. “It’s starting to run late.”

“We should go, too,” Ren said.

“Yeah, Boss won’t like us running late like this,” Morgana added from his bag.

“I’ll see you three later, then,” Makoto nodded.

“Later!” Ann said, before running off.

“Have a good night, you two,” Ren waved, before following Ann.

“Good night!” Haru called after them.

“We spent all day reviewing second-year material,” Makoto exhaled.

“It made them happy, though, so that’s what counts,” Haru smiled.

“I suppose if it’ll help their grades, it’ll be worth it.” Makoto crossed her arms. “Still, you and I need to study as well. Perhaps after school tomorrow, we could-”

“Oh!” Haru’s sudden gasp cut Makoto off.

Makoto followed Haru’s gaze out towards the intersection, where a limousine pulled up to the curb. The back door opened and a middle-aged man with slicked black hair and a business suit stepped out, glaring over at them. Unlike Ren’s glasses, this man’s did nothing to obscure his eyes, seeming to instead serve to amplify his gaze.

“F-father…” Haru stuttered.

“Father?” Makoto repeated.

“Haru, you shouldn’t loiter out this late,” Kunikazu Okumura stated as he approached the two. He briefly looked Makoto over before turning back towards his daughter.

“Oh, um…”

Makoto swallowed. “It’s my fault, sir. Our study group ran longer than expected.”

“And you are?” Kunikazu asked, almost sounding offended at Makoto’s addressing him.

“I’m Makoto Niijima. Haru’s classmate and Shujin’s Student Council President.”

“Is that right?” Kunikazu asked. “And do you know who ‘Haru’ is?”

“The heiress to Okumura Foods,” Makoto said. “Which would make you her father, yes, Okumura-san?” She gave a slight bow.

“Hmm…” Kunikazu frowned, before rounding on Haru. “Get in the car.”

“Um, y-yes, father,” Haru mumbled. “I’ll see you at school, Mako-chan.”

“See you,” Makoto said as Haru climbed into the limousine.

Kunikazu shut the door behind her, and approached her. Makoto found she barely had to look up to meet his eyes. “So, Makoto Niijima, was it? How long have you been spending time with my daughter?”

“Since shortly before Golden Week,” Makoto answered. “I was assisting her as Student Council President and we found ourselves becoming friends.”

“Golden Week?” Kunikazu repeated, his eyes seeming to narrow in suspicion.

“Is there an issue with that?” Makoto asked.

Kunikazu seemed briefly taken aback and Makoto felt herself tense up. Did I come off too aggressively just now?

“...tell me, are you related to Prosecutor Sae Niijima?”

“Sae?” Makoto repeated, eyes wide. “Y-yes, she’s my older sister. How… do you know her?”

“She recently had made a few inquiries into Okumura Foods’ business,” Kunikazu explained, glaring at Makoto. “Now, you wouldn’t be spending time with my daughter to try and gain some information on my company, would you?”

“O-of course not,” Makoto stuttered. “I wasn’t even aware my sister made any inquiries into your company, sir. I… I’m not informed about what her work entails.” This seems bad. If he suspects me of any ulterior motives, I don’t doubt he’s the kind of man that would put pressure on Haru to stay away. And I refuse to lose a teammate like this.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you, of course,” Kunikazu said. “Corporate espionage is quite an issue, after all.”

Makoto glanced around at the crowd making their way to and from the station. “And yet you seem comfortable talking about it in public. It makes me feel that’s not your biggest concern.” She could almost sense his temper starting to rise, and quickly added, “Sir.”

“...you seem almost too smart for your own good, Niijima,” Kunikazu finally remarked. His gaze was noticeably less focused, giving off the impression he was lost in thought. “...you genuinely view my daughter as a friend, do you?”

“Of course I do.”

“You wouldn’t mind proving that, would you?” Kunikazu asked.

“Proving it…? What do you mean?”

“Every so often I’d like to check in on how you two are getting along,” Kunikazu explained. “How much you’re actually benefiting her at school, whether you may lead to any negative attention to me, topics along those lines.”

“Negative attention to you?” Makoto repeated.

“In exchange, if you’re up to the Okumura standards, I would allow you to spend time with Haru.”

“Does she get any say in this?” Makoto asked softly.

“Children don’t need a say in their lives,” Kunikazu replied coldly. “Are these conditions unfair to you, Niijima? You weren’t lying about why you’re tutoring Haru, were you?”

Makoto hesitated, staring him in the eyes. I don’t have many options here… Though as much as I dislike making a deal about Haru without her say, if I refuse him outright, I’d lose any other possible course of action I could eventually take. She resisted the urge to sigh and gave a nod. “If it’ll help set your mind at ease, sir.”

Kunikazu flashed a brief smirk before resuming a professional expression befitting a CEO. He nodded in return. “Very well. Don’t make me regret being this open with you.”

“I assure you, you can trust both me and your daughter,” Makoto said, trying to maintain a neutral expression.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Devil Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

DEVIL CONFIDANT: RANK 1

“We’re done for now,” Kunikazu said, and without another word, he turned and climbed into the limo where Haru was waiting, the car soon pulling back out into traffic and heading down the street.

Makoto narrowed her eyes, staring after them while keeping a tight grip on her bag. There is no way this is just about maintaining his reputation. But… what is his actual goal here? What would drive a successful CEO to make a deal with a high schooler?

~~~

Haru remained quiet as they pulled away from the station. Only when she could no longer see Makoto out the back window did she speak up. “Father, what were you and Makoto talking about?”

“No concern of yours,” Kunikazu said. “Just be warned, a time may come when I ask you to cut ties with her. In case she’s not actually beneficial to have you spending time with her.”

“Cut ties?” Haru repeated.

“There’s not a problem, is there?” Kunikazu asked, clearly only willing to hear one answer.

“...no, father. I understand.”

“Good girl,” Kunikazu said, turning away to stare out the window. The timing may just be pure chance, but if I’m right, I may not need any connections after all. The political world may still be within my reach.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.5%

Chapter Text

5/9 - Monday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Makoto was standing on the platform, her gaze unfocused, as if lost in thought.

“Good morning, Makoto,” Ren said as he walked up to stand beside her.

No response.

“Makoto?” Morgana asked from Ren’s bag. “Good morning.”

At still not getting a response, Ren poked her arm.

“Ahh!” Makoto gasped. She jolted back and turned towards them. “Oh, Ren-kun… Good morning.”

“You feeling okay?” Ren asked, frowning.

“No, not really,” Makoto said.

“Pollen allergies?” Morgana asked. “I know, it’s weird that it’s so bad in a city.”

“Oh, um, as far as I know, I’m not allergic to pollen,” Makoto said. “I’m just… thinking of everything that needs to get done.”

“A lot of work?” Ren asked.

“Studying with Haru, finding time to follow up on that lead we were reminded of, dealing with the bullying issues at school, applying for mock exams next month,” Makoto listed off before giving a small sigh. “And of course this is all happening right before midterms.”

“Do you need any help?” Ren asked.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” Makoto said. “Please forget I said anything.” She turned back to stare out at the tracks in wait of the train.

“You do remember this guy has no life outside of our little gang, right?” Morgana asked.

“Thanks for that,” Ren said softly.

“What? You said as much before. Seriously, though, Makoto, just ask us if you need help. You’re our leader, so you are allowed to tell us what to do.”

“I don’t know.” Makoto looked down. “Most of my obligations aren’t exactly something I can ask others to do for me.”

“At least let me look into that bully for you,” Ren said. “I mean, accepting that request before asking everyone was my fault.”

“No, it’s fine,” Makoto said. “I still need to do something as Student Council- actually.” She cut herself off, putting her hand to her chin. If I’m seen outsourcing this problem, people will still think of me as inattentive towards the student body. That could be enough to quash any budding rumors that I’ve had a ‘change of heart’, as absurd as it is that they think that of me. That said, there might be other solutions…

“Makoto?” Ren asked, getting her attention as the train pulled up.

“I need to think your offer over a little more,” Makoto said. “I’ll meet you at the courtyard come lunchtime, okay?”

Ren nodded, giving her a brief smile, before they boarded the train together.

~~~

5/9 - Monday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Ann jogged from the station, gasping for breath. She looked around before leaning against the wall, staring up at the clouds.

“Oh, Ann-chan!” Haru ran up to her, smiling. “Good morning!”

“Oh... H-Haru,” Ann stuttered, speaking slowly as her breath rate returned to normal. “G-good morning.”

“Are you alright?” Haru frowned. “You aren’t having an asthma attack, are you?”

“N-no, I don’t think so,” Ann said. “I just… wanted to get to school as fast as I could.”

“Do you like learning that much?” Haru asked with a giggle.

“No, that’s definitely not it,” Ann shook her head, before straightening up and tossing her twintails over her shoulder. “Uh, wanna walk the rest of the way together?”

“Oh, I’d love to!” Haru smiled, before following Ann. “Maybe I could see about taking the trains now on and we could meet up to walk from the station.”

“You don’t take the trains?”

“No, father prefers I be driven in the company car,” Haru said, a wistful smile on her face. “But now that the engagement has been called off, I could maybe convince him to change his mind.”

“I dunno, a limo sounds a lot nicer than a train to me,” Ann frowned. She stopped at the foot of the stairs up to Shujin and turned to look up and down the street.

“Ann-chan?” Haru frowned, looking as well. “What are we looking for?”

“Uh, nothing!” Ann said unconvincingly. “Well, let’s try and enjoy today, yeah?”

“Oh, yes,” Haru gave a confused nod as Ann quickly rushed inside.

~~~

5/9 - Monday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Makoto adjusted her skirt as she sat down on one of the courtyard benches, balancing her bento box on her lap. She looked up, staring at the alcove’s entrance until Ren finally arrived.

“Oh, you’re here already?” Morgana asked from Ren’s bag.

“Third year classrooms are on the first floor. It was a short trip for me.”

“Oh, yeah, I kinda forget you’re in a different grade from Ren and Lady Ann,” Morgana said.

Makoto sighed and opened her lunch as Ren sat beside her.

“You okay?” Ren asked.

“Just under stress right now,” Makoto said softly. “My efforts to help deal with Takanashi have led to him thinking my heart was changed as per the Phan-Site request. Apparently my wanting to help people is a rather unbelievable concept.”

“Makoto…” Ren frowned. He briefly started to raise his arm as if to wrap it around her, but quickly set it down again.

“I don’t mean to vent to you,” Makoto said, glancing over at him. “You have things far worse than I do here.”

“You’re still allowed to be upset,” Ren said.

“Anyway, what were you thinking?” Morgana asked. “If that Takanashi guy spreads that rumor, your little plan to get the principal to look elsewhere for the Phantom Thieves won’t work, huh?”

“I’m aware of that,” Makoto replied testily. “But I may have a lead on what is driving Takanashi-kun to bullying others. In my homeroom, there’s a student, Sakoda. According to Takanashi, he’s been blackmailing him into stealing money from other students.”

“He could be lying to protect himself,” Ren said.

“I’ve thought of that possibility,” Makoto said. “It’s why I hoped to gather concrete evidence before reporting them.”

Ren slowly chewed his lunch, one of the breads from the school store, as he looked up at the alcove’s roof. He slowly swallowed. “So, what’s he look like?”

“Ren-kun, I can’t trouble you with this,” Makoto said. She turned away. “I shouldn’t have brought this up. Let’s just enjoy lunch together, okay?”

“Makoto, I want to help, it wouldn’t be any trouble,” Ren said. “I wouldn’t have offered this morning otherwise.”

“I feel like I’d just be using you, though,” Makoto frowned. “This is something I’m capable of doing-”

“I’m not saying you couldn’t do it, but it might be easier if you let someone else handle it,” Ren interrupted.

Makoto opened and closed her mouth a few times in an attempt to respond before finally giving a small giggle. “...thanks, Ren-kun. You’re quite adept at helping keep my head on my shoulders.”

Ren gave a brief smile before leaning forward. “So, what’s the guy look like? Going to be hard to get evidence on him if I don’t know who he is.”

“You don’t intend to follow him, do you?” Makoto asked in shock. “You’re… rather noticeable.”

“Heh, that’s where I come in,” Morgana said. “Who would pay attention to a stray cat?”

Makoto sighed. “His hair is rather light. Almost looks grey. It’s pretty stand-out in that class.”

“Which room?” Morgana asked.

“3-E.”

“Leave it to us, senpai,” Ren smiled.

“...Ren-kun,” Makoto returned the smile.

“Hey, look over by the vending machines.”

“Is that the Student Council President?”

“And she’s smiling! I didn’t even know she had emotions.”

“Is she on a date? Aww…”

“Ah, people seem to be getting the wrong idea…” Makoto said, glancing over to the whispering students with a faint blush on her face.

“Y-yeah,” Ren said, finishing his lunch and standing up. “I’ll… see you later, Makoto.”

“See you later,” Makoto frowned. “And… thanks again for doing this for me.”

Ren nodded, before adjusting his bag and heading back inside.

Makoto stared down at her mostly untouched lunch and slowly began to pick at it as she sat alone.

~~~

5/9 - Monday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Mako-chan?” Haru asked from across the Student Council Room’s table. “Are you expecting someone else?”

“Huh?” Makoto tore her gaze away from the door to look at the girl across from her, who had already taken out her study materials. “Oh, sorry, Haru. No, it’s just us today. Apologies, I’m just… worried.”

“Is it about the investigation the principal has you on?” Haru hesitated and looked down. “Or did father say something to you last night?”

“Oh, Haru, no. I apologize, I’m not meaning to worry you. This isn’t about you or your father. And it’s not so much about the investigation per say, it’s…” Makoto let out a breath. “I have Ren-kun looking into something for me. And I can’t help but worry it might lead to negative attention of some kind for him.”

“Oh, I see,” Haru said, looking up again. “Don’t worry about it, Mako-chan. Ren-kun is a Phantom Thief, remember? I’m sure he can avoid attention.”

Makoto felt her spirits lifting. “True. And he and Morgana do seem to have an idea on handling it.” She opened her bag, pulling out her pencil case and books. “Well, shall we start studying? Only two days until midterms, after all.”

~~~

“That’s the guy Makoto described, right?” Morgana asked, glaring out of Ren’s bag towards the school entrance.

Ren looked up from his phone and nodded, shrinking back against the alley’s wall as Sakoda made his way down the stairs.

“Stay here, then,” Morgana said, slinking out of Ren’s bag. “I’ll come back if he starts messing with some kid.”

Ren nodded again as he pretended to be looking at something on his phone. Morgana looked around at the entrance before darting out, weaving between the various students leaving.

“Hey, was that a cat just now?”

“Aww, it was so cute looking!”

Morgana choked back a hiss at the cat remark as he hid behind a bike rack, staring out at a laughing Sakoda.

“Takanashi, I’m feeling pretty hungry today,” Sakoda said. “Hey, how about we go to that diner on Central Street. You can afford it, right?”

“Sakoda, please…” Takanashi muttered.

“Hey, remember all that stuff I have on you?” Sakoda asked, a serious look to his face.

“This sounds like it’s what we need…” Morgana said softly, rushing back towards Ren. “Start recording!”

Ren nodded, stepping out of the alley and continuing to pretend to be looking at his phone as he pressed the record button on his camera app.

“I can’t afford any more meals for you,” Takanashi mumbled.

“Then you shouldn’t have stopped taking money from those first years,” Sakoda spat. “And you shouldn’t have whined to President Niijima, either.”

“She saw me, what was I supposed to do?” Takanashi asked. “Our victims don’t just stay quiet!”

“Your victims,” Sakoda corrected. “I’m only guilty of observing. That’s what those tapes show, anyway.”

“Hey!” a voice suddenly called out.

Ren, Sakoda, and Takanashi all turned in surprise to see Ryuji storming up to the two bullies. “You messing with him?”

“What’s it to you, Sakamoto?” Sakoda asked. “My friend and I are talking here, so butt out.”

“This doesn’t look good,” Morgana said.

Ren stopped recording and approached as well. “Ryuji-”

“Your friend here doesn’t seem to like what you’re talkin’ about,” Ryuji continued.

“Sakamoto, stay out of it,” Takanashi said. “This isn’t your problem!”

“The hell it isn’t!” Ryuji snapped.

“Hey, Ryuji!” Ren called, walking up and grabbing his arm. “Why don’t we leave them be like they asked you to?”

“Let go of me, man!” Ryuji aggressively pulled his arm out of Ren’s grip.

“Hey, look, is that Amamiya and Sakamoto?”

“Are they fighting?”

“Ugh, they’re both so awful.”

“Hope this finally gets them expelled.”

Ren frowned, glancing at the muttering students as they walked past.

“Well, it’s busy here, huh?” Sakoda asked. “Let’s go, Takanashi-kun.”

Takanashi grit his teeth, shooting a glare at Ryuji and Ren, before trudging off after Sakoda.

“Hey, we ain’t done talking yet!” Ryuji said.

“Let it go, Ryuji,” Ren said softly.

Ryuji rounded on Ren, looking at him in disbelief. “What is with you, man? Didn’t you hear them? That guy was basically blackmailing him!”

“And we can’t exactly get away with storming up to them with our reputation around here,” Ren said.

“What’s this 'we' stuff?” Ryuji asked. “You weren’t doing anything. Again.”

Ren sighed. “That’s where you’re wrong. Makoto had me-”

“Oh, doing errands for Miss Prez, huh?” Ryuji interrupted.

“-record their conversation for evidence,” Ren finished.

“...oh,” Ryuji said. “That… does sound useful.”

“Ren, stop wasting time with this guy,” Morgana ordered.

Ren leaned down to pick him back up into his bag while Ryuji blinked in surprise. “You still got that cat, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“And Niijima ain’t upset about that?”

“Not really.”

Ryuji looked down for a moment. “Hey, Ren, uh-”

“Yo, Ryuji!”

“Oh, Takao,” Ryuji looked over as the third-year approached.

“‘Sup, were you waitin’ for me?” Takao asked.

“Oh, uh… y-yeah, totally!”

“Don’t lie to me,” she said, before glancing at Ren. “Hey… ain’t you that criminal?”

Ren closed his eyes for a moment, before walking back towards Shujin.

“WTF is his problem?”

“Uh, j-just forget it, I guess,” Ryuji said, briefly staring after Ren, before turning to walk towards the train station. “You comin’?”

“Yeah, let’s bounce.” The two set off together. “So… was that guy your friend?”

“I don’t really know anymore…” Ryuji sighed.

~~~

“I think we’re good for now,” Makoto said, stretching.

Haru stifled a yawn and nodded in agreement.

“How are you feeling?” Makoto asked, looking up. “That wasn’t too strenuous, was it?”

“Oh, I’m fine!” Haru reassured her. “It’s just… I’m not actually used to studying so much.”

“...you said yesterday your education wasn’t important,” Makoto commented, pausing in the middle of packing her books. She looked over, a stern frown on her face. “Haru, is it your father that made you feel that way?”

Haru looked away, seemingly embarrassed. “Um… yes, you’re right. I was just meant to be married off, not lead the company or anything. He decided late last year that my education level isn’t important for his plans. Or, it wasn’t. I don’t know if he’ll need to change something now that the marriage has been called off...”

Makoto hesitated, looking down for a moment. “...Last night your father made a deal with me. He’d be checking up on me every once in a while in exchange for you being allowed to spend time with me.”

“That’s what you were talking about?” Haru asked, seemingly surprised. “Wh-why, though?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Makoto answered. “He said it was because my sister was looking into Okumura Foods through her job as prosecutor. On the surface it seems he’s simply nervous that I’d mislead you or try to gather information for Sis from you.”

“That’s not why,” Haru said in an almost stern voice. “There must be another reason. There always is with father.”

“Haru…”

“Oh, it’s okay, Mako-chan,” Haru said, noticing the pity in her friend’s eyes. “I… it hurts to admit, but I’ve accepted my father isn’t how he used to be. It’s part of why I was able to gain my Persona.”

“Not like they used to be…” Makoto mumbled softly, keeping her gaze down at the table.

“Mako-chan?” Haru asked, drawing Makoto’s attention. “I… I want you to help me catch up on the studies my father dissuaded me from. So I know what I can do to help you. And for my future, too.”

“...don’t worry, Haru,” Makoto smiled. “I’ll gladly help. Though, you may want to ask Ann for help with English.”

Haru giggled and gave Makoto a big smile. “Thank you so much! I’ll be sure to!”

Rank up!

EMPRESS CONFIDANT: RANK 2.

There was a sudden knock at the door. “Makoto? Are you in there?”

“Ren-kun? Yes, please, come in.”

Ren opened the door, glancing over. “Oh, Haru. Was I interrupting you two, or-”

“Oh, no, don’t worry!” Haru continued to smile. “Mako-chan and I just finished studying. I’ll let you two talk.” She gathered her things and waved. “See you both later!”

“Have a good day, Haru,” Makoto said.

“Later,” Ren said shutting the door behind Haru as she left. “Sorry that Ann and I monopolized yesterday’s studies.”

“It’s not an issue,” Makoto said. “We could use more chances to bond with Haru before our next target, anyway.”

“It’s annoying we have to wait until exams pass, but I guess that’s the price of teaming up with students,” Morgana said. “Anyway, Ren and I got that evidence you needed.”

“Oh, that was rather fast,” Makoto blinked in surprise.

“Please, I'm a professional,” Morgana boasted.

“He just happened to meet that Takanashi guy right in front of us,” Ren explained, taking his phone out to play the video.

“...it’s a bit hard to hear him,” Makoto said, leaning her ear towards the phone’s speaker. “But… this should work.” She straightened up again, and gave a warm smile. “Thank you for all of your help.”

“No problem,” Ren shrugged, stopping the video. “I’ll send it to you then?”

“Please,” Makoto said, grabbing her bag. “I’ll show the guidance office tomorrow and hopefully Takanashi and Sakoda will be disciplined.”

“I can’t wait until we shake the heat from this place,” Morgana complained. “We were almost stopped from getting evidence by that Ryuji jerk.”

“Can you stop tattling?” Ren asked.

“Sakamoto tried to stop you?” Makoto asked.

“No, not even close,” Ren said, shooting a quick glare at Morgana over his shoulder. “He showed up to try and get Sakoda to back off. That was it.”

“I see. Morgana, can you please not lie about my fellow students?”

“I wasn’t lying!” Morgana complained. “His interrupting us was really annoying! Dealing with these issues in the Metaverse would be so much easier!”

“Perhaps,” Makoto shrugged. “But I’d like to think I'm not entirely useless as Student Council President. Now then, shall we walk to the station together?”

“Sounds good,” Ren smiled, opening the door. “After you, senpai.”

~~~

5/10 - Tuesday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Ryuji was starting to climb the steps to school when the student counselor stormed out of the entrance, crossing his arms and shooting him a glare. “Sakamoto!”

“Huh?” Ryuji looked up. “What do you want?”

“Don’t use that kind of tone with your elders,” the counselor shook his head. “Come with me. We have something to discuss.”

“What’s that mean?” Ryuji asked. “I ain’t done anything.”

“I won’t ask again, Sakamoto.”

Ryuji spat, and made his way after him. Once up in the guidance room, he saw a pissed off Sakoda and Takanashi already there.

“He’s here, too?” Takanashi asked.

“What’s this all about?” Ryuji asked.

“An anonymous report was submitted to the Student Council President showing video evidence of you two,” he gestured towards Takanashi and Sakoda, “discussing extortion of other students. That sort of behavior is not tolerated at Shujin Academy.”

“This is all your damn fault,” Sakoda muttered under his breath.

“I didn’t know she’d tattle like this,” Takanashi replied. “Damn teacher’s pet. She said she'd let me off...”

“Mind your tongue,” the counselor snapped.

“So, why am I here?” Ryuji asked.

“The video file Niijima-san was given has a brief appearance of you, Sakamoto, at the end. Appearing to pick a fight with these two.”

“I was calling ‘em out for stealing!” Ryuji protested.

“Quiet down,” the counselor said. “You should have reported this instead of attempting to take matters into your own hands.”

“Come on, I didn’t even do anythin’ to them,” Ryuji muttered.

“The matter will be reviewed and staff will discuss potential punishment,” the counselor said. “This is a warning to you to stay on your best behavior. If we find you have a connection to other wrong-doings, there will be action taken against you.”

“...yes, sir,” Ryuji said stiffly.

“Now get to class, Sakamoto,” the counselor said.

Ryuji stepped out into the hall and let out an angry huff.

“Is that Sakamoto over there?”

“Did he get in trouble again?”

“I saw him and the transfer student trying to start a fight yesterday afternoon.”

“The transfer student…” Ryuji repeated, glaring at the muttering students, sparking them to disperse. Right, Ren did say he was recording ‘em… Why didn’t he or Niijima cut my part out? Does Miss Prez want me to get in trouble?

~~~

5/10 - Tuesday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Makoto closed the door to the principal’s office behind her and approached his desk. “You wanted to speak with me, sir?”

“Niijima-san, I just heard from the guidance counselor you found two students who were stealing from their peers?” Kobayakawa asked.

Makoto paused for a moment as her thoughts raced to process it. “I heard rumors of stealing, yes, and looked into it. They don’t seem connected to the Phantom Thieves that posted that calling card prank.”

“Of course a couple of bullies like that wouldn’t be,” Kobayakawa shook his head. “Niijima, this is a serious issue I’m asking you to look into here. I can't have you getting distracted by minor issues like this.”

“I wouldn't call bullying minor, but still, I assure you I am taking this seriously,” Makoto said. “There’s just not many leads. Most of the school has complaints about Kamoshida, so it could have been anyone. And that aside, exams are this week.”

“Hmm…” Kobayakawa frowned in thought. “I suppose our best student maintaining her grades is important, too… Very well, I’ll trust you know what you’re doing. And that once exams are over you’ll begin making headway on this. I'll do something to help with that as well.”

“Thank you for understanding, sir,” Makoto bowed. “I won’t let you down.” And with that, she turned and left the room, letting out a breath. The sooner exams are over and we have a new target, the better.

~~~

5/10 - Tuesday
After School
Shujin Academy

“We’ll try and cut this meeting short as I’m sure some of you would like to get last minute studies for your exams in,” Makoto said as she sat down.

“Thank you for being considerate, President Niijima,” Suzuki said.

Makoto nodded, before turning towards her fellow council members. “Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed the sign pinned across the hall from us.”

“Victims of bullying or those with other information should consult with the Student Council, right?” Honda asked. “Yes, we all saw it as we came in.”

“I heard Takanashi-senpai and Sakoda-senpai were bullying students,” Yanagi said.

“That’s what you didn’t want my help with, isn’t it?” Suzuki asked with a snap of her fingers, turning to look at Makoto.

“I remember you asking me about it, too,” Tanaka said. “You told me you’d handle Sakoda by yourself though.”

Suzuki’s eye briefly twitched as she glanced at Tanaka. “She told you the details?”

“I was trying to get evidence to prove those claims,” Makoto explained, interrupting. “I don’t know if any of you have classes with him, but you may have noticed that I was successful.”

“As expected of you, Niijima-senpai!” Honda said.

“Wow, shamelessly sucking up,” Suzuki mumbled under her breath.

“Um, I want to know what the poster means by ‘other information’?” Yanagi asked, raising her hand as she spoke. “What other problems could we handle?”

Makoto felt her throat tighten at seeing Yanagi innocently looking at her. “...Principal Kobayakawa is concerned about the calling card prank that preceded Kamoshida’s arrest. He asked me to look into it. The ‘other information’ may be him hoping people come to give me a lead on them.”

“Wh-why does he want to look into the Phantom Thieves?” Yanagi asked.

“Well, I guess the attention the prank got did disrupt classes…” Honda mumbled.

“You know,” Suzuki said wistfully, “Principal Kobayakawa did do a lot to help Shujin become such a symbol of education, but…”

“Uh, let’s not speculate about him,” Tanaka said. “We don’t know the full story.”

Makoto nodded. “Agreed. Instead, let’s discuss the Phantom Thieves. None of you have an inkling as to who put up the calling cards, correct?”

“Do you know how many people hated Kamoshida?” Suzuki asked. “There's no way we could narrow it down. My best guess would be Amamiya. It was after he showed up this happened, after all.”

Makoto felt her heart briefly skip a beat. “...I believe the calling card was already up when he arrived that morning.”

“Yeah, I don’t have any idea, then,” Suzuki said.

“Do you want our help on this, President Niijima?” Honda suggested.

“Oh, no, it’s something I should be fine with,” Makoto said.

“Niijima-senpai?” Yanagi asked. “What are you going to do if you find the Phantom Thieves?”

“I’m not certain,” Makoto said cautiously. “I… I don’t know if getting them in trouble with the school is the right course of action, but…”

“We can cross that bridge if we come to it,” Tanaka said. “Just don’t strain yourself, Niijima-san. Please?”

“We’re happy to help you, President Niijima,” Honda said.

“Niijima-senpai…” Yanagi mumbled.

“Yanagi-san, I won’t do anything to the Phantom Thieves if they’re as just as we think,” Makoto said reassuringly.

“...okay,” Yanagi nodded.

“What’s our next order of business today?” Suzuki asked, looking down at her notes when there was a knock at the door.

“Is that information already?” Honda asked.

“Niijima-senpai, I know you’re in there!” Ryuji’s voice called out from the other side of the door.

“...that doesn’t sound like it is,” Tanaka frowned.

“Come in, Sakamoto-kun,” Makoto called. Almost immediately, the door opened.

“Niijima-senpai, I-” Ryuji cut himself off. “Oh, are you… in the middle of something?”

“Very astute, Sakamoto,” Suzuki said disdainfully.

“Don’t be rude to our kohai, Suzuki-san,” Tanaka said.

“Uh,” Ryuji rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t really want to badmouth you in front of everyone…”

“You’re here to insult me?” Makoto sighed and stood up, walking around the table.

“Hey, if you have a complaint about President Niijima, you can share it here,” Honda said.

“It’s fine, Honda-kun,” Makoto said. “Sakamoto-kun, shall we step out into the hall?”

Ryuji nodded, following her out of the Student Council Room and over to the corner. “Were you tryin’ to get me in trouble?”

“What do you mean?” Makoto asked.

“The guidance office dragged me in this morning because a video of me ‘picking a fight’ was given to ‘em. By you.”

“I don’t recall any video like that,” Makoto frowned.

“It was at the end of that Sakoda video you made Ren film for you,” Ryuji explained impatiently.

“I… I’m sorry, I didn’t watch it to the end. I wasn’t aware you were even in it.”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Ryuji asked. He huffed, kicking at the floor. “I don’t get you, senpai. I was starting to think I was wrong ‘bout you after talking with Ren yesterday, that you really ain’t like you used to be, but then you don’t even check to see which students you’re getting in trouble? Do you even care about the students liking you, or do you just want to kiss the teachers’ asses?”

Makoto felt her fist tightening and let out a breath to calm herself. “I’m surprised you didn’t want to shame me in front of my fellow council members. Sakamoto-kun, I apologize for inconveniencing you. But I assure you that unless you’re actually doing something to harm Shujin or its students, I am not interested in getting you in trouble.”

“Yeah, of course you list the school first,” Ryuji sighed. “Just… I ain’t gonna bug you, so leave me alone, okay?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Makoto said testily. “May I return to my meeting now?”

“Sure, whatever,” Ryuji said, turning to go.

“Ryuji, there you are!” Takao called out from down the hall.

Makoto blinked in surprise. “That’s… Takao-san…”

“Yo, Takao,” Ryuji said, walking over to her.

“What were you and the robot talking about?” Takao asked.

“Nothing,” Ryuji said as they walked off. “So, after exams, you’re applyin’ for that job, right?”

“Totes,” Takao said, her and Ryuji’s conversation fading as they headed down the stairs.

“Robot…?” Makoto repeated, still stunned. She shook her head to clear it before making her way back into the Student Council Room.

