"It appears that you have managed to purge the darkness that clouded your heart," came an unfamiliar, soothing feminine voice.
"Huh...!" Akechi gasped and opened his eyes. Everything was dark, and the only thing he could see was a small butterfly that emanated a gentle blue light. What was that voice just now? Did it come from the butterfly? Akechi didn't know. All he knew was that he was wary of unfamiliar voices in his head. It was one of those that had introduced him to the Metaverse and set him on the path to destruction, after all.
"You have been chosen by a malevolent entity to play an important part in his twisted and unfair game." The voice continued. "However, it appears that you were able to overcome the vulnerabilities that he took advantage of. If this voice is reaching you, then it means that your mind is open to new possibilities. You may have lost the chance to have a bright future, thanks to all the harm you have caused. Even so, if you have even the smallest intention of atoning for what you have done, then stand up and use your power for what is right, and to benefit others instead of causing harm. You must acquire new vows, which shall become the wings of rebellion to foil the twisted game. Oh, first Trickster. Rebel against the malevolent entity, and prevent him from stealing other people's futures."
The butterfly zoomed past Akechi and disappeared. All that remained was a trail of shining blue light.
Akechi gasped, startled awake on the train, on the way to the TV studio for an interview. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down, and began reflecting on his current situation.
Thanks to an unexpected run in with Akira Kurusu, Akechi ended up learning what it meant to deepen a bond with someone, and then he was sure he had finally gotten what he had always wanted. The feeling of being accepted, of being cared about. And he didn't need Shido or the stupid revenge for that. In fact, it was as though a dark cloud had dissipated from Akechi's vision, and allowed him to see the surroundings more clearly. He saw how pointless and flawed his revenge plan was, and what he could do from then on.
Akechi tried to go over his strange dream just now. As wary as he was about unfamiliar voices talking to him, that one just now was probably right. Akechi had lost the right to have anything good in his future. His past actions were unforgivable, and nothing he could do could make things right. Getting involved with the Metaverse was the worst thing he had ever done. And this was why he felt he needed to get the Phantom Thieves out of that mess before they went in too deep and had their futures destroyed as well.
For that, Akechi would need to convince the Phantom Thieves to stay away from people involved in the mess. However, he would also need to continue opposing them on TV to mislead Shido and make him think all was going according to the twisted plan. And this was what Akechi would do in the interview he was headed to.
The interview played out with no issue, except for the reporter throwing at his face how low Akechi's popularity had gotten after the Medged incident. That aside...
"You had mentioned that you had found common points between the changes of heart and the mental shutdowns," The male reporter said. "Do you think the Phantom Thieves are behind the shutdowns as well?"
"This is unclear at this point. However, we can't deny that both the changes of heart and the mental diseases are sudden and so far unexplainable occurrences. If the Phantom Thieves have anything to do with those, though, only time will tell. Sooner or later, they will show their true colors. Then, we shall see what is what. There is only one thing I can say for sure, though."
"And that is?" The reporter asked for effect.
"No matter what happens, justice will prevail in the end." As cliched as that statement was, the determination in Akechi's eyes was convincing. Not because he was a good actor, but because he wasn't acting at all. His expression was genuine and reflected his true intentions. Intentions which Shido wouldn't guess, as he had no reason to suspect anything.
... ... ... ... ...
Tuesday, September 13
Since Okumura was at the top in the Phantom Thieves' forum rankings, Akechi was sure the gang would show up at Okumura's Palace sooner or later. So, he went there in his black armor, and waited.
Akechi didn't need to wait much. The robotic Shadow guards were restlessly searching for some intruders. He followed the Shadows to see what was going on, and found the said intruders trying to escape. It was that odd cat-like creature that was always with the Phantom Thieves, and a girl who Akechi had never seen before. When they failed to escape and the Shadows got to them, Akechi took the opportunity to come out and have Loki burn the enemy robots to ashes.
"Um, I don't know who you are, but thank you for saving us," the girl said with a slight bow.
"Y-you...!" The cat-like creature gasped. "A black mask... no, more like a black helmet..." He mumbled to himself, then glared accusingly. "You're the Persona user causing mental shutdowns in the Metaverse, aren't you?!"