~~~

5/10 - Tuesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“Representative Sugimura denied our request for comment. This accusation of sexual harassment is the latest in a series of scandals that have been plaguing the Diet Member since his son came out with a series of complaints against him late last week.”

Makoto and Sae were watching the news with an otherwise quiet dinner. With the story on Sugimura’s disgrace over, Sae spoke up.

“There’s been a lot of scandals with politicians as of late. The Minister of Transport needing to step down following the train derailment last month, a misappropriation of funds case, and now these harassment allegations with Sugimura.”

“Do you think he’ll need to step down?” Makoto asked.

“It’s possible,” Sae said. “Although, it’s a worrying trend. Talk around work make it sound as if my boss and coworkers see a special election as an inevitably.”

“Should I be researching politicians?” Makoto asked, pausing to take a sip of broth. “I am old enough to vote now, after all.”

“Until you’re on your own, you don’t need to worry about that,” Sae said curtly. “I’ll handle thinking about the adult world while you just get through school. Can you do something that simple for me?”

“...yes, Sis,” Makoto looked down.

Sae nodded, returning her attention to the news while they finished dinner in silence. After Makoto finished the dishes, she made her way to the bathroom, leaning against the sink. Kunikazu Okumura’s comments from Sunday night were echoing in her head. Children don’t need a say in their lives.

I’ve accepted my father isn’t how he used to be, Haru’s words from yesterday also echoed.

Makoto shuddered as she pulled her phone out, opening the Meta-Nav. I can’t keep ignoring this feeling. I need to confirm it. I need to know for sure if… She shot a quick glance at the door, before speaking quietly into her phone’s mic, “S-Sae Niijima.”

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.4%

Chapter Text

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Interrogation Room

Candidate found. Makoto winced slightly at the memory before looking up at Sae.

“You dealt with a request outside of your Phantom Thief activities to try and draw attention away from Shujin Academy?” Sae summarized. She gave a brief, humorless laugh. “That’s quite devious of you for someone who was allegedly only acting for a month.”

“You were the one that said we began in April,” Makoto said.

“Under the banner of the Phantom Thieves, yes,” Sae said. “But mental shutdowns have been occurring for years.”

“Why do you have so little faith in me?” Makoto asked weakly.

"You should know full well why."

"...I do," Makoto mumbled, sniffling slightly.

Sae froze for a moment before continuing. “You’re up to the point of your first midterm exams. Were you and the Phantom Thieves acting during this time?”

Makoto shook her head. “No, we didn’t want to overtax ourselves. Exams continued normally. Until…” She paused to take a breath.

“Until?”

“Panther had been feeling uneasy for a while,” Makoto continued. “On Saturday, she finally spoke to me about her concerns.”

~~~

5/14 - Saturday
Early Morning
Niijima Apartment

Makoto was at the stove, quickly frying an egg to put atop her bowl of rice when she felt her phone buzzing in her pocket. Wincing slightly, she quickly pulled the pan off the heat to take it out. Ann Takamaki.

“Hello?” Makoto answered.

“Ah, hey, Makoto,” Ann’s voice replied. “Good morning. Sorry, did I wake you?”

“I was making breakfast, actually.”

“Oh, wow, you get up early, huh?” Ann asked.

“I have been lately, yes,” Makoto said, carefully sliding the egg out of the pan and onto her bowl with her free hand. “What is it?”

“Um, well, you remember back during our study session?” Ann asked, her voice sounding nervous. “How I said I felt like someone was watching me?”

“I… do remember that, yes,” Makoto frowned, carrying her breakfast over to the table and sitting down. “Is that feeling persisting?”

“Uh-huh. I’ve been feeling like someone was looking at me all week. And I think I’ve seen the same face in the mornings when I’m taking the train.”

“It is a morning commute,” Makoto said.

“Makoto, please, I’m serious!” Ann whined, Makoto wincing as the phone distorted slightly in her ear. “I saw the same face when shopping with Ren! I seriously think someone is stalking me!”

“I’m sorry,” Makoto said. “I didn’t mean to sound like I’m dismissing your concerns. What would you like me to do?”

“Could I ask you to meet me at the station today?” Ann asked. “And come into school with me?”

“Do you think he’d be dissuaded if you’re with someone?”

“Probably not, but, I mean… you’re really strong and amazing, Queen. Please?”

Makoto sighed. “Let me finish breakfast first and I’ll be right there.”

“Thanks, Makoto! You’re a lifesaver!”

Makoto gave a slightly uneasy laugh. “It’s fine, I’m happy to help protect you. See you soon, okay?”

“See ya!” Ann happily responded before hanging up.

Makoto sighed. I hate rush eating, but… if there really is a stalker problem… She picked up a fork, and began to start wolfing it down.

~~~

5/14 - Saturday
Early Morning
Aoyama-Itchome Station

Makoto followed close behind Ann as they debarked at the station nearest Shujin. She looked down at her vest as they stepped onto the escalator, pouting. “Ann, are you sure there isn’t any rice stuck to my clothes? I feel like I had to have missed some.”

“You’re fine, trust me,” Ann said distractedly, looking back at the crowd behind them. Her eyes widened and she gulped, immediately leaning in close to Makoto. “That guy got off!”

“The stalker?” Makoto questioned, to which Ann frantically nodded in confirmation. “Leave it to me. Come on.” She pulled out of the impromptu huddle Ann had started and climbed up the escalator through the crowd, Ann anxiously following behind.

Behind them, the blue-haired teen quickened his pace up the stairs as well, pausing slightly as he emerged into the brighter light of above-ground. As his vision focused and Ann came into view, he started walking again, hand outstretched towards her shoulder.

Before he could make contact, however, Makoto's hand whipped out and grabbed his wrist in a tight grip, Ann turning around at his wince of pain.

“Can I ask you not to follow or touch my kohai?” Makoto asked angrily, tightening her grip.

“Ah, please release me!” the gangly teen protested. “I need that wrist for painting!”

“Painting?” Ann and Makoto questioned simultaneously, the latter girl releasing her grip and looking the apparent stalker up and down.

“Ah, yes…” the teen said, gingerly rubbing his wrist. “Thank you for obliging my request. Oh...” He reached over and brushed part of Makoto’s vest. “You have some rice on you.”

“Where the hell do you think you’re touching me?” Makoto slapped his hand away, glowering at him.

“Ow!” He gingerly rubbed his hand where Makoto hit it, seeming to wilt a little under her glare. “Why do you keep assaulting me?”

“That’s obvious!” Ann snapped. “You were stalking me!”

“Stalking you?” he repeated, seeming to be utterly confused.

“Ah, Yusuke, that’s where you’ve run off to,” an elderly man’s voice suddenly said.

Makoto and Ann glanced over in surprise to see the owner of the voice in question chuckling warmly from his limo. Though, at the same time, the amount of teeth he showed while laughing made it less comforting and more unsettling.

“Ah, my apologies, sensei,” Yusuke said, giving a slight bow.

“Sensei…?” Ann repeated, glancing between Yusuke and the limo.

Makoto stared for a moment, eyes wide. “Am I mistaken? Or is that... Madarame?”

“Oh, you know of Madarame?” Yusuke asked, seemingly impressed.

“Wait, isn’t Madarame…?” Ann asked, eyes also widening.

“Yes, you know as well!” Yusuke said excitedly. “I knew there was something special about you the moment I laid eyes on you!”

“H-huh?” Ann took a step back as Yusuke leaned forward.

“Please, I beg of you,” Yusuke said. “Be the model for my next art piece!”

“...what?” Ann asked, still leaning back from him as she blinked in confusion. “M-model?”

“You radiate a passion, an aura, that excites my muse like none before,” Yusuke said. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you before, but often lost you in the crowds of the city. This is clearly a fated encounter!”

“Can you really call it fated when you’ve been deliberately chasing her?” Makoto asked. “Besides, you don’t even know her name.”

“Ah, hey, that’s right!” Ann said, getting indignant again.

“Of course, where are my manners,” he said, almost sounding like he was chuckling. “My name is Yusuke Kitagawa. I’m a second-year at Kosei High’s fine-arts division, and a pupil of the famed Madarame-sensei.”

“Wait, you’re Madarame’s student?” Ann asked. “Like, he teaches you directly?”

“Indeed,” Yusuke confirmed.

“He’s a world-famous artist, is he not?” Makoto asked, giving a brief glance at the man still seated in his limo. “Internationally acclaimed for his Japanese-style artwork.”

“Ah, it is such an honor to meet people who appreciate art like this,” Yusuke said.

“Yusuke!” Madarame called from the limo. “We’re running late!”

“Oh, yes, I’ll be right there, sensei!” Yusuke turned back towards them and pulled two slips of paper out of his pocket. “May I ask for your names?”

“Uh… I’m Ann Takamaki,” Ann said, eyes darting to what Yusuke was holding. “And… this is my senpai, Makoto Niijima.”

“Takamaki-san and Niijima-san.” Yusuke nodded. “Here, for you both. Two tickets to Madarame’s exhibit near Shibuya Station. It’s being held in the Teikyu Department Store and opens tomorrow. I’d deeply appreciate if you’d stop by with your answer.”

“Ah, this is all still really sudden…” Ann said.

“Yusuke!” Madarame called again

“I shall see you both tomorrow!” Yusuke said. “Coming, sensei!” And without another word, he ran back to the limo, leaving Ann and Makoto standing on the sidewalk, stunned.

“...what just happened?” Ann asked.

“I think you were just recruited to be an art model.”

“I… gathered that, yeah. But…” Ann scratched her head. “I’m so confused…”

Makoto took the tickets from Ann’s hand, looking them over. “...they’re real. These are genuine tickets to Madarame’s exhibit.”

“What should we do?” Ann asked.

Makoto took her phone out, checking the time. “For now, we should get to school. It’s our last day of midterms, after all, and we wouldn't want to be late.”

“Oh, shoot, that’s right!” Ann said. “Uh, after that?”

“We’ll gather the team together to apprise them on our encounter. It does pertain to a lead on a potential target, after all.”

“Got it,” Ann nodded, turning. “Let’s get going, then!”

Makoto put the tickets away into her bag and followed close behind Ann to Shujin. “...I told you I still had some rice sticking to me.”

“Come on, Makoto, let it go…”

~~~

5/14 - Saturday
After School
Central Street

“Ahh, it’s finally over!” Ann said, stretching before sitting down in the booth next to Haru.

“How does everyone think they did?” Makoto asked as she skimmed the diner’s menu.

“I had a few difficulties, but I think I’ll be scoring higher than last year,” Haru smiled.

“I still struggled a lot,” Ann said. “Especially today after this morning.”

Makoto frowned, and glanced at Ren as he sat beside her. “And how about you?”

“It was difficult to concentrate for four straight days, but our studying together really helped.”

“I helped keep his attention!” Morgana bragged. “It was hard work, let me tell you that. Why do these tests just drag on so long?”

“There’s a lot of material to cover,” Makoto said.

“Well, I didn’t get the chance to stretch all day,” Morgana complained. “You need to have them reschedule that a little!”

“I… don’t see how I’d be able to change anything…”

“Oh, the waitress is coming over!” Haru cautioned.

Makoto looked up from Ren’s bag while Morgana retreated inside. After the waitress took the group’s orders, Haru spoke up.

“So, how do you think you did, Mako-chan?”

Ann gave a small laugh. “Do you even need to ask her? I bet you your next Palace’s share Niijima-senpai has perfect scores again.”

"Share?" Haru questioned.

"Well, it's how we handled Kamoshida's Treasure," Makoto explained. "After selling it and spending some on a team celebration, we split the remaining profits evenly. It only seems fair to continue that trend."

“Oh, and you have that much faith to give up yours?” Haru asked, her voice having a dangerous tinge to it as she turned back towards Ann. “Perfect scores in every subject?”

“What, do you doubt Makoto?” Ann asked. “That’s cold of you, Haru.”

“Oh, no, I trust her word completely,” Haru said. “Which is why I’ll gladly take your bet.”

“Can you two not gamble on my grades?” Makoto asked in exasperation. She shook her head, before pulling the tickets Yusuke had given them that morning out of her bag. “More importantly, Ann, we have something to discuss with everyone, don’t we?”

“Oh, yeah!” Ann said. “So guys, Makoto and I were coming to school together and met a total weirdo.”

“Weirdo?” Morgana repeated, sounding concerned.

“Ann asked me to accompany her this morning,” Makoto explained. “She felt she was being followed and wanted my assistance in confronting the stalker. When we found him, though, he seemed a bit… different minded, I suppose.”

“He asked me to model for a painting and then gave us tickets to Madarame’s art show,” Ann said.

“Wait, Madarame?” Ren asked.

“Apparently, the stalker, Yusuke Kitagawa, is his apprentice,” Makoto said. “Quite a coincidence we’d bump directly into someone whose name we heard in Mementos, isn’t it?”

“Oh, you mentioned this before…” Haru frowned.

“The first guy we went after following Kamoshida was a stalker named Natsuhiko Nakanohara,” Morgana said. “When we confronted his Shadow in Mementos, he ranted and blamed a man named Madarame for why he was acting out.”

“Blamed him?”

“He said he stole everything from him,” Ren shrugged.

“Why would an artist as famous as Madarame need to do something like that?” Haru asked.

“Adults that get famous just like to keep taking things,” Ann muttered. “Kamoshida was an Olympian and made Shujin famous, and he still wasn’t satisfied until he…”

“Lady Ann, it’s okay,” Morgana said softly. “We already took him down, remember?”

Ann nodded. “Sorry. I’m still not over it, I suppose…”

“We don’t blame you,” Ren said.

“Anyway, this is an opportunity for us to pursue this lead more,” Makoto said. “The exhibit opens tomorrow, and Ann and I were planning on attending.”

“Wait, you’re accepting?!” Morgana gasped. “But, he was stalking you, Lady Ann! You can’t trust this guy!”

“I already know that,” Ann said. “He tried to feel up Makoto, too.”

“He did what?” Ren asked, his voice getting quiet and his eyes narrowing behind his glasses.

“If Mako-chan is there too, it’s probably nothing to worry about,” Haru said. “But, if you’d like, we could go, too!”

“Uh, he only gave us two tickets,” Ann said.

“I have two that were meant for me and Sugimura,” Haru smiled. “I could bring Ren-kun as your backup!”

“Ah, that’s perfect!” Morgana purred. “I'll sneak along, too! Lady Ann, I swear I’ll protect you from this stalker creep.”

“He really wasn’t that threatening,” Ann said. “...kind of looked like a breeze could knock him over, actually.”

“This Madarame has to have a Palace,” Morgana continued, having apparently not heard Ann. “This is two people now that he’s turned into stalkers.”

“I really think you’re jumping to conclusions,” Makoto sighed. “It’s entirely likely this is all a misunderstanding and he’s an upstanding citizen.”

“I thought you were eager for this?” Morgana asked.

“I-I am,” Makoto stuttered. “It’s just…” She trailed off, staring down at the table for a moment.

“...we’ll take this slow, make sure we don’t rush into this, don’t worry,” Ren reassured her.

“...oh, yes. Thank you, Ren-kun…”

Ren frowned, looking Makoto over for a moment.

“Oh, hey, our food’s coming out,” Ann said.

Ren looked away as Makoto looked up, the waitress placing their plates in front of them. Once she had left, Haru clapped her hands together. “So, we’ll all meet up tomorrow morning for the exhibit, then?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ren said.

“Be sure to remember your umbrellas,” Makoto cautioned. “It’s going to be raining, and I wouldn’t want any of you to catch a cold over this.”

“Oh, thanks for the heads up,” Ann smiled.

“This is so exciting,” Haru giggled. “My first mission with all of you!”

Makoto gave a tiny smile in spite of herself. “That’s right. Now, shall we eat? I’d like to have enough time left today to submit my mock exam application.”

~~~

5/15 - Sunday
Daytime
Teikyu Building

“Wow, that’s quite the crowd…” Ren said.

“You would think the rain would have dissuaded some of them, at least,” Makoto said. “They'd have plenty of opportunities to attend. From what I looked up online, it’s open for the next three weeks.”

“Yeah, but people can’t resist the allure of opening day,” Ann said. “I mean, the creepy modeling request aside, I’m really excited for this. It makes me feel so mature saying ‘I’m going to an art exhibit.’”

“It’s been so long since I’ve been to one of Madarame’s exhibits,” Haru commented as they passed into the entrance. “I remember there was a beautiful painting of Mt. Fuji that was taller than a grown man that fascinated me. I wonder if they’ll have it here or if it’ll just be newer works.”

“Do remember we’re here to do more than appreciate fine arts,” Morgana chimed in from Ren’s bag. “We need to get some insight into Madarame to see if he’s likely to be as distorted as Nakanohara’s Shadow claimed.”

“Oh, but we can still appreciate the artworks, right?” Haru asked in concern.

“Well, of course,” Morgana said. “We are Phantom Thieves, after all. It's only right we appreciate culture.”

“Quiet down,” Makoto said as they saw Yusuke approaching them through the crowd. “We aren’t allowed to bring animals inside here.”

Morgana made a slight grumbling sound as he retreated further into Ren’s bag.

“You came!” Yusuke said, smiling at Ann.

“Um, yeah…” Ann said, a little unnerved.

“Thank you for the tickets,” Makoto said.

“Oh, you brought your senpai, too,” Yusuke said, warily regarding Makoto for a moment. He paused, turning to look Ren and Haru over. “And… who might you two be?”

“Oh, these are my friends!” Ann said.

“I’m Haru Okumura.” She gave a slight bow.

“Did you say Okumura?” Yusuke asked, seeming to be lost in thought.

“And I’m Ren." He narrowed his eyes a fraction. "So Ann says you were-”

“Oh, yes!” Yusuke suddenly interrupted. “I believe a man by the name of Okumura purchased one of sensei’s paintings a few months back.”

“That’s right!” Haru smiled. “My father bought it in early March! We now have it hanging in our study.”

“What were your thoughts on that piece?” Yusuke asked, his mood seeming to lower slightly as he asked. “I myself find it inspired, but I’m sure sensei would like to hear the opinion of the customer.”

“I found it quite melancholy,” Haru answered. “I myself was feeling upset at the time, so I found a lot in it I could relate to.”

“You found sympathy through the painting?” Yusuke questioned. “That’s incredible that you understand art on such a deep level!”

“Oh, Haru…” Ann frowned, quickly pulling the older girl into a hug, Haru’s hair and coat’s trim causing her head to be completely obscured in Ann’s embrace. “You’re okay now. You’re okay… and… soft...”

“I-I know… Ann-chan, can you stop squeezing me so tightly?”

“Ah, s-sorry!” Ann stuttered, letting go with an intense blush on her face.

“Ah, that kindhearted display of emotion…!” Yusuke dramatically proclaimed. “Takamaki-san, please tell me you accept my request!”

“What is with this pervert?” Morgana hissed from the bag.

“Uh, look, I… I think I’m flattered, but…”

“Perhaps a closer look at the exhibit will help you decide,” Yusuke said, gesturing further inside. Makoto briefly noticed a brace wrapped around the wrist she grabbed yesterday peeking out from his jacket sleeve. “Okumura-san, you’re welcome to come with us, if you’d like.”

“Oh, that sounds lovely!” Haru smiled. “Ann-chan?”

“Uh… sure.” Ann gave a tiny wave. “See you two later.”

Haru waved as well, before she and Ann followed Yusuke off through the crowd.

“...did he just completely ignore us?” Ren asked.

“I think he might be mad at me for injuring him yesterday,” Makoto said. “I’m not sure what his issue with you would be, though.”

“He’s trying to isolate the girls and do dirty things, I’m sure of it,” Morgana said. “He’s way too suspect. Oh, I never should have let Lady Ann go with him!”

“Isolate the girls?” Makoto repeated. “You do remember I’m a girl, too, right?”

“Yeah, but you already proved you could hurt him,” Morgana said.

“...with how thin he was, I have a hard time believing he could force Ann or Haru to do anything,” Ren murmured. “Actually, with how thin he is, he almost looks like a model himself.”

“Maybe that’s why he gravitated towards Ann?” Makoto suggested, giving a brief, weak smile. “Anyway, shall we take advantage of our lack of escort and explore the exhibit on our own? We are here to try and learn something about Madarame, after all.”

“Sure,” Ren smirked. “I can show off our investigative skills.”

Makoto rolled her eyes, before leading Ren off through the crowd. As they walked, she kept glancing at the various paintings; landscapes ranging from realistic to more obviously vividly painted colors; pieces she couldn’t identify from their bizarre subject matter; and a self-portrait of Madarame himself in a style that Makoto thinks was expressionism.

“They’re all so different looking…” Makoto mused.

“Look over there,” Ren said, tapping Makoto’s shoulder and pointing towards a small crowd in the middle of the gallery, where an elderly man in robes was standing in front of a kakemono of Mt. Fuji.

“Madarame…” Makoto and Ren took a few steps closer, trying to catch what the reporters were asking him.

“You have such expansive styles, it’s hard to believe that it all stems from one person…” the reporter was saying. “Where in the world does your inspiration come from?”

“Well… it is difficult to put into words…” Madarame said, seeming to consider his words carefully. “They naturally well up from within my heart, like bubbles rising one after another in a spring.”

“Naturally, you say?” the reporter asked, sounding impressed.

Madarame adjusted his clothes as he continued. “What’s important is to distance oneself from worldly desires such as money and fame. My atelier is a modest shack, but it is more than enough to pursue true beauty.”

“Distancing oneself from money…?” Makoto repeated under her breath, putting her hand to her chin as her eyes narrowed.

“I see…” the reporter nodded, her tone sounding slightly fake. “So the act of emptying one’s mind gives rise to inner beauty.” She gave a slight laugh. “Still, to think we would hear the word ‘shack’ coming from the great artist Madarame.”

“You would understand if you saw it,” Madarame laughed.

“His laugh sounds so fake,” Morgana commented.

“Ahh! Look over there!”

“Madarame-san himself?”

“I’m so glad I came to opening day!”

“Huh?” Ren looked over his shoulder to see the crowd converging towards the interview. “Makoto!”

“Ahh!” Makoto gasped as she was shoved by the crowd, having not noticed their approach.

~~~

“Ooh!” Haru cooed at a small, simple painting of a black cat. “Look, Ann-chan! Doesn’t this remind you of Mona-chan?”

“Y’know, now that you mention it…” Ann hummed.

“Mona-chan?” Yusuke questioned.

“Oh, um, that’s the name of Ren-kun’s cat,” Haru explained.

“Ren-kun…?” Yusuke briefly questioned, before Ann spoke up.

“It’s kind of surprising,” Ann said, looking around. “I had no idea there were so many different art styles.”

“Yes, usually artists focus on only perfecting a single style to call their own,” Yusuke said. “However, sensei is a master of all. He created all of this himself.”

“That’s rather unbelievable,” Haru commented.

“He’s quite talented,” Yusuke said, closing his eyes for a moment.

“Ah, Yusuke!” Madarame said, approaching.

“Oh, sensei,” Yusuke’s eyes shot open again in surprise.

Madarame let out a breath. “Phew. I wasn’t sure I would find you in this crowd.” He turned towards Ann. “Ah, yes, the girl from yesterday. And…” He turned to look at Haru.

“Oh, I’m just a friend, don’t mind me…”

“Sensei, this is the daughter of Okumura-san,” Yusuke explained. “You remember him, yes?”

“Ah, that’s right,” Madarame smiled. “He bought a snowscape, I believe?”

“That’s correct,” Haru nodded. “It’s a really beautiful painting!”

Madarame chuckled. “Well, if you’re happy with it, that’s all that matters. You father spent quite a lot on it, after all, so I'm glad you enjoy it.” He turned back towards Ann. “Now, how about you? Are you enjoying the exhibit, young lady?”

Ann nodded. “I don’t really know how to phrase it, but it’s pretty amazing.”

“Well, so long as you’re sensing something, I’m satisfied,” Madarame nodded. “I should get going.” His face briefly got stern as he glanced at Yusuke. “I hope this becomes a wonderful piece, Yusuke.”

“As do I, sensei.” Yusuke suddenly seemed to be slightly withdrawn.

Madarame adjusted his robes and turned to head off into the crowd again.

“He seems pretty friendly,” Haru smiled.

“Mhm,” Ann agreed. “Like, you feel like you could approach him or something. Not many celebrities are like that.”

“Indeed,” Yusuke nodded.

Ann turned, starting to walk along the exhibit again when she stopped. “Oh! This is it!”

“Is it the painting I mentioned?” Haru asked.

“Oh, uh, no, sorry,” Ann said awkwardly. “No, this is the one I was looking for.” She turned back towards the wall where a fiery red landscape was hanging.

Yusuke seemed stricken for a fraction of a second. “You were… looking for this one?”

“Yeah,” Ann said, captivated as she looked over the canvas. “I saw a glimpse of it on Good Morning Japan the other day and wanted to see it in person.” She tilted her head. “How can I put this… It feels angry? Like... the painter was frustrated when making it.”

“It’s quite a beautiful rage,” Haru commented.

Ann nodded. “It’s hard to believe someone so friendly had this within him, though. Then again, I guess we’ve seen hidden rage before with Makoto, huh?”

Yusuke looked down, holding his injured wrist.

“You okay?” Ann asked.

“You aren’t hurt, are you?” Haru asked, staring at the brace he was wearing.

“Oh, uh… no, pay me no mind,” Yusuke said. “It’s just… a little sore.” He let go and put on a smile again. “Come along, there’s better pieces for us to appreciate. And it seems Okumura-san is looking for something in particular as well.”

“Oh, we don’t need to…” Haru began but Yusuke had already begun leading the way onward. “...rush…”

“Hey, Kitagawa-kun…!” Ann said, before taking Haru’s hand. “Come on, let’s try and catch up…”

~~~

5/15 - Sunday
Daytime
Teikyu Accessway

“And I thought the subways were terrible,” Ren said, rubbing his arm. He walked over to lean on the railing next to Makoto, staring out at the rainy street below with her. “How are you holding up after that?”

“The initial shoving caught me off guard, but I’m alright,” Makoto said. Following the stampede of Madarame’s fans, Makoto and Ren had forced their way out of the exhibit and were now relaxing in the relatively clear accessway connecting the Teikyu Building to Shibuya Station.

“I… ache…” Morgana groaned from inside Ren’s bag. “Why were there so many people…?”

“Just be thankful it wasn’t sunny out,” Ren said. “I’d hate to see a crowd that wasn’t scared off from the weather.”

Makoto took her phone out, sending a quick text to Ann and Haru telling them where they were before letting out a breath. “So… did you enjoy the exhibit, at least?”

“What I saw of it was nice, yeah,” Ren shrugged. “I don’t know. I only draw a little as a hobby, so I don’t really know much about art.”

“I don’t know much, either,” Makoto said. She hesitated, staring at the phone in her hands, the eye of the Meta-Nav app staring back at her. She soon put her phone away and straightened up. “Did you notice something strange about Madarame’s interview?”

“What, the shack comment?” Ren asked. “I guess that doesn’t seem like something a cultured artist would say.”

“No, not that part,” Makoto said. She cleared her throat and spoke in an odd voice, as if attempting an impression. “‘It’s important to distance oneself from worldly desires such as money and fame.’”

Ren snorted. “Sorry, what was that voice?”

“That’s what he talks like,” Makoto mumbled. She felt her face heat up. “Y-you know what, the voice doesn’t matter! Just… doesn’t that strike you as odd to say?”

“Telling a group of reporters as you stand in a crowd of your fans to not care about fame does seem hypocritical,” Morgana mewed.

Ren tugged at his hair, still smirking a little at Makoto. “Hey, didn’t Haru say something, too?” He cleared his throat and started speaking in falsetto. “My father bought a Madarame painting a few months ago!”

“Ren-kun…” Haru’s voice said from behind them, sounding hurt. “Are… you making fun of how I speak?”

“Oh, H-Haru!” Ren stuttered, spinning around to face her and Ann. “Uh, n-no, I was just teasing Mako- uh, see, she…”

“Wow, Ren, I didn’t expect this from someone like you,” Ann said, a disappointed glare on her face.

“Ah, I’m… I’m really sorry, it’s just…” He glanced back. “Makoto, can you help me out here?”

“No, this was all your doing,” Makoto said. “Besides, it serves you right for teasing me.”

Ren meekly wilted under the look of betrayal Haru shot him, shuffling down the railing a little to give her space. With a sigh, he took his phone out, tapping at it.

“You really don’t know how to act around women, do you?” Morgana asked, his voice tinged with second-hand embarrassment.

“So, Makoto, are you okay?” Ann asked, turning away from Ren. “Your text said you were nearly trampled.”

“Yes, we’re all fine,” Makoto said, rubbing her arm. “Haru, do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Not at all,” Haru said. “What is it?”

“Do you know how much your father spent to purchase one of Madarame’s paintings?” Makoto asked. “I can’t imagine it was cheap.”

“I don’t know the exact amount, no,” Haru frowned.

“Madarame did say it was a lot when we met him in there,” Ann said.

“I see.”

“I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to your question,” Haru said.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Makoto gave a quick, reassuring smile, before turning her gaze out the window again. “Knowing even the celebrity himself says it was expensive is enough...”

“What’s up, Makoto?” Ann asked.

“We heard part of Madarame’s interview while exploring the exhibit,” Makoto explained. “He claimed that as an artist, he was distancing himself from money and fame. However, given he’s selling his works at such a high price, and standing in the middle of a crowd of fans, those words ring hollow.”

“I suppose the tickets to attend this exhibit are rather expensive, as well,” Haru commented, looking down.

“But he seemed so friendly when he spoke with us!” Ann protested.

“...I suppose that’s true, but you said yourself that painting felt full of anger,” Haru said.

“What painting?” Makoto asked.

“We were looking at this one piece of a landscape bathed in red or something,” Ann said. “I’m not entirely sure, it was a little bit abstract for me… anyway, it definitely seemed to have been made in a frustrated moment.”

“It’s entirely possible he’s keeping a hidden anger from the public,” Makoto said. “We have seen a precedence for this already.”

“Hey…” Ren said, holding his phone out towards the girls. “Look at this posting on the Phan-Site.”

“Hm?”

Anon (Topic Creator): A master of Japanese arts is plagiarizing his pupil’s works. Only his public face is shown on TV. His treatment of the pupils who live with him is awful. He teaches nothing and bosses them around. He treats them inhumanely, as if disciplining a dog.”

“That’s awful…” Haru said.

“Abuse and plagiarism…” Makoto mused. “And from a master of Japanese arts…”

Ann looked down. “...you know, Kitagawa-kun did seem a little startled when Madarame spoke to him. And… there was his reaction to that painting…”

“Lady Ann, do you have an idea about something?”

“Uh, no, I think I’m overthinking it,” Ann said, shaking her head. “Besides, there’s no name on this post. Who knows if it’s about Madarame?”

“I could ask Mishima,” Ren said. “He runs the site, so he might know something about what’s being posted on it.”

“...I suppose you could...” Makoto closed her eyes. “Ann, what did you decide about that modeling offer?”

“Oh, Kitagawa-kun gave me his address and contact info,” Ann said. “I told him I hadn’t completely made my mind up yet.”

Makoto nodded, opening her eyes again. “Could I ask you to hold onto that info for me?”

“Uh, sure,” Ann said. “Are you planning something?”

“If our suspicions about Madarame are true, we may have our next Palace,” Makoto said. “That said, we know nothing concrete at the moment.” She turned away from the window. “Let’s go home for now. I’d like to plan out all our options, and after dealing with that crowd, I’m feeling a little tired.”

“As am I,” Haru nodded. “I’m fine with breaking for today. Should we all meet at Big Bang Burger after school tomorrow?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ren said. “See you later.”

“See you,” Makoto replied as Ren walked off.

“Hey, did Makoto seem a little weird to you?” Morgana asked once they had put distance between them.

“What do you mean?” Ren asked.

“I don’t really know,” Morgana said. “I don’t really know her as well as you.”

“I’ve only known her for a couple hours longer than you have.”

“You know what I mean,” Morgana griped. “It’s just… she seems a little reluctant about targeting Madarame to me.”

“Well, we don’t really have anything to do with him or know anything,” Ren murmured in reply, trying to avoid glances from people thinking he’s talking to himself.

“I guess that’s fair…” Morgana admitted. “I’m probably just overthinking it.”

Then again, Ren thought, adjusting his bag as he walked down the stairs towards Station Square, she was acting a little off yesterday when we were discussing him...

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.2%

Chapter Text

5/16 - Monday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Ren was just about to step into homeroom when Mishima suddenly intercepted him. “Amamiya, can we talk for a moment?”

“...fine,” Ren said, nodding.

Mishima sighed in relief, taking Ren’s hand and leading him along down to the end of the hall. “Okay, so… I tried looking into what you asked me last night. Unfortunately, I have no way of figuring out where these posts came from.”

“Darn, I thought you had something with that,” Morgana whispered to Ren.

Ren shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“Still, I’m really sorry about it,” Mishima said. He quickly looked back over his shoulder, as if checking to make sure no one was eavesdropping, before leaning in closer. “By the way… you guys have been quiet lately. Some of the forum users are getting restless.”

“I don’t really have control over that,” Ren said.

“Oh, no, I wasn’t complaining!” Mishima said anxiously. “I… how do I tell you about this? Um, one of the people whose heart you changed? He sent a private message. He wants to meet with you about requesting another change of heart.”

“...what?” Ren asked. “Someone whose heart we stole wants to meet us? That sounds...”

“I know, I know, I was wary about it, too,” Mishima said, holding his hands up. “Just… he seemed pretty adamant about the urgency of this. I’m guessing the forums slowing down is why he’s asking personally.”

“Makoto is not going to be happy about this,” Morgana said.

“Do you know who it is that’s asking?” Ren asked. “I don’t think we’d be happy to meet Kamoshida or Sugimura again.”

“Would Kamoshida even be allowed near a computer?” Morgana asked.

“He gave me his name as a sign of faith,” Mishima said, taking his phone out. “Let me see… Natsuhiko Nakanohara.”

Ren’s eyes widened. “That… might be good for us. You didn’t tell him you’d have him meet the Phantom Thieves themselves, did you?”

“No, I’m being smart about this,” Mishima boasted. “I told him I’m sending some of my fellow administrators that know how to contact the Phantom Thieves.”

“...you already said we agreed?”

“Oh, did I jump the gun?” Mishima asked. “I could tell him the meeting is off, if-”

“No, it’s… let me check with Makoto first.” Ren let out a sigh. “Please try to run things by us first, though?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Mishima said, rubbing the back of his head. “I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

Ren nodded. “Well… can we get to class now?”

“Yeah, let’s go,” Mishima said.

“This guy is being way too obvious, for all his attempts at subtlety,” Morgana commented as they entered the classroom. “Hey, no one’s noticed he just pulled you aside like that, right?”

Ren paused slightly, trying to set up for the day as quietly as possible as he listened in on conversations.

“I’ve been getting a lot of weird spam in my email lately…”

“Did you see the crowd at Shibuya yesterday? I had no idea that Madarame guy was so popular…”

"If you're worried the stress from the exams is affecting your skin, might I suggest getting some Recover Oil? You can find it at the cosmetics stand in Shibuya Station's Underground Walkway until summer starts!"

“Doesn’t seem so,” Ren murmured as he helped Morgana sneak into his desk.

Morgana nodded. “Well, don’t wait too long to tell Makoto about this meeting. I don’t know what it is, she just seems moody lately.”

“Maybe she gets stressed from exams, too?” Ann asked as she sat down. “Morning!”

“Good morning,” Ren replied. “Really think it’s exams, though?”

“I don’t know,” Ann shrugged. “What were you two talking about, anyway?”

“I’ll explain in the chat,” Ren said, taking his phone out.

“Oh, it’s business, huh? Gotcha.” Ann turned around, taking her phone out as well.

~~~

5/16 - Monday
After School
Station Square

The members of the Phantom Thieves gathered in wait not too far from the stairs to the Teikyu building. Ann was absentmindedly fixing her makeup, Haru was feeding snacks to Morgana, and Ren was anxiously watching Makoto as she frantically paced in front of them.

“Makoto, please calm down.”

“Why should I?” Makoto asked. “‘We know how to get in touch with them, but we’re definitely not the Phantom Thieves.’ Who would really buy that excuse? Why did Mishima-kun of all people have to figure us out?”

“Mako-chan, it’s not that big of a deal, is it?” Haru asked. “I doubt he’d bother telling the school.”

“Yeah, there’s no reason to stress over this,” Ann said, smacking her lips as she finished applying lipstick. She carefully shut her handheld mirror and returned it and her makeup kit back to her bag. “The principal aside, no one really seems to care about the Phantom Thieves.”

Makoto stopped, rounding on them. “My elder sister is a prosecutor, remember. And my best friend has a criminal record. Anything, anything that society would consider wrongdoing is a source of stress for me.”

“...am I really your best friend?” Ren asked, a small smirk forming on his face.

Makoto blinked and looked away. “Um… well, you were my first friend, and I often think about you and…” She cleared her throat and looked back at them. “I’m still upset over this turn of events, but… I know it isn’t your fault. I can’t help but blow it out of proportion. I apologize.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Morgana said. “Frankly speaking, Mishima is kind of annoying me, too, with this whole meeting set up without our say. But still, it’s a chance to chat with the person that gave us the lead to begin with.”

“I just hope it’s not a sign changes of heart can reverse,” Makoto said. "That he's really here just to give us information."

“It should be impossible for a change of heart to reverse,” Morgana said. “I mean… I don’t really know what the Shadow does after we steal distortion, but we still removed the root cause, so...”

Makoto nodded before resuming her pacing, albeit far less frantic than before.

“Oh, hey, that’s him!” Ann said.

Makoto stopped in her tracks, turning as a man with bowl cut hair and a generic black business suit nervously approached them.

“Um… excuse me?”

“Can I help you?” Makoto asked.

“I think so…” he said. He cleared his throat. “I’m… Natsuhiko Nakanohara. My name was posted about on that Phantom Aficionado site.”

“This was that stalker you told me about?” Haru asked quietly. "He seems so meek, though."

Morgana gave a quiet, meow-like laugh. “Ah, it’s nice to see the fruits of our labor in person. The change of heart definitely seems to have gone off without a hitch.”

“Nakanohara,” Makoto said slowly, wracking her brain for the excuse Mishima gave. “Oh, yes, I remember passing that name to the Phantom Thieves.” He is not going to fall for that…

“So… it’s true you can get in contact with them?” Nakanohara asked hopefully.

Or… he will. Alright then.

“Oh, yeah, totally!” Ann said in a forced voice, a fake smile on her face.

Makoto shot a quick, ire-filled look at her, before putting on a professional expression again as she turned to face the man.

Nakanohara let out a relieved sigh. “I was told to look for a group of people wearing Shujin uniforms. I’m glad I wasn’t mistaken.”

“Ah, is that so…?” Makoto asked. “Sorry I’m not wearing the blazer. That might have made it easier for you. Now then, what is it you wished to ask? If it’s to speak to the Phantom Thieves themselves, I’m afraid we’d be unable to set that up.”

“Oh, it’s not that, it’s just…” he took a breath and looked back over his shoulder at the Teikyu building for a moment. “I was hoping you’d be able to change Madarame’s heart.”

“Madarame?!” Ann gasped in fake surprise.

Makoto turned around to give her the same look.

Ren walked over to sit beside the blonde, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Ann, just… stop, please. This is physically hurting us.”

“Hey, my acting isn’t that bad!” Ann whispered indignantly.

“I’m sorry, Ann-chan, but it kind of is…” Haru said quietly.

“...even you, Haru?”

“Madarame?” Makoto asked, turning back to face Nakanohara. “The famous artist?”

Nakanohara nodded. “His fame is why I wasn’t comfortable making a post on that forum. You see… I’m a former pupil of his. He gave me lodging back when I wanted to become an artist.” He looked down, a pained expression on his face. “...I wasn’t the only student there. There were others. One was man who had been there for years. And… even after all that time, everything that man painted was claimed as a Madarame original.”

“...plagiarism,” Makoto commented under her breath, hand going to her chin as usual.

Nakanohara’s throat visibly tightened. “...that man... my senpai, I suppose… he eventually… killed himself.”

“...killed himself…?” Ann repeated, her voice quiet as her eyes widened.

Makoto felt a chill run through her. “Are you… certain this was because of Madarame?”

Nakanohara nodded. “That was when I left. I couldn’t stay there anymore. I needed to get out, to talk about what was going on in that shack, but… almost as soon as I moved out… the art world suddenly turned on me. I can only imagine Madarame pressured them.”

“Why would he feel the need to do that?” Haru asked.

“...so anything you’d say against him would just be construed as the rantings of someone who was jealous of his success,” Makoto said. “Am I right?”

“I’d imagine so,” Nakanohara said. “It destroyed any chance I had of becoming a painter. I… started projecting that failed attachment, I suppose. And it led to me following my ex-girlfriend…” He shook his head, trailing off and simply staring at the ground.

“...how many students has Madarame been victimizing like this?” Makoto asked.

“I have no idea,” Nakanohara said, looking up. “I do know that there’s still someone left under his care, though. He’s about… your age, I believe. Maybe a little younger.”

Yusuke Kitagawa, Makoto thought.

“I… don’t want him to end up in a similar position… to be driven to suicide,” Nakanohara said. “I may not have a right to say that, but…”

“You have full right to feel concerned,” Makoto said. “And it’s alright. You needn’t explain yourself further. We’ll pass this information along.”

“You will…?” Nakanohara asked, eyes seeming to light up a little. “Oh, thank-”

“In exchange,” Makoto interrupted, “would you mind giving me your contact information?”

“My-my contact information?” Nakanohara repeated.

“Makoto?” Ren asked in surprise.

“I’d like to…” Makoto hesitated. Think of an excuse, think of an excuse… “...keep you apprised on things. And to see how your change of heart is affecting you. It’s rare I get to see what the Phantom Thieves have actually done, after all.”

“...I suppose that’s only fair,” Nakanohara nodded. He reached into his pocket, pulling a card out. “Here. My business card. I don’t have my own office, so that number will reach me directly.”

“Thank you,” Makoto nodded. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure the Phantom Thieves listen to your request.”

“Thank you,” Nakanohara said, giving the tiniest of bows.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Tower Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

TOWER CONFIDANT: RANK 1

Nakanohara nodded to Ren, Ann, and Haru, before walking off across the square and heading downstairs to the underground platforms.

“Did Madarame really drive a student of his to suicide…?” Ann asked, trembling.

“Lady Ann…” Morgana frowned, looking up at her.

“...Ann-chan, it’s alright…” Haru said awkwardly.

“Why?” Ann asked. “Why do people do this? Why doesn’t anyone care about anyone else? Why do people drive others to suicide?!”

A few passersby glanced in surprise at Ann’s outburst and hurried along.

Makoto winced in sympathy before kneeling down. “Ann? Don’t cry over this. This isn’t like how it was with Shiho-san. We can prevent this from happening again.”

Ann wiped her eyes and nodded, a determined glare on her face. “If anything that guy just said is true, I won’t rest until we have Madarame’s Treasure.”

“So, we’re all decided, then?” Ren asked, standing up.

“...I believe so, yes,” Makoto said. “Any objections?”

“None at all,” Morgana said. “But don’t you think you’re being a little bit too hasty? This isn’t like Kamoshida, you know. We don’t know enough about Madarame personally.”

“At the very least, we can check if he has a Palace,” Ren said. His finger hovered over the Meta-Nav before turning towards Haru. “Actually, why don’t we have our newest member do the honors of checking?”

“M-me…?” Haru stuttered, eyes wide as she noticed the others looking at her. “O-okay.” She pulled her phone out of her sweater pocket, and brought up the app. “So… what do I do?”

“Just say the name of the individual whose Shadow you’re looking for,” Morgana said. “Given how long Nakanohara made it sound like Madarame has been operating like this, I think we can skip checking Mementos for him.”

Haru nodded. “The famous painter, Ichiryusai Madarame.”

“Candidate found,” the Metaverse Navigator chimed.

“Oh!” Haru exclaimed. “It worked!”

“Interesting,” Makoto said.

“So, where is his Palace?” Ren asked. “What’s the distortion?”

“And all that aside, we need to take into account the fact that we won’t have easy access to deliver a calling card to him for long,” Makoto said. “The exhibit ends early June. If we don’t have his heart stolen before then, we’ll be unable to complete our mission.”

“So we can’t take our time, then,” Ann said. “Not that I planned on it.”

“Maybe if we talk to Kitagawa-kun we would have more ideas?” Haru suggested.

“I was about to say the same,” Morgana said. “Lady Ann, I hate to ask this of you, but could you reach out to him?”

“R-reach out to him?!” Ann stuttered.

“It’s just so we can talk to him,” Ren explained. “Try and get a more personal look at Madarame.”

“Oh, yes, right,” Ann said, letting out a relieved sigh. “Okay. I’ll try for tomorrow after school. Don’t want to waste too much time.”

“Thank you,” Makoto nodded. “Well, shall we all head home for today?”

~~~

5/16 - Monday
Evening
Leblanc Cafe

“What are you smirking about?” Sojiro asked as Ren walked through the cafe door.

“I’m not smirking,” Ren said.

“You kind of are. You haven’t stopped since Makoto… oh, I see...” Morgana snickered.

“Hey, are you remembering to feed that cat?” Sojiro asked. "He keeps meowing."

“Oh, yeah, he’s just… talkative,” Ren shrugged. He continued on towards the stairs when Sojiro spoke up.

“Oh, there’s a package for you upstairs.”

“A package?” Ren repeated in surprise.

“Looks like it’s from home,” Sojiro said. “You keeping in touch with your folks?”

“Uh…” Ren rubbed the back of his head, frowning.

Sojiro shook his head, finishing wiping the counter down and stretching. “Well, I’m heading home for the night.”

“Goodnight, then,” Ren said absentmindedly as he climbed the stairs.

“Ren, you okay?” Morgana asked, hopping out of Ren’s bag as they reached the attic.

Ren snatched the box up off the bed, plopping down and staring at it.

“Okay, this isn’t like you,” Morgana frowned, walking over to hop up beside him. “What happened to the dork smirking over Makoto calling him her best friend?”

“Can you give me some space for a moment, Morgana?” Ren asked quietly. “This is the first thing I’ve gotten from home aside from those clothes.”

“...yeah, okay,” Morgana said, jumping back down onto the floor and heading over to the couch. “I understand.”