"That's right." Akechi had no reason to lie. He spoke in a cold and dark tone, completely different from the polite and friendly way he normally spoke in the real world.
Alarmed, the cat-like creature stood in front of the girl. "Beauty Thief, stay back! He's dangerous!"
"Huh?" The girl stepped back uncertainly.
"I have no intention to fight." Akechi stated. "I only have a message for the Phantom Thieves."
"Hmph." The cat-like figure scoffed. "Then you came to the wrong place. I have nothing to do with them anymore!"
"Hmm? You had a falling-out?" Akechi concluded. "Ah, it doesn't matter. The next time you see them, just deliver them my message."
"What if I refuse?"
"Um, Mona-chan, why are you being so cold to him?" The girl joined the conversation. "He saved us. Couldn't you at least say thank you?"
"He's the one causing mental breakdowns and shutdowns! He's an enemy!"
"You have said that before, but I still don't understand. He's 'Causing' those? I had thought those were natural diseases..."
"Yeah, he's causing them! He said so himself. You heard it!" The cat-like creature, who the girl had addressed as "Mona-chan, spoke to her, then turned his attention to Akechi. "I have no reason to play messenger for you, or to talk to the Phantom Thieves! Beauty Thief and I will change Okumura's heart by ourselves. Just the two of us!"
Akechi sighed at the creature's stubbornness. "Then, what I have to say extends to the two of you as well."
"Huh?" The girl looked at him inquisitively. Unlike Mona, she seemed willing to listen.
"Don't go after Okumura. It's a trap." Akechi gave his message, confident that even if Mona wouldn't tell the other Phantom Thieves, the girl would. "Targeting him will put not only Okumura, but also the Phantom Thieves in serious danger."
"... What?" Mona froze for a second.
The girl seemed worried. "This doesn't sound good... Mona-chan, I think we should tell them..." She looked uncertainly at Akechi. "Um... thank you?"
Akechi chuckled at the girl's reaction. "This was all that I had to say. Now, if you excuse me..."
"Please, wait!" The girl stopped him. "How may we address you?"
"Hmm?" Akechi hesitated. They clearly hadn't figured out his real identity, and he preferred it would stay that way, at least for now.
"This is Mona-chan, and I'm Beauty Thief." She introduced both of them. "You are?"
Akechi considered the situation. From the snippets of conversation he had managed to hear when he had stalked the Phantom Thieves in the Metaverse, he could gather that the group members addressed each other by nicknames. Or code names, perhaps. Akechi figured he should do the same. And it so happened that he already had come up with one.
"Hmm, I see. If you want to refer to me, you may call me... Crow." That was the code name Akechi had meant to use once the Phantom Thieves had fallen into Shido's trap and Akechi had joined them temporarily to sell them out. He was hesitant to use that one now that the circumstances were different, but it would be easier than coming up with a new one.
Akechi stepped back and left. Hopefully, that warning would be enough to cause the Phantom Thieves to stay away from Okumura and derail Shido's plan.
... ... ... ... ...
Out of the Metaverse, Akechi decided to have a nice cup of coffee, and headed to Leblanc.
"Oh, Akechi-kun." Akira greeted him. Unlike usual, she seemed a bit down. She was seated at a table doing nothing, literally with her arms crossed.
"You seem worried." Akechi noted. "What happened?"
"The cat ran away." Sakura-san answered for Akira.
"What?" Akechi had had his suspicions. He had been 99% sure that Akira was a Phantom Thief. Now, he was 100% sure. And her talking cat could only be the same creature he had been trying to talk to in the Metaverse a while ago. But something about the current situation was strange. Even though Akira and Sakura-san looked worried, they didn't seem to be doing anything about the issue at the moment. "Where did you already look?"
"Nah, there's no need. We're just letting him cool off for a bit," was what Akira said, though worry was evident on her face.
That was stupid.
"Wait, you simply let him run away and did nothing? You didn't even look for him!"
"From the way he stormed off angrily, he doesn't want to be looked for," Akira said.
"I'm sure he'll come back when he gets hungry," Sakura-san added.