“Thanks.” Ren took a deep breath and slowly opened the package, his expression dropping as he looked inside.

~~~

5/17 - Tuesday
After School
Central Street - Residential Area

“Let’s see…” Ann said, looking down at her phone. “The address Kitagawa-kun gave me says it’s down this way…”

Makoto glanced over at Ren, whose gaze seemed to be wandering over to the various houses they passed. “Ren-kun? You seem distracted today.”

“...huh?” Ren looked over. “Oh, it’s just… it’s suddenly so quiet around after being in the middle of… Shibuya.” He shook his head. “I guess I’ll never really get used to the city.”

“I suppose it is a bit of a jarring shift,” Haru nodded.

“You should see the parks in that case,” Ann said. “Really makes you forget you’re in the city.” She suddenly stopped and looked up. “Uh… this seems to be the place.”

The rest looked at the house Ann was staring at, if it could even be called that. Unlike the more modern homes around them, the walls of this building appeared to be made of haphazardly bolted together strips of sheet metal. The railings affixed outside the various windows, as well as the door itself, seemed slightly off balance.

“The word shack almost seems like an understatement,” Haru commented.

“I’m surprised it hasn’t been condemned,” Makoto said.

“I’m surprised the rain the other day didn’t knock it down,” Morgana said, peeking out at it over Ren’s shoulder. “You’re certain that Yusuke guy gave this address?”

“It says Madarame on the door plate,” Ann said. She sighed and looked up at the building again. “I really don’t know about this.”

“We have two independent sources saying Madarame is abusing and plagiarizing his students,” Makoto said. “Given he’s the only pupil currently here, Kitagawa-kun is the only one that can confirm these rumors. Alternatively, potentially give us more insight into Madarame’s thought process so we can actually find the Palace.”

“That’s true…” Ann sighed. “Okay. Let’s go.” Cautiously eyeing the shack as if afraid it would topple over onto them, Ann led the group closer and rang the bell.

Almost immediately, Yusuke’s voice came out of the door-side speaker. “Who is it? Sensei is currently-”

“It’s me, Ann Takamaki. I told you I’d be coming by today with my friends?”

“Takamaki-san?! I’ll be right there!” The speaker clicked off.

“I take it he’s turned people away before,” Ren said.

“His initial response to the doorbell did sound rather rehearsed,” Haru agreed.

“Takamaki-san!” Yusuke greeted as he opened the door. His expression dropped as he noticed the crowd behind her. “You… brought your friends?”

“Hello again, Kitagawa-kun,” Makoto said, giving a slight bow in greeting. “I’m afraid we all lost track of each other at the exhibit on Sunday.”

“Oh, I apologize, but Takamaki and Okumura were the ones most interested-”

“Can we cut to the chase?” Ren interrupted.

“I beg your pardon?” Yusuke asked, giving a disdainful look towards Ren.

“Right, we had some things to ask you,” Ann said. “Sorry, it’s not really about modeling.” She bit her lip.

“Ask me…?” Yusuke repeated.

“How to phrase this?” Makoto mumbled. “Kitagawa-kun, how would you describe your living situation with Madarame?”

“Ah, is this concerns over the state of the atelier?” Yusuke asked, glancing at the building behind him. “I know it appears to be in a poor state, but I assure you-”

“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I meant…” Makoto said. “Whether you were here or in a luxury hotel suite isn’t important.”

“How is Madarame treating you?” Ann asked. “It’s just… we spoke with someone that used to be a student, and… there’s this we found online.” Ann took her phone out and showed Yusuke the forum post on the Phan-Site.

Yusuke leaned forward, reading it with a solemn expression on his face. However, this expression soon broke as he leaned back to laugh. “How preposterous!”

“This stalker even laughs like a villain…” Morgana commented.

“Get over it,” Makoto whispered.

“Plagiarism?” Yusuke recited. “Abuse? You’re speaking of the man who adopted me, and took in many others before. If he hated children, why would he bring them into his home? And what would a master artist have to gain from copying the works of the people he himself is teaching?”

“Well… those are fair counterpoints,” Makoto admitted.

“But the man we spoke to sounded quite earnest and concerned!” Haru said. “And… just because someone raises you, doesn’t mean they can’t be harmful to you as well.”

Makoto’s grip on her bag tightened slightly as she looked down.

“That’s…” Yusuke hesitated and shook his head. “I owe Madarame my life. I cannot abide the claims you’re suddenly leveling on him! You said a former student brought this to your attention? It’s probably nothing more than him wishing to ruin Madarame as some form of jealous vengeance for failure!”

“That’s really how you feel, is it?” Ren asked.

“It is,” Yusuke said. He turned towards Makoto and showed her the brace on his wrist. “I assure you, this injury you yourself inflicted on me is the only abuse I’ve suffered.”

“Has that still not healed…?” Makoto asked meekly. She shook her head and stared at him with determined eyes. “I am trained in martial arts, and am quite capable of controlling my strength. I know for a fact I did not grip you to result in an injury this long lasting. Are you not getting proper treatment or nutrition? I can’t imagine another reason it would still be hurting.”

“Now you’re accusing him of neglecting my needs?” Yusuke asked angrily, shaking his head. “I promise you, NONE of these claims are real!”

“Are you saying the suicide isn’t real, then?!” Ann asked. “That a student didn’t kill themselves over what Madarame did?”

“S-suicide…?” Yusuke suddenly seemed stricken.

“Yusuke?” Madarame’s voice asked, the man himself emerging from the shack. His eyes quickly looked over the rest of the group. “Ah, I thought I heard other voices. Could I ask you and your friends to keep it down? We don't wish to bother the neighbors.”

“Sensei, they… these people are slandering you,” Yusuke said, seemingly still a little shaken.

“Ah, I’m sure they’re just expressing concern,” Madarame said. “You needn’t be upset on my behalf, it’s understandable for them to be wary of strangers these days.”

“I… understand, sensei,” Yusuke said, looking down almost in shame.

Madarame gave a pleasant smile and nodded. “Well, I’ll let you children talk. I apologize for intruding.”

“O-oh, um…” Ann awkwardly stuttered as Madarame retreated back into his shack.

“I apologize that I misread your intentions,” Yusuke said, bowing to the group.

“You don’t need to bow…” Haru said awkwardly.

He straightened his posture and took his phone out. “Please, take a look at this.”

“Uh… why?” Ren asked.

“I want you to see the kind of man sensei truly is,” Yusuke said, before showing them a painting of a beautiful young woman, smiling serenely. “This is ‘Sayuri’, Madarame’s maiden artwork.”

“...it’s so beautiful,” Ann said.

“It’s a little hard to see on the phone, though,” Haru said.

“People have stolen the original, so I’m afraid this is all I can show you,” Yusuke said, pocketing the phone again. “Tell me, what emotions did that invoke in you?”

“Um… I’m not sure,” Ann said.

“...warmth,” Ren commented quietly.

The others turned in surprise.

“It felt warm to me,” Ren shrugged. “...loving, even.”

“I… have to agree,” Makoto said.

Yusuke nodded. “And that is what truly lies in sensei’s heart. A man of cruelty could never convey those genuine emotions to the canvas.” A faint smile grew on his face as he turned towards Ann. “That was the painting that inspired me to become an artist to begin with. The beauty it captured, the emotions it held…” He closed his eyes. “Takamaki-san, I felt these same emotions when I laid eyes on you. That’s why I wish you to be my model.”

“Um… that’s…” Ann maundered.

“I implore you to put actual consideration into my request,” Yusuke said. “I want to capture these feelings and inspire others as you and sensei inspired me.” He turned and made his way back to the shack, pausing at the door. “Please, contact me when you’ve made your decision.” And with that, he shut the door.

“He sure seems to be projecting a lot on you, Lady Ann,” Morgana commented.

“Look who’s talking,” Ren said under his breath.

“That doesn’t appear to have gone as planned,” Haru said, looking back at the shack as they crossed the road.

“We should have anticipated Madarame would be here,” Makoto commented. “It’s hard enough to be honest about someone you’re that close to, but if the person in question is looming over your shoulder as well…”

“So you think Madarame really is an abuser?” Haru asked. “But… in the two times we’ve met he seems so pleasant. And there was the Sayuri as well.”

“It’s giving me pause, I’ll admit,” Makoto said.

“He does still have a Palace, though,” Ren said. “Let’s not forget that.”

“Oh, hold up on the Thief talk,” Ann said, nodding down the sidewalk.

The group turned to see a woman with orange sunglasses on approaching, a camera dangling from around her neck. “Hey! Can I talk to you kids for a sec?”

“...I suppose…?” Makoto said.

“That look is so dated…” Ann murmured.

“You don’t seem to be ordinary, stalking fans,” the woman remarked.

“Is that how we’re coming off?” Ren asked quietly.

“Do you happen to know any of Madarame’s pupils?” the woman smiled. “I probably should have made that clear from the start. See, I’m looking into rumors surrounding the theft of the Sayuri. Rumors say a student took it in retaliation for abuse.”

“Is that really true?” Haru asked in shock.

The woman’s smile dropped and she sighed. “So, seems you don’t know anything about it… I guess asking you was a longshot, anyway. Sorry for taking your time.”

“Oh, there’s no need to apologize,” Haru said. "We weren't bothered."

“Heh, at least you’re being polite while lying to my face,” the woman smiled. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a business card. “Here, would you mind taking this? I’m a journalist in need of leads and, well…”

“You’re a little desperate?” Ren suggested, taking the card.

“Maybe a little,” she laughed. “Well, see ya.” And as quickly as she appeared, the journalist left.

“...well, that was a little weird,” Morgana commented.

“It’s possible she heard our conversation…” Makoto mused. “Why else would she think we had a lead on these rumors?”

“I’m sure it’s just desperation like Ren said,” Ann commented. “That all aside, what are we going to do about the other keywords?”

“Well, now that we know where Madarame is, we may be able to nail down the location,” Ren said, taking his phone out and opening the Meta-Nav. “The famed artist Ichiryusai Madarame, Madarame’s shack.”

The phone pulsed.

“So far so good,” Ann said.

“So… what could he see this place as?” Haru asked, looking across the street at the shack in question. “If he’s really abusing his students… a school, maybe?”

“Condition has not been met,” the Metaverse Navigator chimed.

“Maybe it’s connected more to the plagiarism rumor,” Makoto suggested. “Stealing the hard work of others for your own profit… a diamond mine? Or perhaps a factory?”

“Condition has not been met.”

“I feel like we’re off track here,” Ann said.

“Agreed, Lady Ann,” Morgana purred. “Remember, Madarame is an artist. Kamoshida’s crimes contributed to his distortion, yes, but the castle part came from his authority as a teacher. So Madarame's distortion is likely tied to art in some way”

“An art school!” Haru suggested.

“Condition has not been met.”

“Why do you keep suggesting schools?” Ann asked.

“...Ren-kun, do you have any ideas?” Makoto asked.

“Hmm?” Ren tore his gaze from the buildings of the city in the distance, his eyes locking with Makoto’s. “Oh, um…”

“Were you daydreaming?” Makoto frowned. “Are you feeling alright? You’ve seemed slightly out of it.”

“...I’m fine,” Ren said, looking away from her and down to the phone. “How about… an art museum?”

“Candidate found.”

“We’ve got a hit!” Ann cheered.

“But… doesn’t he already get featured in museums?” Haru asked.

“Not if it isn’t his art,” Morgana said. “Well, what do you say, team? Want to check it out?”

“I don’t know…” Ann said. “It’s getting a little late, isn’t it?”

“Still…” Makoto tucked some hair behind her ear. “A quick peek to see what we need to prepare for couldn't hurt.”

“I’m in favor,” Haru said. “I’m quite excited, actually! My first Palace!”

“I am interested in what it’d be like,” Ren said.

“Yeah…” Ann reluctantly agreed. “Anything would be better than that bastard’s castle, at least.”

“Then let’s go,” Ren said, tapping his phone.

“Beginning navigation.”

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.1%

Chapter Text

5/17 - Tuesday
After School
Madarame’s Palace

The area around them suddenly seemed to be thrust into nighttime, and their uniforms burned away as the world shifted, the four teens now clad in their Phantom Thief attire.

“Whoa!” Morgana gasped, falling off Ren’s back as his school bag was no longer there. “Ow, hey, you could have warned me!”

“I thought we gave plenty of heads up,” Ren said.

“What the?!” Ann gasped, gaze fixed at where the shack once was.

“What is it, Panther?” Makoto asked, turning to look across the street. Her eyes widened at seeing a large, modern-styled museum made of shimmering gold stretched up from where the shack once was, a huge crowd standing in line towards the entrance.

“That’s how he views that shack?” Ren asked.

“It’s surprisingly… garish for an artist of his caliber,” Haru commented.

“That’s an understatement,” Ann said, shaking her head. “I guess he really is different on the inside.”

“That kindness was all an act,” Morgana said, hopping up onto the railing, wobbling slightly to maintain balance on his two legs. “The Palace already considers us threats.”

Makoto glanced down and felt her face heat up a fraction. I’ll never be used to this skintight leather… “Well, we did just confront Kitagawa-kun about the negative rumors regarding him. I’m not surprised Madarame feels that puts him at risk.”

“Well, let’s find a way inside while we’re here,” Ren said. “We can then plan out days to handle it better.”

“That’s quite a sound strategy,” Makoto agreed.

“So, how do we handle this sort of thing?” Haru asked. “Do we have Mona-chan turn into a bus and crash him into the wall?”

“What?!” Morgana gasped. “None of you had better think about crashing me into anything!”

“No one is going to crash you,” Makoto sighed. “No, Haru- I mean, Noir. A true Palace like this is a lot different than Mementos. Here, we… well, I suppose we act as real phantom thieves do.”

“We find a way to sneak inside, locate where the Treasure is, then send the calling card so that we can steal it,” Ren explained.

“Oh, that sounds much safer for Mona,” Haru smiled.

“For the time being, I’d suggest you hold back a little and observe us,” Makoto said. “Anyway, shall we?”

“Yeah, let’s go,” Ann said.

Haru giggled excitedly. “We’re breaking into an art museum! Just like real phantom thieves!”

Makoto let out a small laugh. “Yes, I suppose this is the perfect distortion for our aesthetic. Wouldn’t you agree, Joker?”

Ren smirked, staring up at the building. “Yeah…”

Ann sighed. “Oh boy. Can we admire it as we go inside? Kitagawa-kun is probably in danger the longer he’s stuck with Madarame like this.”

“Yes, let’s go,” Makoto said, cutting across the street and approaching a parked moving truck. Carefully, she leapt up, using it to reach a gap in the wall surrounding the museum. Turning back, she extended a hand to the others. “Anyone need help getting up?”

“Oh, thank you!” Ann said, taking Makoto’s hand and jumping as she tugged, reaching the top. Once everyone else climbed up as well, Makoto jumped down, crouching behind some hedges as they navigated to an outdoor art installation, various stone platforms extending up from the garden.

“Is it just me, or do they all look generic?” Ren asked as he searched around in a stone vase they passed.

“He is accused of stealing work,” Morgana said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if his own efforts are uninspired.”

Carefully climbing and navigating the installation, Makoto led the others to the roof of one of the exhibit halls, carefully eyeing the Shadows navigating the perimeter below them.

“They look like security guards,” Haru remarked.

“I’d say they’re less threatening than the knights were, but… they somehow feel more threatening,” Makoto said. “Perhaps because security guards are actually present in our everyday lives?”

“That might be it,” Morgana said. “But it’s more likely the Shadows of this Palace are just stronger than the ones in Kamoshida’s.”

“Stronger, huh?” Ann frowned.

“This skylight is open,” Ren called to them. “We can grapple down inside if we have a rope.”

“Oh, I have one!” Morgana said. “I always make sure I have basic necessities for a thief on hand.”

“That sounds like it might get you in trouble in reality,” Haru frowned.

“Still, a way inside like this is good for us,” Makoto smiled, retreating from the roof’s edge and approaching where Ren was waiting. “Good find, Joker.”

“Not really, anyone could have noticed it,” Ren shrugged. “After you, Queen.”

Makoto nodded, peering down inside before jumping down, landing on a ledge inside what appeared to be a small exhibit hall. “...coast is clear for this room.”

The others carefully climbed down as well, Morgana leaving a rope for them to make their escape. Once inside and off the ledge, they began to take in their surroundings.

“Ooh, couches for guests to sit on,” Haru said, plopping into one. “Hm… not as comfortable as they look.”

“What’s with this art, though?” Ann asked, looking over a painting of a woman in darkly colored sailor fuku on the wall across from them. “It’s… moving a little.”

“After seeing the distortions back in Kamoshida’s tower, I’m not surprised by a simple oddity as that,” Makoto said.

“That’s fair…” Ann said, walking up to read the placard. “‘Jun Aoyama, 15.’ What kind of title is that?”

“This one right next to it kind of reminds me of you in your casual wear, Joker,” Morgana said, hopping a few times to read the placard. “Atsushi Arita, 20.”

“Why do they have such odd titles?” Haru asked.

“They read more like…” Makoto mused, before shaking her head. “Let’s move on for now. I’d like to see if this exhibit hall connects to the museum proper.”

“Do you have an idea on something, Queen?” Ann asked, following Makoto out the door.

“Just a theory…” Makoto said, pressing against a wall to look around the corner. “...there don’t seem to be any Shadows patrolling right now…”

“This painting is titled similarly,” Ren said, glancing at the placard of the portrait Makoto was pressed against. “A person’s name, and number.”

Makoto glanced back at where the placard was positioned relative to her, and briefly glared at Ren.

“...I wasn’t checking you out, I swear,” Ren said.

“Joker, were you really?” Haru frowned.

“...I mean, that leather is really form fitting…” Ann mumbled, her gaze wandering over Makoto.

“What was that, Panther?” Makoto asked, glancing at her curiously.

“Oh, um! I was just wondering about the painting titles!”

“As they all follow the same theme, I’m going to venture a guess,” Makoto said, straightening up. “These are the names and ages of the people depicted.”

“Their names and ages?” Haru repeated.

“But, why?” Ann asked. “And who even are these people?”

“That should become apparent as we venture forward,” Makoto said. “This is Madarame’s cognition, after all.” She led the group on through the gallery.

“May I venture a guess?” Haru asked.

“Go right ahead.”

“Well… the Palace is based on his… abuse and plagiarism, right? So are these… his students?”

Makoto froze as they passed through an opening in the wall made to look like an askew picture frame, staring straight ahead at one of the paintings. “...that’s exactly right, Noir.”

“Queen?” Ren asked, following her gaze. “...isn’t that painting…?”

“Nakanohara, right?” Ann asked, approaching.

“His name is on the plaque,” Morgana frowned. “...this is what he thinks of his students?”

“As his art?” Ann asked. “But… that doesn’t make sense! Doesn’t he love art? So if he sees his students as art, then that would mean he loves them!”

“His cognition is twisted, but…” Makoto closed her eyes, trying to keep her tone curious and her voice level. “Mona, is it possible for a Palace to be born out of a positive emotion? Were we maybe wrong in buying into the negative rumors, and this museum is based on Madarame’s feelings of kindness?”

“No,” Morgana said, shaking his head. “Well, not really. A Palace is born from distorted desires, remember. The closest you could get is, well, what his problem was.” He gestured towards the painting of Nakanohara. “An obsessive feeling of attachment that the distorted could maybe read as love, but it isn’t. Palaces are the embodiment of the problems in a person’s psyche.”

“...I see,” Makoto said, opening her eyes again. Then… Sis…

“Who the hell are you?!” a distorted voice suddenly called out.

Makoto turned around to see a security guard Shadow running towards them.

“Ah, we’ve been spotted!” Haru said.

“...watch closely, Noir,” Makoto said, running forward, vaulting off a display case of paper fans and grabbing the mask on the Shadow.

“Wh-what the…?!” the Shadow stuttered in surprise as Makoto viciously tore it off, jumping back while Ren, Ann, and Morgana scrambled to get into position behind her.

The Shadow collapsed, two fairies with bright red skin, and what appeared to be a priestess with light blue skin emerged, the latter of the three immediately casting an Ice Wall over one of her allies.

“That won’t help you,” Makoto said, tearing her mask off. “Persona!” Jack Frost emerged behind her as she sent a Bufu spell at the unshielded Hua Po, easily knocking it down to the floor. As a follow-up, she approached the other Hua Po, punching it to turn her forward momentum into a series of spinning kicks to its head.

“Why you…!” the Hua Po shrieked, before blasting Makoto point-blank with an Agi spell.

“Gah!” Makoto recoiled in pain, falling back to the floor.

The Hua Po laughed and blasted her again, a small blaze starting on Makoto.

“Agh!” Makoto cried out.

“Mako-chan!” Haru gasped from the back.

Ren scowled, pulling his gun out and firing a few shots into the offending Hua Po, killing it. With it down, he scrambled around in his coat pocket until he found a Nohar-M ointment he bought from Takemi, rushing over to douse it over the burn.

“Th-thank you, Joker…” Makoto awkwardly stuttered as the fire was extinguished.

“Don’t be so reckless like that!” Morgana chastised, blasting the downed Hua Po away with a Garu spell.

“Uh oh…” the remaining Shadow, Apsaras, mumbled as the thieves all turned their attention towards her.

“Carmen!” Ann said, calling her Persona to blast it with a Fire attack.

“Ow, hot!” the Apsaras flinched.

Makoto groaned as she pulled herself up, leveling her gun and emptying her cylinder into the Shadow, causing it to burn away with a pained scream.

“Are you alright, Queen?” Haru asked, rushing up now that the fight was over.

“I’m fine,” Makoto said.

“Are you sure?” Ann asked. “You were hit pretty hard.”

“I said I’m fine!” Makoto snapped.

Ann jumped back. “Geez, okay! You don’t need to yell at me!”

Makoto shook her head. “Anyway… we weren’t able to fully take that Shadow by surprise, but that’s the gist of how we battle in Palaces.”

“Um… okay,” Haru said, a concerned frown still on her face.

“We’ll showcase it better some other time,” Morgana said. “For now…” He quickly called on Zorro to cast a Dia spell on Makoto. “Queen, don’t rush in blindly like that next time!”

“Shush,” Makoto hushed, a painting in the corner having caught her eye.

“Did you just shush me?!”

“Be quiet, Mona!” Makoto ordered. “Look… this painting.”

“What about it?” Ren asked, approaching with Makoto and the others.

Haru gasped. “That's Kitagawa-kun!”

“Even he looks so sad…” Ann commented.

Ren turned around, looking out at the stairs across from them, and the lobby they lead down to. “...there seems to be some pamphlets over there.”

“Your eyesight is surprisingly good, Ren-kun,” Haru remarked.

“Not really,” Ren said, sticking his hands into his pockets and looking down.

“Perhaps they’ll give us insight as to why Madarame views his pupils like this,” Morgana said, the group heading out.

“Even the pamphlet stand and reception desk are golden,” Ann said, sticking her tongue out in disgust. “He sure does like luxury for someone who lives in a shack.”

“Maybe it’s nicer on the inside?” Haru suggested, before turning to look down the hall next to her. “Hm…?”

“I’ll open those treasure chests while you check the pamphlets,” Ren said, walking off to the areas next to the stairs.

“It’s a map,” Makoto said, opening the pamphlet up and looking over it. “A guide to the various exhibit halls.”

“It’s so weird how detailed Palaces can get,” Ann said. She gestured to the screens in front of them. “I mean, there’s even a video of his interview and gallery from reality in here.”

“There isn’t a sign of where the Treasure would be,” Makoto said, closing the map. “It’s only half of the museum. The second half must be available somewhere else.”

“Hey, Panther, want a new whip?” Ren called out.

“Ooh, yes please!” Ann excitedly ran over to meet him halfway as he returned.

“Well… at least Panther is happy,” Morgana said as the two returned, Ann joyfully looking her new weapon over.

“Hey, where’s Noir?” Ren asked.

“Huh?” Makoto looked over her shoulder, only to see her fellow third-year was no longer in the room with them. “Noir? Where are you?”

“Everyone!” Haru’s voice called from the hall behind reception. “There’s something you need to see!”

The four of them shared a look before carefully making their way down the hall, coming out to a large, golden sculpture, banners of Madarame hanging around it.

Ren gave a brief, slightly jumpy glance at the walls, as the mural on them flaked and moved in a similar pattern to the black flames Shadows sometimes emerged from, before approaching Haru with the others.

“Noir, you can’t wander off on your own like that,” Morgana said. “If you got attacked without us being around to back you up, you could have been killed.”

“I’m… I’m sorry, I just saw the glow from down the hall and needed to investigate,” Haru said, looking down in shame.

“As long as you know for the future,” Makoto said, turning to the sculpture, the various people strewn on the spiraling gold drawing her eye. “What is this…?”

“Allow me to read the inscription,” Haru said, turning to look at the placard. “‘The Infinite Spring: A conglomerate work of art that the great director Madarame created with his own funds. These individuals must offer their ideas to the director for the rest of their lives. Those who cannot do so have no worth living.’”

“No worth living…?!” Ann trembled in anger. “That’s… how can he be so callous?”

“Give their ideas to the director for the rest of their lives,” Ren recited. “I guess that explains why his art style is so different. It’s his students that are making the art.”

“This confirms both the plagiarism and abuse claims, too,” Morgana said, glaring up at the sculpture. “And that disregard for life at the end gives the suicide claim more weight.”

“...that’s why the students are art…” Makoto said softly, putting her hand to her chin as she looked down at the floor.

“Huh?” Ann asked.

“The paintings at Madarame’s exhibits are not his creations, but those of his ‘pupils.’ When he sees them in those galleries, he’s seeing the people who actually created them. I’d bet the forlorn looks on their faces is him knowing they’re in pain over having their creations claimed by another.”

“...he smiled about it,” Haru said softly. “When Ann-chan- I mean, Panther and I spoke with him and told him our thoughts on his artworks, he mentioned how happy it made him that we could feel their emotions. That it made the work put into it worth it.”

“...all that warmth he showed was him being proud of all of this,” Ann muttered. “I feel sick thinking about it now…”

“...well, we have a way in and a better understanding about his distortion now,” Ren said, turning away. “Shall we go for today?”

“Yeah, let’s go…” Ann said. She stopped as they began to head back, turning to stare at ‘The Infinite Spring’ again. “...Kitagawa-kun has to know he’s being robbed, right? That Madarame is taking his creations for himself?”

“It’s highly likely,” Haru said. She shook her head. “Are Palaces all this horrible?”

“We are in the twisted hearts of people,” Morgana said. “Expecting the distortion to be balanced and pleasant is a mistake.”

Haru nodded, and followed the others back through the gallery of Madarame’s former pupils, and up through the skylight again.

“So, when should we return?” Morgana asked as they traversed the wall surrounding the museum and landed back on the street.

“I’d be good for tomorrow,” Ann said as they crossed the street.

“...let’s not rush it,” Ren said. “We should better stock up and plan things out.”

“Oh, yeah, good point, Joker,” Ann said. “Queen?”

Makoto looked over at Ren in surprise, before nodding. “Joker’s point is valid. We’ll plan for… let’s say this Sunday. That should give us plenty of time to explore at a less rushed pace.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ann said.

“I’ll be sure I’m free,” Haru said.

“It’s a plan, then,” Makoto nodded. She turned to give one last look at the museum, seeing the faint shimmer of a Velvet Room entrance materialize near the truck. “...for Kitagawa-kun, Nakanohara, and everyone else Madarame has hurt over the years, we will steal his heart.”

“That’s right!” Morgana said. “Stay focused, team!”

“Yeah…” Ren said, sounding distracted.

Makoto gave him a brief frown, before following him and the others out of the Metaverse.

~~~

5/17 - Tuesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“I’m home, Sis,” Makoto called out as she entered the apartment.

“You’re back rather late,” Sae commented as the younger Niijima made her way out to the living room.

“I’m sorry if I worried you,” Makoto said. “Um… the crowds in Shibuya have gotten rather large because of that exhibit.”

“I see,” Sae said. “I had forgotten an exhibit was going to be opening.” She looked down for a moment, before shutting her laptop and turning over to watch the news on TV. “...have you received an email scheduling you for your mock exams yet?”

“Oh, yes,” Makoto said. “I’ll be taking them on June 12th.”

“I see,” Sae nodded. “Study hard.”

Makoto hesitated. “Um… Sis?”

“Yes?”

“...I’m feeling a little tired, so I’m going to get ready for bed.”

“Sleep well, then.”

Makoto paused on her way towards the bathroom. “Goodnight, Sis. I love you.”

Sae blinked, and looked over at Makoto, a slightly surprised expression on her face. “...I love you, too, sister. Goodnight.”

Makoto gave her a small smile, before heading down the hall, trying to keep her eyes from tearing up as her smile fell.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.1%

Chapter Text

5/18 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 18
Steal Madarame’s Heart

Makoto stood in wait on the platform, her gaze down. Ren-kun has been distracted for a while now. Ever since we met with Nakanohara. Did… I do something wrong? Or… could it be all of our Meta-Nav search histories’ are connected? Does he think less of me for hiding Sis's Palace?

“Good morning, Makoto,” Ren’s voice said from behind her.

“Ah!” Makoto jumped, her thoughts broken as she turned to face Ren. “Um, g-good morning!”

“...are you okay?” Ren frowned.

“I’m fine, sorry,” Makoto said, shaking her head. “Just… thinking.”

“About the Palace?”

Makoto felt a brief chill run through her. She swallowed and nodded. “Yes. I’ve been examining the museum map we received yesterday, and comparing it to what I’ve seen of the building from outside. Trying to determine exactly how large it is.”

Ren gave a small smile. “You’re really good at this strategy thing.”

“Oh, thank you,” Makoto said. She frowned. “...how about you? How are you feeling?”

“...fine,” Ren said, smile dropping.

Morgana sighed loudly from Ren’s bag. “Just tell her already, Ren!”

“Tell me what?” Makoto asked.

“...don’t worry about it,” Ren said as the train pulled up.

Makoto stared for a moment, before turning and boarding the train, Ren lagging behind slightly.

~~~

5/18 - Wednesday
Afternoon
Shujin Academy

Makoto’s phone buzzed. She ignored it, choosing instead to jot down notes from the board as the teacher was providing and elaborating on examples of various English psychiatric terms for fears; specifically in this case, agoraphobia. But then her phone buzzed a second time.

And a third. And a fourth. She repressed the urge to sigh as she pulled her phone out, subtly checking the group chat.

Ann: Hey, we’re not doing anything today, right?

Ren: We have nothing scheduled until Sunday.

Ann: Yeah, I know we aren’t going after Madarame until then, but I wasn’t sure if Makoto wanted us all to prepare together.

Haru: Mako-chan hasn’t mentioned any plans to me.

Ren: We don’t have any Mementos requests, either.

Typing...

Makoto: No, Ann, there are no plans. Is there a reason you had to ask this during class?

Ann: Oh, sorry, Makoto! I just got a message from my modeling agency about a gig right as lunch ended.

Ann: Just wanted to double-check before confirming with them.

Makoto: I see. Well, I hope you have fun at your shoot today.

Ann: Aw, thanks!

Haru: Ann-chan, I forgot that you’re a real model. What’s that like?

Ann: Eh, it is what it is. I don’t really think about it that much.

Makoto: Okay, this conversation definitely isn’t urgent, so please hold off until school ends.

Haru: Oh, sorry!

Ann: Yeah, our bad…

Makoto slid her phone back into her pocket, and shot a glance up at the board only to see the teacher erasing it.

“I believe you all have biology in the Practice Building next, right?” the teacher asked. “Well, run along, then.”

Makoto felt her eye twitch slightly as she began packing up. Calm down, missing one word’s definition shouldn’t matter too much… But do they have to text during class?

~~~

5/18 - Wednesday
After School
Shujin Academy

Makoto left the Biology Classroom as school ended, and took a moment to breathe in thought. If even Morgana is urging Ren-kun to talk to me... Nodding in determination, she cut across the connecting hallway and came out to the second floor of the Classroom Building, spotting Ann’s blonde hair as the younger girl left Class 2-D.

“Oh, Makoto!” Ann said in surprise. “What’s up? Did you need something?”

“Oh, no, not from you Ann,” Makoto said. “Don’t let me keep you from work. Just… is Ren-kun still inside?”

“Yeah,” Ann said, glancing back through the window. “You planning on spending time with him?”

“He was a little distracted yesterday,” Makoto said. “And this morning. Did… you notice anything off about him today?”

“Um… I guess he seemed kind of tired?” Ann shrugged.

“I see,” Makoto said. “Thank you. I’ll speak with him about it.”

“Okay, um… let me know if anything’s wrong, okay? You’re starting to make me feel worried.”

Makoto nodded. “I will, though I’m sure I’m just overthinking it. See you later, Ann.” As Ann left, Makoto turned and stepped into the room, ignoring some of the surprised whispers of the students still loitering behind.

“M-Makoto?” Ren stuttered in surprise from where he was still packing his bag.

“Ren-kun, I can’t not worry about it when even Morgana is urging you to talk to me,” Makoto said. “Shall we go somewhere more private?”

“Have you been thinking about it all day?” Ren asked.

“Told you you should have just told her,” Morgana said. “She was probably fretting all day thanks to you.”

“Oh, be quiet…” Ren muttered.

“Ren-kun, please, you were distracted all day yesterday,” Makoto said. “Did I make a mistake? Is something troubling you? I want you to talk to me.”

“What do you think Niijima-senpai is doing here?”

“I heard she got two bullies expelled lately, maybe she’s trying to get Amamiya out, too?”

“I feel like I heard people saying that before, but nothing came from it, huh?”

“Well, it’s hard to tell what Niijima is thinking.”

Ren glanced over Makoto’s shoulder at the gossiping students, and back towards her, her red eyes still wavering in concern. “...fine. Away from the whispers.” He stood up and carefully slung his bag with Morgana over his shoulder.

Makoto nodded and led the way out of the classroom. “So, we probably shouldn’t use the Student Council Room-”

“Leblanc,” Ren interrupted. “Just… let’s go back to Leblanc. It’ll be easier to show you.”

“A-alright,” Makoto stuttered in surprise, hurrying after Ren.

~~~

5/18 - Wednesday
After School
Leblanc Cafe

With Morgana dropped off to wander the backstreets, Makoto followed Ren up to his room, sitting down on the couch as he fished around under his bed. With a sigh, Ren returned, a small box in his hand.

“What’s this?” Makoto asked as Ren sat beside her, the box resting on his lap.

“I got this from home the other day,” Ren said.

“Home meaning… your parents?” Makoto asked softly, frowning at him.

Ren gave a small, humorless laugh. “Yeah, that’s what you’d think, huh?”

“...may I?” Makoto asked, reaching for the box.

Ren shrugged. “Go ahead.”

Makoto gingerly took it, and opened it up, a slightly crumpled letter lying on top. She picked it up, straightening it a little. “‘Ren, your friend from Matsu-Cho dropped off something, asking us to make sure you received it.’ Matsu-Cho?"

"Nickname for our highschool," Ren explained quietly. "It was a pretty small place. Most kids went to other schools closer to colleges." He shook his head. "That doesn't really matter though."

Makoto nodded and returned her attention to the paper in her hands, turning it over.

“They didn’t write anything else,” Ren murmured. “Trust me, I checked thoroughly.”

“...Ren-kun,” Makoto frowned. She looked down at the box now sitting in her lap, spotting another piece of white paper sticking out of the crumpled tissue paper inside. “...there’s another note-”

“From my ‘friend’,” Ren scoffed. “Explaining the ‘gift.’”

Makoto winced at Ren’s suddenly callous tone, pulling the note out to read as well. “‘Amamiya, wanted to give this back so you don’t get upset at us still having it. Thanks for the lend. -Akira.’” She looked up. “Who is Akira?”

“A neighbor,” Ren said, leaning back in the chair. “Classmate last year.”

Makoto looked into the box, moving the tissue aside to reach its actual contents. She pulled it out, a confused expression on her face. “...is this the controller to a game console?”

“A PS3, yeah,” Ren said, a pained smile on his face. “I lent it to him and Mari, his sister, after I got a PS4. Figured they could use a second controller and I wasn’t using it anyway.”

Makoto looked around the room. While there was an old CRTV now, there didn’t appear to be any modern game consoles. “Did you call them to let them know you didn’t need it? Or did you ask for it back at-”

“Seriously, Makoto?” Ren interrupted angrily, sitting up. “They sent it back because they were afraid I’d beat them up for it! Because all I am to them now is a criminal that assaulted an ‘innocent man,’ never mind the four years I spent hanging out with them!”

Makoto’s grip tightened on the controller.

“And my parents, they didn’t bother with anything personal,” Ren continued to rant, gesturing at the first note. “Why bother sending this to me? Did they sense I was actually able to feel happy and want to destroy that feeling?”

“They likely didn’t know what the package held-” Makoto began.

“There’s no way they didn’t know, their letter was inside the box with it!” Ren snapped. “It’s just…” He closed his eyes and tried to speak evenly, but Makoto could faintly hear the choked back sob. “...why am I still being punished and abandoned for helping someone?”

“...Ren, I am not abandoning you,” Makoto said softly. “Neither is Ann, or Haru, or Morgana.” She closed her eyes. “I… don’t know what else I can do outside of continuing our run as the Phantom Thieves, but… I promise you I won’t let this record be the defining outcome of you trying to save that woman. I'll do something to help you overcome this, I promise.”

“...Makoto,” Ren opened his eyes, glancing at her in surprise.

Makoto kept her eyes closed, taking a deep breath. “I meant it when I said I consider you my best friend. And that I’m often thinking of ways to make you happy. I don’t like that we had to meet under such terrible circumstances. You didn’t deserve to have this happen to you, after all, and I know I’ve done nothing to deserve having you come along to make me a better person.”

“Don’t say that, Makoto,” Ren said, taking her hand.

Makoto opened her eyes and shook her head, pulling her hand from Ren’s grasp. “You’re comforting me now? All I managed to do was make this about myself.”

“No, you…!” Ren let out a huff. “You helped me feel better, too, okay? Don’t beat yourself up for venting.”

“...sorry,” Makoto said. “I… prefer keeping my feelings to myself so when I accidentally vent like that I can’t help but feel bad about it.” She glanced over at Ren. “That aside, I did come here to comfort you specifically. If you want to talk to me, about your feelings, your hometown, or anything, please share with me.”

Ren stared blankly for a moment, before standing up. “...how much time do you have?”

“So long as the trains haven’t stopped for the night, I can be here,” Makoto frowned.

“Your sister wouldn’t mind?” Ren asked, giving a forced smirk.

Makoto felt her chest tighten. “Sis… um, no, she’d probably be at work and not even realize I wasn’t home.”

Ren seemed to be looking Makoto over for a moment, but the glare on his glasses made it hard for her to tell. “...okay. Let me get you something to drink. And… thanks, senpai.”

“Of course,” Makoto said. “I’m happy to listen to-”

“No, I mean… for what you said about my record- forget it,” Ren brushed it off with a short laugh and headed downstairs.

Makoto stared down at her knees, nervously folding her hands on her lap. Did I speak too soon promising him I could do something about that? I can’t affect a court ruling, and the chances of overturning it are slim to none… But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a better future, right? Even with a record, I can still…

“Here you are,” Ren said, returning and handing her a cup. “Your usual mocha.”

“Thank you very much,” Makoto said, giving him a smile as she took it and set it on the table beside her. “If we’re going to be talking for a while, do you mind if I take my vest off? It’s quite warm in here.”

Ren froze midsip of his own coffee and set it down on the workbench with a slight choke. “...go ahead.”

Makoto let her smile drop as she steadily unbuttoned and slid the vest off her shoulders, carefully folding it and setting it atop her bag. Making sure to avoid spilling onto her now exposed white turtleneck, she took the coffee back in her hands and took a sip. “Whenever you’re ready, Ren.”

“I don’t really know how to start…” Ren said, tugging a lock of his hair, his gaze wandering around the room. It finally settled on the PS3 controller and he let his arm drop back to his side. “...guess I’ll start by talking about them.”

Makoto sat patiently as Ren spoke of meeting his neighbors back in Junior High, of spending afternoons with them climbing up the rice terrace, pranking some of the town’s elderly at the hot springs, swimming away summer vacations. As it went on, Ren’s emotions steadily got less bitter recalling the fun times he had, and he almost seemed to be enjoying the story.

However, that happy feeling soon died as he recalled the immediate aftermath of his arrest. His father was busy working and therefore didn’t show up to the court hearing. His mother wouldn’t speak during the ride home. And when he managed to get his phone back, any attempts to call his friends led to voicemail or ignored texts.

The last time he saw his parents was when they dropped most of his luggage off at the post office for mailing to Leblanc; the 30 minute drive to the nearest train station was done via hired taxi. The last time he saw Akira and Mari was when Mari tried to walk to school past the Amamiya residence, and the siblings’ parents stepped in to direct them on a path away from Ren's house.

By the time he was finished, Ren was sitting in the corner, slouched against the wall next to a barely alive plant, his blazer unbuttoned and removed at some point during his pacing. He let out a labored sigh, removing his glasses to gingerly rub the bridge of his nose.

Makoto gave a small glance out the window. The sun had set. She slowly stood up, approaching where Ren sat and kneeling a little ways in front of him. “...thank you for trusting me with all of that.”

Ren lowered his hand, staring wide-eyed at Makoto, as if surprised she was still in the room.

“...your town sounds beautiful,” Makoto said, looking down with a sad smile on her face.

“Yeah,” Ren nodded.

“...do you feel better now that you’ve told me about it?”

“...not really,” Ren admitted. “Now I’m just… still hurt at how easily they distrusted me.”

“Ah, sorry, I… was hoping it would have helped,” Makoto sighed. “Um… I’ve never met your neighbors personally. Nor have I met your parents. I cannot speak for what was going through their heads, and I don’t expect you to buy into anything I could say about trying to still think the best of their actions after what you’ve been through.”

Ren stared silently for a moment.

“But… those memories you just shared? Before that awful night? That made you happy. That sounded genuine. If you can hold on to that memory without your current feelings ruining it, I think that might help. Is what I’m saying making sense? I admit I’m probably not the best at this…”

“What you’re saying makes sense,” Ren said, forcing himself to stand up. “...thanks for listening, Makoto.” He extended a hand to help her stand as well, which Makoto quickly took. Once they were as close to eye level as they could be with each other, Ren spoke again. “Do you really not mind helping me like this? It can’t be easy to associate with a delinquent like me, let alone help me move past a criminal record.”

“...Ren, I honestly don’t mind,” Makoto said, managing a tiny, hopeful smile. “You deserve to be able to pursue whatever dream you have, and if I can help you reach that, then I will.”

“I hope I can pay you back someday,” Ren said, matching her smile. “With how many favors I owe you, I might be in debt to you for the rest of my life.” He put on a mocking frown. “Unless that was your plan?”

“N-no, that wasn’t it,” Makoto said nervously. “I… You don’t need to pay me back-”

“I was kidding, senpai,” Ren chuckled.

“O-oh…” Makoto blushed. “It’s hard to tell when you’re joking sometimes…”

Ren gazed at her for a moment, and forced a swallow. “...Makoto? Uh, I…”

“Yes?”

Ren coughed and finally let go of her hand. “I should probably walk you back to the station. The sun’s already down and even if she’s not home, I wouldn’t want you getting any crap for being out too late.”

“Yes, of course,” Makoto said, nodding in agreement before going to pick up her vest and bag.

“Next time, maybe we can talk about anything bothering you?” Ren asked.

Makoto paused, staring at the vest in her hands before quickly stuffing it into her bag. “Perhaps something more fun might be better for us. Give us some levity.”

“Sure, whatever you like,” Ren smiled.

Rank up!

FOOL CONFIDANT: RANK 4.

~~~

5/19 - Thursday
After School
Shujin Academy

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 17
Steal Madarame’s Heart

Makoto found herself yawning by the time school ended. Rain had been pelting the windows all day, which only contributed to Makoto’s lingering drowsiness from the previous evening.

If it helps Ren, that’s the important thing… Makoto thought, blinking to try and focus as she packed her books up. But dealing with that much raw human emotion is…

As her eyes started to drift shut, her phone buzzed, jolting her awake. She pulled it out, only to be surprised by the message’s sender.

Shiho: Hi, Makoto-senpai. School should be over by now, right? I hope I’m not bothering you.

Shiho: It’s been a while since you visited. I’m not sure if you’re busy, but I was hoping I could talk to you about something.

Shiho: Um, and please don’t tell Ann. You're the only person I can bring this up with.

Typing...

Makoto: Of course you can. I’ll be right over.

Typing…

Shiho: Thanks, senpai! I’ll be waiting.

Makoto frowned as she put her phone away. Don’t tell Ann?

~~~

5/19 - Thursday
After School
Tokyo Medical University Hospital

Shiho was sitting up in her hospital bed staring out the window at the falling rain when Makoto entered the room. The elder girl cleared her throat to grab the patient’s attention.

“Oh, Makoto-senpai,” Shiho said, turning and giving a small smile. “Thanks for coming by so quickly.”

“You did ask me to come here,” Makoto said awkwardly, sitting down near the head of the bed. The two sat in an awkward silence for a moment, Makoto fidgeting as she set her bag down on the floor. Aside from that one meeting at the train station, this is the first time Shiho-san and I have been alone together…

“Um, so how were exams?” Shiho asked, her voice stilted.

“They weren’t anything too difficult for me,” Makoto said. “You probably won’t have too much trouble in a make-up test once you’re discharged.”

“...that’s… good.” Shiho hesitated and soon turned to look out the window again.

Makoto frowned and shifted in her seat to lean a little closer. “Shiho-san? You’re hiding something, aren’t you? From Ann in particular. I remember last time you got evasive when she mentioned you leaving the hospital, too.”

“...I guess it’s good you remember that,” Shiho mumbled.

“So I’m right, then?”

“It’s… what I wanted to talk about, actually,” Shiho said quietly. “Um… my folks and I were talking a couple days after I woke up. They don’t think it would be healthy for me to stay at Shujin Academy. They waited until they could get a new place before telling me in case the sale fell through, I guess.”

“You’re going to be transferring?” Makoto asked.

Shiho nodded and looked down at her legs, still in casts. “Once I complete physical therapy and can walk again… we’re moving.”

“Shiho-san…” Makoto frowned as the bedridden girl began crying. I can’t ask her not to vent after listening to Ren last night, it’d be selfish. But… what advice can I even give?

“I don’t wanna go! I’ve lived my whole life in Tokyo, I’ve been with Ann since middle school, and…” Shiho trailed off into a choked sob. “...I sometimes wonder why I had to survive my fall…”

“Don’t say that,” Makoto said sternly. “Shiho-san, don’t say you should have died when you jumped. Were you at all happy when you were falling to the ground?”

Shiho stared at Makoto, trembling. Slowly, she shook her head. “...no… I was terrified that… I was going to die… and never see Ann again…”

“Shiho-san, we’re lucky to live in a time with smartphones and the internet,” Makoto said. “Even if you’re apart from Ann, you can call her or text her…” Makoto took her phone out and showed Shiho the messages she sent earlier. “You asked me here like this, remember? I… I know it’s scary leaving a place you’ve become comfortable with, but death is scarier. Ann aside, do you feel any reason you’d actually want to stay at Shujin Academy?”

“...do I need to answer that?” Shiho asked, eyes down on Makoto’s bag.

“I won’t care what answer you give if it’s honest.”

“...no,” Shiho admitted, looking up. “Well, yes, but… I don’t know.” Shiho shook her head. “...if my friends weren’t there, I wouldn’t want to set foot in that building again. I… the only thing I’d be able to remember is what Kamoshida did to me that day.”

Makoto grabbed her own arm, looking away. “...sorry, Shiho-san. I may have been too stern. I’m not entirely used to helping people with their emotions.”

“...no, don’t apologize,” Shiho said, forcing a sad smile. “I… I won’t lie and say I feel better and happy now, but… it is helping. I-” She choked slightly, swallowing. “I still don’t want to leave Tokyo, or even fully give up Shujin, but… I suppose it’s something I’ll need to do.”

Makoto nodded. “When can you start physical therapy?”

“Not until June,” Shiho said. “I was hurt badly enough that I’ll need two months in this bed.”

Makoto cringed, looking down at Shiho’s legs, and back up to her. “I take it a career in sports is out for you, then?”

“Most likely,” Shiho nodded. “But… um, if you and Ann would agree to help… maybe…”

“You can find something else?” Makoto finished.

“Volleyball was all I felt I was good at, but… yeah,” Shiho said. “I mean… Ann sees something in me, right?”

“She does, I’m sure,” Makoto said. She gave a slight giggle. “She doesn’t just become anyone’s friend, after all. She and I had quite the awkward start.”

Shiho gave the tiniest of giggles as well. “Thanks for visiting me, Makoto-senp- I mean, Makoto-san. I needed it.”

“I’ll try not to keep you waiting so long,” Makoto said. She frowned. “But… we are going to be busy soon.”

“Are you and Ann stealing someone else’s heart?” Shiho asked. She gave an encouraging smile. “Good luck. I’ll be cheering for you.”

Makoto smiled back. “Thanks, Shiho-san.”

Rank up!

SUN CONFIDANT: RANK 3.

Shiho suddenly laughed. "'We're lucky to live in a time with smartphones and the internet.' You sounded so old when you said that, Makoto-san! Hahaha!"

Makoto felt her face heat up. "That's how you're repaying my help? Teasing?"

Shiho wiped tears from her eyes as her laughing subsided. "C'mon, it was funny..."

~~~

5/19 - Thursday
Evening
Shibuya Station

Makoto had just gotten off the train when her phone buzzed again. She closed her eyes, letting out an exasperated huff. Please don’t be another social obligation… After listening to two people venting like that I just want to sleep the rain away…

She stepped aside to stay out of people’s way and pulled her phone out, seeing a message from Iwai.

Iwai: Yo, come by the shop.

Makoto sighed. And it had to be the yakuza who is asking me… I can’t exactly get on his bad side when we’re starting a Palace, though… We need somewhere to sell the Treasure.

Makoto: Be there shortly.

Putting her phone away, Makoto propped open her umbrella and headed out into Station Square.

~~~

5/19 - Thursday
Evening
Central Street

Iwai looked up in surprise as Makoto entered the shop. “You weren’t kidding about that ‘shortly’ thing.”

“Well, I was already nearby when you asked me,” Makoto said. She glanced around the shop, making sure nobody else was around, before approaching the counter. “Besides, didn’t want to keep a yakuza member waiting.”

Iwai blinked, seeming to be actually surprised. He then let out a laugh, standing up. “You’re pretty sharp. That meeting tip you off? Or did you use your daddy’s connections.”

“My… daddy’s?” Makoto repeated, frowning.

“You’re Officer Niijima’s kid, ain’t ya?” Iwai asked. “Your name rang a bell so I did some pokin' around.”

“...yes, my father was a police officer,” Makoto said, eyes wide. “You- you knew him?”

“Just met him a couple times,” Iwai shrugged, taking the finished lollipop out of his mouth and unwrapping another. “Already quit my clan by that time, so we didn’t have much to talk about.”

“It was clearly important to you in some way if you remembered him specifically,” Makoto said uneasily. “Niijima isn’t exactly a rare name, after all.”

“The eyes sort of stick with you,” Iwai said, locking gazes with Makoto for emphasis.

“...that’s fair,” Makoto said, breaking the eye contact. “But no, I deduced this all on my own. Your experience with using a cover story, how you listened in, and just what Masa was saying in general.”

“Yeah, he ain’t exactly subtle, is he?” Iwai chuckled, sticking his new lollipop into his mouth. “So… what’s the daughter of a cop doin’ digging around in this shady shit?”

“...wouldn’t plausible deniability work better for a business owner such as yourself?” Makoto asked.

Iwai snickered and nodded. “Alright then, we’ll get straight to the point. You remember the name Masa and I mentioned at the diner?”

“Tsuda, right?”

“That’s right. He’s a lieutenant with the Hashiba Clan. My old clan. We got some… bad blood between us these days. Pretty sure he’s been tryin’ to screw with my business, too. Bad online rumors or whatever. But with my past, I can’t exactly go back to the underworld askin’ questions. It’d draw too much attention.”

“And what does this have to do with me?” Makoto asked. “I hardly look the part of yakuza or other sort of criminal. If I investigate, wouldn’t I be suspected of being an informant?”

“You got no normal clothes you could wear?” Iwai asked.

“Not particularly,” Makoto said.

Iwai scoffed. “Well, just let me worry about that. And relax, it ain’t like I’m plannin’ on having you infiltrate the clan or anything. Don’t think they’d take ya, anyway.”

“And why wouldn’t they take me?” Makoto asked, slightly miffed. “I’m organized and have been told I can be intimidating.”

Iwai scratched his head. “So… ya want to be yakuza, then?”

“Oh, n-no, that’s not…” Makoto trailed off, blushing. “I’m just tired today, forget I said anything…”

Iwai shook his head, an amused smile on his face. “I’ll be askin’ for your help again soon, so keep an ear out, okay?”

“Deal,” Makoto said.

Rank up!

HANGED MAN CONFIDANT: RANK 3.

The bell chimed, a young boy entering the shop. “H-Hello?”

Iwai and Makoto both turned towards him. Or, rather, Makoto turned. Iwai seemed to round on him. “I thought I told you to stop comin’ around here.”

“But…” the boy mumbled, trailing off as he looked at Makoto, a surprised expression on his face.

“Just go home n’ study, Kaoru,” Iwai said. “You’ve got entrance exams coming up, remember?”

“O-okay…” Kaoru sighed. “I’ll… be going then.” He gave another curious look at Makoto before turning around and leaving.

“...is he your son…?”

“It’s none of your business right now,” Iwai said. “You should probably get goin’. You said you were tired, right? I'll teach you the ins and outs of this place some other day.”

“...alright,” Makoto said. “Goodnight, Iwai-san.”

“‘Night,” Iwai replied gruffly.

Makoto stepped outside, opening her umbrella and setting off back to the train station. So he has a son… Is that why he left the yakuza? ...I suppose the particulars don’t matter. For now, I just want some time to unwind...

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 07.0%

Chapter Text

5/20 - Friday
Lunchtime
Shujin Academy

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 16
Steal Madarame’s Heart

Makoto was quietly eating lunch at her desk when she heard someone rush in from the hall and chat with the other students.

“The exam results were just posted!”

“Oh, ready to see how you did?”

“I’m never ready...”

Makoto raised an eyebrow and stood up. “All the results are up, yes? For every grade?”

“Huh?” the student that had run in with the news seemed surprised at Makoto addressing him. “Oh, yeah, I think so, Niijima-san.”

“I see,” Makoto nodded, following the crowd out towards the main entrance where the scores were hanging off the notice board.

“How did you do?” a second-year asked.

“Damn, I’m dead…” his friend replied.

“Niijima’s on top again, no surprise,” a third year muttered.

Makoto pushed her way forward a little to see all three grades more clearly. Sure enough, for the third years, the list was topped off with: 1st: Niijima, Makoto. Average: 100.

“Perfect score, huh…?” Suzuki asked from behind her.

“Oh, Suzuki-san!” Makoto said in surprise.

“You’re so smart, President Niijima,” Suzuki said, giving a smile. She soon turned and frowned at the board. “...sixth for me. I did worse than last year.”

“Oh, Suzuki-san, it’s-” Makoto began.

“I need to try harder next time,” Suzuki said. “Sorry, mind if I skip the meeting today? Going to try and see if I can get another day of cram school scheduled.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” Makoto said, frowning.

“Thanks, President,” Suzuki said, walking off dejectedly.

Makoto turned back, frowning at the board. 6th: Suzuki, Kyoko. Average: 93.5.

She didn’t even do poorly… Putting her Student Council Secretary out of her thoughts, Makoto skimmed down the list of third years. About a fifth of the way down, she spotted her teammate. 33rd: Okumura, Haru. Average: 79.2.

Makoto gave a small nod, satisfied, and turned her attention to the second years’ results. Her eyes soon lit up. 10th: Amamiya, Ren. Average: 91.1.

Great job, Ren… Scanning down, she soon found her other kohai friend. 63rd: Takamaki, Ann. Average: 66.3.

At least she’s in the top half… Satisfied with her confirmation of how her teammates did, Makoto left to return to class.

“Niijima seems happy with herself.”

“Of course she would be. A perfect score?”

“I’m more confused how that criminal is in the top ten of second years.”

Makoto’s smile dropped as she made it back to her classroom, and she returned to quietly eating her lunch.

~~~

5/20 - Friday
After School
Shujin Academy

“Thank you all for coming,” Makoto said.

“Aren’t we missing someone?” Tanaka asked as Makoto shut the Student Council Room’s door.

“Ah, yes,” Makoto nodded. “Suzuki-san told me she needed to get in touch with her cram school to try and schedule an additional class and therefore couldn’t make it.”

“Well… are we able to hold a meeting without the Secretary?” Honda asked uncertainly, hesitating in front of his seat.

“I’d feel bad if she missed it,” Yanagi said. “Maybe we should reschedule?”

“It should be fine to carry on without her,” Tanaka said. “We didn’t have much to cover.”

Makoto paused, biting her lip. “Well… if we don’t have much to cover, perhaps a reschedule would be better suited…”

“Are you sure?” Honda asked. “I thought the suggestion box was full?”

“Isn’t that Suzuki-senpai’s job, though?” Yanagi asked, concerned.

“Yes, but if it’s full, I suppose we can’t leave that waiting…” Makoto frowned. “Vice President Tanaka, can you get it for us?”

“Got it,” Tanaka said, heading to the back of the room to retrieve it.

“Well then,” Makoto said, sitting down. “Let’s see what suggestions we have.”

Tanaka strained for a moment before finally popping the top. “Geez, it’s really full…”

“Alright then…” Makoto said, picking up one of the slips that fell out when the box opened. “It’s rather messy… Ahem. ‘There needs to be more room in the school desks.’”

“What an odd request,” Honda said. “I can fit my books in it just fine.”

“My uncle could get a good deal on bulk desks,” Tanaka said.

“Your uncle sells something wildly different every time he is brought up,” Makoto said. “Besides, the desks we have are fine as is. Principal Kobayakawa wouldn’t approve of it.” She picked up another slip. “‘The school desks are too small!’ ...really now?”

“How many of them say that?” Honda asked, looking at the pile.

“Just set them aside if they do,” Makoto said.

“Ooh, President Niijima, can I read one?” Yanagi asked.

Makoto smiled. “Sure. We’ll all take turns.”

Yanagi giggled and picked one up. “‘Can the volleyball trophies in the entrance hall be taken down? It feels insensitive.’” Her happy expression dropped. “Oh… right.”

“That’s a fair suggestion,” Tanaka said.

“I didn’t even notice they were still there,” Honda said sadly. “I guess it might be a painful reminder of Kamoshida…”

Makoto looked to the side. His accolades are still on display even after what happened. I don’t blame Shiho-san’s parents for wanting her to change schools. “I’ll write up a recommendation tonight and submit it to the principal over the coming days.”

“Okay,” Yanagi nodded, handing Makoto the slip.

“Honda-kun, would you like to go next?” Makoto asked as she pocketed the paper.

“Oh, sure…” Honda said, picking one up. “‘Can the Student Council do something to keep Amamiya from coming in to school?’”

“No,” Makoto instantly responded. “Next suggestion. Tanaka-kun, it’s your turn, I believe.”

“That was a sudden response…” Tanaka mumbled.

“It requires no thought,” Makoto said. “Unless the student in question actually violates school rules, there is no need to get them in trouble. Ren Amamiya has done nothing but adhere to them. Next suggestion.”

“Alright…” Tanaka said, picking a slip up. “‘I noticed President Niijima was checking out sci-fi and fantasy books in the library and think we have a lot in common. If she can pull herself from her studies like that, maybe she’d like to go out with me?’”

Yanagi clapped her hands over her mouth in surprise, eyes lit up. Makoto simply sighed. “The suggestion box is not meant to be used for attempted courtship. Please dispose of that 'suggestion.'”

“They do know these are anonymous, right?” Tanaka asked, looking the paper over. “They didn’t sign it so even if you wanted to-”

“Dating is not something I’ve ever thought about,” Makoto interrupted, taking another paper. “Shall we move on?”

“But, Niijima-senpai…” Yanagi looked disappointed. “It’s… wasn’t that kind of romantic?”

“I’m… not interested in that,” Makoto said, shaking her head and reading from the slip. “‘Niijima, you said I wouldn’t get in trouble if I went clean after telling you about Sakoda, you…’” Makoto trailed off, hesitating, before reading the last part of the ‘suggestion’, “‘...you fucking bitch.’”

“Um, Niijima-senpai, that’s not very appropriate language…” Honda seemed stunned. "Even if you don't agree with what was written-"

“I’m pretty sure she was just reading the paper,” Tanaka sighed.

“Are you alright, Niijima-senpai?” Yanagi asked softly.

“I’m fine,” Makoto said, crumbling Takanashi’s suggestion in her hand. “I suppose he would be upset over getting punished as well, but…” She paused. That wasn’t exactly out of my hands, was it?

“Niijima-san?” Tanaka asked.

“I need some fresh air,” Makoto said. “I’ve been cooped up inside a lot these last few days and it’s giving me a headache. Continue with suggestions to the best of your judgement in my absence. Set aside any you are struggling with.”

“S-sure thing, President Niijima,” Tanaka said.

Yanagi frowned as Makoto passed by her and stepped out into the hallway.

With the door shut, she leaned against the wall and let out a sigh. Probably should have just rescheduled… A blonde head suddenly leaving the library caused her to jolt upright in surprise. “Sakamoto-kun?”

“Huh?” Ryuji glanced over. “Oh… Niijima. Right, that’s the Student Council Room, ain’t it?”

“It is,” Makoto said, the air around them feeling tense. She glanced at the door behind him. “Were you getting some studying done, or…?”

“Just checking if they had a book I wanted,” Ryuji said.

“A book?” Makoto repeated.

“Is that so weird that I’d read somethin’?!” Ryuji snapped.

“...no,” Makoto took a breath to calm down. “What sort of book were you looking for? I know the library quite well and could maybe tell you-”

“The librarian in there already said they didn’t have it,” Ryuji said.

“Are you certain?” Makoto asked.

“Well, you ever seen a book on… what’s it called, tarot?” Ryuji asked, pronouncing it with a hard ‘t’ at the end.

“...you mean tarot?” Makoto asked, leaving the second ‘t’ silent. “I can’t say I have. May I ask why you were looking for-”

“Do I need to tell you?” Ryuji asked, a tired look on his face. “Can’t I just go? I got hassled enough by that stuck-up student in there.”

“...Have a good afternoon, Sakamoto-kun.”

Ryuji shrugged and turned around, shuffling off down the hall.

Makoto waited until he was gone before making her way up to the roof for air.

~~~

5/20 - Friday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto paused, hearing the sounds of voices coming from inside the apartment as she approached the door.

"I would have thought such a high-profile mental shutdown victim would have more to their record.

"I believe I left some of the pages in my bedroom. Just a moment."

The second one was Sae. Makoto could recognize her sister’s voice instantly. The young man she was speaking with, however, was a bit harder to place.

Taking a nervous breath, she unlocked the door and stepped inside, slipping her shoes off. “I’m home!”

“Oh, Makoto-san, yes?”

Makoto looked up to see a fairly handsome young-man in a beige suit smiling at her from down the hall. She approached, frowning. I've seen him before... “You’re… Goro Akechi, correct?”

“Ah, you recognize me?” Akechi seemed touched. “Sae-san told you about me, I suppose.”

“Not really,” Makoto said. “I don’t think she’s ever mentioned you by name.”

“Oh, I see…” Akechi’s face fell into a pitiful expression. It soon lit up again. “Then, I take it you’ve heard of me through the news or my interviews?”

“I remember in passing a story of you,” Makoto said, a sudden uncomfortable feeling washing over her. “You were being ascribed as the 'second-coming of the Detective Prince,' right?”

Akechi gave an awkward laugh. “It is a little embarrassing, isn’t it? Shirogane is quite a big name to live up to amongst us detectives, after all.”

“You seem to be enjoying it, since you were happy I knew your name,” Makoto remarked, weaving slightly as she tried to step around him.

“Ah, you’re making assumptions,” Akechi said, his tone exactly the same yet somehow sounding more condescending. “I was merely happy Sae-san’s younger sister knew her coworker.”

“Can you let my younger sister out of the hall?” Sae asked, approaching from behind Akechi, eyes slightly narrowed.

“Oh, but of course,” Akechi smiled. “This is your home after all, Sae-san.”

“Yes, it is,” Sae muttered, stepping over to the kitchen table where she was sorting files into a briefcase.

“Hi, Sis,” Makoto said, finally getting around Akechi and out to the apartment proper. “I didn’t know we’d be having company.”

“I simply needed to pick up some files I had brought home,” Sae said. “Akechi-kun insisted on accompanying me.”

“Well, it seemed silly to put work on hold while she traveled to and from home,” Akechi said.

“And the sushi you asked us to get on the way was completely unrelated?” Sae asked.

Akechi simply laughed.

Sae straightened up. “Makoto, some of that sushi is in the fridge. You can have it for dinner if you’d like.”

“Oh, th-thank you, Sis,” Makoto said. She awkwardly stepped aside while Sae finished gathering what she needed. “...Um, I received perfect marks on my midterms.”

“Excellent work,” Sae said, somehow sounding both pleased and absentminded. “Keep that up.”

Makoto looked down, acutely aware of Akechi staring at her.

“Well, I’m off,” Sae said. “I’ll be gone most of the weekend, I’m afraid. I’m currently pursuing two large cases.”

“Oh, a-alright,” Makoto said. “I’ll manage, don’t worry.”

“I’m sure you will,” Sae said. “Let’s go, Akechi-kun.”

“Right away, Sae-san,” Akechi said pleasantly. “Have a good weekend, Makoto-san.”

“...same to you,” Makoto said softly as the two headed down the hall and out the door. Now alone, she slowly walked into the kitchen, checking to see a small box of takeout from the conveyor-belt sushi place down by the station. Shutting the fridge with a sad sigh, she carried it over to the table, turning on the TV for background noise. Then, Makoto took out her phone, starting up the group chat.

Makoto: Good evening, everyone.

Makoto: Congratulations on your exam scores.

Typing…

Ann: Says the girl that got a perfect score!

Haru: Mako-chan, you deceived me. You made me believe English was a weak spot of yours.

Haru: Why would you do this to me?

Makoto: I did have some difficulty with it, you know. Besides, I told you not to bet on my grades to begin with…

Ren: All that aside, thanks, Makoto. Your tutoring really helped me.

Ann: Oh, yeah, Ren, you were in the top ten, weren’t you?

Ren: I think so, yeah.

Typing...

Ann: You say that like it was no big deal.

Haru: Wow, Ren-kun! You’re so humble!

Ren: Uh, thanks…

Makoto: I’ll expect all of you to do even better next time.

Ann: Really, Makoto? You’re already talking about our next tests?

Ann: Well… I guess that’s on us for befriending an honor student…

Makoto: Making sure you all still receive a good education is very important to me.

Haru: I’ll do my best, Mako-chan! Even if you did stab me in the back!

Makoto: I did no such thing! I even asked you not to gamble on my grades!

Makoto: Oh, forget it...

Makoto: How are your preparations for this Sunday coming along?

Ren: Morgana and I have been working on a few more lockpicks and stuff, so we’re good on our end.

Ann: I don’t really know what I need to be doing.

Haru: I’m uncertain as well. Mako-chan, would you be able to help me? I need to work on my garden a little tomorrow after school, but in the evening?

Makoto: That could work with me. My sister won’t be home this weekend, after all.

Ann: In that case, we can hang out before that! What do you say, Makoto?

Makoto: Alright. I’ll see you both after school tomorrow.

Ren: Have fun, everyone.

Haru: Goodnight, team!

Makoto put her phone down and opened the takeout box in front of her, beginning to pick at the leftover sushi.

~~~

5/21 - Saturday
After School
Takenoko Street

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 15
Steal Madarame’s Heart

“Ann, wasn’t this supposed to be me helping you prepare?” Makoto asked in exasperation as Ann towed her around the Harajuku shopping street.

“Yeah, but you need to be prepared, too, Queen!” Ann laughed. “I mean, your outfits really aren’t at all ‘casual’. Do you have anything nice to wear for the summer? Swimsuits? We’re here to get you stuff like that!”

“Well… I appreciate your concern, but…” Makoto trailed off, looking over at some of the other pedestrians walking around the area, in particular some of the flashier or lowcut outfits. “...the attire I’m seeing on display here doesn’t seem like it would at all suit me.”

“That’s why I’m here to help make sure we find something that will!” Ann let go of Makoto’s hand and spun around to face her.

“...you could have simply asked me to accompany you for this,” Makoto sighed, relenting under Ann’s eagerness. “I spent last night planning out what sort of preparations we could do for the Palace for nothing…”

“Oh,” Ann winced. “Sorry, Makoto… I didn’t think you’d be willing to come otherwise.”

“Ann, you’re my friend, what makes you think I wouldn’t want to spend time with you?”

“I mean, we hardly ever do spend time together one-on-one,” Ann said, awkwardly kicking the ground as she held her hands behind her back. “Unless you count helping me stop Kitagawa-kun from following me, we’ve only done it once.”

“...that is true, isn’t it?” Makoto frowned. “I’m sorry, Ann, I didn’t mean to make you think I don’t enjoy our friendship. I’m still not sure how to handle it and-”

“No, no!” Ann interrupted. “This was my fault. I just… I feel like I annoy you.”

“You don’t…” Makoto hesitated. “Well… I can’t say I’m not annoyed by you sometimes. When you lied to me about today, or when you and Haru insisted on actually betting on my exam scores-”

“She was the one that took that expression seriously!” Ann protested.

“Yes, but you played along.”

Ann opened her mouth to respond, paused in thought, then closed it and nodded in agreement.

“That all said,” Makoto continued. “I’m okay with that kind of thing. It’s not constant or malicious, and… well, from what I understand, friends put up with each others’ faults, right? You are all putting up with mine, after all.”

“...you’re so mature, senpai.” Ann had a sad smile on her face. “Yeah, I… forgot a little.”

“Forgot?” Makoto repeated.

“What friendship was like,” Ann explained as she and Makoto slowly continued their walk along the street. “It was just me and Shiho since coming to Shujin. Sakamoto and I ended up drifting apart.”

A pattern that seems common with him… Makoto frowned.

“Do you know how Shiho and I met?” Ann asked.