Akechi had seen how said "cat" was in the Metaverse having a hard time running away from Shadows. Akira should go look for Mona as soon as possible before something bad could happen.
"Akira, I still think you should look for him, if only to make sure he's okay. Seriously, seeing you with arms crossed like this gives the impression that you don't even care, and this is so unlike you!"
Akira froze for a second. "Of course I care! ... Uh, I guess you're right. I'll look for him." She stood up.
"Is there anywhere in particular he likes to go? Perhaps somewhere akin to a special spot..." Akechi tried to subtly drop a hint that the supernatural creature might be in the Metaverse.
"Hmm, yeah, I guess so." Akira took her phone. "I'll call my friends to see if they can help in the search."
"I'd help you, but I still have some work to do." Akechi lied. He didn't want Mona finding out he had been involved in the search. "I'll just have a nice cup of coffee and get back to work. Good luck with your search, Akira. I hope you find him soon."
By the moment Akira reassembled all the Phantom Thieves in Leblanc's attic, Akechi had already left.
"Hadn't Morgana said something about taking Okumura's treasure by himself?" Ann observed. "Do you think he might've gone to the Metaverse?"
"It's possible," Makoto said. "Futaba has already figured out the location and the keywords to Okumura's Palace. Even though it's almost nightfall, I think we should go take a look. Otherwise, Morgana might end up spending the night in the Metaverse, and who knows what might happen."
Before they had time to reach the location and enter the Metaverse, though, they heard Morgana's cry for help on the street, and found him with a female Shujin student being hassled by a man. And this was how they ended up helping Haru Okumura and taking her to Leblanc.
It turned out that Morgana was happy to see that the Phantom Thieves came looking for him. Kudos to Akechi for insisting on that!
Morgana apologized and made up with them, and the Phantom Thieves learned about Haru's arranged marriage and how her father treated her, and also how she ended up in the Palace when she ran into Morgana and awakened to a Persona.
"Um, guys, I almost forgot." Morgana began. "I know it's getting late, but this is important. We ran into the other Metaverse user."
"You mean, the black-masked Persona user that Madarame's and Kaneshiro's Shadows mentioned?" Ann asked.
"More like, black armor, but yeah," Morgana said. "Like we suspected, he's the true culprit. The one behind the mental shutdowns. He confirmed so himself."
"F-for real!" Ryuji exclaimed while Futaba made a horrified face and the others showed worry.
"Did he do anything to any of you!?" Akira asked in concern.
"Actually, he saved us from some Shadows," Haru said.
"Saved?" Ryuji blinked.
"Yes." Morgana confirmed. "His Persona was really strong, from what I could tell. And he told us to deliver a warning to the Phantom Thieves. He told us to not go after Okumura. He said that it's a trap, and that if we target him, both Okumura and all of us will be in serious danger."
"Huh?" Ryuji rolled his eyes. "That's weird."
"So, he decided to suddenly come out and threaten us?" Futaba concluded.
"I don't know." Morgana closed his eyes in thought. "I have no idea what his intentions are. But it was really strange. He only kept insisting that we delivered his message to you guys, and never showed any intention of attacking us."
"Did he inform you of his name?" Yusuke asked.
"No, just a code name." Morgana answered. "He told us to call him 'Crow.'"
"Crow... I wonder whether this code name tells us anything about him..." Yusuke mused.
"Well, his armor is all black." Morgana pointed out.
"Oh. I guess that's all that there is to it then..." Makoto concluded.
Akira covered her mouth to suppress a yawn. "Let's rest for now and think about this tomorrow."
... ... ... ... ...
Wednesday, September 14
On the way to school, Akira ran into Akechi at the train station.
"Good morning." Akechi greeted her. "Did you find your cat?"
"Yep. Here he is." Akira opened the bag and forced Morgana out of hiding.
"H-hey!" Morgana protested.
"Wait, what? You're taking him to school?!"
"Yeah, he stays quiet under my desk just fine."
Akechi's mouth hung slightly open. "Akira, your bravery impresses me..."
"Not only to school. I take him almost everywhere." Akira revealed.
"Wow. What is his name, again?"
"Huh? But that is a female name." Akechi pointed out.
The little feline couldn't hold himself. "I am a Man! 'Man' with a capital 'M.' 'M' for Morgana!"
"Uh, he already had this name when I met him." Akira justified.
Akechi chuckled. "Ah. You seem so close. It's strange that he'd have decided to run away."
"Don't talk like you know anything!" Morgana shouted.
Akechi only stared at Morgana amusedly. "Are you sure he can get himself to stay quiet?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. He's just kinda... protective? Uh, something like that. He gets kinda agitated near strangers."
"This was rather contradictory. You must run into a lot of strangers wherever you go, right? Shouldn't this mean you have a hard time getting him to stay quiet?" The detective observed. "Or perhaps he just doesn't like me in particular? Whatever. It doesn't matter. As long as you can get by without getting in trouble, it's fine."
Morgana was annoyed at being their conversation's focus. He said to Akira, "I bet now he's going to talk about the Phantom Thieves. I mean, he always does..."
"I have to be going. See you around." Akechi smiled to Akira and walked away.
"What? No Phantom Thieves comment?" Morgana was incredulous. "Wait, isn't he acting a bit different today? More... at ease? I don't know how to describe it."
"Oh, yeah. You know, when everyone went to the school trip and I went to attend that course, I ran into Akechi-kun by chance. We spent some time together, and grew closer." She wouldn't mention that she shared a hotel room with him or their fluffy moments, though. "This is why he's more at ease around me now, and why we have more subjects to talk about besides the Phantom Thieves."
"You should be careful, Akira. He's against us. You heard all the stuff he says on television. And he has connections to the police, too. If he finds out you're a Phantom Thief..."
"Yeah, I know, I know." Akira waved off nonchalantly. "The Phantom Thieves is the one topic we can't seem to agree on. But I swear I'll make him change his mind one of these days!"
... ... ... ... ...
After school, Akira assembled the Phantom Thieves plus Haru in the attic.
Haru told them how her father wanted to basically "sell" her to her fiancée - the man that had hassled her yesterday.
"No, we have to change his heart. There's no other way!" Ryuji was angry.
"According to prosecutor Niijima's files, Okumura's really doing wicked stuff." Futaba pointed out.
"Um, but what about Crow's warning?" Haru asked.
"We can't let that stop us!" Ann countered. "Okumura is the kind of person that needs a change of heart, and we can't ignore him!"
Akira raised a hand. "Actually, I'd like to talk to this 'Crow' first. He said it was a trap. But what did he mean by that? Who's behind said trap, and why? I'd like to hear more details. If his arguments happen to be a load of nonsense, I think we can ignore the warning. But what if he has valid points? I mean, to say, 'don't go after Okumura or you'll regret it,' is one thing. But to come out and specifically say it's a trap? Why would he do that? I think we should learn more before we decide on our next move."
"It's a sensible plan." Yusuke nodded. "How can we find him, though?"
"I don't think it'd be too difficult." Makoto gave her opinion. "He must be keeping tabs on us in the Metaverse. If we go to Okumura's Palace, I'm sure we'll run into him.
Akira agreed. "Yeah, exactly what I thought. Let's go!"
The Phantom Thieves headed to Okumura's Palace. There, they saw how Okumura viewed his employees as mere robots which he overworked without mercy. The more they saw, the more sure they became that they had to change his heart. Haru fully awakened to her Persona power, and The Phantom Thieves defeated some robot Shadows, including one that was the cognitive representation of Haru's creepy fiancée.
"It looks like you've really decided to ignore my warning..." Came a dark and cold voice.
Everyone froze in their tracks and turned in the voice's direction. Sure enough, it was the black-armored Persona user!
Oracle took a step back. "E-everyone, be careful! He's real strong!"
"So, you're Crow, huh?" Skull didn't seem to pay any mind to Oracle's warning. He was ready to pick a fight. "You're the one behind the mental shutdowns?!"
Oracle glared angrily, and the others stood on edge.
"You admit it, just like that?" Skull looked at him with disdain.
Panther was equally ticked. "You've harmed so many people! You've even killed! And you just come and admit you caused mental shutdowns as though it were nothing!"