“No.”

“It was back in middle school. I had finally stopped moving around with my parents and settled in Japan for my education and stuff. Most people ignored me for how foreign I am.” Ann gestured to herself for emphasis. “But Shiho was different. She walked up to me during that art class and said, right to my face, ‘Takamaki-san, your paintings suck.’”

Makoto clapped a hand over her mouth to prevent a sudden laugh. “That’s… unexpected.”

Ann giggled. “Right? She told me she just really felt compelled to tell me that. She was teasing me, but it was different from everyone else. It wasn’t like she was calling me a slut like some of the others. She… she never mentioned my looks at the start. Only when we became friends did she bring them up, and it was always to tell me how beautiful I was. To cheer me up.”

“Well… she’s not exactly wrong,” Makoto said awkwardly.

Ann felt her face heat up. “Y-you think so?”

“You are a model, after all,” Makoto said. “But… that’s how you two became friends, huh?”

Ann nodded. “Shiho is so strong…”

Makoto looked down, stopping alongside Ann.

“...I’ve told Ren this, too, but I want to get stronger,” Ann said. “So Shiho can see I’m trying my best, too.”

“I’m sure she’d love that,” Makoto said.

“That’s what Ren said, too.” Ann looked over towards Makoto. “Um… senpai? There’s something I need to come clean about.”

“Come clean about?” Makoto repeated, a confused expression on her face.

“I…” Ann began.

“Excuse me,” a young man with spiked hair he had dyed green interrupted them, weaving around the two.

“Oh, sorry,” Makoto said.

“Y-yeah, we’ll get out of the way,” Ann stuttered.

“Um, so what were you going to say?” Makoto asked as she dragged Ann to the side.

“Well…” Ann trailed off and looked past Makoto, eyes falling on a store selling swimwear. “...I think you’d look great in a white swimsuit!”

“...that’s what you wanted to 'come clean about?'” Makoto asked in a deadpan voice, eyebrow raised.

“...Yep!” Ann said in a forced peppy voice.

Makoto sighed. “I don’t know why I thought you were being serious… Okay. But only a couple of outfits and only one swimsuit! That’s all.”

“Fine, fine,” Ann laughed.

Makoto smiled in return and headed ahead of Ann into the shop.

Ann let out a staggered sigh, wiping a bit of nervous sweat from her brow, before following.

Rank up!

LOVERS CONFIDANT: RANK 3.

~~~

5/21 - Saturday
Evening
Central Street

By the time Makoto finished with Ann, the sun had begun to set. Not having time to get home before meeting Haru, Makoto was forced to carry her shopping bag with her.

Crossing over into Central Street, she spotted the distinctive pink sweater and fluffy hair of her teammate waiting near the bookshop.

“Oh, Mako-chan!” Haru smiled.

“Hello, Haru,” Makoto returned the smile. “Sorry to be meeting with you so late.”

“No, it’s quite alright,” Haru said, giving a brief, curious glance at Makoto's shopping bag. “So, tomorrow’s our big mission, right?”

“That’s right,” Makoto nodded. “Well, not quite our big one, but still deeply important.”

Haru nodded. “So, what is it that I need?”

“Well, weapons, mostly,” Makoto said. “Especially a gun. You wouldn’t be able to assist with hold-ups otherwise.” Makoto immediately glanced around them to make sure nobody heard her. The few pedestrians still nearby paid her no mind.

“Oh, this sounds fun,” Haru smiled. “Can I pick them out?”

“Of course,” Makoto said, leading Haru down the alley and into Untouchable.

Iwai looked up, nodding at Makoto before staring at Haru in mild interest. Shrugging he returned his attention to the magazine he was flipping through. “Blondie dye her hair?”

“Huh?” Haru blinked in confusion.

Makoto ran the sentence over in her head before replying. “Um, no, this is a different friend.” She frowned. “Their eye color and heights are completely different. Ann was taller than me.”

“Look, I’ll level with you, Niijima, I barely remember who blondie actually is,” Iwai admitted.

“That’s… unfortunate,” Makoto sighed.

“Wow, this shop is amazing!” Haru said, looking around.

“You think so?” Makoto and Iwai asked. Iwai seemed mildly surprised at Haru’s interest. Makoto sounded mildly uncertain and confused.

“Are any of these weapons real?” Haru asked.

Iwai stared blankly. “...no. It’s a model shop.”

Haru’s face seemed to fall just a fraction. “I see. That’s okay, too.”

Iwai glanced at Makoto as Haru made her way to the other end of the shop. "You know, I'm all for girls likin' this stuff, but I am trying to avoid attention, remember?"

"I promise not to make this a habit," Makoto frowned. "Oh, and I have more casual clothes now, if-"

"Later," Iwai said, nodding gruffly in Haru's direction.

Makoto lowered her arm, having had started to raise the bag up to the counter, and proceeded to set between the shelves to where Haru was. “So, anything here that interests you?”

“Oh, there’s quite a lot here that does,” Haru commented. She then frowned. “...do you think I’m strange, Mako-chan?”

“Strange?” Makoto questioned.

“That weapons like these interest me,” Haru explained.

“Not at all, Haru,” Makoto smiled. “Honestly speaking, it’s a bit of a relief another girl likes this kind of thing.”

“It is?” Haru asked. “And… you said another?”

Makoto nodded. “My sister finds my tastes to be rather unfeminine. Yakuza movies in particular.” She gave a glance at Iwai as she said that, as if to make sure he couldn’t hear her. He had returned to reading his magazine and gave no reaction to her words, to her relief.

“Oh, I think that’s cute, Mako-chan!” Haru smiled.

“You do…?”

Haru nodded. “I rather enjoy horror movies myself.”

“I-I see…” Makoto stuttered. “I find horror a bit too scary for my taste.” Makoto shook her head and gave a tiny laugh. “You’re really different than what I expected when we first met.”

“As are you,” Haru said. “I never would have guessed our Student Council President had so much ferocity inside.”

Makoto gave a small smile again.

“Oh, I like this one!” Haru said, picking out a model of a grenade launcher. She strained slightly under its weight. “Wh-what do you think…?”

“It appears rather heavy for you.”

“I want to get into shape, though,” Haru said, gently setting it down beside her and pinching her stomach through her sweater. “I… am not exactly the lightest girl in school. And next to how you and Ann look…”

“Well, Ann’s a model…” Makoto began, before frowning. “Though with the diet I’ve witnessed her partaking in, I’m not actually sure how she stays thin. And as for me, I’ve always been health conscious since my mother…” Makoto stopped, staring blankly at the shelves behind Haru.

“Your mother passed as well?” Haru asked.

“When I was very young,” Makoto said. “I barely remember her.” She turned back and leaned down, picking up the model grenade launcher. “Well, a melee weapon is all that’s left, then.”

“Hmm…” Haru pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe… that axe looks rather nice.”

Makoto rolled her eyes, smiling along with Haru as they approached the desk.

“Sure you can carry these?” Iwai asked.

“I’ll manage,” Haru nodded. “Thank you very much, sir!”

“How much does it come to?” Makoto asked as Iwai rang it up.

“¥43,400.”

Makoto balked.

“Oh, don’t worry, I can easily cover that,” Haru said. “Do you accept cards here? Or should I pay in cash?”

Once Haru had finished checking out, to the great surprise of both Iwai and Makoto, the two girls left the store.

“Haru, I promise to pay you back for this someday,” Makoto mumbled.

“Mako-chan, you really don’t need to,” Haru said, voice choked as she strained under both boxes. “I can afford it. And it’s not as if it was a present for me. It’s for the Phantom Thieves! So I can help you!”

“That’s true, but…”

“Don’t feel bad,” Haru said, nuzzling Makoto as her arms were too full to hug her. “You coming with me today made up for it. Does that work?”

Makoto paused, face heating up from the contact as she nodded. “...Haru, can you stop now? Contact with others embarrasses me.”

“Oh, of course!” Haru giggled. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you down tomorrow. Or ever. I’ll make it up to you for that blackmailing incident.”

“Don’t concern yourself over the past,” Makoto said. “But I appreciate your promise. We’ll be counting on you.”

Rank up!

EMPRESS CONFIDANT: RANK 3.

“Well… goodnight,” Haru said, starting to struggle to leave.

“I’m going the same direction as you, so at least help me support you until then,” Makoto insisted, catching up and taking the model axe from her hands.

"You're already carrying a shopping bag, though!"

"It's not getting in the way or anything."

“Well… I suppose I cannot refute that.” And with that, the two girls set off towards Station Square.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 06.8%

Chapter Text

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Central Street

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 14
Steal Madarame’s Heart

“Hey, sorry to keep you waiting!” Ann said, approaching the group at their table in Big Bang Burger.

“Hello, Ann-chan!” Haru said pleasantly.

“...hi…” Ren groaned.

“Ren?” Ann frowned, sitting beside Haru and watching as Makoto gently rubbed Ren’s back. “You feeling okay?”

“Apparently while waiting for us, Haru convinced him to attempt the Big Bang Burger challenge,” Makoto explained.

“I won, though,” Ren said weakly.

“Yes, Ren, but at what cost?”

“¥1,200,” Haru answered. “Though if it was nighttime it would only cost 500!”

“I don’t think that’s what Makoto meant,” Ann said.

“Was I at least cool?”

Makoto blinked and looked down in surprise at Ren staring expectantly at her. “If you promise me to never do this again, then yes, Ren. It is rather cool that you finished off such a large burger.”

“Nice going,” Morgana said. “I’d say that upped your charm!”

“I wouldn't go that far,” Makoto sighed.

“Oh, hey, you dropped the ‘kun’ honorific with him,” Ann said.

“Hm?” Makoto look across the table. “What do you mean?”

“You aren’t saying ‘Ren-kun’ anymore,” Ann said.

“Oh, I… hadn’t even noticed,” Makoto mumbled. “I just… stopped, I suppose. Would you prefer if I continued?”

“No, it’s fine,” Ren said. “You already used ‘kun’ with the other male students at Shujin, so this feels more familiar.”

“Alright, then,” Makoto said.

“Oh, um, Ren-kun, I want you to know I use it to be friendly!” Haru said nervously. “Just like how I use ‘chan’ with Ann-chan and Mako-chan.”

“I know, Haru, it’s fine,” Ren laughed, before groaning. “Okay… shouldn’t laugh just yet. The Comet Burger is a harsh mistress...”

“Are we going to be okay today?” Ann asked nervously.

“We should be fine,” Morgana said. “It’s probably not wise of us to move in too large a group anyway. We’ll have Ren hang back and give Haru a more hands-on lesson today.”

“That sounds fun!” Haru said.

“Well, shall we head out, then?” Makoto asked.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Ren said, forcing himself to stand up with the others.

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Madarame’s Palace

“We’re here again,” Haru said, frowning up at the museum.

“Let’s discuss how we’ll be handling this,” Morgana said. “Queen, do you have any issues still lingering? You sort of snapped last time we were in there.”

“No, I should be fine…” Makoto said, trailing off as she saw Justine standing in wait beside the Velvet Room entrance, twirling a clipboard in her hand. “Um, just a moment.”

“Queen?” Ann frowned as Makoto approached what she saw as empty air.

“Do you need something?” Justine asked, looking up at Makoto. “If so, you know where we must talk.” The cell door swung open.

Makoto closed her eyes and stepped inside.

~~~

When her eyes opened she found herself standing in her cell in the Velvet Room, the twins waiting outside her cell.

“Do you have business with me?” Igor asked, almost sounding sinister with his deep voice.

“N-not entirely you, no,” Makoto said nervously. “Um… Caroline, Justine, can I speak with you about the request you gave me?”

“Finally got around to finishing it, huh?” Caroline asked. “Well, let’s see.”

Makoto felt a brief, uncomfortable twinge as the two wardens stared at her. It felt as if they were seeing through her.

“Jack Frost with Mabufu, just as we asked,” Justine remarked.

“It wasn’t difficult,” Makoto said. “Jack Frost naturally learned it. It makes me feel you didn’t have faith in me for this task.”

“You think too highly of yourself, then,” Caroline said. “There’s always going to be easy ones at the start.”

“We assure you,” Justine said, flipping through the list. “We… planned this out to become more difficult as time goes on.” She frowned, seemingly confused. “...did we plan this list…?”

“Justine?” Caroline asked, sounding slightly concerned.

“Ah, it is nothing,” Justine said, returning her attention towards Makoto. “Regardless, inmate, this is a suitable start. We shall make arrangements for additional guillotines.”

“Additional…?”

“Some Personas require more than just the two, you know,” Caroline explained haughtily. “And since you’re serious about proving your worth, we figure you may need it someday.”

“However, that is not the case for our next assignment,” Justine said. “Shiisaa with the Frei ability. This one doesn’t naturally learn it, so that should be more of a challenge for you, wouldn’t you agree?”

Makoto’s lip trembled into a tiny smile for a moment before she could steady it into a more neutral expression again. “I’ll try not to let you down.”

Caroline gave a sharp laugh. “Confident, huh? Alright, inmate, let’s see how long you can keep that up!”

“We sense a great wisdom buried within you, so we’re expecting a lot,” Justine remarked, almost smiling herself.

I am thou, thou art I… Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion that carry you to thy future. With the birth of the Priestess Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power…

PRIESTESS CONFIDANT: RANK 1

Makoto stared at them for a moment. That voice that rings in my head when I forge these bonds… Is it me or does it sound a little like…?

“Inmate, is there a reason you’re staring at us?” Caroline asked.

“Oh, s-sorry!” Makoto stuttered. “Um, while I’m here, could I consult my Compendium and perform some fusions? I’d like to prepare a little for the Palace.”

“Very well,” Justine said. “Which Personas would you like to execute?”

~~~

Makoto turned around from the Velvet Room entrance, only to jump back at seeing the others crowded near her, staring. “...is there a reason you’re in my personal space?”

“You just spaced out and stared at the wall for a little bit,” Ann said.

“Are you alright, Queen?” Haru asked.

“I’m fine, yes,” Makoto said. “I was just… organizing my thoughts. Anyway, we were going to be strategizing?”

“Right!” Morgana said, bouncing back from the confusion shockingly quickly. “Now, a group that’s too large would attract attention, and we’re unfortunately starting to reach that point.”

“I see…” Haru frowned.

“Oh, no, Noir, this isn’t a complaint about you being here!” Morgana hastily added.

“I think I understand, though,” Makoto said. “We’ll leave some people on the backlines as support. Joker, are you recovered from the Big Bang Challenge yet?”

“A little, but…” Ren frowned at the truck beside them. “Once we jump in I feel like I’ll just feel queasy again.”

“Understandable,” Makoto said. “For now we’ll take the lead. Is that agreeable with everyone?”

“Fine by me, Queen!” Morgana said. "I mean, I was the one that first suggested it, after all."

“I’ll try not to let you down, Queen,” Haru smiled.

“Awesome!” Ann said. “Let’s go in then, yeah? Save Kitagawa-kun?”

“Yes, let’s put an end to Madarame’s wrongdoings,” Makoto said, before leading the charge in scaling the truck and wall, heading for their skylight entrance.

“Whoa, hold up!” Morgana said as the three girls landed inside beside him. “Look over there!”

“What’s the matter?” Makoto asked.

“Oh!” Haru gasped, pointing at the door to the gallery hall of Madarame’s former pupils. “There’s some sort of laser there now.”

“That’s like in those movies, right?” Ann asked. “Hitting it trips an alarm?”

“...so the Palace can have security beyond just Shadows,” Makoto mused. “I see. I’m starting to miss the fantasy aesthetic. That was far easier to navigate.”

“Come on, Queen, you’re throwing in the towel too early,” Morgana said. “Security is meaningless to Phantom Thieves.”

“I wasn’t giving up,” Makoto sighed. “Let’s get going already. Everyone, stay cautious that you don’t trip the alarm.”

“Got it!” Ann said.

“Be careful when following us, Joker!” Haru cautioned in a cheerful whisper, before following Ann, Morgana, and Makoto on through the Palace.

Ren nodded as he sat on the couch, letting out a slight groan. “Just give me one more minute…”

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Shinjuku Red Light District

Ryuji was leaning on the wall by the station’s exit, flipping through a book until a hand waved directly in front of his face.

“Yo, Ryuji,” Takao said, frowning. “You’re freaking me out. Since when were you the reading type?”

“What was holdin’ you up, senpai?” Ryuji asked, closing the book and looking at her.

“I missed the train, sue me,” she replied, taking a step back to give him space. “Besides, WUWY? You don’t need to babysit me for every one of my shifts.”

“I just wanna make sure no one messes with you,” Ryuji said, walking alongside her. “Besides, Shinjuku’s pretty cool. I feel like such a rebel bein’ here!”

“It’s not as cool durin’ the day,” Takao said, rolling her eyes. She then leaned down, looking at the book in Ryuji’s hands. “So, what is this- OMG. A tarot book?” She straightened up, a smirk on her face.

“Drop it, Takao, I’m warnin’ you.”

“You got a crush on that fortune teller, don’t you?!” Takao snorted with laughter. “Damn, I didn’t know you were in to older women!”

“That ain’t it at all!” Ryuji protested. “I just… started hangin' out with her... sometimes. She sets her booth up while I’m waitin’ on you and- we ain’t talkin’ about this anymore!”

“ROTFL, I’m tellin’ everyone,” Takao said, texting someone on her phone.

“The hell you are!” Ryuji said, trying to grab it while Takao laughed.

“Oh, Sakamoto…?” a young woman’s voice asked.

“Huh?” Ryuji and Takao looked up and immediately split apart as the speaker, a woman with long, blonde hair, dyed like Ryuji’s was but coming off much more natural looking. She rested a closed up folding table beside her as she observed the two. “O-oh, hey… You’re here early.”

“Someone I know is dropping by this evening,” the woman explained, gingerly rubbing the hand she had held the table in. “So I wished to set up a little early. ...would you mind helping…?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Ryuji boasted, picking up the table and heading down the alley ahead of her. “Later, Takao.”

“Later!” she waved after them, before heading to her place of work, a shop by the name of ‘The After School Salon’.

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Madarame’s Palace

“Kaboom!” Haru giggled as she blasted the five Onmoraki with her grenade launcher, the impact immediately incinerating four of them, while the fifth began pleading for its life in terror.

As Makoto stepped forward to recruit the odd bird corpse as a new Persona, Ann stared at Haru in horror.

“Is something the matter, Panther?” Haru asked pleasantly as she crouched down to dust herself off after the battle.

“...a grenade launcher?” Ann finally managed to ask.

“The way forward is clear now,” Makoto said.

“Queen, why did you buy Noir such scary weapons?!” Ann asked. “Like a grenade launcher of all things!”

“She wanted them,” Makoto shrugged, leaping over a set of lasers and stopping with the group at a small amenities area at the foot of the stairs. “Besides, she bought them herself. I wasn’t about to refuse her earnest desires.”

“But what kind of thief uses a grenade launcher?” Ann asked, briefly eyeing the Palace's vending machines. “...would these work in here…?”

“I have to agree with Panther, it is a rather inaccurate and noisy weapon,” Morgana said.

“See?” Ann said as if Morgana agreeing proved her point.

“Panther, you can hardly aim with your weapon,” Makoto frowned. “Besides, what sort of thief uses a submachine gun?”

“A lot!” Ann pouted. “Haven’t you watched movies where they rob banks?”

“That’s hardly phantom thievery.”

“I’m sorry,” Haru frowned. “Did I make a mistake?”

“Oh, no, Noir, it’s okay!” Ann reassured her. “Queen and I are just teasing each other!”

“Oh!” Haru said. “Sorry, I’m not used to this yet.”

“Hey, are we going upstairs yet?” Morgana asked, nodding at the stairs they were standing beside.

“Let’s stay focused for now,” Makoto said. “Yes, coming, Mona.”

The three girls swiftly moved after the cat and up the stairs, Makoto taking the lead to carefully check the hallway at the top before leading them onwards at seeing it clear.

“How long did it take for you all to fall into this so easily?” Haru asked. “You’ve only been to one Palace before, right?”

“Uh, I don’t think it’s really a time thing,” Ann said. “It just sort of happens… Maybe it’s because we didn’t witness your awakening? ...no, but I wasn’t there for Joker or Queen’s…”

“And none of us were present for Mona’s,” Makoto added. “Noir, don’t worry about this. Once we have more than a day’s experience, you’ll be able to pick up on our dynamics.” She checked around the corner before leading them carefully out into a large hall, glass walls blocking off displays of folding screens on either side of them. “That said, Panther, do try and keep the teasing for when we’re in Safe Rooms. It would be bad if we were distracted.”

“That’s true,” Ann said. “Sorry, Queen.”

“Oh?” Morgana stopped, staring up at a solid gold vase on display in the middle of the room. “...sparkly…!”

“Oh dear,” Haru said, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I do believe Mona-chan is distracted.”

“Mona…” Makoto sighed, turning around to approach the cat. “We have a job to do, remember?”

“You’re just going to ignore this golden sheen?!” Morgana sounded indignant. “Look at it, Queen! We’d be rich selling this!”

“How would we even carry it out of here?” Makoto asked.

“We can worry about that as we do it!” Morgana said, hopping up onto the pedestal with it. As soon as he landed, an audible click rang out through the room. “...uh-oh.”

Before the four of them could react, laser tripwires clicked on, crisscrossing in a grid to make a series of walls around them and the vase.

“We’re trapped!” Haru gasped.

“Mona!” Ann snapped.

“I’m sorry!” Morgana said. “I just… I felt drawn to it!”

“...I told you not to do this kind of thing,” Makoto sighed, squinting her eyes as she carefully turned around. “Can any of you see a gap you can get through without tripping these?”

“I can hardly see anything with how bright they are,” Haru frowned, shielding her eyes.

“No, not really,” Ann said. “I mean, I’d have a way out if this glass wasn’t here, but…” She kicked it and immediately winced. “Ow! My foot!”

“It’s probably bulletproof…” Morgana frowned. “To protect the artworks.”

“Would we be able to force our way through?” Haru asked.

“It’s not worth the security risk...” Makoto crossed her arms, deep in thought. There has to be some spot that was overlooked. This is a Palace, after all. As fortified as it can be, there's always supposed to be a way forward.

“...and here I was thinking I wouldn’t catch up to you,” Ren said in surprise as he entered the room. “You okay, everyone?”

“Not really,” Haru said. “Are you at least feeling better?”

“Kind of.”

“Joker, great timing,” Makoto said, unfolding her arms. “Behind you I noticed there was a security room. It seemed locked so I paid it little mind, but could you try and break in? The way to turn off these lasers may be inside.”

“Got it,” Ren nodded, turning around with a dramatic flutter of his coattails and heading back the way he came.

“...it’s so cool when it flutters like that,” Makoto whispered.

“I agree,” Haru smiled dreamily.

“...okay,” Ann rolled her eyes. “Mona, I swear, when we get out of this, you are going to be in so much trouble.”

“Noted,” Morgana said, avoiding eye contact with the girls out of embarrassment.

Ann started fidgeting, sitting down and leaning against the glass with a slight groan.

“Not a fan of standing still?” Makoto asked. “I thought as a model you’d be used to-”

“It’s not that I can’t stand still,” Ann interrupted. “It’s just… when we’re running around I can ignore how much I drank at the restaurant.”

“Oh, you need the restroom?” Haru asked.

“Alright.. can we not have this kind of discussion?” Makoto closed her eyes, momentarily removing her mask to massage her forehead.

Faintly, they heard Ren give out a hiss of pain.

“Joker?” Haru asked nervously.

“Don’t speak too loudly,” Morgana cautioned. “We’re in a bad spot right now, and if a Shadow comes to investigate us…”

Haru nodded, frowning out at the hallway Joker had retreated into. Shortly later, the lasers surrounding them deactivated.

Ann let out a relieved sigh. “We’re not trapped anymore…”

“Joker!” Makoto called to him as he ran back to them. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I had to force my way into that security room,” Ren shrugged. “Just… cut myself on my knife a little.”

The girls collectively winced at seeing the gash Ren casually showed them.

“Here, let me make up for this,” Morgana said, quickly calling on Zorro to cast a Dia spell.

“I’ll need a new knife, too,” Ren said, nodding in thanks as he demonstrated his now bent beyond use weapon.

“For now, use this one we found in Mementos,” Makoto said, passing one over to him. “And if you’re up to joining the frontlines…?”

Ren nodded in confirmation.

“Excellent,” Makoto smiled in relief, before narrowing her eyes and taking an authoritative tone. “Mona, you’ll be providing back up from now on.”

“That’s a fair order,” Morgana said, wilting slightly under Makoto’s glare. “But… I swear there is something special about this vase!” He tapped it for emphasis and it immediately fell off the pedestal the two of them were standing on, shattering to bits. “What?! That wasn’t gold at all!”

Amidst Morgana’s complaints, a pinkish gemstone was tugged up from the shards of the vase, a vaguely ghost-shaped mass of swirls towing it behind it as it began drifting away.

“Did… it have a soul?” Ann asked, dumbstruck.

Morgana immediately jumped. “A Treasure Demon! Queen, whatever you do, don’t let it get away!”

Makoto broke into a run after it as the Treasure Demon attempted to flee, ripping her mask off. “Johanna!” She jumped as her motorcycle sped out of the flames to meet her, landing on the seat, and giving a sharp drifting turn to fire off a Frei spell.

The Treasure Demon groaned as the nuclear flames burst into it and it fell limply to the floor.

“Surround it!” Morgana ordered.

The four active Phantom Thieves approached, guns drawn.

“To think you would coerce me into giving in…” the Shadow remarked. “How brilliant. My name is Regent. My existence shall now be a part of you.”

Makoto blinked in surprise as, with almost no actual effort on her part, the Regent dissolved into light and merged into her mask, as always causing her to stumble slightly.

“Well done, Queen!” Morgana was impressed. “No wonder I was drawn to that vase, that was a rare find!”

“What was that?” Ann asked.

“It was a Shadow, right?” Haru asked. “And not the ghost of the vase you broke?”

“Like I said, they’re called Treasure Demons,” Morgana said. “They’re rare Shadows that are usually pretty sturdy. And you usually want to defeat them. I’m surprised you could recruit it, though, Queen. What’s it like?”

“Do you feel wealthier?” Ren asked with a slight smile. "More high class?"

Makoto closed her eyes. “It certainly would be tough to defeat… This one is only weak to Psychokinetic and Nuclear magic… And…” She reached up, scratching at her mask. “...I can’t call it, but… maybe in fusion…” She trailed off, frowning in thought.

“Well… I don’t really know what’s going on, but we accomplished something, right?” Haru asked.

“Yes, now let’s not linger,” Makoto said, turning and heading on through the room again. Upon the team reaching another set of infrared lasers, Ren pulled the others up through an opening in the wall, looking out at a room that had a floor mural made to look like a giant pit.

“There’s a Shadow…” Ann mumbled, watching the guard patrolling over the mural.

“More importantly,” Haru said, pointing across the room. “Look, Panther! Restrooms!”

“...ew…!” Ann groaned, shuddering. “Why is that in here?!”

“...it is a museum,” Ren shrugged. “Guests would complain if there wasn’t one.”

“Panther, you said you needed to go earlier, right?” Haru asked, a frown on her face. “I was trying to assist…”

“I’m not going to a restroom inside someone’s Palace!”

“...can we just kill the Shadow?” Makoto sighed.

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Central Street - Residential Area

Yusuke was staring down at his homework from Kosei High, a blank expression on his face. As he had been for an hour now. Finally realizing it wasn’t going to be completed just by him looking at it, he set it aside with a sigh and pulled out his cell phone.

Ann Takamaki’s contact information was still saved after she reached out to him earlier this week. Unfortunately, he had yet to be able to paint her. In fact, last time she had brought her friends and they had been bombarding him with accusations of Madarame’s abuse and plagiarism.

“Yusuke?” Madarame asked from the door to the studio Yusuke was sitting in. “I was about to head out. Is that girl coming by?”

“...I’m afraid not, sensei,” Yusuke sighed. “She has not reached out to me since Tuesday.”

“I see,” Madarame frowned. “That’s unfortunate. Perhaps you should take the initiative again? I’d hate for this piece to not come together.”

Yusuke felt a slight chill run down his spine as he looked up at Madarame. “...of course, sensei. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good,” Madarame smiled. “Because the exhibition ends soon, and I’d love to have something to commemorate it.”

Yusuke bowed in understanding as Madarame left. He closed his eyes for a moment to rest before sending a quick text to Ann’s phone. “Please respond, Takamaki-san…”

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Daytime
Madarame’s Palace

“Persona!” Makoto called out, staring through the gaps between her fingers unblinkingly as Angel manifested behind her. At her command, the oddly bondage-themed winged woman conjured a circle of light, wards drifting up from it around the Onmoraki. Focus… stay focused…

The Onmoraki let out a pained cry and suddenly burned away as the circle broke, and Makoto leaned forward in relief.

“Great job, Queen!” Ann cheered. “What was that attack?”

“It killed them all so easily,” Haru chimed in.

“That’s what it’s supposed to do,” Makoto said, giving a tired smile at their praise. “Though, I am focusing a lot to make it hit.”

“You used it a lot, too,” Ren frowned. “You feeling okay?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Makoto said, walking over to the switch they had uncovered before the ambush and hitting it. Immediately, the alarm blaring cut off and the electric barricades holding them in this exhibit room shut off.

“Finally, we can move on!” Ann said in relief.

With slightly renewed vigor, they opened the door, coming out to the outdoor garden they had seen on their maps.

“Ooh, a koi pond!” Haru said.

“It’s awfully… golden,” Ren said.

“...so shiny,” Ann remarked.

“Panther, don’t you start doing what Mona was,” Makoto sighed, turning and heading down the path towards the center, the sliding doors dramatically parting as they approached. As soon as they did, however, Makoto’s eyes widened in shock and she ran forward. “No!”

“Queen?” Haru asked in surprise, turning away from watching the koi swimming to follow their leader.

“What the?!” Ann gasped as they reached the center plaza. In the midst of the hedges surrounding them, was a crisscross of infrared lasers, Though, as opposed to the trip wires from earlier, these were set up as walls. And behind all of them, as nearly impassable as they already seemed to be, was a large, locked door decorated with art of a peacock’s feathers.

“What is with this security…?” Makoto asked, her voice barely more than a whisper as if she didn’t mean to ask aloud.

“There’s a sign here,” Ren said, looking at it. “‘All personnel: This door can only be opened via the security room that lies beyond it. Please be cautious as it is impossible to open from the outside.’ Are you freaking kidding me?”

“Impossible to open…?” Makoto repeated, her voice faintly trembling.

“Well, that’s interesting,” Morgana commented as he approached from behind. “There’s no doubt now that he’s keeping the Treasure somewhere in that second building.”

“That doesn’t really help knowing that if we can’t get past,” Ann sighed.

“Mona,” Makoto said, her hand clenching into a fist as she fought to keep her voice even. “You told me that it’s always possible to reach the Treasure. That no heart is out of reach. Were you lying?” If we can’t reach the Treasure here, doesn’t that mean Sis’s heart may also be…?

“Queen, your voice sounds a little dangerous…” Haru mumbled.

“Well, yes and no,” Morgana answered, shifting as he crossed his tiny arms. “There’s always the potential that someone can reach it. However… there are times like this when cognition will outright keep thieves like us out.”

“So you’re saying this mission is impossible?!” Makoto suddenly snapped.

“Gah!” Morgana gasped, leaping back in surprise at Makoto’s sudden outburst.

“Queen, calm down,” Ren said.

“Yeah, it’s… fine,” Ann said, shaking slightly. “We… we’ll think of some other way to help Kitagawa-”

“That is not the issue here,” Makoto spat, turning around and storming away from the group.

“What?” Ann asked, confusion etched on her face. “What do you mean that’s not the issue?!”

Makoto stopped, taking some sharp intakes of breath. I said that outloud…?

“Queen, I understand,” Haru said.

“You do…?” Makoto asked, too nervous to turn around, even as she heard her team approaching her from behind.

“If we don’t change his heart he’ll continue to abuse people, even if we somehow do get Kitagawa-kun to safety, right?”

Makoto breathed an internal sigh of relief. “...yes.”

“...that’s a fair point,” Ann admitted, scratching her head. “Sorry, I kind of forgot it doesn’t end with just Kitagawa-kun.”

“...let’s go back for now,” Ren said softly. “We can’t do anything else today and we're all a little tired.”

“Everyone, we’ll meet tomorrow after school,” Morgana ordered. “I have an idea that I’d like to propose to you all.”

“...is it about this security system?” Ann asked.

“In a way,” Morgana said, stretching.

“...you had better not be misleading me,” Makoto said, and without another word, she resumed walking back towards the exhibit halls they had just traversed.

The other Phantom Thieves shared a nervous look, before quickly jogging after her.