"Don't make assumptions!" Crow's voice rose dangerously and made everyone jump. But then, its volume went back to normal as suddenly as it had risen. "I know what I did, and don't intend to run away from it."
"Um, why did you do those things?" Their newest member, Noir - formerly Beauty Thief -, asked.
"I was only following orders." He answered.
Skull sneered. "Oh, and now you're gonna blame someone else for what you did, huh? It's the same kinda bullshit Kamoshida and Madarame and Kaneshiro and every other baddie says. That it's society's fault, that they're the victims, blah blah blah."
Crow hesitated for a moment. "... While I can't deny some of that, I won't try to justify my past actions. I know fully well that they're inexcusable. But enough about me. I'm here to talk about your group, Phantom Thieves of Hearts." His gaze stopped on Mona. "By the way, I see that you're back in the group already. That was fast."
"Hmph. It's none of your business." Mona told him condescendingly. "You're here to say something, right? Then, spill it already!"
Joker went straight to the point. "You told us to not go after Okumura, and said it's a trap. We need more details."
"You really have no idea of the trouble you're getting into..." Crow sounded disappointed. "I hoped I wouldn't need to go into detail, as it's dangerous to know too much. But it sounds like I have no choice." He sighed. "Fine then. I'll explain. The rankings were manipulated. Most of those accesses and votes on the website are fake."
"... What?" Panther gasped. "But why? Who?"
"Who? The same group that posed as Medged. Why? To lead your group to go after Okumura."
"You're saying that... those guys were just posers?" Oracle was confused. "This'd explain why their code was so amateurish. But I still don't get it!"
"What would the problem be about going after Okumura?" Queen asked. "He is clearly doing horrible things. This Palace is proof of it." She motioned to the scenery around them.
"Yes, of course he is." Crow answered. "As are most of the people involved with the organization I ended up in. The mastermind uses whoever he views as worth using, then gets rid of them. This is what he intends to do to Okumura as well."
Noir gasped in shock, and worry filled her eyes.
"This makes no sense!" Skull shouted. "What do we have to do with that?"
"Will you let me finish!?" Crow hollered in irritation and startled everyone again. "The problem is that your group is garnering too much attention, and he has his eyes on you now. He's the one who stole the research about the Metaverse. He plans to use the Metaverse for his gain, and you're in his way."
Oracle gaped. "The one who stole... the research..."
"He had the rankings manipulated in order to lead you to target Okumura. He wants to have the public's eyes glued to the forum and the Phantom Thieves, then have the media cause a commotion once you send the calling card so that the general public sees it. And then..." Crow trailed off.
"... And then what?" Joker tried to get him to continue.
Crow didn't seem the least bit pleased with what he was about to say. "... He intends to force me to cause a mental shutdown on Okumura, and then he intends to blame the Phantom Thieves for it."
Nothing could have prepared any of the Phantom Thieves for that revelation.
Everyone remained silent, until Skull couldn't take it anymore. "This is so messed up!"
Crow wasn't done yet. "This isn't all. If that happens, the more famous you are, the worse it will be, since more people will turn against your group. If you get blamed for the incident with Okumura, the police's most logical course of action will be to blame you for all the mental shutdowns and whatever other unusual incidents so far."
"I-incidents that you caused!" Oracle pointed a shaky accusing finger at him.
"... I'm sorry." He really sounded ashamed.
But skull would have none of it. "'Sorry?' After everything you did, that's all you have to say?!"
Crow briefly looked like a little child being scolded, but he quickly regained his composure. "What do you suggest I should do, then?! I know that nothing I say will change what already happened. But I had to say something!"
It sounded like Crow and Skull shouting back and forth would become a trend.
Joker raised a hand. "Um, guys, would you let him finish his explanation? Crow, go on."
"Thank you, Leader." Crow looked grateful for her intervention. "As I was saying, if your group gets charged with all of that, you will be treated as true criminals. You may be arrested. He has the police, and even the Special Investigation Unit on the palm of his hands. If you get caught, then your life will be as good as over."
"The... Special Investigation Unit!" Queen gasped. "No... this can't be..."
"Huh? Special... Investigation Unit? What's that?" Skull asked her.
"It's a special unit composed of the most capable investigators in Japan." Queen explained. "They deal with scandals and incidents that are big enough to be deemed a threat to the country. They haven't failed a case in more than 50 years!"
"What the hell!?" Skull exclaimed. "You're saying powerful guys like those may come and arrest us!? ... B-but they don't have proof!" He looked at Crow. "Unless you're planning to sell us out..."
"They don't need proof. They can very well fabricate evidence in order to maintain their successful reputation. Why do you think their success rate is so high? That SIU Director is an evidence-forging expert."
That was too much. That whole story was too "messed up," as Skull had put it. Joker didn't want to believe it, and could tell that the same went for the others. It might as well be just a very elaborate story to scare the Phantom Thieves and make them give up and get out of the enemy's way.
"You are implying that the SIU is going as far as to incriminate innocent people to maintain their reputation?" Queen refused to believe that. "No, no, no. It can't be! All of this sounds like a huge exaggeration. And evidence forgery? This is a really grave accusation."
"This is no exaggeration nor an accusation. It's fact." Crow countered. "I could take you to the SIU director's Palace and show you."
"You're saying that this director guy has a Palace?" Panther said.
"Yes. Most of the people involved in this mess have one. I'm telling you that they're no good. Hopefully now you've realized what you're up against. The unfair 'justice' of a corrupt system. I'm warning you. You should jump out of this mess before it's too late. It'd be in your best interest to cease your activities and disband."
"... Disband?" Panther echoed.
"And leave you to do whatever you want in the Metaverse? No way!" Skull refused. "Aren't you just telling us all this to make us give up so that we get outta your way or something?" He voiced the thought that must have been in everyone's minds.
"Forging evidence? It is hard to believe that one of the most reliable organizations of the country would resort to such a dirty method," Fox argued.
"Unfortunately, it's true," Crow said. "Corruption knows no bounds. I can't blame you for distrusting me, though. If you don't believe what I said, then you're free to investigate by yourselves. You have the means to do that, don't you? You've even managed to defeat those hackers, after all."
Crow left. The Phantom Thieves stood there, unsure as to what to do.
"Joker! What he said isn't true, is it?!" Skull spoke up, and all eyes focused on Akira, as though she had the answers to all the problems in the world.
"I-I don't know." Joker answered in a shaky voice. "It might be a lie. What he said now might be the real trap. He might be trying to scare us off, like you said. Or he might be trying to ruin the police and the Special Investigation whatever's image and planning something against them. Or... it might all be true..."
"I'll look into some databases online and see what I can find." Oracle decided.
"I believe the SIU Director is Sis' superior," Queen said. "If what Crow said is true, then Sis might be in trouble! I'll try to find out his name to check whether he really has a Palace."
"Let's assemble again tomorrow and discuss our findings." Joker put an end to the discussion for the moment.
They left the Metaverse, and were silent on their way home. Akira said nothing else because she didn't want to worry her friends even more, but she was really scared now. She had experienced firsthand how unfair the law system could be. She was in big trouble already, under probation, accused of a crime she didn't commit. She knew what it was like to have her reputation ruined in a blink, to be labeled as a delinquent and expelled from school, to see her chances of getting a good future diminish, and to be looked down by anyone who found out about her probation. Akira was lucky that Shujin accepted her, but still. If what Crow said were true and she and her friends eventually got charged with murder and all the mental shutdowns, it would really be over. Not only Akira, but her friends would also lose everything. They would be treated as criminals forever, and would never again have a place in society.
That was the worst possible, and least desirable scenario. Yet, there was something about Crow that made Akira want to trust his words. For some reason, Akira felt a strange connection to him, not unlike the ones she had with her Confidants. It wasn't unusual for her to feel empathy towards her Confidants, which made her feel a bit of what they felt and helped her understand better what they were going through. Even though Crow wasn't supposed to be her Confidant - at least there were no visions of Tarot cards or voices in her head talking about Arcana so far -, she felt sadness and shame. It was as though she could tell that Crow had too much to explain and too much to regret.