~~~

5/22 - Sunday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

Makoto eased herself down into the tub, shifting until the water covered her breasts. Leaning back, she let the heat of the bath ease her eyes shut. ...I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I was too tired to control my emotions and… Do they all think of me as unstable now?

She opened her eyes, as she sat up slightly. Morgana is right that there has to be a way around it. Scaling the exterior, or- what am I thinking?! Climbing outside like that would be way too risky!

She drew her knees up to her chest. The bath didn’t seem to be relaxing her like she had hoped. The only thing left to try was consoling herself aloud. “...you don’t know anything about Sis’s Palace. Stop jumping to the worst conclusions… We defeated Kamoshida, we can handle Madarame, we can save her. I can save her.”

She spoke in barely more than a whisper, but hearing it aloud seemed to help. Slowly, Makoto stretched her legs out again and cautiously leaned back once more, letting the bathwater envelop as much of her body as possible.

I’ll tell them I’m sorry for my outburst tomorrow. I can’t ask them to keep working with me if I don’t do at least that much when my emotions slip. And if they’re forgiving enough, then someday, maybe… I can tell them...

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 06.7%

Chapter Text

5/23 - Monday
Early Morning
Shujin Academy

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 13
Steal Madarame’s Heart

Makoto slowly made her way into Shujin, walking her usual path on autopilot. Ever since hitting the cognitive barricade in Madarame’s Palace yesterday, her mind was scrambling. She could vaguely pick up on the rumors and whispers of everyone she was walking past, something about part-time jobs or crime in Shibuya. It was going in one ear and out the other.

“Niijima-san!” Ren’s teacher, Kawakami, raised her voice.

Makoto blinked, turning to her in surprise. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Finally you answer…” Kawakami sighed, looking utterly exhausted. “Listen… I don’t know what it is you’re doing for Principal Kobayakawa, but can you check in with him more often? He ordered me to call you there, and running around looking for third-years isn’t how I want to spend a Monday morning.”

“I’m… sorry?” Makoto mumbled. “I’ll go see him, then.”

“Thanks,” Kawakami sighed, walking upstairs with Makoto, before splitting off to head to her own classroom. “Why is it always me running these errands…?”

Makoto took a breath to steady herself before knocking on the door. He has the worst timing…

“Come in!”

Makoto stepped inside, giving a slight bow, “Good morning, sir. You wanted to speak with me?”

“I was hoping for an update on your investigation,” Kobayakawa said. “Any word on the students behind that posting?”

“I-” Makoto stopped before she said anything. I have no excuse planned. I had completely forgotten my other goal with this Palace… But if we can’t change his heart…

“Niijima-san?” Kobayakawa frowned, leaning forward. “You have been taking this seriously, haven’t you? I’d hate for a student as bright as you to prove unreliable. It wouldn’t reflect well on Shujin Academy if we recommended a student that can’t handle responsibility.”

“No, I- I was just trying to determine how to best word this,” Makoto said in a hurry. “I… think I might be close. I’ve overheard some suspicious conversations in Shibuya, and am looking into it further.”

“I see...” Kobayakawa shook his head. “Niijima-san, I want regular updates on these kinds of developments. You and I are in a precarious position at this school. Surely you’ve heard how dissatisfied some students are with us?”

“...I have,” Makoto admitted, closing her eyes. She soon opened them again. “While I’m here, some students have asked if the trophies Kamoshida earned could be taken down from the entrance hall. It might help ease tensions.”

“I’ll consider it,” Kobayakawa nodded. “You can return to class now.”

Makoto nodded, turning around and leaving the office.

Once she was gone, Kobayakawa dialed a number on his cell phone, dabbing some sweat off his forehead as he placed it to his ear. “Good morning, sir. Sorry to bother you. ...yes, the invest- well, no, there’s nothing solid yet, but… ...but I think progress is being made, sir! Don’t worry, a lead is being pursued, and I’m rather confident about- ...understood, I’ll call again when it’s actually concrete. Yes, have a good day-”

The other side hung up before he could finish, and Kobayakawa slumped forward over his desk with a heavy sigh.

~~~

5/23 - Monday
After School
Central Street

“How are you feeling today, Makoto?” Ann asked nervously as Makoto sat down at their usual table in Big Bang Burger, the bustle of other students dropping by right after school leaving them unnoticed.

“If you’re worried at me being unable to control my temper, you can relax,” Makoto said, slightly testily. “I have enough self-control not to fly off the handle in public.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean-” Ann began.

“That all aside, I feel the need to apologize,” Makoto said, looking down at the table. “I… overreacted to the barricade and took my frustrations out on you. I'm sorry.”

“Do you need to vent to someone?” Ren asked. “You know how bad emotions can get if you bottle it up like…” Ren trailed off, slightly averting his gaze from Makoto.

Makoto closed her eyes, remembering the last time they were at Leblanc together, and nodded. “Yes… I mean, no. I… don’t need to vent. I was just worked up yesterday.”

“I’m sorry, Mako-chan,” Haru frowned.

“...what for?” Makoto looked over in confusion.

“I didn’t realize just how passionate you were for all this,” Haru said. “So I’m sorry.”

“...that’s… nothing to apologize for,” Makoto mumbled, still confused and now slightly embarrassed.

“Well, shall we talk things over?” Morgana asked.

“Yeah, where do we go from here?” Ann asked.

“I examined the museum map as much as I could but found no way forward for us,” Makoto said.

“We could climb the outside of the building,” Haru suggested.

“Not recommended,” Morgana said. “The distortions might make it so different areas don’t match up properly. Not to mention we have no idea what that second building is like.”

“Also, we could all fall off and die,” Ren said.

“Right, the risk of death is bad, too,” Morgana agreed.

“You kind of glossed over that…” Ann frowned.

“So, do we need to go after someone else, then?” Haru asked, looking up.

“Not necessarily,” Morgana said. “It’s possible we’re just overlooking something.”

“Like what?” Ann asked.

“Remember what that museum is based on,” Morgana said. “Madarame’s shack. It’s possible the impassable security is tied to something he’s cognizant of in his home.”

“Does it work like that?” Haru asked.

“Well…” Ren frowned. “...when we first entered the castle, Makoto and I came in from the Student Council Room. That put us not too far from the Palace’s version of the library.”

“None of you recognize that peacock design from his art, do you?” Morgana asked.

“Not in particular,” Haru said. “There were some paintings with imagery like that, but not set up at all how that door looked.”

“Well, let’s see if we can’t glean anything from inside the shack,” Morgana smirked.

“...something tied to his cognition in reality as a barricade…” Makoto mumbled. “Why didn’t I consider that possibility…?”

“You probably burned yourself out with all those spells,” Ann said. “Especially all those… what was it called?”

“Hama.”

“Yeah, those. You used that a lot when the security ambushed us.”

“Well, once they used the same skill Sugimura’s Shadow did to fell Morgana, I wasn’t going to take chances,” Makoto said. “But… that must have been it, yes.” Let’s move on before they realize I’m lying. “How can we get inside? Ann, is the modeling offer still on the table? I hate to rely on you for this, but-”

“Actually, he texted me yesterday while we were in the Palace!” Ann said, showing off the chat on her phone to the group. “So it should be cool! Though…” Her smile dropped and she shuddered. “I still feel a little uneasy about this. Especially being in the same house as someone with a Palace like that.”

“We’ll be there with you, Lady Ann,” Morgana said reassuringly.

“Being close to someone with a Palace…” Makoto mumbled, she and Haru slightly averting their eyes from the group.

“Okay then,” Ann said, nervously typing. “How’s this sound as a reply? ‘Sorry I missed this message yesterday. I thought it over and think it sounds cool. Would tomorrow be okay?’”

“You don’t need to overthink it, Ann,” Ren sighed. “Just be yourself. That’s the best way to make someone buy an act.”

“Wow, do you have experience in lying or something?” Ann asked. “That’s actually good advice.” She pressed send and slid the phone back into her pocket.

“It’s not like I make a habit of lying…” Ren awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck.

“Hey, it’s a good trait for a thief to have,” Morgana said. “Just look at Queen.”

“...huh?” Makoto blinked, feeling her heart starting to beat faster. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re still lying to that principal guy, aren’t you?” Morgana asked.

“Oh, um, yes, but it’s not like I’m talking with him every day…” Don’t scare me like that!

“Ah!” Ann jolted at her phone buzzing and pulled it out. “Oh! It’s Kitagawa-kun! He said Madarame will be at the exhibit so tomorrow would be perfect!”

“Excellent!” Makoto smiled in relief before leaning forward. “Here’s our plan, then. While Ann is distracting Kitagawa-kun, I’ll claim to need the restroom and sneak out to explore the shack with Morgana. The two of us will probably have the best chance of finding what we’re looking for.”

“Just make sure you get enough sleep so you can stay focused,” Ren joked, cracking a smile.

“Haha, yes…” Makoto said flatly. “Meanwhile, Ren will protect Ann in the room and… Haru, can I ask you to keep watch outside? So we can be tipped off if Madarame arrives home before we’re finished.”

“You can count on me!” Haru saluted.

“Why do I have to be the one inside?” Ren asked. “He trusts Haru more.”

“It’s something Sis told me,” Makoto said. “Men are less likely to try something funny with a girl if another guy happens to be nearby to protect them.”

“It’s really annoying, but that's kind of true,” Ann sighed. “Can I count on you, Ren?”

“...yeah, don’t worry,” Ren nodded.

“Let’s do this, team,” Morgana said seriously. “We cannot let the Phantom Thieves end this early. How embarrassing would it be if we failed an art heist?!”

~~~

5/23 - Monday
Evening
Yongen-Jaya Backstreets

Ren was making his way back to Leblanc from the station, when he noticed a familiar red-eyed woman stepping out of Leblanc. Makoto’s sister…

Sae adjusted her bag in a slight huff and started to walk towards them, stopping when she noticed Ren staring at her. “Oh. It’s you again. Do you remember me? We met once in that cafe back there.” She nodded her head in Leblanc’s direction, not breaking eye contact with Ren.

“Is this that scary lady again?” Morgana asked quietly from ren’s bag.

“Yeah, I remember…” Ren said, giving a nervous smile. “Your eyes kind of stuck with me.”

Sae frowned, eyes narrowing. “I do hope that’s not an attempt at flattery.”

“Oh, uh-”

“...I was kidding,” Sae said, her expression softening a fraction. “You know, I never actually learned what your connection to this cafe is. I was told you’re neither customer nor employee.”

“Oh, um… Boss is taking care of me while I’m in Tokyo,” Ren said.

“I see,” Sae said, her expression noticeably hardening a little. “One last question. As a regular at this cafe, I expect I may run into you fairly often. Shall we introduce ourselves?”

“...I’m Ren Amamiya.”

“Sae Niijima,” she replied. “Well then, with that out of the way, I’ll let you get home. Good evening.” She briskly walked past him, rounding the corner with surprising aggression for someone who was just speaking so calmly.

“Sae Niijima?” Morgana questioned. “So… that’s Queen’s older sister. Honestly, that explains a lot.”

“I guess her intensity runs in the family,” Ren said softly, before turning to enter Leblanc Cafe.

“About time you got home,” Sojiro snapped. “Clean the dishes before you go to bed. I’m heading home for now.”

“Uh, s-sure?”

“What’s Boss’s deal?” Morgana asked as Sojiro stormed out the door.

“...Niijima-san just left,” Ren mused. “Do you think maybe…?”

“What would she even make him mad about, though? Could Boss have messed up on the coffee? Or... do you think they broke up? Were they a couple?!”

“I really doubt that,” Ren said, setting his bag down in the booth and heading into the kitchenette.

~~~

5/24 - Tuesday
After School
Central Street - Residential Area

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 12
Steal Madarame’s Heart

“I wasn’t expecting your friends to tag along today,” Yusuke frowned as Ren and Makoto sat down on the side of the room while Ann sat in a stool in the middle of the floor.

“I could have sworn I mentioned it,” Ann said, crossing her legs.

“Forgive me, Kitagawa-kun,” Makoto said. “I’m just rather protective of my friends.”

Yusuke’s hand instinctively flinched at that. “I am aware, yes. Well, so long as you don’t cause a ruckus,” he glanced at Ren, “your continued presence shouldn’t interfere with my muse.”

“...when have I ever been noisy?” Ren asked Makoto in a whisper.

Makoto could only shrug.

“So, um… is this pose good?” Ann asked. She gave a quick flex of her shoulders and hips to help toss her hair back more, as well as push out the Shujin blazer from hugging her too tightly. She then leaned forward gently, cupping her face with her hand and gently resting her left elbow on her knees, staring off absentmindedly into the corner of the room.

“That should be perfect,” Yusuke smiled. He quickly framed her with his fingers as he sat down by his canvas, before slowly sketching Ann out onto the canvas. The group sat silently as he did so.

After five minutes passed, Makoto spoke up. “Um, Kitagawa-kun? Where would I find the restroom?”

Yusuke gave no answer, continuing to work on his artistic rendering of Ann.

“Kitagawa?” Ann asked, glancing over.

“...I’ll find it myself then, if that’s okay?” Makoto asked, unsubtly grabbing Ren’s bag where Morgana was lying in wait.

Still no response.

“Guess that’s a yes,” Ren said.

“We’ll be back later,” Makoto whispered, before slipping out into the hall. She cautiously lowered Ren’s bag to the floor to let Morgana out, checking her phone for any messages from Haru. “...nothing. Madarame still seems to be out.”

“Excellent,” Morgana said. “But wow, I’m kind of impressed at how into this he is. We could have probably said anything and gotten no reaction.”

“I suppose that just proves he’s passionate about painting,” Makoto answered. “When a book grabs my attention, I know I often tune a lot of conversations around me out.”

“Wait, does that mean he’s focusing really intently on Lady Ann?” Morgana asked. “Should we be keeping an extra set of eyes on him?!”

“That wasn’t what I was saying at all. Can we focus, please?”

“Right, right,” Morgana said. “How many floors does this shack have? Two? Since that barricade is in front of the second building, we’ll search the second floor first.”

Makoto nodded, the two quietly setting off down the hall.

~~~

“...what’s taking her?” Ann asked quietly.

Ren paused, glancing at Yusuke. He was currently staring at the canvas with great intensity. Should I be responding to her? Does she want an actual answer or a fake one in case he can hear us?

“Ren?” Ann asked.

“You… want me to answer…?” Ren asked, glancing at her, eyes occasionally darting back towards Yusuke.

“He’s not listening,” Ann said.

“...well, maybe what they’re looking for doesn’t look like-”

“It’s no use!” Yusuke suddenly proclaimed, dramatically, slumping out of his chair and to the floor.

“...what?” Ren asked, more confused than surprised by the sudden outburst.

“My muse,” Yusuke said, shaking his head. “She can’t flourish under these stifling conditions!”

“Um… did I do something wrong?” Ann asked. “Was I moving too much? I’m used to changing poses quickly for photos, so…”

“No, Takamaki-san, it’s not your fault,” Yusuke said, slowly pulling himself up. “I’m simply under a lot of pressure. And I wish to do your aura justice.”

“My aura…?” Ann repeated, nonplussed. “Not my looks or anything?”

“Of course not,” Yusuke said, his tone suggesting that should have been obvious.

“What?!” Ann snapped.

“Ann, calm down,” Ren sighed. “The way you said that makes it sound like the stress has nothing to do with Ann’s aura or whatever. Is Madarame pressuring you or something?”

Yusuke gave a brief look of surprise before immediately scoffing. “Are we on this again? Suggesting sensei is abusive? I thought we had moved past that.”

“Kitagawa, we know,” Ren said sternly. “The reason his art style is so different? He’s passing what his pupils paint as his own.”

“Ridiculous,” Yusuke said. “You ‘know’? And how do you know this to be true?”

“That painting I asked to see back at the exhibit,” Ann suddenly said. “Kitagawa-kun, that was yours, right?”

“M-mine?” Yusuke stuttered.

“Looks like that’s the case,” Ren said.

Yusuke narrowed his eyes, turning away from Ann to stare at Ren. “Perhaps it was, but I assure you, I gave it to Madarame willingly.”

“Why are you so set on defending him when he’s taking credit for your work?!” Ren snapped.

“Uh, Ren, maybe it’s time for you to calm down?” Ann asked, taking a nervous step back.

~~~

Makoto stepped out of yet another room and peeked around the corner at another hallway. “...Mona.”

“You find it?” Morgana asked, darting out of a nearby closet. Around the corner, set slightly back and partially blocked some old canvases, was a single door, perfectly matching the left side of the barricade in the Palace’s outdoor garden. “Aha! So this is what that cognition is tied to.”

Makoto cautiously stepped forward, hefting the lock. “So… because he believes no one can get inside this place, the equivalent section of his Palace is blocked off… Do you think this means the real world equivalent of his Treasure is inside?”

“It’s possible,” Morgana mewed, stretching slightly. “It would explain why this lock stands out so much in his mind compared to, say, the lock on the front door.”

Makoto brushed some hair behind her ear with her free hand, the other still holding the padlock. “So… to change his cognition that this lock is impassable, we’ll need him aware that people can get inside. Would stealing the real world contents work for that?”

“Surprised to hear that suggestion from you, Queen,” Morgana laughed.

“I’m just weighing our options,” Makoto said. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, just because he thinks someone got past wouldn’t necessarily disable the security in the Palace,” Morgana said. “But seeing the door opened in front of his very eyes?”

“...that sounds even riskier than my proposal,” Makoto sighed. “But I suppose-” She was cut off by the sudden sensation of her phone vibrating. Reaching into her pocket, she saw a frantic text from Haru.

Haru: Madarame’s limo just pulled up! If you’re not with the others, get back there!!

“We’re going,” Makoto said, grabbing Morgana and shoving him back into Ren’s bag.

“Ah, hey, easy!” Morgana hissed.

Makoto, trying to be as quiet as possible, sprinted back downstairs and over to the studio room only she left the others in. Before she could think of opening the door, she heard Ann give an appalled shout.

“Nude modeling?!”

“...nude?” Morgana repeated in a whisper, stunned.

What on Earth did I miss? Makoto wondered as she pulled the door open.

“There you are,” Yusuke rounded on her with surprising hostility. “Where did you wander off to?”

“The restroom, like I said,” Makoto said.

“For so long? What was it you were doing?”

“You… don’t ask a girl that,” Ren said. “Or anyone, actually.”

“Advice from you is the last thing I need,” Yusuke said. “Now, you’ve heard my terms. So kindly leave. Takamaki-san, we shall pick things up another day.”

“But- Makoto, help me out!” Ann said. “He’s trying to make me model nude for him!”

“You’re what?” Makoto asked, anger immediately entering her voice.

“Are you planning to assault me again?” Yusuke asked. “Much like this man here, I did not give express permission for you to continue being in my home. I will press charges, and more severe ones at that.”

“Charges?” Makoto gave a quick glance over at Ren, who kept his gaze on the floor.

“Makoto, stay focused!” Ann pleaded.

“...calling the authorities will not be necessary,” Makoto said, letting out a breath to help even out her tone.

“Makoto!” Ann groaned.

“Is there a problem in here?” Madarame asked, causing Makoto to jump in surprise.

“When’d he get behind us?” Morgana asked. “Geez, old people are quiet.”

“Sensei, you’re home,” Yusuke said, giving a slight bow. “Don’t worry. Takamaki-san’s friends were just leaving.”

“I see,” Madarame nodded. “Well, I won’t get in your way. Once they’ve gone, I’d love for you to tell me about today’s progress.” He gave the group a smile, before shuffling off down the hall, making for what Makoto assumed to be his room.

“Good day,” Yusuke said, no pleasantness in his voice as he sat down in front of the canvas again.

Ann gave a sigh of defeat. “I don’t have a choice, do I…?”

Ren said nothing, a pained expression on his face as he picked up Makoto’s bag.

Yusuke glanced over as they were leaving and suddenly spoke up, unable to keep the curiosity out of his voice. “Did you two switch bags?”

Makoto and Ren glanced at each other, eyebrows slightly raised from nervousness.

“Uh, no, I’ve always liked… these purse kinds of book bags,” Ren said.

“I see…” Yusuke said, continuing to stare curiously. After a few seconds, it dawned on him he was supposed to maintain anger towards Ren, so he briskly turned away.

Makoto stepped aside, letting Ren lead Ann out of the room, before following them outside, the three making their way back towards Central Street proper.

“So, can one of you explain what happened?” she finally asked.

“Ren and Kitagawa got into another argument about Madarame,” Ann said. “We figured out that painting Haru and I looked at last week was actually Kitagawa-kun’s, and Ren started pressing him for why he’s letting Madarame walk all over him, and… oh god, my nude painting is going to go public as Madarame’s next piece…!”

“Uh, yeah, he got angry about how I showed up and ordered me and you to leave since he only wanted Ann there,” Ren continued. “That’s when he noticed you were gone and he started threatening to call the police on us for trespassing. Also, he thinks seeing Ann naked will help his muse, or whatever.”

“What a degenerate!” Morgana exclaimed. “We can’t let him get away with this!”

“We’re after Madarame, remember,” Ren said.

“I don’t want to pose nude!” Ann cried.

“You won’t have to if we change Madarame’s heart,” Makoto said. “That said, Ren… and I mean no offense by this, but why is it always you being threatened with arrest?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Ren shrugged. “Maybe a shaman cursed my family or something. Or negative karma from a past life.”

“Everyone!” Haru called out, waving at them from down the street.

“Haru, there you are,” Makoto smiled, though it quickly fell into a quizzical expression. “Why are there leaves and twigs in your hair?”

“I can’t get them out,” Haru whimpered, tugging at one for emphasis.

“Were you hiding in a bush?” Morgana asked.

“I was nervous about if he spotted me!” Haru said. “So, how did the search go, Mako-chan?”

“Oh, yeah, please tell me this hell day was worth it,” Ann said. “Because I don’t want to go in there again if it means taking my clothes off.”

“Huh?” Haru questioned.

“I’ll tell you later,” Ren murmured. “Makoto?”

“It went well,” Makoto said uneasily. “We did find the real world equivalent of his roadblock. However…”

“Getting past it will need us to go there again, won’t it?” Haru asked.

“No!” Ann exclaimed, falling to her knees and giving overblown sobs.

“...don’t start taking after Kitagawa with these reactions,” Ren sighed. He glanced around, and noticed a group of kids in a nearby yard staring. “...Ann, please get up, people are looking at us.”

“Let’s… take a break to think this all over,” Makoto said, hoisting Ann back to her feet. “I think we all need time to ourselves after this.”

“I know I do,” Haru said, gingerly tugging at the twig in her hair again. “Ow...”

“Until tomorrow, then,” Makoto said, starting to walk away.

“Uh, Queen?” Morgana asked.

“Yes?”

“I live with Ren, remember?”

Makoto stopped, turning back in surprise to see she still had Ren’s bag strapped over her shoulder, Ren standing not too far behind her, awkwardly holding her purse out.

Blushing heavily, she quickly traded it back. “Um, thanks…”

“No problem,” Ren laughed. “I guess it fit me too well for you to notice?”

“That must be it…” Makoto said, giggling slightly as well.

“Hey, stop laughing and stay on your toes,” Morgana chided. “That creepy artist noticed easily enough, so we’ll need to be careful not to slip up.”

“I know,” Makoto said.

“We can still have fun with this instead of being so on edge, right?” Ren asked.

“...fair point,” Morgana said. “Sorry, I just… I can’t get over this nude modeling threat.”

“And how do you think I feel?!” Ann snapped, continuing to give overblown wails into Haru's shoulder, the older girl gently patting her back.

~~~

Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?
YES: 06.6%

Chapter Text

5/25 - Wednesday
Early Morning
Public Prosecutors’ Office

“Niijima-san?”

“What is it?” Sae asked, glancing up from her computer. One of her coworkers, a man generic enough that Sae would be hard-pressed to recall his name, was holding a simple file, nervously meeting her gaze. Or perhaps he was simply new.

“I have the court record you asked about yesterday,” he said, cautiously approaching to hand it to her.

Sae took it, giving a cursory glance inside. Defendant: Amamiya, Ren. “Thank you. I’m surprised you were able to obtain it so quickly. Usually juvenile records are more tightly sealed.”

“I didn’t do anything special,” he said. “I was just the one they asked to bring it to you.”

“I see. My praise is withdrawn, then. You may go now.”

The man briefly looked affronted, but Sae had already returned her focus to her desk. Turning, he swiftly made his way out into the hall.

“That was surprisingly harsh, Sae-san,” a young man’s voice said pleasantly.

“Akechi-kun?” Sae glanced up to see the teen detective waiting by her office threshold, smiling at her. “It’s Wednesday. Shouldn’t you be in school today?”

“A driver unfortunately crashed into the building,” Akechi said.

“Another psychotic breakdown?” Sae asked absentmindedly as she flipped through the court record in front of her.

“Ah, it was just a jest,” Akechi chuckled. “I was attempting to get a stronger reaction. In truth, a prosecutor wants me to testify on a case I worked.”

“Then why aren’t you at the courthouse?”

“He requested I meet him here,” Akechi said. “But I have a few minutes to spare, so I thought I’d drop by, Sae-san.”

“Mm,” Sae hummed, still keeping her gaze on the file. “Inform me ahead of time before you plan any visits.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Akechi smiled. “So, what case are you looking over? The prosecutor that suffered the psychotic breakdown?”

“No, an assault case,” Sae said. “Juvenile. It’s unrelated to mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns.”

“A juvenile assault case?” Akechi repeated, his interest sounding slightly feigned. “The only case of that that I can imagine sparking your interest would pertain to the transfer student Shujin Academy received. Has he been threatening Makoto-san?”

“It has nothing to do with Makoto, either,” Sae said briskly. Her eyes narrowed as she reached the end. “This doesn’t make any sense…”

“I’m assuming that comment is for my benefit?”

“Not once is the plaintiff or witness actually named in this record,” Sae complained. “It's normal not to release that information publicly, but this is the official record and not a single mention? The name of the assailant is listed readily despite him being underage!”

“You seem quite angry about this,” Akechi commented.

“It’s a flagrant disregard not only for this boy’s privacy but also for proper court proceedings,” Sae muttered. She stood up and let out a huff, running a hand through her hair. “What I was looking for isn’t in this file. I’ll be going directly to the source.”

“Are you planning to interrogate Amamiya?” Akechi asked, a curious expression on his face. “You did just point out it’s a school day.”

“No, I have no interest in Amamiya,” Sae said. “I’m referring to his guardian. A cafe owner.”

“Ah, I see,” Akechi said, taking out his phone and typing as if sending a text. “So in the end this was simply an attempt to get more leverage on the man.”

“What are you typing?” Sae asked as she grabbed her bag.

“Oh, just confirming the meetup,” Akechi said. “Remember when I mentioned my reason for being out of school today?”

Sae rolled her eyes. “Good day, Akechi-kun.”