Back at her room in Leblanc's attic, Akira wondered how she could investigate some of those nagging points Crow had mentioned. She scrolled through her list of contacts on her phone, until her gaze stopped on the newest addition to the list: Goro Akechi. They had traded numbers at the hotel a few days ago, and he had told her he would do his best to help her if she needed something. Akira considered contacting him. He might know something. He was a detective, after all. But he already suspected her and her friends of being the Phantom Thieves. If she were to ask him about those specific pieces of information, he would probably become even more suspicious of her. So, Akira gave up on that idea for now.
... ... ... ... ...
Thursday, September 15
After school, the Phantom Thieves assembled at the attic again.
"Guys..." Futaba began. "I didn't find anything about the police yet, but I did some digging into the Phansite. And... yeah, it's confirmed. Most of the accesses and votes on the rankings are manipulated. They left traces, and I could see that they used the same kind of half-assed cut and paste code as those Medged fakers."
"I also have news." Makoto raised a hand hesitantly. "I wasn't brave enough to ask Sis about the SIU Director. But I looked up some interviews with him online and managed to find his full name. I put his name into the Metaverse app, and... yes, I got a hit."
"Then... the things Crow said might be true...?" Ann shakily voiced the conclusion that was probably on everyone's minds.
"Uh, but, just because someone has a Palace doesn't automatically mean that they're evil." Morgana wasn't willing to accept Crow's words just yet. "It just means that they have distorted views of the world around them."
"Y-yes, but..." Makoto trailed off.
"For all we know, Crow may be using these particular facts to mislead us and have us fall into another trap." Morgana didn't falter.
"What if Crow is telling the truth, though?" Akira argued.
Ryuji cursed loudly. "If all that's true and we get blamed for the mental shutdowns, Akechi'll be the first one to latch onto that!"
Ann agreed. "Yeah. He keeps saying that the mental shutdowns and the changes of heart are similar. And he said that we'll show our true colors sooner or later, or something like that. If we get blamed, it'll be a field day for him!" She grunted. "Just imagining his smug face on TV makes me sick."
"Hey, his name is high on the rankings, too." Ryuji reminded them. ""Why don't we just do what our fans want and go change his heart?"
"Akechi-kun doesn't have a Palace..." Akira found herself saying, and all eyes focused on her. "Yeah, I already checked."
"For real?!" Ryuji couldn't believe that. "How come a jerk like him doesn't have a Palace?!"
"He doesn't. And besides, forcefully changing someone's heart just because they have different opinions from us is wrong! That'd be repression, and if we were to do that, we'd only be proving him right." Akira paused. "While you all were on the school trip and I left to attend that entrepreneurship course, I ran into Akechi-kun at the hotel I stayed at. We ended up arguing about the Phantom Thieves. He said that we'd only prove to be after fame if we were to follow the rankings, and prove to be related to the mental shutdowns if we change his heart to eliminate opposition, since it's the same thing Okumura seems to be doing, like those incidents in the fast food industry indicate."
Makoto's eyes widened. "Those incidents that benefited Okumura, the same ones mentioned in Sis' files?! Then, Akechi-kun also knows... and he's following the same line of thought as Sis. That Okumura might be having his competitors suffer psychotic breakdowns and mental shutdowns..."
"Could F-Father really be going that far?" Haru was horrified.
"Ah! Sorry, Haru." Makoto realized she had been saying bad things about Haru's father right in front of her. "I didn't mean to..."
Haru shook her head. "It's fine..." She sighed. "... Ah. I had been so selfish and naive. I wanted to change my father's heart because of my arranged marriage. But it isn't only about me anymore. First slave labor, and now this... the more I think about it, the more I'm sure that he needs a change of heart, but... what if what Crow said is true and there's a trap waiting for us?"
"No way that we'll disband and do as he wants!" Ryuji was adamant. "What about our fans?"
"Yeah, we can't let them down!" Ann agreed with Ryuji.
"Hey, look." Akira felt the need to speak her mind and called everyone to attention."Our fans? Never mind the fans! You all remember why we started this group, right? It was to give hope to people that's been forced to deal with unfairness like us, not to get famous!"