“Good day, Sae-san,” Akechi waved. “Try not to be too rough with the man!”

Sae closed her eyes as she stepped into the elevator, letting out a breath. In her head, she could faintly hear Makoto’s voice echoing. Do you know what someone can do if they’ve been arrested under false charges?

She opened her eyes again, keeping her gaze focused on the counter as it steadily brought her closer to the first floor. I knew she asked me that because of the transfer student. But could she have been right? Could Amamiya not have been lying to her? Is it possible he doesn’t even know the name of the one who pressed charges?

Sae looked down. No, thinking about that won’t change anything. It’s jumping to conclusions anyway. As far as I know, the victim he assaulted was another minor. His case isn't my concern regardless.

The elevator dinged and slowly slid open, the SIU Director blinking in surprise on the other side. “Oh, Niijima. Glad I ran into you. Mind accompanying me back to my office? I had some things I’d like to discuss.”

“Actually, sir, I was on my way out,” Sae said.

“Oh, is this a lead on the misappropriation case?” the SIU Director asked as he stepped into the elevator.

“No, I already resolved that,” Sae said. “His defense attorneys are trying to stall the trial date, but I’m confident they’ll be unable to defend themselves.”

“It is a desperate move,” the SIU Director nodded in agreement. “Excellent work as always, Niijima. You’re truly our star prosecutor.”

“I’m glad you think so, sir,” Sae said, making to step off the elevator.

“Niijima?” the SIU Director asked. “We have something to discuss, remember? Or are you pursuing a different case?”

“It’s not so much an official case of mine, sir,” Sae mumbled.

“Then it doesn’t need to take up your time right now.” His tone left no room for arguing.

Sae reluctantly returned to the elevator, standing quietly beside her boss as the elevator slowly climbed up towards his office.

“I believe I’ve made it clear before,” he suddenly spoke up. “We would like nothing more than for you to solve the mental shutdown incidents. But this isn’t your amusement park where you can pursue things at your leisure. You do have a job to do.”

“I don’t view this job as something so childish,” Sae said curtly. “I take my career seriously.”

The SIU Director nodded, a slight scowl still on his face. “Then act more like it, Niijima. Unless you’re on a date, you should act more your age.”

Sae’s eye twitched slightly. Even he still makes comments like that. “...what did you wish to discuss, sir?”

“Ah, yes, to business,” he said. “I received a call asking about a lawsuit they’d like to handle, and thought I’d send you.”

“A lawsuit, sir?” Sae questioned, glancing at him. “Criminal charges?”

“Unlikely,” the Director said, letting out a strained sigh.

“Then why me, sir?” Sae asked as the elevator stopped, the two stepping out and walking down the hall together. “There are others more suitable to civil cases, aren’t there?”

“Because it’s high profile enough that I can’t trust someone without a drive like yours,” the SIU Director said.

Sae paused, blinking in surprise. Are my skills being acknowledged…?

“You remember the scandal-ridden Representative Sugimura, yes?” the SIU Director asked, giving a slightly amused chuckle at Sae’s expression. “His wife is waiting to speak with you at the Wilton Buffet. I’d like an update on how this meeting goes as soon as possible.”

“I’ll head right over there, then,” Sae said, giving a slight bow as they reached the SIU Director’s office. As he stepped in, she turned to walk back to the elevator, her heels clicking slightly as she walked. It’s hard to tell exactly what he’s expecting of me. He acknowledged my drive, but is yet another in the stack of Sugimura lawsuits really high profile?

~~~

5/25 - Wednesday
Morning
Wilton Hotel

Sae stood at the entrance to the hotel’s buffet, scanning over the crowd. She soon spotted the woman she was asked to meet with and effortlessly cut her way through the crowd to sit beside her.

“You’re Sae Niijima-san, yes?” the woman asked.

“Arisu Sugimura, I take it?” Sae asked, sitting down across from her. “My boss said you wished to speak with a prosecutor.”

“Yes,” the woman nodded. “You may already be aware that I am Representative Sugimura’s wife.”

“If this is about divorcing him, then this meeting is a waste of time,” Sae said. “I am not a divorce attorney.”

“I-I know,” Arisu said, slightly off put at Sae’s brisk tone. She cleared her throat. “But as a prosecutor, you are capable of assisting with lawsuits, yes? That's what the man I spoke to told me. I’d... I'd like to sue my soon-to-be ex-husband.”

“On what grounds?” Sae asked, trying to keep her voice professional and not sounding bored as she took out a pad to take notes on, her hand jotting it down on autopilot as Arisu Sugimura listed her grievances.

“He kept me at home after the affairs first went public, hoping I wouldn’t disparage him to the press,” Arisu explained. “That could be unlawful detainment, couldn’t it? Or maybe bribery since he offered me jewelry in exchange for this? Something?”

Unlawful detainment, hmm? Do you even know what that actually means? And the way you’re describing it sounds less like he made you stay and more that he asked and you agreed. I suppose it wouldn’t be impossible to twist it at the bribery angle, but…

“I heard he plans to settle a lot of his issues out of court soon,” Arisu suddenly said, grabbing Sae’s attention. “I’m worried if I don’t act on this soon, a divorce wouldn’t give me the payout I deserve.” She pulled out a sheet of paper and slid it across the table towards Sae. “Our families had a contract going into this marriage of what would happen should it fall apart, and-”

“I see…” Sae said, skimming it over. “This is about money, then. You could have simply said as much from the start instead of coming up with excuses.”

Arisu blinked. “Oh, d-don’t get me wrong, I care that he faces justice as-”

“You don’t need to keep up this facade,” Sae said harshly. In the end, it’s all the same. Justice is so hollow a word. Money is more needed than such platitudes. “I don’t care what your motives are. My only job is to ensure victory. And if you think these payments would result in you obtaining less assets after the divorce, I could twist it as him violating the terms of your family’s marriage contract. Thankfully his affairs and harassment suggest unfaithfulness, which would make my job easier on that front.”

Arisu let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, could you? Thank goodness-”

“Of course, this would require me to speak with a divorce attorney as well,” Sae said. “So we can handle both cases quickly.” Now, to make it seem like my fees would be a favor to her. If I remember right, the Sugimura family is quite affluent... “As I’ll be covering the expenses for him, I request 50% of the settlement as payment.”

“50%?!”

“Remember, this is paying for both my services and those of a divorce attorney,” Sae said. “It’s a gamble, but one you stand to only benefit from. Should we lose, you would owe me nothing. And if we win, or rather, when we win, you will still receive a generous payout, not to mention whatever the divorce grants you on top of that.” She gestured to the contract for emphasis.

“You sure are confident,” Arisu said, a tiny smile working its way onto her face.

“But of course I am,” Sae said. “Though I normally handle more intensive criminal cases, I am not entirely unfamiliar with filing lawsuits. And I don’t lose when it comes to a trial of any sort.”

“I suppose 50% is agreeable, then,” Arisu said. “Still…”

“You needn’t make a final decision right now,” Sae said. She reached into her bag and pulled out a business card. “Call and arrange a time to come in when you’ve made up your mind.”

“Alright,” Arisu said, looking the card over and nodding. “Thank you for your time, Niijima-san. While you’re here, can I interest you in any of the buffet?”

Sae gave a cursory glance around. Agreeing would simply give her negotiation leverage. Besides, I have business to finish before school lets out. “The offer is appreciated, but I’m busy, I’m afraid.” Sae stood up. “I’ll look forward to speaking with you soon.” And with a polite bow, Sae turned and cut her way through the crowd once more and out of the restaurant.

~~~

5/25 - Wednesday
Afternoon
Yongen-Jaya Backstreets

By the time Sae made it to Yongen, it was past lunchtime. The distant smell of coffee and curry from her favorite cafe made its way to her nose from down the alley and she felt her stomach growl. I had to refuse the buffet. She seemed far too clueless, too easy to manipulate. In hindsight, that likely wouldn't have led to any negotiation on her part…

Shaking her head, she gave a slightly amused chuckle in spite of herself as she headed down towards the grocery store. This job is starting to make me a little too suspicious of others. Still, it’s not like there’s any other options if I want to keep supporting Makoto.

A pang of irritation ran through her as she thought that, and the amusement dropped off her face. Buying a small pack of fruit cups so she’d have something in her stomach during her upcoming conversation, Sae slowly made her way back on the path towards Leblanc.

She paused as she passed the old second-hand shop, giving a curious look inside as the elderly man running it was rearranging a stack of hand-me-down plushies. Most of them were old, generic teddy bears, but there was one in particular that caught her eye. An old panda character that her sister still carried around in pencil case form: Buchimaru.

Sae frowned as she watched the man set it up, finishing the fruit cup up, and crumbling the trash in her hand. She did get perfect marks on her midterms. That’s no small feat. Giving her something so simple wouldn’t set me back at all, either. Especially if Arisu Sugimura agrees to my acting as her litigator in this lawsuit.

Before she could even move her leg to head into the store, a cloud passed by. In the sudden shade, another thought crossed her mind. She is 18 years old. The time where one is rewarded for such simplistic accomplishments is over. Such childish thoughts are why I’m still looked down on, why I’ve yet to be seriously considered for promotion despite my accomplishments. Remember that ridiculous amusement park analogy?

The sun came out again as Sae walked over to the nearest trash can. She tossed out the empty fruit cup, before rounding on her heel. Alright, my mind is made up.

~~~

5/25 - Wednesday
After School
Leblanc Cafe

“What sets Madarame’s art apart from other artists, especially foreign ones, is that he doesn’t forget his roots while expanding his repertoire,” a pompous male customer was ranting from the booth next to the stairs.

“Mhm,” Sojiro made a noncommittal noise as he continued to stare at the newspaper. The crossword was long since solved, but his currently only customer’s monologue about art was apparently far from over.

The story was mercifully cut short as the bell above the door chimed, signaling someone walking inside.

“Welcome,” Sojiro said, glancing over and tossing the paper aside. The relief on his face at a distraction from the ranting dropped slightly as he noticed who it was.

“It’s good to see you again,” Sae said, stepping inside and approaching the counter. “However, I’m afraid I’m not here to dine today.” She turned towards the customer seated in the booth by the stairs. “Apologies, but would you mind giving us privacy?”

“Hey, you can’t just-” Sojiro began to retort, before the pompous male customer cut him off.

“Oh, say no more, Boss,” he chuckled, leaving money on the table and standing up. “I know exactly what’s going on, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“I’m not sure you do…” Sojiro frowned.

“And I have to say, you have surprisingly cultured tastes,” the customer continued, nodding at Sae. “I suppose a woman as elegant as yourself was drawn to the coffee? It’s quite rich here, and-”

“Continue speaking to me and I will press charges of harassment against you.”

“Good day, you two,” the customer smiled, before speed walking past Sae and out the door.

“You can’t just threaten my customers into leaving,” Sojiro muttered once the door had swung shut again.

“Yes, I can tell you craved continued interaction with him.” She rolled her eyes and dug around inside her bag, pushing past the grocery bags to grab and pull out a couple of folders. “Now then, care to answer a few questions? The young man you’ve taken in recently; Ren Amamiya. Can you explain to me your connection with him?”

“I believe I mentioned this last time, but I don’t have to answer any of your questions,” Sojiro said, crossing his arms. “Now if you’re not going to buy anything, get out.”

“Then make me a coffee and indulge me as I talk,” Sae said, walking over and turning off the TV.

“Hey!”

“Ren Amamiya was convicted of assault earlier this year. And your adopted daughter has apparently become a recluse. Now, how would family court feel if I told them about this?”

“I don’t keep the kid in the same house as her if you’re worried for her safety,” Sojiro spat. “What kind of coffee?”

“That Brazilian one,” Sae answered, gesturing vaguely at the shelves behind him before immediately pressing on. “And that raises a different question. Where does Amamiya stay if not in your house? Did you take him in to simply abuse him?”

“That’s not it, either!” Sojiro snapped, aggressively grinding the beans.

“Then answer these two questions,” Sae said, her voice still calm and even. “Where does Amamiya stay? And why did you take him in to begin with?”

“He lives in the spare room upstairs,” Sojiro reluctantly muttered, shaking his head. “And I only agreed to take him because I know his parents.”

“They’re friends of yours?” Sae asked.

“Just acquaintances,” Sojiro sighed. “They sometimes eat in here when in town, so you might have seen them once.”

“Hmm,” Sae frowned in thought. “You’re receiving subsidies for taking him in, correct?”

“Not much,” Sojiro said. “Why? Going to claim that’s a crime now?”

“Not at all,” Sae said. “I’m merely curious as to why your government severance pay isn’t cutting it anymore.” She pulled a photo out of one of the folders and held it out to him. “This is you, isn’t it? Next to one Wakaba Isshiki?”

Sojiro scowled. “You already knew I knew her. What are you trying to prove here?”

“That you have a closer connection to her than you initially let on,” Sae said, slapping the photograph down onto the counter.

“I wasn’t involved in any of her research, as I keep telling you,” Sojiro said, placing the cup of coffee down on top of the picture and pushing it back across the counter. “¥300.”

Sae pulled a small handful of coins from her pocket, dropping them on the counter and picking up the drink. “Thank you.”

“Yeah,” he snorted, snatching them up. “Are you done yet?”

Sae blew on the cup and took a tiny sip. “I’ve been looking into your connection to cognitive psience. To Isshiki. If she found out anything in the waning days of this project, I have no doubt she’d have confided in you. And I won’t stop pushing.”

“Do what you like,” Sojiro said. “It’s a waste of time.”

The bell chimed again, and both adults turned to see Ren awkwardly standing at the door.

“...am I interrupting something?”

“Don’t you have friends you could be spending time with?!” Sojiro snapped.

“And there’s no abuse on your part?” Sae mumbled into the cup.

“What was that?” Sojiro asked.

Sae took an overly long sip to finish off the coffee, setting the empty cup down and picking the photo back up. “We’re done for now, Sakura-san.”

“...wasn’t that still hot?” Ren mumbled, staring at the steam still trailing out of the now empty cup.

At hearing him speak, as well as a faint meow that she almost would say was in response to him, Sae gave a brief glare in Ren’s direction. For his part, Ren immediately knew to step out of her way as she headed for the door.

“Lover’s quarrel?” she could just make out Ren quip as the door swung shut behind her. Sojiro’s response was muffled, but it wasn’t difficult to determine it was angry yelling.

Could use his temper to my advantage, Sae mused as she made her way down the narrow back alleys, heading in the direction of the station. Still, that will require a bit more planning on my part. That aside… She let out a sharp gasp in pain once out of sight of any pedestrians, leaning up against a wall as she caught her breath. Making a mental note to never gulp down hot coffee like that again.

~~~

5/25 - Wednesday
Evening
Niijima Apartment

“I’m home,” Sae said, wearily shutting the door behind her. Today felt oddly more draining than it should have.

“Oh, Sis!” Makoto scrambled to put her phone away as Sae entered the living room. “Welcome home! How was your day?”

“Fine, for the most part,” Sae said. Irritations at the office and in Leblanc aside. “What were you doing on your phone?”

“Oh, just… looking things up,” Makoto replied, a nervous expression on her face.

“I suppose you are at that age,” Sae commented, walking over to the table to set her bag down.

“What do you mean?” Makoto asked, frowning. “At the age for what?” After a few seconds in thought, her eyes widened. “Wait, no, that’s not what I was doing!”

Sae gave a small laugh. “I was teasing. Here, I bought you something.”

“You did?” Makoto asked, slowly approaching.

Sae’s smile dropped slightly. Is she acting cautious of me? “...here, I figured you’ve earned a gift for your perfect score the other week.”

Makoto’s eyes lit up as Sae pulled an old Buchimaru plushie out of her bag. “That’s… Sis, thank you so much! Where in the world did you find this?”

“In an old second-hand shop in Yongen-Jaya, of all places,” Sae replied, smiling slightly.

“Yongen…?” Makoto repeated, her enthusiasm seeming to slow a little.

Sae frowned. “...have you been eyeing this as well? Do you know the store I’m talking about?”

“Oh, no, that’s not it at all,” Makoto said hastily in response to Sae’s sudden shift intone, shaking her head. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been to Yongen-Jaya before.” She gave a big smile. “I… I’m really happy, Sis. When I told you about my scores, I was worried that you didn’t really care…”

“Of course I care if you’re doing well,” Sae said. “That said, don’t expect a gift every time. You are getting to the point you should be outgrowing this sort of thing.”

Makoto nodded. “Alright. Still, I… this means a lot, Sis.” She hugged it tight. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Sae recited. “Now, I had quite the runaround and haven’t been able to eat much today. Could you get started on dinner, please?”

“Sure,” Makoto said. “Just, um, let me put this in my room and wash up real quick.”

“Alright,” Sae said, watching Makoto rush off down the hall, putting her hand to her chin. Raising those concerns all of a sudden like she did put me on a defensive. I had to reassure her. Was that on purpose on her part? Before she could stop herself, she called out. “...Makoto?”

“Yes, Sis?” Makoto asked, emerging empty-handed from her bedroom.

Sae frowned. No, I’m overthinking things. Just like with Arisu Sugimura, I’m acting overly suspicious of opposing strategies. And Makoto definitely isn't like that. “Try to make something that’s not too spicy or acidic. I burned my mouth a little earlier.”

Makoto nodded. “Of course.”

Sae let out a quiet breath as Makoto entered the bathroom, the faint sounds of the sink running almost drowning it out. I have all the materials I need. The sooner I can organize it the better. Once that man gives me the research I need to solve this case, I can relax. Perhaps a vacation with the lawsuit earnings… Makoto might need it too, with how jumpy she’s been lately.

“Just a few more wins…” Sae muttered aloud as she sat down at their dining table.

Makoto paused at the end of the hall, giving her sister a brief frown, before continuing on towards the kitchen.

Chapter Text

5/26 - Thursday
Early Morning
Shibuya Station

Days Until Exhibit Ends: 10
Steal Madarame’s Heart

Makoto climbed the stairs up to the Ginza platform, and immediately spotted Morgana's head sticking out of Ren's bag, the boy himself leaning against the wall in wait. And, as usual when Makoto spots one of her friends on the train platform, she cuts a path straight for him. “Good morning, Ren.”

“Oh, Makoto,” Ren looked back in surprise. “Good morning.”

“Hey, Makoto, quick question,” Morgana suddenly mewed. “Have you ever chugged down piping hot liquid before?”

“That is one of the oddest questions that has been asked of me,” Makoto replied, blinking. “May I ask as to why you're inquiring?”

“We saw your sister at Leblanc yesterday,” Ren said.

“My sister?” Makoto repeated. She looked down. “I suppose that makes sense as to why she was suddenly asking if I had been to Yongen…”

“Did she get mad at you?” Ren asked, a concerned expression on his face.

“Oh, no, she was actually in a rather good mood last night,” Makoto said, brightening up. “She even bought me a present!”

“Oh, that’s great,” Ren said, forcing himself to match Makoto’s smile.

Makoto nodded. “It gave me renewed vigor. Then again, I’m not the one who will be stalling for time…”

“Don’t worry, Lady Ann will have me for backup,” Morgana said.

Makoto nodded. “Let me know if she’s still okay with this afternoon. I worry about if it’ll be too fast for her.”

“I’ll check once we’re in homeroom,” Ren said as the train pulled up.

“Oh, here we go,” Makoto said, turning and leading the way on board.

“Hey!” Morgana whispered into Ren’s ear. “She said her sister was in a good mood last night? But didn’t we catch her basically bullying Boss?”

“I noticed, too,” Ren whispered back. “Just… try not to mention it. For all we know, something improved her mood after she left Leblanc.”

“I’m surprised you’re trying to see a bright side, but… fine,” Morgana agreed, retreating into the bag.

Ren frowned, staring through the crowd at Makoto as she managed to snag an open seat. ...no, we promised. If something was wrong, she’d tell me.

~~~

5/26 - Thursday
After School
Central Street

After picking up their orders as usual, Haru returned to the table, frowning. “Ann-chan, are you doing okay?”

“No, not really,” Ann said. “But it’s our only real choice, isn’t it? Actually!” She immediately brightened up. “Haru, you could come with me this time! And we can just break that door down, wait for Madarame, and-”

“It wouldn’t be good if Haru was caught in any sort of wrongdoing,” Makoto interrupted. “As it is, her father is already wary of her spending time with me.”

“And as far as anyone else is concerned, you’re the epitome of rule-abiding,” Ren commented.

“I suppose so, yes,” Makoto nodded.

“Damn it,” Ann slumped back and crossed her arms. “...fine. I’m not comfortable with any part of this idea, though.”

“You’re just stalling for time,” Ren explained. “You don’t really need to get naked or anything.”

“I know,” Ann said. “That still doesn’t help me from getting grossed out, though.”

“I still can’t believe this is a conversation I’m a part of,” Makoto said, rubbing her temples. “So… while Ann distracts Kitagawa, Morgana will be picking the lock?”

“Ren and I practiced last night, I can do this,” Morgana said.

“...where did you practice?”

“We didn’t break into any stores if that’s what you’re worried about,” Ren said.

“Um, Haru, can you help keep the bathroom clear so I can change?” Ann asked.

“Of course,” Haru nodded. “Be right back!” The two of the jumped up from the table and made their way to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant, Ann lugging an overly stuffed bag behind her.

“...there’s no way this will fool him,” Makoto sighed.

“Be more positive,” Morgana said. “Anyway, once they return, we’re heading out, so finish eating.”

“What do we need to be doing?” Ren asked, taking a bite nonetheless.

“There’s no telling how long the cognition change will remain in effect,” Morgana said. “It might be only as long as that door itself is open. So you’ll need to dart through and shut down the actual security inside the Palace.”

“I don’t really like that…” Ren frowned, setting his burger down. “Won’t that mean you and Ann would be all alone on this end? And with no way to contact us?”

“Worst case scenario, you may need to flee into the Metaverse,” Makoto said, forcing a swallow. “I’m a little uneasy about that idea, since entering from inside might throw you anywhere, but…”

“We’ll be okay, Queen,” Morgana said. “Just don’t let my hard work go to waste.”

“Uh, Ann’s working hard, too,” Ren said.

“I-I know that!” Morgana stammered. “I would never undersell Lady Ann’s contribution!”

Makoto rolled her eyes as she finished her salad, and looked back over her shoulder towards the bathroom. “What is taking her so-” She cut herself off, staring in surprise as Ann lumbered back towards them, apparently wearing every piece of clothing in her closet all at once.

The guests and staff of Big Bang Burger alike all couldn’t help but stare as well, only to stop and return to their own business at the glare Haru shot them.

“I feel ridiculous and sweaty…” Ann complained.

“...I don’t blame you,” Makoto replied.

“Are you going to get there okay?” Ren asked.

“...I’ll be fine,” Ann said. She put on a fake smile. “Okay! Let’s get this over with!”

There is no way this will work, Makoto thought as they helped Ann get out of the restaurant.

~~~

5/26 - Thursday
After School
Central Street - Residential Area

Yusuke immediately leapt up at the sound of the doorbell, eagerly pressing the talk button. “Who is it?”

“It’s Takamaki!” Ann’s voice replied.

“I’ll be right there!” Yusuke quickly made his way down the hall and opened the door. “Takamaki-san!”

“H-heya!” Ann said, awkwardly shifting her arm in an attempt at a wave.

“H-hey…” Yusuke stuttered in response, looking over the many layers of clothing clinging to Ann. “A-are you… alright? You seem a bit… bulkier than I remember.”

“Oh, um, I guess I had too much to eat today!” Ann said, putting unnatural stress on certain words.

“...I see,” Yusuke nodded. “I can’t say I’ve had that problem before myself…” He stepped back. “Anyway, sensei will be returning soon, so let’s not waste any time. You remember where my art studio is?”

“Sure do!” Ann said, straining to squeeze through the door frame.

“Yowch!” Morgana winced from inside one of the layers at the sudden pinch.

“Did… you hear a cat just now?” Yusuke asked, sticking his head out of the studio to look back down the hall at Ann.

“Oh, um, I don’t think so!”

“...I see.” Yusuke seemed satisfied with this response, and retreated back inside.

Ann sighed and wiggled a little to let Morgana drop down out of one of the jackets. “Get going. I don’t know how long I can keep this up!”

“Leave it to me!” Morgana gave a quick stretch, before quietly darting off into the house and up the stairs.

Ann sighed before making her face look cheerful again as she forced her way into the room, the floors creaking slightly under all the weight her clothes added. “Um, so like, can you not look at me as I strip? It makes me feel… uncomfortable.”

“Yes, of course,” Yusuke nodded, turning his back to her.

“So, we’re going to be doing it in here, huh?” Ann asked, managing to get the first layer off and tossing it over by Yusuke’s feet.

Yusuke flinched. “Ah! Uh, yes, if that’s alright.”

“Hmm…” Ann hummed. “I dunno… I mean, I’ll be…” She threw another article of clothing over. “...baring it all.”

Yusuke seemed to give a nervous gasp again. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“Is there a room with a lock anywhere?” Ann asked in a fake flirtatious voice, tossing over one of her spare Shujin skirts.

“...sensei’s room is…” Yusuke mumbled, staring at the discarded skirt as it landed next to him. “I mean, no! I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed in sensei’s room. I don’t even have the key for it.”

“Aww…” Ann said, her tone clear she was pouting as she pulled off several more layers. “Phew…” She wiped some of the sweat from her brow. “Uh, sure I can’t change your mind…? I’d feel so much… happier if we’d have privacy!”

“...m-maybe…” Yusuke stuttered. “If the model is happier, she may be willing to try more dynamic poses… the painting may improve from this!” He frowned. “Then again… sensei is really adamant at keeping people out of his room…”

“...oh boy, this will take a lot of pushing,” Ann mumbled.

“Did you say something, Takamaki- uh…?” Yusuke’s eyes were immediately drawn to the large pile of clothes at Ann’s feet, the girl herself clad in the same variation she gave her Shujin uniform as all previous times they met. “...you were wearing all that?”

“I was feeling pretty cold today!” Ann said.

“You were?” Yusuke questioned. “I was rather hot myself, but… I suppose with the sun setting…”

“So, yeah, take me to your sensei’s room and… let’s do it…!” Ann said. Her face twitched slightly as she fought off cringing at herself. Oh, geez, I’m never living this down… To hide her embarrassment, Ann quickly retreated into the hall.

“Ah, T-Takamaki-san, wait!” Yusuke called after her.

“Y’know, it is pretty hot after all, huh?” Ann asked, tossing her blazer off to further entice the artist.

“A-ahh!” Yusuke gave a whimpering gasp, before running after her.

~~~

5/26 - Thursday
After School
Madarame’s Palace

Makoto blinked in surprise as, after recruiting the enemy Apsaras as a new Persona, she didn’t stumble as she usually does.

“Queen?” Ren asked.

“Oh, yes, let’s not waste time,” Makoto said, leading them on a rush back into the courtyard. Is it because it matches my Arcana? Or maybe I’m finally getting used to this power...

“The barricade is still here!” Haru announced as the three of them reached the wall of lasers and the same, giant locked door as last time.

“I hope we aren’t too late,” Makoto said.

“We didn’t… take too long,” Ren said, catching his breath. Once he was done with that, he straightened up and put his hands into his pockets. “So… now we wait, huh?”

“Now we wait.”

“I’m so nervous,” Haru mumbled. “Will Ann-chan- I mean, Panther be okay? ...If she’s not in the Metaverse with us, should I still use the codename?”

“It’s been awhile since there’s been so few of us in the Metaverse, huh?” Ren asked. “I mean, Noir wasn’t there for it, but me and you, Queen.”

“It’s been over a month,” Makoto nodded. “Time sure is flying.”

“We’ll be graduating soon,” Haru frowned. “I’m going to miss high school a little, I think.”

“Really?” Ren asked. “I’m never in any hurry to go back to it myself. Shujin is awful and Matsu-Cho was tiny and underfunded.”

“Well, the environment isn’t the best, but… there’s a lot less to worry about,” Haru explained. “Am I ready for university? Will I even be able to go? What can I do so I’m not exploited like so many others? Queen, you know what I mean, right?”

Makoto nodded absentmindedly, placing a hand to her chin. I’ve been distracted with Phantom Thief work, but… I will be in college next year. Can I keep up this double-life? What should I even do in college?

“I guess I never paid it much thought,” Ren said. “Third-years have a lot on their minds, huh, senpais?”

“Mhm,” Haru nodded.

Makoto shook her head. “Let’s stay focused on the matter at hand.” Her eyes followed the flowing branches of gold stretching between the two buildings of the museum. “...we seem to be clear out here, but Shadows could ambush us if we aren’t careful.”

Ren nodded, and Haru cautiously held her axe up as if to dissuade any potential guards from attacking.

Hurry up, Ann. Mona.

~~~

5/26 - Thursday
After School
Central Street - Residential Area

“Takamaki-san, wait!” Yusuke said, continuing to follow Ann through the halls, desperately grabbing the last of her discarded clothing.

“Which way to your sensei’s room?” Ann asked in a singsong voice, swaying slightly as she walked. I hope it’s soon, because this tanktop and jean shorts are all that’s left! She rounded a corner, eye immediately drawn to the peacock feather door, as well as the black cat currently scratching at the lock. “You haven’t opened it yet?!”

“I am stuck with these catpaws!” Morgana complained. “Just… a little more, Lady Ann, please!”

“Takamaki-san?” Yusuke asked, finally catching up.

“Oh!” Ann quickly whirled around to face him, keeping herself between the artist and Morgana. “So… there’s a locked room right here! What’s inside?”

Morgana winced. “Why is she talking so weird?”

“Th-that’s sensei’s storage room,” Yusuke stuttered. “We store old paintings in there. But- you’re not allowed inside! Only sensei is!”

Ann pouted. “But Kitagawa-kun…! I wanna be alone with you where it’s, like, quiet and stuff! I’d be so embarrassed if we were inte