"Hadn't we already agreed on this? If we don't get famous, how'll people know what we do and get encouraged?" Ryuji tried to argue.
"Yeah, that was what I had thought too. But if what Crow said is true, then it's exactly this fame that'll get us doomed!"
"And you're gonna trust Crow, out of all people? He's the true culprit! He's the one behind the mental shutdowns! He even said this himself!"
"I know!" Akira matched Ryuji's aggressive tone. But then, she lowered her head in defeat. "But you know what? If what he wanted was to scare us, then he did it. I, for one, am scared. Like, really scared... I had thought we could keep changing hearts, and no one would find us. But the enemy knows the Metaverse too. If the organization targeting us is as powerful as it sounds, then we're in danger! I know what it feels to be falsely-accused and lose a place in society, and don't wish this to any of you. We may be arrested and marked as criminals forever, even though we did nothing wrong. Or we might even die..."
The whole group stared solemnly at Akira, and no one uttered a word for a while.
"Yeah... I get it. I see what you mean. I'm sorry." Ryuji apologized, a bit calmer.
"I'm sorry too, Akira." Ann sighed in shame. "It's sad to admit this, but I think we were starting to lose focus with all this fame. It was supposed to be all about encouraging others. But our original goals began to fade into the background along the way, and I was even fantasizing about public appearances. Stupid, right? Phantom Thieves can't appear in public like that..."
"I must agree. It was remiss of us to lose sight of our goals like this." Yusuke also looked ashamed.
"Yes... I, too, was going with the flow and failed to realize we were getting off track." Makoto sighed. "A bit more, and we ran the risk of becoming the kind of people Akechi-kun says we are. People who put fame above everything else."
Morgana made a face. "That Akechi guy may be a jerk, but as much as I hate to admit it, he's smart... he almost got us good!"
"What now, though?" Ryuji asked.
"We need to prove him wrong," Akira spoke firmly. "We need to show him our justice."
"Huh?" Ryuji blinked. "From what you said earlier, I thought you'd bail out..."
"I don't know about you, but if the law system's so corrupt as Crow says, then I can't rest easy and just ignore it! We need to get around this somehow. I'm sure there's something that can be done!"
Makoto smiled in agreement. "Yes, you're right. I can't leave this be, either."
All the others nodded.
Morgana was satisfied with the group's reaction. "It's an unanimous decision. Then, we need to come up with a plan."
"What should we do about Crow, though? I am sure he will not be pleased with our decision." Yusuke reminded them.
"What do you think he'll do to us?" Ann asked.
"If he decides to fight, then we just fight back!" Came Ryuji's straightforward answer.
"... I d-don't think that's a good idea!" Futaba blurted out. "His Persona's strong! Like, really really strong!"
"Ah, but he's alone, against seven of us!" Ryuji pointed out as though it were that simple. "If we work together..."
"Seven?" Ann didn't like to hear that. "No! Are you crazy!? And you're including Haru in this, too? She's just joined!"
"Maybe we could... talk it through? I mean, he didn't act hostile towards us..." Akira suggested, and everyone stared at her as though she had grown two heads. She knew her idea was equally as crazy as Ryuji's, but that strange empathy she felt towards Crow made her think it might just work. "I know underestimating him isn't a good idea, either, but he went out of his way to convince us through words. Maybe we can come to an agreement..."
Makoto was worried. "I'm not sure about this. What if he attacks us?"
"If we proceed forward into the Palace, he might pursue us and attack us as well." Yusuke countered. "We will need to face him one way or another."
"True..." Ann sighed in defeat.
"Even though we can't win against him in a fight, I believe we can work something out if we talk it through." Akira insisted.
"Let's do it." The determined statement came from where everyone least expected.
"Haru...?" Ann uttered in surprise.
"Actually, I have a few questions for Crow as well," Haru said timidly. "I wonder whether he will be willing to answer."
"It's decided then. Let's go!" Akira announced.
"W-wait! You mean... right now?" Ann startled.
Futaba was scared. "C-can't we even p-prepare mentally?"
"The sooner we get this over with, the better, right?"
The others were nervous, but agreed with their leader in the end. Thus, to Okumura's Palace they went.